Hauntings in the morning

by Lorin Michel Saturday, July 20, 2013 10:05 PM

It is early on Saturday morning as I write this. The birds haven’t even begun their song. The sun is hiding in the cloud cover, and the air drifting in through the kitchen window is tinged cool. There are no cars zipping by, no children’s laughter floating up. I hear no dogs barking nor do I see any strolling by with their owners. It’s the quiet time of the day and as much as part of me would like to be sleeping next to my still slumbering husband, I have to admit that I love this hour. It allows me to simply be for just a bit before the day and all of its trappings begin.

The coffee pot beeps five times indicating that it’s done brewing. In a minute, I’ll get up from my place here at the table and pour myself a cup. I love coffee in the morning. I don’t think it has anything to do with the taste but rather the ritual. I love the steam that drifts lazily into the air, the roasted fragrance of the beans. I love to curl my fingers through the loop of the mug and let the rim linger at my mouth just for a second before I take a sip. The first sip sets the tone for the day. I like it to be a good one. As I said, a ritual.

In front of me is a bouquet of deep wine colored flowers along with dusty pink and some green. They too seem to be taking in the beginnings of the day. I know there are certain flowers that close at night and open again as the sun drifts over the horizon. I wonder if all flowers do that. I’m not very smart about flowers. I don’t know their names unless they’re roses or irises, but I do love the atmosphere they create. There is warmth in flowers, and humor. There is a lightness of being; they have a way of bringing a smile to the room. I appreciate that. You’d think I’d take the time to learn more but I suppose that’s enough.

Into the quiet drifts the drone of a small aircraft. We’re about 15 minutes away from Camarillo and they have a small airport there. Small Cessna’s and Bonanza’s haunt the morning skies often on Saturdays. Strangely it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes I am simply in awe of what we have accomplished as a species. The small planes remind me of the legend of Frank and Orville Wright which reminds me of Charles Lindberg which reminds me of my Aunt Beryl. She saw him with the Spirit of St. Louis at a small airfield in Pennsylvania in 1927. I’m writing a short story about it. This morning makes me want to spend the day doing nothing but that.

I hear my husband calling to me. I’ll bring him a cup of coffee. I hear the click click of Cooper’s nails on the hardwood floor as he pads out to see me. He’s been seeing ghosts in the house lately, not sure if he’s losing his mind or if the spirit of Maguire is torturing him for some reason. He’ll start out from the bedroom, often carrying a toy and as he gets toward the rug that leads into the kitchen, he’ll slow way down. His feet will get wider apart. It looks as if he’s walking through something heavy. His eyes dart to the left, he drops the toy. Sometimes he turns and races back to the bedroom. Other times he spins quickly into the kitchen so that whatever he’s seeing can’t get him. The only thing to the left is the pen and ink drawing of Maguire that hangs on the wall, the one Roy did of him the day he died. His ashes are still in the beautiful redwood box on the wine table. Maybe he is terrorizing Cooper, just because he can.

Cars are starting to wake up now, too. Three just went by. I hear voices, neighbors outside, tweaking sprinklers, getting ready to go wherever. As if on cue, our sprinklers pop up from the ground, spurting to life. Here comes haunted Cooper, wagging his tail. Looks like he made it. Life is good all around. 

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live out loud

Look in their eyes to see heaven

by Lorin Michel Saturday, July 20, 2013 1:37 AM

Regular readers know that I am not a religious woman, certainly not in the conventional sense. I am mostly distrustful of organized religion, certainly as it applies to me. I’ve been that way since I was 15, or at least that’s when I became acutely aware. Fifteen seems to be the age when many become acutely aware. I don’t believe in the traditional idea of heaven either. I believe when we die, we die. That our souls are released to travel the universe or to sit next to the ones we leave behind. But I don’t think anyone ascends to one convenient 5-star cloud reserved only for those most holy.

I do however believe in a different kind of heaven, the kind that can be seen here on earth when looking into the eyes of a dog, and especially an older dog.

I’ve written before about my admiration of older dogs. Having had a vintage puppy in our beloved Maguire, I came to almost prefer dogs with a few miles on them, whose legs maybe didn’t have as much pure muscle mass, whose gait had slowed; whose fur was more coarse and gray; whose eyes contained the wisdom of their years and the knowledge of a life lived well. When I would look into Maguire’s eyes and see that wisdom, accompanied by acceptance, I knew I was also seeing the only kind of heaven I believed in.

This heaven is one based solely on reality, on an animal’s truth and consent. Dogs never try to be anything they’re not. They don’t struggle with a will to continue. They are blessed by the comfort of recognition of the inevitable. We are the ones who hope and pray and wish that they’ll never leave us, who often keep them alive longer than they want to be in order to soothe our own souls when theirs are already gone. We did this with Maguire. He essentially left us on the Friday night of his horrific seizures but even though the light had gone out of his magnificent brown eyes, we couldn’t and didn’t make the decision to let him go until Tuesday morning.

