Monday, December 6, 2010

A Dog's Death

I listen for the sound of footsteps, the early morning signal that she's up and ready to go out. Rituals that take hold, thirteen years' worth in this case, are not so readily relinquished. If I listen long enough, I may even believe I'm hearing her.

In a way, I am. I'm hearing her nails click against the wood floor, the jingle of her dog tags, her licking her paws, even the barking that seemed more a delayed reaction to the UPS truck in our driveway than the first alert it used to be. An aging dog is entitled to the same selective hearing as an aging person. An aging dog with advanced lymphoma is entitled to take her time, make instinctive decisions about what is really worth getting up for. Week by week her body diminished in size, and she still managed to muster the strength to go out, on her own, her dignity intact. Looking at the sun-filled square on the floor where she liked to nap brings an ache. Positioning myself in a downward-facing dog pose in the room where I do yoga brings an expectation: she will be here any minute, settle herself on the floor no more than a foot away from me. Sitting and reading on the couch in the living room, or working at my desk brings an unsettling quiet. She was not an especially noisy, or even affectionate, dog, and yet her absence fills the space she left with a profound silence.

The death of a dog, or any pet for that matter, is a reminder that there are many faces to love. 'Puppy love' has nothing, and everything, to do with puppies. When the dog I grew up with died, my mother wanted some words she could put on the equivalent of tombstone. Not a problem, I said, then I wrote: A dog's love is heaven's reminder of forgiveness. We call a dog's brand of love 'loyalty,' we call it a relationship based on training and trust and care. Some people abuse their pets, others pamper them. Then there's the rest of us, seeking the closest thing to balance between domestication and honoring the call of the wild. How much of an animal spirit can we really tame? Why would we want to?

All that rain last night, too much of it, making my sleep fitful. I listen for her breathing (almost a snore). I almost hear her get up from her bed, go to another of her favorite spots, a mat on the other side of the bedroom, closer to me. She does that thing dogs do when they paw at a mat or towel, crumple it up, lie down. How, I wonder, could that be comfortable? And that's exactly the point, the wonder of it all. Domesticated animals accommodate us. They please us when it suits them. Yes, there's a mutuality to it all, but the bottom line is simple: a dog is a dog is a dog. Some dogs learn things very quickly, and we call them intelligent. Some dogs are very demanding in their need for a scratch on the head or a rub on the belly. All dogs beg for food, until something wreaks havoc on their bodies, not even a piece of fresh chicken appealing enough to swallow. All dogs teach as much as they learn, if we just pay attention. In the very last weeks of my dog's life, I watched her become a master at conserving energy. I did my best to read her signals, frustrated at times when what I thought was the right thing to do became the one she resisted.

Some dogs love to roam, others prefer to stay put and guard their turf. Some dogs welcome people when they arrive and bark when they leave. All dogs we love make us angry when they don't come running on command and break our hearts when they're ailing. Their suffering is made manifest in ours, riddled with projection, the rock and the hard place that closes in on us. There's no easy out here, only euphemisms and questions: How soon is too soon to end her suffering? Did we wait too long? Did we time it just right?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Three Fortune cookies, still in their cellophane wrappers, sit in a bowl on the center island of my kitchen, remnants from last night's take-out. If I wait for the right moment, I figure, one of them will beckon: crack me open, see what I have to offer. It's not the taste of the cookie that ever really appealed to me anyway. In fact, if memory serves me well, I was put off by the thought of eating something with a piece of paper inside (though I confess to loving those strips of colorful dot candies I devoured as a child). And yet, as soon as the dinner plates are gone from the table, replaced by a small dish of cookies, often with slices of orange, I'm usually the first to grab for one.

Today they sit, though, wafers in a game not unlike those sleight-of-hand games that require very fixed attention – which cup is the ball under now? – the mind doing its very best to keep from being tricked. A message, important to this moment, this time in my life, will reveal itself. If I just watch carefully and choose wisely.

