Lee Harrington talks to novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell
Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of several books, including American Salvage, a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest novel, Once Upon a River (W.W. Norton), is being hailed as a “dramatic and rhapsodic American odyssey,” with a central character who’s a “female Huckleberry Finn.” We at Bark have a particular affinity for Bonnie, whom we published when she was a relatively unknown writer. Her quirky story “My Dog Roscoe” (in which a woman is convinced her boyfriend has been reincarnated as a stray dog) appeared in our book Dog Is My Co-Pilot, and her comic essay “What My Dog Has Eaten Lately” appeared in Howl, our humor anthology.
Lee Harrington: We all know you are a devoted dog lover. Tell us about some of the dogs who have appeared in your fiction.
Bonnie Jo Campbell: My first story collection, Women & Other Animals, contains two stories that feature dogs prominently. “Old Dogs” is the story of three older women who live in poverty with four older dogs (all named after Shakespearean heroes). My goal was to show how the dogs and women bring comfort and dignity to one another’s difficult lives.
In “The Fishing Dog,” a young woman without resources lives on the river with a difficult man who is much older than she is. Across the river lives a gentler, kinder man, whose dog sits by the river’s edge and hunts for fish. The narrator becomes obsessed with this dog and gradually, by extension, falls in love with the new man.
LH: I understand that this story largely inspired your now-famous novel, Once Upon a River. In the final pages of that book, Margo decides to adopt a recently orphaned dog. What does this say about Margo and her transition from child to adult?
BJC: Margo has always wanted to share her life with one or more dogs, but her situation has never allowed it. Her parents forbade her from adopting a dog while she lived at home, so she hung out with her cousins’ dogs. When she left home to make her way in the world, she was never in a stable enough situation to properly care for a dog. Finally, at the end of the story, Margo knows she is ready to care for someone.
LH: How do you decide to include a dog in a particular scene or story?
BJC: I’m a realist writer, so I try to work with what seems naturally to flow from a situation or a character. Many people need a dog in their lives to make them whole and happy, and that’s true of fictional characters as well. Many of the characters in my stories, especially the women, live their lives entwined with the lives of animals.
LH: In many works of fiction (and in life, actually) dogs are included as accessories or part of the setting rather than as characters. To me, a character is a being who has the capacity to change the direction of the story. Where do you stand on that — dogs as characters vs. accessories?
BJC: Agreed! A dog is generally too powerful a force to pose as mere decoration. I won’t address the misguided real-life situations, but it would be a shame to waste such a potentially active story element. In movies and plays, almost any dog who wanders onstage will steal the show. Of course, it depends upon the story itself — every narrative operates according to its own rules — but in general, we writers should always be looking to where the energy and empathy lie in a story, and a dog is a good place to start.
LH: Your beloved three-legged dog Rebar died a few years ago, and travel and work commitments have kept you from getting another dog. What has your new life as a successful writer and professor been like, sans chien?
BJC: I’ve missed the company of dogs desperately. I’m all over everybody else’s dogs, like a childless auntie who can’t keep her hands off her nieces and nephews. Some of what I wrote about Margo’s longing for a dog in Once Upon a River was what I’ve been feeling. I plan to stop roaming soon and find myself a new canine companion, one who can get along with my two donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote, who live on my mom’s farm. Rebar was great around the barnyard, though I didn’t like the way he chewed donkey dung. I still dream about Rebar. The writing life requires a lot of sitting quietly in a room, and that makes a lot more sense when there’s a dog beside you.
Frans Hals (1582 – 1666), the celebrated portraitist and genre painter, together with Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer comprise the pantheon of Dutch painting’s “Golden Age.” Hals’ subjects were the bourgeois of Haarlem, a hub of a new 17th-century Dutch economy. His colorful characters were painted with a vibrant palette and bold brushwork unseen in realist painting. Unlike the somber dignity found in Rembrandt or the contemplative interiors of Vermeer, Hals paintings radiate an exuberance in style and composition. He is at his best when he combines portraiture with genre painting, as he does in Young Man and Woman in an Inn (1623). Popularly known since the eighteenth century as Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart, it is one of Hals most important works, an examination of “everyday life” or the depiction of modern manners and mores. The painting shows a brief encounter in a tavern between a young man and woman. Yonker is an English rendering of Jonker or Jonkheer, which means “Young Gentleman.” The young man depicted here was considered to resemble Pieter Ramp, the ensign in the background of another Hals painting Banquet of the Officers of the Saint Hadrian Civic Guard Company (Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem) of about 1627. The Yonker here raises his glass in celebration as the woman, arm around his shoulder vies for his attention. Her rival is a dog (resembling a Griffon), the canine’s muzzle cupped in the hand of the Yonker, perhaps enjoying a morsel of food. The immediacy of the scene and the dazzling brushwork are remarkable. The facial expressions exude a raucous gaiety verging on caricature, while Hals’ painterly skill is in full force with his virtuoso handling of flesh, fabric and lace. The painting recalls a contemporary Dutch adage: “the nuzzle of dogs, the affection of prostitutes, and the hospitality of innkeepers: None of it comes without cost.” As demonstrated in this masterwork, Hals was not shy about portraying his subjects foolish behavior or showing the crass side of the new gentry class. Few paintings capture the personality of its subjects with such vitality and unvarnished joy—it’s as if Hals joins the Yonker and his lady friend in winking at us from the canvas.
Two of college basketball’s top performers see parallels between the game and life with their canine companions
Dogs and basketball may seem like a few bounces off the court of comparison, but Tennessee’s head coach and their All-American player think canines can teach them a lot about the game.
