Tag Archives: Scotties

On Ownership and the Naming of Things



“He brought us joy, and we loved him well.  He was not ours; He was not mine.”

                                                                                                   –Karen Blixen in Out of Africa

Upon seeing that I had put a borrowed dog in my engagement photos and in my wedding, a friend of mine said something a little too snarky and disapproving  about how the dog wasn’t even mine. Because I’m a good Midwesterner, I did not say what I wanted to say, which was, “Bite me” and instead pretended I didn’t hear. In the legal sense of the word, the dog was not mine so long as his owners—family friends for whom I had been petsitting for for two decades—were alive, though I’d asked them to sign a document addressed To Whom It May Concern stating that should they both be eaten by lions while on safari, their most recent Scottish Terrier would belong to me. I couldn’t stand the thought of this bright-eyed creature being sent off with someone who knew him or loved him less well than I did, like some poor protagonist from a gothic novel.

One of the repeated struggles of my life—and maybe you are the same—is that the labels that we put on relationships never seem to accurately or completely encompass how we experience those relationships. The labels make the person or quality of love seem mundane, like any old parent, husband, pet when we know them to be something larger than that, more unique, special. I move easily between speaking of growing up as an only child but also of my two brothers (half brothers who arrived a state away when I was nearly an adult but to whom I hate referring as “half brothers” because it makes them sound somehow less significant). I have cousins who, in my mind, are siblings or best friends. My mother has always been more than just a mother because she and I kind of grew up together and can talk for hours about whatever we’ve just read, seen, or thought, and I can’t quite categorize that…are we more like siblings? Friends? Or just run-of-the-mill parent-child and I’m delusional? I’ve had friends who in some ways felt like spouses. And I’ve got a spouse who has so transcended my idea of what “spouse” means that there should be some other word that denotes him…a word that shoots sparks and sings.

Mac, never on the right side of a door.

Mac, never on the right side of a door.

And then there is the above-mentioned Scottish Terrier: Mac Harvey, Macadoodledoo, Macaloo, Mackie. My fairy god dog. His humans–people who over the years themselves became indefinable, something closer than friends, a different kind of family–adopted him as a puppy only after I promised to babysit him while they were overseas for several weeks. They invited me over to meet him the day he came home, and like most Scottish Terrier puppies, he was 90% ears and 10% dog. Puppies are not hard to fall in love with, and he was no exception, though within weeks, it was impossible not to believe he was exceptional. He was something more amazing than someone else’s pet that I had to let in and out the door 37 times a day. I’d cared about his owners’ other pets—I’d wept when they died—but when Mac came into my life, I became 100% a dog person, 100% his. He’d get bored and string toilet paper and chewed magazines pieces throughout the house, and I couldn’t get mad. He’d hog the bed. He refused to come in at night after his curfew and I’d worry about the coyotes I was sure were out there waiting to bite into him. He once ate some of the papers I was grading so I had to go to class and confess, “My dog ate your homework.” But he never once felt like an obligation or a job. He was always a delight, even when he made a poor decision like Beth’s new bra = chew toy.

He arrived at a crossroads in my life thirteen years ago. My father had recently died. I’d returned from a transformative summer in Ireland. A few months before his arrival, the nature of the world had gotten scarier and more paranoid because of September 11th. I was a year deep into therapy that had me naming what I wanted out of life for the first time—to say without apology that I wanted a partner and maybe a baby and a writing career. And also, I’d just met a Zimbabwean co-worker who I was sure was meant for me though he didn’t know it yet. I’d toss Mac into my new car—the first car I’d paid for myself—and we’d drive around town, his snout poking out the crack of a window, and he felt like mine and it felt like the life I’d been meant to have, a woman and her dog, looking for an adventure.

Mac with a side order of snow.

Mac with a side order of snow.

