October 31, 2013
photo credit: Roberta Gale
This morning I stretched out in Triangle pose, steadying my arm against a purple foam yoga block with chunks bitten out of its once sturdy square. Then, I headed to the kitchen and pulled out a white microwave-safe bowl - the one with the missing corner delicately decorated with ragged tooth marks in the half-moon shape of a dog’s lower jaw.
My favorite comb has rough ridges on the handle, courtesy of a pup’s teething molars. My prescription sunglasses have creatively chewed arms which catch my hair whenever I take them on or off. The cushions on the sofa in my den have had to be patched with new fabric and re-stuffed with clouds of poly-fiber filling that , on one particular never-to-be forgotten day, covered the floor of my den like fresh snow at a ski resort.
These are the lucky ones. The things that have survived puppyhood of a dog who, as my vet put it, was one of those breeds with “significant oral fixations”. A chewer. A crazoid. A toothsome monster who I thought would send me over the edge.
But he didn’t. Because puppies stop being puppies eventually. They grow up. They mellow- at least get mellower.
Now Winston merely steals a shoe and prances around the house with it with a twinkle in his eye as if he’s got the most precious thing in the world. You can just read the mind cartoon above his head: Your shoe! I’ve got your shoe! Look whose top dog here? Oh. Okay. Here. Take it if it means so much to you.
Now give me a treat.
And we do, silly humans, because we’re grateful to receive an intact, if slightly moist item returned in working shape.
Every time I take my sunglasses off and try to push those uneven frames back into their case, I tell myself I should buy a new pair. Aren’t I embarrassed by the tape holding together the edges? The way they sit on an angle on my nose?
Well, yes. Kind of.
But each time I take those glasses off, I hold history in my hands. Of the joyful, boisterous pup that emerged after spending most of his young life in cages. Of the patience and faith it took to stick with a young animal until he lost his taste for cell phones and sofa cushions.
I suppose some people think us dog people are crazy. There is a case to be made that dogs are shedding, slobbering creatures who can tear through a pair of Uggs in the time it takes to pull them out of the box. But they’re also loyal, loving companions who can make your saddest days lighter and your broken heart full again.
In light of that, a puppyhood of chewing seems a bargain.
October 18, 2013
So I'm walking my dog in the neighborhood last night when Winston sees a red fox and starts barking at it. But instead of slinking off into the bushes as they usually do, the fox starts following us. I'm trying to walk away from it while 65 pounds of insane dog is barking and yanking on his leash to get at the fox. I walked up toward a neighbor's door. The fox kept coming. The dog kept barking and pulling. I kept going, to the next neighbor's house. The fox followed. By this time, I was getting desperate, knowing there have been rabid raccoons sighted in the area. I screamed at him, GO AWAY. Didn't phase him. In the end, I flagged a neighbor was was pulling into his driveway who drove us home. Upon reflection, I don't think the fox was rabid. I think it was bold and curious and I was frightened by something I did not understand. Later, the DNR told me it's den building time. My dog and I may have been seen as an intruder that needed to be kept an eye on. I wish I knew how to live with the creatures around me better. And in some ways, I admire that fox.
October 7, 2013
The lovely Lilith
When I was a girl, my father would drive me beyond the New Jersey meadowlands to “the city” on the weekends. I loved Manhattan then and I love it now - although it’s changed over the years - Times Square more sanitized, the East (and West) Village more expensive, but it’s still one of the most interesting, energetic and creative places on earth.
And definitely a dog town.
If you venture beyond Times Square to where people live and work, you can’t help but notice the dogs and their owners walking everywhere. On this last trip, I really got a sense of how dogs rule in this city.
The occasion was a visit to Louise Bernikow, author of Bark If You Love Me
and , the first author to send in a blurb for the back cover of Short Leash (her lines were an amazing affirmation of what I had labored so hard to write). Since I was already going to be in town and Louise and I had never met, I wanted to thank her in person.
