Friday, October 21, 2011

Doggie Halloween Contests - how far will we go to win?

In honor of my appearance—as a “celebrity judge” at the 17th Annual Tompkins Square Park Halloween Dog Parade in New York City tomorrow (10/22), I thought I would re-post a chronicle of my own experiences forcing my poor dog to wear a costume, and how I became a psycho-stage mother in my desperation to win the contest.

Rex and the City: The Curse of the Three-Headed Dog

There’s nothing like Halloween in New York City. New York is home to some of the most artistic and creative people on the planet, most of whom will jump at any opportunity to put on a show. Consider the city’s eight hundred thousand drag queens, who, just to take a trip out to the deli, will put on seven-inch platforms, a sequined butterfly shawl and a two-foot wig. In the weeks before Halloween, the whole city began to fill with a fizzy, randy excitement. Shop windows were crammed with bondage gear, feather boas, broquaded undies and outrageous wigs, and the window boxes of the West Village overflowed with chrysanthemums and pumpkins and squash—all in their final bursts of color before the decay of the winter set in. And all those flamboyant colors; all those sequins, feathers and rubber masks started to bring out everyone’s inner drag queen. And it was no different for the dog people. There are more that thirty dog runs in the city, and therefore more than thirty annual doggie costume parades.

At that point in time (1998) we had just started taking Wallace to the Tompkins Square Park dog run. Each run in the city has its own flavor and “First Run” as it was called (because it was the first in NYC) was known for 1) the youth of its doggie parents (most were East Village kids in their twenties); 2) the number of pit-bull mixes (most of the young doggie parents adopted pits from the ASCPA in the East 90’s, or found them on the streets); 3) the number of dog-brawls that occurred daily (it was a transient neighborhood, with a lot of new dogs); and 4) The legendary First Run Annual Halloween Costume Contest, which drew the likes of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.

When I first saw the sign for this Halloween contest in early October, I felt my entire universe expand. Dogs in costume! At the thought of this, something latent was awakened in me—something ancient and profound. I told my then-husband Ted in no uncertain terms that we had to go to this contest.

“Are you thinking of dressing Wallace in a costume?” Ted asked.


“He’ll hate it.”

“No he won’t.”

Most conversations I had with Ted went like this: yes, no, yes, no, why, because, no, yes, I said no, yes, no, FUCK YOU!

In the case of whether to dress up our dog in a silly costume, I ultimately won. I can’t remember how, actually. Perhaps I had to promise some sort of sexual favor, but it’s hard to say....I’ve blocked it all out.

Anyway, I managed to convince Ted that Wallace wouldn’t mind having to wear a costume. I can’t remember how we came up with the idea, but we had decided to dress him up like a little hiker. I think it all started with this brown wool hippy hat that used to belong to a stoner friend of Ted’s from high school. The hat was handmade in Peru, and slightly pointy on top, and had two strings that you could tie under your chin. Ted had asked me once if I wanted it, but I am much too serious a person to wear silly Peruvian hats. (The hats I wear cost $550 and I never even wear those, because I always buy them on a whim, and they are really only appropriate at English garden weddings, and I have not yet to date been invited to any weddings in the UK.) So anyway, I suggested we put the Peruvian hat on Wallace, just for kicks.

This opened up a can of worms, of course, that determined much of Wallace’s future. For I quickly realized that I got a true and unadulterated pleasure from dressing up my dog. “He looks so cute,” I shouted. “Oh my God. Get the camera.”

“The poor boy,” Ted said. “How humiliating.” But still Ted got the camera.

The rest of Wallace’s Halloween costume quickly fell into place. Wallace already had his own little backpack, for camping trips, and Ted agreed to donate a pair of ratty hiking shorts he’d had for years. He started to have regrets, however, when I spent $30 on a little wool sweater and cut strategic holes in his cherished shorts to accommodate Wallace’s tail and privates, but by then it was too late. The contest was only one day away.

“You’re going overboard,” he said the next morning as I gussied up Wallace. “Everyone else will probably show up with their dogs in cat ears and witch hats.”

“So what?” I said. “This is fun. Plus, we’ll win.” For a final touch, I put a Catskills trail guide in the pocket of Wallace’s backpack, so that there would be no doubt that he was a hiker.

The day itself was one of those perfect fall days you read about: crisp, cool, clear, with the scent of autumn leaves and hot cider donuts lingering in the air. I insisted on dressing up Wallace at the apartment and couldn’t contain my excitement at the cuteness of it all. I started to have visions of Wallace being in the movies, of starring in dog food commercials, of his face gracing millions of cutesy-dog greeting cards. And a photographer from the Times would definitely be at the contest—one came every year. So maybe finally I’d get my picture in that paper. With my award-winning dog.

“Oh my god, he’s so cute!” I said for the millionth time. (If I couldn’t have my own time in the spotlight, then, by God, Wallace was going to have his.) “Will you take a picture of him before we leave? It’s his first party, in his first party suit.”

“Let’s not prolong the torture,” Ted said. “The poor boy.” Admittedly, Wallace did look downtrodden, as if he wished he had nothing to do with the human world. He kept lifting his eyelids, and twisting his head left to right, trying to figure out what was on top of his head. He also tried to pull off the backpack with his mouth, but he couldn’t quite reach.

“Let’s just go!” Ted said.

I enjoyed all the attention we got on our twenty-minute walk to the dog run. “Look at that dog!” people on the sidewalks shouted. “He’s so cute!” All around us, people laughed and pointed and smiled. I basked in their praise; I loved being in the spotlight, even indirectly.

But Ted seemed pained. “He’s such a dignified dog,” he kept saying as we walked through the East Village. “This isn’t right. You’re humiliating him. He’s going to grow up to be a pansy. He’s going to be like Hemingway, who was all screwed up because his grandmother dressed him in girlie clothes.”

“No, he’s not,” I said, undaunted. I stopped to talk to strangers and told everyone cute little anecdotes about Wallace. “He used to be a shelter dog,” I would begin. “And he used to hate us. And he would never let us touch his head. And now look at him with his little hat….”

“Wallace come,” Ted would say, pulling on the leash.

“Wallace was enjoying himself,” I said to Ted when I caught up to him.

“That’s because that woman petting him has a hot dog.”

“No it’s not. It’s because she told him he was cute.”

On and on this went, all the way to the park. It wasn’t until a horde of pretty girls in go-go boots ran up to Ted to ask what kind of dog Wallace was, that the tight, slightly pained look left Ted’s face.

When we reached the grassy area within Tompkins Square Park, Wallace went immediately went into hunting mode. His steps slowed, his torso sank lower to the ground, and his nose twitched with the precision of a sonograph as he picked up subtle scents. You could tell he had forgotten he had a little ski cap on, and a backpack, and a toddler’s sweater and silly shorts. “Look at him stalking those squirrels!” the girls in the go-go boots shouted.

“Poor Wallace,” Ted muttered. “The poor emasculated boy.” But this hadn’t stopped him from bringing along his video camera. He followed Wallace along, zooming in for close-ups, as Wallace crept slowly toward a squirrel.

When we finally reached the dog run, I was astounded at what I saw. You’re always going to find, at every Halloween contest across the country, a lab in Christmas antlers, and one or two Dog-zillas, and a golden retriever in a store-bought Yankees cap. But try to picture a Harlequin Great Dane dressed up as a giant sunflower. Or a matted grey Shitzhu dressed as a mop and accompanied by a short gay man dressed as a frumpy housewife. The costumes were spectacular. There was a shepherd mix in a curly black wig and Gene Simmons makeup, and a tiny leather jacket embossed with the logo: Kiss. There was a couple dressed up like farmers, carrying baskets of produce, and tucked within the vegetables was a tiny Chihuahua in a pea pod costume, shivering nervously the way Chihuahuas do. There were Pit Bulls sporting cow udders, and six Dachshunds spray-painted yellow to look like a bunch of bananas, accompanied by a giant man in a gorilla suit.

“Wow,” Ted said. “I’m impressed.”

“I’m depressed,” I said. One of the great, but also one of the rotten, things about New York City is that no matter how creative you are, no matter how talented or clever or smart, there’s always going to be someone out there who’s smarter and more talented and more creative than you. Every second of every day.

“Look at that costume!” Ted said. And there I beheld my nemesis. Across the run, wearing Gucci sunglasses and surrounded by adoring fans, was a man and his golden retriever, whom he had fashioned into a Three Headed Dog. From a distance the two extra heads looked life-like, and they continued to look life like even as we got close. “How did you do that?” someone asked, through a crowd that was three-people deep. “With Styrofoam,” he explained. “I’m a set designer.” And he went on to describe how he had begun constructing the heads back in August, how he had required his dog, Butterscotch, to pose for an hour each evening as he painted her likeness on the busts, and how it had taken him three weeks to find the best “suspension mechanisms” to attach the heads to Butterscotch’s collar. Then of course he had to go out and find the perfect cape to conceal the suspension mechanisms. And the cape had come from Shanghai Tang ( a high-end Asian boutique on Madison Avenue).

“That shawl had to have cost six hundred dollars,” I said to Ted as we slunk away. “And did you see that they eyes on the Styrofoam heads actually blinked?”

“I’m blown away,” Ted said.

“If I had known people were going to spend six months on their costumes, I would have put more effort into Wallace’s.” I stared at the three-headed dog’s magnificent cape. “I don’t even have socks from Shanghai Tang.”

“But look our puppy, he’s adorable,” Ted said. “And he’s being such a good boy.” Wallace always stayed by our side at the dog run, because he was still intimidated by the presence of so many dogs. “Come on,” Ted said. “Let’s go sign him in.”

When we got to the registration desk, we found out we had to have a name for Wallace’s costume. I hadn’t thought of a name. I thought the costume spoke for itself. To me, Wallace looked like a little hippie kid, a Bates student, a Trustafarian going off on a hike. “How about Happy Camper?” I said to Ted.

And don’t they always say First Thought, Best Thought? Because then, for some reason, I decided that I had needed to have a more literary name. Something more clever and tongue-in-cheek. I thought then of Jon Krakauer, the author of Into The Wild.

“No one is going to know what you’re talking about,” Ted said.

But I reasoned that we were in the East Village, a neighborhood full of artists and writers and tortured souls. Any of the above would certainly have read Into the Wild, which was the “it” book of the moment.

So we—or rather, I—registered Wallace as “Jon Krakauer” and we took our place in line for the parade to begin. Ted gave me one of his looks—one I liked to call “The Crow.”

