Touched by an Angel

Angel could­n’t do any tricks. Oh, she’d mas­tered the basics: She was house­bro­ken; she’d come when we called her; some­times she would sit if she was being offered a treat. That’s about it.

There was one oth­er thing, though:

Angel could talk.

In 1999, when No. 1 Son was 4, we decid­ed it was time for him to raise his own dog. After inter­view­ing a num­ber of avail­able can­di­dates at the Humane Soci­ety, we round­ed a cor­ner and came face-to-face with an incan­des­cent white mon­ster. “Chew­bac­ca: 1 Year Old,” said the plac­ard on her cage.

Chew­bac­ca most close­ly resem­bled an albi­no Ger­man Shep­herd but was much larg­er, weigh­ing in at a good hun­dred pounds. Our vet thought maybe she was a Shepherd/Russian Wolfhound mix, but we nev­er knew for sure.

She sat on her haunch­es, one ear cocked straight up and the oth­er flopped for­ward endear­ing­ly, and regard­ed us calm­ly, head tilt­ed. No. 1 Son was instant­ly entranced. “I wan­na take her!” he said. “Can I pet her?”

“I’m sor­ry,” the vol­un­teer escort­ing us said, “but only adults can go in the cage.”

“Don’t wor­ry,” I told No. 1 Son. “I’ll check her out.”

I entered the cage and squat­ted down in front of Chew­bac­ca. Hold­ing my hand out cau­tious­ly, I start­ed to intro­duce myself with non­sense dog­gy talk: “Well, look at you. You’re a sweet­heart! Who’s a good girl? Are you a good girl?”

Instead, I found myself say­ing, “Hey, Chewie. Think you might want to come hang at my house?”

Chew­bac­ca sniffed my hand, then licked it with the far­away, apprais­ing look of a wine taster.

“Hmm,” she mused. “Might be doable.” She glanced at Best Half and No. 1 Son. “They part of the deal?”


She licked my hand again. “You know,” she said, “I’m not usu­al­ly this impul­sive, but you got a deal, Mis­ter.”

In the van on the way home, Chew­bac­ca sat eager­ly next to No. 1 Son, look­ing at the traf­fic stream­ing by.

“What are we going to call you?” I said to Chew­bac­ca. “I don’t think Chew­bac­ca is real­ly your name, do you?”

“You got that right,” she mut­tered.

“Snow­bear!” my Best Half sug­gest­ed. “How about Snow­bear?”

“Hey, let’s call her Queen Fros­tine, like in Can­dy­land,” I said.

I glanced back. Chew­bac­ca was whis­per­ing in No. 1 Son’s ear; he frowned and whis­pered back. She shook her head and whis­pered in his ear again, he nod­ded.

“Angel,” No. 1 Son said.


“Her name is Angel,” he repeat­ed firm­ly.

I glanced back at Chew­bac­ca — I mean, Angel. She looked smug.

She nev­er admit­ted it to me, but I’m con­vinced Angel want­ed to grow up to be a Bud­weis­er Clydes­dale. Even giv­en her size, her strength was almost unbe­liev­able. You did­n’t take Angel for a walk, she took you for a pull.

No. 1 Son’s favorite game with Angel for sev­er­al years was to pick up a toy, then grab her col­lar. Angel would imme­di­ate­ly spring to her feet and shout, “Pull!” No. 1 Son would throw the toy across the yard and Angel would pur­sue it, hoick­ing No. 1 Son vio­lent­ly off the ground and tow­ing him along effort­less­ly like a ban­ner behind an air­plane.

Angel’s abil­i­ty to talk nev­er seemed unusu­al to us: We thought No. 1 Son was going to raise Angel, but she did­n’t get that memo and decid­ed she would raise him, so I sup­pose it made sense to com­mu­ni­cate on a high­er lev­el. Most peo­ple could­n’t hear her talk, but among Angel’s fam­i­ly and clos­est friends there was nev­er any non­sense dog­gy bab­bling: We com­mu­ni­cat­ed like peers.

Like many kids, No. 1 Son was a lit­tle bit fear­ful of being alone in his room at night. Angel quick­ly assumed own­er­ship of that issue. At bed­time we would often be loung­ing in the liv­ing room while Angel snoozed in the cor­ner.

“Angel!” my Best Half or I would say.

Angel would crank open an eye. “Bed­time?”


“Okay.” She would stretch, trot upstairs with No. 1 Son and climb into bed with him, keep­ing watch and return­ing to her liv­ing room nap only when he was asleep.

