Of dogs and men, and love.

Lulu

It was Ella, and not I, who first fell in love with Bernard. It happened this way:

We were walking along the snowy trail next to the Snake River, in January, a few months after we met. Bernard was throwing sticks for Ella to retrieve. She was a puppy, full of energy and mischief. She raced down to the water’s edge and back up to us, over and over again. Occasionally the stick went into the water, and she would leap with joy into the icy stream.

Then, in a blink, she got stuck beneath the ledge of ice, trapped, with the current sweeping her under. Bernard flew down the hill, grabbed Ella’s collar and flung her up on the bank. She was his from that moment on. She would sit, adoringly, by his feet. Hers was an allegiance of admiration, affection and respect. She deemed him a man worth loving. She encouraged me to follow suit; she worked to bring out the best in him, to show me what stuff he was made of.

I would learn, over time, that Ella was not alone, that dogs in general fell hard and fast for the tall man in the yellow hat. A dog that wouldn’t warm up to Bernard was a dog to avoid, with haste.

When we began life together in earnest, sharing the same roof and address, Bernard and I quickly agreed to adopting a second four-legged companion, a playmate for Ella and a dog of Bernard’s very own. I invested myself in Ella; Bernard did the same with Magoo. We went to the dog park, we took pictures with Santa to raise money for the Humane Society. We bought chew toys and watched Westminster and guffawed our way through Best in Show.

These were our easy, shallow days. We were untried, untested by what life held ahead. The births of our children. Career upheaval. My mother’s death. An endless, pounding stream of house projects matched with limited resources of time, energy and money. We had petty disagreements over deep-seated beliefs and heated arguments over division of labor.

The more decisive I was in wading through these events the more deliberative Bernard became. I went faster; he went slower. We dug into our lanes, using words like always and never and mine and yours. I worked days; he worked nights. We made few decisions in concert.

When the last of our original dogs died, I insisted on replacing them quickly. I felt safer in a house with dogs, especially at night when Bernard was at work. Bernard, on the other hand, wanted to hold off. The right dog would come to us, if we took our time. He had in his mind finding a Cane Corso mastiff, an Italian breed, smaller than English or Neopolitans. I called a veterinarian friend and then a couple of rescue groups; all were unanimous in their veto of the idea. Corsicans can be tricky, usually not recommended for homes with children. We should stick to Labs, that was their consensus.

I found a pair of chocolate Labs, two-ish years old, that the rescue group was trying to place together. I wanted to take them; Bernard was uncertain. I prevailed. I was tired of waiting for perfect, weary of believing in miracles. I simply wanted good enough; any more was too much to expect. We trudged on, opening the door to a third dog along the way. We were all dog-paddling anyway.

And then Bernard found Lulu, or perhaps it was she who found him.

Lulu was a byproduct of Bernard’s slow, methodical, natural gardening. I wanted crape myrtles in our front yard, to replace the 100-year-old oaks we’d had to cut down. Because I am decisive and impatient, I wanted to go to the nursery and buy crape myrtles. Because he is careful and nurturing, Bernard instead cultivated crape myrtles from volunteer seedlings. He had six or eight of them lined up in pots by the front door, watering and pruning them, waiting until they were big enough to transplant.

He picked the straightest, tallest ones; he dug out the entire sidewalk median and filled it with compost and mulch; he measured and re-measured, then planted. It took all day.

Having spent so long raising the trees, he did not want to throw out the extras and instead decided to give them to a friend who lives in the country, near a state park. I don’t know that I was charitable about any of this; I had dinner to cook, children to feed. I was snippy and short-tempered when he got home, half listening when he said he had something to show me. It was a picture of a dog.

Driving to Bobby’s house, Bernard looked out the car window to see a full-grown Cane Corso standing alone in the middle of the field. He asked Bobby’s wife, an experienced dog rescuer, about the dog and learned that she’d been in that same field for about a month, that she would not let any human near her. They had gotten close enough to see that she’d recently had a litter of puppies, and their guess was that a breeder had dumped her. This type of drop-off was apparently a common and frequent occurrence.