The contest began by everyone parading their dogs around the perimeter of the run as a group, and then each of the contestants was called one by one. The whole dog run was lined with was lined with giddy onlookers. As each contestant was called forth they hooted and clapped and cheered. The sound of so much applause was uplifting, and I laughing along, but then Wallace’s name was called. The MC said: “And here’s Wallace the English Setter, and he’s posing as, as, um, Jonathan Kra……Jon Cracker?” The crowd, who had just been cheering madly for the Mastiff-as-ballerina before us, now grew silent.

In this void, I told Wallace to heel and we promenaded along. I smiled nervously and fakely, like a beauty contestant finalist who has just found out she was eliminated after just the first round. I tried to make eye contact with Ted, who was out there somewhere with the onlookers, but I couldn’t find him in such a crowd. Then our moment was over. Wallace and I returned to our place in line, and then some other dog’s name was called. “That was our fifteen minutes of fame,” I whispered to the dog. “And it sucked!”

The Three-Headed Dog won of course, soon the dog and his costume designer were mobbed by photographers and fans. Dejectedly, I took off Wallace’s short and backpack, so that he could go and happily hump the ballerina and bite other dog’s necks. “I should have just called him the Happy Camper,” I said to Ted as I stuffed Wallace’s little hiking shorts into my bag. Across the run, I watched people congratulate the set designer. He seemed a bit too proud of his achievements; a bit too smug.

Ted thought the whole thing was hilarious. “Jon Krakauer,” he said over and over again. “Into the Wild!” He trained his video camera onto me and said, “This is Lee pouting because Wallace didn’t win the Halloween contest.”

When he saw that I wasn’t laughing, he said. “Let’s go to Veselka’s and get some lunch.” Ted, like all good city boyfriends, knew that certain restaurants could always cheer certain mopey women up. For me, it was Veselka’s: pirogues (steamed, and stuffed with potatoes, cheese and broccoli), French fries, and a cold Pilsner Urquell on tap.

We leashed up Wallace and headed off. As we were leaving the park, a nice young woman ran up and touched my shoulder. “I thought yours was the best costume.”

“Really?” I turned to her and smiled.

“He should have won first place.”


This is one of the wonderful things about New York: for every stranger who has the capacity to ruin your day—whether deliberately or not—there are always two or three more strangers who will extend to you a fresh, pure act of kindness.

“See?” I said to Ted at Veselka’s. “Someone got it. I wasn’t totally out of line.”

“Yes, Lee,” he said. “One in twelve hundred people gets you.” He touched my hand. “Make that two.”

Wallace, as if he understood us, turned around at that moment and looked at us with what we call his “treat face.”

“Make that three,” Ted said.

This is not where the story ends, however, because from that day forward, for the next two years I tried to devise schemes to out-do the Three Headed Dog and his set designer man.

It was now the year 2000 and, much to my disappointment, the world had not ended as everyone kept insisting it would. Thus, I had to continue living my drudgery of a life. I started thinking about Wallace’s costume in early August. Ted and I would be walking along the beach at Fire Island, or hiking in the Hudson Valley, swatting away flies, and I’d say things like, “What do you think of Tommy Hilsetter?”

“What?” Ted would say. “What are you talking about?” He was a serious hiker, who always kept his eyes on the trails, and therefore never really listened to me while he was hiking. Perhaps—and I am seriously just realizing this now, as I write: perhaps this is why he liked hiking so much. It was the only time he could legitimately tune me out.

“For Halloween,” I said. “We could put a little skull cap on him, and really baggy jeans that hang low off his butt. He could be a little ghetto dog.”

“I think that might be offensive,” Ted said. “A lot of kids from the projects play basketball in that park.”

“Well then how about Brittany Spears? We could get Wallace some of those big plastic tits and a shiny pink thong.”

“That’s not very original,” Ted said. “Everyone with a Brittany Spaniel has probably thought of that. Plus, Wallace doesn’t even look like enough of a Brittany to pass as one.”

Up ahead, we could hear that Wallace had flushed out a wild turkey. He let out a war cry and took off through the brush.

“It would be hard to keep a thong on him anyway,” I said.

Eventually—I don’t remember how—I came up with the idea of Dogatella Versace. It was the year Jennifer Lopez had worn that infamous, diaphanous, one-button dress to the Grammys. (And if you don’t know what dress I’m talking about, I can’t help you).

I like to think that the idea came to me in one great creative burst; a flash in which I saw the complete outfit: Wallace in a mini J. Lo dress, with a long blonde Donatella wig, and his white fur tinted to Versace’s creepy shade of tan.

Eureka! My heart began to pound and the area behind my neck began to tingle, as it always does when I have tapped into The Universal Source.

There were two obstacles to expressing my creative inspiration, however. One was convincing Ted that his son needed to be swathed in Versace, and the other was finding someone to make the dress. Fortunately, we lived in New York City, the land of oddball specialists, so the latter was a piece of cake. At any given moment, you could open up the Yellow Pages and find someone to sing opera to your geraniums while you traveled to Reykjavik; you could hire someone to sew mink to the straps of your seatbelts so that you wouldn’t chafe your chest. And you could find a handful of talented, expensive seamstresses who would custom make a dress for your dog. I found my doggie dressmaker, by providence really, on Manhattan Dog Chat. She just appeared one day in early September, answering a post from someone who had some extra upholstery fabric and wanted to make a little jacket for her “hard to fit” Maltese.

Immediately I called this woman and told her about my Dogatella Versace idea. “How big is your dog?” she asked me. And when I told her Wallace weighed seventy pounds she said, “Well, I usually only work with little dogs.” I felt myself getting defensive, and reverting into that hateful “Us and Them” mentality that, as a Buddhist, I try to not maintain: Us being big dog people (they are real dogs, after all) and little dog people.

Meanwhile, she was probably thinking I was insane for wanting a Versace dress for a 70-pound spaniel. A male spaniel with no effeminate qualities whatsoever. But because I was the customer, and because I offered to pay her a hundred bucks, we agreed that she would pick out some J. Lo-looking fabric and meet me at my apartment for a fitting the following week. “He’s really cute,” I said added at the end of our conversation, because Little Dog People love to use the word cute.

Ted wanted nothing to do with this. He tried to list all the reasons why I should not dress our dog in drag (i.e.: you’re humiliating him, you have better things to do with your time) but in the end he saw how excited I was about the project and how unwilling I was to back off. “When is she coming?” he finally said in resignation.

“Next Saturday. At three.”

“Well, I’ll just make sure I’m not around Saturday at three,” he said.

When Sheila, the dressmaker, arrived at the appointed hour, we were both relieved to find that we liked each other immediately. You never know with the Internet. She was a theater person, a costume designer, who made clothes for dogs on the side, because it was profitable, and because she loved dogs. “I used to have one,” she said, “but now I travel way too much.” As she talked, she measured Wallace’s ankles, and the length of his legs, and the distance from his neck to his tail. “Now, this will be the challenge,” she said, pointing at his privates. “We have to have the plunging neckline to mimic the dress, but it will have to fasten in front of his wee-wee. I’m just not sure it will hang right though.” She stared at Wallace thoughtfully, considering how his body would handle the complicated drapes of cloth, and I was glad Ted wasn’t here to witness this. The “wee-wee” comment would have sent him through the roof.

Wallace was a perfect fit model. I fed him liver treats throughout the whole process, so that he would stay still, and he didn’t try to lunge at Sheila when she leaned in too close to his head. I was so proud of his behavior, and of his progress as a formerly abused dog, that I started to get teary-eyed. “You’re like the mother of the groom,” Sheila said. “Or the bride, as it were.”

“It’s just that,” I said, wiping my eyes, “he’s a shelter dog, and he was abused, and whenever I see him interact tenderly with new strangers I am just so grateful.”

“Now you tell me,” Sheila said. “But he doesn’t seem threatening. It’s usually the little dogs you have to watch out for.”

I agreed. “They’re assholes.”

“Would you like me to take a picture of the two of you when I come back to fit the actual dress?” she said.

We hugged when she showed me the material she’d selected. It was perfect: sheer, green, bold, in a tropical pattern that mimicked the actual dress. Then I showed her the wig I’d bought, which was made of human hair and had cost me $50. “We mustn’t mention costs to my husband,” I said.

“My lips are sealed,” she said.

Then I told her about the Three Headed Dog Man.

“We’ll kick his ass,” she said.

I gave her cash and we arranged to meet for a final fitting in two weeks’ time.

In the meantime, I got a call from one of my mother-in-laws, who said she was going to be coming to New York for a visit. I absolutely love visits from my mother-in-laws (I happened to be blessed with not one but two dynamite mother-in-laws, who liked me despite the fact that I never cooked for their son/step-son, never wrote or called, never produced any grandchildren, and talked non-stop about my dog). But this visit was scheduled for the weekend of Halloween. I faced a true conflict. My manners, upbringing, and sense of general decency suggested that I should scrap the Halloween contest and act like a proper hostess. My mother-in-law was a sharp, sophisticated woman who, when she visits the city, likes to spend her time good restaurants and sample sales. But I’d already invested all that money into Wallace’s dress, and I couldn’t get the smug face of the Three-Headed-Dog man out of my head. “Do you think I could talk you into going with me to a doggie Halloween contest?” I asked her on the telephone. “It might be fun.”

“Sure,” she said. “We can do anything you want.”

Her graciousness did not put me entirely at ease, however. I worried that I was taking a risk with my reputation with that half of the family. In fact, years later, when Ted and I got divorced, I wondered if that particular weekend continued to come up in conversation, when the family sat around the dinner table discussing “signs.” As in, “we always knew that marriage wouldn’t work out; why, think of the time she forced her dog to enter a Halloween contest….”

Anyway, the big day of the contest arrived and I was nervous. My mother-in-law, had arranged to meet me at Tompkins Square Park so that she could do some shopping beforehand, and Ted had decided not to come at all. “I have to work,” he said, which I noticed was something he had to do whenever I had Wallace in costume.

He had to work on St Patrick’s Day, when Wallace wore a headband with sparkly shamrock antennae. He had to work on Easter (bunny ears) and the Fourth of July (flag hat). He was a hard worker, Ted, and that morning he apologized to Wallace for not being able to spend the day with him. “Someone had to pay for all your food,” he said. “And your clothing.

I was busy combing Wallace’s wig out. Then I combed my own hair.

