Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Being a Slightly Overweight Woman with a Slightly Overweight Dog

Chunky Canines & Portly Pooches

January is the month, as we know, of New Year’s resolutions. Take one look at the covers of dozens of womens’ magazines at the local newspaper kiosk and you will see that most resolutions—in fact, 90%--involve Losing Weight. My resolutions, however, have nothing to do with losing my own weight. It’s my dog who needs to shed some pounds.

My niece likes to tell the story of the time I stayed at their house for Christmas a few years ago, and brought along my dog—a jolly little spaniel mix named Chloe. As we pulled up to my sister’s driveway in suburban Massachusetts (“we” being the dog and I), and stepped out of the car, my niece and brother-in-law were watching from their living room window. It was snowing; I think they wanted to make sure I didn’t slip.

“Wow, she’s put on weight,” my brother-in-law said as they watched us make our way up the walkway.

“Dad!” my niece replied in horror. “How can you say that about Auntie Lee? She looks great. She always looks great.”

“I mean the dog,” John said.

I get this a lot. People telling me my dog is fat. But is this true? I mean really and truly true? Read on...

The words Chloe’s critics (and my friends) use to describe her are myriad: plump, chunky, well-fed, sturdy, a linebacker, no-stranger-to-the-meatloaf. My favorite description comes from the sweet Austrian librarian at our local library. “My, my, aren’t you getting portly,” she’ll say to Chloe, when Chloe comes forth for her daily treat.

On the one hand it’s cute; on the other it’s not. I’ve become The Woman With the Fat Dog. Perhaps I am even known as the Crazy Dog Lady with the Crazy Fat Dog.

It seems so unfair, especially given that I take her out on walks at least five times a day. In the country these are full-out romping walks, and Chloe gets to run on miles and miles of wooded trails. In this city, we walk through Greenwich Village and play in Washington Square Park. She is not a sedentary dog and I am not a sedentary person. So. Mr. Cesar-Macho Male Milan can’t call me on that one.

I also feed my dog the best possible food one can provide. Most of her diet is of the BARF variety—an unfortunate acronym for what is otherwise a superb food system. It means Bones And Raw Food and it follows the theory that dogs, in the wild, would eat bones and raw food. Simple as that.

I personally find this BARF dog diet most convenient for me, the provider, because I don’t have to open any cans or lug around large bags of kibble. And who knows what’s in some of that low-quality kibble anyway? Beyond the preservatives and genetically modified corn meal I mean. Old baseball gloves and work boots, ground to a fine oily powder? Sawdust? Old elephant hide? One study found traces of—get this—euthanized dogs in dog food. Can you imagine? Anyway, let’s get back to BARF, because thinking of dogs eating dog meat, or animal shelters selling this meat to manufacturers, makes me want to barf...

As I was saying, feeding your dog raw meat is very easy. You just have the butcher chop up the chicken or beef or whatnot to designated sizes, and then you just throw the meat on the floor (or outside) for your dog to chow down. “There, go pretend your feral,” I always say to Chloe when I toss her her meat. I don’t think she quite gets the joke, but she eats happily, and that’s all that counts. That girl ain’t got a feral bone in her body. And neither do I.

Feeding raw, by the way, is less expensive than purchasing commercial manufactured dog food. Go look at the per-pound price of the kibble and/or wet food you are buying. And see the light.

When I am traveling, and/or visiting family I do not feed Chloe raw, mostly because it grosses people out. Once my step-brother, as a joke, started to spread a rumor among family that I fed Chloe raw meat on his bed. That part was funny. It was not, however, funny when I found out the rest of the family believed it was true! That’s when I realized I better work hard to change their opinion of me and my ways :)

So, no raw meat at the homes of my hosts. Instead, I cook Chloe’s food. This is a hot new trend, by the way, but I’ve been doing it for years. My previous dog, Wallace, had food allergies, so I prepared his meals as well. Beef and vegetables mixed with oatmeal, or a bit of yogurt, and funny things like kelp, krill oil, lentils, kale....the kinds of things people who buy kibble like to make fun of. They find us excessive. And who knows?

The funny thing is, I technically don’t cook. Not for myself. I eat like a bachelor (frozen burritos and Indian entrees) and my only saving grace is that I buy organic bachelor-food. And I don’t microwave it. I use the stove—less chemical mutation that way. So my “cooking” consists of buying pre-made thing and pushing buttons. But the dog gets the whole shebang: stews prepared in large soup pots, vegetables pureed in a food processor, grains fluffed up in rice cookers, and then a hundred pots to wash. And I’m the one who has to wash them. This, to me, is a solid reason not to cook.

