Baltimore City Paper

Sketch of a Dog: 16 Digressions About a Semi-Tragic Chesapeake Bay Retriever


1. The details that led to me having a dog—now an almost 5-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever whose name is Bernie—are too sad, lame, and personal to detail here, but just know that Bernie has endless health problems; the guy who gave him to me died of a bath salts overdose; and Bernie has lived in many, many places with me because I have at many, many times in the past half-decade not had my shit together. All that said, if you ever see me around and want to know about my dog, I'll be glad to tell you. Just not here, not right now.

2. "Who rescued who?"-A very popular dog-owner bumper sticker that never fails to make me cry a little bit


3. Notes from a mix CD I made in December 2012: "Here's a mix about how awesome my dog is and the weird experience of having this living thing to hang out with you all the time. Because something's wrong with me, I spend a lot of time imagining that he'll be stolen by some goons and I'll never see him again and I will have to be institutionalized because the grief will be too much, and anytime he is sleeping, I am checking every 30 seconds to make sure he's still breathing and not dead. But those are my issues. Dogs are awesome! My dog gives me reason to get up in the morning, for realz. Maybe the only reason?" Tracklisting with further explanation: 1. Urinals, 'Surfin' With the Shah' (Puppies are punk); 2. Vince Guaraldi, 'It's Your Dog Charlie Brown' (Go get that ball. Drop it. Drop it. Drop it…); 3. Cat Stevens, 'Was Dog a Doughnut (Jellybean Benitez Remix)' (He's gonna die eventually, you know); 4. Electronic, 'Getting Away With It' (Because if I died tomorrow, this animal wouldn't really give a shit); 5. Charlie Parker, 'Just Friends' (DUH); 6. Keith Fullerton Whitman, 'Stereo Music for Acoustic Guitar, Buchla Music Box 100, Hewlett Packard Model 236 Oscillator, Electric Guitar, and Computer Part One' (Long walks); 7. DJ Nate, 'I'm a Dog' (He's a dog!!!).

4. In March of 2013, a few weeks short of turning 1 year old, Bernie shook and wobbled and just couldn't walk right one morning. The vet, a Warren Oates-ian hard-ass from Harford County whose candor kept me going back to him said, "This is not good." He thought maybe it was a stroke and sent him to a neurologist. After a series of tests and a spinal tap, we learned Bernie had hurt his spine and only rest would heal it. The morning of the spinal tap, while Bernie was being put under, I fired off a series of bonkers texts from the vet hospital to someone I was seeing, about the dog and then about everything else—an embarrassing burst of misguided male vulnerability and self-loathing I still feel stupid about. Later that day, I took Bernie home from the hospital. He was shaved in a few places (his back, his paws, his side), with a Fentanyl patch and a whole bunch of pain pills. For the next three weeks or so, he slowly healed and threw up in pain every few hours. One morning I was walking him outside trying to get his strength up and he was hopped up on goofballs, stumbling, bald spots all over him, vomiting very expensive free-range chicken from Whole Foods (the only thing he'd deign to try and digest). People walked by and nodded sympathetically or gave him a pat on the head and a hug. I thought about how if he were a human—throwing up, barely standing with a fucked-up haircut—everybody would have avoided him.


5. A good friend from Asheville, N.C. mailed Bernie an envelope full of crystals. I stuck them on Bernie's head and back and legs. For what it's worth, he did get better after that. When Bernie's Fentanyl patch was set to come off, I pulled it off of him and stuck it in a warm beer and sipped the beer and caught a mild, heroin-y high.

6. When Jill Abramson became the new executive editor of the New York Times back in September 2011, the first woman to have that top-dog job at the paper was criticized because she was about to publish "The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout." No matter that "The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout" was a rough evaluation of self and a rumination on death by way of dogs, she was not serious enough to run "the Gray Lady" if she was writing dog books. Abramson was fired from the Times in May of 2014 for reasons she claims were partially tied to her demand that she be paid as much as her male predecessor, by the way.

7. Donald Trump, as you may have read, is the first president in a hundred-plus years to not enter the White House with a pet. For a moment there, he was supposed to get a goldendoodle—a golden retriever and poodle mix—but then the friend who was supposed to give it to the Trumps fell in love with it instead, so the Trumps were dog-less. We should not make too much of this, the fact that Trump is, on top of the many other awful things, not somebody who cares much for dogs. Presidents are all, at worst, rapists, murderers, and war criminals; and at best, complicit capitalists, and hardly deserving of any kind of "humanizing" ever, really. But still, Trump not having a dog is telling of, well, something. Namely, I think, the way he refuses to play the "I am a normal human man" game even a tiny little bit. But dogs don't automatically make you kinder anyway—they're just good PR. They enhance your best or worst qualities, though if you're reflective, you can learn a lot about yourself from your dog. You made this thing what it is, after all.

