Why we named a dog Marquis de la Fayette in 2004

When Chester Burnette died, and Hubert Sumlin almost died from grief, George Washington arrived on the scene and saved the day. George was the sort of pushy goofball that everyone loves–he had his faults. To his dying day (literally) we could not persuade him to leave strangers’ crotches alone, and his mission in life was to get to any kleenex in any available trash can (which, let’s be blunt, means I was an idiot to keep throwing kleenex in the trash). Someone told us his breed was “Austin Red Dog,” meaning he was one of the many combinations that ends up in a dog between 70 and 100 lbs., red-orange coat, sort of stand-up sort of hang down ears. (In George’s case, he had one of each.)
When we’d had George for about a month, we got a call from our vet’s office. If you’re doing the math, this means we got the call at the end of January when everyone in Austin is dying from cedar fever. This fever is particularly bad if you live in a place called Cedar Park–people are walking into walls either because of allergies or because of allergy medicine. Personally, I was on both. They explained that the local animal shelter (which, as I understand, has since been closed) had a limited number of cages for dogs; when they got additional admissions, they just euthanized whatever dogs were at the end. These end-cage animals were euthanized at our vet’s office, and so the vet’s office was calling the customers (aka “softies”) who might be able to foster some of the puppies who were in that last cage.
There was one, they said, that looked just like George. “Sure,” I said. [As an aside, you might note I did not ask my husband first. He has never upbraided me for this, although he could have.] The 12-week old puppy we got was an only slightly mini-me version of George. Even we often had trouble telling them apart. Feeling guilty about having landed my family with a foster dog without asking, I was determined I would find this dog a home. Instantly, we started obedience lessons, at which he was outrageously good, and I started asking everyone I knew if they wanted an adorable and smart dog. In the interim, he had completely bonded with George. He did everything George did, literally looking up to him. There came the question of what to call him. “Ha ha,” I said, “he follows George Washington around and looks up to him–we should call him Marquis de Lafayette.” I had forgotten that my son was in the midst of a revolutionary war geekocity (thanks, “Liberty’s Kids”), having just named our new dog George Washington. And my husband has considerable history geek cred. They loved the idea. “No!,” I said, “we’re in Texas–we need to name him Cowboy or Buddy or we’ll never find him a home!” I was outvoted.
I found him a prospective home–which wasn’t hard–after two weeks. He was, after all, smart and highly photogenic and the perfect size (headed for around 70 lbs.). The prospective parents were going to come over one Saturday, and the night before I told Jacob (six years old). Jacob didn’t throw a fit (which I might have been able to resist); instead, his lower lip trembled, as he tried desperately to be brave. I said, “Now, Jacob, we talked about this. We knew that he wasn’t going to stay with us.” He said, “Yes, I know, but good-byes are so hard.”
I fell back on the parental [blarghy blargh ohnowhatdoisaynow] filler, and said, “What do you mean by that?”
He said, “Well, we had to say good-bye to Chester, and then to Coolhand Luke [a very old cat who died during that January], and now to Marquis.”
I said, “Um, I need to talk to your dad for a minute.” And I went into the study, where Jim was playing a computer game. I said, “I think we’re keeping Marquis.” He said, “I know.” He didn’t even turn around or hit pause.

A conversation about conspiracy theory web design

[context: I posted a link that had embedded a link to a conspiracy theory site]

Original post : Do NOT click on the link toward the top of the page. It will send you to the kind of site that has epilepsy-inducing web design. Someday (and I’m perfectly serious) I want someone to do a study as to why conspiracy sites all have the same kind of awful web design. The correlation is too strong for it to be a coincidence.


[Cody] I remember you mentioning that correlation when I was in your class. I wish I had the kind of time and insight to do it myself.

[Fred] Hmm. Interesting question. I’m sure all of those sites are made from templates (e.g. WordPress or some canned Drupal crap), so if you are used to a certain kind of “design” (using the term very loosely) it’s a simple thing to reproduce it.

More complexly, I think there is a class or segment of American society that is suspicious and even actively hostile towards beauty and design. So much of our landscape has been made so blighted and ugly by what we build. Examples are endless: Billboards in Death Valley, an outlet mall at the gateway to the Columbia Gorge, etc, ad nauseum. But so many people seem not to see it, much less care about it. It’s almost a badge of honor. (The visual equivalent of “smells like money to me”.) I imagine it must be related to the grand old tradition of American anti-intellectualism. An appreciation for beauty and design is effete, Continental, liberal, a weakness compared to the muscular disdain for anything that is not competitive capitalism.

