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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Vacation with Cricket

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            We took Cricket on vacation to Lake George one weekend, a few years ago. She slithered out of her car harness within the first thirty seconds of the trip, and then stood with her front feet on the seat divider and barked at everything she saw out the window for the six hour drive north.

            We found a motel that accepted dogs and wasn’t too expensive. And then we risked walking around town, but Cricket barked at everyone. Little children hid behind their parents. Grown men laughed, until they realized there was real bite behind her bark. We stayed in after that. Cricket spent the whole night standing on my bed, barking at every noise in the motel, and jumping on my feet like an alarm clock with sharp toenails.

            The next morning, we walked behind the motel, where there was a tiny scrap of beach, with a dock and a few boats. We rented a row boat, two oars, and three life preservers. Cricket was not thrilled when one of the life preservers was wrapped around her waist, and she held onto my shoulder and dug in with her nails when I tried to carry her into the boat. Water is not her favorite thing, even tiny bathtub shaped water or raindrop shaped water, let alone a huge lake full of the wet stuff.

Once we were safely in the boat and away from the dock, though, she settled down. Pretty soon, she fell asleep to the lapping of the lake water at the sides of the boat. I was still antsy. I worried that we wouldn’t recognize our particular dock once we were out into the belly of the lake. And I worried that we’d lose an oar and I’d only be able to row in circles and never make it back to dry land. But once we were out far enough, and I couldn’t see the crowded line of beaches with the crowded row of motels behind it, I started to relax. I didn’t feel guilty or anxious or worthless or angry or frantic to accomplish something. Maybe if we had stayed out on the water longer, all of that noise would have filtered back into my head and found its normal level, but for a few minutes, there was peace.

When we rowed back to shore, I wasn’t quite ready to leave yet. I asked Mom if she would mind if we sat out by the motel’s pool for a little while before getting in the car for the ride home, and Mom and Cricket both agreed to the plan.

There were leaves at the bottom of the pool, and maybe some algae scattered around, so I didn’t have to actually go swimming. Cricket sat with Mom on a beach chair, and I sat on the side of the pool and dangled my feet in the water. It was the manageable compromise for me, between what I wanted to do (swim) and what I could tolerate. Swishing my legs in the water was nice.

I wish, instead of a vacation, I could move into a nice little house, with a washer and dryer and a dishwasher and central air conditioning, and a backyard pool, where I could swim without worrying who would see me. I’d probably still wear a t-shirt and shorts over my bathing suit though, just in case the back yard fence wasn’t high enough.

That vacation to Lake George was the last one we all took together. I get too anxious, about Cricket barking at strangers, about money, and about not getting enough work done to really enjoy the trip. But mostly, I have the same object permanence problem babies have. If you cover my eyes and I can’t see home, I’m not sure it exists anymore. Going away on vacation makes me think I’ll never be able to go home again.

So, Mom goes on vacations by herself, or with her friends, and Cricket and I stay home, and worry about her. That’s the manageable compromise we’ve come up with, for now.

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Abraham, the suburban pony

 

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  My parents had a pony named Abraham before I was born. The pony originally belonged to one of my father’s students, who could no longer afford to stable him in the city. So my father paid $50, and brought the pony out to Long Island in the back of a van. The name Abraham was supposed to signify that he was the first animal in the family, or at least, the first male animal, which, to my father, meant the same thing.

            My parents seemed to believe that a pony would fit right into the suburbs. This was forty years ago, when Long Island was still developing, and looked sort of like the country, if you squinted. They kept rabbits and ducks in the backyard, along with the pony and a dog. They received a lot of complaints from the neighbors, especially about the smell. But my father would just ride around in the horse cart that Abraham pulled down the street, and ignore what anyone else had to say.

            The house had actually been built on a former horse farm, but by the time my parents arrived, the streets had been paved and the area had been developed into rows of suburban homes, with fenced in yards. Abraham’s stall was in the back of our garage, but he had free run of the backyard while my parents were at work during the day.