So sometimes, when I am in a rush, and/or camping, I do buy canned food. But it’s always no-grain organic food. PetGuard or Wellness. Nothing but the best for my dog.

And, despite giving her the best with my best, she’s still fat.

Would you like to hear my excuses?

For the record, Chloe has thyroid issues, and that’s why we have trouble keeping her weight down. It’s true—you can call my vet and ask her. And I have a thyroid problem too (hypo, just like Chloe). So cut us some slack.

In fact, one might say that my dog has thyroid problems because I do. You’ve all heard how some animals “take on” our physical ailments, i.e.: the heroic cat who developed throat cancer just after her human went into remission for the same thing. But is another topic for another the meantime we have heroic Chloe taking on my propensity to gain weight.

Not a day goes by in which people do not tell me she is fat. I mean, I find it cute when Pia the librarian calls Chloe portly. Or when Clayton, my ten-year old nephew, calls Chloe “Miss Chubs” or “Chunky Monkey” or “Honker-Wonker.”

But when other unnamed people offer their habitual “your dog is overweight” comment, I get pissed. I get offended. I take it personally. I hear in their benign, offhand observations decades of latent criticism: you’re a failure; you don’t have a real job; you don’t know how to take care of yourself, let alone your dog; you’re a f—ck up—look! Your dog is going to die of heart failure, or suffer through a lifetime of hip problems and arthritic needs, all because YOU ARE A FAILURE!!

Do they actually say these things?

Do they actually think these things about me?
Probably not.
Okay, definitely not.

Then why do I react so negatively to being told my dog is overweight? Why do I take it so personally?

For one thing, it’s rather bad manners, don’t you think? Children are taught that it is rude to shout “Mommy, look at that fat man!” in the supermarket aisles. Aren’t they? Or is this permissible now?
But then again, some people these days spend most of their days flaming other people anonymously on the internet....perhaps children are more apt to flame to peoples’ faces now.

Anyway, I guess people think it’s okay to insult a dog’s weight because some people think dogs don’t have feelings. Or that they don’t hold grudges. The latter is true. And Chloe, she’s just as friendly and loving and goofy with the strangers who call her a Fatty-Fat as she is with the people who call her a Cutie-Cute. She, likes all dogs, loves the attention.

I suppose I like attention too, as long as it’s positive. Criticism crushes me.
In the interest of full disclosure: I used to be very self-conscious about my weight, and about the way I looked. I cared so much about looking “good” that I starved myself into near-oblivion. They called it anorexia back then and they still do. I remember well the feeling of starvation, of insatiable hunger, coupled with an intense self-loathing that had somehow convinced me I didn’t deserve food. At that time in my life I guess I thought I didn’t deserve to live. It was a horrible belief, a horrible sensation.

Now, thankfully, I don’t really care how I look. I could stand to lose five pound, but I don’t care enough to spend the time or effort accomplishing this. I just don’t eat crap, or high fructose corn syrup, or anything with exclamation points or cartoons on the packaging. I don’t eat anything genetically modified, artificially colored, or brewed in a test tube. Simply put: When I am hungry I eat and I eat when I am hungry. In behavioral therapist terms, this is called a “healthy relationship to food.”

So does my dog. She has an extremely healthy, well-functioning, vigorous relationship to food.

Chloe is part Lab, however, and it is said that Labs will eat and eat and eat until they explode. I cannot prove this, having never seen a dog explode.

But once, when I was staying at a friend and fellow band-member’s house (a friend who serves her dog kibble), we came home late from a music gig and found Chloe lying sideways on the floor. She seemed stiff and uncomfortable, and didn’t get up to greet us when we walked in the door. This is unusual Chloe, who always regards the occasion of a human entering a room as a cause to celebrate.

I rushed over and knelt before her, to check her breathing and feel her heart. I even checked for blood and felt for broken bones. “What’s wrong?” I said to the dog. Her posture was that of a dog with a twisted intestine.

“I think I found the answer,” my friend called from the kitchen. She led me into the pantry, where we beheld a tipped-over bag of kibble, more than half of it gone. And we’re talking one of those thirty-pound bags.

