WHAT TO GIVE THE DOG WHO HAS EVERYTHING






WHAT TO GIVE THE DOG WHO HAS EVERYTHING

The following numbers are dated (taken from the 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook), but I'm too lazy to look up more recent stats: Even so, these are revealing:

In that year, the top pet was the dog. 37.2 percent of pet-owning households had at least one.
Something in excess of forty-five million people in the United States owned dogs.
Thirty-two million bought Christmas gifts for their pets.
Ten million celebrated their dogs' birthdays.

We can assume the numbers are much larger now. To me, the last two stats are especially significant: thirty-two million + Americans gave Christmas gifts to their pets. Along with children and grandchildren, wives, parents, lovers, etc., thirty-two million people also remembered to shop for Ariadne or Goth or Bucky. They drove somewhere, or walked, or took a bus, or went online to check out appropriate dog-oriented presents. They pondered alternatives, made decisions, and finally bought what they decided would make their dogs “happy.”

Because owners want it so. Just as with buying gifts for others, buying for a dog is both generous and selfish. You are giving something, but getting something, too. Actually, you are getting a number of things: the pleasure of choosing for someone you know, and the expectation of seeing the reaction. With dogs, this expectation leads to the moment when everyone else is shredding paper and feigning surprise and delight at receiving a new tie selected by a teenage grandchild, featuring the unmistakable likeness of Lady Gaga.

Not so the dog. He or she has entered the spirit of the season with unalloyed gusto. Shredding, whimpering, working his head off, he lets nothing stand between him and the task at paw. And it won’t much matter what’s inside. He will snatch it up and prance around the room, parading his new kong or rawhide chew for all to see.

He or she will almost certainly be happy, nothing feigned about it. Grateful, too, and never disappointed, or bored with waiting for it all to be over, so he can get back to texting Sophia, or to playing Grand Theft Auto.

It’s the purity of your dog’s response to life that’s the real reward, the actual gift a dog gives you on holidays and birthdays. Actually, on every day. It’s the lack of ambiguity in a dog’s response--to a raised leash, even to hard eyes staring down following a perfectly innocent encounter with your new slippers.

When all around us is complex and often ambiguous, when so much is gray, we are grateful for someone in our lives who is none of these things. Or we should be.
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A LUDDITE AND PROUD OF IT


A LUDDITE AND PROUD OF IT 

Mark Twain described golf as a good walk spoiled. If he were still alive, what would he say about all the walks being spoiled by technology?

How often do you see someone out walking her dog, someone not really there, holding up her end of a dialogue with someone in another place, who likewise isn’t there, wherever “there” is?

And it’s not just about dog-walking. It's about everything. I know of course this is "old business" coming from someone who's lost touch with the present, who's  out of step with all the market-driven hype lavished on Droids and I-phones, pads and pods, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

Even so, the only thing I’m losing is patience. I'm sure it’s convenient to pedal a rickshaw pulling a customized tent on wheels with an infant inside--something like a Ming-dynasty princess--while you talk to someone in cyberspace.

Or (I've seen it while walking my dog), someone texting and peddling, one hand steering, one hand thumbing like mad in the morning as crazed drivers late for work tear past. Or, later in the day, soccer moms chauffeuring children to practice and yammering away as they careen past the vulnerable Ming princess and her coolie parent.

But it’s nuts.

That said, if it weren’t for such people putting me and mine at risk, I would be happy to think Libertarian thoughts. Let the madcap techno-crazies go by, would be my view. As long as they don’t get in the way of my good time, no problem. Maybe it will all sort itself out in terms of the Darwin Awards.

But they do intrude. People used to speed off when stoplights turned green. Now, they sit with head bowed, texting, until you honk.

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                             DOGS: CAN ADMIRATION GO TOO FAR?



That question came to mind as I read the following headline in my morning Detroit Free Press: “Slain police dog is remembered in Saint Clair Shores.”

“Slain” is what raised an eyebrow, a word I associate only with humans. The article’s opening paragraph firmed up my curiosity: “The Saint Clair Shores community laid to rest a beloved member of its police department, K-9 Axe, a police dog who died in the line of duty 10 days earlier.”

Before going further, let me place myself in the continuum from dog loather to dog lover. I am a dog nut. Not a dog's owner but a dog's staff member. When I meet someone with a dog, I ask for his or her name. I don’t bother to ask the owner’s name. My own dog is right now lying ten feet away, waiting for the little buzzer to go off in her head that signals it’s time to issue me my marching orders for the morning walk.

But “laid to rest,” “beloved member of its police department, “died in the line of duty”?

