Musings

Candy Pee and Me: How Big Pharma Seduced Me at NAVC

It’s been entirely too long since I’ve posted, and for that I apologize. I’ve been terribly busy responding to nastygrams depositing my checks from Big Pet Food sneering at plebians going to a continuing education conference this past week, and what a week it was.

Like many of you, I read the Indy Star’s expose about the loose strings of pharmaceutical companies (or, in internet conspiracy parlance, Big Pharma) at continuing education conferences such as the one I was going to attend, and also like many of you, I was surprised. And excited. I had no idea this was what I had to look forward to! I thought I was just plunking down a couple grand in fees, airfare, and hotel for a measly week of polishing my science know-how, and here’s this whole seedy underbelly of riches I had no idea existed.

I arrived in Orlando for the North American Veterinary Community Conference with 16,000 of my closest friends energized, ready to be plied with jewels, cash, and cars. Kind of like The Price is Right, but with drugs.

In the past, I’ve wandered the exhibit hall for a breather in between talks, taking a peek at the new products on the market. Sometimes the companies would give us candy, or pens- enough to get us to stop by and familiarize ourselves with the product, but not enough to justify actually changing how we practice medicine. I would have done it anyway. Because becoming familiar with new products is, you know, what we’re supposed to do.

I wanted to start my day with one of the storied free food lectures, hoping to begin my morning with roasted pheasant and perhaps a fluffy souffle. Then I learned you had to get up at 6:30 and the most they could guarantee was that the food was “hot,” so I passed and had a Kind bar instead.

"All we need is cantaloupe and these vets won't know what hit them."

“All we need is cantaloupe and these vets won’t know what hit them.”

After a few am lectures about respiratory distress, where the speaker (and every other one at NAVC) carefully informed us about their financial ties- or lack thereof- to the topics of their talk, I hit the exhibit hall in search of fortune.

Somewhere past the forceps booth and to the left of the lasers, a long line started to snake through the aisles and out into the halls. Whatever they were giving away, that had to be good.

“Excuse me,” I said to the woman at the end of the line. “Is this where they’re handing out free cars?”

“No,” she said. “This line is for Build-a-Bear.”

“This huge line is for Build-a-Bear?” I asked somewhat incredulously. The three men in front of her turned around and to a one muttered something about little girls at home. It’s cool, guys. Everyone likes Build-a-Bear.

buildabear

“Where’s the contest where everyone wins something?” I asked, and they directed me over to the east hall, where a bored looking woman instructed me to spin a ‘wheel of parasites.’ I won a chapstick with a picture of a tapeworm on it.

As I continued to wander, I heard some grumbling from around a corner, where four people were congregated around a woman clutching a big bag. “Where’d you get that?” they asked her, and she pointed to another long line snaking through the hall.

“Is that the jewelry line?” I asked.

“No,” they said. “This is for the stuffed Olaf.”

“Like Olaf from Frozen?” I asked.

“Yes,” a woman replied, “but you have to be careful. They’re really hard to get. You have to go through a screening process.”

olaf

“What sort of screening process?” I asked.

“No one knows,” she said. “All I know is that they keep turning people away who don’t own practices. I think they sell some sort of financial services. It might involve an application and a credit report.”

“I’ve tried three times for an Olaf,” said another woman. “They’re not very nice about it.”

“Isn’t Frozen kind of old news anyway?” I asked, but that was apparently not the right question to ask.

Dispirited, I walked into the booth of a large pharmaceutical company. “If I listen to your spiel,” I asked, “What do I get?”

“Information,” the rep said, pulling out a sheaf of papers.

“No car?” I asked, disappointed. “Or a trip somewhere?”

She dug into her pocket and pulled out some mints. “I have these,” she said, then brightened. “Or a pen! Do you want a pen?”

“I’m OK,” I said. “I think I just need something to drink.”

“They have coffee over by that pet food display,” she said. “I think the line’s down to 15 minutes.”

By this time, the line for the Build-a-Bear had disappeared, and in exchange for giving a journal my email address, I was presented with a small, naked bear.

“We’re having a contest tomorrow for some scrubs,” the booth person said.

“For me?” I asked. “Or the bear?’

“For the bear.”

After an hour or so of this, my tally of freebies was as follows:

-One naked bear

-A bedazzled lanyard

-chapstick

– 15 pens

-one urine container filled with yellow candy (this was actually my favorite)

schwag

“Why do you think these lines for all these freebies are so long, do you suppose?” I asked my friend Kristen. “Are we that hard up for stuff we’d wait for half an hour just for a chance to win a free ipad?”

“You’re veterinarians,” she said. “Of course you are.” Touche.

After a long day of lectures and wandering, I had worked up an appetite, so I set out in search of the free feasts. I searched every corner of the hotel, and couldn’t find a single one. I realized everyone must have gone to the free rock concert instead.

“Free concert?” I said, intrigued. Maybe there was some credence to this Indy Star thing after all! “Who’d they get? Dave Grohl? Bruno Mars?”

There was a long pause as my friend flipped through the conference brochure. “38 Special,” she said.

38special1

“38 Special?” I replied. “Are those guys still alive?”

“Apparently.” Pause. “My dad’s gonna be so jealous. He almost took a cruise with them last year.”

Hungry and alone, I went to my room at 10 pm and decided to order room service. After 15 minutes on hold, I placed an order for a Cobb salad and was told it would be an hour and a half, because shutting ourselves in our rooms alone with our papers is apparently a popular choice for veterinarians. I’m so predictable.

 

Filed: Blog, Daily Life, Featured Posts, Goofball Antics, Lifestyle, Musings Tagged: , , , ,

The Truth About Pet Food Research

About one year after I graduated vet school, I took routine screening chest radiographs of my senior Golden, Mulan. I looked them over, frowning at a small, mottled spot near her sternum.

“She has cancer,” I thought. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion to come to with Golden Retrievers. Before I panicked, I asked my colleague to look at the x-ray, and she agreed it looked suspicious. I was devastated.

I took Mulan to the local specialty hospital, where an intern I knew from vet school patted me on the back while the resident internal medicine specialist pursed his lips sympathetically. He grabbed his ultrasound machine to prepare for a guided biopsy. Before starting, he asked the radiologist to stop by to give his thoughts as to what this strange radiographic feature might be.

“What are you looking at? That? That’s normal sternum,” he said, sipping his coffee with the mildest of eye rolls before strolling out of the now-silent room.

I knew just enough to be dangerous but not enough to actually come to the correct conclusion. Along the way I dragged two other very educated colleagues with me through sheer force of conviction. Mulan lived another 4 years, by the way.

Data and Interpretation

Lots of people have asked me about the controversial results from the Truth about Pet Food’s crowdsourced food safety study. I haven’t said anything, because I couldn’t think of anything to say. It’s the same response I have when people send me this picture over email and ask me what this lump is:

dog

The correct answer is, “I need a lot more information before I can tell you that.” Which is about how I feel about the significance of this study.

