Weep Not

As a dog person, I encounter a lot dogs, and among many things, I notice one universal truth.

A dog can be blind, deaf, three-legged, one-eyed, sporting a pair of wheels to carry its back end, or named Lucky, and there is one thing you never see. You never see a dog wallowing in grief at the loss of function. As people, we could lose a limb in a horrific accident and there is no doubt that the experience will change our worldview. For some people it seems to light a fire; for others it triggers a will to quit and wallow in the victim’s land of despair.  We could go either way. In the land of dogs, the universal response seems to be: Work with you’ve got, and do what you do.

Earlier today, Sharon and I were at the Olympia Pet Emergency with Becker, one of our ODH foster dogs. He had the rapid onset of a range of symptoms that could amount to a common form of vertigo in old dogs or neurological deficit, which would point to bigger underlying problems with no good outcome. This set of symptoms is very hard to pin down, very hard to treat, and usually ends up in a discussion of quality of life and euthanasia. The emergency part is not the overall condition, which is always difficult and mysterious. The emergency comes from getting some symptomatic treatment so that Becker can hold down food and water well enough to evaluate the larger problem over time.

Presumably, every dog in the place was experiencing some kind of discomfort, and yet, I encountered a Bull Mastiff, A Black Lab, a Harlequin Great Dane, a weird long-legged Shih Tzu, and a Rhodesian Ridgeback, who were all more interested in making friends than in wallowing in whatever affliction had brought them to the clinic today. Meanwhile, Becker, who was experiencing the nauseous, drooling world spins of a college student with a bottle of tequila, was unfailingly good-natured with the whole process, including with the vet who stuck him with two shots.

But I still haven’t gotten to the point… I’m laying out the Way of the Dog in terms of dealing with limitations and discomfort, but then there was the vet himself. I don’t recall his name, and I wouldn’t single him out in any case, but I am here to offer my respect to him for this simple reason. He was born with a congenital defect of his right arm, and he treated it like any dog would. He acted as if it were not a factor at all. He shook hands with it, he handled the dogs with it. He used that malformed limb with the grace of a concert pianist and never once did anything to hint that we should even notice it, much less treat him differently because of it. Clearly he doesn’t need my respect because he handles it without a hitch, but he has my respect just the same. In a world where it’s all too easy to play the victim card to the hilt for issues much less intrusive to the actual practicalities of life, here’s a guy who works with dogs and played it just like a dog would. Work with what you’ve got, and do what you do. I offer my total respect, in the form of someone who couldn’t possibly measure up to that standard.

Adversity breeds strength, even in human beings.

Here’s a Theory

I have a lot of theories. Some of them may resonate, and some of them will fizzle inside my head with the first morning cup of coffee. Some of them are timely in the current events sense and are likely to offend roughly half of you. Some of them are far removed from daily life or the mores of 2018, such as they are, and are much safer for me to espouse. One of the tricks of the Renewal universe is that the projection of reality I was making with the entire story no longer exists. I was speaking about things that have been overrun by current events. That’s the price of losing momentum with a story. It has been adapted.

Here’s the theory. We have been here before. It may not have looked like our civilization with Uber, and Facebook, and a graphics card that can pump out 140 frames per second, but we have as homo-whatever have seen high civilization before. I support this theory with the most observable of facts. Put a pile of blocks in front of any five year old and that child will build something. Put a crayon in that hand and they will draw something. This need to build and create is so intrinsic that I cannot argue that we have never built complexity before our very short timeline of history. I was building tree houses at eight years old, and I am clearly a late bloomer.

In the fossil record of ostensibly modern, tool-using hominids, how many climatic events have occurred that would have completely erased our progress? Ice ages, volcanoes, floods, sea level change? The subject is open to scientific debate, but I have a very hard time believing that we developed along the long tail graph of learning virtually nothing for millennia, and then suddenly bursting into Western Civilization. Even within the known timeline of our history, we have managed to knock ourselves back to lesser understanding and development numerous times. The rule of humanity is to advance, screw up, reset, and advance again. There is no guarantee that the next advancement proceeds further than the last.