When Wallace and I got to the park, the sky was overcast and the day was humid—an uncommon phenomenon for October. I was wearing a turquoise vinyl jacket to match Wallace’s costume, and the vinyl made me sweat. This for some reason made me cranky, and it was a mood I couldn’t shake. The whole vibe of the contest was off that year. Maybe it was the humidity, maybe it was me, but the dog run seemed less festive; less crowded. “There’s another doggie parade this year over in Chelsea,” someone told me. “All the drag queens are over at that one, I’m sure.” I felt a bit dejected by this—once again something better was happening someplace else, where I was not. And the best place to be is always Where the Drag Queens Are.

But then I got a good look at some of the costumes and felt better again. There was a Corgi transformed into a Hoover. There were two baby cocker spaniels dressed as a bride and groom. Then the Three-Headed Dog man entered the dog run and Butterscotch was dressed up as—get this—Dogzilla. I could hear Ted say, “How unoriginal,” and I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, it was a spectacular costume—he had created a twelve-foot, elaborately airbrushed Styrofoam tail, with spiky fins, savage scales, and moveable parts. But please. Even Aunt Mabel in Idaho could have come up with Dogzilla.

Two years had passed since The Happy Camper had faced the Three-Headed Dog. And Wallace was a completely different dog by this point. He was happier, and better adjusted, and the dog run no longer meant “defend thyself” to him; it meant Play. So the minute I took his leash off inside the dog run, he took off after a Border Collie and the two of them ran like mad. “Wallace!” I shouted. “Your dress! You’re ruining your dress!”

I told him to come but he wouldn’t listen to me. It took fifteen minutes to finally cornered Wallace and put him back on his leash. “Now stay still,” I said to him. “Sit!” His wig had been thoroughly dragged across the ground and was now tangled with woodchips and leaves. I told Wallace he was the worst dog in the world.

My mother-in-law showed up just as I was shouting at my dog about the state of his long blond hair. She waved to me from beyond the fence. Only dogs and their guardians were allowed in the run. I blew her a kiss and smiled. Wallace’s wig kept slipping off, and every time he moved his dress would shift sideways, and he’d step on the hem with his back paws. “Stay still!” I snapped at him. “When I tell you to sit, you sit!” There was irritation in my voice, and I looked around to see if anyone had heard.

The registration was about to begin. Butterscotch and his guardian sat placidly in line, both confident that they would win the contest.

Meanwhile, the Border Collie kept running up to us and biting at Wallace’s wig. “Go away!” I said to her, and to Wallace: “Stay still! When I tell you to sit, you sit!” But poor Wallace wanted to play with the Border Collie. He wanted to stalk squirrels. But I was convinced the whole “effect” of his dress would be ruined if he even lifted his leg to pee. So every time he tried to get up from his sit, I’d apply pressure on his shoulders and push him back down.

Years ago, I’d worked at a children’s fashion magazine and one of my jobs was to assist the art director on photo shoots. Once a month, stage mothers would arrive with their stiffly coiffed sons and daughters. I remember my shock the first time I saw a toddler girl wearing makeup and four-inch heels. Her hair had been curled a la Shirley Temple, and she was unhappy that day—perhaps because of the shoes. But her mother was even unhappier. She kept insisting to me that Kelly normally didn’t act so ornery, that Kelly knew how to be a good girl. “She’s just being very bad today,” the mother kept saying loudly and bitterly “Very bad.”

Now the line of dog-contestants moved, and Wallace stood up without permission and stepped on the hem of his dress. “Sit!” I snapped at him.

Then, suddenly, I saw myself: angry, snappy, perfectionist, dissatisfied.

I had become a stage mother. I had put my own needs before my child’s.

When the beginning of the contest line-up was announced, I couldn’t even look at my mother-in-law. I thought she might see the shame on my face and I didn’t want to see it on her face too.

The crowd roared with laughter when Wallace was introduced as Dogatella Versace, and they cheered madly when, later, he won first prize. Last year first prize had been a six-month supply of California Natural and a CD player; this year it was a $40 gift certificate to a new pet store. When we went up to the stage to take the prize, the judge hung a “Best in Show” medal around Wallace’s neck. It was brass with a red white and blue ribbon that made him look like an Olympian. As the crowd clapped and cheered, a newspaper reporter snapped our photograph, but I refused to tell him my name. I, who for years had told myself I had sought the spotlight, was suddenly ashamed.

As soon as the contest was over I took the medal off Wallace’s neck. Then I took off the dress, and the wig. “You were such a good boy today,” I told him, and then I knelt down and apologized for the beastly way I had behaved. “I’ll never put you through that again,” I told him. “I won’t even make you wear a birthday hat if you don’t want to.”

And so far, my promise has been good.

The medal still hangs on Wallace’s bulletin board, which hangs above his “feeding station.” I’d like to think he notices this medal every time the bowl of ground turkey and boiled potatoes is set down before him, and that he somehow feels wistful, or proud, but mostly he just gobbles his food rapidly. Grateful, perhaps, that he isn’t being forced to wear a wig.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My First Huffington Post Feature!

I'm thrilled to say that Huffington Post asked me to write for their divorce page after reading my 9/11 pieces here on Open Salon. We get read, fellow bloggers :)

'Falling Man' Helped Me Face My Own Fears
Posted: 9/7/11 03:00 AM ET

Like many unhappily married couples in New York City, I had been pondering the question of whether or not I should get divorced for years before finally making the decision to leave. I won't go into any details as to why I yearned to leave my husband -- let's just say we had certain "core issues" we were trying to "work out." And while it seemed pretty clear to me (and to our marriage counselor) that our differences were irreconcilable, I never had the strength or the courage to actually leave. I was full of fear and self-doubt back then. Plus, I was locked into an unhealthy dynamic in which the very husband I wanted to leave would often tell me that I would "never make it" on my own and that "no one would want me anyway." Part of me believed him. Clearly, I was stuck.

Now, people who are stuck are very good at denial, and people in denial seem to be willing to tolerate a less-than-perfect present because they believe (or rather want to believe) in a better and perfect future. Thus, I always told myself that "one day" my marriage would get better.

Then one day the future stopped. Our city was attacked. The planes hit the towers. Hundreds of people jumped to their deaths. Thousands burned. Thousands more were crushed as the towers collapsed. On the streets, people screamed in terror, fleeing for their lives. Time itself seemed cleaved in half: Before 9/11 and After.

Who can forget the fear on those peoples' faces as they fled? Who can forget the now-iconic photograph of the Falling Man? So much has been already written about the Falling Man at this point; scores of essays and poems and even films have explored what he has come to symbolize on a global level. But I can only speak about how he affected me and my decision to finally take action to change my life -- to not just hope it would change.

You see, it wasn't just that he jumped. It was that he jumped alone.

It is often said that the only thing we humans fear more than death is dying alone. And thus many of us are terrified of being alone ever-- even when we are young and healthy and supposedly immune to death. (The attacks on September 11th, of course, taught us all that none of us are immune, ever). We could die alone, within seconds.

But that week, I realized I already was alone. As soon as my husband heard about the attacks, he left our apartment in Brooklyn and rushed to his office in midtown. He was, and still is, a television news producer -- and an excellent one at that. He left on Monday morning and I did not see him again for several long and lonely and agonizing and traumatic days. And while I do not condemn him for leaving me behind that week -- I respect his work and understand his decision -- I must confess that his choice affected mine. I suppose it's because when we are alone in the midst of crisis, we are forced to really face our true selves. And sometimes it's not pretty.

A friend once mused: "Which is worse: to be unhappy in a relationship, or to be unhappy alone?" Ah, we were young and witty and bitter then. (Plus, we were MFA candidates, which meant that bitterness could work to our advantage in terms of our prose.) I always chose the former -- the unhappy relationships -- because, yes, I was one of those women who was terrified of being alone. But on September 11th, I realized nothing is lonelier than to feel alone in one's own marriage.

I worry that I am now sounding insensitive here -- talking about my own personal concepts of loneliness just a few paragraphs after mentioning the horrors of September 11th and the Falling Man.

But one forced me to look at the other. The "some day" had come. It was finally time to ask myself: Why was I so willing to tolerate dysfunction? And what role did I play in that? Why did I always feel so alone, in a city of eight million; in a world of six billion? And what if there was a third option to this unhappy-alone versus unhappy-with-partner scenario? What if it was actually possible to be just plain happy?

I had to find out. And I believed the only way I could find answers was to leave.

Plus, would it sound weird if I said that, after 9/11, I felt duty-bound to pursue happiness? I felt duty-bound to all those people who had died in pain and terror and fear; to all those who lost their loved ones; to anyone who has ever felt alone.

There I was: a timid woman in her early thirties, lying alone in front of a television on a sofa in Brooklyn, watching the towers fall again and again. I couldn't help but think of all the times I had wanted to leave my husband, but had decided to stay because of fear. I had many valid reasons for wanting to leave, and many invalid ones, but my reason for staying was stronger: I believed his claim that I would "never make it" on my own. Fear thinking.

Yet what was this fear compared to the ones the victims faced, especially the jumpers, who were forced to choose between being burned alive or leaping to their deaths?

No, I decided, the world does not need any more fear. Not even the low-grade fears or doubts or uncertainties I felt in my marriage. The world did not need another second of pain or doubt or loneliness. She needed answers, and courage.

After 9/11, someone began circulating an email attributed to Neale Donald Walsch, which included the sentence: "The time has come for us to demonstrate at the highest level our most extraordinary thoughts about Who We Really Are."

I wanted to know who I really was. And I guess I decided I would not be able to truly know myself if I remained locked in an unhealthy dynamic with my husband.

And please don't think I disliked my husband. I loved him. It seems a lot of couples feel they need to hate their spouses in order to justify divorce. But after 9/11 it occurred to me that leaving him might possibly be the greatest act of love I could offer. We both needed to find ourselves. We both needed to get to the root of our then-unhappiness, and unearth it, and set it free, so that we could each experience the true happiness we both deserved. Every being on this planet deserves happiness, right? And how many lives had been cut short on 9/11 before they attained this?

And so I ventured forth, on my own. There was still the fear that I wouldn't make it on my own. And it was quite possible I would, in the end, still die alone. But I had to try. I had to try to be fearless. Just as the Falling Man had tried.
Was it possible that the Falling Man had a moment of peace and acceptance before he leapt? Did he remember the one he loved and hold her in his heart as he fell? I hope so. Because that's what it means to rise.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Falling Man and the Rising Balloon--PTSD in NYC after 9/11

Hi Everyone! I am going to repost a few of my September 11th related essays this week. A lot of people are already getting re-traumatized by the old images that are reappearing everywhere, on this tenth anniversary. So I hope these essays will provide a soothing counterbalance to those horrific memories.

