They scramble and scrabble, bark and bound, nap and nuzzle, making an indelible imprint on their human pack leaders whose love for canines is crazily uncontainable.
“Dogs,” a terrific six-part anthology series on Netflix, lushly shot by a squad of bravura documentarians (Glen Zipper, Oscar-nominated Amy Berg, et al.) , is a frank and unadorned look at the relationship between man and mutt. Heartrending and heartwarming, little is forced or pushily sentimental. Episodes provide spectacularly detailed snapshots of person, place and pup, and you strangely come away with a broader comprehension of life itself. Which makes the series certified art.
Emotions organically erupt from an array of situations, be it a Labradoodle service dog that detects seizures in its epileptic owner with whooping barks; an imperiled Syrian war refugee that happens to be a yowling Siberian Husky; an aging golden Lab in a quaint Italian fishing village that dutifully follows his master onto Lake Como where they drift together; the fabulously groomed pooches of Japan and the uncharted culture of competitive grooming; a sanctuary in Costa Rica that’s home to 1,200 free-range strays; or New York City’s exploding rescue-dog phenomenon.
Each textured 50-minute portrait is framed within the big picture of the humans’ lives, from political to familial, together with the dogs’ often precarious realities. Funny, galvanizing, sad, uplifting and even spiritual, “Dogs” shows how beautifully symbiotic the two entities, hound and human, truly are.
So my passport is about to expire — August 18, to be exact — and I’ve spent the last 40 minutes or so applying for a spanking new one, filled with precisely 28 crisp blank pages watermarked with stirring visions of Americana, from the Statue of Liberty to orbiting spacecraft; from an Alaskan grizzly eating a fresh, flopping salmon (true!) to the noble, jut-jawed mugs of Mt. Rushmore. It’s like a little picture book to remind you of home while you’re happily clomping around and spending money in someone else’s fine nation.
To get this desperately necessary booklet (I travel, therefore I am), I have to send thoroughly filled out PDF forms, a check for $110, a new mug shot (I’m camera shy, so that’s delightful) and my old passport to whatever U.S. department of whatever. Then, in several weeks, I’ll have a crease-free dark blue book that will allow me to get the hell out of here to somewhere new, exotic and magnificently dangerous. Or maybe just to Paris.
I will miss my current passport. For one, my photo isn’t ghoulish. I look young, boyish, and remarkably tan. And I’m proud of the stamps from other countries I’ve collected in the course of its 10-year life: Lebanon, Syria, Russia, the Netherlands, France, Turkey, Spain, Canada (well, Canada), England, and more. I will stick a Post-It note on this passport with the earnest message: Please return this! When I did that last time, they returned it, but punched a bunch of holes in it to invalidate it. Fair enough. Old passports make fond keepsakes.
It’s crazy and not a little depressing that it’s already time to renew my passport. Ten years is a stretch. But I’ve given this pocket pal a good workout, gripping it to far-flung places, some of which I never imagined I’d ever go. I don’t look the same, but only once has a customs agent done a double-take when checking my photo. “That was a long time ago,” I assured her. She smiled. I sighed.
The last time I renewed a passport and got the one I have now, the one about to expire, I did it a couple years before its expiration. That’s because I was traveling to Lebanon and Syria (before the current war) and my passport contained a stamp from Israel, where I had been years earlier. Both Lebanon and Syria bar entry if your book has an Israel stamp for obvious, if arguable, political reasons. So I had to get a whole new passport. What with paying for a Syrian visa to boot, those pre-trip costs were onerous.
This time I’m cutting it close. In some countries your passport must be valid for more than three months before the expiration date. When I went to Amsterdam a few weeks ago the airline attendant looked at my passport date, did some quick math in her head, and paused before letting me check-in.
I’ll have none of that. Time is of the essence if I want to travel anytime soon, though I have no plans. I’m off to get a new passport photo, which for me is like getting a colonoscopy, an uncomfortable, possibly traumatizing event. If the recent picture on my Russian visa is any indication, the new photo will be monstrous, even gargoylian.
I have no idea where I’m going next with the new passport. I don’t travel in summer -— too hot, too crowded, too pricey — so I can relax and blithely research the next adventure. Then, by fall, I’ll be off, ready to deflower the new booklet with its first kiss, the loud, mechanical thomp of the customs agent’s stamper.
I’m starting this with a longish quote from journalist Janet Malcolm. Don’t let its length deter you. It’s quick and breezy and devilishly smart — and, for seasoned travelers, likely very apropos.
“Without knowing exactly why, I have always found travel writing a little boring, and now the reason seemed clear: travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison with ordinary life. … (Our homes) are where the action is; they are where the riches of experience are distributed. On our travels, we stand before paintings and look at scenery, and sometimes we are moved, but rarely are we as engaged with life as we are in the course of any ordinary day in our usual surroundings. Only when faced with one of the inevitable hardships of travel do we break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”
Despite the faint bite of the discontent, Malcolm doesn’t sound like a traveling grump to me. She crystallizes, I think, the realities of moving about, strenuously seeking the kind of transcendence concomitant with the very best travel.
But it’s only part of the picture, which is, of course, far richer than the one she paints. She’s right: travel is largely a “pallid affair” compared with actual daily living, which thrums with family, friends, work, pets, a house — all that fluid, unpredictable, tangible, huggable life stuff. And true, staring at paintings and cathedrals can sometimes be a static, numbing, “low-key emotional experience.”
Yet for this hardened solo traveler, it can be a challenge to keep the noise of real life on mute. Alone, I have to seek human contact, that great distraction from oneself, though mostly on my journeys I will go hours, even a day, without speaking so much as two or three words. I live largely in the bustling mental metropolis of my mind, Pop. 1. It is very noisy. Reality isn’t easily shaken.
Naturally, I see all the sights, monuments, museums, theater, ruins, vistas, cemeteries, etc. of a place. The beaten path does have detours: I’ll observe the riverside cremations of human bodies in India and Nepal or witness the ritual slaughter of sheep at a mosque in Istanbul. These extracurricular excursions pry open the head to strange wonderments and infuse a journey with reality-excusing exoticism.
Yet it’s never so perfect. Life’s banalities and hassles don’t just vaporize once you’re negotiating the lunatic streets of Tokyo or chilling in your stunning cave hotel in Cappadocia. Workaday concerns, from money and transportation, to waiting in lines and surmounting language barriers (that’s always entertaining, even fun, I find) barge in, upending the illusion of Being Far Away.
I hate to admit to boredom while traveling, and I combat it fiercely. I get restless and disappointed when I linger for more than 20 minutes in a cafe reading the paper or simply decompressing. I like to move, sustain a momentum. But then you risk rushing and, the upshot of that, running out of things to see and do. You max out the city, at least for a time. Even when this happens I invariably rally, recharge, suck in a second wind and begin to discover all over again.
I’ve blogged that taking photos of locals profoundly enriches the cultural experience. You meet people that way. Or vice-versa. I have met dozens of terrific humans around the world by pure serendipity — at a bar or bazaar, in a museum or on a train. Meeting people is easy.
But some effort is required. In India, during Diwali, the Festival of Lights, I bought a wad of fireworks for a gaggle of kids who were gathered in front of a convenience store. They lit them off and had a ball. So did I.
It was one of those transporting, non-static moments of travel that happens when you crawl out of your head, search, stretch and explore, and, as Malcolm says, “break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”
But in this case the real is peerlessly human and rapturous, the very definition of surpassing lackluster reality for something almost impossible to attain in everyday life — the transcendent.