Monthly Archives: February 2014

Trouble, D.D.

Though she is wise in the ways of God and humankind, Trouble is not actually a Doctor of Divinity, but a Dobirstein Dog. The Dobirstein Award is given to Tollers who earn Canadian titles in the show ring, in obedience, and in field or hunt tests. Its purpose is to “recognize and encourage the versatility of the Toller and to discourage the split between the show dogs and the working dogs that is seen in other breeds.”  

Trouble 3

Photo credit: Andrew Seaman

We Toller folks value versatility. Trouble doesn’t retrieve ducks any more, but she tirelessly locates and returns the various objects that Human throws. She’s retired from showing, too, but when people say, “Isn’t she small for a Toller?” Human can confidently say that she conforms to  the breed standard. And Trouble’s behaviour is impeccable whenever she wears her St. John Ambulance kerchief and photo ID to visit the retirement home.  You don’t need an obedience title to be a therapy dog, but you do need to watch your Human and trust her, even in Trying Circumstances. A patient with dementia can be a Trying Circumstance.

Trouble is a rhetorician, though that term is in bad odour these days – you might as well call someone a pitbull. Rhetoric, however, is not just a polite term for hot air or spindoctoring or outright BS. It is the art of using language effectively.

A rhetorician assesses a situation and choose the best strategies to address it, taking into account the reader or audience, the particular context, the purpose, and the appropriate conventions.  A rhetorician makes choices.

All writers should have a repertoire of choices, but our schools seem to find that too challenging a goal. My students tell me they still learn writing as a matter of templates to follow, or a series of prescriptions and proscriptions regarding usage. A paragraph must start with a topic sentence; an essay always has an introduction, a conclusion, and three paragraphs of development.  Don’t start a sentence with “because.”  Eschew “I.” Avoid the passive voice.  At the university, they tell me they learn that the thesis statement must be at the end of the first paragraph, and it must say “The [choose adjective][choose noun] of [topic of the paper] is [fill in the blank], particularly [supply three aspects].” Just like this: The significant quality of the Toller is its versatility, demonstrated by its achievement in conformation, in obedience, and in the field.

No wonder so many of our students in class or at the writing centre appear as timid as dogs who have been beaten for infractions they didn’t understand or couldn’t help.

In addition to more usual  pursuits, Tollers’ versatility has been demonstrated in tracking, avalanche rescue and drug-sniffing.  Each situation needs to be assessed and calls out the Toller’s gifts in a slightly different way.  At doggy day care, Trouble’s job is to discipline the puppies, which she does with growls and snaps, behaviour she knows would not be appropriate at the retirement home.

Trouble on ice 2 crop

Every situation has to be assessed — ice on the brook

There’s no one way to write well, either.


Carving Snow

snow angel cropped

Trouble likes visiting Fredericton, especially the walking trail that is easily accessible from her temporary lodgings.  On a good bright day like today, after a foot of fresh snow, there’s nothing better than a roll in the snow and a run along the trail.

It’s not like the open expanses of Point Pleasant Park. The trail used to be a railway, so it stretches straight and level ahead and behind, carved through the snow by a sharp blade tracing a familiar path from one marker to the next.

snow carving plough croppedThe wind has carved different patterns in the snow drifts, but there is nothing fanciful about the walking trail. It marches straight on toward the river, its only curve the gradual sweep which brings it to precisely the right angle to approach the bridge.

As she follows Trouble across the river, Human thinks about engineering: its necessary precision and its highly recognizable forms. Human is no engineer, but she liked science as a student, though she struggled with lab reports. They ought to have been easy: a template to fill in – purpose, equipment, method, results, conclusions – but templates aren’t self-evident. Oh, they may be second-nature to someone familiar with them, but the student struggling to differentiate between a result and a conclusion needs more than red-inked corrections. She needs to know why it’s structured that way, what it’s for – so that the angles and the arches of the bridge’s girders make sense, and not just patterns against the sky.

BridgeOr to try another metaphor – an edible one, and thus more to Trouble’s liking – we use templates like empty shells that need to be stuffed – an empty crab shell to be stuffed with crab meat, a scallop shell to be heaped with coquilles Saint Jacques. But an empty shell is just the outward and visible sign, so to speak, of what was once a living thing. Unless we understand how that shell came to be – how its form followed the organism’s function before stiffening into a template – that shell is a dead unmeaning thing, despite its stuffing.

When we do understand, the conventions of scientific writing are as purposeful as the walking trail: they deliver the reader – with plenty of recognizable indicators along the way – to a particular point: the next signpost, or the next crossing where a change of direction is possible, or the place where the scientific imagination leaps on girders of logic and evidence across empty air to a new shore.

Trouble likes the bridge. For all its undeviating predictability – or because of it – the bridge delivers her to new perspectives. It’s a place where birds fly beneath her feet.

snow carving wind

Point Pleasant Park Revisited

Snowy faceA series of cold bright days means more walks than usual in the Park. Sometimes Dixie comes too. She is rather less discriminating about Good Things than Trouble is – less fussy, she would probably say. She never met something dead that wasn’t good to roll in, and she’ll eat almost anything. She has no memory of indigestion.

