Autumn Island

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God willing, and if I get my work done this week, I leave for the Island on Friday. It will be such a busy week that I will be packing today.

These escapes are not technically vacations, since I usually work twelve to fourteen hours a day. It’s all writing and walking. But this time reconnects the pieces for me so that I can keep going. It’s a renewal.

We’re having an odd fall here in Wisconsin. October 2nd and the trees are still green, and I am a bit disappointed that the full autumn glory will be missing on the Island–that golden light that suffuses and saturates.  But we have to go now, before bow season, since I don’t want big dogs crashing through the underbrush with hunters about.

We will bring the essentials ( in no particular order): the computer; the brown paper bag plot map that hangs on my office wall; the particular black spiral notebooks I cannot live without; colored sharpies for plot lines; The World’s Best Thesaurus; several books of poetry; several pairs of glasses; food for the first few days so I don’t have to interrupt my solitude; coffee; wine; dog food; dog equipment; Essential Dog 1 (Pete); Essential Dog 2 (Moses).

We’ll also bring all the accoutrements for long all-weather walking.

I have a few friends on the Island, now, and toward the end of the week, I will hope to see them.   But for the first half, it will just be the Island, me, the words, and the essential dogs.

We’re heading north of the tension line.

Joy.

 

 

 

Delayed Gratification

 

Pete and Baby Moses

We are expecting a new puppy: a companion for Moses, and a respite–and new pupil–for Pete. My husband has misgivings about a third dog, and–although I generally keep it to myself–so do I. But, sadly, we won’t have three forever, and I want Pete, the elder statesman, to help train the puppy.

The puppy will be a special one, like Moses, carefully bred to be healthy, smart, even-tempered, gentle, and sweet. Also long-lived. These German Shepherds often live to be 13 or 14 years old, which is long for a big dog. Every day I check the breeder’s website, to see the current puppies, and look for news of the coming event. But today I found out it won’t be late fall, but early spring.

I am a little disappointed, but it gives me time to continue my ruminations on names. Leading contenders for now are Marcus Aurelius (guess why); St. Augustine (remember Augie Doggie?); Herodotus (I know); and George.

Official dog names are usually kind of pompous, with the kennel name in the possessive first, followed by the particular dog’s name.  Still, it’s always possible to have fun with the form. With Peter and Moses we have New Testament and Old Testament represented. But the truth is that Moses’ name, although he is officially Moses, Prince of Egypt, was actually the result of my watching The Ten Commandments too frequently in my youth. I wanted to be able to shake my head sorrowfully and say, “Moses, Moses, Moses.”

I’m kind of leaning toward George. But I am open to suggestions. Drop me a line if you have a perfect name for a big, beautiful, new German Shepherd puppy. Did I mention that he’s expected to be 150 pounds? He’ll need something he can grow into.

If I pick your suggestion, I’ll send you a copy of my latest book.

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Moses, left, and Pete on Washington Island.

 

Small Bursts of Grief

It’s a perfect summer day, and we were walking back to the cottage after a swim.  I asked my husband: Do you ever find, right in the middle of a normal day, that you feel a sudden burst of grief for your parents?

He didn’t even look back. “Well, it is Father’s Day.”

My father, Hugh Riordan, and my mother, Ethel, while they were dating.

My father, Hugh Riordan, and my mother, Ethel, while they were dating.

 What follows is the eulogy I delivered at my father’s graveside. My dad never lived to see me as an author, but I know he would have been proud of me. That’s what fathers do.

I miss him every day.

It may seem a little strange to find a Brooklyn boy here in a remote country churchyard. Daddy was a man of sophisticated tastes, well-travelled in the world. As a boy, his mother took him every Saturday to the Metropolitan Opera. In his early years, he rode the subway every day to school. But there was always a rural thread in his life. Brooklyn was farm country in the 1920’s, and he spent his summers in Mill Rift, Pennsylvania, a small town with rushing falls and gentle mountains, and several vacations he worked on a farm.

