Monday, August 31, 2009

Painted in Amber

The light was old tonight, Autumnal and hollow, yellowed and fraying at the edges like a postcard from a forgotten age. The sky was overcast and gray except for one corner above the mountains where the clouds opened up like the mouth of a wide cup and spilled the most luxurious and somehow muted light I've ever seen. My grandmother once shared with me some postcards she'd collected while living in Germany in the 30's. They were black and white, but painted, like badly colorized movies on Turner Classics, and driving home after work today looking at the sky I couldn't help but remember them and wonder where those cards are now, whose hands have held them, what drawer they've been tucked into, moments, precious but forgotten, painted in amber.

It was a lonely sky, and although it was still quite warm, hot even, it looked cold and made me shiver thinking of taking Duncan out for a walk down Leawood. I climbed the long flights of steps, slipped the key into the lock and turned the knob. The apartment was dark except for a brilliant splash of golden light, so much more vivid than anything I'd seen on the ride home, as though the single ray of sunlight in all the world had found its way into my sanctuary and was waiting for me. Olive was sitting in it, one paw resting on Duncan's blue bone. She meowed softly when I closed the door behind me and entwined herself around my ankles as I set my things down on the couch. Duncan ambled down the hall, stretched and yawned and smiled as he does when he knows a walk is soon to come. The three of moved into the office and sat on the floor in the light together, enjoying the quiet and wealth of the moment.

For awhile, as we sat and leaned against each other, Olive rolling her cheeks and chin first against Duncan and then me, and Duncan smiling and chirping, never taking his eyes off of me, there was no better place to be in all the universe, as if the only sun in eternity was shining its light on us and calling us good, promising that moments like this would never be forgotten.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Not Just a Fountain, Not Just a Ball

They finally turned the fountain on at the park. All summer it has sat silent and empty, an ugly hole in the ground just off the baseball diamonds. Duncan hasn't minded, of course, because he hates the thing. Summers past he's worked very hard at keeping me between himself and the jets of water shooting out of the grates. While children, other dogs, and even I have danced in it, kicking water across the courtyard, Duncan has stood suspicious and fearful on the sidelines, his head low, ears hanging almost in his eyes to avoid even the slightest glimpse of it. I imagine he's enjoyed our walks much more this summer without worrying about the possibility that I'd drag him toward it to watch the water catch the sunlight and listen to the music of it slapping the bricks at our feet.

Last week, however, it came on--like never before. It's always been a rather runty fountain, with the plumes rising barely above my head, but this year they've turned it all the way up, perhaps in an effort to make up for the silent dry months we've gone without it. We've ventured over to it several times, but Duncan has dragged his heels and stayed firmly behind me and out of the way of even the small of drops or the mist drifting up from the base. He does not like it and only really learned to enjoy being wet in the past year. He's tolerated his baths and took to swimming quite well, but the fountain, for whatever reason, has been his own personal Hell.

Yesterday after chasing the bunnies and the sunset across the park, we stepped up to the fountain to sit and relax a moment before heading home for the night. The light had disappeared behind the mountains and the world was blue but still alive with the last sounds and joy of the day. Duncan plopped down at my feet, his back to the water, his eyes scanning the nearby trees for signs of squirrels. I patted his head and tried to get him to at least watch the water. It wasn't until I noticed the stray baseball at the edge of the jets, however, and mentioned it to him that he took any interest at all.

There are few things he loves more than a ball. And this one was just sitting there, unclaimed, pristine and clean, practically begging to be chewed on.

And so I spent the next thirty minutes watching my dog deal with his own anxiety, struggling to overcome his fear and retrieve the reward just beyond his reach. He paced back and forth, stepped as close as he could without getting wet, looked at me, looked at the ball, looked at the stars as if asking returning Orion for his help. He paced nervously, jumped up on me, resting his paws on my chest, barked with raised eyebrows, giving me the look I almost can't resist. He turned away and moved back to the fountain, retreated again. He plopped down on the puddling cement soaking his belly and tail, snapped at the water cascading safely out of range. I dropped his leash and encouraged him all I could, tossing wild boar treats closer and closer to the water's edge and watched as he stretched impossibly far forward to capture them on the tip of his outstretched pink tongue. When he looked resigned to failure I gathered his leash and stepped away but he whined and turned back, so we started the whole process all over again.

He was so close so many times and it reminded me of those last one hundred feet of our climb to The Royal Arch a few weeks ago, before the madness of work took over my life. I remembered sitting on that rock feeling helpless and afraid and how Duncan took control and pulled me up to the top, to that spectacular view of the world, but mostly to my own salvation. So I did what he would've done had the leash been on the other neck. I pushed him. I grabbed his rump and gave it a good solid shove right into the spray and mist.

