Monday, April 21, 2008

Otters and lions and dogs

Last night for some reason we settled into watching a slew of nature shows on that animal channel on cable, which we never do, but I was scanning the tv listings for something that would really kill my brain, kill it good and dead, and there I saw: The Secret Lives of Otters.

Now, I am married to a man whose most cherished dream in life is to have a pet otter. Please, can we get an otter? It can live in the bathtub. It would go swimming with the dogs. It would be so cute. I would hug it and squeeze it and call it George. Please, please, can we get an otter, can we, can we?

I have - unreasonably, I know - shot down this idea every single time it comes up, but knowing the deep inner working of my beloved's heart, I figured the least I could do by way of compromise was to switch to the show about the secret lives of otters. And for a while there, I was starting to come around to his way of thinking, because DAMN. Those critters are cute. But by the end, Enrico looked at me sadly and announced that he didn't think an otter could be happy living in our bathtub.

Yet we had little time to grieve for this lost dream, because the parade of amazing animals marched on! The next show was about Big Cats. Toby likes it when we watch animal shows, because he is intrigued by the tiny little animals running around inside the box. Much of our enjoyment of animal shows in fact comes from watching our animals watch the animals. If it gets really interesting, Toby will get off the couch and sniff the TV screen, sometimes even looking around the sides of the television, trying to figure out, where did those tiny running meerkats disappeared to? Meanwhile Nelly looks at him in disgust, all Do you SMELL an animal? No. That means it's not real. Use your nose, dumbass.

So Toby was having a grand time watching the cheetahs and leopards hunt, and then they showed some male lions doing what male lions apparently do: lying around indolently, waiting for girl lions to bring them some damn food already. The animals are not interesting to Toby if they aren't moving, so he had settled back down in disinterest when the male lion ROARED - and I swear to god, Toby actually levitated a foot off the couch. I have never, ever, seen him look so shocked as he did at the sound of that lion. If he had pants, I swear he would've wet them. Which maybe suggests that he's not quite as dumb as he sometimes acts.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Incident, Part II

Many years ago, right after we bought our house and got Nelly, we moved in with a friend for a couple of weeks while we had some remodeling work done. Our friend had a very sweet dog named Sunny (may she rest in peace), the most loving, playful, non-dominant dog on earth. She had absolutely no interest in being the boss of anyone. As opposed to Nelly, who still hopes to get the Ring of Power and make us all love her and despair, or even Toby, who wouldn't mind being the boss of somebody, but dude? It just takes too much time away from waxing his board, you know?

At that point we only had Nelly, and she and Sunny were great friends because Nelly could be as bossy as she wanted, and Sunny would just be all: peace out! behold my belly. And then they'd run around the yard and gnaw on each other until they were both exhausted and covered with slobber.

But one evening we humans were startled by the terrifying roar of a dog fight, and we rushed to the kitchen to find that Nelly had Sunny flat on her back, pinned to the floor at the neck. It appeared that Sunny had the temerity to suggest that Nelly stop eating her food, because even hippy love dogs have boundaries that begin at the food bowl. We banished Nelly to the bedroom and disciplined her in the firmest ways we could imagine. Sunny's whole body was shaking, a sight I will never forget, to see an animal trembling like that in shock and fear. She was uninjured, and I wouldn't have blamed my friend for being very upset; but she was very gracious.

Within half an hour, the dogs were the best of friends again. You would never have known anything had happened. All of the humans, however, remained utterly traumatized, and for a long time - I mean YEARS - we referred back to this in hushed tones as The Incident.

So, fast forward. While we were in France recently, we engaged our friends' kids to come by the house and let the dogs out each afternoon. The two older girls have been gradually shedding a long-held fear of dogs, while the younger one has, seemingly from birth, adored all animals with the burning fierceness of the sun. The elder girls are just old enough to start taking on small jobs for money, so we hired them to stop by each day with their parents just to let the dogs out in the yard for a bit.

