Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bonded (not Insured)

This is an interesting topic for her at this particular moment, you're going to say. Yeah, I'm transparent.

When I rode motorcycles and favored Guzzis, I had a secret affection for their nickname, at least in English-speaking countries where they don't "get" Italian: Goose. As a card-carrying sap, I find geese inordinately touching, because they mate for life. You can see it. There are always two, unless there has been some Macbethian drama recently. (The other quality those in the Moto Guzzi fold admired was that if one member of the flying wedge dropped out, they would close the gap up again--perhaps they are among the animal aestheticians I spoke of earlier, and they don't like their compositions marred.)

Geese are not the only ones. Red-tailed hawks, beavers, gibbons, and prairie voles also mate for life, and the disappearance of a partner is a devastating event. I have seen mourning squirrels, shocked by the sudden loss of a mate under the wheels of a heedless car (redundancy, sorry), running in confused circles around the body, expressing in aimless darting the crisis of the emotions.

Biology has answers for humans' vagrancy in the matter of partnership, but I'm not sure it does on the subject of why we are so inconsistent, both across gender and the ranks of individuals. Why do some of us stay partnered for the long term and others . . . You thought I was going to say, "and others not," right? No. I meant only to say, "and others calmly accept what the abundant evidence puts forth": that just under half (currently 40 to 45 percent) of us can't stay for the long haul. Maybe this portion is made up simply of novelty junkies--I know the feeling, at least when it comes to dog walks; I can't do the same hike day after day, even if Nelly could. I'm even getting a little tired of breakfasting on the fantastically supremo muesli they sell at Aldi for a mere couple of bucks. (There. Don't tell me I never gave you anything.)

I think for humans--and here I go contradicting myself, for all my caustic preaching on the fundamental sameness of us to the other animals--our bonding inconsistencies represent the mucking up of solid biology with personal psychology. And I should be clear: it's possible it's those who remain tied to each other, rather than those who go from mate to mate, that are the ones whose polygamous natures got mucked. Maybe it was watching Lady and the Tramp at too tender an age, who knows.

But I find myself wondering why we all nonetheless seem to deeply want, and expect, our matings to last forever, if it is in fact contrary to our nature? Why install a faulty chassis on a perfect engine? You get a teary vehicle every time.

Oh. Bad metaphor.

But there's still the sense that we were put together fatally wrong at the factory: that some of us got the heads and hearts meant for others, and vice versa. We're mismatched no matter what we try to do, like the children's books with partial pages that can be flipped so the bottom half can be paired with an ill-fitting top. For a laugh. It's always worth a laugh, if at any time so many of us weren't weeping over, or grieving, or raging at, or even killing the one who strayed (this week's paper carried a particularly ugly incident of this, though since the guy who murdered his duplicitous wife and then himself was a white supremacist, we held in abeyance most of our tears).

[Gosh, it's interesting, isn't it, when an amateur pontificates unknowing on a subject that has no doubt been explained in full by naturalists; only in well footnoted books from university presses that she seems to lack the brain cells anymore to tackle, eh?]

What I want to ask is if any of you really know what's going to happen between people. And if not, why do we persist in feeling as if we do? Why do we set our lives, our hopes, our expectations, our caps, for "true" love that is going to last as long as we do? Come on. Admit it. You do, right? From where I sit, I wonder why we retail this damaging fiction--and I also wonder why for some people it is no fiction at all, but the reality of their days. What 7-Eleven can you go to to buy one of those lottery tickets, the ones with the matching numbers?

Dogs, as we know, are not monogamists. They love, and they lose, and they love some more--sometimes all in the same ten minutes at the dog run. They are put to shame (in the sentimentalist's mind) by their progenitor, the wolf, who mates for life. But neither do dogs make promises that they're going to be (not to mention accept gifts of china and duplicate crystal vases). Maybe that's the difference. That's the kind of creatures they are. That's the rather chilling message behind the gift-shop mugs you can buy that say, "May I be the kind of person my dog thinks I am." Chilling, because you look in the mirror and know you're not. But want to be. So badly want to be.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Special Delivery

I had just finished eating my cup of Yo Baby (someone got paid a lot of money to come up with that name, and in my opinion earned every dime of it). My son is too embarrassed to be seen eating something so called, but I am not; besides, it's what passes for lunch in these parts. What is embarrassing is that I was eating it while sitting on the bed, which is where--second only to the living room floor in front of the woodstove--I do most of my work. Imagine: at my age, a Slacker! Slacker mom. Slacker dog trainer.

Nelly lay at my feet, drilling me with the intensity of her stare. If a gaze had the power of an act, this one would have caused gobs of whole-milk banana yogurt to arc through the air and land in her mouth with a decisive splot.

