You’ve Read This Post Before


The Glossary, a Los Angeles-based audiovisual marketing firm, has reinvented David Foster Wallace as a motivational speaker. This “fine purveyor of STIMULATING VIDEOGRAMS” edited the best soundbytes from Wallace’s graduation speech at Kenyon College, “This Is Water,” and then dressed it up with video, trendy animated scribbles, and sprightly background music.

The Glossary included the lines from the speech that haunted Wallace’s readers after he hanged himself:

Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

Returned to its original context as part of an exhortation to graduates to work towards mastery of their own perceptions – considering, for instance, that the overweight woman losing her temper in a checkout line might have spent the night with a dying husband and was not, in fact, just put on earth to annoy everyone in line behind her – the passage serves as a sort of radical motivation in which reimagination is the only way to keep oneself alive. Some critics, including Leslie Jamison, in his review of a Wallace biography, have rewritten Wallace’s suicide as a piece of postmodern performance art, with the “terrible master” passage a snippet of autobiography concealed by being waved in front of a crowd.

The less esoteric version has Wallace suffering from lifelong depression, forced to go off his medication because of severe side effects, and then, after falling into an even more severe depression and restarting the poison pills, discovering that they were no longer effective for him. Apparently, even if you are a genius, you still also have to be a person and a body with an uncooperative brain. Irreconcilable differences are bound to occur.

What surprises me about The Glossary video that has gone viral this week is that people find Wallace’s views so inspiring and revolutionary. In essence, he argues that most people ricochet back to the same mental point of origin, the panoramas that are so familiar we have stopped seeing them; but by prodding ourselves to consider other versions of what looks like reality, we are free to become better masters of our minds. He also acknowledges that getting outside ourselves is difficult, exhausting work, and he admits that sometimes he himself is too tired to engage in it.

To me, this celebration of possibilities is as good a definition of creativity as I’ve ever come across – something like mental Cubism, in which all realities can be embodied at the same time. But it also makes perfect sense to me that Wallace’s call to reinvent and reenvision, and the massive effort it takes to do so, would come from someone who was suicidal enough of his life for a bullet in the brain to become a metaphor. With depression as the random point in space from which you view the world, death is always right in front of you, blocking your view. To survive, you have to imagine a different frame, in which the option of suicide is somewhere far in the distance, behind a closed door, somewhere you might visit sometime when you don’t have so many other things to do. Once you know where the door is located, though, it is impossible to forget it exists or how to open it.

In a speech at the 2011 National Book Festival, Toni Morrison briefly discussed her dissertation, which compared William Faulkner’s and Virginia Woolf’s conceptions of suicide. Faulker viewed suicide as the ultimate defeat, Morrison explained, while Woolf saw it as a reasonable choice, in her case a rational alternative to putting herself and her husband through another period of psychosis. I tend toward Woolf’s view, and, I would guess, so did Wallace. Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech offers instructions for making other choices.

However, it is a more than a little paradoxical that the speech has been appropriated by a marketing firm. As a former (mostly mediocre) ad writer, I’m in a position to know that the whole objective is to create materials that act as magnets, pulling thoughts in the intended direction without infringing on viewers’ certainty of their own free will. Within a few days, the video had attracted 2.7 million views, dwarfing the popularity of previous projects (and, incidentally, using audio of Wallace’s Kenyon speech without permissions). In an Adweek interview, the creators claim, disingenuously in my opinion, “Our main goal was to expose people to the content of the speech.” Later in the interview, though, the creators concede, “…as a tiny company in an industry filled with so much talent and competition, it’s extremely difficult to get your work noticed…so we’d welcome anyone who enjoyed ‘This Is Water’ to get in touch with us.”

I’m reminded of the perennially puzzling sentences, “This statement is untrue” and “Question authority.” Wallace’s legacy will almost certainly transcend this little ripple in the information ecosystem, but I’m also fairly sure its undertow is meant to pull us down into the water.

