Quotes from My Library: Exploring, Stories, and Dogs

This is the second post in a series I started last week, featuring quotations from books in my library. The sections below include quotations about exploring urban landscapes on foot, the significance of stories and storytelling in our lives, and the relationships between people and their dogs.

With the guidance of John Stilgoe’s book Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, a walk through your neighborhood will never be the same. From sights as deceptively simple as changes in the material used to lay sidewalks or build fences, or as complex as the construction of streets and nearby interstates, railways, and bridges, Stilgoe illuminates elements of the landscape that you almost never notice by car and may often pass by without a second glance on foot. Embedded history is everywhere (or history is embedded everywhere), and Stilgoe can help you unearth it as you walk.

Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby includes a wide variety of essays and a wide range of topics, but story and metaphor are threaded throughout as uniting themes. The quotes from The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall highlight and echo — in a couple of short sentences about how we fictionalize our own life stories — something Solnit is also saying.

In the months before my pup Lobo came to live with me and become my writing and photography partner, I read lots of books about dogs. LOTS of books, about two dozen. The ones I liked best explore the unique nature of our relationships with dogs, and examine the science and neuroscience of how dogs think. Some of the books quoted below also discuss training a bit, but what I really gained from them (I think, I hope) was a better understanding of how to relate to my dog; that is, how to relate to the consciousness of another species that is certainly communicating with me, yet without words. Lobo’s not my first dog, but the experience of raising him from eight weeks old has been different because these books taught me to be deliberate about paying attention and about the kind of guidance I can provide as he learns and experiences so many things for the first time. Animal minds are amazing, and I didn’t realize how much until I read some of these books.

From Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John Stilgoe:

“GET OUT NOW. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people…. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run…. Abandon, even momentarily, the sleek modern technology that consumes so much time and money now, and seek out the resting place of a technology almost forgotten. Go outside and walk a bit … long enough to take in and record new surroundings….”

“The whole concatenation of wild and artificial things, the natural ecosystem as modified by people over the centuries, the built environment layered over layers, the eerie mix of sounds and smells and glimpses neither natural nor crafted — all of it is free for the taking, for the taking in. Take it, take it in, take in more every weekend, every day, and quickly it becomes the theater that intrigues, relaxes, fascinates, seduces, and above all expands any mind focused on it. Outside lies utterly ordinary space open to any casual explorer willing to find the extraordinary. Outside lies unprogrammed awareness…. Outside lies magic.”

“Any explorer learning to look soon discovers the astounding interplay of light, shadow, and color, a gorgeous interplay that never ceases to amaze.”

“Explorers quickly learn that exploring means sharpening all the senses, especially sight.”

From The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:

“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice…. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed?”

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck….”

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.”

From The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall:

“The human imperative to make and consume stories runs even more deeply than literature, dreams, and fantasy. We are soaked to the bone in story.”

“We tell some of the best stories to ourselves. Scientists have discovered that the memories we use to form our own life stories are boldly fictionalized.”

From Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by Caroline Knapp:

“Before you get a dog, you can’t quite imagine what living with one might be like; afterward, you can’t imagine living any other way.”

“Living with a dog — trying to understand a dog, to read his or her behavior and emotional state — is such a complex blend of reality and imagination, such a daily mix of hard truths and wild stabs in the dark.”

“Dogs possess a quality that’s rare among humans — the ability to make you feel valued just by being you — and it was something of a miracle to me to be on the receiving end of all that acceptance. The dog didn’t care what I looked like, or what I did for a living, or what a train wreck of a life I’d led before I got her, or what we did from day to day.”

“What a strange sensation, to look down and remember that you’re talking and interacting with an animal, a member of a different species: it drives home their otherness. The dog is not a creature who experiences communication and connection the same way I do. She is not a being with access to language or human constructs, and she is not a perfectly attuned, cleverly disguised version of a person in the backseat with a clear, knowable, or even remotely human agenda. The dog is, in fact, the dog.”

