A Dog’s DNA, Part 1

Who are we? What are we made of? And why should we care?

With the advent of DNA kit testing, the question takes on new complexity, but as with many new inventions, we may end up putting far too much stock in the science of self-identification.

I’m annoyed by the ancestry.com commercials showing people discovering their heritage and then drawing immediate conclusions about behavior, temperament, or what traditions they should celebrate, ignoring other possibilities DNA cannot explain.

For example, the guy who trades in his lederhosen for a kilt because he discovers he’s more Scottish than German. Ridiculous. If you have celebrated an existing ethnic tradition for years, you don’t need to change it because of blood line discoveries. And the woman who discovers her Nigerian heritage, though it’s one of the smallest fractions of her genetic make-up (the rest being white European), and automatically concludes that her inherent courage must have come from the Nigerian element.

Yes, white Europeans have a history of being selfish, imperialistic bastards and, yes, your Nigerian heritage may have been underrepresented and, thus, underappreciated, but I think behavioral characteristics and personality traits are less genetically driven than those profiting from genetic testing would like us to believe. Moreover, statistically, I don’t believe your courage is more likely to have come from the 17% component than from the 55%, to paraphrase the commercial’s numerical details.

As the age of social media has proven yet again, people are notorious for getting stupid about “smart” technology.

However, the fact that many DNA kits also test for health concerns helps to offset some of the folly in a process that involves and sometimes encourages faulty reasoning and false conclusions.

But what about DNA in dogs? Little boys may be made of snails and puppy dog tails, but what are puppy dog tails made of? And why should we pay to have the helix of our dog’s genetic identity unwrapped?

Health and healthcare are a factor, but curiosity is probably the main driver. So, after receiving a coupon in the mail for one dog DNA service, we found ourselves investigating our dog’s ancestry. We know he’s a mutt, but many of his traits suggest, to me at least, that there’s a greater chance of high percentages of only a few breeds rather than lower percentages of a longer list. However, I base this belief on assumptions that are, in all likelihood, wrong.

Four years ago, I wrote a post as the mom of our first family dog. In a critique of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, then in its 139th year, I confessed to the event’s power to draw dog lovers to the screen, but I was less than enthusiastic about the program’s style, approach, and canine eugenics-oriented purpose.

“A sucker for the mixed breed, I can’t help cringing inside at the sight of enthroned purity, even as I’m drawn to watching the Westminster Kennel Club 139th Annual Dog Show (2/16 on CNBC, 2/17 on USA). The more dog shows I watch, the more I want to watch, and yet, as each event wears on, so grows the sense that I’m watching a travelling circus freak show.”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

Neither my tone nor my comments improved much from there.

“I detest the way animal health and well-being seem to have been compromised long ago for the sake of handicapping aesthetics. Such tailoring has made Dachshunds and corgis prone to back problems, Shar Peis more likely to develop skin irritations, toys and some terriers so tiny and fragile as to break bones easily, and very large dogs subject to shortened lifespans.

Not to mention all the breed-specific genetic diseases of the organs and other inner workings. . . .”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

Looking back, though, I realize some of my views were unfounded and some comments unfair, that I didn’t understand the seriousness with which recognized professionals in the dog breeding industry preserve pedigrees and safeguard canine health. Genetic diseases derived from all the original cross-breeding, while still a problem in dogs, are largely perpetuated outside the spotlight of the show dog community, who hates those practices as much as I do: profiting from pure breed popularity using impure pedigrees, puppy mill facilities, designer breeds blended from the same, and so on.

It’s not all about perfection in the American Kennel Club (AKC), Westminster Kennel Club (WKC), and similar organizations. It’s also about perfect sustainability, which necessarily means ensuring really good health to perpetuate generations of good quality dogs, inside and out.

So, it is true that one of the purposes of dog shows in America and around the world is preservation of breed standard characteristics. But while this is similar to the goal of conservation of species in the wild, it is not quite the same. The domestic dog breeding ecosystem is almost entirely human generated, the benefits of registration are focused more on breeds than on the dog species as a whole, and the system is highly controlled by humans.

Excluding thoughts on my personal aesthetic preferences among dog breeds based on appearance and movement, other criticisms from the earlier post were equally valid.

“. . . As with any collector society turned obsessive, there is much to satirize.

“The meticulous, yet highly subjective nature of the judging of these animals as the best of the best in their breeds, groups, and shows not only flies in the face of common dog-owner instincts and preferences (for instance, the golden retriever has never won a best in show) but also, due to breed stereotypes, [overly] restricts people’s sense of the quality and value of any given dog as a pet.

“These factors combine both to weaken the genetic hardiness of dogs through excessive, subsidized, and poorly managed and imitated pure-breeding, and to warp pet industry, dog owner, and service provider perspectives of what constitutes a dog worth having.”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

In a word, it’s the snobbery that galls me most. This is not to say, as I suggested in the original post, that dog shows and breed preservation are a waste of time, and at least there is no cash prize for the handler, owner, or breeder winners of best in show. That would mar their purity of purpose. However, many rescue organizations hold exactly that view and worse in their distaste for the breeder community. The rationale of this kind of rescuer? “Why breed when there are already so many dogs that need good homes?” “Rescuing saves a life; breeding does not.”

