The story of Wendell, son of a self-proclaimed neurotic doggie mom, and his first swimming lesson.
I called my husband, Cosmas, from Best Buy’s digital video camera section. “I’m in Best Buy and I’m thinking we need a digital video camera,” I say, trying to keep my voice very casual and light, as if I’m letting him know I’m about to buy a pack of gum.
“Hmmm, what? Can we talk about this tonight when you get home?”
Now I’m testy, as I have actually been in Manhattan for the past two days and wouldn’t even be returning to our home in Boston for at least another two days.”Cosmas, I’m in New York, remember?”
“Right. Oh God, what time is it? Do I need to go walk Wendell?”
I can’t hold back my sigh. “Wendell is with me.” I refrain from asking him whether or not he’s been actually going home at lunchtime to walk him, which I’m willing to bet he has.
“That’s right. Yes, he wasn’t home today at lunchtime.” (You would think that coming home to walk your dog only to find that he’s nowhere to be found, would cause panic in most people, and it probably did with Cosmas, but then he must have gotten distracted by say, trying to remember where he put the peanut butter, and then forgot all about it.)
My normal response to all of this would be to shake my head, but because I was in my beloved New York, I found that I didn’t care as much. So I decided to just give in to my New Yorker inclinations, which was to hang up on him and just buy the camera.
Ten minutes later as I’m standing in line still trying to convince myself that a silver matte finish really isn’t worth an extra hundred bucks, my phone begins to ring. I don’t hear it, but Wendell does and whines a little as he has a weird aversion to electronic beeps. I look at the little picture of an office building that appears on my phone screen next to the flashing word “husband.” Reluctantly, I pick up. “Best Buy Video Camera Department?”
He pauses, and then says, “Uhm, yes, I’m looking for my wife. I think she’s in your department. She’s five four, dark hair, and weighs about…”
“Cosmas! It’s me,” I yell into the phone stopping him from breaking one of the Ten Commandments – thou does not ever utter thy wife’s estimated weight over an unsecured phone line.
“Why do we need a video camera?”
I take a deep breath and whisper into the phone, “I want to record Wendell’s swimming lesson.”
I decide to continue, because even I’m aware that a swimming lesson for a dog probably needs a bit further explanation. “Look, I found this place called Bonnie’s K-9 swim club. It’s actually for pet hydrotherapy, but they also host swim play groups for dogs too, and I thought that would be fun for Wendell, especially since it’s going to rain tomorrow so I can’t take him to the dog run. When I registered him for the swim group, I got to talking with the owner about the fact that Wendell actually seems afraid of the water, and even though it’s obvious that Wendell could probably swim, I thought perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get him one lesson to make sure. I mean good God, you know that most New Englanders have retrievers and labs and if he’s going to be able to play, he’s got to make up for his smaller size by being a strong swimmer. I mean, it’s not like there are lifeguards for dogs.”
Now it’s Cosmas’ turn to sigh. After three years of marriage, he is now wise enough to know which battles he can win (like the fact that we don’t really need to spend eight hundred dollars on a video camera, especially when I know nothing about them and am obviously just defaulting to the laws of female technology buying behavior – when in doubt, buy the most expensive one with the most features, and smallest model you can afford). The battles that he now knows he shouldn’t even bother with are the ones that are just totally outlandish, like say, a private swimming lesson for our dog.
“Think of Wendell’s photo album.”
I said, “What?” but I knew exactly what he was doing. He was making a not-so-subtle point to say that for the first time in my life I had put together a photo album (our honeymoon pictures didn’t even make the cut and were relegated to a shoebox underneath our bed), containing Wendell’s entire life. From the day we got him I’ve been photographing everything: his first snow, his first bath, his first bone, his first rawhide, his first Halloween (he went berserk when I stuffed him into a pumpkin costume, so he was an angel instead), his first car trip, his first time in New York City, his first time at the beach….) So essentially, he was saying if I switched mediums from still photos to video then I wouldn’t be able to complete the magnum opus album of his life (the photo album is actually called The Magnum Opus of Wendell: A Symphony of Pictures).
