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Rant #224
(published April 28, 2005)
The Half-Life of Shame
by David Erik Nelson
Our dog has a romantic attachment to our throw pillows. He is a ten pound miniature poodle, so it isn't unreasonable that a pillow 15 inches on a side and trimmed with silky loop tassels might provide him an adequate simulacrum consort. Besides, to an individual for whom beef tenderloin, burned bacon and rabbit droppings are all delicacies of equal standing, the fact that the pillow isn't a dog, and lacks lips to kiss, eyes to gaze into, legs, or any sort of orifice, is a bit nit-picky.

I was initially soft on the humping issue. My feeling at the time was that he'd already been gelded, and if there was some residual joy for him in banging away . . . well, so be it. He'd probably settle down after the last of the baby batter was bled from his system. Besides, at that time he was humping his own bed; if he wanted to pound an upholstered foam donut and then sleep in a puddle of dog cum, that was his prerogative.

Also, he looked really funny doing it.

But then he stopped humping his bed and took to humping the throw pillows on our sofa, and while he may be content to lie in dog cum, it was made clear that others were not. It was decided that the appropriate way to handle the en flagrante delicto is to yell at the dog in a deep, commanding voice and smack his rump. Although this does seem effective—at least in stopping him from humping the pillow in that instance and encouraging him to hump the pillow only when I'm not obviously able to see him—it is still a little awkward for me. Firstly, I don't like to think of myself as one who beats folks into agreeing with him. Secondly, I don't really feel I'm the dog's master. Owner? Yes, but the dog clearly favors my wife over me: It is her he is devoted to and thus, as such, she is his master; we're just housemates, the dog and I. Nonetheless, he leaves the pillows sticky and, imagining past housemates I've had humping my sofa pillows and leaving them moist and a little slick, I guess I'd smack them, too.


As I was preparing dinner one evening, I heard the dog's tags jangling in a manner consistent with he and the pillow engaging in one of their forbidden assignations. Stealthily stalking around the corner, I sprang, shouted at the dog, and smacked him across the backside. He skittered away, bent like a shame filled semi-colon, to sulk behind the front door. I stood over him, hands on my hips, and my heart split in thirds: There was pity for him, the involuntary smugness of asserting dominance for me, and revulsion at myself. Id, Superego, Ego? And where's Libido? He's a black semi-colon of soft curls, shuffling across the floor, bent like a beaten slave.

The dog cowered, facing away, just barely peeking at me over his shoulder. And then something strange happened: He drooped momentarily, then turned to face me, and he was blank. Maybe you don't own dogs, or know dogs. They're different than other domesticated animals, in that dogs alone seem to actually understand the strangeness of their domesticity: They live with superbeings who can change the weather and make the darkness light and never lack food, who sleep in a giant bed, and can make the walls open, and come and go as we choose.

When we are together, dogs always watch us with infinite, expectant curiosity; they have a Messianic faith in which the Messiahs have always already come. They don't need to wait for a Second Coming because they bask in the First and Only Coming, of the prolonged history—dogs have been domesticated since humans lived brute, pre-linguistic lives in caves—of their being in the boat with us. Their religion doesn't wait for the Messiah, but was drawn into being by the Messiah.

As such, dogs are never blank looking at us. Imagine God—or, if it's easier, imagine infinitely wise and intelligent beneficent alien beings—imagine hanging out in the superintelligent aliens' living room, with the aliens; could you look at them blankly? Dully? Without the curious spark of What awesome thing is Space Jesus gonna do next?

So, for a second, a millisecond, the dog was stock still, blank as a washed chalkboard. It was a little like when you are listening to a cassette in a car stereo, and it gets to the end of side one, and you have to wait a few seconds for side one's leader to play out before it clicks over to side to. The dog was blank, and then he clicked, and saw that I was looking at him, and wondered what I wanted, and concluded I possibly wanted to give him a treat, and excitedly pranced up to my feet, sitting obediently, with his bottom scooting in excited expectation

There was no sign of the smack, of my guttural yell, no consternation or shame or lingering resentment.

I had glanced at my watch just after yelling at him, and so glanced again: It had been five o'clock on the dot, and now it was 20 seconds past five.

20 seconds. The dog was ashamed, was guilty for having angered the supermangod, for 20 seconds. And then it was gone, as though it had never happened.

The next day I told my wife about this, about the humping and yelling and smacking and the 20 second duration of the dogs emotional memory, and she replied, "Multiply that by seven, and you have how long humans feel shame." I said that she was confused, and I didn't think it worked that way.

But, I work in a high school, and the next day, after having to tell the same pair of mixed gender teens twice, within five minutes, to stop boinking their crotches together and exclaiming in orgiastic glee, I realized that I hadn't given my wife's ideas due consideration. I felt sort of guilty for selling her short, but two-and-a-half minutes later, I felt better.

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