"No matter how much cats fight,
there always seems to be plenty of kittens."
-Abraham Lincoln

Prayer, in practice, is to hope against hope. Merriam Webster defines it as: 1(a): an address (such as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought; (b): a set order of words used in praying; (c): an earnest request or wish. 2: the act or practice of praying to God or a god kneeling in prayer. 3: a religious service consisting chiefly of prayers - often used in plural. 4: something prayed for. 5: a slight chance.

A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life
by Steven Kotler
Bloomsbury, 2010
ISBN: 1-608-19002-7
$24.00, 307 pp

A journalist by trade, Steven Kotler is about as far from the image of "that guy who rescues dogs" as you're likely to get. A reluctant rescuer, he describes his journey into the growing movement as one he took with little seriousness. Per typical guy form, he became a dog rescuer because of a girl. "Love me, love my dogs," his partner, Lila, reportedly told him. The rest, as they say, is history, and the basis for his book, A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life.

Down and Out in Beverly Hills
It all began in a house atop a cliff by Griffith Park in Los Angeles. It was nothing fancy, but it was affordable, and by "nothing fancy", Kotler means it was a dilapidated wreck falling down around his ears. He'd secured the home from its owner on nothing more than a handshake, and the assurance the house would be theirs for a minimum of two years. At any rate, if the owner did decide to sell, he would give Kotler and his partner six months notice. This, he accepted on his landlord's word. In a city that - if not invented landlord/tenant litigation - fine-tuned it to an art, probably not the brainiest move on his part. Within two months the mortgage crisis had flattened the economy, and property owners with little or no room for maneuvering found themselves underwater overnight. Kotler's landlord was one of them, and so Steven, his partner and their posse of rescues scrambled for new digs. Not exactly an auspicious start to their mission of rescue.

Scraping together all the money they had, they headed east. In the Southwest, they soon discovered, property values fall in direct correlation with the amount of distance one puts between oneself and civilization. In Chimayo, New Mexico, thirty-five minutes north of Santa Fe, they hit the sweet spot: a small farm, the likes of which they were able to afford to buy out right. Rancho de Chihuahua was born.

Dog Rescue For Dummies
Chimayo is famous for three things: The Hog Farm (the longest running hippie commune in the US and where the acid scene from Easy Rider was shot); El Santuario de Chimayo (the site of an apparition in the early seventeenth century where today holy dirt is peddled and hundreds each year partake in a pilgrimage to the chapel that looks to have been ripped from the pages of Don Quixote); and the area leads the nation in fatal heroin overdoses. D. H. Lawrence summed up this area when he wrote, "[I]t was New Mexico that liberated me from the present era of civilization." Kotler's expertise is in journalism. At this point he's barely cut his teeth in rescue, and it's clear rescue is his partner's passion, not his. Still, regardless of the fame Chimayo is associated with, he soldiers on and soon learns the ropes - there is no How To for dog rescue - and slowly and surely, by trial and error, he falls in love with the work.

I throw the term rescue around a lot, but A Small Furry Prayer is not about rescue. Rather, dog rescue is the background to the story - the catalyst, if you will - but the main event is Kotler's interpersonal journey within rescue. Through rescue he explores his relationship with New Mexico's wildlife (human and otherwise), with the dogs of Rancho de Chihuahua, the land itself and the spirits that occupy it. All the while he ponders stuff bigger than the rescue: the why and how of species interaction; homosexuality in dogs; the nature of empathy - the wheels of his journalistic mind in action. By story's end, the author has come to accept things he cannot see or explain or prove. They simply are. Upon observing gauchos using dogs to drive cattle, he is amazed by their seemingly psychic communication with the canines. Subtle hand gestures result in instantaneous, intricately choreographed maneuvers on the dogs' part. Renowned animal communicator Joan Ranquet writes in Communication With All Life: Revelations of an Animal Communicator (Hay House, $16.99) that animals have a superpower when it comes to communicating. Rather than relying on speech, they rely on intuition, a language of images they are constantly broadcasting and receiving. In this manner, the herd dogs too communicate with the gauchos, making verbal commands unnecessary.

"[I]t was New Mexico that liberated me

from the present era of civilization."

With no shortage of hairy characters, A Small Furry Prayer is a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking read. Kotler's a smart writer who doesn't shy away from pondering big questions (Do dogs believe in God?), presenting research and anecdotal evidence to back his notions. His is not a peer-reviewed study looking to be published in Scientific American and he makes no pretense that it is. He's just a guy who got into rescue, reluctantly, because of a girl, and when he least expected it, discovered the rescue had rescued him.

A Prayer For Owen Meany
by John Irving
Ballantine Books, 1990
ISBN: 0-345-36179-2
$6.99, 617 pp

As a child, I was constantly befriending the down-and-out kids. The ones, who through no fault of their own, were picked on for being different. Whether that was because of a speech impediment, or limp or some other physical or mental handicap, I couldn't resist hanging with them. The stranger they were physically, the better. My mother referred to these friends as my "strays," like they were some sort of street urchins who'd followed me home. To her credit though, she never once did not welcome them with open arms. At her table, there was always room for strays.

Owen Meany, the protagonist of John Irving's international bestseller A Prayer For Owen Meany, may be the strangest character to grace the pages of fiction. A stray in every sense of the word, Owen is strange physically, socially, audibly and even spiritually. Set in Gravesend, New Hampshire, Irving paints a portrait of New England small town life, lending broad strokes to social distinction. It's norms are suffocating. In Gravesend, it matters which church you belong to, which school you attend (this is a crucial tell-tell sign of economic status), where your money comes from - even how old it is - and how early your ancestors arrived on the shores of North America. It is not a place for stepping outside the norm, yet Owen Meany manages it often and brilliantly.

Narrated by Owen's best friend John, his account of growing up with Owen Meany is shared with love and wonder. An unlikely hero, Owen's Christ-like love results in him rescuing his best friend time and time again. Whether it be from his unruly cousins, or the US Army, or a false narrative, Owen is there for him.

Physically, Owen Meany is small. At the age of eleven he's the size of a five-year old. He apparently is inflicted with an exotic form of dwarfism, with translucent pearl-like skin, ears that protrude like a certain Star Wars character, and vocals with the effect of shouting through his nose. Treated like a pet by his peers, Owen's physique is so slight, a game is made in Sunday school of passing him overhead from one kid to the next. "PUT ME DOWN!" he would say in a strangled, emphatic falsetto. "CUT IT OUT! I DON'T WANT TO DO THIS ANYMORE. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. PUT ME DOWN! YOU ASSHOLES!" Owen Meany makes a habit of speaking in ALL CAPS.

While it's a slippery slope to write a character whose most obvious attributes are physical abnormalities, Irving manages it well. A lesser writer could easily come across as having a laugh at Owen Meany's expense. Rather, Irving uses his physical oddness to accentuate his strengths. Owen Meany isn't left at dwarfism. His character is imbued with traits deemed honorable in members of society, even one as socially discriminating as Gravesend. Irving doesn't do this to redeem the character of Owen Meany (he doesn't require it), but rather, to lift him up as the redeemer. The result is a character unlike any Irving's conjured before. Patriot, angel, spiritual adviser, little Owen Meany may be the biggest hero in modern American literature. With my penchant as a child for the odd, I believe Owen and I would have been best friends.

posted 08/09/20