by Ken Foster, November 23, 2012 10:00 AM
Several years ago, even before my parents were diagnosed with dueling, terminal illnesses, my sister and I discussed the options, as if we might somehow be given a choice. It was preferable, we agreed, for our father to go first. He was difficult, grumpy, and, more than that, he was so dependent on our mother it was impossible to imagine how he might function without her. My mother, we hoped, would grieve the loss and then move on to another phase in her life, free to do the things that she'd given up because our father didn't share her interests.
Of course, that's not how things happened. Our mother went first, on the eve of their 49th wedding anniversary, and our father, lost without her, followed a year later.
During this same period of time, I suffered a head injury during a mugging, underwent reconstructive surgery on my ear, and subsequently discarded most of my friends as I struggled (sometimes literally) to regain some balance in the world. It felt as if I was living in a separate but parallel reality, and it was impossible to explain that where I lived, nothing was stable; at any moment, the bottom could drop out unexpectedly, so nothing could be trusted.
When a moving truck arrived from Pennsylvania with furniture and other items from my parents' house, Brando walked up and down the hall sniffing and inspecting every piece while whining audibly as he identified their scent. The safest place for me seemed to be at home with the dogs, and my greatest fear was losing them. Brando was 10 years old — a senior citizen for a dog his size. He had been with me through 9/11 in New York and Katrina in New Orleans; he knew things about me that no one else could. Zephyr, a Rottweiler/shepherd mix, had been a Valentine's gift to him when he was two, and she kept him out of trouble. Their relationship echoed that of my parents, and as with my parents, I began to anticipate what would happen when one of them went before the other. Without her, I feared Brando would be lost, but if Brando preceded her, I imagined she would lead a new life, free from the obligation of entertaining him.
But, as with my parents, the endings were reversed. One morning, I noticed Zephyr's rear legs sliding briefly out from under as she walked. And as it grew worse, a blood test confirmed the worst: she had degenerative myelopathy, the canine version of multiple sclerosis. I was told that there was no cure, so the best we could do was to try to slow the speed with which paralysis took over her body. We were given a year, a year and a half at most.
I stopped counting the expense when it reached $6,000, paid not by my own income but with money I'd received after my parents' deaths. We tried aqua therapy with an underwater treadmill but had to stop when she developed an infection in her foot. We tried acupuncture. We drove across Lake Pontchartrain to consult with specialists. Our vet lent us a doggie wheelchair, which she never took to, although she did enjoy using it to stand completely still in the middle of the yard and watch the birds she once chased. She lost her independent streak and started to stick close to my side. I began to hope for a book contract, so I could forget about teaching and just spend a year at home with the dogs.
At the vet, the conversation inevitably turned to the unfairness of it all. She was a good dog. She had a unique understanding of what she could do to help the others around her. Once, when she was boarding overnight at a kennel, the staff decided to have her share her space with another dog who was shaking with fear; they spent the night snuggled together. As she struggled with her failing body, I imagined what my own response would be: I'd be paralyzed with self-pity. Zephyr continued moving forward, without question, as best as she could.
You can tell yourself, even in the midst of these things, that there's another possible ending. Eventually, Zephyr couldn't get around without me carrying her, couldn't go to the bathroom even with my help. One weekend she began crawling under the house and not wanting to come back out. I called a friend to come take our picture, hoping for one last portrait before she was gone. Even with a guest in the yard, I had to slide myself under the house to retrieve her. This had begun to seem normal to me. When I took her to the vet the next morning, they called to ask, "So what are you thinking?" and I knew we were at the end.
I brought her home for a few more days, so I could try to be ready. On the morning I took her in, Brando spent 10 minutes kissing her good-bye. They had candles in the examination room and a mat on the floor, just as they had during our acupuncture sessions. I thought, This is going to be difficult for the staff. I didn't want to make it worse for them. Zephyr went to the mat and when I sat next to her, she put her head in my lap and closed her eyes. Afterward, the doctor, vet tech, and I took turns hugging her. Eventually I realized that I was going to have to be the first one to go. I walked out to the waiting room and then to the restroom, where a wail rose up in me and escaped. I don't know if anyone could hear it outside.
