The Topic At Hand: This Is A Test

Back when I was pretty sure that I could fly if I really tried, I thought dogs could fly, too. A set of Supertoys helped make that happen, since during that sunshiney, toy-happy time, you could buy not just Superman, but an entire Superfamily, featuring, as I recall, a Superboy, a Supergirl, and more. I remember no Superwoman–maybe she’d already magically changed “Super” to “Wonder” and started pitching her own series by then–but I do recall some Superpets that soon faded from the Superscene. I have a fuzzy memory of a Supercat–all Supercreatures had shiny red capes that seemed to make Superhuman things easy–and a clear memory of a Superdog, which I might actually still have in a box somewhere. He was white as a cartoon tooth and looked cool in his cape as he zoomed across the dreamed-up sky.

One day, I thought I’d see if our real dog, Jump, could fly, too, so I leaped on his back and slapped his rump hard with my hand. He didn’t take off, but he did squirt from under me with something like Superspeed, whirl around with a mean bark–he was a sweet dog who basically never barked, let alone in a mad way–and swiped me hard across the face with his claw, leaving me with a scar between my eyes that (alas) I still have.

When I look back now and try to see when dogs stopped being animals that I predictably liked, maybe that wild event played some unknown role, though I wasn’t mad at Jump when he hurt me, just glad I could still see. But somehow, some way, things slowly went south between dogs and me. By the time I lived with be-dogged friends in Kansas City in the late 80s, it was perfectly natural for me to mentally redub their dog, Quincy, “the Quince of Darkness,” the minute I learned its name. Of course, I didn’t tell her owners about that, since St. Bernard’s wry little 12th-century edict, “Qui me amat, amet et canem meum, ” Love me, love my dog” is one weird little law that never seems to “stop making sense” to most dog owners (even though equally old and wise thoughts, like the idea that unusual people should be burned as witches, are now less popular). If I could have somehow screwed around and conjured the ghost of W.C. Fields from an empty gin bottle back then, we might have at least half hit it off, since, as he famously said back in his pre-ghost days, “Anyone who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad,” and I had the dog part of that deal down cold.

Flash back to now–or at least to late last year. I have two kids named Lear and Sabrina, then ages four and seven, then, and seemingly as soon as they could talk, it started happening–one or both of them would let the d-word fly, often rather like this: “Daddy, when can we get a dog?” As my daughter, the oldest, began to see that I wasn’t kidding when I replied with what I thought were funny variations of never, she began to say that the second I was dead, the rest of the family would instantly be getting a dog.

“Sabrina, I said, that’s a very good idea.”

“Why do you hate dogs so much, Daddy?” Lear would often ask.

I didn’t hate dogs, I’d explain. I just didn’t want one living in our house. I really liked giraffes, and monkeys, and tigers, and who knows how many other animals, especially when they’re little, I’d honestly say. But that didn’t mean we wanted them all trying to live in the same house as us, did it?

My kids did not agree, and since the jungle animals in our house part sounded pretty cool to them, too, whatever tiny charm the “wild animals would eat all your Lucky Charms and so would a dog”-type of argument got me nowhere at all. At first, they’d humor me and pretend to at least understand my side. But slowly that stopped, and even I started wondering why I, a man who had loved a dog as a boy, wouldn’t allow his children the same crazy jolt of relatively harmless temporary insanity. Was I already that close to being the sad old doof in jokes who chases kids off his lawn? Already too far gone to let my kids have a Jump of their own, even if my Jump-liking days were gone?

So when I saw that homemade poster on a community bulletin board in a small town near ours, one of several like it that I’d blurred by without really seeing over the previous couple days, I was ready to try to like what I saw. And as it turned out, it wasn’t that hard. As I looked at that picture, for some unknown reason, a moment from an old Tonight Show jumped to mind. Some not wildly “star-like” man (whatever that means) was on Carson’s couch, talking about how he’d kicked smoking. He’d carried a cigarette around in his shirt pocket everywhere he went, and whenever he felt like he needed to smoke, he’d pull it out and talk to it:

“Who is stronger,” he would ask the cigarette, “you or me?”

