A neurotic, death-obsessed, and socially uncomfortable television critic for the Boston Globe, Gilbert describes his evolution into a more open-hearted, playful person, thanks to his yellow lab, Toby, and the cast of characters who frequent the Armory Dog Park in Brookline, Massachusetts. Despite his initial efforts to distance himself, Gilbert not only becomes friends with the dog park freaks, he surrenders to becoming one himself.
While Off the Leash largely takes place in the dog park, its focus is primarily on human interactions and on Gilbert’s development as a dog owner: how his paternal instincts kick in when Toby is attacked by an aggressive dog; the awkwardness of seeing his sweet puppy being mounted by another dog for the first time; the politics of ball-sharing and picking up after your dog; coming to terms with the grim reality that he will probably outlive his beloved (canine) companion. It’s not until Gilbert embraces the playful recklessness of his dog that he’s ultimately able to open himself up to the messiness of human relationships.
Meanwhile, a reader joins the previous ones:
I’ve been contemplating this thread recently, as we recently lost our beloved, 11-year-old boxer to a brain tumor. He was such an empathic dog; he could have been a therapy dog.
He could sense our moods and would comfort us when we were down, play along with us when we were happy and was an all-around good dog. His deteriorating health and his death made me contemplate the relationship and love for our pets much more in-depth, especially as I lost my father earlier in the year. I was gauging my response to the boxer’s death versus my father. There was a similar but different intensity.
My thought is that the innocence of animals in general and our pets in particular really frames our relationships with them. Yes, children are also innocent, but not in the way animals are. People with a love of animals will do anything to protect them because in our eyes they are innocent, perfect and it’s our responsibility to love and protect them. Similarly, I think those who wish to do animals harm or abuse them likely do so also because of their innocence. They feel threatened by the purity they see in animals and their own impurity they see in their reflection. I can’t say I’ve fully developed my theory here, but it struck a chord with me as I contemplated it.
I heard this poem by Garrison Keillor a while ago. It’s a keeper:
She was very old, our old dame,
Our cat, 17, Meiko was her name.
On Friday she was not herself at all.
She lay, her face turned to the wall
Silent and subdued
Saturday, she did not touch her food.
On Sunday she paced back and forth
Across the bedroom floor
And did not brush our leg or purr
Or make a sound. We petted her
And she seemed very far away.
We knelt by the bed where she lay
And felt desolate and sad
And told her, Good cat, good cat
And then this delicate creature
Of an affectionate nature
Had to be carried outside
And taken for a short melancholy ride
To the vet’s office where with gentle affection
She was given the merciful injection
As we stroked her and said,
“Good cat. Good cat.” And she lay down her head
On our lap
And took her nap.
We miss her gentleness and grace,
The little eyes, the solemn face,
The tail flicking where she lay
In a square of sun on a summer day.
It’s childish, to feel such grief
For an animal whose life is brief.
And if it is foolish, so it be.
She was good company,
And we miss that gift
Of cat affection while she lived.
Her sweet civility.
A cat has not much utility
But beauty is beauty: that’s
Why the Lord created cats.
We miss our cat of 17 years
And if you’ll sit down by my side
I’ll scratch you up behind your ears
Until you are well satisfied
And then bring you a plate of fish
And figs and dates fresh off the tree
Or any treat that you may wish,
In our old cat’s sweet memory.
Lullaby little cat, wherever you’re at
May you lie in the sun and be loved by someone
May you curl up and rest, with a quilt for a nest
May you run, may you leap, and be young in your sleep.
(Photo of Sophie Flack’s pup, Zeus)