It's striking to me how completely normal behavior for children just happens, by sheer accident, to be incredibly rude in Dog Language. Kids hug and drape themselves over dogs, a gesture that is an extreme assertion of dominance in Doggish. Kids are short and therefore look dogs right in the face, showing their teeth in a big smile, which is downright threatening to a canine. Kids do all this while speaking in high-pitched (i.e. submissive) tones, sending a confusing mixed message of subordination and dominance. I frankly marvel that there aren't more dog-bite incidents involving kids.

We've trained all our friends' kids to focus on Toby because, we explain, Nelly is old and achy and doesn't like much attention. Toby may not like the hugging, but his tolerance appears to be without limits. And even so, sometimes when our young friends are draped over him in an expression of ecstatic love, Toby looks at us with a puzzled and pleading look that says: Why is this small human acting so rude?

Our friends all came by the day we returned from France, and were bursting to tell us how much they Love the dogs! And are such good friends now! We chatted with their mom about the trip over the din of girls running around with the dogs. I heard the littlest girl say, "Nelly doesn't like as much petting as Toby," and that probably should have gotten my attention. Then I noticed that two of the girls had Nelly cornered, and one of them was leaning over her, holding her head firmly between her hands, staring her in the eye with their faces not six inches apart, murmuring sweet endearments. And even as my brain said "Danger!", there was a growl, and a snap of teeth, and then wailing.

Nelly did not bite. She just growled and snapped, which is actually standard Doggish for "you are making me feel threatened and anxious, and I really need you to stop doing what you're doing." It is the canine equivalent of using your words - asking your sister to please stop pestering you while you're trying to read, instead of just punching her in the head. I have no doubt that Nelly first tried saying this politely in Doggish - flattening her ears against her head, probably trying to break the threatening eye contact despite being caught in a head-lock - and I also have no doubt that she had no intention of biting. Because the whole reason wolves evolved complex communication is to avoid actual conflict or violence, which only weakens the pack. In the ten years I've known Nelly, I've only seen her snap at a person four times - and once was at a veterinarian shoving a kennel cough vaccine up her nose, which seemed kinda fair.

BUT. But. Despite all this rational logic, I cannot stop feeling badly about this. I felt badly even as our friend B., the Mom, matter-of-factly reviewed with them all the ways that the girls had contributed to this unhappy event (after first verifying that no actual biting had taken place). She reminded them that they had been studying animals in school and learned that cornering an animal almost always makes it afraid, which makes it dangerous. I imagine there are plenty of parents who would've just whisked their kids out of there and vowed never to let them near our vicious beast again; so of course I'm relieved that B. was so gracious about it.

But despite all that, it's been a week and still, I look at Nelly, and I think about The Incident, Part II, and I feel badly.

Tomorrow I'm taking care of the girls for the afternoon, so I'll be interested to see if there is more processing. I want to treat this with just the right level of seriousness, neither minimizing nor overdramatizing. Kids do need to learn how to behave around animals, and Americans are notorious for absurdly anthropomorphizing our pets instead of respecting them enough to treat them like animals. Just as we have a reputation for ignorance about the language and culture of other peoples, we often can't be bothered to learn the ways of the animals who live among us, expecting them to simply acculturate and conform to human ways; we become surprised and frustrated when they persist in being dogs, or wolves, or bears.

I can recall being actually bitten as a kid, on the nose, on two separate occasions, by dogs belonging to family and friends, and here I am all grown up with two of the damn beasts in my house. So I hope that years from now, I may still be talking in hushed tones about The Incident, Part II, while these girls will be grown-up young women, perhaps with a dog of their own as a best friend.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Return ramblings

Yes, we are back from France, and I know I should be posting stories! and pictures! But we didn't really take any pictures, because it was France, you know? It was huge, and monumental, and whenever we had something keyed up in the tiny little frame of the digital camera, we'd look at each other and go, myeh. That really doesn't capture the experience at all.

Plus I was relying on Megan and TM's copious picture-taking, but they accidentally erased all of their photos midway through the trip.

