One of the boarded up stores I walk Henry past everyday is Hermes, a Parisian couture import. You can buy a Hermes over-the-shoulder mini bag just big enough for your cell phone, keys and plastic poop bags (if you’re walking Henry) for $1,875.00. On the very first board-up day, a tagger spray-painted one of Hermes’ dark grey boards with a
tasteful lavender scribble. The contrasting colors were delightful really, very French. And the next day, the street art was gone, painted over in Hermes signature dark grey.
Like the Buddhist arhat, Irish banshee and today’s death doula, the mythical greekHermes is a psychopomp, or soul guide. Powered by his winged sandals and helmet, he guides the soul into death, to the other side. Crows are also psychopomps often depicted waiting in murders outside the home of the dying to herald the soul’s journey or perched inside the chamber as in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”.
Crows are sparse these days on downtown Chicago streets. There’s no discarded food to forage in the alleys behind the restaurants. Oh, sure, the restaurants are providing take-out, but all that trash goes home to another neighborhood’s compost. The heralding crow has taken her business elsewhere. No one is bothering to die a natural death here. We are all in a state of shutdown limbo. Indeed I never hear the usually frequent ambulance sirens headed to the hospital a quarter of a mile away. The covid-infected dying are taking cabs to the Emergency Room, hoping they won’t be turned away or sent to the field hospital at the McCormick Place convention center.
Hermes is known as Mercury in Roman mythology, from a Latin derivative meaning merchandise. I love the window displays but I have no reason to step across the Hermes threshold and finger the merchandise. These days I think of its namesake as a hallmark to protect the life of commerce in the city. I hope Hermes/Mercury doesn’t let the city die.
I have to grab hope wherever I can. It was Hermes’ sister Pandora who opened the box that unleashed plagues, diseases, and illnesses on the world. Our current Pandora, President Trump, has unleashed the coronavirus on us in opening wide his box of ignorance, inaction and mismanagement. The myth says Pandora closed that box before the healing spirit Hope escaped. President Trump spews false hope to us everyday with lies, inaccuracies and ego-driven platitudes.
Hope seeps out on its own power though, just like the spray-painting tagger letting us know the street is still alive.
I wake up frozen in fear. My old Ikea down comforter shrouds my body. Before peeking out at the same world I fell asleep in, I breathe in and say, “The troubles of the world don’t own me.” I breathe out and say, “I don’t own the troubles of the world.” After twenty or thirty minutes forcing my mind back to this cushioning mantra, I go to my computer for the latest messages and news about friends impacted by the coronovirus.
At the hospital, a friend is off a ventilator and in for a long recovery, thanking those around him for saving his life. The Panama Canal Authoirty finally approved passage of a cruise ship that had been stranded off the coast of Chile, shunned at every port. Four people died onboard, and my friend, healthy but worried is locked down in a cabin with no windows and scant information.
Henry jumps around to say he’s ready to go out and read his drizzled mail on the low hanging boxwood branches. There’s a shift on the sidewalk; less people than the day before, fewer parked cars, more birds. And Henry makes less and less whiffer stops. His friends must be on a later schedule, sleeping in. It’s the second week after all.
We pause at a neglected sidewalk garden, elevated in a bas-relief concrete trough. In there a crow pecks at dead twigs and tendrils from last year’s plantings. We’re not more than ten feet from her. She drops a brittle stick on the cement ledge, plunks a claw down on one end, grabs the other end and pulls up, breaking off a piece of nesting material. Gathering a few more right-sized pieces she jumps down and walks across the empty street with a full beak. Henry is nonchalant, as if she were just another member of the family. Dogs have a way of knowing. They read souls.
Around the corner, we stop to watch workmen covering another couture clothing shop with sheets of plywood. Pretty soon the whole street will look like a war zone of boarded up storefronts. Crows caw overhead. It’s our mother and her kin squawking about the lack of garbage pickings in the alleys behind the shut-down restaurants.
