TL;DR – I have them, I can control them, but my dog can’t.
When I was a boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, I remember my parents had a retired greyhound named Taffy. She was pretty old, and shy, and I could tell she really loved me even though all I wanted to do was ride her like a horsey. I’m sure my sister has a photograph of Taffy and I together, but I couldn’t find one myself. I have a few fuzzy (ha!) memories of her, but what’s stuck with me most is how kind and gentile she was, even when anxiety and frustrations were high within our family unit.
I guess maybe it’s Taffy’s influence on me – her warm, boney ribs, and the way she smelled like corn chips and freshly mowed grass – that I’ve always considered all animals to be our peers on this planet. It’s hard to describe, considering at a primal level I think most species just want to dominate their environments, but I’ve always felt (see: emotionally) that all creatures big & small have “feelings” too.
This is probably as weird to read as it is to type, but maybe keep going so I can hopefully start to sound a little less crazy and maybe even begin to redeem myself in the world.
It wasn’t until the past year or so worth of really studying Mr. Paul the dog I came up with a thesis statement to summarize my observations, so here it goes, saying it out-loud in public for the very first time…
All living things only operate on emotional response. Some humans transcend with logical decision making abilities, only because basic needs are met with comfortable social rank.
I don’t know exactly how to prove this, but I know it’s true, and I’ll try to cite some observations to prove my point, and hopefully help this sound a bit less insane. Smarter people than me will probably note I’m playing fast and loose with words here, largely because academics are frustratingly slow to me, and I’m addicted to experiences. Cut me some slack, and drudge on.
We use the word “domestication” to talk about animals, largely towards pets & food sources, but we usually forget to apply that term to ourselves as a group of creatures roaming about the world. We pat ourselves on our shirt-covered backs and claim victory for having tamed other creatures through human selection, and we celebrate the undeniable fact we are in control of our own destinies. This seems pretty self-fulfilling now, and I’ll tell you why.
In my life, I’ve met dozens of people. They’re all different. You’re all different. We’re all different. But, the one outlier which really truly determines friend from foe is our perceived levels of domestication. Which is to say, are we on the same level, and do we both agree we can stay on the same level without threat or violation. Amongst the few billion people lingering about, and the few I’ve had the overwhelming pleasure to meet, there are only a few people that mutually agree “we’re cool” and put effort into maintaining said level of coolness for the duration of our lives together, and it makes me sad if I think about it too long.
The reality, I think, is it’s all a big accident, and we’ve just been lucky enough to win the evolutionary lottery several times in a row and we’ve brought generations of education with us (of which is starting to become ubiquitous or folk-lore at this point.)
In the 50’s, a guy named Dimitri Belyaev proved it took 35 generations to go from a big bad wolf in your neighborhood to not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good. The math here is shocking if you correlate it to humans – not that it actually accurately correlates, but if it did, consider:
- The average dog, bless their hearts, lives about 10 years
- Humans currently live for about 100 years
- 35 generations of focused human canine selection is about 350 years max
- Humans *could* go from wild killers to domestication in 3500 years, if we had some help to get us over the hump, if you will
Now, I know these numbers aren’t right. They’re a completely false shot in the dark at a loose correlation of data points that is impossible to prove in anyway actually matter. But for some reason, this math skews my perception of the human timeline in a funny way. Maybe 35,000 years was enough time to calm us down to where we are now. Maybe we were lucky enough to discover the benefits of self-selection in a unique way on this planet that boosted our evolutionary abilities into overdrive, galvanizing “ahead” of all other species whom are hanging out with us right now.
You know what I think actually gave us these abilities? Drugs.
Not actual drugs, though I bet those have profound effects also. I’m talking about preparing food in such a way that it tantalizes our senses and invokes emotional responses and experiences though delicious flavors and aromas that force our fleshy brain matter to level-up just to take it all in. Salt. Sugar. Caffeine. Fat. Alcohol. Manufactured, thoroughly processed, extreme intake levels of the most potent ingredients nature can offer us.
