Stephen Kuusisto

Stephen Kuusisto teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of Planet of the Blind, a New York Times Notable Book. His latest book, Don't Interrupt: A Playful Take on the Art of Conversation, was published in 2010.

News: Guest Posts
The Smell’s the Thing
Discovering the thrill of grass and other earthy delights with a guide dog.

Day One
If you spend as much time as I do with a dog (the only perk of blindness, eh?), you have the privilege of living a sort of dual citizenship. My yellow Labrador, Nira, and I fly together and go to classes together. We enter supermarkets and museums, amusement parks and churches (those yins and yangs of the spirit).

Now, I resolve that henceforth whenever Nira stops to sniff I too shall drop to the ground and follow suit. I hereby announce that I’m throwing off my anthropomorphic and shallow notions of “ergo sum” for a new kind of “cogito” driven by odor and fragrance and all the declensions in between.

Yes I’m going to learn about Nira’s world. I will keep you posted dear reader. And yes of course the pun is intentional. I shall hold nothing back. I will not fear gawking strangers. (Indeed the public “already” gawks at the blind guy anyway.)

I'm going to undertake graduate study with Nira who is, after all, a $45,000 dog.

Day Two
Yesterday I announced I’d follow my dog’s lead and drop to the ground, or lean in close, to know more fully the whirligig of doggy nasturtiums and nosegays. Clearly I’m having a vague and occupational dementia—the kind of thing that happens when it’s very hot. The Iowa sun has mastered my wits. And the dog is just a dog. She does not know I’m officially crazy.

This morning Nira plunged her head and shoulders into brush that grows along a stone wall in my backyard. It was early and there was dew on the grass and drops of water fell from the disturbed leaves of the bushes. Nira’s whole body was in lockstep with her nose, her broad back trembled and the long leash whipped back and forth in my hand, all the motion driven in accord with the dog’s nostrils. There is not a word in the English language for attenuated motion driven by a dog’s nostrils. I imagine the Swedes have a word for this, something like “hundt-flenken” and I’ll have to look it up at some point. If the Swedes have such a word it will likely prove to be ancient. All the important words are ancient.

So, Nira was really in there and “working it,” as they say at the gymnasium. Her nose was alive and wide open like the soul of a Sufi dancer. She was receiving news of something bosky and yet plangent—a thing both rich and low, a thing dark and yet still capable of flight. I could feel the intelligence of Nira’s nose deep in my hands. “The thing” behind the wall of sylvan camouflage was alive and breathing. Its exhalations were going straight into the dog. The dog was zithing like a wire. “God Almighty,” I thought. “Now I’m going to have to go down on all fours and scent this trapped but living fragrance for myself.”

It’s not so easy to muscle your way into the shrubs alongside a quivering dog but I did it. I was suddenly at the heart of a Mexican standoff under the folds and spills of the elderberry and lilac bushes. I knew I had to be fast. Dogs don’t think twice about scenting living things. This wasn’t a formal affair with multiple forks and knives: I had to plunge and sniff. I was aware that my ass was sticking out of the leaves. My brain was oddly fast and slow. I was simultaneously throwing my blind, naked face into the dank unknown while worrying that the neighbors might see my “plumber’s crack” pointing from a wall of greenery. I tried for just a second to concentrate on my shorts. Were they up? Yes, they were up. No plumber’s crack. The only thing my neighbors could see (supposing they were positioned in accord) would be my khaki shorts shining like a bleached sail far away on the sea.

I had to go faster. Forget my shorts. Nira was snuffling like a torn accordion. The thing was right in front of me. I inhaled and tried to ignore the scratching sounds. The thing was at the wall. It smelled like a wet haystack. It smelled like a moldy rug. It smelled like leaves in a dead fountain. That’s when it began to dawn on me. Yes friend, the dawning was starting to happen. It was moving from my nose to the richly folded and tiny nautilus of my brain’s odor center. The odor brain knew what was going on but the cross circuits from the scent district to the conning tower were out of shape. Yes, the dawning was taking too long. Wet haystack, clogged aqueduct—what “was” that scrabbling thing?  All the important words are ancient.

It so happens I know the Old English word for “the thing” that Nira and I were smelling. You can look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary if you wish. The word is out of use these days.

Yes, my friend, we (man and dog) were smelling a “fud”—a rabbit’s rectum.

Getting out of the bushes was harder than getting in. Nira didn’t help. She was undergoing some kind of transfiguration and I left her to it.

I staggered to my feet. My Neanderthal Man’s nose was getting reacquainted with the post-modern language center.

I owe it all to my dog.

I shall take thought for this canine-centric exercise anon.

Day Three
Kind friends have written to check my sanity. Bill points out that his Labrador has an affection for cat feces—a matter that is presumably tied to the olfactory predilections of canines. My pal “Bibliochef” points out the sheer improbability of the word “fud” but I swear that’s what we were smelling yesterday and I further swear that that’s the word for the hindmost netherpart of a rabbit. I am, of course, a fool. But to further split the point, fools can be sane. Shakespeare’s fools are invariably the sanest people on stage. So in truth I must declare (as if we were in a court of law) that I knew full well what I was doing when I proclaimed I would follow my dogs nose wherever it may point. The thing is: Fools can and “do” take vacations. Again, if you look to Shakespeare you’ll notice that the fools never get run through with poisoned swords or undergo a serious splitting from nave to chaps. Nope. Your true fool knows when to get the heck out of Dunsinane.

