Monday, March 1, 2010

Julie Zickefoose & Chet Baker

Who is in the photo at right?

I'm Julie Zickefoose, a writer, artist, naturalist and NPR commentator. Letters from Eden (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a collection of nature essays, heavily illustrated with my watercolors and drawings, was published in 2006. You can find out more at this link. I'm currently finishing an illustrated memoir about my life studying and helping birds. I'm in the midst of painting and drawing; the text is finished. And in the meanwhile, I contribute nature-themed commentaries to National Public Radio's afternoon news program, All Things Considered.

Chet Baker
is a five year old Boston terrier, the great doggie love of my life. He has his own notoriety via my blog. I often accuse my readers of visiting only when they need a Chetfix. To that end, I have a photo of Chet on my blog page that people can click whenever they need a random hit of Boston terrier cuteness.

And the macaw is Charlie, a 23 year old chestnut-fronted macaw who I've had almost half my life. As you can see, Charlie and Chet get along just fine.

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

Chet Baker is a companion animal. Just try to get rid of him. He even follows me down to the basement to do the laundry. So naturally, he's there for tea breaks. He's there for everything. He has a cushy lil' bed in every room!

What's brewing?

Because I have the metabolism of a shrew on meth, I stick to noncaffeinated beverages. Can't even do decaf. I'm a rooibos (red tea) freak. I got hooked on it on a trip to South Africa in 1994, and I've had lots of different brands, but Twinings is my all-time favorite. It tastes like black tea without the bitterness or caffeine. Midday, I switch to Twinings peppermint tea. I love drinking tea--it's such a great way to warm up, hydrate and get a dose of antioxidants without getting all jittery and crazy.

Any goodies to go with the coffee?

Current passion is homemade candied pecans toasted with fresh rosemary and basil from the greenhouse. Or goat cheese on artisan crackers with dried blueberries on top. Somebody stop me.

Any treat for Chet Baker on this occasion?

Chet is a biscuit freak; he likes Trader Joe's Chicken and Sweet Potato treats, and Smart Bites Healthy Biscuits with cranberries, apple, and oats. I have to watch it though; he can't stand this awful belly-deep snow and he bulks up fast if he can't do his bunny patrols and long hikes. In fact he's clearing his throat for a bikkit as I write, but he's not getting one.

How were you and Chet Baker united?

I resisted getting a dog for 13 years. I said I didn't need one more thing to care for, being a songbird rehabilitator. In 2003, my daughter Phoebe and I raised and released three ruby-throated hummingbird nestlings. You can hear the story at the NPR links here and here.

Then, in 2004, Phoebe and I raised seven orphaned chimney swifts. We released them, and it was there, standing on a railroad trestle, watching them circle overhead, and watching the tears running down my 8-year-old daughter's and 6-year-old son's faces, that I decided to get them a puppy. Get me a puppy. Get us a puppy. Something young and sweet that we could raise and love and wouldn't have to release, ever!

I chose a Boston terrier based on early childhood impressions of a neighbor's fun-loving little dog, Patsy. I wanted a dog who was smart, agile, playful, athletic, clean, and had a great sense of humor. I am completely hooked on the breed, and so are many thousands of my blog readers! (That's a tube sock with holes cut in it that he's wearing [photo left] -- he was a December baby.)

How did your dog get his name? Does he have any aliases?
Chet Baker is named for the great jazz trumpet player and singer, who is my husband Bill Thompson III's favorite musician. Bill's a jazz bassist and rock guitar player, and he named our pup. On the aliases ... don't get me started. Bill calls him the Tennessee Turd-tail, for his little screw-tail. He's often referred to in print as The Bacon. When he crawls under the bed and glowers out he's the Bad Gremlin, or simply "Something," as in: there's Something under your bed! P.P. Popcorn Paws is another descriptive one. There are dozens. Shall I go on?

Does your dog have any influence on your writing and painting?

