Talk To Me, Dogs

Talk To Me, Dogs

Facebook told me this the other day—that talking to my dog is a sign of intelligence. Whew. I’m glad of that. I talk not only to my dog but to all dogs. Out loud. In public. On the street. I’ve questioned whether their tethered humans might think I’m crazy but I can’t help it. It’s an irresistible impulse, a compulsion, this talking to dogs. And now I know it’s smart.

“Thank you for saying hello to me,” I say to the miniature poodle springing up and down in boyish spirals in the elevator.

“Mac, Mac, come see me,” I yell to Angie’s labradoodle on the sidewalk.

“Henry! Here comes that German Shepherd. Hang tight. Let ‘im sniff. Uh. oh. That scrappy Spitz. Just go ‘round him.”

The word for this is anthropomorphism. Facebook quoted behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley, a University of Chicago anthropomorphism expert. He says that I and others like me are actually showing signs of “intelligent social cognition” in talking to our pets. Because God made us social creatures, we talk to things we love, to be social, to have friends. For thousands of years dogs have adapted as companions to humans. They want to bond with us too, to be a part of the family, to please us. They even want to talk to us, which is why they bark. Dogs evolved from wolves. Wolves howl. They don’t bark.

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“O people, we have been taught the utterance of birds.” (Quran, 27:16)

Somewhere along the evolutionary highway, dogs learned to bark to communicate with their human packs.

Literature old and new is full of talking animals. Some writings are called fables as in Aesop’s The Hare and The Tortoise, who challenge each other to a race. Some are fairy tales—the big bad wolf misleading a red-caped girl in the woods. Snakes and donkeys converse with humans in the Bible. The Koran says Solomon communicated with birds. How could all these stories be based on non-facts? Surely humans once chitchatted with both household pets and wild animals. 

Henry retired at seven years old as a West Highland Terrier stud. His official registered name was Clipper. My friend, John, drove me to Indiana Amish country to fetch the castoff sire. I sat in the back seat with the dog on the way home so I could talk to him, bond. It was the month I first feared I was slipping into cognitive decline.

“He’s not responding to the name Clipper,” John said. “I’ll bet they never called him that. They just bred him. Why don’t you call him something like Henry?” 

And so I did. All the way home to Chicago. The next morning I hollered, “Henry?” He ran from the next room and jumped in my lap. We’ve been conversing ever since.

I suspect the non-pet owners who find me talking to Henry when the elevator door opens haven’t heard of Dr. Epley’s research. To them, I’m just the batty old pensioner with the th-6fluffy white dog on the third floor. 

But I know better. 

I talk to animals.

 

Ozzy the Arhat by Regan Burke

 

Do the dead always visit us in the morning? I wake up listening for the click-clacking tap-dancing, rat-a-tat across my hardened floors. Ozzy had well-padded soles, wide feet and solid toenails meant to root out rats and badgers from their earthen dens. No Scottie-level potted plants ever made it past the first day, neither inside nor on my third-floor balcony. His diggers instinctively, fanatically worked their way into the soil to get to something, anything that proved his worth, duty done. Satisfied with nothing more than a dirty nose and paws, he gave me a message: don’t worry, I’ll protect you from any danger, man or beast.

At the Takashi Murakami exhibit in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I wondered aloud to my 20-year-old grandson, CJ Kelly, why the artist painted so many colorful frogs at the feet of the arhats. CJ mindfully revealed those are the arhats’ toenails, not frogs. Ah, toenails. Murakami’s arhats are Buddhist spirits who hesitate between two worlds, the physical and the not, to comfort suffering earthly beings. His bulbous toenails are a tribute to the noble path of those enlightened ones whose feet are moving them through their death and decay. The parade of toenails is Murakami’s day-glo gratitude for arhats who stop along the way to ease our sorrows.

