Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Pup Who Came in From the Cold

We arrived home at the Monterey airport to a fine, soaking drizzle.  Jan had told me that moisture would bead up on Cleo’s hair, not penetrating to the skin, and I got a lovely first hand and up close confirmation of that as we meandered through the parking lot from the terminal to our car, Cleo stopping to sniff every bush within five feet of her and every painted line we walked across.  By the time we got to the car, she looked sodden, but with a vigorous shake, she downgraded to damp.  I, on the other hand, bore a remarkable resemblance to a drowned rat.  It was 11 PM as we pulled away from the terminal, exactly twelve hours since I had left school to begin the puppy procurement mission.

I wanted Cleo to be able to recognize the outside of her new home, so we spent several minutes exploring the driveway, front yard and deck before heading inside.  As we stepped through the front door, two very excited cats came skittering and scampering into the living room to greet me.  They got about halfway into the room, one balanced on the back of the chaise longue, the other tiptoeing across the coffee table, when they realized that something was not as they expected.  They froze, wide-eyed, in slack-jawed disbelief.  What the hell was that thing?  Cleo, too, had frozen, gazing from one to the other.  It was she who recovered first, resolving her confusion in characteristic fashion by falling back on her standard definition of anything new: Playmates!!  The cats also stayed true to form.  Rufus fled in terror while Marvin adopted an expression of haughty disdain.

Rufus came to us about three years ago and Marvin followed a year later.  I have the suspicion that cats tip each other off to good living situations.  I also suspect that it’s very important to them to make sure that their human companions are looked after when they are gone.  Every time a cat of mine has died, another has come along within a very short time to take his place. 

Only a couple weeks after the death of our beloved boy Nikos, my husband’s singing partner, Jennifer, asked if we knew of anyone who might be willing to adopt an adult cat.  Jen and her husband Anthony were about to embark on an extended trip to Alaska, and from there, on to New Orleans to see if they would like to move there.  They were taking with them their two Labrador Retrievers—just the four of them in a converted van, obviously no place for a cat, especially not one like theirs.  They had found Rufus, half feral, three-quarters starved, in their yard one day.  He was alone and only a few weeks old.  It’s likely that his mother had been killed by a coyote.  They rescued him, but when he was still fairly young, he was attacked by some wild animal and in defending himself, badly injured all four feet.  These experiences left him extremely shy and permanently on guard (read, neurotic).  Jen and Anthony needed a quiet, patient home, so we gained both a kitty and two very good human friends.

About a year after Rufus came to us, we arrived home from an outing to find a scroungy, scabby grey cat in our yard.  As we pulled in, he came running to us, flinging himself onto the sidewalk and rolling around in ecstasy as if to say, “You’re home!  I’ve missed you so much!”  We suggested to him that he might want to move along, return from whence he came and all that.  We continued to make the same suggestion for three days during which he never left the front yard, then we broke down and named him.  We brought him in, fed him, rid him of his flea infestation, and in fairly short order, he shaped up to be a fine portly gentleman.
For weeks after coming home to discover she had two cats, Cleo followed Marvin everywhere he went, staring at him in fascination.  Rufus would creep out of whatever hiding place he had sequestered himself in, take one look at Cleo and bolt.   I knew the acclimation process would take a while, and it has, but as of this writing the relationships have resolved pretty sweetly.  Cleo remains fascinated by Marvin, but after being on the receiving end of multiple smacks across the nose, she now gives him a wide berth.  Rufus, on the other hand, has never realized that the claws at the end of his toes could be a handy deterrent.  Instead, he bonded with Cleo through a game of hide and seek played through the cat door into the garage.  When he finally realized she wasn’t going to hurt him, they touched noses and he rubbed the top of his head against her cheek.  These days she’s tall enough that after rubbing his head against her chin, he follows it with the rest of his body, stopping only when his upright tail collides with her face.

the mountain man
Cesar Millan recommends limiting puppies’ territory inside the house until they are fully potty trained, so after meeting the cats, Cleo and I went straight for the kitchen where we were greeted by Jackson, my eighteen-year-old stepson who had been waiting up for our return.  It was love at first sight as the 8 inch tall puppy caught her first glimpse of the 6’2” mountain man.  As he folded himself towards the floor, she toddled up to him, put her feet on his knees and made her first attempt to chew on his beard. 