Pat Summitt, the iconic coach of the Lady Vols, now in her 33rd season, and Candace Parker, the 6' 5" sophomore All-American who was one of the youngest players to ever suit up for the USA women’s senior national team this past summer, share more than a love of basketball: They are both devoted to their dogs.
For Summitt, a native of Tennessee, it is Sally Sue (Southerners typically give their dogs two names), and for Parker, who is from Naperville, Ill., it is Fendi. Sally Sue Summitt, as the human Summitt says when speaking of her, is a five-year-old yellow Labrador. Fendi is a one-year-old St. Bernard mix that Parker rescued from an adoption center operated by the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley in Knoxville, a few miles from UT’s campus. Despite her humble beginnings, Fendi is named after an exclusive line of handbags because “she’s high maintenance,” says Parker, a fashion maven off the court.
Summitt, 54, a perfectionist coach who started this season with 913 career wins—the most in NCAA history, men or women—and Parker, 20, a perfectionist player hailed as one who will change the game (and who won a slam-dunk competition against boys while in high school), are both in heavy demand by the national print and broadcast media. But Bark magazine scored a first—neither has ever been interviewed for a dog publication until this fall .
Summitt might accurately be called the alpha dog of the Lady Vols, but she can look to Sally Sue for tips on how to work within a pack. She also draws parallels between training Sally and instilling discipline in her team, though Summitt will give an assist to her son, Tyler Summitt, 16, for teaching Sally.
“Trying to train them to do what you want them to do—that’s a big part of it,” Summitt says of dogs and players. “Of course, I have to give Tyler a lot of credit for training Sally. I’m amazed at how disciplined she is. You figure if you can train a dog to do what you want them to do, you should be able to train a player to do what you want them to do.”
She adds, “Early on, the puppy stages, you have to be patient. If they have an accident, you have to teach them when you’re trying to potty train them. And actually, again, Tyler did a great job. [Sally] only had three accidents.”
For Summitt, patience is an acquired trait. She began coaching at Tennessee at the young age of 22, and—although nobody would say she’s become less intense—she has learned to adjust as both the game and the players have changed. Sally has had a role in Summit’s mellowing out. But the dog also has a competitive streak that was likely learned in the Summitt household, specifically, outside at the pool.
“Tyler taught her to go off the diving board,” Summitt says. “She climbs the ladder like a human. She’s taught me to share because if we’re at the pool, she wants the float. If she beats me to the float, then I let her have it. I have to be competitive to beat her to the float.”
Both Summitt and Parker use the same word to describe their admiration for Sally and Fendi: loyalty.
“They are incredibly loyal,” Summitt says. “Sally is so loyal. They know your moods. She knows when I’m in a good mood. She knows when I don’t feel well—very sensitive and very caring.”
“Loyalty, loyalty to your teammates,” Parker says when asked what specific lesson she has learned from dogs. “My dog Fendi is the most loyal dog ever. She’s always there, no matter what, always happy.” That’s one of the intangibles for dogs and teammates. But there are other qualities that can be measured, such as speed and anticipation.
“We go to the park with my dog,” Parker says. “She is the quickest dog. She can stop on a dime; she can turn on a dime. If I had her quickness … she’s everywhere. She anticipates a lot of things.”
For Parker, anticipation on the basketball court can lead to stealing a pass or beating a defender on a cut to the basket. During those trips to the park in Knoxville, Parker observes that Fendi, while obedient, will also take opportunities to explore her surroundings. “She follows me everywhere I go, she knows commands, but sometimes she goes off on her own, explores things,” Parker says. “So learn from that. You can go off on your own but always come back. She knows I’m always going to be there.”
So how does that translate to the court? Consider the March 2006 Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game. Though Tennessee was the underdog going into the title matchup because their point guard was on the bench with a broken wrist, they made it to the final game against Louisiana State University. With 37 seconds to go at Alltel Arena in North Little Rock, Ark., the Lady Vols were down by one, 62–61.
It took a team effort to get Tennessee that close, as LSU had been favored to run away with the tournament title. But with 17 seconds left in the game, it was time for Parker to go off on her own. The coaches called an isolation play for Parker, and her teammates cleared away from the basket to open up space on the floor and draw the rest of the defense away from the rangy forward. With 17 seconds left, Parker floated in an eight-footer that brought the score to 63–62 and won the game. In the remaining seconds, the team converged and shut down LSU’s attempt to retake the lead. The Tennessee team returned from Arkansas with the tournament trophy; Parker took home the award for most valuable player.
Summitt hadn’t considered the link between dogs and basketball until asked. But once she pondered the questions, she had no trouble drawing comparisons. “If you’re throwing the ball with her or trying to give certain commands, you can tell she’s very in tune, and she anticipates what she’s going to do,” Summitt says—of Sally in this case, not Parker. “I hadn’t thought of it that way because I had been coaching so long when I got her. But I can now that you ask me. I can see a lot of similarities.” They also have another desirable quality: “You know what?” Summit says with a smile; “They don’t talk back. That’s the best thing. They don’t seem to have all the answers.”
Summitt and her players are looking for answers this season. The Lady Vols haven’t won a national title since 1998—a drought by Tennessee standards—and although the 2006–2007 team is talented enough to claim a championship, the players must avoid injury—their nemesis of late—and win with a small pack of 10. And like a group of dogs, they are learning their roles, identifying the leaders and hoping to protect their desired territory, in this case a coveted spot in the 2007 NCAA Women’s Final Four in Cleveland, Ohio, in April.
At least Summitt and Parker know that no matter what happens on the court, their dogs will be happy to see them when they get home.