Occa­sion­al­ly her flop­py ear would flick upright while we watched TV. “No. 1 Son’s awake,” she’d say, trot­ting back upstairs. Twen­ty min­utes lat­er or so she’d be back. “He’s asleep again,” she’d say. “Is Let­ter­man on yet?”

In 2002, my Best Half, No. 1 Son and I took a trip to Chi­na, return­ing two weeks lat­er with The Chow­der: Our 7‑month-old adopt­ed daugh­ter.

I went in the house first and asked Angel to go out back for a lit­tle while. “We have a sur­prise for you,” I said.

“Oh, c’mon! You guys were gone for­ev­er! I hard­ly remem­ber what you look like!” she com­plained.

We brought The Chow­der in, ignor­ing the occa­sion­al yell from Angel out back: “Hey! What are you guys doing? Hey! I smell some­thing fun­ny! Hey!”

After every­one was set­tled I let Angel back in. She charged across the kitchen and skid­ded to a halt at the liv­ing room door.

“Okay, I’m sur­prised,” she whis­pered to Best Half out of the cor­ner of her mouth. She sat down and stared at The Chow­der.

The Chow­der, who had nev­er seen a dog before, stared back up at the white, pant­i­ng mon­ster tow­er­ing over her, its gleam­ing teeth fram­ing a pink, lolling tongue and its intense black eyes fixed on her.

After about 10 sec­onds of unbear­able ten­sion, I decid­ed if The Chow­der did­n’t start scream­ing soon, I would.

Then Angel did the most amaz­ing thing I’ve ever seen:

“All right, then,” she said firm­ly, and crouched down, putting her head on the floor. She stretched out and crept slow­ly across the floor toward The Chow­der, stop­ping when her nose was almost touch­ing The Chow­der’s foot.

“Now lis­ten,” Angel said gen­tly, look­ing up at The Chow­der. “I can’t take care of you if you’re afraid of me. That’s no basis for a good rela­tion­ship. So here’s the deal: I’ll lay right here and hold still until you aren’t scared any­more, okay? Go ahead — pull my ears, poke my eyes. I won’t hurt you. You’ll see!”

The Chow­der ten­ta­tive­ly reached for­ward, grabbed Angel’s flop­py ear and came away with a dou­ble hand­ful of fur. Angel smiled and closed her eyes. “See?” she said. “Noth­ing to be afraid of.”

The Chow­der stared at the fur waft­ing away from her chub­by fin­gers, then squealed with delight and dove face-first into Angel’s ruff.

As the years passed, Angel was pro­mot­ed from Chief Exec­u­tive Dog to Chair­dog and final­ly to Dog Emer­i­tus as oth­er cats and dogs came and went. She’d chuck­le tol­er­ant­ly at their exu­ber­ance and arro­gance, but made sure they knew the score, espe­cial­ly when it came to The Chow­der and No. 1 Son.

An avid movie fan, Angel would do her best R. Lee Ermey imi­ta­tion with the new recruits, then tran­si­tion to a father­ly Gre­go­ry Peck (as Atti­cus Finch) as she impart­ed her wis­dom to them. Occa­sion­al­ly they’d get too big for their britch­es and we’d get to see a home re-enact­ment of the Veloci­rap­tors try­ing to take on the T. Rex in Juras­sic Park. “AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!” she’d roar as she hurled her oppo­nents around like rag dolls.

But Angel nev­er appoint­ed a pro­tegé until last year, when Bosco, a minia­ture Black Schnau­zer, joined the fam­i­ly. Bosco massed about 10 pounds to Angel’s 100, but he had the rare com­bi­na­tion of guts, intel­li­gence and will­ing­ness to learn she was look­ing for. She tol­er­at­ed far more guff from Bosco than any­one else, although she so rad­i­cal­ly out­sized Bosco she would often sleep through his most fero­cious attacks, snor­ing away as he chewed her ears and pounced on her.

But most of all she spent every wak­ing moment teach­ing him every­thing she knew: “No, no, no, NO! The food stays here in the bowl! Now look — don’t both­er them when they’re at the table. See, you just sit here in the cor­ner and look hope­ful. Some­one’s at the door — Bosco, that’s your cue! Get over there and bark! Hus­tle!”