As veterinary nutritionist Dr. Weeth points out in her excellent response, scientists kind of live to nitpick and poke holes in one another’s work. It’s necessary to allow criticism because there are so many ways one can go wrong with a project- from the way the study was designed, to the implementation, to the data interpretation. It was the persistent nagging of the science community that led to the eventual discrediting of Wakefield’s autism/vaccine research paper, the public health implications of which we are still dealing today, up to and including 19 people who were sickened with measles at The Happiest Place on Earth.

Without being allowed to evaluate the entire research process, we have no way of knowing how valid the results are. A pretty infographic does not science make. Nor does protesting “it’s not junk science” mean that it isn’t.

What We Know

I’m hopeful that the full set of data will be made public, including methodology. Until then, all we can do is go by what we have been told.

Dr. Gary Pusillo of INTI services, who has the misfortune of being out of the country while all of this debate is going down, was in charge of the testing process. Thixton writes that he is a board certified veterinary nutritionist, which in theory is fantastic because it means that he would have the background in both veterinary medicine and nutrition to not only perform the studies, but interpret the results. There’s only one problem: he’s not. (Nor does he in any way present himself as one, by the way.) A board certified veterinary nutritionist is a veterinarian who is also a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. You may think that’s irrelevant, it’s just semantics, but it’s not.

Credentials are a big deal, as I’m sure Dr. Pusillo himself would tell you were he around. I would really love for Dr. Pusillo and Dr. Purejav to have been available to answer questions while we’re all begging to know what the heck they did, and I’d love to hear more about how they determined “risk.” They may be the most qualified people in the world, but for right now, all I have is an infographic and a consumer advocate’s word that they’re the best.

jerrymaguire

Dr. Pusillo is a PhD who provides forensic science services, which actually sounds really cool and I would love to hear more about it. I have no reason to doubt that he is an excellent scientist. He probably knows tons and tons about how to test a food for specific substances. What he may or may not know is whether or not those substances matter clinically.

Data Collection vs. Interpretation

Let’s assume that the data collection was carried out perfectly. Data collection is only half of the equation- you still have to know what to do with it. You can have all the answers in front of you and still not know the question. The scientists Thixton contracted with are out of town at the moment, so who are we going to ask to help us interpret things?

carmen copy

Given who’s around right now, who could interpret the limited data we have through the filter of what matters?

A microbiologist with a background in food safety would be a good start, as someone who can tell you whether or not particular pathogens are actually of concern.

Or a board certified veterinary nutritionist, who can tell you about nutrient analyses and why dry matter comparisons without calorie content is useless. Both of them have some big reservations about this project.

They know more than I do about such things, which is why I defer to their interpretation. Little things mean a lot- for example, when you say “bacteria are present” what do you mean? Does that mean live bacteria were cultured using sterile handling procedures to eliminate environmental contamination? Or did the test just look for bacterial RNA, which could come from dead bacteria that were killed during processing and therefore prove that production works as advertised? I don’t know, but that would sure make a difference.

When the company you contract with to run your tests asks for their name to be dissociated from any press surrounding you, there’s one of two conclusions: 1. They were not happy about how their data was manipulated in the interpretation stage and didn’t want to be associated with bad science; 2. Big Pet Food Cabal. We may never know. *shrug*

A victory for food safety

I like to look at the bright side of things, and for reasons I can’t fathom, what I’ve found to be the biggest findings of the study are barely mentioned.

What are the three most common concerns I hear about pet food safety?

  1. melamine
  2. pathogens of most dire human significance, specifically Salmonella and Campylobacter
  3. pentobarbital contamination (implying euthanized rendered carcasses in pet food.)

Why were these not mentioned in the risk report?

Because they weren’t found. They did look for all of these products. All twelve tested foods were clear of the three biggest worries in recent memory to pet food safety. That’s something, don’t you think?

I’m an optimist. Let’s look at the bright side of things, what do you say!

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So let’s review here: I like asking questions. I have no problem questioning consumers, colleagues, my own professional leadership. I think concerned consumers are good consumers, and I applaud anyone who is invested enough to care about what goes into their pet, be it food, drug, or plant. I have chosen not to work in the employ of companies in the field specifically so I can feel free to say what I want without worry about my job or advertisers.

That being said, I think we also have to take the Occam’s razor approach to life and assume at some point that companies are telling the truth when they tell us they aren’t actively attempting to kill our pets. There are problems, some big and some small, and those are worthy of being addressed, but if you can’t accept at the end of the day that they are generally trying to do the right thing, then we may not ever be able to come to an understanding. As part of a profession that deals with this type of distrust on a regular basis, there comes a point where you have to say, “If you’re going to insist I’m out to harm you no matter what I say then I probably should just leave now.”

So let’s end on a high note: a toast, to those who care. I think everyone’s here arguing for that reason even if the conclusions are different. Salmonella free appetizers for all.

quotes

 

 

Filed: Ask Dr. V, Blog, Daily Life, Featured Posts, Health, Musings Tagged: , ,

How to find your Special Snowflake Vet

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “otherwise you wouldn’t have come here.”

cheshire-cat-alic

Every time I come across a “how to choose the best veterinary hospital” article, I read it, because it’s fascinating to me to see how different authors choose to guide you in this task. The articles exist, presumably, because not all hospitals are the same, therefore some are great and some, not so much. I think we can all agree this is probably the case. It’s like dating- lots of choices, but not all are a match.

Of course, the recommendations are pretty disparate, depending on how you define “good hospital.” Are you the holistic vet, the guy who’s dedicated his career to evidence based medicine and refutes anything without a journal article to back it up, the disgruntled owner who’s displeased with one bad experience and parlayed it into a major website, or the practice owner who’s looking to attract new clients? They all have different ideas of what makes a “good clinic,” to the point that one person’s perfect place is another person’s house of quacks and vice versa.

We've all had those "what are you smoking?" moments.

We’ve all had those “what are you smoking?” moments.

 

Clinic Dating

It’s good to know what your needs are, and good to know what a clinic provides. A client/vet mismatch is unpleasant for everyone. Like that girl in college who insisted that her jerk of a boyfriend who left his dirty socks in your living room was just misunderstood and refused to believe the stories of his drunken overtures to every girl on the dorm floor, some poor souls really have a hard time believing that most people just don’t change simply because you want them to.

Yes, we all know at least one vet who had a major epiphany mid-career and did a complete 180, but most don’t. And if you know one who did, it’s probably not due to you and the article you clipped out of a dog magazine you picked up at Whole Foods. I’ll be happy to look at it- heck, I probably already read it myself, I love Whole Foods- but please don’t be disappointed that I don’t change my entire medical perspective based on our 30 minute visit.

