Old Salt

pastaMy dog is ill. It's perfectly natural given her age, but knowing that is of little to no comfort.

Pasta's twelve-and-a-half years old, which is really getting on in years for a golden retriever. A few days ago, something odd happened to the left side of her face completely out of the blue.

The skin above her left eye began to hang too low, obscuring part of her vision, and the skin below her left eye started to sag, giving just the one side of her face the semblance of one of those really sad-looking hound dogs.

I suspected some sort of nerve damage, which a quick trip to the doctor confirmed, though it's not at all obvious what the root cause is. There was no physical trauma, no infection, no stress, and other than her somewhat droopy left visage, there's nothing wrong with her.

She runs, plays, chases things, sits on top of me while I'm working, eats normally, poops normally, loves her walks and is as alert as she ever was. She's sleeping beside me now as I write this, and she's completely relaxed, apparently having some sort of pleasant dream in which she's probably chasing one of the neighborhood cats or saying hi to one of her many friends.

I'm taking her in for an MRI next week, in the hope that maybe we can figure out what's behind the strange affliction.

Heda Days
heda womenA couple of weeks ago, my dog was with me in a small town on the west coast of Izu called Heda. It's a fishing village, nestled in a little harbour at the end of a long road that brings traffic over the mountains from the eastern side of the peninsula. Mountains to the left, mountains to the right, mountains behind, and deep, foreboding ocean in front...Heda isn't a major tourist attraction. In fact, it's far from it. But it's a wonderfully quaint place, where the air is clean, the seafood is amazingly fresh, and the people are as down-to-earth as they come.

heda womenAnyway, one of the things we did there was visit a little non-profit organisation that makes salt. I know, it sounds boring, but bear with me. it's actually quite fascinating.

The word "organisation" is perhaps too grandiose a term to describe the set-up. It's more of a shack near the waterfront, where a bunch of nice little old ladies gather to boil sea water brought there by nice little old men, who get the sea water way out in the middle of Suruga Bay, which is the bay next to which Heda is located.

fireThe men go out early in the morning (super-humanly early) to collect sea water from really deep down (I forgot to ask how deep, but it's deep), and bring the water back to the little shack in large, bright-yellow containers.

The women are from Heda, and take turns tending the fire that boils away the water to leave salt that's famous throughout Japan for its purity and exceptional taste. The women are there from 8:00am to the evening (I can't remember precisely what time they leave), and tend the bubbling brew the entire time. From each batch of water comes about 14kgs of salt.

20 Questions, Then 20 More
woman laughingWhat struck me from the moment I walked up to the shack was how alert, active and happy the women were. They were in their 60s and 70s, and there they were pumping water into the boiler, tossing wood into an incredibly hot stove, packing up salt produced earlier, labelling the salt, sipping tea, eating snacks, telling jokes, laughing...and peppering me with questions.

Who are you? Why are you here? Why do you want to take pictures? What kind of dog is that? How old is she? Why isn't she barking? Why do you look Japanese? Why do you speak Japanese? Why are you in Japan? Why are you in Heda? Why haven't you bought any of our salt yet? And on, and on, and on, and on.

saltUsually, I'm the one asking questions, but it was difficult getting a word in sideways. As soon as I answered one query, another two were shot my way...like a verbal hydra challenge from which there was no escape.

Far from being annoyed, I was amused and entertained. I didn't take a single photo for quite some time, occupied just with answering questions and trying to work in a few of my own, while watching these lovely women tending the fire that slowly distilled the precious salt from the reluctant sea water.

Pasta's Predicament
pastaAs I've been thinking about Pasta's health over the past few days, I recalled the women of Heda.

I remembered admiring how amazingly full of life and energy they were; how inspiring they were; and how nice it was to see such wonderful people enjoying every moment of life. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I must have known there was a lesson to be learned from them, though I didn't expect it to come so soon.

Pasta has a problem...maybe serious, maybe not...but there's no getting around it. But she's also completely healthy in many ways, and like the women of Heda, she's still as curious as a puppy when she visits some place for the first time, meets someone new, or just finds something interesting.

Instead of fretting too much about what lies ahead, I decided to take her for extra long walks, let her off her leash more, let her say hi just a bit longer to friends old and new...let her enjoy every moment she has.

Thanks to the women of Heda, I'll be prepared for whatever the MRI shows.

Update 19 Nov: I received an email from Bart De Ridder, a medical doctor in Belgium (who's also an avid diver), with some links to information about facial paralysis in dogs. One data point stood out. Hypothyroidism is one of the potential causes of facial paralysis in dogs, and it's something that often affects golden retrievers. To cut to the chase, I double-checked one of Pasta's recent blood tests, and sure enough, the thyroxine level was unusually low. Short chat with the vet, and we've agreed to try thyroid hormone medication first, before moving on to an MRI.