“Absolutely,” Summitt says. “She hears me before I ever turn down the drive. It’s like she knows my car. She’s right there, excited to see me no matter what. I’ve gotten more attached to her than I probably should. She’s unbelievable—if I come into the house and I’m not feeling well, she won’t leave my side. Anytime I’m going out the door, she wants to go. It’s hard to leave her. She loves to go in the car. She loves to be outside. She likes to play. It’s just fun. It’s fun to go home to Sally and just spend time with her.”
The pressure of playing Division I basketball, performing in the classroom—Parker is a dean’s list student studying business, sports management and communications—and trying to live up to the implicit expectations of being one of the best women’s basketball players ever can wear down even the most grounded person. For a pickup, Parker needs only to go home, where Fendi waits on the other side of the door.
“She definitely lives in the moment, no matter what,” Parker says. “We can learn a lot from them because they are just happy all the time, no matter what is going on. I was telling my mom this the other day. I don’t know where I would be right now if I didn’t have my dog. She sleeps with me every night, and she’s always there when I wake up. She makes me feel a lot better. I don’t know where I would be without her.”
Making sense of dogs
What is an anthrozoologist, anyway? Turns out it’s someone who studies human-animal interactions, and John Bradshaw, who directs the world-renowned Anthrozoology Institute based at the UK’s University of Bristol (and founded it at the University of Southampton), is pre-eminent among them. For more than a quarter of a century, he’s investigated the behavior of dogs and their people, and his findings have been widely published. In Dog Sense — his best-selling, recently released book — he expands upon his belief that “the future of the dog does not lie simply with the blunt instruments of legislation and regulation, but with better public understanding of what dogs actually are, their needs and wants.” Recently, Bradshaw shared his thoughts on evolution, training (debunking the myth behind the “dog as wolf” model), changes in breeding practices in the UK and what lies behind dogs’ attraction and attachment to us, among other intriguing ideas.
Bark: Why do you think that a proto-dog — a transition from wolf to dog — evolved?
John Bradshaw: My theory — and I have nothing to back it up — is that something happened in the brains of certain wolves that made dual socialization possible. Humans developed a propensity to take in pets, and then these particular wolves came along — these would be the protodogs. They would have looked exactly like wolves. This was not an intervention on our part, but rather, a very different cultural environment.
B: Most researchers refer to domestication as a one-way street. Didn’t other species, including the wolf and proto-dog, also have an effect on our own evolution?
JB: Domestication was a long and complex process; speculatively, I would [say] that there were several failed attempts. Researchers who are studying human evolution and the human brain pretty much say that our own evolution — at the genetic level — wasn’t influenced by dogs. But, of course, our culture has been profoundly influenced by them.
B: Do you think it’s possible that we hunted together, or perhaps learned or honed our own skills by watching wolves hunt?
JB: I don’t think we were hunting partners, to begin with, but one of the versions of human evolution that I strongly subscribe to comes from Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist and professor of early prehistory, who studies the evolution of the human mind and why we are different from the Neanderthal — why they died out and we didn’t. One of the key [dissimilarities] he points to is our ancestors’ ability to think like animals. They could put themselves in the place of an animal — that they, in fact, had a connection to the animals. So we would be able to think, “If I were a wolf, what would I be doing?” or, “If I were a deer, what would I do now?”
B: If scientists have concluded that wolf behavior is different from that of dogs, why do people still consider the lupomorph (wolf pack) model as a determinant of canine behavior?
JB: They have a good excuse, which is that in terms of their DNA, dogs and wolves are so similar. However, that doesn’t mean there is similarity in their behaviors.
B: If the wolf model isn’t appropriate, what is?
JB: The behavior of feral, or village, dogs in Italy, Russia and India has been studied recently, and results show that those dogs are much closer to the ancestors of pet dogs than wolves are. These are urban feral dogs, high-density dogs, dogs in large groups. Earlier studies [of feral dogs] were conducted in environments in which the dogs were being persecuted and are like the early captive-wolf studies: not reliable.
B: You write that there is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs — that dogs do not want to dominate us — but so many trainers (including Cesar Millan, as you note in the book) and others use this construct to explain dog behavior. Why is this wrong and what are its implications?
JB: Part of the problem is that confrontation makes good television, and attracts programmers, but having a confrontation in your living room with your own dog isn’t the best way to train a dog. The more effective way is to use reward-based training, which can be (by television standards) incredibly dull, since it may take hours or sometimes weeks. My colleagues and I are appalled by the popularity of this style of confrontational dog training. I don’t know what the situation is in your country, but in the UK, we have a new Animal Welfare Act, and that kind of training goes against its recommendations. The law reads, “All dogs should be trained to behave well, ideally from a very young age. Only use positive reward-based training. Avoid harsh, potentially painful or frightening training methods.”
B: Have you seen any changes in breeding practices in the UK as a result of the BBC’s “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” documentary?
JB: The genetic isolation of breeds has brought about a dramatic change in the canine gene pool. Three inquiries have been commissioned: one by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, another by the government and a third by the Kennel Club itself, but there is still a great deal to be done. There are problems implementing the studies’ conclusions because the KC, like the AKC, is a federal structure made up of individual breed clubs. The federation has no power to tell the member breed clubs what to do.
B: Many people use puppy testing to predict a dog’s adult character. Do you feel this is valid?
JB: Dogs are born to become friendly toward people, a process that starts in about the third week of their life and goes on for several months. This process of socialization is well charted. At 16 weeks, the window of socialization to people begins to close, though it stays open a bit longer for socialization to other dogs.
B: You write that dogs have been so heavily selected to form strong attachments to humans that many suffer from separation anxiety — up to 50 percent of Labs bred in the UK, for instance. On what is this finding based?
