I’ve always envied people who could bring their dogs with them everywhere. Old coon hounds sitting in the back of a farmer’s pickup. Fashionistas with their Pomeranians in their purses. Airport cops with stoic German shepherds on short leashes. Hip entrepreneurs writing code in old warehouses, with mixed breed companions named Woman or Copernicus or 8-track sitting under their Ikea worktables.
Finally, I have joined their ranks. Every morning, my hairy coworkers report to the garage with me. First, they make sure no one has accidentally left any bacon or chicken bones on the floor during the night, then flop down to supervise me while I work. That supervision is very trusting as Tim and Joe generally fall asleep within minutes and leave me to carry on unattended.
Every hour or so, something or other will pass outside our fence and they will leap outraged from their slumber and hurl themselves down the drive to bark angrily through the cracks. Then, huffily, they strut back to their stations, exhale indignantly and return to dreams of New York sidewalks and slow moving cats.
If I have to go into the house to freshen my martini or buy another ream of typing paper, they escort me to the door and wait by the kitchen steps. When I return, usually seconds later, they are delirious and insist on asking me all about my absence. Then back to bed. I mean, work.
Since they were wee pups, my dogs Tim and Joe have spent their days on our apartment on the 8th floor of a Greenwich Village building. They had free rein — running around the living room, rassling on the cowhide rug, napping on the couch, yapping at the elevator — and if they want fresh air, they could go out on one of our balconies and look down on the street to monitor for cats and large black dogs.
Three times a day, they would don their collars and leashes for a walk up to the Park and down Thompson Street. Tim would pee on the corner of West 3rd Street, Joe would poo outside the Catholic Center, then they would come back through the double doors of our lobby and hop in the elevator. They were so comfortable with this routine that if I had a chore to run, I could let them ride up on the elevator on their own, confident that they would get out on 8 and wait for me in the apartment.
Their lives were pretty typical of New York dogs, many of whose lives are quite unusual. I have a friend who cooks her dog breakfast every morning and then pays a person to sit in her apartment all day with her dog so she never has to be alone. Maybe that’s typical too. When she complains about how badly the dog behaves, I would tell her (jokingly),”You need to just chain that dawg up in the yard and leave her to guard your property.”
When we arrived in L.A., Tim and Joe were a little bewildered. No elevators to ride, no fire engines to bark at, no half-eaten chicken bones to snatch off the sidewalk.
At first, we left them briefly alone in the house and they had a field day, knocking things over, peeing, howling at the neighbors. Then we bought a gate so they could be sequestered in the kitchen — more peeing, more whining. I was getting worried — while I do spend a lot of time working in the house, I need to be able to go to Costco without hiring a dog sitter every time.
Each morning, I open the kitchen door and they trip down the steps into the backyard. Within seconds of waking up, they can be peeing — dog heaven. But for Tim this luxury was utterly confusing. He looked up at me as if to say,”If you don’t want to pee in the house, but only outside on a leash when we go for a walk, what am I supposed to do here in the yard ?” Meanwhile, his brother was under a lemon tree, extruding a foot-long turd.
As I walked them, around the block several times a day, I noticed all the dogs barking at us from behind our neighbors’ fences. A lightbulb went on in my head. Aha! People leave their dogs in the backyard all day while they are at work. Yarddogs!
And so began Tim and Joe’s, transitions to yarddogginess. After several days in the back, they are content to spend the day lolling in the grass, sniffing through the geraniums, or relaxing in the shade of the orange trees. When I come home, they amble up to me casually, not clambering up my shins or clawing madly at the screen door. They meet me like a fellow animal. Being yard dogs, spending the day watching the hummingbirds at the feeder or rolling on the lawn, has made them more dog-like. The cold, hard streets of New York seem far away.
Slowly, I am undergoing my own yarddog transformation. I spent my first two weeks here in a frenzy of activity, building furnitures, stocking the pantry, reading guidebooks, writing and painting to fill the walls. I felt like I was still doing a job, in this new jury-rigged office I’d built in the back yard. I was still putting on my collar and leash and mimicking my old life in New York. But no one was holding the other end, no one was there to guide me and tell me what do. I’d started to work for myself, but I had an absentee boss. I lost my sense of what the day’s work amounted to, because I was doing a lot of busy work to fill the day and it wasn’t moving me forward. And, for the first time in my adult life, I was alone all day. Instead of being surrounded by colleagues, meetings and deadlines, I was an old weirdo sitting alone in the garage drawing pictures for the hell of it. It should have felt liberating but I was still far from liberation.
So I made a couple of changes.
I started to structure my day and to set up some goals. I put landmarks on my calendar: going to the gym, drawing, working on my book, preparing my presentations, going to museums, and so on. I would work on one project for a couple of hours, take a break and switch to some thing else. It was still orderly, and somewhat corporate in its structure, but it provided me with a lot of relief, just like walking Tim around the bock before setting him free in the yard. Eventually, I’m sure my regimen will loosen up as I discover new rhythms and a sense of accomplishment, but for now, I am getting lot more done and I feel more relaxed in this new life.