You know the next part without my telling it. You know that she came, a bit reluctantly, to Bernard, who agreed only to foster her for heartworm treatment. He spent an hour trying to coax her into his car. You know that fostering was a false premise, that in the end I agreed we would keep her – a ridiculous, insane, spontaneous decision. But the odds of finding her were incalculable, perhaps even miraculous. Never turn away from a miracle.

Lulu became our family project. She was very thin and a little spooked. The children agreed to take turns feeding her. We all took turns walking her, stroking her soft ears, drawing her out of her shell. The other dogs took to her immediately; she became the leader of their pack.

Every few days Bernard would attempt to lure Lulu out for a ride, to ease her fear of cars. He used peanut butter treats and bits of roast beef. He crawled in the back seat and talked to her, gently tugging at her leash, letting her inch forward when she was ready. What he had lacked in patience with our children and other dogs, he mustered for Lulu; and his patience grew. The edge wore off his crankiness, and mine.

Over time, Lulu gained weight and filled out her magnificent frame. Her silver coat sparkled in the sun. She was clever and quickly learned our routines. She guarded Bernard while he slept during the day and looked appropriately intimidating when walking with me after nightfall. She let the children bathe her with cold water from the hose. She loved ice cubes and tennis balls and sunshine. She rarely barked, except when the other dogs egged her on. She nudged my arm when she needed to go out and sat patiently waiting for her leash. She slept at my feet on Saturday mornings during my writing time. She accompanied Bernard whenever a car ride was an option.

We joked about whose dog she was, Bernard’s or mine, each of us laying claim to her loyalty. In truth she was our first real family dog, the one who belonged equally to all of us, together. She was a puppy, maybe two years old, when she arrived. She was still puppy-ish two years later when she left, unexpectedly, just yesterday. It looked at first like indigestion, a quick vomit of the previous night’s dinner; but it was followed soon after by collapse of her limbs and the kind of labored breath I recognized from sitting with my mother in her final minutes. Start to finish, it was over in less than an hour, a short, excruciating eternity. I held Lulu’s big head in my lap. She let out a single, long, mournful howl before she died. I howled with her. I am still howling. I want her back.

It is absurd, I know, to grieve over a dog. Relative to hurricanes and economic instability and terrorism and heroin abuse, having or losing a dog is immaterial. In the grand scheme of life, it is nothing.

But we had a dog we loved deeply, richly, as a family. She brought out the best in all of us. In the grand scheme of life, that is everything.

Daily diet of worms.

daily diet

So, I’ve been on a diet, which is to say that I’ve been following a regimented eating plan in order to achieve physical results, namely weight loss.

I hate dieting. More than I hate the actual dieting part, though, I hate talking about dieting, because usually talk of dieting is tied to discussion of weight and appearance. Collectively these topics are, second to idle gossip, the most tiresome of discussion threads. You be the authentic you; I’ll be the authentic me. If the most authentic versions of ourselves happen to come in packages marked by either extra-cushiony tummies or finely-scupted biceps, well, that is an inconsequential matter. Be thin; be fat. Be you – the best version of you, whenever possible.

The best version of me, I must say, is not naturally abstemious. (Is that not the most marvelous word? You can thank Michelle at Gourmandistan for reminding me of it.) I am happiest, by which I mean easiest to get along with, when I’m being freely creative. Often I feel creative in the kitchen, and I find it easier to be creative when butter, cream, wine and chocolate are involved. Not one of these things is a staple in my current diet. As I mentioned, I hate dieting.

But I do enjoy living, even on the crummiest days, and I’d like to keep at it for a while longer, preferably without either daily medication or cardiovascular disease. Hence the diet to lose weight, as “lose weight” was next to last on the doctor’s “Steps to Address Cholesterol” checklist. The first item was exercise (check). The second item was food substitutions (also check, but also to no avail). The last item on the list was “Lipitor.” You get the idea.

