They’re Good Dogs, Crass

I was a teenager when Norm, our younger springer spaniel, attacked my dad. He had undiagnosed rage disorder and bit my dad on the face while they were snuggling in his chair. Dad threw Norm in the back yard and mom took dad to the hospital. I had to stay behind and listen to Norm, now returned to himself and confused about his banishment, cry to be let in.

He hadn't howled like this before. This was a wholly new sound, different from the sounds of pain and stress and alert that normally came out of him. Listening to it was almost unbearable.

I sat in the upstairs hall and wept. Our older springer Malley padded up close, sniffed me twice, and nudged me. I tried to shoo her away. She normally listened to that, but that night she stayed, and she nosed my hands away from my face again and again until I let them fall. She kissed me and she lay down next to me and did not leave my side until dad came home. We put Norm down the next day.

He used to try to talk. If you were sitting in a chair and reading or watching TV, he would come and sit right in front of you, face like a forlorn Stan Laurel, and wait for you to notice him. If you ignored him, he would scoot a half-step back, sit back down, and huff once. If you continued to ignore him, he'd try to talk.

This was not a bark or a whine. He would open his mouth and start modulating his voice in a constant up-and-down rurring sound that approximated the rise and fall and cadence of human speech. I've never heard a dog do that before or since.

That was one of the things I missed most when we put him down. He was one of us. He wanted to be near us, to share body warmth with us, to be comforted and told that he was good, that we saw him there, that we hadn't forgotten our boy. He was also weird as hell, and I identified with that.


The gist of this article is mostly reasonable. Which makes the clickbait nature of its headline and framing even more tiresome in contrast. Even Norm didn't clown that hard to get our attention. He just tried to talk to us.

That clowning drowns out some of the piece's more disturbing points, like that 40% of women dog owners get more emotional support from their dogs than from their husbands. That's a parasitism that's far more worthy of scrutiny than the question of whether my Mugsy understands selflessness and altruism.

Indeed, there's a case to be made that we're all emotional parasites. That we need affirmation, that we need security both physical and emotional, that we need to feel needed and valued. That others are mostly a means to those ends.

The question of whether dogs love us or merely need us only stops with their species if you don't understand the implications of what you're asking. Pointing out that they train us just like we do them opens us up to much broader and more interesting discussions about the nature of our thinking and feeling existence than a lazy and predictable "everything you know is BACKKERDS" hot take, if we’re listening.

It’s a perfect microcosm of everything I’ve come to hate about the internet I used to love. A big opportunity for meaningful discussion torpedoed by the symbiosis of market considerations, short attention spans, and the need for an outrage platform.

Right now the San Diego Union-Tribune is basking in a viral Twitter fight that raised their ad revenue for a minute. Right now Twitter is screaming DOG HATER about an article they didn't read. Both of them sacrificed something to get what they wanted.

The whole thing makes me tired all over. So tonight I will scoop my little bearded boy up in my arms and carry him up to bed (note: that fucker’s spoilt), and I will ponder for the 500th time as we plod past the stained glass window just what all this says about what it is to have feelings.

Did You Grow Up as One of My Neighbors?

Normally I can't abide a tweetstorm, but that policy is conflicting with my "always post Fred Rogers stories" policy.

Mister Rogers always wins.

(If you want the really good stuff, Tom Junod's profile of him from years ago should leave you at least a little bit misty, if you aren't a replicant. It's also exceptional writing.)

Jason and George

Every now and then I go back and re-read this comment on the generational divide between James Bond and Jason Bourne. A snippet, if you're not up to the arduous task of reading an internet comment (in which case, why you're here for my overwritten bumf I don't know):

Who is our generations [sic] James Bond? Jason Bourne. He can't trust his employer, who demanded ultimate loyalty and gave nothing in return. In fact, his employer is outsourcing his work to a bunch of foreign contractors who presumably work for less and ask fewer questions.... What about work tools? Bourne is on is own there too. Sure, work initially issued him a weapon, but after that he's got to scrounge up whatever discount stuff he can find, even when it's an antique. He has to do more with less. And finally, Bourne survives as a result of his high priced, specialized education.... Oh, and like the modern, (sub)urban professional, Bourne had to mortgage his entire future to get that education. They took everything he had, and promised that if he gave himself up to the System, in return the System would take care of him.

And, indeed, that's our reality these days. Cross reference this one from Eddie Smith about the current professional's mindset, less that of an employee and more that of an independent contractor:

I don't care who you work for, stop thinking of them as a boss or a company. Think of them as a client. Think of yourself as a business. And start thinking like that right now.

Now, I'm guessing you're like me, and when you think of Jason Bourne, you think of "It's a Wonderful Life".

