Life With The Cast of Girls

I’m in Brooklyn, with my dog Mickey, dog-sitting my ex-dog Spike for a week.

(Yes, the word DOG appeared three times in that very short sentence.)

Spike lives in Williamsburg, which is not my favorite neighborhood.  It was once peaceful, quiet, cheap.  But that was a long time ago.  Now, it’s like rush hour Midtown Manhattan peopled by the cast of the HBO show GIRLS.

I watched a few episodes of GIRLS after its auteur, 27-year-old Lena Dunham,  received a 3.5 million dollar advance to write an “advice” book.

GIRLS, as best I can tell, is about privileged, parent-funded, well-educated young white people making culturally imperialistic commentary on  New York’s less-privileged citizens and having shocking experiences like:  “OMG, I accidentally smoked CRACK when I went to a party in a slightly non-white neighborhood, OMG!”

I’ve done enough yoga that I don’t get completely homicidal trying to navigate walking two dogs through waves of would-be GIRLS extras in Williamsburg, but I can’t say I enjoy it very much.  I grit my teeth until we reach McCarren Park where there is some chance of walking a few steps before a GIRLS extra smacks into me as he or she texts and walks and chews gum and listens to Mumford and Sons and upgrades her phone’s operating system at the same time.

Even though I lived in NYC for more than 20 years, I like QUIET and SPACE.  I like art and music and people (usually) so I do love cities, and passionately loved NYC for a long time.  But I need to be able to hear myself think, to walk slowly and SEE stuff.

If you walk slowly in Williamsburg these days, a GIRLS extra smashes you over the head with an ironic totebag.

When I first came to NYC, I lived on the Lower East Side and it was QUIET.  It was also dangerous and, accordingly, cheap.  That was fine with me.  The Guys-With-Firearms-Chasing-Junkies Factor kept the obnoxious, entitled types confined uptown and in the suburbs.  The cast of GIRLS would not have lasted five seconds.

I have an essay coming out in the fall in a book called “Goodbye to all That” a collection of musings about how and why people leave New York.

Writing the essay made me go back through my mental images of the city, cataloging all the extraordinary experiences I’ve had here.  It’s an astonishing place and I loved it long and hard, but what I loved about it most was the way it presented possibilities for almost anyone, including poor people and non-white people, who had a good imagination and a lot of perseverance.

Maybe it still does that, but I can’t tell, because I can’t HEAR MYSELF THINK.

There are still oases.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Friday night.

Prospect Park.  

There is St Marks Bookshop, where I had a grand time reading the other night for the launch of The Marijuana Chronicles, an anthology I wrote a zombies-saved-by-weed story for.

St Marks Bookshop has been around since 1977.  I’ve shopped there for many years and they’ve been very supportive of my work and the work of others who would not be suitable cast members on GIRLS.

As I stood in the stacks, listening to other anthology contributors read, (and marveling at how tall fellow contributor and excellent writer Lee Child is) I perused the shelves.  I wanted to fondle nearly every book I saw.

Jonathan Santlofer and Lee Child

I actually LIKE electronic books and am pretty much all for them, but nothing can take the place of standing between bookshelves, SMELLING books, looking at the spines of books.

I hope that no matter how choked and crowded and glitzy New York becomes, it never pushes out St Marks Bookstore.  If it does, I’m gonna have to fuck someone up.  Probably a member of the cast of GIRLS.










When The Dead Visit

It’s been five days since Lulu died and I’m seeing that cat everywhere.  Curled up in the closet.   On top of the counter, waiting for her chicken. Lording over the garden.

“Seeing” the dead in the days/months and, occasionally, YEARS after they’ve died is normal for me, and for a lot of us, I think.   Possibly more so for those who spend time  mucking around the subconscious through writing, painting, yoga, whathaveyou.

I’ve seen the dead for as long as I can remember.  And also have had a lot of woo-woo “psychic” moments:  Thinking of someone I haven’t seen in years and either hearing from them or running into them twenty minutes later.

William S. Burroughs believed in all kinds of magic and dreams and psychic things. And he had a LOT of cats. Burroughs also used to say: Be careful what you write.

I heard this advice early on in my writing life, maybe while attending one of  Burroughs’ workshops at Naropa, maybe reading it somewhere.

I was smitten by this idea that we could write things into reality.  I also took it seriously — and still do.  If I kill a character in a book, I make sure it’s a REALLY fictional character possessing neither the name nor any characteristics of anyone I know.

Also, I’ve seemingly made good stuff happen by writing it.

In one book, I ended up falling in love with a character.  He was a daydreamy, eccentric, rogue sort of guy.  When I finished the book, I was really sad to stop spending time with him.  The next man I went out was pretty much EXACTLY that character.

He had existed all along, I just hadn’t met him in real life yet.

