On Being Insulted by Literature

Should you keep reading a book if it insults the kind of person you are? In the old days the answer was: if it's good, yes, you're supposed to. Good as in of high literary quality. Nowadays, though, you're free not to. You'll still be considered a serious reader even if you put it down. It’s up to you.

A couple of months ago, I started to read Frederick Seidel's Selected Poems, having liked poems of his that I had run into in magazines over the years, and having long heard him highly praised by friends. I thought I should see what the fuss was about. The persona of every Seidel poem was born into money, is passionate about riding Italian motorcycles, and is a libertine. Knowing this much about him had long put me off. I suspected he was going to be like James Merrill but straight and dickish—a suspicion that wasn't entirely wrong. He writes lines like "I live a life of laziness and luxury," and "I want to date-rape life." A kind of provocativeness that trusts the reader to be in on the joke is part of his act. He's sort of goofy, though, too, and his style is part Edward Lear (surrealist and singsongy), part Robert Lowell (crystallized and confessional), two poets I'm very fond of. Yes, Seidel brags about his Ducatis, his Huntsman suits, and his women, but he doesn't come off as trying to make the reader envious. (Or maybe he is trying to make the reader envious and it doesn't work on me because I don't happen to covet any of those things? I'm going to try to stay open here to the possibility that my aesthetic reaction is a merely personal one, for reasons that will hopefully become clear.) He seems, rather, to be trying to synthesize and then bottle a sort of perfume, an attar of his pleasures, which is the kind of condensation of lived experience into language that I think of lyric poems as being for. Also, there's something a little manic and fatal about his effort. There's an undertone of desperation, a suggestion that his go-for-brokeness is somehow on account of having no choice, of having access to no other, more ordinary means of consolation. (And his poem, "The Blue-Eyed Doe," about his mother's lobotomy, is probably where one might start looking for the source of that desperation.) 

In short, it turns out I quite like Seidel's poems. But only a few pages into his Selected, reading a long poem titled "Sunrise," I was stopped cold by these lines:

A gay couple drags a shivering fist-sized
Dog down Broadway, their parachute brake. "Why 
Robert Frost?" the wife one pleads, nearly
In tears; the other sniffs, "Because he 
Believed in Nature and I believe in Nature."

The wife one. Okay. Well, what do I do with that? 

It's worth noting, before going any further, that a Black reader of Seidel will meet a similar challenge. Seidel is famous for having written bluntly, in poems such as "Bologna" and "Boys," of the way his childhood self perceived the Black men who worked for his family. Indeed, in "Boys," Seidel doubles down on the problem, and his narrator recalls one of those Black men as "probably a homo," apostrophizing him thus: "Ronny Banks, faggot prince, where are you now?" There's arguably a defense in the retrospective aspect of the poems about Black men: the poems are trying to recapture a perception that the poet had as a child, not a perception he necessarily still has today. Because the gay couple and their toy dog are perceived in the present tense, however, no such out is available. 

Reader, I had feelings! My first, once I understood what Seidel meant by "the wife one," was not very sophisticated: What a dick. On second thought, though, I remembered nights I had spent in gay bars in Manhattan, in my twenties, watching endlessly repeated video clips of two straight Black comedians, Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier, doing impressions of sissy film critics. I had had mixed feelings about the skits even at the time, but they were sometimes very funny, and they seemed to be taken to heart by almost everyone around me in the bars, perhaps because we gays back then felt a kind of hunger for representation in the mainstream, even for mocking representation. Maybe, in fact, a mocking representation was something we were especially hungry for, because mockery shone its spotlight on the elements of gay identity that were most stigmatized, elements that then seemed beyond the pale of a tolerant liberal understanding. 

