Monday, April 26, 2004


I've been cultivating a new relationship. It started a week or so ago when I mentioned to Amy that despite my restricted diet and daily power walks I thought my weight loss might have reached a plateau.

She replied, "Walk further."

I think wives, and perhaps drill sergeants, are genetically bestowed with a talent for easily giving blunt advice in tandem with painful truths.

I decided to extend my walk by zipping down a few extra streets each day, and that's where my new relationship bloomed...with a dog. He's a lab mix who heretofore apparently had unchallenged reign of his particular roadway. Although he wanders a few yards in either direction, he's one of those dogs who is smart enough to stay in his own front yard all day long.

The first time he saw me strutting by, he barked fiercely and followed about 150 feet behind me until I was safely out of his domain. Each day since then our relationship has developed a bit more. He barks occasionally, and still keeps his distance, but now sometimes he tauntingly races me for a few yards on the opposite side of the street until he comes to the rather easy conclusion that I am no match for his speed and therefore I am no real fun. At that point he'll usually turn around and go back to his yard.

Today was different. Today he was on the same side of the street as me when he darted out from a yard. He stopped before me and gave me a slightly threatening stare. I wasn't so much frightened as slightly disgusted. He had a dead squirrel in his mouth. He was obviously possessive of it, but soon he recognized me as the walking guy - the guy he could easily outrun - he wagged his tail, and strutted proudly back toward his own yard carrying his dead prey.

I don't think our relationship is going to be quite the same from now on.

I spent my early childhood years in New York where there is not an abundance of wildlife, at least not visible wildlife. Most animals that share space with humans in the urban areas of New York work as hard at staying out of sight as the human residents work to avoid seeing them. In other words, there are lots of rats, and roaches. Pigeons are an exception. They are sort of like gang members...stupid, relatively bold as long as they're surrounded by their own kind, and they leave their mark seemingly everywhere.

Squirrels on the other hand have achieved a certain hierarchy in the animal kingdom in New York. People treat them like communal pets. Presumably this is because they're sort of cute; certainly not as creepy as rats, and they're brighter than pigeons, which isn't saying much, but it's something.

My father kept a large bag of unshelled peanuts in his office on the second floor of our home in New York next to his desk - the same walnut newspaper man's desk my computer sits on today actually. I used to love sitting on the window sill as my father worked while trying to coax the squirrels ever closer with those peanuts.

In Central Park, in the heart of New York City, you will find squirrels that have evolved with the surroundings, oftentimes better than the people who share the same space. The park squirrels are brazen, completely unafraid of people and almost everything else. They've really developed a stereotypical New York attitude. Were you to picnic in Central Park you might expect to feel a tap on your shoulder and turn to see a squirrel giving you a look that unmistakably said, "You gonna eat all those chips?"

When I moved to Texas I had a hard time indoctrinating myself to the idea that squirrels were not community pets. They were wild game; the abject lesson came when I was in college.

I lived in a rental hovel common in college towns and behind me was an even worse tenement leased by a young man named Curt. Curt was a full blooded Indian from Oklahoma. We were both very poor. I was living by and large on oatmeal. I could get 30 rib sticking meals of gruel out of an 80 cent box.

Curt was more innovative in his approach to food, which I discovered one morning when I heard a fervent pounding at my door. At that point in my life I was not an early riser, and I vividly remember staggering to the door wondering who on earth would be intruding on my weekend at 9 a.m.

I opened the door to see Curt, smiling broadly. He was obviously very proud of something and eager to share. It was then I noticed he held a rifle in one hand while his other hand was concealing something behind his back. I knew Curt well enough not to be fearful, yet in truth I don't know anyone even today whom I am comfortable seeing at my front door rifle in hand.

In an instant, Curt swung his hidden arm around and dangled three dead squirrels about 18 inches from my face.

He cheerfully announced he had spent the morning hunting along the Red River and as the squirrel carcasses swayed in front of my still bleary eyes, he offered the still unforgettable invitation, "Wanna eat breakfast?"

Much like my budding relationship with the lab mix down the road, my friendship with Curt was never quite the same after that.

I passed on breakfast.

I never did thank him though for helping me rediscover new pleasures in oatmeal.