Tobacco & Firearms

Can Beagles Cause Blindness?

May 23, 2008

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I know this is supposed to be a lifestyle column, but each week I seem to find out that one or more of the habits which makes my life liveable could also possibly kill me. Last week it was eating and drinking. I responded by cutting my booze consumption by 5/7ths (e.g. I only get tipsy on weekends), and that’s working out just fine. I don’t even miss it—though it might be the reason I’ve become so much more of a geek. As in, instead of sipping absinthe or quaffing beer, now I relax by playing Medieval Total War, an incredibly addicting strategy game which allows you, for instance, to play the Teutonic Knights and conquer Russia. So I did, on Monday. In reparation, I went out Tuesday and rented Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), which recounts how that heroic prince drove those dangerous monks out of Russia. An amazing work of art that got through Stalin’s suffocating censors because it glorified resistance to the Germans. Indeed, it eerily predicted just how brutal the new Teutonic invaders would prove when they marched in, just three years later—and how they would end up as frozen corpses in the snow.

My girlfriend summed up my shift in habits with her usual pith: “Great, you’ll drop a few pants sizes—by becoming a total dork-ass.” Cheap at the price.

To sum up this Dorkass’ Progress: Tonight I “ruled” the Duchy of Milan, and “fought” a successful crusade that freed the Holy Land. If only the chicken hawks running foreign policy for both political parties could be weaned off getting actual Americans killed, and instead be presented with really fun interactive games—where they could, for instance, nuke Iran over and over and over again, and watch the civilian body counts pile up…. Let’s pitch it as neocon methadone. Or Nicorette, to replace whatever those people have been smoking since 1989.

Of course, even a liquid diet also requires some exercise, so I’ve been getting out on longer walks with my beagles. What I did not know as I set out was the well-documented, if surprising, link between beagles and blindness.

Sure, they are merry, affectionate hounds. But beagles have been shaped through hundreds of years of rigorous breeding into a race of maniacs. Bred to live in kennels and chase rabbits through the fields until the little critters collapse, they make for… challenging urban pets. The first thing you’ll notice is the howling. I found it charming, and taught the beagle I raised from puppyhood, Susie, to do it on command. I just say “Sing,” and out comes this lovely alto note, sometimes with a hint of vibrato. It’s a good thing I no longer have upstairs neighbors.

Then there’s the tendency toward escapism. Franz-Josef (the male I adopted and gave the name I had been saving for a son…until my intended averred, “Do you want him to get the tar beat out of him on the playground every single day? Why don’t you just name him Sue?”) has managed to wiggle out of the front door, back door, yard fence—you name it—and gone off running on eight separate occasions. Once I was in my boxer shorts and flip-flops, and had to tear off after him through people’s backyards for almost two hours, until I was able to pounce and tackle the beast. (Good thing this happened in New Hampshire instead of Louisiana, where I would have been cheerfully shot.)

Finally, one is faced with the thrill of the chase. Franzi enjoys pursuing house cats, dragging me along behind as he snuffles for their scent, then bellows like an enraged elephant seal for some 15 minutes or so. Susie, on the other hand, is partial to squirrels, rollerbladers, and skateboarders—whom she sees as her natural enemies, and will pursue for blocks if you don’t stop her. The one time I wasn’t looking, and a blader whizzed silently by, she took him down like a deer.

It was the cold trail of a squirrel that led Susie and Franzi to drag me, at a fair clip, through a 20 yard stand of closely situated pine trees last week. Which seems like great fun at first—to someone who has never, well… gone running through a stand of pine trees. Or even walked through trees except on a path, such as the path that leads from the Metropolitan Museum on one side of Central Park to the Planetarium on the other.

Within a couple of minutes, we still hadn’t caught any squirrels, but I’d stumbled over an abandoned stove, twisted an ankle on an unseen rock, gotten the leash wrapped around half a dozen trees, and ended up with a sharp twig in the eye. For the first time in my life, I really did see stars. I let out a howl that was louder than anything my beagles could manage, as I cursed up and down the fact that these hazardous trees were left to grow unregulated. (In NYC we keep them closely contained in planters, exactly 15 feet apart.) I hobbled home to put my eye on ice.

After hearing a few bloodcurdling anecdotes about people neglecting eye injuries and going blind, I rushed to the ophthalmologist the next day. I’m all for International Talk Like a Pirate Day, but wearing an eyepatch year round is taking a good thing rather too far. The doc looked gravely at my eye, handed me antibiotic drops to be used every hour, and told me I’d gotten an epithelial tear on my cornea. Whatever that means. (I thought an “epithelia” was a wedding poem by Edmund Spenser, which just goes to show you how much I know about country living.) The upshot was that it very well could have gotten infected, I could have lost sight in one eye, and I’m investing in a pair of beagle goggles before I next go tromping through these dangerously laissez-faire trees.

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