It's pretty much everyone's favorite dramatic holiday movie, right? Pull ten people off the street, six or more will gush. They'll use terms like "uplifting" and "inspiring" and "hopeful". It's that magical Capra touch.

Let's recap, shall we?

Hometown boy wants one thing in life: a little adventure. He wants to see the world. He wants to build things. And it never happens. Ever.

What holds him back? Obligation, mostly. His sense of duty to his family, to his town, to his neighbors. He greets even falling for the woman who would be his wife, what should be one of the most joyful moments of the film, with frustration, anger, then resignation.

His honeymoon, his last great shot at adventure, sold away to keep his family's business afloat. Then it's a mortgage on a drafty old house in need of constant repair, then it's children. And more children. And sick children.

And then? His business again put at risk and now a looming felony conviction, all because of one doddering, drunk uncle and a rich asshole George once pissed off.

He's toast, his dream ground to powder and thrown to the wind, his future ruined, entirely because of other people. The real bitch? Nearly all of them are people he loves. People who need him.

So he does the only sane thing in the world left to him. He gets stinking drunk and wrecks his car. And then? He tries to throw himself off a bridge.

I won't waste words running down the rest of it in too much detail. You all know how it goes down. But let's flash-forward to the end. What's our hero's reward?

He doesn't go to jail. All those people he helped out return the favor and bail him out. Still broke, still never see his dream fulfilled, but not going to jail and slightly-less-screwed financially.

This is a joyous fucking movie.

Yes, yes, I know. His real reward is learning that he made a difference in other people's lives. He discovers that he'd been an important man all along, important in a sense that wrinkly scrotum facsimile Potter would never be. But other than the house full of singing people at the end, this is a black tale of the woe-est woe. If it weren't for Clarence's ruffly Mormon undergarments and rum punch, it'd be nigh-unwatchable. Hell, it only needs someone shooting John Turturro in the face.

Is it too much to give the poor bastard a plane ticket?

Just as Bond and Bourne are hyperbolic analogues of businessmen past and present, so is George of the modern family man. Just as the Bourne movies are about navigating the modern realities of employment, "It's a Wonderful Life" is about navigating a mid-life crisis.

Now, that's a phrase we all like to use as a punchline: hair plugs, convertibles, secretaries. And certainly those men who abandon their posts are worthy of criticism, if not contempt. But look at George Bailey, slumped over Martini's bar and rubbing his face. I love my family, he thinks. I need my wife, my children. But I also need just one thing that is for me. Just one dream fulfilled. Just one break.

A friend once said that inside of every man in his fifties is a man in his twenties wondering what the fuck happened.

I wrote before of my fear that I'd never leave a lasting mark on this world. A number of men who read that came forward to confide that same fear. Not a need for fame or riches or a Wikipedia entry, but to die with the knowledge that we did something that mattered, that outlived us. That we will not disappear with those who remember us. Maybe, along the way, the ability to live a life without caring too much about the expectations of others.

Facing the possibility that it might not happen, that in fact for most of us it will not happen, stinks going down. Those of us who have read our Thoreau remember being young and coming upon that phrase "quiet desperation" and thinking, not me. Never. And now, in our thirties and forties, we re-evaluate, and we wonder if there is still time. We are not ready for resignation yet. And yes, some of us panic.

The thing about men who accomplish big things is that a shocking number of them are complete pricks. Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, all reputed dickholes. You wonder if that's the secret, not giving a damn what others want. You wonder if you have to choose between being a good man or a great one.

If you do, the costs of greatness are obvious and on display in a million movies. Just look at old man Potter. But no one warned us of the costs of goodness. Nor perhaps should they have. Like any important thing, goodness is hard, and it is hard because it means choosing obligation, cleaving unto others. Goodness, like love, is a choice you make every day of your life.

God rains plagues on George Bailey because of his goodness, again and again, until he's begging. I have done as you commanded. Please, just one dream. Just one thing to go the easy way. Just one thing that is mine.

God's reply: No. But here, I'll show you what it was all for.

We cry over Zu Zu's petals and atta-boy-Clarence because we are George Bailey. Nearly no one escapes their youth with their dreams intact, because life is what goes on while you're dreaming, and it has its own ideas. We cry because George got to see that he had built something all along, while the rest of us can only hope that we did.

Jason Bourne survives by being the baddest of the bad, fulfilling every corporate stooge's dream of shooting his boss. But that's a power fantasy, not a reality we can or should relate to.

George? George survives because those other people who broke his dreams pull him from that wreckage and tend to his wounds and tell him that his sacrifice made their lives possible. Nothing badass about that. No plane ticket. But it matters.