Below is an essay I wrote in the winter of 2002, when I was still numb from all the 9/11 horror. You can tell by the prose alone just how numb I was. I was so numb I didn't realize I was numb, know what I mean?

All Rise
In the first few months following the attacks of September 11th, I refused to leave New York City. Like a child who has lost one parent, I found myself clinging needily to the surviving parent, and in this metaphoric case, that other parent was Rudolph Giuliani. He was the man who guided us New Yorkers through that horrible first week. He was the man who told us to stay strong, to help one another, and even to grieve. He was the one who attended countless funeral services for fallen firemen; he was the one who escorted that now-fatherless bride down the aisle; he was the one who gave daily press briefings, delivering his updates in a composed and eloquent manner. How could I leave a man like that? I felt I owed it to him to stay in New York—to help him hold our city together.

Thus I began canceling plans. First I cancelled a scheduled trip to New Orleans for Halloween (I wanted and needed to see the Village parade, whose theme that year was “Phoenix Rising from the Ashes”). Then I cancelled our Thanksgiving plans—a trip to gorgeous Santa Fe to visit Ed’s parents). Then I cancelled our Christmas trip—to New Hampshire and Massachusetts to visit my family. Honestly, I was too depressed to get off the sofa, and I could not tear myself away from the television set—the thing which bore the news that depressed me. I also did not want to miss anything Giuliani did or said.

He had become my symbol of hope and strength, my higher power, and I probably would have licked the sidewalks in the fish market section of Chinatown if he had asked me. I needed to give back to him—to someone. So much had been lost.

So when Giuliani started urging us New Yorkers—via televised announcements-- to “get on with life” and “spend money” I had no choice but to listen. He started appearing on those tear-jerking, I Love New York tourism commercials encouraging us to fly, get away, participate once again in the world of commerce. The airlines needed the money, he reminded us. Which of course made us all think of the planes that had been hijacked, and the people who had died. How could we let them down?

It was December by then. Perhaps it was time to acknowledge that I no longer had a valid excuse to sit glued to NY1 and the New York Times' "Portraits of Grief” section. These things only made me cry. I had to obey Giuliani.

So at the end of December my husband I booked a last-minute flight to Acapulco, where some friends of ours had rented a bungalow for the week.

Normally when I travel, I make it a point not to pack anything that will peg me as a tourist. Sometimes I even go out of my way to not look like an American (especially when I go to my second home, France). This meant no t-shirts, or Nike Air Max running shoes, no camera-about-neck, no mom-jeans.

But this post-9/11 trip to Mexico was different. The entire world had changed, and I was a refugee from a proud, fallen city.

Thus, I packed a Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirt, an NYPD T-shirt, a baby blue, baby tee emblazoned with our famous area code: "212." As I packed these New York items, I was reminded of my summers during college, when I waitressed on Cape Cod. I remembered how my fellow waitresses and I—all Bostonians—recoiled every time we saw a car with the Empire State license plate pulling into our restaurant's parking lot. "Oh no!" we would say, truly aghast. "New Yorkers!" To us on the Cape, New Yorkers meant rude, obstinate, pushy people. Those “New Yorkers” seemed to have a huge and obnoxious sense of entitlement that had no place in our conventional New England world. I remember I used to cringe every time “one of them” was seated at my title.

I also actually used to recoil at the sight—or the mere mention—of Mayor Giuliani. Before September 11th, we loathed him: he was arrogant, intolerant, and bombastic. He hated artists and sidewalk-sellers of books. To us artists, he was the Enemy.
And now, as I zipped up my suitcase to leave New York City and our hero/father/mayor, I found myself getting teary-eyed.

"What's wrong?" my husband said when he came into the room.

"We're going to miss Giuliani at the ball-drop on New Year's Eve next week," I said with a quivering frown. "We're going to miss the ringing of the memorial bells for the 3600 fallen at six o’clock."

"In all the years we've lived here you've never once wanted to go to Times Square on New Years Eve," Ed said.

"I know," I said, holding back more tears. "But it’s Giuliani’s last public appearance as the mayor and I'm not going to get to see it."

"It's twenty-five degrees out there on New Year’s Eve in Times Square,” Ed reminded me.

"I know, but, it’s just cold. People died on September 11th. People burned to death. Surely we can take a few hours of being cold."

"We're going to have a great time on this trip” Ed said. “We're going to have sunshine and beaches--"

"I know, but—"

"We're going to have a great time,” Ed said again. “And we haven't left the city since August. It will be good for us to get away."

I turned and looked at him. Ed was a television news producer at one of the major networks. He had witnessed gruesome things in the weeks after September 11th, and had witnessed them first hand. I at least had had the buffer (the slightly unreal buffer) of witnessing the horrors via the television set. Ed was the type of me who held his emotions in check, but I realized he was probably completely traumatized.

"You're right," I finally said. "We've been needing a vacation for a long time." I hugged him and tried not to cry. I pulled an “I LOVE NY” ski cap over my head, put on my coat, and said I was ready to go.

And soon, we found ourselves having been transported to Acapulco; indeed, to another world: one of aquamarine water and sand the texture of talcum powder, one of freshly caught fish and creamy piña coladas and non-traumatized friends. (Meaning, people who were not in NYC on the day the towers well.)

As soon as we landed we drove to a beach-front café. And as we sat there, enjoying our drinks and the sunshine, and the naked, foreign feeling of wearing tank tops and shorts, I realized that here was a place I could actually not think about the World Trade Center. I felt hopeful and almost ready to start life anew.

Winter, in the Northeast at least, makes you close in on yourself, seek refuge inside small apartments and sterile office buildings, and encase yourself constantly in a giant tortoise shell of North Face down. Here in Mexico, though, I felt myself opening up again like a blossoming flower. Sunlight warmed our skin; a breeze tossed the palm fronds of the thatched roof above; and rum, glorious rum, ebbed and flowed through our veins like the tide a few yards away from us, rum that loosed our muscles and unclenched our city jaws.

"Isn't this heavenly?" I said to our friends. They are a fun-loving, easy-going couple who live in California and travel like pros. They agreed that it was heavenly, and we ordered another round of drinks. Feeling relaxed, I leaned back into my chair and gazed at the bluer-than-blue sky.

It was then that I saw a parasailer, gliding noiselessly above the bay.
I flinched and gasped.

The sight horrified me. Even though he was attached to a rainbow colored parachute, he looked like a person falling from the sky. Suspended in the air like that, he had the same rag-doll, caught-in-a-moment look as the people who jumped from the towers—the ones we had seen in countless horrible photographs.

"Are you alright?" my friends asked. I tried to explain my reaction—how I had momentarily believed that the parasailer was falling, just like the Falling Man—and I got teary-eyed as I spoke. My friends remained silent. I don’t think they knew what to say. I don’t think they could relate to my distorted thinking.

And what could they say to a comment like that? Equating a parasailer with a burning mid-air body is not an association most people would make. Unless one is exceptionally morbid. Or a New Yorker. Suffering, I realized years later, from PTSD.

In the ensuing silence—and to hide my tears—I turned my gaze away from the parasailer. I looked instead at the shoreline and the sea, where hundreds of people swam in the water. Then I looked up at the rows of high rise hotels behind us, which lined the entire Acapulco Bay. Each high-rise was painted a beautiful bold color—such as chili pepper red or guacamole green, and each had mirrored windows that reflected the sky. There were rows and rows of balconies lining each side of each building, and then I saw that there were people on many of these balconies, leaning against their railings, admiring the view.

I gasped in horror again. In my traumatized mind I saw that photograph from the Times of all those people hanging from the windows above the burning floors. All those people screaming in terror, waiting to be rescued. And then dying. I got teary eyed again, and I hastily put on a pair of sunglasses so that no one could tell.

Now, I was not in or near the World Trade Center on September 11. In fact, I am so afraid of heights I have not been inside either tower since 1987—the one and only time I could be coaxed onto the observation deck. So what is it that held me there now, while I was thousands of miles away in Mexico? What was it that held me in the past, inside top floors of the North Tower, standing at the windows alongside the 700 doomed Cantor Fitzgerald employees? Why did I feel as if I too were caught in a moment of indecision between burning alive or jumping to the most frightening of deaths?

I don't know. And I guess I will never know because anyone who does know what it was like has disappeared.

But let's get back to the sunshine of Mexico: That evening—which was New Year's Eve—the four of us dined at Las Brisas, a five-star restaurant on the edge of Acapulco Bay. We had to drive through seven gates manned by armed guards to get there, and thus were giddy with expectation and irony by the time we reached the restaurant, and a team of valets swarmed around us to tend to our car. We were led to a beautifully laid table that was positioned between a sea wall and a tidal pool. The pink uniforms of the waitstaff matched the pink tablecloths and the giant bouquets of fragrant pink flowers. They brought us pink lemonade margaritas that matched the pink, sun-setting sky. A few margaritas later, we were greeted by a moon so huge and white it looked like something from a children's book.

"It must be because we're so close to the Equator," my husband explained. But I preferred to think we were in the presence of something magical, a sort of Never-Never land untouched by the rest of the world.

The hours passed pleasantly. We were brought course after course of delicious food and the waiters would never let our wine glasses get below half-full. All that wine, and the food, and the soft air and that huge benevolent moon, seemed to lift us a finger's breath above the table, so that we were suspended in a place of holiday happiness—a realm in which there was no World Trade Center, no trace of disharmony with my husband, and no ill in the world at all.

Just before midnight, the traditional countdown began. There was a cacophony of fireworks and noisemakers and the band played Auld Lang Syne. My husband and friends and I got out of our seats to hug and kiss and dance, and at the stroke of midnight, they released an enormous batch of silver balloons. They were just balloons, yes, but to me—in that magical place—they seemed otherworldly. As they rose, they seemed to move in tandem. And the way their metallic surfaces caught the moonlight as they twisted and turned reminded me of a giant school of fish.

Suddenly I was teary eyed again. "What's the matter?" my husband whispered. He put his arms around me as we both watched the balloons float away.

"Those balloons must be for the World Trade Center," I said. "Don't you think?"

"I don't think so, honey," my husband said. "They're just balloons. I think they do this every year."

"But there are thousands of them," I said. "There must be three thousand one hundred and sixteen. For all the missing. Don’t you think?"

My husband must have sensed my desperation, because he kissed the top of my head and said, "I think you're right. I think there are three thousand balloons."

And so, while the rest of the crowd danced, we watched the balloons rising, and prayed three thousand times for the three thousand souls. I wondered, as one always does, where those balloons would end up. Do they pop? Do they disintegrate? Or would some child in New Zealand find them, washed up like anemones on the shore? We watched them soar past that impossible moon.

