The Agreement

DC_Ikea_Monkey07.jpg

The shearling coat in question, post-Darwin. Why do we dress up animals like children?

Darwin, the little monkey that sparked a media frenzy last year can finally call  Storybook home. According to the Globe and Mail, Darwin’s former owner is walking away from the legal fight stating the appeal is just too costly.  It’s a relief to know that he’ll be taken care of and free of shearling coats forever. Darwin’s story got me thinking about my relationship with my dog, Chicken and inspired the following short essay about my uncomfortable desire to dress up my dog:

The Agreement

The sound of the alarm clock sets my little dog, Chicken, snorting and yawning. He paws at the side of the bed, reaching for my toes. Getting up early was hard at first, but now, eleven years later I can’t imagine a better way to start the day.  Chicken wags his feathery tail in figure-eights and the second after he tastes my toe, he skirts backwards, spinning down the hall toward the door. I listen for rain. It’s hard to tell what it’s doing out there, not that it matters. Chicken and I walk in all of it — wind, rain, hail, snow or fog, it doesn’t matter, we both trot up and down the same city streets — the promenade de merde, I call it — day after day.  It’s part of our agreement.

I gather up leash, harness and the tiny black hoodie from American Apparel. Chicken’s not a fan of the sweatshirt, his ears go down and he slumps his shoulders, but he raises his paws dutifully without being asked so I can slip on the tiny cuffed sleeves. I carry him the first block, massaging arthritic hips and knees to limber him up. One sweatshirt-clad leg drapes over my arm while he looks up at me with his sleepy brown eyes, then stretches up to lick my chin. I kiss the top of his head. He’s an affenpinscher, with wiry black and grey hair that sticks out everywhere. He looks like a little ewok straight out of Star Wars. He’s only slightly larger than a chihuahua so carrying him isn’t a chore. If I’m honest, I’d say he’s pretty much newborn baby size. But thinking about my dog like that makes me uncomfortable. Intellectually, I know better. Emotionally, I’m not so sure.

Chicken is my first dog and I promised myself when I got him I wouldn’t become “one of those women.” You know the kind. The women who dress up their dogs and treat them like babies. I’m a fan of Cesar Milan, The Dog Whisperer — a dog is a dog is a dog and treating them like a doll or like a child just messes them up. It doesn’t respect the animal or give it the kind of dog-life it deserves. A pair of doggie-jeans and a jaunty beret strapped on a dog’s head doesn’t express even the smallest part of an animal’s personality, but it says a hell of a lot about the dog’s owner. But if I’m nothing like the women who sip espressos in swanky coffee shops, purse-dogs propped on their laps; or the Lululemon mommies jogging the seawall while pushing their bichon frise ahead of them in a stroller, then why have I been dressing him in sweaters and t-shirts pretty much from day one?

I keep to basics, of course: plain t-shirts and hoodies, the odd raincoat, and I draw the line at anything rhinestone-encrusted or cutesy. Well, there were some Halloween costumes, a santa hat and a red-satin bow tie early on, but nothing extreme.

Is it something about his size? A little dog like Chicken can be mistaken for a puppy his whole life. Unlike larger dogs who grow bigger and more dog-like as time passes, toy breeds never seem to grow up. There will never come a point when I can’t scoop Chicken up or tuck him in my bag or dress him in sweaters. But as much as I dress him up,  Chicken is all dog. When he was younger, just a glimpse of a cat or squirrel and he was off running after them. He has no clue he’s too small to follow through on the attack; that his prey are more likely to do damage to him than the other way around. His dog-brain is wired the same as a dog ten-times his size: hunt, run, play, eat, sleep. The sweaters don’t slow him down; they don’t change who he is. The hipster hoodie really isn’t any different than the pink onesies those women dress their dogs in, it’s just a different colour. It might as well be a flashing neon sign announcing to the world I’ve confused my dog for a different animal, something closer to human. Why is it, despite how much I love his animal nature, his bark, his bite, his oblivious to all the human trappings I surround myself with every day, why is it I still feel the need to dress him this very un-doggy way?