JB: It comes from my own research and that of others. We concluded that many dogs experience this anxiety at some time in their lifetime. In one longitudinal study, we followed puppies, 40 in all, litters of Labradors and Border Collies, from eight weeks to 18 months old. Over 50 percent of the Labs and almost half of the Collies showed some kind of separation distress. Subsequent studies, during which we filmed dogs left alone, showed that self-reporting by owners underestimates the scope of the problem.
B: One of the most controversial positions you take is that being in a shelter may damage a dog. Was consideration given to contributing factors such as the length of time spent in a shelter, the condition of the facility, the interactions a dog has with other dogs and humans there, and the dog’s personality and history?
JB: We want to understand what is going on inside these dogs, and I am not in any way blaming rescuers or shelters. Dogs who have been attached to a family may suddenly wind up in a shelter for a variety of reasons: family breakup, job loss or the dog’s behavioral problems. Dogs will be very upset by this and when they arrive in a shelter, their cortisol level [a stress-related hormone] goes sky high. We know this because when we’ve taken urine samples, we’ve had to dilute the urine to even get a measurement — it was that high. They don’t have the resources to cope and go into hyperdrive, desperate to please people. As a result, in a shelter setting, dogs actually can be easily trained.
B: Dogs clearly love us, and demonstrate that in many ways, but is this what motivates them to obey us and follow our lead?
JB: Human contact has a high-level reward value for dogs; simple attention from us is rewarding. And if that attention comes while playing with them, it can be a double reward. You can train a dog with a tennis ball, but while the game is important, it is not the only thing. The real treat is the interaction. Withdraw your attention, ignore the dog, and the dog will find this withdrawal of attention aversive.
Q: What do dogs need?
Q: How can we better understand our dogs?
Q: Given all that we know about genetics, why choose a mixed-breed dog?
Temple Grandin, PhD, teaches at Colorado State University and is the author of several books, including Animals in Translation and, most recently, Animals Make Us Human.
A year ago, we reviewed David Wroblewski’s debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which the author has described as “a boy-andhis- dog story for grown-ups.” A surprise hit of 2008, the book raises intriguing questions about—among other things—the nature of wildness and domestication, and training’s role in that process. Here, we learn more about the author’s perspectives on the subject.
Bark: In the book, Brooks, the animal behaviorist,writes “it would be better to imagine how men might become more suitable for dogs and not the other way around.” Is this your personal belief?
David Wroblewski: Yes.When I look at dogs as a species, I am astonished at how we have changed the wolf genome to suit our own purposes.Humans certainly have not changed much over the centuries. It doesn’t seem like a fair equation.Maybe we have changed dogs too much.
Dog training, done thoughtfully, is our chance to balance that inequity. I think the arc of Edgar’s story illustrates this. There’s an enormous difference between the kind of training Edgar does before he goes into the woods and after he is alone with the dogs. By the end of the book he says, in effect, no more commands. From now on, we— the humans and the dogs—choose what’s right together.
B: Were you always in tune with your dogs?
DW: Growing up around my parents’ breeding kennel in rural Wisconsin, I may have developed a certain ease about reading dogs, their postures and expressions.
But always in tune? Not even close. I’d characterize my relationship with every dog I’ve had as one of perpetual give and take. I haven’t always thought about training the way I do now, as a mutual exchange. After college, I got a puppy and discovered I was really bad at training. So I sent myself back to school, in a sense. I read every book available on dog training.Among them was Vicki Hearne’s Adam’s Task. Her chapter on “How to Say Fetch” is brilliant. It explores the meaning of this one command, but by extension it illustrates everything important about training.
B: In writing from the dogs’ perspective, how did you get inside their heads without anthropomorphizing?
DW: In writing about dogs—in living with dogs—you can’t avoid projecting human experience onto them. Simply to describe a dog’s thoughts or emotions using words means you’ve inadvertently begun anthropomorphizing.Almondine is certainly rendered anthropomorphically. But I tried to make her distinct by giving her a syntax and diction more evocative of the way I imagine dogs experience the world—based in sensory impressions rather than linear thought.
One of the great joys living with dogs is watching how they address a situation you are in jointly—discovering what is attractive to them, what is frightening. Trying to understand makes me feel I am living a fuller life. I get the benefit of their perception.When writing from a dog’s point of view, conveying that sense of expanded experience may be the best you can hope for.
B: The training techniques in Edgar are reminiscent of the Koehler method. On your website you enthusiastically point out Patricia McConnell’s techniques. What is your understanding of the differences in their approaches?
DW: The training techniques portrayed in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle change over the course of the book. Early on, the Sawtelles tend to train along Koehler method lines, which would have been about right for the early 1970s. But as Edgar grows and matures, as his understanding of the dogs and what they are capable of enlarges, and as the dramatic situation changes, he begins to interact with them quite differently. The “training” he does in the latter half of the book more closely resembles contemporary training methods. Toward the end of the book, he comes to a different conception entirely of his relationship with the dogs —he’s questioning the presumption behind all training: that we humans ought always to occupy the role of choice-maker.He’s wondering, I think, if we’re fit to be the vehicle of fate for dogs.
Beyond what seems to me to be obvious differences in philosophy between McConnell and Koehler—that is, McConnell’s clear preference to practice positive-reward and avoid almost exclusively positive-punishment—I think it is difficult to perform any simple compare-contrast exercise. For one thing, theory and practice have progressed since Koehler’s time; he was in part a product of the old days of radical behaviorism, which had detrimental influences not just on training but on all aspects of our attitudes toward animals. Also,my understanding of Koehler and his techniques is mostly received through the lens of Vicki Hearne’s writing. I happen to like the strain of responsibilitytaking that Koehler-seen-through-Hearne advocates; that to shield a dog entirely from negative consequences is patronizing and arguably cruel. Reward-orignore are stunted. It’s okay to insist on certain things if the person and the dog jointly take training as more than an exercise in command and control. Deep in this viewpoint is an insistence on beauty that, as unfashionable as Koehler and Hearne may be today, I can’t help but admire.
