The Power of the Dog
Doug types too much...
February 17, 2022
About 20 years ago when we lived in Virginia Beach, I had a friend named Rob who visited about once a year. For several years running, he’d drive down from D.C. and spend the weekend while Judy was gone to an annual dance festival. We were both movie buffs, so we would start watching movies upon his arrival Friday night and watch stuff pretty much non-stop through Sunday afternoon when he would pack up and drive back home. During the days before being able to stream just about any movie you want from premium channels, I had a pretty extensive movie collection on my bookshelves. In tandem, Rob would show up with 5 or 6 of his own favorites under his arm. We’d alternate watching each other’s selections. I introduced him to some cool material and he reciprocated.
One Sunday morning, he dragged out The English Patient. Even though it had won a Best Picture Oscar, I’d never seen it. I got frustrated about an hour in. And this was a 3-hour movie. I begged him to turn it off. It was just too slow. I remember him pausing the movie and chastising me. “Doug, some things just need to be slow.” I begrudgingly agreed to go on. And when it was over, I ended up loving it. I had to slow myself down for slow.
When 2001: A Space Odyssey was re-released in 70mm with stereophonic surround sound some years after its initial release, I took Judy to see it – she’d never had the pleasure. Suffice it to say, Judy lost her patience quickly. I’d seen it in the late 60s and loved it. I loved it for the same reasons so many others had. It was unique in so many ways. It was the first space movie I’d ever seen that made an attempt to depict what it would really be like to be in space. For one, there was no sound in the vacuum. No engine noises. Everything moved slowly. It’s a long movie. There is literally not a line of dialogue during the first 30 minutes. For its preview audiences, director Stanley Kubrick had extended sequences of something simple like a pod emerging from a portal on the main ship. Initial reviewers didn’t understand why it took minutes for a pod to emerge out of the main ship. Before general release, Kubrick did tighten those moments up, but not by much. Some scenes were written up as having glacial pacing.
So picture this. I’m sitting in this stunned silent theater watching a pod emerge. Absolute quiet until Judy uttered the stage whisper “My God, can we just move this thing along?” I was mortified, but she couldn’t have cared less. For her, that movie was slow slow.
That wasn’t the only time Stanley was accused of glacial pacing. When Barry Lyndon came out, Judy made me go with someone else. I enjoyed it. I thought it was one of Ryan O’Neal’s best performances. And the look of it? Oh, man. Stanley was a technical genius and he wanted to film it using natural light. Candlelight. Impossible to do until Stanley took a NASA lens and actually built his own camera that could do the impossible. Despite his genius, Barry Lyndon was described by Time magazine as “A feast for the eyes, a feast for the ears, a famine for the mind.”
I remember over a decade ago, HBO was running Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. I hadn’t seen it in 30 years. Back in the day as a young upstart with flaming hair, I was enraptured with that movie. I bought the screenplay in book form and I memorized it. All of it. I was nuts over that movie. But the night I was watching it on HBO, I thought to myself, “Man, I don’t remember it being this slow.”
But we move faster in life now. Things that exuded excited energy back in the day can seem lethargic by today’s standards. Maybe we move too fast now. Or maybe that’s just some old cranky guy typing.
That brings me to Jane Campion’s movie The Power of the Dog starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Judy loves Benedict. She has since she first discovered him playing Sherlock Holmes. So when I heard about Jane’s new movie and that reviewers were saying Benedict was wonderful in it, I knew Judy would want to see it.
But I saw it first.
When I saw it come up on Netflix, I was eager for the view. I had a friend at work who’d seen it first and told me he thought it was entertaining. On one of my late night insomnia journeys, I settled in to watch. For me, there is a clarity that comes in the middle of the night that you can’t tap into at any other time of the day. I watched. And I was intrigued. I thought it was brilliantly acted. It wasn’t what I expected and that is always a treat for a viewer. Yeah, it’s slow. It has time for time. I thought Jane did a brilliant job of putting me in a time and place and making me feel like I was there with them. There are no car chases. No explosions. It takes place in Montana in the 1920s and there’s not a gun in sight.
We spent New Years in Myrtle Beach with friends. One night while we were searching for a movie on Netflix, The Power of the Dog came up as a selection and I mentioned to our friends I’d seen it, but in retrospect, I’m glad we settled on another selection more suited to the room.