“Chloe, how could you?” I said to her, back in the living room. But she didn’t acknowledge me. She was practically passed out on the braided rug, sleeping off her kibble-induced stupor like a drunk.

She farted all night, by the way. Which is why I personally never give my dog kibble.

So. Here was proof that any animal with a drop of Labrador Retriever in her portly body will at least try to eat until she explodes. But she will not actually explode.

Chloe remained comically bloated for the next day or two, and even seemed somewhat chagrined...the way a college freshman might be after one of those nights of too-much-to-drink, and “Oh, God, I don’t remember what I said.”

During those two days I was a bit more lax in my reaction to those people who happened to call her fat. I had a perfect excuse.

And why are the called Chocolate labs, by the way? Isn’t chocolate often associated with food addiction? I’m just saying...

I like to joke that Chloe is part Wooly Mammoth. She has very long, very course, very thick white fur on certain parts of her body—mostly her back. I don’t know where this fur comes from—I mean, what part of her DNA would produce such thick, abundant fuzz, that is wiry in some areas of her body, long and smooth in others, and short and coarse underneath?

But this fur honestly does make her look bigger than she is. Go ahead and call my groomer if you don’t believe me—he’ll vouch for us.

In the summer time I get the dog groomed—a “spaniel cut,” they call it—shaved down to a buzz cut on the top half of her body, and fringed on the lower half. Thus, in the summer time, everyone says: “Wow, Chloe has lost a lot of weight.”

People say that to me too, in the summer time, by the way: that whole “Wow, you’ve lost weight! You look great!” thing.

“It’s because I’m no longer wearing seven layers of sweaters, four layers of woolen leggings, and a North Face full-body ski suit on top of it all,” I tell them. Rather irritably. Because inside I’m thinking: so this whole time you’ve been thinking I’m a fat cow?

It’s true that in the winter I look like the Michelin man. In the winter I do not get asked on dates. But who cares? Looking bloated is better than being cold, I always say.

But when people start to exclaim in the summer how great I look, it makes me suspect that I must look absolutely wretched and bloated in the winter.
How shallow people are, to judge a book by her covers like that. Her many, many covers. I’ll see you next June.

Yes, yes, I know it is unhealthy for a dog—or anyone—to remain overweight. It’s not like I’m trying to have an unhealthy dog.
Let’s recap my excuses thus far:
1) She has low thyroid function.
2) She is a part Lab. Chocoholic Lab.
3) She is part Wooly Mammoth.

Plus, I want her to be happy and comfortable. Starving is not at all comfortable. I know this first-hand. I starved myself for about four years when I was a teenager. It was horrible.

One of my friends once told me that his vet told him that dogs are always supposed to be in a state of hunger. It’s in their nature, this vet says.

Always in a state of hunger.

When I was anorexic I was like a ghost. I used to think of food all day and dream of food all night—I used to consume trays of macaroons and French baguettes and almond croissants in my dreams, and then wake up aghast at the thought that I might have actually truly eaten something. I rarely ate anything. Food was the enemy. Food equaled fat and fat made me detestable, corrupt, hideous, etc. I don’t think I had a genuinely happy or healthy thought for about ten years.

In my twenties, when I moved beyond the affliction of eating disorders, I made a vow to myself: I would never go hungry again. So now we must ask: Am I somehow transferring this vow, this fear of starvation, onto my dog?

When she is hungry she lets me know it. She pokes me with her snout and leads me, like a gallant Lassie, into the kitchen, toward the refrigerator, and then goes en pointe, like an elegant, hard-working bird dog. It’s so cute I just have to feed her. Even if it’s just a small morsel of something. But usually she does this only twice a day—at her usual feeding times. She reminds me to feed her, you see. Because she knows that I am a spacey artist who needs to be reminded to tend to practical things. I forget a lot of things these days. I need a service dog to remind me to feed the dog.

Years ago, a very famous article appeared in Atlantic Magazine, entitled “Why Your Dog Pretends to Love You.” I can’t remember the author’s name, and I don’t have time to Google it, but the author’s theory was that dogs have learned that acting affectionate and cute and loving will result in the reward of food. But that they don’t actually really love you. Or even like you. They’re just in it for the food.

Hmmm. My ex-husband once accused me of the same thing....