That’s where I’d start my inquiry if I were still researching stuff like this.=

[me] That’s an interesting point. Also, they’re VERY busy, and their basic strategy of argumentation is accumulatio. So, they don’t argue by one thing leading to another, or being logically connected to another, but by the sheer accumulation of data (that are, usually, disconnected).

It’s funny–isn’t that what a mall is? Maybe it’s some version of consumerism? You just want a lot of shit, and it doesn’t really matter what any individual piece of shit means–it’s that you’ve got a lot of it. So that’s what you do with the site? It’s a lot of shit?

[Fred] I bet a big part of the Right’s hatred of Apple is related to this. How else would you explain so-called free-market Conservatives despising one of the most successful private companies in history?

[me] Huh. That would be REALLY interesting. So it would mean something like simplicity is threatening to reactionary politics?

[Cody] I would jump off of Fred’s statement and say it also represents “plainness”. The evidence speaks for itself, so why do I need to pretty it up? Also, the idea that they have better things to do, like doing REAL American work or researching these coverups than to worry about how pretty their website is.

I’d also tie it into the idea that they’re not spending money on their website’s design. Because they’re “simple folk”. That’s why a lot of them are using free sites like Bloggerand WordPress and tumblr.

[me] Wellllll… they aren’t plain sites, though. They’re very busy. But not complicated, and certainly not pretty. So it’s a weird aesthetic.

[Cody] Right, but it’s surprisingly easy to make a busy website. It’s a lot more work to try and make it all flow correctly. And, like Fred said, it’s effete.

I’d also think it’s an anti-intellectual statement. They’re not well-versed in internet design because they aren’t “those people”. To me, the interest here would be using a platform you’re not wholly familiar with to try and deliver your message. I imagine there might be a correlation with early film? Now I’m sort of just throwing darts.

[Fred] But yes, beauty and design are seen as forms of obfuscation, things that impede and obscure common sense and exchange. Beauty and design are indulgences that get in the way of the business of consumption.

[Cody] By plain, I didn’t mean to imply “simple”. My old Angelfire website back in the 90s was just pictures of Austin Powers and dancing hamsters. It was the easiest thing in the world to make, but would blind a person.

Right, it’s like fast food is American because we don’t have time to research our food. We’re too busy working and being American. Only the intellectuals and the artists have time to sit around and think.

[me] Ooooooooohhhhh….interesting. So a certain kind of simplicity is deliberate and thoughtful, as opposed to a kind of expressive get to the point that means you’re flinging data out there.

Yeah, I think you’re both right. It has something to do with being thoughtful and deliberate (bad) rather than authentic and … what? messy?

[Fred] I also think Trish is onto something with the idea of accumulation. I think there’s a common trope that associates expertise with possession. Owning all the tools for X makes you an expert (as an amateur woodworker, I can tell you plain, this is not the case), and something like that is at work in these websites that are like Hoarders but with “facts” instead of cats.


What Duke Ellington taught me (no, not *that* Duke Ellington)

I never wanted to own a Dane. I have always loved dogs, big dogs. I think every useful lesson I learned about love was from dogs, dogs who followed me into places they didn’t really want to go, who brought me presents I had to assess in terms of the value of their intention, who managed conflicts (including forgiveness) in a way far healthier than any humans with whom I had contact, and who taught me about being astonished in the wonder of the moment. And who saved my life at moments.


But, I didn’t want a Dane because they have health problems, and they die too young. And then a neighbor found a Dane-mix puppy abandoned at a gas station, and I took him just till we found him a home. Well, all you dog people know how quickly he found a home, but that’s a different story. And he was wonderful, but a bit complicated, and then he saved my ass a few times (including a couple of times that involved the whole I’m not really clear on the “how to identify a rattlesnake” thing but he was, and the “while walking late at night places I shouldn’t have and a man stepped out of the darkness and saw Chester and stepped back”) and he had the best temperament of any dog I’ve ever known, and, well, I was sold on Danes. I named him Chester Burnette.

When Jim and I were in a position stable enough to have two big dogs, we got Hubert Sumlin. When Chester died, and Hubert almost did, we got George Washington (a Shepherd/ridgeback/black-mouthed cur mix—that story is elsewhere) and then took in a foster (Marquis de Lafayette, also a story told elsewhere). When Hubert died, George and Marquis mourned by not barking at the mail carrier for four days (a pretty significant demonstration of grief).