“I am,” he’d say, sliding the sleepy cigarette back in his pocket until next time.

Soon the cigarette lost the game for good.

And as I looked into the friendly eyes of the little white, not-wholly-uncigarette-like dog in the poster, I asked myself a stolen question:

“Who is stronger?”

“I am,” I said to him, folding up the poster and putting it in my pocket.

When I got home, I told my wife, Vanessa, that I’d seen a kind of dog that I kind of liked that day. She laughed, assuming I was making a silly joke (a pretty safe bet with me). When I said I was serious, after a just-saw-a-ghost look flashed across her face, she asked where. I said “here,” and pulled the poster from my pocket. When I unfolded it, it was really two sheets of typing paper somehow stuck together, one with a strip of tear-off phone numbers taped along the side. She read them both out loud, and here (except for some small name jumbling to protect the privacy of the person who may have been Jig’s original owner) is literally what they said:

Free Dog
had shots
six months old and house

Free Dog
His name is
Pancho Pedro Montalban Gonzeas Gonzales IIII
(that is why he is a free dog)

We both laughed–somehow I’d missed everything after “Free Dog” until then.

“He’s cute. And look, he’s only six months old, he’s housebroken, and he’s had his shots! When can we go see him?” He was, she pointed out, being held at the vet in the town where I’d found the poster. I said OK, we’d go, but that we couldn’t bring the kids, since I’d be sealing my dog-hating rep forever, if we turned down a dog that the kids would likely love on sight. She agreed that the kids absolutely should not come. So, of course, for reasons that already escape me, the kids came. (And that, in a nutshell, is what being married with kids is like.)

And when that dog loped like a four-legged lunatic out of that vet’s back room, if my life didn’t flash before my eyes, the life of all that was happy in me did. “He’s a freaking giant!” I heard myself blubber.

I don’t know how the poster makers had gotten their hands on props from the long-ago movie Big to make that 40-50 pound half-lab, half-‘bub (as in Beelzebub) dog look like he only weighed like a third of that size, but somehow, they clearly had. And even as I was still trying like mad to adjust to the beast’s amazing (to me) “actual size,” my kids had started making the kinds of love-at-first-sight noises that had made me scared to bring them on this trip to start with. “Who is stronger?” I wondered, as I stared into the eyes of the poster picture’s dinosauric bastard brother, fresh from “bleeding his monster” on the front corner of the counter, which the kind vet people were quick to tell us that every beast on the planet seemed to like to do. The dog ran up to me and put his big paws on my legs, smiling the way a happy dog does, his big pink tongue flapping from his mouth.

Jig and Friend

I quickly stood up and asked the vet how old this creature was. He looked carefully at the dog’s teeth and said his best guess, based on those, was three (though I’ve known of kids who got specific teeth surprisingly early, so surely some dogs do, too). He later proved to be about as housebroken as one of the jungle animals that I’d always told the kids we couldn’t live with. And oh, yeah, where his shots were concerned, those must have happened on no-longer-a-planet Pluto, since that vet’s office, which is where they would have happened, had no record of them, thus completing the proof of a false-advertising triple whammy.

On the drive home, we started talking about names. Since he was starting over with us, we could call him about anything we wanted, I said, mentally noting how few of the names bouncing around in my head would be cool for kids to hear.

“Like what?” they wanted to know.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, and here I listed the first jumble of “child-friendly” words that happened to pop into my head, forgetting them as fast as I said them–all, that is, except for the one that hit and nonsensically stuck.

“…or jiggly, or…”

“Jiggly!” my little girl gleefully screamed, “Let’s name him Jiggly!” So despite brief bouts of wondering why and otherwise thinking better of it since, Jiggly it was. Though Vanessa, who couldn’t face walking around the neigborhood yelling, “Jiggly!” every time he escaped, which at first was like multiple times a day, soon shortened it to the jollier, less whacked-sounding “Jig,” he basically stayed Jiggly to the kids and me.

