Saturday, 3 June 2017

On Going to the Dogs - Umberto Tosi

Eric M. Knight
and friend on MGM lot, 1942
They say now, that we humans coevolved with dogs over the past 30,000 or so years, rather than our prehistoric ancestors simply domesticating hapless wolves like sheep. Each changed the other. Though much remains vague, socioanthropologists theorize that certain Asian and European wolves chose us as handy sources of scraps. This suggests that humans were as messy then as they are now.

Wolves who danced with humans morphed towards friendlier dogs in a symbiotic relationship that made humans more efficient apex hunters, which led to heartier nutrition supporting expanded tribal encampments. These, in turn, led to settlement, cultivation, agriculture and eventually to civilization in which dogs perform so many essential jobs beyond their central roles as family members and all around pals. My childhood experiences with Canis Lupus Familiaris leads me to speculate that a parallel process may apply in the uneven, ever unfolding evolution of self, especially for those of us who attempt to write.

I yearned for a dog something fierce through much of my boyhood. My mother and I lived in a one-bedroom, white stucco bungalow rental with chipped, orange Spanish-tile roofing where no pets were allowed. It was during World War 2 and shortly afterward when there was an acute housing shortage in Los Angeles due to a mass influx of aircraft factory workers. My mother sang torch songs with a swing band in a potted-palm night club while my father, who had a draft deferment, was somewhere "on the road" trading in commodities upstate. "I'm a grass widow," she would say, and complain about trying to get by on the pittances he sent home sporadically.

I slept on a pull-down Murphy bed in our bungalow's front room and dreamed of Lassie, not my father, coming home. One of my aunts had given me Lassie Come-Home, the novel by Eric M. Knight for Christmas, the first book I ever read cover-to-cover. I had laughed, sobbed and jumped in my seat watching the 1943 movie starring a Roddy McDowell. One day a newsreel said Knight had been killed in a U.S. Army Air Corps transport crash over Dutch Surinam. I didn't know what to make of that, except that writers must be war heroes, though my father had pegged them for dreamers. I devoured Jack London's White Fang - followed by any other novel I could find with a dog protagonist.

I smuggled home strays I found on the street and tried to keep them undercover, feeding them scraps out the back door like members of the resistance hid downed American flyers behind enemy lines in those war movies we saw at the neighborhood Bijou. Once I brought home a jovial, hulking St. Bernard I could ride and who could wet my whole face with one slobbery lick!

I would be found out invariably. I'd beg to keep the beast. My mother would refuse, but let me tend it for a few days while she searched for its rightful owner, or failing that, called the humane society, leading in either case to tearful goodbyes. "Just pray the landlord doesn't find out," she'd say.

I finally got my wish at age 10 as something of a consolation prize following my parents' divorce. My mother remarried a mustachioed wannabe opera impresario, chef, and part-time house painter from Naples who turned out to be a mean-spirited, martinet beneath his charming exterior. We moved to somewhat more commodious digs where I got my own room, a second-hand whitewall balloon-tyred Schwinn, a dog and piano lessons.

The dog was a six-month-old female, Australian Shepherd from the pound, smart as two raccoons and a fox, it seemed to me. Her soft fur was mottled gray, black and white, like fireplace tailings.  She had one hazel eye and one wolfish gray-green eye that I believed gave her preternatural powers.

Me at 11 in 1948,
in Beaver Cleaver
mode, off to school
sans my dog.
My stepfather named her Ciccia - pronounced chi-chi-ah, colloquial Sicilian for gypsy, or Francesca, also "fattie" or "dude" or in this case, "dudette." (Upon reflection, his choice smacked of passive aggressive jealousy. I never got it, but he had to have his way in all things.)

I taught Ciccia a dozen circus tricks - jumping through hoops, dancing on two legs, speaking, "playing piano" (i.e. slapping the keys with her forepaws, then turning to me, panting for approval). I got her to run in zigzag patterns on cue like the sheep dog that she was. I let her trot along alongside my bicycle off-leash as I whistled commands to follow sidewalks and stop at corners until I gave the okay. She would accompany me on my paper route every day after school. I read to her sotto voce, sure she could comprehend everything, but only as pertained to dogs.