It really is impressive how confident Cleo was.  At eight weeks old, a time when puppies are supposed to be going through the first of two cautious stages, this dog was unfailingly brave.  From a noisy ride in a prop plane to the constant surprises of new territory, she was encountering everything as if it were a delightful adventure.  Was this nature or nurture?  Terrific genes or a terrific beginning with Jan and Ron?  Or maybe both?

My husband John was playing a gig (I’ve mentioned before that he is an outstanding rock guitarist) and wouldn’t be home until about 1:30 AM, so I introduced Cleo to the crate that had been set up in our bedroom for over a week.  I expected her to be somewhat averse to it, but she climbed right in, curled up and was sound asleep in a matter of seconds.  She’d woken up that morning in Texarkana and after two plane rides, a brief hotel stay, multiple car rides and uncountable new experiences, here she was in Monterey, California.  She was simply exhausted.  I’ll admit I lay down on the floor just outside her crate so I could watch her sleep.

Napping with her favorite toys
I couldn’t wait for John to get a chance to see her, and when he got home we opened the crate quietly.  “She’s so small,” he whispered, “even smaller than I thought she’d be.”  Her little head came up and she looked at him.  You could see in her eyes that she instantly recognized the alpha, even though all I saw as I looked at him was tenderness and a quiet pleasure in her absolute perfection.  Out of the crate she came, ready to be scooped up and cuddled, ready to hug. 

The rain had stopped by this time, so the three of us took a stroll-and-sniff down to the end of the block and back.  It was long past puppy bedtime, so back into the crate she went.  Most puppy books warn that the first night away from their litter mates will be a tough one for puppies and humans alike, but not for Cleo and us.  She slept right through that night.  She was safe, she was loved, she was warm. 

She was home.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Is That a Lamb?

As we drove through Phoenix from the airport to the hotel Jan and Ron had booked for the night, I felt a responsibility to take in a little of a city I’d never seen before.  But all I really wanted to do was stare at Cleo.  She was so tiny that she could stretch out width-wise on the back car seat and still have room for a chew-toy.  While I don’t want to judge a whole city on two car rides, one from the airport to the hotel, the other from the hotel to the airport, I have to wonder why anyone would want to go there.  By the time I get to Phoenix, indeed.  Then again, I do know the way to San Jose and I don’t much want to go there, either.

Gracee, Cleo's mom
As we chatted, Jan told me about Cleo’s ancestry.  Though I keep saying that the only thing that really matters to me is that Cleo is happy and healthy, and this is true, I couldn’t help being impressed by her lineage.  To breed Cleo’s litter, Jan partnered with a long-time friend, Lucy Heyman who owns Carillon Bedlingtons.  Carillon has bred an astonishing number of champions, including multiple time champions like Lover Boy, Cleo’s dad.  Together, Jan and Lucy own Sterling, Cleo’s half brother who was Lucy’s 134th champion!  Jan Balladarsch also owns multiple champions, including Cleo’s mother Gracee, whose whole first litter were champions.  It actually gets a little mind-boggling.  Following the lineages is a little like memorizing the connections among all of the crowned heads of Europe.  The danger, of course, was that I would start to think I had to treat my little girl like a piece of fine porcelain.  I got over that the first time she had a dig fest in the backyard dirt.  She is one tough little puppy dog.

Lover Boy, Cleo's dad
On the way back to the airport, Jan coached me a bit on being an ambassador for Bedlingtons.  “I’m always asked what kind of dog Gracee is,” she said in her smooth Texarkana drawl.  “Or people will think she’s a lamb at first.”  In a gentle way, she was telling me that I would be answering a lot of questions and that it was important that I be always upbeat and thorough in my answers.  Bedlington owners love their dogs and are passionate about the breed; there is nothing snooty or standoffish about us.

As I walked through the airport, Jan was proven right.  My first stop was the ticket counter.  When you fly with an animal, most airlines require you to make a pet reservation ahead of time, then pay a fee once you’re at the airport.  For US Airways, the fee is $100, which, when you think about it, is something of a ripoff.  For one thing, they are very clear that you absolutely may not, on pain of defenestration, take the pet out of its airline approved travel crate once you’re on the plane.  Cleo had to ride underneath the seat in front of me.  So the traveler pays $100 for the privilege of putting her pet where she might normally have put her laptop for free. 

