City Dog

Weekend at Courtableau Bayou

City dog sits alert, haunches
Resting on the weathered pine pier,
Brown bayou water flowing beneath.
Cypress needles carpet the planks
And decorate her silky, blonde coat.

The wake from a passing boat
Slaps the pilings and stirs the reeds
Along the bank. Splat. Swish.
Ears alert, she tilts her head to
Process the sound as it abates.

Dwarfed by a solitary blue heron
Soaring above tree tops
And two white egrets
Skimming the water’s surface,
She holds her regal pose.

She breathes the wild, ancestral scents
Borne on the bayou’s breeze.
This, she thinks, is where I come from.
This, she knows, is what I am—
Descendant of the noble packs
Who once called this land home.

Kathleen Schrenk, October 2018
Watercolor by Melanie Manuel Vidrine, 2019



The Sound of Silence

“Do you hear that?” my husband asked early this morning. “The sound of silence.” Our son and his family had just left to return to their home in Mobile. I smiled and settled into the quiet with my morning coffee and the Sunday Review. The first opinion column I read, Why I Didn’t Answer Your Email, touched on the fleeting aspect of childhood—”My inbox will always be waiting for me, but my children will not.” The second, The Joy of Being a Woman in her Seventies, reminded me that at this age, I can be “…more content, less driven, and more able to live in the moment with all its lovely possibilities.” I put down the paper and reflected on the past thirty-six hours.

Jeb and Sarah had arrived in time for dinner Saturday in their usual fashion—a beep of the car horn as they pull into the driveway; not-quite-five-year-old Lucy banging on the door, “We’re here!”; dogs piling out of the car, barking, joined by our dog barking and all three quickly ushered into the back yard to pee and bark some more; hugs, kisses “We’re glad to see you!” You’d think it had been two years rather than two weeks since we’d see them.

Saturday evening we grilled chicken in the back yard, drank wine, and predicted playoff winners.  Discussions in our family, whether about the Saints, politics, or restaurants, are always spirited, even though we are usually on the same side. With Jeb and Sarah in town for the Saints vs. Eagles NFC Division Playoff game, the conversation was particularly enthusiastic.

After dinner, we were entertained by Lucy who sang and danced her own rendition of “Let it Go.” She might be the only princess who has a boo-boo on her chin because she nicked herself shaving…but that’s another story.

Sunday morning, Izzy, the eight-month-old pit/lab/boxer mix (DNA test pending) was up at 5:30, ready to take on the day. She announces the dawn and just about everything else, real or imagined. One thing about puppies, they are either on or off; mornings are definitely on. Lucy went out front with Papa to bring in the papers, The Times Picayune and The New York Times. Since her family reads the news on-line, newspapers are a curiosity to her. She called them magazines.

“No,” her dad told her, “these are newspapers. This is how people used to get the news. Before you were born, before I worked at the university, I wrote for a newspaper. And a long time ago, when Papa was a boy, he used to deliver the newspaper. He’d fill his bike basket with papers and throw them on front porches in his neighborhood.” Apparently delivering the news is much more appealing to a four-year-old than writing the news. She spent the next hour or so “delivering” papers all over the house—loudly announcing each delivery—and then picking them up and repeating the process. (She repeated the delivery game again on Monday morning at six-thirty.)

Her parents went to Sunday brunch with a friend, and Papa, Lucy, and I had breakfast in. Waffles with peanut butter are usually the breakfast treat for grandchildren at Grummy’s house, but Lucy also wanted eggs and sausage, because “that’s what Papa is having.” Then the three of us, and the three dogs, settled in for some quiet time and a video, Frozen. (Did I mention that one of their dogs is a very large eight-month-old puppy? Their other dog, Fritz, is a senior German shepherd mix who suffers from epilepsy and sheds a lot, and our Lola is a fourteen pound Pekingese mix, who sheds less than the German shepherd only because there is less of her.)

