Chapter 8

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Highway Haiku # 8

 

Slices bound as one

Wrapped individually

American cheese

  

If you never heard of the duel between Garrison Keillor and The Notorious B.I.G, that’s because you weren’t on Kinnickinnic Avenue in West Milwaukee on November 18, 2010.

Ace and I had just pulled off the high speed ferry in Wisconsin. I was searching for a station on the radio. Ace was looking out the back window for the ferry steward. On Kinnickinnic Avenue, a construction project was underway, and two lanes of northbound traffic were doing what we do in America — merging.

As is the case with the tooth-rattling bass of “urban music,” we heard its thump long before the vehicle it was originating from pulled alongside us, drowning out the listening choice I had settled on for driving across Wisconsin, Garrison Keillor.

Garrison, that folksy fixture of public radio, was talking about the arrival of fall and reveling in its many crisp and sensory delights. The next car’s song was vividly describing a sex act, or, more precisely, a continuing series of them – conquests that The Notorious B.I.G, a rapper later gunned down in his prime, seemed to delight in at least as much as Garrison does freshly pressed cider:

“When it comes to sex,” Biggie rapped, “I’m similar to the Thrilla in Manila. Honeys call me Bigga, the condom filler …”

While I’m no prude, I was mildly bothered that I was being forced to listen to another car’s music, and maybe more that my dog was. He’s hardly a naïf, either – having spent some of his formative first months wandering the often mean streets of Baltimore, before being scooped up as a stray and impounded. He, in terms of background, is as gritty and urban as dogs come. He has scavenged back alleys. He has been homeless. He has done time.

Yet, he’s not totally fearless. Loud, unexplainable noises still upset him, and the pounding bass was stressing him out. He peered out the window, turned away from the noise, and restlessly circled three times before lying down in a far corner of the back seat.

The driver and sole occupant of the other car was a white boy, wearing the requisite backwards cap, just a kid and not nearly as threatening-looking as his music sounded. To understand what I did next, keep in mind that this journey was all about setting doubt aside, about taking chances, about seeking adventure, in small doses, and being fearless, in moderation. Understand, too, that the road has a way, the longer you’re on it, of making you do outlandish things. And bear in mind that, with my dog at my side – he being notoriously big himself — I don’t get scared of much.

Taking the next car’s decibel level as a challenge issued, a gauntlet thrown down, I turned up my radio — a little at first, and then as loud as it would go. If I was being forced to listen to the lusty escapades of Biggie, the driver of the rattling car next to me was going to get an unsolicited taste of Lake Woebegone:

Garrison: It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, my hometown … Beautiful trees and this gorgeous air. It’s just so beautiful …

Biggie: Here we go, here we go, but I’m not Domino. I got the funk flow to make your drawers drop slow …

The rustle of dry leaves, the smell of apples in the air, the richness of life, which is how life used to be when you were a kid… You had cornbread and pancakes for breakfast and then Aunt Eva sent you out to deal with the chickens…

I love it when they call me big poppa. I only smoke blunts if they rolled proper.

Aunt Eva was able to hypnotize chickens, just stroke them down their little foreheads in between their little yellow eyes …She’d sing them a hymn “Oh God in whose presence … my comfort by day and my song in the night…” She’d hypnotize about six, seven, eight, nine chickens all in a row.

So give me a ho, a bankroll and a bag of weed. I’m guaranteed to f*** her til her nose bleed … Let’s dwell on the 500 SL, the E&J and ginger ale. The way my pockets swell to the rims with Benjamins. Another honey’s in the crib? Please send her in.

She wore this old cotton print dress that smelled of lye soap, she knew all these wonderful sad songs … “Get out of bed you sleepy head, get up you lazy sinners…”

It was a war of words, a clash of cultures. On and on they went – Keillor extolling the joys of autumn colors, a good breakfast and fresh maple syrup, all recounted in a snoozy (even at full volume) monotone; Biggie tersely touting the joys of expensive cars, women, guns and cash.

Ace, amid the noise, put his head between his paws as if to block it all out.

Inching along the road, the other driver and I would pull up side by side a couple of times, sneaking quick, unsynchronized glances at each other as our listening choices battled it out. Only once, did I detect any reaction from him — the beginnings of what could have been a smile, or a snarl, or maybe was a little of both.

