Essay, Writing

Old Dogs, New Tricks

One of the greatest untruths that we commonly accept is that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. Not only is that entirely untrue for dogs, who both can learn and enjoy learning new tricks, throughout their lives, it is untrue for humans as well.

My father, as many of you know, was raised in the Jim Crow South, in South Carolina. They moved to Northern Florida when he was 16, to the crotch of the panhandle. He met my mother there, in high school, in a little town with segregated pools, water fountains, and bathrooms. They married when he was 21, and lived in a trailer, in the area, for the next few years. Five years later, when he was fighting forest fires in Oregon, he called my mother, and couldn’t stop talking about the trees. Those enormous, Pacific Northwest, old growth trees, that to this day, he visits, every September, in Mount Rainier National Park. He went back to Florida, only long enough to collect my mother and to load the UHaul.

I was born in Oregon, a year or so later, and was raised in the Pacific Northwest. We moved a lot, but with the exception of two years in South Carolina, always within the region. My dad loved the trees; my dad still loves the trees. Also, I later learned, he couldn’t stand what Southerners of his generation call ‘the prejudice’ of the South. Not because, at the time, he was anti-racist (he wasn’t), but because he was a critical thinker and recognized the hypocrisy of Jim Crow. My dad hates hypocrisy.

I didn’t have a lot of friends, when I was growing up. I was weird, in a variety of ways, and the kids who could afford to choose, didn’t want to risk hanging out with me. I usually had one friend at any time, and throughout my schooling, that friend was almost always (with the exception of two African-American girls, and one white girl, in fourth grade) an immigrant kid. The countries varied: Vietnam, Venezuela, Korea, Puerto Rico (not really an immigrant, but treated that way), Cuba, Mexico, China.

By the time that I was a teenager, I was enraged by my parents’ stereotyping of the people with whom I was close. I remember my first real fight with my father. My family is extremely hierarchical, and children were not allowed to fight with adults, so I was sixteen when we had that first fight. He made some reference to “DWO (Driving While Oriental).” My closest (and only) friend at the time was Chinese, and she protected me at school, required that her friends accept me into their group (of Koreans), and taught me a shit-ton about racism and sexuality. She made it easy, that year, for me to come out as queer. She turned me from a conservative, Catholic, white, working-class kid, into someone who could develop into whatever I am now. Without her, that would have taken so many more years. She was not remotely gentle, and gave zero fucks about my sensitive white feels, but she probably did more for me than anyone else whom I’ve ever known.

I realized of course, many years later, after so many fights with my parents over racism, that because they understood racism as Jim Crow segregation, it was difficult for them to understand that racist jokes about the nearby Tribes or stereotypes about local immigrant populations counted as racism. When I really began to comprehend that they’d never gone to school, or eaten in a restaurant, or swum in a pool with a person of color, while growing up, I began to understand why we weren’t communicating well with regard to racism. Their childhoods were unimaginable to me. Mine was unimaginable to them.

Old dogs can always start over, and that’s why you should adopt rescue animals. My father was plagued with unemployment, throughout my growing up. I’d left home long before he got that family-saving job at Boeing. There, he was required to attend trans training (he was always 100% supportive of me, but had no other exposure to gender stuff). He had Trans 101 long before most of my friends. More importantly, he was forced to work with a really racially diverse population. Sociological studies show that close, personal relationships are what really combat racist perspectives. That was certainly true in my case. It was also true for my dad.

My dad developed relationships, at the factory, with, in particular, a lot of Asian refugees. For years, he exchanged stories and recipes with a Vietnamese woman in his work sector. He brought those stories home, and the stories became a part of those recipes. When he tried them, he talked about her, and she inhabited his kitchen. Those stories gave him perspective on the U.S. For a couple of years, he had a mad man-crush on another refugee who’d gone through hell to get here. My dad couldn’t stop talking about this guy eating bugs, hiding in swamps, and escaping an oppressive regime. My dad is a libertarian, and a survivalist, at heart. This guy was his hero. I’m pretty sure that this guy is still his hero.

Back to the dogs. Old dogs learn new tricks because of relationships. Dogs are pack animals (although they’re not nearly as hierarchical as some people like to think they are), and they’ve lived with humans for over 10,000 years. Dogs and humans, in many ways, speak the same language. It’s the language of relationship.

My dad is in no way a perfect anti-racist, any more than I am. We’re white people, in a racist society, and we benefit from white privilege, in every way. My point is not that he’s some sort of hero. He’s not that. I’m not that either. My point is that people can learn. And when they learn, they learn from other people, people about whom they care, in some capacity or another. They learn from exchanging recipes, and hearing stories, and working together to paste plastic onto honeycomb cardboard, day, after day, after day. They learn from listening. They learn from admiring the hardships of others.

My dad is a libertarian. He’s one of those old, white guys, with a kinda creepy mustache, who looks scary (to those of us who get attacked by people like that) if he’s driving a truck, and he has a closet full of guns. He was raised in the Jim Crow South. He was also bullied, as a weird, overly thoughtful kid who liked to be alone with the trees, and who didn’t like sports.

To this day, my dad stays more on top of refugee and immigrant issues than I do. He sees refugees as hard core survivalists, who absolutely deserve to be here. He’s heard enough of our stories that he’s always on the side of the underdog. Now, I’d call my dad an anti-racist, although he’d never call himself that, anymore than he’d call himself pro-queer. He’d never call himself an ally, although he’s absolutely a queer ally. I’m fairly certain that he doesn’t know what any of that means.

My dad is an old dog. He started at Boeing when he was 50, and was laid off for five years, after 9/11, before he was called back to work. In total, he only worked at the Boeing factory for 12 years. That was more than enough to substantially change him. He always had the raw material – critical thinking skills, and the ability to listen. But he needed to hear the stories, and he needed to care about the people.

I have some expertise with difficult, and in particular, aggressive dogs. In other words, dogs like my dad. Most dogs, like most people, have the raw material. They need the relationships. They need to care. But I am absolutely certain that they can learn new tricks. So can I. And so can you.

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