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Boredom

Accountability

The salt is out everywhere and right now we are in the midst of a rain that is frozen.  I’m content to remain here and do various things that need doing, but the dogs, they are bored. And I am anxious over their boredom. I feel responsible for it. I feel responsible for everybody’s boredom. Even yours. My therapist would probably remind me that nobody actually holds me accountable for their negative feelings, least of which their boredom. Nobody. Probably not even the dogs.

I know she’s right. At least about people. At least about you. But I do tend to think that I am in my dogs’ thoughts constantly. They are in mine, after all, and it only makes sense it would work the other way. They may not “hold me accountable” for their boredom, but they certainly hope I will fix it. On the list of things they hope for every day (a new bone, a fresh tennis ball, a squirrel under the shed, a groundhog sighting) there is certainly this: Bald Man Relieves Us from Boredom.

Look, scratch what I said previously. I’m positive the dogs do, in fact, hold me accountable for all of their feelings, especially their boredom.

You think you are doing okay.

You think you are doing okay because everyone tells you that they think you are doing okay and because every morning you wake up and walk the dog.

You know that this is a little thing, but also, you know that this is an important thing.

Every morning you wake up.

Every morning you go outside.

Every morning people see you.

Not too long ago, the wonderful Ronlyn Domingue, TNB contributor and novelist, suggested I create just this sort of list after she’d enjoyed seeing Cosmo the Jack Russell terrier in Beginners, and what better time to assemble ten cinematic canine greats than the week of The Artist’s DVD release, the film that featured that other recent Oscar-season darling, Uggie. Like Cosmo and Uggie, all of the dogs on this list aren’t the main characters in their respective films but bona fide scene-stealers (just in case you’re wondering why Lassie didn’t make the cut). Now brace yourselves for a huge dose of cute:

Campus sits west of the Chicago river, at the circle interchange of the Kennedy and Eisenhower expressways.  In the 60s UIC wedged its way into and consumed Chicago’s Little Italy, grew tentacles into the near west and south sides.  At one time called Circle Campus after the knot of concrete ramps where the two arteries bisect, it was built similarly of concrete in a style called Brutalism, emulating Soviet public housing, “riot proof,” with double-layer covered walkways akin to parking garages, an open-air amphitheater and massive concrete wheelchair ramps to 2nd floor entries reiterating the circle motif.  A miniature replica of an Eastern Bloc city, and likewise now with crumbling concrete, permanent scaffolding erected to protect students and faculty milling on (and off) grass lined footpaths under trees that replaced the severe web of covered walkways in the 90s.  The circular quad in front of 24-story University Hall underwent a decade-long project (that should’ve taken about a year) to add grassy knolls, flowered borders, and (perhaps a reminder of Brutalism) tile-lined fountains that rarely run because they’re broken.  But I walk campus without envy for Northwestern, University of Chicago, DePaul, or Loyola.  They have tradition, bigger trees, a vine-covered brick building probably called “Old Main.”  We have Brutalism.  It’s where part of me –  a native Californian – lives, has lived for almost 20 years.

 

My dog’s ashes are currently in a small silver gift box on my bookshelf. I loved my dog, but I hate that ugly box and its stupid tassel.

When my husband and I decided to cremate Bernie, we thought we would scatter his ashes along one of his favorite hiking trails, but doing so is illegal where we live. I hated the idea of us furtively dumping a baggy of remains in the always-crowded park. It didn’t feel like an appropriately jubilant celebration of his life.

My friend Susie called me the other day.

“Hey Snooze,” I said, putting on my headset so that when the dog tried to murder a squirrel, I’d have both hands free.

“Hey.” There was an ocean of melancholy in that “Hey.” Susie can say a lot in one syllable. I guess it’s not surprising that she’s a poet.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well, I went to look at my book sales on Amazon, and I got all excited because I sold five copies.”

 

I.

1985, we stole fistfuls of change, slipped fingers into jean pockets and cup holders, mined pennies from the asphalt. In school, the nuns lowered their papery eyelids. Ethiopians are dying, they said, and offered us build-your-own UNICEF boxes, corner to corner, flap into slit. We watched videos of the suffering, the frottage of polyester uniforms on our thighs.

The last time I drove past the apartments on North 5th, their efficient practicality had been scrubbed up a bit. A nice little fence marked the front entrance. The sidewalk that led into the U-shaped courtyard had healthy plants on both sides. The casement windows had been replaced. Someone had finally taken pride in the boxy old place, built in 1948 to provide post-war housing.

