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.

What a Dog Can Do

So I’m writing a book about my decade spent with “Corky” my first guide dog. When you live with a dog every day and travel everywhere with her you ask yourself questions.

I thought she was heroic. She thought I was hopeless. Question one: “what was Corky really thinking while guiding me?”

I could only surmise what was in her head. This would become a habit.

I imagined the exercise of man-to-canine dialogue was good for the mind. If you play the game properly it means you’re tough minded. For instance, a man thinks his dog is always looking out for him—she’s valiant, non-distractible. This isn’t entirely correct but he chooses to believe it. He needs to think it. After all he has his insecurities.

But he also knew his dog was a dog.

And so, walking in strange cities I thought about my investment in ideas about Corky versus Corky’s likely thoughts.

She watched cars. We were in Wichita, Kansas. I said “forward” and she didn’t budge.

A bus roared past and then a truck.

How had I not heard them?

She’d done her job—had stopped at a curb and had scanned all movement.

I was thinking about all the summers that might remain. How long might I live? What oceans had I yet to swim in?

Oh heroic dog! Who’d saved me! She was “Lassie” and “Rin Tin Tin” rolled into one.

We walked a few blocks and entered Wichita’s Botanical Garden and I asked Corky directly if she felt like Rin Tin Lassie. She wasn’t paying attention to me.

“She’s watching butterflies,” said a woman. “You’re talking to her, and she’s got butterflies on the brain!”

She had a smoker’s laugh, big and phlegmy.

“We have a lot of butterflies here,” she said. “This is the “Butterfly Garden”.”

“Ah,” I said. Smoker woman went away.

“Butterflies and trucks,” I thought, “are equally compelling in a dog’s eyes.”

A bright flash of color. Each appears at the margins of vision. Both warrant full attention. They create amplitude—both ends of the motion spectrum are the same.

“Dogs aren’t heroic,” I thought. “but they are alert, quick, and certain.”

Dogs say: “That’s motion and it’s mine.”

Sitting there amid the Wichita butterflies I saw that it takes some bravery to understand your dog’s view of things.

Once you understand this there’s a purity to it.

A dog sees all the dizzying, big eyed sparks of dailiness.

And doesn’t worry about it.





Dog Language 101

The utility of language resides in two questions: what’s upwind and what’s the best way to get there?  For all I know dogs may have poetry—sonnets of smell—amusing to think so—but when I took my first solo walk down the subway stairs with guide dog Corky I knew she had a bold and ancient comprehension of our circumstances.  When you feel the language of others, even when its silent, you’re sensing competence.  Some days a silent language is all you need.

Once, riding a train from Helsinki to Tampere, I sat beside three old women.  They knew one another well.  You could see it in their postures, long familiarity.  One was knitting.  One had a book.  The third looked out the window.  Every now and then one of them would say a confirmatory thing—“snowing again” or “coffee?”  It was easy to be in their company.  I was a young man writing poetry and starting to understand the delicacies of language and consciousness.

With a dog you don’t have to be all tricky and wild.  Trouble free words will do.  Heartfelt silence will do.  Walking through the subway with Corky I let her guide me and kept my mouth shut.

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.,

MacDowell Downtown Presents Activist Stephen Kuusisto This Friday, March 1

The following content was originally posted on the MacDowell web site by David Macy, Resident Director

MacDowell Downtown on Trusted Companions

This Friday evening at 7:30 p.m., author and Colony Fellow Stephen Kuusisto will share stories of guide dogs and their people experiencing the world together. A New Hampshire native and Fulbright Scholar, Kuusisto has appeared on programs such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Animal Planet, and National Public Radio.

Entertainer and intellectual, poet and activist, Kuusisto could also be described as a surrealist comedian with a wise man’s heart. In the late 90s he served as Director of Student Services at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a charitable nonprofit dedicated to training guide dogs for people with multiple disabilities. In 2000 he returned to his alma mater, the University of Iowa, to teach creative nonfiction at the graduate school. Today he directs the Renée Crown Honors Program at Syracuse University where he also holds the post of University Professor.

Returning to Peterborough after a hiatus of 18 years, Steve is the author of Planet of the Blind, a New York Times notable book, and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening. In his most recent book,Letters to Borges, published by Copper Canyon Press earlier this month, Kuusisto explores seeing, blindness and being through themes of travel, place, religion, music, art, and loneliness. In May he will be traveling for the U.S. State Department to discuss human rights and literature in Azerbaijan, Turkistan, and Kazakhstan. He is a fascinating character with a lot to say about a lot of things, and for Friday night the thematic link will be man’s best friend.

Please spread the word to those who might be interested… I look forward to seeing you all at Bass Hall!

David Macy
Resident Director

PS- check out the Friday Arts program from WHYY in Philadelphia; this documentary short by filmmaker and MacDowell Fellow Michael O’Reilly… it tells the story of visual artist Marc Brodzik and the impact his MacDowell experience has had on the arc of his career.

