Monday, September 24, 2018

The Dog at Reese

            I told this story repeatedly — possibly obsessively — for years. I needed to shape it into art. Not necessarily good art, but art: a story, a narrative, a made thing outside of myself, outside of me, something I could then deal with as part of my Self.

            Apparently, though, I never wrote it up or put it on my computer or on line.

            I will now.

            For sure it was in the summer, probably of 1963 or 1964, and I was in my late teens. And for sure I was working a summer job in the Gastro-Intestinal Research Lab at Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center (“Reese,” now out of business). My official title was “Student,” and I was there, primarily, in theory, to work on a project to determine, “Would it be feasible to utilize strips of rat gut for the in vitro determination of the effects on stomach motility of various pharmaceuticals?” The answer was “No,” and my final report consisted of my writing out the question on a 3x5 or 4x6 notecard and gently telling my employers that if they’d done sufficient library research before assigning me the project they’d have known it’d been tried and never gotten to work — but guinea pig uterus would work. 

            Anyway, I had more time for the “Student” aspect of the job, which was primarily “To ask stupid questions.” I’d been represented to the precursors of a Human Resources department as someone who’d been trained in microbiology — which was true — but my boss knew I had switched over to a major in English. What he wanted was a young person from outside gastroenterology who’d ask intelligent but naïve questions and make him explain what they were doing. For thatI was definitely, and sometimes embarrassingly, qualified. 

            I also found a lot of time to read — much of research in the life sciences is waiting for timers to run out — and I helped doing whatever needed to be done.

            One morning what needed to be done included killing a dog who’d been the victim of an operation that went wrong. 

            I don’t know what the experiment was, but it involved a large incision in the dog’s rib cage, one that couldn’t be just sewn up. It had to be wired closed, and the wire had gotten kinked, which weakened it, which … — well, which resulted in the dog lying in our courtyard area with its ribcage open and in extreme distress.

            It was only years later that I learned the euphemism “put down” — one euphemism I approve of — and my memory is that I was asked to help kill the dog. Anyway, the more senior lab tech prepared the lethal injection, which consisted of a palm-full of Nembutal (pentobarbital) put into a large syringe and then adding water; and I went out into the courtyard, squatted down, and “popped the vein” on the dog’s left front leg. 

            And the other guy came out, injected the dog with enough barbiturate to quite literally kill a horse — and the dog didn’t die.

            Background 1: On the wall in each room of our lab was the code of ethics for dealing with experimental (nonhuman) animals, which stated that no animal was to be made or allowed to suffer more than or longer than necessary for the experiment.

            Background 2: Someone had put the wrong barbiturate in the Nembutal bottle. I don’t know what it was, but obviously it was something weaker, or maybe not a barbiturate at all.

            Background 3: For P.E. the preceding semester, I’d taken Personal Defense. I’m small and hardly excelled in the course, but one thing I was good at was what was called “the Japanese choke hold,” which undoubtedly has another name nowadays since the “Japanese” part may’ve been racist, and anyway it’s now the name of something pornographic (I didn’t click on the links that came up on a Google search). 

            Background 4: I grew up with dogs and very much like dogs and bond with dogs.

So I’m there still squatted down holding the leg of a dog trying desperately to breathe, and two thoughts go through my head simultaneously (although I must narrate them one after the other). I was an English major, already specializing in mostly-early drama, so I experienced this as a kind of Morality Play with the relatively good angel on one shoulder saying, so to speak — none of this was exactly in words — You canbreak this dog’s neck quickly and cleanly; therefore it is your duty to do so. And I started to straighten up — and then there was a very archaic voice saying, Yes. You’ve killed with a needle, but what does it feel like to kill with your hands?

            And about half-way up — I’m sure of this because my knees ached for the next few days — half-way up I froze and went into a kind of a fugue with the line from Murder in the Cathedral going through my mind, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: / 
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

            Eventually — I have no idea how long — the other lab tech came out with a different syringe, shook me, and we “put down” — killed — the dog.

            Two things.

            First, I understand better than most people that line in Murder in the Cathedraland what it means in the context of T. S. Eliot’s verse drama about martyrdom and what it can mean in a situation like mine with The Dog at Reese. This is good because it puts me in a strong position to say that in most other contexts, certainly most political contexts, Eliot’s line is beautifully-written bullshit. Far better generally is the idea in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together […].” People’s motivations are complex, and with most people, most of the time, if they’re doing the right thing, just accept that, sometimes with gratitude. 

            Second, however flawed and outdated Carl Jung’s analytical psychology may be, he’s on to something with the concept of the Shadow. I’ve met mine. And I have tried to make him mine: a part of me that on at least one occasion took charge to do a good deed. It was not a great good deed, but it was good and it was done by me, including the Shadow-me, using the strength of that archaic, dark voice. 

            And that’s pretty much it. That’s the story and most of what I’ve learned from it. 

Other results …? Well, for ecological and ethical reasons, in part, I don’t eat mammal meat; but also because of that dog and other dogs and — unmentioned by the Shadow-voice — the rats I killed to get the gut to make the strips to answer the question of my unnecessary project. (Although it would have saved the lives of many rats and guinea pigs if one rat gut could make many strips to test “various pharmaceuticals.”) Also, it helped radicalize me as they used to say in the late 1960s, although I didn’t see my position as all that radical. It was just, “Don’t kill complex organisms — humans especially (although that may be just sentimental) — unless you really, really have to.” Not, say, out of pride or greed or wrath or gluttony — for four of the old Seven Deadly Sins— or nationalist fervor or only following orders or because some part of you is sincerely, deadly curious, “What is it like to kill with your hands?”

            Well, and I — basically a good human being, as humans go — remember and appreciate the upshot of a great line from a so-so play, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together […].”

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