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With smell and touch, the dog knows what’s real


Loud, yappy barking. Gunshots. The wail of a siren.

The TV is louder than usual, and the dog is lying right in front of it. On her back, with her unfurred pink belly exposed just in case someone agrees to rub it.

I glance over at her, worried that her hyperactive nervous system will kick into gear. Another dog! Someone to play with? Someone in distress? Gunshots: A SWAT team is invading the house! Siren: Must howl.

But her breathing stays slow and even. Her eyes are heavy-lidded, halfway to a nap. She knows the difference between what is real and what is not.

I’m not sure I do anymore. Overbusy, I find myself communicating with friends in short electronic bursts of e-mail, or calling and tucking the handset into the crook of my neck so I can chat while I do the dishes. I get a sort of sensory image of my friend’s presence in these exchanges, but it’s something like the Betty Crocker composite, an amalgam of all my memories of them, overlaid on what they wore the last time we met.

Really met. In person. Where we could smell and touch each other.

For Sophie, that’s the only kind of meeting that counts. She absorbs more information in one sniff than I can in 100 e-mails. And she has to bump up against her friends, do spins and leap at them and nuzzle their ears.

We could argue that she’s just a dumb animal, incapable of the complexities of abstract high-tech communication.

But she does know what’s real.

At work, I often do interviews by phone, conversations with experts in other cities, chats with people too busy to meet for coffee. They prefer the phone, and sometimes I do, too. I can sit there in blue jeans, sneakers propped up on my desk, and scribble down what’s important, and make faces when a remark strikes me as stupid or cruel or silly.

These are not good interviews.

First, I’m deprived of all the sensory information one needs to really convey who these people are -- how they gesture, what they are wearing, when they lean forward to make a point, the times their nonchalance doesn’t match the tension in their face.

Second, I’m able to distance myself. In person, I stay open, absorb what seems stupid or cruel and wait for the next remark. I can’t smirk or snort or curse, not even if my subject is the Klan’s grand wizard and what he’s preaching is vile idiocy.

So I stay open.

On the phone, however, I can roll my eyes at my officemate, make signs to someone who’s walked in the door, scan other notes while I wait for the point. In other words, I can split myself in two parts or three or four.

I try not to. I try to huddle over my phone, ignore the rest of the world, give undivided attention. But on the days when I fail, I’m really glad we don’t have picture phones.

Maybe that’s why they haven’t caught on the way they were intended? Maybe we’ve all grown too comfortable with anonymity, concealment, fragmentation.

Recently I interviewed a brilliant woman, one of the masterminds of a computer game company, comfortable in both sense and cyberworlds. We began “conversing” online with one of the players of one of her role-playing games, a housewife in another state. In the world of the game, this woman had “married” a male player, yet was already married in real life, with small children. She played the game seven or eight hours a day, even though she couldn’t easily afford it. That virtual world, in which her character had royal bearing, wealth and social grace, was so much more exciting than her little suburban house.

The longer we “talked” online, the fuzzier the boundaries grew. I found myself dictating questions awkwardly, forced to differentiate whether I was asking her about her real self or her game self. She’d focused down, until her entire world was contained in lines of type on a computer screen, and her imagination could run anywhere it pleased with that abbreviated data.

This is what I worry about.

It is easier, in so many ways, to maintain friendships, make inquiries and exchange information with strangers online. You don’t have to manage so much information, so many sensory cues, so much about your own presentation. You don’t have to accommodate their idiosyncracies. You just type.

The young woman in the game told me (or rather, she typed into a screen I read) that playing had given her more social confidence. After all, if she could slay dragons and accumulate vast piles of gold in this kingdom, she had to be capable of walking into a party, right?

Er … right. Except that her new confidence was based on such a thin slice of reality. Her “marriage” consisted of poetic sentiments zapped to and from another state. She didn’t have the pleasure and satisfaction of touching him, although she could imagine it, and often did. She didn’t have to listen to her guy scrape his silverware against the plate and burp. And she couldn’t imagine that ever happening.

In other words, she could make her “husband” into whatever she pleased. Project her assumptions, her fantasies. Impose her inner reality on the world, instead of coping with larger realities the world threw back at her.

So at what point do I do that to the friends I only e-mail? And how often am I cutting myself off from the full, deep truths of the individuals I interview by phone?

The dog does not share this problem. She gives and demands full attention. If I pat her head and walk away to open the mail, she follows and nudges me with her stuffed owl, and she won’t put the owl down until she has received full and loving acknowledgement.

Once we’ve greeted each other fully, I can go read or cook. If friends come over, she’s delighted. But she doesn’t like it when I talk on the phone. The minute I begin to make sounds of concluding the conversation, she leaps up and trots toward me, relieved.

The biggest red flag of all, though, is when I sit down at the computer. It’s as if she knows that this beeping, humming machine usurps far more energy than any book or friend, and she feels she must pester me until I quit and return to a more physical reality.

Some days, I’m glad she does. Because when I feel sad or troubled, the computer does not comfort me. Instead, I bury my face in her soft fur, and she drapes her paw around my neck. If I’m really upset, she stands in front of me and bends her head and presses it against me like a billy goat, letting me know that she will stay with me until the trouble passes. When I am sick, she curls up at the foot of the bed, and doesn’t sigh like she’s making a sacrifice, or rifle through papers she needs to read. When we play, she is fully present, not half-engrossed in a TV show and making absent rejoinders.

If you offered her a computer game in which she could win a virtual bone by killing virtual schnauzers, she’d pass. She takes the world as it comes.

Do I?

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002