Conforming

1

It was on a lovely little island called Iona that I made a worrying discovery. We were both on lead and these were wrapped rather loosely around an ancient vertical column of stone carved with intricate shapes. Apparently it was a Celtic cross – though that made no difference to my brother who had already cocked his leg on it. HE had wandered off into an old church following a long line of fairly eccentric looking women carrying lit candles. Soon we could hear them from inside wailing like starving dogs. It took scarcely a tug to free the leads from the cross and after a bit of local sniffing around we walked to the top of a small mound of grass. In front of us was the sea and the mountains of another island, but immediately beneath us and falling away to the sea’s edge was a beautiful green field, the kind that says, come on, run across me with abandon! There were two problems in doing so: the field was fenced off and it contained at least a hundred woolly mutts in need of a severe chasing. So we just sat there, perked up by the vague prospect of harassing sheep, keeping as far out of earshot as possible from the miserable noise coming from the church, and generally cutting fine profiles in this postcard setting.

And then they came into the field, four of them. Sheepdogs. Black and white, upright ears, crouching into position as they moved clockwise and counter-clockwise around the mutts like slightly hunched monomaniacs, their eyes already fixed. The shepherd spoke to the senior dog. He ran around and got the ear of the second. The second then took the third with him in a leftward direction while the boss and the fourth held their ground. Bro and me started watching with a vague interest in their technique but to be honest we couldn’t work out what they were trying to achieve. We reasonably assumed that put four dogs in a field by a seashore full of sheep and their one intent would be to run them straight into the water. Around and around they went, manoeuvring the sheep in the opposite direction from the sea, up toward an open gate leading to another field on higher ground. Bros and me looked at each other: we were having the same thought.

These four dogs worked the sheep exactly as we worked our two squeaky plastic balls. Same tactics. Same technique. We had thought we were pretty smart, honing our skills over days and weeks and months. Was it possible that in fact we were just untrained sheepdogs, exercising skills that we had no real control over; that our individuality, our subjectivity was an illusion and that we were just genetic clones? I looked into a lovely soft milky sky and thought that we were fools to have ever imagined we were anything other than dogs, ninety nine per cent wolf and one per cent whatever our breed had been programmed to do to modify this wolfishness (or whatever the word is). I suppose you could say that all sheepdogs are wolves in sheep’s clothing, except Bro and me were not even this. As we would undoubtedly have tried to run the sheep into the sea, biting at a bit of rump on the way, it was pretty obvious that scarcely half of that one per cent modifying gene seemed to have been activated. And when the shepherd saw us, he must have thought, oh no! There could be nothing worse in his eyes than an untrained sheepdog. And, of course, he was about to be proved right.

Conforming to type as always, Bro, his miniscule patience broken, his agitation peaking, leapt over the lowest point of the fence, taking advantage of his own elevated position. Before I could react in any way, he was bounding across that field, dividing the sheep into two groups, then four, each group driven by terror. He was barking mad, Bro was. And I can understand it. There was something so humiliating about watching these smart-arse sheepdogs, and something even more humiliating in being confronted with our own unfinished replicant selves.

So he went tearing around for a couple of minutes or so, till the hullaballoo got HIM out of his wailing new age feminist church service, and he came running toward me looking like thunder – as though it was my fault. Bro was doing his bit for the red and white Welsh side of the family in getting these four black and white dogs totally confused. They were frantically trying to re-establish some shape and order in the chaotic whirlwind that was my brother’s presence in that field. I can’t recall precisely how it all ended. I was struggling with two sets of feelings, the initial urging of my brother on to utter pandemonium gradually replaced by embarrassment and the desperate desire to go and hide in a dark hole. I remember HE got into the field somehow and started screaming at Bro. The shepherd was remarkably calm and continued to give out instructions to his dogs who began to regain some control over the panic-stricken sheep. HE got close enough to bros to grab his lead and march him out of the field, offering those “never again” comments that could have been directed at the shepherd or us or maybe himself. I suspect that he thought this was punishment for attending the wail of the banshees church service.

