I’ve definitely had a f--ked up life in a lot of ways, but not because of big turning points where I made the wrong choice. It’s more like character flaws that played out slowly over time. The one exception was the decision to get a dog. That had a lasting effect.
I had never had any pets, but my wife always had dogs. Her last dog died right before we got married. He was a rescue pit bull that was a very smart, sweet, good-looking dog, so that sold her on the idea that we should rescue another pit bull. We got this dog whose “slave name” was Marley, but we renamed him Piney.
From early on, he was a problem dog. His mom was starved in a garage while she was pregnant with him, so he was born with a tremendous amount of anxiety. As he got older, we learned that he had extreme allergies and irritable bowel disease, which, in combination with repeated pancreatitis, have nearly killed him twice. He has several vets: one for his anxiety, one for his allergies, and one for his stomach. The vets said that he couldn’t eat commercial food, so he needed a strict and disturbingly expensive diet of one protein and one starch for 8–10 months until he would become allergic to it. Then we’d have to switch to another protein-starch.
We’ve gone through a series of food combinations: there was pork and tapioca, then rabbit and sweet potatoes. We would go to the store once a week to pick up 6–8 rabbits and the guy at the store would say, “So, are you havin’ a party?” You don’t want to say, “No, I’m buying eighty dollars’ worth of rabbit for my dog.” You feel like an ass. And it’s weird to be feeding an animal that’s cuter than your pet to your pet. After that we went to bison, which I thought was extinct, and switched to kangaroo about six months ago. There’s a butcher out in Woodside, Queens, that you have to go to for kangaroo.
It didn’t occur to me until a year and a half in that I could love the dog. I viewed him as a helpless creature who could be a pain in the ass to take care of, but who means well and is very sweet. I was utterly immune to the things that other dog owners love, like the dog greeting them when they come home because he’s so happy to see them. That’s absurd. The dog greets you because he doesn’t know anyone else in New York.
But I think because he is such a troubled little soul, it made my heart go out to him. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good quality that somehow I respond to neediness and vulnerability more than I respond to open shows of affection, but it’s very possible that that’s how I am all the time.
We didn’t think he was going to live to be 2. He’s almost 7 now. If it hadn’t worked out that way, I would have been wrecked. It’s not like I was some hard-ass or Scrooge figure before and this flipped me into a kind person. Sometimes I think: what does anyone get if they’re lucky in their time here on the planet? I think the most you can hope for is that there’s someone else who even notices that you exist, who even cares about what happens to you. Many people don’t have that. I feel like he does. He’s got us watching out for him.
Interview by Marlow Stern
Wins Peabody Award for his hit NPR program This American Life.
Marries journalist Anaheed Alani and they rescue a troubled pit bull.
Adapts This American Life for Showtime network; wins two Emmys.
Receives Edward R. Murrow Award for his contributions to public radio.
Produces and co-writes the film Sleepwalk With Me, in theaters now.