(Originally published in The Bark magazine, Aug. 2008)
You won’t find the Imaginary Dog Awards among your television listings. You won’t find them in the plethora of awards shows that grace every channel, celebrating the sensibilities of shallowness like salt in the cracks of an evaporated pond. (Do I sound bitter?) The Imaginary Dog Awards are a fiction created by my dogs, or so I’ve come to believe. I’d include myself as a co-creator if I hadn’t realized their uncanny canine power over me. My dogs have saved me from bitterness and in return, they’ve acquired a guy who can open a can of dog food with the best of them.
I do know a little something about real awards shows. For the last forty years or so, I’ve been one of the four members of a reputedly avante-garde comedy group called The Firesign Theatre and we’ve made a whole lot of audio records and CD’s and a few video and film projects and done stage shows as well and in the process we’ve been nominated three times for a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. And we’ve lost each and every time. It’s pathetic. We’ve rented limos and been to cocktail parties, (even been on TV one memorable year that Jerry Seinfeld was nominated with us and so the powers-that-be thought it worthwhile to put our award on the tube) but each time we’ve lost. We’ve lost to Weird Al. We’ve lost to Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks and George Carlin. Lost like goats.
I’ve driven that lonely limo called “Just-Glad-to-be-Nominated,” and believe me, the little shards of my stillborn acceptance speeches still rattle around my pitiful brain. It’s positively embarrassing. I’d love to have risen from my seat, a fist punching the air as the TV cameras rolled, loved to have kissed the Blonde Bombshell and trotted up on stage with my partners to babble and be cut short by an orchestra eager to get home to its family, but it didn’t happen and – because of dogs – I’m not bitter – or so it turns out. The Bombshell (her actual name is Oona) and I have adjusted to the inevitable. If we are not to be award-winners, we can at the very least become award–givers. And the awards we give out are called the Imaginary Dog Awards. Our life is all about dogs, after all. And our imaginations. And the dogs’ eerie control over our imaginations. Let me explain.
I’ve heard it’s been said by responsible scientific minds that dogs just might be entirely responsible for human civilization, that our complex web of social life would have been impossible were it not for the domestication of wolves, that without wolves raising the alarm and protecting humans and helping them hunt, humans wouldn’t have had the time to construct civilization. This is a perfectly plausible theory, but large-scale and longtime, like Evolution. My theory is short-term, but weirdly logical, perhaps even stupid.
I have come to believe (I hope I’m not imagining this) that they are somehow able to control human imagination in order to get humans to give them more dog food. (My dogs, it turns out, love dog food more than anything in life and I’ll bet yours aren’t far behind.) The fact that I make up stories about them, ascribe to them human-like characteristics, have names for them, constantly talk to them, write about them … it’s all their doing; they’re controlling me, not the other way around. Ostensibly, it’s human imagination at work, but suspiciously, it creates a fantasy that results in dogs’ getting more dog food, at least in the case of our awards.
Whatever their origin, the Imaginary Dog Awards are fun. Oona and I have been campers for all our life together and years ago we thought we’d cleverly instituted a family tradition; on the last night of any camping trip, we’d have an awards ceremony and award our many dogs some awards. We’ve had usually five or six dogs at a time for some thirty-five years, so you can imagine the amount of awards, given that we can usually manage two or three major camping trips a year, most often in the Eastern Sierras or the Sonoran Desert of Arizona or more lately, in the Pacific Northwest, particularly on the beaches thereof. And we assumed that we were in charge.
At this point, your intelligence begins to kick in. Face the facts, Your Intelligence says, even though dogs don’t actually care about the Dog Awards, don’t even understand that you give them names, only care about dog food, other dogs and sleep, in that order; still, you and Oona are people who enjoy talking to your dogs and about them as if they’re both human and understanding. You’re right, I say, it’s really just us two humans entertaining each other, of course, but the more we do it, the more the whole fabric of our imaginary dog conversations take on the spooky feel of reality. Ignoring the obvious is a big part of dog ownership, to be sure. Your Intelligence then points out that since dogs have a unique ability to make humans feel better about anything and everything, why not give them awards, for this if nothing else? Well, yeah, I say, and Your Intelligence quicky and politely mentions that Oona and I could easily have thought up the awards all by ourselves.
