Still News: Man Almost Bites Dog

One of my many island pals

I was a teacher at a college on a small Micronesian island for a year. One of of my teaching duties was to attend college-related extracurricular events and presentations, which usually offered a wide range of foods. Micronesians are festive people: they like a good get-together, and they like to lard the table with a cornucopia of foodstuffs. At first, because I wasn’t familiar with many island foods and how they looked after preparation, I would always be the slow one in line, peering closely at some dishes. Why? Because I didn’t want to eat any servings of dog (and probably one that had tried to bite me while bicycling a few hours before the feast).

My dog-ducking wasn’t because I truly minded that Rover had been barbecued—I’ve written before about the spirited chases that mange-ridden canines gave me on my bike rides, and the improvised weaponry and tactics used to dispatch those hounds of hell. It’s just that the thought of eating dog unsettled me. In my culture, it’s OK to eat a 1,200-calorie triple cheeseburger, with enough salt to brine an Olympic pool. And in my youthful subculture, I spent an effortful afternoon making chocolate malts infused with ground peyote buttons.

But eating dog? No. Writing about eating dog? Oh my yes.

The old “write what you know” adage blows in so many ways that I’ll only enumerate a few: you often don’t know what you know. Does that mean you can’t write in a woman’s voice if you’re a man? Or you can’t write about the 19th century because yours is the 21st? That aside, I do think some writers, fiction or non, essayists or poets, neglect to plumb their histories for the page-producing pools that they are. I was out of my element in so many ways on that faraway island, but the combination of the odd and the exotic provided me with fodder for at least five published articles. I was a very enterprising shoplifter in high school, running a cottage resale business on the side. While I don’t recommend they teach my techniques in business school, I later turned my history of happy hands into an award-winning short story, and then turned the account of having won that short story contest into a published article. Ahh, the just desserts of an empire of crime.

The Write Stuff: You Already Own It
What I’m getting at is that in your own history, you’ve probably done a juicy fruit basket of unusual things. You’ve met people who have baffled you, intrigued you, offended your socks off. You’ve breathed sweet fragrant airs or shivered uncontrollably in climates not your own, you’ve worked for scowling bastards, you were given gratifying gifts that were wholly undeserved, you made decisions that a month prior you would have thought quite insane. You’ve lived. Write about it.

You don’t even have to write about it directly—have one of your short story characters say those nasty things you itched to tell your pestiferous second cousin. Run through your memories, and some branches will catch your clothes. Just as I wrote that, I thought about my 13-year-old self, roaming the Long Beach Pike, that long-gone, fascinatingly seedy beachfront boardwalk—and doorway-watching in goggle-eyed compulsion as a woman in a tattoo parlor had her breast inked. Not having made any direct acquaintance of female breasts at that point, let’s just say I was interested. That boy and his mesmerized look will end up in a story.

But it’s not just lurid chapters in your childhood that make for the best source material—it’s the trip you took to the tire dealership last month, where you noticed the grizzled old mechanic who clamped his jaw on an unlit cigar while he worked his tools. It’s noticing that the H.R. head at your office has an oddly aggressive way of pointing with her index finger while she talks. Your mind is populated, spilling over, with pictures of people and places and things you looked at, touched, were repelled by. Write about them. Using the life-stuff of your times as the font of your writing is as satisfyingly savory as any dog sandwich.

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15 thoughts on “Still News: Man Almost Bites Dog

  1. Oh, thank you!!
    Tonight I shall sleep with visions of peyote button chocolate malts dancing in my head. I hope. Because if I dream of savory dog sandwiches, you are in trouble.

  2. I’m currently working through “Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain” which claims that anyone can draw, it’s just a matter of learning to see like an artist.

    This post sounds like the seed of its cousin, “Writing with the Underbelly of Your Brain” or, well, you know.

  3. But Dorothy, consider the combination of peyote malts AND dog sandwiches. The sweet and the savory. I’ll try to determine where that goes on the food pyramid.

  4. Joel, my drawings always look like I drew them with actual pieces of my brain—does that count? I’ve heard so many good things about that book, but have always reminded myself (and others) that “I can’t draw, never could.” Have to check it out…

  5. Dog sandwich? Pffft.

    Not that I’d want to eat one (or a Jack’s triple cheeseburger, for that matter), but after a traumatizing childhood of being encouraged to eat things like cow tongue, pigs’ knuckles, escargot and chocolate-covered ants, the dog sandwich sounds not too exotic to me.

    Do you remember what the mammarian tattoo-in-progress was, and if not, what might it be in your story?

  6. I know I can’t draw. Other than a single palm tree at the sloping edge of the water, with the setting sun rippling in the wavelets. I practiced that one a lot during high school.

    I have a friend who’s a professional artist and she says get the book, use the book; it’ll convince you.

    A quarter-century ago when I had a job once, we had an ethnically diverse staff. Chap from Texas mentioned rattlesnake chili, which I though sounded pretty good. The Filipino lady from Hawaii (not to be confused with the Filipino lady from the Philippines) said “Ew! Snake?” and I said hey, some people eat dogs and she said “Oh, it’s DELICIOIUS!” and we never talked much after that. Then she died. I don’t think it was from eating dog, but I’m not taking any chances. Have you seen what dogs eat? They’ll clean up after your cat, fer cryin’ out loud.

    I’m sorry; what was the question?

  7. Annie Denizen, it sounds as though you ate all the materials that might make a good Gollum. (Good Gollum! he cried)

    As for the content of the tattoo, I wasn’t exactly looking at the tattoo…

  8. Joel, if I tried to draw the palm tree you describe, it would look like a drunken troll doll maneuvering above his own vomit. Hey, now that I think about it, that’s art!

    I’m with you on what dogs eat: if it’s stinky, it’s top-of-the-menu. I didn’t have the space to go into it, but the dogs on the island were strikingly ugly in general, inbred and bizarre. Makes you want to eat one, right?

  9. Heavens to Mergatroid, there’s a novel in the bit from Joel that starts with “A quarter-century ago when I had a job once…” Any takers? (I’m a bit busy right now…)

    And Tom, thanks for pointing out that we should not only notice (I do), but consider writing about (I’m just starting), the little things in life that are all around us.

    They rock.

  10. Yes, Rick, Joel is now the éminence grise of the nomadic set, muttering at patrons of wired cafés and bars, “Jobs, pish, they used to have a place in society, but now they are piteous, meager things. Why I remember when I had a job screwing in lightbulbs, and I screwed it up so badly that…”

    Joel, better re-grow that beard to go along with the persona we’ve just provided for you.

  11. Oh the fun reading what the natives know. This reaches up close to Gack&Bacon, insiders may recognize the stray story line. As the strawberry cake so the dogs biscuit.

  12. Indeed, Bernd, Gack&Bacon seems to get everywhere (and it’s so hard to wipe up from countertops).

    “As the strawberry cake so the dogs biscuit.” Why, thats so very e.e. cummings! Or something I might have said after emerging from hip surgery. Quite nice, Bernd.

  13. AND- please don’t wait around if you have something that you wish to say. Start writing, because; well, you guys mentioned it first:

    8:00 AM. Archibald St. James Spottisworth-Gack strode purposefully onto the main floor of his brewery, his neat close-cropped bearded chin jutting forward at a rakish and very British angle. Pugnacious, his body language exclaimed. He stood very still and erect, surveying the vats and tuns and most certainly surveying his employees with only his eyes moving, until everyone was looking at him, anticipating. And then, in a stentorian baritone,

    “It’s 11:59. Let’s get brewing!”

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