Sunday, March 09, 2008

Gus and Us: Part 5 - In the end is the beginning

GUS AND US: Part V: In the end is the beginning

I have a restless mind, one that often rushes ahead anticipating catastrophe in the midst of great happiness, so the presence of my dog Gus was a blessing. Such an animal demonstrates that life is best lived in the here and now, something he teaches by example. Dogs like small children are mercifully denied a sense of the future; they live in the moment. Yes; they can know fear, joy, sorrow, but not doubt or worry. Worry is what we humans do so well, and causes us such grief. That’s why the visits of dogs to nursing homes and hospitals helps to relieve the fears of the old and the ailing, fears that come when every passing day threatens some new infirmity or another loss. It is not just the endearing appearance of a dog that does it. Cute alone won’t cut it. What matters is that the animal is so present in the world it calms just by being there to be petted, talked to; and responding with unalloyed delight. Actors often speak of staying in the moment, but few of us can do it in our offstage lives, especially actors who always worry about their next job, or worse, how they look. They say that Yoga and religion can help, but I could never bend my legs into pretzels or my mind into miracles. I had my dog Gus to help me get through the good and the bad times.

Thirty years ago I had to admit to myself that my life and my career were going well. I had, and thankfully still have, a splendid wife, Joan, and two fine sons, Nick and Chris. My bread and butter work writing episodes for such half hour episodic TV shows as The Man from Uncle and Twelve O’clock High was behind me, and I was now writing dramatic adaptations of literary classics, many of which were filmed in England. Some of these shows were charmers; my version of Beauty and the Beast with George C. Scott was nominated for an Emmy. I had written the pilot and first three episodes of The Adams Chronicles, a notable PBS series about the world of John Adams which swept the Emmy Awards and won a Peabody. Others projects were clinkers, like a musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Kirk Douglas, the collision of a good actor who couldn’t sing with a score that attempted to turn Foul Gentleman into Fair Lady. I had a real career, one that required an agent, an accountant, a prescription for Atavan, and a very patient family. Better still I was now considered a writer who could take on contemporary issues and put a human face on them.

Among my writing commissions for the year was a mini-series for network TV about the televangelists who were raking in fortunes through their appeals to credulous believers. It was a new national phenomenon that had sin, sex, quackery, corruption and salvation: an irresistible mix, a sure ratings winner. I relished the idea of writing this series. My provisional title for it was “Love Offerings,” a play on what the televangelists called the money they extracted from their listeners, and a reflection on some of their randy lives. This was before the Jim Baker and Jessica Hahn scandal, and well before Jimmy Swaggert and others were exposed for their crimes and misdemeanors. It was the heyday of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and the ministry of Jerry Falwell, politically powerful men who helped turn down the lights for the dark ages of the George W. Bush presidency.

I spent weeks doing research for this project, driving with Gus seated beside me on the bench seat of my old Ford wagon, the one with the decal of wood on the doors that was half scraped away, interviewing theologians up and down the East coast, trying to get a fix on the exact nature of the religion promulgated by these televangelists with their prayer clubs, their vapid Pat Boone and Anita Bryant cheerleaders, and their Disney inspired Bible Lands.

Gus’s head would be resting on my lap as I drove map in hand to my appointments with academic theologians. I often got lost, stopped to check the map in a gas station, cursed New Jersey or Pennsylvania for being so damned big and full of baffling highways that intersected without warning, all designed to lure me into the land of the head-scratching lost. Then I would start up again with a lurch of the old wagon, one that perfected fish tailing as it wiggled its way over the highway, one that was to make me a convert to prayer. Every time I turned the key in the ignition and pumped my foot on the gas I was obliged to utter, “Good God, please!” in order to get it started and to keep it going.

One afternoon I had an appointment with the Dean of the Theology Department of an Ivy League University. I had taken special care to look respectable, indeed I was playing the young professor in a proper tweed jacket, button down shirt, rep tie, and grey woolen trousers. Just as I parked my old station wagon and was about to leave the car to enter the office of the Dean, Gus opened his mouth, and vomited the contents of his stomach into my lap, neatly, and completely, covering the lap, my shirt, and the tip of my necktie as well. That volcanic upheaval emerged as a large, well shaped meat pie, and Gus looked up at me with sad surprise at what had come forth. Clearly all those herky-jerky stops and starts of mine in that old wagon had made him carsick.