Then: a memorial service, “complete with law enforcement canines and bagpipes was held…at the packed Assumption Greek Orthodox Church.” Next, the mayor: “We’re here to honor a fallen hero that paid the ultimate sacrifice,” and “we lost a friend, a brother and a valued member of our police department” who “loved his job and family.”

How about you? Assuming you too are a dog lover (why else would you still be reading?), do these details give you any pause? I assume Saint Clair Shores is a dog-centric community, and  the mayor would like to be re-elected, but still.

For me, the real point is how radically altered our perception of dogs has become. The humans’ choice of words says it all. The journalist, the city’s mayor and police officials aren’t all likely to be off their meds. They just reflect how dependent we’ve become on dogs for friendship and companionship. More and more, we think of them as persons.

P.S. The same Detroit Free Press edition carries a story about poultry as pets. I myself am against it. I don’t want to be haunted by pairs of eyes in my neighbor's yard, following me from garage to back door as I carry in tonight’s rotisserie chicken.
P.P.S the Free Press article was written by Christina Hall.
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THE DOG WALKER, JOGGERS, AND PARANOIA


                               

    THE DOG WALKER, JOGGERS, AND PARANOIA


So, I’m walking my dog this morning here in southeastern Michigan. It’s a great day for a walk, crisp and sunny, windless. We’re starting out as we always do, up our block to Ridge Road. As we reach Ridge, a jogger lopes past in the street.

He’s dressed in standard jogger tights inspired by the condom, and a matching red jersey. He’s wearing sunglasses, and a stocking cap. As always for years now, he passes without a wave, nod or smile, intent on the demands of his cardio-vascular drill.

Am I petty to resent this young man again this morning for not acknowledging me, someone he’s seen dozens of times on this street? Very well, then, I’m petty. But it’s a great morning, and my dog and I continue on our own, thoroughly un-cardio-vascular, un-achievement-oriented routine.

We head east, and now start down Oxford Boulevard. The big yards here have all been tidied up for their long winter’s nap. Most of the houses are decorated, some professionally. My dog and I follow a particular path, on the left sidewalk. That’s because Emma lives on the other side, and often camps out under “her” tree. She’s a beautiful husky or malemute, I never know the difference. She has ice-blue eyes that seem to frighten my dog, so we always take the opposite sidewalk.

Now, coming toward us is another jogger. He's skinny, with a lunging stride that's less than graceful. In the short interval before he reaches us, I imagine his lack of jogging rhythm leading to disaster. Shouldn’t he be in the street? No matter, he prefers the sidewalk. I imagine him reaching us, tripping or stumbling, and landing on my dog.

He breaks her back. He struggles up and is now running in place to prevent his heart rate from dropping. He shrugs, and jogs off. By this point he is well past me and my dog, but the imagined disaster continues. It now involves violence visited on the callous jogger; then a courtroom exchange in which a judge that hates dogs finds against me. Et cetera.

As you see, this material is well suited to The Couch. I resent being ignored by the first jogger, and as a consequence have turned the second one into a sociopath, a co-conspirator with jogger one. But I know how to deal with this problem: it’s my dog’s fault. If she hadn't been there, this tragedy would never have occurred. But I forgive her, and get back to enjoying the morning..


WHY READ WHEN YOU CAN WATCH?


WHY READ WHEN YOU CAN WATCH?

Since I’m a writer, you probably assume my title is a rhetorical question. Of course I want people to read: I write novels and essays, not screenplays. But that’s not it. I am actually growing weary of watching.

Mind you, not weary of all watching. I like walking my dog Chelsea and meeting others with dogs, or sitting with her in parks, and people-watching. If a lot of time passes between visits, I even like the streaming-video experience of strolling through a mall. Especially I like sitting on my lanai in late afternoon, watching the last light of day burnish the stand of bamboo behind our house. When a breeze passes, the stand makes a rattling sound, like castanets.

I mean I’m weary of watching movies and TV. There’s something increasingly oppressive about it, like a form of bondage. I’m prepared to concede my viewer’s fatigue is partly fallout from getting old. At some point, you’ve watched so many movies, news broadcasts and TV shows that everything new comes off as a thinly veiled, more frantic version of something you saw way-back-when.

But by no means does this entirely explain my growing impatience with new films, or what’s on the tube. I believe that in the course of my life, the “tenor of the times” has greatly altered, and that this change explains my impatience. Here again, a grumpy old man’s disdain for what’s new is the obvious explanation. But I don’t think that’s it. I’m no grumpier now than I was ten or even twenty years ago.

I think a national mood shift has taken place, the equivalent of tectonic plates realigning themselves to move continents. “Stand your ground” laws illustrate this sudden shift, along with open-carry advocates showing up at town meetings. “I’ll keep my guns and money, you keep the change” bumper stickers are another. Or rallies featuring posters of Ayn Rand dressed in full medieval body armor, making the improbable matchup of a lifelong atheist with Joan of Arc.

