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And if Tom Brady was a dog, he’d be a… morkie?

April 14, 2011

I don’t watch football, and I’m not a fan of the New England Patriots, but thanks to the gossip rags and the Boston Herald (is that redundant?), I do know who Tom Brady is. So when my neighbor’s sister asked me to groom her dog, who her husband named after the famous quarterback, I expected her to bring me something big and broad-shouldered, like a great dane or a mastiff. Instead, she handed me a morkie.

What’s a morkie, you ask? It’s one of those “designer breeds,” also known as a cross between two purebred dogs–in this case, a maltese and yorkshire terrier. I gotta say, though, his parents must have been giants, ’cause this dog is A LOT bigger than four to seven pounds–the ideal weight for both breeds.

I groomed Brady for the first time on New Year’s Day using a blue snap-on comb, which looked fine. But when I got to his face and legs, I kind of choked. And because my New Year’s resolution was to think more positively, I’ll only say that my efforts were admirable.

Hey, if I'd groomed him perfectly the first time, there'd be no room for improvement, right?

I groomed Brady for the second time a few weeks ago. He had four months worth of hair growth, and–thanks to the 80-plus inches of snow that buried Massachusetts this winter–plenty of mats. I brushed out the tangles on his back and clippered the ones around his groin and behind his ears, but the snarls on his legs were too tight, even after trying to tease them out with the high-velocity dryer. I attempted to clipper them with a blue snap-on comb, and then a purple, but I ultimately ended up shaving him down with a 7F blade. His four-year-old (human) sister didn’t even recognize him when he was finished.

Look, Ma, no mats!

Although I was reluctant to take him so short, I actually think he looked better using a 7F than a blue snap-on comb. Both Yorkies and malteses have silky drop coats that are supposed to be kept long. Such coats require a tremendous amount of upkeep, though, which is impractical for the average pet owner. Hence, most people opt for a “teddy bear” style, which is when the body and muzzle are cut very short. In my experience, silky coats look good when they’re long and when they’re short, but when they’re in between, they just look kind of scruffy.

Brady's tongue is approximately the same length as Geena Davis's arm.

As for Brady’s face, I think I showed remarkable improvement, particularly when you compare the job I did in January to the one I did in April. No, it isn’t perfect. But at least the poor guy can see now!

Attempt 2 looks a lot better than Attempt 1, and it isn't just because I upgraded to a better camera.

Speaking of before-and-after photos, here are a couple from school.

This is Zorro, who happens to be the most well-behaved dog in the world. Seriously, he never moved. It was like grooming a stuffed animal.

Best. Shih tzu. Ever.

And here’s Angus, a very charming golden retriever.

Yeah, I can't tell much of a difference, either. But he's a golden retriever. There's not much to do.

Remember my buddy Harrison?

Harrison got flowers this time instead of peace symbols.

And here’s Harrison’s cousin, Dakota, a very sweet sheltie who lost A LOT of undercoat.

Someday I'll write about Abby, the sheltie I had when I was a child. She deserves her own post.

And finally, Bailey, my golden retriever, turned six on April 8. Happy birthday, Boo Boo!

Bailey demonstrates her gay pride.

She doesn't look a day over eight months, does she?

Bury my heart at the Cheyenne River Reservation

March 30, 2011

This post is dedicated to Dan, Brendan, Dimp, Katie, Gabs, Steph, Jenn C., Eva, Colie, John, and Anna, and to the children of the Cheyenne River Reservation.

* * *

Earlier this month, as thousands of college students descended upon Daytona Beach and Cancun, I was visited by the Ghost of Spring Breaks Past. Three years ago, my editor at the university where I used to work asked me to write about the school’s Alternative Spring Break program. Thus I found myself South Dakota bound, speeding down I90 in a cramped 15-passenger van with 11 strangers, 22 bags of luggage, and a guitar.

The children of the Cheyenne River Reservation are some of the poorest in the nation.

We spent a week working with children of the Cheyenne River Reservation, an expanse that covers more than two million acres of South Dakota’s poorest soil. Indeed, a per capita income of only  $7,463 makes it the single most impoverished area in the nation; more than three-quarters of its children live below the poverty line.

At the time of our trip, a nine-year drought had left the land parched, and the winds whipped mercilessly across the prairie as our van rattled down country highways riddled with potholes. Once we passed the state capital of Pierre, we didn’t see another gas station or convenience store until we reached the tiny community of Eagle Butte, nearly 100 miles away.

With a population density of only 1.3 people per square mile, the reservation doesn’t get many visitors. A three-hour drive from Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, it’s largely isolated from the outside world. No one bothers with cell phones; they don’t work. I turned mine off as soon as we left Pierre.

* * *

The 1,900-mile journey from Boston to Dupree was exhausting. We’d intended to drive through without stopping, but  a blizzard in Buffalo waylaid our plans. A kindly rector at Trinity Episcopal invited us to wait out the storm in his church. He brewed us a vat of coffee, set us up in the nursery, and wished us safe travels. After he left, we entered the dimly lit sanctuary and sat silently in the wooden pews. On the other side of the stained glass windows, the wind howled and the snow swirled, but inside we were safe and warm. It was during this quiet moment of reflection that I knew this group of kids was something extraordinarily special.

* * *

We departed the next morning before dawn, after shoveling the church’s parking lot and sidewalks. Dupree was 1,400 miles away, but the roads–and the weather forecast–were clear, and we were rested and refreshed. The states passed by in a blur–Pennsylvania, with its snowbanks that reached my chest; Ohio, which served up the most amazing breakfasts at Canary’s Family Restaurant; Indiana, birthplace of Michael Jackson and Larry Bird; Illinois, where upon seeing a toll booth sign, a sleep-deprived Cherisse blurted, “What does Ill-i-no-is mean?”; Wisconsin, with its midnight cheese stop; and Minnesota, which I slept through.

Miles of nothing stretched before us.