Seidel's poem was written at least a decade before the "Men on Film" skits. Maybe he wrote the line having in mind a gay reader of an earlier era who would appreciate being sent up, in the way I remember appreciating "Men on Film"? That's very possible. In his poem "Fucking," Seidel recalls drinking at "Francis Bacon's queer after-hours club" and being saluted by one of the regulars, who shouted, "'Champagne for the Norm'! / Meaning normal, heterosexual." That suggests a sort of interpellation across the border of stigma: You're not one of us, but we recognize that you came to our turf. Hi, Norm! I'm convinced, perhaps irrationally, that there really was a gay couple who had an argument as they walked down Broadway with a small dog, and that Seidel noticed them, overheard them, and remembered them. I believe Seidel was paying attention, in other words, and attention is a gift. Mostly. 

But but but. The phrase "the wife one" sounds to me like a straight man's psychic shorthand, not like an attempt to borrow the voices that gay men use to talk about themselves, not even like an attempt to borrow in the parodic way of Wayans and Grier. I just don't think a gay man would say "the wife one" except in jesting reference to the way the straight world sometimes perceives us. Not because it's not respectful (gay men of my generation, left to our own devices, do not tend to treat ourselves qua gay with all that much respect), but because it's not, by and large, the way gay couples work, in my experience. Sometimes it is the case that one partner in a couple is more effeminate than the other, but it seems to happen just as often, and probably more often, that both or neither are effeminate. The interaction and allocation of sex roles, gender roles, economic roles, and other social roles inside a gay relationship is just not as straightforward as a phrase like "the wife one" suggests (any more than the phrase accurately captures such matters inside a straight relationship, I suspect). A phrase like that simply isn't useful. To cite just one complication: in his book Out of the Shadows, the psychotherapist Walt Odets notes that sometimes, for the sake of keeping a relationship in equilibrium, "a partner who holds the balance of power outside sex may be more sexually passive and receptive." 

So I don't think this is a case of a straight writer borrowing a gay self-deprecation. I think what we have here is the appearance in a poem of a straight's deprecation of gays. Which doesn't mean there's no ironic distance between Seidel the poet and Seidel the straight man (as it were)—between the Seidel who's observing himself perceive and the Seidel who's doing the perceiving. This is a defense that won't convince some readers, but I think in a poet of Seidel's sophistication, such an irony is always present, and I think it may be the strongest defense possible: this is who he was, and how he was, at the moment of this perception, and it's impossible to capture perception fully while filtering it. 

How badly is a defense needed? How terrible is it, really, to say "the wife one"? If you're in a gay marriage, and you've never been asked by a straight man which of you is the wife, then you are luckier than me. I survived just fine, but I have to say I didn't like it much. On the other hand, if you're in a gay marriage, and you've never talked, fought, or joked, inside the safety of it, about which of you is behaving more as the wife, at a given stage of your relationship, then you are farther above the fray than I will ever be. In these jokes, arguments, and negotiations, though, I think what's being hashed out is how to balance two careers, and how to divide the responsibilities for a shared household. The debates are about whether one person is feeling obliged to more often take the role of homemaker, not about whether one person is more womanly. (Gender isn't a zero-sum game the way doing the dishes is, and at the end of the day, there isn't, or shouldn't be, anything offensive about describing a man as effeminate.) In other words, nothing is at stake that would be legible to someone who saw you and your husband walking down the street. 

What were the gays in Seidel's poem arguing about? Was “the husband one,” to coin a phrase, planning to ask for a Robert Frost poem to be read at his funeral? Was he planning to write a book or an article about Robert Frost? Was he merely claiming Frost as his favorite poet? In any of these cases, why would his partner “plead” for an explanation, “nearly in tears”? I think the reader is meant to find humor in the idea of a gay resident of New York City espousing Frost because of a shared belief in nature. Which I get. The canonical lines about gays and nature are Oscar Wilde complaining that “Nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects,” and Frank O'Hara insisting that “I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” But Peter and I had a friend read a Frost poem at our after-wedding get-together, and I defy even Jonathan Franzen to take better bird photos than I do

