Let Them Eat Dog

Dog is god spelled backwards…

Wacky people do weird things for bizarre reasons and it is merely a fine line which separates a fascinating cultural metaphor from a cruel and brutal reality.  When I ate dog in Vietnam a number of years ago, I had no inner desire to eat dog.   My palate sought no pleasure from the juices of canine sirloin and my over active imagination could not help visualizing cute little puppies getting hacked to pieces by very mean men with great big knives.  Nevertheless, I ate dog.  No doubt about it; left on my own with the option of many meats to choose from, I would never voluntarily choose to eat dog.  But that was not the situation.   I was in Vietnam and I was hanging around with some friendly Vietnamese.   They were all very excited about eating dog on that particular day in the lunar cycle and they enthusiastically invited me to join them at their feast.  How could I possibly say no?  Always willing to push the envelope of cultural curiosity, I overcame my inner revulsion and immersed myself in the experience.  In the end, it wasn’t so bad.  Yeah sure, the dog stew did not taste very delicious. But the flavor was not unbearable and the nice people and friendly atmosphere more than made up for my disturbing thoughts about suffering puppies….

Now, here I am, living through the early stages of my Third World USA tour.   In the house where I am presently accommodated, Fox News blares from the television and dominates the evening meal.   Why do you suppose it is that listening to Fox News here and now in the USA brings back such vivid memories of eating dog in Vietnam so many years ago?

Ms. B drops me at the bus station and I head north.  We will rendezvous in a week or so but for now I’m on my own.  The bus travels the highway through the Adirondack Mountains and arrives in the town of Plattsburgh on the shores of Lake Champlain. This is the town where I grew up, the town where my father and lots of my other family members live.  I try to make a pilgrimage here at least a few times each year. Usually, I head up this way right before I go overseas for the winter.  This year I’m traveling inside the country but I want to visit family anyway.  After all, the third world USA tour must begin at the beginning.

My brother picks me up at the bus station and takes me to the house.   My father is not there because he is volunteering at a church program for the homeless.  I won’t be able to see him until some time tomorrow.  No matter, I spend the evening catching up with my brother.  He too is a writer.  He’s getting ready to self-publish his first fantasy novel.  We discuss the world of online publishing and the serious possibility that paperback books are going the way of the cassette recorder.  Traditional book publishing is a dying industry.  Any person can now make their e-book available to the whole wide world.    So why bother with traditional publishers?   I don’t know.  Both of my travel books are now available online for anyone who wants to buy them (buy my books).    It seems as if the only thing left for big business to do is marketing.  But marketing is expensive and a little financial backing can make all the difference in the world.   Is that it?  Financial backing?  Is that the only thing which separates a real writer from an amateur?

My next day in Plattsburgh, I visit the home of another brother.  This one is an artist and photographer rather than a writer but he suffers from the same curse as the rest of us.  He hasn’t found a financial backer for his creativity either…  Why does this same story replay itself so frequently in Third World USA?  The starving artists toil away at miserable day jobs while quietly and secretly creating masterpieces in their spare time.    One day, perhaps, the starving artist of the American fantasy will be discovered and riches will rain down upon him.  But for most people living in the American nightmare, the toiling away continues and the discovery never happens.  The dream of one day getting discovered is substituted for the reality of having no free time to pursue the dream…  The passion and power disappear and the truth of economic slavery takes hold.  Aaauggh.

In the evening, I return to my childhood home and have dinner with my father.   We watch Fox News and it is a totally bizarre semi-hallucinatory experience.  Honestly, I don’t even own a television.  I’ve heard of Fox News as an institution of course.  I know it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch and it’s a bastion of right wing media.  But it’s not something that I ever actually sit down and watch.   I rarely watch any television and if I do, Fox News is not my preferred programming.  But here I am at my father’s house.  He likes to watch it regularly and I like to be an accommodating guest who adapts to the routine of the place I’m staying.  If he wants to watch Fox News, I’m going to sit right here and watch it with him… How about that?  Isn’t this interesting?  A television station dedicated completely to the god of Capitalism.  Do people still believe this stuff?  Don’t they realize that Capitalism is a broken concept?   I guess some metaphors take a long time to die.

We are about half way through the Bill O’Reiley segment when I have a very vivid flash back to my days in Vietnam.  Not to the war of course, but to my remarkable dog eating experience during my travels there in 2001.   I was staying in a good sized town somewhere in the western mountains of the country.  While wandering aimlessly through the town’s central park, I came upon four young men who were drinking some kind of home made rot gut alcohol from a bottle in a paper bag.   They could not speak a word of English but they managed to offer me a hit off their communal bottle.  Always a brave one, I accepted their offer.  Wow, that shit was strong.  We then proceeded to pass the bottle from person to person as we attempted to communicate. Before the Vietnamese guys took their sips from the bottle, each one of them would utter a word that I could not quite understand.  It sounded like: awanetdoge.  When they handed me the bottle for the second time, they tried to get me to repeat the word before I drank.  I did my best to imitate them: awanetdoge.  They laughed when I tried to say it because I obviously had no idea what I was saying.  I wondered if it was a Vietnamese curse word.   This went on and on for about a half hour, the bottle going around in a circle, them saying the words, me trying to imitate their pronunciation.   Awanetdoge… guzzle back a shot.   Awanetdoge…guzzle back another shot. When the full moon came up on the eastern horizon and my four friends started howling with laughter, I finally realized what the words meant.  I wasn’t speaking bad Vietnamese.  They were speaking bad English.  I want to Eat Dog.  I want to Eat Dog.  I must have said it more than ten times before I learned the meaning.  And then well, could I really say no?  So I hopped up on the back of one of my new friend’s motorcycle and rode my way across town to the dog feast…

Meanwhile, back in the present, the commentators on Fox News are following the Republican presidential primaries.  Newt Gingrich has just called Barack Obama the Food Stamp President.  I swear, Newt Gingrich is such a perfect metaphor for everything that is wrong with America that I sometimes believe he is a fictional character rather than a real person.   Even his name is like some sort of twisted confused anagram. Just move the “t” a couple letters over and throw in a space:  New is Gitng rich bullshitting America.  He champions the cause of making life harder on the poor in order to properly encourage them to embrace free enterprise.  He raises his hands in the air and shouts out his message…. The lower class is a bunch of losers.  They are ungrateful, uneducated, good for nothing, lazy bums.    You, my followers, are not the lower class.  You are the middle class. You are not one of them you are one of us, the entrepreneurs, the successful hardworking Americans.  Blah blah blah…

When I arrived at the dog feast in Vietnam, I was very drunk and no one at the party spoke more than a few words of English.  Nevertheless, I remember very clearly several people trying to explain to me about the eating of dog meat in relation to the cycles of the moon…  U wanna eat dog.  I wanna eat dog.  But no eat dog after full moon…  Apparently, it is always bad luck to eat dog meat when the moon is waning and always good luck to eat dog meat when the moon is waxing.  Furthermore, the closer the moon is to full the more powerful the force of luck.  The moment, however, the moon passes full, is the worst time of all to eat dog.  That is when you will get stuck with very powerful bad luck.  Thus, the object of the ritual is to eat as much dog as possible up until the precise moment of the moon’s fullness but stop eating before the waning begins.    How close can we get to the full moon?   How far can we push our good luck before it turns bad?   That is the challenge and the fun of the dog eating ritual.  I don’t know if it works this way everywhere but at the respected dog meat establishment where I ate, they stopped serving at the precise moment of the full moon.  All the customers at the party then proceeded to throw what was left on their plates into the communal fire.    U wanna eat dog.  I wanna eat dog.  U wanna eat dog.  I wanna eat dog.   But no eat dog when the full moon is over.

Fox News is back and I’m watching the commentators discuss whether or not the Presidential candidate Mitt Romney should release his taxes.  This is the dude who likes to make ten thousand dollar bets.  He has some absurd personal fortune and he pays a very meager amount of taxes.   He made his fortune as part of the investor class.  So much money for so little work.  It makes as much sense as eating dog.   He’s a rich dude who makes no bones about it. He’s wants to be president to work on behalf of the rich people.  He believes whole-heartedly in the ideology of accumulated wealth.  The fawning commentators on Fox fail to even discuss the extent to which his entire fortune is dependent upon government support.   Realistically, any individual human’s ability to possess wealth is limited by practical physical constraints.  How much space can one human occupy?  How much energy can one human consume?  How much material can one person handle?   Accordingly, in the real world, the extent to which a person can own things that he or she does not possess is only possible with the complicity and direct assistance of the government.  All paper wealth only has value because the government says it does.  Ownership is not inherent.  It is a legally created construct.  What gives you the right to control resources that you do not possess… the government does.  So you really should shut up and start paying your fair share of taxes…  But no, the god of Capitalism does not see things that way.

At the feast in Vietnam, we sat on the floor around a long narrow table.  Great big pots of dog stew were placed at intervals along the table and we were all passed small bowls and chopsticks to eat with.    Everyone was very excited.  The liquor was flowing and the laughter was loud.  The Vietnamese all seemed happy to have a stranger among them and I was happy to be joining in their feast.  Songs were sung, liquor was drunk and we ate the bowls of dog stew.  It didn’t taste so good.  It was very stringy and greasy meat, kind of like bad pot roast all covered up with spices.  Sometimes, no matter how much you spice something… the funk, foul and nastiness still remains at the core.  It made my stomach turn.  I would never choose it in a restaurant under normal circumstances.  But these were not normal circumstances.  I was participating in the cultural ritual and getting myself some very good luck.  Sure why not, I can eat dog.   As long as I get to do it in a nice place with nice people who are having a good time.

I stay at my father’s house for several days.  During that time, I watch the bizarre phenomena of Fox News on a couple of occasions. In truth, I have about as much chance of believing their story as I do in believing that eating dog meat before the full moon will bring me good luck.  But that does not mean that I can’t dabble in it out of cultural curiosity.  Besides, my father and brother are wonderful and accommodating people.  Spending a few days in their presence is a pleasure no matter what weird cultural metaphors they believe in.  When my visit is complete, they give me a ride along the lake and over the bridge from NY to Vermont.  They drop me off at the home of the Frog on the slopes of Snake Mountain.  Rather remarkably, the universe transforms…  Fox News fades to the background and the friendly folks at NPR take over the airwaves. .  I can’t help but wonder if the moon has gone past full…

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One thought on “Let Them Eat Dog

  1. Thought I’d come visit you since you stopped by my neck of the woods.

    This is a pretty wonderful essay. You’re able to conjure up some great imagery, even considering the subject matter.

    I’m glad to see you breached the subject of self-publishing because it’s actually something I’m considering for my novel. It’s not that I want to seem like I’m throwing my hands in the air and calling it quits, but the appeal of self-publishing is pretty strong: Complete control.

    I’m not saying that I wouldn’t love all the warm, fuzzy feelings of acceptance that comes from being picked up by a traditional publisher, but it seems so cool to be able to say, “You know what, I’m not cutting out that scene” or leaving in that character who some might find pointless and personally offensive but, damn it, you love him anyway. Those are your decisions to make and I like that.

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