Back home you’d never know Chicago is on STAY-AT-HOME orders from the mayor unless you open the freezer and see 25 frozen Mac ’n’ Cheeses from Trader Joe’s. Other than that, nothing’s changed inside. I spend the whole day in hysterics laughing at jokes, memes and cartoons that people send me and post online. At first there were all dog jokes, like two dogs looking at a couch full of papers and a computer. One says to the other, “Do you think we’ll ever get our couch back?” The other says, “I think it’s going to
be a couple of weeks.”
After that, there were husband and wife jokes, like the photo of a woman knitting a noose for her husband. And one of a woman digging a grave in the garden. Now I’m getting a lot of jokes with swear words:
Today the devil whispered in my ear, “You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.”
And I whispered back, “Six feet, motherfucker.”
That’s another way of saying the troubles of the world don’t own me. I don’t own the troubles of the world.
Going? Not going? A single day passed and no matter the destination whether Walgreen’s or Mexico, the decision was made for me. I’m not going. No one’s going. No one’s going anywhere.
The questions alone open an empty space in my head that fills quickly with a laugh, a giant cosmic laugh that says, “You used to have a choice!” Now there’s no dilemma about where to go, who to see, what to do, what time to do it.
Today, I am my existence. I maintain my essence built over a lifetime; fretful sleep, overeating, wasteful showers, obsessive reading, TV ’til two a.m. And, I build anew. I make tuna salad sandwiches, stir-fry zucchini with onions and go to meetings on Zoom. Henry the dog and I walk to new places like Michigan Avenue where we give six-foot hellos to neighbors we don’t know, will probably never know. In an unfamiliar park I break the law, unleashing him to run the crunchy March earth. We’re lulled into concluding some rules no longer apply. He trees squirrels. I hear a woodpecker
(tomorrow binoculars). T.S. Eliot wrote “Time past and time future what might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.” I have time on my hands. It cannot be washed off, nor sanitized away.
Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales help children cope with their existential anxieties and dilemmas. I’m grateful for my new-found fairy tales on Acorn and Netflix. They’re satisfying, even intoxicating. “Vera”quenches my thirst for relief from today’s threat of a mad virus loosed on an unprepared society. She always catches the killer, within one episode. And “West Wing”’s President Jed Bartlett reassures me, “There are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we are one country and have national needs.” Fairly tales are indeed a good shield.
A friend yelled at me on the phone, “I just want to go to a restaurant!”
Who doesn’t? I live in cafe society— exchanging gossip, ideas, medical records and laughs in half-public coffee shops, restaurants, hotel lobbies, church halls, run-ins at shops and malls. It’s part of my essence, my existential cover, a baby blanket of being. I need it.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” said Blaise Pascal whose health problems left him no choice but to sit alone in quiet for long periods. He tried to solve some of humanity’s problems. Perhaps if he’d lived longer he’d have given us more than pensées.
To preserve my sanity, I usually sit quietly in a room for thirty minutes every day consciously telling myslef I do not own all of humanity’s problems, nor do they own me. But now that I’ve been sitting in a room alone for days, I’m concocting brilliant and crazy solutions to humanity’s problems. Pascal would be pleased, but I’m afraid I’ll go from here to the psych ward.
Over the years, I’ve acquired one untrained dog after another. I dismissed the American Kennel Club admonition, “Scottish Terriers are hard to train” as if it didn’t apply to me, because I simply love them. The AKC is right, of course. Scotties are hard to train in all
areas particularly in their nasty habit of “marking” any old spot they please including inside, on the carpet. My last Scottie yanked so hard on his end of the leash to protect me from sidewalk dogs that I’d lose my grip as he went on the attack. I’d been to court twice for his biting dogs and their owners. He was finally sentenced to permanent muzzling but before I could carry out his punishment, five-year old Ozzy inexplicably and suddenly died.