How about Creationists (lately re-branded as advocates for Intelligent Design) scoffing at evolution, or pointing to falling snow as proof that global warming is a falsehood? How about endless cartoon super-heroes, and super-violent video games, extreme martial arts, or a cult-like fascination with wizards, dwarfs with special powers, along with dragons enlisted to promote social justice?

I don't know whether any of this is bad for society, or just bad for me. But with reading, I do know things are different. The scale of experience is smaller, more human. Better suited to thought rather than action. Unlike those who fuel themselves with images edited by others, readers use words on the page to create their own opinions, mental pictures, impressions.

Reading is something you do by and for yourself. It’s both selfish and creative, and you can do it anywhere. Preferably, in the company of a dog next to you on the couch.
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MY DOG, YOUR DOG: CHILDREN AND KINDNESS



















MY DOG| YOUR DOG| CHILDREN AND KINDNESS

Out of nowhere (OK, out of my hard drive), I happened upon this photo of a friend’s granddaughter with—amazingly—my dog Chelsea.

Amazingly, because Chelsea never lets me or my wife take her picture. She knows the sound of the camera motor, knows the noise made by the camera-case zipper. I have other pictures, but they’re mostly of Chelsea loping away.

Back to the little girl. Some years ago, she came with her grandparents and two siblings to visit us in Florida. As you see, she was beautiful and soulful. No doubt, she still is. At the time, she was also willful and, like everyone her age, devoid of a conscience. She had a strong artistic bent that seemed to require our walls and furniture. I loved her company, and loved waving goodbye.

So what?

Neoteny is the fancy word for attributes of childhood carried over to young adulthood. Neoteny is important in explaining the differences between humans and other species. We share 98 point-something percent of the same DNA with chimps, but we moved on, they didn’t. Why? Because our brains and bodies take about twenty years to fully develop. We keep growing, adding more apps. A chimp’s brain is pretty much a fait accompli at six months.

In terms of morality, little children don’t have morals. At least I see no evidence they do. Like adults who don’t have a fully developed conscience, children hate getting caught. But fearing punishment isn’t the same as being able to decide something is or isn’t “right.”

I’m using the photo to dramatize a distinction I think is worth making. The distinction is between something that develops over a long time (or doesn’t)—mind and conscience—and an innate capacity for being kind.

On the face of it, being kind would seem to require having a conscience. How can you be generous and tender towards others (or to a dog) without one? If the little girl in the picture doesn’t have any sense of right or wrong, isn’t the expression on her beautiful face, her hand resting on my dog just one of those aw-shucks-how-cute-is-that images?

I don’t think so. Chelsea was already old—eleven--at the time the photo was taken. She had always been blind in her left eye, and now had a cataract in the right. She was a little arthritic and tentative in her movements, especially in the Florida heat. None of this had to be explained to Johanna. She saw and understood, and acted accordingly.

Throughout a visit characterized by madcap hours in the swimming pool, demands and refusals of many kinds, along with acts of artistic expression mentioned earlier, this child gave no evidence of moral awareness, of conscience.

But she never failed to act in a slow, gentle manner toward my old dog. This was behavior absolutely at odds with the little girl’s makeup, which I would describe as driven by a passionate commitment to pleasure based on chaos.

What can explain the suddenness with which she would change gears, slow everything down, sit beside Chelsea and do as you see? At the center of her small nuclear-reactor core, I’m convinced she knew what to do. I have seen this in other children meeting Chelsea for the first time. Not all--some pull and pinch--but most. It has always amazed me a little. They seem to know she’s old, seem to know they can’t roughhouse with her, but need to be gentle.

It’s something modestly profound, and worth thinking about. At least it is for me. I use Johanna’s gentleness with my old dog as a counterweight to re-balance the scales in a hard world..

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THE WRITER AND THE DOG


THE WRITER AND THE DOG

When I think of the main character in my short novel JUST BILL, I see him as youthful, vital, the life force personified. He is up for anything his master wants to do, always alert for a sign that it’s time to jump in the lake, or go for a walk. He eats the same way, gobbling from the bowl before it touches the floor. He remembers things: another dog herds lady golfers away from a patch of jungle, and Bill later prevents a small boy from entering the same overgrown area.

That’s art, or so I prefer to think of my book. Fiction improves on life by organizing it into patterned plots. It compresses, stylizes, creates trajectories in which actions build one on the other to create anticipation and meaning for the reader. If you get it right, the whole equals more than the sum of its parts.

Life? Not so much. It doesn’t really “mean,” or have trajectory. Or if it does, the path is imposed  after the fact. If you win, you explain your success in a way that makes you look good. You were responsible for the whole thing, made great choices, knew just what to do. Lose, and the same thing happens in reverse: forces beyond your control screwed up everything.

