Monthly Archives: January 2007

Rollercoaster of love

More specifically, the top of the first big hill of the rollercoaster of love, where you’re up higher than you will be for the rest of the ride, and there’s no more climbing, or maybe a little more climbing but you’re definitely starting to see air beneath you. Plenty of room to drop. You hang there and you don’t really like rollercoasters. You wonder why you got on in the first place. The climb was nice enough, more and more perspective as time passed, but now it just doesn’t feel worth it. It doesn’t feel worth it at all and the fall is going to suck. The fall is going to suck. You hang, but you’re moving a little and the heads of the people in the front car are dropping out of sight and there’s nothing you can do. There is nothing to do but ride this out. There is nothing to do but ride this out. You grip the bar and your stomach turns over a little.

Here we go.

After a good day

Zeke, 1/30/2007 9:30 pm Good being always a relative term, of course. He’s enjoying about two pounds of chicken in his belly and a pound of turkey keeping the chicken company. I think Aldo Leopold would have said something about his eyes. Fire still burning.

A couple things

First off and most importantly: Thank you. All of you who’ve written, commented, called on the phone (hi, Kat!). I’ve read every single one of your notes with profound emotion. This is no exaggeration. Some of you close friends from real life, some of you people I’ve never heard of, all of you have made this experience a bit more bearable. The downside of leaving the job is that I don’t see people every day, and I don’t know what kind of state I’d be in without you — and Zeke definitely benefits from your support of his sniveling human. I’ll be getting back to each of you who’ve sent notes or left them. If you think your blog comments are throwing stones down a well, as I sometimes do: those stones splash big. I owe you. So do Zeke and Becky.

Secondly, and with far broader import: The John Edwards for President campaign has done something brilliant: they’ve hired Amanda Marcotte to wrangle their campaign blogs. As a result, she’s anticipating needing to cut back on her time spent writing for Pandagon, though thankfully not entirely. In order to take up the slack, she’s raided the Creek Running North regulars roster. Auguste, Ilyka Damen, Sheelzebub, and Roxanne Populi have been added to the author list over there, with Amanda and the wonderful Pam Spaulding. Also, for some reason Amanda has seen fit to give me the keys to the place too. I can use the being-kept-busy-while-at-home, I think.


I think it’s time to write about Kudzu. Kudzu has been on my mind much these days. This is rarely a pleasant thing, because Kudzu loved me without reservation, and I neglected and then abandoned her.

Kudzu was my first dog.

Her mother was a collie-beagle-husky mix, Honey, who belonged to my friends Joe and Fran in Buffalo. Her father was a farm dog mutt that belonged to Joe’s uncle. I happened to be over at Joe and Fran’s when the litter was born. This was no particular coincidence: I had attached myself to Joe and Fran, an uninvited mascot, and my visits often lasted for days. They owned some land out in the foothills of the Alleghenies south of Buffalo, and I decided I was going to stay there one winter, and thought it would be a good idea to have a dog there to keep me company. I chose Kudzu with that in mind.

She had no retriever in her at all, but that’s what she looked like: a thinner version of a golden, blond petticoats on her hind legs, a pink nose, soft tan ears that flopped to just the right length. I took her home at six weeks. By “home” I mean the house my parents had bought before their divorce, which they were in the process of trying to sell. I slept on the kitchen floor with her the first night as she cried for Honey.

Kudzu loved me, of course. I never had a job, and so I never had to leave her alone, and for the first few months I didn’t, unless I was going off to a demonstration or something. She went with me on dates — never a problem, as she was far cuter than I was — and walked with me across the city late at night to friends’ houses, often to visit Joe and Fran and her mother.