Murakami called his Chicago exhibit, The Octopus Eats His Own Leg, based on an ancient Japanese adage that an octopus eats its own decrepit limb to save itself from death rot. A new leg grows back, the octopus is healed and lives a long and healthy life.

In the exhibit, the 33-foot-long painting, 100 Arhats, has 1,000 intricately painted toenails. I misinterpreted the toe protectors, thought they were frogs. After all, how could toenails mean so much to anyone but me? I harbor an unspoken repulsion of human toenails. Summer sandals expose these keratin plates sitting atop ugly toes that hardly ever match each other—some curled under, some straight, some turned outward, some inward—all on the same foot.  Toenails are often fungus-rotted discolored thick globs that women hide with colorful paint instead of covering with cool shoes. God clearly missed the boat in his design of the human toe apparatus.

But Ozzy’s coal-black, perfectly formed, hardy toenails witchy-curled out of his all-business paws, ever-ready for the hunt, the prowl. At rest, his legs stretched out before him showing off his toenails as if he’d just had a pedicure.

His body turned in on him overnight. Like the octopus, his system ate up his dying kidneys and liver but left a beleaguered heart that had to be put to rest. I now have my own arhat who will walk me through the sound of silent, unseen toenails until the hard margins at the edges of grief fade into the path.

murakami_portrait
Takashi Murakami in front of his epic work “The 500 Arhats.” (Courtesy MCA Chicago)

 

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Don’t Come to My Place

When friends from out of town ask to visit, they know they’ll be sleeping on a pull-out couch. No one seems to mind. But in the summertime, when I inform them I have no air conditioning and no screens, few believe me. The original in-the-wall air conditioner in my 1959 condo conked out in 2006. Replacing it would require ripping up and rewiringth-1 the wall and I’ve never had the inclination to do so. Neither can I bring myself to replace the broken dishwasher or stove.

Hot spells can be oppressive, even claustrophobic. When heat envelops me, I sweat, swell up, get dizzy. At times I feel like I’m going to faint. The failure of my body to adjust disrupts my circadian rhythm and agitates my sleep cycle. To cool off, I sleep with my windows open for the nighttime breeze from Lake Michigan which means on weekends I hear 2:00 am passersby mixing it up from the bars down the street and cars and motorcycles gunning it on my corner. North Lake Shore Drive makes an “S” curve at Oak Street Beach right outside my building and the occasional emergency siren wakes me as it hones in on late night crashes.

Summer sleep can be exasperating. I rise with the sun at dawn because my blinds are open all the time to catch the changing light and moving clouds. Oh, there are some — I’ve run out of wall space, so I hang paintings and dangle sculptures from drapery rods in front of partially closed blinds.

When I was about 10 years old, I occasionally slept outside in the summer on a porch with no screens. Mosquitoes didn’t bother me there. But when I slept inside, the bloodsuckers buzzed my ears until they found a juicy spot to prick my skin. I figured this was because mosquitoes come inside through the screens and can’t get out. I vowed to get rid of all the screens as soon as I had control over my own surroundings. And so I did. th-3Some visitors are afraid of the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus so they spray gobs of poisonous DEET all over themselves. I’m as afraid of West Nile as I am of getting hit by a bus. Bugs fly in. Bugs fly out. Mosquitoes, moths, flies, bees, wasps — they come in, take a look around and go out.

An occasional sparrow or pigeon may fly in too, but they find their way out once Ozzy the dog wakes up and gets wind of them. City life with all the windows open, nature buzzing around, birds chirping, cars honking, buses burping, lake breezes, the sound of rain on the trees – all of it fills me with joie de vivre. I wouldn’t live any other way.

So, if you’re nostalgic for life before air conditioning, come to my place. You’ll be cooled and calmed by slow-whirring fans and iced lemonade.

 

Conquering High Rise Nature

Conquering High Rise Nature

I threw down the Sunday Real Estate section, flew out the door and sped toward the city to catch the last minutes of the 1-3 pm Open House in a Lake Shore Drive condominium. View of Lake Michigan, one-bedroom, 900 square feet, 24-hour doorman, close to everything, dogs allowed, balcony.

Balcony? During the hour drive to downtown Chicago from temporary quarters in my son’s suburban home, I fantasized sitting on the as-yet-unseen balcony overlooking the Lake, tending my garden.

“I’ll take it,” I said to the agent as I moved across the living room of the third-floor apartment and saw old-growth trees fully dressed in their summer clothes. Outside the wall-to-wall windows a flickering in the trees revealed a red-headed house finch flitting from limb to limb. And then, there was the balcony.

Before light bulbs, blinds or a shower curtain, I bought clay pots and flowering plants for my new home. Young lime-green sweet potato vines and purple morning glories would grow up hugging each other, curling around the railings, stretching toward the sun, competing for space on the top rail, then spilling over the top, and finally hanging down in a graceful cascade of tangled color.

I laid the pots of soil on the balcony overnight to let the dirt cure before planting, leaving the door open – inviting the overnight breeze to bring on a soft sleep. In the morning I strolled into the living room to find dirt tracked all over the floor. My terrier, Usher—legs splayed out on the balcony floor, muddy nose, dirty paws—held his head high with half-closed eyes basking in the light wind. What do you suppose dogs think? Was he grateful IOzzy Gardening 5-4-12 gave him the opportunity to dig up our new backyard?

Off to Home Depot I went for another bag of soil and over-the-railing brackets to hold the pots up and away from those ancient canine instincts. I planted and watered. Perfect.

My north-facing home juts out just enough on a curve of Lake Shore Drive to have a tree-filled lake view. In fact only the trees stand between my balcony and the North Pole – no buildings, no mountain ranges, not much to break the full force of prevailing winds barreling down the Great Lakes, slamming into my building and battering the sweet potato vines and morning glories. They didn’t last the week.

For three years I tried all manner of perennials and annuals praying for wind resistance. The gardeners at Gethsemane Garden Center finally told me I was in a losing battle. Abandoning the outdoor garden, I still delighted in my tree-filled panoramic view full of IMG_1778sparrows, chickadees and one squirrel that sat on a parallel branch, squeaking and shaking his tail, tormenting the dog.

Eventually the emerald ash borer brought down most of the old trees, allowing more
light to fall on the indoor geraniums that are spread across the window sills and bloom all year. Conquering nature in a high-rise requires unwavering love of God’s creatures and a solid commitment to the game.

The Incorrigible Scottish Terrier

The Incorrigible Scottish Terrier

Ozzy compulsively reads the d-mail of those who have preceded him along the sidewalk by sniffing low-lying boxwood, wrought iron fences and hardy city trees. Some would think this slow walk an aggravating willfulness and train the beast to move on. Not me. I appreciate the instincts and habits of this tamed wild animal who yanks me from one spot to the other, forward and backward, reminding me of his constant presence.

img00188-20110523-1919-2High-rise apartment buildings bookend each corner in Ozzy’s block of early 20th Century townhouses. At one corner, Gary the doorman entertains his Thompson Hotel guests by pop-flying Milk Bone dog treats for Ozzy to snatch in midair. Their RBI reaches 80% most days. Rounding the corner on Oak Street, Ozzy sniffs out bowls of treats laid down by strangers at the shops I think of as clothing museums – Dolce and Gabbana, Tom Ford, and Carolina Herrara.

The Scottish Terrier is notoriously independent. My twice-a-day walk with 20-pound Ozzy has wrenched my left shoulder to the point where I have had my entire shoulder joint replaced. One remedy for outwitting the domineering dog is to attach the leash to a loose chain collar and when he pulls, snap the leash so he’s startled by the scritching sound of the sliding chain. I tried this for a while.