Bosco, although he did­n’t share Angel’s gift of speech, was an apt pupil and learned very quick­ly. R. Lee Ermey retired and was replaced by kind­ly old Mas­ter Po, who gen­tly but firm­ly led her young, impetu­ous Grasshop­per down the path of enlight­en­ment.

Sev­er­al weeks ago, we noticed Angel was­n’t eat­ing much and was los­ing weight. She’d always been lean and mus­cu­lar, but we could sud­den­ly see her ribs and hips. Our vet not­ed a fever and pre­scribed antibi­otics and an appetite stim­u­lant. We bought pre­mi­um canned food for her and she start­ed eat­ing again, but after a few more weeks we real­ized she not only was­n’t putting any weight back on, she was still los­ing it. Bosco some­how under­stood the time to attack Angel was past and instead cud­dled her pro­tec­tive­ly every spare moment.

In anoth­er week or so, Angel’s weight had dropped alarm­ing­ly; she looked gaunt and bony, but still as gen­tle and bright-eyed as ever.

“Bosco’s got this,” she’d say apolo­get­i­cal­ly as Bosco would leap over her to bark at the door. “I’m just kind of tired — gimme a minute.”

In her last week with us, Angel began to have dif­fi­cul­ty walk­ing. We fed her her pre­mi­um canned food with a fork as she lay on the liv­ing room car­pet, gen­tly thump­ing her tail. “I know I’m break­ing the rules,” she said to me sheep­ish­ly one after­noon. “Sor­ry to be a has­sle.”

“Now don’t you wor­ry about that,” I said. “You’ve got a lit­tle pam­per­ing com­ing.”

“Thanks,” she said, fin­ish­ing the last bite. “I’m not wor­ried.”

“Good,” I said.

“As soon as you have a minute,” she con­tin­ued, “I know you’re going to fix every­thing. No rush — soon as you have a minute.”

I did­n’t reply. She looked at me steadi­ly, con­fi­dent­ly, for a moment before sigh­ing con­tent­ed­ly and tak­ing a nap.

The morn­ing of August 9, Angel could­n’t get up. “I’m sor­ry,” she mum­bled. “I’ll feel bet­ter after a nap. Don’t wor­ry about me.”

She slept in the liv­ing room all day, occa­sion­al­ly wak­ing up to check in with Bosco, who by now had ful­ly assumed the role of Chair­dog pro tem.

Around 9 p.m. she woke up, looked at me and said, “Hey, I don’t want to be a pest, but I’m ready for you to fix every­thing. When­ev­er you have a minute. I just can’t get much done like this, you know?”

Best Half and I sat down with her. “Angel,” I said, “I wish I could make every­thing okay. I real­ly do. But I can’t. I’m sor­ry, hon, but I can’t.”

She looked sur­prised. “Real­ly?”

“Real­ly. I would if I could; you know that.”

Angel looked at Best Half. “Is he mess­ing with me?” Her eyes shin­ing, Best Half gen­tly shook her head.

Angel thought a moment, then sighed and smiled. “Okay. Um, can you do me a favor?” She looked embar­rassed. “I real­ly need to go out­side. I was­n’t going to say any­thing, but….”

“Sweet­heart, don’t be embar­rassed!” Best Half said. We helped Angel to her feet and half-car­ried her to the back door, across the patio and onto the grass, where she did her busi­ness, then col­lapsed.

“Whew!” Angel pant­ed. “Thanks!”

I got a beach tow­el and Best Half and I gen­tly cra­dled Angel in it, lift­ing her so she could pre­tend to walk back inside. I was sur­prised — Angel looked like a bag of bones, but she still weighed a ton.

About 11 p.m., we set­tled back down in the liv­ing room with Angel — Best Half, No. 1 Son, The Chow­der, Bosco and I — cov­ered her with a blan­ket, and told her it was our turn to put her to bed for once. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” she said skep­ti­cal­ly. We were sure. She’d earned it.

Angel pant­ed heav­i­ly, clos­ing her eyes but refus­ing to lay her head down. “Wait — I’m not sleepy yet,” she kept say­ing. Occa­sion­al­ly she’d open her eyes and look at one of us in sur­prise. “Oh, you’re still here?” she said.

“You bet. We’re right here with you,” Best Half said. She’d brought blan­kets and a pil­low down and was lying next to Angel, ready to spend the night.

Angel closed her eyes and her head sank slow­ly, then sud­den­ly jerked upright again. “I’m okay!” she protest­ed. “I’m not sleepy yet!”