We worked with a big dog rescue group, and asked to adopt a 9 month old Dane puppy. His life had been pretty rough. Although a purebred, and therefore the owner had spent a lot of money to get him, the puppy was neglected enough to get Animal Control involved. This is unhappily common—people are enamored with a big breed, and decide to get one, and haven’t really thought through what a big breed means.

Sometimes they give them up, and sometimes they stick them in a backyard. Duke’s owner was the latter. Of course, a shithead who buys a big dog and doesn’t actually want to own a big dog hasn’t generally done the work of finding a good breeder (see: shithead) so a rescue Dane is often a mistreated dog with a bad genetic line. And Duke was a dog who was so underfed that he had taken to eating everything in the backyard that wouldn’t kill him. A neighbor had repeatedly reported his situation to Animal Control, who, when Duke was nine months, told the owner he had two choices: hand over the dog, or pay a fine. The owner handed over the dog, and a rescue group got him.

The next part is kind of ugly, but I mean no criticism of the sort of people who engage in rescue. As far as we understand, Duke was brought to a really good home with a whole bunch of Danes, some of whom had only recently been neutered (and maybe some who hadn’t yet?) and a female was brought in. She went into heat, and no one expected that. Duke was restrained, and every male went nuts, and he got mauled. So, for the rest of his life, he flipped his shit if he saw another dog and he was on leash.

We went and picked him up, and then spend the hour-long drive home discussing what to name him. We’d named our previous Danes after blues singers, and he was a fawn, so I suggested Delbert McClinton. It was pointed out that would sound like Dilbert, and Jacob suggested Duke Ellington. You just had to look at that dog and see he was a “Duke.” And, of course, he looked so elegant and intelligent. We didn’t really know that was just a pose. So, we named him Duke Ellington.

George and Marquis were wonderful with him, although, having been alone in a backyard for nine months, Duke knew nothing. He didn’t know how to play, and he would watch the two of them play with a heart-breaking confusion. Eventually, George was indulgent enough to rough-house with Duke, and George, being George, managed Duke well and kept him in line in the backyard, but that was because George was pretty near his weight, and had more skill.


So, George did something extraordinary—he got Duke to understand something entirely new, and it had to do with how to relate to another being. I walked Duke through four doggy obedience classes, but between us, neither George nor I taught Duke how to “play” with someone. George taught him to match aggression. George tried, but never managed to teach Duke what play is, when you rely on limits. The difference between play and aggression is that you let someone else win, you hold back, you laugh when you are threatened. Duke played too rough.

Jim took the three of them to the dog park for over a year before Duke’s inability to understand play resulted in his fetching a little dog, and that was that. Then it was walking the dogs, and Duke’s leash-fear was triggered by seeing another dog. We did all the things that you do under those circumstances, and he did get much better, but it always started with crossing the street when you saw another dog.

Here’s the thing: Duke was dumb.

Everything about him has to start there. He meant well, he was incredibly sweet, he responded to love with love, he was frightened by various things, he tried really hard to do the right thing, but he had trouble when a situation had more than two factors to consider.

[This is a trivial part of the narrative, but he made me a better person.]

When we got Duke, we promptly started doggy kindergarten. He failed. The first task in doggy kindergarten is “watch me.” It really is pretty simple. You take a treat, put it at the dog’s nose, say “Watch me,” and pull the treat toward your nose. The idea is that you teach the dog to look at you when you say that. Duke never learned that. I mean, never. He took doggy kindergarten twice, and he didn’t learn it. And Duke was more treat-oriented than any dog I have ever known. He would pay attention to the treat at his nose, and then lose track of it because ZOMGSOMANYTHINGSATPETSMART!!!11!!!


He passed doggy kindergarten because the teacher fell in love with him. And, let’s be honest, every person who met him did that. Because Duke.
I don’t know how to explain it. Jacob said that the dumber Duke was, the more I loved him, and he was probably right. But everyone responded that way. [Except for two assholes at the dog park, but whatevs. I ran into them later and thy were whining about not being able to be at the dog park because everyone hated their dog, so maybe Duke was right?] Duke managed to get out three or four times and wander the neighborhood and people brought him to us as though we had done them a favor by letting them bring him home. There was a little girl we sometimes saw at the bus transfer station, very very early in the morning, who petted his ears and told me about him—I really think he made her complicated day just a little bit better.

