Dear Editor:
As my dog has pointed out, it’s too late for New Year’s resolutions. But a review of recent letters to the newspaper convinces me the subject shouldn't be abandoned. Instead, let’s all agree to have New Year’s Reservations about what we write before sending it to the editor.

Example: “God-given.” This is a great favorite among those writing to newspapers. God-given rights, talents, freedom, etc. But, really, does this make much sense? For believers, God is the creator. He is the source of all life, objects and qualities. Believers need no reminder of this.

 Non-believers believe in a godless universe, and scoff at the idea of God-given anything. This being accepted, telling newspaper readers that God has given them something serves only to announce that the writer is a believer. Why does the writer want others to know this? God alone needs the information, and He has it already. He knows everything that ever happened, not to mention everything that ever will, so there you go.

Hitler, Nazi (or Nazism), European Socialism or socialist, Communist (or communism), liberal, right wing, ultra (fill in the blank), diabolical (fill in the blank), patriot (or patriotism), hero or heroes, etc. These are hugely popular among those who write letters to the editor, especially older men with childhood memories of World War Two and the Cold War. But as with God-given, the use of such terms serves only to align the writer with those who have used them--over and over--in previous letters.

What useful goal is achieved by doing this? Neuroscience tells us repetition works to fix ideas more firmly in the reader’s mind (ask anyone at Fox News). But whatever explains these letters to the editor, most of the writers aren’t crazy. Even so, this year, let’s all get on the composition treadmill. Let’s cut out the blubber before hitting the Send button.




“Federal stalking law to include pets, support animals”

That’s the headline for a front-page article in the December 15 issue of the Detroit Free Press. Michigan U.S. Senator Gary Peters has managed to add a provision to this year’s farm bill. It targets those who threaten to harm or who do harm to a pet, as a way to harass or intimidate a victim of domestic abuse.

With this bill in place, anyone who’s guilty can be looking at up to five years in jail. (Personally, I’m for ten years, but that’s just me.)

Peters’ proposal aims to take away from wife beaters and sadistic boyfriends the leverage they can gain by threatening to go after a pet. Studies reveal that “as many as 25 percent of domestic violence survivors returned to abusive partners out of concern for their pets.”

Without provisions for pets in women’s shelters, victims of abuse must choose between saving themselves, or staying where they least want to be, in order to save their dog or cat.

Thank you, Senator Peters. You get this week’s Golden Leash Award.

Please visit me at

photo credit:



Christmas is a good time to be thankful. This is especially true for me when I recall doing something so stupid that it should have stamped CANCELLED on every future Christmas I had coming.

In southeastern Michigan, helicopters regularly crisscross the sky. They carry media types reporting on weather or freeway traffic, also the governor on his way between the state capital in Lansing and his home in Ann Arbor. In the spring, other tiny helicopters join them, in the form of thousands of seeds from silver maple trees.

When we bought our house, the owner explained what I would need to do to take care of the pond in the backyard. This would be accomplished  with the quaint, old sump pump in the garage. Just stick it in, turn it on, and let old mister pump do the rest, she said.

So, that first spring in our new/old house, when the silver maple seeds finally stopped dropping, I got started. I managed to get the pump working, and effluvia began gushing from the attached hose. My dog Chelsea watched, lying before the pond. She was almost blind then, so what I was doing came to her mostly as smells--rotting vegetation, mosquito larvae, etc.

Mucking out our pond reminded me of an analogy Freud used to explain the process of psychoanalysis. He compared it to draining the Zeuderzee, a swamp in Holland. The more you drain, and expose what lies hidden below the surface, the more of it becomes part of your conscious life.

Joining this analogy for me now is the name of a Ron White comedy concert: “You can’t fix stupid.”

I noticed the pump's wiring was partially exposed, but since the thing worked, good enough. As the pump chugged along, exposing more and more of the yucky pond, I slipped off my shoes, stepped down into the water and began scooping out rotted leaves and seeds. As I worked, the oddest tingling played about my feet, even in my hands.

Who can say how long I felt this tingling before it dawned on Professor Knister, defender of Freud, scourge of the dangling participle, tireless enemy of the passive voice, that where water and electrical current are present, humans should be absent?

Hearing all this later, my friend the electrical engineer stared at me. After a long moment, he shook his head and shrugged. “Don't ever do that again,” he said. “You've used up all the luck you ever had coming to you in your entire life.”

Both my border collie Chelsea and the pond are gone now. I still remember them, my wise old dog lying on the sunny grass, watching me. I am thankful to have known her, and thankful for the many Christmases since that spring afternoon. Thankful to have survived stupid.



The question provoked controversy a while back at The Kill Zone, a website by and for crime-fiction writers.  Regular contributor Kathryn Lilley titled her post “Must our heroes be handsome?”  Lilley was moved to write on the topic after attending a workshop.  A well-known novelist had said he made his characters good-looking because “I like to write books that sell.”

When Lilley recovered from being shocked by simple honesty (the writer’s thrillers are  nothing if not commercial), she realized her favorite novels did in fact have “handsome and brilliant” protagonists.  Even so, most of those who wrote comments on her piece expressed outrage over the idea:  How dare any reader expect heroes or heroines to be lookers!   

Still, it's a question worth asking.  But it should also be said that good writers don’t give readers elaborately detailed descriptions, either of people or places (never say never: the exceptions are certain kinds of romance novels). Instead, good writers carefully select a few details that will lead their readers to imagine the rest.

