RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: February 2015

Talking To Dogs

 

My father used to yell at our Doberman Pinscher in German. It’s possible that he added in some Yiddish, but he made a point of saying that you should speak to a German dog in German. The rest of us spoke to her in English, though, and she seemed to be fine with that.

"Huh?"

“Huh?”

I have a habit of dropping into Hebrew or French for a word or two, rarely for a whole sentence, because I’m not fluent in either language. I don’t know why I do it. Maybe I’m just pretentious and annoying, but I like the way the different languages sound, with the hard square letters of Hebrew, and the rolling curlicues of French. Cricket can understand up to the number three in French, because that’s how I taught her to jump up onto the bed, Un, deux, trois, Jump! (See, I can’t even stay in French for four words!) With Hebrew I tend to stick to short phrases, like “Where is…?” or “Thank you” Or “Why?” And Cricket tilts her head and nods. She’s a savant.

"I understand everything you say. I just disagree."

“I understand everything you say. I just disagree.”

Butterfly has a whole different vocabulary. It’s as if the girls speak, or at least comprehend, two different languages. I can’t use the same words to communicate with both of them at the same time. I’ve noticed that they choose the words or signals they will respond to more than I do. It’s like they are flipping through a book of fabric swatches until they find one that speaks to them. Just because I repeat something a hundred times doesn’t mean they will pick it up, but I can do something just once, and it clicks forever.

"Mommy?"

“Mommy?”

I wonder if, given a chance, this is how people would be too, if forcing everyone to use the same language, while very convenient, is cutting off huge swaths of natural language.       What if I was born to speak Hindi and my whole life I will be missing pieces of my soul because I can’t capture them in English. Is that possible?

Butterfly responds best to touch. She calms when I pet her, she stills when I hold her in place for her insulin shot, she turns to look at me when I tug on her leash. She believes in eye contact and body language and leaves most of the English stuff to Cricket.

"I have Mommy's sock and that means I have Mommy."

“I have Mommy’s sock and that means I have Mommy.”

I tend to speak to Butterfly in a higher tone of voice, and fewer words overall. She responds best to facial expressions and body language. If I reach a hand out to her, she comes over to get scratches. She watches me very carefully. Sometimes I wonder if she’s partially deaf, but I think it’s more the deafness that comes from not understanding the words I am saying to her.

I tried to teach her “Down,” but she responds better to “Stop.” And I have to be right there, not across the room, for it to make sense to her. She understands when I pick up her blood testing kit, and she understands when leashes are taken off the hook at the door, but she doesn’t understand “sit,” maybe because it took her almost a year to build the muscle strength to sit on her back legs the way Cricket does, so when I was trying to build her vocabulary, she didn’t have any physical corollary for “sit.”

Cricket responds to tone of voice more than anything else. If she hears someone yelling outside, she barks. If I whisper, she wakes up from a dead sleep and assumes I was taking about her and planning an outing for her. If I, god forbid, say the word chicken, all hell breaks loose.

"Chicken!"

“Chicken!”

She learned her commands as a puppy. She knows sit and stay and down and turn, but she also knows walk, go, outside, shoes, leash, food, toy, platypus, chewy, poop, bath.

Cricket and her platypus.

Cricket and her platypus.

Those are the obvious things, but I’ve also noticed that she can understand context, even when her usual words aren’t in use. Even without the words “poopie butt” or “bath,” she can figure out that I’m planning to wash her in the sink, and she runs under her couch to safety.

"You can't catch me!"

“You can’t clean my poopie butt!”

My therapist’s Golden Retriever is six years old and just now studying to be a service dog. She needs her license so that she can help her dad, but this means that she has to learn a whole new set of signals, different from what she learned in her obedience classes way back when. This has become a problem. She is a very bright girl, but she is getting confused. Her poor forehead crinkles and she can’t decide if she’s supposed to sit, stay, turn around, or leave the room.

"Help me, please."

“Help me, please.”

