Lifting Their Legs on the World

When I was a girl, my family took car trips around the country. I know there were many long, uninterrupted and rather boring stretches where my sister and I complained and asked, “Are we there yet?” Five minutes later, “Are we there yet?” I used the time to read, still a favorite pastime, or to stare out at the landscape.

Yet as time has ebbed, it isn’t the long drives I remember so much, it is the places along the way. I have several ethereal, out-of-context memories, such as an intersection in the middle of nowhere stopping us at a light in the middle of the night. I was in the backseat. It was dark. We were in the desert. That is all I know. Or the Native American roadside stand in New Mexico or some other southwest place, selling strange toys and dolls covered in actual fur. We stopped at a place to go to the bathroom, and I was given a plastic pony covered in grey felt. It was short and fat, a Thelwell style thing. I can’t remember if I was given the pony before or after my crying fit, the one that seems as if it lasted hours, because I hadn’t gotten something I wanted. I remember the stickiness of the car seat, my raw facial flesh from the salt and water and rubbing. It was cloudy, but it was also hot — our cars never had air conditioning. It seems unlikely my parents would have given it to me after crying in such a manner, but I also seem to have some vague notion of there being some unfairness too, and so I was given this trinket. This episode was obviously linked to some emotional overflowing, and therefore this is the reason it sticks in my brain. I know it was summer and I was 10 or 11.

Mostly though, I remember the places: the museum at the petrified forest, the fluorescent lights shining on off-white, speckled formica tile, the bits of hardened wood under glass on tables, and the signs explaining the geological phenomena. I remember a roadside dinosaur we could climb inside. I remember campsites in far flung places, usually the desert, because we traveled every summer to visit my grandpa and uncles and aunt in New Mexico. I remember Los Alamos and the mesa stable, walking out and looking over the cliffs at what seemed to be vast canyons. I remember the Grand Canyon, and the Great Hoover dam and its unbelievable, terrifying, breath stealing bridge. I could see the water, trapped on one side and then far, far below, the canyon on the other, empty of water. I would marvel that the water caught on the far side could be that deep. I remember the Glen Canyon damn, and riding wide boats among the sheer rock faces. We roamed wax museums, and visited the pretend old west in Carson City, Nevada. We stopped at roadside attractions showing the path of the pioneers along the Oregon trail, and visited ghost towns that had thrived in the heyday of the gold rush. I remember passing billboard after billboard, announcing the coming attractions, as well as signs you had to read as you passed by. Roadside poetry. So it went. Summer after summer, we took our yearly drive. Sometimes in the winter we also visited, and skated on iced-over ponds, or hiked through snowy forests.

Last summer, I took my daughters to Europe. We trekked through several cities. I found myself feeling sadness and a little frustration that in city after city, the same corporate shops dotted the landscapes. Museums were large, crowded, and expensive, certainly not the best option for my then 2 year old. I could not find a small chocolate shop in Antwerp. A shop owner in the Netherlands told me it was because the multinational corporations had driven up the cost of real estate and all the small shops had gone out of business.

When Milla was three, we trekked to our annual family reunion in South Dakota. It was the first time I had been to the small pioneer cemetery where one part of my family has been buried since settling on the plains in the mid-1800s. Many of those buried there were born in Scandinavia. I have a great, great, great aunt who was one of the only white people Sitting Bull befriended. She brought food to them because the American government was purposely starving them. She ignored the prohibition against it and fed them. There is a book about her. These hardy (and hard) people moved from a very cold, harsh place to another cold and harsh place. Some of them were run off their Scandinavian farms by political unrest in their countries. For this, I think some of them identified with the Natives on those plains and perhaps this is why they became allies.

The trip was a complete and utter disappointment on one level. I expected it to look like South Dakota. I expected a “South Dakota-ness” to the place. No. It was Target. It was Walmart. It was Burger King. It was the same ugly, conforming corporate crap we have where I live. Later I traveled to several other US cities. The same thing.