You’re paying me to give you my opinion, but if you don’t like it, well, we have decisions to make. While I’m happy to discuss my approach and how we might adjust it to your needs, it’s unlikely I’m going to completely change my medical perspective, because, well, I’m old enough now to be at least a little set in my ways. They’ve worked out pretty well for me. And if that thing I’m not into is that important to you, rather than getting really irritated with me for not changing, it’s probably easier for everyone if you cut your losses and find someone who’s a better match.

tinder

I like to make people happy. I will do everything I reasonably can to accommodate that. But at the end of the day, sometimes you and I- we just aren’t meant to be. And that’s OK. No matter what you’re into, from crystals and aromatherapy to a $30,000 kidney transplant assisted by a human nephrologist, there’s someone who can provide what you want.

Your Compatibility Score

There’s no match.com for vets (though hey, what an idea! who wants to help me develop that?) so you’re on your own for screening your vet for a potential match. You’re going to have to figure out your top couple of priorities and go from there. Here’s some things to consider:

  • If you want an office open until 8 at night every day because you work, don’t go to a solo doctor office.
  • If you want to see the same vet every time, don’t go to a huge office with enough staff to be open every day until 8 at night.
  • If you harbor some deep down issue with blondes/men with mustaches/people with tattoos/some other random thing, don’t go to that vet out of some weird sense of guilt. They’d probably prefer you didn’t anyway. Life’s too short to spend it explaining to a relative stranger why you don’t like them. I can tell when someone doesn’t like me. I’ll survive.
  • If you want a holistic vet, go to AHVMA and find one. Acupuncture is becoming very common, and a lot of places that practice mostly western medicine offer it, but if you want homeopathy or chiropractic, you’re going to have to look a little more. Most vets offer western medicine because that’s what most vet schools teach, that’s all.
  • If you want a place with the best prices in town, don’t be mad when the doctor won’t answer your midnight emergency. If you want a doctor to answer your midnight emergency, don’t be mad when they don’t have the best prices in town. Same goes for fancy stuff like lasers and endoscopy.
frustration

Nobody likes to be frustrated.

If you ask me about Chinese herbs, I will tell you honestly I don’t know anything about them. You can go with what I do know, or I can help you find the guy down the street who studied them (I have one doctor in mind, and he’s great.) Forcing me to prescribe those unfamiliar drugs for you is not an option.

So here’s my one sole bit of advice for how to pick the best veterinary hospital:

Find the vet who’s already your own special brand of crazy, whatever that is.

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

fatherwilliam

After a decade trying to be all things to all clients, I have finally embraced my own brand of crazy. While I am not your doc for orthopedic surgeries, just the other day I wore a client’s bathrobe and smeared cat food on my hands to help a nervous cat feel more comfortable. If I’m not that one for you, let’s break up so you can find your One True Vet Love.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” 

Filed: Blog, Featured Posts, Health, Musings Tagged: , ,

What Your Natural Health Magazine Doesn’t Want You To Know

After the fifth time someone forwarded me “The Shocking Truth Your Vet Is Hiding” type articles in the past week, I had to take a stop from my scheduled 12 Days of Clinics to address it. I debated on a few clickbait titles for this post:

alt: “Why Magazines are Getting Away With Murder”

alt: “The Shocking Truth These Publishers Are Hiding”

It doesn’t really matter what the title is or if it related to the content anyway, but I imagine you already know that. But let’s step back a moment, and go back for a breath to 2011.

The most singularly amazing experience of my life took place in a forest in Tanzania. I had waited my whole life to visit the chimpanzees of Mahale, an experience I had anticipated with baited breath. Good, gentle, kind chimps.

And this is what I actually learned: chimps can be asses. Petty, sneaky, grumpy asses. Most everyone kind of knew that, though, right? They’re allowed bad days just like everyone else.

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But I learned something else, which was also an eye opener not only for me but for the rest of the people there, for researchers who have spent their whole careers in the M community (by convention these communities are all lettered). Chimps, under pressure, can be vindictive.

The events I witnessed in my time, a Machiavellian soap opera of alliance forming, led to the never before witnessed assassination of the alpha chimp by his own community, an event so unexpected and rare it was written up in multiple journals. Pimu was a jerk, no doubt about it. He ruled with an iron fist. But no one expected the other males in his own community to kill him.

I was there. I saw it. I saw the way the pot-stirring chimp, third in line from the top, systematically groomed all the other males in the group, waiting for just the right moment to take advantage of their fears and frustrations with Pimu. Then- triggered by some small infraction that in other circumstances would have passed without comment, he lit off the powderkeg that resulted in an alpha getting his head smashed in by a rock.

The instigator didn’t even have to get his hands dirty. He was the Petyr Baelish of Mahale, climbing the ladder of the chaos he sowed.

chaos

The argument can be made that we are hard-wired for a black and white view of the world, to see people as friend or foe, with us or against us. Once someone’s a foe, there is nothing valuable, worthy, or meaningful in anything they say or do, ever, marinating in their evil fortress of pain or whatever it is enemies do.

It takes work to suppress that natural inclination and try to genuinely understand the actual truth of things- that most people, even those on the other side of the fence, usually have good intentions and may actually have a point about some things. But you can’t start a conversation when the guns are firing.

There’s always one person who benefits when two factions are fighting, and it’s rarely the ones out there actually getting bloodied.

Skull Smashing in Modern Veterinary Medicine

I am part of the V community of pet lovers: the veterinarians. This informs how I view the world and my place in it: as a pet lover, trusted advisor, someone who cares enough about the health of our companions that I chose this as my life’s work. I believe in the value of our work and our research and use that to make recommendations for my clients.

I am also part of the larger O community of pet lovers: the owners. I understand knowledge evolves. I attend hundreds of hours of continuing education, became certified in acupuncture, and I’m not afraid to change my advice based on evolving knowledge. I came out the gates of vet school ready to challenge old assumptions about vaccines, pain management, and nutrition, and over the last decade we have changed the way we practice medicine as a community.

I kind of assumed it was ok to be on both teams. So do you understand why it drives so many of us crazy to see this sort of thing?


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These are Dogs Naturally Magazine’s most popular articles. Half the time the articles don’t even really correlate with the tone of the headline, but the damage is done. Clickbait is the equivalent of the pot stirring chimp sticking a rock in your hand and then shrugging and saying, “What? I didn’t tell you to hit anyone with it.”

evil vet

I promise I never once looked a dog straight in the face with maniacal glee as I prime a syringe in front of their face, imagining the piles of money I get to roll in after work after wiping the blood of a thousand sickened pets of the floor with the research showing all these medications I recommend are actually totally unnecessary.

