Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What I learn from my dog

A dog teaches a boy fidelity, perseverance, and to turn around three times before lying down.
 -- Robert Benchley, US humorist (1889-1945)

I've been a cat man all my life. Ever since a little basket was handed to me at my fourth birthday party, containing a Siamese kitten, I've been hooked on cats. The man in the Kliban cartoon who's surrounded by cats and says, "It started innocently. Someone offered me a cat. So I thought I'd try one, just to see what it's like ... and I kinda liked it, so I had another ... and another ..." -- that could have been me.

There have been a couple of dogs along the way: one that only lasted a couple of months when I was 7, because he turned out to be chronically ill, and one that belonged to my ex-wife. 

And then came Millie.

Amelia and I had cats. At one point, there were 5 of them around our two-bedroom apartment. Two of them died in their old age, and around the same time, Amelia started talking wistfully about getting a dog. For a time, she talked about getting a King Charles Cavalier spaniel, and it looked like there was some kind of conspiracy going on, because hardly a week would go by when I didn't see a KCC in some random location. But one day, we were visiting some friends on Vancouver Island who had a border terrier. Amelia remarked, "Jessie is such a nice dog, and great with kids and the cat. Maybe we should consider a border terrier."
Millie and Sadie, on alert

Before I could say anything, our friends said, "Well, one of our neighbors is a breeder, and she's just had a litter."

We still had three cats at the time (we're down to 2 now), so I pointed out that our complex had a 2-pet limit as it was. "We'd have to buy pet offsets from our neighbors who don't have pets," I said.

We arrived at the breeder's place, and one of the puppies ran straight to me and started chewing on my shoe. I picked her up and she burrowed into my neck. She practically ignored Amelia: even at that tender age, she knew whom she had to work on. 24 hours later, we were the proud owners of Millicent K. PupDog.

As Benchley said, Millie has taught me about fidelity and unconditional love; and I had never experienced a situation where an animal would step up to protect and care for me. She saw me crash on my bicycle last summer and was absolutely frantic. While Amelia and a kind passerby re-set the chain and saw to the bike, I was in mild shock, and Millie spent her time licking my wounds. Another time, a dog that I thought was playing came charging a little too close to me, and Millie went into "repel boarders" mode, positioning herself by my feet and darting out to chase the other dog away.

But the biggest lesson Millie has been teaching me so far is how to play. She loves to run, and seeing her race around the field at the park across the street, hair flowing in the breeze, reminds me of helmet-less Guy Lafleur, speeding down the ice. But if the other dog(s) are clearly slower than she is, she'll drop to 3/4 or half speed, looking over her shoulder as she runs. She'd rather canter than out-run another dog, so that she can play with him or her.

It's the same thing when she and I play. When I throw a ball, she'll chase it, grab it and run back with it -- but she won't give it back. I have to chase her and try to get it away from her. She knows I'm not as fast as she is, so rather than out-run me, she'll bounce sideways while I do the "basketball shuffle" to try to corral her. Indoors, she has a variety of toys (it was very sweet when some of our dog-park friends came over with their dogs and Millie gradually brought out every one of her toys for them to play with), and when she wants to play, she'll bring one over and demand that I try to take it away from her.
This will go on for some time ...

That leads to a tug-o-war and a lot of head-shaking on her part, as I try to wrest the toy from her jaws and she tried to yank it out of my hand, and I often wonder what the purpose in it is for her. She knows the stuffed teddy bear isn't an actual animal, and what could be so important to her about a piece of knotted rope, that it becomes a life-or-death struggle to keep me from having it? To what end is all this?

It's then that I realize that for Millie, play is an end to itself. There is no competition, no desire to win. When she and Babz, a little Havanese, get together, they spend all their time wrestling -- not to harm each other, but because it's fun to grapple. When she runs with Tegan (a Jack Russell), Buster (Heinz terrier) and Horatio (Yorkie), the other speed merchants in our group, they actually take turns leading for the others to chase. Sometimes when we're at home, she'll get one of her balls and bounce it for herself. She even invented a game, in which I sit in a chair with my legs together and she takes her ball and rolls it down my legs like a chute, then chases the ball.

Participaction has launched a campaign called "Bring Back Play", and Canadian Tire's "We All Play For Canada" campaign ran through the fall. Play for the sake of play is something humans seem to lose sight of, and at an earlier age than before. Little league ballplayers and peewee hockey players are looked at as potential major-league material, and the resulting favoritism and competitiveness is probably a big factor in driving other kids away from play before their time. 

But dogs don't compete. Dogs don't keep score. Dogs don't trash-talk one another. Dogs play.

We can learn a lot from our dogs.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Online comments - gentility, grace ... and censorship?

The Vancouver Sun reported this week that online news providers -- like AOL, Huffington Post and others -- are taking steps to tone down some of the rhetoric in comments regarding stories. The growth of social media like blogs and Twitter has coincided with (or contributed to) the rise of the Age of Nasty. Having been part of TransLink's cutting-edge rise in direct communications with the public, I've seen how easy it is for someone to launch a day-destroying (or even job-destroying) salvo and then duck-and-cover.

The main part of the solution described in the Sun article is exactly what we need: require commenters to use their right names. Nothing tones down rhetoric like making someone publicly accountable for their words. My mother used to advise me, "never say anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the New York Times", and there were moments in my career in broadcast and media relations that I rather wished I'd remembered that.

But the part that gives me concern is the suggestion that moderators on these sites screen out "offensive" comments: you know - racism, bigotry, violence, etc., etc. I get the notion of preventing blowhards from dominating a conversation or ensuring the follow-up discourse stays on-topic, but monitoring against "offensiveness" smacks of censorship. I've long maintained (and believe me, I used to be all-for stifling people whose views didn't square with my own) that truth is its own defense and doesn't need to hide behind rules and regulations. One person's bigotry may be another person's strongly-held belief; it's only when those beliefs are aired-out fairly that the truth becomes clearer.

About 20 years ago, the late Sam Kinison brought his standup comedy act to Victoria. A crowd of protesters -- including the Member of Parliament at the time -- picketed the Royal Theatre, demanding the show be shut down. I went to review it for Monday magazine, which at the time was an "alternative" weekly. "Are you going in?" I asked the MP. "Absolutely not!" he said. "I'll have no part of that bigotry." "Then how do you know what it is?" "I've heard."

And truth to tell, I found his act horrific. Certainly, the people who went enjoyed it, and unfortunately, they appeared to represent a particular mentality and lifestyle. Maybe Sam was out to hold up a mirror and get us asking why we found it funny to put down people of different ethnic groups, the homeless and impoverished, and so forth. Sadly, Sam didn't live long enough to tell us.

Maybe through being able to express even the most misguided of opinions, the person expressing them can get an idea of how misguided their thinking is. That doesn't happen if they're being suppressed, driven underground, or forced to yell their thoughts into a paper bag.

Make someone responsible for what they say by requiring them to associate their name with it, fine; moderate against domination and name-calling, great; but that should be all we need to improve the level of online discourse.

"Speak the truth in love," says the Apostle Paul; and "I do not agree with what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," said Voltaire. The Internet is "growing up," as the Sun article says, and those two quotations can help make sure it matures, as well.