Rubbernecking

from the Boston Globe

from the Boston Globe

It is fashionable to express contempt for those who drive past an accident and slow down to look. According to the critics, rubbernecking signifies a prurient interest in the misfortunes of others, a fundamental and irresistible inhumanity automatically triggered by the prospect of blood, gore, and emotional wreckage. The same principle applies to other varieties of voyeurism activated by celebrity meltdowns, tell-all memoirs, sexual indiscretions, mass tragedies, noble sacrifices, and spectacular acts of strength and courage. If we were a better species, not so prone to viewing destruction and exposure as entertainment, so the story goes, our curiosity would not be so much on display.

Personally, I’m not convinced that our human interest in calamity (and calamity barely averted) stems from something sordid that sprouts from the brickwork of civilization. In a work of literature, captivation begins where good luck runs out, and we attribute the burning compulsion to turn the page to curiosity or a search for meaning rather than bad character. When disaster hits bricks-and-mortar reality, though, the same impulse seems outré. If the medium is the message, then Twitter, facebook, Reddit, and the blogosphere seem to lead us towards the worst of both fiction and reality, where facts and meaning are equally elusive.

Yes, I am talking about the Boston Marathon bombings.

When I see a car accident, I always, always look. I am not ashamed of looking. I want to know two things: Is it someone I know? and Are the victims okay? I do not seek the frisson of adrenaline rush that comes from contorted metal or imagining something worse behind the ambulances and fire trucks. In a work study job cataloguing historical photos when I was an undergraduate, police photos of local car crashes comprised a good portion of the collection, but I couldn’t bear to look at them; and in high school Driver’s Ed, when we were forced to watch several editions of the car-crash scare series Red Asphalt, I became so terrified I would kill someone that once I finally got my license I didn’t want to drive. In other words, I am looking for reassurance, not a cheap thrill at someone else’s expense.

I think that something similar happens when someone seemingly “normal”—or at least normal enough—commits a large-scale atrocity. Some people complain that we are more interested in the perpetrators than in the victims, who are more deserving of media attention. But, to me (and, I suspect, to others), the victims’ role is not nearly as frightening as the perpetrators’. Certain horrific acts, like what took place at the Boston Marathon, or Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Tuscon, make us seek answers to our most terrifying questions: Who could be capable of such a thing? Could I? Could someone I know? Would I recognize such a person? How does someone make the decision to become a terrorist? Could he have been stopped?

At least from the preliminary reports, both the Boston Marathon bombers turned to violence in response to ordinary human pain: parents’ divorce, immigration, a best friend’s murder. The evidently more volatile brother, who already felt out of place in the United States, lost the possibility of citizenship when he committed domestic violence, and, in response, threw away his own humanity to retaliate with terrorism. He went to Bunker Hill Community College (where I have colleagues), and then dropped out while immigrants with similar problems kept going. The younger brother, the one almost universally described as warm, kind, and popular, bafflingly went along with his brother’s plans—why?

Peter Young Hoffmeister, a high school teacher and former Huffington Post blogger, lost his HuffPost blogging gig when he submitted a post recounting his past as an angry, lonely, gun-obsessed young man. After being expelled for carrying a loaded, stolen handgun to high school, he got kicked out of two more schools before “the support of some incredible adults” and an outdoor program for troubled teens inspired him to straighten out. Compassion saves, at least sometimes. Maybe there will always be Loughners and Holmeses who spiral out of reach, but on the other side there are also Hoffmeisters who force us to ask, Couldn’t something have been done?

I have noticed that it’s much easier to throw around the “evil” label, to dehumanize, to call for the torture and death of the “monsters,” than to ask such questions—at least judging by the talk shows, media rhetoric, and inflammatory facebook posts that have rippled through my feed the past few days. Now that the victims are maimed or dead, it’s too late for compassion to make a difference in the outcome, but to look for reasons is to acknowledge that there might have been a moment, or even moments, when someone might have intervened, or some time when a few kind words might have helped prevent so many worlds from breaking.