To get there, I had to venture to the Upper West Side, a part of town I’d never been to before, taking trains I’d never taken, (but I did it - one more subway notch on my belt), and was astonished to find a great little neighborhood.
When I was young, my father would take me into all the commercial districts and explain how they were like little cities of their own- the diamond district, the flower district, the garment district- but what I am starting to understand by visiting New Yorkers like Louise and neighborhoods like hers, is that New York City is basically a big city made up of small towns. Within a four block area, you enter a place where people who know each other by name (or at least by sight), shopkeepers who greet their regulars, and dog owners who know each other’s dogs.
Louise greeted me at the doorway to her lovely building with her sweet Boxer girl Lilith on the leash. We headed off to Riverside Park (only a block away), a verdantly green expanse of trees and paths following the shores of the Hudson River for a late afternoon walk.
It was wonderful to see the park she writes of in “Bark.” Like a movie, I saw unreeling before me the place where she found the abandoned pup Libro and where they jogged, bonded with other dogs and owners, and forged their own unbreakable bond. It was my Quiet Waters Park, right here in Manhattan.
We sat by the river and talked, one of those fantastic conversations where you realize you’ve met a kindred spirit and it’s like you’ve each other forever. Lilith stood staunchly by our side, watching the goings-on in the dog park, keeping an eye on people and dogs while Louise provided a running commentary on the various characters parading by. She knew almost every dog, and let me tell you, there were a lot of them.
On the way back to her studio, we came across a man walking a gorgeous white and tan Pit Bull. Louise made her acquaintance with the owner (who she hadn’t seen before) and Litilth with the Pittie (“Just her type,” Louise said. “Young and male”). We crossed Riverside Drive passing more leashed dogs, a middle school soccer team (Louise knew most of the girls) and a neighbor planting fall flowers in a corner container. It really drove home what a tight community this was, what a lucky woman Louise what to live here. And how lucky Lilith - who was rescued from a North Carolina kill shelter - was to Live in a place where she had everything a dog could want outside her door.
I left knowing I had made a new friend. (Friends, I should say. I think Lilith finally accepted me). I also added a new neighborhood to my personal map of Manhattan. This time, when I boarded the “1” Local, I almost felt like a native. But I had more to learn. My encounter with the world of New York City dogs wasn’t over yet.
(To come: Dogs Of New York Part 2: Lost and Found)
September 20, 2013
I felt so privileged to read from "Short Leash" at Quiet Waters Park Wednesday night to such a receptive audience. More than anything, the profound power of memoir radiated back to me. This was no longer "my" story, it was our story - all of us who are fed by nature, who have been broken and long to be healed, who share a special bond with their animals, who are human.
Someone asked me last night if I write fiction. I never say never, but this puzzling, amazing world never fails to provide enough material for me to write about for the rest of my life. And when the sharing of it resonates with others, I feel the profound truth of how much we are all connected.
September 17, 2013
The period right after you publish your first book is a wild ride. Nothing you have done in the years of building a story word after word can prepare you for the job of getting those words out into the world. Authors are now marketers. And it's a fierce market. So many books. So many things you have to do to get yours in someone's hands.
Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle.
And then, you google your name and discover something like this. The sun parts through the clouds and you say, it's all worth it. I did what I set out to do: to tell my story and hope it resonates with others. (more…)
August 18, 2013
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Last Friday, I spent the day lounging on our boat at City Dock in Annapolis. It was a beautiful day, clear, in the seventies with almost no humidity- a rare thing in August in Maryland. Around 2:00 in the afternoon, a white Ford Taurus drove into the parking lot across from the boat slips and pulled into a space opposite our boat. The driver, an older woman, did not get out of her car. After about an hour, she let a dog out - a Black Lab mix with a graying muzzle. The dog remained on leash and sat in the shade of the open car door at her mistress' feet. And there they sat. And sat.
