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As human beings go, I feel that I’m part of a dying breed that is easily trainable. Of course this started with my Catholic upbringing in the upper Midwest: rules and restrictions were easy to follow. There were no, as they say now, “options”. I did not opt to play outside when it was twenty below to get fresh air; I was told to do it. I did not opt to play with my older sister who dragged me across the carpet by my ankles, making my shirt ride up and giving me a rug burn down my back that bled and scabbed.
I liked it.
When I grew older and entered high school—a high school hand-selected for me by my parents in Pennsylvania—there were no “options” about going to keg parties after the football games, letting my girlfriend/neighbor drive my parents’ car home, and vomiting into the cap of my hoodie so I didn’t mess up the car's interior. I remember one such incident when my girlfriend/neighbor remarked, “It smells like bread in here.”
It was the French-fries in my cap.
That behavior was expected and I did it very well, over and over in fact until I spent half of my senior year grounded, which I didn’t complain about because I was always good at being quiet and secluded. Being grounded gave me time to play my guitar and write songs in the cool air of our basement, then sleep the sweet sleep of an untroubled teen. I liked to fish and hunt, which won me back some points with my dad, and I could clean a house after school like nobody’s business, which renewed my mother’s sense of pride in me.
Even though I strayed, I always came back…a good dog for a family to have.
My family likes to say about me, “When you went to college, you became a person again.” But I thought of myself more as a scrappy border collie mix, again doing everything that I was told: Write your English papers, write for the school newspaper, work your three jobs, save your sister from that guy who was choking her once back home on vacation, move to Alaska with a fifty pound Apple computer on your back.
A couple of those suggestions came without prompting, of course.
Get treed by a bear on a hike.
Hide from the bull moose on your trail to school.
Call in a request to your father to make stilts for your nieces and nephews, a gift from both of you when you finally got back home to Minnesota.
These are the acts of a loyal family member. A scrappy mutt.
Flash-forward to last week: I’m 44, having lunch at the Olive Garden in Mesa, Arizona, with my best friend, a blonde full-breed who is close to my heart but always prettier, who I can never understand because she constantly breaks the rules. Our waitress is wearing a loose French braid.
“I wish I could do that with my hair,” I lament over a breadstick.
“I never learned how to do that with mine, and I don’t regret it,” my friend says.
I don’t think either of us had good teachers in the category of prettiness, and so we go on, her blond fur getting longer and grayer but stained every other month, blond again, my black fur getting stained with a Sharpie when the grays pop up.
Now, as family dogs go, I would have been a good one, if it just meant hanging around when times were slow, and running hard as if somebody else’s life depended on it, if it did. The sister I saved from the strangling told me once, “You do have a maternal instinct, but you don’t have a killer instinct. That’s what sets you apart.”
This is exactly why I’m a dog, a good and loyal dog who grew up to be a flawed and worried homeowner, a scrappy border collie who on instinct alone reacts to home-oriented challenges. It’s just that now, instead of a family of seven human beings and their children and all of the children who followed, I live alone in Arizona protecting my own land, running my own borders, shooing off the pigeons, filling the birdfeeders for the pretty ones, gossiping with the neighbors: will the Willie Nelson impersonator ever perform again?
I still do exactly as I should. When the roofers hammered a new roof onto my house for three days starting at five a.m. and ending at seven p.m.—with a siesta break, of course—I didn’t leave my cats here to suffer the noise alone. I dangled string toys from my muzzle and nosed their necks when they woke, with treats in my pockets.
When my car had a slow time starting, then a slower time, then when it didn’t start at all, I pranced around with a bone in my mouth because I have Triple A and the battery was under warranty. A free battery in weather like this is like a ten pound northern swallowing your lure in the darkness of your shack. Score.
And when my Internet went out—my Internet, my connection to most things human outside of my favorite check-out girl at the corner drugstore, and my neighbor Nabe, and Manfriend who helped me stain my patio cement last weekend, and my best friend who calls me on everything bad I do because she loves me and wants me to do better, and Willy Nelson’s wife who keeps leaving sticky notes on my door telling me she wants to get together, and my jillion summer students who need me to steer them in the right direction, and my mom, who just wants to know I’m alive and well every day—when my Internet went out, I called my service provider and growled.
They will be here in the morning.
In the meantime, I take my four year olds and my ten week old outside in the back yard every morning at 5 a.m., because that’s when we wake up now, thanks to the roofers. They started the day at 5 a.m.; we will forevermore start our day at 5 a.m., because we’re all easily trained.
Personally, I am waiting for a big German Shepherd to arrive on our doorstep. He might tear apart the package that our refrigerated medication comes in, then put the meds in the fridge and the packaging in the recycle bin. He’ll know my hands are not as agile as they used to be. He will corral the girls when I’m intent on picking the dead leaves off my Kalanchoe, because if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, and it’s hard to do five jobs at once.
This nameless German Shepherd I think we would call Jesus, because the name would fit, and his namesake was always a generous soul.