Barry Knister: THE WRITER MUST HAVE A DOG: THE WRITER MUST HAVE A DOG When I think of the dog at the center of my short novel  JUST BILL , I see him as youthful, vital, the ...



When I think of the dog at the center of my short novel JUST BILL, I see him as youthful, vital, the life force personified. He is up for anything his master wants to do, always alert for a sign that it’s time to jump in the lake, or go for a walk. He eats the same way, gobbling from the bowl before it touches the floor. He remembers things: another dog herds lady golfers away from a dangerous patch of jungle; Bill later prevents a small boy from entering the same overgrown area.

That’s art, or so I prefer to think of JUST BILL. Fiction improves on life by organizing it into patterns and plots. It compresses, stylizes, creates trajectories in which actions build one on the other to create anticipation and meaning for the reader. If the writer gets it right, the whole equals more than the sum of its parts.

Life? Not so much. It doesn’t really “mean,” or have trajectory. Or if it does, the path is imposed later. When you win, you explain your success in a way that makes you look good. You were responsible for the whole thing, made great choices, knew just what to do. Lose, and the same thing happens in reverse: forces beyond your control screwed up everything.

In other words, life is in many ways inferior to art. In life, plot, structure, trajectory, and the rest of it are replaced by routine.

This sense of something lost as a result of predictability doesn’t seem to be a problem for writers. At least not for this one. For me, routine and predictability are good things. That's how I gain the hours and focused attention I need to develop stories. If I lived a life of novelty and change, I wouldn’t write.

But one thing is certain: A life like mine absolutely needs a dog.

It needs that combination of order and routine that my dog Chelsea loves as much as I do, along with a dog’s ability to take people out of themselves. To be a chum-on-demand. After almost eight years with her, I can no longer imagine life or writing without Chelsea. By the way, the dog in the photo is not my dog: At the first sign or sound of a camera, Chelsea hides. But I very much like this dog's face. It's full of character.

Although she’s good at it, my wife Barbara doesn’t write. But about Chelsea’s importance we are in total agreement. It makes us both grateful and apprehensive, living with our rescued border collie whose age we can't know, watching her growing gray just like ourselves, but whose days are racing past so much faster than our own.

As I think of what’s to come, the phrase “pay it forward” occurs to me, but I don't know why. Sooner, not later, the balloon payment for all the gratitude we feel for our dog will come due. And there is no way to prepare for it, or to meet the balance due.

Photo on <a href="">Visual hunt</a>


Barry Knister: THE REAL WORK OF DOGS:                       THE REAL WORK OF DOGS Some years ago, a letter to the Naples (Florida) Daily News was headlined “Feasibilit...



In my last entry, I described my dog Chelsea as being something like a Freudian psychoanalyst.

What did I mean? Not that sweet Chelsea has completed a rigorous course in dream interpretation, or knows how to sort out what’s peeping through from my unconscious during free association. I mean her presence, her attentiveness frees me to ventilate. And when I do, assuming I stop to think about it, the odds are good I’ll learn something.

With a few additional bells and whistles, that's what happens in psychoanalysis. The therapist is present as a guide, but tries to avoid “leading the witness.” Ideally, as the patient meanders or stumbles through each fifty-minute session, he becomes more conscious of what’s on or in his mind. If he succeeds, the patient becomes more free, and less “managed” by aspects of himself that he knew little or nothing about before.

So, I’m sitting on my couch in the living room, talking in unflattering terms about people we’d had dinner with that weekend. Chelsea is lying on the floor a few feet away. Her brown, beautiful eyes are trained on me.

“I didn’t like her nose. The surgeon muffed that one. Or the fluttery hands we were supposed to think are expressive. Or all the breathless travel anecdotes. Why do people do it? I haven’t been there, I’m not going there. Besides, neither of them was much good at describing their experiences. It was mostly copy out of a travel brochure or a Sandals TV commercial.

"Plus, I'm sorry, Chelsea, but the husband’s a nebbish. Present but unaccounted for. AWOL. And I got tired of the color commentary about their getaway place up north in God’s country. And I'm not supposed to say it, but most of all, Chelsea, with the huge inventory of adoptable babies in our own country, why spend a fortune to adopt politically correct babies from somewhere in the Third World?”