I had a thread going on the Facebook page a few days ago about seeing the dead.   Many people said they also see dead people and animals.  A number of folks reported not having actual “sightings”, but dreams in which a dead person spoke to them, even offered guidance.

After my father died in 1995, (suddenly and young-ish)  I had a few dreams about him and I “saw” him several times, but never as much  as I saw my friend Mark Ashwill, who died in 2000 at the age of 45 (my slightly hyperbolic Voice obit of him here.)

I saw Mark (and sometimes still do) EVERYWHERE.

Mark and the late Thunderbolt rollercoaster, Coney Island, 1990′s.

Usually, he’s dancing.  Or laughing.  Or up to some sort of mischief.   I don’t really know why he stays with me so much.  I don’t think he’s stuck in some netherworld, being forced to put in 13 years appearing to his living friends.

Maybe he stays with me because I watched him die.  He was a close friends and he was dying while I wrote Hex, so his dying ended up in the book. He even picked out his own character name: Oliver.

Maybe, as a result, a piece of him got stuck inside me.  Stuffed into one of those as-yet-unexplored recesses of my brain/mind.

A lot of stuff goes on in those recesses.

Some call it god, some call it magic, others call it hogwash.

I don’t know what to call it other than That Freaky Thing That Happens When Someone Dies.

On of my favorite short stories is Will Self’s  “The North London Book of the Dead” (read it here or buy one of his books — when he’s good, he’s one of the best, when he’s bad, I want to smack him upside the head with his own vocabulary.)

In the story, the narrator runs into his dead mother one day and discovers that dead people are simply relocated to a different part of town.

Will Self obviously sees dead people.

Now, since she just died, it’s Lulu the Cat I am seeing. It’s a haunting of sorts, or a GHOSTING as my friend Judy calls it, and I like it.

It makes the grief weigh less. 












Lulu the Warrior: 1995-June 20, 2013

Lulu the cat died today at 12:20pm.  She went peacefully.  Or as peacefully as a Warrior Cat can go –which means she scratched me one last time.

That’s my girl. 

She died one day after James Gandolfini who died far too young.  Lulu was not young.  Though I think she was merely 18, not 19 as I had claimed in a previous post about her.

That’s 126 in dog years.  Probably about 100 in cat years.  OLD.

I’ve been sick for several days and had spent a lot of time with Lulu.  She was crankier and more restless than usual. She was still walking around and even jumping on things, but she would barely eat chicken, was vomiting, howling and agitated.

When my boyfriend took the dogs out for a walk this morning, I carried Lulu out to the garden.  She was skinny and wobbly, and her fur was a little dull. She didn’t do her rounds or go look for her catmint plant, she just  repeatedly tried  to escape the garden.

In that moment I realized:  She wants to go die.

I didn’t want her  having the violent or slow death she would find in the world beyond the garden.  That much I could spare her.  I called my vet to see if he would come put her to sleep at home.  It took some coercion, he doesn’t usually do house calls,  but he agreed to come.

I had about two hours.

With all my other cats, there was a moment, a LOOK.  They were usually fairly physically debilitated and there came a day when they looked at me and said,  in no uncertain terms: Time to die.

Not Lulu.  Lulu was a fighter. She fought everything and everyone on principle.  Even after she came in my window, 18 years ago, choosing me, she still resisted being tamed.  When I could finally wrassle her into a carrier and get her to a vet all those years ago, her file promptly got marked with EXTREMELY FRACTIOUS.

The vet had to wear GAUNTLETS to examine her and she still shredded his arms and got him on the face.

One time, when my friend Alex cat sat Lulu and the late Stinky, Lulu was in a cast from having broken her arm when she’d gone out to pick a fight with a cat five times her size.  Alex came over to ATTEMPT giving Lulu her pain pill and some food and found Lulu had RIPPED HER CAST OFF.  She also declined the pain medicine in no uncertain terms.

A few years back, I went down to Florida to teach a workshop at the Atlantic Center for the Arts.  Mickey stayed with a trustworthy dog sitter up in the woods but Lulu, who was diabetic at the time (she later cured herself of diabetes by insisting on being fed only fresh chicken)  and who would NOT allow anyone else to give her insulin shots, had to fly with me to Florida so I could take care of her.

Lulu and Me Selfie in Florida

When the security people at the airport said I had to take the kitty cat out of the carrier so they could RUN THE WAND OVER HER,  I said: That’s probably not a good idea.

They thought I was trying to pull a fast one.

TAKE THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG, Miss, they said.

Lulu, for once, was actually terrified and did not rip the eyes out of the TSA workers.  Nor was she found to contain explosives.  At least, not that kind.

This morning, after the vet’s receptionist called back to say the doc would be by in two hours, my boyfriend went upstairs to say goodbye to Lulu.

She looked at him for a minute but that was about it.

Then, I went up.