Today, we call it “junk food” but I believe once we discovered fire, and learned how to preserve meat, and how to salt the shit out of things to maintain their freshness, and ferment things to get us drunk, we drugged ourselves numb to our emotions which gave us the freedom to evolve the logistical decision making centers of our brains, which helped us create increasingly powerful concoctions & potions, which helped us level up, and on, and on…
So all this time, humans are leveling each other out, both with swords and celery salt. We still are to a certain degree, but we’ve collectively assessed a small group can continue to fight about nothing so the rest of us can continue to condition ourselves to procreate new and better versions of ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we befriend canines almost exclusively as companions, and whether they wanted to or not, we bred them to love us back, and, I think, they usually almost always do.
This, finally, brings me to the TL;DR of this entire bizarre rambling. My furry life-mate, Mr. Paul, has retaught me something I accidentally discovered when I was 3 years old: all animals are purely deeply emotional creatures, and while humans spend their entire lives trying to control them, animals are still fighting for the right to have the luxury to do so.
Paul the dog, is an emotional creature. I can see it, I can feel it. His immense sadness & confusion when I leave the house. His elation when I come home. The calm he feels by my side. The jealousy and distain he feels when I pet Penny the dog. His excitement when I say the word “walk” and his sorrow when I say the word “crate.” His brain understands no logic, only emotional responses to external stimuli.
He feels emotions as a constant, not as a variable. Birds only feel fear of starving, joy of being with their flocks, and excitement of migrating south again. Animals in captivity at zoos and shows only feel sadness and confusion at their predicament, they eventually grow complacent with the abuse of authority used to tame them, settling into depression so they can cope with their new jobs. No matter how compassionate zoo-keepers are, or how much money or time or care is invested in the well-being of exotic creatures, they’re not where they feel they belong, so they are not experiencing genuine joy in their lives, only whatever the opposite is.
Through repeated training sessions and with a consistent reward system, Paul the dog has learned how to navigate the world. He’s smart, and learns quickly. He’s intuitive – he knows when I’m about to leave the house and to go in his crate without me needing to say the word. Him and I are, for lack of a better way to put it, syncopated. We’ve mutually agreed our relationship is enjoyable and worthwhile, and we continue to grow together and learn together as our lives change and our family grows from 2 to 3 to 4 and more.
About a month ago, I was leaving the house to go to dinner, and at the end of our driveway was an injured bird, still alive, not bleeding, but clearly injured. My guess at the time was it had been hit by a car and bounced across the pavement onto our property, where it lay for who knows how long until I discovered it. In those moments, this poor bird did not know logic or fate, it only knew fear and pain. It was helpless, and scared, and hurting, and I was it’s only chance at relief.
I think most people would say it was just a dumb bird, and there’s a million other dumb birds like it out there, and you just put it out of it’s misery and move on. And, I guess pretty morbidly, there’s a part of me that agrees with that assessment. But I’m not equipped to do more good than harm, and I’m not comfortable ending a creature’s life, so I called Fellow Mortals Wildlife hospital and arranged to drop U-turn (yes, I named the bird) off at their facility so they could, with an educated mind and experienced hand, do what was best for this suffering animal.
I’m an emotional person living in a vulcanized world. And I think most of us are. We fool ourselves into believing this place we’ve manufactured for ourselves is civilized, so much so, many of us can now go our entire lives never experiencing the raw pain & emotion true helplessness and suffering entails. When someone survives a tragedy, we use the word “traumatized” to compartmentalize their emotions leaking out from the fragile vail of logic we all cover up with to navigate the day. Frankly, it’s all just lies to help occupy the time.
Love is the only word I can think of that everyone agrees means something different to everyone else. But animals without cloudy human logic feel love all the time. They feel relief of anxiety though perceived successes of food & shelter & warmth. They feel joy being reunited with their packs & groups. They find love, without looking, everywhere they are. When we find love, with people or pets or otherwise, our logical epicenters try to suss out all the ways it might or might not calculate, and our bias in either direction dictates the outcome of that relationship.
