Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Dogs’ Category

Road-Trip Thoughts

In Death, Dogs, Happiness, Nature, Travel on June 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

Road-Trip Action

Road-trip thinking is the anthesis of distraction. Long-distance driving delivers you to a place of somnambulated stability that invites the mind to run wild. I observed this firsthand last week on our road trip through New Brunswick. Here are a few of the wild-running notions that skittered across the highway of my brain.

  • I should try to act more manly. I think people are inclined to take you (more) seriously if they deem you manly. For example, among writers, who do you take more seriously, James Thurber or Ernest Hemingway? See? I decide to resolve this by smiling less frequently. (I don’t know how this works for women. Women have too many challenges as it is. I don’t know how they do it.)
  • My favorite animal is the North American painted turtle. Its rudderless house on its back, affording complete flexibility and mobility, it’s apparent aimlessness–all qualities I admire. It is a simple animal, self-contained in its rambling and curious elegance.
  • What is the thought from Peter Matthiessen I just read? His life-long goal is not to simplify his life necessarily, but to simplify his self.
  • Of my good and dear friend Stuart, who just got a lab report from a biopsy: “It’s not good,” he said. We all die, so why is it so difficult when we know we are dying? I don’t know, but it is.

The thinking is interrupted as I see an object in the road and, too late, rush over it, recognizing it to be a bird. In my rear-view mirror I see it pulled by the vacuum of our truck and tumble like a wind-blown leaf. I pull over. It is a yellow-rumped warbler, just a little fleck of an animal. It is alive and blinks at me. Their bones are hollow and in my hand it seems to weigh less than air. I walk to the brim and place it in the tall side grass. Continuing on:

  • At camp last night, the dogs played like children. There is such joy to that, especially as the sun goes down and the fire is built.
  • When did I start sleeping in a tent? I used to sleep under the stars. Some things happen you simply can’t understand.

A Momentary Loss of Good Judgement

In Dogs, Life on June 20, 2012 at 10:00 am

I pick up…

I wrote the following on Saturday, the 15th.

I lost my composure yesterday. Perhaps if I tell the story I will feel better. What is the good of the blog if I can’t use it as an instrument of catharsis?

We are dog sitting. Tim and Candace are out of town. Tim’s dog, Tanks, is one of the sweetest dogs I’ve known, with a big laughing smile of a face and an easy-going disposition. He also happens to be an eighty-pound pit bull.

* * *

Carole walked Tanks five steps behind me and Lucy. We were headed home. Mission accomplished, we each carried a poop bag, full. A man approached us from behind. “You keep that dog away from me,” he said, gesturing to Tanks.

I laughed. “This is the one you should be worried about,” I said, turning and scratching Lucy’s ears.

“Keep that dog away,” he repeated, as he walked closer. “That’s not a pet. That’s a monster.”

I heard no humor in his voice. This was not a joke. Further, he had insulted Tanks–and us, as if we would walk a monster down a street in Portland. This immediately rankled me. But I recovered.

I scratched Tank’s ear. “Naw,” I said, “this guy is just a big lug.”

The man continued his rant as he passed. He tried to get in his car, but the key wouldn’t work. He was maybe forty years old and wore jeans and a nice sport shirt. He had tinted glasses that hid his eyes slightly.

“What is your problem?” I asked. “Beside not being able to get in your car.” I employed a touch of sarcasm. He moved to an adjacent car. “We’re just out walking our dogs. It’s a nice day. Leave us alone.”

He continued in the same vein, ranting. He was relentless. We walked on. I don’t like confrontation. To equal measure I don’t like idiots. (I was beginning to muster a bit of attitude.) In the correct car now, he was pulling away. He rolled the passenger window down, continued to yell, impugning Tanks and us, his walkers. I noticed New York plates. I apologize to my New York friends for the following:

“Oh, I get it,” I said. “You’re from New York. No wonder you’re an asshole.” My composure was not yet lost, but had taken a wrong turn. His bizarre haranguing continuing. He pulled up next to us, shouting through the passenger window; verbal vomit on the societal dangers of pit bulls, owners of pits, and so forth.

I suspect, reader, you must think I am leaving something out of this account, an action that provoked him. Yes, I called the man an asshole. That was a step in the wrong direction. But nothing transpired prior to that, nothing to trigger him but our existence.

He rolled past us, window down, frothing. I thought: Do I throw it or lob it? I could throw the poop bag or I could lob the poop bag. Or I could continue to walk away.

I am happy to report that the bag cleared the open window easily–he had pulled less than two feet from us–and landed directly and softly in his lap. That shut him up. I quietly cheered my precision.

“Now why did you do that?” Carole asked. She is an unfailing source of the right question.

“I couldn’t resist.” I grinned, sort of.