In December 2012, Darwin the rhesus monkey became an instant internet sensation after he was photographed wandering a Toronto Ikea parking lot dressed in a little faux-shearling coat and diapers. Monkeys are not allowed as pets in Toronto so Darwin was taken from his owner and placed in a primate sanctuary. She has since launched a civil suit trying to get him back. She calls herself the monkey’s “mom” and worries that her bond with little Darwin will be broken if he isn’t returned. He is loved, she says, by his mother. So far, the judge has denied her requests for custody. Custody, it seems, isn’t even the issue. The case is about personal property, not love, and not family, no matter what Darwin’s owner tearily insists.

As if it might make a difference, as if it might prove how much she loves him, she tells the press about the Christmas and New Year’s Eve outfits she purchased for Darwin. A santa suit, a bow tie and plastic top hat. Other pet owners join her protest. One woman, tears rolling down her cheeks, says she backs Darwin’s owner one hundred percent. If anyone tried to take her dog from her, she would fight them all the way.

The whole scenario is custom-made for tabloid television and the coverage continues to be delivered in an ironic, mocking way, as if the whole thing is a joke. And isn’t it? It is such a joke that a woman calls a monkey her baby! Yet, the press coverage continues, and in every interview the woman speaks about the monkey as if he is her child. She rues his “lost potential” as if that by denying Darwin the opportunity to live with her, the monkey is somehow regressing from potential-human back to simple animal again. I wonder Is this the only way we’re able to connect with animals, by denying what they are? By trying to make them one of us? Apes and monkeys are especially prone to this kind of treatment, that 99% genetic similarity often confuses. And because they are wild animals so far outside their natural habitat I find the effects of this naked anthropomorphizing and infantalizing more disturbing to witness.

It’s easy to call Darwin’s owner crazy. In comparison, Chicken and his hoodies don’t even make a blip on most people’s the crazy radar. And, Darwin, what does he get out of this bargain? Most rhesus monkeys in North America are raised in labs, used for experiments from space flight to genome testing. So, some might say his short life so far has been better than most, even with dress-up and diapers. Saving him from his “mother” will see him behind bars for the rest of his life. The wild is not an option anymore, if it ever was. But at least he will be with other primates and be able to live, somewhat, like a monkey. At least it will gets him out of that little shearling jacket. Without that jacket, I wonder, how different would the news story have been? Or would there have been a story at all?

That damn jacket. Okay, yes, my dog is not a monkey and he doesn’t wear diapers or use a toothbrush. But as much as I disagree with people owning wild animals as pets, I get it. I hate that I get it, I wish I could just call the woman and those like her crazy and be done with it. But on some level, I’m pretty sure I am that crazy lady.

I understand the bond she talks about and I understand the desire to connect with an animal, to nurture it and be nurtured in return. I understand how you can fall in love with them without even trying to.

On the promenade de merde a couple of lazy crows give us the stink-eye. I let Chicken off his leash to chase them but his eyesight isn’t what it used to be.  I point them out, put some energy in my voice to direct his attention in the right way. Eventually, he bounces toward the birds. The crows hop a few steps but don’t fly away. Black dog and black birds poke and dig at the ground together. I love watching him in moments like this. I’m envious of the crows, how they know him in a way I never can. A different species, but an animal just the same. In my black rain gear, I hang back, invisible and disconnected.

Today I will put on my suit and go to work. I will be surrounded by man-made everything. Concrete and plexiglass and industrial carpet. Assignments due, annual performance reviews, emails. But at least this is how I start the day. Bearing witness to this early-morning inter-species camaraderie is Chicken’s gift and it will get me through.

I lure Chicken away from his bird-friends with the promise of a treat and a cuddle. If I say that word “cuddle,” he runs up and pushes his body against my leg, like a purring cat. I knew before I got the dog that I would love him. I just didn’t know I would love him quite this much.

