There’s plenty of thinking time on a road trip from Brisbane to Sydney. There’s even more time when you’ve got a four-month-old puppy in the back seat who needs regular wee stops. You can add a few extra hours to account for Christmas traffic, plus at least another 20 minutes for that turn-off you miss while trying to find the motel you’re staying at for the night in Coffs Harbour, approximately halfway. Only halfway? Damn.
I’ll drop the authoritative universal second-person “you”. It’s me. I pulled into the iffy motel exhausted and snappy, cursing myself for not having booked better pet-friendly accommodation in advance. There were holes in the flyscreen and I’ll describe the cleanliness of the linens as “questionable”. The hand soap was the same radioactive blue as the combined shampoo and conditioner. Don’t get me wrong — there’s a way in which a regional motel can be shabby and delightful, simple and endearing. This was not that. This was capital-D dodgy. I’m not a good enough writer to describe to you how the bar fridge smelled: like death, except also as if something was alive and growing in there.
I thought that my standards for where I rested my head on the wide, open road weren’t terribly high, but apparently my expectations have skyrocketed over the past five years. It’s fair to say that my partner and I are textbook cases of the “lifestyle creep” that “The Barefoot Investor” warns about. There was a time when I backpacked around the world and slept upright in seats on rickety overnight trains. Those times were called “my 20s”, and I thought I’d left them behind. In general, I thought I’d left behind sleepless nights and cleaning up vomit, but then Judit came into our lives.
Judit is a basset fauve, a small French scent hound bred to hunt rabbits in the countryside. In hindsight, I don’t know that raising a scent hound in an apartment in Kings Cross was the most rational decision I’ve ever made. On any given weeknight our street is covered in half a dozen different types of human expulsions. The closest she gets to a bird is a bedraggled magenta feather that’s floated free of a drag queen’s boa. Poor Judit. She’s supposed to put her nose down to the green grass and moist earth and follow it through the oaks and around the lakes until she barks triumphantly at a warren in a knoll. When I take her outside, the grimy footpath just leads to someone’s soggy KFC box.
I digress. I’m trying to tell you the story of how I reached my 30s thinking I was entering my chic-and-together era, but then I got a puppy and found my eyeballs bloodshot and my heart bursting with love.
There’s a way in which, if you’re basically competent and comfortably middle class, you can get your life to an almost frictionless forward glide. Groceries delivered. Hairstyle sorted. Efficient commute. Birthday reminders. Spare umbrella. A large deadline or breakup might interrupt the flow, but on a day-to-day basis, the seasons can whoosh by like a cool breeze and you have the perfectly weighted coat for each. I see now that for me that type of freedom was not only economic but must have been, to some extent, emotional. Hacking one’s life, tweaking and finessing one’s life, optimising one’s life, it’s all variations on pre-emptive problem-solving, right? Remove any wasting of time. Remove any barriers to maximum efficiency and sleek experiences.
I will spare you the classic millennial complaint about late capitalism equating productivity with goodness and just say I’m learning there’s a potential coldness to my personal brand of efficiency. Is it clichéd to quote Oscar Wilde in a column? He is the greatest, so call me a cliché. “If you want to be a grocer, or a general, or a politician, or a judge, you will invariably become it; that is your punishment,” he said. “If you never know what you want to be, if you live what some might call the dynamic life — but what I will call the artistic life — if each day you are unsure of who you are and what you know you will never become anything, and that is your reward.”
Stephen Fry, reflecting on Wilde’s words, put it even more simply: “We are not nouns, we are verbs.”
My life before getting a puppy was definitely approaching noun status. Not necessarily terminal noun status, but definitely possibly interminable noun status. Clean and clinical hotel rooms as far as the eye could see. What I had was a decent night’s sleep most nights. Clean linens. I could ignore the vomits on the street and there certainly weren’t any vomits in my own home.
Now when I hear Judit’s small coughing-slash-hacking sound, I sit bolt upright like Dr Frankenstein has just hooked up my wires and run to the corner of the apartment to console a baby dog who, like most of us at Christmas, just had too much ham. She can bring out the worst in me (impatience, in particular) but to my relief, it turns out I’m not cruel. In caring for her, I have grown more caring. In loving her, I have grown more loving. With her gigantic floppy ears and the mini howl she makes when she yawns, she has melted my cold noun heart, and in its place a verb is growing.
On the way home from Brisbane, we also stayed overnight at a caravan park that had cheap and cheerful rooms to rent. I stopped the car and took Judit for a walk and a wee straight away, and the first person I met was walking in the opposite direction with their own pet. It was a man with a great big beard, a great big metal-band T-shirt and a great big snake wrapped around his shoulders — twice. We smiled and nodded to each other, pretending for a cordial moment that his pet didn’t want to eat my pet. When I rounded the corner, I met a man who lived at the caravan park. He introduced himself as David, but people called him “Speedy” since he was so good at his last job, collecting trollies at the supermarket nearby. Our dogs were sniffing each others’ butts, so we had a chat. He told me about his other pets: two ferrets, a tortoiseshell crab, lorikeets and a guinea pig called Russell Crowe. We laughed; I didn’t ask.
In the cafe attached to the caravan park, I learned about all different kinds of Dutch foods because the people who ran it were from the Netherlands and they stocked lots of jars and tins and packets of things I’d never seen before. “Wow,” I thought to myself, looking down at Judit as we headed to our room. She was trotting along happily with her tail high in the air. And actually, I was trotting along happily with my head high in the air. Everything about this was so much more interesting than a nice normal hotel, and I never would have seen it if not for her. “Thank you, Judit,” I said aloud, crouching beside her and patting her head. She coughed up a small seed pod in reply.
The final day of our return journey was the final day of 2022. It was a long drive, with plenty of time to brainstorm New Year’s resolutions. For a decade I’ve been setting myself personal and professional goals, and doing whatever was required to reach them. Judit’s entry into my life has created an immediate and apparently perpetual prohibition to this approach. I can no longer minimise interruptions or shave off all points of friction in life. I can no longer barge through the details, maintaining ambition and speed on a direct course to my next achievement. With my hands on the steering wheel, my eyes darting to the snoring puppy in the rear-view mirror, I was juggling the balls and doing the equations. New year, new me — it was not only impossible, it also felt irrelevant. We’d be verbs, and we would be them together.