Any time I feel a spell of information sickness coming on — pretty much daily under the baleful Boss Trump regime — I load up three dogs and drive to the dog park.
Well, two actually. Jesse, my beloved 14-year-old Great Pyrenees, doesn't play well with others. Having spent 10 years guarding livestock (and cats) on our farm, Jesse suspects smaller dogs of being cow-chasers, larger ones of being coyotes in disguise.
In his mind, Jesse remains King Boss Dog of the World. So we avoid trouble by walking him outside the dog park while Aspen and Daisy visit their friends. Half an hour of scouting picnic tables for treats is really all the exercise Jesse needs. He can't hear much anymore, but his nose still works. Last week he snuffled up two slices of pizza and a pot pie. What a bonanza! Yesterday, he dragged me 10 yards to a leftover cupcake from a child's birthday party.
Then Jesse naps in the car while I supervise the others and socialize with fellow dog nuts. Down at the Little Rock dog park, a few acres along the Arkansas River graced by large cottonwood and pecan trees and covered in pea gravel, it's a veritable canine and human United Nations.
Recently I sat in on a conversation between two bookish women — Swedish and English, respectively — about why "Little Women" fails as adult literature. In recent days, I've chatted with Filipino and Russian nurses, a medical student from Hot Springs, a physical therapist from Honolulu and a law clerk from Los Angeles. There are even some fugitive Red Sox fans, identifiable by their Boston accents.
I know many of their dogs' names, too. When Milo the husky thinks his Scandinavian mom needs exercise, he nips at her leg until she takes a few laps around the enclosure. I was honored last week when he greeted me like an old friend after a rainy spell. He's normally rather aloof, Milo.
Sometimes Milo and Elisabeth walk with Mike, an amiable former Razorback offensive lineman large enough to make me feel small. (I'm roughly Trump's size.) Mike's problem is that his energetic little dog often refuses to go home. Others have to capture her. I've done the honors a time or two.
Everybody misses Punkin. You'd see him charge through the gate, dead-heading as fast as his stubby bulldog legs would carry him to the tire swing. He'd battle it fiercely for a half-hour, jump into a tub of water to cool off, and then resume the attack. His charming 90-year-old owner, Carolyn, would ask people to help her escort Punkin to the car — a late-model Mercedes whose back seat he'd chewed down to springs and bare metal.
She laughed that he'd trashed her condo, too.
Carolyn visited the dog park on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. She died in her sleep Thursday night. We should all be so fortunate in the manner of our passing. Goodness, she loved that fool dog, and he loved her back. Her family reports that Punkin's doing fine in the home she'd arranged for him.
The New York Times says we're doing it all wrong. According to an op-ed by one Sassafras Lowrey, "The Dog Park Is Bad, Actually." A certified "canine professional," she appears to be the kind of over-civilized Manhattanite who thinks that just as every marriage needs a board-certified therapist and every apartment a licensed interior decorator, so every dog needs a personal trainer.
That said, nothing Lowrey says is actually wrong. Yes, your dog should be vaccinated. And of course it'd be a bad idea to introduce a tiny puppy to my ebullient young collie/Great Pyrenees-mix, Aspen, and his rowdy chums. Easy does it. For that matter, it's also foolish to ignore signs warning parents to keep small children away.
Aspen wouldn't dream of hurting a puppy or a child. He loves everybody he meets. His second-best thing is giving strange women sloppy kisses. But he and Hurley and Moose and the gang do play rough. Play-fighting, tug-of-war and Aspen's personal favorite: heedless games of chase in which he's It and nobody can catch him. But it's everybody for himself once they get running.
Aspen's kind of a dog park celebrity, partly because he's so handsome: a canine Brad Pitt. Charismatic, too: If none of his buddies are around, he'll position himself by the front gate, barking and feinting at every big dog that enters: "Hi there! Welcome to the dog park. I'm Aspen and I'll be your playmate today." He takes no interest in balls, but he's learned that if he steals them, many retrievers will pursue him.
As for Daisy, the basset hound, well ...
Sweet, amiable Daisy wanders about sniffing other short dogs and soliciting people to pet her. Unless she thinks they're picking on her buddy Aspen. Then she hoots and charges, and everybody laughs.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.