Saturday, June 16, 2007

Tattoo You

Just shy of six months old, the pup is on the cusp of sexual maturity. Although her bones will not fully fuse for another year, Ari is nearly full-grown at 40 pounds. This is half the size we had imagined she would be, and she still doesn’t even get close to filling out her extra-large bed and house. Still, her growing willfulness and desire to distance herself from us outside is a sign that she might be approaching her first estrus cycle. Time to act. The idea of her in a torrid love affair is not at all appealing, nor is the fact that dogs who go through a reproductive cycle are more likely to contract mammarian cancer. I contact the vet’s office yet again, this time to set up an appointment for Ari’s hysterectomy.

When I call, I expect them to schedule the appointment a few weeks away—long enough for us to get comfortable with the idea. But Laurie tells me they have an opening two days later and urges me to take it. I reluctantly agree and am given a list of instructions for the next 48 hours: light meals beginning today, no food the day before, no water beginning at midnight. Any disregard for these rules, Laurie warns, may result in complications during the surgery.

She runs down a list of precautionary questions.

“Is Ari allergic to anesthesia? Does she have any ill effects with it?”

I tell her I have no idea—Ari’s just a healthy kid; we’ve had no cause to sedate her.

“You understand that there are serious risks involved whenever an animal is anesthetized,” she warns. “Some never wake up.”

This is not what I want to hear. We have no choice but to spay Ari. We can only hope that she will be fine.

The night before her surgery, the three of us go for a late walk. For once, I feel no sense of urgency or lingering responsibilities back home. This will be our last caninaturalist outing for a while, and I want it to last as long as possible. I’m more worried about the pup than I let on. I want to do something momentous—just in case.

Electronic pulsing from across our pine grove advertises it’s just the place for such an excursion. The spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) got off to a late start in May, so they’re just now winding down with their nocturnal orgies. We walk to the neighborhood fire pond in search of these boisterous frogs. Even in this, the decline of their mating season, the sound is deafening—a single, piercing pitch just out of range of even a coloratura soprano. The din has a throb to it—one that reverberates in my inner ear, sending static all the way down my spine. How must it sound to this wolf-eared dog, already more attuned to volume and pitch? Greg and I take one another’s hand. We have entered an alien landscape and need reminders of that which is familiar.

Donning headlamps, the two humans crouch at the edge of the pond, looking for amorous amphibians. We spy a crayfish and a single, skimming frog. Both glide just above the pond floor, making feathery kicks with each stroke. Ari wades in up to her elbows and stares intently into the water. What’s in there? None of us is sure. The water seems oily in its blackness, reflecting our light and shrouding the pond goings-on in secrecy. Meanwhile, the din of the frogs continues. It is more than deafening. Ari retreats from the water and hangs tight, leaning her shoulder against my leg.

“How many?” Greg asks. His voice is high and forced, capitulating over the peeping. Still, it’s hard to hear.

“What’s that?”

“How many? The frogs. How many of them do you think there are?”

I look up, casting my headlamp into the trees, as if this narrow beam of light might reveal the masses. It doesn’t.

“I don’t know,” I say. “A hundred? Or maybe just a few dozen really loud frogs singing in symphony?”

Try as we might, the three of us can not find more than that one peeper. We duck and weave our way through the brush, peering into cat tails and stands of trees. I am aware that this behavior is highly peculiar—and very much unlike me. It feels exhilarating, though, and I’m proud of us for making the trip if for no other reason than because it is an utterly uncharacteristic thing for me to do. Ari, on the other hand, remains alert and guarded—uncertain why we’re out at night and what is causing this amazing din. She continues to stick close by, venturing only a few steps into the pool before once again attaching herself to my side. If this was to be a celebratory walk in her honor, I’m pretty certain it’s not having the intended effect. She seems relieved when we circle back to the dirt road.

On our way back home, Greg and I crouch beside a much smaller, truly vernal pool—nothing more than a residual puddle, really. There, illuminated by our two headlamp beams, rest hundreds of little gelatinous orbs. Roughly the size of a small marble, they are nearly transparent, save a telltale black dot in the middle of each. Many rest singularly, although we also find much larger, brain-like masses of egg clusters. These are salamander and tree frog eggs, laid to incubate in this joint nursery while their parents return to upland woods and await their delivery.

The three of us return to our own woodland house. Once inside, Ari stands impatiently while I remove her leash, then she trots to the kitchen, awaiting her evening biscuit. We’re too close to her surgery time for a snack, so I shake my head no. She looks confused. When the biscuit tin remains closed, she cycles through the tricks she has learned at school: sit, shake, lie down, bow. Still nothing. She sighs—either frustrated with me or wondering why she is being punished—and makes her way slowly upstairs to bed. A few minutes later, her guilty owner settles in as well.