But that begs the question: do readers want to be led to imagine a hunk or  dish, or characters like themselves and their neighbors?    

Those who read mostly to be entertained want idealized characters. They don’t have to be beautiful, but they should be exceptional in some way: charming, ruthless, menacing, witty, etc. In life, of course, people can be charming or ruthless or both.  Just not all the time.
Look at the person in the photo. Everything about her says she's beautiful, witty, charming--especially charming, considering her hat. My first impression of it was of an impossibly bizarre birth defect. Anyone who wears a hat like that to a funeral (Margaret Thatcher's) has got to be charming.  But wearing such a hat also makes the wearer look even better.

OK. Now imagine that when we next meet up with this real person, we're in a pub having lunch.  And she sneezes.  And she has a nasty sinus infection.  God--she gets something really disgusting on her dress, and yells “Don’t look at me!” She snatches a dirty napkin off the table and works to wipe off what’s on her front--but the napkin now adds ketchup from some fries (excuse me, chips, she's British) to what’s already there, which, understandably, leads to more not-so-charm-school behavior.
Funny. Come to think of it, I like her better already.  
(photo courtesy of Julian Mason)



Other than writing itself, no behavior is more often associated with the writing life than drinking. For this reason alone, writers do well to avoid the subject. What can be left to say? From the biographies of famous boozers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, to Mailer to Cheever, up to Caroline Knapp’s very good personal memoir on the subject, Drinking: A Love Story, we have been down this road many times.

Perhaps, then, it’s just the challenge that makes this heavily mined topic register with me this morning. Can I come up with anything new?

In the seventies and eighties, I attended several summer writers’ conferences. Thinking them over, and comparing them with the last conference I was involved with in the New Millenium, I see some stark contrasts.

The first conference I attended was in 1977, in Rochester, New York. It took place on the University of Rochester campus, and was the brainchild of L.J. Davis, a novelist. Some notable figures were there, either flown in to deliver inspirational talks, or hired to run workshops.

I wasn’t in his group, but the star workshop leader that year was William Gaddis. His fifties-era novel, The Recognitions, was considered a later representative of the High Modernism associated with James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and many others. He had recently published his second novel, J.R.

The only reason for mentioning Gaddis is that, at the end of each afternoon’s class session, the various groups of poets, short-story writers and would-be novelists came from their meeting rooms and congregated in the lobby. Magically each afternoon, someone had prepared a trestle table for our arrival: bottles and setups, cheese, chips, nuts.

At later conferences I attended, this same scene was repeated with jug wine and beer. But at Rochester, conference director Davis's personal sense of happy-hour decorum required--in abundance--gin, scotch, rum, vodka, and bourbon. But probably not tequila. Jimmy Buffett hadn't yet made the scene, so tequila’s time as a staple in the booze canon was yet to come.

Gaddis was at all other times quiet, even furtively reserved. He was then in his fifties, small and good-looking, tanned, always dressed smartly, usually in a linen suit. Other than a question or two that I asked of him at these cocktail hours—invariably answered obliquely--what I remember about Gaddis is seeing him, exactly at five o'clock, striding purposefully out of his classroom ahead of his students, calling “Whisky time! Whisky time!”

The room was soon filled with cigarette smoke, the volume increasing steadily as whisky time worked its magic. What it did was lubricate a multi-generational collection of strangers, all of them self-absorbed, self-described writers and poets who were not usually chatty. Alcohol did what it does: people talked, compared notes, laughed, postured, became grandiose or combative.

It was fun, a well-deserved reward after a day of listening to and commenting on the inspiring, inferior work of other members in your group. Or after sitting silently with arms folded, forced to hear the depressing work of pure genius produced by someone other than yourself.

Alcohol, tobacco and creative work are what the writers of Mad Men dumped in the blender to produce a frothy hit TV series. Something of this mood was present at that first conference. It was breezy, unencumbered by thoughts about calories, brain cells and lung cancer, electrolytes, early-onset dementia, liver or kidney disease, hypoglycemia, diabetes, etc.

It was an innocent time, made possible by an ignorance that would soon end. I know new delights have taken the place of our primitive pleasures. But my memory of that first conference is sepia-tinged. It was a happy time, and however much it compromised my various systems and ductwork, I have no regrets.



"It’s not your fault, it’s my fault. Don’t you see, Hotsie? God, out buying pots…”

This is the opening of my novel, Just Bill. The speaker is a young woman, just returned from shopping at the Coastland Mall in Naples, Florida. Hotsie is the familiar form for Hotspur, her dog. He “sits opposite, bolt upright on Cliff Gilmore’s Barca Lounger. His black coat glistens under track lighting, chest and muzzle pure white. As if to console Glenda, the border collie raises a paw."

Console her for what? Glenda was shopping for cookware, the pots she refers to. Before she married Cliff Gilmore, Glenda was a catalog model, mostly for Lands’ End. She never knew how to cook, but recently decided it was high time she learned. When she got home, the light was blinking on the answering machine. That’s how she learned Cliff was dead.

“It’s not your fault, it’s my fault.” Cliff died while playing Frisbee with Hotspur, on the tennis courts at Donegal Golf and Country Club.

Glenda's suffering is real: she loved her husband. Cliff was much older, which is one of the reasons Glenda is resented by other club wives. But that’s just one of the reasons: she’s very good looking, and much younger than every other woman at Donegal.

In part, the resentment is why Glenda is holding herself responsible for what happened. Of course neither she nor Cliff’s dog is responsible. No one is. But just now it feels as though someone must be. Effects need causes. Otherwise, life is lived in a random universe, and that won’t do. Especially at times like this one.