Then she went into heat, got loose and had nine puppies, giving me lessons in reproductive biology, animal husbandry, personal responsibility, and dog adoption. I was assigned clean-up for the duration of Ciccia's mothering days in the back of a laundry room. After that, my mother had her neutered despite my protests and plans to start a puppy farm.

Looking back, I realize that Ciccia's most amazing trick was to provide companionship to a chubby, only child, forever new-kid-on-the-block with few pals. More than a friend, she became my trusty sidekick in exploring worlds of imagination that transcended constricted cultural narratives and biology. We were inseparable for a time, connected across species, as two-legged and four-legged travelers.

Foxy
Soon I grew up - or thought I did. I went off to college, an oblivious youth in pursuit of girls, grades and myself in that order. I left Ciccia in the care of my father and his new wife, who by then had moved to San Francisco.  Her muzzle had grayed and she slept a lot - as if done with me. Except for goldfish, I had no pets of my own until the 1970s. I was working from a San Francisco apartment near Ocean Beach writing the first book for which I had a publisher's advance.

I used to jog a slow 10k, five days a week in Golden Gate Park. One day a frisky, strikingly marked, black shepherd kept following me all around one of the park lakes. The next day, she trotted with me again. On the third day, she followed me back to my apartment - no collar, no tags. I posted ads, no claimants. Like prehistoric wolf-dogs, she chose to become my dog. Once she moved in, I had to move to an apartment that accommodated canine companions. She was never a cuddly pet, more of a jogging companion and silent witness to my efforts to write every day. I figured her for a mix and I told those who asked that she was "an Italian Shepherd," tongue-in-cheek. I found out later that she was an Australian Kelpie.

I named her Foxy for her pointy ears. When I took her on picnics, she could sniff the ground, listen intently and dig up gophers, then proceed to eat them with a sickening crunch,. I considered renting her services to gardeners. This hunting talent, I assumed, is how she had survived in the wilds of Golden Gate Park until she adopted me.

Over the years, I've also had, as it were, many grand-pets - the dogs of my daughters as they grew up - a mixed beagle escape artist named Winkie, my youngest daughter's dachshund, Little Bit, my son's two terriers, Cherry and M'Jain, accompanied me into middle age and loved to jump on my lap while I wrote, as you can see below - truly inspirational.  My daughters continue the family dog tradition with a brace of canine companions that they and their children enjoy.I don't have any pictures of Ciccia except in my head.

My Ciccia days came back to me in a flash four years ago when my inamorata, the artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris and I entertained a couple from out of town. They brought their eight-year-old son, an engaging, precocious lad who followed me about as I cooked, telling me stories about the dog he was getting for that Christmas. He had the breed and name all picked out, and detailed stories about what they would do together. All delightful until I learned that it was all fantasy. The boy's father was allergic to dogs and had made clear that it was out of the question. The boy ignored this and kept right on weaving his dog stories. The situation later inspired me to write my novella, My Dog's Name, about just such a boy who goes off on a magical adventure with this imaginary dog in the Hollywood Hills near where I grew up. I'm now in the process of revising it for a collection of my shorter works that I'll be publishing in print this fall.

=====================
UT with his late coauthors,
Cherry (l) and M'Jane.
Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry, during the 1990s and aughts. He was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times during the 1960s and 70s, He has been editor of San Francisco Magazine, and other regional publications. He has written extensively for major metropolitan newspapers, magazines online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies. He has four grown children, nine grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. He resides in Chicago and is partnered with noted Chicago narrative imagist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris.


4 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

Compelling reading, Umberto. You don't just describe people and events, you regenerate them.

Marsha Coupé said...

A most fitting tribute to our oldest and most loyal of friends. Cannot imagine life without Canis Lupus Familiaris. You beautifully capture their importance with this treat-of-a-tale, Umberto. I enjoyed reading this very much.

Dipika Mukherjee said...

Congratulations on the new book Umberto and I look forward to reading it in Fall! Lovely post.

Alicia Sammons said...

It is no wonder that dogs play an important role as spirit guides throughout human cultures. Then as now, they remind us of our inextricable link to the natural world. They accompany us on all our journeys, both real and fanciful, ever reassuring us that--through it all-- we are loved. Thank you for writing this moving tribute to our loyal, four-legged friends... Where would we be without them?