She was lying there so quietly, so intently, because I had trained her to, back in the day several lifetimes ago when I had the time and will to train my dog; to cut up a billion tiny pieces of lamb roll, to locate the clicker, to sit and focus on only my dog for ten minutes. (Ten whole minutes! Wherever did I lay my hands on that much time?)

I trained her to lie quietly, and hope patiently, for tidbits to be thrown, any time anyone in the household was eating, because the alternative was worse. When she came to us as a puppy, the sight of people eating at a table and not inviting her up onto it was a dreadful, horrid situation that caused fits of uncontainable emotion in the wee hairy beastie. She would shriek, and dance around on her hind legs, and finally chew the edge of the table in her frustration, and then shriek some more. Oh, the effrontery of the humans.

I quickly asked training guru Jolanta what I could do, because I love my dining table dearly, and also guests thought we were Terrible Dog Parents, the kind who didn't know how to lay down the law. (What law? says Nelly. I know no laws. I am stateless!)

Jolanta said I could easily train an alternative behavior: reward whatever it was I did want her to do. And what was that? All I could think of was quiet: no one can long retain their sanity in the presence of Nelly, um, vocalizing. (Did I mention Nelly is a screamer?) So I shaped quiet: quickly clicking for a brief cessation in the noise--she had to catch her breath before the next aria, after all--and being a smart, quick sort of doggie, she got it. I didn't much care what she was doing with her body, so long as it wasn't hurling herself at the legs of a dinner guest or chewing the edge of the table. Soon Nelly started trying everything she could think of to make the treats fly faster: sitting, standing, lying. "Down" has become a default position for her; she's gotten more tidbits for that, by design and happenstance both, so that's the behavior she throws first when she doesn't know what else to do. Hence, at dinnertime, she did a Down, was quiet (my only objective), and got a treat. The birth of a behavior. The "down" here is what they term a "superstitious behavior"--don't you love that? It occurred in conjunction with the other behavior she was being rewarded for, so she assumed it was part of the deal.

Do you have any superstitious behaviors? Of course not. You are rational; I should have known. But this is True Confessions Land for me. When I rode motorcycles, before my reincarnation, it was a time when my fashion was to wear my mother's Vassar College Class of 1952 gold ring, which had been passed on to me upon my own graduation from that august institution. (I mean that, too.) One day, early in, I realized that on every occasion I went riding and wore that ring, I hadn't crashed. Ergo, it was the ring that had prevented my becoming grape jelly on the pavement. I mean, smart, right? Very soon, that ring had to be on my pinkie, under the soft Italian leather gloves I'd treated myself to, every time I rode, or else I'd get the vapors. I swear, if I had lost that ring, I might never had gotten on my bike again.

I think I might start wearing that ring again.

Anyway, I had believed I would soon shape another behavior in Nelly--like, say, going to lie down on a rug in another room as soon as the dinner plates appeared--because, let's face it, having a little dog at your feet holding her breath and pinning you with her eyes for an entire hour doesn't make for peaceful meals, either. But what with one thing and another, I let it go on. Entrenched. Firmly there. Not to say that I couldn't change it now, but . . . It's a whole lot of work.

What I am aiming to do instead is to let this behavior extinguish, because I will remove the reward from it. No more little tidbits for lying quietly. And hope that she doesn't replace it with a reversion to the old habit of singing for her supper, since I'm too depleted to actively train a replacement behavior. (When will I learn that you reap what you sow? Gah.)

I ate my yogurt in two minutes (it's such a baby cup anyway, yo) and ignored her stares, then set the cup on the end table next to me. The heavy spoon wanted to tip it, but I balanced it against a stack of books. Nelly sighed--What the heck is going on around here now? They don't give me any food anymore!--and jumped off the bed in resignation. She curled herself up in her bed on the floor next to the table, and I reached again for my pencil.

I touched the stack of books, which nudged the spoon. The cup toppled. Nelly woke from her nap to find the yogurt-fragrant cup an inch from her mouth. All she needed to do was stick out her tongue and contact the sweetness of life. She looked up at me: Whence came this bounty, straight from a dream? She started licking.

For the first time in so long, I actually laughed out loud. And spoke to my dog: "Nelly, sometimes opportunity drops right out of the sky, and lands in front of you." Sometimes it's as obvious a treasure as a sticky yogurt cup. Sometimes it's more disguised. But sometimes, every once in a while, the skies rain nourishment. And all you need to do is swallow.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

You're So . . . Artistic

It's a commonplace of all discussions of animal intelligence (meaning the other animals; it goes without saying that we're the measuring stick and thus our intelligence is not under question . . . OK, I'm back. Had to go wipe the tears of laughter out of my eyes) to eventually get around to this: "Of course, no animal has
yet produced the work of a James Joyce. . . . " Whereupon I throw back a spitball at the teacher's head: Really? Well, which one do you mean? The James Joyce of Dubliners? Or the James Joyce of Ulysses? Because it's possible that a troop of macaques somewhere, given enough typewriters and ribbon, just might produce something as unfollowable as the latter.