Let's face it, the commercial Fortune cookie is no match for a madeleine. All the same, that often soggy amalgam of flour, sugar, vanilla, and oil tempts me. Maybe it's just that I love words (especially those that hold promise), with their suggestion that anything is open for interpretation. Or that some deep-seated part of me knows that everything – let me say it again, everything – matters. When my daughter was a young girl we played a game she called 'Jewelry Store.' She would lay out her trinkets, make them available, offer them up. If I chose one she was not ready to relinquish, she would shake her head, no-no-no, it's too expensive. Then came the kicker, out of the mouths of babes: you get what you get. Is it a coincidence that today, just when I need some affirmation of what I'm doing with my life, I reach for the cookie with the hidden message, exposed now, telling me, "Your dearest dream is coming true"? Not that there's ever a bad message in a Fortune cookie, but the one I just happen to pick up speaks to me. A day later, feeling lucky again, I crack open the next cookie, the little smiley faces saying just what I need to hear: "You will maintain good health and enjoy life."

Like Fortune herself, those slings and arrows throwing her this way and that, the cookie's origins can't be pinned down. Was it a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco's Chinatown who gave out cookies to the poor, filled with tidbits of Biblical inspiration? Or a Japanese immigrant slipping a thank you note into cookies given to friends who stood by him in times of hardship? Is there any truth to the legend that messages hidden in Moon Cakes were a subversive, revolutionary tactic that aided the Chinese uprising against the Mongols centuries ago?

Astrology. Palm readings. Tarot cards. Fortune cookies. There's an undeniable impulse to know what's ahead, or at least believe that something we hope for is in the cards. Nobody wants bad news. I don't necessarily believe that everything happens for a reason. But I do believe that sometimes Fate or Fortune or Chance – all with their nuanced differences – grabs you by the neck and says, Stop. Look. Listen.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Let's Talk Books

In an essay by Joan Didion ("Why I Write") that I first came across years ago, the iconic author makes the thought-provoking observation that "setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space." Writing, unless in a personal journal for the writer's eyes only, demands readership; conversely, what it is that draws readers to the written word was the subject of a recent talk by Francine Prose at The Center for Fiction in New York City. The center is housed in the Mercantile Library (with which it's now affiliated), a neoclassical building on East 47th Street that is a treasure in its own right. Founded before the advent of public libraries, the New York Mercantile Library evolved into a cultural institution where the likes of Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass would lecture. In its early incarnation, members requested books via prepaid stamps. Books were delivered via horse and wagon.

Sitting in the small library, listening to the author of Reading Like a Writer (and other wonderful books) talk about Why We Read was a reminder that whatever market-driven, get-it-while-it's-hot book-acquisition habits modern times have foisted on us, there's always that one, classic or otherwise, that demands being reread. In fact, at the beginning of her talk, Prose gives an anecdote about a discussion with grad students at Southern Mississippi who asked what she was reading at the time. They looked at her dumbfounded when she answered, Dostoevsky. And yet, I imagine, after the time they spent studying with her, with the close attention she brings to passages in books that illuminate a character or sentences that shape a narrative and its tone through very deliberate word choice, they came away with some greater insight into the ways in which writers are shaped by what the read. How could it be otherwise?

Why do we read? The very act of settling oneself down in a private space, book in hand, reading closely, for the first or the fifth time, noticing something that escaped us in an earlier read is pleasure of a very certain kind — pleasure being just one of the handful of reasons we read, according to Prose; we also read for escape, for information, for connecting with another person's consciousness, for community, as in becoming part of a fictional character's world. To which I would add community, as in talking about books. How many times have I said to a friend, "You really have to read this book"? How many times have I bought a particular book with a particular friend in mind? It's no secret why book clubs have grown in geometric proportions, from living rooms to cyberspace.

All of which is to say, that hand-in-hand with the ongoing dialogue about the death of print publishing is that other dialogue, the one premised on the very life of books, the way we live them, breathe them, talk about them.

For every high-profile book we read about (and read), there are countless sleepers and almost as numerous online book clubs and book blogs to remind us of them. Here are a few favorites of mine: Flashlight Worthy Book Club Recommendations, Book Club Girl, Campaign for the American Reader . . .