MacDowell Downtown
Talk and Reading by author and MacDowell Fellow Stephen Kuusisto

“A Place Among Dogs, or, How Service Animals Make Our World”

Friday, March 1, 2013
7:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Bass Hall at
The Monadnock Center for History and Culture
19 Grove Street
Peterborough, NH
Cost: Free

What a Dog Can Do: An excerpt

No one knows when the forerunner of today’s guide dogs first appeared. Drawings of blind people accompanied by dogs date back to the 17th century. Those early pairings were most likely memorization teams, one pictures the dog leading its partner through the village square.  It’s clear no substantial training was involved. But we can imagine the tremendous bond with dogs that developed between the uncharted and lonely blind people of prior ages. It is a safe bet that dogs solved the puzzle of solitude for blind travelers who lived in a time when sightlessness was a great calamity. (The idea that blind men and women could be taught to read was a late development in cultural history, as Diderot’s essay Lettre sur les aveugles published in 1749 offered the first speculation that raised letters might be possible.) The world of the blind has been a dismal place throughout much of history. It’s possible to say, along with the poet Pablo Neruda that pure faith cannot withstand the assaults of winter, but your survival is more likely with a dog. Sometimes when I think about the ancient blind with their lives of begging and fiddle playing, their relentless wandering, homelessness, sickness, I weep to imagine the righteous loyalty of those early dogs.

From: What a Dog Can Do: A Memoir of Life with Guide Dogs, by Stephen Kuusisto, forthcoming from Simon and Schuster


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, is scheduled for release in October 2012.  As director of the Renee Crown University Honors Program and a University Professor at Syracuse University, Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy.,


This is just too funny not to share. 

Last November we acquired a lovely Golden Retriever, Maggie, who needed a home.  As happy as I am to have this dog in my life, I could be just as happy if we found someone else with whom to share the joy.  (Translated: we also have two Labradors.  Do we really need a third big dog?) Mine_now_2

(The photo above is of Maggie sitting at the water’s edge at Lake Winnipesaukee, the wind blowing through her golden locks.) 

A few months ago I had a conversation with my friend Anne.  She and her husband Clete live in NH and they too own a cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee.  Anne mentioned they were thinking of getting another dog as a playmate to the one they already have but that they were too busy for a puppy right now.  I said "oh, perhaps you’d like to give Maggie a try?"  I was planning a trip to NH so the timing was perfect.

"That’s an idea" she said.  "Let me talk to Clete and get back to you".

Maggie and I drove the 16 hours to NH.  She’s great company so I would have taken her with me anyway.  It’s a good thing because when I got there Anne and I spoke again and she then revealed that "Clete really doesn’t think he wants a Golden Retriever.  They’re wanderers, their coat is too much maintenance and besides, they get dingleberries."

"Dingleberries!" I said with a laugh.  "Dame Maggie NEVER gets dingleberries.  She’s much too much the lady… She’s not a wanderer either.  Really.  She’s a lovely dog."

"OK, I’ll talk to him again"

Relaying this to my husband later that evening he said "Dingleberries!  Clete is a gastroenterologist for God’s sake.  He does colonocopies all day.  He wears a sweatshirt at camp with "colon crusader" written across the back of it.  What’s a dingleberry or two to "The Colon Crusader?"

Anne and Clete decided to give Maggie a try.  I visited Anne for lunch the next day.  I was prepared to leave Maggie with her, which I did.

Maggie, however, was NOT pleased and I knew it.  She did not relish the idea of being the "playmate" to this big, shall I say young, neutered but very amorous German Shepherd.  Jackson, as he is called, would not leave her alone.  I mean, he was all over her.  While it is possible for a neutered male to have his way with a female it wouldn’t be pleasant for her.  Especially for Dame Maggie.  Her solution to the problem was to lie down and not get up – not unless she absolutely had to.

Ever the optimist, and as a former guide dog trainer, I knew that there would be an adjustment period for Maggie and that it could take days.  My hope was that Jackson could learn to "play" with Maggie with out needing to hump her obsessively.  I also knew that the success of this "experiment" would hinge as much on the dog handlers as on the dogs themselves.  How much did they really want this to work?  Neither dog was aggressive.  One was just much "busier" than the other.

Fast Forward -> 24 hours later….

I’m back at my cabin realizing I’m kind of missing Maggie when I get the phone call.

"Connie, Clete really doesn’t think this is going to work out and I
have to say I agree with him.  We want a dog that will play with
Jackson and we can’t get her to move!  I kid you not, she has hardly
moved since you left her!  I can’t get her to move.  The kids can’t get
her to move.  We did finally get her to go outside at one point and then she
started to wander – it was almost as if she was looking for
something – and she wouldn’t come when called.  Clete had to go after her
with a leash.  Honestly, if I didn’t know better I would think there was something wrong with this dog!"

"No problem Anne.  I’ll take her back!"  I knew Dame Maggie was not
happy.  I knew she could/would adjust given the time.  But I also knew
that Maggie wasn’t the kind of dog they were looking for.  Maggie is my
kind of dog.  Quiet.  Gentle.  Affectionate.  Sweet.  Well mannered.  And not at all horny.

I knew then that she is my dog now and she is meant to be my dog.

Oh but wait!  There’s more to the dingleberry story…

Continue reading