Sunday, March 15, 2009

A dog-shaped hole

In December of 1998 my wife Nancy and I moved from a cozy little townhouse into a new 2500 square foot house. No one outside of Stanford had never heard of Google. You could still take large bottles of shampoo onto airplanes in your carry-ons. Al Gore was still Vice President. And I was looking forward (or maybe "resigned" would be a more apt description) to a long career at JPL.

Now that we had some extra space, my wife wanted to get a dog. She didn't really want a dog, she wanted a cat. But I was allergic to cats, so a dog was the next best thing.

I didn't really want any furry creatures in the house besides me. We had had a cat when I was a kid, and once the initial charm wore off, taking care of it became a horrible chore. Emptying the litter box was the worst. I learned the hard way that I get terribly squeamish about the smelly realities of biology. But my wife promised to do all the dirty work and batted her eyelashes at me and I succumbed.

We made a list of the characteristics we wanted in our dog: He had to be a rescue animal. Neither one of us wanted to go to a breeder. He couldn't be too big or too small. We wanted a dog that we could take hiking with us, but not one that we couldn't pick up and carry if we had to. He had to have short hair. He had to be housebroken, and preferably already trained. No barkers, no diggers, no chewers.

We spent a year looking for the perfect dog. We must have visited every pound and rescue organization in Los Angeles. We researched all the breeds. We looked at akitas and malamutes, shepherds and sheepdogs. (Well, actually we didn't look at sheepdogs. Long hair, and all. But I couldn't pass up the alliteration.) We found out that there's a reason that all these animals end up in the pound. If someone has the perfect dog, they tend to keep them.

I finally threw up my hands in despair and agreed to get a cat and deal with taking antihistamines for the rest of my life. So we went to the Pasadena Humane Society and picked out a beautiful orange manx whom we ultimately named Purrcy. While Nancy was in the office filling out the paperwork I happened to notice a lady in the parking lot with a nice looking brown dog. To kill time I decided to go say hello. It turned out the dog wasn't her's, it was a stray that she'd found and was bringing in to the pound.

He was medium-sized.

He had short hair.

He looked at me with sad puppy eyes.

I said, "Hi boy, can you sit?"

He sat.

I said, "Can you shake?"

He held up his paw.

He never made it into the pound. We bought a leash at the humane society's store, put him in the back seat of the car and brought him home. Purrcy arrived a few days later, and after a few skirmishes the two negotiated a peace settlement that lasted for the next nine years. And I, who didn't want any animals at all, suddenly found myself with both a dog and a cat.

Nancy wanted to name him Hobo and I wanted to name him Mojo. We compromised and called him Mobo. In retrospect we should have named him Pogo because he bounced. He bounced when we fed him. He bounced when he walked. His floppy ears would wiggle up and down like Dopey and it would make me happy just to watch them as he trotted along. He was just a bouncy dog, and quite the hiker. We'd take him up into the Angeles National Forest and let him run off leash so he could chase chipmunks and squirrels and the occasional deer. (I don't know what he would have done if he ever managed to catch one.) I lost count of the number of times he vanished (which always freaked Nancy out) only to show up half a mile down the trail, panting furiously, with this huge doggy grin on his face saying, "What the heck took you guys so long to get here?"

But then, as all dogs do, he got old. His legs got weaker. We took him to the vet and learned that one of his hind legs was completely missing the ball part of its ball-and-socket joint. It was amazing that he could even walk, let alone run up and down mountains. But somehow he managed. We started giving him pain pills and that helped for a while. Then he had knee surgery. Then he started making these horrible hacking noises. This time it was a lung tumor, which turned out to be inoperable. That was two years ago.

Today, Mobo finally succumbed. He'd been in a pretty steady declined for a while. His legs were so weak that even standing was becoming a struggle. His breathing was getting raspy and labored. He was on four different kinds of medications. And then he had one horrible no good terrible very bad night and we decided it was time to say goodbye.

I never in a million years dreamed that I could become so attached to an animal. Taking him to the emergency clinic to be euthanized was the hardest thing I've ever done. (I've lived a pretty easy life.) I don't think I've felt so much emotional pain since I was a teenager and my first girlfriend dumped me. His passing has left a dog-shaped hole in my soul. I miss him more than I ever imagined that I could.

No more hikes.

No more sad puppy eyes.

I don't know how anyone who has been through an experience like this can't find at least a little bit of sympathy for people who turn to God for emotional solace. I am a non-believer to the core, and yet the temptation to ease the pain by saying, "You're going to a better place where you can chase squirrels to your heart's content" was overwhelming. And despite the fact that part of me knew it wasn't true, saying it (and I confess I did say it) actually helped. Imagine how much more effective it might have been if I actually believed it. And imagine how much more necessary it might have been if it had been a dying child I was dealing with instead of a dog. Even now I can't even begin to imagine what that must be like.