As I’ve said, this view is a bit short sighted in terms of breed longevity and preservation, but it is the very specializing nature of the breed type that lies at the heart of what I see as an elitist mentality. Despite their deep love of dogs, breeders who might otherwise have rescued mutts, which are referred to, granted with some dignity, as “all-American” dogs at the dog show (agility only), won’t touch rescued animals with a ten-foot pole.

The peer and internal pressure of perfecting show performance, reproducing superior pedigrees, and gaining the reputation of owning the perfect dog for its breed leaves little room in house, heart, budget, or calendar for adopted dogs.

Pride and vanity in handlers, breeders, and owners whose dogs excel in competition also shift the focus away from breed preservation and onto the use of individual dogs to give humans status among their peers and fame in the televised show ring. As I said in the previous post, the competition becomes “more about the show-ers than the shown.”

One could argue that using dogs as athletes, workers, and even companions is just as selfish of humans as using them in conformation competition is. It’s true that we crossed long ago the line of exploitation with dogs, but some people push farther beyond it than others. And now, who knows all the system-focused uses dog breeders, both reputable and suspect, are making out of dog DNA testing?

Rescue organizations aren’t perfect either. In their desperation to save every animal in their chosen breed, variety, or circumstance, in hard economic times in particular, some rescuers can prove less than honest and straight dealing with prospective adopters. You think you’re getting one thing, and you end up with the likes of Elyse, our first family dog whose health and pain problems accompanied what we only later learned was a more advanced age than the rescue organization had portrayed.

In our case, the family of the rescue coordinator wanted to keep a puppy we had our eyes on for themselves as well, leaving us with fewer, more complicated options among adoptees. For breeders and pure breed seekers, the main issue with rescuing is that you do not know the history or family heritage of the dog you’re getting, which carries with it higher risk of behavioral and medical problems.

We believed we owned a rescued, presumably pure-bred Brittany a few years back, but given all her health problems, her miniature size, and other factors in our adoption, I would be much more curious to learn the truth of that assumption than I am to learn my new dog’s data. Elyse is buried in the backyard, and I’m not digging her up just to satisfy a curiosity that will likely result in greater anger at the situations that created her.

Now, with more joy and a lighter heart, I go in search of the pedigree of our current dog, Ethan. We did get our wish for a better situation with this second dog than we received with our first. After a rough first year of adjustment for all of us, Ethan has come through happy and confident. He is smart, healthy, mellow, young, athletic, just as beautiful as Elyse was, and also a rescue.

We have wondered about his make-up since we got him, sometimes going up to him and playfully asking, “What are you, Mister?” but he never answered. So we’ll get to scratch the itch with science. With help from family, we ordered a DNA kit, which was actually more expensive than the human kit some relatives ordered. Any day now the results will arrive.

Meanwhile, the dog show offers a chance to make some educated guesses as to his breed make-up. My current hypothesis follows.

Ethan was advertised as a Vizsla/Labrador retriever mix, and the Vizsla characteristics are demonstrable. However, I’m not as convinced of the Lab content. He does have the oilier, coarser short-haired coat of a Lab on his back and tail, he sheds like a Lab, his skull shape bears some resemblance to a Lab’s, and his tail is Lab like when he’s relaxed.

But he’s also wirier, more aerodynamic, uninterested in retrieving, and less water friendly than a Lab or any retriever. Instead, he likes to sprint, climb, tear the stuffing out of animal toys, destroy rope toys, and rip cardboard boxes to shreds. He naturally scent-tracks very well, and he likes to sunbathe, avoiding water at every turn.

So, some of those facts changed, for me at least, Ethan’s advertised type from “Vizsla/Lab” to “Vizsla/??”. But I assume nothing at this point, not even the Vizsla content, seeing as I have recently how wrong owners can be about the heritage of their mutts.

First, Ethan came from the U.S. Virgin Islands, not known for its Vizsla strays. The islands tend to be much more rife with pit bull mixes, as one would expect. Ethan’s an anomaly in that sense. Based on the smidgeon of what we know of his background and the tiny bit that we can guess, it seems unlikely that he would also contain hound, though some characteristics suggest it.

Therefore, if he does have Vizsla in him, setting aside the Lab question for now, the most likely additional higher percentage group present in Ethan’s blood would be terrier, based on the more common incidence of terriers compared to hounds. In order to narrow that down further, I’ve been studying the appearance and movement of the sporting, working, and terrier groups prior to the best in show round of the Westminster competition this week. Admittedly, despite my prejudice against Ethan’s having Lab in him (too boring?), it is still possible that Lab or some kind of retriever or other sporting breed is present.

Second, if he does NOT have Vizsla in him, the mixture could be quite substantial and surprising. Behaviorally, Ethan’s actions say “hound” to me more than they say “terrier.” Keen scenting, lower energy, slightly less mischief, and legginess are strikes against the terrier group. On the flip side, smaller stature, slender limbs, and a curly tail together work against the hound group. Independent thinking/disobedience or orneriness is a characteristic of many terrier breeds as well as hound breeds, and although he is not bad in this regard, there is some stubbornness in Ethan.

