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Cecil and Rocky: The Perfect Couple

Have you ever met a couple you knew was perfect together? A couple that was meant for each other? That’s the way I feel about a man named Cecil and his bulldog Rocky. Over the past year, they’ve been regularly showing up on the greenway. Cecil is black, a war vet who wears a handlebar mustache, Semper Fi baseball caps, and T-shirts that read my priority is the Second Amendment. Rocky looks like your stereotypical bulldog, short and squat, all wrinkles and snorts.

Even from afar, they look like they belong together. Cecil ambles along and smokes his cigarette, while Rocky leisurely lifts his leg on every tree he can reach. For a few weeks, we greeted each other with a good morning. Then, one day Cecil said, “If I could talk dog, I’d ask him what’s so damn interesting about that tree right there.”

I laughed, and I laughed out loud. On a million different occasions, I’ve wanted to ask my dogs that same question about things that capture their attention. It was the first time Cecil made me laugh but not the last.

Whenever I see them, Cecil shares some funny tidbit about life with his bulldog Rocky. Once, he told me Rocky ordered a flux capacitor on Amazon so he could visit the Wild West. On another occasion, he said the Clarksville PetSmart banned Rocky for stealing too many treats from the stash at the register.

Cecil swore Rocky solved a physics formula about acceleration. And another time, the bulldog couldn’t decide whether to spend his allowance on Modern Dog magazine or a pack of Nathan’s hotdogs. Actually, Cecil and Rocky spend a lot of time debating the merits of food, like the texture of certain steaks or honey versus spicy mustard.

A few months ago, I started giving Rocky a peanut butter treat. Okay, maybe I give him two or three. But, I can’t help it. Rocky is quite the charmer with his squashed face and tank-like body. Every time he sees me, his whole behind sways and his snorting grows louder. I consider it his thank you.

I look forward to seeing Cecil and Rocky because they make me laugh, but also because they remind me about the special connection between people and animals. They remind me it’s a bond that crosses every race and every class.

I don’t know a lot about Cecil and Rocky, like how they became friends or when they moved to Springfield. I don’t even know why they started walking on the greenway. But my guess is all they have is each other, and I couldn’t imagine a better couple.

My Little Stray: One of 70 Million

Adriana wanders along the fence line. Her nose skims the grass, tail swaying, paws leaving paths through the dew. Occasionally, she’ll stop, investigate, then move on. When she comes inside, her pink nails will be clumped with red clay.

Lately, she’s been digging for worms. I think it’s a diversion until she sees a mole moving underground. But right now it’s so hot in Tennessee not even the moles are burrowing. It’s so hot that Ade won’t stay outside for longer than twenty minutes. When the weather is nice, she’ll hunt for hours. She’ll hunt until I call her inside, and even then she comes in with reluctance.

Ade is six years old now. It’s hard to believe that she was born with seven littermates on a street in Springfield. But, Ade comes from a long line of strays. Her mother was feral, and according to local legend so was her grandmother. About five months after Ade was born, her mother delivered another litter of eleven puppies, meaning one stray produced nineteen more in under six months. Even though I witnessed it happen, it still shocks me.

Did you know some calculate 70 million strays live in the US? I imagine that number is pretty rough since tallying them would be close to impossible. Most strays live in the shadows. They hide from us, which doesn’t make counting them easy.

For obvious reasons, it’s much easier to compute the amount of strays surrendered to shelters. The Humane Society says over six million end up in shelters every year. If that estimate of 70 million is even close to actual numbers, then it means about 60 million strays are born and die without ever having a home. That’s the entire population of Spain.

Whatever the number, for these street dogs it’s truly about survival of the fittest. And even then, when do you see an old stray running around? The ones who do survive puppyhood probably don’t make it to old age very often.

I think about this sometimes when I’m watching Adriana because she would never have survived as a stray. She has no backbone and never did, not even as a puppy. For instance, if our other dogs take away her chew or Kong while she’s still working on it, she lets them without complaint. Ade doesn’t know how to stand her ground, which is good for pack harmony but not for the streets. She’s too gentle to survive in the wild.

The doggie door slaps shut, and Ade’s paws tap down the hallway. Her tags create a jingle that’s unique to her. It’s like her calling card. She stops at my office door. We make eye contact, and a wave of tenderness washes over me. How lucky am I to have found this little stray dog?

I know what she wants, but regretfully I shake my head. It’s still too hot to walk again. We have to wait for the shadows to grow longer, for the cicadas to get louder. She waves her tail once then twice, telling me she understands. Her paws tap back down the hallway. Then, she leaps onto the couch. This little dog –  born a stray – will spend the next few hours napping in the AC. And I can’t help but think she’s exactly where she’s suppose to be.