After Ozzy’s death, bottomless-pit grief drove me to vow to be forever dog free. This made the decision to rip up the stinky carpet an easy one. I replaced the old stained wall-to-wall with Home Depot’s TrafficMASTER Luxury Vinyl Plank Flooring. No more dogs with their curious canine mating rituals. No more carpet cleaning. And no more vacuuming, which I hated even more than the dentist’s three-hour procedure to extract my ankylosed tooth. I didn’t need to worry about traumatizing the dog with such a drastic change. Ozzy was dead. I’d never have another. I didn’t know I’d parked the idea of a dog in a sub region where ideas slow cook before the boil.
The first week of the new cherry colored hard floor, one of my favorite CB2 glasses slipped from my grasp and smashed to pieces. The next week another fell out of my hand to the floor.
The Marta glass collection from CB2 has a cult-like following. The glass itself is micro-thin. Your lips close in on the minimalist rim with ease. Liquid doesn’t sneak out of the edges between the glass and your cheeks, dribbling down your neck onto your new pink velvet blouse. The sides are smooth and straight; no prismatic mystery of what’s inside. They are a joy to embrace, these perfect affordable glasses. I loved to open the kitchen cabinet and see my whole Marta collection lined up like gossamer terra cotta warriors.
The hard floor brought a hard reality. With carpet, when my hold weakened on breakables, and they dropped, they didn’t break. With the hard floor underfoot many treasures have slipped out of my grasp and smashed to the ground before I remembered to get a grip. Glass slivers embedded in my feet led me to question what was wrong with my hands.
Hand grip strength is a test the doctor performs on the aging. Greater grip strength equals greater mortality. There it is. That old mortality jumpin’ up trying to scare the bejesus out of me, tempting me to obsess over how long I have to live.
Only one of my treasured glasses have survived. All is not lost though. I have a new well-trained non-Scottie dog who doesn’t test my impotent grip on his leash. And I’ve softenedmy grasp on mortality, leaving the fear of dying for another day.
Whenever I’m reminded of My Funny Valentine I sing it to my dog. Sometimes he sings back. I’ve always had funny dogs, especially when I forget to take them to the dog parlor
and they can’t see through their neglected haircuts.
The truth is, My Funny Valentine is comforting, not just for singing to dogs. The lyrics make me feel lovable. According to the song writers, the more time goes on, the more lovable I might be getting. I’m less photographable, my figure is less and less Greek, my mouth is getting weaker and what comes out of it is less smart. Perhaps Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart actually wrote the song with their grandmothers in mind. After all, haven’t most of us laughed at our quirky old grandmothers? Like the time she put the turkey in the oven upside down? Or bought a dry-clean-only shirt on sale at Bloomingdales for a 10-year-old boy?
Those laughs may be in short supply if Michael Bloomberg becomes president. He says that healthcare will bankrupt us unless we deny care to the elderly.
“If you show up with cancer and you’re ninety-five years old, we should say, ‘there’s no cure, we can’t do anything’. A young person? We should do something. Society’s not willing to do that, yet.” Bloomberg said.
Yet? Society’s not willing to pull the plug on its grandparents? Yet?
Why can’t policy changes allow me more time in the cost-effective doctor’s office, instead of withholding costly medical treatment as I get older? Words from my weakening lips have become slower and less smart. Because office visits are limited to twenty minutes, the doctor may not hear that this grandmother requires nothing more than a prescription drug change. Inattention to my symptoms in the doctor’s office could lead to a later trip to the costly emergency room, admittance to the costly hospital and visitations by costly specialists who in the end announce a diagnosis of nothing more than easy-to-treat high blood pressure.
There’s nothing new about politicians proclaiming the elderly are not worth the medical expense or care we give them. In 1984, Governor Dick Lamm of Colorado said, ”We’ve got a duty to die and…let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.” The duty-to-die statement ruined his opportunity to run for president. When Obama officials tried to add simple advance-care consultations to the Affordable Care Act, Sarah Palin denounced it as the creation of “death panels.” How do you think Bloomberg’s statement will be used?
