[15 November 2009]
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.
A Truly Fearless Feline
Gwen Cooper, the author of Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat, understands that expression very well, and was able to see it, or intuit it, even in the case of her tiny black cat Homer, who was abandoned as a kitten, suffered from a terrible eye infection, and had his eyes surgically removed before he was ever able to see the world at all.
Homer’s Odyssey is the exceptionally touching story of this seemingly hopeless case and how, after Cooper adopts him, he not only triumphs over his blindness (which, of course, being a cat, he isn’t even aware he suffers from) but learns to snatch flies out of mid-air merely by tracking the buzz. Further, he very likely saved Cooper’s life when an intruder broke into her New York apartment, and later survived being left alone in that apartment for several days in the chaos following 9/11.
Homer’s blind patience during the period when Cooper couldn’t get back to her apartment, located near Ground Zero, is what any animal would have done. But what Homer does to that intruder is extraordinary:
…for a split second I was worried for the burglar’s safety…(w)ith a loud hiss that bared his fangs (prior to this, I’d always thought of them as “teeth”), Homer thrust the whole weight of his body forward and brought his right front leg into the air, stretching it up and out so far that it looked, bizarrely, as if the bone connecting his leg to his shoulder had come out of the socket, held in place only by muscle and tendons. His claws extended even farther (good God – how long were those claws?). Glinting like scythes in the lamplight, they slashed viciously at the man’s face.
That’s a little cat we’re talking about.
Homer’s journey from foundling kitten to fully functioning cat is a lovely little story. It’s very difficult to imagine how a cat with no eyes could navigate around an apartment to begin with, but Homer has to contend with multiple moves to different apartments as Cooper struggles to gain traction in her career and her personal life. With each move, of course, Homer must relearn the apartment’s topography and sniff out, echolocate, and memorize all of the little obstacles that litter his path. And Cooper also owns two other cats with normal eyesight; Homer is never able to understand why he’s never successful in stalking them when, of course, he’s in plain sight all the time.
Then there are all of Cooper’s friends, dates and boyfriends. One date arrives at Cooper’s apartment to find Homer waiting at the door with one of her tampons hanging from his mouth, the “whiteness of it (standing) out against his black fur in vivid, mortifying relief. He scampered around in gleeful triumph for a moment, then promptly ran over and sat expectantly on his haunches in front of me, tampon clutched between his jaws like a dog with a rawhide bone.”
(This reminded me of my worst date ever, with a beautiful young PR professional named Mary whom I was entertaining at my apartment when my two cats at the time simultaneously experienced attacks of diarrhea. Things hadn’t been going too well to begin with, because I had been babbling all evening out of nervousness, so at this stinky juncture, Mary went racing out of my apartment at hyper-speed. I couldn’t blame her a bit, but I Googled her name recently and discovered that she’s now, of all things, a professional dog trainer, and is perhaps more patient than she used to be about animals and their extraordinary capacity to embarrass us.)
But Homer is hardly ever a burden in Cooper’s telling. He is an uncommonly loving cat to begin with, and sleeps every night with every point of his body pressed up against Cooper. But affection, as rare as it might seem to non-cat-lovers, is only part of the package. Homer, all three pounds of him, is also a hero and role model. As Cooper struggles with the drifting indecision so typical of twentysomethings, Homer, who likes to scale floor-to-ceiling drapes and leap blindly (well, of course blindly) from floor to furniture and back again is inadvertently inculcating in her something she hadn’t known she lacked: The ability to act decisively and irrevocably in the face of the unknown.
Think how hard merely walking from place to place would be for you to do if you were suddenly stricken with blindness, but with Homer, “(I)t was as if there was some innate source of courage within him, some inborn willingness to engage the world openly and joyfully, that even all the suffering and hardship he’d been through hadn’t taken away from him.” Later, as Cooper contemplates whether or not to risk a wonderful friendship with a man by declaring her love for him, she realizes, from Homer’s example, that “sometimes, to get the things that were good in life, you had to make a blind leap.”
This lesson might sound a bit banal out of context, but remember, this blind leap is not a metaphor; it is what Homer actually did every day. Every day, as well, Cooper went through substantial difficulties to care for this cat that others counseled should be put to sleep after the infection had robbed him of his eyes. There is no banality at work here; Homer’s story, and Cooper’s as well, is replete with the challenges and triumphs of a life that is fully engaged and of a love that has been well and fully realized.
I genuinely believe that higher animals on the order of dogs and cats live their lives as humans do, as a series of choices. An animal’s choices are more constrained, because they don’t choose whom they get to live with, and they are ruled to a somewhat greater degree than we are by instinct, but that instinct (or, as in Cooper’s description of Homer, those innate qualities) are not the sum total of an animal’s life.
When Seamus was five or six, his angry tugging at the leash in order to experience more of life was a choice; there was nothing essential to his survival in deciding he wanted to explore farther reaches of our neighborhood. And when he went on his food strike, that was a choice, too, just as it was my choice, both before and after the strike, to feed him chunks of Colby and Swiss and eight-year-old cheddar.
I made those food choices out of love, because Seamus didn’t need expensive cheese to survive, and to a lesser degree I made them out of guilt, because I shared Seamus’ avidity for life and felt bad that I hadn’t always walked him as much as he would have liked. I felt even more guilt because, when he was young and would dart straight towards a speeding truck, nearly yanking my shoulder out of joint in the process, I responded, on a few occasions, by slapping him on the muzzle, and did the same a few times when he soiled the rugs. It is probable that he’d long since forgotten these punishments; I have not, and never will.
But even if at some level he remembered these remonstrations, I think Seamus knew he was a cherished part of our family. Near the end, when he would take 20 minutes or more to get up our stairs so that he could guard us as we slept, there was unquestionably some duty and some instinct involved.
But, like Cooper’s Homer, he wasn’t only id. That look in his eyes, as he rested, panting on the landing, and steeled himself for the final ascent of his endless odyssey? It’s the same thing that Gwen Cooper saw in Homer, even though, of course, he had no eyes. What we saw was love.