At some point, I noticed my dog’s eyes were closed. Boredom? Old-dog afternoon fatigue? No matter, I saw it as criticism: Chelsea had closed her eyes to signal rebuke.

A trained psychoanalyst doesn’t do that to his patients; he just listens. and sometimes takes notes. In the case of my own actual, human analyst forty-some years ago (back when I didn't have a dog and everyone smoked), he simply went on puffing his stogey, reminding me of how Freud had assured everyone that “sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.”

But Chelsea was no longer watching me, so I considered what I’d been saying. Nothing I’d said about the other couple was false. The wife was breathlessly delighted with herself and her life. Her husband was nice enough, but, yes, something of a nonentity.

The nose and fluttering hands? I’m not usually so observant or so mean-spirited about such things. What else? Self-delighting thumbnail impressions of lengthy trips, color commentary about some cabin—she did go on. And what about the babies, carefully researched, flown to for visits, and eventually adopted at considerable expense, then whisked away to an American suburb?

The more I thought, the more it seemed my resentment of these people boiled down to price tags. That was it. I disliked the woman and her husband mostly because of envy, the middle-class sin.

It didn’t matter that my wife and I no longer have much interest in travel, nor that neither of us are the cottage-up-north type. It didn’t matter because, if we were the type, we couldn’t do much about it. In other words, I resented people who had the wherewithal to pursue interests about which we didn’t much care.

I think it was here Chelsea again opened her eyes. Maybe it was just to confirm I was still there. Or simply to let me know our session was over.



Ever heard of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson? Back in the Eighties, he made a name for himself by claiming that Sigmund Freud might have suppressed key research findings, in order to preserve the intellectual purity of his theories.

That may explain why, in his book Dogs Never Lie about Love, Masson questions the supremacy of laboratory research as the way to knowledge. He does so by defending the value of personal, anecdotal evidence about dogs and their feelings:

“Since we can never know for certain what another person is feeling, anything we say about his inner world is, in a sense, pure speculation.” This being the case, Masson tells us, “Why should we not be permitted to similarly speculate about dogs? We watch their eyes and their ears and their tails, we listen for sounds.” Same with humans: we watch their faces, their eyes and mouths, listen for inflection in their voices, etc (p. xxii of the preface).

Those reading this don’t have to be told such things. We know it’s true as certainly as we know anything. Our dogs are not just humble beasts, not organic things among other organic things in the world, like tomatoes or worms. Our dogs are variations on personhood. They are sentient, perceptive beings who look straight at us, and do a remarkably good job of communicating without access to human speech.

What’s also true is that when I stop to reflect on how I respond to my dog, doing so opens a window on me, to me. I consider my border collie mix, Chelsea, to be something like a Freudian psychoanalyst.

I mean “talk” therapy, the kind in which the patient speaks freely, on whatever he chooses. In so doing he reveals information to a person trained to analyze what’s meant but is not being consciously presented in the patient’s monologue.

I talk quite a bit to my dog. This morning, I told her about a couple at dinner last night, people my wife Barbara and I have known for years, but only casually. Last night was different: they were part of a group that went to dinner, and my wife and I sat with them.

The following day, I found myself trashing these people to Chelsea. True, our exchange wasn’t exactly the same as it would be in a Freudian analyst's consulting room. I wasn’t lying down or sitting in an easy chair; my dog was doing the lying down, on an oriental rug. She’s blind in one eye, and when I looked at her, the good eye was trained exactly on me as I talked.

She didn’t understand me—not entirely--but she was listening. This fact caused me to stop and think, to analyze why I was going on in such a hostile way about this other couple.

And after I think about it some more, I’ll explain what I’ve come up with.



In recent years, my wife Barbara, our rescued border collie Chelsea and I have shared life in two places: a bedroom suburb north of Detroit, and Naples, Florida. In subtle ways, our dog's gentle, trusting manner has sharpened the contrast between these two addresses.