Movie time is not necessarily quiet time with three dogs and a little girl who knows every word to every song. When Elsa began to sing the Academy Award-winning “Let it Go,” Lucy turned to me and said, “I dance to this part.” And dance she did, pirouetting into chairs and dogs and belting out the lyrics in Ethel Merman style.

Sunday afternoon we did have some quiet time in the Superdome when the Saints were down 14-0 in the first quarter.  Luckily that was short-lived.

Our son Matthew and his wife Annie stopped by after the game to drop off an early birthday gift for Lucy. They brought their dog, Rosalita, a Chihuahua/terrier mix. She and Lola are best buddies. Izzy not so much. After breaking up a very loud but bloodless skirmish, we put the little dogs upstairs and the big ones outside. The guys talked football and watched replays in the den while Sarah, Annie, Lucy, and I sat at the breakfast table. “This is the girls’ table,” Lucy proclaimed. We admired the new leggings and sparkly sneakers Lucy had received for her gift. We talked about king cake recipes, shoes, and food.

By ten o’clock, Lucy was sound asleep upstairs; Matthew, Annie, and Rosalita had gone home; the dishes were done; and the dogs had gone out to pee one more time. It had, as usual, been a wonderful visit.

Tomorrow I will attend a funeral for the brother of a friend. He was only fifty-two—a vibrant, active man who was killed last week in a tragic accident. Too soon, for all of us, there will be an infinite sound of silence.


The Teacher Voice

The audio-visual tech at Audubon Zoo handed me a microphone headset. “Put this on and keep talking. I need to test the equipment.” I had been mixing food coloring into yogurt to make holiday frosting for dog treats and wasn’t aware that I’d been talking in the first place. It was fifteen minutes before my first reading, and no one else was in the Wildlife Theater, site of the Fireside Tales for Audubon Zoo Lights.

“What do you want me to say?”

“Anything. I’m having some trouble with the equipment, so keep talking while I go in the back to check one more thing.”

I babbled into the mic about the joys of making treats for dogs and what colors mixed together make purple until he returned.

“What did you hear?” I asked, suddenly embarrassed about my inane ramblings.

“Unfortunately, nothing. I’ve checked out everything, but it looks like I won’t get it to work tonight. You okay with that?”

“It’ll be fine,” I assured him. “I’ll just use my teacher voice.” Honking geese and the cries of flamingos—raucous squawks and barks often sounding more like dogs than birds—competed with the piped-in Christmas music. No problem.

The teacher voice. I’m not sure how long it took me to develop it, didn’t even realize I had it, but my mother was the first one to give it it’s name. We had been shopping, and she was checking out while I waited in the area by the carts. A small child, with no parents in sight, began to spin on the shopping carts.

“Hey,” I said, “you’re not supposed to do that.” He immediately climbed down.

Just then, my mother walked up. “I’d recognize that teacher voice anywhere,” she said.

Once you have the teacher voice, I think you have it for life. It’s been years since I’ve taught sixth graders, yet even my dog responds to the voice. I can say “Lola, no bark.” or I can say “Lola, no Bark!” Guess which one gets her attention.

The teacher voice travels well. A couple of years ago in Rome, my husband and were walking from the Trevi Fountain. My zipped purse was secured over my shoulder and tucked between us. I sensed more than felt something. When I looked down, I saw a thin arm reaching inside my bag.

“Hey!” I called out. The would-be pickpocket quickly removed her hand. I glared back at the young girl, and she gave me an I-didn’t-do-anything look, apparently the universal student response to the universal teacher voice.

Like cayenne pepper, the teacher voice is best used sparingly. My first and favorite principal was the most soft spoken man I have ever known. One rainy day the gym was full of students getting rid of pent up energy when he walked in and spotted a kid acting inappropriately. “Hey!’ he yelled. The students and staff froze. You could hear the proverbial pin drop.

