93. Schnauzers – they don’t need trousers.

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A family member is saving up for a Schnauzer. It turns out this is not a machine-pistol after all, but a tiny mustachioed dog. And that’s caused me to re-open the question: do dogs stack up? Not literally, but rather, are they a viable addition to the domestic panopoly, or would you be better off with a Macbook Pro, which has a similar price and processing power?

If you haven’t ticked either the box ‘visual impairment’ or ‘sheep farmer’ at first glance a dog looks like an encumbrance. It’s expensive to run, it doesn’t pay rent or tax and you can’t ride it. If it gets ill, there is only one treatment guideline, which rhymes with Millett.

The Schnauzer is supposed to be an expert in rat control, but the rat sector is well covered nowadays by enthusiastic amateur ratters like cats and owls, not to mention the contributions of big pharma, such as re-purposed warfarin.

Still, in the post-ratting era,  there’s an urban myth going round that pets are good for your mental health. Some of the advantages are probably non-specific, like gentle exercise and superficial social interaction with other owners. But I can see one big positive, which is that dog ownership, if supervised properly, is a practical revision course in behavioural psychology.

Readers of EP will already know that Behaviourism provides far more of the answer to life’s problems than people realise, diverted as they are by the false Gods Thinking and Feeling. The beauty of animal ownership is that behavioural methods are mainstream and largely unchallenged.

There is no visiting-occupational-therapy-student-from-Kidderminster to suggest trying hot yoga, no semi-retired-social-worker-who-does-homeopathy-on-the-side to suggest homeopathy on the side. Just people with big coats full of food treats.

Recently I found myself defending a dog that stands accused of being Nasty. It was alleged that the dog’s father had also been nasty. And there’s an implication, not unlike racism, that certain breeds are genetically loaded towards hooliganism.

You’ll understand that I have never owned a dog or spent much time with dogs or even studied dogs academically.

Against this, I know a man who spent decades training dogs for the RAF police, a man who travels around the world as something of a training guru. And he tells me that dogs are largely a blank canvas onto which the trainer writes a behavioural program.

So that deficiencies in animal behaviour are largely a reflection of poor quality ownership behaviour, such as giving mixed messages. The main enemy is contaminating  owner behaviour with Sentimentality. They don’t want to kiss you and they probably regard wearing a coat as a punishment, especially if it’s Tartan. Sentimentality is your problem, don’t make it the dog’s.

Which brings me to Jasmine Tree, which is near the scary butcher shop and the scary barber shop, next to the funeral directors. Jasmine Tree is a new gift shop which has opened like a poppy on a battlefield.

One person who won’t be shopping there is CG Jung, mainly because he died in 1961. Jung described sentimentality as ‘a superstructure that covers up brutality’. To be fair, he was talking about popular sentiment getting pumped up during war time. He’d have loved ‘ET’ as much as anyone else, if he’d lived to see it.

In fact he might just have seen ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ if he’d ventured down to the Küsnacht Odeon in his final year.

Another psychiatrist who won’t be visiting our gift shop is Theodore Dalrymple, who wrote a book about modern life called ‘Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality’.

Both CGJ and TD, commenting on society, believed that Sentimentality went hand in hand with decadence and brutality.

But how does this relationship work? Is sentimentality a diversionary tactic, does it actually cause decadence, or is it an antidote to the harsher realities of existence? Do we need less sentimentality or more?

Sentimentality is by definition disproportionate. Implicit in the definition of sentimentality is that the emotional tone is overloud and wrongly focused, like the sound from a ghetto blaster. Sentimentality distorts logical thinking. It’s the force that keeps the card and flower shops flourishing, not to mention your uneconomic local hospital and those little trains with no passengers that go to Cleethorpes.

Humans attach emotions to objects but I suspect dogs only attach emotions to food items. So why do they go after an old stick or rubber ball? Because they are suckers for social approval, or have they just associated social approval with getting fed? Dogs are just one jump ahead of us in chaining together rewards.