I read Patricia McConnell as a product of the movement from academic theory dictated by doctrinaire behaviorism to one more informed by cognitive psychology and neuroscience. I admire how McConnell relates academic research results to the day-to-day project of living with dogs. She’s the best at saying,“ Here’s a published result. I believe the science is sound.Here’s what it may mean about understanding/training your dog, and here’s what we’re still confused about despite/because of that result.” She’s very careful not to oversimplify.
B: Is there a dog in your life?
DW: Lola—she’s a 90-pound lap dog!
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is now available as a trade paperback. For more about the author and his work, visit davidwroblewski.com.
Organic Schmear Delights
Pet Fairy Noshers is another new product that Kit and all her doggy housemates, including old-guy Lenny, are simply gaga for. This tasty “schmear” is just right for hollow-toy and sterilized-bone stuffing (we’ve used it in the TreatToob, too). Ingredients include pumpkin, unsweetened applesauce, organic honey and cinnamon, plus other luscious goodies. Lovingly made in small batches in northern Vermont, this “barkalicious” spread also makes a wonderful gift. 16 oz. in a glass jar, $8 to $10. Amazon.com.
Living in the Boston area, I had the opportunity and pleasure of reading Susan Orlean in the Globe on a regular basis. From there, she went on to her now highly regarded work at The New Yorker and publication of The Orchid Thief (and its subsequent adaptation as the acclaimed film, Adaptation). She has published two collections of her columns as well as collaborated on a number of other projects. Recently, she was guest editor for Best American Essays 2005. Susan Orlean, who continues to exhibit her great command of ingenious reporting and smooth, lucid and often humorous writing in her signature “oddball” pieces, is presently bringing those talents to bear on her latest project, a “biography” of Rin Tin Tin. Susan and I met for the second time (for more about the first, visit identitytheory.com) at a neighborhood coffee shop in South Boston, not far from her downtown loft. We talked about being a New Yorker, The New Yorker, Rin Tin Tin and this and that.
RB: Are you a New Yorker?
SO: I guess I feel un-entitled to call myself a New Yorker. I haven’t lived there quite as long as I lived in Ohio, but close.
RB: Famously, Harold Ross said that “The New Yorker is not for the little old lady from Dubuque [Iowa].” How true is that today?
SO: The little old lady from Dubuque is a very different old lady these days. . . . The world has shrunk and expanded simultaneously. You can be a little old lady living in Dubuque and be completely tuned into what’s going on in every possible way, in the arts, science, politics, everything.
RB: How “New York” is The New Yorker?
SO: That’s an interesting challenge in the magazine, to both acknowledge its origins and its uniqueness in capturing something about New York. Clearly, it’s about the world—New York has become more of a concept. It still has a real connection to New York, but … almost more as what that implies, what the place means to the world as a center of thinking and arts and culture, rather than necessarily a physical place.
RB: How integral is writing the magazine pieces to you?
SO: I love writing for the magazine. I can’t imagine ever not making it an important part of my life, for a variety of reasons—first of all, it’s an association that I am prouder of almost than anything. So it’s important to me emotionally and professionally and sentimentally to be connected to it. Also, there are a million stories I want to write that wouldn’t work as books.
RB: Why aren’t there more venues for the kind of story you write?
SO: I used to talk with Tina Brown about this a lot. Her take on it was the most insightful: The kinds of stories I really want to do and really enjoy doing rely 99 percent on execution and 1 percent on having a good idea—99 percent on pulling it off. Magazines and newspapers, both correctly and unfortunately, fear sending someone off on a story where doing it really well really matters. Tina and I used to talk about this—it was of interest to her and to me. Her feeling was you can take an obvious subject, a profile of Tom Cruise. Even if it’s not done all that well, it’s easy to promote it. It’s easy to draw a number of readers to it because it’s a ready-made. You have certain audience who may finish the piece and say, “It wasn’t very good,” but they are going to read it. You take a piece about a guy who steals orchids—you begin with zero audience.
RB: You have a young child and a dog. Why would you want to move back to Manhattan, or maybe Brooklyn?
SO: I feel like the longer we are away from New York, the harder it is to picture what we’ll do. In downtown Boston, of course, our life is not different in terms of not having a yard. . . .
RB: You’re over in the Fort Point area of Boston?
SO: Yeah. We have a loft in one of those old warehouse buildings, so we are still living a totally urban life. When the dog needs to go out, you put in your coat and go on the elevator and take him out. We go to the country on weekends and there are times when I think, “Boy, this really is a great way to live,” with a lot of space; you [can] let the dog run outside, and there’s room for the baby, so I don’t know. . . .
RB: You are focused on a bio of Rin Tin Tin. Is it correct to say it’s a biography?
SO: I described it that way, tongue in cheek, because it’s a funny thing to say. In fact, it is the story of a popular-culture character that was also a real living being. So there is this whole history of this particular dog and his offspring, [all of whom] continued as a thread through American pop culture.
RB: Why did you do Throw Me a Bone? Was it (co-author) Sally Sampson’s idea?
SO: She suggested it to me, and my involvement in it was writing the head notes. So it was a fairly low-impact involvement.
RB: Sally took the recipes seriously, and the mix of pictures and quotes was entertaining. I loved the Ed Hoagland quote to the effect, ”People want their dogs to be like them, when they should become more like their dogs.” How was it received?
SO: It did well. They are going to put it in a quality paperback edition next Christmas. It’s one of those books that’s a steady seller.
RB: Have you always liked dogs?
