The Last Emperor Sands and Stains His Deck

My beloved, newly stained deck. We pulled an old beat sofa out of my man cave and parked it here. It’s a great place to sip tea and gaze at the sunset.


The reason I wrote so much about my dog was I was afraid I’d write about myself.

I’d rather not embarrass myself. I don’t want to pinpoint my problems on the page, only to squirm on the hook of other people’s knowing about me. All I’m left with is the feeling I’d rather have kept it to myself. Rather than being cauterizing or providing closure, these psychic unveilings made me feel worse.

I was also leery of writing about others. Other humans I mean. That threatened to be just another way of writing about me. “But enough about me. How about you? What do you think about me?” It’s like that old joke. Self-consciousness is a hell offering spurious delights. (For more on this, read Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky.) Alone too long, I developed a habit of anticipating slights and reckonings in the minds of others, of erecting preemptive barriers against intimacy. What I wrote about others shone a light on a monstrous, lonely egotism.

There was something safe and consoling in writing about the dog. It grounded me. That’s what I’m into, grounding myself, resigning myself to life as a plain, ordinary guy with all the normal emotions, fears, and desires.

I do chores around the house to escape the head noise.

My garage needed to be de-cluttered so I could find the attachments to the compressor a friend gave me, without which I can’t fill up the tires on my wife’s bicycle or the wheelbarrow I got at a flea market. It took all day. Had to pull everything out of the garage and look at it before putting it back, in a new place, a better place. Of course, the first time I get a tool out of my pristine new tool shack to go fix something — it’ll be a mess again. I’ll try to stay on top of it. I’m an avid cleaner. Kitchens have always been my métier. My office is next; there’s probably a den of baby rabbits in here somewhere under a pile of papers.

Feeling useful is a dread, dull term, but it occurs to me more and more. You must feel useful. Otherwise, you’ve been taking up space on an already cluttered and tormented planet.

I felt useful when I sanded down my big deck and applied penetrating oil to the bare wood, an ordeal that required the intervention, indeed the supervision, of a friend, a talented handyman whom Barb and I paid well. The first day was torture for me but I got the hang of it. Those days of eight-to-five labor, wearing kneepads to strip that wood, then brush each riser and floorboard with stain, expanded my self-esteem. The deck gleams more day by day as those bare, hot planks and rails drink up that oil.

“To do a job well you have to be patient,” said my guide.

Most of my adult life I lived in Shaker Heights apartments. I didn’t learn much about home maintenance.

Better late than never.

Do you remember Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film The Last Emperor? The last appointed divine emperor of imperial China, Pu Yi, tumbles out of his pampered aerie into a new nation ordered by the Communist Revolution. This guy was breastfed well past infancy. Eunuchs smelled his poop to determine alterations to his diet.

Austerity came hard.

He must learn to live all over again. Our hearts reach out to him as his old world is smashed. Manipulated by Japanese politicians, he becomes a dupe for machinations that overreach him, including the atrocity known as the Rape of Nanking, a horror that is ascribed to him and, in his mounting guilt and self-hatred, he does nothing to quell. It takes a sympathetic mentor, The Governor, to defend Pu Yi from false allegations during Pu Yi’s internment and investigation into his past.

Pu Yi does change. After losing his identity as a demigod, he finds himself anew.

There’s an interesting exchange between him and this mentor tasked with indoctrinating Pu Yi into a chastened, reformed life.

Pu Yi says something cynical, scoffing, about being made “useful” to the new order.

“Is that so bad, feeling useful?” says The Governor, who, in an ironic ending twist, will come under the gun of the Party himself, and Pu Yi, who loves him, will try to defend him.

One of our final images is of Pu Yi in his plain wool worker suit, pruning a plant. We sense he is happy as a gardener, happy riding his bike home at the end of a day with all the other workers.

I work at Walmart, a jaw-dropping bastardization of all the ideology I “should have” marshaled into action, having been raised by leftist union lovers, even taken over my father’s moonlight gig as PR guy for a local that picketed the retail juggernaut. In the knockdown, drag-out battle that was life, I lost all my old, supposed signposts. Having run my course as a bedraggled high school English teacher, I had to earn.

