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Having posted my recollections of A Cat Called Room 8, allow me to recommend a canine-themed book as well. I’ve just finished reading Martha Sherrill’s Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain (Penguin, 2008). Sherrill, a long-time staff writer for the Washington Post, has written a marvelous book about a remarkable man, Morie Sawataishi. Morie is the heart and soul of this book, but it’s just as much about the dogs he loved (and presumably still loves–by the end of the book Morie is 90), the Japanese snow country in which he thrives, the conventions he challenged, the rules he broke to save the akita from extinction as a breed, and the legacy he leaves behind for the dog world.

I won’t give too much away–except to say that Sherrill describes Morie in a respectful, unvarnished way, and that one of the strongest threads weaving through the book concerns the conflicts that often arise between Morie’s communion with the akitas (and with the people who live within their orbit) and his life as a husband and father. His wife Kitako, for instance, almost leaves him when he brings home (in violation of Japanese law at the time) his first akita puppy, since the family, in post-WWII Japan–is just about starving and feeding the pup places even more stress on their food supply.

Morie is a man with a calling. Whether you love akitas or some other breed, Dog Man is a book worth reading.

When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite books was “A Cat Called Room 8,” the story of a cat adopted by an elementary school in Los Angeles (it might be more accurate to say “the story of a cat who adopted an elementary school in Los Angeles”). Room 8 hung out at the school for 15 years, and was given quite a splendid burial when he died in (I’m dating myself here) 1968. I’m pleased to say that Room 8 not only had his own book,

but that today, owing to his enduring fame, he has his own web site.

I bring this up here not because of the charming story the Room 8 children wrote about the cat, his care, his schedule, and his life, but because of something I remember being in the book (though, given the vagaries of time and my little gray cells, I may well have made this up).

I have a vivid memory of the book containing a glossary of Room 8’s vocabulary. The children realized that he signaled his mood and needs through his body language. If his tail was high, he was happy. If his tail swished, he was irritated. And so on.

I was enchanted. A cat lover even then, I was thrilled to have this guide, a veritable Rosetta stone to help the felinophiles among us to communicate with the objects of our adoration. Why, once I’d read this miraculous lexicon, Dr. Doolittle himself had nothing on me. The language of cats had been revealed to my 9 year old self, and I’ve been comfortable with them (and, mostly, they with me) ever since. My cat Nemo, for instance, flings herself to the ground and rolls on her back when I enter the room–she purrs and cavorts and, when I bend to pet her, rubs her face against my hand. Who could fail to understand that, in her language, she’s telling me she’s comfortable, she’s glad to see me, she trusts me–and, oh yeah–she has marked me as her own.

Then there are the dogs. When I pet them and rub their noses, they scrinch up their upper lips and show their teeth. Dinah makes the most amazing sound–but is she singing? Protesting? Begging for more? Or is she about to snap my hand off?

After six years with her, I know the answer (and I’ll post a video soon of the whole performance so you can see where I might have been confused), but, honestly–cats and dogs clearly speak different languages. Neither is better than the other, but to those of us conditioned and tutored in the language of cats, it can really be confusing.

Sure, I’m stuck at my desk (wearing long pants and a sweater, no less–brrrr), but look who’s having all the fun. Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish over at The Atlantic.

Pleased to say that His Mischief is his own self again. Just confirms his reputation as a frequent flier at the vet’s and at animal poison control.

It brings to mind, though, a game we were playing on the Airedale List a bit ago: if your dog were a car, what would he be?

Dinah would be a dependable, sensible Volvo station wagon, sturdy, family friendly, and always there when you need it.

Crispin’s a Vespa motor scooter–nimble, fast, and lots of fun, but high maintenance and in the shop a lot.

What about your dog?

One bored airedale + two dog parents busy watching a movie on TV + one new loaf of bread + a tricky set of bread drawer safeguards that would have confounded Houdini but posed not a moment’s problem to a bored airedale + a 10 hour stretch of time = one early morning emergency vet visit, one prescription for Flagyl, and one very repentant little airedale.

Finding out it wasn’t bloat? Priceless.

May I just add, however, that I have never had a cat do this?

Dinah: (Mom, why won’t he play today?)
Crispin: (If anybody wants me I’ll be in my crate. Don’t bother calling me for dinner.)

But I’m back now. Two back-to-back long-distance trips with (gasp) no computer access left a void here at the blog. Even worse, I had no dog access, even though the second part of the trip was to pick up first child at the end of the college term, and he swears he’s had regular airedale sightings out there at the College of Wooster.

Maybe he just didn’t have his foil hat tied snugly enough, though.

But back to homecomings. On the rare occasions when I was able to get a cell phone call through to the pound here, the pack leader reported that the dogs were apparently missing me. And not always using socially appropriate ways of demonstrating it. Dinah was doing her usual–she just got very quiet, and, as we say around here, “laid low” until my return. The Crispy Critter, though, was distraught. Crying, searching for me, whining and barking. And, ick, forgetting his toilet training. In the living room. Twice.

When I’ve been absent on previous occasions (I’m starting to sound like a neglectful parent, but I swear I’m here most of the time), with the exact hour of my return not known to the pack leader and definitely not known to the dogs, Dinah has done a curious thing. At about the time I departed for home (even when I was well over 100 miles away), Dinah would suddenly perk up and post herself at the back door, refusing to move. Three hours or so later, when I was within 10 or 15 miles of the house, she would run outside and start pacing up and down at the end of the sidewalk near the driveway, refusing to come inside. Until I got home. Which I shortly did.

As my southern mom likes to say, “How do she know?”

How, indeed? British scientist Rupert Sheldrake has studied this extensively, and has even written a a book about this and related phenomena. Which raises another question–when did Dinah learn to read?

Our little dog, Crispin, who is Dinah’s nephew (not that she acknowledges any family connection) has a thing for the garden hose. We can’t get it out to water anything without letting him play with it, or he sits in the yard and cries pitifully.

I’d love to embed the video of his best-ever hose fight here, but as my friend Sandi notes on her blog (where there are also often dogs), WordPress and YouTube don’t play well together. So you’ll have to go here to see a short clip of the fearless water rat.

Note to others whose dogs wish to try this at home: remove any invisible fence type box your dog may be wearing if you don’t want it to stop working after getting soaked (don’t worry, Crispy didn’t get zapped). For those who ignore this warning, ten minutes under the hair dryer (the collar box, not the dog) got it working again.

And Crispin still works just fine.

He is so shaggy. People are amazed when he gets up and they suddenly realize they have been talking to the wrong end. --Elizabeth Jones
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Nancy Hall ©2009
May 2008