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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

Nelly is finished with her dinner. She comes out to stand on the deck as I sit, trying to find the part in the Times Magazine piece from a few weeks ago about how we are now doing to our pets what we've done to ourselves (and our children as well, for shame): give the pharmaceutical companies a grand new sendoff toward world domination by refusing to deal with the situational causes of our pathologies. Which is as much as to say "deny us a chance to live honest lives" by medicating the chemical byproducts of them. No chance (or opportunity) to address the cause.

At least the article gave Dr. Ian Dunbar a chance to speak, and he acquitted himself well. (He might not be as thoroughly behaviorist as one might like, but his "Sirius Puppy Training" has saved a whole mess of dogs from the gas chamber, I'll wager: and I feel tenderly toward him as I do toward everything associated with the tender years of our tender Mercy: a friend, lucky us, gave us Dunbar's video and it was the first exposure to training that us woebegotten, ignorant new dog owners got. Lucky Mercy.) In the article, his was the voice of reason and truth: Drugs are unnecessary, he said, "if you know some of the simplest things about dog training." And those things are? The basis of positive reinforcement: "Ignore unwanted behaviors and reward desired ones."

It's simple. It's Occam's razor, in training terms. And instead of being prevalent, it is ridiculously hard to find trainers who practice it. Instead, we put into play essential cruelty, a form of denial, our favorite mode of living when it comes to ourselves, too. (You know what, moms? I suddenly realize I've had it with the "time out" punishment for kids, too. I think it's a way of smacking your child without the physical contact that would make you look bad, but it performs the same function as a beating: it's mainly a steam valve for a parent who can't control her anger, and results in confused, hurt, resentful children who learn nothing from the experience except that they can be pushed around by people who are bigger than they but who excuse it with the words "It's for your own good." Thus begins a spiral of hidden truth, projection, and fractured reality that will, guaranteed, be passed to the next generation in turn.)

The other morning I watched my neighbor walking his new standard poodle puppy. On a choke chain. The dog, naturally, alerted at the sight of Nelly. But his owner didn't want that, for some reason. He wanted him to sit. How do you make that happen? Why, choke the dog, obviously. Yank. Yank. Yank harder. The dog's expression was full of incomprehension. He had no idea what he was being asked--because he had not yet been taught, no matter that his owner thought he had--and his brain was sloshing in his skull with every jerk. Finally his owner reached over and pushed his hind end to the ground. What did he teach his dog? Not much. Except a few things he would be surprised to know he had.

But give him a reward for sitting? Never! It's immoral!

Nelly stands next to me, her white front paws stained pink by the blood of her beef chuck neckbone. (I am sorry, dear cow.) At least she wears her violence honestly, on the surface.

Yesterday she used up another of the karmic lives she's been granted: how many have there been, now? Let me get out the calculator.

As usual, I put too many things on the docket, hence I was stressed and rushing, late, to all of them. After the car inspection, and the wine store, there was a walk in Woodstock. Already twenty minutes late, and so rude to make my friends wait. The light on Ulster Avenue--oh, what a bore. Please change. We roll to a halt behind a line of cars on the four-lane street. The first lucky thing is that we have to make a right turn, placing us next to the curb. Just chance. Because when the thunder boomed--all so fast--I see a streak of white from the corner of my eye, and I know without having to look. Nelly has squeezed herself out of four inches of open window and is now racing toward the front steps of the house we're stopped in front of. That was the second lucky thing: a house. With a driveway. And the traffic starting to inch forward. The light had changed. Permitting me to pull in the drive; a few minutes later, I was able to think, "How strange, Melissa. You actually put the car in park, and turned off the engine." I had no recollection of it. Because everything was moving faster than the storm that was stirring in the sky, apocalyptic, black and full of bursting fury. That's when Nelly suddenly turned and started racing, full out run, now toward the street. With its four lanes of thick and fast-flowing, unheeding hunks of metal. I opened the door and screamed her name. I screamed. When I heard the sound, I was confused: Where had that come from? The sound of pure, panicked fear.

Then she turned. Ran toward me now. "Get in your car!" I say with happy voice, as I have, thank my lucky stars (and they are: I was born under lucky skies indeed) a hundred times before. Each time, paired with a treat. And that's what saved Nelly's life yesterday. Chicken jerky.

I believe everything happens for a good reason. Or else you postdate a reason in order to explain what's happened: well, hey, that's a good reason, too. Even though I also believe there is nothing in the universe that could postulate a reason. This is a conundrum I'll never solve, and don't want to. Beautiful mysteries.

Is it unlucky to speak of how lucky you feel? Then, uh-oh.

This morning, on a leash-walk along the road here, I saw something glittering in the ditch among the Queen Anne's lace and cornflowers. It was a mouth-blown pot pipe, a spiral of hallucinogenic colors. Someone else's bad luck--Ditch the pipe, quick!--became my good luck. I took this as a sign, as I take everything these days. But what was it telling me? What did the universe have to say about my condition with this chance find?

Get high. And pass the luck around. It's the only thing for the madness. That's my story, anyway.