From Puppy with Love

Long-distance relationships are hard, but sending puppy pictures can help.

About a year ago, my girlfriend and I bought a dog, a piebald and brindle dachshund:

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A few words to the wise about buying a pet with your long-time significant other:

  • your parents may or may not start to refer to themselves as “grandma and grandpa,” to call your dog “your baby,” or to otherwise make you feel as though you’ve skipped a decade of your life
  • you may or may not find yourself sounding exactly like your girlfriend’s parents, uneasy about how difficult puppies are, not sure if this is even close to a good idea
  • said puppy will stare at you in the pouring rain, look sadly into your eyes as ten thousand mosquitoes swarm your head, and refuse — to spite you — refuse to poop until you break down and use a suppository

I’m not kidding. I shoved glycerol up his puppy butthole. Seriously. But, then again, look at this guy:

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My girlfriend and I bought Crosby the dachshund because we’d be making a serious transition as a couple. She’d be moving to Austin, Texas to get a master’s degree in art history, and I’d be staying in Boston to work as a lab technician. After a month of letting her get settled in Austin, I’d bring the pup down to live with her, and he’d hopefully ease her adaptation to a new city, endless wonky reading, and, cue the horror film score, a Distance Relationship.

So, here he is at the dog park when I brought him to Texas:

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By that time we’d largely made it though the struggles of puppydom. The upshot of pets (as opposed to actual babies) is that, after a few awful months, you can pick the little bastard up and put him in a crate you’ve (hopefully) trained him to enjoy. Then you can leave him alone for extended periods of time. And, once you’re there, the whole scenario is a lot more enjoyable and cute and fun (case in point: people go to the dog parks in Austin without dogs of their own). And then you start making up weird nicknames and being able to laugh at the thing’s stupid habits, like how he has to chew his tennis ball on the edge of the bed and will vocally demand you pick it up for him when he drops it.

Like so:

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At the end of my visit, I wasn’t exactly elated to leave my “family” in Austin and to start dealing with the distance, so as a kind of consolation, I started requesting pictures of Crosby (“pup pics” or “puppictures” we called them) on a daily basis. A stream of iPhone JPEGs became part of our daily conversations, and those photos made Crosby seem present long after my coworkers were tired of seeing them:

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The habit was largely problem-free until a friend asked me, “Well, do you ever ask for pictures of your girlfriend?” No. Not ever. I mean, it’s an entirely theoretical question, because, honestly, would you want to pose for a daily picture for your significant other? No. And it wouldn’t be enjoyable or cute or fun to have 100 selfies of your girlfriend in your inbox. It’d be creepy. But the heart of the question still remained: did the pictures somehow substitute for or distract from our relationship? And the answer is yes. And I think that’s why we’re still together when so many people think long-distance relationships are impossible. Instead of focusing on us – which in the context of distance so often means strain, effort, and unhappiness – we dote on our dog and his boundless photogenicity.

I’m not suggesting that pictures can make a relationship work. And I’m not exactly sure why dog pictures are more effective for me than Skype or the telephone or texts. Suffice it to say that, with or without any kind of modern technology, living with half the continental U.S. between you and your significant other is difficult and, bottom line, an entirely mediated relationship is sub-ideal: the things around you will always be more immediate and grass is quantifiably greener when it isn’t piped through the internet before it appears on a screen. And, obviously, relationships and communication are confusing enough sans 2,000 miles intervening, and lenses, telephony, and written words tend to heighten misunderstanding rather than resolve it (eg. “Why did he word his text that way?” or “Why did she hang up like that?”).

At the same time, though, this dog — something very much a product of our ability to raise it but at the same time independent, separate, us mediated into dog-life — has made a huge difference. And somehow, the camera, a known liar, manages to capture his personality, and once a day I laugh at him and, more abstractly, see some kind of diffracted reflection of how good my girlfriend and I are together. Somehow, through all the wires, the pictures are genuine and uplifting. That, to me, is the magic of creativity, technology done right: just when you think it can’t help but lie, obfuscate, confuse, it seems to reach out and give you something real:

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Matt Flagg is a lab technician by day but dabbles in half-finishing fiction and essays by night. As you now know, he checks this email address daily (because he still has a circa 2005 Razr that can't receive pictures), and he welcomes any questions or comments.