Thursday, July 31, 2014

Off the Digital Leash

Not our dog. Wheatie is invisible.
NO DOG: Jonathan and I don’t have a dog, but we wish we did. So we did the next best thing.We have an invisible dog, named Wheatie. Wheatie is a Wheaton Terrier: invisible, so constantly adorable and very low maintenance. (We forget to feed her, she doesn’t care.)

Solly and Daisy
PUPPY LOVE: My colleague/producer Mary has real dogs. Crazy, bouncy, hilarious rescue Labs who are an adventure every day. Very high maintenance, but Mary cannot talk about Daisy and Solly without smiling.

POOCH PHILOSOPHY: The dog-person thing is pretty intriguing. What I have learned from Mary is that there’s more to dogs than dogs. And now I am learning it from Matthew Gilbert, too.

BOW WOW.  Matthew Gilbert. Made me laugh every day as TV critic for the Boston Globe. Fearless, opinionated, hilarious and insightful and a beautiful writer, he made our love of TV be like a community. Something we all shared, discussed, cared about—and it was okay. TV was good. And we were grateful.

DOG CHOW: A few months ago, at a dinner party, (after we dissected The Wire and Game of Thrones and The Americans) Matthew told me about his new book. A book? About TV? (That had to be it, I figured.) Nope. He explained it was about how he’d been forced to detach himself from TV—by a dog.

COME!  I latched onto this instantly. We have dog lovers at Jungle Red, I said. We have readers. We have people who love to read about dogs. Come visit! I implored. And he agreed.

GOING TO THE DOGS. So now, Matthew Gilbert, in his new life. How going to the dogs led him to a whole new place.

Off the Digital Leash

    Hi, my name is Matthew, and I am a TV junkie.

    Like many of my friends, I feel like I was raised by TV. I remember watching reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” as a kid and wanting Rob Petrie to be my father. He was a goofy string bean of a man, and I loved him for his stumbles, for his macho-free masculinity, for the rare birds in his life like his co-writers Buddy and Sally.

    You’ve been there, no doubt, fed by the dependable love of the remote-controlled breast. You’ve visited that place of comfortable numbness, where the world is like another TV show. It’s not a bad place. I’ve made a very satisfying career out of it as the TV critic for the Boston Globe. I watch many, many hours of TV a week, and I love it. I love the medium, and watching stories unfold over time, especially now that those stories – like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” – are so good.

      But since I’ve been taking my yellow lab Toby to the dog park, I’ve developed a daily ritual of going unplugged for an hour or two, of leaving the digital bubble. It has been a great development, a daily “off.” I’m away from the TV and computer screen when I’m at the park, and I also try not to use my cell phone. It’s a regular intermission from that state of electronic thrall.

    Toby goes off the leash, I go off the digital leash.

    It’s not the only thing I’ve gotten from the dog park. As I describe in my new book, “Off the Leash: A Year at the DogPark,” I’ve learned how to play, how to relax among groups of people. But this daily intermission from the virtual, this spot of sun through the cloud, has been so eye-opening. These screens and devices we obsess over are very high-tech tools with which to make a very primitive kind of flight. They enable emotional distance; you’re in a room or on a street or at a park, and a very beautiful park at that, but only partially there. I knew that state intimately, long before cell phones arrived.
Toby’s name has “to be” in it – that had been my idea when my husband Tom and I named him, thinking of a Globe editor who’d killed himself shortly before we got Toby; that friend, so overwhelmed and resigned, had chosen not to be. Time to be, I thought, at least for a few hours a day, while the dogs are wrestling joyfully at my feet. Stay in the moment of the park, at the park.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Ah, Matthew. See what I mean, Reds?  Do you have a dog? Or have you ever? Did your dog—change your life? Are you a "dog person"?

**And pssst. There's still time to enter my fabulous THE WRONG GIRL paperback contest  **

OFF THE LEASH is a group portrait of dog people, specifically the strange, wonderful, neurotic, and eccentric dog people who gather at Amory Park, overlooking Boston near Fenway Park. And it’s about author Matthew Gilbert’s transformation, after much fear and loathing of dogs and social groups, into one of those dog people with fur on their jackets, squeaky toys in their hands, and biscuits in their pockets.