I took her onto my chest, the only form of cuddling she’d ever gone in for, a quick chest-roosting with concurrent drooling. She stayed there for a few minutes and I told her all the things I needed to tell her.

About 30 minutes before the vet was set to arrive, I gave her a strong dose of animal tranquilizer.  She climbed up on my desk and stared out the window at the garden.

The tranquilizer hit her and she put her head down on her paws. When it seemed like she was really out of it, I carried her to her favorite spot on the bed and put her on the orange bath towel she liked.

I started weeping, getting a little hysterical.

Lulu had lived with me longer than any human, including parents or siblings and, as cranky as she was with the world, she showed me extreme tenderness.  She was, I think, determined to stay with me till I died. I was the only thing she ever understood about love.

I realized that crying hysterically wasn’t helping anything.  This was about HER death, not about me.

I stopped. I chanted Om Shanti to her over and over. I told her to go find peace.  She had her head in my hand.  She reached out and scratched me a little.  Then I said: Stop fighting, you won.

When the vet arrived, she hadn’t moved at all in about 15 minutes.  He went to touch her and she suddenly lifted her head and hissed.  He gave her a sedative and we waited.

I watched her little belly rising and falling with breath as he administered the death shot.  Then, her belly stopped moving.  She was gone.

After the vet left, I looked at her one last time, kissed her head, then wrapped her in her orange towel and put her in a cloth laundry bag. We couldn’t bury her in the garden, Stevie the Mexican Pup would dig her up.

I thought of a beautiful and stately place not too far away, which shall remain nameless because they may frown upon visitors burying cats in their woods.

We put the dogs and a shovel and Lulu’s body in the car and drove to the beautiful place.  Some people did see us walking into the woods, two dogs, and two humans, one carrying a laundry bag, the other carrying a shovel, but no one said anything.

We found a spot among trees, where a beam of sun cast light.  It overlooked a lake. 

We dug a hole and put her in the ground.  He said some prayers.  We covered her grave with stones.

She may get dug up by wild animals, but probably not.  No one screws with Lulu, not even when she’s dead.

I don’t really care for that “Rainbow Bridge” business that is popular among pet owners.  The idea that when animals die they go to a field to wait for us,  sometimes for a REALLY long time, until we die too and then we all cross the “Rainbrow Bridge” together.

If there is an afterlife, I want my animal companions to go there and FUCK SHIT UP.  Be wild.  Be in nature. BE FREE.

That said, I have no doubt whatsoever that if anything remotely resembling a Rainbow Bridge exists, Lulu will camp out there and not BUDGE until I get there.

She was a cranky spitfire and she terrorized a lot of people, dogs, and other cats, but she loved me as fiercely as any being can love another.

Rest in Peace, Warrior Cat.



What’s He Vacuuming In There? (& Reading!)

Our neighbor vacuums his garden.

The first time I heard it,  I peered out our second floor window. I figured he was vacuuming his living room and it just SOUNDED like it was coming from outdoors. But there he was, in his gardening outfit (tank top, khakis, flips flops and  striped gloves if you really want to know) vacuuming the garden.  With a Shop-Vac.  His garden is a REALLY serious and beautiful garden. But, still, should gardens be vacuumed?  Shouldn’t SOMETHING be left to nature?

This garden-vacuuming got really annoying today because I’ve been felled by a freakish flu.  Yesterday, I vomited bile all day, shivered and sweated, went in an out of fitful sleep with concurrent fitful dreams, almost all involving an unfavorable outcome of the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot where Animal Kingdom, a racehorse I admire, who is trained by a good horseman, was running the final race of his career.

Animal Kingdom photo Barbara Livingston

I had wanted to watch the race at 9:30am US time but was in a deep sleep, only coming out of it to run to the bathroom to vomit. Then going back to sleep dreaming headlines of Animal Kingdom getting soundly defeated.  Which is in fact what happened, as I learned 36 hours later when I could look at a computer again.


Some people have really cool dreams and hallucinations when fevered.  Why do I  have factual (albeit at least prescient) dreams? These days, I pretty much always have factual dreams. Like about buying a new toothbrush.  Where absolutely nothing weird happens.  Once in a great while, I have dreams about racehorses.  Usually sort of disappointing ones, like knowing Animal Kingdom lost his race.  But once, for no reason, I dreamt of a horse named Napoleon Solo. Later that day, I looked in the paper and saw he was running at Aqueduct.  His morning line odds were 50-1.  He actually went off at 60-1.  And won. And yes, I had put $2 on him.

So that was a useful dream.

Today, no dreams.  I’m getting better.  No vomiting.   I ate some grapes.  Went downstairs and stood outside for three minutes watching the dogs sunbathe and fretted about all the garden work that needs doing (sans Shop-Vac.)Then, I got woozy and went back to bed.  Which is when the neighbor started vacuuming his garden.

