Monday, August 27, 2007

Flashback: Beginning the Long Life of McTavish J. Puppy, Esq., 1991-2007.

[Memoirs for my children and grandchildren].

Long before I retired from Quaker Oats, I had begun to worry how life would be after retirement. Would I join the legions of bone-bored men following their wives, pushing a metal cart in a supermarket while the exciting world whirled without them outside? I have never golfed, have never done well in any sport (a little bit of tennis which I played badly). What in the world would I do with myself? Oh, I would begin a consulting business but no hired-gun work could be as satisfying as that of Quaker…and certainly no client would allow me the freedom of action that I had there.

The kids had long moved out to live their young lives…Tom living in his apartment, Mary having married and busy with her family, Mike having married, Jeanne having married. There were books to be read but good Lord was that all I would be doing? Writing Op Eds and doing the WLS radio show once a week would take very little time at all. Well, I resolved to find things to do—but one thing I wanted was to have a little buddy to be close to. Not as a wife is close, nor one’s children nor one’s grandchildren; indeed, not as another human would be close. But a puppy, male preferred so there would be solidarity. Yes, that’s it. A male puppy.

As a child, I had three dogs which didn’t live long—about a year or two each. That was because in those days they were fed, in addition to canned dog food, the scraps from the table which they devoured happily and with great gusto. But as later science proved, dogs’ innards are not made to grind up and otherwise redistribute into nutrients human food. They love human food but human food is degenerative to their interior organs. It is no act of kindness to give them beefsteak and potatoes from your own plate (which as a pliable tender-hearted puppy fancier I would be sorely tempted to do); it is an act of short-sightedness as it gravely cuts their life span. Well, I could control myself on that score. But the more I thought about it the more I determined I could not live a day without a puppy.

So we decided (Lillian more reluctantly since she knew the primary care of it would fall on her) to buy a puppy. She, as ever the more organized and methodical one, went to the library and researched all the qualifications of a good puppy pet: one who was non-allergenic (I had asthma), very friendly with children (thinking of our grandchildren), one who had a track record for learning the rudiments of being housebroken, one who did not shed unduly…and a few more qualifications. She hit on the decision that it should be a Bichon Frise.

They weigh between 7 and 18 pounds, stand from 9 to 12 inches, have curly, soft white fur that must be groomed regularly to avoid matting; their tails are carried curled over their backs; black or brown eyes provide a striking contrast to the all-white fur. Often they appear to be smiling. They do not shed their fur. They are intelligent little dogs, having inquisitive personalities, are very energetic, like long walks, are most comfortable being close to their owners and enjoy lounging at lap dogs. As show dogs, they usually are full-headed of white fur; but they are more attractive wearing a standard “puppy cut.” They are housebroken using the crate method but males tend to be a bit easier to train than females. They can become territorial, sometimes jealous of attention given to other household animals; they are extremely friendly, are easily excited when encountering people. There is such a thing as a “Bichon Buzz” when—as in the case of an advancing mailman trying to poke letters through a door-slot—they can growl, bark loudly and run feverishly around in circles for a few moments to scare the mailman away.

I had never heard of a Bichon Frise but looked at the photos of them in the magazine and thought this was a good idea. One night—this during the time I was doing the late-night trick on WLS-AM (from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.) I mentioned that we were thinking of a Bichon and asked for some advice. All ten lights on the phone winked excitedly. Peggy from downstate, the lady with the velvety voice and provocative turn of phrase (who had once argued that Ladies of the Evening deserve an set, handsome fee so there would be no haggling), said she had a Bichon. And a few days later a book arrived with no return address but from downstate that seemed to settle the matter.