Not Mr. Paul, though… he just loves his family, and I love learning from him everyday. <3
P.S. This is probably the type of post that requires too much mental commitment to like or reply to because it’s all over the place, but if you made it this far, do it anyways so I can feel a bit less crazy about it all even if it’s not true.
When I was in third grade, my elementary school guidance counselor setup a meeting with my parents and I to talk about my behavior. I’ll spare you the details, but the gist is that “John has a high comprehension level and enormous potential but does not apply himself.” Whether or not that was or is actually true is debatable on some days and a ludicrous notion on others, but this interaction stuck with me, and possibly accidentally influenced the rest of my life, up to this point at least.
I’ve made it around the sun 36 times now, and in the past 28 revolutions since being told that my ability to grok how the world works was a super human ability yet to be seen in reality, I’ve identified several commonalities that boil down to one inalienable truth:
You’re difficult to work with.
I’ve been told this directly several times in my life, and twice recently, so let’s assume that it’s true.
- I’m stubborn; I get that from my dad who is always right even after you have definitively proven him wrong with factual evidence to refute his theories. I’ve always found this endearing in a way; “prove that I’m wrong” was a fun challenge growing up and learning how the world worked, and I also actively try never to operate in that capacity towards others because as an adult, it’s hugely frustrating.
- I’m observant; I get that from both of my parents who both were always living on the brink of poverty and needing to keep an inventory of every scrap, every opportunity, and every potential threat at what they had already accomplished or accumulated.
- I’m passionate; I get this from my mom; her heart is bigger than her head, and her head is growing increasingly fuzzy. I want to make sure that people and things are taken care of, and I actively put forth my best effort to ensure the most positiver outcome occurs.
- I “think too much.” I’m not sure when exactly this started or if it’s always been this way, or what exactly influenced my brain to work this way, but learning is my addiction and being fluent enough in everything to be able to hold down a conversation is a way for me to dodge any social anxiety I might have.
- I expect too much from people. I expect people to understand my perspective as much as I understand theirs. I expect people to be as patient with me as I am with them. I expect people to be polite, and communicative, and respectful. I expect people to be considerate, kind, and compassionate. I’m constantly disappointed when they aren’t any of these things.
(Edit: I should note here that I think my parents are both amazing individuals. They’re brilliant in their own unique ways. They are savants that sacrificed their opportunities so that I could have mine, and I love and appreciate them immensely.)
This last one is (in my self-diagnosed opinion) ultimately the issue that makes me difficult to work with. I try not to offer unsolicited advice, but I desperately want to be helpful so when someone does ask for my opinion I have a well thought-out perspective to offer. That requires an education, which requires research, and doing this at scale with all the cool shit in the world requires an ability to comprehend something quickly and filter out anything that isn’t relevant.
In reality, though, what’s happened numerous times is someone asks for my opinion, and I blow their question out of the water with several layers deeper worth of feedback than they were probably asking for. Here’s an example based on a real life experience:
- “What do you think of this new soup we are trying out?”
- “I like it, but I don’t think it matches the rest of the lunch offerings.”
- “Oh, okay. But the soup is good though?”
- “It’s not bad, but it’s heavy on the spices and thicker than I expected it to be. And I think if I came in for an iced-tea on a hot summer day, that I wouldn’t want to pair it with a cup of tomato soup.”
- “I suppose. We have a few days worth of ingredients so we’ll see how it goes. Thanks.”
Now, me… I don’t find this interaction off-putting at all, but the chef definitely does, and the manager who worked hard to make the decision to order the ingredients and put together the pairings and design the menu and bring out the ladder and chalk and write the specials on the board and convince everyone this was the right thing to do, doesn’t want to hear this feedback.
This type of scenario carries over to my current career, where interactions are largely public, relationships are largely friendly, interactions are usually with individuals I’ve known in some capacity for several years, but I still manage to piss off despite a lifetime of preparation to try and avoid conflict and accomplish cool stuff with people.