The man pointed at me. “You stay right there,” he shouted. “Stay right there.” He rushed to pull his car over. I thought: Doug, you’ve gone and done it now, gone and provoked a madman.

“Hey, look,” I said, leaning to him. “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry. Open your door. I’ll get the bag.”

“I’m calling the police,” he said. I looked at Carole. She looked at me. I think we both felt slightly better about my poop pitch. The dogs watched mutely. (Where they enjoying silly human antics?)

“Okay,” I said. “Do what you want. We’re walking home.” He wagged his finger at us. He told us to stay put and of course we ignored him. He held his phone to his ear. He let his car running at the curb and chased us down Commercial Street. I confess to slowing my gait, as if to taunt. A few blocks later, I turned to wave goodbye. He frowned at me then looked up and down Commercial. He was certainly desperate for the authorities before we made our get-away.

I am a civilized man. But insult my dogs while I’m holding a bag of poop and I cannot guarantee a civilized response.

I feel better now.

Thanks for listening.

Dogs

In Dogs, Memoir, Writing on June 5, 2012 at 6:00 am

Lucy

Tim and I got the dogs up early yesterday. We had an 8:00 am bird walk scheduled, but dogs come first.

Tim’s dog, Tanks, is a big and burley pit mix. Lucy is a little terrier mix. Both dogs enjoy the outdoors and giving them a chance to stretch out across a field fills all, human and canine, with joy. There is much about watching a dog run for pleasure that is deeply satisfying.

Lucy is a rescue dog and last summer was our maiden outdoor season. The first adventure found us paddling Moosehead Lake. As we beached the canoe the first evening, Lucy jumped over the gunnel and sprinted into the woods. I didn’t know her well then and did not know what would be her response to unbounded territory. I could hear her running the perimeter of the camp. She returned to my call, but I was concerned that she might bolt if a scent or pursuit triggered her interest. The north woods is a good place to get a person lost. A dog lost is likely good and gone lost. In his beautiful little book, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, John McPhee writes of this area:

“Between Rockwood, Maine (about halfway up Moosehead Lake), and Allagash, Maine (at the confluence of the Allagash and St. John Rivers), there is an area of about five thousand square miles in which is neither a paved nor a public road. What few roads there are “north of the Moosehead” have dirt and gravel surfaces and are travelled by the public, at the public’s risk, courtesy of the paper companies that own the land….most of Maine is in the north woods, reaching embarrassingly far into Canada.”

After that trip I took to putting a harness on her with two small cat bells, the better to track her.

Maggie, the dog before Lucy, was a bird dog and she too loved to explore. She was driven by her nose, but when she got excited she would stop and grow to stone, usually lifting her front paw and leaning into it, the classic bird-dog pose. Lucy does not have the DNA for that and instead rushes lurching into the undergrowth in the apparent hope that whatever is in there will jump out so she can kill it. She is the first terrier of my life and I am studying the breed.

I used to meditate at the edge of the woods. I had a stump for a stool, placed under a hemlock, and sat facing a field. Maggie would join me, sitting on her haunches, also facing the field. We would sit like that, together, unflinching, for half an hour. One evening, as sun was setting, a deer emerged from the woods and proceeded in the open toward us. I sat unmoving. Maggie sat unmoving, though I could discern the twitch of sudden tension in her shoulders. The deer foraged, looked around, chewing, then advanced. In ten minutes–a test of Maggie’s discipline–it stood perhaps thirty yards before us. Maggie was a quivering, but stoney, sculpture. From the corner of my eye I saw her study the deer, yet she waited my direction. Finally, under my breath, I released her– “Go.” It was perhaps not the most meditative response to nature, but Maggie had earned a reward. The deer leapt vertical and bounded away, its white tail flashing as if an obscenity. Maggie did not get close, even though she was a sprinter.

I miss Maggie and still mourn her. But I love Lucy to the point where she sleeps on our bed at our feet. We’ve never allowed that of our dog and I think it portends a new chapter in our blended life, human and dog.

Gentlemen of Baltimore: Nyster

In Dogs, Photography, Writing on May 8, 2012 at 6:00 am

As promised previously, here is another story from my project, The Gentlemen of Baltimore.

Nyster, age: 44

Nyster had a dog with him. The dog’s name was Oscar and had been his companion for twelve years. “She’s a medical alert dog,” he told me. I noticed a large attachment to her collar, a red shield with a white medical cross. “I have grand mal seizures, petit mal….” He continued to list his maladies. He said living on the street was difficult, but he managed, even with his health problems. The other challenges of the street were more troublesome. “The last time I was robbed was for $7.68,” he said. As we sat he appealed to passers-by for food for Oscar. “She keeps me out of the shelters,” he said, “not allowed.” He patted her. “But she’s a good dog.”

On August 7th the Baltimore Sun carried a story about Nester. Someone had stolen Oscar.

