Category Archives: power subtext

“Road Dogs”

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“If anybody ever asks us well let’s just tell them that we met in jail.” Recovery by Frank Turner

Elmore Leonard, who wrote Road Dogs in 2009, and died last week, has been my metaphorical Road Dog since 1982, when I left the Navy & moved with my husband Chris back to his hometown, the ritzy [but claustrophobically non-coastal] suburban Detroit town of Birmingham, MI. Back then Leonard himself was still living a few miles East in humble Clawson, MI, and having his trademark “loveable rascal” characters conflate Birmingham & the even ritzier Bloomfield Hills, referring to their denizens as “Bloomingham pukes.” I used to do my grocery shopping over at the Clawson Farmer Jack, hoping to spot my spirit guide Leonard in the liquor aisle, stocking up on Jack Daniels. Never had a sighting, but I took comfort from the fact that of all the places he could afford to live, he chose to stay put: “Hey, my grandkids live here,” he used to say. If Oakland Country was cool enough for “Dutch,” then I could do better with my time spent there, than “just making do and muddling through” [to quote from another Frank Turner song, The Way I Tend to Be]. The young British singer/songwriter Frank Turner is another metaphorical Road Dog for me.

The original meaning of the term, as portrayed in Leonard’s novel, is two people who meet in jail and agree to protect each other from the predations of the other inmates. The social contract of “I got your back, forever, man, no matter what,” is only a Socratic ideal, impossible to keep in real life; and only one “partner” can be the alpha dog…at any given time. Part of the fun of the novel is tracking the shifts in the power subtext between Jack Foley & Cundo Rey. Won’t tell you who winds up top dog. Buy the book.

And that’s the social contract between me & Elmore Leonard [and me & Frank Turner]. Their upbeat, offbeat take(s) on life keep(s) my morale up; and my big-upping them to friends [& readers of this blog] keeps their sales numbers up. What my two Road Dogs have in common is an unflinching, sarcastically funny acknowledgement of aggressive impulses: Leonard through his fictional characters, and Turner though his autobiographical songs. They own the wolf.  They make you want to invite it in and try to tame it.  One of Leonard’s recent books, for children, A Coyote’s in the House, is so popular that it is out-of-stock @ Amazon.

Just when we finally got out of Birmingham to move back East in 2000, Elmore Leonard moved across the street from our neighborhood, into Bloomfield Township [not to be confused with Bloomfield Hills, settle down]. His funeral was held at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Birmingham; but his wake was at a funeral home in Clawson. Just in case anyone thought he had sold out and become a “Bloomingham puke.”

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Here’s our coyote-looking one-year-old Emmy, with her new Road Dog, 8-month-old Bentley. They meet in our yard most afternoons, to sort out who’s alpha.

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Filed under aggression happens, power subtext, sharks and jets

Seize the Disc [Not the Hand]

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Unlike her predecessor, Lili [whose motto was “Quit trying to make ‘fetch’ happen.”], Emmy’s enthusiasm & talent for catching thrown round  objects was evident early on. We have found that extra-large Kong tennis balls work best inside [since they don’t always end up under the furniture]; but outside it’s definitely the floppy disc [“Flying Saucer”], which she usually catches before it hits the ground, even in high & variable winds. Our one day of serious & unseasonable snow last month made the footing a little tricky; but she was still able to get under it & launch herself a couple of feet off the ground for the midair pick & roll.

As much as she loves to catch things, though, she is still a puppy; and she loves to chew things more. Valuable playtime & owner patience are wasted, while she savagely gnaws her beloved toy, finally yielding to the command “Bring!” then, reluctantly, to “Drop!” and, less reliably, “Sagare” [“Back up”] & “Zin-zin.” [“Stay”]. A test of nerve & will [not to mention, reflex time] then ensues. Will her desire to continue the game override her instinct to seize the disc before I pick it up? Woe betide her, if she inadvertently grabs my hand. [That hasn’t happened in months, luckily.] Even if she grabs the disc, it’s “game over.”  I fold my arms, utter a discouraging word, “Baca!” [“Fool!”], and stalk off back towards the house in high dudgeon. If she manages to get ahead of me and drop the disc at my feet before I’ve gone too far, and then backs off, the game resumes.