Mobo, I will miss you. You made a dog person out of me, which I didn't think was possible. Wherever you are now, I hope there are squirrels to chase.


Don Geddis said...

Sympathies on your loss.

As to religion, you're correct that it is very comforting. As we've discussed many times in the past, there's a difference between seeking happiness and seeking truth. There's really no gain to be had in universe by going to a nursing home and attempting to convince a life-long believer on their deathbed that God doesn't actually exist.

As to Mobo, Tennyson said "Better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all." True, anyway. Perhaps not comforting? I don't know...

Ron said...

> Sympathies on your loss.


> As to religion, you're correct that it is very comforting. As we've discussed many times in the past, there's a difference between seeking happiness and seeking truth.

I think it's important to distinguish between seeking happiness and seeking to alleviate pain. This is one of the few things Karl Marx got right: religion is an opiate. Opiates can be quite effective at relieving pain, and when used judiciously, can improve the quality of life.

In fact, I think this might be the right attitude to take towards religion: it's a drug. Some people can use it recreationally or medicinally to improve the quality of their lives. And some get addicted with all the attendant negative consequences. Like any addiction, neither ridicule nor reason nor prohibition are effective treatments.

That's the problem with Dawkins et al. They're trying to treat addiction with rhetoric (just-say-no anyone?) when what's really needed is spiritual methadone.

Don Geddis said...

Re: religion is a drug. Fascinating analogy! Hadn't occurred to me in just that way before. I think I like it. Even agree with your Dawkins criticism.

Unknown said...

Sorry for your loss, Ron. I know it's as tough as losing a loved one. That's because your pet _is_ a loved one.

I don't want to engage you at length at this time, but, again, your take on Dawkins is off, IMO. What is needed is most certainly not "spiritual methadone." To get off of drugs is hard, but you don't do that by taking more, or other kinds of, drugs. Dawkins et al.'s message is an invitation to become adults. That implies responsibility, maturity and clear vision, for there are no safety nets.

Self-delusion does not cut it, no matter how comforting it is. Not only does it not really protect you in reality, when practiced collectively, it can cause more harm than any good it is purported to provide.

Reality and truth are tough mistresses. They hurt, a lot. We must all deal with it. Having trouble doing that? Join the club, albeit a sad one. But one that can find comfort otherwise in order to make life bearable, just not so much at times like these. For that, the passage of time is the only game in town, even for self-delusional people.

So go find friends, family, and even strangers to accompany you through the tough spells. Just don't be afraid to reach out for the community, even the atheistic community.


Don Geddis said...

trimtab: you don't need to convince Ron that religion is self-delusion. And we can argue about the best way for drug addicts to get clean.

But surely there's no question that a strategy of going to drug addicts and simply yelling at them, "wake up! take responsibility! become adults!" is empirically not effective at reducing their future incidence of drug use.

There are effective drug treatment programs. But, as Ron says, they rely on "neither ridicule nor reason nor prohibition". Those are paths that have been tried, and have failed.

I very much like Ron's analogy between religion and drugs, both the pros, and the cons, and the treatment methodologies.

Don Geddis said...

One more thought for Ron: as I understand it, most of the effective (drug, gambling, etc.) addiction treatment programs have as a critical step "submitting to a higher power". Which of course doesn't at all help when trying to craft an analogous religious-addition treatment program.

It may well be that we simply don't yet know of an effective treatment for religious addiction.

Valoree said...

Hi Ron,
As usual you're writings never ceases to amaze! Your Mobo life-story was heart warming, and informative - never knew that was how he got his name! Thanks for including the pics - can't help but smile when I see Mobo. Yours was the first heart in the family to get totally stolen away by him - love that! Dogs like Mobo are just plane good medicine for humans - bring out the best in us, show us unconditional love, explore and engage our emotions, challenge us to get outside and exercise,jeez the list could go on and on. Life for Mobo's (dare I say)parents will never be the same - it will forever be better because of him.
Spirituality - perhaps you got a glimpse.
love to you,

Unknown said...

That sucks. My heart goes out to you.

Ross said...

I'm a huge dog person. Dogs very successfully insinuate themselves into your life and become a part of your family. When a part of your family goes away, it takes a part of you with it.

It sounds like you had a wonderful companion and I feel such incredible sympathy for your loss. Tonight, I will raise a toast to Mobo and all of the wonderful dogs who continue to hunt rabbits, living on in the memories of those who loved them.

There is at least one consolation: you know how wonderful of a life Mobo led. It was likely the most possibly fulfilling life that a dog can live. That was a wonderful gift to give to a shelter puppy who otherwise might have ended up euthanized only a few days after being brought to the shelter.