I was 21. I had been raised by wolves, which, ironically, proved to be a bad model for rearing and training a dog. I was too self-centered to figure out that when I did leave her at the house, she needed me to come back sometime in the next 24 hours even if I had left enough food and water. I was too stupid and unsocialized to realize that dogs need to see the vet, and when Joe, disgusted with me, lent me I think a hundred bucks to take Kudzu to the vet, I spent it on food. Food for both Kudzu and me, to be sure, but she needed the vet: she had a case of worms you would not believe.  When I finally got her to the doctor, got her vaccinated and wormed and checked over and then had them bill my father, she started growing at twice her previous rate.

I was a monster. Or an asshole. Or a monster’s asshole. I lost interest in her, and she would break out of the house and walk across town to friends’ houses, let herself in through the cat door or hang around on their porches until they let her in and called me.

And then I turned 22, and decided to move west, and when my friend Pete — who I’d planned to drive with, him and our dogs and various others in a bullet-pocked van bought at a police auction — kept procrastinating on leaving, I decided to hitchhike, while he agreed to drive out with both our dogs later that summer. He decided he couldn’t bring either dog with him: he gave his dog to a farmer outside town, and dropped Kudzu off with Joe and Fran.

Joe and Fran took good care of her, tried to socialize her in behavioral arenas I had neglected — which was most of them — and, when it became obvious I wasn’t coming back for her, they found her a home with a family in a big house, where she was renamed “Goldie.” I have no idea what happened to her after that. I don’t deserve to know. She would have been far better off without my life and hers intersecting in any way.

When Becky started talking that day at the Berkeley Humane Society about adopting the sweet, wolfy-looking dog in the first kennel, I was terrified. My one experience with taking responsibility for a dog had been a complete disaster: I had done Kudzu permanent harm. Kudzu would have been ten years old that year, if she lived that long. The memory was fresh, and my knowledge of just how poorly I had behaved still unfolding. Of course, I fell in love with Zeke within two minutes of taking him for that first trial walk, and his residence with us was certain. But Kudzu haunted me. Becky’s a far more responsible person than I, more than capable of training and caring for a perfectly healthy dog with no help from the likes of me. Still. I had only in the previous few years grown aware that I was, in fact, just one of billions of things in this world that had actual feelings, and that I had done a significant amount of damage to the feelings of quite a number of those beings, Kudzu likely most of all.

Within the first week at our place in Oakland, Zeke had chased a cat behind the garage and hurt his left rear leg. It was a small wound, bleeding only a little, and it was only an hour later when Becky pointed out he was still limping that it occurred to me to take him to the vet. We returned from the vet without him. He had severed a tendon on some sharp metal our neighbor had hidden behind the garage, piled ivy stems atop, and then forgotten about. With us less than a month and I’d already let him become seriously injured! I found some wire fencing and nailed it up to block off the space behind the garage, and then went inside to fret with Becky over whether Zeke would be all right.

I have spent fifteen years and change fretting over whether Zeke will be all right. Old habits are hard to break. I am still fretting over whether Zeke will be all right, despite the fact that I should have amply proven to myself by now that I’m competent to keep a dog alive and mostly healthy, despite the fact that all reason to fret will end in a few days. I fret despite my hard head that he will be lonely out there in the yard, that he will miss sleeping in the house, that he’ll be scared or sad. It is a comfort not to believe in heaven: he would miss us so much. I fret far more than he needs, and I will still do so when he’s gone, attention Zeke had in abundance that I owed Kudzu, a debt I have tried to repay to Zeke on her behalf. He gained from it, but the debt has not lessened a speck.

Email sent this morning

Dear Dr. Smith;

Thanks for responding to my wife Becky in November. The information you provided was very helpful, and I hope you understand our not getting back to you to thank you: we’ve been in denial since then as Zeke has given us a few more months of companionship, enjoying himself for the most part.

And now it looks like it’s time. Despite a still-robust appetite he’s losing weight. Our regular vets at Four Corners in Concord have done everything they can, and Dr. Kubicka there told me yesterday that he thinks it’s time. Zeke is a shepherd-mix mutt who’s made it to age 16, and heroically lived through three years of arthritis in the hips, and though he is in surprisingly good overall health in most ways he is just fading, losing muscle mass and getting weaker. Dr. Kubicka mentioned the possibility that he may fall and break a bone, and obviously we want to avoid that if at all possible.