All from the lay perspective, having no knowledge of minute genetics, and now that I’ve looked at them more carefully, I’ve ruled out the following previously considered possibilities as of this week:

  • among hounds: beagle (too thick boned), foxhounds (too stocky), redbone coonhound and other coonhounds (too stocky and tall)
  • among non-sporting: shiba inu (entirely wrong shape and coat despite similar coloring and tail curl), spitz breeds (entirely wrong shape, coloring, and coat despite tail curl)
  • among herding: most herding breeds, including the Canaan dog, despite its curly tail, except border collie and similar shaped medium-sized shepherd breeds
  • among terriers: most terriers, including the more common bull, staffordshire bull, pit bull (too powerful, wrong face shape, build), and all the large-headed, small-bodied terriers of the British Isles (too confident)
  • toy group: highly unlikely, hardly worth mentioning?

Still in the running to be part of Ethan’s DNA for me are the following.

Sporting breeds:

  • Vizsla – body shape, coloring, wiry build, narrow chest, deep-set chest, high pelvic tuck, ear shape, forehead/cheek wrinkles, crown shape, eye position and almond shape, pink/liver nose, sitting shape, tail thickness, musculature, cat-like paws, muzzle length/shape, athleticism, shyness/softness. Ethan’s traits NOT typically seen in the Vizsla: curly tail (usually docked), ample shedding, dark brown eye color (light, yellowish), oily medium-short coat (extremely short, sleek).
  • Labrador retriever – coat length/quality, tail, head shape, brown eyes
  • other sporting breeds such as Weimaraner (very similar to Vizsla), pointers (but half of the build is quite different), spaniels, though the coat is wrong (springers, Brittanys, but probably not cockers), and some retrievers, such as Nova Scotia Duck Toller, but due to its rarity that’s less likely; less so setters

Hounds:

  • Basenji – facial wrinkles, curly tail, overall size, sometimes similar coloring
  • Dachshund – more of an honorable mention since I have strong doubts; likely only a sliver (such as some part of his size and coat) if anything; shape is way off
  • less likely: sight hounds – too delicate and with much pointier, more slender heads and tapered noses with bulging side-set eyes, though Ethan has similar build and high stepping trot to some
  • even less likely due to rarity, despite physical similiarities: Ibizan hound, Pharaoh hound, Cirneco dell’Etna

Working, Herding:

  • Rhodesian ridgeback – mainly for their wrinkled forehead and squared crown in relation to the muzzle, along with short hair
  • Doberman and German Pinschers – eye position, sleekness, overall shape, face shape
  • German shepherd – coat only
  • some shepherds and border collie – actually rather unlikely the more I think about it . . . but I know genetics can be sneaky.

Terriers:

  • Manchester – similar to a Doberman in appearance but small
  • Parson Russell – face shape and he jumps rather high
  • maybe a bit of border terrier for face shape

Best guess from analysis assisted by WKC dog show and AKC website:

If I were to pick the largest number of possible ingredients going into the oven that made my dog, it would include but perhaps not be limited to:

  • Vizsla
  • Labrador retriever
  • German shepherd
  • springer spaniel or Brittany
  • Doberman
  • Dachshund
  • and some terrier blend

If I were to pick the smallest number of possible ingredients, it would include one of the following:

  • Vizsla, German shepherd
  • Vizsla, Labrador retriever or
  • Vizsla, retriever (non-Lab)

I told my husband we should take bets before the results arrive, but he declined. He knows I’d win, or at least come closest. (Spoil sport.)

Stay tuned for Ethan’s DNA results and our reactions to his pedigree!

Below: Ethan is less excited to solve the puzzle.

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A Change Would Do Me Good

I’ve been putting off blogging. I’ve also been putting off Christmas shopping, house cleaning, writing of any kind, starting to read a new book (though I’ve been chipping away at Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir–incisive stuff) along with lots of other things I was already postponing indefinitely on my Remember the Milk task list.

I also forgot it’s almost Christmas in that I scheduled myself for a 9pm tutoring shift on December 20th without bringing something to do upstairs to my designated workstation while waiting for a request. Student needs are much more evident during peak hours and peak parts of the season, which means little to no waiting. Now, not so much. So, I journal, and it happens to work as a blog post. Fancy that.

I’ve been feeling more depressed than usual lately, dealing with the end of my potential to reproduce, a prolonged period of social absence and neglect, injury and illness in connected strings through the fall season, and general feelings of purposelessness. My thoughts are fragmented as I sink back into the lulling pillows of oblivion. Death is close at my heart, but life is elsewhere. A general weepiness follows me around these days. Blah, blah, blah. Pathetic. Woe am I, as that dead-horse thought turns putrid in my brain.

My primary care doctor and I are reluctant to dial up my antidepressants. She said she could recommend a therapist, but she couldn’t think of any good ones during my visit today who were not already retired. It is as if I am retired. Retiring. Too inclined to nap, avoid, escape.

I haven’t been to therapy in more than ten years, not that I wasn’t in head spaces that would have benefited during that time. I’ve seen no counselor or support group since my rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, which became possible ankylosing spondylitis, which became generalized, or unspecified, spondyloarthritis (inflammation of the spine). At first, I tried to find a local group, but when that didn’t materialize, I admit it: I gave up. The extra pounds and serious mind load I carry also do my musculoskeletal system no favors.

