I’ve been kissing my dog for a long time now—thirteen years, going on fourteen—grabbing him around the middle with one arm, and around the neck with the other, and wrestling him in so he can’t get away and his neck and his ear are mine, for those moments, to be kissed. I have no idea what he’s thought about this over the years, except that, when I let him go he does a little dance away, and looks back smiling, and sometimes kind of dodges back in for a feint attack, and then dodges away, done with it. Done with me.
Now he’s deaf and frail and his bones hurt and he doesn’t look up much from the hang-dog thing that has taken over, so to roughhouse him is to risk hurting him, and getting bit. And yet I found myself on the floor with him just now, back at L.B.’s in Greenport, patting Jotto’s blue corduroy dog bed with the white star in the middle (Jotto is L.B.’s dog, absent at the moment), trying to show Scout that there is a soft place to lie down, should he dare try. I was down there with him, patting and patting the beddie—so grateful that he still understands that gesture; that not everything he once knew has disappeared—and he came over and offered his snout to me, and his ear and his neck, and I drew him in and kissed him.
He did not do a little dance afterwards, but I think he understood it as love. I hope he got that it was deep love. He got something, I must say, because as I was writing this post, he found the blue corduroy beddie, and climbed on, and sat down, which is not easy for him these days, facing away from me and toward the wall, like one of those Booth dogs that lives with the old people as out of it as he is.
But, just now, alas, I heard a crash, and there he is on his side on the ground. I have to go kiss him. Please excuse me.
Here’s a preview of her post:
I remember feeling really embarrassed when we lived in Greenpoint and the guy at the Polish bakery would remember that my morning order was a glazed donut and a little carton of milk. I shouldn’t have felt embarrassed. Nowadays one of the highest high points of my day is when I walk into my coffee spot and the woman at the counter starts pouring me two coffees, one with cream and one with milk, before I even get all the way in the door.
Julia and I saw a improvisational theatre/dance piece yesterday afternoon, called “bobrauschenbergamerica,” which I’m not going to describe here for several reasons, one of which is that I write these little unsigned theatre reviews for The New Yorker every week, and my tiny piece on this play won’t be out until Monday; I don’t think it’s kosher to write about it here first. But I will say that (oh my god, I can’t help myself) I laughed so hard throughout the whole thing that I felt like I needed to stop laughing or I might become a bother. I was crying, actually, I was laughing so hard, but it wasn’t acid-tripish funny, like your jaw hurts: The hilarity had actually flipped over into sadness pretty soon along the way, so what really hurt was my heart. I could go into that more, but we all know that about great art, and I have to do some work so I’m going to make this fast.
The long and the short of it is, that, because the work was so original, and the performances so unusually vibrant, I looked up the company—Siti—this morning, just to check them out. I found the director, Anne Bogart’s, blog. It’s pretty wonderful, what she says about making art, and I highly recommend it to anyone who could use a little creative shove. This was not the most profound thing she said, but I wanted to share it with you, because I think it’s a kind of a pith instruction:
According to David Logan in his recent book Tribal Leadership, groups and the individuals within these groups tend to function in five possible paradigmatic stages. Stage one is: “Life sucks.” This attitude, according to Logan results from the group experience of, say, prison. This is a difficult paradigm to transcend and groups in prison are susceptible to the understandable “life sucks” thinking which permeates the attitude and violent action or inaction of the inmates. The second stage is “my life sucks.” In line at the DMV everything feels grey and impossible. No one is there to help anyone and you are not about to contribute either. Next up, stage three, is “I’m great and you’re not” in which your life is a Darwinian struggle with “who’s on top” embedded with competition, and one-upmanship. You see the world as a place of competition and struggle for survival. Further up the tribal ladder is the “We’re great” clan. The example that Logan suggests is the corporate culture of the Zappos Company where people celebrate one another in the context of the corporate culture. The sensibility is of a group culture working for a united cause. Finally, the highest paradigm, stage five, is the “Life is great” model. The South African impulse to organize the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a supreme example. Only in this humanitarian frame of mind can a group tend to such compassionate and ingenuous measures.
