Dead Flies Tell No Tales

It may be an act of rebellion, my way of raling against the light speed at which words hurl across borders and continents through cyberspace, but the fact is, I still use a postage meter in my office. I love it for its obsolescence. Though sleekly modern, with a curvaceous control panel and software brain, its underlying, barely necessary utility reminds both sender and recipient — far more than any PDF file could ever do — that there still exists something tangible in this click-open-click-delete culture: the envelope. A number 10 and its contents — folded, licked and sealed, and containing enough DNA to convict the sender of a serious felony — is something substantial that passes from human hand to human hand, regardless of where those hands have been.

Perhaps it’s my nature that makes me love things that others discard as past their usefulness; it would explain both my love life and my obsession with pens and stationery. I was once at one of those big box office supply stores, ordering a new chair for my office, when the woman helping me mentioned that I looked familiar. I have one of those faces, I explained; I always look like someone’s cousin or sister or some unnamable actress. She shook her head. Then her face lit up with the spark of recognition. I know you, she said. You’re the one who lingers in the pen aisle. I imagined at once all of the employees in the break room, talking about “the regulars”. You know, the one who sits in every chair in the store like Goldilocks but never buys one. The guy who buys a single packet of neon green Post-It notes every Wednesday afternoon. Mortified, I silently nodded, admitting I’d been made.

Admittedly, I have the ability to go almost completely paperless in the office and would gain over 15 feet of wall space currently occupied by 15 full, five-drawer filing cabinets of papers, but it terrifies me to think what I would do without hard copies of my work. Were I to even dip a toe into that netherworld of record keeping; the back-up to the back-up to the back-up would most certainly fail and me, in short order, thereafter.

It’s a fact that I don’t trust my computer. Anything that hides behind a veneer of usability and does things I don’t ask it to do is too much like the ex-boyfriend that was harder to dispose of than my previous computer and about as toxic to the environment.

Say “Okay Boomer” all you want, but the faith I have in the U.S. Postal Service illustrates an undiminished child-like wonder of a world in which I so obviously no longer fit.

My generation still viscerally recalls mimeographed quizzes in grade school, the way each of us lifted the purple paper to our noses to inhale that unmistakable aroma as soon as the paper fell upon our desks. I wrestled with carbon paper in typing class, never quite mastering it before its successor, the copier, arrived, which, while more congenial, sacrificed personality for function. In college, the university computer was a building the size of a football field, and spoke in languages as alien to English as Martian. The predecessor to the over-friendly little paperclip guy was a grumpy computer science major who instructed you how sort your three hundred, hand-punched keycards of data and told you when to retrieve the 20 pound mound of paper with the holes along each side.

In my first job, there was a tele-type machine over which you could send and receive brief bits of correspondence overseas. Memory typewriters replaced Selectrics, then were made obsolete by word processors, followed by early mainframe computers until we arrived at personal computers in all their configurations. Today, if I wanted to, I could simultaneously receive a phone call, an email, a fax, a text message and surf the Web on a device smaller than a full deck of cards, although I am now too old to read any of it without my reading glasses, thus making this miracle of technology rather beside the point for anyone over 42.

I blame fax machines for sparking the frenzied way we now conduct business. No sooner would a facsimile finish sliding through your end of the connection than the phone would ring, the sender wanting an answer to a question you hadn’t had time yet to read.

On the day we all got email, it signaled the end of face-to-face conversation. Even a complete idiot can master emailing, and almost all of them did. And forwarded it to me, with subject lines like “You Know You’re A Redneck When..”, or “Send This To 25 People And Your Wish Will Come True.” People will say things in an email they would never say to each other in person. And though we all worked in the same office, most of us only saw each other coming or going from the bathrooms. Somehow, asking “how’s it going?” at those brief encounters seemed, well, unseemly.

Of course, almost none of this explains the dead fly.

When I opened my own business, my first office was squeezed into the spare bedroom of the house I was then renting. How I also fit a part-time assistant, a copier, two desks, a few file cabinets, a printer, a fax machine, two computers, and two chairs into a room slightly larger than a hotel elevator, I can’t imagine today, especially given that I have a fear of both clutter and tight, enclosed spaces.