Oh, yes, I jest. I have to! In the face of something as fundamentally silly as the supposition that just because no jackal has emerged as a direct rival to Van Gogh then it's clear that humans have a lock on that mysterious ability known as creativity.

But how would we actually know? I mean, if what another species creates is done on an entirely different aesthetic grid? If their language is primarily physical (and primarily not understood by us), then how could we know that perhaps the family pet were the canine universe's equivalent of Aaron Copland or, for that matter, Yo La Tengo? For all the millions of us who use our language as a means to compose grocery lists or notes to the third-grade teacher about what our children will be bringing to the Valentine's party, there are only one or two who can use it to lay down the syntactical amazements of a Faulkner, a Hardy.

The few pictorial dictionaries of dog language we have now are to me breathtaking, not necessarily for what they are--just the beginning, even if a two-hundred-page one, of an understanding of the richness and breadth and subtlety of their physical communication--but for what they suggest: that all the nuance we experience in the use of our own language may well exist in theirs. That for all the millions of dogs who use a combination of tail carriage, ear position, eyes, lips, and body orientation to say, "Hey! You can leave that vole carcass alone because it's mine," there may well be one who uses something like the poetry of Melville to say much more. Maybe even to expressing the transporting joys and sorrows of vole-ness in this world where they become sodden blots on the snow two days after violent death in the jaws of a little dog, their souls having ascended sadly to vole heaven.

Maybe your dog is a lyricist of the tail wave, admired by the astonished mass of other dogs who can only wonder, "How does she do that with just a tail, and the air, and the small suppleness of her spine? Sheer magic."

Maybe when Nelly comes at me, flying low over the ground, having set up the opportunity by first going so damn far away I'm a nervous wreck, she is really writing a poem on the joy of return. It would contain lines about exerting individual will inside a paradigm where it is all but curtailed (domestic dog imprisoned in human environment). Maybe she is doing much, much more than experiencing the momentary bliss of that act, which is what we often celebrate in dogs, and what I frankly see in her face, her smile, the energetic burst of her movement. Maybe she understands paradox. And paradox is the single origin of all great art.

At the very least, Nelly is much more creative than most people would realize. She has found all sorts of ways to use me, the big bad human who purportedly calls all the shots. Ha. It dawned on me one evening as I sat reading on the floor in front of the woodstove, the station I man in the cold months. She picked up the giant knuckle bone she was working on, it having slid all over the floor as she pursued it, and it banged to the wood again and again as she haplessly tried to reposition it to stay. All of a sudden she purposefully walked over and deposited herself in my lap, then paused to look at me. I don't know how I knew what she wanted me to do, but I did know. I held the bone in my hand for her, and she went back to work on it.

I was a bone holder. Nothing more. A BA, an MA, and all I had amounted to in the end was a bone holder. I must say, I was the perfect tool for the job. No more sliding across the floor or banging out of reach. The bone was now held firmly so she could really go to town on it.

Let it not be said that I lack breadth, however. No, there are times when I far exceed the bounds of the single-purpose human. Sometimes, see, I am door opener! Treat dispenser! Bed bolster! Chauffeur! I can be so many things: Melissa, Swiss Army knife. The kind with tweezers and toothpick, too. Nelly has even discovered that she no longer need suffer her tongue to hopelessly scrabble with a piece of gristle stuck in her teeth, for if she comes to me and implores with her eyes, I will use my fingers to swiftly remove the offending bit. They're good for something after all.

I thought about this recently as I finished reading Merle's Door by Ted Kerasote, a book that is both hugely affecting and maddening, in a let-us-test-the-restrictions-of-narrative-nonfiction kind of way. Kerasote puts words into his dog's mouth, and much of the time they feel right: Merle was no doubt saying exactly what his owner thought he was saying. But human language, as expansive as it may be for us, is too limiting, I suspect, for a dog.

Maybe Merle was an artist, creating symphonies or songs his owner could not hear, because his ears were already full of speech. We may never know what concerts we have missed, because that particular orchestra does not play for us.

Friday, February 1, 2008


It is not often that I have hosted a triple playdate, but last Saturday was not a usual day. It was a day when chance came calling, and I happened to be home to answer the door. The phone, rather.

