On Being Good

(the real) Natalie Wood, 1 June 2021

On 1 June 2010, I adopted my first dog.

That morning, a friend posted on Facebook that she’d found two puppies wandering down the street. She took them in, cleaned them up, gave them their shots. The male had already been adopted by her neighbor. The female still needed a home.

It was the summer before I started my PhD program. I’d just moved into a house with a friend who’d recently adopted a beagle. We’d be joined in the fall by another friend and her hovawart. I’d received a lot of encouragement to get a dog of my own.

So I sent a message: “Tell me about this dog.”

Half an hour later, she pulled up in front of the house, puppy in tow. By the end of the day, the dog had a new bed, a forever home, and a name: (the real) Natalie Wood.

On the eleventh anniversary of her adoption, Nattie and I played Have I Been Good? by Jeeyon Shim.

Have I Been Good? is a unique combination of live action and written play that maintains physical, mental, and emotional engagement over the course of one day and the following morning. Between spending time with your dog and writing about that time, the game will take up most of a full day and a morning.

At the end, you and your dog will agree it is time well spent.

The Magic Metaphor

Have I Been Good? uses arcane ritual as a metaphor for play. Your dog has something to tell you, and over the course of the day, you will cast a spell that lets them do so.

In the game’s terms, you are stepping away from the mundane world into a space where normal rules do not apply and you can have a magical interaction with your dog. In terms of playing a game, you are stepping into the game’s magic circle and focusing serious attention on your immediate and long-term relationship with your dog.

The game’s conceit, process, and the lived experience of play all resonate in a way that matches the potency of great lyric poetry. Playing Have I Been Good? is a cognitive and affective process that not only entertains but also reveals hidden and important nuances of the world around and within the players.

The Schedule

The game begins in the morning when you wake up, greet your dog, give them their breakfast and a treat, and observe their behavior. In the text, these steps are followed by a discussion of your and your dog’s different perceptions of time and aging. A few years for a human is an entire stage of a dog’s life; the latter is fleeting, the former immortal by comparison. Our dogs devote their entire lives to us, but we can devote only a portion of ours to them.

“That is why the spell takes a whole day,” Shim writes. “It is an offering to your dog, and to your love for them; a gift of time.”

With this at the top of your mind, you are prompted to write your first letter to your dog.

Afterward, the human player is brought back to the present by taking a long excursion with their dog, interacting with other people (and possibly pets), and exploring activities the dog most enjoys (including a dinnertime potion filled with the dog’s favorite components).

At the end of the day, the companions settle into bed together. As the canine player drifts to sleep, the human player writes a letter to themselves from the dog’s perspective (with copious prompts and cues) and contemplates what their dog may be dreaming of.

The next day, the previous morning’s ritual repeats with a slight variation: wake, greet, feed, write one more letter to your fellow player, and then observe your dog. When the tail wags, the ritual is complete.

On Being Good

Although the game does allow your dog to tell you something, the game—and so the ritual—extends beyond the dog-to-human letter. The ritual/magic/game doesn’t end when the dog has spoken; it continues into the next day.

That’s because the game’s true purpose or meaning isn’t merely writing a letter from the dog’s perspective. It’s to answer the question “Have I been good?”

In the context of the cover design and our general expectations of dogs—they want to be good for us—the titular question is something we most likely attribute to the dog player. But through the game’s process, and particularly by inhabiting the dog’s character, we discover the question flipped back on us.

The answer isn’t about your dog being well behaved. It’s about human mindfulness of our dogs.

Have I Been Good?’s true magic is in the schedule’s structure. It begins in the realm of the mundane and easily overlooked morning routine, explodes to the scale of lifetimes and beyond, then encourages you to reflect deeply on the latter before blending the two concerns in a meaningful series of real-world activities.

In the evening, as the dog’s consciousness recedes into sleep and dream, the human must creatively inhabit that vacant space in the game and hold a mirror up to themselves from a dog’s-eye angle. The prior events and activities have all built to this: contemplating your life with your dog at all scales as a means of renewing your perspective on them, on your relationship with them, and on yourself.

Have you been good?

“What death can touch”

After title and tagline, the first thing readers encounter in Have I Been Good? is an epigraph from the Mourner’s Kaddish (a prayer in honor of the deceased): “It is a fearful thing / to love what death can touch.” The lines are quickly read and just as quickly overlooked as the player engages the rest of the game.

But this game is very much about mortality. The dog’s lifespan is a central issue. Human longevity relative to the dog’s receives much attention. And multiple times in the text, we find the motif of the human carrying their dog’s spirit onward after the latter’s passing. Within the magic circle, the human is immortal, and the dog is resigned to death, and so the human must be resigned to loss.

However, Have I Been Good? also celebrates lives and love shared by companion species. The game is about having meaningful experiences with your dog—on this day and every day. It is a living elegy and a bittersweet paean to the bonds forged in too-short times but which endure long beyond.

These are bonds every dog lover knows well. Sometimes, though, we need a little magic to keep them strong.

On 1 June 2010, my first dog adopted me.

She slept in her bed beside mine that night. The next morning, she waited patiently until she knew I was awake before crawling into bed with me. Over the past 11 years, no more than a week’s worth of nights have passed without her snuggled up by my legs or on the pillow with me.

She carried me through difficult times of bad living situations, crushing depression, substance abuse, and poverty. Through it all, I gave her the best care I could. I helped her through pancreatitis and severe renal cystitis that required two major surgeries to resolve.

Have I Been Good? forced me to stop and truly reflect on the past 11 years in a way that I hadn’t before. There are a lot of things that I wish I had done differently. There are a lot of memories I can no longer live without.

The dog people out there know what I mean.

I can say without reservation: yes, Nattie, you have been good. I’d like to think she’d say the same about me. And even if I haven’t always been good, I can always try to be better. Playing Have I Been Good? has been one step in the right direction.

This Dog

Rabindranath Tagore
(1861 – 1941)

Every morning this dog, very attached to me,
Quietly keeps sitting near my seat
Till touching its head
I recognize its company.
This recognition gives it so much joy
Pure delight ripples through its entire body.
Among all dumb creatures
It is the only living being
That has seen the whole man
Beyond what is good or bad in him

It has seen
For his love it can sacrifice its life
It can love him too for the sake of love alone
For it is he who shows the way
To the vast world pulsating with life.
When I see its deep devotion
The offer of its whole being
I fail to understand
By its sheer instinct
What truth it has discovered in man.

By its silent anxious piteous looks
It cannot communicate what it understands
But it has succeeded in conveying to me
Among the whole creation
What is the true status of man.

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