We’ve gotten the same messages from the right-to-die movement for years—as if our right to die must be supported by cost effectiveness rather than a policy of choice. Don’t get me wrong. I have no intention of living past my expiration date. I’ve made my own choice in my end-of-life papers.
Bloomberg’s “yet” is a bothersome dated idea—killing off our funny old valentines to save the country from healthcare bankruptcy.
Waiting in examination room #5 for the skin doctor, I suddenly felt separated from the real world. Where was everyone? Was I in the right place? The right day? The right office? Where was I? Space stretched thin like over-rolled pie crust. I focused on deep breathing but knew I had to get out of there fast.
There’s nothing wrong with my skin. My mother called it “cheap Irish skin” because the sun burns it bright red, never a gold-plated tan. Splotches of actinic keratosis or “AK” from years of sun exposure periodically scale up on my face. The dermatologist unholsters an aerosol can from her belt and shoots liquid nitrogen on my AKs during twice-yearly visits. It creates instant frostbite on the dead cells, freezing the AKs in place. It doesn’t hurt. There’s no downside, no need for alarm and certainly no reason to have a panic attack.
“Anything else I need to look at?” the dermatologist asked.
No. This wasn’t the time for new concerns about my skin. I was on the verge of collapse.
By the time I got down the elevator into a lobby chair, hyperventilation was threatening to kill me. I thought I’d been in exam room #5 for a few hours but when I checked the time only thirty minutes had passed. Why were my legs so weak? I focused on my breathing until I recovered.
Looking for understanding, I later mentioned the discomfort to a friend, who happens to be a doctor.
“What did they do for you?”
“Nothing. I didn’t tell them.”
“What? Are you crazy? If your blood pressure spiked you could’ve had a heart attack.”
She didn’t understand. It was impossible for me to report my condition at the time. The pinched air sucked the words from my mouth. I couldn’t talk. I thought I was going crazy.
Panic attacks started in earnest a few years ago without any warning (not that I’d have recognized the warnings). I visited an old friend in the hamlet of Baltimore, a sailing community on the rugged southwest Irish coast. Vivienne and her friends were boarding a rubber inflatable one day for transport to a sailboat moored in Roaring Water Bay. She shouted “Get in!” as she crawled into the idling dinghy.
“Yes you can. Get in! Get in!”
“I can’t! I can’t!”
I yelled at her over the roar and hum of end-of-summer harbor noise.
“Go without me!”
I ran to the bait shop restroom, then dragged myself to a wind-slapped bench and recuperated under the shade of a wild fuchsia hedgerow.
Later Vivienne joined me on the deck of the waterfront cafe. “I panicked,” I said. She understood. Convenient word, panic.
Last year I panicked at different times in several US airports. There’s a simple solution to that—stay out of them. Now I face the unpredictability of panic striking at any moment and for no reason. I’ve considered revealing this malady to my friends in case I’m in their company if it happens again. I wouldn’t want anyone rushing me off to the emergency room because they don’t understand. But whenever I mentally rehearse the words, the room sways. I can hear the questions, “what are you afraid of?” and “why do you think this happens?”.
The difference between me and Henry the dog is that as the human animal, I’m able to understand my psychology and articulate that understanding to others. But the stigma of perceived weakness stills me into secrecy.
How would I know if Henry, the non-human animal, encounters panic attacks?
In Buddhist practice, one is urged to consider how to live well by reflecting on one’s death.
When I was a young mother I watched a woman at the laundromat put her family’s socks in a mesh bag that she threw in the washer. “So none of them get eaten by the machine,” she informed me. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. It seemed extravagant, even lazy. Why didn’t she just look in the machines?