Maguire taught me to love dogs. When he got to be an old dog, he taught me to love his majesty and truth.

Before he died, I began following a group on Facebook, based in Lake Stevens, Washington, called Old Dog Haven. They provide homes for the aging, white muzzled dogs that people have cast aside. Some just need a place to comfortably live out their remaining time, where they can bask in the warm sunshine of the day and sleep inside at night surrounded by love. Some need hospice care. Old Dog Haven tries to get people to adopt older dogs, too. For anyone who has had an older dog, the idea of having another can actually be pleasant. Again I’ll use the word comforting.

This weekend they’re having a Walk for Old Dogs, raising money for their care. Donations can be made at odhfundraising.org. I just gave a donation, for Maguire, for our someday old dog Cooper, and for a dog named Schoep.

Last year, I wrote about a man named John who would take his then 19-year-old German shepherd mix, Schoep, into Lake Michigan, a lullaby that helped relieve the dog’s arthritis. He would fall asleep in John’s arms. Schoep recently celebrated his 20th birthday, and he passed away on Wednesday of this week. John announced it briefly on Facebook last night. “I breathe but I can’t catch my breath” was all he wrote, along with “Schoep passed yesterday.” As I type those words my eyes are swimming in tears. I never met John or Schoep but I know his pain. I know that he knows that all the times he looked into the beautiful eyes of his beautiful boy, he was seeing heaven on earth.

I hope that it’s enough though I know that it is not. I hope that one day he’ll be able to see the wonder and approval and ascension of his beloved dog as we came to see it with Maguire. It doesn’t lessen the loss but it does help to lessen the pain, as does time. As does the ability to see into the eyes of another needy dog. It’s life; it’s what we can do. It’s how we live it out loud.

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live out loud

Oh, baby. What a dog.

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, June 26, 2013 12:37 AM

I’m not a fan of the derogatory statement “what a dog.” It’s used to insult people behaving badly but it’s actually more of an insult to dogs. Dogs are usually much better than people. Yes, they’re animals. But only if you think of animals as being creatures less than human, and I don’t. I’m of the mindset that animals are creatures often better than human.

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am a huge dog person. That saying alone explains a bit about how I think. I’m a dog person. A dog-person. I love dogs, but I understand dogs. I am part dog. Maybe I was a dog in another life. I often joke that in my next life, I’m coming back as a dog with a good owner in a nice house.

I see a dog and I go all gooey inside. I want to get close to them, to pet them; to hug and kiss on them. I am careful to ask the owner first, of course. Because sometimes people train their dogs to be aggressive, or because they may be aggressive by nature. I understand this. Still, I ooh and awe. I smile. Hell, I grin. My Facebook page is covered with dog-related pages. My checkbook cover (yes, I still have a checkbook, for those bills that I can’t yet pay online and for emergencies) is dog bones.

Maguire was my Honey Bear, my big furry baby. I loved that dog more than life itself and was nearly inconsolable when we lost him, as was Kevin (as was Roy, Bobbi, everyone who knew him). In our eyes, he was a fur-person, capable of understanding most of what we said and of carrying on conversations. Yes, we often spoke for him but he was very articulate.

Cooper came along in October and for a while it was a bit like having a new roommate. We didn’t know any of his quirks; he didn’t know any of ours. But soon he settled right in and before you know it, he too became quite the conversationalist. Turns out he’s pretty funny. Great sense of humor, fairly smart. While he’s not the cultured boy that Maguire was, and is, in fact, more of a Honey Boo Boo than a Honey Bear. More trailer trash than high class. We love him anyway, because he’s now our baby.

Turns out we’re not the only ones. There are an awful lot of people out there who feel the same way. According to research, people who think of their dogs as babies are actually kind of correct in that dogs react to their humans in a manner that “eerily mimics how human children respond to their parents.” The researchers used an experiment that involved something called the “secure base effect,” something that is typically found in the nearly unbreakable emotional ties between parents and their children.

Dog test subjects, who earned treats by manipulating interactive toys, were placed in situations where there was an absent owner, a silent owner and an encouraging owner (I would have used the word “parent” since we’re talking about dogs being our babies but I suppose that’s picking nits). The dogs whose owners/parents weren’t present were much less interested in working for their treats than when those owners/parents were in the room.

Dogs appeared to be most comfortable and most willing to take a chance when they were near their people, offering what has been deemed “the first evidence for the similarity between the secure base effect found in dog-owner and child-caregiver relationships.”

Evidently science has already deciphered this effect in human-children versus fur-children. Kids who were able to use their mother as a secure base were found to be more motivated and persistent than those whose mothers were absent.