No wonder dogs use smell and yips and nips to communicate with each other; they must think that the human world is a tower of babel, with all of our different languages creating utter confusion. For dogs, the smell of “female, spayed, eats a lot of chicken,” is the same around the world.

Advertisements

The Snow Opera

 

When we are expecting a blizzard or snowpocalypse, the news shows start to take over the airwaves, covering each snowflake as it falls from the sky. And it’s exciting! It’s as if we’re all in the middle of a soap opera, waiting for each new drama to pop up. It makes me feel important when what’s going on outside my window has made national news. It’s something like what would happen if aliens invaded the earth. The level of drama and rhetorical hysteria is pretty similar.

The subways have stopped!

Don’t leave your house!

All of the bread is gone!

It's snowing!!!!!

It’s snowing!!!!!

Mom’s favorite thing about snowy days is the opportunity to watch our neighbors through the blinds of the living room windows. We can see the maintenance guys plowing the parking lot with their little golf cart, and neighbors shoveling their cars out with what look like plastic beach shovels. There’s a lot of yelling, from the louder of the two maintenance men, because people dare to walk on the walkways before they’ve been shoveled and salted, or try to drive to work before the parking lot is completely cleaned.

 

Butterfly is flying!

Butterfly is flying!

Because Cricket is coming after her!

Because Cricket is coming after her!

Mom finds it all very entertaining. There was the night when one of our neighbors shoveled out her car, for hours, even though it was expected to snow two times as much over night and her car was buried again by morning. Then there’s the woman who thinks that as long as she bundles up, she should be able to walk to the library in any blizzard. Some of the men help with the shoveling. One even has a plow on the front of his pickup truck and helps out when they need him. Then there are the alcoholics. We don’t see much of them in the winter.

Cricket, dressed up for the snow party.

Cricket, dressed up for the snow party.

The first snow day of the season was exciting. The whole world was planning to shut down for a day or two, and mayors and governors were on the news, with dramatic sign language interpreter’s doing modern dance routines at their sides. Suddenly, I had to make chicken soup, and bread, and cookies. I wasn’t even that hungry, but it reminded me of weather events from my childhood, spent in the kitchen with my mother and brother, drinking hot cocoa after building an igloo on the front lawn. Of course the food outlasted the snow by days.

"Where's the rest of the snow?"

“Where’s the rest of the snow?”

I remember a book called Smilla’s Sense of Snow, a mystery, I think, but what I remembered most were all of the different words for snow in Smilla’s mother’s language. So far this winter there’s been: a heavy, wet snow that comes from a rain/snow mix, and makes each shovel full almost impossible to lift; there’s been icy rain that lands in hard pellets on my head and then creates black ice within seconds so I can’t figure out where to put my feet; there’s been soft, powdery snow; and snow that develops a hard crack surface, so that the dogs seem to be breaking pieces of candy with each step; we’ve had tall, hard piles of snow; and lacy, bumpy layers of ice; and then there’s the slush, where it feels like someone poured their sorbet onto the sidewalk and it’s turning into soup as I walk through it.

Cricket has discovered a wonderful new game this winter – it is the cat poop treasure hunt. One of the feral cats has taken to climbing onto the snow mountains in the backyard, pooping, and then burying the poop with a little extra pile of snow. Cricket, with her very effective sniffer, discovered the first of these magic pellets before I knew anything about it. She came in from a walk with Grandma, jumped up onto my bed to wake me up, and pawed my face with cat pooped paws. It certainly woke me up – and then shocked her, because she landed in the bathtub immediately, along with my bed linens and pajamas. She was horrified, and confused. Here she’d brought me this wonderful gift and I was angry? Why?

Hershey, placing the treasure.

Hershey, placing the treasure,

and burying it.

and burying it.

Each time we go outside now, I watch Cricket carefully, and if that nose gets too interested in one spot or another, yank goes the leash. She tries to jump up onto the snow mountains herself, and then falls down the side when her paws fail to grip. She’s tried to poop on top of the cat poop, but she doesn’t think to hide her poop, and anyway, I’m always watching, and ruining her fun, removing her poop before she can bury it and create her own treasure hunt for later.

