The dog’s search for meaning

It’s hot outside and the dog gallops up the stairs to the very warm attic, panting with a slashing smile, tongue flapping, teeth bared, eyes wide and wild, tail wagging. He looks “on,” like he’s just hit the stage to burst into a blazing showtune, or just won the lottery. He’s so very jazzed to be here. 

Realizing he’s just exerted that much energy only to run into me at the top, me, ordinary me, who has no food for him, just pets and pats for the good doggie, he quickly calms and collapses on the floor, seals his salivating maw, exhales one huffy breath through his nostrils and resigns himself to the humdruminess of life. Rip-off, he’s certainly thinking.

The dog is not alone in his deflation. The heat rises to the cozy attic and no fan, no matter its wattage, can disperse the vapors. But it’s an existential heat, too, one we all know at some point, here and there. The dog is in the throes of it, stretched out in languid dismay.

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The dog, gazing at me, pondering his existential predicament.

And so am I, to an extent, though I am not physically sprawled out, that would be ridiculous. Still, the dog and I are in moody concert, encased in ennui, a kind of life weariness, if just for this time. Trying to write, I turned to reading my book, “NW” by Zadie Smith, when the dog jogged up to say hello and discovered the groin-punch of nothingness.

Right now, his glass — or his water bowl — is half-empty, to borrow the old metaphorical measure of the optimist vs. the pessimist. He is slowly realizing that life isn’t a continuous (tennis) ball, that letdowns lurk, that existence precedes essence, that not all chew toys are created equal. These are things I learned years ago, that we make our own happiness, shape our own lives, that free will, not divine intervention, reigns, and that disappointments and satisfactions are divvied up about 65/35. The dog doesn’t know all this yet. He is a troubled soul.

In anthropomorphic terms, he’s displaying a glint of neuroses. Somewhere Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre are high-fiving over the notion that psychological and existential angst can be traced in a furry quadruped.

The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he drags his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.

At times like this, a good, jaunty walk won’t cut it. Scooby snacks — nope. A ride in the car? He snickers. But the dog is resilient, and getting his tail wagging is not a demanding task. As with me, these moods of brooding despair and overthinking are intermittent. He’d rather eat a good meal or harass the cats than dwell on the insane, undeniable meaninglessness of his puny little life.

And the next time he does, I plan to start reading to him from Sartre’s daunting opus “Being and Nothingness” or Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion.” And when I myself plummet to pondering the philosophical conundrums, the dog can read to me from — this is an actual book — “Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog.”

Life’s too short for sulking. I know this. However, the dog, whose years are on the seven-year scale, meaning he’s about 21 to 28 in human years, resides on a shorter leash. But this canine savant is swiftly learning one of the essentials, no matter how fur-raising:

Self-realization — it’s a bitch.

Tough and tearjerking, ‘The Rider’ might be the best movie of the year

If you want to have your heart gently removed from your chest and dropped softly into a Cuisinart that’s switched to purée, go see the quietly devastating rodeo western “The Rider,” now in select theaters, mainly arthouses, which are so often repositories for rich, challenging, downcast dramas reeking of raw humanity so true it sears.  

Chloé Zhao’s lo-fi drama — the Dakota prairie lushly shot by cinematographer Joshua James Richards — moves at a painstaking pace, the clip of everyday life in action. But little is everyday here: Twenty-something Brady is a local rock star of rodeo bronc riding whose skull, we see in the opening shots, is stapled shut and oozing blood. A terrible accident in the ring has left him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the rodeo, the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. His skill and sensitivity with the beasts are sublime to behold.

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Brady Jandreau and pal Apollo in “The Rider.”

Brady (played by crisp, affectless non-actor Brady Jandreau) lives with his drinking and gambling father (gruff Tim Jandreau) and mentally challenged little sister Lilly (an extraordinary Lilly Jandreau, who is actually disabled) in a ramshackle trailer. It’s a hardscrabble existence with scant room for creativity or reinvention.