Anthropomorphism is a dirty word in some circles, even though we’re all raised on the stuff. From Peter Rabbit to The Jungle Book to Mickey Mouse, most of us have been fed fantasy animal images our whole life through books, movies and television. Animal characters all dressed up and dapper, designed to tell very human stories. Aesop’s Fables, Watership Down, The Incredible Journey, The Berenstein Bears.

It’s hard to think of a book from my childhood that didn’t have animals in it – talking or not. One book in particular I still remember was called Felicia. It was about a cat turned into a little girl turned into a cat again. As an eight-year-old, that book made me want to be an animal, not just connect and talk to them. I worry sometimes I never truly grew out of that desire, and that my affection for my dog comes from the same place that makes people dress up wild animals on television shows, or collect a hundred cats in their basement, or try to make a child out of a rhesus monkey.

Anthropomorphism is of little use in a laboratory or a slaughter house or puppy mill. It’s better in those circumstances to keep things simple: animals are not us, so they do not feel like us, ergo, they do not feel at all. The desire to humanize is a weakness. Something driven by emotion, not intellect. The danger and arrogance of anthropomorphism is the failure to see animals as independent of ourselves. But the opposite is also true. Another risk, on the opposite end of the scale is the failure to understand our similarities and to forget that a human being is only animal after all.  But what does this have to do with dressing up my little dog? Am I trying to make a human out of him? A little dog-faced furry baby that thinks and feels just like a real live baby boy?

At a family wedding recently, my cousin corners me next to the dessert table and despite my protests thrusts his four-month-old baby boy into my arms. It’s a bit of a laugh, my uncomfortableness with children. Everyone takes photos and mocks my awkwardness. I grit my teeth and smile while my arm stiffens under the baby’s weight. His pink cheeks are sticky, and he blows milk bubbles between dainty lips. I put on my best sing-song dog-talking voice and bounce the boy in my arms. I think of my dog. What a good boy you are, aren’t you? Who’s a good boy? His mother gives me a long look before she takes him away from me.

Maybe we’re all hardwired to caretake in a certain way and given the opportunity, with a dog, a cat, a horse, or any other non-human animal, we revert to what comes most naturally. Maybe the only way we know how to love something is to deny them an identity separate from our own. Chicken wears his jacket not because he needs it, but because it marks him as mine in some way. Maybe treating animals like animals is the hard part, and maybe the path to that kind of relationship with my dog is remembering that I’m just another kind of animal, myself. Different certainly, but better? Human nature is still animal nature, it’s just species specific.

Of course I could stop dressing him up. But those clothes are part of our agreement. I get to dress him up and confuse him for human now and then, but only so long as he can remind me that I’m just another animal after all. Sounds simple, but I’m not so sure it is. Our relationships with animals is so complicated — mostly by the way we’ve let them down or turned our backs on what makes us the same, and instead focus on what makes us different. And if my reminder comes along with twelve to fifteen years of dress-up, doggie treats and a routine of daily constitutionals, I’m ok with that.

And Chicken? He can shake a paw, but I’m not sure he that’s enough to seal this kind of deal —  an agreement takes two after all. I’d like to think that after eleven years we know each other well enough not to question the boundaries of our relationship. I am there for him and he is there for me. In the end that is all we have.

After our walk, we get down on the living-room carpet and roughhouse a little. We play “hand,” a game where I place the palm of my hand on the top of his head while he tries to twist and wriggle and roll to shift me off. He bites down on my fingers, just hard enough to notice, but not enough to hurt, and shakes his head like he’s killed something dangerous and possibly tasty. He wins.

I lay my head down and he joins me, panting a little from the effort of our game. The panting continues too long and I begin to worry. Is this how it will be? One day we will be playing on the carpet and he will just stop, finally run out of breath? This experiment in cross-species connection can only last at most fifteen years. Nowhere long enough for me, his mother. He was made to break my heart.

