Sunday, April 26, 2009

Taking the easy way out

A couple of weeks ago, an uncharacteristically insipid review by WaPo's Jonathan Yardley of Michael Schaffer's new book, One Nation Under Dog, prompted me to get my rant on. I was incensed at Yardley's using the book to get his rant on about what he considers to be excessive spending on companion animals by the pet-owning public--even though he acknowledged having willingly parted with substantial chunks of change to care for his own beloved dogs. Other reviews take a similar tone: that Schaffer's book is a long-overdue indictment of pet owners' misplaced priorities.

Much to my surprise, I received an email the following day from Mr. Schaffer. I'm honoring his request that I not publish that email, but I think it's fair to say his note prompted me to buy the book myself and make my own judgment. I did wince over the back-cover accolades, one of which called the book "a masterwork of comic sociology," while another proclaimed that the book holds "a mirror to our pet-obsessed culture." The author bio on the inside flap didn't help, either: after saying where Mr. Schaffer and his family live, the bio says that the author and his family "insist that their own pets ... are not freakishly pampered."


I'm not disputing that pet-keeping takes on some extreme forms. How could I: I've lost count of the number of newspaper and magazine articles, in addition to book reviews, that screech about such excesses. And for the record, I:

-- do not dress Allie in any clothing. I even take off the kerchief and occasional hair bows that her groomer bestows on her. If I didn't, she would try to.

-- do take Allie to that groomer every six weeks or so. Given that Allie weighs 70 muscular pounds, and that I weigh only about 30 not-s0-muscular pounds more than she does (especially since I've been recovering from this adventure), paying for a monthly doggie spa date seems to me to be a prudent investment. That said, I brush her several times a week, clean her ears weekly, and do all the other maintenance stuff that good canine stewardship requires.

-- get Allie's food from this company and pay a hefty price for doing so. But I'd rather pay that money to keep my golden girl healthy than to treat near-continuous ear infections brought on by her allergies to common dog food ingredients such as chicken, beef, wheat and corn (the latter can also be difficult for dogs to digest and may affect dogs' behavior, as this article by trainer Robin Bennett points out).

My foregoing disclaimers, not to mention the one that ends Mr. Schaffer's book-flap bio, probably seem a little defensive. And no wonder: all those cultural scolds who criticize animal-related financial outlays cause many of us to feel that we have to defend those outlays. But to laud or criticize One Nation Under Dog on the basis of those excesses is to miss the book's essential point. Unfortunately, that point doesn't begin to emerge till page 250, when the author reflects on why he finds himself returning to a pet bereavement group long after he'd completed his research on that group for the book:

"I'd started doing my research on the new pet world--way back when--feeling mainly bemused about how I'd been sucked into the universe of dog walkers and pet hotels and veterinary antidepressants. I thought of it as a chronicle of absurdities, albeit absurdities in which I was a participant ... My early expectations of the pet bereavement group, in particular, had involved crazy cat ladies rather than sophisticated grievers ... [But] I realized after a while that I was coming back again and again as a sort of communion ... talking about pet mourning turned out to provide rare moments of genuine, thoughtful sharing."

By the end of the book, the author concludes that "pets and how we treat them, are a public reflection of our deepest human values" -- in other words, something far more important than what drives all those rants and ravings about pet lovers' fiscal and other choices. But in choosing to use One Nation Under Dog as a springboard for such criticism, reviewers have done the book a disservice. In the end, to my surprise, the book's a far more thoughtful and balanced treatise than those reviewers indicate. Those reviewers took the easy way out: they went for surface instead of searching for what the author was really saying. The author may bear some responsibility for the path that those reviewers took, particularly if he was the person who crafted his back-flap bio. In any case, though, I wouldn't have bothered to read the book if the author hadn't found a way to almost guilt me into doing so. And that would have been a shame.

Medical update: I saw my neurosurgeon this past Friday, who said I'm doing great and told me to "go live your life" -- which I fully intend to do (starting with a long overdue date with my hairdresser. Yo, Maryam: call me back. Please.)

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