January 22, 2018
Getting to Know You
MONTPELIER – During moments of stress or inattention, I occasionally call her not by her name, but by that of her predecessor. This is mildly embarrassing to me, and I apologize, but she seems unaware of the anomaly – because, I suspect, that like probably all domestic animals, she knows something that we human beings have either forgotten or have yet to learn: that it isn’t the precise words we speak that are as important as the tone in which we speak them and the feeling from which they proceed.
Kiki’s been with me for not quite nine months now, and we’re still getting used to each other. Having her around is like having a two-year-old in the house: When I can see her or hear her, I can usually tell what she’s up to; when I can’t, I’ve got to call her and wonder, when she appears, what she’s been up to. A quick backtrack usually nails it.
It’s obvious, though, that what I’m up to is equally important to her. She can appear to be fast asleep in a soft chair, as she is just now, about three feet behind me. But there seems to be no such thing as REM in her physical vocabulary. I can move a little in my chair, perhaps take a sip of coffee, and detect no interest. But if I hit “Save” on the screen and push back even an inch, I hear four feet hit the floor behind me in a rapid succession of pairs – ka-thump. Where we goin’? Well, just to the bathroom, actually, and then maybe the kitchen to refill this coffee cup. You stay here.
Lots of luck with that. If I had to give her a name based on performance, it would be Shadow. She often sleeps on my desk, on a fleece beside my left hand. She generally leaves me alone if I’m typing, but if I’m scrolling Facebook, I get a paw or chin on my left hand, which gradually escalates to a full-face encounter with her front paws on what I call her no-no: the desk calendar and keyboard.
Her presence here is the result of the gentle wisdom of Tom Ryan, the author of the best-selling Following Atticus, which describes how his sanity, and probably his life, were saved by taking on a singular little miniature Schnauzer who climbed all New Hampshire’s 4000-footers with him, winter and summer. Tom and I shot an episode of my TV show together. One comment led to another, and that evening I let the family know that, in spite of the awful pain of losing our last dog, I was ready to try again. A few hours later Kiki popped up on my screen, courtesy of my younger daughter, who’d been browsing. “Here’s your next dog, Dad,” Martha wrote. The puppy was clearly impatient with the photographer and wanting to be off onto something else. You could see the hurry-up in her. It was love at first sight.
After two days of walking in the woods on a leash – she hated it, and so did I – I told her on the third day: “Look, you’ve got a chip and a rabies tag, so I’m going to give you a probationary try on your own. Don’t screw this up.” She was off like a shot. My heart sank. But very soon I realized she was running big circles around me. A couple of months later, when we climbed a mountain and shot another episode in New Hampshire with Tom Ryan and his new dog, he remarked, “She’s checking you out every five seconds.” He was right: Scouting ahead, scrambling between my feet, or nudging from behind, there she was. There was no way anybody could deserve that kind of attention, but there it was.
I had wanted a puppy to help fill the loneliness created when Mother went into nursing care. There have been moments, as when she’s chewed her bedding to a chowder or turned my favorite fleece throw into a colander, that loneliness has seemed almost preferable, but divorce has never crossed my mind. She’s young and peppy, and loves to run lickety-split through the woods; I’m old, slow, and plodding at best. But whenever I turn around, there she is; when I’m cooking at the stove, she’s between my feet, pushing her squeaky ball against my leg; when I dine, I can see her tail sticking out from under my chair.
We’re learning each other. I didn’t care much for the standard commands they taught us at puppy school; so instead of “Leave it!” I just say, “Hey!” Instead of “Heel,” “Right there, Sweetheart.” And it’s not always Sweetheart, either. I can use any epithet that comes to mind, in any language I can muster, and realize she’s listening not to the word, but to the inflection and tone, and watching my body language in the bargain. Her favorite words are, “All right. Let’s go.” They create instant galvanic action.
So here we are, the two of us, in this big house. I’m a creature of routines, pretty much, and she’s learning them. I’m trying to civilize her a little by not letting her lick my dishes anymore, and she’s making it plain that when my bronchitis is barking, she’ll be sleeping several feet away, thanks. She’s trying – sort of – to become a better member of human society, and I’m trying to become the person she seems to imagine me to be. Kind of a harmonic convergence, you might say.