That night I have strange dreams about plaited bodies and oozing piles of egg sacks overflowing ponds and pools. The next morning, we all arise out of sorts. Ari is hungry and anxious; I am overwhelmed by amphibian reproduction; Greg claims he was repeatedly awakened by a wife executing frog kicks in her sleep; Cam does her usual glowering between pulling tufts of hair. We make a miserable household and try our best to stay out of one another’s way. Ari and I need to be at the vet’s office by 8:00 for her check-in, so we have little time for anything other than a quick walk. Once back inside, she hovers by the spot where her food and water dishes are usually located, still wondering what has prompted this continued ban on food. I give her my best look of empathy and a few long strokes down her back.

At the vet’s office, they’ve seen too many tearful, overwrought goodbyes to allow for much ceremony. Instead, the vet tech takes Ari’s leash from me and ushers her back into the hidden part of the clinic. I ask nervously about her schedule.

“We’re doing three or four today,” Laurie says. “I think Ari’s in the middle. She should be awake by 3:00. You’re welcome to call.”

That morning, I nod my head thoughtfully as students share their perspectives on Robert Frost. I do not hear a single word they say. Instead, I am trying to imagine Ari’s surgery preparation and hoping she is not terrified. After my last class, I race home, forgetting that there is no need for a bathroom break in the yard. Instead, I sit on the kitchen table, staring alternately between the nearby phone and my watch. 2:38. 2:45. 2:49. Time has never moved so slowly.

At 2:52, I phone the vet.

“I’m calling about Ari,” I say as soon as Laurie answers. “How is she?”

“She’s fine. No trouble at all. Just a little groggy.”

“Really?” I want more reassurance.

“Of course. And she’s a doll. She was wagging her tail before she was even fully out of the anesthesia. Everyone thinks she’s a real sweetheart.”

Laurie explains what I have already committed to memory: they will keep her overnight to confirm that there are no ill effects from the medication or the surgery itself. They also need to make sure she does not pull at her stitches, which could ultimately cause her to bleed to death. And, of course, she needs to rest—she is going to be very sore.

Driving over the next day, I become impatient at red lights and drivers observing speed limits. Once at the office, I take my place in the small line of people there to collect their recovering pets. When it’s my turn, the vet tech grins.

I nod.
“She’s a little ornery sometimes, isn’t she?”
I nod even more enthusiastically. “Why?”
“She’s been trying all day to remove her stitches. We had to put on a restraining device. Don’t worry—she’ll just have to wear it for a day or two. And we added some surgical glue, too. That should make it harder for her to yank them out.”

She goes back to retrieve my dog. When they emerge, Ari seems miserable—a space-aged cone has been tied around her neck with an Ace Bandage. She looks like Astro Jetson. Even worse, she’s lost all sense of physical perspective and promptly bangs the cone into the door jam. This causes her to stop in her tracks and sigh dramatically, lowering her head until the cone thuds against the linoleum. I get the sense this has happened repeatedly on the short walk from the kennels to the reception area. Her technician politely pretends not to notice the tragicomedy of the scene.

As for me, I can only offer my own sigh. “Oh, pup,” I say. “You poor thing.”

Before she can be released, I receive our post-op instructions. We are told to limit her activity and keep her incision clean for a week. I raise my eyebrows at the improbability of either. Are they serious?

“I know,” Laurie says. “It’s going to be hard with this one. Just do your best.”

We struggle our way out the office door and meet our first real challenge at my tiny hatch-back car. When Ari tries to step in, she catches the bottom of the cone on the driver’s seat. When I try to lift her up, we bang it against the roof. A few more tries are equally unsuccessful. Eventually, by cradling her in my arms, I am able to load her like a missile into a payload. We begin our drive home. At each stoplight, people in adjacent cars point and chuckle at my space-age dog. For once, she does not enjoy the attention.

Back home, I call Greg to inform him about the extra-terrestrial presence in our house.

“Oh no,” he laughs. “Poor puppy. Is she embarrassed?”

“Wouldn’t you be?”

By the time he returns two hours later, Ari has not only removed the cone, but hidden it as well. Greg finds me on my hands and knees, trying to fish it out from behind the couch. A groggy but nonetheless triumphant dog looks on from across the room. Using a broomstick, I am eventually able to slide the cone and bandage back out from the couch. Greg tries to reattach it, but the pup scampers away. We are faced with a choice: incite vigorous activity, or take a chance that she can’t bite through the surgical glue. We opt for the latter, though we make a point of checking on her every hour that night. It’s painful to look at her shaved belly.

