Chapter 18

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Highway Haiku # 18

We, not God, made dog

But why? Did we need something

That would worship us?

 

What is this deal we have with dogs?

We feed them. We shelter them. We vacuum their shed hair, mop their dripped drool and scoop up their stinky poop. The average good and decent dog owner thinks nothing of rearranging their schedule, their furniture or their lifestyle in a manner best befitting their dog.

What we get in return might best be summed up in one word: adoration.

They look up to us with love in their eyes, or at least what we see as such. (How different might our interpretation be if they were looking down?) While part of their mission seems to be giving us something to nurture, it’s the seeming love they dispense – that kind everybody describes as “unconditional” – that most often reels us in.

There are those, prone to crabbiness and big words, who describe the dog-human relationship as symbiotic, or parasitic, or narcissistic, who think dog lovers are being duped: “That dog doesn’t love you. He just loves the food you give him. Dogs aren’t capable of love, or any of the other complex emotions experienced by their human superiors. Dogs aren’t all that smart. They simply know a good deal when they see one.”

Your dog, the naysayers would say, is feeding off you, and likely, you off him. He’s getting meals and treats. You’re getting your sad little emotional voids filled. You’re getting (especially with a rescued dog) to feel like hero and savior. You’re getting what you think is love, and constant reassurance that you are not just OK, but quite awesome.

And perhaps you are.

But I wouldn’t agree that’s all there is to our relationship with dogs. I’d argue that it’s for reasons mostly pure, good, sound, sane, admirable and honorable that we go to such great lengths for them –– whether its buying them gourmet food, taking them to medical specialists or jumping into an icy river to save them.

We dog lovers do what we have to do, despite risk, expense, or inconvenience, like driving around for three hours in Virginia’s Tidewater to find a motel room that was dog-friendly (and affordable), which is what as Ace and I were doing as we headed north, back to our starting point.

I must have stopped at five smaller non-chain motels, only to be told at each — even one that had its own dog in the lobby — that my dog wasn’t welcome. Even those with low weekly rates, and hourly rates, didn’t accept dogs.

I got on the Internet and searched, but every place I found charged a pet fee, sometimes more than the human fee. At a motel in Portsmouth, a desk clerk behind bulletproof plastic told us to go to Chesapeake. When we did, the prices there were so high we went to Norfolk, ending up at a Motel 6 on a highly commercial stretch of Military Highway.

It had been a long day, much of it spent lost, backed up in traffic and driving in what turned out to be circles. After checking into a room with the same bedspread, same furniture, same carpet I’d seen so much of at so many other Motel 6’s, I needed to get out. Ace, once he finished checking out its scents, felt the same way, or so I surmised.

I grabbed his leash, and we went for a walk down Military Highway, taking the first road to the left and then turning right, passing by a mobile home park and cutting through a parking lot, adjacent to an alleyway. When a car turned down the alley, I watched out of the corner of my eye as it crept alongside us. Not for the first time, I was glad I didn’t have a shih-tzu at the end of the leash. The driver stopped and waved me over.

Getting closer to the car, I could see how excited the driver was. Ace seemed to be picking up on it, too. He pulled me to the car and jumped up, placing his paws atop the car door and sticking his head inside the open window to meet a man named Raj.

Raj was a fragile-looking man, wearing a baseball cap and a Hawaiian shirt, and he had so many questions that he seemed to have trouble getting them all out. He explained to me that Ace looked a lot like his dog, Hug.

He got out of the car to pet Ace, and pointed out his house, in the mobile home community on the other side of the fence. “I love dogs too much,” he said, a phrase he would repeat several times. We talked for ten minutes before he reluctantly said goodbye and pulled away.

I circled the block and was heading back to the motel when Raj’s car pulled alongside me again – this time coming to a full stop on busy Military Highway. His daughter was in the passenger seat, and he was taking her to work. Amid honking horns from the cars that backed up behind him, Raj invited me to bring Ace over to his house to meet his dog.

I agreed to meet him there in 10 minutes, and went back to my room for my camera. As we approached his home, Hug came bolting out, pulling Raj behind him.

