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The Wonka’s: A Case Study on Dogs and Minimalism

Mason and I walk our four dogs twice a day, which means driving to Springfield once in the am and once in the pm. In the last quarter-mile of our ride, we pass a small pink house that we ignored for years. For one thing, they didn’t have any animals. For another, it’s a beat-down home with a muddy, junk-filled backyard. The only remarkable feature is its color, a dingy pink but pink nonetheless.

In retrospect, I’m sure I didn’t pay attention to the house because without consciously realizing it, I judged it and the family who lived there. And I’m sure my judgment was based on the capitalist conviction that being poor is bad. But, just like so many times before, a dog set me straight. Dogs are the Buddha’s of minimalism because they don’t see external wealth. They only see what’s on the inside.

We first spotted the mutt at the pink house two years ago. He was sleeping on their porch under a sign reading, “Beware of Dog.” Disregarding his blissful pose, he looked like the kind of dog who causes wariness. A beast, he must weigh 90 pounds. His coloring, brown and black, suggests a Rottweiler and Labrador mix. So does his physique because he has the brawn of the former and the snout of the latter.

The sight of that brute napping so peacefully under that sign was so funny we started paying attention to the pink house, so much so that the family even earned a nickname. Two grandfathers, a youngish couple, and three girls, ages 5 to 10-ish, live in a space that can’t be more than 800 square feet. Because of their crowded living circumstances, we couldn’t help but think about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, thus they became the Wonka’s.

Now, we call the dog Mr. Wonka, and “check in” on him every time we ride to town. One of the first things I noticed is that he’s never leashed and doesn’t wear a collar. At any moment, he could run away and leave the pink house, its slumped roof, and grimy walls behind, but he doesn’t. And why would he? Completely unaware of his social status, that damn mutt is undeniably happy. From his swinging tail to his slobbering smile, his body language reads like a neon sign glowing, “Welcome Home.”

After a few months of paying attention, I began to realize the people in that house are as happy as their dog. The Wonka’s are a family-oriented bunch. Every morning, the grandfathers, dad, and all three girls stand outside to wait for the school bus. And Mr. Wonka is right there with them. He escorts the kids to the bus, then meanders back to grandpa, so they can watch the sunrise in Robertson County.

On weekends, the porch is never empty. Mom and dad are usually holding court with the neighbors. The grandpa’s are grilling on the hibachi or drinking beer from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. Apparently, the Wonka girls didn’t get the memo that kids don’t play outside anymore. Over the years, they have built forts, rode bikes, raced relay-style, and sloshed through mud puddles, all while dressed in bedazzled pink dresses. Nobody in that family ever looks sad, angry, dejected or any of the subconscious feelings I associate with poverty. Instead, their body language mirrors Mr. Wonka’s, as though everybody is exactly where they want to be.

Last week, I got stopped behind a garbage truck and sat in front of the pink house for a solid three minutes. The girls were standing in a kiddie pool. With clasped hands, they were surrounding Mr. Wonka and giggling. Uncontrollably. When I saw that mutt, I started giggling too. Looking perfectly content, he wore a blue cape and a magician’s hat complete with a tassel on top. He was big enough to plow through those girls and shred his cape within seconds, but he didn’t. Instead, he sat there as though wearing Dumbledore-type attire was completely normal. I circled the block twice so I could see that silly, happy dog again and again.

Overcoming subconscious social prejudices is a constant struggle for me. Minimalism is a lifestyle but it’s also a belief system that strives to strip away consumerism and all its superficial connotations. When I first saw the pink house, I disregarded it because what can be fun about being poor? But, when I stopped seeing the home through the lens of materialism and started seeing it through the eyes of a dog, I realized the Wonka’s have something way more important than material wealth. They have happiness. They have each other.

Now, Mason and I wave when we pass the pink house, and they wave to us, probably wondering, “Who are those crazy people with four dogs hanging out of a Civic?”

One day, I plan on telling them they are my daily inspiration.

Minimalist Lessons from Your Dog

(Adriana, four years ago)

Want to be a minimalist? Or at least learn about minimalist values? My best advice is to use your dog as a mentor.

People define minimalism in many different ways. The most hardcore define it as owning 100 possessions or less. Even under these admirable guidelines, dogs easily qualify, but this isn’t the kind I’m talking about. For my family, minimalism means finding happiness in simplicity. And simplicity is programmed into a dog’s DNA.

Simplify Your Toys

One summer afternoon a few years ago, I watched Adriana La Cerva investigate the front yard. She had still been a puppy, floppy ears, pink paws, nothing but cuteness. At one point, she found a mammoth sunflower I’d thrown near the tree line. The flower’s head was wider than her front half, the stalk longer than her length, nose to tail.

The sunflower was still alive but wilting after a storm had bent its stem. Adriana didn’t care. She acted as though she’d discovered Escobar’s hidden stash. Clutching that flower in her tiny maw, she wrestled and sprinted and leaped and even flipped ass over teakettle a few times. She was downright giddy, and it was all because of a sunflower.