My first weekend with Mac, I called my paternal grandfather to see if I could bring the puppy over to meet him. Grandpa loved Julia Roberts movies and dogs unequivocally, and I couldn’t wait to introduce him to Mac, who was still so small that he sometimes tipped over when he hiked his leg. But when the phone was picked up at Grandpa’s house, it was my aunt’s shaky voice instead of Grandpa’s, and she said tearfully, “Oh, Beth! Grandpa died this morning.” That weekend Mac and I hosted my cousins at what was one of many family gatherings at his generous humans’ house for a modified wake. He distracted us from our grief and won our hearts when he took, very gently, tiny bites of a muffin offered to him by one of the toddlers, as if he knew that she was a more delicate creature than the rest of us and her soft flesh could be pierced by his sharp puppy teeth. (He was also very tolerant when later she shut herself into his kennel.) From this first introduction and subsequent family gatherings, more people fell in love with him. One cousin deemed him “cool”, another made him a Christmas present, friends came to stay with me in no small part because they’d get to spend time with him, and those among them who weren’t dog lovers would leave saying, “I’d have a dog if I could have one like Mac.”  Even while Z and I were in Ireland two months ago, my cousins there who’d come to stay at “the dog house” for a week twelve years ago, asked after him and showed me photos of their young son playing with him on the floor. Eoin and Mac were great pals that week. Now Eoin is in college.

Because Mac’s people traveled a lot, I stayed with him multiple times a year. He slept in the middle of the king sized bed I slept in, nudged me awake at ungodly hours to go outside and police his yard, he’d jab at the back of my legs with his strong snout to hurry me along in his supper preparations. We walked on “his” campus at Earlham, where he was well known and strutted around, a sort of stately gentleman about town (when he wasn’t terrorizing squirrels). Though all the experts talk about how headstrong terriers are and how they should never be let off a leash, Mac was sensible, had been well-trained, and almost always came when called unless a particularly delectable rabbit was in the underbrush. His parents gave him freedom and full run of the campus, and so I let him off leash as soon as we were a safe distance from the road, and he would race around the paths and grass like a mad man. He delighted the students who were homesick for their own pets, treed every squirrel who dared step on his grass, scampered in the woods behind the main campus, and would attempt to sneak into the building where his dad taught. He and his three good dog friends—Lilly, Phoebe, and Luther—would occasionally meet there for a ramble, and he’d be so excited at the prospect of being with his little pack that he’d start howling before I’d parked the car and let him out to to tear off with them, happy to be with his own kind. A few years ago, my cousin came down to visit with her new, very teeny and adorable dachshund, and while we walked the campus, everyone oohed and aahed over little Zoe instead of the now greying Mac, who stood patiently while she was in the spotlight, reminding me of how I used to feel as an only child when other children were in my domain. Mac was tolerant of and polite to Zoe all weekend, but when he saw her and her mother drive away on Sunday afternoon, his tail wagged extra hard and he did two victory laps around the driveway, his only-dog status restored.

Favorite spot in the bed.

Favorite spot in the bed.

I’ve written here about his antics, his refined tastes for bottled water, how he’d put himself firmly between me and Z or between me and whatever new baby someone had dragged into his house to establish his ownership of me. He was clever and would play hide and seek with a bone: I would hide it, he would find it, he would hide it—walk me around the house, barking encouragement—until I found it. We’d do this for what felt like hours and he rarely tired of it. He often spent holidays with my family, so there he is in our Christmas photos and Easter photos, on the fringes of baby showers, wakes, reunions.

Ever hopeful.

Ever hopeful.

