Sunday, October 30, 2011

Just Deserts

You don’t deserve a friend like Malbec.” I said to Barley as I put him into a “Down/Stay” in the corner of the family room. Malbec had just returned after a month’s hiatus and Barley had welcomed him home with a curled lip and growl, modulated somewhat by the tennis ball and hedgehog in his mouth. We have attempted to temper his predisposition for inhospitable behavior toward other dogs by insisting that Barley sits and waits for Malbec to enter the house or get into the car. At meal time, Barley sits and waits in front of his own food dish until Malbec has been fed. Actually, Barley generally performs these tasks with alacrity, often without prompting, which, to the uninitiated might suggest that he is willing to share the throne or even to take turns. Alas, that would be a false assumption, a fantasy known universally to the mothers’ of naughty boys. If breed were any real indicator of dominance, Malbec, the Rhodesian ridgeback/boxer mix, who is taller and heavier, should be calling the shots for Barley, the runt of his golden retriever litter. No amount of Pavlovian parlor tricks or “down time” is going to alter Barley’s perception of himself as “top dog,” and the rest of us might as well get used to it, as Malbec obviously has.

On this day, while Barley put in his time in “the penalty box” – first looking around and then nodding off in a nap – Malbec inspected the house to insure that I had things arranged to his liking. Malbec likes to have things orderly, or at least he likes a particular order to things. For example, given that he never walks but always dashes, he likes to have a rug between the door and his bed so that he doesn’t slip and slide on the wood floor when making his entrance. “His” water dish must be on the floor in the computer room- he never drinks out of any other dish, though Barley freely helps himself to water wherever he finds it. His secondary bed should be placed between the wing back chair and the TV where he can not only enjoy the warmth of the wood stove but also keep his eye on the squirrels cavorting in the front yard.

Driven in large part by their perceived place in the pack, these two have developed a rather elaborate set of rules that informs their behavior as predictably as any prescribed liturgical practice. When we head down to the beach in the evenings, they engage in a dance with little or no variation. Barley gets the lunker or the float first and runs with it to the gate where he drops it. Malbec picks it up. Barley waits at the gate until one of us arrives to open it. Then Malbec drops it and Barley retrieves it, and then pushes down the stairs in the lead. Once the dogs get to the beach or the bulkhead, if the tide is in, Barley drops the lunker and waits until someone gets down there to throw it in water (as far out as possible, thank you very much!) Except for a narrow window of tunnel vision, Barley is virtually blind, so the lunker we use is a large acid green sausage shape with a rope attached. It floats high up in the water and makes a big splash when it lands. Don’t ask what it costs; the company has quit making them, but with the aid of the folks at The Granary (the local pet store), I have six more in reserve.

Of late, if the dogs perceive that we are dawdling and don’t get to the beach fast enough, Malbec has taken to picking up the lunker, wading out in the water and dropping it for Barley. This new variation of the game was going on by the time Fred and I arrived at the beach on Malbec’s inaugural return visit. Barley staggered around for a few minutes, unable to find it, so Malbec picked it up and dropped it again, this time right in front of Barley, who lunged for it and then ran up onto the beach with it in his mouth, triumphant as any gladiator!

Malbec is anxious by nature and when he first came to stay with us, he was afraid of getting too close to the water. Of course, growing up, as it were, in Albuquerque, his only exposure to water was what was put in his dish. At first he approached the edge of the water tentatively, coming close to the edge and then darting away if it lapped against his feet. Even now, if a boat goes by and leaves a sizeable wake, he will chase the waves down the beach, as if they were prey that he needed to grab by the neck and shake. On his first actual plunge into the water, he resembled a prancing pony, his feet lifted high into the air – as if he thought he might be able to swim without getting his feet wet. Despite this inauspicious beginning, within a few days he hit his stride and is now a very powerful swimmer. He is able to launch his body about ten feet into the water, and then with his head down, pulls strong and steadily on target, frequently reaching the lunker before Barley has figured out exactly where it is. Barley frequently cheats, heading out into the water before it is even thrown, giving him an edge, assuming he gets lucky and swims in the right direction. No matter which dog gets there first and brings it back to shore, Barley brings it across the finish line, as this is part of the sacrosanct ritual they observe. Malbec swims in until he can stand up and then drops it, whereupon Barley swoops in like a feral beast and trots triumphantly up the beach with it in his mouth, head and tail held high.

One day last week when we were down there, the tide was all the way up to the bulkhead, so in order to bring it home, Barley either needed to swim to the end of the bulk head where the steps are located, or climb up over the rocks at the other end. He is an experienced “up climber” so this was not a problem; however, when I launched the lunker from that end of the bulkhead, he was less sure about how to get into the water over the rocks. I encouraged Malbec to “go for it” as he had a sure opportunity of beating Barley to the kill. Meanwhile, Barley frantically tried to find a way to confidently get in the water. No matter how often I encouraged Malbec to “go get it” he held fast – pacing back and forth in front of Barley, as if encouraging him to take the plunge. Finally, that is exactly what Barley did – threw himself off the bulkhead, into the water, and the race was on, with both dogs heading for the target.

“You don’t deserve a friend like Malbec!” I repeated for the umpteenth time as Barley pushed past me on his way up the stairs with the lunker in his mouth. Fortunately for Barley, in Malbec he got the friend he needed instead of the one he deserved. Upon reflection, maybe that is true for all of us—at least I think it is true for me. Like Malbec, my friends are loyal and steadfast, despite my sometimes cavalier behavior. I rarely initiate phone calls and never “drop by.” I am vague about birthdays and anniversaries, congratulating myself if I happen to recall the month or even the “quarter” of the year the event falls in. I’m endowed with broad shoulders that have been called into service more often to move a piano than for comfort or solace. Still, my friends hang in with me. I guess it is about time I quit admonishing Barley and admitted that we are both fortunate to get what we need rather than something else entirely.

A postscript. “Just Deserts” may well seem an odd title for this piece. For starters, the correct spelling is a matter of debate. Google it and you will learn that even though it is pronounced as if it were referring to Black Forrest dark chocolate raspberry torte, it is spelled as if referring to a vast, arid place - think Mojave. The word is an archaic form of “deserve” and the expression, loosely translated, means that the punishment fits the crime. So where, you may reasonably ask, is the “punishment” piece in Malbec’s unfailingly genial treatment of Barley? To get there, you must embrace the notion that the best way to deal with difficult people is to “kill ‘em with kindness.” The efficacy of this philosophy, at least as applied to me and Barley, is open to debate. As far as Barley is concerned, if he is experiencing any twinges of conscience, they don’t appear to be keeping him awake nights—or days either—for that matter.