My power subtext: “It’s my way or the highway, Little Grasshopper!”

Even with all the adrenaline the game produces, she always comes back in from it a better-mannered dog.

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Many Therbligs expended. Ready for a little nap.

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Filed under ambivalence, leading a pack, power subtext

Walk It Off

Well, now that the Olympics are upon us, this double-edged sword [have you been watching the Fencing? such histrionics! like an Italian opera!] of home-spun advice can be heard all over the shop. Remember back in the day, when a coach’s overheard gruff admonition to an injured-bird-like gymnast provided fodder for a series of SNL sketches, in which the putative “walk-off-able” injury morphed into the Knight-in-Denial scene from Monty Python & the Holy Grail?

On Day One, a BBC Soccer commentator Let The Phrase Begin, remarking of a [possibly histrionic] player, “Oh! He’s down! It looks like a nasty ankle injury! Well, no, actually, he’s walking it off, and he’s back in the match.” No Yellow Card was issued. Perhaps it was a case of Unconvincing Diving [a common occurrence in high-stakes matches]; or maybe it was a case of that well-known [at least Up North in England] medical condition, “Summat and Nowt.” [Translated in a previous Post, “Be Good…” as “Something and Nothing.”] Often, cases of Summat & Nowt respond well to “Walking It Off.”

 

The other day, my sister, a highly-placed Medical Librarian, forwarded me an article recommended by one of the vets attached to her Med School, entitled, “Managing Degenerative Myelopathy in Dogs: Ways of Slowing the Progress of This Debilitating Spinal Disease,” posted on September 4, 2008, by Dawn M. Smith.

Even though the alert reader will guess what’s coming, I’ll quote it, anyway. “Dogs with canine degenerative myelopathy benefit from controlled walking…in several ways. Allowing the dog to run around the property or in a dog park does not provide the same benefit, as the exercise is not consistent. A regular walk of a specific distance at a steady rate not only improves muscle tone, it improves brain function.”

I truly believe that Lili’s daily walk through the Smithsonian woods provides her both Physical & Occupational Therapy, during which she “gets smarter” about how to ambulate, despite her numb hind paws. So far, her leap into the Jeep-of-the-Day after a walk is noticeably stronger & more graceful than her initial load-up at our house.

As always, I am grateful to my sister for finding & sending me relevant research articles. In this case, my fear, that I might be inflicting pain & suffering on Lili by asking her, in effect, to “walk [her CDM] off,” was greatly diminished. Further, the humiliating dread, that a casual observer would think of me as that gruff [almost sadistic] gymnastics coach, denying or minimizing a real medical condition, as if it were only Summat & Nowt, has also been neutralized.

After all, we’re not Going for the Gold, here. The only goal is preserving Lili’s quality of life.

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Filed under attribution theory, power subtext, vicarious trauma, what's it all about?

Looking for The Beauty Part

This is the hardest post I’ve ever had to write for this blog. Last week’s power “outrage” had a couple of Beauty Parts. First, both daughters were in town, and [although it could have gone either way] we found the shared misery of our Second World [if not 3rd] existence bonded us together, rather than pulling us apart. Second, it gave me an alibi for postponing the disclosure of our sad news about Lili, whose DNA test for Degenerative Myelopathy came back positive.

If you’re not familiar with the disease [and we weren’t], a simplistic way of thinking about it is that it’s Multiple Sclerosis for dogs, with some important differences. Unlike human MS, whose etiology is still mysterious [maybe there’s a genetic component, maybe it’s stress-related, maybe it’s triggered by a virus…just follow the stories surrounding Jack Osbourne’s disclosure of his diagnosis], the dog version is 100% genetic. Both parent dogs have to be carriers of the gene, for it to be expressed in the offspring. Our pain & suffering-fueled angry thoughts have been [predictably] directed at Lili’s AKC-registered breeders, who “should have known better,” even though the genetic test for the disease was developed after Lili was born in 2004. Nowadays, though, any breeder who doesn’t test for DM is as unscrupulous as those who don’t test for hip dysplasia.