Seen and Not Seen: The 98% Inauguration, 2009

Four years ago, the night before inauguration, some friends came up with a pair of tickets. For several hours, I felt like the luckiest woman in DC: new to the area and suddenly gifted with a chance to witness the inauguration of our country’s first black president. I felt only slightly less lucky when I couldn’t find a friend to go with me on such short notice. When the Metro stop I needed closed because of overcrowding and I had to get off a stop early, my luck meter wavered only slightly: I had functioning feet, after all, and moving around would help keep me warm on a day with 9 degree wind chill.

I squirmed off the train at Gallery Place Metro and saw this, which is meant to be a photo of the mob on the escalators, but is also a reminder that our Swedish friends are happy to help us change our living rooms if we can’t change the country:

2008_0210Inauguration0022 (2)It was a strange day in D.C. It took me a while to realize why people looked so different, besides that they all were walking (though “pressing forward” is probably more accurate) in the same direction: Almost everyone was smiling underneath their hats and scarves.

2008_0210Inauguration0028If everyone you meet feels lucky, it’s hard to worry too much when emergency vehicles start blocking all possible paths to the Mall. Just find the big cheese, and move when the cheese does.

2008_0210Inauguration0032Eventually I reached a turning point: Give up and go get coffee, or carry on? I carried on, looking for a route to the Mall. I even tried to slip through the lobby of a hotel, but I ended up routed back to the same spot, back with a lot of people who didn’t know what direction to walk.

2008_0210Inauguration0033Soon I couldn’t walk any farther because I reached a bottleneck – an entrance gate, supposedly – with snipers on all the rooftops and Secret Service trying (but failing) to steer a family through the crowd. One of the girls, probably in her late teens, started to cry, and a man who must have been her father kept shouting, “I own that building!” until it became clear that there was no way to move in any direction.

Welcome to the proletariat.

This is what I saw for the next four hours.

2008_0210Inauguration0037I am under five feet tall, and for most of my time in the crowd, we were packed too close for me even to lift my arms. The fence on the left was a temporary barrier. Periodically the crowd would press forward, unleashing the hope that we might actually get through the line. It became clear that all of us, even though we had tickets, were going to miss the inauguration, but we were squeezed too tight to turn away. Often I couldn’t bend my knees or feel my feet, and when the crowd moved, I was carried by the pressure rather than walking under my own power.

But it was a happy day. Nobody complained or argued, at least that I heard. When Obama took the stage, a young woman called a friend who was on the Mall near a Jumbotron and streamed the inaugural address through her Blackberry (remember those?) so that everyone around her could hear it. She was our hero that day!

2008_0210Inauguration0046But…we were still stuck between the crowd and the fence. Soldiers controlled the gate, letting people dribble through a few at a time. When the gates opened, the surges forward became more forceful as we got closer. Finally the crowd pushed forward, and though I couldn’t get my feet under me to stop, I saw the gate closing as I approached. For a moment I was sure I was going to be crushed, but the soldier left the gate open long enough for me to stagger through.

I looked back and saw the other people who were still trapped behind the fence:

2008_0210Inauguration0045This is me with a numb face, feet, and hands. I had a big smile for a bad hair day in a gigantic coat:

2008_0210Inauguration0047My inauguration experience ended shortly after I got through the gates. Already people were gathering along the parade route, showing off how prepared they were:

2008_0210Inauguration0055 2008_0210Inauguration0057Then I finally got coffee.

2008_0210Inauguration0054A USA Today journalist saw me walking to the Metro and asked me why I was leaving. I told the story you see here, some of which he got right (the part where I’m quoted is near the end of the article).

Today’s inauguration doesn’t even compare. For one thing, I had no interest in being there in person. It’s true that there’s never a second second time, but the view from my sofa was perfect. This year, the story is “I turned on the television. I turned off the television.”

