The Editor and His Dog: A Tribute
What’s a writer to do when he’s looking for the next great idea or opening line?
May 19, 2012
It is a cliché to say that every writer needs his muse. In these dizzyingly busy times, it is far more important to develop a mind-clearing mechanism. And how often, when I was stuck getting a story or analysis out the right way, was I suddenly nose-stubbed by a blond-haired lady, asking gently at first, and then ever more insistently, that it was time to take her for a walk.
What seemed like a real imposition before we got a dog almost 11 years ago over time became a treasured ritual. Never mind that, once you get into middle age, you appreciate the twice-daily nudge for exercise. That is vital in these all-too-sedentary existences of ours.
But Brady, our yellow Lab-cum-golden retriever mix, was far more than a partner for a decade-long walk-a-thon. She was a bundle of extreme social intelligence, showing all who would raise their voices without good reason her instant disapproval by leaving the room immediately.
Close as our son was to her, it was a useful lesson to him when growing up. But the appeal to temper one’s voice and attitude applied not just to him, far from it.
She was also the best weather barometer ever. Probably due to her breed’s finely attuned sensorium, from living in snowy, avalanche-prone environs, Brady could foretell weather changes far earlier than scientific instruments seem to be able to do.
The funny part about it was that she would invariably withdraw into one of the many closets in our house, not hovering, but shivering most intensely, so that at the beginning we always thought that the storm raging outside would cause her to have a heart attack.
Later on, when we knew better, it became just an interesting guessing game as to which closet she was hiding in. That wasn’t so easy, especially because she would wait until well after the storm had passed before she could muster the courage to reappear in that tempest-ridden world. The fact that she would burrow herself completely into whatever was on the floor of those various closets did not make finding her any easier.
In more tranquil moments, the great lady knew how to time her entrances on stage with near perfection. At mealtime, she would let the family eat and converse amongst themselves at first. Only when the burst of conversation was over would she make her well-timed entrance, much to be admired by all (and, yes, hoping to score a leftover or two).
Nothing made us feel more that she was a true internationalist than her profound appreciation of the end pieces of a fresh baguette. The crackling sounds it made in her mouth was pure canine appreciation for the art of baking.
Need I mention that, to her, this eventually became part of a tithing regime, quite literally, in that she firmly expected all end pieces automatically to be hers? She made up for this imposition by becoming quite a connoisseur of cheeses, and not just to complement the baguette pieces.
On the many walks we shared, she was almost always the activist, pulling me with her boundless energy around the neighborhood or toward the nearby park. Her favorite time there, though, must have been the couple of winters when, rare for a quasi-Southern city such as Washington, we had deep snow covering the playing fields.
Somehow, the genetic code of a Labrador shot to the forefront in those moments of fresh, unperturbed snow. She would run across the street and literally hit the field not just with her nose down, but solidly under the snow surface, as if to plow her way through. She also was a master at making snow angels, much to the delight of neighborhood children.
Most important were all the times when we were taking a walk and, all of a sudden, a great idea would dawn upon me. Or I found the opening line for a piece that I had long contemplated writing. With that line in mind, the presumably complex riddle unraveled itself and became a straight-line act of storytelling.
In either constellation, I was awed time and again how that great communing between man and his dog lets one dig deeper, to unearth stuff out of what others called the great unconscious.
But the joint walks weren’t just a tremendous creative inspiration. They were, at other times, also a great reliever of pressure. Especially at those moments when life seems to impose a big, existential burden, few things are more effective to helping you put things in perspective or gain new energy and confidence than the naive, childlike, steady interaction your dog has in mind for you.
Brady was also a great socialite. Impossible our effort to keep her away from the guests at dinner parties. Yes, we would lock her behind a gate to keep her from all-too-actively welcoming our guests. But the more we tried, the more insistent came the wailing sound from the next room. Mrs. Sociability was not to be denied the opportunity to be hyper-social.
The first signs of trouble we all missed. In hindsight, we remember a sudden, pained yelp when a friend had petted her. Or a whimper when she was lying on the floor and rolled herself over.
And then, when we saw her skipping a meal, we thought she was protesting her food and wanted a different brand or something less crunchy. But that wasn’t it. Even though her regular check-ups had never revealed any problems, when we took her in for tests it turned out that she had both liver and pancreatic cancer — and in an advanced stage.
It had, in fact, spread all over her body and there was nothing that could really be done. We had always rolled our eyes at those dog owners who, in their companion’s late stage in life, would go to veterinary extremes. That was not just against our philosophy, it was also pointless in this case.
The best way of dealing with it all was to support her in her eventual agony and to be prepared to help her end her life gracefully. We hoped for at least several months. After all, she was barely 11 years old when we got the bad news.
We had expected to have this ode to joy to enliven our house for at least a couple more years. We looked forward to her nudging the bedroom door open in the mornings and interrupting our work routines later in the day for our afternoon constitutional. Or to join us at meals in the dining room as if she were (now that our son is in college) the third person in the house.
It was not to be. Within less than three weeks after learning of her cancer, it was all over. I was at a conference in Barcelona when my wife emailed me a photo of Brady lying in the flower bed in the garden, right on top of bright red impatiens. “Isn’t that strange?” her message read.
She had brought Brady back home that morning from a night in the veterinary hospital where, with transfusions, the doctors had tried to get her to eat again and to stabilize her.
I showed the photo to a friend at the conference. When I told her about Brady’s sickly condition, my friend, now a professor at Sciences Po in Paris, said: “That’s not strange at all. When I grew up, we had quite a few dogs. We lived in the countryside. But I remember that whenever our dogs had reached the point when death was near, they would leave the family house and go to the nearby forest to die. We would find them several hours later.”
This turned out to be quite a premonition. An hour or so after I received the Brady-in-the-flowers photo, she had a seizure and passed away later that afternoon. The flower bed was evidently her way of “going to the forest.”
The house is much quieter now. At first, after my return from Europe, the thought of a Brady-less house was quite unbearable. Of course, we told ourselves not to be too sad, since we had truly enjoyed a very active and intense life with our dog. And it is precisely all the wonderful memories that help overcome the emptiness.
There are, of course, a few things we won’t miss, such as her insatiable desire to jump on our nicest sofa. But otherwise, we were quite charmed to learn just how much dogs, for all the joy they give, are also great absorbers of human emotions.
It is said dogs are so pleasant because they pretty much hold on to the stimulus-response mentality that we have as babies and lose when we grow older. Perhaps so. But I can attest to is that dogs are emotionally very intense beings — and in that sense, the passing of a dog also means intense emotional liberation.
It is hard now not to be going on those mind-clearing walks with our dog. They were such a wonderful testament to the art of nonverbal communication. And that is quite a gift to be received, especially for a writer and an editor.
I treasure all the times when we were "just" taking a walk and, all of a sudden, a great idea would dawn upon me.
Time and again I was struck by how that great communing between man and his dog lets one dig a little deeper than he could otherwise.
Nothing made us feel more that she was a true internationalist than her profound appreciation of the end pieces of a fresh baguette.
"When our dogs had reached the point when death was near, they would leave the family house and go to the nearby forest to die."