When you travel across the country city-to-city, in my case on a recent book tour, you notice trends. Menus boasting beet/goat cheese/ citrus salad for instance, or a prevalence of duck confit, charcuterie, and mushroom gruyere tarts. The Flashdance look is back, which if you ask me was a hideosity the first time around, as are shoulder pads, which hopefully will last approximately two seconds, and women in uncomfortable footwear sporting 1930s Hollywood-plucked eyebrows. Men in pink. Lots of gray. I like to call it the prison warden look, which I've spent a lot of money achieving quite by accident.
The truth is, food and fashion trends don't interest me all that much. Word trends, more so (currently running rampant: authentic, sustainable, relatable, organic, and correct.) But at-the-end-of-the-day (another one) it's lifestyle trends that get my undivided attention. This one in particular struck me sideways on this recent country crossing: city people are obsessed with their dogs. Scarily so. Either it's always existed and I just haven't been paying attention, or there is something amuck in urban America that begs a bit of low brow noodling.
Why dog? Why now? Why boutique pooch paraphernalia shops popping up like Starbucks in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? Why feces-filled plastic bags swinging merrily from pedestrian fists like take-out? In my urban meanderings this past month, I was constantly dealing with dogs. Mostly spoiled rotten ones whose owners seemed to take personal joy in witnessing their creatures defile my splurged-on author-esque, albeit grey, wardrobe. Normally this wouldn't really matter to me, except for that I was delicately carting this wardrobe across the country in a small carry-on and could not risk one stain, never mind the weird glances I inevitably received from publicists and television producers as they picked dog hair off me from sea to shining sea. "Hair and make-up" does not include being power washed, in-other words. This must be how they do it in Montana, I could hear them musing. If only they knew.
What I'd intended to save in money staying with friends, I lost in over-night dry-cleaning bills. And I soon came to see how dogs are slowly taking over urban America. Simply put, I resent an animal that has better hair than I do. Or higher expectations. Or dogs who hold equal power as people (but that's not really their fault, is it). Our schedules were run by dog walking that rivaled my kids' breast feeding schedules. Doggie toys were strewn everywhere like booby traps. It seemed like the smaller the apartment, the bigger the canine. Even the hotels boasted dogs in their reception areas, as if it imbued the place with a certain down-home quality that someone from Montana doesn't necessarily care to re-produce. "Nice doggie--is there a mini-bar in the room?"
It's not that I don't love dogs. I've had six of them in the last 17 years, most of which I've loved fiercely (except for the one who ate rocks and liked to puke them up in my living room.) It's just that they haven't been suns and moons around which the planet me rotated. I didn't give them the other couch. I didn't feed them steak. I didn't buy them clothes or exceptional bedding. I didn't carry photos of them in my wallet. They were dogs. And they liked it that way.
Call me crass, but I have a hard time with the expectation that I should fluidly and happily climb into the personal relationship of a "man" and "his" dog. Maybe that of their kid. But dogs aren't people. Maybe to some, they are considered children. And that's okay. I get it. It's just that I don't expect houseguests to sleep with my kids. Or to drive them to school. Or to share drinking water with them. I do unto them as I'd like to be done unto-- a person away from home that needs to get some shut-eye and not be glared at when I close the door on Rover who's "used to sleeping on the guest bed." As if to say that I'm going to have a bed partner whether I want to or not. There's a "how could you" in there somewhere.
It was frankly, unstoppable. One of those God has a sense of humor case-in-points that played out from coast-to-coast. City people lead with Dog in conversation, pressure in their retina and wrinkles in their brow, so that I assume Luther or Sammy or Ernest are visiting celebrity relatives, requiring high maintenance attention....only to find that Ernest's special needs are not organic milk, but organic Milk Bones. Not a new publicist, but a new obedience trainer. That his seasonal depression will be cured not by a good therapist, but by a good walk in the park. In fact, Ernest's life really is all about a good walk in the park, and not proverbially speaking.
This brings me to my point. I think city people lead with so much Dog because their dogs lead them to those walks in the park. I think it's because when you remove the natural world and plant trees in squares of concrete and designate limited public open space, people lack in regular communing with the natural world and maybe each other. And they miss it, instinctually, not unlike, well...a dog. And because humans by nature are so purpose-driven, we fabricate a reason to need to go out in the world for a walk in which we can't multi-task, other than to greet people on the street who might not think we're any great shakes, but that our furry creature IS. The dog gives us permission to be in community with people and nature.
It makes me wonder if people are more lonely in the city than in the country? Or cut off from the interactions that feed them so that they end up obsessing over those which they can rely on, waiting at the door, tongue hanging out, unabashedly co-dependant? Who knows. But if it's any indication, I've never seen a co-dependent human/dog relationship out here in Montana. And that includes bird hunters, sheep herders, and dog-mushers. There is always a certain understood delineation between where the human ends and the dog begins. It's not necessarily species-ist. It's just a plain and simple understanding of the natural order of things. I'm not saying that we don't have a lot to learn from dogs. We do. It's the motive I question. It's like city people are fogging with dog. Fogging something deeper and harder to confront or admit. Something I can't quite put my finger on, but as with any significant social trend, am curious about.
It seems important to point out that I've never seen a spoiled dog out here in Montana. Or a depressed dog. Or an overweight one. Dogs out here are mostly left to their own devices. They walk themselves and flop down on the front stoop. They're not picky. They smell bad and they mean to. They're asleep a lot, bushed from all that deer chasing and livestock herding. When they're hot, they find shade or a river or a deep mud puddle. When they're thirsty, they do the same. When they're hungry in-between meals, they find a hunter's gut pile in the woods or a carcass to gnaw on. And at the end of the day, their owners invite them into the house in all their stink and smiling and sleepiness and watch lovingly as they pollute the house and alter the inner ozone. It's a symbiotic don't-ask-don't-tell that goes both ways. They don't want to be our therapists and we don't need them to be.
I'm not saying we're better or worse out here in the country. We're just different. Maybe we lead with too much Weather. Or Truck. Or Horse. The things that connect us to our lives even more so than dog, because they're about survival. Maybe dogs are a form of survival in the city. Maybe that's it. Maybe in the country, what heals us is open space.
Maybe what we're really all looking for wherever it is that we live, is a way to connect with our world beyond the complicated. Life is complicated enough. So yes, for us out here under the Big Sky, it's horses and trucks. But ultimately about the connection to land. And for city denizens, maybe when there is no open space, a dog can be the gatekeeper to at least a walk in the park. Where there is certain beauty, just the same. There is no right or wrong to natural beauty. What's important is simply that it is beheld. And that means we have to go out in it. In that sense then, woof.