In 2009, on the other hand, I had a story you couldn’t get on television, and that’s something that’s amply worth standing in sub-freezing cold to see.

No, Really and Truly – The Absolutely, Positively Worst Ideas of 2012

Copernicus_-_Heliocentric_Solar_SystemFor some reason, The Washington Post prematurely nominated its worst ideas of 2012 way back on October 1. All the Post’s bad ideas had to do with sexual indiscretion by powerful men, political incorrectness, hubris, or all three. The one bad decision in the bunch made by a woman was the failed ouster of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan, which was spearheaded by that self-appointed defender of vision, the unfortunately-named Helen Dragas.

Speaking of hubris, though, the Post left out almost three months of bad ideas and almost an entire gender – which is sort of amusing, considering that some of the worst ideas of the year were about women. Here goes:

Do-it-yourself birth control: First, Foster Friess, a billionaire and mutual fund manager, kicked off the war on women when he suggested Bayer aspirin could prevent pregnancy: “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” In case we excused Friess’s comment as anomalous, Missouri Republican Todd Akin – also known for trying to eliminate school lunches for embryos that make it to grade school – defended prohibitions on abortion for rape victims by declaring, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Rape as God’s will: Not to be outdone, Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock argued – several times! – that any life resulting from rape was “something God intended to happen.” His idea manages to be terrible on several levels: first, that (despite its frequent appearance in the Bible) rape is acceptable because the ends justify the means; second, that God means to torture women; and third, that Mourdock somehow knows what God intends.

Ayn Rand: From Rand’s excruciating prose, eugenically-selected protagonists, contempt for acts of generosity on the grounds that they enable helplessness, and glorification of selfishness, we learned that the Romney-Ryan defeat stemmed from the triumph of mediocrity rather than Romney’s staggering ignorance of the world inhabited by the ordinary riffraff. (Dana Milbank’s piece in the Washington Post, “At Romney Headquarters, the Defeat of the 1%” does the best job I’ve seen to show that Romney’s insensitivity comes straight from the heart.)

Teachers bearing arms: If I actually have to explain why this is a terrible idea, please stop reading now.

The Second Amendment: If you skip the “well-regulated” and “necessary to a free state” parts, assault weapons make perfect sense.

Jonathan Franzen’s opinion of Edith Wharton: Based on Wharton being unattractive and sexless, America’s most popular purveyor of unpleasant characters dismisses her entire body of work. The bad idea – which you really might expect someone at The New Yorker to question – is the entire assumption that women have no artistic legitimacy without sex appeal.

New Yorker cartoons: Looking for sexism? Women carping at their downtrodden husbands? Gender dynamics that haven’t changed since the 1920s? I love The New Yorker, but I wish it would reconsider its tradition of phallocentrism.

Women are helpless, except when they’re not: Okay, I’m supposed to believe that the general of the most powerful military in the world was prostrate before the siren song of Paula Broadwell? Either he couldn’t resist – which I highly doubt, given that Petraeus was entrusted with our national security – or he could have resisted, but didn’t bother since the popular press would blame the woman anyway.

Voyeurism. Maybe Invisible Children was a showcase for the arrogance of Jason Russell, but when TMZ broadcast him staggering naked through the streets of San Diego and ridiculed what was clearly a mental breakdown, it didn’t exactly show the public in a flattering light when we played along. Same with the photograph of a man about to be hit by a NYC subway car. And same with the anguished photo of a woman trying to find out the fate of her sister, who had already been killed by the Sandy Hook shooter.

Illusions of privacy. Yes, my privacy has gone the way of the Twinkie, without the anti-union rhetoric. I value privacy, but not when it gets in the way of seeing the cartoons and photos my friends post or being able to avoid entering twice as many addresses into Google Maps on my phone.