When the business survived and thrived, it traveled with me through another couple of houses (and various permutations of assistants) to a five acre horse farm with a spacious barn. I employed two local builders, Special Ed and his partner, Up Chuck, to build a large office space for me in the barn. It was a slow process, but, at the end, I was thrilled with the room and thankful, finally, for a Monday I didn’t have to bail one of them out of the drunk tank at the county jail to get them back on the job. I showed my appreciation to Ed and Chuck by giving them both 12 packs and passing them along to their next customer.

In my new space, of course, I had a place for everything, including a new pine desk and a new part-time assistant. As a deeply compassionate person, it has always been known about me that I will hire the un-hirable. If someone is one small paycheck away from living on the streets or moving back with their parents at age 45, that person met my hiring criteria. An alcoholic or drug addict? Even better. I believed I was giving someone a leg up, that people will rise to the level of the job if only given the opportunity. One need only to peruse the state of my files to see the level of my delusion.

People will often comment on my idyllic situation during phone conversations we are having when those people are working in Los Angeles or New York. Yes, I tell them, I am fortunate to be able to work while watching my horses graze peacefully in the pasture outside of the office window, with my dogs lying at my feet. For people in cramped city cubicles, enduring hours of commuting, I like to tell them, yes, you too can do this, have this, you just have to make the leap and the net will be there. I’m sure they don’t believe me any more than I believe these words as they fall out of my mouth, but it sounds good anyway.

One day, however, my phone rang, and I answered it in my usual way, simply saying my name.

“Are you trying to threaten me?” said an unfamiliar voice.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but are you sure you have the right number?”

“Is this Lisa Thomas?” the voice asked in a menacing tone.

“Well, yes, it is,” I replied, drawing out the last word so that it lasted about six seconds in a leading sort of way.

“Are you threatening me?” the voice demanded again.

“Do you feel threatened?” I asked, motioning to my then-assistant with my index finger swirling around my temple, in the “I have a crazy person on the phone” manner.

“You are a sick, sick person,” said the voice.

“I’m sorry?:? I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I replied.

“What’s with the fly?” the voice insisted.

“The fly? Really, I don’t know what you’re referring to. Who is this?” I said, just on the brink of putting the receiver in its cradle.

“This is Stephen, in the licensing department. You’ve been sending me letters for six months about some licenses you want, but this one had a dead fly in it. Is that some kind of threat?”

“Huh? A dead fly? In our follow-up letter?” I looked over at my assistant who suddenly busied herself shuffling through papers. “Hang on a minute, will you?” and I put the call on hold.

“Cherry? Do you know anything about a dead fly in a follow-up notice to this guy?” I said to her back.

Silence. More shuffling.

“Cherry? The fly?”

“Well, kinda,” she mumbled. Then she looked up at me from underneath her shaggy blonde bangs like a dog that is anticipating a whack on the nose with a newspaper.

I went back to the phone, took the caller off hold.

“Stephen, I’m terribly sorry. It must have gotten into the envelope by mistake – my office is in my barn and we have flies buzzing around all day. I don’t know how it got into your envelope, but it wasn’t meant to be a threat or a joke or anything. Whenever you can send the documents, we’d appreciate receiving them. Thanks.”

“Well,” he said, “I guess so. It was kinda weird. Sorry I went off on you.”

“Not a problem. Guess we got your attention anyway, eh?” I weakly chuckled before saying goodbye. Then I turned to Cherry, who was now gathering her purse together and tidying up her desk.

“You want to tell me about it?” I asked.

As she dissolved in tears, suspecting that this was going to be her last few minutes in my employ, she explained her system of handling our outstanding matters.

The Pride Of Frankenstein

My mom died.

I needed to step away from everything after my mom’s death.  I don’t have to explain that to any of you who have lost your parents at any age.  All the times I pleaded with them to “just leave me alone.”  Now they have.

I needed to step away from the blog and writing and try to find a voice in images.

So, I did.  Or I tried.

And I picked up my camera, went to the Wyoming Badlands for a bit this summer and photographed cowboys and horses (and cowgirls).

Wyoming.  The ranch life, the Badlands, the landlocked cocoon of the wide open, windy spaces took me outside of my life.  I felt invigorated and refreshed.  I got up before dawn to shoot sunrises on an incredibly different landscape and stayed up to learn how to photograph star trails.

This Is What I Did Last Summer Report (the short version).

8 Seconds





And dozens more.  I had a great time and met some fine people.  I didn’t want to come home.

