Relearning the Essay
What our crazy canine teaches me (again)
At last I’ve documented our family dog’s epic weirdness—and, well, mine. My essay “Why I Hate My Dog” explains on Longreads. Bottom line and fair warning to the rescue-minded: every adult pound dog I’ve known or heard about has suffered from scorching separation anxiety. Belle’s is far from the worst—at least she doesn’t tear apart the house—but plenty bad. Her suffering, plus some truly odd behavior, affects her humans.
Especially me. Hence my wife’s suggestion that I write about Belle. “Your essays are getting too dark,” Kathy said. “Writing about Belle would be fun.” She was right. And I did try to channel David Sedaris, which helped me forefront the humor of living with Belle’s quirks. Of course dark notes crept in—well, serious ones. Because I can’t help but think ill sometimes about Belle’s previous owners. And because there’s poignancy in living with dogs, or almost any pet, that shares one’s emotional life but whose own life ends so much sooner than ours.
In Shepherd: A Memoir, I wrote about Belle’s predecessor terrier, Jack, whom I revisit here. Happy Jack looks great in comparison to neurotic Belle, though that’s relative. Once, for instance, he hopped on our dining table and consumed a large triple-anchovy pizza. That’s a new story about him in “Why I Hate My Dog.”
But Belle’s the focus. Here’s a snippet depicting her emotional fragility:
I pretend I can’t see her crouched amidst our bedclothes where she isn’t permitted, because she’s so ostentatiously suffering. Radiating tension, her head up and rigid, her face narrows, the taut line of her black lips forming a rictus of agony, much like the death grimace on the face of Jack’s possum; her paws grip our down comforter as if tornadic winds are clawing at her. She’s capable of spending an entire day like this, suffering an eventual human exit, especially when we vacation.
And one about mine:
Yet just last night—actually in the wee hours of this morning, at the ungodly time of two o’clock—she again performed her lone, great, silent service: keeping me company. I’d come wide awake, twitchy with vague anxieties, which soon attached to recent fears and old regrets. When my feet hit the floor, Belle stood in her warm bed beside ours. She trotted downstairs with me. In the light of day, I can take for granted Belle’s shadowing me from room to room; her steady presence seems to reflect her own insecurity, and I can ignore or mock her. At night, stranded in the darkness, I can’t. So I had felt grateful to Belle. I worried that she’d climb the stairs, nestle into her cozy nest, abandon me. She didn’t; she never does.
The latter passage epitomizes what I love about writing, the way in making meaning it leads to new insight. And getting there is what frustrates me too. “Why I Hate My Dog’ began as a comedic riff on our needy dog. My realization about my dependence on Belle came very late. The draft had been “done” for weeks, and actually had been accepted by Longreads—I was getting ready to email it for editing.
But the longer I lived with my account of Belle, the more I could hold her portrait in my mind. And then I saw that our sharing the dregs of the night was central to conveying our relationship and our emotional connection. It showed her loyalty and her awareness of my need, showed the reciprocity of her companionship. Similar late breakthroughs occurred this summer in another allegedly finished essay.
It would be wishing too much for writing to get easier, I know. But in each case, sweet insight fell into my lap only after months of work on these medium-length essays. I hope I’m learning better to sense when a piece isn’t quite done! But it seems I must accept that harvesting only low-hanging fruit isn’t enough. Getting donked on the head by high-hanging fruit is probably part of the writing process. When I think about it, I realize this usually happens, to one degree or another, when I write.
Formal pre-publication editorial tweaking of “Why I Hate My Dog” was accomplished via the better part of a week’s asynchronous communication between me and my Longreads editor using Google doc. I knew of it, but hadn’t used it. I liked it. Familiar with trading Word-markup files by email, once I got used to Google doc I enjoyed its shared-meeting-space feel. Somehow less pressure—we’re just talkin’ here! A neat collaborative back and forth. Plus whenever I see my work in a new format or even in a changed display, new stuff jumps out. Ideas and diction fixes arise. And they did, again.
Briefly this essay has made me more tolerant of others’ bad dogs. This morning, Kathy and I passed a man on our walk being dragged along by a snarling dog. We sometimes see him, and I dread it. Though I hold him responsible for that awful hound, and probably signal my disapproval, Kathy greeted him. His response was slow and a tad sullen—we’d disturbed his peace, too, even though his canine was the one wanting to kill Belle and maybe us. Then we ran into him again on our loop. He was friendlier, saying by way of possibly ironic apology for his dog, “He loves everybody.”
“I guess he’s trying to be funny,” I said when he was out of earshot.
“I don’t think so.”
“Maybe that dog was his kid’s, who died,” I offered. “The kid kept it in his room, never socialized it. And now dad’s stuck with it.”
“Maybe it’s a rescue he got to keep himself company in his old age,” Kathy said, more realistically.
By definition, almost everyone is doing his best, right? Sometimes that’s pretty pathetic. But it goes for me and Belle, too.