“The Rider” is a fine-grained portrait of the pains of getting back on your feet after life-altering disappointment, about rebuilding your spirit after it’s been body-slammed and shattered. This is Brady’s task, and he goes at it with gimlet-eyed resolve and a proudly perched ten-gallon hat.

th.jpegWe see Brady drinking beer with his cowboy bros, working valiantly in a drug store and, most exquisitely, visiting his best friend Lane (Lane Scott), another former rodeo luminary, who, now severely paralyzed from a car accident, lives at a rehab center. Scott, who is really paralyzed and non-verbal, is spectacular in a turn of heartbreaking clarity. He’s hard to watch, but you can’t take your eyes off him.

Elegiac and painful, wreathed in dusty, grassy beauty, the film wears a gritty, documentary patina. It’s been called “American regional-realist,” which sounds about right.

“The Rider” is easily one of the best movies of the year — it has a 97% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes — partly because it doesn’t rub your nose in sadness; the emotion just organically, effortlessly surfaces. It’s driven by an ensemble of untrained actors behaving like actual people — people so achingly authentic, it sort of tears you up.

Retro movie review: ‘Wendy and Lucy’

“Wendy and Lucy,” from 2009, is an unsung pearl of stripped-down indie filmmaking. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, it warrants a revisit by dint of its thematic relevance, stirring lead performance, and the soulful presence of an utterly endearing dog named Lucy. My review:

In the minimalist heartbreaker “Wendy and Lucy,” Michelle Williams plays Wendy with a premature perma-frown and a youthful spirit that’s been crumpled like a recycled can. Lucy is her faithful pup, a golden mutt with dark, serious eyes and the cool composure of Robert Mitchum.

She’s a good dog. Wendy’s striving to be good, too, but fate and circumstance have thrown up a gauntlet of bad luck with no room in which to budge. With impressive calm and fierce nonjudgment, the movie puts you in Wendy’s shabby sneakers and taps into our morbid economic moment when it can seem that a dog is all you have.

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Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her scruffily lo-fi “Old Joy” is a desolate story told in miniature with almost forbidding quietude. It crackles on life’s lowest, most natural frequencies, banishing slash-cuts and musical cues, except for the singsongy, slightly eerie tune Wendy sometimes hums, and courts the rustle and flow of its woodsy Oregon setting. Such a threadbare aesthetic speaks of self-conscious formalism, yet form and function here are gracefully and expressively wed.

The story, what little there is, starts in mid-sentence, with Wendy and her steady companion stopping in a small Oregon town on their way to Alaska, where Wendy plans to get work in a cannery. “I hear they need people,” she tells an old parking lot security guard (an extremely un-actorly Walter Dalton) who becomes her angel in hard times.

Wendy has an exhausted voice for her age. It’s breathy and weary and assumes a pitch of exasperated despair as her troubles mount. Her car breaks down, she gets caught shoplifting dog food and, topping things off and setting the nonplot in motion, Lucy disappears.

Wendy searches for Lucy and, with no money, tries to get her car fixed. That’s it. But of course that’s not it. The movie’s a symposium in American poverty, about how people living on the brink of destitution can land there with a shift in the wind. It’s about how people respond to a woman whose only problem seems to be chronic bad breaks. It’s about how you and I respond to that dude and his dog with a cardboard sign at the intersection — our fellow citizens and brethren. Wendy becomes different things to different people: parasite, criminal, an everywoman in need. It’s about our state of affairs, right now.

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Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond, who displayed a similar fascination with the dispossessed and marginalized in “Old Joy,” purposely strip Wendy of backstory and even much personality, and this could challenge viewer empathy. Williams, sporting cut-offs, a tomboy shag and vacant eyes, recedes into the role, making Wendy a wraith in society, all but invisible. It’s an entrancing anti-performance.

