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.
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 rewiring 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. Some 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.
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 I 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 sparrows, 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.
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.
High-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 caterpillar 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.