We crossed into South Dakota at sunrise and pulled into a gas station. As the kids ran inside to replenish their supply of junk food, I stood shivering in the frigid morning and gazed across the surrounding fields. Ohio had done nothing to prepare me for the flatlands of South Dakota. Acres and acres of nothing stretched before me, as far as the eye could see. I was less than 2,000 miles from home, but standing under the exposed South Dakota sky, it felt like two million.

* * *

Local artist Ray Durpis.

After stocking up on groceries in Pierre, we began the final leg of our journey. The strip malls and cookie-cutter houses quickly gave way to farms, until they, too, disappeared into the barren landscape. With the exception of a few abandoned shacks, we saw no signs of civilization until we rolled into Dupree and pulled up to the Sioux YMCA, our home for the next week.

Our site hosts, Claudia and Wynema, showed us around the building and immediately set us to work washing walls and programming the YMCA’s four computers. A few short hours later, the children arrived for their after-school program, and we found ourselves involved in a rowdy game of freeze tag.

Those who know me–and readers of this blog–may be surprised that I chose to chaperone a service trip that involved working with children. But I very much wanted to visit a reservation, and out of the 30 trips from which I could choose, this one called to me most. And so for one of the first times in my life, I trusted my instinct without question. “I’m going to South Dakota,” I told my editor. “What about New Orleans?” he suggested. “They’re doing Hurricane Katrina clean-up.” But I remained resolute. “No, South Dakota,” I said. “I want to go somewhere that isn’t on the news every night–someplace… forgotten.”

More than two-thirds of the Cheyenne River Reservation residents live on far less than one-third of the average American’s income.

Forgotten is a good way to describe the Cheyenne River Reservation–and the people who live there. With the exception of a few families, the population–two-thirds of which survives on far less than one-third of the average American income–is comprised of members of the Lakota Nation. The alcoholism rate among residents is a shocking 627 percent higher than the national average, and the high school drop-out rate hovers at 50 percent. Despite its rural setting, the community is plagued by gang activity, and violence–from vandalism to murder–is on the rise. Such dismal living conditions have contributed to feelings of hopelessness and despair, particularly among the youth. Teen suicide rates on the reservation are three times the national average.

At the YMCA in Dupree.

Having researched these statistics prior to our arrival, I expected the children to be… less childlike and more like the stereotypical stoic Indian. But they were young–and, like so many youngsters–resilient. They tore across the dusty yard, shrieking with delight as we chased them. They stayed until the sun began to set, scampering home only after much prodding from Wynema. “They don’t like to leave,” she told us afterward. “Here, they’re safe. At home… they’re not.”

Dismal living conditions contribute to feelings of hopelessness, particularly among the youth.

* * *

I slept well that night. The cot was more comfortable than my pillow-top mattress back home, and the wind howling across the prairie lulled me into a deep and dreamless sleep.

* * *

Playing with the children after school.

Each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, the YMCA hosts a soup-and-social luncheon for the tribal elders. We helped prepare the hearty beef-vegetable soup while Bonita cut dough for frybread. A precursor to the  funnel cake (or fried dough, as we call it in New England), frybread originated nearly 150 years ago, when the United States forced Indians onto reservations, away from their hunting grounds and farmlands. To prevent them from starving, the government issued them rations of white flour, processed sugar, and lard—the makings of frybread. It remains a dietary staple even today, a tradition that likely contributes to the growing epidemic of diabetes and obesity among Native Americans.

The elders and I watched in amusement as the kids slathered their frybread with peanut butter and Nutella. They’d burn off all that sugar soon enough, though; the children were due from school in just a few hours, and the games would begin anew.

We worked long hours that day. The Tribal Council met that evening, and we watched their children, even after the others had gone home. When we finally sat down to supper at 10 o’clock, we were surprised to find that none of us were really tired.

Sunset in Dupree.

* * *

The next morning, we drove east to visit the elders who live at Eagle Butte Manor. Every Wednesday, YMCA workers organize a Bingo tournament for the elders, who play for hygiene supplies rather than for money. My partner’s name was Midge. She’d lived on the reservation her entire life, and had 10 children.

Bingo with the elders at Eagle Butte Manor.

We played for more than an hour, the intensity increasing with each round. The elders focused intently on the game, their highlighters poised above their cards. At one point, a gentleman zoomed by the lobby on his motorized wheelchair. “Bingo!” he shouted, eliciting initial groans of disappointment among the players. By the time they realized it was a joke, he’d rounded the corner, cackling.

Midge and I won a round. She chose a toothbrush and toothpaste set as her prize. She planned to give it to her son. He had trouble with his teeth, she said, but he couldn’t afford to see a dentist.

* * *

That evening, we took a group of “Lakota Achievers”–members of a youth leadership program–to Eagle Butte to attend a college seminar that was being hosted by another group of spring break volunteers. Afterward, I saw Cherisse hugging one of the teenagers. She turned to me with tears in her eyes. “Her house burned down two years ago,” she said. “They’ve been homeless ever since.”

* * *

Thursday was our “free day.” We set off for the Black Hills before dawn and arrived at Mount Rushmore by mid-morning. The mountain was indeed a work of art, but I think Brendan accurately summed up what we were all thinking: “We took land that didn’t belong to us,” he said. “We took an entire mountain, and we carved our faces in it.”

At Mount Rushmore.

 

Wyoming, indeed.

Later, we stopped in Custer State Park, where we saw a herd of buffalo and played Frisbee on a frozen lake. I napped for about an hour during the drive back to Dupree. When I woke up, we were still on the highway. That’s strange, I thought, glancing at the clock on my cell phone. We should be on the two-lane road by now.

Puzzled, I peered out the window at the unfamiliar landscape. And then I saw the sign: “Wyoming welcomes you!”

“Are we in freaking Wyoming?!?” I yelled, waking my slumbering van mates.

From the driver’s seat, Dan gave a sheepish laugh. “Uh, we might have possibly missed a turn about 50 miles back,” he said. “I think we’re going to be late for dinner.”

* * *

I don’t think I shall ever forget Cherry Creek.

It sounds idyllic–like a town from the Lawrence Welk Show or A Prairie Home Companion. And while it’s true that Cherry Creek is a very small town–there are fewer than 400 residents–you’re more likely to hear about it on the evening news than a variety show.

