b Papa Dog's Blog: The Dead, the Cooleys, and the Dogs

Papa Dog's Blog

A Thing Wherein I Infrequently Write Some Stuff

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Dead, the Cooleys, and the Dogs

My morning commute was a profoundly moving experience which, if you’re wondering, is not usually the case. The one to thank is poor long-dead James Joyce, and the vehicle was his justly revered story, “The Dead,” which kept me so absorbed that I failed to notice the entire passage of the Transbay tube. By the time the train arrived at Embarcadero I had only two pages to go. I continued reading as I walked along the platform, up the escalator, through the fare gate, and up the other escalator, finishing just as I rounded the corner of the Federal Reserve building and came onto Spear Street. And got-dang it, no, this isn’t what happens every day, but my eyes were actually moist as I put the book back in my bag. Is it a sad story? I don’t think so, no, not exactly – it’s even pretty funny in parts – but the underlying philosophical point is one of the saddest and bleakest truths of human existence: we are born, and live, and die alone. No matter how well we come to know one another, we remain stranger isolated in our own skulls.

And here I’ll briefly digress to say that I tends to despise reading or writing about stories of any kind (books, movies, plays, comics, whatever). I’ve been guilty of it from time to time in this faversham, and I’ll be guilty of it in this post, so I’m a bit of a hypocrite, but I have absolutely no use for book/movie/play/comics review/criticism, which I find at best pointless and at worst hostile. I don’t want some other viewer’s perceptions infesting my head when I watch a movie. On a superficial level it annoys me because I know too much about what’s coming, and on a deeper level it irritates me because the movie I see and the movie someone else sees are always going to be two different things.

That said, I’m going to talk about the story a bit, so if you’re a right-thinking person who agrees with me, and you’ve never read “The Dead” but think you might someday, or have read it and don’t want to be burdened with my stupid thoughts on it, you probably want to skip the next paragraph or two. I’ll be writing as though I assume you’ve already read the story. Come back when you see me talking about Spade Cooley.

Where was I? Oh, yes – strangers isolated in our own skulls. The great pathos in Gabriel Conroy’s discovery of his wife’s past is that it comes so soon after he’s been thinking so glowingly of their “secret life together.” Every married couple has one of those and, yes, it creates a feeling of unique intimacy, but how shared is it really when each individual invests each moment of their own unknowable self? I like to think that I know Mama Dog better than Gabriel knows Gretta – I find it difficult to imagine being together so long in a marriage without learning of such a pivotal moment in my wife’s past – but again, I’m in my head and she’s in hers. We intersect as much as humanly possible, but that must always be a finite amount. We have combined our essences and made us a composite, but that’s just a third separate self under our roof. I’ll never know what it is to be Baby Dog’s mother. Mama Dog will never know what it is to be her father. And Baby Dog will never quite understand quite what it is that her parents see when we watch her sleep.

Another couple I’ve been reading about of late is the Cooleys. The other night the Pirates left behind a copy of the new issue of Murder Can Be Fun, which spotlights the sordid true crime tale of Spade and Ella Mae Cooley. Spade Cooley was a pioneer of western swing (apparently he coined the term) in the 1940s. I first heard of him in James Ellroy novels and didn’t realise at first that he was a real person. I can’t remember now where I first read the goods on the Cooleys, but if you don’t know the story, MCBF gives as thorough an accounting as you’d want. Briefly, this was another instance of a couple not really knowing one another; Spade didn’t know that Ella Mae wasn’t really the orgy-hopping sybarite he fabricated in his mind and Ella Mae managed to live with the man 16 years without cluing into the fact that he was a delusional psychopath. Spade’s musical career petered out in the 50s and he retired to be a gentleman farmer near Bakersfield, where he whiled away the time by drinking heavily and beating his wife. In the end, he beat her to death in front of their 14 year-old daughter. Here I suppose is the silver lining to the plight of human isolation; there are some minds you wouldn’t want to get inside.

When it comes to understanding and empathising with my wife I think I can say with confidence that I do better on a daily basis than either self-absorbed insecure snob Gabriel Conroy or embittered wife-stomper Spade Cooley.

This morning, while Mama Dog walked Doggy Dog, I put Baby Dog in the highchair while I put away the dishes, and put on some music to liven things up a bit. It was the Clancys again – it’s not always them, it just seems that way. To entertain the baby, I sang along as I shelved the dishes. When Mama Dog came home, Tim Finnegan’s Wake was playing. This is the song – to close the circle of this post – that inspired Joyce to write his novel of mostly the same name. I sang the chorus to Baby Dog and she stretched out her arms. I took her little hands in mine and swung them in time to the music, tapping my foot, singing. I wasn’t conscious of the fact that I was in essence dancing with my daughter until I heard Mama Dog breaking out in a big (and sincere) “awwwwwww!” She beamed at us from the sink. Baby Dog’s face was lit up in unguarded delight. I suddenly noticed that this was about as happy as it’s possible for me to be.

So no, we can’t ever know one another, not really. But we do get to share the occasional perfect moment, and it’s up to each of us on our own to see that we bring to it what that moment deserves.


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