XIV freedom of speech

IF A DOG gains a few pounds, it is not in the least concerned, because it lacks human vanity. Besides, a dog enjoys the perfect disguise for physical flaws: fur.

Were fur transplants to become available for human beings, I would be first in line, seeking a head-to-toe makeover, after which I would personally ensure the profitability of bakeries and ice cream shops throughout southern California.

A few pounds over our desired weight and determined to diet, Gerda and I made a pact to eat light meals for a week. At dinner on a restaurant patio with Trixie, we had salads without dressing and grilled chicken breasts with squash and carrots on the side. When we finished, we felt virtuous-but hungry. We didn’t want to abandon all discipline and stuff ourselves with dessert, but the thought of a second salad held no more appeal than eating our table napkins. In a pinch, I can with alarming swiftness reason myself into doing the unreasonable, and though I usually can’t get Gerda to abandon her characteristic prudence, she’s more vulnerable when she’s hungry. I made a case for finishing this diet dinner with an order of nachos, which I argued were suitable for anorexics if you just said, “Hold the sour cream.” Guacamole, cheese, corn chips, and black beans were what reed-thin supermodels survived on for years at a time, or so I had read in Wikipedia or somewhere equally reliable. Gerda was in a mood to be conned, and the nachos were brought to the table on a platter large enough to hold a roast pig.

We are generally so disciplined that we never before ordered nachos in the years Trixie had been with us. The symphony of aromas stirred previously unknown passions in her, and she rose from the patio to sit beside my chair, a look of desperate longing on her face.

I was a bad boy, offering her three or four corn chips with melted cheese and a touch of guacamole. “Want some nachos, Short Stuff?” I didn’t have to force them on her. She took them one by one, crunching them with great pleasure, but when I said, “No m?s,” she settled to the flagstones once more.

Once motivated people with strong willpower set themselves upon a sensible dietary regimen, they cannot easily be tempted to stray to the culinary dark side. The following night, Gerda and I had salads with chopped chicken and concluded dinner with another platter of nachos.

Again, I favored Trixie with a few cheese-slathered corn chips moistened with guacamole. “Want some nachos?” As before, she did not turn up her nose at them. She recognized a heart-friendly dish when she saw one. Heart-friendly and heart-healthy are different things, but it seems to me that anything that lifts the heart can’t be bad for it, though I acknowledge that I’m no cardiologist.

We broke the spiral of madness and didn’t have nachos again during the following three months. We lost the few pounds that we had set out to lose, without resorting either to liposuction or to amputation.

Fully twelve weeks after the two nacho binges, I was in Linda’s office, where Trixie was lying happily on her bed with her forelimbs draped over a giant plush-toy lobster. Linda, Elaine, and I got into a conversation about new restaurants. I had come all the way across the house to their office to see if they were actually working at their desks or whether their chairs were occupied by mannequins cleverly disguised to look like them. I also came for a contract file that I needed to review. I would, of course, eventually leave their office without the contract file, return to my office, and have to come all the way back through the house again, which would amuse them more than caring employees ought to be amused. In the meantime, as restaurant recommendations were flying, Linda said, “And, oh, if you go there, you have to order their fabulous nachos.”

The instant that the magic word was spoken, Trixie exploded off her bed, knocking aside the plush-toy lobster, and raced to Linda to gaze at her adoringly, waiting for cheese-slathered corn chips with a trace of guacamole, tail keeping time suitable to the latter bars of “Bolero,” drool dripping from her jowls. Perhaps she’d heard the word four times each night at the restaurant, eight times altogether, yet after three months, Trixie responded instantly upon hearing it once more.

After five years of French classes in high school and college, I can no longer speak a coherent sentence in that language. This seems to me to suggest that either French would be more profitably studied if one were rewarded daily with nachos for learning-or that with the proper incentives, dogs can learn French.

In either case, Trixie’s response to that delectable word puts the lie to some theories of dog intelligence and dog memory. It also suggests that dogs have a better grasp on the meaning of life than do a significant number of us.

No, a plate of nachos is not the meaning of life. But finding joy in things as humble as a plate of nachos is an important step toward the discovery of meaning.

Too many of us die without knowing transcendent joy, in part because we pursue one form or another of materialism. We seek meaning in possessions, in pursuit of cosmic justice for earthly grievances, in the acquisition of power over others. But one day Death reveals that life is wasted in these cold passions, because zealotry of any kind precludes love except of the thing that is idolized.

On the other hand, dogs eat with gusto, play with exuberance, work happily when given the opportunity, surrender themselves to the wonder and the mystery of their world, and love extravagantly. Envy infects the human heart; if we envy, next we covet, and what we covet becomes the object of our all-consuming avarice. If we live without envy, with the humility and the joyful gratitude of dogs-nachos! ball! cuddle time!-we will be ready even for Death when he comes for us, content that we have made good use of the gift of life.

WHEN WE LIVED in Harbor Ridge, our daily walks took us past a complex of three community tennis courts carved into a hillside and approached by descending stairs shaded by tall trees. In the morning, shortly past dawn, and sometimes in the afternoon, no players were present. Trixie always wanted to explore the deserted courts and the surrounding landscape for discarded tennis balls.

