Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Psalm of the Owner

Enzo stirs in me the urge to be a better napper. 
He compels me to want to lie down
in the verdant pasture of the Oriental rug
to bask in sunshine piercing through the front door.

After others have left for work,
he leads me beside still waters of my coffee and newspaper.
When offered a hand, he bounds with grace
and anoints my cheeks so as to restore my soul
through belly rub he receives.

He fears not the danger of impending storms
because he follows
the path of righteousness to his crate
where he seeks shelter and silence.

A bowl is prepared ahead of him
with a bite of banana and fresh water.
Surely, sleep and comfort will follow.
And he shall laze in the lap of his owner forever.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Enzo Turns One

2010-01-01 Enzo Turns One

Enzo, Enz, zozer, zo, pup, peanut. No matter what we call our puppy, he still turned one yesterday. He sits quietly at my side now, as I write, chewing on a pizzle (from a bull), a thought I would have never entertained only one year ago.

When we first brought him home, the nights were restless. Enzo would go into a nighttime routine and terrify us all during his bewitching hour. He would run circles in the family room so much we thought the busy pattern of the Oriental rug was making him crazy. We were told this was possibly his ancestors “hunting” time which might explain the wild behavior between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. each and every night. No one ever wanted to “stay up” with Enzo, and the job usually fell to my husband, sometimes to me.

He has brought a mixture of peace and energy to our household which is just that, a mix of calm and then whirlwind activity depending on the time of day or night. There are days when I have to remind myself that he is really just a dog, no matter how much a part of this family he is. I feel guilt (Catholic) when leaving him in his crate longer than four hours at a time, I rush home, or rush through my groceries, often skipping my last errand or two for the sake of letting him out. It is my own anxieties that I thrust upon him, as I realize I would not want to be crated up for that long either.

We have all learned to share in responsibility of caring for Enzo and we have all taken from him the attention he is willing to give (or working on getting). The length of his body now covers more than my arm, his coat of deep red shines after grooming and his eyes still belie the message, I know I am cute.”

He has chewed most of my furniture. Silly me for going for the natural look years ago when selecting my d├ęcor. And dirty socks seem to require a sniff from Enzo, no matter who they belong to or where the socks have been.

As I write about him here, he is ignorant to my wishes and my words, but he has been key to my well-being. However, for the many who offered after my first husband died, that I should possibly get a dog, I would never recommend that to any friend. Because no matter how much time and space he fills, he will never tell me he loves me, and will choose his chewing toy over me.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

How I Learned to Take a Nap


The household hums in its daily chores:
heat the home, pump the water, let in the light.
A loud thumping comes from below
in the basement laundry -
zippers on hoodies thwack against the side of the dryer,
bass accompaniment to an unknown rock song.

Grey has settled between the cottonwood trees
blurring lines between leftover leaves and bark.
Even the grass, while still green, casts a hue
as if to hush and not wake up Spring, not yet, not for a longtime.

The puppy has completed his tasks too:
Dart outside, bark at the half-bitten moon,
relieve his body of impurities from the night before.
Chew Morning Glory seed pods hanging by threads off the trellis.
Lick at pant legs of boys before they climb onto the bus.

Sniff at the base of the trees along sidewalks,
hope for the scent of a new friend or long lost one.
Alert the neighbors across the street
their fake deer is eating up their patch of Vinca vines,
while next door the white wooden deer are kissing.

Dart back in for his daily dose of banana bites
and puppy rubs to strengthen his response
to the long winter about to commence.

Finally, he settles in where love and words flow.
His eye lids flutter slightly
at the sound of the pitter patter on the keyboard
before he slips into slumber.

This is the moment they sing about:
“Sleep in heavenly peace.”

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Upon Arrival of Thanks

On Waking
~ John O'Donohue

I give thanks for arriving
Safely in a new dawn,
For the gift of eyes
To see the world,
The gift of mind
To feel at home
In my life.
The waves of possibility
Breaking on the shore of dawn,
The harvest of the past
That awaits my hunger,
And all the furtherings
This new day will bring.

Fastwrite with dog on lap...

For the warmth of fur on my lap, while his tongue licks the dust off on my keyboard, life pleasures so simple.

I give thanks for the beauty of his coat – the rich red fur softly falling down his long ears, settling into tangled curls, life in its messy state.

For his utter reliance on me to provide entertainment, exercise, mental stimulation, to break my day into minutes when I could so easily fall into hours.

I give thanks for his curiosity, his nose pointed through the sliding glass door at squirrels chasing the red cardinal around the bird feeder. It is not often I glance outside to be a witness to nature’s playtime.