And I’m here to tell you: as I’m stocking shelves and helping customers find the vinegar or the peanut butter or the ant traps or the Family Size Frosted Flakes, I feel useful.

As I clean the garage, I feel useful.

There are no larger meanings.

Hey, I’ve got two big monkey wrenches. Anybody need a monkey wrench?

Dog Nearly Totaled by Stupid, Exercise-Obsessed Human


We just got back from a nice two-mile leash walk in the Riparian Preserve off Highway 89. She still looks pretty good, don’t you think?


I didn’t learn my lesson. I kept taking Rosa on big off-the-leash hikes in the woods. And she kept getting separated from me. I’m lucky I still have this dog.

Aside from the clear signs of fatigue, she has a strange tremor in her rear flank, in or under her buttock. I wondered if that defect made it hard for her to go distances, despite her earlier athleticism. How she got this tremor I don’t know. Did it happen when she bolted down the rain-slick deck steps and sprained something? Or was it a congenital problem related to a flaw in the breeding?

I wonder about those folks we got her from. She’d been one of the last remaining pups. There was something forlorn about her as she wandered the floor of their Dewey house. That forlorn quality made me choose her.

I am exercise obsessed, and the long hikes went apace. As did the scares.

One time I set off from the main trail head off the White Spar parking lot, swung left onto trail 305. Destination: Goldwater Lake. Four miles later I got to the lake, but where was Rosa? I figured she was prowling around looking to steal people’s hot dogs.

Humping my pack, I walked up and down the area, asking people at picnic benches, or casting lines into the water, if they’d seen my brown and black dog.

Many had.

“Up over there, I think.”

I’d double back to where I thought they were pointing. Still no dog.

I walked here, I walked there.

An hour had elapsed since I’d got to Goldwater Lake. Finally, legs folding under me, I shrugged and started home. Figured the phone would ring, as it had rung before: someone having read her tag. “We have your dog …” But, as I commenced the guilt-ridden trudge back, I found I couldn’t go on. I would never live with myself if weary legs cost me this dog.

I turned around and headed back.

This time I hiked all the way up to the parking area. Way, way up there.

There’s a little stand where a park employee takes money from day users out the windows of their rides as they roll in.

I heard her before I saw her. Baying piteously, she was roped up to the intake hut, having been secured by the admissions guy. I fell on her, rubbed her bony ribs, hugged her. I saw how skinny she was. She hadn’t forgiven me. She pranced and whined and tossed her head and kept barking, mad at me.

I had her back on my leash. The four-and-a-half miles back to my SUV flew by.

Two bone-tired animals got home. I almost didn’t get out of the bathtub. I had to have walked twelve miles, if not more, that day.

I still didn’t get it.

Once we set off from a trail head down Senator Highway a mile from the entrance to Goldwater Lake. I’d intended to get us clear to Walker Road, then turn back. An eight miler.

Same deal: I completed the round trip, and no dog. I headed back up the trail, still no dog. I went back to my car and drove home. Figured I’d go back later, she might be prowling around the parking lot.

The phone rang. A gal had found her at the White Spar campground’s trail head, a place many miles from where we’d set off. I went and got her, endured a lecture about proper, humane dog management. “She’s starving and thirsty,” said a woman who, as it turned out, was in the business of rescuing dogs, and was married to a vet.

“She eats like a horse,” I said.

It wasn’t the only time I’d been told I was starving my dog, denying her water. People were beginning to suspect me of animal abuse.

Something was wrong. The pup that had charged up Granite Mountain, run back down, and been ready to jump into the car for the ride home was no more. The long hikes tired her. This was getting dangerous.

One day she lay down beside her food dish, unable to eat.

“Bob, there’s something wrong with Rosa,” Barb said.

I went and looked. She was sick. Lying on her side, food untouched.

“This is not the same dog,” observed the vet.

Poor Rosa tested positive for two fatigue-producing illnesses: valley fever and Lyme disease. I was in a frenzy of fear and worry, dreading the loss of this wonderful dog. I called the vet nearly in tears when she’d returned Rosa to us, with our assigned program for her. That vet held my hand over the phone. “One never knows, but I have a feeling your dog will be running and romping just like the pup you love. But you must restrict the hikes. The big danger is tiring her any more. She lacks the defenses at present.”

Scared straight, I followed vet’s orders.