I didn’t want to come home because I knew I have to face the fact that home isn’t home any longer.  That it never really has been.  That I have a lot of to-the-bone truths to work out, including the fact that no matter where I go next, I will be taking myself with me.  How dreadful.

Wouldn’t it just be brilliant if Dr. Frankenstein (that’s Franken-STEEN) had perfected his art, and you could have elective surgery to replace your funky brain that misfires with a better one that was more optimistic and talented, less turbulent and prone to bad thoughts?  And, if it’s not asking too much, maybe a little off around the middle-age waistline and a boob lift?

That would be work in which the good Doc could take pride.  I wonder if that might be covered under my ObamaRama Plan?

Rescuing Ruby

Happier Days

Happier Days

This wasn’t what my mother had in mind for her dog when she had a mind.

In the same way we believe that nothing bad will ever happen to us when we are 18 and immortal, when Mom adopted Ruby, she never anticipated she would get Alzheimer’s. Mom never thinks she’s old, either, but that has more to do with vanity than the deterioration of her cognitive and motor skills. Mom was about 79 when she adopted Ruby, who was two. In fairness to my mother, none of us argued with her desire to have this little dog. We all thought it was a great fit. In that moment. And so it was for several years.

But no one asked what might happen to the dog as my mother aged. No one thought to make a plan for Ruby in the event Mom died. Or worse. And worse happened.

If you read my post from September about Mom and Ruby you will think that my mother’s sad story had a happy ending for Ruby. My nephew wanted to take her into his family. On paper, great. In the real world, not so much. Ruby doesn’t do well with 4 year-old boys whose love is expressed in an exuberant, physical way. She snapped at the boy, the boy’s mother (rightfully) nixed the deal, and Ruby came back to my sister’s house. With her two Yorkie Poos. And Ruby doesn’t really love other dogs. She snaps at them, too.

She wants what she was accustomed to — her human, her home. What she has is confusion and a lot of time in a crate right now. She has my stressed out sister who has a hellish schedule. What she must be thinking.

When my mother lived near me, both she and Ruby spent a lot of time at my farm. After my mom fell ill, I took Ruby for extended periods. She did just okay with my dogs (BP — Before Puppy). She has an autoimmune medical condition that requires daily meds for the rest of her life, and she is not a spring chicken herself. Flying her back here is not an option any more.

The upshot of this is that Ruby is going to an Italian Greyhound Rescue Organization foster home, maybe for the rest of her life. I am as horrified and heartbroken and guilt-ridden as I am grateful and relieved that these fine people are so dedicated to their volunteer mission that they are doing for Ruby what we cannot. I have never surrendered an animal in my life. If my mother knew the truth and understood it, she would be shattered. My sister and I decided it was best to lie to her and tell her that Ruby was going back to California to live with the cousin that gave her to Mom in the first place.

I know a little about where she is headed, having checked out the organization and spoken to the foster family, a retired couple who have been in rescue over 20 years. I tell myself to have faith that Ruby will find happiness and love there. And permanency. Faith is something that doesn’t come very easily to me. Lose your husband, your best friend, your father, your health, a few dozen friends to the scourge of AIDS in the space of a decade, and you begin to understand the point of view of the Pharoah a little bit when all the plagues were raining down in Egypt. Still, when all the other options are spent, faith is what is left.

When I had a health scare years ago, I made a will and a trust. I put all of my animals in as property in my trust as well as a fund for them. At the time, I had horses, so it was more elaborate than it is now. Like kids, each of my dogs has a guardian who has agreed to take them for the rest of their lives. It’s unlikely that I will bring any more animals into my home (or at least I won’t go out searching for any). Willow (if she lives as long as Martha has) and I will be old ladies together (I’m still on the fence about her chances of staying out of that much trouble but with age, hopefully, comes wisdom). Going through this with Mom and with Ruby has taught me that a part of our responsibility to our pets is also knowing when not to have them.

If I’ve Told You Once…

Mom, My Sister & Me (Circa 1961) Mom, My Sister & Me (Circa 1961)

I found this piece the other day in some old papers. It was written four years ago, before Mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. As I re-read it, I realized how much our mothers’ memories of us continue to remind us not only of who we are but that we are. For better or worse, mothers are the spoke of the wheel of our lives.

