Learning to Live with Myself

In July of 2019, our family caravanned with friends from Michigan out to Glacier National Park to camp and hike and see the sites. It was a wonderful trip, and for the first time, Brendan’s fiancée (now wife) Becky joined us as well.

One of the characteristics of our family that Becky had to adjust to is the constant crackle of wordplay, sarcasm, and verbal violence dealt out among our members. I remember distinctly the first shot I fired across her bow at the dinner table during one of our first few visits with her. She took it well, with a wry smile and a very deliberate “Wow.”—as in, “Okay, so it’s like that now.”

This is not about that, however. This is about the first real shot she fired back.

We were standing around the firepit at the campground at Glacier, and Brendan was complimenting something he had eaten with Becky’s family: venison meat sticks, I think. I was standing just behind Becky, and as Brendan gushed, I stooped to rest my chin on Becky’s shoulder and gave her my best sideways puppy-dog eyes to indicate how much her future father-in-law would appreciate such delicacies.

She took evasive action, as one might in such a circumstance, and with the same wry smile, said, “You know, you’re basically Bruno in human form.”

I opened my mouth to reply, then closed it again.

* * * * *

Bruno is our dog, a young Airedale Terrier. He loves Becky and listens to her best of anyone besides me. Becky knows dogs, and in that moment, I realized she knew me.

Bruno was bred in Alabama, of good hunting stock: upland game dogs, fur and varmint dogs, even mountain lion fighters. He was one of two big male pups in the litter; the breeder agreed that I should have one and he would keep the other.

Do you remember the movie Twins? I think I got DeVito.

One ear is smaller than the other, and corkscrews out sideways from his cocked head, giving him the appearance of listening to voices no one else can hear. He growls, snaps, runs, and wrestles, but a fear of loud noises, sudden movements, and most unfamiliar animals or objects precludes much hunting. Indoors he rubs against furniture, walls, and legs like a cat—which can be dangerous to the unsuspecting or the unsteady. Outdoors he loves to snowplow year-round: head and shoulders on the ground, back legs up and pushing, driving his face through grass and leaves, snow and mud. He groans and sighs when tired or left alone too long; he whines when bored, impatient, or excited; he yawns loudly and sneezes violently—more than once hitting his head on the floor in the process.

He can move quickly enough when he wants to be, but he is not athletic, graceful, or subtle. He is not unintelligent: He likes what he likes, and picks up on things he enjoys quickly enough. And he’s not a wimp: He’s got a blockheaded toughness that manifests itself in not knowing he’s in trouble until he’s about to get hurt (and sometimes not until afterward).

To get his undivided attention, you have to yell, and to correct him, you have to make him yelp, or he thinks you’re still playing. It would be problem if he were naturally aggressive. He’s not.

More than anything, he wants to be close to his pack, touching people if possible, hearing their voices telling him he’s a good dog. (Telling him anything, really, as long as it sounds loving.) He will sit or stand in your way in order to have you speak to him or nudge him out of the way. He’ll lay with his head in the kitchen, near the the fridge, and let us slide him across the hard floor with the door rather than move, just to feel connected.

I love him, but he drives me nuts. Why does he have to be right there, all the time? Why is he so affectionate, and so needy? How can the same dog be such a natural people-pleaser, and so oblivious to the needs and moods of the people around him?

* * * * *

I, too, am large, awkward, and hairy; intimidating at a glance, but a people-pleaser underneath. I, too, am vocal in my loneliness, discomfort, impatience, or excitement. Alone of my immediate family members, I respond best to physical affection and words of affirmation, and I spend a fair amount of time in my own head, unaware of the needs and moods of others. I, too, want to be loved by everyone, and can drive people nuts trying to acheive it.

When I butt heads with Bruno, it is like the robin at the window, pecking his own reflection.

More and more lately, I catch myself getting after my dog and remembering Becky’s one-liner. The best barbs find their mark and stick because they have the weight of truth behind them. I am learning how challenging I am for my family at times—especially for my bride, who is not a dog person and speaks neither of my “love languages” naturally—and how insistent I often am that the family revolve around me, if only to have them in my orbit.

I’m not a bad guy, and he’s not a bad dog. Maybe if I can learn to work with Bruno as he is, I’ll make something of myself, too.

Good boy. Good dog.

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