As soon as we got him home–and since he saw the doghouse as a joke from the first minute, our house was/is Jiggly’s house–he started doing all the dumb stuff that’s made me feel all my life that people who don’t live in the country, where a dog can roam free (and hopefully be eaten by a lucky circus tiger that slips the circus) are nuts to have dogs. We’re talking the kinds of canine monkeyshines that helped make dog lovers see Marley and Me as a funny and heart-warming depiction of a family’s love for a playful and wonderful dog, while people like me saw it as a sad-but-true tale of a surprisingly simple-minded family that’s repeatedly outwitted by a goofy big white dog they seem to have mistaken for a god.

Jiggly immediately started doing Marley-like things, like chewing up my first edition copy of Lewisohn’s The Beatles: Recording Sessions, to which I had been stupidly attached; breaking through two screens, one in a door and one in a window, in his wild need to be free; wolfing down a wooden, elf-like game piece in the middle of a game I was playing with my son; eating cat food–and for that matter, cat poop–like candy, and much more. Lear is now five, but still uses a binky for like five minutes a night to go to sleep. And the second he slips off, we have to hide that pale, blue, translucent suckster instantly or Jiggly will eat that, too, as the kids’ repeated discovery of his binkified “fecal matter” (to use the popular playground term) has repeatedly proven to their amusement. I remember emailing my wife during that first month that I just wasn’t sure that our little house, held together by spit and wishes, could survive having El Dogablo here. (That name struck me as too obvious not to have popped up before, so in time it became El Jigablo, with the “J” sounding like an English “H,” and the “i” sounding like the e’s in “whee,” both following Spanish.) Back in “the olden days,” Henry Ward Beecher dubbed the dog “the god of frolic,” and that sure as hell fits Jig.

But even so, after his first few days with us, Jiggly’s hero status with the kids started to slide. Lear shares his mother’s incredibly keen sense of smell, and after noticing that even shortly after a bath, Jiggly the dog still smells like a dog, he wanted nothing more to do with him. In a brief time, though, he stopped complaining about that, as Jig went to sleep on Lear’s bed each night, quietly left to sleep on a floor pillow while the boy was asleep, and bounded back onto the boy’s belly as soon as he heard him reanimate the next morning. “Daddy, you don’t understand what a big thing it is to have a dog,” Lear had told me the day we brought Jig home. And though that sense of luckiness did change to dislike, it slowly slid on from that to love. It wasn’t long until when he ranked those he loved most in the world, as their striking honesty makes kids spontaneously like to do, Jig topped Lear’s list, winning out over me–and far more surprisingly, his mother. When Lear recently said, “Jig, I mean Daddy…,” it was the highest compliment he can hand out these days, even if it was accidental. And even Sabrina, who soon snapped back to liking the Tribe of Felix better than the Gang o’ Goofy, quickly gets frantic whenever Jiggly disappears.

And disappear he still does, even though we have finally jig-proofed the fence around the yard. This just means we’ve made it impossible for him to climb, not that we used any of the various scary shock devices that we were often encouraged by long-time dog lovers to use. Jig’s far closer to my wife and would far rather sleep beside her than me (so would I). But he sometimes looks at me like I was someone that I can really only remind him of–his original “owner” or “master” (as much as I usually hate those words, I can think of no workable substitutes)–who someone told us went into rehab, where no pets are allowed. But so far, for whatever reason, whenever and wherever he gets away, it’s me who can always find him. When he’s suddenly gone again–a gate’s been left unlatched, a screen door, which he long ago taught himself to open, has been left to hold him in alone–I walk out of the house, channel my inner dog, and walk where I think he might be, which is different places different days, and nearly always he’ll suddenly appear to me. The first time it happened, he seemingly materialized on the sidewalk maybe twenty feet behind me on a spot that had been bare seconds before. When I spotted him, he was frozen there, watching and waiting, poised to “run for the hills,” if I acted angry. (After losing his first owner, Jig had been bounced through multiple owners in maybe a week, which hadn’t done wonders for his sense of trust.) “Jig!” I said in a friendly voice, and he ran happily to me and jumped, his big paws smacking my chest (one of innumerable fun habits drummed into him as a puppy that’s likely in him for good now), and we walked back inside together.