You could say nothing happens in “Wendy and Lucy,” but if it were your life, everything happens. The movie doesn’t make it easy on pleasure-seeking viewers. It proudly basks in the quotidian now and lives in its exquisite details, be it Wendy washing and changing in a dingy gas station bathroom or walking past graffiti that simply says “Goner.”

In its stubborn airiness “Wendy and Lucy” grants you gaping spaces in which to wander with the protagonist and feel her metastasizing despair. Without melodrama or the clanking machinery of by-committee plotting, the movie engenders a sense of effortlessness that snares you in its lyrical spell.

It’s tempting to call this frowzy story a tone poem, but it’s not. It’s cold, naked prose, scratched in gravel with a stick.

Cats and dog sweetly coexisting. Mostly.

The dog pounces at the cat, stopping short, directly in her expressionless face. He thinks he’s fulfilling his role as a tough-guy mongrel, a canine Cagney, intimidating his housemate, the ice-cool kitty. They lock eyes and stand nose-to-nose. She doesn’t flinch, budge or blink. She has seen him coming, fast, and she holds her ground, not a single whisker aquiver.

The dog, Cubby, is small. The cat, witheringly, seems to be saying to him, “You’re too short for that gesture,” as George Saunders tells Anne Baxter when she swings open the door and tries to eject him from a room in “All About Eve.” In the end, the dog capitulates, and the cat sashays away.

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It’s really not like this, at all.

For the most part, the animals, including another cat, coexist impressively peaceably. They are very mature about their roommate situation. Drama is minimal, and, when it happens, laughable. No one gets hurt.

Poor Cubby. He’s all bark and no bite (except in play, when he nips fiendishly). He loves to hear himself yap, yelp and yowl when the mail carrier mounts the porch, producing a piercing cacophony and, somewhat comically, a rousing display of feckless theater. He growls, spins and crouches, a shrimp-size showman, his nails doing a fine tap dance on the wood floor.

Yet open the door when someone rings and he clams up, giddily sniffing the newcomer, tail wagging, a bundle of excited curiosity. The animal is operating on pure instinct, doggie DNA, so we try not to make fun.

The house cats, Tiger Lily and Spicy, tolerate Cubby, despite their frequent sighs. They mostly ignore him and his occasional manifestations of machismo. They are unflappable, standoffish. Basically, they don’t give a shit. And when they do, they swipe a samurai paw at his face. He recoils.

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Cubby: a badass in his own mind.

Yet sometimes he gets their goat. Periodically, he will chase one of them up the stairs and the cat will bolt, scramble, fly. But not without emitting a long hiss, like a leaky tire or a king cobra. Cubby doesn’t relish that sound, and he stands down and returns to worrying one of his irresistible bully sticks (which are actual 100% bull penises, dried and seasoned).

The whole cats and dogs as mortal foes narrative is a hoary myth. Of course some dogs antagoznie some cats. (As a kid, our otherwise dreamy black Lab tore apart the neighbor’s cat in a scene out of “Cujo.”) It’s nothing personal. It’s biology and psychology: genes and instincts run amok.

There’s a fluffy black cat in the neighborhood that ambles right up to Cubby when he’s on his walks, and the animals casually sniff each other out, the cat practically rubbing against the dog, purring. Cubby is mostly indifferent to this, and promptly moves on.

But he can’t help needle his pet-mates in the house. Close proximity, boredom, jealousy, general annoyance — many reasons spring to mind, all of them conjecture. Sometimes he gets feisty when a cat gets too close to his bully stick, as if they’ll snatch it. Other times he’s just asserting his virility, his wishful doggie dominance.

The cats and the dog are in many ways classic shotgun roommates: imperfect fits, possessive, a little irritable, eating each other’s food, each from different worlds. One roommate likes rap, the other likes Rachmaninoff. The cats want their space, Cubby wants to invade it. He wants to be the pack leader, the alpha male honcho. It’s sad yet funny.

Don’t tell Cubby, but it’s pretty clear: Tiger Lily could lick him.

