Saturday, December 27, 2008


Outside a dog, a book is a man's best friend; inside a dog, it's too dark to read." --Groucho Marx

My girlfriend Kristy and I recently adopted a retired seeing eye dog named Rosie. She's an extremely congenial Deutscher Schäferhund (otherwise known as a German Shepherd) and reminds me very much of my first dog, Beowulf, a companionable female shepherd with an inappropriately bellicose name. (My dad was a big fan of hero epics; we also had a terrier named Sigurd.) Rosie, like Beowulf, is tan with a black mask and saddle.

Ever since opening The Raconteur four years ago, I'd wanted a shop dog. A women in town owned a Scottish Deerhound and once a week I'd see it lurching hugely, the moose of dogs, past the front window. Deerhounds are spindly and look prehistoric (and are believed to have existed before recorded history). This one had a coarse wiry coat and the gangling gait of something dead reanimated. It was so ugly it was beautiful and I was convinced the store needed one.

Then I met Rosie. Rosie belonged to a friend of a friend, a visually impaired carpenter named Tony. He was preparing to retire Rosie, and was keen on the idea of having her in the shop, which would allow him the possibility of visiting her should he find himself exceptionally rattled by her absence.

Rosie is NOT blind. Many customers (including my sharpest friends), upon hearing "retired seeing eye dog," thickly ask, "so...she's, like, totally blind?"

Rosie, unlike those quoted above, is very bright. Shepherds were bred specifically for their intelligence, a trait for which they are now renowned. They are considered the third smartest breed, behind Border Collies and poodles. Poodles are actually the smartest, which I initially found hard to believe, unfairly charging them with the flakiness of their owners.

For the most part, Rosie wanders loose in the shop. Though, in truth, she does little wandering, preferring hibernation to circumlocution. She spends the better part of the day dozing under the old oak table we have set up in the back for writing workshops, book clubs, and dinner (I work about fifty hours a week, so it's nice to have a place other than the cashier counter to eat my Futo Maki). Whenever she stands up she stretches pleasurably, thrusting her front legs forward and lowering her shoulders to the floor in rough approximation of the yoga position Adho Mukha Svanasana. If you start scratching her ears she'll roll onto her back and moan gratefully (which, I'm fairly sure, is not a yoga pose).

Rosie loves people but hates dogs. Especially poodles, her intellectual rivals. And while we typically welcome leashed animals, with the addition of Rosie, we ask that you ascertain her whereabouts (she's not here everyday) before trotting in your own dog. She loves kids, but often thinks black strollers (and rolling suitcases) are, in fact, wheeled dogs, and is initially rankled by their entrance into the shop.

Mutts creator/animal activist Patrick Mcdonnell was here last month to sign copies of his latest children's book SOUTH. His fans are sort of like Trekkies with pets. But instead of latex Spock years and velor V-necks they wear ball caps and hooded sweatshirts that say "Nuts for Mutts" or "Yesh!" (strip star Mooch has a lisp). One component of Patrick's visit is what he calls a chalk talk (though it involves black sharpees and not white chalk). He answers questions while making quick sketches of his most famous characters--Earl, Mooch, Guard Dog, Sourpuss, Shtinky Puddin'--on a huge architect's pad. To our delight, he drew a picture of Rosie (which he later gave us) and in response to the fervent grilling of a audience longing to know something top secret about a new character, Patrick dangled the possibility of a Rosie cameo. (And certainly there's at least a week's worth of daily strips to be milked from a seeing eye dog in a bookstore.)

I tend to view things in a cultural context and cannot consider Rosie without also acknowledging her film forbears. Strongheart, a shepherd, was one of earliest canine stars and the first animal to be billed above the movie title. He starred in films like "Brawn of the North," Jack London's "White Fang," and "The Return of Boston Blackie." Strongheart was followed by Rin Tin Tin, the most famous shepherd to date. Both have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Batman's dog, Ace the Bat Hound, was also a shepherd.Naturally, when you adopt a dog, you're stuck with the name they answer to. It usually ends in a Y and is almost always insufferably cute. Lucky, Sparky, Muffin. Scoot. You can, however, building backwards, create an evocative enough name from even the most precious agnomen. Rosie, which called to mind female riveters, maid robots, and beefy comediennes, wasn't bad, but, considering my pet history--Beowulf, Sigurd, and a budgerigar named Von Rictofen (the red baron)--and the dramatic almost baroque ambiance of the shop, I knew it wouldn't do. And so, Rosie has since become Sub Rosa, a Latin phrase that denotes secrecy.

