Dogs, Hats, and Faith

As the new year dawns I’m doing my best—that is, I’m drinking coffee. And since I went to bed last night at 9:30 (at the insistence of a small dog who thought it was the right thing when the outside temperature was 5 degrees Fahrenheit) well because of this I’m wide awake sans hangover.

To be fair the dog didn’t make me go to bed. It’s good to distrust people who say dogs make them do anything other than feeding them and taking them outside. I went to bed early because it seemed like a good idea.

I’ve been taking antidepressants for over twenty years. They help me stay “in the game” but they also make me tired at night and that’s just the way it is. By taking Celexa I live on dog time. Early to bed, early to rise. I’m Ben Franklin with pills and dogs.

What are dogs and antidepressants for? I imagine they’re about hope. Even facing the aborning year which cannot be promising, what with the looting of the planet, corporatized warfare, slavish and corrupt politicians of every stripe, human trafficking, the new slavery, which is old slavery tied to offshore banking—I’ll stop in a moment—even with the assault on the poor, the infirm—here I am again tossing my moth eaten chapeau onto a fountain of hope knowing one of my two dogs will retrieve it.

Dogs teach us to put our wet hats on again.

They teach us to avoid rising to the level of our expectations, but fall to the level of our training, as Archilochus would have it and which I’ve always taken to mean “get on with it brother.”

The wet hat has some toothmarks.

Lots of people sneer at hope. It is for one thing akin to faith and nothing gets kicked more often than faith, even the faithful do it.

I agree with Maxine Hong Kingston: “In a time of destruction, create something.”

Dogs say wet hats are better than no hats.

Dogs say you can indeed get there from here.

Dogs say even wearing that hat you’re not as bad as you appear.

Or they say, well, you might be as bad as you appear—so throw your hat again and we’ll bring it back. You can try for a new look.

A hat damp with hope is still a hat.

A damp hat is expectation halved, still wearable.

The hat your dog brings means you have a plan.

More About Teaching with a Dog

I knew one in five of my students likely had a disability; that one in four had probably been assaulted sexually; that approximately 40% had alcoholic parents or relatives. One can’t teach without knowing such things—at least not be teaching properly. Could being disabled “before them” and working with Corky foster communicative possibilities beyond merely inserting my life, my story—the professor as “other?” I wasn’t sure at first. You walk into a classroom with a dog, it’s like a joke.

Since service animals can’t be ignored I said: “for Corky the past is prologue.” “She’s more well adjusted than most of us.”

“A guide dog’s childhood is impressive,” I said. “Love, encouragement, modest rules, then more love, more encouragement…”

“Who among us gets to have that?” I asked. No one raised a hand.

So here’s what I did. I invited students to coffee klatches with Corky. It was kumbaya. And so what?

We created a small circle around a dog.

I took the harness off.

Corky circled putting her head on people’s knees.

“In order for ideas to have value,” I said, “one must feel secure enough to be inquisitive.”

My coffee drinkers agreed this wasn’t easy.

We were newly minted adepts of John Dewey’s pragmatism, hugging a dog, insisting our everyday experiences mattered.

I will not tell my students stories.

But sometimes at night walking to the bus I thought of them bearing up under their burdens and of how they still desired lives of trust.

This is no small thing when you feel it. No small thing….

A Dog Named Harmony

I got the call this afternoon from Lisa at Guiding Eyes for the Blind that starting next Monday (August 10) I’ll be united with my fourth guide dog, a yellow Labrador female named “Harmony”.

Timing is everything whether you’re talking of comedy or the calendar. I’ll have ten days to work with Miss Harmony before the start of a new semester at Syracuse University where I both teach and direct the Honors Program for outstanding undergraduates. Ten days are before me when I must study hard to understand the ways of my new canine companion. We say all the time that everyone is different. This is true of guide dogs. Each has his or her unique personality and though they come already trained, it’s the job of a blind handler to relearn dog handling techniques (for some things inevitably change in the land of dog training) and to learn what the new dog knows and expects. The training is a team activity. In my case, though I’m a veteran dog handler, I have lots of new things to learn. “Be curious every day,” I tell my students. “Be open,” I tell them. Well now it’s my turn. With Harmony and trainer Lisa I’ll be practicing what I preach.