Earlier in the week, we stuffed more than 700 plastic Easter eggs with candy, and on Friday we piled into the YMCA van and set off for Cherry Creek, where we planned to host an Easter egg hunt. Prior to our departure, Claudia warned us that we may be shocked by what we saw, but I don’t think any of us were fully prepared for what awaited us.

Despite its rural setting, the crime that plagues the tiny town of Cherry Creek is more urban in nature.

Like so much of South Dakota, the 35 miles that stretch between Dupree and Cherry Creek are barren but for the occasional tree. As Wynema expertly steered the van down the twisting roads, I marveled at the prairie’s stark beauty. That first morning in South Dakota, standing along the highway beneath that vast expanse of open sky unsettled me. By now, those feelings of isolation were familiar, and I found them to be oddly comforting.

 

The sign to Cherry Creek is riddled with bullet holes.

I thought about the kids back in Dupree, particularly the teenagers who spoke so passionately of leaving the reservation to see the mountains, the ocean, the desert. The plains–with their razor-sharp grasses and dry, brittle soil–were all they knew. Few had traveled beyond Pierre, and many never would. Their world was small, their community smaller.

Without warning, we crested a small hill and  rolled into town. With the exception of a few boarded up houses and trailers, their lawns littered with garbage and rusted-out vehicles, the place appeared to be deserted–and eerily so. We pulled up to a windowless building at the end of the street and unloaded the eggs from the back of the van. Women and children milled inside, patiently awaiting their monthly rations of soap, tooth paste, shampoo, and laundry detergent. While Wynema and Steph dolled out supplies, Jenn, Eva, and I headed outside to hide the Easter eggs along a hillside that overlooked the town.

Eva hides Easter eggs in the rusted coils of an old mattress.

The garbage was overwhelming: beer cans, broken bottles, food wrappers, cardboard boxes, tires, busted machine parts. Avoiding the piles of excrement–left by horses and dogs that freely roam the countryside–was like playing a complex game of hopscotch. As we tossed eggs onto the ground, our gazes met across the soiled landscape, and our eyes communicated what we couldn’t say out loud. Here? We’re going to let the children hunt for eggs in this filth?

But in the end, that’s what we did. They sprinted up the hillside, gleefully snatching the colorful eggs from the trash. It was all over within 10 minutes, and the children returned to the parking lot, their eyes shining as they clutched their bags of loot. I remained at the top of the hill for a few minutes longer, blinking away tears. That such unadulterated, unabashed joy could exist amidst such poverty, that these beautiful hills could be marred by such waste–it nearly broke my heart.

Gabby and a little girl hunt for Easter eggs in Cherry Creek.

Further down the hill, the kids were talking to one of the townspeople, a 19-year-old who, for purposes of privacy, I will call A.J. Clad in baggy pants and a blue flannel shirt, he stood with his arms crossed against his chest, a blue bandana tied around the knuckles of his left hand. He was a Crip, he told us, but prison had reformed him. He rapped for us–about growing up in Cherry Creek, his family, what he’d done on the streets. He wanted to join Job Corps and sell his music, he said, so he could come back home to help his siblings.

But A.J. didn’t get to do any of those things. Six weeks later, police arrested him for intentionally setting a house fire that killed his 2-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister. He was sentenced to life in prison the following year.

An article in the Rapid City Journal quoted A.J.’s defense attorney as saying he grew up suffering “horrendous treatment” by his mother, whom she said abused him, introduced him to alcohol, and encouraged him to join a gang. The boy had no semblance of family life and basically grew up in various institutions from the time he was 10, she said.

I have pictures of the children who died in the fire. I have pictures of A.J. Three lives, extinguished. I weep for them.

* * *

The children took us for a walk in Dupree.

We returned to Dupree that evening a little quieter than usual, and the children were waiting for us. But we didn’t send them home, not even after the sun went down. Instead, we let them walk us through town. The little ones ran ahead, while the teenagers hung back and chatted with us. One little boy tugged Brendan’s hand and pointed to a green house across the street. “We used to live there,” he said. “There was food.”

It was well after dark by the time we returned to the Y. Joining hands, we formed a huge spiral hug. And then, without a good-bye, the children were gone.

* * *

We left Dupree at three o’clock the next morning. I was the only one who’d bothered to sleep that night, and so I drove us the 140 miles south to the Badlands. We arrived just in time to watch the sun rise over the canyon.

The Badlands.

* * *

In less than two months, Brendan and Anna will graduate. The rest of the kids (who aren’t really kids anymore) are scattered across the country. Dan works for Boeing in St. Louis. Cherisse landed her dream job working for the Philadelphia Eagles’s Youth Partnership Program. Gabby and Eva are Americorps volunteers in Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. Steph is teaching English in Korea, and Jenn C. works for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington D.C. Katie and John chose to stay in Boston, while Colie randomly ended up in Champaign, Illinois. And I, as everyone knows, ditched journalism and went to dog grooming school.

Much to the surprise of nearly everyone who wasn’t on the trip with us, the 12 of us have remained close. In fact, I celebrated my last day of work at the university by hosting an ASB reunion at Jenn’s parent’s house on Cape Cod. Everyone but Jenn C. attended. We cooked incredible meals and built a bonfire in the backyard and stayed up until dawn playing Mafia. We watched the herring run in Brewster and ate fried clams along the pier in Provincetown. And at sunset we climbed the dunes along the National Seashore and stood in rapture as the wind blew in from across the Atlantic. I could think of no better way to end my career at the university than to spend a weekend with the people who made it all worth the experience.

Thank you, my beautiful Lakota Achievers. Let’s go back soon, shall we?

To learn more about volunteering at the Cheyenne River Reservation or to make a donation, visit the Sioux YMCA Web site.

At the Badlands.

And two years later, at our Cape Cod reunion.