This comes as no real surprise to either dog trainers or dog owners. It certainly comes as no surprise to this dog owner.

Maguire was my baby; I spent every day with him. Cooper is now my baby; I spend every day with him. Maguire was a good boy, smart, knew all of his toys by name, had a vocabulary that was at least a hundred if not more words. Cooper is becoming a good boy, too. He’s smart; he’s learning his toys by name. He knows to take one up to my office and to bring it down at night, and trot around the house with it in his mouth. He sits, he does paw bump, he does stay game and he gets rewarded for it.

What a dog. What a boy.

The adventures of Cooper Michel

by Lorin Michel Sunday, June 9, 2013 12:20 AM

Episode 4: Cooper exercises his right to choose

Once upon a time there was an amazingly well-behaved dog and his name was Maguire Michel. He was blessed with an extraordinary amount of politeness, especially for a dog. He wouldn’t dream of taking anything that wasn’t his, except for the one time that Bobbi was here and she had this adorable faux fur purse. She put it down on top of some bags in the kitchen and Maguire proceeded to sit and stare at it for an hour. You could almost see him trying to decide if he was going to take it as he was sure it was a new toy for him, but since no one had given it to him, he couldn’t take it. It wouldn’t be polite.

We could put food on the coffee table and never worry that it wouldn’t be there if we had to leave the room. He might be sitting right next to it, again staring at it and drooling uncontrollably at the sheer thought of a piece of pizza, or a chicken breast, even seared ahi tuna from the grill. He would wait patiently until we returned, and then eat whatever we offered him, off of a fork. Very delicately, very politely.

When we put something special in his bowl, he would stand, ready to launch, but with his eyes on us, waiting for permission. If we didn’t give it, he didn’t eat. We always gave it.

We used to joke that we could put the turkey on the floor at Thanksgiving and he wouldn’t eat it unless we said it was OK. Granted, we might be flooded out because of the dog drool. But we’d still have turkey.

We don’t know where he got this trait as it wasn’t anything we ever taught him. He just seemed to be instinctively polite, incredibly well-behaved. The kind of dog who would never stick his nose into a bag on the floor and pull out food that belonged to someone else.

I’d like to introduce you again to the newest member of the family, one Master Cooper Michel. He is not at all cursed with the quaint idea of being polite. His motto is simple: “if it’s on the floor, it’s mine.”

Also, “if it’s on the coffee table, it’s probably mine. Especially if you’re not there to guard it.”

Witness the goings on of last night. We had a lovely dinner of pan-cooked salmon, steamed cauliflower with a garlic/mushroom/blue cheese/butter sauce, and sliced strawberries. Roy and Bobbi were here and we had spent the first hour or so of Fritini – which has become Cooper’s favorite holiday. It was also Maguire’s – sitting on the patio, sipping cocktails and having a healthy vegetable crudités. Also dried peas coated with wasabi. [Note: if you have not had these, run, quickly, to Trader Joe’s and stock up. They’re absolutely addictive. Also, too, they’re good for clearing the sinuses.]

Cooper, like Maguire, always sits as close to Roy as caninely possible. Roy, who bills himself as “Daddy” on Fritini, proceeds to feed Cooper cheese and crackers, carrots, and anything else the dog would like to munch. Roy did the same for Maguire. He was also Maguire’s Fritini dad. If Roy stops feeding Cooper for anything longer than a minute, the paw comes up to rest on Roy’s leg. As if to say: “Who’s my Daddy, now?”

Once we served dinner, Cooper calmed down. While he likes salmon, he was content to only have a little bit. He didn’t seem to care much for the cauliflower.

We were wrong.

Roy had a bit of both salmon and cauliflower left over and so he wrapped it up nicely in some aluminum foil and tucked it into one of their bags on the floor in the kitchen. Everyone, including Cooper, continued to savor the wine. Kevin went inside at one point to get a sweatshirt and Cooper decided to go with him. Kevin returned. Cooper did not.

About 30 seconds later, I noticed that the dog was nowhere to be found. I asked Kevin “where’s the dog?”

Kevin: “What dog?” He jokes. He’s a kidder, that one.

I went into the house and toward the kitchen, calling his name. Now, the one thing you need to know about Cooper is that he is nearly surgically attached to me. The fact that he was not next to me on the patio, nor was he coming when I called was concerning to say the least. I knew he was fine. I also knew he must be doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing.

I was right. I walked into the kitchen to find the remnants of cauliflower and mushrooms and garlic and blue cheese spread across the kitchen floor, and my dog, my adorably not-polite dog, standing in the middle of the room, looking at me innocently, with a huge piece of aluminum foil sticking out of both sides of his mouth.

