XV water, wonder, work

GOLDEN RETRIEVERS ARE water dogs, bred to swim into a lake and bring back the duck you shot. Because I loved Daffy and Donald since childhood, I never shot a duck, which would have felt like toonicide. Trixie had no opportunity to prove her merit as a hunter’s dog.

Our house in Harbor Ridge had a pool, however, where we learned she was a better swimmer than her mom or dad. Prior to adopting Trix, we had seldom used the pool, but when she stood at the French doors, staring at the sun-glistered water and sighing, we couldn’t resist taking the plunge with her. Gerda, who never had the opportunity to learn to swim, decided to teach herself with the assistance of a strap-on flotation device. As Gerda paddled earnestly from one end of the pool to the other, Trix swam with her, but not at her side; instead, our golden girl continually-literally-swam circles around her mom all the way from one end of the pool to the other, as if to show how it should be done, or as if making another joke.

Although she loved to swim, Trixie wouldn’t enter the pool until invited. Sometimes she used the steps, but usually she gathered her legs together, tensed, and launched off the coping, making a huge splash. During an hour of play, she returned to the deck ten times, rested for a few minutes, then barreled into the water again.

We have pliable-foam pool floats coated in rubber, on which we can stretch out to tan. The second time I took Trixie to play in the water, I drew one of these floats into the pool when she climbed out to take a rest. Aboard it, lying on my back, I glanced at her. She watched me with great interest, head raised and thrust forward, intrigued to see me drifting languidly on the water without effort.

I basked in the sun until overcome by a feeling that I was about to find myself in a Daffy Duck cartoon. When I opened my eyes, Trixie stood at the edge of the pool, legs bunched under her, grinning maniacally. “No!” I cried, but she jumped, slamming onto the float, turning it upside-down and dumping both of us into the drink.

Surfacing, I saw her pawing frantically at the float, trying to clamber onto it, while it bobbled and turned in the water. I held it steady, forcing one side under water so her forelimbs could easily slide onto it, and then, by holding the float with one hand and giving her butt a boost with the other, I got her aboard.

Judging by her expression, this was one of the most amazing and delightful experiences of her life. She lay with her back legs splayed, her forelimbs bent at the elbows and straight in front of her, head raised, looking around in wonder. Floating! On water! Without paddling! Genius! My dad’s a genius!

When I towed her from one end of the pool to the other and then back again, she panted with excitement. And she made the most winsome sound, not a whine or whimper, but a thin sweet expression of total doggy ecstasy. I’m moving! Through water! Without swimming! Brilliant! My dad’s brilliant!

At first shakily, then with confidence, she stood on the float while I pulled it the length of the pool again. Surfer girl.

Over the years, she spent more time being towed around than she did swimming. She taught herself to get aboard without help, by pushing the float into a corner of the pool and wedging it there, where it couldn’t bobble away from her while she climbed onto it.

I marveled at the chain of reasoning necessary for her to reach the conclusion that she could take control of this situation.

While lying on the float, Trix liked to play a game with me involving a thin, hollow rubber ball with an air hole in it. I held the ball between thumb and forefinger, moving it back and forth on the surface of the water while she watched intently. Suddenly, I pulled the ball under without squeezing the air out of it. Excited, she thrust one paw into the water, trying to grasp the treasure as I moved it left, right, and in circles. Then I brought it in front of her face again, still under water. Because the air remained in the ball, and because the air hole was toward the bottom of the pool, the ball soared to the surface when released, rising with enough energy to erupt a few inches into the air. Trixie watched it rising, trying to gauge the ascent, and often snatched it from the air, with her teeth, as it popped out of the pool.

One day, as I towed her around on her raft, she took the ball between her paws and pushed it under the water as she had seen me do. As we moved along, she stared contemplatively at the submerged blue sphere. When I paused and the raft grew still, she released the ball, which popped out of the water. With her mouth, she caught it in midair. She repeated this a few times, intent on the process, and then raised her head and met my eyes.

I held her stare for a moment and then whispered, “You are one smart little girl.”

She grinned and panted, pleased by the praise.

