Sunday, May 12, 2013

Boys and Dogs

I received a message from an old friend, commenting on my post about the deportation drama that was playing on every screen of our multiplex last week. She has always been one of the wisest and wittiest women I know, and I grieved when she moved away several years ago. If Erica Bachman still lived next door, if Lisa were just up the road in Carver County, if Debbie and Joel were two blocks over … what would be the impact on my quality of life? “Hypothetical,” is the correct answer, of course, because that’s never going to happen, but I like to think that it could be so. And, to return to my point, I miss her, and I treasure her messages.

The one she sent this week contained a couple good laughs and a sense of hope, and that’s a lot to cram into one email. (I’d reproduce the whole thing here, but I’ve lost it on my phone, which has a funky “every other key is operational” thing going these days, having gotten the memo from Mechanical Shit Headquarters that, for the gears and gadgets residing in this household, Now is the Time to Break.)

My friend, the one whose message I inadvertently deleted, is the mother of a grown-up boy, a man really, and I am happy to report that he is a college-graduate with a good job in a place that has nice weather. In her message, she reminded me there was a time when the bookmakers would not have put much money on the possibility of this spirited lad enjoying such a regular, grownup life. Grimmer scenarios would, at several points in his progress, have had much better odds. Still, every success has its cost. She told me that, while she’s glad that he is an upstanding member of society, she also has a full head of grey hair to show for her efforts.

I remember when he was a teenager, and she was earning those grey hairs. I probably know only a tiny sliver of the stories from that time, but there were some doozies. Did I mention that he was spirited? From my “I have two little girls” perch, I watched her alligator-wrestle for the soul of a teenage boy, and I wondered, idly, what that would be like, right before we went back to painting each others’ nails and baking cupcakes. These days, after living nine months with my own spirited teenage boy as an exchange student, I think I might have a better idea what it was like for her. One thing is certain:  I know I should have bought her a lot more cocktails back then, because she deserved them.

As I was missing her this week, I also remembered her adventures in dog ownership, which were happening around the same time as the Boy Struggles. Someone must have decided that This Boy Needs a Dog, because the family ended up with the only neurotic black lab I’ve ever met. And I’m not using that word lightly, because the poor thing had an actual DSM-disorder with her compulsive overeating. She needed to be the residential dog at a bulimia clinic, not the pet of my poor friend, who suffered through many awful incidents with this canine, including the time the dog ate an entire wrapped parcel of cookies that had been sitting at the front door, ready to be mailed to my friend’s niece at college. After the binge came the purge, and my friend was cleaning up dog poop, semi-digested stamps and very unsavory-looking Styrofoam peanuts for quite some time. The dog was probably hiding upstairs, trying to get all four paws on the bathroom scale to see if she was still so bloated.

My friend hated that dog, and she grew more vocal in her declarations of what she’d like to do with it, including many muttered desires for the dog to “visit the farm” in a way that seemed, well, permanent.

Now at that same time, in addition to my two very pleasant girls, I also had a dog – a purebred Golden Retriever. He was handsome, stupid and low-maintenance. He liked the cat, he liked us, and he loooooovved beautiful women. It was like living with George Hamilton, only not as tan. My life, as I see it from my friend’s perspective, was pretty damn easy. I’m sure she looked up every now and then from her battles with a spirited boy and a neurotic dog and wished I would just shut up about the Barbie sleepovers already.

Time has a way of bringing things around, though. Now my friend has that successful son, and a teenage daughter who loves to play soccer in a wholesomely competitive way. She has no pets, the neurotic dog having been pawned off, finally, on the soft-hearted daughter of one of her friends, a girl who wanted to be a vet and who was sure that a little therapy would cure poor Tubby. The dog did have a grand finale, though, one which I still like to conjure up as a mental image whenever I need a laugh. On the road trip to give this dog to the optimistic future vet, my friend and her son stopped at her sister’s house for dinner. The St. Louis style pork butts were on the grill, and life was good. Then the brother-in-law, unaware of the dog’s “issues,” came in through a side door and put a platter of cooked butts on the table. The next thing she saw, my friend reports, was the portly black lab streaking around the dining room table, pork butt clamped between her smiling jaws, cursing brother-in-law in hot pursuit. “She looked pretty happy,” my friend had to admit. “But God, I hated that dog.”

Hating a dog was something I couldn’t quite understand at the time, since I was living with that well-behaved canine version of George Hamilton. But these days, I live with two rescue dogs – a Chihuahua who only pees on the rug when he’s nervous, which is always, and an enormous hound who only has aggression issues toward our oppressed cat, any dog over 50 pounds, and every single person who walks by our house. The barking is ceaseless. The smell is odious. I talk about the farm quite a bit.

So here we are, full circle. I know more than I knew ten years ago – I know about teenage boys and how they will break your spirit, and your heart. I know about how it feels to be the pet of an animal that does whatever it damn well pleases and allows you the pleasure of cleaning up after it.

But if I’ve learned anything from experiencing these bitter slices of life, it’s that I need to take them with the grace and good humor my friend has never failed to display.

And also, whenever I am sad, I think about that dog running around the dining room table with her Pork Butt Prize, because that’s an image worth savoring.

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