The Glass Key (1935 and 1942)

The Glass Key is a 1931 novel by Dashiell Hammet.  It was made into a movie in 1935, which is a lot better than I thought it would be.  Although most critics say that film noir began in the 1940s, this version of the novel, apart from the date of production, would almost seem to qualify.  Its remake in 1942, however, is unequivocally film noir, and one of the best.

When the 1942 version begins, we are introduced to Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), a crooked ward heeler who has contempt for Senator Ralph Henry, the reform candidate for governor.  When he makes a snide remark about the Senator’s son Taylor, who he says could stand some reforming himself, the Senator’s daughter Janet (Veronica Lake) slaps him in the face and calls him a crook.  Being a real man, Madvig just stands there and takes it.  In fact, he immediately becomes smitten by Janet.  As a result of this infatuation, he tells Ed Beaumont (Ned in the novel), played by Alan Ladd, that he is going to support Ralph Henry for governor.  When Sloss, one of Madvig’s henchmen, tells him he won’t remain boss for long if he supports the reform candidate, Madvig tosses him through the window and into the swimming pool.

Madvig is head of the Voters League, which sounds like a civic-minded organization.  But when Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia) and his bodyguard, Jeff (William Bendix), push through the doors of the headquarters, we see people shooting pool, playing poker, and shooting craps.  They tell Oswald, the man who greets them at the door, that they want to see Madvig.  Oswald relays the message to Beaumont, right while he’s trying to make his point with the dice he’s about to throw.

In a film noir, craps is one of the gambling games that it is respectable for a tough guy to play.  The same can be said for shooting pool, playing poker, and betting on the horses.  These are all games that require some skill or sophistication to do well at.  Furthermore, it is with games like these that the tough guy gets to hold something, whether it is a cue, cards, dice, or a racing form.  This makes him an active participant.  Moreover, his physical contact with these items makes it more difficult for others to cheat him at the game.

Roulette, on the other hand, is something a tough guy must never play.  There is nothing to think about, no place for skill.  You don’t get to hold anything, unless it’s your chips, and you just plop them down somewhere and passively await results.  As often as not in the movies, the wheel is crooked.  It is strictly for women and weak men.  In Dead Reckoning (1947), when Lizabeth Scott starts playing roulette, saying she has a system, Humphrey Bogart suggests she might as well throw her money out the window.  She loses a lot of money, but he stops her while she still has a little left, suggesting she let him see what he can do shooting craps.  On the way there, the owner of the casino remarks that it all depends on the talent of the player.  Humphrey Bogart wins three times in a row, getting all her money back for her.  The croupier says the house will change the dice.  Bogart says he can feel snake eyes in the new dice.  The original dice are given back to him, and he wins back twice as much money as Scott started with.  In Out of the Past (1947), when Robert Mitchum makes a snide remark about the way Jane Greer is losing at roulette, she asks, “Don’t you like to gamble?” to which he replies, “Not against a wheel.”  In Casablanca (1942), it typically happens that when a married couple needs to leave Casablanca, Claude Rains, a corrupt Vichy official, will require that the wife have sex with him.  Humphrey Bogart, who runs a casino, feels sorry for one couple.  He sees the husband, looking weak and pathetic, sitting at the roulette table, trying to win enough money for him and his wife to leave Casablanca.  Bogart tells the man what number to bet on and then signals the croupier to let him win just enough money to book passage out of the city so the man’s wife won’t have to have sex with Rains.

I say all this because it came as a surprise to me, when watching the 1935 version of The Glass Key, to see George Raft, as Ed Beaumont, betting against a wheel.  The wheel is a fan with numbers on the blades, and men bet on the number that is on the bottom blade when the fan stops.  However, he redeems himself later when he looks out the window, sees that it is raining, and calls in a bet at the racetrack.  This shows knowledge of which horses do better on a wet track, something we can admire in a tough guy.  Still, this scene of betting against a wheel is another reason why this 1935 version should not be counted as being a film noir.  It was not in the novel, and it is not in the 1942 remake, to which we now return.

