Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Living End

There is good reason to not talk about what I am going to talk about; the subject is repellent, disgusting, outre even. Yet it is one we think about often enough, and it is of especially vital and consuming interest to parents of both canine and human children. (I'm sorry, though, when it comes to feline, the subject is truly unspeakable: even when I had a cat, I felt this way. Which is one big reason I have not gotten another cat.) I'm talking s--t.

It is believed that wolves were domesticated after they were drawn to human settlements by the smell of human waste. To me, and you, it is repulsive, as it needs to be, full of dangerous pathogens. To dogs, though, I am sad to report, it is one of the finest delicacies. (As is the aforementioned end product of canned cat food: people who have both species in their households know that the only reason most dogs desist from killing their smaller brethren is they don't want to harm the source of those Puppy Tootsie Rolls they love above all other hors d'oeuvres.) You don't truly know despair until you have to share a car ride home with a dog who has ventured into the bushes at the park and come out having rolled in human excrement. It would have been far preferable for him to have ingested it--though in that case you have to worry about not learning that fact until after the big sloppy kiss.

Although you might have known by the look on the dog's face: it's called "a shit-eating grin."

I don't hold much with Freud's sort of strange notions about children's purported feelings about their productions; one suspects, with a sinking feeling, his theories say something about his upbringing, a little bit aberrant (or was it just the age, or the Germanic milieu?)--and who wouldn't want to generalize, or normalize, something like that? Just to get it off you alone?

But we parents need to admit one thing: our own children's do does not not repulse us. Nor is it pleasant. It's just . . . very interesting.

I love to watch Nelly when it's time. Her lithe little spine inscribes a full "C." Her legs tuck in out of the way (her long tail feathers, um, not always completely, but that's just an error of nature). Her eyes get this faraway look. She is the picture of a vulnerability. And it pulls at my heart.

Who knew that pooping could let loose a tide of bittersweetness?

Then, I admit, and you might as well too, I make an inspection. It absorbs my attention. For this is where you will notice anything amiss. It's the same reason you should groom your horse every day: peering minutely at every little bit is when you'll notice tiny cuts, bumps, parasites. Plus, it brings you together.

Crap: our little bond.

This is also where I can become self-righteously proud of my dog's food: garbage in, garbage out. Because she eats Biologically Appropriate Raw Food, what she expels is smaller, less smelly, and disintegrates far faster (becoming an odorless white powder--a pile of calcium, I suppose--within two days) than that of dogs who eat kibble. In other words, crap.

We were just as interested in, and not offended by (well, usually . . . ) our baby's output. It's a good thing, too, since we had to be so intimately involved with it many times a day. This only pertains, of course, to your own baby. Anyone else's--yuck. Nature is beautiful, isn't it? Takes care of everything.

Then is this the place for me to ask the question that's been burning a hole in my brain for years now? OK. So why, alone among species, did humans end up needing toilet paper? What's up with that? Did our evolution arise to include the need for corporations too, to provide the products to finish the job nature wouldn't? Weird.

Weird, too, is this disquisition. I can't explain it. Like so much else that comes floating into consciousness. You mull it over, and it floats out again. I'm only going to bring this particular subject up once. And at that, it's once too much. As is the admission that I love Nelly so completely that I love watching her, you know, do her thing.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Just Perfect

I must have done something very, very bad in my previous life, because I have been reincarnated in this segment of my current one as a nonmotorcyclist. When my son celebrated his ninth birthday last week, I realized, A decade. That is how long it's been since I last rode a bike. How is this possible? (The locution we use when we look in the mirror and finally see we have a face commensurate with our years: Why, we rule the world. Um, don't we? What, you mean we're no longer the youthquake? We're the invisible middle-aged? Not possible!)

Yet it happened. This long lacuna in my life in which I behaved as if Live to Ride, Ride to Live was a slogan for other people. Nutcases, to be precise. But I was happy when I was a nutcase. I am just beginning to recall how happy. Others foresaw this for me: I think it's time you started to ride again, Melissa. Read your own book, in case you forgot.

The yearning I am beginning to feel--not to read my own book, I mean really; but to turn around and finally face the imposing presence I have sensed following me through the years, breathing quietly, patiently--may be a form of Seven Year Itch. (A little delayed; that's me for you.) Biologists tell us this type of wanderlust occurs naturally at the point when human offspring become self-reliant. Well, not in the world we currently live in, but cavemen children were apparently a different story.

I yearn again for the tribe. For that is what we were, with our own customs, language, greeting (left-hand wave as we pass each other, with personal variations: the full hand up, or two fingers down; but the left hand at any rate, because the right is on the throttle, the pumping heart of this spectacular beast you have become). And the tribe is fractured into subgroups. Mine was, of course, the Super-Elect, Italophiles. (We voted for ourselves.) The kind who thought it fun to spend the whole night cursing at the spirits of bad-natured, black clad grandmas who cackled as they made short circuits in the electrics.

