Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Life and Death


Since the puppies arrived, I've been sleeping less. When they get restless they start yelping, and I’ve always been a light sleeper. The puppies do settle down and sleep from about midnight until dawn, but that’s not quite six hours of sleep. I’ve been dragging.
In some cultures sleep deprivation is linked to spirituality. Now, I'm not going to go get my shaman's license just yet, but my recent experiences with both life and death have left me in an interesting mental space.
The life experience is all about the puppies. They keep getting bigger. They’ve developed distinct personalities. They’ve become little escape artists. They’ve grown attached to both Dóra and me.
There’s the pup we plan to keep. We call him Villi (it’s a working title, short for the Hungarian word ‘light’). He’s the biggest, and his personality is the most nuanced. He’s mellow most of the time, but he’ll aggressively defend his space in the puppy pen. When he’s out and about, he will sometimes approach my feet and tumble onto his back for a belly rub, but he’ll just as often wander off on his own and drop to the ground to sample a corner of the rug.
Most of the other pups have been claimed. One was even taken away last weekend. So we’re trying to stay emotionally distant. It’s hard. The good news is that one of the pups is going to stay in the family. She’s going Stateside to live with my folks. We picked Columbus for the trip. Funny thing, that name came about before we decided to send her across the Atlantic. Columbus was the first puppy to demand freedom from the puppy pen. She squirms her way out whenever she can, and we often find her poking her nose into the most distant nooks and crannies of the apartment. Lili was going to claim Columbus for herself, but she’s decided her lifestyle won’t allow for demands of puppy-care.
Through observing Dóra’s and my own trials, Lili is aware that taking care of a number of small animals has an effect on a person. There are all the precious moments, and the cuteness, and the big eyes with the longing looks. But there is also a lot of piss and poo to clean up, a lot of meaningless barking, and the total lack of reasoning on their part. They have no capacity for critical thought, these puppies. The catch phrase of Triumph the Comic Dog is much more poignant to me now than ever before; that is how a puppy thinks: ‘Oh, this is nice. I’m out of my pen, and the floor is full of different smells, and I am walking around, and this is a nice sandal… for me to poop on.’
I’ve never been much for Hallmark sentimentality, but having puppies has ripped any romanticized view of small animals right out of me. Don’t get me wrong. I still love the puppies, but they are complicated little creatures. Which makes them more interesting than a phrase like “puppy-dog eyes” can ever hope to relate.
They are simultaneously selfish, playful, dirty, curious, aggressive, friendly, whiny, hungry, cute, disgusting, and adorable.
Now, I won’t compare dog puppies to human babies here. That gets a little weird if you ask me, but I will say that adult humans exhibit this same kaleidoscope of characteristics.
This is easier to illustrate with literature (because the finite nature of art is easier to understand than the infinite nature of reality). Think of the most interesting character from a book you recently read. I’m going to go with Ahmad from Updike’s Terrorist. What makes your character interesting? Is it that he/she is strong or weak or honorable or is it something more? My thoughts are that the characters most worth reading about are full of conflicting characteristics. They are a closer approximation to what we know as life. It is our need to impose a narrative on how such conflicting characteristics move with us from one day to the next that makes living life the selfish, playful, dirty, curious, aggressive, friendly, whiny, hungry, cute, disgusting, and adorable experience that it is.
So, that’s what puppies have taught me. I warned you, I’m not sleeping well.
As for my recent encounter with death, that took place in a tiny ethnically Hungarian village in southern Slovakia.
Dóra and I went to a traditional pig-killing this month. We arrived at 7:30am and were rushed back to the little sheds that housed the animals: chickens, pigs, dogs, and pigeons (pigeons?). They killed the pig right away. I didn’t have much time to process that. There was a bunch of smiling strangers pointing the way. We stepped onto a 20’x20’ cement slab where there was a crowd of people standing beside two wood fires burning inside a pair of oil drums. I didn’t know what the rush was all about until I saw the pig.
She was being pinned down by two good-sized men in flannel and overalls. When the men were told to proceed, a third man step in with a pressure gun. He pressed it to the pig’s neck and fired. There was a lot of squirming as the men wrestled the pig further out onto the concrete. A knife was produced and the neck was slit open.
Pig’s bleed a lot.
Two pigs were killed this way. Over the course of the next eight hours, a dozen people, myself included, cleaned the pigs with a blowtorch and brushes, butchered the pigs (Dóra has a crush on the butcher), hauled the meat into the shed, divided the fat from the meat, pulled out the useful organs, boiled the fat, ground up the sausage meat, mixed and stuffed sausages, mixed and stuffed liver-sausage, and all the while took in a steady flow of pálinka.
The event left me exhausted, but I was struck by the tradition of the affair. I how it turned food production into a kind of ritual. I think it’s fitting. After all, the pig didn’t want to die. Had you been there, you would understand how much an animal struggles to stave off death. It is a violent and painful fight. It didn’t make me dislike meat or the killing of animals for food, but it does give one pause.
I think the animals we consume deserve a send off, and this countryside tradition fits the bill for me. I care about animals enough to birth a litter in my apartment. Shouldn’t I care enough to see that we send them off with a bit of respect?