After making his point, saying, “Little Joe, brother, that’s it,” Beaumont tells Varna he’ll let Madvig know he’s there.  When Beaumont walks in the office, we find Madvig putting on some socks with a fancy design on them.  I have never been able to tell what it is the design of.  In the 1935 version, Beaumont says something about Christmas trees, and in the 1942 version, he says something about a clock.  In any event, when he tells Madvig that Varna wants to see him, we begin to see that there is a difference in the intellectual capacity of the two men.  With Madvig, what you see is what you get.  His thinking is straightforward.  He tends to insult people because it is too much trouble to lie just to be polite, because it requires double thinking, knowing what is true while saying what is false.  Of course, as we find out later, he can lie when he really needs to.  It’s the subtle kind of lying that is too much for him.

Beaumont, on the other hand, has the ability to think at a higher level.  So, whereas Madvig cannot think past his love for Janet, Beaumont can see that backing Ralph Henry and the Reform Ticket will disrupt their whole setup, causing trouble between Madvig and Varna, who is head of a rival gang.  Beaumont tells Madvig he’s wrong, “as wrong as those socks.”  In the 1935 version, following the novel, he tells Madvig (Edward Arnold) on a separate occasion, “Silk socks don’t go with tweed.”  Madvig replies, “I like the feel of silk,” to which Beaumont rejoins, “Then lay off tweed.”  Madvig knows only what feels right to him.  Beaumont knows how things will appear to others.

Madvig is going to have dinner with Senator Henry, and he mentions that it is Janet’s birthday.  He asks Beaumont what he should get her.  Beaumont asks, “Want to make a good impression?”  When Madvig says he does, Beaumont says, “Nothing.”  Madvig is stunned.  “But why?” he asks.  Beaumont answers, “Because you’re not supposed to give people things, unless you’re sure they like to get them from you.”  It is clear that Ed Beaumont is the Miss Manners of film noir.

Beaumont asks if Madvig is sure that Senator Henry will “play ball” after the election.  Madvig says, “Why he’s practically given me the key to his house.”  Beaumont says it’s a glass key, which might break off in his hand.  Then Madvig says he is going to marry Janet Henry, although only he and Beaumont know about it.  Beaumont suspects the Senator is just using his daughter as bait.  He tells Madvig he’d better insist on the wedding before election day, so he can be sure of his pound of flesh.

In the novel, Madvig objects to Beaumont’s suggestion that the Senator will go back on his word after the election, saying, “I don’t know why you keep talking about the Senator like he was a yegg. He’s a gentleman and….”

“Absolutely,” Beaumont agrees.  “Read about it in the Post—one of the few aristocrats left in American politics. And his daughter’s an aristocrat. That’s why I’m warning you to sew your shirt on when you go to see them, or you’ll come away without it, because to them you’re a lower form of animal life and none of the rules apply.”  That’s a pretty good line.  Unfortunately, it didn’t make its way into either of the movie versions.

Meanwhile, Oswald, under Madvig’s orders, is trying to keep Varna out, but Jeff shoves him aside.  When Oswald’s glasses fall on the floor, Jeff deliberately grinds on them with his heel.  Once inside the office, Varna complains about his gambling joints being closed down, and that he knows Madvig is behind it.  But Madvig tells him that’s the way it’s going to be, and he’ll just have to take it.  Before they leave, Jeff lets a big wad of spit fall from his mouth onto the floor.

That night at the dinner party, Madvig is telling the other guests about how politics is simple, just a matter of muscle.  Janet looks at him with amused disdain.  As they get up from the table to go to the living room for coffee, Senator Henry tells Janet that he needs her to be nice to Madvig until he wins the election.  She says at least he will be good for some laughs.