My hunch is that they’re probably right, and that working with me is difficult. Ironically, I don’t think it’s because I’m stubborn like my dad, or over-observant, or passionate, or think too much, but because I’m so fluent and familiar with every aspect and angle of every problem that needs solving under my umbrella of influence, that I’ve already:
- Deeply assessed the entire situation
- Tested several theories about what’s wrong
- Cross-checked the results of my conclusions
- Considered the social implications of communicating my feedback
- Formulated a response catered to being direct, polite, jovial, and light-hearted enough to convey humor in whatever flaw it is we’re diagnosing and repairing
Ironically, even with all of this preparation, and time, and knowledge, and consideration, I’m still difficult to work with. And they’re right, they must be, because it’s fairly consistent feedback spanning several years and groups of friends and relationships and what-not.
My conclusion is that, in one sense, I’m over-applying myself to compensate for a conversation that happened when I was 8 years old. I’ve become addicted to learning things and applying what I learn to prove to myself that I can. I learned how to build, tune, and race cars when I was a teenager. I learned how to write code and make video games. I learned about making wine, brewing coffee, working on the house, auto-cross, electrical, plumbing, accounting, hiring, firing, small engines, milling wood flooring, drywall, pressure washing, video production, mixing music, turntablism, art history, design, typography, security, microwave emitters, steam cleaning, public speaking, community service, whatever…
Basically, I unknowingly fueled the depression and anxiety of primarily inattentive ADHD. I included a link, but you can just search the web for it if you care to learn. Basically, my brain is a hummingbird that never lands, and is constantly on high-alert trying to observe and absorb, and there is no off switch within reach. When it’s time to communicate to someone else what’s been rattling around in my head for however long, it’s already been too long and I’ve worked too far ahead. The effort it takes for me to slow down to bring everyone else up-to-my-speed, means me sacrificing my momentum just so that people can think I’m difficult to work with anyways.
This doesn’t happen very frequently, but when it does it’s painful… it hurts my head to stop thinking so I can write down everything I just learned, with the knowledge that the recipient isn’t going to consider all of the angles that I did, and I’m too anxious about being perceived negatively to concentrate on communicating the depths of my thoughts effectively.
If I wasn’t a cargo-shorts wearing pizza-eating white-dude that looks and acts pretty normal most of the time, and if it wasn’t something I felt I could control enough to navigate the world with relative ease, I’d call it a disability. It’s like being blind, and having people tell you that you’re difficult to work with because you can’t see.
When you consider the perspective of a self-aware recipient, being told that you’re difficult to work with is not feedback, it’s a personal attack, it’s dismissive, and it’s insulting. Combine that feedback with your efforts being voluntary, and it starts to look like management is actively sabotaging your experience.
It’s perpetually negatively self-fulfilling. If you tell someone they are a jerk, they’re going to get defensive which heightens their anxiety and excites them into acting like a jerk, and then you get to say they’re a jerk. It’s unfair, manipulative, and not indicative of true leadership ability or spirit.
What should happen in these cases, and what I actively put mucho effort to convey in BuddyPress, bbPress, and other open-source endeavors, is an appreciation for everyone’s efforts and perspectives, particularly if I initially disagree, because it’s important to me and the projects I represent that I fully understand all perspectives before I can rightfully come to any conclusion, and it’s important that the delivery of my conclusion be respectful of their time & feelings related to the matter.
So, fine… I’m difficult to work with. I’m probably difficult to work for, too. And difficult to be married to. And I’m confident Paul the dog thinks I’m a difficult puppy-master because I spent 2 hours drafting this all up instead of walking him around the block this afternoon. If you know me, or you think you want to, or you’re forced to interact with me somewhere for some reason, please try to give me the benefit of the doubt, and if you aren’t able to, expect for me to be pretty frustrated about it, because I’m trying my best and I expect you to do the same.