Monday, April 18, 2011

The Patter of Four Little Feet


Photo courtesy Flickr

An old friend stopped by Friday with her two miniature poodles. I enjoyed a short seminar in contemporary puppy management while I admired the dignity and self-possession of Robbie the gaffer dog. A hundred twenty years of seasoning have turned the house’s straight-grain Doug fir into an acoustic instrument. Lottie’s soft pre-teen footfalls resonated so charmingly that I considered getting them on tape.

The puppy sound track underlay the morning’s visit, and it was clear that the new addition to my friend’s family has had quite an influence. For one thing, May was wiped out, barely able to string two sentences together, and we both flashed back to our days wrangling toddlers. Robbie, though, looked younger than I’d ever seen him. His hindquarters had filled out from old man haunches, and May’s own fitness had clearly improved. She, too, was higher on her toes than I’d seen in ages.

May mentioned that miniature poodles had been bred by John Ringling to perform under the big top. The last time I saw Ringling there was a poodle act: the trainer juggled a number of wildly enthusiastic dogs to typical circus music. I retain the image of him with a poodle standing tall on the tips of the fingers of his outstretched arm, dog and man moving together to maintain balance.

Lottie is even brighter, more curious, and fast than a skater, and when she “asked” what was on the tea table, she stood unsupported on her hind legs, not quite able to see the meal. She’s bred to stand and reach up, apparently, both admirable qualities.

I lived with a parakeet for a while, and after a few months it dawned on me that we were both highly visual upright bipeds. A bird book had clued me that parakeets are the fighter pilots of the parrot world, small, fast and agile, with senses that process information a hundred times faster than homo sapiens. Once I knew that about Tio, we could converse, although he was impatient. I thought it would be more interesting to learn to speak parakeet than to burden him with a crippled version of English, and the effort enriched my relationship with all birds, especially after I learned that the human ear emits sounds in response to receiving them.

Northwest painter Bill Cumming taught me that the main thing about the human animal is the upright bipedal posture. As with Tio, I think the key to relating to Lottie might be to respect her hard wiring to work an audience. When she first entered the house, her expressions were parrot-like in their humor, and when she left, her farewell was as direct and aware as that of a delighted child.

You think you know a person. I mentioned Lottie’s visit to my partner of thirty-four years, and he told me about spending a New Jersey afternoon with two newly retired trainers of circus dogs. Their four terriers romped around the living room improvising the same tricks they had used in the ring, such as a standing back flip. My son had a kindergarten friend who was the granddaughter of a professional clown. Her mother had the same wired-into-the-moment coordination and responsiveness as Lottie, the working musicians I have known, and the one professional athlete whose path I’ve crossed. It’s the mindset of the workmanship of risk, that of the eye and hand unguided by pattern or jig.

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