Friday, November 14, 2008

On Choosing Birthday cakes and Puppies

On Choosing Birthday cakes and Puppies

We have no Ice Cream Cake and a Fuzz Ball Alaskan malamute named Bootstrap. It's all from an overly optimistic outlook. Some call it self-deception. I'll call it wishful thinking or just plain stupid. In the past months it's cost me one ice cream cake and one elusive dream.

My mother was visiting us for her 77th birthday. I had bought her a box of Edy's Dibs, eventually solved the mystery of her beeping smoke alarm, and was determined to buy a delicious ice cream cake to celebrate the day. All birthdays are cause for celebration but none more than that of my mother, who is almost two years out of a grim cancer diagnosis. I wanted a really good ice cream cake.

Baskin Robbins had completely slipped my mind, despite years of kid birthday cakes purchased there. I thought only of Dairy Queen. It's early November and as I drove by the local DQ, the red boards that covered the windows reminded me of a joke I once heard of the ten reasons you know you are in Michigan: # 4 : Dairy Queen is closed from October through April. There it was. No Dairy Queen. I was disappointed, but not worried. My mind went to a freezer case in the local Buschs grocery store. I knew I'd seen some ice cream cakes there.

It was late in the evening without too much time to fool around. I drove straight to the grocery store. Hurrying in, I ran to the place where I recalled the freezer case. It wasn't there. I banished from my mind the possibility that there would be NO ice cream cake for my mother's birthday and searched for a store employee to help me. During the hours I usually show there are most often helpful staff at Buschs, but it was late and a quick scan of those at the check out counters did not inspire me with confidence I needed to find our cake.

My eyes settled on a young woman with a ponytail at the last check out counter. "Do you still have your freezer with ice cream cakes?" I inquired, somewhat breathlessly, anxious for her answer. "There used to be one over with the party goods. " She looked at me blankly. Another employee came up from behind me, having overheard the hopeful desperation in my voice. "It's moved to the back of the store," he said, "over with the other desserts." "Thank you." I said, as I leaped in the direction of the cake department in a store I knew well.

Right where he said it would be I found the freezer case stocked with cakes. Opening the cold glass door, I read the labels on the boxes: Yellow cake, chocolate cake, white cake. Only for the merest moment, though I recall it well did I think," What flavor ice cream is in these cakes? These must all be vanilla ice cream cakes, I decided Frozen cakes must surely contain ice cream. Why else would they put them in the freezer? Alas, because I wanted an ice cream cake these must surely be ice cream cakes. I chose a yellow cake with some blue flowers, grabbed some colorful candles and crepe paper, checked out and went home to put my "ice cream cake" in the freezer.

Diligently I pulled the cake out of the freezer about 1/2 hour before our small celebration. It was time for candles, cards and our off key family voice to rise in birthday song. On the last discordant notes, I waved my tarnished cake knife in the direction of the counter and set off to cut the cake. Anticipating the soft smooth giving surface of barely thawed ice cream, my face fell in dismay as the cake knife crumbled through a layer of half frozen cake and frosting. No ice cream. Despite a family tradition of eating ice cream that goes back to my mother's father and tales told of an ice cream loving heritage that proceeded him, there was to be no ice cream cake today. Still, this was not even close to any kind of disaster. There were no disappointed screaming toddlers, only a bunch of tolerant adults and teens to laugh at my folly. It was, however, a revelation. I had done it again.

I'd done this before, even before Bootstrap. My elementary school summers had been spent, nose pressed to a ballpark chain link fence wishing my brothers' strikes into home runs and their pitches into strike-outs. I never just watched the game. My participation was in believing that my hopes could move baseballs. For the first four years of my life I was certain I could grow up to be a horse. I'm not sure at what moment I understood this could not happen by any force of will that I could muster, but hope always dies hard.

