The Inverted Pyramid Is the Dracula of Journalism

Q:

Hello Bruce.

Ben Forbes is a freshman at Salem State University and he asked me to ask you why you have such strong feelings about the inverted pyramid. He is writing a paper about Journalism, and other journalists say that it is their preferred method of writing for time and space reasons. They also say that it is what the reader expects. How can a journalist write quickly and effectively and grab the reader’s attention with another approach. Thank you!

A:

Your friend Ben needs to understand that the inverted pyramid NEVER had anything to do with writing, readers or the news. It came into common use about 160 years ago as an accommodation to the requirements of the newspaper’s back shop and as a hedge against the vagaries of a new communications technology–the telegraph.

Before the 1860s, journalists covering events that occurred a great distance from their newspapers sent their reports in by mail. They “corresponded” with their newspapers, hence the word “correspondent.” Often, these stories really did read like letters. But during the American Civil War, hundreds of journalist found themselves covering far-flung news that was clearly urgent.

Fortunately, they were sometimes able to transmit their news via the telegraph, which had been invented in 1843 and was just coming into wide use. However, doing so was risky.  

Sometimes, the new technology failed. Sometimes the rebels cut the transmission lines. Sometimes, when a reporter was only partway through sending a story, a military officer commandeered the line. So journalists learned to send their news in short bursts, most important stuff first, second most important stuff next, then third most important stuff, and so on. That way, at least SOME of it would make it to their newspapers.

Editors receiving these stories plopped them into their newspapers without changing the way they were organized. They did so because it was the easiest thing to do on deadline, but also because organizing information this way was a good fit for the way newspapers were printed. News stories were set in type, and the type was made of LEAD. The lead type had to fit into a space the newspaper had available among other stories and advertising.  If the story was too long for the space, it had to be cut.  And if a late-breaking story came in, the story would have to be cut again.

The only practical way to cut a story set in lead type was from the bottom.  Unless you wanted to cut it from the top, which never seemed like a good idea.

But tell me. When was the last time journalists sent their stories via telegraph? Meanwhile, newspapers stopped setting stories in lead about 50 years ago.  Once they did, stories could easily be cut ANYWHERE, not just from the bottom. And now, when much of our news appears online, stories don’t have to be cut for space at all. There is no hole for them to fit into. They can be as long as they need to be to tell the news.

In other words, the reasons for writing in inverted pyramid form no longer exist. They’ve been gone for a very long time. Nevertheless, journalist continue to use it and journalism professors continue to teach them to do so. It is the Dracula of journalism. No matter how many times writing coaches like me drive a stake into its heart, it keeps rising from its coffin.

This is the longest-running case of professional malpractice in history.

Why do I say that? Because the only practical use for the inverted pyramid today is what newspaper journalists call “briefs,” short news items of three paragraphs or less. For anything else, the form is the single WORST way to organize a news story short of just randomly emptying your notebook.

Here’s why that is so.

  1. The inverted pyramid makes stories unnecessarily difficult for readers to understand. As former AP Managing Editor Mike Silverman once put it, “We keep throwing facts at people without telling them what happened.”
  2. It bleeds stories of any inherent drama they might otherwise have. That’s why life can be remarkably interesting until you read about it in a newspaper.
  3. It makes it more difficult for writers to compose their stories on deadline.
  4. And it makes one of the most important elements in any story—a good ending—impossible because inverted pyramid stories, by definition, pitifully dribble to an end.

Basically, the inverted pyramid form looks like this:

The most interesting and important stuff

     Less Interesting and important stuff

          Marginally interesting stuff

                What I could leave out

                       And crap

Defenders of the form often say journalists need to write this way because readers don’t read stories all the way to the end. OF COURSE THEY DON’T. The inverted pyramid teaches them not to.

Fortunately, there ARE a good number of elegant story structures available to journalists, and the best news writers use them all the time.

The most useful one for most breaking news is known as the martini glass.  This is for stories about events that unfold on the clock.  An airplane crash. A bank robbery.  A court verdict. A forest fire. A tornado. A police chase. A night of rioting. Election night . . . .

You should begin with one to three short paragraphs that deliver the very top of the news. Think of it as what you would include if you could only write a brief. Or think of it as what you would shout if you were standing at a bus stop, the bus was about to pull away, and somebody leaned out the window to ask, “What the heck just happened?”

Once you’ve done that, begin at the beginning and tell the story chronologically, just as it unfolded in life.

There are compelling reasons for writing this way.

First of all, it’s the only way to convey the drama of an event. Drama REQUIRES chronology. It’s about how something started, what happened next, oh my God what’s going to happen next, and then what follows after that. 

