It’s Playtime

A grandson was helping me install large raised garden beds for my wife.  The toll of time tells her that she can no longer garden at ground level.  That same bell tells me that I can no longer dig, toss and tote dirt as once I did.  Sic transit gloria me.  The bell tolls.  I ask Jon for help.

While we were setting out shovels, tampers, PVC pipe, fittings and glue, tie wire and pliers, his dogs were exploring the back yard.  They were quite literally following their noses.  One of the dogs is blind and cannot engage the world of visible photons: his world is olfactory chemicals and aural vibrations.  He explores his world as avidly as his companion, as avidly as we do ours. Curiosity in action.

As Jon and I settled into digging, measuring, cutting, gluing, and backfilling his two dogs snoozed in the sunlight – sunbathing, perfectly content, warmly happy.  I wondered “what is their ground state when their mental motors are at idle”.  They were not asleep.  They were quite attentive to sounds that indicated changes.  What were they doing?

Let’s look elsewhere for suggestions.  What is our mental ground state?  What do we do at idle?  We remember sights, sounds, smells, touches, movements, words – the past transported by memory into the present.  We can imagine those experiences and perceptions, bringing a possible future to the present.  We can play with them in our minds.  We can remember, and sometimes repeat, emotions associated with those perceptions.  We tell ourselves stories.

What are the dogs doing, eyes closed, lolling warm on the ground?  Are they remembering the places they have been and the stories the smells tell?  Can they remember chasing a cat?  Can they feel once again the fear of being chased by an angry cat?  Is it possible that they could imagine new combinations of smells, sounds, and sights – tell themselves stories?

When I was but a pup I learned that it was a great intellectual sin to anthropomorphize, to ascribe human emotions and mental abilities to animals. To suggest that a dog might think, might remember, was beyond the pall. An ancient dualism, a vast chasm, separated the mental worlds of animal and human.[1]

Now that I am the old dog I have tossed that mindset, declared it false, null and void, of no effect.   Animals and humans are contiguous and continuous.  We share biochemistry, genes, morphology, organs, emotions, and mental abilities.  I can now move back and forth between the mental worlds of dog and Carl.  I can attribute mental and emotional states to all.  I can ascribe animal abilities to humans, once an intellectual sin far greater than anthropomorphizing, but now within the purview of science.  I can use one mental and emotional world to illuminate and illustrate the other, moving back and forth at will.

Howie, short for Howard, is Chuck’s big white Lab.  When Chuck pulls out his cell phone and says to it “call Carl” Howie practically levitates, barking and whining.  He heard words, he knows.  He knows that Chuck is going to ask me if I have time to go for a walk.  Howie is denied language and words, but he understands.  He knows, he thinks – as a dog.

Howie comes to full alert when he hears my footsteps upon the sidewalk.  His eyes focus on mine as I come into view.  When I cross the road and onto his sidewalk the brakes are off and he bounds to my side sniffing, licking, wagging, eyes looking into eyes.  We play for awhile enjoying each other.  We share friendship and happiness.  If I had a tail it would be wagging too.

Is it possible that Howie, while happy to see me, is frustrated because I do not play quite right, that he cannot communicate with me as he would with another dog?  He keeps trying to get my attention.  I pet him and scratch his head; does he want to do more?  I think he wants to run and wrestle, to test dominance and strength, to find joy and comfort.  He does not have a dog playmate, and must make do with what he has.  We go for a walk instead.

I am walking to the library.  Kirsten and her 7 year old daughter are in their front yard and I stop to talk. Her daughter begins to walk around me with her arms outstretched as if she were herding me in some direction.  Her eyes are focused on mine.  Kirsten scolds her daughter thinking she might be annoying me.

It takes me a moment to realize that she has invited me to play, that she offered me a play bow and it was refused.  I stood still.  Her mother scolded her.  She must have been perplexed, frustrated, and disappointed.  “How did I fail to get him to play?  I sent all the signals.  Can’t he read?  I bowed, he … what’s wrong with him?  Why is mother angry because I want to play”?

A subtitle of my About page is “Be curious and playful”.  Animals are curious and playful,[2] or should be.  So should we.[3]  I move back and forth between mental worlds one illuminating the other.  There are similar behavioral and emotional patterns.[4]

[1] A good illustration of this dualism may be found in the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner and James Watson.

[2] May I suggest: Bekoff,  Marc, The Emotional Lives of Animals  and for further reading:

[3] Brown, Stuart, Play: How it Shapes the Mind, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates  the Soul

[4] This is the first time I have used the concept ‘pattern’ and I will use it extensively in the future but for now I will only remark upon it.