A week or so ago, Jiggly vanished again and eluded me on several searches. So I played a hunch and called the police. First they gave me the name and home number of somebody way across town who’d recently called in a noisy dog complaint (only in small-town America?). Then the police called me back a couple minutes later, just as I was getting off the phone with the people who’d made the complaint and was about to go see if Jiggly could possibly move with the freakish speed needed to have zapped that far that fast (hey, I’ll believe anything). A dog had just been taken down to the police department, so I was told to come see it after I saw the other. When I heard this latest one was white, I went there first. And there was Jig, in the new hot-pink collar some unknown person had decided he’d look good wearing in “dog jail,” leaping up and down just steps away from the place where I’d once spent the night myself. For whatever reason, since we first got Jiggly, lines written both by and about the poet Charles Bukowski have come to mind about him. I recall reading in a memorial essay about the poet that he’d been “born old,” and whatever his calendar age, that phrase fits much of how Jiggly lives, too (even if he does still chase his tail harder than any other dog of any age I’ve ever seen). As I looked at Jig, leaping with glee to see me behind the high chain-link fence, a skewed version of a line from a Bukowski poem called gold pocket watch popped into my head:

“…hello, Jiggly, you
and I, we know each other.”

I once had a girlfriend who was scared of a dog–any dog–moving freely down the street, less due to any real harm she imagined it might do her than because a free dog roving around smacked to her of what she imagined as animating all such animals–naked,capering male sexuality, in all its less fortunate forms. I was reminded of that when we made the (to me, at least) hard decision to have Jiggly’s–and I hope I’m translating the relevant Latin medical terminology correctly–“nuts cut off.” (Please pardon my crudity, but the tamer terms for this kind of thing strike me as unfairly diminishing the irreducibly radical nature of the act.) But before we had this dark deed done to Jig, very shortly after we’d adopted him, for several days in a row, sometimes multiple times a day, he would put his paws on any likely or unlikely surface and make his feelings brutishly plain. (“Mommy, Jiggly’s trying to dance with me again; please make him stop!) After his testicles were gone, these clownishly scary antics vanished like a[n overly] friendly ghost. One day, a strange thought suddenly shook me like said dog shakes a Barbie blanket: could there be a cosmic link in play here that goes beyond Dogland and throws much male behavior into doubt, across the whole of the Animal Kingdom? I toyed with this dangerous notion for a moment, then in the always fair-minded manner of my gender, laughed and rejected it out of hand.

During a stretch when I had to spend much time away from my family to keep us financially afloat (to use that offbeat old image), at one point, my daughter told my wife something interesting. “I wish he,” meaning me, “could be around more,” she said, “because the better I get, the more I like him.” Looking back, I see it as likely that what she had discovered about me was not some previously unseen charm, but a way to love even what was weakest about me. Edward Hoagland once claimed that “In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely train him to be semihuman. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of being partly a dog.” Being partly a dog was never a problem I had, which may be why Jig liked me in spite of myself, even before I had any idea how to like him back. What was needed was for me to act part human, too. And when I did start to like Jig more, I did it much as I think my daughter had for me, not by seeing him in some amazing new light, but by trying hard to stop treating him as some dumb habit to be kicked–by doing my best, that is, to get better–as in kinder–myself. And as I did, my secret names for him changed, too, from the El Jigablo, to Higgledy Pig, to Jiggly, to Jig.