 (The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me[1])

 

1. Author As [not circus] Dog Trainer (Cris)

You can’t lie to a dog. Or you can’t lie badly. While training dogs, you need to be “telling” them, with both body-language and voice, that they are the center of the universe to you, and that what they do for you—and what you’re doing together—makes you happier, and means more to you, than anything else in the world. They can tell if you’re lying. If you’re unconsciously communicating to them that you’re disappointed or upset because you’re thinking about something else, something offstage—whether your life’s true dilemma or your most current disappointment—they take it on as stress. To dogs, it’s all about them. So the trainer has to be able to convince the dog of that, whether it’s true in the trainer’s larger life or not. Problem is, the dog can usually tell. A good trainer doesn’t have “a larger life.” It’s never “just a dog” and therefore easy to lie to.

 

When I was obsessing about a dog, I was concerned about my son being a singleton. I wondered if perhaps being alone with parents wasn’t such a great thing, that he needed a buffer–someone with whom he could conspire, even if the conspiracies were fantastical and impotent. Someone playful, didn’t nag. Liked to chase small objects endlessly, joyfully, unlike me.

Stanley and I

By Quenby Moone

Essay

Arguments around the dinner table are not this family’s modus operandi. Akin to intense debaters who pore over details and minutiae, eventually we realize we’re preaching to the choir and have a good laugh. Arguing is a scholarly endeavor. We leave the messy emotional disagreements for discussions. When an argument takes place it’s a remarkable occasion.

We have a happy little nuclear family, all things being equal. My husband and I had our son when we were past our exciting young adulthoods, and were married for seven years before we heeded the call to breed. It allowed us to create a good landing spot for parenting: we had fulfilled our craving for adventure in the outside world and we were more than happy to start an adventure in our house, no regrets.

The following are descriptions of six books I read as a kid that still haunt my brain to this day, as interpreted by my child-aged self.


1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein


Summary: Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy. She gave him leaves to play with, and he climbed her and swung from her branches. He loved her and hugged her a lot.

And then he grew up and forgot about her until he needed something. He took her apples to sell, like a teenager stealing drug money from a purse, and then blew her off again for a few years.

He came back only to cut off her branches and build a house with her severed limbs. This made her happy, even though cutting off all the branches on a tree would nullify its ability to photosynthesize, killing it slowly. But the fact that she’d helped the boy build a house made the tree happy, because she was a kind and selfless tree. And yet he ignored her again for a long, long time.

The boy didn’t come back until he was an old man, and when the tree asked him to play, he said, no sorry, I’m too old and all I want is to get the hell away from you again, you stupid nice tree. So the masochistic tree told him to cut her down and make a boat with which to sail far, far away from her, because apparently giving chunks of herself to this greedy, selfish man would never be enough to make him love her. And the sonofabitch did it. He said, “Thanks for your body parts!” and sailed off into the sunset. But still, the tree was just happy to have helped.

The heartless bastard came back years later to see how else he might destroy the sweetest tree on the planet, which was now only an ugly stump. The codependent tree stump was so happy to see him that she actually asked him if she could do anything else for him. He told her he was too old and tired to torture her in new and exciting ways, so he sat on what was left of her.


The moral: Sometimes no matter how nice you are to people, you’re still going to end up with an ass on your face.

Hidden message: Mom was right. If you give your body to a man, he will leave you.

Bonus trauma: The photograph of Shel Silverstein on the back of the book.


***


2. Bunnicula by James Howe


Summary: This family finds a cute baby bunny in a theater during a Dracula movie and brings it home, where a dog and cat with the miraculous ability to read reside. The dog and cat soon realize the bunny can magically escape his cage at night to suck the juice out of household vegetables, turning them ghostly white. Despite naming the rabbit Bunnicula, the family is too dumb to realize what is going on, blaming the obviously bitten and drained vegetables on some sort of plant fungus.

The cat researches a book about vampires, becomes super paranoid, and tries to kill the baby bunny by trapping it in its cage via vampire-repelling garlic fencing. We watch the rabbit suffer as it slowly starves, until the dog finally gets all aggro with the cat and saves the poor dying bunny. The dimwitted humans never figure it out.


The moral: Sometimes your adorable pets will try to kill each other while you sleep.

Hidden message: Animals are smarter than people.

Bonus trauma: Sketches throughout the book of a bunny with fangs and a malevolent gleam in its eyes.