After we returned home, the couple that hosted us called 30 minutes into watching it wondering if there was something they were missing. I told them if they stuck with it, there would be payoffs. Well, apparently that only applied to me. They didn’t get much reward from sticking it out.
The next week, Time magazine named it their #1 best movie of the year. Shortly after that, Dog swept The Golden Globes including best actor and best picture.
It was then I forced Judy to sit down and watch it. Turns out it didn’t matter how much she liked Benedict Cumberbatch. She was bored out of her mind. At one point, she looked over at me and asked if it was almost over. I checked. Nope. Still had another hour left. She rolled her eyes and she stuck it out, but in the end, she wanted her time back.
Upon my second viewing with Judy at my side, it did indeed seem slower than when I first watched it. But I still liked it. And I was convinced more than ever that I’m glad I live in a time when indoor plumbing and the luxury of a bath is not a rare occurrence. And if anything, I can say without a doubt I have no desire to live in the wilds of Montana – then or now. Bleak is bleak.
About a week ago, the Academy Awards announced their nominees for this year’s Oscars and Dog had the most nods – 12 in all including Best Picture and Best Actor. Hmm. Maybe I just have more patience for slow now that I’m slow.
Although I still harbor a grudge against the Academy for choosing Chariots of Fire over Reds some years back. That was also the year of Raiders of the Lost Ark. C’mon. Some things should be obvious. Then again, picks by the Academy can be pretty obtuse from time to time.
Through all my glacial insomniac nights, our rescue Boston Terrier Sophie kept me company. When she sensed Doug was going to stay up, she would give me an hour or so to change my mind, and then once she knew I wasn’t coming to bed right away, I would hear the tick-tick of her paws on our wooden floors coming out to join me. Sometimes she would hop up on the end of the couch and recline next to me or sometimes she opted for the loveseat 4 feet opposite me.
She tended to snore, and if she was in a deep slumber, I might have to up the volume slightly on the TV to hear what was going on.
That presence is gone now. We put her to sleep a week ago yesterday on February 9th, 58 years to the day when I first saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was 8 years old. Seemed apropos. Milestones are milestones.
Sophie was the second Boston Terrier we had in a row beginning with her male counterpart Caesar who came to us in June of 1997. He was gone in March 2010 from cancer after numerous rounds with it. Unlike Sophie, Caesar was not a rescue – we got him from a breeder. He came with papers if we wanted them, but we didn’t bother because we had no interest in breeding him. Caesar was a man’s man, if you will. A noble creature who deserved the moniker of Bostons known as “The American Gentleman” when they were the most popular American breed in the 1920s.
We mourned Caesar’s passing for 8 months before we were approached by a woman named Lynette who is an animal rescue person. Lynette knew Caesar had passed, and one day, she asked me if we were interested in another Boston. She passed me a handwritten phone number on a scrap of paper. Something told me to call right away and that’s how we met Arlene who had been involved in animal rescue for 20 years. I drove to Arlene’s country house the same day Lynette handed me that scrap of paper.
Arlene brought Sophie, who came with the name Nico, out on her patio to meet me. The dog stood up straight, balancing on her hind legs, reaching up to me with her front paws, stretched out as much as she could stretch. And she held that pose until I moved forward, knelt down, and put my arms around her. When she sat, I hugged her and kissed her on the right side of her face. And that singular gesture seemed to calm her even though she shook like a leaf.
Arlene said, “Wow, after her experience, I never thought she’d take to a man.”
Her previous experience had been nothing but awful. We were provided a copy of the initial vet’s report. It was a full page of bullet points. Trust me when I tell you this poor dog had nothing going for her.
Acute auto-immune deficiency.
The worst vaginal canal infection the vet had ever seen.
A visible brown bruise on the white of her left eye, probably due to something being thrown at her.
Cigarette burns on her legs.
And the saddest comment of all on the report: “Doesn’t bark.”
One would suspect she’d been abused so badly, she was scared to utter a sound.
By the time we got her, her physical wounds had mostly healed.
The original owner bought her to breed. To make money. He bred her 5 months early and she delivered stillborns for which she was beaten.