Something erased these individual places and made them homogenuous and boring. I know what it is: capitalism. Capitalism took away the South Dakota-ness, and the Oregon-ness, and the Arizona-ness and replaced them with bland, ugly sameness. There are no little shops selling trinkets made by locals. If there are, they are now in the upscale, “artsy” places and the people making things sell them for a small fortune to tourists whose tours are to shop. Tour brochures in motels feature the “best” malls and the “best” shopping. Going to places and finding things to do that are not shopping is difficult. Oh, you can pay a fortune to ride on some guided boat, or to rent some piece of equipment you likely own at home such as a bicycle or kayak, but it’s rare to go to places and find things about that place that you can’t find in every other place all over. Even Europe has lost its uniqueness in each city. Family trips are taken to destination resorts that are exactly the same as every other corporate resort. Even the lines are the same. All that might change is the weather. Too bad the corporations can’t control that.

Bill Bryson, in his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid describes rides in cars visiting places in the US. I’ve read many memoirs where the author remembers such things. I have also read stories where such summer trips played a key role in the plot. Driving around in the backseat as a child is a key cultural memory for those of us born between the 1930s and early 1980s.

Since taking vacations as an adult, I have spent many trips trying to find places like those I visited as a child, unusual places that I can take my children that define the place they are in. I’ve been frustrated by the search. I’ve raged against travel brochures that feature shopping as a tourist attraction. What, so I can buy the same shit made in China that is sold all over the world and then lug it home? I drove across the country in 2009. Every single roadside, every single town was monochromatic, exactly like the one before. Nothing had its own identity.

In another favorite book of mine by Bryson In a Sunburned Country, Bryson describes a town called Alice Springs, Australia, near the site of an Aboriginal holy place at the base of the MacDonnell Mountain Range. It is overrun with McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Kmart. He says that Americans have created “a philosophy of retailing that is totally without aesthetics…” He also says it is totally irresistible, but I do not agree. I absolutely hate it and I do resist it. I avoid these places like the plague.

I’m currently reading Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. In it, he describes perfectly how we are losing the identities of the world’s places. He describes his love of London, his visits there for thirty years, spanning from 1966 to 2006. Every year he went at least once, many even more. Yet in the last decade, London is losing itself because of the corporations “lifting their legs along London’s streets.” Oh, my good man, what an apt description. In it I had an Ah ha! moment that identified what has been missing from my vacations and visits to places that are not home. I thought it was something about me, that maybe I have lost my luster, and that this is why I haven’t been able to fully enjoy these places I’ve gone. I had an expectation of that feeling of newness, visiting something different from myself that I experienced as a child vacationing in the backseat of our family car.

Yet it wasn’t me at all. It was this erasing of individual identities from the places in the world. It was all the hideous conformity, with no regard whatsoever for the place that had been there. It’s the chasing of the almighty dollar.

We have to do something to change this. We have to stop the reign of capitalism. Something has to shift. People have to believe it is possible before we all become Stepford robots keeping up with the Joneses to buy ugly, plastic junk that destroys our planet. We need to go out of our way to find the few places that still exist where homogeneity isn’t the rule and take our children to these places.

Last summer I visited my friend in Ephrata, Washington. There isn’t much there; Walmart took care of that, although some small shops are trying to make a go of it. Yet they are shops, not tourist destinations. My friend took me for a drive out to the Columbia Basin plateau, a site of magnificent geology, where lava flows and massive floods created incredible landscapes. Up on the edge of one of the cliffs over a coulee there was a little museum telling the story of the geology, the ice age, and its effect on the land. My 13 year old actually read the information on the exhibits. It reminded me of the places we visited as a child. These places do exist. Find them. Take your children. Give them memories that are worthy of reminiscing. Don’t let us all turn into monochromatic robots, shopping our way around the world.

Autumn — Chapter 13

Read Autumn — Chapter 12

I have always ridden and trained horses. Horses and dogs seem to go together like peas and carrots, as Forrest’s mama would say. While attending the University of Oregon, I worked at an international hunter-jumper stable for a few years. Later, after we moved to Portland, when Milla was a baby and before I started law school, I worked at another big sporthorse barn in a suburb south of Portland.

While there, I befriended a woman named Lori who owned a small home-building company. The majority of her clients were wealthy, mostly conservative people, who dreamed of owning small farms and estates, the sort who usually hired someone else to perform all the work required on the farm.

