A Pug at the Heartstrings

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

Under the table, Wilson the Pugsettles 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 Margetsonand Roseat 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 Jaspergreets 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."

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