One snowy evening last winter, I gathered my dog-walking storm gear – neon green il_340x270-672296456_4r2jcaterpillar coat (easily seen in the dark), slip-proof gloves (for hanging onto the leash), cleated boots, Ozzy’s sweater, and dog boots to protect from the stinging salt. We trudged across Michigan Avenue to East Lake Shore Drive by the Drake Hotel. They continually shovel and salt a long stretch of pavement there. The wind blocked any possible noise from street traffic, and the snow muffled foot traffic. We marched down the street then back, across Michigan Avenue, into the dog entrance of our building, up the elevator and into the hallway of our apartment. I loosened and lowered my hood and looked down to find Ozzy’s iced-up chain collar melting on the carpet – but no Ozzy.

Pounding on the elevator door I screamed, “Is my dog in there?” I flew down three flights of stairs, out the dog entrance, and into the middle of the intersection where Michigan Avenue meets Lake Shore Drive. Ozzy’s black body would easily show in the white snow.

“Oh God! I know you’re punishing me for not picking up after him tonight but it’s too much to bear! Please.”

I screamed out to passersby as I crossed to the Drake where the doorman yelled, “Yes! Hurry! I saw him running toward the lake!”

Another, a dog-walker, “He went over there!”

And another, “I saw someone take him to 209!”

At 209 the unfamiliar doorman said, “I was hoping you’d come by, since I didn’t know how to find you.” He retrieved unrepentant Ozzy from the package room and I carried him the one block home. The following morning’s walk took us to Walgreen’s to purchase a proper dog collar.

In the Attics of My Life, Jerry Garcia Lives

In the Attics of My Life, Jerry Garcia Lives

I worked in politics my whole life, always hoping for the perfect politician. The world view I dreamed up included good people who ultimately acted in the best interest of the whole.  Bill Clinton could have been my hero. I loved his rallying cry in the 1992 campaign, “personal responsibility.”

But I had doubts. Could I work for a candidate who was pro capital punishment and unsure of his view on abortion? Those were two issues I thought every Democrat knew to be against and for.

The “personal responsibility” message won me over. In th-11991 I abruptly left Chicago for Arkansas to work as Clinton’s campaign scheduler, a grueling job that required 24/7 attention. One cold January night Clinton and his entourage, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey, returned to Little Rock in a small private jet from all-important New Hampshire. I met the plane on the dark, deserted tarmac to give Clinton his next day’s schedule. He descended the jet’s stairs with a big smile, came directly at me, grabbed my coat and ran his hands up and down my long furry lapels. “Nice coat, Regan,” he whispered.

This encounter may be the reason I love Bill Clinton.

When he won, I relocated to Washington to work in his administration. I moved into the first floor condo of an 1880 townhouse on Church Street in DuPont Circle. In 1994 he passed a crime bill I thought went too far. Next he signed NAFTA, an agreement opposed by every Democrat I respected. Both policy shifts were spearheaded by White House insider, Rahm Emmanuel, who decidedly did not have the public good at the forefront of his self-serving mind. But Clinton loved him. Dissatisfaction settled in the space between my bones and muscled me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for the next seven years.

In the still of an August morning in 1995 NPR told me Jerry Garcia died. I collapsed on the bathroom floor weeping over the death of something I couldn’t put words to. At 49-years-old my idealism had come to an end: my false world of everlasting good died with Jerry Garcia. Reality glared back at me in the mirror as I brushed my hair, seeing for the first time a wrinkled face and rubbery neck. I dressed in a soft yellow, flowery cotton frock and pinned a silk flower in my hair, ready for the grieving day.

My dog Voter squirmed away from my extra long hug and I went out the door to my old friend, Keith Lesnick waiting to drive us to work. As soon as I got in the car tears spilled out. He asked about the sadness, and I slobbered out a few words, “Jerry Garcia signed into rehab last night,” I said. “He died in his sleep.” Keith waited a few respectful minutes, and then, with one simple sentence, he opened a new, naked reality that included the unspoken caveat of don’t take yourself too seriously.

He said, “well, it’s not as if it’s Aretha Franklin.”