Gilbert, longtime TV critic at The Boston Globe, describes his reluctant trip into the dog park subculture, as the first-time owner of a stubbornly social Yellow Lab puppy named Toby. Like many Americans, he was happily accustomed to the safe distance of TV viewing and cell-phone web surfing, tethered to the digital leash. But the headstrong, play-obsessed Toby pulls him to Amory, and Amory becomes an exhilarating dose of presence for him. The joyous chaos of wrestling dogs and the park’s cast of offbeat dog owners – the “pack of freaks” – gradually draw him into the here and now. At the dog park, the dog owners go off the leash, too.

Dog-park life can be tense. When dogs fight, their owners – such as the reckless Charlotte – bare their teeth at each other, too. Amid the rollicking dog play, feelings tend to surface faster, unedited. But Gilbert shows how Amory is an idyllic microcosm, too, the home of enduring friendships and, as the droll but vulnerable Hayley knows, romantic crushes. Meeting daily, a gathering of dog owners can be like group therapy, or The Office, or a standup concert.

As a TV critic, Matthew Gilbert is well-known by his readership for his humorous and wry writing style. A charming narrative that will appeal to anyone who has ever enjoyed watching a puppy scamper through a park, OFF THE LEASH is a paean to dog lovers and their pets everywhere, perfect for fans of Marley & Me and Merle's Door.


  1. I'm not a dog person. Because of my allergies, I've never spent much time around them, and the ones that come up to greet me so enthusiastically actually freak me out a little.

    However, I am so intrigued by the time off the digital leash. I am constantly on via phone and as soon as I come home from work I'm on my computer. I am even checking it on the side lines at ultimate Frisbee games.

    I think I need to start doing this a bit more every day.

  2. Although we’ve had dogs for many years, we are currently dog-less. [Perhaps we need an invisible dog . . . does Wheatie have any brothers or sisters?]
    A time out from the digital world sounds like an idea worth pursuing --- it’s far too easy to get caught up in the whole “being connected” obsession.
    Off The Leash sounds like a perfect dog-lover’s book; I’m adding it to my to-be-read pile.

  3. I am a total dog person. My current dog, a rescued senior Yorkie (or Yorkie mix? He isn't saying!) thinks he owns the neighborhood (in which he's lived since I adopted him 14 months ago). Lest Mr. 5.2 lbs. challenge somebody's Mastiff or Rottweiler and get eaten in a single bite, I keep him on a leash or in our own yard. I would take him to Dog School to learn to get along with other dogs, but (a) it's in the breed to challenge bigger dogs, and (b) you know what they say about old dogs and new tricks.

    But I love my dog-- as I have loved the five (and one dog's cat) who came before him.

  4. Matthew, Hello! So nice to meet you. I am such a dog person that I will get on your nerves within 10 minutes telling you how very smart and funny and dear our Harley the Wonder Corgi is. Pictures! I have a few pictures. And - he has written a book. (did I say he was smart?)

    Your OFF THE LEASH sounds completely wonderful, and I look forward to reading it.

    Hank, please give Wheatie a scritch from his Auntie Kaye.

  5. I am a dogless dog person. However, I love dogs and they love me. This includes dogs that the owners insist are vicious to non-members of the household. The most notable one is the dog the family of one of my sisters had. I am convinced they were afraid of her from the moment they brought her home. From the very first day I met that dog, she jumped into my lap as soon as I sat down, and she fell asleep. And that's what she did every single time I visited for the rest of her life.

    The only reason I've not given in to the temptation to get one of my own is that my back problems make it too easy for me to lose my balance in the ice and snow, and therefore I'm afraid of possible injury (to both of us) if I fell walking the dog in the winter. One of my neighborhood dog owners adopted a new dog last year after her old one died. I love that little bundle of enthusiasm! My neighbor is often walking her dog when I get home from work. The dog drags her over to my car before I even finish parking it, and then waits for the tummy rubs she knows she'll receive from me. I'm not entirely certain of the human's name, but I know the dog's name, to give you an idea of how complete a dog-lover I am. The human has hinted that she might ask me to walk her baby for her on days that she has to work late. The only problem I see with that is that I could possibly refuse to return the dog to her!

    I do have some dog stuffed animals given to me by people who feel badly that I'm not able to own a live one. And I've been "dog-sitting" for a stuffed dog animal owned by one of my nieces. I'm supposed to be "reforming" that little renegade but she's not being cooperative. Therefore, the cloth cur continues to stay with me, until I'm convinced my niece will not be in danger from her stuffed canine's doggy deficiencies.

  6. Hi guys. This is fun! Thank you for welcoming me here.

    Thoughts: Mark and Joan, you will definitely have withdrawal if you try this! And you will be shocked at how frequently you find yourself reaching for your phone/remote/keyboard. I felt a little off-kilter for a while. Now, I look forward to it, and I've learned that it all can wait until I leave the park.

    Ellen, you are wise for not forcing your guy. He's older, plus sometimes we just need to accept that keeping a dog on a leash is the safest option for all involved. You could take him to the park, but keep him on the leash. He might like it, seeing his "people," and you might like seeing yours, plus people will respect you for playing it safe. Too many owners are callous and let aggressive dogs off leash.

    Kaye, I love corgis! I am sure he is quite brilliant. Toby read his book and he was all raves.

    Deb, I bet you smell really good!!! Some people do have a way with dogs -- and seriously, it may have to do with smell, which could reveal all kinds of things about the person to the dog. Perhaps you are a calming energy. You're like the aunt that all the kids can relax around because she's not their parent!

  7. Like Hank, allergies have kept me dog free... so the dogs in my life belong to friends. I do not love all of my friends' dogs. Is it okay to say that? One friend had a rottweiler who became snarling-barking-teeth-baring aggressive if I hugged its owner. The owner thought that was cute. And then there other are dogs that have seriously made me consider if the wheezing might be worth it. Lucy's Tonka falls into that category.

  8. Yes, Mark, exactly. It's almost insidious, how connected we are, every second. I checked my email while was waiting for my sandwich in the lunch place yesterday.Really? I can't just--stand there a minute?

    And my cab driver took me a really silly way the other day--but I didn't notice until too late because I was buried in my phone.

  9. What is the thing that dogs understand? They do seem to know, instantly, that you love them, and they will love you back.

    ANd I guess it's lucky that Jonathan is allergic, (I'm not!) but the invisible thing really works.

    Joan, wheat has LOTS of brothers and sisters. You can also call the ASPCIA. :-)

  10. It's true, Hank. Most dogs ASSUME love and affection and good will. They trust. But of course there are troubled dogs, and they deserve compassion and healing. They test us.

    That said, there's nothing worse than a dog owner who lets his or her aggressive dog endanger other dogs (and people). I have a chapter or two about THOSE PEOPLE (I call them "the Charlottes" in the book, named after a particularly insensitive owner).

  11. When we lost our long-time canine companion after ten years, we had a new pup as soon as a heart-wrenching mourning period was over (about ten weeks - one for each year?). Now Chi has two "brothers," and our house belongs to them.

    They love their off-leash time, and Matthew, I think I need to give myself some of that, too. Thanks!

  12. Toby is my first dog, Cyndi... I can't imagine losing him. So I block out the inevitable. Every day. But I love hearing stories of healing and recovery and new dogs and more love....

  13. Also a dogless dog person here. We had a dog for the first few years we were married, but when we moved to our present house the yard was much too large, and too odd, to either fence or electrify, so he went to live with a neighbor who adored him.

    But two of my daughters have great dogs: Otis, Barli, and Socks, and I adore at least two of them. :-) It's fun to visit, snuggle with the grandpups, and then come home to my dog hair-free home.

