Last year my wife gave me a new nickname, “Shiba”. By now I suppose almost everyone is aware of the grinning Shibas in countless social media memes. The dog that smiles! In fact Shibas have made such a great impression they are now the mascot for two major cryptocurrencies.
These are not the reason for my nickname. The more relevant fact is that shibas are a two faced dog. This expression sounds wrong for an animal doesn’t it? Perhaps we don't use face idioms for things that have tails. Can a cow have egg on its face? I think not.
My wife often talks about how the longer she knows me, the more she sees my outward appearance of extreme agreeability as the exact opposite of what she encounters when trying to shepherd me into doing something. I could say she also projected a few impressions that turned out to be red herrings, but to be polite, and because I haven’t decided on a dog breed nickname yet, I’ll stick to explaining Shibas.
There are other idioms out there for people whose personality does not match their outward appearance. “A wolf in sheep’s clothing” is a good one. But using that expression to describe a dog would involve having 3 animal species in a single sentence. So I think I will need to illustrate my peculiar personality, and what's so special about Shibas, with a few stories instead.
Last year during the pandemic, we bought a Japanese stuffed animal. A cute grumpy bulldog, which now sits proudly on the top of our sofa sticking his tongue out at everyone who walks in. Guests smile when they see him. I suspect because with one look at his dejected face, they see exactly where he stands. Well, mostly sits or lays down, but that’s not the point. People enjoy characters that are straightforward; Spongebob’s Squidward, Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory, no matter how difficult they are.
A nugget of potentially useful but sad information for people considering to adopt a dog; Shibas are near the top of the list of abandoned dog breeds.
At first, I assume what draws people in is their appearance. They stand nobly erect, alert, ready. Compact like a middleweight boxer. One look and you can see, this is a REAL dog. The story of Hachiko, the shiba in Japan which waited for its owner dutifully for years after his death cements the reputation of being a canine companion that will stand by your side.
Yet, if you look more closely, and observe their behavior in the wild at your local dog park, you will notice their eyes are at most times staring into the far distance, their powerful shoulders pulling on the leash, their strong heads never taking a look behind at the person holding them back.
It’s not that they want to run away. In fact they are loyal. In a recent television dogumentary, the narrator described Shibas as “loyally around you, but at a distance of about 10 feet”. Digging deeper on petfinder.com, I find they are rated 2 stars out of 5 for trainability. I think these are the sort of attributes my wife was thinking of when she gave me the nickname.
I first encountered an actual Shiba, twenty years ago when I was living in the countryside of Japan. A friendly dog sprang from the side of the road and started to follow me. I smiled and made encouraging doggy noises, and he smiled back. I began jogging and he followed me. I ran faster, he ran faster. I turned around to chase him and he ran around me in circles. Eventually, I got bored and went back to jogging toward my original destination. An hour later I arrived, looked back and sure enough he was still there grinning happily. I had to escort him back to where I found him, and do my best impression of someone who doesn’t like dogs to convince him to head home to his real family
My own memories of having willful dog tendencies start from age 7, when I walked into a women’s changing room. This all happened when my older brother took me along ro a public swimming pool, and after an hour he announced it was time to go. For some odd reason (I don’t like swimming), I decided to assert my sovereignty, and declared I was staying. We were only a few minutes from home after all. A while later, getting out of the pool I realized I had a problem. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, without them I was virtually blind. The choice of which changing room to enter was a throw of the dice and I threw wrong. Adult women screaming is quite a shock to a boy of that age. I'm still bad at asking strangers for directions.
Looking back, I do recall my parents were very preoccupied when I was young, perhaps that’s why I have an assertive streak, who knows?
I observed another shiba-like youth not long ago when I was in a supermarket in Chattanooga. My teen daughter pointed at someone. A very intimidating looking boy in full gang paraphernalia walking down the produce aisle in a style showing he was ready for a shootout with a rival gang at any moment: My daughter then indicated a woman about 10 feet in front of him, that if you watched long enough, you could see him following. That was his mother.
Later on, after becoming a fully grown and off the leash adult; a romantic partner was so frustrated with me and my general aura of stubborn intransigence, that at one point she took the internet’s version of the DSM 4 mental disorder handbook off the shelf, and loudly announced a diagnosis. Already well researched by Google of course.
That was a bit much to handle and I needed to defend myself, so the next day I located the city’s leading psychologist, and made an appointment. About a week later, I was in her office and asked “So I need to know, do I have asperger?“.
I hoped to return home to say, “Aha..you are wrong, this is all your problem!”. Or at the very least, possess a new toolkit of self defense rhetoric along the lines of “I am standing up for the rights of This Very-Special Protected-Group, which I am now a certified member of. Here is the instruction manual of how to deal with me from now on, thank you for your understanding.”
After some pleasant get to know you banter, disappointingly, the psychologist said, “A lot of people ask me about diagnosis, wanting to have an answer, but it’s actually not that simple”,
She drew little dots all over a piece of A4 paper and said “Let’s say each individual has 20 different personality features, when making a diagnosis we could draw a circle around these ten things, and if you have a weakness in 5 or 6, according to the DSM IV I could diagnose an autism spectrum disorder.”
“You might have weaknesses with 3 or 4 of these. But another person who comes in here might have issues with a different 3 or 4, and almost everyone would have 1 or 2 of these anyways. So what does it really mean? And no, I wouldn’t classify you as having asperger. But you may have some parts. Good luck!”
Which clearly didn’t help with my all-or-nothing negotiation strategy at home. It did feel reassuring not to be suffering from an official ‘disorder’ in the heavy looking textbook behind her, in case I was in a court case someday and needed people to believe me or anything like that.
That’s not to say I don’t have issues. When I write these words onto the page, they come out randomly, like scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and I need to look at them over and over to rearrange them into the correct order. It’s quite time consuming. Small talk at social events is another tricky puzzle for me. But I am rather good at a few other things like maps, trivia and anything to do with numbers. So I guess we are all given a fair basket of commodities to use in this great game of life, even when we wish we could go back to the sperm and egg chapter and ask for a rewrite.
This week I walked past the hipster dog cafe in our neighborhood a few times. I saw the beautifully groomed Poodles, the gray Huskies with colorful scarves, Corgis gazing longingly into bystanders eyes, and the Shiba owners proudly displaying their headstrong elegant dogs, and I thought about how categorizing people into dog types is far nicer than dealing with the 886 page DSM IV, and a lot gentler, and I thank my wife for thinking of this clever caninepomorphic nickname.
She says it also helps her understand why I wander off occasionally to work on side projects such as writing before drifting back home later.
I have recently learned not to stray when she is shopping in order to look at tech gadgets. Sometimes old dogs can learn new tricks.