Howling to conclusions

by Gautam Raja

Gunther, our dog, was a year old when we adopted him three months ago, so he’s taken a while to settle down. For about two weeks, when I’d leave him late morning to pop down for work, he’d bark and scratch at the door a little, and then get down to a session of howling. Listening to that forlorn, piteous sound, petering out as if wracked by sobs, anyone would think we starved him and left on that terrace for days.

And some people did think that… well not that bad, but that we neglected him. Our temporary neighbours could hear and see him from their terrace, and it was only much later, when we heard they had reluctantly conceded that we loved him, we realised they’d made an assumption.

The truth is that Gunther is loved to pieces. He eats way better than we do, with every meal loaded with either meat or chicken, and vegetables (he loves vegetables–he’ll eat a raw carrot as if it’s a bone). I run up from work as often as I can to be with him, and any chance I get to work from home, I do. My wife misses him so much at work that I send her the occasional picture taken from my phone. We both get up early to walk him every morning, and are constantly playing with him or hugging him, so the suggestion that we neglect him was so startling that I held my breath for a few seconds.

But this is a dog. My friend was recently on holiday, visiting the US with his wife and child. While there, they got caught out and had to resort to fast food three days in a row. “The way we were looked at by family was so insulting. They didn’t say anything, but you could see how they glanced at each other and gave sharp looks as we fed her another French fry.”

My friend was insulted by the assumption, because for every one of the other 353 days of that year, his son ate fresh fruit, vegetables and meat–all bought from organic sources and cooked at home. “The people I stayed with had a fridge full of all kinds of processed, packaged stuff they kept feeding their child. Don’t. Make. Assumptions!”

I’ve found that we are ever eager to make such assumptions—maybe because to say someone else is living life wrong is to suggest you’re doing it right. Most of our dog critics had dogs themselves, and it’s always parents who are the harshest critics of parental choices. New parents can be savage about the choices their peers (I almost said rivals!) make, and because the raising of a child is such a complex process, there’s always fodder. New parents are also… well, new… so it’s clear that the drive for this criticism is not one of ease and accomplishment, but insecurity and fear.

And there’s so much fear around—fear that we’re not getting it right, that we’re missing out, that we get only one chance. I wonder if previous generations lived with it… is it simply the malaise of a mortal society? I really think though, that information overload is scaring us; that if you didn’t know something, you had no excuse, because you had Google and Facebook and newsfeeds and blogs right there in your pocket.

For Gunther, however it’s very simple. As he settles into a routine, he starts to know what to expect and when, and gradually gets calmer. He gains control over the information in his world and the howling reduces. Our howling, meanwhile, continues unabated.

First published in Gulf News, March 5, 2013