With some expensive pills, and rest, Rosa fought her way out of the doldrums. Airedales are fighters.

I cannot describe my relief. The vet said older dogs often cannot work their way out of the kind of double-bind deficit our dog was in. Dogs can die from this.

Causation can be elusive. She may have got hold of something out there, like a diseased bone, or slurped mosquito-infested stagnant water. Lots of things could have happened.

But that’s not to deflect blame.

The big, long hikes are over. I’ll take her to White Spar, let her off the leash, stroll a mile up, collect her easily, and leash her up for the slow walk back. I don’t lose her anymore. And during the brief, managed off-leash portion, she’ll have had plenty of time to run up and down the trail and chase up hills after perceived varmints.

We still play “stick”: She bounds up to me on the trail, ears back, alert at seeing me holding a perfect flinging stick I picked up. I throw it way up ahead of her. She bounds after it and grabs it in her teeth.

“That’s my girl!”

Runs twenty or thirty yards further ahead before dropping the slobbered thing.

Bemused, I walk on, glad to have her back. Glad I still have her.

Two successive vets by this time swore me and Barb to put some weight on her, so we did. I still don’t want her to get fat, though.

I am a lonely old man who needs his dog. It’s gotten damn hot out, and she loves just lounging around in the air conditioning. Best time to walk her is just after dawn.

She’s a nice companion to retire with. When we come in from a hike, even a short, sensible hike, and she is pooped and wants to plop down somewhere and snooze, I let her.

You don’t want to interrupt her while she sleeps, but sometimes when she’s got her eyes open, I’ll come by and stroke her fur. She groans contentedly, licking me.

Like I deserve it.


How Not to Train Your Canine Athlete

My beloved layabout, as capable of lassitude as she is of Olympian exertion

Since Rosa was four months old I began to mold her into a prize athlete. I let her off leash to run in the Prescott National Forest. She shot up ahead of me, gleeful in her freedom. Mostly she stayed on the trail.

I found she had no intention of losing me. To her, as to me, the whole venture was an “us” thing. She always checked in, reconnoitering with her human as he trudged along. As the hikes got longer and more formalized, I’d be humping a backpack full of stuff.

I grew to love watching her go charging up, up some long, long incline or ravine toward whatever scurrying squirrel or maddening bird had drawn her ire, and bark with a will, lest the varmint think it could invade her domain with impunity.

I began to see this was no ordinary dog. Her strength and stamina amazed me.

As she got older, I grew to specialize in walks of five, six, seven or eight miles with my faithful Airedale.

One of my favorites was Smith Ravine. We’d set off from the Walker Road mile-five trail head. Shouldering my backpack of dry T-shirts or jerseys and drinking and eating provisions, I’d labor over crests and ridges and hills, down the cool, shadowed ravine itself, then back up into the forest primeval, leading to what I call “the glade,” an open area at the two-and-a-half-mile point where you could strip off your sweaty T-shirt, sit on a downed log, and drink water. At the resting point, to which Rosa unfailingly reported, I’d give her water in the collapsible bowl, as well as treats such as dog biscuits or pieces of bacon from that morning’s breakfast.

After catching her breath she’d slurp up her water, snap up her snack, then position herself further up the trail, issuing a challenge: press on, making it a three-miler (six miles round trip), or be a terminal sissy. More often than not, I rose to the challenge, though the add-on entailed more difficult climbing on an already challenging hike, to hit the fire road near Spruce Mountain. By the time we got back to the car, I was proud of both of us. Smith Ravine’s a tough hike.

So when the beat dog lay about the house all next day, I let her. She’d earned it.

But things changed as she aged. Rosa started to get separated from me. I began to lose control.

One time I parked along White Spar but left my SUV along the actual road itself, not in the big lot (adjacent to the campground, the lot from where dirt bikers set off), and leash-walked her across White Spar Road to the entrance of trail 9451. As was my wont, I let her free a couple hundred yards away from vehicular traffic. Off she shot.

It’s a classic hike, full of new chapters, new looks. Three and a half miles through raw breathtaking terrain, from close, dark forests to “fallen-chopstick” areas as I think of them, places where the forest service guys thin timber for fire prevention, leaving downed, even charred logs strewing the hills. Finally you get to the intersection of trail 9451A.