Back to the Audubon Zoo. Neither the children sitting around me, nor the parents sitting farther back had trouble hearing, in spite of the flamingos who partied harder than anyone else at the event. I read a selection from A Dog Steals Home and, for the younger set, the picture book May I Pet Your Dog?  We talked about animal rescue and decorated dog treats for the pups at the Louisiana SPCA. We had almost as much fun as the flamingos next door.

Kill Shelter

A recent article in People Magazine  caught my attention as I sat in a doctor’s waiting room. I was thoroughly enjoying a story about the World’s Cutest Rescue Dog Contest when one sentence stopped me cold. “When the Labrador retriever mix was just a puppy he was surrendered to a kill shelter in Texas.”

“Kill Shelter” What horrific images does that oxymoron bring to the mind of the reader? Does she visualize a dim, fetid building stacked to the ceiling with cages of sick, howling animals? Does she imagine animals without hope, love, or a caring human touch? As a board member of the Louisiana SPCA and an owner of rescues, I take issue with the use of that term.

The Louisiana SPCA is an open-admissions shelter that is also the city contracted provider for animal control in Orleans Parish. It serves the approximately 350,000 residents of New Orleans, answering calls for animal control 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. (See Angels Among Us, October 2018.) Officers bring in lost pets and animals that have been dumped, neglected, or abused. The shelter also accepts pets that owners drop off because they don’t want them anymore. They receive litters of puppies and kittens from owners who think it’s unnatural to spay or neuter their pets. When the “no-kill” shelters are full, the Louisiana SPCA takes the animals they cannot accept.

I don’t minimize the work of the “no-kill” shelters or breed specific rescue groups. They play a vital role in the network of people serving the interests of homeless or unwanted animals. But until all pet owners act responsibly, until puppy mills are outlawed, and until local governments allocate sufficient funds for city animal shelters, we will, unfortunately, have shelters that some people choose to call “kill shelters.” It is a heartbreaking reality that these open-admissions shelters must sometimes humanely euthanize when all other solutions have been exhausted or it is in the animal’s best interest.

If you visit the Louisiana SPCA, you will discover that it is a facility filled with life. It is a bright, clean building with staff and volunteers who offer care, love, and a chance for every adoptable animal to find a forever home. It is the site of a first-class veterinary clinic not only for resident animals but also for companion animals in the community. Each shelter animal is spayed or neutered before adoption, and low-cost spay/neuter surgeries are offered to pet owners in the community.

Educational opportunities such as canine obedience classes, summer and holiday camps for children—even children’s birthday parties—encourage responsible pet ownership. Foster programs; transport programs; and onsite and offsite adoption events pro-actively seek homes for shelter animals. A feral-cat trap, neuter, return program reduces and controls the feral cat population. Visit the website to learn about all programs and events offered.

If you live in New Orleans, visit the shelter at 1700 Mardi Gras Boulevard on the Westbank. While you are there, look into becoming a volunteer or finding the pet that completes your home. I promise that you will leave with a better understanding of the mission of the Louisiana SPCA.


Angels Among Us

There are angels among us, and I have had the good fortune to ride with one.  As a board member of the Louisiana SPCA, I am encouraged to go behind-the-scenes to learn about the many responsibilities of our city’s open-admissions shelter. Monday was my day for animal control.

I was met at the door by animal control officer Beth and her rescue Pomeranian mix, Pancake, who sometimes accompanies her to work. Beth brought me back to the tiny animal control office and introduced me to Angel, the officer I would ride with. His warm smile and gentle voice immediately put me at ease and dispelled any “dog-catcher” stereotype.

We arrived at our first stop before 9:00—a vacant lot on Patterson by the levee where Angel says people frequently dump dogs. A trap had been set to capture an injured stray who had been reported roaming the area. We spotted the large black and white dog limping on the perimeter. He saw us, too, and made a quick get-away, in spite of the apparently dislocated left hind leg dangling at an unnatural angle. We followed him to a heavily weeded area but were unable to locate him.

