I read recently that researchers at The Broad Institute, at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have almost completed mapping the two-billion-molecule-long genetic code of a dog. This is a big scientific breakthrough and one of the biggest insights is the uncanny similarity of a dog’s genome to our own. What this means is that buried somewhere in those billions of molecules is a little tiny shared gene that has something to do with Cheetos.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with Ella lately, and I find that we balance each other out nicely. When it’s dark and rainy, she still insists that we go out, and it’s probably good for me to get away from my desk. I won’t melt after all and just moving about might bring some freshness to the effort. During the mornings, Ella tends to need some time to herself, so she slinks off to check the guestroom, or she’ll sleep in Lynn’s and my bedroom uninterrupted by my pacing. It’s quiet in there and probably filled with familiar smells and memories. In the afternoon, though, she sets up camp under my desk, chin resting either on the base of my chair or on my foot, alert to any change in plans. She dozes as dogs do. We occasionally step outside. We are in perfect harmony. Balance.
A friend of mine mentioned the other day that what made dogs truly great was that they were always just glad to be invited to the party. They realized somehow that they were not destined to control things, choose the snacks or select the band. Mostly they were just happy to be there.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to Ella that we would probably have to go to Mt. Ashland, Oregon, for a one-day business trip. Her eyes lit up as if I’d suggested spending the weekend in Paris. Road trip! I explained as well as I could that it would be a long day. I specifically told her that it was at least an eight-hour drive each way, that I’d be tied up in meetings. No sightseeing — just a brief romp up at the mountain if we were lucky. She looked at me with steady, loving eyes. At 4 a.m., we were up and ready. Ella inventoried her gear. Water … check. Kibbles … check. Tennis ball … check. We drove, I met, we romped in two feet of fresh snow, then we turned and drove back. During the grind, she would occasionally nuzzle my ear as a sort of “Are you sure you know where we’re going?” but other than that she had a terrific time. We shared a couple of hot dogs on the way home.
Somehow, we both understand and respect the limits of our relationship. While Ella and I are close, there are rules about “place” in our small society that we both accept gracefully. Snacks on the coffee table are out of bounds no matter how tempting; the couch and bed are off limits; and begging isn’t worth the humiliation. Ella affects an air of aloofness in these matters, but I suspect that these petty injustices sometimes test her generally optimistic and patient nature. Still, other issues complicate our relationship. I don’t think she’s fully grasped the concept of the telephone, but then I don’t completely understand her joy in chasing the ducks during our early-morning park patrol. Don’t worry. She has never caught a duck and probably never will — Golden Retrievers are not exactly built for speed — but in those moments of running gloriously through puddles and making a complete fool of herself, she is thoroughly and happily a dog. In those moments, I am far from her mind and as excluded from her life as she sometimes is from mine.
In the course of my life, I’ve been around more than my share of good dogs. There was Buck, Bo, Dinah, Suzy and Del when I was a kid. MacIntosh, Phoebe and now Ella as a grown-up. Each of them, even as pups, would look at me with a kind of ancient wisdom and spent their lives passing on lessons of trust, optimism and patience. Lessons not always easy for me to understand. So we go on, Ella and me, two souls linked, trying to make sense of the world.
Three for you, Ella … one for me.
Rick Casner is a full-time ski instructor and part-time architect or a full-time architect and part-time ski instructor depending on when you ask. He also writes a little.