And she’s a Brittany spaniel. Once loose in the park, she is on a mission.  Off she goes on her long legs, her ground-eating trot taking her far ahead before she decides to loop back and check on the whereabouts of her Human. Sometimes people ask, “Have you lost a brown and white dog? She’s down…” “at the squirrel feeder,” Human says. Dixie pointing cropShe’ll stay there, watching and being watched, till Human arrives. Dixie knows all the squirrel feeders in the park, and plots a route that will take her from one to the next. She’ll point squirrels, or she’ll flush them and chase them. She’s utterly impervious to insults spit at her from branches overhead.

Trouble is less focused. Though squirrels are a Good Thing, she’ll check out anything that looks as if it might be interesting, peanuts spilled from a feeder or crab shells, a stick, a lost ball or a dropped glove.  Her searches lead her off trail, into snowbanks and through brambles. Sometimes the brambles are impenetrable, and she has to beat a retreat.


Sometimes the brambles are impenetrable

She’s been known to chase crows, until they turn to chase her. Eventually she’ll catch up with Dixie, who’ll be standing motionless at the foot of pine tree, where a head-down squirrel is deciding just how saucy it can safely be.

Human tends to research the way Trouble scouts the park. She enters an archive or a library or an on-line database with a general idea and a hunger to find out everything there is to know about it. The result is boxes and gigabytes of research notes, and a book manuscript which has already reached 100,000 words, and it’s only chapter 3. Find out everything, get it all into shape, and then edit it to manageable size – that’s her preferred modus operandi. Hardly efficient, though it does turn up some fascinating tidbits. (Watch for her article on a one-legged Victorian doctor, coming soon in the Journal of Medical Biography. That was one of those unexpected discoveries, as delicious to Human as blackberries to Trouble.)

It would be better to imitate Dixie. A Dixie researcher is like a trained interviewer, who would never turn up for her appointment with an Important Personage without preparing a list of questions in advance. Where do squirrels like to hang out? Where is the next squirrel feeder? Where else might they be if the feeder is empty? Where else do people leave peanuts and breadcrumbs? Whereas Trouble can be easily – was that a rabbit? – distracted, Dixie ignores anything in the great park that isn’t squirrelsome, even, sometimes, her Human’s voice. A Dixie researcher combs what she finds looking for answers to her questions, disregarding the rest. Of course, she’s not entirely close-minded; if something turns up and proves even better than what she’d anticipated, she’ll shift her focus – but she’s still focused.

Even Dixie turns aside for a biscuit.Dixie headshot

Point Pleasant Park

The park is better than dinner, almost. Human says she has to clear her head — that it’s not procrastination, not at all, just part of the writing process. Trouble doesn’t care what Human says, as long as she has the car keys in one hand and the collar in the other.Trouble in the park

You might think that the park gets to be boring after a while, but Point Pleasant Park is 75 hectares of woods and walkways, mostly off-leash. At the very tip of a peninsula, its rocky shores are refreshed daily with flotsam and good smelly things. In the fall a clever dog can eat blackberries right off the brambles. There’s always something to notice, and even the most unpromising things deserve to be investigated in case they turn out to be Good Things in Trouble’s Life (GTTL). Whether ducks, squirrels, or recently vacated mussel shells, there’s something of interest almost everywhere. Everything connects with your passion somehow, says Trouble, if you keep sniffing.

The off-leash park is a very GTTL. There’s pleasure just in doing your business there. You can find just the right spot, whether you like leaves or bare ground. You can take all the time you want, and you can try to leave it behind for others to find. Human is hard to escape though: she has an eagle eye and will pursue Trouble right into the scrub, plastic bag in hand, to clean up after her.  It can even be amusing to watch Human scramble through the undergrowth with her plastic bag, gathering burrs and scattering expletives.

A city walk is much less fun, but a contemplative dog knows better than to compare the pleasure of any now moment with any remembered or anticipated one.  City walks tend to be more practical events, and business at the end of a leash is not as much fun. The choice of location is more limited: Trouble likes the top of a snowbank, especially if it’s a long way from the sidewalk. She also likes to turn around several times, presenting a challenge to the leash-holder. Humans need challenges, Trouble finds; otherwise they tend to be oblivious to the moment they’re in.

Trouble at the shoreRunning offleash is akin to what we call exploratory writing, or expressive writing, or even free-writing.  You can follow whatever trail you like, or stand nose-aquiver in the heather. There’s no purpose to it except to discover what you didn’t know you thought, or uncover something quite new to you.  It’s fun. Sometimes you produce something for someone else to discover, but that’s not why you do it. It’s not like writing for a reader. There are more constraints to that exercise. The secret, as Trouble has discovered, is to treat those constraints as challenges, and find the fun in them, too.  Just like pooping at the end of a leash.