We returned to the trap, where Angel cleaned out the food bowl, refilled it, and placed it back in the cage. He tenderly picked debris from the top of the cage and covered it with a ragged sheet and towel so the dog would feel secure if trapped. Angel would return at the end of the day and repeat the process if needed.

Our next stop was to interview the parent of a dog-bite victim. In spite of the scheduled appointment time and phone calls to the parent, no one answered our knock on the door. Angel is a patient man, and several knocks later, a young woman reluctantly answered the door. She said her sister, the person we needed to speak with, wasn’t home. After explaining the importance of interviewing the parent about the incident, Angel gave her a card and requested her sister call for another appointment. He would follow up in a few days if he received no response.

By 10:15 we were on our way to check on a report of “exotic” animals in unacceptable living conditions. The exotic animals found in response to a previous complaint had been roosters, exotic because they are illegal in Orleans Parish. The owner had been given a week to remove the roosters and clean the area.

We arrived at a home situated on about four acres across from the Mississippi River levee. This time Angel’s knock on the door was answered quickly. The owner had been expecting our visit and ushered us into the back yard where we met her husband. He said he hadn’t known roosters were illegal and had given them away and improved the living conditions as directed.

The yard was fenced. More than a dozen chickens roamed freely. A separate area held a goose, two ducks, and a wading pool. Rabbit hutches containing about fifteen rabbits were located beneath a few trees next to chicken coops. Angel inspected the hutches and found that the area was clean and that the animals had sufficient fresh food and water. Angel thanked the owner for complying quickly.

Our next stop was a follow-up to a complaint from a woman about the neighbor’s dogs—reportedly a pit bull and a Chihuahua—who come through the fence and trespass into her yard. We arrived at 10:50 and were greeted by a small black cat on the front walkway. Angel spoke softly to the kitty as we made our way to the porch. He rang the bell and knocked. No answer. No sounds of dogs barking. A few minutes passed, and after ringing the bell and knocking again, Angel went to the side of the house to look through the fence for the dogs. Again, no sounds of barking dogs.

As he came around the house, a young woman with a little girl opened the front door. She was not happy to see us, and I doubted she would cooperate. The police had been out over the weekend, she said, and she was “fed up” with the neighbor’s complaints. It was the neighbor’s fence, she said, and the neighbor refused to fix it.

I watched as Angel listened attentively to her side of the story. When she finished venting, he asked if she would mind if he looked at the fence. To my surprise, she agreed and let us into the back yard. Still, no sign of dogs. The wooden fence had one slat missing. The dog owner had barricaded the breech with heavy flower pots.

Angel asked her where the dogs were. “In the house,” she replied. Would she mind if we went inside, he asked. To my surprise again, she let us in the house. There we met Lulu, an English Bulldog mix, and Hibachi, a white Chihuahua. Finally, the dogs barked.  The owner talked to them and the bulldog settled down to wiggling and wagging his tail. The Chihuahua continued barking from his kennel, and the child pet him through the wire.

Angel asked questions about the dogs’ ages, how long she’d had them, etc. Once he got her talking about her dogs, she realized we were not there to confiscate her pets, and she visibly relaxed. She willingly went to get her ID for him to record on the case file. She couldn’t find the dogs’ rabies vaccination certificates, but said they were up-to-date. Angel suggested she call her vet to get copies and fax them to the shelter. If he didn’t receive them in a week, he would check back.

At 11:30 we headed back to the Louisiana SPCA. It was time for me to go home. Angel would return to the streets until his shift ended that evening. He is one of only five animal control officers who service all of Orleans Parish. They are truly angels to the lost, neglected, and abused animals of our community.

To learn more about animal control, click here. To adopt an animal from the Louisiana SPCA, click here.




Just One Word: Plastics

When Mr. McGuire gave Benjamin Braddock (The Graduate, 1967) the titular advice of this post, I laughed along with the rest of the audience. McGuire goes on to predict, “There is a great future in plastics.” We now know that future is estimated to last anywhere from ten to one thousand years.

