Who Will Floss the Dog?

You gotta love the bus! It’s like going to a movie, only cheaper. There are as many programs as there are seats, and with the old people, you sometimes don’t even have to be sitting near to them.

Buses provided some of the first equal opportunity stages, I think. I had a look in Wikipedia, hoping for a theatrical link, but alas, it seemed drawn to the more pragmatic aspects. It told me that ‘Bus is a clipped form of the Latin word omnibus. The first horse-drawn omnibus service was started by a businessman named Stanislas Baudry in the French city of Nantes in 1823’, and that ‘Regular intercity bus services by steam-powered buses were pioneered in England in the 1830s by Walter Hancock and by associates of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, among others, running reliable services over road conditions which were too hazardous for horse-drawn transportation.’ It doesn’t say anything about when buses became travelling entertainment salons, however. Or maybe I’m just easily amused…

For example, last week I decided to respond to a politely-worded summons from my dentist. Apparently he figured I hadn’t been around in a long time and thought his dental tech might need to do a little scraping and filing, or something. He didn’t use those words, exactly, but I’ve known him for a while and could sense his concern that my flossing might not meet current standards, nor the toothbrush they gave me last year still doing something more than merely shoving the food around. I chose to ignore his subtle but sublingual hint that my visit might also help with his vacation plans. I hoped the bus might afford me some distraction.

The bus was sparsely populated and eerily quiet when I boarded it at its terminus, so I had an unexpected mélange of seats. Much like a hockey arena, the seats on a bus can be graded. There are the rafter seats –right at the back and usually over something that vibrates and rattles worryingly. Then, of course, the midrange variety where entertainment is rife, but often cacophonous and conversation lacks the normal cohesion and sourceability that permits useful comprehension. I usually try for what would pass for the seats-behind-the-bench at a game –a few seats back from the senior’s area, but with a row of seats interposed between for the women with children… or suitcases, rickety boxes tied with strings, overstuffed shopping bags –clunky stuff that reeks of the unusual and a need to tell somebody about it.

As luck would have it, there were only two people –a middle aged man in a fedora, brown overcoat and scuffed shoes, sitting with an older woman wearing a long pink coat and a speckled grey pig tail that didn’t go at all with her age. But there were no bizarre boxes anywhere in sight in the coveted area, so I settled in for a long and disappointing ride, condemned to travel inwards, undistracted, and filled with all the anticipatory dread that only dentists and Proctologists can inspire. But it can’t always be ribbons and Disneyland, I guess.

I closed my eyes and tried to position my head in the balance position –something on which seasoned bussers pride themselves so their heads don’t end up on their laps drooling when they drift off.

“So glad I got that dental plan for Mara,” I heard the woman say as the bus started up.

My ears perked up. Maybe dental angst was more widespread than I’d thought.

“You got a dental plan for her, Lizzie?” It was the man’s voice, and he sounded surprised. “How much did that set you back?”

I imagined a shrug. “Well, she’s had bad teeth for a few years, so I figured it was worth it…”

He chuckled. “Why do you always encourage her to eat what you eat?”

“And what’s wrong with that, Jim? I’m still healthy, you know.” A defensive tone had crept into her voice.

There was a momentary hesitation before he answered, sotto voce, “You told me you have false teeth, Liz…”

“Well, that’s not why, Jimmy. And besides, she’s eaten my kind of food ever since the adoption… Never heard a complaint, either!”

Silence followed –well, the usual bus-rumble anyway- and I was just drifting off into the all-forgiving arms of Lethe, when Lizzie spoke up again. “Do you have one for Keg?”

It occurred to me that either she was a sales representative for dental plans and was trying to sell a policy to Jim for his grandson, or maybe just a well-meaning grandmother that was used to giving advice.

“Keg’s doing okay, Martha. Probably his diet though, eh?” he added with a chuckle.

“He’s, what, five now…?”

Jim didn’t answer right away. “Uhmm, yes, I guess somewhere around that…”

“Somewhere?” She sounded indignant that he wasn’t sure. “When’s his birthday?” she said, each word a needle.