SONY DSCAce and Hug hit it off immediately and began to play, or at least as much as they could on leashes. When Hug darted in one direction, Raj was tugged along, almost falling several times. Raj’s wife came out with dog treats and water. She works at a nearby McDonalds. Raj, who moved to the U.S. 30 years ago from New Delhi, worked there too and drove a limousine until he got sick. He can’t work anymore, his wife explained.

They adopted Hug from a shelter about two years ago. Raj said he has always had dogs, and can’t imagine life without one.

Hug and Ace, while not dead ringers, had some remarkable similarities – large and chunky Rottweiler heads, barrel-like chests and rings of black around their eyes. We hung out until the sun started going down.

Raj turned Hug’s leash over to his wife and shook hands with Ace before we left. He gave him a prolonged hug – one that lasted so long that Ace, normally patient with such displays of affection, got a little squirmy.

Finally releasing him, Raj apologetically explained again, “I love dogs too much. Yes, I love dogs too much.”

***

I wouldn’t call myself an expert on dogs – just an expert on appreciating them. Experts on dogs, like experts on anything, can be highly annoying, quite long-winded and far too full of themselves. That said, I am an expert on the Waffle House.

The Waffle House – and in some parts of the South they are still more prevalent than even Starbucks — is one of my favorite places on earth. I love to sit on a stool at the counter and watch the short order cook in action. I love the way the waitresses shout out the orders in code. I love to watch the waffle iron overflow, and see the eggs sizzle on the grill.

The Waffle House got its start in the mid-1950’s when neighbors Joe Rogers, who worked for the Toddle House, and Tom Forkner, who was in real estate, decided to start a business of their own. On Labor Day 1955, they opened the first Waffle House in Avondale Estates, an Atlanta suburb. The chain grew to 401 restaurants by the end of the 1970’s, 672 by the end of the 1980’s, 1,228 by the end of the 1990’s. By 2006, there were more than 1,500 Waffle House restaurants in 25 states.

In Virginia, on a day cool enough to leave Ace in the car for a few minutes – and a few minutes is all it takes – I parked in the shade, popped the back window open, and chose a stool that, with a slight swivel, I could turn and check on him as I downed a waffle and some orange juice.

It’s not just the food, which comes fast, tastes tolerable and costs little, that keeps me coming back to the Waffle House; it’s the ambience. It’s knowing, as soon as you walk in, four or five employees are going to shout out a hello. Your waitress is going to call you hon’, or perhaps (even better) darlin’. And chances are there will be a lively conversation going on at the counter about current events, most often spoken in syrupy southern drawls.

You rarely see anyone working on their laptop at a Waffle House.

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There is something about sitting at a counter, even if there’s not a bartender on the other side, that sparks open discussion. Counters – and I’d guess that they’ve been declining over recent decades — have a way of making us realize, as we sit elbow to elbow, pointed in the same direction, that we’re all in this together, despite any individual differences, like preferring our hash brown potatoes, “Scattered, Smothered, or Covered,” or perhaps all three.

On this day, in this Waffle House, the conversation was about daytime TV talk show host Wendy Williams. It began when someone said “How you doin’?” Then everybody started saying “How you doin?” Apparently it is Wendy Williams signature phrase, though some thought she stole it from Joey on “Friends.”

Not everybody agrees on everything at the Waffle House, but even when they don’t, at least in my experience, there seems to be a civility that trumps any conflicting political ideologies, or any gaps between social classes. I’d guess it’s the kind that comes from sitting side by side, as opposed to being anonymously linked together over the Internet.

Nowhere does vitriol flow more abundantly than on the Internet, to the extent, I’d suggest, that it overflows into our real day-to-day lives. More than ever, it seems, we humans tend to look for reasons to get mad at each other, and stay mad at each other.