The end of the world. The true bad idea here is that I didn’t plan an end-of-the-world potluck holiday party; I hosted one in 1999, asking guests to bring the dish they would want to eat if the world really ended at the turn of the millennium. Good times. P.S. Runner-up: blaming the prediction on the Mayans.

The end of the list. And if you believe that these are the only worst ideas of 2012, I have something I want to sell you. Close your eyes, hold out your hands, and count to ten.

Thanksgiving, 2012: Another Animal Story

On one of my bookshelves sits a small wooden box the size of two cupped hands, stained an unobtrusive medium brown, its top carved intricately with a three-branched trunk splashed with six-petaled flowers. It is one of my most precious possessions, but I almost never look at it. Mortise-and-tenon joinery frames the top – smooth, though I almost never touch it – and underneath is a flimsy slab of plywood marked with an ordinary mailing label. On the label, which I almost never read, is the name of my first cat. Inside the box, which I have opened only once, are her ashes. I do not want to see what I cannot possibly touch.

The box takes me back to the last time I held her on my lap, already sedated, and watched the veterinarian gently find a vein on her inner thigh with the needle. I looked down at the curl of IV tube and watched it fill with blood. “Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m sure,” the veterinarian said. “Are you sure?”

I nodded. Calypso’s chin rested on my wrist the way it always had, her eyes closed, her fur still sleek where I stroked her, her skin loose and rubbery in a way it had never been before two days ago. Her ears were still and not listening, and her body draped over my knees like an empty backpack. The veterinarian lifted a stethoscope and then whispered, “Her heart has stopped.”

There is never a right time for this.

I had known we were near the end a few days before, when her purr vibrated lightly on my wrist as we sat on the couch and watched Obama make his election night victory speech after he won his first term. I smoothed her blue-black fur, circling my fingers around her ears and admiring her perfect, tiny feet, avoiding the jutting bones of her spine and hips. “I’m so glad you’re with me,” I said to her, not knowing that after five presidential elections together, we had only a few days left. The sounds of celebration rose from the streets to my windows. For months, I’d been giving her subcutaneous fluids at home, sticking giant needles into the loose skin of her shoulders while she watched me with huge, trusting eyes.

I remembered tucking her into a crate and carrying her with my younger cat, Tiki, then twelve years old, into Sea-Tac Airport for the redeye flight to Washington, DC where I’d moved for a new job. For the first time in five moves, she seemed afraid – and shaky, nauseated, and disoriented. I unpacked a skillet and saucepan, a wooden spoon, unrolled the air mattress that would be my only furniture for a couple of weeks, till the rest of my possessions arrived from Seattle, and, for the first time, let her slip under the covers to sleep.

I remembered the many times I’d looked into her aqua eyes as she posed on the arm of the sofa, the tip of her tail curled toward her belly to acknowledge my gaze. For my entire adulthood, through the emotional storms of my twenties and thirties, her eyes had been the calm, still center of my universe, always calling me back from wherever I had drifted. In those early years she learned to worry; in later years I tried somehow to let her know that she no longer needed to.

There is a picture of her on the bookshelves next to the ashes. In the photograph she perches on a pillow, with an older set of bookshelves behind her, a sunny window making her glossy coat shine like glass. The books are mostly from the library at the University of Washington, where I was in my second year of graduate school. The window belonged to the most wretched, sagging house on our block, truly an eyesore, where I rented the smallest room and chafed at the lack of privacy after years of having my own apartment. The first night in the house, Tiki, then a year and a half old, vanished. I cried hysterically, calling for him all over the neighborhood, while Calypso positioned herself on the bed and looked serene. In the middle of the night I woke and sobbed silently, not wanting my new housemates to hear me crying. I whispered to Calypso, furiously, You can smell him. You know where he is. How can you just sit there? Finally she tired of my misery and quietly left the room to retrieve Tee from his hiding place, probably in the basement, probably where he’d been all along.