All of Abraham is a story to me, because he was sent away before I was born.

The neighbors were finally able to change the local ordinance to make keeping a pony in your backyard illegal.

            My mother met the veterinarian who agreed to take Abraham to live at his farm. She saw him loaded into a trailer with her own eyes. And she assures me that he was taken to an actual farm, though it sounds like one of those stories parents tell their kids when the dog dies. Abraham isn’t really dead, he’s gone off to live happily ever after in a place where he can really stretch his legs.

            There was a horse farm next door to our synagogue when I was a kid, and every once in a while one of the horses would be outside, and I’d reach through the fence to pet his nose, and I’d ask him if he knew Abraham.

            Maybe the Abraham stories explain why I dream of having a farm of my own, despite having no recognizable farming skills. Or maybe it comes from reading Charlotte’s Web so many times. I thought I was just like Wilbur, the little pig, when I was growing up. I was chubby and white and naïve and I could have used Charlotte’s help quite a bit. And maybe I thought that having a pony, and some ducks and rabbits and a few extra dogs in my backyard would have made me feel spectacular, just like Wilbur.

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Cricket’s English Comprehension

 

           

Sometimes I think Cricket understands full sentences. Like the times when she starts barking at her Grandma, trying to boss her around.

First, of course, I say “No,” in a firm, loud voice. But Cricket ignores the command and keeps trying to get Grandma’s attention. So then I tell her, in my conversational tone, that she’s being rude to her grandma and it is not time to go out or have a snack and she can rest for now. And Cricket listens to me, and stops barking, and crawls under Grandma’s chair to go to sleep.

Cricket knows the important words, like: walk, poopie, grooming, bathtub, chicken treats, cheese, out, go, sit, no, and Cricket. When we are out walking and I say the word “water,” she looks to the bag that holds her Tupperware cup full of water. If she hears the word “breakfast,” she will lick her lips. One time, when we were outside, I said the word “foot,” and Cricket lifted her back foot and stared at it.

            She has selective hearing, like any other child. When she’s exhausted, she’s less sensitive to words like “toy” or even “walk.” The “G” words almost always get through to her, though. If I say “grooming,” she runs to the bathroom and climbs into the bathtub, which is where the grooming happens. She loves grooming because it’s her most reliable source for chicken treats. She would prefer to stand in the bathtub and be fed treats without having to get a comb through her hair, but the treats make anything bearable.

When she is over excited, she can’t really hear me over the noise in her own head, or the screeching she’s doing out loud. When I take the leash out, she jumps two feet in the air, over and over, like a Jack Russell, and if I try to tell her to sit, so I can attach the leash, she seems to be screeching “What? What?!” as if I’m speaking French.

I remember seeing a dog on TV who could identify each of her thirty toys by name. Her dad, a psych professor, would say “fish” and she would dig through a toy box and come back with the fish. Cricket knows that “toys” are in her toy box or scattered on the floor, but individual names for toys don’t seem to be strongly correlated for her. If I say “Fishy” and it’s the only toy she sees, she’ll bring it, but if her birthday cake or purple dinosaur is near by she might pick that up instead.

She is very smart, but she has no interest in making the most of her potential. She’s not a working dog or a people pleaser. I wish I could accept this about her, but some part of me still dreams of index cards and word drills and Cricket hearing the word “fish” and digging through her toy box to bring me a fish. Because that would at least make me feel smart.

The Story of Sticks

 

            Sticks was an awkwardly built, wiry haired white dog. She was about sixty pounds, with all of her weight in her sizeable trunk and nothing in her spindly legs – ergo her name, her legs were like sticks.

She lived in the house across the street from us when we first moved into the top half of a house on a hill. We’d found an apartment that would accept our dog and had a lawn for mom’s garden. There were signs that we would be happy there, with the smell of honey in the air, and the flowers starting to bloom in April. There was the librarian at the local library who smiled at me for no reason other than that she was a nice person. And there was Sticks, the calmest dog I’d ever met. I was used to black haired dogs, depressed dogs, angry dogs with psycho-social disorders.