Despite lingering doubts about my capacity to work full-time without exacerbating certain disease processes, I am ready for a change in work. I am ready to work more, and I would like more live human interaction. I am lonely and unfulfilled and without sufficient positive challenges to my mind and skills. I would like to tutor students in person as well as online, to start. It is something I may be able to break into with relative ease and a relatively shorter wind-up period than for other endeavors.

It’s raining and my husband plays indoor soccer while my dog snoozes, curling up with his nose tucked under his ankle and part of his tail. I continue to wait for a tutoring request. . . .

My dog is also clearly ready for me to spend more time away from home. If I’ve accomplished only one thing this year, that is “curing” my new puppy of separation anxiety/isolation distress. He can now stay at home with full access to the first floor for several hours at a time without fuss of any kind. Our diligence, research, and experimentation finally delivered the goods.

We must now continue to socialize him more often, but he’s made tremendous progress in becoming a happy, well-adjusted pup. He’s also not as skittish at home about allowing us to harness him up to go out. With our agility practice heading through its third series of eight weekly training sessions, life can open up for me beyond dog rehab and micromanagement.

Well, no requests so far, at 9:23. Looks like I may get paid for waiting time only, rather than session time. Usually by the quarter hour, something pops through.

At the very least, I’m thinking of redoing The Artist’s Way program starting in January, a dual-purpose source of therapy and regular writing practice. I am attempting to make get-together plans with friends as my in-laws prepare for their winter season in Florida and my parents prepare to spend Christmas in California with my brother’s family. My husband and I will join his folks at his brother’s house again this Christmas Eve for gifts and dinner.

I discovered the Edinburgh Advent Calendar on the Jacquie Lawson greeting card website late in the month, around December 13th, and I have been pouring myself into its gadgety distractions—games, activities, entertaining snippets about the town, and creative forays into various Scottish traditions. That bauble-smashing game is some nice, safe destructive behavior! I bought several of these calendars as gifts for loved ones, too. So what if we pile up a bunch of days in the second half of December? I’ll have to show my mother all the things I have discovered on it that she hasn’t had time to explore. Small flickers of happiness. Thank you, Jacquie Lawson team.

Mom and I attended our monthly book club meeting yesterday, having brought cookies to share from each of us. We had one newish member and eight established folks, including my friend, the moderator, and her husband. Very few of us really enjoyed Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short vignettes of small-town life and its oddball residents. It wasn’t without merit, and I got through it, but it wasn’t a delight, either. Next up is Edith Hamilton’s tome Mythology. Perhaps that will prove to be a source of writer’s inspiration for me. I have much to learn of myth and legend.

9:40 Eastern and still nothing, even from the west coast. . . .

Outlander STARZ Season 4 has been good, but it’s not knocking my socks off as the 2018 San Diego Comicon moderator of the Outlander panel claimed it would. In truth, I’ve enjoyed the show incrementally less and less as the seasons progress. It’s similar to my experience of the books, but I still prefer the books, and I have books 5-9 still to read. Besides, I think my days of genuine obsession over Outlander are long past (though don’t hold me to that!), and I don’t need more of that kind of distraction away from literature, poetry, teaching, writing, and truly living, anyway. I plan to continue dabbling in the books and the TV series on this blog, but I’m interested in too many different things to make it about them exclusively, as my posting history attests.

I’ve also been eating a lot of M&M’s, and it’s showing on my skin. I’m getting that intermittent, ruddy halo rash around my chin (I think it’s the chocolate) and breaking out a little elsewhere. Most of the gifts we’re buying are coming from Amazon, as has become our holiday trend, but I went grocery and stocking stuffer shopping tonight at least. I still have to hide a few of the stuffers I bought: gourmet candy canes and some Pez dispensers for hubby and me. (I’m fairly confident he won’t read this post at all, let alone before December 25th, so no spoilers. Although, frankly, I don’t care much whether surprises are spoiled or not. Gift exchange at the holidays has become a cold, calculating arithmetic of off-setting each other’s expenses for gifts already bought, at least with my family. B’humbug.)

Finally, at 9:42 I had a request, and a brief, mighty fine live session with a 12th grader, proofreading a report. It’s not all bad, after all.

If all goes well, my husband and I will get together with my folks this weekend before I drive them to the airport on Monday, and we’ll have Christmas Day to ourselves after his family’s gathering Christmas Eve. Maybe we’ll catch a movie. Despite a few bumps and bruises, dog hair- and clutter-covered interiors, the aches and pains of aging, Ohio’s cold winter weather, and a chronic inflammatory condition, we can do all that. Our blessings really are legion.

Although I have no words of wisdom from this particular perch, or this hollow, I do wish you all a happy holiday season.

Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of these book and TV reviews:

If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

Not So NaNoWriMo

I’m not doin’ so hot. In fact, I’m not doing much at all. The counter on my NaNoWriMo widget to the right on your screen may not say it all, but I think it does signal a departure of some kind. One week of novel writing to go, and I stopped writing almost the day I began, seven days into the month. Instead, when I attended write-ins, I wrote some memoir, did some journal writing, took notes toward a book review, and started my next major blog post draft about Argyll.

