I met Ace at a Baltimore animal shelter on a Saturday in the fall of 2005.
I’d gone there not for a dog, but for a story. Ace, his shelter name, was six months old, or thereabouts. He was 60 pounds. He’d been held in the shelter for the better part of a month. The staff there said he was a hound, or maybe shepherd, mix. They said he was destined to grow into a medium-sized dog.
How wrong they were.
Ace would grow to jaw-dropping dimensions, as tall as a dining room table, as long as some of those miniature cars they make nowadays, big enough to make people stop in their tracks, or sometimes cross over to the other side of the street. I see the jaws drop regularly, usually followed by the statement, “That’s a big dog” – as if, perchance, I am unaware of that. That is always followed by one to three questions: What kind of dog is that? How much does he weigh? How much does he eat?
A mutt, 130, a lot, I usually answer, depending on how talkative I’m feeling.
He’s not as big as some Great Danes, as tall as an Irish Wolfhound, or as bulky as a Newfoundland, yet people have come to expect largeness in those breeds. To see such size in a not immediately identifiable breed gives them pause. Between his size and his proud and dashing appearance, people tend to think he must be a little-known purebred of some sort. More than once, when I explain his heritage, I’ve gotten the disappointed response, “Oh, he looked like he might be something.”
I can assure you, he is.
He is a constant source of amazement – gigantic enough to ward off evil, gentle enough to serve as a therapy dog. He changed the course of my life, all but vanquished my loneliness and somehow made the planet – for me, anyway — a more comfortable place. With Ace at my side, I can be social. With Ace at my side, I can be mildly adventurous. He reminds me to be “in the moment,” and somehow encourages me to leap into a new one when “the moment,” despite what all the self-help gurus say about it, starts getting dull and repetitive. He’s willing to try anything once, if it’s not too loud. He is my confidante, cohort, consultant, consoler, catalyst, and, I’ll admit, co-dependent.
But, no, he doesn’t complete me.
With all due respect to cliché movie phrases, you don’t want to be “completed” — by a dog or anything else. What happens to things completed? They are put on a shelf, maybe hung on wall if they’re lucky. They are boxed, buried, incinerated, recycled, stored in the attic, taken to Goodwill, or sent to spend eternity in a landfill. Having served their purpose, nothing more is expected of them. Worse yet, they expect nothing more of themselves.
It’s the incompleteness, the emptiness that bubbles to the surface, that keeps us going. It serves to ensure, even for the person who has everything – maybe even most for the person who has everything – that something will always be missing. It’s supposed to be missing. You and me, like dogs, are supposed to be sniffing it out.
Of all the hundreds of things we could, but often fail, to learn from dogs, this one may be the single most important: Stay curious.
Curiosity is what makes dogs dogs. It’s what makes you you. It’s what made John Steinbeck John Steinbeck – that willingness to stick your nose in a mysterious hole, plunge your hands into tidal pool teeming with squirmy creatures, take a road that goes you know not where, or start a conversation with that sketchy looking fellow on the corner. Societal changes are pushing us in the other direction – they’re squashing curiosity, at least that’s my theory. In the Internet age, we get immediate, if not always correct, answers to our questions. We’ve become prone to thinking we can solve deep mysteries with just one click. We’ve become more “connected,” but also more insular — to the point we sometimes don’t see what, in the real world, is staring us in the face, much less appreciate its nuances.
Dogs rarely miss a nuance, and I don’t think they ever consider themselves completed — despite the way that, generally after circling the floor or bed four or five times, they finally get situated and heave that long, all-is-right-with-the-world sigh that sounds, so … well … completed.
Here, and this is conjecture, is what I like to think it is: A combination of being satisfied by the day that is ending and anticipation of what tomorrow might bring. That prolonged release of air – and Ace’s end-of-day sighs can go on for five seconds – is saying: “I am happy with today. If anything bad happened, any lingering negativity is hereby exhaled. I am looking forward to tomorrow. Life is good.”
I envy that dog sigh.
No matter how old, how thoroughly trained, how many dog show ribbons won, faces licked or sticks fetched, dogs are never done. No matter how many times they return to same spot, they can sniff out something new, or find fresh pleasures to savor in the old and familiar. No matter how many times they see you come through the front door, they find major tail-wagging, face-lapping, paws-all-a-flutter excitement in your arrival.
We all know that is the best part. No husband, no wife (though, again, perhaps we could learn) is going to come anywhere close to exhibiting such glee over your simple presence.
I was likely filling a void when I brought Ace home. I was recently divorced. I, for a while, was reveling in being alone and returning to my old and mostly bad habits. Fresh vegetables – they rot much too quickly — were out, as were all things fibrous, frilly, beaded, glittery or lacey. Boxed macaroni and cheese, and most things artery-clogging, were back in. I was enjoying the simplicity and solitude of it all, right up until I started going crazy from the simplicity and solitude of it all. I’d work and work and work and come home and be a vegetable.
Being a newspaper reporter had always come very close to completing me, or at least consuming me. It certainly defined me, probably more than I should have permitted. In what other occupation, though, could one be so captivated on a daily basis, dig up the dirt, take a well-calculated piss on spots in need of being peed upon, and get the occasional free meal? In what other job could one come so close to being a dog?
By 2005, newspaper journalism had been crumbling for a good 10 years, and, for reporters, the opportunities to blaze new trails had shriveled, replaced by orders from above. It was one of those assignments – and as they went, not a bad one — that led me to the local animal shelter: Write a story about people who (and I’d venture that it’s because they are feeling incomplete) spend their weekends doing volunteer work. They are those selfless sorts who are under the impression it is within their power to make the world a better place. They fan out in communities across the country, visiting homeless shelters and prisons; spending time with the hospitalized, the handicapped, and the elderly; tutoring and mentoring; Big Brothering, Habitating for Humanity, de-mucking the Chesapeake Bay and, in thousands of cities, helping dogs.