An Update on Sara’s Surgery and Rehab

A few weeks ago I wrote about our howling tradition. Click here for a refresher. I have to say that poor Sara has the worst voice. Meadow, Adriana, and Floyd can all carry a tune. Their howls start low and deep, then rise until they reach a rousing crescendo. Their howls reverberate.

Not Sara’s. Halfway through the first bay, her voice cracks, and she ends up belting out a high-pitched yapping sound. Eventually, it turns into the same kind of bark she uses on our mail lady. Sara doesn’t care though. No shame. She just keeps yipping away.

Speaking of our little patient, it’s been six weeks since Sara’s surgery, and she’s been leash-free for the last two. She’s doing great. We started her on a slow but steady rehab program. At first, we only walked her for a half-mile, then we increased it to three-quarters, then a mile, and so on.

Only two weeks after Sara’s surgery, we started taking her swimming. Sara may not be the best howler, but she is a fantastic swimmer. In fact, she’s the only one who does it. Meadow stands in the water, deep enough so that it hits her belly. Floyd does the same, only he never goes farther than his knees. Ade trots back and forth along the bank. She gets soaked but never loses her footing.

Thankfully, Sara loves it. She’s like a kid who won’t come out of the pool. Sometimes, we have to bribe her with a peanut butter treat to get her out of the water. Swimming is a great way to rehab a dog’s knee. It’s easy on the joints. Since we walk along the Sulphur Fork Creek, we’ve been taking advantage of all our favorite swimming holes.

Currently, Sara’s walking two-miles and swimming for ten minutes daily. I told her if she learns to ride a bike, then she can enter a triathlon. Because we all know she sure as hell shouldn’t be entering any howling competitions. 🙂



Metallica and The Dog Family: What’s In a Nickname

A couple years ago I saw a young boy, about ten, sitting on the lawn outside his home. His dirty blond hair hung to his waist. He was working on his skateboard and jamming to Metallica, Enter the Sandman to be exact. The song played from an old-school boom box resting on the porch, so it was loud, and I instantly recognized it.

Looking at that young kid listening to that music, my music, it suddenly hit me that the tunes I grew up on are now considered classic rock. It was one of those painful moments when I realized time keeps churning forward, even if I don’t feel any older. From then on, I called that kid Metallica. It never occurred to me for a single second he had a nickname for us too.

It didn’t occur to me because Metallica normally makes a habit out of ignoring us. We see the boy around town a lot. Mostly we spot him skating in parking lots, but we’ve also passed him at the grocery store, a local bar-b-q joint, and the dog park. We see him so much that I know his dog’s name, Big Mac, 100 pounds of pure mutt. On average, we probably see Metallica and his family three times a week, more since quarantine.

In the beginning, I had tried acknowledging him with a wave or a hello, but he always blew me off. By the fifth time, I gave up trying. And yes, I was offended. I was offended because every snub reminded me of how old and uncool I felt on the day I nicknamed him.

Over the past couple of years, our relationship morphed into one of mutual indifference, the kind that can only exist between a middle-aged woman who doesn’t have or understand kids and a young boy on the verge of becoming a teenager. And it remained that way until a few days ago.

Don’t get me wrong. There were signs of interest. Metallica can’t make that much of an effort of ignoring us if he didn’t care at all. When he lands a solid ollie or a kickflip, I’ll catch him glancing my way, just a glance but he wants to know I saw. And he should be proud. He’s good. In any major city, he might be competitive. But we don’t even have a skate park in Springfield, let alone anyone near his level.

Then, last weekend we were walking our four dogs past his house. It was the first hot afternoon of spring, so our pace was slower than normal. His mom sat on the porch reading a book. Big Mac snoozed by her feet, and Metallica sat on the hood of his family’s Honda.

His hair hung in a low-riding ponytail, so I could clearly see his ear buds. His foot bounced to whatever beat he listened to. I’d bet 100 bucks it was heavy metal. His skateboard rested on the lawn and four decks were scattered around it. Each one looked more beat up than the last. Big Mac saw us, stood, and started barking his customary gruff hello.

“It’s the Dog Family,” Metallica told his mom.

It took me a second to process his words. For one, I felt honored. There’s no other nickname I’d rather. The Dog Family. It fits us. More importantly, it was the first time Metallica ever acknowledged my existence. Beyond that, I swear I heard tenderness in his voice. That little aloof shit cared enough to give us a nickname. Somehow, it made me feel a little less middle-aged, a little less uncool.

His mom must have noticed the huge smile I couldn’t hide.

“The Dog Family. That’s what he calls you,” she said.

