Friday, November 30, 2007


Deep inside me, there is something that probably looks like an egg timer. I hear it ticking. I don't know who put it there. But it rings loudly, insistently, about three and a half hours after I leave the house. It's not asking me to turn the oven off. It wants me to come home to my dog. It makes a loud noise so that I might know she needs to relieve herself.

The thought of someone being unable to meet his or her basic needs--the itch that needs to be scratched, the wings that need to be spread, the stomach that needs to be fed, the bladder that needs to be emptied--it's like a burr under my tail. I can't bloody stand it. The dog who is left home for ten hours (and there are a lot of them, left by otherwise "good" people) is left in anxiety, boredom, and an aching need to go to the bathroom. For some reason, I feel their pain. Way too much.

Who put that there in me? I sort of wish they'd get it out: I often feel like the character played by Andie MacDowell in sex, lies and videotape. She sits in her shrink's office while her life falls apart, and she frets about the garbage barges denied landfall, forced to circle endlessly without having their basic needs (unloading) met. Displacement? Yeah, sure. In the sense that all empathy is displacement.

Empathy is two burrs under two tails: one a real one, the other a phantom pain borrowed by the brain with an imagination, and a history of having known burrs.

One of the great pleasures of parenthood is eavesdropping on childish conversations. Children's belief that grownups aren't somehow human--I remember that I myself had no conception what those tall, bossy beings actually were; I only knew they sure weren't me--causes them to speak to their friends as if you weren't there. Maybe you're not. But the other day, I was privy to an extraordinary discussion. An eight-year-old (guess whose) was somberly lecturing his six-year-old compatriot on the nature of empathy. He was reaching for an example. "Well, it's like when I see a horse pulling a plow. It makes me feel tired."

In that moment, I thought, If he never advances beyond this, he will have attained something so few on this earth ever do. I felt the breath taken from me.

Then the six-year-old noticed I was in fact there. He returned the wind to my lungs. "Melissa, when you get old and die I'll be sad." Well, that'll make me feel better. He helpfully added, "I always feel that way when someone who has given me something gets sick." For an elaboration of empathy--not to mention a forceful reminder that yet another birthday is about to beat the door down, and it's not my usual 39th again, either--you don't get truer than that.

Why does the individual evolutionary tree have two branches, one leading to an ability to feel others' pain as one's own; the other to a blithe ignorance that, say, permits someone to leave their dog untended, or to look at plastic-wrapped trays of red matter in the grocery case and see only plastic-wrapped trays of red matter? What made my son feel the weariness of the workhorse in his own muscles?

Psychology has complete explanations, of course. But I am looking at this from the point of view of the only religion that matters, the only one that makes any sense: the church of compassion. I am looking at it from the point of view of Nelly, who after a day running around in the woods, and some yogurt and eggs, and some tossed sticks, and some unspoken conversation with a pinup of an Aussie, and some trips outside to empty her bladder, has made a perfect oval of herself on a chair in front of the woodstove. I can feel it when I look at her. And this happiness, hers, is mine.


Paul Kowacki said...

Melissa, Thanks for discussing the issue of our dogs' basic needs. You used one example, of a physical need; I often wonder about their mental/emotional needs. Mostly, the dogs we live with were originally bred to perform very specific jobs, or to exhibit certain behaviors. But of course as our human lives have morphed into something remotely akin to that for which it appears we evolved, our dogs have been dragged along. Retrievers attempt to retrieve, but are prevented; border collies compulsively try to herd, and are punished for being underfoot, etc, etc. We, as "enlightened" humans value our own self-actualization above all else (our spouse, our children, family, planet), so of course it never occurs to most of us to help our dogs self-actualize. Although, would they, given the choice, self-actualize as retrivers/shepherds/etc or as wild, ranging packliving wolf-like animals? Or maybe we really can't, or shouldn't try, because we'd just f*%# that up too.

What do you think about leaving a radio on for the dogs while they are alone? I've done that, thinking they will be less bored. Generally an NPR, or easy-listening station, volume low. I wonder if classical music is soothing for them, or annoying? I've thought of putting together a cd of wilderness/beach/jungle/wolves howling sound effects to play for them. Would they prefer to have silence, periodically broken by some genuine noise. I believe the music has been a help, as our dogs mostly seem well-rested, not anxious, after being alone. Seen any research on this topic? Better yet, anecdotes?

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Great points, Paul. Now I realize I could have compressed this entire post into one line: "When I leave my dog alone, I feel g-----n guilty!"

I mainly operate on the principle that my dog--who's a mutt, therefore doesn't have that extra layer of human-imposed specific-behavior obsessiveness that you describe so perfectly--wants to be a dog-wolf, and so her self-actualization takes place on our off-leash walks. There she gets to hunt, which is what she wants to do more than anything except sleep after hunting, I believe. Thus it's not my place to bitch and moan if she actually catches something, or if she disappears in order to fulfill herself (within reason, of course). The killing of wildlife by domesticated animals is a subject for another post, so just let me say I KNOW it is fraught.

When I was a horse-crazy girl, I went riding at friends of my parents who first raised Morgans, then moved to Virginia to get into the bigtime Thoroughbred business. She knew more about horses than would fill a library (and in fact authored something like seven books on the subject). She *always* had classical music playing in the barns. Subsequently, I believe I have heard of a study or two that said classical music is best for calming animals. Not, alas, the sound of other humans' voices. Yes, I always leave on a classical station for Nelly. But I bet she cringes as I do during their commercials for Broadway musicals. Someone should do something about those things, before they bring down western civilization!

Paul Kowacki said...

Because of this posting, I'm more seriously thinking about trying to put together a CD of sound effects to leave on for the dogs when we're gone. I'm thinking they need to be able to rest, but not get bored to dysfunction (Sugar, especially, gets frantic and destructive when bored), so the sounds need to be a little like good classical music in its' structure, with long periods of relaxation punctuated by the excitement of a chase, etc. Dogs, lacking the neocortex we have, may not have the ability to extrapolate from mental imagery to abstract, but associated, sounds, as we do when enjoying music. Hence my thinking to use more directly action-connected sounds.

I'm thinking forest sounds, quiet night sounds, like peepers, crickets, gentle wind, for the restful period; not sure about coyote/wolf howling for the exciting periods, any ideas?

Your thoughts?