8. "Commonly in the US, dogs are attributed with the capacity for 'unconditional love.' According to this belief, people, burdened with misrecognition, contradiction, and complexity in their relations with other humans, find solace in unconditional love from their dogs. In turn, people love their dogs as children. In my opinion, both of these beliefs are not only based on mistakes, if not lies, but also they are in themselves abusive—to dogs and to humans. A cursory glance shows that dogs and humans have always had a vast range of ways of relating. But even among the pet-keeping folk of contemporary consumer cultures, or maybe especially among those people, belief in 'unconditional love' is pernicious."-Donna Haraway, "The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness," 2003

9. There are some good dog movies and plenty of dumb dog movies, but "John Wick" is the top-tier dog movie because it captures, like no other, the hollowed-out loss tied to so-called "unconditional love." And it does it with a sense of humor and skepticism toward sentimentality. The plot is pretty simple and super stoopid: John Wick, a noted assassin who loses his wife to cancer, was given a dog by said dying wife to cope with her death, but then he loses that dog when it's killed by Russian gangsters and, as a result, he shoots and kills everybody involved. I've often joked that if my dog were to run away or if say, my house got broken into and something happened to my dog (quite likely in Baltimore by the way), I'd probably just walk into traffic or have myself committed. I would not recover. "John Wick" offers up another response: Blow the whole world up because you no longer have what you felt like you were supposed to have in this world. Like smart revenge movies, "John Wick" is knowing and grim. It does not offer the proper or even reasonable response to your dog being killed. It is a response, though.

10. I'm of two minds about dog fighting, which is weird given my idiotic devotion to my pet, I know. There are many ways to love another thing, especially a thing that doesn't exactly have the same kind of agency as a human, and embroiling it in something as ugly, dangerous, and corrupt as dog fighting makes some sense. There's a bond there, an untidy loyalty. And the curious anger directed at infamous dog-fighting football star Michael Vick has stuck with me. I mean, Washington D.C. police bucked their horses inches from me and others on Inauguration Day after pepper spraying us and throwing some kind of explosive at us—I felt bad for those animals who also have an iffy relationship with the cops putting them in danger. There are many ways people are cruel to animals. There are plenty of videos of cops shooting dogs on sight when they enter a home. And then there's Baltimore Police officer Jeffrey Bolger, who in June 2014 slit the throat of Nala, a runaway 7-year-old shar pei that bit somebody. "I'm going to fucking gut this thing," Bolger allegedly announced right before he fucking gutted the thing. Fwiw, a judge found Bolger not guilty.

11. "He stood over it and heard that keening again, the sound of a creature that was one breath away from deciding it was too hard to take the next, and Bob pulled off the lid. He had to remove some things to get to it—a doorless microwave and five thick Yellow Pages, the oldest dating back to 2005, piled atop some soiled bedding and musty pillows. The dog—either a very small one or else a puppy—was down at the bottom and it scrunched its head into its midsection when the light hit it. It exhaled a soft chug of a whimper and tightened its body even more, its eyes closed to slits. A scrawny thing. Bob could see its ribs. He could see a big crust of dried blood by its ear. No collar. It was brown with a white snout and paws that seemed far too big for its body."-Dennis Lehane, 'Animal Rescue,' 2009

12. Bernie's back legs stopped working again in the summer of 2015. This time, it was related to some degenerative bone thing in both of his knees and it required serious and invasive surgery where they had to get in there and saw down his joints. In the weeks before, it wasn't clear exactly what the problem was and there was lots of anticipatory cancer talk (my previous dog, a rottweiler and lab mix, died of cancer at age 3). I imagined having to possibly put Bernie down. I thought so much about being in the car with him, driving all the way out to the vet's—it would be the Harford County one, so we'd be talking an hour-long death drive from Baltimore to HarCo—and how terrible and stupid that would be. Couldn't I kill him myself? That, frankly, seemed and seems more "right" to me at least. Can I take him for a walk and shoot him in back of the head? None of this matters for now (though odds are, one day, probably sooner than later, he will have to be "put down") because they figured out the problem—this fucked-up knee and leg thing. So he had the surgery and spent the fall of 2015 lying on a futon slowly healing. His back legs are weak with way less muscle definition than they should have, but he's down to walk like usual and even run around from time to time. He's pretty good now.


13. A long red rubber toy pig that looks exactly like a dildo is Bernie's oldest and, apparently, favorite toy—or maybe just the one he has tolerated the longest. Only about half of the toy is still around, but he has ceased to grab it with his paws and tear at its thick rubber. These days, he just puts it in his mouth and shakes his head around and chews gently on its snout. A favorite game when the dildo pig was intact: I'd whip it at an ottoman as hard as I could so that it would shoot it up in the air and Bernie would wait for the bounce then bound across the room, catch it mid-air, and proudly strut around with it like a diva.

14. There are times when Bernie is so chilled-out that you can forget he is there. In a way, it almost feels like you're in the room with a person who hasn't said anything for a few hours. So, I'll say his name and his head tilts like "huh?" and then he opens his mouth and pants like a big dumb idiot and jumps up off the bed, and gingerly grumbles or growls a little. That is him talking to me.

15. Windy & Carl's 2005 album, "Dedications To Flea," is a tribute to the couple's dog who died at the age of 14. Across two tracks ('Ode To A Dog' and 'Sketch For Flea'), its honeyed drones and gooey guitar noodling bobs around audio of Flea's cozy panting and paws pitter-pattering on the sidewalk. It should be an album that's almost too much to bear—this, an ostensibly ambient record about a dead dog—but it's too experiential to allow one to wallow. You're never quite relaxed listening to it, even if the dog-on-a-walk-sounds might make you think of new-age-friendly field recordings. This once-living thing at the heart of the music makes it richer, less "pleasant," more complicated. This is what dogs do to our lives: They interrupt it and screw it all up for the better, a slight deviation from normal, and then eventually they go away forever and leave behind a heartening lack.

16. A photo of Bernie and I on the beach a few years ago: I'm in a beach chair hunched forward a little bit looking very disgruntled ("JFK-like," my dad joked, but not because I'm handsome, but because my hair is messy and I look like a prick) and Bernie is next to me looking toward the ground, nervous. We both have our backs to the beautiful beach and the gorgeous rolling waves crashing in the distance.