Those who have read my “About a Bird” post will know that my mother got MS when she was 35 [and I was 10], so I had 25 years’ experience of watching how the progressive numbness of an individual’s [back] legs makes walking tricky, then difficult, and ultimately impossible. Lili is still at the “tricky” stage. She tends to “wipe out” on hardwood floors [especially when in hot pursuit of a cat], but still gallops on grass. The daily walk through the Smithsonian woods is both worrying and inspirational. On some mornings it takes 3 attempts for her to leap into the back of either of our 2 Jeeps; and the other day she landed in a disorganized heap on the grass verge as she jumped out of the car at the school. But [here’s one of the Beauty Parts] she has a “fan club” of laborers working on school renovations this summer; and when they expressed dismay at her fall, she pulled herself together and trotted off smartly towards the woods. So far, she seems to experience no humiliation when she loses her footing [unlike my late mother, and most of the MS patients I have known]. “She just gets on with it,” as the Brits say. That’s the Beauty Part.

The “I am your Pack Leader” power subtext has changed subtly on the cross-country trail. I let her set the pace, sometimes marching in place while she collects herself for the assault on the next steep hill. She often delights me by then going so fast that I have to double-time to keep up with her. Every day that she “makes it through” the woods and back to the car is a beautiful gift. I realize that I have to make contingency plans for the day that she can’t.

What is absolutely clear, at this point, is that [however tricky it is for her numb back paws to negotiate hidden roots & fallen branches, steep inclines & muddy patches] she is having the time of her life.

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Filed under born to run, leading a pack, power subtext

“Thank you.” (For what?)

Before I launch into tales of our latest woodland (mis)adventure, a word about my “file photos” used in this blog. The ones featuring Lili in the woods, unleashed, are either carefully staged, 2-minute photo shoots (after which she is safely back “under harness”), or they date from back in the day, before we realized how foolhardy (and illegal) free-range dog walking in the Smithsonian nature preserve, or other municipal parkland areas, is, around these parts. Since yesterday’s walk took place at the sports park, without an accompanying photog, the scene was re-enacted this morning on our own property (think shooting Pasadena for Westchester County, in MadMen).

After more than a week of glorious walks in the Smithsonian woods during Spring Break, it’s been a tough transition back to the sports park, mostly because there’s so much more dog traffic, even before 8 a.m. I have come to associate certain vehicles with specific “challenges.” The tiny Beemer coupe transports 2 giant Bernese dogs; the green Yukon brings “Murphy,” an irrepressible golden puppy; and the red Subaru brings 3 untamed (often unleashed) “rescues,” whose lady owner speaks to them earnestly (but ineffectually) about “being good citizens” and “observing the golden rule.” My motto has become “(Almost) anything for a quiet life.” I will alter course on a dime, to avoid a snarly encounter with a free-booting dog.

As we were finishing the 1st half of our planned circuit, a silver Range Rover nearly ran us down, pulling into the otherwise vacant parking lot. “No way he/they can catch up with us,” I calculated, so when we got to the mini-woods at the back of the park, I decided we could circle back and walk it twice. At which point, on the crest of a little hill appeared a lovely but unleashed black Lab, who charged down to get up in Lili’s face. To my credit, despite much mutual canine snarling and skirmishing, I did manage to spit out “Oy! Suwate! (hey! sit down!),” which left Lili “boxing her corner” from a sitting position, rather than dragging me off my feet. To my utter humiliation, though, I then let out an involuntary, Hitchcock victim, blood-curdling scream, which brought the Lab’s owner, the Sloan Ranger, into view. He calmly walked up to his dog and said, “Sit,” which the dog did; and he clipped on a leash.

And then, without emotive inflection or evident irony, he said, “Thank you.”

As Lili & I high-tailed it out of the woods and back to the parking lot, I pondered, “Thank whom? For what?” Your dog, for obeying your command? Me, for not berating you for having your dog off-the-leash and out-of-sight? Dunno. Didn’t stop to inquire, although, I no sooner had Lili loaded & locked in the Jeep, than Sloan & Labby materialized in the parking lot, too. (We had double-timed back, so they must have triple-timed.)

