Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Dogs of Yore

A LordZim return to form, compromised by an uncharacteristic weight of personal detail. Call the cops!

Last night I met S at her house for dinner. I'd been stuck inside working for days and was looking forward to a long walk beforehand with S and her dog, preferably in the hills, like the walks I used to take with my dogs. Back when I had dogs.

The hills proved impractical, so she suggested we simply walk the dog to the restaurant. Fine. Good idea. But R the dog had been acting a little loopy for the past few days, so we'd have to see if she could handle a walk of that duration. Fine again. In the last year of my dog Cheyenne's life I grew accustomed to ending walks almost as soon as they'd started, thanks to his arthritis. You can't simply walk a dog through the discomfort. You'll only make it worse. Because they want to follow and please you, most dogs will overextend themselves as long as you're leading. Being alpha dog has its responsibilities, and one of those is to ensure that your adoring pack of one doesn't self-destruct on your behalf. So when R started limping just three blocks from home, we turned around and took her back.

S is a pretty stoic character, but watching her companion of 13 years start to slip, literally, cut through her veneer and tapped into a terrifying helplessness that's probably universal among the loved ones of the gravely or just mysteriously ill. I remember the feelings well ... or as well as my titanium repression lets me. After both my dogs died in 2004, I allowed -- maybe willed -- my subconscious to entomb those memories as quickly as possible. Those who witnessed my months of perma-mope might say it didn't really happen all that fast. It's a free country. Say what you want.

Now, like the buried Cheonggyecheon river newly unearthed in the heart of Seoul, my memories are resurfacing, thanks not to therapy or Rolfing but to a coincidental generational shift among my friends' dogs. Or maybe it's all coincidence, and I'm just creating the continuity I crave in my constantly changing circumstances.

Alliteration is such a cheap trick. I hate it when I do that.

Back to the dog. That very much alive dog, straining at the end of her leash as if miserable at the captivity. Or perhaps glad to have something to lean on. She seemed to be having a hard time balancing, and had in fact fallen over earlier in the day. She walked back home very slowly, sniffing everything ostentatiously until we reached the comfort of her living room, where she greeted a biscuit with pronounced apathy. S watched, concerned, as I made a big fuss over the biscuit, teasing R with it until it seemed worthy of her attention. When I finally tossed it across the room, the dog followed, claws skittering madly on the newly slippery wood floor. She stopped over it, picked it up gingerly with uncertain teeth, and then repaired to the couch to dismantle it. Seeing her thus occupied, we left again.

Masked Intruder

It was a 20-minute walk to Café M de Chaya, but we probably stretched it out by skirting the boulevards for the placid residential streets of Hancock Park. We were crossing Wilcox or Cole when a pale, high-backed creature caught my eye as it galumphed across the street. S thought it was a coyote, but I've seen enough coyotes -- tall, lean doglike creatures -- to know them from pretty much any other nocturnal quadrupeds. I thought it might be a possum, but possums do more creeping than galumphing, so I opined that it might have been a raccoon. We halted and headed back to see what we could see. Yes, it was a raccoon. S was immediately satisfied and, fearing rabies, ready to go. I, fearless, foolish, wanted to watch that masked critter and see what it was up to. It looked up at us from across the lawn, then turned and slipped through the iron bars of a driveway gate and trotted off toward the garage. A moment later, another pale creature darted furtively out via the same gate, then stopped to lick its feet. The cat. The pussy. Maybe it was afraid of rabies too. It noticed us watching and leapt lightly onto a windowsill, as if to pass the next few minutes above the fray. We resumed our walk to dinner.

Food Interlude

S later said, in her amusingly sweeping way, that M Café was the first restaurant she'd ever seen me not complain about. While I object to the slanderous implication that I complain all the time or even frequently -- I cheerfully wolfed down everything at Amala Dhaba in Westwood tonight -- I will agree that MCDC may as well have been designed with me in mind. It serves high-end macrobiotic food, the kind you'd have to slog through a year or more of soul-numbing rice-beans-seaweed detox before a proper macro regimen would ever allow. If Café M has a flaw, it's the desirable curse of variety. I wanted to try everything. I settled happily on a pre-assembled bento box containing a dozen different items, all of which proved to be at least interesting. If I were staying in LA I'd probably go there often.

