Yin and Yang: A Prep School Story

2ddcc16e-b95b-483a-a6df-a4147377c0ceTwo Fridays ago, my friend Nora and I met for our bi-monthly coffee. She and I go all the way back to prep school, where we met on the debate team, as protégés of the charismatic, neurotic, predatory (and to some, beloved) coach and English teacher. We also went to Princeton together, although she was a varsity rower and I was into performing arts, so our university lives touched each other only tangentially. She hung out with a lot of intimidatingly tall, supercharged people, but I was always happy when we ran into each other. After graduation, we lost touch, reconnecting in our early thirties, when John and I relocated to Boston. She lives in nearby Wellesley with her husband Tim, who in that “small world” way, John knew a bit when they were undergrads at Dartmouth.

Nora and I have been meeting off and on for coffee since our kids were little. Our sons, my Nate, and her Jonathan, both now 23, are just six months apart in age. In very different ways, they’ve each been intense kids, so we’ve had plenty to discuss over the years.   Our daughters definitely have not gotten as much airtime. Usually our coffees are spent catching up on the kids’ news, each other’s work lives and volunteer pursuits. The husbands take a back seat. Only occasionally does the topic of our prep school years come up, although we are deeply bonded by our common experience. The fact that we shared those three years together in the rarified air of St. Paul’s School is a nearly umbilical connection, invisibly feeding our friendship as we’ve grown and changed. Even well into our 50’s, our sixteen year-old selves shadow us, sipping cappuccinos, nibbling around the edges of the scones.

When we last met, we talked at length about St. Paul’s. Unless you’ve been living under a media rock, in which case I commend you, you will be aware of a shameful rape case that took place at the school two years ago: a senior boy was accused of sexually assaulting a freshman girl, possibly as part of an alleged tradition in which seniors targeted younger students for hook-ups. The case famously went to trial, sordid details emerged about secret keys to a clandestine room, tallies of conquests shared online and painted on utility room walls, body parts, bite marks, panties, pain and shame. St. Paul’s alums have gotten their dander up on all sides of this sad story.   The trial concluded with guilty verdicts for statutory rape (the girl was 15, the boy 18 at the time of the assault), and lifetime sex offender status because the young man used the Internet (in this case, Facebook) to compel the girl to meet with him. The jury fell short, however, of convicting the defendant of straight-up rape: The victim did consent to go with the boy to an isolated spot; her social media messages afterwards gave mixed messages; her “no” must have been understood by the jury to have come too late, or with insufficient clarity for Mr. Labrie, who had gotten up a pretty good head of steam. I don’t intend to argue the merits of the case here, although I will go on record stating that I absolutely believe in the authenticity of the victim’s experience that she was assaulted. I don’t care when a woman says “no,” whatever the circumstances, whether with a giggle or a scream, or how she later parses it. So much of the victim’s description rings true.

Nora and I got round to talking about it because our friend and classmate, the journalist Todd Purdum, had recently written a Vanity Fair article about the case. His piece raised questions about inadequacies in the school’s response, in particular, an inability to properly protect the victim. Nora and Todd are in close contact, and I asked her how he was doing in the wake of the article’s publication. The alumni community can be a wolf pack, with some ardently feeling wronged by the media coverage and baring their teeth. I haven’t seen Todd since college, but from what I knew of him in youth, he is decent and ethical down to his bones. There’s no question in my mind that when writing about our alma mater, his integrity was impeccable. His article got us onto the topic of our high school years. What’s interesting is where it took us.

I first read about the rape case in August 2014, when the Boston Globe reported the arrest of the senior in question, Owen Labrie. The Globe published a mug shot of a tan, athletic-looking young man with a thick cowlick of reddish hair and a sleepy, arrogant expression. He looked like what my daughters would call (politely) a “lax bro” or (less politely) a “fuckboy.” It’s a type: hyper-masculine, athletic, smart, the big-man-on-campus. He rolls with a posse of other guys like him–the Duke lacrosse team, the Milton Academy ice hockey team; the NFL; certain members of Congress—men who believe their power and status privileges them to your adulation and sexual submission.  If you asked me to describe him in one word, that word would be “entitled.” Entitled to your attention, your admiration, and a blow job. In fact, HE is doing YOU a favor letting you suck his dick. Ask any woman: she’s known at least one or two of his ilk. She’ll also tell you that the majority of men are not like him. Far from it. My response to the photo of Mr. Labrie, was visceral, pre-verbal, swimming up from the depths of a lifetime of having known such alpha-males: I shivered.  Yet I acknowledge it’s possible he is as much a victim of a broken system as the young woman in this case.

