“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Day 83: The Watched Watchdog and her Person: A Day in the Life

Chapter One: The Writing Life

Monday morning I bring Zoe into my writing studio, even though she prefers a good nap after her morning walk back in the house.  I move my laptop out of my corner so that it faces her doggy daybed.  I watch her intently, and she watches me watching her.

This goes on for a while.

I am looking for signs that she's having  trouble tolerating the drug we started her on today, and she is looking for signs that everything is okay with me, which means that everything is okay in her world.  My job is to take care of her.  Her job is to take care of me.  And for her to feel safe, and to do her job, watching the house and watching me, she needs to know I'm okay. 

So now we are in one of those feedback loops.  Can I look for signs of distress, without distressing her? 

I've never been a good actor, never been good at playing it cool.

How do parents handle this?  Gentle readers: please report.  My experience with raising children started as a stepmother when the boys were a tween and a teen, and they almost always knew what I knew when there was trouble afoot. There must have been times when I had to exude calm and ease when I felt fraught, but I've forgotten those moments entirely.  What I remember most are those instances when the trouble I sniffed out was about the mischief they were getting up to (i.e., their party when we were out of town, where someone ran over the fire hydrant and created a gushing fountain, and the police came to the house, and a certain boy had to go to court).  Showing my concern right on my face was a way to show them love, which is to say, to show them I was watching, and that they couldn't fool us again, which was a way to show them love.   Another feedback loop, I suppose. 

To prevent myself from driving my dog and myself crazy I do what I'm supposed to do on a sabbatical.  I sit and type, and try to take myself to the landscape of my novel.  Although it’s mostly set in France, the narrator is remembering a Thanksgiving trip home with her college roommate in Amherst, Massachusetts.  (See Day 77: The Friction of Cooking up Fiction.)

There’s turkey in the oven there.  The smells of pies baking.  But today, under the influence of my dog-watching mission, I find myself adding something cloying and a little sickening to the pie ingredients.  The smell of cloves, and mince.  This was not something I had planned.

A sign of nausea in a dog is excessive licking of the lips.  She has been licking her lips on and off since she came home from her walk this morning.  I watch her tongue and her mouth as  I render a scene of people licking their lips waiting for the feast to come to the table.

I watch the dog, and the dog watches me.

I write about people in distant places and try to embody and inhabit them via the the world of the senses, especially smell and taste. 

Reading and writing literature are both ways to escape and ways to move closer to urgent matters at hand.

So here I am, giving my character the nausea I don't want my dog to have.  I'm displacing it onto a fictional human being.  While we're at it, she might even come down with the flu.  It would be very awkward to be a visitor in someone's home for the first time and find oneself puking in the guest bathroom after a beautiful meal had been served, would it not? 

This makes me wonder not about the big ticket autobiographical events from author's lives like divorce, death and bereavement, marriage, and birth that have influenced all the novels I've read and been transported by, but the authors' daily lives, the quotidian: the morning drives to work, the dog walks, the lunches made for the kids, dentists visited, pies eaten at Thanksgiving.   The real lives "measured out in coffeespoons" going on day after day as page after page is written.

Now I know something I never knew before.  Sometimes you have to give your character a belly ache because it's the best way to channel your anxiety and have something to show for the day.

And it's better than hovering too close to the dog and making her wonder what she did wrong to make her person start acting so strange.

Chapter Two: After That

I go out for a two-hour lunch with my dear friend Liz and her parents, who are visiting from California.  We talk about our shared love of France, dogs, literature, and teaching.  We talk about Derrida, who did the dishes at one of their Thanksgiving dinners, and about the paperwork you need to fill out to get a dog into France (which no one looks at, but if you didn't have it, someone official would demand it of you), and of their trips to Burgundy and Paris, and about Montaigne (and how he is not taught so much now in French classes, as he once was, but is now required reading in any essay class), and somehow, by the time I get home, I have stopped being The Sick Dog's Over-Protective Headcase of a Person, at least for now.

Zoe runs to greet me when I get home and begs to go outside.  She wags her tail when she sees the treat pouch go into the pocket.  We will leave soon to walk with Milo, the Cavalier King Charles who Thinks he's a Greyhound, and his person, a dear friend.

It was raining for a while, but the sun is out now.  Zoe sits in the snow waiting for me to finish this post so we can go.  When I look out the window, she is sniffing the air for something tasty.

Sometimes it's really a good idea to get out of the house.


  1. How do parents handle this? Well, as a new parent, 18 months in, I'd say you do the best you can and accept that you aren't perfect or in control, no matter how beneficial that would be to the child/creature, you don't get to be all-knowing or all-powerful, and that's just the way it is.

    How hard did he just hit his head when he fell down? Is that a fever? Thermometer says no. Do I trust it? Play it cool, exude confidence.

    I don't remember a single time my parents ever showed that they didn't know what to do or didn't know things were going to be OK. I'm so uncertain for myself, and I really struggle with how to convey that sense to my son while remaining honest.

  2. Thanks so much for this response, Matthew! I can tell you're an amazing dad.

    I think you've tapped into the key: offering reassurance and confidence. Even if it feels like an act at first. You've really helped me here.

    Best wishes,