to steal the show
month, "Dateline" featured a special about the lengths
that people will go to pamper, serve and preserve their pets.
There were people who thought their pets were people.
They enrolled their Chihuahuas in expensive yoga classes and requested
testicular implants for their buff, athletic pit bulls. They bought
their animals four-poster canopy beds and cashmere sweaters that
cost more than BMWs. They threw lavish birthday parties complete
with belly dancers and pony rides.
There was a woman who'd had her dog professionally freeze-dried
after it had been hit by a car. The camera followed the family as
they picked up their beloved pet at Mac's Taxidermy shop somewhere
in Pennsylvania. The kids were leaping out of the car when the mother
carried the dog out on a pillow. There was a close-up of the dog's
stretched and airbrushed lips. The mother bent her knees so the
kids could see.
"Look," she cooed, "it's Buster." The kids
were smiling. They reached for the dog and patted its stiff head.
If my mom had been watching, she would have sniffed dryly and said,
"that is so sick." My mom never made shrill, high-pitched
noises at our childhood dog, Moe. We had a leash, a bone, a bucket
of water and a sawdust pillow in the garage. The dog was not allowed
in the house.
Instead, Moe chased birds in the yard and rolled in piles of lawn
debris. My parents seemed pleased when he barked at servicemen,
children on bicycles and people with brochures who strolled up the
driveway on Saturday mornings.
During the year, while my grade-school teacher was dispensing public
service announcements about "stranger danger" and showing
videos about shifty-eyed men with candy, my mom was generating her
own fear-craze by wagging her finger about the old lady in the park
who pushed her dog in a wicker baby carriage.
"Don't go near her, kids," Mom warned, "she's totally
Mom drew hard on her cigarette, then jabbed the air with her finger
the way TV detectives do when they're trying to make a point.
"She pushes that dog around in a stroller because she has
no children. Before you know it, she'll snatch you up and put a
collar around your neck like she does that dog."
There was a psychologist on "Dateline" who pitched theory
and wisdom. He said that pampering your pet to the extreme is all
about ego: "It has to do with my pet is an extension of me.
And if there's something really cool about my pet, that makes me
I imagined the family of the freeze-dried dog watching primetime
TV while Buster sat rigidly on the coffee table. There was something
pop-horror about it. What would the neighbors think?
My cat's name is Sophie.
She came with that name, so it's no reflection of my literary or
rock-star preferences. She's not named after a movie star or a relative,
nor does the human quality of her name necessarily reflect my propensity
The SPCA described her as a "tortoise shell with white,"
but she looks more like a calico. She's also zoftig and demanding.
If I'm reading the good part of the newspaper, Sophie will emerge
from nowhere and lay all over my article.
She'll do manipulative things, like roll over onto her back and
flex her paws or grab the corner of the page with her teeth and
pull it over the top of her so I won't push her off.
She's vain, but not inaccessible or snobby. She can spend hours,
it seems, primping and licking and smoothing her coat. If I pass
her in the hall and ruffle her fur, she'll pause for an annoyed
second, and then re-do the spot I messed up.
Sometimes she gets lonely and croons in the stairwell like a blues
singer until I come over and say, "Sophie, here I am,"
at which point she rolls over onto her back and makes pleased little
She's thoughtful and generous, too. She brings me things: pieces
of string, spools of thread, rubber bands and, once, the wing of
a pigeon. When I lay on the floor in the living room, Sophie saunters
over and butts her head into my shoulder, elbow, cheek, then crawls
onto my stomach and purrs.
We can lay like that all afternoon.
Then I thought about the pet relationships among the people I knew.
They never broke the bank when providing for their furry companions
yet I didn't think I was like them, either.
I have a neighbor who works at a battered women's shelter and reads
biographies about trailblazing women. Once, when I was coming up
the stairs, I saw her sitting in the hallway, entertaining her cat
with a toy fashioned to look like a mouse. Because I didn't want
to seem brief and unfriendly by going directly into my apartment,
I sat down to say hi.
Her cat did a few half-cartwheels, then darted from one end of
the hallway to the other before spinning out in front of me.
"Wow," I said, "she's totally manic! Ever test her
for ADHD?" I only said it because I'd just read an article
about parents who steal their kids' Ritalin so they can snort it
before their board meetings.
When the cat calmed down, I tried to scratch her chin but she bit
me on the thumb.
"She's asserting her boundaries," my neighbor said. "It
helps her feel kick-ass." The cat was wearing a pink collar
that said "Cat Power" in red capital letters.
My sister, Alison, has a weimaraner with huge ears and long legs.
She refers to the dog as her son and allows him to sleep in her
bed. She keeps a picture of him in her purse and leaves messages
for him on the answering machine while she's at work.
Once, my sister and I were sitting on her big, puffy couch watching
a movie. We had warm Styrofoam containers of Chinese take-out in
our laps and cans of soda in our hands. We blinked intently at the
With little warning, the dog came bounding into the living room
and leapt onto the couch, spilling containers of duck sauce, splashing
soda and messing up the position of the pillow behind my back.
I made annoyed, gasping sounds and jumped onto the carpet. "Your
dog's gross, Alison, and he's too big for the couch," I said.
"Tell him to get off!"
"He missed his mommy," chimed my sister. Her voice was
an abrasive, child's version of her normal speaking voice. The dog
practically crawled into her lap. He tucked his long legs under
his belly and rested his head on my sister's shoulder. Alison smiled
fondly and wiped sauce from the brow of her dog's face.
"Will you get me a fork?" she asked.
There's a woman I work with who collects injured, messed-up and
patched-up animals. She volunteers at an animal shelter and brings
these creatures home as a kind of foster parent. She's got a thin
orange cat with one eye, three mixed-breed dogs one missing
a leg and two large, lop-eared rabbits. A motley crew.
She refers to them as her "underdogs" and has images
of them on her computer's screen saver. She jokes that she'll haul
them all into the office on "bring your pet to work day."
I once went to her home and all her animals came clamoring around
our legs, yapping, wagging and snorting. My coworker knelt on the
floor to let the dogs lick her mouth.
"Do you think I'm obsessed?" she asked.
"A little," I said as I stuck my finger through the bars
of a hutch so I could touch the rabbit's soft, gray fur.
Recently, I had a friend over for drinks. We were sitting in chairs
drinking our beers and listening to records. If I weren't a sometimes-exclusive
introvert prone to mild bouts of jealousy, I'd have thought Sophie
was being friendly and approving when she jumped into my friend's
lap, stuck her nose in his armpit, then rolled on her back and folded
her paws under her chin like a submissive, cartoon version of adorable.
Instead, I suspected that she was trying to steal the show.
"Phie-Phie, pleeeeaaase," I joked, then looked up at
my friend, who was making a face at me.
"God," I giggled, "she's so shameless, it's embarrassing."
My cat tilted her head back to look at me, then made one of those
garbled kitten sounds. She looked so cute. I could have screamed.
I thought of a clip from "Dateline," where we see the
President of the United States whacking golf balls across the lawn
while a Scottish terrier runs circles around his heels.
When Al Roker asks the president if he's included in the 78 percent
of pet owners who play kissy-kissy with their animals, he says,
"yeah, I've been there before."
It suddenly made the president seem nice, ordinary and non-partisan.
Then I thought of a prior president. Truman probably had it right
when he said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."