I don't know how old Mike is or his breed. We adopted him four and a half years ago from a shelter. He didn't have any tags or any information when he was found by a thoughtful woman in central New Jersey. One day, while driving along a road somewhere near the shelter, this woman saw Mike sitting alone by the roadside, obviously waiting for someone. He was probably waiting for the very same people who had opened up the door of the car they had been driving him in to let him out, presumably never to see him again. He had probably been abandoned.
I've known this for four and a half years. I've known that this is probably what happened because the woman who found him, who also runs an animal shelter, noticed this quality of discipline about him. At first he seemed reluctant to go with her. He was obviously waiting, possibly believing that the people who had left him behind would eventually return. Finally, she persuaded him to come along with her. They weren't coming back. Who knows whether this registered with him or not? It still very nearly brings tears to my eyes when I think about that.
Before Mike, I had never owned a pet in my life. It took a while for me to warm to the idea. But when, for the hundredth time, my wife showed me an online picture of a dog in need of adoption, I saw Mike. I don't know what it was. His description was that of a dog who seemed trained, loving, in need of human company, and, as the write-up said, "in need of someone who will talk to him." His expression on the web site is one I recognize now as Mike's look of pretending, without much conviction, not to be worried. That look never let go of me.
"I'll drive to Jersey for that dog," I said. And that's how we got Mike.
Actually, his name wasn't Mike. The woman who rescued him named him "Sojourner," because he was on a journey, she said. I liked "Mike." I always wanted a dog named Mike. I don't know why. I certainly didn't like the idea of even saying the name "Sojourner" to people when I envisioned them asking his name. Sojourner Truth was a great woman, and hardly the kind of person whom you'd think would be honored by being named after a dog. No. A simple name, to the point, effective: Mike.
At first, when we met him, he looked small, and now I realize he was just making himself small to our eyes. It's something he does when he's afraid, especially when a thunderstorm is coming. He shrinks himself down almost as if he might disappear. When we finally went to pick him up a day later, though, he trotted to our car in all his glory - a big Shepherd mix - about 80 lbs, eager to take up our entire back seat and move on to his new home. He was and is a big guy.
No sooner did we first have him than we almost lost him. We were on a walk home one day, and he got slower and slower. He limped badly. He wouldn't go upstairs to bed that night. So we moved the Aerobed downstairs to be with him, but he started making horrible sounds of pain and couldn't walk.
We carried him to the car and went to the animal hospital at Penn. My wife and I just sat speechless while the vet took him into another room to examine him. Normally she and I will nervously talk one another out of our dark places when they make themselves known. "The black eyed dog" is what Churchill called depression, and we have spent our lives together shooing it away from each other's sight. But this was our dog, whose eyes, as you can see in the picture above, are the windows to his soul. How could we lose him when he was only ours for just a little while? I realize that when people face the prospect of losing their own child with such a thought it is much, much worse; I know that. I know the difference between a human and an animal. To know only a fraction of that experience, though, was bad enough. So we didn't know what to say to each other.
We were told that a chronic problem - of which we had previously no idea - of three ruptured disks in his spine was paralyzing him. We were also told that surgery might fix it. And, after five thousand dollars, months of rehab, day after day of helping him walk outside amid snow storms and freezing weather so he could relieve himself, of crating him, of sleeping downstairs with him night after night, of changing the dressings on his stitches, he got much better. Today he is walking happily, though we're really not to play fetch with him anymore, just to be safe.
The surgeon told us that Mike had probably been gradually dealing with the problem for some time before we got him, hiding the pain of it, the way dogs do, because they are often more courageous about pain than we are. They don't understand themselves as being separate from a pack. They won't show pain because they know the pack will abandon them if they do, which might explain why he was abandoned in the first place. He was in pain when he was left behind, and he shouldered it as long as he could until it became too much for him. Perhaps whoever owned him in New Jersey couldn't afford to save his life, so they offered someone else the chance to do it. If I tell myself that now, then I can at least feel grateful that we could do it rather than feel angry at someone whom I don't even know for making him feel like he didn't belong, for treating him like he was disposable. Maybe they were just doing what they thought was right.
This is my actually a piece on Michael Vick, who will in a likelihood be starting for us on opening day. You might consider it a manipulative way to start, and it is. I can offer no cogent argument on wrong or right but only a handful of thoughts on the nature of the soul, human or not. I wrote pieces on Vick's arrest and guilty plea when it happened, but I didn't know how to label my entries back then, so nobody could really read them. I'll offer them now, if only because they reflect things I still feel. We live in in Philadelphia, and five weeks after we adopted Mike, Michael Vick signed a one-year deal with the Eagles. Obviously I would have picked a different name, but now Mike was Mike, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I was at least impressed by the fact that Michael Vick handled himself with an air of apparent humility when he came to Philly, with the air of a man who was trying to recover a life. He was paid a lot of money, too, of course. I would have been more comforted by grander gestures toward animal rights. After all, he had gone to prison for something that happens in Philly all the time. But even as a fan of the Eagles, my second-favorite team, I could never really root for them with Vick under center.