Humans can get mad and stay mad at each other for years, even hold life-long grudges. There are very limited circumstances where that happens with a dog. One can’t stay mad at a dog for very long. I know at least this is true of me, which brings us to our next chart, or more accurately, table:

 

Table 18:1: A comparative study of maximum periods of anger duration in humans, or at least this human, in response to the stimuli of specific offensive behaviors exhibited by canines versus humans 

Offense Humans Dogs
Lying 1 year N/A
Cheating 1.5 years N/A
Stealing 2 years 2 hours****
Farting 10 minutes** 15 seconds**
Spreading vicious untrue gossip 2 years N/A
Spreading vicious gossip that’s true 2 hours N/A
Licking self to excess N/A* 30 seconds
Ruining a piece of furniture 1 month 2 days
Chewing up your shoes N/A* 1 day***
Bullying another creature 5 years 15 minutes
Drinking out of toilet N/A* 10 seconds
Incessant scratching 10 minutes 1 minute
Eating cat or dog poop N/A* 2 minutes
Cutting you off in traffic 15 minutes .5 seconds
Arrogant behavior 1-3 days N/A
Stealing your girlfriend 6 years 6 seconds
Intentionally injuring a dog eternity 4 days
N/A Not applicable
* or so we’d hope
** or until odor subsides
*** depending on how expensive they were
**** or until item found

 

In other words, we, or at least the dog lovers among us, tend to forgive dogs much more quickly than we do humans.

Maybe it’s because dogs, or so we think, don’t do what they do spitefully. Maybe we forgive them because we think “they don’t know any better.” Or because we view them as helpless. (If so, it was us who made them that way.) Maybe it’s because they seem to have mastered a soulful look of contrition, or because we humans just can’t stand to see that tail stop wagging.

For whatever reason, we show a patience with dogs that we don’t always show to each other. We’re more prone to give them, as opposed to fellow humans, the benefit of the doubt. (And, as we’ve noted, the doubt can sometimes carry benefits.)

We’re not sure what goes on in a dog’s head – whether they feel guilt or grief, why they lick us and what their barks mean – but we’re studying it as never before, and more seriously than ever before. Harvard and Duke, to name just two prestigious universities, have both started canine cognition labs.

What we far more rarely scrutinize is what – beyond their turning us into baby-talking balls of mush — is going in our heads and hearts when it comes to dogs.

Every bit as mysterious as how dogs can be trained to detect cancer, sense spikes in blood sugar, or cross an entire country to find their way home, is how and why we humans have become so smitten with, so close to, and so easily pushed over by, another species. (And, just to be clear, I count myself fortunate for being one of those push-overs.)

One of the generally unrecognized gifts dog bestows on us is a better understanding of ourselves — sometimes without any scientific studies being conducted at all. Their presence makes us better humans. But do we really understand the roots of our love for them, and do we always keep it in proper bounds? Or is love, by definition, boundless, and not meant to be dissected?

Is it possible, as Raj says, to love dogs too much?

Dealing with many dog lovers and animal welfare types, I run into a lot of people who have all but given up on the human race, and have decided to give their love to, and get it from, dogs. Experts will tell you that loving dogs is a healthy thing, but that solely loving dogs, or loving dogs to the point you are excluding humans from your life, is not.

I wonder how many people like that are out there.

I wonder whether I am one of them.

***

Experts – yes, them again — will tell you that your dog loves you the way a two-year-old child might, which is to say purely, simply, and automatically.

Dogs, they’ll tell you, don’t understand love as complex emotion.

I’d suggest maybe dogs (and two-year-olds) have it right — maybe it’s not so complicated and we grown up humans just make it that way.

The more troubling question, when it comes to analyzing the love between the two species, is this: Was it a natural evolution, or have we programmed them to adore us?

For sure, it wasn’t choreographed, or a conspiracy. Dog breeders didn’t chart out the future and determine that, in terms of the human need for affection, the day would come when demand exceeded supply. They didn’t handpick the most affectionate dogs and selectively breed them so that they might better lavish us with love. They didn’t try to produce pups with bigger, more soulful, more human, eyes. Did they?

And, if so, who was it that was being manipulated – dogs, us, or both?

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In 1968 – the year John Steinbeck passed away — Kathleen Szasz published a controversial book called “Petishism: Pet Cults of the Western World.” She was so revolted by what she saw of the pet-human relationship in the U.S. and England she described what had transpired as a hemispheric disorder of epidemic proportions.

