Fur, feathers, and folderol

On the About page of this blog, I caution that my writings here are “forever random and rambling.” Rarely has that been so true than right now … 

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The Tao of Cubby 

Cubby, the über-mensch of mutts, scurries across the wood floor, his nails recalling the tip-tap of a typewriter. (If only he could actually type. That would save me tremendous carpal tunnel distress.) 

He is fleet, balletic. Though he resembles a gray Oscar the Grouch — bodily bedhead, articulate brows — the dog is chipper and civil, venting frenzied yaps only when evolutionarily expected (read: Amazon). 

Cubby is also mindful and meditative. He follows the flow of the universe and the whiff of tacos. Part Chinese sage, part Scooby-Doo, he adheres to the Taoist tenets of simplicity, patience, compassion, and the canine tenet of raw sirloin. 

Spiritual but godless, Cubby finds solace in Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” — self-deception! free will! — but not in Scripture. He likes to quote Socrates: “I am the wisest dog alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

For Cubby, things just are. Why this, why now? As Cubs might say, Because. Just because.

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In anticipation of Easter, a short tale featuring baby chicks

When I was five, we had a pair of baby chickens, a female (yellow) and a male (black). They scuttled around our backyard and slept in a wood and wire coop, also in the backyard. The birds were strictly decorative. We had no intention of consuming their flesh.

One night a possum tried to get the chicks. Hearing the ruckus, my Dad went outside and our black Lab followed, charging and half-killing the hissing marsupial. Distressed by the injured animal — drama in suburbia — Dad tried to put it out of its misery using a broomstick (why not a spatula, or a straw?). 

He failed, unsurprisingly. The possum was either unconscious or playing dead. Because the next morning the creature was still moving in the garbage can in which it was placed. A man sans a plan, Dad left it there to die on its own, to the collective horror of his family. 

Soon after, we gave the chicks to a cousin who cared for them on his sprawling farm. I’m sure they were delicious. 

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Speaking of chickens …

Braided with wisdom, wit and woe, Jackie Polzin’s “Brood” is a deceptively slight novel about a woman caring for a small brood of chickens as she copes with the personal tragedy of a miscarriage. 

Not sold? Be, because Polzin’s debut is sublime. It’s steely, and gentle as a breeze.

The chickens are both main characters and peripheral walk-ons in this compact book, so don’t fear a poultry-centric story. In fact, there’s not much of a story at all. Deeply contemplative and minutely observed — à la Jenny Offill (“Weather”) and Marilynne Robinson (“Gilead”) — Polzin limns her nameless narrator’s life with by turns clinical realism and dazzling impressionism. There is much to learn about chickens, and life.

The precision of the prose, so nipped, tucked yet vital, is a marvel. Even the chicken passages, with their homely brown eggs, scratch feed and scaly feet, are poetic reveries. A human- and chicken-scale miniature, “Brood” loses none of its emotional texture next to its lo-fi humor. It’s one of the most lulling and pleasant books I’ve read in a spell. 

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The larger worth of small talk

Strolling down the sidewalk, you run into an acquaintance — someone you know only faintly, yet well enough for a stop and chat; say, your mechanic or a few-houses-down neighbor — and you find yourself beaming hello, how are you, and before you know it things have devolved into vapid chitchat, the dreaded small talk.

Small talk eats the soul — the empty jawing about weather, work, kids, traffic, assorted gossip and platitudinous pleasantries. Defined as “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters,” small talk reeks of the banal, the trivial, the sort of airy transactions saved for your Uber driver, that guy you went to high school with and haven’t seen in years, or the faux-cheery barista you encounter each morning. 

Still, while it can be painful, what with the groaning predictability of the exchanges, small talk serves a purpose: it fills the dead space we all fear. It’s a buffer, prosaic padding, a time-killer of minor moments that would otherwise be awkward, excruciating, or both.

Words. They will save us. No matter how crudely utilitarian.

Hounding the strays of Istanbul

With a camera trained at butthole level, the street dogs of Istanbul bustle across the city, romp in parks, negotiate congested thoroughfares, brawl, chase cats, gambol, loiter and partake in public humping. 