After a few minutes, he began pulling ahead. Aptly enough, B.I.G. was in the faster lane. By the time he was about twelve cars in front of me the rattle of bass faded like hoof beats into the distance.

I reveled not in victory. But, as my adrenalin rush subsided, I savored having been in the battle. I — a life-long quiet guy, a risk-avoider, a confrontation side-stepper — had given it all I had, or at least all my radio’s speakers could offer. The battle over, I turned Garrison down to a volume at which Ace, and I, and I’m sure Garrison, would be more comfortable.

***

We Americans are a crazy, mixed-up lot: fantastically diverse, yet prone to sameness — in our day-to-day lives if not our entertainment choices.

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Even when those extreme types become, in their repetition, extremely monotonous (as has been the case with many a radio commentator and reality television series), even when their trademark unpredictability has become entirely predictable, we stay tuned – because we know they are going to surprise us, and we know just how they’re going to surprise us.

For entertainment, we gravitate toward predictable stereotypes, preferring our right wingers far to the right, our TV gays way gay, our New Jersey-ites unbearably obnoxious, our southerners as slow-moving and dense as cornbread batter being poured into a muffin mold.

Traditionally, that’s how we’ve liked our dogs, too – the small ones real tiny; the big ones super sized, the snub-nosed ones with snubbier noses yet.

Amazingly, beneath all we’ve done to dogs, cosmetically and genetically, beneath the fancy haircuts and designer doggie clothing, beneath the molds we’ve pushed them into and the bling with which we’ve accessorized them, there’s still a dog inside – tough, feisty, and, while willing to go along with our silly games, deep down a fighter and survivor.

In the same way, beneath all our bluster – our show-offy behavior, our loudness, our strutting – there’s a strong and highly resilient fabric running through us, one I like to think is similar to a quilt, with patches of self-preservation, and patches of compassion for others, and big enough to keep anyone from getting too cold. That we’re all in this together is what, different as we are, unites us, as Americans and earthlings, or at least should.

Our diversity – that which is in our blood, and that which we’ve manufactured – should be celebrated, partly because there’s no other choice, more so because it’s that mosaic of multi-colored pieces, of smooth edges and jagged ones, that make life so much more interesting than it would be if all humans were Rush Limbaugh, if all restaurants were Denny’s, if all music were country, or if all dogs were poodles.

Ever since our founding, and even more the case since Steinbeck’s day, America has required a great deal of merging. Today it requires more than ever. It’s not always smooth, not always quiet. Sometimes rage builds up, shouts are emitted, fingers get raised and fenders get bent, but, once in a while, a friendly hand waves you ahead. We’re not all going to the same place, at the same pace. We’re not all toting the same tastes, or values, or baggage.

That’s what makes our land so enticingly textured, so seductively schizophrenic – so big and small, so urban and rural, so young and old, so left and right, so gritty and groomed, so crass and refined, so busy and lonely, so cocksure and uncertain, so wonderfully wacky and tacky and red, white and blue

It’s a place where, no matter how singular one is, one at times must go with the proverbial flow, assuming one can find the flow.

Who best to teach us that? It’s those masters of adapting. In a word, dog.

***

In addition to an assignation with his wife in Chicago, and again in San Francisco, John Steinbeck worked in a few visits with family while traveling with Charley in 1960, but he made a point of not including details of those encounters in the book he eventually produced. That, he wrote, would create a “disunity.”

He, while delving into the 1960’s mindset of Americans, wrote little of his own illustrious past or his own innermost feelings. I, on the other hand, am probably writing too much of mine – even though they are nowhere near as noteworthy.

That may partly be because we were products of different times. Maybe 2010’s man, as opposed to 1960’s man, is less inclined to put a shield around his sensitive side. Maybe it reflects our 21st Century exhibitionism, our tendency to spill our guts to whoever might be listening, thereby defining ourselves in a world where that’s becoming harder to do.

But it’s also because I see us – Ace and me – not so much as separate entities, but as one.

What I’m feeling – at least in terms of mood, outlook and emotions — is often what he’s feeling, I think. Fear, uncertainty, confidence, playfulness, depression all seem to ricochet back and forth, one of us infecting the other. On top of our initial and immediate connection, between what I’ve taught him and what he has taught me, because of spending so much time together, we’ve become even more alike. So, to know my dog, you must know me. To know me, you must know my dog. Where we came from, which we kind of know, plays a definite role in where we’re going, of which we don’t have a clue.

