Monday, June 13, 2011

Travel Expands the Mind, They Say.

It’s been quiet around school these last couple of weeks and Cleo has been a bit lonely.  She’s used to having a couple hundred people on campus.  There are always students on the grass beyond her window or folks passing to and fro outside our office door.  Since Commencement, though, the lawn is empty and the traffic in the library has dwindled to nearly nothing.  On the other hand, she has very much enjoyed having full run of the library, exploring the stacks, unearthing the occasional long forgotten, dried out highlighter, climbing the stairs to the third floor Mac lab to poke her nose through the railing for a bird’s eye view of the librarian’s desk.  No matter where she is, the moment she hears the clack of the library door opening, she rushes to greet the newcomer like a prisoner in a Siberian gulag.  She is especially happy when Carol, our librarian, sorts back issues of magazines or shelves books because she can follow her around from one floor to another and back again.

This past week was particularly difficult for Cleo because I was out of town for three days and her social calendar was reduced even further.  My husband did his best to keep her entertained, taking her to the beach every morning, playing ball in the backyard, giving her extended snuggles before bedtime.  He told me that a friend of ours came over to the house and Cleo practically drowned her in spit, so effusive and unrelenting was her greeting.  It occurred to me that Cleo’s sense of family is unusually large.  Yes, my husband and I are very much at the center, but concentric rings define Cleo’s family with our late-teen son and our cats, our twenty-something daughter and her boyfriend, our favorite neighbors and my husband’s writing partner, the teacher of our obedience class, a few dogs, and a couple dozen individuals at school all comprising members of her extended family.  And it’s clear from the way she relates to all of these folks that she sees them not as friends, which is how she sees just about anyone else she meets regardless of species, but as relatives.
Bradshaw's new book.

In his really wonderful new book Dog Sense, biologist John Bradshaw explains the recent research that proves that dogs aren’t really pack-oriented, but rather family-oriented.   Dogs are descended from the grey wolf, but began their separation about ten thousand years ago.   The wolves who became domesticated were those who could not only bear, but actually enjoy being in the presence and company of humankind.  It is from these that today’s dogs are descended.  Today’s wolves, on the extreme other hand, come from ancestors that were so anti-human, so reclusive and wild, that they were able to survive the concerted eradication efforts of generations upon generations of frightened anti-wolf human beings. 

Wolf research didn’t really come into its own until wolves had become so rare that one of the few places they could be studied was in zoos.  Unfortunately, through a complete lack of understanding of how wolves operate, zoos would gather individuals from many different areas, then throw them together thinking they would form a pack.  As biologists studied the zoo groups, they noted that the wolves constantly fought to maintain a hierarchy.  They dubbed the top wolf or wolves the “Alpha,” the bottom wolf or wolves the “Omega” and theorized that dominant behavior kept the Alphas on top and submissive behavior kept the Omegas alive.

What the zoo biologists failed to understand, however, is that in the wild, packs are actually made up exclusively of a single family and fights for status are completely unheard of.  The so-called Alphas are, in fact, the parents of all of the other wolves in the pack, and so are given deference automatically. The only time wolves actually fight for “dominance” is when one family encounters a member or members of another.

A particularly lovely point Bradshaw makes is that through the thousands of years of human-dog companionship, dogs have shown that they are highly unusual among non-human animals in their ability to form family bonds with a variety of species.  When we humans refer to ourselves as our dog’s mom or dad (or grandmother), we’re not being fanciful, we’re being accurate, certainly as far as our dogs identify us.  As if we needed another reason to love them!

So Cleo does see my husband and me, a few dogs, our two cats, our own kids, some students and adults at school, and a few other folks as her family.  Which got me to thinking this past week.  My puppy’s family is so much larger than my own.

As I mentioned, I was out of town for three days last week.  In fact, I traveled thirty hours round trip in order to be in Bethesda, Maryland for forty hours.  Granted, the way the flights were originally set up, I should have traveled about half that amount of time, but the journey home turned into a twenty-one hour saga thanks to late planes, missed connections and San Francisco fog.  Had I known, before setting out, that my return trip would be so fraught, would I still have gone?  In a heartbeat.

The purpose of my cross-country junket was my only niece’s graduation from middle school.  For months before I went, my husband enjoyed saying to me, with only slightly exaggerated disbelief, “You’re flying three thousand miles for a junior high graduation?!”  Yes.  Yes, that is correct.  Even counting every member of my extended family, it is not as large as Cleo’s, though, granted, that could be because my sense of family is more narrow than hers.  Still, my family of origin now consists of my two sisters and me, so any chance to celebrate a milestone with them is an opportunity not to be missed.

My sisters are less than two years apart in age.  As they were growing up, especially in their tween or early teen years, this led to some friction.  One of my favorite stories about them is The Story of the Note.  My sisters shared a room (which is odd since I, the youngest by several years, had a room to myself).  They slept in matching canopy beds.  This kind of bed has a post at each corner to elevate the canopy, and a newel that fits into each post to hold the canopy in place.  The hollow in the post, into which the newel would fit, provided a perfect “mail box” for my sisters who, when they were refusing to speak to each other, would leave little messages in each other’s bed post.  One day, my middle sister left my oldest sister this note:  “Dear Kathy, I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate you.  Love, Jan.”

My sister, Jan, meets Cleo.
As we grew up, we drifted geographically apart, Kathy moving to Colorado, Jan staying on the East Coast but migrating south from our Pennsylvania hometown to Washington, DC, me ending up in Monterey, California.  Our parents’ deaths left us with no central gathering place for holidays, so the three of us were together at weddings and rare special events.  It was more common to meet by twos at one home or another.  I have always loved my sisters; they’re my sisters, after all.  What a delight to be reminded of how much I like them as well.  The forty hours we were together were filled with lots of talking, laughter, easy enjoyment of each other, passions in common, obsessions in common, neuroses in common (always easier to bear when shared).  We celebrated successes, mourned losses, and comingled kvetchings. 

And my lovely niece, full of joy and grace?  One has to guard against the temptation, with an only niece, to overindulge a sense of her perfection.  There is no doubt that she is beautiful, oh-so-smart, hardworking, dedicated, that she is a deeply good person.  But how would I have known that everyone from the head of school to her eighth grade teachers to her kindergarten teacher think she is all those things, too, if I hadn’t flown three thousand miles for a junior high graduation?

Cleo’s extended family is a gift.  But when the family you have is choice, it doesn’t matter if it’s small.