Seaside, Oregon. When Stephen Kuusisto, author of Planet of the Blind, joined the faculty of Pacific University’s MFA program in January 2009, he naturally brought along his seeing-eye dog, Nira. She was new to him then, youngish, and distractible. Shelley Washburn, our director, emailed some behavioral instructions in advance of our winter residency: When Nira has her harness on, she is working and must not be flirted with, talked to or petted. She is trained to focus at street corners, not look for people to schmooze with. And when she is in a lecture, she is trained to sit still, not go searching for fun.
I was beginning my last semester in the program, wondering how (and if) the stories I’d written so far would turn into a thesis. Hanging out with a dog seemed like the perfect anti-anxiety medication. Nira, a golden lab, drew me like a magnet, whether she was sitting in the next row or on the other side of the lecture hall. I was very close to ignoring the ban on student-dog communication when the issue of tsunamis came up.
The hotel where we spent our winter residency sits on the promenade that runs alongside, and only a couple of feet above, Seaside’s two miles of straight, sandy beach. Development of the continental West Coast’s tsunami warning system began in 1997, but it was the Sumatra tsunami of 2004 that rattled property owners enough to take their own precautions. Our hotel posted instructions in fine print on the walls of our rooms about what to do when a warning was received.
Some seeing member of our group joked one morning that these instructions seemed unnecessarily complicated. Yes, we all agreed, the important thing was to head for the hills, away from the water. The rest was—I’m not sure we actually said this—academic.
Stephen raised his hand. “How will I know which way the hills are?”
I think he may have been joking, too, at least in part, but Shelley and others were quick to reassure him that, should a warning sound, we’d find him immediately and all head together toward the hills. I tried to picture that, but what I saw was Nira leading Stephen through the streets of Seaside amid panicked, jostling crowds, of which the rest of us were merely a part. Nira’s learning to focus was not one bit optional.
Stephen must have guessed that some of us were dying to interact with his dog because one afternoon about 4:00, I heard a roar coming from upstairs. I ran up to the fourth floor and found about forty people taking turns throwing a rope toy for Nira to fetch. It was nice of Stephen, I thought, to share.
The other night, in the parking lot of my grocery store in Bellingham, I met another service dog. I don’t know what kind of dog Lucky is—short in height, long in torso like a dachshund, but with shaggy black and white fur, a flat face, and hair in his eyes. I asked his companion, a man in his thirties wearing a reflective vest and thick glasses, but clearly not blind, if I could speak to Lucky. I said I knew there were rules about such things.
“Oh sure, right now it’s okay,” the man said.
Since I was embarrassed to ask him why he needed a service dog, I asked Lucky instead. (Lame, I know.) “What’s your job, Lucky?”
Lucky lifted his head and shot me a look so dark that I took a step back.
“I suffer from depression,” the man said, “and seizures.”
“And Lucky knows when there’s something wrong?”
“That’s right,” the man said. “Don’t you, Lucky?”
The look Lucky gave his human was positively intimate.