Finding Nemo’s perfect haircut

March 23, 2011

It all started back in December, when I came home from school one afternoon and abducted my neighbor’s shih tzu, Nemo. I didn’t have a grooming table, so I plunked him on the kitchen counter and went to work. I’d only been in grooming school for five weeks, and I’d barely done any haircuts. But Nemo was getting ready to spend six weeks in Vermont while his family traveled to Cambodia, so his moms asked me to “tidy him up.” Looking back at the photos, I’m not entirely sure you could say that’s what I did, because I honestly can’t tell much of a difference between the before-and-after pictures. But it was my first attempt at grooming a dog outside of school (aside from the butcher job I did on my golden retriever at Thanksgiving), and I was overly cautious. I used an orange snap-on comb on his body and scissored his legs. By the time I got around to his face, the poor guy had been on the counter for nearly three hours, and his restlessness–combined with my inexperience–resulted in a less-than-stellar final product. But hey, I give myself props for trying.

Attempt 1: Don’t feel badly if you can’t see any difference between these haircuts. I can’t, either.

My next attempt at grooming Nemo came in January, after he’d taken up the hippie lifestyle in Vermont. This time I used a blue snap-on comb on both his body and legs. I also scissored his legs and face. The second groom was far better than the first, but I had a long way to go, particularly on his face. It also took about three hours to do.

Attempt 2: A definite improvement over Attempt 1.

The third attempt took less time, most likely because I didn’t scissor his legs at all. Also, halfway through, Kathy came home with her sister, 13-year old daughter, and four- and six-year-old niece and nephew, so Nemo and I were both a bit distracted. Kathy asked me to round out his face–I believe, her exact words were “get rid of the chops”–but try as I might, I could not get it to look right. I used an orange snap-on comb again, leaving more length on his body. I also didn’t touch his ears because Kathy wants to let them grow out.

Attempt 3: I wasn’t particularly happy with this groom. I thought he looked scruffy. But his face looked a little better this time.

The next time I groomed Nemo, I took him to school with me. This in and of itself presented a huge advantage because A) I could bathe him with the Oster Power Bather and the Prima, thereby ensuring he was thoroughly clean B) I had access to whitening shampoo and conditioner, C) I could dry him with a high-velocity dryer and brush him while using the stand dryer, tools which brought out the natural shine and silkiness of his coat, and D) I had access to an actual grooming table and CURVED(!) scissors. Oh, and most importantly, my instructors were on hand to answer questions and give feedback. In total, it took about two hours from the time I put him in the tub to the time I finished. I used a blue snap-on comb on his body and scissored his legs with CURVED(!) shears. Jaque’s only feedback for his body was to tighten his rump, inner legs, and shoulders. I called her back over when I was ready to tackle his face. She did one side, and I did the other.

Attempt 4: Definitely my best work yet. It's amazing what a difference good product and the right equipment makes.

I was pretty shocked when I put together the photo compilation below. Those are some pretty drastic improvements over four months.

Whoa, huh?

Disclaimer: Ordinarily, I don’t go for hair color, but Nemo’s sister Leah loves it, so I gave him some stencils and lots of sparkles. Maybe I’ll paint him like a clownfish for Halloween this year.

In other news, we’ve been focusing a lot on terriers at school lately–probably my least-favorite group. I’m really struggling with the patterns. But here are some examples of my recent work.

My first attempt at grooming a Westie.

This is Kippy, a Parson Russell mix who belongs to my friends Shona and Robin. Kippy is a “special needs” client. He typically wears “facial attire” when I groom him.

My first attempt at grooming a wire fox terrier.

And speaking of wire fox terriers… back in college, I used to take care of one named Reggie. He was buddies with my cat, Edward. So, for the sake of nostalgia, here’s a picture of the two of them hanging out at Designer Dog, the shop where I used to work. See, Edward thought he was a dog even back then.

Edward and Reggie, circa 2002.

It’s hard to be a lefty in a righty world–and for once I’m not referring to politics

March 11, 2011

I’ve outgrown my scissors.

My grooming instructors warned that it would happen, but I didn’t believe them. The first time I held my eight-inch Dubl Duck straights in my hand, my thumb poked through the handle and the scissors hung limply from my fingers. Subsequently, each time I attempted to close the blades, the shears slipped over my knuckle to rest against the fleshy part between my thumb and forefinger–and believe me, it’s impossible to cut anything when that happens.

The awkwardness I experienced upon attempting to actually use my shears shouldn’t have been all that surprising, though, because as it turns out, I’ve been holding scissors incorrectly my entire life. (Clearly, my elementary school art teacher failed me. But then again, he was legally blind, so I suppose it isn’t entirely his fault. What’s that, you ask? Who hires blind art teachers? Catholic schools, that’s who.) But anyway, yeah–you’re supposed to hold scissors with your thumb and ring finger, not with your thumb and index finger, which is how I’d always done it. Also, you’re supposed to use only your thumb when opening and closing your blades to help reduce hand fatigue and carpel tunnel. Who knew?

I wonder if my failure to correctly hold scissors has anything to do with being left-handed, which is how I justify the way I tie shoes. Yes, I still use the “bunny-ear” method–what’s your point? Not to get all martyr-like, but it isn’t easy to be a “lefty” in a “righty” world. When my parents tried to teach me to to tie shoes the traditional way, it only resulted in tears and frustration. I also blame my left-handedness on never learning to knit (despite my grandmother’s best efforts) and nearly flunking the knot-tying portion of my high school outdoor education class. Come to think of it, it’s likely the reason I hate math, and it’s probably responsible for natural disasters and world hunger, too.

What was I talking about again? Oh, right. Scissors.

So there I was at grooming school, wrestling with an ungainly pair of shears and silently cursing my intense clumsiness. The scissors were only eight inches long, but I may as well have been trying to hold a javelin. (Incidentally, I’ve never actually held a javelin, but I imagine it would be quite ungainly. I did, however, throw a tomahawk one year at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival.) It doesn’t help that my hands are approximately the size of a hobbit’s, so even when I fully extend my thumb and ring finger, the blades don’t open very far.

It isn’t easy being me.