The need to know, to establish pattern and order--that's why Glenda is confessing to her dog. Throughout Just Bill people do this. In fact, the most important feature of the lives my characters share with their dogs—a bichon frise, a poodle, a schnauzer, two dachshunds, Hotspur and Bill-- is the speaker/auditor connection.

I’m sure it’s true for all dogs who serve as companions. Certainly, it’s true at the golf retirement community where much of Just Bill takes place. All the nests are empty at Donegal, and many of the residents are widows or widowers. Because loss has diminished order and meaning, their pets have become more important to them.

In the absence of Hotspur, Glenda Gilmore—resented, mistrusted, thought to be a gold digger-- would be talking to herself. Were she alone, imagine how much worse things would be.



The following numbers are dated (taken from the 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook), but I'm too lazy to look up more recent stats: Even so, these are revealing:

In that year, the top pet was the dog. 37.2 percent of pet-owning households had at least one.
Something in excess of forty-five million people in the United States owned dogs.
Thirty-two million bought Christmas gifts for their pets.
Ten million celebrated their dogs' birthdays.

We can assume the numbers are much larger now. To me, the last two stats are especially significant: thirty-two million + Americans gave Christmas gifts to their pets. Along with children and grandchildren, wives, parents, lovers, etc., thirty-two million people also remembered to shop for Ariadne or Goth or Bucky. They drove somewhere, or walked, or took a bus, or went online to check out appropriate dog-oriented presents. They pondered alternatives, made decisions, and finally bought what they decided would make their dogs “happy.”

Because owners want it so. Just as with buying gifts for others, buying for a dog is both generous and selfish. You are giving something, but getting something, too. Actually, you are getting a number of things: the pleasure of choosing for someone you know, and the expectation of seeing the reaction. With dogs, this expectation leads to the moment when everyone else is shredding paper and feigning surprise and delight at receiving a new tie selected by a teenage grandchild, featuring the unmistakable likeness of Lady Gaga.

Not so the dog. He or she has entered the spirit of the season with unalloyed gusto. Shredding, whimpering, working his head off, he lets nothing stand between him and the task at paw. And it won’t much matter what’s inside. He will snatch it up and prance around the room, parading his new kong or rawhide chew for all to see.

He or she will almost certainly be happy, nothing feigned about it. Grateful, too, and never disappointed, or bored with waiting for it all to be over, so he can get back to texting Sophia, or to playing Grand Theft Auto.

It’s the purity of your dog’s response to life that’s the real reward, the actual gift a dog gives you on holidays and birthdays. Actually, on every day. It’s the lack of ambiguity in a dog’s response--to a raised leash, even to hard eyes staring down following a perfectly innocent encounter with your new slippers.

When all around us is complex and often ambiguous, when so much is gray, we are grateful for someone in our lives who is none of these things. Or we should be.



Mark Twain described golf as a good walk spoiled. If he were still alive, what would he say about all the walks being spoiled by technology?

How often do you see someone out walking her dog, someone not really there, holding up her end of a dialogue with someone in another place, who likewise isn’t there, wherever “there” is?

And it’s not just about dog-walking. It's about everything. I know of course this is "old business" coming from someone who's lost touch with the present, who's  out of step with all the market-driven hype lavished on Droids and I-phones, pads and pods, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

Even so, the only thing I’m losing is patience. I'm sure it’s convenient to pedal a rickshaw pulling a customized tent on wheels with an infant inside--something like a Ming-dynasty princess--while you talk to someone in cyberspace.

Or (I've seen it while walking my dog), someone texting and peddling, one hand steering, one hand thumbing like mad in the morning as crazed drivers late for work tear past. Or, later in the day, soccer moms chauffeuring children to practice and yammering away as they careen past the vulnerable Ming princess and her coolie parent.

But it’s nuts.

That said, if it weren’t for such people putting me and mine at risk, I would be happy to think Libertarian thoughts. Let the madcap techno-crazies go by, would be my view. As long as they don’t get in the way of my good time, no problem. Maybe it will all sort itself out in terms of the Darwin Awards.

But they do intrude. People used to speed off when stoplights turned green. Now, they sit with head bowed, texting, until you honk.

                             DOGS: CAN ADMIRATION GO TOO FAR?

That question came to mind as I read the following headline in my morning Detroit Free Press: “Slain police dog is remembered in Saint Clair Shores.”

“Slain” is what raised an eyebrow, a word I associate only with humans. The article’s opening paragraph firmed up my curiosity: “The Saint Clair Shores community laid to rest a beloved member of its police department, K-9 Axe, a police dog who died in the line of duty 10 days earlier.”

Before going further, let me place myself in the continuum from dog loather to dog lover. I am a dog nut. Not a dog's owner but a dog's staff member. When I meet someone with a dog, I ask for his or her name. I don’t bother to ask the owner’s name. My own dog is right now lying ten feet away, waiting for the little buzzer to go off in her head that signals it’s time to issue me my marching orders for the morning walk.

But “laid to rest,” “beloved member of its police department, “died in the line of duty”?

Then: a memorial service, “complete with law enforcement canines and bagpipes was held…at the packed Assumption Greek Orthodox Church.” Next, the mayor: “We’re here to honor a fallen hero that paid the ultimate sacrifice,” and “we lost a friend, a brother and a valued member of our police department” who “loved his job and family.”

