Read Old Man Scanlon


13 June 2010

When I was ten I wanted to be a frog. Let me clarify that. I didn't actually want to be one. In school I was forced to choose and tell: if you could be any animal, which would you be? Of course, I failed to take into account hungry pickerel below and ravenous herons above, and the unremitting diet of flies on the hoof, but that day an aquatic lily-pad idyll seemed like just the ticket.

I have a lingering impression that my answer caused a stir—noticeably raised eyebrows, sharpish requests for explanation. Apparently "frog" was not one of the approved answers. Perhaps frogs are infra dig, unworthy, lacking as they do the gravitas of the lion or eagle. Maybe they suspected I was being a smart-ass, referring to my Canuck ancestry. I don't know, but I grasped at the seductive power of getting a rise out of grownups.

To this day I usually can't resist the opportunity, no matter how cheap or trivial, to make a pitifully obvious bid for attention by tweaking the adults, and still that aggravating school question eats at me. It has no reasonable parameters or constraints within which to frame a satisfactory engineering answer. It's an exercise in pure untrammeled imagination, as if that were a good thing. Though obnoxious, it's still an order of magnitude less irritating than the "what's your favorite..." question. Insidiously easy to ask, that one promotes a black-and-white response where a multiplicity of greys is so often much more appropriate, discourages cultivating finely-tuned discrimination, and by failing to consider constantly changing circumstances, capriciously over-simplifies.

What animal would I be? It'd be crazy to choose just one. Who would mind being able to swim like a dolphin? Who wouldn't love to scythe through the air with a barn swallow's lightning precision or soar with effortless grace like a red-tailed hawk? Wouldn't you like to practice snake locomotion, if only for an hour? Who doesn't envy the elephant his strength, the wood thrush his song, the gibbon his brachiation?

I equally covet a dog's life of the nose. Powerfully attractive scents—gasoline, acetone, Cascades hops, skunk, coffee, creosoted railroad ties under summer sun, libidinously exciting eddies of perfumes in a crowded theater—the rage and disgust triggered by the industrial stink of plug-in air fresheners and fake-buttered popcorn—how does a dog, with his infinitely more sensitive nose and brain, experience these? Satan and his marketing myrmidons seem to be ignoring a profitable niche. Someone might very well be willing to trade his soul for definitive knowledge of the canine olfactory universe, not to mention the bonus notoriety of being the first to report to humans what a dog senses and thinks when he indulges the instant intimacy of sniffing another dog's butt. It would be a win-win deal.