Six days later, when we returned to New York, I found a slightly different city. Giuliani was gone, the daily "Portraits of Grief" of the New York Times had been discontinued, and the sports section of the Times was no longer upside down. They had also opened up a viewing platform right at Ground Zero and I decided to go there with a balloon. I thought it would be uplifting to see it soar above that charred spot. The line to get to the platform was four blocks long and it took hours to reach the platform. By that point, my Mylar balloon (which said, I'm ashamed to say, said HAPPY BIRTHDAY on it,) had lost quite a bit of its air and its metallic zest.

Thus, when I released the balloon at the platform's railing, it barely took flight. It merely hung in the air in front of me for a few moments and then sunk rather anticlimactically to the ground. People around me were crestfallen, I could tell—I realized we all needed this little symbolic lift.

"Was it someone's birthday?" a woman finally asked. Everyone was listening.

I shook my head and said “not really.” I didn’t know how to explain my need to bring this balloon to this place.

But in those days, in New York after September 11th, people no longer needed explanations. The world no longer made that much sense. But at the same time, we all seemed to understand one another a little better. Without having to say a thing.

So there we all were, looking at that balloon on the ground, bereft. I felt like such a jerk. Maybe death wasn’t like soaring at all, I told myself. Maybe death was just--death.

Then one of the rescue workers came over and picked the balloon up. You could tell by the tired look on his face that he had seen three weeks of non-stop horror; but behind his eyes I saw pure kindness. “Whose birthday is it?” he said to all of us, in a fatherly way. He was just like Giuliani.

A little girl said, “Mine” so he gave her the balloon. Everyone broke into applause. Some broke into tears. But the applause—it was thundering. The sound—and the heart behind it—soared.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Adopting a New Dog Sight Unseen

Occasionally I take time off from writing about my late great dog Wallace to write about my current great dog, Chloe. Let's call this installment "Insight Unseen"

It’s not unusual these days for perfect matches—between humans and humans, animals and humans, even animals and animals—to be made online. Typically (in the department, at least), the humans actually meet before agreeing to make a full-time/life-long commitment. So is it crazy to adopt a dog you’ve never actually met face-to-face?

I did exactly that. I adopted my dog Chloe before I even met her. Crazy? Read on…

Many of you may be familiar with my previous Bark series (and book): “Rex and the City.” In this series, I chronicled my experiences trying to raise an unruly—but loveable—shelter dog (Wallace) in a 300-square-foot-apartment in New York City with an unruly—but loveable—boyfriend. In 2002, our relationship ended and Wallace died tragically. All within a few hours. I officially left Ted on the morning of November 23; that evening, Wallace was killed in an auto accident. (See “Rex: The Story Ends,” Bark, Jan/Feb ’09).

After that, I cried every day for two years. I stopped writing about dogs for two years as well. In fact, I tried not to think about dogs at all, because thinking about dogs made me miss Wallace, which me feel guilty and sad.

I knew that one day, when I was ready, I would adopt another dog, but “readiness” is such a relative and fickle thing. Sometimes I would log onto and type “Spaniel” into the search engine just to see who was out there waiting for a home. But none of those 800+ Spaniels ever felt “right.”

I wrote about my new-dog quest in the aforementioned essay, but in a nutshell: after a two-year search, I finally came across a French Spaniel mix on Petfinder. Her name was Buffy, and she was being fostered by an affiliate of an English Setter rescue group in Michigan. She was listed as one year old, sweet and good with other dogs.

What struck me was Buffy’s photograph. She was looking straight at the camera, smiling, rushing forward as if she couldn’t wait to give the taker-of-the-photo a kiss. Finish what you’re doing so that I can love you up! she seemed to be saying. Her big white tail wagged behind her in a blur.

My fantasy crush Pete Townshend once wrote, in his song “Now and Then”: Now and then you see a soul and you fall in love/You can’t do a thing about it. That’s how I felt when I saw Buffy’s photograph. In that instant, my whole body began to tingle with certainty. I knew in my heart that I had found my dog.

My mind, however, disagreed. I had an incredibly wily and cantankerous mind back then, one that constantly tried to talk me out of doing anything fun. I called her “Hulga.” Hulga said, Buffy’s in Michigan, and you’re in NYC, and most rescue groups won’t adopt out beyond certain regions. You know how strict they can be. Why even bother?

Because it feels right, my heart answered. I picked up the phone.

It turned out that the adoption coordinator who answered the telephone—I’ll call her Amy—had heard of me. She’d been a fan of Bark and my column for years. The ease with which we spoke—and the camaraderie that quickly developed—was encouraging.

Amy said that Buffy was very sweet and loving. Her favorite things to do were to chase cats, eat cat poop and run through corn fields. I loved this latter image—a free-and-easy bird dog, galloping through tall green rows of corn, dodging down this row or that, occasionally springing into the air to sight and orient herself. It suggested pure joy and freedom. In NYC, our corn comes from corner delis—those tiny pickled cobs you find at salad bars.

“You should know,” Amy said, “that Buffy does have problems. She barks a lot and whines and paces and chews.”

I knew these to be signs of anxiety—most likely, stress caused by all the shuttling from shelters to foster homes. I also knew some people would label this as “problem behavior” and refuse to take the dog. But I’d been through this anxiety phase with Wallace, and we had worked it out.

“What’s Buffy’s history?”

Amy said Buffy was found wandering on a college campus. She was brought into a local kill shelter, where a woman named Kat discovered her. Kat was a cat person, who visited the shelter daily to rescue Abyssinians for her breed-specific group. When Kat saw cute, friendly Buffy, she contacted a local English Setter rescue group, and within a few days, Buffy’s profile was online. “It’s such a coincidence you called today,” Amy said. “We literally just posted her.”

But I was starting to think there is no such thing as coincidence.

“I have a good feeling about Buffy,” I said. “I believe this was meant to be.”

“Normally we don’t adopt out of state,” Amy said.

See? Hulga said in my mind. I was right.

“But we may be able to make an exception,” Amy added. “I’ll just have to consult the board.”

Oh, no. The Board. Six months earlier, I’d tried to adopt an English Setter puppy from a strict rescue group in Pennsylvania. Their rejection left me traumatized for weeks.

“Buffy’s very destructive and high-strung,” Amy said. “She’s hard to manage. You should think about it for a few days, while I consult my colleagues to see if they’d be willing to relinquish a dog to a strange New Yorker.”

So, I thought. I probably thought too much. Hulga had a field day. I asked myself: what am I doing, taking on another “problem dog”? I’d spent six years with a problem dog, and sometimes, quite honestly, it wasn’t fun. I’d had to contend with dog fights, dog bites and thousands of dollars worth of damage. Minor stuff, I told myself. In comparison to all that dog joy and dog love I received.

Still, Hulga said. Why not get an easy dog? One who’s already trained and well-adjusted? Why are you choosing another difficult relationship? I’d just divorced my difficult relationship. Was I only comfortable when life was hard?

But this is a dog we’re talking about, not one of those men things. I reminded myself.

A dog you haven’t even met, Hulga said. Who sounds dysfunctional.

What if there was more to this dog—more “problems”—that Amy wasn’t elaborating upon? What if it turned out that I couldn’t manage Buffy’s problems alone? I was a single woman, and—at the time—bitter. I planned to remain single for the rest of my life. Would a so-called “easy” dog be easy enough for a singleton in NYC? And what had Amy meant when she called me a strange New Yorker?

The questions were endless. I drove myself crazy. Or rather, Hulga drove me crazy. This is what happens when we think too much—an epic internal battle of mind and heart, logic and intuition (with an unhealthy dose of Hulga thrown in).

Finally, I visited Riverside Park to watch the sun set beyond the Hudson River. The Hudson has always given me perspective; it is the kind of vast, forgiving river that helps one make choices. As I stood there, a woman walked past with a giant Mastiff who loped along with a goofy grace. The dog looked so happy to be outside in the park with his friend. And so did she. In that instant, I knew Buffy was truly meant to be my dog. I decided once and for all to follow my heart.

When I called Amy, I felt fizzy with excitement. Amy said I could have Buffy “whenever I wanted.”

“So the board has approved?”

“What? Oh, yes,” Amy said distractedly. Something seemed off. But I’ll have to save that story for another day. It took four weeks for me to actually get Buffy (another long story involving Buffy actually being adopted—and returned—to five other people in the interim). But soon, I had secured an “arrival date” for Buffy. She would be accompanying a volunteer on a plane to NYC.

I had ten days to prepare.

Rehabilitating Wallace had taught me a lot about dogs. Writing for a dog magazine had too. I now knew what kind of training worked best (clicker, positive reinforcement), what type of diet was healthiest (raw, organic) and which veterinary treatments worked best. I’m not saying I’m an expert on dogs, but at least I wasn’t as clueless as I’d been when I adopted Wallace. I felt confident. I was going to work with Buffy’s anxieties, restore her confidence, provide her with consistent and loving guidance, and gently alter her behaviors.

First, I cleared my calendar, rescheduling any appointments that would take me out of the apartment. I wanted to stay with the dog 24/7 for a solid three weeks. Next I researched how to treat anxiety using holistic methods. I stocked up on flower essences, aromatherapy oils, herbal supplements. I bought marrow bones (an essential ingredient if your anxiety-plagued dog is a chewer) and two pounds of raw chicken to help strengthen her immune system. I also stocked up on music. Yes, music. (See

As Buffy’s arrival date drew nearer, I purchased other essentials: A cozy, vintage-floral-patterned bed;  a pretty new leash-and-collar set. A soft fleece blanket with which to cover the sofa, which I knew would be covered in dog hair within three hours of the dog’s arrival. All of the above were pink in honor of my new girlie-dog. I bought doggie paw-wipes for rainy days, Musher’s Secret for snowy days, hair brushes (pink!), toys, treats (exotic NYC treats like dried kippers and ostrich skin), even a Halloween costume (more on that later).

Next, I posted on ManhattanDogChat, announcing the arrival of a new pup in the neighborhood who’d be looking for play-dates.

Already, Buffy was a true New Yorker, I thought. Hip grosgrain collars, lavender shampoo, and dates.

Soon the appointed day came. I arrived at the airport early, my purse loaded with Bach Rescue Remedy and my pockets stuffed with treats. I must say I was nervous. It was like a blind date: Will she like me? Will she think I’m unattractive? Or weird? What if we don’t get along?