SO: I grew up with cats, and then got a dog when I was 13; I [also] got a dog when I was in college, which was an insane thing to do. I had her for 13 years, took a break after she died and then got Cooper. I love animals, and I really love dogs. But they’re an incredible pain in the neck.
RB: So are children [laughs].
SP: Yeah. It’s true, so is everything actually. It’s also a great deal of pleasure and he’s a great dog. And my other dog was wonderful. I like having animals around. It was interesting to not have a dog for that stretch. It was such a strange feeling. I didn’t have to go home after work.
RB: That reminds me of a wonderful song by Meg Hutchinson, where she sings about being one of those people who only stays out for a short while and then goes home to take care of her dog, and that her rolls of film have no humans on them, and other familiar dog-owner behavior. My relationship with my current dog is a lot different than that with previous dogs. I don’t even think of her in terms of “pet.”
SO: Yeah. It’s a funny term.
RB: Could you write this Rin Tin Tin book without having had your own dog?
SO: No, and yet and I think it’s also sometimes attractive to me to do a story about something that’s totally outside my life. You often think of story ideas because there is something in your life that triggers a connection and a thought, so it’s inevitable—I actually like doing stories that are outside my experience. For one thing, part of the appeal of the story is that I want to learn about this. I want to understand this thing that I know nothing about. And secondly, that the journey through learning about it is very much embedded in the way I write the story.
RB: I recall you saying that you can really only work on one thing at a time. Are you not writing other things as you put the Rin Tin Tin story into a book?
SO: I hate working on more than one thing at a time. I find it really tough. Sometimes you have to, but it’s not what I like to do. I feel like I really need to be immersed in a subject or I have trouble feeling what I need to feel to write.
RB: So there is this emotional imperative that’s perhaps implicit, which people don’t normally consider or talk about.
SO: To me it’s essential.
RB: Who was more popular, Rin Tin Tin or Lassie?
SO: A fundamental question, which I have to deal with, and it’s actually sort of funny. It has become a comical sidetrack in the book . . . the people who manage the character licensing of the two animals are very sensitive about it. Even now. But it is really a funny thing—like, who do you prefer? The Rolling Stones or the Beatles?
RB: Were there any other dogs of that stature?
SO: Even after all these years, they are the ur-dog figures. They were serious figures and were embodied differently, but both embodied a notion of American identity that you would never say Benji does. It was also a period of time when Americans were beginning to think about what it meant to be an American. All the ideas of strength and courage and steadfastness, they really were embodied in the two of them. It’s really about an American identity, and also about a time when the country was becoming more and more urban, and our connection to animals became very different and much more atavistic. Much more connected to this memory of a more rural time.
RB: Do you know Mark Derr’s book, A Dog’s History of America? It’s a well-written, anecdotal, sensible account, and in it, he pursues the idea of that country/city switchover.
SO: It was definitely a moment, also the move to the suburbs, where you could have a dog. It became part of a whole life that people were buying and aspiring to, but also a culture that goes from rural to urban. It’s interesting how you start viewing animals differently. They become more precious, in a different way—more emotional than when you are a farmer, for example.
RB: Is there any surprise in this story, for you? Will the story go somewhere that you don’t anticipate?
SO: I hope so. The whole story was so surprising to me to begin with, because I had no idea that this was a real dog with real person with a really interesting history. So there was already a big surprise. Every story I have ever done has had a moment where it turned, where I found myself astonished, and I hope for that.
RB: Recently, Best American Essays 2005, which you guest-edited, was published . How much work was that?
SO: A lot more than it seemed.
RB: [laughs] I thought (series editor) Robert Atwan did all the heavy lifting?
SO: He really does. But also it’s a lot of reading, and it’s hard to make the choices.
RB: He reads a thousand essays, and you read how many?
SO: He gives the editor about 120, in that range. I am going to do Best American Travel Writing 2006. It’s fun to be on the other side once in a while.
RB: It’s encouraging that there are places that keep publishing personal essays.
SO: It’s either very high-end or very handmade. It’s either the New Yorker and The Atlantic, or these much smaller, much more specific journals. Middle-range magazines don’t really have this kind of writing.
RB: Are you noticing what looks to me like renaissance in small literary magazines?
SO: I don’t follow that world that much, but I do think that it feels like that to me. What’s funny is that this is the worst moment for newspapers and newsmagazines. And [yet] these more particular publications—not that they are drawing in advertising, but in terms of having an audience—they seem to be really thriving. I’d rather work for The Drunken Boat than for Time Magazine, to be honest with you.
RB: Do you have any fears about people ceasing to read?
SO: No. That seems like it is never-ending; the form might keep changing in terms of how things are delivered, but what you are talking about is the basic human impulse to communicate. I just don’t see how you could assume that would go away. And there will [always] be people who will want to be communicated to and people who want to do the communicating. What the form will be, who knows?
Green transportation for around-town travel.
These days, anyone who slaps Bark’s bumper sticker—Dog Is My Co-Pilot™—on a car is conscious of rising fuel prices and looming environmental crises. More and more, people are paying attention to the fuel economy and emission levels of that bumper-sticker-bearing vehicle. Some, especially in urban areas, have opted to go the old-fashioned route and get around town on two, or in some cases three, wheels. And, more for fun than for grocery shopping, there’s even a dog-powered scooter. “Emission” levels notwithstanding, is there anything more eco-sensitive than paw power? Whatever mode we choose, one thing’s for sure: Our pups will want to come along.
Purchasing a vehicle that makes a low contribution to air pollution and greenhouse gases is one way to do less harm to the world. Last fall, J.D. Power and Associates published the Automotive Environmental Index, a study based on information from the Environmental Protection Agency as well as on data collected from consumers. In the study, they listed 30 of the top environmentally friendly cars, eight of which were, as expected, hybrids. One interesting statistic that came out of the survey was that more than half of consumers who were thinking of buying a new car in the near term were considering a hybrid.
