The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Dear Miss Tinkles

Dear Miss Tinkles

Friend of Barney

Dear Miss Tinkles:

Two years ago my wife and I found ourselves beset by demands from our two children, ten and thirteen, that we purchase a dog. Doubting whether our kids would take care of a pet, we resisted them mightily.  We explained that a dog is a big responsibility. We explained that between the dog food and the vet bills, a dog was also a big financial commitment. We purchased a goldfish hoping that might take some of the edge off. But none of that worked. Our children were relentless and we ultimately broke down and bought a cute little St. Bernard puppy. Barney is now one hundred and eighty pounds of very expensive canine misery.  After several weeks, my kids lost all interest in Barney and charged off after a thousand other pursuits. My wife works out of the home and I work from a home office, which means that for the past two years I am the one who has taken on full responsibility for Barney. I do everything: the feeding, walking, poop-duty, training, play time, you name it, if it concerns Barney then it is by default my responsibility.  But my business makes it difficult for me to give Barney anything more than infrequent scraps of attention. My wife does what she can in the evenings after work, but it is not enough. Barney soaks up every drop of time, money and attention that the two of us can give him and yet still lies in a corner most of the day desolate and bored. What Barney really needs is some affection from our kids, who are now far more interested in video games, comic books and their friends. What do you think we can do to increase their enthusiasm for this great dog? Sincerely, Friend of Barney.

Dear FoB:

First of all, allow me wonder aloud about what exactly you were thinking in deciding to graduate your family from a goldfish to a St. Bernard.  Was there some confusion in your mind about whether you could simply flush Barney down the toilet if he did not work out?  Perhaps the breeder insisted that Barney was one of those non-growing, non-eating, non-pooping, emotionally self-sufficient, expense-free St. Bernard breeds, often called a “stuffed” or “porcelain” or “carnival prize” St. Bernard. Or maybe Barney came with a free keg of beer around his neck and that was all it took to close the deal.

In any event, FoB, your concern for Barney’s welfare, however late, is to your credit. Fortunately, there is something you and your wife can do to stimulate some renewed interest in Barney from your adorably uncaring spawn.  What your children need is some basic canine empathy training. They need to walk around in Barney’s skin for awhile, and by “awhile” I mean no less than, say, three months. There are several key aspects to a successful training plan which I will discuss.

You may want to start this empathy training in the summer, when your kids are out of school so that you do not get thrown in jail for depriving them of an education. Because for three months your children will be spending a lot – and I mean A LOT – of time at home.

Your children will want to go outside and play with their friends. You will not let them. Their friends will come over and ring the doorbell. Anticipate this by installing a locking screen door so that your children can see their friends on the other side, but they cannot actually be outside with them. They will all whine and shout. Ignore this. Eventually they will all sit down on the floor/concrete stoop on either side of the screen door and just look at each other morosely, every now and then glancing mournfully up at you to see if you have changed your mind. Don’t look at them. Just keep your head down as if they don’t exist. Eventually their friends will get up and leave.

It goes without saying that for the duration of their empathy training, your children will need to do without television, computers, video games, and other distractions.  They will need to think of ways to amuse themselves. They will have no idea how to do this and they will surely protest that you must hate them. Assure them that this is not true. But be sure to do this from a distance and be sure that you are not actually looking at them when you speak. Only look at your children in the eyes when you need to scold them.

But making your kids amuse themselves is not about being deliberately cruel. This will be a big change for them. Doing without all of the modern electronic tools of amusement that have necessarily excluded Barney will certainly be a shock.

So try this:  give your children a stick – just one – to share.  Or maybe a short length of rope. If the distress of boredom seems to be too great and the anguish in your children is threatening to weaken your resolve, then tie a knot in the rope tightly around a piece of cheese. It will keep them busy for literally minutes.  After they lose interest in that, maybe they will decide to notice Barney.

Without question, your kids will usually look to you, FoB, to improve their captivity by amusing them. Talking to them. Paying them some attention. Do NOT do this or you will undermine all of the empathy training that has come before. The only exception to the pay-them-no-attention rule is to either (1) unlock the bathroom door so they can stop whining and “do their business” or (2) unlock the bathroom door, force them inside and wait impatiently for them to “do their business” that they do not really have to do, occasionally hissing Hurry Up! or Come on, already! or (3) feed them (see below), since the purpose of this training is neither to explode their bladders nor leave them malnourished.

Food is critical for growing kids.  During the training period, make sure you feed your children the same thing on the same plate or bowl every day. Every day. Every day. Every day. It is not possible to over-emphasize this point. Every day.

The food needs to be something that slurps its way out of a can and looks like excrement jello.  Beyond that very important criteria, anything will do.  Always serve it at room temperature. They will hate it and demand their favorite snack food. Do not listen to them. Tell them it is good for them. Tell them variety is not important. They will not eat it. That’s okay. Just let it sit there. Also, they will be especially upset when you and Barney go outside and grill up a couple of plump bacon burgers. Be sure to feed Barney either by hand or with a fork. Your children will watch you angrily from the other side of the locked screen door. Ignore them until they start pawing at the mesh and then you need to look directly at them and scold them with monosyllabic commands like No! and Stop! And Stay! Make sure you and Barney take a Frisbee out with you for afterwards.

It will be important that you and your wife and Barney get out of the house every so often. Tell your kids that the three of you are off to a movie, or to the comic book store, or the video arcade. They will REALLY want to go with you. Simply shake your head and point to some place away from you. Of course, because you are not stupid (goldfish-to-St. Bernard transition notwithstanding), you will not trust your children to stay in the house while you are gone. Accordingly, you will need to lock them in the garage.  Make sure that they each have a bottle of water and plenty of food (see above) in case they get hungry or thirsty while you are out. Make sure they understand that peeing in the garage will not be tolerated. Then go out and have a good time. You need to do this at least four to five nights a week.

After a month or so of confinement, it will be time to take your children out into the world. This will be a very exciting time.  Make sure that they know this change is coming well ahead of time because anticipation is key. Tell them every night about how you will take them wherever they want to go. Ice cream? Sure! Disneyland? You bet, kiddos!

When the big day comes, make sure Barney is riding shotgun. Either you or your wife (whoever is not driving) needs to be in the back seat, and you need to put your kids on the other side of the prison bars that you have erected to wall off the place in your SUV designed for carrying luggage and groceries.

The kids will be confused and feeling a little isolated from the three of you, but they will still be very excited to be headed off to Disneyland. But, and this is important, do NOT take them to Disneyland as this will adversely impact their empathy training. Instead, take them immediately to the dentist. They will be angry and feel betrayed and you will literally have to pull them out of the back of the vehicle. Tight leather straps or retractable cables fastened around their necks will help. Tell them you are sorry and promise them that you will take them to the mall when they are done.

You MUST keep this promise about the mall so as not to abuse your children’s trust. After the dentist, take them immediately to the mall. Park them in the shade close to the entrance. Crack a window.  One of you can go inside the mall while the other walks Barney and then you can swap. When each of you comes out of the mall, you should have an ice cream cone in one hand and a treat for Barney in the other. So as not to be cruel to your children, when you get back to the car make sure you let them lick the ice cream off your fingers.

I am confident, FoB, that after three months of empathy training you will see significant changes in your children and in Barney. At that point, you and your wife and Barney will then need to decide whether you want to revert back to “normal” living or whether, all things considered, your family life is altogether better.

Good Luck! Yours, Tink.

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