Someone tossed birdseed onto the back lawn one day and then it snowed, just a dusting, and you could see hundreds of bird footsteps in the snow, and now Cricket can’t stop sniffing. Those little feet must smell good.

The most upsetting thing this winter has been when they’ve promised me a snowmageddon, and it ends up being a little bit of rain. Rain?! What happened to all of that promised snow? I feel bereft. Now what am I going to do for entertainment?

"What's next?"

“What’s next?”

 

Drawing Pictures of Dogs

 

When I was in graduate school for fiction writing, one of my teachers complained that my work was too “heady” and not placed enough in down to earth details. She wanted descriptions of rooms, clothing, weather, anything to make it more believable that these scenes were happening somewhere outside of my loopy brain.

I had a lot of respect for that teacher, so during the summer I signed up for a local adult education class in drawing. I had hopes that I would immediately be able to capture scenes and squeeze depths of emotion from stale memories. I would suddenly understand color and shading, and line and texture, and I could design the clothes I always wanted to wear, and draw complicated murals on my walls.

The adult education art teacher was a little bit ethereal and not quite as down to earth as I’d hoped. Even her white hair seemed to be reaching up to the sky, unwilling to stay tacked down with barrettes. But I bought my supplies anyway: pencils and chalk and paper and erasers. I sat in the classroom and listened to lectures about shading, and perspective, and complementary colors. It was all a struggle, though. I had to push myself to go to class, and push myself to practice at home. My brain resisted each lesson with a ferocity I had not expected.

After six weeks of drawing lessons, it was time to move on to painting. I thought I would be excited, instead I was tense and short tempered when Mom and I went to the art store and scoured the aisles for all of the new items on the syllabus. I was uncomfortable with all of the money I was spending on supplies, but that did not really explain the panic rising up in me.

The night of the next class, Mom had to drive me, because otherwise I would not have been able to even start the car. The bag of art supplies felt like heavy bricks, and the school building cast a shadow like a haunted castle. When I reached the door of the classroom, where I’d safely entered six times before, I could not go in. I could barely even breathe. My body felt like it was filled with poison darts. I raced out of the building to the safety of the car and I couldn’t explain any of it to Mom as she dutifully drove me home. I couldn’t even tolerate keeping the paints – it all had to go back to the store. I never went back to the class.

I spent the rest of the summer working on the revisions for my novel, and deepening and dressing up the interior of the scenes as best I could, but I felt sick, and guilty, for having failed, inexplicably, to finish the adult education class.

I am prone to panic. Usually, if I feel twinges of that whirlwind going off in my head, it’s a sign that something is buried in that particular corner of my brain that needs to be excavated. Over the years I’ve been able to excavate a lot of those corners and draw off the panic, but certain land mines remain potent, and unexplained, no matter how many times I’ve tried to clean them out. And painting is one of those land mines. Maybe it’s just that I’m not talented in this particular area and, being a perfectionist, I hate that. Or maybe there’s something deeper and I’m not ready to see it yet. I don’t know.

I would love to be able to paint a picture of Butterfly’s eyes, and capture her moods more thoroughly than I can manage with a camera. I want to put Cricket down on paper, though she’s unlikely to actually stay there.

Butterfly's eyes speak volumes.

Butterfly’s eyes speak volumes.

Cricket is a blur.

Cricket is a blur.

I spent a lot of time last year just coloring, with pencils, working on a brain coloring book because it made me feel slightly less silly than the Little Mermaid coloring book I really wanted. Maybe what I should really do is print out pictures of Cricket and Butterfly in black and white and try to color them in. Cricket would look great in orange, with a blue Mohawk. And Butterfly could really come to life with a few touches of pink!

My coloring book.

My coloring book.

Cricket!

Cricket!

Butterfly!

Butterfly!

Maybe drawing pictures of the dogs would be a safe place to start.

The Smell of a Dog

 

We were in Queens one day, visiting my cousin, and she suggested a walk in the park. We must have gone to the wrong side of the park, though, because the only options we found were a playground, where dogs were not allowed, and a horse trail, marked by huge piles of horse poop in case we missed the sign.

