More than anything, I see my relationship with my dogs as a spiritual experience. Training is not about obedience, it is a spiritual connection to the animals we love and that love us. We get the dogs we need, and if we are open to it, they will enter into our lives and be partners, magical helpers and guides on our spiritual journeys. I felt this so powerfully today when I walked up a nearby hill with Red and Lenore and I paused at the top of the hill, to rest and drink up the silence, and I had this strong sensation that they were there with me, they were not just walking alongside of me, but they were entering into my experience, my meditation. I look up at the hill a few feet next to me, and I saw Red and Lenore sitting silently, their heads bowed, as if in contemplation. I was not meditating, we were meditating, I felt it in my body and my soul as the sun dipped behind the clouds and the wind whistled up the hill. Silently, we stood together and then we walked down the hill together. Magical helpers, spirit guides.
On the hill, in a strong wind, Red and Lenore lay down in front of me, turned to me. More than anything, I have learned in my time with dogs to never think I know what they are thinking, to never be sure of what is happening in their very alien minds. To me, the core of training a dog – of knowing a dog – is to listen to them, to push aside our human arrogance and projection and clear our minds of the things we think we know and acknowledge instead how little we know. Sometimes, when I look at a photograph like this and let it sink in, it is clear to me that my dogs are telling me something, that Red and Lenore are communicating with me. It is not in words, they do not have our words, it is in their language of emotions and instincts and smells and sights and sounds. They are processing so much more than I am and, struck by their eyes.
I can't put words to it, be there is a feeling to it. Attention, respect, curiosity. What is the next thing? Where are we going? I see affection there also, the love of animals for someone they trust and know well. There is no fear in their eyes, and I am grateful for that, because I have put fear in a dog's eyes before, and not again. I looked them back in the eye, nodded to them, smiled at them, expressed gratitude for their patience and dedication, for their willingness to sit with me up on that hill and not run off or disrupt me. Trust, I think. That is what I was sharing with them, that is what I was feeling back. Not in words, in feelings. Putting up an album on Facebook.
I went walking along the railroad tracks in Salem, and came across the Greenwich-Junction railroad office, perhaps a switching station, perhaps a ticket office. I imagine it to have been a ticket office, someone's job to sit in that office, man the window, sell tickets to Greenwich or Cambridge or points South and West. A beautiful building, with a melancholic tilt.
This review is being published in conjunction with Battenkill Books, where I work as the Recommender-In-Chief (finally, a title). If you wish to purchase the book please consider buying it from Battenkill or your local independent bookstore. You can call Battenkill at 518 677-2515 or e-mail Connie Brooks at [email protected] or visit the stories website. They take Paypal and ship anywhere in the world.
Johnny Valentine is an eleven-year-old pop tween megastar. He is trapped in a gilded cage, caught between his drug-loving, controlling and hard-partying mother Jane, his tutor, his bodyguard, his chef, vocal instructor, stage manager and trainer and millions of screaming fans who clearly do not love him for who he is, but for whom his record label and mother/manager tell him every minute he ought to be. He has a powerful voice, and strong instincts about where his music should go. He has no say in any of it.
The book takes place on a tour for his new album, "guys n girls." Johnny and his entourage bus – and 18 four-wheelers – bus from city to city, and Johnny doesn't know one town from another, but he knows how to manipulate the desk clerks into giving him a key card to his mother's room so he can take her sleeping pills and sneak onto her computer while she's out for the night. Mostly, he looks for his father. He isn't allow to have one, or to ever go into a men's room unattended for fear of predators or creepy fans with cell phone cameras.
Teddy Wayne's novel is a scathing, highly readable indictment of the celebrity and marketing culture and ways every single one of us are complicit in it's exploitation of the people swept up in it.. Reading this very compelling novel – Teddy Wayne does a wonderful job of taking us inside the vulture-run entertainment world, the corrupt world of pop media and the willingness of parents and family to abuse – there is just no other word for the way Johnny has to live – their own children for money. The ghost of Michael Jackson haunts every page. MJ, as Johnny calls him, haunts him as well.
The power of the book is that even though he is trapped, smothered, packaged and manipulated by the vast marketing machine that runs his record label – his image, vocabulary, hair, body weight, voice – are all dictated to him by greedy and largely inhuman people, including his own mother – there is a vulnerable, highly intelligent and very shrewd little boy trying to survive in there. He is transfixed by his budding sexuality, wary of the shrieking girls who love him now but he knows will dump him in a micro-second in a year or two. He is dependent on his troubled mother and is endlessly searching on the Internet – he is never allowed to move freely outside of hotels and his palatial mansion – for his absent father in Internet fan sites, lonely e-mails and in the crowds of faceless, screaming fans. The book makes you squirm, but never makes you want to stop reading.
Wayne targets the bankrupt and hypocritical media that alternately exploits and batters celebrity children as if they were not humans with feelings. The tabloid press pumps Johnny up and waits to tear him down and the so-called "serious" press trashes him as vapid, his music pablum. There is no winning, just shrewd marketing. Johnny's fans are not critical – in most cases, he observes, hey are not even paying much attention – just fickle and loud. This eleven-year-old boy has to hit the cardio-bike machine for hours if he dares to have a chocolate bar. The whole world is watching to seem if he "chubs" up anywhere on his body. That would be the kiss of death. There is incredible pressure on Johnny. The owner of his record label takes him to lunch in LA and tells him his sales are slipping and he has to be re-packaged.
As part of the re-packaging, the label sets him up for a fake "date" with female tween pop star – the fans like dates and romance – only he falls in love with her on the spot. She brushes him off. Her label wouldn't go for any real contact, she tells him, reminding him that they will never meet again. Photos of the two eating an ice cream cone are fed to the tabloids, spurring some record sales. Every minute of Johnny's days are dictated by adults, his nights are often lonely, as his mother loves to go out and look for sex and drugs. He plays video games for hours and blows off the homework required by his very determined tutor. His best and only friend is Walter, his bodyguard.
The novel builds to the all-important Madison Square Garden end to his book tour, an opportunity for Johnny to boost his marketing position and also to try and confront the issue of his missing father – Jane will not discuss his father, tell him where he went, or permit him to ask any questions about him. The ending is gripping.
Jane is a complex figure in the book. She clearly loves her son, but she is also obsessively controlling and manipulative, something of a paranoid monster. Her own life is a shambles, but the truth is, she and Johnny are powerfully connected. It has always been the two of them and only the two of them and they care about each other more than anyone else really cares about either of them. It is hard to imagine any other person squeezing in, ever. Wayne does a beautiful job of giving Johnny a voice that is both vulnerable and savvy. You always get the feeling that no matter how many bumps Johnny Valentine takes – and there are many – he will end up at the top of the charts. He is tough and determined.
The look at our celebrity culture is powerful. He reminds us that corporate marketing has trashed almost all of the values of our culture – movies, music, media and publishing – and we have all gone along and even paid the way. I recommend this book, it is a brilliant window into a world we only see from one side. The other side is not pretty, but it is fascinating. We talk so much about abuse in our culture, but who will rush into the lives of the Johnny Valentine's world and demand that he live the life of a boy? As the book makes clear, nobody. The lesson of Michael Jackson is that money does not buy security, nor fame happiness. Celebrity can be just a fancy name for another kind of prison.