Janet’s brother Taylor signaled her while she was at the table, and she goes to meet him.  He needs money to pay his gambling debts, but she has already given him all she has.  Their father shows up, and he and Taylor start quarreling.  When his father threatens to get him a job on Monday, that is just too much to bear, so Taylor leaves in a huff, letting in Beaumont on his way out, who just dropped by to bring Madvig some figures.  He is invited to join them for coffee.

As Madvig reminisces about his days working for the Observer, Janet starts giving Beaumont a sexy look.  It is clear that they are attracted to each other.  Furthermore, she is Beaumont’s equal mentally, though she has a bit of a mean streak.  Madvig tells what his job was, saying that if he came across someone selling the Post, he would slug him.  But then he made the same deal with the Post, saying, “You see, if the guy handed me the Observer, I’d slug him for the Post. If he hands me the Post, I’d slug him for the Observer. It was very simple.”

Janet observes with amusement, “You certainly were a two-fisted newspaper man, Mr. Madvig.  Wasn’t he, Mr. Beaumont?”  This goes right over Madvig’s head.  But Beaumont doesn’t like it.

Madvig continues.  “Yeah, but there was just one hitch.  I used to have to be very careful about repeating.  But once I missed.  I remember it was on Third and Broadway.  I slugged a guy for handing me the Observer.  About a week later, I got balled-up, and I found myself in the same spot.  Well, the guy hands me the Post, so, I have to slug him again.  You should have seen the expression on that fellow’s face.”

“There was enough there for an expression?” Janet asks as she glances again at Beaumont.  Again, Madvig has not the slightest idea that he is being made fun of by the woman he loves, who instead is flirting with best friend.

On the way home, Beaumont is approached by Opal (Bonita Granville), Madvig’s sister, who asks him for money, all he has on him.  He gives it to her, and she drives off.  He follows her to Taylor’s apartment.  She has given Taylor the money for his debt to Varna.  Beaumont drags her out of there and takes her home.  Being a gentleman, he lies to Madvig about where she’s been, but she defiantly says she was at Taylor’s apartment.  In those days, that meant she was going to have sex with him.  And in those days, that was something shameful.  She even says she has been to his apartment many times.  Beaumont leaves while they are arguing.

A parenthetical consideration:  If Madvig married Janet, Taylor would be his brother-in-law.  And if Taylor married Opal, he would also be Madvig’s brother-in-law.  So, if they all got married, that would double the in-law situation.  That’s not actually incest, but it is a little too all-in-the-family.  In fact, I seem to recall from when I read War and Peace a comment to the effect that in Russia at that time, if a man married a woman, his sister could not marry his wife’s brother.

Anyway, when Beaumont gets home, he gets a call from Opal, who is frantic, because Madvig is heading over to the Henry house after Taylor.  She’s afraid he’s going to kill him.  By the time Beaumont gets there, he finds Taylor’s corpse lying in the gutter in front of the Henry house.

From this point on, things become increasingly tense between Beaumont and Madvig.  There is a lot of suspicion that Madvig killed Taylor, and Varna claims to have a witness, that fellow Sloss that Madvig threw out the window, who claims that he saw Madvig and Taylor arguing that night.  Janet has been sending the District Attorney anonymous letters trying to incriminate Madvig, even after she and Madvig have become engaged; and Opal has agreed to let the Observer run a story in which she accuses her brother of killing Taylor.  Beaumont practically cuckolds the owner of the newspaper by making out with his wife on the couch while the pitiful husband asks her if she’s coming to bed.  When she keeps kissing Beaumont, the husband kills himself, and the story about Opal’s accusation is quashed.  But that comes later.  In the meantime, Beaumont tells Madvig it is more important than ever to make peace with Varna, but he refuses.  Adding to that is the fact that Beaumont has fallen for Janet too.