I wouldn’t be surprised to find scientific proof that my dog Chloe is manipulating me, and that she goes en pointe at the refrigerator because she knows it will make me laugh and because she knows she will get a small morsel of hotdog or a larger morsel of sliced turkey breast, or perhaps even a full-fledged dinner, even though it’s technically not dinner time. We call it the “early bird special”: her 6:00 pm dinner meal, served at 4. All because she is cute. And please note that she always gets her thyroid supplements with her meals.

Okay. So perhaps we could say that it is my dog’s fault that she is so fat. Or portly. Or chunky, chubby. A Mack-truck-in-fur...whatever you want to call her.

Perhaps we could say I am wimp with former eating disorders and self-worth issues, who is afraid that her dog won’t love her if she doesn’t feed her “enough.”

Or perhaps we could say I’m just a softie, with a kind heart, who wants her sweet middle-aged dog to have a happy, comfortable life.
I prefer to think of it this way.

Years ago, when I was married, and had another life, and another dog, the dog named Wallace, who had a perfectly functioning thyroid, we used to spend our summers up in Wisconsin. My former mother-in-law had a place there--an old family compound belonging to her husband and his siblings. My husband, dog and I had the grandmother’s old cabin (Oh, that place was heaven!) and my step-father-in-law’s step-brother F____ had the cabin next door.

F___ and his wife had an old Labrador Retriever. I forget his name but I remember his girth, and his sweet grey muzzle, and his vaguely clouded eyes. I also remember that he was—and remains—the fattest dog I have ever seen.

Two images stay in my mind: One is of this old dog lying on the dock, in such a manner that his entire body covered the width of the dock. He was the sort of dog who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, move much, so once he spread himself on the dock he was there for the day. We’d step over him on our way out to the kayaks, and step back over him to retrieve the coolers and the sun block, etc. This was easy and simple enough for us humans. But I remember my dog Wallace did not quite know what to do. He was the younger dog, clearly not the leader of any pack, and also clearly a guest at this compound. Wallace seemed to know that it would not be cool for him, the Gamma, to jump over the Alpha dog. So he used to leap off the dock and swim up to the kayaks, or back to shore.
This was my first experience with fat-dogs-as-roadblocks.

The other thing I remember about that fat old lovely lab is that, at meal times, he would plant himself next to his Mum—a jolly woman named M.—and rest his head on the table, and basically receive treats all night long. Like a slot machine.

M. too was a softie. Older than me. I always saw her as someone I might become.

Ben was the dog’s name—I remember now! We all used to joke about how, well, obscenely obese Ben was, but we never said that in front of M. Or in front of Ben for that matter. What we would say—and mean—is that “Ben has a good life, eh?” And he did. He lived eighteen years as a canine slot machine.

So back to Chloe. Chloe of the Big Appetite and the Low Thyroid. You may call her portly or flabby or Chunky-Monkey. But you can’t call her unloved.

Perhaps that is why I get so offended when strangers—and family members—make those off-hand comments. Perhaps I worry that at some level, another person is challenging my own personal version of love. But that’s just is—love is so personal. And we I’m just trying to love my dog the way I think she deserves to be loved.

And so, I give her her thyroid medication (when I can afford it, which lately has not been often). I dose her up with homeopathic remedies and herbs. I groom her in the summer and call her a Mammoth in the winter. I give her plenty of off-leash exercise in the acres of mountain trails behind our house.

And when she eats, I watch her wag and wag and wag her tail and think about an Alice Walker quote I read in Oprah magazine: “You do your best, and when you know better, you do better.” And in the meantime, let us eat and be merry.

If you, dear readers, have any input as to how you handle your portly pooches, we welcome it. Cheers!

PS - That sweet fat dog pictured above is not Chloe. Here she is. Ain't she cute?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Rex and the City, Part 4 - The Country Dog Acclimates to City Life

Here is the (very belated) fourth installment of my little series about my beloved dog Wallace. In the previous installment, my boyfriend Ted and I were on the verge of taking this dog back to the shelter, because he had turned out to be more than we could handle (wild, aggressive, untrained, hostile to all dogs and humans, and slightly dangerous). But then we took the dog camping and finally saw his (Wallace’s) potential as a normal happy dog. We decided to keep him no matter what. We decided we were willing to face the hardships because we knew that beyond the hardships we would find a beautiful, rehabilitated dog, ready to accept our love.

