Monthly Archives: December 2011

Dog Years – Mark Doty

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“For someone grieving for animals, the problem’s compounded. You can’t tell most people about the death of your dog, not quite; there is an expectation that you shouldn’t overreact, shouldn’t place too much weight on this loss. In the scheme of things, shouldn’t this be a smaller matter? It’s just a dog; get another one”  (Doty).

Mark Doty’s memoir, Dog Years has been on my shelf for over a year but I didn’t pick it up until last month. If only I had opened those pages sooner perhaps I wouldn’t have spent most of my summer finding Miko’s hair in the corners of my life and crying about it, then feeling guilty for crying about it. I wouldn’t have gotten angry every time someone said, “Sorry about your dog,” as if my car had broken down or I lost my job.

It’s just a job, get another one.

I felt misunderstood. And alone. But Doty’s book did something so much better than saying it’s all going to be okay. It validated the feelings of grief felt over a best friend that just happened to have four legs.

However, this is more than just a book for those who have lost a pet. Although Doty’s book centers on loss (of his furry companions as well as his partner) more important than the end of these lives is the lives. What does it mean to live? To experience the stages of life? To watch helplessly as those we love move through life? This book is labeled as memoir, but at the same time it is a biography of two dogs. Much like life, it is humor and sorrow… and it’s beautiful.

What’s in a Name?

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Disney's Version of Nala

There are websites devoted to the process of naming a dog, bowwow.com, dogpark.com, dognameswoof.com, bark.com, dog-names.us, and those are just the first pop ups on the all-knowing Google. One of these even gives the top ten most popular pet names (I’m not sure how they began to gather that information) then begs pet parents to avoid them and attempt something more original. Another site will provide suggestions based on specifications, such as breed or appearance. Some might think this is taking the decision too seriously, it’s a dog after all, not a child. Other people are so lax they let their children pick the pet’s name, which is probably how Nala became Nala.

The last time I named a dog I was ten years old. Sandy, our Golden.

Disney's Version of Miko

When I found Miko at the local Humane Society, she had already been given her name, most likely by the staff there. But it fit her. She looked like a Miko and the thought of changing it never crossed my mind. But then, a few weeks later, a little girl asked my dog’s name. When I told her, she became quite excited, “Like the raccoon in Pocahontas!” It took me a few moments to retrieve the brain file that contained that movie, but I eventually realized she was right. There was a quirky raccoon character by the same name.

For a couple days I was disturbed. Was my very elegant, blue-eyed beauty to be associated with a shattering Disney character? But as time went on, and I got to know who Miko really was, I realized she wasn’t just elegant, she was quirky. She had irrational fears, bridges for one (going under them, not over them… it was worse in a car), and she was, in fact, meek. She attempted to take up as little space as possible, and preferred to stand on the sidelines of life and watch the world with her intense, clear gaze. She was Miko.

Twelve years later I found myself in an eerily similar situation.

Although I’ve always been a fan of common human names for dogs, Mary, Walter, Frank, and had decided I wanted a name like this for my “next dog,” when I found Nala, like Miko, I didn’t consider changing her name. It was the name her previous owners had given her, she answered to it, and it somehow fit her.

But, also like Miko, it sounded familiar. I had her a few days before I did the Google search.

“Nala: Female lion character in Disney’s The Lion King.”   ….. Oh yeah.

So I had yet another dog named after a Disney character. I considered the process of changing it.

Many people change the name of their shelter dog. Lee Harrington in her most recent article in the December issue of Bark magazine describes this as a meaningful process that marks the dog’s new start. It leaves the life of the shelter behind, and in some cases, more than that, such as a life of abuse or neglect. Harrington renamed Chloe, formally Buffy, to represent her new start in addition to the fact that she didn’t want to walk around the city with a dog named Buffy, and it was no small process.  It involved days of watching the then Buffy playing at the dog park, watching her personality blossom before she finally settled on the fact that the name needed to be French in origin. Then, more days settling on something that people would be able to pronounce.

Nala’s personality was clear early on, no dog park required; personality oozes from her. She is fierce, fearless, happy, and in love with life. I tried to image her as something else. Ginger, Foxy, Lucy, Annie? They all seemed so silly when applied to her massive energy.

There are many theories surrounding the idea of a “True Name.” A name that may or may not be known or spoken, depending on the culture and the theory. Harrington, in her article, discusses the theory behind the True Name, and its calling forth of the Original Self, the person we truly are and were meant to be. It is supposed to be a very powerful experience to be called by this True Name, if it ever happens. In addition, there are theories that work in the opposite direction, claiming that our names shape our destinies, that as we age we grow into our names and become the things that the name implies. What do you imagine when you think of the name, Bob, for example? What about Art or Victoria, both are said to be coupled with success. I’m not sure what kind of success. One is bound to think financial if it is an American study.

All of these theories can be quite disturbing if contemplated long enough. Would I be an engineer if my father had been allowed to name me Andrea? Would I be a housewife if my mother had been allowed to name me Allison? What about Georgia, that was on the list, as was Heather? At the end of the day, however, it is comforting to think I was named what I was for a reason. That I was meant to become who I am whether it be pre-destined and my name came to me, or my name came to me so I would become this…. this writer / teacher / reader / animal-lover, and all the other nouns and adjectives that make up my person.

So whether Nala became a lioness because she was named Nala, or she was named Nala because she is a lioness, she seems to be bounding through life very much in touch with her Original Self. She is somehow primal and beautiful at the same time. The long vowel sounds mimic her long, powerful legs; the consonants are her quick, searching eyes. She is lioness and dog.

She is Nala.