It was Anna, calling to say her pal Andrew was on the Thruway, and when he arrived would be eager to take Platypus for a walk. Platypus, you say? Platypus is a dog. (Andrew favors beautifully off-kilter names for his dogs; his previous best friend was Slimpuppet.) Nelly is glad Platypus is a dog, and not a platypus. She remembered him from meeting in the city a couple of months ago, and then another visit on home turf a while later. It does not take long to develop a crush, so it was a romantic reunion. And she has good taste, I must say: Platypus is a gentle, slithery sort of dog, a setter of black and white and brown with a slowly waving tail and dreamy eyes.

Anna and I each have boys who are playmates too, so while the adults might do what we think is fun--yammer--the boys could pretend they were knights, bearing sticks for broadswords, and the dogs could pursue their own doggie interests. We arranged to meet down at the cornfields. Just as all three cars arrived, another was seen bumping down the pot-holed dirt of Fording Place Road, and--oh, you're kidding, if it wasn't Janet and John, with Willy and Dixie. If we'd tried to coordinate a get-together like this, we surely couldn't; only under the auspices of serendipity could it have occurred. The meeting of all the canines and the humans, across the generations, as we spilled from the cars was joyous. And then we set off across the winter fields, moving as quickly downwind of the rat shit as possible. I refer to the mountain of it that is stored here for fertilizer, and let me tell you, it must take a frightening number of rats to make a pile this monumental. Every time I go to the farm market, I pray I am not buying corn that was grown in rat shit.

The four dogs bounded away--this territory was the possession of three of them, they come here that often; this being the closest place to walk free, free I say free and unfettered as the wind HAH!--and we slipped on the ice-bound ripples of the cornrows. The river followed us, gliding silently, to our left.

Then came another happy event, as if this was not enough to fill my heart: an opportunity to go grocery shopping with a girlfriend. Of all the admissions ever made here that reflect poorly on my general character, the one that going grocery shopping with a friend (and not, hallelujah, with our children) brings me a warm glow of happiness is perhaps the most damning. Anna and I even shop at the same leisurely pace, reading labels and commenting on the palatability of various foodstuffs. This hour in the store was what passes for a vacation these days in my life, so that gives you a basic idea.

Andrew was charged with taking the boys, along with Nelly and Platypus, back to the house. It was getting dark. Dinnertime approacheth. At the store, we selected foccaccia, shrimp, salad, spanakopita. Oxtails for the dogs. We were in an indulgent mood. Then I started worrying about how Andrew was faring in a strange house, with strange creatures to care for. We called him from the parking lot. "Tell him to make a fire," I instructed Anna. She hung up. "He already has."

There's nothing like the familiar made new. The house shed its yellow light on the dark snow as we drove up. I wanted to be in that warm place--whose lovely house was this? Andrew was sitting in an armchair reading a book from the shelves, the fire burning in the woodstove in front of him, while the boys spread out wooden train tracks and toy villages all over the floor. Nelly rose up before Platypus to embrace him, his neck in her front legs. Holy mother of god. Couldn't you just die.

And Andrew even went and got the groceries out of the car. Because I made him.

A bottle of prosecco, empty dinner plates, and two hours later, we were still talking, no doubt indiscreetly, for little pitchers have big ears, but we had too much to dish to keep quiet, immature as we are. Nelly had taken Platypus's marrow bone and was now standing over it and looking daggers at him. --Her new boyfriend! He decided he might like it back, then decided against it, because Nelly was now sounding like a badly tuned lawnmower. Her bared teeth transformed her; sweet little dog with the funny crooked tail no more. Platypus held his head still in an assiduous look-away, the canine way of saying, "That's OK. Really, it's OK. I'd prefer it if you didn't kill me." If I didn't feel fairly confident that she wasn't actually about to rip his ears off, I would have been deathly afraid. That's what she wanted. Well, not for me to be afraid, but him. Her romantic idol. Oh, the fickleness.

No, the resource guarding. This is who Nelly is. I had been terrified I might end up with a dog who would resource guard against humans--to me, hands down the most frightening possibility, because it is so volatile, unpredictable, and easily triggered by children who drop cookies and then reach to pick them up, by which point the dog has already decided they belong to him. Then bye-bye face. So I did my best to temperament-test Nelly for this before I decided to take her. Either it worked, or it was a fluke. But she does not resource guard against humans. Only, it has turned out, against dogs. She will guard the dirty dishes (my dirty dishes, says she) in the open dishwasher against Juni, a dog nearly five times her size, and with pitbull heritage. Not wise. But she follows her passion.

Don't we all. My passion is to have more days like last Saturday, when potential arises out of nowhere. To realize it, all we need is cornfields on a winter day, dogs, exquisite luck in timing, and a bottle of something sparkling. Oxtails don't hurt, either, say the dogs. (Oh yes they do, say the ox.)