OUR BEST FRIENDS

whs-logo

http://www.wsdtc.org/

The Sergei Foundation

shelterpet_logo

B-more Dog

aldflogo

Pinups for Pitbulls

philadoptables

TFPF_Logo

Mid Atlantic Pug Rescue

Our Pack, Inc.

Maine Coonhound Rescue

Saving Shelter Pets, Inc.

mabb

LD Logo Color

Tag: essay

Writers and dogs don’t mix? Gotta disagree

Karl Ove KnausgÂrd, Karl Ove KnausgaardDogs are not a writer’s best friend.

So says Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard in a pretentious little essay in the latest New Yorker.

In the piece Knausgaard, admitting he made little effort to train a new dog, goes on to describe how many great writers have not owned dogs, and how his dog — he doesn’t even bother to share its name — interfered with his completion of his six-volume autobiography.

That’s right, six-volume autobiography.

So he passed the dog, which he had purchased for his daughter, on to another family.

“I had a dog for two years, for the sake of our eldest daughter, who wanted a dog from the age of three, and whom I finally gave in to. The dog was infinitely kind but also infinitely stupid, and I completely lacked the strength and authority to teach it anything at all, so it jumped up on everyone it met, ate all the food it could find, including the food on our dinner table, it pulled on its leash as hard as it could whenever we took it for walks, it dug holes in the lawn, it was never properly house-trained, and it was so submissive and humble that I could hardly look at it without a feeling of irritation or even rage rising in me, the way it often is when one recognizes one’s own least attractive traits in others.”

He goes on … and on:

“Only afterward did it strike me that in the two years we had it I didn’t write a single line of literary prose, merely articles and essays, and although I’m not blaming the dog, and certainly don’t want to claim that I belong in the cohort of good authors, I still think that in a certain sense owning a dog undermined my literary project, which, since it is so largely autobiographical, somehow dissipated in a way I don’t fully understand but that, presumably, had to do with the dog’s character being so like my own, something I actually knew even before we got it, for the original title of my first autobiographical manuscript, which was later changed to ‘Argentina’ and eventually to ‘My Struggle,’ was ‘The Dog.'”

An estimated one in ten Norwegians own a copy of “My Struggle,” and for all I know — even with his tendency for run-on sentences — it might deserve the literary acclaim it has received.

While there might be something to his theory that famous writers often didn’t own dogs — most of them are, after all, a pretty self-absorbed lot — it is easy to come up with one who did for every one he offered as proof that they did not.

E.B. White with his dachshund Minnie

E.B. White with his dachshund Minnie

Amy Tan with Bubba Zo, her Yorkshire terrier

Amy Tan with Bubba Zo, her Yorkshire terrier

“Has a single good author ever owned a dog?” he asks. “Hamsun didn’t have a dog. Tor Ulven didn’t have a dog. Did Duras have one? I find that hard to imagine. Ibsen, did he have a dog? No. Faulkner? I believe he did. In that case, perhaps his position in the literary canon ought to be reconsidered? Virginia Woolf also had dogs, but only so-called lapdogs …”

But, as Rebecca Nicholson points out in The Guardian, many accomplished writers did — Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, E.B. White, John Cheever, P.G. Wodehouse, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Gertrude Stein, to name a few.

John-Steinbeck-with-CharlieAnd let’s not forget John Steinbeck.

As Nicholson points out, “For writers who are not struggling to get down six volumes of painfully detailed autobiography – or freelancers without fixed hours, or anyone who works from home, or anyone who lives alone – having a pet can be a salve.”

Or, even a muse.

“Without exercising social skills, it’s incredible how quickly they start to collapse,” Nicholson wrote. “Dogs take you outside, they make you walk and move, they train you in the art of polite chat with strangers. Dogs make the world seem less cold and less alien. Isn’t that the point of the best writing, too?”

(Photos: Karl Ove Knausgaard, from Paris Review; E.B. White, from Tilbury House, Amy Tan from New York Social Diary; and John Steinbeck)

A letter to a departed dog

??????????

If you are in between dogs — if you’ve recently lost one and can’t quite make the leap to bringing home another — here’s something worth reading.

Allie Potts, a North Carolina writer, puts into words all those hard to pin down feelings that bounce around in one’s head when one is simultaneously coping with grief, dealing with the void of being dog-less, and wondering if getting a new dog is somehow disrespectful to the dear departed old one.

To deal with that, Potts, upon getting a new dog, wrote a letter to her old one.

alliepotts“We pulled out your crate this week, unused for the last three years, and brushed off the cobwebs, only we didn’t do it for you,” she writes.

“Another four-legged creature joined the family and needed a place to sleep. I think you would have liked her. She’s a mix of Lab, like you, but Boxer too, which was always your favorite playmate. But she’s not you.”

Potts recounts the feelings that arose as she sat with the new dog on the couch, much like she did with the old one.

“I felt so guilty. Guilty that I was enjoying her warmth by my side. Guilty that we couldn’t do more to keep you there longer. Guilty I am happy to once again see a bowl on the ground.

“But she really is a good girl and I was the one to suggest we bring her home. In fairness to her, I am trying to remember all your flaws as much as I recall your virtues. How you could clear the room after a meal. The books of mine you destroyed. That incident with the bunny.

“The trouble is, I loved you with your flaws as much as you loved me with mine.”

