Woof [Part 1]

March 21, 2003

[Whether or not to send out Freethinkers Anonymous this week was, because of current events, a difficult decision. It occurred to me, though, that in addition to the benefits of hopefully making people laugh at a time when laughter is a hard thing to come by, free speech is the first casualty of war. It’s sickening that even in times of peace there are those who want to restrict what others can say, and since war is supposed to be about defending our freedoms the attempts to shut up those who want to say what they believe are even worse. Freedom of speech is one of the most important rights citizens of the United States have. If you live outside the United States, I hope it’s a place where you can say what you believe without having to worry about reprisal, without having to worry about people who think freedom of speech is so dangerous it should be withheld from those who might disagree with them.]

If you’ve lived with dogs for any amount of time, you know they speak a language which I’ll simply refer to as Dog. I assume all dogs speak pretty much the same language, although there are, just like human languages, different dialects, slight differences in vocabulary, and individual idiosyncrasies. What’s amazing is that we humans can pretty well understand what dogs say. Well, maybe this isn’t so amazing after all. Any well-trained dog is basically bilingual, and by learning to distinguish between that quiet, barely audible "woof", which, with pricked ears and an alert expression means, "I hear something," and the loud, rapid- fire "WOOF woof wOOF wOof WOOF" that means, "HEY, THERE’S A GUY OUTSIDE STEALING OUR GARBAGE AND PUTTING IT IN A BIG TRUCK!" or the slightly different "WOOF wOOF WOOF woof" that means, "HEY, THERE’S A GUY PUTTING SOMETHING IN OUR MAILBOX!"

Dog is an amazingly compact language. Perhaps its most famous practitioner would be Lassie, who was famous for a simple, clear "BARK!", which supposedly meant something like, "Hey Timmy, you’d better stay away from that abandoned mine shaft or else I’ll have to run all the way to Doc McGonagall’s for the ninth time this week", but which really meant, "Yes, Mr. Weatherwax, I would love a hot dog." If you’ve ever gone out walking in a residential area and had a strange dog come up to you and say, "WOOF W-W-WOOF ruff WooF BARK" you know that this means, "Hey, who are you, what are you doing walking around near my yard? You’d better not come in here if you know what’s good for you, unless you have a biscuit or a ball to throw or maybe some business with the human members of my pack, in which case they’d better come out here and introduce us".

In the old days people kept their dogs fenced in, or, especially in my neighborhood, dogs just ran loose. Now people have "invisible fencing", which uses a collar that gives the dog a mild shock if it tries to leave an area, and is an incredibly clever way of keeping a dog in its own yard until the batteries in the collar run out. I think most of the dogs in my neighborhood are restrained by invisible fencing, and although I’m tempted to play a trick on them like Foghorn Leghorn did with the barnyard dog. You know–he’d grab the dog by the tail while he was asleep, paddle him with a piece of lumber, then run and then stop just beyond the edge of the leash-boundary so the poor dog choked himself with his own collar. I always felt sorry for the dog, and not just because he suffered such abuse, but also because he had an interesting, sardonic personality, and yet he was just called "Dog".

Foghorn Leghorn, who was like a slightly smarter, more animated (pun intended) version of my Uncle Rupert, had a name and his own line of merchandise. Of course Dog was never at risk of being served for Sunday dinner. But I digress. I love dogs too much to tease them, and I’m also afraid some dog will get mad enough that he’ll run right through his invisible fence, and where will I be then? Probably up the nearest tree. So I just keep walking, and usually the dogs will, as I pass on, say, "wOof", which is the most complex word in dog language. It means, "Yeah, you just keep walking, buddy, but I’ve got my eye on you and you’d better not come back this way unless you want to be barked at again."

Enjoy this week’s offerings.

If your cat did Hamlet

[I love cats too, although it wasn’t until I met my wife’s cats that I realized I wasn’t merely a dog person but a dog-and-cat person. But there’s an old saying about dogs and cats: Give a dog a command and he’ll do it; give a cat a command and he’ll pass it on to the dog. Dogs have been described as big goofy lugs while cats are supposedly refined and dignified. The fact is some cats are big goofy lugs and some dogs are very dignified, but somehow Western culture has so thoroughly divided them that we can only make fun of dogs for their goofiness, and we can only make fun of cats by mocking their dignity. Go figure.–CW]

To go outside, and there perchance to stay… 
Or to remain within… that is the question! 
Whether ’tis better for a cat to suffer 
The cuffs and buffets of inclement weather 
That Nature rains on those who roam abroad… 
Or take a nap upon a scrap of carpet, 
And so by dozing melt the solid hours 
That clog the clock’s bright gears with sullen time 
And stall the dinner bell. 

To sit, to stare 
Outdoors, and by a stare to seem to state 
A wish to venture forth without delay, 
Then when the portal’s opened up, to stand 
As if transfixed by doubt… 
To prowl, to sleep, 
To choose not knowing when we may once more 
Our readmittance gain… aye, there’s the hairball! 

For if a paw were shaped to turn a knob, 
Or work a lock, or slip a window-catch… 
And going out and coming in were made 
As simple as the breaking of a bowl… 
What cat would bear the household’s petty plagues, 
The cook’s well-practiced kicks, the butler’s broom, 
The infant’s careless pokes, the tickled ears, 
The trampled tail, and all the daily shocks 
That fur is heir to, when of his own free will, 
He might his exodus or entrance make 
With a mere mitten?? 

Who would spaniels fear, 
Or strays trespassing from a neighbor’s yard, 
But that the dread of our unheeded cries 
And scratches at a barricaded door 
No claw can open up … dispels our nerve 
And makes us rather bear our humans’ faults 
Than run away to unguessed miseries… 
Thus caution doth make house cats of us all… 
And thus the bristling hair of resolution 
Is softened up with the pale brush of thought, 
And since our choices hinge on weighty things, 
We pause upon the threshold of decision.

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