When the World is Nine Below

Not Nine Below Scout
Not Nine Below Scout

It’s tough on Tennesseans. And Texans. I remember the first time the mercury dipped below zero when I was living in my first home here, my delicious little lakeside cottage in Vermont’s exquisite Upper Valley: I recall the first time I felt pain when I tiptoed outside, the first time I heard my shepherd Clarence-the-Canine cry out when he stepped on frozen, spiky snow in our front yard (on with the shoes, sorry they make you feel silly—better than busting open a pad). We’ve already felt that kind of cold with winter not yet officially arrived. Feels too soon to me; mercifully, it never seems to last long—the cold that is. As for the other unmentionable, Vermont feels distinctly how C. S. Lewis might call it along about March: always winter, never Christmas.

I digress. Three nights ago I awoke to loud, percussive popping, like shotgun blasts too close. It took my foggy brain a while to decipher the noise and calm down, or at least not worry too much about it, the unmistakable sound of our wood deck boards outside in the cold, shrinking, shifting, sliding around in protest against nails that fastened them in place on a much warmer day. That kind of cold demands respect, nine-below-zero cold, the kind that can split boards, or damage warm-blooded membranes and stiffen sinew in seconds; my joints had been trying to warn me it was coming for a while. Here is a bit of wisdom that belongs in a primer for Vermont pilgrims: do not worry too much about the explosions when it’s nine below (or colder); you probably won’t die.

Meanwhile the unworried person beside me slept deeply and peacefully, but I could not. Instead I lay awake and listened to the blasts spaced sometimes at long intervals, other times coming close together, and worried about another creature of slight build and tawny hair, doubtless also awake downstairs, a Texas dog who’d have to face the music outside in a few short hours.

This will be a new and perhaps painful experience for you, Scout, as it was for Clarence before you, and for me, I thought. I made a mental inventory of supplies to track down in the coming days, used my worry to get a fix on some coordinates: Clarence’s old shoes are in the plastic bin, I think—will they fit Scout? Will he trust me enough to let me fiddle with his feet? I replayed the warning on last night’s news: in cold like this, don’t let your pup stay outdoors any longer than it takes to warm up your car. Five minutes.

What if I can’t get the shoes on him? I flipped through old, dog-eared folders in my head overflowing with nuggets and tidbits, things I’ve needed at one time or another in my professional life as a copywriter and later filed under “Archives.” What was it about Labrador feet? Some kind of webbing that makes them adept in the snow? Or was it water? Or was that another kind of dog? Wait, the vet had only just said Scout looked more Chessie than Lab to her. Do they have the same kind of webbing?

Five minutes? How can I explain this to my dog? Or my car?

However perilous a picture the mind (my mind) can paint lying awake in the darkness before dawn, it is never that bad. Scout did consent to the shoes for our first, brutal walk in the very early morning, but objected to them shortly after we launched. By the time we came back inside he was wearing only one shoe, the other three spilling out of my coat pocket. Scout did his doings in about fifteen minutes and seemed none the worse for wear, while all around us the sound of baying neighbor dogs, seasoned Vermont dogs, resonated in the frozen woods. Just before we navigated our way to the path that leads once again to the safety of the cottage, Scout made a quick diversion, took a side trip in the snow, rolling around joyously on his back, ears aflop, tail awag. Nine below is but a number, he insists as he lies there grinning at me. But okay we’ll go in, he finally concedes, standing again on all fours, shaking the snow from his coat and licking bits of it from his smiley whiskers.

Our little house looks inviting from the street with warm lights glowing through its windows in the darkness; inside the stairs have separated ever so slightly from the pretty slate landing while the house tries to shake off the cold.

Nine below, I had almost forgotten your beauty: you make twenty degrees and sunshine feel divine.

Stranger in a Strange Land: A Brief Doggish Essay

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scout   verb | \’skau̇t\ – to explore an area to obtain information; noun – one sent to obtain information

Saturday morning came early, bitterly cold and windy, but clear; we’d practically forgotten how the sun looked. We stood squinting and shivering in a nondescript outlet mall parking lot with many other hopeful families, waiting, waiting, waiting for the white transport van from Texas that would arrive any moment and deliver to us our travel-weary companions, canine refugees of sorts: Labs and Lab mixes, puppies and adolescents and adults, on the road for 2000 long miles, soon to be discharged into the loving arms of happy, silent humans (and a few pint-size noisy ones)—happy dogs, silent dogs (a few barking dogs), bewildered dogs. Some were practically home when they were carried or walked off the van, others had miles yet to go.