She was raised completely on concrete for her entire young life. Left out in the elements, not allowed shelter.
In disgust, according to an elderly neighbor of little means, she recalls the owner literally flinging the dog over the fence to his property. As the dog desperately tried to claw her way back inside, the neighbor heard the man repeatedly yell, “I hope you starve to death!”
For 2 weeks, the dog scavenged and ate pieces of rotted wood, afraid to be approached. But one day, the neighbor woman got into her truck and the dog hopped up to get inside on the seat beside her. That’s when the elderly woman decided to drive the animal to a local shelter.
The owner still had legal ownership, and once she was treated by a vet, the decision was made to clandestinely move her so she couldn’t be found. She traveled through 2 states until she made it to Virginia.
When a vet went to fix her, he discovered she was pregnant, although with stillborn pups.
When I met her, her ribs were showing noticeably. She was 17 pounds. Which is a normal weight for a female Boston, but this girl was big-boned. Big wide paws. Maybe the breeder had picked her because of her larger size. Don’t know.
I came home that night and Ivan happened to be visiting and I had an unexpected emotional outburst in front of Judy and my son. “I’ve met this dog and I think we need her as much as she needs us.”
Judy walked to the phone and called Arlene. Arlene said that wasn’t good enough. Judy had to meet the dog too.
It’s funny, but if you buy a dog from a breeder, it’s cash and carry, no questions asked. When you adopt a rescue, there’s a lot of red tape. You have to fill out a multi-page application. You have to email pictures of your yard and testify you have a fence. You have to get references, including from your vet.
Our vet at the time, Albert Smith, who has since died from cancer after treating Caesar for the same, wrote back, “It would be criminal if you didn’t let this family adopt this dog.”
Judy went to meet Arlene the day after I’d visited. The dog leapt up on the couch beside Judy and nuzzled her head against Judy’s leg.
The next day, we drove to Arlene’s together and transported our dog to her forever home. She nestled on a blanket on Judy’s lap. Judy stroked her soft fur and rechristened her Sophie because of her softness.
Sophie “talked” all the way home. I’d never heard an animal make sounds like that. It was as if she was trying to tell us her story and wishing we would keep her for good.
She didn’t have to worry about that. We were sold. She had found her forever home with us.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t complications.
That first night on November 5th, 2010, Judy and I had tickets for events at the Virginia Film Festival. Judy stayed home with Sophie and I went off to the theater. I was only gone a few hours and when I returned, Judy and Sophie were hugging close on the couch. I took a video of that moment and Sophie looks absolutely scared and secure at the same time.
Arlene had warned us she was a snuggle bug. And indeed, the very first night she spent with us was a snuggle moment. I woke up with her curled into a tight Frisbee-sized circle centered between my head and Judy’s. The next day, we both attempted to cuddle her and she snarled. Afraid. That was the only time she did that. We understood and tried to give her space.
Sometimes rescues have abandonment issues. Understandable. The first time we left her alone, we were gone for less than an hour and she destroyed the blinds on the front door. Just tore the lower rungs apart. Upon subsequent leaves of absence, she would gather random items and strew them all around the house leading to the front door. We’d come home to a trail of socks, clothes, napkins – you name it. At one point, I set up cameras in different rooms to record her movements. She ran back and forth from the living room to the front door repeatedly, frantic. When she’d get to the front door, she’d sit waiting, staring out where the blinds used to be, often posing in a waiting sit for up to 15 minutes. Hoping, wishing.
Shortly after we brought her home, I visited Pet Smart and asked for canned dog food that would put weight on her. The woman looked at me like I was insane. Why would I want to put weight on a dog?
We fed her lots of canned dog food at first. She ate and shat like nobody’s business, but eventually her ribs didn’t show anymore. Then we switched her to dry food to regulate things. Her fighting weight was 25 pounds, big for a female, but the vet agreed she was in good shape for her size.
We walked her daily – a mile a day – and she loved it.
She didn’t bark until we’d had her for a month. And even then, it was a single bark while she was looking out our living room picture window at birds circling the bird feeder. One bark. That was progress. She was feeling less afraid.
As she got more comfortable, she would run like mad through the house, often stopping at certain points, twirling and levitating in place.