During the last weeks of her life, I woke up in the middle of the night sometimes to find that Zephyr had gone outside on her own. She would drag herself to the middle of the deck, where she could look out on everything. She looked beautiful in the moonlight, and she raised her head toward the star-filled sky, not looking for answers but confirming that she knew exactly where she was positioned in this world. She didn't question it.
That was her final lesson for
by Ken Foster, August 4, 2006 10:11 AM
The Honda Element is the unofficial evacuationmobile of New Orleans. They started popping up all over the place in October, when people began replacing their flooded cars with new ones and people who'd never even had a car before realized that maybe it was time to give in. "Oh, you got one of those Tupperware cars," Skip said when I acquired mine in May. And they are kind of like Tupperware. Everything folds, snaps and removes. You can hose the thing down inside. But I got it because I could imagine living in it if I had to.
Mine is in Kiwi. I figured I'd be able to find it that way. Not just in a parking lot, but just outside on the street, where there are several other Elements within a block. Kiwi is new, and they will only be using it this year. One of the first things I did in it was pick up a neighbor at the airport. Now Elizabeth has a Kiwi Element too.
Intersection | New Orleans
Anne Gisleson and Brad Benischek have one of the early post-K Elements in the neighborhood. Before the storm, their Saab was on its last legs. Before the storm, I called them one day and said, "Have you ever thought of just starting a little publishing company?" "We were just talking about that this morning." Press Street, named after the division between the Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods, was born. Anne, a writer, and Brad, and artist, had an idea for our first publication: pair 25 New Orleans writers with 25 New Orleans visual artists. Assign everyone an intersection somewhere in the city and see what happens. The result is the just completed book Intersection | New Orleans. Proceeds from sales of the book will fund a literacy project.
In addition to the book, Press Street has been keeping itself busy hosting events throughout the city in conjunction with other publishers and organizations. In December we celebrated Tom Piazza's book Why New Orleans Matters by opening Preservation Hall for one night only, with proceeds going to the Musicians Relief Fund. More recently, we also reopened the Saturn Bar with a reading and potluck with contributors to Chin Music Press's Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans (proceeds went to Rebuilding Together).
The Pit Bulls of Katrina
Over five thousand pit bulls were rescued from the flood waters of Katrina last year. No one was mauled during this rescue effort. In fact, I don't even know of anyone who was seriously bitten. Yet the threat of breed specific legislation looms increasingly over the heads of family pets around the country. In Clinton, Mississippi, a new law was passed banning American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers and Rottweilers. But it doesn't stop there. Like most breed specific laws, this one includes any animal that is mixed with these breeds or appears to be mixed with these breeds. In other words, any animal that looks "funny." In Denver, they've already started house to house searches to remove pets that have "the look." In Paris, there is talk of "sterilizing twelve races" of dogs. The problem is that none of this addresses any of the real problem: irresponsible, criminal owners. And this seems to be typical of the way our governments address difficult problems: create something on paper, avoid actual interaction with the source of evil. If I lived in Clinton, or Denver, or several other cities in our country, I'd be given a choice: move, or have all three of my dogs killed by the city.
I know, this is a grim close to my week here at Powells.com. But on the other hand, it kind of artfully brings us back to those French news stories I was translating on Monday.
For people curious about the real factors in dog attacks, I recommend www.fataldogattacks.com. Meanwhile, I'm going to go tickle some pit bulls over at the Louisiana
by Ken Foster, August 3, 2006 10:45 AM
We live on Piety Street, which is just a block from Desire ? and no, the two do not ever intersect. That's always the first question. There used to be a Desire bus that ran slowly through the neighborhood, coughing up exhaust along the way, but as far as I can tell that bus has been replaced by one that simply says BYWATER. After the storm and the evacuation, we returned to find many of these buses scattered around the neighborhood. On St. Claude Avenue one bus was parked haphazardly across the neutral ground, its route sign frozen on this incomplete message: PLEASE CALL.