. . . And a gorgeous passage from a favorite book:

"The Stroms sang with a skill built into the body, a fixed trait, the soul's eye color. Husband and wife each supplied musical genes: his mathematician's feel for ratio and rhythm, her vocal artist's pitch like a homing pigeon and shading like a hummingbird's wings. Neither boy suspected it was at all odd for a nine-year-old to sight-sing as easily as he breathed. They helped the strands of sound unfold as easily as their lost first cousins might climb a tree. All a voice had to do was open and release, take its tones out for a spin down to Riverside Park, the way their father walked them sometimes on sunny weekends: up, down, sharp, flat, long, short, East Side, West Side, all around the town. Jonah and Joseph had only to look at printed chords, their note heads stacked up like tiny totem poles, to hear the intervals." — The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Dog's Life

My dog is poised on her rocky perch, staring out at I don’t know what. Alert to anything and everything, squirrels and deer high on the list of attention getters, cars and trucks (UPS and Fed Ex especially) a close second. I learn a great deal from watching her. She’s a smart dog, smart enough to turn a command– Come, Maggie! Now!– into a game of ‘catch me if you can.’

The wind spooks her, so does heavy rain, with or without thunder. She follows me around, a panting shadow. It is a bodily thing, sound and air pressure combining to unsettle her. No amount of soft words or gentle stroking reassures her. She wants to be – with me – downstairs where she can tuck herself away in the washroom, knowing I’m within easy reach, on the couch in the family room. Who, I wonder, has trained whom?

She stands next to me, awakens me with her restless pacing and a slight whimper. It is the middle of the night, she wants to – needs to – go out. I admit it, being awakened in the middle of the night by a dog who has in all likelihood feasted on something in the yard not really meant to be eaten is not the way I pictured my life. On rare occasions (for example, years ago when a family of foxes was playing near the pile of logs in our backyard) it is the call of the wild rather than the euphemistic call of nature that makes her wake me. And yet, inconvenienced (do I daresay annoyed?) as I might be, there is a kind of silence that only comes in the deep night outside. If it’s a star-filled night, or the moon hangs high, I might even say I’m grateful to be pulled out of bed. In ministering to a dog in her senior years, annoyance gives way to compassion.

Old dogs do not get up so quickly in the morning. That’s not all that different from old people. An older dog with lymphoma has a way of making you worry when you look at her lying on her bed, a little like a teenager, do I really have to get up? This is a far cry from the dog standing so close to my side of the bed I can feel her breath, feel her tail wagging, wake up wake up! The dog who would start barking at my husband, barely finished with dinner, let’s go out, have a catch! The fact that her idea of fetching is to retrieve the ball about three times before running off with it and hiding it is irrelevant. The fact that she almost never does this anymore is something I’m just coming to grips with. It's said that humans are the only animals with a conscious awareness of what it means to die. When I watch my dog poised on her perch, looking out at anything and everything, I gain some new awareness of what it means to live.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Days of Awe

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe. This is not something I had any awareness of as a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, putting on holiday clothes to gather, with my friends, at the synagogue (a.k.a. schul) I could see from my living room window. Going to services was something you just did, whether or not you knew the full import of why you did it. My mother didn't go (she was busy cooking), and my father went on occasion (if not religiously), always for the Yizkor service in memory of the dead on Yom Kippur. So it goes: we celebrate the new year with apples and honey, we atone for our sins, we connect with loved ones no longer with us.

If the memory of rituals I did not understand, with all their power, is imprinted, so is the sense that my Jewish upbringing was more cultural than spiritual. Yes, all those life events − the birth of a new baby (and the rituallstic brith for a boy), the bar and bat mitzvah, the weddings and funerals − were done (almost) to the letter of the law. But little by little something gave way. Dairy products and meat might never appear on the table at the same time, but the dishes used for each would be interchangeable. Maybe in the days of old there were reasons for observing the rules of kashrut. But these are modern times, and modern times bring new ways of doing things. You don't have to be Jewish to know you can make an argument for anything. You don't have to be a Jewish mother to know that there are strategies more powerful than guilt to keep families together at holiday time. You don't have to be too sentimental to long for something that seems farther removed with each passing generation.

If, as a young girl I came to see Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as days of eating and fasting, as a grown woman who loves the power of language I relish hearing that explication in the rabbi's sermon about these 'days of awe.' My curiosity takes me further, to a book by the Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon, where I read: "Because the world is judged by its majority, and the individual judged by the majority of his deeds, happy is the man who does a single good deed, for he tips the balance in his favor and that of the world. Woe is him, if he commits one transgression, for he tips the balance against himself and the world." And even within that scale of sins, some carry a heavier weight than others, the point being that 'awe,' as in reverence or even fear, is intended as a way of examining the pages of one's life between those bookend days of judgment and atonement. And then we eat.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How Smart Is a Smartphone?