Second, chronology makes a story much easier for readers to understand.  If you just organize information in order of its importance, readers never get a clear picture of what and how it happened.  Ever get confused when a friend excitedly tries to tell you something that happened to her? What do you do about that? You tell her, start over, begin at the beginning, and tell me how it happened.

Third, writing this way allows you to craft an actual ending. Why is it that except for journalists devoted to the inverted pyramid, everyone who writes anything at all understands that the ending is the most important part of any story? Novelists know this. Magazine writers now this. Children’s story writers know this. Script writers know this. Speech writers know this. Hell, anyone who has ever written a love letter knows this.

The ending is the last word, your chance to nail the point of the story to your readers’ memory and give him or her something to think about before turning on the TV.  Besides, don’t you think readers who go all the way to the end deserve some reward for getting there . . . and at least a signal that the piece of over?

Finally, writing the body of the story in chronology makes it much easier to organize it on deadline. After all, once you write your summary top, you don’t have to make any hard decisions about what comes next. So you can write much faster.

Interestingly, ONE part of every newspaper has recognized all of this for a very long time–the sports department. Sports writers never write their game stories in inverted pyramid form. They understand that doing so would make it impossible for readers to understand the flow of the game.

 Sports writers typically begin with the top of the news:

After falling hopelessly behind by a score of 28-3 in the Super Bowl last night, Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to an improbable 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

They then convey the game’s key moments IN CHRONOLOGY so readers can follow and understand how that happened.

Of course, not everything journalists write about unfolds over time. Sometimes, our stories are essentially explanatory in nature.  What is in the bill that Congress just passed? What do the new Covid guidelines mean?  What does the latest government job report say and why does it matter? Why did that Congressman unexpectedly lose his election?

Writing those stories in inverted pyramid form is always a disaster.  It is simply not possible to explain something clearly by organizing information in the order of its importance.  Explanations require a structure that resembles essay writing. You gradually build from the simple to the complex.  To understand the whole picture, first you need to understand point A. OK, now we can move on to point B.  Now you are ready for point C. And so on until the entire picture becomes clear.

One elegant way to write such stories is known as Wall Street Journal block organization—because editors at that paper invented it about 50 years ago and have been employing it to great effect ever since.  I don’t have the time or space to describe it in detail here, but you can learn about it in “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by one of the paper’s former editors, William Blundell. Don’t be deceived by the title. It’s not about light features. It’s largely about writing explanatory stories.

A number of other structures are also available to journalists, but I lack the time and space to go into them here. Generally, however, they are variations on Blundell’s block organization or on using chronology (or narrative).  Journalists need to learn them. And journalism professors need to teach them instead of indoctrinating students in an archaic form that out-lived its usefulness a half century ago.

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Author Ben Coes Throws Another Tantrum

      I just received this infantile email from author Ben Coes in response to my review of his latest, breathtakingly bad novel, “The Island.” It’s a lot like the email he sent a year ago when I reviewed his previous novel.

     My favorite part this time: He says “everyone knows” that he writes well because he once won a writing prize in college. Here’s the full text.

     “Hi, Bruce

      “So you’ve struck again? Thank you! Your negative review of my last book helped drive sales and fingers crossed your unintentional magic hopefully will work again. The only thing your badly written reviews do is reinforce hatred of assholes. Everyone knows I write well. In fact I won the writing prize at Columbia. Did you? Oh that’s right you didn’t. You don’t even mention where you went to college on your website. I’m pretty sure you didn’t go to Columbia even though you attempt to cloak yourself in its halo because you were a janitor there. My guess is you didn’t attend college? Fortunately you have royalties from Mulligan to live on. And your wife’s nationally known poetry. My favorite of her oeuvre? “My Husband Bruce Desilva Wears Womens Lingerie” a terrific poem.

“See you next year fuckhead

“All my best,

“Ben”

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One of the Finest Popular Science Books of This or Any Year

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human, by Jeremy DeSilva, is being released by Harper Collins on April 6, and it is destined to be one of the finest popular science books of the year.

Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus both have given it starred reviews. The latter said in part, “A renowned paleontologist takes readers behind the scenes of one of the most groundbreaking investigations into the origins of humankind.”

Personally, I think it’s brilliant–a beautifully written book that reports on the latest findings about human origins, introduces us to the personalities (including the author) responsible for them, and transports us to the places, from Vermont to South Africa, so we can observe science being done.

This excerpt from the book’s introduction provides the gist:

The year 2016 set a record for kills in the annual hunt to cull the swelling population of black bears roaming free in rural and suburban New Jersey. Of the 636 taken, 635 were dispatched with only a few howls of protest from animal lovers.[ii] But when news broke that one particular bear was dead, there was outrage.

The killing was called “an assassination.” The hunter thought to be responsible received death threats. Some advocated that he, too, should be hunted and killed. Others called for his castration. Why such fury over one dead bear?