For all of my adult working life I wore pantyhose. I washed them in the sink and threw them over the shower rod to dry. They were (and are!) the ugliest piece of unworn clothing in existence, made more so by scary movies where criminals pull pantyhose over their heads to disguise themselves when they rape, kill or mug their victims.
Now that I no longer dress for business all my socks are bright cotton, primary colors. Whenever I do the laundry I love hanging wet socks on the foldable clothes rack in my bedroom. If I were an artist I’d paint the explosion of color hanging to dry. I diligently scour the washing machine in my building’s laundry room as I cannot afford to let even one errant sock get trapped and forgotten. This has worked for many years, sparing me the anguish of making decisions about left behind socks.
Until Henry came to me.
A few months into our life together, seven year old Henry and I were out for a walk. I bent over to scoop up his morning duty and stared down into a roll of turquoise cotton. Putting two and two together, I rushed home to inspect the bottom rung of the clothes dryer. One missing turquoise sock.
Oh Henry. This sixteen pound West Highland Terrier, without the advantage of a full set of teeth, supplements his dog food with cardboard boxes, cotton garments and paper. He’s sneaky but sometimes he brazenly waits at the printer for paper to eject and tries to gobble it up before I pry it from his clamped jaws. The other day, I looked over from my morning awakening and noticed the bottom corner of the cotton drapes had been Henry’s midnight snack.
You may wonder if Henry gets sick. Yes, he sometimes lays around more than usual. So far a bulging stomach seems to be the only side effect.
I panic though. I spray vinegar to make the reachable distasteful. But the unpredictability of his foraging renders me useless to keep him from harm. I’m sure his suicide is imminent.
And so, reflecting on his death, I sing to my sentient canid– my version of the Buddhist practice of living well.
(To the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”)
Well dogs are quirky don’t you know. They eat stuff that we’d forgo. Sneaky eating’s got me worried. Oh Henry don’t you go.
Oh Henry! don’t you die, don’t go. Oh Henry! don’t you die, don’t go. Sneaky eating’s got me worried. Oh Henry don’t you go.
When I see your stomach ache, my heart starts to palpitate. Sneaky eating’s got me worried. Oh Henry don’t you go.
Paper, cardboard, pill bottle’os. Playbills, books and hanging clothes. Sneaky eating’s got me worried. Oh Henry! don’t you go.
Oh Henry! don’t you die, don’t go. Oh Henry! don’t you die, don’t go. Sneaky eating’s got me worried. Oh Henry! don’t you die.
Recently NPR/WBEZ reporter Monica Eng called me about a question I submitted to WBEZ’s Curious City. She asked if I’d like to meet her at the Illinois water testing lab at UIC. Here’s what happened.
Regan Burke used to love taking her dog, Usher, down to Oak Street Beach for morning walks — until about a decade ago, when she says a lifeguard came up to her and told her to get her dog out of the water because E. coli levels were too high.
Ever since, Regan’s been worried about water safety at Chicago beaches.
Still, for a while, she felt confident the city was responsibly warning people and closing beaches when fecal bacteria (measured through E.coli) got too high.
“In the early 2000s, they really reported that every day, and you’d hear it on WBEZ,” she recalls. “It was on the regular Chicago news. But I don’t hear it at all now.”
So Regan wrote in to Curious City with a few questions:
Is that water safe for dogs? Why don’t they close the beaches for E. coli anymore? Are Chicago beaches safe [from bacteria]?
The answer to that last question depends on a lot of things, like which beach you visit, what day you visit, and how old and healthy you are. But it’s an important question because, on most summer days, at least one Chicago beach has elevated fecal bacteria levels. In fact, one city beach recently saw a level more than 300 times the federal notification level — and remained open. Also, the public appears to be confused about how to interpret the city’s new swim advisory system. And so, in an effort to clear up any such confusion, we offer this handy primer on fecal bacteria on Chicago beaches.
How do I find out how dirty a beach is?
