In the month since we adopted Eddie, I’ve been reliving the elation and exhaustion of being a new mother. It’s been seventeen summers since I brought my youngest child home, but the feelings are so familiar that I’m constantly having to remind myself that my new baby is… a dog. Some people dress up their pets; I prefer to think of Eddie as a small boy dressed in a dog suit. I half expect to find a zipper when he rolls over for a belly rub. I imagine these are the same emotions that Stuart Little’s mother experienced when she noticed her second son “looked very much like a mouse in every way.”
In the lexicon of technology innovation, Eddie is what’s called a “disruptor.” Like a Fortune 500 company in a mature market, my family has had to rethink the way we do business and to adapt following Eddie’s arrival, starting with a few facility changes: guests will notice the absence of rugs and the addition of some rather unsightly plastic barriers blocking off part of the living room and the stairway. We’ve all had to become more nimble, dodging Eddie’s razor-toothed assaults on our shoes and pant legs and clearing the floor and low surfaces of objects that might attract his rapacious jaws. I’ve had to adjust my daily routine to accommodate his need for frequent walks and close supervision, and stock my pockets with dog treats and bio-bags. During this time of transition, the old (feline) technology has retreated upstairs to sulk and plot their re-launch strategy.
And yet, despite the disruption and the considerable time-sink that house-training a puppy poses, I am utterly smitten. Puppy love: I’ve got it bad.
Having raised three children and lived through the heartbreak of losing our first dog, I know the disruption won’t last forever, or even long enough. Puppyhood passes even more quickly than childhood. Eventually we will settle back into a quieter routine. I will stop gazing at Eddie with unabashed adoration and exclaiming each time he does something cute, like chase his tail or bark at his reflection in the oven door. I will learn to resist the near-constant impulse to sweep him up in my arms and coo nonsense syllables into his floppy ears. My family and Facebook friends will be grateful when I lose interest in photographing his every beguiling pose.
Until then I am grateful for the reminder he brings of the enduring pleasure of play, and for the fun of observing him experience the world with fresh eyes and an exquisitely sensitive nose. Outside, I watch him taking it all in: startling as a sudden gust of wind ruffles his fur; chasing a leaf skipping across the sidewalk; tasting rainwater in a puddle; rolling in a pungent patch of grass; listening intently to the shrieks of an angry blue jay; tucking his tail when a truck backfires; taking off in the wake of joggers and cyclers. As he sniffs the giant oak tree in front of our house, I glance up and notice for the first time that it would make an excellent climbing tree, and I recall the many pleasurable hours I spent climbing trees as a child. Inside, I bathe him in the kitchen sink and sooth him when the noise of the spray nozzle elicits an expression of sheer terror. I fashion “toys” out of plastic bottles, paper towel rolls and damp dishtowels, and watch with amusement as he contents himself chewing them. It brings me back to the surprising delight my children found in banging a pot with a spoon or pouring sand through a sieve. Adjusting my own schedule to accommodate a puppy’s unremitting eat-poop-nap cycle, I’ve had to slow down and reactivate my dormant reserves of patience for putting another’s most basic needs ahead of my own. Being a parent is humbling, whether you’re changing diapers or scooping poop. When Eddie gets wired and nippy just as we sit down for dinner, I am reminded of my toddlers’ nightly meltdowns during the “arsenic hour” before bedtime.
The last time we had a puppy, more than a dozen summers ago, the children were still pups themselves and training a dog became a casualty of juggling too many carpools, play-dates and soccer games. This time, I vowed I would do it “right.” My children snicker when I say that I’m practicing “progressive” dog education, and explain that by taking Eddie out frequently I’m giving him “more opportunities to succeed.” And yet I have already failed at what everyone says I must do – crate-train him. After several nights when Eddie barked nonstop in the crate, I caved. Now, confined to the kitchen area, he sleeps through the night without complaint, and his accidents are becoming (somewhat) less frequent. Call me anti-dogmatic, but I believe every dog is different and that we found a workable compromise along the housebreaking spectrum. He begins puppy kindergarten in a couple of weeks, and I’m hoping to learn some strategies to cure his habit of biting and tugging the leash. In the meantime I’ll continue to think he looks adorable, towing me down the sidewalk at a fast trot, leash firmly in mouth.
I’ve been reading a new nonfiction book called, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic (Walker Books, 2011). Author Michael Sims describes how White used his lifelong affinity for animals to compensate for his acute social anxiety: “Afraid of commitment and romance and confrontation, he his behind animals even in his early love poems and letters to his wife.” In the spring of 1930, when his wife Katharine was expecting their first (and only) child, White wrote her a letter “from” their Scottish terrier Daisy, which Sims excerpts.*
Dear Mrs. White,
…White has been stewing around for two days now, a little bit worried because he is not sure that he has made you realize how glad he is that there is to be what the column writer in the Mirror calls a blessed event … I know White so well that I always know what is the matter with him, and it always comes to the same thing—he gets thinking that nothing that he writes or says ever quite expresses his feeling, and he worries about his inarticulateness just the same as he does about his bowels, except it is worse, and it makes him either mad, or sick, or with a prickly sensation in the head …Of course he is also very worried for fear you will get the idea that he is regarding you merely as a future mother and not as a present person, or that he wants a child merely as a vindication of his vanity. I doubt if those things are true; White enjoys animal husbandry of all kinds including his own; and as for his regard for you, he has told me that, quite apart from this fertility, he admires you in all kinds of situations or dilemmas, some of which he says have been quite dirty.
Well, Mrs. White, I expect I am tiring you with this long letter, but as you often say yourself, a husband and wife should tell each other about the things that are on their mind, otherwise you get nowhere, and White didn’t seem able to tell you about his happiness, so I thought I would attempt to put in a word.
White is getting me a new blanket, as the cushion in the bathroom is soiled.
I love the way White’s Daisy balances the expression of serious (human) emotions with the mundane appreciation of a new blanket. Sharing White’s affinity for animals, I feel pets reward us most by keeping us grounded. The leash runs two ways, after all.
*I’ve added a bit to the brief portion of the letter that Sims excerpted. The full version is included in the revised edition of The Letters of E. B. White (Harper Perennial, 2006).