My friends with children had to regularly grit their teeth when they would tell me a story about their kids and I’d respond with a story about Mac, as if the child and the dog were equal entities. But he did feel like my baby. I was always looking for the toy that would please him and enhance his intellectual development, talking to him as if he were an adult human. I felt his shame the day he had a bout of gastrointestinal distress while on his campus walk and had to be brought home sitting in the backseat in a garbage bag, with just his head poking out, and then had to suffer the further indignity of having his backside scrubbed. I had to take him to the vet more than once because he wasn’t acting like himself, and I felt the anxiety that “real” pet owners and, I’m guessing, parents of human children, must feel whenever their own ones are sick and cannot say, “This is what hurts, you fools, FIX IT!” As he got older, I worried about his aches and his pains, how many more visits I’d have with him. In the five and a half years since I got married and moved across country away from Mac, I flew home multiple times specifically to stay with him because I didn’t want him in a kennel. Fortunately, Mom was often able to stay with him once I left town, so he did not often have many sleepovers with strangers. While in Seattle, if I met dogs on the street and stopped to scratch ears, I’d say to their owners without feeling like a liar, “I have a dog back home in Indiana that I miss so much.” Z and I added a leg to a trip to California specifically to visit him and his parents, who were wintering in Palm Springs, and we were rewarded with a lengthy “talk” from him that seemed to indicate his delight at seeing his extended human pack in a place he’d never encountered them before. On that visit, he proudly walked us from room to room, giving us a tour of his part-time home.

Photo credit: Susanna Tanner Photography

Photo credit: Susanna Tanner Photography

This is Mac with me and Z on our engagement photo shoot at the old train depot in my hometown. Does he look like he is not my dog? Does he look like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world? Is it crazy that I invited a dog that was not mine to share one of the most important days of my life a few months later? Oh never mind. These questions are rhetorical. I really don’t care what anyone thinks—it’s what I wanted and I have no regrets. Maybe it was a selfish thing to have asked his parents to bring him, to insist he be in my wedding without knowing if he wanted to do it. He seemed to like the attention that his red plaid bow-tie commanded and the treats that awaited him at the end of the aisle, but possibly it was overwhelming with too many people in too foreign a place. Yet he felt like part of my family and I couldn’t imagine the day without him.

The Best Dog

The Best Dog

Mac and I happened to be together five months after I got married when I was awaiting the news of whether a crappy diagnosis I’d just received was going to be survivable or would cut short my newly-wedded dreams, and he seemed to instinctively know that I needed him curled up beside me, and after awhile, when he felt I’d wallowed in sadness and anxiety long enough, he’d nudge me towards the door, we’d go for a walk, and I’d be reminded that none of us knows the measure of our days and so we have to enjoy each one as best we can. If dogs teach us anything, surely this is the lesson, over and over and over again.


Louis CK says that when you bring a puppy home to your family, it’s really just a countdown to sadness. Which is kind of what this blog has been. Mac turned thirteen in January, and lived twice as long as any of his owners’ previous Scotties. Because he had a brindle coat, people had been accusing him of being an old dog when he was still young, but he had gotten greyer, deafer, and finally, sick. My mother got to visit with him one last time yesterday, and I am both sad and relieved that I was in Seattle and so didn’t have to say goodbye this morning before he was sent—as Pa Ingall’s tells Laura in By the Shores of Silver Lake about Jack, their brindle bulldog—to the happy hunting ground.

In other things I cannot properly name besides those relationships that mean the most to me, I’ve never been a willing namer or acceptor of death. Maybe it is my Christian upbringing. Maybe it is simply denial. But in my mind, my father is still playing golf somewhere in Dayton, Ohio, and has just refused to get a cell phone thus rendering himself temporarily unreachable. All four of my grandparents and an amazing step-grandmother who lived to be 99 can’t figure out the computer to send emails. Eventually, we’ll be in each other’s company again, I think to myself, as I go about my day after a memory of one of them flashes into my consciousness. This separation is only temporary. It’s unfathomable to me that I won’t see my dearly departed again, so I refuse to attempt to fathom it. On days like today I’m not sure if belief in an afterlife is a matter of faith or stubborn refusal to face facts, but I’m glad for the faith or the stubborness that dwells in me and makes some future meeting a possibility.

