When I was a kid growing up in suburbia, I would invariably see some strange older man out with his dog. Once I passed a guy who wasn’t just talking to his beagle, but reciting passages to him from the French play Humulus The Mute. One wet day, I saw another fella whose corgi had on so much rain gear he looked like The Gorton’s Fisherman. These men who treated their dogs like their children gave me the willies. I vowed I’d never act like this with any of my pups.
Well, the worst has come to pass. I am now one of these gents. And if a mental health professional ever sees me with my dog, Sam, I’m in trouble. They’ll be able to get a court order that allows me to walk the streets only if I promise to stay on my meds.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Spoiling My Sweet Lab
Sam is a black lab with a strain of something slightly aggressive. I think his father was a police dog, specializing in riot work. But he’s so sweet and funny that I spoil him regardless. See, I’m now an aging single man with no kids who doesn’t see his friends nearly enough. So I take all that unused love and lavish it on my son. He sleeps in the bed with me. I brush him daily. We go to the beach. His food is so fancy and rich, I hear that Donald Trump uses it. Not for his dog. I mean Trump himself. Considering how many good times my canine companion has shown me, it’s only fair.
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Sometimes I wonder who saved who.
A Match Made in a Shelter
Last year, feeling terribly lonely, I decided not just that I wanted a dog, but that with all the homeless ones, I should adopt. When I walked into the local shelter, within seconds I saw the boy who would change my life. He was in a huge crate, which allowed a full grown male to walk in — if he was willing to bend over five inches. Something in this mixed-breed’s eyes looked so heartbreakingly stoic, I thought, “This is my soul mate. We’re both sad and broken, but we won’t admit it.” I scooped him up and took him out of the crate. The good part was he snuggled against me. The bad part was, I’d been bent over so long, for the next week I walked that way, looking for a church that needed a bell ringer.
There was more bad stuff to overcome. Since Sam wasn’t socialized, his fear of the outside world manifested itself destructively. No worse than, say, Mike Tyson. I’d go out and return to find Sam whizzed with such deadly accuracy, he could hit ficus plants 30 feet away, totally defoliating them. He slept well in our bed. But still in his rebellious phase, he also delighted in doing naughty stuff. It’s upsetting waking up with your dog and finding he’s destroyed an expensive quilt so completely that you wonder if there’s another unknown animal in his bloodline, like the Wolfman.
But with the passage of time, training and tossing out plants and blankets, things improved. Sam became my best friend. And I turned into one of those nuts who treats his pet like a person. At mealtime, I had to resist the urge to serve him his fancy food by candlelight and hiring the Kronos Quartet to accompany him. Stranger still, I started engaging in the exact activity I used to laugh at other men for doing: talking to my dog incessantly.
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Why We're Two of a Kind
It’s irresistible. Sam never disagrees with me. He concurs that The Godfather Part III was totally unnecessary. That Nietzsche is profound, but too pessimistic. And he’s just as bewildered as I am about the recent Brian Williams incident. My dog doesn’t care if I’ve shaved, how much money I make or if I cry when watching Titanic. And unlike partners past, he’s never asked for a clothing allowance. Still, he has more beautiful sweaters and shirts than Jay Gatsby.
In other words, I’ve come full circle.
Last week, I was out walking Sam, asking him a question most owners pose to their dogs: if he thought Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground anticipated the work of Freud. The dog paused to relieve himself and was a little distracted. But I could tell by his face that he was pondering my question. As I talked on, a kid on a bike flew past us. He called me a “Whack job.” I smiled, thinking how I used to think the same thing. But I was happy, because I now had this wonderful woolly new friend.
I watched the kid disappear. I’d become the crazy old guy with the dog. And it didn’t hurt at all. I wanted to yell to the boy that he shouldn’t judge. Someday, he might just be like me. But there are some things you have to learn yourself. Plus, it was getting late. Nearly time to feed Sam his supper. And however weird they might seem to others, priorities are priorities.
Peter Gerstenzang writes about rock, pop culture and humor for Esquire, Spin, MSN and Next Avenue.
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