When we first got Jig, he had fleas, and worms, and worse; you could see every rib, and he quickly got winded chasing a ball. All of that has changed, of course. But back at the start, largely because Vanessa couldn’t get her mind around the fact that just because I’d had an outside dog forever ago that could freely pee on any tree he could see, etc., that didn’t mean that I knew the first thing about how to handle a dog that was inside at least as much as out. This translated to her providing zero guidance, and I almost went out of my blinkin’ mind, as we instantly went from being a family with five cats (now seven) to being a family with five cats with a cussed and a loopy dog–a dog that I didn’t even know when or how often to let out to take a whiz. Everything I could find about trying to train a dog started by saying you have to start when it’s a puppy, which we had no real idea if we were doing or not, given the two and a half year window in his possible age. He was either about six months or three years old when we got him–which if the old dog years vs. human years thing is right, made him somewhere between 3 1/2 and 21 dog years old; somewhere, that is, between early childhood and the onset of adulthood–between maybe playing with Tinker Toys and legally buying a beer–at least in human terms. That’s a pretty damn big span, almost a youth’s worth. But whatever his real age, from what I was told about his early life, I’d be surprised if he hadn’t seen his share of hells, long before he happened onto us.

Jig and Cats

Yet even though I’ve been far from wonderfully kind to him myself, he runs from bedroom window to kitchen window with a speed I’ve only seen matched in cartoons, just to get a better look at me leaving. When I moved a bench away from the back of our house to keep Jig from standing on it on his hind legs and scaring me silly when I’d suddenly see something staring in the kitchen window at me, he started just kind of bouncing up and down out there to see us that way, so I put the bench back. And as I sit outside in the grass with him today, Jig half asleep in the sun, he looks at me the way he always does, like I matter more than the moon. This quotation from a favorite novelist of mine, Milan Kundera, still feels over the top but seems far less crazy to me now than it did when I first tripped over it on a dog site many moons ago: “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where nothing was not boring, it was peace.”

And though my war with Planet Dog has been a long (and fun) one, I now hope to share Jig’s stripe of nothing for a long, long time.

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7 responses to “This Thing Of Dogness…”

  1. jennifersims says:

    Eric–Another winner! I laughed myself off the chair at your struggles, mostly because they are so real and so true. I definately can relate!

    Thanks millions–Jennie Sims

  2. “And that, in a nutshell, is what being married with kids is like.” I'm not married, but I believe it. Interestingly, that is the sentence that sticks with me the most, out of this whole piece.

  3. beverlyeicher says:

    so what I think is–you love your children more than you dislike dogs. I really liked
    the story and think the darling white kitties in the picture are precious.

  4. Matthew says:

    Bravo! I loved the bit about Jig “making his feelings brutishly plain.” And the rest of that paragraph is perfect, too. Lovely prose throughout. Thanks. (P.S. Nice reference to Charles Bukowski.)

  5. vevice says:

    This was such a great piece. It made me smile, but there was a bit of melancholy attached to it too, as my own dog died last year. I can remember clearly some of the same frustrations you had too, but those frustrations were more than a fair trade to hang out with her, or toss a ball in the yard with her.
    And I have absolutely found that the more I work on myself, the more I like other people.

    Well done, sir. And give Jig a great big squeezy hug for me.

  6. Ericeicher says:

    Thank you all very much for the kind comments. This has been a very unusual and busy stretch (which has yet to end, actually) so I've been gone from here for quite awhile, though I hope to spend more time here going forward.

    • Dhs_writer says:

      Have you moved then, Erich? Of all the places I have been, and they are many, I count Lawrence at the top of my favourite places list. It somehow reminds me of Cambridge – something of distinguished age perhaps. It was a pleasure to see you last month. If you ever find yourself at the Lake of the Ozarks, you really must stop by. Jig will have acres to gambol (and ponds to swim) in.

      I cannot fathom that which is dog. I have no scar between my eyes, but I do have secret names for them.

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The Author

Eric Eicher

Bill Cosby once said this on a long-ago comedy album: "I started out as a child." As it turns out, Eric Eicher did, too. In the years since, he's somehow become, among other things, a father, a teacher, a writer, and a sleight-of-hand performer, with a Master's in English from the University of California at Berkeley and a doctorate in English from the University of Kansas. His major literary interests are Shakespeare (especially King Lear), the essay, and the nonsense of Stephen Leacock and Edward Lear.

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