Relief of Diogenes with lamp and dog. Rathaus (Bern), Wikimedia Commons
I’ve recently signed a contract with Cabal Books to publish The Shelter, my Diogenes and the homeless dog-people revolution book!
Sometimes writers are asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” And often the answer is, “I have no idea,” or “In the furthest recesses of my anal column.” But in this case, I know exactly where I got the idea for this book.
There are three strands to this braid. The first strand, Diogenes, goes way back to the Bad Religion song “Get Off” on Against the Grain.
“Lascivious,” the song starts out, “It’s all that I can think of as I drag my feet searching like Diogenes.”
I would have been a senior in high school the first time I heard that song. Of course I wanted to know who Diogenes was, but without the internet (because this was 1990), or a decent library (bless the Sierra Vista library system, they do their best), all I could discover was that he was a crazy old philosopher who gave away all his possessions and lived in a barrel in the marketplace.
Which made him, of course, a perfect symbol for punk rock, with its anti-materialism, pro-individualism, anti-government stance.
And I was nothing if not punk rock when I was 17. Other bands—Minor Threat and Fugazi; Subhumans and Citizen Fish; NoMeansNo—drove home these ideas, planting them firmly in the fresh dirt of my adolescent mind, where some of them flourish to this day.
Later, I studied philosophy and even taught it at Cochise College for five years. But Diogenes is a blip in the history of philosophy when you’re doing a survey course. I always thought, some other time, when I have the time, I’ll research the crap out of Diogenes. That time was 2018.
And during that research I kept asking myself, “What if Diogenes was alive today? How would he live? Would anyone listen to him, or would he just be ignored or even institutionalized?”
The second strand came about because while I was researching Diogenes, I was rehabilitating a highly anxious shelter dog for the second time (different dogs). I had recently read quite a bit about breeds and dog socialization. And we—my dog, Penelope Facehumper, and I—were taking classes from top notch trainers who certify therapy, emotional support, and service dogs. I was steeped in dog culture, and often covered in drool.
The third and final major thread in this story-making story is homelessness. For a long time I was hobophobic, afraid to make eye contact with the homeless, afraid they were crazy or violent, afraid they’d see my guilt for being privileged. Then, in the mid-’00s, I found myself teaching yoga at a day center for the seriously mentally ill. Not everyone there was a homeless schizophrenic, but some of them were, so I had to get over my fear and fast.
So, I researched. (There seems to be a trend.) I read about homelessness, about its causes and what it’s like. I read about violence against the homeless and especially against women and the mentally ill. I kept teaching those classes and talking to people, and eventually my fear turned into compassion. (A cautious compassion, but still compassion.)
Because of the confluence of these ideas, the thought kept occurring to me as I walked my dog around our central Tucson neighborhood (near Speedway and Swan, which is infamous for its cardboard sign holders), that we treat stray dogs better than we treat people who are homeless. And, of course, we put them both in shelters.
Combine this with the fact that if Diogenes was alive today, he would no doubt be homeless–he didn’t believe in ownership, and he lived in a giant wine cask until he was sold into slavery in his old age–and with the fact that Aristotle’s nickname for Diogenes was “the Dog” and Diogenes’ followers were called the Army of the Dog, and the symbolic potential was just too good to pass up.
And that’s how I ended up writing a novella about Diogenes and revolutionary homeless dog-people.
As for that lyric about “searching like Diogenes?” That refers to the time Diogenes wandered the town with a lit lamp in the daytime. When someone ask him what he was doing, he said, “I am looking for a true man.”