Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why dogs are NOT babies: a strike for canine dignity

I have a bookshelf in our bedroom, one that I seldom add to, if ever. I don’t know what to call it exactly, except that it has books in it that I return to, that I love, that are warm baths to the soul.

The only trouble is, they keep changing.

I will go back to reread, for the 14th time, one of these cuddly old familiar books, and suddenly it’s not so cuddly any more. Or not so well-written. I’d give you a list of them all, but it would embarrass me.

Something has happened over the years, especially since I began taking seriously the process of writing fiction. Oh all right, after being a book reviewer for 25 years: I think I know crap from the real thing, but it’s not exactly that.

It’s the ability to spot writers’ card tricks.

There’s a little bit of conjurer in every writer, whether fiction or non-. Hell, more than a little! What does a conjurer do? He makes stuff appear, usually out of nowhere. Such as plots and scenarios and dialogue which seems to just sprout up off the page.

All this is a long lead-in to one of my warm-bath books, one I decided to pull down off the shelf for the first time in years. It’s a very old paperback, circa 1962, probably belonged to my mother originally and floated into my hands the way these things do. It’s not just yellowed but browned, and has that punky stale smell of very old paper.

It’s Travels with Charley.

This is probably John Steinbeck’s most popular book (and the spiky red banner shouts at the top, “The #1 National Bestseller, Now Only 75 cents! OVER A MILLION COPIES IN PRINT!”) It’s touted as a first-person, nonfiction account of Steinbeck’s road trip across America, kind of like the thing Charles Kuralt did on TV a long time ago, where he travels the length and breadth of the United States (“He saw things which stirred his anger and things which made him swell with pride”), and talks to all sorts of down-home, folksy types, including a few racists.

The only problem with it is that it’s almost pure fiction.

I didn’t find all this out until I Wiki’d Steinbeck and Travels with Charley and discovered this bit of information:

Bill Barich, who wrote Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America, a retracing of Steinbeck's footsteps, said:

"I'm fairly certain that Steinbeck made up most of the book. The dialogue is so wooden. Steinbeck was extremely depressed, in really bad health, and was discouraged by everyone from making the trip. He was trying to recapture his youth, the spirit of the knight-errant. But at that point he was probably incapable of interviewing ordinary people. He'd become a celebrity and was more interested in talking to Dag Hammarskjold and Adlai Stevenson. The die was probably cast long before he hit the road, and a lot of what he wrote was colored by the fact that he was so ill. But I still take seriously a lot of what he said about the country. His perceptions were right on the money about the death of localism, the growing homogeneity of America, the trashing of the environment. He was prescient about all that."

A genius is a genius, for a’ that. The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men ain't nothing to sneeze at. So the book is still worth a read, but this time through I noticed that, here and there anyway, nails stuck out and seams showed. One whole chapter (which felt suspiciously like padding to bring the page count up to 200) was about snooping around in a hotel room that hadn’t been made up yet, and his detective-style piecing together of details on the previous occupant, whom he called Lonesome Harry. This was supposedly a travelling businessman who had written a guilty letter to his wife (crumpled up in the wastebasket, of course) before getting drunk (empty bottle of Jack Daniels) and entertaining a prostitute called Lucille (carmine lipstick and raven hair on the pillow!).

Steinbeck’s son, John Jr., was quoted as saying, “He just sat in his camper and made up all this shit."

All right, all right. We’re finally getting to the real point of this ramble: not just the discovery of cracks and holes in the work of a legendary writer, but said writer’s observations about dogs.

It’s really the best part of the book. As he drove his camper (romantically named Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse) all over the length and breadth of said United States, his companion was an elderly standard poodle called Charley. If Charley had more character than most of the people Steinbeck supposedly interviewed, it was no accident. He was one noble dog, able to see through the shadiest of humans with aplomb (whatever aplomb is – I’ve never figured it out).

Charley, being far too old to take this sort of trip and probably being let out to pee once a day, keeps getting sick, predictably with urinary problems. This necessitates taking him to vets several times. But it’s Steinbeck’s take on people who treat their dogs like children which made me sit up and take notice.

