Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Beauty is a Hairless Dog

Beauty is a Hairless Dog
Ashley Harper

I already have the only publicity photo of myself I will ever need. Candid, or seemingly so; in a natural setting, the kitchen. My son swings loose in his Snuggly, infant's puff of hair dusted with flour, eyes beatific, adoring. I am rolling out dough for biscuits, a recipe with scallions, dill and a whole cup of plain yogurt. I am tanned from playing outside with my children. Never mind that the tan is a trick of light, the biscuits tasted of dust and wild onions or that though you can't see it, my son is sucking a pacifier half-way down his throat, waiting for me to hang up the Snuggly and nurse him for the 48th time that afternoon. But it is a photo of how I wanted things to be, how I was convinced they could be if I would try a little bit harder. To stay awake, to invent games for my four year old, to cook a decent meal that a meat loving man, a vegetarian and a hot dogaholic would all enjoy. It is all there in the parenting magazines, how to "make time for yourself" and play Barbies at the same exact moment, how to "put the romance back in your marriage" and still maintain a family bed. Apparently it's even possible to feel like you're doing a good job, when you most emphatically are not.

In the bookstore where I worked I would pour over the medical texts to find out what effects Prozac would have on a nursing infant, or Valium, maybe a half bottle of red wine. I never found the exact information I was looking for, which would read something like, "Go ahead. Take whatever you need to make it until the next day." And some days I have, nothing too drastic, nothing to really pickle the breastmilk or make it too thin to freeze in five ounce bags. In motherhood I have found my daily fare to be replete with guilt, a guilt so preoccupying that I am sure mood altering drugs were invented by and for mothers. Forget the men sitting nobly around the campfire smoking the ceremonial pipe or sipping the bitter hallucinogenic broth. What were the mothers doing, back in the huts with their ailing children, animal pelts to sew, seeds and nuts to pound, cloth to slap against the river stones? I don't suppose it's necessary to have a linen closet to have a secret stash.

Lately I find myself hypersensitive to these moments that you might say have meaning, covetous of the stuff of memory that you can hold up as evidence of life's light and better moments. But since these moments when I feel confident in my parenting choices fail to appear very often, I ache for comic relief. That's why I was so very thrilled last Sunday when driving home from the Olive Park in San Isidro, Lima, we saw a man riding a bike slowly in heavy traffic. He was balancing a full plastic bag on one handle bar and holding a Peruvian hairless dog (or a Chinese hairless dog, depending on who you're talking to) under the other arm. At first this dog looked like a really smooth Dachshund. And of course there is really nothing that special, that Peruvian or other-worldly about seeing this guy, but being here and floundering to remember why you make decisions like moving to South America, seeing him and his dog becomes one of the little experiences in life that they make desk calendars about. I almost think I have seen the exact same vision in Memphis, except maybe a guy wheeling out of the Piggly Wiggly parking lot with a Basset, instead of this hairless pup on a boulevard. Instead of the silently appreciative nod I might give the man and his Basset, I was unusually tickled at the sight of this fellow and his dog in Lima traffic. I mean, I would have thought it was a really smooth Dachshund like I said, if my husband had not said, "Oh my God, that's one of those Peruvian hairless dogs!" I was already adding just knowing that there is a Peruvian hairless dog to my growing list of "things that will make me look more worldly when we move back to the US". As in, "Yeah, my son really wants to get a dog." "Oh?" I might say, "like maybe a Peruvian hairless dog?" But I don't know, where else am I going to find meaningful experience? Of course I suppose to continue in this vein we would have to continue moving every few years so that we can see Australian cattle dogs being balanced on bicycles, or maybe an English bulldog. If we moved to Germany I might be able to have some sort of psychedelic expatriate deja vu if I actually did see a really smooth Dachshund under someone's arm. I don't suppose this is the exact spiritual awakening I was hoping I might find by putting myself under the stressful circumstances of moving my family to Peru, but it may be a beginning.

It reminds me of driving back into Midtown Memphis from the Arcade Restaurant one evening and driving past this little microcosmic project where there were these young kids jumping on a filthy old mattress and hurling tin cans into piles of old tires with bats of PVC piping, and my husband and I just sort of looked at each other, recognizing that the scene, for us, was very out of context; beautiful in a chilling sort of way. Of course, I know you don't have to be in Haiti to see something like that, but it doesn't diminish the spectacularity of the vision, the fact that in dire circumstances, it?s sometimes possible to heave yourself on top of it all and enjoy the chaotic view for a time.

Not that I am one to see the beauty in all things. I see plenty that has not a smidgen of the good stuff. In fact it seems that it is an American eccentricity to look on the bright side. Others smirk at the optimistic varnish we tend to slop over the most atrocious of events, the ridiculously passive idea that all's for the best or at least for some higher plan. Of course I don't have much to offer in place of blind optimism. When the wolf makes his way into daily life, I imagine there is often little more defense than to remark on the glimmering sheen of his coat and the porcelain beauty of his teeth.

Here in Lima, where toddlers eat overripe bananas in the sunburned medians of filthy avenues while their older siblings hock everything from bottled water and peanuts to wooden hat racks and pirated Celine Dion CDs, I am hoping to shake the nasty habit of chalking it all up to the not-so-grand scheme of things. In a city of over eight million people where at least one third of that number live in squatter settlements, the smell of burning garbage, settles down into the suburbs each morning like poison dew. I suppose there are those among us who don't quite know where to look for comfort other than to reach up into thin air. Unfortunately we can only get so far with handfuls of hydrogen and oxygen, and the mysterious atmospheric gases that allow us to come up with ideas like, "Well, perhaps if she had worked a little harder at school, she wouldn't have to put her kids to work in the streets." The blessed luck that keeps my own children out of the streets has awakened me to the severity of circumstance for the rest. But I suppose if a dog on a bike can dull the edge even a little, then God bless his little hairless heart.

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