Let sleeping dogs lie (and dream)

The dog lies at my feet. He is upholstered in unruly, charcoal-gray curls, like a pile of macaroni. Gently breathing, his belly oscillates at a steady pulse. And then, suddenly, his body contracts: He has tumbled into a dream.

His short legs twitch and his paws scratch the air. He snorts and softly whines. He is spasming. In his furry head, he’s maybe chasing a surly kitty or gamboling outdoors in an open field, pursuing an unattainable rabbit.

I haven’t the foggiest idea. Could he be getting his wee doggie heart broken by a comely pooch, hence the whine? (Dreams are charming that way.) Then again, he might be reliving his school days: He has forgotten to study for a big exam, or he has to perform onstage but doesn’t know his lines. Maybe he’s flying. Or maybe he’s falling from the sky.

Off he goes: shuddering, kicking and jerking in the unsettling manner of a seizure. “Run, Cubby!” I want to say. “Fly, boy!” He’s stretched on the floor, doing a miniature St. Vitus dance, or some funky popping moves. It’s a lot more interesting than the book I was reading before becoming transfixed by the canine convulsions.

Whatever I do, I don’t dare wake the mutt.

He could be having the time of his life.

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Cubby, sprawled on his back, dreaming things we’ll never know.

A blog post that’s purely a pet project

Cubby is the family dog. He is small and Schnauzer-esque. A rescue mutt. His long tail curls into a small O, like a bagel. He barks sparingly, if piercingly. He cuddles greedily. He is overgrown with charcoal-colored fur, like a neglected shrub that needs to be desperately trimmed into a topiary. He smells faintly of turkey bacon. Bath — he could use a bath. Freshly trimmed and clean, he looks like this, a canine Cary Grant:

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Currently, he looks like a graying Ewok:

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How we adore our pets. That’s a cliche, and I’m sorry that occurred. Still, we do. They are little people, extra children, crucial on both sides of the love equation. So human is Cubby that we sometimes believe there is a little man inside him named, mystifyingly, Pasquale, who can unzip an invisible zipper down his neck and chest and pop out ever-so fleetingly, utter his name — Pasquale! — then zip back up and return to being a dog. It’s terrific. We all need medication.

I require animal companionship. When I left home, where we enjoyed a pair of heart-melting black Labs and a bevy of feral yard cats, I went small with pets, namely fish and rats. (Yes. Rats. Deal.) I didn’t want the steep, familial responsibilities of a dog or cat. My independence, especially as a budding world traveler, took primacy.

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Tammy as a tot.

Rats rule. If you know little about them, I repeat the slogan of rattie devotees: “Smarter than dogs, cleaner than cats.” They make magnificent pets — loving, social, funny, trainable. (And then they chew up half the house and all that goodwill curdles. For about a day.)

I have owned six rats, individually. The best were Phoebe, Becky and Tammy, who played and came when called and snuggled and loved to have their tummies rubbed and peed all over the place. And then, exactly at 2.5 years old, each got horribly sick and died. Rat life expectancy is ruthless and cancer or infection generally fells them. Each loss wrecked me completely.

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Cubby, cleaned up.

Dogs, natch, live much longer. Cubby’s about 3 or 4. He looks 65. I’d say he’s got a good 10 to 12 years left in him, wonder dog. I’d include a recent picture of him, but you’d have no idea what you we’re looking at, except maybe a miniature yak.

I didn’t mention the two cats here, Tiger Lily and Spicy. They’re brother and sister and they look about as much alike as Barack Obama and Donald Trump. They wrassle and hiss at each other and Spicy scampishly steals Tiger’s food.

Cats are weird company. Their independence is enviable and noble. They thrive on solitude and hiding places. Pet them at your risk. With an imperious air, they will come to you when they want attention, not the reverse.