It made more sense than anything I’d read in a long time and made up for some of the vacuous drivel ("MUST READ: Seven Sex Secrets the Kardashians Don't Want You to Know") that I read on Facebook.

“On the other hand, I yield to no one in my distaste for the self-styled dog-lover, the kind who heaps up his frustrations and makes a dog carry them around. Such a dog-lover talks baby talk to mature and thoughtful animals, and attributes his own sloppy characteristics to them until the dog becomes in his mind an alter ego. Such people, it seems to me, in what they imagine to be kindness, are capable of inflicting long and lasting tortures on an animal, denying it any of its natural desires and fulfillments until a dog of weak character breaks down and becomes the fat, asthmatic, befurred bundle of neuroses. When a stranger addresses Charley in baby talk, Charley avoids him. For Charley is not a human; he’s a dog, and he likes it that way. He feels that he is a first-rate dog and has no wish to be a second-rate human.”

In the past few years I have seen an alarming, even nauseating rise in dog-worship: people who lavish far more energy and attention and even affection on their dogs than they do on their own children or spouse. “He’s my ba-a-aby,” I hear over and over again, in the same swooping, crooning tone, a tone their children have never heard. I don’t know what this means, but it makes me squirm. As Steinbeck states, he’s a dog, not a baby. Is it the fact that this baby never grows up, is subservient and expected to be obedient, that you OWN it and therefore are always in control? Is it the fact that, in loving your dog, you will never have to deal with all the complications and vicissitudes of loving a human being?

Or do some people genuinely prefer them? The whining, the supplicating tail-wags, the slobbering tongue on the face (“Awwwwwww!”), the endless barking, the fleas, the leg-humps, the . . . you get the idea.

The point is, dogs are NOT babies, certainly not baby humans, and an adult dog isn’t even a baby dog. We infantilize them by insisting that they are, and we rob them of their animal dignity. The “unconditional love” they give us has an awful lot to do with the fact that they know where their food and shelter comes from.

I don’t think dogs are capable of “love”. Attachment, yes. Perhaps a certain loyalty, if I’m not anthropomorphizing too much. The capacity to guard and protect, bred in for millennia. It can seem like love. But does something you own really have the capacity to love you?

To a person who has given up on human nastiness and betrayal, turning away from humans and loving their canine “babies” can seem like a step towards emotional liberation. But it isn’t. It's escape. We were never meant to love another species that way. When speaking of authentic, mature, mutual love, there are no substitutions.

Alarmingly, I’ve seen many TV documentaries about people who keep exotic animals such as poisonous snakes and tigers as pets. In almost every case, the owner speaks of the animals as “my babies” (or “muh buhyy-beeze”, depending on where they come from). A 500-pound Bengal tiger, restlessly pacing in a small chain-link enclosure and alertly looking for clues to the next kill, becomes “like one of my own kids”.

What is this all about? I have a dreadful feeling it’s about alienation, about a culture where clicking a little device in your hand passes for conversation and people tweet by their mother's deathbed. It's about giving up on the human species altogether. What alarms me is the extent to which it is escalating and thus becoming "normal". There’s a bitterness about it, along with a strange lack of awareness of the real dynamics of the situation. These people look right at it and don't see it, a form of soul-blindness which I perceive as one of the worst forms of mental illness.

What does it mean when you buy your “baby” from a breeder, keep your “baby” in a yard and walk it around on a leash? It's called "ownership", and it's not that much different from owning a swimming pool or a car or a gun. Your possession won't talk back, grow up, move away from home. Until it dies (its life usually needlessly prolonged as an act of appalling selfishness on the part of the owner), he will belong to you, he will be your property and will never change.

Certain Godzilla-mothers, the kind who devour their children's identities whole, would like to own and operate and control their offspring, but these children usually insist on breaking away to save their own lives. Enter the dog, the boo-boo, the “baaaaaayyy-beeeeeeee” who rescues the whole situation, offering “unconditional love” and face-slobbering in charge for plenty of Kibbles n’ Bits.

I don’t get it. But then, to me, a dog is just a dog. Is there anything wrong with that?

Did somebody mention George?

I dreamed I was in a movie with George Clooney.