She who believes she can transform frozen yellow cake to ice cream cake, and strikes into home runs and toddlers into horses also believed she could transform a fuzzy, fluffy, long-coated fuzz ball of a dog into a normal weather resistant harsher coated "real" Alaskan malamute. Choosing Bootstrap, the sole pup of six without a normal coat was no random act of screwy thinking, but a practiced method of self-deception that I have been working on for going on 55 years now. The consequences continue to vary.

It was an example of how expert I have become in the losing battle of mind over matter, to get the mind to see what the heart hopes for. When Bootstrap was three or four weeks old I had my moment of glancing quickly at the labels on the cakes. He had a bit too much fuzz coming out of his ears. Maybe he had slightly more coming out of his feet. I didn't want a fuzz ball, or didn't think I did, so he couldn't be one, could he? Lia had a fuzzy face like that when she was a pup. She was no long coat. It had to be ice cream cake.

A few years back, Lia had a long coated puppy. She was dripping with coat down to the floor. She looked like a baby black and white yak. Bootstrap did not have a coat like that. And then there were the puppies of my friends. Many of them are from a different line of Alaskan malamutes and the puppies are fuzzy, very fuzzy. I observed some of their puppies. "Bootstrap just had A LOT of coat," I told myself. There just must be ice cream in that cake.

In the freezer the boring normal cakes look like ice cream cakes. Bootstrap looked like a normal coated puppy. Not all long coats do, but Bootstrap did. I look at the pictures to prove it. If I had chosen to know better, his coat would not have felt like a normal one, but I was too smart then to know better. Coats are serious business in Alaskan malamutes. The harsh outer coat protects and insulates the inner softer coat, so the dog stays dry and warm. Bootstrap's coat is one texture. I do not know how or if it will withstand the weather, gather ice or snow balls, allow him to get wet like a cotton kitchen mop.

When he was eight weeks old and the final choices were being made, others with experience similar to my own said, "I've had a dog with a coat like that as a puppy." He's not a long coat." There is a genetic test for the "fuzzy" gene. I could have sent it in then. I have done it now and Bootstrap is a "FF" for Fuzzy/Fuzzy, in dry, scientific terms, Affected with the fuzzy gene. I didn't choose to do it then. I chose to believe that I had the ice cream cake I wanted.

As Bootstrap grew, I brushed him daily, lovingly. His coat is long and soft, as our breed standard says it should never be, but it is also beautiful, a soft gray and sable color, like wind worn stone. I handled him firmly and gently. We didn't fight over the comb in his increasingly profuse coat. He is a little stinker. The first times I stacked him on a table to look at his conformation, as those of us that breed dogs do, there was a battle of wills. He would not stand still, as the good DVD on puppy choosing said he should. He didn't get wiggly as some pups do, he just stubbornly refused to leave his legs where I put them. The first time I took him to a puppy match we did not work together but against one another in the ring.

His conformation is lovely. I have at least determined that there is that much ice cream in this cake. He has sloping shoulders and a well-angulated solid rear, both traits that serve any working dog well. A more experienced breeder of Alaskan malamutes watched us at that first puppy match. "He's got great structure." He said, "Don't fight with him." From then on, I did not.

I did begin to wonder about his coat though. I wondered as I waited for his undercoat to come. It did not. More and more coat kept growing, but no undercoat. Tufts sprouted behind the ears. And there was the "ah ha" moment of cutting the cake with the old tarnished cake knife, my well worn steel comb I use for almost all my dog grooming. Bootstrap was not going to get an undercoat. His coat was all undercoat, all one texture, however it might prove or not to hold up to the weather. That I will not really know until I try it out, until we run in our first snowstorm.

I had been excited about having a "show dog". Though I've finished two champions, that's not much in the world of dog showing, and I'd thought Bootstrap had what it took. In some ways, he does. He is a beautifully constructed house with poor insulation. When I fully faced my own folly, I called my mentors, his other breeder, friends, to tell them. "Place him," some said. "Find a pet home for him and repeat the breeding." Solid advice, I'm sure. Toss out the cake and remember there is a Baskin Robbins out there.