As Michigan snowbirds, and lifetime liberals, my wife and I at last realize how sheltered our own lives have been in Michigan. Before retiring, Barbara worked for a labor union. I taught college undergraduates. All our connections were with like-minded people.

In Naples during the winter, Strangers in a Strange Land is how we think of ourselves. We live on a golf course, and although our neighbors are cordial, they are almost all of them chest-thumping conservatives. Whenever politics comes up, they take it for granted we share their views. As new kids on the block, and greatly outnumbered, we bite our tongues and keep our commie-liberal-socialist opinions to ourselves.

What’s so weird is how these same defenders of gun rights and government small enough to drown in a bathtub are as doting and mushy toward their dogs as we are toward ours.

My neighbor across the street is a thoroughly likable octogenarian. He’s sitting right now on his driveway, in the sun. His favorite thing in the world is Debbie, the overweight cocker spaniel roaming and rooting around under the coconut palms in his yard. “How’s Debbie today? How’s my sweetykins? That’s a good doggy, that’s right, you get those geckos!”

He settles again in his lawn chair, head back, eyes closed. Having washed his beautiful Mercedes convertible, he will now catch some afternoon rays and listen to the radio. The hollow-sounding voice coming from his  open garage is unmistakably that of Rush Limbaugh, barking out the latest venom related to anything or anyone not to the political right of Louis XIV.

That's my problem: I don’t know how to square my neighbor’s unconditional love for an overfed cocker spaniel with his conviction that those in need deserve their fate, and that they are in no way a matter of our collective civic responsibility.

But seeing him like this--sunning himself and listening to Limbaugh, now and then cooing sweet nothings to Debbie--reminds me of a simple truth: without a shared allegiance to our dogs, things would be much chillier for me here in paradise.



Today, we consider another of the myriad styles of married life reflected in the man/woman/dog connection.

If you are already married, the ideology of equality has long ago been dismissed as so much hokum. The various grievances large and small that so often lead to waywardness, and ultimately to bitter sessions in a law office are known to you. If they aren’t, and if you are not among the handful of couples blessed by the gods, then you probably live a life of quiet desperation, keeping the lid on to avoid alimony and child support. Even so, you almost certainly hold out hope for some magic elixir, some incantation that will make the road smoother.

You hope, in fact, for a dog mistress/lover.

And don’t forget: with dogs, there’s no need to sort out all the knotty “gender issues” so often coming into play these days. The life companion can be your sex or not, and there’s never any need to anguish over lifestyle options. Whether you are a hard-charging leader or fawning help meet, a dog can measure up.

So, again employing the marriage/extra-marital concept, what can we say about the couple pictured above? I am a dog person, and of course would be interested in what other dog nuts think. But people like us are pretty predictable in the unconditional nature of our love, so I am actually more interested in what non-dog-crazy persons think.

To get the ball rolling, my view is that the couple in the photo appears pretty much agreed on an open marriage of equals. They are together but free to pursue separate interests outside their marriage. The young man is texting, or picking lint out of his navel, maybe even meditating. Possibly, something has made him remember his 401k, or the size of the monthly interest nut he carries on his credit card. Understandably, this has made him for the moment oblivious to all else, including his companion.

The dog? As with his spouse we can’t be sure, but it’s evident he/she is nicely composed, even though interested in something off to the right. Almost certainly it’s another dog: this picture was taken at a Bark in the Park sponsored by the Humane Society of Naples, Florida.

 like the casual naturalness of the dog’s shoulders better than I do the more defeated quality of the man’s. It suggests a tolerant, patient kind of companion, the sort that gives you your space, isn’t too needy, isn’t always dropping balls or food bowls at your feet, demanding to be let in the bathroom when you’re taking a shower, etc.

I have more to say, but a person of interest has just entered my study. Seating herself before my desk, she begins working the magic of her one good eye. It’s noon, the eye says. Someone has to wear the watch in this family. Patiently she continues displaying the quiet confidence of one who knows who will win. The same one who always wins, who knows it’s just a matter of seconds before this particular spouse gets up and follows her out the door.


Barry Knister: THE WRITER MUST HAVE A DOG : THE WRITER MUST HAVE A DOG When I think of the dog at the center of my short novel  JUST BIL...