  14. What can I say? We named our one dog Not-a-cat (pronounced Na-TAK-it) We had his company for almost fifteen years. Otherwise, cats, who don't need walking but do keep me hopping around the house. As for taking a break from technology? Not a problem. The cell phone is only for emergencies and the answering machine handles the land line. Of course, I'm writing this on my iPad and I do check my email a lot. Okay . . . Obsessively. But as a frugal Mainer I'm too cheap to pay a phone company, so it only connects when I'm close enough to WiFi. My real break and opportunity for socializing every day comes on my trip to the post office and market seven miles from the house.


  15. Karen: Grand-dogs are good!!! I hope Otis is on the good list; I LOVE that name...

    Kathy -- Cats are good too! I wish dogs could purrrrr.

  16. For as connected as I am, I'm also pretty good about letting it go. The only reason I checked my phone the last time my husband and I went to a concert was that the kids were home alone - I checked at intermission to make sure they hadn't called me. But if I'm bored, well, that's a different story.

    I adore dogs. I am currently dog-less and it pains me every day. We had a beagle/yellow lab mix for 14 years and he was a joy. Loud, not all that obedient at times, but a joy. Very protective of my kids when they were babies. I miss him. But we just aren't home enough these days - it's not fair to buy a dog and then leave him alone for 8-10 hours a day. I think I also need an invisible dog - perhaps Wheatie was one of a litter?

    But should I ever hit the mother-load and wind up working from home full time (writing or something else), I will have a dog again. I lust after rescued racing greyhounds. So pretty, so sweet.

  17. There are "Charlottes" even in the non-dog world, right?

    I love dog names, too. They are so revealing! I once had a beagle (arooo!) named McGee. It was supposed to be in honor of John McPhee, but McPhee didn't work as a dog name.

  18. Mary, I really admire you for making that decision. Too too too many owners get dogs and then leave them alone all day. It's not fair. (A loud beagle mix? What?)

    Hank -- I kinda like the name McPhee (McGee and Magoo, too)!

  19. Don't get me started on "those people." I've had dogs almost trip me in the park while I was out running. There are signs everywhere that dogs must be on the leash. And the owners are just saying, "He doesn't bite." That's great, but I don't want him running after me barking at me either. (And yes, I try to give them a wide section so I'm not teasing them needlessly. I know it is a two way street. But if they aren't on a leash, then there is only so much I can do.)

  20. I hear you Mark. Dog owners need to be respectful of non-dog people. They bother me, and so do the people who don't pick up their dog poop!

  21. Mark, I hear you. I am not a fan of strange dogs, especially of strange dogs that run pell mell at me. I once had one try to attack a friend and me while we were walking together. She had been attacked by three dogs once, and she froze, with her pepper spray in her hand, unable to do anything with it, and it was up to me to run the dog off. Never want to repeat that experience.

    I am also not a fan of dog owners who tolerate their animals jumping on visitors, with a "He won't hurt you." Sure. If you say so. Well-behaved dogs who don't jump on people? My favorite.

  22. Dogs, yes!!!! Can't wait to find your book, Matthew. Currently dogless, because I travel a lot for work--I tried to have a dog because my boss told me I could bring her with me, but she didn't travel well, and sadly, I had to find her a new home.

    One of my favorite childhood pets was a black lab/shepherd mix named Tiger Joe. A total fun-loving goofball! He would get the baseballs, gloves, bats, and make a pile in the yard, then bark for someone to come out and play! Chase butterflies over the sweet potato ridges in the garden, use his nose to roll a basketball all over the yard if no one would come out to play!

    Dogs--and cats--require you to be in the moment--Murphy the cat will lie across my keyboard and refuse to get up until he's had his moments of lovin.'

  23. That's it! I'm writing a dog book! "Harley and Me"! Wait, is there a problem with that? (Harley is my beloved lab who passed away a couple years ago.)

    Thanks for the shout out to Solly and Daisy, Hank! They DO make me laugh everyday !! And I could not imagine life without them and the adventures!

    By the way they're both rescue dogs--so if anyone wants information on adopting, anywhere in the US, let me know!

  24. Welcome, Matthew! We don't have a dog of our own due to allergies, but my family and I love dogs and I'm proud "dogmother" to our friends' rescue lab-mix girl, Busy.