Short Stuff was learning new tricks, and-like us-even a new perspective. During her first few years as a Koontz, Trixie seemed focused exclusively on things at ground level. She was uninterested in birds, as if oblivious of any realm above a rooftop. I hadn’t thought how strange this was until I considered that in its historic role as a partner in the hunt, a retriever must track the flight and fall of the shot fowl if it is to find the bird and return it to its master’s game bag. Perhaps Trix’s education as an assistance dog trained her out of her appreciation for the sky.

When encountering rabbits grazing on a lawn, she greatly enjoyed stalking them, though she never chased and would not actually seize one. She always approached the target bunny with exaggerated stealth: slowly raise one paw at a time, freeze on three legs, wait, wait, leisurely reach forward, place the paw on the ground again, wait, wait, and now the next paw… She crept up on the prey in a slow-motion doggy ballet, and even when the rabbit saw her from the first, she often got quite near before it bolted. If she didn’t close much of the gap, she continued on her walk without comment, but when she got near enough to have taken her prey if she had wanted it, she looked up at me and grinned as if to say, See, Dad, I love the ways of people, but I still know the way of the wild.

Trix and I were swimming-well, she was lying on her float while I pulled her back and forth in the lap pool-when the Goodyear blimp, a fixture in southern California skies, appeared at low altitude along the coast. It turned inland toward the ridge on which we lived.

Cruising at a height of perhaps two hundred feet, the blimp was an impressive sight. Its engine and propellers made less noise than the swimming-pool pump, therefore the vessel loomed as silently as an apparition.

Because of the blimp’s low altitude, Trixie spotted it during its approach, and she expressed her astonishment by letting the ball fall out of her mouth. She watched in wonder. When the vessel passed directly overhead, seeming so low that I could throw the ball and hit it, Trixie’s gaze remained riveted on it. From the back of her throat issued that sweet, high-pitched sound of delight, and her wet tail thumped on the float. She tracked the blimp for several minutes, until it was a dot in the distance.

After that summer day, though she still stalked rabbits until she spooked them away, she remained aware of the sky as she had not been previously. She became interested in birds and passing aircraft. Like a door, the world above had opened to her.

By Trixie’s striking intelligence, by her sense of humor, by the uncanny moments when she seemed to reveal a spiritual dimension, she renewed my sense of the mystery of life. Now it seemed that the looming blimp restored to her a small lost measure of her own wonder.

And at our beach house one morning, a similar incident deepened Trixie’s appreciation of the harbor.

The pavilion on our pier, which overlooked the gangway and the boat slip, was spacious enough to accommodate a sofa and dining table with four chairs. This was the perfect place from which to watch the Christmas boat parade or to have a glass of wine before bed, when the lights on the farther shore shimmered across the dark water.

During one of our infrequent visits, Gerda and I were having breakfast at the pavilion table and reading the Sunday newspapers, when I heard a soft burst of sound, the whoosh of escaping air. I assumed it was a noise related to one of the many boats docked and moored nearby, a venting of the bilge or something too nautical and arcane for me to understand.

The third time the sound came, it was followed by Trixie’s winsome little squeal of delight. She was behind me, lying on the deck, her forepaws hanging over the edge, head pushed under the lower horizontal of the railing, staring down at something in the water.

Gerda and I knelt, flanking our girl, and saw a sea lion a few feet away, a creature weighing at least eight hundred pounds. It turned slowly in the water as if pirouetting for our entertainment. Because the tide was high, the surface of the harbor lay only two or three feet below the floor of the pier. The glistening black eyes of the sea lion seemed to remain focused on Trixie as slowly it turned, turned, turned.

Tremors passed through Short Stuff’s body, and we gentled her with our hands, though she seemed to be less frightened than excited. When the sea lion concluded its performance and glided on its back under the pavilion, Trixie shot to her feet.

Abruptly I knew she would dive in after the creature when it reappeared.

Even as Trixie turned from us, I shouted, “Grab her collar!”

I missed getting hold of her, Gerda missed, Trixie scurried to the farther side of the structure, we scrambled after her, and we both gripped her collar an instant before she would have gone under the railing and into the drink.

