When I was small, snuggled in bed with my mother, she would hold me and tell me stories. I had a favorite, one that she would tell again and again. “Tell me the story, tell me the story!” I would squeal, and she would start. Each time she told it, she had the same excitement, wonder and joy. That’s one of the ways I knew she loved me. We were together, and happy.
The story was that God came to a family in the form of a dog. The family was very, very good, and to their surprise, the dog began to poop gold. The family was happy at their good fortune, and took good care of the dog. Their neighbor became jealous of their happiness. That wife said “something must be happening with that dog. Let us borrow the dog and see what’s going on.” The jealous family asked the neighbors to let the dog come stay with them for a while, and the neighbors generously agreed. But while at the neighbor’s house, the dog just pooped all over the place, and the jealous neighbors angrily sent him back to the happy family, where he just kept wagging his tail and pooping gold for the rest of his life.
Years later, we went to an animal shelter and when they asked me to pick a dog, a small golden-white puppy came over to me and smelled my shoes. “I didn’t pick her! She picked me!” It was good to feel wanted by my puppy. That dog was everything to me. My best friend, my playmate, my protector. She would lay moping next to the door in melancholy, and when I came home from school, she would leap with joy, repeatedly, until I would catch her and she would shower me with kisses. In a way, she was my first girlfriend. My sister and baby too. My mom loved her like a child, feeding her Indian food. She was eager to be a human too, once leaping up on to the dining table to wolf down an omelette. When I caught her, she stopped eating for a second to give me a side-eye of guilt before finishing her meal. My mom and I still laugh about that day. She didn’t poop gold, but she radiated love and joy.
My dad was occasionally visiting then, and my dog didn’t like him at all. She barked at him fiercely, this intruder in the midst of our usually happier home. I think she somehow got the message from my mom and I. My dog is linked to one of the deepest regrets I have in my life – we had to give her up a year later when we moved. My dad was somehow part of that decision, I can’t remember how. He didn’t like the dog, and was afraid of dogs, having been bitten by one when he was a child. I placed her back in the SPCA cage, and she trembled so violently with the trauma of impending abandonment that I too burst into tears and ran from the room shouting “NO!” I still wonder if she got rescued or if she died there, in that shelter. I’ve carried that moment my whole life. I had to give up my father for most of my life, too, but he’s in my life a little now, with all the ambivalent emotions that stirs up, sometimes bringing up strong words and the need to set boundaries, but mostly with an air of congeniality and respect. Our encounters are good “material” as my fiction writing friends put it.
LOOKING FOR? directed by Taiwan’s Tung-Yen Chou was an interesting collection of conversations with gay men around the world about their experiences trying to find partners and belonging in the modern world. Dating apps have disrupted the old ways of meeting: eye contact, conversation and relationship. Now the options are seemingly unlimited, and sexual desires can be easily satisfied, at least for many. There’s also a sense of community through online experiences where there was none before. Apps are a comforting patch for isolation, but they are obviously not the cure. Chi Ta-Wei from Taipei said it best: “Sometimes I feel that living a gay life you just have to walk on thin ice, with a suspended heart.” The translation might be off, but I took it to mean being gay for him meant living close to his vulnerability and the potential criticisms of others, while carrying your heart in a kind of calm, meditative, non-reactive state.
But the internet complicates identity. Now I can’t even mention my dog’s name on the internet, because it’s linked to just about every friggin’ account I have online. This is one way the internet has made us paranoid about our identities. What was the name of your first pet? Who was your favorite teacher? What was the make of your first car? So now, many of us carry a tiny bit of fear of revealing our lives to each other – because this is a world of scam artists, crooks and catfishers. This is not an all-good family. God as dog isn’t pooping gold all over the place. It’s more like we humans having to make gold out of the poop that comes our way. That’s a whole ‘nother story I’ll have to tell you someday.
As powerful as the online world can be, we also open ourselves up to be manipulated by algorithms, or in the dating app world, making snap judgments about people based on looks or a few profile words. I used to do Match.com and others, but was basically overwhelmed by the choice and superficiality. I quit them all for about a decade. Now I’m on a couple that just give you a few choices a day to pick from (Coffee Meets Bagel and The League), and that’s more manageable for my psyche, but also kind of ridiculous. In real life, I tend to get along with a lot of people, men and women. But when we reduce each other to dating potential, something changes. I think that’s part of what keeps people apart. There’s a little ‘freakshow’ or awkwardness we carry when someone shows interest in us. We think “oh, no, maybe they want to get into bed with me, or date me” and we run. That’s part of the Zeus that we feed when we don’t realize the potential of philea, or the love of friendship. How do we make friends and keep them in the world? As 19th century journalist Henry Adams said, “one friend in a lifetime is much, two are many, three are hardly possible.” It was true then, and it feels pretty true now as well. Sigh.
And the dating game can get pretty wild, even psychotic sometimes. Witness this poem, taken from life:
Memories of a Crush
This is what she did
with the man she couldn’t have:
She hated him,
because she loved him so much.
Then she hated herself
because she thought she would
never be good enough.
He, for his part,
Loved her anyway.
Tried to make sure
between fire and ice
There was warmth.
Family love can be complicated too. And families amidst the diorama of a changing city make for powerful stories. On Friday night at the Oakland Museum of California, we saw the first episode of a new series, FAMILY PICTURES: DETROIT IS THE FUTURE AND IT’S OKAY!, by Thomas Allen Harris. Harris portrayed the history of Detroit, and the stories of families intertwined with it, from its founding by the French in the 1700s, the displacement of Native American tribes, the creation of the automobile industry, and the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North. I can’t wait to see the next episode of this series, exploring the 1967 riots.
I was born in 1967, and moved to Detroit with my mother when I was 12. I have fond memories of the city, and made wonderful friends there. There were also race and class tensions, which I witnessed but didn’t really understand. I got called the N-word a lot by a kid at school, until I started hanging out with my bodyguard, an Italian American named Steve. Another white kid , Derek, bullied my Korean American friend, and I told him off. Steve said, “cool, Ravi, cool.” But then I turned to my Korean American friend, Rod, and said “Rod, you gotta learn how to stand up for yourself, man. Don’t take that from him.” Steve turned to me and said, “not cool, Ravi, not cool.”
Lead by example, not by advice. It’s a message I’m still trying to let sink in.
It’s the Detroit cool. That’s the family picture I’m looking for.
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The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own and do not necessarily represent the views CAAM.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His full-length nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Book Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. He just found out Thich Nhat Hanh won the Gold – so he can’t really complain. His latest longform essay on gun psychology, Guns Are Not Our God! The NRA Is Not Our Church! is available now. He also leads compassion and self-compassion workshops. More MOSF posts can be found here. You can sign up for his occasional newsletter, or follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.