Oh well, as the (inescapable, this week) British cliche has it, “Worse things happen at sea.” And what a useful phrase, to add to my repertoire of (power subtext) remarks signifying, “I am not your enemy, but I am not your victim.” Recently I have been coaching my (socially put-upon) patients to try the New Yorker’s universal comeback, “I know! Right?”  But that’s a bit Big Girl’s Blouse [UK slang for girlish], for the guys. Look how well Mr. Just Finished My Photo Shoot for Dunhill’s carried it off: “Thank you.”

I can hardly wait to try it out, myself.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, power subtext

Why the short leash?

In a much earlier post [“Tie Me Kangaroo Down”], I quoted Robert Frost’s view, that following rules [in that instance, the rules of rhyme & meter in poetry] can actually be as appealing as the siren song of anarchy. “Freedom,” said Frost, is “moving easily in your harness.”

Evidently, Trenton Oldfield’s course in Contemporary Urbanism @ the LSE didn’t cover that line of country. His website, “Elitism Leads to Tyranny,” discusses civil disobedience techniques, one of which he demonstrated this afternoon @ the 158th Boat Race [commonly known as the Henley Regatta] between Oxford & Cambridge, which he disrupted by swimming right underneath the oars of the Oxford boat, which had to stop, to avoid beheading him with an oar. When the race was resumed, a clash of oars left the Oxford boat one rower short; and the Bowman, Dr. Alex Woods, tried to exert the Therbligs of two men, but in vain.  The Oxford boat lost & Woods collapsed in the boat. He is currently listed in “stable” condition @ Charing Cross Hospital.

So, well done, Trent! Your civil disobedience managed to cock a snook at those 16 Elitist rowers and avert Tyranny, good & proper. At this writing Mr. Oldfield is under arrest on the minor charge of disrupting public order.

Last Saturday, my elder daughter & I were longing for the short leashes which the order-shouting TSA personnel insisted that we take off her cats Seamus & Finnbar, as we passed through the x-ray machine @ San Francisco International Airport, each of us clutching a squirming cat in our arms. When [what are the odds?] both of us were selected for the anti-terror profiling exam which includes having each hand swabbed for explosive residue, my younger daughter assumed her Lacrosse goalie stance, prepared to catch any feline anarchists.

Let us apply the What’s Up Your Nose analysis to these 2 events. I’m guessing that Trenton Oldfield feels personally humiliated by those young men fortunate [talented?] enough to attend Oxbridge universities and exert themselves for all to see on the River Thames. Will he also be disrupting crew events @ this summer’s Olympic games, one wonders? Oldfield’s intrusion angered the sports commentators, even before it led [indirectly] to the pain & suffering of Alex Woods. Plenty of anger to be getting on with there, then.

The TSA’s seemingly vindictive choice of the 2 least likely terrorists in our cohort was prompted by what? A cat allergy, causing pain & suffering? Then surely it would have made more sense to bustle us through, rather than make us hang around for an extra 15 minutes. A sense of intrusion, that it is Southwest’s policy to let cats travel in the cabin, instead of the baggage hold, like most other airlines? For our part, the intrusion, humiliation, and fear of cat loss led to an almost irresistible need to vent our anger through sarcasm; but we both managed to keep our snark “on a short leash.” I was actually quite Zen about it, knowing that my younger daughter had our backs. But it was with great relief that we finally put each cat back on a short leash & thence into their under-seat carrier bags, for the 2 flights that brought them to their new home in Boston.

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Filed under attribution theory, power subtext, stifled wolf, therbligs

Why the long face?

Chances are, if you are a horse or a human at an equestrian barn, that hang-dog look means you have just suffered a humiliation.

The other day my San Francisco daughter (who has been riding horses since she was 7, including, in better times, our magnificent 18hh Hanoverian, Owen) called to say, “Well, good. I finally met the Barn Bitch.” She had decided to reallocate her discretionary income, from hanging with 20-somethings at Frisco watering holes, to hanging with a 20-something horse in Oakland, name of Zachary. (Which is also her boss’ name, innit?) Until that day, everyone she had met at the barn had been helpful and welcoming.