I have always been proud of Daddy. Proud of his intellect, his accomplishments, and his dignity. I have never known anyone else like him; he knew the answer to every question, he could fix anything, he remembered everything. His interests ranged from science to poetry and music. He is literally the only person I ever met who read Einstein for fun. When he was recovering from his first major illness, we knew his brain was undamaged when he commented on the Monet hanging across from his bed.

He was a brilliant engineer, whose inventions advanced technology, saved lives, and helped in the defense of his country. Above all, he was a man of impeccable integrity. That is a rare thing.

I am indebted to him not just for his love and support of me throughout some of my more wretched moments, but for the gifts he gave me. Almost everything I love in life, I learned from him. From Daddy, I learned to love music and literature, to care about reason and rational thinking, to value education and languages, to be a patriot, and to love freedom, and perhaps most important, I learned my insane passion for dogs. I guess we all did.

When Brian and I were talking this morning, he reminded me that for all Dad’s affection for his Mercedes Benz–a car he cherished, coddled, and fiercely protected from the rest of the family–he drove it into a ditch and wrecked it to avoid hitting a groundhog on the road. He was not a demonstrative man, but he was tender-hearted. He loved to be hugged, and beneath his quiet mask he was extraordinarily affectionate.

Of all the places he had lived, he loved Wisconsin best. I think it was partly because the German culture seemed familiar to him, like the households of his German grandfather and uncle, and partly because he admired the simple integrity of the people here. He liked farmland and the animals, and he saw cities as places that corrupted lives and culture. For all his accomplishments and education, he had no pretense or snobbery. He was a good man who lived a simple, honest life. And it seems exactly right that he should rest here, among settlers and veterans, underneath tall trees.

My father, H. E. Riordan, and his favorite dog.

My father and his favorite dog, Rudy.

 

Another Sign of Spring

For some reason, my husband decided yesterday to take Moses to the barber shop with him.

Don’t ask.

Perhaps one factor may have been that the night before Moses had had a rather thorough bath, complete with shampoo and conditioner, as opposed to the daily rinse in the dog shower he usually gets to clean his feet. He smells good now, and he’s all soft and shiny, and this seemed like an opportunity to give him a good brushing. Thought for the day: Never brush a wet dog. Especially not in the house. No, not even if it’s really cold and miserable outside.

German Shepherds are a breed that have a spring molt, which is referred to as “blowing their coats”. An odd expression, I thought, in my innocence. But that was before. Now that he is four, and officially fully mature, Moses is having his first real blowing-of-the-coat, and I have come to think that whoever coined the phrase had a gift for understatement. Moses’s long black hair with its creamy roots is coming out in massive tufts which do, indeed, blow. Everywhere.  Piling up in insane quantities in the corner behind the kitchen door.  Stuck to the stamp on the Easter card I sent to my aunt.  Appearing, unexpectedly—and disturbingly— in my coffee cup at work.  But this was nothing compared to the wet dog hair that he and I, together, artfully distributed about the mud room, on the white kitchen cabinets, and on my person. There is no broom, no vacuum, no lint roller sufficient to the task. It’s like glue, and your only hope is to wait for it to dry and then wipe it off with a dry rag.

NASA ought to look into potential applications.

In any case, and for whatever reason, Moses had a trip to the barber shop. He was permitted to wander around and sniff at things, he obligingly lay on his back to have his tummy rubbed by several admirers, and when asked, he lay quietly on the floor nearby while my husband had his hair cut, all amidst the chaos of dryers, and razors,  and customers coming and going. He was, in short, a very good dog.

It would have been nice if a trip to the barber shop had resulted in a bit less dog hair, but I suppose I should just be grateful that he was shedding somewhere else for a while.

 

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For the Love of Pete

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No, not that Pete. But yes, the love interest in my novels is named Pete. I was half-way through writing the first book before it struck me that my character and my dog shared a name, so it was completely unconscious.  Pete, the dog, however, is not quite as suave or subtle as the novel’s Pete, and he rarely quotes poetry.  But he’s every bit as good at getting his own way.  We’re not quite sure what breeds went into his creation, but we call him an Indiana Spotted Dog because he’s from a kill shelter in Indiana, and because he’s, well, spotted.

