When I think about sentimentality, I think about two things – the Stewarts, as in Jon and Tracey, and Tony Soprano. This is an odd collection of people, and it is their differences that best illustrate my thoughts on the subject of the sentimental.
In 2013, I received my MFA in nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. During the duration of my studies, my cohort was taught to avoid sentimentality in our own work. Sentiment is fine, one professor said, but not sentimentality. This was troubling for me. I’m the type of person to cry shamelessly during The Wizard of Oz when the neighbor tries to kill Toto. I sing to my cats in complete sincerity. When I get buzzed, I text my friends YouTube links to Elton John songs that I feel emulate our friendship. For me, the border between sentiment and sentimentality is hazy. Due to its mistiness, I’m hesitant to discuss a topic in my own nonfiction that’s been of upmost importance to my personal life—Animals. I have never written about animals. It’s very, very hard to write of the friendships between people and animals without risking sentimentality.
Joyce Carol Oates would agree. In an interview on her novel We Were the Mulvaneys—full disclosure, I wept openly over (spoiler alert) Muffin’s death at my high school desk job—she discusses the inclusion of animals in the book. She admits she’s never before written about the relationship between people and animals. “How difficult it is,” Oates says, “to speak of the secret meaning of animals without sounding sentimental.” There’s the catch— the secret meaning of meaning of animals. This secret meaning is often a method of deflecting sentimentality when writing of our pets. In his “Youth in Asia,” David Sedaris notes how the death of a pet marks the death of an era. You cry not only for the lost companion, but the 10 to 20 year period that goes with it. You have not just lost a pet; you have lost an impartial, speechless witness who viewed your most decrepit moments without any perceptible judgment. Animals must always be more than themselves to matter. To care about an animal in and of itself, deeply and passionately, is either sentimental or insane.
When I was 8-years-old, my family spent a Fourth of July weekend on our summer home on Half-Moon Beach in Chassell, Michigan. The past school year, my class had studied caterpillars. We raised caterpillars of our own in a large fish tank stuffed with leaves and twigs, watched them form cocoons and then reemerge days later as butterflies, flapping around the interior of their glass-encased home with their wings like white paper stained by droplets of water colors. I loved them. At the end of the year, we took our butterflies onto the playground where we removed the lid of the fish tank and let them go free. Months later, on Half-Moon Beach, my brothers wanted to take out the canoe resting near the dock. It was turned on its side and, dangling from one edge, was a small black caterpillar hanging in the J-formation. I knew this meant he would soon build a cocoon. Not wanting to end his life prematurely, particularly in such a vital transitional stage, I forbid my brothers from touching the canoe. Hours later, the caterpillar was still hanging in that same formation, no sign of transformation. My older brother said, “I think it’s dead,” and then he touched the caterpillar, barely brushed the curled end of the “J” with the tip of his finger. Seemingly weightless, the caterpillar unhinged from the canoe and fell. His body, stiff with rigor mortis, bounced once on the wet grass. I was horrified.
“He just wanted to build a cocoon,” I said, before running into the house in tears. I have told this story to people before. It’s always suggested that I was upset about life’s fragility, coming to terms with the precarious nature of existence through the death of a caterpillar. The response could not be over caterpillar alone. The caterpillar had to contain more than itself or else the response was, even for a hyper sensitive 8 year-old, hysterical.
Enter Tony Soprano, whose attachment to animals is inarguably too extreme. When I first began watching The Sopranos, I immediately resented the program. I was surprised to find a show lauded as so groundbreaking would open with a stunt typical of the most calculated blockbuster films. Screenwriting types call it the “save the cat moment” and it’s that instant early on in a television show or movie where the main character is made likable through some gesture that reads as sympathetic. The protagonist may, for example, save a cat from a tree, hence the trope’s name, or, in the case of Tony Soprano, welcome a family of ducklings into his outdoor pool. How else could we come to love this murderer if he did not graciously offer his ducks a better ramp as he descended into the pool, awash in childlike rapture, still wearing his bathrobe? Tony loves his ducks, and psychiatrist Dr. Melfi suggests the ducks represent his family. He cannot deal with the guilt he feels over his lifestyle, the danger to which his family is habitually subjected, so he subjugates his guilt into an intense attachment to these birds. It’s a simple explanation, and a more palatable one than the notion Tony is able to feel more for ducks than people. This trope of animals-as-people continues throughout the series. Tony’s not upset Ralphie killed his horse; he’s upset Ralphie murdered a stripper in cold blood. Pie-O-My is really Tracee.
Eventually, though, the metaphor collapses in on itself. In season 4, Tony is incensed to learn Christopher, his protégé and honorary nephew, killed a dog named Cosette. This revelation comes out during Christopher’s botched intervention. His tearful girlfriend tells the story of how—high on heroin—Christopher sat on Cosette and suffocated her. This leads an irate Tony to exclaim, “You killed little Cosette? I oughta suffocate you, you little prick!” When watching the show, I felt discomfort. What is the metaphor here? Really, what? There’s no direct connection, at least nothing obvious, between Cosette and a person. Eventually, Tony’s threat comes true. A few seasons later, he does suffocate Chris, holding his nose closed after a car accident until he chokes to death on his own blood. (Full disclosure: As I loathed Christopher, this was my favorite part of the series.) We begin to see how much Tony fits the profile of a sociopath. Dr. Melfi’s colleagues, in an eventually successful effort to convince her to stop treating Tony, repeatedly state that sociopaths feel more for animals than people. Sociopaths, they say, do not improve with therapy. Has therapy helped Tony at all since the beginning of the show? Not really. Is Tony maybe just sociopathic? Is his attachment to animals anything more than evidence of his perverse nature?
