Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Of dogs, economy and tribalism.

I'm a dog guy...
I love dogs since I was a kid. Back then my dad adopted a gorgeous white Grand Dane we called, ironically, "Pitufo" (that's the Latin American equivalent of Smurf). He was this gargantuan behemoth cuteness. He loved to jump on people, it was his way of being friendly. You can imagine that not everyone understood that as a friendly gesture, though; a 1.82m tall beast jumping with his paws on your chest and trying to lick your face is probably a scary thing to experience, special coming from a dog you don't know. One day Smurf escaped from my yard and decided to say hi to a passing young couple. The young woman welcome my dogs gesture by screaming like a rape victim, so picture the scene... Small young woman screaming, completely freaked out and covering her face while huge dog drooled and jumped around her. It indeed look bad for Smurf. To make things worst a policeman was witnessing the scene from about a block away. After the policeman approached the young woman declared that my horrible beast brutally attacked her and in the act ripped a expensive golden necklace from her neck and, conveniently, swallowed it. Of Course she was never able to prove anything, no attack marks of any kind and no way to establish that the necklace even existed in the first place, so me; a 35kg 8 year old 1.35m high boy and Smurf; my 87kg crazy-bloodthirsty-gold-swallowing 1.82m high monster were allowed to walk away.
Later, about 2 days after the "attack" I came to realize that the young woman's boyfriend didn't considered things settled, position he manifested by coming back to my house during the night and shooting Smurf with a hollow point .22 caliber handgun . I know basically nothing about real guns and probably less about ballistic and bullet dynamics, but I do know this: if you shoot a big dog with a small caliber gun you don't instantly kill him, instead you ensure him a great deal of suffering and a slow excruciating death. I sat down on the ground holding Smurf for what seemed like an eternity waiting for a vet the never came. He died with his head resting on my lap... I didnt cried... I still miss him.
Nowadays my family is formed by my lovely wife, my biological sons (15 and 12) and my adoptive daughters; Thelma, a noble and smart halfbreed that kind of looks like a minuscule greyhound, and Gaia a cute goofy Basset hound. The girls are a crazy couple, completely opposite both physically and behaviorally. One is super-fast and agile like a hare and the other one is basically an achondroplastic sausage with overdeveloped ears. Gaia is the youngest and as every basset hound she is as stubborn as hell.
I love my adoptive daughters, but they find new ways to rub me in the wrong way, specially when they are left alone in the house, unsupervised, for more than 20 sec. Basset hounds are famous for their incredibly sensible sense of smell, they can detect the most faint traces, a hundred particles per million, of practically odorless stuff completely imperceptible to us even if we grind down a pound of it and snort it with a rolled up bill. Needles to say; they have the superpower of finding food... needless to say they have a broad sense of what can be considered food, as most dogs do. One day, out of the blue, Gaia (my achondroplastic-supersmelling-sausage daughter) started flipping all the trash cans in the house and spreading its contents in the most inconvenient places, so I could at any time find the most repulsive things you can throw away half chewed on my pillow or inside one of my slippers. This suddenly became a habit for her, so we had to restrict the access to places with trash cans, specially the bathrooms and the kitchen. You can imagine how fast this became an annoyance. We were quite puzzled of why she started doing that but we didn't know how to find out since nothing (nothing obvious) had changed in that period.
One night, I waked up to noises in the ground level of the house, so I went down to check what was the origin of it (No baseball bat in hand, I'm Mexican, I know that statistically burglaries happen during the day... you are welcome). I get to the kitchen and find every single food cabinet open and everything that could be considered food (by basset hound standards) ripped open and spread all across the floor. Gaia and Thelma sitting in the middle slowly chewing something with their mouths dusted in flour and cookie crumbs and their bellies swollen. So I just went nuts, the frustration accumulated from weeks of guarding trash cans simply took the best of me so I started screaming at them and angrily pointing out at things while thinking: "What the hell is wrong with this stubborn pair?". If you are a dog guy like me you probably talk to dogs as if they (sometimes they do) understand you. I began this angry speech about how wrong they have been doing and how things will change the next they for them, how we will start alienating them from the house and having them spend more time outside where they could not cause any more trouble and how that will prevent the night food hastes from happening again.
We store their food on a huge container like 2 meters away from the food disaster ground zero. So I walk to the container with the intention to show them that we have plenty of food for them, and how unjustified their actions were. I open the container and notice that in fact there is food, but there is way more than it should be considering their feeding habits, and also notice that the cup we use for measuring the servings has been replaced by a way smaller one, probably 1/3 of the size of the one we use. I have this sudden flashback that connected all that was happening in an instant:
My mother in law was visiting us since the last 3 weeks, around 7 days prior of the trashcan incidents started. She had taken over feeding the dogs (I know this is probably hard to understand, but Latino moms and in laws visit for weeks at a time and usually take over or some of the activities in the house, like cooking or feeding dogs in this case). I remembered telling her that we fill the dogs plates with one serving a day measured with the officially sanctioned serving cup inside the dog food storage container.
My heart shrinked like 2 sizes as I looked at my shivering and cringed dog daughters that stared at me with shame and fear.
I'm not an expert in economics, I have no clue how markets and wealth distribution really works, I don't think anyone really has. I'm no fan of capitalism, I think it's flawed to the core but it's a less nocive model than others humanity has tried. What I know is that we sometimes overestimate our own honesty and civility, we think we act based on what we are in essence and not based on the circumstances and we think the same of other people. This is true most of the time, but bare with me.
If a guy cuts me off in traffic it's because he is a bigot and an asshole, that's the only explanation we see and the only one we want to see. We deceive ourselves thinking we are immutably good people, that our morals are intrinsic to what we are. This kind of thinking is unsustained and according to neuroscientific evidence, completely mistaken. We are, to a point, circumstantial creatures, in the sense that we act influenced more by the circumstances than to our internal sense of ourselves. We allow ourselves and justify us to do things that we make tabu for others if the circumstances push us to that. I can cut you off in traffic, not because I'm a bigot and an asshole as the people that cut ME off, but because I'm in a rush, I'm still a good guy, right? I firmly believe that the majority of us are good, cooperating and empathic people in part because we are social hominids that benefit from the common good (my nerdy way of saying "because we are good people"), but also (and probably mainly) because we have constructed a civilization safe haven, where we get the chance to switch off the survival mode in our brains for extended periods of time. This is a pretty scary thought, it implies that civilization defined by our abundance of food, shelter and overall well being is the only thing keeping us away from going back to barbaric tribalism. This means that that if our civilization that shelters us so we can spend time thinking on science, art and technology broke down, our survival mode goes back on. Any mammal sufficiently desperate to survive will not hesitate to open food cabinets and eat whatever it finds and not care a thing about social norms and pack hierarchy, if it's desperate enough it won't even blink before severing your jugular with a bite and having your offspring for dinner in front of you while you slowly fade away; this includes our sweet neighbor that waves good morning at us when we leave our driveway to work... and you... and me.
My intention is not to picture this inevitable nihilistic horizon, but a call to awareness of the importance of keeping our civilization the way it is. We need to guarantee that we will generate the safe conditions for every single member of our species to be able to switch off their survival mode so they can relocate those cognitional resources into the proverbial pursue of happiness. We need to make sure that everyone's servings are measured with the right cup.