“You know, I think the model I’m buying actually takes stills too.”
“A video camera is not something that should be purchased on a whim. I promise I’ll look in to them. I mean what happens if you get one, and the new models come out next month?”
Now this was a viable point, because nothing made me madder than caving into the peer pressure of the latest greatest cell phones, only to have a new smaller, cuter, sleeker model come out a month later.
He knew I was coming around because I wasn’t responding, and dead air was a rarity for me. “And, besides, do you really want to be stuck behind a camera for Wendell’s first swimming lesson? It’s so cold, so aloof, so Oliver Stone.”
The deciding factor was that Wendell obviously felt he had been a “good shopping boy” for quite long enough, and was now tugging at the leash. I loved the way he became a four-legged New Yorker whenever we were in the city, so attune to the fact that if you want something in this town, then you better speak up. On cue, Wendell woofed, just one short bark to say, “Enough” “Let’s go” “Now” “Let’s go find a Mr. Softee and get a cherry dip cone!”
With Wendell leading the way out of the store, I actually felt somewhat relieved at the fact that I was letting the whole video camera thing go – because it’s not like I had time to figure out how to work the thing, and besides, the whole scene might be a little too suburban soccer mom for me. Real New Yorkers probably hired people to do this kind of thing for them. My last thought right before I spotted a Mr. Softee truck three blocks down was whether Oliver Stone might be available for a last minute gig.
Wendell was cranky on the morning of his first swimming lesson, probably due to the fact that he knew the Union Square dog run was in the opposite direction than where we were headed. While getting ready in the morning I had toyed with the idea of taking him to the dog run first, but then decided against it, thinking that it might not be best to have him all tired out before hand. His displeasure might also be due to the fact that I had chintzed out on his normal breakfast portion to ensure that he had more than enough time for proper digestion before he hit the water (everyone knows that a leg cramp could be fatal in even the shallowest of waters).
On the way over to Ninth Avenue I stopped in a deli to buy more film, but found myself a bit perplexed as I tried to make sense of all the picture symbols on the back of the packaging. The pool was indoors, so I didn’t need to bother with the sun symbol, but it wasn’t clear which was the best speed for action photos. I asked a woman with a stroller her opinion and she told me that the 200-speed film had been suitable when her baby had started to crawl. I nodded at this and explained that it was Wendell’s first swimming lesson, and I was pretty sure that even though Wheaten terriers weren’t famous for their swimming prowess, Wendell could easily trump her baby’s fastest time across their kitchen floor. (What can I say? We New Yorkers are a competitive bunch.) I bought one of each and decided that I could probably make it through three rolls if necessary because I could always extend the half hour lesson to an hour if needed.
Wendell perked up as soon as we got to Bonnie’s K-9 swim club, because there were at least four other dogs running around the office. Once I checked the sturdiness of the security fence that was blocking the access to the pool, I let him off- leash to romp around with the other dogs. I handed the receptionist all of Wendell’s signed forms, and tried to calm my nerves by reading the framed write-ups hanging on the walls. They had been featured in Town & Country, which I felt was a good sign, as surely the magazine’s legal department would have researched any cases of accidental drowning incidents or pending lawsuits.
I felt immediately better when I met Marge, the teacher, who was a very strong looking woman in a wetsuit. She explained that she normally did the hydrotherapy sessions, and that she worked with dogs that were well over one hundred and fifty pounds, some who had arthritis so bad in their legs that they wouldn’t be able to make it out of the pool without her help. Yes, it was obvious that she could probably do one-armed curls with Wendell’s forty-pound frame if she so desired.
For the first five minutes she let Wendell get used to his surroundings, which he did by running around and around the perimeter of the pool barking at the two large German shepherds that were happily paddling and bobbing about. While I was waiting, I purchased Wendell a darling little orange fishy floating toy, sort of as a souvenir, and I asked Marge whether she wanted to use it to entice him into the water. When I pulled the toy out of my purse, Wendell was immediately by my side (like mother, like dog when it came to new baubles). I waved the toy in front of his face, and he immediately lay down before me. I then tossed the toy to Marge, which of course caused Wendell to leap up and bound toward her, but before he made it to her, she tossed it right into the pool. Without a moment’s hesitation, Wendell jumped for the toy and did what can only be described as the doggie version of a belly flop, landing smack in the middle of the pool.