Hungarian-born and a translator by trade, Szasz  criticized “people who expend all their positive emotions on animals.” She said man’s love for pets was actually “an escape into an other-than-human community, a community he can control and which, therefore, does not threaten his very existence.”

She condemned the idea that having pets taught children responsibility and empathy and gave them an appreciation for nature. Instead, she said it led to “excessive attachments” that reinforced loving pets instead of humans. She disparaged empty-nesters for turning to pets for company, saying they did so to make up for the guilt they harbored over how they raised their children. And as for the elderly, she wrote,  keeping a pet was “the last, paper thin wall separating them from the self-rejection they fall victim to when they no longer have the strength to withstand the powerful pressure of social rejection.”

It was a bitter little book, but one with several well-aimed, or at least not too far off target, blows at those who make dogs their entire world, or assign them a status above their fellow humans.

Szasz included examples she thought showed how skewed our values had become – some of them cases of extreme behavior, some of them signs of less just times. In America, she pointed out, “Tourist guide books that list establishments where Negroes can get overnight accommodation give the address of one hotel in Montgomery, Alabama, and none in Danville, Virginia. Dogs traveling with white owners are welcome in five Montgomery hotels and four in Danville.”

Collectively, she argued, we had let a wagging tail, a friendly lick, a panting ball of fur that was always happy to see us, throw our priorities out of whack. We’d ceased appreciating our fellow humans and instead turned to dogs for a less complicated form of love – if it was even that.

She blamed technology, and what she saw as the decline of religion. Man, she argued, had turned to pet-keeping to hold on to what little self-identity he had left. Dogs were a crutch, helping us limp through an increasingly cold, cruel and loveless world.

Forty-five years later, the world has proven itself even colder and crueler. We’ve grown even more dependent on even colder technology, and even less connected, at least in meaningful ways. Re-reading her book (it, too, made the trip) made me think she might have had some points – or maybe even been half right. It also made me think the woman clearly needed a dog.

If you look at the things that society may be losing, and look at the qualities dogs reflect, they are often one and the same: Loyalty, security, innocence, trust, honesty, playfulness, mystery. And that’s just to name a few.

Are we compensating? Might the fact that there are more homes with dogs in America than ever before be a reflection of us trying to hold on to what’s slipping away? And might we be gripping so tightly that we’re going to love them to death?

Since Szasz’s day, our coddling and pampering of dogs has hit even greater heights.

“People are more accepting now of the notion that it’s OK to be very, very attached to your animal,” said James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. “A lot of the behavior we see now, people would have looked at 30, 40 or 50 years ago and gone, ‘that’s weird,’ is now accepted.”

SONY DSCSerpell, who, for an expert, is a likable sort, says most pet pampering is harmless. The vast majority of pet owners are well adjusted, and are reaping the many physical and emotional benefits of pet ownership.

But increasingly, he noted, humans are letting pets set the agenda for their lives. That’s not necessarily abnormal, unless it reaches the point where they shut fellow humans out entirely.

“The level of attachment that people develop for these animals, how much they pay for them, how much they grieve for them when they die, the kind of sacrifices that they make in their own lives … by no means is it always positive,” he said. “There are people who can’t have friends over because their dog is so obnoxious.”

I see no big danger in idealizing animals. More often than not, they live up to those ideals. Some humans I’ve idealized failed to pull that off. While I sometimes shun humans, I haven’t given up faith in the species, and I don’t distrust its members to the point that I’ve turned to dogs as a substitute. Sometimes my dog keeps me from going out and meeting people, but far more often he’s the one introducing me to them.

I’m not too worried about loving dogs too much.

The far bigger concern is the other extreme

***

I’m not sure why I wanted to visit 1915 Moonlight Road – maybe for the same reason people visit Nazi death camps, Ground Zero and other scenes of slaughter.

Maybe it was in part to pay respect to those who died and suffered, in part to remind myself how evil man can be. Maybe it’s that whole business about keeping history fresh enough in our minds that we don’t repeat mistakes — something man almost never manages to do.

By the time I visited Michael Vick’s old house, the story of the quarterback’s dog fighting operation was old news. He’d done his time, or most of it, returned to millionaire NFL quarterback status and even made some feeble efforts to redeem himself.

