Saturday, January 9, 2010

Down by the Creek

During our New Year's Day walkabout, Muzzy and I explored the creek that runs along the east side of the Park. I hadn't been down there in years. The threat of poison ivy and the sssssnakes is enough to keep me out of the woods and the creek bed, thank  you. On a crisp winter's day, the likelihood of meeting serpents or poisonous plants was pretty low. Pshew.

Years ago, Roma and I used to spend a lot of time down in the creek. Before the erosion that I mentioned in a previous post, there used to be a kind of rocky "beach." I would skip rocks while Roma cooled her paws in the water, which was clean enough. There's no mistaking this creek for a pastoral scene.  As you can see, our creek is totally urban; it serves as a conduit for run-off and sewer pipes.

When we would walk in the early morning, Roma and I would often disturb a large water bird—a heron or a crane? It was a graceful, leggy thing with an impressive wingspan. It would launch into the air, glide a hundred feet south, and then swoop and land. Roma was still spry and would catch up to the bird almost as soon as it landed. She wasn't trying to harass it; she was merely interested in it as a strange, elusive creature. The bird never thought to fly in the opposite direction. Eventually, we'd turn around, so it could find its breakfast undisturbed. I don't know if that bird or others like it still inhabit the creek, which was so dry this summer.

Trash, of course, is a constant issue. Much of it comes from run-off when the creek floods. The neighborhood the creek runs through usually sponsors a Memorial Day picnic and clean-up, starting at a tiny greenbelt park just south of Dog Park. Above, plastic trash bag flags whip in the breeze.

One summer I devoted way too much time to throwing rocks from one side of the creek at a drainage tunnel opening on the other side, just north of here on the embankment. I must have thrown hundreds of pebbles and stones at the hole—and missed every time. Then, after long absence, Roma and I went back. I picked up a stone and tossed it. Zing! It went right into the drainage tunnel. Amazing. I never again made another direct hit.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Animal Spirits

I'd heard of mineral spirits, of course. I remember using them in high school art class to clean paint brushes. But animal spirits was a new one. I came across the term in a blog on The New York Times Web site, Schott's Vocabulary. In it, Ben Schott considers an interesting new or obscure word or term every day. Thursday's was animal spirits. According to Schott and other sources, animal spirits is a term coined by the economist John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s to describe the irrational or instinctual confidence exhibited by people in the business world, particularly Wall Street types. The term came up this week because, at the start of this new year, financial writers were suggesting that animal spirits were making a resurgence. Schott cites the Economist, which says that Keynes defined animal spirits as "naive optimism"—a sort of confident cheerfulness, a state of mind in which the person ignores or forgets facts of life, such as death and taxes. The idea comes from the notion that animals can and do act from instinct and with exuberance because they are not aware of the possibility of their own deaths—or any consequences. In fact, "animal courage" was one of the original meanings of the term, per the Oxford English Dictionary. Another was simply "voluntary motion"—action caused by nerves and muscle.

The idea intrigued me, and, of course, my thoughts turned to the dogs. I have often wondered what they think, and I often put words to the thoughts I imagine ("I don't care if you wrap that stinking pill in cat poop; I am not going to swallow it." "Mailmanmailmanmailman!!!!"), but I never stopped to consider what they don't think about. Or how their lack of awareness of danger and illness and death frees them to burst into action. Any dog owner knows that desire or curiosity is all a dog needs to inspire naughty or silly or bad behavior. When a dog spots a squirrel, she doesn't look both ways before charging across the street. That's how animal spirits work. Somehow it does not inspire confidence—or animal spirits—in me to know that the people who invest our money rely on the same impulses as a dog that rolls in poop and then jumps on the bed.

I did please me to discover that Jane Austen used the term animal spirits in my favorite of her books, Pride and Prejudice (the version without zombies, thank you). I've read the book probably 30 times and never thought twice about the phrase, but it perfectly suits the character of Lydia Bennett. Here, Austen is describing Lydia, the youngest, silliest, most flirtatious, and least decorous  of her five sisters:
Lydia was a stout, well-grown girl of fifteen, with a fine complexion and good-humoured countenance; a favourite with her mother, whose affection had brought her into public at an early age. She had high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence, which the attentions of the officers, to whom her uncle's good dinners and her own easy manners recommended her, had increased into assurance.
The meaning Austen intends here is the one still recognized by the OED (which, by the way, does not recognize Keynes's definition)—"natural gaiety of disposition." But Lydia, as all readers of the book learn, illustrates Keynes's meaning, too. She displays naive optimism by not even pausing to think of her family or her reputation before running off with a handsome but penniless scoundrel. To Austen's credit, like any indulgent dog owner, she gives Lydia a pass. All ends well for Lydia and her sisters, just as all goes well for Muzzy when she steals another dog's ball or jumps in a mud puddle. All the responsible adults go "Tut, tut. For shame!" Then they tell her how cute she is and throw the ball again.