Sweater, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly. ~Ambrose Bierce

My mother last saw her “real” father in 1931. She was five and just starting kindergarten. He was about 30 and on his way to jail.

I don’t know what you understand at five, although I suspect what she did understand about her father disappearing, the shame she, her brother and their mother felt, and the fact of growing up fatherless in the Depression became the weakened taproot from which her emotional life grew. Or perhaps failed to fully thrive.

My grandmother went to work to support my mother and her older brother. My uncle got a paper route at seven to contribute to the household. When they lost the house, they moved from Louisville into my great-grandfather’s big house in Indianapolis, where my grandmother’s younger sisters lived until each of them married and moved away. Sometimes, my mother was sent down to an aunt in Evansville for a summer or part of a school year.

The 1930s were tough enough for most people, but how a divorcee with two children managed to sustain a delicate balancing act between homelessness and getting by in an era when women of my grandmother’s social class didn’t work — outside or inside the home — is beyond my comprehension. What I do understand, however, is that something had to give, and what gave was the luxury of time: time for my grandmother to nurture her children and time for her children to be children. My mother tells me that my grandmother was very critical and exacting. She couldn’t afford to run anything but a tight ship because there was no margin for error.

They moved around from relative to relative, from town to town, meaning that my mother was the new girl in class at the beginning of every school year, never acquiring the knack of the outgoing newcomer. When my mother was 14, my grandmother married my grandfather, Lou, an industrial psychologist, always in search of a tenured position at a scattershot of universities. More moving, until they finally settled in Chicago where my mother became part of the sophomore class at Sullivan High.

Lou was teaching at a local university, and, although my grandmother (whom we called “Honey” because that’s what we’d heard Lou call her) had “retired”, the past had already cemented how Mother and her brother related to life: Mom always waited for the other shoe to drop; her brother was always going to be one step ahead of any falling shoe.

She finally had three years in the same place, in the same class of students (among which was my dad, although Mother didn’t like him much then). She went on to the Art Institute of Chicago Design School, graduated, and went to work for a children’s clothing manufacturer as a designer. For a year.

After the war, when my dad got out of the Air Force, they met again at a dance. My mother was engaged to orthopaedic surgeon, several years her senior and several inches shorter. Dad and Mom met again at the dance, and, while I think my dad was pretty smitten with her, she fully intended on marrying Dr. Harry. At least up until Honey had a heart attack and had to stay in the hospital.

Dr. Harry was a busy surgeon who often ended dates with Mom by giving her cab fare to get home as he rode off in another taxi to the hospital on an emergency. My dad, on the other hand, wooed Mom by going to the hospital to visit with my grandmother every day. It struck Mother one day that life with Dr. Harry would mean interrupted meals and lonely taxi rides while life with Dad would mean kindness, stability and devotion.

Life with Dad would also mean a first apartment with a Murphy bed and a first child (my sister). A first house in the suburbs and a second child (me). A second house in which we would grow to be a family, fight tooth and nail, cry our eyes out, laugh even in the worst times, have a basement that flooded with every rainstorm, and eventually grow away from.

Every time I focus on all the ways that my mother has driven and still drives me crazy, I remember her story of continual survival. There was “The Accident”, the time a drunk driver hit my parents’ car head on when I was in fifth grade. Mother went back and forth through the windshield enough times to change her face forever, had broken more bones than I thought anyone had in their body, and awoke in the hospital with a priest giving her the last rites. With all that, she still summoned the courage to have my sister and me visit her in the hospital when she knew she was unrecognizable to us. Although she came home after four months in the hospital to reclaim her role as our mother, the many surgeries it took in the ensuing years to give her back a nose, lips, teeth, and a forehead were something she seemed to take in stride. Or maybe it just seemed that way to us because children are both self-centered and lack the ability to see their parents as anything other than, well, parents.

Now, as she is morphing into an old widow who can no longer balance a checkbook or hear the “ping” of the toaster or the whistle of the kettle, relying on me to do things for her I thought she could do for herself, I remind myself that it was Mom who took on running Dad’s restaurant when he had his first heart attack and by-pass surgery even though she didn’t know how to write a check. It was Mom who balanced that with visiting my sister in another hospital across the city. At that time in our life as a family, we were contentious and divided, and I found it easy to decline her request to come home from my tiny cabin in the Rockies to help because I’d grown tired of coping with “their” dysfunction.