As we were marched off down the road, I realised that the memory of this day would not be the crazy behaviour of my brother – there were so many of these, they just merge into one another. No, it would be the distinct memory that on this day, in the beautiful light of that island, I began to have serious doubts about who and what I was. I had to face up to the idea that my life, my short existence, was nothing more than the animating, so-to-speak, of a genetic programme, every function of which could be anticipated and categorised. And if this were so, then there was then no question about how far I choose to conform as I was already conformed. And then another thought. If the fundamental conformity is to the wolf and it is this I share with all dogs (and foxes?), then that tiny percent of me is actually where all that promise of free will is concentrated. And then the thought that even the exercise of this one per cent is not really free but down to chance. In my own case I could have been born on a farm to be trained in the fine black and white arts, but I was born to human domesticity, cast off as a member of the great sheepdog diaspora, aware of roots but having no purpose.

I sat on that so perfect sandy beach as the light faded; these were my thoughts. Until a rabbit broke cover up in the pasture behind.

2

I hate sheep. I hate sheepdogs. And sometimes I hate my sister for being such a, well, such a sheepdog. Thank God for my independence. I walk tall. I am who am. I am who I want to be. Conform? Me? Never.

I remember on that island when I was finally restrained from tearing those sheep to pieces, I got into line pretty quick, walking on lead by HIS side. He was beside himself with anger – though you quickly learn that when he’s angry, he’s mostly angry with himself. My sister said something about me behaving like a wolf, which I took as a compliment although I’m not sure where she was coming from. (I rarely am.)

The funny thing about the walk ‘home’ that early evening was that home was the sand dunes at the far end of the island, facing westward. Since we had arrived in this place after a long, long journey – three trains, a bus and two boats – we had set up a kind of outdoor home on the beach. This was just so radical. In this situation HE could hardly sit on what my sis called his “homo saps”, a term she coined in her infinite superiority whenever she felt one of our two legged loved ones was inflating their sense of superiority to get one over on us. On this island we were in it together. We had slept, the three of us huddled together under a perfect night sky. You know I’m not of a poetic nature but I have to tell you that sitting under what HE said were the Northern Lights with the sea breaking against a perfect sandy beach, was very beautiful. And it was so cosy us keeping each other warm. The night before had been almost the shortest of the year, close to midsummer, and we had seen the sun set in oranges and purples and only a few hours later we had a red glow filling the sky anticipating the sunrise. And even before the sun was up, sis and me were tearing across the rocky landscape behind the beach, chasing rabbits. There were hundreds of them. And I can tell you I could have caught any number – if I’d really been trying.

What was interesting for me was to see how happy HE was. I thought that after a long journey with a hugely heavy rucksack, mainly full with our food, he would be fed up and desperate for some human home comforts. The opposite was the case. He seemed liberated from any need to be other than the person we kind of always guessed he was. He was an outdoor man, not a nest man. He used to tell us when we felt apologetic about dragging him out for walks in the rain and the snow and the freezing cold, that it made no difference and that he would have been out anyway. That first night, as we kept each other warm under that night sky, he told us (again) about how when he was fourteen he had almost ran away to sea as a cabin boy on a ship leaving for Holland – how he had packed his bag and was ready to go to the docks for an night sailing to who knows were, but lost his bottle. Well, not his bottle because he can be quite courageous, but rather he felt the power of conformity greater than he felt the call of the wild. (And I know all about that – it’s at the very heart of a dog’s life.) He told us a lot about feeling misunderstood, especially about the call of the wild he feels at night. He just loves to walk under a night sky, to walk through the deserted streets, to enjoy a different relationship to reality. This was really great for us as we were the only two dogs we knew that are taken out well after midnight. But he told us that all the fellow human beings he knew found this very strange behaviour – that maybe he was looking for women or was a serial killer or both. This made my sis and me laugh because you don’t have to be around him for very long to realise how funny that is.

Sometimes sis and me noticed the warmth he shows people who live only with what they carry on their backs, people with no homes, the urban nomads. And you will have noticed, as we certainly did, how often such people have a dog as companion. On more than one occasion, we were stopped and he was offered money to get himself a cup of tea while carrying his rucksack and having us two in tow. Now you may have picked up that I don’t embarrass easily, but on these occasions my ears almost folded in on themselves. I remember one time in particular in some big gardens opposite a castle in a city in Scotland, the place where we regularly used to kill time waiting for trains. There was a crazy festival on and we were resting up on a park bench. I tell you, based on the charity we were offered, we could have lived on ham slices and pepperoni pizza for days. Mind you, I must admit I was a liability in such situations, always very reluctant to be patronised by soppy strangers, and was likely to snap sooner rather than later. And yet somehow this made us an even more authentic looking beggar trio.

