May All Your Days Be Gold, My Child.

Yesterday I came home from my parents’ house in New York; I went to take the dog to the vet to be put to sleep.  It would be an understatement to say that I am a wreck, my mother is a wreck, my father is a wreck.  We are the Wreckorians.

Winston was an English setter, and fifteen, barely two months away from sixteen.  He was in bad shape.  He could neither see nor hear nor walk properly, let alone consistently make it outside to pee.  He had testicular cancer and probably prostate cancer, his body was covered with little growths, his hair was falling out, and his eyelids were droopy and rimmed in red and overflowing with something that looked like snot, or slugs.  He hadn’t eaten in days.  He couldn’t poop.  He lost a pound in less than a week, which is a dream for people and dangerous for dogs.

Logically, I know that putting him to sleep was the right thing to do, but my God, was it indescribably awful.  It’s impossible to prepare for.  Lately I seem to be encountering a slew of dead pet stories, most notably “My Dog Days Are Over” by Doree Shafrir and “We Were Kittens Once, and Young” by Anna Holmes, both from The New York Times.  Both are well-written, but neither braced me for what was coming.

No one tells you how quickly a body can go cold, for example, or that a euthanized dog both looks and doesn’t look alive, and that your brain will have a hard time coping with that.  No one tells you that when it is over you will stare at your dog’s abdomen like you have so many times for the past few years, waiting for the drop-and-fall of his breathing, because even though you know it won’t happen part of you is convinced that it will.  No one tells you that you won’t listen for his nails against the hardwood floor when you go back to the house.  No one tells you how quickly you will fall asleep that night, or how hungry you will be that day, or how guilty you will feel for both.  No one tells you your father won’t stop talking about it with you, or that the two of you will often start crying for no reason even though you’re both supposed to be tough, or that neither of you will be capable of driving.  No one tells you that a sunny day is best for something like this because that way you will feel justified for wearing your oversized sunglasses and using them to hide your face while your tiny mother directs an embarrassingly-large SUV towards the vet’s.

This is what Winston used to look like.  I took this picture when I was sixteen or seventeen, and Winston was either one or two.  He was almost exactly half my age.

Winston was a great dog, but at the same time, he was a terrible dog.  He couldn’t walk on a leash, he jumped all over anyone who walked in the house, he begged at mealtimes as though he had never been fed before.  He rested his head on your thigh while you ate, leaving a damp horseshoe of drool behind when he moved on to the next thigh under the table.  He nudged your arm with his nose during dinner if he wanted your food, he nudged your arm with his nose while you read a book if he wanted to be petted, he nudged your arm with his nose while you did your algebra homework if he wanted to play.  He darted out the front door if you didn’t close it fast enough, then ran ran ran down the street and into strangers’ gardens.

He knew exactly when I would come home from high school, and waited behind the fence for me.  Once the bus got me home early and so I spied on him while he sat with perfect posture on the other side of the yard, facing the driveway intently.  Not even a squirrel could distract him.  Only when I whistled did Winston bound across the lawn towards me, barking.

He loved salami, and eating honeybees, and the spongy insides of bell peppers.  He was particularly fond of vanilla ice cream, so much so that he would huff at my father and sit next to the freezer when he wanted some.  The only way anyone could eat dried mangoes in the house was by sharing half the bag.  Cucumber peels were another favorite, and Honey Nut Cheerios.

Winston’s first winter was a doozy — foot after foot of snow hidden under inches of ice.  We spent hours digging tunnels in the backyard for him to run through; the sides were so tall we couldn’t even see his feathery tail over the tops, in spite of how high he happily held it.  He barreled through the walls sometimes, lunging through the snow like a swimmer doing the butterfly.  At one point he slipped on the ice and slid full force into the house.  He yelped, and did it again.  Then he ran on top of the frozen swimming pool, eating snow.

I don’t know what he liked more, plowing through the snow or swimming.  We taught him to climb up the ladder out of the water on his own; even though my parents had a separate fence put in around the pool, Winston figured out how to open the gate.  Sometimes we came home to a wet dog, his white hair bleached brighter than bright by the chlorine. As soon as we removed his collar he raced around the pool, deciding from which side to jump in.  If we were swimming, he swam alongside us, using his tail as a rudder.

I can’t believe I’m doing this, my father said to me.  He held Winston’s head in his hands.  I don’t know if this is the right thing.