So here is a continuation of that story:

Rex and the City, Part 4

It had been two months since we adopted our shelter dog Wallace, and in that time he had shown us affection exactly once. But when it comes to love, isn’t once sometimes enough? Last night, Wallace had pressed his body against mine while we slept at a campsite. And those few hours of closeness was enough to give Ted and me hope.

On the way home from the Catskills that fateful weekend, Ted and I stopped at a small-town diner for a late lunch and left Wallace in the car. He howled, of course, and the three customers in the restaurant turned around to stare.

“That a bird dog you got there?” one of the men at the counter asked.

“Yes,” we said sheepishly. And then we went into our now-familiar spiel about how we had just rescued him and that we suspected he had been abused because he was so hard to deal with, but we loved him nevertheless, etc., etc., etc. The waitress, one of those gruff, big-bosomed, grandmotherly types, smiled at us and said, “Yep. Dogs is harder than kids. But you gotta love ’em. Look at that face!” She walked over to the window and tapped on it and began to coo. “Aw, what a sweetheart!” she said. “Look at that brown and white puppy wuppy face!”

This sent Wallace into a froth of snarls and barking and scratching maniacally at the windows.

“Looks like you got a live one there,” the man said.

“That we do,” we said, but when Ted and I exchanged a look, I saw that something had changed in our attitude. Yes, we had a live one, but he was our live one and we knew from that moment on we would be fully committed to him.

Once we got back to New York City, Ted and I began to work doubly hard on turning Wallace into the Dog He Was Meant to Be. First we hired a private trainer—an eager young woman from neutral Switzerland who managed to strike a workable balance between my coddle-and-nurture training methods and Ted’s sock-it-to-'em New Skete.

Now, before we go any further, let me remind you—gentle readers—that I am currently an avid (Ted would say “rabid”) supporter of clicker-training, which is a brilliant, effective, and impeccable easy system of training that uses positive reinforcement. I have now been working with and writing about dogs for eleven years, and I see no reason why anyone should have to resort to shouting, alpha rolling, and/or choke-chaining their dogs to get their dogs to behave in certain ways. We don’t need to choke our dogs every time they try to walk in a certain direction. I’ve seen men yank harshly on their dogs’ leashes if the dog so much as looks in a certain direction. This damages our dogs’ throats, necks, and vocal cords, my friends. We do not need this Cesar Milan negative-reinforcement bullocks. Clicker training is easy, safe, fool-proof and pleasurable for your dog. This sort of positive reinforcement training is crucial when working with shelter dogs, who may have experienced abuse, neglect, or heedless cruelty at the hands of humans. So enough of the soapbox (before I get flamed!)

I am ashamed to say that, back in 1997 when we first got Wallace, I knew nothing of clicker training. Therefore I brought needless, heedless suffering upon my already traumatized dog. I am so sorry, Wallace, wherever you are. Now, back to the story:

So we had hired a trainer. And each morning Ted and I would meet her at East River Park and work with Wallace on a forty-foot lead. We worked on sit, heel, come, stay, and if Wallace’s attention strayed she encouraged us to yank violently on his choke collar and then offer praise. None of us paused to consider the incongruity of these mixed messages, and how that would affect an already confused do. No one took into consideration how hard it would be for us non-prey animals to keep the attention of a hunting dog: or, for that matter, how hard it would be for me, at that hour, to stay focused myself.

I’d always said I wanted to be a morning person--out there at dawn with the joggers, the go-getters, the high-metabolism Wall Street freaks who made gobs of money. But now that I was required to get up before seven and stand inside an abandoned soccer field, I wished I was still in bed. While the trainer talked to Ted about, say, the importance of always heeling the dog on his right side vs. left, I’d find my attention drifting off toward the other dog people, who passed beyond the fence with their well-trained dogs.

There was the tall, sleek Icelandic woman gliding by on Rollerblades with her ice-blue Weimaraner. There was the hipster East Village dude racing his Ridgeback on his bike. And then there was the perfect blond yuppie couple with their perfect blond baby and a matching yellow Lab. Every day they would appear through the morning mist like aliens from Planet Future with their high-tech stroller and their crisp, seize-the-day clothes. The Lab trotted along side them happily with a ball in his mouth, his leash slack, his focus on them. They would park the stroller under a willow tree and throw the ball for the dog exactly 30 times. The baby never cried; the dog never pooped. Then they were off again, off to their bright, promising days. I would stare after them in wonder. How did she manage to push the stroller, drink a Starbucks Caramel Macchiato and hold the dog’s leash all at the same time? How did she find the time to have a dog and a baby? Or even just a dog?