I'm not sure I've walked in a wide enough circle around this problem yet. Did I feel insulted? Yes, a little, I guess. Do I care? I put Seidel's Selected down for a while, but later I went back to it. I'm on my guard a little with Seidel now, but I should probably have learned long ago to be on my guard with every writer. I seem willing to forgive F. Scott Fitzgerald, say, for writing of a "pansy" character in Tender Is the Night that "he was so terrible that he was no longer terrible, only dehumanized." Being dehumanized is worse, I think, than being called "the wife one." I'm aware that I could pretend to care more than I do, in order to have an axe to swing. I sometimes wonder if, as a general public appreciation of literary qualities per se has weakened—as a willingness to make distinctions of literary value in public has declined—it has become more and more tempting to take up an axe. There are days when it seems like the only blades that still cut are those with a social or political edge. On the other hand, it would probably be a mistake to pretend I don't care at all, to fake transcendence. A critic I didn't agree with about much once warned me against accepting "the phantom bribe of straight culture," and while I suspected him of issuing the warning in order to try to scare me off the middle ground that I wanted to occupy, I knew exactly what he meant. One aspires to catholicity as a reader—one wants to be broadminded even in the face of narrowmindedness—but one doesn't want to be a pushover. I think my personal verdict would be to recommend that people read Seidel but not blink the moments like the one I've written about here, which are, after all, a deliberate part of his persona, and of the membership he claims through his poetry in a sort of freemasonry of the bad and wild (which more than a few gay men, of my generation anyway, have also felt they belonged to). 


“You absolutely mustn’t bring the rigor of your principles of morality and justice with you when you contemplate Italy’s monuments, she told Lord Nelvil; as I’ve told you, they recall, for the most part, the splendor, elegance, and good taste of classic form rather than the glorious epoch of Roman virtue. But don’t you find some traces of the moral grandeur of the first era in the gigantic splendor of the monuments that came after? Even the degradation of the Roman people is still impressive; the mourning weeds they put on for liberty dress the world in marvels; as if the genius of ideas of beauty were striving to console man for the real and true dignity that he has lost.” —Germaine de Staël, Corinne

“We can’t play Covid,” I heard one little girl say to another in the park. “Covid isn’t over yet.” [This was several months ago, for the record.]

“The charm of the prismatic fringe round the edges made juggling with the lens too tempting, and a clear persistent focus was never attained.” —Christopher Morley, “The Autogenesis of a Poet”

Instead of a meerschaum pipe that I have smoked to an amber color, I have a steel teakettle that I have bronzed over the years by putting it on the hob and then forgetting about it for hours.

“For my part I should be as satsified to play tennis with the net down as to write verse with no verse form set to stay me.” —Robert Frost to Lesley Frost, October 1934

“The world is a shambles, but I wasn’t born to set it right.” —W. H. Hudson to a friend, quoted in Jonathan Meiburg, A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey

“This is what American history is like, but it is hard for us to accept: that a vigorous and splendid country could have been built by really guilty people.” —George W. S. Trow, The Harvard Black Rock Forest

When I’m reading myself to sleep, I doggedly follow the story of what I’m reading through a thickening and thickening haze until the moment when I can no longer make sense of what my eyes are perceiving and they just halt, and then there are no more words coming into my brain, and the story, which I still have an awareness of as a thing-in-itself, accumulating and assembling itself in my brain, stops moving, too, and stops changing. I wonder if death will be like this.

“But how, after all, can any of us hope to avoid certain late-afternoon moods: those moments in which we gaze out into the gathering dusk, perhaps into a drizzle of rain as well, and are assailed by twinges of foreboding?” —Thomas Mann, “The Joker”