It’s like that Tom Waits song “What’s He Building In There.”

“What’s He Vacuuming in There?”  Or really, it should be  “What the FUCK is he vacuuming in there?”

I bet they don’t even vacuum Royal Ascot. 

I should tell the neighbor that.  Except I’m scared of him.  He seems thorny.  And I’ve seen him urinate in his driveway several times.  And now I’ve written about it in public.

Did I mention I’m unwell?

I’m not really fit to be typing yet and just wanted  to post something about the upcoming reading at the wonderful St Marks Books in NYC.  Next Tuesday, June 25th, 7-9pm.  More details here.

I’ll only be reading briefly, from the Zombie Hookers of Hudson story, my contribution to Akashic’s The Marijuana Chronicles, but there are many other great people reading, among them, editor Jonathan Santlofer and my friends Linda Yablonsky and Amanda Stern. The atmosphere will be festive, it’s FREE,  and it’s a great bookstore.  And I promise I won’t vomit.  Or try to buy you a toothbrush. And, If you’re really nice, and buy a book, I’ll even tell you the next time I have a dream about a horse.

Bitterness And The Golden Bunny

I like reading blogs where NOT MUCH HAPPENS.  The beauty of the mundane. A doorman being nice to a delivery person.  A broody hen.  My friend Isa’s victories wrestling her post-traumatic-brain-injury  brain.

I don’t read Angry People Blogs or Blah Blogs where people post 30 things a day out of COMPULSION rather than out of actual connection with the thing they are blogging.

Yet I cant’ seem to be breezy and quick in my own blog situation here.   I always INTEND to dash off a small, fleeting notion, then, I start having INTERWOVEN IDEAS and they won’t stop.

But this post is devoted to a small thing.  A golden bunny.  Here it is.

Golden Jackalope by Ria Charisse

It’s a Jackalope really, but I like the way “small golden bunny” sounds.

The small golden bunny was made by a woman named Ria Charisse who has a lovely web site. Looking through it calmed me earlier today, when I was beginning to get vexed.

I had been looking at the comic Marc Maron’s Twitter feed.

Marc and I were friends for a while. He is a very funny and talented man. He could NEVER STOP BEING FUNNY though so hanging out with him was exhausting. I would go home and have to nap.   He was also incredibly driven.  Consumed. It made me feel boring and vaguely lazy by comparison.

We fell out of touch.

I started a Twitter account a few months back. I’m not at my best in 140 characters,  but, I have friends who are, so I do look at Twitter most days.

When I first started, I looked for Marc on Twitter  and followed his feed for a while.  He was doing a lot of  REALLY SUCCESSFUL GUY STUFF.   It made me feel boring and vaguely lazy again.  And also a little bitter.

For the most part, I am genuinely pleased for the successes of friends and acquaintances and total strangers. If someone is good at something, be it symphonies, quilts, yoga, horse whispering,  I get filled with a sense of wonder. My brain gets flushed with good chemicals and I like myself and the world a little bit better.

I don’t care for religion and I do not believe in GOD in the traditional sense, but I believe in small-case-plural-gods.

Marcel Dzama drawings are gods.  

Bach is gods.

Trees and creeks are gods.

The stories people tell are gods (sometimes.)

Other people’s successes usually make me want to be better at my own work, to make small gods that might ignite small gods in others.

But, for some reason, following Marc on Twitter, I started to feel diminished and bitter. He has made a living out of making fun of himself for feeling bitter.  And now I’m bitter about that.

I don’t know why that is or why I’m admitting this.

This was meant to be a fleeting post about the golden bunny I bought today.

When I got home and held the golden bunny in my hand, I literally felt my heart expanding like a watermelon of joy in my chest.

Here is a link to Kosa, where I bought the golden bunny, though I’m not linking to it because I think the owner will give me free stuff.

There is very little free stuff in this world until you’re famous enough to not actually NEED free stuff.

Marc Maron is probably getting free stuff as we speak.

I had heard this story, from my non-biological cousin, Shahram, that the poet Gregory Corso used to get free Agnes b suits.

In fact, Shahram told me that when Gregory Corso died, he was buried in a brown velvet Agnes b suit.

I have NO idea how Shahram knew this, but Shahram knows EVERYTHING.  His brain is extraordinary, possibly owing to the fact that my best friend, Jenny, his biological cousin, used to babysit him when he was 7 and she was 14 and she would grab him by the ankles and SPIN HIM around as fast as she could.

Jenny and Shahram a few years before she took to SPINNING him

Jenny could have dropped Shahram on his head and killed him.  But we like to joke that it was this SPINNING that gave Shahram an unusual brain that indexes EVERYTHING.

Shahram inspecting me

I think Shahram only met Gregory Corso a few times, and he did not attend Gregory’s funeral, but he knew that the man was buried in an Agnes b suit.

