Blind dogs, ethics, money, and other considerations

If your dog has a good life, you can take most of the credit. If you dog has a crummy life, you can take most of the blame. This makes it hard to own a dog.

But why would your dog have a crummy life?

Many reasons. For example, I have a blue heeler and a miniature schnauzer. The schnauzer only asks for affection, but the blue heeler was born to run from sun-up to sundown. Until she got old, no amount of exercise that I could give her was enough. I tore rotator cuffs in both shoulders partly from throwing her ball with a throwing stick hundreds of times a week for a decade, yet I never threw it enough. This is why I will never have another blue heeler. It ain’t ethical to buy a dog who has needs that you can’t provide, but I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew she was a herd dog, but I thought that just meant she had the ability to run all day, not that she needed to run all day.

Her name is Bonnie. I named her that because she is beautiful. Last week, she stopped eating. I figured she was under the weather, but I had no idea that she was critically ill until Christmas day when she could barely stand. I took her to the emergency veterinary hospital, and they diagnosed her with autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Her hematocrit count was 10%, which was one point above being “incompatible with life.” The treatment estimate was $1,500 at the low end, just to stabilize her. Bonnie is twelve, which is the average life expectancy for her breed. She is also blind. Peggy was at work, but I knew that she would want to spend whatever it took. Still, I demurred until I called her.

Bonnie spent the next two nights at the edge of death. Yesterday, I was advised to take her home, not because she was doing great, but because they had done all they could for her. I was unable to shove pills down her throat with my arm in a sling, and Peggy had flown to North Carolina hours earlier, so my neighbors helped with the medication. I spent the next twenty hours desperately trying to get Bonnie to eat and drink, and watching for signs of respiratory distress. Her breathing was so slow that, many times, I thought she was dead. For hours on end, she would lie completely still with her eyes open. Meanwhile, my shoulders hurt; the day—like most Oregon days in winter—was cold and gray and, to top things off, I broke my glasses.

As usual, I had to drug myself to quiet the pain enough to go to sleep in my recliner last night with ice packs on both shoulders. Even then, I awakened several times to see if Bonnie was still alive and to offer her food and water. Today being Monday, I called her usual vet as soon as his office opened, and was told to bring her right over. She was looking a little better by then. With his fee, her medical bill is now at $1,900.

I’m frugal. I was raised by people who never took a dog or a cat to the vet no matter what. Then there is Bonnie’s advanced age and the fact that she’s blind. It hurts to spend the money, but I couldn’t forgive myself if I let her die without a fight. She wouldn’t let me die without a fight. But what is the limit of what I am willing to spend—$5,000, $10,000? I don’t know. I hope I never find out.

I look at pictures of how she was just a few short years ago. The second hardest thing about owning a dog is that they age so fast.

When Bonnie moved in, she weighed three pounds and, being a herd dog, she naturally assumed that she had been hired as the household CEO. Peggy was at a loss. She couldn’t bring herself to come down hard on Bonnie, so Bonnie ran all over her. I had no such problem. Our dominance struggle came to a head one night when Bonnie was six months old, and we were alone. When she took my supper off the TV tray with me sitting there looking at her, I shook my finger in her face, and she bit it—hard. Her eyes immediately got big because she realized that she had overextended. There commenced a chase through the house, which ended when I cornered her in the laundry room and slammed the door behind me. I flipped her onto her back, and lay on top of her screaming, “Goddamn you, you better never fucking bite me again you little Australian sack of shit!” She was so scared she wet herself. You probably won’t find captioned illustrations of this particular dog training technique in any book, but it worked wonderfully. True, she has bitten me since then, but it was always in some context that I could understand if not appreciate. For example, if we were roughhousing and I got carried away. That night was the last time I ever felt the need to scold Bonnie harshly. Since then, if I but raise my voice to her, she looks as if her world has collapsed.

Peggy and Bonnie eventually worked out their own relationship, but it took years. For awhile, Peggy would get exasperated and say, “Make Bonnie obey me,” but I ended that scheme pretty quickly because I didn’t want to undermine what little authority Peggy had.

