Thursday, August 31, 2006

Dog Lover Smackdown: Cesar vs. Some Guy I Don't Know

My friend Duane, who knows of our household's current infatuation with Cesar Millan, pointed me to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Mark Derr titled "Pack of Lies," in which Derr claims Millan’s methods are setting dog training back 40 years. Who am I to argue? I’m no dog trainer. But if we weren’t shocked 40 years ago at the human tendency to anthropomorphize dogs to the point of insanity, then a trip down memory lane could actually be helpful. I went to a doggie bakery yesterday, so you can't tell me we aren't just a canine strip club away from Judgement Day.

“His [Milan's] mantra is “exercise, discipline, affection,” where discipline means “rules, boundaries, limitations.” Rewards are absent and praise scarce, presumably because they will upset the state of calm submission Mr. Millan wants in his dogs. Corrections abound as animals are forced to submit or face their fear, even if doing so panics them.”

God forbid any being in 21st century America be subjected to “rules, boundaries, and limitations.” From what I can tell, Millan suggests praising dogs when they are in a calm state rather than when they are hyped up and scatterbrained in order to reinforce behavior that is enjoyable to be around, making the dog a more likely target of affection in the future. If Derr wants to hug and kiss his dog while she terrorizes passersby he may, but he penalizes the nearby stranger. Doing so reminds me of parents who “reinforce” their kids’ loud and obnoxious attention getting circus acts in restaurants by telling their children over and over to "stop it" without consequences while ignoring them when their behavior is comendable. Whatever, I’m not a parent either.

Rewards are not exactly absent from Millan’s methods. He merely suggests that dogs probably find the time they spend with you and your obvious delight in them more rewarding than we might expect, and that perhaps food need not always be handed out for things dogs should be doing automatically as a part of the family unit. Not to go back to thinking of dogs as humans again, but doesn’t all of this sound sort of like a parenting philosophy debate?

Regarding cranky dogs:

More important, aggression often has underlying medical causes that might not be readily apparent — hip dysplasia or some other hidden physical ailment that causes the dog to bite out of pain; hereditary forms of sudden rage that require a medical history and genealogy to diagnose; inadequate blood flow to the brain or a congenital brain malformation that produces aggression and can only be uncovered through a medical examination. Veterinary behaviorists, having found that many aggressive dogs suffer from low levels of serotonin, have had success in treating such dogs with fluoxetine (the drug better known as Prozac).

Being more in the Brooke Shields rather than the Tom Cruise camp, I’m fine with dogs taking Prozac. Derr believes that Millan advocates aggression toward aggressive dogs by occasionally flipping an out of control dog on to its back, something that happens to out of line dogs in the wild. But in fact, Millan suggests that if your dog is aggressive you should consult a professional, period. And he says never to hit or even yell at a dog. Hitting is abusive. Yelling just confuses your dog or worse, makes him think you’re ecstatic about his painstaking efforts to shred your early American hand-hooked rug, as demonstrated by Claire’s wagging tail when I've mistakenly roared at her in the past.

Reading Derr’s article I almost sense irritation that an "uncredentialed" doggie Dr. Phil is getting more attention than he should. Degrees are important I suppose. The article mentions none of Derr’s qualifications, however, so it is hard to know why he might be more trustworthy than Millan. Derr didn’t really include any information about how whatever school of thought he subscribes to counters Millan’s ideas either, so it is difficult to argue with his points. Derr does make the excellent point that each dog has specific needs, a fact that someone might potentially ignore if one relied only on Millan’s methods. Though when you see a chihuahua chilling with a recently deadly Rotweiler at Cesar's palace, it's hard for me to believe each dog's needs are not being met.

I also got the sense that Millan's actions look “mean” to behaviorist who focus on not hurting a dog’s feelings, not a goal of mine I can assure you. But Millan’s arguing for spending more actively engaged time with your dog, communicating what is expected of them in ways they understand, and providing stabilizing affection seems like common sense to me. I could be missing something, but the fact remains that Derr hasn’t managed to make a 45-minute walk with our dog more fun for her and us. Cesar has.