Beaumont decides to leave town.  When Madvig tries to talk him out of it, Ed suggests they have a drink for old times’ sake.  In the 1935 version, they knowingly go into a bar that is one of Shad O’Rory’s places, Shad O’Rory being the character equivalent of Nick Varna in the 1942 version.  This is important for interpreting what happens later.  In both versions, they start quarreling again, and Ed leaves.  In the 1935 version, this is noticed by one of O’Rory’s henchmen, who passes the information on to his boss.  We figure that Beaumont is purposely putting on a show, to make it look as though he is through working for Madvig.  Because Madvig is not good at dissembling, Beaumont does not tell him what he is up to.  In the 1942 version, it seems to be only an accident that one of Varna’s men overhears what is going on.

Varna gets the word to Ed that he wants to see him and offers to pay for Beaumont’s services, to get him to work for him, and Beaumont seems to be interested.  This theme of the servant of two masters, of a man playing one gang off the other for his own profit, is said to have been the inspiration for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which was turned into a Western by Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars (1964).  In all three stories, the law is weak or corrupt.  And in all three stories, the protagonist is beaten severely when one of the gang leaders realizes he has been betrayed.

What Varna really wants from Beaumont is anything that might help him pin the murder of Taylor on Madvig.  But when Varna realizes that Beaumont is still loyal to Madvig, he tells Jeff to beat the information out of him.

At this point, we come to the question as to whether there is a homosexual subtext in the novel and its movie versions.  In a review by Curt J. Evans, he suggests that it is not so much that Beaumont wants Janet as it is that he is jealous because of his homosexual feelings for Madvig.  Being straight myself, that would never have occurred to me.  To me, the men are just friends.  Even if Beaumont had not been in love with Janet, he could easily resent the fact that Madvig was letting his infatuation with Janet cloud his judgment, jeopardizing their political organization, without leading me to conclude that deep down he wanted to have sex with him.

Jeff is a different matter.  In the novel, he refers to Beaumont as “sweetheart” and “baby.”  And in the 1935 version, Jeff, played by Guinn Williams, likewise uses those terms of endearment while beating up Beaumont, and also “sweetie-pie” and “cuddles.”  Still, I would never have suspected anything from that.  To me, it would just be cruel sarcasm.  But the 1942 version managed to penetrate my heterosexual way of looking at things.

Perhaps it is the way William Bendix portrayed him, but Jeff clearly seems to be a man with repressed homosexual tendencies, and when another man arouses such urges in him, he just naturally has to beat the crap out of him.  Not only does he use those same terms of endearment, but he also says that Beaumont likes it, a sadist fantasizing a complementary masochism on the part of the man whose face he is pounding on.  But my becoming aware of this repressed homosexuality was facilitated by Alan Ladd playing the role Beaumont.  As noted above, in the 1935 version, Beaumont was played by George Raft, who has a standard tough-guy persona.  But Alan Ladd is a small man with delicate features.  It is easy to imagine him bringing out feelings in Jeff that he doesn’t fully understand.

Beaumont manages to escape from the brutal beating, which he barely survives.  After Madvig is indicted for Taylor’s murder, he and Beaumont start quarreling again about Janet.  Madvig claims he did kill Taylor in self-defense, but didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to lose her.  Beaumont suspects there is something phony about this admission, but he is not sure what.  He leaves the district attorney’s office where Madvig is being held.

The scene shifts to a bar owned by Varna.  We see a black woman, Lillian Randolph, playing the piano, singing “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You.”  Well, you know how it is.  Once your gaydar has finally been turned on, you begin seeing stuff everywhere.  As she sings that love song, she gazes into the eyes of another woman, who is leaning on the piano and looking back at her.  It made me wonder.

In any event, she eventually turns and begins looking at Jeff, who is also at the piano.  Jeff doesn’t seem happy.  Maybe the song has made him sad.  Suddenly, Beaumont appears on the stairs, slowly descending.  He and Jeff look at each other across the room.  Beaumont approaches, looking timid and submissive.  Jeff puts his arm around him and leads him upstairs to a private room, talking about how he’s going to bounce him off the walls.

