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The Literate Kerry (Vol. 12)

12/05/2004 5:25 PM | Anonymous

Take That, Will Rogers
By Steven Bauer

(Steven Bauer is a novelist, poet and director of a writing program in Ohio. Two of his books are The Seven Months of Winter and Satyrday. The excerpt below is taken from his personal essay entitled, “Take That, Will Rogers,” in which he discusses the unique traits of dogs in general and his five dogs – Minnie, Gabrielle, Chance, Pippin and Pittsburgh, – that now live with him and his family.)

I never met a dog I didn’t like.
When I was growing up, I heard this said not about dogs but about people, a sentiment I found deeply mystifying, even stupid. As far as I was able to tell, this Mr. Rogers, who had first admitted liking all people, was grown up, had the benefit of years of experience, and still had not discovered what I already knew at a very young age. I had found that there were lots of people I didn’t like, lots of people who weren’t worth liking. The neighborhood bully, for example, who had tied me to a tree and made me smoke a whole pack of Winstons; Miss Searle, my teacher, who was a fanatic about the flutophone; our next door neighbors, the Mienkes, whose devotion to their lawn precluded my ever traversing it. Though I was young, I’d learned that people could be mean and petty, blustery, braggadocious, exclusionary, obtuse, selfish, and cruel. At the time—don’t ask me how this is possible—I knew no dogs, and so the concept of peace, goodwill, and charity toward and entire species was alien to me. But it is no longer.

Sure, I’ve run into several dogs I was wary of, and one or two whose annoying personal habits have put me off—incessant and annoying barking, or an obsession with the human knee—but by and large my major impulse, when I see a dog, is to stop whatever I’m doing and say hello. I hesitate to write about this because it makes me seen like the sort of sentimentalist who goes all weepy at the sight of painted puppies and kitties with eyes the size of dinner plates, and this is emphatically not the case. I don’t feel all weak nad fuzzy inside when I see a dog; I feel, rather, exhilarated and interested, braced, ready for the world to take on new colorations and possibilities. Dogs, with their nose-to-the-ground, tail-wagging eagerness, their let-me-at-that-squirrel enthusiasm, remind me that what might on some days seem routine or dreary is only that way if you refuse to see the world at each moment with new eyes.

I could not tell you how many times our small pack has made its way across the fenced acre we have for them—enough times, anyway, for them to know each blade of grass intimately. And yet, every morning when they charge out the back door and into the field, it’s with the wide-eyed amazement of Cortez on a peak in Darien. What new wonder waits in store? What new outrage? Which other animals have left their scents and scat? Have the farmers momentarily deserted a piece of bizarre-looking and totally terrifying machinery the pack wants to flee from but will nevertheless bark at bravely as it stands its ground? Are the cows standing moon-faced and foreign, great impressionist splotches of black and white begging to be harried? What new rodents can be unearthed? What new cats scared up a tree?

. . .When all five dogs are together in a room, the resulting tumult, the conflicting desires, the vocalizations, can get a bit daunting. Minnie will want a bit of solitude, while Gabrielle will believe that not heard is not seen; Pippin will be inflicting upon Gabrielle her insatiable interest, white Chance might well raise his muzzle and croon. And over it all, Pittsburgh will canter, regal and a bit anxious, hoping for a chewie. It’s at moment like this that I catch myself, fierce believer in regulating the number of one’s offspring as I am, understanding those parents who find themselves having just one more child, and then on beyond that. I remind myself that if I didn’t have these dogs, that all but one of them came because someone else abandoned them. Sure, the costs and difficulties multiply, but so does the joy.

I know that I am preaching to the converted here, but nevertheless . . .I still believe I was right as a child to distrust Will Roger’s naïve faith in humankind, and I still believe my current parallel faith in dogs is not misfounded. Much has been written about the loyalty of dogs, but what I love about them isn’t their devotion to me so much as their devotion to being alive. I love their open hearted willingness to take the world on its own terms. Let me at it, they say; sock it to me. Here I come, ready or not. Let the games begin.

How to Read Your Dog
By Danny Shanahan

(You might recognize this name because it has appeared in the New Yorker magazine for more that fifteen years. Danny Shanahan has been a contributor and cover artist, and his cartoons have been collected in volumes entitled, Lassie, Get Help and the children’s book, Buckledown the Workhound. In this humorous essay, he gives you his own slant on how to interpret dogs by anyalyzing three categories: how a dog looks, what a dog says and what a dog does. This excerpt below gives you an idea of his unique interpretation of dog behavior.)

The Head Cock

To assume that dogs who cock their heads are simply listening is a half-truth; to assume they’re trying to hear and understand us is something worse. Dogs who cock their heads are engaged in a fierce inner struggle—not merely to comprehend, but to also remain calm and respectful. Were it not for the act of tilting their mugs in mock concentration (usually biting their tongues or the inside of their cheeks as well), they would run the potentially embarrassing risk of laughing—loud, long, uncontrollably—at nearly everything we say to them.

The Short Yip

The short Yip, or Yap, is the “aloha” of the canine language. Depending on the breed, sex, situation, or mood of the dog in question, it can mean “hello” or “good-bye,” “yes” or “no,” “say what?” or “muzzle it!” It’s frequently used to show annoyance or impatience, and can be when repeated in an incessant, mind-numbing, machine-gun mantra, extremely effective in driving off burglars, evil spirits, psychoanalysts, and children selling candy bars or magazines.

Riding With the Head Out the Window

Dogs have long endured a shaky, distrustful relationship with cars. A loved one carried off, a trip to the vet, motion sickness, even the specter of sudden death—these are onoy a few of the memories that contribute to a deep unease in or around automobiles. Any dog who enjoys riding in a care is, in fact, a consummate actor. With his head out the window, he can fill his gray wooly with wind and distractions. Perhaps he’ll pretend he’s a jet or a chickadee. He can count men with ponytails, or women in black tights. With his feet off the ground and his tongue hanging out, he’s moving full-speed ahead, not sure of where he’s going, or whether he’ll get there at all. He needs to count people—he’s dangerously close to becoming a person himself.


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