Scout’s Big Epiphany

Scout-the-Lab knows where all the chipmunks are
I Know Where All the Chipmunks Are

Whatever life experiences shaped Scout-the-Lab before he came to us last December, there is this one truth about him, and about all dogs says the vet: they forget nothing. Scout’s skittishness is authentic, part and parcel of who he is. I may have envisioned a goofy, tail-wagging demeanor in my early quest for this dog, and that is my own folly. People at home and at work are sometimes crestfallen when he rebukes overtures of affection, when he shies away from an outreached hand, or jumps out of his skin at the slightest provocation, or even cowers when an unexpected human comes barreling around a corner. Taking these reactions personally is a human problem, not a doggish one, just as my own expectations of what Scout would be when he came to us were based on my own preconceived notions of a Lab, and not on Scout as Scout. And anyway, the first time our vet cupped Scout’s chin in her hands and peered into his evocative eyes, she said, Oh Scout: you are a Chessie.

The Chesapeake Bay Retriever is not known for its effusive personality. It does not really matter.

I’ve always loved the name Scout, my favorite literary character in my favorite piece of Southern writing, the little girl with whom I identified growing up. (Never mind that Scout-the-Lab is a boy dog.) But if I had to draw a parallel between my Scout and a single character in that exquisite story, I’d be more inclined to link him to Boo Radley, the tragic, misunderstood character, “with his shy ways.” He is who he is.

Scout digs for chipmunks

Scout digs more furiously for chipmunks

Scout has his head in the ground hoping to reach the chipmunks

A few weeks ago when we launched on our Dogged Adventures with Scout comfortably tucked into the back seat of the Subi, I worried he’d be unable to reconcile what was going on in that little noggin of his. After his tenure with two separate families in Texas (humans who loved him, to be sure), he went into foster care for a couple of weeks. Thence onto a transport van with others of his ilk, rolling all the way from Austin to Brattleboro, Vermont, arriving on what was the coldest calendar day in New England at that point, turns out. Thousands of miles across the country, and into the arms of two perfect strangers, who seemed nice enough on the face of it. But surely, without ascribing too many human emotions to a trembling dog in a foreign land, I believe ‘bewildered’ must have described his condition, at least in part.

Scout was long familiar with climbing into the car and going when it was finally time for our vacation—going to work with me most days every week, going to dog camp one afternoon a week, going up to my financial planner’s office once in a while on a big elevator (head tilts for days), going to the store, and even going inside some stores. But this time the going would keep on, well, going. I worried Scout might imagine he was being rehomed. Again.

What happened instead was a week’s worth of adventures with the sweetest rewards: being invited inside the home of some friends down in Knoxville and socializing with their dog for a bit, exploring all kinds of worldly venues with me, my Handsome Chef Boyfriend, and my twenty-something, enjoying some extended outings in nature on a couple of occasions, eating exceptionally well, and—joy of joys—sleeping in a big bed with humans, a thing he can’t do at home because of the Dreaded Spiral Stairs. By the end of our trip Scout had grown accustomed to looking for the bed first thing when we checked into another hotel: Ah, there you are, bed. <check> Now, let me just <muscles twitching, preparing to jump>, THERE we go. Yep, this one’ll do fine. <circle around, plunk, exhale>

Earlier in the week when we checked into our Asheville Airbnb it took him a bit longer to get his bearings, because we had an entire apartment to ourselves. He split time between our bed and the twenty-something’s futon in the adjoining room, but always slept with us, alternately curled or sprawled between us near the foot of the bed. One beautiful morning as we began to stir, HCB reached his long arm down to scratch Scout’s noggin, and in a single, perfectly coordinated movement Scout lengthened his sinewy body until his head rested on the pillows right between ours. We lay there and giggled and continued to dole out affection: it is fair to say the dog was content to indulge in the moment, as were his humans.

Still, there must have been this unrelenting question: where are we going?

The final, sunny afternoon of travel when we began the steep ascent up the twisty Vermont mountain road to our home in the woods, Scout sat up in the back seat and surveyed the familiar landscape. As the car rolled to a stop in our drive, I hoped everything—the events of the past week, and now this moment—would crystalize for him: I am home. There had been no aha! moment on that cold Brattleboro day back in December. Only the passing of the leash from one hand to another. Here, I hoped, we had arrived at the place where everything would finally make sense to Scout: this is my home and my family—we do things together.

