Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nelly, Speak!

"If animals could speak, maybe then we wouldn't keep them in zoos, and
we'd have to take them out. We could trust them, and tell them things."

In our house lately, we've been talking about language. My young son gazes longingly at Nelly and wishes he could know what she's thinking. With the extensive work ethologists have done, we can come close.

So I tell him that dogs do not like to be leaned over (a sign of aggression), or hugged about the neck (ditto). Thus he refrains from doing what he wishes he could ("Nelly is addicting!" he says of her deceptively winsome look as she sleeps) in what amounts to the growth of his nascent compassion--a sense of concern for The Other, in the act of turning away from one's own.

Language spells freedom. If the denizen of the zoo could look through the steel bars and, in a clear, articulate, Harvard-inflected English, say, "Please don't incarcerate me. I have done nothing wrong (besides being unable to plead my case). This is unfair. And moreover it is painful," would we be able to ignore it? Only because the animal lacks speech? (And thus the only way to prick our conscience?) Or, perhaps, because he also lacks the ability to fight back?

My son longs for an interpreter, as he watches his dog watching him.

Unfortunately, all too often I know exactly what Nelly is saying. Like today. On a snow day, with little traffic on the road, I decide the risk is worth her company as we attempt to guide the plastic sled down the pitiful slope at the side of our house. (It doesn't want to go; the sled protests, "But I was having a good time napping in the shed!") Nelly stands at the bottom of the drive, returned from a small stroll about the neighbors' garbage cans and potentially rodent-infested deck undersides, and, reassured that we have not left for vacation in the meanwhile, stands motionless looking at me while I call, "Nelly!" That seals it. She flips around and races off down the road in the other direction. She has spoken. Quite clearly. And what she has said, in West Virginia - inflected English, is "See ya later, sucker!"

[For the benefit of true behaviorists out there, I will suspend the joke and admit that I am well aware that although I would like to believe that I have trained the cue "Nelly!" to correspond to the behavior "come," her behavior informs me that I am mistaken. I have, unwittingly, to be sure, taught her it means the opposite.]

My son has also sagely observed, when I bill and coo to our dog in that unspeakable patois--baby talk, blech--that if Nelly could talk, what she would say at that particular time is "Why the heck are you talking to me like that?"

For those who truly want to know what their dogs are saying, there is a wealth of decoders available. (And why people persist in living with dogs without availing themselves of a few language lessons--I mean, could you imagine marrying a Chinese person but insisting you would never, ever utter a word of Mandarin in their presence?--is, I think, a matter for abnormal psychology to investigate.) Starting with Konrad Lorenz, and extending to Roger Abrantes; there is even a pretty good capsule in Wikipedia. Why the heck do people insist animals have no language? It's speech they don't have, folks. The claim is bizarre, given the subtle richness of what ethologists have observed--and one should quickly suspect they haven't fully caught even the half of it. So, worse than bizarre, it is stupid. And often leading to abuse, as is ignorance's wont.

There's a photo in the KV Vet catalog, which I was just leafing through in pursuit of vitamin supplements for the girl dog who probably needs fewer nutrients, not more, that made me pause. There's a Corgi receiving a treatment with an anti-flea wipe, but I'm not sold on the product, as they mean for me to be. That's because the little beast has been caught by a quick shutter in an expression of slight distress, with a tongue flick to his nose. It happened in a second, but just because we are rather slow creatures doesn't mean he is not saying something meant for us to hear. It is one of the "calming signals" in Turid Rugaas's terminology, as she catalogued in her On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. Dogs' language is, of course, body language, and their vocabulary is quite rich indeed. When dull-witted humans miss it, or misinterpret it, or dismiss it, it is sad for all involved. For, as the Norwegian behaviorist puts it, dogs use these communications to "prevent things from happening, avoiding threats from people and dogs, calming down nervousness, fear, noise, and unpleasant things."

And nothing could be more unpleasant to our companion animals than the unwittingly threatening behavior of what to them is the equivalent to us of a 750-pound person throwing us on our backs and pinning us down in the name of "fun," or a canine-aggressive move like hugging their necks, in the name of primate love.