We walked back from dinner and found R the dog sitting on the couch. She didn't jump off to greet us, but wagged her tail and panted and drooled and even shook a little as I gave her a full rubdown. After ten minutes she still hadn't stopped panting, and when a concerned S invited her to walk across the room, she slid off the couch and fell over and then stood up again panting and shaking violently. That's when I saw the panic crease S's face. It looked like her dog was having a stroke. Neither of my dogs had ever exhibited those symptoms, so I had no practical advice to offer beyond yes, you should go to the emergency vet.

It was 10 and I had work to go back to, but I vividly remember the isolation of sitting with a stricken dog in a vet's exam room listening to the life and death options at one's disposal. It's a lousy place to be alone. And given R's passing resemblance to my dog Cosmos (we're all labs on this bus), I seemed to be experiencing a weird transference. I followed them to the all-night vet in my own car, telling myself more than once that it was not actually my dog in question.

It was the same all-night vet clinic that had done such a bad job of sewing up Cosmos the night she was attacked by a pit bull in Alta Dena 10 years ago. Not that I hold a grudge. They'd spruced the place up a lot since then -- stone-faced counters and plasma TVs -- but when they laid the hard sell on us about how much the dog needed to stay the night, we could see it was still just a clip joint. The Jeff Spiccoli lookalike vet's provisional diagnosis was that R is suffering from a vestibular condition, comparable to a human inner-ear disorder that leaves one dizzy and nauseated. It's common among older dogs. I'll spare the details, but after Spiccoli admitted that none of what he was recommending was essential, a stern lab tech/closer came in and terrorized us with innuendoes and warnings. Tried to, anyway. He seemed to be working on commission. We left with the dog, skipping $400 worth of overnight monitoring and tests.

In the morning, S took R to her regular vet, who echoed Spiccoli's prediction that R the dog will probably be better within two weeks. What has S so upset is that in 13 years she's never seen her dog in anything less than perfect health. Hybrid vigor. Luck. Lucky them. I used to wonder whether I dared wish that my dogs would die instantly under the wheels of a car. They didn't. They both endured long, traumatic, debilitating diseases.

When I moved last month, I finally tossed the overstuffed files containing all the vet receipts for my two dogs. Once upon a time, before they died, I'd thought that maybe one day I'd add them all up -- just for fun? --- but what the hell would be the point of that? To prove that I spent a fortune on my dogs? To relive all the bad times? Give me one good reason. Or don't bother. I tossed them all. Maybe they're fruit juice labels by now.

And synchronicity keeps on rolling. Today at home (or what passes for it this week), I flipped over a holiday card from an old friend, a card I'd somehow neglected to read when it showed up a few days ago. E and I had met 14 years ago at the illegal Tar Pits dog park because our dogs, puppies then, had played so well together. We became friends and though I eventually moved away and the conjugal dog visits grew rarer, we stayed in touch. Sort of. Kids change everything. His dog, Brian, had always been a friendly, goofy tank of a lab mix. He used to leap up and strip the fruit off the lower branches of the persimmon tree every year. He taught Cosmos to eat persimmons too. Brian had slowed down in recent years but was amazingly fit the last time I saw him. Was that two years ago? He'd outlived Cosmos, his estranged playmate. Last year I'd been on my way to visit E and co. in their temporary Sacramento home when a political discussion his wife and I had via cell phone drove me away. Wish I'd stuck with the plan. In his 2005 holiday card, E wrote, "Brian died last month. He was a happy sweet dog till the end."

I guess I knew Brian wouldn't live forever, but when you don't see the eyes clouding over and the limp deepening, it's easy to deny time. Seeing R in her extremity last night affected me so deeply because her infirmities took me right back to my own dog stories.

All dogs have their own stories, and some live to be 18 or beyond. The average dog lives to be about 12. Smaller ones last longer, and jumbo editions like Great Danes usually expire around eight. A few years ago, someone told me he'd heard an 80-year-old man say, "Dogs are fine, but they don't last very long." I think about that perspective a lot around older dogs.

I started this post to describe how well the raccoon had trained the cat.


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