So, sometimes the quieter members of the family get a bit lost in the shuffle. Moses is big, and young, and boisterous, and he can easily put himself between Pete and a hug from one of us. We have to make an extra effort to make sure he gets his share of attention. Pete, himself, makes sure he gets his share of food. Nothing gets between Pete and food.

Pete is eleven-ish, and he has been with us since he was about ten months old. We’re not sure what happened to him before we met, but it was something that has scarred him forever. When we first brought him home, he would flinch if you moved your hand suddenly, and roll over fearfully and subserviently if you tried to reach for him. Occasionally, under stress or commotion, he still will. Oddly enough, he is not shy with other dogs. On the contrary, his injured leg came when he attacked Moses, and in the scuffle, Moses landed on him. In our house, even though he is only 70 pounds, Pete is the Alpha Dog. Moses is the follower.

I started out obedience training with him, as I do with all our dogs, but once he had learned to sit, and lie down, and stay, and come, I left him alone. The whistles, the shouted commands to drop, the wheelchairs, and the sudden noises that are part of the training left him shaking and slinking away. It wasn’t worth it.

So Pete isn’t a Canine Good Citizen. He is afraid of children, and of people with hats. He will not go outside in the rain, and does not delight in our new dog shower, no matter how necessary. He used to be afraid of cameras, and for that reason, until the advent of the I-Phone, we had very few pictures of him. The camera would come out, and Pete would disappear. My husband says that someone must have once taken an unflattering picture of him, but I think it might have been the high-pitched whine of the electronic flash. A friend has commented that the expression on Pete’s face often looks as if he’s in a hostage situation. Unless he’s around food. He smiles around food.

We didn’t teach him to sit up and beg, or to respect the plastic flags of an invisible fence. He came pre-programmed. But we never hit him, either, and he came pre-programmed to expect that, too. For the first few months after we got him, I would wake up in the night worrying about what had happened to his reported ten brothers and sisters. But Pete, no matter what had happened to him before, had won the dog lottery.

On the other hand, Pete is a survivor, and he has learned the survivor’s skill of how to quickly ingratiate himself once he knows you are not dangerous. He has a sort of Eddie Haskel quality that he uses to great advantage, even–or perhaps, especially–on us. He also has the survivor’s knack of knowing exactly what he wants: yes, it’s usually food–he must have a lot of hound in him–but often just his own space.

We got a new big bed last year for our new bedroom, and it’s pretty high. Even 120 pound Moses contemplates the leap before attempting it, but for Pete, who is about half that size, it’s a bit of a reach. Now, Pete is a snuggler. Lying in bed is what he does. Many times in the past, I have awoken to Pete’s face lying against my face, cheek to cheek. But with the new bed, he simply wouldn’t come up. Maybe it hurt the leg he once injured. Maybe it was better to be away from that nuisance, Moses. But he wouldn’t come.

We felt bad about it, and called him, and tried to lure him with treats. Pete is always lured by treats. But it wouldn’t work.

One day, our friends and general contractors were over. They were at our house every day during our almost two years of remodeling, and our dogs love them like family.  Pete was pressing earnestly against their legs, begging for love and attention.

I watched him, and shook my head sadly. “Poor Pete,” I said. “He thinks no one loves him. He can’t get up on the bed anymore, and he’s sleeping all by himself.”

My friends exchanged glances while rubbing Pete’s ears. They were silent for a moment, and then Patti said: “You know, as soon as you leave every morning, he’s on that bed. He stays there all day.”

She sent me the photo later to prove it. There he was, comfortably ensconced on the pillows of my cream colored bedding.