According to CBS Sunday Morning’s cover story Piling Up: Drowning in a Sea of Plastics  on August 5, about 70% of our plastic waste ends up in dumps or landfills. Additionally between five and twelve million metric tons of plastic enters our oceans annually. It will eventually breakdown into smaller and smaller pieces over the years, but it will never biodegrade.

A 2017 National Graphic report indicates that 79% (6.3 billion tons) of plastic in landfills becomes “free-floating” waste. The United States alone is responsible for 327 billion plastic bags each year in the ocean. CBS references the World Economic Forum’s prediction that our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050. I’m not laughing anymore, Mr. McGuire.

I know I will never be able to avoid using all plastic products, but for the past month, I’ve made more environmentally conscious buying decisions. I’ve shopped with reusable grocery bags for several years, but now I am attempting to eliminate all nonessential plastic from my purchases. I buy loose mushrooms rather than those packed in plastic and Styrofoam. As much as I love cherry tomatoes, I’ve stopped buying the ones packed in little plastic domes. I love the variety pack of mini red, yellow, and orange sweet peppers. But since they are sold only in prepackaged plastic bags, I’ve discontinued buying them.

Avoiding redundant plastic at check-out isn’t easy. Cashiers can slap already packaged items into a plastic bag before sending them on to my reusable bag in the blink of an eye. Excited to find cherry tomatoes in an open cardboard container at Whole Foods Market, I popped a pint into my cart. At checkout, the cashier dumped them into a plastic bag faster than a flea jumps on a dog.

Last week, for the first time, I managed to avoid all plastic packaging and bags on my trip to the supermarket. One of my purchases was a pack of light-weight mesh, reusable produce bags. They were the last item the cashier scanned. She held them up, turned to me, and asked, “Want these in a plastic bag?”

Kermit was correct. “It’s not easy being green.”





Cutting the Cord

Ending any relationship is difficult, but ending one that has lasted decades is gut-wrenching. Except for a necessary dalliance with a 225 area code number in Denham Springs during the Katrina diaspora and a compulsory, five-month stint with a Cox impostor when I returned to New Orleans in November 2005, my 504 Southern Bell number and I have shared the greater part of my adult life.

Fifty years of stability and fidelity—more than can be said of most relationships. But now, after all this time, we’re drifting apart. As in any failed relationship, the blame falls on both partners. I started spending more time with my cell, giving only her number to friends, putting only her number on my business cards. I had to. She was willing to go out with me. The Southern Bell was always tied to home. Plus, the perky little cell was more fun. She played games, showed me cute cat videos, made odd little sounds to remind me of appointments. The staid Southern Bell was a dark lump on the desk…blinking only if there was a message, giving the same harsh, annoying ring if someone called.

The cell is capricious, though. I can’t trust her. In some areas of the house, she’s likely to leave the person on the other end hanging mid-sentence or me babbling into thin air until I realize the connection has been dropped. My Southern Bell would never do that. Lately, however, I wonder about Miss Bell’s loyalty. Her caller I.D. often shows “Unknown Name” or “Private Number.” What is she hiding from me?

It will be hard to say good-bye, but I think we both know the time is coming. I rarely hold her anymore, and she hangs out with strangers. I’ll probably drag the relationship out for a few more months, but it won’t be too long before I cut the cord.



Variations on the W.C.

If it is true that learning a new task stimulates blood flow to certain areas of the brain, then foreign travel is possibly one of the best activities to keep our minds sharp. Within hours of leaving the routines of home, we are bombarded with the unfamiliar and forced to learn new tasks. We navigate distant cities, trade in alien currencies, and struggle to communicate in a nonnative tongue. We stand reverently below Leonardo’s Last Supper or gaze in awe at Michelangelo’s David. Then, we must visit the W.C., and this is where real learning begins!

