Raphael and Ramona were some of the most challenging and rewarding dogs it was ever my privilege to visit. Raph is a Rat Terrier, which means that it is his purpose in life to tell every single squirrel he ever saw or thought he saw that he hates them, wants to hurt them, and would be at that moment climbing the trees after them to deliver a rapid series of squirrel-piercing bites if not for the fact that he was just barely restrained by a human several dozen times his size. Since I am not a squirrel, I was entitled to the pleasure of the other side of Raphael’s personality, which is the “I’m going to jump up and down in the general vicinity of your thighs until your thighs become a lap and then I will jump onto your lap and gaze into your eyes with all the love that I have not lost on squirrels” side. Faced with such a gaze, I couldn’t help but lie and I swear that I had never harbored aided or admired squirrels in any way. How could I not? Raphael is not only named after an artist but also bears a striking resemblance to the celebrity dog from the film “The Artist.” I think people would be gushing all over him but for the fact that he is usually possessed by the above-mentioned berserker state.
Ramona is a Boston Terrier, the fifth example of the breed I’ve ever encountered and remarkably similar in temperament to the other four, just as she is remarkably similar to Raphael in coloring. Unlike Raph, Ramona doesn’t care about squirrels in the least, but like Raph (and like all other Boston Terriers, I’m ready to assume) she has more energy than she knows what to do with and burns off some of it by dashing tither and fro trying to kiss you on the nose. This kiss is less like a dog kiss than a human kiss, in that she’s not slobbering all over you but rather jabbing her doggy lips at your own. She was always a challenge to get a harness on since I had to first catch her and then try to hold her squirming body with one arm as I maneuvered the harness with the other. Between Ramona and her brother Raph, just getting outside to where their energy could be properly expressed was an accomplishment in itself. Keeping admiring passers-by from trying to fondle them was another challenge, since, as I said, they’re both adorable and, well, they match. Not tripping on them heading down the stairs was also difficult, since the stairs were narrow and the dogs were all over them. But though the challenges were many and great, the rewards were always much greater. We had lots of fun rolling around, those dogs and I, and I wish them and their owner all the best.
Tsuki is a goof. I can think of no other word to describe her. The words “Chesapeake Bay Retriever” come close, and perhaps the Chesapeake Bay Retriever fan club has a single word they use when describing their dogs but are tired of saying “Chesapeake Bay Retriever.” I have never attended a meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever fan club and am not privy to the minutes, so I don’t know what this word might be. I can imagine them standing around drinking Chardonnay and wearing boat shoes and talking about their “Chessies,” but to me this sobriquet suggests a rather nerdy breed (as in “Chess Club Members”) and nerdiness suggests great intelligence and less than great beauty, which, in my experience, is a very deceptive characterization of the breed. So I’ll go with goof. Tsuki always inspired linguistic adventurism in me, I really can’t say why. Whenever I walked in her door I called out “SOOOK!” as loud as I could, and over time this call emanated from farther and farther back in my throat, while my lips projected ever farther out into an effective bugle shape. Eventually this call came to sound less like a name and more like a moose swallowing an oboe. But Tsuki got the message and always came trotting up with a big goofy grin on her face.
A portion of Tsuki’s lower jaw was removed during cancer surgery, and this causes her nose to lean slightly to one side and her upper lip to hang down a little farther than it’s probably used to. The overall effect is barely noticeable, and on the whole it only lends itself to the natural and correct conclusion, for anyone who sees her, that this dog is a goof. She is also a terrible walker, at least if the goal of a walk is considered to be exercise in any form. For Tsuki and I never made it around a full city block, intent as she always is on smelling every plant, tree, street sign or object we passed. If the goal of a walk is to inhale the whole neighborhood, Tsuki is the champion. She always looked at me with such a sad, dejected (and goofy) expression whenever I decided that she’d smelled a particular smell long enough, as if I was arbitrarily taking all her fun away. What I knew, however, and that Tsuki never could quite seem to imagine, is that there are always equally enchanting smells just a couple feet away. These she would pounce on as if she’d just made a momentous discovery, and so we would progress down the street. When she wasn’t sniffing she was “tsuking,” which is another linguistic novelty she inspired. Whenever there was snow on the ground, Tsuki would writhe and burrow in it with more joyful urgency than any dog I’ve ever seen. Her enthusiasm and her goofery (another new word inspired by Tsuki) was contagious, and sometimes I joined her for a roll in the snow or at least helped to bury her. Tsuki is a really fun, happy, and endearing ball of goof, and I will always remember her when I soook at the moon.
