Monday, April 27, 2009

oh, ben

The title The Divinity of Dogs is a bit highfalutin for this video that ends with Ben Stein offering up a cute smile, like you'd get from the kid forced to sit through the cheese course in his starchy, too-tight suit. Ben! I just want to pinch your cheeks for this one. Pinch, pinch, pinch, you jowly little animal lover.

Friday, April 24, 2009

intermediate's mind

After reviewing the options--agility (no), flyball (no), rally (no)--LB and I began our new freestyle dance class with our dogs Mac and Stella today. To use the word humbling is to sound downright boastful about it. This class was nothing short of torment. I cried. No, really, I did.

I have had my girl since August of this year, not long. But prior to that, I'd run my boxer Shea through obedience and his sister Ruby through an advanced dog-dog manners class. I moved on myself to work with countless dogs of all different temperaments (plenty of them naughty, raucous, insolent) for a few years with BAD RAP, first at the East Bay SPCA and then Oakland Animal Services, where I volunteer today. Point is, a lot of dogs, a lot of challenges.

At the time I enrolled Stella in this freestyle class, she already knew sit, down, stay, leave it, drop it, come--all the essentials. She had earned her Canine Good Citizen certification from the American Kennel Club and made a routine of charming people into asking if they might adopt her away from me with disarming regularity. She and I had established what I thought was a common language, both physical and verbal, and we had trained in some form every single day since she'd come to me like a little wiggly dream. But all of this, every shred of work, every moment of accomplishment, has been based at least in minor measure on compulsion. I'm not sure how I didn't realize it. That is, until the time came when I could not use the prong collar.

She's a very strong girl, a little tank of muscle and spunk. It's just what I have used to manage all that energy with all the bully dogs I work. I never looked at my use of it as a dependence. I still consider a prong a fine tool, with its place in the scheme of things, but what if I don't have one at the ready and still need my little devil to behave? No can do, Kennedy. That's what I learned today. I came face to face with the limits of my technique and at first it was desperately discouraging. I didn't really see the lead-up building this week: Stella got poked by a foxtail that managed to work its way into her neck. A painful sore resulted, right where the prong would have gone. But I was not going to back out of class. We had committed to it, there would have been no refund, and most importantly, I felt she needed the socialization and education. So on we went. No problem, I thought; we work together. I (laughably now) didn't think twice about taking the class without a prong after working her exclusively with it on.

To say that she pulled on the leash is much like saying a shooting star moves through the sky or that a forest fire is warm. Every time I bash into the "step up" segment of the learning plateaus, I find myself stunned and hurt yet again that I am not, in fact, the supreme master expert I'd deluded myself into thinking I was. Stella yanked on the leash, panted like a choo-choo, and I stood there, sweating, inching mentally toward quitting. We were instructed to walk this way, turn, shake, do a bunch of fun little moves. For me, this amounted to widen your stance to keep the dog from steamrolling her way to the head of the pack. It was not aggression. It was 100 percent uncorked ebbulience. Stella was, as the kids say, off the hook. She was overwhelmed by the blissful notion that all these dogs and people had come together to thrill her with their presence.

I say all this not to trash my dog. By the end of the class, she was following me rather beautifully, gazing into my eyes in that hopeful way that just breaks a dog handler's heart with its sheer hope and goodness. There's nothing like that bond. But it required a very real walk of fire, the humiliation of knowing that my dog looked wild at the outset. And good god, I'm sure my capabilities were called into question.

So here we are. It was not the glorious, head-of-the-class start I'd hoped for. Stella was a bit of a nutter. But we'll practice in the morning, at lunch, after work, before bed. Any treat Stella gets will only follow a heel. Want dinner? Walk with me. Oh is breakfast late? You must be very hungry. Do not break your look into my eyes. You want me to pet you? Stay right here until I tell you otherwise. Sit, down. Come. Come, walk with me, prove your skills, use your wee Stella brain.

It's time for us to improve our communication. Stella has shown she's willing to work with me. She aced the Canine Good Citizen test without my ever even teaching her a proper, airtight loose-leash walk. I'm glad we got by, but we can do better. She can do this, no problem. So the unknown here is me.