Knowing that Agnes b had given Gregory Corso a free suit for being a poet, I thought maybe she’d give me one too. I have long loved her clothes.  Perhaps she would love me.

At the time, I was about to do a taping for an HBO thing. So I called up Agnes b headquarters and explained the situation, how presumably several million people would see my outfit and could I please have some clothes. I was offered a 10% discount.

I wore old clothes.   I still have them.

And now, I have a golden bunny that filled me with small gods when I was bounding toward bitterness over an old friend who is successful because he can laugh at his bitterness.

So, it all works out.




The Vocal Minority

My mom has a birthday coming up. She was young when I was born and now I think she’s turning 70, but I’m not sure.

I texted my brother Jon: Is our mother turning 70?

Jon said: I don’t really know.  I think she’s the same age as Mick Jagger, but I’m not sure.









I asked if I should call our stepfather, Neil, to find out.

Jon said Neil probably doesn’t know either.

No one in my family has ever been much good at keeping track of Conventional People Things.

My late father sometimes thought I was born on March 19th, other times March 21st.  I’m not sure if he ever knew how old I was beyond the first few years. It was kind of funny.  None of us ever read the manual on How To Behave Like Conventional Humans.

My brother Jon teaches elementary school in Colorado because he couldn’t get a permanent job at the inner city school in Philadelphia where he taught for a year and THRIVED.  The school was straight out of Season 4 of The Wire.

Kids coming from REALLY unfavorable home lives and REALLY not knowing how to learn or do anything more than POSSIBLY survive into adulthood.  Jon LOVED working with those kids.  But he had no seniority and the schools funds were cut.


I taught yoga and writing at a residential drug rehab for adolescents and I LOVED those kids, who were basically the kids my brother Jon taught, but five years and a few arrests down the line.

Most of my kids were barely literate and almost all court-remanded and avoiding prison. 90% of them were amazing human beings and about 50% of them were genuinely gifted. Not in the traditional, test-able sense, but in the sense that if you LISTENED to them for five seconds and gave them ONE word of genuine encouragement, they THRIVED.  And focused.  And had joy in their deadened eyes.

These were kids who’d been raped, beaten, neglected, encouraged into prostitution by their own parents.

They chanted in Sanskrit. They did downward facing dog. They wrote poetry and prose and gave readings. I showed them respect, they learned a tiny bit about human kindness.

The most  jaw-droppingly original writer I’ve ever encountered was a 16-year-old-kid in that rehab.  The kid SHOULD be at Harvard now. He’s not.  He’s on the streets.  I loved that kid.  I loved almost all those kids. And I am not a Kid Person. But I am a Broken Kids person.

So is my friend and mentor Andrew Vachss.

Andrew started writing crime novels (among these, the very popular Burke series) to reach a larger jury than he could find in any courthouse. And, as it happened, the books wound up supporting his law practice, where he exclusively represents children.  Andrew and his team of warriors formed PROTECT.ORG, which, among other things, has closed up the “incest loophole” in New York State, though that hideous loophole still exists in approximately 31 states.

Never heard of it?  Basically, raping someone else’s child will result in a prison sentence of some 20 years, but if that child is related to the rapist (by DNA or by marriage–like a son or step-daughter) then the baby raper can get off on probation and go home with the child as a prize.  A “grow your own victim” incentive.

No, it’s not pretty

Andrew, incidentally, was the first public person I knew to portray pit bull dogs positively.  He used to send out a Valentine’s card of Honey and Pokey, two grinning, goofy pits.

A lot of the kids I taught at that rehab had only seen pit bulls used as intimidation devices on the streets.  Some had seen dogfights.  We talked about this.  I showed them pictures of Mickey being a goofball, told them stories of his life as a companion animal.  The kids’ faces got soft.

Some of these kids had been raped by their parents.

There are a lot of physically healthy babies and children out there who could probably cure cancer and generate world peace if they were given just a few MONTHS of stable home life.  So my personal policy is, if I develop a need to have children, I will foster some.

I don’t really get the Oh MY God I Must Have A Child Now That I’m Nearly Old thing that drives people to insane lengths to have babies when their bodies are past wishing to cooperate.  There is a lot of sobering data about this stuff.  This stat in particular is pretty startling: “those who became fathers when they were 50 or older were about 73 percent more likely to have a grandchild with autism.”

Maybe middle-aged men should go back to buying sports cars instead of making babies.  Or, better yet, foster or adopt a child.

I realize saying this will not make me wildly popular in most circles.  I realize I am not the majority.

But I’m trying to be the vocal minority.

And to find out how old my mom is.




Just You Breathe, All Is Coming

Thanks to all who voted for Mickey in the dog modeling contest.