Once in the room, Jeff says he knows what Beaumont is up to, trying to get him to talk.  He tells him he’s a heel.  Usually, that is something a woman says about a man, or a man will say about another man in reference to a woman, as in, “Your boyfriend is nothing but a heel.”  Now, I realize that a man might say that to another man.  In fact, in the novel, Madvig calls Beaumont a heel when Beaumont tries to tell him what Janet is up to.  Interestingly, that comes right after a line that Evans cites as evidence that Beaumont might have homosexual feelings for Madvig:

“What is it, Ned? Do you want her yourself or is it—” He [Madvig] broke off contemptuously. “It doesn’t make any difference.” He jerked a thumb carelessly at the door. “Get out, you heel, this is the kiss-off.”

What was the “or is it” Madvig was referring to?  In any event, Jeff uses the word “heel” in talking to Beaumont again and again, which seems express his feeling of being betrayed by someone he loves.

Varna shows up, irritated that Jeff has not stayed undercover as he was told to and irritated that he killed Sloss.  They start fighting, and Jeff strangles Varna, feeling sorry for himself as he does so, saying, “I’m just a good-natured slob.”  When the police arrive, before they start to take Jeff away, he tries to show his contempt for Beaumont by letting another big drop of spit fall to the floor, but Beaumont neatly slides a cuspidor underneath him to catch it.

In the end, it turns out that the Senator was the one who accidentally killed his son Taylor.  I said at the beginning that the 1935 version would almost qualify as film noir were it not for the date of production.  However, there are two differences in the endings that make it easy to see which one was made before the film noir period, and which one was made during it.

In the 1935 version, Madvig lives with his mother, something a tough guy in a film noir never does.  She says that Senator Doherty, the one who will be taking Ralph Henry’s place, is an honest man, one whom Madvig will not be able to handle.  She tells Madvig and Beaumont that they will enjoy working with an honest man once they get used to it.  In short, corruption is coming to an end in this town.

In the 1942 version, Madvig, who doesn’t even have a mother, let alone live with her, says he hasn’t picked who will be the next governor yet, but he guarantees he’ll be a winner.  There is every indication that the corruption will continue just as before, especially since Madvig will not be having anything to do with the Reform Ticket anymore.

Second, in the 1935 version, Beaumont and Janet do not fall in love, so there is no triangle between those two and Madvig.  And after Senator Henry confesses, there is no more mention of anything between her and Madvig either.  Instead, it turns out that Beaumont and Opal have started dating and are now in love.

In the 1942 version, however, the fact that both men want Janet only aggravates the tension between them.  In the final scene, Madvig finds out that Janet and Beaumont are in love.  He gives them his blessing, tough-guy style, and then slides the ostentatiously expensive engagement ring off her finger, saying, “If you figure on getting married with my rock, you’re nuts.”

Reflections on a Progressive Pope

The expression “love of God” is ambiguous:  it can refer to God’s love of man or to man’s love of God.  The expression “fear of God,” therefore, suffers from the same ambiguity, but not heretofore in any practical sense.  That is, since it makes no sense to speak of God’s being fearful, inasmuch as he is all-powerful, the phrase can only refer to man’s fear of God. Interestingly enough, a God fearing man is generally understood as being a man who fears nothing else, though what that fear accomplishes is hard to say, since it is not unusual to see a Western featuring a whiskey drinking, tobacco chewing, woman chasing, two-fisted, God fearing man.  A sniveling coward, on the other hand, who frets and worries over every little thing, would never be called a God fearing man, not because he does not fear God too, but because he is not man enough to qualify for that characterization.

