30 January 2017
La Vida Phantasmagoria
Competing in an organized sport with a dog who can see ghosts requires a delicate feather touch and nerves of steel. You get like that, hopefully, once you've sunk down deep enough into the quicksand that is agility. The muck crept up past my shins years ago to where I barely even notice it now. Why do I do it? With a dog who can see ghosts? I can tell you right now, it's not the financial genius behind stockpiling Qs instead of retirement dollars or the tremendous fame brought about by coming in second in Masters Jumpers on a random Sunday morning in somebody else's hometown that has a liquor store and a taqueria that are pretty much exactly like the ones just down the street from my own house.
Definitely not the gigantic windfall of a Steeplechase victory, where President Grant smiles brilliantly for a few brief moments before getting pawned off at the gas station on the way home, with just enough left over for one travel mug refill of caffeine from the nearest corporate coffee clone that also looks exactly like the one back home. And I finally figured out there's no impressing friends, family or random acquaintances with fancy title accomplishments and acronyms. Not surprisingly, the underage pot dealer in the park doesn't find inspiration or life improving aspiration from meeting dogs who come with their own set of fancy initials like MAD and ADCh. He's all, "Hey dogs," and moves on, back into the bushes to conduct his business. Their lifetime achievement memorabilia, flooffy ribbons and dusty plaques, get displayed unceremoniously under the bed with other long forgotten souvenirs.
If agility was solely leisure time recreational jolly good fun, I think there'd be less festering porta potties and questionable mattresses in cheap motels with cat suited hookers working on the other side of thin sheetrock exactly adjacent to my headboard. Fewer crazytalk ladies from opposing political solar systems yammering on about trying to get their dog to poop, and more majestic forests with dog swimming creeks adjacent to dog shows instead of freeways, train tracks and dead fields. It's doubtful I'd be volunteering to empty all the garbage cans into the dumpster on the edge of the parking lot or constantly waking up at dark o'clock to hit the road for another weekend somewhere else. Taking that long highway drive that's fueled by a a competitive streak to win. Or at least to be the best. The best that you can be. The best even if you're the kind of person who is sort of more pretty much usually all right, than the best. Like those army commercials. Be all that you can be? Working under the assumption that you're already somewhat limited?
The specific reasons for this completely illogical lifestyle are still unknown to me. And to be so addicted to it, to keep on going, when a dog such as my beloved Gustavo lives la vida phantasmagoria. For today's theory, I'll chalk it up to climate change. While CO2 emissions grow uncontrollably and unaccountably, the best way to hide one's head deep in a sand hole is to instead, immerse it somewhere else.
Dog agility, a fantastic somewhere else. All encompassing and all consuming. The competing and the training with pet dogs that have seen us naked and sleep in our beds, makes for tricky emotions, though. This is a thing I think I've finally grown out of, the emo that can spring up faster than a wet rat popping up through the bathroom plumbing. Mostly. Agility is a lot of bruised innards sloshing around out there, all the ladies and just a few dudes shoved together for two or so days, brushing shoulders and shedding hormones, all in the name of running the dogs. Passionate devotion can unleash complicated emotions, turning them loose like a wildfire sparked by fireworks that someone drove all the way to Nevada to procure, just to be able to set them off in the street in front of my house. All you need is one spark in a shabby neighborhood of dead shrubs to send the whole place up in flames.
You know how it goes. For the most part, I usually keep my head down in the dirt or up in the clouds. Maybe perk up an ear for some juicy little gossip tidbit now and again. I like to whistle to myself the cheerful little motto that's taken me a while to figure out. When I whistle it, bluebirds sit on my finger. Nobody really cares about you. Which is true. Although they may not care just enough to make a little remark in overhearing distance or even to your face, that due to the hormones or who you were in a past life or just that you didn't have a healthy breakfast that was at least 40% protein based, stabs a little deeper than it really should.