I didn’t want to buy Bonnie, and we weren’t even looking for a dog when we got her, but Peggy saw her (in a pet shop window I’m ashamed to say since it probably means she came from a puppy mill), and felt that their souls were psychically bound. Coming from a decidedly non woo-woo Peggy, that was quite a statement. A few weeks later, I came home to find Peggy so angry she wanted to take Bonnie to the pound. Bonnie had gotten mad for no good reason that Peggy could see and had bitten her hard enough to draw blood. “Ha, ha, ha,” I asked, “whatever happened to your psychic bond? Ha, ha, ha.” Strangely enough, my show of compassion didn’t assuage Peggy’s anger, but time did—as I knew it would. Peggy is nothing if not loyal.

Now, today, Bonnie is on the floor beside me, and I don’t know if she will be alive this time tomorrow. I’ve lost dogs, and I’ve lost parents, but dogs are harder, partly because they’re so much like children, and partly because the relationship lacks all the emotional baggage.

Used to be that when something I loved died, I was just bummed over that one death. Now, when something I love dies, it’s as if all the deaths of everything I ever did and ever will love are encapsulated in that death. It’s one thing to know in theory that all things will die in some seemingly remote future, but quite another to understand to the core of my bones how much it will hurt when they do and how quickly that future will come. Only Peggy’s death could grieve me more than Bonnie’s.

One day, Bonnie discovered that she could carry her ball and her Frisbee at the same time by upturning her Frisbee and placing her ball in the hollow. What’s really uncanny about many dogs—Bonnie more than most—is how seemingly psychic they are. When Peggy and I go somewhere, Bonnie and Baxter (our schnauzer) always want to go too, but Bonnie knows long before we leave whether we’re taking them or not, whereas Baxter is clueless until we go out the gate. How do I know she knows? Because she sits in the corner, growls, and looks morose. Even now that she’s blind, she still figures it out in some way that I can’t imagine.

Two dogs died while Peggy and I were at the emergency veterinary hospital. I learned about their deaths from the wails of their humans. I have seldom witnessed men crying audibly in public. Peggy said the crying made things harder for her. I had the opposite response. Often, I get so lost in my grief that I feel as if I’m alone in hell while the rest of the world is going happily on its way. After all, as I move through my day, I rarely witness obvious misery. People—in offices and stores—look like they’re okay. Maybe the reason I was drawn to working in ambulances, hospitals, and funeral homes when I was a young man was because I wanted to witness grief as a way to come to terms with my own grief. I never have though.

When Bonnie dies, my world, as I know it, will end, and things will never be the same. I know this because I never get over any death of a loved one. The sorrow lessens, it is true, but all those sorrows together also accumulate, and my heart grows heavier with the years, and with the thought that Peggy—and I, but especially Peggy—only have two or three decades left. We celebrated our 38th anniversary on December 19, and if those years passed rapidly, how much more rapidly will our remaining time pass?

My heart is a sea of grief. I cannot save that which I love, no matter how much I love it, no matter how hard I try, and no matter how much money I spend.

“Be ye in the world but not of the world.”

Jesus said that. Ted Kaczynski and John Allen Muhammad were two of the many who lived it for their own reasons and in their own ways.

After my surgery in March, I either took narcotics or sleeping pills but never both together. Now that I’m in pain from that surgery and from this surgery, I take whatever it takes to get some sleep, usually 300 mgs of Demerol and a kick-ass sleeping pill. During the day, I feel off-balance, monotone, and incommunicative, a remote observer of the world but not a participant—welcome or otherwise—in the world. I wouldn’t choose to live this way, but it’s interesting place to visit. For one thing, it leads me to wonder whether loners are typically cynical and anti-social because they unfairly deprecate the virtues of their fellowman or because their remoteness permits a more astute discernment.

My reading has been two biographies of Robert E. Howard—the creator of Conan the Barbarian—whose own sense of separateness led him to commit suicide at age thirty. To feel so separate from life while reading about someone with whom I can exquisitely identify, someone who was shunned and ridiculed by the society he hated, accentuates my alienation.

You see, I think it possible that I understand Tim McVeigh (about whom I’ve also read) and others like him who were considered too monstrous to deserve understanding even if it were possible. Let me be clear. I don’t defend indiscriminate killing, but neither do I find it inconceivable that a person could turn to it. I’ll share some fantasies that are intended to illustrate my point, although they might simply make you doubt my sanity.

