“I am his Highness’ dog at Kew; Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?”
– English Poet, Alexander Pope (1688-1754)
I first heard that line in a Jakob Dylan song. The question stuck!
Who’s dog are you?
It’s harsh but thought-provoking. Few of us dare to completely be who we are. We feel the weight of implicit expectations. We don’t want to let anyone down.
I loved and respected my father. He was the standard by which I measured my actions. His passing lifted an unintended burden.
We often measure ourselves against those we admire; parents, leaders, athletes, or artists. It’s good to have idols. But there’s a price.
I’ve played guitar for fifty years. Still, whenever I learn a new song, I attempt to make it sound like the artist who performs it rather than myself. It’s easy to come up short with that approach!
Some artists are undeniable masters. In the music world, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and James Taylor come to mind. However, I am drawn to those who excel radically at being who they are, like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchel.
Neil Young has a terrible voice. His guitar technique is nothing to write home about either! But Neil Young has sway. He’s nobody’s dog!
Joni Mitchel had polio as a child. Muscle weakness made it difficult for her to form traditional guitar chords. Rather than giving up, Joni simply re-tuned the guitar and invented her own chord shapes. She has a sound all her own. She’s never been anyone’s dog.
Bob Dylan didn’t initially acknowledge winning the Nobel Prize. What others think, including a Nobel Selection committee, is irrelevant to him. Dylan says the only measure for artistic greatness is whether it moves your soul.
George Saunders teaches a popular creative writing course in the MFA program at Syracuse University. Each year over five-hundred students apply for 24 openings. In his latest book, “A Swim In A Pond In the Rain,” he shares the observation that every one of his incoming students is already a gifted writer. He explains his teaching challenge as helping them perfect who they are.
I like that. It takes courage to be who we are!
How would you dance if no one was watching? Why would it matter if anyone was watching?
The answer harkens back to Alexander Pope’s question, posed three-hundred years ago:
Whose dog are you?
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