From For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend by Patricia B. McConnell:

“The faces of dogs are like living, breathing, fur-covered emotions, with none of the masking and censoring made possible by the rational cortex of mature adult humans. The expressiveness of dogs gives them a direct line to the primitive and powerful emotional centers of our brains, and connects us in ways that nothing else ever could. When we look at dogs, we’re looking into a mirror. That they express happiness so well, and that happiness is contagious, is just icing on the cake.”

“[Dogs] want more than just to hang out with us; they seem to want to understand us, and to want us to understand them. They watch our faces all the time for information, just as humans do when they’re unsure of what another person is trying to communicate.”

“A dog’s desire to communicate with people fits within the bounds of a dog’s evolutionary baggage, in which pack members hunted together, raised their young together, and fought to the death to keep the group together. You can’t coordinate your efforts as a group without some kind of communication, so it’s no wonder that dogs are as obsessed with social communication as we are. But dogs’ desire and ability to communicate, and their formation of attachments, transcend species boundaries.”

“Our dogs need us to understand that they are dogs, and that they don’t come speaking English. They’re not born reading our minds or understanding what we want just because we want it. Without question, their thought processes are profoundly different from ours. We can’t, on the one hand, say that our dogs are special because, unlike us, they always live in the present, and then turn around and expect them to think like us at other times. We have to find a balance here, one that acknowledges that dogs are different from us and at the same time celebrate what we share with them. What we share, without question, is a rich emotional life.”

From The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs by Patricia B. McConnell:

“All dogs are brilliant at perceiving the slightest movement that we make, and they assume that each tiny motion has meaning. So do we humans, if you think about it. Remember that minuscule turn of the head that caught your attention when you were dating? Think about how little someone’s lips have to move to change a sweet smile into a smirk. How far does an eyebrow have to rise to change the message we read from the face it’s on — a tenth of an inch?”

“So here we have two species, humans and dogs, sharing the tendencies to be highly visual, highly social, and hardwired to pay attention to how someone in our social group is moving, even if the movement is minuscule. What we don’t seem to share is this: dogs are more aware of our subtle movements than we are of our own. It makes sense if you think about it. While both dogs and humans automatically attend to the visual signals of our own species, dogs need to spend additional energy translating the signals of a foreigner. Besides, we are always expecting dogs to do what we ask of them, so they have compelling reasons to try to translate our movements and postures. But it’s very much to our own advantage to pay more attention to how we move around our dogs, and how they move around us, because whether we mean to or not, we’re always communicating with our bodies.”

“Once you learn to focus on the visual signals between you and your dog, the impact of even tiny movements will become overwhelmingly obvious.”

From Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz:

“Dogs, like so many non-human animals, have evolved innumerable, non-language-driven methods to communicate with one another. Human facility at communication is unquestionable. We converse with an elaborate, symbol-driven language, quite unlike anything seen in other animals. But we sometimes forget that even non-language-using creatures might be talking up a storm.”

“There are three essential behavioral means by which we maintain, and feel rewarded by, bonding with dogs. The first is contact: the touch of an animal goes far beyond the mere stimulation of nerves in the skin. The second is a greeting ritual: this celebration of encountering one another serves as recognition and acknowledgment. The third is timing: the pace of our interactions with each other is part of what can make them succeed or fail. Together, they combine to bond us irrevocably.”

“The bond changes us. Most fundamentally, it nearly instantly makes us someone who can commune with animals — with this animal, this dog. A large component of our attachment to dogs is our enjoyment of being seen by them. They have impressions of us; they see us in their eyes, they smell us. They know about us, and are poignantly and indelibly attached to us.”

And now … it’s time for a quick snooze…. : )

Orchids from the Atlanta Botanical Garden

These images are among my favorites from several trips to the Atlanta Botanical Garden … but also I used this blog post to experiment with the gallery and slideshow features of WordPress, which I had never used before. You can click on any of the images above to loop through a full screen slideshow. Bye for now!

Frank McCourt: “They thought I was teaching … I was learning.”

