AddieOnPorch_Snapseed

It was a gorgeous night — all peepers and frogs, and dry as a bone after two days hot and wet enough to melt glass — and I spent much of it sitting on our front porch with Addie, our [almost] fifteen-year-old Yellow Lab, who came to us at seven-years-old having been dumped by her people after a lifetime of churning out backyard puppies for sale. She moves slowly these days; she’s a quintessential velcro dog, attached to my hip by love and affection and the hope of additional kibble falling from the sky. On this particular night, Susan was on the train, on her way home from New York; Petey, our terrier, was on an overnight at doggie day camp to blow off some hysterical puppy steam. Addie and I sat together in the quiet, just looking; watching the sharp slant of the early evening summer sun on the garden. Older dogs do this: by their pace alone they force you to slow down, to pay attention, to lift your head to catch a brief cloud of honeysuckle and lilac passing by on the breeze.

When I got up to come into the house, Addie stood up with me and I held the storm door open for her; she waited for me to go in first, as if to say After you, but I ushered her in ahead of me. She and I are very formal that way, but she possesses both the age and the wisdom that, in my opinion, always goes first.  I picked up her bowl, gave it a quick wash and added a cup of kibble, a dollop of mashed pumpkin to keep her ancient skids greased, and two pills: a square, brown anti-inflammatory for her hips, and a natural supplement which mimics the odious Prednisone she’s had to take from time to time. I mixed everything together and she stood watching me — she knows the stirring sound and the hand motion and what comes next — as I put the bowl down. She waited, looking me square in the eye and wagging, and I did what I always do right before she eats: I kissed her on the head and told her she’s a very good girl. She won’t eat unless I do this; I have no idea where the ritual comes from — perhaps her previous owners forced her to wait dutifully before she ate, as a way to wield some sort of power over her — but I’m glad to turn the act into something joyful and loving rather than controlling, and she’s glad to receive.

Addie_Lissie

That night, after feeding Addie, I realized that I knew the exact size and shape of her pills, and that I could draw them in great detail if someone asked me to; I can tell you exactly how much pureed pumpkin attaches itself to the side of her bowl at every meal, and how it must be scrubbed out before I feed her again. I can describe the sound the kibble makes when it’s folded into the pumpkin (muffled, like pebbles on a trampoline), and the crinkle of the bag where her treats are kept. I can tell you about the face she makes after she’s eaten — the way her brown eyes change from inquisitive and hopeful to soft and loving — and that it’s exactly eight minutes from her taking a post-dinner biscuit to her hip-aching climb onto the sofa, where she spends half an hour licking a favorite pillow while she digests, keeping a watch on us for the rest of the evening until we all file down the hallway as a family, one-by-one, and get into our respective beds — humans in ours; dogs in theirs.

AddieOnCouch

I can tell you all of this in exact and mind-numbing detail, but I cannot tell you the number of scoops of coffee I put into my Chemex every morning; I cannot tell you how differently the eggs from my neighbor’s Araucana chickens feel in my hand versus the ones that come from her Rhode Island Reds; I can’t tell you how long it takes ghee to melt in my late mother-in-law’s cast iron Griswold pan set over medium heat. I can’t tell you into which pepper mill I’ve put the Tellicherry peppercorns (my favorite) and in which pinch bowl the kosher salt is sitting. I make coffee and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast almost every morning; I saute something in hot ghee nearly every day, and I salt and pepper it. Which means that somewhere along the line, I’ve stopped paying attention to the most mundane activities — the daily work — of my life.

I could claim to be busy, so very busy, because, like most of us, I am, although probably no more than you. I’m writing a lot these days, finishing a manuscript and making notes for the one that will follow it. I just returned from a glorious week in Oregon at a writer’s workshop, and the loose ends and logistics I had to organize before leaving for the west coast nearly undid me: there were Uber apps to download and car services to arrange, manuscripts to be printed out, broken printers to curse at, keys and swipe cards that were not to be lost, and passwords to be remembered for my iCloud, my cell phone, my Skype account, my email accounts, my mother’s email account, my bank account, my Twitter feed, Instagram, and Facebook.

