On dogs

When I was young, I was terrified of dogs; unreasonably so. A fear of slavering, half-rabid rottweilers or the calculated malevolence of a lithe doberman would have been understandable; but I was also quite capable of bricking my juvenile self at the impotent yipping of the most wretched of miniature poodles. From the age of eleven, this changed, largely through exposure to Mindy, my best friend’s family dog. Mindy was, if I remember correctly, a retriever–doberman cross-breed; intelligent, loyal, protective but not ferocious, and good fun in the park. From Mindy onwards, I became very pro-dog and for a long time hankered after having one of my own.

But then I slowly swung less in favour of dogs, and here’s why: dogs lack dignity. It’s a result, no doubt, of the hierarchical nature of their pack origins, but it bugs me. At their worst—red setters and labradors—dogs can seem to be little more than hyperactive bundles of fur, saliva, and neediness. Exposure to cats played a part in this, of course: cats are dignified to the point of aristrocratic, and whereas I would happily consign the entirety of human aristocracy to eternal perdition for their presumptions of superiority based on nothing but birth, parasitic exploitation of the remainder of humanity, and the cunning trick they seem to have pulled in which half the population are fawningly grateful to them for this, for some reason exactly the same traits in cats I find wholly admirable. They both like torturing smaller animals for sport, too, now I think of it.

Reprimand a cat and all you will receive is a gaze that compresses “fuck you” to the density of a neutron star, and directs it unerringly at your soul. Reprimand a dog, and all the tragedies of Euripides, Shakespeare, and Schiller could not evoke the agonized loss in its soft, dewy eyes. Forget to feed a cat and they will make you suffer for it with the carefully deposited dismembered remains of their alternative luncheon, leave your dog’s dish empty and the suffering will be all his, and he will not even blame you for it. When your cat curls up on your lap, it’s because it’s the warmest place in the house; whereas when your dog curls up beside you it’s because he needs you and loves you and wants to be with you and wants you to love him and needs you to be with him and loves you to want him and—oh would you give it a goddamn rest. I have spent the best part of my life resolutely failing to engage meaningfully with members of my own species, I’m certainly not going to take this emotional incontinence from a member of another.

This is not to say I now dislike dogs: they appear smarter than cats—though the latter often remind me of the old Egyptian belief that monkeys can talk, but just don’t in front of humans in order to avoid being made to work. Dogs have loyalty to their owners, rather than simply a tolerant amusement of the non-cat-shaped thing that currently fills their bowls. And, if necessary, dogs come equipped with a fine protective arsenal, which in certain parts of the world is not without use.

I’m currently staying in the house of a friend who has a dog—not the first time I have lived around one. Sir Woofmore of Woof Hall—or Trix as his owner, Helen, insists upon inaccurately calling him—is a Norfolk terrier, and a good dog. He doesn’t grovel or fawn, he is affectionate but not needy, and his breath doesn’t smell. He has a sense of fun, one of the most attractive aspects of dogs, and though he fails to grasp the concept of the stick-throwing game—preferring to chew the retrieved item to a pulp rather than return it—performing the same game with squeaky toys gets spectacular results, especially if conducted within the house: his tiny, stumpy little legs propel him into a hilariously exaggerated leap over the minute step into the kitchen should you throw one there for him to retrieve—though in my case the laughter can only hide the embarrassing fact that, should a similar obstacle be placed between me and, say, a crispy Hendricks and tonic with fresh cucumber and plenty of ice, my own equally truncated (though, admittedly, not as furry) lower limbs would in all likelihood perform not dissimilar acrobatics.

He has, largely, swung my needle back in the pro-dog direction. (It is, of course, cognitively impossible to be both pro-cat and pro-dog: if you think you are and own both, you are fooling yourself. The dog only exists to give the cat another living creature to be effortlessly superior to.) But there is a downside, and one that did not come with my previous dog co-habitees. Sir Woofmore requires walking, and when Helen is away this task falls to me.

