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The Great Dog Debate

You've heard of "Big Brother Syndrome," haven't you? Not Big Brother in the Orwellian sense, more in the "I am older than you and have been around longer than you and know more than you" sense.


It can be irritating and infuriating, but also, at times can be helpful. In some things, my older brother does know more than me. Whenever I have a computer or technical problem, for instance, I'm on the phone to my brother Nick in San Francisco, and he will patiently talk me through a problem, making it seem simple (well, simpler). He's also great at explaining money issues, and he's a good guy to have in a pinch (he once rescued me from drowning and helped hold the family together when our father was dying).

That said, it's still infuriating when he – as my mother used to put it – gets on his "high horse," i.e., asserts himself forcefully and with finality, brooking no dissent. I experienced him in full "Big Brother" mode at a recent dinner I had with my in-laws and friends when I was visiting family in San Francisco.

For some reason, we were talking about dogs our family had owned over the years. Nick was describing each one and it’s fate: Eustice was the first pooch, and he got run over; Gretchen was the second,and she choked to death; Sybil was third and ran away (with Nick forcefully asserting that Sybil was his dog); and Charlie was last and, in my brother’s view, the least of the dogs because (a) Nick was not living at home during most of Charlie’s time there; and (b) Charlie had the unfortunate habit of pissing in the apartment’s long hallway, stinking it up.

Nick said that he and my mother bought Charlie in 1971. “Um, 1972,” I corrected him.

“It was 1971,” my brother said with finality. “I was still living at home when we got him.”

“No, it was 1972,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”

“You’re just wrong,” said Nick, dismissively. The subject was closed. And I was branded with the scarlet W for “Wrong."

It rankled me. I was sure I was right – and I knew we had a photo album back in New York that had a photo of the dog and me on my dad’s birthday, clearly labeled, “Charlie arrives – May 1972.” That book was my ticket to the truth.

When I got back to the Big Apple, I immediately sought out the album. It wasn’t where I thought it would be. Then began the great search – and not since Ahab chased that great white wale has someone searched more obsessively for that book. I looked in cabinets and under beds, in closets and behind shelves, in the storage room and beyond – to my younger brother’s house – to no avail. The book – my great evidence – was missing.

I was about to give up when my younger brother Peter reminded me that Charlie had appeared as a puppy in the Greek Island Ltd. catalogue that my father used to assemble each year to promote his shop of all things Greek. I found that catalogue. The date: 1972. This could clinch it, I thought, but if I only had something more…

My younger brother stepped in again. “Why don’t you ask Tim about it?” he said. Tim! Of course, I said, feeling like Holmes being prodded by the ever-faithful Watson. Tim and Maggie, a young couple we knew in the 1970s, had taken care of the apartment – and puppy Charlie – when we went abroad. If Tim could just remember the date.

I texted Tim, got his reply, and then sent my “brief” to Nick via e-mail:

“We got Charlie on May 16, 1972,” I began,  supporting that contention with thr statement from  Tim, who recalled that he and Maggie took care of Charlie and the house in “1972.  It was the summer of Bobby Fisher v. Boris Spassky chess match." 

So there could be no mistake, I included the Wikipedia entry on it: “The World Chess Championship 1972 was a match between challenger Bobby Fischer of the United States and defending champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union for the World Chess Championship…The first game started on July 11, 1972. The last game began on August.”


Although that could clinch it, I offered other evidence: Charlie, as a puppy, appearing in the Greek Island Christmas catalogue of 1972, and a photo album I had prepared for my father in 1984 that referred to our “cocker spaniel, Charlie (1972-1982)." I offered anecdotal evidence as well: Charlie died, at age 10. in 1982, right before I got my job at Habitat in 1982.

I felt I had a strong case, which I had pursued doggedly (one might say nuttily).

Would my Big Brother admit his error? Or would simply disgard the subject the way my mother often did, with a dismissive, “Who cares?” as she walked out of the room?

The e-mail arrived the next day. It contained one word: uncle.

That was, I thought, the end of the story, with truth winning out. As it was a question between my brother, Nick, and me, I felt I wouldn’t turn it into an essay here. But then another e-mail arrived from Nick, addressed to me and all the guests at the first dinner where this brouhaha started.

“When we were last together with my brother we had a dinner table discussion about our various pets, specifically the dogs,” he wrote. “When it came to Charlie, my brother and I disagreed about when we got Charlie. I said it had to have been 1971, when I was in 11th grade, and he was pretty sure it was 1972, in May, for my father’s birthday. We went back and forth, and I was pretty insistent that it was 1971 because I remember him being around when I was still at home.

“Well, I was wrong. 

“Tom has done the research and conclusively determined that it was in May of 1972 when we got Charlie. We had him for ten years until his untimely death in 1982. Tom’s memory for dates is really good, as he knows all the dates for movies, TV shows, actors vital statistics, etc. My memory, of course, is not so good anymore, having been clouded by years of this and that. 

“So I apologize for having led anyone astray as to when we got Charlie, who was truly Tom’s dog. Tom was correct. Sorry for doubting you, Tom, particularly on this topic.”

It was a classy way to set the record straight, and impressed me no end. Big Brother may have been wrong on the facts, but he was right-on about how to handle the truth – with grace, style, and just enough humility to keep his Big Brother status intact.

November 2, 2013