Theology figures into this, because I adopted Susie on the advice of a spiritual director, a Catholic shrink I was seeing who hoped to banish my Jansenist image of God. “You wanna know pure and unconditional love, the kinda love God has for every human soul?” he asked between mouthfuls of pasta. (The doc looked and dressed alarmingly like Joe Pesci, and scarfed down Italian take-out during our sessions.) “Get a dog.” At least that’s what I think he said. His mouth was full. . . .
His counsel proved wise. I actually found it easier to pray while Susie was singing, and she’d help me to ruminate by thoughtfully chewing the cud on the legs of my dining room table. Between our expeditions to the park in search of prey, my writing productivity soared. And then I got cocky.
As someone who has always believed that “More is more,” it struck me that Susie needed a playmate, another set of four skittering feet to scratch the hardwood floors. After meeting a series of winning breeds at the local dog run, I almost settled on a Boston Terrier–having seen one whose aerial jumps and coordination reminded me of Michael Jordan. But Bostons are less likely to sing than yap, and I thought that Susie would rather sing duets than solo. So I looked into getting a Basenji, one of those little African hounds that never bark: They yodel. I downloaded some Basenji sound files and played them back–until a nosy old bat who lived in my courtyard came pounding on my window, demanding to know, “Why are you torturing that poor dog?” The next time she walked past my window, Susie defibrillated her. Good girl!
The search went on, until I found the absolute perfect writer’s companion: an incontinent, stone deaf, and epileptic Dalmatian puppy. (Not all his distinctive qualities were immediately apparent.) My neighbor had owned the dog, and was verging on a breakdown trying to housebreak poor Koto, whom she’d bought in Armenia and flown across two continents. So I offered to housetrain the dog—but after a few weeks, she wouldn’t take him back. Koto was sweet and playful, with icy blue eyes, and crate training really works—if you can stand three days of almost continuous whimpering. Apart from teaching him to do his business outside, I applied to Koto the Zmirak Method, which had worked so well with Susie: No matter what the dog does, praise him. For eating, for scratching, for stretching. For barking at birds. Whatever. It makes the dog feel happy and secure, and as long as what he’s doing isn’t dangerous or illegal, it’s usually pretty cute. So why not act like the God imagined, vaguely, by liberal Christians, C.S. Lewis’ “senile grandfather in heaven”? It isn’t like you’ll be called to answer for his soul. (At least I hope not.)
The epilepsy thing, I learned, could be controlled by medication–and a good thing, too, because the first time I woke up with Koto lying on top of me, running and barking frantically in his sleep and shooting a two-foot stream of urine, I’ll admit I was disconcerted. Okay, my inner Slavic peasant came out: I thought the dog might be possessed. Shaking him didn’t wake him, and the St. Michael Prayer didn’t stop the whizz, so I turned in desperation to science, and discovered the dog’s condition. I was settling into the idea of owning a handicapped dog when the hand of God intervened. That’s when I came across Ratzinger.
That wasn’t his baptismal name, of course. I later learned that “Homer” was the birth name of the abandoned beagle I found at 3 a.m. in front of my building, tied to a parking meter. Some passing benefactor had wrapped the shivering dog in a blanket, and called Animal Control to take him to the pound. There, his lifespan would have been measured in days, since few folks are willing to adopt an overweight, aging dog with suppurating sores and ear infections who is missing half his fur. (I learned from people who recognized him on the street that he’d lived for years neglected in someone’s backyard.)