Saturday, April 08, 2017

To all the dogs I've loved

I can’t imagine what the dogs that run into Paul and I must think of us these days, trailing what must be bits of the scent of a dozen or more dogs on us at this point. Our itinerant way of life this past year has brought us many animal companions for periods of intimate living, and I’m sure it doesn’t all come out in the wash.
    It’s been quite the animal-companion year since returning to the Island last May: standard poodle; Chinese crested hairless; Australian shepherd; Chihuahua; pug mix; poodle mix; shepherd mix; fluffy-dog mix; Schnauzer mix. Cats that live indoors. Cats that live outside. Alpacas, a llama and 28 chickens. We’ve gotten to know so many animals in the intimacy of their own homes.
    You definitely end up sharing a lot of experiences with animals when you look after other people’s pets. I’ve slept with dogs I barely knew. All of us learn each other’s food quirks, poo quirks, good and bad habits and lines in the sand in very short order. It’s a bit like a longish fling, where both of you know it’s not going to last and so just plunge in head-long.
    As you might expect, people’s pets are often quite unsettled initially to find you moving into their home. Imagine how any of us would feel if a stranger announced herself at our door and set about doing things differently. Meanwhile, your own beloved pack members have inexplicably flown the coop. Any animal would be weirded out by that turn of events. 
    But here’s the glorious secret about dogs and cats: As long as you start right in consistently feeding them, petting them, treating them kindly and taking them for fun walks, you’re going to be their good pal in about two days. They still love their owners the most, of course, but you will be a fondly regarded substitute, like a favourite relative who can be counted on to sneak you a raw marrow bone once in a while, throw in an extra scoop of kibble, take you on a ramble up Mount Doug.

(The one glaring exception is our friend Kim and Adrian’s cat Joe, who we have yet to see in any of our stays and know only for his waste in the litter box and gradually emptying kibble dish. I accused Kim of making Joe up, but other housesitters then posted Facebook pictures of the elusive cat happily receiving their cuddles. Knife in the heart, Joe.)
    I’ve always loved all dogs, but it was our two-plus years in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, that got me thinking about them in a completely different way.
    The small gated courtyard at our house there turned out to be a refuge for medium-sized, skinny stray dogs - usually nursing females– of a size that could squeeze through the bars and take a break from the scene in the cool of our patio. Naturally, we set out food and water, which brought even more, although almost everyone initially turned up their nose at dog kibble. (I used to make chicken gizzard toppings to lure our fussy visitors into eating dog food.)
With nobody but themselves to govern their lives, the dogs socialized themselves. They knew which streets to walk on, which dogs and humans to give a wide berth to.  They’d figured out that battling over nothing was a tremendous waste of energy in a town that never had enough for a dog to eat, and so fought with each other on only the rarest of occasions.
    As for humans, virtually all of the dogs categorized people as beings that were best mistrusted but at the same time coveted, because they had the food. So once a Copan street dog trusted you enough to let you touch it, the dog was yours, a realization that brought me all kinds of guilt when we came back to Canada and could bring only one dog back.
    I also saw that many of the dogs loved the freedom of street life, some even more than they loved the certainty of a comfortable home. A domesticated dog in a pet-loving society like ours gets a longer, safer and more consistent life out of the deal, but that’s not to deny the appeal of a life of genuine freedom and all the food-laden garbage cans a dog can toss in a night.
    A Canadian dog lives a life far removed from that of a Copan street dog, which on top of going hungry also exists in a culture that doesn’t do dog worship. But Adored Pet status does mean giving up freedom. My favourite times with other people’s dogs are when the dogs and I go off on a mild adventure to someplace where they can sniff, dig, and look completely excited to be alive while enjoying the illusion that nobody's the boss of them.
The long off-leash foray through the forest. Bounding along a rocky shore. The chance to check out other dogs without your human getting overly involved. The pleasure of a dog treat from a stranger’s coat pocket. A taste of the wild life.
    And then home shortly after to a warm bed, good food and maybe even a free lap. Who’s going to argue with that?

