Thursday, March 27, 2008

A dog and his bones

I took my dog to the neurosurgeon the other day. Yes, dogs have docs who fix slipped discs, treat seizures and tend to wobbly walks, and I was in the market for such a specialist.

Or should I say, Shadow was in need of one. We found this Belgian shepherd mix at The Anti-Cruelty Society five years ago, and he may have been age 3 at the time. Strays don't come with pedigrees. Now at age 8 he was having problems with the winding stairs in our house. He would approach them as I addressed a home improvement project, staring at the woodwork, frozen in place, trying to figure out what to do next. It took my considerable coaching skills to get him to put one leg in front of another.

Dogs usually walk on their paws, which would be like walking on tiptoes. When he walked up steps, Shadow's shinbone almost touched the tread. Walking down was worse. He would circle the head of the staircase, look down the stairs, then circle again, as if he had to keep hitting the reset button to get himself moving. Sometimes I just have to pull his immobile legs out from under him and carry his 50 pounds down the steps. This winter, I put Shadow on a low-fat diet.

Things got progressively worse. My neighborhood has various types of of 3-flat condo buildings, but one common trait is that none of the owners care to shovel snow. So taking the dog for a walk is like taking him through an agility course, jumping hurdles and maneuvering obstacles. Shadow was not the star pupil in agility school. Worse, he started adopting a strange stance, walking with both his hind legs thrust forward. I'd feel a tug on the leash and look behind me to see Shadow splayed on the ice, looking around like his buddy the schnauzer had snuck up and greased his path as a practical joke.

By this time I was suspecting his hind legs were not quite right, and a couple days of long walks in last month's warm stretch confirmed it. A trip to the park usually set Shadow running after every squirrel he saw. This time, he just barked. He was moving slowly, then hardly at all. Aspirin helped, till the vomiting started. I booked an appointment with the chiropractor at the local veterinary clinic. Yes, there are canine chiropractors too.

But the chiropractor checked back with Shadow's usual vet, and in turn Dr. Jane called Shadow in for a closer look. Already I'm probably looking at a couple hundred of bucks on visits to the clinic, X-rays, the whole bit. Our vet is a real sweetheart though. Dr. Jane's exam room has a photo on the wall of a dog who's the spitting image of Shadow. It's her dog, who died a few years ago, and she always greets Shadow like a long-lost relative.

She and a lab technician prodded Shadow, flipped him on one side, then the other, and tested his reflexes with a rubber mallet. One side, he's all twitches. The other, tap tap, nothing happening. Numb. Doggie sciatica. This is when Dr. Jane starts talking about the dog neurologist. There used to be one in the whole state, who would drive up from Champaign once a month like a circuit rider.

Now there's a veterinary neurologist up in Northbrook, board certified in internal medicine, with all the diagnostic equipment, the surgical setup, everything. You can make an appointment in the morning and if Shadow needs an operation, you're in the right place. Just one thing, Jane said. You're not talking about hundreds of dollars, but thousands.

Well, what could I do but make the appointment? Shadow was happy. He was in no obvious pain. There was no reason not to treat him. And he's my best friend! Really, five years ago I was having a rough patch at work, and I took a cue from Harry S Truman. "If you want a friend in Washington," he said, "get a dog." Shadow taught me a lot. He got me out in the sunshine every day, got my mind off my problems, and made me leader of the pack. There's a responsibility that comes with that.

So I told my co-workers I was taking the day off and I gave Shadow a push into the back seat for a trip up the Edens. Shadow loved the excursion, and the clinic's waiting room was a social occasion for him. The neurologist followed us out to the parking lot so Shadow could stretch his sometimes wobbly legs. Then it was back inside for more prodding and more rubber mallets.

That was all the neurosurgeon needed. Nothing really unusual here. Shadow might be a bit older than Anti-Cruelty's best guess, he said, and getting a bit arthritic in the legs, maybe the spine or neck. Time for to trade in Shadow's collar for a harness. And time for a return to see Jane for X-rays, doggie dentistry, and the same kind of treatment many older humans need: anti-inflammatory pills, glucosamine for the joints, some regular but not super-strenuous workouts.

Dogs are stoic about old age. They don't complain or expect too much from old bones. They seem happy with their lot. Whatever lies ahead, Shadow has more to teach me about life.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The tippling point

A reporter in a bar would be the definition of an unreliable source. Same with Malcolm Gladwell at a storytelling performance. In Slate, Jack Shafer calls out the author of "The Tipping Point" for a performance at the NYC story event The Moth. Bunk, the subhead claims. Well, yeah....

Gladwell's tall tale of journalist apprenticeship reminded me of the after-hours yarns told at Chicago newspaper hangouts, as well as Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's insider scenes in "The Front Page" and satirical novels from Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" to Charles Dickinson's "Rumor Has It" and Calvin Trillin's "Floater." Like most fiction, all germinate from a seed of truth. Nelson Algren's short stories from "The Neon Wilderness" is my current occupation on the 66 Chicago bus. Algren wrote fiction and nonfiction set on the West Town streets where this bus now trolls, and often it's hard to tell which is which.

One of Gladwell's conceits was a variation on the "Order of the Occult Hand." Old-school reporters were initiated into this virtual society by getting an article published using the phrase "It was as if an occult hand..." Fans of The Onion would appreciate this sendup of journalistic convention, documented by (among others) editorialist Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and reporter James Janega of the Chicago Tribune. Gladwell looks to be an Occult Hand apprentice.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Postum-part depression

PostumAn NPR report started a rush of demands on the Kraft message board to bring back Postum. Too late. Kraft stopped making the hot beverage mix last year.

The archetypal health beverage, a 19th-century wheat-and-molasses concoction of C.W. Post, is no longer found alongside instant coffee at Jewel and Dominick's, although chicory is still hiding on high shelves. Coffee-flavor Postum was an abomination of course, but Postum had the same mellow feel as New Orleans' gift to coffee.

NPR interviewed an fan who made a watery cup of Postum via satellite for Scott Simon. Some people make coffee taste like tea too. One possibly ironic message on the Kraft board suggested ground cardboard as a substitute. Bah. As my wife ruefully recalls, Postum was never strong enough for me till you could smell the blackstrap. Herb tea is just not going to cut it.