Well, we’re certainly a big part of things. Indeed, if you watch enough TV, you’ll notice that many shows feature a certain amount of carousing and we do try to fit right in. No matter where we are, no matter how unshaven (me) – how peaceful (her) – how uneager to return to what passes for Life, we humans manage to squirrel a bottle of champagne to crack open around the campfire on the last night in camp and drink out of those big plastic container-cups with covered tops and even little tops to cover the ends of the huge plastic straws. Big Gulp Champagne, we call it, and it’s become an Imaginary Dog Awards favorite. We’ll save something special – French fries, in the most recent instance – and watch the stars pick up where we left off the night before, she and I in our camp chairs, the dogs lying underfoot. Oona will have her current journal open in her lap and we’ll look up at the night and contemplate Orion or Cassiopeia or Arcturus rising and think about the weeks of camping and start drinking champagne and handing out awards. She’ll write down the winners and make watercolor sketches of the event. Our policy is that no dog goes without an award, even the (semi-coveted) Worst Camper Award.
Over the years, amid the humdrum acceptance speeches for the more pedestrian awards (Best Camper, Best Sleeper, etc.) some great moments stand out: as on that memorable night in the desert, beneath the dead-black saguaros, under a crescent moon, when Bodie, our biggest and best Australian Cattle Dog pulled down the one-time “I Bit the Ranger” Award, after a playful nip to the sleeve of Ranger Steve, (who’s since become a friend, even dropping by our camp at the end of his shifts to see his dear friend Bodie.) We’ll never forget Porter the Pup winnng The Avoiding the Cat on a Leash Award. There was the weeping star-struck night when Noodle, our Unknown Breed, was given the “It’s Only a Fatty Tumor” Award after a trip to the vet to examine some mysterious lumps. Waddel the Red Heeler got big laughs as he accepted the Open Pit Mine award for his fine work under the picnic table, and there was Wigeon, the sainted matriarch of cattle dogs, winning the “Take Me to a Motel” Award (also known as the “I Hate the Desert” Award.) But the really outstanding moment was a double award nailed down by General Douglas McBugeye, who in the High Sierra won not only the Most Improved Camper Award but followed up almost immediately with the Worst Camper Award.
The applause went wild. The fries flew over the heads of the crowd, spinning in the klieg lights. (I handle the kliegs – those little waterproof flashlights work really well – and toss the carbohydrates.)
And here’s to all the nominees. They reach high and grab their fried trophies and they roll over and sleep, on their backs, four feet straight up, under the stars, somehow guiding human imaginations. Much better than me and the Bombshell, losing at the Grammys, riding home in the back seat of our limo, but – wait a minute – having spent the rest of the night four feet away from the best Bluegrass musicians in the world playing just for us at one of the many wonderful intimate parties you get to attend whether you win or lose, finishing off the champagne as the city lights spread below us like … yeah, wait a minute indeed, let me rethink this. It doesn’t sound bad at all, and in fact, we’ve always had a very good time once the Bad News was announced. Comedy is nothing if not about imagination, and if the Grammys – or even the Dog Awards – were to give out an award for Best Imaginer, I’d probably have a chance at it. And if my theories are correct, I’d trot up on stage after getting on tiptoes to kiss the Bombshell (she’s very beautiful, but considerably taller than I am) and elbow whoever’s up there out of the spotlight to grab the microphone and thank all my dogs, past and present. They got me there, I’d be nothing without them, etc. etc. And I’d be right. The current crop would be waiting out in the limo, asleep and dreaming, presumably, about dog food and how you’d imagine something called the Imaginary Grammy Awards in order to get more. Oona and I would wave goodbye to Ricky Skaggs and Allison Krauss and collapse into the limo, clutching our statuette and pull out the Big Gulps and pop the champagne and tell the nice driver to go slow and get up into the hills so we could hold hands and watch the city lights spread out below.
Ah, imagination. Ah, dog food.