Lori was a dear woman, somewhat doddering, but genuinely kind. She owned several Shelties and a lovely house on the lake in Lake Oswego, one of Oregon’s wealthiest towns. She owned a small thoroughbred at the barn where I was working and, when I left the barn, we remained friends. She hired me on occasion to help her organize her house or straighten up. Extremely generous, she usually paid me much more than the job warranted, as well as lunch.

We had been living in the farmhouse in West Linn for two years when Lori suggested we start looking for our own house to buy. Bjorn and I did not think we would be able to get into anything, but Lori thought we ought to try, and so we began looking for a house to buy.

It was Lori’s advice to buy a house as far from town as we could stand, built new or within the last five years. We did not take our lifestyle into account whatsoever when we took her advice. This advice may have served older, moneyed clientele, but it was not the best choice for young, liberal, professionals, as we were. I had always felt too far from Portland’s center, even when we were only a few miles away. Yet both of us were too giddy with the idea of home-ownership to allow something like reality interfere with our plans. We got pre-approval for a first-time home buyer program and started looking.

At first, the likelihood of our locating a house as suggested by Lori appeared dim. Part of the issue I think was that we were looking in the suburbs where Lori was used to building homes, which were all the places where the residents had higher than average incomes. After suffering one disappointment after another, we finally found a development thirty-two miles outside of downtown we could afford. We chose our lot, which in spite of our foolishness in the purchase on so many levels, was in a truly lovely location next to some older coniferous trees and a wetland. Years after we moved on these trees were chopped down to make way for more ugly houses, and for many other reasons it was for the best we moved on, but the trees were there while we were, and softened the blow of a truly bad decision.

I began having twitches of misgivings while the house was being built, but was still able to quell them by choosing light fixtures and countertops. I was in my final year of law school and fully in the throes of “bore you to death,” the final refrain in the saying about law school that first year scares you to death, second year works you to death, and third year bores you to death. I had figured it out, how to pull the law from opinions, how to hunt down statutes and legislative history, figured out what mattered and what did not. I was truly sick of it. But I still had work to do and after the house was built, it was exhausting to drive home from the campus that was nearly downtown out to the sticks where we now resided.

The length of the drive was an even tighter twist of the screw in that the road to our new home was two lanes and hilly. Although drivers were given free rein to drive 55 miles per hour, most of them chose speeds closer to 35. Because of the hills and curves, passing was a death sentence. This meant that our drives were an extra fifteen or twenty minutes longer than they needed to be.

What a mistake. We were living in a country suburb. As is often the case in these developments, it was named for what it had been: Big Meadow.  The meadow was gone and in its place were Stepford houses in limited shapes and sizes, with perfectly manicured lawns and neutral paint, as required by the unrelenting neighborhood regulations.  I quickly realized I was better suited to living close to downtown, near young, creative, liberal types.  I needed a house to fix up, and since ours was brand new, there wasn’t a lot to do to it. We gave the house our love, built a fence and a dog run, but we simply did not fit in. The neighbors brought us proselytizing literature on a weekly basis. Every visit to the store provided an invitation to our auto windshield to attend a local church play. We were one of only a handful of families who recycled. Basically, were major sore thumbs.

Our immediate next door neighbors were especially different from us. The main thing about them that I remember is that on periodic afternoons the woman of the house had her teenage sons out in the yard and driveway with square-nosed shovels to search for garter snakes to kill. She did not want them anywhere near her home. Since her house backed up to the edge of what had been the big meadow the neighborhood obliterated, garter snakes were frequently in evidence.  After her sons killed a sufficient number of garter snakes, she would spread poison all over her yard to kill insects. She would kill the harmless garter snakes that would have eaten the insects and chose instead to cover her yard in toxic chemicals. Insane.

Within months of the purchase, I was completely sorry and realized what a huge mistake the house purchase had been, but we were there and I knew there was no way I was going to convince Bjorn to move any time soon, so I made the best of it.

As was the case in every place I lived from the time Autumn was about five years old, she quickly figured out the neighborhood. She would roam around for a while then return home, barking her two short woofs to be let in. One nice thing about the development being unfinished was that there were not many houses in yet, and there was open land behind our house for her to run around in. I had to watch her diet closely because certain foods could cause her bladder to go haywire, but in spite of my dislike of the neighborhood, Autumn was very happy there.

The only dog in our family who wasn’t as happy as she could have been was Molly. Once we moved, Autumn and Poppy decided they were a gang of two and would gang up on Molly. Poppy especially was becoming rather aggressive towards her. Coupled with her extensive skin problems, her fixed unwillingness to figure out potty training, and her increasing nastiness towards Molly, I was actually beginning to think I should find her another home. This was an eventuality I had never previously considered, that I would send a dog away, but things were getting out of hand.

One afternoon during the dogs’ feeding, Poppy scarfed up her chicken and rice, then trotted over to Molly to see if she could steal some of her food. Keeping her head low over her bowl, Molly raised her lip, showing her teeth. This was as much as Molly ever did in aggression to anyone, human or dog, and it was always when she thought someone was going to take her food. She had learned that I was allowed to remove her dish, but no such rule applied to Poppy, not as far as Molly was concerned.

Poppy ignored Molly’s warning, and stuck her head in Molly’s food. Molly growled and Poppy lunged for her. The two dogs started brawling, rolling together across the floor. Poppy was attacking Molly, and Molly was trying to defend and get away.

I quickly grabbed Milla and yelled for Bjorn, who was in the garage. When Bjorn opened the garage door, Molly saw the potential escape and darted through, Poppy hanging from her neck. Autumn followed, barking and fired up by the violence. Bjorn ran after them, fearful of being bitten. The two dogs snarled and knashed, Autumn barked and barked, blood appeared in spatters on the garage floor. Molly tried to escape under the car, but this made the situation worse because she was too big to move underneath the vehicle, while Poppy, small and wiry, had full advantage.

Finally Bjorn grabbed the garden hose and sprayed under the car. Molly lay in a heap, whining and yipping in terror as Poppy bolted off. Bjorn chased her and tossed her into the kennel on the side of the house with Autumn. I set Milla down and crawled under the edge to try and coax Molly out. She was obviously hurt. I told Bjorn to go grab my purse and keys. He installed Milla into her carseat as Molly finally crawled towards me on her tummy. She stopped whimpering, but her paw was bleeding badly and she had a tear in the edge of the skin next to her eye.

“Poor baby,” I crooned. “Come here, Molly. Come to me, sweet one.” I petted her and held her. She stopped shaking and I put her into the car and drove her to the vet.

Poppy broke Molly’s foot that day. We did not seek immediately to find Poppy a new home; I thought it would be difficult given her skin condition. A year and a half later, after she had attacked Molly twice more, I decided enough was enough, and I was going to actively try to find her somewhere else to live.

We were living in the new house I purchased in Portland. There was a neighbor who walked her wire-haired Jack Russell down the sidewalk in front of my house nearly every day. Narrow and stoop-shouldered, with white hair and glasses that slid down her nose as she spoke, she would stop to talk and criticize while I worked in my yard, informing me that “People who owned other dogs should not own Jacks,” referring to Jack Russell terriers. She also said that “People with large dogs should not have small ones.” These pieces of wisdom were offered in response to my telling her about Poppy’s attacks on Molly. I thought her ideas were somewhat strange, but what could I say to her strange ideas? I just listened, nodded, and continued raking, or weeding, or whatever else I was up to.

I found this woman’s perspective on Jack Russells somewhat entertaining, especially considering my interaction with another Jack Russell named Jackie. When Bjorn and I had lived in West Linn, someone had offered to give us another Jack Russell.  We were well into many of Poppy’s behavior issues at this point, and crazy busy to boot, so we weren’t terribly thrilled at the prospect.  However, the person who told us about the dog said she was being housed in a tiny kennel in someone’s garage and tranquilized 24 hours a day.  We investigated and discovered the story was true.

The people who owned Jackie worked full-time and lived in a rather small house with a tiny back yard, but they had purchased a Great Dane and a Jack Russell terrier.  Obviously, foresight is not a requirement when one acquires a dog, otherwise how can one account for the canine choices in this family with so little room and no time?  The Great Dane was managing the situation, but Jackie needed more exercise and more room.  Instead of giving it to her, they kept her locked up and drugged.  After several months of this, they finally decided they should find her another home, whereupon we heard about her and decided we would bring her home with us with the sole purpose of finding her a more suitable home.

It did not take many calls for my friend Noelle to claim Jackie, before we even picked her up.  This was a fortuitous circumstance, and we genuinely hoped it would improve Jackie’s lot in life.  After visiting Jackie one evening, we made arrangements to bring her to our house later in the week and for Noelle to pick her up that day.

The afternoon we brought Jackie to our house was warm and sunny.  The people who gave her to us had ceased their drug administration. We lived at the farmhouse in West Linn at the time, and we were looking forward to letting her run drug free in the fenced field behind our house.  Nancy Reagan would have been so proud.

When we pulled up in the driveway, we opened the door to go inside, and Jackie darted out of the car and down the street.  Bewildered at the speedy escape, we backed out of the driveway and drove around for the next two hours, looking for her.  We finally gave up and called Jackie’s previous owners.  Jackie was still wearing her old tags.  If someone found her, they could call them, and they would call us.

Within two hours we received a call from the state police.  They had gotten our number from Jackie’s previous owners, and wanted to bring her to us.  Five minutes later, a patrol car pulled up at our house.  Jackie had been discovered sitting on a log, floating down the Willamette River, several miles upstream from our house.  We never heard the details of how she had been rescued, but this river is massive and swift, and we lived upstream from a rather large waterfall. Jackie was a lucky little dog.  Unfortunately, we were not terribly sad to see her go when Noelle came by our house to pick her up later that evening.  Our neighbor at the new house was right, perhaps some people should not own Jacks.

Not long after we moved into the new house, Poppy disappeared from our fenced dog run in the backyard. There was no evidence of escape, and Autumn was still there, a sure sign the fence was intact; if Poppy could have escaped, Autumn would have been gone as well. It seemed someone had taken Poppy right out of our yard. The dogs had free access to the house and dog run while we were at work, and if someone wanted to, they could have taken her.

The day after Poppy’s disappearance, but before I had posted any of the signs I printed on my computer that said MISSING DOG, I was in the front yard of my house when the white-haired woman walked by with her dog.

“I haven’t seen Poppy out here lately,” she stated, matter-of-factly. “Did you find her another home?”

“No,” I answered, “She is gone. Someone took her from our yard.”

“Oh, well that’s too bad, but you know, people with other dogs shouldn’t own Jacks.”

“Well,” I answered, “I hope whoever has her knows she has a skin condition and gets her the shots she requires and feeds her foods that don’t make her itch.” I said this while looking directly at her, knowing full well she was the one who had taken our dog, because no one else knew yet she was missing.

“Oh, I’m sure they will,” she said, walking off. “I have little doubt of it.”

We never saw Poppy again. The woman had done me a favor, but I was not happy about the sneaky and thieving way she had gone about it. Milla especially was upset to have her little dog gone without so much as a goodbye.

Molly healed from her broken foot and we began feeding the dogs in separate rooms. Molly and Autumn got to eat in the house, on opposite sides of the island in the kitchen, while Poppy ate in the garage. It was the least she could do having hurt Molly.

In spite of the fact Autumn was dining on a smorgasbord of ground turkey, rice, and some disgusting vitamin goo that looked and smelled exactly like blood, she continued to escape and eat trash at the neighbors’ houses whenever she got the chance.

One night, I arrived home late from a law school class that ended at 10. It was nearly 11 by the time I dragged my lumbering book bag into the house. Everyone was asleep. I made myself a bowl of cereal and was just sitting down to eat it and read a magazine before bed when I noticed Autumn lying near the glass back door. She did not look well.

It was not unusual for the dogs to skip greeting me when I arrived home late, so I had not noticed her when I came in. She was glassy-eyed and bloated. She belched every few minutes, and was passing horribly smelly gas, and she seemed to be in pain, holding her head down, with her legs spread at unnatural widths from her body. The worst part though, was that her stomach was extremely swollen. It looked as if she had ingested a soccer ball or something, her abdomen was so distended.