Another realization I had was that though I am not physically surrounded by co-workers, I do know a lot of people who are doing similar things. They are the ones who inspired me and showed me what a different sort of work life could be like. Illustrators, designers, drawing teachers, entrepreneurs, who work on their own and have designed successful creative careers and who I can reach with a an email or by opening Skype. They are my new colleagues. So many of my friends have generously offered me their time, chatting with me and giving me perspective. Sharing their wisdom has shown me how to do this. I am still weird, still in the garage, but I am not alone.
Changing one’s life is exciting and fresh but it is also scary and a lot of work. I am learning so much every day.
One of the inevitabilities of being married and middle-aged is the gradual spread of one’s waistband. A souvenir of all those evenings when Patti would bring me a bowl of ice cream on the couch or we’d eat off each others’ plates like Jack and Mrs. Spratt.
Now our pantry is bare-ish. Jack and I shop on Sunday afternoon, buying just enough to provide cold cuts and fruit for his lunches, cereal for my breakfast, a few other meager things. I shop most days on the way home from work, buying whatever I will cook that night, always a salad, maybe a steak or chicken breast for him, some veggie or fish thing for me. My favorite word these days, Jack complains, is ‘Spartan‘.
Despite these complaints of deprivation, we are both healthy and rarely hungry. I am amazed at how much less I want to eat. It began in those first horrible weeks in late March, when I simply lost my appetite altogether. But once that passed, I found food wasn’t especially comforting, and instead I preferred the gym I had just joined. For the first time in ages, I love pedaling madly on a bike or throwing barbells around. I also find I have the time. When Patti was alive, I so often felt that time spent on myself was time taken away from her (a perspective she vigorously opposed, but to no avail). Now I have the time and control of my agenda to indulge myself in new ways. Fortunately, so far, most of them are healthy.
My newly instituted regime is also a reflection of a new assessment of my age, of how many years I have left. I’d always assumed that Patti and I would march into the grave holding hands and I had no especial interest in outliving her. Now, however, because I will continue on this march with no one to lean on, I feel I should be as vigorous as I can be. Both my parents are healthy and robust in their 70s and my grandfather just died at 98. Chances are I will be around to choose apples, tap melons, lift dumbbells and fill sketchbooks for a little bit longer.
In the meantime, I need new trousers and a shorter belt.
Tim is three now and it’s high time he learned a trick or two. I read in an old German dog-training handbook (“Wie die Ausbildung von drei Kilo Wiener, um Ihnen eine heiß Tasse Kaffee” by Dackel J. PferdApfel) that, with the judicious application of a stout cudgel and hard taffy, one can get even the most timid long-haired miniature Dachshund to speak.
We spent a frustrating weekend working through the manual with Tim and were finally rewarded with his first few words. After a month of follow-up work, he is now entirely fluent in English, has shed most of his Dusseldorf accent (replaced for some reason with a Bensonhurst growl), and bores us with long monologues about lunch meat, cats, and the perils of thunderstorms.
Now we’re working on a much bigger challenge — getting him to draw. On Tuesday night, we began his first drawing lesson and he did a passable portrait of me, before moving on to sketch some flank steak, a barbecued chicken and a meatloaf. Fortunately, a local documentary film crew was on hand to capture his first faltering steps and they’ve been posted online.
I urge you to try to encourage your own family members to draw. It’s fun, it’s relaxing, and it’s easier than chasing your tail.
This video is also available in HD and on Youtube.
Maybe it’s because of my initials, but when I was little, I was determined to become a vet when I grew up. In fact, I got my first job at the age of 11, working for a vet at the local dog pound. It was only when I was in high school, and proved abysmal at Chemistry, that I realized I’d have to take another career path.
At any rate, I have always loved dogs. The dogs I loved the most weren’t the Lassies and the Benjis, the dogs that rushed to the rescue and did tricks and were cute and cuddly. No, my favorites were the ones that got into trouble, that showed character and individuality, the dogs that are bad.
For the past few months, I have been concentrating on drawing bad dogs of all types. And, inspired by Ogden Nash and Edward Gorey, I’ve been moved to write some little poems about dreadful pooches.
All of which leads me to the surprise part.
I love my new publisher and can’t wait for An Illustrated Life to come out this Fall. In fact, I am so impatient for a new book that I decided to print up a limited edition book on my own, collecting about forty pages of those bad dog drawings and painted ripped from my sketchbooks.
This little book is only a limited edition. It’s four-color and I am really happy with the quality of the printing. I think it really captures the intensity of the watercolors I’ve been doing. Some of the drawings are done with a Rapidograph but most were drawn with a dip pen and they have a good energy that captures the mischief nature of their subjects. There’s a lot of experimentation with the quality of the line and the way I’m using color. It’s a bit of a departure for me, an intense exploration of a single topic but the folks who’ve seen it so far think it’s pretty funny and beautiful.
So, as part of this publishing experiment, I’ve decided to share this little book, Bad to the Bone, with my readers. I’m selling it more or less at (a super-low) cost, because I’m interested to see if this is a good way to make and share books. If you like it and want me to make more books of this sort, let me know and I’d be willing to give it a go.
I am really pleased with this book. I hope you’ll like it too.