He buckled down and resisted, of course, spun around and gave me the kind of look I probably deserved, but with the water falling all around him, the damage done, he turned and scooped up that baseball, trotted back to me proudly, plopped down at my feet and shook himself harder than he's ever shaken himself before, which, I supposed, I also probably deserved.

With the ball clenched firmly between his teeth he wagged his tail all the way home, where I toweled him off good and hard, the way he likes it, tossed him a couple of treats and let him chew on that well-earned ball until bedtime.

He was a happy dog, indeed, and maybe tomorrow that fountain will be just a fountain and I'll still be his best friend.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Not Just a Mountain, Not Just a Walk

When I lived in Illinois, or The Shire as I like to call it, all that flatness and rolling green monotony tended to unnerve me after awhile. I'd been born and raised in The West, where the landscape can be desolate and magnificent, where mountain ranges offer shelter and safety, and the people, for all their crazy religious and political faults, are wild and dangerous, but somehow beautiful in their purity. After months in Chicago's suburbs, nothing brought me more joy or peace of mind than returning home to Idaho, driving up to my special spot in the mountains that surround Pocatello and sitting or walking in silence while a summer breeze played with the bumblebees and wildflowers, or a winter wind ravished the junipers and the sandstone cliffs. Mountain Therapy, I called it, and it was so precious to me that only a few hours of it could sustain my mental health for months, or even a year.

When Ken and I moved to Denver ten years ago we spent our weekends exploring the area, driving up to Lyons and Estes Park where we sipped Bloody Mary's at the Stanley Hotel, or visiting Keystone and Steamboat, venturing south to Pikes Peak and Colorado Springs, where the crazies live, driving through the San Juan Mountains and over Wolf Creek Pass, feeling as though the car was flying and not touching the ground at all. Ken had grown up in the Midwest and there was something magical about watching his face each time we rounded a curve in the road and entirely new vistas opened up before us, jutting mountains, treacherous valleys, an endless expanse of desert, sage and antelope.

And then I got sick. I couldn't conceive of visiting the mountains let alone leaving the safety of my home. The anxiety robbed me of much of my ability to enjoy the things which were at the core of who I was. For an entire summer I laid on my couch unable to read a book or watch television or listen to music. Duncan stayed with me, though, and looked after me, offering his weight as a brace when I was so dizzy I could only crawl to the bathroom. When the panic attacks got bad, when my chest felt as though it would explode and my brain throbbed and raced as though it already had, when I couldn't breathe and began doubting my strength and how much more I could endure, he would climb onto the couch, step softly onto my chest and look directly into my eyes, matching his breathing to my own and then slowly, almost imperceptibly take longer and deeper breaths, soothing me and bringing the calm I thought would elude me forever. When I had no faith in myself or my doctors, Duncan stepped forward and reminded me that magic still exists in the world and that not all of it could, or should, be explained.

There have been a hundred small triumphs in the four years since, almost all of them things that most people don't even have to think about, like driving to work, going to a movie, standing with pride in a crowd of two-hundred thousand people at an Obama rally, traveling to and from Idaho in severe weather with only Duncan and my magic feathers to keep me sane. But yesterday, quite unexpectedly, The Universe offered me another chance to reclaim a part of myself I felt had been lost.

Duncan, Olive, Winnie, Pip and I had hunkered down on the couch, pulling the blinds, turning on the AC, trying our best to avoid the heat which raged outside. It was a bright day, hot and dry. The dew had burned off the grass early and I didn't really want to go outside, but after Duncan, sprawled beside me, sighed with boredom and turned to rest his chin on my hip––unsettling poor Winnie, who only barely tolerates him––I decided we needed to try something new. A walk through the park just wouldn't cut it, so before I knew quite what I was doing, I'd started packing water bottles and doggy bags, sunscreen and everything else we'd need for a nice afternoon walk in the mountains. It was time for a little Mountain Therapy.

Moments after making the decision, we were in my car and on the road to Chautauaqua Park in Boulder. I've been there several times, once to see my friend Marc graduate from Naropa, once with Rick on a day when the mountainside was taken over by a mother bear and her two cubs, and once two years ago when Traci had paid me a visit. We had taken Duncan and attempted to climb the trail to the Royal Arch, but Traci is an asthmatic from Chicago (elevation 500 feet) and I was a smoker and the trail was a lot more strenuous than we'd anticipated for a leisurely Autumn walk. We made it halfway, which was a good place to turn around, especially since neither of us was serious about the climb. We simply wanted to be outside where the air was crisp and smelled of pine.