My mother isn’t easy. Being around her, then and now, is often like being nibbled to death by ducks. She is sometimes insatiably needy and not terribly reflective. She was and is as critical and judgmental as she claims her mother was, but she doesn’t see it. She still asks me “Do you have something on your head?” when I go out the door in the cold weather, and “Who are you going out with and what time will you be home?” on the rare (and getting more rare) occasion that I make social plans.

I react reflexively to her smothering; I don’t understand why she doesn’t get that I’m a middle-aged woman now. When I take a breath and think, I realize that this is the way she shows her love. I wish sometimes she showed her love for me in the way she showers affection on her little dog with the dragon breath that has more clothes than I do. But then, I don’t sit in her lap and kiss her with my tongue, nor have I ever been a big fan of PDA with my parents. Perhaps it’s simply that she loves me in the way I allow her to. And each day, I try to show my love for her in the ways I am able. It’s like she’s a PC and I’m a Mac.

She shows her love for me every day. It’s in the phone call that comes at 7 p.m. every night — “what’s new?” she’ll ask, and then tell me, as she does each night, that she took her dog for a walk, what the dog’s poop looks like, and what old movie she’s watching on TMC. She will buy me something I don’t need, and then give me the bill for it. But, at 84, she slept on a mattress on my living room floor (the guest room was being renovated) when I was so ill with pneumonia. I couldn’t move.

She chose me, for reasons I do and don’t understand, to live near as her life winds down, and I’m privileged to share that with her on the days I’m not overwhelmed by it.

Every time I want to pluck out my eyes in frustration when she argues with me about what day it is, I try to imagine what it’s like being her: nearing the end of life, losing your hearing and eyesight and connection with the world, not knowing the things you once knew so well, the misplaced memories of things and people who made up your life. She trusts me to be there for her now. She’s not embarrassed that I know most of her most intimate health issues. She knows it’s okay with me that she’s changing with age, so she doesn’t have to work so hard with me the way she does with others to appear to be her former self.

I contemplate a life in the near future without my mother in it, and I know it will be lonelier, even as I grow weary of elder care. It will be, as a friend once said when his band broke up, “a horrible relief.”

I wonder, how will I feel when it’s past 7 p.m. and the phone no longer rings?

Please Recycle: Bailey The Reusable Dog


They found her in the back seat of a stranger’s car at the mall, wearing a tired red collar without a tag, a crumpled paper sack holding two cans of dog food next to her bushy black tail.

Whoever left her probably believed they were doing the best thing, that maybe the owner of a nice car would have the money to keep her and care for her. She was well groomed and well fed; her people had cared for her. Whatever it was that brought them to the point of parting with her — a divorce, a deployment, a lost job. They must have believed this was better than taking her to a shelter.

But the owner of the nice car didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t keep her, and she ended up at the shelter anyway, one of the several million homeless dogs that are killed in shelters every year, one of several thousand dogs that are killed in animal shelters each day. Just like those dogs, she was born, she played, she loved, and she bonded to someone before that day. When her people’s luck ran out, so did hers. Almost.

Someone must have seen something special in her brown eyes, in the way she basked in even the smallest of attention paid to her, the way she seemed to smile when spoken to in a soft voice. Someone noticed her behind the bars of the cage as they walked through the kennel, her quiet manner unlike the others barking and jumping. “This one can be saved,” they thought, “this one is adoptable.”

The animal rescue group took her from the shelter and brought her to a farm, to a foster family who would take care of her, be kind to her, and get to know her while the group tried to find her a forever home. The foster family didn’t name her, and she had no way of telling them her name. The tentativeness of her situation made her watchful and careful, on her best behavior so the awful loss would not happen again. She must have grieved for her people.

It happened one day that I had a chance encounter with the woman from the farm at the feed store. She was buying some sort of monstrous looking metal device for her sow, Oona. We got to talking as we stood in line, and I ended up following her back to her farm to see the sow which lived up to its description of being as large as a Volkswagen Beetle. Oona was as nasty as she was large, so one look over the rail of the pen was plenty enough pig.

As we walked around the farm, I noticed the black dog almost surgically attached to the woman’s leg. The dog had not left her side from the moment of our arrival and had, in fact, leaped a three foot fence to get to her.