Anyway, here he was – in the wild. Sis and me talked about it while sunning ourselves on the beach that second evening, after nearly devastating the island’s rabbit population. My sis started talking about how liberating it was to possess nothing. “Look at those saps. They don’t seem to realise the blindingly obvious – that every possession is a responsibility, something to weigh you down.” I thought that sometimes we might be that – a responsibility – to HIM and that the only way to relieve him of this responsibility was to clear off. But that made me think that there is a difference. If you love somebody or something, then it doesn’t feel at all like a burden. In fact it is part of what makes you fly. The fine line is terrifying. Some days I know we were close to being a real burden to him. Anyway, I am drifting off the point. Sis continued her thinking aloud about homo saps. “Look at HIM right now. See how happy he is? He doesn’t have to be anybody other than himself. There is no pressure at all to conform, in fact out here he doesn’t even have to conform to the role of responsible dog owner.” This did make me think (I hate to admit that sis sometimes makes me think …) that we are all, dogs, wolves, foxes, sheep, saps, all of us are most happy when we are living according to our natures, when we are not blocking the life force that flows in each of us. Sis then said something about how we were just as much victims of conformity as the saps and began talking numbers about sheep, sheepdogs, wolves, wolves in sheep’s clothing and other things that got me totally confused. Apparently we had no choice about whether or not to conform as we were already, as she said, conformed. And she wanted to do something pretty drastic.

But I had to give it to her: she was right. You could say we dogs were in a much worse situation even than the saps as we not only had to conform to what dogs were meant to be, but we had to be what humans expected what dogs were meant to be. Take my football skills. Previously I have not beaten around the bush on this one and I will repeat it here: I’m a brilliant footballer and have superb control of a ball given that I only have stubs, not feet. I love nothing more than to grab a sock in my mouth and then dribble a ball up and down a living room or, preferably, a nice muddy field. This is just what I do – but I am gawped at as though I’m some kind of freak. “Oh, how amazing for a dog!” Come off it. I’m not a circus act. I’m just doing my thing.

And this is just the tip of the problem. Just imagine what it’s like to be barked at all day. Yes, pun intended. (My sis has been teaching me some of these smart-aleck tricks of writing.) From first thing in the morning till last thing at night we dogs are barked at by humans who demand that we conform to their wishes. What’s worse is the patronising nature of their language. “Good dog.” “Bad dog” As though these people have the first idea what it is to be a dog.

And we submit. We submit because that’s how it is. There’s a power structure that has established itself within and between the species and we have no choice but to conform to an image that is imposed on us, to respond to directions we are given. That’s life, eh? Conform and a whole lot of guarantees kick in: you get fed, you get control-walked, you get warmth, you get your tummy tickled. I could go on. And dogs as a species are particularly susceptible to the pressure to conform. I understand that in human terms we come out very different from cats. Those annoying ugly over-sized rats are seen as remote, independent, cool, pragmatic, somehow retaining a degree of control over their own sense of self. By comparison we are apparently just, well, pussy cats really. There was this dog in Scotland once apparently, who lived very close to where we did our homeless begging routine that I’ve just told you about. When his master died (note the term “master”), he was so loyal that he spent all day every day lying on the feller’s gravestone till he himself died. That’s apparently what dogs are like. They surrender. They embrace the submissive role. They are “loyal” and “good friends”. They have become “domesticated”. I wonder if in reality it means anything more than that we have learnt to adapt for survival. And that like other adaptations for survival, it’s touch-and-go whether you lose more than you gain. Look at HIM. Always HE was trying to come back to the norm, always responsive to that voice within him which said “be a good dog”. On this beach in Iona, he was being a little bit of a wild dog, swimming naked in the sea, sleeping under the stars, though not as wild as we chose to be when we threw in the towel with conformity, turned our backs on homo saps and went to live in the woods. Though that was still some time off.

(Oh, why did we do it? I haven’t had my tum tickled in such a very very long time.)

3.

I have to say that it is very difficult to be a good dog. I don’t just mean mad dogs like my brother. One obvious reason for this is that to be a “good” dog is to manage, contain, suppress things that make a dog a dog at all. Take me, I am a self-confessed scavenger. I love to go into bins, delighting to find tin cans to lick clean, pizza boxes with crusty remnants and chips, especially chips lathered in kitschup. I am also a creature of smell. And the smells that delight a dog are not ones that other species share – clearly. So when I come back from a walk with a good coating of fox No.5 rubbed into my coat, the human world I inhabit can’t accept this, indeed can’t stomach it to the point where I wonder whether it is sensible for different species to try to share any kind of common existence.