Used to be, when me and Gustavo had a fiasco run, I mean the worst, definitely the worst, the trauma used to spout out of my heart and eyeballs, red splatter trauma. The only good thing that at least it wasn't projectile barfing on the leash runner waiting over there as I came out of the ring. Let's say that, wow, does that Masters Challenge course look challenging but it's what we've been preparing for and practicing and training for. We got this one. In my mind, I can see it. Going to be the best ever. And then we're off the startline like somebody let the guinea pig loose at the boa constrictor jamboree, but when we get to jump number three, there's a lady who ran a few moments ago with her poodle, little poodle bangs held back with some rainbow hair ties, and the poodle lady, she's awarded the poodle a stack of meaty bones that are within sniffing distance of jump three and that's it. Gustavo's out of the ring and to the meaty bones which are being consumed under a score table so there's a bit of a ruckus as I rush over and dive under the table where scorers are quickly tabulating numbers on the score sheets.
Gustavo's will just read, E. No Time. Elimination. All day, the anticipation of this run, reading it on the course map, talking about it with the colleagues, walking it, thinking it, then a poodle with a pony tail and some bones, that was it. All done and over, before it hardly even began.
How many times does this happen? In my case, so many. In so many different ways. Chalk it up to bad training, funny dog, shit happens. Gustavo, who runs away in a crazy zig zag pattern involving a couple freebie tunnels not even in the course, until I air traffic control him, light sabers in hand waving wildly, over to the exit gate.
It's not necessarily a whiff of savory snack items. It can be something horrible about the poles. Maybe the bases touched his toes. Or the teeter. Might slam him in the sensitive booty. Or the table. Not so nice to lay down on, much comfier to spin in a couple circles before hiding underneath. Or a tarp that's blowing in the breeze. Looks like giant, sparkling wings of a fire breathing dragon with talons that pluck off hobbits and little dogs. Or maybe a butterfly flew by, just in front of him. There's a 50/50 chance that crazyland can happen out there. Which is a 50% chance that it won't. So the odds are better than the lottery or most Kentucky Derbies and we go out and run and roll the dice.
I understand his terrors. Used to happen to me as a kid from the psychedelic 7-Up commercials in the era of yellow submarines, with flutter attacks of technicolor animated butterflies unfolding into floral explosions. They would kaleidoscope at night into my dreams, causing me to wake up screaming over butterflies. Too many flapping wings, too many exploding flowers, too many colors, just too much. Where some find beauty and normalcy, others see dread.
Sometimes it's just the vibe. One spot where we compete, in the dry Californian central valley, we spend a day parked in the dirt, backed up to a rotting trash pile behind a mobile home park where a chihuahua pack holds court from a stack of plastic bottles and we see spooky little kids peer out of dirty windows from behind flowery polyblend sheets. Where Gustavo cannot tread near the end of the arena. A few times in his life, he's made it past the spook zone, but most of the times, most runs of his life on that field, he recoils in terror, or occasionally just stops dead in his tracks, looking at the sky or the wall or whatever it is, communing in his mind with some mothership that only he can see.
I got Gustavo from a lady I met at the beach. I saw him spinning circles around her and was smitten on the spot. She was the rescue dog foster lady, someone else plucked him off the street and drove him up in a van from Juarez and he wasn't really suited for regular pet dog home. He'd already proven a talented escape artist and had an energy level that might drive more gentle folk than I up the wall. I told her I'd take him and went home and told my husband I found what I wanted for my birthday, a skin and bones little dog from Mexico that I saw down on the beach. Gary rolled his eyes, and drove up to meet him and it was true love for all of us within minutes and it always will be.
But he's odd, not that all dogs can't be sometimes. It used to be, his kind of odd during dog show runs sent me running back to the parking lot and the privacy of my front seat, where I could sniffle and fume and bang my head against the steering wheel. So much hard work. So much! We've trained for distractions like this. But not hard enough or not good enough, because, this. Time after time, the course is thwarted at jump 3. Or 5. Or 7. Or wherever. With what feels like a hundred voodoo glow skulls watching, all staring in judgement at Why. Why does she run that dog? They never even get around. Hardly ever. I would say, equal part poor Gooey, equal part the hard work gone down the drain, and equal part wondering, did everybody see that? Now they think i'm a Loser, the kind with a capital L. That lady who said something about it, probably either to be kind in her own socially awkward way or just to fill up a blank space in the moment, her off the cuff comment went down my gullet like a handcuffed lobster before it got boiled alive.
