Backyard Philosophy

When I started blocking out this piece, I had half a mind to send it off to Garden & Gun as a potential submission for their column “Good Dog.” However, when I started reading through the previous installments to make sure my piece had the style, tone, and voice they’re looking for, I noticed something that threw a Mason jar of cold water on all my big ideas. By each contributor’s name, I saw phrases like “author of more than thirty books,” “senior writer for the New York Times,” and “Pulitzer Prize winner.” But despite the fact I don’t have the pedigree those other folks do (Ha! See what I did there?), I went ahead and submitted it. Sadly, three months have gone by with nary a peep from those fine folks, so I have to assume my piece was DOA.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that Shadow was a damn fine dog. And this is a story that needs telling—regardless of where it’s published. I hope you enjoy.


The concept of carpe diem has always resonated with me, but Robert Herrick, Andrew Marvell, Virgil, Horace, the venerable prophet Isaiah, or John Keating (the character played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society) have little to do with it. Most of the credit goes to Shadow, a black spaniel mix my family adopted in the early 90s.

He came into our life the way a lot of strays do—by happenstance. My father, a co-manager of a SAM’S Club and well on his way up the corporate ladder, finally knuckled under to my grandmother’s assertion that “Every growing boy needs a dog.” (Apparently girls like me could manage without help.) So we bought a copy of the Ocala Star-Banner, looked through the want ads, and found a few people in town who were looking to match homeless pets with owners.

“Now, don’t forget,” Dad said as he buckled his safety belt, “we’re not gonna get the first dog we see.”

“Alright, Dad,” we both chirped from the backseat, unaware we’d soon make liars out of ourselves.

We figured we’d start with the pooch closest to us and work our way out from there, but there was no need. The second Shadow came walking around the corner—replete with feathery feet, wavy Cocker Spaniel ears, and caramel-colored eyes—we were smitten. And when we heard that he was found shivering in the median of I-75 and jumped into the man’s car without hesitation, well, it added a second seal to the deal.

My brother and I fell on him like a couple of overzealous courtiers, and Dad realized his earlier decree had been rendered null and void by a wet nose and wiggly butt. He sighed and asked, “How much?”

“Nine dollars,” the man replied.

It had cost nine bucks to run the ad in the paper for a few weeks, and that’s the only thing he was looking to recover from the deal. Dad only had a twenty, and no amount of reasoning could get the Good Samaritan to take it. So we shot off to the corner market, bought three Coke Icees, and came back with change. A fiver and some singles exchanged hands, the gentlemen shook on it, and we went home with a dog—our dog—in the back seat.

Shadow (so named because of his black fur and despite my aggressive campaign to name him Falkor, after the luckdragon from The Neverending Story) was a dog of many quirks. No matter what we tried, he wouldn’t bark. He didn’t like his feet touched. He sneezed when he got excited. He was especially fond of hors d’oeuvres he snatched from the cat box. But strangest of all were his eating habits. If you gave him a hamburger patty that had been broken into pieces, he’d gobble it down. But that same piece of meat served whole? He didn’t know what to do with such bounty. Rather than eat it, he’d stand patiently by the back door with the food in his mouth, waiting to make a deposit in the Backyard Building and Loan.

No matter what we gave him—hot dogs, Rice Krispie treats, pieces of steak— if it was served in bits, it went straight down his gullet. Whole, it went uneaten into the ground. My guess is he wanted to put it away for hard times. After all, his life had been one of want, and having a ready meal under a nearby tree was probably a solid idea.

His incessant need to save made me think of my grandmother—gone four years earlier thanks to breast cancer—a woman whose fists the world had methodically tightened through poverty and hard work, hunger and necessity. A survivor of the Great Depression, she washed and reused tinfoil and disposable plates, stuffed her house with furniture she might one day need, and haggled at farmer’s markets with a zeal that would have impressed even Scrooge McDuck.

But there was one thing stranger still about Shadow. The dog loved ice cubes. If we gave him a piece, he’d chomp on it in the corner of his mouth, his lip curled like some furry version of Edward G. Robinson. (Yeah, see…. I got this ice, see…) One hot summer day, we kept feeding him cubes. With pieces one through seven, he happily crunched away and begged for more, but number eight was a bridge too far. He pocketed it and headed for the back door. We all watched as he selected a spot under a sago palm, dug a small hole, and dropped his already melting prize inside.

My family chuckled, both bemused and entertained, and called relatives that night to tell them the story. But it was a moment so adorably woebegone that I couldn’t bring myself to laugh along with them. We fed Shadow so often there was no need to forage in the backyard, but every so often, we’d catch him digging up his bounty and gnawing on a disgusting, dirt-covered goodie. The thought of him looking for that ice cube and finding nothing broke my selfish, sixteen-year-old heart in a way that nothing else could. So a vigil of sorts began. I stood on our screen porch and watched every time he was let out, waiting for him to return to the spot that I knew sat empty, plundered by meteorological forces beyond canine comprehension.