I thought I’d be able to stay in the room while the vet gave Winston a series of injections — This one will make him woozy — but as the vet inserted the first needle, Winston yelped just as he had as a puppy when he couldn’t get any traction on the hardwood floor and skidded into a mirror.  Then, as the needle slid out of his skin, a drop of blood swelled at the injection site into a globule that the vet tech accidentally smeared across the length of Winston’s back amidst the few bald patches he had there.  That’s when I realized I wouldn’t be able stay, so I rubbed his ears and kissed the pointed top of his head and sat in the waiting room next to my mom, as an African Grey Parrot looked at us with a yellow eye.

Keith didn’t understand why I had to go home for this, and the best I explanation I could give was this: I held Winston in my hands when we first brought him home as a puppy, and I slept next to him in a sleeping bag on the floor his first few nights in our house, and until I went away to college it was me he ran to.  I had been there in the beginning, and even though I had missed so very much of the middle, I had to be there in the end.

Ask me why I want Winston back so badly and why I miss him so much and I’ll say, Why do peaches make me happy? Why do I like the feeling of grass beneath my bare feet? Why do I enjoy lying in bed with Keith, looking at the ceiling on a sunny weekend morning?

These things are lovely and simple and they’re what makes living so special sometimes. We don’t need fancy cuisine or extravagant trips to feel alive. We need comfort, and love, and the feeling of warmth on our skin. And I got all that from a dog.

The title is from “Gold Day” by Sparklehorse; it came up on my iPod on the way home from New York.

(Almost) Five Days in New Orleans.

No matter where I am, home or away, I’m always looking ahead to my next trip.  I can’t help it.  There’s so much in the world that I haven’t seen, and I can’t understand why we spend so much time standing still.  I mean, sure — I’m cozy on my sofa right now listening to Sparklehorse‘s It’s a Wonderful Life and I’m considering another Fluffernutter, but I’m also thinking about Saigon, I’m also thinking about Singapore, I’m also thinking about Cebu.

I’m also, as it turns out, thinking about the time Keith and I spend in New Orleans last week.  I had visited the city with a friend nine years before and had really loved the it, so I was eager to see what Keith thought.

Got on the plan in warmer-than-usual-but-still-incredibly-cold Boston and got off in wet, windy and chilly New Orleans.  I swear to you — temperatures in New Orleans were lower than they were at home.  Hopped a cab to the W on Poydras and, once we got to our room, immediately crawled under the covers.  After a nap, debated which within-walking-distance restaurant to check out for dinner and settled on the Cajun cuisine at Cochon.  Walked the half mile in absolutely torrential rain that soaked us through our raincoats in spite of our overworked umbrellas.  Tried to dry off while sharing small plates of fried rabbit livers with pepper jelly on toast ($9.00) and caramelized onion and grits casserole ($9.00).  Neither Keith nor I could decide on entrées so we opted to be That Couple and also split our main courses.  Ordered the eponymous cochon with turnips, cabbage and cracklins ($22.00) as well as the oyster and bacon sandwich ($14.00), thus beginning my week of fried-oyster-eatin’.  Of course, by dinner’s end the rain had stopped so we slogged our waterlogged selves by to the hotel for a warm bath and bed.

Woke up to a dry city… that was utterly freezing.  Pulled on as many layers as possible and wished I had packed a pair of gloves, especially as we walked to the French Quarter.  In spite of the cold, wandered around before popping into Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley, where Keith picked up a really nice Flannery O’Connor anthology. Lunch at Mr. B’s Bistro.  Made a little meal out of appetizers — creamy mushroom soup and (more) fried oysters — while Keith drank a $1.50 vodka lemonade while eating gumbo and barbecued shrimp.  Got couple-y again and shared bread pudding for dessert.  Headed to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas to hang out with the penguins, stingrays and sea otters, followed by a Sazerac and  a not-as-gingery-as-expected ginger mojito at The Living Room.  Finished reading M. F. K. Fisher‘s Long Ago In France: The Years In Dijon while Keith took a pre-dinner nap.  Dinner at Brigtsen’s: an oyster and artichokes gratin ($10.00) and the signature seafood platter ($32.00), which was comprised of drum fish with a crawfish and pistachio lime sauce, shrimp cornbread with jalapeño smoked corn, a baked oyster smothered in shrimp and crabmeat, a baked oyster Bienville, shrimp with jalapeño coleslaw and a panéed scallop with asparagus coulis.  Continued the twosome streak by divvying up a piece of pecan pie drizzled with caramel sauce ($6.00).   Drinks at The Swizzle Stick Bar, then bed.