I’m not holding the V community blameless here. I understand there are vets who dig in their heels and refuse to admit that you have a valid interest in researching things and asking questions. There are those who look at everyone with a concern about DOI studies like this:

tinffoilcat

And they really wish you would just stop looking things up and just do what they tell you, no questions asked.

But that’s not most of us. If these types of publications (I’m picking on Dogs Naturally but that’s only because they’ve published about 10 pieces like this in the last month) really cared about the overall wellbeing of pets, they would be advocating for better ways to communicate with your veterinarian instead of just telling you we all want to kill your dog with Drano injections, euthanized horsemeat kibble and drugs we are prescribing solely because we were given a free pen, so you should just stay home and feed them coconut oil and canned pumpkin and whatever else their advertisers are selling you.

help

(I aced “Making Little Kids Cry in Terror”, which I took the same semester as “Why Sick Pets are Better for Business than Healthy Ones so Make Sure To Keep them Sick Through Recommended Shots and Foods.”)

So yes I’m irritated, not because the content in articles like “Why Vets Are Getting Away With Murder” has no merit despite the misleading headline, but because those clickbait pieces really just serve themselves. Information is good. Using it to sow discontent instead of discourse? Not so much.

Communication, not Coconut Oil: The True Key to Health

Concerns about vaccinations, sarcomas, immune system function, and nutrition are all perfectly valid. This should be able to be part of a discussion with a good veterinarian without bloodshed or Yelp. You are all smart people. A nice, polite, rational approach to collaboration may not sell magazines, but it does create better outcomes. I will talk to you about anything, even coconut oil, delayed neutering, titers, and raw food.

I understand the difference between your pet and the community as a whole, and if you ask why we have the recommendations we do, I’d be happy to go into all the boring public health theory and discussion of cell mediated immunity and why titers don’t prove definitive immunity and all those other things a drug rep with a burrito did not teach me in a one week course. This is communication, and it’s what two people who don’t want to kill each other do.

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The Truth I Don’t Want You To Know

Is there one? I don’t know, maybe this:

  • the times I went home crying because I couldn’t save a pet.
  • The times I vomited in the parking lot because of the stress of the day or the person who threatened my receptionist with a gun.
  • The fact that on some days, I said to myself had I known the physical and emotional cost of this job, I might have chosen a different path. Especially on the days people tell me I’m only doing it for the money, or the glory, or the free pens.
  • I understand there are crummy vets out there. There are crummy whatever it is you do for a living, too. Just try not to be one of them.

You know what I’d really be doing if I was in this for the money? Looking for a pet with a genetic problem to exploit for fame and fortune. Alas.

I find it ironic that people are willing to believe, without question, the word of a person selling magazines, conference tickets and, I assume, advertising, and that this is done solely out of their benevolent desire to tell you the truth about the crapfest that is my profession and nothing else. There’s no room for nuanced discussion and benefit of the doubt when you’re trying to grow a brand in a world that thrives on conflict. I’d have a much larger site if I were willing to throw a few thousand colleagues under the bus for fun and clicks, but sadly, I’m plum out of rocks today.

You and I want the same thing, long and happy life for your pet. Bananas for everyone.

Filed: Blog, Cats, Dogs, Featured Posts, Health, Musings Tagged: , , ,

The Long Dark Twee-Time of the Soul

As you probably know, I have a bit of a complicated relationship with the PTA moms. Not moms in general, mind you, just the small subset of Pinterest loving, glue-gun wielding domestic lifestyle experts whose expectations I can never, despite my best efforts, seem to live up to. It doesn’t matter what school we’re at, it happens every time. First it was the art project/pooper scooper incident in kindergarten. Then it was the Have a Very Agro Valentine’s Day episode. And now it’s crudite, crudite that torments the soul.

It started simply enough: an email asking for volunteers to bring in food items for the teachers this conference week. I looked on the sign up sheet and put my name next to crudite: veggies and dip. Easy, I thought, a quick run to the grocery store for some carrot sticks and dip and done.

I forgot where I was.

(Not two weeks ago, I found myself in the midst of a malestrom for the fifth grade Halloween party when all the room moms got together and asked the parents to bring in food. I asked my class parents to bring in pretzels and fruit. The other moms showed up with cookies shaped like rotting fingers with almond nails and jelly blood, and eyeball eggs with veins hand-painted on with food dye. My pretzels were shoved under the table.)

So now, a few minutes after signing up for the veggie tray, I received an email instructing me to be creative!  which is always concerning. To illustrate her point, the organizer included this helpful photo:

crudite

As to what our vegetables should aspire to be.

Now at this point a normal person would laugh and say, “OK, lady,” and bring in a tray from Costco, but unfortunately I still have the sin of pride to contend with on a regular basis, so I instead spent the afternoon standing in line at the grocery store watching YouTube videos of Martha Stewart blanching asparagus. Three hours of cursing later, with piles of peeled burnt chestnuts and carrot shavings dripping out of my hair like Jackson Pollock on a bender, I came up with this:

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This is the dogged tenacity that makes people like me get through vet school even when all indicators point to the “why?” factor. We can’t explain it. We just have to.

I shared this with my friends, and they all got a good laugh out of how silly it was, and then later in the day my friend in Ohio sent me a link and said, “See? You’re not alone.” It was a photo of some artfully arranged food items a group of mothers had arranged for their teachers.

It was, upon further inspection, a photo from my very school from earlier in the day. It had already made the Pinterest rounds and ended up in Ohio, where my friend saw it and sent it to me as an example of Moms Gone Styled. I scrolled through it, looking for my contribution.

Notably lacking? The crudite. They were apparently so lackluster as to have not even rated a Facebook photo, and when I returned to pick up the dish I found they had been shoved in the corner in order to make way for some gluten free turkey wraps with hand-whisked dressings in, of course, Mason jars.

At this point, even a not quite normal person would just give up, which is theoretically what I should do, but it’s become clear to me I live in a parallel universe where I am destined to almost-quite get it, over and over and over, but not get it entirely. This is why I am a veterinarian, the almost-quites of the medical field.

So you know what? I’m embracing it. This afternoon I decided to go on a Pinterest binge and make a little Pinterest and dog-friendly crudite platter my way. Hope you enjoy it.

twee

A bright autumn day, full of promise and gently whispered secrets amongst best of friends, calls for sustenance.

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Lovingly hand-extruded kibble, with ingredients sourced from local artisans in an organic human-grade facility in Portland by men with bushy beards. In a Mason jar.

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We end our afternoon in the garden of delights (it’s water friendly succulents! We’re eco friendly here in drought-parched SoCal) with hand-cut carrot bones from the local CSA, mint from the garden, words of wisdom from the dog sketched in canine-friendly peanut butter hand ground at Whole Foods. And of course, no pet garden of delights would be complete without the coup de grace:

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nitrate free ham roses.