And yet, similar as we might be — whether or not we are starting to look and act alike, as many people and their dogs mysteriously do – we have many differences. He’s an extrovert; I’m an introvert. He’s patient; I’m not. He’s doesn’t judge; I sometimes do. Those differences, and others, have played at least as strong a role in forging our bond as our similarities.

I use Ace as a social crutch, in much the same manner that Steinbeck used Charley to break the ice, to get people to open up to him and bare their souls – all while keeping his own personal life, in his book at least, mostly unbared.

While we were following Steinbeck’s route, we were not following that philosophy. That is why you’ve read or will read about visits with my uncle, my mother, my father, my brother, my son, an ex-wife and, my sister, Kathryn, who lives near Madison, Wisconsin.

As a child, she was allergic to dogs, but the family got one anyway. Big sister being sniffly and scratchy was a small price to pay, as I saw it, for me having a best friend and, even before I was familiar with the term, a soul mate. Tippy, a gift for my fifth birthday, was a good-natured collie who didn’t mind in the slightest when my little brother used his long fur to hoist himself into a standing position and learned to walk. He taught me to love, an equally important skill. As for what he taught my sister, I’m not sure, but she’d never go on, as an adult, to have a dog of her own.

As we neared her home, I called her and she outlined the sleeping arrangements. Of more concern than her allergies — Kathryn is still allergic to dogs, but only some of them – was how much space Ace would take up. Both she and her husband have multiple sclerosis. The last thing people with MS want in their home is a new obstacle, especially a large, moving one. So it’s understandable that they’d have some conditions when it came to my super-sized dog and me taking up temporary residence.

The decision was made that Ace would stay on the porch.

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I decided I would set up my camping cot and sleep out there with him. On the first night, when it got cold, we snuck inside and curled up together on the living room floor. Then, in the morning, before they awoke, I put him back on the porch.

After that, Ace would come in for short visits – five minute ones at first, then ten minute ones, then hour-long ones, up until the point he was pretty much in the house all day. The porch rule was quickly forgotten.

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Ace would snuggle up with my sister’s husband on the floor while he watched a 1960’s science fiction movie. After only a few warnings about staying out of the kitchen – his favorite place to be – Ace honored that guideline, watching from afar as my sister made dinner, and sitting by her side when she took a seat at the dining room table.

Kathryn is a writer and singer of hymns who grew up on 60′s music. She, unlike me — who sings only when alone, or with just Ace — rarely hesitates to belt out a tune, no matter how many people might be around.

She used her singing to torture me as a child. Not that her voice is bad, it’s actually quite good. But, at a time when you don’t even like girls yet, you don’t want one, especially not your sister, singing sappy love songs in your face. In her youth, she always leaned toward the sappy love songs. Then again, in the 1960’s, sappy love songs were unavoidable.

When John Steinbeck left Long Island 50 years ago, radio stations were still playing – over and over and over again – “Teen Angel,” a morbid little number that told the story of a teenage girl being killed by a train while trying to retrieve the high school ring her boyfriend gave her.

Steinbeck didn’t quite get the name right in “Travels With Charley,” but he did note how the song — No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks earlier that year – seemed to be playing everywhere he went, that America, at least in terms of its music, was becoming pretty homogenized: “If ‘Teen-Age Angel’ is top of the list in Maine, it is top of the list in Montana,” he wrote. “In the course of the day you may hear ‘Teen-Age Angel’ thirty or forty times.”

The song, recorded by a one-hit wonder named Mark Dinning, was a continuation of a gloomy theme – the third No. 1 song in a row that featured a love-related death. While the 1960′s may have kicked off on a somewhat hopeful note, there was plenty of angst in our music. Before Teen Angel, there was “El Paso” by Marty Robbins — the story of a cowboy who gunned down the man he caught wooing his woman, then high-tailed it out of town. Drawn back by his love for Felina, he was gunned down, but got a kiss from her before he died.

After that came “Running Bear” by Johnny Preston. Running Bear, you  might recall, loved Little White Bird — and vice versa — and, from opposite sides, they both jumped into a raging river to reach each other’s arms, only to get sucked under and drown.

Other plaintive chart-toppers included Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry,”  which rose up the charts a couple of months before Steinbeck departed on his journey, It’s  a song I remember well because my sister used to sing it constantly, once she realized it annoyed me.