A more important difference between Derr and Millan, is that Derr seems to be about dogs. As John puts it, “The Dog Whisperer isn’t about dogs. It’s about humans.” Millan’s work forces people to examine what role their own issues are playing in their dog’s problems—New agey? Touchy feely? Maybe, but as far as I’m concerned, anything that causes humans to reflect on and own up to the effect their own actions have on others seems likely to improve the world for both dogs and humans.

Menswear Muddle

For the last three years I have been mostly bored by affordable mens fashion. I would say that part of the problem is that I don't shop in New York, but three years ago I was able to walk into an Indianapolis mall and find at least one pair of pants that didn't put me to sleep. I only bring this up because I just got J. Crew's fall catalogue and it is a complete drag--the love child of Gap and Lands End. Not that I have anything against either of those stores, but J. Crew used to be a little more progressive.

I got online to see if there was any hope for creative clothing on the horizon, especially for big guys like me. I'm happy to report that there is some light at the end of the tunnel if you are not into European styling, which tends to be slimmer cut. I like European clothes. Most just don't fit my bulky frame well.

Looks like Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren are Michael Kors are all bringing back some wider shouldered options. This is good for me, and I love Kors' big scarves. Typically wider cut shoulders are paired with slimmer cut pants, a look that I like and that also works for me (I have skinny legs). More good news is that drapier slacks are coming back in, at least for Marc Jacobs--think Cary Grant in the 30s. Paired with the right fitted sweaters the combo makes for a nice profile.

And believe it or not, its okay to wear pleated as well as flat front pants again. Cuffs are back. And don't throw away those cords.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Claire Update

Some of you have asked how Claire is. The short answer is that she's fine as frog hair. And thanks for asking.

A more detailed answer:

House training--She hasn't had one accident in the house. An added bonus is that she refuses to poop in our yard. Don't worry, I pick up the cable she lays in other places. Our neighbor Mindy has a fenced in yard where she lets Claire play sometimes when Claire wants to give the business to a rag ball her friend Sally gave her. I think Mindy is growing Exlax in her lawn. I automatically take "pick up bags" when we go to Mindy's because the first thing Claire does there is poop. She will pee in our yard though, and she now only goes in the five square feet of grass I don't care about (near the compost pile).

Walks--Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer (cue angel chorus) says mastering the walk is the most important thing we can do for Claire. Long walks are sort of a dog's job. It is the best op for her to learn we are the pack leaders (and not her). Evidently, for dogs, walking=migrating to food, kind of a dog's reason for living (I was dissappointed to learn I wasn't reason enough). SO, we walk--45 minutes, once in the a.m. and once when we get home. She's pretty good at walking next to us, not in front of us (that took some doing). When she gets home, she gets food. Then we can play and relax. Migrate, eat, celebrate, then rest. Its a forumla, but it works.

Evidently dogs start getting the crazies if walks aren't long enough. We noticed Claire was kind of horsey on her walks. Then we read from the Book of Cesar that Claire needs to sit in a calm submissive state by the door before we go out and we need to go out before her. Same coming back in. The pack leader always goes first. A small thing, but boy did it make a difference. That and channeling our inner Oprah--something about acting with calm assertive energy makes a difference. We are working on saying less, and asserting energy more.

Health: No more cough. Eye infection she got at the Humane Society is cleared up. A few fleas.

Things we're working on:

Not jumping on visitors. She's getting better. The worst she does now is stand up in front of people. Some people think it's cute, but jumping on people (like pulling on the leash) is actually a sign of dominance so we don't allow it.

Hand signals. She's getting pretty good at sitting and staying with just hand signals.

Cats are not for chasing. If she ever hopes to visit her Grandma in Arkansas, she better learn this one.

No begging at the table. She's pretty good for us, but we've noticed that when company comes for dinner she puts on a show.

Coming when called. Works in the house, but outside she is easily distracted by squirrels, leaves, and soft grass.

