Sometimes it takes an old dog to teach you new tricks
I am not certain I should be admitting this, but Tucker is back. You all remember Tucker, my golden retriever that I had to put to sleep (what horrible euphemistic drivel) last year due to his two cancers and his intractable pain. I got more mail about Tucker than anything else I’ve ever written about in these pages. Well, Tucker’s back, and I just hope men in white coats don’t haul me away before I finish the piece.
So I’m lying in bed having woken in a twilight somnambulance somewhere about 3:00 A.M (I’ll admit this respite had been well-oiled with Grand Cru and Remy Martin). My brain was in that strange state somewhere between agitation, hypnagogic dreams and the Elysian Fields. I felt something brush by my hand, which was hanging lifelessly over the side of the bed. I had felt this sensation many times before. It was the tail of my golden, Tucker, as he did his midnight rounds before he went to sleep.
“Was that your tail, Tucker?” I said? “Of course,” said Tucker. “You know I would be wise enough to bring my tail with me when I came back from the dead to visit.” Tucker, being a sophisticated dog (despite being a Platonist) wouldn’t be caught dead without a tail. And this being the State of Michigan, he was well-aware it would be against the law to retail spirits after 2:00 A.M.
Still pondering the believability of this apparition, I started the usual interrogation of a ghost hound. “What are you doing here?” I said. “Well, that’s a fine way to greet a doggie who you loved for years,” he says. “But I’ve learned a great deal in the spirit world. And one of them is that your great truths, Greg, were not as true as all that.” “How do you know this?” I said. “Because I have been monitoring your phone calls, reading your emails and exploring the minds of your readers. All those things you rarely shared with me while I was alive. I also have noticed you’ve incorrectly quoted Shakespeare, not once, but twice in your columns.” Alright, now I’m a little perturbed. “Shakespeare would have never minded misquotations,” I responded. “It’s far better to recall such scraps clumsily but with true affection.” “True enough,” said Tucker. “Let’s move on. You haven’t come all this way,” I said, “through the space-time continuum to tell me this, have you?”
“No, of course not. I’ve come to give you sympathy for all the criticisms you’ve taken because of that damn column. One might assume from comments made that you and I have the same mother. Although that would not be a bad thing, as far as a dog’s concerned. But I know how it is with people. But anyway, you have my sympathy, understanding that sympathy might not imply understanding. Next, I want to lick your hand. In dog terms that means I want to get your attention. Why? Because you’ve been a wuss, a plain-out scaredy cat, fraidy cat wuss. And you noticed I used cat twice. That means I’m really insulting you. You’ve become the damn lap dog to the pinhead liberals and their censorious passions. Your recent columns stink of political correctness. Funny, you never had any problem calling dog shit dog shit with me. You represent a Foucauldian descent into the abyss where we force everyone to believe the same thing; just as the communists, the Nazis and the ultra-religious did in the past. Do you know, Greg, in 1877, the year William Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, we were all warned by John Ruskin of the revulsion of visionary restoration; that is the crime of remembering things not as they were, but the way we think they should have been or would have been. This is revisionist history and you’ve become a part of it in your column. Shame on you.”
“Now just a minute. I quoted Allan Bloom just two months ago. Doesn’t that count for something?” “Listen, jerk…” “That’s Dr. Jerk to you.” “Yeah, well, whatever. In Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom had the courage to lament the languid relativism that has infected human beings and the Humanities. He had the courage to shake his fist at people who called themselves teachers, yet spend their time deconstructing everything so that poor students get four years of intellectual disputation. And the vision that anything goes and nothing matters. Moral relativism as a new platform for absolutism and a belief in nothing.”
“Ooh, I take it you are no longer a reader of the column, Tucker?” “Oh, no,” he says, “to the contrary. I can’t wait to see each month how much further down you have gone into nothingness. Your failure to quote Vaclav Havel’s essay, The Power Of The Powerless or to speak with any urgency as to what is actually happening to the social aspects of the distribution of healthcare I find appalling. When speaking to something with a high moral price, such as healthcare reform, only committed people will pursue it and have the courage to take the beating that goes with it. Academics in the West are obligated to publish articles and books in order to advance their careers. And in the years since the Second World War, this has led to a proliferation of literature that if not always second-rate for its intellectual value is certainly viewed as without literary merit of any kind. It is stodgy, cluttered with footnotes and without telling anything with any imagery or turns of phrase. This is the stuff of which boredom is made. Such literature oppresses both teachers and students and leaves all of us philosophically poor. Greg, you have now become a member of that crowd.”