What is for sure is that a dog is not in charge in a relationship with a homo sap. That’s basically why I pulled my bro and me out of ours – but that’s another story. We learn from the beginning that a master or mistress has a conception of what dogs do. Out in a park a “good” dog is one that meets the mark, obeying instructions barked out by someone who has never enjoyed this level of control in any other aspect of their lives. We conform because we know which side our chunky gravy dinner is served on, what cushion on the sofa is particularly accommodating and because, well, because sometimes these homo saps can be frightening. But there’s another reason too. It is so easy to be seduced by the pleasure of submission. We see dogs who, far from having lost all self-respect, seem to walk with greater self-esteem because they are well mastered. I guess they have security and the material benefits of submission. In return for playing the role of family good-dog, they have entered into the kind of contract that I have noticed homo saps like to make with one another. Except, of course for the old cliché that you hear so often: “My relationship with my dog is just so much better than my relationship with my partner – my dog just does what he’s told and never answers back.”

There is, of course, a complication to this conformity. We are expected to have amusing traits that make us distinctive and worth showing off to visitors. In fact we have to learn the subtle difference between being mischievous (good) and naughty (bad), like running around the room with an old sock looking mischievous but not sitting soulfully in the corner shredding bits off the dining room table leg. Needless to say, my brother, unable to differentiate, does both.

When I wasn’t in my liberationist phase I could identify the attractions of submission, especially as the terms of this submission were so much less severe than those homo saps imposed on one another. On the whole, and I’m talking about the civilised ones, not the many psychopaths out there whose interest in dogs seems driven mainly by their lust for torture, the decent human dog “owner” (huh!) treated his canine slave benignly and realistically. By contrast, and I generalise from much observation, they treat their human partners, husbands, wives, children, neither benignly nor realistically. We are asked to be slightly modified versions of our natural selves, bribed continuously into submission, pampered at the smallest sign that we are happy submitters to the greater will. It seems to me that often humans ask their ‘other half’ (?) to be entirely different from the person they naturally are, like an Alsatian being asked to behave like a Pekinese, or a Labrador like a Chihuahua, or a Great Dane like a Fox Terrier. I could go on ….. but you get my drift. Humans have this amazing ability to misrecognise one another and as a result to ask the seemingly impossible. The extent to which they conform within these relationships is the extent to which they are willing and capable of twisting themselves out of shape, becoming what the other wants them to be. In the process they become the double victims of misrecognition: misrecognised by the ‘other half’ and strange as it may seem misrecognised by themselves. And so it goes on.

Misrecognising the self can only lead to further acts of misrecognition. Once me and Bro wandered on to a fair ground that was parked up on the Green, mainly looking for rich burger pickings, and followed a smell into a brightly coloured long truck with garish flashing lights. Inside was terrible. I can’t do mirrors at the best of times but these were curved this way and that, creating the scariest effects. My brother one second had a huge head and a tiny body, the next he looked as flat as a dashchund. I looked shredded and then obese just in turning from one wall to the other. Well, you can see it coming, because I’m pretty predictable sometimes. Yes, those distorting, crazy mirrors make me think that that’s how humans see each other – not just strangers, but their nearest and dearest. The terrible drive to lose the self in conformity…. To be a dog. To live a dog’s life. The more I thought about it, the more I was determined not be a dog, well not a human dog.

4

I was once in an elevator, horrible silent things that move vertically through space, really creepy. This one had a full-length mirror and I saw my sis, HIM and another dog staring at me. Not only was I alarmed at the thought that my sis and HIM had doubles or by the thought that there was a dog in their acquaintance who was as handsome as me, but also by a depressing sense of being trapped. We all did what we were told as a mechanical voice told us about doors opening and levels passing, all six of us. We surrendered our will. Now I know that the only alternative to this elevator (it may be called a lift) was something much worse – an escalator – but I had had enough. I started growling at this dog in the mirror that I didn’t recognise. I thought some direct action was needed here, otherwise I might as well just be one of those Japanese canine robots. I leapt up at the mirror scratching it with my claws. The dog in the mirror gave it back to me. My bark echoed like thunder and still all I got was a quiet “shh” from HIM. The mechanical doors opened and the three of us trooped out, the other three left, maybe for ever, going up and down and down and up in that dreadful machine.