How people choose to see the world, so they behave. Words and actions are powerful and reverberate into the universe. I believe that how I describe my life matters not only to my own experience but also to the experiences of others. What is the story that I am telling? Does the story that I tell and retell inevitably become my particular experience and the experience of people around me? Do I choose to say, “my life sucks?” Do I choose, on the contrary, “Life is great?” The choice, if I am lucky, rigorous and attentive to process, is mine.
So I took a drive to Mattituck today, still on North Fork of Long Island, but more vineyard than harbor. There’s a restaurant there called Love Lane Kitchen, where high-school-aged kids in black t-shirts serve crazy-good food. (“What can I get you?” the blond waitress with the teeth so just off braces that you can still see the braces there, asked. “Um, I think I’ll have the mango and avocado salad,” you say, a little unsure because it’s 9:30 in the morning and you’d really like the stuffed french toast. “Oh my God!” she says, as if she’s just been asked out on a date by Dom*, but is probably just being nice because she sees your dilemma, “That looks so good!”)
When I left, and was walking to my car, not one but three old men said good morning to me. None of them were using walkers or driving in motorized wheelchairs, but pretty much all of them were hunched over and walking like they had glass stuck in the bottom of their feet, and like the beachballs under their shirts were pushing on their belt buckles and making them have to pee.
It was nice of them to say good morning, and I liked it, but, because it was me, I still had to start imagining that if we actually had a conversation, I’d discover they were all three horrible, arrogant, Republican windbags. I tried to change the channel on my mind, and imagine them as brilliant artists—men who would entertain me over good Italian espresso by making delicate origami animals, but I couldn’t get the windbaggery out of my mind. (“I’m burning, I’m burning!”)
Just about then a woman walked by me in her Spandex clothes and her fanny pack—she was older than you, but not much older than me, and so she was a little bit chunky—and she said “Hi!” as if she’d just taken the same drug I had, and knew it. O.K., so people out here are charming.
It reminds me of when Maud and I had just moved to Nova Scotia from Brooklyn, and the waitress at the local Greek diner came over and was asking how we were, in a characteristically super-friendly Haligonian way. (In Halifax, talking about the weather is a really, really nice thing to do.) Maud, who was maybe not quite fifteen, said, “What’s wrong with her?” Exactly. I got her out of New York just in time.
Probably a day or two later, we were invited over to a friend of a friend’s house, and all the dharma-brat girls around Maud’s age were invited over too. (Halifax, in case you don’t know, has a very big American-ex-pat Buddhist community.) The next thing I knew, she was getting in a car with five teenagers with experience in altered states through meditation, all waving and smiling, and I barely saw her again for the next three years.** I’m pretty sure she was out asking people how they were all over the place.
**That’s a total lie. A lot of Amy’s pizzas (plain), and a large variety of cereals, were consumed in our house.
The birds haven’t started talking yet this morning, but yesterday there was one outside L.B.’s kitchen that kept saying, “I’m burning, I’m burning!” I didn’t want to tell you about that, because, well, I’m pretty sure that was more about me than about that bird. I thought I’d wait to see if she was still burning this morning.
Which is a lot like when I was in therapy in my twenties (and, well, in my thirties, too), and my therapist, Nancy, had a poster from the Bread and Puppet Theatre tacked to her front door. It was a woodblock of a person hanging laundry, and it said at the top: “AH!” Some days when I left Nancy’s office, the “AH!” looked like someone screaming; and some days, when I was leaving, it looked like someone sighing. You know how it is.
Scoutie fell asleep between my legs on the bed in L.B.’s guestroom while I was practicing, and his breathing was so ragged and shallow that I woke him up and carried him downstairs and brought him into the backyard for air. He was O.K.—he did his new thing of staggering, zombified, around the periphery at a clip, and then screeching to a halt to take a rickety shit which nearly knocks him over. He is, I’ve known from the beginning, a noisy, grunty breather, so I shouldn’t be surprised that that quality will come out more, now that he’s sick.