As far as I am concerned, Mac is chasing squirrels, awaiting his next treat, anxious to play hide-and-seek, ready to fight me for the dead center of the bed,  and letting out a howl of glee when he sees Lilly, Phoebe, and Luther.   Maybe I can allow for this scenario because I am not the one looking at his empty dog dish or his toy hedgehog, never to be retrieved from his  basket again. Maybe this is the true signifier that he was not mine. My grief is large, but for his parents, it is larger.

Thirteen years ago when his parents asked if I’d be willing to watch the puppy they were considering, would I have answered any differently even if I’d known then how the absence of a little dog with a big bark could wreck me? Of course not. How lucky was I that they let him consistently be  in my life and seemed tolerant of what they must have always known: that in my heart, he belonged to me.

Flashback Friday Night: Snakes I Have Loathed

Horrible, Scottie-eating snake.

Scottie-eating snake. A cobra, perhaps? A python? Something horrible.

(Earlier today, I was forced to stare at a metaphorical snake and my blood ran cold. Fortunately, it wasn’t feeling any animosity toward me and so slithered away to sun itself on a rock somewhere. Even so, this seemed a timely post from eight years ago when I was staying at Mac the Scottie Wonder Dog’s house.)


15 June 2006

I hate snakes. Call it irrational, girly, predictable, whatever you want, but I  think all snakes should die, or, when I’m in a more goodwill-toward-all sort of mood, then I would be satisfied if they were all quarantined on an island somewhere so I could easily avoid it. I don’t feel this way about spiders or mice–in fact, I regularly spring the mouse traps set at the Dog House because it seems like bad, bad karma to eighty-six something so cute who is just out there trying to make a living like the rest of us.

But snakes are a different story and I’m not even from a part of the world where they are poisonous.

Several years ago I had a grandmotherly student who was not a native speaker of English. I was fond of her despite how difficult her papers were to decipher. Aside from the ESL issues, her thoughts often seemed jumbled and it was difficult to figure out how the ideas were connected. She once wrote a paper in which she talked frequently about “sneaks.”  For an evening, I tried to piece together what she really wanted her paper to be about. I pictured people who were out to get her, sneaking around her neighborhood, maybe painting racial epithets on her garage door or rifling through her garbage in the early-morning hours, co-workers sneaking behind her back and trying to make her life difficult. I wondered briefly if perhaps her husband had been sneaking around on her but she was afraid to write boldy about such a personal betrayal and so made her essay vague in order to protect herself.

After the third read-thru, it dawned on me that “sneaks” were really SNAKES. It was, perhaps, the strongest paper she ever wrote for the class, her hatred of snakes seemed to help her unify her thoughts.

Today, I let Mac out and two seconds later heard this awful caterwauling on the kitchen deck. I looked out in time to see a giant snake coiled up and ready to lunge at my sweet Scottie. Mac has a ferocious bark and tenacious spirit, and while both of these things should have scared the snake off, neither did. I called the dog in but the snake then glared at us through the patio door, still coiled and ready to strike. He opened his mouth, wide, to show us what he was made of. Mac whimpered, desperate to tear into this invader. I poked at the glass and made noises meant to scare it off, but the snake just stared at me, sitting on its snake-haunches, on the verge of attack. It didn’t leave until Mac and I walked away from the window and let it “win.” I haven’t let the dog out since.

(And yes, I did have to go through that paragraph and make it gender neutral because I always think of snakes as “he.”)

There are a lot of fantastical things in the Bible–people turning to pillars of salt, burning bushes, walking on water–but I’ve never had a problem with believing any of it. Today, though, I’m thinking the whole Garden of Eden story is a real crock. What self-respecting woman would talk to a snake? I just don’t think it would happen. They are all side-windy and slithery and awful. I can see how Eve might have been hoodwinked by a honey-tongued snake-like fruit salesman, whispering in her ear and telling her that his apples were better than anyone else’s while he twirled his moustahce, but an actual, honest-to-goodness snake? I don’t think so. I like to think the mother-of-us-all would have been cleverer and looked for a way to avoid a serpent confrontation.