The last thing I could tell you is how one eggshell feels compared to another, or which pepper mill is holding which peppercorn. But I can tell you what Addie’s pills look like, and the sound her food makes when it hits the bowl, the softening of her eyes when the oxytocin starts to course through her body, and the rumbling, midnight snore that comes out of her like ujjayi breath.

It’s taken Addie to show me when I’m not paying attention to the routines of my life. And how, in a world that prizes exceptionalisim — the big, the fast, the overbooking and the overextension and the hyperconnection that short-circuits our analog human brain — it is the unremarkable and the quiet that we clandestinely crave, as if it were the most dangerous, threatening thing of all.

 

 

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Me and Dad

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom. ~Umberto Eco

I have the metal strongbox, where he kept the hatband from his days as a Naval officer, that he let me play with as a child. I have two volumes of Slipstream, the books that he edited for the Navy. I have his wings; his flight diary documenting every nighttime run he made over the course of three years; his Naval aviator diploma from Corpus Christie dated 1944; his letters home from the Pacific; his fountain pen; his dog tags; his gold flight ring that he had turned into a charm for my mother’s bracelet. I have his leather-bound looseleaf notebook that he let me use in junior high school, and his Bar Mitzvah books from 1936 inscribed A Gift From Mr. & Mrs. M. Kastoff and Family that he gave to me when I moved out of his parents’ apartment, which he kept renting even though they’d been gone for years.

I have the ties I bought for him when I was studying at Cambridge; his gold Hamilton watch on its alligator band; his black plastic aviators from 1970; his English duffel coat that he had to have tailored because his arms were short; his leather flight jacket with his squadron patch and gold wings sewn onto the breast. I have his robin’s-egg blue metal home movie screen; his Super 8 editing viewer; his cans of home movies; his bags of birthday cards he sent to his mother from the time he was a boy; his clipping of a famous wayward cousin’s obituary, which he stored in a half-gallon zip lock bag.

I have his crates of albums from the 1950s: his modern jazz, his Moiseyev, his Mohammed El-Bakkar, his Moishe Oysher, his Chopin, his Mahler, his Lenny Bruce. I have his 1962 copy of Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook; his Dione Lucas; his 1958 Arabicaware; his Carol Stupell plates; his electric carving knife; his mother’s end table.

I have his picture of me just hours old; his picture of me the day of my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah; his picture of us having burgers at the Shalimar Diner in Forest Hills; his picture playing tennis with my stepmother, the love of his life. I have his picture on a horse at his dude ranch; his picture walking down the aisle at his own wedding; his picture at his ad agency. I have, sitting in my desk drawer, his brown leatherette wallet that he was carrying in his back pocket on the day of his accident; his dry-cleaning stub for clothes he would never pick up; his ticket for laundry he would never wear; his library books he would never read; his AARP membership he would never renew; his Amex card he would never use.

I have his sense of humor and his ferocious temper and his chuckle; his curly hair and his fair coloring, although not his blue eyes. I have his love of travel; dry gin Gibsons; radio storytelling; English history. I have his love of the American West; his hatred of Schoenberg; his appreciation of Danish Modern furniture, expensive German medium format cameras, good advertising, and Swiss fondue. I have his fondness for bluegrass; big dogs; San Francisco; northern New England; Iowa; Penobscot Bay; John Muir; Thoreau. I have his affection for roast pork; silvertip beef; fried chicken; remoulade; cold lobster; Schlitz; Mallomars.

I have his belief in the sanctity of cooking, and his love of feeding people.

I have his hands; his feet; his shoulders; his crooked smile; his easy teariness.

I hear his laugh; his cough; his snore; his shout. I hear him, always: over my shoulder in the kitchen; on the phone on a Sunday morning; next to me in the car; taking a practice swing while I’m teeing up.

My father’s been gone for thirteen years; he went out to run an errand, and he never came back. He lives now in my heart and my memory. In my house, I have the stuff of him, the scraps of him, but not him.

In my house, every day is Father’s Day.

 

 

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