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A Pug at the Heartstrings 

At the 10th annual Pugtacular celebration, some people will do anything for a pug

Wednesday, Nov 26 2003
Under the table, Wilson the Pug settles onto his napping mat and carefully arranges his paws before acknowledging me with his deep brown eyes. I ask my question kneeling, as this is what such circumstances dictate. Wilson searches my face, the furrows along his head deepening, the moistness of his gaze conveying in some way both compassion and pity. I wait. He sniffs and looks away.

I have a thought.

"Just listen to the voice in your head," assures Nancy Levine, keeper of Wilson the Pug. "That's how I wrote the book."

I feel silly.

I stand up to discover Marian Margetson and Rose at my side, both looking resplendent in matching white tulle and aquamarine boas. Rose is a dog. She wears a jewel in the center of the forehead to offset the masquerade mask worn by Margetson.

I feel less silly.

"I don't usually dress [Rose] up," swears Margetson, an interior designer from Portola Valley. "This is only the second time."

Wilson, on the other hand, is a fiend for accouterments, which include just about anything with a yin/yang symbol, I am told, including his bed, his collar, his bandanna, and his winter fleece.

"His symbol is on everything," says Levine. "He's a bit like Batman in that way."

Like Batman, Wilson has pointy little ears, a negligible nose, and a coterie of admirers lining up to get pictures signed. The "pawtograph" is mostly issued by Levine, by way of a Wilson-approved stamp, on the title page of The Tao of Pug, a recently published book that combines the wisdom of the Tao te Ching with the professional photography of Levine and the "thoughts" of Wilson. For example, "All things carry yin yet embrace yang," taken from the 42nd chapter of Lao-tzu's classic text, is accompanied by an irresistibly cute picture of baby Wilson poking his head out of an appropriately adorned carrying case and the words, "I am also carried in and embraced by my yin-yang bag. In this way, I achieve true balance."

"The book was born in the first weekend I had Wilson home," explains Levine, a sometime comedienne and parodist who worked full time as an executive recruiter until the dot-com crash. "I was on the phone with a psychic, and she said a book was a good idea. After I had hung up the phone, she called back and said Elvis told her to tell me to call it The Tao of Pug. I was dismissive. I thought the whole Elvis thing sounded pretty flaky, but that same day, my partner came home with a collar with a yin/yang on it. So ...."

The book is a big hit at the Contra Costa County Fairgrounds in Antioch, where the 10th annual Pugtacular celebration is under way; it is at least as popular as the Christmas portraits being offered outside with Santa.

"I'll take Lao-tzu over St. Nick any day," says Colleen Bolger, stuffing two books in her bag while her pug Jasper greets Wilson with wet-nosed in-deference.

"As you can see, pug people are pretty good-spirited," says Levine, looking across the rec hall where Billy Idol is crackling over an old sound system and an array of pugs dressed in leather biker vests, hand-knitted sweaters, and tiny top hats are snarfling, snoring, and generally adoring their adoring humans.

"Pugs embody a certain sense of humor that has a decidedly transformative effect on their humans," wrote Levine in an e-mail as I prepared to grapple with the phenomenon. "When these humans gather en masse with their pugs, the effect is multiplied."

My only prior experience with "pug people" occurred when I inadvertently stumbled into Alta Plaza Park on the first Sunday of the month, a day better known in the neighborhood as "Pug Sunday," or "Sunday, Puggy Sunday" among those with a penchant for larger breeds and a distaste for little hats. In the company of a visiting German-Italian at the time, I hardly had a moment to observe the ritual before my guest fixed his renowned malocchio (evil eye) on the nearest dog and launched into a diatribe about some "bitch" from his childhood.

"Those are not dogs, they are worms," he seethed in his thick, strange accent. "Fat, wrinkly worms. Like maggots. With no backbone. Who shed. And must go everywhere with you. That you cannot leave them alone even for one tiny little minute. Snoring and groveling. Like maggots with legs. Horrible. My mother had one."

Aware that such an impression might be connected to some kind of Oedipus complex, I bravely countered, "They're kind of cute, though."

To which my friend replied: "You're just saying that because they look like bats, and you love bats, and that is weird also."

"Pug people are definitely a subculture all to themselves," proclaims Lisa Sheeran, president of the Northern California Pug Club. "They're obsessive and devoted to their pugs. They tend to lose all their other friends and hang out only with other pug people. They don't care about hair. They invest in rollers.

"Pugs are eternally 2 years old, so [their owners] are often people who never had kids or wanted kids, people with empty-nest syndrome, or people who just want a toddler that will never grow up."

"My biological clock was ticking," agrees local artist Susan Newman. "For a pug."

"We wanted a boy and girl," says Newman, indicating the pugs cradled in her arms and those of her sculptor-husband, Mark Newman, "and that's what we got."

In the center ring, a half-dozen pugs line up for the "Most Wrinkled" contest. Five-month-old Bruno Llewellyn, a one-eyed rescue from Sacramento, is easily the most crumpled and creased critter in the house, but, as Wilson the Pug teaches, one must not attach oneself to awards. Wrinkles shift, skin sags, the illusion of smoothness is achieved at just the wrong moment, and Bruno loses to a Muppet-like character with a curly tail. The pugs seem indifferent, eager to resume their places on their humans' laps. The "Lap Dog" contest is next. Sheeran's 3-year-old Pablo – whose show name, Champion Doc of the Bay, seems far less suitable than his nickname, 30-Second Snugglebunny – flops around her lap like a boneless rag doll, happy to lie in whatever position he is placed, so long as it pleases her. But six-month-old Emma, the first canine companion of young Maddie Biatek, is stupendously victorious in her lethargy.

According to the Tao, reminds Wilson, stillness is the standard of activity.

Surprisingly, the pug races are valiantly run.


"I think Pete got scared," admits Half Moon Bay's 13-year-old Cady McClure. "He just sat there. He wouldn't leave my sister's side. But pugs are loyal. Even when they're scared, they won't leave your side. That's one of the things I love about him."

The fleet-footed victor is 2-year-old Keiko, though you might never guess it from the cow suit I find him lounging in after the races. Dressed in a tasteful athletic jersey, seven-month-old Miles is far less conspicuous by comparison, but it's clear from his routine of rolling over, playing dead, dancing on his hind legs, and executing consecutive high-fives that he is more than willing to do anything for his young, doting San Francisco parents, Matt and Johanna Shell.

"Weekends belong to him," says Matt. "We go where he wants. He wanted to come to Antioch."

"Getting Jasmine was the best thing we ever did," says Angie Anavisca, indicating the little pug with pink polish on her nails curled up in Anavisca's husband's arms. "We had a Rottweiler and husky and felt bad because we never spent enough time with them; now we do things for her and because of her. It's weird. We just got back from Pugtoberfest."

When asked about the sudden change in the family dynamics, and the willingness to drive all the way from Sparks, Nev., to Antioch so Jasmine could hang out with other pugs, Rolando Anavisca smiles and says simply, "She loves us so much that we love her, too."

I look into Wilson's eyes one final time and recall Lao-tzu's words: That which offers no resistance can enter where there is no space.

Partial proceeds from The Tao of Pug benefit Pug Rescue -- Bay to the Borders.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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