Some­how we all real­ized simul­ta­ne­ous­ly what she need­ed. And so, for the very first and last time in her life, we engaged in some non­sense dog­gy talk with Angel: We told her she was a good girl. A very, very good girl.

She looked around at us. “Real­ly?” she wheezed.

“Real­ly real­ly,” Best Half said. “You did a good job rais­ing our boy. Did­n’t she?” She looked at No. 1 Son.

“Yes,” he whis­pered. “You did.” He gen­tly stroked her flop­py ear.

The Chow­der looked anx­ious­ly at her broth­er. “Bub­by, we’re gonna see Angel in heav­en, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “She’ll be wait­ing for us.” Reas­sured, she buried her face in Angel’s ruff for the last time. “G’bye, Angel,” she said.

Angel looked at me.

“Don’t wor­ry,” I said. “It’s okay for you to go.”

She looked at Bosco, who had been lying by her side for hours. Bosco winked.

“Okay,” Angel said. “Okay. I’m just gonna take a lit­tle nap, then.” She final­ly relaxed, lay on her side, and closed her eyes.

Angel stopped breath­ing just after mid­night.

We’d made arrange­ments to take her to the vet for cre­ma­tion, so I decid­ed to wrap her in her favorite blan­ket and put her in the back of our Jeep until morn­ing.

I braced myself and lift­ed the still, silent bun­dle. It was light as a feath­er.

When we came back inside, Bosco was in the kitchen sit­ting on his haunch­es, his head tilt­ed alert­ly at us.

“Okay, guys,” he said. “I got this now.”

To Gilligan or Not to Gilligan

You know what’s wrong with kids these days? I’ll tell ya what’s wrong with kids these days!

When I was a kid, every­one I knew was famil­iar with the aria “Votre toast je peux vous le ren­dre” from the opera Car­men, aka “The Tore­ador Song” (skip ahead to 1:12):

No, we weren’t opera buffs. Bear with me a sec.

Car­men is an unusu­al opera, giv­en that its libret­to was orig­i­nal­ly in French.

Here are the orig­i­nal lyrics in French:

Toréador, en garde! Toréador!
Et songe bien, oui,
songe en com­bat­tant
Qu’en oenoir te regarde,
Et que l’amour t’attend,
Tore­ador, l’amour, l’amour t’attend!

And here’s a rough Eng­lish trans­la­tion:

Tore­ador, on guard!
And con­tem­plate well!
Yes! Con­tem­plate as you fight!
That a dark eye is watch­ing you,
And that love is wait­ing for you,
Tore­ador! Love, love is wait­ing for you!

My friends and I didn’t have the first clue about Car­men, much less opera in gen­er­al. We just knew a frag­ment of the aria with (at the time) mild­ly risqué alter­na­tive lyrics; a few years lat­er we knew the aria with some oth­er amus­ing lyrics we saw on TV.

You are now about to date your­self with one of three reac­tions:

  1. You’ll rec­og­nize the aria by its qua­si-risqué Eng­lish lyrics
  2. You’ll rec­og­nize it by the fun­ny TV lyrics, or
  3. You don’t rec­og­nize it at all, in which case I would tell you to get off my lawn, but you already got bored and are watch­ing pim­ple-pop­ping videos or some­thing instead.

Here are the mild­ly risqué lyrics:

Don’t spit upon the floor!
Use the cus­pi­dor!
That’s what it’s for!

That’s not very naughty, you’re think­ing. But this was a long time ago, when any­thing with even the most oblique ref­er­ence to any­thing scat­o­log­i­cal or burps or farts or spit­ting or what­ev­er was hys­ter­i­cal­ly fun­ny because they’d get you in trou­ble.1

Now, here is the TV ver­sion I men­tioned: It occurred in an episode of Gilligan’s Island titled “The Pro­duc­er.” In “The Pro­duc­er,” a film pro­duc­er crash-lands on the island, so the cast­aways cre­ate a musi­cal ver­sion of Shakespeare’s Ham­let.

As one does.

So they cob­ble togeth­er a mashup of var­i­ous oper­at­ic frag­ments with (sort of) the plot of Ham­let. In this case they mashed up Lord Polo­nius’ speech to Laertes (and here are the fun­ny TV lyrics I men­tioned ear­li­er):

Nei­ther a bor­row­er nor a lender be
Do not for­get! Stay out of debt!
Think twice, and take this good advice from me:
Guard that old sol­ven­cy!
There’s just one oth­er thing you ought to do:
To thine own self be true!

