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It's Nelly's World

Conscience Takes a Holiday

alec vanderboom

What a strange locale, the ski slopes. As close to the place we call "nature" as it is possible to get--the elemental mountains, stripped of animal comforts, even to the thinness of the air. And as detached from nature as anyplace save the Mall of America. A place devoted to doing something as unnecessary as sliding down snowy hills on two boards, then being hoisted back aloft to the top to do it all again. This unproductive (but irresistible) activity is bracketed by journeys to and from gigantic parking lots, often in gigantic cars that can negotiate winter terrain as well as hold lots of expensive, single-purpose equipment manufactured and purchased solely for these few lavish days in the winter. Many of the skiers I know are very "green" people, so obviously they're averting their eyes when they head to the ski resorts.

Yes, me, too. "Blind spot," I think it's called. I have so many of these they'd make me breathless to recount.

Now that I live twenty minutes from a state-owned ski area that would not win any prizes for luxury--the lodges are overcrowded, the food dismal but still shockingly overpriced--I cannot justify not going skiing, at least a few times each season, primarily because for kids it's such huge fun. For grownups my age, it's largely a day spent praying to avoid either frostbite or hard landings. (But it's also huge fun for us when we allow ourselves to go a little too fast, or pause mid-slope and look out over the panoramic view--blue sky over gray bowl of far-off mountains--that can be had no other way than at the top of a chairlift.)

Many lessons can be learned at the slopes. Some can make you a little bit sick.

The chairs stop operating at 4:00, so everyone can get down from even the highest run before sun gets clipped by the ridge of dense mountains. It was only 3:30, but although I wanted to make another run, having successfully evaded both blue fingers and hairline fractures, my internal dog alarm was now ringing. That's the one that got installed the day I first got a dog; the one that buzzes insistently when I've been away from home for five hours.

Why five hours? I don't know. It feels like the whisper of love. It feels like my dog wanted me to come home, attend to her needs.

To the friend who was gesturing, "Down to the bottom, we'll go back up this lift again," I gestured, "No, can't, gotta leave." She slid over to me, perplexed. "Why?"

"Nelly is alone, and I need to get back. I've been gone five hours."

She looked at me like I'd given her something spoiled to eat. "We used to leave our dog alone for ten hours, and he was fine."

I have heard this one so many times I have lost the patience for smiling tightly and shrugging my shoulders. Now I say, "Can you go for ten hours without having to pee?"

Her response: "Well, you can crate the dog. Then they won't pee in the house."

Please permit me to jump up and down and tear out my hair for a minute, will you. There.

These small sentences contain so many large implications. Like The problem is not whether another animal is suffering because he's trapped and has a natural taboo against soiling his own nest, and so will wait in an agony until it's no longer possible; no, the problem is whether or not you have to clean up a puddle when you get home. And also: The fact that I have a dog is not going to stop me from doing things I want; a dog is a convenience, like a tennis racquet, that can be put in a closet when not in use.

The biggest, though, is: I assume my dog feels what I want him to feel, because it's more comforting for me that way. Ergo, he's fine. But that is simply because he lacks the means to make his owner realize that he's not fine. And what lack of common language doesn't accomplish, lack of empathy will. Or, wait: a lack of even the desire to have empathy.

This exchange up on the mountain instantly reminded me of all the similar, shocking conversations I've had with people who purported to love their dogs, and they rained down on me until I was wet with unhappiness. "Yeah, one time he got locked into the gallery, and we didn't realize until the next day he was there; 28 hours and he didn't even go to the bathroom! He was fine." "One time my father couldn't make it home and the dog was there all weekend. Only peed a little, by the door." And do you think he felt terrible things when he did?

I remember the time I offered to pick up a friend's dog up from the vet's where he had been caged--er, I mean "boarded"--for the weekend. Three young vet techs were hanging out in the room, looking at something together and laughing. Dogs watched from behind their bars.

They gave me the leash, and the lovely brown dog jumped out of the cage. We walked down the hall, and he kept looking nervously up at me. I opened the door, and he managed to get his tail clear of it by one inch before he lifted his leg to pee. And pee. And pee. I think it took seven minutes for him to void his bladder. Then he took three more steps, to the first patch of lawn he could reach, and crouched. That took a long time, too.

I think maybe those vet techs had been looking and laughing at that thing for quite some time. Like, days.

Oh, why do I know anything? Maybe people are right. Maybe I make this stuff up. Maybe I project. Maybe dogs' bladders are indeed made different from ours, by an evolutionary process that foresaw ownership by people who liked to ski full days (once it foresaw the invention of the chairlift).

It certainly would make my life a whole lot easier if Nelly would only be fine when I left her home for entire days so I could go do fun human things. But I have a piece of her inside me, so she comes along whenever I go. I can hear her when she begins to whimper, and then I can't help feeling bad for her. It's the damn inconvenient piece that makes it seem that a responsibility comes along with having a dog. Love has a weight, and it sits on your shoulders.