Woof, woof. Bark.

In Dogs, Philosophy, Religion, Thinkers on April 10, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I was at a book reading a few evenings ago. Two rows in front of me sat a woman and next to her, on its own seat, perched an ivory-colored terrier. The dog was well-behaved and I was enjoying her (his?) presence when it turned and looked at me through the slats of the ladder-back chair. Her eyes were like brilliant black marbles tucked in a fluff of silk. I stared into them, lost, and was suddenly and unexpectedlly overwhelmed with the thought of those eyes locked on her master, then closing forever on the stainless steel veterinarian’s table. I chased the thought away it was so immediately and consumingly dark and troubling. Why such a thought would occur to me is a mystery. I’m not dark that way; but animals have always held an incomprehensible sway over me.

It is possibly apocryphal but reported that upon finding a horse being abused on the streets of Turin, Nietzsche threw himself, sobbing, around the neck of the beast. The event so overwhelmed the fragile philosopher that he never recovered, never spoke another word, and plummeted into a psychosis from which he did not recover. One can profess a will to power but protecting an animal might be the greatest philosophy.

I’ve had dogs all my life. One dog lost to illness years ago prompted a friend’s comment, “That must be like losing a family member.” No, it was not like losing, it was losing a family member. The most violent mourning I’ve ever experienced was at the loss of my Maggie a year and a half ago. As I write this my little Lucy, a terrier mix, is asleep at the office door, putting herself between me and any intruder who might make the mistake of crossing her without my permission.

Any philosophy I might have must include the beasts.

Hubristic medieval philosophers held that animals had no soul because they had no self-consciousness. Perhaps in that fact alone we hold the  evidence of a superior soul-filled being. This seems provable in that animals will not burn witches at the stake nor slaughter whales.

It is maybe that I want to be more like a dog and less like a human being. I find in them evidence of how to live in a moment so completely as to exist in full vibrancy. Too, I recognize love in a dog more readily and without apprehension than I do in people. Surely, that is a teaching. A dog does not make professions of faith, does not pray, does not sin nor seek redemption. Those are human designs extraneous to an animal intent on spirited life. There is joy at a dog park that is not found in a church. That is where I go to pray.

The birthday gift.

In Dogs, Happiness, Life, Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on March 31, 2012 at 7:00 am

I’ve spent much of my adult life contemplating how best to live. I probably should have been a monk or a philosopher, but I have no appetite for monastic life and lack the systematic intensity of a philosopher. Anyway, today I was planning to write about dogs because I find encouraging clues to answering this question when in their company. For instance, a dog would never ask such a question–how best to live?–which in itself is a refreshing bit of wisdom. Too, they appear to live in the immediate moment; they are present, as we often wish to be present–and yet, they don’t know it. More wisdom in that. Dogs (presumably) don’t have self-awareness and consequently don’t know they’re going to someday die. Where there is no knowledge, there is no angst. Only life, bounding, run-over-that-hill, what’s-that-smell, life.

But I must start over. I now realize that my first sentence is not accurate. It is not just my adult life spent contemplating this question. I was eight years old when it first occurred to me, a sister form of this question, how best to live?. I will set aside, for now, my rumination on canines and tell you the story of my eighth birthday.

October is my birthday month, and in the mid-west, where I was raised, it is a glorious month. It is a time of crisp and especially good-smelling air. Usually there is a nice bit of sun. It was on such an afternoon, while walking to the house of my best friends, brothers Rick and Jeff, that I had my epiphany. Our backyards were catty-corner and the block had yet to be partitioned by chain-link fence. It was my eighth birthday, and I was full of my grown-up little self. Somewhere crossing those backyards a thought struck me, out of nowhere, a bolt–and this is exactly how I remember it: If I die tomorrow, will my life have been well spent?

I recognize that memory is not to be trusted and that much of the information we store in memory often lacks the accuracy of history. But the memory of our memories, to put it awkwardly, is not the stuff of history. It is, rather, the stuff of myth, an archive of stories and recollections. It’s where we go to fuel the engine of awareness. I put my epiphany in this category.

My eight-year old self, sun on my shoulders, on my birthday, standing in a nicely mowed yard, was dumbstruck by an existential question of significant magnitude. I have no idea its origin, and there is nothing in my early existence, no family troubles, sickness or death, that would account for it. No Proustian madeleine this; it simply arrived, out of the blue, as if released from an autumnal cloud.

It was a question that changed everything.

I’ve shared this story many times. It is most often received with a look that can best be interpreted as: My, what a morbid little bugger you must have been.

I wasn’t morbid, and it was not a morbid thought, nor did I grow morbid over it. It was, indeed, an affirmation–a gift, even. I have been well served by keeping the question at the ready. It is my mantra. My eight-year old self still asks, If I die tomorrow, will my life have been well spent?