I ended up practicing a lot at home using a duster. One night–much to Jenn’s dismay–I scissored through two entire episodes of Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit. By the time I finished, the couch, my clothes, and my cat were all covered in an itchy dusting of lamb’s wool. I was told that, henceforth, I’d be honing my scissoring skills on the back porch–or else.

This is Victor. He used to have a sister named Victoria. I saw the movie "Victor/Victoria" when I was eight, which prompted the inevitable question: Mom, what's a homosexual?

I’ve been grooming for nearly five months now, and despite my initial struggles, I’ve gradually gotten to the point where my eight-inch shears are just not big enough. The shorter your blades, the more cuts you need to make. And when you’re scissoring a tall dog like a poodle or a long-legged terrier, the fewer swipes you take, the better.

Luckily, there are plenty of extra pairs of shears at the school that I can borrow. But graduation is less than a month away, and that means I need to begin investing in my own equipment–again.

Most recently, I discovered the joys of curved shears, which proved to be tremendously helpful in cutting a bichon‘s head the other day. Curved blades are hugely beneficial when scissoring topknots, faces, ears, feet, and rumps, and when turned upside down, they help set angulation, tuck-ups, and underchests. I want some.

Back in November, I attended the New England Pet Grooming Professionals (NEPGP) expo in Warwick, Rhode Island. I’d only been in school for a few weeks, and I was completely overwhelmed by the selection of vendors. Despite encouragement from Susan, I decided not to purchase any scissors at the show. I’d just made a tuition payment, in addition to buying all of my equipment for school. Besides, I was so new to the game that I couldn’t tell a good pair of shears from a bad one–at that point, everything felt awkward.

Now I’m kind of irritated that I didn’t buy when I had the chance. My frustration was further elevated when I learned that I’ll be out of town during the NEPGP summer expo. However, New Jersey’s Intergroom is happening the weekend after I graduate, and that means Jenn and I will be taking a road trip to the Garden State. The event features more than 150 vendors and 30 seminars, in addition to a number of grooming competitions. I’m not ready to compete by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m looking forward to watching.

In other news, I shaved down a golden retriever last week, at the owner’s request, of course. I’ve done golden shave-downs before, but always with a snap-on comb. This time I used a 7F blade–again, per the owner’s request. I don’t especially like the look. What do you all think?

I will never do this to my golden retriever.



I’m just like Edward Scissorhands, without the bad hair

February 28, 2011

My grooming school instructors encourage us to “step away” from the table every so often so we can view our dogs from a different perspective. By taking a few steps back, we are more likely to notice where we need to cut, thin, or blend. It also allows us to view the dog in its entirety, rather than focusing on one small area.

This month we enter into the final stretch of school, and to say that I’ve worked myself into a mild state of panic would be an understatement. I’m not ready to leave. I can barely carve a pattern into a dog’s coat, we’re still not trimming faces–the other day I couldn’t even get all of the mats out of a maltese. And then there’s that whole prospect of finding a job after I graduate. What if no one wants to hire me?

I’ve been so fixated on what I can’t do that I tend to forget all of the things that I can. Four months ago, I couldn’t even correctly hold a pair of scissors in my hand. I didn’t know how to trim a dog’s nails, I fumbled every time I picked up my clippers. Forget using my thinning shears–they’re right-handed, I’m left-handed, and they won’t cut a single hair if I hold them in my dominant hand. That’s right–I’ve been mucking out undercoat, blending clipper lines, and scissoring feet with my weak hand. It was pretty awkward at first, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can hold my straights in my left hand, thinning shears in my right, and simultaneously scissor with both. Just call me Edward Scissorhands.

The following section is an attempt to remove my head from my backside and take an impartial look at everything I’ve accomplished during the past few months–in other words, it’s time to take a few steps back to gain a fresh perspective.

This is Zoe, the first poodle I groomed. She received a “standard” poodle cut, which involved shaving her feet and face and giving her a topknot. Zoe has an adorable snaggletooth.

Despite her “mature” age, Chloe the shih tzu was a hyper little thing–as toy breeds tend to be.

It took me more than an hour to muck out the undercoat and remove the mats from Rocco the collie.

Clippering a golden retriever‘s coat helps reduce shedding. Winnie comes in every few weeks for a shave-down.

Winnie’s feet were extraordinarily hairy.

Poor Jack the border collie puked all over the table when I was trimming his back nails. I didn’t take it personally, though.

Like most long-legged terriers, Charlotte the airedale is persnickety when it comes to touching her legs or feet. She’s also been known to snap when having her nails trimmed. This presents an interesting–but hardly uncommon–challenge.

Benny was one of three dogs I groomed on a recent Tuesday. My speed is definitely picking up.

I had a lot of help grooming Scootch, mainly because I’d never worked on a Japanese chin, and he was my last dog of the day.

Savannah was one of three dogs that I groomed on a recent Saturday. I’ve gotten pretty fast at grooming golden retrievers. It’s a good thing they’re a fairly common breed.

Just because I gained 30 pounds last year doesn’t mean there’s a bun in the oven

February 21, 2011

Dear companies that keep mailing me shit about babies:

Lately my mailbox–my real one, not my cyber one–has been inundated with advertisements for expectant mothers. It’s true that I gained quite a bit of weight in the past nine months, but I think it’s really insensitive of you to assume that it’s because I’m pregnant. Did it ever occur to you that maybe I’m just a fat ass? Yeah, who feels like a jerk now?

If you ever bothered to read my blog, you’d know that I’m clearly unfit to be a mom because I click my tongue at children, and poop makes me vomit. You’d also know that I quit my job to groom dogs–not to expand my carbon footprint by creating a whole new human being. I mean, if you had any brains at all, you’d send me something useful, like a Pet Edge catalogue.

This isn't even the half of it.

The upstairs neighbors have started to gossip, and I’m pretty sure the mail carrier thinks I’m a huge slut because I’m not married. And even though I’ve told her time and time again that kids are most definitely not in my future, my mom is all, “But you’re getting all of this baby stuff in the mail. Maybe the universe is trying to tell you that you should give me a grandchild before I die.” To which I say, “You know, if you were so hellbent on living out your old age with a bunch of fat grandbabies on your hip, maybe you should have had more than one kid. Because it’s kind of impractical to pin all of your hopes and dreams on your one and only child.”