How about you? Assuming you too are a dog lover (why else would you still be reading?), do these details give you any pause? I assume Saint Clair Shores is a dog-centric community, and  the mayor would like to be re-elected, but still.

For me, the real point is how radically altered our perception of dogs has become. The humans’ choice of words says it all. The journalist, the city’s mayor and police officials aren’t all likely to be off their meds. They just reflect how dependent we’ve become on dogs for friendship and companionship. More and more, we think of them as persons.

P.S. The same Detroit Free Press edition carries a story about poultry as pets. I myself am against it. I don’t want to be haunted by pairs of eyes in my neighbor's yard, following me from garage to back door as I carry in tonight’s rotisserie chicken.
P.P.S the Free Press article was written by Christina Hall.




So, I’m walking my dog this morning here in southeastern Michigan. It’s a great day for a walk, crisp and sunny, windless. We’re starting out as we always do, up our block to Ridge Road. As we reach Ridge, a jogger lopes past in the street.

He’s dressed in standard jogger tights inspired by the condom, and a matching red jersey. He’s wearing sunglasses, and a stocking cap. As always for years now, he passes without a wave, nod or smile, intent on the demands of his cardio-vascular drill.

Am I petty to resent this young man again this morning for not acknowledging me, someone he’s seen dozens of times on this street? Very well, then, I’m petty. But it’s a great morning, and my dog and I continue on our own, thoroughly un-cardio-vascular, un-achievement-oriented routine.

We head east, and now start down Oxford Boulevard. The big yards here have all been tidied up for their long winter’s nap. Most of the houses are decorated, some professionally. My dog and I follow a particular path, on the left sidewalk. That’s because Emma lives on the other side, and often camps out under “her” tree. She’s a beautiful husky or malemute, I never know the difference. She has ice-blue eyes that seem to frighten my dog, so we always take the opposite sidewalk.

Now, coming toward us is another jogger. He's skinny, with a lunging stride that's less than graceful. In the short interval before he reaches us, I imagine his lack of jogging rhythm leading to disaster. Shouldn’t he be in the street? No matter, he prefers the sidewalk. I imagine him reaching us, tripping or stumbling, and landing on my dog.

He breaks her back. He struggles up and is now running in place to prevent his heart rate from dropping. He shrugs, and jogs off. By this point he is well past me and my dog, but the imagined disaster continues. It now involves violence visited on the callous jogger; then a courtroom exchange in which a judge that hates dogs finds against me. Et cetera.

As you see, this material is well suited to The Couch. I resent being ignored by the first jogger, and as a consequence have turned the second one into a sociopath, a co-conspirator with jogger one. But I know how to deal with this problem: it’s my dog’s fault. If she hadn't been there, this tragedy would never have occurred. But I forgive her, and get back to enjoying the morning..



Since I’m a writer, you probably assume my title is a rhetorical question. Of course I want people to read: I write novels and essays, not screenplays. But that’s not it. I am actually growing weary of watching.

Mind you, not weary of all watching. I like walking my dog Chelsea and meeting others with dogs, or sitting with her in parks, and people-watching. If a lot of time passes between visits, I even like the streaming-video experience of strolling through a mall. Especially I like sitting on my lanai in late afternoon, watching the last light of day burnish the stand of bamboo behind our house. When a breeze passes, the stand makes a rattling sound, like castanets.

I mean I’m weary of watching movies and TV. There’s something increasingly oppressive about it, like a form of bondage. I’m prepared to concede my viewer’s fatigue is partly fallout from getting old. At some point, you’ve watched so many movies, news broadcasts and TV shows that everything new comes off as a thinly veiled, more frantic version of something you saw way-back-when.

But by no means does this entirely explain my growing impatience with new films, or what’s on the tube. I believe that in the course of my life, the “tenor of the times” has greatly altered, and that this change explains my impatience. Here again, a grumpy old man’s disdain for what’s new is the obvious explanation. But I don’t think that’s it. I’m no grumpier now than I was ten or even twenty years ago.

I think a national mood shift has taken place, the equivalent of tectonic plates realigning themselves to move continents. “Stand your ground” laws illustrate this sudden shift, along with open-carry advocates showing up at town meetings. “I’ll keep my guns and money, you keep the change” bumper stickers are another. Or rallies featuring posters of Ayn Rand dressed in full medieval body armor, making the improbable matchup of a lifelong atheist with Joan of Arc.

How about Creationists (lately re-branded as advocates for Intelligent Design) scoffing at evolution, or pointing to falling snow as proof that global warming is a falsehood? How about endless cartoon super-heroes, and super-violent video games, extreme martial arts, or a cult-like fascination with wizards, dwarfs with special powers, along with dragons enlisted to promote social justice?

I don't know whether any of this is bad for society, or just bad for me. But with reading, I do know things are different. The scale of experience is smaller, more human. Better suited to thought rather than action. Unlike those who fuel themselves with images edited by others, readers use words on the page to create their own opinions, mental pictures, impressions.

Reading is something you do by and for yourself. It’s both selfish and creative, and you can do it anywhere. Preferably, in the company of a dog next to you on the couch.



When I think of the main character in 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 patch of jungle, and Bill later prevents a small boy from entering the same overgrown area.

That’s art, or so I prefer to think of my book. Fiction improves on life by organizing it into patterned plots. It compresses, stylizes, creates trajectories in which actions build one on the other to create anticipation and meaning for the reader. If you get 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  after the fact. If 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. Plot, structure, trajectory, and the rest of it are replaced by routine. Predictable repetition takes over, and novelty becomes just that: something novel, a rarity.