In other words, life is in many ways inferior to art. Plot, structure, trajectory, and the rest of it are replaced by routine. Predictable repetition takes over, and novelty becomes just that: something novel, a rarity.

This sense of something lost as a result of predictable, repeated actions doesn’t seem to be a problem for writers. At least not for this one. For me, external routine and predictability are necessary and desirable. It's the only way can I gain the hours and focused attention I need to develop stories. If I lived life in pursuit of novelty and change, I wouldn’t write.

This self-imposed isolation is not easy on my wife Barbara. If she were married to a “normal” person, she would have a more interesting time of it. But that's not really for me to say. It’s perfectly possible she thanks her lucky stars I’m not crowding into her mornings and afternoons, mansplaining my version of things, offering "suggestions."

But in all this, one thing is certain. A life like mine absolutely needs a dog. It needs that combination of order and routine that dogs love as much as I do, along with a dog’s ability to take people out of themselves. To be a chum-on-demand. After almost eight years with her, I can no longer imagine life or writing without Chelsea. BTW, the dog in the photo is not my dog: At the first sign or sound of a camera, Chelsea hides. But I very much like this dog's face. It's full of character.

Although she’s a good writer, my wife Barbara doesn’t write. But about Chelsea’s importance we are in total agreement. It makes us both grateful and apprehensive, living with our rescued border collie whose age we can't know, watching her growing gray just like ourselves, but whose days are racing past so much faster than our own.

As I think of what’s to come, the phrase “pay it forward” occurs to me, but I don't know why. Sooner, not later, the balloon payment for all we owe our dog will come due. And there is no way to prepare for it, or to meet the balance.
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DRINKING IN THE DARK






DRINKING IN THE DARK

I am not a drinker in the sense of “he’s a drinker,” or “he drinks.” Those are people whose identity begins and often ends with drinking.

With me, it's one or two cocktails before dinner, or a bottle of wine shared with my wife at dinner. Oh, all right, sometimes both the cocktails and the wine.

I’m writing about this because I'm remembering a night some years ago. Seated in the dark on our pool deck, sipping the last of the evening’s bottle of Malbec, my wife Barbara and I found ourselves listening to raucous hijinks across the way.

By across the way, I mean the nearby block of condos in our Florida retirement golf community. We lived in a villa, which is Florida’s tarted-up word for a duplex—two houses sharing a center wall. Our place faced a preserve, and on the other side were more villas. They were all dark, so what we were hearing had to be coming from the condos.

You know what I mean: not the sound of people laughing at sitcoms, or “America’s Favorite Home Videos.” The volume level and verbal congestion ruled that out. We were definitely hearing hilarity fueled by devil rum. To be honest, I felt a little envious. So much shouting, such abandon. It’s been a long time since I partied that way. True, it was no fun mornings, cleaning up around the commode, but over time, you come to remember boozy nights wistfully. With fondness.

Half an hour later, I took Chelsea out for her last chance of the day to check her p-mail. We crossed the road, dark between streetlamps, and walked toward the next cone of light. Off to the right lay the seventh green. Beyond it rose the four-story block of condos. All the units had screened lanais, and behind a few, lights glowed dimly from kitchens or TVs.

As we walked, I heard something like death rattles, punctuated by coughing. It was the tail end of the party heard earlier, drinkers at the end of the downward spiral. The sounds were made more interesting by coming through the darkness from nowhere. I decided nowhere must be one of the blacked-out, first-floor lanais.

Alcohol operates in stages: from jocose to verbose to bellicose to morose, and eventually to comatose. I judged the people sitting in the dark to be fast approaching oblivion. One of two women kept repeating “never happen.” They were the only intelligible words in what was otherwise a confused mélange produced by three or more people simultaneously talking and gargling.

Chelsea and I moved on, through the next cone of light, into more darkness. After a few minutes, she stopped and turned, easing her hip against my left calf to herd me home. By the time we again reached the party point, all was quiet. The party people had finally lurched inside, or nodded off in the dark.

I wondered what it was that would “never happen.” My dog picked up speed, glad to be homeward bound. She was mostly blind, and didn’t like the dark. I felt grateful to her for not making me hold up my end of anything—drinking, talking. As we walked on in the soft Florida night, I wondered what she had made of it. Wondered as well whether a dog was lying on a dark lanai, hoping against hope for a last chance to go out and read the mail.
HERE'S JUST BILL

WHAT TO GIVE THE DOG WHO HAS EVERYTHING

WHAT TO GIVE THE DOG WHO HAS EVERYTHING The following numbers are dated (taken from the 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographic...