Category Archives: biography

Dog Man

by Martha Sherrill

This book was recommended to me by more than one person I met at the dog park. As an Akita owner, it seemed like a must-read. Dog Man chronicles the life of Morie Sawataishi, who more or less single-handedly saved the breed from extinction in WWII-era Japan. Under the duress of wartime, the dogs were eaten for meat, and their fur used to line soldiers’ coats. It was illegal to own them, and all most all of Japan’s Akitas had been rounded up. The Akita had already been mixed with a few foreign breeds, such as Mastiffs and German Shepherds, to introduce greater size and strength when dog-fighting became popular in the years earlier. Then, when WWII broke out, some Akita owners deliberately mixed their dogs with German Shepherds, which were spared from the war effort because they were valued as service dogs.

I learned quite a bit more about the Akita breed, including how the split between Japanese and American Akitas came to be: Two particular dogs were born in postwar Japan who embodied the characteristics of two different bloodlines. One was from the city of Akita and the other from the city of Odate. There was something of a rivalry between the two areas to produce the best dogs. Kongo, from Odate, was a large, barrel-chested dog who had some traits that were associated with foreign dogs with which the Akita had been earlier bred. Goromaru, from Akita, was longer-legged, and not as stocky as Kongo. His face was rounder, as opposed to the longer, slightly more Shepherd-like face of Kongo. And where Kongo had loose skin, Goromaru’s was tight. It happened that Goromaru’s owner was a glamorous former actress, and as a result this dog was widely seen and admired across Japan. He came to the attention of U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan after WWII, and they too liked what they saw. As a result, the Dewa line of Akitas which he represented were acquired and taken back to the United States. It also happened that the two Akitas that Helen Keller acquired were both from Kongo lines, which made these dogs all the more desirable to the Americans in Japan. This was the origin of the difference between the modern American and Japanese Akitas.

In Japan, these two champion dogs, so different in appearance, became the rallying cry for the standardization of the breed. It was the Ichinoseki line exemplified by Goromaru which was chosen to exemplify the original and true characteristics of the Japanese Akita. Morie was involved at this fundamental level, as an owner and breeder who showed his dogs in many competitions, winning more often than not. Dog Man is structured by the succession of dogs that Morie owned, each defining a portion of his life, while at the same time re-establishing the breed that he loved more than anything. In tandem with a few other men who owned Akita dogs, with whom he crossed his own, Morie sought to return the breed to its old snow-country origins. He saw that in the wake of the sudden, incredible demand for Akita dogs driven by American servicemen, puppy mills were springing up all over the country, and many of the people involved were only interested in making money, not in producing sound, healthy dogs with true characteristics of the breed.

Morie had ample opportunity to do the same, but amazingly, never accepted money for one of his dogs:

“Kitako [Morie’s wife] encouraged him to sell a few puppies now and again, even to simply offset the costs of his dog habit, but Morie resisted. Every time he tried to put a price on one of his dogs, he felt uneasy. He had only one litter a year, sometimes two, and he liked to see the puppies go off to people he knew and respected. He might repay a favor or a vague social debt by giving away a puppy, and he didn’t mind making an instant friend, either, but when he thought about selling a dog to a total stranger–or taking cash for a puppy–something inside him was revolted.”

Breeding was not easy, either, because at this point there was so much other blood in the Akita line:

“Every dog had an atmosphere of its own, and a look, and a balance of qualities as well as vulnerabilities and mannerisms that Morie found fascinating. Sometimes when he admired a dog’s strengths, he tried to imagine what would happen if it were bred with one of his own. People who’ve never done it tend to imagine dog breeding is simple. But Morie spent untold hours contemplating the possibilities–always hopeful and excited. Life was full of mystery and magic, and risks. Genetics most of all. If you put two dogs from the same established breed together, they would reproduce themselves almost perfectly. But if you put two Akitas together, the force of the unknown took over. Beneath the obvious traits of each Akita, there were dozens of hidden ones waiting to come to the surface.”

What was he looking for?

“‘I always wanted to breed confident dogs,’ he says. He looked for energy and endurance, a ruggedness and competitive spirit… a dog with a strong will, a vigorous dog with kisho.”

After winning many, many prizes in the show ring with various dogs, Morie decided to train one of his dogs, Samurai Tiger, to hunt. They began with duck hunting, and then rabbits and pheasants. Eventually, together with his mountain man friend Uesugi, Morie took Tiger bear hunting.

“Uesugi always said that when you stood face-to-face with a bear, it brought out the true nature of a dog and the true nature of a man.”

“Even though some of the old legends about Akitas describe them hunting in pairs, Morie never hunted with more than one dog. He found that his dogs tended to compete for game and fights started. There were other displays of dominance, too, which were distracting and simply a waste of time.”

On that first hunt, they got a bear. “After they’d hauled the bear out of the hole, Uesugi gave Samurai Tiger some of its blood to lap up. ‘That did something powerful to him,’ Morie says of the dog. ‘ After that, it was as if he’d follow that scent to the ends of the earth to taste it again.’”

Eventually, Morie and Samurai Tiger would kill 11 bears together. By 1975, Morie had been breeding Akitas for 45 years, but would still get anxious when a new litter was ready to be born. “There was always the chance that another Samurai Tiger might appear. ‘They say you get only one dog like him in your lifetime,’ Morie says, ‘but I thought if I lived long enough, I might get two, and prove that saying wrong.’”

And by this time, the Akita breed characteristics had become firmly established:

“Since the 1980s, the dog world of the north had begun to favor an Akita with a slightly different look–longer and thinner legs, a more foxlike snout and triangular eyes–but by the early 1990s, this style of dog prevailed as the new standard in Japan. It had been a long, slow struggle since the end of World War II, when the dog men of the snow country had simply hoped to produce litters of puppies with erect ears and curling tails. Now the days of the hodgepodge dogs were over. The stout bodies, bear-shaped heads, and shepherd faces were gone, too. The traces of cross-breeding with Western dogs in the early part of the century had been erased. And when two of these Japanese Akitas were bred, there weren’t surprises–but perfectly uniform litters of dogs so similar it was nearly impossible to tell them apart.

The result was a smaller, more finely featured Akita than those in America and elsewhere. That didn’t bother the snow country breeders. Since the Akita was their native dog, they felt they were allowed to set trends, rather than follow them. But it was this, along with a desire to resist being influenced by the international market, that led the Japan Kennel Club in 1996 to begin refusing to recognize Akitas from other countries, creating a split that has still not been reconciled. To many breeders and Akita clubs worldwide there are two distinct breeds, and ‘American’ Akita and a Japanese one, something the American Kennel Club has not yet recognized.”

But, despite the fact that Morie had contributed greatly to the preservation of the Akita dog, he felt that something in them had changed:

“Slowly over the years as Japan became tamer and richer, he says, the Akitas changed too. Their faces are delicate and sweet. Their eyes are sensuous. Their mouths seem to curl up in a perpetual smile. They are cute dogs, happy dogs, pets… He’d helped to preserve the Akita breed–the flesh and bones of the traditional snow country dog. But what about its heart and soul, its nature? The essence of the Akita–its unique spirit and ruggedness–now seemed unsuitable for the modern world…‘I worry that the dogs are losing their core aggressiveness and sharpness, their shrewdness,’ Morie says. ‘Having kisho means a fighting spirit. And I think it’s a fighting spirit that has allowed the Akita to survive for centuries. But people want dogs to be useful to them, and so their traits are always desirable in relation to man, and what man wants from a dog.’ … When you rescued an animal from extinction, what was the most important thing to save, the body or the spirit?”

The Fight

by Norman Mailer

It is not until page 177 that the bell rings to begin the fight of the title. But, of course, the Rumble in the Jungle was so much more than just 15 rounds of boxing. Mailer was of course a white man, writing about a predominantly black sport. “For Heavyweight boxing was almost all black, black as Bantu. So boxing had become another key to revelations of Black, one more key to black emotion, black psychology, black love.”

He also had extraordinary access to Ali, and although it is clear who he would like to see win, the reportage manages to be simultaneously very fair and impartial while also quite personal and intimate. His sometime technique of writing about the character Norman in the third person is perhaps a part of how he manages this.

We get historical context, not just in terms of boxing, of who had defeated whom in the lead-up to the bout, technique, records, weights, training camps, and all the rest, but also socio-political context, on both the American and the African sides of the Atlantic. Who in America knew where Zaire was, even, before this fight? Mailer takes us from the Belgian Congo of 1880 to present-day Kinshasa and the presidential domain of President Mobutu, and into the stadium, under which holding cells for prisoners had been filled with 300 of the worst criminals of the city, 50 of them executed to serve as an example to all, a bid to quell the wave of violence in the city. Still, it seemed an inhospitable place for two Americans, even black Americans, to come for a world championship: “Manners became so bad that American Blacks were snarling at African Blacks.”

But Ali is comfortable in this realm, and as the movie When We Were Kings showed, the people of Kinshasa loved him. He spent a good deal of time – and there was plenty of time, after the fight was postponed when Foreman was cut in sparring – out among the people.

We learn about the various circles of people who surround the boxers – their trainer, and managers, and sparring partners, and lawyers, and brothers and sisters and wives and hangers-on… A one-man sport that feels like it travels with a team, or like a rock band on tour. We learn also about Mailer’s circle, about the other writers – somewhere near 200 journalists covered the fight – and where they stay and what access they have to the fighters, and the angle they are going for.

What is Mailer’s angle? He gives enormous respect to Foreman, and we learn a great deal about him and his entourage. Still, it is Ali who he knows as a friend, and as an insider, he is permitted access unheard of for others covering the fight. Most impressive, even more impressive than access to Ali’s dressing room before and after the fight, is Mailer’s run with Ali, in the African pre-dawn, with lions roaring in the distance. How many writers – or anyone – can say they’ve done that? This is the relationship and perspective that Mailer brings to his subject.

And then there is the fight. If you’ve seen it, you know how it went. And yet Mailer’s description brings detail and nuance and yes beauty to the fight. That he is able to do this is a result of course of the luxury of retrospect and reviewing, of time spent finding the bon mot. Ringside announcing this is not. After the first round:

“How does Ali dare? A magnificent round. Norman has few vanities left, but thinks he knows something about boxing. He is ready to serve as engineer on Ali’s trip to the moon. For Ali is one artist who does not box by right counter to left hook. He fights the entirety of the other person. He lives in fields of concentration where he can detect the smallest flicker of lack of concentration. Foreman has shown himself a lack of quiver flat to the possibility of a right. Who before this had dared after all to hit Forman with a right? Of late his opponents were afraid to flick him with a jab. Fast were Foreman’s hands, but held a flat spot of complacency before the right. He was not ready for a man to come into the ring unafraid of him. That offered its beauty. But frightening. Ali cannot fight every round like this. Such a pace will kill him in five. Indeed he could be worried as he sits in the corner. It has been his round, but what a force to Forman’s punches. It is true. Foreman hits harder than other fighters. And takes a very good punch. Ali looks thoughtful.”

And thoughtful is, ultimately, one of the best ways to describe this book. A brutal sport, and a brutal fight, described in terms that return to it its humanity. Because, after all, why do we care? Why do we want to watch two men fight with their hands in a land thousands of miles away? Because of the people involved, because they are people that at some level we can see reflected in ourselves and in our cultures. The Africans of Kinshasa are people, the fighters are people, the audience are people, and for one night we leave behind all of our differences except perhaps which of the two we are rooting for, and share in some basic way our humanity.

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How Proust Can Change Your Life

by Alain de Botton

I’ve not read any Proust at all…this book makes me want to. Proust certainly seems to agree with many of my sensibilities, chief among them the dictum ‘eat, drink, and be merry’:

“The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”

Art, not unexpectedly, plays a leading role:

“Why does Proust privilege the connection between ourselves and works of art, as much in his novel as in his museum habits?

One answer is because it is the only way in which art can properly affect rather than simply distract us from life, and that there are a stream of extraordinary benefits attached to what might be termed the Marquis de Lau phenomenon (MLP), attached to the possibility of recognizing Kate in a portrait of Albertine, Philip in a description of Saniette, and more generally, ourselves in badly printed volumes purchased in train stations.”

Later:

“Hence Proust’s assertion that the greatness of works of art has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter. And hence his associated claim that everything is potentially a fertile subject for art and that we can make discoveries as valuable in an advertisement for soap as in Pascal’s Pensées.”

And de Botton’s take on what Proust felt was the reason we read:

“…he argued that we should be reading for a particular reason: not to pass the time, not out of detached curiosity, not out of a dispassionate wish to find out what [the author] felt, but because, to repeat with italics, ‘there is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master must have felt.’ We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel; it is our own thoughts we should be developing, even if it is another writer’s thoughts that help us do so.”

And so, de Botton explains after a description of the many who make a pilgrimage to Proust’s hometown, “it should not be Illiers-Combray that we visit: a genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not to look at his world through our eyes.”

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