I had an experience with a St. Paul’s fuckboy in my day, and while it was pale in comparison to the Labrie case, it’s of a theme. It happened in 1976, when I was new “fourth former,” which means that I was one of sixty or so students who matriculated in tenth grade, rather than starting in ninth grade, as a freshman.   New girls (in any grade) at the time were immediately evaluated for our sex appeal and distributed into groups of varying desirability, kind of like the sorting hat at Hogwarts. The sorting ritual, rarely spoken of, but widely acknowledged, took place in the common area after school-wide dinners, when certain guys would slouch against the far wall and check out the girls as we left the dining hall. Apparently, we were rated on a scale of one to ten.   The fit, self-assured athletic girls, and the sexy sophisticates from Manhattan and its close-in suburbs fared the “best.” A pretty wide swath of us didn’t even rank. Believe me, you knew where you stood.  The pecking order affected your relationships with girls and guys alike.

One night during the winter of my first year, I went out into the hallway of my dormitory to make a phone call. Like many other lonely Hufflepuffs, I was calling the local cab company to pick up some ice cream from the Friendly’s in downtown Concord for me and some friends. My dorm was one of the newer ones on campus, a contemporary brick structure that housed two boys’ dorms and one girls’ dorm, all connected by a long, wide corridor with shared common rooms. If you left your actual dorm and went out into the hall, you were in co-ed territory. As I was gathering my coins to make the call, an upperclassman from one of the boys’ dorms, a popular, good-looking ice hockey player, pushed his way into the phone booth with me, felt my breasts, agressively kissed me, and left. He smelled a little boozy, although I was inexperienced with alcohol, so I couldn’t be sure.   He never spoke a word to me, not before, not then, not since. Here’s what I thought:

Maybe he likes me.

For the next week or so, I kept looking for him, waiting for him to seek me out and declare himself. Before the phone booth encounter, I had noticed him around, but he had just been one of a clutch of icy cool, sought-after athletes, not my type, then or ever. We were galaxies away in the prep school hierarchy of who matters, for one thing. He was a little scary, for another. One evening, about a week later, we passed each other alone on the secluded path that connected our dorm to the dining hall. I saw him coming towards me from twenty feet away and I thought, “Oh, now he’ll say something to me.” But he didn’t. He looked right at me with a smirk and passed on by. Humiliation overcame me. Obviously, I was nothing to him. I was just a pudgily pretty, studious and insecure new girl.

Now I can say it: What a prick.

So this guy was no Owen Labrie, a phone booth feel-up was not a “senior salute.” But it was coerced. It hadn’t dawned on me until the Labrie case that this relatively minor incident in my own experience oozed with era-appropriate male entitlement: naïve younger girl, unsure and eager to please, meets popular and studly upperclassman jock, misinterpreting his interest as something romantic. Who’s to say that the player-not-to-be-named didn’t push his way into the phone booth on a dare, or that he didn’t later draw a black line on the wall behind a washing machine, adding me to his tally of phone booth “conquests.”

It’s small story, so resonant of experiences we had, or friends of ours did, at St. Paul’s. My story led to one from Nora, something she had recently learned about a classmate she couldn’t name who had reportedly been raped by an upperclassman. Which reminded us both of a different classmate we thought had perhaps been sexually assaulted, and that maybe we did know, but it was shrouded in mystery at the time, and further obscured by the fog of memory now. Nora said her name, and the hairs stood up on my forearms. My eyes teared up.  Of course I remembered her, of course. Something had happened to her, something bad. I never quite knew what. I had forgotten. Driving home after coffee, yet another memory rose up from the murky depths, of a third classmate, a socially vulnerable girl who’d gotten into something over her head, and money needed for an abortion.