Because he walked on two legs. Although he fed on all fours, an injury prevented him from putting weight on his front limbs, so to move, he reared up and walked upright.

We are drawn to animals when they behave like us. We post videos of goats yelling like humans and Siberian huskies howling “I love you.” Perhaps more than any other behavior, though, we are awestruck by bouts of bipedalism. Plenty of animals rise on two legs to scan the horizon or strike an intimidating pose, but humans are the only mammals that walk on two legs all the time.

When another animal does it, we are mesmerized.  When humans do it, it is ordinary. It is, you might say, pedestrian. We are the only striding bipedal mammals on Earth—and for good reason.

In the following pages, these reasons will become clear. It is a remarkable journey, which I’ve organized along these lines.

Part I investigates what the fossil record tells us about the origin of upright walking in the human lineage. Part II explains how it was a prerequisite for changes that define our species, from our large brains to the way we parent our children—and how those changes allowed us to expand from our ancestral African homeland to populate the Earth. Part III explores how the anatomical changes required for efficient upright walking affect the life of humans today, from our first steps as babies to the aches and pains we experience as we age. The conclusion examines how our species managed to survive and thrive despite the many downsides of walking on two, rather than four, legs.

 Come, take a walk with me.

Did I mention that Jeremy is my son? OK, but 50 years as a writer, editor, and book reviewer has made me very clear-eyed about writing. This is a great book.

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If You Are Considering Sunnova as Your Solar Power Provider, Think Again

Sunnova Energy Corp. is one of the worst firms I have dealt with in my entire life—and I’m 74 years old.

Unless I sign a contract that is absurd on its face and impossible to comply with, Sunnova will not permit the temporary removal of solar panels from my New Jersey residence so that the old roof can be replaced. I have worked to resolve this matter for three months to no avail.

Since the contract in question appears to be boilerplate given to Sunnova customers in similar circumstances around the country, the potential for widespread abuse is apparent.

The issue in short:

The contract, signed by a company lawyer and dated Nov. 23, requires that the panels be reinstalled within 60 days of the signing. However, Trinity, the company that handles installations for Sunnova, told me that they are overextended and probably couldn’t even REMOVE them within 60 days

The contract also would have made me responsible for other delays completely beyond my control. For example, we are in the dead of winter. What if bad weather made it too dangerous for the roofers to work for weeks? As it turned out, this was not hypothetical. My roof was covered with snow and ice from Jan. 30 to Feb. 23.

The contract also would have made me responsible for any additional delays caused by Trinity’s work schedule. If they couldn’t remove the panels within 60 days, who’s to say how quickly they could reinstall them once the roof work was completed?

And yet, the contract stated that if I failed to comply with its terms, I could be required to pay the company the solar system’s full value, which the letter put at $16,380. 

No one in his right mind would sign such a document. In fact, if I had signed it in November, I would be in violation of it now through no fault of my own.

The details:

The ordeal began when I called Trinity, which installed the system on my property in 2016, to request its temporary removal. In that Nov. 12, 2020, call, Dan Schmid, a Trinity engineer, told me that they were “backed up” and couldn’t remove the system until mid or late January. He also told me that since Sunnova owns the system, I would need their written approval first. He referred me to Toiya Jacobs at Sunnova.

Jacobs then sent me the aforementioned contract via Docu.Sign. It was dated Nov. 23 and signed for Sunnova by Suzanne M. Patrick, associate general counsel.

On Nov. 24, I emailed Jacobs, outlining my concerns about the contract. I did not receive a reply.

On Jan. 8, I called Sunnova’s main number, apparently in Houston, TX, and asked to speak to Jacobs. I was told that was not permitted. I asked to speak with Patrick and was told that was not permitted either. Instead, I was connected to customer service.

I explained my concerns to a customer service representative and also emailed him a copy of my email to Jacobs. I was assured that he would contact the appropriate people in the company and that I should expect a prompt response. That didn’t happen.

I contacted customer service again, repeated my concerns and added that I was running out of patience. I said that I was considering complaining to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, the New Jersey Consumer Affairs Division, and the Better Business Bureau. I informed him that my insurance carrier, Farmers, had assured me that if my roof begins to leak during the delay caused by Sunnova’s intransigence, Farmers would seek restitution from them for any damages. I also explained that I had a right to make my concerns public and that as a retired journalist and blogger, I could reach a wide audience with them. 

About two weeks later, a customer service representative called me back and gave me his “assurance” that the clock on the 60-day requirement would not begin until the panels were removed by Trinity. I pointed out that the contract doesn’t say that, that his verbal assurance was obviously insufficient, and that I could not sign until the language was changed. 