Her gesture was particularly noble because she’d loathed Tiki as soon as I brought him home. At the time I was living in a studio apartment, and I locked him in the bathroom so Calypso could have the run of the main room and kitchen. Instead, she leapt onto the kitchen counters, screamed as though I were cutting her ear off, and attacked me every time I walked through the doorway, which because of the tiny size of the kitchen was well within reach of her claws. Finally I called the emergency vet, saying, “It’s not an emergency…but my cat has gone crazy!” The receptionist, wisely, told me to “ignore her until she was out of her snit” (advice I’ve applied in a variety of unrelated situations).

Before Tiki, we had Ocarina, whom I carried from a house a two-mile walk away. She was the most energetic and affectionate of a huge litter of tabbies that seemed oddly listless, scattered over a worn rug with fleas hopping out of it like popcorn. The momcat appeared, looking even more threadbare than the rug. “She looks emancipated,” her owner said, and I giggled, thinking she was referring to the cat’s release from motherhood. When I saw the woman’s shocked look, I realize she’d meant emaciated and turned away, shamefaced. Calypso, then nine months old and still malleable, hissed for a few days until a dreamy look passed across her face and suddenly they were friends. I called them The Paisleys, because the two of them were always wrapped around each other. She had a meow that sounded like “Me? Me?” and a love of cuddling, something Calypso did not permit until she was much older. When Ocarina was just a year and a half old, I discovered she had advanced feline leukemia – legacy of her sickly mother and siblings – and, with Calypso waiting at home I had her put to sleep, holding her in my arms as the weight of her body fell into my hands.

Before Ocarina, though, there was Calypso. She was born in a warehouse a few blocks from my first lousy lowest-rung insurance company job, and I carried her back to the office in a copy box a few days before Christmas my first dreadful year in Seattle. She kept nosing out of the box as I dodged the holiday pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks, but a coworker had offered to drive me to pick up supplies and then drop me at home. The next day was the office Christmas potluck. I plopped down on the futon, cradling my new kitten, who climbed onto my chest and went to sleep. When she woke, she followed me into the cavernous kitchen in my attic apartment, watching me as I cooked for the next day. Finally she curled herself into a tennis-ball sized mound of black fluff on my right foot, and as she quietly breathed and purred, I fell in love with the kitten who would be my guardian angel for seventeen years.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Coincidentally, it is also the four-year anniversary of adopting my current pair of cats, Ziggy and Stardust, just a week after Calypso died. I did not feel ready to see her go, and I did not feel ready for new kittens, but now that they are so much a part of my life, my initial unreadiness doesn’t matter much. Just as there is no good time to let a pet go, there is also no good time to let a new one into our home. If I am thankful for anything, it’s that despite everything, we still do, and that the days with a pet are doubly precious because I am so aware that they are so transient.

It has been four years since I said goodbye to Calypso, three since Tiki dropped dead without warning on Halloween, almost twenty since Ocarina died. With pets, love is always bookended by loss; the lightness of a kitten, now, reminds me of the heaviness of the lifeless bodies I’ve held at the end. And yet it’s the nature of loving animals that we love and love and love again, knowing how the story will end, but unable to stop beginning.

The Spectre of Sandy

Hurricane Sandy’s wind field as of 6 p.m. Sunday evening (Brian McNoldy), via Capital Weather Gang

On Friday, I shared a climate change case study with my transfer composition class, simulating what would happen in an eight-foot storm surge in New York City. The case study came from a four-day workshop at Dickinson College a couple of years ago, Cooling the Curriculum, which aimed to help liberal arts faculty integrate climate science into their courses in meaningful ways.

The storm surge simulation had been on the syllabus since last summer, but it ended up coinciding with the approach of Hurricane Sandy, which by then had already killed 29 people en route to the U.S. East Coast. While my students picked apart the data in the case study and discussed what it meant in an emergency, I pulled up the New York Times on the computer projector to show students how New York City planned to respond to Sandy. As of the middle of class, planners seemed nonchalant, saying they had no plans for subway closures and that they anticipated the storm would be much less severe than Irene.