This is a day in the life of the Turkish city’s derelict dogs in the patient, panting documentary “Stray,” released today. The film is a quiet, lolling chronicle of both canine and human behavior — the mutual respect and tolerance is moving — done minus narration. With few dramatic accents, though alive with built-in pathos, “Stray” is almost uninflected — unvarnished life through a studiously objective lens. What is spoken comes from the pups’ playful pantomime.

I’m on good terms with the stray dogs of Istanbul, having befriended, pet and fed several during my four trips to Turkey. The hounds are plentiful in the rolling, seaside city and are protected under a no-kill, no-capture policy. Each dog is registered, one of their ears pierced with an official tag. One of my favorite canine pals wore a red tag on her floppy left ear, leading me, with a poverty of imagination, to call her Red Tag.

They get you like that, these streetwise mongrels. Locals are mostly kind to the wandering, well-behaved dogs, leaving out bones and food and, when annoyed by them, gently shooing them away from storefronts and doorways. It helps if you have a soft spot for animals. My mushy affection led me to feed and pamper the friendly hounds, which I happily photographed. More than just memories, the animals were also sweet, licky mood-enhancers, a pack of therapy pups just for me.

Here’s where to watch “Stray,” and here are some of my street-dog snapshots.

My good pal Red Tag
I fed them cans of tuna.
Red Tag, again

In space, no one can hear you woof

Sometimes I want to shoot the dog into outer space. Suit him up, slide on a big round helmet, and strap him into a tin-can capsule, ready go, boom

Really, I want to keep old Cubby on terra firma, safely earthbound, away from martians and pesky space debris. Still, when he barks and wails and scratches the paint off the door when visitors knock, I think: Jupiter, yes. Jupiter would be a fine place for a dog park.

Such was the fate of Laika the space dog, a small, blameless pup who was hurled into orbit for the Soviet space program in 1957. A stray street mongrel with a skittish gaze, Laika was really three animals in one: a dog, guinea pig, and sacrificial lamb. 

Laika the cosmic canine

Many critters had flown to space before Laika — monkeys, mice, mutts — but she was set to be the first to orbit Earth. Probably quaking with terror, surrounded by lab-coated apparatchiks, Laika was loaded into the satellite Sputnik 2 for an experimental flight to prove that a living passenger could survive a launch into orbit and weightlessness. 

It was a suicide mission, or more accurately, murder. Laika was never expected to survive; once they sealed the capsule, the Soviets knew she was toast. 

And toast is practically what she became. Within hours of her spectacular orbit, Laika died from overheating and panic. Even the Soviets were mortified: the true cause of her death was not made public until 2002. They initially said she was euthanized with poisoned food before her oxygen ran out, a classic, blundering cover-up. The dead dog floated around up there for six months. She was incinerated when Sputnik re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

The world mourned the pioneer pooch. She’s gone down in lore as an unwitting hero, nicknamed Muttnick, and honored with commemorative stamps, dolls and children’s books. A monument to Laika was erected in Moscow in 2008.

Muttnick. I like that. Maybe, with a nod to David Bowie, she’s Major Dog. Or Apawlo 13. Or Chewbarka. Never mind. What matters is that Laika lived as a Moscow street hound and died for Soviet sins. A would-be martyr — Joan of Bark — she’s a helpless symbol of the sketchy side of science and progress.

Cubby should be so symbolic. But he’s of a different breed, and an entirely different kind of nobility. And though he wouldn’t last as long as brave Laika in space — I give him two, three hours tops — he’s ready for lift-off and would do NASA proud.

I could see him as a stowaway on the Mars rover (did you say Rover?) Perseverance, which is up there sniffing for signs of ancient Martian life. Or he might hitch a ride to the Moon on one of Elon Musk’s radical SpaceX rockets, joining other civilians who are nutsballs enough to pay millions to pierce the wild blue yonder. That would be fitting, because the dog is definitely daft, a total and irrevocable space cadet. (Fun facts: Laika means “bark” in Russian. Cubby means “preposterous” in any language.)

I’m glad Cubs is still on Earth to provide happiness and headaches, and I hope he sticks around before zipping off to Andromeda. Laika, well. She did the impossible for all mankind. She gave us enlightenment. She cracked opened scientific universes. She kissed the stars and the heavens, where she now eternally resides.