Anyway, as soon as we stepped up to the ticket counter, the agent exclaimed, “That is the cutest dog I’ve ever seen!  What kind is she?”  I looked at Jan whose return gaze clearly communicated, “This is your maiden voyage, trainee.  Answer her.”  By this time, two or three other agents had come over to our counter to get a look and several travelers in line were craning their necks.  “Ooo,” cooed one, “she looks like a little lamb.”  Holy smokes, I thought, the clich├ęs are all true!

So I said goodbye and thank you to Jan, Ron and Jan’s son, they each gave Cleo a final hug and I was going it solo.  Negotiating through the security line was the first challenge.  Over my shoulder I had a large handbag sort of thing that now contained a banana, an apple, two books, my cell phone, my wallet, a puppy toy, puppy treats, a leash and a twenty pound box of Bedlington Terrier books and magazines that Jan lent me.  In one hand I carried the puppy crate, and wedged between my arm and ribcage was Cleo.  The line was interminable.  We finally made it up to the identity check officer and I dropped the crate and began scrabbling through my purse for my license and boarding pass.  Despite the fact that I must have been squishing her vital organs to jelly as I fought not to drop her, Cleo didn’t utter a word of complaint.  She simply gazed around at all of the other passengers, took a rapt interest in what was going on in my bag, and placed a nonchalant paw on the officer’s podium.  “Oh, she’s darling,” the officer chirruped.  “What kind of dog is she?”

I wasn’t really sure about protocol as we went through the metal detector.  All I knew was that I was not going to put my tinky puppy in a plastic bin to ride along a conveyor belt and be x-rayed.  Although I did think it would be pretty cool to have a chance to see her little bones and everything.  But no, I carried her through the metal detector, showed the security guard my boarding pass ("Cute.  What kind?"), then redressed and gathered up my paraphernalia, all without dropping the puppy on her head.  I considered that a major accomplishment.  

It was an enormous relief to finally make it to the gate and have a chance to sit for a bit.  Cleo was so beat that she sacked out half in, half out of her crate and snoozed.  As I watched her breathe (something that was endlessly entertaining at that moment), I heard the woman across from me murmur to her husband, “Is that a poodle?”  He had the good sense to say no.  At one point, Cleo woke up, looked at me and yawned, and the family at the end of the bank of seats exclaimed, “Oh, my gosh!  It’s real!  I thought it was a stuffed dog.  It’s so cute!”

Cleo naps as we wait for our plane.
People can be so lovely, can’t they?  There was the man who came over to me to offer to throw away my banana peel and slimy apple core so that I didn’t have to leave my sleeping puppy.  There was the woman who praised both Cleo and me when Cleo toddled over to the pee pad I’d hastily laid out for her when I realized she was looking for a place to go, squatted and let rip with perfect aim.  There was my seat neighbor once we were on the plane who offered me half of her under seat space for my bag and who, once we landed in Monterey, turned to me and said, “Do you think I can have a little peak at your puppy now?”  Honestly, I think there’s nothing like the promise of a brand new being to allow people to expose their vulnerabilities and to bridge the distance between human beings with kindness.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

What to Expect When You’re Expecting...a Puppy

Puppy's first hair cut
During the weeks between committing to the Texas blue puppy and actually being able to pick her up, I was more dog obsessed than ever.  When I wasn’t at work I was planning and preparing.  The kitchen table became a staging area and rapidly accumulated piles of training materials, toys, grooming tools, food, treats, toys, potty training aids, crate pads, and did I mention toys?  I couldn’t help myself.  I looked forward to going to Petco to buy the next round of supplies and every time I was there I bought a toy.  Or three.  If I could have justified painting a nursery for her, I would have.