Hey, if it’s on the floor, even if it’s in a bag, even if it’s wrapped up in aluminum foil, it’s his. He was just exercising his right to choose. And he chose Roy’s – Daddy’s – doggie bag.

The end.

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live out loud

Do dogs grieve?

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, April 30, 2013 11:48 PM

There have been a number of stories in the news lately about dogs grieving. There are dogs grieving for other dogs, lying next to a dead companion, risking their own demise to shelter another dog who has been hit by a car and lays dead in the roadway. A recent story in Utah tells the story of a dog named Bella grieving over the body of her best friend, a beaver, dead in a field. Bella whimpers. There are service member dogs that grieve for their masters, fellow soldiers killed in the line of duty, like Hawkeye, a chocolate lab, whose owner, 35-year-old Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson, died in August 2011. Hawkeye could be found on the floor where the family held the memorial, in front of the flag-draped casket, refusing to leave. Dogs in military zones have been known to put their heads on the chests of fallen comrades.

Others guard gravesites, returning time and again to sleep a top a marker, to be near the one they loved and lost.

There have long been stories about dogs grieving. One of the most famous was that of golden Akita named Hachiko whose owner was Professor Hidesaburo Ueno of the University of Tokyo in 1924. Each day, the professor would ride the train to work and each day the dog would meet him at the station when he returned. Then, one day in May of 1925, the professor didn’t return from work, having suffered a fatal heart attack. But the dog waited at the station anyway. Legend says that Hachiko waited for ten years, until March of 1935, when he, too passed. A scientist found that his cause of death was terminal cancer; others were sure it was heartbreak.

I’ve written here about Shep, a sheepdog who accompanied his owner into Ft. Benton, Montana in 1936 when the sheepherder fell ill. He died several days later and his body was boxed up and sent back to relatives in the east. Shep followed the box to the train station, watched as it was loaded aboard and chased the train as far as he could as it departed the station. For the next five and a half years, Shep kept vigil at the station, greeting each train as it arrived, waiting for a master who would never return.

Ciccio and his owner lived in San Donaci in Puglia, Italy. Each afternoon, as the bells would toll, Ciccio would accompany the woman to church. The woman died suddenly one November, and Ciccio was devastated, attending the funeral and following the casket into the church. Day after day he returned. The priest let him sit in front of the altar during services.

In 2005, a man named Miguel Guzman brought a dog named Capitan home for his son. Guzman died the next year and the dog disappeared. A week after the funeral, the family returned to the cemetery to pay their respects to their departed Miguel and found Capitan there, howling. He continues to live at the cemetery, fed by the family, sleeping on his master’s grave.

A dog named Leao was photographed lying patiently next to the fresh grave of his owner, killed in the Brazilian landslides of January 2011. The face is lonely, grief-stricken and dedicated.

After the devastating Japan earthquake in March of 2011, a shaking, mud-splattered spaniel was photographed sitting next to another dog who was hardly moving though still alive. The spaniel refused to leave his friend, standing guard, pacing. The two were eventually rescued.

There are countless others, and always have been. Perhaps it’s the human characteristics we bestow upon our dogs that allows us to believe they also possess the same gauntlet of emotions of we mere mortals. Perhaps it’s that they do, in fact, grieve. They love, they guard, they play, they attach themselves to us as much as we attach ourselves to them. Suddenly “we” are gone and they don’t know what to do. It’s the same when a dog loses a fellow canine or other type of animal companion. They are lost, and they need time to be found. Much like humans. Grief is not a switch that can be turned off, in any kind of person including the kind with four legs.

It’s an amazing phenomenon. It breaks my heart when I see one of these photos, watch one of these videos or read one of these stories. I find myself sharing in the grief. In empathizing with the dog. Perhaps it’s because of the immense grief I felt when we lost Maguire, an overwhelming sense of loss I could barely comprehend. Some would say, well, he was just a dog. Those who would say that have never loved a dog, never loved an animal, never looked into their soul to see them looking back.

I believe that dogs grieve, just as I know humans break into pieces over profound loss. I will believe that until the day I die. There is synergy, somehow, in the idea that we grieve for their loss and they, in turn, grieve for ours. May I be so lucky as to be mourned by my dog, and may my dog then find comfort and love with another. It’s the cycle of life.

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Joy in a growl

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, April 24, 2013 11:41 PM

I am in love. It has happened gradually and yes, a bit unexpectedly. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to love again but it snuck up on me and now I can hardly stop smiling. I whistle during the day. I find myself singing sometimes and I don’t sing. I laugh out loud for little to no reason at all. It is joyous, this love, for it is new and bubbly and fun, and growing.

The love of which I speak? My Cooper.