We will never be fully fluent in Dog, of course, until we have a tail to wag, ears to prick or lay back, loose skin to shake, the eyesight of a radar scope. In terms of dog language, we will forever be at the level of the robot maid in the Jetsons cartoon, who described love as "the most ut." (And love certainly is that; as are all the ways we express it, spoken or not.)

Another thing my son said blew me away. Staring at Nelly, he suddenly wondered if she had another name. "I mean, what if her parents gave her a name before we did, one we'll never know?"

Not in any dictionary I know is all that a dog, or a child, is capable of saying.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


When unhappy, it is all I can think of doing. When anxious, it literally saves me. When excited, I anticipate using it to conceive, chisel, and free the thought. This is writing: my life so far, and by now all I am fit --I hope and trust--to do.

Though I did want to be a veterinarian for quite some time. And before that, a princess.

I am opposed to the notion of writing as therapy, although it has performed that function for me. No, I employ a flesh-and-blood therapist to do the kind of work that only a therapist can do, to listen to the tears, and at times provoke them. It's the way the structure of the mind works, and even if you would like it to be true that you can "do it alone," that won't do anything to alter an immutable fact. You can't. Just like wishing the apple would float up instead of fall. Gravity is a law; so is the need for outside corrective to the damaged psyche. And I'd love to meet the person who doesn't have one of those. In order to get off the damnable gerbil wheel of repetition most of us get stuck on, we need someone else to stick a pencil through the bars of the cage. We might go flying and land with a bruising thud, but at least we're off. Not getting right back on again is the real trick.

There is a great bonus, too. Psychotherapy is one of the most enthralling intellectual pursuits there is. It encompasses virtually every strain of thought we have yet come up with: philosophy, biology, the mysteries of art, the literature of narrative, metaphor, and fable. And puzzle: It's as if, at the first meeting, the world as you knew it was broken up and dumped on the table before you as a 1,000-piece picture for you to reassemble. And so nothing will ever again look the same. The front page of the newspaper, even, reveals itself to enumerate the same patterns of behavior you yourself are beginning to realize are the result of a buried motivator that propels you every waking moment, and every dreaming one, too. I imagine this little thing as looking something like a mine. A hard metal sphere with a few wires sticking out. At once improbably innocent and radiating malevolence. And look, on the side--something stenciled, though fading. The owners, perhaps? The ones who hid this under a light layer of soil, waiting for a slight disturbance? Yes, now I can read it: "Mom and Dad."

Learning about how this was set in place--or at least it was for me; let me speak only for myself, since I write in the self-serving egotistic form that is called "slow blogging"--was like a repeat of the most exciting classes I took in college. And there were many; they hopped me up as if delivering speed directly to a vein. I'd want to collar strangers in the quad and shake them till they saw stars--exactly what I was seeing when I read Hawthorne and Melville, Heidegger and (now I cringe) Derrida. The world was shaking under my feet, re-forming itself.

Not that it's entirely pleasant, though. Sometimes it feels like being slapped upside the head by someone much bigger than you. And sometimes it feels as though you're back on that gerbil wheel, only now you're in the chair revisiting, again and again, the same shit you thought you had identified and thus washed away sixteen years ago. Not. It just keeps coming back, in ever new inventive disguise. But your kind, wise, compassionate shrink says it must be repeated. As many times as it takes for you to get sick of it, or to finally see it. The first three hundred times were just warm-up, apparently.

I thought of this again as I was reading (quaintly, on the printed page, that which is about to be phased out completely, which makes such people as writers very, um, nervous) The New Yorker. I can't remember what it was exactly, but it made me reach for a pen and one of those flighty scraps of paper on which I write all these disparate notes and then tear my hair out over when, three years later, I'm trying to corral them in their thousands and make some sense out of them so I can start writing a book. Whatever it was, it struck me as a long argument predicated on something fictive. A false originating motive, which then makes the conclusion false too--like the notion of a whole-cloth substance called "evil," or the dominance myth of dog behavior (on which Cesar Millan has made his empire, but which is woefully faulty and functionally ends up as actually near to evil for the dogs on whom it's perpetrated; hmmmm). Something someone wished to believe (as to why, I must refer you back to psychotherapy) but wasn't in fact true. So the elaborate argument was a house built on a foundation of whipped cream.