Two nights later, the simulation has become a horrifying reality, with massive evacuations and citywide closures. For a while, it seemed like Washington, D.C., where I live, would not need to take such drastic measures, but by dusk, the National Weather Service had predicted hurricane-force winds, feet of snow to the West, and probable flooding of the Chesapeake and Potomac. Then the DC Metro, too, announced closures beginning at midnight; the rain totals shot up to a possible ten inches, and the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blogged that people shouldn’t venture outside after tomorrow afternoon because of the risk of falling trees and flying debris. Almost as alarmingly, I received robo-calls from the power company and Comcast, plus emails from a credit card company, warning of extended outages and waiving fees, respectively. (Few things are as scary as a credit card company having a fit of generosity.) We were bombarded with messages on how to prepare, along with dire advisories on how to protect pets in hurricanes. I wondered: could a hurricane-force wind lift a small dog?

Suddenly, the storm threat we’d discussed in class seemed starkly real, and the giant lollipop dwarfing the coastline looked nightmarish and psychedelic. Until I moved to DC, I have always lived in earthquake country – California, and then Seattle (the quake that damaged the Washington Monument and National Cathedral notwithstanding) – where catastrophe could strike without warning, which spared us the spectre of watching it approach.

To the many, many friends, students, colleagues, and family members I know who will be impacted by this storm: I am scared with you and for you. May we all find shelter, and may we all emerge from it safely.

You Can Stop Whispering Now

Since the first time I saw The Dog Whisperer, I have had a slight crush on Cesar Millan. I don’t watch cable and so have only seen a few episodes of his show – in one of them, he subdued a dog with an unfortunate habit of attacking his owners; and in another, he schooled owners in becoming “pack leaders” after their dog became aggressive after their other dog died.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2006 New Yorker article, “What the Dog Saw,” speaks of Millan’s body language in adoring terms. The accompanying photo, in which Millan stands in a superhero pose, tennis ball in fist, surrounded by dogs leaping through what looks like a muddy stream, solidified my crush. By the time I got my cockapoo, Kerfuffle, on August 1, it was no longer necessary to watch Millan’s show to know all about his training methods: Like Seinfeld and Survivor, The Dog Whisperer had so thoroughly infiltrated popular culture that the average non-viewer could love Millan without knowing him.

Some of what I learned from the couple of episodes I watched made a lot of sense. For one thing, Millan reinforced the idea that dogs are fundamentally different from humans in that they don’t want to dominate; rather, they feel more secure when their humans are in charge so that they know what to expect. Like Americans, nearly all of whom (even these days) have bosses and paychecks, dogs want to have a purpose, fulfill it, and be recognized for their efforts. Dogs – carefully bred and raised alongside humans for centuries – would rather develop a strong character than be spoiled for being cute. And, finally and most revelatory for me, I learned that because dogs look to their owners for guidance, many behavior problems can be traced to failures of human leadership.

Unfortunately, however, the show also taught me that “alpha rolling” dogs onto their backs was a good way to establish “pack leadership.” The day after I brought Kerfuffle home, he snapped at the vet when she tried to examine his ears; after muzzling him to complete the exam (both ears were infected), she emphasized the importance of obedience training to discourage further aggression. Later, I discovered that he growled at me, the cats, and a friend when his toys or food were approached, even though otherwise he seemed hesitant, subdued, and shy. I watched a few videos on Millan’s website, carefully rolled Fuff onto his back, and tried to pry toys out of his jaws.