I had to wait until the next morning for my answer, early on Monday when it was time for post-vacation work reentry. Curled up comfortably on the sofa in his favorite spot, Scout only barely lifted his head to acknowledge me when I told him it was time to go. Nah, he yawned sleepily, you go on: think I’ll lay here and watch some telly, maybe get a little shut-eye today. Have a good one, see you on the flip side.

Scout is indeed home.

Scout is perfectly at home on the sofa

Forgotten Books, Forever Friends, & Harper Lee

Books II

In Memphis and other parts of the South and Midwest powerful storms are inseparable from the spring and summer landscape. Once upon a time civil defense sirens meant a tornado, prompting the requisite sequestration of our family in a tiny downstairs bathroom under piles of pillows. By age six or so I learned to fear any old thunderstorm that blew through our suburb.

My parents were having none of that, even when the power went out as it often did.

But I was allowed to burn a small votive candle in a ceramic owl lantern on my nightstand, and I could read by its warm light to my heart’s content, well past my bedtime, for as long as I wanted—even on a school night. My grandmother gave me a cheaply bound fairytale anthology when I was about eight; its stories and monochromatic illustrations held me in good stead through many a storm before it eventually fell apart.

I soon forgot the wind and lightning and angry claps of thunder, drifting to sleep instead wondering how it was possible for a princess to feel a pea through all those layers of fluff, or why any respectable prince would climb a tower prison on a girl’s ponytail (to say nothing of how she grew it that long in the first place). That book and others served as a powerful tincture to ease big anxieties in a fraidy-cat girl; it was the start of a trend that led to a voracious appetite for the printed page.

Books V

I had every intention of honoring Harper Lee today, the author of my favorite story, one that came to me a few years after the fairy tale years and captivated me even more. I had so much to say about it, and about her, her writing style, how the South seems to churn out exemplary fiction writers through the ages. I listened to an assessment of To Kill a Mockingbird on the radio on Friday, and a remembrance of Harper Lee today. The voice-over from the 1962 movie took me right back to the story and to the South, and reminded me why I love them both so much. And I always, always identified with Scout, the story’s narrator.

Big Thinkers have tried to figure out why the book has had such staying power: why it is still read in schools, still talked about and studied, still relevant. In the radio piece I heard on Friday theories were advanced left and right about racism and Atticus Finch’s character especially (particularly in the new book, which I have neither seen nor read but in which he is purportedly revealed as racist).

Here is my own explanation in a nutshell: all these folks are overthinking it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good story, and Ms. Lee was one of the best-ever descriptive writers, and that is all. You can tear apart themes about race and the Deep South all you want, but the bottom line is this—Harper Lee wrote an engaging narrative, and she wrote it well. She knocked it out of the park, as they say. She wrote the book just before I was born: she could not possibly have known the tenor of race relations in America in the here and now. But if the book speaks to a new generation of readers, all the better. It’s that staying power, some would argue, that makes a thing a true classic.

Today when I tried to unearth my beautiful hardcover edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, though, I ran into a road block: I could not find it.

I climbed over piles in the basement storage room, trying to locate a box that looked familiar. I peeled back packing tape and lifted cardboard flaps, scanning titles, pulling out volumes one at a time. Nothing.

Then I found an open box and removed a few books stacked on the top. My hand found its way to a family history, the spine covered in mildew and the cover warped. Thence to a David Sedaris collection—the same. And a beautiful edition of The Wind in the Willows I once read aloud to my son, the slipcover damaged, and the book showing signs of moisture damage. I was horrified. Every single box contained books in a state of decline, damp to the touch, or reeking of must.

Books IV

I’ve moved three times in as many years, and with each move another precious possession is lost or damaged; I suppose that is to be expected. Before my thousand-mile haul from Tennessee to Vermont in 2012 I’d already spent the better part of a calendar year paring down the artifacts of a failed marriage and family life to the prized possessions (many pre-dating my marriage) that would see me into an unknown future. The remains were what I considered important, the things I would squeeze into the big yellow Penske truck on the front lawn of my erstwhile home. Loss and damage: it’s a bitter pill to swallow when you’ve already downsized to the things that are truly meaningful.

I feel a connection to my books going back to those stormy Memphis days and even before. Ironically, I spend far more time writing now than I do reading. But it bothers me to my core that my books are in a state of disarray, that some are damaged or ruined, that others are missing: silly as it sounds, I feel like I’ve failed my trusted friends.

This afternoon I resolved to fix the problem. We are packed into cramped quarters here, a condition not likely to change soon. But my bookcases are coming out of storage and every single book will find a proper place on a shelf, including my missing hardover edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The civil defense sirens have fallen silent; it’s high time all my old friends came out of sequestration.

Books I