I want to sell you on dog ownership.
I write this one week after my dog, Elton, strolled into our apartment and was told that this would be his permanent home. He ignored us, eyes darting to our rabbit, Rory, who was simultaneously eyeing him in the corner of the living room. Over the next twenty-four hours his interest in Rory grew from curiosity to infatuation to heartbreak. Rory was not going to be his partner in crime or future life partner.
To confirm your suspicions, yes Elton is short for Elton John. In fact, his red dog tag, shaped in a bone, bluntly states “Elton John.” It all started and ended with a single question my fiancee asked me over dinner, two nights before we got him: “He has an uncanny resemblance to Elton John, don’t you think?” Indeed.
Elton is a Brussels Griffon mix, and weighs 15 pounds. When we adopted him, we were told he was about two-years old, though his energy suggests otherwise. Despite receiving about a total of an hour-and-a-half in walks each day, he still begs us to play fetch with him inside for another forty-five minutes. He’s relentless.
He’s quite a contrast to our last dog: a goofy, blind and deaf, chocolate cockapoo named Barney, who passed away less than two months ago. Barney relied on us for all of his daily activities from navigating the apartment to eating meals and drinking water. We loved him to death.
There are lots of understandable reasons to not own a dog. Back in December 2017, when we were looking at Barney’s adoption profile, my main concern was the cost of his vet bills. I was still paying down my student debt and Barney had a host of health issues that required expensive medications. At the time I wrote a blog about personal finance, and it was clear that adopting Barney was not a sound financial decision.
But thankfully my then-girlfriend applied for him when I was at work so that I would be unable to convince her otherwise. And I can now say, in hindsight, once a dog enters your life, your priorities shift and you gain perspective.
Broadly speaking, dog ownership forces us to confront the perennial issue of resource allocation: How should we spend our finite time, energy, and capital? Add in the complication that companies, colleagues and clients also vie for our attention, and it’s now a necessity to predetermine who gets a slice of the pie.
Rest assured, this is a blessing in disguise. Given the demands of doggie parenthood, you are forced to abstain from your usual routine of roaming aimlessly around the mall, scrolling mindlessly on social media, and sitting on your butt in front of the television. You have a responsibility to another living being.
Perhaps it’s because I’m halfway through Atul Gawande’s terrific book, Being Mortal, but we find meaning in helping others. At one point, he showcases a geriatrician who retired early to care for his wife who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He moved them to an assisted living facility where he eventually had to help his wife with all the basic activities of daily living: from helping her get dressed in the morning to gently reminding her where her fork was located before she ate her meals. At one point, Gawande, who was visiting the geriatrician and his wife, asked the retired surgeon whether he considered it a burden. “Not at all,” the surgeon said, “I enjoy doing it.” His purpose shifted from treating his patients to caring for his wife.
When Barney passed it struck me that I was unfamiliar with the process of ageing. The closest person to me that had died was my aunt, which was several years ago. But she lived half way around the world and she was diagnosed with a terminal illness about a year before she passed away. We knew it was coming and had enough time to mentally prepare for its eventual conclusion.
In this case, we were caught off guard. Barney experienced a gradual decline, over a period of a few months, followed by a sharp drop in his cognitive functioning. His health was manageable until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. This was the first time in my life I had to call hospice services, decide upon an appropriate “package,” and schedule the moment where he would run towards the Rainbow Bridge.
After you experience loss in a profound way, philosophical questions about life inevitably start to permeate through your mind. That you had failed to see the forest through the trees.
There was one question I kept coming back to: what is our life really for?
But rather than pretend to work out the answer to this question (ask me in fifty years), it seems much more achievable to slowly rule out what my life is not for.
So far, this is what I’ve come up with:
Purchasing stuff I don’t need;
Observing the highlight reels of other people’s lives;
Using busyness - or occasionally laziness - as an excuse to not actively spend time with others;
Using inconvenience as an excuse to produce unnecessary waste;
To work in what David Graeber characterizes as “bullshit jobs”;
To be pessimistic about everyone and everything;
To value the material over the immaterial.
My thoughts on this are still evolving. But Elton, the good boy he is, promised he’d help me think it through.
Here’s what I’m enjoying this week:
Listening: Life after climate change, with David Wallace-Wells (The Ezra Klein Show)
A terrific episode with David Wallace-Wells, author of the Inhabitable Earth and climate columnist at the New York magazine. If you want the Coles Notes of his book, check out this interview he did.
Reading: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
The Stoics have long encouraged the technique of “negative visualization” to put your life in perspective. At its essence, it involves visualizing a reality where you lose everything that you have. Imagine life without your partner, health, or job. For Stoics like Seneca and Epictetus, this method helped them appreciate what they had while simultaneously acknowledge that anything could happen.
Reading Being Mortal had a similar impact on me.
Gawande, in his quest to raise living standards for those with terminal illnesses up until the end of their life, interviews caregivers, healthcare workers, and even shares his own story of grappling with accommodating his aging mother. I can’t recommend this book enough.
Endorsing: A progressive carbon tax scheme.
I’m a big fan of Matt Bruenig. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, he founded the People Policy Project, a progressive think-tacked backed exclusively from individual supporters through Patreon, and he has a hilarious podcast with his wife, Elizabeth Bruenig, called The Bruenigs. This policy, published by the People Policy Project, is a sound start to formulating what a practical carbon tax could look like.
See you next Tuesday.