There comes a time for all of us, I think, when staying at the party becomes more attractive than partying with reckless abandon, even if staying at the party means occasionally (frequently) replacing whipped cream-topped vanilla scones with oat bran and fat-free plain Greek yogurt.

Oh diet, how thou dost mock me.

Here’s a secret, though: the word-porn lover in me has always loved the word diet, despite my dislike for its most frequent usage. Diet is one of those great simple-yet-complex words with mixed Latin and Greek origin. Look up the etymology and you’ll find that our modern word “diet” has multiple roots, including Latin diaeta “prescribed way of living,” and Greek diaita, “way of life, regimen, dwelling,” and Latin dies, “day.”

I remember, as you surely do, sitting in 10th grade world history class and learning about the Diet of Worms, that assembly of good German men whose daily work was to handle Martin Luther, a good German man whose daily work was to buck the system.

I’ve always admired Martin Luther, even if I don’t necessarily agree with his basic tenets. He was, in essence, the gene mutation that propagated an entirely new wave of cell division in 16th century Europe. Think about that for a minute. One man, an Augustine friar, made it his life’s work to live by faith with conviction, even if it meant a life of exile. He said, in essence, “hmmm, I think there’s another way of looking at this,” a lot of other people said, “hmmm, maybe he’s right,” and even the Catholic Church finally had to say, “hmmm, maybe we should re-assess a few things.”

And it all came to a head at the Diet of Worms, where Luther was asked to recant his heresy, and instead he stood before the assembly and said, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” You do you; I’ll do me.

I cannot, with any degree of honesty, tell you that I’ve always lived by that principle, even though you know it is one of my favorites. I have not always avoided gossip or maintained a clear separation between “mine” and “not mine,” but I am growing into these things, I hope. I try.

Which means I still have work to do, daily, and I’d like a healthy stretch of years in which to do it. Hence the diet, the “eat a prescribed food regimen” one, one that seems to be working as intended, at least according to my cholesterol readings. Also it is reducing, by a tiny bit, the size of the goods I have to squeeze into my jeans. This is not an entirely terrible outcome, but it is merely a bonus side effect, not the primary objective.

I doubt I will ever get back into that violet Donna Karen dress that’s been hanging in my closet for 21 years, the beautiful dress that I just can’t seem to part with. This reality is acceptable, though, and more acceptable the older I get. Somewhere in between living abundantly and enjoying the abundance life offers there is a peaceful, and movable, equilibrium. Right now, for me, that balance hinges on a daily feast of oat bran, an occasional spoonful of maple whipped cream.

These things, I acknowledge, are easier to reconcile at 50 than at 25. At 25 I would have told you it wasn’t worth making it to 50 if daily living had to exclude cosmopolitans and include plates of undressed roughage. At 25 I wanted to look good in a bathing suit, but I did not want to give up much for it. Also I was often a gossip. I may have made an unkind comment about another woman’s weight. Life looks different from different vantage points. As I said, I am trying to grow into a better me.

One day, you know, irrespective of our wishes otherwise, worms (the creepy-crawly kind, not the city) will be feasting on all of us. That’s what our bodies are, in the end, when we’re finished using them: worm food. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s what we do between now and then that matters; that is our daily work, sometimes with a bit of required dieting. Here we stand; we can do no other.

Happy week.

Time out.

black coffee

I am oversubscribed, and it is my own doing. Mostly. Not entirely. Also all of my words are currently occupied in other places related to my job-job. Also tomorrow is the first day of school for my children, and I have yet to pack a lunch or iron a uniform. I have been to the grocery; I have bought a few school supplies, but only the bare necessities. I am feeling a little overwhelmed.

My daughter is feeling a tiny bit anxious, partly because she’s starting middle school but mostly because she is the highly organized child of a terribly disorganized mother. “It’s all good; don’t worry,” her brother said. “A few sheets of paper, a pencil and a lunch – that’s all you really need on the first day. Just roll with it.”

Which reminded me of this post I wrote a couple of years ago. Which reminded me that everything is going to be fine. Really, it is. And I’ll be back; really, I will.

Happy week.