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Ode to a Step-Dog
Yes, he’s named after the Frank Ocean song.
MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER WAS a fisherman. This is not something I was aware of growing up, but rather learned within the past year, when I started asking my grandmother more specific questions about what life was like in Venezuela in the 50s and 60s, during the military dictatorship and after, when she and her husband moved to the local Shell Oil company town.
There’s something peaceful about acquainting yourself with a subject that has its own history. Even with completely platonic relations, there’s a thrill in learning more about their provenance, their priors, and the arms that have held them before. In that process of discovery, I find that I get to know myself better, too. There’s a certain release in putting together, little by little, the puzzle pieces that constitute another’s being, almost like the last gentle tap on the tin mold that contains a fresh upside-down cake. “Righting” is what they call that final step.
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I never had pets growing up. Well, that’s unless you’re counting the little baby chick I won at a kindergarten courtyard Olympiad (died a day later) or the fish I got as a gift (a cat snuck into the house and ate it soon after, leaving behind a trail of blood, per her account) or the bird we had for a hot second (fate unknown). Mom worked 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., standing around, driving around, which left her little time or energy to care for an animal. The weekends she spent cooking or cleaning or making sure she took care of her swollen feet so she could be ready for Monday. Besides, it wasn’t that popular to own a pet in Venezuela. I think she was lying about the fish.
So when I met Pilot Jones, I wasn’t really sure what to make of him. I had been around dogs before, but never walked one or even pet one for longer than an afternoon at a friend’s place. Though my siblings begged and begged, my father was adamant that we could never have a dog—he gave many reasons to justify this mandate, but never the real one: that his childhood dog died on one of his birthdays, and he didn’t want any of us to feel a pain like that, ever. And I got bit on the face by a dog once, too. This predisposed me to an adulthood of hesitation toward having a pet, especially as a young person. Who would take care of the dog when I had to be away for work, or when I wanted to go out at night? There always ends up being a solution to these small problems, you learn.
Anyway, it was late one balmy night before the pandemic, and I had come to Georgetown’s campus to meet my now-partner, then-someone-I-was-kinda-seeing. The first thing you need to know about Pilot is that he’s massive; he currently weighs 90-odd pounds and can put his front legs on the top of my chest when he stands on his hind legs, about 5-foot-9. An English retriever-poodle mix, He is also the gentlest beast I’ve ever known. Approaching him across the front lawn, he willed his tail into a ferocious wag. When Noah told me that he had confided in him that he loved me, I knew those two had something really special going on.
The first time I walked him by myself, I noticed how easy he was. I think he could tell I was nervous. We strolled around my building while Noah was doing virtual therapy and picked up some cold brew. As out of my depth as I felt, there really isn’t much of a science to walking a dog like Pilot. He didn’t really pull on that first walk, so all that was left for me to do was to let him sniff the bushes. Sniff sniff. I had been warned, though, that he has an especially keen eye (or acute nose, in his case) for stray chicken bones. Even in my postage-stamp-sized studio, he found a way to make himself at home, snoozing the day away on the cold hardwood floor. We became intimately knowledgeable about my neighbor’s routine, because he’d wake the dog up at 6 a.m. just by shuffling around in the hallway. Pilot would bark but eventually got over it, and I could sleep some more.
Pushed by the quarantine and youth’s abandon, Noah and I moved in together very soon after that, and I became a kind of stepdad to Pilot. We decided that I would be playfully called “other dad.” I had to get to know him. Not just how many walks a day he gets (four) or how many cups of kibble go into his dinner (two), but also which hand motion was sit and paw and up, and the kinds of treats that didn’t sit well with his stomach. (Your pet gets sick and I swear all hell breaks loose and the skies cloud and the temple veil literally rips from top to bottom.) He sheds like crazy, which drove me crazy, and still does, but gratefully the world is equipped with lint rollers and vacuums and such.
Months later, as Caesar snores on the couch behind me, I’m still learning that joy isn’t a right any more than grief. Our losses and gains are simply realities that act upon us regardless of whether or not we feel we deserve them, though it certainly helps to act with intention. To overly obsess about what we think we deserve only ensures that we will dampen the happiness and prolong the hurt. And anyway, Caesar doesn’t give a hoot about my existential crisis. He just knows I’m home.
I didn’t know how much I needed a dog. I’m the owner of an endlessly listless brain, and sometimes looking at Pilot just feels like… What the hell am I worrying about? Although Noah had him since he was a puppy and went through the sleepless labor of house-training him while also juggling his courses, this has not stopped me from observing him and getting to study his affect. Though he was supposed to be a service dog but was deemed not focused enough, he is very attentive and a light sleeper, so if you say “Pi,” even if he’s snoring, he’ll perk his head right up. He sighs, a habit that dogs only pick up from their owners but that has led to all manner of conspiracy theories about what his troubles might be. He likes being near you; you could be in the next room and he’ll come by when you least expect him and curl up next to you, even on the floor. When there’s a breeze outside, he loves to smell the air. He is a simple guy. When he gets tired at night (like when I’m writing this), he’ll put himself to bed. You can take him to PetSmart and he’ll pick an 89-cent blue tennis ball over any of the other toys. His manners? Impeccable: If you’re sitting on the couch, he’ll sit near you until you tell him it’s okay to get on it, where he goes to the same corner each time and folds like a little donut. Yesterday, though, I came back home and found him on the couch without permission, his head on the armrest. He’s gotten into a habit of doing this recently when we’re away and he’s bored, and I tell Noah to just let him. What am I gonna say?
And yeah, of course he can sometimes be stubborn. He’s developed this habit of heeling alongside you, then suddenly turning around because there’s a scent that he didn’t really get to appreciate, even if that means jerking you around. Even when that happens, though, I find myself questioning what exactly I’m in such a hurry for, and what’s waiting at home that’s so important that I can’t turn around so he can smell the flowers. Besides, I still have a lot of this audiobook left to listen.
One of the first things I learned about walking a dog is that instead of bunching up the leash, one should fold it in sections so that you can steadily release. Sometimes he pulls me whichever way he wants to go. As we round a corner, I reel him in in case a crowd of drunk kids or an irresponsible dog owner. Once safe, I cast the line. I use both my hands to gather the leash, which I hook betwixt left thumb and forefinger and allow to hang lightly onto my right index and middle. I unspool. Other times, I’ll let the leash rest over my shoulder, knowing he won’t run away. On quiet mornings, this rhythm is like holding hands.
I’ve never fished. But perhaps this is the best way to understand another creature.
On a completely unrelated topic, for the more academically minded among you, I am pleased to share my first published academic paper, which is a note for the Georgetown Law Journal. It’s an analysis of how democracy has unraveled in different and similar ways in the United States and Venezuela, and why we shouldn’t be so sure that the Constitution by itself is going to prevent authoritarianism here. I worked on this piece since fall 2020, and I’d love it if you checked it out here. Download to your heart’s content.
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