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The Gossip Couch

Dogs love gossip. They collect their gossip by sniffing pee puddles and seeking out the butts of other dogs for important information. This one’s in heat, that one just had puppies, the other one had pizza for lunch, this one and that one had playdate in a yard filled with something stinky. Dogs do not care about world news. The whole idea of world news would just seem silly to a dog. Their minds are completely local. Neighborhood news, family news, that’s what they want.

Cricket and Butterfly sniff in with each other regularly.

Cricket and Butterfly sniff in with each other regularly.

Cricket's traditional news-gathering pose.

Cricket’s traditional news-gathering pose.

We believe that it is important for us to know what’s happening in the country, and in the world at large, so we teach ourselves to read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or listen to Public Radio, or watch CNN, but it takes time and effort to build up a tolerance for serious news. Gossip, on the other hand, is a natural instinct. I remember people whispering to each other in nursery school, about who was a poopy pants, and who still needed a sippy cup. The idea that we get much more excited to find out what our neighbors are doing with their free time than about the latest government snafu, is embarrassing to us, but to dogs, it’s a given.

My last graduate program was a low residency writing program. We’d go to campus for a week at a time, twice a year, and then the rest of the work would be done online, from home. But that one week was packed with gossip. Of course there were lectures and readings and writing workshops, but there was also drama and intrigue and a lot of alcohol. I’m not much of a drinker (or not a drinker at all) but watching how other people act when they are drinking can be very entertaining.

Every night after dinner, and more student readings, some people would head out to the same bar, the one closest to campus so we could all walk there. For most of the residencies, I went back to my room and got work done and maybe went out once or twice during the week. But at my last residency there was no work to do, and no workshops to go to, because I was there to graduate. I committed myself to going to the bar, every night, to people watch. But my favorite part of the night was getting back to the dorms, and sitting on the gossip couch, catching up on what everyone else saw at the bar. Many people forgot that they were married, and forgot to take their meds, and forgot that they were there to write, and therefore provided quite a lot of material for the rest of us to chew on.

Whenever the most recent returnee from the bar got off the elevator, we had to question him or her about the latest news, and each subsequent arrivee was drunker, and better informed.

Yes, gossip can be mean, and cruel, and about feeling superior to the other guy, but it’s also about feeling connected to the actual world you live in, to the day to day people you interact with. Sharing personal news and knowing what’s going on in our community makes us feel grounded and connected and a part of the world, instead of separate from it. I hate when everyone else seems to know something and I’m on the outside. And sharing gossip with someone, especially if it is juicy gossip, can bond you, as if you are showing your vulnerable belly to that friend, admitting you care about such things.

People use the word “gossip” as a judgment against particular pieces of news. It means, your news is petty compared to the important news of the day. We know so much about what’s going on in the world, that it’s hard to place importance on our own lives within that enormous picture. But gossip can fix that. Gossip focuses in on all of those small details in our daily lives, it focuses on us, and our friends and enemies. It reminds us that we matter too. However small we may seem in the larger, worldwide, scheme of things.

Cricket and Butterfly gossip with each other all day. Butterfly sniffs Cricket’s ear, Cricket sniffs Butterfly’s butt, they listen to the birds and the neighbors and share significant looks. They know that this one smokes and that one’s on a low carb diet and the other one eats too many onions. They know which dogs have personality problems and which cats hide behind which bushes. They keep track of the comings and goings of the squirrels and the birds and the neighbors and the mailman. It’s like a twenty-four-hour-a-day soap opera with all of the repetition and long drawn out dramas you would expect from a daily serial. And they love it.

News-gathering must be done, no matter the weather.

News-gathering must be done, no matter the weather.

Butterfly checks in with the print media, when she can.

Butterfly checks in with the print media, when she can.

I try to remember this when I’m writing and start worrying that what I’m writing about is too trivial compared to what someone else has written. We need the big and the small, the weighty and the trivial, to balance each other out and give us perspective.

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

68 responses »

  1. Thanks for this. We all can learn a lot from our pets.

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  2. I agree! It is either exchange of information which is fascinating, or can be used to do harm. The former is what you mean, I think. –I likely provided considerable fodder my first year in college! This is not trivial. It is life.