When we lost our Maguire last March, I could hardly imagine ever having another dog let alone loving one. And yet, within months of losing him, I was lost. I was lonely. I missed the jazz feet on the hard wood, the drool across the floor, the toys, in various states of disarray all over the house. The wonderfulness of fur. Everywhere. I missed my Maguire, and I still do, but by October of last year, I was ready to try again. To heal my broken heart. To fill the empty place with a beautiful new face.

I found Cooper on Pet Finder. He was a rescue and I couldn’t get his face out of my mind. I looked at him for weeks before I even told Kevin that I was thinking I was ready. Kevin, of course, was not ready. He was prepared to never be ready again. He loved Maguire fiercely and the thought of another made him almost angry. No one could replace Maguire.

I explained that I didn’t want to replace Maguire, that no one dog could ever replace such an amazing animal, the love of our lives. But I needed to have a dog in the house. I had found one. Would he at least take a look? Begrudgingly he agreed. We met Cooper, then Andy, and made the decision to take him. It was not love at first sight. It wasn’t even love after a week. For a short time I worried that I’d been too hasty. That I shouldn’t have gotten another dog so soon. The memory of Maguire and his Maguireness was still too fresh. After all, I could still smell his fur if I tried hard enough, and truth be told I didn’t have to try very hard.

We had our fair share of issues with Cooper. I worried and stewed. I wasn’t feeling the rush, the heart palpitations, the sheer bliss of seeing his little face and hearing his feet as they danced across the floor.

But then something happened. Things changed. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was kiss his nose. And hug him close, and rub his belly. And play with him. And take care of him, to let him know that after years as a foster puppy, he had finally found his forever home.

Tonight, I met my friend Connie for a glass of wine. We laughed and talked and exchanged stories about family. We had a great time. While I was there I got a text message, from Cooper, relayed through Cooper’s dad, that he had gone for a walk, that he and dad were doing fine and that he’d even had dinner and it was good. I smiled.

When I got home and came in from the garage, a little red and white face was anxiously awaiting my arrival. His tail was thumping against the wall. We exchanged a pet and a hello, and then he took off like a shot, looking for a toy, any toy but most likely Wubba. He was excited! Mom was home! Life was as it should be! His family was complete! And he needed to share his joy via his toys.

Wubba was still in my office so he couldn’t quite find him, but he found two other toys that he proceeded to growl at as he tossed them round the room with great joy. I watched it all with amusement and, yes, love. As I watched him racing around the room, throwing his toys through the air with wild abandon, all because he was just so damned excited that I was home, I was suddenly overcome. I realized that I had fallen completely and totally, head over heels in love with my dog. I don’t know exactly when things changed but they did.

Maybe it’s the complete happiness he has in playing with his toys with both me and his dad in the room. His life is complete. And now, again, ours is too.

Somebody once said something along the lines of “once you have loved a dog, your heart will never truly be full again until you allow another in.” It’s a bad paraphrase but the sentiment is a good one.

I have allowed another in; we have. And my heart – our hearts – are all the better for it. Maguire would understand. And I think celebrate it with us.

Even though he was never much for other dogs. 

Interview with a Squire

by Lorin Michel Saturday, April 13, 2013 11:02 PM

He shows up on time, dapper in his gray fur tipped with hints of black. It is darker nearer his body, and it occurs to me that he is aging the opposite of humans and even dogs, or at least the late Maguire, the one he dubbed his Knight. He has been known ever since as the Squire, the ever-present attendant and companion to the noble dog, the one who helped get him ready for battle and in the end, helped him prepare for the inevitable.

He settles himself into the corner of the branch of the birch tree in the back yard. The sun streams down through the trees, the leaves around him rustle slightly. He pays them no attention. Pulling a nut out from his cheek he starts to nibble.

“You don’t mind if I eat, do you?” he asks politely. “I’ve been traveling and I lost a little weight. Now the missus wants me to get healthy. She doesn’t like me skinny.”

I assure him that it’s perfectly fine for him to eat and nod, agreeing that he looks a bit thin but that he also looks good. Perhaps it’s just that it’s been a while since I’ve seen him haunting our trees, racing along the walls and dancing atop Kevin’s – Hey, Kevin – studio. I ask him where he’s been. Between bites and acorn chews he tells me.

“I got a job,” he says. “Some squirrels from Washington contacted me through squirrel mail and said they were getting ready for this thing called Squirrel Week. And I thought, come on. There’s a week celebrating me?”

I say that I’ve heard of that but didn’t know much about it.

He chews for a minute, bringing his little squirrel hands up to his mouth, and then he swallows. He tosses the rest of the nut to the side. He starts to speak again and then he freezes. Suddenly he is on high alert. His fur stands on end, the black tips at attention, his black eyes straight ahead, his ears perked.

Inside the house, the new dog, the knight-wannabe, stirs. I am out on the patio with a cup of coffee and the new dog, known as Cooper, wants to be outside with me. He is rather attached to me, as it turns out. But as I am having a chat with the Squire, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have him racing around, trying to cause trouble. I tell Cooper to hush and assure the Squire that we’re cool.

