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In Praise of Mutts

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Welcoming Mr. and Mrs. Higgs



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In Praise of Mutts



The word itself has a sneer in it, especially when uttered by owners of purebred dogs. But mixed breeds, it seems to me, are more American. They represent the melting pot: a dash of St. Bernard affection commingling with the loyalty of a Labrador. A cocker spaniel's soft, floppy ears attached to the furtive, anxious face of a terrier. Sometimes, the mixes can be comical, but the dogs make up for it by laying on the affection in great, damp, sugary spoonfuls in the same way homeliness in humans is countered by a winning personality. Mutts try harder.

I picked up a mixed breed puppy a few weeks ago at the Oak Park Animal Care League on North Avenue, a pet adoption agency staffed by caring women who obviously love their work and shower tons of affection on their charges. When the papers were signed, and my kids had a chance to meet the dog (a crucial consideration, according to the Animal Care League people, to ensure a good "match") I was handed Reba Audrey, a combination beagle/terrier who started to lick my face instantly. Gratitude? Or the salami sandwich I had for lunch? No matter. I fell in love.

We all did. My wife Linda picked out a snazzy blue and peach sweater for Reba Audrey to wear to keep away the encroaching chill during those early morning walks in autumn. Chew toys are strewn around the house: a rubber pizza slice, rawhides, knotted yarn, flavored hooves (don't ask) and snacks. Linda and I found ourselves debating heatedly in a neighborhood pet center about whether we should get the chewy T-bone snacks or the chicken-flavored drumstick biscuits. We ended up getting both. I put some of the T-bones in my jacket pocket. Reba Audrey rooted them out like a detective, snuffling at the hiding place for the contraband. I rewarded her with one of the snacks, gloating when she gobbled it up.

            "I bet she won't do that with the drumsticks," I pointed out.

            "Don't start," Linda said. "How do they get the char-broiled marks on those things?" We examined them closely.

"A marvel of science," I said.

Not only that. I've taken to reading descriptions on cans of dog food. Words like "savory" and "choice cuts" that have a "meaty aroma" predominate. There are fewer enticements on cans of Chef Boy Ar Dee. But mutts seem to like it all. It's the American Way not to be particular about menus, to enjoy the variety, to partake with gusto.

            While walking Reba Audrey in a nearby park, two elderly women approached. Their hands reached behind the dog's ears instantly and instinctively, and Reba closed her eyes, completely blissed out. The connection we have with dogs runs deep. We're pack animals who appreciate the society and company of others.

The questions are always the same. How old? What kind of dog is she? And then the stories come, about past animals in their lives, and as they speak, they are carried back to some fine memory of laying near a Christmas tree, the fireplace burning red embers as a faithful dog stretches beside them, belly up, waiting to be petted. At that particular moment, however brief it may be, there is peace on earth.

            The old woman said, "It's hard to tell where the beagle ends and the terrier begins. She's unique."

Exactly. There is no other animal that looks just like her. The only thing singular and pure about her is the affection lavished on her. Whatever the mix, it's a winning combination.~

  ©Mark Andel 2001


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  Pet Sounds

by Mark Andel


“Move over cold dog, ‘cause the hot dog’s movin’ in.”

-        Hank Williams, Sr.


My beagle-bassett mix Hank (known in dog breeding circles as a “bagel”) clearly wanted a chunk of my chocolate donut. It was one of those Entemann specials, with the shell of dark chocolate covering light cake underneath, the kind of shell that breaks away like an ice cream bar when you sink your teeth into it.

“No way,” I told Hank, trying to ignore his soulful melancholy gaze and his urgent, insistent squeak. “This is bad for you,” I said, breaking off a piece of the chocolate shell and feeding it to myself, my head tilted dramatically upward. “This will shorten your life and make you miserably overweight and sluggish.”

I took another bite.

Hank shifted anxiously from one paw to the other. He was getting to me, and the donut was quickly dwindling. “It’s for your own good, boy,” I pleaded, suddenly feeling like a father refusing to offer up the keys to his car to a teenaged son. “The sugar buzz is short-lived anyway,” and with that, I popped the last of it into my mouth. Hank looked absolutely galled, then turned on his heels and padded away to his dog dish.

Suddenly, I was jolted into a realization. My dogs Hank and Reba eat better than I do, from a nutrition standpoint anyway. For a while now I have been feeding them High Hopes premium dog food, after perusing the label at the grocery store once and checking out things like “digestibility” and “balance.” Not to mention the fact that the company donates a goodly share of its earnings to animal shelters caring for homeless pets through their Pet Life Foundation. There’s not another dog food company doing that. And since Hank and Reba both came from shelters, it seemed like good karma all around to get on the same page as the High Hopes people.