But, I asked him, what about my other concerns?

“What other concerns?” he asked, so I had to repeat them.

He told me that he would forward them to the appropriate company officials, that the complaint would be “expedited,” and that I would receive a response in 24 to 48 hours. That did not happen either.

At that point, I called Dan Schmid at Trinity again to see if he could intervene. He called back on Jan. 19 to say that he and his “group” had talked to someone at Sunnova and that someone there would “reach out” to me in a few days.

On Jan. 21, Ignacio Herrera, a customer service representative at Sunnova, called me and said that that “they” agreed to change the contract to clarify that the 60-day clock would start only after the panels were removed. However, they were unwilling to change anything else in the agreement.

I told him that meant I would still be responsible for delays caused by the weather or by any Trinity work schedule issues that might delay re-installation. He said he could “assure” me that I would not be held responsible in such circumstances. I told him that verbal assurances, for which there is no record, are not sufficient.

If the assurance is real, I told him, Sunnova should not object to putting it in writing. If they do not want to change the contract language further, I said, a letter spelling out the assurance and signed by a company official would suffice.

If no letter was forthcoming, I said, I would be compelled to file formal complaints with regulatory agencies and make my concerns about Sunnova public.

Herrerra said he would pass my concerns along again and get back to me. In the month since that call, I have heard nothing further. I also have yet to be shown a contract with the one promised revision.

Throughout my conversations with the customer service representatives, I asked to speak with Jacobs or with Patrick, the lawyer who had signed the original contract. Those requests were always denied.

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My Review of Tim Dorsey’s New Serge Storms Novel

Tropic of Stupid, the 24th novel in Tim Dorsey’s series featuring obsessive-compulsive psychopath Serge Storms, finds the anti-hero and his drugged out sidekick, Colman, zipping around their beloved Florida in a borrowed sports car. As usual, they’ve got a kidnap victim whimpering in the trunk.

This time, Serge is obsessed with researching his family tree, binge-watching all 155 episodes of an old Lloyd Bridges TV show called “Sea Hunt,” and visiting every state park in the Sunshine State. 

This one isn’t quite as funny as Naked Came the Florida Man (2020) or his tour de force, The Big Bamboo (2009), but it does have its moments, and it is told in Dorsey’s customary manic prose style. The book is apt to offend those who insist that drug use and murder are not fit subjects for humor, but it is sure to appeal to readers who think that Carl Hiaasen’s slapstick noir novels are too darned subtle.

To read the full text of my review for The Associated Press, please click here.

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TREASON: Punishing the Assault on the Capitol Building

WHAT SHOULD, but probably won’t, happen now:

Fifty-five people have already been arrested in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol on charges ranging from unlawful entry and theft to assault and weapons offenses. Prosecutors could add additional charges later, but much more serious charges are both warranted and essential in this brazen assault on the fabric of our democracy.

The ringleaders of this attack, many of whom are already known to both authorities and journalists, should be charged under 18 U.S. Code Chapter 115, which covers the crimes of treason, sedition, and subversive activities. They should also be charged with the federal crime of terrorism. And they should be charged with conspiracy to commit these crimes.

In addition, four people, including a Capitol police officer, DIED in this attack. Anyone who participates in a felony that leads to someone’s death can be charged with felony murder, regardless of whether they directly caused that death.

If convicted, the ringleaders should be executed or sentenced to life in prison.

All of those who carried any sort of weapon–whether it was a gun, a knife, or a baseball bat–into the federal building took up arms against the government of the United States. In addition to weapons charges, they, too, should be charged under the statute covering treason and sedition as well as with terrorism and felony murder. If convicted, they should receive life sentences.

What of the thousands of others who broke through the outer perimeter surrounding the building and the hundreds who forced their way into the building? Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of them can be identified from press video and photography, capitol surveillance cameras, and the selfies many of them stupidly posted on social media.

I doubt that many reading this post will have much sympathy for the ones who displayed racist or anti-Semitic clothing including “Camp Auschwitz” hoodies. But wait, I can already hear some of you thinking. A lot of these people were deluded, victims of the lies Donald Trump and his enablers told them and that they naively believed. Should they, too, pay a heavy price for participating in this attack?

Hell, yes. You know who else is deluded, the victims of lies told to them by people they trust? Those who have been seduced by Islamic terrorist rhetoric. We hunt THEM down and kill them with drones. ANYONE who forced his or her way into the Capitol building should be charged under the treason and sedition statute, with terrorism, and with felony murder.

I would not go that far with those who did not make it into the building. After all, some of them may have had second thoughts when they saw what was happening. But they are, in the very least, guilty of aiding and abetting the attack. If identified, they should not go unpunished.