Scout is a good name for a yellow Lab mix: it also happens to be the name of one of my favorite literary figures. Scout is a worthwhile verb, one that promises adventure and excitement, but best of all, Scout is a noun and he is ours. So let’s try this again, with belly rubs and other indulgences, but mainly plenty of quiet time to adjust.

And what an adjustment: from Texas to Vermont, where Scout arrives at the precise moment the first genuine cold snap of the season rolls in. A light layer of snow from the last small weather event still frosts the landscape in these parts, but tomorrow we’ll awaken to a winter wonderland—a trial by snow for Scout, if you will: if the weather gods get it right, he’ll be in it up to his elbows our first time outside in the morning.

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Today there is filtered sunshine, no wind, and a neighborhood to explore. This evening there will be still another human to meet, more tweaking, realigning, settling, obtaining information: the ice maker dumps with a clatter at regular intervals (what is ice?); fresh vegetables sizzle and sputter loudly in a hot sauté pan (only good can come of this), a capricious heater cycles on and off (it is not to be trusted, but the warmth radiating from it feels exquisite), and a mystifying cacophony wafts up spiral stairs from the basement in unpredictable outbursts (more data needed). And outside? Outside are creatures busy under the snow, beneath layers of spent foliage, in a network of tunnels under Vermont’s rocky soil—and they can be heard, or maybe smelt, occupying a keen canine noggin with a fervor that makes him forget the cold, if only for a moment.

Meanwhile we humans are obtaining a little information of our own: what are these floppy ears? What is this short hair? What is this impossibly affectionate demeanor? What is this polite compliance with human wishes? Welcome home Scout. We have but one simple message we shall try to convey in your own language: we already love you like crazy.

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Hope and the Human Spirit: Postcard from Home

Hope and the Human Spirit: Postcard from Home
Market Square in Knoxville, TN, circa 1910

Knoxville’s downtown Market Square once held an imposing masonry building that served as a center for thriving commerce, including a beloved farmer’s market that purveyed meat, poultry, dairy, produce, and flowers trucked in from the city’s rural outskirts. A 14-year-old boy set it ablaze lighting a cigarette in the late 1950s, goes the story, gutting most of the building and sparking a controversy that would persist ‘til the city finally demolished what remained of it in 1960.

So ended an institution that began in 1854, and which never fully recovered. Sure, the square was revitalized in recent years in the same way so many downtowns have undergone renewal, but the demolition of that building marked the end of an era. Nowadays there’s an outdoor farmer’s market a couple of days a week during the season, set against the backdrop of hipster shops and restaurants that dot the square; for better or worse, life goes on.

There is no formula for grief: everybody grieves uniquely, and that is the truth. I’ve written about it before, how I wiped away the fog from my mirror after horrific losses: family, home, my hard-won business—some of them gone instantly, the rest in a matter of weeks or months. Loss takes no prisoners: it surely knocked the wind out of me, leaving me coughing and sputtering, blue in the face, bent double with my hands on my knees.

After what seemed an eternity I drew in a long breath and stood erect again, but sifting through smoldering ruins for surviving bits found only unpleasant epiphanies to keep me company. Your life has been a train wreck for years, they jeered. Worse still, they continued, you’ve become ugly; there is much work to do, and it’s getting late.

Loss continued to follow me down a new path. It persisted in the shadows behind me for a thousand miles, across time and space, and stubbornly insinuated itself in horrifying ways. What choice does one have, except to soldier on?

And just when I imagined I might not survive, there was hope, in the guise of a beautiful outstretched hand that insisted otherwise. I was more fortunate than most.

How much can the human spirit bear before it’s damaged for good, though? This question has troubled me all week while East Tennessee burned, with stories of unrelenting devastation and human suffering unfolding all around. It’s an epic tragedy long familiar to others, but this time struck close to home: the foothills and mountains where my ancestors settled a century and a half ago—is everything gone now? The kitschy hamlet where my family vacationed in the summers lay in ruins, its citizenry shell-shocked, livelihoods snatched away in minutes, wildlife and livestock wiped out, officials standing dumbfounded before the press to tick off names of the missing and the dead. We will rebuild, they insist while volunteers pour in. I know this refrain, and it is exhausting—the ruins will smolder for a long time, forever for some.

Monumental losses still haunt me like the drone of bagpipes, always there no matter how ardently one wishes to silence them, even in the subconscious: but then life’s melody unfolds on top of the drone, sometimes majestic in its tenor, rich with texture and beauty and joy, and occasionally hope.

Tragedy defies reason always, discriminates never. But every exhausted, beleaguered life in this world needs hope, because the alternative is unthinkable. And life will go on.