Worried that the dog might be thirsty, I left the boat and walked over to offer a bowl and some water. As I approached the car, the dog jumped to its feet and growled/barked ferociously. Honoring the dog's protectiveness, I got close enough to see that the car was loaded to the gills with stuff. It looked like she and the dog were living in the vehicle. I shouted from a distance "Do you need water?" not even sure she could hear over the barking. She held up a plastic gallon of water and shook her head. "Thanks," she mouthed.
The other boaters who had seen what happened commented on the close call, the bad dog, but I understood completely. The woman was vulnerable and this dog was doing its job.
Throughout the afternoon, I kept an eye on them, conscious that every time I looked, the woman was aware of my gaze, which seemed to make her nervous. I contemplated giving her some money, but couldn't figure out how to get close enough to make the exchange.
Around dinnertime, still thinking of a way to get her money, I looked out over the parking lot. The car and the dog were gone.
As night fell, people came and went with their ice cream cones and vacation t-shirts and laughing children. The boaters were relieved the woman was gone and the tourists no longer had to confront her inconvenient presence. But I could not get the image of the sagging, sad woman and her nervous dog out of my mind.
Kurosawa said, "The role of an artist is to not look away." That's a hard thing to do. Once home, I sat in meditation and sent peace to her and her dog and all beings like them. It didn't feel like enough. I thought of going back to see if she returned so I could do something - maybe paste that twenty under her windshield, anything to lessen the pain of seeing and knowing the immense suffering in the world.
This is why people look away. And this is why I write. It doesn't change that woman's life. It doesn't change her dog's. But it changes mine. In the end, it's the only thing we can really do.
August 10, 2013
I hope you'll be able to join me for some of my upcoming events and appearances. Please be sure to follow me here and on Facebook for more events and the latest updates. Details for all events will be added as they become available. www.facebook.com/shortleashamemoirofdogwalking
Wednesday, September 18, 2013: Book Launch for Short Leash sponsored by Friends of Quiet Waters Park, Annapolis, MD., (the setting for Short Leash) 6-7:30 p.m. in the Blue Heron Room. Enjoy food, drinks, a reading and a Q&A session. Admission to both the park and the event are free and 20% of the proceeds from book sales go to Friends of Quiet Waters Park. For information and directions: fqwp.org. If you plan on coming to the event, please visit our Facebook event page to let us know. https://www.facebook.com/events/154513978086882/
Oct 13, 2013.Books by the Banks, Cincinnati, OH
More information coming soon
Saturday, Nov. 30th, 9-11 a.m: Fundraiser for the Anne Arundel SPCA at Barnes and Noble, Annapolis. The morning will include Short Leash readings, Q&A sessions and a book signing, and for the entire day, a percentage of every sale in the store will go to the AASPCA when you mention SPCA at check out. Plus, pet-friendly folks will be available to gift wrap you purchase. For information and directions: www.aacspca.org and
Feb. 26-March 1, 2014: I'll be presenting two panels, Breaking Silence, Women’s Memoir as an Act of Rebellion and The Writer as Mediator in Memoir and Personal Narrative at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference (AWP) Seattle, Washington, The AWP is the largest literary conference in North America with more than 12,000 attendees.
August 10, 2013
Taking the risk of being heard by Richard Gilbert
July 30, 2013
Q&A: Janice Gary’s memoir Short Leash depicts healing & growth.
"I was either going to claim my creative self or forever grieve what might have been." ----Janice Gary
Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance by Janice Gary. Michigan State University Press, 238 pp.
A traumatized woman and her traumatized dog go for walks. This is the spine of my friend Janice Gary’s new memoir of many layers. She’s conveying experience as it unfolds, trying to understand her past, and taking risks in life and in her story’s telling. At first I worried about Gary’s putting her beloved dog under the spotlight with her for most of the book—he’s difficult, and the book’s structure puts relentless narrative pressure on her voice, outlook, and experiences. But Short Leash soon had me collared.