I kept an old dishtowel and a bottle of water for Gus in the rear of the wagon for emergencies. But the more I tried to clean up the mess on my lap, the worse it looked. I couldn’t conceal the crime scene on my lap. Gus looked more surprised by what he had given forth than guilty, and I could hardly reprimand him for it. I walked Gus for a little while to help him regain his land legs, but what could I do about mine? There was no way to enter the great man’s office with a large wet stain on the front of my trousers, one that now ran down to my knees, one that made me look incontinent, or worse, wearing clothes that smelled of regurgitated pet food. I got back into the wagon with a revitalized Gus and drove to the center of that university town, located an Army Navy store, bought a new shirt, a crisp, new pair of khaki trousers, and removed the offending tie. In less than ten minutes and twenty dollars I entered the Dean’s office, now Mr. Respectable, though a bit more the casual undergraduate that young professor with Gus in tow. Only later was I to realize that I had a price tag hanging from the back of the shirt collar.

The Dean himself was wearing a denim work-shirt and khakis, so Gus had a better instinct about how to dress for this meeting than I did, and took that drastic measure to see that I changed my clothes. And the Dean admired him; and thereby me for having such a fine traveling companion. I had earlier discovered that a beguiling dog is the perfect ice-breaker, and nobody ever objected to his being there during an interview. In fact, I think it was more Gus’s appealing looks than my probing questions that got people to open up to me.

My research now confirmed what I instinctively knew, that the Jim Bakers and the other TV ministries had strip mined the bible to build financial empires that combined old time religion, right wing politics, and snake oil skullduggery. There were several cases of elderly men and women, fearful and critically ill, giving all their life savings to the televangelists for a promise of healing, only to die abandoned in sickness and poverty. I came to despise these hucksters who were building fortunes for themselves on the backs of the simple, the poor and the suffering. Love Offerings became a hard headed look at the present day descendants of Billy Sunday, Amie Semple McPherson, and the fictional Elmer Gantry. Despite my disgust for these theocratic crooks, my script was not unsympathetic to those evangelicals who took their mission from the bible seriously in serving the sick and the poor.

I was proud of what I had created. I tried to make the scripts so compelling and so fair minded that no network could afford to shelve this project. Tried, and failed.

The trouble came when some televangelists heard of my mini-series shortly before it was to be filmed by the network. Perhaps they had been alerted to it by someone I had interviewed for my research. I’ll never know. A network censor had reviewed the completed scripts and sent me his shocked comments, together with a letter from one particularly powerful televangelist that the network had received. If I recall properly it was Jerry Falwell. It was clearly passed along to me in error. I now knew from that threatening letter that these ministers were threatening a boycott of the network by millions of their followers, and a boycott of the sponsors of this series should it ever see the light of day. It didn’t. Plans to film and air the show were postponed. Very soon it was removed from the broadcast schedule; forgotten by all but me. I had been paid well for my work and any smart writer would have let the matter end there. But smart professional moves are not among the claims I make for myself.

That summer a local Long Island newspaper was interviewing me as a Bridgehampton resident, and I mentioned my experience with my televangelist mini-series to the reporter. Strangely, I had almost no hard feelings towards the televangelists. They were what they were, self-righteous bullies protecting their turf, and their threats were to be expected. All my anger was now directed at the cowardice of the network. I said that the network was chicken-shit and had buckled under to the pressure of theocratic crooks, blackmailers and fools. This was published locally and picked up nationally by Variety.

My literary agent informed me that I would never again work in television, my primary source of income, unless I apologized to the network heads privately; and publicly in the newspapers. “Tell ‘em you misspoke. Tell ‘em that you were misquoted. Tell ‘em that they’re planning to do it next season. Nobody’s gonna remember it next season. All you gotta do is just tell ‘em.”

I refused to do so. I lost that agent and I didn’t work for the networks for several years. I had been too young for the McCarthy era blacklist, but I had managed in my own way to blacklist myself as an indiscreet maverick; a guy who would not play by the rules. The good news was that it offered me the chance to work in the theatre, the work I loved, and to spend more time in Bridgehampton with Joan, our new son, Nick, and Gus.