“Even when he wasn’t thinking about the little phrase, it existed latent in his mind like certain other concepts that have no equivalent, such as the concept of light, of sound, of depth, of sensual pleasure, the rich possessions with which we vary and decorate our interior world. Maybe we’ll lose them one day, maybe they’ll be wiped out, if we’re going to return to nothingness. But as long as we’re still alive, we can’t make it that we haven’t known them, any more than we can for some physical object, any more than we’re able to, for example, have doubts about the light of the lamp that is lit in front of the metamorphosed objects in our bedroom, from which even the memory of darkness has vanished. Which is to say that Vinteuil’s phrase, like that theme from Tristan, to take another example, which also represents for us a certain gain in emotional apprehension, had wed our mortal condition, had taken on something of human nature that was actually fairly touching. Its fate had become bound, for the future, to the reality of our soul, of which it had become one of the most personal, the most distinctive ornaments. Maybe nothingness is what’s true, and our whole dream has no existence, but in that case we feel that these musical phrases, these concepts that have their existence in relation to our dream, must be nothing as well. We’re going to perish, but when we do, we’ll be holding these captive divinities hostage, and they’ll share our luck. And there’s something about death in their company that seems less bitter, less inglorious, and maybe a little less probable.” —Marcel Proust, By Way of Swann’s

Throughlines and deadlines

I have lost the throughline. Drastic measures are called for. I therefore hereby undertake to send you a newsletter every Monday morning at 10:30am. This undertaking is inspired in part by a Michael Pollan-esque recommendation in my friend Chris Cox's new book, The Deadline Effect: "Set a deadline. The earlier the better." Apparently having no structure in one's life is bad, and leads to a gelatinous, inchoate diffuseness, and like everyone else, but more so, I have had no structure in mine for the last year and a half. Everything, as I and everyone else discovered, can be postponed: dentist's appointments, haircuts, third novels, driver's license renewals, birthday parties, going to the gym, agonizing about whether this will be the year when I finally try a teaching job. At the outset of the pandemic, I told myself, explicitly, that my only objective during the pandemic was to survive, and as long as I met that goal, I wasn't going to mind not meeting any others. 

I didn't, and I didn't mind. It was so nice! Every morning I went on a leisurely walk in the park and photographed birds, having bought a telephoto lens just as the coronavirus was encircling, boa constrictor–like, the globe, and then when I came home, while my husband put a pot of oatmeal on the stove, and while it cooked, I did a set of exercises that for about six months perpetuated, if not worsened, my lower back pain, while listening to classical music, which I hadn't really listened to since childhood, and was slowly becoming reindoctrinated into, and then, for the the next six months, another set of exercises, which, as a pleasant surprise, very gradually abated my lower back pain, still listening to timeless music mostly by performers who were long dead, first a lot of Bach, and then a lot of Beethoven. Briefly I jumped ahead in the alphabet to Rachmaninoff, but found this confusing, if not alarming, and returned to Beethoven. I didn't want adventure. I wanted steadiness. Sameness. I listened to Emil Gilels's recordings of Beethoven's sonatas, and then to Wilhelm Kempff's recordings of Beethoven's sonatas, and then to Igor Levit's recordings of Beethoven's sonatas. After the oatmeal, and after a considered, unhurried curation of my bird photos, which I then posted online, where the same twenty or so people liked them, and they never went viral, I sat at my desk and either crossed out a few pages of fiction or composed a few, always careful never to let the net number of pages produced by me rise above four or five. It never did. 

All is changed now, except my productivity. While the pandemic may not quite be over, the psychosocial moratorium allowed by it now is, at least here in America. At the end of May, the New York Times stopped running its At Home section, which had taught adults how to fold their morning newspaper into a hat, or a piñata, and had spoken in the first person plural ("We're trying so hard to be good," "We're searching for the best path"), as blandly and as reassuringly as Mister Rogers. Which means that we aren't trying to be good any more, and that we have gone back to just taking the first path we see that might get us there. Probably not a moment too soon. By the time Charles Dickens died at age fifty-eight, he had written so many novels that the internet isn't sure how many, but at least fifteen by my count.

I will be fifty-four this week, and have written only two. 

