February 25, 2024 | Rome, Italy

American Alfie

By |2021-12-21T04:33:59+01:00December 17th, 2021|"Notebook"|
American home life can fall decidedly short of Hollywood legend.

n my recent trip to Italy, many of my Italian friends often surprised me with a question I honestly didn’t expect. They wanted to know what I did all day in America.

I did my best to gloss over the question. Why? For one thing, I found it a little weird. What exactly were they getting at?

If you are any kind of artist — I am a freelance writer — the answer is always complicated. Creative work just doesn’t allow for cookie-cutter answers.

I also knew that if I confessed the truth of my day-to-day — my “real” life in rural New Hampshire — it would probably disappoint them. Decades of experience have taught me that Italians want the imagined American life to correspond to some Hollywood movie they once saw (which is not so different from what Americans expect from Italians). I’m afraid I fail on all the movie counts. I hardly have Diane Keaton’s life and boyfriend — Jack Nicholson — in “Something’s Gotta Give.” Though I live near a covered bridge, I’m hardly Meryl Streep in “The Bridges of Madison County.”

The repeated probing got me to wondering where in fact all my hours go. So when I got home I decided to take a better and closer look at my hours and how they pass. Here’s what I learned.

Every day begins with tea, toast, and a shameful amount of catching up on news and social media. I also let out my dog Alfie. After his morning ablutions, he usually returns to bed.

I can then have one of two kinds of days: a “busy day” or a “home day.” A busy day involves going to the gym to swim, taking an exercise class with a dozen older ladies like me or working with a trainer on minimizing the cumulative effects of sitting too much. Another kind of busy day can involve making lunch for the homeless at a local shelter.

I resist his silent plea for an entertainment partner. When I relent, he selects his “ball of the day” (a mysterious canine process).

Because busy days mean driving, they are also errand days.

My other kind of day, the “home” variety, goes like this:

It begins with the intention to spend a solid hour on a writing project. First, I look at email, the news and social media to see if anything has happened since I last checked. This takes a bite out of the solid hour. Even so, I never let the checking run past 10:30 a.m. on the dot, which is about the time I finally get going with the writing. But 10:30 is also the time Alfie arises and plants himself by the cabinet where tennis balls are kept. I resist his silent plea for an entertainment partner as long as possible. When I relent, he selects his “ball of the day” (a mysterious canine process).

Pretty soon Alfie is over-excited by play and needs to go outdoors. By now — did I mention I had sat down to write? — I’ve lost my concentration. I do the dishes and maybe some laundry. Then I try to really get down to writing.

This pattern repeats until I can justify having lunch.

After lunch, the pattern is the same, with the addition of a desire to take a nap.

But I won’t let myself nap.

But then the dog barks wildly. There’s a trespasser! The eagle is in our tree again! There’s a squirrel burying nuts!

The only way to rationalize not writing is by doing “necessary” outdoor work, such as moving my log pile or collecting kindling. I recently acquired a life-changing device intended to help harvest pecans, which allows me to avoid writing in the name of both safety and charity. With the pecan device I collect the acorns that make walking in my yard like walking on ball bearings. The haul (it fills six large dog-food bags) is donated to a man who cares for orphaned bear cubs.

Outdoor work is essential, to be sure. But it also keeps the dog happy and occupied as I toss his ball. Amid this back and forth, he surveys the property for wildlife incursions and protects my acorn harvest against marauding squirrels.

By 4 p.m., I need a cup of tea and dog and “writer” go back into the house. I’m thinking that this time I’ll truly get back to writing.

But then the dog barks wildly. There’s a trespasser! The eagle is in our tree again! There’s a squirrel burying nuts! Another dog barked several miles away!

Writing is now almost a lost cause and Alfie needs to calm down. The solution is a 45-minute walk in the name of dog exercise. This is also justification for listening to an audio book or podcast, impermissible indulgences if dog-walking didn’t compel me out and about.

After the walk, there’s not much time to really accomplish anything and it’s a bit early to occupy myself with dinner. I check email or attempt some administrative chore postponed because writing was a higher priority.

In any case, at exactly 5:45, Alfie reminds me that it’s time for his evening walk, and that is a must.

I listen to more podcasts or audiobooks.

It’s now time for dinner and lighting the wood stove. After a walk and his nightly biscuit, Alfie settles into his basket by the fire.

I too settle in and actually compose a few paragraphs before succumbing to the urge to doze.

So ends another day in America. It was pretty similar to a day in my one-time Milan home, where instead of minding a woodstove and yardwork and patrolling for eagles, I procrastinated with home improvement projects and the dog kept me apprised of neighbors’ comings and goings.

My analysis of a day in New Hampshire has revealed one detail that’s exactly in keeping with my Italian days: What I do all day as a human is largely determined by a dog.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."