Of course, the religious take on humanity defeats this whole premise, but I have a hard time taking the notion of an infinite God of all creation and corralling that God into 5000 years of human history. Wouldn’t a God who lives outside of time be able to start the rise of humanity at the beginning of time? Would that God take our failures in stride and find it more interesting to see what we do next than to dictate a linear path of our advance? Surely, we are less predictable than a shark. Free will is a blessing and a curse, people. But we won’t know in this lifetime. Perhaps we are only a step along the path to the ultimate expression of that infinite God. That’s not ours to know either.

As we speak, the fossil record of humanity is in disarray. The Leakey extension of Darwinism was simple and clear. Lucy was entirely understandable. She was short; we grew and migrated. With the advancement of genetic analysis, the picture is muddy. Perhaps 75 species blended to become us. Perhaps our genetic Eve, a common term a few years back, is simply the survivor of a gigantic volcanic eruption 75,000 years ago, which drove us to the brink of extinction and killed off a whole range of our two legged competitors. We may never know. Or, we may develop some kind of ground penetrating scanners that reveal cities from a half million years ago. We will excavate them and rewrite everything.

Even so, it’s pretty clear at this point that we have been tool users with opposable thumbs for a very long time – much longer than we were taught. This country has been around for 240 years. Sophisticated banking has been around for 500 years. The discovered, lost, and rediscovered aspects of math and science date back far enough to blow your mind. Studies of language are equally mind blowing. While we are inventing verbs and hashtags from social media, we can trace back recognizable language roots as far as we can track history. The point is that all the language we know or have ever known is effectively modern language. What came before that? The picture of our lives is that we somehow went from grunts to language, but that’s not likely. Odds are that entire languages rose and fell and all traces were lost to time. Cave paintings suggest that those images served as language, but that assumes that the people of that time were completely unsophisticated. That is like assuming that the abstract sculpture in a city square is how we communicate with each other – and we all know that no one has a freaking clue about what that sculpture means.

So conservatively, let’s say that humanity or its close precursors have risen to some form of high civilization five times in the past million years. What would those civilizations have looked like? Was it the Flintstones or the Jetsons? Did they burn fossil fuels or metric tons of animal dung? Did they encompass every theory of ancient aliens or were they just a lot better than we can believe? Do our myths and legends derive from older eras, or are they purely based on everything that happened since the last fall? Did these civilizations fall suddenly or grind into decline? Did they bump up against our history, or was there a long dark age that spanned an ice age?

Perhaps the most important question is that if we have risen and fallen, is there any reason to think we are different today? Are we somehow better, more advanced, more enlightened? Do we have a better chance at a permanent existence in high advancement than any hominid that came before us? One out of five are not the worst odds, but if we look around, maybe study a little history, there is no reason to think we are particularly well adapted to our version of civilization. How many ways can we set up the long road to the next version of humanity? In that gap lies post-apocalyptic fiction.

 

The Plot Thickens

I received an email from a person who has no legal standing with Old Dog Haven late this afternoon.

Please get the computers listed in the attached invoices ready to hand over to Jennifer.
She will bring them to the board meeting on Monday
Leave the software and all ODH material and data intact but remove your personal data.

The part about the data made me realize that I could have been making faulty assumptions. I was assuming that what I had encountered at ODH was the result of incompetence mixed with a certain blend of craziness, Founder’s Syndrome run amok. After all, the legal basis for a nonprofit supersedes the personal feelings of those involved, whether they like it or not. After this email, I shuffled through what I know, and I realized that maybe the reason for the behavior I have seen is not simple incompetence, but a deliberate attempt to cover malfeasance, perhaps misappropriation of funds. As a former Board President, it’s easy to conclude that I gave up my right to drive the organization, but the fact is that I freed myself to take steps that would have been risky if I were still legally accountable. I’d much rather assume that the people who started my beloved dog rescue played it straight, and maybe they did, but the deliberate cover up is a better explanation for what I’ve seen than sheer insanity. I know for a fact that the founders are smart people, but it could be that they outsmarted themselves with a little bit of sleight of hand.

The moral dilemma remains. What I know and can prove could cause the entire organization to implode and disappear, and that will leave a lot of dogs without the care they need. Dogs or principles? Hard choice. I’m open to opinion.