I have devoted my life to the avoidance of walking. Despite being necessarily a non-driver, I will usually do anything to avoid this pursuit. I have endeavoured to live in flattish cities where biking is easy (a year-long recent stay in Bath proved a disastrous exception to this). A number of family-members as well as one of my oldest friends are great adherents of the country ramble, and I have spent many years making excessively clear to them that, as far as I am concerned, the vaunted rolling green hills of England can roll on without me, and that the only thing you can say with complete certainty about the countryside is that for every place you step you can be absolutely sure that an animal has shat there first. I am not exercise-averse—far from it—but my favoured form of cardiovascular involves paying someone to hold up some pads whilst I inexpertly but exhaustingly pummel them: CV should be, in my view, short, painful, intense, and most importantly indoors.

Yet, horrifyingly, I found I rather enjoyed walking Sir Woofmore. An episode of In Our Time runs to a good forty-five minutes—or forty if you skip forwards when Melvin starts to get obstreperously opinionated about matters historical—and this is just the time it takes His Honourable Woofness to burn off a bit of energy, meet and greet some canine buddies, mark certain very specific bushes as his, and if you’re lucky give you a warm little present to wrap up in a plastic bag and dump in the nearest doggie bin. As a significant portion of my veneer of erudition stems from the fact that the entire, almost twenty-year back catalogue of this programme is available as podcasts, I spent my walking week gently ambling round the fields behind Helen’s house, throwing the odd ball, exchanging friendly words with other dog-walkers, revisiting favoured episodes, and internalizing a few obtuse cultural references to casually throw out during this very blogging challenge.

The downside of walking Trix, it turns out, is not the walking itself. It is the fact that I may well be forced into admitting that walking is not such a odious pursuit after all.

Unleashing the Inner Neanderthal

I never entered a gym until I was in my late twenties. In my teenage years running around a pitch pretending to catch a ball, but actually just hitting people and being hit, sufficed to keep me in reasonable shape. At university for my undergrad I maintained my rugby-level boozing, supplemented it with poor diet, and omitted to find a replacement exercise regime, resulting in a physique which could most attractively be described as “Regency.” Starting in my final year and into my early twenties, it all fell off rapidly because of lack of money with which to booze, a job which required me to be on my feet all day, and those goddamn hormones that young people have. (You wait, oh my twenty-something readers. You just wait. You will hit thirty and that effortlessly firm and lean physique will suddenly require twice as much work just to stay the same.)

As my twenties progressed, the chub returned to a degree, due to working in publishing: an industrial machine whose human gears are oiled by the frequent and excessive application of alcohol. An attempt to address this by the enthusiastic though utterly incompetent playing of squash resulted, late in my twenties, in a herniated disc in my spine, three months off work, and the general pain that comes with this most unattractive of middle-age’s precursors.

Once I had slowly edged my way back to mobility, I resolved never to let this happen again, and to that end joined a gym. This, despite my firm conviction that gymnasia were horrendous sweat-pits of hypertrophied masculinity, and that picking up heavy things just to put them down again was an existential epic fail, and probably a grotesquely unnecessary messing with entropy to boot. To my immense surprise I found that gyms are really rather ordinary places, that entropy can look after itself, and I additionally realized that nothing else I do in my entire life will have any cosmic consequence at all, so my inevitably, ultimately wasted years might as well be spent inevitably, ultimately-wastedly buff. This was enhanced by the discovery, led on by an exceptionally awesome trainer in Oxford, that I particularly liked picking up stupidly heavy things. I found my Inner Neanderthal, and I embraced him.

A few years of not unreasonable almost-buffness ensued, but of late the chub has returned again. The distance, it is true, from my house in Bath to the nearest gym was not conducive to fitting in a quick session. But I also have been worrying that I have lost the enthusiasm. I had of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my thirst, foregone all custom of exercises. Could it be that I am, horrifyingly, just past it?

So why am I relating this now? Well, after a couple of days in Picinguaba—a village in Brazil with no gym, but substantial quantities of beer—I realized today that the situation was hardly going to improve. So, as my friend Peter was driving into Paraty—the nearest decent-sized town—today, I hopped in the car to go to the gym there.