A few weeks later, my hunch paid off. Shadow headed for the sago palm, and I went inside to the freezer. Walking across the yard, my right hand already numb with cold, I couldn’t decide if what I was doing was noble or beyond ridiculous. More than once, I almost dropped the ice and went back inside. But I could see him digging, digging, digging…until he hit the spot where the treasure should have been. Then he stopped, paws in the earth and head cocked to one side in bewilderment.

There are moments when you know things with a certainty beyond argument. There’s no way to predict when or why they happen, and there’s no denying them when they do. Like a solid thump in the gut, they nearly knock you over and then fill up every hollow in you with the knowing until your bones are heavy with it. I felt it the first time I was betrayed, the instant before I was named the winner of a scholarship, and the early morning hour when my beloved grandfather passed.

“Hey, boy,” I said, reaching down with my free hand to scratch behind an ear. Shadow turned his dirt-covered face up to me, and while distracting him with lovin’, I stashed the cubes in the hole. He must have heard them clicking together because his head whipped around, and once he saw the loot was once again where he’d left it, the poor thing nearly wiggled and sneezed himself to death with the joy of it.

Smiling, I sat down on the ground beside him, not caring about the palm fronds poking me in the arm or the Florida sun sitting heavy as a blanket on my bare shoulders, and savored the matchless sight of a happy dog.


Here’s the piece I’m planning on turning in this week for my creative non-fiction writing class. Please give me feedback and help me make it better!!

And huzzah! This is my 100th post! 🙂


When the dog started burying ice cubes, we knew there was a problem. He’d made daily deposits at the Back Yard Bank & Trust since we’d adopted him, but it had been mostly unremarkable stuff. Rib bones, hamburger patties, rawhides, and even the occasional Rice Krispie Treat—all of them strategically placed underground in a cache system only he understood. As far as we knew, dirt and time helped ripen the food and made it more pleasing to our pooch’s palate, so we likened it to decanting a good bottle of merlot in reverse.

Shadow, the canine in question, was a black spaniel mix with wavy ears and feathery feet that bore a striking resemblance to Falcor, the Luck Dragon from The Neverending Story. In fact, that was the moniker I wanted to give him until I was overruled three to one in favor of “Shadow,” one of the most common dog names in the world. (Even then, I knew my creative genius was doomed to be largely unappreciated.) He loved sleeping in sunshine that pooled on the floor, chasing squirrels, and having his chin and belly thoroughly scratched. He didn’t like to bark and would only do it when we teased it out of him with treats, which we didn’t do often. It wasn’t because we were trying to avoid being mean-spirited, oh no. His pitiful excuse for a bark was as embarrassing as a wimpy car horn.

He had likely been abused by the owner he’d fled, so he never liked having his feet or snout held. Still, he was a happy critter in spite of it. In fact, we found that his “wiggle bone” was located not in his tail, but the middle of his back, so his entire hind end wagged from side to side when he was excited. In short, he was a furry, twenty-pound ball of quirks we loved despite a penchant for digging out and his unearthly ability to be between someone’s feet in the most inopportune times.

But the ice. The ice was just damned odd.

Like any puppy, our mutt loved to chew, so we provided him with an array of chomping options ranging from a bear he mercilessly removed every ounce of stuffing from to chew hooves that took him weeks to whittle down. All these things were sacrificed to keep him away from furniture, remotes, and my brother’s size thirteen Air Jordans. The only unsanctioned “om nom” he ever went for was a hundred-dollar atlas my grandparents purchased for a road trip, and he promptly converted it from a slim, glossy paperback into a sea of shredded paper that covered our living room from corner to corner.

Also like your average dog, Shadow loved people food with the same untamed passion tween girls have for boy bands. Any time someone opened the refrigerator—be they visiting suckers or relatives wise to his begging routine—he magically appeared on the other side of the door, waiting for a slice of bologna or a nibble of cheese.

We discovered his affinity for ice quite serendipitously when I dropped a piece on the floor. He gobbled it down before I had time to debate whether to pick it up or kick it under the counter, and as he chewed, it jutted comically from the corner of his mouth like a stubby cigar and made him drool from the cold. Even the sound he made was amusing—a combination of slurping and a racket similar to that made rummaging through a pile of plastic costume jewelry. Naturally, I had Shadow repeat the performance, which got funnier each time, for each member of my family. He took a dozen pieces from our hands, munching until he’d had his fill, then gummed the thirteenth and headed for the back door.

He’d done the same thing with food. If we gave him a hot dog broken into pieces, he’d wolf it down like Joey Chesnutt. But if that same wiener was handed to him whole, he’d stare at it, totally confused. It wasn’t that he didn’t want it; it was more like he didn’t know what do to with such an embarrassment of riches. We guessed the owners who’d been liberal when distributing pain were tightfisted when it came to food or that it had been hard to come by when he was a stray. That’s why anything he viewed as spare vittles was stashed for hard times. The poor thing hadn’t had enough good ones to make the urge unnecessary.