Laika’s monument

Loving animals, doggedly

As I was scratching the dog’s belly today, he squeaked out a tiny fart that I excused him for since, as far as I know, he can’t speak English and isn’t versed in basic human etiquette. I kept scratching and he emitted customary groans that I tend to interpret as vague doggie ecstasy. Sounds coming from both ends, très stereophonic.

Cubby the Wonder Mutt likes to lie on his back, supine, head tossed back, eyes squinched, rear legs spread-eagle, his pee-pee out in all its centerfold glory. He’s a good dog, as they say — always “good,” never “great” or “fabulous,” why is that? — even if he resembles one of those diabolical pygmy hellions, an Ewok. Compare, contrast: 

OK, not exactly, but sometimes I glance at him and scream in fleeting horror.

Animals, like ol’ Cubs, are always on my mind. For some reason, I’ve been watching more YouTube junk than normal and it seems like half the videos are prefaced with ads for heart-curdling, soul-gutting animal causes. 

They’re the kind that show emaciated puppies and starving bony horses and shivering dogs with so much eye goop they can barely see. It screws everything up. I don’t even feel like watching the video I was set to watch after those damn commercials. 

They get me every time. So there I go, helplessly dropping cash into the coffers of PETA, the Humane Society and other groups, like the crazy one for abused donkeys in India and the World Wildlife Fund’s stupendous adopt an octopus program. 

And I recently joined the ASPCA’s modest monthly membership, which amounts to an obscenely affordable 63 cents a day. I told them to save resources and keep the free t-shirt, which would only wind up as a dust rag. Pretty soon, thanks to all my donations, I’m going to own about 14 complimentary animal calendars that I really do not want.

I think I’m so nuts about animals and their welfare because I was raised with a rotating menagerie of pets: dogs, cats, rats, turtles, fish, rabbits, hens, salamanders. And I was scarred by “family” films like “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” that only make you love animals more and hate sadistic filmmakers. Even “Charlotte’s Web” planted a screwdriver into my heart, and she was just a crummy spider. (Even now I don’t kill spiders. I scoop them up and plop them outside.)

I hate to rate my animals, but since Cubby is in the other room probably flashing the neighbors on his back, I present the best dog my family ever had, a black Lab dubiously named Spooker. That’s her below, the one flicking her tongue. (I’m the one with the righteous tiger slippers; my brother Craig sports the scandalous red onesie.)  

Usually when I profess my love of animals I essentially mean dogs. I care a lot about monkeys, mice and manatees, but I can’t say I love them. Even as tykes, you can see how much we love our big black Lab, our companion, our third parent, protector and pal. Dogs are furry clichés: loyal, cheerful, eager, bursting with unconditional love, even if that means the occasional, totally misguided leg hump. That’s a pretty good package. 

Cubby fits the bill. He sort of represents all animals for me — penguins, porpoises, platypuses, the random narwhal — and so by caring for him I’m embracing the whole animal kingdom. 

That sounds super corny, and re-reading that sentence makes me shudder. But it’s true. Cubby contains multitudes. He’s small in body, big in heart. He lavishes affection on us and only asks in return walks, food, and heartfelt belly rubs, the kind that make him groan and wheeze like a 79-year-old with emphysema. Sometimes if you press just right, he produces the tortured warbling of bagpipes. Then he slowly passes out.

A good dog indeed. No. A great dog. How about a fabulous dog.

Freud, meet Fido

And so the dog, small and fleecy, plops down for a nap on the couch, and he is out. Which means at any moment the show will commence, an alternately startling and amusing bugaloo of twitches and flinches, pop dancing by way of late Katharine Hepburn and robot street performers. Cubby, the peerless pup, is about to dream. And it’s a marvel. 

Behold, he’s off. Stubby legs kick and quiver. Furry eyebrows twitch. Lips tremble and emit muffled woofs and squeaky whines. As he hyperventilates, his rib cage rises and falls, a small basketball being pumped. It appears he is running in place. Outstanding.

