I believe I learned everything I needed to know about how to live the good life from my childhood dog, Buster.
If you want your young child to learn responsibility, get him a dog. That’s what conventional wisdom teaches. And it was true in my case. But Buster also taught me more about irresponsibility than any human I’ve ever met.
When I was eight, I convinced my mother, who hates animals, to buy me a beagle. We got 50 percent off on Buster because he had stiff hind legs and undescended testicles. It taught my mom to be wary of bargains.
Buster lasted for fourteen years and died of old age with a little assistance from the veterinarian and the approval of my mother. During his last few, flatulent years, my mother took care of him completely since, by that time, I was away at college.
But for ten years I walked Buster twice a day—in rain, snow, or shine, like an old-fashioned mailman. I fed him, brushed him, petted him, and took care of him. I also confided in him, and he became my best friend.
I learned to be a responsible adult, just as conventional wisdom predicted. I married and had two children. For more than four decades, I went to work each day, putting up gracefully with rush hours, boring meetings, budgets, and personnel problems caused, presumably, by employees who had been deprived of dogs when they were children.
I footed the bills for my family’s food, clothing, shelter, and college education. I even paid for their mistakes. I washed and dried the dishes and occasionally made the beds. I even contributed to charities. I don’t think I could have been much more responsible.
But, all along, I harbored a secret desire to lead the good life Buster introduced me to. He never put in a full day’s work. He never even worked part time. He never earned a dime, never did anything useful, never married or had children or knew or cared if he did, never put up with traffic, never sat through a meeting, never prepared a budget, never read a book or a newspaper, never washed a car, never wasted time watching television, and never worried about nuclear war—or anything else for that matter except, perhaps, which tree he should choose for his next stop. And even that he did without first obtaining an environmental impact report.
Buster was beautifully, innocently, and completely irresponsible. And I loved him as he was, for what he was.
My former colleagues at work would be surprised to learn that all I ever really wanted out of life was to have my back scratched while sitting in front of the TV, like Buster, to run free in the woods on a sunny summer day, and to curl up in front of a fire on a cold winter’s evening, listening to classical music that someone else would put on the stereo.
Having a dog for fourteen years may have taught me how to be responsible. But Buster taught me how to live.
Fred Flaxman is the author of Sixty Slices of Life . . . on Wry: The Private Life of a Public Broadcaster, from which this essay was adapted. He is also the producer and host of Compact Discoveries, an internationally distributed public radio music series. He has never owned another dog.
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