We stood on the screened-in back porch and watched as he trotted out to the base of a lanky pine tree in our yard, dug a shallow hole, and dropped the ice inside. He didn’t ever quite grasp where his toy went when I  hid it behind my back (much less the basic laws of thermodynamics), so like any and everything else he’d hoarded, the shaggy little urchin covered it up assuming it would still be there when he came back.

A few days later, he returned to his hidey-hole only to find it empty, his efforts to retrieve his new favorite snack rewarded with nothing but a dirt-stained nose. Late one summer afternoon when the sun hung heavy in the sky, Shadow dug one hole after another, each pile of earth excavated more frantically than the last, in search of what I imagined he called “crunchycold” in whatever language dogs speak to one another.

To this day, that confused search remains one of my most poignant memories. Many times, I’ve been like that little dog—furtively concealing my treasures in a vain attempt to protect myself from loss and want. And I’ve squandered so much more than money and time, things much more precious for their intangibility. I buried love that I thought might go unrequited in my soul’s earth only to find it had vanished, never lavished on anyone. Those opportunities I was too timid to seize dissolved back into the ether and were given to someone with the balls to snatch them up and wring them dry.

Too often, I’ve mislabeled cowardice as caution and told myself that joy isn’t guaranteed or plentiful enough in life to risk. But the truth is that everything we try to hoard is siphoned away like sand stolen by a relentless sea. It is impossible to genuinely live and leave something in the reservoir, and for those who try, there is no entering into the joy of our Master.

But I had much left to learn about this fact that day. I could only stand there with tears in my eyes and an ice cube melting in my numb fingers waiting to replace what had been lost.

Duct Tape Really DOES Fix Everything!

A week or so before Christmas, there was a family sitting on a corner in our neighborhood. They were holding posters covered in pictures of their dog that had run away a day or so before. They were on that corner most of the day, even into the twilight hours, and they flagged over anyone who looked half interested in helping them keep an eye out for her.

The next day, these little signs, smaller versions of the posters, showed up on trees and telephone poles around that same intersection and up and down the other nearby streets. Each one had at least four color photos and was in a sheet protector to keep it clean and dry. There are quite a few folks in our area who have dogs of their own and make use of the tree-lined sidewalks both morning and afternoon canine constitutionals, naturally keeping their eyes (and noses) on the lookout for the MIA hound. I’d also like to think that more than one Twilight Bark was sent out to aid in the search, but as I’m human, I’m not privy to that dependable line of communication.

Anyone who has had a pet run away can tell you it is a gut wrenching experience. Traffic, other animals, cruel humans, and the elements—any of those things can harm a critter used to “three hots and cot” in a home where they’re loved and cared for. Sometimes, a kind person finds them and brings them home; other times, they wander back into the yard of their own accord.

However, more often than not, the four-legged members of our families don’t make it back. In fact, according to the American Humane Society, over ten million pets are reported missing every year, and only 17% of lost dogs and 2% of lost cats are ever returned to their owners. Our dog, Shadow, who passed away in 2010, was an old fella by the time the pet microchip came out. His digging under the fence and chasing squirrel days were long behind him. However, I couldn’t imagine owning a dog today without having this device, especially in a large city where thousands of animals go unclaimed and are put down. There are quite a few companies who sell the chips for less than $100, and they can be implanted by your veterinarian. After that, they need to be registered in state and national databases so your buddy can be returned to you, and that registration needs to be updated every time you move. It really requires little to no effort, and it more than doubles the chances of finding your lost pet.

I just wanted a reason to put a picture of Shad Shad in a blog…

I don’t know about you, but the sight of those handmade “Lost Dog/Cat” posters always breaks my heart because I remember what it was like to wait for a cat that never came home. (Shadow also vanished a time or two, but he was never gone for more than a few hours. Still, that was not much fun for little Harpo if you know what I’m saying.) What makes it worse for me is when those posters continue to hang, week after week, until they’re so soaked with rain they disintegrate and fall from their tacks or shrivel up like a mummy and fade in the blistering heat. Eventually, they all disappear, and I never know the outcome of the story. I try to imagine the positive in all cases, but I know that statistics don’t lie.

However, with the Yorkshire Terrier in my neck of the woods, I saw something I had never seen before. A few days ago, each and every one of the signs were still hanging there, with one addendum, a huge piece of duct tape on which the phrase “We Found Her” was written in black Sharpie marker! I’m no graphologist, but judging by the jaunty, bubble shaped letters, I can imagine the girls who got their dog back were pretty John Brown thrilled about it. 🙂

The courtesy of this gesture touched me deeply. Not only was I happy beyond measure that that dog was home with its family,  but I was also grateful that a group of people cared enough to update the status of their situation in a simple but obvious way. As far as I’m concerned, that sign can stay up forever. It reminds me that happy endings are possible and that kindness both exists and is rewarded.