April 17, 2008

waddy and me

I rushed through the second half of Marley and Me for two reasons: 1) I had purloined my brother's copy and needed to stealthily return it, and 2) I wanted to soften the blow of Marley's impending death. I almost had to leave the bedroom to finish it because I did not want to explain myself to Scott if my crying woke him at 1 in the morning. I solved the problem by placing the book on the floor and leaning over the edge of the bed to read, which created a new problem involving gravity, tears, and snot - and once-pristine pages being wrinkled by their synergy.

Though I have recommended Marley to all the dog lovers I work with, I also passed along a few caveats, which made me seem less like a dog lover (keep reading for more on that thought) and more like a general hater. Who does not unconditionally love the story of the big, dopey yellow Lab? Uh ... me. The book is not earth-shattering in its conclusions; it's not even extraordinarily well-written. And much as I liked and rooted for the Grogans themselves, gifted ultimately with the experience of the pure-hearted Marley, I found them to be unbelievably naive at so many parts of the story. From their rationale for getting a dog (something like, "I suck at raising plants! Let's get a dog!") to their method of puppy selection (something like, "The dog that's not smart enough to run away when you pretend to attack it is the one for us!") ... There were points at which I wanted to write a letter to the Grogans chastising them for the stupidity that is leaving babies in the care of a 97-pound Lab who enjoyed nipping at their diapers. There were points at which I wondered if the Grogans' three kids would ever resent that a memoir about the dog became a New York Times bestseller, while one about them would probably never be written.

If Marley were fiction, its fatal flaw would have been the human characters' "philosophical" attitudes toward Marley and his behavior; the author's insistence on romanticizing the dog as well as the entire situation. Since it's non-fiction, I constantly wondered what universe these people were living in. I realize you're trying to sell a comic-tearjerker-memoir, here, but they seemed to live on the brink of an entirely other reality. One in which property damage, expensive repairs, and social disasters were all events worthy of a philosophical chuckle too shortly after the initial oh shit. So at some point Jenny melts down, pummels the dog, and demands that he be removed from the home. In a few pages it's all chalked up to postpartum depression and is never mentioned again.

I had, not long before reading it, vowed that if I came across one more "My dog has taught me ..." column in my life, I'd swear off the features section of that paper forever. On that premise, I would never have bought this book to begin with. And I didn't, actually, buy this book. It was lying there on my brother's desk a few days after its purchase from Sam's Club. And so I picked it up, and read it all the way through - and felt, acutely, the family's grief (the children's at losing a sibling, the couple's at losing their first child). It is the story of everyone who has ever had to let go of a dog they've loved - naughty or angelic, purebred or mutt, reserved or gregarious, gargantuan or pocket-sized - and so it's my story, as well as that of so many others I know.

Here's my "What I Learned," or rather, "Two Things I Learned" from Marley and Me. The first one is a startling revelation, actually: I am not a dog lover. I loved my old dogs; they were a gentle, sweet pit bull and a loyal, undemanding pit-lab with no behavior problems save going a little nutso on New Year's Eve - nothing a few kisses and some beer wouldn't take care of. I love my Bentley because he picked me, and because he's some kind of stodgy old person in a young dog's body. I love Kona because he was just so git-danged happy to go home with us that day that he couldn't stop smiling. Or peeing. But ... I do not love dogs in general. I don't like the smell of unwashed dog, and I'm not one of those ladies in the park who lets other people's dogs slobber all over them. I don't even let my dog slobber on me. I don't like rambunctious dogs (I had no flippin' idea what to do with, and therefore sort of detested, my client-friends' 110-lb. Weimaraner mix) and I don't like tiny, yappy things that can't learn - where to take a crap, what's actually edible, etc. (Early on, I thought Kona would fall into that category. Fortunately, he filled out, stopped yapping, and learned to crap outside. He hasn't stopped eating cat litter, though.) The bottom line is I can think as many dogs I dislike as dogs I like.

However, I know that dogs will always be in my life. Because of Scott; because even though I may not be a dog lover, I can't resist a puppy; because I've never not had a dog. Which brings me to the second thing I learned: I have not yet found what Ian Bedloe in Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe calls "the dog of [my] life" - as in, the dog that is just mine, who loves everyone but waits mainly for me, you know, that dog. I don't believe I'll go looking for that dog; I think that dog will find me, someday, somehow.

Until then, I'll try to love the dogs in my life right now a little better. Last night after Marley died I took Kona out of his sleepy box, turned off the light, and brought him to bed. I wrapped my arms around him and told him that like Marley, he was a great dog, because I didn't want him to hear it for the first time on his deathbed. He tolerated my maudlin behavior for about three minutes, then wriggled away and went to sleep at my feet.

Oh, the dogs of our lives.

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