I write a lot about the human-dog bond. For now, that's mostly on the blog. I've been photographing Chet since he was 9 weeks old, keeping a chronicle of my life with this wonderful little dog. I'm saving the Chetbook for dessert, after I finish this one on birds. Chet's story is not nearly over, but I want to write this book while he's alive and warm and lying by my side.

Cat, squirrel, paperboy...?

Much nicer to the delivery people than to any cat or squirrel. Boingboing kisses vs. Black Streak of Vengeance.

Tennis ball, squeaky-toy, stick...?

All of the above. Giant bins of the above. Plus cardboard boxes, junk mail, and feed sacks, which he shakes madly for noise appeal. Just prepare to have them chewed to smithereens. About the only toy that survives Chet's jaws is a Nylabone. But I hasten to add that he's wonderful about knowing what's his to chew and what's not. He learned which toys were his and which were off limits as a puppy, when he'd mount stuffed toy safaris into the kids' rooms.

He has never been introduced to the concept that dogs don't sit on the furniture. He will steal your seat the minute you get up. I took this photo moments after taking the protective plastic off a brand new Martha Stewart lawn chair. It's hard to mistake the look on his face. Thank you for getting me this fabulous new chair, Mether. It is just what I wanted.

Has Chet Baker ever encountered any interesting wildlife on your spread in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio?

He's been anointed in skunk twice; he chases white-tailed deer and cottontails every day; he adores trying to catch chipmunks; he tussles with raccoons, though I wish he wouldn't, and loves to roll opossums. He just rushes them and rolls them and then trots off. Poor things. I live in fear that he'll be carried off by a coyote someday. But I can tell you that had better be one tough coyote. He's onto them -- when he hears them howl he races to the door and asks to be let in. Until that day, he lives the unfettered life of a country dog, but he never leaves the yard without me. It's as if we have invisible fencing, but the only restraint on Chet is his desire to be with us.

Who is Chet Baker's best pet-pal?

He plays very nicely with Charlie, a 23-year-old chestnut-fronted macaw who was here first and definitely rules the roost. He bit Chet on the muzzle once, on the tail once, and thus was the pecking order established. They share chew toys and bed, but not at the same time. Here's a photo essay of them playing together.

What's Chet Baker's best quality?

Empathy. This dog has absolutely flawless radar for knowing when someone needs a warm kiss or a 25-pound load of sweet-smelling dog on their lap. Right up there is his sense of humor and fun. He's always up for a laugh and a tussle. He's trustworthy, dependable, smart, hikes for miles without a leash and always comes when called. He's the perfect companion for a woodswoman.

If Chet Baker could change one thing about you, what would it be?

My tendency to sit for hours tapping at a laptop. He'd want me to take three-hour hikes every day without fail. He gets me out! Walking in the woods is my job and he doesn't let me forget it.

What's Chet Baker's proudest moment? His most embarrassing?

He's never more het up than when he trees a cat or raccoon. I think I was proudest of him, though, when we were babysitting a one-year-old and he followed her as she toddled around, placing himself between her and any possible danger--the edge of a bed, a sliding glass door. You can see the story here.

I will speak for Chet on his most embarrassing moment. He was about 6 months old, just coming out of intensive potty-training, and I was standing on my eldest sister's Oriental carpet with him. The words, "He's completely reliable in the house now" were just coming from my lips when we smelled something. Chet was proving me wrong right then and there, right at our feet. Without a word, my sister marched to the phone and called a friend of hers, a huge Chetfan, who had offered to take him in for the duration of our visit if there were any "issues." This same woman later knitted him a monogrammed sweater, even though he tangled with her elderly cat AND unrolled an entire skein of wool throughout the house. Now that's an animal person.

When Chet was a puppy, he often used me as a chipmunk-spotting perch. Now that he's hit 25 lb., the experience is not quite as enjoyable.

Visit Julie Zickefoose's website and blog, and listen to her commentaries on NPR.

more about Letters from Eden, and read Zickefoose's short stories online.

--Marshal Zeringue