The worst torture, though, would come two years later, with the release of the song “Johnny Angel” by Shelley Fabares. My sister would delight in singing it to me. She was 14 by then, I was nine. The more I appeared to be bothered by it, the more she did it, which taught me a lifelong lesson.

Today, in the home she shares with her husband in DeForest, outside Madison, she has her own karaoke machine. Her husband, also named John, is a true appreciator of her singing — and he has some experience with songstresses, or at least songstresses to be. When he was in the 7th grade in Dumfries, Virginia, he was assigned to be the escort of one of four finalists vying to be selected queen of the winter dance. She was cute, the daughter of a marine, the fastest runner on the playground, and prone to wearing “puffy-shouldered dresses,” he says. The year was 1959. The girl was Emmylou Harris.

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I wouldn’t mind Emmylou Harris singing to me – not at all. But with my sister, it’s still slightly bothersome when she does it, which, just as when she was 16, she didn’t hesitate to do at 61.

Johnny Angel, how I love him
He’s got something that I can’t resist
But he doesn’t even know that I-I-I exist

I, turning red, hid behind the screen of my laptop. Ace, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy the performance, stepping around her walker and taking a seat next to her, almost as if to say, “another song, please.” He’d entered the house as an obstacle and ended up as an enabler.

What happened during my days at my sister’s house was that everybody adapted — me, them and, probably better any of us humans, Ace, who, with only minor coaxing, showed a calm and quiet presence when in the house, staying put, stifling any rambunctious spurts and staying well out of the way of walkers.

It was yet another case of doggie intuition — that ability he has to appreciate the circumstances he’s in and adjust to them. When he plays with other dogs, and cats who let him, he automatically fine tunes the roughness level based on their size. When he enters a library, retirement home or other quiet place, he somehow knows it’s time to be mellow. He can sense when he’s in a setting with different rules, and with minimum instruction, follow them.

If it’s not the secret to life, it is at least the secret to dog’s continued survival. The reason they are still around, and might still be when we are not, is their amazing ability to adapt — to merge, with a minimum of snarls, with members of their species, other species and whatever else fate throws their way. On the list of lessons it would behoove us to learn from them — take lots of naps, expose your belly once in a while, sing out when the spirit moves you – how to adapt to adversity should be near the top.

We humans are pretty good at that, too. I marvel at how resilient and courageous humans – and not just characters in Steinbeck novels – can be when put to the test; how they’re able, like my sister and her husband have, to call upon on previously unknown and untapped reserves of strength and get through just about anything.

I question how much of that stuff I have inside of me. I am envious of how much of it I see in dogs. Dogs, almost without losing a step, make the necessary adjustments to hardships, and they do it without sacrificing any spirit, without feeling even the briefest moments of shame or self pity. They don’t get bogged down by pessimism, cynicism and despair, or in searching for meaning when there is none.

Dogs are curious. They will sit and stare at something they can’t immediately figure out – in Ace’s case, sometimes for a good half hour. But what they’re staring at is almost always figure-outable. They don’t waste much time trying to comprehend that which can’t be fathomed.

I’m not sure how they pull it off, or whether I ever could, but no matter what befalls them, they plod along, not forgetting what joy is, or where to find it, which is pretty much anywhere.

 

ROADSIDE ENCOUNTER:

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Name: Oscar

Breed: Trash can

Age: Three

Encountered: In my sister’s kitchen.

Backstory: Quick as he was to bond with John and Kathryn, it took a little more time for Ace to come to terms with Oscar. Oscar is one of several devices at my sister’s home aimed at making day-to-day chores a little easier – a trash can with a mind, it seems, of its own.

Walk by Oscar, as they’ve named him, and (thanks to motion-detecting technology) he opens wide, accepting whatever you toss in his mouth. A second or two later he closes his lid and sits quietly until feeding time comes again.

Ace was enthralled. As his nose, drawn by Oscar’s multitude of odors, would inch closer to Oscar’s electric eye, Oscar’s lid would open wide and Ace would jump back. He’d watch warily until Oscar closed his mouth. Then Ace would slowly approach and sniff again, and Oscar would snap at him again.

Eventually, they became friends. I think Ace was a little jealous that Oscar was getting fed more often than he was, but he decided to peacefully coexist with him anyway.

 

 

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