Friday, February 17, 2017

May we be bent but not broken by the grief and despair of a post-Trump world

    Ever since the election of Donald Trump three months ago, it's like I can't get my feet underneath me. I’m not even sure what I mean by that – just that it’s like having firm ground that you’ve always stood on suddenly rocking beneath you, shaking up everything you thought you knew.
    On top of that, my mother died Jan. 7. The impact was something the same. Both things amounted to the painful destruction of fundamental beliefs that I built my life on.
    In the case of Trump, I realized with his election that contrary to what I’d thought, we weren’t getting better as a society - that all the positive social and cultural changes I’ve seen in my lifetime in North American society aren’t real changes at all, because a frightening percentage of the public is just aching to hate somebody as a stand-in for all the things that haven’t gone right in their own lives.
    In the case of my mother, I lost the one person who could always be counted on to show up for me my entire life. Between her and Trump, it ended up being a one-two combination that has really knocked me off my game.
    I think it’s a type of broken heart, this feeling. I feel it like a psychic illness, making me huddle into myself and minimize contact with the outside world. All the things I cared about passionately just three short months ago now feel pointless, because the solid ground that I thought we were building on for social change turned out to be shifting sand.
    I’m aware that I have to get through this slump. Otherwise, I risk becoming one of those people who end up bitter and chronically sad. I don’t yet know what “getting well” will entail, but figure I’ll know it when I feel it. I’m counting on spring.
    I was bound to enter a period of mourning after Mom died, but I’m pretty sure the Trump election has actually been the bigger blow to my psyche. My mother’s death was sad but inevitable, after all, while the ascendancy of Trump is a horrifying development of global magnitude.
    It would be handy at times like this to be able to disconnect from the world and just shut the door on all the bits of news and “alternate facts” contributing to this paralyzing state of low-level despair. Could I just turn away from it all and live in happy ignorance?
    Alas, not only would my inner journalist never tolerate such a thing, I am a mother and grandmother, with an extended family of people I care about. If nothing else, I must find hope again so I can continue the fight and not just crumple to the ground under the weight of all the ugliness. I did not have children so that they could live on a planet in which a man like Donald Trump runs a major civilized nation.
    One of the things I liked best about living and working in Central America is the feeling of being in countries that were on their way up. They’re not there yet, but they’re working on it. There was always such a sense of possibility.
    In the U.S., and at times in Canada, it feels to me like we’ve peaked and are on our way down. Our laws and fancy declarations still make us appear like we’re committed, but a lot of times it feels like we’re devolving. And while people like me have been thinking that the goal was to build an ever more inclusive, tolerant and equal society, it’s clear now that there are a whole lot of people who aren’t like me.
    This is particularly true in the United States, though not exclusively. (We will not soon forget the former Harper government’s promise of a “Barbaric Cultural Practices” hotline.) I do understand the righteous rage that fuelled the U.S. election upset, if not the dangerous clown that the populace wrongly thought would be their saviour. There has been a big price to pay for these last 30 or so years of political drift toward global markets, fewer taxes, and increasingly self-interested governments that aren’t concerned with growing inequality because they’re always the ones on top no matter what.
    Anyway. I have nothing but words at the moment, and we all know now that all the words in the world don’t count for much in the grand scheme of things. These days I feel like I have nothing more to say, and that I’d be better off to just go bird-watching or for long walks with somebody’s dog or small child, talking about nothing more than the seaweed at the shoreline or the snow in the trees. But I think that’s probably just a part of this grief.
    I know there are many other people out there who are as affected by Trump’s election as I am. I feel sure our energies are going to find each other one day soon and lift us out of this ennui. I think I need a good old-fashioned protest – a sign in my hand, a whole lot of people in the street to remind me that yes, we stand up for ourselves when challenged.
    Two things I know: I won’t always be sad; and I am a hopeless optimist, a genetic characteristic that can’t be beaten out of me even by the likes of Trump. This too shall pass.