This sense of something lost as a result of predictable, repeated actions doesn’t seem to be a problem for writers. At least not for this one. For me, external routine and predictability are necessary and desirable. It's the only way can I gain the hours and focused attention I need to develop stories. If I lived life in pursuit of novelty and change, I wouldn’t write.

This self-imposed isolation is not easy on my wife Barbara. If she were married to a “normal” person, she would have a more interesting time of it. But that's not really for me to say. It’s perfectly possible she thanks her lucky stars I’m not crowding into her mornings and afternoons, mansplaining my version of things, offering "suggestions."

But in all this, one thing is certain. A life like mine absolutely needs a dog. It needs that combination of order and routine that dogs love 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. BTW, 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 a good writer, 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 we owe our dog will come due. And there is no way to prepare for it, or to meet the balance.



I am not a drinker in the sense of “he’s a drinker,” or “he drinks.” Those are people whose identity begins and often ends with drinking.

With me, it's one or two cocktails before dinner, or a bottle of wine shared with my wife at dinner. Oh, all right, sometimes both the cocktails and the wine.

I’m writing about this because I'm remembering a night some years ago. Seated in the dark on our pool deck, sipping the last of the evening’s bottle of Malbec, my wife Barbara and I found ourselves listening to raucous hijinks across the way.

By across the way, I mean the nearby block of condos in our Florida retirement golf community. We lived in a villa, which is Florida’s tarted-up word for a duplex—two houses sharing a center wall. Our place faced a preserve, and on the other side were more villas. They were all dark, so what we were hearing had to be coming from the condos.

You know what I mean: not the sound of people laughing at sitcoms, or “America’s Favorite Home Videos.” The volume level and verbal congestion ruled that out. We were definitely hearing hilarity fueled by devil rum. To be honest, I felt a little envious. So much shouting, such abandon. It’s been a long time since I partied that way. True, it was no fun mornings, cleaning up around the commode, but over time, you come to remember boozy nights wistfully. With fondness.

Half an hour later, I took Chelsea out for her last chance of the day to check her p-mail. We crossed the road, dark between streetlamps, and walked toward the next cone of light. Off to the right lay the seventh green. Beyond it rose the four-story block of condos. All the units had screened lanais, and behind a few, lights glowed dimly from kitchens or TVs.

As we walked, I heard something like death rattles, punctuated by coughing. It was the tail end of the party heard earlier, drinkers at the end of the downward spiral. The sounds were made more interesting by coming through the darkness from nowhere. I decided nowhere must be one of the blacked-out, first-floor lanais.

Alcohol operates in stages: from jocose to verbose to bellicose to morose, and eventually to comatose. I judged the people sitting in the dark to be fast approaching oblivion. One of two women kept repeating “never happen.” They were the only intelligible words in what was otherwise a confused mélange produced by three or more people simultaneously talking and gargling.

Chelsea and I moved on, through the next cone of light, into more darkness. After a few minutes, she stopped and turned, easing her hip against my left calf to herd me home. By the time we again reached the party point, all was quiet. The party people had finally lurched inside, or nodded off in the dark.

I wondered what it was that would “never happen.” My dog picked up speed, glad to be homeward bound. She was mostly blind, and didn’t like the dark. I felt grateful to her for not making me hold up my end of anything—drinking, talking. As we walked on in the soft Florida night, I wondered what she had made of it. Wondered as well whether a dog was lying on a dark lanai, hoping against hope for a last chance to go out and read the mail.



Hello. My name is Chelsea.
You’ve already met Bill. He’s the main character in a novel called Just Bill. His mister is named Fred Vinyl. Most of the story’s human characters have names like that, to tell readers something about them. For instance, Fred used to be in the vinyl siding business. There’s a family called the Telecoms, and a lady known as Trust Fund. The dogs also have names that say something about them: Chiffon, Emma (named after a character in a story written by Jane Austen), Luger, Wolfi and Stanzi. They all live on a golf course in Florida.

The writer thinks of Bill as his collaborator. He thinks of me that way, too, in life. But unlike the dogs in the story, my given name doesn’t come from a place or line of work. Or from a famous person. like Chelsea Clinton. Even if it did, no one I live with could know about it. That’s because I am a rescue dog, Barry and Barbara Knister's actual dog.

True, the dogs my mister made up are also “actual,” but in a different way. He imagined them. He’s strange about that. He spent so much time with Bill and his other characters that he pretty much thinks of them as real. Not real the way Barbara and I am real, but real enough.

He says that, for good or ill, what takes on life in the mind is real. In the same way dreams are facts. You can’t see or measure dreams, but they exist. They're real.

Before she died, my mister had a good friend who thought the same way about her cats, and also about an antique teddy bear. Charlie is the bear’s name, and the friend and her mother wrote about him, the way the mister wrote about Bill. The mother got this bear years ago, at an antiques auction. She brought him home, and came to think of Charlie as a companion. A friend. She made clothes for him, and saw to it he had other teddy bears and stuffed animals for company. She thought of each of them as having a distinct personality.

So, was this nice old woman crazy? Maybe. I never met her. But I met her daughter who published a book about all this. And although she was different from most people, I don’t think she was crazy. Her husband had died, and she lived alone with her cats, and Charlie and Charlie's friends. So she treated her pets and stuffed animals as people--so what? They kept her company in an empty house. Maybe, they kept her from becoming crazy. That seems the best way to think about it.

