He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms…

Band/Artist: A Silver Mt. Zion
Album: He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms…
Best song: “For Wanda” and “13 Angels Standing Guard ’round the Side of Your Bed”
Worst song: “Long March Rocket or Doomed Airliner” is not a song, necessarily.

I was having a conversation with a friend a few years ago about the dog meat trade that takes place in different cultures. There are conversations to be had about cultural differences and the reasonable question he asked was something to the effect of “well, we eat cows and pigs and chickens in the West. What’s the difference?”

It’s a solid, if incomplete, question and one that I take seriously. But, my answer mirrors that of something that made me cry a few years ago when I first heard it on the Jonah (yikes) Keri podcast, when Keith Olbermann said the following, verbatim:
“There may be many many reasons that we are here in this universe, given life. And I don’t think anybody has ever been smart enough to know them all. But, the one I would put a little money on is that we are here to protect dogs. And they are here to protect us. If you’d like to improve your life, get a dog.”
I believe this with my whole being. Dogs are a human invention, created for our own benefit and, within modernity, frivolous. As per the cultural notions, we created the hundreds of breeds of dogs for companionship. They’ve mostly lost their lupine roots and aren’t hunting companions. They are no longer tools. They are part of the family.

I lost a huge part of my family on Monday to a very dangerous type of cancer that, according to the treating vet, only shows up when it is too late. In Chloe’s case, a mass burst in her abdomen, which also indicates that it likely has spread. The whole process took fewer than 15 hours. I found her largely unresponsive at 7 pm on Sunday and she was gone by 10 am on Monday.

It’s been a tough year for me. Chloe passed about nine months after I had to let Mattie go because of kidney disease that sapped her of her vitality. In both cases, I had to made a terrible decision; I spent their last moments saying the words “I’m sorry” over and over while crying.

I care about dogs in a way that is certainly not normal and likely not healthy. Since 2003, I have had a dog in my home for all but the six-month period after Nino died in 2012 and I adopted Mattie in 2013. I had two dogs for almost three years. I love dogs so very much and the loss of a dog is a unique loss.

To get back to the Olbermann quote, I believe in the abstract notions of it more than the concrete notions. Dogs protect us only in that my experience is that dogs do wonders for one’s mental health. A few months after I moved out to the D.C. area in 2003, I was pretty depressed (something of a natural state for me). My girlfriend was back at Mizzou to finish her degree. I was struggling at my job and I had a 40-minute commute every day, all in a car. It was rough.

I came home every day feeling pretty destroyed. But I also opened my door to this face and it pretty much melted away.

It is basically impossible to come home to that face and feel despondent. That face says “I’ve been waiting for you all day and I can’t wait to hang out. I want to wrestle and I want you to feed me and I want to loaf around while watching TV. I want to do all of these things with you because I just want to hang out with you.”

It’s a wonderful sentiment and it filled me with joy for the nine years Nino was in my life. All dogs are silly creatures, but bulldogs are a particularly weird breed. They’re clumsy and stocky, but they are descendants of the noble wolf, so they play hunt and run around and a bulldog never looks normal doing it.

To live with a bulldog is to laugh, but they are also dogs. Which is to say that they are loyal and they are loving and all they want to do is make you happy. They were symbiotic with us (they kept us safe, they got our scraps), but we’ve made them into the perfect companion animal. They are too pure for this world; only with abuse do they become aggressive and, even then, they still harbor the innocence and trust inherent in their nature. Dogs are trusting, they are loyal and they give everything to us. They understand social cues in ways other companion animals don’t. They comfort us when we are sad and they rejoice when we’re happy. They might be humanity’s greatest achievement. We made them this way through centuries of genetic manipulation to get from a wolf to a pug and all the other breeds. This, to me, is the essence of the Olbermann quote and the essence as to why we don’t eat them. They are our responsibility. We must take care of them.

I take that responsibility seriously, even at the end of their lives. Chloe was weak and suffering; the rapidity of her deterioration on Sunday hit me like a truck. And her passing has gutted me. I’m constantly looking around, thinking I will see her waddle toward me with an expression that says “hey, I just wanted to hang out” on that ridiculous smushed face. But, she’s not here. I took care of her for a short time – I adopted her two and a half years ago, when she was five years old, ultra thin and nervous as hell – but the happiness she provided me was immeasurable. I just wanted her to be happy, healthy and well so that I could repay the happiness she gave me.

Loss, however it comes, is a part of life and is especially a part of being someone with a dog. They don’t live very long. I’ve learned to cope with it as best I can, but it’s weird in an age of social media (I posted a message similar to the above Instagram one on three different social networks). I’ve found comfort in the pet internet and was awash with thoughts and sentiments from other bulldog people in a private Facebook group I’m in just for bulldog people. Another part of that coping is writing things like what you’re reading; organizing my thoughts is a way to calm my mind momentarily.

I originally wanted to frame this around Nina Nastasia’s Dogs album, but it turns out that I wrote about my dog Nino in 2010 with the framing of that album. Dogs is a great record and the title track is one I come back to a lot.

I’m working on a post to commemorate the one-year anniversary of my first trip to Israel and my rediscovery of a certain type of Judaism that was spurred by said trip. Which is to say that my Jewishness found something familiar and beautiful in He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms… , the first album from post-rock supergroup A Silver Mt. Zion. Written by Efrim Menuck in the wake of his dog’s passing, the album is lush, gorgeous and familiar. It rumbles from track to track in minor keys and small silences, making it a listen that echoes and augments the structure of loss. It’s depressing and cathartic, dynamic and often dissonant. “Sit in the Middle of Three Galloping Dogs” is awash in minor-key strings, while “Broken Chords Can Sing A Little” is a piano-based lament. Album centerpiece “13 Angels Standing Guard ’round the Side of Your Bed” is full of phrasings recalling layered loss and sorrow. It’s augmented by echoed digital effects that recall the angels mourning, while the music loses steam and fades away in the song’s end, like life itself at our end.

Look, I’m vulnerable now because of Chloe’s passing, but the album makes me cry whenever I listen to it. “For Wanda” ends the album with slow piano chords merging into a beautiful mournful string melody, eventually moving into silence and then the release of a heavenly-sounding coda, as though Wanda is ascending to whatever is next. The song’s movements’ meanings are clear, but I can’t help but think of Chloe’s final day. It guts me every time, thinking of Chloe waiting and wondering, in her little bulldog mind, what comes next. I miss her so much. There is no love like a dog’s love.

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