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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

dogs

Going to the Dogs

Anyone who knows me at all well understands that I am a cat person. But once a year I get this urge to immerse myself in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.  Actually, I think I'm as fascinated by the people as I am by the dogs. They are certainly a different breed.

Take this little guy's owner, for example. Who  sets a little dog's hair in paper twists before the show? Is he cute? Yes, of course. He's adorable,  although I can't help but see him as one of those people you see at Walmart with their hair in rollers. The NYT has a video up this morning that shows other primping goings-on. They include blow-dryers, barber shears, hair spray, and ear nets for those breeds with long ears that get in the way.  Sigh!

And the owners don't spend nearly as much time on their own appearance, I suspect. I couldn't help but notice that nearly every woman handler wore the same basic outfit--a business suit with a pencil skirt that hits above the knees and a buttoned up matching jacket, all complemented by ballet flats to make it easier to run around the ring. A few carried the look off, but most wore expressions that were as uncomfortable as their outfits appeared to be. There were only one or two handlers in slacks or pants suits, who appeared to be much more comfortable. Is there a rule about wearing a skirt even if you look terrible in it, I wonder?

I was also amused by the various attempts to "match" handler and dog--in colors, similar hair bows, and even hair styles. Those dogs with long silky coats often have handlers with long silky ironed tresses. This one was the best, however. The announcer described the dog as playful, loving to play pranks, and needing an owner who was willing to match the dog's silliness. Then the camera panned out to show his handler, dressed in the loudest plaid I have ever seen in a man's suit!  I'm waiting for tonight's competition, which will include some pretty strange doggy do's. Will the Puli be handled by a fellow also wearing dreadlocks? Wouldn't surprise me!

Over all, I am amused by the patience the dogs demonstrate while being put through their paces. Judges make a practice of pulling back their lips to check their teeth, ("Did you brush today?") lifting their tails, or feeling their stomachs. It doesn't seem to bother the dogs, although once in a while, you see a dog with an expression on his face that seems to scream, "You're feeling my what?"

Most of the dogs have been well-schooled in proper dog show etiquette. Last night, one young handler had the misfortune to trip and fall flat on her face when she started to run into the ring. She wasn't hurt -- not even a run in her tights -- but she did drop the leash. Her dog (bless him!)  stopped anyway, and waited patiently for her to pick herself up and finish the run.

Others are not quite so cooperative, however. Nobody lifted a leg on the judge's shoes last night,  but once in a while there's an itch that demands to be taken care of right now.

And then, there was my favorite of the night -- a tiny little terrier of some breed I didn't catch, who suddenly decided he wasn't going anywhere.  He lowered his head, squinted his eyes, and braced his front legs. "Not taking another step! No, sir!" Dog and handler had just reached a point in their walk when they had to turn, and this pup wasn't turning. Eventually, it was the handler who walked around the dog. And then they finished their journey. Wish I could find a picture of that little fellow's determination.

So that's why I watch the Westminster every year. It's some of the best entertainment on TV. I"m looking forward to another night -- and so is my cat, who sits on my lap to watch the show and quietly chuckles to herself.

(Pictures courtesy of the official show photographers.)

When All Else Fails, Try Behaving Like an Animal

We tell a lot of jokes about cat pictures on Facebook. You’ve heard them.

Q: What’s the greatest technological invention in your lifetime? 
A: This small gadget that lets me watch cat videos, make phone calls to my cat sitter while I’m away, and take pictures of my cat.

Dog people aren’t blameless, either. I recently attended a small writer’s conference, where I visited with a few acquaintances, met some interesting new folks, and greeted Rosie and Luke as if we were old friends. Yep. They are both lap dogs who go everywhere with their owners. 

This morning, I was reminded of why this is not all as silly as it sounds. The past week, as you know, has been full of horrific news and much gnashing of teeth over how far our civilization has sunk into violence and hatred. I’ve shared in those feelings. If I let myself, I can literally tremble in fear of what we have become and into what disasters we are headed.  I’ve left my blogs sit idle, not because I had nothing to say but because I could not find adequate words.

Then this morning i opened Facebook and found myself smiling. There was my friend Bill, dangerously ill last week, now napping peacefully with a litter of colorpoint kittens. There was Ginger the Cat, pouncing on JoAnn’s covers to wake her up for breakfast. There was a happy dog prancing beside the gentleman who had just adopted him from a shelter. There was Keyboard the Kitten, balancing on the big cat’s food dish to steal a mouthful of crunchies. There was Watson, a wonderful Leader Dog rolling around in a patch of sun while his blind owner was safely seated beside him.

Best of all, Facebook had sent me two “Memories” of what I was doing one year ago. On this day, there was a raccoon who died in Toronto of undetermined causes. As he lay on the sidewalk all day, waiting for animal control to show up, strangers began leaving the raccoon little items to memorialize him—a flower, a childish hand-drawn sympathy card, even a small burning candle. And people walked respectfully around his body.

In Memphis on the same day, a young monkey escaped from his enclosure at the zoo and led his keepers on a merry chase. There were fears that he would run into traffic, get lost in the old forest that abuts the zoo property, or be washed  away if there was a sudden downpour and flash flood in the drainage ditch where he was thought to be hiding. While he was on the loose, someone opened a Twitter account in his name so we could all follow his exploits. The whole city rejoiced the following day when he was found safe and returned to Primate Canyon. My own comment on Facebook was that I was happy he was safe, but i was going to miss his tweets. The world, I said, needs more plucky little adventurers like him.