“Sometimes he makes me wish I was a flying squirrel,” the Squire mutters.

Squirrel Week, it turns out, was started by The Washington Post to celebrate the much loathed and more beloved rodents –

“Rodents,” he repeats. “Piiittthhhh.”

– who are descended from the Sciuridae family from some 40 million years ago. There are 285 known relative-types and most live in either terribly cold climates or exceptionally hot areas. They like to eat birdseed and nuts, they scavenge and forage for food and they love to play chicken with cars. I have seen too many relatives of our beloved Squire end up splat on the road. It’s not pretty. I see them dart out from seemingly nowhere and as they start across the asphalt I find myself cheering them on: “Go squirrel, go!”

“We’re creative in our approach to life,” the Squire says after a few moments of silence. “If we need to get someplace, we get there. We call it the squirrel squirt. If we need to extract a nut, we figure it out. It might take a while, but it happens. It’s about overcoming challenges. You know, like being called a rodent.”

That is a challenge, I agree. As the fictional Carrie Bradshaw once intoned: squirrels are just rats with cuter outfits. I admit that I’ve always found that funny. The Squire looks at me steadily. I can tell he’s trying to decide if he should be insulted. I assure him he shouldn’t be. I also laugh at jokes about Italians and about women, even sometimes about Italian women. He smiles. He says it’s good to be back and that his job didn’t really pan out. I ask what it was.

“Getting all 285 to pose for one picture,” he says. “Wasn’t happening. Not even close.”

I have one more question for the Squire. How is he getting along without his Knight?

“Oh, you know, it’s hard,” he says sadly. He’s quiet then, lost in squirrel thoughts. “I miss the big guy. And he was a really good guest blogger. I have trouble with that sometimes.” He pauses.

“I guess I still have big paws to fill,” he says with a smile.

And with that he is up off the branch and scurrying up the tree. I watch him go, wondering why the Washington Post felt the need to have a Squirrel Week and if Cooper will ever be the knight we hope he’ll be. I’m lost in my own squirrel thoughts when I hear my name:

“Hey Lorin,” he says. I look but can’t find him. “Sometimes you just gotta let the nuts fall where they may.” I smile. “And May will be here before you know it! Bye!”

His voice disappears then, too. But the Squire is back, and I for one am celebrating him – and all of his brethren – on this Saturday as we are all living it out loud … in cute outfits. 

What Kevin wants to know

by Lorin Michel Monday, April 8, 2013 11:41 PM

Every once in a while the conversations in the Michel household turn to wistful wonderings about things we will never know. These conversations are almost inevitably started by the mister part of the house and always digress into discussions on what he wishes he could somehow find out. We talk and twist our way into a conclusion that invariably concludes that he will probably never know but we have the discussions anyway and they are usually quite interesting in a Groundhog Day kind of way.

A digression: Don’t you just love how Groundhog Day, an actually charmingly amusing little Bill Murray flick, has become synonymous with the same thing happening over and over and over again with the thing never getting resolved?

OK. I’m back.

Today’s Groundhog Day conversations happened because of Cooper. Somehow we were talking about his past and how we’ll never know anything about how he was raised, where, or by whom. This led to a conversation about Maguire and how we got him at 8 weeks old but from the Agoura Animal Shelter and how we couldn’t believe that someone had actually found him in their bushes, here in Oak Park, and had taken him to the pound rather than keep him.

That’s the story we were told at the shelter when Kevin discovered him that fateful Saturday morning in February 1997. He was 10 pounds of rolling, bouncing fur, the cutest thing Kevin had ever seen, and then the cutest thing I had ever seen. We wanted to know how he came to be at the pound, alone. Often times, a mother and her pups will end up at a shelter, or a litter of pups will end up at the pound because someone is trying to get rid of them. But one lonely puppy seemed odd.

Did I mention he was cute?

We could hardly believe he was still available for adoption. Turns out he couldn’t be adopted for two more days because someone had just dropped him off on Friday and they had to wait three days in case someone owned him and came looking for him. The shelter staff said that the person who brought him in found him behind some bushes somewhere in Oak Park. It didn’t make sense to us then; it doesn’t make sense to us now. And it haunts Kevin.

Me being me and a believer in everything happening for a reason as well as when it’s supposed to long ago decided that he was there on that Saturday because he was meant for us. He had been found because we were supposed to be with him and he was supposed to be with us. That’s how my mind works.