In fact, the research firm forecast that hybrid vehicles (which use gas to get the car going and power from a battery when cruising) would increase to a 5 percent share of the U.S. market by 2013.With fuel prices rising to a national average of nearly $3 per gallon and with images of drowning polar bears and shrieking hurricanes scrolling across our TV and movie screens, these results are no great surprise. (For a rundown of hybrids currently available and in development, visit Hybrid Cars.)
Though hybrids have been getting most of the attention when it comes to environmentally friendly cars, there are other ways to hit the road these days. For example, if you’ve got the dollars, you can join the likes of George Clooney and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and plunk down a cool $92,000 for a Tesla—a new, 100-percent-electric car that’s slated to hit the streets this year. These aren’t just emission-free vehicles, they’re also truly performance cars that go from zero to 60 in four seconds and have a top speed of 130 MPH. Their technology is also notable. Rather than a heavy lead-acid battery (such as was used in the original fleet of GM-developed electric vehicles, for example), they employ a lithium-ion battery—a larger cousin of the battery used in laptops—which is lighter, energy dense and much more efficient when it comes to miles-per-battery-charge.
Another attention-grabbing motorized vehicle new to the U.S.—but a familiar sight on streets from India to Sri Lanka—the Bajaj autorickshaw might be just the ticket if you’re looking for something that, with its three wheels, is more stable than a two-wheel scooter and gets a whopping 80 miles per gallon. When he was looking for a clean alternative vehicle, Bark reader and Santa Cruz resident Larry Lewis did his homework. As he says, “I chose the Bajaj autorickshaw, which is low in cost and just a complete work horse and charmingly ugly, but burns clean and is simple to maintain.” It may be the only one in town, but Lewis likes the fact that it makes a statement.
ArgoUSA started importing these autorickshaws from Pune, India, about two years ago, making sure that, unlike the golf carts they somewhat resemble, they were street legal and safe; among the added features are dual headlights and a fully hydraulic braking system. At about $6,400, the Bajaj autorickshaw is also priced right. In terms of emissions, the autorickshaws have a clean four-stroke engine, though ArgoUSA President Al Kolvites thinks the fact that they come only with manual transmissions may limit their popularity in the U.S. Nevertheless, these vehicles, which are designed to go no more than 40 mph on city streets, are definitely a novel and environmentally friendly driving alternative.
In cities these days, it’s not just bike messengers who are pedaling the streets. It doesn’t get much more environmentally friendly than pedal power, and manufacturers have taken notice and are producing a wider range of recreational cycles for those of us who aren’t quite up to the Tour de France. For example, you just might see a tricycle pass you by on the way to the store. That’s right, three-wheeled tricycles aren’t just for kids anymore (actually, tricycles—or trikes—for use by adults actually date back to the 1860s).
Today’s trikes offer a range of amenities. You can opt for a cool (and expensive) electric version, such as the eZee Carro, which includes a front-mounted motor that, with the turn of a throttle, takes over the pedaling chore. Among the more traditional, non-electric trikes are the Port-o-Trike three-speed and the folding Trifecta single-speed, both of which are sold online and at some of the big-box stores and go for between $300 and $400. Most tricycles come with wide seats, safe and efficient dual brakes, and a large basket that fits between the two back wheels.
For those who wouldn’t be caught, um, dead, on a three-wheeler, the Dutch Citybike from Vancouver-based Jorg & Olif supplies buckets of retro panache. With its wide seat and traditional bell, this bike is built for city riding; among its niceties are fender guards; pre-installed lights; and Shimano gear systems that come in one, three, and eight speeds (great for those hilly cities). The technical styling and beautiful design don’t come cheap, however—the Citybike runs between $795 and $1,295. (According to the manufacturer, a lower-cost but equally reliable model will be available soon.)
A Dog’s Place
Speaking of city streets (and bike paths), many are too crowded for your dog to run safely at your side, which is another good reason to look into these handy accessories. Dog trailers come in a variety of styles, support a range of weights and incorporate several safety features; most are easy to assemble and to attach to your bike.
The base kit usually includes the dog wagon itself, a towing bar that attaches to the bike and the bike connection. Since there are no American Society for Testing and Materials standards for pet carriers, it’s up to the consumer to take a close look and do some comparisons when making a buying decision. Among the things to look for are a strong but lightweight base, a low center of gravity to keep things stable, reflective materials for visibility, good ventilation and a frame that can be zipped closed. Three to consider are the Burley Tail Wagon, the Pet Ego Sport Wagon and the Wike Wagalong.
The newest Burley Tail Wagon (about $400 with the stroller kit), has a 75-pound carrying capacity and is suitable for most dogs. For more than 30 years, Burley has been known for its well-crafted bike trailers for children, and the company applied this expertise to its dog trailers. The Tail Wagon has a UV-resistant, water-repellent, fabric-enclosed frame; a suspended floor; and large mesh screens that allow the free flow of air through the trailer. It comes with a bright orange flag for good visibility in traffic, and the zip-up frame helps ensure that your dog doesn’t make an unscheduled exit en route. Factor in the fully removable sun and rain cover and optional We! Ski kit and you’ll have everything you need for year-round dog transporting.