I went into our spare room and logged on to the computer, and entered the symptoms into google. All of the responses came back with “gastric dilatation,” and “twisted stomach,” and “gastric torsion.” One even said simply “bloat in dogs.”

I immediately called our vet’s office. The answering service told us to contact the emergency vet in Salem. I called the emergency vet who confirmed that the symptoms did indeed sound like gastric torsion, and that we should bring Autumn in immediately. Every site I had looked at said the diagnosis was a virtual death sentence.

Terrified, I awakened Bjorn and told him what was going on. He dressed and we loaded Milla and Autumn into the car for the forty minute drive into Salem. Because it was nearly midnight, the drive didn’t take quite that long, simply because we did not have to follow any extra slow drivers.

We slipped into the darkened parking lot of the emergency vet just over a half hour later. The building looked deserted, in spite of the fluorescent lights glowing through the opaque windows. A sign at the door told us to ring a bell. We waited in the cold, Bjorn carrying Autumn, and me carrying Milla over my shoulder. A tech responded to the buzzing and pushed open the door. It felt like we were being ushered into a science fiction spaceship. The lights above hummed continuously but the building was deafeningly quiet because the lobby was completely empty. I’m sure during the day the room was abuzz with activity, but not at that hour. The tech took Autumn from my arms and carried her into a small examining room, the three of us following closely on her heels.

“We will take her back and get an x-ray,” said the tech. “Then the vet will look them over and come out to let you know what we find.” Her voice was grim.

Less than five minutes later the vet came into the room to let us know her plan.

“We will take x-rays. From the way she is presenting, it certainly appears to be torsion, but we can’t be sure without the films.” Gastric torsion is a life-threatening condition whereby a dog’s stomach becomes twisted on its axis, causing the contents of the stomach to become trapped. The stomach then distends because it is twisted and the gas cannot escape. It is extremely painful and if left untreated, the dog will die quickly.

She went on to explain that if Autumn had torsion, her options were limited. We could try surgery, and if she had surgery, there was a strong likelihood this would happen again and again until it killed her. She said she was going to take x-rays first to determine what was going on, but she was fairly certain Autumn was suffering from torsion.

Bjorn and I said nothing. We waited and waited in the sterile, fluorescent waiting room. I was tiring of spending time in these cold, unwelcoming spaces. So much time waiting for tests on this dog I loved like a child. The chairs were never comfortable and on the few occasions televisions were left on, I was even more miserable. I hate television, with its unrelenting noise, flashing, and commercials. The two of us took turns holding Milla as she slept, warm and sweaty on our shoulders.

Forty-five minutes later, the veterinarian came out to talk to us, and asked us to come into the examination room. There was an x-ray on the illuminated x-ray sign.

The vet was calm as she said, “Autumn doesn’t have a twisted stomach. It appears that she got into something that has expanded, causing her extreme discomfort, but the stomach is not at all twisted, and is in exactly the right place. I suspect that as soon as whatever she ate passes through, she will be just fine. I administered a stool softener to help move things along, and gave her an injection of painkiller to aid with pain.”

I was so relieved, but it was after 2 in the morning and I was thoroughly exhausted, both from the emotional turmoil of the situation, as well as lack of sleep. I was grateful that once again my dog was okay, theoretically anyway. The visit cost nearly $300, but we wouldn’t be wondering where to bury my dog anytime soon. Every time we ended up in a veterinarian’s office for another Autumn medical catastrophe, I wondered where that place would be. Every time I asked, would this visit be the one that ended it all?

As Bjorn drove, I sat quietly in the passenger seat, hunkered down low, the chair reclined back touching Milla’s car seat, Autumn curled at my feet.

I was not the sort who prayed, but as we slid through the dark towards home, I sent out a silent prayer, hoping that this problem would be the last, that this visit would be the end to constant medical conditions, and issues, and investigations, and expense, that there would not be more waiting in yet another sterile room.

All the way home, I was grateful she was still with me, but I was fervent in my hope that this time would be the last. Perhaps I did not pray enough, or asked too late, because a positive answer to this prayer was simply not to be.

Read Autumn — Chapter 14