I, too, began riding at the age of 7; and have never, in more than a dozen different barns, in the US and Europe, failed to encounter at least one trainer stuck in a permanent state of rage. There is also always at least one horse in a permanent Bad Mood. In the UK, where horses are not exotic, and mingle freely with motorists and pedestrians, such a “known kicker and/or biter” is likely to have a red ribbon tied to its tail. If only the Barn Bitch came with such a warning label!

Let’s do a bit of ethology, to try to figure out why “There’s (at least) one in every crowd.” Horses, it must be understood, are both pack animals and prey animals. In the wild, survival depends on being “well in” with the herd, whose members can better fend off predators. Yet, when forage is scarce, survival depends on being of high enough status to get first dibs on the food. Battles for supremacy involve biting and kicking; and size does not always matter. (Even a fierce little dog can growl a horse away from food which is of no nutritional value to the terrier, itself. Hence, the English expression, “to act like a dog in the manger.”) Indeed, at riding barns, it is most often a small mare or even a pony who wears the red ribbon.

And so, to the psychology of the Barn Bitch. It is rarely the owner of the establishment who snarls (at potential customers). It may not even be the head trainer, whose alpha status allows first pick of horses, tack, and students, making it more likely that they will win the on-going zero-sum-game, into which all human/horse endeavors [not just show events, or races, but even lessons] morph. It is the “Not Quites,” the Wannabe trainers, who are left with the nags, the old tack and the less promising students, who suffer humiliation, which they pass along, like the Old Maid card, usually to unsuspecting newcomers.

Once you know who should be wearing a red ribbon, it’s easier to put out your own subtext message, loud & clear: “I’m not your enemy, but I’m not your victim.” Now, jump out of the manger, and let my horse eat. An old hand at such scenarios, my daughter held her ground; and the erstwhile Barn Bitch morphed into a lap dog.

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Filed under aggression happens, ethology, power subtext, zero-sum-gaming

Never the Same Woods Twice


Or maybe it is? Pre-Socratic philosophers started debating this point around 500 BC. Heraclitis may (or may not) have said “Panta rhei” [“Everything changes (or, possibly, flows)”], famously declaring that one could never dip one’s toe into the same stream twice. Pamenides, on the other hand, was an early conservation-of-matter guy, declaring “Change is impossible.” There is nothing new under the sun. [Not even the sun.] Wade Lassister set this idea to music in the finale of the 1980 musical & film, Fame: “I sing the body electric (a line lifted directly from Leaves of Grass). I celebrate the me yet to come. I toast to my own reunion, when I become one with the sun.” The song ends cute with the astrophysical & show biz prediction, “and in time, and in time, we will all be stars.”

It’s still a hot topic for Presidential candidates, whether the Earth’s climate is actually, irreversibly changing, or just going through what David Bowie might call one of its cyclical “Ch-ch-changes.” If only we were French, and could simply finesse the argument with a bon mot: “Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.”

For a while this summer, every walk in the woods lent support to what Parmenides termed dismissively “the mistaken opinion that things had changed.” In the wake of the earthquake, and tropical storms, many mighty trees had fallen. Some of them, eerily, days later. [Thank goodness for Lili, the “timberwolf,” who in the past has given me a “heads up” of falling lumber, and so allayed my fear of being poleaxed.]

But falling trees have not been the only hazard on our woodland walks this summer. A few weeks ago we were assailed by an unleashed, Hound-of-the-Baskervilles-type dog, who came growling and charging at us, leaving its (oblivious? psychopathic?) master far behind. It was fear that got up my nose, but Lili might have been merely affronted by the intrusion. In the melee of snarls & skirmishes that ensued, I was dragged off my feet (not once, but twice), in an attempt to keep hold of Lili’s leash. Only when I was on the ground the second time, did the other owner speak. “I’ll call my dog, and he’ll follow me,” he said. By now, my humiliation and pain & suffering had banished all Japanese commands from my consciousness, and I was reduced to shouting “God damn it!” to all and sundry. I can vouch for the efficacy of swearing as an analgesic, though [see “Why Keep a Dog & Bark Yourself?”]. On the wings of my adrenaline, we flew through the woods in record time; and only later at home, when the bruises “bloomed,” did I realize that I could have been seriously injured.

