Getting a Grip on the News
Smithsonian, June 1984

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BEFORE WE MOVED down to Washington last year, New Yorkers kept telling us what a shock it would be, getting used to life in the provinces. And how right they were.

Take the Washington subways, for instance. After the adrenaline-stirring din and danger of Manhattan's rabid transit system, it caused instant culture shock to ride in safe, clean and quiet Metro cars. We found it hard, too, learning to cope with a city where people are mostly polite. At first there was a tendency to burst into tears of unmanly gratitude at the least kindness.

The real test, though, was saying goodbye to the New York Times - and hello to the Washington Post. My wife and I are fairly flexible. The problem was the family retriever. She had always been addicted to the Times. Would she give up the Sulzbergers' stodgy but compendious product in favor of commedia dell'arte journalism?

Anyone who thinks the question frivolous hasn't lived with a golden retriever. Ours is a benign creature named Pamela, but a retrieving demon. Not just sticks, stones and rubber bones, but slippers, boots, ladies' purses, umbrellas, now and then a briefcase. Even neckties, especially if still attached to any visitor foolish enough to kneel down and say hello.

Mornings without number it has been her practice to appear "Damn it, Pam. Skip the gift ..."(mouth full of boot or sock) beside the bed of some beloved but luckless drowser and sit patiently, melting brown eyes on the victim, refusing to release her gift until offered suitable pats and praises. There are no shortcuts. My son, whose dog she officially is, was especially favored - and usually delighted by this morning-gift ritual. Some days, though, when he badly overslept, we could hear him shouting "Damn it, Pam. Skip the gift. I'm late for school."

For years she had also plunged forth to fetch in the New York Times. Sundays were the unhappy exception because the Sunday Times is all but irretrievable. Grown men have got hernias from it. Most days, though, the Times landed on the sidewalk at the right heft for a retriever - about the size of a wood duck.

Even so, we did not fully realize how committed the dog was to this sort of information retrieval until a few years back when the Times went on strike. The first Timesless morning she crisscrossed the lawn expectantly, feathery tail flashing and found nothing. Eventually she returned, empty-mouthed, tail drooping. And each day, as the strike ran on, the dog's dejection deepened. We tried extra bones, extra runs along the nearby Hudson, various skinny local tabloids. Nothing seemed to help, until at last we faced up to what had to be done. Each night somebody had to creep down to the basement and collect an old copy of the Times, put a rubber band around it, stuff it into the requisite plastic sack and - being sure the dog was in for the night - deposit the decoy paper at the lawn's edge.

How proud she was the first day we executed this deception! Needless to say, though, the operation put a certain strain on our domestic life. Late on icy nights one of us would think to ask: "Did you put out the Times, Dear?" Clearly implying, "If you didn't, you'll have to get up and do it now."

Once we settled in Washington, the Post began to plunk down outside the house each morning. But the great dog was rather lackluster about it. Sometimes you'd have to give her a hint.a canine sense of frivolity "Fetch the paper, Pam." Things like that. Then she would mosey over, lay a reluctant tooth on it, bring it back - and wander off as if she'd lost something. We wondered what was wrong. Could it really be some subliminal matter of editorial weight? Some canine sense of the Post's essential frivolity, as against the satisfying memory of the fully-indexed, globe-girdling newspaper-of-record New York Times?

"She'll adjust," we said, as we more or less cheerfully began to grow used to the Post's eccentric clutch of scriveners: the meandering charms of its garden expert, the civilized restraint of an editorial writer, the perpetual pique of a resident book critic. We even developed a certain tolerance for a comic columnist who, early on, had whined so about Washington's Metro that we wanted to drag him up to New York, stuff him on a late train to Canarsie and see how he liked it. Each day, too, we took the dog into the unlittered park nearby so she could get used to the capital's canine speech rhythms by reading the news printed on trees and tufts of grass.

And gradually Pamela began to come around. There was a new spring to her step as she sailed forth to retrieve our daily paper. Then a great day came. It was a snowy Sunday. Unlike the Times, the Sunday Post produces a paper about the size of a smallish Canada goose, but still portable. The dog, in fact, had just recently learned to work her large jaws around it, raise it high and proudly parade back to the door. But this day she did something different. "Come, look!" my wife called. "Look at Pam!" The dog had dropped the Sunday Post, then thrown,herself on top of it and was rolling the paper deliriously under her shoulder blades, the way she does with a tennis ball, waving her paws in the air. "She never did that with the New York Times!" my wife exclaimed.

“Let's face it,” I said. “The Post has a lot of charm.”