Hello, and welcome back to thinks you can think.
This week we welcome a text by Fulla Abdul-Jabbar, titled Exquisite Dog. This piece has me re-thinking my relationship to my phone, to television, and to the devices (now, open platforms) that circulate images. Seemingly innocuous things like pics of cute dogs can circulate as something far weightier…raw data…that newest instrument for generating wealth. Before I threw out my old phone I was careful to download the last few pics I took with my childhood dog, Po:
Po loved every human he ever met, chased nerf balls with gusto, and slowly went deaf in his old age. We bonded over the dirty, band-aid festooned beaches of Lake Erie, where we would go for long runs. Po would bark at dogs of far too great a size and I would get angry because he refused to pee outdoors. Today I’ll think of the data that remains as a trace of Po, circulating online like a virtual exquisite corpse.
by Fulla Abdul-Jabbar
A large shaggy black dog with a tiny blue bow waits for her owner to finish at the ATM.
A dog sticks his tongue out while he and his owner wait for a table for brunch.
A dog outside of a grocery store watches shoppers go through the silver and glass revolving door. Her ears wiggle in a horizontal motion as she readjusts herself to get a better view.
A leashless service dog slowly trots around a college campus. Many strangers pet this chubby corgi.
A dog yawns at Starbucks, stretching in way that the hood from her striped reindeer hoodie flops over and covers her eyes.
A dog on the beach looks nervously at his owner who is waiting for him in the water. After a couple of false starts, the dog joins him.
For some time, I have been taking pictures of strangers’ dogs. People ask me if the strangers whose dogs I photograph mind that I’m doing it. I try to be discreet because I suspect that they would mind. Although I have never had a confrontation with an owner, I often feel guilt when I am reminded that my actions are observable.
I was inside of a shop and there was a small dog outside of the glass window where I sat. I leaned backwards in my chair, balancing on its hind legs, to snap a photo without the lines from the metal bars obscuring my image. I crashed back into my normal seated position when a barista behind me noticed what I was up to and shouted, That is such a cute dog! My picture became a white dog blur over a gray concrete blur. I have many blurs in my collection.
On my morning walk to work, I saw a dog alone tied to a streetlight—an unusual sight in a residential neighborhood. The dog had curly brown hair and was sitting facing towards me. I took a photo on my phone as I walked towards it. Coming closer, I noticed no discernible human and decided to take another, more detailed, photo. The dog barked twice. The first time a dog had acknowledged my action.
Many say that they find humans disappointing, so they prefer to turn to the animal world for companionship. J.R. Ackerely was a known curmudgeon who gave up on people and was devoted in his life only to his German shepherd, Tulip. To understanding her through intimate observation. His book-length essay, My Dog Tulip chronicles with a searing focus the mundane details of her life. Tulip’s name, in fact, was not Tulip but Queenie. Most often, this name change was attributed to Ackerely and his publishers’ fear of ridicule since Ackerely was a gay man in 1950s Britain. But Lucas Mann, in an essay about the book, suggests that the name Tulip was the result of another cause—to preserve Tulip’s privacy.
I was on the phone with my sister who was telling me a long story. Hold on, I told her, and I continued walking silently for a few moments with the phone to my ear. What happened? she said. There were three Pomeranians in a stroller, I told her. And I had to look at them.
My main problem with interaction with dogs is that I conflate them with people and particularly with babies. I am not close enough with anyone with a child to discuss the matter thoroughly in a way that is inoffensive to the parent. (I am not sure that there is any of level of closeness that would achieve that.) But a part of me does believe that I don’t know how to interact with dogs because I don’t know how to interact with babies. I understand this is wrong. My questions as I formulate them in my mind not only seem to miss the point but also seem to me to be morally reprehensible. I imagine the face of the poor parent who might receive these questions. How do you talk to a baby (or dog) who doesn’t understand you? What do you say? Is it not rude to pet dog you don’t know in the same way that it would be rude to hold a baby you don’t know? If a child (dog), in addition to being her own individual, can in some ways be thought of as an extension of the parent (owner), is it not invasive to document the dog’s (baby’s) beauty?