When she exhausted herself, she pranced through the front door, holding her prize high, so the rest of her pack could admire it. And they did. Colorful balls, braided ropes, and stuffed squeaky toys were scattered across our house, but that flower was the only thing our dogs cared about for the rest of the afternoon. At the time I didn’t understand what I was witnessing, but in retrospect I realize it was a lesson from my dog, a lesson about finding happiness in simplicity.

To this day, Ade feels the same way about sticks, nuts, cornhusks, and pinecones. She’ll discard any manmade toy in an instant for a natural one. In the most obvious way possible, dogs embody minimalism because they don’t care (at all) about material possessions. In fact, I bought every dog bed, collar, leash, and toy that my dogs own. The canine industry makes billions of dollars a year because of people like me, not Adriana. If Ade had her choice, life would be filled with sunflowers and sticks. In her world, nature would always come first.

Simplify Your Experiences

Another minimalist value that dogs have mastered is living in the moment. If my dogs listed their favorite activities, it would look something like this: long walks (rain or shine), car rides with windows down (also rain or shine), napping in warm laundry, sunbathing, running in the woods, swimming in the creek, and long wrestling sessions. Full disclosure: I’ve tried all of them, and none disappoint. Plus, they don’t cost much more than a little gas or electricity.

These experiences share another commonality. They all engage multiple senses, meaning they aren’t passive but visceral activities. Dogs are really good at living in individual moments because each one is an sensory explosion. They don’t only see their surroundings, but they listen to it, taste it, touch it, and of course, smell it. Have you ever seen your dog throw back her head, stick her nose in the air, and take a giant sniff? Have you ever imitated her? Well, I have. Sure, sometimes I get a whiff of manure or something dead, but other times it’s the scent of wild honeysuckle, fresh-cut grass, or an impending thunderstorm.

A few days ago Adriana and I were walking through the historic section of Springfield. I was lost in my mind, mulling over work gossip, my current read, my mother’s mental health, giving my dogs a bath, and a phone bill I needed to pay. Suddenly, Adriana halted, and I was jolted right back to Oak Street.

Following the direction of her snout, I saw three baby chickens rooting in someone’s yard. The peeps were too busy to notice a dog and a human, so they didn’t scatter, but kept working while we kept watching. And we watched those fuzzy yellow babies for a solid five minutes. I knew, even then, that without Adriana, I would have passed those three chicks without ever seeing them. Without Adriana, that walk would have dissolved into every other one. Instead, she made it into a memory.

This happens all the time on our walks. While I’m busy muddling through my human thoughts, my dogs are busy living in the moment. Whenever I do pay attention to them, when I emulate them, all sorts of treasures appear. Besides baby chicks, my dogs have pointed out deer, ducks, herons, beavers, snapping turtles, rabbits, frogs, fish, snakes, hawks, river otters (!) and turkeys.

Sometimes, they point out unsavory things too, like dirty diapers or empty fast food bags. Other times, they tell me necessary information, like a runner is approaching or a stray dog is off leash. The bottom line is whenever I imitate my dogs and engage my senses, I discover something beautiful, surprising, or at the very least interesting.

Simplify Your Emotions

I could write twenty pages about what a dog’s capacity to love can teach us, minimalist or not. Across the board, dog people attest to their animal’s unconditional love. And personally, dogs have cured my broken heart more times than I can count. But, what makes their love a minimalist value is its purity.

Dogs teach us how to love without labels. I’ve never met a creature who cared less about social status or categories than a dog. If they could read, they’d scoff at Thorsten Veblen and his theories about conspicuous consumption. Dogs don’t care if we are rich or poor, liberal or conservative, overweight or skinny, outgoing or reserved, Muslim, Christian, or atheist. They don’t care if our skin is black, brown, or white, or if we are gay, straight, male, female, or any sex in between. A dog’s love is socially uncontaminated. Label free. Simple.

They also know how to make forgiveness simple. Last Tuesday I was tired. I spent all of June and most of July traveling for work. I had cramps and only two days at home before I had to catch another flight. Ade wanted to walk. I could tell because every time I moved towards the door, she followed.

It was a glorious summer evening, and normally, we would walk. We would jump into the Honda and head to town for our two-mile evening stroll. But, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and binge watch British crime dramas. At one point, Ade was staring at me so intently that I could clearly hear her thoughts, “I’ve barely seen you for a month. The least you can do is walk me.” And she was right.

But, my exhaustion won out. I turned on my heating pad, spooned out a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and streamed Acorn TV. Ade shot me one recriminating glance before she jumped on the bed and cuddled close. She forgave me within seconds. She always does. And the most remarkable part is that she does it without holding a grudge. When dogs forgive, they also forget.

Of all the lessons my dogs teach me about minimalism, simplifying my emotions is the hardest one I’m still trying to learn. But I have four great teachers, who love me unconditionally, ugly parts and all. All minimalists have different definitions for their lifestyle. But, at its core, minimalism is the belief that happiness can be found in simplicity. And there is no better example than your dog (s).