The true story of redemption, though, was his dogs. Many of the dogs seized from his estate — all earmarked at one point for euthanasia — were rehabilitated and went on to become beloved pets and even therapy dogs.

A trip to the NFL quarterback’s former estate – the headquarters for his former dog fighting operation — seemed, while morbid, somehow in order. So Ace and I headed from Norfolk up Highway 10, past the meatpacking plant in Smithfield, and turned left down Moonlight Road, where homes are few, far apart and, unlike the one Vick had built, mostly modest.

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His was a two-story, 4,600-square-foot, white brick home, with five bedrooms, four and a half baths and master bedroom suites on the first and second floor. It has several outbuildings, a pool and a basketball court. The real estate listings, which make no mention of the former owner, note that there’s a kennel, too.

Michael Vick’s former house, at the time of our visit, was for sale – and had been ever since Vick sold it before heading off for his prison sentence.

The private individual who bought it then had it listed at $595,000 – a price that was $152,000 under its assessed value. In other words, it was a bargain – if you didn’t mind the fact that it’s haunted. How could it not be – after what the 51 dogs seized from Bad Newz Kennels had gone through, not to mention the eight more murdered dogs that were dug up behind the home and removed as part of the investigation?

There was no open house on the day we dropped by — no one around at all. Taking heed of a sign on the gate that warned “Keep Out, Private Property, Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted …” Ace and I kept to the perimeter of the property, across the street from a small white Baptist church.

Usually, when Ace gets out of the car he commences to sniffing and excitedly exploring for minutes on end. But here he behaved differently. He walked up to white metal gate, sat down and stayed perfectly still, staring at the house for what had to be three full minutes.

Vick bought the 15-acre property in 2001 — for the purpose of setting up a dog fighting operation. For two years, only a trailer occupied it. In 2003, he had the custom built house constructed, though he never lived in it full time.

A real estate agent told me the prolonged period the house had been on the market was probably more a result of the housing slump than its shameful legacy.

After my visit, the house did find a new owner – an animal rescue organization called Dogs Deserve Better. It opened a sanctuary for abused, neglected and chained dogs, seeking to find homes for those dogs it took in.

Michael Vick, meanwhile, would go on to become quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, and take part in an anti-dog fighting campaign with the Humane Society of the United States. Some would question his sincerity. Some thought his words – apologies included — rang hollow. Some, and I admit to being one of them, will never forgive him.

Many of his one-time dogs, cruelly and brutally as they were treated, became loving pets, therapy dogs and goodwill ambassadors – proof, in case you needed it, that dogs are far better role models than professional athletes.

***

Heading north to Richmond on State Highway 10, south of Hopewell, I looked into the rearview mirror to check on Ace and noticed what appeared to be a wasp buzzing about on the inside of the back window.

I pulled off on the first side road I came to — Wards Creek Road — and popped my back window open so it could get out. I was getting back into the car when I noticed a sign saying that this particular portion of country road was adopted by Tom and Cookie Wicker.

If they were picking up trash along the road, I figured, surely they must live on it, and just maybe it was THE Tom Wicker.

Tom Wicker, my parents have told me, used to bounce me on his knee when I was a baby. Wicker was one year behind my father in journalism school at the University of North Carolina, and they’d go on to work together at the Winston Salem Journal, and live in the same small apartment house, before Wicker became a famous New York Times columnist and author.

I didn’t really know him — at least not since babyhood – and I didn’t really want to be bounced again. But dropping in on Tom Wicker seemed the right thing to do – assuming it was the right Tom Wicker.

I called my father – this being before his death, and before Tom Wicker’s — for guidance.

“Does Tom Wicker live in Virginia?” I asked. He didn’t know. “Is he married to a woman named Cookie?” He wasn’t sure of that, either. Cookie sounded like an author’s wife’s name to me, though, and Virginia seemed a likely place for Tom Wicker, born in Hamlet, N.C., to live.

I drove along the road, picked the most impressive looking driveway and turned down it. It led to multiple houses. At the first house, a pick-up truck was pulling out, and I asked the driver where Tom Wicker lived. Tom Wicker, I was told, lives at the very end of the long gravel driveway.