Reality television star and restaurateur Lisa Vanderpump also claims to respect the animal—and specifically, the canine—world more than the human one. Often a central figure in the human conflicts on the Bravo series The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills, her Season 6 series tagline was, “I’m passionate about dogs, just not crazy about bitches.” She is a strong advocate against animal abuse, and she is also the owner of large number of pets including “seven turtles, eight swans, two ponies, and eight dogs,” as she once catalogued.
In the other Bravo network show she is part of, Vanderpump Rules, Lisa is less of a dramatic figure and more of a structural guiding principle. The show centers around the servers of her restaurant SUR (an acronym for Sexy Unique Restaurant) and the dramas associated with being 20- or 30-somethings looking to make it in LA. Although the casts’ personal lives on Vanderpump Rules are not less successful than those of the women on the Real Housewives franchise, they are younger and certainly enjoy considerably less financial success. So they often turn to Lisa for advice and often while visiting her beautiful home, Villa Rosa. When she sits with a young, hapless server in her home, she often has one of her many dogs in her lap showering them with kisses. True to her style, her animals are often dressed in pinks and silks and glitter and feathers. In the marketing for the show, Lisa always sits at the center—a queen overlooking her empire. In her lap sits Giggy, (arguably) her favorite dog. When watching the shows that Lisa is part of, I often wonder: Is a dog in a mansion a happier dog? I think probably yes.
On the phone, my sister is telling me about a game of exquisite corpse her friends had played. I had never heard of the game. She described folding a piece of paper into sections and then each person drawing a body part from an animal in their portion, concealing it from the rest of the players. This usually results in an entertaining mixture of drawing styles and absurd anatomies—probably especially entertaining if all the friends you play with are artists, which was true in this case.
It was sad then for her friend George, who informed the group that he couldn’t draw. Or rather, he could only make technical drawings of iPhones. So that’s what George did. Every time someone passed him a blank section of a page to fill.
Head of an owl—arms of an octopus—a human torso—iPhone.
Head of a dog—bat’s wings—iPhone—crocodile tail.
iPhone—snake neck—elephant trunk—chicken legs.
And so on.
On April 2nd, The Chicago Real Estate Wealth Expo took place. “One Day Can Make You A Millionaire!” the subway advertisement claimed. The ad also featured a long line of TV personalities posing next to each other. At the center, with his winning grin and carefree stubble, was Tony Robbins promising a three-hour Sales & Motivational Training session. Underneath the other speakers was a short description of their job title or affiliated TV program. Suze Orman was a “Personal Finance Guru”; Christina El Moussa was a “TV Flip Star”; Ryan Serhant was from “Million Dollar Listing NY”; an editorial oversight named a man Shark Tank and described him as a “Daymond John.” In this lineup, I was confused to see standing among them, in a conspicuous bow tie, Pitbull who was throwing off the unity of real estate and motivation. The surprise presence of Pitbull reminded me of another phone conversation with my sister.
“Is Pitbull a rapper?” I asked her. “Is what he does called rap?”
“Did you know that Pitbull has diehard fans?”
I tried to imagine an adolescent’s room lined with photos of Pitbull.
“Well he’s like Flo Rida.”
“Is Flo Rida a rapper?”
I think the event organizers may have had similar confusion because underneath Pitbull’s name was not “Rapper”—was not even “Musician”—but, underneath “Pitbull,” appeared the words “Special Guest.”
I wondered what makes Pitbull special. Special because he is an entertainer? Special because he is unlike the rest in the chain of celebrities? Special because he is impossible to categorize? Special because he is Pitbull? But Pitbull, I think is not so different from the others at the Real Estate Wealth Expo. I’m sure he’s wealthy and has real estate. I’m sure he likes living in a mansion.
Fulla Abdul-Jabbar is a writer and artist living in Chicago. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is the Assistant Editor at the Green Lantern Press.