Things we love about her:

She really is a sweetie. She is quiet and respectful, but she has a good sense of herself. I had her in a doggy bakery the other day. (I can't believe I just wrote that. Feel free to laugh and/or sneer. There was a time when I would have.) When surrounded by a full grown St. Bernard, a Doberman, and a very large Pit Bull, she just wandered into the group like she was one of the gang, sniffing butts with the best of 'em.

She doesn't wake us up in the morning. She gets up when we do.

Sometimes she walks up the stairs backwards when she gets ahead of us but still wants to make sure we are coming up.

She loves fruits and vegetables. Watermelon and plum tomatoes are her favorite treat for doing tricks. She's also a big fan of ice cubes.

Sorry I don't have more pictures (I can't find our camera.). She got her photo taken at a photographer's studio recently. I'm going to see if the artist will let me put it on the internet.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Talladega Nights and Stereotypes

My sister recently moved with her husband to Alabama. I briefly worried for her as I watched Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights—The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (TN). How will she find her niche in such a place? Of course the movie provides no real data for answering the question, since she moved to Birmingham, not Talladega. And the Southern folks that populate the film are drawn as comic stereotypes, not authentic characters.

The question floated out of my head by the time the Bobby family is shown gathered around gallons of Powerade and mountains of trademarked food while debating the proper invocation of Jesus during grace. Ricky calls upon the 8 ½ lb. Christmas Jesus in gold fleece diapers. For the Bobbys, God, like a heavenly Pizza Hut, addresses our culture’s obsession with a variety of choices by providing bearded Jesus, ninja Jesus and even well muscled acrobat Jesus. The stereotype of consumer culture was hilarious.

I questioned why I thought that scene was so funny and wondered if it had something to do with a clever use of stereotypes, a subject our pastor Mike has been talking about. Stereotypes portray a diverse group of people as having only a small number of recurring, typically extreme characteristics. Comic stereotypes do this with humor that is either good-natured or biting, depending on your point of view.

Of the people stereotyped in TN; including the aforementioned self-obsessed consumer Christians, NASCAR fans, gay men, and French people; only small groups of Christians picketing the movie are visibly offended. I was surprised to hear about them. It seems they believe the movie makes fun of Christ and his followers. I didn't feel that way, mind you. Personally, I thought the only people who should be offended were those who treat God like a shopping mall.

Then it dawned on me, a certain segment of our population doesn’t understand that stereotypes aren’t real. I know that relatively few gay guys try to kiss guys they know are straight, pat their partners on the behind in public or own gay horses; therefore the movie’s stereotype of gay guys was funny to me.

But if you don’t know that stereotypes are false, you likely use them as a basis for your perception of at least one group of people. Or if you are the one being stereotyped in a comic setting, you become incredibly offended because you believe this is what people actually think of you. If the latter rings true, you should probably check to see if you aren’t also guilty of the former.

As 21st century comedy emerges everyone trades on the ludicrous traits of the most “other” of “others”. It used to bother me, but now I think I’m starting to understand that as long as the setting is comedic and everyone is free to receive and deliver the brunt equally, it’s okay. If the context is political or news oriented, stereotypes take on a wholly different tone. Perhaps the folks who are offended by TN see everything through those lenses these days, even goofball comedies that while not technically perfect provide more laughs than one might expect.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Evil Women

Okay, I read this over at Pam's Houseblend yesterday, and for some reason it is still bugging me today so I decided to blog about it. I think it bothers me so much because something similar happened to a woman named Twyla in the Southern Baptist Church where I grew up. She was a beloved and powerful children's teacher and a great counselor. Some woman, who is my age, who didn't even grow up there, decided Twyla wasn't conservative enough for her and got this woman who'd been teaching there for about 30 years "fired." The same disrespect for the wisdom of experience shows itself when young pastor Timothy LaBouf of First Baptist Church, Watertown pulls this stunt.

"A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became sinner".
-- scripture quoted in a letter to 81-year-old Mary Lambert, who was booted from adult Sunday school position because she's a woman.