As I’ve mentioned, this will make HIM happy since he loves posing and meeting people, but, it’s also a victory for shelter dogs, and pit bull types in particular.  Over the last year or so, pits have been featured in the Lands End catalog and also the CB2 catalog.   Now, it’s Mickey’s turn to spread the message that these dogs are, first and foremost, PEOPLE-LOVING DOGS, eager to please.

And, no, it’s not “How they’re raised”.

These are extraordinarily resilient, intelligent dogs.   I’ve met a lot of them.  In shelters, in foster care, and beyond and, even those who have suffered nearly unthinkable abuses often become loving companions, family dogs, therapy dogs, etc.  See the Michael Vick dogs. Several of whom have become working therapy dogs.Mickey will be photographed for the Dash and Albert Rug Company catalog sometime in October.

Meanwhile, I’m planning to write a quick-ish ebook “From Death Row to the Runway” about Mickey’s trajectory.  I owe this idea in no small part to Jon Katz, a writer I’ve long admired, whose excellent, thoughtful blog,, I read almost daily.

Jon recently put out an e-book “Listening to Dogs: How To Be Your Own Training Guru” and it is selling like hotcakes.  With good reason.  It’s an excellent, useful book.

In it, Jon put into words many ideas I’ve had for a long time but couldn’t quite express cogently.  So there were many “Aha!” moments for me.  The e-book, by the way, is merely $2.99, less than most cups of coffee, buy it now!

The main idea of the book concerns questioning the reliance we humans have on GURUS.  Jon is speaking specifically about dog training gurus, but I think Guru Reliance goes far deeper than dog training.

I’ve been practicing yoga for a long time.  My first couple of years were spent studying at a well-known lower Manhattan studio.  Though I love  yoga philosophy, enjoy chanting in Sanskrit, and love showing respect for my teachers (and students) I’ve always been turned off by being exhorted to do anything.  And there was a LOT of exhorting at that studio.  Lots of you MUST do things OUR WAY and ONLY our way.  Most of the hundreds of students taking class there were profoundly rude and angry the moment they stepped off their yoga mats.

I moved on and studied with Eddie Stern at Ashtanga Yoga New YorkEddie never preaches.  Ever.  His teaching methods embody his own teacher, the late Sri K Pattabhi Jois’s oft-quoted philosophy: “Just you breathe, all is coming”.   

There were extended teachings, ceremonies and studies on offer at Eddie’s IF one asked.  But these were NEVER shoved down a student’s throat.

Eddie taught me to think for myself. About my body and my mind and how to achieve balance.

And that’s what Jon Katz is talking about in Listening to Dogs.

Listen to your dog, listen to your heart.

Every person has a unique relationship with every dog.  There is no single method of training that will work for every person and every dog.  I know. I’ve tried them all.   Here, Mickey and my best friend Jenny, working on their relationship as Mick tries to comprehend the peculiar get-up:

Perhaps the biggest benefit of enrolling in dog training is that it commits you to devoting time developing a relationship with a being you have invited into your life.

My childhood dog, Dingo, a husky/shepherd mix, was a perfect dog and , as I entered adulthood, I assumed all dogs were like Dingo. He never needed a leash because he stuck RIGHT by the humans’ sides.  If the humans were busy doing horse farm work, Dingo napped.  He never did any gratuitous barking, didn’t chase other animals or fight with other dogs.  He was friendly and affectionate, but not needy.

In retrospect, I realize this was because Dingo got to be a DOG most of the time.  He was allowed to make choices for himself, was not chained up, left indoors all day, or confined to a small yard , watching other dogs and people pass by.  He didn’t have to deal with walking on a leash down crowded city streets, constantly passing other dogs at close range.  He didn’t have to go into a dog park and negotiate dozens of strange dogs with bad manners.  He was, for the most part, a farm dog.  Dingo was well-adjusted and happy and when we DID take him into a crowd of people or a new situation, Dingo could DEAL because he’d learned to THINK rather than REACT.

Most American pet dogs today don’t live in situations like that. Mine don’t.  They have to deal with a lot of stuff that would have given their ancestors anxiety attacks. 

Mickey was a stray in the Bronx.  I have no idea what went on in his early life, but he was not housetrained, did not know how to walk on a leash, and was afraid of other dogs.  I worked with a bunch of different trainers, mostly strictly “positive” trainers, trying to teach him to ignore other dogs, even if said dogs were ill-behaved.

It didn’t really work.  Mickey did not give a shit about food bribes if someone’s off leash lab was BOUNDING toward him head-on  (For some reason, 95% of the time, it is labs and golden retrievers whose humans have them  off leash in parks with clearly posted leash laws and, as Jon Katz  points out twice in his book, statistically, untrained and/or ill-bred labs are more likely to bite people than pit bulls are – I had actually seen this statistic cited several times before, but  I never mentioned it anywhere because all the lab people would freak out on me and say I’m just a pit bull zealot, but Jon Katz does not appear to have special love of pit bulls  and has TREMENDOUS love of labs, so THERE.)

