Author Blair Braverman builds her positive, enthusiastic fan base the same way she trains her Alaskan Husky sled dogs. (This does not involve kibble.)
“It’s basic behaviorism,” Braverman said. “You reward things you want to see and you ignore things you don’t want to see. If we see someone starting drama, we just don’t go near it. We don’t engage.”
Braverman shared thoughts about musher culture, how to dress when it’s “chilly” (-10 or lower) and a few dozen adorable dog photos onstage in Music Hall Saturday afternoon at the third annual Cap Times Idea Fest.
Braverman, author of the memoir “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” (Ecco, 2016), is used to sharing snapshots of her life in Mountain, Wisconsin, with a highly engaged online community that loves her photogenic #uglydogs.
Her interviewer on Saturday, political columnist and culture critic Ana Marie Cox, has built her own dedicated following. Cox is the founder of Wonkette and the Columbia Journalism Review's public editor for The Washington Post. Among other credits, Cox wrote the Talk column for the New York Times Magazine for two years.
Through Crooked Media, Cox hosts a podcast, “With Friends Like These.” The hour-long chat with Braverman, once edited for clarity, will be a future episode of the podcast.
Braverman and her husband, Quince Mountain, are “the human parts” of BraverMountain Mushing, and they currently feed 26 dogs. “How many dogs do you feed?” is how the way you have to ask, Braverman said.
“If someone asks how many dogs you have, mushers’ll be like, well, I have nine dogs on my team and these retirees,” Braverman said, “and I have two puppies but one of the puppies I’m raising for my friend, and three foster dogs are staying here ... you just divide it all up, ’cause you’re thinking of them as individuals.”
Braverman said the dog sledding community is pretty different beyond “the bubble of mushing we’ve created for ourselves.” The sport is largely self-taught and not cohesive, Braverman said, forged by mushers helping each other. Early on, she realized that none of the male mushers were going to come and tell her she was one of them. She had to live the life herself, with all the layers of clothing and self-reliance that entailed.
Mushers “like to be in the wilderness with dogs,” she said. “We don’t necessarily like other people.”
Yet competing in a punishing, potentially life-threatening race like the 938-mile Alaskan Iditarod bonds people to each other who might not vote the same in an election.
“When you’re out on the trail together, you’re all on the same team,” Braverman said. “Mushers aren’t allowed outside help during a race, but they can help each other. ... Mushing is about solving problems. The last thing you’re thinking about is someone’s politics.”
A recurring theme in Braverman and Cox’s conversation on Saturday was how relating to dogs connects to relating to people.
“It’s sometimes easier for us to be generous of spirit to animals than it is to be generous of spirit to people,” Cox said. She tells listeners sometimes, “if you’re fighting with your Trump-loving uncle, go walk some dogs together.”
While Braverman and Cox talked, the stars of Braverman’s Twitter feed — sweet, clingy Flame, her sister Jenga, Spike with his “very big head,” Wickson and Pepé and Helli — flipped by on a slide show behind them.
There were dogs being skritched, dogs scruffing in the snow, dogs riding piggyback or collapsed on Braverman after a race. Sometimes they wore jaunty pink booties. In one shot, Flame, dressed as Rosie the Riveter in a long-sleeved shirt and a red bandana, touched noses with Summer, a little white cat.
This, Cox explained, was bonus visual content, just for attendees of the live podcast.
“This amazing internet community has changed our lives,” Braverman said. “People help each other. It’s like wow — how did all these good people find this dog team?”