The driveway grew ruttier and narrower as I proceeded, but I decided it was worth the possible payoff. This is the sort of place Tom Wicker would live, I reasoned, on a secluded country estate. Writers need their solitude.

At the end of the driveway, there was a modest home, and a barking mastiff. I waited in the car, figuring that Tom Wicker, hearing the noise, would step outside. He did — not Tom Wicker, the writer of numerous books about politics and presidents; not the author of “A Time to Die,” about the Attica prison riots, my personal favorite; not the Tom Wicker who grilled politicians, hobnobbed with heads of state, and whose writing served as inspiration to me.

Instead, it was Tom Wicker, retired nuclear plant worker.

A little wary at first — and who could blame him? — this Tom Wicker listened with raised eyebrows as I explained how I ended up parked in his side yard. He remembered reading Tom Wicker’s columns in the New York Times, but said he was no relation.

SONY DSCAs we talked, his dog — Lula was her name — kept her eyes on me. I asked to meet her, knelt down and called her name. Nervously and slowly, she approached, sniffed my hand and let me pet her.

Lula, two years old, originally belonged to Tom and Cookie Wicker’s daughter but she found two mastiffs too much for her mobile home and gave Lula to her parents.

When Lula spotted Ace, who was leaning out the window, she walked over to my car and touched noses with him.

I didn’t go so far as to let Ace out, or even suggest it, as I felt I had intruded enough on Tom and Cookie Wicker — Cookie also having come out into the yard by then.

It was just a few months after we went in search of him in Virginia that the writer Tom Wicker died, in Rochester, Vermont.

True, I could have Googled Tom Wicker beforehand, and learned that he was living in Vermont and New York, and that he wasn’t married to a Cookie. But, I’ve decided, one should not stop mid-whim and Google. One should not let Google spoil an adventure, or even a misadventure. We shouldn’t let Google — useful as it is – do all our seeking and searching for us.

Had I Googled, I wouldn’t have met Tom Wicker, the retired nuclear plant worker, or Cookie Wicker, or Lula Wicker, or gotten the nice parting gift they gave me — two ripe tomatoes from their garden, one of which, knowing full well it would spew juice all over my shirt, I sunk my teeth into once back on the highway.

 

ROADSIDE ENCOUNTER

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Name: Puck

Age: 17

Breed: Poodle-terrier mix

Encountered: In Fredericksburg, Virginia, at the home of my ex-college roommate, George.

Backstory:  His taste buds may have withered, he may not sniff things out the way he once could. He’s deaf, and barely sees out of the one eye he has left. He has lost a good half of the senses he was born with, but Puck still had an important one left — his sense of dignity.

Puck doesn’t run anymore. He can’t do stairs. He has epilepsy, an enlarged heart, and a hacking cough. He goes through long periods where he seems to zone out — possibly the result of mini-strokes. But Puck can still cuddle, and still relishes a scratch behind the ears as much as he ever did – maybe even more.

My overnight visit with George and his wife Kathleen was the third time I’d seen Puck – the first being when he was a youngster, the second about two years ago. When I reconnect with George on the phone, I’m usually afraid to ask about Puck, fearing the worst. But George generally volunteers the information: “Puck’s still alive.” Or “Puck’s still around.”

George and Kathleen’s daughter, Elizabeth was 7 when they got Puck, and she came up with the name — as in pucker up — based on how much he liked to kiss. A neighbor across the street had called one night 17 years ago and asked if they wanted a puppy – as he described it, a poodle. She called her husband to let him know: “We sort of have a dog now.”

Nearly a generation later, Puck remains – less lively, less mobile, and most often wearing diapers into which are inserted sanitary napkins to deal with his incontinence. Every night, they carry him to his upstairs bed. Every morning, they carry him to his downstairs bed, which they call his “office.” Next to it is a family portrait, a toy fax machine, a stapler and a collection of Puck’s favorite things.

George says he has learned a lot from Puck – both about patience and grace:  “Puck never complains; it makes me hope I can be that way when I’m old and decrepit.”

Some friends tell George it’s time to put Puck down, but George can’t see doing that – “not as long as his tail keeps wagging.”

 

 

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