To further complicate matters, Jenn is bragging to her family that she’s accomplished the physiologically impossible and managed to knock me up, and her parents are all “Sláinte! Let’s buy you a Saint Gerard Majella medal and register you at Gymboree!” and her sister–always the practical one–is like, “Neither one of you has a job. How are you supposed to raise a kid?” She’s such a killjoy.

Seriously, baby companies, you’re kind of  screwing with my life right now, and I really don’t appreciate it.

So, to reiterate: I am not pregnant. I am not a nursing mother. I don’t care about lemaze classes or disposable diapers, which I’d never use even if I had kids because–hello, 450 years from now it will still be sitting in a landfill, nasty as ever. I think people who shop at Gymboree are creepy, and I would never, ever spend almost $1,100 on a freaking stroller. I don’t like the Wiggles or Elmo or Teletubbies–except for the purple one who Jerry Falwell claimed was gay.

Please, baby companies. I’m begging you. Cease and desist. Immediately. Before things get really out of hand and the folks from Miles Kimball find me.

On a completely unrelated note, did anyone else happen to catch the resemblance between Augra, a muppet from Jim Henson‘s 1982 film The Dark Crystal, and Placegarden Malachy, the Pekingese that won best in toy group at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show?

I'm just sayin'...

This post really has nothing to do with grooming. Or dogs, for that matter. But if you’re a fan of Johnny Cash, you should definitely read it.

February 9, 2011

Three years ago, my dear friend and former boss from Designer Dog, the grooming shop where I worked during college, dragged me across four states on an odyssey in search of country music legend Johnny Cash. In honor of Kristi’s 54th birthday, I’m reposting an essay that I wrote about our road trip. Happy birthday, Kristi. I love you.

* * *

I was standing in the kitchen stirring a pot of tomato soup when an old friend of my mother’s called.

Kristi taught me how to ride a horse, steer a canoe, and drive a car. During my teenage years, she was the wise adult confidante who listened to my adolescent woes. By the time I reached adulthood, our relationship had developed into an easygoing friendship that transcended age and the nearly 700 miles separating Boston from my hometown. So when she asked if I’d go on vacation with her, I responded with an enthusiastic, “Hell, yeah!”

Kristi and me with our dog, Abby, circa 1987.

My last vacation with Kristi took place in 1988, when she, my mom, and I went to Florida. I was eight years old, and Kristi had a perm. “So,” I said, “where are we going?”

There was a slight pause. “I’d like to take a Johnny Cash pilgrimage,” she said.

Kristi’s obsession with the Man in Black had begun a year and a half earlier, around the time that 20th Century Fox released the Cash biopic Walk the Line. Kristi saw the film nine times—in the theater. Each time I went back to Ohio, her collection of Johnny Cash CDs, books, and DVDs had expanded. I jokingly referred to one of her bookcases as “the shrine.”

My first exposure to Johnny Cash came the day he died, September 12, 2003. I was working for a small newspaper in rural Virginia, and I laid out his obituary. I knew “Ring of Fire,” but my familiarity with the country singer ended there.

If anyone had told me that four years later to the day, I’d be standing by the man’s gravesite, I’d have laughed.

Day one

The night flight to Ohio was two hours late, and I didn’t crawl into bed until midnight. Five hours later, at Kristi’s prodding, I was in the front seat of her minivan, a ball cap pulled over my eyes.

“NPR ran a two-hour Johnny Cash biography last week,” she announced, pulling out of the driveway. “I taped it.”

I opened one eye. “Seriously? It’s not even six in the morning.”

Grinning, Kristi popped the cassette into the player, and the familiar chords of “I Walk the Line” broke the stillness. I sighed and glanced at our MapQuest directions: Wooster, Ohio, to Nashville, Tenn. — 477 miles. The van was stocked with at least two dozen Johnny Cash CDs: greatest hits, ballads, gospel, June and Johnny duets.

It was going to be a long ride.

* * *

I dozed for the first few hours. Somewhere in Kentucky, in the middle of “A Boy Named Sue,” we passed a sign for Big Bone Lick State Park. “According to the AAA guide,” I announced, “the park is located off Beaver Road, between the communities of Beaverlick and Rabbit Hash.”

Kristi snorted. “You’re making that up.”

“It’s the birthplace of American paleontology,” I added, closing the book with a thump. I yawned and stretched my arms. “God, I love a road trip!”

* * *

Kristi had spent months planning our pilgrimage. At first we’d meant to visit Nashville and Hendersonville, Tenn., the sprawling suburb where Johnny and June Carter Cash are buried. By September, the expedition also included two nights in Memphis and a side trip to Dyess, Ark.

“Arkansas?” I had shouted. “What the heck is in Arkansas?”

“That’s where Johnny Cash grew up,” Kristi said. “We can drive past his old house.”

We made a deal. I’d go to Dyess if she would agree to visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, shop at a Piggly Wiggly, eat fried okra, and listen to “Old Man River” while crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas. “You’re very weird,” she said.

“Hey,” I retorted, “I’m not the person stalking a dead guy.”

*  *  *

Midafternoon found us driving through Hendersonville in search of Caudill Drive and the scorched remains of Johnny Cash’s lakeside home. The 14,000-square-foot house had burned to the ground not long after Bee Gees vocalist Barry Gibb bought it in 2006. Cash’s 2002 music video “Hurt” was filmed inside, and a replica of the house appeared in Walk the Line.

“I thought he lived out in the middle of nowhere,” I said, eyeing rows of cookie-cutter mansions and cul-de-sacs.

Kristi's T-shirt is the only reference to dogs that you'll find in this post.

“I think all of this sprouted up in the last decade or so,” Kristi replied. We rounded a slight bend, and on the shores of Old Hickory Lake stood charred ruins. All that was left was the stone foundation, a wooden fence, and the gatehouse. Legend has it that whenever Cash was in a rage, he threw something into the lake, and its muddy bottom is littered with busted guitars, booze bottles, and other debris.

