Thursday, May 27, 2021

Black Labs Matter

At a recent family dinner, my son announced “I identify as a woman.” As both the only straight white man in the household and the victim of two bossy older sisters, Oliver often feels oppressed. 


Predictably, at the same meal the children all voted for “Oliver” as “Papa's Favorite.” The dogs and I all voted for “Bear.” 

Spring means we’re going on longer and longer walks, even Buster. Improved weather also picked up the pace at the nearby construction sites where Western Washington University is adding a new interdisciplinary science building and more dorms. One of the campus parking lots is temporarily assigned to construction workers  – a cohort of drivers that typically differs from college students and professors. 

Recently I noticed a pickup truck labeled “I identify as a Prius.” Another car had a sticker proclaiming “Black Labs Matter.” Bear asked why I don’t have a bumper sticker celebrating Aussiedoodles.

The next time we walked through the parking lot neither car was there. But I felt a ping – seeking for something, realizing it was missing, then remembering the “Black Labs Matter” car seemed weird. 

In any humor or hashtag situation, “Black Labs Matters” is a potentially provocative flag. A high degree of difficulty maneuver. An opportunity to exhibit grace and empathy. 


Bear and I took these photos the next time we encountered the Black Labs sticker. Up close you can see why my brain was getting a weird vibe from Mr. Black Labs Matter. There’s a mixed message in the preamble “Coexist” – a lofty goal, but usually not spelled out with armaments arranged as letters of the alphabet. 


If my subconscious still had a question about the message intended by the slogan “Black Labs Matter,” it was answered by the sticker underneath:  “I LUBRICATE MY AR-15 WITH LIBERAL TEARS.” In black G.I. Font. With a picture of a red assault rifle. 


The stickers on the other side of the car probably won’t change your unconscious’s opinion about the car owner:

All of us who are accustomed to speaking from a place of privilege must learn to talk about less privileged folks in a way that contributes to civil dialogue. 


It’s not enough to stop stigmatizing, baiting, or “owning” the unprivileged Other. It’s also about monitoring access to The Room Where It Happens. We must look around the room, then ask who is present and who is absent. And why. 

Unfortunately, it’s been months since I found myself looking around a real life room containing anyone who wasn’t named Leishman, Bear, or Buster. 


Nevertheless, we can always question the patterns we observe around us in our culture and institutions. A few weeks ago in “Deadlines,” I wrote about how during the 1800s, the word “deadline” originally applied to “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” By the end of the century, the word’s usage had expanded to include any line drawn to exclude a group. 

Each day the dogs and I pass this ten-year-old historic marker on our walk along the waterfront: 





Followed by:






It Gets Better. Eventually.

Most of the photos in “Deadlines” show a different kind of historic marker. Lighter in tone. Collectively they represent a time capsule from the 1980s that preserves a time capsule from the 1890s:


Fairhaven Village is Bellingham’s quaint Olde Tyme neighborhood. The dogs enjoy walking to the waterfront through Fairhaven. Along the way we encounter historic markers that reveal tidbits from the community’s frontier past. According to Atlas Obscura, a local historian obtained community grants to fund the project four decades ago. 


Some of these markers reflect Fairhaven’s Wild West beginnings:  “Location of Town Pillory.” “Spanish Chalice dated 1640 found here.” “Counterfeiters’ Hide Out, 1905 - $5 and $10 pieces passed in saloons on weekends.” “Office of F.A. Higg, Alaskan Photographer, 1890.” “Huge freight wagon disappeared beneath quicksand, 1889.” “Benton’s Bath Parlor & Tonsorial Palace, 1903.” And my favorite: “Here is where Mathew was cut in two by a streetcar, 1891.”


After leaving downtown Fairhaven, tourists finally see a few Asian-themed markers:  “Site of Chinese Bunkhouse, 1900 – Chinatown population 600.” “Site of Japanese Bunkhouse No. 5, circa 1903.” Meanwhile, comic cultural artifacts line Harris Street all the way to the train station. Historic markers commemorate the unfortunate Mathew, quicksand victims, and President McKinley driving by in a buggy. Pluse “Chinese foreman traded daughter for a boy, 1908.”