Since then, I have “played Backgammon” with the incident, revisiting it in my mind, trying to figure out what would have been a better “Not your victim, not your enemy” response to the situation, to make it stop haunting me. In retrospect, I decided I should have told the owner to grab hold of his dog. [Nar’mean?] I should also have taken off my over-the-shoulder European leash and held it in both hands, for better leverage. Every time I’ve seen his telltale Range Rover illegally parked at the entrance to the woods (where are the police when you want them?), I have rehearsed my “flame-out chart” what-to-do list, ready for action.

Yesterday was the rematch. This time, the owner was strolling even farther behind his snarling, charging dog. Initially, I commanded Lili [in our Japanese code] to “lie down” and “stay”; but when the other dog made aggressive contact, I realized our power subtext was “lame gazelle,” so I just held onto Lili’s leash as she barked and lunged. This time I yelled, “Do you have a leash?” No reply. Eventually, the owner called “Skipper” a few times, and reluctantly the dog left the fray and headed back to its master, only to turn around and make a second sortie. This time I shouted, “Do you have a leash?” until he beckoned Skipper again, and they proceeded on their way.

So, that was my Parmenidian moment: “Nothing changes. You can try to rewrite the script, but you’ll still end up looking (and sounding) like a shrill, histrionic loser who can’t take the heat, while the smug thug with the flash car and the free-range dog looks like a winner.”

Ah, but was it a complete rerun? At least this time I didn’t fall down and get dragged like a rodeo clown; and I communicated clearly that the guy should have put his dog on a leash [which is both the custom and the law in these woods]. So, encouraged, we forged ahead with our walk.

Just as we were cresting the hill where the mid-summer fracas had occurred, I made out the outlines of a tall man and a large dog approaching. But I took the Heraclitian view, that these two were not my old nemeses, that each man/dog encounter was “a different stream,” and that things might turn out differently for us this time. So I put Lili at a “down/stay,” ensuring her compliance by stepping on the leash to keep her there. A totally different man, with a Cockney accent and a huge black lab on a chain, smiled as they passed peaceably by, and said, “I do that, too. I put my foot on the lead sometimes, for more control.”

Heraclitis was right! It’s never the same woods twice.

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Filed under attribution theory, gets right up my nose, power subtext

"Just looking for some touch."


That’s a canny wee lad, yon man fro’ Nazareth. Meaning, of course, Dan McCafferty, the legendary frontman of that Scottish rock band which took its name from the first line of the song “The Weight” by that Canadian rock band, The Band: “Pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ ’bout halfpast dead.” D’ye ken? [By which they (The Band) meant, of course, the little town in the LeHigh Valley of Pennsylvania, not far from the towns of Emmaus and Bethlehem.] Dearie me! How Metalingual this post is turning out to be!

What the brilliant Mr. McCafferty did, while singing his live cover of the ZZ Top song, “Tush,” was to replace that arcane and confusing word [Dusty Hill pronounces it to rhyme with “hush”; yet he seems to be “looking for” the shortened form of the Yiddish word “tochus,” which rhymes with “push.”] with the universally understood and desired, by man, woman, and beast, “touch.” Download the lyrics from Hair of the Dog, Live to see what I mean.

Now, let us segue back to 14th Century France and the [slyly political] poem by Gervais du Bus, Roman de Fauvel, in which all the rich but not-so-powerful people seek to ingratiate themselves with a self-important brown horse [in some translations, a donkey] named “Fauvel,” by stroking [currying] his coat. Thus, in France, a “curryfavel” came to mean a flatterer. By 1530, the idiom had crossed the Channel, cut loose the brown horse part of the metaphor, and become the compound verb, “to curry favour.” They have disagreed about much, but both the French and English have long known that the way to gain favour with a horse is to stroke its fur in the direction in which it lies flat [from the Old French correire, “to put in order”].

Conversely, the idiom, “to rub (a person or animal) up the wrong way” means “to be annoying.”

Still, why all the idiomatic hostility towards currying? Why is it considered a duplicitous thing to do? Perhaps because [look it up, skeptics] stroking a mammal’s fur (hair) produces oxytocin [Get this!] in both parties: the groomed and the groomer. This, theoretically, fosters trust, which [if the “groomer” is a sexual predator and the “groomed” is a vulnerable individual] is not only manipulative, it’s against the law [in many places].