A week or so ago, Peter and I went to see a movie in a movie theater. It was A Quiet Place Part II. It was pretty good? Terrible monsters from outer space are trying to eat a nice American family, which used to be everything I wanted in a movie. The hook is that the monsters zero in on you whenever you make the slightest bit of noise. We ate mediocre veggie burgers with fries while watching, so frightened that we couldn't really taste what we were eating. I jumped in my seat so violently that I bruised a hand. After it was over, however, we found ourselves wondering: Why did we use to do this? Sit in a dark room silently with strangers and be terrified out of our wits by invented demons? Dystopian fiction can seem a little supererogatory in a world that is just coming out of a plague, if not on the brink of subsiding back into it because half the population has been brainwashed into fearing vaccines, a world where Oregon faces temperatures of 115° F and California the worst drought and possibly the worst fire season ever. The movie's lesson, Peter pointed out, was that we must all fight ever harder and ever more brutally, that even children must learn to overcome their natural squeamishness and passivity and stab monsters in the head until they die die die, the unspoken lemma of the argument being that we live under capitalism and it's a dog-eat-dog world and this is what it takes to survive. All of which we learned during the pandemic wasn't so. During the pandemic, we all realized that it's fine if we're just okay at monster-slaying. Just do the best you can, because everything is harder than it used to be. If the monsters eat you, well, okay! On the other hand, during the pandemic, in the absence of external stimulation, I never managed to get off of Twitter, which is very much like living in a world where monsters converge on you ravenously as soon as you make a peep. 

So what lesson is to be learned from mortality—Kill more sooner, or We can make our newspaper into a hat

Burdens and unburdenings

Literature is no longer powerful and thus no longer dangerous. But the conformist agency that Rousseau ascribed to literature in his First Discourse (arts and letters, Rousseau wrote, “lace garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which men are burdened”) is still abroad in the world. Television is the first art today. Is the collaborative nature of the medium accelerating the conformity? Is the fact that TV is written in “rooms,” that is, by groups, making our culture more “groupy” and less heroic? The few heroic moments that appear in the culture now, I would argue, are almost always sentimental and deliberately false, meant to stand as symbols, not to be believed in as actions possible in the world. We are meant to believe only in moments when the hero bows to the group. In Sincerity and Authenticity, when Trilling wrote, of Rousseau’s vision of literature of literature, that

the individual who lives in this new circumstance is subject to the constant influence, to the literal in-flowing, of the mental processes of others, which, in the degree that they stimulate or enlarge his consciousness, make it less his own,

he was inadvertently describing our social-media–mediated world, more than half a century later. There are many things that it has become de rigueur to believe, in my social world, that I don’t happen to believe, and sometimes I’m afraid to say I don’t believe. It’s impossible to say this without sounding a note of self-pity and grandiosity. Perhaps the strangest aspect of the compulsion here is the pressure to say anything at all about controversial topics, but it seems more difficult now to feel peaceful merely knowing that I disagree. It seems incumbent on me either to conform or to express disagreement—out of the hope of triggering a new conformism but this time in my favor, or my team’s favor. The independent mind who doesn’t tweet is the new unheard tree falling in the forest.

The reproach that serious art makes to the audience’s wish for something merely pleasant has become in our day a class marker—a sign that the artwork in question is a fit vehicle for the display of wealth, which has to please no one.

“Atman and I continued living in this huge railroad flat on Fell Street that had practically no heat, and the plaster was literally falling off the walls. It was cold and empty, and falling apart, like the world. I liked it.” —the story of Aaron, qtd. in Walt Odets, Out of the Shadows

“There are some original authors whose least daring gives rise to disgust because they haven’t flattered the public’s taste first by serving it the commonplaces that it’s used to; Swann outraged Mr. Verdurin this way. For Swann, as for these authors, it was the novelty of his language that caused belief in the blackness of his intentions.” —Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

“As for the pleasure that Italy was capable of bringing Oswald, the sorrow that consumed him put less of obstacle in his way than the count of Erfeuil’s actual cheerfulness: the regrets of a sensitive soul can make an alliance with the contemplation of nature and the enjoyment of the fine arts; but frivolity, in whatever form it presents itself, takes away from attention its force, from thought its originality, and from feeling its depth.” —Germaine de Staël, Corinne

All the difficulty of writing autobiographical fiction is in the trouble that Odette has when she tries to enhance her lie with a bit of truth:

She detached a little piece, unimportant in itself, telling herself that after all it was better this way, because it was a verifiable detail that didn’t present the same dangers that a false detail would. “That, at least—that’s true,” she said to herself; “that’s always something gained; he can research it, he’ll have to admit it’s true; that’s never going to be what betrays me.” She was mistaken; that was what betrayed her; she didn’t realize that the true detail had angles that only fit with the contiguous details of the true fact from which she had arbitrarily detached it, and which, whatever the invented details were in between which she positioned it, would always reveal, by the excess matter and by the gaps not filled in, that it was not from in between them that it originally came.