Then I saw a woman wheeling a large dog crate toward me. Inside was what looked like a Border Collie mix, panting and pacing and whining. Buffy? This crate had my name on it, printed in large black letters. Beneath my name was a sticker that read: CAUTION LIVE ANIMAL. The dog whined shrilly. For a moment I was dumbfounded—I had myself a new live animal. One who might not be any part Spaniel. Was this going to be another “Rex and the City” ordeal, in which I’d spend months feeling overwhelmed?

I reminded myself that I had followed my heart, and that the heart is always right. So I unlatched the crate.

THIS APPEARED IN THE MARCH 2011 ISSUE OF THE BARK MAGAZINE.Find out what happens next in the September issue of The Bark.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Dear Friends and Kind Readers:

Gosh, I haven't posted since April, because I have been so busy with teaching (I teach creative writing at NYU), writing (a few articles for Bark here and there), performing and writing music (I am lead singer in a rock band and a kirtan band), and lots of other administrative bullocks.

I also had a big setback with my spine, related to gardening, which sucks. One really needs a spine to get around. Literally and figuratively.

Mostly I spend a lot of time not-writing. And you all know how time consuming that can be.

I once had a writing professor who said: the only thing harder than writing is not-writing.

For me, the only thing harder than not-writing is trying to catch up in the digital world. (Which is the primary time-sucker these days, and the sole reason I do not have time to write).

So let's cut to the chase:

I have yet to read an eBook, and yet I am re-issuing an extended eBook of REX AND THE CITY; TRUE TALES OF A RESCUE DOG WHO RESCUED A RELATIONSHIP. The projected launch date is late August, 2011. So one month away, basically.

I am panicked. I am entering new territory with no skills or knowledge whatsoever. It's like climbing Everest in heels and a sundress. Not my terrain.

I am reaching out to you for advice.

What kind of features does an eBook offer--in terms on content, I mean. Links? Photos? Deleted chapters?

What do you enjoy about "expanded" eBooks? How can I engage the reader in a digital way? I mean, to me, books are about content--the story, the prose. Now they're saying I need a soundtrack too, and interactive material. WHat might that be?

What the heck is an eBook at it's core?

I'm still reading yellowed copies of Jane Austen....I am so not "wired". In fact, to me the term "wired" still think that term means hopped-up on Starbucks....

That I am. Techie I am not.


Friday, April 22, 2011


“THE HYPOCHONDRIAC’S GUIDE TO OVERPROTECTIVE DOG CARE” (More tales from my serial blog "Rex and the City")

Until I brought a dog into my life, I never considered myself a hypochondriac. And I swear I’m not—for myself that is. If I were, say, bleeding from the palms and the eyeballs, that wouldn't necessarily stop me from being first in line at the semi-annual Barney's sample sale (although whether they would let me into the dressing rooms, or allow me to manhandle the Prada bowling totes is another matter). And don't get me wrong—I like going to the doctor. I like being in the presence of someone who will listen to my problems and pretend he actually cares about them, but the thing is, in New York City, the doctors don’t listen to you. They schedule a new patient every twelve minutes, make you wait two hours in their lushly appointed reception area for your twelve o’clock appointment, then spend a total of ten minutes in your actual presence, during which they shine a light into your ears, tap you on the knees, and call you by the wrong name. (I am often addressed by my primary care specialist as “Irene”). For this you will be charged $600, with the optional consolation prize of a two-week trial sample of Prozac or Viagra (even though you came in to talk about the inexplicable stigmata on your ribs) and/or a referral to see a specialist, who will call you $900 and call you Aileen. At least when I was little I got to choose between a jeweled plastic ring or a lollypop.

So, needless to say, I didn’t go to the doctor much. But then Ted and I adopted Wallace from a New York City shelter. This was back in 1997, for those who are not familiar with my stories. Some of you have already read, in these columns, how we soon learned that Wallace had been abused, and that his spirit had been broken by his previous owner. Because of his behavioral problems, and general fear and mistrust of humans, Wallace was difficult to train and manage in those first few months, but despite the struggles this wonderful dog opened up our lives, and taught us how to be nurturers and lovers of nature, and taught us how to better love ourselves, etc. But now is the time to talk about the dark side of all this, the other, seamier emotions that attach themselves to love like demodectic parasites: worry, over-protectiveness, irrational paranoia, the fear of the loss of love.

All my friends who had birthed human children, who swore they’d never be worry-worts like their mothers, told me of their transformations into paranoid schizos who lay in bed at night obsessing over Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, child molestation, and whether the trees closest to the house should be sawed down, for fear that their branches would shatter the nursery windows during a freak New England storm. And I understood this to be a phase they went through, a Rite of Passage that every parent undergoes with their first born child. But I never imagined that I would undergo the same rites with my dog.

It all started with the instruction manual that came with Wallace when we brought him home from the shelter. It was called something simple, like “You and Your Shelter Dog” and it contained some basic advice—when to feed your dog, what to do if he or she is not housetrained—and recommended, at the end, a list of books for further reading. And because Ted and I were eager for knowledge and eager to be good caretakers, we acquired these books, but it seemed that for every one we ordered there was saying, If you like this book, you may like _____ and _____ and _____, listing at least 75 other books to read as well. So we acquired those additional 75 books, too. You just never knew which one would be the one, which book would explain your dog once and for all, and so, over and over again, we found ourselves clicking “add to cart,” and every night, for the next several years, Ted and I stayed up late in bed, reading side by side, pouring through countless training guides and veterinary manuals, comparing notes, hoping, praying in the meantime that the foreign four-legged creature who menacingly paced our floors would not murder us in our sleep (but who can sleep when you have one hundred and seventeen books to read?). With every book we finished, we would begin the next one, hoping, believing, that here would be the definitive one, the one that would solve the mystery of Wallace, and then we could get on with our lives. (Note: We’re still reading.) I felt like a hopeless smoker who announces he’s going to quit as he lights his next cigarette with the butt end of his current one.

And then there was the internet (which some say exists solely to pray on the paranoias of people like me). At my temp job, I would spend six of my eight hours visiting veterinary websites and recoiling at the graphic images of cocker spaniel with eyes bulging out of their sockets, of unidentified rectal prolapses and hyperestrinism (you don’t want to know), of dogs who had been hit by cars. I’d call Ted in tears, telling him to log on to such-and-such a website as proof as to why Wallace should not be allowed out of doors.

“You’re just upsetting yourself,” Ted would say. “And you’re upsetting me. Can’t you find something more constructive to do with your time?”

But Ted, too, worried about how to best care for our dog in those early days. How could we not? Our friends with human children could at least comfort themselves with the fact that someday their infants would be able speak to them and communicate their wants and needs. Our friends with human children passed through the worrywort phase smoothly, and told their second borns, who might be bleeding from the eyeballs, to “get over it” and leave them alone. But Ted and I, with our dog-child, would never have that advantage. Sure, Wallace was smarter than average—he knew 23 words in the English language (which is more than we could say for then-“President” Bush). But none of those words could be found in my Index of Signs in my Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook (which Ted soon dubbed the Hyponchondriac’s Guide to Overprotective Dog Care).

So in the beginning we always erred on the side of caution. In our first few weeks of having Wallace we very sincerely took him to the vet for panting, yawning, flatulence, and the weird black discolorations on the bottom of his paws. “Those are spots,” the nice, patient vet told us. “You have a spotted dog.”

“Oh,” I said, “I thought maybe it was tar. We crossed a street the other night that had some freshly filled pot holes and I thought—”

“They’re spots,” the vet said.

Early instances such as that did not dissuade me from always imagining the worst case scenario. In June I worried about heartworm and ringworm; in July it was fractures and fleas. My biggest paranoia, the thing that kept me up most at nights, became foxtails and burrs. Foxtails and other barbed seed-heads, I read, could easily penetrate the skin and travel down the ear canals or up the genital tract, causing irritation, abscesses, serious tissue damage and/or infection. “In extreme cases,” I read, “foxtails have been known to puncture the organs, including the brain.” This was not an image I could easily forget, and it didn’t help that the warning signs—excessive sneezing, scratching at the ears, pawing at the nose, shaking the head—were gestures Wallace made on a regular basis.

So every time my poor dog sneezed (which is a lot if you live in New York City in a ground floor apartment and like to keep your windows open, under the guise of “getting some fresh air”), I insisted that we rush him to the emergency clinic.

“Are you sure a foxtail hasn’t punctured your brain?” Ted began to say. His biggest paranoia was the rising costs of veterinary treatments, and after the seven or eighth office visit it was clear we had divided into two camps. There was sense and then there was nonsense, and in Ted’s opinion I resided in the latter.

When we had had our Wallace about 6 months, I noticed that, well, he was licking himself. A lot. Down there. Now, we have all heard the joke that starts with the question “Why does a dog lick his balls?” and ends with the punch line “Because he can!” but Wallace’s behavior seemed unusual to me. Like, kind of obsessive/compulsive. Plus, Wallace didn’t have balls. He was licking something far more, um, pointed.

I rushed to my Hypochondriac’s Guide to Overprotective Dog Care.

“If your dog begins to lick himself excessively,” I read, “and has a purulent, foul-smelling discharge coming from the prepuce, he may be suffering from balanoposthitis.” My eyes widened and I looked over at Wallace, who sure enough was licking himself again. I read this sentence a few more times, trying to figure out exactly what amount of licking constituted as “excessive.” It didn’t say. So then there was the matter of the discharge. I hadn’t noticed any per se; but then again I hadn’t looked.

Ted walked in the door as I was conducting my prepucal inspection.

“What are you doing?” he shouted, his voice screechy.

I was positioned much like an auto mechanic under a car. Wallace was busy with the task of cleaning out the insides of a Ben and Jerry’s carton that I have given him to keep him occupied, but all that ended when Ted walked in the door.

“I'm looking for a purulent, foul-smelling discharge. Come here, do you think it smells funny?”

“Stop it!" Ted said. "You're acting crazily.”

I sat up. “I think something’s wrong with him. He won’t stop licking himself.”

Ted folded his arms. “Nothing’s wrong with him.”

“What does purulent mean, anyway?" I asked. "Do you know?”

“I have no idea,” Ted said. “Wallace, come over here. Stay away from your mother.”

I stood and walked over to the bookshelves and reached for the dictionary.

“What are you doing?” Ted hugged the dog protectively.

“I’m going to find out what purulent means.”

“Would you stop it?”

“Why don’t you two go for a walk?” I said. This sent Wallace into a tizzy of barking and spinning, and Ted had no choice but to take him out. That or listen to me talk about purulence.

We had discovered a bright new way to end a discussion.