The National Novel Writing Month program, this event, continues to attract enthusiastic veteran participants: the imperative to write a novel, a story, a fictional narrative, 50,000 words of it in 30 days. Year after year, my friends dive in and sprint those fingers into victory. I, too, would run the race to the finish, understanding that everyone’s end point is as different as each story premise. But sometimes I wish we could just sit together and talk without working on a writing project. (Currently, my only nearby friends are writing friends.)

I have never finished a NaNoWriMo novel since I began participating in 2011. While that’s not unusual for participants, in October of this year, preparing for the mad dash, I told myself that this would be a good personal goal to pursue—to finish a story at last.

But maybe I’m discovering a different kind of finishing. I had almost no desire to participate this year, as much as I tried to brainstorm, read some previous years’ pep talks, and show up for our region’s kick-off and subsequent write-ins. I would say to myself and a select few others a line that was some variation of “I’m just not feelin’ it.” But I wasn’t really trying all that hard to feel it, either.

So, what’s going on? Am I bored with National Novel Writing Month? Perhaps. Was it a nice run while it lasted? I suppose. Am I just not made for novel writing? Quite possible. I do prefer writing essays and poetry most of the time. I also prefer reading novels to writing them. I finished another long book not on the classics book club reading list while also reading for the club. I thoroughly enjoyed John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I also prefer facilitating, helping, and teaching others about writing over writing myself, but I haven’t been doing much more than the usual online tutoring in the way of teaching or guiding.

Some of that has to do with my wavering health this fall, some with my focus on the dog and my blog.

Health-wise, I went from limiting neck and back problems to exhausting abdominal pain from a medical procedure to annoying cold and sinus infection to worrisome gut destruction from the antibiotics. I think I might just be coming out of that now–maybe. I was able to enjoy Thanksgiving victuals but not much of the atmosphere and company that go with the food. My mother had to come over and help us clean to prepare for hosting Thanksgiving, which we do every year. With how I felt the day before the day, I was seriously considering cancelling or postponing. But in my weakened state, I had little strength to protest. We’d already bought the turkey and started thawing it. On with the show.

One thing I’ve noticed: When we think we’re getting better as an event comes into play, sometimes, we’re just rallying, rising to the occasion only to collapse all the more afterwards when our body reminds us we’re sick. That happened to my husband at the company Thanksgiving dinner the week before, and to me next.

So that’s the health side of retreat from NaNoWriMo. But what about the genuine disinterest and alternative priorities side?

Yes, those are real.

Priority: dog training. I took Thanksgiving week off from tutoring, but I threw myself off the couch and into the car for the dog’s agility class on Black Friday. I had not anticipated sleeping for so long that afternoon, having already slept in quite late to begin with. My husband was capitalizing on a Black Friday deal while I napped with the dog, and he had time only to shower upon his return. It wasn’t until 10 minutes before time to hit the road that he called to me.

The intervention was a word of awakening: Get up; it’s time to go. I looked at the clock, and it was literally the minute we should have been driving away, but I wasn’t dressed, hadn’t taken medication recently, and didn’t have a shower, and, oh my god, do I have to go? I could have slept through the evening and probably overnight.

Still, we went, and since hubby hasn’t been attending class, I was somehow able to be the handler, running Ethan through the training exercises at class. I had to break for the toilet only once and drank lots of Gatorade in between turns. My trainer reminded me to increase my probiotic intake as well, which I did. This was all happening in the transition from one antibiotic, Amoxicillin, to another, Cipro. I hoped the new one wouldn’t utterly obliterate my digestive tract, too. So far, it has been better, but stomach upset remains a risk, and I’m just feeling run down. And now we’re back to talking about sickness again.

The agility arena is a 35-minute drive eastward from our house, and class takes an hour and a half. No small investment of time, energy, and endurance of road bumps on an upset stomach. And the poor dog hasn’t had much exercise lately either. I haven’t yet gotten around to hiring a dog walker or sending him to periodic doggy day care visits. We had been going to the dog park rather frequently, but now it’s raining and still too cold for me to be willing to venture out while on the mend. That means running him inside the house or walking him around the neighborhood. With my husband back to work and night falling fast these days, it’s up to me.

I tried walking around the block yesterday with my boys, and although I made it home, the second half of the walk was rough on the tummy and a bit slower than the first. So despite feeling better today, I was reluctant to send myself into that zone again. Instead, I’m writing this, and the dog is getting into trouble, chewing on things he shouldn’t in his boredom. I’ve already run him up and down the stairs and across the 1st floor rooms for treats today and played tug of war with him a few minutes ago, but he needs an actual walk, too. He typically won’t do his solid business except on a walk, until he can’t hold it any longer and is forced to go in the yard.

Having a “soft” tempered, or sensitive, dog can be challenging. Even though he’s perfectly healthy and quite athletic otherwise, he has persnickety quirks about, among others, walking on wet ground and soiling his territory, so he doesn’t make deviations from the active routine a simple matter. Thankfully, his fearfulness has decreased dramatically over the past several months, and he’s actually comfortable receiving affection now. No small feats!