Distraction

I frequently give my wife a hard time about distraction. She will declare her next move and then do five other things before making that move. The fact is that she has ten times – or a hundred times – the practical focus that I have. Her distractions can be handled and dismissed in minutes; mine can take months or years. If you have stuck your head into this dusty blog, you’d be aware that we take dog rescue seriously around here. About 9 months ago, I was invited onto the Board of Old Dog Haven. From the fiction author perspective, or the fan of a fiction author perspective, this can be considered a distraction within a distraction, and so on, going on seven years now. A man named Bob has told me in no uncertain terms that once my writing became real, it became scary, and there is some truth in that. It’s equally true that once money becomes involved, many hurdles drop onto the field. Presumably, real publishers handle these sorts of things, but I haven’t gotten a real publisher, and I’m not even sure that I want one.

Renewal v. 2.0, Decay, Promise, Definition 2.0, Deadwing, Tales from the Edge, The Bus, Deep in the Dust, Web, all sitting here on my hard drive – collecting dust, months, and years while I chase the distractions.

The good news of distractions is that I take the lessons and the characters away from those experiences, but the bad news is that it’s all too easy to use those as a reason not to push the button and get my work out there.

I’m going to tell you the story of Old Dog Haven in vastly simplified form, and I’ll let you decide whether it’s a worthwhile distraction, but before I do, I’m going to say that it was a flat failure in terms of what I hoped to accomplish.

Old Dog Haven is a Western Washington dog rescue that Sharon and I have worked for 5 or 6 years. They take ownership of old dogs with chronic health problems, typically unadoptable dogs, and foster them out to a network of homes who care for them until they pass away. This allows dogs to live out their lives in security and love, rather than dying quickly in a cage in a shelter. I can tell you that the experience of fostering one of these dogs is incredibly rewarding. Watching a dog transform from a shelter wreck into a happy, healthy dog is amazing. It’s different from raising a puppy. Most of these dogs were once loved and a have a lifetime of habits that tell the story. Perhaps their person died or went to a nursing home. Perhaps they succumbed to dementia and forgot the dog was even there. Perhaps the family knew and didn’t care, or perhaps a family loved a dog for its entire life and then ran up against the hard costs of caring for an old dog. In any case, Old Dog Haven pays for the medical care and allows someone to retire these dogs in a loving home. Thanks to the expertise of the founder, they do that very well.

Coming from my Southern upbringing, dogs were a side note. We didn’t hunt with them, we didn’t train them; they simply were always around as pets, but not really part of the family. They only came into the house when the weather was brutally cold. Otherwise, they lived in the garage and roamed free, happy to join the foodgivers when we came outside. My perspective has shifted hard over the years. Some of that comes from my wife, who definitely wouldn’t have a dog that is not treated as part of the family. Some of it comes from the dogs themselves. I spend a lot of time among them, and I can’t help but conclude that they are sophisticated thinkers with as many modes of thought and as much depth of emotion as we have. Even the little ones, who I once thought were essentially squirrels. I stand corrected. They are fully dogs, and there’s a one-eyed Shih Tzu in our house that may be the smartest dog here. Given the first hand experience, I can rifle back through time and rethink my perspective on a great many animal advocates I once thought were completely nuts.

The fact is that we have been in direct relationship with dogs for a very long time. Depending on the reference, we could be talking anywhere from 5000 years to a time when we weren’t even homo sapiens and gray wolves had not emerged from the gene pool. Dogs have worked for us in various roles in exchange for our support. We bred them into those roles from the prototype gray wolf and sacrificed a great deal of their natural survivability in the process. They don’t know that, but we should. They spend their total focus and devotion on us, in ways that we define, and in forms we have defined for a very long time. In return, we owe them. Old Dog Haven is a good example of how to pay that debt at the hard end of the exchange, when the dogs need the most support, and perhaps more importantly, when those dogs need someone who is willing to make the hard call and deliver the coup de grace, because no dog wants to survive its own definition of usefulness. If we don’t give them a job, they pick their own cause and they serve it with utter dedication until they can no longer. When that moment arrives, they know, and they want to move on from this life. They don’t let anything stop them, and they don’t waste time resenting lost limbs, eyes, or senses. They simply work with what they have. It’s a lesson we should all learn.

So, Old Dog Haven is a miracle and a disaster. I joined the Board last November, to the tune of a founding couple announcing their intention to retire, and the Board President of 12 years stepping down. What?!  My own career has been a series of jumping into the the unknown and ramping up as quickly as possible, so that’s what I did. I studied Old Dog Haven, nonprofits in general, other dog rescues, and the legal requirements for such organizations. When I agreed to join the Board, I thought I would be able to apply my own particular expertise to help out in communications and technology. If you ramble over to olddoghaven.org right now, you’ll probably see what I mean. It didn’t take me long to see that those that those aspects were unsolvable without dealing with more fundamental aspects of the organization. I uncleverly assumed that everyone wanted those problems to be corrected, and started talking about it. Big mistake.

By March, I was both Board President and quickly developing as the Face of Evil ™. I was becoming a threat to everyone who wanted to keep doing things they way they had always been done. The kind word for those ways is sloppy. The hard word for the old ways is illegal, or at least legally non-compliant. They simply added up to a huge risk for the organization and the founders. Given that legal reality, who wouldn’t want to straighten it out? Turns out, virtually everyone. There was simply too much to hold onto personally for the prominent members of the organization to go down without a fight. Over the years, a benign neglect of management had allowed certain people to carve out little strongholds of power within the organization, and they held on tight by keeping normal information secret or deliberately shaping the information they did provide, or worse, by outright lying to create a false narrative. In the sympathy column, many of these people have their entire lives tied up in Old Dog Haven, and taking it away amounts to stealing someone’s spouse. On the other hand, a nonprofit is a public trust that should be capable of withstanding scrutiny from anyone, and Old Dog Haven is the polar opposite of that definition. I’m sure there are several regulatory agencies that would have a field day.

As a Board President with a supporting Board, I had the first and probably last opportunity to clean house on a deeply flawed organization that happens to do wonderful things. I could have simply exerted normal Board authority and fixed most of the problems. Unfortunately, the organization doesn’t believe in Board authority, and half of my Board flipped at the last moment and left me with no options. I gave them a graceful resignation, and they are busily maneuvering for position while they agree mainly on the need to drive a bus over my well-intentioned corpse. Whoever emerges as the new Board President will learn the same lessons I did. They will cycle through optimism and frustration that arrives at paralysis, and if they attempt to make a change, they will have the same target on their back that I did. The Old Dog Haven Board will continue as a symbolic checklist item, a nonfunctional rubber stamp for a sole dictator in charge of the future of an organization. Dictators can last a very long time, but their domains tend to be a lot less successful than they should be.

But that’s not the fun part. The fun part is that the faction that controls the organization is in the business of personal power at the expense of a clean organization. They are all willing and capable of stabbing each other in the back to curry favor with whomever they think will give them an advantage at any given moment. I’ve seen the tides shift numerous times in my short tenure, and I wonder how long it will take without the easy, unifying target of the Face of Evil ™ before they start turning on each other again. History says it won’t be long. In the meantime, I resist the temptation to hurry it along by throwing forwarded email grenades onto the battlefield.

I sound bitter, but mostly I’m sad. I don’t really care who runs the show as long as it continues, because the mission is important to me. In its current state, almost anything could cause the whole organization to implode. I had hoped to stabilize it, but I failed.

Another wasted distraction, filed under, “No good deed go unpunished.”

So, a great deal of time – measured very accurately by how little blogging has occurred – and effort wasted, but that time is freed up. What to do? I hope there are still a few of you willing to scream, “Publish!” at me.

 

On Being Smart

There’s being smart, and there’s good at being smart. The crux of being good at being smart is to be dumb. Ask dumb questions. Check every basic assumption you have, and then recheck it. Qualify your own thinking. Are you 100% sure? 60% sure or not sure at all? What are the likely outcomes of your decisions? No idea? Good. That’s smart.

Then there’s the other side of that coin. Do you know? How do you know? There’s no rule that says you need to make a court case to be accurate. Sometimes you just know. On a gut level. That’s knowing and that’s smart too. In fact, if you went back and thought about every time you went against your gut level response and talked yourself out of it, you’d probably say you were wrong more often than not.

How do we know on that level? It’s been floating around for decades that our subconscious has many times the computing power of our conscious mind. Maybe so. Maybe it’s our soul talking. Maybe it’s God trying to save us from our own limitations. Maybe it’s the fact that our mind is so much larger than our brain that we can’t get the full report, or maybe there is simply something buried within our instincts that helps us along when our brains get carried away with our own thoughts.

In a thin-sliced world of ultra-parsed thoughts and words, maybe it’s worth pondering the simple knowing, of right and wrong, complex and simple, smart and foolish in some practical measure, or the simple distinction of comfort versus discomfort within our own minds.