For his waking me at 3 a.m. when I am deep in slumber, dreaming about giving out my cell phone to strangers who are purveying concrete family vaults. For rousing me from the darkness of my inner life to the dark peace that has fallen around the house.

I give thanks for the pieces of food he scours off the floor. I call him “Little Hoover”, saving me the effort of falling to my knees to clean up the crumbs.

I give thanks for the saliva-ridden stuffed animal called his “girlfriend” - he has a new one and an ex, a gentle nudge or obvious one to play “come and get it”, to play at all, the silly adult that I am.

I give thanks for the smiles he has brought to neighborhood children and the shared love that he has generated inside the home, sitting on the boy’s lap, nestling his way between young teens and their boyfriends, welcoming college students home with a romp and a lick, giving comfort to the husband and his ailing arm.

For the heartbeat that thumps through his chest, life in my lap.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Critter Lady


Today, I met the Critter Lady. She was not what her e-mail moniker might imply. Tall, rugged, embracing, convincing, the critter lady is Kathy Wilson. By all accounts, she is the physical education teacher at Locust Corner Elementary School in Clermont County. But to the students, the faculty and the principal, she is the critter lady, or, as noted when one signs in to the school visitor list, the dog lady.

The juxtaposition of the word dog next lady seems ironic and yet, for the past five years, she has nurtured the reading habits and raised the reading level of the very young within her school, all because of a dog named Gator. Kathy first learned of reading dogs (R.E.A.D.) through her work in agility circles. Though Furby, her papillon, was nationally ranked in agility, it was Gator who was Kathy’s first therapy dog in the school.

Locust Corner in eastern Cincnnati was originally known as Pleasant Hill because of the peacefulness of this hilly point in Pierce Township. The community was laid out from the farm of Benjamin Ricker, who settled here shortly after 1830. The still unincorporated community received its present name when the local post office was established in June 1846. The name might have referred to numerous locust trees in the area. Most children in this area have dogs, as evidenced by their constant comparisons of Kathy’s dogs to their own.

But Kathy’s dogs were different. Not because of breed, but because they were certified as therapy dogs, designed to support certain environments to which individuals might alter their behavior because of the presence of the dogs. The dogs would help those learning to read or needing to focus.
She kicked off a reading program with six first-graders kids in an after school format. “Six kids,” she tells me, “who never would have stayed after school for anything.” Being with the dogs became a means of reward throughout the day for the children, and still is. It is similar to my young neighbor girls who come and walk my dog, just for the fun it. (I think it’s because he is cuter than the rest!). And when I return the favor by paying them 50 cents, they insist they do not want payment. (They accept the coins anyhow).

As we stride down the hall, Kathy continues on, “When we first started the program the kids were all reading below their grade level. After a year and half, they all were reading at or above their level.”

The program works like this: kids love dogs for their warm heartedness and soft fur. Dogs love kids for the food always left under nails or between fingers (or in the case of my son when in preschool, on his sleeve). Put the two together in a room, ensuring that one of them is trained (the dog) and you will have the magic formula to encourage children to read aloud, regardless of the overprotective eye of an adult, without worries over stumbling while reading in front of their peers.

Kathy escorted two children – “Jack” and “Hally” into a small room, off the open library area. She also carried along Furby, the pappilion, and walked alongside Betsy (part mutt, part retriever) and Gator – part lab. As we walked, she discussed her passion and joy for this program.

“We now have ten dogs who are therapy dogs that come in an read with the children. All are certified at some level through the Delta pilot program or therapy dog international certification.”

I was there because my puppy Enzo, who last chewed on a bra and barks at the wind, had me thinking he might make a good therapy dog, in that he loves to be in someone’s lap. He will soak luxuriously in your affection, and you will forget about your troubles for the day.

Gator, Betsy and Furby are celebrities in this school and when they trot down the hall, or prance into the administrative office looking for treats, it is as if the Jonas Brothers, Jay-Z and Miley Cyrus have stepped out of a limo and into the limelight of Locust Elementary. The children all vie for the attention of the dogs and the adults vie for adoration they may not get from their students that day.

After we enter into a small reading room, Kathy lays down a blue blanket and Gator and Betsy instantly know to recline on it. Furby gets to sit on her owner’s lap on a soft fluffy pad. Furby’s ears pop up at the mention of her name, raised like furry wedge-like antennas, alert to names, treats and even to the voice of Hally. Jack reads first. He reads upside down, like a teacher might. He intersperses his actual reading with a commentary on Gator. “Gator is laying his head in my lap.” When Jack reads a story about a skunk, Gator moves his snout into the belly of black Betsy. And we all joke, “Gator must not like the smell of skunk.” Throughout his reading, Jack appears content to show Gator the pictures from his story books. And when he is engaged in the reading of the words, Jack’s one hand is still conveniently placed on Gator, rubbing his belly, petting Gator’s fur down her back.