It was getting interesting so I opened my eyes. She was frowning at him like a mother at her son when he comes in late on a Friday night, her mouth a serpent’s grin.

“You mean the actual date?” He looked puzzled at her distress. She nodded her head sternly and glared at him as he tried to deflect her chagrin with a boyish smile. Then he shrugged and tried to bluff it. “June… I’m sure it was in June…”

She sat back in her seat, obviously only partially mollified. “I’ll find out from Sally,” she said after shaking her head as if to say that men shouldn’t be trusted with anything important anyway. “She’ll know.”

“Yes, maybe she will… But remember, we’re just taking care of him on those days our daughter is away at school. Janice didn’t want to leave him alone in her apartment.”

Her eyes snapped towards him suddenly as if he just admitted to child abuse. “Well… he’s still going to have dental problems -if he doesn’t already. You have to start flossing him. Just being male doesn’t protect him, you know. You wait and see…” She reached back and pulled the cord for the bus to stop, and hurried out the door after telling Jim she’d be sure to phone Sally.

I could see him roll his eyes, and he noticed me watching so he shrugged again. “I’ve never heard of a cat needing a dental plan, have you,” he said, laughing at the thought.

I shook my head, but what did I know? “And Keg is…”

“My daughter’s dog… And no,” he added when he noticed the relief on my face. “I’ve never tried flossing him…”

Suddenly, my dental needs seemed to slip into a different gear.

 

 

Dog Days

The dog is probably one of the most important inventions in the history of civilization. More than just another thing, it has been a protector, a hunter and -when push came to grunt- a way of getting us out of the cave for exercise while our partner tore strips of meat off the mammoth for dinner. And unlike cats –which, in those days, probably wouldn’t have waited for you to open the bag of kibble- the dog was quite happy to lie quietly at your feet until you fed it scraps. Also, they have never messed around with purring; if the dog purrs, it inevitably does so with bared fangs, so you know where you stand.

Over the millennia, however, dogs have evolved. Some of them don’t even look like dogs anymore –they’ve been specialized -some for scratching, some for licking, and some, I blush to say, merely for vanity –ours.

My dog, Rugal –don’t ask for the etymology (I was a gynaecologist before I retired)- has managed to avoid all of the breeding pitfalls by being the scion of my border collie, and a ship passing in the night that jumped over the fence and seduced him. Penniless, and gravid, said inamorata sought shelter in the neighbourhood kennel and in a burst of filial loyalty and tainted with a soupçon of guilt, I rescued one of the cuddlier results. And, cleverly anticipating the ascendancy of non-binary dogs, I opted to have her sterilized before another passing ship could persuade her otherwise.

Despite our salad days, she’s now rather long in the tooth so our runs have become limps, or at least dawdles. She gets confused at forks in the trail, and like some aged senior wandering away in confusion from the Home, she needs supervision. And time –lots of it. So I thought it might do Brien some good to accompany me on our slow perambulations from time to time. He doesn’t live in a Home, or anything, but he seldom strays from the porch of his house unless I arrange to meet him at a coffee shop, or offer to buy him lunch. He’s stubborn like that –and abnegative, a word that could have been coined in his honour…

Brien has a lot in common with Rugal, I think –they’re both obese and both walk slowly, and probably would be even slower unless enticed. I sometimes put a few dog biscuits in my pocket for Rugal, but I quickly discarded the idea of bringing beer for Brien, because I’d have to carry it. And although Brien walks too slowly in malls, and tends to wander off like the dog, I figured I could keep an eye on them both. Besides, Brien likes to argue, so I would always know where he was. He also has bad breath, so that helps, too.

With that in mind, I wandered over to his porch one fine and sunny spring morning after 11 AM, ever mindful of his circadian rhythm, and there he was, dosing on a recliner as clothed as an Inuit on a December day.

“Brien,” I yelled from the sidewalk, not wanting to alarm him by sneaking up beside him on the porch unannounced. I had to shout several times and then bang on the bottom step because his ears were hidden inside a hoodie.