I avidly viewed old Dog Whisperer episodes online.   I bought two books by Cesar Milan, one from the Monks of New Skete, and prowled the internet for informative sites.  I obsessively watched anything about Bedlingtons on YouTube.  I made lists and checked them off.  I signed us up for a Sirius puppy training class that would start two weeks after she came home.  I read passages of How to Raise the Perfect Dog to my husband when he called me on his way home from work.  I practiced my “tssst” and memorized growth stages.  I went on Craigslist and found a woman selling two sizeable crates—one for home and one for work. My colleagues laughed at me when I had the office crate set up with a pad, toys, food and water bowls, and treats more than two weeks early.  I wrote Jan almost daily and we friended each other on Facebook.   She sent pictures, information, advice, and kind encouragement.

Gracee surrounded by her puppies.
Cleo is far right, at attention like her mom.
She still learns by watching and imitating.
My husband and I started tossing around ideas for names.  In our history together, I’ve been the one to name our animals (although he did come up with the name for our series of ill-fated algae eaters that lived with our Goldfish Morrie—they were all called Tuesdays).  So we’ve had Emma, the sweet though somewhat neurotic Chinese Crested, Rufus the orange cat, Marvin the feline behemoth.  But this time, he uncharacteristically, and somewhat wistfully, said, “I’d really like to name her Cleo.”

John is an extraordinary guitarist and composer.  I say this with complete objectivity.  After twenty-five years in the theatre, I can separate my love for someone from my assessment of his artistic abilities.  As part of some coursework he was doing to expand his experience with composing for film and television, John underscored a cartoon about a brilliant, confident, bold little girl named Cleo who befriends and has adventures with the reanimated mummy of King Tut.  John had a special fondness for his work on the project as well as for the cartoon itself.  Though I flirted briefly with the more Muse-inspired spelling of Clio, we pretty quickly dismissed that as far too pretentious.  Okay, John realized it was far too pretentious well before I did, but I eventually saw the light.  The bottom line was that “Cleo” became the name of choice, pending the actual meeting.  And after a couple days calling her Cleo between ourselves (or occasionally Chloe when we got confused), it was clear the name was going to stick and we’d have a hell of a time trying to change it once we saw her in the flesh.  Luckily, she is a perfect Cleo.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

One of the main topics of my early communications with Jan was how I would pick up the puppy.  As I have mentioned, Jan was planning to fly from Texarkana to Phoenix in order to scoop up her college age grandchildren and head out to Disneyland for a few days.  The original plan was that she would put Cleo on a plane for the short hop from Phoenix to Monterey where I would meet her at the airport.  We quickly discovered, though, that the airlines that fly into Monterey don’t permit unaccompanied animals.  A representative of one of the airlines told me that management feared someone would rig the pet to explode once the plane was airborne.  As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.  So feeling like a true jetsetter, I made reservations to fly out of the Monterey airport at 12:30 Friday afternoon and fly back in at 10:30 that same night.

Jan and her husband had arrived in Phoenix from Texarkana fairly early that Friday morning, gotten a hotel room and returned to the airport, with Cleo in tow, to meet me.  Okay, it’s confession time: I’m an anxious traveler.  This isn’t because I don’t like new experiences; I love new places.  It’s partly because I don’t see well and I’m always afraid I’ll miss something vital, like the sign telling me that if I pass this point I’ll be arrested.  I’m also extremely shy and it’s nerve-wracking for me to meet new people on my own, though I generally do a pretty good job of masking that character flaw.  Anyway, we had arranged to meet at baggage claim, so with the focus of a laser beam I made my way to baggage claim.  I’d seen a picture of Jan and her husband on Facebook, and I kept looking for a retirement aged couple carrying an airline approved dog crate.  Nothin’.  I called her cell phone.  It turns out they had been seated in the arrivals greeting area directly between my gate and the baggage claim area.  I had walked right by them.  And they had been holding Cleo extended over their heads.  Did I mention I’m kinda blind?  This caused them no end of amusement! 

But after almost four weeks of waiting and preparing and imagining, I saw her for the first time, a fuzzy dark grey something cradled in the arms of a grinning gray-haired gentleman.  Suddenly, I was surrounded by a smiling, excited family: Jan, petite and forthright, her towering son, and Ron who handed me a tinky ball of fluff.  My arms wrapped around Cleo and as she buried her face under my chin, her arms wrapped around my neck.  She was perfect.  I burst into tears.

Cleo and me--our first shot together.