Will You Still Like Me If Your Pet and Baby Don’t?

Rodney Uhler questions his capacity for compassion.

During the first week of my freshmen year of college my friends and I, fueled by the new rush of independence, went around to every room on our floor looking to develop meaningful, co-dependent friendships. There was a short window of time when people could be obnoxiously outgoing without yet being suspected of an adderall addiction. Coming from a tame high school experience I was eager to develop a social life that didn’t exclusively rely on the local movie theatre. Most of these interactions have since morphed into one out-of-focused memory of the frenzied week. Yet the knock on one fire-code-approved door produced such an oddly memorable experience that I still remember the coldness that washed over me as I sharply inhaled in shock.

I was with one other friend, a friend who actually knew the person residing in the room, making my feigned comfort in plopping down on the girl’s extra-long twin bed reasonably acceptable. The girl we visited possessed a level of energy unfamiliar to me before, unattainable even on my most extreme Mountain Dew binges. The only issue she had with my sitting on her bed was that I wasn’t engaging in her perpetual dance party. She bounded around the room producing objects of interest. Furry shoes that were tossed through the air before I could confirm them as “faux.” In lieu of socks she wore leg-warmers. Neon was her beige.

Her prized show-and-tell object lived inside a shoe-box sized plastic terrarium, it was a hermit crab that miraculously lived beyond the drive home from the boardwalk or town fair of its origin. She cradled its tiny crustacean body, speaking to it in an affectionate tone normally reserved for newborns. She thought it was her “little baby;” I thought it was a violation of the housing code. I was here to make friends though, or at least give off the appearance of being friendly. When she thrust her arms towards me, the tiny creature still enveloped in her hands, I thought, “Well I did say I’d cut loose in college.” Here I was participating in the classic “pass the hermit crab” college hazing. But the minute the crab touched my hands I recoiled backwards and sent the creature plummeting to its doom.

Even without an adorable attempt at CPR, the crab’s life continued, yet my mind was never at ease.

I froze, hands now grasping my mouth in horror. That four foot drop, a seeming skyscraper free-fall for the creature, surely had killed it. Few friendships are built on the death of a beloved pet. Thankfully a hermit crab is built for abuse, a creature nature apparently deemed worthy of tank-like armor. Even without an adorable attempt at CPR, the crab’s life continued, yet my mind was never at ease. Why had my physical instinct been to drop the bugger as soon as possible? Were homicidal tendencies more innate in me than paternal instincts? Why do people think hermit crabs are acceptable pets? And why did I care so much?

Connection to pets or babies seems to signify some innate compassion to someone. A friend who without fail bonds with any animal or toddler is perpetually seen in soft-focus, back-lit and radiating an inner glow. We understand this connection as a true testament to their loving nature. A widely understood signifier of psychopaths is animal abuse. My attempted crab-slaughter was accidental but
what if my body was revealing my true self I had somehow masked all these years. While I have yet to drop a baby, my record with the fun-sized humans is not outstanding either.

During middle and high school there was a running joke about my hatred of babies, which as awful as it sounds in retrospect was just about on target with the general maturity level of my surrounding peers and I. Of course this wasn’t a genuine hatred, like most adolescent attempts at edginess it was a thinly veiled reflection of fear. Having to hold or care for a baby was to me, like dunking a basketball it was just something I knew I could never ever do successfully. Thankfully handing someone a baby is not a traditional greeting in Eastern Pennsylvania and therefore I was never tasked with the life of a child, yet I was still so sure of my inabilities.

I viewed babies with the same ambivalence I expressed for Adam Sandler films—I understood that a lot of people enjoyed them but I wanted nothing to do with them. This feeling scared me though in the same way that nearly killing that crab did, was I an intrinsically bad person because I didn’t connect with babies? Do babies, in their fresh and glowing innocence, restrict their love only to those pure and kind enough to reciprocate? No, babies are idiots and so are hermit crabs.

My fear had made a sharp turn into defensive anger directed at snobby babies, pets and their adoring fans. I understand that both are cute: with their large, wide-set anime eyes that seem perpetually watered, either plush toy soft fur or shockingly smooth skin and their often cartoonish displays of emotion. These points are not in contention but I’m not buying their role as signaler of the compassionate elite. Neither creature can control their bowel movements, which is not even a result of their disgusting eating habits. Babies nibbling on car keys as if it were a fine beef carpaccio, dogs relishing a six month old Cheeto served straight from the couch cushion; these are common sights!

Which is all to question why it seems babies and animals possess this societal power despite retaining little to no common sense and incredibly poor mathematical skills.

Taking my parents’ dog for a walk wasn’t a new activity when I had temporarily relocated back to my childhood home after graduating. Taking their dog for a walk was my personal Driving Miss Daisy, with me playing the role of the patient driver and an English Springer Spaniel playing the role of the ill-tempered, crotchety old woman. I was quickly reduced to one of those people who talk to their pets in a tone that implies comprehension on both parts, but it was always delivered in desperate pleading not affectionate cooing, “Aren’t you having fun?” “Why don’t you want to come this way?” “Don’t look at me while you’re pooping.” I dreaded when another person or especially a fellow dog-walker would pass me; it would inevitably be during a prolonged moment of struggle. I would have to pretend like the dog’s straining away from me with a look of disgust was a playful game we both were enjoying. Their tight-lipped smiles would indicate a look of pity that I could never tell was directed at me or the dog. The whole experience was puzzling because I won many human friends by taking them for long leashed walks and feeding them dried meats.

I now envy those who connect with the animal and baby world, but I’m not ready to abandon all hope for myself and those who are also prone to a disconnect with the cute and cuddly. I know I’m just as capable as anyone in forming meaningful bonds with anyone or thing; I already have a close connection with pizza. We, the paternally and pet-ernally uninclined are not monsters, simply misunderstood.

While I’m still ostracized from the hermit crab community, and people are still uncomfortable when I ask the proper way to “palm a baby,” I’m confident that these skills can take root when it is with an animal or child that is mine. These traits are simply latent in me. Like all fine and true loves it will only develop when it is blanketed in selfishness; it cannot form without being connected to my sense of self or ownership. For now I sit and admire those who can warm a smile from a baby’s face as I ask the parent, “What grade are they in?” My instincts may be off but it doesn’t mean my intention isn’t right.


Image credit: wsilver/Flickr

About Rodney Uhler

Rodney Uhler is a New York based writer and filmmaker. He has worked with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Institute of Contemporary Art London and British Film Institute. His writing has appeared in the Reel|Real Journal and McSweeneys.

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