            Sticks wandered down her driveway towards me and she looked like a ball of white steel wool. She wobbled a bit, but she never barked, and she almost purred when I scratched her head. She was sunshine. Not the bright hot sun that burns your skin and wears you out, but like the soft rays of early spring on your face.

            Sticks’ mom was in her late eighties or early nineties, medium height, white hair, and a little cushioned. She spoke with a German accent that made me unsure what she was saying. She lived alone in her house with Sticks and wasn’t up to taking her out for walks, and picking up poop, but Sticks was so well loved that neighbors pitched in, including me.

            A few years later, I noticed that I hadn’t seen Sticks in a while. And then we heard from her owner’s daughter, that Sticks’ owner was in the hospital with end stage cancer. When we asked about Sticks and where she would go, we were told that Sticks had been put down, because she couldn’t live on without her person.

            I couldn’t speak. I was so angry that no one had asked us if we would take Sticks in for her final years. I could have found a way to lift her up the stairs into our apartment if her arthritis made it too hard for her to climb. But no one had asked me, or warned me, and now Sticks was gone.

            I never knew how old Sticks was, or what her health problems might have been. It’s possible that she was on her last legs, just like her owner, but that’s not how the story was told. I’ve never heard of a veterinarian euthanizing a dog because her owner was dying. And Sticks was so sweet, and loving to strangers, could it really be true that her life wouldn’t have been worth living without her person? I don’t know. But the story haunts me.

Cricket’s First Training Class

 

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Mom and I took Cricket to a puppy class at the local pet store when Cricket was three or four months old. I wanted Cricket to stop biting me; that was my most pressing goal.

All of the books said that it would be easier to train her as a puppy, rather than later on, and that I would be a terrible person if I didn’t teach her to heel, come when called, and pee on command. But for me, the thing I wanted most was for her to be able to make friends with other dogs, and people. I wanted her to be a safe companion for her young human cousins, and to not be as isolated as my previous dog had been, with her antisocial behavior and anxiety disorder.

I also had dreams of getting Cricket to do tricks, like ride a skateboard, or surf, or dance with me.

I loved meeting all of the other puppies in the class. There was a baby bloodhound named Baxter, and a pair of miniature Pinschers, and miniature Poodles, and a black Lab or two, and an older Maltese. But Cricket was not as enamored of them as I was, and she didn’t think the treats were worth working for. She ignored the commands and smiled at me and sniffed the shelves at the store and peed in the corners, and then we went home and she chewed through an entire wicker garbage can.

What I remember most about the teacher was that nothing she said made sense to me. I felt like I was listening to a foreign language I’d never studied, or trying to make sense of NASA’s instruction book for how to launch a space shuttle. I can’t tell you even now if that was because she actually didn’t make sense or if it’s because obedience training kills my circuitry.

The teacher had a way of taking my nervous, meant-to-be-funny comments and using them as lessons for the class. Like, I asked her, after a particularly grueling lesson, when do we get the magic pill that makes training just kick in, and she said, in all seriousness and pointing me out to the class, that there is no magic pill and training takes a lot of hard work.

The teacher was impatient with all of us, but especially with Cricket. She told us to flip Cricket onto her back and hold her down, as an intervention. We were supposed to show Cricket that we were in charge and resistance wasn’t going to get her anywhere. But all that did was to make Cricket more frightened and more resistant to the training.

I should have listened more carefully when the teacher told us that her mother used to hit her to keep her in line, and, instead of saying that her mother did the wrong thing, she said, mothers hit us because they love us.

I finally gave up on the class after the fourth week. The teacher had done her “intervention” one time too many and Cricket had learned to hide behind my legs whenever the teacher came by.

It all felt like a way to crush her spirit and mine. I resented the idea that Cricket was supposed to be a pod puppy, with no unique or rebellious characteristics left. And I was exhausted. So we left, and replaced training class with episodes of Dancing with the Stars. Cricket is great at the Tango.

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