In one fantasy, I have six months to live, plenty of money, and no family. I can expect to maintain my strength and faculties right up until the end. How might I spend these months, I ask myself. Should I party, travel, volunteer at an animal shelter, write a book, drink a lot of booze and eat a lot of chocolate? The possibilities seem endless, but in my fantasy, I think that, well, what if I traveled about the country and snuffed a few greedy lawyers, politicians, and CEOs—the kind of people everyone hates but no one can touch. Steal $50 from a 7-11 and go to prison. Steal millions from the public, have the taxpayer save your ass, and give yourself a bonus. Nobody can get to these guys, and that’s not right. The question in my mind is not whether they deserve to die, but whether it would be a good idea to kill them.

Here’s where you might remind me about the rule of law. If you believe in the rule of law, good for you, but tell me, how many robber barons do you see in prison? Jeffrey Skilling and Bernie Madoff. Congratulations, that’s two. Do you know how outrageous they had to become and how long they had to stay that way before the SEC, the Justice Department, and other law enforcement agencies could no longer feign ignorance? Look at the millions of people they harmed and the billions of dollars they lost, and tell me about your faith in the system. Don’t you get it? The system is created by the very people who are making a killing from it. If a 7-11 bandit conglomerate owned Congress, they would make themselves eligible for a government bailout if they had a bad year robbing convenience stores. The lawmakers, bankers, pharmaceutical executives, insurance conglomerates, and others who get rich by screwing us are NOT on our side and they are NEVER going to do anything to help us that they don’t have to do to stay in power. For sure, they don’t want a revolution, but they know that as long as most of us can afford SUVs, wide-screen TVs, and other societal opiates, we’re not really going to demand action about needlessly dying ecosystems or needlessly dying people. You see it in the healthcare debate: “I’ve got insurance, so why should I care about you, loser?”

So, someone takes it into his head to make like Charles Bronson in Death Wish, only instead of killing petty thieves and back alley murderers, he snuffs bigtime thieves and legalized murderers. Would it make a difference? I don’t know. I hearken back to the little boy on the beach who was busy throwing stranded fish into the water when a cynical old man pointed out that he wasn’t making any real difference given the enormity of the problem. “I made a difference to that one,” the boy responded.

You’re not going to make the world a really great place no matter what you do. Take my fantasy. I couldn’t kill enough bad men to get them all, and others would replace them anyway. Then too, the question arises as to who is bad. Is a hedge fund manager worse than his shoeshine boy because he’s less virtuous or because he’s more powerful? I suspect the latter, and this points to a major problem with any attempt to better the world.

Remember the United Auto Workers? In the sixties, all the hell these guys did was strike. Their dinky little assembly line jobs took every bit of thirty minutes to learn, yet they had one thing going for them as a substitute for skill, drive, creativity, and intelligence—they had a network of allied unions that absolutely scared the bejesus out of management. The benefits they received ran the price of cars through the roof almost overnight and were a significant factor in the eventual failure of the Big Three. No, it’s not just the richest who are the greediest. It’s not really even about income. It’s about power, and the fact is that the people who have the most money are usually the people who have the most power. So, let’s say that I was able to kill every last exploitative CEO in America, it wouldn’t make any lasting difference. It might feel good, like shooting the man who raped your sister might feel good, but in a few days or years, the killings would be just be another story in a yellowing newspaper.

So, what’s a guy with such a dismal appraisal of the human race to do? For one thing, I’m not really likely to roam the night with a sniper rife, and this leaves but two complementary possibilities. One is to follow the example of the little boy on the beach by doing however much direct good I can, and the second is to avoid collusion with evil. The first is easy enough, but the second is more than I am willing to take on because it would mean, for one thing, not paying taxes when I know full well that the government is going to use my tax money to promote evil. Now, if I lived alone, I could image pulling this off with considerable success, but it would mean an austere and secretive lifestyle that I can’t very well impose on Peggy.

