Last Days of the Dog

\Here, as this Year of the Dog begins, we are the deciders, choosing which day will be the last for our 15-year-old Korean Jindo, Waits.

How does one know when it is time? Is his life still a good thing, to him, if he cannot easily rise to drink water, if he cannot control his bodily functions? Many consider the latter as the mark of the end—or at least the time for owners to stop the progression—but it seems of no matter to him whatsoever. He tolerates the diaper, doesn’t flinch at his own messes and our clumsy attempts to keep him clean. Some food still tastes good, apparently: He cherry-picks what he likes best from the kibble—we add shredded chicken or crumbled hamburger to each plate, plus a sprinkle of tumeric for all that must hurt. His mouth full of soggy bits, he still manages to spit out the tiny orange pill, swollen with saliva, that regulates his thyroid (the least of his problems at this stage).

His kidneys are failing. His legs are failing. His body is diminished, down from more than 75 pounds to somewhere in the low 50s. We keep a heating pad on him because, well, I would want one if I were dying. My husband lifts and cradles him to take him outside where he’ll balance, barely, on legs as wobbly as a fawn’s. Within minutes his strength is gone and he is crouching, then sitting, until we help him back inside; he is all too happy to go back to bed. We guess when he is thirsty and bring water to his mouth, proud of our attentiveness when he laps it up. We scooch him from one position to another, rearranging his legs and tail, presuming what might be comfortable and hugging him in apology for getting it wrong. In fact, we apologize to him over and over, for everything. For it coming to this.

Then, a good day happens, and much of the above doesn’t apply. He stands outside solidly, even getting momentarily playful with the other dogs. He climbs a few steps with little support. He sniffs at the edges of things. He cleans his plate. He looks alive again.

We’re lucky: He’s mentally still himself, and he’s not fearful. He lets us touch his paws. He used to hate that.

Bad day or good, he never cries out, never complains. And sometimes he still gives us happy grunts when we pet him just so. He was so troubled when we adopted him; he came so far by our love over the years. His winter fur is thick and luxurious and he still has the look of a puppy, big dark eyes against a face that’s kept its creamy whiteness. His age is in his hips, his spine, his organs. Maybe in his eyes when he watches us watching him.

Waits in his favorite place, where he’ll spend his last days.

He’s rolling with it, and it’s hard to be the choosers of his fate. He could have another fine day tomorrow. He still responds when we kneel down to tuck him in or when he smells that burger on the grill. Yes, we’ve always agreed it’s better to end it too early than too late. And yet, here we are changing diapers and mashing up food. His suffering is so silent. Are we terrible owners for taking our time? Because if, suddenly, he starts to act confused or, worse, afraid, it will become an emergency, and we’ll wonder, why did we wait this long?

Within a few weeks, less, we will no doubt give in and put the plan in motion—time in the sun in his favorite place, a meaty meal, a great deal of petting, a pair of shots from someone he knows, hopefully a quick nod to sleep in our arms.

These last days are for questioning ourselves and asking his forgiveness, and for burying our faces in his thick neck and holding him tight.


Photos by the author

When life hands you fake news, make Kayfabe

What scientific concept would everyone be better off knowing? When the magazine Edge asked mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein, he described the following:

What rigorous system would be capable of tying together an altered reality of layered falsehoods in which absolutely nothing can be assumed to be as it appears. Such a system, in continuous development for more than a century, is known to exist and now supports an intricate multi-billion dollar business empire.

Oooh – which transcendent scientific concept is this? Weinstein is an economist, so you’d be forgiven for thinking he was cracking open a pint of behavioural economics. Is Weinstein about to introduce us to a new insight from Nobel prize-winning doyen of nudge Richard Thaler?

Not quite. The business Weinstein was talking about is professional wrestling – Hulk Hogan, the Undertaker, the actor formerly known as The Rock – and the system it has developed, the one Weinstein thinks we should all get cozy with, is called “Kayfabe”. Continue reading

Redux: N is for Norman, eaten by a lioness

This post originally appeared in March 2012.

“It is with the deepest sorrow that I have to inform you of the death of your son Norman. He died after an encounter with a lion near the Keito River in Portuguese West Africa 10/5/15. He made a very gallant fight and killed the lion with his knife after a severe struggle. He was serving as scout in the N. Rhodesian forces to which I also belong.”

So begins a letter from the closest friend (and executor, of which more later) of my great-great uncle Norman Sinclair. Having fought through the Boer War and stayed on in Africa as a hunter, the Scotsman was still in his twenties when he met his unusual end during WWI. A collection of his letters, along with the Dead Man’s Penny — made for all troops who died in the war, and ironically bearing the image of Brittania and a lion — were kept by Norman’s grieving mother and came into my own mother’s hands a few years ago. She was able to trace the story through official and informal accounts, all the way to his twice-exhumed and reinterred grave, now in Dar Es Salaam.
Continue reading

The Last Word

February 12-16, 2018

The Tesla/SpaceX launch left Rebecca exhilarated—but she knows not everyone felt the same way. Plenty of people didn’t like it because they argue we have enough to deal with here on Earth. Some people were unhappy because they don’t like Elon Musk, who owns the rocket and the car. And some people didn’t like that the car launched on a billionaire’s rocket, painted with a private logo, not a NASA rocket flying the American flag.

What are those sounds that just rush out of you when you’re outside, sounds of joy or pain, of surprise, of delight or simply of the moment? Sarah has some ideas. Sometimes, at the edge of a landscape, at the edge of an abyss, at the razor thin edge between flying and falling—the feelings are so big that the sound just comes out of you. People screamed at the total solar eclipse. They scream at the moon. They scream across canyon bottoms and they scream their grief into the desert.

Craig sees a lot of weird stuff in the sky (and the rest of us are glad that he keeps looking up, and writing about what he sees). I’d never seen anything like it, the light clearly defined as it grew, as if it were a force field, Gaia emerged from her slumber. The light eventually faded and stars moved in like hundreds of bright seeds. I never learned what it was.

The Fall Line: an invisible underground cliff that marks the old eastern edge of the continent. Ann is obsessed with it. Cities grew along the Fall Line, roads connected the cities.  It’s all so logical. But why would weather follow the Fall Line? It doesn’t of course — because weather is much more complicated — except when it does.

Rose writes about a psych test with a joke-telling, Sudoku-playing robot—a study with methodology that has haunted her for years. Why do all these experimenters love Sudoku so much? Can’t they find another game for you to play? Can’t computers figure these things out in seconds? Is this robot going to embarrass you? Maybe this is an experiment on how badly people react to being shown up by a robot.

See you next week!


Image of DC snowstorm on the interstate: braidedinkwell, via Flickr


I Hope You Can Keep It A Secret

The psychology department is a small, squatty building on the west side of campus. It has a weird exterior, a vaguely geometric set of slats that surround the building, probably to cover up the ailing stucco beneath. You’re five minutes late.

With a backpack slung over your back, you hustle down the hall, looking for room 119B. 119A is inexplicably on the other side of the building. 119B is a short jog down a linoleum tiled hallway away.

The $25 bucks you’re about to get paid has already been budgeted in your mind. Dinner with Max, your friend who had tipped you off to signing up for psychology studies as a semi-steady flow of petty cash. The trick, Max explained, was to cycle through the different labs in order, so they don’t notice you’re in there too much. Continue reading

Following the Fall Line

My brother and sister-in-law and I were remembering an unpleasant event fondly, as one does once it’s safely over.  A few years ago, they’d been here in Baltimore and were heading back on I-95 to Philadelphia, and the usual 1.5-to-2 hour trip took 5 because a snow storm had moved over I-95 and stayed there.  In our reminiscences, we noted that storms, rain or snow, seemed to follow I-95, that is, I-95 seems to be the line between one kind of weather and another.   Were we making that up, we wondered?  Why would weather follow an interstate?  I had an ephiphany:  maybe because I-95 follows the Fall Line.  I am obsessed with the Fall Line, mostly because the name is so pretty.

I-95 is the white line in this picture.  It runs the length of the east coast — a terrible, kill-or-be-killed road but that’s neither here nor there — and connects the east coast’s major cities. It follows the Fall Line and the cities are dotted along the Fall Line.

The cities and roads are where they are because of what the Fall Line is:  a more or less invisible, small, underground cliff  — an escarpment — that marks the old edge of the continent.

On the Fall Line’s west side, the high side, are tough crystalline rocks; on the east side, the low side, are soft, easily-moveable sediments.  Rivers running out of the Appalachians east to the Atlantic crossed the cliff, and where they did, made falls.  The early settlers couldn’t get their boats up the rivers past the falls, so they unloaded there and stayed put.  Cities grew along the Fall Line, roads connected the cities.  It’s all so logical.

But why would weather follow the Fall Line?  Continue reading

Weird Things I’ve Seen in the Sky

Photo by author in western Colorado last Monday

Have you seen events in the sky you can’t explain? I’m asked this question frequently because I’ve spent many nights out, a likely candidate for seeing things that can scarcely be fathomed.

One happened last week. I live near the Utah-Colorado border, no human lights to be seen. Carrying groceries and my work down the unlit walkway, I was looking up at the usual dazzle of stars and intermittent passenger jets around 7:30pm when I noticed in the southwest a peculiar light. A white pinpoint glowed through a cloud veil, only there were no clouds. It was moving, not unlike a plane or a blazing satellite. I was about to open the front door and go in when I stopped and waited for the blinking lights of an airplane to appear. Instead, the bright object began emitting a luminous tail, like a comet. I set my things down, and snapped off a grainy picture with my phone (above).

The tail spread until it was diaphanous and covered a large portion of the southern sky. Was it Falcon Heavy? An alien probe? A divine spitball?

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is the correct answer, the burn that sent this rocket, with a convertible sports car attached to its upper stage, out of Earth’s orbit and into infinite space. I was seeing a moment in history, but instead of recognizing the gravitas, I scratched my head and wondered, what the hell is that?

Last week’s SpaceX launch was not the only peculiarity I’ve witnessed in the night sky. I used to guide high schoolers in the desert of southern Arizona and southern California. One evening we all saw a green dome of light expand in the west until it looked to be miles high, covering almost a quarter of the sky. The kids were perturbed, jabbering rapidly, asking their teachers what it was. One of the teachers who’d been telling the kids to calm down, came to me and softly said, “Really, Craig, what is that?” Continue reading

The Screamers of Artist Point

It starts quietly enough. At around 9:30 a.m., I strap snowshoes to my feet and part ways with some friends bound for a backcountry ski. While they skin over a nearby saddle, my dog Taiga and I shuff our way into the stream of snowshoers along the boundary of the Mt, Baker Ski Area, headed for Artist Point. It’s not a long hike, nor an extreme one, but the hordes jostle and slip like drunks. One guy slides on his side in slow motion down the steep hill, parallel to the trail, unsure how to get his snowshoes back under him.

“You could dig in your ski pole to self arrest,” I suggest gently. “I am!” he exclaims, continuing to slide past, his poles dragging unused across the slope.

Maybe he’s overwhelmed, I muse, continuing on.

“What happens all winter; the wind driving snow; clouds, wind, and mountains repeating—this is what always happens here,” the poet Gary Snyder wrote of this place one long-gone August, looking towards the edifice of Mount Shuksan from his post at the Crater Mountain Fire Lookout. Today, though, is the first truly sunny day of the year.

The hanging glaciers of Shuksan gleam blindingly above us. Thick snow spackles every surface, like lavishly applied frosting on a carrot cake. A short, huffing climb farther on, the ridge is all smooth, luscious rises and swooping depressions—not baked goods now, but hips and shoulders and bent knees. Cornices hang bluely from the rocky clifftops; dark conifers wink out from sculpted carapaces of white.

I walk around in my sweat-damp clothes, stunned by this vision that is at once food and flesh and neither of those things.

It makes me hungry. It fills me with something like song. Skiers skin past, gathering in little knots at the edges of the ridge, or descending into the next valley. Mt. Baker looms hugely across the southwest skyline, its crevasses cozened in powder, like eyelids and mouths swollen shut. It seems to scream silence.

And that’s when the actual screaming begins. Continue reading