How can it be that Nora and I, over twenty years of coffee dates, had never discussed these things? Not with each other, or with anyone else? Did we, as she recently wondered in an email, somehow sympathetically “group-think” these experiences into being? This self-doubt, I propose to you, is exactly what happens to women who have been systemically marginalized.

Here’s my theory: the institutional ethos of St. Paul’s is hyper-masculine, an identity that has constrained the well-being of not only five decades of girls, but also countless young men who don’t fit the alpha mold. This is a 150 year-old boys school, after all.   The accrual of fifty years of co-education does not mean that the deep yang of St. Paul’s culture has been erased.   It’s been overlaid with decades of girls and women on campus, like powdered sugar sprinkled on a flourless chocolate cake. But has the school fully integrated feminine values, female ways of thinking and feeling? Are these modes of being baked in?

Here’s another St. Paul’s story: my junior year, I was a volunteer admissions tour guide. One morning when I was scheduled for a tour, I awoke with pelvis-cracking menstrual cramps. (In the era before ibuprofen, I often got cramps so intense they caused vomiting, and on two occasions, I passed out from the pain, including once on a crowded Long Island commuter train.)  I went to the infirmary. The nurse there gave me some useless Midol and told me I should report for my tour and see if they’d give me a pass. Or I could just take a “cut,” go back to the dorm and sleep, accepting a detention as the consequence. Gingerly, I minced to the admissions office, where I asked the male teacher on duty if I could please not give my tour because I was feeling sick.  The answer was no. The touring family was from my hometown and had specifically requested me (ironically, the parents and younger brother of my ninth grade boyfriend.) He was sure my ailment would pass.  I told him it wouldn’t, and why. His response: “You’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t. Touring the science building, I fainted, going down like a ton of bricks in the chem lab. I remember the teacher, crew-cutted, ex-military “Rock” Gillespie, looking down on me with concern as I swam back to consciousness. Somebody escorted me to the infirmary, where I slept off the worst of the cramps. And two days later, in my post office box, I got a notice that I had to report for work duty for failing to complete my tour.

So these were early days in St. Paul’s history of co-education, and of course, the institution has made great strides since then. But what, they couldn’t have put in a call to someone at Miss Porter’s or Ethel Walker or some other all-girl’s school for a few tips on the basics, like menstruation? I’m sure they weren’t willfully opposed to meeting the needs of girls, just clueless. I can only imagine how students of color must have felt at that time, if I, a privileged white girl, was so poorly served in my core identity.

Fast-forward forty years. I like the current Rector (that’s WASP for “principal.”)  He is earnestly trying to steer a very large ship through extremely rocky shoals with as much sensitivity to diversity and equity as one white man can muster. Yet in spite of the best efforts of St. Paul’s leadership, I often see the cultural myopia of my youth borne out now in the school’s communications. One small but telling example: the accomplishments of St. Paul’s alumnae are insufficiently recognized and celebrated. The 80’s actress Catherine Oxenberg is the woman most often cited among the school’s notable alumni, even in Todd’s article.

Really?

I was in a French class with Catherine for two years. She was intelligent, gracious and funny. I always liked her, and I wasn’t at all surprised when she went on to Hollywood success. But also in that French class? Alexandra Wettlaufer, now a Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas.  Sarah Chubb Sauvayre, executive VP of marketing for Gilt.com and the former CEO of Condé Nast digital. Lisa Hughes, the publisher of the freakin’ New Yorker, for Chrissake. The school’s Wiki page (which cites only four women in its notable alumni list) names writer Rick Moody, but not his classmate Rosemary Mahoney, equally honored, deeply thoughtful, and less controversially reviewed. There are a lot of kickass women alums, is my point. I realize Wikipedia is user-edited, but I was a school communications director for years, and if the person in that position at St. Paul’s is not generating content for sites like Wikipedia, then he or she needs either more staff or a stiffer performance review. It’s the same story all over, by the way: I checked out a couple of prep schools, Groton and Middlesex, and only a handful of females make their lists of notable alumni.