The Rev. Timothy LaBouf, who also serves on the Watertown City Council, issued a statement saying his stance against women teaching men in Sunday school would not affect his decisions as a city leader in Watertown, where all five members of the council are men but the city manager who runs the city's day-to-day operations is a woman.

"I believe that a woman can perform any job and fulfill any responsibility that she desires to" outside of the church, LaBouf wrote Saturday.

Sure you do, Tim.

Mayor Jeffrey Graham, however, was bothered by the reasons given for Lambert's dismissal. "If what's said in that letter reflects the councilman's views, those are disturbing remarks in this day and age," Graham said. "Maybe they wouldn't have been disturbing 500 years ago, but they are now."

You said it Mayor.

Monday, August 21, 2006

San Francisco Treats

San Francisco Treats
Originally uploaded by Troy Smythe.
Broadway church is exploring the idea of radical hospitality. As part of that process they sent a group of us from the congregation to San Francisco to spend some time with folks at Glide Memorial Church. Here we are on one of the Twin Peaks (from l to r: Joe, Barb, Mike, Mark, Me, and Ellie).

This church was amazing. Back when crack started ravaging communities, and there seemed to be no hope for helping addicts recover, this church said, "we'll find a way." And they did. Many of the people on staff were recovered addicts and former homeless people. Social workers also made up a big part of the staff, which makes a lot of sense to me.

Glide starts from a place of unconditional love. I know that sounds trite, but they mean it. No strings of any kind are attached. During the church service, one of the pastors said, "we don't care what you just did, who you are, or even whether or not you share our faith. If God made you, we want you." Strange words to some, but we later met a woman who described herself as an atheist who moved from five hours away to San Francisco just to be a part of Glide. And she is involved in that church's ministries and prayer groups in ways that a lot of Christians aren't in their churches!

We were all amazed at how honest and grateful everyone was. Most of the people we met struggled with some kind of addiction. The church's motto is "we're all in recovery." No one seemed to have anything to lose or fear.

Sunday morning we attended the late service. Before service started we were looking for breakfast near the church which is downtown. As we walked by the church the early service was happening, and that old church was rocking (their worship service is a gospel music wonder). A guy standing in front of the church gave us a big friendly holler from across the street, "Y'all come to church!" I loved that. It reminded me of Jesus's parable of the guy giving a party who goes out into the streets to invite people when his rich friends wouldn't come. We hollered back that we would be at the later service.

I'm still processing all that I learned there. Our job now is to invite people from our church to talk with us about what we saw and to think about what radical hospitality might mean for us here in Indy.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Opening Day at the Indiana State Fair 2006

First of all, I can't believe it has been 11 days since my last post. Now y'all know I usually do better, but a lot has been going on lately, which I'll tell you about in another post. But first I gots to go back and relive opening night at the Indiana State Fair.

If you've been reading since last year, you know our friend Dave LOVES the state fair. The only person who loves it as much as he does is our friend Kent. He and Dave have not missed opening day at the fair in 10 years. I've known for sometime that there was ritual and protocol involved in their opening day trip, but since I'd never been invited I could only imagine it. I'm here to tell you that this year I made the A-list and got an invitation. Writing about it may kick me off of it, but it was too fun not to share.

Here's how it went down:

6:00--Met Kent, Dave and Ken at the Dairy Bar. I got there before Ken did. Kent was giving him directions on the phone when I arrived. After hanging up, Kent announced that Ken was "on property," which is fair lingo for being on the fair grounds.

6:15--I had clothes issues. I'd come straight from work and was still wearing my khakis and light salmon pink, orange, and cream striped shirt. Casual clothes are code, but I thought I'd be home in time to change. To make up for it I bought a sno-cone the color of the pink stripe in my shirt (flavor: Pink Lemonade).

6:20--Ken finds us. He won't be staying the entire night which includes an Indiana high school bands marching contest, but he will join us for the tour of food. All fair food is not alike I learned. You can get corn in several places, for example, but the only place you SHOULD get it is at the Corn Growers' Association booth. Same with the Cattlemen's Association for beef. Dave is most insistent on this point, which I find funny since the only thing he will eat is corn-on-the-cob, no butter. Actually that is not true. He did eat half of a pile of King Taters, the spiral cut russets which are deep fried. These are my favorite favorite fair food, and I ate mine and some of Dave's. Then we bought tickets for the marching contest.

