Another occasion for attachment. Alex and Adam won a Silver Baton at the DuPont-Columbia Journalism Awards Thursday evening. It’s a big deal, and they were in exceptional company. The award was for the prescient radio show they produced last May, “The Giant Pool of Money“, which did so much to de-mystify what was then being called “the sub-prime mortgage crisis” and has since morphed into the worst global economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. Adam and Alex were on the story early; they got it right, and they made it clear. The show has been downloaded more than half a million times and has generated more comment than any other show ever produced by This American Life. It led to the Planet Money project (podcast, blog, and regular radio segments produced for NPR and/or This American Life), and several other collaborations between Alex and Adam, each of which has received favorable reviews. Alex says this is a great time to be an economics journalist; we’re sure it’s going to get more and more interesting, and we hope the news that Alex and Adam will be covering gets better and better as Obama and his team take control. Alex, Adam, wonderful work! We are proud of you.
(Thanks to Adam’s dad for the photo.)
Ace was a handsome rabbit. He was large, as rabbits go, with erect ears and a lovely tri-tone coat: dark brown, lighter brown, and tan. Alex found him in the street outside his apartment, in Wicker Park, in Chicago, in the summer or fall of 2000. After trying in vain to find his owner, Alex kept him. Ace had free run of Alex’s apartment; he used his litter box faithfully, mostly, and once the electric and telephone cords were safely taped to the walls so that Ace couldn’t chew through them, he was not much trouble. When Alex moved to New York just after Thanksgiving in 2002, we kept Ace until Alex found a larger place. So we kept Ace, as we’ve kept so much – people, pets, opinions, stuff, the house we’ve lived in for the past 35 years – that we accepted without really thinking much, or took on just for a while, and then became attached to.
Ace was an unlikely object of attachment. Aside from his handsomeness, he had nothing much to commend him as a pet; not much in the way of curiosity, or friendliness, or personality. Rabbits are prey animals; as Alex observed, they behave as if anything that moves intends to eat them. Their bodies bend in just one plane, to move very fast in a straight line, and they are not at all sinuous, like a cat. Ace was cute, after his fashion; he lost his fearfulness enough to come to us when we came into his room, sit up on his haunches, and beg for a favorite treat: a styrofoam-like corn log. He’d take it gently in his teeth, drop to all fours, and promptly lose complete interest in us.
Still, we were attached to Ace, at least enough to get choked up and shed some tears when we had him euthanized this morning. Over just a couple of days, he stopped using his litter box, became drastically constipated, stopped eating and urinating, and lost control of one hind leg and one front leg. But his ears were erect to the end, and, as he sat trembling in the banana box in which we carried him to the vet, he appeared to relax as Joan scratched his forehead – the only physical attention he ever seemed to respond to. The vet assured us that the euthanasia was carried out painlessly, and asked us if we wanted Ace cremated and his ashes saved in a ceramic urn. We said, “No, we’ll just take the body home”, which seemed to surprise the vet, and which saved us $230. We received the carcass in a cardboard box, neatly taped up, and just a few hours ago, I gave Ace a proper burial in the dumpster behind the Brew House. I would be happy with a similar disposal of my carcass, but, alas, that won’t be an option for those left to handle the matter.
Ace’s passing has left me pondering. I’m leading a study group in the teachings of the Buddha, and one issue that’s caused a lot of discussion is the matter of karma and rebirth. If the Buddha was speaking literally and with true knowledge, as I think is likely, then Ace’s birth as a rabbit is likely the result of unwholesome karma by some divine or human being back in time – perhaps a person whose bullying behavior as a schoolboy resulted in rebirth as a fearful timid being in the animal realm. But as rabbit lives go, Ace’s was a fortunate one. He was never caged, never tormented, kept warm in the winter and moved to an air-conditioned room through the hot days of summer. And he lived a long life. He was probably nine years old when he died, and the vet told us that most domestic rabbits don’t live much past five or six. He was lively and, as far as we could tell, happy until just a few days ago. So there must have been some mitigating karma in the chain.
And the question then becomes, how does a fortunately born rabbit act with wholesome intention, so that, next time around, he might achieve an even more fortunate birth – move one or two steps up in the chain of beings? Was Ace, perhaps, less destructive than his animal instincts would lead him to be; did he intentionally not destroy the more valuable books on the lowest shelves of his room, or did he make a special effort to keep his stool in the litter box? Did the very slight affection he seemed to display for us demonstrate something like generosity and respect for beings closer to enlightenment than he was? I hope so; if there is some karmic principle that determines the luck of the draw, I hope that Ace has achieved a yet more fortunate birth, one that brings him closer to release from the dukkha that characterizes all samsaric existence.
There are all sorts of other thoughts that Ace’s death has set shimmering in my mind. One concerns that lingering attachment. It was clear, from the vet’s response to us, that we were demonstrating considerably more equanimity in the face of Ace’s imminent demise than most of the people she dealt with. She might even have found us a bit callous. But we shed tears. It’s clear that I am far from ready to abandon completely and without reserve my clinging to the things in this world in which I have found pleasure.
I had another thought, entirely political and non-buddhistic. In assenting to Ace’s euthanasia, I am convinced that we acted rightly and in the old rabbit’s best interests. Both law and the opinion of the multitude support us in that (although I am sure that there are those who would dissent). Now, why is it proper to help an animal, a pet, to evade the worst pangs of the dying process, but it is not proper to so so for a human being? Why may we not help a loved one to an easeful death, even with their conscious assent, even in response to their heartfelt pleading? Why are we are forced by law to prolong a painful and terminal process beyond all natural limits? Why must we maintain the pain of those who are dying and of those who love them? Why can’t we imagine a way to allow responsible euthanasia for those who have requested it, either in conscious pain or with foresight in advance of their inevitable decline?
Those are important questions, more important and more momentous than the question of why those who inherit my carcass can’t deposit it in the nearest dumpster or leave it in the woods for scavengers to transmute to fertilizing shit.
Now, returning one last time to those tears. Is it, in fact, Ace that I remain attached to, or did his passing stimulate tears in response to a much deeper and more karmically disastrous attachment? Let me close by quoting Gerard Manley Hopkin’s magical poem:
to a Young Child
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.