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You saw it first here, folks. I’m waiting on sponsors for a YouTube tutorial but I think a ham bouquet is a lovely thing.

Filed: Blog, Cooking, Goofball Antics, Mother of the Year, Musings, Photography Tagged: , , , , ,

Rumble in the Doghouse: Evil Breeders vs Crazy Animal Rights People

There was a time, back in a pre-internet era known as the Good Old Days, when two people who had different opinions on a topic could talk about it and, even if they did not come to an understanding, could at least part ways with a better grasp of the other person’s point of view. People with different opinions were still, at the end of the day, people.

I’m not entirely sure that is the case anymore.

Lest anyone doubt me, proof enough should be the fact that we’ve just come off an election cycle. I live in an area with one of the most hotly contested Congressional races in the country, better known to us locals subjected to the campaign ads as “Mouthbreathing Carbuncle-Having Satan Worshipping Slimeball” versus “Luciferous Mucusbucket Festering Wound.” (Definitions supplied by opposing parties.)

Politicians Before and After Elections(1)

It was a close race. I think most of us voted for one or the other not based on deep unabiding adoration so much as we held our noses and selected the one we found less odiferous. Nonetheless, after the Slimeball defeated the Festering Wound by the narrowest of margins, the loser went on the air and graciously wished his opponent “all the best”, which is a strange thing to wish someone you truly thought was the Antichrist. If you truly thought he was the path to death and destruction, you think one would continue to rage against the injustice of it all and exhort people to do something to undo this miscarriage of justice.

But politicians know the truth that a lot us seem to have forgotten. All that bluster is just that, bluster. And at the end of the day they actually have a lot more in common than not:

  • both middle aged men of the same demographic savvy enough to be successful in local politics
  • Neither advocates overthrowing Congress and disbanding the Constitution
  • both against selling tanks to minors
  • Both for free sunlight
  • Both generally want to work for the constituents in order for people to live well in our beautiful city, though their ideas of how to get there might vary.

And now they will retreat to their corners to do whatever it is they do until they are again required by the tenor of American culture to again start yelling about how much the other person stinks.

Rumble In the Doghouse

We all know this about politics, we all roll our eyes with the silliness of it all, but don’t be mistaken- this “live and die by the sword”, “you’re with us or you’re worthy of a messy death” attitude has permeated many corners of our lives, and it’s not pretty.

The first time I met someone at a breeder’s event, I started talking to a person very involved with the dog fancy world. When she learned what I did, she looked at me a little sideways and said, “So you’re an animal rights person.”

Peta, protesting that abhorrent group of animal haters known as the American Veterinary Medical Association (true story)

PETA, protesting that abhorrent group of animal haters known as the American Veterinary Medical Association (true story).

“Not animal rights. Animal welfare,” I corrected her, as the person who introduced us (you know who you are, you rotten troublemaker) rubbed his palms together and waited in glee for us to start ripping each others’ hair out.

“What’s the difference?” she asked. So I called her a puppy mill, because all breeders are the same, right?

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We looked at each other, hesitated a moment, then burst into laughter as she said, “Point taken.” We’ve been friends ever since.

I suppose in another world, maybe hidden behind an anonymous screen and keyboard, we could have become mortal enemies, but we’d spent too much time face to face to be able to call the other person demon spawn. We both knew we had too much in common, including:

  • a love of good wine
  • writing long and probably way too involved stories
  • thinking dogs are the absolute bee’s knees. We both totally adore and spend most of our free time thinking about, canines.

This friend recently began a Kickstarter campaign to create a website commemorating National Purebred Dog Day. Now, I’m not trying to convince anyone to go and support the campaign if it’s not your thing, no more than I would try and convince someone to donate to a political candidate they did not agree with. But the simple fact that she waited a long time to even begin the campaign because she was nervous about people targeting her for being an Evil Dog Person is honestly, pretty sad. I feel the same way about that as I do people who target pittie advocates trying to end BSL: why would you do that? We are not each other’s enemies here.

Who’s right?

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for Vetstreet about purebreds versus mutts. I wonder if perhaps the editor was wanting me to go for the easy kill, the one that would bring 5000 shares and bloodshed in the comments section: quote people talking about how wrong the other side was, how misguided. But I didn’t want to do that.

Instead, I talked to someone from the American Kennel Club and the ASPCA, and guess what? They said the exact same thing:

We want people to find the right dog for their family so they keep them forever.

They had different ideas about the best way to do that, but they’re both perfectly valid approaches, really, and people have been using both successfully for some time. Let me repeat: at the end of the day we all want the same thing. The rest is just window dressing.

Can you tell which dog is more worthy, loved, or better for my family? I can't.

Can you tell which dog is more worthy, loved, or better for my family? I can’t.

Who’s the real enemy here? Apathy. Ignorance. Greed. Say what you want about either the dog fancy or the rescue community (and indeed, the large numbers who belong to both): they are not apathetic people. They care, and they want what’s best. Instead of shaking your fingers at the other side’s perceived shortcomings, listen. There is much to be learned, on both sides. I know this from experience.

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It’s very easy to continue to point and shoot at the easy target. Keep on doing it if it makes you happy. It certainly makes life easier for the people at CheapPuppyMillDog.com; whenever someone gets turned off by the antics they encounter at either end of the spectrum, guess who’s waiting with open arms?

We are not each other’s enemy. If you want someone to hate on who really deserves it, I suggest these idiots. Seriously, no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Filed: Blog, Daily Life, Dogs, Health, Musings Tagged: , ,

Knuckle cracking real-time talk here.

This is not about Sophia Yin.

I feel the need to say that before launching into a discussion about suicide and depression in the animal community, because the horrible news that she took her own life and the ripples it is causing in the veterinary world is the reason I’m talking about it today. But it’s not about her or her situation, which none of us will ever really know; Dr. Yin’s legacy is the work she did during her life, and it should remain that way. This is not about one person.

Whenever a tragedy like this happens, I see the same posts over and over: “Shocking. Tragic. Hold your loved ones close and tell them you love them. If someone seems to be suffering ask if they are OK.” And so it goes for a day or two, as we hug our kids and our spouse and our dog and then go back to work and assiduously ignore the suffering of those around us. Not that we recognize it most of the time anyway, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

One of the biggest misconceptions people seem to have about stress, burnout, and depression is that it is inevitably obvious to those around the person. I blame Zoloft ads for making us think all depressed people walk around weeping with little clouds hanging over them.

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I think a lot of depressed people look like this:

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Totally fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.