Come to think of it, that sounds something like me. I am definitively a dog person over a cat person. I love dogs’ gregariousness, neediness, demonstrativeness — their licks, wags and yelps. But I am not a dog, per se. I’m more Tiger Lily than Cubby. Yet I like Cubby better than Tiger Lily. What that says about me just sent a shiver down my back.

Pets reveal stuff about us. Dog person, cat person, rat person, all of the above. Knowing these creatures, all my life, I’ve been aware how far my fondness can stretch for a non-human being. Blasphemy, you say, but sometimes I think I like the animals better than the people. Just sometimes. Call it a pet peeve. I call it sheer devotion, always returned, unreservedly.

Quack, snort and other adventures in dining

I’m a relatively adventurous eater — I’ll nosh bone marrow, chicken hearts, snails, frog legs, foie gras, raw oysters, sea anemone, roe, goat, buffalo, pigeon, octopus — but, like most of us, I cleave to a less exotic, much less expensive daily diet. Those delicacies are for singular occasions, mostly while I’m traveling and living a bit high on the hog. (Hog, too, I eat that.)

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My grilled octopus, Barcelona.

Mulling a trip to Chicago, I’ve made a short list of restaurants offering casual to fine dining, from Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill (Mexican) to Paul Kahan’s Avec (Mediterranean). Squeezed between those is Stephanie Izard’s popular Girl & the Goat, an ambitious family-style spot located in the city’s Randolph Restaurant Corridor in the West Loop.

I always scan the online menus before I make a reservation. Pushing past the goat plates, two dishes at Girl & the Goat had this fledgling foodie hooked: crispy duck tongues and wood oven roasted pig face. After a flinch, I promptly decided I’m having both.

These delicacies are inarguably a vegetarian’s writhing apocalypse. I know. We must move onward.

I have of course never had duck tongue. Beef tongue, perhaps. No idea what to anticipate, so I’ll allow the gustatory gurus at Serious Eats explain the specialty:

“Surrounded by a faint hint of meat and papery thin layers of cartilage, duck tongue is predominately a vehicle for juicy pockets of fat. At barely two inches in length, the tongue may seem small and insubstantial, but its flavor is intensely duck-like. When freshly fried, duck tongues are positively addicting with a crisp surface and a creamy, slightly fatty interior that melts in your mouth.”

This …

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… becomes this:

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Duck tongue with tuna and black bean poke, crispy wontons and piri piri.

Like duck tongue, no appetizing euphemism masks what pig face actually is: the meat and fat sliced off the face of a pig. I may have eaten pig cheeks before, but this is different, a full facial. Again, Serious Eats explains:

“It’s the multitude of harmonized flavors and textures that make the roasted pig face of one my favorite dishes ever. From the succulent wood-fired pig face patties, sweet maple gastrique, and tart tamarind vinaigrette, to the crispy potato sticks and gooey sunnyside-up egg, it’s clear why this is one of Girl & the Goat’s signature dishes.”

This …Cannon-and-Cannon-Meat-School-pig

… becomes this:

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Wood oven roasted pig face with sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro, red wine-maple, potato stix.

As I momentarily salivate (daub, wipe), it strikes me that both meals are commendable for their use of animal parts that might otherwise, and usually are, thrown out with the beaks and snouts, offal rejects. This is mindful, sustainable cooking, but it’s also, let’s face it, delicious, deeply indulgent cooking, sinful, decadent, irresistible. (It’s a lot like the bone marrow I adore, seen below from my recent Russia trip.)

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Right, I haven’t tasted the duck and pig yet — maybe I’ll gag into my linen napkin — but my experiences with exotic, zany foods comprise a solid track record of gastronomical daring and concomitant success. In other words, I enjoy this kind of food, and I’m not only amenable to it, I’m beguiled by it, too.

Omnivorous by nature and choice, I will pursue my culinary escapades for the foreseeable future — that is, a very long time. Vegetarians may scowl and harrumph, and I get it. I can only respond with a lusty chomp and gulp and the thrill of tasting whole new worlds.