Who let the dogs in? They're everywhere these days. It's not their year on the Chinese calendar, but they seem to seizing every piece of American culture they can get their teeth into.
On a recent visit to Borders, the front table was mostly devoted to dogs. I didn't even realize they could read. On the Web are books about choosing dogs, naming dogs, training dogs and giving dogs just the right amount of love. There's a book called "We're Having a Puppy." Another is "Don't Shoot the Dog."
On TV, the National Geographic Channel rang in the new year with a marathon of episodes of "The Dog Whisperer." It was my introduction to Cesar Millan. Like the old RCA dog pondering the Victrola, I watched, mesmerized as a puppy waiting for you to throw a stick, as Cesar did his thing.
Cesar's thing is to think like a dog. If you can master that one - assuming, of course, that you're smarter than the dog you're dealing with - you can be the pack leader.
Your dog will stop chewing the couch cushions, chasing cars and skateboards, knocking small babies over with his wagging tale or attacking the neighbors. He'll be happier. You'll be happier. It's a win-win.
Cesar's so in touch with his inner canine, he sometimes moves like a dog, or smiles like one. You only wish he had a tail so he could wag it.
As much as he purports to be about training dogs, what Caesar is really about is training owners. Invariably, as you watch him entering a distressed family's home - like a superhero or a physician with a miracle cure - you realize that the out-of-control dog has merely filled a power vacuum in the household.
It's not the dog, but the people, who need fixing.
If only there were more Cesars in the world.
This week's top movie star might make Cesar consider changing professions. He is "the world's worst dog," the Golden Lab who co-stars with Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston in the surprise hit of the Christmas movie season, "Marley & Me."
Just from the trailers and TV spots, you've already seen Marley (he was named for reggae icon Bob) do his tricks, wrecking restaurants, causing traffic jams, singlehandedly demolishing living rooms or whole beaches with a single swoop.
But unlike the cases that come to Cesar, Marley is just so doggone cute when he misbehaves that Owen and Jennifer don't really have it in them to change him. Or realize that they couldn't, even if they wanted to.
It must have taken a whole kennel's worth of canine co-stars to play Marley, since the film chronicles his life, beginning to sniffly end. But as much as he is the glue tying the story together, the sweet-natured comedy is more about two-legged animals than the one with four feet and a wagging tail.
The story was adapted from a series of columns by newspaper writer John Grogan. He turned them into a permanent fixture at the top of the best-seller list for more than a year. This isn't the kind of thing that endears him to other newspaper columnists -but there's so much warmth and tenderness in his writing, and the performances by Wilson and Aniston, that it's impossible to resist.
Untrainable Marley winds up being both witness and reliable member of their growing family, as they get on with the messy business of life.
This is the time of year when the movies acknowledge this fact - life is messy - instead of trotting out the latest superhero to pretend it's not. With new movie awards being announced almost daily and the Academy Award nominations coming right up, a number of wonderful current films make the same point.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Slumdog Millionaire" are just two of the new releases that manage to find silver linings to all that messiness. Fellow Golden Globe nominee Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky" - next Wednesday's Maui Film Festival selection in Castle Theater - does it all by herself, greeting life's flaws with as much joy as a movie screen can hold.
Ironically though, in this movie award season when studios present their best work, most filmgoers are expressing their own preference for the humbler aspirations of "Marley & Me."
We may all long for a Cesar out there to get our dogs, and our lives, under control - but Marley and his family are closer to the way it is.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.