Parting shot: While my mother was content to leave the dog dubbing to my Dad, my stepmother, an energetic woman full of bubbles and beans, was not, and when they bought a Shetland Sheepdog from a puppy farm outside of Lambertville, Dad was forced to depart from his somber catalog in favor of something with a bit more "pep." They agreed on Bonnie, but to this day hotly debate what exactly was put down on paper (the dog has been dead ten years). "Bonnie Prince Billy," insists my Dad downing a tumbler of Loch Lomand, "the exiled Jacobite claimant to the throne of Great Britain." "Ridiculous," my stepmother chides brightly, sipping a wine cooler, "the dog's registered name, as your father well knows, was Beautiful Bon Bon of Frenchtown."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mele Kalikimaka, Emmett Otter, and Pecan Pizzelles

Christmas in Alabama was a two-edged sword. Though we lived in the deep south, it got cold. Very cold. And that meant several things. It meant that along with our usual early morning chores, we'd have to make sure that both stoves had wood. The kitchen one, small and bulbous, took branches, nothing thicker than a rolling pin; the living room one, big and boxy, took trunk wood, most of which had to be split to fit under the stove lids. It meant that we'd have to break, with heavy sticks, the ice in the water buckets of five horse stables and twenty-three discrete dog kennels. It also meant that rattlesnakes would crawl under the house where we kept our kindling and that mice would brazenly scamper towards the warmth: the kitchen, the living room, the cranked-up electric blankets that cocooned our sleeping bodies.

We lived in a converted fishing cabin built by a slipshod handyman named Rooster (I kid you not), and the winter wind whistled icily through the cracks in the unstained pine planks, which were graffitied with penciled saw lines (hopelessly overshot), splashes of basic addition, and scribbled phrases like "this side up." December meant that the gaps in the wall boards had to be covered with packing tape or stuffed with cotton.

But it also meant that mom would make homemade doughnuts, thick ropes of batter coiled into hot oil and then dusted with sugar, or apples and onions, both frontier recipes from the Little House Cookbook we'd gotten her last year. It meant that Christmas Eve dinner would consist entirely of the cookies we'd helped her make all week, the madelines and macaroons, the orange cranberry nut biscotti, the pecan praline lace, the pizzelles with toasted anise seed. (Well, that's how it was pitched, "all you can eat cookies," but the witch always managed to force some chowder into us too). It meant that my mother, brother, and I would saddle up three horses and scour the nine hundred acres of our ranch for the perfect tree. Once found, we'd tag it with the same blaze orange tape our stepfather frequently used to legally indicate that the crap hanging off the bed of his pickup, the pipes and planks, was too big and would crash right through your windshield if you got too close. Then Doctor--as we formally called our stepfather, a former army dentist--would head out the next day, chop it down, and haul it back.

It meant we'd make pasta angels from elbows and bow-ties, and Drummer Boy drums from TP tubes. It meant we'd string popcorn with red thread and lather pine cones with glue and dredge them with gold glitter. It meant singing carols around the blonde upright as Mom haltingly banged out "Mele Kalikimaka." It meant my brother and I would be able to pick one (but only one) Christmas special to watch on the usually off-limits TV. It was a tough decision and, fearing a blunder, we typically stuck to the tried and true: The Heat Miser, Emmett Otter, Peanuts. But a few times we took a chance on something new. Once a show was begun Mom forbid us to turn back (a lesson, she declared, in reality), and one year we swallowed a bitter pill indeed: a limp 1982 cartoon starring Pac Man and his family called Christmas Comes to Pac Land. I still feel the weight of that disappointment. Now, as I decorate the store in preparation for the "retail rush," as I garland the counter with a string of multi-colored lights made from the translucent casings of shotgun shells, as I crown the armless gold mannequin (Goldfingerless) that stands guard over our register with the felted chimney pot I once wore as a Central Park carriage driver (a holly spring added for festive flair), and as I listen to Shane MacGowan growl about "Christmas Eve in the drunk tank" on the holiday CD my girlfriend, Kristy, recently burned me, I think about those winters in Alabama. And you know what? I miss 'em. Even the snakes.