This then dovetailed with my beginning to read, finally, when I should have done this two years ago before life threw its spanner into my works, B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Oh, how I wished he hadn't titled it that. Because what he says about what motivates human behavior, in just the first couple of pages, is so patently true that one can easily believe all of human life would be vastly, immediately improved if we could just make this "paradigm shift" from wishful thinking. The worldview would change, just as it does on that first day of psychotherapy. And it can never go back, which is a good thing: let us evolve, in our thinking, just as we have done in our bodies.

Writing is like therapy, even though it is not therapy, because writing feels good even while it pains one deeply. I actually feel itchy, short of breath, uneasy, needing suddenly to do the dishes or the laundry, or go take a walk mid-sentence. I'm dying to get away from it, even as I'm dying to get the next sentence down, see if it is one of those sentences that takes off like a kite with you at the end of the string pulling back with all your strength. That's what feels good: the appearance on the page of a line or two you didn't know you had in you. A thought that actually sounds smart, when you were feeling dumb. A rhythm that comes out like the percussion line of a driving dance song.

This is what feels good about writing, and why I keep doing it, why I've let myself go unfit for any other employment. So now I am undiversified as General Motors. With the same financial outlook.

To further clarify, I am, I just decided, an "ostensible writer." That is, I never write about what it is that I am ostensibly writing about (yeah, baby: check these blog posts! a whole new genre!). There are always other things that fit themselves in sideways, or insert themselves underneath the thin film of the surface. --This is the way I think, too; I wander through the woods looking at whatever, or I see my dog holding up her hurting paw from the snow (is she asking me for help, and if so, what does this say about her ability to intend, or posit results?), and a dozen new spokes are suddenly radiating out from the center of the thought. Jeez, it's a miracle I end up finishing anything I start writing, come to think of it. Or maybe I'm just ostensibly a writer.

This does tend to lead to a problem, though I experience it as a richness. "Prolix" was a word I first encountered on the top of one of my grad-school papers, meant to be a slap of a rebuke. It certainly is that. But it means that I will always be able to sit on top of a mountain of words, and that, at least, is a form of luxurious soft cushion. From it I see even more.


Friday, January 16, 2009

A Wing. And a Prayer

Airmen are sexy. They always end up looking like Gary Cooper when they wear their leather flight jackets. This is because they are the sort who look right into the steely eyes of death. And they don't blink either. There is the sense that they can do anything, and running along the narrow edge between life and death, the possible and the impossible, is "anything," all right.

They take a knowledge of science (and you better have a supremely tight grip on aerodynamics and internal combustion, when you're venturing where nature never intended you to be) and marry it with courage. What could give more of a shiver? What could throw a brighter spot on the dark place where sex and death whisper into each other's ears?

They seem to say, Hey! It's all a big crapshoot anyway!
Hand me those dice.

And sometimes they get out alive. There's a picture of my father (not this one)--yes, boyishly handsome in his leather flight jacket, trained as a bombardier, and because he was a college boy, sent out west to train other bombardiers. Instead of overseas to war. He was never sent to unload a bomb over Berlin, or even more thankfully, Nagasaki. No, by chance (or by fate, thinks the person who writes this),
he was kept where he had a far better try at coming back.

His daughter is made of different material: fear, at least when she gets in a plane. Though after years of almost exploding panic (averted only by fervent scribbling in her journal; see next week's blog for more on this), she now has blessed assistance in the form of little blue pills. These are courtesy of the Veterans Administration, as it happens, via a vet who was given far too many. These now enable her to sometimes, incredibly, sleep on a plane. As if she could stay awake. But, as she discovered, an adrenaline rush can all but wake the dead.