Joan didn’t question my decision to go public with my televangelist experience, but I knew that I had put our family income in serious jeopardy. It was my vanity, my sense of myself as being a special person exempt from the rules of the world, something that my doting parents had probably instilled in my young mind, something that should have been expunged from it years before by my own hard won life experience. The truth was that my indiscretions were a luxury we could ill afford; caution and tact, not public outrage, were required to make a living in the world of television, a commercial world where the bottom line is always the top line. I had played a fool’s role, the proverbial virgin in the whore-house, foolish because I knew how the networks worked, and that they usually caved in to pressure groups. I was allowing myself moral outrage in a world where there were few morals and no room for outrage. The networks continued to thrive as did the televangelists. Clearly I wasn’t Sherman the Giant Killer, I was Sherman the Career Killer.

All through this trauma Gus continued to behave as if I was still the most fascinating, lovable fellow in the world. Our long walks together were better than any therapist’s advice; better yet I didn’t have to explain myself to him. It was Gus who didn’t give a damn if I was cowardly or courageous, cautious, or just plain dumb; if I talked too much, or too little. Gus loved me simply for being there and being me, whoever I was at the time. All he asked of me is what every dog asks of its owner, food, love, and company. I gave him that, but since I could be moody and changeable, one day feeling great joy in being alive, the next wallowing in some fascinating new despair, I could be a challenge to those who lived with me. Hell, I could be a challenge to myself. Despite my shift in moods, I knew that I could never betray Gus’s love, even at my dopiest and most irresponsible he would love me, and that he would be the mirror that reflected the person I wished to be, not the imperfect, very flawed man I knew myself to be. It is the genius of dogs to offer us a view of ourselves, not as we are, but as we would like to be. Having a dog does the most amazing and contradictory thing – it forces us to grow up and to be a child at the same time, and so it was with Gus and me.

Gus was ten years old when our first son, Nicholas was born, an event that Gus did not regard with unalloyed joy. As Nick grew into a boisterous toddler, Gus showed remarkable forbearance in allowing the child to pull his ears and attempt to ride him like a pony but we called a halt to such activities as soon as we saw them. As Gus grew older, indeed, old, Gus avoided the snow that he had once loved, in the city the salt that melted the snow burned his pads and he refused the indignity of rubber dog booties. In the country the icy cold ground now sent shivers through him. But he was still capable of joyful indoor romps with his now ancient friend, the Rockwell’s cat Tiber. Although the gorgeous Maine Coon was also getting on in years and was annoyed by too much noisy canine company, Gus’s own age forced him to moderate his enthusiasms during their encounters. I knew that time was against us. I just didn’t realize that time was upon us.

I had been totally occupied by my career writing for the theatre, enjoying the success of the notorious late 70’s erotic revue “Oh Calcutta!” where I had a well reviewed sketch, and a Broadway musical; ”The Rothschilds,” for which I was nominated for a Tony; so busy that I wasn’t paying much mind to what was going on around me. My work as a screenwriter of TV and film scripts was flourishing again, a career that often took me to London, Berlin, and Budapest. I was far too busy and self absorbed to notice the changes that were taking place in Gus when I returned. One day Gus seemed listless, he refused his food; later that afternoon I heard him whimpering. He had trouble sitting. He had trouble standing. He had trouble. Gus was reluctant to go outside for his walk, but I was able to rationalize what I saw. “He’s just getting old,” I told Joan. “It’s probably only arthritis.” But when I picked him up in my arms to carry him into the street, he was shockingly light. And when I placed him on the ground he refused to move.

We brought him to the vet immediately. After a few tests the vet told us that Gus was suffering from an incurable cancer. He advised us to put him down that very day, the most merciful way to deal with this disease which was encroaching on all his vital organs. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. And, Gus forgive me, I didn’t.

I convinced myself that it was a big medical mistake. Doctors misdiagnose illness often enough – why not a vet? “Just look at him and you can see he’ll be okay,” I said to Joan, who bought into my fantasy, the will to believe in a good outcome for one we love being stronger than the facts before us. “The dog isn’t moaning now, he’s simply listless, in a few days, in a few weeks”--- but two weeks passed without any change for the better, and Joan was determined that something be done. He grew weaker, stopped eating, no plate of my mother’s renowned chopped chicken liver could tempt him off his place on the rug, near my slipper. We squirted into the corners of his mouth drops of a concentrated cola recommend by a vet to give him energy after some illness he had years before, a remedy that did nothing for him now. I cleaned up any mess he made on the floor without complaint; indeed, I tried to conceal it from Joan, anxious to hide any new evidence of his rapid decline. Gus had been such a fastidious animal that my father-in-law named him “Gentleman Gus” and the loss of control seemed to shock and shame him. Without quite realizing it our home was turning into a hospice for a dying Gus.