  25. It's all a matter of practicality. I have a small dog because I have a small house and because he is less able to pull me off my feet (although it is amazing how much power they have). I rescued an older dog because I am older and don't think I (or all my stuff) could handle young-dog behaviors. I keep my dog on a leash when we are outside because I don't want him attacking another dog (and I would prefer that other dogs not attack him, even if he is barking at them. So I avoid the dog park where they can be off-leash).

    I am rather proud of my place in history-- I am responsible for Milwaukee's pooper-scooper ordinance (by way of a campaign for city council that I lost back in 1972, but the guy who beat me picked up that plank from me). There are worse influences to have had.

    One of the ways I keep myself unplugged is by not owning a smart phone-- and not remembering to charge, or ever using, my flip phone. When I am in the car, I concentrate on driving. I wish the other drivers would do so as well.

  26. Ellen Kozak! This is historic..and I guess we are happy they didn't name it after you!

    The poop pick up--do you get used to that?

  27. Matthew, I can SO totally relate to your post. I had a dog named Luna the One-Eyed Wonder Dog. She died in April. I hadn't realized what she meant to the quality of my life until she was gone. I no longer saw my neighbors, I no longer met and chatted and made new friends through dog parks and dog walking ...

    I'm an introvert writer type, kind of a loner. So the long story short of it is that I got depressed, went on antidepressants. Then, about a month ago, I woke up one morning with a hankering to visit the Oregon Humane Society -- for a dog fix I told myself. A week later I had Fawn, the craziest/cutest Chihuahua/Terrier mix ever.

    Voila, I'm healed! She's my therapy dog without meaning to be! I'm getting socialized again! I'm a better, happier person! :-)

    So, yes, I totally get you about the time we spend outside with our dogs -- away from technology, and, for me, away from my introspective, whirling thoughts. Can't help but be in the moment when I'm hanging outside with Fawn.

    Thanks for being here today!

  28. Hi Matthew!!! The only reason I'm not checking in earlier is that I had a nap this morning, after spending half the night on the bathroom floor with our oldest German shepherd, who is storm phobic.

    We have five dogs in the house at the moment; our two GSDS, one if nine, the other almost two; two grand-dogs (along with daughter and son-in-law, who are waiting for their house to be finished), a boxer and pit-something-something mix; AND our brother-in-law's six month old GSD puppy. Can I just say it's a bit crazy? WE ARE THE DOG PARK...

    We don't take our dogs to the dog park--too many incidents with aggressive dogs--but we invite friends to bring their well-behaved dogs over to play.

    And I have no trouble unplugging. There is nothing like watching dogs play (or playing with dogs) to right your perspective on the world. My favorite time of the day when the weather permits? Throwing the tennis ball for the two-year-old GSD for a good hour in the evenings.

    PS. Our GSDs play well with our two cats, too.

    PSS. I'm buying your book!

  29. Lisa--that is a fascinating story! Thank you..and what a lovely ending to it. Or, I guess, beginning.

    Debs, I am howling with laughter, imagining your house! Wonderful!

    (When I grew up, we had Penny the one-legged Irish Setter. She chased cars, frantically, and even did it on three legs.)

  30. Great post, Matthew, and your book already has me thinking Christmas present for a couple of dog people on my list. Dogs can teach us so much, and it sounds as if you had an absolute transformation to a life of meaningful connections. The cleverness of your pairing "off the leash" for Toby with "off the digital leash" for you is a thematic link from which we all should take note. Toby knew what you needed and led you there.

    My dear dog Abbie is in the twilight years, almost 15 now, but she continues to be a model of loyalty and unconditional love. At this stage, she is giving me much needed lessons in patience and understanding, as she has the occasional lapse in bathroom matters. I have a wonderful dog sitter who takes loving care of Abbie when I need her, so going out of town isn't a traumatic deal for either of us.