Until, that is, I recall how traumatic dreams can be. Mine, at least, are nocturnal ordeals, dark and gnawing, filled with ragged memories and wraithlike faces from prior lives. They’re about 35% anodyne and 65% anguish. I typically awake from them with a small head throb, a daub of sweat, an aftertaste of dread: the dream hangover. I might as well have met Freddy Krueger.

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This is not Cubby, but you know he’s ecstatically dreaming.

So, no matter how entertaining his dream exhibitions are (oh, and they are), I worry about the substance of Cubby’s nap-time reveries. What’s he woofing at? Why the whine? Is he chasing, or being chased? Is he yawping at the postman, as in everyday life, or is he after an intruder? Is he playing with us, scampering off with his crazy bone?

Whatever is happening, he is assuredly dreaming. Anyone with a dog knows they do this. One doggie site says “dogs are similar to humans when it comes to sleep patterns and brain wave activity. Like humans, dogs enter a deep sleep stage during which their breathing becomes more irregular and they have rapid eye movements (REM).”

Bonus factoid: “Research suggests that small dogs dream more than larger dogs. A Toy Poodle may dream once every ten minutes while a Golden Retriever may only dream once every 90 minutes.” Meaning, compact Cubby is a dream machine. (“We infer that dogs can have nightmares, too,” adds the American Kennel Club, with worrying certitude.)

Sometimes Cubby’s slumbering exhalations sound heavy, husky, demonic. Is he having a nightmare, or is he being naughty and promiscuous? Maybe he’s rocking a death metal show. “The dream is the liberation of the spirit from the pressure of external nature, a detachment of the soul from the fetters of matter,” wrote Freud, the original cigar-sucking dream guru. He added: “Dreams are never concerned with trivia.”

So maybe Cubby isn’t just frolicking with a bone during his alarmingly kinetic dream states, which resemble nothing less than a buckling seizure or a zippy electrocution. I’ve said here that Cubs is a deep character, a wise old soul, vigorously seeking meaning in his transience, pawing to the bottom of the mysteries of the conundrum called life. Merely chasing cats is unworthy of his elevated subconscious; sniffing Bowzer’s butthole is extravagantly beneath him.

The id, that deep sea of sloshing neuroses, engenders the happy and the hellacious and everything in-between. In sleep, you might trip joyously in love — or you might be scorched to a pork rind by a weirdly random dragon. Closing eyes, placing head to pillow, is a fraught crap shoot. 

Cubby’s not dreaming about dragons, we’re certain of that. His purview is relatively minuscule. Despite his rich introspection, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what TikTok, J.Lo or The Rock are.

I’m also sure I will never know what populates the dog’s leg-twitching dreamscapes. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Yet with Freudian reflection, I will ponder these deep enigmas. Let me sleep on it.

Dog Splayed Afternoon

CubbyThis is Cubby, über-hound, chillaxing on the cool wood floor on a balmy late-spring day. Sprawled out in sharp symmetry, almost X-shaped, he looks like a doggie cookie-cutter, or the puppy piece in Monopoly, or a pendant dangling from the neck of a dog lover of strenuous devotion. In a word, he looks amazing. Like an artwork Jeff Koons could only dream of, or a taxidermist’s dampest fantasy. He would look stunning on a mantel, a small, regal canine, with a muzzle oh-so fluffily bearded.

Cubby knows none of this. If he had heard the above during his spread-out siesta, he’d be all, “Enough. Leave me alone. I am napping on the cool floor, dreaming of squirrels, fire hydrants, and fat kielbasas. You are a ridiculous man. Be gone … zzzzz.”

What we have here is a tableau titled, say, “Dog Day Afternoon.” Or “Dog Splayed Afternoon.” Some kind of post-modern still-life William Wegman could appreciate in all its unposed dogitude. (Although, of course, Wegman meticulously poses his long-suffering Weimaraners, what with their fancy clothes and anthropomorphic exertions.)

So what we have is less Wegman and more found art. Cubby, surely warm under that carpet of curls, located open range in the cool foyer, plopped down and stretched out from his head to his pom-pom tail. He exhaled and sighed: Goddam.

