Dogs (VN Diary No. 39)

The taxi’s route to the airport passes through a number of suburban neighborhoods of varying degrees of prosperity and in each I noticed well cared for dogs on people’s stoops. I’d noticed this in Hanoi, too, and it was one of the differences from eight years ago, when the few pet dogs I saw looked skinny and flea-bitten. Then there are the jokes about eating dog meat, but that practice seems to be receeding to the margins, confined mostly to older men concerned about their verility.  In the old days, I never saw anyone walking a dog on a lead, but the practice has become fairly common in Hanoi, where, in the mornings, people go down to the lake to exercise, many taking their dogs, who for the most part sit quietly waiting for their masters to finish their calesthenics or their badmitton game. The happy and contented dogs are a mark of increasing prosperity, I think. For purely sentimental reasons, I’m happy to see the change.


You know it has been a cold week when 20 degrees feels warm. Went out & filled the bird feeders, shoveled last night’s inch of snow off the porch, started the old Subaru to see if it would go (cranked right over on the first try), and generally breathed outdoor air. When Carole gets home from the barn, the dogs are going to get their first walk in several days.

Happy New Year

It was only an accident that I was awake for the actual moment of the new year’s arrival. Neither Carole nor I have been awake for the turning of the year in many years and last night we went to bed, as usual, around eleven o’clock, but one of the terriers woke me up jumping on or off the bed at about five to twelve. I can’t read an alarm clock without my glasses, so we have one of those old-fogie jobs that projects the time on the ceiling. The dog settled back down and I lay there watching the red numbers tick away to midnight. Very peaceful. This morning we drank black coffee & ate steel-cut oats with dried cherries, pecans, and brown sugar. I put half & half in my cereal; Carole virtuously put buttermilk in hers.

So anyway, every once in a while my friend (and frequent commenter on this blog) Ed Mycue sends me a sheaf of poems, which I read and put in a folder. Yesterday as I was trying to organize some manuscripts and drafts in a file drawer, I pulled out a stack of Ed’s poems. This one was on top — I think it may have arrive around this time last year — and I thought it would make a good New Year statement. Tempus fugit & all that.

Wellness Report

i press on slogging through the daily shit with a silly smile on my lips possibly. up to my ankles in new ideas and dead friends. you can’t stay mad at life although madness is a condition with a long tail. and has a zoom lens. the labyrinth snakes through dreams switching evolutions and exchanging stigmas. ah me, said the iceland singer as she took another swing at the australian paparazzi.

That pretty much sums it up, I think. I’ve put out fresh suet and scattered seeds for the winter birds — it was ten below this morning when we woke up, but the sun is shining & we have a roaring fire going in the wood stove

Dogs & Justice

Fred Clark points to interesting research that shows that a dog has a basic sense of fairness, at least when they are the ones being treated unfairly. If you have two dogs who know how to “shake” and you put them side by side, then ask them to shake, but reward only one with a treat, the one who doesn’t get rewarded will fairly quickly lose interest in cooperating with you. Clark also points out that the press reports of the research make a common error, confusing justice with envy, then makes an analogy to human justice:

The researchers might have conducted a parallel study while carrying out this research. They could have hired two graduate assistants, telling each of them that they would be paid $100 at the end of each day’s research. And then, at the end of each day, they could have paid the first assistant, but not the second — not the underdog. My theory is that the underdog would quickly become “less and less inclined” to continue showing up for work.

In the case of these hypothetical assistants, of course, no one would mischaracterize the unpaid underdog’s response as “envious.” She might be angry, but she’d be refusing to cooperate not because she’s jealous of the other assistant, but because she is the victim of an injustice — because the situation is clearly unfair. Her response is not motivated by envy but by a sense of justice.

The Times and National Geographic reports on the actual study do not allow for the possibility that a similar motive is at work in the dog’s response. They don’t seem to recognize the significant and crucial distinction between “angry at unfair treatment” and “envious.” National Geographic stumbles toward a clarification, conceding that “this kind of envy” is “really an aversion to unequal reward,” but then their article goes right back to using the word envy as though these two things were reliably interchangeable.

This particular confusion is, sadly, quite popular. We hear exactly this same bit of madness almost constantly from apologists for irresponsible wealth. Express any concern about inequality or about the plight of those who have less than the minimum amount they need to get by and they will say you are guilty of “the politics of envy.” Try to explain the distinction and they will, in turn, explain that they understand what you’re saying, they simply reject it. “Justice,” they will insist, is simply a polite euphemism for disguised envy. The virtue is just a mask for the vice.

It’s not surprising that they would argue such a thing. Of course they don’t believe there’s any such thing as justice in this life or any other. That’s what they’re banking on. Envy they accept as real. Justice they regard as mere superstition.