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Original Essays | February 17, 2014 0 comments
I was born and still live in rural East Tennessee. I grew up on Mountain Valley Road, surrounded by foothills and farmland, rocky creeks pouring... Continue »
Michael SchafferDescribe your latest project.
I wanted to write a book about how we became a pampered-pet nation. A few years ago, my wife and I adopted a wonderful mess of a Saint Bernard. I'd never had a dog before. So we did what anyone would do: looked at the various dog-owning friends and neighbors around us and followed their lead. Which meant entering a world of canine antidepressants, organic kibble, sun-dappled "day spas" for when we went out of town, chew toys promising mental enrichment, and pitched debates over rival dog-training philosophies. My in-laws, who'd always had their own well-loved dogs, thought this was bizarre. But in our world and, as I discovered, in much of the country it was quite normal. I'd been a newspaper reporter long enough to think that when the definition of normal changes so rapidly, something interesting is going on.
I wound up with a project that was one part straightforward reporting on an unlikely $43-billion corner of the economy mobile dog groomers! upscale pet shampoo! that seems to be defying the recession, one part zany tour through pet-obsessed country, and one part thoughtful mediation on what it all means. Surprisingly, it's less a story about our animals than ourselves, how the way we care for, fight over, legally regulate, and even mourn pets reflect bigger changes in our society. In the aisles of a PetSmart or the corners of a dog park, you can find our modern understanding of everything from what family means to what nutrition is not to mention shades of the culture wars, contemporary legal strife, the rise of the two-career household, and the decline of the old-fashioned community. It turned out that Murphy, my sweet, dumb lug of a dog, held a pretty good mirror to his country.
If the editor weren't very good, it would end up with some cheesy title like Pressed Up against the Window Pane, or something like that, with a subtitle that employed lots of long scholarly words about belonging and self-consciousness. My parents were in the foreign service, so I grew up moving to all of these distant, humid, mustachioed countries. My major emotional memory of being a kid is just wanting to be a normal American, which I was pretty sure didn't entail spending junior high in Bangladesh. But when we did come home, I always felt like I'd made this science out of examining how normal folks lived which, of course, made it quite difficult to be one of 'em (if there even is such a thing). So I became a journalist. Go figure.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that's dynamic and expressive — that's what's good for you if you're at all serious in your aims. William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. 'In the time of your life — live!' That time is short and it doesn't return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, Loss, Loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition. —Tennessee Williams, from the introduction to A Streetcar Named Desire
(Do I get extra points for quoting one writer as he's quoting another?)
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
Name the best television series of all time.
On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Great Books Where One Little Thing Explains Lots of Big Things
This wound up being the basic model for my book One Nation under Dog how the way we've come to live with modern pets explains all about our society and culture and economy and so on. Luckily, I had a bunch of role models for small chunks of this:
How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer
The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford
Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks
The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy by Sasha Issenberg
Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz
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Michael Schaffer has written for The Washington Post, Slate, The New Republic, and US News & World Report, among other publications. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Keltie Hawkins, and their well-loved — but not freakishly pampered, they insist — pets, Murphy the Saint Bernard and Amelia the black cat.