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It's Nelly's World

After a Dog

alec vanderboom

I want to go where Nelly takes me. This is literal and metaphoric both. I want to see her up ahead on the trail, stopping suddenly, perceiving something I am too witless to see, then go crashing off after it. (I hear the chipmunks laughing at her: haha you can't catch me! Until, one day, she'll get one, just as she got one of the squirrels I believed were safe from her always: he made the mistake of trying to climb the side of the woodshed as if it were a tree, which of course it is not, being much smoother. He went flipping out into midair, and she was on him the second he hit dirt. He passed into nonexistence faster than a blur. Nelly is an efficient, if serial, killer. At least she had the decency to give him a Christian burial.)

People spend a lot of money and time to go to an ashram to get what I get from a thrown-away border collie/dervish mix rescue every day out in a field.

But Nelly takes me other places, too. Internally, she sometimes leads me to those squirm-inducing psychic rooms I do not otherwise want to enter, whose walls are painted with ugly questions about my sanity, my abilities, my obsessive fears. She takes me to the dark heart of my impatience. Or to the feeling that time is running through my hands and I am not doing anything completely enough, either working with my dog or accomplishing work worthy of the label "Day Well Spent." Certainly, though, following Nelly has helped me to master procrastination.

[A non sequitur here, but one I can't resist, since it is one of the topics that I mean to take on here at some point: The coyotes, as I write this at 10 p.m., just began howling in the acreage out back. There is no way to tell you what this sound fills me with--sadness, happiness, wonder, longing, and a whole bunch of questions. Were they celebrating something? Why had I not heard them in two months? Where did they go, spring break in Cancun? The sound clearly brings out something atavistic in Nelly, because she rises slowly to her feet, legs compressed in tension, and lets out a low, wavering howl herself. This is not anything she does in response to any other sound but this, and I don't buy that it's a reflex. I think it's a signal from that part of herself that belongs out there in the dark with the beautiful hunters. The ones who are three times her size.]

One place Nelly has led me is intellectual. Specifically, to the science of behaviorism, but not so much its content (I struggle with it, having the sort of mind that can't keep terminology straight) as the truly bizarre human behavior it triggered. I believe B. F. Skinner was right. Everything he said and formulated was right. In exactly the same way that what Copernicus said was right, despite the fact that the merchants of the status quo were vitriolically upset by his beliefs. That they denied it did not mean it was not true. The same absolute obviousness most of us now feel adheres to Copernicus or to Darwin also appears to me to adhere Skinner, and what he posited about how organisms learn and thus live in the world. It's the same obviousness that radiates from the Democrats (for the most part, though don't get me started on their co-optation); better yet, let's say "from Dennis Kucinich." So why the great resistance, people? I will leave this question for now with this: It's all about resources. Just happens to be one of Skinner's points, backed up by anthropologist Marvin Harris, if you want another side to the story. To distill it down to its simplest factor: If you want to understand why people resist the truth, look at what they stand to lose.

The next subject to which Nelly will lead me, I think, will be language. Hers, ours, and the apparent incompatibility of the two. (This will draw a line back to what I learned by hearing Suzanne Clothier speak the other day.) But first, Nelly is leading me, backwards all the way, toward the bathtub. There I will douse her with neem oil and hated water, in the vain hope of conquering the allergies that have made our lives a small misery for the past four months.