Priority: blog. But the dog takes up some time, and so does the blog. These are choices I have made, investments of time I have committed to. If I were gainfully employed part-time (tutoring is a fraction of that), my schedule could force me to make the time for things like NaNoWriMo, but my will and preferences wouldn’t stop resisting.

The truth is I’ve had misgivings about novel writing ever since I started to try it. And those misgivings feel like more than the typical doubt and fear of writer’s block or imposter syndrome. I just don’t like writing stories as much as my peers do. I prefer writing poems and essays. I often prefer reading nonfiction to reading novels. But it’s also true that novel writing is hard, and it doesn’t take much to deter non-devotees. The project is a larger undertaking with greater complexity than most poems or essays.

The spirit of NaNoWriMo is all about “writing with reckless abandon.” I’ve seen glimpses of myself doing this in previous Novembers, but I think it would take more than a month-long word sprint for me to embrace the spirit fully. And maybe I just don’t have that “more,” whatever it is. Or, maybe I’ll be more interested next year.

I hadn’t written much for a while leading up to November, and I didn’t really miss it. Writing is part of who I am, but it’s far from the whole picture, and my hesitations extend to making a career focused on writing. As frustrating as the tutoring can be at times, it’s currently one of only a few ways I can be an educator. My blog is another. What I am missing is the social interaction and speaking and energy of face-to-face teaching.

So, once healthy, my life could use further balancing out, but we all lose our balance sometimes. It may be time for a new adventure, a new chapter, a new focus, or a renewed one. I just hope my friends and I can make peace with whatever direction my relationship to NaNoWriMo ends up taking.

And to all those still working hard and happily on their novels this month, press on.

National Dog Day 2018: Reminiscing

We’re enjoying our dog Ethan, now a year and a half old, who just met my nephew’s new puppy at a family party. So you know I couldn’t let the opportunity pass by to present a collection of dog-related posts on my blog from over the years, for National Dog Day.

Essays & Stories

Book Reviews

Poetry

Phrases, Links, Photos

Photos/Images

Fellow Bloggers

Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 2

As I noted in Part 1 of this brief, it was in my vigilance following Ethan’s excursion under the deck that something peculiar came to light.

May 18, 2018, the following day

Ethan was lying down in the grass near the lacecap hydrangea, tether at full length, looking off to the next-door neighbor’s yard, when a small bullet of gray and brown fur shot under the deck from that direction. His eyes followed intently, head turning like a panning camera, but he made no attempt to pursue the creature. Our previous dog Elyse had had more prey drive than he, another thing to be thankful for.

Carrying the bowl of my mostly eaten cereal sprinkled with strawberries, I walked down the deck steps and around past the dog, still lying calmly by the lacecap. I scanned the deck base and beneath its edges for movement or sound. Unsurprisingly, I found neither. Dark shade and critter quickness had thwarted me again.

But while I stood there pondering the great unknown at my feet, I noticed a length of black corrugated pipe peeking out between the steps from under the deck. Not belonging there inherently, the pipe had once sprawled, cascading down the steps, set aside to serve as a tire for Ethan to practice jumping through for agility training. The construction project yet to begin, the pipe found its way under the deck some time last fall.

Now that agility is again in full swing after our winter break, I decided it was time at least to remove the pipe and ready it for use. Out of sight, out of mind. In sight, less out of mind. That’s my motto.

As I drew the middle of the plastic pipe between the steps, I heard minute rattling, as of dirt and debris, trickling across the ridges. As I dragged it out onto the grass, I shook it a little, producing clusters of pebbles, sunflower seed shells, and what looked like grass. I shook harder, and the rattling became knocking against the pipe. Shaking it even more, I soon became captivated by what fell out. Bones.

I had found a dead body.

Bones, sunflower seed shells, some acorn shells, apparently dead grass used for nesting, and more bones rattled their way to the thick spring grass. The largest intact bone among these was a skull.

I bent down to identify the species and determined by its size and shape that the head had once been that of a rabbit. A broad, flat crown, long sloping snout, large side eye sockets, and ear holes oriented vertically very close behind the eyes all pointed to the Eastern cottontail. Months and months ago.

The color was a ruddy brownish mottled with tanned bony surfaces that had once been whiter with life. On close inspection, the skull proved porous, especially along the crown behind the eye socket.

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After further shaking, one of the jaw bones greeted me. Alive and in one piece, the cottontail rabbit has a wedge-shaped head with an angular jaw. Just visible in the image above, to the left of the skull in profile and attached to a jaw bone off left, you can see the sharp, white tip of a lower incisor partially obscured by criss-crossing blades of grass.

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During this whole process, most parts I had successfully ejected with the first violent banging, hand to pipe, then pipe to ground. Along with a complete set of bones on a very hairy-looking foot, out flopped a posse of a hip/pelvic bone, the other jaw bone, its tiny row of teeth visible on one side, and some leg bones bound up in a conglomeration with several spider egg sacks, seed and acorn shells, and invisible webbing. All of the earliest results.

