or, How to Live Like an Animal
The sidewalks in our neighborhood are crowded despite the cold because the experts have told us a blizzard is coming after midnight. The computer models predict a foot of snow, or maybe two, who can say, and everyone in New York City is stockpiling milk, bread, and wine because they won’t dare to venture outside tomorrow. The lone exception to this rule will be people like me. One foot of snow or three, I’ll still have to brave the cold. I’m the chief dog walker for our family. That means twice each day, I suit up and head outside. I’ve walked the dog while dizzy and sick; I’ve walked the dog during tropical storms and two hurricanes; I’ve walked the dog while tipsy, after stumbling home late; and I’ve quietly slipped away when we had guests over to dash outside with the dog. Once during a dinner party, I ignored the dog’s nudges because everyone was having such a great time. This did not end well, and after I cleaned up the mess, I took the dog outside anyway—just to be safe.
I estimate that our dog Sherpa and I have walked 4,800 miles together over the course of the last eleven years. That is the distance to L.A. and most of the way back again. That’s farther than the trip from New York to London. That’s fifteen times through every square foot of New York City. That’s a lot of time to walk, wander, and think about where we’re going—literally and figuratively.
After I discovered my phone was quietly counting steps, I have checked the pedometer nearly every day. According to the counter, I have taken an average of 10,720 steps per day this December. This is almost precisely my average for the year, which stands at 10,424. That’s just under four miles every day. On days when I cross 20,000 steps, I feel particularly accomplished. As if I’ve just hit a high water mark in some video game that I’m playing with myself.
Usually these long distances correlate with deviations from the regular pattern of my days. Not long after I began using the pedometer, I went on a business trip to London, my first U.K. visit. My first destination as a tourist was the Tate Modern, where I wandered among the Sunday afternoon crowds. I walked across the new Millennium Bridge to Westminster Abbey, then embarked on an unscripted foot tour of the city. How like New York I found London, and yet also how distinct. Strolling the narrow alleys near the Monument to the Great Fire, I had the sense that even the oldest buildings of New York City (founded in 1624) would feel like classless nouveau riche in parts of London Town (est. 43 AD).
At the end of the day in my hotel room I discovered that I had walked 28,000 steps, or nearly fifteen miles. Having walked all this distance alone made the accomplishment feel provisional, less than real. Later, I spoke to my wife Raina using my phone’s video camera. You’ll never guess how far I walked, I told her. In the background, my kids jumped up and down and laughed; they moved so fast that the video frames blurred. They were excited by the fact that they could see and hear their dad, even though he was in another city 3,500 miles away.
After we said good night, I lay on the hotel bed and tried to really picture the distances that we were talking about. How far I had walked. How far away home was. How far Raina and my kids were. How far the present was from the past, not just for me but for everyone. How far I had walked in my life, despite not feeling like I had walked all that far, really. In my mind, distances and ages and relative life spans spread out in vast insuperable concentric circles that eventually buried me in sleep.
There are clear parameters for measuring distance, but there is no useful measure of time. I do not mean we cannot measure time. I mean that time does not have a instructive gauge for long or not long enough. It just is. The other day my daughter complained that our dog was getting too excited—she and her brother were playing soccer inside and the dog wanted the ball. I told them that our dog is a senior citizen and entitled to whatever she wants.
“How old is Sherpa?” my son asked.
“She’s 11,” I told him, not for the first time. He is four. He forgets.
The next question was also something he has asked before: “When is she going to die?”
I suspect my mother was the one who explained to me that dogs age at a different rate than people. But I also recall hearing this from Alpo commercials starring Lorne Greene, the white-haired grandfatherly actor with the thundering voice who played Commander Adama in the original Battlestar Galactica, a television show I loved as a kid. In the Alpo spot, Greene declares that a 13-year-old dog would be roughly 91 in human years.
The schnauzer terrier who slept in my room when I was a boy was 15 when he died. No, that’s not quite accurate. Our schnauzer was euthanized at 15, although he wouldn’t have lived much longer. As my parents signed papers, sealing his fate, my brother Jeff and I stood in the vet’s gravel parking lot—the only vet available on Mother’s Day—and I sobbed.
“Do you want to pray?” my older brother asked, quietly. His question surprised and irritated me.
“I already prayed for him,” I said, angry at myself for crying, angry at the fact that this pet, who was almost the same age as us, was somehow already too old to live.
“I already prayed for him and it didn’t matter,” I said.
“No,” my brother said, “not for him. For you.”
I never knew what to make of this statement. Assuming an engaged deity who could grant my plea, what would I be asking for? To alter the rate that animals age? For time to unwind itself? For the very nature of the universe to change all because of one boy’s broken heart? Such a thing would be the height of hubris. And in the end, he’d have to die eventually.