And then there is Donald Trump and those close to him. He, Don Jr., and Rudy Giuliani deliberately inflamed the crowd, inciting it to riot in plain sight. In my view, they should be charged with that crime, but the crimes of felony murder and conspiracy to violate the treason and terrorism statutes should be seriously considered.

What of Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and the many other political leaders and right-wing media figures who spread the election fraud lie that contributed to this disaster? Their behavior was immoral and abhorrent but violated no federal or state statutes. We can only hope that they pay a heavy political price.

Make no mistake. What happened this week was insurrection against the government of the United States and an assault on democracy itself. It MUST be taken seriously if the great American experiment is to survive.

THIS IS NOT OVER. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there who adhere to the fascist, racist, and anti-Semitic philosophies of the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois, and other such groups. They are armed and dangerous. They openly advocate race war and/or the overthrow of the United States government.

TAKE THEM AT THEIR WORD.

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Parnell Hall: Farwell to a Dear Friend

Mystery writer Parnell Hall, died Tuesday. He’d been seriously ill this year, but he was recovering until Covid-19 arrived and took him.

I met him 11 years ago when he showed up at a book signing at New York’s Mysterious Bookshop to lend his support to a first-time novelist he’d never met — namely me. Over the last decade, he was wise and generous friend, a gentleman with an irrepressible spirit and an infectious sense of humor.

For those who never had the pleasure to know him, this funny and clever video, one of several he posted on YouTube, shows why I am far from the only one of his mystery writing friends who misses him terribly. You can view it by clicking here.

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Jeff Lindsay’s New Riley Wolfe Thriller: A Review

Riley Wolfe has surely met his match in Fool Me Twice, the second novel in Jeff Lindsay’s series about the self-proclaimed world’s greatest thief.

This time, his target is Raphael’s The Liberation of St. Peter. The priceless work of art is a fresco. A fresco doesn’t hang on a wall. It is part of a wall, the paint embedded in the plaster. The wall in question is more than 18 feet long and located in one of the most heavily guarded places in the world — the Vatican.

The result is a well-written, tension-filled yarn that includes two powerful arms dealers, a terrifying psychopath named Bernadette and an FBI special agent who has been on Wolfe’s trail for years.

The story is darker than the first novel in the series, but darkness is familiar territory for Lindsay, who authored the Dexter Morgan serial killer novels on which the popular Showtime TV series was based.

For the full text of my review for The Associated Press, please click here.

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Thomas Perry’s Butcher’s Boy Is BACK–A Book Review

Thirty-eight years after Thomas Perry first introduced us to “the butcher’s boy,” the hitman is back for only the fourth installment in this sporadic series. This time, in “Eddie’s Boy,” the tale finds him forced out of retirement at age 61 to confront an implacable old enemy who wants him dead.

Although the butcher’s boy is not — and has never been — a likeable character, Perry expects us to admire the skill and meticulous care with which he works. And there is certainly much to admire in the skill with which Perry works, from his flawless plotting to his tight and muscular prose style.

For the full text of my bookreview for The Associated Press, please click here. https://apnews.com/article/book-reviews-england-0c3ac461cb8d7d6417b64460daeaac1a

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Rondo: Farewell to the World’s First Perfect Dog

I liked telling friends that Rondo was the end point of canine evolution—that some 40,000 years after the canis lupus familiaris lineage split from its wolf ancestors, the world had finally produced the perfect dog. I’ve never seen another remotely like him.

At the beginning of November, he was torn from our family in a manner that was both untimely and cruel.

I got my first pup when I was four years old and have been surrounded by dogs all my life. They always die, and it’s always sad—but not like this. I am not merely grieving for Rondo. I am broken.

The first thing others noticed about Rondo was that he was beautiful. He was a big boy—long, tall and lean. He moved with grace, rolling his shoulders like a jungle cat. His black and white coat was remarkably soft, the hair on his head and neck as fine and silky as mink. His soulful brown eyes made everyone melt.

He was astonishingly intuitive and empathetic. If I was irritable or not feeling well, Rondo knew it before I did and was always right there, placing a big paw on my knee or dropping his head in my lap.  If my wife Patricia grew frustrated with a poem she was working on, Rondo materialized at her side to offer comfort. His touch was magical. It calmed us, slowing our heartbeats and respiration. He was a rampant kisser. No matter what might upset us, he made everything better.

God, how I need him now. 

Rondo showed the same empathy for Brady, our Bernese Mountain Dog. The scion of farm dogs bred in Switzerland, Brady loves to lounge outside in cold weather. That clearly worried Rondo, who shunned the cold. Several times a day, he would go to the door and demand to be let out. He would run to Brady, nuzzle him to make sure he was all right, and then dash back to the warmth of the house.