But where was Rosa?

I sat on a stump and drank water, had a snack, caught my breath, and worried.

Finally, I headed back alone.

In about a mile, I saw her running toward me up the trail. She seemed hysterical with something akin to fatigue. But it couldn’t be fatigue! I had never seen her tired before on the trail! At home, recuperating, but not during the Test itself! This was a dog who’d charged up Granite Mountain five or six times, and stood at the top on those long legs and big paws, grinning down at me as I huffed and puffed my way up, as if jeering, “What took you so long?”

Her disappearances happened more and more as she got to be two, three years of age. In my blind determination to toughen the both of us, I didn’t see it. One time she went off on her own in the wilds of Aspen Creek Trail. Not that trail itself (trail 48), but the two-trail hike setting off from the parking lot, trails 327 and 393, I forgot which one’s first. I took this hike to another glade, where trail signposts are fixed in the ground pointing this way and that. It was unusual for her to not run up as I sat down for my mid-hike break, but I got there and she did not.

I called her, which never works.

Finally, I changed out of my sweat-soaked shirt into a dry one, got the pack back on, and headed back.

I saw her along the way, and should have snapped the leash on then, but figured I’d see her again nearer the car and then collect her, allowing her more time to cavort.

Big mistake.

I returned to the Forester; she did not.

Minutes become a quarter hour. I filled with melancholic and decidedly bathetic emotions sitting behind the wheel. Had I seen the last of this boon companion? Tchaikovsky violins sawed away in my head, a soundtrack to my deep sadness. Pathetique for the lost canine. An ominous, light wind over the trees mocked my inaction.

There was nothing for it but to go back in. Dead tired, I hit the trail again, on rubber legs. It had been easily a mile or a mile and a half when I saw Rosa running up the trail toward me. She looked relieved to see me, but somehow mad, mad in its true sense. She was crazed with disorientation.

I fell on her, too relieved to be angry, snapped the leash on, and led her back to my Forester. I could not imagine riding home without my smelly, furry friend groaning and stretching in the back seat.

Barb would kill me if I lost her.

I wasn’t going to say anything, but something made me that evening confess to my wife the mishap.

Rather than scold me – she found my woodsy liberalism with the dog ill advised — Barb said, “No wonder you were so tired.” I’d stumbled through the door like a zombie.

I began to consider that the dog might be fatigued, but continued to dismiss the conjecture. She was growing into her maturity. If anything, she should be capable of bigger, longer hikes than ever! At the time, to some degree I ascribed her disappearances to willful desire on her part to do her own thing. It would not be beyond her to disrespect my authority, as was amply demonstrated in the house, where no vocal command engendered any reaction on her part but blithe disregard. Airedales are a willful, haughty breed, hard to train.

But then I began to see she was tired. Maybe it was the way she would choose to rest, belly down on the dirt, and pant, that began to tell me something was amiss. I lost her coming back from Granite Mountain and some poor guy found her lying down in the dirt, panting. He had a rope or leash and secured her somehow, led her back to the trail head where I’d been in a frenzy of worry and guilt. Sometimes when I had her on the leash, I would have a hard time getting her back to the car. I’d have to stop and let her try to catch her breath, let her dig a little depression in or along the trail, scratching away scree and dirt and pine needles, particularly in summer heat, to make a cooling bed. Then, as I stood by holding the leash, she pressed herself down into the cool earth to collect herself, before I could coax her back up to go with me to the parked car.

On long hikes now, her eyes began to plead.

Something had changed.

What was up? During a vet visit I brought up the problems I was having on the long hikes. If the dog seemed so keen to begin with, why was she manifesting these behaviors now?

“They’ll do anything for us,” the vet said, trying to give me a hint as to how I’d ever got her to do such marathons to begin with.

Yes. They’ll do anything for us.

Even run till their hearts burst.


Attack on Safeway

Me and Rosa in Sedona. Got her well in hand for a change.

I was always into dogs. The family drama Lassie was on when I was a kid and I remember how emotionally involved I was when Lassie got lost. Culminating a three-part special, the collie bounded over the rise back to the home where the boy, Timmy, trying to close out his grief, is burying her toys in the yard. I didn’t want anyone to see I was crying. From sheer smell, instinct, and love, she found her way back, hundreds of miles. I guess this sort of thing can happen.