From it I learned that the creature we were to adopt and name McTavish J. Puppy, Esq. came from a far purer blood line with a lengthier pedigree than Lillian’s and my own. While it has become a show dog, the original purpose “was not to chase game, flush birds or herd animals—it is a domestic companion first and foremost.” It is definitely an aristocrat of dogdom. Hailing from Spain, the breed came to be known as “Bichon Tereriffe” the largest of the Canary Islands to which Spanish sailors brought it on their travels to those Islands. It was imported into Europe as a pet for Italian and Spanish noblemen in the 1500s. Under Francis I of France (1515-1547) the Bichon became established into French court society. And Henry II (1574-1589) it became celebrated as royalty of dogdom; Henry could not bear to be separated from his “Woofie” and had a basket fashioned with which to hold him and in which vassals transported him. Of course ladies of the Court, trying to capture the king’s fancy, also adopted their Bichons and soon everyone who was anyone in the female contingent came to court with the small animals in their arms to please the king—which they did.

This carried over to the royalty of Spain where to please the King, Francesco de Goya, official court painter to both Charles III and Charles IV painted included them in various paintings. A Bichon has been immortalized in fine porcelains, one owned by the Marquise de Pompadour in 1750.

I am told Queen Victoria cherished a small pet which was given to her by a Spanish nobleman. Once in a formal throne-room setting, the pet struggled for attention and then gave up, dirtying the royal carpet. The court tittered with laughter. The Queen looked at them tittering, then down at the pet. She arose, swept it up in her arms, announced, “we are not amused!” and stalked out. Thereafter the Court was divided on her use of language. Did she use the royal “we” to refer to herself? Or did she use “we” to refer both to her and her pet? This has not yet been settled. But “we are not amused” has been remembered throughout British history. I like to think the pet was a Bichon.

A portrait of a Bichon on porcelain is on exhibit in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; in the France of Napoleon III (1852-1870) it was at the height of its popularity. However it fell from favor, as most aristocrats did, in the disgusting proletarian era in the France of the late 19th. The blood line was shamefully watered down but resurrected by Madame Nizet de Leemans. She has become the exemplar of Bichons and when she visited the Greater New York Bichon Frise Fanciers Show some two decades ago she triumphed that over her half-century experience as a dog show judge, in her estimation American Bichons “are far superior to those ion France and Belgium.” That did it with me. If I am fated not to be an aristocrat from birth (which as a non-WASP I decidedly am not), I will adopt a true aristocrat--an American Bichon.

Then came the question: where to get one? A neighbor with a Bichon said that there was a very eccentric old Bichon lady who called herself “Aunt Betty” living in an adjoining suburb. Some day Aunt Betty might have to be put away as her house was running with Bichons and she, laughing happily, was antithetical to discipline…with the effect that to enter that house was an unforgettable experience. But we resolved to do it so we called Aunt Betty and were invited over.

On entering her home, my eyeglasses steamed over: the odor to which Aunt Betty was impervious since she never seemed to go outside, was atrocious. She allowed us to sit in her front room (I looking carefully where I was sitting so as not to disturb anything live). I can only describe the odor as overpowering to which Aunt Betty was unaware. The house was running with white furry Bichons. A litter of five had been born just a week ago, she said, and almost on cue a number of siblings came running in. One stopped, looked at me warily, and went on its way. “That’s Agnes!” shouted Aunt Betty. “She’s very aloof! Now here’s her brother! I call him Mr. Personality!” She scooped one up and gave him to me.

He examined me and quickly covered my face with a warm tongue bath. “That’s how he kisses everybody!” shouted Aunt Betty. There were so many balls of white fur tussling, falling around her legs, some of which she scooped up that she seemed engulfed. Still she wasn’t too eager to sell one but decided to do it. I sorely wanted Mr. Personality. So the purchase…or adoption…was done. Some years later a newspaper reported that neighbors had called a suburban health department and an elderly lady who had an ungodly number of Bichon dogs running through her house, was taken away to a more disciplined confinement. That was the end of Aunt Betty.

In the car ride home we named him McTavish (after a similar dog who had lived in our neighborhood). I took McTavish for a brief walk, then in accordance with the rules placed him in a cage on our sun-porch—and to keep company with him, slept on a couch that night. What happened thereafter—and the bonding that made us inseparable—next time.

1 comment:

  1. 'Joyous' Gaile AventAugust 27, 2007 at 3:52 PM

    What a great blog entry Tom! As a veteran Bichon Frise person, I've diagnosed you with a serious case of the Bichon Bug :) Can't wait to read the next installment of your affair with McTavish.

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