Yesterday was much warmer, which made the shade that much sweeter. The climb through the meadow to the base of the Flatirons was tough in the heavy sunlight, but once we reached the treeline and began the ascent, the air cooled and the breeze coming down the canyons was sweet and gentle. The rocks and eroded trail, however, were not, and as the switchbacks became steeper and more frequent my anxiety began to increase. I poured Duncan water into his fold-up travel bowl and took sips from the bottle, watching as our supply began to dwindle. Halfway up my inner conversation amped up and I began to doubt we'd make it at all. I know my limits––have become well acquainted with them over the course of the past four years--and took no shame in the thought of turning back. But we didn't. We pressed on, taking frequent breaks to rest against the sides of enormous boulders and listen to the silence of the mountains, the call of the hawks and the scurrying of the chipmunks playing tag in the wild berry bushes along the edge of the trail. People often passed us, but once we resumed our march we'd pass them as they rested in their own spots.

It was grueling and at times frightening. As the doubt and panic increased I started worrying not about reaching the goal, but the return hike and the subsequent drive back to Denver in heavy afternoon traffic. Each step up that occasionally nearly-vertical trail became more and more difficult. I began to judge myself based on the ease with which our fellow hikers marched along unaware of the difficulty I was facing, not just physically, but emotionally as well. Their mountain was not my mountain. We were on two completely different journeys, two different paths.

And then, after nearly two hours of marching up steep canyons and back down through winding valleys, we neared the end. The blood was pumping in my ears. The back of my neck was constricted and ached. My heart raced in my chest. Duncan was panting and kept looking at me questioningly, as though unsure of my safety. But we marched on, a small group of people in front of us and a couple out for a leisurely afternoon behind us. Dizzy and on the verge of utter panic, my despair and self-loathing at their peak, I collapsed on a rock and sat taking huge gulps of air as a million thoughts raced through my mind: Why had I done this? Why had I done it alone? Why had I left the cell phone in the car? Why had I not brought more water? Who did I think I was that I could accomplish something like this? Who would help us if something happened? What would happen to Duncan if I was carried down the mountain a raving lunatic?

I shook my head and heard that part of my brain I know too well rise up and speak to me. You don't have to go on. You can turn around. It's not a big deal.

And then, as if in answer, the woman in front of us, the self-proclaimed leader of her group, turned back and saw me. She hopped down a few rock outcroppings toward us and yelled at me. "Come on, man. Get up. You can do it. You've only got three minutes and you're there."

I felt my body collapsing inside itself and shook my head again. "I don't have three minutes in me," I gasped.

She came closer. "Turn around," she yelled at me. "Turn around and look. You're there! Forty-five seconds! Get up now!"

I looked over my shoulder and saw it, the Royal Arch, an enormous stone bridge crossing from one side of the trail over the other. I could not calm myself enough to think, so Duncan, sitting at my feet, panting and watching me, thought for me. His leash was around my wrist and curled tightly in my hand. He jumped to his feet and scrambled up the last few boulders, his feet nimbly catching on each rock and propelling him forward. I had no choice but to follow. I stumbled after him, leaving the water bottle where I'd been sitting. I crawled on all fours up the boulders under the arch, and then suddenly we were at the top looking out on forever. And with my good dog, my amazing best friend at my side, everything stopped as I caught my breath and let it all go.

There we stood at the top of the mountain, the city of Boulder spread out before us, and Denver beyond that, and an eternity of green plains vanishing into a horizon I suspect was Kansas and Nebraska. The silence was loud and unmistakable, even over the soft conversation of the others who'd gathered to sit and marvel at the size of the world. Duncan perched on a rock and licked my calf as I scratched the top of his head and felt my chest fill with air and relief.

While the others whispered and looked out on their well-earned reward, I sat with Duncan and hugged him, actually teared up as I pressed my face into his chest and whispered over and over again, thank you, thank you, thank you. Once again, Duncan had known me better than I knew myself, had faith in me where I had none, had literally dragged me to my own salvation. My climb meant something different––not more or less––than the climb the others had made. I hadn't conquered the trail or the mountain, I'd beat my fear, which has been great and terrible but now seems a little more transparent, something not quite so permanent.

Eventually I was able to compose myself and made small talk with the others gathered beneath the arch. I took a picture of the couple who'd followed us up and promised to email it to them. The man, Jim, gave me his email address, which he was sure I would forget, but have not. That moment is sealed in my memory, every part of it––the shaking of my legs, the burning of my lungs, the sound of the air at that altitude, the colors of the world. They will be a part of my body forever. That climb is now built into me, a piece of my fabric, something which can never be undone.