    Oh, and losing a pet. It is indeed heart-wrenching, as you say, Cyndi. Before my husband and I had children, we had a sweet cocker spaniel named Barry, who was in essence our baby. When Barry died suddenly, I experienced grief like I had never known. But, if you are a dog person, you do eventually want another love like that.

    Thanks, Matthew for the dog-related thoughts and the gadget-free thoughts. You have inspired me to do better.

  31. Matthew--we're so happy to have you here today--and can't wait to meet you at Crimebake! (For those of you haven't signed up for the conference yet, please consider! Matthew is speaking on Friday night with another New England critic and nice guy Joe Meyers.)

    Anyway, look forward to this wonderful book. We have Tonka, the Aussie, who is my soul dog--can't imagine what I'll do without him one day. He's not a dog park kind of guy--he says he's a people person:)

    Debs: 5 dogs????

  32. Hank-- re poop pick-up, this is another reason I stick with smaller dogs. Bigger dogs not only eat more, but what goes in must come out. (Plastic bags from newspapers or vegetables-- even from bagels or hot dog buns-- are wonderful for this). But yeah, you get used to it and it doesn't even register that you are doing it, only when someone doesn't.

  33. Hi, Matthew! Your book sounds great. Carol Ann Newsome has a series of murder mysteries written around a dog park klatch, very fun.

    My life and our household completely revolves around dogs. We wouldn't have it any other way. They do absolutely ground us and remind us to take time to smell the roses (and anything else we can find), leaving the digital world behind. Most of our friends are people we know from the training club or the Vet Clinic. They are the nicest folk!

    A couple of the Standard Poodles do like to watch a little TV now and then. And my husband, who gets to name all the girls, has called them all after TV characters. We had Murphy (Brown), Dharma (and Greg) and now Ziva (David, from NCIS, named 2 weeks before Cote de Pablo announced she was leaving, go figure!)

    We moved out to the country (so the dogs would have more room to run) twenty years ago and digital signals have been slow to catch up to us here, which helps, too. Cell phone signals are iffy, TV reception is spotty and there's not much bandwidth to speak of. I suppose it makes us sound like complete rubes, but Dear Husband travels the world as a software designer and I worked in that field for 20 years until giving it up to teach. We just decided we'd rather have the devices and screens work for us instead of the other way around... something we learned from the dogs, I guess... :-)

  34. This is a great site!So many great stories.

    Poop ordinances are greatness. Thanks Ellen...

    Lisa: I love your story. We are two of a kind. So glad you have Fawn. I bet I'd fawn over her.

    OK, sorry.

    Deborah: WE ARE THE DOG PARK. I want a bumper sticker.

    Lucy: Soul dog. I love that. Toby is definitely my soul dog. People-person dogs are great, too. I know a few like that... Sometimes -- often, actually -- I am a dog-person person.

    Kristi!!!! I LOVE those dog names. That is so funny. So great.

  35. Ohhh, after reading all the comments I am so tempted to get a dog of my own!! I'll read your book, Matthew, and maybe that will help fill up the space in me that I'd otherwise want to fill with a dog.Of course, after reading the book I'm pretty sure I'll want a dog even more.

  36. Has a dog ever changed my life?
    Is there a sky?
    Do I breathe?

    Kendall the Great has saved me from despair many times.

  37. OH, DebRO, my pal Mary can help you find a dog to adopt! Don't even get her warned!

    And yes,indeed, Reine.

  38. love the TV dogs names.. What if we names dogs like Game of Thrones characters? Well, wait, there's already The Hound.

    Matthew, are you watching Tyrant? The Strain?

    Matthews big PARTY is tonight! SO champagne and head pats from all of us at Jungle Red!

  39. I met the sweetest dog at my first writing conference last week. I love dogs. When I was a kid, I had a dog that looked like the dog from the movie, Babe.

    Still processing your words about digital leash. For me, it's a catch 22. With my hearing loss, I rely on cochlear implants in order to maximize my hearing. If you meant cell phones, that's a different matter. I always turn it off in places that require quiet because I do not want to be distracted by text messages vibrating. I use it as a primary source of communication since some people would not be able to decipher my accent ;/

    Thank you for a great post!