I glanced at Metallica, and he smiled right back. It only lasted a second, but it was there.

Outside of Language

I run a fine-toothed brush from Adriana’s ruff to tail over and over, pulling out handfuls of short white hairs with every stroke. Ade sits between my legs on the porch. She stretches her shiny pink nose towards the sun so that I can reach under her neck. It’s her sweet spot. Around us, a breeze ruffles, birds tweet, squirrels bicker, a hawk screeches. The countryside isn’t quiet. But, it is peaceful because like my dogs nature exists outside of language. And right now, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

Woods surround our house on three sides. A two-lane country road runs in front. Across the street, ragweed, thistle, and wildflowers bloom in an empty field. We can see our closest neighbor’s house during the winter, but in late spring the foliage grows as thick as it does in a rainforest. I never knew so many shades of green existed until I moved to rural Tennessee. Sometimes, it feels like we live in a green cocoon.

Since quarantine, I’ve been brushing the dogs more than ever. One, it gives me a sense of accomplishment. Every stroke yields results. But more importantly, being outside with my dogs is one of the only spaces where I can escape language, where I can escape the overwhelming clatter of current events. A recent BBC article said in utopia newspapers wouldn’t sell very well. Lately, I’ve been reminding myself of that fact a lot.

Ade’s eyes grow heavy. I can’t blame her. We just finished our four-mile walk. She fights it, struggling to stay awake because she wants to feel the sensation of being brushed, the sensation of warm sunshine. She wants to smell that breeze with its hint of wild honeysuckle. Eventually, she can’t resist any longer and sinks onto the deck. She communicates all of this to me without using a single word. With Ade and I, words never interfere. And without words lying is impossible.

In Euphoria, Lily King calls language an unreliable sense, and I couldn’t agree more. For a society that preaches actions speak louder than words, we often do the exact opposite. But it’s never that way with my dogs. In their world, actions are all that matter, and honesty is one the byproducts.

I’ve tried to lie to Ade before. On days I’m leaving for a work trip, I pull out my luggage, pack it, and drag it to the car when she is fully absorbed in a peanut butter Kong on the deck. Yet, she knows I’m leaving. She might not know when, but she knows it will happen. And her serious, sometimes anxious behavior proves it. When words disappear so does that unreliable narrator, a filter that consciously or not influences every word we use and every word we hear.

A squirrel leaps from one branch to another, whipping his tail for balance. Ade lifts her head, glances at the squirrel, then drops back down. She’s too sleepy to care about a squirrel right now, which means she’s really really tired. Her loose fur collects in tufts in the porch’s nooks and crannies. The breeze catches them. They pirouette through the air and twirl into the woods. In a few months, we’ll find these same tufts in birds’ nests. Mason once said he loves nature because it is what it is. There’s no agenda. I could say the same thing about my dogs.


Silver Linings: Gardening

Mason recently told me he wanted to rip out Mr. Pine’s stump. I wasn’t happy. Granted, stumps aren’t exactly attractive, but we’re not talking about just any stump. After a few days of negotiations, we settled on building a memorial instead.

A dry creek runs through our backyard, and fossils litter the bed. When I had first found them, I took some to a geology professor at Vanderbilt. He told me they are relics from when the ocean covered Tennessee, which means they are about four billion years old.

Now, fifty-plus of these ancient rocks circle Mr. Pine. Inside the circle we spread cedar mulch and planted a hydrangea, a red fuchsia, and two snowball bushes. We put them on opposite sides but straight across from each other like points of a compass. In a few years, their flowering branches will completely shade him but for this year I added six dahlias.

Inspired, I planted eight more dahlias in front of the house. Dahlias are such drama queens. Even after two days of soaking rain, they drooped on the first hot afternoon. I also sowed seventeen sunflower seeds along our fence line. Fifteen are two inches tall already. Adriana likes to help me water them, trotting at my heels back and forth from the fence to the hose. Unlike dahlias, sunflowers are troopers. They handled the recent cold temperatures and thunderstorms without a single complaint.

Every other spring before this one, I was working and working so much that it was a survival-of-the-fittest game in my garden. Let’s just say any plants who survived had to possess a strong independent streak. This spring is totally different. I already had the opportunity to observe every stage of our pear trees’ metamorphosis from pale pink to lime green. And I watched our dogwoods bloom so white they looked luminescent at first light.

Now, I’ll have the time to nurture my garden too. When I’m searching for silver linings during this pandemic, gardening is high on the list. This year I can feed and prune my garden weekly, water it daily, cover it when it’s cold, and protect it from pests.

This year I can watch Mr. Pine’s memorial grow and grow and grow.