My friends and colleagues will see me walking with Harmony and Lisa on the campus at SU. On day one, which will likely be next Tuesday, anyone chancing to see us will see me with a dog in harness and a young woman walking behind. I will be relearning how to be a good dog handler. Harmony’s life and my own will depend on this.

Timing is everything. I’ve just completed a new book (a memoir) recounting what it was like to discover freedom with a guide dog for the first time. In the next few weeks I will be revising the book for the last time before it goes into production at Simon & Schuster. As I’m preparing to revise the manuscript I’ll be walking richly in the open, with more than a little vulnerability, and with lots of trust.

Miss Harmony is coming. My current guide “Nira” will retire as our beloved house pet. Nira is sneaking up on 10. She’s more than a little tired. She loves me deeply as I love her. Now we will have to separate as hourly companions. I know this will be a bit hard for her, and it won’t be that easy for me.

Harmony will have her different ways. A different gait. She will be faster than Nira who has inevitably slowed. I expect Harmony and I will soon be moving fast.

And so for the sake of Nira and Harmony I’ll endeavor to be the best student I can be.

In the new memoir I describe meeting my first guide dog Corky for the first time:

She was brilliant and silly. I couldn’t believe my fortune. Back in our room Corky licked my eyes. She wanted me to invite her on the bed. I told her to remember the rules. Dogs on the floor, people on the beds. The trainers had been clear about guide dog etiquette and I was going to follow the regimen. Guide dogs aren’t encouraged to climb on the furniture. “You stay on the floor,” I said, and she nibbled my nose again as if to say, “I’ll wear you down brother.” I saw in our first moments we were having the manifold dance of relationship—we were joyous and communicating. I talked in a running wave. She bounced, literally bounced, cocked her head, backed up, ran in circles, and came back. All the while I kept talking. “Oh let’s go any place we choose,” I said, feeling I was on the verge of tears. 

Our first hours unfolded. We began the lifelong art of learning to read each other.  

Oh let’s go any place we choose, Harmony. I’m ready.


Thank you to The Huffington Post

I’d like to thank The Huffington Post for allowing me the privilege of being an occasional guest blogger.  I am honored to have this opportunity.

Steve_Corky_GEBIn this post titled Dogs on the Playing Field I discuss the role of professionally trained service dogs serving people with disabilites in the U.S. today and ask (and answer) this question: …even 23 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and 70+ years since the introduction of guide dogs in the U.S. life in public isn’t always friendly. Lately it seems more unfriendly than at any time since the late 1930s when the blind had to fight for the right to enter a store or ride a public bus. What’s going on?

I am grateful to The Huffington Post for allowing me the use of their platform to explore this issue.  You would “make my day” by stopping by and sharing THIS POST with your social circles.  Thank you!

Photo: author Steve Kuusisto being guided by yellow Labrador, guide dog “Corky”, circa 1995.

Dog Schmooze

Professor Stephen Kuusisto is the author of Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening” and the acclaimed memoir Planet of the Blind, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”. His second collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press, “Letters to Borges has just been released. Listen to Steve read “Letter to Borges in His Parlor” in this fireside reading via YouTube. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled What a Dog Can Do. Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy.,

One Love or Another

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Photo: It’s a gray day but that doesn’t stop this big yellow lab from bounding in and out of the lake to play fetch with a stick.

I sought one love or another, like the great poet, always using up whole days, months.Then the dog, the big dog came into my life. Love seeks you. I knew that. I’d read it in a book. But Corky had to punctuate it. Dogs are punctuation marks with the god stuff inside. That is what a dog can do. She can take apart the omens, reveal what’s right before you. 

–from “What a Dog Can Do: A Memoir of Life with Guide Dogs” forthcoming from Simon and Schuster 2013