Each morning at dawn, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers collect two water samples from at least 20 Chicago beaches. The samples are delivered to a UIC lab where they are tested for enterococci, a fecal indicator bacteria. The park district then takes the two readings for each beach and calculates a geometric mean (which is not the method recommended by the EPA; more on that later).
The city communicates its recommendations to beachgoers in three ways: on the park district’s website, through the city’s data portal, and through a flag system at the beach. Here’s how you can find it online:
Keep in mind that the Chicago Park District only posts the average (geometric mean). If you’re good with spreadsheets and you’d like to find the highest sample at your favorite beach on a given day, go to the city’s data portal after 1 p.m., export the data into Excel, and then sort to find the correct day and beach. Look under the “DNA sample” columns to find that day’s readings.
You can also check the flags posted at each beach:
How can I stay safe?
Check the levels for your beach before you go. If fecal bacteria levels are anywhere near 1000 CCE, UIC public health scientists Sam Dorevitch and Abhilasha Shrestha say to consider avoiding contact with the water, particularly if you are:
Or have an open wound
If you go to the beach before the website is updated, keep in mind that hard rains the previous day often result in high fecal levels the next morning.
If you swim on a day when levels exceed 1000 CCE, be careful not to swallow water or dunk your head.
Always wash your hands after swimming, especially before eating.
What can I do to make beaches safer?
Clean up your:
Don’t feed the birds.
Wait. What? The city doesn’t follow EPA suggestions on when to warn people?
That’s right. The EPA suggests advising the public to take precautions when any single sample is above 1,000 CCE. The Chicago Park District, however, determines whether to notify the public based on the geometric mean of its two samples (which will always be lower than the highest single sample). In its 2012 guidance, the EPA suggests using the geometric mean “to assess the longer-term health of the waterbody”; not to determine whether to issue a daily warning. None of this EPA guidance is legally enforceable; it’s just a suggestion based on extensive research.
Officials from the park district defended their use of the geometric mean in a statement, saying: “Densities of [fecal indicator bacteria] are highly variable in ambient waters therefore a measure based off of a distribution, such as [geometric mean]…, are more robust than single estimates.”
Chicago Beach Poop By the Numbers, 2018 Edition
We crunched enterococci data from last summer, totaling 101 days. Below are some highlights, which take into account the differing standards used by the city and suggested by the EPA. Here are some highlights:
And what about the dogs and E. coli?
Chicago veterinarian Dr. Vaishaili Joshi says that dogs are exposed to E. coli all the time and usually don’t get sick. But, like humans, “immunocompromised pets, juveniles and seniors may be at higher risk of infection secondary to heavy exposure.”
More about our questioner
Regan Burke is a Chicago writer who worked in local and national politics — for Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Adlai Stevenson — for most of her professional life. She details that part of her life in the upcoming book, I Want To Be In That Number, which she says is all about “politics and nervous breakdowns.”
As Regan grew up in Chicago and around the Midwest, she says her mom would often tease her for being a “nature lover.”
“I always thought of myself as a city person, but I do love nature,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m more interested and cognizant of what’s outside my window than what’s inside my apartment.”
When she heard the final answers to her questions about the nature on the lake, she had a couple of reactions.
“Well, I’m very impressed at the level of testing that they do on the Chicago beaches,” she says. “But, at the same time, we don’t get the results until 1:30 in the afternoon.”
Still, Regan was pleased to hear that dogs are not very susceptible to E. coli., despite what the lifeguard seemed to imply.
But when she heard that the city will never puts up a red flag or close a beach, even when fecal levels skyrocket, she was not pleased.
“That, to me, is appalling,” Regan says. “The idea that at 1000 CCE there is a health risk — I can buy that. But when it’s 300,000 and they don’t close the beaches? I mean, how sick are people getting? And people go to the beach with their dogs, their children and their grandchildren. They must close the beaches when that happens. It’s just appalling.”
The 9 minute audio story has more information. Listen here.
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.
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 fluffy white dog on the third floor.
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.