Sea lions can be aggressive. I suppose the creature would have dived deep and away if Trixie plunged into the harbor beside it, but the possibility that she would have been harmed or even killed was not insignificant.

Now that she knew an exotic hidden world lay below the surface of the sea, Trixie wanted to explore it. Henceforth, every time we were on the pier, she watched the water for a school of fish, a raft of seaweed, anything mysterious, and then wanted at once to race down to the boat slip to have a closer look.

We had to keep her on a leash the last few times we went to the beach house. But every time she saw something in the water that she wanted to investigate, I hurried with her down the gangway, and we walked the boat slip together. Some days, we made this trip six or seven times an hour.

She was made especially nuts by the brown pelicans that dove for fish and surfaced, flying, far from the point at which they disappeared into the water. If they could live in both realms, in the air and below the surface of the sea, why couldn’t both worlds be accessible to a water retriever with webs between her toes?

For a dog, the world is an ever-expanding carnival of mysteries. Every new experience enchants, and every morning is full of promise.

As children, we share that attitude, but we evict it when we become adults, as if the knowledge that comes with experience needs to occupy that particular chamber of the mind, as if wonder must make way for wisdom. But wisdom without wonder is not true wisdom at all, but only a set of practical skills married to tactical shrewdness of one degree or another.

Wonder inspires curiosity, and curiosity keeps the mind from becoming sick with irrational ideologies and stultified with dogma.

WHEN I SAY that Trixie restored my sense of wonder, you might be curious to know what had happened to it. Life had happened to it.

My mother, a good person with a kind heart, had died after much suffering at the age of fifty-three. My father, a selfish and violent man who never met a vice he didn’t like, lived to be eighty-three. Your sense of wonder relies in part on your perception that this world is founded on a system of natural law that is not only binding on humanity but that is expressed at least as often as not in the story of every life, in the choices people make and in the consequences thereof, a natural law that is like an awesome machine turning the gears of the world, a machine that is hidden under the surfaces of all things but is thrillingly revealed in occasional transcendent moments. My mother lived with faith and right reason, yearning for order, but reaped only disorder and an early death. My father, an apostle of disorder, had a long life full of the pleasures of the flesh that he prized, using and deceiving and betraying and defrauding people as a matter of routine, yet always escaping the punishment of the courts and the cosmos. The beautiful machine of natural law, of which I hoped to have a glimpse, remained hidden from me for a long time.

In my first job after college, working in that federal anti-poverty initiative, I had expected to live my ideals. In mere months, I discovered that such programs didn’t work, that in fact they were enormously destructive, that they were designed by a political class less interested in solving society’s ills than in power and in using that power to enrich themselves and their cronies, whose appetites were as insatiable as those of hogs at a trough. Cynicism can corrode your sense of wonder.

At Mechanicsburg High School, I enjoyed teaching and had a knack for it, but the educational bureaucracy and the theories on which it fed proved to be the opposite of that beautiful machine of natural law, was instead a big, ever-growing, mindless, mechanical leviathan wreaking havoc as it ground through the decades, certain to produce eventually a generation of perfect barbarians. Seeing through to the truth under the illusions that have shaped you is important, but it can be dispiriting and can tie knots in your wonder.

Becoming a published and eventually a full-time writer was exciting and gratifying. But achieving success required a long, hard slog, during which the romance and the glamour and the nobility of the literary life proved to be more illusions waiting to be seen through. I had good literary agents and bad. The bad were horrendous, and the good ones never had a vision of my career that matched mine. My heroes had long been novelists, and although I met some writers who became good and cherished friends, Gerda and I found this community as a whole to be solipsistic and narcissistic and irrational to such a degree that when I showed her a newspaper story about a university study headlined 80 PERCENT OF PEOPLE WITH WRITING TALENT SHOW SIGNS OF SCHIZOPHRENIA, she said, “Can you believe it’s only eighty percent?”

Even so, I remained happy and optimistic and industrious because three things kept my spirits high: Gerda and the love we shared; a deepening appreciation of the English language bound inextricably with a profound pleasure in storytelling; close friends, which included some people with whom I worked, such as my editor Tracy Devine.