Kevin’s mind spins differently. While my mind hotrods forward on my 255/55R19s, Kevin’s got the big studded tires climbing mountains in four-wheel drive. He digs it out; he obsesses. I just go with it. He needs to know the answer to a question that we will never know. How did Maguire, who wasn’t Maguire at the time, come to be at the shelter? Who found him? Was he actually found or was he a present for someone who decided they didn’t really want a puppy because puppies are a lot of work? Was he tossed aside? Did he escape from someone’s yard? Was he really found in Oak Park? How could someone throw him away?

Usually I’m the control freak in our family. When we’re going somewhere, I need to know how we’re getting there. On Saturdays, I need to know what we’re doing for the day even if we’re not doing anything. I like to know what I’m making for dinner so I can think on it, mull, and do it differently than I’ve done it before. I plan; I control.

Kevin is much more easy-going, except when he’s not. He plans things because he has to for work or for when he’s building something. But he can get on the motorcycle and just go without needing to know where he’s going or how he’ll get there.

But when it comes to Maguire, he needs to know. I suspect it’s because he never will.

He also wonders about the Kennedy Assassination and the grassy knoll and what really happened; if it’s what the government has long concluded or if there was really someone else shooting other than Lee Harvey Oswald.

He wonders who killed Roger Rabbit, if there really were aliens in Roswell, New Mexico, and if the Skunk Works plant in Burbank, where they built the SR-71 spy plane, is still operational even though supposedly it isn’t.

He wants to know these things. And who am I to discourage his curiosity? Maybe someday, if he looks long enough and finds the people who have the answers, he’ll find out how Maguire got to the shelter. After all, at the end of Groundhog Day, there was a change. There was resolution. Bill Murray got the girl. Maybe there’s hope that Kevin will get the story on the puppy, the wondrous little ball of fluff who grew up to become Maguire. 

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live out loud

In his dreams

by Lorin Michel Saturday, March 30, 2013 9:34 PM

It starts with a subtle twitch of the feet, first one, then another and another and another in quick succession. Before long all four are galloping through the air as the dog lies on his side. Then the ears start to move, the breathing increases and he’s off and running. In his dreams.

When we had Maguire, we used to love to watch him dream. He didn’t dream a lot but when he did we just knew he was running through tall fields of grass bathed in sunshine, a warm breeze tickling his fur, his feet barely touching the ground. If his dreams could have been filmed they would have been in slow motion. He was such a happy go-lucky boy. Since we had him from the time he was about 10 weeks old, we knew exactly what had transpired in his life and that it had all been good. Oh, there was the time he and I were out walking one night in July, minding our own business and an off-leash dog came racing up the street and attacked him. That was bad, but for the most part, his life was one filled with naps and cookies and walks and hugs and constant kisses from his mom and dad. His good life was, we believe, reflected in his dreams.

By comparison, Cooper’s dreams regularly take him through Dante’s inferno. He howls, screeches, puffs and barks. He bares his teeth; he growls. His feet don’t gallop at a leisurely pace; they race as if he’s running for his life. If his dreams were available to screen they would be in 3-D with fire-breathing dragons singeing his tail.

We’ve only had Cooper for five months. He supposedly had a home for the first years of his life but for close to the year and a half before we rescued him, he went from foster home to foster home, five in total. We have no idea what those homes were like. All we know is that when he came to us, he was a little high strung, and appeared to be very aggressive especially toward other dogs. Actually appeared is probably too nice of a word. He acted very aggressive to other dogs. We came to find out that he is terrified and he masks his terror by being overly demonstrative, biting, snarling, threatening; standing his ground when no one is threatening him. The perception of a threat is his reality. We’re not sure why; we’ll never know. In much the same way we’ll never know what he dreams of. We just know that he dreams and when he does, it appears to be scary for him.

According to psychologist Stanley Coren, the brains of dogs are similar to those of humans. When dogs sleep, their brain wave patterns are similar to that of people, going through the same stages of electrical activity. Dogs aren’t the only animals that dream, either. Two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology compiled evidence that the brains of sleeping rats function in such a way as to suggest dreaming. I’m not sure what that means, but since they’re from MIT, who am I to question?

Much of the way we dream as humans is associated with what we’ve done during the day. If we were out driving all day, we might dream of driving while we’re asleep. MIT researchers studied rats in a maze during the day and theorized that rats probably also dream of going through a maze while they sleep. In fact, the researchers found that the rodents’ electrical patterns were quite specific and identifiable based on recordings done while the rats were awake. When they were asleep, the electrical patterns were such that researchers were able to tell where in the maze the rat would be if it were awake.

Coren also found that big dogs, like mastiffs and Great Danes dream every 45 minutes for about 5 minutes at a time while smaller dogs, like terriers and poodles start dreaming every 10 minutes but their dreams only last for about a minute or less. Cooper falls somewhere in the middle.

Charles Darwin believed that proving that an animal dreams also proves that there is conscious thought. And conscious thought means being aware, of thinking of what you’re thinking.