—Proust, Swann’s Way

“Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.” —Beethoven, qtd. in Laura Tunbridge, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces

“There has never been anything I cared to express more, than I cared for the act of expressing it. (This sentence, clumsy and ambiguous, may be considered an exception.)” —James Merrill, 1959 January 15, in A Whole World

“Are you calling the dispatch with which I make my observations lightness?” the count of Erfeuil said. “Am I less correct because I’m correct faster?” —Staël, Corinne

Toby, 2008–2021

From a journal entry, dated 11 March 2008:

On Friday morning, Peter and I threw productivity to the winds and drove out to North Shore Animal League to find a puppy. We had to walk through an arcade of older, problem dogs to reach the puppies, who, when we found them, seemed groggy and amiable. Peter was taken with a couple of the black lab mixes, though we had intended not to adopt a dog similar to Lota [our previous dog], and I by a sharpei mix with a sweet disposition and a dark, absurdist collage of a face. Then I spotted, in the kitten room, a golden puppy with a brown muzzle, who was quarantined there because he was recovering from parvo. The name on his cage was Frost, and he was purportedly a 10-week-old shepherd mix. The volunteers caged the cats in the room so we could let him run loose, which he did, sloppy-leggedly. He had high spirits; he was a little saucy; he warmed up to us quickly. I think we fell for him because he seemed to have more personality than the dogs in the other room, but after we filled out the application, and while we waited on a bench for them to call our references, I began to worry that maybe he was too alpha, too independent, wouldn't listen to us, wouldn't bond with us. I went back into his room to visit with him, and he turned and wagged his tail as if he recognized me, so I was reassured. I had to repeat the encounter a few times to calm myself before our application was approved.

We parked at a nearby Whole Foods, so Peter could buy us some lunch, and while Toby and I were waiting—Toby was the boy's name we'd picked out, Daisy the girl's—one of the grocery staffers, an overweight man in a uniform, paused in his collection of stray metal carts to ask me to roll down the window so he could pet Toby. "He's a heartbreaker," he said. This, it turns out, is what everyone says upon meeting Toby.

I mean, look at him:

"This one seems so alert," became a joke between Peter and me for years afterward. A few days after we brought him home, Toby swallowed a chunk of mortar in our downstairs neighbor's backyard, which an X-ray at the vet was unable to locate. He ate the upper of one of Peter's boots. Once he ate a Shakespeare play that I had been reading. The first night, we tried making him sleep in a crate in the kitchen, which ended with me in the crate beside him, consoling him from three to four-thirty. He wanted too badly to be near us. We tethered him to a bedpost the next night, and he slept curled up on the floor beside me from then on. To this day, the bedpost has his toothmarks on it.

"What if we got the wrong dog?" became another household joke. Because of course he was the wrong dog, especially for me. What was a pensive, finicky, melancholic middle-aged homosexual doing with a brash, sunny puppy who liked nothing so much as swaggering up to ladies? Which was also, of course, why he was so great for us. I used to joke that Lota, our previous dog, had been like the quiet girl who sits in the back of the classroom wearing all black and writing poetry in her notebook, and that Toby was the captain of the football team—a bruiser. Affable, athletic, and blond. With a heart of gold. 