During those two weeks I rarely left his side, I found it difficult to distract myself with work, and I decided that I could somehow pull Gus through this malaise by the strength of my own will, which, being my mother’s son, could be formidable. I would convince him by my proximity that it was his obligation to get well because I needed him and he could not abandon me. It was a conceit born of desperation. Then one day I awoke to find him lying in a pool of blood which had issued from his mouth, blood that stained the dark green blanket on which he slept a cruel black, blood that could not be ignored. I now knew that I had failed him abysmally by letting him live on, that I had violated the trust that existed between us. I called to him, “Hey Gus, come here Pal.” He picked up a bit, wagged his tale, and hobbled over to me for a head rub. I took him up in my arms, wrapped him in one of Nick’s old baby blankets, and carried him to the vet at once. The decision to release him from his pain was now out of my hands. It was the only way.

For a moment the lurking coward in me emerged as I was about to witness the death of Gus. Standing up for my beliefs was always a challenge for me, but one I enjoyed, it filled me with pride, because I found it easy to stand up to the powerful and the wrong-headed. But Gus’s death was altogether different. I felt hollow and helpless in the face of it. And that coward inside me whom I had pushed out of sight my whole life, emerged with a terrible force of its own. I wanted to leave him there with the vet, not to bear witness to the life going out of him. But I knew that I had failed him by letting him live on too long in pain, I could not again fail him by letting him die alone. His last sight of this world could not be the vet’s examining room he always feared, held down by a stranger on a cold metal table. His life of loyalty could not be repaid with such betrayal.

I stayed in the examining room with Gus, stroking his head, as the vet injected him with whatever it is that releases the canine soul from its body. I heard the deepest sigh, and finally, looking up at me, he died in my arms. As long as I live I will never forget that sigh, nor will I be able to tell whose sigh that was, Gus’s or mine.

At the time of his death Gus was seventeen years old, a good dog’s age they say, but to me cruelly short. The awful fact about loving a dog as we did is that one refuses to accept the seven times one human year as the arithmetic of his lifespan. Joan and I had indulged in a folie au dieu, convincing ourselves that he would be with us forever. Some might say that I had anthropomorphized him, that I had imposed a whole lot of human emotions on what was just an ordinary little dog who had trained us to live with him. But there is one perfect answer for that. They didn’t know Gus.

My wife, my young son, and our parents grieved for Gus with me. He was so loved by all who knew him that he started a small vogue for miniature schnauzers among my friends and family, and was the inspiration for at least two needlepoint portraits made by Gus lovers, pillows that sit upon my sofa today, gentle reminders of the Gus that was. I’ve loved many dogs since that time, among them a great little schnauzer named Max, but none of them could inspire the joy I found in Gus, and the loss that I felt when he died. I know that Joan shared my feelings, but we had a young son we adored, life would force us to move on, so at the end I would go forward. But on the day Gus died, I lost not just the best of dogs, but the boy who long ago read those thrilling dog stories while lying ill in his bed, dreaming of a friendship and a love that could withstand all his imperfections and the test of time. In Gus I found that love and that friendship if only for a little while.

In the end is the beginning the mystics say, suggesting a reincarnation, a rebirth in a new form that follows death. I don’t know that I’d like that. What’s the value of coming back as a new creature without our old consciousness, the store of memories that have perplexed us and nourished us throughout our lives? What I do know is that death places a frame around a life, and we can see it whole, from start to finish. The dead are reborn as memory, and that’s enough for me. Mercifully, the mind is a great editor; it can remove much of the pain of the past, and leave us with those memories that help us get through a hard present.

As I look back on Gus’s life with me, I can’t truthfully say if I didn’t read my own great needs and deepest feelings into Gus’s adoring looks and loyal presence. For much of our lives we read and misread the feelings and motives of the humans we love, based on our personal needs, so how can it be different in reading a dog’s emotions? Truth is, it doesn’t matter at all. Who gives a damn about the why of love? What matters is the fact of it, the feel of it; the delicious wonder of it. There is no way to rationalize or explain such love; it is felt in the flesh and in the bone.

All I do know is that for those seventeen short years Gus shared my life I was one hell of a lucky guy*

Abridged from Sherman Yellen’s memoir, Spotless, a work in progress. Copyright 2008. The preceding parts of Gus and Us can be found in Sherman Yellen’s blog file on The Huffington Post.