Anyone who has a dog knows this already. They are aware. Maguire was aware of everything right up until the three days before we lost him. We could tell him to get a specific toy and he would. We could talk about going for a walk, simply mentioning the word in a sentence, and he knew what we were talking about. He was aware; he was safe. Cooper is aware, too, though less so. Still he is aware of his toys, of his kennel, his space. We haven’t yet spent enough time with him to teach him, to show him that he’s OK, that we’re here for him, that we’ll always be here for him, and that life as he knew it is over. Soon he’ll be aware that he has a forever family who loves him. Soon his dreams of being chased will turn to dreams of rolling around on his back in the grass. He’ll dream of the same tall fields that Maguire graced. He’ll run free.

In his dreams. 

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live out loud

And the eyes are wise

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, March 6, 2013 7:47 PM

One of my loyal readers, Fred, commented on a recent blog post that he just needs “to look into an animal’s eyes … to gain clarity.” It got me thinking and thus writing. I, too, have spent much time looking into the eyes of my dogs, the late, great Maguire, our vintage puppy, and the new addition to the family, one Mr. Cooper, our pre-owned puppy. Interestingly both of them have similar eyes. Brown, alert, and clear. Looking into them was and is like looking into their souls.

Kevin used to hold Maguire’s head in his hands, one hand cupped on either side of his ears, and pull his face close so they could have a conversation. Maguire allowed it because he loved his dad so much. Kevin said that he had absolutely no doubt that Maguire understood everything Kevin was saying; that he could almost hear Maguire answering, with his eyes.

The eyes of an animal, especially one who is older or even just growing old, can tell us so much. They are wise with life and love. They look at you with such astonishing clarity they can almost make you self-conscious. It’s as if they can see if you’re being honest, if you’re a fraud. And they love you anyway. This is the power that comes through the gaze of an old dog.

Last week, Roy and Bobbi gave us a book to commemorate the anniversary of Maguire’s passing. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year today that he left us. The passage of time – and the wonder of our dear Cooper – has made it easier to bear but we still miss him all the time. We miss his big furry self sprawled on the floor, his drool drying on the wood, his stretches and his noises. We miss his patented three-woof announcement for everything from “I see you” to “there’s someone at the door” to “yes, I would very much like that piece of chicken, thank you.” Woof, woof. Woof.

Our beloved Maguire a year ago, watching us from the sunshine of the backyard. 

The book is called Old Dogs are the Best Dogs and it’s by Gene Weingarten with photography by Michael Williamson. In it, Weingarten writes: “They find you brilliant even if you are a witling. You fascinate them, even if you are as dull as a butter knife. They are fond of you even if you are a genocidal maniac: Hitler loved his dogs, and they loved him.

“As they age, dogs change, always for the better. Puppies are incomparably cute and incomparably entertaining, and, best of all, they smell exactly like puppies. At middle age, a dog has settled into the knuckleheaded matrix of behavior we find so appealing – his unquestioning loyalty, his irrepressible willingness to please, his infectious happiness, his unequivocal love. But it is not until a dog gets old that his most important virtues ripen and coalesce.

“Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, gray of muzzle, graceless of gait, odd of habit, hard of hearing, pimply, wheezy, lazy, and lumpy. But to anyone who has ever known an old dog, these things are of little consequence. Old dogs are vulnerable. They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust. They are without artifice. They are funny in new and unexpected ways. But above all, they seem at peace. This last quality is almost indefinable; if you want to play it safe, you can call it serenity. I call it wisdom.”

So do I. And it is most visible in the way the eyes of an old dog follow your movements without the head following along. It is how they look at you, how they see you, how they express their love and knowledge of all that you are completely through their eyes. Old dogs don’t wag their tails anymore. The mechanism either doesn’t work or it takes too much effort. All of their expression comes through their eyes and even their ears; through a kiss on the nose.

Maguire used to watch us both at nearly the same time. He would be lying on the floor, with his head tucked between his two front paws and his eyes would move to Kevin on one couch, and then switch to me on the opposite couch. His eyebrows would arch as his eyes tracked first one way, then the other. After doing this six or seven times, the eyes would begin to close. He’d fight it a little but only half-heartedly. Soon, he’d be sleeping. He had secured his people. Life was good.

Cooper, just a few days ago, in the kitchen, gazing

Maguire was 15 years old when he died last March. We still feel his presence, we still speak of him all the time; sometimes I still hear his tags on the floor, the heavy sigh as he’d lie down, letting the world escape through his nose. I can still smell his fur. I can still see his beautiful brown eyes.

I see them now; I see them in Cooper’s brown eyes. The depth isn’t there yet, the wisdom hasn’t come to him – he’s still in that loopy middle age nutty stage, still doing the helicopter tail wag round and round and round – but it will. Just give him time. 

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