You know how we always say cats walk around looking like a million bucks with BUN levels through the roof until one day, way past the point it was an issue, it’s finally too much but you never had a clue? A lot of depressed people look like that. So maybe this is a little more accurate:

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They do just fine at work, and out amongst friends, and then come home and realize man I am not fine. But we’ve normalized stress in our lives to the point many of us don’t even necessarily recognize the signs of depression in others, and even in ourselves. I sat on the floor of the bathroom for four hours straight one day, when I was suffering from postpartum depression, and still had no idea that sitting on the floor of the bathroom unable to muster the energy to move two feet might be a sign something was wrong (protip: it is).

I don’t like talking about that time in my life, but I will because every time we censor ourselves from discussing these things we perpetuate the stigma that drives people away from seeking treatment. We are more scared of the consequences of admitting depression than we are the consequences of not being treated, and oh my god, how awful is that? I’m pretty sure the mental health professional community has been watching us in horror for years, waiting for us as a profession to finally say yeah, we could probably use some assists here.

So while asking someone if they are ok and offering virtual hugs is lovely and kind, I really think the time has come to try and do something a little more impactful. Open dialogue is a good place to start. So let me share some things that I have discovered over time, watching us wring our hands in despair over and over while we wonder what we could have done differently:

1. You would not believe how many other people out there are going through the same thing.

People at the top of their field, with lovely families and good jobs and beautiful dogs. People who seem to have it all together. And maybe they do, if they have good treatment.

2. I wish someone had told me about these things in vet school.

I thought I was the only person plagued by worry and self-doubt in school. In retrospect, ha! That was really not the case. Nonetheless, a little peer-to-peer support or support from people already out there would have been very reassuring. I believe we need to start letting people know at the start of their career, not at the middle or end, that stress/anxiety/depression/burnout are common, but solvable problems.

3. There’s support, although it’s hard to find.

Do you know what the hardest part was for me about getting through my depression? Figuring out who to call. My OB didn’t help, the psychiatrists she gave me the numbers for didn’t take on new cases, I wasn’t actively suicidal, and by the fourth call I was too tired to deal with it any more. So I laid on the bathroom floor for a few more days until I had the lightbulb idea to call my primary care physician, who was horrified and got me in that afternoon and life got a lot better after that.

I feel like our profession is still in the same place. Help should be very visible and easy to access, a rope already floating in the water instead of a life preserver someone has to yell for when they are drowning. Want to really do something to make our profession better? Help me figure out how to make that happen.

So you think you’re depressed/ burned out/ feeling off? Take a deep breath, you are in good company. You do not stop being a successful professional and accomplished person. Life can be good and you can still rock out and kick ass and laugh till your cheeks hurt. Here’s some places to start:

1. There is active peer support, through VIN, and on Facebook. A closed group has been started on Facebook for people dealing with these issues as well as their family and friends- to request membership, click here. Peer support is fundamental, though of course it is not a substitute for-

2. Calling your primary care physician, who if they cannot handle it themselves can at least get you where you need to go. I guarantee you every mental health professional out there is going “uh, of course,” at every thing I have said because they are experienced in these things, while we are not.

3. Stop googling. Seriously, all you will do is come out blaming yourself for not juicing enough and while it is a lovely way to get vitamins, it’s probably not going to be enough. Talk to a pro, just like we tell people to stop treating their dog’s ear infections with diluted alcohol that they read about on a yahoo group and go to the vet. Right?

4. VetGirl has offered their excellent webinar about suicide awareness available for free, for everyone. It is well worth the watch not for anyone who works in the field to help increase your understanding of the issue. You can find it here.

5. VIN is offering a webinar this Sunday at 9 pm PST to honor Dr. Yin and discuss “Dealing With You and Your Colleagues’ Stress and Depression.” My understanding is that this webinar will be made available to non-VIN members as well, so stay tuned as I get more information. Both webinars, by the way, are taught by mental health professionals who know their stuff.

I will be honest and admit I hate overly sentimental statements accompanied by soft-focus ocean pictures like “fall into my arms and I will catch you” and “the world is full of hugs if you just ask for them” and all that other stuff, so I will offer you my own personal unfiltered thoughts on this:

Depression sucks, and it’s real, a physiological crap storm of neurotransmitters, and if you are reading this experiencing a dawning sense of dread with unasked-for tears rolling down your face as you desperately say nonononononono I’m fine, you might not be. So call someone who can help so you can stop feeling miserable, ok? Do it today.

hugs

OK maybe one overly sentimental picture. But just one, and only because kittens. And with that, I demand some good news so we can get back to our regularly scheduled program of fur removal device discussions and derpy dog pics.

Filed: Be The Change, Blog, Daily Life, Health, Musings, Picks of the Litter Tagged: , ,

Then there was that time at the bordello with Dr. Lorie

This has been an almost unbearably terrible week for those in the veterinary profession, and those who love animals. First the awful news that Dr. Sophia Yin had passed away, and then not one day later, we learned of the passing of another tremendous voice and educator, Dr. Lorie Huston.

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Like many of you I considered Dr. Huston a friend. She was extremely well regarded for her work online as the Voice of Pet Care with the Pet Healthcare Gazette, her many contributions to various publications, and most recently her position as president of the Cat Writer’s Association. But I think even more than her fantastic work, she was admired for her kindness.

Her gentle manner and empathy were unrivaled, and a shining example of the compassion that veterinarians so often extend to animals but sometimes struggle to extend to each other. She never had an unkind word for anyone. I don’t know how she did it. She made me want to be more like her.

As a denizen of the online community, I have nothing tangible to offer in condolences, no casseroles to deliver, no walls to place a white flower upon. All I have are words, those intangible, ethereal ideas that seem so unremarkable in the face of such sadness, and my attempt to express them in the hopes that in some small way they help someone else understand what Dr. Lorie was all about. And because I cannot bear to cry any more today, I want to instead share a story that will maybe make those of you who knew her smile a little through your tears.

The Marble Room Incident

A couple of years ago, the AVMA national convention was in San Diego. I touched base with Dr. Huston and learned she would be attending, and made plans to meet up with her at the Winn Feline Foundation booth, where Dr. Huston was sharing the work the foundation is doing to advance the health and well-being of cats. Dr. Huston had six cats, six well-loved, adored felines.

“Shall we go get dinner?” I asked, and she said she thought that would be a good idea. We walked a little bit through the Gaslamp district, and as I was starting to get tired I saw the name of a restaurant I had been to before and said, “How about the Marble Room? They’re great.” Lorie agreed.

I had been to the Marble Room with my husband shortly after it opened, a throwback steak house type place with amazing truffle fries. That was how I remembered it. No one told me they had changed ownership.

We sat outside since it was a pleasant evening, which in retrospect was an error since  had I gone in I would have seen the new theme: old timey bordello masquerading as a saloon. Within a minute, what I thought was a streetwalker but was instead an embarrassed-looking server in a too-tight corset and can-can skirt asked us what we would like to drink.

“Iced tea,” Lorie said with a pleasant smile, as I sat horrified. “Me too,” I squeaked out. “Are these uniforms new?”