With that caveat, now you know how to get “that warm, fuzzy feeling,” without ordering dodgy nasal sprays claiming to contain oxytocin [“the love hormone”] online. Pet your pet. Brush the hair of the dog. Curry a brown horse. [Here are Dusk the mare & our younger daughter, when she was just a canny wee lass.] Or [with their permission] stroke or brush the hair of someone who is already in your circle of trust. Pace the Broadway musical Hair, this is unlikely to bring about World Peace; but it may strengthen the impulse to “tend and defend” those within your own reference group.

Remember, “we’re all looking for some touch,” but not from a stranger on the subway.

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Filed under ethology, power subtext, reference group

Does a hangdog expression betoken guilt?


Funny, how old words morph their meanings, innit? Take “hangdog,” which has been around since the 1670s, adjective & noun, originally meaning “contemptible & sneaking.” [Think Dickens’ passive-aggressive character, Uriah Heep, always presenting himself as ‘umble, while surreptitiously scheming to bring the high & mighty down.] By 2010, The American Heritage Dictionary defined a “hangdog expression” as “looking shamefaced & guilty.”

Consider the word “guilt,” even. As late as 1934, the only definition in The Concise Oxford Dictionary was “culpability.” Guilt wasn’t a psychological construct. None of your subjective, self-referential, conceptual feeling [as in “survivor guilt,” or “Jewish/Catholic/Protestant guilt”]. Just the objective fact of the case: “How does the defendant plead? Guilty or not guilty?” Also, “How does the jury find: guilty or not guilty?” [Their verdict is a subjective opinion, but it’s presumably based on the objective, admissible facts presented.] The notion of remorse doesn’t come into it, until the sentencing phase of the trial, if the erstwhile “not guilty” defendant is found “guilty” [at which point, his lawyer advises him to show how sorry he is by adopting a hangdog expression].

So, here we are in the 21st century, with the burgeoning field of Social Neuroscience and its ugly Iron Maiden, the fMRI [colloquially referred to in the media as The Brain Scanner], claiming to have located the Seat of Guilt in the Brain, no less! Point of order, would that be the seat of objective or subjective guilt, they’ve found? Let me not bore you with my observations on the flawed research designs of such studies [like, having a subject read or watch scenarios of other people behaving badly, in order to light up the Guilt center(s) in the subject’s own brain… What? When I watch Othello snuff Desdamona, I’m the one who feels/is guilty?]. Let me instead quote the brain-imager, Dr. Gregory Miller of the University of Illinois: “Functions do not have a location. Decisions, feelings, perceptions, delusions, memories do not have a spatial location. We image brain events… We do not image, and cannot localise in space, psychological constructs.”

At most, then, the fMRI is currently no better than the 20th Century polygraph at measuring physiological changes correlated with limbic system changes correlated with psychological constructs, such as fear and humiliation. From which I know, having treated several Intelligence Officers who had failed the annual polygraph test because of an exaggerated sense of guilt, over sexual peccadillos, rather than because they were actually guilty of breaching national security. So dedicated were they to their Intel work [from which they were sidelined by the failed polygraph test], that some of them would ask [semi-jokingly], “Is there such a thing as a ‘guilt-ectomy’ that I could have, just so I could pass the polygraph?” Just give those brain-imagers a chance, and they’ll be in there before you can say “knife.”

Back to the title question, addressed on a pet behavior blog, in the form, “Do dogs feel guilt?” Their answer was, “No. Guilt is an abstract concept. Dogs express fear & submission, in response to the owner’s anger, which they sense through body odor, glaring eyes, stance and tone of voice.” The dog “looks hangdog” to avoid or lessen the Alpha Dog’s punishment [just like a defendant who has been “found guilty”].

The wolf looks “sheepish” in the presence of a more powerful wolf. It has correctly read the power subtext of the situation. It endures the humiliation of acting submissive, to avoid the pain & suffering of being put in its place [which might be completely beyond the pale, where chances of survival are slim] by the Big Dog. That’s more useful than guilt. That’s Social Intelligence.

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Filed under limbic system, murky research, power subtext