Accordingly, I let Nira nose her nose this morning and I kept to the upright, stolid, Lutheran posture that my Finnish grandmother would have approved. When Nira checked out the jetsam and flotsam of the roadside I thought of Cotton Mather. I thought of Duns Scotus. I kept a fierce detachment. I held my nose aloft like the late William F. Buckley interrogating a Liberal. I was just another dog walker moving slowly among the red winged blackbirds and the yellow finches.

If I had a moralistic streak I would say something about the wisdom of letting fuds hide in the buds. But the fool in me knows better. Life is life wherever you find it.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Dogs in the Morning
A Definitive Essay

~ 1 ~

When I was a kid, I loved a song by Pete Seeger, the title of which I can’t recall, but it had this refrain: “All around the kitchen, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do.” I played that record until the needle on my phonograph wore down to a nub. The song was a call-and-response for the human body — Seeger would sing, “You put your right foot out, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do”; “You put your left foot out,” etc. Oh, that song was irresistible! Nowadays, although I’m in my mid-50s and my step-kids are grown, I still sing it. And all I can say is that my dog loves me for it. She gets me, my Labrador girl. She dances right along.


~ 2 ~

Her name is “Nira,” my Labrador. She’s a guide dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. She’s a light yellow Lab with honey-colored ears, and she tilts her head from side to side when I sing. She loves the Pete Seeger song, but she’s OK with almost anything. I could sing “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” and she’d think it was a good development. This isn’t because she’s naïve or smitten. Her good cheer is a function of the canine genome. Dogs are happy in the morning. They are happy in ways that your spouse and your children are not.


~ 3 ~

“Why,” you ask, “are dogs happy in the morning?” You, good reader, are smart, and you’d like some empirical evidence. You’d like it if I wrote something like this: “Studies at the Uppsala Institute for Canine Human Acculturation have shown that dogs have a diurnal endorphin release co-determined by a gene, a doggy gene that pre-dates human agriculture.” (I like this. It makes good sense.) But the truth is that dogs are predators, and all predators wake up happy After all, it’s a whole new day of hunting and eating! Oh yes! Oh yes!


~ 4 ~

Back in the age of Aristotle, dogs saw that those humans who got up early and were disposed to singing were the people who had “leftovers.” Aristotle would throw on his stained toga and do a skippy dance because he had cold moussaka in the Agora. There was also calamari under the caryatids. O, look for the singing men in the whirling bed sheets, doggies!


~ 5 ~

I am telling the truth. Nowadays if you write nonfiction and tell the truth, readers are liable to think you’re pulling their legs. Nonetheless, dogs love us when we sing at sunrise. They know that cold pizza is in the offing. And since we’re on the subject of nonfiction, let me add that this is the point in the essay where a writer is most likely to lose his or her readers. Many think this dicey moment occurs at the beginning, but really it comes right now. This is because the reader thinks she’s got the point and that’s it. But in the name of all dogs, I challenge you to read on!


~ 6 ~

Dogs are not shallow. Dogs are way too sensitive to be short- sighted and small-minded. So yes, they love our cold spanakopita, but they also love our vocalizations. How do I know this? Because I’ve submitted the matter to the scientific method. Now admittedly, my test is too small to warrant a press conference. In fact, I’ve only tested the matter with my own dog and a neighbor’s Poodle. (I’m still seeking funds for a larger study from the National Science Foundation.)


~ 7 ~

Now, the Poodle next door (a big Poodle, an American Standard, I think) has never received any leftovers from my hands. Nor has she received any evening leftovers, just to be exact. Picture me in the wet grass, pre-dawn, the houses still dark, picture me dancing and singing to the fluffy, white Poodle I’ll call “Willow”— picture me singing, “All around the kitchen, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do.”


~ 8 ~

Yes! Willow loves the song! She bounces! She whirls like a cyclone. She barks in joyous harmonization! Cock-adoodle- doodle baby! It’s almost sunrise! It’s time to savor the yips and yaps of the mystical appearance of all living things! Yes, it’s dark out here. If my neighbors saw me (or if my wife saw me for that matter), well, they’d probably call the cops. I dance like an unseemly, arthritic clown. You put your left foot out, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do. But look! I’ve proven that dogs love us for our songs, not for a promise of pizza. And because we’re simpatico —happy to be awake on this rare, blue planet — we are wondrous, holy fools together.


~ 9 ~

So it’s the ecstasy of living, and of singing about it, that dogs love. You see, dogs love us for the right reason.


~ 10 ~

You can’t get a cat to dance without a string, no matter what you say.

Culture: Tributes
Fortune’s Talker
in memory of Roscoe, a black Labrador

Some are born to talk and that’s a story,
And some know what to do with the gift
And that’s a different story—Roscoe
Born at the guide dog school,
But too sensitive for traffic,
Roscoe was a sweet talker.
All dogs “talk” but few have nuance:
Roscoe knew. Oh he knew
When you felt rich inside
So he had a word or two for that;
And even yesterday, lame and tired in wet grass
He had encouraging things to say
To our neighbor’s dog who is young and fast.
We should all have things to share
In praise of animal faith
And with some of Roscoe’s luck
May we be wise enough
To find our better calling: