Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Karmic Redress is a Bitch

I'm writing this at 3:36 a.m., otherwise known as Low Blood Sugar Hour for all right-thinking drinkers, though it isn't wine dissipating from my blood stream that has woken me. I was actually having a very intricate dream inspired, I think, by Game of Thrones, in which I was negotiating the sale of a half-sister I didn't know I had to a noseless dwarf when suddenly I sat bolt upright, sweating and terrified. "I don't know French," I thought. "I don't know Vietnamese. I don't know anyone where I'm going. I AM GOING TO DIE."

It may seem a strange associative leap to move from one's inability to order egg rolls fluently to the sudden awareness of one's encroaching mortality, but ever since I was a teenager I've been haunted by one particular hallucination in which I can vividly imagine what my final hours will be. I'll be alone, and it will be very quiet, and I am tired but slowly being filled with the complete awareness that nothing is before me, that I am in fact being consumed by and at the same time consuming nothing, that the whole of me is now one vast emptiness that will go on forever.

And when that happens, you have to go where all modern human consciousness begins and ends to save yourself: the refrigerator.

So I am back in bed now, trying to self-soothe (as one of my erstwhile Conferee students described it in an essay she turned in) eating hardboiled eggs and blogging. And worrying, for my cardio. I am in Seattle where I was born and raised, but I am not in my parent's house. I am instead in my mom's houseboat, which is about 600 square feet of bobbing Asian knick-knacks and snackables. For those of you in the know, it's like a miniature Uwajimia. There are Japanese chests of drawers and statues of Buddha and racks of shakuhachi music CDs and, on the outside of the houseboat itself, an antique Japanese gate my parents bought from a store downtown, along with some carved wood dragons and clouds screwed above the lintel. I call this place "The Floating World" to friends, which is a joke my mother never gets.

And why am I in The Floating World and not, say, excavating the fridge at my parent's house? Because their house is so crowded with junk there is literally no place for me to sleep.

This may sound like an exaggeration, but let me assure you it isn't. Partly this has to do with the fact that my parents are preparing for my mother's family reunion later this week for which over 30 Chinese Americans from all over the country are going to be descending on Seattle to eat a whole roast pig and play mah jong and sing karaoke and rehash the great War of Po Po's Contested House Sale. Right now my parents' house is filled with maps and gift bags and bottles of wine they're handing out as party favors, along with the usual crap, like Christmas wrapping paper and rubber stamps and thousands of books, and stuffed animals (?!) and the various clothing items my mother has picked up on her trips. The house has five rooms but four of them are literally so stuffed to the gills with clothing and shoes and books and other paraphernalia that you can't turn around. If my mother doesn't get picked up by Hoarders: The Extreme Edition soon, it will be a miracle. And, for the first time, it has occurred to me that maybe leaving my dogs here isn't such a good idea.

Because now I can see their house NOT the way an only child terrified of having to pack up all this stuff on her own when her parents finally decide to move to a smaller domicile would see it, but much the way a 65 lb, half-blind animal whose head is only so high as a human's crotch would see it. And what I saw was an endless maze of teetering, bewildering STUFF that all smelled vaguely of moth balls and soy sauce that jutted out at weird, eye-puncturing angles. I saw couches covered with stacks of magazines that meant I couldn't sleep on them, and a line of file cabinets and cardboard boxes that take up almost every square inch of carpeted space in the hallway that mean, instead of turning around when someone calls for me, I will have to walk backwards to exit any room. In short, I began to realize that my dogs would be spending an entire year exhaustively circling and circling the same 15 square feet of usuable space like depressed goldfish, looking for the one small place they can SIT DOWN.And so, having swallowed the last bite of hardboiled egg and gotten over my fear of death, I begin to cry.

It doesn't help that yesterday my mom gave me these two photos, taken over 11 years ago.

And it didn't help that, while in Port Townsend, after little less than a week away from my dogs, I would go on long runs past the houses where I knew they had friendly dogs in the yard, just so I could stop and let them smell my hand and give me little kisses and run back and forth around me, being dogs, being LIKE my dogs.

One of my favorites was a female Bernese I came across while walking from Fort Worden to the town. The Bernese was chained to a little blue stake in an open garden filled with dahlias, peony bushes and lavender. Sean's dog is a Bernese, and so when I saw her, I asked the owner--an older woman in a tie-dye shirt and sun hat--if I could come in for a brief visit. The Bernese got so excited at the prospect that she charged towards me at full tilt, forgetting that she was tied to the stake. At the end of her rope she was literally yanked backwards, her head snapping wildly back as she collapsed onto her back, howling.

"Jesus!" I cried.

"Oh, it doesn't hurt her," the woman replied. "She does this every single day."

The Bernese was now in an ecstasy of joy and stake-rage and so kept running around, alternately snapping at the stake which did this to her every single day and leaping at me, either to lick me or bite my face off. I couldn't tell.

