Thursday, November 09, 2006

A stretch of river XXIV: Travels with Scruffy; or, My dog will call your dog

The Scruffmeister bids you good day and asks you to ponder the symbolic resonances between car tires and journeying. Or, whether you'd like to leave a mark of your passage here as well.

The other day on Morning Edition, NPR broadcast another in their ongoing series of book chats between Steve Inskeep and Seattle librarian and inspiration for the Librarian Action-Figure, Nancy Pearl. This particular installment was about books which feature dogs and led off with John Steinbeck's famous travelogue, Travels with Charley. Pearl recounted that Steinbeck, some years after the fame and accolades that rightfully came his way with the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, felt that he had lost touch with his nation and its people and so set off on a cross-country journey accompanied by his standard poodle, Charley.

(Aside: I respectfully submit that Steinbeck's oft-noted decline as a writer, post-Grapes and East of Eden, either was caused by or was contributed to by his acquisition of a poodle. I am so certain of this that I'm pretty sure I could prove this empirically.)

(Aside to the aside: I have to confess to an admittedly-irrational loathing of poodles.)

Anyway. At one point in the interview, one or the other of the participants noted that Steinbeck was able to engage the people he met in conversation because of Charley. "Hey--nice dog you got there."--that sort of thing. As I heard that, I was reminded yet again of something that I've thought about from time to time on my walks along the Little Arkansas and have thought about posting on: that I know more about my neighbors' dogs than I know about my neighbors, and that's because of Scruffy.


I've written in the past about my dog's distinctiveness, most notably (my opinion) here. But I've not often noted here other people's dogs because I'd like to be able to say something as well about the lives of the people themselves. But what do I know of them, after all? They live in the area. Their dogs have needs, too. I know which dogs like other dogs, which don't--important to know, given Scruffy's immoderate friendliness toward other dogs. That's pretty much it. The most I know about one regular I see is his first name, the street he lives on, and that he walks his schnauzer in the mornings and his son walks him in the afternoons. I don't know any more than that about anyone else whose dogs I've met--even those people with dogs who lived in the same building we Meridians used to live in.

I tell myself that I'm not gathering material for novels or questioning whether blogging fame and fortune have caused me to feel disconnected from my fellow citizens, that if it weren't for Scruffy I wouldn't say any more than "Hello" to the people I pass and so shouldn't I feel grateful for what I do know about them. Not being gregarious by nature yet believing in and acknowledging the essential value of all people whether or not I personally like them, I should thank Scruffy with two, not one, post-walk treats at least every once in a while for compelling me to interact with them.

But it could also be that the other dog owners we meet see it as I sometimes also think about this: that our dogs' meeting is a sort of substitute handshake between us. It's something of the reverse of the old days of duelling--the how-do-you-do moment, our dogs serving as our seconds. Seeking to avenge an insulted honor isn't why we meet, of course, though I know I feel dishonored if Scruffy doesn't behave as I would like for them to. But through the dogs we humans can say we have met someone without investing too much exposure of self.

Most of the time it suffices, this virtual meeting of others through our dogs. It accomplishes what is needed or wanted: a pleasant acknowledgement of the other, a brief surface-y engagement with another person's life that makes him or her feel visible to another without too much baring of his or her soul--or our own, for that matter. But surely, if we let this happen too much, we run the risk of presenting ourselves as faceless corporations do, our dogs like those corporations' Customer Service Representatives, so that, if we should ever meet and we don't have our dogs, we'd feel a bit vulnerable. Our dogs' instincts not there to serve as the entree into human interaction, we are called upon to rely on our own, a bit stiff from infrequent use.

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5 comments:

fearful_syzygy said...

It's not irrational: poodles are horrid things. Might I remind you of what happened to Goethe's Faust once he'd let that infernal poodle into his study!

debra said...

Scruffy is a keeper (cute!) but I must admit that even I, the eternal lover all things canine, can find no use for poodles either.

John B. said...

Fearful Syzygy,
Poor Faust--I had forgotten. And apparently Steinbeck had as well. Mephischarleyfleas was his dog's full name.

Whoever says that reading literature instructs as well as delights needs to have a closer look at that Steinbeck guy.

Debra,
Thanks for helping me feel less alone as well. I think my loathing stems from the idea, instilled in my during my days growing up in the country next to my grandparents' farm, that dogs were expected to Do Stuff and about all I could see that poodles could Do was yap. A lot. Scruffy can't Do Stuff, but he's of a size that would permit him to. And he's not yappy. So he'll do.

R. Sherman said...

Dog owners are like Harley riders. There's a connection that only they share.

BTW, I finished "The Road." Thanks for the recommendation. A review is forthcoming.

Cheers.

John B. said...

Randall,
You're a fast reader. I'm looking forward to seeing what you have to say about it.