And this is how we found him, still as a statue, a statue of such accidental perfection it might be worth lots of money. Certainly, because his preternatural pose notwithstanding, Cubby, that cuddliest of canines, is worth a million bucks.

Buyers?

You must remember this 

I own a stockpile of childhood memories (a disproportionate number of them featuring poo) that I access often and for the most part fondly — distant, dreamlike time travel that reminds me I’m alive and have lived. 

Randomly: There’s the time my mom got sprayed and drenched by a blubbery walrus at SeaWorld when I was 8. My first real kiss with Stephanie when I was 12. My dad taking us to a live taping of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” at 14. Playing drums in my first professional rock concert at 17. And when a kid peed all over my back while I was stationed at a urinal in the boy’s bathroom. I was 7, and wearing a brand-new shirt to boot. Yeah, I bawled. (The fact that I never made a voodoo doll of that kid is miraculous.) 

Those are youthful flickers. I’m skipping adult flashbacks — like when I was detained by Hezbollah in Beirut, or when I got acupuncture and almost puked — in favor of more faded scrapbook pages, not all of them fully innocent or delightful, but mostly far enough in the past that any sting has been blunted. (Strike that: a guy pissed all over me.) 

It’s smart to wax philosophical about these things. “Memories warm you up from the inside,” writes novelist Haruki Murakami. “But they also tear you apart.”

True that. I harbor some memories that are seared in my consciousness as if by a cattle brand, and I wince to this day. Still others are sublime and soaring, pleasures to revisit and revel in, visions that, as Murakami says, “warm you up from the inside.” Memories are agents of powerful, sometimes bulldozing, emotions. They hit you right here. They are not to be trifled with.

Summer memoriesMore remembrances, good, bad, ugly: At age 9, my best friend and I got our impish hands on some shotgun shells and threw them into a backyard fire in hopes they’d blow off (they didn’t). Selling lemonade from a curbside stand, my gal pal and I — we were about 7 — beseeched a passing teenage driver to buy a tasty beverage. He flipped us off. We were scandalized between giggles. My black Lab killed the neighbors’ cat. A few of us mischief-makers planned to dig a giant hole, cover it in leaves, and invite a neighbor kid over to fall into the pit. Digging the hole was so hard, I abandoned the plan within minutes. 

These are piquant memories, fragmentary yet oddly enduring. Evoking them — like seeing that dead horse in the road after it was hit by a car when I was 6 — is bittersweet.

I retain a catalog of episodic nostalgia, musty but living organisms that are easily accessible and flicker like short films across slabs of my brain: the hippocampus, neocortex and amygdala. Exhuming them is akin to fanning a Polaroid, waiting to see the image, with great and terrible affection.

Fido meets the face mask

What, social distancing with the dog? Six feet apart? Are we going to scratch his belly with a broom stick? Throw the ball and ask him to please not return it, or to drench it in Purell first? And, pshaw, a mutt mask, too? How is he possibly going to blithely lick his loins?

Fortunately, most of this scenario is wryly fictive. Yet we tried the face mask and the bristling, headstrong Cubby was having none of it. He ate it. Cubby, so marvelous he should wear a cape, isn’t falling for all this preventive Covid-19 twaddle. He scoffs, nay, woofs, at it. 

dogmask
Not Cubby. Just a stunt dog.

Is he being irresponsible, a paragon of screw-you selfishness? Is he following in the paw tracks of our dear leader in all his voluptuous stupidity? Is Cubby, heaven forfend, a far right anti-vaxxer, who protests outside capitols to “liberate” shut-down states? Is it OK to put down a dog that is spry and healthy but whose mind is politically poisoned?

We go too far. The dog is none of that, despite his puzzling penchant for “Fox & Friends.” He’s actually kind and magnanimous. He’s wise, thoughtful, deep. He’s voting for Biden. He’s a good dog.

Rossy is a good dog, too. Who is Rossy? This is Rossy: 

rossy-blog-768x576-1.jpgRossy, in a word, is a charity case. A sickly street dog, Rossy was taken in by the brimming hearts at Animal Rahat, an India-based rescue sanctuary for all manner of “beleaguered animals,” which I previously mentioned here. Rossy is goo-gooed over by visiting school children and hangs out and plays with the local menagerie of misfits over acres and acres of open land. 

