I'm a Saint Bernard. The dog, not the saint. Definitely not the saint.
As part of my goal of reaching the end of the day without checking off a single item from my "Do These Things Today or Your Life Is Over" list, I recently invested a few minutes in taking one of those online personality tests. And as it turns out, were I a member of the esteemed canine world, I'd be a Saint Bernard.
Learning about my close psychic relationship to these lovely giants was interesting, if not altogether flattering. But it also provided me with an opportunity to wander through my memory back to Jacob, my own Saint Bernard from many years ago. I can't remember why I named him Jacob, except that my previous dog had been Joshua, so maybe I was doing some kind of Old Testament J-names thing. After all, I was a deeply closeted gay working at a Southern Baptist conference center and renting a home at a Presbyterian conference center. (Have some fun with that one.)
I have three distinct memories of Jacob. First, when I went to pick up my new puppy, I took a beautiful basket that I had carefully lined with a soft, fluffy towel. Clearly I had not done my homework on Saint Bernards, as I immediately realized when Jake's "mother" brought him out to my car and my new puppy's head was already the size of my pretty little basket.
Second, I remember the afternoon that Jake had great fun pulling me down a mountain -- not hill, mountain -- sliding headfirst on my belly on an ice-covered road, desperately trying to get his leash unwound from around my wrist. Anyone who insists that dogs can't laugh is wrong, wrong, wrong.
And third, I remember holding his giant, fuzzy head in my lap as he peacefully made his journey to doggy heaven. Thirty years later, that memory can still bring me to tears.
Pets have been an ongoing presence throughout my life, and at times have been my closest friends. Mostly it's been cats and dogs, although my never-boring father did bring home some "Chinese Chickens" one night. Dad was famous for finding things "just sitting there by the side of the road" on his way home -- a full boxed set of bone china, an upright piano, an industrial-sized roll of heavy-duty plastic sheeting. On his way home . . . from the local bar, I might add, which explains a lot.
I've been associated with some memorable cats, beginning with my grandmother's beloved Gretchen -- an intimidating black feline that only Grandmommy could love, while the rest of us looked on from a safe distance. Francine and Cosmos were named after the lead characters in a Sprite television commercial back in the early '70s. All I remember about them is that they weren't too bright -- which had something to do with not knowing when to come in from the cold, literally. And there was Big Kitty, a large orange cat who slept in the bathroom sink. Dad loved to feed Big Kitty those little cardboard cups of vanilla ice cream -- while his four children looked on and salivated, to no avail.
My partner, Laurel, brought Sidney from her previous life, and I dearly loved him. Then Clementine showed up at our door one morning and insisted on moving in. Clem was quite adept at insisting on things, as I recall. We gave Sidney a Viking's funeral in the corner of our yard, complete with his kitty bed, favorite toys, and a picture of Laurel and me. By the time Clem died several years later, we had figured out that cremation was the way to go, or else I'd end up painstakingly mowing around a yard full of tiny little grave markers. Right now we're sharing our home with Luther Pearson -- named after the boy in my third-grade class who gave me a pair of scissors that I still own -- and Dickens. And if you can't figure out who Dickens is named after, shame on you.
But as much as I love cats, it's dogs who own my heart. When I was a kid, one of my favorite dogs was a dachshund named Foosey. (Ever heard that joke about your "hooker name"? Put the name of your very first pet together with the first street that you lived on as a kid, and that's your hooker name. Foosey Shubuta, that's me.) To this day, my brother's nose carries a small scar that he earned while trying to take Foosey's bone away. That dog could barely jump up on my bed to sleep at night, but he somehow managed to reach my brother's nose. Small dog, big heart.
In recent years, Laurel and I have been adopting elderly boxers who have been rescued from bad situations: Captain, Hattie Biscuit, and Fred. Each of them has brought lots of baggage, no different than with people. And they haven't lived long, since they're already old when they get to us. Fred's still kicking around pretty good, although he's basically deaf now, but Captain and Hattie are looking down from doggy heaven. And laughing, I hope.
When we go to campus to walk Fred, it's always interesting to watch how students are drawn to him. They don't care one whit about me or Laurel, but they'll always ask about Fred. "Is he friendly?" A valid question, given that he easily tops a hundred pounds and has a head the size of a volleyball. "What's his name? Can I pet him?"
Upon inquiry, they'll open up and tell me about their own pets back home. Some students miss their family pets tremendously -- and I'm sorry, but keeping a goldfish in a glass bowl in your dorm room is just not the same. Fish can't look up at you adoringly with great big cow eyes, ferociously wag their tails, and drool all over your shoes. Tossing the crust from your peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a fish is simply not as satisfying as tossing it to a dog who will love you forever and ever amen just because you occasionally eat sandwiches and give him the crusts.
As much as they'll insist otherwise, it's tough for some young people to leave home for the first time and move to a college campus. At the University of Maine at Machias, I run into lots of students who feel lonely and homesick. They miss their parents, their siblings, their friends and grandparents and cousins -- and yes, they really, really miss their pets. Dogs love us unconditionally. Dogs don't judge us or make fun of our clothes or bully us or fuss at us because we aren't spending all day Saturday studying, or any of those other things that we do to each other. In contrast, being around dogs -- or any pets, really -- can actually lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
If you live near a college campus, take your dog to walk on campus occasionally, okay? If you're a parent with a kid in college, take the dog along on your next visit.
And if you're a college president, figure out how to get more animals -- dogs, goats, whatever -- onto your campus so that your students can spend some quality time with them. I'm working on that one myself.