There’s something about dogs that’s visceral for me.

Dogs are better than people. There, I said it. Don’t be offended. I’m including myself. The fact that my dog, stuck in the house with my fresh corpse, would in about four days’ time begin eating my feet in no way alters this evaluation.

Perhaps it is this “weakness” for the species that has made me a bad trainer. The first thing you learn about training a dog is not to give it too much freedom. I learned this through assiduous non-application. I have blogged about my life as a high school teacher. Well, it’s safe to say that my weaknesses as a classroom manager parallel my weaknesses as a dog trainer.

Because of this, my wife and I must keep the lively Airedale behind gates all the time – certainly when we are eating, as she will, with nary a qualm, try to steal the food off our plates. I’m not sure all dogs are as food crazed as Rosa.

Riding with her is tricky. We used to keep her in the hatchback, using a dog fence I rigged to separate her from the rest of the ride. But she hated it, and the improvised gate warped the sun roof (you still can’t open it all the way), so we decided the back seat was segregation enough. My old Saturn was even worse; I’d let her anywhere she wanted, and the orally fixated pup used my gear shift knob as a teething device. I had to wrap the thing in duct tape to achieve any semblance of something to grab to change gears, and the guys at the place where I traded it in for my SUV laughed their heads off at the violated gearshift knob.

One time I was at Safeway at some ungodly early hour, like seven a.m. I had two cups of coffee in me. I need three to properly exist as a human being, so I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I had Rosa in the back seat, not the hatchback but behind the front seats. I came back from the store with stuff I opened the hatchback to put in. I don’t remember whether I bought the case or cases of water then, these twenty-four or thirty-six or however many plastic bottles of water, or I put them in now. All I remember is my dog leaped over the back seat’s backrest, past me, and out the hatchback to The World, scattering water bottles about the parking lot.

The parking lot of the Montezuma/White Spar Safeway is built on a slope, so the bottles rolled everywhere. As Rosa flew toward the store, I had a split-second dilemma. Do I follow her? Or head in a million directions after the bottles, a fool chasing his hat in the wind? When, at her approach, Safeway’s doors drew compliantly open, sensing the presence of a mammal bearing a change purse, the decision was clear — I sprinted for the store.

By the time I got inside she had upended a plastic clam shell of bakery cookies. Most of the dozen cookies had spilled loose on the tile floor, well to the left of the cash registers and the giggling, generally amazed kids working there as I shot into the place. Such was the dog’s concentration on snapping up her spoils, I had no trouble grabbing her by the ruff. She had devoured half the box. To this day I don’t know whether they were peanut butter or white chocolate macadamia nut. I looped my fingers in her collar and dragged her out the door, calling apologies to the kids, one of whom said through tears of laughter, “No worries! This was the best time we ever had here.”

Outside, a young employee, no doubt the cart wrangler, was trying to round up my rolling bottles. I threw the dog into the Forester and ran around helping the boy round up as many bottles as we could. We may have missed just one or two when we put the water bottles back into the hatchback. Satisfied with the cookies, I guess, Rosa didn’t try to pull a fast one this time. I thanked the kid profusely and, red faced, got the hell out of there.

As of this writing I have not had bacon in weeks, this after a post about trying to be Jewish. But Friday bacon was a tradition with us. I’d give her some with her morning kibble, an esteemed breakfast to this dog’s palate. When Rosa was a skinny forty-pound pup I was frying bacon once, or trying to fry it. I had four or so slices in the pan and three-quarters of a pound of raw bacon sitting on the counter when she leaped up from her almost somnolent lay-down position on the nearby floor (by which she tried to fool me into thinking she posed no threat). Paws on the counter, she snatched the raw bacon. I grabbed with my fingers at the slimy plank that protruded from that alligator muzzle and began a tug of war. Alas, her alimentary and peristaltic imperatives were too much for me and, to my horror, twelve uncooked rashers of Farmer John’s Classic slipped inexorably down her gullet.

My wife and I noted later that the only noticeable clue to this gluttonous predation was a blissful aspect about the eyes as, with a soft groan, she settled onto the couch for a nap. “All that bacon grease,” Barb said.