We parked the van and wandered over to the fence. “Will you take some pictures?” Kristi asked.

I was a few yards down the road snapping photos when Kristi jogged over and excitedly grabbed my arm. “You see that guy cutting the grass next door? That’s Marty Stuart!”

I gave her a blank stare. “Who?”

“Marty Stuart! He was in Johnny Cash’s band back in the ’80s and was married to Cindy Cash for a few years.” She clapped her hands. “I can’t believe it! Our first celebrity sighting!”

“If I don’t know who the person is, I’m not sure it counts,” I replied.

* * *

Johnny Cash is buried at Hendersonville Memory Gardens. The cemetery opened in 1965, amidst acres of rolling farmland. But as the community grew, housing developments, fast-food restaurants, and strip malls cropped up faster than dandelions. Today the city’s main thoroughfare, Route 31—also known as the Johnny Cash Parkway—is a wasteland of big-box retail stores, gas stations, and parking lots.

“It’s certainly not as picturesque as I’d imagined,” Kristi said.

We trudged through the grass, singed from a summer drought, and found our way to the final resting place of Johnny and June Cash. The enormous recessed headstones bore the bronze signatures of both performers. Coins, artificial flowers, candles, guitar picks, and other small mementos left by fans cluttered the area.

Attention family: if you bury me next to some soulless housing development, I will come back to haunt you.

Kristi silently knelt by the graves while I examined nearby plots. Other members of the Carter family—Mother Maybelle, June’s sisters, Anita and Helen, and her daughter Rosey—were there, and Merle Kilgore, who co-wrote “Ring of Fire” with June, was nearby.

Glancing back at Kristi, I wondered what it was about Johnny Cash that so fascinated her. Dozens of trinkets left by previous visitors proved she wasn’t alone, but what compelled her to seek out the old stomping grounds of a musician she never knew?

Day two

Kristi woke me at six. “What’s on today’s agenda?” I asked, stumbling toward the shower.

“Lots of stuff!” she replied. “The Country Music Hall of Fame, Lower Broadway, the Ryman Auditorium. And I want to hit up all the souvenir shops for Johnny Cash shirts.”

I raised an eyebrow and nodded at her black T-shirt, boldly emblazoned with the name Cash. “But I want more,” she said, widening her brown eyes.

We arrived at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame on the heels of a senior citizen tour group. The museum features memorabilia of more than 100 country music artists, including Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, and Loretta Lynn. But Kristi was interested only in the man who, at age 48, was the youngest living musician to be inducted.

We spent a few hours mulling over old guitars, 45s, and stage costumes. The exhibits were engaging, even for someone not particularly interested in country music. But Kristi was disappointed. “I thought they’d have more Johnny Cash stuff,” she grumbled.

“It’s the Country Music Hall of Fame,” I pointed out, “not the Johnny Cash Hall of Fame.”

Praise Jesus for Marty Stuart, whose Sparkle and Twang collection at the Tennessee State Museum more than made up for the paltry selection of Cash paraphernalia at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

She got her fix at our next stop. Marty Stuart, in addition to mowing his lawn, has one of the largest and most significant country music collections in Nashville, and it happened to be on display at the Tennessee State Museum. The exhibition, Sparkle and Twang: Marty Stuart’s American Musical Odyssey, contained more than 300 artifacts, including a pair of Gene Autry’s boots, Maybelle Carter’s autoharp, and Patsy Cline’s leather makeup kit. More importantly, it contained enough Johnny Cash paraphernalia to keep Kristi occupied for days. She roamed the museum in a state of wonder, examining every item while I fulfilled photo requests.

We stepped back into sweltering September heat long past lunchtime, grabbed some food from the van, and made our way to Lower Broadway, a 10-block stretch of restaurants, gift shops, and honky-tonk bars. We then ducked into the Ryman Auditorium—former home of the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts—before hitting up the souvenir stores. Kristi bought two T-shirts, two CDs, and three DVDs.

“I guess I know what we’ll be listening to on the way to Memphis,” I cracked.

She responded by whacking the back of my head.

* * *

“We need to stop at this rest area,” Kristi said.

I looked up in surprise. We were only an hour outside of Nashville. “You have to stop already?”

“Not really, but we’re coming up on the Johnny Cash rest area.”

I nearly choked on my orange juice. “The what?”

Indeed. Who knew?

The stretch of I-40 between Nashville and Memphis is commonly referred to as the Music Highway, because every rest area is named in honor of a musician. And sure enough, mile marker 170 is Johnny Cash’s.

“How did you even know about this?” I demanded. She handed me a book, I Still Miss Someone: Friends and Family Remember Johnny Cash by Hugh Waddell. I scanned a page she’d marked with a post-it note. “‘Stop at the Johnny Cash rest area,’” I read aloud. “‘Sit by the sign and write a poem.’ Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”

Day three

Sun Studio, founded in 1952 by music pioneer Sam Phillips, is regarded as the birthplace of rock and roll. In the unassuming brick building on a busy Memphis street, Elvis Presley recorded his first hit single, “My Happiness,” in 1953. Two years later, 23-year-old Johnny Cash cut his singles “Hey, Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry,” the latter cracking Billboard’s Top 20. By 1956, critics were hailing Cash as one of the greatest artists of the decade, thanks to “I Walk the Line.”

Kristi could barely contain her excitement as our guide, a young musician named Zach, led us into the studio. An enormous photograph of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis hung on the wall above some old recording equipment. It was taken on December 4, 1956, during an impromptu jam session—the only time all four musicians sang together.

Note the ethereal glow surrounding my head. It's because, after accompanying Kristi on this trip, I was pre-selected for canonization.

Zach led us to an old-fashioned microphone. “This is the microphone that Elvis used to record ‘My Happiness,’” he said. “Anyone want to try it out?”

Of course, everyone took a turn at the microphone. “Maybe Johnny Cash used it, too,” Kristi whispered to me.