He was the fastest animal I was ever friends with. I used to think, as I watched him swoop in wide, easy circles around me in the park, that it must be from watching animals move that the idea of superpowers came to the writers of comic books. When I threw his favorite toy for him, a squeaky plastic squiggle with a knotted rope tail, he and the toy reached the spot where it was going to land at the same time. Once he grew into himself, he was all legs, and he always made a point of greeting greyhounds, which made me wonder if he had greyhound in him. People asked if he was a Carolina dog, which according to myth (but not, alas, genetic analysis) is the only surviving aboriginal dog breed in North America. His coloring matched the breed, as did his personality: restless, fast, an aptitude for pursuit. When he was young, I let him chase squirrels, until one day he overtook one. He lay on top of it for a moment, looking at it, puzzled, not sure what to do next. I called Toby, and the squirrel got away. That was the last one I let him chase. 

Little Toughie was one of our nicknames for him his first year, because he walked like a palooka and for months he seemed to accept room, board, and toys from us without feeling obliged to grant us any special recognition in return, or even much eye contact. That changed abruptly after we boarded him at a free-run kennel upstate while on a trip. We got him back covered in bite wounds. From then on, whenever we came home, he wanted to kiss our ears and jump up on the couch beside us and snuggle. Peter came to call this "couch time." (We never boarded him at a kennel again.) 

The morning after Obama's victory, he woke us up at 7am, agitated. Did he have to relieve himself? Before we could get him downstairs—before I could even get pants and shoes on—he started barking at the top of his lungs—screaming, really—and twisting in circles, spraying pee and poop as he turned. Vets pressured us to spend thousands of dollars on an MRI and a cerebrospinal fluid tap, to rule out a couple of very rare conditions—brain tumors and malformed blood vessels in the brain—that would have been almost impossible to do anything about. Once these were ruled out, we did the much less expensive thing we should have done in the first place: start him on epilepsy medications, trying different doses and medications until we found a combination that worked. 

That took more than a year. We learned his early-warning sign: looking around nervously at, and snapping at, flies that weren't actually in the room. (Really existing flies also made him anxious, I think because he associated them with the anxiety that accompanied the imaginary ones.) Twice he had a seizure while off leash in Prospect Park, and before I could grab his collar, as soon as he stopped twirling, he bolted—out of the park. I chuffed behind as in a dream where you're running as fast as you can but don't seem to be going anywhere. He crossed two busy roads alone, at top speed. By the time I got to our stoop, Peter, who had heard him howling downstairs, was letting him in. For more than a year after the second seizure in the park, all his walks were on leash. He was still able to run a little thanks to a really long training leash, and I brought a tennis ball that he jumped for when I tossed it, as we walked. I never measured, but he seemed to be able to jump higher than six feet with ease. Because he was restricted to the leash, he missed most of the developmental window for play with other dogs. In his whole life, there were only a handful of dogs he felt comfortable enough to play with. 

His focus, instead, was on people. One of his favorites was Jimmy, a retired cook who sometimes worked as a security guard at Yankee Stadium. Jimmy watched the women's softball games for years from a bench in the corner of Prospect Park's ballfields, with his own dog and a few friends, and Toby always insisted on stopping to visit with them. A nurse who saw us from afar while walking her and her wife's dog came up one day to confess she had a crush on Toby. Among his earliest friends were a dancer, his husband in finance, and their son, who must have been in preschool when we met and is finishing high school now. The boy changed so much over the years that I sometimes had trouble recognizing him but Toby never did. In his last years a woman who owned two chihuahuas used to give him homemade sweet-potato-and-flaxseed treats. I can't list all Toby's friends, because there were just too many. It sometimes felt as though Toby were a celebrity, and Peter and I were his entourage. Which is making a joke of it: it also felt as though Toby was a gift that we were giving to everyone we met, because when we walked through the park with him, it felt like we were distributing happiness. He literally smiled. "He's smiling at me," people often said aloud, as if they found it hard to believe. They also often said, "Those ears." He was especially gentle with children. He would let them do anything. The only concern I ever had was that he would waggle his enormous tail so hard that he would inadvertently topple one over (which never happened). I would tell him to lie down, and he would let them rub his belly. Usually he gave them a kiss on the face or hands.

