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Humanist Essay for April 2011
"Dogs and Cats"
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[Reprinted from the HSNM April 2011 Newsletter]

There is a new addition to our household -- a spunky terrier mutt named Beau. I took Beau off Janet J's hands in January. He was stirring up trouble with the other dogs (her own and rescues). Once I had I plucked Beau out of the pack of seven squabbling dachschunds Janet's life improved immediately. Our household, on the other hand, went into an uproar -- two humans not so well disciplined ourselves, two cats terrorized by this frisky little guy not much bigger than they, and Millie -- the only one who took things in stride. Millie is also a terrier mutt, but twice Beau's size. She proudly demonstrated how to be a "good dog."

Beau arrived at likely his fifth home in as many years with some understandable anxieties and bad behaviors that spring from fear. He got into more trouble out of excess energy and enthusiasm. We were on his case constantly: No barking, no whining, no scratching, NO CAT, no taking Millie's toy, no getting underfoot, no begging in the kitchen... Scientific and anecdotal evidence indicates that dogs are able to acquire extensive vocabularies, but there is a limit. After a couple of weeks I found myself, in exasperation, condensing my commands to a mere two: "Chill out!" and "Shape up!"

It occurred to me that I also live my life between these two directives. Chill out. Don't jump on every bandwagon, don't fret and obsess, don't make so much work for yourself and others, don't allow emotion or ambition to stir up undue stress and anxiety. Cool it with the self-righteousness and self-importance. At the other extreme of the pendulum: Shape up. Get on with it, stop procrastinating, don't skip any steps, try harder, live by your principles and ideals. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.

How exhausting even to write this! I've given up expecting that my inner pendulum will ever come to rest lightly in the middle, balanced between overdoing and underachieving. I can only try to make its arc less extreme, its movement more gentle, and to be honest and aware when it comes to my personal foibles, fears and fantasies.

Eight weeks in, Beau and the big cat (they are nearly the same size) have touched noses and made friends. The little cat is still frightened by Beau's overtures, though he's done an admirable job of toning down his doggy come-on. We don't try to protect her anymore, or keep the two separated for safety -- the displays are becoming more like play and keep us laughing.

Humans, like dogs and cats, can be conditioned to accept new situations and to behave contrary to our natural instincts. In principle the methods are not much different than a bop on the nose with a rolled up newspaper, but in practice they have become highly sophisticated and costly to the point that we should suspect the motives of those footing the bill.

HSNM is fortunate to have Bob McCannon for our April speaker. As co-founder and president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME) Bob has been a leader in critiquing mass media and challenging its unhealthy influences on society. Who is trying to manipulate us and why? Bob will show us how to pull aside the curtain to reveal the devices of our contemporary media wizards.

Humanism is not an exercise in finding a position and then standing stubbornly on it. It is a sometimes slow, sometimes lively dance on a shifting stage. Occasionally we may find ourselves climbing the walls or in the doghouse. What matters is that we have the capacity and the will to learn new tricks. And if that doesn't get you to our next meeting, how about a cookie?

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Copyright © 2011 Zelda Gatuskin

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