We’ve all had those head-thumping moments—coming up with the crushing argument when our adversary’s long gone, remembering the ingredient left out of the casserole, the part that should have been done or installed before the part just finished with. Many such omissions are fixable, even if at some cost or inconvenience. But imagine writing a book that’s supposed to cover all examples of your subject, and only learning of the ones you’ve missed after it’s printed and bound and in readers’ hands.
Well, I’ve done it twice now. In my preface to the The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers—which I’d endeavored to make as comprehensive as possible, identifying more than 260 writer-artists and reproducing more than 400 images of their work—I’d presciently acknowledged that “with new writer-artists appearing every day, it was out of date the day it was published.” But I little suspected that not two months after it had gone to the printer I would be inundated with names of writer-artists whom I’d failed to unearth in decades of research. How could I have left out Joseph Brodsky and John Ashbery and Annie Proulx and Annie Dillard and…
Such omissions were happily, if only partially, remedied by inclusion in two exhibitions that were documented in a catalogue that will be available in a few months. An open-ended repository for not previously identified writer-artists and for displaying their artworks is being set up as a Virtual Exhibition. In subsequent blogs I will write about and show the art of omitted writer-artists and I invite you to contribute the names of any you may know of.
I felt more confident about my just released book You’re My Dawg, Dog: A Lexicon of Dog Terms for People, illustrated by J.C. Suarès, now unamendably available wherever books are sold. (Check out the recent HuffPost slideshow of 15 dog terms with illustrations here). After all, the number of writers who might mess around with charcoal, paint, or clay is open-ended; but there had to be a finite number of dog terms and I thought I’d pretty much nailed them all. Yet, no sooner had I turned in the manuscript this past December than I chanced upon an excerpt from Robert Caro’s latest Lyndon Johnson volume with a description of the bitterly marginalized Vice President running around the White House complaining that the Kennedys were treating him “like a cut dog.” It got squeezed in moments before it was off to the printer.
A week later an English teacher to whom I’d mention the project dropped me an email to make sure I’d included Dogberry, the dumb constable in Much Ado About Nothing, and today any incompetent elected official (as in a Congress of Dogberrys), which of course I hadn’t. A friend in L.A. mentioned that in local usage “Mad Dog” is also a verb meaning to stare at someone in a hostile and challenging manner. Another friend’s son at University of Michigan told his dad to tell me about “Dog log” from a Phish song, meaning dog poop. This made me realize I’d omitted “Dog shit”, which has meanings beyond the literal and scatological. It is, of course, a descriptive for anything execrable—from a bad performance to the way one feels when ill—but is also a potent strain of sativa and the name of a cannabis-testing lab. At the same time as I’d sussed out these last two, I ran across “Dogshit Food”, a story by Liu Heng, the title alluding to a Chinese idiom signifying a remote village.
Things quieted down over Christmas and then on New Year’s Day I was half-listening to a friend bemoan the tedious party she’d been forced to attend the night before when she abruptly added that her companion insisted they stay “until the last dog was hung.” Had I really not heard this expression before, she wanted to know. Turns out the origin of this colorful phrase is a 1902 novel, The Blazed Trail, where it was employed to refer to loyal frontiersmen who wouldn’t rest until all the bad guys were lynched.
A week later another woman told me her boyfriend was doing a real “walk the dog” with her. It appears “walk the dog” not only signifies the shared exercise for canine relief, but to lead someone on in a relationship when aware there’s no future. Then I remembered it’s also a trick with a yo-yo in which the motion of a fast sleeper pulls the yo-yo along the ground. And I learned it’s also a dance.
A recent New Yorker cited David W. Mauer’s book, Whiz Mob, a work covering the (complete?) technical argot of the light-fingered, in which he explains that “Kissing the dog” in pickpocket parlance, is the tradecraft error of letting a victim see your face.
Long persuaded that the world contains an endless supply of writer-artists, I’m now equally convinced that the world has a large cache of dog terms just waiting to be revealed. Thoroughly disabused of my complete listing illusion, I hope you will please send me yours. It’s worth a You’re My Dawg, Dog poster, if you come up with a term and definition that’s not in my book. Go to www.welcomebooks.com/dawg and click Readers’ Suggested Dog Terms to submit your terms.