There was never a question of what you were going to do with your weekends: "Wanna ride to Danbury?" "You going to the IMOC rally?" "Yeah, we'll have dinner at that diner with all the pies before we have to hit the highway," after a day eschewing the straight-and-not-narrow for the twisty byways; and I have noticed an almost tenderhearted relationship between the biker and the authentic diner.

There was never a question of what you were going to do with your money, either: as a friend of mine put it, "Motorcycles are to buy. Not to sell." Projects in various stages of revivification filled the garage; the car could live outside. The most precious of the polished stones went inside; I mean inside, in the house. I have personally seen a Laverda and several Moto Guzzis that had displaced hall rugs. This is only appropriate for a machine that quickly becomes something else: the most intimate of partners, the one you entrust with your life.

One talks, therefore, to one's motorcycle. It is a relationship of dialog--I know you, inside and out--and is made false if it is based on mere economic exchange. After all, what sort of friend can you buy with your Visa?

There are, I suspect, many, many brandnew Ducatis--a bike I think of as dollar signs on wheels--currently centerstage in people's living rooms, but very few are engaged in this deep, existential conversation (not composed of wifty philosophy, mind you, but the central practicalities that are what underlie the theory). That's because the opening line is usually something like, "Here, let me rebuild those carbs for you!" and no one's saying that to these over-engineered babies. The paid mechanic is.

But then life held out to me its sleeping powder that caused the long night of nonriding: first it was the puppy. I'd go out for a Sunday ride with my buddies, and an hour in I was talking to her behind my helmet--thank goodness no one could hear, because it was death-defyingly embarrassing--and wishing I could turn around and use my horsepower for one thing only, go fast, back to her.

The puppy was, predictably to everyone but (surprise) me, the precursor to the baby: a year before he was born, the white motorcycle, already sadly bereft of her rider, who felt unending guilt, was sold to a Brit. He intended to ship her across the sea where she could join the lovely accented tribe over there, which had a particularly exciting approach to threading the city-traffic needle. There, too, she might have all the tires and spark plugs she wished but could no longer obtain here (there were only 250 of her type on these shores)--I felt like a penniless mother selflessly sending her child off to live with a wealthy family that could give it all the things she could not. And when I closed the garage door on the newly empty space, I closed the door on a part of myself.

It slept. And now it awakens. But in the intervening years, everything has changed. The bikes are bigger, faster, made up of different designating numbers. I am the Rip Van Winkle of the motorcycle world. It scares me, not knowing anything. It scares me, the whole prospect. Everything from my aging physical apparatus (O reading glasses: I surrender at last) to the change in the world, its million more cars and trucks, to a new tendency toward an almost stultifying awareness of my own motivations, as if I am now two people intead of one, standing beside herself and questioning everything.

I read recently that the middle-aged are vastly overrepresented in the accident statistics. Another thing to stand there and think about while the moment flees.

Well, I have a solution of sorts to at least one of the misgivings. The numbers on the vintage bikes have not changed, have they. While I slept, their names at least stayed the same. And their years have kept pace with mine. We might make a team, after all. With, I think, a sidecar for the kid and the dog.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Flag-Wrapped, Afraid

This morning the rain falls from steely skies, the thunder rolls off into the distance. Fear runs through every member of the household, and like all fear, it walls each of us off so we are alone with it, unreachable. You don't really hear anything but that white rushing sound in your ears; you can't talk sense to yourself in this state. [Another powerful reason to forgo coercive training methods that use the fear of punishment to shape behavior: ability to learn is at its lowest ebb when the subject is afraid.]

This morning, Nelly glances frequently at me, nervous: she does not like this thunder business, though she has it in far milder form than the millions of dogs who pant, tear things up, sweat from their paws in this type of bad weather. I make a move, and she runs to the bottom of the stairs: Are you going up now? To that safe place, the bed? No, my pet. I need to clean up my boy's breakfast dishes. OK, now, let me get my pen and these books and, yes, up the stairs we go.

Earlier, before we went out to wait for the school bus, my son suddenly looked afraid. Then, it was out of him in a spill: what happened yesterday at school, the boy who teased him until he saw red and retaliated in a particularly ill-advised way (though, of course, retaliation is never well-advised: but I know what the urge feels like, oh do I ever, the heat that burns from inside until you don't know what to do, and you start swinging madly; my boy has alas learned from a master, and what a hypocrite I am now to have this discussion with him about turning the other cheek, the fact that getting back never gets you anywhere, the ways to be bigger than your nemesis and gain the respect of your teachers but, more important, also yourself). He fears failing in school because of this; he fears the lingering anger of the two teaching assistants who reprimanded him. He fears, period, and cries out his fear in my arms. Then he tells me he feared I would be angry, too.

As for my fear, waking me at 4:30 in the morning, so that I lay in the dark totting up all the things I have to do in the next four days, an impossibly long line of items parading steadily through my head to an oompah-oompah beat for an hour or more until I finally fell back asleep, only to be awakened again at 7:00 by the bass thudding of a computer game being played (against general's orders) in the room below my bed. Sometimes I really hate computers, you know? Lots of reasons. Go into later.