After a good long while we began our descent, Duncan leading the way sniffing for chipmunks while I smiled into the sunshine. I repeated the stranger's email address like a mantra and before I knew it we found ourselves back in the broad meadow at the base of the Flatirons, the ache gone from my legs and my spirit a thousand pounds lighter. A storm was gathering over the mountains but the thunder, gray and heavy, and echoing off the rocks, sounded like triumph and glory in my ears. I was practically dancing by the time we reached the car, where Duncan and I shared a bottle of water as the first small, hot raindrops spattered against the asphalt and our skin. The earth smelled, like grass and late Spring and I could not contain the emotion inside me.

I am getting better, one small but significant step at a time.

There are much worse things than anxiety in this world, like the loss of loved ones to terrible diseases, or unjustifiable wars, poverty and hatred. My story isn't much, but I'm glad it's mine. Getting sick and then getting better has taught me that no task is too small, that everything has significance and worth, that the destination, however beautiful and rewarding is not nearly as remarkable as the journey.

And that there is nothing--nothing!--better than traveling through this life with a good friend at your side.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Vote for Hero's!

I'm counting on all my loyal readers to do me a favor for Chelsea, the owner of Hero's Pets, Duncan's favorite store. Hero's sells only top-of-the-line products, all organic and earth-friendly, manufactured by companies who are socially responsible and dedicated to providing only the best products for our animal companions. Chelsea is tireless at doing research and can answer just about any question posed to her. She has been one of Duncan's biggest fans, and I, in turn, try to do everything I can to encourage and bolster her business.

One of Denver's local news stations is holding a vote for the best business in Littleton and Hero's was nominated in the category of Pet Supplies. I know most of you don't live in our neck of the woods, but it would be wonderful if you could register to vote (it's quite simple and doesn't require anything of you!) and support Chelsea. The winner receives a ton of free publicity, which Hero's definitely deserves. When they ask for your zip code, simply use mine: 80123.

Please register and cast your vote here. It would mean the world to me. Additionally, it would be great if you visited her site and dropped her an email to let her know how important she's been in influencing Duncan's health and keeping his papa sane and happy. It's the least I can do for her after all the advice, education and love she's showered on Duncan and me.

Thank you!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Round Hole, Square Peg

Duncan has had a busy summer watching the bunnies which have erupted all over the hillside at the back of the park near offices where they store the old soccer and football goal posts. We've watched them grow from tiny little brussel sprout balls of fur into lean and lanky teens, who flirt and then run away. Recently, though a whole new batch of babies have appeared and Duncan took an interest in one this evening on our nightly walk, staring for nearly ten minutes, his tail only occasionally wagging, his jaw firmly shut, his tongued locked safely inside.

After the poor thing finally grew weary of all the attention it hopped into the narrow opening of one goal post and took refuge there while Duncan persisted in his fawning.

It took me nearly five minutes of coaxing to convince him it was time to move on, and then only with a handful of our new favorite organic grilled wild boar in pear sauce glaze treats by the Northern Biscuit Company. You should check them out!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Known Name

As you can imagine, I've been thinking an awful lot about Gil and Pete and the threat they've become at the apartment complex where we live. It's been a difficult thing to deal with because I have a secret-- my landlords don't know I have a dog. Talking to them about The Gil Situation would mean a big confession on my part, a very high non-refundable pet deposit and a hefty increase in my rent, neither of which would be manageable this year. But I have to consider the safety of others, so I have read and reread the many comments posted on my last entry and have taken your words to heart. And after great deliberation I made my decision.

Yesterday was Rent Day so I stopped by the leasing office to drop off my check and to visit with Lealani, the woman who set up my lease and consoled me when things were rough last February. She's an incredible person, funny and smart, sensitive and warm, and of such a perfect height that draping an arm over her shoulder feels natural and easy. Sometimes after checking the mail I'll stop by the leasing office, not just for a piece of candy or the occasional cookie, but to sit for a few minutes and talk with her, to laugh and smile.

She was standing in the door as though she'd been waiting for me, a wide smile spread across her face. She peppered me with questions about my trip home, the high school reunion, Ken, but when she saw the look on my face she knew something was wrong and pulled me into the back room to talk about it. I don't like feeling like a narc, but I also value not being afraid when we walk, so I told her about Gil and Pete's blatant hostility toward my request. Lealani was shocked, asked if Duncan was okay and then told me she'd never heard of Gil. I was unable to tell her which apartment they lived in but told her where they roam. She shook her head and because she lives on property, told me the next time I see them off leash I am to knock on her door and bring her along so she can witness it and deal with it "in [her] own special way."

The best part is that at this point my rent isn't changing and all is well. And Duncan's name is known.