I recommend the following New Year's Resolution: To maintain animal spirits—within reason.
Ta! -z

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ready for Their Close-Ups

I hope you will indulge me today. A sunny and cool New Year's Day offered an ideal opportunity to take some photos of the dogs and create some documentation parity. (I have boxes of photos of Roma; of Muzzy, alas, like any second child, I have very few shots.)

First, a proper head shot—

–which was obtained only by holding this object in the same hand as the camera (that's why her ears are a little cropped*):

Muzzy has some unusual markings on her head and feet. I like how the shadows play on them in these shots:

Did you notice how M's tail "sprouts" out of the back of her head. It looks like she has a little handle, like a mug or a teapot.

Her tail is irrepressible. Here it curves out of her ear.

When Muzzy was a puppy, I was amazed that she'd let me touch her paws. (Roma will never let anyone touch her feet.) I would sit on the floor and stroke them and tell her how tiny they were. Now she's got big ol' paws, as you can see. I still like to pat them.

And now for someone completely different—our Roma, scruffy but still regal.

Thanks for indulging me.
* For an interesting and revisionist take on Vincent Van Gogh and the myth of his severed ear, check out this recent article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Keeping Dog Park A No-Bite Zone

Those of you who are on the listserv have already gotten the e-mails about two incidents that have involved aggressive dogs at Dog Park. In one, a regular Dog Park dog (Crockett, who lives at the edge of the Park) was attacked and injured by a non-regular, a pit bull brought out by the owner's roommate. The attack happened right before Christmas. Crockett's owners, Andrea and Drew, say that Crockett is recovering and that they were able to contact the owner, who is paying the medical bills.

Then last night came a notice from Carl, our listserv master, about an aggressive black lab that cornered a TxDoT employee on the afternoon of New Year's Eve. According to the employee, neither the dog's owner nor bystanders (other Parkers!) seemed overly concerned.  If the dog were a regular at the Park, I can't believe someone would not have stepped in, which leads me to think the dog and its owners were newbies. Not cool, newbies! In response to that e-mail, two fellow Parkers mentioned to me that they separately encountered an older man walking Monday with a badly behaved, medium-sized, black dog on leash. The guy actually warned, "Ladies, you'd better put your dogs on leashes." Hmmph. Ladies? As if. Another Parker reported that the guy had trouble controlling his dog when it met other dogs. Honestly. We should put up a sign: "It is true; this is NOT a dog park. You are invited to walk here ONLY if your dog is well behaved, and you are capable of picking up its poop."

To what do we owe these recent disruptions? It seems that every year around this time, something unpleasant happens at Dog Park, and before we know it, Animal Control begins visiting on a regular basis. Part of it, don't you think, is that the cooler weather brings out more people and dogs. Also, as others have noticed, the apartments/condos across the street from Dog Park are beginning to fill up in earnest. (As one Parker told me, there always seems to be a mattress truck parked illegally out front now.) An influx of newbies always upsets the mix at Dog Park. New folks don't know the rules. Old folks aren't always so welcoming. (My Muzzy is a notorious non-welcomer. She busts a move on every new dog, which is rarely well received by either the dog or the owner. I have noticed, though, that she is less likely to be obnoxious when Roma  is not with us. Also, taking her to other parks where she is not queen bee has helped give her some perspective. But, still, some day, she's gonna get hurt, and an "I told you so" will not staunch any wounds.) The lesson I try to instill in her is simple: "Good things rarely result from acting territorial, unless you are Alexander the Great, and you are not."

So lately I have tried to be more alert and cautious when meeting new dogs and their owners. In the past, I have often forgotten to bring a leash for Muzzy, but now I try keep one handy, and I make a big show of snapping it on her when she acts like a spaz. Let's be careful out there. Let's keep Park a no-bite zone. Stay safe and stay warm.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Urban Walkabout

As I've mentioned, Muzzy and I made resolutions to walk more and be more adventurous. On New Year's Day, Dog Park was only one stop on a vigorous urban walkabout. Here are some of the sights.

We cut through Dog Park and headed down to the creek.

There's been tons of erosion. Live Oaks used to hold the embankment together, but over the past few years, several have collapsed into the creek, leaving only torn roots. The water was surprisingly clean.

We decided to climb up the embankment to the east side of the creek. Below a view of Dog Park from under that tree.

The building that backs up to the creek and Dog Park is the Texas State Library. It is a very mysterious building. The door makes two ominous statements: "Authorized Access Only" and "No Public Restrooms." (!!). So don't make any attempt to enter this building. What exactly goes on inside, I'd like to know.

Even the parking sign says, "Tsk, tsk."

Our urban walk continued, along Shoal Creek and then on to the new sidewalks on 45th Street.

Here is the view of Dog Park from the 45th Street bridge. Parkers know that Crazy Guy lives dangerously close to here. I knew that I was taking a risk. In fact, as I was snapping this shot, he revved his fancy, black sports car out of his driveway and tore down the street. That is as close to CG as I want to get.

A lavender wall on 45th Street.

A sign on an nearby neighbor's fence. She's not kidding with this sign. She trains Dobermans. Occasionally, she conditions them by riding her bike while a Dobie trots along beside, tethered by a mere cloth leash. They both sneer at us mutts as they cruise by. Inside, Muzzy and I shrink a little.

Why our street, two-blocks long and dead-end, rates two signs, I'll never know. No one can ever find our street. The extra sign isn't really helping flag people down. Almost every week, I find a driver stranded in our neighborhood. "How do I get to Mopac?" is the plaintive cry. I feel so powerful, holding another's fate in my hand. "Ha, ha, ha. You can't get there from here."

Thanks for walking with us.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Literary Dog: The Principles of Uncertainty

Over the holidays, I had the good fortune to curl up with an excellent book, Maira Kalman's The Principles of Uncertainty (The Penguin Press, 2007). Kalman is a prolific illustrator/artist whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Times. Her preferred format is to ruminate on a "big idea," such as "The Pursuit of Happiness" and to run with it. (Click here to see her last installment on this idea, in a blog she did for the NYT. It's wonderful. You'll never think about George Washington the same way again.) She rarely approaches the big idea head on; instead she lets readers tag along with her as she goes through life, reading, eating, traveling, and observing the world, all while the idea hangs around in the back of her head, shaping her thoughts. Her writing is essentially a series of journal entries, the words scrawled in a loopy script, that introduce or complement big, bold, color-saturated illustrations.

The Principles of Uncertainty is like peeking into Kalman's diary at her worries and concerns over a one-year period, from May 2006 to April 2007. She reads obituaries, travels to Israel, explores the streets of New York, visits Paris and sleeps in a big pink bed. She loves hats, old people, cake, and all things pink. She thinks a lot about her family, especially her recently deceased mother and relatives who made it through the Holocaust and those who did not. Mostly she worries. She's a New Yorker, after all. They do that.

I discovered three images in the book that include dogs. The dogs are mostly props; they are adorable, but they hardly figure into Kalman's contemplation. My personal feeling, of course, is that Ms. Kalman might worry a great deal less (or at least about more specific, resolvable things) if she had a dog, or even if she painted dogs more often. It's merely my observation. Nonetheless, her book is a treasure. I read it too fast, skipping ahead and ahead to see the next glorious image. It deserves a look or two, especially on a cold, gray day--which is in our immediate forecast, so bundle up.

The text for this one goes: "The woman is very ill. Her little dog never leaves her side." I like his big, rabbity ears and how he stands protectively on the bed. What happened to him, I wonder? Kalman doesn't say. Maybe the woman had a miraculous recovery, and she and the dog take long walks every day. I like that; a happy ending.

This one is a detail from an illustration called "Part 6. Julie and Vickie." Julie is a tall blonde human in a little black dress.  But, this is Vickie. She seems right at home in her mod pink chair. Oh, to be a urbane little dog.

(The images above appear on pp. 51, 242, & 291 of Kalman's book, which I found at the Austin Public Library. Go ahead. Click the link and order the book. Enjoy!-z)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dog Park, 01/01/10

It's a brand new year, a shiny new decade.  I decided to start them both off right by walking to the Dog Park. New Year's Day was  bright, breezy, and cold. As Roma snoozed in a patch of sunlight in our back yard, Muzzy and I snuck out the front and covered seven-tenths of a mile to Park. We met only few other happy souls—no one we knew well enough to talk to. Mostly we enjoyed the sunshine and the curious sensation of walking vigorously in Austin without sweating. Here is some of what we saw:

Happy New Year, everyone. -z