“Wow. That’s a lot of passion, Tucker. You know passion. That’s the quality of which you claim my writing is bereft.” “Don’t take this criticism too hard, Greg. Since dying I’ve been reviewing for the Annals of Emergency Medicine. So I know mediocre science and incredibly bad writing when I smell it. You’re just a part of the sold-out culture that fully believes the production of such drivel is somehow morally superior to giving real compassionate care to real people in need. Who taught all of you that these superiority complexes were a virtue? Did it ever dawn on any of the cognoscente that there was a library at Alexandria long before there was a tenure and professional advancement committee at any university in the country? The modern university has built a trap for itself, where it has no choice but to be opposed to the entire concept of a Western civilization or culture.”
“This is more than I can handle from a dog,” I said. “Can’t you find anything good to say about the column since you died and have no longer been an advisor?” “Technically, I didn’t die. You killed me. But leave that for another night.” “Okay, this may sound somewhat ironic, dog, but throw me a bone here.”
“Okay, okay,” he says. “Your discussion titled “The Thin Blue Line” had its merits. But it missed the most important point: We are equal in our right to trial by jury and in the eyes of God and in no other ways, period. Suicide, which can now be listed as the third most common cause of death in adolescence, is next to homicide, which is also growing. Suicide, homicide, all those things that come to the emergency department. This is the world. No one has a global answer. And the emergency departments are neither the cause of this violence or the answer to it in and of themselves. It is ultimately a problem of the family and the soul. Your ED is no more the cause of suicide than is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Incidentally, I read the response letters to that column, who universally agreed that the ED as an inherently dangerous place, but no one had any good suggestions or solutions. Someone opined that we examine those behaviors that put the mental health population at risk. What the hell does that even mean? Whatever “basic dynamics” are is one of those non sequiturs that sounds good and means nothing. Your article should have included the mystery clause from the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision: ‘At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and the mysteries of life.’ Knowing that in the final analysis we practice one patient, one doctor at a time, and that we see the best and worst problems in society, cautious awareness and discretion are the best things we can teach our residents. But we have no model to do so.” “Dog, you are now using the we voice as if you trained residents.” “Well,” he says, “I do, through you, and you can quote me on that.”
It was getting closer to dawn now. And just the thought of carrying on this conversation was beginning to creep me out. My besotted brain was in full retreat and return of rationality was going to occur shortly. “Okay, Tucker, we have time for one last criticism before my sanity returns. So do it quick.” He replies: “I’m certain you mean do it quickly, Dad. You see I read your last column on the adjective/adverb dilemma. Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson has just been printed and I would like to take him out and thrash him soundly. And I’d do so if I only had thumbs.” “Why do you have such great anger against this fine author?” I said. “Because he implies that to question the existence of Homer is to question the existence of God, which to him is a good thing. He suggests that Homer, the obvious organizing principle of Western civilization and father of the Iliad and the Odyssey is in fact an allusion; sort of like the existence of God to Richard Dawkins.”
“But the grandeur of the work still exists!” I said. “And it’s as important as it ever was. The fact that you have now become a Unitarian on the organization of Homer does not necessarily make it right.” “No,” he says, “but it keeps me constant with my Western traditions.” I answer: “It matters not, dear Tucker, but Homer has – whether he’s an it, a she or a he – a way of viewing our world. It represents where we have come from and where we are. The work excites us, informs us and is still referred to today in literate circles, just as much as it was in antiquity.”
Tucker did not hear this last comment. No matter. He’s back now in some celestial garret room sitting under the legs of Socrates, debating the inconsistencies in the Nicomachean Ethics. God, I miss that dog. He was what Henry James called: “a strangely accepted finality of relationships, a solid core of simple love.”