I’ve always loved black labs and convertibles. Family legend has it that my grandparents’ lab — who wore the now-alarming moniker “Satan” — stood watch over my crib and growled away all but the closest blood kin, much to the chagrin of the nice neighborhood ladies who were both known to the dog and entitled to honorary great-aunt status.
For those of you who read the skeptical and wonky stuff I do over at The Washington Observer, this project will seem like a big departure. I intend it to be both more personal and more universal; explorations of love, loss, joy, and sorrow told through tales of an excellent dog and two cool cars.
I got the first lab of my own for my ninth birthday, just a few months after my granddad flew to England to take delivery of the 1973 MGB convertible you see in the picture below.
That dog, whom I named Susie after my favorite aunt1, lived a life other dogs would envy. She roamed the plains of Eastern Colorado and the high desert of Central Oregon and ably fetched all the ducks, doves, and pheasant my father and I could shoot, not to mention enough tennis balls to fill the stadium at Wimbledon ten times over.
My parents used her, as parents do, to teach me some level of responsibility and regard for beings other than myself. Susie was unflappably patient and forgiving of my halting progress and frequent lapses in learning those lessons. Together we walked endless miles and won more than a few ribbons in the dog obedience competitions at the Prowers County fair. Perhaps my first real experience of grief came in the handwritten news of her death, in my mother’s graceful left-handed longhand, on yellow legal paper, which arrived when I was 21, 2,000 miles away at college.
The second lab came along some 15 years later when I was reporting for The Associated Press in Juneau, Alaska. When Maddy, my 7-year-old daughter, and I blithely announced that we were headed to the Humane Society to “look at dogs,” the Woman Who Lets Me Live With Her2 retorted: “Not without me you’re not.” Sure enough, we came home with Tucker, who had been reluctantly surrendered by a fishing family with too many mouths — both human and canine — to feed. He was 14 months old, almost precisely the age of my son, Nash. I remember thinking that I was setting him up for teenage grief when a companion he could not remember living without would inevitably slip away.
Like all the best family dogs, he became interwoven into our lives. I have few memories of feeding or walking him, doubtless because we made the kids do most of it so they could learn timeless lessons like this one: Making your dog wait too long to poop is a dick move. Plus it gets poop on the floor.
Here’s what I wrote on Facebook when Tucker left us a dozen years later:
We very pragmatically decided not to re-dog at that point. My daughter was launched. My son was headed to high school. The Woman Who Lets Me Live With her and I were in mid-career. Nobody would be home from 7 a.m. until God-knows-when. We opted for cats instead.
In retrospect, it was a mistake. No, not the cats. To my surprise, I developed a deep affection for the cats. But the next few years of my life turned out not to be purpose-driven and productive but self-indulgent and nihilistic. A good dog just wouldn’t have put up with that.
Which gets us to Milo, the excellent dog accessorizing Grandad’s MGB in the lead picture. Milo’s origin story is a post for another day, but suffice it to say that he’s a worthy successor to both Susie and Tucker.
When the lockdown came down a year and some ago, it made many of us consider whom we really missed. I was struck by how moved I was by the Zooms with my cousins, who are spread down the West Coast from Seattle to the Bay Area. So after we all got vaxxed, I loaded Milo, some kibble, and assorted booze for my cousins into the other convertible3 and headed south to see my blood.
The visits with those cousins, with their subtly or not-so-subtly changed lives, their strangely 18-months-older kids, brewed in my head on the long drive home under the vaulted skies of remote northeastern California and southern Oregon. While Milo snoozed in the back seat, worn out from charming everyone and endless wrestling with a friendly vizsla, I thought about dogs and people long dead, about the visceral appeal of fast cars, and as the late Dan Jenkins used to say, about life its ownself.
Ragtop Dog is the result. I hope you enjoy it.
In the meantime, tell your friends.
Decades later, I was mortified to discover that my aunt doesn’t care for dogs, although it did give me an amusing anecdote for one of her round-number birthday celebrations.
To confuse things further, the Woman Who Lets Me Live With Her, like my aunt, is also named Susan. And credit for coining the WWLMLWH goes to Mike Doogan, who was both a rabble-rousing columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and a member of the Alaska Legislature.
Sadly, the MGB is so breakdown-prone, and the English-car nerds who can fix it so few and far between, that I don’t really take it off the island where I live. The story of how we also came to own a 2018 Mustang ragtop is a post for another day.