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Dog & I Prepare for Winter

My backyard maple tree in October 2007, as published in the Chicago Tribune.

The weather’s been a bit unstable here lately in Northwest Indiana; we’ve had some cold days and some warm ones, and the clash between them gave us a tornado watch last night. Indiana is #2 in auto manufacturing, corn production and tornadoes, but Luke and I got through the night okay.

Football is giving way to basketball; Purdue football is gone with the wind after season-ending injuries to the starting quarterback, the #1 wide receiver and the leading running back. I expect we’ll beat That Other School though and win the Old Oaken Bucket.

The men’s basketball team is doing great, even after the devastating loss of star forward Robbie Hummell, who blew out his right knee again in pre-season practice. Purdue was rated a Final Four team before Hummell went down for the year, and analysts everywhere downgraded the team’s stock to second-rate, despite the presence of NBA prospects JaJuan Johnson and Etwaun Moore. So what’s happened? The bench has stepped up mightily, led by John Hart, D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson. Purdue has climbed in the polls to #8 in the nation; those kids are getting better and better at defense, and last year’s wildly inconsistent freshmen are turning into sophomores who can score.

Where I come from all this matters; you may not care for sports, but these are Indiana kids by and large, playing for and studying at the university our ancestors built.

On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band will lead off the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York; 9 a.m. Eastern on NBC.

Now the trees are showing off their nakedness and Turkey Day is almost here.

I’ve been raking and cleaning out the gardens on the warmer days, while my dog’s been taking advantage of what warmth there still is.

This year I have not been a diligent raker; I’ve maybe put out 10 huge bags of leaves, not 50. I deal with leaves the old-fashioned way, by hand; and yes, I do get tired of it and quit early. Maybe I should buy a $70 leaf-blower, but I just can’t bring myself to shell out even that modest amount of money for a power tool I’d use only two days a year. My neighbors have leaf-blowers and nice clean yards; I suppose I’m too rigid. But there’s something character-building about raking your own damn leaves, and I don’t mind doing it as long as it’s warm out.

The good gardeners on my block have long since cleaned out their gardens; I’m still working at it. The strawberries of course stay in the ground; I’ve cleaned out the peppers, broccoli and cabbages. The tomatoes are so gigantic and overgrown in this black loam that I’ll have to take clippers to the vines.

Tonight I indulged once again in a summer ritual. I saved several green tomatoes before the frost, and all have ripened now, so I ate one over the sink with a salt shaker in hand; delicious. I happen to think home-grown tomatoes are the world’s most perfect food; not milk, not bananas, Indiana tomatoes. Ones I grew!

But the wind does blow colder and it’s time for things to change. The biggest impact isn’t on me, but on my dog.

In warm weather I keep Luke outdoors on a lead for most of the day while I mostly work indoors. He loves sunshine and running around on his own, making his presence known to the neighborhood dogs and getting into whatever innocent mischief he can find. When it’s hot out I take him water or let him lick an ice cube in my hand; on the hottest days I bring him back indoors to the air conditioning. But today was cool enough that after two hours he wanted back inside.

He’s a little 11-pound rat/fox terrier mix, no fat on him, all energy, and I can’t tell that he grows more coat in the winter. I don’t want him too hot or too cold.

Now is that transitional time of year when he doesn’t want to be outside all day, so I decided it was time for us to go into winter mode as far as our routines. One thing I’ve learned from having this guy, he is all about the routines.

I got Luke a year ago last month, a rescue dog from the Humane Society of Indianapolis; he’d just turned 3, and we think he grew up on the streets until one day he got run over by a car, which led him to the vets and other kind people at HSI, who fixed him right up. He wasn’t house-trained and didn’t know much when I brought him home, though I could tell he was hugely affectionate. He still doesn’t know how to play ball or chew on a balled-up sock.

We’ve spent a year learning about each other; I think we’ve finally got the toilet-training thing down, as it’s been months since he had a so-called “accident.” He’s quite good at learning, as long as I can make him understand the rules. Indeed he’s so scrupulous about pleasing me that sometimes he misinterprets my confusing directions; in other words his guardian’s not that competent. My bad.

But he’s learned a trick or two and we’re doing just fine.

Since it was already cold weather when I got him, we established a winter routine last year; he spends his days in the office with me, except for mealtimes. After he gets food he spends 15-20 minutes outdoors on his lead for the poop-and-pee routine, then he comes back inside. Until this spring, that was what he knew. He learned to jump up in my office chair, where I’d pet him and spin him around. When he got tired he’d lie down in a sunbeam streaming through the windows.

Then last spring I changed things on him and put him outside all day.

Now it’s November, and today I decided to remind him about coming upstairs to the office so we can hang out together. He happily remembered, and I happily spun him around clockwise, then counter-clockwise, and when we came to rest he licked my hand.

So we’re back to winter mode, and I’m glad. I still shut my office door on us because I want to keep an eye on him, don’t entirely trust him in the P&P department, but he’s doing good.

The great thing about him is how much he makes me laugh. That’s sure worth a 59ยข can of dog food that lasts three days.

I like that he remembers “winter mode” from last year. He knows that summer mode has come to an end. As the days grow darker earlier, he tries to manipulate me into feeding him earlier, but I don’t do it. He’s a fascinating study in human relations.

I hate winter, but I love going into winter mode with my dog. He’s glad for his chow on a regular schedule, for being indoors when it’s cold, for hanging out with me and whirling around in my swivel chair. He licks my hand more in the wintertime, and when he’s sleepy he finds a sunbeam to snooze in.

I love my dog; taking care of him is just like posting tomorrow’s Daily Office, a spiritual discipline which I do whether I feel like it or not. Often (the work is mostly formatting, and ever-changing) I do not feel like keeping my promises.

But I have an audience, I have a dog, so I do what I said I’d do.

That’s how to get closer to God, by adopting a routine. When we have someone else we’re responsible for, we learn to conform our habits, no matter what our transient emotions. Most people don’t want to say the same “Magnificat” every day of their lives, but when we go ahead and do it, life becomes magnificent.++

Beta dog. Ice cube lover. Prettyboy. Sweet as cotton candy.