Ted would yank on my sleeve and tell me to “Pay attention!” All in all, Wallace caught on quickly to the training. He learned that for one hour every day we would take him to a certain spot on a certain leash in the presence of a certain woman and require him to be obedient. The rest of the time he still pulled on his leash as much as ever. I honestly was not enjoying this. Walking a dog, at that point in my selfish city life, felt like work. And I wanted so much for everything in life to be easy and breezy and light. And I wanted to look good doing it.

But that was not to be. Five times a day I was getting yanked through the city streets by a dog who didn’t even seem to really like me.

“Faster than a speeding bullet,” our super, Sander, would say as I got yanked down the stairs of our apartment building in the morning. “More powerful than a locomotive,” Sander would add in his deliciously ironic tone. “Able to leap out of car windows in a single bound.”

“You heard about the car window incident?” I asked, surprised. In New York, one cannot keep secrets. Especially if one lives in an old tenement building on an un-gentrified street in the not-yet-hip portion of the Lower East Side. We were a building full of young white artists, dreamers, and public school teachers in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. We did not quite fit in, and that made us all band together in familial ways.

“Oh, I heard all about that dog, all right,” Sander said with a wink.

I should point out that our super was not your ordinary gray-haired Mr. Fixit with 800 keys on his belt and stained workman’s pants. No, our Sander was a hot young poet/playwright/Marxist with a Mohawk and his own printing press. He had a piano in his kitchen and held poetry readings in his bedroom and was so über-cool that in his presence even Lou Reed might shake in his combat boots. At night we could hear him singing show tunes through the air shaft, his warm voice curling into our windows like an appetizing scent. Ah, Sander.

Secretly I had a crush on him, so in his presence I got tongue-tied and turned red. In his presence Wallace always took gigantic poops on the sidewalk, which I then I had to stoop down and pick up using a plastic bag. (This made Ted laugh for hours on end, for he knew of my crush and loved to tease me about it).

Once, just as I was carrying a bag of poop to the outside trash can, Sander appeared, wearing a pair of workman’s gloves, a white tanktop, and a pair of overalls, with one of the straps sexily undone. I felt bad that I was placing shit into a barrel that he would be required to empty.

“Things seem much better,” Sander said to me that day.

“What seems better?” I asked, a bit alarmed. You see, in New York City, all your neighbors can hear your arguments, and for the past few weeks Ted and I had been having huge ones about how best to handle the new dog. But we hadn’t argued for at least two days which seemed magnanimous.

“Your new dog,” Sander said. He seems like he’s chilling out.”

I smiled, relieved. It was true. As the weeks passed, Wallace was becoming more and more dog-like. He stopped to sniff more often on our walks through the neighborhood and began to mark. Up until then he would squat to pee, and let it all out in one sitting, as if this were the one and only chance he’d get. Now he lifted his leg like a boy-dog and took his time. I can’t tell you how joyful that made me feel. Just that one tiny change meant to me that whatever we were doing was working.

And even though it still wasn’t easy to walk him, he at least began to acknowledge that we were there at the other end of his leash. That in itself—just the fact that he would turn his head toward me sometimes while I walked him, began to make dog-walking more fun.

I wouldn’t say Wallace had taken a total liking to us yet, but his seething, misguided hatred of us had definitely toned down. Sometimes, in the apartment, he would allow us to pet him and praise his patrician good looks; but he still wouldn’t look at us, nor offer any affection in return. But at least he wasn’t cowering so much. Slowly, we seemed to be earning his fractured trust.

And sometimes, when I paused from writing at the computer, I’d feel him watching me, as if trying to figure out exactly what my role was in his life. “I think you’re starting to like me,” I’d say, my eyes still on the screen. “Yes, I think you are.” But when I turned to smile at him he’d quickly look away and pretend to be consumed with licking his paws.

And while Wallace was becoming a dog, we were becoming dog people. The city was full of them—I had just never really noticed before. And now they all gravitated toward us and stopped us on the sidewalk to say hello. They’d address Wallace first, and after he recoiled from their outstretched hands or barked at them or their dogs and/or lunged at their throats, we would go into the “he’s a rescue dog” spiel and nine times out of ten it would turn out their dog was a rescue too. Or liberated from a junkyard. Or abandoned on the streets.