The incision is bright pink—an angry worm running down her abdomen. She has also been tattooed—a circle and descending cross, the international symbol for woman. Through the circle is a thick X. Semiotic translation? Once a female, but no more. I begin theorizing about gender definitions in contemporary culture. Greg rolls his eyes and, instead, makes jokes about the thick ink, calling Ari a biker chick.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Spring Fling

The first Saturday of the month is temperate but gray. Ari and I drive into town, first to the local farmers’ market and then my college campus for a woodland walk. We’re already known at both places. I suppose that Greg and I stand out a bit in this community, where the median age is well over forty and our few contemporaries already have multiple children. Ari stands out too, but more so because she is a real attention hound. At the market, she mugs for the farmers, spinning on the length of her leash and cocking her head as they coo over her eyes and soft fur. One farmer, who seems particularly taken with the pup, offers to sit with her while I finish my marketing. For a moment I worry we will be inconveniencing her. However, her expression tells me this is as much favor to her as it is to me.

When I return a few minutes later, I find Ari sampling the farmer’s wares. A masticated carrot and radish lie in pieces about the farmer’s lawn chair, and a very contented puppy rests nearby, an early snowpea clutched between her paws.

“She likes them,” says the farmer proudly, who then looks at the half-chewed vegetable smorgasbord strewn about. “The peas, I mean.”

“She has good taste. They’re my favorite, too.”

This compliment earns us a complementary bag of peas for the road, which the pup and I share as soon as we return to the car. The pods are small and slender—the perfect size for both human and dog mouths. I dole them out for us as we drive up the hill towards campus—one for her, one for me. Ari grows impatient with this system, gobbling up her share quickly and trying to bury her snout in the bag. I don’t know what these taste like to her, but to me they are pure summer: verdant, sweet, and light incarnate. Our weather may be lagging behind, but the vegetables know what’s what.

Once we arrive at school, I stuff the remaining peapods in my pocket and park at a gravel lot near the athletic fields and away from any traffic. Leash-free, Ari bounds from the car and cavorts across the soccer field, spinning figure-eights and other loose geometry on the shaggy field. She stops every few minutes to make sure I’m watching—partly for security, mostly because she wants an audience. She knows I am more than happy to oblige. After making eye contact, she intensifies her routine for both our amusement.

The sky hangs low and thick today, acquiescing only to the occasional rush of sea air from the nearby coast. This cloud-cover makes the light flat, compressing hues and contrasts until they become nearly indistinguishable. The pup couldn’t care less, and she continues her leaping and spinning around the field. But it does mean she’s late to notice a swallow-like bird—the same color as our leaden sky—swoop down out of a large spruce tree to join in the fun. Fearlessly, the bird dives down within striking distance of Ari, then pulls up just out of reach. When Ari stops, puzzled, the bird circles back, completing first one, and then another flyby just above the pup’s head. Ari’s surprise soon turns into eagerness. Is this a game?, she seems to ask.

Deciding that the next few minutes will be more fun if the answer is yes, she rises on her hind legs and paws at the air. The bird drops down just out of reach, then quickly rises in the air. As it does, it looks back at the pup, who is trying unsuccessfully to levitate. If birds could laugh, I’d swear this one was snickering. Forget about the timidity we assign to much of the avian world—this is one brazen little bird.

Later, we identify our new friend as a young female purple martin (Progne subis), just back from a winter in the Amazon River Basin and ready to start a family of her own. The largest of all swallows, the purple martin is the Blue Angel of the bird world, swooping its way through unbelievable stunts for food and water. In fact, the martin does all of its eating and drinking in flight. Not surprisingly, it has earned the reputation of being one of the most acrobatic of all swallows—and the most playful. Martins seem to find particular pleasure in the sheer exuberance of aerial acrobatics and puckish behavior. But they’re far from unique in that area. Many species of birds, in fact, seem to exercise and play tricks for no reason other than the sheer enjoyment of it all.

I see this impulse in our martin. She dips again, buzzing just past the upturned snout of the pup. Ari leaps higher; the martin zooms in, then executes a snapping roll. As she does, the pup bucks in the air, kicking out her hind feet like a donkey. The bird keeps its altitude low, cartwheeling through turnabouts and slips, then ascending high into the air, only to drop back down again. Ari tries to do the same from the ground, though she’s no match for the aerial prowess of this flying ace. Still, she gives it her best, staying close to the martin and following her about the field. She wants desperately to catch up, but the martin stays just out of reach.
It seems like only yesterday I was chasing Ari around our kitchen table, preparing for our first walk. Now, however, Ari is old enough to realize what I knew then: namely, it’s no fun to play tag when you’re always it. Her exuberance for the martin begins to fade. When it seems as if the pup has tired of the game entirely, the bird swoops in again—even closer this time—and spins mad, low-lying circles around the field, chattering back at the pup as she does. The increased boldness of the bird incites Ari, and she begins her chase again. Eventually though, the pup looks frustrated. She’s being taunted—and she knows it. This martin isn’t about to let her catch up, let alone get the upper hand. Ari trots back to me and sits on her haunches. Game over, she seems to insist. The martin gives another few fly-bys, just in case. But the pup is firm: she’s not having fun anymore, and she doesn’t like being a plaything.