Friday, July 11, 2014


We arrive at the rustic Asilomar Conference Grounds, by the sea in Pacific Grove, and I immediately go into full throttle Jewish Princess mode when our assigned room smells funny. We end up about ¾ of a mile from the rest of the study group but I eat enough to compensate for the extra calories I burn. Most of the meals offer a choice of red meat which neither of us eats or some guaranteed-to-induce-flatulence vegetarian option. It isn't bad for institutional food but it isn't very good. There's an inordinate amount of squash which Himself despises, and I can live without. And don't get me started with quinoa (ubiquitous but still not recognized by spell-check.). Nevertheless, I clean my plate.

Most of Asilomar is staffed by Filipinos. I notice that many of the workers are uncomfortable speaking English and I assume that they're newly arrived. Inevitably while I wait in line for my soon to be methane meal, there is another guest interrogating the server about the food. “Does it have dairy?” “Is this vegan?” “Were there any tree nuts used in this kitchen?” I, believe it or not, have been known to make a fuss about what I will and won't eat but I feel embarrassed that people arrived from a place where food is scarce have to endure these inquisitions.

We are attending an alumni seminar, under the aegis of my alma mater, Johnston College. The subject is Lawence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. “Durrell” is not pronounced “Dur—ell” but instead to rhyme with churl or hurl, both of which are apt (the latter in the colloquial sense). After Himself has a happy experience at another alumni seminar last year (on Death) we enroll in this one, knowing only that the Quartet is considered a masterwork of modern fiction. I've read scads of books that were hard to put down but perhaps never one (four actually) that is so hard to pick up. I suspect this resistance it is due to my  bafflement at Durrell's incessant use of French and references to mythology and post-Freudian psychology. But, Himself who can converse on just about any arcane topic you can think of, and some that aren't really arcane but that I simply find boring or confounding, is also disappointed with the Quartet. To some extent, after dipping into the books, we both regret having signed up for the seminar.

I make the long slog through the four novels, finally finishing Clea, the last volume, three days into the seminar by listening to an audio book played at double speed. I know going in that Himself thinks the quadrilogy is way overrated but I am afraid that the other brainy attendees will disagree. There are 23 of us, including one of Joe College's classmates, some retired university professors and representatives of every generation in between. I am comfortable in my own element, mainly bossing people around, cooking and watching television but outside my fields of specialty, and particularly among those who have attended graduate school, my self assurance flounders. My presumption, as I suffer through the Quartet, is that Himself hates it for more sophisticated reasons than I do and that the level of discourse will be way over my head. Despite not having finished the books, I do manage to get a manicure (gel), pedicure, eyebrow arch and a haircut before our departure, not really priorities that will foment any awesome intellectual gymnastics.

Fortunately, there are others who are not enamored by Durrell's prose. In fairness, all four of the novels have passages that are as beautiful and vivid as anything I've ever read. Unfortunately, these are often larded with impenetrable pages of aphorisms and grotesquery. Perhaps no one is as turned off as I am. I do attribute a lot of the inaccessibility to my own borderline militant intellectual laziness and inclination to brand anything that is beyond my grasp as pretentious. My current commitment to indolence, for the most part, keeps me out of groups. After a lifetime of volunteer and committee work I am over this sort of participation. I expect, at Asilomar, like in every other group I've ever been in for my whole life, that there will be at least one asshole. You know, the person who makes everyone else cringe whenever he or she opens his or her mouth. Remarkably, I like and respect each of the twenty-two other members of our group. After a week of eating, drinking and studying together there is not one thing I have to say about any of my co-participants that I would not say to his or her face. Himself, of course, would be the exception to this.

With the litany of complaints that are probably part and parcel to any long marriage, the week at Asilomar gives me a look at a facet of Himself that I seldom see. I spend a lot of time rolling my eyes at his lack of practical life skills and profound food fussiness. This seminar provides a good reminder as to why I married him in the first place. He is not only smart but he is reliable to an extent that is almost creepy. He can converse on subjects I didn't know existed and in matters of fact he is consistently infallible. Truly, the pope would defer to him. Teaching at a technical college and living with someone who has a serious addiction to reality TV, Himself doesn't get much opportunity to stretch his mind muscles. I am proud to witness the respect he garners and love to watch him bask in this sort of stimulation. The afterglow of this softens me a bit when we return home and I am reminded about how hapless and indifferent he is in attending to more earthly matters.

