Jewish Journal


November 2, 2006

You talking to me? When dogs are our best friends


I spend an enormous amount of time hanging out with my dogs. At the moment, I only have two, but at various times in my recent history, I have had as many as six. Technically, I believe, that constitutes a herd and therefore makes me somewhat like Jane Goodall -- but without all those newsletters and research.

Back in those days, my house looked less like a spread in Architectural Digest and more like the badlands of South Dakota, especially during shedding season, when giant clumps of dog hair floated freely through my living room, not unlike tumbleweeds during a dust storm.

And yet I find it all very enjoyable. For me, living with dogs is kind of like living with exchange students from Neptune. We all try to understand each other, but the bottom line is that we are simply from different planets and most things are just outside of all of our comprehension.

That said, I still find it moving the way my dogs good naturedly attempt to live inside of my rules and limitations, despite the fact that most of what is being asked of them probably seems completely counterintuitive to them.

It was thinking about this sort of thing that led me to write my third novel, "Walking in Circles Before Lying Down." My intention was to try and consolidate my thoughts and feelings about loving and trying to understand the dogs with whom I share my life.

The book is about a woman who so loses track of the direction her life should be taking that when she finds that she can suddenly talk to dogs, she starts wondering whether they are offering advice worth taking.

Dawn Tarnauer's life isn't exactly a success story. Married twice before she was even out of her 20s, she now has yet another boyfriend. But at least she hasn't married him.

She's still not sure what she does for a living or even what she wants. But after her second marriage crumbles, she finds herself moving in with her sister, Halley, and taking over her job baby-sitting dogs at a dog day care center so Halley can use the time to launch her career as an Internet-certified life coach.

As a roommate, Halley leaves something to be desired. She not only has many platitude-filled, life-coaching affirmations and body language techniques she wishes to practice on Dawn, but a well-documented attraction to sociopaths, having once dated convicted wife- and baby-killer Scott Petersen.

Then there's Joyce, Dawn and Halley's narcissistic mother, who continues to pursue a grandiose identity, this time marketing something called "The Every Holiday Tree" that she has developed with her Korean boyfriend, Ng, and is hoping to sell to Wal-Mart. Rounding out Dawn's life is her mostly absentee father, Ted, who models his life and wardrobe after his long-dead rock idol, Eddie Cochran. He is mourning the end of his brief third marriage by scheduling two dates for the same night.

The one reliable constant in Dawn's life is her new dog, Chuck, a pit bull mix she adopted from an animal shelter. When Dawn's boyfriend surprises her one morning with an announcement that he's leaving her for someone else, her world begins to unravel. Never having been dumped before, she finds herself sobbing into Chuck's fur; "Now what am I supposed to do?"

She is stunned when she thinks she hears Chuck reply, "Come on! You must have at least suspected there was someone else. Couldn't you smell her on his pants?" He then vows to take over as the new alpha of their pack, since he feels that Dawn's instincts have proven continuously unreliable, claiming that he will use his much more reliable centuries-in-the-making canine instincts to help Dawn find better solutions to all of her dilemmas.

From that point on, Dawn realizes that she can talk to all dogs. Either that or she is going crazy. As she debates this with herself, it soon becomes a case of be careful what you wish for, because although the dogs have much to say to Dawn, what they consider good conversational topics aren't always the kind of thing most of us want to hear.

There is also the dilemma of what to believe. When a dog in her care reveals that it is being abused, Dawn wants to act on this. But should she? How does she know whether the conversation she is hearing is real? What if the actual problem is that Dawn is delusional?

These are questions that I deal with in my own life on occasion. My book provides the best answers I can come up with.

If you'd like to see some reviews, I posted them at Merrillmarkoe.com

Merrill Markoe will appear Nov. 15 at 2 p.m., at redwhite+bluezz Wine and Bar Grill, as part of the Jewish Book Festival, a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. For information, call the Grill at (626) 792-4441 or The Federation at (626) 332-0700.

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