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Nothing alive. Nothing but spiders, possibly insects, bacteria, seemed to be living there now. The bunny, yes, still a young rabbit, I thought, might have become injured and crawled in there to die, or crawled in to escape the elements and died of hypothermia, or became stuck, terrified and confused, and died of fear and starvation.

I saw no great ecosystem tragedy in it. Although they have a high mortality rate, rabbits are plentiful, as the live brood of tiny, nestling bunnies in the base of our front yard’s ornamental grasses–and all the hopping, white-tailed life in this neighborhood–attest. It’s simply life and death, in the wilderness that is wildness to these animals.

But clearly, it seemed to me, something else had used the bones, and the seeds and dried nesting grass, to make itself a home. I suspected a chipmunk, perhaps more than one generation’s worth, for the bones have been picked clean and dry for a while now. Perhaps one or more creatures had eaten some of the flesh before one made a home there.

I recalled last fall, seeing a chipmunk dart out from under the deck to the bird feeder’s base, gather bulging cheekfuls of seeds and seed shells and dart back under again. I’m sure it happened much more often than I saw. Could that have been the chipmunk and this its home?

I suppose it’s possible some clever critters besides spiders had clung for dear life to the ridges of the corrugation while I gave them the ride of their lives, and perhaps slipped away once peace returned for a time, both the dog and myself in our own home again.

The weight and the noise tell me some remains, and who knows what else?, remain inside the pipe. Tomorrow, I will flush out the rest with the garden hose. I don’t anticipate any further surprises, now that I know what to expect. I’ll be sure to let you know if the unexpected awaited us.

Several days later . . .

The garden hose. Such a useful tool.

On the same side of the yard where the living rabbit had shot under the deck, I took the corrugated pipe in hand and inserted the nozzle end of the hose into one end, setting it to “jet.” A few stray bones—two leg bones joined at the knee, perhaps a lone clavicle—made their way out, along with the brown fuzz I thought was grass.

Remembering the bulk of materials must lodge somewhere off center inside the pipe, I flipped it around and ran the water through again, the other end aimed roughly toward our Pagoda dogwood flowerbed.

Success. Out clumped a huge brown mat that flattened, now laden with water, into a raft-like shape, ridged with impressions from the corrugation. A bit startled, I emitted something like “Whoa” and proceeded to blast away at the brown mass. It disintegrated easily, revealing among other pieces a most striking spinal column. This was a moment of definite awe.

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I continued flushing, spreading some of the brown stuff into a pool the flood had formed in the round flowerbed. Ribs, a rib cage, another shoulder blade, and shards of other bones all made themselves visible.

After extracting them from the mess, I carefully rinsed the bones and then returned for stragglers. Pushing at the brown stuff with my fingers, I realized it wasn’t grass or other plant material at all. It was fur. Of course. Rabbit fur. Where would it have gone? So perhaps no rodent had made a home in the lagomorph carcass, though the seed and acorn shells suggest at least temporary refuge.

After I allowed the bones from this second extraction to dry on our deck table, I inspected them again, taking some pictures, and found what I believe to be evidence of the cause of death. The spine was somewhat flexible but more flexible in the middle than across the whole. Looking closer, I saw two total breaks in a set of adjacent vertebrae—a broken back, most likely from either a car strike or animal attack. The rabbit had gone into the pipe to die, then, after all.

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After assembling the bones neatly in different arrangements on the table, I was cursing myself for not having saved the skull and other first bones discovered, so that I could try to reassemble the nearly complete skeleton.

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I made the most of the three separate spinal sections and hip and leg portions, putting the rib cage back together. The result is shown below.

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The spine measures a full nine and a half inches with all three parts, from coccyx to the top of the available rib cage. An adult rabbit, I think.

I relished the opportunity to play biologist, quickly overcoming the mild squeamishness I felt initially. It helped that there was no flesh or blood. Still, after freeing the parts from inside the pipe, rinsing them, and laying them out in the sun, an unpleasant odor became apparent.

“Easy Ethan,” as our dog trainer calls him, lounged beneath the table while I worked to examine and arrange the bones. His faint curiosity melted before his overwhelming inclination to relax. He’s a relentless sunbather. Perhaps his nonchalance also benefited from a long-time familiarity with these odors as a natural part of his backyard domain.

Either way, despite his unstoppable appetite for grass, that alarming under-deck excursion, some clumsy, mouthy playfulness, a tendency to destroy new toys, and a little minor digging, as dogs go, Ethan is truly a keeper.

Further Afield

Another animal, this time fully clothed, lay in our path on a dog walk through that channel of power lines that cuts through the middle of the neighborhood. In March, we saw a mostly intact wood duck lying dead in the clearing.

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It saddened and puzzled me in particular for two reasons: First, these distinctive, beautiful ducks seem fairly uncommon in our area—I had never seen one in the metro parks, for instance. And second, if the power lines were the culprit, it seemed odd that the bird hadn’t disintegrated more. Practically every last feather remained on board.

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I briefly considered that it could be an abandoned hunting decoy that had been used for practice in the field, but the bird was real. Just not alive. Now reduced or elevated to another artifact for my experiential collection, the body was cleared away by someone or something within days of our encounter.


For the first half of my rabbit bones discovery adventure, visit Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 1.