I used to live in Paraty, sporadically, some years ago, and was a member of a gym there, so I went back to Corpo em forma—where I was pleasantly surprised to discover they remembered me—paid the day-rate, and went in to try and ameliorate the belly situation. Let me describe this place to you. It is cheap. It is on the upper storey of an L-shaped shopping precinct, the front of which is open-air except for a lightweight awning to keep off the direct sun. The inside of the gym has fans, but they are never on. The mats on the floor are so elderly and abused that one suspects that what little cushioning they have is less retained from an earlier, more bouyant, phase of their existance than it is simply the accumulated absorbed sweat that has dripped down on them. The weights are shameless lumps of iron with occasionally visible numbers on them, and there are no clips with which to hold them in place on the bars: if you can’t maintain them stable, they will fall off and you will look a fool. The guys who work there are Brazilians, and therefore were born buff even before they started putting decidedly suspicious compounds in their bodies, and wouldn’t conjugate their verbs even if they knew how. It is a horrendous sweat-pit of hypertrophied masculinity and, secretly, shame-facedly, I love it. I rediscovered my Inner Neanderthal today, and tomorrow is really gonna hurt.

There is a coda to this story, and one which will justify and even form a kind of absolution for my confession of secret ferrophilia. I did no CV in the gym, because (a) it was 30 degrees in the shade, and (b) I just hate it so much. Instead, after I’d finished, I went to the rodoviária to get the bus back to Picinguaba.

I now need to supply you with a little geography. Picinguaba lies halfway between the towns of Paraty and Ubatuba; the former is in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and the latter the state of São Paulo. Picinguaba is about five miles into the São Paulo side so, because local buses operate upon a state-level system, you have to get two buses to get back to Picinguaba: one from Paraty to the divisão, and one from the divisão to Picinguaba. Additionally, Picinguaba is not actually on the main road between Paraty and Ubatuba, but down a long, badly-kept, and extremely hilly road. There is a bus-stop at the junction. Some of the buses to Ubatuba from the divisão take a detour down into Picinguaba, others do not. It’s not an extremely long road, but it is about a twenty minute detour for the bus, because the road is only just wide enough, pot-holed, and so steep in places that it is not unknown for the bus to actually roll over as it attempts to make a particularly vertiginous turn.

There was a bus waiting at the divisão, and so I asked a guy also waiting whether this one went into Picinguaba. No, he replied, it did not. I thought about it, and decided to get it anyway, as I could always get out at the junction stop and either wait for a bus coming the other way, or start walking into Picinguaba and flag down a lift from anyone passing.

So we arrived at the junction, I rang the bell, and disembarked. The bus pulled away and immediately swung around, went back up the road for twenty metres, and took the turning into Picinguaba.

Do you know that feeling when you drop a freshly-poured gin and tonic, quite possibly due to it being far from the first freshly-poured gin and tonic that has passed your way already? How it descends in slow-motion to shatter upon the floor, and how unreasonable it seems that you can’t simply unwind time just a few seconds to undo what was obviously a minor, uncosmic error. That. Off it merrily, but slow-motionally went, down the road that led to Picinguaba, leaving me on a sun-struck, boiling highway with no-one else at the stop, and no indication of when the next bus would be.

Reader, I walked it. Someone would come. Someone would pass me. My face is known in Picinguaba, people are generous and friendly, and it is a given that if you are going down the road and they have space in their car they will pick you up.

No-one came.

No-one picked me up.

I walked all four fucking miles of it, in the afternoon heat, already exhausted from my over-enthusiastic gymming. Up steep hills, on an uneven road, passing en route the ditch with broken trees where, Peter had coincidentally pointed out to me on the way out, the latest bus-overturning had taken place. I did my CV after all.

Of course the bus was ahead of me, and had to return, and I passed the bus coming down the steepest stretch as I was coming up it. (Hoffnung, anyone?) The guy who had told me it did not enter Picinguaba was still on it, of course, and sat on the side facing me. The bus was moving slowly, for it had pot-holes and inclines to negotiate, so I had time to look him full in the face.

Brazilian men largely operate on a combination of testosterone, boundless optimism, and a total, utter, bloody-minded refusal to admit that they are ever wrong. I have been coming to this country for about ten years now, and I have finally seen an expression on someone’s face that I never thought I would.