My oldest dog's name is Brando, but completely independent of Marlon, or Tennessee Williams. Someone in the shelter where I found him gave him the name, and I didn't see the point in changing it. No matter how much it initially embarrassed me. "I didn't pick the name," I would announce as soon as anyone had asked it. Eventually, I forgot there was any other Brando aside from mine. When Marlon Brando died, I remember someone in the park saying, "You must be sad." "Why??" I asked, completely disconnected from any association with the dead Brando.
Now that we live in proximity of Desire, Brando's name has taken on a new layer of associations... for everyone but ourselves. In fact, at the dog park across from the Piety Street recording studio, there are at least three Brandos. In addition to mine (a brindle Great Dane/Pit Bull mix), there is a Jack Russell and a rottie. Randi, the Jack Russell's owner, frequently claims that hers is the original Brando. "To this dog park," she adds. The rottie is new, adopted to keep a Stella husky company. "She should pick a different name," Randi said. "She should choose Mitch or Tennessee." There are actually more Stella dogs than Brandos, and several times a day it is possible to see one human or another standing at the gate to the park yelling "Stella! Stella!"
After a year that included getting a pacemaker and evacuating to several cities before returning home to New Orleans in October, I found myself reluctant to leave town again, particularly without my dogs. But in March I forced myself to fly west for a week of readings and interviews, including a stop in Portland at Powell's. "Where are your dogs now?" someone would always ask skeptically during the Q & A. "In bed with the sitter."
Brando likes to lean into my side ? or the side of any available human ? while he sleeps. I should welcome having a king size bed to myself when I'm staying in a hotel room, but instead something feels wrong without ninety furred pounds edging me to the side. The friends I stayed with in Portland have two small dogs and a futon in the basement. "Maybe one of them will sleep with me," I said. "No, they never sleep with guests. " They were wrong.
This same friend is in possession of two boxes of books that I acquired on the first leg of my west coast tour. This is the one problem with the west coast ? too many great bookstores, and it is impossible to just visit them without making a purchase. So she emails me now and then to tell me how great these books are that she's promising one day she will send. I think it is just her way of getting even with me for sleeping with the dog.
I won't name names. She knows who she is.
For people who can't get enough photos of dogs, you can find more at www.ken-foster.com and
by Ken Foster, August 2, 2006 10:02 AM
At the end of 1992, I moved from New York, where I had a job I hated, to Portland, where I had visited only during the sunniest times of year. I wanted to be a writer, and living in New York required too much attention for me to actually figure out what kind of writer I might become.
I enrolled in Tom Spanbauerâ€™s dining room workshop, not having any clue what I was doing, and refused all leads on any real jobs. Instead I took a job at Coffee People, endured 40 hours of training in which we had a practice complicated tasks such as putting ice into cups, and served my time working the drive-thru at Motor Moka before getting a transfer to their location on NW 23rd. Later, I also took a job a few blocks down the street at Kinkoâ€™s, working graveyard shift, dealing mostly with lunatics who wanted to Xerox their hallucinations.
It was a miserable year. For a variety of reasons. A lot of it, I discovered, had to do with the weather. At the end of 1993 I filled out applications to graduate schools and moved to New Orleans to wait for the response. And so it seemed appropriate that a few weeks ago, I found myself back on NW 23rd, doing a fundraiser for Dove Lewis in conjunction with Kiehlâ€™s, which is, of course, located almost exactly between Coffee People and Kinkoâ€™s.
In New Orleans, back in 1994, I got a job... serving coffee. And my first customer on opening day was Anne Rice, with her husband Stan. I didnâ€™t realize whom they were until after they had left, but the next day Anne sent a huge flower arrangement over to the shop, and faxed every hotel in town urging them to send people our way. People say sheâ€™s crazy.
All of this espresso work came in handy when I eventually moved to New York to get my MFA at Columbia. Suddenly there were espresso shops opening everywhere, and I actually knew how to use the machinery. These many beaneries also worked their way into my writing. My collection of stories, The Kind Iâ€™m Likely to Get, features many a frustrated barista, including some who find their way from NW 23rd to New Orleans and New York.