6:30--Tradition holds that you must see the World's Largest Boar, and you must be eating when you see him. It took a little planning to get food in everyone's hand. (My sno-cone was on it's last leg.) But we managed it. Then we popped in on the mule and donkey hitch races.

6:45--Stopped for corn and a lemon shake-up before heading into the ag/hort building. We made a request for Moon River from the organist playing in the middle of the room and then toured the flower arrangements and prize-winning vegetables. We chose our favorite gourd sculptures and moved on to the Home and Family Arts building, which Dave likes to call the Home and Family Farts building.

7:15--Home and Family Farts tours require that you stop by the fair queens photo wall. Patrice, a woman from our church, was a fair queen back in the '80s so we always pay homage to her picture. Dave and Ken can get way sucked into HFF. In fact, I ate an entire corn dog while listening to the Peruvian flute players outside the building before Kent was able to drag them out. It was almost time for the opening band. Dave said a woman was begging him to paint a quilty square and it was hard for him to break away. On the way to the stadium there was some discussion about how outrageous it is to ask someone to pay 4.00 for an Elephant Ear.

7:50--We run into Dave's boss, whom he calls Misses, who slips some snack money into his pocket before the show starts.

7:55--Ken leaves us and we make it into the stands just in time. The band contest is serious. We give scores, but we have to do it quietly because parents are all around us. We use hand signals. I'm quickly dubbed the Paula Abdul of the bunch because I'm an easy grader. Kent notes that points are struck if there is too much (translation: any) interpretive dance in the program. We cheer extra loud for the brave boys in the flag corps.

8:45--Dave informs me that my scores are all over the place. And in between performances we express our thanks to Dave's Boss with a thank you note written on one of the fans they hand out at the marching contest.

10:55--We stay for the end of the show, but not the judging. You have to rush home to catch that on the news.

I don't know if I'll get invited back next year, but I'll always have the memories from this one.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hello Claire

This is Claire. She's our new dog and we love her. The humane society said she's part Basenji, an African hunting breed. Dave said he thinks the other part is Holstein.

John and I credit our decision to get a dog to watching one too many episodes of The Dog Whisperer, with which we are obsessed.

We thought about a Newfoundland, but when I found out they sling slobber onto your ceiling when they shake their heads I had second thoughts. Plus their turds are the size of firewood. We decided I would go the Humane Society to see if there might be any matches for our family there.

There were four "green tag" dogs. Green tags are put on the cages of dogs who are ready to go home with most any family that same day. Yellow tags are given to dogs who are "challenging," as in "the jaws of that 80 lb. Pit Bull will challenge your arm to stay attached to your body."

I didn't notice Claire at first. When I finally saw her she wasn't barking or excited like the other dogs. In fact, she just rested her head on her paws and stared up at me with a sad and slightly annoyed look on her face. I thought to myself, "that is so how I would feel if I had to be here." Ashleigh, the volunteer who was helping me let me take Claire to one of the "get to know you" rooms they have. Even then she wasn't effusive and she wouldn't look at me. She just leaned against my leg and occassionally licked my hand. I told Ashleigh that I was definitely interested in taking Claire home (btw, her name at the H.S. was Kiki. I couldn't bring myself to call her that so we renamed her). John needed to meet her too and couldn't until the next day, so Ashleigh took Claire back to her cage.

When John and I returned Ashleigh saw me and said she was glad I came back because Claire was very sad for the rest of the day after I left (I know it's a line, but it totally worked on me). This time when they brought her to the room she was much happier to see me and warmed up to John right away. He liked her and we decided to adopt her, but it was too late to process our request that night so she had to go back to her cage. She got inside without a fuss but then turned around to give me a look so confused and deeply disappointed I felt like spending the night in the cage just so she would know we weren't abandoning her.