The day we took him from the lap of that teenager outside Wild Oats when he was three months old, we brought him home and then suddenly I had to go: I got called to interview Kate Winslet on the set of the “Titanic” outside Tiajuana, and I drove down there from L.A., for some reason, rather than flying. I was going to sleep in a nasty motel nearby, after the interview, and then drive home in the morning, but the thought of that pup, and my own little girl, pulled me back that same night. I do that sometimes, drive when I’m too tired to drive.
I got home and he was in the kitchen where we’d made him a nest before I’d left, and he wasn’t happy, being made to sleep alone. So I put a blanket on the floor and lay down beside him, and pulled him in. That’s when I heard his noisy breathing for the first time, all catches and sighs and bubbles and squeaks and clicks and groans. How do we endure the never-again?
You know some things about me now, if you’ve read through this blog. But you don’t know that for most of my life I woke up in the middle of the night very afraid. Until recently, I wouldn’t have been able to be in this house alone, except if Scout was there, when Scout was still a dog who might deter a monster. These days, though, I find that I am the one whose job it is to comfort the fearful, and deter the monsters.
There is so much about getting older that no one ever talks about. There’s losing your eyesight and losing your memory and losing your friends and not being able to eat pretty much anything without gaining weight, yeah, but there’s also how you get good at some things, in a weirdly deep way, just by virtue of having done them for so long. And you find bravery, not in your muscles and your manhood, but in your heart, which only lives exclusively in your chest when you’re young. When you start getting old, your heart runs away from you, because, whether you like it or not, it wants to love the world.
Today I drove around Greenport with a real-estate agent named JoAnn, in her beat-up pint-sized Toyota pickup. People buy these houses out here, but they don’t use them, and then there they are, for people like me who don’t mind the quiet and the nothing to do. These houses, less expensive than a studio apartment in Brooklyn, have weathered gray shingles and professional stoves and heated floors and bathrooms so fancy that the showers don’t have stalls—there’s just a hand-held showerhead hooked on the wall and a drain in the middle of the bathroom. Both the places I saw today had rights to private beaches with white sand and smooth rocks that Scout could walk on, if he ever got to feeling better. Otherwise he could just stand by driftwood and smell the salted air.
My heart started pounding today while I was standing in the middle of one of these places, looking out of windows on three sides, all that faced trees and sky and huge, green lawns you could fit a horse on (though this is wine country, not horse). One place faced an inlet: It started to storm and you could see through the window the sudden, bright, jagged lightening crack the sky and run towards the water before disappearing, as if it never existed. The skylights overhead darkened, and the house shook.
This is what I’ve grown to think: That everything that seems too good to be true, is. If there’s not a sudden hitch, then God is going to come down, right when you’re happiest, and smite you. And I don’t even believe in God.
What a thing it would be to step out into the field of dreams unconcerned about what was going to happen next, and just be there, brave, for whatever came, even though, like the lightening, whatever came would soon be gone.
Speaking of Scout, I keep wondering how he feels, and how it feels to be him. When he was younger, I assumed he was happy—he was always wagging his tail and running around, his ears flying, and sometimes he had a laugh with Bodhicitta J. Cat, who he grew up with (she’s gone, and I’m trying not to make too big a fool of myself by yammering on about her, too). The vet in Brooklyn, Christine Young, called him Mr. Perfect one time when he went to keep Scooby company at an appointment. I always thought that summed him up.
When he was a puppy in L.A., a woman once jumped out of her car across the street, on a four-lane road, and came running through traffic, waving her arms, asking if she could “just see him.” That’s pretty much the way I’ve always felt about him. When we lived in Halifax (Maud went to high school there), Evan and Phillipe, two of Maud’s friends, used to come by the house and get him, and take him to a field to play. He was that kind of guy—a boy’s dog, though he grew up in a house of girls.