The server nodded with a frown, trying not to catch the edge of the menus on her fishnets.

A quick Google search would have helped immensely in this situation.

A quick Google search would have helped immensely in this situation.

So Lorie and I shared a pleasant meal of not-quite-as good as I remember truffle fries while we talked about the role social media played in the evolution of veterinary medicine.

As always happened when we spoke, I was blown away by how sharp she was- never mind her calm and quiet demeanor, her brain was always churning away a million miles an hour about what the next big step was in improving the human-animal bond. Her greatest gift, as many of you know, was in explaining these complicated health concepts in concise and clear language. She made medicine accessible, and to those like me who knew medicine, she made social media accessible too.

Midway though dinner, she excused herself to find the ladies room. When she returned, she assured me that she located it just fine. When I followed suit a moment later, wedging between red leather banquettes towards the back, I saw that the hall leading to the ladies room was hard to miss as it was covered in, uh, tasteful I guess, nudes. I paused a moment to dab my forehead with cold water, mortified that I took poor, sweet Dr. Lorie to the world’s tackiest themed restaurant for subpar potatoes.

Seriously, naked people everywhere.

Seriously, naked people everywhere.

When I returned, Lorie was talking to the server and quite kindly ignoring her attempts to hold her top up as she cleared the plates. “I am so sorry,” I said. “This is not the place I remember.”

“Oh no, it was delicious,” she said kindly, ignoring the rest of the situation. “The truffle fries were excellent. Thank you.”

And that was Dr. Lorie, always. Gracious to a fault. She was generous with her friendship, advice, and compliments, even when they were not deserved, even when her friend subjected her to an awkward, PG-13 rated evening out after a long day at the conference booth.

She will be missed.

Filed: Blog, Musings Tagged: ,

Thank you, Dr. Yin

When I was in school, I accumulated a lot of textbooks. Books from the titans, the Nelsons and the Feldmans and the Fossums. I stood in line at the bookstore with these heavy tomes weighing me down, and noticed every other person in line with a tiny mahogany text balanced on top of their piles.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“The Nerdbook,” they said. “I heard you can’t make it through vet school without it.”

I had an earlier edition, because I'm old.

I had an earlier edition, because I’m old.

They were right. I spent many hours in rounds with my Nerdbook balanced on my lap, trying to look up answers to questions before the clinican called on me. It was unlike any other book I ever owned: concise, easy to navigate, organized by clinical signs to be completely usable. I heard it was written by a veterinary student, which made sense because it was so perfect for the way we used it, but also made no sense because who had time to write a book in vet school?

“Some gunner student a few years back,” I was told. “She was brilliant.” The author? Sophia Yin.

It was the only book I brought to the teaching hospital each and every day, taking it with me the following year into clinical practice: highlighted, scribbed on, well-loved. One time, I made a diagnosis that my clinician, a man who had been in practice for 167 years, said was impossible. “How did you know to put that on your differential diagnosis list?” he asked, before telling me I would be an amazing internal medicine resident. “Oh you know,” I said, but the answer was it was in the Nerdbook. Dr. Yin told me. The Nerdbook was everything. My techs used to hide it from me sometimes just to watch me panic for a few minutes.

Dr. Yin’s name popped up again soon after I began work, this time as a behavior expert. When she got into practice, she again sensed a void: a need for reasoned, science-based behavior approaches that would keep pets in homes and out of shelters. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the early 2000’s behavior was held in lower regard than specialties like neurology or internal medicine, a fluffball elective. “Nothing in life is free”, the foundation of positive reward based training, was in its infancy. Alpha rolling was still the norm in many circles, and training programs based on shock collars were being franchised left and right.

She helped lay the groundwork for what we now view as the best science-based approach to training, one of the most fundamental paradigm changes in our field in the last decade. Dr. Yin became a world-renowned behavior expert and fierce advocate for positive training, an amazing communicator whose lectures were always overflowing into the halls by an audience who finally recognized that her advice, when passed onto clients, was saving lives.

Though she was often known as a dog behaviorist, I remember her most for a series of cat lectures I attended at Western around the time Apollo was marking in the house. My husband was about to lock him permanently in the garage. In one hour, she gave me enough actionable tips to fix the problem, for me, and later on for clients and blog readers. Those tips keep animals out of shelters and in homes.

Dr. Sophia Yin- you are missed.

Dr. Sophia Yin- you are missed.

Dr. Yin’s latest work is, again, revolutionary. As a board member for Dr. Marty Becker’s Fear Free Practice movement, she is one of the key figures teaching us low-stress restraint techniques that change the way we practice medicine. It makes sense, right? Why do we just accept the fact that pets hate the vet? Why do we not try to make it better? Just this week I used a technique of hers I watched on video to help bring a frightened cat out from under the bed; he was already ill and the last thing he needed was more terror. Dr. Yin’s reach and her influence is everywhere, her touch felt every day in the way we practice modern medicine with compassion.

Dr. Yin was the best of what veterinary medicine is all about, a passionate veterinarian, a dedicated revolutionary, a person whose accomplishments knew no bounds, an inspirer of colleagues. Her unexpected passing has left so many saddened; I hope her family and friends know just how much she was beloved by so many people. Thank you Dr. Yin for everything. You will be sorely missed.

Filed: Blog, Musings Tagged:

Guess I don’t love all the animals

My first year of practice, I was talking to an owner in an exam room when I saw her eyes go wide and she yelled, “SPIDER!”

I looked down and saw a large arachnid crawling across the table towards her poodle. Without missing a beat, I grabbed a large drug compendium and put an end to the assault. The lady looked up, cocked her head, and said, “I guess you don’t love all the animals, then.”

I felt terrible, actually. My grandmother would not have approved. She would capture daddy longlegs in little glasses and transport them outside, or just as frequently, leave them alone. “They eat bugs,” she said. “It’s bad luck to kill them,” she said.

But I didn’t live with my grandmother, my dad’s mother. I lived with my mom, who learned from her mom that the best way to deal with a spider was a Dr. Scholl’s sandal, the one with the big wooden sole.

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I think about that day, and how I would have to make up for it lest I be followed through my life by angry hordes of spiders. As you are about to see, I think I’m still paying.

Yesterday, the kids called me in to assess a spider situation in the guest bedroom. It was, they claimed, a huge spider, which could mean anything from “dime sized” on up. I went in, and yes, it was actually a huge spider. Probably an inch or two across, I didn’t get too close.

The good news was, it wasn’t a black widow or a recluse, and in the interest of being good to my grandmother’s memory I told the kids, “let’s just shoo it under the armoire. See? It’s as scared of you as you are of it.” I did not notice the tiny peals of laughter from the spider as it ran away. I did not realize she was simply approaching us with a familial sense of pride to show off her brood.