I’m not even sure but what voting amounts to collusion with evil because it gives tacit support to the fiction that the people are in charge when the only real power the people have is to choose between candidates pre-approved by corporations, and one must ask oneself how different they are anyway. Face it, no candidate who fails to win the support of a sizeable number of corporations is going to have a prayer, yet the only way to win the support of corporations is to sell your soul. Republicans seem more amendable to this than Democrats, which is why I support Democrats, but it’s a dirty choice to have to make when the guy who I really want to support, I rarely do support because I know he can’t win without corporate backing.

Obama capped-out as last week—as far as I was concerned—when he accepted that Nobel Peace Prize. Peace through war? Sure, why not? Just think of all the wars America has waged during my lifetime alone, and just look at how peaceful we’ve made the world. I wondered how Bin Laden’s speech would have differed from Obama's if he had won the Nobel Peace Prize (if one warring leader can win it, why not another?). He too would have spoke of creating peace through war, but he might have wavered a little when he got to the part about assuring the strait-laced and strait-faced Nobel audience that HIS war would be a nice war in which only the most humane rules for killing people were followed.

My knowledge of war would indicate that ALL rules go out the window when (a) one side is at a significant disadvantage or (b) the rewards of abandoning them are considerable. For example, what happened to America’s humane rules when we bombed Tokyo, Hiroshima, Dresden, and Nagasaki; or when we supported countless rulers who tortured and impoverished their own people; or when we violated the basic rights of our own citizens through the Patriot Act or the rights of foreign citizens through rendition and enhanced interrogation; or when we stole Native American lands, violated every treaty we ever made with them, and adopted a “nits make lice” policy toward their children; or when we lied repeatedly about attacks—or planned attacks—on our country in order to rally support for attacking somebody else’s country? And how about our rules regarding “acceptable collateral damage” (i.e. the number of innocent bystanders it’s okay to kill)? Would these deaths be acceptable if they were in Omaha instead of Kabul? Inquiring minds want to know.

Maybe Obama means that we’ve become a “kinder, gentler people” (as Bush so laughably put it) just within the past few days. I really don’t know—maybe I was too drugged to hear the news. I do know that I don’t want to pay for these wars, or these politicians, or these bankers, or this endless waste and destruction that define what it means to be an American.

Vote to change America? I might was well vote to change the orbit of Mars, but if I do ever vote again, it will be for the guy who says, “War sucks, and if I’m elected, I’m going to get us the hell out.” I’ve had it with knuckling under in the name of practicality. Voting for Obama was the end of the road. It’s a damn shame that nobody who has a chance of winning can be trusted.

Remember, they belong to the same species as you

I am ashamed to admit that I regularly try to deceive myself into thinking that my species is more intelligent than I actually believe it to be. I do this because it's so damn depressing to think that decisions that affect millions of people, if not the entire planet, are in the hands of morons. This video raked its way across my brain like a road burn. Do I then think that liberals or independents would have responded to similar questions with more intelligence? Not necessarily, but conceivably. I say this because Palin Republicans take pride in their Joe Sixpack anti-intellectualism. Other voters might be equally ignorant, but they don't imply that ignorance is a virtue by referring only to the provincial and the undereducated as "real Americans." Remember, these book-buyers are not apathetic voters; these are true believers who might reasonably be expected to know something about the issues. Of course, it's possible that the interviewer rejected a thousand intelligent supporters in favor of thirty of the other variety. One can but hope.

Under the nice surgeon's knife and out again

My two-hour surgery started yesterday morning at 8:00. The nerve block wore off last night at 1:00, so I took a sleeping pill and two Percocets. When they didn’t help, I had no choice but to wait four hours before moving up to Demerol, but even with Demerol, the pain forced me from my chair every 45 minutes. Once up, I would stumble about the house for a while, catch up on a blog or two, and change out my ice pack. As crappy as the night was, the pain was physical rather than emotional, and physical pain is nearly always easier to bear. Indeed, I’ve grown so accustomed to it that I’m confident in my strength to endure it, plus I see no place to go but up, the pain being so outrageously bad that it’s darkly funny.

Speaking of things that are darkly funny, I had a good late night chuckle when I damn near tripped over my blind dog and crashed through the living room window, which measures four feet by seven feet. Such a dramatic exit from a warm house onto a cold sidewalk would have capped the day off nicely, I thought. One thing about the universe is that no matter how much crap it throws at you, there’s still plenty in reserve.