Over time, I learned to LISTEN to Mickey.  He has limitations.  He will NEVER enjoy dogs rushing up to him head-on (dogs reacting unfavorably to strange dogs coming at them head-on is NORMAL.)

Mickey will never excel at meeting strange dogs while on leash in a crowded environment.  And that’s okay.  He’s a dog, not a presidential candidate.  What he IS good at is meeting PEOPLE, letting children climb all over him, posing for photographs, taking car trips, and being a devoted, companion who chills out and naps while I write,  and, when I’m done working, exhorts me to take him to trails and parks to wander though nature, to quiet my mind by looking at the world through his eyes for an hour.

And that’s a lot.

I actually have more to say on this topic, and on Jon Katz’s wonderful book, but this post it getting too long and, as it happens, it’s time to go walk the dogs.

To be continued.




When Someone Jabs A Needle Into Your Spine

I’ve had a horrible pain in my neck for years and now I’ve had it injected full of steroids.  I still have the pain in my neck but, presumably, the steroids will kick in over the next week or so and then I will finally be able to join the circus.

I have ruptured discs up and down my spine, metal plates in my leg and hip,  a torn rotator cuff, and am not particularly physically brave.  But I love and want to join the circus. Specifically, Bindlestiff Family Cirkus.

Stephanie of Bindlestiff Family Cirkus whips a rose out of volunteer’s mouth.

I have an in there. It’s conceivable they’d be willing to train me in the circus ways, but what the hell would I do?

Eat fire on days when I can throw back my head enough to let the flames lash my tongue?

Like Indio, the fire eater at Coney Island circa 15 or so years ago.

Indio gave me one fire eating lesson.  It didn’t go that well.   I shrieked.  Because I am a pansy.

Indio, Fire eater at Coney Island Sideshow.

My dad was a rodeo rider.  He got on bucking bulls and stayed on as long as possible.  This was right after his stint in Korea as a paratrooper. He also hopped freights, fixed machinery, drank enthusiastically, and, without trying, befriended animals everywhere he went.  He didn’t particularly care for cats but they cared for him.  The man could TRAIN cats.  He could get horses, dogs and cats to do circus-type tricks just by LOOKING at them and, additionally, was incredibly tidy and well-groomed.  Not to mention wildly physically fit. He died young, but he’d live fully.

Dad, Gene Estep, aboard Leonard, Madison Square Garden 1982

My mother, who will very likely outlive me,  also has super powers. Horses, dogs and cats do her bidding — not out of fear or coercion, but just because they want to.  She’s got the mojo. She is also, at 69-years-old, a Size Two without an ounce of fat on her body.  She’s a bit hobbly from having been kicked, thrown, bitten, and stomped on by horses through the years, but she is seemingly made of steel.

Mom, Nancy Murray, galloping one of the horses she trained at Delaware Park.

My brothers, Jon and Chris, live in Colorado and are extreme skiers. You know, those guys who trek up to the top of really high mountains and then ski down, sometimes narrowly avoiding the avalanches.  They also scale cliffs with bare hands, ride mountain bikes up vertical, rocky paths, and do other super-powered things.

Which is to say, I’m the pansy of the gene pool.

I briefly raced bicycles, but quit after my second crash.   I’ll get on a horse who is over the age of 15 and, ideally, has had a previous career as a police horse and is not prone to having horse-like reactions to ANYTHING and will keep me safely on his back even if an asteroid lands at his feet.

Yes, I can do a few circus-trick like things with my body thanks to yoga, but even that was getting difficult with the constant PAIN IN MY NECK.

So, with TREMENDOUS trepidation and at the urging of my doctor, I decided to get steroids shot into my spine.

The idea terrified me. Not just the needle, but the steroids.   I’m REALLY sensitive to stimulants of any kind.  Maybe I overdid the methamphetamine in High School when my friend Bliss and I would inhale it in order to understand MATH.  I don’t know. But if I take even a fraction of a regular-person dose of prednisone, I turn into Felix Unger, cleaning everything in sight, chewing on the inside of my cheeks, and generally acting like a crackhead.

The idea of having giant pools of steroids injected into my spine was not my favorite idea. But the alternative was to go on regular pain pills or have my NECK SURGICALLY FUSED.

So I went to a pain management doctor, a small Polish man who pulled on my limbs and dug his fingers into my spine and cracked weird jokes that seemed to annoy his assistant. But I had Googled him extensively and he’d gone to fancy medical schools and did not appear to have killed anyone.

After the nurse had given me a pre-procedure sedative and I was feeling slightly woozy, I looked at the doctor and realized he not only sounded but LOOKED like Roman Polanski.  And, since I was woozy, I said: You look like Roman Polanski.He cackled and, in his thick Polish accent said: You’re not supposed to tell me that when I’m holding a NEEDLE.