A couple of minutes later, my son came out again. “There’s a bunch more,” he said.

“What?” I asked. “Spiders?”

“Yes,” he said. “Like, 8.”

I went back into the office, a sense of disquiet taking over me. “Where?”

“On the bed,” he said.

And there, crawling all over the guest bed, was an army of teensy tiny baby spiders, which had apparently just hatched from whatever hellspawn was hiding under my armoire.

nope

No. I do not love all the animals. This I can say now with great certainty.

Since I can’t find my flamethrower, I was stuck with simply tossing the entire set of bedding out into the courtyard with a scream and spending the next two hours vacuuming every nook and cranny in the room, stopping only long enough to call my husband on his work trip and freak out into the receiver. The mother spider, of course, was now nowhere to be found. Her work was done. For now, at least.

I was up until three in the morning startling at every shift of the bedsheet. If anyone can recommend a good pest control service in San Diego, I need one out stat. *shudder*

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Filed: Blog, Daily Life, Musings Tagged: ,

Who do you remember?

I remember this about September 11, 2001: I felt very lonely.

It was my senior year of veterinary school. My husband, who had only been my husband for about 2 months, was far away in San Diego. My mother was the one who called me, waking me up to tell me to turn on the news. She was alone too, as my father was on a rare business trip in Texas, one he ended up having to drive home from. We held the phones to our ears together until there was nothing more to do, so I said, well, I guess I ought to go to school.

I was doing a rotation in a lab that week, spending my day alone in a dark basement underneath the medical school looking at slides. Every few minutes I’d wander upstairs where I could get radio reception, and the other lab denizens would join me for a few minutes before we retreated back down to our holes.

Later that afternoon, after I returned home, there was a knock on the door. It was two nicely dressed missionaries. “How are you?” they asked.

“Not so great,” I said.

“Why?” they asked, genuinely concerned. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Do you have any idea what’s going on?” I asked. They shook their heads in confusion. I shut the door.

Behind me, Nuke gently pressed his head into my hip. I had adopted him the year before, thanks to my friend Dan. “I want a dog,” I had said. “A Golden, maybe, or a pug.”

“I have just the dog!” he said, before referring me to the radiology department and the 10 year old coonhound who had been getting irradiated on a weekly basis as the vet students learned how to take films.

“He’s not housebroken and doesn’t know what outside is, so he’s a little addled. If it doesn’t work out, it’s ok,” said the tech. “They were going to euthanize him so I figured, I’d give it a shot.” No pressure.

He was a little addled. He was the dumbest dog I’ve ever had. He was neurotic and howled if he was outside for more than 2 minutes because he was scared of open spaces. He refused to learn ‘sit’. I loved him.

nuke

In those long and sad days after September 11, he was my greatest comfort. He died of cancer shortly after I graduated the following year. I miss him.

This Sunday marks National Pet Memorial Day. I hope you’ll join me in thinking of those we lost, or sharing a memory below. They leave this earth but they never leave our hearts.

Filed: Blog, Daily Life, Musings Tagged: ,

Phenomenal Cosmic Power

A week ago, I called my husband on a business trip in China for the urgent assistance in locating my DVD of Aladdin.

“Why do you need it this very second?” he asked. “You haven’t watched that in like 15 years.”

aladdin_poster

“I know,” I said, “But our daughter is singing a song from Aladdin in summer camp this week and she really, really needs to see this movie.” She’d seen it once before, years prior; my son hadn’t seen it ever. It was an unforgivable omission, one I felt an almost irresistible need to fix.

So we sat down and watched it, this movie that came out when I was still in high school, and I marvelled. The computer animation looked so dated now, the pop culture references flying over the kids’ head like a magic carpet. But it worked. It still worked, and it was all because of Robin Williams’ genius.

He wasn’t a person who had been in my thoughts much in recent times, though he was a fixture of my childhood from Mork and Mindy through Good Will Hunting, Patch Adams, Good Morning Vietnam. Watching Aladdin rekindled my interest in his unique body of work and I’ve been on a Robin Williams binge this last week- Aladdin followed by The Birdcage, Good Morning Vietnam, and Mrs. Doubtfire scheduled for later this week. Robin had, in addition to his brilliant improvisation and manic energy, an exquisite ability to layer melancholy and sweet, delving into the deepest pains of humanity in a way that made you hopeful despite its ugliness, a compassion that balanced the sometimes cruel realities of being alive. He inhabited those characters in a way few others could. Williams and Alan Alda, the actors that defined the genre for me.

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That level of perception and intuition about the human condition, often begets a certain creative brilliance. Comedy relies on it. It also, as we all too well know, often drags along behind it a heavy dragline of depression. It is the contrast upon which such artistry must be laid in order to make it pop. It takes an awful lot of mental energy to wield the two simultaneously, I suspect. No one described it better than, well, himself:

Phenomenal cosmic power!

pcp

iity bitty living space.

ibls

Depression is not a fight that can be won, a demon vanquished. It’s simply there, a weight people carry around and manage the best they can. Robin wrought his depression like a kettlebell, swinging up and down and up and down and in the process put out the energy that was-is- his legacy. I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been, but he did it, over and over, though his life. He made it work for him.

He was a dog lover, you know. Of course he was, right? When you live with that kind of pressure and expectation from those around you to be on all the time- why aren’t you saying something funny?- the presence of an unconditionally accepting creature is a comfort and a joy.

Having so recently been drawn back into his life and his work and his bright eyes that never entirely belied the stormy grey beneath, I was so enjoying re-experiencing the creative rush of his work, immersed in how much he gave of himself to make others smile. Today was a shock, in many ways.

rw

And I guess that is why so many of us are so insanely devastated, at least I know I am. He always made his depression work for him, turning the swirling rivulets of thought and extremes in his brain and transforming them into art. I see in the world the same sort of wide eyed despair that followed Kurt Cobain’s death, that sense of hope snuffed out. I think a lot of people looked up to them both. They were proof positive of the transformative power of creative will, but while Kurt succumbed at a young age, Robin managed to persevere, and that made him even more infallible in our eyes.

I thought he had it figured out. With all his success and fortune and mastery of substance abuse, he was a tick mark on the list of success stories with this particular type of chronic disease. I thought he had won the battle. I was wrong.

We are reminded today, yet again, that depression is a fire that never gets put out completely, a smolder you can never turn your back on. Never, ever.

We’ll never know why this time was different, why today was insurmountable when every other day was a day to soldier on, but the world is all the dimmer with the Genie flown back home to the Cave of Wonders, beyond the horizon and beyond our grasp. All we can do now is celebrate the shimmer he left in his wake.

Look out for one another, friends, help one another. It’s a rough world out there, and we need all the joy we can get. We need each other. Tolkien said it best: “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” We do not.

RIP Robin, kind sir. Thank you.

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