A community’s story is incomplete if its account of any marginalized group is limited to statistics and stereotypes. Four decades ago, whoever chose Fairhaven’s marker topics wasn’t paying close attention to the overall message sent by a few dozen historic vignettes.  


Convinced I’m seeing things? That I’m a hypersensitive snowflake? A few weeks later, Bear and I finally found another Asian-themed marker on Harris Street:  “Site of Sam Low’s Opium Den, 1904.”

The ACLU often uses the 19th century slogan “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” “Vigilance” means paying attention. Mindfulness. As individuals and as a society, we must eternally strive to see each other and ourselves more clearly.  

Tuesday, May 25, 2021


Pre-covid, no one could have guessed what life would be like in 2020-21. For example, who had “Buy shares of Zoom!” in the pool? Like the rest of my generation, I thought “Zoom” was a PBS children’s show located at zip code 02134. 


Some of the pandemic’s economic winners were the usual suspects:  Amazon, Facebook, Walmart, toilet paper. Others pandemic winners defy prediction. Such as “Paws for a Beer”:


Paws For a Beer was a concept that came about when two young Bellingham residents - Amy & Rylan Schoen - decided they were ready to adopt a dog….  Before long, Rylan had crafted a rough business plan for something called Paws For a Beer:


Paws For a Beer is Bellingham's first and only dog-friendly tavern. Here, dogs with memberships are able to roam freely off-leash inside and outside the premises while their owners and the general 21+ public sip on refreshing beverages.


Brushing it off as just another silly idea of Rylans, Amy encouraged his explorations and engaged with him during brain storming sessions. Before they knew it, they were planning their wedding, and simultaneously, Bellingham’s first dog bar.

Full steam ahead! A few months and two 
dos later, the Schoens became the proud owners of a place for dogs to come and play, knowing that the members romping around them are all well-tempered, healthy, and excited to be there!


When the covid pandemic closed the doors of every other Bellingham tavern and brewpub, Bear and I were glad we happened to have access to a large off-leash play area thats also a comfortable neighbor pub. In contrast, Bellinghamdowntown basement cat bar Neko remained closed. Bear and Buster like to bark at the owner’s lonely cats as we walk by Nekomournful darkened windows.

On an early visit to PAWS last summer, Bear surprised me with an orange rubber ball. I’d never seen Bear or Buster near a ball of any kind before. 


One of the bar regulars pointed me to the communal rack of Chuck-It™ “no-slobber” launchers. I gingerly loaded Bear’s chosen ball and flung it toward the picnic tables. Bear surprised me once again, this time by catching the ball mid-air after executing a triple axel worthy of Simone Biles. Apparently Bear is a natural.


We’ve now acquired our own orange ball, as well as a mid-sized Chuck-It launcher that fits into my backpack. Bear and I make a good team. However, Orange Ball is a two-player sport. Whenever the other dogs at the off-leash park try to join in, Bear’s possessive side comes out. The game turns into snarling round of Keep-Away. 

I’ve tried to convince Bear its okay to participate in multi-player games using yellow tennis balls. But Orange Ball is our game.

I’ve read hundreds of books and articles about human brains and minds over the last four years. Although I remain a devout English Major, I’ve belatedly acquired a Psychology Minor. 


My exploration began with memoirs about living with various kinds of mental illness and neurodiversity:  anxiety, writer’s block, trauma, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, Parkinson’s disease, Autism Spectrum Disorder…. the list continues. But I’m also fascinated by topics such as evolutionary biology and clinical psychology. I’ve compared theories about the origins of human ethics from Robert Wright, Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Noah Harari. A century apart, Michael Shermer and William James each offers a thoughtful perspective on The Believing Brain and Varieties of Religious ExperienceAnd I’ve written before about Carol Dweck’s classic Mindset, as well as works by pioneering scholars of behavioral economics like Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman.


For a comprehensive introduction to modern brain research, I recommend either Robert Sapolsky’s magisterial Behave: the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, or the convenient graphic textbook How Psychology Works. For brain chemistry I suggest Judith Grisel’s Never Enough:  The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction. And the smartest self-help book I’ve encountered is Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, a recent bestseller by my gay BYU classmate and Student Review co-founder BJ Fogg. 