I said “That dog is really attached to you.” And the woman told me what she knew of the dog’s story. I knelt down on the soft grass to pet her, and I could feel this dog’s big heart radiating under my hand. My own dog, BJ The Wonder Dog, lay in the cool shaded grass, waiting for me. I stood up, thanked the woman for allowing us to visit, and opened the back of my Explorer for BJ to hop in. He did.

And in less than a minute, the black dog with the soulful eyes looked up at the woman, and, having made her own decision about her fate, hopped up into the Explorer right next to BJ. I looked at the two smiling, happy dogs in my truck and then over at the woman.

“I guess she’s found her home,” she said, smiling.

“I guess she has,” I replied, closing the tailgate of the truck.

I had gone to see a pig and come away with a used dog.

Bailey melded into our lives as if she’d always been a part of us. She patiently raised a kitten, and she was a companion not only to me but to BJ as age wore him down. When his sight went, she would use her body to herd him from the yard to the porch steps, her nose nudging his legs up the steps to the front door. Her devotion to him was amazing to witness, and when it came time to let him go, she grieved with me.

For the five years I had her, I often silently thanked the people who gave her up. She embodied everything that is best in dogs: their inexhaustible capacity for forgiveness, for loyalty, for love without condition. I think they help bring out those qualities in us, too.

But there’s something extra special about shelter dogs. They teach us about gratitude. In the end, it’s hard to say who saved whose life.

The Talk Of The Town




Coming to this tiny Northwest town from Los Angeles, where the only thing anyone wants from a neighbor is anonymity, it hadn’t occurred to me I might attract much attention. 


My neighbors still referred to my property as the “Old Johnson Place,” although I didn’t buy it from the Johnson’s and there was not one person named Johnson on any of the farms bordering mine. No mind — nearly everyone nearby was related in some way, not only to Old Johnson but also to each other.  That was more than a bit disconcerting, and there were terrible flashes of dueling banjos playing in my head, but most of them seemed nice enough and their children looked normal.   


My farm sits on five acres on long road that has historically been its own community.  Settled by Scandinavian immigrants around the end of the 19th Century, it is dotted by family farms handed down through the generations.  New people are warmly welcomed but are also the subject of much curiosity and even more gossip.


It’s been said, “love is blind, but not your neighbors.” Apparently, they aren’t deaf, either. 


It was Barney that helped me first cross the social gap from newcomer to, well, village idiot, a position in the community I would hold until someone finally did something dumber than I could conjure up on my own. 


Barney, the tough looking Shepherd/Rottweiller cross I had adopted in L.A. had every reason to mistrust and dislike people. He was found wandering in a part of L.A. known for gang wars and dog fighting. He had cigarette burn scars on his body, places where chains had rubbed his coat away, and the crooked reminder that someone had broken his back legs.


The name on the “Needs A Good Home” poster at my vet’s office was “Blazer,” and I remember thinking:  what a dumb name for a dog.


My wonderful shelter rescue Bailey had died six months earlier, and Rupert, my Jack Russell, and I felt like we were missing a limb. Together, we went to visit Blazer, who had been in a large metal crate for several weeks, and seemed a most docile though, understandingly, emotionally disconnected dog.  I’ve always had luck with the “used” dogs I’ve adopted, so I signed all the papers while watching Rupert trying to entice a bewildered Blazer to play by barking at him in the “down dog” play position and then scurrying around him to tug on his bushy tail.  Blazer displayed no hint of canine social skills, and, although never aggressive toward other dogs, he lacked any real curiosity about them.


On the way home, the re-christened “Barney” rode shotgun in the small backseat of my pickup, complete with an enormous, plastic cone collar due to his neuter surgery and a full bladder that emptied between the vet’s office and my house. Not a glorious beginning.



This poor dog had never been inside a house, which, of course, meant he wasn’t housebroken. Or leash trained.  Or voice trained.  Why on earth would he have any reason to come to me when I didn’t know his “birth” name?  Maybe the mean people who’d had him didn’t call him anything but “Ashtray.” 


What I did know about him was that he was scared of making a mistake, and the thing he wanted more than anything – more than food, more than to be chased wildly through the deer paths of the canyon on what could loosely be called a “walk” — was to be stroked by a hand that wasn’t violent. Barney would be the dog to teach me about patience and the time it takes to heal from wounds of the psyche, and how trust can be mended as well as spirit. Everything else – name recognition, housebreaking, sitting, coming, staying – would work itself out with some time.  