But a remark made by Pope Francis a little less than a year ago introduced the possibility that the phrase “fear of God” might actually refer to God’s fear as well.  In his effort to soften the position of the Catholic Church on divorce and homosexuality, the pope said, “God is not afraid of new things.” Ironically, by denying that God is afraid on these matters, he opens up the possibility of God’s being afraid in other areas. Could the Deity be a man fearing God?

Of course, ever since Feuerbach, or perhaps even Xenophanes, it has been known that talking about God is just an indirect way of talking about man, and that what the pope is really saying is that Catholics in general, and the bishops in particular, should not be afraid of new things. But while we may understand the pope in this manner, surely the pope does not mean to be so construed.  Presumably, then, the idea is that God has the courage to declare that divorce and homosexuality are not sins.

There are only three ways to understand this.  The first is that God changed his mind.  He used to think divorce and homosexuality were sins, but now he realizes he was mistaken.  But that would mean that God is fallible and mutable.  Who wants a wishy-washy God, one who is always changing his mind about whether this or that is a sin, depending on who talked to him last, and, in any event, when he does change his mind, can we be sure if he has it right this time?  The whole point of having God be the foundation of morality is so he can lay down eternal truths about right and wrong.  If God is going to vacillate about such things and have to admit that he was mistaken, people will quit taking him seriously.

A second possibility is that we were mistaken about what God thought was a sin.  According to this way of thinking, God has never been opposed to divorce or homosexuality.  Putting men to death for lying with each other was never his idea, but just the ravings of a bunch of homophobic Jewish priests.  And he doesn’t know why Jesus kept saying that divorce was wrong except in the case of fornication, because he told him and he told him that no-fault divorce was the way his Father in Heaven wanted things all along. But if we were mistaken about what God thought in the past, how do we know we are not mistaken about what God thinks now?

A third possibility is that God does not change his mind per se, but that what is a sin at one stage of civilization may not be a sin at a later stage.  That is, back when Jesus was alive, divorce was pretty rough on women, and thus they had to be protected from being abandoned by men.  But now that we have child support, community property, alimony, and equal rights in the workplace, divorce is no longer the problem it used to be, and thus is no longer a sin.  It is not God that changed, but the circumstances.  In the case of homosexuality, however, most would prefer the second option, which is that this never was a sin, that we were mistaken about what God thought on the matter all along, and not that God once wanted homosexuals to be put to death, but given the different circumstances of the modern world, God is now all right with letting them live.

No matter which option we choose—God changed his mind, we were mistaken about God’s will, or there are different sins for different circumstances—every change is one more nail in God’s coffin, for it is impossible to avoid the impression that it is no longer God who tells us what is or is not a sin, but rather it is we who are deciding whether something is a sin, and adjusting our conception of God accordingly.  It is one thing to say man has free will when it comes to choosing whether or not to sin; it is quite another to say man has free will when it comes to choosing what is and is not a sin in the first place.  Freedom to believe what one wants about God soon leads to freedom from God altogether.

Part of the appeal of religion comes from the sense that there are eternal truths, that they were revealed to man long ago, and that we know what these truths are.  We may smile with amusement when the Catholic Church continues to use the Latin Mass, even though Jesus never spoke Latin, and no one else speaks it anymore either, just as we do when Protestants think that the King James Bible is the only translation that is sacred text.  But using the same words that have been used for centuries gives people a sense that they are receiving the unchanging word of God.  The footnotes provided by a modern English translation of the Bible may reflect the latest scholarship, but they do not inspire much reverence.

The Ten Commandments are revered as being the word of God, in no small part because they were written down over three thousand years ago.  Part of the problem with Mormonism is that it is only two centuries old, and even its founder, Joseph Smith, had to claim that his Book of Mormon was ancient in order to have any chance of being taken seriously.  And if someone comes along today and tells people that he has been talking to God, and has written down everything God said to him and published it in an e-book, he will be dismissed as a crank.  What is modern, up to date, and new is inimical to religious feeling.