First, the dog. Barney is a big, goofy, smelly, allergic Lab-Rottweiler cross. He was attacked by another dog when he was a pup, and he’s become terribly aggressive to other dogs. But Gary skillfully depicts Barney’s basic good nature and his mellowing as he ages. Gradually I found myself forgiving and then liking him. He’s already an older dog and Gary is in her mid-forties when they venture out. And soon you realize what a brave act it is, beyond his aggression, for her simply to take him for a walk.
Once ambitious, artistic, and headstrong, Gary was raped when she was 19, and has spent too many years feeling scared. So the book’s major setting, a lovely park on Chesapeake Bay near her suburban Maryland home, seems safe until you look at it through her eyes. Those lonely paths. The pools of dark shade. Other dogs that Barney might attack. The mysterious bend of a trail into the woods. That rustling in the bushes. We gradually learn, too, of an earlier trauma, the suicide of her manic-depressive father when she was 15.
Therapy having been a bust after her attack, Gary has used Buddhist meditation and centering practices to try to heal. As she makes real for us her fears, calming strategies, and spiritual disciplines, she also makes real, in passages rich in metaphor, her soulful experience of the natural world. This focus further tunes you into her psyche, and is admirable in a time when nature is so often taken for granted.
Here’s an example of how her inner struggle is interwoven with her lyrical response to her landscape:
There’s nothing ahead but a tangle of raspberry canes sweeping toward the sky, but what a tangle—branches lit at such an exquisite angle by the sun that they literally glow with light. The sight stops me as abruptly as an unexpected person or dog. It’s a dazzling vision—the soft, red fuzziness blanketing the canes, the fuchsia-red thorns crowned with tiny yellow flames, the flowers, white etched with pink, all so electric and alive that I hear myself say “beautiful” as the beauty enters me, becomes me, and suddenly there is no raspberry bush or me, there is only exquisite beauty. I take a deep breath, wanting to drink it all in, when a sharp voice in my head, says Beautiful? Why? It’s just a bunch of thorns.
Her memoir’s grounded five-year narrative entices you along Gary’s many-faceted path of discovery. It’s poignant and humbling to see her fight bravely to balance her wounded sensitivity with strength, efforts which blossom into an inspiring renewal. At age 48, she enters an MFA program. This phase lets us learn in a natural way about her youth and her years as a punk rocker—the topic of her thesis—and to cheer the rebirth of her artistic soul.
Short Leash is a moving story of healing, a woman’s and her dog’s. By the end I also felt inspired by its depiction of Gary’s growth, there on every page and manifest in the very book I held.
She answered some questions:
Why did you become a writer? Why did you want to tell the story in Short Leash?
"Like most writers, I didn’t choose to be a writer. I’ve always been one, even as a child, but I grew up believing that I didn’t have a right to be heard. Over time, my voice became muted and what was left was a fierce need to express myself and a deep fear of doing so. There were lots of mangled attempts—as a singer-songwriter, a filmmaker, and a writer of intensely personal pieces that no one ever saw. Then I basically gave up. By the time I entered the park with Barney, I realized I was running out of time. I was either going to claim my creative self or forever grieve what might have been. Retrieving my voice meant taking the great risk of being heard. The story of becoming a writer, or rather, reclaiming that part of myself, is at the heart of the journey I took in the park as I began confronting the fears that held me back most of my life."
I gathered from your memoir that you wrote your MFA thesis on your experiences in bands in your twenties, and from your Acknowledgments that post-MFA mentors and writing partners were important for this book. What was the memoir’s genesis and your working method?