But there is an underlying fear in me now, the same one that afflicts every American with both a brain and a heart: the fear that the awful duo, McCain and Palin, could actually be allowed to finish off the ruination of this country (next: the world) started in earnest by you-know-who. When he was elected, I remember all too well--the body retains the imprint of these aversive experiences, cringing at their remembrance ever after--I found myself curled up on the floor of a hotel room, watching the TV screen in horrified disbelief, until tears of frustration and anger fell onto the carpet. (Non-stain, of course.) There was no one there to retaliate against, only my overnight bag.

Now I fear I couldn't live through something like that again--and I wonder, secretly, if I would really follow through with my threat to move to Europe--but what I fear most is Sarah Palin. Because she, as I wrote in my letter to Women Say No to Palin, represents the ugliest tendency of humankind: the desire to conquer and control all others. (That goes for wolves as well as wayward people, in her view.) In other words, the will to fascism. She brings to mind Sinclair Lewis's dictum that "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

(And reminds me, non sequitorially, of the line in Billy Wilder's 1948 A Foreign Affair, "If you give a man a loaf of bread, that's democracy. But if you leave the wrapper on, that's imperialism.")

She makes me so afraid. Deeply, shakingly afraid. The worst part of my fear is that so many look at her and are not afraid. Contra Roosevelt, in this case, the thing I fear is not fear itself, but rather its absence.


Saturday, September 6, 2008


Observe: the dog. It is T-minus fifteen and counting. (Dinnertime.) She moves closer to the launching pad, i.e., refrigerator. She plasters herself in a down to the kitchen rug, and if she were any more flat she would be made out of cotton rag. She has put her chin down, too. And stares, quietly intent (the only time this particular dog ever is quiet; did I mention she's a screamer?).

I think she believes--and what, really, is a dog's "belief system"? interesting question, though I think it's essentially the same as ours, without the incense and robes--that putting her head on the ground and piercing me with her eyes actually makes the food come into existence.

This is the legacy of, get this, one five-minute training episode that occurred two years ago. It was at ClickerExpo in Cleveland, and we were sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt, which with its carefully anonymous furnishings (analogous to the politician's speech in election year) you couldn't tell from any other of a thousand Hyatts, or Radissons, or the rapidly proliferating spawn of a half-dozen other chains.

Ou sont les Quality Courts d'antan?

The only thing to differentiate this hotel was the fact that nearly everybody walking through it was attached by leash to a dog. This is a splendid thing, by the way. A couple hundred hounds taking elevators, waiting for room service, peeing on the bushes outside--ah, life as it should be. To have a dog here marked you as an insider, and it made me cozy in exactly the same way as riding a motorcycle into the arms of a rally did: you could instantly see who was inside the cordon and who was not. (Helmet, yes; no helmet, no.) We are a species--very much like the dog--to whom belonging is so needed it marks us in every way, inside and out: a primitive song sung by our cells, and evident in the way we are absolutely driven to pair, and to form our packs.

This night in Cleveland, I was blissful in the sense of belonging. I was one of this little multitude who believed that you did not need to coerce or intimidate your dog, bruise his trachea while pretending it wasn't happening, shock or yell or deride or "show who's boss." (Who is boss?) We were suffused with the sense that it really was possible to change the world, with only a clicker and a bag full of dog treats.

It is an ethical decision, and a practical one. The obviously happy dogs all around us were proof of both. (And, see, if it can yield happy, smart dogs, why not happy, smart children? And happy, smart citizens? Oh, B.F. Skinner, you gave us the means, but our imaginations have failed us.) Many of these dogs were "difficult"--abused, unsocialized, shy, fear biters. Their people had been driven, through love, to find a way to work with them that worked, because otherwise they would be dead. The way was positive reinforcement.

So that night we sat in faux petit-point-embroidered wing chairs in the Hyatt lobby. Nelly looked perky--her specialty--and said, Well, what the heck are we doing here, anyway? And Jolanta, gripped with training fever (for it can be a sort of intoxicant, reinforcing the trainer as it reinforces the learner), started free-shaping with Nelly.

I really wasn't one of them, the brilliant trainers here: my timing was terrible, for one thing. Jolanta's is great, and as they say, timing is everything. The clicks were coming rapid-fire, and Nelly's attempts to get them even faster were rapid-fire, too. (She's a quick dog.) When Jolanta started to see a little pattern--Nelly was trying to figure out if the act of dipping her chin to the floor is what was making those beef tidbits fall from the sky--she withheld clicks for any other movements but those toward this. And in a minute, Nelly was putting her head down on the marble, reliably, again and again. Eureka. This is what they want, she thought. And she was right.

Now, every night, as I am a typical slow human, and taking so, so long to get the dinner bowl ready, Nelly figures she needs to do something to get that food already. Well, it worked before. Down goes her head. I am still not as quick as Jolanta. But eventually dinner materializes. And Nelly, in her infinite wisdom, knows she had something to do with it.