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  3. I try to remember what you said as well because even though what I write about is so very trivial, I write it for my future theoretical grandchildren, I wish that I has been sensitive enough and smart enough to get to know my grandparents while they were still with me. I wish that my grandparents had been writers so that I could have known them better. I love your blog!

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  4. Thought-provoking and beautifully written. Evocative. I love your analogies. Thanks for contributing to the global dialogue.

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  5. I love the captions you give to your photos. That is so funny about Butterfly sniffing Cricket’s ear because Parker does that to Teemu, also. I have to give Teemu his heart meds in his ear (a little dab rubbed in) and Parker is right there to have a sniff. I figure she wants to able to look Teemu in the eye and tell him, “You’re good. She did it right this time.” Who knew we had such gossipy kids?! Rachel–you do NOT write trivial!! I love your posts.

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    • The all over body sniff they give each other after a vet visit is hysterical. I think you’re right, they’re checking the vets work to make sure everything was done correctly.

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  6. You can learn something grand from a story about small things.

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  7. Reblogged this on Bobbi's Blog and commented:
    Great post!

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  8. a great piece and a pleasure to read!! saw two dogs ‘handshaking’ this evening, too!

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  9. Informative and fun, Rachel. If you have time you may be interested in this: http://derrickjknight.com/2013/02/05/people-watching/

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    • Thank you! I try to read in French, but I can only manage a page or so at a time, and very simple language. The surprising thing is that when you are in Paris, you don’t really need to understand the words to get the whole soap opera going on around you!

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  10. It’s uncanny how our pets can identify our moods, knowing when we want to be left alone or when we want some physical contact. I wonder if it is down to the hormonal smells of anxiety and stress that they pick up on. After all, a dog’s sense of smell is phenomenal.

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    • They follow our chemical changes and listen to our heart rates, but they also watch us so carefully. I bet dogs were experts at microexpressions long before humans discovered them.

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  11. In my world a lifetime ago gossip was the only news – and my grandmother’s party line where several families shared the same telephone line was the CNN for our tiny town in rural southeast Texas. She took her job as seriously as Anderson Cooper. 🙂 Well, maybe not quite that seriously. She could be easily distracted by the soap operas on the radio.

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    • Ha! My grandparents had a party line at their summer house, but no one admitted to listening in to other calls, intentionally, they just seemed to know all the news around the lake by osmosis.

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  12. Proving once again that “news” is totally subjective, both to bipeds and our pups. Lovely post 😉

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  13. Dogs do have it down with regard to what they allow to enter their worlds. We, as humans, would do well to simplify what WE allow in too. It’s good to be informed, but too much information is (for me) too much. I’ve gone the other way too much – I know very little of what goes on outside my bubble and therefore am subject to pitying looks when someone else brings up a topic that is “hot news”. I’m not going to start sniffing my neighbors’ butts, however I do think that the dogs are onto something. Keep it simple.

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  14. I really enjoyed your post Rachel !!Whenever we take one of our three dogs to the vet the other two greet him at the door and smell and sniff him then follow him around the house for ages !

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    • Thank you! It’s amazing how much expertise these puppies think they have in the medical arts. Cricket does a thorough study and gives me these very serious looks, like she’s telling me, that doctor missed a spot.

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  15. Another cogent post Rachel. I think dogs (and cats) have an advantahe over humans. They are looking for information and the ony judgement they make is “Pertinent to me or not?” Only humans minimize the intimate, personal things and thunder on about the importance of “the big picture”. Like shyutgal, I have shut off most news. It is distracting and depressing.

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  16. I really enjoyed this post. My dog has to sniff everyone in the house when they come home in order to discern where they’ve been and what they’ve done. If one of us eludes him, he pursues us until he can satisfy his curiosity. I don’t know who he tells, since he’s an only dog, though. I do know that he rats us out if we’re up to an activity he finds suspicious. He’ll run to another family member and bark his head off until they follow him to the person he’s reporting on.