At school, I regularly have students–almost always female, usually those with tattoos of pentagrams who smell of patchouli–who insist that snakes are wonderful, loving pets, but I never believe them. You can’t curl up with a snake and watch old Frasier reruns, like the Scottie Dog and I did last night. What you can do with a pet snake is take it out of its aquarium in an attempt to make guests uncomfortable. That’s about it. I’ve always thought how awful it was that cats were regularly murdered in medieval times (and beyond) because they were associated with witchcraft. How ignorant and heartless, I’d think. But snakes? If there were an anti-snake mob out there with the torches and  zeal? I’d probably join in, shouting and shaking a cudgel, ready to make the neighborhood safer.

Except for the part where I might actually have to face one of the sneaks. Ugh.


Now is the Springtime of Our Discontent: A Dog Story




Seattle Beth always has big, big plans for Indiana Beth. When she’s in Seattle, she makes lists of all the people she will see and the boxes she will rifle through in her parents’ attic and the epiphanies she will have while she is in her natural habitat. But Indiana Beth always has other ideas. Indiana Beth mostly wants to sit around staring out the window, chatting with her family, reading books that got left behind in the Great Move. Inexplicably, on this trip, Indiana Beth has been obsessively doing jigsaw puzzles on her iPad. Like an old person.


Seattle Beth is disappointed in Indiana Beth.


Frankly, I’m disappointed in both of them: the one for not realizing the limitations and proclivities and the other for being so incredibly lazy.


I was supposed to fly back to Z on Tuesday, but had an unwelcome 24-hour bug that made air travel seem like a bad idea. I was disappointed not to see Z on schedule and disappointed not to get to claim the first class seat to which I’d been upgraded. But I’m never sad to spend more time at home. Luckily, Mom has taken over my pet sitting gigs with Mac the Wonder Scottie, and so the bonus days in Richmond were spent with him at his gorgeous house. What’s a little stomach discomfort when you get to sit on a screened porch staring at a pond and woods with a little Scottish Terrier under your chair?


As soon as I realized that I needed to skip the flight and rebooked for three days later, Seattle Beth started making plans again. Maybe I could still clean out a closet, write a book proposal, post a blog a day, go on hour long walks of a vigorous nature, meditate, do yoga, find inner peace, come up with an idea for world peace.


It’s a lot to accomplish in three days, especially when there is a lovely view and a porch.


Mac is always initially excited to see me. He does his happy dance and his special growl-talk and we’re both overjoyed to be together again, and so we love on each other and then fight over his scruffy hedgehog. I’ve been watching him since he was a puppy and now he has a beard that makes him look like a wizard, so it is safe to say we know each other well. I know that if I say “Get the monkeys” when I open the door to let him out, he will go tearing into the yard set on chasing away the imaginary beasts even though he should know by now that there are no monkeys. (Mac hates monkeys even though he’s yet to come face to face with one.) He should also know that I am not what you’d call an energetic person.


Like Seattle Beth, he becomes discontent, and I can only assume that the source of this discontentment is me. I read too much. I sit and stare too much. Mom and I talk too long about things like the influx of buzzards. Finally, he sighs and turns his back on the pair of us and has a nap. I’d kind of like to teach him to play Words with Friends to take some of the pressure off of me. I’m not a good entertainment director. Once you have the walk and the hedgehog tug-of-war and the meal and the snacks, what else is there really? I’ve long been convinced that if I could show him how to read, he’d be so much more content.


Other sources of discontentment on this my last day in Indiana: a Ku Klux Klan rally in neighboring Centerville. I’m horrified and disgusted. And frankly, Mac is too. He seems to have a strong desire to sneak into the rally and tug white sheets off of participants, exposing them for the cowards and fools that they are. Maybe this explains the buzzard problem.