(Skip ahead to 3:30 in the video):

Shock­ing­ly, Gilligan’s Island did­n’t rack up lots of awards. But “The Pro­duc­er” snagged a spot on TV Guide’s list of the top 100 TV episodes of all time.

“The Pro­duc­er” reminds me of some of the best mate­r­i­al from Warn­er Broth­ers’ car­toons or Sesame Street: They can pro­duce high-qual­i­ty, hilar­i­ous enter­tain­ment that both chil­dren and adults love. Not because it appeals to a low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor with fart or poop jokes (don’t get me wrong—well-executed fart or poop jokes can be a plea­sure sub­lime).

No, it’s because they can appeal to chil­dren at their lev­el and adults at their lev­el2 (I could get into a sim­i­lar com­par­i­son of The Rab­bit of Seville, or “What’s Opera, Doc?” (same here), for instance, both of which should have won Nobel Peace prizes).

Like every gen­er­a­tion ever, today’s kids think they invent­ed every­thing cool—sex, f’instance. Or more specif­i­cal­ly in this case: Memes.

A meme is a lit­tle snip­pet of a cul­tur­al fad or joke all the cool kids know. But kids these days didn’t invent memes. They just dumb­ed them down.

Memes these days are some idiot on Dr. Phil say­ing “Cash me ous­side; how bow dah?” Or a gamer scream­ing “Leeroy Jenk­ins!” as he gets all his team­mates killed. Or dab­bing, or Nyan Cat, or Grumpy Cat, or Ceil­ing Cat Is Watch­ing You Mas­tur­bate, or Philoso­rap­tor or Tide Pod Chal­lenge or a zil­lion oth­er things.

Many of these are rib-crack­ing fun­ny, but they don’t go any­where. They’re a mile wide and an inch deep. Flash­es in the pan.

If you vis­it Know Your Meme and search for pop­u­lar memes, you’ll find ref­er­ences to a fun­ny line in a show or amus­ing acci­dent or bizarre news sto­ry that caught the public’s atten­tion: DAMN, Daniel!; Oh, wait: You’re seri­ous? Let me laugh even hard­er!; Ermagerd! Gers­berms!—stuff like that.

And since the Inter­net has giv­en most peo­ple the atten­tion span of a hum­ming­bird on crack, I guess that’s noth­ing to sneeze at.

But again: They don’t go any­where. With memes, the name of the game isn’t to suss out where they came from and who start­ed it and where they got the idea from and oth­er inter­est­ing triv­ia. With cur­rent memes, the goal is to acquire pho­to­graph­ic mem­o­ry of the words or pho­tos accom­pa­ny­ing the meme so you can toss them out there online so every­one will chuck­le at how smart you are.

And how does one acquire this ency­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge? Sim­ple: By stay­ing online and plugged in 24/7/365.

While No. 1 Son and The Chow­der were grow­ing up, Best Half worked Sat­ur­days for a few years; a bit lat­er I worked as a free­lance con­trac­tor with super-flex­i­ble hours.

I had the priv­i­lege of spend­ing many price­less hours with my kids at muse­ums, book­stores, the library and so on.

But some­times when I was busy with con­tract work, we hung out at home and watched movies. For Christ­mas one year, First Sis­ter gave me a set of all the Warn­er Broth­ers car­toons ever made; I already owned all of Mel Brooks’ movies on DVD as well, along with most Mon­ty Python movies, and the unri­valed kings of spoof movies: Zuck­er, Abra­hams and Zuck­er, pro­duc­ers of Air­plane, Air­plane II, Top Secret! and the Naked Gun flicks.

Memes are the cul­tur­al equiv­a­lent of triv­ia quizzes. These days “spoof” movies are just strings of loose­ly relat­ed triv­ia fac­ti­cles, but tru­ly great spoofs are more than triv­ia quizzes. If you want to pro­duce tru­ly great spoofs like Blaz­ing Sad­dles or Air­plane!, you have to love the genre you’re spoof­ing, love it enough to turn it inside out in a way true afi­ciona­dos of West­erns or dis­as­ter movies will rec­og­nize instant­ly.

Old-school memes like The Tore­ador Song are fun­ny and viral, yes, but if you get inter­est­ed in where they come from, you won’t see info like “This meme start­ed when Ben­der the robot said ‘Oh, you were seri­ous? Let me laugh even hard­er’ on Futu­ra­ma.”

That’s what I think, any­way. YMMV. Get off my lawn.