***


3. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson


Summary: An unpopular boy makes friends with an odd new girl at school. They hang out together in the forest and use their imaginations to create a world in which they aren’t losers. One day, the boy chooses to hang out with a teacher he has a crush on instead of hanging out with the girl in the woods. The girl goes into the woods alone, falls, hits her head on a rock and drowns in the stream. The boy must live with the guilt for the rest of his life.


The moral: Hey, kids. Guess what? Your friends can die.

Hidden message: Hey, kids. Guess what? That means you can die, too.

Bonus trauma: Awareness of your own mortality.


***


4. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck


Summary: Just in case your parents haven’t yet had the birds and bees talk with you, this book starts off with a cow alone in the woods, failing miserably at giving birth. A wandering boy helps the cow release the calf that is stuck in her vagina like some sort of slimy and bleating mammalian cork by fashioning a crude pulley out of his pants, using a tree as a fulcrum.

The cow rewards him for helping her live by nearly killing him. Her owner then rewards the boy for not suing by giving him a baby pig. He calls the pig Pinky, and she becomes a beloved pet, much like a family dog.

I should probably mention at this point that the boy’s father slaughters pigs for a living. I think you know where this is going now.

They discover that the pig is barren, and therefore worthless. In one of the most horrifying coming-of-age moments ever captured in print, the boy is then forced to help his father murder Pinky. Descriptions of skull-crunching noises and snow-turned-to-red-slush abound. This book holds the distinguished honor of: First Book to Ever Make Me Sob Uncontrollably.


The moral: Living on a farm will make you so lonely that sleeping in a shed with a pig will sound appealing.

Bonus trauma: Highly disturbing pig-on-pig rape scene involving lard.

Quote I still love and should apply to myself more often: “‘Never miss a chance,’ Papa had once said, ‘to keep your mouth shut.'”


***


5. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls


Summary: A young boy saves all the money he makes trapping animals for years to buy two hunting dogs. He names them Old Dan and Little Ann, and the three of them become an inseparable raccoon hunting trio.

Old Dan eventually goes up against a mountain lion and is mortally wounded. Little Ann dies of starvation and a broken heart after dragging her weak dog body to the grave of Old Dan, where the boy finds her stiffened corpse.

He buries her next to Old Dan, and a red fern grows up between their graves. For some reason this ghoulish plant makes the family less sad about the painful deaths of their dogs.


The moral: Your pets will die before you do, leaving you heartbroken and bereft.

Bonus trauma: Learning that there have always been bullies, even back in the peaceful olden days when people had dirt floors and pooped outside.


***


6. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson


Summary: There is a family of Texas settlers. The dad leaves the farmstead for a few months to travel to Kansas for a cattle drive. His son, a teenager, must temporarily become the man of the house.

A yellow dog comes along and adopts the family. After it saves the younger brother from a bear, they all love it. After it saves the entire family from a hydrophobic wolf, the boy immediately shoots the dog in the head because it may have possibly caught hydrophobia from the wolf bites. (It is never mentioned that hydrohobia is old-timey speak for rabies, because creatures with rabies refuse/avoid water. This knowledge might have helped young reader me understand why everyone was killing and burning animals willy-nilly.)

The book jacket explains it all in one sentence: “Travis learns just how much he has come to love that big ugly dog, and he learns something about the pain of life, too.”

Because life is pain, children. Life is pain.

Got it?

Now who wants cookies?


The moral: In order to become a man, you must violently kill something you love.

Bonus trauma: Dogs always die. Seriously. They’re just going to die, kid, no matter what. Why would you get a dog, ever?


***



7.  Our dog Pierre, a black French poodle, came to us from a wealthy acquaintance of my father ( we learned a little later, Dad had also borrowed money from him). He was well behaved and groomed in the shape of an hourglass but after only a few months he resembled a bushy sheep. From empty fields we trekked through he got thistles and thorns and fleas. Every few months we’d dump some laundry detergent on him and hose him down for a shower. When we camped out in the backyard in the summer, Pierre slept between us, a kid brother. My brother and I would fight over who loved him best: He’s my dog, I’d tell him; He’s my dog, he’d tell me.

 

A year after we got Pierre, my dad told us that the owner wanted him back; “The bastard,” my father muttered, “over a few lousy bucks.” The next evening, the man rolled up in a big car. My dad slipped a finger beneath Pierre’s collar and dragged him outside. I heard the two men exchange words. Then my dad walked back in the house with Pierre.