Now I’m not sure how he feels. The vet—a new one, on the upper east side—tells me that brain problems are not painful—but that doesn’t speak to his heart. I know he can’t do what he used to do: He can’t jump up on the couch, he can’t sleep with me (he may fall off the bed in the middle of the night or, worse, jump, and land with all fours splayed), he no longer lifts his leg like Nureyev, and he can’t catch cookies when I toss them. He can’t hear his name being called, and he no longer does the gag where he steals my socks and then pretends to be minding his own business while he walks by my desk with them in his mouth, sneaking peeks at me out of the corner of his eye. He no longer lies at my feet under my desk.
And his legs, they don’t hold him up for very long, and yet sitting down clearly hurts too much to do. Getting from standing to sitting is growing more and more problematic: When I hear a crash, I know he’s lying down.
When I first got him, he was sitting on the lap of a teenager outside of Wild Oats on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. She was part of a rescue operation, and they’d found Scout at a pound in South Central. I picked him up under the forearms (he was fat), held him in front of my face, and looked into his eyes: There he was, looking back, my darling Scout. So Maud and I took him home. Maud was nine; Scout was three months old.
Now Scout and I are both kind of homeless, crashing at Julia’s and L.B.’s until I figure out what to do next. It’s nice for me, especially on nights like tonight when we’re alone together—no other dogs or cats around—and we get to hang, just the two of us. When Maud was little, we were all a family: she and me and Bodhi and Scout. And now it’s just me and Scout, Maud having grown up and moved back to L.A., at least for now.
I hope he doesn’t feel too much pain, and that I am reference point enough to make him feel safe, even as he fails. It’s a little embarrassing, feeling so close to a dog. But love, it turns out, is love.
Scoutie and I drove out to the end of Long Island today, to our friend L.B. Thompson’s house in Greenport, a small village on the choppy Sound where you get the ferry to Shelter Island. The town isn’t quite up and running for summer yet—the tiny movie theatre, closed for the winter, is still closed, and L.B. tells me there are only asparagus at the nearby stand where you pick out your vegetables and put your money in an unmanned box. But the clover is green in the grass, and the lady at Salamander’s, the local gourmet deli, is back from wherever she goes to get that tan and buy those baskets. She has good, hot coffee that you pump yourself.
It was such a beautiful spring day that I thought I’d do some computing at L.B.’s picnic table while Scout, on his second day of steroids, manically weaved from one end of the yard to the other (weaving seems to have taken the place of circling—I didn’t mention to you that the vet thinks he has a brain tumor), but, alas and of course, my laptop battery is pretty much dead. So I called a computer place over in the Hamptons that L.B. turned me onto, and they had just the thing for me.
Unfortunately, though, going to the Hamptons would mean driving for another hour, and that just wasn’t possible. Being A Person Out Here, though, the woman on the phone said she was coming this way after work, and would meet me, with the battery, in the parking lot of the Dunkin’ Donuts in the next town over.
I know they do this in other parts of the world—people go out of their way to be helpful and kind, and even meet you, sometimes, at the Agway, even though you could be a guy with a broken arm, a van, a couch, and a very sharp knife. Honestly, though, I’m not used to it, and I find it…amazing. It amazes me, and embarrasses me, and, really, simply, makes me happy. So thank you, Amy with the aviators and the two children, one of whom—the teenaged boy—smiled and waved at me when I pulled away with my new battery. If it works, tomorrow I’ll be out back with Scout, writing you from under a tree while he goes from blade of grass to blade of grass with his nose running.
Speaking of generous, my friend L.B gets that life is unpredictable and we have no control over anything. If that frightens her (and I’m sure it does), she doesn’t show it. What she shows is simple kindness. She’s invited me to come stay at her place whenever I want, while I figure out what to do with my brand-new life. She’s like that.
Here’s a poem she wrote, published in The New Yorker in 2003, that reflects a bit of this. L.B. never had a chance to meet Danny. I had a chance to meet them both, though, which is another amazing thing. (I hope you don’t mind, L.B.)