The first time I brought them to the vet together, Brady yelped as a needle was inserted to draw his blood. Rondo sprang to Brady’s side, his lopsided grin a memory as he shoved his body between patient and doctor.

“Oh, wow,” the veterinarian said. “He’s worried about Brady. I’ve never seen a pooch show such concern for another dog.”

Without training or prompting, Rondo was our protector. Whenever anyone approached our door, he unleashed a howl with a trace of menace in it. When we opened the door to people he didn’t know, he barked and placed his body between us and them. He kept it up no matter how long they stayed inside. 

When Patricia wrote in our library, Rondo stationed himself between her and the front door, watching over her. Evenings, whenever Patricia went upstairs to bed first, he would sit on the landing, half way between us. When I let him out do his business, he stalked the perimeter of our fenced back yard like a sentry, checking for intruders before coming in for the night.

At the dog park, he amazed everyone by assuming the role of peace officer. Fighting was not permitted in his presence. When trouble broke out, he leaped between the combatants, forcing them apart, his sharp bark an unmistakable command to knock it the hell off. 

His authority was never challenged. When Officer Rondo was on the job, even the Dobermans backed down.

Although Rondo seemed to abhor violence, I had no doubt that if anyone attacked me or Patricia, his pacifism would have vanished. Our Ron would have given his life for us.

He was obsessively eager to please. If we wanted him to come, he would come. If we wanted him to sit, he would sit—no training required. If we opened the door for him to go out, he would go even if he didn’t want to. Then he’d sit outside the door and stare at us, patiently waiting to be let back inside. To discern our desires, he listened to every word we spoke, absorbing a large vocabulary of English words. He lusted after people food, especially pizza crusts, but he never begged. He’d just sit and watch us eat, a hopeful look on his on his face.

A few days ago, as my wife Patricia sat in our family room, half-watching election coverage on CNN, she burst into tears again. “He used to stand right there and look at me, asking my permission to get on the couch,” she said. “I’d nod, and he would climb up and snuggle against me. I want just one more day.”

Rondo was a dog who loved his life, his default demeanor joyful. His muscular tail was forever thumping the floor or sweeping coffee cups and books from end tables. Oh, how he loved to watch Patricia dance! Almost every time I looked at him, I laughed.

One of his greatest pleasures was walking through our suburban, NJ, neighborhood, sniffing every bush and trash can, always on high alert for rabbits. Whenever he spotted one, he froze in a classic pointer stance, hinting at a hunting dog somewhere in his lineage. But he wouldn’t walk unless everyone in the house including Mikaila, the granddaughter who lived with us when she wasn’t away at college, went together. Recently, Brady’s arthritic back legs made him reluctant to come along. Rondo would dig in his heels and refuse to move. No Brady? No walk.

Rondo’s contradictions were endearing. Despite the grace with which he moved, he never learned to lie down the way most dogs do, sitting first and then sliding their front paws down to the floor. Instead, he would hurl himself to the floor from a standing position, landing with a thud. Although his coat was silky, it acted like Velcro. Leaves, twigs and dirt always clung to it when he came in from the yard. His fearlessness in the face of intruders was no match for the terrors of vacuum cleaners and bubble wrap. He often looked noble, sitting upright with perfect posture. And suddenly, his face would dissolve into the goofiest of grins. He was such a character that I made him one in my fifth crime novel.

As I write this, I am in tears.  I can hear Patricia weeping downstairs. She just let out a moan. “I want my baby back.”

#

Just before midnight on Friday, Oct. 30, I let Rondo outside to do his business and make his final check of the backyard. This time, he stayed out a bit longer than usual. Finally, Patricia saw him heading for the back door. He wasn’t loping along as usual. He was racing, as if something was wrong. She opened the door, and he careened in, sliding across the tile floor. He lay quietly for a moment and then retched, expelling a volume of white, frothy liquid. His eyes were glassy. Though conscious, he didn’t respond to our touch. His breathing was ragged. I thought maybe he’d been poisoned.

Patricia called the Northstar Vets pet hospital, located about 20 minutes away, and described the symptoms.

“Are his gums pale?” she was asked.

They were.

“Bring him in right away.”

Mikaila grabbed Rondo’s leash, but we couldn’t coax him to his feet. We tried to lift him, but he was 125 pounds of dead weight, too heavy for us to carry.

The voice on the phone told Patricia we should slide towels under him, one in front of his back legs and one behind his front legs, and pull him to his feet. When we did, Rondo stood unsteadily. Then he tottered out the front door with us, climbed into the back of my SUV, and collapsed. Leaving Patricia behind to watch over Brady, I hit the gas, Mikaila riding shotgun as we sped down the street.

It was two months and four days before Rondo’s tenth birthday.