When it is Hally’s turn to read, she takes a more simplified approach. But her intentions are no less pure. She too turns the book around to show the pictures to Furby in the lap of her owner. And Furby’s eyes are responsive. Furby, of the spaniel family, reminds me a lot of Enzo in how curious she appears. And when Hally reads the story, “Who can go for a ride,” ears on all three dogs raise up in anticipation of a real ride. They immediately settle back down when they realize it is only a story. They are tired but still alert, having spent the previous hour with another adult, acting as therapy vessel to another room full of children. “We all love being read to,” a wise writing sister of mine once wrote. Dogs are no different.

Kathy and I chat after the children leave. “When kids with ADD come into this room and spot the dog, boom, they immediately calm down.” This focus, this singular focus is astounding when one considers the meaning behind the acronym ADD.

She lets me lead Gator (who really leads me) as we pass down the hallway and enter into Kathy’s other realm, her Phys. Ed. office. Inside, each dog has its pad, water, and even a window, for daylight. Food supplies are ample. Fresh air and the sounds of children on the playground stream in on this balmy October day. The dogs often spend their entire day here in service to the many children whose only desire is to read.

Kathy is proud of this program in a way that is not boastful. She puts down the leashes, leaves the dogs behind closed doors. We reenter the main hallway to peruse the large bulletin board outside the office, looking at the other dogs. A beautiful black lab. A springer spaniel – too many dogs and faces for me to recall their names all in one visit.

I tell Kathy, “My son, as with my stepdaughters were quick studies in reading.” I cannot imagine the burden on the parent with a child who refuses to read, regardless of whether they are being pushed or not. I used to be a reading tutor in the classrooms, when my son was much younger. And I enjoyed a child’s satisfaction that came from a book well read. Perhaps school funders should look more closely at this innovative way to educate children that are on the edge.

In two nights, Locust Elementary will host the first of three literacy nights for the school, each at a different grade level. Parents and children will come into school together. Parents will hear all about the types of reading learning that is taking place within the school walls. Children will get to show off their new friends in Gator, Betsy and Furby and pals. And the dogs, well, they will simply be happy to be back at school, for that is where they feel most at home.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A List

A teenager’s tattered bra, polka dot on the inside, pink on the out.
Also, her underwear
because she leaves it on the floor, and says, it’s a long walk
to the washer, out her room, down two flights, and into
the Chinese lantern orange laundry room.

Blue crocs, pock-marked, invaluable to the part-time gardener.
Used often in place of running shoes for young boy’s football games
despite mother’s protestations about twisted ankles.
Indestructible, plastic, yet still palatable.

Golden fringe torn away from the ten-year-old Oriental rug,
First purchased for the new house, kept feet warm when answering the front door,
faded by summer sun and cool winter light.
Once a place to play and rest for toddlers,
Now His instead.

Heliobores, planted only last fall
because the nurseryman in the paper said so.
One of three plants took a hit. Tattered leaves litter the patio tile.
Deer-resistant is not the same as dog-resistant.
Spaghetti strands, not yet cooked, that never made it to the boiling pot
crunch underfoot. He springs on the fragments of dried wheat.
It is pasta and he is
named after an Italian, how bad can it be?

Feces of geese, green goo smeared across his tan-white face,
which also sports a look of delirium.
Though scrubbed clean, toxic green residue still forms a ring -
a moustache around his mouth.

Little losses,
bites of life.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Enzo as Therapy

Within the first months of being Enzo’s owner, my trainer had suggested Enzo might make a great therapy dog. I blew off the notion, knowing that the only one who should be participating in therapy was me. Weeks later, while browsing through books at the local Symmes Township Library, I noticed a sign accompanied by a picture of a dog looking quite similar to Enzo. The Cavalier King Charles’ name was Houdini, and Houdini routinely appeared at the library every Saturday from 10-11 a.m. to read with children ages 5-7.

I furthered considered the notion of Enzo – a reading dog. Not that he was going to read Where the Wild Things Are to any preschooler, but it had been proven that dogs with a benevolent, loving, but not too obnoxious nature, were given over to being perfect vessels for children for whom reading was a struggle, either through language development, nervousness or anxiety.

I began my Internet research on this topic and found an organization called R.E.A.D. whose mission is to improve the literacy skills of children through the assistance of registered therapy teams as literacy mentors.