"No, no!" the woman scolded. "Mommy does NOT LIKE you doing that! No woofs, please! Mommy does NOT LIKE woofs at strangers she has invited into our nice yard!"

The Bernese, straining at its leash, began to hack dramatically.

"I have to apologize. Our first two dogs were enlightened beings," the woman told me solemnly. "They were Boddhisattvas, really. This dog seems to be our Karmic redress."

I looked at the dog, which by now was bug-eyed and squirming under her owner's firm grip. A line of drool had begun to work its way down the dog's white chest fur.

"It's ok," I said, trying to back away. "Maybe she doesn't want visitors."

"Oh no, I insist! You must pet her! It's good for her soul."

I put a hand out tentatively and Karmic Redress lunged for it, barking.

"Really," I repeated, "maybe I should go and let her calm down."

But the woman wasn't listening to me by then. She was bent over, pushing her face into the dog's and speaking in a firm, soft voice. "Mommy doesn't LIKE this behavior, you know! Mommy wants you to relax and sit down and let this woman pet you. Mommy needs you to stop woofing and be good. Be GOOD for mommy!" Karmic Redress grinned up at her, ass wagging.

In case you think this woman is maybe a little insane, they are ALL like this in Port Townsend. The place is filled with hippies and co-ops and crystals tucked in amongst shops stuffed with cute Victoriana. Almost every car has a bumper stickers with slogans like "Peace: It's Back in Style" or "Powered by Sun-Energy," or "Wiccan On Board" or (my favorite), "Port Townsend: We're All Here Because We're Not All There." While I was there, the Snohomish were doing their annual "Paddle to Seattle" tribal canoe trip, and as there is nothing that Port Townsend likes more than an American Indian in a drum circle, Fort Worden, where the tribal canoes had landed, was a-thrum with people clapping their hands and cheering on the different visiting tribal members as they sang their invited songs before the host-tribe from Jamestown. "This is the spiritual navel of the universe," I overheard one woman saying to another as I passed on my way to watch the canoes take off from the beach that morning, and her companion grunted with pleasure and shook her hand-carved and painted spirit stick she bought from Native Winds downtown.

If Port Townsend is indeed the spiritual navel of the universe, I thought, it would explain why the houses here are so expensive.

But that day after meeting Karmic Redress, I was depressed and have stayed depressed ever since. Of all the things I hate to leave for a year--Sean, my friends, my house--it is my dogs that get me the most upset. Unlike Sean and my friends, my dogs won't understand why I'm gone. I've never been away from them longer than a month, and after that month I was frantic to see them. Perhaps I was also affected by the way Karmic Redress' owner kept referring to herself as "mommy." During the writer's conference, I'd been genially accosted by two other women faculty--newish mothers--who were both trying to convince me that I should have a child, and not later, but now, preferably RIGHT THIS MINUTE. They insisted that there was, in fact, nothing better they'd done in their respective lives than have children, and that my decision to go away for a year was a mistake as now I couldn't even TRY to have a child for all that time. With women like this, I try to be as polite as possible, since I'm happy they've had kids and I'm genuinely glad that the world has some people in it who actually seem to like parenting, parents who aren't busy, say, driving their kids in a locked Volvo off a bridge so they can go live with their new, young, hot boyfriends unencumbered. No, it's good that people love their offspring and want to care for them.

But that doesn't mean that I will be one of them.

I also have long rejected the notion that I am "mommy" to my dogs and try to avoid this term as much as possible. I'm pretty sure I know what a kid of mine would look like, and though it may be just as stupid and anus-obsessed as a dog, I'm also pretty certain it will have less hair. I don't want to call myself "mommy" or even THINK of myself as "mommy" with my dogs, because I think it perpetuates the unfortunate assumption that childless women with pets are merely compensating for what they REALLY want, which is to be covered with vomit while trying to dispose of a full diaper.

I don't know what I am to my dogs nor, the longer I live with them, what they are to me. One of the things I love the most about being with dogs is that the bond you have with them truly is like no other. You can explain loving a child, especially your own, as an instinctual, necessary feeling. But there's no reason to love a dog. And there's no reason--outside of centuries of breeding that has itself been turned into a kind of instinct--for a dog to love, or at least trust, you back. It's amazing to me the line that dogs walk in our world--human-appearing enough to continue to be coddled and fed and yet, always at the end, totally OTHER to the human. Don't worry: I'm not one of those people who wants to yammer on about how special and amazing her dogs are and how her life is filled with all those fantastic lessons she couldn't learn any other way. My dogs are spectacularly, almost aggressively stupid. But they are also very cute.

While I hate comparing dogs to children, something struck me when I was speaking with Sean the other day about those annoying thought-nuggets certain parents love to pelt the childless with, which is that parenthood utterly changed their lives, and that they would have regretted not having a child now that they understood what it meant to them. "You know," I told Sean, "the same actually COULD be said of having a dog. It totally changes your life, and I have to say that now I see our relationship to animals in a way that I would regret not knowing."

"You could say the same thing about breaking your arm, too," Sean yawned. "You feel something you've never felt before, and it certainly changes you."

"Yeah, but you would regret breaking your arm, I think," I said. "No parent ever says they regret having a child."

"That's because they are under contractual obligation not to."

"But do you regret having a dog?" I said. "Even though it's totally made our life a pain in the ass?"

"Of course not. It's the THREE dogs that I regret."

"I regret the number, too. But not the essential decision. So why should parents regret the difficulty of a child?"

"They probably don't," admitted Sean. "But they're probably also suffering from an advanced case of Stockholm Syndrome."

The more I thought about it, it seemed that the questions about regret that the childless ask of the parent, and the assertions the parent makes in turn about parenting to the childless are beside the point. Anyone who has ever taken on the significant responsibility of caring for something not yourself knows that regret doesn't factor in as significantly as you imagine it might. It can't, unless you fetishize the past to the exclusion of all else. The responsibilities may involve different levels of cultural or personal significance, but regret isn't the standard by which these responsibilities can be judged. Or, more importantly, felt.

In that small sense, then, having a dog IS like having a child.

And what kind of non-parent to my dogs am I? How can I leave two sweet (though unenlightened) creatures, utterly dependent on me, for nearly a year? To leave them at a point when it is conceivable that one, maybe even both, might die from old age? And leave them to negotiate this terrifying ark of Asiatic flotsam run by distant, though loving, strangers? I look back on the photos of my dogs and my chest constricts so that I can hardly breathe. I don't know what these animals are in relation to me, how they understand my relationship to them, but there's no question that I love them, far more deeply even than I've loved a lot of the people in my life. They aren't Buddha's tour guides, that's for sure. And they aren't my children. But they aren't NOT my children, either.

The more I wrestle with these feelings as I get ready to leave, the more it strikes me that I ask myself these questions as if to suggest, or gauge, for myself what the RIGHT amount of emotion would be based on the object of my affection. But why continually parse out the difference, why insist on any difference between human and animal in these ways? I do it to make myself feel better about leaving, when I know--or feel--deep down that the significance between human and animal may really just be semantic. (Of course, I just ate steak for dinner, so this all makes me a hypocrite as well.) But why assume one bonded relationship is normal or excessive, laudable or regrettable? And why always feel--probably like a lot of young mothers do at 3 a.m.--that I am somehow constantly getting it wrong?

"They're only dogs," my parents tell me, and they're right. I'm just trying to understand what the adverb means.


  1. I've compared owning a dog and having a child many times (and I've done both). There is, in fact, an extremely logical reason to love a dog: the fact that they wildly, unconditionally and devotedly love us back. Not even offspring do that all of their lives. That said, for me, the experience of loving a child has pushed me more to grow more and sacrifice more. And no, I have no need for childless adults to join me in parenthood. It's been fucking hard (and worth it), and I don't recommend it to anyone who doesn't want to completely upend their life. 'Course not every parent has had to usher their child through major surgery, a bone marrow transplant, and blindness--but there are no guarantees that that special needs jackpot won't be won when signing on for parenthood.

  2. Following up on that faux guilt steak parenthetical, you're the one who insisted that I convince my Korean hosts to let me eat dog, as you loved it so much (they told me it was summer food and unavailable in April -- I'm sure they were lying). Cognitive dissonance much? Recently met a Ho Chi Minh high school math teacher who said he'd be glad to take you to the best dog restaurants in Vietnam, which serves 15 kinds. He also lit up when I asked about ear picking, explaining that it was like a cat having its neck scratched. (Not sure about cat restaurants...)

  3. Ha! Hey Brian: Sean agrees with you 100% about my cognitive dissonance. I am ever ambivalent about so much. To my one tiny credit, I ate dog WAY before I had dogs. And, if Sean's information is right, I would actually NOT recommend eating dog now (though it was delicious) because the story he's heard is that they beat the dogs to tenderize the flesh--while the dogs are still alive. While I don't know whether or not this is true, better not to risk it. So now, even knnowing how good it tastes, I will not eat it. I would also like to add that I would eat a human, too, though only if I could pick the human.

    So there is some small moral consistency--or lack thereof--there.

    To ZenMama: I agree with you about the unconditional love part. They are mood-boosters for sure, dogs. And you are my favorite kind of parent: the ones who take real pleasure in their family life without needing to explain or proselytize. I know many folks like this, and these kinds of parents are the ony ones that make parenthood look actually ok and not, as Sean insists, like a kind of social thought-experiment run at the expense of all those around them. And I'm glad your baby is doing better!

  4. Let me just say that I am appalled at the faculty-mommy ambush crap.