- Best Friends
When I was a kid, Champion Dog: Prince Tom by Jean Fritz was my favorite book. Tom is an underdog. It’s a classic outsider story, but focused on a Cocker Spaniel as he grows from runt of the litter to win obedience trials and national awards. Prince Tom learns how to follow lots of rules. I was a serious ballet student, and it was important to follow all the rules. In ballet class, if you misbehaved, talked, or hung on the barre, you might be kicked out of class.
My devotion to Champion Dog: Prince Tom, a true story, is an early indicator of my later affinity for creative nonfiction, but it’s also a nod to my obsession with trying to do things right, which is a profoundly unrewarding way to learn. If Tom the dog could behave, so could I. If I were perfect enough, maybe one day I would be a ballerina. (No wonder that after I left ballet, I spent some time acting out.) In a sense my love for the dog champion Tom was at odds with my upbringing, because my parents never purchased purebred dogs. From an early age, I was taught the necessity of giving abandoned dogs a home. I remember coming home from ballet classes and cuddling Sierus, our mutt, a combination of black Lab and who knows what. “He’s a heart on [End Page 209] four paws,” my mother said. My family found mutts, or they found us, and we adopted each other.
I found Champion Dog: Prince Tom in the Scholastic catalog, ordered the book with money I had earned from selling flowers at the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal on alternate Fridays. I read the book so many times I almost had it memorized. My repetitive reading habits drove my mom up a wall. My mother read voraciously, quickly; she did that as a kid, too. Mom asked: “Why can’t you read new books? Look at all the books in the world. Broaden your horizons!”
At university, when I majored in literature and creative writing, Lois, a friend who was a copyeditor and a poet, suggested that by reading a few books multiple times I had been studying character. I loved that reasoning. Since my mom continued to tease me about my reading habits, I thought it would be fun if Lois were to explain her idea directly to my mom when she came to visit. Like my mom, Lois was an avid reader of contemporary poets, so I also wanted them to meet for that reason. I remember that we went out for lunch at my favorite Chinese restaurant in Midtown Manhattan during my mom’s visit, but maybe the conversation took place in Lois’s office at William Morrow, where I had a gig answering Beverly Cleary’s fan mail. (I took extra special care answering letters to Henry Huggins’s dog Ribsy.) My mom loved Lois’s reasoning, but it’s not accurate that I was studying character. I find comfort in repetition. Dogs do, too.
Janice Gary’s Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance celebrates the repetition of dog walking as a way back to living a full life. After being raped as a young woman, Gary stops taking risks and stops singing in bands, which is something she loved to do. Decades later, her memories of trauma are not repressed, but they are unmanageable. As a consequence Gary suffers from panic attacks and is unable to take her rescue black Lab-Rottweiler mix Barney on long walks.
Barney helps protect Gary from her fears. She can’t walk Barney out in the woods or on paths frequented by other dogs because Barney freaks out if another dog approaches. For a time, Barney seems content to stay home; Gary writes:
[Barney] amazes me with his blissful domesticity. He never...