How I First Learned about Wrangler

My mother’s sister, my aunt Ann, is a big fan of The Today Show. It was a revelation for me, as a small child, to realize that Ann-Ann was actually Aunt Ann, and more so to learn that Ann, Ann-Ann, Annie, and Annie-Banannie – all so frequently spoken of by my mother – were actually the same person.

Visiting Ann as a kid meant Chesapeake Bay crabs around the picnic table, the kidney-shaped pool in the back yard, her motley pack of rescue dogs, home-made chocolate chip cookies, the greenhouse that doubled as a back porch, and the plastic rings that you could string together in a chain – that either floated or sank depending on whether or not they had the little led weights inside. I learned to swim in that pool, and to be fascinated by light, color, and texture: the patterns of refracted sunlight across the rippled surface of the water and the shadowy shapes of branches and leaves that would spill across the aquamarine depths.

I learned that Ann was my godmother when I was 23. We were having Thanksgiving dinner with her and mom’s brother, my uncle Jim. It was a few months after my grandmother had passed away, and Jim brought out a bottle of Mom-mom’s Crown Royal thinking that we could all drink a toast to her in memorium. So there’s me, who has drunk as much in my entire life as many people do in a week, or possibly even a day, holding this little thimble full of whisky saying “What do I do with this?” “Bottom’s up Bill.” “You know, that’s the first bit of advice you’ve given me with my being conscious that you’re my Godmother.” And when the god-mom speaks…

Ann and I talk generally once a week, usually on Sunday mornings for me, early afternoons for her. I’ll sit at one end of the little hallway in my apartment and throw a ball for Tighlman (silent gh), my second guide dog who loves to retrieve, and talk on the phone. We catch up about family, our dogs, the weather, politics, and occasionally my dating life. (She is eager to know and hesitant to ask; it’s a tactful combination.) If I can keep her laughing for a half an hour, it’s a good day.

So for over a year now, I’ve been hearing about this oh-so-cute puppy who was being raised on the set of The Today Show. I would listen politely, smile a bit, silently roll my eyes a little, and continue throwing the ball for Tighlman. I mean, I’m sure that dog is cute and all, but really? All puppies are pretty darn cute and I’ve never met a guide dog handler who didn’t have great stories about the incredible things their dogs have done. So I guess the bar for me was pretty high. The months went by and I kept hearing about Wrangler. I could tell that my aunt was secretly wishing (sometimes not-so-secretly) that Wrangler would be my dog. (Oh please…) And so for a year or so now I’ve been very gently pacing her for disappointment. “The likelihood of that is actually quite small…” “Tighlman will probably retire well before Wrangler would be through his training…” “Matching pace, pull, and working environment will be far more important than the fact that I’m a performing musician and a professor…” “You realize that whoever gets that dog is going to have a heck of a challenge being out in the world and keeping people off of the dog so the dog can work,” etc. Maybe it worked, a little.

Tighlman’s health and drive to guide stayed strong though, in spite of his advanced age, and he worked a year longer than we’d expected. Being on the academic calendar, my available time for training would be in the summer, ideally late summer so I could get plenty of living room concerts and body surfing in first. This put me tentatively down for the 2016 August-September class. Around the beginning of this summer I started to have a feeling that Wrangler might be my dog. I decided that if he went to someone else, I’d celebrate just as much with and for them, but I had a feeling…

I learned that I’d been matched with Wrangler on August 12. I did then go and listen to a few of the Today clips on the Internet. It is a really great story, and the immense outpouring of love for this one dog, who was likely to become my guide, was deeply moving. I was asked not to share that I’d been matched with Wrangler until after I’d arrived in class and we’d had the chance to train together for a few days – long enough for the instructors to assess in the flesh whether we were a strong fit as a team. Several weeks of being coy with my aunt ensued. “So what do you know about your new dog?” “I suspect that my dog will have four paws, a nose, and a tail.” His Today appearance on August 24 further thickened the soup: “Wrangler is now eligible to become a guide dog and will soon be meeting his new companion.” Ann: “Make sure you remind them that Wrangler is eligible now.” Me: “I think they’re aware of that.” Ann: “Just make sure you remind them.”

On September 1, after working with Wrangler for 3 days, Graham gave me the green light to share the news. Ann was the first person I called. She almost didn’t believe it. Ten minutes into the conversation she was still saying – “Now tell me, you’re really not having me on?”

I talked my folks into driving up for our graduation; they picked Ann up on the way. When she met Wrangler in my room before the ceremony, I asked her “If you didn’t already know this was Wrangler, would you recognize him?” “He looks just like a yellow lab.” Yup; he’s an ordinary dog. He wiggles and poops and likes to crawl into my lap and lick my face. He’s an extraordinary, ordinary dog and boy do I love him!