Josey is easily the most unusual dog I ever walked. I walked her every day for over a year, and still find her baffling. She is not a young dog, though her age is disguised by the fact that she is and has always been grey-haired. Her long straight hairs also cover her old-dog body, so to look at her you might put her age anywhere between 2 and 45. But to see her walk, you could only conclude that Josey is either ancient or under water. It is as impossible to imagine Josey running as it is to imagine her biting someone, so mellow and sweet is her nature. The poor girl seems to try very hard to focus on what’s happening around her, but any given task (walking up and down stairs, getting a drink of water, stepping onto the grass to pee, etc.) seems to take extraordinary pains of contemplation. Josey is also encumbered by her ability to see ghosts. I’ve written about this before; suffice it to say that she is forever looking over her shoulder and staring off into space, seemingly captivated by whatever phantoms she perceives there. It’s possible that she has a speck in her iris or something that results in some blip permanently in her peripheral vision, and the fact that Josey’s attention span is no greater than a blip means that she is forever thinking “what’s that?” and then getting distracted by something else (like trying to remember which paw to step with next), effectively wiping the slate clean, so to speak, for the thought to re-emerge as if it were a novel discovery: “what’s that?” I’m not saying Josey is stupid. In fact she could be performing advance calculus in her head all the time for all I know. Nor does she seem distressed by the overwhelming complexity of the world, since she is almost always smiling, wagging her tail slowly and generally projecting an air of calm bemusement, as if all the world was a midnight re-run. I could say so much more about Josey but I think I would only be repeating previous blog posts, so I’ll just close with the one image of Josey I will most likely never forget: when house-sitting with Josey one night, I was softly awakened by a slight sensation from the dark room (a noise or a movement of air, I can’t say what exactly) and when I opened my eyes I beheld not six inches from my nose the most unusual face I ever hope to wake up to. The darkness of the room, the several seconds during which I forgot where I was and the extraordinary proximity of this large animal (Josey is a big tall Bearded Collie Mix) made me inhale sharply in what I proudly consider to be well-controlled panic. I suppose if Josey was capable of looking at all menacing I might have screamed and emptied my adrenal glands, but something about her face was so disarming that relief came to me as quickly as the shock. The very next thought into my mind was “Wookie,” for in that moment Josey looked exactly like an old grey-haired Chewbaka moving in for a kiss. Who knows how long she’d been watching me in the dark? What a wierdo! But she’s a real sweetheart and a very good pal as well.
Sam the Yellow Lab pulled so hard that he broke his harness. That was a sad day for me and everyone who walks Sam, because without that harness to restrain him, Sam pulls and lunges with all his might, practically strangling himself during the entirety of our long walks. Sam’s harness was unlike anything that any walker had ever seen, and for months no one could figure out how to put it on him. Every day I allotted myself a few minutes of puzzle time before I gave in to Sam’s eager “let’s GO!” dance, hooked the leash up to his collar and prepared my arm for near-dislocation. It became a game. I’d think of some new approach to try, it would fail, and I’d put it off till next time. Then one day, a brilliant walker named Sarah decided to Google the brand and found a nice diagram. She shared the news and it spread like wildfire among Sam’s walkers, who rubbed their sore shoulders as they smacked themselves on the head for not having thought of that in the first place. It turns out the harness wasn’t even really a harness, but rather a special dog seatbelt that just happened to work. And then when it broke, there was much wringing of hands and purchasing of ibuprofin. For Sam lived in River Forest, a place that made Oak Park look like a slum. Homes in River Forest don’t have lawns but rather Olympic soccer fields, and they have lots of deer available to trim them. Sam loves deer poop as much as Cortes loved gold, and he always tried as hard as he could to pull toward wherever his nose told him there was a little pile of black deer berries waiting for him. The only other way to keep Sam from choking himself in search of his strange treasure was to walk really fast. This we could do because the streets in Sam’s neighborhood are a quarter mile long (to accommodate five or six properties per block) and totally empty of other dogs and pedestrians. So big jolly Sam and I often speed-walked or jogged, and since his walk was usually one of the last on my schedule, I considered it my last big effort of the day. We had lots of fun, Sam and I, and I could go on and on about our many adventures, but I have to go on and on about other dogs too. So, bye Sam.