I say his favourite words, a rhyming non-sensical combination that makes his head tilt back and forth in anticipation. Treat meet feet seat bar far car work walk talk sock. This is the extent of our intellectual exchange. His big brown eyes watch me closely. Yes, his look says. I’m with you. Right here. Right now. We are together. There’s a pang in my heart. Just a small pain that comes with certain kinds of longing.

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Cascadia

Cascadia

He carries with him
a book of birds
as good as imaginary
they fly in another place.
Not in Cascadia,

Here, grey-blue herons
plod in the shallows,
cormorants stretch
bloody necks,
eagles, bald and brown,
spy over beaches
for the glint of fog glass.
Here, pigeons and gulls,
brazen tyrants, beg for it
in an ash grey sky.

His book fans open,
wings into open air,
marring a view of
cracked concrete and,
yellow stripes.
He carries with him
such heavy weight.
At the edge of the the world
yellow paint on the curb,
the only barrier to flight.

Mentors

I talked a lot about writing before I ever started writing.  I talked about how I was really-really going to write to anyone who would listen. This went on for years – -maybe, I thought, if I tell enough people I’ll have to follow through. I never expected any of these people to actually help me in this quest. The writing was on me and I liked it that way. Though, back then, the climb from where I was: a scribbler and a journal-writer, a girl with a big imagination but very little follow through, to where I wanted to be: A WRITER (capitalization mine) seemed insurmountable. Then, through the course of my day job, I met a writer. He asked me if I had a mentor.

Mentor. I understood the word in a business kind of sense. I always pictured women with 80s hair working in a high rise in some big city helping other women fit in to a man’s world. (I’m serious. That is exactly what I pictured. Something out of “Nine to Five”). I never considered that mentors existed in the arts. He asked me questions about what I wrote, what I wanted to write, offered to read my work and to introduce me to other writers. Unfortunately, the whole idea intimidated me at the time and I never took him up on his offer.

Eventually, I stopped talking and started writing. And once I reached the point where I was ready to share my work, I was lucky enough to meet supportive and encouraging writers who helped me improve and believed in me and made me feel part of a writing community. How could I ever have thought that mentors didn’t exist for writers? How could I ever have thought that as a writer I had to figure out everything on my own?

Nowadays I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to act as a mentor to other writers and pass on all the knowledge and encouragement that has been passed on to me. For the past year I have been working with Booming Ground, an online mentorship program run by UBC MFA students. As a mentor I get to work one-on-one with a writer for six months — all via email. And through the program I have developed some wonderful relationships with writers from all over the world. I’ve cheered in their corner and been amazed by their work.

Mentors can come in all shapes and sizes — some work with you like I do through Booming Ground for a short six months, others might help you on a certain project or with insight into certain elements of craft. Still other mentors will be with you through your whole writing life. If you have a mentor or two or three (or more) remember to tell them (often) how much their support means to you. And when the opportunity arises, pass it on. You won’t regret it.

A certain colour of green

Codroy, Newfoundland.

I’m not certain what the proper name of this colour is. I’ve found it in a nail polish called “turquoise caicos” but I’m fairly sure that is not what they call it in the Codroy Valley, Newfoundland where I first saw it when I was just a kid.

Summer brings up memories all wrapped up in this green. My grandparents lived in a house this colour (trimmed in black). A green house with a white picket fence. It was important to lock the gate of that picket fence or else the sheep and cows and horses that roamed the village roads would eat all the grass in the front yard and then lay down and go to sleep there, impossible to move. The sheep were especially sneaky about it. It was like they could pick the lock to that gate themselves.

There was a path through the grass to a house down the hill where an old woman manned the village post office from a room that might have been called a front porch once upon a time. And then another path leading to the fishing (and lobster) boats and the cannery where my grandfather and uncles and aunt all worked, depending on the season.

I haven’t been to Newfoundland since I was a teenager but summer brings up all sorts of memories. Including the green. My uncle still lives in that house. He painted it red maybe ten years ago now, so the green house lives on only in my memory, and, in a way, at the tips of my fingers, that this summer I’ve painted a certain turquoise caicos green.