Monday, May 21, 2007

an analytical dog

Solo on the trail in Larkspur, CA, fall 2006. Leica M3, Summicron 50/2, Tri-X 400.

Solo was born on May 5, 1999, spent his first year locked away from the world, and every year after that trying to make sense of it, to make up for what he’d missed. Cinco de Mayo is an incongruous birthday for a dog with Solo’s characteristic mien. Solo has gravitas. It’s impossible for anyone who meets him to miss it: this is a dog who thinks too much. Dogs were not meant to ponder the mysteries of the universe, but that’s what Solo does. He ponders, and he worries. How do those airplanes hang in the sky like that, why don’t they fall down? That guy coming down the sidewalk, what are his intentions? Light, is it a particle, or a wave?

Shepherds are wont to say that a Border Collie isn’t really mature until he has as many years as legs under him. And I think they’re right, and I think Solo has changed a lot in the time he’s been with me (he seems to have grown out of his tortured artist phase, for example), but at the same time he’s always been a little world-weary beyond his years. Solo has ancient eyes: tip-tilted, deep-set, a pure, feral amber, shot through with bright yellow at their centers, deepening to antique gold at their edges. I’ve seen Solo’s eyes gazing at me from countless wildlife posters. They hold the relentless, unwavering regard not of an observer, but of a judge.

Most people talk to their dogs using baby language. I speak to Solo in complete sentences. I have perfect faith that he understands me, and that if it weren’t for the bothersome fact of anatomy, he would answer me in complete sentences, too. I only wish that he would believe everything that I tell him. “This man wants to be your friend.” “That train is not thunder, and it does not want to kill you.” “Just because I am running water in the tub does not mean that I plan to give you a bath.” He trusts me, but he is an empiricist, and a skeptic. He believes things when he sees them with his own eyes.

Solo pads down the sidewalk with a muscular, leonine gait, shoulders sliding easily under the mantle of auburn and white he wears over his withers, head down, eyes forward, tail slung low and businesslike between his hocks. I don’t lead Solo anywhere; he walks with me. It’s not the same thing. People invariably stare when Solo goes by, and often hold themselves very still, the way they might if they encountered a large and beautiful predator in the forest, watching until it slipped off between the trees. Solo has star quality. It’s ironic, and unfortunate, because I think if Solo could have just one wish, it would be to be completely unremarkable – to pass through the world unknown, hidden in the shadows, never subject to display.

Although his tastes can at times be quite rustic, Solo has the heart of a poet, and the intellect of a scientist. He appreciates clearly outlined parameters. If he were a musician, he would undoubtedly be a master of some expressive yet regimented form, like jazz. But really, I think he would like to be an engineer or a mathematician – engaged in finding underlying principles and rules, and using them to understand the structure of the world around him. He delights in manipulating objects, in determining all their properties, their smells, their weights, whether they can be easily disassembled, whether they roll. When he figures them out, they get assigned to a category and filed away in his brain and he never forgets them. When he encounters things that don’t fit into his categories, it vexes him. And then he ponders them, and he worries.

His favorite games have lots and lots of rules.

Solo has opinions about everything, and he is extraordinarily unforgiving. The things he likes, they are the Best Things Ever. The things he doesn’t like, they are Dangerous and Should Be Avoided. There’s not a whole lot of in-between with Solo.

The people he loves he would die for.

How could I not be totally, hopelessly enamored with this dog?

Solo is not what most people expect in a dog. He is a cipher, carefully blank, impassive, and wary, lest he make himself vulnerable. I only wish everyone could know the dog I know.

Everyone should know a dog like Solo at least once. I know, and regret already, that I will never know another dog like him again.

Solo and me in Golden Gate Park.