No, I’m not naive enough to believe that our problems can be fixed by a kitten or puppy, or even a plucky little monkey. But they can help, by putting a smile on our faces, if only for a moment. By reminding us that animals are colorblind—they know nothing of skin tones, or race, or religious dogma. By reminding us to judge people only by their actions and by their hearts. We would do well to follow their example.

The Country Is Going to the Dogs (No, this is not a political column.)


Every year I get my basic "dog fix" in February by watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show from Madison Square Garden. In the midst of all the other February awards shows, this one has a special charm.  Its winners are unpretentious, fully dressed, honestly grateful, and having a good time. In 2011, I discovered a new favorite.  One of the six new breeds admitted to the show for the first time that year was the Boykin Spaniel, the official dog of the State of South Carolina. 

The Boykin is a small dog (about 40 pounds, max.) and 15 to 18 inches high.  It is bred to be a hunter and agile enough to jump in and out of small swamp boats without upsetting the boat. Since most of my books are set in the Low Country of South Carolina,  I can understand the appeal of this energetic little dog.


This year there are five Boykin Spaniels entered in the sporting group. I have no real hope that a Boykin will end up as "Best of Show." Newcomers seldom do.  But while the breed is making its mark among usual favorites, I'll be cheering it on.  If  you're looking for me on Monday or Tuesday night this week, you'll find me wrapped in something fleecy, glued to the TV, and rooting for a South Carolina breed that produces the  cutest pups I've seen in a long time.


The Small Animal Residents of South Carolina

I've been thinking about South Carolina a lot lately, as I imagine many of you have because of the terrible storms that have raked it recently.  As the setting for my Civil War books, it has become something of a second home for me, and I frequently find myself defending it for its unique qualities -- not just climate, and glorious antebellum mansions and great seafood, but also its fondness for nature and its animal inhabitants. Does any other state have both a state horse and a state dog? And if so, are they both unique and small breeds? 

I learned for the first time in March of this year that South Carolina is one of only 14 states to have its very own breed of horse -- The Carolina Marsh Tacky. [Tacky, by the way, is the Gullah word for horse.] This rare breed, descended from the mounts of the 16th-century Spanish explorers, was once thought to be extinct. It is still an endangered breed with less than 100 breeding mares in existence.  I can only hope that the small herd of wild  marsh ponies has managed to survive the recent storms.

The animals were popular in South Carolina because of their ability to traverse the marshy ground of the Lowcountry. Francis Marion ("The Swamp Fox") used them in the Revolutionary War, and after the  Civil War they became the favorite horse of the Gullah population of South Carolina because they were small (around 14 hands), cheap, easy to feed, and strong enough to handle the farm work of the Lowcountry. Their numbers decreased in the 20th century because they were no longer needed as plow animals. The had something of a resurgence, however, in World War II, when they were used for beach patrols against Nazi invasion. Today, efforts are underway to restore the breed, and it became the State Horse of South Carolina in 2010.

Every year I get my basic "dog fix" by watching the Westminster Show.  And in 2011, I discovered a new favorite.  One of the six new breeds admitted to the show for the first time was the Boykin Spaniel, the official dog of the State of South Carolina. The Boykin is a small dog (about 40 pounds, max.) and 15 to 18 inches high.  It is bred to be a hunter and agile enough to jump in and out of small swamp boats without upsetting the boat. Since most of my books are set in the Low Country of South Carolina,  I can understand the appeal of this energetic little dog.

I have no real hope that a Boykin will end up as "Best of Show." Newcomers seldom do.  But while the breed is making its mark among usual favorites, I'll be cheering it on.  If  you're looking for me on a Monday or Tuesday night in February, you'll find me wrapped in something fleecy, glued to the TV, and rooting for aSouth Carolina  breed that produces the the cutest pups I've seen in a long time.


Chalk Up Another Victory for the Cats!

Well, to follow up yesterdays "cats versus dogs" post, I have to report that the cats won again.  A couple of puppies yipped and jumped with new ideas, but the cats simply looked on with a complete lack of comprehension of what they were so excited about.

"Silly dogs," they said.  "Wasting all that energy and enthusiasm coming up with new ideas when we have a perfectly serviceable plan already in place."

"But our old ideas aren't getting the same great results any more," complained one pup. "Why not try something new?"

"It would be fiscally irresponsible," yawned one cat. "The old plan still brings in some money.  What will happen if we abandon it and then the new plan doesn't work out?"

"But what if the new plan could bring in lots more money?"

"What if it doesn't? We can't take that chance. Besides, we already know how to do this one." (Cat licks paw.)

"OK," said another old cat. "Here's an idea that we tried several years ago.  Let's try it again."

"Did it work the last time?" (Dog looks worried.)

"Well, no, but we can try it again.  At least it's nothing new."

"Would it cost us money up front?"  (Pant! Pant!)

"Uh, I don't know.  It might. We can wait a while and see."

"But if we're going to do that, we need to get started right away." (Dog is ready to run.)

"Nah. We already know how to do it.  It won't take very long to set it up. Let's wait for another three months to decide." (Cat curls up to take a nap.)

"Hey!" said the pup. "What about the new idea we tried last month?  It brought in lots of money, didn't it? Can we do that again?  Can we? Huh?"

"Well, maybe," said head cat, "although we can't rely on new idea to keep on being a good idea."

"Right," said another cat. "People may not want to do the new thing again.  Let's stick with the old stuff."

"What a great meeting," said head cat. "We've decided to keep one old idea that brings in less money every year. We're going to bring back an old idea that failed before but might work this time. And maybe, if all goes well, we'll even try successful new idea once more."

Sigh! Does any of this sound familiar in your organization?  Have you found a way to quiet the fears of your cats and to encourage your dogs to innovate?