When the collection was published in 1999, I went on my own little tour, which included a packed house at Powellâ€™s. I later discovered that at least some of the audience was recruited with a flyer that featured a photo of me at a Red Dress party. (Other Red Dress attendees included a pre-Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk, and pre-Tin House Elissa Schappell and Rob Spillman). In New Orleans, Julia Kamysz Lane ran a really great review in the Gambit, and came to my signing at a bookstore in the French Quarter that has since been replaced by Urban Outfitters. I signed a copy for her.
That signed copy shows up in this monthâ€™s Poets & Writers magazine, in a wonderful essay by Julia Kamysz Lane: "After the Flood: A Writer Says Goodbye to Her Books." Julia and I had become friends in recent years, not over literature, but dogs. She and her husband lived in Lakeview. In her essay Julia writes about how it seemed to her that if she could replace the books she had lost, she would have a sense of having not lost everything. Over dinner in December she presented me with the mildewed, distorted original and asked, "Can you sign a new one, in exactly the same way?"
I wondered what it was I had said that held so much meaning for her.
The inscription is pretty standard. But beneath my own name, in parenthesis, I had written: (miserable, self-loathing, paranoid and apathetic). Words she used to describe my characters ? quite accurately ? in her Gambit review of the book.
by Ken Foster, August 1, 2006 12:03 PM
On Tuesdays Coffea is closed, so I have to travel across the railroad tracks at Press Street and into the Marigny to get my morning coffee at Sound CafÃ©. Sound was one of the first places to reopen after the storm, so back in October and November it was packed every day with people looking for coffee and internet connection. And the National Guard was here from Seattle, standing in line with their rifles over their shoulders, ordering caramel cappuccinos. One day, eavesdropping on their conversations, I heard one guardsman ask another, "So what would you call a 'good' musical? What about Les Miz?"
Today there are no guardsmen. Just coffee and neighborhood folks.
Extreme Close Up: Photograph
Has anyone else noticed that Powell's seems to favor showing my face in an extreme close-up? At first I thought it was just a way of marketing a sense of mystery about my blog appearance this week. "We'll just show his nose and an eye!" But now that I've actually arrived, they haven't revealed much more of my face. There actually is a whole head attached to my body. Maybe they will slowly reveal it, finally unveiling the whole enormous thing by the end of the week. Or perhaps, depending on what they think of what I've posted here, they will zoom in to focus only on a single nostril. Meanwhile, the curious can find the whole face on display somewhere in Marion Ettlinger's book Author Photo.
Extreme Close Up: Prose
When you write a memoir, there has to be a certain part of your head that isn't on straight. Even if your memoir is as relatively tame. Of course, there's a part of this that is due to proximity. No one recognizes the outrageous elements of their own lives ? by the time we get to the point of writing them, we're used to it. Everything seems ordinary. When I started writing The Dogs Who Found Me, it was partially due the response I got from people when they heard that I kept finding stray dogs. Even if they only knew of one or two of the strays I'd picked up, they found it somehow unprecedented. So I had a question to ask myself: why do I find these dogs when so many others don't?
For me, the answer ended up having to do with a lot of loss ? friends who died, catastrophic events that occurred outside my door, my own health problems. But it wasn't until the book was published that I realized how personally readers might respond. I get email from people who have their own dog story to tell. But also, increasingly, I hear from people who identify with the broader theme of the book ? the idea of the "reciprocal nature of rescue" to quote Amy Hempel. They write to tell me about the stray that wandered into their life. Or about their own experiences with loss and disaster. Or their own heart problems. Or at live events, they ask about my family's medical history and if I'm still unemployed. Or they want to know if I feel cursed having survived 9/11 and Katrina. (For the record, I don't feel cursed, but the inevitable follow-up question ? where are you moving next so we know not to go there? ? is beginning to lose its charm.)