He ate everything. He never got over having been a starving dog in a yard. There are certain things that are native invasives in Texas—native, but they grow whether or not you want them to, and Duke learned to eat them to keep from starving. We learned that we had to give him some food first thing in the morning before letting him into the backyard or he would eat horseherb till he barfed. In seven years of good treatment, he never learned that we would feed him. I empathize with the principle that it is hard to unlearn early lessons about starvation, so I gave him part of a piece of bread every morning as soon as I got out of bed.

He turned up his nose at roadkill, unless it was really, really nasty. Jim would pull things out of Duke’s mouth that even Jim didn’t want to identify because then he might feel obliged to cut off his hand. The rule of thumb was: if Duke wanted it, you didn’t want to know what it was.
Duke was just Duke. He worried about a lot of things. He was terrified of thunder; eventually he decided that trash trucks were related to thunder—perhaps he was right, I’m not a meteorologist, but I’m obviously not a rhetorician enough to talk him out of that belief, although I tried. He came to believe that busses were not really to be trusted either. Again, I think he was wrong, but I failed to persuade him, so I think we can conclude that either he was right or I suck as a rhetorician. Compliance-gaining has never been my métier, but that’s a fairly lame defense here.

As many people have pointed out, Duke’s worries are not unreasonable concerns: thunder and trash trucks are both pretty untrustworthy. Since George shared his terror of thunderstorms, there were a lot of nights of makeshift beds in closets. The little girl at the transfer station tried to talk to him about trash trucks, but Duke was unconvinced. He did, however, lick her nose, so that made his disagreement pretty polite. I get weepy when I think about how she’ll respond to knowing that he’s died—Duke was like that. A lot of people loved him.

Early on, we had a horrible weekend (emergency vet visit) when we determined that he had Addison’s. After that, Jim was giving monthly injections, carefully moderating Duke’s steroids, and taking Duke in for various tests. There was also the discovery that Duke was allergic to the rabies vaccination (which resulted in additional work for Jim), and the skin allergy issue which meant one more pill in the morning. Jim cheerfully arranged his life around this dog’s medical needs, loaded a hundred-pound dog in and out of the car, and philosophically cleaned up evidence that meds were not quite right. I can’t say enough about what Jim did for Duke.

In other words, this was a complicated dog. On the other hand, he was a really simple dog. He had rules. He wanted to sleep by me. He got confused (he never figured it out) when I moved from one side of the bed to the other, but he did compromise by discovering the dog bed on my (new) side of the bed. He liked chasing squirrels. He liked eating things he found on walks—whether those things were covered in fire ants seemed to him a trivial issue. He didn’t like having a massive Addisonian/allergic reaction, but whatevs.

He kept me in the moment. He loved the moment. This horseherb tastes good; the sun is warm; that water is tasty.

When he was dying from pain, he licked my hand. I think he was, even in tremendous pain, worried that I was unhappy.

He had been limping, on and off, and so Jim took him to the vet. They did whatever x-rays they could do without sedating him (not much). So, they said we need to see a specialist. That appointment was for Monday, February 8th. On February 7th, after a normal walk, Duke ran into the backyard (as he did) to chase squirrels, pivoted on his leg, and went down. And then there was a noise that, Jim and I have agreed, if the Lord is merciful, we will never hear (or remember) again.
Various quick decisions resulted in asking neighbors for help, and getting Duke in the car, a long drive on a windy road, and an emergency vet place that was clear how bad it all was. And, so, we said goodbye to a dog who was in tremendous pain, and needed to leave this world. Any desire for more time came from our desire to want this not to be true, and for him not to be in pain. But, just as Duke had always been the dog to say, this is the moment, so this was the moment.

And, now, we go on without him. Without his eating the wrong things, farting more than you would thing possible, telling us that trash trucks are scary, dragging us out of comfortable beds because he needs to pee or bark at something, pointing out that squirrels are probably awful, drawing attention to the beauteous wonder of a mail carrier, engaging in world-class snuggling, getting confused about parked cars and poles, wandering underfoot while I’m trying to cook, taking up a large part of my side of the bed, and saying those squirrels are BAD. And squirrels. Because squirrels. (And the cardinals are pretty dodgy too.)

Dogs teach you that love, in this moment, is what matters. And they’re right. But what they don’t teach you is what to do when that moment needs to go.