He suggests this week, but I have to think about my wife’s well-being as well. Zeke is not in serious discomfort, and I am at home 24/7 taking care of him, and I’d like to see if we can get him through to the weekend of February 16: Becky has a four-day weekend, and I think the time together will help us deal with the loss to the extent that we can.

So what I would like to ask is whether you have time available for us here in Pinole on Friday, February 16 to put our dog down. I will be monitoring him closely in the interim, and it may be that we will decide to push things up depending on whether he begins to deteriorate more quickly. I understand that an urgent call involves some inconvenience to you and thus further cost, and we will try to give as much advance notice as possible if we need to change his date.

We have read the material you provided. We will be interring Zeke in our garden. He weighed 38 pounds yesterday: I hope he won’t have lost too much by the 16th, but it is likely.

I don’t know whether you make a habit of getting to know about the animals you work with — I can see good reasons why you would and equally good reasons why you would not — but if you care to, I have written extensively about Zeke on my website at

I can be reached at home at [phone number] if you have any questions or concerns.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Zeke has settled in. The sun is streaming through the window onto his bed. I need but lay him down in a comfortable spot and he goes to sleep within seconds.

I go into the garage, hoping the fire door will muffle any sounds.

Weeping has always bothered Zeke, upset his digestion, made him lick his lips in anxiety. Deep full-throated sobs make him tremble. Back in September when we first started our glissade down this slope, Becky pulled me out of a day-long fit by asking me to keep up a brave front for Zeke. It worked. It worked well. Even from the car he could summon up my ancestral Brit reserve from the id’s vasty deep, keep me stock-straight and silent as the veterinary assistants prepared his prescription. Nothing more than a silent tear leaked out as I handed over the credit card. They would all have forgiven me, and I am far from shy about such things, but Zeke’s comfort is more important than mine this week. And there was the drive home to consider.

“There comes a point where we have to start to advocate for the pet,” he said. “It can be hard to see what needs to be done when you’re so close.”

“I have all day,” I thought, standing at that counter for a million years. “I have the day alone and then the conversation with Becky. This can wait.”

The shed is out back, unfinished. It was three years ago we started working on it, putting in new windows and door, taking out an inner wall. I would wire it, I said, and put in walls and shelves, and quit my job and write, and Zeke could spend all day sleeping at my feet, wandering out into the garden to stretch. He has a peaceable kingdom in the garden. He stands there and the sparrows forage between his feet, and then he’d let me know the rain had started by rubbing sodden fur against my knees. And 2004 passed, and 2005, and the spider webs grew thick over the new windows. I’ve started work anew, but my schedule is eaten up with watching him. I will not finish in time.

A team of carpenters would not finish in time.

“You can be there to pick him up,” he said, “but one fall or another will break a bone.” I stifled a defensive protest. “He’s obviously been soiling himself for a while, and the weight loss? Three pounds in the last month. Yes, he ate a whole chicken yesterday, but he is starving. This is catabolic wasting.”

The phrase is quality of life, a damned vague standard. He takes a bit of pork loin from my fingers and his eyes flare. He makes the top of the hill and looks at me, a triumphant lupine grin spread across his face. He will keep on until he breaks, for me. He leans his shoulder against my shin as we stand together, rests his cheek on my shoulder as I carry him up the stairs. He will pace all night unless I sleep next to him in the living room. I did nothing to deserve such love, but I have it and must live up to it, up to that final act that reeks so badly of betrayal. My mind knows differently. My heart thinks my mind is a euthanizing Nazi.

“I think this week is the week you should consider,” he said.