Two weeks ago. Returning home. Sitting comfortably, the Airbus ready to throttle up and take us above the Salt Lake airport. The pill has been taken, is doing its work. Then it comes. My son, in the window seat, looks up suddenly from his book. "Mom, can I tell the future?"

The heat--or is it a chill--geysers up from my feet to engulf
my head. Dead fear pinions the gut. My words come out half-strangled; I have to get them out quickly, before he says any more, because I know what he is going to say, and maybe if he says it, it will happen. "No, honey, probably not." I think to say "probably" because I need to at once tell the truth, and what I hope to be the truth. "Good," he replies. "'Cause I don't want what I saw to happen."

Oh, god. I reach for another half pill. There is nothing else to do. We are tied here, to whatever might happen. Whatever will. And then, for one small second, a calm thought slides by before going out the window into the rushing air: If it's going to happen, it's going to happen, and that's all right. Then it'll be over. At least we're together.

When the second leg of our journey is finally over, and our plane lets down in the dusk of Albany onto a snow-covered runway, prompting a round of applause from the cabin, I turn to him again. "Now can you tell me what it was you thought would happen?"

"I had a bad feeling about that flight. I thought we were going to, you know, crash."

This incident has caused me to hold in the forefront of my mind the realization that fears are not the same thing as destiny. Sometimes they might be, but what makes them
so is just luck.

This week, in the icy Hudson after a jet had improbably, impossibly, ditched there, fears became reality, but also did not. I don't know what to think, or what to take away. I stare at the picture in the paper. Relief. Appreciation for the cool skills of airmen, their nose-thumb to the greatest dangers of them all. And renewed belief that the future is, thank heaven, not ours to know.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Here is the top of the bubble. Proof that it has not burst entirely--but needs to. Here is Park City, Utah, mecca for those who live to ski. (Utah's license plates feature a figure on skis carving through the powder for which their mountains are known, and the injunction to "Ski Utah." OK, thanks, I will.) Those who live to ski are necessarily rich. One week of skiing here--lift tickets, lessons, lunch at the lodge--would consume the equivalent of two months of my family food budget. This kind of money is as nothing to the thousands of people who pour into the ski resorts of Park City. There are six of them; and this is just one town in one state. So there are, daily every winter, hundreds of thousands of people raining money onto the ranges of the Wasatch, the Rockies, the Catskills, the Berkshires. Once upon a time there were animals here, and silence. Now there is busy enterprise. Over it all hangs the persistent whir of ski lifts, and clouds of two-stroke exhaust from the skimobiles of the ski patrols.

The houses crawl up the sides of the foothills, grab on with mighty arms of concrete and steel. The pounding must have been ferocious. The sound of graders scraping away the soil to adhere the ribbons of roads that wind through the canyons and up the slopes; the vast condo cities biting into the earth, the huge houses times hundreds. The first wave of building here--the second and third have been ever more grasping and huge, making the first look positively innocent, though it was hardly that--was documented by photographer Lewis Baltz in his powerful and depressing book Park City. It revealed, starkly and with an unavoidable truth, the rape of a land.

It bends the mind to contemplate this many people with $4 million in their pockets to build second (or third or fourth) houses that sprawl to contain so much faux Mission style furnishings, vast beds and six bathrooms and echoing kitchens and several flat-screen TVs and Wolf ranges that are basically like having a Boeing 767 in your kitchen. The decor comes from Anonymous Central; the houses are owned by people who simply do not have the time to furnish them. They hire others for that. And these others forget small items like books: there will be none of those, though the Jacuzzi with multicolored lights and little waterfalls, and of course the gaming system and billiards table in the basement, will have been seen as essential, top priority. Perhaps you will feel an unnameable twinge, this is odd, I think, when you first notice the large "painting" over one of the four fireplaces picturing a village of colorful stacked huts on a mountainside, possibly somewhere in Peru, where a family of seven lives in a space roughly the size of one of the walk-in closets. But this is an irony-free zone: This is America, home of the free, the willfully ignorant, and the over-leveraged.

From these roads you can walk up into public lands (what has been left for everything else not already displaced by 5,000-square-foot shelters for the most important animals of all). At the top of the earth here the clouds meet the ground, under a wide sky. In the distance sparkle all the lights of Park City, and the curving lines of a multiplicity of ski runs. This is where the moose wander free, and occasionally after the human interlopers. It is a sight of supernatural power, this landscape. You may wish to come live here. With all your heart.

It is so mythic a place it might well be the scene of such a tale as that set forth in Hayao Miyazaki's fist-in-the-gut environmental fable Princess Mononoke. I first watched this elemental, eminently sad animated movie--it crosses the samurai epic with biblical allegory--about the battle between the spirit of the forest and the humans who will kill all other life in order to feed their own needs--upon returning from Utah. Is it any wonder I wept?

Maybe in the future, though, I think in childish hope, those massive houses will become communal living spaces for those who, displaced by the bursting of the unsustainable bubble we blew and blew up until it could stretch no more, cannot live anywhere else. We could form small units of people helping other people simply to live. Not to take more than is needed. And the ski runs will cease to be groomed, and the scrub will regrow, the wolves returning to the place they belong. They will do what they can to right the balance.

I told you, I am a child, lost in an animated feature where the bad guys look like they're winning, but in the end some hope appears. Always, always, hope.

This is not going to be all bad, you know, the bursting of the bubble. There are silver linings to all clouds, no matter how black and how full of hard rain.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Truly, the Worst

What can you do when your kind and generous friend has gone beyond the call of duty and cared for your dog for ten whole days--and then said dog pulls the worst stunt of her life? And just how bad was it? Well, it drove the kind friend to poetry. That's how bad.

We stood where you left us
Night all around us. Moonless . . . starless.
Black puddles in the black night . . . didn't see them . . .
freezing feet.
We hate you, Nelly.

But wait! Are you OK? Are you hunting or the hunted?
Jump into a rabbit hole. Faster than a meadow vole.
Greased lightning.
Or have you been killed by a hunter's trap
and I will have to tell your mama.

Oh god, please no.
Oh Nelly . . . naughty, frightful, willful Nelly.
Sexy Nelly . . . Willy's girl
Turn over let him lick your tummy.

Don't do this to us. To your mama.
God, Nelly, I hate you for this.

Faster than a speeding bullet.
Hide from Mama. Hide from Janet.
Craziest bitch that walks the planet.
See? I can rhyme in the face of disaster.
Oh, Nelly! I hate you right now.

I hear a shrill scream in the distance. And why is there no moon
I have no flashlight . . . Is there no god to strike a match in
the heavens?
Ne-e-e-e-e-ly! Nellybelly. Here, Nell
y! Let's go home, OK?
We wait.
We wait hours.
How can I tell Melissa her dog is missing and presumed dead?
Her brain, neon green. Mine is red, aflame with anger, then fear.
Then back to anger again. I need a strong drink.
When I see you, Nelly, I will fuckin
g kill you. Black and White
But wait . . . now I am frightened again. Silence for a long time
. . . miles and miles
of cornfield silence.
Ne-e-e-e-e-ly! Please, honey, pretty

She emerges, as if from a tomb, at 8. Black filthy. No white.
Crusty dirt and rat droppings . . .reeking.
Ah, beautiful Nelly . . . thank th
e doggod she is OK. My baby.

She smells so bad the others stay distant.
We run a bath (twice) and shampoo the tombpoisons away.
Towels . . . more towels. She feels happy now. Black and White

Time for dinner.
My good girl. We love you, Nelly.
Houdini's daughter.

Nelly of our hearts.

--Janet Nelson Harrington

December 2008

evidence photo (c) Andrew Garn

Many thanks to search-and-rescue heroes Andrew; Bonnie with the incomparable Nora and
Malcolm; and (it goes without saying) Janet

Saturday, January 3, 2009