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  17. You’re so right about the importance of dog’s gathering information. Oblivious to the fact that it is 3am, Chicki goes about her sniffing on the street, even on bitterly cold nights, with me hanging on to her lead and urging her to hurry up. 🙂
    Great post, again 🙂

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  18. Loved this post, Rachel! When Bumble was younger, we would take long walks twice a day and he would read the WSJ of the street. That took time! But now that he’s old (almost 15) and blind, he only reads the local paper in our condo building gardens, very local news. Gossip shared between 6 dogs only. And it goes faster 🙂

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  19. Great post, Rachel, and point well taken! Peace, John

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  20. What’s so great about world news? It’s totally skewed and always depressing. Our local dogs including Millie – all start barking at the same time every evening. Their evening news sounds much more positive than what we get on our TVs, and I’m sure it’s closer to the truth!

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  21. We have email – dogs have peemail. Mine certainly checks out all the latest. She always goes for walks with nose to the ground, sniffing everything along the way and stopping for particularly interesting smells.

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  22. So many smells to catch up on; so much to learn – and tell! Pip

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  23. I call that “Checking our p-mail.” Loved this post.

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  24. (sniff sniff) Woof! Love it (dogsmile)

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  25. I belong to a winemaking club called the Woof Woof Winery. Our motto is to “Have fun. Make wine. Sniff butts.” A great bunch of friends, new and old. Love it!

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  26. Hi Rachel,

    I’m not much of a drinker, too (or not a drinker at all) like you! I remember way back in high school when I was still drinking. When I get so heavily drunk, I was their source of entertainment. I always make it to the headlines. I am not proud of the way I behaved back then but you know.. sometimes it’s awesome to reminisce about the good old days. And this post made me remember how my friends in high school gossip about me – which is totally cool, it’s my fault anyway!

    I have quit drinking since 2008 and I stay away from gossip as much as I can. But I can’t help it, I live with 2 awesome furry friends named Jaguar and Destiny, and like Cricket and Butterfly, they love gossip!

    Thanks for visiting OL as always and I look forward to your next post.

    Luna

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  27. I like that perspective. I enjoyed reading your post.

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  28. Clever – and true! Terrific post.

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  29. Yes, I don’t take Chienne out for a walk – I take her out to check the mail. Every night, same stops and sniffs at the same spots – see who is up to what. From time to time a different spot, but generally the same stops each night.

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  30. Cats may not sniff one another’s bums, but their world is just as scent-dominated. It’s one way rival cats avoid fights. X came this way about half an hour ago, so he should have moved on by now…

    One comment on what you say about being in the know. People want to be seen to be well-informed. So if they come across something unfamiliar, they pretend they know it instead of saying, “X? I’ve never heard of that. What is it?” I find myself doing this myself. But both false rumours and vague jargon live on it. In some workplaces, a person will use some term like “the transformation agenda” (popular in the public sector in the UK in the last few years) and others will nod or say vaguely relevant stuff. But is someone dares ask, “What do you mean by ‘the transformation agenda’?” the speaker may be stuck for a meaningful answer.

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    • I was in a writing workshop once when an author used a word in her story that I’d never heard of before. So I asked what it meant, and the teacher looked at me with awe and said, I didn’t know either, but I wasn’t going to ask. I always ask, ego be damned.

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  31. fantastic post, Rachel. Being part of community is a big part of being human and sharing news is part and parcel of that. but then theres the gossip side of things which is more about making yourself look good at someone elses expense. being in the know puts you higher up the pecking order than those on the outer and the subject of the gossip. Then theres being the confidante where youre in the know but dont tell. i am a great believer in the golden rule and always feel low when i share that nasty bit of gossip. Yet, i still do it…hopefully rarely.
    as for the dogs, i can share some gossipbthere. There must be thread worms doing the rounds as they do all that sniffing and gossipping down at the beach. Bilbo caught them so now weve all been ” done”.
    Happy 4th July to you xx Rowena

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  32. Roxanne | The Lemon And Jar

    Loving the doggy pictures ❤ haha! They are adorable

    thelemonandjar.com

    Reply
  33. In Hawaii, where I was born, we love to…”talk story.” And almost 66 years later…I still love to “talk story.: Hugs for your lovely…very charming…way with words. 🙂

    Reply

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