I've know and deeply admired Matthew Gilbert for a while now. He's the whip-smart TV critic for the Boston Globe, and we always talk about shows we love (or don't love.) Plus, he's hilariously funny, which always matters. His book, Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park is about a homebody who finds community because of his dog, about how dogs change us (and how we change them), and really, about being alive and present in the world. Thank you so much, Matthew for being here, (and you have to check out Srugim--a series from Jerusalem about young religious Jews and their tortured relationships.)
You’re a person after my own heart, a homebody, yet Toby, your dog, transformed you into someone who loves the company of others and who is truly present in the world. How did this alchemy take place?
When the puppy you’re falling in love with comes into your office and starts nudging your elbow with his cold nose, looking at you with his brown eyes like you’re the best person in the world, well, you go wherever he wants to go.
And my dog, Toby, always only wanted to go to the dog park. So as reticent as I was to stand around making chitchat with other dog owners, I couldn’t resist Toby’s hunger for play. I was the classic writer-type who writes because he’d rather not communicate in person; the thought of a dog park group was not inviting. And I was the classic TV addict who prefers to be protected from the hurts and messiness of the real world by a screen. But I had a dog who was a thoroughly social being, and he pulled me and pushed me.
I love the way we get the dog we need. In my case it was an introverted owner getting an extroverted dog who pulled him into a more vibrant, present life.
And gradually, as I write in the book, I came around. Big-time. I began to love the semi-anonymity of the park, the shared exhilaration of watching dogs wrestle and play, and the new friendships, which were daily and intimate and yet not overbearing. I liked the spontaneity and energy of the dogs, the way they made the people looser. I began to feel “off the leash” at the park as much as Toby.
Now that Toby is almost 10, I sometimes find myself nosing him while he’s sleeping, waking him up, and dragging him to the park for some off-leash time.
So tell us about the culture of the dog park. Is there a hierarchy of owners there, as well as dogs? Did you have to learn certain rules?
One of the things I love about the park is that the hierarchy is different from the one in the world outside the park. Maybe that’s the case in all subcultures. At the park, in my estimation, the people who are at the top of the heap are not there because of their jobs or their bank accounts or their beauty. You tend to thrive based on your passion for dogs, your love of your own dog, your willingness to socialize with strangers, and, very importantly, your willingness to take responsibility for your dog –when they have a tiff with another dog, say, or when they jump on people.
I quickly learned the rule about picking up your dog’s poop. Very important. Battles at the park often revolve around owners who repeatedly fail to scoop. But it took me a little longer to learn the more subtle social rules. For example, you don’t need to remember owners’ names, but it’s good form to remember their dogs’ names. Trying to take a park friendship outside the park is a no-no, unless you are quite certain the other person is interested. If they’re not, you’ve got a future of awkwardness between you.
Also, never wear fancy clothes. Most people learn that the hard way. If a dog swipes your pressed pants and leaves a mud stain on them, or if a dog pees on your favorite shoes, well, it’s your own fault. Someday, I’ll tell you about the lady who wore a mink coat to the park every day.
I loved how, in the dog park, you had to be really present. You couldn’t get on your phone or your i-pad, and dogs and people interacted. Did you suffer withdrawal? Was this nearly impossible to do? Can you talk more about this please?
No withdrawal at all.
OK. I just lied. Yes, when I put away my iPhone at the dog park, I feel a little lost, or orphaned. But how sad to have your dog playing and dancing joyfully at your feet while you’re not really there, because you’re busy with your Twitter feed or your email. Part of the pleasure of going to the park with Toby is taking a daily break and going off the digital leash.
For me, the park has been a welcome dose of presence, and spurning my tech for an hour or two a day has been part of that.
How and why do you think dogs bring out the best in people?
There are a million answers to that question, and no single one of them seems to quite nail it. You know, we try to be as good as we think they think we are; or we become more giving because dogs are so helpless in the human world. Bottom line: They tend to make humans more humane.
Sometimes, I think we each become better in whatever particular way our dog pushes us. In the book, I talk about how a person and his or her dogs form a kind of caravan as they walk through the park, with the dog confirming or challenging the owner’s view of the world and in the process making them better people.
When did you decide to write this fabulous memoir? How did you go about shaping it into a story? And what’s your writing life like these days?
I realized early on in my park life with Toby that the dog park is a special place, and that my time there with Toby was changing me somehow. So I started taking notes, thinking I’d write something or other. Finally, I wrote a piece for the Boston Globe about my love of the park, and I was blown away by the huge and passionate response from the dog-owning readership.
I started shopping around for book agents, and all of them told me that the book would need an “arc,” and the arc would need to be me. The St. Martins editor who finally bought the book, the fantastic Pete Wolverton, told me the same thing. So I took five months away from the Globe and wrote “Off the Leash.” It was peculiar to work for such a long time on one thing; as a critic, I rarely spend more than a day on a story. But I loved it, and hope to do it again. Got any good book ideas?
I’m still writing up a storm for the Globe, but I make time to write little personal pieces here and there, hoping to find the right subject for my next book.
You’re also the Boston Globe’s TV critic, so I wanted to ask, what show should everyone be watching and why aren’t they?
“The Americans” is the first thing that comes to mind. The FX show is about a married couple of Russian spies living with two kids in suburbia in the early 1980s. But it’s also a look at marriage, loyalty, nationality, and identity, and it has extra resonance now that we may be on the verge of Cold War 2.0. It has a decently sized audience, though it really ought to be a bigger hit. And it hasn’t gotten any awards love, though it ought to be celebrated, especially the lead performances by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. I can’t tell you why it’s not more beloved. Maybe we all just want to pretend that the 1980s never happened.
I’ve also enjoyed “Broad City” on Comedy Central. It’s a small, raw, unprettified comedy about the friendship between two twentysomething women, and it can be very twisted. And I love me some twisted – but I also know that mainstream audiences often don’t. The show has an improvisational feel, as the two women survive New York and have weird adventures. It’s like the indie version of “Girls.”
I don’t want to forget about “Rectify,” on the Sundance Channel. It’s a slow, but mesmerizing look at the life of a man freed from Death Row – but not exonerated – and how his family and hometown deal with his return. It’s dark and deliberately paced, both of which probably limit the size of its audience.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Vee from “Orange Is the New Black.” Have you seen season two? Lorraine Toussant gives an indelible, powerful, complex performance as the calculating, perversely maternal drug dealer. I just couldn’t take my eyes off her. I kept wanted her to be a better person than she was.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Is Toby sitting on my feet at the moment? And the answer would be yes.