I could see a pair of eyes glaring at me like watchful falcons from within the shadows of the oversized hood. And then, once I had been ID’d and vetted, a head emerged from the cavern and the body sat up. “’Bout time,” it said in a gruff voice. “I wondered when you were going to come by.” He extracted a meaty arm from under a blanket and checked his watch. “What’s this great idea you were going to discuss with me?”

No ‘How are you anyway?’, or even a ‘Hello’. Brien never bothered himself much with preliminary conversational niceties, he merely ploughed straight into the meal. And he didn’t consider it at all rude to resume whatever he had been doing once he had obtained the relevant information. Words were tools and the fewer used, the more skilled the craft. Metaphor was wasted on Brien.

“I thought you might need some exercise.” I felt I should explain –no, justify– it further, but before I could even begin my carefully engineered argument, his eyes hurried over to stop my tongue, mid-wag.

“And why did you think that?”

“I was just about to ex-…”

“You know I hate hiking,” he interrupted irritably.

“Rugal walks slowly, Brien. Really slowly.”

“What are you trying to tell me?”

I stared back at him, but kindly –like a parent. “I’m trying to tell you that you need more exercise, and walking with Rugal is a good way to start.”

I could feel his eyes walking back and forth across my face.

“You were a gynaecologist, not a trainer.”

He says that all the time and it usually quells my enthusiasm, but this time I had prepared a coup de grace and practiced my disdain in front of the mirror while I cleaned my teeth -it’s all in the forehead. “I was also an obstetrician, Brien -lest you forget!” That was the disdain part.

“So, you’re wasting your time on me.”

I had anticipated that. “Ahh, but I’ve coached women on the need to be in top physical form for delivery.” Actually, that was the midwives and the antepartum instructors; I just caught the baby, but I figured he wouldn’t know that.

“I’ve seen it on TV,” he said, somehow managing to sneer verbally. “All you guys do is sit there and make sure the baby doesn’t fall on the floor.”

He was good, I have to hand it to him. “That’s what it looks like on TV, I suppose, but just like a finely tuned athlete makes what they do look easy, it requires a lot of preparation and training beforehand.”

“You want to teach me Kegel exercises, or something, then?”

Damn! He’d been reading again. I hesitated, unsure how to proceed. In the end, I decided to call a spade a spade and skip the rest of my now-thwarted argument. “No, I just want to invite you to walk with Rugal and me.”

He promptly threw off the blanket and I saw he was dressed in a sweatshirt, track pants, and a sturdy pair of walking shoes with woolen socks. “Thought you’d never ask,” he said, all smiles. “Where’s the dog, by the way?”

I just knew I’d forget something.

 

Dog Biscuits

There is something deeply redemptive about walking a dog. It’s not that I feel in particular need of absolution, or anything, but like paying off a mortgage, every little bit counts. Just the feel of the empty leash in your hand, the wind in your hair and the little recyclable compost bag in your pocket in case you get caught is truly freeing -not to mention exhilarating.

I’m fortunate to live near a forest that is almost empty of decorum, so neither I nor my dog pay much heed to protocol. Not for us the urban fences and posted restrictions; we roam the trails like pioneers, exulting in the freedom to do whatever we wish, as long as nobody is watching. My job, of course, is to make sure.

I often walk with a friend for extra eyes –my dog is old and sometimes gets confused if she happens upon a scent that beckons more seductively than my own. Deaf, cataract-laden, and hip-restricted, I should probably be taking her in a wheelchair, but some of the trails are not equal-opportunity accessible. And anyway, she seems to enjoy padding along behind, engrossed in an olfactory experience those of us with clothes have long ago eschewed.

But there is an awkward moment of encounter at least once on any trail when I am asked her name. I know people are just being polite; I know they are really asking me to ask them their dog’s name so they can show off some clever celebrity sobriquet. But, even though I am now retired and expected to immerse myself in a popular culture I am too old to understand -the culture I am relegated to appreciate by proxy, I suppose- I do not enjoy the thrill of surrogate intimacy with the rich and famous.

