Sis and Cass

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Our dog came to us one year old and already named Sue. Within a month she revealed herself. Sue was a creature of sea-level allergies. She repelled fleas, but reacted negatively to 36 other (mixed blend) insects. We know this because we had her blood evaluated for antibodies, which is a telling exam. The old scratch test only reveals whether the patient will react to certain applied allergens. The antibody study uncovers what the body has already rejected.

So Susie had to take prednisone. She had to be given desensitizing injections. She became untrustworthy around strangers, because of the steroids. She became a bit less reactive to her environment because of the pills and the shots. It was too bad she had to live at our low elevation; most of what her body didn’t like doesn’t exist at 7,000 feet above sea level, and the times we took her camping at altitude, her skin cleared up immediately.

The other characteristic Susie exhibited was her calling. Most dogs are bred for some purpose, and a mutt is no exception. You just have to wait to see what the predominant trait is. Susie looked like a ridgeback but she was no hunter. That animal lived to retrieve. Especially tennis balls.

She’d try to get her mouth around a soccer or basketball. She’d catch a baseball till her mouth bled. But there was something about the fuzzy green variety that really turned her on. There were times she’d yank the leash out of my hand, dashing 30 yards away into a big clump of ivy, returning with a ball only she could detect. She always had at least one tennis ball in her big bed basket. At times she’d pick one out of a dozen and systemically skin the thing, leaving ball-pelt pieces before her. We could never figure out how she determined which balls to skin. We were happy that she didn’t ingest them (our vet told us stories about having to surgically remove ball parts from retriever guts).

Susie was energetic and required exercise. We walked her at least twice a day. The middle school a few blocks behind our house became a favorite destination. It was on that field she’d go after soccer balls. The vacant lot between the school and our neighborhood would become Alice Waters’s first “edible schoolyard,” but in Susie’s early years it was dirt and weeds and patches of broken glass: a good running ground for dogs off-leash. Best of all was the steep asphalt hill that plunged from the parking lot down past the main building to the gym. We liked to sit at the top of that hill and toss the tennis ball for Sue. She’d race down after it, pound back up to us with it lodged where it belonged, and then start her dance of excitement to do it again, still with the ball in her mouth. After a few steps she’d relax her jaw and let the ball drop, but it didn’t stay there where she could pick it up again, and again give us the schizophrenic routine of “Throw it! No wait: it’s mine and I have to hold it! No – throw it! No – I have to bite it!” That ball rolled straight back down the slope. And off went Susie. She’d keep going at self-retrieval till we leashed her and hauled her away. The longest we lasted was 25 minutes and she wasn’t about to quit.

I said it was too bad we couldn’t change her name to Sisyphus. Then I had to describe that character’s fate: how he had to keep pushing a boulder to the top of a hill and every time he got the stone near the apex, it rolled back down and he was compelled to start again.

My kids laughed at me. They told me it was too late to change Susie to Sissy. Anyway, they said, in Sue’s case, the ball rolling back is not punishment. It’s extended play.

I had to put Susie down 10 years ago. She lived a good long life, but at almost 16 she let me know it was time to release her. I remember her, and her lessons, well.

So when I met a fellow recently who described himself as a modern-day Sisyphus, I paid attention. I don’t often encounter people who use that name in conversation. There have been times when I’ve identified with aspects of Cassandra; I was ready to listen to another classics-based personality.

I got a little excited then. But I was soon dashed to disappointment. Because when Orson likened himself to Sisyphus, he meant that he hasn’t gotten anywhere in his life. He meant that no matter how hard he works on his attitude (depression treated with some beer, more cannabis, and most exercise), he doesn’t get anywhere. I think he really meant “one step forward and two steps back.”

Because the truth is, Orson isn’t pushing any weight. And he’s ignoring the fact that Sisyphus’s boulder gig was punishment. The man had cheated death. He’d fucked with the gods.

Not so Orson. There’s no heroism or villainy in his past. Just regular old white-boy, gender-confused, suburban upbringing by needy narcissistic parents. The usual post-WWII sociology.

I don’t care enough about Orson to criticize him. So I’ll turn the scope on me. Look at my Cassandra thing. Didn’t I just grab her punishment and ignore the cause that preceded that effect? I latched on to the idea of the clear truth-teller, doomed to be disbelieved. I loved that concept. I saw myself in it.

But I ignored what went before. Cassandra captivated Apollo. The god fell for her and talked her into sexual congress by promising her the ability to foretell. Then she backed away. She revoked her consent. Apparently, “no” means no on Olympus (unless you’re dealing with Zeus).

Apollo was pissed. But he couldn’t take away the gift he’d bestowed (like the good fairy in Sleeping Beauty could only modify a curse and not remove it – apparently this is one of the rules in the “bless and curse” field). So Apollo said something like, “Fine. Be that way, you tease. I’ll show you. Sure you’ll foretell correctly. But I’m arranging it so NO ONE will believe a word you utter.”

I’m not eligible to use the name Cassandra, classically. And Orson has no claim on Sisyphus. But his affectation has prompted thought.

Camus wrote an essay on Sisyphus. In it he asserted that there is no torture greater than being doomed to fruitless labor. Like futility is the greatest grief.

I disagree. I think we’re born to work and the worst curse is never finding the work you need to do. Destruction of your product doesn’t undo the making. Getting nowhere doesn’t negate the travel.

Susie demonstrated how joyful non-accomplishment can be. She was a living testimony to the idea that the means totally win out when compared to ends. I mentioned this idea to a friend and he said, “Yeah, but a dog has no sense of time. No past or future. A dog lives in the present. So having a dog’s work not result in anything valuable… that has no meaning in the canine brain. But a person! A person is always aware of the future. To a person, getting nowhere is punishment.”

Maybe. But maybe not.

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