The Pet Ego Sport Wagon is another new trailer on the market, and at about $500, one of the most expensive. But for big dogs, its size and strength—it holds up to 165 lbs.—make it a good option. This one also has zip doors for easy access, and to keep your dog (or dogs) cool, it has a nice sunroof that can be removed and stowed. (If you have a smaller dog, there’s a Sport Wagon sized for her as well.) For small dogs, the Wike Wagalong ($300) may be the way to go. A lightweight trailer, it comes in two versions, one of which is appropriate for dogs under 30 pounds. It has ventilation panels, a bug screen in the front, and rear and side reflectors. Your pooch will also appreciate its two-inch cushioned floor.
Just because a dog is elderly, less mobile or recuperating doesn’t mean she wants to stay at home, and optional stroller kits make outings both practical and safe. Attach the front wheel and a handlebar and voila! The kits make it possible for even bikeless dog folks to take advantage of these trailers, which can be particularly useful for navigating crowded sidewalks with your dog.
As you might imagine, this scooter is practical for medium to large dogs. To determine whether a dog is strong enough to power a rider’s weight, Schuette’s rule is to add 100 pounds to the dog’s weight; so, for example, a 60-pound Boxer should be able to power a 160-pound person. As Schuette joked with San Francisco Chronicle writer Paul McHugh, “People talk now about generating energy by combusting pet poop. Well, using this, you get work out of the kibble before it even leaves the animal.”
It’s doubtful that dogs care whether your vehicle is powered by gas, diesel, ethanol, a battery or muscle power. But in the long run, if we think green, our co-pilots will benefit.
Why can’t we all get along?—The message behind this joyful song
The economy? Foreign policy? Urgent matters, but they could wait. Speaking directly to his young daughters, Barack Obama discussed another topic early in his landmark election-night acceptance speech: “I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.”
The announcement is sure to have elated Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, who, as the nation knows, have long lobbied their parents for a dog. Obama, the first black man elected president of the United States, and his wife Michelle, recently revealed that the “First Puppy” will join the First Family once they’ve settled into the storied residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Uplifting news for dog aficionados across the political spectrum, revelations about the forthcoming canine addition to the Obama family hold special resonance for Bernard LaFayette, Jr. A distinguished scholar-in-residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, LaFayette is also the co-writer of a famed civil rights anthem, “Dog Dog.”
Available on the 1990 release Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the tune (also known as “My Dog Loves Your Dog”) features these lyrics:
My dog a love a your dog and your dog a love a my dog
As for the song’s pedigree, LaFayette, 68, explains, “I was raised in Florida during segregation. There was this white family and my family, and we both had dogs. It didn’t make any sense to me that we kids couldn’t play together when all the dogs would just rip and run and get along fine.”
Determined to help improve race relations, LaFayette later became active in the civil rights movement. He recalls that he was in the thick of organizing a student protest in Nashville when childhood memories inspired him to compose, with a friend, the music and lyrics for “Dog Dog.”
“I’d been a tenor in various church and street-corner choirs,” he says. “So, the song just seemed to evolve naturally out of the spirit of the times. Music was a major mobilizing force for civil rights activists. ‘Dog Dog’ was always well-received because it takes a child’s perspective and points out the silliness of discrimination in a humorous way.”
Indeed, Yale University sociology professor Ronald Eyerman brightens when he recalls his discovery of the song while conducting research for a book. Coauthor (with Andrew Jamison) of the 1998 volume Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century, Eyerman appreciates “Dog Dog” for its engaging, secular charm. “It is very different from most other civil rights anthems in that it is non-religious and about everyday life,” he observes. “Also, what struck my mind was that it took rhythms from popular music. It’s kind of a doo-wop children’s jingle, a non-serious piece with a serious message.”
Like LaFayette, Eyerman notes the influence of music in civil rights struggles. “The impact was stunning and robust,” he says. “The use of song to build collectivity and maintain courage and solidarity in the face of enormous threat got people through things they might not have otherwise. Song was also a great pedagogical tool, as the ‘Dog Dog’ song attests.”
Founder of the legendary a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bernice Johnson Reagon counts “Dog Dog” among the most popular songs in her extensive repertoire. A student civil rights leader in her hometown of Albany, Ga., Reagon says she learned the tune in the early 1960s from Cordell Reagon (whom she later married), an organizer who came to southwest Georgia to lead voter registration drives and train emerging activists.
Later a member of the acclaimed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers, Reagon says that the group performed “Dog Dog” at nearly every concert. “It was a wonderful song because it taught lessons people could learn from their pets. Dogs seemed to be ahead of humans on the social level in the South.”
Retired from Sweet Honey since 2004, Reagon says she was cheered to find “Dog Dog” on the ensemble’s Grammy-nominated 2007 children’s album Experience … 101. “They sent me a copy of the CD and it includes a version of ‘Dog Dog,’ she says, with a smile. “It’s so clearly a song for the young and the young at heart.”
Oakland musicologist and choir director Melanie DeMore recognizes the entertainment value of “Dog Dog.” “I usually teach it in three-part harmony,” she says. “I encourage both adult and children’s choirs to add barking sounds and to be very animated during its performance. It’s hysterical when you see a whole bunch of folks on the stage delivering the powerful message of the song and still having fun by jumping up and down like puppies and barking.”
In another interpretation, Harry Belafonte, on his 1967 album Belafonte on Campus, adds a rousing calypso beat to the song, which also includes this verse:
My little doggy was a playing one day
Reflecting on the historic victory of President-elect Barack Obama, Bernard LaFayette says “Dog Dog” serves as a reminder of the stunning racial progress achieved in the past 50 years.
“Dogs are therapeutic,” he declares. “They can be unbiased eyes and ears for us in so many ways. When dogs get to know each other, regardless of their breed, they inevitably become friends. They show us how to break down barriers, overlook differences and focus on common bonds. I consider ‘Dog Dog’ a benchmark of how far we’ve come since segregation. It seems only fitting that the Obamas would welcome a puppy to the White House.”
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