He was very well-dressed and impeccable through the whole movie and had a Cary Grant manner about him. Through the whole movie I felt this longing for him, wanted to kiss and make out with him,  but at the same time I looked on him as a prize Arabian horse or something, just unattainable.

I was both in a movie with him, and watching a movie with him in it. Some parts of the dream were in a movie theatre and I remember trying to snuggle up to him. I wanted everyone to see that I was with George Clooney and he was snuggling up to me. He allowed this, then seemed to sort of lose interest.

I didn’t have too many clothes on during this and was maybe in my late 20s. The movie (an art house film) involved Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson in Mad Men) who was a poor struggling harpist living in a garret. I remember seeing her in one scene very badly miming harp playing, with awful out-of-tune music, and wondering why they hadn’t tried harder to make it seem convincing.

It became obvious as the dream went on that I WAS the Peggy Olson character and was both watching her in the movie, which seemed to take place in an old apartment house with winding staircases in Europe, and BEING her in the movie. I was also somehow sitting with George Clooney in the audience.  He did not seem to like the movie, and as I kept on draping myself over him, it also became apparent he was bored. There was some sort of play-within-a-play happening in the movie that involved Elizabeth Moss, some gorgeous European scenes (? I think), and other famous actors who now escape me. I looked down and noticed I had very hairy legs, and so did the Elisabeth Moss character. George Clooney was now frankly bored by the movie which did not seem to have a point to it. He said “Let’s get out of here” and we left, and I grabbed his hand which he didn’t seem to want.  I hoped as we left that people in the theatre would notice I was with George Clooney, though I continued to worry about my hairy legs.

Similarly to the old apartment building in the movie, the theatre also had very elaborate winding staircases with windows at each landing. I said “Let’s play a Dorothy Parker game.” I grabbed his hand and we began to run up the stairs. When we got to a  window I’d look out at the view and say, “Is this a good place to jump?” Then we’d run up another level. I was disappointed there were only a couple more levels, but then we burst out onto a sort of balcony. The view was mostly obscured by some sort of black-painted glass barrier, but George wiped off a bit of condensation and I could see through it. I just began to gasp at how beautiful it was: snow-peaked mountains, glaciers, blazing-white snow sparkling everywhere. “Oh, it’s just like Alberta,” I sighed. “Switzerland,” George said, by now very bored with me and testy, probably staying just to be polite.

In another scene I was trying to make my way through a maze of corridors (in the movie apartment, not the theatre) which at one point led to a convenience store. I bought two enormous bags of popcorn and felt guilty about it, but it was so cheap, two for one!  I blundered around trying to find my way back. When I finally found George, he was totally annoyed and said, “Don’t you ever go anywhere?” I tried to tell him I had no sense of direction and got lost in restaurants coming back from the ladies’ room. (I didn’t have the popcorn any more.)

Other parts of the dream have already got lost or muddled. One involved Catherine Zeta-Jones who had a very short skirt on. At one point I pointed out to George (who was barely with me by now) that she had no panties on, and he took a look. Renee Zellwegger was there but I don’t know what she was doing. I think Robert Downey Jr. was in it. I had the thought that celebrities just had to stand around to be impressive. At one point I felt like I was in that old Disney cartoon, Mickey’s Gala Premier, in which every celebrity of the day appeared. I still wasn’t quite sure if I was IN the movie or just watching it, but I definitely felt outclassed.

I don’t know if this scene is related or not. It involves bugs, an infestation of them. They were crawling out from a crack in the baseboards which had huge gaps in it. Some of them were enormous cockroaches which made me want to scream. I didn’t know how to get rid of these bugs and ended up spraying very heavily out of a can all along the baseboards (and there weren’t really any baseboards, just wall and floor with big holes and gaps). The bugs retreated quickly, including the cockroaches, and at one point I tried to crunch one under my foot and couldn’t kill it. I knew they would be back.

Another scene (related somehow) had the theatre manager talking to a lot of audience members out in the lobby. He was going on and on about American Presidents. This is garbled in my memory, but the gist was we should be proud and fascinated by how many Presidents had been represented in movies that had played in that particular theatre. At one point he said, very proudly, “We’ve even had an assassination.” The audience was waiting around for some sort of bonus or prize, but I don’t think it ever happened.

I don’t know what happened to George Clooney.