“He’s yours for keeps.”

We cheered, and jumped on Pierre: “Thanks Dad!”

My mom came out from the bedroom, where the shame of our family debt had sent her.

“What’s happening?”

“I’ll be frank with you all. The guy took one look and kinda choked; I guess ol’ Pierre is so shabby looking he don’t want no part of him anymore.”

 

We must’ve had Pierre two three years before he got sick. His poop was the color of charcoal and the back porch was crisscrossed with bloody skid marks. His stopped eating his dog food.   Lying there on his side he’d take us in with an eye and sigh. He seemed to be saying, “Help.” At night he howled. So that he wouldn’t wake the neighbors, it got so that we had to shove him in the garage at night, what we’d nicknamed “the dungeon.” Come morning we’d run out to fetch him from “the dungeon.” Pierre, Pierre, we’d sadly sing. He’d meet us at the door, his tail wagging barely, shivering all over.

 

It was a Saturday morning when we found him dead in “the dungeon.” My dad came out of the house to make sure. We cried~~our world would never be the same without Pierre. We grabbed a couple of shovels, and start digging next to the fig tree. We planned to go six feet, but stopped at three, plenty deep, it seemed. Now we had to get Pierre, still in the dungeon into the hole. My brother said he’d do it.  I was relieved because I didn’t know if I had what it took to carry his corpse. When he stepped out of the garage with dead Pierre in his arms, I was in awe of my brother’s courage. He dropped Pierre in and we start shoveling. When the dirt reached our feet, we packed it all down with the shovel’s flat side, and out of two sticks and twine, we made a cross and drove it into the ground.

I asked our Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Chamichian, where animals go after they die.

“Since they have no souls,” she said; “nowhere.”

“Even dogs?” I asked.

“Yes.”

Did this mean that I’d never see Pierre again?

“No. But you will see your grandparents, and uncles and aunts.”

When we got home, my brother and I yanked out the cross above Pierre’s grave. Since he had no soul we were afraid it was a sin to leave it there.  After the winter rain, I thought, after all the earth gets churned, there will be no spotting Pierre’s grave. The seasons will erase his resting place. After we are gone, nobody will know he is there. All we’ll be able tell the next set of kids is, “Pierre, our dog, is buried beneath the fig tree.” But who knows whether they’ll believe us, no matter what we say, what matter what history we leave behind. Who knows whether they’ll even care?

 

8.  Around age ten, we got real guns for Christmas; a revolutionary addition to our arsenal, which up until then was confined to slingshots. From a small cylindrical carton we’d pour BBs into the barrel’s spout and with just a few ratchets of the handle the gun would get pregnant with enough pressure to kill.  Its like we were sorcerers, the guns our magic wands, and the bb’s our evil spells.  We would strike things down from a world away.

 

Sparrows were all over the yard. From one branch to the next we’d watch them hop, their tidy little bodies turning this way, then that. The first one I shot fell from the tree and hit the ground like an overripe peach. We hardly found a mark on the bird; only a bead of blood swelled from its breast. I was disappointed: I expected something more dramatic. It hardly seemed worth it. Outside of its twiggy legs, politely folded up against its chest, it was unremarkable, common looking as the dirt upon which it lay. After turning it over and studying it’s every feature, we buried the sparrow. Above us, in the trees, dozens of its fellows were busy doing whatever it was that birds do. Strange how they hardly noticed when one of their own was gone.

 

9.  On TV, the Vietnam was on. It was part of our lives, like the San Francisco Giants, except the war respected no season. They showed bodies lying in a field, or in a ditch. It was always raining, and looked very far away.

“What a shame,” my Dad said.

When they posted that day’s score, it was never close: we always killed twice as many as they killed. I kept waiting for the Americans to win. In any game I played, either time ran out or there were no more pieces on the board. How else did you decide when the game is over?

 

10.  Up from our house the miser Madame Hovanessian, who handed out walnuts for Halloween, lived. Her stockings, the color of rubber bands, gathered in rings round fat ankles, and she had several wiry whiskers sprouting from her chin. Three stubby palm trees where pigeons, plump as cantaloupes, roosted ran alongside her driveway, and even though you couldn’t see them, the whole crown of the tree boiled with their voices. We’d gather rocks on our way home from school and from the alleyway we’d sling them into the fronds. After a week of trying, not only had we failed to kill a pigeon, not a single one even flew away in fright. Only their warbling suddenly stopped. One second the air was full of their voices, and the next second it was dead quiet, just like when a teacher suddenly hollers at a classroom of kids. After a while, we couldn’t care less if we killed the pigeons. This was another kind of game. Silencing them.