R.E.A.D. stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs. The R.e.a.d. program improves children’s reading and communication skills by employing a powerful method: reading to a dog. R.E.A.D. dogs are registered therapy animals who volunteer with their owner/handlers as a team, going to schools, libraries and many other settings as reading companions for children.

Dogs are ideal reading companions because they are not judgmental, at least mine is not, as long as I am feeding him his bananas in the morning, alongside his cardboard puppy chow. It is also clear that Enzo is not judgmental in that he will chew on ANY shoe, not just those belonging to my son Davis, whose footwear is optimum because his shoes have crossed many backyards, and his feet stink as if he never showered.

Last week, I visited my aging parents and took my dog along. My parents had been first to accompany me to the breeder’s home when I had gone in search of a puppy and found Enzo. At the time, there was also a runt in the litter, who had the nickname of Tiny Tim. My dad held Tiny Tim in his hands for the duration of my visit with the breeder. He could have cared a less about the others. My mother reacted this way too. She felt safe around a puppy being held in one’s hands vs. one jumping up on her lap.

In the end, Enzo became the I one selected, but during the entire drive back to my parent’s home, my mother lamented about not getting a dog. My mother has Alzheimer’s and her forgetfulness is only one reason why now is no longer the time for a dog. But in my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined her allowing the dog to occasionally have an accident on the carpet in the living room, or to chew up one of her door mats. But, since becoming a grandparent, she has changed her tune about what she allows from the grandchildren and a dog is no different. My sister’s dogs, affectionately named, The Fluffers, by their owner, and I.B.D’s (ill-behaved dogs) by the rest of the family are prone to occasionally pooping in the same spot on my mother’s dining room rug, and she simply shrugs it off, grabs a paper towel and plastic bag, and continues on with her chores.

As for my father, he would have loved to own Tiny Tim, who reminded him of the dogs he once owned. Blackie was some coon dog beagle mix and Tiny was part beagle, and part, just cute puppy. They were his hunting dogs, and served him well. The dogs survived until the first year of my parent’s marriage. After that, dogs took a backseat to children, and never became part of the equation. The only other pets allowed were bunnies, hamsters and gerbils. Not even fish. Of course, Subaru, our beloved but stubborn goldfish, still lives, after five years of intentional abandonment. So, I could see how my parents didn’t want to hang on to anything too long.

When I returned in April to retrieve Enzo from the breeder’s, my parents did not accompany me, but asked me to find out if Tiny Tim was still available. Alas, Tiny Tim was gone. He had moved on to a good home with younger homeowners.

When I arrived home during my most recent trip (funny how I still call Amherst, that house, or visiting my parents “home”), my parents were pleasantly surprised to see Enzo in tow. He too was just as surprised (read “excited”) to see them, and promptly licked my father’s face for a full five minutes. My mother quickly picked up on my falsetto voice calling Enzo, and then giving him a command. Though he rarely listened to her command, he certainly piped up when he heard her call his name.

Once I labeled the stereo buttons for Mom to operate, she began playing her Sinatra records incessantly. Enzo camped out near the stereo speakers for all his naps, lulled into slumber by Fly me to the Moon, and the softness of September in the Rain. It became quite the spectacle for us to listen to him snore away, backside nestled up against the pulsating rhythms coming through the speakers.

He would excitedly greet Mom or Dad when they descended the stairs in the morning, jumping up, waiting to be scratched behind the ears, or, what he loved best, to have his belly rubbed with a brisk motion of a Swedish masseuse.

It was Enzo’s nonjudgmental ways that my parents loved so much, after falling prey to their children’s criticizing their parents for a house move they should have made long ago, or for paying off the bills of my imprisoned sister while risking their own credit. Either way, Enzo would not condemn them for their actions, only condone what they believed to be the best decisions at that time, to protect themselves or maintain their dignity.

As I rolled on the floor with Enzo, my father remarked, “He’s a good dog, and he’s been good for you too.” And for once, I agree that my father is right. Enzo had been my outlet too, when I needed to see simplicity in life. He had been my companion, when I needed to walk outside and play among the leaves. He had been my therapy for such a low, low price. And to boot, we could share the couch.

I will have to wait until Enzo is one year old before registering him, or at least having his temperament and training tested, to determine if he can actually fulfill the role of certified therapy dog. But I wonder, Do dogs have a purpose, a vocation? Do we train them for this, or are they born into it? I have these burning questions about Enzo, the same ones I have for myself.

I could be one of those people who project on their dog all day. But the three days with my parents were not a projection of any thing other a simple healing from hurting hearts.