We found, in our neighborhood, an entire support group of young and old people who had gone through what we were going through. And most of them were visibly insane. One such neighbor—a weathered man in his fifties—wore marching-band jackets and painted his fingernails pink. He rejoiced every time Wallace barked at him. “What a wonderful dog!” he would shout from across the street. His three dogs—whom he called his children—would bark back at us, and everyone would have to shout to continue the conversation. “My children bark at everybody and Mother of Mary I prefer it that way,” our neighbor would say. “I got mugged back in the Seventies when this place was a festering drug pit, and then I went straight to the ASPCA and adopted my children and that, thank the Blessed Mother, was the end of that. Your dog was definitely abused.”

“How can you tell?” I said.

“Look at him! He has no hair around his neck. It’s all worn away.”

Ted and I looked at each other guiltily. “We did that,” I said. “It’s from his choke collar.” I waited for this dear man to curse me for being cruel.

But instead he said: “Ah, you’re good people, I can tell.” He paused to wheeze. “It took one of my children three years to figure out this leash-walking ordeal. Patience is all it takes. Patience and a no-pull harness.”

Ted and I smiled as we walked away. A stranger had called us good. Could it be true?

I thought about how rapidly our lives had been changing since we got Wallace. Up until then both Ted and I had been devotedly, almost rabidly pursuing our careers and following our bliss. Now we were following some mad dog’s rump.

I was so encouraged by the Marching Band Man’s compliment I decided to take our relationship to a new level.

“Let’s take Wallace to a café,” I said to Ted.

I had always wanted a café dog—a dog who would sit placidly under the table while my lover and I nibbled each other’s earlobes and sipped white wine. You know, like in Paris.

“I don’t think he’s quite ready for that yet,” Ted said. He was always the voice of reason. Blast him.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “Please? We’re good people.”


I finally convinced Ted to take us to Benny’s Burritos—a Mexican restaurant with sidewalk tables that faced a relatively quiet street. Our waitress had the innocent, pouty-lipped look of Liv Tyler, and when she saw Wallace she gasped in sweet, childlike wonder and sunk down to her knees. “What a beautiful dog!” she said. I started to tell her that Wallace had been abused as a pup, that he was afraid of people, that he might bite, but hers was the sort of beauty that healed wounds and opened doors, and Wallace melted beneath her touch. He spread himself beneath the table, head on paws. I was so proud of our beautiful dog. And proud of us for having chosen him.

“He likes you!” Ted said giddily to the waitress.

When I saw Ted sneaking a peek down the waitress’s shirt, I said, rather testily, “Could we order some drinks?”

, Ted felt we should order our food right away as well. “Just in case. Wallace is being good now, but I don’t want to push our luck.” So we put in our orders for giant stuffed burritos.

Our drinks came first—big, salty Margaritas on ice—along with a bowl of tortilla chips with salsa, and as I took a sip of my drink I had one of those moments when you realize you are exactly where you want to be at that particular time. I was at a sidewalk café on a beautiful summer evening with my handsome boyfriend and our handsome dog in the most magnificent city in the world.

“I’m happy,” I said, meaning it. How glorious it was to finally have a cafe dog after all these years! But then a homeless man came up to our table asking for change. Ted said we didn’t have any. All we had was a fifty-dollar bill with which we planned to dine. The man continued to beg of us however. And thus. Wallace’s fur began to rise. Ted noticed and shouted, “Hold on to him, Lee!” but before I could, Wallace had already sprung into action, tipping the table over as he lunged. Immediately Ted caught Wallace by the collar, and the homeless man shuffled away, but still. Our complimentary bowl of tortilla chips had crashed onto the pavement, our drinks had spilled, and a bottle of hot sauce had rolled off the curb, making its way up First Avenue as if fleeing the scene.

“Oh dear,” our waitress said, arriving with our order. “Should I wrap this up to go?”


Ted and I didn’t speak on the long walk home, but I know we were both thinking the same thing: “He’s your dog.” Once again I was unhappy with my choice and with my life. And yet, when we turned the corner that was our block, there was the marching-band man out walking his children. He looked so content, so deliriously happy. Like a true New Yorker. “Have a fabulous evening!” he shouted from across the street. “And God bless you for saving that beauuuuutiful dog!”

Ted and laughed and joined hands. Sometimes, in New York, you need someone else to tell you who you really are. And we were ready to listen.