Calling a phone smart is a little like calling a cat a dog because he begs for food, though I confess to once having a cat whose eating habits made him seem more canine than feline. He would gobble up the food in his bowl, then horn in on the other cat's food, making her back off without even a hiss. With some behavior modification, the more demure (and skittish) of the pair quickly learned to eat in a less catlike manner, as in nibble/walk away/come back for more. The name of the game now was: get it while you can, and when there's no more left, learn to beg and scavenge, leftover fresh fish (duh!) a favorite. He was eighteen pounds at his most rotund, down to a healthy thirteen within months, doctor's orders, my ministrations.

All of which begs the question: how smart really is a smartphone? Anthropomorphism may tempt us to imbue our pets with traits they may, or may not, possess, so yes, I can call my dog smart because she outsmarts me. But animals have hearts and brains; phones, call them simply cell or smart, are devices of convenience. Sometimes, like animals, they save lives, but the call-911 alert is a far cry (a learned response, I would add) from that instinct to bark or howl when the person who dubs you his or her best friend has fallen down a flight of stairs. Not that I'm not completely charmed by my new toy, the latest and greatest (putting aside what Consumer Reports has to say) iPhone 4. I'm not obsessed with e-mail (really I'm not) but there's something liberating about not having to be at my laptop to access it. Twitter? I'm a newbie here, and a tweet in hand seems what the app was really designed for. Even my texting has improved with that spiffy touch-screen keyboard. My daughter is proud of me. Say good-bye to those clumsy-fingered typo-ridden texts from my antiquated cell.

Which brings me back to my original point: 'smart' implies intelligence and/or a quick wit, maybe impertinence; a smart dresser is someone I admire; a scrape on my elbow that smarts is something I could do without. Language evolves, too, and a 'smart' device is one 'capable of independent and seemingly intelligent action.' When it comes to phones, there are technical distinctions in determining whether they can be called smart, but according to an article in Computerworld, there's no clear industry standard. All the more reason to add even more criteria to the mix: Can my phone pinpoint that word that's on the tip of my tongue or find the eyeglasses my husband misplaced? Can it teach my dog that 'fetch' means bring the ball to me (not the other way around), or keep her from hyperventilating in anticipation of a thunderstorm? Can it keep me from ending up in the slowest checkout line at the supermarket or make sure, when I tune in to Pandora, that the stream of rock I get is finely enough tuned to my idea of classic?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Weather Watch

I'm sitting on my deck, the sky turning dark, day to night in minutes, rolling thunder in the distance. The wind kicks up, followed by a frenzy of rain, churning up memories of late-summer hurricanes, Donna a biggie in 1960 when I was growing up in Brooklyn, Bob the first time a male name was used, 1979. Resistance to male names was riddled with sexism − God knows the weather can be unpredictable, fickle, just like a woman − and took the form of a silly quip ('ever hear of a him-icane?), oddly semantic in nature. In actuality, hurricanes were first named for saints, then longitude-latitude positions, which became a little unwieldy for quick communications. It was a novel by George R. Stewart, Storm, published in 1941 (and reissued in 2003) that spawned the practice of giving hurricanes female names. The fictional storm is given the name Maria, and the novel takes readers through the twelve days of her life. She lives on, too, in the Lerner and Lowe classic, "They Call the Wind Maria," inspired by the novel.

The other day at a barbecue the talk turned to the heat spell we've been having, no end in sight, is global warming the culprit? I made the point, between sips of my margarita, that we'd had a beautiful spring. Some unusual highs and lows for the season, yes, but so many beautiful cool nights and sunny days filled with flowers that seemed especially vibrant. There was agreement, and with it some reservation. Winter, sandwiched between spring and autumn, seems endless. And summer, even with the sky still light at eight in the evening, so fleeting.

The rain stops, I decide to go for a walk, only to be caught in an unexpected shower. Did I say 'unexpected'? Didn't I check, the hourly breakdown, and see that promise of sun poking through the clouds? My instinct is to pick up the pace, get home before my sneakers start squishing. A picture comes to mind, of people I once read about who run into the rain, smiling, instead of avoiding it. I ease back into a comfortable stride. How much is really necessary, or even possible, to 'know before you go'?