You shouldn't think he was an angel, however. When young, he stole other dogs' toys. I once had to pay a miffed owner five dollars, because he wouldn't come back with it and the owner wanted to go home. Another time, he trotted into the dog pond with a stolen toy, only to release it once he got in over his head. (He was so afraid of getting in over his head that it wasn't until he was eleven that he almost accidentally discovered he could swim. If I went swimming, he would race back and forth on shore, yipping short, sharp barks of terror and concern.) As the toy floated away, helplessly, I rolled up my pants and walked in after it. Rats swim in that pond, by the way; I've seen them. Toby disliked male dogs that hadn't been fixed and dogs with very big hair and would try to scrap with them. The fights were mostly display—he never bit another dog—but he did topple and wrestle to the ground a few, which was rattling. I came to think of him as a dangerous weapon, which I had to treat with the appropriate respect. We trained for years. In his prime he knew sit, down, stay, come, leave it, drop it, heel, and fetch. I was so proud of him. Once we found the right dosage, he walked by my side through the park off leash almost every morning. 

I can't write down everything. Peter reminds me that when we watched the third season of Twin Peaks, which Toby found a little scary, he would come over to the couch, stick his snout under the blanket covering us, and, when we lifted the blanket, climb up and sleep under the blanket, between us. When he was still very young, it was his habit, whenever I took him running with me, to pick up the largest stick he could find, practically a log, and carry it balanced in his mouth all the way around the park. It was steadying for him, like a security blanket. I used to think that when we got home, I should tweet, "I'm the guy you just saw running around the park with a dog carrying a stick as big as the dog."

In July 2018, he tumbled while running after a toy and cried, unable to get up. I carried him home, almost a mile. A frankly incompetent vet insisted that one of his hip bones had come out of its socket, even though she took two X-rays that showed the hip bone in place. A day and a thousand dollars later, a vet at a second clinic advised that his hip was fine, but that his gait was "ataxic," that is, uncoordinated, probably, in her opinion, because he had canine degenerative myelopathy, a progressive form of paralysis, similar to ALS in humans, that begins with the extremities and is not only incurable but untreatable. After diagnosis, time to death is typically between six months and three years. It is a cruel disease, because the dogs remain very much themselves, and in Toby's case, in cheerful spirits, even as they lose sensation in, and command over, their bodies. 

We supported his back legs with a sling for several months, and the sprained muscles in his back legs healed almost completely. He wobbled, but he was able to walk on his own again. After a while he stopped being able to raise his tail, however, and some time after that, he stopped being able to wag it. He started to drag his back paws, which we protected with Pawz rubber booties, which are ordinarily used to protect dogs' paws from the salt that's put down to de-ice roads in winter. In late spring 2020, we began to support his walking with a Help-’Em-Up harness. Sometimes we were able to take it off, though, and get by without it. His bark started to become higher in pitch. He started having accidents in the house, which we minimized by doing some arithmetic and, after some experimentation, setting up a new schedule for mealtimes and walk times, which we had to keep to rigidly, and even then didn't always work. A blood test in September 2020 showed anomalies, suggestive of something new wrong inside, that we decided it didn't make sense to investigate. In December 2020, the owner of Slope Cellars, a wine store in Park Slope, recognized Toby's gait as characteristic of the illness and hailed Peter and offered to donate a Walkin’ Wheels dog wheelchair that a dog of hers with the same illness had used. He tore around our apartment with it as soon as we rigged him into it, and until his last day he went on two long walks in the park with it every day. Almost all the bird and nature photos on my blog were taken in his company. About a week ago he became sick, in a way that didn't respond to the usual home and over-the-counter remedies but only got worse, and after a lot of agony, we decided it was time. After his last walk in the park, on Wednesday afternoon, while I was waiting on the sidewalk with Toby for Peter to pick us up in our car, a dozen schoolchildren came up and asked to pet him, and he licked their fingers while they stroked his head and told me about the dogs and cats they knew and had known. "I like that dog," one of the little girls said, in a tone of voice suggesting that not all dogs met her standards. 

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