Over the next few days, Wallace kept up with his licking. And I kept up with my research. I discovered that a small amount of cloudy, yellowish discharge is not unusual in mature males, but “an excessive purulent discharge is associated with overt infection.”

“Well, there’s the word excessive again,” I said to Ted that night. “And purulent. What constitutes a normal amount of discharge?”

Wallace settled onto the sofa and began to lick himself again.

“Don’t look at me,” Ted said.

Then I read: “If the pus-like discharge is dripping directly from the penis opening, the condition is probably more serious. You should look for foreign material, such as foxtails, inside the prepuce of affected dogs.” I put the book down. “Foxtails!”

“He does not have a foxtail stuck up there,” Ted said.

“How do you know?”

“Because we haven’t been anywhere near foxtails. It’s November, for God’s sake. Foxtails are a spring occurrence.”

“Well, it could be something else.”

“But nothing is dripping. You’re overreacting here.”

At this moment, I swear, something green dripped from Wallace’s privates.

“Look!” I shouted to Ted, pointing. “Did you see that?”

Wallace ceased his licking for a moment and stared at me, a somewhat guilty look on his face. Then he looked over at Ted and, I swear, rolled his eyes, and lapped up the evidence. He buried his snout in his crouch and resumed with the licking, making a lewd snuffing sound.

“Something is wrong,” I said. “I know it.” I produced a diagram entitled “how to expose the penis” that illustrated how you were supposed to seize your dog’s privates with both hands and push one part forward (the penis) and pull another part back (the prepuce). Having been raised Catholic, I had a hard time even reading those words.

“Here,” I said to Ted, pushing the book toward him. “You do it.”

“Nothing’s wrong with him. He’s licking himself. He’s a dog.”

“But he has a discharge. And when the discharge is excessive, perhaps greenish or odorous, and the dog licks at his prepuce excessively, these are signs of balanoposthitis.” I was now waving the book in the air as if it were a Bible. “So someone is going to have to extract that prepuce and it’s not going to be me!” Wallace stood, belched, and then lumbered off to the other room.

For reasons we no longer understand or remember, it was Ted who had to take Wallace to the vet that day. This is what transpired, second hand:

DR. MARTER: “So, what seems to be the problem today?”

TED: “Well, my dog is licking himself a lot. On his penis?

DR. MARTER: “He's a male dog, right?”

TED: Yes

DR. MARTER: “Well, that's what male dogs do.”

TED: “Yes, but my wife says she saw—”

DR. MARTER: “Wives (DR PAUSES WEIGHTEDLY) know nothing about licking.”


It took several years for me to live down this story, and for Ted to get over the humiliation of having brought the dog in in the first place. He vowed never to listen to me again.

And they seemed to have the same idea at the veterinary clinic. I noticed that, after that, every time I brought Wallace in for an appointment we got The New Vet, the one who had graduated from Cornell like the week before. And this is not to say Wallace got inferior treatment; it’s just that I started to wonder: was I not being taken seriously? Did they see me as a crazy dog lady?

Or was it the dog? Early on in his career as the English Setter Patient at this particular vet, Wallace had received a written warning of sorts. Someone at the vet’s office had written caution in black magic markers at the top of Wallace’s chart. This is another story, which requires a lengthy explanation, but the point is, I started to wonder if that caution referred to me.

Soon it seemed even Wallace saw me as a Crazy Dog Lady. If I, say, admonished him if he ate his food too quickly, he’d eat even more quickly, attempting to finish off his breakfast before I had even placed the dish squarely on the floor.

Like many dogs, Wallace gulped down his food as if at any moment, six adolescent wolves were going to burst forth from the kitchen cabinets and try to steal it away. (Thus the verb “to wolf”.) But this, I had read, was not healthy. “Wallace, don’t eat so quickly,” I’d say. “You might get volvulus.” He ignored me and continued to wolf. Clearly, volvulus was not one of Wallace’s 23 words.

“If you eat too quickly,” I continued, “your stomach could bloat, and then distend, and then twist on its axis, and that’s life threatening, and we’d have to rush you to the vet. Do you want to have to go to the vet?”

In two more bites he finished his food off, lapped up some water, and then belched. He knew the word “vet” but pretended that he didn’t. The belch I took as an insult. And a secret signal that he sided with Ted.

By the end of the summer, I had pretty much given up on the idea that I would ever be able to properly care for Wallace. And I realized, again, that this is something parents of human children must go through. You must reach a stage of resignation, in which you vow to simply do your best. And pray that no tree branches crash through the windows.

That August, my sister had to go away for a week and she asked me to come look after her two young daughters and their Yellow Lab. (This in itself is another story, for after this visit my sister banished Wallace from both her properties for this and all future lifetimes, but let us not go there.) I was flattered that my sister would entrust her two children to me, and I looked forward to spending a week on the Cape. There would be bike rides to the beach in the morning, blueberry picking at dusk, ice cream and fried clams in the early evenings, and then leisurely walks around the cranberry bog with the dogs.

And it was a lovely week, despite the fact that I felt inadequate as a substitute parent. I had always thought that children loved chaos, loved to defy order, and loved to eat candy for lunch, but not my nieces. They, bless their hearts (and my sister’s) found true stability in the routines my sister had set up for them. So instead of taking delight in the fact that I was not a rule enforcer, that I was a Cool Aunt, they themselves enforced the rules. When I told them the first morning that they could get their own breakfasts (which would have been a thrill to me as a child, as I was not allowed to eat anything but what my father dictated, and that was usually unsweetened wheat squares) they just looked at me with perplexity. “Mom always makes us fruit salad,” they said.

“Mom always gives us lunch at twelve,” they would say at three o’clock with their stomachs rumbling. “Mom always brings sunscreen to the beach,” they would say at high noon, as the sun’s harmful UV rays beat down upon us. Egads.

“It’s a good thing I don’t have children of my own,” I said to my friend that night on the telephone. “Can you believe I forgot sunscreen? My poor nieces. It’s like my sister has left them with a chimpanzee.”

“It’s understandable,” my friend said.

“But how do people do it?” I said. “How do people have children? How many childrearing manuals did you have to read before your first son was born?”

“None,” she said. “It’s just a wisdom we all have within us. You’ll see. It’s there.”

But I didn’t believe her. Take my wisdom with Wallace for instance. He had already burst through a screen door, stolen all the rawhide from his Lab cousin Bailey, and shredded two of my niece’s favorite towels. He played tug-of-war not to win, it seemed, but to kill, as if he had watched one too many episodes of Gladiator, and poor Bailey took to hiding under the porch as soon as we let her out. I wasn’t the Cool Aunt, I realized; I was the Lame Aunt. Not even a houseplant could thrive under my care.

But then, on the final day of my visit, there, I was lying on the lawn, reading a book, and occasionally marveling (as city people will) at the smell and feel and the color of the grass. Nearby, my nieces played on the waterslide and Wallace and Bailey were down by the cranberry bog, traipsing around with a giant Wolfhound puppy (cutely named Chewbacca) who lived down the road. This pup’s goofy presence, or perhaps his size, had sedated Wallace somehow, and he no longer lunged at Bailey. So all was well for the moment, and I kept putting my book down to smile at my nieces and check up on the dogs. The air had a lazy, end-of-day quality to it: soft and supple, and in the distance lawn mowers hummed and the birds had started their evening song. Off and on, my nieces giggled, a musical, uplifting sound that spoke of purity and innocence. Intermittently, the dogs barked.

But then, suddenly my youngest niece ran up to me and said, “Aunt Lee, Wallace is limping.” And sure enough, there was Wallace, hobbling toward me on three legs from the bottom of the hill. His friend Chewbacca ran alongside him, like some bucktoothed neighbor; he had an “I didn’t do it” look on his face. Wallace came right over to me and presented me with his paw. Suddenly I was surrounded by two children and three dogs, all of them panting from the swift climb up the hill, all of them expecting me to somehow know what to do. Never had I been so aware that I was an adult, at least in theory. Never had I felt so inadequate. In the distance, a pair of seagulls cawed, and it sounded mocking. The salt air suddenly felt harsh and abrasive. I took Wallace’s paw in my hand to inspect it, thinking that I had to at least go through the motions of a competent person, and Wallace seemed willing to go with this. But when I turned Wallace’s foot over I saw very clearly that he had a thorn in one of his pads. A rosebush thorn stuck right smack into the center. And so I pulled it out. “There you go,” I said to Wallace. “You’re fine now.” Wallace gave me one wet kiss and then tore off down the hill again with his pals, to menace the seagulls who had dared laugh at me.

“You did it!” my younger niece said. “You fixed him.”

I smiled. “I did!”

I looked down at the thorn in my hand, feeling outlandishly proud and competent. My pride was disproportionate of course, but still I let myself feel it. Then I put the thorn in my pocket so that no one would ever step on it again.

I pulled my niece onto my lap and stroked her sun-warmed hair. Together we watched the Wallace and his pals frolic. Wallace, my formerly broken dog, had been fixed.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Foul Weather Friends - What do to with white dogs on rainy days in NYC

April is the cruelest month. And in New York City, February and March are too. Especially if you have a white dog. Each spring, with the thaw, come the rivers of mud, collecting mostly in those places you need them least: like right on the walking trails of Prospect Park, inside all the dog runs, and in a big, unavoidable puddle right at the bottom of your apartment building’s stoop. City mud, of course, has its own unique accoutrements, including cigarette butts, lottery tickets, and carcasses of the rats poisoned by the parks department every fall. These are not the sorts of things you want your white dog rolling in.

The spring thaw also reveals all that unscooped poop that people left behind during the winter months. For some reason, even those New Yorkers who are typically conscientious about cleaning up after their dogs will walk away from steaming piles on the snow during the winter. Perhaps because the snow in New York is so offensive anyway (it’s not white, dear readers—it’s gray). Perhaps they think the poop will simply disappear, blanketed by more and more layers of snow, until it disintegrates. But just as a frozen body can last thirty years in the name of science, so can frozen poop. It can last until the thaws of April, the cruelest month, when there it is once again, underfoot. This is proof that you can’t leave the past behind.

So can you blame New Yorkers for being grouchy in the spring? When we were children, spring meant crocuses and daffodils, green grass, budding trees, and the smell of Mother Earth shaking herself off and rising again in all her rich wonder. When we were children, I swear it didn’t rain so much. So where did all this rain come from—the Bush era?

In New York, the spring rain falls so hard that it bounces right off the sidewalks and straight up your skirt. It ricochets off the sides of buildings, pelts you on the neck, and seeps down into your collar, even though you are wearing a giant duck-billed hood and a scarf wrapped thrice around your neck.