It was immediately clear that Cesar’s methods (even gently applied) were horribly frightening to my dog, who looked up at me with tragic eyes and began to roll over whenever I approached. Fuff seemed to like to go on walks, though, so I took him on a long one while I thought things over. Unlike the off-leash, insouciant dogs I’d grown up with in the age of choke chains and nose-in-the-accident housetraining, my dog withered at the slightest signs of disapproval. When Fuff barked, several people told me to poke him in the ribs and hiss, Tssst! like Cesar does on his show. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I was certain that physical punishment or harsh words weren’t a good idea for my dog. “That’s too much force for my dog,” I said to the neighbors.

Fortunately the Washington Animal Rescue League, where I adopted Fuff, has trainers available to answer questions from new pet owners, and it was there I learned about positive reinforcement training – and thank goodness I did, because it turns out that although Fuff is sweet-natured and quick to learn, his sensitivity and tendency to be fearful make him more challenging than other dogs I’ve known. Consequently, I’ve read and learned more about dog psychology, training, and body language than I thought I would ever need to know, and I’ve handed out so many treats that I feel like a human kibble Pez dispenser with a very sore lower back.

The hardest thing I’ve had to learn, though, is to listen to my dog rather than ill-informed human know-it-alls. Since he is small, I have had to figure out what his body language looks like from overhead, feel it from his movements on the leash, or infer it from the reactions of other dogs we encounter on our walks. I’ve put a yellow ribbon on Fuff’s leash, but most people don’t recognize it as a “Keep Away” sign, so I have had to experiment with pithy ways to ask people to let us keep our distance and come up with quick exit strategies when they ignore my requests. Owners have told me everything is okey dokey because both dogs’ tails are wagging, or that I should push my dog’s chest because his ears are forward and it means he’s aggressive, or that it’s fine for a dog to run off leash on a city sidewalk as long as he’s good with other dogs.

Most obnoxious, though, is when they tell me to do what Cesar says. All the Dog Whisperer videos were checked out from the library, so I borrowed one of his books, Cesar’s Rules: Your Way to Train a Well-Behaved Dog. While I’m sure the book was ghostwritten beyond belief, its tone suggests a more contemplative Millan than what’s evident from his show, and several sections seem very self-conscious about the criticism his methods have received. Organized around meetings with a variety of trainers explaining and demonstrating their techniques, the book serves as a fairly balanced introduction to competing theories about dog training, with Millan taking care to point out where his own methods diverge, but praising the strengths of each approach.

The book gave me an eclectic mix of ideas to try with Fuff, from figuring out what your dog likes to do and using it as a reward to teaching each command’s opposite (for instance teaching “stand” with “sit”). It clearly explained different types of conditioning and how to use them on their dog, and since by then I had started Basic Manners at a positive training school, the book encouraged me to experiment with different reward-based methods to see what worked best for my own dog.

Tomorrow, Kerfuffle and I finish Basic Manners, and the tentative dog I brought home has become a waggy, playful, cuddly, laundry-stealing goofball who only rolls over when he snuggles and who now knows how to watch, target, sit, come, lie down, wait, stay, drop a toy, walk on a loose leash, and dance on his hind legs. He also tends to be anxious in new situations and is going through a phase of reactivity to other dogs, but the combination of classes, practice, Pez dispensing and careful attention are making a huge difference in his comfort level and behavior.

Not long ago, Your Dog’s Friend (where I’ve been taking Kerfuffle for classes) offered a free workshop on dog body language. At the end of the workshop, the trainer showed a few video clips from The Dog Whisperer. I don’t know if the videos were representative of every session with Cesar, but the dogs all showed the obvious signs of fear and confusion I’d seen in Kerfuffle during my (luckily) abortive attempts at dog whispering. By the most recent time a sidewalk blowhard instructed me to hail Cesar, I knew enough to say confidently, “That’s not the model of training I’m following.”

Even so, I think Millan is absolutely correct that owners must also be pack leaders – but in the past couple of months I’ve learned that means being able to ignore the gusts of hot air coming from everyone with vocal cords and a television.

As for that crush? Let’s just say it has gone the way of shock collars and choke chains.