Saturday, March 12, 2016

Escaping Puppies, Stubborn Stories, and Short-Supply Patience

You arrive early at the Lucky Llama Coffee House to secure the two farthest rear tables, plunking an array of books and dishes from your breakfast order to reserve the area for your writing workshop that won't begin for another hour.  

After a few long sips of your latte, you open a remarkable novel by Cynthia Ozick you've just begun, almost at the point of being completely absorbed in it when you feel something skittering between your legs.
The "something" is a small, tawny puppy with flop ears, animated with puppy exuberance and curiosity. The puppy seems to favor the place between your legs. At about the time you reach to let it smell your hand, its owner approaches, beaming an indulgent smile.

He reaches for the puppy, who retreats. For the next few moments,dog and human are at conflicting agendas, the owner's being to return the puppy to the cab of his pick-up truck, the puppy's intent to enjoy the evolving morning.

You watch the dynamic between puppy and owner, variously recalling some of your conflicted agenda transactions with the late Sally, but also being reminded of some of the maneuvering and strategy necessary not only to retrieve Sally when she was intent on a mission but the maneuvering and strategy necessary when you are attempting to put the elements of a story together in a way that will cause it to abandon its purpose and cooperate with yours.

Sally was the result of a marriage between an Australian Shepherd and an Australian Cattle Dog, as was Sally's predecessor, Nell. You've seen several results of such mixed marriages, in each case the Cattle Dog traits emerging as dominant. Sally was not much for barking, unless--

---unless it was two in the morning and Sally had got the scent of something more interesting than the squadrons of squirrels living in the trees directly adjacent to our cottage, at one time the estate manager's cottage of the estate on which we lived in the shaggy sideburns of rural Montecito. 

"Something more interesting" could be raccoon, skunk, bobcat, possum, or marauding coyote. Sally was outraged by all of these, many of whom seemed to prefer the earliest morning hours for their breakfast hunts.

For reasons that made great sense to Sally, these early morning sorts seemed to prefer the front lawn of the estate, your ad hoc landlords. After a year or so of tenancy, your opinion of the landlords was less than healthy, but the rental price was right and the privacy was even more agreeable. Sally shared your opinion of the landlords and had rousted on outdoor bridge party and one indoor tea with her barking and herding maneuvers. 

This was the equivalent of two called strikes on a batter in baseball. Thus it was in your best interests to keep Sally from figuring ways to manipulate the door and security lock of your cottage, whereupon she would, as she might have put it, defended us against the invaders streaming past the landlord's lawn.

During the years of living there on Hot Springs Road, you learned a good deal about Australian Cattle Dog behavior, about ways of aligning Sally's agendas with your own, and about trying to contain and civilize stories. 

Watching the puppy's evident joy at eluding its owner and seeing the remarkable composure of the owner under the circumstances, you had occasion to consider how your short-fused temper had evolved during your time with Nell--all too short--and then with Sally, long, but as such things go, not nearly long enough.

You'd never seen a Cattle Dog as young as this puppy was, but something about its behavior and the complete lack of irritation or impatience from its owner brought curiosity home to roost. You respectfully inquired after the puppy's parentage. By this time, the owner had enlisted a friend to help him retrieve the puppy, who seemed quite pleased to use you as a buffer zone.  "Cattle Dog," the owner said.

"In which case," you said, "there is one gambit we can try.  Sit here, next to me."

The owner thought about this for a moment, then plopped into the adjacent seat.  Within a matter of moments, the puppy said his goodbye to me, then moved between his owner's legs, then allowed his owner to lift him onto his lap, give his belly a few pats, then move him off toward the cab of his truck.

Sometimes getting a story to give up its own agenda and give some consideration to yours requires more than a few minutes. Sometimes, when Sally had been awakened at two or three in the morning, gamed the security lock, then stormed through the brush and into the landlord's lawn, triggering security lights in her wake, it took shrewd words of praise and understanding to come to you and possibly share the problem of the invaders with you. Sometimes, in your experience, the story needs upward of a year to come around and say, "Hi."

These are the times when all you can do is wait with as much patience as you can muster. Your experience with stories is that they do not bark, but they do have their ways of letting you know they're  protecting you from something.  All you need to do is find out what.

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