Callie, oh Callie. Where to begin? She’s one of Out-U-Go!’s oldest and most frequent critter clients. She has been with Out-U-Go! so long that the owner of the company used to walk her, back before he was the owner of the company. She’s one of the originals, and she has averaged at least three walks a day almost every day during that whole time. She has so many walkers that during the Holidays, her wonderful owners (both busy doctors) left a stack of gift cards near the back door (right next to the big bowl of dog-walker candy) so that each of her many different walkers would all be sure to get one. Callie is as professionally cared-for as a Panda in a zoo. Unlike a Panda though, Callie has bitten most of her care-takers. As soon as you walk in her house, Callie begins to bark at you as if you were a dangerous intruder and not a friendly familiar person who comes at about the same time every day. If she’s awake, that is. Usually she’s off snoring somewhere, but if you call her name loudly and often enough, eventually you will hear the barking echo. With me, Callie always dropped the bluff toughness very quickly and rambled over to bury her face in my crotch (I never once left Callie’s house not covered in hair). The time she bit me I was wiping her paws; I’d wiped three and was reaching for the fourth when she decided she’d had enough. I told the story to other walkers and they uniformly agreed that trying to wipe Callie’s paws was a suicidal act, and that it was remarkable that I’d managed to wipe three before she elected to chomp on my hand. Anyway, lesson learned. Then it was out for a slow stroll around the block during which time Callie mostly just announced her feelings to the world tried to eat poop. She was amazingly manageable on the walks, and it always reminded of a scene in the film “A Touch of Evil” where Orson Well’s character, an obese, cruel and unscrupulous border sheriff, a man who dominates every situation always gets what he wants, sits quietly mumbling and grumbling while another character convinces him of something that we the audience know is not in his interest. I’m not saying Callie is evil or obese (unscrupulous yes), or that I didn’t always have her interests at heart, but whenever she was affectionate or manageable (as she often was with me) I always had the same sense of getting away with something. She’s the Godmother of Oak Park, and I will always remember her as such.
Kitty can’t. It’s not Dora-ble. Ernest Hemingway described his home town of Oak Park as a place of wide lawns and narrow minds, and as I walked its peaceful streets with two little pups trotting along by my side and these two awful puns tripping around in my head, I proved him right on the second count at least. The lawns, for their part, are certainly impressive, more sculptured lawnscapes than mere plots of turf, though even in their stylized splendor they seem to me hardly as conspicuous as the massive heritage architecture that sprouts from their midst. Perhaps fine gardens were, in Hemingway’s day just as in ours, sine quo non for Midwest suburban gentry. Considering the countless platoons of elite gardeners and landscapers constantly toiling to preserve these great vegetable moats, there can be no doubt but that they are indelibly linked to the economy of the area. Considering Hemingway’s birth home (I’ll just say the man did not come from nothing) it isn’t hard to imagine that he might take for granted the enormous homes and focus instead on attenuated minds that reside within. Sometimes, while walking around under the shade of these mansions and the enormous trees that alone challenge them in age and magnificence, I imagined the children of these laborers and how they will blossom like the flowers that their fathers toil so hard to nurture, how the wages of maintaining such ostentatious wealth feed families and fertilizes the latest iteration of the American dream–and how the splendor of beautiful gardens is so meager compared to that of new American immigrant opportunities, yet so much less controversial. Grand spaces lend themselves to grand thoughts, and often my mind beheld class relations, definitions of wealth, Versailles, Plato’s Republic, etc. Sometimes I thought of these things. But often I proved Hemingway right, and thought of puns. My mind narrowed and I sang impromptu nursery rhymes and giddy ditties dedicated to the little creatures who walked with me, two little dogs named Kitty and Dora.
Kitty can’t sounds like kitty cat. Get it? And look, I’d say, it’s a Dora! The “ble” then came naturally; I couldn’t stop it if I tried. It’s a Dora-ble. Get it? The dogs seemed to love my doggerel, and didn’t even hold it against me that I called them my little doggerels. Because Kitty, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, and Dora, a Comparably Sized White Fuzzball (a new breed) are lovely dogs. They were always so happy to see me that, in their competition to be the one and only dog I was petting at any given moment, they often overshot happiness and went straight to grief. Usually Dora won this competition, as she won every tug-of-war as we walked down the street. The leash in my hand, you see, was connected not to a dog but rather to the smaller leash that connected the dogs to each other, affording me the rare luxury of dealing not with two avid surging beasts but rather the remainder of their divided wills. Dora usually got the better of her sweeter, more patient sister, and thus Kitty would try and try to smell a smell only to find herself moonwalking across the sidewalk toward the latest greatest thing that Dora had ever seen in her whole life ever since the last thing a few seconds ago. And so Kitty wants to smell that tree, but Kitty can’t. Dora wants in mora. Her narrow mind is focused on a wide lawn, without regard to what Hemingway would have thought. And that, it seems, is the best way to really enjoy walking around in Oak Park. Abolish high-minded thoughts of history or literature and just enjoy what’s in front of you. If Kitty can than I can. And if you can, walk with Kitty and Dora. They’re delightful pups and I’ll remember them fondly, as I will my time in that place generally.
And thus concludes my homage to my Oak Park Pack. Except one. In my next blog, Sally will get her due.