I was by trade, a gynaecologist, and I fear my epithetical leanings are definitely gynaecological. So, in the case of my dog, I am constantly confronted with the need to explain the embarrassing anatomical coordinates of the name. The same with my cat, actually, but it saved me undo mortification by running away. As you read this, it is probably in protective custody somewhere, living under an alias. But to each her own. My dog seems to like her name, and back when her ears worked, actually perked them up when I called.

My friend, however, seems convinced that she is suffering from a type of psychological stress-deafness akin to Freud’s hysteria. Either that or, I am assured, she just ignores me in the throes of humiliation. I honestly don’t know why I continue to walk with this person.

I’ve kind of solved the deafness issue, though. Although she can’t hear me yelling at her, there are politer solutions on offer -loud whistling, for example. While I can do a fair, albeit rather sibilant, rendition of the first few bars of Ode to Joy, and have, on occasion, won praise for my thrilling, but unrecognizable version of Rachmaninoff’s prelude in C# minor, I am congenitally unable to produce anything louder than a soft hiss in the whistle department -certainly nothing that would command any attention, let alone respect. I did try one of those dog whistles in a pet store. The sign said it was supposed to use a higher frequency than humans can detect, and I couldn’t hear a thing when I blew it. I took that as a good sign. Mind you, my hearing is not what it used to be either, and I can certainly sympathize with presbycusis in the dog. Still… it didn’t do what the sign assured me it wouldn’t, so I bought it. Unfortunately, the first time I used it, my friend claimed it was both audible and painful, so I had to put it in my pocket. I still bring it with me, however, because although the dog can’t hear it, I figure it might come in handy if my friend wanders off.

The method I find myself using to attract the dog’s increasingly apparent attention deficit disorder, is the clap. Not to be confused with the dated, and highly derogatory alias for the condition that used to get you sent to the nurse’s office in high school, I am referring to the simple, yet forceful meeting of the hands. The dog seems to respond to clapping, although to get her attention, it has to be repetitive -as if I were applauding something terribly interesting in the trees that nobody else can see. People nearby avert their eyes as they approach, or scan the woods in search of the performing squirrel or wind ensemble that may be hidden somewhere they hadn’t noticed. I usually try to explain as they hurry past, but like the apocryphal tree falling in the forest when nobody is around, I get the distinct impression they’d rather not hear it.

I have recently come to the reluctant conclusion that my dog is entering a phase of cognitive decline, however. I see in her bouts of decision paralysis, hints of doggie dementia. She will, on occasion, sniff the same rock twice, as if she’s forgotten the olfactory message and her own contribution to the gestalt. She seems perfectly happy with the result, and I suppose I shouldn’t read too much into it, but as a fellow mammal, I worry. It’s a cross cultural thing, I guess.

Confusion is a big issue in a society based on obedience like ours. It is imperative that you know who to obey for a start –the rule of law depends on it. And it’s no different for a dog. Befuddlement is probably the heaviest weight I have to carry –not mine, you understand, although my friend sometimes has to fetch me if I wander off the trail thinking I see my car in the bushes. But that’s just when I’m tired and I don’t think dogs can use the same excuse. So when she disappears, I worry it is because her GPS is broken and not, like in my case, that she has just forgotten to turn it on.

I take her deficit personally t00, because I see it on the menu for us all. And if, in some uncharted time ahead, I should happen to wander off down another trail, or follow someone strange thinking it is myself, I hope my keepers will not be unduly distressed, or feel I have betrayed their trust. As with my dog, I hope they will be patient with my errant ways. And in the end, if clapping doesn’t work, there’s always the leash.

A Face by Any Other Name

Facial recognition is a pretty primitive thing. Not only can the FBI do it, but freshly born babies make a pretty good stab at it, too. We all look for faces everywhere, and we see them as well. We find faces in clouds, in trees, on rocks, the Man in the Moon… It’s called pareidolia when we interpret a non-existent pattern as something familiar. I think I am a reverse-pareidoliac –I often cannot even make out the patterns that aren’t there.