He is mostly trained, and pretty well-mannered, but not perfect, and I don’t demand of him the same things I demand of Moses. There’s no margin of error for Big Scary Dogs, but for Pete, well, we let some of the details slide.  Pete does things pretty much the way he wants. And in the end, that’s ok, because we love him, and after everything he’s been through, he deserves it.

But I do wish he wouldn’t leave quite so much black hair on my pillows.

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Pete, above, snuggling.                                 Pete, in a hostage situation.

 

 

 

 

Dog Joy

Whenever I can, I like to take our dogs for a walk in a particular woods. We have to drive there, and the dogs know the place by sight. They also know the difference between when we are actually going there, and when we are only driving past. Even if I haven’t said anything, when the turn signal goes on at a particular intersection, they know we are going to the woods. But usually, just to give them the pleasure of anticipation, I say to them: “Do you want to go to the woods?” and they immediately begin to sing with joy.

Moses, who until recently had been the least vocal of the two, is the most expressive where the woods are concerned. It’s his favorite place. He starts with warbles in a rich baritone, but as we get closer he switches to yipes in an increasingly higher tessitura, until he reaches soprano range, in keeping with his rising excitement. Pete joins in with his characteristic alto.  By the time I can get around to open the door, they are tumbling over one another to get out and run, barking as if they were on the hunt. Sometimes there are deer, or squirrels, and the dogs tear after them, disappearing into the hills out of sight. If I am patient–meaning: not too cold–I let them come back when they want to. But if I whistle they always come. I can hear them coming usually before I see them, and they arrive at my feet bustling with joy and pride.

Their happiness delights me, and is often the best part of the day.

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Gracie’s Delight

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Gracie Jagler

A friend of ours has a beautiful daughter named Gracie. Gracie, who has Downs Syndrome, loves dogs, especially her three miniature schnauzers. She has just started a new business, Gracie’s Doggie Delights, which produces and sells home made dog treats. Every time a sale is made–through an Amazon portal, which makes it so easy–Gracie’s phone dings, and she is absolutely delighted.

If you have a dog you love who would appreciate some home made treats, stop by, and give Gracie a very happy day.

Hard Choices

My gift to my husband this year was a series of tickets to plays. Our first was this past Saturday, the Milwaukee Rep’s Of Mice and Men. Since this was my husband’s gift, the choice was made to please him, because this is most definitively not my kind of story.

So, embarrassing fact: I was an English major, and I read a lot, as you might imagine (And I should also point out that I am of an age in which English majors actually read literature. No, seriously. It was something that was required.), but somehow, I had managed my whole life never to read Of Mice and Men. I suppose we all have gaps in our educations, but this was an intentional one. I knew instinctively that I would feel bad reading this book, and I hate feeling bad. In fact, I spend a great deal of effort and energy working on feeling good. I knew vaguely that Lennie was mentally challenged, but I was content to leave my information level there.

So (spoiler alert, for those of you whose education gaps are similar) when they shot the dog in the first act, I had a pretty clear idea of where we were headed. Recognizing foreshadowing is an English major thing. My husband, who watched me uneasily out of the corner of his eye pretty much during the entire play, said later that he was fully prepared for me to break out in noisy sobs when they killed the dog. He was holding his breath about what might happen at the end. To me, I mean, not to the characters. He, literate, cultured, and urbane creature that he is, had actually read the book.

Curiously, I was utterly dry-eyed throughout the entire play. This is not typical of me, since, as my family never lets me forget,  I cried at the end of the sailboat race in Stuart Little. But I have been thinking about the story for three days now.

I have been wondering about George; wondering about the choice he made. Could he come to terms later with the relief he must have felt? Could he forgive himself for what he did, even though he did it to spare his friend pain and terror? Did he go on to fulfill the dream he had carried so long in his wanderings? If so, was he able to find joy in it? Or was it poison-filled?

And isn’t living with your choices–without regret–a difficult thing? Or is regret the right thing? Do our souls require it?

If you live nearby and have not seen the Milwaukee Rep’s performance, you should go. The actor who plays Lennie, Scott Greer, is exceptional.