By Henry Alford / New York Times News Service
I SAY things to our cat Linda that I’m too emotionally constipated to say to my boyfriend: “I love you so much. I wish I could take you on the plane with me, Mrs. Scruffins McDandertop. When I get back, we will have many hourlong sessions of adoration and nuzzle-based loving.”
It’s not that I couldn’t say this stuff to Greg, it’s simply that I’m not in the habit. I suppose I’m more apt to summon emotional baldness and affective need with Linda because she is mute and nonresponding; she can’t reflect back my candor and longing to scale, and thus, I’m free of potential embarrassment. Linda’s typical response to such endearments is to extend one of her paws toward me as if my face were a touch screen.
Am I out of line here? It strikes me that, while, yes, it would behoove me to express my feelings for other humans more freely, my cat-talking is of offense only if I were to do it in front of Greg frequently. In which case I may be better served learning to scrapbook or to configure the foam on cappuccinos into unicorns or Mahatma Gandhi.
A friend of mine employs his pet-talking to different ends. When in the presence of his wife and his dog, my friend will turn to the dog and say something like: “Tell Mommy that Daddy is upset that Mommy canceled on him. Mommy should know that it’s important to keep her commitments.”
Here is provocation. Though this deployment of a four-legged friend is admittedly odd and possibly manipulative, if waged infrequently, it may be an acceptable and effective avenue toward reconciliation as long as it’s not done in front of people other than the wife, and it leads to conversation in a form that both husband and wife are comfortable with, be that form spouse to spouse, or be it spouse to dog to African gray parrot to pet astrologist to spouse.
The multimedia artist Camilla Ha said, “I tend to use animals as personal ‘feelings ventriloquists’.” Ha explained that her upstairs neighbor in New York, upon moving in, removed her own apartment’s wall-to-wall carpeting. Moreover, this neighbor and her partner both work in bars and come home regularly at 4 am on weekdays, “which they seem to think is the perfect time to move furniture, drag heavy things up and down the stairs, and nail new pictures to the wall.”
So Ha takes solace in talking to the couple’s French bulldog, Lilo, whenever she bumps into him and one of his keepers: “Oh, hello Lilo. You’re so frisky today! I wish I felt frisky, but your mommy woke me up again last night!”
Sometimes the neighbor “will snort in recognition, and then we go our separate ways.” But other times the neighbor will proceed to talk to Ha’s puppy, Zeus: “She’ll try to make amends with me by complimenting and conversing with Zeus while ignoring me. It’s become some kind of passive-aggressive-not-really-passive way of communicating.” What’s more, “I haven’t experienced any late-night disturbances in the past couple months, so maybe it’s working.”
The question of whether pets have an emotional life and whether their feelings can be “hurt” is a much-traveled roadway; the topic is to the book publishing industry as psychics are to the television drama. I have no, uh, dog in this race.
However, from the perspective of etiquette, the two questions we should apply when it comes to the injection of pets into human affairs and disputes are: Is the dog being put in any kind of physical peril, and is any human other than the two having a dispute being in any way compromised or forced to stare into the middistance as if nothing weird is going on?
I would suggest that the problem area is occupied mostly by instances in which pets or their output are physically, rather than conversationally, deployed. Take the case of a couple I know who broke up some years ago; I would answer both questions with a qualified, “Maybe.”
The two lovers were so angry after their split that they could not bear to lay eyes on each other. So, when Partner A walked their joint-custody dog to Partner B’s apartment for the weekly handoff, Partner A would telephone Partner B from the sidewalk to announce arrival; then place the dog in the building’s elevator; then press 5, sending the dog up all by himself. I spend many hours imagining the facial expressions of the building residents on Floors 2, 3 and 4 who summoned the elevator and then stumbled onto McGruff the Crime Dog, busy on a new case.
Indeed, pets can be portal openers. The other day, I found myself cuddling and whispering to Linda. When my endearments started to get a little purple, I went into the other room and told Greg that I love him. Then I dangled a piece of string in front of his face.