Here's what the life coach would say. You can find them on the internet, everybody's a life coach these days. They help you corral your mentals into one convenient location, as far as I can tell. Maybe I can be yours. The life coach will say it with really tasteful yet chunky accessories and a flattering neckline. Always good hair on those ladies. Her advice, I can see it printed out now on an inspirational poster with seahorses or a mysterious snowy vista that has a little stone dwarf house off in the distance.
Nobody really cares about you. There's that bluebird, sitting on my finger. Maybe some butterflies and their hairy little antennas, too. It's a fact that's easy to forget in the moment, until you practice it and get used to it. You train, don't complain. Move on, shake it off, remember that failure's the stepping stone to success and that success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. I heart those failure quotes so much, so much that I want to eat them up and never, ever poop them out. I want them to live forever in my stomach bile and dissipate through my bloodstream and ooze out of my pores. They are so mine. I take ownership to my failure, we love our agility and me and my dogs like to train til we're blue in the face and laying upside down in the grass, panting visibly.
In competition, I'm the only one who cares that we just faced disaster. As in, first world problem, dog agility disaster. Like if you went on a vision quest, and in the peyote infused haze, the shaman decreed that kitten was your spirit animal. And everybody else got bears and cheetahs and majestic buffalo. Life goes on, you know?
The horror of defeat from all directions diffuses pretty fast, because Gustavo's the cutest, sweetest, little dog you'll ever meet. His fur is really soft, and he has little white rings around his eyeballs, like a creature invented by Wes Anderson that's emblazoned on rain boots and desert plates and stuff you'd buy at an organic kids clothing store in France. He has a tremendous terror of coyotes that keeps him safe in the forest where also many shapes of tree stumps horrify him and stop him in his tracks. He suffers a medical condition, crappy deformed blood vessels that don't quite pass through his liver send ammonia through his bloodstream, where it does funny things when it gets to his brain. He gets medicine for it, and became a vegetarian.
Yeah. One of my dogs is a vegetarian to stave off the hallucinations that live in his head. It's cool. I live in Santa Cruz. We're used to situations like this.
He's healthier now, though, and pretty much his funny little seizures have turned into a used to be thing. He doesn't see ghosts anymore, officially. But he does, sort of. It's just him. He's the kind of dog that even if I was weeping because I can't figure out how to get him to be good at agility, I can pick him up and sigh into his fur and it smells like grass and begonias and the expensive kind of wheat bread, and he gives me a tiny kiss and would like to stay in my lap all day. When he hops off, you hear orchestral magnificence, an entire string section wells up, like something Sufjan Stevens wrote just for him. Gustavo's a dog who doesn't even know he has a soundtrack when he moves.
In agility, your everything is based on this. You're going to run around the ring with your dog as fast as you can and almost become like one animal together, driven by one giant endorphin rushing brain, with with six legs and two arms and shared blood and so many exposed teeth in open mouths, gasping for air and gaping open in joy.
Gustavo actually doesn't have many teeth, part of his medical condition. His tongue hangs out the side of his mouth like a chipmunk gone limp swilling acorn rotgut. Except for when he puts on his biggest smile, then it hangs right down the middle. When I tell all my dogs it's time to go back on leashes, coming out of the woods, he's the first one to run in and he always has that smile on his face, tongue wagging back and forth when he comes running in so fast. When we make it around a course together, the both of us doing the same thing and the run may or may not be clean but for sure it was fast and it contained clarity, my god, the smile that blooms in his face. His smile's infectious, his smile's the day when the Liz Taylor rises from the dead to win the Grand National on the Pie, it's the dolphins being freed from the bloody lagoon kill pen, it's the munchkin proclamation when the witch lays prostrate under the 3 bedroom 2 bath vintage Kansas charmer, it's the polar bear clan who suddenly wake up on intact ice and believe that imminent meltdown of the glaciers was but a nightmare.
His smile is my own personal saving grace. I've never felt so lucky, having a dog such as Gustavo.
Originally published in Clean Run Magazine, May 2016
by team small dog at 6:18 AM