But it turned out we needed the extra night to get ready for her. I rushed around the next morning and got supplies and a couple of toys. I picked her up as soon as the Humane Society opened. They made me sit in the lobby so they could bring her out to me. She was the happiest I'd seen her when she came through the door. You never know how things are going to go once a dog is on the "outside", but she was fine. She climbed up in the passenger side of the Jeep and just sat there as we drove. Didn't try to stick her head out the window or get in my face, just sat there looking at me or at the passing scenery.

Her bio at the H.S. said her family had to leave her when they moved. Surely they were heartbroken. She's so great! She's sweet. She doesn't bark. She stays off the furniture. She's housetrained. She walks on a leash well. She loves the neighbors. When it is time for bed she just lays down on the floor on my side (John is trying to make her switch to his) and stays there until we get up, no noise, nothing. John took her to the vet today (she has a bad cough and an infected eye). He said everyone talked about how well behaved she was.

Claire has had a few visitors. John's mom came by to see her and we took her up to play by the lake near her house and she loved that. I wish I'd had my camera, but I didn't. Will remember next time. Dave came by Friday night. Laying on our extremely dirty floor with her made Claire a big fan. Dave also helped get her used to the crate we keep her in when she has to be alone. He models his technique below.

How did we ever get along without this dog?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Shouldn't Bigfoot Be A Gay Icon?

Why don't more people love Bigfoot? I started telling some friends at dinner the other night about a recent National Geographic documentary about him. My revelations elicited a silent response and blank stares rather than the quickly drawn gasps and clinking of forks dropped onto china in surprise that one might expect. In fact, John felt compelled to clarify that I was the only one actually watching the program; he was just in the same room.

In the documentary we met a Tennessee hill woman with whom a Russian anthropologist was living so he could record her stories of a Bigfoot family who had lived nearby for years. Evidently Bigfoots are more social creatures in Tennessee (isn't everyone?) because now and then one would knock on her back door to borrow a cup of sugar or something like that. She would, of course, politely oblige him proving once again that you can safely bet on Southerners to score above average in the good neighbor department.

The woman's memory was sharp enough that she could reproduce the request while mimicking the creature's voice. In case you're wondering, Bigfoot sounds like Kirstie Alley, only 20 years older and after she's sucked the air from a helium balloon. Hill woman also told how she watched a Bigfoot take a deer down with its bare hands. As she matter of factly described the procedure the Russian earnestly reenacted it using a sytrofoam deer dummy. I feel certain that each night when she retires to her bedroom this woman buries her face in a pillow and laughs herself to sleep.

I think I'm so into Bigfoot, and the people who see them, because I was a child of the 70s when that shaky film footage of Bigfoot crossing a dry forest creek bed was reaching the public. It didn't matter to me that the forest was in Washington state and I lived in Arkansas. Bigfoot existed and all he needed was the sun, the air and some shade trees to make him happy. Surely some of his kind were poking around the Ozarks. Turns out, I was almost right. His swampy cousin was spotted in the bayous and bean fields of Fouke, AR. The Fouke Monster's story was retold with so-awful-its-inspired genius in Charles B. Pierce's The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972). A true story told in documentary form with real locals (heavy on the real), Pierce also managed to patch in what looks like leftover 1960s Arkansas game and fish commission publicity footage and even a bizarre musical score ("Hey, Travis Crabtree...Wait a minute for me..."). If you have any sense of irony, this movie won't dissappoint, but do watch it with friends. I want to have a "Legend of Boggy Creek" party for Halloween this year. Maybe my AR friends will host one at the same time and we can blog the event simultaneously.

The movie isn't really scary though (unless you fear poor editing), and that is because Bigfoot isn't scary. Bigfoot is us, and not just gay folks. No, true icons are meaningful to more than one group of people. Bigfoot stands in the gap (perhaps literally sometimes) for all misunderstood folks who wonder if the world hasn't gotten so crazy that they might be better off living disconnected from society, hidden in the backwoods of Arkansas--where they can get shot, trapped, and clubbed to death in an effort to preserve their species.