Sunday, April 18, 2010

what I know of love's austere and lonely offices

This is Max:

Max got sick six years ago; he was diagnosed with kidney disease and inflammatory bowel disease, which is basically like Crohn's disease for cats. Here's a list of his medications:
  • Metoclopramide (reglan), a drug to treat nausea and vomiting;
  • Metronidazole (flagyl), an antibiotic that treats diarrhea;
  • Famotidine (pepcid), to treat acid reflux;
  • Budesonide (entocort), a site-specific steroid to treat intestinal inflammation;
  • Injectable Vitamin B-12, to counteract the chronic loss of  nutrients;
  • Lactated Ringers Solution, fluids injected subcutaneously to support kidney function.

Twice a day, every day, Max gets a pile of pills. One of the medications, Flagyl, causes him to froth and vomit if it touches his tongue, so I pack it into gelatin capsules to avoid the mess.

Twice a week, every week, I inject Max with a dose of Vitamin B-12.

Twice a week, every week, I inject fluids under Max's skin. Lactated Ringer's solution is an electrolyte mixture of sodium lactate, potassium chlorate, and calcium chloride, and the fluids are designed to support cats with decreased kidney function.

Twice a day, every day, I put together a mix of prescription foods designed to strike a balance between supporting Max's kidneys and soothing his angry intestines. The ideal high fat, low protein food for one condition, see, is the exact opposite of the low fat, high protein food the other condition calls for. So I have to pay close attention and make tiny adjustments to the mixture as needed.

For six years, I've been caring for my chronically ill cat. For much of that time, my sister Laura shared in the responsibility, even though he wasn't technically her cat. (Max's secret power is the ability to get people to fall hopelessly in love with him.) Now, because Laura's in Boston and I'm in Indiana, I care for Max alone. 

There are people who argue that making the internet free and open was a mistake. There are people who believe that humans are essentially selfish, self-motivated individuals, and that the free, open model of most collaborative social media projects are misaligned to our basic human traits. Jaron Lanier, for example, has explained that an enormous mistake was the decision to make contribution to online projects like Wikipedia unpaid and often anonymous. He argues this has led, and will continue to lead, to a decline in quality of collaborative products and projects.

When I first started encountering this argument, about three years into my effort to manage Max's chronic illnesses, I found it preposterous--just simply ridiculous. I wondered what kind of person could actually believe that humans are guided by selfishness. Our species is driven by the strangest of motivators, making us deeply irrational an awful lot of the time. We do an awful lot of things for love, and not for money; we act in chronically selfless ways an awful lot of the time. I'm not talking about the big acts of selflessness--the martyrdom, the dedication to causes or social movements, the sacrifice of personal needs for a greater good. I'm talking about the smaller acts of empathy that guide our everyday practices. These are the behaviors that get obscured, because they're too small, too out of sight, for us to notice in any sort of systematic way. They're obscured in analyses of online communities, too.

And a lot of the time, because they're so small, because they're so inherent to our daily operation as humans, these acts of empathy go unnoticed even by the people who commit them. They're not moving, they're not touching, not in isolation. We wouldn't even know how to identify them or add them up, not for a single person and not for us all. And anyway, these moments are so often overshadowed by bigger moments of tragedy, cruelty, sacrifice, and love that we focus on those instead.

Which is how it probably should be. But let's not forget that the life of human beings is guided by the smaller acts too, by the moments and methods that fill up our hours and days. And let's not forget that those moments and methods are made up of kindness, love, and generosity an awful lot of the time.


Mike S. said...

As someone who's had this experience as well - a cat with my ex-wife that had kidney issues and needed subcue fluids like Max, my cat Peabody who's 18 with long-declining kidney function, and now our black lab who tragically and mysteriously lost vision in an eye from a detached retina - my heart is always warmed when I hear these stories. Part of it is knowing that there are other people who have this perspective, that when you're caring for a living being, you just do what you need to do to make their lives happy and healthy. But also the point that you make, that these are little instantiations of something that adds up to a much bigger whole, and says something about humankind.
It reminds me (forgive the scifi reference) of the persistent question that I think the new Battlestar Galactica series gets at - are we a race worth saving? With all the malice, slaughter, and very visible acts of destruction that we inflict on ourselves and our environs, how do we possibly justify our continued existence in the universe? The answer is here, in what you wrote.

Amy Derby said...

Max is adorable!

I spend a lot of time taking care of chronically ill pet rabbits, so I know the feeling...

Speaking of the internet, it's always interesting to see how folks react to me when they meet me in person after knowing me online for a while. Many many people think I'm a complete bitch online. (Is it ok to say "bitch" on your blog?) Then they meet me, and they see the other side of me -- the nice part that doesn't always necessarily come through so well in print, or that simply gets lost between the pixels or whatever.

Anyway, please kiss Max on the head for me and tell him Internet Stranger #447 says hello. :-)

Rafi said...

I can personally attest that Max indeed has a special power to get people to adore him. He's wonderful and a joker to boot!

I love the connection between technological openness and compassion/empathy that you make. Perhaps the technological optimism/technological pessimism debate is much more of a debate about human nature than it is about tools, and whether our tools must be used to protect us from ourselves (as a sanitized, closed, appliancized and dare-I-say iPad-ish model might purport) or whether our tools should be designed to let our best selves shine by imbuing in their design trust that they will be used and contributed to in good faith for both the tool and those on the other end of it.

Also, I love that you know that all those moments you spend caring for Max matter, and that you took the time to acknowledge that publicly, both for yourself and for others to see.

Brendan said...

I just spent a semester's worth of tuition rehabilitating my dog. He was hit by a car on one of his escapes from our yard. I know he will escape again. Totally irrational.

Also worth noting, I read a book last year entitled "Born to be Good" by Dacher Keltner, which attempts a scientific argument about our innate tendency to be good. A great counter-punch to the many voices that like to use evolution as an excuse for our worst social behavior.

Here is a brief video of the author explaining his work:


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