And then there are the people who write in to express their outrage. This was a bit alarming at first. What could they possibly object to in my little memoir about stray animals? Oddly, a few strangers are pretty certain that they are more familiar with my life than I am, so they write in to say, particularly, that the friendly dogs in my book are probably not really pit bulls. Or they tell me that they don't quite believe that my dog Zephyr sat on my chest to revive me when my pulse dropped below thirty. "Your book is completely subjective," one woman complained. Yes, it is! That's what makes it a memoir!
And then there is this in the morning batch: someone writing to say that after reading my book, they wondered if my landlord Mikey has any other places for rent.
On the lunch menu: Leftovers from the Joint
Perhaps the best way to convey a message is to go the direct route: like the sign at The Joint that reads "Carnivorous Cuisine" in letters made from old rib bones. Or the sign outside that announces: "More BBQ. Come get lunch." Who can argue?
The Joint is on Poland Avenue, which runs right alongside the now infamous Industrial Canal. At the corner of Chartres and Poland is Bacchanal, the wine cellar where, on the eve of Katrina, my friends and I gathered for a wine tasting and each vowed that we weren't going to bother with the evacuation. A little further up is our neighborhood post office, which just reopened a few weeks ago.
Yesterday I stopped in for some take out. "What do you have?" I asked. "Everything on the menu," they said. "Do you take plastic?" "Sure do." For most of the fall and winter, we've come to expect that menus in New Orleans are limited and payment is only taken in cash. My subjective little brain seems stuck in that time period, and I imagine asking these same questions for the rest of my life and being surprised every time I'm told that the whole menu is being served, and the phone lines are running.
I got the half chicken, with potato salad and green salad to
by Ken Foster, July 31, 2006 9:32 AM
It's 9am Monday morning and I'm finishing my first iced coffee of the day at Coffea, a new coffee shop that opened last month around the corner from my house in the Bywater neighborhood of the Ninth Ward. If you've never had New Orleans iced coffee, you should add that to your list of reasons to fly down here for your next vacation. It is made from a coffee concentrate created by brewing the coffee (with a little Mexican vanilla) in cold water for 24 hours. Add ice and milk. I'm not sure how much weight I've gained since this place opened, but I'm pretty sure Gwen (who owns the place with her hubby Andy) is responsible for an extra pound or two. The menu here includes crepes stuffed with homemade chorizo, pastries from Henry's up on St. Claude Avenue and, most remarkably, H & H bagels from New York City.
This isn't the only sign of recovery. Last night I discovered that our local Tower Records is now open as late as 8pm! For a while, they were only open two days a week and never later than 6pm, so this seven days a week thing seems like quite an extravagance. "Do you have thunderstorms?" I asked, feeling a little out of place. I knew that if they had thunderstorms on disc they would be found in the meditation section. But I didn't want to ask where the meditation section might be. Meditation in the midst of the French Quarter seemed a little too... something. My little pit bull Sula (featured on the cover of The Dogs Who Found Me) has been having some thunder issues lately, so I'm going to try desensitizing her with recorded storms. The problem, I suspect, will be that she is too smart to be fooled by recordings.
Usually, I keep the sound of storms and construction workers at bay by allowing my dogs to watch the soap opera channel (SoapNet) 24 hours a day. This came to an abrupt end last week when the construction crew next door threw a sheet of shingles that draped itself over my satellite dish. Next, in removing the shingle they also removed the three "eyes" that read the signal. When I walked outside, I found one member of the crew holding the bottom of the ladder while another balanced at the top, trying to piece the whole thing together. It didn't work.
But all of this coffee drinking and storm therapy is a nice break from my schedule of the past three months, which has involved driving up to Hattiesburg, Mississippi three days a week to finish off my coursework for a Ph.D. in creative writing. The highlight of my course schedule: two semesters of French translation crammed into ten weeks. And I haven't had French since elementary school. For my final project, I translated French news reports about pit bulls. The professor said she didn't expect perfect translations. One of my translated headlines reads something like this: "Children to scrape the neighborhood clean: in the absence of convincing the adults, the local government sensitizes the youngest to fight against the wild canine excretions."
That sounds about right, doesn't