Anyway, it's how Barry Knister thinks about his dead friend, and also how he thinks about the characters in his story. How he thinks about me is different. He created a history for Bill, so he knows the made-up dog better than he knows me. He can’t know a thing about my parents, my puppyhood, or my previous two families.

 And it bothers him. He says I exist outside history, floating in the space-time continuum. I came into his life like an apparition, a postage stamp-sized photo on a rescue-dog website, along with a two-hundred word description. Then, weeks later, I appeared on a hill overlooking the river that separates Covington,Kentucky from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Adopting a dog never before met, on a hillside being visited for the first and last time, then driving hundreds of miles to reach home changed him forever. For someone who lets things like that get to him, it’s quite a story. Especially when he wonders about what must have been going on in the mind of his new dog. Me.

P.S. For reasons I don't understand (and neither does Barry Knister), I am afraid of cameras. There are almost no photos of me, but the one at the top was taken of a sculpture in the Naples, Florida Botanical Gardens. We hope you like it.




In my last entry, I promised a quote from well-known psychologist and dog expert Stanley Coren, taken from his excellent book, The Consciousness of Dogs: Canine consciousness and capabilities.

But first, what is consciousness?

If you look in the Random House College Dictionary, you get this: “the state of being conscious; awareness. the thoughts and feelings, collectively, of an individual or of an aggregate of people. full activity of the mind and senses. awareness of something for what it is: consciousness of wrongdoing.”

“Awareness of something for what it is” strikes me as the key. To have consciousness, I have to know what I am, and what isn't me. You don’t have consciousness unless you can make this distinction. I've read that children are only partially conscious until sometime around the age of five. At that point, they have lost their sense of the world as an extension of themselves, and are now individuals. (you probably know adults who never actually reach "that point").

Asking most dog owners whether dogs have consciousness is a no-brainer. They answer with stories to illustrate how smart their dog is, how “good” or “naughty,” etc. Hearing such stories, those who  don't like dogs will react by rolling their eyes and sighing. They see dogs and no doubt all animals as pure instinct, acting on genetic programs that don’t include decisions or knowledge of the world.

So, for those who aren’t impressed by anecdotes about your dog’s consciousness, here’s a story from an expert:

Nearly a week had gone by without any noticeable sunshine. That particular afternoon, though, the clouds seemed to part, and a burst of afternoon sunshine shone through the window, forming a big golden patch on the hardwood floor. Completing my work, I was moving toward the kitchen to get a cup of coffee when I noticed my Cavalier King Charles spaniel Wiz standing in the circle of light. He looked up at the window and then down at the floor as if he were contemplating something, and then he deliberately turned and ran from the room. Within a matter of moments, however, he reappeared dragging a huge terry-cloth towel that he had stolen from the bathroom. He pulled the towel into the center of the patch of sun, looked at it, and then pushed at one lumpy section with both front paws. Having arranged the towel to his satisfaction, he then circled around and settled down for a nap on his newly created bed in the warm afternoon sun. If my young child had done this, I would have said that he felt the warmth of the sun and thought that it would be nice to take a nap in it. Then, remembering the towel in the bathroom, he went and retrieved it so that he could sunbathe more comfortably. All this requires consciousness, intelligence, and planning. Does my dog Wiz have it? It is easier for me simply to recognize that my dog’s behaviors in this situation were similar to behaviors that are accompanied by consciousness in a human faced with the same situation. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I will presume that I am dealing with consciousness and intelligent behavior in my dog as well.

There it is—“awareness of something for what it is.” In this case, sunshine as a source of pleasurable warmth, a way to make lying in the sun more satisfying, a place where the “equipment” for doing so is located, going there and getting this equipment, a return to the sunny locale, manipulation of the equipment to make it serve better—then the nap.

Tell your skeptical friend to put that in his pipe and smoke it. If Dr. Coren’s story confirms what you know to be true about your own dog, the odds are good you’ll enjoy Just Bill.



In this instance, both name and dog are Just Bill, the title of my novel for adults about a rescued Lab. If you read the blog entry before this one, you’ve already heard from Bill. Because he’s a dog, it wouldn't occur to him to speak ill of anyone, or to hold a grudge. 

True, it would not occur to him to speak, period.  But if he could speak, Bill wouldn’t bring up certain painful facts. That’s left to me, to describe how a dog devoted to his master is given up. How this happens and what it leads to dramatize the book’s theme—that lives are better, and sometimes even saved through the relationship between a person and a dog. My own life is certainly better because I live with a dog, and I hope Just Bill makes the case for this partnership.

What’s in a dog? 

When I was preparing to publish Just Bill, I asked Dr. Stanley Coren for permission to quote a story from his landmark book, The Intelligence of Dogs. Here’s the letter I wrote to him:

Dear Dr. Coren:

This is two things:  a fan letter, and a request for a favor.

First, as one who admires dogs, let me thank you for having done so much for them.  Obviously, you have done a great deal for humans as well, by raising people’s awareness of canine consciousness.  But in so doing, you have improved—I’m sure of this-- the lives of countless pets, and many abandoned animals and shelter dogs. They gained good homes in the climate of improved awareness and understanding that THE INTELLIGENCE OF DOGS and your other writings have helped to foster.

Here’s the second shoe.  Until recently, I served as a tenured faculty member in the department of humanities at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. I am also a fiction writer, and have written a short novel for adults called JUST BILL. In this work of magical realism, I wanted to trace, through various trials and tribulations, the career of a dog rescued in his first year by a retiree.  

