Saturday, August 29, 2015

The art of losing

Still Alice (2014) Poster   
In a pivotal moment in the film Still Alice, the protagonist, a professor of linguistics (played by Julianne Moore), desperately searches through her mind for the word "lexicon", and not finding it, deftly substitutes it with "wordstock." We're all familiar with that sense of not getting the right word at the right time, and most of us don't have the vocabulary (or presence of mind) for such a quick replacement act. I had a similar "elder" moment a few weeks ago when the word "traverse" escaped me completely, and made its way back into my head almost a full week later, when I least expected it.
In the case of Alice, losing words was a sign of early onset Alzheimer's, but in most cases it is just normal (or chronic) forgetfulness brought on by having too many things in one's head. I often complain to friends that I feel like my mind is a basket full of unnecessary shopping while in my hand is a list with less than one-tenth of the items checked off! Losing track of appointments, forgetting where things have been put, mis-remembering people's names, forgetting birthdays, anniversaries, addresses and phone numbers...the list goes on. And then of course there are all the things I have lost, including money (and I don't even gamble).

So chronic forgetfulness it is.  

I decided to take stock of all the things I have lost. At least three purses, full of money, in quick succession (the joke in the office used to be that lightning never strikes four times), books (some have walked off my shelves in friend's hands in the guise of borrowing), jewellery, particularly earrings (I am left with many without a pair), cellphones (my upgrades are forced upon me by loss)... you get the picture.

But there are different kinds of loss and different levels of intensity of loss. These are all just things, after all, and the regret they bring about is usually fleeting, a pang of material absence that is quickly resolved. I pack away with a little more care the memories these things hold and console myself that it was really the memory that I treasured, not the thing, and get on with my life.

And then there is the other, deeper kind of loss, that we can neither avoid nor prepare for. The loss of people from our lives. We all have our share of that kind of loss, some, tragically, earlier than others. That's a loss that has no compensation other than, again, memory. And perhaps we should not think of it as loss, because we are left with something because those people were part of our lives, something that would not be there if not for the person who left us with those memories. As one of my friends so beautifully put it, "much of life is lived in absences". But the physical absence counts for a kind of presence, one that is often much more keenly felt that the touch of a hand or the pressure of a shoulder against yours.

So maybe the real wisdom about losing (and much else) is to be found in the words of an old Simon & Garfunkel song: "preserve your memories, they're all that's left you."

  And when, like Alice, one doesn't even have those--maybe that is  when we are truly defeated.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

When dog bites person (or the confessions of an ambivalent dog sympathizer)

This morning I set off on my usual morning walk, at the quiet and beautifully cloudy hour of 6 a.m. and took my usual route, along a street I have walked on many times before, at different times of the day. Listening to one of my favourite podcast series, I must have had a silly smile on my face as I walked past a tight group of three dogs sitting (in what seemed to be a peaceable manner) in just off the road in a space that would have normally counted as a sidewalk. Quite mindful of the proverbial advice to let sleeping dogs lie I made sure to give them a wide berth as I walked past, thinking to myself that the large white female in the middle looked like she was happily pregnant. All of a sudden, the female dog began barking loudly and rushed at me, and before I knew what was happening, she clamped her jaw on my shin even as one of her two companions ran ahead barking and lunging at me from the front. I managed to shake her off and walk away quickly and fortunately they hung back, continuing to bark but not pursuing me beyond a couple of yards.

I don't make any claim to bravery, but I found myself strangely calm, even unperturbed by the whole event. I checked my leg and found that she had indeed drawn blood, and there were clear teeth marks apart from one long tear in the skin. But I went ahead and completed my usual 45 minute circuit while continuing to listen to my podcast (which, incidentally, was about Killer Robots!) and possibly continuing, to smile foolishly (a matter of perspective of course) from time to time at the anchor's macabre humour.

The dogs were clearly being territorial, and felt threatened possibly because I looked at them (perhaps had not encountered a benevolent gaze and so interpreted all human looks as malicious). I had learned in the past year from a friend and colleague, ardent animal rights activist and dog lover, about the politics of dog life on the street and the complex dynamics of the human-animal interaction (better termed as conflict). I had found that my attitude to dogs on the street, and my understanding of the realities of their lives had opened up considerably because of the long conversations with my friend, and reading about the wonderful work some others are doing to make life bearable for street animals.

Strangely enough, I felt neither neither anger at the dogs nor fear, only a bit of perplexity and some wondering about how one could avoid such situations. And yes, my leg did hurt a bit.

When I spoke about it to others, reactions varied from "see, this is the problem with street dogs--they've become a menace" to advice about how I should protect myself the next time around. Animal rights is a hugely divisive issue, I am told, and the protective instincts of those around me tended to veer towards a huge animosity toward the dogs. But as my friend said, that's tantamount to labeling and marginalising an entire community because of the actions of a few (or one).

Many of us have been bitten by dogs, and what I encountered this morning is by no means unique or even excessively traumatic (my injuries were minor and all I need to do is take the five shots). I am not an animal activist, although (like most people) I am fond of some dogs and cats and I am happy to support such activism from afar. But I also do understand the annoyance people when packs of dogs roam a colony and make it difficult for the elderly or young children to use the street freely. I admit I am confused at times. But I can't get away from the fact that there is seems to be something hypocritical in professing compassion for humans without an attendant sympathy/compassion for other animals.

No easy solutions, I know, and the biggest problem is the mindset that sees the planet as the domain (and dominion) of a single species--human beings. As our cities grow bigger and eat into habitats that used to house other animals, we need to think seriously about how we can share our spaces with other (by and large friendly) species in a way that is safe and pleasant for all of us.

This morning, one of the reasons I did not panic and bolt (and possibly avoided upsetting the dogs further and inviting meaner reactions) was because of the opening up of the conversation in my own head about the complexities of living on the street. It's hard for me to look at the dogs and not wonder about their lives, their everyday scrounging for food and water, their battles for survival in the face of odds weighted so heavily against them. Being bitten is NOT a pleasant experience. But neither can it be pleasant to constantly be on guard, to not know who means well and who doesn't. For both of us.