Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lessons I Learned From My Dog: Part 2

Even beauty queens
like to dig.

Humans make friendship far more complicated than it really needs to be.

My husband loves another woman.  Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those awful true confessions that you find on the magazine racks near grocery store checkouts.  No, I recognize that I am ridiculously fortunate to be loved, respected and admired by someone for whom I feel all those same emotions even more than I did the day we married.  But he does love his writing partner as a friend, and together they have created a dynamic and compelling series for the small screen which neither of them could have accomplished alone.  Yet periodically they suffer from a failure to communicate and one or the other of them is left with the feeling that their fur was brushed in the wrong direction.  John spends several hours brooding about it all (and so does his partner, most likely), some terse emails or texts are exchanged, and ultimately they talk it out. 

Oftentimes, I think that communication gaps happen when old personal baggage obscures the present moment.  Many years ago, I read that we expect in others the behaviors we exhibit ourselves, whether or not we like or even acknowledge those behaviors.  This is a concept that can be pretty hard to stomach.  It’s uncomfortable to accept that when I anticipate rudeness or dismissiveness from others, it’s because I tend towards rudeness and dismissiveness myself.  Often, though, when I look closely, I see that there is more truth to the adage than one might imagine. On the other hand, you can’t deny that our experiences shape our expectations.

Ram Dass, the wonderful psychologist, teacher and popularizer of Eastern thought, used to talk about the ways in which we filter our observations.  You could walk down a street, he would say, looking for a bookstore.  When you got to the end of the street, a stranger might ask you if there was a donut shop on that street.  You would have no idea whatsoever; you weren’t looking for a donut shop.   Honestly, there might be a baker’s dozen of them for all you know.

Kilroy was here.
Aren’t our filters created by our past experiences?  In my tween years, I ran afoul of my class’s Queen Bee.  Tired of sharing popularity, she embarked on a propaganda campaign designed to turn me into the sixth grade’s be-cootied outcast.  With an efficiency and brutality that would have done justice to the Gestapo, she created a mini-Reich in which no girl felt safe unless she played along with the Fuhrer.  The boys, somehow exempt from the threat, were befuddled by the whole thing.  The girls, subtle in their cruelty, simply acted as if I had ceased to exist.  Aside from occasionally hiding my belongings inside the music teacher’s grand piano, they refused to acknowledge my presence in the world.  One day, for some reason I can no longer recall, one of my former friends and I found ourselves alone on the playground.  We stood facing each other.  I suddenly realized that she looked absolutely miserable.  “Why are you guys being so mean to me?” I asked her.

“We have to be,” she whispered.  “If I’m nice to you, she’ll turn everyone against me, too.”  Suddenly, she looked hopeful.  “I can be your friend away from school, though.  I just can’t talk to you here.”

It’s possible that the years have altered my memory of my response.  Though the words I remember speaking might have been colored by too many movies, I know that the message I recall is the one I delivered at the time: “I can’t have a sometime friend.  You are either my friend, or you are not.”

As unbelievably lame as it sounds, even to me, I still have difficulty trusting groups of women.  I expect to feel abject humiliation as they band together, leaving me on the outside.  For this reason, I tend to lay back when first meeting groups of people.  I keep my thoughts to myself and present a fa├žade of confidence and unflappability.  Of course, what this usually gets read as is snobbishness and judgementalism.  Oy!  And, yes, I realize that shyness, like worry, is an inherited trait and at times I encourage myself to overcome my genes rather than my experiences.  Somehow it makes me feel a bit better to couch it this way—genetics rather than a forty-year-old scar.

When my niece was in sixth grade, she had her own Queen Bee experience.  A new student joined her class and quickly culled a court from the previously harmonious group using the ancient techniques of mockery and meanness.  After months of suffering during which she tried indirectly to counteract the Queen Bee’s effects, my niece reached breaking point on the playground during recess. 

By the way, those of you who think that most learning takes place in the classroom need to do some hard pondering of your own school days.  What are your strongest recollections?  The classroom lessons?  Or the schoolyard interactions?  Don’t you go back to the boy you kissed on the jungle gym?  To the joyous competition of who could climb highest on the peg board?  To the wind on your face as the swing flew you up to the clouds?  For every memory of the classroom, I bet there are five of the playground.  For me, that ratio doesn’t change until I get to graduate school, but that’s a contemplation for another time.

Anyway, so during recess, my niece reached her breaking point as she watched the Queen Bee torture a confused and defenseless boy.  My niece marched up to the girl, pointed her finger in her face and shouted, “You have got to stop being so mean!  You cannot treat people this way!”  Then she spun on her heel and marched away.  Okay, she may have marred the effect a little bit by bursting into tears as she spun (a girl after my own heart).  I’d love to tell you that the class rallied after this showdown and everyone ended up the best of friends, but this blog is intended to be nonfiction.

Naps are SO important.
And what does this have to do with my dog?  We humans make friendship so complicated.  For Cleo, it is all so simple.  Every being in the world is her friend, for now or for a lifetime.  It doesn’t matter how many legs; whether they talk, meow, caw or bark; whether they come bearing gifts or arrive empty handed; whether they be barely within sight or immediately to hand.  This morning on our walk, we noticed two women coming from the other end of the street.  Though she’d never met them before, Cleo was so excited to become friends that I finally had her sit down next to me so that she wouldn’t strangle herself in her eagerness to become acquainted.  At times, she’ll bark at a distant dog as if to say, “Hello!  Here I am!”  On the beach yesterday, her mantra became “Touch noses.  Chase me!  That was fun!”

A couple of weeks ago, Cleo gave me heart failure when she bounded off our front deck and out into the street to greet two passersby.  She cavorted and jumped up on them as they cooed over her.  I ran after her.  “Sorry about that,” I said to the couple.  “She’s never met a stranger!”  The woman laughed, but the man looked at me in horror.  “Really?” he exclaimed.  “What do you do, keep her locked in the house all the time?”  What experiences was he filtering through?

There is such a pureness and simplicity about the way Cleo engages with the world.  Her attitude is unflagging: “I think you are wonderful and I know you will enjoy me, too.”  From time to time she becomes over-exuberant with our cats and they soft paw her on the nose (or sometimes double paw her—left, right, bam, bam).  She is never offended or psychologically scarred—she just gives them a little more room.  She is unselfconsciously who she is, and her delight is in the creatures around her.

There is a profound lesson in that.

Friends come in all
shapes and sizes.


  1. First, love the naptime shot. We should all nap with such abandon!

    I spent my early years as an Army brat, meaning lots of moves, till we re-settled in Salinas (we had been here on a previous duty assignment). I was complaining to my mom one time about moving AGAIN, and having to make all new friends AGAIN, and whining maybe I would not find friends at all. She looked at me very calmly (actually stopping her packing) and said: "If you want to have a friend, you have to be a friend." That's a lesson for the ages, although I don't remember my reaction to it at the time and I suspect I continued my why why why rant. Somehow, her advice has served me through the years.

    But our 4-legged family members...they ask so little, yet give so much just by being themselves. Even if the kitties don't appreciate it.

  2. A lesson for the ages, indeed. Funny how we can't always hear them at the moment, but we remember them for decades to come. Thank you for this wonderful story!