This pampering paradise “allows elderly and ailing animals to be retired from lives of daily toil” and rescues imperiled pups and other critters from assorted accidents (falling into wells is a big problem). Nursed back to health, dogs and donkeys and camels and cows roam free, routinely fed, bathed and lovingly socialized. 

As he watches me type this, Cubby’s curly ears prick up and his head cocks to the side. We are in a donating mood during this deepened charitable moment when giving is grace. 

I lean toward animal causes — local shelters, the Humane Society, ASPCA, PETA, Animal Rahat — all of which have plucked my heart strings with the virtuosic brio of Eddie Van Halen playing “Eruption.” It’s music to my ears.

Himself a rescue pup, Cubby is also pledging gifts to these groups, his furry families, though I’m not sure what he can contribute; he’s rather broke. Could it be the tooth-scarred bully bone? The moist, balding tennis ball? The mini Yoda doll, both squeaky and skeevy. (Dog slobber — destroyer of worlds.)  

It doesn’t matter. I’ll spot him with my monetary donations. Watching me is a good lesson in altruism during these darkly divisive times when much of the country is in suicide mode — no masks, frolicking on crowded beaches, flagrant body contact, toting large guns in packed public spaces — and the “president” advances brain-exploding lies, toxic misinformation and Machiavellian myopia.

Speaking of individuals who elect vanity over safety, Cubby still won’t wear a face mask. Even the mailman wears one, and his arrival at the porch is a cue for Cubs to shed his angelic image. He rockets off the couch, furiously scratches the paint off the door, barking and howling uncontrollably, like a very pissed-off banshee. It’s nearly cinematic.

We sigh. We yell. We shake a fist.

Hey, Cubby. Cut the crap.

A day like any other, pretty much, kind of

Stuff that happened today, May 4: 

People reflected with distress and solemnity on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre (war protesters, good; guns, bad). I ordered a pair of green shorts (yes, I said green). Dave Eggers, possibly my least favorite writer, penned a typically cutesy op-ed in The New York Times (vigorous head shake). Netflix announced that Nicolas Cage will play Joe Exotic from “Tiger King” in a new scripted series (pinch me). And the most spastically overrated novel of 2019 won the Pulitzer Prize (please, jurors, stop doing this). 

211bd3a4-CageJoeExotic1
Cage uncaged

What a day. But not really. Shit happens everyday, mostly minor and minuscule, a beige streak of the routine and quotidian, particularly these strange stay-at-home days. (I’m talking about ground-level life, of course, not the huge, horrible pandemic picture, whose enormity transcends the lines of this scrawny blog.) 

Today’s pedestrian episodes: I suffered continued undiagnosed abdominal issues (no, not the appendicitis, but perhaps more painful), the dog shat on the floor, a book of poetry I bought gravely disappointed, and the afternoon temperature dipped from 70 to 58 degrees over a couple hours, to my delight. I re-read an exceptional book of essays called “Off Ramp” that I recommend exuberantly. I exercised, mildly and miffed. I did the daily email boogie, writing and replying. I ate cucumber with hummus and sipped wine.

That was Monday, May 4, scrunched into a knotty ball. Not spectacular, not awful.

But lookie: The future holds quivering thrills.  

Tomorrow, May 5, is front-loaded with celebration: Cinco de Mayo, National Teacher Day and (oh, totally) National Hoagie Day. This motherlode of tippling tequila, a paean to pedagogues and bib-wearing sandwich snarfing is holiday-worthy. Where’s the confetti?

And yet the following day, May 6, pulls everything back into focus. Wednesday, according to the Fairy Godmother of special days, exalts National Tourist Appreciation Day — which reminds us: whoever’s a tourist on this day, in this moment, is a fool.

And, more poignantly, is National Nurses Day, which “provides recognition to nurses for their contributions and commitment to quality health care and brings awareness to the importance of nurses in the care, comfort and well-being of all of us.”

Now that’s a day worth honoring, one that’s not like other days, far outshining the banality of the white box on the calendar. And one that can kick your guts out, in the best, most inspiring way.