As I strolled through rows of cages at the Baltimore Animal Rescue & Care Shelter – formerly the city pound, by then a quasi non-profit organization — I saw Ace. (And, yes, looking back, I do think he had me at hello). He was sitting quietly in a cage to himself, not counting one neat pile of poop that rose like a minaret from the cement floor. As other dogs yapped, jumped at their gates and otherwise went ballistic, he was the lone calm one – not enjoying his stark, noisy, reeking-of-disinfectant surroundings, but, it seemed, stoically accepting them for the time being.
Later, outside, I ran into him again in a small fenced corral. When I joined him and a volunteer in the pen, Ace offered up his paw, unrequested. He looked into my eyes the way few dogs do with strangers, not a fleeting sideways glance, but a protracted gaze, as if — if he looked long enough, hard enough, deep enough — he might figure something out.
Then I went back to my quiet rowhouse. In front of the television, eating leftovers while watching repeats, listening to the sound of my own feet shuffling across the wooden floor, the image of Ace kept returning to my head: the autumnal shades of his coat, his massive paws, his sweet disposition, his seemingly inquisitive eyes, made all the more expressive by the ring of black, like eyeliner, encircling them.
Mostly, though, it was his calm that had appealed to me — not the calm of an entirely self-assured, obliviously worry-free soul. It was instead a calm that he seemed to be working to achieve, the kind that we summon up to cope with chaos, the kind that, beneath its surface, one who looks closely enough can detect a nuance of uncertainty.
By the time the next Saturday rolled around, my story was in the paper, along with a large photo of Ace with one of the volunteers. I figured he’d be adopted right away. Determined to beat the crowd, I was there before the shelter opened to take him home.
Ace grew quickly. In the first few weeks, he gained ten pounds. I, through our twice daily walks, lost five. He was quick to make friends, unlike me. He trusted everyone, unlike me. He was nosey, just like me. Upon seeing an open door, or even a partially open door, he invariably wanted to venture inside – be it delicatessen, American Legion hall, hair stylist, or private home.
There’s a corner bar called The Idle Hour in South Baltimore, and we passed it daily on our way to and from the park. Ace, having been treated in a kindly manner the first time he poked his head inside, always insisted – as much as dogs can insist – that we go in.
As a pup, he would lay on the radiator cover next to the barstool by the window. It seemed like only weeks before he outgrew it, switching to the floor, or, better yet, on the floor right in the middle of the doorway so he could see both out and in, a highly desirable position he inherited when the bar owner’s dog, Higgins, passed away.
Sometimes, he would be a gadfly, greeting arriving customers and going from barstool to barstool to be petted. Other times, he served as the lazy bar dog, content, like that “Hee Haw” bloodhound, to lay there like a piece of décor, as homey and comforting – though maybe not to each and every customer — as a crackling fireplace.
When ice rattled into glasses, when bags were opened, when he sensed a lime was being sliced, Ace’s ears would perk up, his nose would wiggle and he’d jump up, putting his front paws on the bar and standing there expectantly, like a human waiting for his drink order. At the bar, everybody remembered his name, and a few even remembered mine.
Suddenly, I had two social venues, the park and the bar. Between them, and the stories I would write for the newspaper about Ace – an essay on adopting him, a series in which I searched for his roots, and another on his quest to become therapy dog – he ended up developing a small fan club.
I ended up becoming the newspaper’s dog blogger, up until 2008 when I left to write a book, also dog related, and started my own dog blog. Between book and blog, I’d spend the entire day – except for our two walks to the park — sitting at the computer. When I’d glance over at the futon on which Ace stationed himself when I wrote, he would look up at me, head between his paws, and give his tail a shake or two, his big brown eyes full of hope and anticipation, or at least what I read as such.
Perhaps they were only suggesting it was time for the next meal, or a walk, but I wondered if they might be hinting at something more, maybe that there was a whole world out there and that, comfortable as the futon can be, we should be romping around in it.
Book finished, job offers not rolling in and bank account dwindling, I went on unemployment. Whatever standing I had carved out for myself in 35 years in journalism seemed to have faded, or maybe I was just deemed too old to hire. My girlfriend of two years had moved out. The roof was leaking. My rent was due again. My significant others were a blog and a dog.
Was I, at 57, complete?
There’s a thing dogs do – older dogs, anyway. You take them outside and they slowly stretch, working out the aches. They take a few lazy steps. They sniff the ground, pee here and there, and wander a bit more before stopping to sit, still and silent as a statue, for maybe a minute or two, or five. Then, bubbling up from out of nowhere, prompted by nothing, comes a tremendous burst of energy. They take off. They run in crazy circles. They crouch down into a play stance, as if to defy their years, their butts pointed skyward and their tails fiercely wagging. They stick their noses into mysterious holes. They grab a stick and dare you to take it. They seize a piece of garbage, a fallen leaf, a moment, and shake it like a rag doll.
Why do they engage in that seeming celebration of life?
We don’t really know. What we know about dogs – even with their genome having been mapped — pales in comparison with what we don’t. In years ahead, with dogs being studied as never before – in terms of everything from their cognitive abilities to their cells — we’re going to be learning a lot. Some of it will astound us. Some of it will correct the faulty assumptions we’ve made by viewing their behavior through our all-too-human eyes.
Ace’s morning routine, for instance – going from motionless statue to whirling dervish – was likely not a message directed at me.
Nevertheless, for my particular life, at that particular time, it did seem to be the answer.