The full essay can be found on her blog, Allie Potts Writes. She has also written two books, “An Uncertain Faith” and “The Fair & Foul.”

Having had ten dogs come into and go out of my life, I’d agree with her that comparing dogs is hard to avoid — and at the same time a useless pursuit.

“She’s not you, true, but she’s herself; a dog who is sweet and mostly well-mannered. A dog who deserves to be loved for who she is rather than considered somehow flawed for who she’s not…

“So please forgive me if I eventually allow my heart to stop comparing, as difficult as that seems now. When I scratch her behind her ears or throw her a ball to chase, it doesn’t mean I miss you any less. It will just mean I’ve finally allowed my heart to grow more.”

(Top photo from Fort-morgan.org, Potts photo from Alliepottswrites.com)

Of siblings, the 60’s and sappy songs

While traveling with Charley in 1960, John Steinbeck worked in a few visits with family — his son in college, a rendezvous with his wife in Chicago — but he made a point of not including details of those encounters in the book he eventually produced.

They would create, he wrote, a “disunity.”

Instead, the famous writer, traveling the country and using his dog to get people to open up to him, bare their souls and spill their guts, chose to keep his own private life unbared, unspilled and, well, private.

While we’re following Steinbeck’s route, we’re not following that philosophy. That is why you’ve read about our visits with my mother, my father, my brother, an ex-wife and to the former home of my grandparents.

All of this, along with Interstate 94 and my perpetual quest for free lodging, brings us to my sister’s home in Wisconsin.

And the music that she can’t seem to keep inside.

She’s a writer of hymns and a singer of songs who grew up on 60’s music. Long before karaoke machines, she was a hard core singalonger. Or, when no radio was around, a singaloner. She, unlike me — who will sing only when alone (except for Ace) — rarely hesitates to sing, no matter how many people might be around.

She also used her singing to torture me — not that her voice is bad, it’s actually quite good. But — at a time when you don’t even like girls yet — you don’t want one singing sappy girl songs in your face, and she’s always leaned toward the sappy girl songs.

When John Steinbeck left Long Island and hit the road 50 years ago with his poodle to take the pulse of America, he found one of the places to take that pulse was the radio. Radio stations at the time were still playing “Teen Angel,” a morbid little number that told the story of a teenage girl being killed by a train while trying to retrieve the high school ring her boyfriend gave her.

Steinbeck didn’t quite get the name right in “Travels With Charley,” but he did note how the song — No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks earlier that year — seemed to be playing everywhere he went — that America, at least in terms of its music, was becoming pretty homogenized:

“If ‘Teen-Age Angel’ is top of the list in Maine, it is top of the list in Montana. In the course of the day you may hear ‘Teen-Age Angel’ thirty or forty times.”

The song, recorded by a one hit wonder named Mark Dinning, was a continuation of a gloomy theme —  the third No. 1 song in a row at the start of 1960 that featured a love-related death.

The 60’s may have kicked off on a hopeful note, but there was plenty of angst even then, at least in our music. Before Teen Angel, there was “El Paso,” by Marty Robbins — the story of a cowboy who gunned down the man he caught wooing his woman (Felina, who worked in Rosa’s Cantina). He hightailed it out of of town, but was drawn back by his love for Felina. Upon his return, he was gunned down, but at least got a kiss from Felina before he died.

After that came “Running Bear,” by Johnny Preston. Running Bear, you  might recall, loved Little White Bird – and vice versa — and they both jumped into a raging river to reach each other’s arms, only to get sucked under and drown once they did.

Popular music got a little cheerier and even cheesier after that — with lots of songs about the foolishness of love, including several plaintive chart-toppers by Brenda Lee.

A couple of months before Steinbeck departed on his journey, “I’m Sorry” rose to the top of the charts — a song I remember well because my sister used to sing it constantly, and, once she realized it annoyed me, right in my seven-year-old face.

The worst torture, though, would come two years later, with the release of the song “Johnny Angel,” by Shelley Fabares. My sister would delight in singing me — being a John, though not a Johnny –the sappy tune. She was 14 by then, I was nine. The more I appeared to be bothered by it, the more she did it, which taught me a lifelong lesson.

Today, in the home she shares with her husband in DeForest, outside Madison, she has her own karaoke machine, which she fires up frequently. Unlike the young me, the machine serves as both her accomplice and audience, and doesn’t run to another room.

Her husband, also named John — and a true appreciator of her singing — has a connection to another singer, I just learned today. When he was in the 7th grade in Dumfries, Virginia, he was assigned to be the escort of one of four finalists vying to be selected queen of the winter dance.

Parents and teachers served as judges for the contest, and they picked the girl he’d been chosen to escort — the daughter of a marine. She was cute, he recalled, the fastest runner on the playground and prone to wearing “puffy-shouldered dresses.”

The year was 1959, and the girl was Emmylou Harris.

Now that I’m grown up, I don’t think I’d mind Emmylou Harris (a true dog lover, by the way) singing “Johnny Angel” to me — even in my face. My sister singing it to me, however, is still bothersome. How do I know? Because even now, as I look up the song on YouTube, she is doing it again. She’s singing along. And she’s 61. And I’m 57. And I want to run into the other room.

Johnny Angel, how I love him.
He’s got something that I can’t resist,
but he doesn’t even know that I exist.

I’m pretending it’s not bothering me at all.