Sincere efforts have been made and are being made to do better by girls at St. Paul’s. But it is difficult to see your blind spots, and few institutions are adept at achieving bone-deep systemic change. Feminine values aren’t very well integrated into any power structure in our society, so it’s not like St. Paul’s is beyond the pale. But I’m not willing to let it off the hook either. I’m not gonna cry me a river because the school is trying so hard and being misunderstood. I have always felt ambivalent about my years there. I was well-prepared for college, and also for a career in a male-dominated workplace. But St. Paul’s did nothing to help me understand and prize my female-ness, and the particular skills and mindset that pertain. Moreover, the school had no sense that co-education might require instructing boys about the importance of internalizing feminist values.  I spent years reconstructing this essential piece of my identity. Maybe that’s every woman’s path in our culture, and it has nothing to do with St. Paul’s. But for me, there’s no untangling the personal and the institutional.

I’m a solutions-oriented person, so let me tell you what I believe would be helpful to St. Paul’s. Their response to the Labrie debacle thus far has been a good deal of bottom-up/outside-in oriented activity, working with current students on their attitudes and beliefs, both from within the community, and by bringing in outside consultants and experts. This is worthwhile, and necessary, but incomplete. Current students, having grown up in a far more diverse social culture than I (although still not an equitable one), are more likely to be keyed in to third-wave feminist values. As well, they are more exposed than prior generations to the notion of the systemic sway of white privilege.

What’s also required is top-down change. To start, more females and people of color are needed in leadership, to legitimize and deepen perspectives other than those representing 150 years of white dudes. Whenever the current Rector moves on, the Board needs to bring in a woman or a non-white individual as its next Rector. In the last Rector search, the finalists included both a woman and an African-American, but the Board didn’t pull the trigger on either of them.   I was deeply disappointed and completely unsurprised. Likewise, the Trustees need to aggressively pursue diversity and equity in their own membership, as well as on the faculty. A good goal would be to seek a balance where white men only comprise a fraction of these groups, say 25%. LOLZ, that’ll never happen.  As we’ve seen (code word: “Trump”), white guys don’t much like to give up their toys. That’s understandable – no one in our culture is good at renouncing personal power to advance the greater good. But I’d like to see it.

Lastly, women alumni have a role to play. There are five decades worth of us now. We’ve run companies and written books. We are highly placed in media, in medicine, in education, in the arts. We are mothers of sons and daughters, wives of husbands, wives of wives, and single working women. We’ve had to push back on many fronts in our lives. Perhaps, like me, some of us have opted for spaces where our yin doesn’t have to compromise quite so much, like parenting, freelancing, dancing. Together, we might flush out the secrets of how we were underserved, or belittled, or harmed, and in so doing, help the institution that formed us see itself through a new lens. We can bring “inside-in” perspective to bear, if we care to.

I don’t know that I do: I’ve kept St. Paul’s at emotional arms length for much of my life, perhaps carrying forward not only the hurts of the male culture, but also the divisions among different groups of women that resulted from it.   The school may not be worth it to me, quite frankly. But the young people who attend it are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Trails

My days begin out on the trails behind our house.   I could easily sleep until seven, but the dogs are raring to go by 6:30 a.m. I pull on yoga pants and boots, pour coffee into a travel mug, and stuff treats into the pocket of whatever jacket seems best suited to meet the crazy grab bag of spring weather that comes with these days of climate change.

This morning, I woke up mid-dream. My sleeping self had been in a strange, anonymous apartment with John and the kids when they were little. In the dream, John and I knew that the world would end that day at 4:12 p.m.   This wasn’t some crackpot Rapture or Mayan calendar scenario. It was a cold hard fact. A climate catastrophe was on the way; we all knew with certainty when it would hit, in that way you do in dreams. I felt sadness that my kids wouldn’t get to grow up, and that so much work was left undone – humankind hadn’t solved poverty or racism; we hadn’t overcome our greed, our egotism, our petty grievances.  There was still so much good in us: love to be made, cookies to be baked, poems to be written, songs to sing. Forgiveness and reconciliation could yet occur. And now, time had run out. I was happy that we were all together, that the kids were safe with John and me. Right before I woke up, I remember thinking that I needed to set aside some time to pray, to thank God for giving me this earthly life, to re-align myself, away from the corporeal, back to the ether, the spirit, star dust, whatever home I came from and will return to.