Lately I’ve sought out psychology writers with a quirky perspective on how thinking works – like Maria Konnikova’s reporting about poker players and scam artists, and Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music, which draws on the author’s career as a record producer before becoming a neuroscientist. But the most useful brain book I’ve read lately is Temple Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals.


Animals Make Us Human is based on Temple Grandin’s experience in two very different domains:  animal husbandry and autism. I’d already read Grandin’s memoirs about her life on the autism spectrum. (Ten years ago Claire Danes won an Emmy for playing Grandin in an excellent HBO biopic.) In Animals Make Us Human, Grandin helps pet owners and farmers understand how each species’ brains work, and how humans can create a healthy environment for each type of animal. 


Grandin includes separate chapters for dogs, cats, cattle, birds, pigs, etc. Obviously the “Dogs” chapter is the most interesting and useful. But as a psychology student I was also struck by Grandin’s attention to fundamental brain functions. Despite everything neuroscientists have learned from modern tools like MRIs and CAT scans, we remain mystified and awed by how thinking actually works on a cellular level. Animals Make Us Human reminds us humans are animals too, with brains that evolved over millions of years. 

I’m fond of the analogy of brain development as piling scoops of ice cream on a cone. At the bottom is the reptilian vanilla scoop of our brain stem. Every animal has a similar need for these neurons dedicated to basic life support and motor functions. Natural selection piled on extra scoops to handle our sophisticated mammal motor needs. Then evolution added scoops of the fruity flavors that create, regulate, and respond to emotions. Perched precariously on top, at least for humans, is a final delicious scoop containing the prefrontal cortex, Executive Function, and Theory of Mind.


Grandin doesn’t actually use the ice cream scoop brain analogy herself. Instead, she adopts the framework described by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp four decades ago in his research on the neural bases of emotion. Panksepp identified seven primal emotions. Grandin follows Panksepp’s custom of labeling each in allcaps:  CARE, FEAR, LUST, PANIC/GRIEF, PLAY, RAGE, and SEEKING.


CARE is the emotion underlying parental love. LUST fuels sex and sexual desire. According to Grandin, “Dr. Panksepp believes that the core emotion of RAGE evolved from the experience of being captured and held immobile by a predator. Frustration is a mild form of RAGE that is sparked by mental restraint when you can’t do something you’re trying to do.” People living with PTSD or autism tend to be familiar with the power of RAGE. All seven of Panksepp’s categories represent very human emotions whose impact can also be observed in other animals. 

Grandin writes “No one understands the nature of play or the PLAY system in the brain well yet, although we do know that play behavior is probably a sign of good welfare.” According to Grandin, “the PLAY system produces feelings of joy.” The neural pathways for PLAY evolved to become the foundation for quintessentially human urges like art and music. 


Like human children, dogs regularly demonstrate PLAY in action. As we walk through campus each morning, Bear and Buster engage in wild chases and elaborate fake combat. Even though Buster outweighs Bear by forty percent, Bear is the ringleader and the inevitable victor.


One of the benefits of suddenly adopting two aussiedoodles in midlife was the confirmation that I am not a dog person – merely a person with a dog named Bear. Buster is nice if you’re looking to give up your personal freedom in exchange for an affectionate but dim-witted housemate. But Buster’s limited capacity for walks is a deal breaker. In contrast, whenever Bear races athletically across a field toward the ball, my heart leaps with joy. Whenever Buster clumsily lumbers toward a food dish, I’m reminded that Buster’s highest and best use is to sit on the couch and comfort my children.

Last week at PAWS as I sipped my refreshing beverage, a friendly golden retriever came over and dropped a tennis ball at my feet. We tried a couple of rounds of fetch, but Bear became jealous and grumpy. 


Bear and I have a lot in common beyond a mutual passion for long walks. For better or worse, our personalities are compatible. We even have a shared understanding of the true purpose of the game of Orange Ball:  as with the game of Life, the goal is to catch it on the bounce. Even if it just bounced off your nose. Especially if it just bounced off your nose.