I have never before seen more variations on the water closet than I did on our recent trip to Italy. In many locations, rest rooms were unisex. More common, however, were the separate toilet areas for men and women, joined by a coed hand washing area. Washing hands next to a guy who had just emerged from a door marked “uomini” felt a bit awkward to me. I stuck with the guy’s urinal rule…no talking at the shared sink.

Speaking of sinks, whether they were located inside or outside the W.C., it was always a challenge to turn the water on and off. After several attempts at shaking my hands beneath a spigot, I realized that few sinks had the automatic on/off feature. Some sinks had one faucet; some had two. There were knobs to push, sensors on the wall to wave at, and my personal favorite, the hidden pedal beneath the sink to step on.

The potty structure also proved to be an adventure. Many were just like our old American Standard. This style came with or without the seat. Some cantankerous ones had seats that automatically flipped up when lowered, I supposed an attempt to keep the seat from being sprinkled on. I found this out the hard way when, after lowering the seat, it popped up and slapped my behind. Many commodes were like nursery school potties…seatless and only eight inches tall. I gave silent thanks to my Orange Theory trainer for making me do weighted squats.

The variety of ways to flush the toilet seemed infinite. Few had a lever on the tank, some automatically flushed upon completion of the visit, and some, most distressingly, continued to flush violently for the entire visit. My personal, environmental favorite was the one that gave the choice of a big flush for number two and a small flush for number one. Some had a knob or chain to pull. Others had a hidden pedal on the floor. The toilet in our bathroom in Milan had a faucet handle on the wall behind it…turn left for as long as the water was needed; turn right to stop the flow. One toilet had me stumped for quite a while, until I saw a three-inch diameter black rubber dome down low on the wall. I pressed my foot against it. Voila!

Necessity is the mother of many things, and until one morning in Verona, I had adapted to all these bathroom idiosyncrasies. After finishing my cappuccino and croissant at our favorite little breakfast spot, I decided to visit the W.C. before we headed into the Old Town. The very proper gentleman owner ushered me to an unmarked door, and I stepped inside. There was a sink and a hole in the floor. One ridged, porcelain tile was located on either side of the hole, to prevent slipping I supposed. I hesitated a bit and then thought, “If Italian women can do this, so can I.” But it had been decades since I’d been camping, and as I prepared to squat, I couldn’t decide if I should face the hole or back up to it. How would I aim? Wouldn’t I splash my feet and stain my cute sandals? My neurons were firing like crazy, but no matter how much blood flowed to the learning area of my brain, this was one task that would go unmastered. I stepped on a pedal to flush the unused hole and waved my hand in front of the wall to wash my unsoiled hands. Upon leaving the cubical, I told the owner “grazie,” stopped at our outside table to get the house key from Edmund, and hoofed it three blocks back to our rental. Education, after all, does have its limits!


Time for ALA!

I’m excited to participate in my first American Library Association Conference this coming weekend at the Morial Convention Center right here in my hometown of New Orleans! Michelle Obama will open the event on Friday evening. Saturday morning I’ll catch the presentation of  Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also wrote a little book about baseball. If you are around, stop by the Pelican Publishing booth on Sunday between 11 AM and 12:30 PM and share your favorite dog rescue or baseball story with me.

History Lesson in Black and White*

Mississippi Beach, 1947

 I am one in the grayscale photo, standing
on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,
balanced on dimpled, toddler legs.

My morning shadow stretches
toward the wooden pier behind me,
hinting of the woman I will become.

Across the highway, oak trees brush the sky.
I smile into the camera, unaware of my white privilege
and darker girls on separate “but equal” beaches.

It is August 1947, one month before the mighty oaks
are felled and the pier is crushed to kindling
by a great September storm.

Thirteen years before little Ruby Bridges.
Twenty-one years before colored only signs
succumb to storms of change, a long over-due tidal surge.

Twenty-three years before Natasha’s feet
leave prints in the sand where I once stood.

Kathleen Schrenk, 2018

*The inspiration for this poem came from Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “History Lesson,” from her book Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000). You can read her beach poem here.