Friday, March 19, 2010
My Dear Old Dog
Here he is, soaking in some indoor sunshine, while I grade a few student essays, letting work encroach on what is supposed to be a "break," "spring break," even though spring is still two or three days away.
It's been a while since I went on (and on and on) about my favorite dog, Tom Ripley, who is now some 13 years and 5 months and (rough estimate) a week old, though he doesn't look a day over 8.
While walking the little guy this morning, I mused over the absurdity of owning a pet. Back when I belonged to PETA (1990-ish), I used to worry over pet ownership, thinking that it might be comparable to slavery somehow, since the dog or the cat (or whatever) seldom has a say in what for it is going to be a lifelong commitment--one that involves shitting and pissing on somebody else's schedule and somebody else's terms, one that involves somebody else deciding when it's time to be "put down" or whether those pesty little things called gonads are entirely necessary, one that, for the single pet, is going to require a great deal of solitude for species that are basically pack oriented.
My mind was set at ease, a few years later, when I learned that social anthropologists think that evolutionarily dogs, at least (and perhaps cats as well), picked humans as companions, not the other way around, gradually ingratiating themselves with sloppy eaters and, through natural selection, developing those traits (those eyes, mainly) that would most likely endear them to humans. It's an explanation that makes sense, though I'd be hard pressed to give you the supporting evidence for it.
But today I was looking at pet ownership from the other end, my end. What really is the point of my having a dog? I can't have meaningful conversations with him. I can't fuck him. I can't eat him. There aren't even very many places I go that I can take him. He can't help out with chores. He has no income. His value added is clearly somewhere other than in the material, social, and economic end of things.
That leaves the spiritual end of things, of course, but I was always told that dogs don't have souls. They most certainly have no religion ... or morals ... or very many scruples at all. I have subsequently heard the other side of the debate--St Francis, etc.--though as a former bible-believing, faith-based churchgoer, I am slow to shed some of the old prejudices, prejudices that say that animals, at best, have spirits but not souls ... and that souls are the thing to have if you want eternal life. That's what I was told, anyway.
Now what's the difference between the spirit and the soul? I don't know. My best guess is that the spirit is the personality side of things (dogs have LOADS of personality) and the soul is the moralizing side of things (dogs don't know right from wrong, though they seem to understand that taking a shit on the bed is uncool).
Now even before I disassociated myself from the Christians because of meanness (theirs, I'd say, but they'd say mine), this soul/spirit divide caused me to doubt. The soul goes to heaven, but the body and the spirit die--the god will give you a new body and a new spirit, ones that don't mind singing the god's praises for all eternity and ones that don't mind that some of your friends and some of the most interesting people you've ever heard of are spending an eternity in hell.
But the part of you that had a cock has to stay behind, and the part of you that likes barbecue will have to stay behind too, and the part that, in your earthly existence, would be pissed off at the thought that Pat Robertson, George W. Bush, and the Pope get to live right down those streets of gold from you, just a hop, skip, and a jump from your ivory mansion, but Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Reeves, and Jimi Hendrix, would be roasting eternally in the devil's hibachi, that's the part of you that won't get anywhere near the celestial city.
So, then, here's the deal: your sex parts, your personal likes and dislikes, and your dog will be left behind, but your low self-esteem due to a guilty conscience and your impulse to brown-nose authority figures, those get to thrive for an eternity? That was just about the time I said no deal to the bible, the church, and, yes, my eternal soul too. Not worth it. There's more of real heaven in a smudge of precum, a wittily phrased putdown, and the wag of my dog's tail than in all the lobotomized glories I hear described by the faithful. No sir. I'm not buying it.
But anyway I was talking about pet ownership. So what's the point? Here's what I decided. What Ripley gives me is a sense of wonder. He keeps me on my toes. He sniffs a spot on the roadside curb and I wonder not so much what he's smelling, that much I can figure out, but mainly what he thinks about it. I wonder what he'd say if he could talk--and, if he had any sort of self-consciousness, what he thinks the meaning of existence is, his, mine, and ours.
Of course, Wittgenstein told us that if a lion could speak, we could not understand him. I guess that goes for dogs too, then. But it's the very language-less-ness of our pets that fascinates us, isn't it?
Ripley moved his bed just so he could get in that bit of sunlight streaming through the window. He wasn't cold, though. He just likes the feeling of the sun on his rump. Why? Well, I was wondering that, and that led me to wonder why I like the feeling of the sun on me. I guess it's because it's like you're being touched by a living thing. We like the warmth of a body cuddled up next to ours in bed, we like long, fierce, greedy hugs, and we like the sun's heat bearing down on our skin. At the beach we even get as close to nakedness as we have the nerve for, just so we can feel the sunshine all over our bodies.
So the sun reminds us of life, right now. Not so much in a hereafter, but at this moment. I'm alive and I feel, and the feeling is good. And I like the feeling of other living things, curling up beside me, or sniffing my scent, or bearing down upon me from the sky. And even better than the sunshine, my dog has a heart that beats (I love that about him) and a knack for letting me know stuff, some of it pretty important, without his saying a single word.
All I got to say is "Wow." Bow wow.
Posted by Joe at 4:43 PM