It never felt right. I just couldn't do it. I tried to reassure myself of a central truth - that all people deserve second chances, but it was no use. I understand that there is perspective to be had. Darren Sharper's own alleged inhumanity toward women looks just as horrific, if not more so. And I still mean what I said in my six and a half year old-year old posts; there is something in the life an athlete - perhaps even in the way that he or she is treated - that must engender a sense of the disposability of loyal things. But it didn't matter. When Nick Foles took the starting job with great success this past season, it was a pleasure to root for the Iggles again.
But I also knew that I would eventually would have to do some deeper soul-searching. Last year I just knew that Michael Vick would be picked up by the Jets. I just knew it. After all, it's exactly the same kind of short-term solution our club usually chooses in the midst of its own search for a Messiah at QB. As someone said to me in consolation this week, when Vick is at his best, no one is more exciting to watch. Except that even before he was arrested, Vick was already in decline. He did learn to pass a bit better in Philadelphia, but it's too late now. I just wish I were not waiting for someone to use their common sense and develop a practical, long term solution rather trying to find a magic trick at QB. It's certainly not Mike Vick; I didn't think it was Geno Smith, but then why do we keep trying to vacuously remake New York's shitshow of a football team year after year? Right now I almost hate my own team more than Mike Vick for reasons that have nothing to do with dogs.
When Vick played in Philly, he was often beaten to a pulp on all sides by the defense. Andy Reid's final season in Philadelphia was a bloodbath, but rather than be frustrated, as every Philly fan was by the insanity of his schemes, I felt an empty sense of karma every time Vick was thrown down. I didn't relish or enjoy it, but I recognized it for what it was in some small way. I don't want to feel that way about Vick this year, especially if he starts most of our games. But I think I just might. Memory is tricky in the way it colors your soul. Poet Robinson Jeffers once alternately described humanity as a clever servant but an even more insufferable master. It is easy to forgive a penitent man who was cruel to an animal that is wired to love and to be loyal to human beings, but it is very hard to forget.
In the last moments of the last episode of The Wire, we see all the different characters receive their rewards, their comeuppance, or their unjustified outcomes, but then we cut back and forth across the neighborhoods of the show, and at one brief but harrowing point, just before we leave, we see a group of little boys pouring what looks like bleach on a crying cat, just for fun. We are reminded, as Auden said, that those to whom evil is done do evil in return. Nothing evil exists in just one person; it is everywhere, in our thoughts, our pleasures and our violent games, and it is born from a world where people are taught that love and gentleness are worth nothing. People do evil. And they can change too, I guess.
In order to find my rationale for rooting for Vick this year, I have to believe that somehow he understands that. He is a different man, I will tell myself. We all have darkness within us, some violent rage that will never see the light of day. Vick was justly punished for allowing such cruelty to play out in his life. But then I don't know him the way I know Mike the dog, and I'm presently wrestling with the idea that I have to weigh my love of my team with the love of an animal that guides me through my day. Maybe I don't have to weigh them against one another at all. Maybe they can just coexist. Maybe I should just relax. I don't know.
So instead, like any annoying dog owner, I'll just leave you only with thoughts of Mike, the mutt. Whether or not I should weigh in on the nature of my new quarterback's soul, let me at least finish illustrating in my own winded way that a being so often treated with cruelty by its feckless masters, a creature without even a sense of its own mortality, can also have a soul. And Mike the dog possesses one.
He wakes us up early, and is demanding. He follows a rigid inner schedule, and trains you to follow it. He expects to be walked twice a day, and he gets his two walks. He expects his meals at certain times. When you arrive home, he welcomes you with an extraordinary, spinning dance that turns quickly into a police escort. He will shepherd you from room to room, getting physically behind you to force you to the kitchen when he needs to, or to bed at the end of the day. When he walks with you, he more or less leads the way, and you are subject to his stopping the pace for his investigations of the smells of the world, one by one, his nose to the ground.
He expects to receive a great deal of attention, particularly when company comes. He will bark in your face when you are putting on your shoes to take him outside, as if to reinforce both how excited he is about the prospect of our thousandth time up to the college campus at the top of the hill and to impress upon you that, once again, you are probably behind the clockwork schedule he keeps in his mind. You do not say the words "walk," "treat," or "dinner" in his company; you say them backwards so as to avoid giving him a false expectation. He is particularly adamant about Sunday, the day both of us walk him in the morning; it is his happiest day - the day we are all together, as we are apparently supposed to be all the time, in his mind. None of this bothers me in the way it would with a human.
At night, he sits with me as I aimlessly watch TV and leans against me for both affection and to protect me, the way dogs will lean against the things that they care about, claiming them as their own. We love Mike with our whole hearts, and I know that despite our unpunctual humanity, he loves us too because it is in his species' peculiar and beautiful nature to do so.