But the food itself is high grade – much higher grade, nutritionally, than a lot of the junk that I don’t think twice about eating myself.

What makes us read the labels of dog food closer than we read the labels of things we eat ourselves? Perhaps it’s because as a pet owner, we always hear, as the great English poet Andrew Marvell put it, “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” We want our animals to be cared for the best we know how, because we know that odds are, we will outlive them. It makes sense to care about what we give them to eat. We don’t want to have to blame ourselves at their untimely demise. It’s curious that we don’t think twice about giving our kids candy bars and Kool Aid and grilled-cheese-and-bacon sandwiches, even as we stoke a few hot dogs at Wrigley Field ourselves (meat by-products) and yet our dogs and cats are treated as though they are Olympic athletes in training.

Another old habit of mine is borne of curiosity. It involves looking into other people’s shopping carts at the grocery store. I’ve found that the carts filled with green vegetables and fruits and whole grain bread are usually being steered by tanned, well-muscled women who look like marathon runners. Couples appear to have a more eclectic mix going on: some apples and yogurt but maybe a package of Reese peanut butter cups in there, too. Single guys appear to have cornered the market on all things frozen: pizzas, Hungry Man dinners, buffalo chicken wings, and so on.

Through all my aisle wanderings and observations, I have yet to see mini chocolate donuts for dogs.

When that happens, I’ll recognize it as one of the true signs of the Apocalypse.

 ©Mark Andel 2001


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Welcoming Mr. and Mrs Higgs


“Now I come to the garden alone.

All the reasons I once had for living are gone.”

-         Vern Gosdin, “The Garden”


                I doubted that the garden would ever feel the same.

                My dog Hank spent his last day out there, laying the full weight of his body on the strawberry plants and hostas, crushing them all  to a kind of brown wilt, which he himself was fast becoming. Hank could lay wherever he wanted, as far as I was concerned. He could do anything he wanted and eat anything, too, although in time he wouldn’t touch anything. I bought him an Italian beef sandwich at the end, and he just looked at it mournfully. That’s when I knew it was over for him. I would have spent my last dime to fly Chef Emeril himself in to cook a big meal if I thought Hank wouldn’t be too startled when Emeril started in with all that “Bam!” shouting when he applied the spices.

                When my wife came home that last sad day, she found me with my old acoustic guitar in the heat of the garden, singing Hank Williams songs to my dog as well as I could manage. She sat down beside me and we both cried like children, but with real grown-up grief. The one and only time I can recall my father crying was frightening beyond belief. To keep himself from doing it again, he developed a mantra that went like this: “Men don’t cry.” I never learned how to do it.

                But this past week, I was looking at some small strawberries that had been gnawed by squirrels when I heard a splash in my tiny pond. On closer look, I found a frog in there, around two inches long. He sat on some swamp plants that I had put in there, looking very pleased. I was overjoyed. I dubbed him Mr. Higgs because he looked like a Mr. Higgs and I love nothing so much as naming things. Before long, I found another frog, a little more slender and what looked to me like longer eyelashes, and, prenuptial agreement be damned, she became Mrs. Higgs at that instant, and no argument.

                They delighted me, these frogs. And part of my delight was not having any idea where they had come from. There is no creek winding its way through my neighborhood. The only source of water around is a much overused garden hose that my wife insists we operate every day, even when the sun is buried behind thick, gray cloud banks. The frogs had chosen to live here. It was astonishing, a source of wonder, a nutty, inexplicable discovery, like when it rains frogs in the movie “Magnolia.”

                As children, my brother Chris and I had fashioned frog gigs, bamboo poles with dinner forks lashed to the end, built for the sole purpose of spearing frogs that we found along the smoky banks of the Tamatchie Creek: frogs that might or might not be used later for bait, along with the meaty carapaces of crawfish.  Often, we would cast aside their carcasses and look for more. We shot tadpoles with a bow and arrow and held them aloft victoriously when we managed to stick an arrow into their broad, flat backs, our faces red and flushed and celebratory. We killed grasshoppers with BB guns and watched the barn cat gobble up our fresh kills.

How cruel and insensitive such behavior seems now. Is it a function of age, this about-face delight in all manner of creatures great and small? This tenderness toward the small and living? If I were to see a child kill a frog on purpose now, I would be enraged. Any mistreatment of animals it seems to me now should be met with long prison terms and gruel for supper. 

The very thought of encroaching winter posting its own hard, icy eviction notice on the surface of the small home that Mr. and Mrs. Higgs have decided to move into is almost too much for me to bear.

When it occurs, the garden won’t feel the same.

  ©Mark Andel 2001


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