Seeking a Friend for the Pandemic

UM English professor pens essay on his new pal, Zimmy, 'The Quarantine Dog'

UM English professor Chris Offutt has written a new essay on life with his new ‘quarantine dog,’ Zimmy, which he and his wife, fellow English professor Melissa Ginsburg, have adopted. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – Chris Offutt hails from the mountains of eastern Kentucky, which he describes as a pragmatic world where all animals have a purpose and the motto there is “humans in the house, animals out.”

But many deeply held customs and ways of living have been set aside during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Offutt, an associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi, has shed his belief that dogs are meant to live outside and for the first time in his adult life, he has a little lapdog, Zimmy, a half-Australian cattle dog and half-Chihuahua.

The award-winning author and screenwriter has penned a new essay on life with Zimmy for Literary Hub, titled “Meet Zimmy, the Quarantine Dog (Or, an Insane Response to an Insane Time).”

The essay tells the story of Offutt softening to the desire of his wife, Melissa Ginsburg, an assistant professor of English at Ole Miss, to have a dog in the house against the backdrop of COVID-19. Since he wrote it, the family has grown even closer to their new friend.

“The need to take care of a pet is beneficial,” Offutt said. “The focus is on an animal that relies on you completely. It provides a break from concern about the world.

“I provide occasional updates on Zimmy to my students, which they appreciate while we all adjust to online teaching. When we return to the classroom, I’ll use Zoom to bring in Zimmy.”

Zimmy, a half-Australian cattle dog and half-Chihuahua, snuggles closely with Chris Offutt, a UM associate professor of English, who recently adopted the dog. Submitted photo

Snuggles are also a welcome treat in the days of “social distancing.”

“There is a great comfort to a small animal’s trust,” Offutt said. “In a time of social distance from family, friends and neighbors, a puppy that loves to cuddle is a source of solace.”

He isn’t alone in understanding this. CBS News recently reported that pet adoption applications are up nationwide during the pandemic. It quoted CEO Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society, a nationwide nonprofit with adoption centers across the country, which has experienced a surge in applications.

“I think people are gravitating towards pets during this time of uncertainty because they can serve as a source of comfort,” Castle told CBS News. “The companionship of pets has been shown to reduce stress and lower anxiety, helping people to feel calmer and more secure when the news from the outside world is distressing.”

In 2017, Offutt won the Kentucky Literary Award for his book “My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir.” He has written both fiction and nonfiction. He has written six other books, including collections of short stories and novels.

His first book, published in 1992, is a collection of stories called “Kentucky Straight.” Offutt has worked as a screenwriter for “Weeds” and “True Blood,” among other TV shows.

His latest novel, “Country Dark,” was released to critical acclaim in 2018 and was translated into several languages. The book also won two major awards in France, the Prix de Beaune for “Best Foreign Novel,” and the Prix Mystère de la Critique for best foreign novel. Offutt is the first Mississippi writer to win either of the awards, but due to the pandemic, he was unable to attend the ceremonies. 

His new novel, “The Killing Hills,” will be out next spring. 

Chris Offutt

Offutt had generally disavowed letting dogs inside the house and never expected he’d own a speckled lap dog like Zimmerman, which he describes in his trademark voice in the essay.

“He looks like a project abandoned by a kindergarten class,” Offutt wrote. “They assembled him from scraps, began coloring with a black marker, got bored and started daubing at his body, then quit altogether.

“Zimmy is the smartest dog I’ve ever encountered. I’ve already got him playing checkers.”

A writer’s life isn’t always conducive to having pets, but Offutt married into a “dog” family. His wife was walking a dog the first time he saw her, and he fell in love with her at first sight. They have since owned dogs, and for the last 15 years, Ginsburg has taken on a campaign to erode Offutt’s resistance to dogs in the house.

The family had begun looking for a small inside dog just before the coronavirus reached the area. The day they picked Zimmerman up in Tupelo, Offutt held him in his lap and sang Bob Dylan songs to the little guy all the way home. His name is an offshoot of Dylan’s real name, Robert Zimmerman. 

The little guy has made himself at home and is getting the hang of life in quarantine.

“So far, so good,” Offutt said. “He’s alert to every sound and sight, all of which are brand new to him. He’s a very cautious dog, especially with other animals. He barks at neighbor dogs, avoids the chickens and watches squirrels with great vigilance.

“I suppose it’s a form of canine social distancing.”

He takes turns laying on the couple while they work from home during the pandemic. Ginsburg, a writer in her own right, is author of a book of poems, “Dear Weather Ghost,” and a novel, “Sunset City.” 

“Zimmy is always trying to eat my pens, which makes it harder to work,” Ginsburg said. “But under the pandemic, my attention span is about as short as the puppy’s, so it’s fine.”

Melissa Ginsburg, a UM English professor, sits with her family dogs, Zimmy (center) and The Punisher. Submitted photo

Zimmerman joins The Punisher, the couple’s other dog, an 11-year-old that their teenage sons named for the comic book character. The Punisher has historically been an outside dog but is warming up to Zimmy and being inside. 

“At first, she ignored Zimmy completely,” Offutt said. “Zimmy behaved in an extremely respectful way toward The Punisher, her food and her sleeping area. Now they lie on each other like laundry in a basket.

“We had to take Zimmy to the vet for a shot and The Punisher searched for her incessantly.”

The new presence in the house has added an interesting dynamic to family discussions, too, he said. They’ve set aside ‘non-Zimmy’ family time to make plans and discuss crucial family business, such as procuring pandemic provisions they need.

“We’re out of milk and yogurt, but we were able to get some root vegetables planted in the garden,” Offutt said. “We’re good on eggs and low on rice. At this point, we have more dog food than toilet paper.”

The dog is learning and growing from the experience of living with Offutt and Ginsburg, too. The writer continues to marvel at the little guy’s smarts and invents little stories in his head about Zimmy. 

“He’s still young and growing,” Offutt said. “The world is so fresh and new to him. But he’s beginning to show his inner self. He likes having ‘his spot.’ 

“He really enjoys a high perch – the back of a couch or the top of the steps. As Barry Hannah wrote in ‘Airships,’ ‘In Mississippi, it is difficult to achieve a vista.’ Zimmy is working on it. Or maybe he’s more literate than I realize. It’s possible that at night he reads books. He’s a pretty smart dog.”