"My first idea for this book was completely different. I was in the process of walking in the park and I knew something profound was happening, but I thought it could be crystallized in a bouncy little self-help kind of thing like “how to heal yourself by walking your dog.” Well, they say a book takes on its own life, and this one certainly did. It refused to be anything but what it was. It took me two years to find the voice, which at first was all lyrical and emotional, completely ungrounded. And I was still living the story, which was not finished yet. When I tried to find my way into the book, mostly what I wrote about was Barney. At one point, I attended a workshop and the instructor said, “You’re hiding behind the dog.” So I started over and began telling my story. I made sure I wrote or visited the pages every day to keep the thread going, which was in essence an act of faith driven by the hope that the process itself would lead me to the next chapter, the next revelation, the next right thing to do. It wasn't until the first draft was done that I truly understood what the story was about. Junot Diaz says, “To write a book you have to become the person that can finish the book.” He is absolutely right. The writing itself provides an element of transformation. By the time I finished the book, I had finally become that person."
I’m interested in your book’s structure because you pull so many threads through it. While basically chronological, with flashbacks, you are dealing at once with nature and the seasons, your trauma, Barney’s trauma, his and your aging, your writing and your entering an MFA program, and your backstory. How did you layer in so much?
"I wrestled with the structure for a long time. There were a lot of threads and I was unsure how to pull it all together. Worse than that, I kept struggling with how to start the darn thing. I kept reading other writers’ work and had a major breakthrough when I discovered Patrick Lane’s What the Stones Remember. Lane chronicles the first year of his recovery from a lifetime of alcoholism using the metaphoric and literal anchor of working in his garden. He was able to travel in many directions, but was always able to bring us back to earth through the garden. It was an “A-ha” moment for me. And his writing absolutely took my breath away. The other thing that helped was a chance encounter with my former mentor Lisa Knopp at a Goucher College reunion. Lisa is the Queen of Braiding. I was completely frustrated at the time and blurted out whether it was possible to have more than three threads in a braid. “Of course,” she said. “You just don’t give them all the same weight.” That was all I needed to hear."
There’s almost nothing on your day job and very little on your husband. Could you talk about those decisions?
"The journey that this book chronicles is very much like that of a snake shedding its skin. The career I had spent years developing belonged to a person I no longer needed to be and it was already on the periphery of my life when I started walking in the park. You can see the progression. When the book begins, I am working full time, then part time, then not working at it at all. As far as my husband, there is more in there about him than I originally planned. When my peer readers reviewed the book, they were curious about what kind of man I chose to be with in light of what had happened to me in the past. I went back and addressed that, but not any more than I thought necessary. I believe in being fearlessly honest as long as it serves the story. This was not a book about my relationship with my husband. To me, writing memoir is a lot like being a sex worker. You strip yourself naked, but there some things you keep private for yourself. In this case—at least for this book—my marriage was where I drew the line."
What writers are models for you and why?
"There are so many. I tend to gravitate to memoirs by poets or writers that write like poets. Lyrical language and musicality and the astonishing way a poet can make metaphorical connections thrills me in a book. While I wrote Leash, I turned to poet-writers such as Mark Doty, Richard Hoffman, Patrick Lane and Toi Derricotte. Meredith Hall’s emotional honesty and vivid descriptive passages in her memoir were an inspiration. Writers of place and the natural world like Scott Russell Sanders, Terry Tempest Williams and Annie Dillard have greatly influenced me. And I turned to Kathleen Norris for encouragement in not shying away from being meditative or of allowing spirituality to inform the narrative. Throughout the writing of this book, I kept Stanley Kunitz’s The Wild Braid close at hand. I still refer to it whenever I feel like it’s impossible to say what needs to be said."
August 10, 2013
INDIE GROUNDBREAKING BOOK
Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance
New Memoir Uses the “Dog Book” Motif to Tell an Emotional Human Story
BY CRAIG MANNING
“You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson
Ever since 2005’s Marley and Me became a must-read—and possibly even before that—bookstores everywhere have been inundated with a surge of “dog books.” These stories, both fictional and true, narrative and instructional, have pretty much covered every angle of pet ownership, from bad dogs to well-trained pooches who win national dog shows, from the euphoria of the early puppy days to the crushing sadness of final ones. When you pick up a dog book from the shelves, you pretty much know what you’re going to get, but the well-trodden territory is so welcoming and familiar that you can’t help but read it anyway. Indeed, books about dogs typically cover ground that, while enjoyable, is the exact antithesis of groundbreaking, something that might cause readers to do a double take at this month’s selection for our groundbreaking indie book.