Human and dog characters alternate in the narrative, and the story's conclusion is full of hope and renewal.  It is unapologetically a story of sentiment, but by no means sentimental.  Throughout the writing, I have done my best to capture what I understand to be reality as experienced by dogs.  

No passage from The Intelligence of Dogs has served me better in my own work than the story of your “Cavalier King Charles spaniel Wiz standing in the circle of light” on your kitchen floor.  For me, this anecdote makes a perfect case for speaking of dog consciousness.  It captures the essence of what my story hopes to dramatize, without resorting to the cartoon anthropomorphism that so often figures in dog stories.

For this reason, I am convinced that the meaning and intent of JUST BILL can’t be better introduced than by your story about Wiz.  Appearing at the beginning, before the story proper, it will prepare readers for what is to follow. The length of the quoted passage—291 words—far exceeds the “fair use” clause for copyrighted work, so I am hoping you will grant me permission to use the passage.

Dr. Coren granted me permission. But instead of using his story at the beginning, my publisher and I decided to use it on the back cover. From a publishing perspective, this turned out to be a big mistake. Intrigued by the jacket photo, people wanted to read a description on the back, not a story from a different book. That's the main reason for this new edition.

In the next post (Wednesday), I’ll provide Dr. Coren's story. It doesn’t have directly to do with Just Bill, but it does express the point of view at the heart of my short novel.


                                       INTRODUCING A DOG-MAN COLLABORATION

My name is Bill, and I’m a four-year-old Lab mix. Of course I can’t talk or type, but I’m on good terms with my mister. He’s decided to speak for us both.

Why doesn’t he just speak for himself? No idea. After all, I’m a dog. But maybe speaking for both of us frees him in some way. Maybe imagining that I understand him helps him to think and type what’s on his mind.

Is he exploiting me? If it makes him happy, fine with me. He’s done a lot for me. I was born a mistake, at a puppy mill. I wasn’t supposed to even be, let alone grow up, but here I am. The breeder didn’t drown me with my littermates. He let me grow up, out of curiosity. Then, when I was nine months old, I escaped into the pine forest.

That’s when my mister came along. I was in the woods I don’t know how long, but one day I came out on the road, and followed the man who’s typing all this down. You could call it my leap-of-faith day, an act of intuition. I was sick with parasites, couldn’t keep food down. I’d lost a lot of weight and would be dead soon.

But I didn’t die, and I was right to choose that moment to come out on the road. This man—no
other--decided to stop on his morning walk, turn around, and wait for me. He put out his hand, I touched it with my nose. Years, later, here we are.

Maybe thinking of his dog as a co-writer has to do with how disgusted he is these days with humans. He talks about it mornings while reading the paper, evenings when he checks the TV. He never watches long, just checks. Sure enough, the same dough-colored, yammering heads are still at it. Especially he talks about the dough heads if he has an extra rob roy before dinner.

“Dough heads” and “yammering” don’t sound much like a dog, do they? Chalk it up to life with the mister. He’s always coming up with stuff like that.

Clicking up there at the table, he stops to think, reaches down and scratches my head. As we look at each other, he speaks a word. I know the sound if not the meaning, but it doesn’t matter. His voice is soft and his eyes are friendly, the way they are when we walk in the woods. Collaborate is the word. My mister really does believe we’re doing something together. He’s convinced by the way I return his gaze, knowing I’m ready at any time to go anywhere with him. That’s what makes me his partner. His collaborator.

Other times, he says words I do know. Old Bill, old timer, good dog, fetch, walk, down, here buddy, no, come, attaboy. Mostly, I understand what he means from his voice and eyes, how his smell changes when he's happy or mad. Or drinking rob roys.

The way I trust him--to feed me and not forget to fill my water bowl, to crack the van windows when we go shopping--that's how you should trust him. You won’t be sorry, I’m sure of it. Because my mister knows me almost as well as I know him.



Nostalgia figures big with me on holidays, and this season is no exception. I don’t remember what year it was, only that our border collie Chelsea was still with us. I can hear her nails ticking behind me as I enter the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning.

I think the stage had been set the day before. Driving somewhere with my dog next to me in the passenger seat, I had listened to the first two or three minutes of a Funk-laden version of The Messiah. It depressed me, the way it would to learn of a Zombie Apocalypse version of Bambi, or a Quentin Tarantino remake of The Wizard of Oz. It just put me off my white-boy, suburbanite feed.

I was glad my dog was deaf, because I knew the same influence would soon figure with Christmas carols.  Here in Detroit--Motown—we are always treated during the Yule season to a competition of sorts. R&B artists deliver up aural flights, risking serious voice-box medical complications in their efforts to stamp Jingle Bells or Oh Holy Night with filigreed excess.

Anyway, Thanksgiving morning I enter the kitchen for more coffee.  On the counter is a small TV. I am pouring from the carafe, half watching and listening as our Local 4 anchors provide color for the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade working its way down Woodward Avenue.  I turn to go, but hear the unmistakable voice of Karen Newman. 

She’s singing “It’s the Best Time of the Year,” and I turn to watch.  Karen, you see, is a local, small-pond version of Vanna White.  Both women have made lengthy careers out of a single, highly specialized gesture.  Whereas Vanna has done well on prime time by revealing letters of the alphabet and then congratulating herself by clapping, Karen Newman has prospered as a result of having made The Star Spangled Banner her own at Detroit Red Wings hockey games.

