The current popularity of the “pet memoir” – John Grogan’s Marley and Me being the most well-known and successful example – can be traced to a lot of factors, ranging from honest sentiment to rank anthropomorphism. But I think our pets, and the books we read and write about them, reflect something of the spirit of our age, as well.
Hemmed in on all sides by cultural proscriptions – the fear of giving offense and the consequent pressure to be politically correct; the fear of expressing simple emotion and the consequent pressure to be ironic; and the constant hectoring on the part of popular culture to “be ourselves” even as economic and social pressures force us to suppress those very selves – we look to animals as a release.
Our lives with our pets, in other words, have become a staging ground for our half-buried psychodramas. Little living ids, our dogs and cats can unashamedly act out their lives without irony or due deliberation, impervious to the opinions of others. We delight in this simplicity, and perhaps delight even more when the emotions and actions so uncomplicatedly expressed are not pleasant ones, but rather miniature versions of our own angers and frustrations.
When my dog Seamus (named after the poet Seamus Heaney) was five or six years old, he very suddenly ceased following me happily wherever I took him on our daily walks, instead tugging fiercely at his frayed old leash every time I turned a corner that he calculated would bring us closer to our house. At first, I resisted his obstinacy because I didn’t attach much significance to it, but gradually I understood he was taking me in an ever-widening gyre that would ensure our eventual return home would be as protracted as possible. I didn’t mind this on weekends or when the weather was beautiful, but resisted in the winter, or when I had multiple deadlines at work. We had a lot of tug-of-wars as a result.
Other times, he would drag me down a particular set of streets that always, I belatedly realized, led in the direction of the local pet store, where the owners treated him kindly and where there was an ancient giant turtle named Michelle whom Seamus loved and lusted after—as Michelle crept cautiously around the aisles of the store (for the owners gave her free rein) Seamus would follow behind, snuffling underneath her shell and trembling all over. Sometimes he’d watch her placidly consume a single limp lettuce leaf, and you could tell that he wondered how she could get any pleasure out of it. But he’d wait for her to finish chewing, and then begin again his hopeless cross-species pursuit.
Then, and only then, would he return home peaceably with me, though still with an intensity about his sniffing that hadn’t been there when he was younger.
At about this same time, Seamus suddenly stopped eating the kibble he’d consumed happily all his life. Even though we’d always supplemented his diet with cheese and bacon and sour cream and abundant other table treats, he went on a hunger strike until we finally hit on the right kind of canned food—the most expensive brand, needless to say, some of the flavors containing chunks of real bratwurst or buffalo meat or duck, and some containing succulent chicken wings that had been cooked in the can until the bones were as soft as jelly.
Why did this behavior begin when Seamus was five or six? We had to put him to sleep a few weeks ago at the advanced age, for a Wheaten Terrier, of 14 years, after he’d suffered for some years with arthritis in his hips and for his last weeks with advanced kidney disease, and not only am I convinced that he knew it was his time to go, I’m certain that, all those years ago when he suddenly started wrenching furiously at his leash instead of trotting along happily, he’d intuited his time on this side of the soil was more or less half over. (The average life span of a “Wheatie” is about 11 or 12 years.)
Somehow, a thorny and ineradicable thought had planted itself inside his very thick skull: That he hadn’t sniffed enough intoxicating scents or seen enough interesting sights or eaten enough delicious food in his life so far, and wanted to savor every moment that remained.
He was, in other words, having a mid-life crisis.
Laugh if you will, but I’ve had my own mid-life crisis, and I recognized the symptoms. In fact, there were times when I reveled in them. As irritated as I was by his frantic desire to live more intensely, I was going through a similar experience at the time, and found his tugging at the leash to be, after a while, an odd little justification for my own: We were doing the same thing at the same time, although in rather different ways.
Like everyone who has ever lived with and loved a dog or cat or similar higher creature, I knew Seamus’ personality intimately. A flinty, filthy, doughty, stubborn, stiff-necked, immensely strong and somewhat humorless Irishman, prone to producing dingle berries and picking up burrs, he was dubbed by us “dirty rotten Seamus” (for you non-Irishmen, the first syllable is pronounced “shame”) and he had, in fact, shamed us on a regular basis throughout his irrepressible youth.
When we lived in the city, he used to snap at and attempt to attack homeless people, kids on skateboards or bicycles, speeding motorcycles, thundering trucks, or anyone or anything that he didn’t like or understand. He ruined all of the window frames in our front room in his scrabbling, frantic fury to get at every passing dog, mailman, and wind-blown leaf. He even tried to attack a bowling alley once, because the ominous rumbling sound the balls made was faintly audible on the street as we passed one night on our walk.
He was a bit of a canine racist, constantly getting into fights with black Labs. He went after several neighbors’ dogs, and one time in his frenzy over some unleashed enemy wriggled out of his collar and caused my wife, in lunging after him, to crash to the sidewalk and suffer a hairline fracture in her nose.
Another time, when we’d first moved to Wilmette, he attacked an old man and took a small chunk out of his calf. The old man’s daughter, I later discovered, was one of the area’s top personal injury attorneys, though fortunately I had already apologized profusely and paid for the man’s medical bills, and so still have a home from which to write this column.
He wasn’t an easy dog to live with.
But every one of his actions could be explained as the result of love. He was, in his dim way, attempting to protect us, and if anything appeared to him to be unusual or a threat (for example, a super-human person who appeared to him to be flying, but to us to be nothing more than a pimply teenager on a skateboard) he took pre-emptive action that made Dick Cheney look like Devendra Barnhart.
Interestingly, his mid-life crisis seemed to coincide with a ratcheting-down of this belligerence. By the time of his affair with Michelle, he’d pretty much stopped attacking strange dogs, bowling balls, and people, and I could actually walk down the streets with him and not fear a lawsuit at every turn. I think he’d begun to realize that there was more to life than constant vigilance, and had decided to start enjoying himself a bit.
But always, even to the very end, he’d climb the two flights of stairs every night at midnight when I’d turned off my computer, hoist himself with immense difficulty onto the green couch near our bedrooms, and guard us against any threat. A squirrel, years before, had come crashing through the screen just over his couch, and I think he never forgot this outrage; he slept, literally, with his eyes open.
The climb up the stairs became increasingly painful near the end, as his arthritis (despite all the pills and shots we could muster) stiffened into immobility, and my most vivid recent memory of Seamus, who had caused us such trouble and given us such joy, is of him pausing on the landing between the two flights of stairs, panting heavily, his eyes dull with pain, and looking up at the next set of slick wooden steps with an expression that was somewhere far beyond fatigue and duty. I understood what that expression meant, and thus only very rarely would I pick him up in my arms like a baby and carry him the rest of the way to his green couch.