Jane says it is a Northumberland day. I know what she means. We are in the small park across from Peet’s. All of us. Two dogs, two recently transported cappuccinos, one scone, one bran muffin. In short, life is good. And the breeze from Northumbria? It is warm enough to be pleasant, cool enough to be stimulating, and above all, moving. Like the maritime weather churning off the North Sea, the Peninsula air is restless. We are planning our day.
There had been talk of driving over the coastal range to the wild San Mateo beaches, but that plan has been abandoned. Jane is fighting a cold. I am fighting the sense that I must keep doing things. Whereas, by any decent measure, I have recently done a lot, including a first-hand experiment in the Mercator projection, accompanied by bad movies and the observation that Greenland is icy and Iceland is green. Meaning that at this particular moment it is rather pleasant to be in Menlo Park. Jane has suggested quite reasonably that we might want to load the dogs in my van and drive to the nearby shore of San Francisco Bay. Too much effort, I tell her. Still, I like the idea as an idea. Even better, I like the name of the rough, reclaimed edge of the southern Bay, which is actually an estuary. Baylands. I am baying for Baylands. I am staying put because I am an aging quadriplegic. And I am baying, because at heart I am a dog.
With Jane slowed by her cold, this morning I had some unusual one-on-one time with my adopted canine offspring. Isabella, part boxer, part love goddess, could not get enough of inserting her canine tongue deep into my nostrils, seeking my mouth. There is something inherently disturbing about this cross-species brand of French kissing. Except that is routine Isabella behavior, and she cannot get enough of it, or of me. Fortunately, she also cannot get enough of Jane, currently crashed out on the bed. Isabella may extend her tongue in my direction, but she tends to keep her feet where they are, Janeside. I roll out to the kitchen to make tea. I shower. Time passes. Bixby, the spacey post-traumatic dog rescued by Jane about four years ago, is on the prowl. His movements and purposes conform to no apparent pattern, except a few neurotic learned behaviors. Eating, for example. Years after his liberation from neglect and bad treatment in a mad person’s madhouse of dogs…30 or so…he still treats dog food warily. That is to say, kibble is something to snatch from a bowl in the kitchen, convey a full mouth of to the dining room for chewing, then back to the kitchen for more. There is a reason why Pavlov worked with dogs.
There is also a reason why humans found his work so fascinating. In any case, look at the unexpected joys of these, my moments as primary canine care provider. Rolling my wheelchair out of the office, Bixby comes bounding out of the kitchen. He even completes the action, admittedly running just slightly out of nerve as he gets close to me. Nonetheless, he comes more or less within petting range, and I scratch and ruffle his long fur. He is mostly border collie, if I recall correctly, hair absurdly long in places. Particularly his feet, where an overabundance of fur creates clown shoes. He holds his head up approaching me, his look cheery and noble.
I sense, or project, the courage behind this. For Bixby is a dog who simultaneously loves and fears affection. For most of the two years I have known him, he has progressed from shying from me, approaching tentatively, approaching less tentatively. But never approaching openly, in the affection-consuming style of his canine partner, Isabella. Now, he is almost there. Bixby lets himself be petted, not overly long, but enough. He even stops by my wheelchair almost close enough for a full man-dog embrace. Not all the time, of course. Often, particularly just after he has arrived at my apartment with Jane, we go through a considerable stretch of approach-and-retreat behavior. But on this particular morning, I have actually seen him bound to me. Head high, tail wagging, and doing his signature prance. The latter may not have much to rival it in the canine world, at least from what I have seen. Bixby, long-haired clown feet and all, in moments of exuberance lifts his legs high, as though he is in one of the most sprightly, well-trained marching bands.
It is joy, arising from deep pain. And I am familiar with this response, because it echoes my own. My life, most of it if I am honest, has been about finding the ability to love. Overcoming the fear of love. Living with its associated vulnerability. Living with its associated opposite, hate. Living a life that is truly a life. How can it take so long to accomplish something so basic? More to the immediate point on this Northumbria-in-California day, how can it take so long to appreciate something so basic as now? A cup of coffee. A walk with some dogs. The secrets of life as contained in Menlo Park.