But I think the impossible fits me well enough. The only real way around it is through it. Practice, practice, practice goes the old line. We'll get there.

thoughts on driving, if you please

The more I live, the more ritualized my private days become. Driving to work every day, I scout for modded-out Hondas and find myself parallel to them on the freeway just to see what happens when our eyes meet. Around the holidays I contemplate getting a tree. And then I do not. I eat a terrific amount of chocolate come April, and in May I book several races in order to combat my attendant fears of imminent death. August, of course, I extend birthday festivities well beyond what is appropriate.

While Valentine's Day means gifts and heady declarations for most, it signals three small milestones in a life's routine: (1) the anniversary of my now long-standing sobriety, (2) the memorial of losing my dog Shea when he was just four years old, and (3) the approximate threshold marking when I might reasonably expect to spy used copies of the last year's Best American Short Stories on the shelves at Pegasus or Moe's. For novels and nonfiction, I am happy to spend my money and see the royalties land in the authors' pockets. Not sure what it is about volumes with multiple contributors, but I buy these second-hand without guilt.

I'd searched for a while. And I'd even started to extrapolate (as if my shopping experience somehow scaled to represent the global literary marketplace) that perhaps it was a new day for the short story—these damn local readers were holding onto their volume of America's best. Was it that good? Hell, I figured, even this year's Pulitzer-winning book was a story cycle. Well last week, I finally snagged this year's Best American Short Stories, a copy apparently unread--crisp cover corners, static among pages, all the heavenly heft of untouched invention. Perhaps it was given as a gift, but neglected and coldly sold.

And it did indeed feature a gem, "May We Be Forgiven" by A. M. Homes. While more rangy authors (Ben Fountain III comes to mind) retain a certain authority on my list for their willingness to fling characters far afield and see what happens, there's still nothing like the old-fashioned descendents of Carver, authors who need nothing by way of window dressing and foreign artifact to lay bare the luxurious torment of a private universe. The implosion of the story's precarious domestic balance involves just the sort of plain sawdusty craft I adore. Mean, brutal, and brave. And when it shatters that part of you that you didn't even know was vulnerable, then comes the condemnatory moral crack--this is about you. At some level, stories ought to indict with a satisfying resonance, prick our ears to our own barely audible hauntings down in that lowest human register.

Now those close to me know that I do not suffer erotica well. It's a tawdry, tacky, sticky mess of embarrassing fumble-rumblings, all uninspired extroversion, a wincing exercise in what must end up future authorial regret. But I'd suggest anyone interested in writing (or having or thinking about) sex read this story. Not that it's erotica. It's not, per se. But the sexual indulgence is lively because it is unsparingly polluted with spirit-splitting betrayal and shame. If you are to write sex, good to obey the axiom it's best to arrive at pleasure by way of pain.

Read and you'll see what I mean. When I came to the end of the story, the last bit of figurative dialogue lopped the top off the thing. And I found there--exultantly--the faintest penciled-in exclamation point. I've since gone through this book page by page, searching for other evidence of the reader so moved. There is not a single other mark but the requisite $8.50 price scrawled on the half-title page.

As an editor who wrangles often with authors who lavish these poor marks throughout a work like nuts on a laden sundae, I am loathe to celebrate the exclamation point. But I savored this singular expression. Restraint and passion all in one. A single response that, as you likely expect, reminds me of the easy, sweet poem by Billy Collins called Marginalia.

My lunch break tick-tocking away, I could hardly leave the closing page. I just sat there staring at it. The sun was out. It was warm enough to melt me, but the wind blew just this side of brisk. I drove back to work in the spring weather, charged enough to accept dangerous wagers. A girl pulled up in her showy little Honda at the two-lane on-ramp. I hurtled alongside her, the sun on my arms as I blew euphorically right past the exit to work. It's all enough to make one take the exclamatory leap, now isn't it? Forgive us indeed. We are terribly wrong and reckless. Now let's do it all again!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

leaves of grass

You guys, it's spring. I have been distracted. But I'm back. Blog depot will reopen. Shortly.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

new lease on life

If you're interested in ESPN's coverage of the Vick dogs' new lives, you can watch it tonight at 7pm.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

teams tiger, fast kitty, and game face

In case you've wondered where I've been, it's been nothing but big wheels day in, day out. You know how training can be. Full-on, people. Can't wait.