Therefore, the Catholic Church faces a dilemma:  either it can refuse to change, thereby alienating people who are divorced and living in sin, or who are homosexuals; or it can change to suit the times, thereby vitiating the feeling that one is conforming to the eternal word of God.  If it chooses to modernize, it will keep more of its members, but will there be anything left for them to believe in?  Being an atheist, I prefer that the Church change its views on divorce and homosexuality, not only because tolerance in these matters is a good thing, but also because the more a religion changes, the weaker it becomes.  The more the Church changes the word of God, the less likely people are to believe that it is the word of God.

So, if God is not afraid of new things, maybe he should be.

As progressive as this pope seems to be regarding homosexuality and divorce, he may not be as progressive as people first thought regarding animals.  One of the things children want to know is if their pets will go to Heaven when they die.  As a bachelor, I am not sure what I would have said if I had had a child who asked me that question, but my guess is that I would have told a bald-faced lie and said, “Yes.”  I suspect many parents do the same, regardless of their religious beliefs.  And thus it was a big story for a while when it was reported that Pope Francis said, in response to that question, “Heaven is open to all creatures.”

However, it turns out that Pope Francis did not say that.  Instead, Pope Paul VI said, “One day we will again see our animals in the eternity of Christ.”  I am not sure what to make of that. When I was a child, I used to imagine Heaven as a place where our souls went when we died, and they were shaped like our bodies, and that my dog’s soul would be there, shaped accordingly as well.  Somehow, I don’t think that Pope Paul VI’s phrase about seeing our animals “in the eternity of Christ” exactly matches my childlike vision.  It sounds more like one of those vague statements we sometimes hear from politicians.

In any event, what Pope Francis said was, “Sacred Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this marvelous plan cannot but involve everything that surrounds us and came from the heart and mind of God.”  That is nothing but the usual general statement about God’s divine plan, which is used to justify this world with all of its shortcomings.  And so, the heart-warming story about Pope Francis saying that pets go to Heaven turns out to be apocryphal.

But now it appears that the pope thinks that people are placing more importance on animals than was intended by God in his marvelous plan, according to an article by Thomas D. Williams:

Francis also had strong words for what is wrong with the world and the way people’s values get twisted.

According to the Pope, the worst problems in the world today are poverty, corruption and human trafficking. He also expressed his astonishment when he read about what people spend money on.   “After food, clothing and medicine,” he said, “the fourth item is cosmetics and the fifth is pets. That’s serious.”

In fact, for an “environmental pope,” Francis seems to think that people pay altogether too much attention to pets.

“Care for pets is like programmed love,” he said. “I can program the loving response of a dog or a cat, and I don’t need the experience of a human, reciprocal love.”

The Pope said this kind of trade-off is “worrisome.”

So, not only did the pope not say that pets go to Heaven, but he also seems to think less attention should be paid to them right here on Earth.

At first, being an atheist and in the habit of disregarding the pronouncements of religious leaders, my initial reaction to simply to dismiss the pope’s remarks.  But then it occurred to me that there was much wisdom in what he said.

When I was twelve years old, my parents asked me if I would like to have a dog.  I said, “Yes,” of course.  Then they said, “You will have to be the one who feeds the dog and takes it for a walk.”  I willingly agreed.  This was unfair.  I had no idea what my future life as a teenager would be like, and so I had no idea what kind of sacrifice this would entail.  But my parents knew, and they took advantage of my innocence and extracted from me a commitment at a time when I was hardly of age to enter into a binding contract.

At first, everything was just fine.  I fed my dog and walked him, played with him, and loved him.  But then I went through puberty and discovered the importance of girls.  And then it was that I began to experience a conflict in priorities.  For example, there was this one day in which Charles, one of my friends, pulled up beside me in his car one Saturday afternoon while I was walking the dog.  “Hey, John,” he said.  “Donna’s parents will be gone for the weekend.  She’s going to have a bunch of her girlfriends over there, and she wanted me to get a bunch of guys together and come over so we can party.  As soon as you’re through walking the dog, I’ll give you a ride over there.”