And then I awaken to Cordelia licking my face, her scratchy whiskers tickling my cheek, her butt wriggling in the excitement of a new day.   Westley’s chin rests on the other side of the bed, his big, brown, longing eyes trained on me, tail thumping on the floor. There’s nothing to pull you out of a disconcerting dream like two dogs ready for breakfast.

After they eat, we are off to the trail: through the pool gates, front and back, down the hill to the stream, over the rattling bridge of loose boards to the woods. Cordelia is on the scent of a critter and off like a shot. Westley rumbles along, tail high. He stops up ahead of me and looks back, waiting for me to find a good stick to toss him. The birds are out in full force this morning, tweeting, whistling, trilling. Rain is supposed to move in around noon today, and the wind occasionally swirls and gusts, as if practicing for a good blow later on. We can hear the horn of the commuter rail sounding at the crossing, about a mile away, ear-budded men and women in business attire, chugging towards North Station and another Tuesday.

I have walked this trail almost daily for nearly twenty-five years, and I know its twists, rolls, and straightaways like I know a loved one’s voice on the phone–John, or one of my parents. After crossing the stream, we turn left, heading out towards the parcel we’ve dubbed “the blueberries,” an open bluff overlooking a pine forest to the south and a swath of farmed fields to the northwest. It’s hard to believe we live just seventeen miles west of Boston.

When the kids were little, we’d come out here two or three times a day with woven baskets to collect acorns, brightly colored leaves, or marvelous, perfectly round, marbled balls that Nate called “extraordinary berries;” these turned out to be acorn plum galls, created by a particular genus of tiny wasp. The trail has four distinct neighborhoods. The first narrow run is banked to the right by a high wooded hill and to the left by wetlands that used to be a cranberry bog. About five years ago, a neighbor gave permission to a local deer hunter to set up a stand just above the old bog. During deer hunting season, we put an orange vest on the dog and talk or sing loudly while passing through this area. I’ve never known precisely where he sets up shop, but today, I spy the hunter’s stand for the first time. He has strapped an office chair to a tree trunk about 20 feet off the ground. I’ve met the guy who hunts out there. He’s a pretty big dude for such a flimsy apparatus. This fall, he killed an impressive stag, according to one neighbor, “an eight-pointer.”

The next stretch of trail takes you over a rise and down again into a broad valley dotted with large, old growth trees. Two PVC pipes, each about three feet high, poke up from the forest floor, off-gassing lead trapped when this land served, decades ago, as the town’s shooting range. No one remembered anything about the range until the 1990’s, when the land’s prior owner tried to get zoning approval for a high-end residential development. All of us whose properties abutted the trail were trying to raise funds to buy the land and place it in conservation, but we were more than a few dollars short of the seller’s sky-high asking price. The situation looked grim for local tree-huggers. The Town Planning Board scheduled a hearing to review the seller’s development proposal. John went, along with a number of other folks from our neighborhood, including an old codger we’d never met who sat in the back of the room, protectively cradling a muslin sack like a homeless person hanging on to all his worldly goods. The abutters looked downtrodden as the seller’s shiny-suited attorney made his glitzy presentation. If the abutters and the town’s land trust could offer 12 million dollars – a 50% discount versus the market price – the seller would be willing to accept it. This offer was a straw dog; there was little chance the people in our relatively modest neighborhood could pony up such a whopping sum.  All of a sudden, however, the old codger raised his hand and was recognized by the Board chairperson. With visible effort, he rose, hefting his sack, and shuffled to the front of the room where, with a flourish, he upended the thing on the table. Hundreds of old bullets and casings spilled out, rattling across the table and rolling onto the floor. “Lead!” he shouted triumphantly. “I dug this up from that land just a week ago. It’s LEAD!”   As John recounts it, the entire room erupted in cheers. It turns out you can’t build homes on the lead-contaminated site of an old firing range. The trail ultimately became conservation land. Nowadays, we’d end this story with a mic drop. Boom.