Honestly the whole thing happened so fast, that it was a toss up on which of us – me or Wendell – was the most surprised. My surprise quickly turned into fear as Wendell started to flail about in the water frantically, obviously unable to get a footing in the three feet deep water. His eyes were wild, but I think my own were wilder as I had tossed my camera towards the chair, kicked off my shoes, and was at the edge ready to jump in to save him. As I teetered on the edge, arms moving in wild circles to maintain balance, Marge quickly slid into the water and was by Wendell’s side. By this time Wendell’s canine instincts had kicked in and he was furiously dog paddling towards the steps. A moment later he was out of the pool, dripping wet, mad as hell, and barking like crazy.
I must say I was more than a little taken aback about this methodology of introducing a dog to water, which seemed only one step less beastly then those stories of farm kids whose parents taught them to swim by just throwing them in the local watering hole (talk about a splashy start to a lifetime of extended therapy). Now maybe Marge was raised in the back woods of Montana, but she was a long way from home now and I was ready to tell her that things worked differently here in the city.
Marge must have sensed my uneasiness (perhaps my clenched fists, grim expression, and the way I was still poised to dial 911 on my cell phone gave it away), and told me that Wendell was fine. By tossing the toy into the water and having him lunge for it showed that he was incredibly brave (ahh, when faced with psycho dog parent, first start with flattery), and his moment of confusion (ie: drowning) was probably just due to his unfamiliarity with water. She then quizzed me about his “history” with water. I told her that he hated baths, avoided puddles, barked at the waves on the beach, and preferred Poland Springs to Evian.
For the next twenty minutes, as my own heart rate finally started to normalize, Marge and I watched Wendell run circles around the pool. It was obvious that Wendell had no plans to ever step foot in the water again if he could help it (thanks Marge), though Marge seemed to think he really did want to try again but was now a bit gun shy (gee I wonder why). I had been taking pictures of Wendell next to the pool, but I found myself more than a little disappointed that I didn’t have any pictures of Wendell actually in the water.
So here was the moment of truth in any parent’s life. Do I now ask Marge to forcibly drag Wendell into the water just for the sake of a few pictures? (I’m pretty sure the definition of a Kodak moment does not include the word terror in it.) Or do you just call the whole thing a bust and leave with the consolation prize of being happy you didn’t actually buy the eight hundred dollar digital video camera to record this non- moment in history.
It was then that Wendell put his front paws into the water on the first step, eying the fishy toy that was floating nearby, the very fishy toy that a half hour ago would have been his final undoing (if, say, his life was a Greek tragedy). Perhaps he was driven by blind rage and revenge? Perhaps he was truly brave like Marge said and now felt compelled to rescue the toy from the water? Or perhaps, and most likely, he just wanted to play with what was rightfully his.
This is when I asked Marge how she felt about bringing Wendell back into the water for one more try. She said she thought it was fine, and didn’t even make a face when I scrambled to get ready with my camera. By grabbing the fishy toy, she was then able to get a secure grip on Wendell and with two large back steps she was now in the middle of the pool (the pool was five feet by five feet, at best). Wendell struggled initially, but then seemed to relax in Marge’s secure grip (either that, or he passed out from fear). Meanwhile, my hands were going a mile a minute, snapping pictures like a pro (too bad we didn’t have a wind machine, because rolling waves would have been a really nice effect). Through the lens I watched as Marge began to relax her grip on Wendell, and on cue Wendell began to pump his little legs. Soon he was totally on his own and was swimming like a champ toward the steps. Marge began to clap her hands and I cheered like the mom watching her child in the Olympics. It was truly a spectacular sight. And even better, I have the pictures to prove it.
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