The dog that breaks the metaphor is named Cosette. One cannot disregard names when dealing with David Chase. This is the writer who named the backstabbing mother of a Roman Emperor-obsessed son Livia, and who gave a man fearing the loss of his masculinity the surname Soprano. Cosette renders images of the wide-eyed waifish child of Hugo’s Les Miserables. For Hugo’s protagonist, the presence of Cosette is a turning point towards a path defined by righteousness. For Chase’s protagonist, Cosette is not saved and her death marks the breakdown of a trope that was the once the saving grace for the protagonist’s morality. Both The Sopranos and Les Miserables deal with the same central theme—Progress. Hugo’s progress is epic, a transformation over the course of a single lifetime marked by grandiose and oftentimes unbelievably miraculous changes. Chase’s progress, however, is slow-paced and marked by frustratingly miniscule metamorphoses that occur between generations. AJ will not be a successful or mentally stable man, but he will not be a gangster like his father. Meadow will continue to have dysfunctional relationships with men her entire life, but she will not be a homemaker like her mother. The kids are fucked, but hey, at least they’re not as fucked as Tony. They’re not sociopaths, for Christ’s sake, and so maybe there’s some small hope for the future. Chase’s progress is generational and, in that way, more realistic. Progress happens over time, in small increments, and often goes unnoticed to the naked eye. The one great hope for humanity is that we all do slightly better than our parents.
Enter Jon Stewart. When I think of progress, I think of him. I think of the farm he runs with his wife, Tracey, and the changing views on the relationships between people and animals. The Stewarts are open about their love of animals. Without shame, without fear of coming off as hysterical, the Stewarts call animals their friends. I appreciate this brashness regarding the subject. People and animals can, definitively, be friends, and yet some would still scoff at the idea. Animals don’t need some secret meaning to matter.
While his love for animals is well documented, I do not think anyone expected Jon Stewart to open a farm sanctuary in New Jersey after quitting The Daily Show. Yet, after hearing about it, I could not help but think it made a certain amount of sense. Jon Stewart hates politics. He has always hated politics, was never particular politically inclined, but an interest, or at least an investment, in current events is often conflated as a passion for the political. Jon’s passions, to me, always seemed sweeter and more sincere than that. Tracey wrote a book after Jon quit The Daily Show called Do Unto Animals. Reading excerpts, I found I never liked a person I never met half as much as I liked Tracey Stewart. The book is a chronicle of various stories about animals and people, the relationships we form and how animals, at times, save us just as much as we save them. In a New York Times interview regarding the book, Tracey talks about being isolated in California with an emotionally abusive man. She freed herself by adopting a pit bull named Enzo. It was Enzo who allowed her to leave the toxic relationship, to leave California altogether and start over in New York City. “Enzo showed me what could be good and wholesome in a relationship,” she said, “My entire life would be different if it weren’t for my leaving California with Enzo.”
Enzo is not a metaphor here. He is important in and of himself. He is important because he was Tracey’s friend, and he saved her by showing her what real love and kindness look like. The relationship with an animal here is not a mark of unnatural attachment. It is a genuine interspecies connection, the truest kind of friendship.
I have clinical depression, suffering bouts of hellish—and I say hellish without the faintest trace of hyperbole—swings of extreme depression every few years. During one such spell, I had ducks of my own. At my lowest points my freshmen year of college, I visited the ducks that roamed the Red Cedar River. They were far too domesticated by student life to follow any of nature’s rules about flying south for the winter, and would linger year-round. Some snowy mornings they would be asleep in bunches along the riverbanks, curled into duck-piles with their feathered bodies overlapping for warmth. They always woke up when they heard footsteps on the bridge, would half-waddle, half-swim over the half-frozen lake in hopes of receiving bits of bread. Sometimes I brought bread and sometimes I just watched. They were curious creatures. They carried themselves with tremendous dignity despite being so silly, these awkwardly proportioned beings who should by now be somewhere in Georgia or Florida but chose instead to remain in mid-Michigan all through the bleak midwinter. It was their feet I loved most of all—so tremendously orange, the color of a hunting cap.
Later in college, during another less intense but nevertheless painful bout of depression, I felt a strong inclination to harm myself. My cat, Nilla, was in the room with me. I did not want her to watch. I took her downstairs to my friend Jon’s room. I told him to keep her there, made up some excuse about needing to concentrate on work. About three minutes later, there was a knock on my door. When I opened the door, Jon stood in the hallway with Nilla in his arms. He told me she was crying at his door, yowling and behaving in a panic-stricken manner he had never before seen. He thought she was sick, or maybe injured, but when he set her down in my room she calmly walked to the futon on my floor, curled into a ball, and fell asleep without any sign of pain or duress. She was not sick. She knew, somehow, that something was very wrong with me, and that she could not leave me alone.
The Stewarts represent a new age, an age where the autonomy of animals is becoming increasingly recognized. Things have changed since the ‘90’s. Animals can be friends, and you don’t have to be Tony Soprano to have a relationship with an animal that’s as important to your emotional wellbeing as a relationship with a person. “I’d like people to start seeing animals as individuals,” Stewart said, in the same New York Times interview.
Undoubtedly, animals can contain metaphorical value. So can people. We all have secret meanings to those who surround us. The ducks represented how I rediscovered a lost capacity for simple pleasure during painful times. But they were also my friends. Nilla and Jon represented the stark knowledge that when you hurt yourself you hurt others, that no one is ever a complete individual, that we cannot become un-severed from the obligations we hold to those we love. But Nilla and Jon are also my friends. While animals can certainly have symbolic resonance, they do not need to be raised to the realm of the figurative to matter. They can be important, and should be important, in and of themselves. While you may cry for a lost era, you can also cry for a lost friend. Sometimes, a caterpillar is just a caterpillar, and a duck is just a duck.
This is, perhaps, all very sentimental. It is also not untrue.