That’s it, the National Anthem.  For years, over and over at Joe Louis Arena, glittering and blond under intense lighting at center ice, Karen has belted out the Anthem for the thousands assembled in their Red Wings paraphernalia.  When she finishes, they explode.  By once again nailing the Anthem with every grace note and cadenza she’s fixed to it over the years, Karen again reasserts the power of memory and tribal consciousness for her fans.  With the last ringing high note and roar from the stands, the players can now put in their mouthpieces, and skate out for the first face-off.

But this is something different--Karen in the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Always well turned out at hockey games, today she is presenting herself in a seasonally adjusted costume: black tights, and a Santa sweater designed to suggest a micro dress.  Even though she’s athwart a motorized float--or because of it—the effect hints at the arresting possibility that her panties lie just north of the sweater’s hemline.

But Karen’s tireless commitment to excellence in singing the National Anthem is here being brought to an arpeggio-laden rendering of “It’s the Best Time of the Year.”  This song is the last and only reason left in the world to remember Andy Williams.  But listening, I think Karen has decided to make Andy a forgotten collectible, stored down in the basement with his vinyl recordings. 

Her powerful, stadium-trained voice is drawing on the many sonic influences afforded to her by life in Motown.  Fascinated, I watch.  Her slender legs in black tights are now spread wide against the Woodward potholes under her float, in preparation for the song’s conclusion.  She’s almost there, straining up in every pop singer’s fellatio-inspired signature move with the mic. 

And Karen delivers!  It’s something I don’t think had ever been seen by her fans at the Joe. With “best time of the yeeeeeeear,” a stake is driven through the heart of Andy Williams. And in that moment, Karen, in apotheosis, delivers a rapid-fire series of pelvic thrusts into her skimpy hemline.

You had to see it. I remember looking down at my deaf border collie, thinking how it had all come together for me in that moment. The holidays were at last upon us. 

Happy Thanksgiving!


Almost certainly, most of us who love and admire dogs have asked ourselves this question: Given what I know about him/her, how would Waldo/Fifi vote in the latest election? Would my dog base the decision on the scent of the candidate? The character of his or her eyes? Voice? The degree to which the candidate cares for registered voter dogs as reflected in the quality of treats handed out at rallies?

Being a border collie, my dog Chelsea would I believe place her paw on the straight-ticket button next to Democrat. Not because I’m a Democrat, and not because she never hears anything from Fox News or Rush or any of the other fantasists cooking up fictions for their watchers and listeners.

No, Chelsea would paw the Democrat straight-ticket lever after considering the issues. She’s issues-oriented, plain and simple. Very focused. True, smell matters to her most. She’s almost blind and totally deaf, so a candidate’s smell probably would matter more to my dog than to other members of the canine electorate. But once she was actually in the voting doghouse/booth, I’m sure an off-putting aftershave, or too much garlic eaten at last night’s spaghetti-dinner fundraiser would not weigh heavily with my dog,

She’d vote Democrat for reasons related to self-interest. Take for instance health care. Republicans want to torpedo Obamacare. They want vouchers instead. How would this play out in my dog’s thinking?

Eliminating Obamacare would be the equivalent for Chelsea of serious cutbacks in drug benefits and physical therapy. Or walks. Her caregivers would need to devote more time to entrepreneurial efforts, less to strolls and trips to parks. Besides, parks are themselves luxuries that from a Republican perspective should get the axe. People without jobs hang out in parks, when they should be looking for work. Republicans would probably want to get rid of them (both the parks and the people), along with health-insurance reform. Or, if they kept the parks, they would do so in order to “drill baby drill” on public land, for more of the fossil fuel needed to juice entrepreneurial initiatives.

As for drug benefits, this would mean getting rid of the prescription canned food and probiotic powder we feed our senior dog for her aging GI tract. Chelsea’s staff—my wife and I—are no one-percenters, so in a Republican world, buying this stuff for Chelsea would be out of the question.

Speaking of stuff, Republicans dubbed Obama “the foodstamp president.” In fact, Bill O’Reilly said people like my wife and me just want “stuff.” That’s why we voted for Obama, because he kept us happy by giving us things. Things like a recovering economy, an auto industry, a monster terrorist’s head on a platter, and real hope that medical attention can become a basic right for all, not a perk for the privileged.

Since Chelsea has been pretty much on the dole since day one, I’m sure criticism of those who benefit from food stamps, and who extend the benefits to more people would not sit well with her. She would reflect on the neighbor’s cat, the one constantly scheming to kill birds and mice to supplement his diet. Not having run after anything in years, Chelsea would no doubt cast her vote for the candidate willing to keep the safety net in place for senior dogs, and for dogs down on their luck. Abandoned, abused and neglected dogs, or the ones you see sitting next to people at intersections who hold hand-lettered signs, the dog apparently the last friend they have.

Chelsea is a Democrat, I’m convinced of it. Without getting too specific, it may be that certain breeds of dogs, sadly conditioned to be vicious and aggressive, would apply their paws to the Republican lever. But that’s brainwashing—like listening all day, every day to Rush or Fox News--not basic dog nature. Given a real choice, free of nasty browbeating, I’m sure all dogs would side with Chelsea.

Barry Knister lives in Michigan. He encourages comments, and can be reached at JUST BILL, his short novel about dogs and owners is available through all major outlets.


DOGS AND CULTURE WARS IN PARADISE This photo of two cocker spaniels makes me think of an old saying: "Let sleeping dogs lie.&qu...