Sunday, July 29, 2012

Familiarity Breeds Love

The other day I read an entertaining article in the New York Times that compared pet ownership (or animal companion guardianship, depending on your outlook) to playing a video game.  Not being a gamer, I couldn’t relate to most of the article.  Photorealistic graphics, level attainment, joystick usage and the like might not go over my head, but they don’t resonate with my heart.  One point that the writer made, though, did strike home: Taking care of a dog involves a lot of repetitive tasks, and the very nature of that repetition builds intimacy and love.

You might walk a dog today, but she still needs to walk tomorrow.  And the next day.  And the next.  As you stroll your accustomed routes, a familiarity develops that lets you know exactly how each of you will respond to this old scene or that new sight.  A dog, especially a Bedlington Terrier with its Velcro hair, needs to be brushed regularly.  The warmth of companionship and the murmur of conversation as you poke into pads, sniff ears, examine teeth, separate burrs from tassels and seeds from everywhere else builds mutual love.

And, of course, there are the less seemly routine activities.  I went walking on the beach with a friend yesterday.  As we approached the sand, Cleo went into her indicative stance (the old-fashioned water-pump position, John and I call it).  In the midst of a story, I went on talking.  Without thinking, I pulled the plastic bag from my pocket and stood waiting for Cleo to finish.  She gave one last crank of her tail and stepped daintily away from the warm deposit.  I bent down, but, at a climactic moment of my story, paused in mid stoop, gesticulating with the bagged hand.  I made my point and looked to my friend to see her reaction.  It wasn’t exactly what I had expected; a look of horror faded into one of disgust.  “Ew,” she said succinctly.  I looked down.  A malodorous series of dashes was an arm’s length from my face.  I efficiently scooped it up, reversed the bag and tied a knot, an action that I had done so many times it was habitual.  And obviously without thought.  Cleo, in the meantime, had been happily occupied with sniffing a patch of ice plant.  In that moment, there was something so familiar to us, so foreign to my friend, that I felt even more united with Cleo.  A love born of understanding and responsibility, of expectation and fulfillment, of guardianship and dependency took ever greater root.  

Cleo embraces repetition and consistency, yet she is remarkably flexible.  She has settled into the summer routine of spending her days at home, but come next week, she will make the shift to ten months of office hours, students, and constant activity.  Her bedtime and waking time mesh seamlessly with ours, and we are nothing but inconsistent there.  One weekend this summer she spent in a cabin in Guerneville surrounded by (doting) strangers, the next week she spent on her own with a sitter.  She flourished in both settings.

There have been a couple of things this summer that threw her for a loop, though.  On our vacation in Ashland, Oregon, John and I went shopping at a local mall.  Not terribly characteristic of us, but we’d forgotten things like swim trunks.  As we strolled the polished granite expanse, we happened on a Sleep Number Bed showroom.  If you live in Central or Northern California and have ever tuned into KGO Radio, you have heard dozens, hundreds, thousands of commercials for Sleep Number Beds. 

“Want to check them out?” John asked me. 

Well, of course!  On a lark, we sallied into the store.  Two hours later, we left with a receipt and the promise of delivery within a week.

The delivery of the new bed was filled with great fascination for Cleo.  Bustle!  Admirers!  New smells!  At bedtime, when she sleepily jumped up to join us for a pre-crate snuggle, she was clearly surprised that this bed was a good deal lower than our previous, raised mattress.  But the real trouble began when the bed started to move.  Up she sprang as the head of our bed loomed over her!  A strange growling rose from under the mattress!  A Bedlington is nothing if not brave when confronted with a threat to her people.  She launched herself off the mattress, whirled in mid-air and turned to face the monster.  Barking at full roar, she peered under the bed.  Okay, nothing there that looked terribly dangerous, but the bed was still moving.  “Bark!  Bark bark!” she said, now looking at us.  Once the bed had reached its preset position,  and after a good bit of reassuring, she stopped barking and cautiously jumped back onto the bed to curl up between us.  By a couple days later, she was an old hand, completely unflappable, riding the moving bed from raised to flat, flat to upright with nary an ear twitch.

The second event was a more dramatic change.  After years of living with a backyard which I had taken to calling “the blasted heath,” I decided I couldn’t take it anymore.  Land in Monterey is so precious that lots for building are measured in feet, not acres.  In addition to that, residents may not remove trees from their properties without permission of the City.   I tell you this to explain why it is that our tiny backyard is dominated by a sixty foot pine tree whose trunk is some twenty feet around, whose shallow roots snake through every part of the soil, and whose spreading limbs create a dim and clammy microclimate that has killed off every plant I’ve ever tried to grow there.  In the South, polite people would have termed this desert a “swept dirt yard.”  Anywhere else, it would just be called “hideous.”  And this is what the lovely French doors of our bedroom open onto.  It is the first thing we see in the morning and the last thing at night.  Can you say “depressing”?  I thought you could.

This past spring I realized that it was time to accept that we would never have a lush, green yard.  I was ready to pave it over.  After some reflection, design time and consultation with a friend who is a Master Gardener, I modified my vision.  Two days restaining the fence, two days moving and placing a ton of flagstones, two days filling the gaps with fresh soil and planting wooly thyme and ferns, and two hours of hanging Talavera animals and sticking decorative lights into the ground and the place is transformed.  Sometimes, John and I just stand there looking at it.  It has been a bit hard on Cleo, though.

When she sensed the presence of the hated neighbor dog in the blasted heath days, she would pile out the kitchen door, tear along the narrow walk, vault over the wooden deck and come to a skidding halt by the fence, sending a spray of fine dirt and dust sparkling into the air.  She would bounce up and down, barking at the fence, digging frantically, until the whole yard was hazy with lung choking grit.  This summer, she was a great help to me as I worked on the transformation, supervising placement of the flagstones, carefully and thoroughly inspecting every bag of topsoil until her face was a mask of loamy earth.  Even so, she seemed to forget that the yard was evolving.  One evening after we had hauled a half ton of stone from the front of the house to the back, Cleo and I were relaxing with our feet up.  Suddenly, she heard the neighbor dog!  She charged to the kitchen door, demanding to be let out.  As I slid it open, she leapt out, flew down the side walkway, sprang over the deck—and stopped dead, staring at the ground. What were these rocks doing in the middle of her dirt patch?  Where was she supposed to bounce and dig and bark now?  She turned to me with a “What the--?” look on her face.  Tail and ears drooped, and she walked back and sat on my foot, turning to look wistfully at the fence.  I’m glad to say that she has made peace with the change.  She has chosen a different part of the fence through which to argue with the neighbor dog, and she has become fond of the feeling of warm stone on her tummy.

Routine, consistency, knowing what to expect can be reassuring.  It can build a relationship and the love that follows.  But change makes our minds grow.  It tests our resilience and asks us to reach inside ourselves to be the best creatures that we can be.  When we look to each other to see us through the rough patches of change, our love has a chance to deepen and mature.  We are interconnected, interdependent, and that makes an unpredictable world feel like a much safer place.

Warm flagstones

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