Trading Places - by John Sealander

Spot in his favorite chair

I'm taking my dog to have his portrait done. Don't ask. It's a big deal. Doug, the photographer, is one of those guys who is booked months in advance shooting glamorous corporate assignments. Taking pictures of a friend's dog never seems to fit in the schedule. Well, today is my lucky day.

It has been decided that Spot will sit in his favorite chair for this photograph. I'm trying to wrestle a huge and quite heavy black leather chair into the back of the Land Rover. When the chair is finally secured, there is, of course, no room for the dog. Half a box of dog biscuits later, I finally manage to convince my stubborn and reluctant Dalmatian to sit in the chair, even though it is no longer in its proper place in the living room, and off we go.

Since the new live-action version of '101 Dalmatians' has just been released and it is virtually impossible to drive two blocks in this town without passing a store full of official Disney Dalmatian paraphernalia, we manage to create quite a spectacle. People are leaning out of their car windows, looking up at Spot as we drive by. Kids are screaming "Look, it's a Dalmaaaatian." and the ubiquitous "Pongo." The white Land Rover looks a bit like the Popemobile anyway. With a Dalmatian sitting on a big leather throne in the back, I feel like I'm driving a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

If only I could generate half as much attention as my dog.

It is hard to imagine anyone doing less to warrant celebrity than Spot. He sleeps eighteen hours a day and the rest of the time he's either looking for something to eat or a place to relieve himself of what he ate yesterday. Nevertheless, he generates the kind of attention usually reserved for local luminaries like Troy Aikman and Emitt Smith. I'm wondering how the phrase 'it's a dog's life' acquired such negative connotations. It's really not a bad life, at least if you're a Dalmatian. After all, how many people do you know who get free room and board for life, their own personal servant and an entourage of adoring fans?

I think I'd like to trade places with my dog. Beautiful women smile as he passes by, often commenting on what a handsome animal he is. Never once have I heard them comment on the person holding the other end of the leash. Little kids shout out greetings as we pass by. "Hi Spot," they say. "How's it going?" I've learned over time that these kids actually expect an answer from the dog, so I dutifully answer for him. "Spot's doing just fine. He had a bath yesterday, but otherwise things are going great." I can take Spot just about anywhere and within ten seconds I can count on hearing the familiar high-pitched little cry that announces the local kids have spotted him. "Look, it's a Dalmaaaatian." It's not just kids either. Jovial middle-aged men will say "put out any fires lately" as we pass by. Drop-dead gorgeous woman will immediately begin gushing over the dog as if he were a new DKNY outfit or a pair of Joan & David shoes.

None of this would have happened if Spot had been born a Beagle or a Chow. His celebrity is based almost entirely on a wildly popular Disney cartoon and its live-action successor. This is, however, all he needs. Once you have become an archetype, you really don't need to worry about making a name for yourself any longer. I have a feeling that celebrity works pretty much the same way for people. I know that Madonna doesn't sing any better than Nancy, the talented but totally unheralded singer who fronted for the bar band I played with in college. Jose Eber doesn't cut hair any better than Larry, an equally talented gay guy who's been trimming my hair in relative obscurity on Lower Greenville for almost ten years. Julian Schnabel doesn't paint any better than your typical undergraduate Bennington art major. Nevertheless, these people and many like them are golden. Like my Dalmatian, they have somehow become recognizable names in a world that craves the familiar.

Several times I have seen an amazingly beautiful but obscure looking dog and been curious enough to ask its owner what the breed was. Often the answer is 'Heinz 57.' A lot of cool looking dogs are mutts. They never catch the public's eye though, because the qualities they exhibit are seldom reproducible. Mutts are like custom cars or a tailor made suit. People want name brands. In our society, familiar names are seen to bestow status on the people who are associated with them. Kids want a Dalmatian for the same reasons that Dads want a BMW roadster and Moms want a closet full of Dana Buchman suits.

As someone who is continually attracted to the obscure and unique, I find the whole notion of celebrity somewhat annoying. Mostly because it seldom ends up working in my favor. When it comes time to sell a Citroën automobile in Texas, you begin to recognize the value of name brands. It would be a lot easier to have a Mercedes, or better yet a bright red Ford pickup. I do have a Dalmatian though. I'll even be the first to admit that I was initially attracted to Spot for the same superficial reasons that cause most people to treat Dalmatians like royalty. Hey, he was a cute puppy. What can I say? I thought he would go well with my predominately black and white furniture.

What people don't realize as they ogle Spot in the back of the Land Rover is that over the past nine years he has managed to chew up most of the expensive furniture he was initially supposed to accessorize. My pristine Bauhaus world is now a well-worn mess and the back yard is full of dog poop. Like any true celebrity, Spot is oblivious to the changes he has instigated in my life, as well as the attention he seems to generate everywhere he goes. His mind is usually elsewhere, selfishly focused on those all-important doggy issues of what to eat and where to pee next.

The ironic thing about a Dalmatian is that although it is easy to buy one for all the wrong reasons, you won't remain a Dalmatian owner for very long unless you immediately throw all your preconceptions about the breed out the window. Dalmatians are a pain in the ass. They are high-strung, stubborn and will chew all the legs off your furniture unless they get their own way. It's hard for me to get very upset about all this though. I realized very early in the game that Spot and I share the same character flaws. Actually I am in awe of my dog. How can he continue to be so bad without incurring anyone's wrath? It's amazing. He poops on the neighbor's front lawn, he farts in your face, he steals food right off the table, bites holes in all my new socks and still everyone loves him. I want to be a Dalmatian. I think I'd make a good one.

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