As for the stories, the trip was fabulous. Really fabulous. We both came home with colds that, combined with jetlag, have left us minimally functional for the past few days. Happily vacationed, but very tired. Nelly greeted us with her usual overwhelmed relief, like her little heart was going to burst from it.

Megan did finish the marathon, and we had a lovely day darting around Paris to catch her at various locations. It was like a big scavenger hunt, setting and finding these meet-up points in corners of the city you might never otherwise visit. I want to give a big shout-out to the regular Paris citizens who form little musical bands and play along the race route for six hours straight. Especially that awesome bass brand near Place de la Bastille, where we spent over 2 hours dancing on park benches and waiting for Megan to come out of the Bois de Vincennes.

We also bought me a new wedding ring in Paris, which was very satisfying. Our hotel for marathon weekend was near the high-end jewelry district. Place Vendome in fact has nothing but jewelry stores, like it's some sort of bizarre zoning regulation. However, these are jewelry stores where every single item in the window could pay off my mortgage. Even if their wares were within my taste and budget, I suspected that inquiring whether their gemstones come from certified conflict-free sources would be like going to McDonald's and asking if the beef is organic free-range and the coffee fair trade? BUT just as I had given up, we found a lovely little boutique which, while not exactly cheap, was several orders of magnitude more reasonable and more artsy/funky in their designs. The sales woman was lovely and I have myself a new ring that is simple in a "someone with a lot of skill worked really hard to make this ring seem casually rustic" sort of way. Which suits me just fine.

Now I'm trying to get into a new routine, back into the work groove but NOT the groove I was in during the month of March, that desperate and unwavering drive to finish billable hours before turning into a French pumpkin. No, this is my opportunity to start fresh, with a routine that includes exercise, and meditation, and nutritious locally produced foods. We just finished our tax return under the deadline, and based on that Enrico is urging me to WORK LESS, WOMAN, because of course I pay a full third of my self-employment earnings to Uncle Sam, and didn't I go into business to have more freedom and flexibility in life? According to our bookkeeping software, our single largest expenditure so far this year - by a long shot - is taxes. But it is followed, in close second place, by "Vacation." For which I feel very fortunate.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

In France!

Well hello, gentle readers! Miscellaneous Shellfish comes to you from an adorble little 6th-floor apartment near the Place de la Republique, looking out over the metal rooftops and dormer windows, so very La Bohème. We type on a funky French keyboard in which the w, a, q, m, comma and period keys are relocated, so please excuse the typos.

We have spent the last two days on a whirlwind museum tour, having purchashed the two-day museum pass that gets you into something like 60 different museums. So many museums, this city has. Yesterday was the Louvre, and although it was of course spectacular, if I never see another Virgin Mary robed in blue and red, that will be just fine. We started our week with the obligatory walking tour of the old historic center, including the iles on the Seine and Nôtre Dame.

My French seems to be serving me just fine, despite the 22-year absence, although my brain wants to speak more quickly and fluently than I'm able. It's like that part of my brain has had a stroke. I reach for words that I'm sure I know, but I can't find them. Inside me, there's still a woman who is fluent in French, but she's FALLEN AND SHE CAN'T GET UP.

I'm amused to find that the French still have the gift of insulting you in that careless way that you shouldn't take very seriously; the art of the backhanded compliment that somehow simultaneously and good-naturedly says "it's odd to hear such good French from an American!" and "Ouch, your painful American accent hurts my ears so very badly." But part of the art of the French insult is that there's generally undeniable truth underneath; my painful American accent me fait mal aux oreilles à moi, aussi.

Anyway, things are the same here - grandiose, monumental, smelling of diesel and fresh-baked bread - yet different, with the Louvre's big glass pyramid and the Musée d'Orsay. We are having a grand time, though Megan threw her back out and isn't sure yet whether she will run the marathon on Sunday. We have our little apartment for 2 more nights, then we'll be in a hotel by the Opéra for 2 nights. Then Enrico and I head to the town of Versailles, where we shall sleep in Louis XIV's former stables. Then one night at Chartres and briefly back to Paris.