“I can’t,” I said, “because at five o’clock I have to feed the dog.”

“Oh,” he said.  “Well, that’s too bad.  Donna said she had a girl all picked out just for you.  But don’t you let that worry you none.  I’ll be making out with her while you’re still opening that can of dog food.”  And at that point, he peeled out, the tires blowing dust into my face as he sped off.

It was just as the pope said.  I needed “the experience of a human, reciprocal love,” and instead, all I got was the love of my dog when I emptied the can of Alpo into his bowl.  Petting a dog is no substitute for petting a girl.

My dog died when I was a senior in high school, and it broke my heart.  But a year later, while I was in college, my parents began talking about getting another dog.  Some people may have their values twisted, as the pope said, but mine weren’t.  I laid down the law.  “This will be your dog,” I told my parents sternly.  “You will walk it and you will feed it.”  They nodded in agreement. This turned out to be a much better arrangement.  I could love the dog the way a grandparent loves a grandchild.  But when there was a girl available to give me the reciprocal, human love I needed, I was able to give her my full attention, while my parents were home taking care of their dog.

I never got another dog.  Years later, one of my dancing partners, who had a couple of dogs herself that I would play with when I visited her, asked me why I did not get a dog of my own. “Why buy a dog,” I asked, “when you can pet one through the fence?”  Anyway, as I said, we were dancing partners, and while some dancing partners are also lovers, many are not, as was the case with us.  This did not seem to bother her.  “Dancing is better than sex,” she would often say.  But the two were not mutually exclusive, and besides, such a bold hypothesis should be put to the test, I figured.  So, one night, when the mood seemed right, I sat next to her on the couch while we had a discussion about the meaning of life or some such, and was just about to make my move, when her two dogs jumped up onto the couch and in our laps, demanding attention.

Once again, I found myself in agreement with the pope.  My dancing partner’s twisted values resulted in her caring more about playing with her dogs than receiving some of that reciprocal love she could have gotten from another human being, namely me.  The pope said, “I can program the loving response of a dog or a cat.”  He sounds like a computer geek in saying that, but one thing is for sure, you can’t program the loving response of a woman, and so I have to agree with him on that point.

Anyway, when my dancing partner had to go out of town for a while, she asked me to take care of her dogs while she was gone.  I agreed.  “You can sleep over here, if you want, to keep them company,” she offered.  And so, the only time I got to sleep in her bed was when I slept with the dogs.  But when she returned, she told me she had met someone and had fallen in love. He did not dance, and he did not have a dog, and so I guess without dancing and dogs to distract her, she found the space in her life for love.  Well, three’s a crowd, and it was not long before I was looking for another dancing partner.

One girlfriend I had, after asking me why I did not have a pet, and hearing my tale of woe, bought me a cactus.  It was the perfect gift for a bachelor who does not want the responsibility of taking care of a pet or taking care of a wife and children for that matter.  And so it was that when I saw the final episode of Mad Men, when Pete gave Peggy a cactus, I began to wonder if there were something archetypal involved.  Peggy had given up her baby, had never gotten married, and did not have a pet.  But now she had her cactus.  There was a sense of completion in that.  But then, Matthew Weiner spoiled it by having her and Stan hook up at the last minute. Sometimes a dramatist does not realize when his story has ended.

Well, I found out that the cactus had to be watered once every two weeks, and so I would mark that on my calendar, and then worry whether I would forget to look at the calendar.  And I would have to put it on the balcony in front of my apartment to let it get some sun.  But then I would have to worry if it rained, because it is not good to let a cactus get too much water.  This wore me out.  After three months, I came home one day to find that the cactus had been stolen.  A great burden was lifted off my shoulders.

But I had learned an important lesson.  I will never get another cactus.