On some occasions, no balls were found. During other searches, she discovered so many that our jacket pockets were bulging with them. After a successful hunt, she had more bounce in her step for the remainder of the walk. She sniffed at our stuffed pockets with delight akin to what Donald Duck’s uncle Scrooge exhibited when gauging the depth of the fortune in his treasure bin.

One day, Gerda returned home from the morning walk with a single tennis ball that she presented to me as if it were an object of great mystery and solemn meaning. There had been a moment during the search of the courts that had sent a pleasant shiver of wonder through her, followed by a feeling too sweet to be called sadness but too tender to be called anything else. She hesitated to explain, as though what she had to tell me would sound outlandish.

Gerda never invents or exaggerates. Indeed, sometimes she strips away the colorful details of a story because, though true, they seem to her to detract from the primary facts. If indeed her story sounded outlandish, the real event must have been twice as incredible.

As always, Trixie had wanted to hunt tennis balls. She led Gerda down the steps from court to court, also searching the shrubs and drainage swales for prizes that aggressive players had slammed over the fences. She found only disappointment.

Gerda ascended to the street, and Trix accompanied her. As they reached the sidewalk, our girl halted and looked back at the courts. Gerda said, “Let’s go,” but Trixie didn’t obey. She resisted her leash. Looking up at her mom, she opened her mouth and thrust her muzzle forward as though straining to produce a sound-then spoke. “Baw.”

This sound-pronounced like the word awe with a b in front, slightly attenuated-was so unlike anything that came from Trixie before, was delivered with such an earnest expression, and was accompanied by such tension in our girl’s entire body that Gerda hesitated to tug on the leash. Insisting upon eye contact, Trix repeated the word, “Baw.” On hearing it a second time, Gerda realized that it sounded about as much like ball as a dog’s vocal apparatus could allow.

After Trixie spoke a third time-“Baw”-Gerda asked, “Ball? Are you saying ‘ball,’ sweetie?”

Straining even harder than before, Short Stuff said, “Baw.”

Gerda was aware of a tremendous yearning in the dog, a longing not for a ball but for the ability to convey the desire for a ball, and a fervent wish to convey it not with tail speak or body language or any of the communication techniques of her kind, but with a word.

Overcome by an extraordinary sense of intimacy between herself and her golden daughter, Gerda said, “We already looked for balls, sweetie. There aren’t any this morning.”

“Baw,” Trixie repeated, almost beseechingly.

Relenting, Gerda said, “All right, let’s look again.”

The instant the leash went slack, Trixie led Gerda to the stairs once more. They descended halfway, whereupon Trix departed the steps to thrust under a shrub. When she pulled back and raised her glorious head, she held a tennis ball in her mouth.

Not only content to have found this treasure but jubilant about having conveyed her awareness of it with a word, Trixie continued the morning walk in an even more spirited fashion than usual, frequently glancing up at her mom and chewing emphatically on the ball.

Because for so long I had felt this dog yearning to be able to talk, I knew Gerda must be reporting exactly what occurred, though as was her tendency, she shaved the edges off the more colorful details in the interest of whittling the story to its essence.

The incident moved her. As tenderhearted as she had been toward our girl, she grew even more so after that morning.

A couple of months later, I walked Trixie on a morning when my schedule was too full to give her an entire hour. I edited our route to forty minutes. Among other things, I deleted the tennis courts from our itinerary.

As we passed the courts, however, Trix tried to lead me toward them.

I said, “Not today, no time today, sugarpie,” and gently tugged the leash to keep her moving.

She halted and wouldn’t proceed, and when I crouched to scratch her chest and rub behind her ears, which I sometimes did to cajole rather than to command her to follow the rules, she contorted her face as if yawning, but she made no sound. Then she thrust her head toward me, not seeking further affection, but to focus my attention as she said, “Baw.”

Because I had not thought about Gerda’s experience in weeks, Trixie’s expressed desire surprised me. The word was spoken exactly as Gerda pronounced it, but when face-to-face with Trix, the meaning was far clearer than I would have thought. Perhaps that impressive clarity was because she sold the word with the tension in her body, with the expression on her face, with the outward curl of her upper lip that exaggerated the shape that the human mouth gives to the word ball, and with the intensity of her stare.

“Baw.”

This was not the mimicry of a parrot, words repeated but with no meaningful context. This word and the shaping of it had been thought through, and she used it precisely when it could gain for her what she wanted.

“Baw.”

In this remarkable moment, she tried to bridge the gulf between one who could not speak and one who could, and she succeeded in that she conveyed her meaning. This achievement was inspiriting but also sobering and even slightly sad, for it was a triumph that emphasized the impossibility of ever having another like it.

I kissed her brow and said, “You’re right, Short Stuff. If I’ve got to edit your walk, I should never delete the part of it that you most enjoy. Let’s go hunt some tennis balls.”

She found enough of them that morning to fill all the pockets in my jacket.

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