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.
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.
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.