Down in the old firing range, the trail widens to about six feet across. There’s almost no understory on this section of the path, just a carpet of pine needles. The first time I ever had an allergic reaction to a bee sting was out here. It was about twelve years ago on a humid summer afternoon, the threat of thunderstorms hanging heavily in the air. I felt the sting on the back of my neck and walked a few more yards before a bizarre burning sensation spread to my eyes, the palms of my hands and soles of my feet, my genitals, and throat. I turned tail and ran all the way back to the house. When I stumbled into the kitchen, Nate, then about eleven, was at the computer. “Whoa, Mom, you look weird,” he said. “I need you to call 911,” I told him thickly. “I think I may be going into shock.”   A few days later, back on the trail newly armed with an epipen, I looked up and saw a bee’s nest the size of a beach ball suspended from an oak bough.

The trail narrows again and follows along a lovely, winding run through pines. We used to call this branch of the path “the nursery” because the ground is blankpinus-strobus-le-dcameron-b.jpgeted with hundreds of white pine saplings. Their spindle-needled fingers dance greenly on the breeze. This morning, Westley finds the thigh bone of a small mammal out here, licked clean, pristinely white. I’m guessing it once belonged to a house cat, or maybe a fisher cat. Coyotes and foxes live in this part of the woods.   If you walk through here at night, it must be like one of those old cartoons on TV: canine eyes blinking watchfully in the blackness.

Just past the nursery, we head gently uphill into my favorite portion of trail, a hilly glade dotted with towering white pines and fallen logs. The forest floor here is a layer of pine needles as deep as a duvet. Fallen trunks form bridges and tunnels that the kids used to like to climb on. This morning, Cordelia jumps up on one felled trunk and sticks her nose down a knothole, sniffing for squirrel. The trees are majestic. You sense their eyes on you, their rooted wisdom. You are just a hiccup in time.

At the top of this hill are “the blueberries,”  nooks and crannies of exposed granite boulders and low-blooming wild blueberry bushes. The birds always get the berries before we do. I like to stand in the clearing and drink in the height of this spot, taking a few deep breaths before turning back, feeling at one with the air and sky.  Sometimes I’ll do a sun salutation out here.

When we turn back, Westley runs all the way home. Cordelia loops around me in circles, trotting off into the woods and back to my side. My coffee is long since finished, and I itchily start to wonder how bad the deer ticks will be this year.

I’m grateful for the new day.

I’ll be back again tomorrow morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cordelia

This little rescue dog who’s joFullSizeRenderined our family is a hoot. She’s terribly sweet and for the most part, calm, smart, and compliant. The rescue site described her as a “lab/shepherd cross.”  After meeting her, I thought: really?  Based on a little Google research, I suspect that she is 100% pure mountain cur. Curs are working dogs, bred for treeing squirrels and raccoons, essentially teeing them up for hunters. Our chipmunk population is on high alert. If you’re a varmint, don’t come scratchin’ around my garbage cans. Curs are known for their tenacity, and you have to be a strong pack leader to keep them in line. Oy.

For months, I’d been trolling dog rescue sites, pouring over profiles of assorted Jacks, Rileys and Mollys. I semi-ironically referred to it as my “dog porn.” I acknowledge there’s something a little unhealthy about speed dating dogs online, but as maladjustments to the looming empty nest go, I could do worse. With Mia heading to college next year, and John’s cluttered travel schedule, I want to have another presence in the house, more life, more noise. And frankly, I’d like an alternate source of entertainment for Westley, who drools on my leg as I write, looking up at me mournfully, hoping I will finish soon so we can go for another walk.   Of course, a second dog won’t fill the void of Mia’s absence, a gap so thunderously, cavernously, heart-crackingly wide that I don’t even want to begin to think about it. But a new canine pal may distract me a little, and if a dog in need gets a cushy home in Lincoln with good food, a soft bed, a buddy to play with, and daily walks in the woods, what’s the harm in that?