* * *

“Arkansas is pretty desolate,” Kristi said.

Since crossing the Mississippi, we’d seen nothing but cotton fields, mile after mile of spindly brown plants, fluffy white bolls drifting lazily into the sky.

We turned off the interstate and rolled down a country lane until we arrived in Dyess. Laid out in the shape of a wheel, the town consists of a post office, tiny town hall, and some trailers and boarded-up buildings.

Dyess was founded in 1934 as a resettlement colony during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. At the height of the Great Depression, the community housed about 2,500 residents, including the Cash family. By 1950, when Cash joined the Air Force, the colony had faded, and today, only 515 residents remain.

A woman at the post office recognized us for who we were. “If you don’t live here, I know you’re here for Johnny,” she said. “There was a busload from Scotland that came through two days ago.”

She gave us directions to the old Cash homestead and encouraged us to knock on the owner’s door. “Tell him Janet from the post office sent you!” she called after us.

We drove down a gravel road, past sagging trailers and roadside debris, until a decrepit red-and-white house came into view. A sign in the front yard—“Welcome, Home of Johnny Cash”—was the property’s only distinguishing feature.

“Are you really going to knock?” I asked as Kristi pulled into the driveway.

“No,” she replied. “That just seems too …”

“Obsessive?” I suggested. “Stalkerish?”

She glared. “Invasive.”

Ye olde homestead.

We climbed out of the van, giggling at the absurdity of the situation. Here we were in Arkansas, staking out a dead man’s house. It reminded me of the time Kristi and I broke into an abandoned log cabin at Spangler Park. I was seven, utterly intrigued by this mysterious structure in the woods. My parents never let me explore it, but Kristi did. She was always my coconspirator, my partner in crime.

Shaking with laughter, I snapped a photo of her standing in front of the house. “Thank you,” I whispered.

* * *

That night, back in Memphis, we walked the length of Beale Street. Blues drifted from clubs, and the air was heavy with the smoky scent of barbecued ribs. We splurged and took a ride through the city in a horse-drawn carriage. It was just about perfect.

Day four

Now we're talking.

The next morning we gathered our belongings and prepared for the ride back to Hendersonville, where we’d stay overnight before heading to Ohio.

The nearest Piggly Wiggly was on Elvis Presley Boulevard, a few blocks away from Graceland. We bought bananas. “The Piggly Wiggly was the country’s first self-serving grocery store,” I told Kristi as we waited in the checkout line.

“Is that why we had to come here?” she asked.

“No,” I replied. “I just really like the name.”

Neither of us had any interest in visiting Graceland, but as long as we were in the neighborhood, we figured we should at least walk past it. We didn’t see much. A woman wearing a glittery Elvis Presley shirt and bejeweled sunglasses walked past us. “I think Elvis fans are even weirder than Johnny Cash ones,” I said.

Kristi nodded, either not getting–or ignoring–the dig. “Hey, do you mind if we stop at the cemetery when we get back to Hendersonville?”

My jaw dropped. “You want to go back?”

She blushed. “Well, I wasn’t wearing a Johnny Cash T-shirt the first time we went.”

* * *

The sun was beginning to set when we pulled into Hendersonville Memory Gardens. I followed Kristi back to the Cash plot and waited while she stood at the grave, her hands jammed in her pockets. I turned away to give her some privacy, and when I looked back, she was scribbling something on the back of a business card.

“Are you leaving him a note?” I asked.

She laughed. “Shut up. And don’t judge me.”

“Oh, it’s way too late for that,” I said.

* * *

That night we went to the Center Point Pit Barbecue for dinner. Family-owned and operated since 1965, the joint is famous for its dry smoked pork ribs and tangy tomato-and-vinegar sauce. The list of stars who have frequented the place during the last 40 years reads like a roster from the Country Music Hall of Fame: Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings—and, of course—Johnny Cash. In fact, he was one of the restaurant’s first customers. His favorite dish was the fried pork rings.

I've been told that the barbecue in Tennessee is delicious, so it's unfortunate that I was a vegetarian at the time of this trip.

The owner, a friendly man named Robert, met us before we could even walk through the front door. “Johnny Cash fans, eh?” he asked, ushering inside.

I glanced at Kristi’s T-shirt. Gee, what gave it away?

Robert led us to a corner table and pulled a chair out for Kristi. “This was John’s table,” he said. “He always sat here, and June sat across from him.”

Kristi sat down, a goofy smile on her face. “Wow,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m sitting in his old chair.” She studied the menu for a few moments before looking back up at me. “You know, I’m having a really great time,” she said.

I smiled. “I know.”

“I know this isn’t your thing,” she continued. “I know you’d rather be sleeping in a tent on the side of a mountain somewhere. So it really means a lot that you were willing to follow me on this crazy adventure.”

At my mother’s house in Ohio, there’s a photograph of Kristi and me, taken when I was three. Kristi is playing a recorder, and I’m staring up at her, utterly fascinated. She never wanted children — never particularly liked them until she met me — yet she stuck around all of those years, guiding me from childhood through awkward adolescence and into adulthood.

I blinked away a tear. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

Why yes, I did own a cowboy hat up until last year, when a bowling alley in Branson, Missouri, ate it. RIP, hat.

* * *

As we walked back to the van, grasshoppers leaped across the wilted lawn, their chirping overriding the hum of traffic on Route 31.

“Kris?”

“Hmm.”

“Why Johnny Cash?” I finally asked. “What is it about this guy…”

She shrugged. “Back when I was a kid, I used to watch his TV show every week. And my dad listened to him.”

Kristi didn’t talk about her childhood. I knew only that her parents divorced when she was four, and although she adored her father, she saw him rarely. He died when she was 18.

The pilgrimage remained unconventional, but made more sense now. The journey wasn’t really about tracking down Johnny Cash the musician, celebrating Johnny Cash the icon, or ruminating about Johnny Cash, the Man in Black. It was about using Johnny Cash as a connection, a way for Kristi to acknowledge that she “still missed someone.”

“I’m glad I came with you,” I said.

She smiled. “Me, too.”