For more bunny blood and gore, see:

Happier rabbit- and bird-related posts:

Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 1

As the air warms and my dog waxes bold and curious in his wanderings on our property, he leads me to discover things I might never have imagined.

Two days ago, I went outside to check on him, tethered as usual to the deck, but I could see him nowhere, nor any trace of his tether.

As we so often do these days to prevent or get him out of trouble, I slipped on my clogs and grabbed the baggy of kibble in case I needed to coax him home. In the 10 months we’ve had him, Ethan has never run away, never broken his tether or even tried to.

Once, he managed to unlatch his collar, leaving it secured on the tether while he zoomed over to greet the neighbor’s dog. Another time, he became loose through the garage and sauntered back around to the same dog. Not to the road.

Now, though he enjoys sunbathing, Ethan seeks the cool shade as well, and has taken to digging, which I imagine feels luxuriously cool on his hot paw pads. (We’re getting his and my feet a kiddie pool for the summer.) So far, only minor patches, hardly even holes, have resulted—a couple of times in the grass and this latest in the flower bed bordering the deck.

Luckily, the effect was to loosen only a weed rather than a perennial just next to the divot. Cooling off his feet, having a fun dig, and, it would seem, creating just enough space to slip under the deck steps into the gap beside the wood lattice work.

When I found no tether and no Ethan, I called for him, thinking at first that he had rounded the corner of the house down the side yard. But the tether was still attached at the base of the deck, the rest of it tucked under toward the dog.

I crouched down to investigate and query the fur child, who promptly looked up with his dopey ears perked, though his body faced away from me. It appeared as if a little smudge of dirt, or something less benign, added to the outline of his nose. I could just see it in a shaft of light penetrating the cracks through the deck boards.

There are several spare boards lined up under the deck, and he had crossed many of them to reach this far. The tether was most of the way under and the dog most of the way to the other side, traveling the length of the shelter.

Our deck has an irregular shape, with five sides, not counting the house sides where a bay window juts out on one end and the kitchen sink area protrudes slightly less on the other.

In the bordering flower bed parallel to the back of the house, a limelight hydrangea bush decorates the right side, and a lacecap hydrangea marks the left, where the length of the deck meets a corner on each end.

A few feet farther right, down the length of the house than the limelight, I crouched by the deck steps the dog uses to do his business and get into mischief. Ethan stood almost all the way to the lacecap on the other end.

I had to reel him in by the tether, a vinyl-coated wire cable, which luckily gave way as it slid back across and around the ends of the unused boards.

Once he reached the exit, Ethan had to dip his torso down into that divot he had dug in order to squeeze out with an inch or two to spare. He’s a skinny dog, but this was still fairly impressive.

I’ve known various critters to live beneath our deck and around the yard, including chipmunks and rabbits. I’ve seen a gray vole in the front yard beds, plus a tunnel of soil something had dug in an irregular, meandering curved line through the brown.

We’ve enjoyed natural lawn aeration that we deduced either skunks or raccoons had accomplished, digging for grubs in that same area beside the bed nearest the steps.

In the open field near the neighborhood playground and jungle gym, we’ve encountered deer droppings and scattered feathers from birds striking the power lines above.

And once, while walking my former dog Elyse toward that same clearing that stretches across the street, as we approached the area, a car slowed beside us and two ladies told me there was a coyote up ahead, to be careful with the dog. That sent us in the opposite direction back home.

With these experiences, near-misses, and all the forensic evidence, we’re well aware that it’s best if the dog does not go under the deck for any reason. Plenty of claws, teeth, parasites, and diseases make suburbia a wild kingdom.

Then, of course, the nails on those deck boards pose injury risk, along with the uneven ground causing the boards to lie unevenly. It must become strictly off limits.

I figured it was certainly possible, if not probable, that Ethan had grabbed hold of some tender morsel of scat or remains or babies that maybe he shouldn’t have.

It was too dark, at mid-day, as I peered underneath, to see anything definitive without risking myself by going in or by walking around to the lacecap. There my access to the dog would be less but my view closer and clearer.

I did not want to waste time investigating. The dog had to come out now.

So then out he came, panting and pleased with himself for escaping the day’s heat, and I promptly shoved a large plant pot, filled with old, heavy soil from both winter and spring, into the corner to limit his access should he happen to try again, even while I watched. One never knows.

Then, I used a towel to scrape off the damp dirt caked to the underside of Ethan’s toenails. This took a little time; his nails had already needed trimming.

The next day, yesterday, I supervised more closely.

We clearly have training to do to keep Ethan out of the flower beds in the first place, out from under the deck, and away from chewing on my hydrangea branches, among other no-no’s.

Luckily, although he is a tough chewer and is becoming a digger, he rarely eats anything he enjoys chewing on that’s not designated edible for dogs. This sidesteps major hassles, dangers, and vet bills.

This time outside with Ethan, I was eating cereal topped with fresh-cut strawberries, a late breakfast by most standards at 11 a.m. At first seated in a deck chair, I decided to move after I noticed three yellow jackets starting to congregate in my vicinity.

What happened next led to a remarkable discovery. . . .

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Come back for Part 2 when all will be revealed, plus a little more.