Now all dogs are conformists to the extent that they are pragmatists. Though we are far down that league table compared with cats. I have been known to sit subserviently, hand out a paw and generally flatter my human “owners”, in return for a few gravy biscuits. On the whole, however, I have been hopelessly incapable of that trade off that seems so common in the human world between obedience and material reward. To put it bluntly, I am always getting things wrong. I always manage to step with a muddy paw on the wrong bit of floor, wipe my self dry on the wrong bit of wallpaper, bury my bones in the wrong bit of the garden. Now I admit that this isn’t a refusal to conform, it’s just getting it wrong. SHE would say I’m not living in the now, but I’ve never understood what that means (where else can you live?) so I just raise my ears in wise agreement. As I see it, and I know some will say I’m just dumb, I try really hard to learn the rules and to fit in and I’m not a two-faced little cow like my dearest sis. But I am clumsy. I am careless. And, worst of all, I relax too easily when I’m happy. That means I forget all the rules and get either too excited or too laid back.

And the reason HE rarely tells me off as I might expect him to is because in a resigned sort of way, he understands my daily failures as not so different from his own. While sis is for ever tidying up, moving things around, she’s actually hoarding stuff. I just know it. While she sits primly in the corner curled up in a ball, she’s forever calculating. As for me, well I just do what is needed when I can see it under my nose. For example, sis is a really messy eater and every day I have to come along and lick up the debris she leaves around her bowl, though for this I think I’m seen as a bit of a greedy opportunist. So, all in all, I sometimes feel I can’t win and the idea that I’m a bull in a Chinese laundry (I think this is the phrase) seems to have become self-fulfilling even though I try to be delicate, refined and respectful. It’s a dog’s life whichever way you play it!

5

Well not exactly: we stepped out of it, Bro and me. We turned our backs on conformity and its oh so compromised rewards to live the wild life.

Bro and me have some sense of routine and some basic rules of mutual co-operation living rough in the woods, but I suppose you would have to say that we are free. But that’s a big word, free. HE had a book which I liked – as it had a dog and was quite philosophical and melancholic and ironically funny. It was called something like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and was about discovering the extreme difficulty of living life without the familiar rules and restriction, without the struggle to improvise within a life dictated by the big Law. Bro is finding this tougher than me. He was like clockwork when we lived in the human world, his body fine-tuned to every routine. Out here everything is just a little too organic for him. Mind you, the confirmation that mechanistic clock-time has nothing to do with real time, was one of the great delights, maybe the greatest single feature of liberation and re-birth during our first few weeks out here.

For sure sitting out here on a cold winter’s night with only a couple of dog stars up there in the black sky, and with a harsh frost creeping all around, it’s easy to wish we were curled up in comfortable sofas in centrally heated houses. In fact you may think it mad, incomprehensible that we should have chosen this alternative. You will hear bro complaining constantly and abusing me. Typically the other day he said, “you’re just a high-concept bitch” and then his usual bark,  “you’re so clever, you’re stupid.” And replying to him with smooth self-referential irony is just a waste. On this occasion I said, “but, at least I’m very low maintenance.” He just put his two front paws over his face with frustration, bemusement, despair. Let’s make no buried bones about it, he desperately wants to be maintained again, and is prepared to pay the price. I am not and won’t.

On the whole I am sure we did the right thing. But I do think constantly about the trade-off that our homo sap friends and enemies play all the time. And how it works in their world, in the terms in which that species inhabits the planet, essentially trading freedom for security, limiting to a light breeze (at best) the life-force that could otherwise blow like a wild elemental storm through their lives. I can understand it. But I have always said I would rather be a dog. But then there is that further and oh so perplexing question: what is it to be a dog? A dog is not a wolf, a dog is not a fox, a dog is a creature conformed by thousands of years of intimate association with homo saps.

Have I really found myself out in these woods, running wild, sleeping rough, living off the land? Am I actually just in romantic denial of what it is to be a conformed dog? My mind keeps drifting back to that moment on Iona when I saw myself in those sheepdogs. To be completely truthful, I envy those sheepdogs. What a sense of purpose their work must give them. But isn’t work just the most impossible act of surrender? Maybe. But those dogs were so present in what they were doing. I wonder.

©2010

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