Wallace, like many dogs, did not like the rain. At least not city rain. In the country, he would bound across the fields as he always did, occasionally stopping to shake himself, even though he never got dry, but on the Upper East Side he considered rain to be an assault. When we took him out to relieve himself, he’d press his body against the sides of buildings, trying to shelter against the downpour. Sometimes we’d pass under a scrawny awning, and there Wallace would stop. He’d put on his doggie emergency brakes: feet planted, leaning backward, with a look of stubborn solidity on his face—like that of George Washington on Mt. Rushmore.

I always had an umbrella on these occasions, of course. And, good dog-parent that I was, I would hold the umbrella over him rather than myself. I’d follow him along and hold the umbrella over him as he squatted to poop. Last summer I saw a picture of Puff Daddy, or P. Diddy, or whatever he’s called, strolling along the promenade at Cannes looking positively smashing in white linen pants and a white shirt. And a similarly dressed manservant was hurrying alongside him, holding a white umbrella over his boss’s head. I couldn’t help but think of this picture as Wallace lifted his leg on a fire hydrant—he was protected: I was splashed by a passing cab.

The big problem with carrying an umbrella to keep your white dog clean and dry is that when it comes time to pick up his deposit, you need a third hand, because one of your two hands is holding the leash and the other the umbrella. This is why Puff Daddy has a manservant, I guess. My method was to put the umbrella between my knees, but then it would tip over, and both of us would get wet. Wallace, offended at this injustice, would bolt toward another awning, and more often than not, I’d topple over.

I decided to buy the dog a raincoat. Now, on the Upper East Side, most of the dogs wore clothing—expensive garments from Burberry’s and Coach. But Ted refused to pay $300 for a “sissy rain coat.” So I ordered an inexpensive coat from Drs. Foster and Smith. It was a cute yellow slicker, just like the one I’d had as a child, the color of a school bus, or a Crayola crayon. This made me like the idea of a raincoat even better, because I always liked to find yet another way to infantilize the dog. But when the slicker arrived, it was too small. I’d ordered at Extra-Large, but it still didn’t reach all the way to his backside. You were supposed to hook a large elastic band around the dog’s tail, but this coat barely reached the big brown spot on top of his rump. So I had to return it.

“Good,” Ted said. “How are you supposed to shit with a big yellow elastic stretched across your anus anyway?”

“Could you not use the word ‘anus’?” I said.

Then Ted said he had another, less expensive idea. “Remember that dog at the Halloween contest that was dressed like a raisin?”

I did—an Irish Setter had been wearing a big Hefty bag that was stuffed with newspaper. It never occurred to me to wonder how the “raisin” went to the bathroom, but Ted figured we could cut the bag in half lengthwise and fasten the “cinch wrap” around Wallace’s neck.

“What about his anus?” I said. “And that other body part he needs to use?”

“They will be unobstructed,” Ted said. I figured that, when it came to matters of male anatomy, he knew best.

And so Wallace became a raisin. It took an additional 20 minutes to walk him each time it rained, because Ted and I laughed so much at the way he looked in his Hefty bag and his cinched-up face. We didn’t stuff him with newspaper, but still. It seemed to embarrass Wallace to have to walk past all the fancy restaurants on Madison Avenue, and by that Poodle in the pink plaid Burberry raincoat. And he still pressed himself against the awnings, and his belly still got wet and black and coated with that toxic spring mud.

After it had been raining for what seemed like 40 days and 40 nights, and Noah had not yet called to invite us aboard his arc, I decided to keep the dog indoors more often. I bought a book called Caninestein, which showed you how to measure your dog’s intelligence and offered tips on how to increase his IQ. Thus I was inspired to develop a game I called “Find the Kong.” I’d make Wallace sit and stay in one room (remember that we only had three rooms in that apartment: the kitchen/living room combo, the bedroom and the tiny bathroom only big enough for one). Anyway, I’d make him sit in the kitchen and then I’d go “hide” the Kong in one of the other rooms. I used the word hide in quotation marks, because, in the bathroom, the Kong would be “hidden” right on top of the toilet and in the living room it would be “hidden” on the windowsill. In any case, I’d tell Wallace, “Okay, go find it. Find the Kong!” And he’d race off, tail held high in excitement, with that look of fun in his eyes. He always found the Kong, of course, and would bring it back to me, his ears flattened back with pride and his tail wagging. I made a big show of praising him and his cleverness. “Who’s an Einstein? Who’s a Caninestein?” And then I’d hide it again—always in an obvious place—and the game would begin again. Sometimes Wallace would cheat and break his stay. I’d see him peeking at me from the doorway, and make him return to his designated spot. Most of the time he cooperated, because he knew if he cheated too much, I’d stop the game. He was a genius, I tell you. A regular Caninestein.

When Ted came home from work, soaked to the waist even though his umbrella was the size of a table for six, I threw myself on him in excitement and told him I had taught the dog a new game. I was as proud as if I had just typed a full novel in 23 days, which is what they say Stephen King always does.

“What a good mother you are,” Ted said, “teaching him a rainy-day game. Most mothers would just plunk him down in front of the television set.”

When we moved to the Upper East Side, our repertoire of rainy-day activities increased. This is a neighborhood where, starting at age three, all the children are sent to riding school at the Claremont Riding Academy, impressionistic painting classes (in oils) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then to flute lessons with a man who used to play with the New York Symphony. After a short break for toast and tea with their etiquette instructor, the children would be on to French lessons at the Alliance Française.
On the Upper East Side your dog could have a quadruple pedicure at Lolly’s Pet Salon, or go for a temperature-controlled swim at Biscuits and Bath. Then, after being washed, dried and fluffed by an aesthetician at the club, your dog could accompany you to the Regency Hotel, where waiters in white gloves would pour chilled Evian into a silver dog dish, and then serve him a warm dish of chicken, broccoli and rice. Twenty bucks if just the dog ate. Forty if you treated yourself. But you can’t do any of this wearing a plastic bag.

Luckily, Petco was just a few blocks away from our apartment. And, as you all know, “well-behaved” dogs are allowed inside the store, provided they are on a leash. Petco doesn’t even mind those dogs who leap up onto the biscuit bar and steal a couple of treats, because there are always security guards around who will narc on you and you will be forced to pay for the treats. This is a New York thing, I think—the security guards in a pet store. I heard that one time an Akita peed on one of them—a quick squirt to the pant leg—and the dog was banished for life. But then people on Manhattan Dog Chat got word of the banishment and threatened to sue Petco for breed-specific discrimination.

Anyway, my dog did not pee on anyone at Petco; nor did he jump onto the breakfast bar. He seemed to know that those biscuits, in their unnatural colors of orange and green, were not fit for canine consumption. Plus, I had told him that most commercial dog food was made of euthanized animals, elephant carcasses and baseball gloves, and reminded him that such food was beneath him. “Remember, you are a French Spaniel, and as a Frenchman, you must value your food.”

Instead, he would pull me to the second floor, where all the fish, birds and rodents were kept. It always smelled to me like sawdust up there, and indoor/outdoor carpeting; but to Wallace, with his heightened sense of smell, it must have smelled like the rainforests of Costa Rica, or the hedgerows of England. As we walked past the sealed terrariums full of gerbils, hamsters and tiny white mice, his nose quivered, his eyes narrowed into pinpoints, and his right foreleg rose into a hunting point. His face was focused and full of anticipation, and I realized this was the same look I had as I walked though the shoe section at Barneys: I want one of those, and one of those, and two of that pair...

Wallace would rush up to each terrarium and press his face against the glass. Oddly enough, the rodents never noticed him. They would continue spinning on their little wheels, or nibbling on grass, their little pink noses twitching and their tiny red eyes focused on the task at hand. If they had noticed him I would have taken Wallace away, because I don’t like to frighten other living creatures, but I never saw them blink or shiver. I wondered if they were sedated. Or if their cages were sealed so tightly they got no real air.

Once we had said hello to all 36 gerbils and hamsters, Wallace would pull me on to the bird section. This was a small, glassed-in room, like a squash court, full of cockatoos and parrots and one splendid African Gray. They were kept in cages, in neat rows, except for that Gray, who stood in a bird cage the center of the room, suspended from the ceiling like a chandelier. This was Wallace’s favorite room. The birds were not encased in glass, so the smell was more acute. Wallace would jump toward their cages and send them squawking in various notes. I’d always pull him off, make him sit and tell him to be quiet. “If the security guards hear us, they’ll kick us out,” I said.

But the security guards never said anything. Which I thought was weird. I’ve noticed that sometimes the people who work in pet stores seem to have little compassion for the animals they sell. But here, I guess, as long as you didn’t pee on them, you were okay.

I found a way to calm the birds down. I am now officially a crazy dog lady, remember, so why not talk to birds? I’d cluck and whistle and explain that, although technically Wallace was a bird dog, he wasn’t really all that that “birdy.” This wasn’t true, but I wanted to reassure the birds, let them know we meant no harm. Wallace would sit there, all beady-eyed, his body tense, with just the tip of his tail moving. Anyone with a bird dog knows what this means. But I explained to the birds that we lived in a tenement apartment building, and that there were no trees on our street, so we really didn’t get that much exposure to wildlife. “Plus, it’s raining cats and dogs out there,” I said, which sent them squawking again, I guess because I mentioned cats.

At that point we’d leave; Wallace reluctantly (at having to leave his own private aviary and head back into the dreadful rain) and I, satisfied (knowing that my dog got to hone his instincts and exercise his brain). Caninestein said this was essential. At Petco, Wallace got to practice what he did best: plotting how to kill all these hapless creatures. In his dreams, he actually did kill them. I could tell by the way he woofed triumphantly and flexed his lips and his paws. I knew he dreamed of open fields and sunny days. None of this rainy-day-in-a-Petco crap.

Anyway, I always allowed Wallace to pick out one toy on our way out of the store as a reward for not lunging at any of the birds. Wallace liked the fuzzy-wuzzy toys, especially those that resembled a squirrel, because he liked to practice the art of snapping spines. He also liked to pick out a greenie bone or a piggy ear and carry it home himself. With his tail up and a spring in his step, he’d hurry home, anxious to get out of the rain and eat his treat. His lips stretched around his prize into a dog-smile, big a goofy grin. And even though it was raining, and even though rain puts all New Yorkers into the foulest of moods, everyone we passed would smile at him as. He seemed to suggest that May would come, that spring really was just around the corner, and that the cruelest month would soon come to an end.