#

When Brady was a pup, he loved meeting other dogs on our walks around the neighborhood. We wondered. Would he like to have a brother to play with, or would he resent having another dog in his house?

One evening, as we scrolled through online lists of homeless dogs, we spotted a black and white puppy and fell for him. A few weeks later, volunteers from Rainbow Animal Rescue of North Carolina pulled into a Delaware parking lot with a truck load of dogs intended for families from points north. All of them were big pups, mostly Husky mixes. Rondo was the last one they unloaded. He looked nothing like the others. At ten weeks, he was the biggest pup I’d ever seen.

When I scooped him up in my arms, he squirmed, struggling to get free. I carried him to my SUV and found that he was too big to squeeze into the puppy carrier I’d brought along, so I placed him on a blanket behind the front seat and climbed behind the wheel. As I put the car in gear, he climbed over the console and crawled into my lap. I gently put him in the back again, but he wasn’t having it. Our test of wills went on for several more tries before I gave up.

My lap was where he stayed, nuzzling my tummy on the long drive home. By the time we got there, Rondo had my heart.

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Patricia and I were both concerned when she opened the door to let us in. Would Brady welcome the newcomer or reject him? We needn’t have worried. Brady reacted the way a little boy does when surprised with his first puppy.

We watched in amazement as Brady took Rondo on a tour of the house. Here’s our water bowl. Here’s where they feed us. Here’s our basket of dog toys. As soon as we let them outside, Rondo pounced on Brady, who outweighed him by 100 pounds. The play-fight raged for a half hour, Brady rolling onto his back to let Rondo maul him. Finally exhausted, they collapsed together in a heap and fell asleep.

We knew Rondo was going to be a big boy, but we never imagined that within the year, he would tower over his new brother.

Dog people had warned us that two male dogs wasn’t a good idea—that they were sure to fight. But a cross word never passed between them. They were forever nuzzling one another, often pressing their bodies together when they rested on our family room floor.

Rondo grew dependent on Brady, frequently looking to him for guidance. When fireworks or thunder startled him, Ron would glance at Brady. If Brady showed no signs of alarm, Rondo immediately relaxed. Whenever I took Brady to the vet and left Rondo home with Patricia, Rondo would sit by the door and wail a wretched aria until our return.

Once, when Patricia was away on one of her many business trips, I left Rondo alone in the house to take Brady for a checkup. While we were gone, Rondo panicked and tried to break out of the house to find us. He tore the curtains from the dining room windows. He ripped down the moldings around the front door. He knew we used the knob to open the door, so he tried to do the same, crushing the brass in his jaws.

Was I angry? Of course not. I wrapped my arms around him and told him how sorry I was. We never left him alone again.

Last August, Brady turned 11 years old, well past the average lifespan for a Bernese Mountain Dog. By then, the arthritis in his back legs had worsened. He struggled just to pull himself to his feet. But Rondo was as healthy and vigorous as ever. How would he cope when his older brother, his rock, was gone? We sought advice from our vet, from other dog owners, from online pet websites. We got plenty, all of it contradictory.

As it happened, we were worried about the wrong dog.

#

As I pulled up to the Northstar Vets emergency entrance, two staffers rushed out with a gurney, slid Rondo onto it, and rolled him inside. Because of the Covid-19 epidemic, we were told to remain in our car and wait for a call. Ten minutes later, my cell phone clanged.

“Rondo is critically ill,” the doctor said. “It’s bloat.”

She started to explain, but I knew what it was. For reasons that are not understood, a dog’s stomach abruptly fills with air. As the pressure builds, it blocks blood flow from the lower body to the heart, plunging the animal into shock. Worse, the stomach folds over on itself, yanking and often damaging other internal organs. The blood-starved pancreas spews toxic, often fatal, hormones. Whether the air pressure causes the stomach to flip or the flip causes the pressure is unknown.

Bloat occurs most often in big dogs with deep chests—dogs like Rondo. They nearly always die if not treated within an hour of onset. We’d made it to the hospital within thirty minutes. But even with the best of care, which includes emergency abdominal surgery, about a third of dogs don’t survive.

It is a terrible way to die.

As we waited, the vet inserted a tube down Rondo’s throat and into his stomach. That released the air pressure, allowing his stomach to return to its normal position. She also gave him fluids by IV to treat shock. A half hour later, she called again. Rondo was stable but critical. The surgeon was on the way and would arrive within the hour.

Go home, we were told, and wait for our call.

Not yet, I said. We need to see him.

After a quibble over Covid rules, which they graciously agreed to bend, we were allowed to mask up and enter the lobby one at a time. 