Four lanes of high-speed traffic weave through the hills south of Martinez, past Muir’s old house and into Franklin Canyon. I drove five miles below the limit, then twenty above, then caught myself and slowed again. The new year takes hold in those hills this week, growth licking across the slopes a bright green flame. The mustard is blooming already in places, where the hills face south and the land is cupped to hold a bit of water. He used to run through fields of mustard taller than him, burst out back onto the trail eyes ablaze. Our first hike on Ring Mountain 15 years ago, some men drumming in an oak grove spooked him and he ran crazily away from me back down the hill. We did not know each other then and I imagined him lost, the first time of hundreds in a decade and a half, and yet he heard me call from a quarter mile away and ran back to me. He always came when I asked him to, and behind a street sweeper doing 50 in the right lane I could hold out no longer. He was asleep in the back seat of Becky’s car and my mouth gaped open in a silent wail, tears blurring the truck in front of me and I slowed to 45. How many years have I fretted about this, wasted valuable time that could have been spent walking with him? Always he was there, waiting for me to come back to the present. And I will never hike those hills with him again, never see that green flame with him again, the Earth and I will betray him by continuing to live without him, and I rolled down off the freeway and turned toward our house.

He struggled up from the back, stuck his head between the front seats grinning, touched his forehead to my arm.


I got halfway up the mountain today — Becky gave me the cherished gift of a day to myself while she watched the dog — and halfway up the mountain I realized I didn’t want to go any farther.

I wasn’t tired, or at least I wasn’t any more tired than I’ve been the last twenty times I’ve hiked past Deer Flat. It wasn’t hot, and it wasn’t too cold. Rain was looming and I wasn’t precisely dressed for it, though I would have been fine in all but a torrent.

I just didn’t want to go to the summit.

It’s tricky, this balancing of determination and perspective. The Mount Diablo landscape is rugged, but it’s my interior landscape that gives me the most trouble on hikes. Steep switchbacks come and go to the accompaniment of schoolyard chiding from people I have not seen in forty years. One ought not pay too close heed to those memories but being stubborn is often a fine thing, and promising myself I can rest and start descending at the very next tree has gotten me to the summit a dozen times.

And the summit becomes the goal, and a stupid goal it is. You can drive there. The actual summit is inside a building where you can buy stuffed animals. The last half mile of Juniper Trail before the summit is an uninteresting slog through parking lots. I arrive, find myself a spot out of the wind, and watch the tourists sidle away from me. They are coiffed and perfumed and they wear high heels, and that’s just the men, and they wander away from the one actual hiker, the one who’s earned the summit with the same sweat that curls their sneers, and they identify the cities 4,000 feet below, incorrectly.

That much smug erodes the soul, if you cultivate it.

It has never been about the summit, to be honest. The summit is the to-do list, the job description. The summit is purgatory, and I both Sisyphus and stone. The gracenotes are the true reason I climb, the white stripes of dry falls down the west face of that knife-edge, the manzanita bloom or brake new freshened by sparse rain, the spider silk across the creek that flows all the way off the mountain for the first time in months. I rub up against the mountain, a snake with a stubborn old skin, the summit a mere convenient protrusion to speed the sloughing off of keratin.

And so I sat, and thought of other things to do.

There is a trail that heads back by way of a knife-edge ridge, a sublime hike. I have not been there since 2004, but a group of 18 boisterous hikers passed me as I sat and asked directions to that very trail, and I crossed it off my list. Another trail uphill and to the west leads back to the truck past a set of springs, and I have taken that path precisely never. But I had no map and a late start, and the clouds got darker as I deliberated, so next time. Donner Canyon? Possibly. It’s steep, though: hard on the knees in descent.

I ate a thick slice of rye bread I’d baked, finished it, closed my pack, thought a moment, opened the pack and got another slice of bread, and ate it.

The gracenotes are the true reason, the unreal green of new miner’s lettuce and the thrum of an unseen hive overhead somewhere, an acorn woodpecker in one or another of those snags. On reaching the summit one starts back down. I returned the way I came, and the rain caught me as I slid my key into the driver’s side door.