Finally, a warm and sunny day!  Grabbed coffee, chai and a croissant before catching the St. Charles Avenue streetcar to the Garden District, where we took a walking tour led by someone who must be the most informative, interesting guide working for Historic New Orleans Tours.  Couldn’t resist having lunch at Commander’s Palace, what with its famous —  and famously strong — 25¢ martinis, so ordered one with extra olives and the special of turtle soup and citrus-glazed gulf fish ($16.00).  Turned out Keith and I were on a roll with the dessert-sharing since we split the bread pudding soufflé ($8.50).   Walked down Magazine Street to the amazing National World War II Museum before riding the streetcar back to the hotel for a second pre-dinner nap.  More fried oysters, this time on a po’boy from Mother’s Restaurant.  A French 75 at the French 75 Bar, where bartender Chris Hannah suggested we check out the Sazerac Bar and its cocktails; we headed over and I drank something called a “French Quarter” — pear vodka, pear nectar, brandy and sugar — before calling it a night.

Slept in and got off to a late start, but that’s what vacations  are for!  Lunch at Stanley, whose owners also run Stella — get it? — but was on oyster overload so got crazy and ordered  the “world famous burger” ($8.75), which was  more fine than famous.  Sampled fragrances at Hové Parfumeur before selecting Rue Royal and Verveine as my favorites.  Midday cocktails at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone; since Chris Hannah had told us to order milk punch and the Ramos Gin Fizz, we did and loved them.  Hailed a cab to take us to the Audubon Zoo, where peacocks and pelicans roam free.  Streetcar back to the hotel for — you guessed it! — a nap, though I was too busy reading  Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork to sleep.  Dinner at Lüke.  I loved my  rabbit and duck liver pâté ($8.00) and was satisfied with my crabmeat-stuffed ravioli and its Meyer lemon sauce ($19.00) but was appalled by the sloppy service.  Drinks at Napoleon House before ending up yet again at the Sazerac Bar  with another Ramos Gin Fizz since Bar Uncommon was hosting an event.  Tipsily walked back to the hotel.

Wanted to sleep in but didn’t have that much time left in Louisiana so hauled ourselves out of bed to make the mandatory pit stop at Café du Monde.  Took one look at the dining-in line and politely elbowed over to the take-out queue; although also long, it was less than half the length of its rival.  Sat on a nearby  bench with our bags of beignets and my cup of chicory café au lait, taking care not to sprinkle myself — and my dark clothing — with the excess powdered sugar.  Dodged shoppers at the French Market, which wasn’t nearly as produce-heavy as I would have liked and instead seemed to focus on  kitschy souvenirs.  Picked out Mardi Gras beads and a matching mask for our niece, as well as pralines from Aunt Sally’s before stopping by Central Grocery to buy a muffuletta to eat on the plane.  Got a ride to the airport the nicest taxi driver of all time.  Disembarked in Boston, where  the temperature raised itself to welcome us home.

* This picture is from a not-rainy day.

Food + Drink: A Mix CD.

Lately all I’ve been wanting to do is make mix CDs.  I’ve been working on an epic one lately that’s meant to be encouraging/inspirational for writing; it includes such songs as “The Slow Descent into Alcoholism” by The New Pornographers and “I See A Darkness” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy.  It’s really been helping.

Anyway, I told my friend Stephanie about my fixation and she was so intrigued by my need for an underlying thematic element that I immediately volunteered to make her a mix.  Since, like me, Stephanie’s constantly obsessing about food, it only seemed fitting that I put together a food-centric playlist.

  1. Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog” by Johnny Cash
  2. “My Sugar So Sweet” by Nick Drake
  3. The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1” by Neutral Milk Hotel
  4. “Meat” by Noise Addict
  5. Oyster” by Jawbreaker
  6. “Pork + Beans” by Bettie Serveert
  7. Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young
  8. Gimmie Some Salt” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
  9. Just Like Honey” by The Jesus + Mary Chain
  10. You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” by Spoon
  11. Apple Scruffs” by George Harrison
  12. For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea” by Belle + Sebastian
  13. (Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister” by The Stone Roses
  14. Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones
  15. Bird Stealing Bread” by Iron + Wine
  16. Lips Like Sugar” by Echo + the Bunnymen
  17. Apple Bed” by Sparklehorse
  18. Fortune Cookie” by Pizzicato Five
  19. Coffee + TV” by Blur

I’ve got to say, it came out really great.  Drop me a line in the comments if you want a copy and we’ll set it up.