And it did, or at least enough of it did. Still, despite the fact that he learned to sit and “give me five” for a cookie in fifteen minutes, Barney was and would remain unusual. He was his own dog.



Once we moved to the farm, he had five acres to freely patrol, and I watched with trepidation as he developed his pattern — out the back door, down the dirt path toward the back pasture, once around the fence line of pasture, then around the backside of the pond, along the side yard, through the front garden, across the property entrance and back to the inner garden to the back door.  Include stopping, sniffing and marking dozens of times, and Barney’s routine lasted anywhere from a full hour to over two.



For the first month or so, I was nervous that he would enlarge his circuit, wander into the road and get hit by a car, so I called him home incessantly. He’d look up at the sound of my voice, his tail would perk up and off he’d continue on his route, almost as if he was taunting me: You don’t know my secret name!!



In fact, because I was new to the road, it wasn’t until the first potluck dinner gathering some months later that I realized my neighbors knew more about Barney than they did about me.  I also learned how far my voice carried.  The conversation went like this:



Neighbor: Oh, you’re the new owner of the Old Johnson Place, aren’t you? Where’s your husband?



Me: Um, well, my husband died.


Neighbor, now with a horrified look on her face: Oh, no! I’m so sorry; we didn’t hear he had died. We would have come over, I feel so bad.



Me: No, no — it’s okay. My husband died in 1991.



Neighbor (with quizzical look on face, like the ones dogs get when they hear other dogs barking on TV): Oh. Well, then, who is Barney?



Me (laughing): Barney is my DOG!



Neighbor (now also laughing): Oh, God, we thought Barney was your husband! We always felt so sorry for him, the way you were always yelling at him to come in for dinner or come back to the house.



For the first few years we lived on the farm, it was a standing joke that I was married to a dog.


I figured I’d dated worse.


You Dirty Rat


“Trade?” I ask Willow when she has hold of something not good for her (like my sock, a pencil or a shard of firewood). 

Her ears perk up.  She runs over to me, drops the not-so-good thing for a better thing (a cookie or an approved chew toy). 

We are in the process of learning “Drop It” which is a harsher command (think of how it sounds — the intonation behind the words as opposed to the inflection of “Trade?” which ends in an up pitch).  But I wonder if it’s such a good thing to barter with your puppy. 

Today, Willow found a gray rat.  I don’t know if she killed it or if it was already dead.  But at 6:30 this morning, I looked out the window into the dog yard on the farm to see this bit of fur with the unmistakable rat tail limply hanging from her mouth. 

Being a natural ratter, she was ecstatic.  Racing around the yard, the little gears in her primitive mind whirling with great velocity, torn between finding a place to hide her new treasure and the inability to let it go. 

Fascinating from a anthropological point of view.  DISGUSTING from my personal point of view. 

The dilemma:  I have nothing better to trade that beats a dead rat. 

Ninety minutes of watching her and periodically enticing her to “Trade?” and coming up short later, she appears at the back door sans rat.  I pray she hasn’t eaten it (poison possibility, worms, God knows what else) but stashed it somewhere for later.  She comes in, gets breakfast, is praised for coming in. 

While she eats breakfast, I go out into the big dog yard (which is actually a part of my garden), wearing a pair of work gloves and muck boots to seek the corpse.  No luck.  Only Willow will lead me to her prize, so I put her on a long lead and harness.  Out we go together, leaving Gus and Martha in the house.  Sure enough, she dives into the dank darkness beneath the deck and emerges with mouth clamped around the dead vermin. 

“Trade?” I ask, holding out her favorite squeaky plush toy. 

Are you kidding? her eyes say.  I am a ratter.  I am a great spotted hunter.  I have prey.  Real prey, with real fur and real stink.  Uh-uh.

I reel her in, grab her by the scruff of her neck and pinch her nose.  The dead rat, its gray fur now matted with dog saliva, its long yellow teeth visible in a mouth in the beginning stage of rigor mortis, drops to the ground.  With my free gloved hand, I lift it by its long naked tail, holding it high above my shoulder as we walk toward the garbage can just on the other side of the dog yard fence.

It hits the bottom of the empty plastic bin with an unremarkable thud.

Willow looks at me, crestfallen.

There will be other rats, even if she does not yet understand that.  But there is always something special about your first time.