We grew into each other. It was a process. When you’ve been scorched, trust is a hard bond to build. It takes time. Patience.
We got into ritual habits. Daily walks. It took her years to not strike out and have to be reined in from people walking past us. She felt threatened. But eventually she got past that.
She got good at the barking thing. Like clockwork, she would run in and sit in front of us at approximately 5:30 PM each night and bark out her stories and concerns for the day. This would go on for minutes. There were times where we were convinced she was actually trying to speak.
She had a couple of events involving sweets that spooked us.
On one occasion, we’d left a brown paper bag containing a brand new box of locally made Gearhart chocolates in a box on the floor next to Judy’s chair. We came home to find a trail of evidence. The box had been removed from the bag. The box had been opened. Every single chocolate had been removed from its wrapper. And every single chocolate had been eaten. We called the vet. “Is she showing any signs of distress?”
“No, she seems fine.”
“Well, keep an eye on her.”
She mastered eating chocolate just fine.
Another occasion was on Halloween and I’d filled a bowl on the coffee table with caramel bulls-eyes, each individually wrapped in cellophane.
Judy called me at work the next day and chastised me. “I can’t believe you ate all those caramels.”
About 2 weeks later, I was leaving for work and Judy was seeing me off at the front door. In the background, Sophie was taking a dump on the lawn and we saw the sun glistening off a 6-inch coil of cellophane coming out of her butt, all in one movement. Holy smokes. So that’s where they went. It was a miracle she hadn’t died from some intestinal blockage. But no. That was Sophie. Indestructible.
Sophie evolved into a companion like no other. I told Judy the dog loved her more and Judy would tell me just the opposite.
There came a time when we replaced all the doors in our house – doors with internal blinds. We ripped out all the builder’s grade carpet and had wood floors put in. We had runner carpets and rugs throughout, so based on the tick-ticks interrupted with silence, we could tell just from sounds where she was in the house. Then there were the thump-thump sounds when she was either leaping off or onto a chair or a bed or a couch or a loveseat.
She never stopped making sounds that were expressive as hell. Often when she’d approach us, we’d talk to her. She’d wait until we were done talking and then offer a sniff/snort as a comment. Perhaps she was agreeing. Perhaps she was being dismissive. Didn’t matter. She emoted like no other dog I’ve known.
And snore? Oh, yeah, she could snore to beat the band.
She started to go downhill in the latter part of 2021. It was painfully obvious. Her back half was wasting away and she was drawing her hind legs tighter together just to achieve balance. She had difficulty keeping her stance, her back legs sliding out from underneath her. She began to lose control of her bowels, often waking up at odd hours needing to go outside.
By early 2022, she was aging in front of us. It was difficult for her to even complete bowel movements. When we took her to the vet, we were informed that she’d lost all her back leg reflexes. That was manifested by her inability to navigate jumps up onto furniture that had previously been easy for her. She started to make jumps she couldn’t complete, having to drag her back legs behind her.
It became clear it was time.
I made the call to the vet. I am an emotional basket-case most days, but making that call was perfunctory. I was fortunate to have a moment of clarity that let me make the right choice. Judy and I both agree that playing God has its drawbacks. There are decisions you have to make and making them feels like the worst day ever.
And that’s because they are the worst days ever.
I have never loved a dog more. Perhaps it was her female persona that evolved from being frightened and scared to the most gentle spirit. Perhaps I identified with her because we both came from broken beginnings that were saved by angels we never thought would come to us.
The Wednesday afternoon we took her to the vet was devastating. Hey, they made it easy. We were escorted into a private room. The vet came in and administered a sedative and Sophie went into a deep snore. Passed out snoring.
And then you lift her onto a table and they administer the drug that stops her breathing. And it’s all over. Like a light switch. She just stops snoring and breathing while you’re caressing and kissing that same face you kissed when you first met her.
And that’s 11 years of history put to rest.
In her end days, I prayed for glacial pacing. I wanted events to proceed slowly. Time for time. But sometimes you just get what you get and you have to be thankful for what you had.
I will miss the tick-ticks. And the thump-thumps.
I keep looking over to places where she snored expecting her to be there and she isn’t.
It will take a long time to adjust to her absence.