As he put it in “Teacher Man,” his third volume of autobiography:
Instead of teaching, I told stories.
Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats.
They thought I was teaching.
I thought I was teaching.
I was learning.

Good words to live by: teaching is learning.

Full story here on Frank McCourt’s teaching (and learning and writing) methods from the New York Times:

McCourt: A Storyteller Even as a Teacher

“Not on Tuesday”

A friend of mine sent me this card:


It fits my hours and days and weeks sooooo well!

The card is from Susan Mrosek’s wonderful Pondering Pool collection (https://www.ponderingpool.com), a selection of giclees, cards, posters, inspirational images and thoughts, and creative writings.

Buy someone a card!

Write something clever on the inside, put their address on the envelope, and mail it!

Pondering Pool

When hard-boiled eggs explode…

… it sounds an awful lot like a gun going off! Trust me! Don’t try this at home:

Apparently this is what happens when you sit down to write a quick blog post after setting some eggs to boiling, the blog post takes longer than you thought, and you forget about the eggs … they wait about forty minutes then remind you to PAY ATTENTION! Or set a timer next time….

Lunch will be delayed indefinitely….

Blogging and Economics

Bloggers, like writers of all sorts throughout history, are constantly asking themselves why they do it. While I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s something unique to writers, writers do tend to attach (angst-ridden?) debates about purpose and meaning to their writing lives in ways that, say, doctors or chemists or engineers, typically do not. And at some point in nearly every debate about the whys of writing, money comes up — usually in some negative context, as if writerly professions are the only ones where economics should somehow be kept at bay.

Before this morning, I had never heard of Payperpost. I didn’t start this site with the intention of making money, and have so far not invested the time necessary to figure out what options I might have for actually generating some supplementary income.  I’m typically not bothered by advertising on blogs or web sites, as long as it’s not intrusive (like popups or graphic overlays) and doesn’t distract from my ability to focus on the writing or imagery on the site. And, admittedly, I don’t understand the business model behind blog ads and have never actually followed the links to something being advertised — so don’t I really get the economics behind it either.

In any case, I followed this series of posts this morning, starting with Honoring the Hard Working Blue Collar Bloggers by Lorelle. Lorelle links to a discussion of Payperpost at Deep Jive Interests. A notable and praiseworthy element of both posts is their recognition of the folks they’re calling “blue-collar bloggers” — which I take to be everyone but those who think they know better than the rest of us what this medium should be used for. In other words, most of us. See also the precise characterization of the underlying intellectual issues on Seth Finklestein’s Infothought. Seth makes some very good points.

One of the things I like about the whole idea of blogging is the very democratic nature of it. While I think the large volume of writing out there may demand new skills at finding and absorbing information that matters to us, that simply means we need to develop those skills — ones which for each individual can mean learning more about what’s really important to them. In that sense, the democracy that blogging offers works in multiple directions to potentially make us all better writers and better readers. That people can get paid for that, in whatever form, simply means that we’re attaching economic value to that process and its potential. The economics of an activity are not evidence of its perniciousness; they just represent one piece of the activity’s cultural significance that we need to consider in our discussions.

I could probably spend the whole day spinning out various related themes from these posts and the ones that inspired them (which I’ve only glanced at so far), so more on that another time. Those original posts could use a highly critical eye. I’ll close by saying I’m typically very suspicious of anything that sounds like elitism or is written from an obvious embrace of cultural stratification. That’s not to say that cultures, all cultures, are not layered in one way or another; but is to make the point that blogging’s very nature as a wide-open, available-to-anyone medium has the potential to tilt windmills away from the elitist tendencies in any culture, toward something more inclusive that engages us with each other as individual human beings instead of stereotypes.

Some fair questions

In How Do You Choose What You Blog About?, Lorelle VanFossen of The Blog Herald asks that question and a series of others that delve into different reasons bloggers keep up with their blogs. Setting aside for a moment the different types of blogs and bloggers, I think all questions about blogging ought to also consider one other element of the phenomenon:

In the earlier days of blogging, it was mainly a form of public writing. Expanding technological capabilities have allowed it to tag up with all sorts of other media, mainly (I think) still imagery, video, and music. But at its core, it’s still a medium of writing, and that fact makes me wonder about why people want to write so much so badly, and why they want to do so — with relative ease — in a public manner. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s great — I just also think the question is an interesting cultural and social one that’s well worth exploring.