As I pushed through the door, two staffers in white coats led him to me. I was surprised to see him on his feet. He stumbled forward, his head lowered. I knelt, wrapped my arms around him, kissed his nose, and told him he was a good boy.  After a minute or two, I went out the door so Mikaila could come in and do the same thing. As she turned to leave him, Rondo tried to follow, straining against his handlers. If he’d had his strength, they wouldn’t have been able to restrain him.

Back home, Mikaila tried to sleep, but Patricia and I sat up well past dawn waiting for news. Shortly after 8 a.m. my cell phone clanged. Rondo had survived the surgery. Fortunately, there was no damage to his internal organs, the surgeon said, but she’d found his abdominal cavity filled with blood, perhaps because the twisting of his stomach had ruptured some blood vessels. After surgery, he’s was given more fluid and dosed with antibiotics and painkillers. He was sleeping now in the intensive care unit where he was being monitored by a nurse who couldn’t leave, not even for a bathroom break, unless she was relieved.

“He’s not out of the woods,” the surgeon said. “Time will tell.”

“How much time?”

“At least a couple of days.” She promised the attending physician would call twice a day to keep us informed of his progress.

It was 2 p.m. when Dr. Steven Berkowitz (“Call me Dr. Steve”) phoned. Rondo was awake but giving no indication of how he was feeling, he said. “He’s a stoic dog.”

“That he is,” I said. Rondo was never one to complain. Except for the times when he had been separated from Brady, we’d never once heard him whine.

Rondo’s blood pressure was too low and his heart rate too high, Dr. Steve said. He was going to be given more fluids, and perhaps that would resolve the issues.

At 7 p.m., just before going off shift, he called to say Rondo was sleeping. His blood pressure and heart rate had improved, but only a little.  Unless something dramatic happened, we wouldn’t get another call until he returned to the hospital and completed his morning rounds sometime after 8 a.m.

Saturday into Sunday was another sleepless night. Did Rondo wonder why we weren’t there for him the way he had always been there for us? Did he think we’d abandoned him? Goddamned Covid! I couldn’t get those thoughts out of my head.

Sunday morning, Dr. Steve called as promised. Rondo’s blood pressure and heart rate had improved overnight, he said, although they were still concerning. And he had detected an irregular heartbeat that was troubling. Perhaps more fluids to increase his blood volume might help.

When he called again early that evening, the news was good. Rondo’s blood pressure and heart rate were much better. Not back to normal yet, but heading in the right direction. Soon, the heart arrhythmia might resolve itself.

“He’s still not out of the woods,” Dr. Steve said, “but if things continue to improve, we can talk about a discharge plan in the morning.” Once again, he said we wouldn’t get a call overnight unless something dramatic happened.

At 1 a.m. Monday morning, Patricia was still up, and I was lying sleepless in bed, my cell phone on the bedside table. The moment it clanged, I knew.

“Oh God, no,” I said. I hesitated, then picked it up on the third ring, my voice cracking.

“I’m so sorry,” a woman doctor said. “Rondo’s heart stopped. We tried CPR but could not revive him.”

“I understand,” I said, “but do you think maybe you could try a little more?”

She said she would. Ten minutes later, she called back. Thanked her for her efforts and dissolved in tears. In the upstairs hallway, Patricia, who had listened to my side of the conversation, shrieked and pounded her fists on the wall.

I changed my ringtone. I never want to hear that clang again.

Later, Dr. Steve told us he wasn’t sure what had gone wrong. The most likely explanation was that a blood clot formed, reached Rondo’s brain, and caused a massive stroke. When I finally got around to examining the three-page hospital bill, I counted 104 line items of procedures and drugs that had been administered over two days—a measure of how hard Rondo’s doctors had fought for him and how much he had endured.

#

Monday morning, we debated whether we should ask to see Rondo’s body. Initially, I was against it. I didn’t want a corpse to be my final memory of him. Mikaila argued that if we didn’t see him, we’d regret it. Otherwise, our final memory would be a box of ashes.

So at 1 p.m. that day, the three of us stood silently in the hospital’s “family room” and waited for Rondo to be wheeled in. Entering that room was one of the hardest things I’d ever done.

I was blindly staring out the window when I heard a gurney trundling down the corridor. As the door swung open, a thought flashed through my mind: There’s been a mistake. It’s going to be somebody else’s dog. But, no. It was Rondo, his body wrapped in a quilted blue coverlet, only his head and front legs visible.

I went to him first. I stroked his head, then startled as it moved in a heart-rending imitation of life. But his body was cold. He’d just been taken from a cooler. Tears flowed as I stroked that silky hair on his neck, caressed his ears, took his big front paws in my hands, and kissed his nose one last time.

For a solid hour, Patricia, Mikaila and I tearfully took turns hugging him, stroking him, telling him how much we loved him, and saying our goodbyes. Entering that room was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, but leaving it was the hardest.

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