You Bet Your Life


One summer day in Manhattan, young Dick Cavett saw Groucho Marx walking down the street, and overcame his shyness for long enough to blurt out, “Mr. Marx, I’m a big fan!” Without skipping a beat [according to Cavett, whose anecdote this is], Groucho replied, “On a day like this, I could use a big fan.” Well, I’m a big fan of Groucho’s, too. Hands up, if you ever saw an original broadcast [not some archival retrospective] of his iconic quiz show, “You Bet Your Life.” The least important aspect of the show was the actual quiz. It was all about Groucho’s gift for ad libs [many of which had to be edited out before broadcast] and the challenge to the contestants, “Say the secret ‘woid’ and win $100.” A stuffed duck with specs, mustache, and cigar [the forerunner of the Vlasic pickle stork] would drop down on a wire, to show the audience the random word whose utterance would earn far more than correct answers on the quiz. How like life, eh?

Well, the other word [besides the “penalty box” command] that our dog trainer had us choose for ourselves, was the “attack” command. It had to be–as opposed to Groucho’s secret word–unlikely to come up in normal conversation [and so inadvertantly “loose the dog of war”]. He suggested, therefore, that it be foreign. Each of us had to come up with something unique for our own dog, lest we launch the whole pack, while learning to use the command in class. You can just imagine, can’t you? “Bonzai!” “Tora! Tora! Tora!” Ours is the Japanese for “evil.” [You could look it up.]

Like learning to use any weapon responsibly, this training was both technical and philosophical. I was appalled by the insouciant tone of the Drivers’ Ed our two kids received [one in Michigan, one in Maryland], compared to the lugubrious, required-course-in-high-school that my sister and I took in the 60s, where each class began with the call & response: “When you are driving a car, you are in charge of…” “A Lethal Weapon.” I felt compelled to invoke this reality check every time my kids took the wheel…still want to. Well, when we are out with Lili, we are…in charge of a Dangerous [if not Lethal] Weapon. We well and truly must “acknowledge our wolf,” if we are to keep everyone safe. As our trainer points out, dark dogs are usually perceived as male and more vicious than light-colored dogs. [Especially pointy-eared dogs, compared to Lab types.] This puts out a provocative subtext, which the dark-dog-owner must “own” and learn to manage, whatever the “truth” of the matter is.

Now, here’s the ironic thing about Lili. During Agitation Classes [where you learn to deploy the “attack” command] she was a Paper Tiger. The linebacker dude in the padded suit with the canvas “bite me” sleeve would mock-assault me, and Lili would either look away or try to hide behind me. Away from me–just dog-and-dude–her attack response was [eventually] evoked, and then paired with her secret word. She is no Stoic, our Lili. She would not come to the defense of the defenseless, unless she personally felt threatened. In this respect, her nature is all too human.

Lili is not my bodyguard [never thought I needed one, anyway]; but she is my character guide. As a recovering Paper Tiger, myself [“all bark and no bite,” as my husband has been known to describe me], I continue to challenge my hair-trigger amygdala, to see if my alarm in any given situation is exaggerated, or justified. Would I cry “Havoc!” and use aggressive means to defend myself or my family from a Very Bad Person, if all other options had failed? You bet your life.

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Filed under aggression happens, lesser of two evils, secret code

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