Despite the pain, I’m high on the fact that my surgery has become an event of history rather than a source of dread. I fully expect months of misery, but I can almost make out a light at the end of the tunnel, and that feels really good.

Upon losing followers

I lost another follower today. Sometimes, I offend people because I don’t make myself clear; other times because I do. Causing offense is one of the downsides of being: (a) utterly opinionated; (b) seeing myself as the smartest person in the universe; (c) not really liking or respecting humanity in general; and (d) being totally off-the-wall terrified about my upcoming surgery and therefore less than sensitive to people’s feelings.

For months, my list of followers grew, and I became increasingly distressed because I couldn’t keep up with their blogs as diligently as some of them kept up with mine. Now, I’m slowly losing followers. In one way, I’m glad because I can start getting a handle on paying attention to those who have remained loyal. In another way, I’m sad because it reinforces my belief that I’m not terribly likeable. How ironic, this desire to be loved by everyone despite the fact that I give most people little reason to love me. I would like them to see beyond the gruff exterior behind which I often appear and to realize that it’s partially composed of scar tissue, but why should I expect so much from people whose intelligence I credit so little? Because I want to be proven wrong.

Here’s the thing. I agonize over this blog. You would not believe the hours I put into trying to get to the core truths behind every post, trying to weed out every superfluous word. I like to think I’m good at this. I like to think my blog is more deserving of your attention than those many blogs that are, in effect, stream of consciousness diaries. Do I succeed? Hell if I know. I often edit until I can scarcely make sense of what I’ve written. To understand what I mean, think of how your impression of a song changes after it has been stuck in your head for days, or how you feel when you stand so close to a painting that you can no longer see what it represents.

When I lost that follower today, it strengthened my conviction that who I am within my deepest self is never going to have mass appeal. My writing will mean a lot to a few but less than nothing to the many. They will find me heavy, intense, cynical, and irreverent, and I will find them silly, credulous, and superficial. Yet, writing, for me, is a matter of such deep integrity that I can unhesitatingly promise you that I will do my best to represent myself fully in the areas into which I delve; not simply as an exercise in omphaloskepsis, but as a way to get to some truth that I can but hope will resonate with your own truth. At best, my truth will stimulate you to look more deeply for your own truth, even though it differs from mine.

Today, I have little time to edit because I am down to measuring the time until surgery in hours rather than days, but what this post lacks in care, perhaps it makes up for in passion.

I’m so wired I don’t need coffee

Surgeons rarely kill people. They might screw them up, but they don’t normally leave them dead as a doornail on the operating table. Anesthesiologists are more likely to do that. How weird is it then that people choose their surgeons but take whichever anesthesiologist walks through the door? I made a big deal today of requesting the same anesthesiologist I had in March. I liked how he dealt with my sleep apnea, and he and Mark (my surgeon) obviously liked one another.

This brings me to another thing to ponder when you’re having surgery. You want to do what little you can to insure that your surgical team works well together because a successful surgery is never a one man affair. This is why I didn’t ask Mark to operate at my usual hospital—the big one where Peggy works—even though Peggy wanted me to. Better for me to be in a strange environment than for him to be in a strange environment.

I went both to the hospital and to Mark’s office for my pre-op today. The lady at the hospital smiled when she said I wouldn’t “have to be stuck” for blood tests. I said I wanted to be stuck, so she stuck me. The negative results were welcome after all these months of heavy medications.

The lady at Mark’s office said he would be in shortly to talk to me about my upcoming shoulder replacement. “I’m not having a shoulder replacement,” I said. “I’m having arthroscopic surgery on my left rotator cuff, which is to include an acromioplasty, a bursectomy, a supraspinatus repair, a glenohumeral joint debridement, articular cartilage restoration, and a few other odds and ends, but no shoulder replacement.” “Since the surgery on your right shoulder went so badly, he wants to go ahead and replace your left one at the outset,” she said. Peggy and I looked at one another. When Mark came in, he said there had been a mix-up.

If I didn’t trust him, I would have needed an explanation, but a good patient needs a good doctor more than a good doctor needs a good patient so I don’t rock the boat unless it matters. Besides, we had a lot to talk about. Like the following, which I wrote for him and will condense for you. It might not look like much, but it contains considerable learning, some of which might be of benefit to you someday.