Horses!

Horses!

We walked down the path and back, dodging horses and as many piles of poop as we could, and then we did our best to wipe the soles of our shoes before returning to the car. But no one told Cricket to do the same, so when she, inevitably, climbed up my neck and stretched out behind my head, she left horse poop aroma on my hair, on my coat, on the headrest, and on the seat belt.

"Um, Cricket, what's that smell?"

“Um, Cricket, what’s that smell?”

It was the seat belt that became a problem.

Even after putting everything I had been wearing into the laundry, and scrubbing the seat belt and seat and head rest with different cleansers, the smell refused to go away.

I don’t know if I am especially sensitive to smell, or if horse poop is especially offensive, but I had to hold the seat belt away from my body, with a paper towel, just to sit in the car for a ten minute ride. It was either that or not use the seat belt at all and tolerate the constant beeping of the seat belt alarm.

I was enraged and impatient. I felt like I was being punished by God, for something.

Mom couldn’t smell it. I don’t think this is simply a factor of aging – it’s always been this way. Smells bother me more than they bother her.

Mom thinks that my sensitivity to smell might be related to my other neurological problems, and since nothing has been diagnosed yet, despite too many tests, anything seems possible. But I think I’ve always been sensitive like this. I knew people by their smells even as a kid, and I was naïve enough to think it was okay to tell them that. No one wants to know that they smell, by the way, especially if they smell like blue cheese, but even if they smell like cookies. It’s like telling someone that you recognize them by the bumpy red rash on their face, when they were hoping to God that no one would notice, or at least that no one would ever mention it.

Smell is one of the most direct routes to memory, because of the way the brain is wired. One sniff of mildew can send me back to my grandparents’ house in Chappaqua, which had its own pond within feet of the garage. Turpentine is a memory slide back to my father’s Industrial Arts classroom, and the communal sink where we scrubbed ink and paint from our hands. Newsprint always gives off the faint smell of puppy diarrhea to me, because we used newspaper to fill the whelping box when we had a litter of puppies when I was a kid.

Puppies + Newspaper!

Puppies + Newspaper

When we finally took the car in to have the interior professionally cleaned, because of the horse poop, and the lingering smell of dog vomit in the back seat from an earlier trip, I felt like a weight had been lifted.

Mom thinks it was too expensive, I think it was worth ten times what we paid.

Not all dog related smells have the same extreme effect on me, though. Cricket smells of snot, and it’s not a totally unpleasant smell. Within hours after a trip to the groomer, the white hair under her eyes starts to turn brownish and then black with tears. I have plenty of occasions to smell Cricket’s face up close, because she likes to climb on me and stare into my eyes to compel scratches. I get a close up view, and sniff, of the salty, gummy, black goop that she does not want removed by human hands, or wash cloths, or scissors. It should be an offensive smell, but instead it’s a cozy, Cricket-y smell.

Cricket getting clean against her will.

Cricket getting clean against her will.

Butterfly has a whole chorus of smells: there’s some pretty bad breath from her not-so-good teeth; there’s the stale chicken smell that starts to waft from the top of her head once the shampoo smell dissipates; there’s the corn chip smell of her feet; and the generally dogly smell she develops as she runs and sweats and sniffs around the back yard. It’s amazing the smells I can get used to, and even look forward to, when they mean my puppies are nearby. I’ve realized that when a smell is attached to someone I love, it is easier to bear. Though I do have to be careful not to breathe in too deep.

"I smell?"

“I smell?”

When we’ve been away too long (say, more than an hour) the smell at the front door is of doggy drool, and it wafts up at me as soon as I open the door. The smell is the accumulation of hours of impatient waiting by the door; a cloud of moist unhappiness and dread. And yet, it makes me feel loved, and surrounded by dog, as if their leftover breath is embracing me as they jump and squeal to welcome me home.

 

The heavy breathing puppies at the door.

The heavy breathing puppies at the door.

The girls greet Mom with joy!

The girls greet Grandma!