On Learning

From Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage:

We have now become aware of the possibility of arranging the entire human environment as a work of art, as a teaching machine designed to maximize perception and to make everyday learning a process of discovery.

I’m putting together resources for a research paper on the cultural and social impact of photography. McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is one of my sources, but I also picked up The Medium is the Massage, because it looked interesting (and, for a change, SHORT).

McLuhan’s books are full of gems like this. I just started browsing through them and didn’t know what to expect when I started; but nearly every page strikes me in some way or another. This particular quote leads a short piece that expresses admiration for the potential of technology, but simultaneously contains the warning that we aren’t good at grasping the effects of technological transitions. We lock ourselves in psychological and intellectual straightjackets, McLuhan suggests, because “the interplay between the old and the new … creates many problems and confusions.” McLuhan’s remedy:

The main obstacle to a clear understanding of the effects of … new media is our deeply embedded habit of regarding all phenomena from a fixed point of view….

The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models for exploration….

Blogging as an Imagined Community

In early 2006, I completed a class on American Intellectual History, where the first book I read was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. The course – an independent study course where I worked directly with a mentor to define its content and purpose – was intended to help me understand intellectual history and the different ways it can be approached. Anderson’s book describes the emergence of the idea of a nation as a imagined construct, and his book covers an incredible amount of intellectual territory.

As I was reading the book, I made several notes at the time about blogging as an imagined community, and have since discovered that at least a few others have considered that idea also. One notable essay along these lines is Imagining the Blogosphere: An Introduction to the Imagined Community of Instant Publishing (pdf) by Graham Lampa – which does a fine job of describing blogging in terms of Anderson’s thesis.

There were a few finer points in Anderson’s book, however, that I found compelling to consider with respect to blogging, all potentially worth exploring from the perspective of intellectual history. Anderson anchors much of his thesis around the impact of the emergence of print publishing, and the spread of newly published material to masses of people as a result of the logic of market capitalism. Anderson goes on to relate this to new conceptions about time, describing how the conceptual experience of time changed to one where we can grasp the idea that there is a distinct past and present, and more importantly that there are people engaging in actions (and there are events taking place) outside our (approximately) immediate perceptual awareness. Anderson states, as an example:

An American will never meet, or even know the names of [most] of his fellow Americans. He has no idea what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity. – pg. 26

Anderson goes on to explain this by describing the experience of reading a newspaper, in which all the news stories are connected first by coincidence of time, and second by their immediate obsolescence:

The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing … creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (“imagining”) of the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only on this day, not that…. The significance of this mass ceremony … is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned? At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbors, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life. – pg. 35

If you find these ideas difficult – as I did at first – try to imagine not having an awareness of this simultaneous activity. That is, try to imagine how differently you would look at the world, if you didn’t have an awareness of a distinct past and present, and of human beings engaged in simultaneous activity. While you won’t really achieve that state of mind, you might begin to grasp what sort of intellectual revolution occurred in human thought for the shift toward this awareness to take hold.

As Anderson also describes, this intellectual revolution occurred within a historical context where existing social and political power structures began to crumble. Blogging is often described as democratizing, in the sense that it moves some control over information from traditional institutions to anybody who has enough interest, and takes enough time, to post their thoughts on a web site. While there are certainly questions to be raised about the efficacy or value of the information on a typical blog site, the fact that blogs even exist – and that they are written and managed by individuals often working on their own – has implications for human intellectual development that, I think, have yet to be considered. Their potential influence is dramatic; the potential of that influence to effect political, cultural, and social change is also dramatic. And if Anderson’s thesis is true, or even mostly true, then they even have the potential – at least partly because of their immediacy and the speed with which information now travels – to permanently alter some elements of the way human beings think.