While restoring my diminished sense of wonder to the fullness and brightness that characterized it in childhood, Trixie inspired me also to share with readers my recovered delight in the mystery of life. At a time in most writing careers when the work has become cast in a mold that cannot be broken, when enthusiasm for new techniques has given way to a preference for the comfort of the familiar, when characters are old friends with new names and different wardrobes from those they wore before, when stories follow patterns long established, I felt a tide of creativity breaking me loose from the encrusting barnacles of thirty years of storytelling. I began writing novels unlike any I had done before, taking risks with narratives, themes, and characters that I would not have taken previously, that I would not have recognized could be taken. The greater challenge of these new books brought me enormous pleasure that at times approached a sustained rapture. The difficulty encouraged in me a devotion to the task that not only sharpened the fiction but also clarified my views on life, focused me on first things, returned me to a faith from which I had drifted, and not only returned me but also secured me there forever by virtue of a rigorous intellectual argument with myself that resulted in a new understanding of the wisdom of faith and the truth of life’s abiding mystery.

Some dog, huh?

Previously, in addition to books of more modest word counts, I had written two massive novels-Strangers and Dark Rivers of the Heart-which were well received, but in which it seems to me the struggle of the writer is sometimes glimpsed on the page. The first book I wrote while Trixie was with us, False Memory, turned out to be the longest book I had written to date, but tighter than the two aforementioned works. The novel is an allegory, and though in the past I had introduced humor in a suspenseful story, I approached False Memory as a comic novel and a suspense novel in equal measure. The story concerns the problem of Evil. It recognizes the truth that evil acts are out of sync with the ordered nature of the world, and therefore are irrational, absurd. The absurdity of Evil and of those who serve it is the source of our greatest defense against darkness: laughter. The antagonist of False Memory is as unconsciously amusing as he is terrifying, and often during the writing of his scenes, I laughed out loud at his pretensions and his self-delusion.

The new direction my work took with that book and all I have written since derived from four revelations:

First, I arrived at the certainty that Trixie possessed a soul as real as mine. Intelligence signifies more than an ability to relate cause to effect and to solve problems, both of which she could do. The fact that the universe exists is the most astonishing thing of all, but the second greatest astonishment is the existence of creatures, whether human beings or dogs or others, that can reason and learn, that are not driven solely by instinct. Consciously and unconsciously, the intelligent being searches for meaning and seeks its purpose. This effort cannot be pointless, because Nature inspires it in us, and Nature is never wasteful. The universe is efficient: Matter becomes energy; energy becomes matter; one form of energy is converted into another; the balance is always changing, but the universe is a closed system from which no particle of matter or wave of energy is ever lost. Nature does not waste, and if intelligent beings by their very nature seek meaning, then there must be meaning to be found. By Trixie’s intelligence, by her sense of wonder, she revealed a seeking soul-and led me to a reconsideration not only of the mystery of life but of the mystery of my own soul and destiny.

My second revelation was the recognition of the unblemished innocence of her soul compared to mine or to that of any human being. She didn’t need a new Ferrari or a week in Vegas to know joy. For her, bliss was a belly rub, a walk on a sunny day-or in the rain, for that matter-an extra cookie when it wasn’t expected, a cuddle, a kind word. She lived to love and to receive love, which is the condition of angels.

Third, I understood that the joy arising from innocence, from harmony with nature and natural law, must be the most exhilarating feeling either dog or human could hope to experience. Dogs’ joy is directly related to the fact that they do not deceive, do not betray, and do not covet. Innocence is neither naive nor unhip; innocence is the condition of deepest bliss.

Fourth, I came to realize that the flight from innocence so characteristic of our time is a leap into absurdity and insanity.

If Gerda and I had decided to delay accepting a dog from CCI and later received another golden, instead of Trixie, or if we’d decided not ever to have a dog, I wonder who I would be, these eleven years later. Whatever Dean Koontz I would be, I would not be the Dean Koontz I am now. Considering the potentially momentous nature of even the smallest decisions we make, we ought to be terrified and humbled, we ought to be filled with gratitude for every grace we receive.