Here’s what we know about Cordelia. She was found wandering on a rural Tennessee roadside, and rescued by a sympathetic woman with friends in the local dog rescue community. They don’t know if she was abandoned, or just ran off and got lost. She has a scar on her snout they say is from a house cat, but if so, that was one big-ass kitty. Lisa, the good Samaritan who took her in, agreed to foster her for a while to see if she’d make a good candidate for placement up north, where scores of folks like me are scanning Petfinder sites with names such as “Buddy Dog” and “LastHopeK9,” looking for their “furever friend.” Lisa named her “Chloe.” (Coincidentally, this was the name of our first dog, a Bernese Mountain Dog who used to sit on my feet while I cooked dinner. I was constantly picking onion skins and tomato seeds out of her fur.) After “Chloe” was spayed and passed muster, Lisa handed her off to another foster situation at the home of a rescue volunteer named Muffin.

Muffin is a friendly, gravel-voiced, born-and-raised Tennessean. She has been fostering rescue dogs for two decades, and she currently has seven DOZEN of them living on her seven acre farm in Jackson, about 90 miles northeast of Memphis. “Not all of ‘em are allowed in the house, mind you,” she commented. “Only about thirty make that cut.”

The imagination staggers.

“We focus on good manners here,” she told me. “With this many dogs, I can’t tolerate any bad actors. You have to play nice and get along. We have guidelines, and every dog is expected to follow them.”

Muffin described Chloe as an easygoing dog; one who played well with others but could also back off. “She kinda follows the others’ leads, y’know?” We went down my checklist:  lived in a family home, okay with kids, well-socialized, medium energy, clean bill of health, no discernible problem characteristics, like resource guarding, aggressiveness or too much alpha energy. She was people-oriented, and had taken to sleeping in Muffin’s bedroom. It all checked out. Chloe was already on a transport headed up north. She was ours if we wanted her.

It was Mia’s turn to name a dog. Nate came up with “Hobbes” during a middle-school stint of obsessively reading “Calvin & Hobbes;” “Westley” was Lucy’s idea, for the dashing lead character in “The Princess Bride” whose alter ego is the Dread Pirate Roberts.  Mia chose “Cordelia” for Lear’s faithful youngest daughter: brave, noble, and true. Perhaps Mia identifies with the character, being herself our third and youngest child, and likewise protective, honorable, and so very big-hearted. As it happens, it’s also a fitting name for a Tennessee native.  As in: “Caw-DEEL-ya, you sho’ look purdy today!”

We brought Cordie home last Monday. She is affectionate and calm, but also playful and plucky. She likes the furniture – clearly it was okay with Lisa and Muffin for her to plop on any and every couch, chair or bed in the house.  She didn’t know any commands, but after only two days, she was rock solid on “sit,” and by today (day nine), she has mastered “down,” and is well on her way with “off” and “stay.” I hadn’t realized before now that Westley’s kind of a Matthew McConnaughy-type: he’s a looker, but not overly endowed in the smarts department.   Cordelia comes quite cheerfully when she’s called, and she doesn’t pull on the leash, which is a relief after sledding behind seventy-three pounds of golden retriever while leash training Westley. She has had a few house-breaking accidents, particularly after she’s been crated or left alone for a couple of hours, a sign of separation anxiety, I think.   And there is the not insignificant discovery that she has heartworm and will require several months of careful supervision while she’s treated, which we certainly didn’t anticipate. So much for the “clean bill of health,” but the rescue group has been great about it and is helping defray the cost. We could have surrendered her last week when our vet’s standard heartworm check came up positive. But that already seemed unthinkable.

For her first few days here, Cordelia didn’t show much interest in food, and she was tentative about going into certain rooms in the house.  But she’s starting to know this is her home.  Yesterday, I heard her bark for the first time, when the Invisible Fence lady was here slogging through the snow reflagging the property so I could start training her.  Today, she tore off down the driveway, barking happily at the UPS man.  Cordelia sidles up to Westley, tail wagging, and licks his drooly muzzle. They play just like siblings: it’s all wild fun, until somebody gets over excited and somebody else gets pissed.  That’s the two of them tussling over a tennis ball.  Sometimes they adore each other. Other times, I’mFullSizeRender-1 pretty sure their snuffles and grunts mean something along the lines of: “Mom! She bit me!” “Did NOT!” “Did TOO!” “Well he knocked me over…”

I really do miss those years with my three children all puppy-like, wriggling around my knees.