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It's Nelly's World

New Year's Revolutions

alec vanderboom

To be a dog.

That was Tony's recommendation to me on the phone tonight; I can't claim it as my own. But it represents the highest wisdom, the most ached-for attainment. Tony (who should know, he who is faced with the greatest of consuming fears every minute of his days, and he who lives with two exemplars, each in their own divergent ways, of open-flowered dogness) offered this possibility to me as I recounted the past few hours to him: a twilight walk with Nelly through my favorite woods, a gift to myself, during which I felt inexplicably happy, full of hope. I found myself smiling. I allowed myself, knowing that to do so--even if only to the dark-stained tree trunks rising all around me--would be to intensify the effect, as well as the cause; smiling begets happiness, even as happiness begets smiles. They release intoxicating brain chemicals every bit as tastily fizzy as the first sip of prosecco (pop). I thought: This is OK. And Life is OK. People were right when they told me, no, promised me, I was going to be OK. So I smiled at the people I passed on the trail: we are simple, we humans; we can be bought for a facial expression. It changes everything, maybe the molecules in the air. People like you, when you like them first. The dogs greeted each other, exchanged their business cards, then disengaged to go see what was next in this interestingly scented universe.

Be a dog.

Then, an hour later, I'm on the phone with Tony, and the tears push up and over the dam, spilling in a crystal arc of never-ending liquidity. "What's the matter with me, Tony? Just a little bit ago, I was happy. I didn't know why, but I felt like I had gotten somewhere, and it was good, and now here I am, like something you'd need a lot of paper towels to get up off the floor." In his hard-won sagacity, he tells me I'm on a roller coaster now--oh, this I know!--and this is simply what life will be like for a while. But we're all on a roller coaster. From birth, which is the moment you get strapped in by the attendant. That's why "roller coaster" is the Number One Cliche. "You've got to turn yourself into a dog," he goes on. "Then you can be there, in the happiness, and not think about what's behind or ahead." "What's ahead" seems, at this moment, to consist largely of tears.

I was reading Time magazine, which is not something I recommend, even if you are in the fifth grade, which is where its reading level is aimed. The cover story was the obligatory gee-whiz look at the evolution of morality in humans. (When Time does a "think" piece, watch out: your world is about to be rocked!) I would prefer to always place "morality" in quotes: I think it's another of those fictive rationales built to retroactively paper over something a) we don't want to countenance (like, for instance, the idea that everything we do is biologically based, so we cannot possibly be separate from the rest of biological creation); or b) something we wish were true, but is simply not supported by observable reality. Hey, that's OK. Make a construct! Works every time!

Terry Eagleton, one of my early intellectual crushes, points up a) above nicely (see why I liked him?) in Harper's recently when he writes, "The structure of biography is biology. For all its tribute to the individual spirit, it is our animal life that underpins it."

The article on morality was written in the same infuriating, self-cancelling style that has become the New York Times's stock in trade: "fair," "balanced" journalism apparently means you say one thing, then in the next sentence you find something to contradict it. No matter if it's patently idiotic.

But I digress, as usual. Boy do I. (But dogs digress, don't they? Isn't that rather the form of their lives, one long digression composed of digressions?)

At least the magazine calls it by its proper name: it is "vanity" to think we are unique among animals. Then it goes on to say, "What does, or ought to [my italics, to show I don't comprehend this one whit], separate us then is our highly developed state of morality." But why do we NEED to be separated? Why do we insist on it, like a child hugging to its chest the blocks it doesn't want to share? Could it be . . . vanity??

Do we behave in so-called moral ways because we revere the notion of right, or because doing right works for us? This would be B. F. Skinner's view, I guess, and Jean Donaldson's, too, if we can extrapolate the motivations of our own behavior from that of dogs. (And here my cri de coeur is "Extrapolate away!") Be a dog.

If this is true, then, morality is really a cover story for selfishness. (Or what Time calls, in a bit of poetry that clearly escaped a sleepy editor's delete key, "a mercantile business" called reciprocal altruism.)

I make a vow that in the new year I will think more about this; I will arrive at theories, conclusions, revolutionary new ways of seeing humanity, earth-altering understandings of our condition. Then I will go on dog walks. I will shake off my self-absorption, if only for an hour or two a day, then do some clicker training with my dog. And I'll write here about a more proper subject than this incessant whining about my personal heartache. It will be a relief for all of us.

There are more resolutions to come.

Nelly ate her lapin tartare on the lawn for lunch today. This is one way in which I will not be a dog. While she undoubtedly found it the most civilized thing to do--the height of her civilization, that is--I found myself in a strange state of mind as I wrapped a plastic shopping bag around my arm and then felt the interesting weight of a recently live being's refrigerated innards in my hand. It was a transporting experience. Where exactly did it take me?