There was a time when I told myself that I had evolved beyond the primitive –that was why I couldn’t recognize faces. I convinced myself that I used far more advanced people-identification methods: the way they walked; how they parted their hair; the rhythm of their jowls when they pronounced my name –advanced things like that which babies could only dream of.

But now that time has worn thin and the edges have begun to fray, and in the plethora of leisure that Retirement has bolted to my shoulders, I feel that I should try to add to my repertoire of categorization clues -accrete lesser known strategies to advance my capacity to function in a crowd of otherwise-strangers. Well, okay… even reliably identify people who have remembered my name.

I like to go for long lonely walks in the woods with the dog along trails where I don’t have to pick up after her. She is aging now -deaf, and arthritic and seems to become easily confused- so I am the one in charge. I stroll slowly and aristocratically along the paths with pride, and at every junction on the trail, every place that might allow her the option of going the wrong way, I make sure she doesn’t get lost. I am the doting father, the aide de camp; I am the slow courier du bois.

Last week, on a particularly wet perambulation through the dripping forest, beset by mist and things that rustled the bushes unbeknownst to my dog, I thought I saw something on the trail ahead. At first I have to confess that, after dismissing notions of bear, or a feral troll, I decided it was a large tree. The fact of its swaying slightly from side to side did nothing to disavow me of my opinion. Once you have thought a thing through dispassionately and with critical reasoning, the conclusion becomes pretty sticky.

And yet, I am not one who believes in carding shadows; evidence can sway me -I am not a solipsist. When the tree eventually wobbled up to me, I was perfectly willing to admit it was human. What I was less certain about, however, was why he seemed to know me –and me him.

“Well, hello again,” he said, with undeserved familiarity. “Still at it I see.”

I nodded politely, but with not the slightest idea what he was talking about. I decided to reply in kind. “And you too, I guess, eh?” It was a brave attempt at concordance that he immediately disavowed.

“Actually, I’m giving up,” he said with a sigh and looked skyward –well, leafward, anyway. “A little too wet for me, I’m afraid.”

We both nodded and then stared at the ground between us as if for instructions. “Yes,” I replied, trying to find something we agreed upon. “It is wet…” As I spoke, a large drop of water landed on my now exposed neck and made me shiver. “And a bit cold.”

He nodded, but in a familiar way that made me suspect I’d seen him before –that maybe I’d even been introduced to him. “So where’s your dog,” he said looking around.

Aha, he knew I had a dog -I was closing in. I shrugged as if it were really of little importance whether your dog is actually visible in a forest like this. “Oh, she takes her time… probably back there sniffing something I guess.”

He nodded his head as if, yes, dogs were like that.

Why did that nod make him seem so familiar I wondered? I riffled through the files in my head for the answer: a name, a circumstance –anything. But the only thing that kept surfacing was that he had a dog, too. Somewhere… “So where’s your dog today?” It was a shot in the dark. I didn’t see a dog, but usually people don’t walk in the woods in the rain if they don’t have one –or at least one at home, anyway.

He chuckled and looked behind him. “Sometimes dogs hide…”

The name ‘Bob’ suddenly surfaced in my head. Was it the name of the dog…? No, probably not –nobody’d name their dog ‘Bob’. I decided it must be his name, so I thought I’d use it to appear more friendly –but non-referentially, noncommittally, just in case. “Ahh, Bob,” I said, dropping the ‘Bob’ down several notes and slowly shaking my head in a sort of pretend shrug. “Happens, eh?” It wasn’t brilliant, or anything, but I think I pulled it off.

He nodded again –it’s a guy thing on a trail- but he seemed a little uncertain, I thought. Just then my dog came limping in a slow pant up the trail and he pointed at her. “Finally, eh friend?” he said speaking in a direction that could have been directed at either one of us. Then he made eye contact with me, said “Well, I’d better be off now… Nice seeing you again.” and waddled off dogless into the mist, no doubt feeling he’d handled the situation as well as I had.