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Mother's Day 2010: A long annoying beep wakes me, an alarm system's battery back-up out of whack. The power outage that began last night shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. Before going to bed I saw the sky light up. It's the kind of thing that happens when intense winds send tree limbs falling onto power lines. Is there a message here?

My cell phone tells me I have a voicemail, Happy Mother's Day from my daughter, far away (Los Angeles). A voicemail is not quite the same as a live voice, but at the precise time she calls I'm in some cell phone dead zone, and besides, the card already arrived, a Golden Retriever puppy nestled against her mother's snout, image and words compressed into the thought, all that really counts. I think about my own mother, gone longer than I like to remember, who would probably cringe at the thought of cell phones and e-mail. Some years I miss her more than ever. Sometimes I think she died in April to remind me that renewal is not a figment of my imagination. My first Mother's Day without her was a milestone for my daughter: she rode a two wheeler for the first time. I ran alongside her, my hand on the bicycle seat. Then I let her fly.

A headline from my Google Reader catches my eye, Huffington Post, 7 Simple Ways to Be Happier. I follow the link to the full feed, intrigued as ever by reductive approaches to a better way of being, even if I'm not buying. Maybe even more intrigued in light of the book sitting on my desk, Generosity: An Enhancement, the latest novel by Richard Powers in which he casts his brilliant eye on the question of genetic enhancement in general and the happiness gene in particular, at the same time exploring the blurring of fact and fiction in a technology-driven world. The 'happiness' article tells me that women are more wired to worry than men (duh!). If the article is essentially a rehash of what many years of yoga and my own growing consciousness of mindful living continue to teach me, it's also a reminder that sometimes we need to look out before we can look in. At the same time, I resist this commodification of what strikes me as simple common sense. When my mother was dying, she wondered why it took a lifetime to just smell the roses. No meditation teacher suggesting that “simply being aware of what is happening right now, without wishing it were different” or finding yourself a "joy buddy" as ways of increasing happiness could have made the insight more profound. Do physical exercise? Sing or dance? Be still? Any prescriptive that strikes one's fancy is bound to bring some happiness, so long as it doesn't become just that, a prescriptive. Old patterns die hard; new ones take a long time, for some a lifetime, before there can be a true shift in perspective.

A day before Mother's Day I was walking my dog and I stopped to chat with a neighbor. We talked about Mother's Day, the busy restaurants booked solid, all those fathers knowing best, all those daughters and sons doing what they believe they do so well in the interest of honoring mom. How about letting them all go out, we joked, and we stay home, two mothers sharing a quiet afternoon and a glass of wine?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Every Picture Tells a Story

Mother and Child, James Litaker

I recently had the pleasure of participating in an art exhibition premised on the Greek notion of ekphrasis,which is essentially a written representation of a piece of art, a response of sorts. Stare at a picture long enough and a story may well take shape. If not a story, then a poem maybe. Representational or abstract, a piece of art can strike an emotional chord. Memories are jarred. Images become words, which in turn become images all their own.

No Moment Will Ever Be like This One
after James Litaker

Ouch! says the girl, to herself. If she complains, her mother will only pull harder, hurting her more. It’s the nature of the comb, her mother will say. Something to be endured. Just for once she wishes her mother would let her go to school with her hair loose. A classroom is no place for unruly hair, her mother will say.

Already nine and hungering to be nineteen
, says the mother, to herself. She runs her fingers through strands of her daughter’s hair, a soft tangle that reminds her of nothing so much as the swift passage of time. The more impatient her daughter seems, the more the mother is inclined to slow down, teach her a lesson about beauty, the kind that comes with precision, the rhythmic comb and weave, comb and weave of a perfect braid. Now she stops, just to savor the moment. To the girl this feels like punishment, maybe even torture, a braid that gets longer with each twist. To the mother it is a kind of release, a morning ritual that gets her through the day, each and every one the same, with its hopes for her daughter, maybe a teacher or a secretary or a beautician; anything but standing behind the counter of a delicatessen, dishing out macaroni salad or ladling soup into a container, slapping slices of turkey or ham onto bread slathered with mayonnaise or mustard, sometimes both. She feels like a surgeon, cutting through the bread. There is nothing so unnatural as making sandwiches through a filter of latex.

She picks up the pace again, comb and weave, comb and weave. Pictures her daughter at nineteen, braids gone, hair cascading to her shoulders.