Then he jabbed the needle into my spine.

Some of the possible side effects of this procedure are: death, paralysis, infection, blinding headache. To my amazement, I don’t seem to have any of them. I feel a little racy and spent an inordinate amount of time pulling up weeds in the garden, but I am neither dead nor paralyzed.

Still, I’m not quite ready to join the circus.

For now, I’ll get back to the business of novel-writing. I’m stuck on a scene where an addled rich woman, an elderly Scrabble maven, and a lugubrious Irish horse whisperer are holed up in a trailer in rural Maryland, playing Scrabble. I’d better get them out of there before someone gets hurt and needs their spine injected with steroids.


The F**K Me Girl and The Model Dog

The other night, after a freakishly strong thunderstorm, I got home and found that the neighbor’s tree had crashed into our yard, taking down part of the fence and some flowers but mercifully not harming dogs, people, house, or GNOMES.   The next day, as my boyfriend, two tree guys, Stevie the Dog, and the  neighbor whose tree tried to kill us, all stood around staring at the tree, I packed up Mickey and drove down to Brooklyn to stay at my friend John’s house for a few nights.  Not because a tree had tried to kill me, but because I wanted to spend time with my City People and also was reading for the Howl Festival.

The Howl Festival was really really really hot.  Not Laura the Hot Farmer Hot.  90 something degrees and set up mostly in the sun and, accordingly, kind of sparsely attended (though I got to see people I adore, Mike Doughty, Edwin Torres, Bob Holman, and, perhaps best of all, heard Todd Colby read TAKE THE BULL BY THE HORNS).

Because it was a weird distracting set-up for a reading, I read, among other things, FUCK ME, which I haven’t read in a long time.

When I toured with Lollapalooza, I was known as The Fuck Me Girl because anytime the audience was bored or restless I would read Fuck Me and people would become a bit more attentive.

I had planned on maybe bringing Mickey onstage with me at the Howl Festival and having him eat a noodle (his infamous noodle video here for those who haven’t seen it) but it was so hot and uncomfortable, he stayed in the audience with my friends.

The whole time I was onstage, Mickey stared, his ears at full mast.  He’d never heard me read Fuck Me.

He was VERY attentive.

This might be a good time to mention Mickey’s nascent modeling career.

While some dogs like to herd sheep, and other dogs like to sleep on couches all day eating potato chips, ALL dogs want to understand their place in our crazy lives and all dogs, in one way or another, need jobs.

Mickey would totally suck at herding sheep and though he enjoys a good couch and a snack, what he loves best is to meet new people, go new places and, especially, get photographed. He is VERY aware of cameras and considers it his job to present his best angle. 

He seems to have had this knack even before I adopted him six years ago.   His photos from NYC Animal Care and Control show a severely emaciated dog looking RIGHT at the camera. Not in that fearful, defeated way many of the poor dogs at ACC look at the camera, but giving a distinct Come Hither Glance.  Even though he was 60% underweight and slated to be euthanized because he had kennel cough, Mickey was POSING.  On death row.

So, when a company in Massachusetts, Dash and Albert Rugs, announced they were having an open casting call for a dog model, I scheduled Mickey to audition.

I personally HATE auditioning.  It’s dreadful and demoralizing.  I did it about ten times at the height of my Fuck Me Girl fame, and I just found it HORRIBLE and embarrassing and promptly decided to stick to writing books rather than pursuing bit parts on Law and Order.

But I had a hunch Mickey might actually LIKE it.

Just as border collies have it in their DNA to know what to do with unruly sheep, Mickey apparently has it in his DNA to know how to do an audition.  There were other dogs all around, some barking at him, but he completely ignored them and sat down, widened his eyes, and gave come-hither glances to the people checking the dogs in.

When we were ushered into the room where the cameras were set up, Mickey looked at me as if to say: Finally, my job.

With extreme poise, he sat, stood, put his ears straight up, widened his eyes.  He seemed bitterly disappointed when the photographer only took about a dozen shots.  He would have very happily stayed there for HOURS.

Now, Mickey has gotten a callback.  For better or worse, the finalists have all been posted on Facebook and the rug model dog will be chosen by vote.  Voting started a couple of days ago and goes till June 9th and you can (and should, for the sake of my dog’s mental well-being) vote once a day and get everyone you know to do it too. Voting link here.

Mickey is currently only in SIXTH place (you can’t vote from a mobile device, a glitch probably rigged by one of the, um, PUREBRED non-death-row-surviving FANCY DOGS).  So it’s sort of a pain in the ass.  But think of how happy you will make the Dog from Death Row and the Fuck Me Girl.  We’re worth it.  I swear, we are.