Sunday, January 30, 2005

First Shellfish: Dogs and Americans

My sister has been keeping a blog for some time now, and urging me to do the same. Though an upcoming trip to South America is the most immediate impetus - a place to post my travelogue for interested friends and family - I have to admit it's also the sheer discipline of writing that has lured me in. My sister and I have been writing partners for a while, even completing an (unpublished) murder mystery together, and I'm impressed by the noticeable improvement in her writing as a result of daily blogging. So, here I am.

But where to start, in this first entry? Who is Cousin Flora, and why Miscellaneous Shellfish, for example? I'll get to that later. Instead, I've decided to start with my dog.

I know, how unoriginal. But stick with me here. It's not just about my dog.

Following is something I wrote in September 2002, which was a significant month for two reasons. First, of course, it was one-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. And secondly, we had just purchased a new furnace. I have been thinking lately about what I wrote then, for reasons I'll come back to.

"Recently, my dog was stricken with a fear of the furnace.

You have to understand, this is my fearless dog. A black lab-chow chow mix, she’d had at least two homes by the time we adopted her at 10 months, and somewhere along the line, someone was in the habit of hitting her with a stick. I once worked for a homeless shelter, and Nelly has always reminded me of a street kid, with her seemingly contradictory mixture of crippling vulnerability and total fearlessness. It makes sense though - the desperate desire for a safe home and unconditional love, but readiness to take on any fight in your own defense in the meantime.

Eventually, Nelly concluded she’d found a true home with us. There was a moment – my husband and I both noticed it – when she visibly decided, ok, these people are going to stick with me. It’s a weighty responsibility, a more solemn pact than we made with our other dog, even though I have no intention of abandoning either one of them.

The result is a dog who is just as fearless and cocky as ever, but also profoundly loyal. I believe this dog would risk her life for me under extraordinary circumstances. Under ordinary circumstances, she is rebellious, cunning, and frequently a pain in the ass. She is unnaturally intelligent - and that is not just the boasting of a doting dog owner. I would never say this about my other dog, equally beloved though he is. The veterinary professionals and dog trainers who have met Nelly – and they are legion – have all agreed she is spookily smart. After his first month on the job, our dog walker just shook his head and said “Man, she is something else.”

But now, as Nelly approaches her sixth birthday, something has spooked her. As usual in September in Seattle, the days are sunny and beautifully mild, but the nights have become chilly. So we turned the furnace on, thermostat set to a modest sixty degrees, just to keep the nip out of the house during the nights and mornings. The first time it went on, Nelly was terrified.

I don’t mean skittish. She displays textbook canine terror: curly chow tail unfurled, head and body lowered, ears back, breathing shallow and rapid, sweating through her pads as she paces and whimpers. Sometimes she trembles. She refuses to eat if the furnace is running.

I’ve consulted dog behavior and health books, from traditional to alternative in their approaches, and on this point they all agree: Most pets will experience a seemingly irrational fear at some point, and there’s little to do except wait it out. Don’t comfort excessively, or you convey that fear is desirable. Do reward courage - thus, when we see her approach the furnace closet door, we praise lavishly. As pack leaders, we make a show of acting relaxed and confident.

That's the plan, anyway. We hope it gets better before winter sets in, because we're not sure she can be left alone during the day with the furnace on. I really think she’d try to scratch her way out of the house. Our other dog – a big, easy-going fellow who has has patiently accepted endless bullying and posturing from her simply because he doesn't much care for a fight – looks on in bafflement.

I watch this proud, complicated, beautiful lioness of an animal battling a fear that nearly overwhelms her. She stares down that furnace closet door as if she expects the enormous, dog-eating monster to leap out at any moment, and I can see she is willing herself to be brave, with every fiber of her being. If the refrigerator turns on, or the bathroom fan, she jumps, checking to see whether it’s her boogeyman.

When I wonder why this came upon her so suddenly, I sometimes think she has simply absorbed the mood of post-9/11 life. Our country is stricken by a fear so overwhelming that we’re willing to claw our way out if necessary, oblivious to the damage done to our house in the process. Others look at us and shake their heads, feeling genuine empathy for our pain and fear, but baffled by our reaction. Which is not to say that our fears are imaginary or irrational. But like Nelly, we stare down the closet door yet can’t bring ourselves to look inside and see what’s really there, something at once more complicated and also much simpler than the big bad boogeyman.

Meanwhile, at my house we are waiting it out with Nelly. I want to offer her more comfort, because she is my friend and my heart aches for her needless distress. But I know too much solace might backfire, and the path clear of these demons seems to be one she must find for herself anyway. So I try to telegraph soothing thoughts to her: Just stay calm, honey, the panic will pass; you’ll find your courage and clarity again one day."

Here it is, two years later, and Nelly's fear of the furnace - which had subsided to a persistent but mild unease - has suddenly escalated dramatically. It's worse than ever, so bad that I took her to the veterinary equivalent of a shrink, fully aware of how over-the-top that sounds to anyone who isn't a dog owner, and probably quite a few people who are. On really bad days, she takes Valium. Not some doggie version of Valium, mind you - the real thing, which I am forced to pick up at the pharmacy, whispering in a small, embarrassed voice, "It's for my dog."

It's not constant. She has her perfectly good days, but her bad ones are sheer panic attacks. I didn't know a dog could tremble hard enough to make teeth chatter. It's as if some small thing inside her mind has snapped.

So once again, I wonder if she is simply amplifying the mood of society at large, because lately I've had the feeling that the collective American mind has somehow snapped.

How else to explain it all, really? A majority of Americans re-elect a president, in spite of a war that a majority of us dislike, as demonstrated by the fact that his approval rating is in the toilet immediately following the election. More and more people flock to religious institutions that embrace unquestioning submission to baffling rules, and frightening intolerance, despite the very dreary implications of such a theology - that whatever force has created us, he/she/it does not want us to use the amazing divine spark that he/she/it has created in the human mind. Indeed, we are to think as little as possible.

I know, all that has been said before, and said better. I'm not just making the usual liberal complaint about the small-mindedness and myopia of the "red-staters." I'm saying that as a people, our collective psyche is fractured, illogical, paralyzed by a kind of cognitive dissonance. There are too many contradictions contained within us to continue to survive and stay sane. Our national mind is at war with itself, and it has snapped from the strain.

I don't know what to do about that. But, I try to comfort my dog, my odd little barometer of the American psyche.