Joe College and girlfriend in-law are in charge at Casamurphy during our absence. I text regularly to inquire after ancient dog and psychiatrically troubled cat. I am suspicious when I am informed tersely that “all is well.” We return home to find a broken light fixture, a gnawed door frame, some paint damage and most of the really good coffee I'd hidden gone. Based on previous kid-in-charge experiences, not bad at all.

My boy Rover, age 15, has taken to resting quietly under some outdoor stairs. He manages to enter the house, wag his tail, lick me and accept a treat when I return. The next day I am able to coax him out from under the stairs and feed him a bit of roast duck. By the evening though he is refusing food or to move from his bed. Rover was old for a dog his size two years ago. Most nights I wake up and go downstairs to make sure he's breathing. I am lucky he's lived as long as he has and touched that he manages to hang in until we return from Asilomar.

We are both dog people and we know the drill. We are lucky to find a kind vet, with a special aptitude for ending suffering and comforting people, to come to the house. She patiently drinks in my memories of Rover. She respects my story and must do the same for sad families all over the Southland.  They are all the best pet ever in the world.  No one ever tells her, "I hate that dog.  Can't wait to put him down."

It is done now and it is a bit of relief not to have to dread it anymore. Still, I feel almost like an amputee, my boy was such an appendage, always by my side. I haven't the heart yet to remove his bed and water bowl from my office. I tear up still when I look down and am reminded that he is not snoring at my feet. Counselors advise that the worst possible subject for a college admission essay is the death of a pet. Indeed, in the scheme of things and in the face of all the sadness of the world, a dead dog is a trivial thing. Unless of course, it's your dog.

Our recent loss conjures memories of other pets now long in heaven and it is more than just the death of Rover, it is a sorrow for a life of loving pets, that up until now at least, we inevitably outlive. I am grateful that we've had such a pleasant week at the conference before the loss of Rover. Although Rover is inextricably bound to me, Himself has a hard time too. Fido, a spectacularly intelligent half breed standard poodle, is the dog who bonds with him from the moment their eyes meet. She is only about six when she is diagnosed with cancer and when the time comes, the only vet we can find to provide in-home euthanasia charges a lot more than we are able to afford. Fido is taken to a local vet who won't permit Himself to stay with her. We are lucky to find a vet to perform this service for a reasonable price for Rover but I feel guilty that his end is so much more befitting and dignified than poor Fido's.

The old sailor Scobie is a tragi-comic character in the Quartet.  The character is so beloved that after his death he is deified (with a shrine erected in his honor) and summoned by ventriloquism in the fourth volume.  The lovable Scobie is a transvestite and pederast and brews literally lethal moonshine in his bathtub. The sailor's drunken yarns are about Toby, the mischief-making love of his life.  Scobie's transgressions are forgiven perhaps due to the sweetness in evidence as he waxes on about his beloved lost friend Toby.  I have been scanning old family photographs and I find one of a gentle faced mutt in the then raw backyard of Fulton Avenue. It is taken before I was born. The dog's name is Toby and he ran into the street and was run over. My parents' divorce was acrimonious and left me confused about their affection for me. I remember though how comforting it was that both would weep when they remembered little Toby. My house is a bit more peaceful than the one I grew up in but again and again, our dogs reaffirm our commonality and humanness.

1 comment:

John L. Murphy / "FionnchĂș" said...

I know it's been two tough weeks, if of different levels of challenge. I am glad Rover waited until we returned and that you survived the AQ with nails still manicured and pedicured. Being Johnston, I got to see a lot of bare feet, socks in sandals, and open-toed female feet during the thirty-plus hours in Hearth in those challenging chairs.

Thanks for the kind words and I reiterate how you held your own in spirited fashion, even if I was miffed that others (I could not do so without favoritism) did not repeat or riff on your astute comments throughout, but I was very proud of you. Still am. xxx me