“Prescription-related challenges and requests”

“Sleeping in a chair while in pain was a major problem last time (I was in that chair for four months), and I fear it will be this time too.

“I’ve learned that a good sleeping pill is often preferable to a narcotic because it: (1) enables me to get to sleep sitting in a chair, (2) enables me to stay asleep through a surprising amount of pain, (3) lasts twice as long, and (4) doesn’t make me itch. I would therefore like to rely on sleeping pills more and narcotics less. The Restoril you prescribed works well, but one can develop a tolerance in ten days, so I did some research and came up with Dalmane as a reasonable companion.

“Ron at Peace Health Pharmacy agreed that Dalmane is my “best bet” as a companion to the Restoril, and added that it has the advantage of being stronger and longer acting. I also have some Ambien on hand, but he confirmed my observation that it isn’t all that strong and wears off quickly. My insurance requires prior authorization for Ambien CR, but I have a coupon for a four-night sample if you see fit to authorize it. I also have a coupon for a week’s worth of Lunesta—which is also a wuss drug compared to Restoril and Dalmane.

“The reason I am so enamored of sleeping pills is that I’ve never had a really great experience with a narcotic whereas (aside from a little day-after grogginess) I’ve never had a bad experience with a sleeping pill. Of course, I’ll never complain that you’re ordering too many blood tests to verify that I’m not inadvertently poisoning myself.

“So, here is what I would request.

A painkiller. Maybe more Demerol, since it’s the only narcotic that doesn’t make me itch.

Dalmane (flurazepam hydrochloride). 30 mg is the usual dose. If you specify tablets rather than capsules, I can start with half a dose (I always prefer tablets for this reason). As with everything else, I can get three months’ worth for the price of two, so if you prescribe 90, I won’t need a second prescription.

“I’m set for Restoril and I don't need a prescription to buy all the stool softener that a person could ever want to own.”

Mark gave me what I wanted but not as much as I wanted. Sometimes, he will give me a lot of something, and other times he won’t. I can see no rhyme or reason in this, so I suspect it’s simply a matter of mood or attentiveness, but I never ask about it. These drugs are addictive, and that alone makes it impolitic to ask for bigger bottles. Just asking for a particular mood-altering drug can put a doctor on guard, yet I do it all the time because I’ve learned that I have to be my own authority to an extent. No doctor can know what works for me, and no doctor will spend one one-thousandth as much time as I will focused on what I need. In my experience, most doctors aren’t even that good at pain control. They basically have one or two favorite drugs that they give to everyone who walks through the door. Some doctors even view a patient's request for pain control as a sign of weakness or addiction. They are unworthy of their profession. People in pain need to feel empowered.

I spend so much time thinking about and reading about drugs that I even give them personalities. Vicodin? A skinny little nymph for those days when you need just a whiff of a narcotic. Norco? Vicodin’s big sister (her parents didn’t want a baby back then, and that’s why they gave her that crappy name.) Percocet? Full-figured and cuddly. Demerol? The thinking man’s drug because it makes a man sit and think—even when he would prefer to get up and do something. Ambien? When it’s 3:00 a.m., and I’m not in a lot of pain but I can’t get back to sleep either, Ambien comes like a sleepy-time angel with long white wings and a long white gown. Restoril? A fatherly hand that covers my eyes and drowns my pain in the waters of oblivion.

As I approach this latest surgery, my main comfort is that the things I’ve learned should give me a better shot at sleep and pain control even if this recovery is as bad as the one I started in March—for which I still sleep with ice packs. And, who knows—maybe it won’t be as bad. After a little vodka, I can even think of it as a grand adventure—sort of like a trip to an exotic land, only with a lot of pain and disability thrown-in at no extra charge.

But even if it is as bad, things could still be A LOT worse. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer's, kidney failure, liver cancer, complex regional pain syndrome, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis… Yes, things could be worse. I have no real complaint, but sometimes I get carried away by fear as if fear were itself a drug. I picture it as a big horse with frantic eyes and frothing lips. It keeps running faster and faster, and I struggle mightily just to stay in the saddle because to fall would be unthinkable.