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Chris Erskine: What a Gift Our Dogs Are

I’m driving through downtown, returning my daughter’s golden retriever to the west side — where so many of L.A.’s angels and ingenues reside in briny opulence, or ratty little apartments that cost a fortune.
Penny Laine is a good dog. Perhaps the best dog ever (I often rank-order such things while swimming or eating dip).
For the record, our late 300-pound beagle always comes in last in the ranking. But I loved him, too. Just the way he loved me … in spurts, not all at once. For 15 years, the 300-pound beagle graced us with his emotional incontinence.
In second place? White Fang, a cotton-faced husky whose brain is mostly permafrost. Like me, White Fang loves Gordon Lightfoot and ornate Russian churches. White Fang is a very good dog indeed. A stoic Siberian. Mysterious. Kinda sexy, to be honest. Like a furry Bond girl.
But there is something extra special about Penny Laine.
First, she is extremely dumb. She awakens each day as if just born and has to figure everything out again — where her mouth is, where I hid the water bowl.
It’s like teaching Latin to tulips.
So, the other day, I’m driving her back to her Santa Monica home, sluicing through downtown as one does, when Penny Laine climbs to the front passenger seat next to me.
Now, the rules are very clear: No dogs in the front seat. Like I said, she doesn’t remember stuff.
Of course, the seatbelt alert system feels her weight and begins to gong-gong-gong-gong. The big dog looks at me like it’s all my fault.
“Make it stop,” she thinks. “You’re the human here.”
Then, in that candy cane of pure kindness that marks most holiday stories, Penny reaches out her left paw.
Next thing I know, I’m barreling through downtown holding hands with a 3-year-old golden retriever, the seatbelt alarm still gong-gong-gonging.
At that point, Sinatra comes on — you know how I love Sinatra. “Let your heart be light … next year all our troubles will be out of sight …”
Fat chance, right?
Yet, Penny’s paw gesture overwhelms me.
“I love you,” I tell Penny Laine.
My whole life, brown eyes have looked up at me with undeserved hope. Started with Posh, then the kids, now my impish grandchild and our various needy dogs.
What a gift our dogs are. What a sliver of warm pie … tangible, everyday proof that God can really cook.
Now, it’s unsafe to hold hands with Penny Laine while driving, till you start to think about what all these other drivers are probably doing: smooching, flossing, breast-feeding … mixing meth, playing Tetris, writing poems. At least I’m upright and facing the right direction. At least I have my underwear on.
Flippin’ funny town, Los Angeles.
Confession: I always arrive at parties with the wine a little warm, after it sat in the hot car while I raced into the urologist’s office, or dropped off the water bill two weeks too late.
And I usually go to the wrong house.
“Hi everybody!” I say, then hand the host a bottle of warm cabernet and sit on some Chardonnay Mom’s lap.
Funny town. Great holiday parties.
Just the other night, Rapunzel wandered into her sister’s place with a couple of her pals, all holding the largest wine glasses anyone had ever seen. Like upside-down Pacers, the notoriously ugly cars from the ’70s.
Back then, America could really build an ugly car. Now, it’s wine glasses.
Anyway, Rapunzel and her friends (Taylor, Lucia) stormed her sister’s apartment uninvited, entered loud and swishy and complaining about the final ep of “The Golden Bachelor,” that cheesy show everyone once loved, then grew to hate.
The consensus: “You can still find true love in your 70s. You can also find true jerks.”

Cornish game hens, doused in Grand Marnier and smoked to boot-leather perfection.

By the way, I never told you how the Cornish game hens turned out on Thanksgiving. Spectacularly. Splashed them with Grand Marnier, an expensive French love serum, then cooked them over red oak.
Yipes. As you know, I’ve accomplished some great things in my life, wrote some books, replaced a toilet seat – all sorts of incredible successes, really.
Even so, I’m still at war with myself. I am guided by impulse and indecision. My eyes are a little close, and I can never finish the crossword.
I spend most days holding hands with sad-eyed dogs. Or, in a quavery voice, trying to get my order straight at Porto’s.
But I finally managed to convey true love with these Cornish game hens, smoked to boot-leather perfection on a too hot grill on a non-descript cul-de-sac in suburban Los Angeles.
And for once, in those marvelous puddles — my kids’ shimmering brown eyes — I witnessed pure gratitude.
What I’m sayin’: Never give up. Never.

Email the columnist at His new book, “What the Bears Know,” is in bookstores now.

First published December 7-9 in Outlook Newspapers.


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