So far this fall, I'd been running the old guard: Atka, Bootstrap's grandsire, is my leader and I'm almost certain the best sled dog, working dog, I'll ever have. I wonder often how it came to be that I have had such a dog. He is nine years old now, and I've been trying for the last two dogs I've acquired to train another leader. The first of those, Lia is seven, and I've rarely had the patience to allow her to lead for more than a few miles. Lia takes care of Lia, and though she can dig in and pull us up hills like no other and can seemingly forever go that extra mile, she is reluctant and dismal when put in charge of even my small team.

Aura, Atka's daughter and Bootstrap's mother now three years old, is a bit better. She will move quickly and hold the line tight. Her grace and her downfall is that when there are choices to be made she will wait for me to make them. She actually listens to me, unlike her father at times. If there are choices to be made, crucially quick ones, she will not make them. She will lead with my guidance or that of her father, but she will not take on the responsibility herself.

Two mornings ago I decided it was time to put Bootstrap in with the team. When I left him in the truck with his Great grandmother, Sister, he'd throw himself at the windows, pawing furiously as he watched us hit the trail. He's a bit young, but I recall running Lia in a short race when she was his age. I have such a small team there were limited choices as to where he could go. Wheel, by the rig, was out of the question for one with such young bones and joints. I did not want him pulling the weight of the one hundred pound cart. I could have got out my six -dog gang line and placed him in the team dog spot between Atka in lead and the girls in wheel by the rig. A six-dog line is longer and stretches out farther in front of my small rig, not what I want if I have to get control of the team in a hurry, an even greater possibility with a strong young pup in tow.

Bootstrap was hooked up in lead, next to his granddad. I didn't even use a neckline going out, not wanting to overly burden Atka with the young upstart. Bootstrap, up front, young and enthusiastic, never one to doubt himself, energized both the old timers and gave permission for his often times enthusiastic but submissive mother to run. We went for just three or four miles, through the woods, dark in the pre dawn hours, and out into the open spaces of sand, wetland and concrete pilings of the quarry.

Fall now is flirting with winter. The morning was cold. Dusty brown weeds covered in silver frost are the color of Bootstrap. Once in awhile I saw Bootstrap's ears prick too high in notice of something unseen by me, or jerk toward a quickly spinning, falling leaf. Too exuberant, he'd jump on his granddad, and have to suffer a correction from both of us. He ran and he pulled, all you can ask of a young pup foolishly put in lead by someone with the history I am documenting here.

Bootstraps beautiful too soft coat, the color of this late fall morning, is not his doing. He never asked to be born here or to live here. I know now he is happy here in the pack of his Great grandmother, Grandfather, Great Aunt, and his overly tolerant mother. He places his paws gently on Gideon's shoulders as he walks in from school, rests them their gently and licks his face. Both will be smiling. Sometimes he lands on us like a flying squirrel, leaping from whatever height he can find. At a recent canine good citizen test, the evaluator, on recalling Bootstrap, one of 16 pups in the test, remembered him as "the spirited one." Now, he lays his head in the crook of my arm as I write. At seven months old he runs ahead of the team, gleeful and unspoiled eager to follow the trail.. Perhaps his coat would not allow him to survive a winter abandoned in an arctic wild, but he does not have to go there.

Disappointment can be blinding. I'm not sure how long it took for me to appreciate that I could grow to be a woman but not a horse. It didn't take long at all to know that being together with my mother for her birthday was all we needed with our frozen cake. The same miserable cake brought home my understanding as to how I've come to love a fuzz ball in my dog yard. It has taken only two early morning fall runs to know that fuzzy or not, these Boots are made for mushin'.

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Adele@NorthfieldDogTraining said...

As usual, a lovely read.

Millicent said...

How very touching, Raissa. Most things are that we love are made more beautiful by their imperfections.
Perfection, although desired, can sometimes get rather boring!

Belinda and Sparta said...

Raissa, what a great story. You are truly an accomplished writer.

Nicola - Sledog said...

Great read Raissa, he truly is one heck of a dog.