 

 


To stave off the inevitable existential collapse that typically accompanies unemployment, not to mention looming middle age, I’ve begun taking my mom’s dog for walks.

It’s sort of Zen like, in that the sole purpose of said walks are finding my dog a nice place to shit. That’s all that matters, finding Lucky a velvet lined tree stump to shit behind. Because he refuses to shit just anywhere, and that’s fine, that’s his prerogative. But after blocks of prime real estate he still refuses. He looks me in the eye and lifts his leg, and I swear he’s fucking smirking, as if to say, ‘not this time, bitch.’

But I’ve become reacquainted with the town I live in on our very long walks, and I’ve made a few observations:

Pittsburgh is the filthiest city on the planet. At my local park there is a varied assortment of litter. This includes paper plates, a curious number of empty mini muffin packages, syringes, empty beer cans (usually Iron City, in keeping with tradition), children’s shoes, fast food bags, make up, used diapers, and so on. The litter makes its way into every patch of grass and wooded area in the city. It’s thrown from car windows and tossed into the street from front doors. There is no need for garbage cans in Pittsburgh, just patches of grass, where every degenerate mother fucker will happily dispose of their trash.

Another way of getting rid of trash here, and we’re talking the larger items, couches set ablaze because a beloved sports team either won or lost an important match, towers of tires reaching skyward, existing to only entice the alarming amount of fire bugs and amateur arsonists in the city, is to just dump said trash down the slope of hill or at the culmination of a dead end street. Almost every dead end street has a collection of trash, sometimes neatly stacked and arranged, and usually said collection is older than me by a few years.

Everyone in Pittsburgh is a hoarder. They don’t hoard cool things, like guitars or books. They hoard things like carpet remnants and bricks and other useless junk that only an idiot could look at as a good investment. Everyone who isn’t a hoarder (or a writer or a musician) is a roofer. Despite this, every single roof in Pittsburgh is on the verge of collapse.

No one here can speak English. That’s not some xenophobic slight. I’m talking about the native English speakers. Pittsburgh has an accent all its own, it incorporates the gruffness of Jersey and New York, with the apparent upbeat naiveté of the Midwest. It’s literally one of the most ridiculous accents in the United States. If you don’t believe me, please see this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEyJjAAPy38

For the record, I don’t sound like that. However, my voice sometimes twangs peculiarly on my Os, which I’ve been trying to combat for years and will probably never undo.

Pittsburgh is teeming with lovable psychos. We recently lost the crown prince of functional insanity, a guy by the name of Steve, who was famous for standing in the same spot on the avenue all summer and hosting his own private dance party. Upon Steve’s untimely death, it was found he put a lot of time into making collages, which I believe is probably a good indicator that said person has a crawl space and isn’t afraid to use it. Another guy rides around Pittsburgh on a bike exclusively. Well, that’s not very weird, is it? No, what’s weird is that this fellow decided to strap a car bumper to the front of the thing. He even took the time to loosely affix blank CDs to either side, in a nod to headlights. Why does he do this? Fuck if I know, I’m not getting within ten feet of that crazy fucker.

In the last ten years the city has been overrun by hipsters. I could go into a prolonged self righteous speech about gentrification and how they’re ruining everything, but they’re really not. These people all have jobs, they put money into the city, they’ve stemmed the hemorrhage of young people that steadily increased year to year in the past. If they want to walk around dressed like assholes and play pan flutes, well I say have at it.

What I can’t tolerate is the recent influx of crust punks, or squatters, or crusties, or whatever you call them in your locality. Think hobos with a better sense of the aesthetic. They sit on street corners with their mangy dogs (because the first thing I would do if homeless is acquire a pet) holding crudely made signs asking for money.  Most of the time these people are from well off families looking for a little adventure in the form of lax hyigene and casual drug use, which is all fine and good. Unfortunately I have hard enough time financing these pursuits for myself, so there is no way I’ve giving Caleb a fiver just so he can purchase yet another six pack of Pabst.

Do I like the place I live in? I don’t know. I regard Pittsburgh as I would an embarrassing friend or loved one. I feel loyal to some degree, but I also can’t spend a lot of time and energy defending it. I think the best thing for us would be a trial separation. Maybe Pittsburgh would look more appealing with a bit of distance between us.