But our pick, Janice Gary’s Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, published by the Michigan State University Press, isn’t quite a dog book—even though the title and the cover picture both relate to a big, lovable black lab named Barney. And it’s not even that Gary’s text is a complete departure from the dog book formula, because most of the formulaic elements are still very much at play here. Owning a pet, almost by definition, is a series of up and downs, and it would be a blow to the authenticity of Short Leash if the book didn’t cover the basics, from the mundane dog walks in the woods to the disobedient encounters with other pets, all the way to the deterioration of health that always seems to come far too soon. What makes Short Leash an effective, moving, and ultimately groundbreaking text is that it uses those elements to carry a larger story. This isn’t a book about Barney, though he certainly plays a pivotal role, nor is it a book entirely about the author, though we get the scope and sweep of her own life story along the way. No, Short Leash is instead an impossibly beautiful portrait of two damaged souls and how they lean on one another to heal, hurt, and find their way back to happiness after unspeakable tragedy.
When we meet Gary at the outset of the text, she’s running away, afraid of her past, her present, and even her own shadow. Once a free-spirited player in the self-described “hippy culture,” Gary’s world is shattered one night when she is attacked and raped. She lives in perpetual fear of a repeat occurrence for much of her adult life, retreating to an existence with no adventure and little happiness until the day she finds Barney, a tail-wagging Labrador/Rotweiler mix, in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly. Gary adopts him, and for a little while, he serves as her crutch, giving her the courage to venture beyond the walls of her home and out into the world. When Barney is attacked by a vicious German Shepherd, however, he morphs his fear of other dogs into frighteningly aggressive tendencies of his own. So while he is still the calm, kind, and loyal dog he has always been around people and even around small children, he turns into a monster the moment another dog get too close.
As Short Leash moves forward, Gary and Barney both face their fears, never escaping the twin events that have left them with baggage to carry for life, but joining together to live and thrive in spite of that baggage. Gary uses Barney and the walks she shares with him to rediscover her own creative and adventurous spirit, turning musings on nature into entrancing blocks of prose that inspire her to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree in writing. Barney, meanwhile, gives Gary unconditional love and companionship in exchange for her understanding of his Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde problem, a flaw that not many dog owners would be able to overlook. The relationship we see building between these two characters along the way is deeper, more complex, and more beautiful than bonds are often portrayed on the page, and it’s a reminder of how, sometimes, a dog can understand us in ways that our human friends never can. There’s a silent solidarity in the grins that Barney gives Gary during their myriad walks in a local park, and the way they seem to say “I love you, I’m here for you, let me hold you up” will have many readers grasping for the tissues, even while others grin in nostalgic remembrance of the pets they have loved.
But even if you've never owned a pet, you will find elements to appreciate here. Short Leash is so much more than a story of pet ownership: this is a book about overcoming fears and reclaiming dreams, about spiritual awakening and recovery, and about finding the helping hand (or paw) that makes you whole again. Through it all, Gary writes with a sure-hand, crafting beautiful, rhapsodic passages that span every emotion. There’s an overwhelming sadness prevalent through many of them, due largely to the horrible tragedy that so clearly derailed the author’s life during her teenage years, but there’s also a sense of immense strength and resilience. After all, if Janice Gary can find solace in the simple act of walking her dog each day, then surely there must be hope for the rest of us.
* * * * *
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for Independent Publisher, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 9, 2013
It's finally here! My book Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, is now available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online and local booksellers. Readings and other upcoming events will be announced here and on my Facebook page,