When humans invest an object with an emotion it takes on a sentimental value. When the sentimental value brings a sense of comfort, the item is called a comfort object. We can easily delude ourselves that animals like comfort objects, but we might just as well dress them up in clothes and pretend they talk.

Originally considered as fetishes, comfort objects were officially deemed ‘OK’ by Bowlby and his colleagues, who came to regard them as a healthy and normal way of dealing with separation. After this liberation the trinket industry ran riot.

According to the object-relations school, we start to need comfort objects at the age of 4 months. It starts with an old J cloth and ends up – via a one-eyed teddy bear, and a plastic luger pistol – with a iphone 7 plus.

According to Today’s Parent,  it’s always wise to introduce toddlers to a rotating repertoire of comfort objects right from the start, like in ‘The 12 days of Christmas’. Since the legalisation and slow destigmatisation of security blankets, championed by Linus van Pelt, society has created more and more comforting items and showered them everywhere.

For every stress in life there is a comfort to cancel it out. There’s a card for every occasion, even high number birthdays, like 97.

The concept of a comfort object started out as fairly useless item such as a piece of cloth given to a baby by its mother. The power of the object can be increased by making the item attractive to touch and hold as well as by belonging to someone significant.

 

If we make a list of sentimental objects – pets, flowers, cards, fountain pens, vinyl records – we soon find that sentimental purchasing accounts for  90% of GDP.

Pretty much everything in fact, except barbed wire, rat poison and drain cleaner.

My hypothesis, which can’t be tested very easily, is that comfort objects have been created in greater numbers and greater potency as a kind of quantitative easing approach.

This has been needed because of the increasing number of discomforting objects that insult our sense of wellbeing, like news bulletins, call centres, crowded places and harsh materials like concrete and polyester.

My contention is that people have only been able to put up with the ridiculousness of modern life because of the compensatory tidal wave of comfort objects and food.

Unfortunately, we are increasingly exposed to harshness, in the media and in daily life, and there are signs that traditional comfort objects like the iphone 7, even the jet black version, may soon fail to calm us.

Tried and tested products are beginning to let us down. There aren’t enough small electronic devices left on our shopping lists that we covet so much that we’d exchange our spleen for one.

People used to lust after a Sony Walkman or an ipod. People queued all night outside the Apple shops. But that magic has died down and there is nothing new coming through. Big stores weren’t that keen on spleens anyway and rumour has it, just stacked them in recycling bins.

If there is hope, then it probably lies in the direction of Turkish Barbering and possibly now the new craze of Hygge.

In terms of physical objects, there are many suggestions on the web, like this one:

A hammerless short-barrel revolver, which you clean and oil daily, give a woman’s name to, and keep always loaded, under your pillow while you’re sleeping.

 

Or this list:

 

  • egg of Silly Putty
  • stress ball
  • unusual object or keychain attached to keyring
  • glass or stone marble
  • smooth pebble or “worry stone”
  • a couple of ordinary dice
  • a small metal or wooden figure or animal
  • tactile keypad pulled out from a broken calculator
  • your own thumbnails
  • hooded sweatshirt
  • pair of socks, gloves, or mittens
  • sunglasses
  • Koosh ball
  • miniature Slinky
  • small metal spring (round the ends off)
  • a good ink pen
  • pack of chewing gum
  • anklet, neck chain, watch, or bracelet
  • rosary or worry beads
  • piece of telephone cord
  • Monopoly game piece
  • metal bottle cap
  • shampoo bottle top
  • rubber bouncy ball or other small object from children’s vending machine
  • packet of small round candies
  • Livestrong or other similar “cause” bracelet
  • strip of cloth
  • empty cigarette lighter
  • Swiss Army-style pocketknife or pocket toolset
  • lump of sea glass
  • smooth-worn seashell
  • ankle jogging weight
  • toy figurine
  • one preferred paper clip
  • small eraser
  • guitar pick
  • mini-flashlight or LED keychain

Jasmine Tree doesn’t sell the revolver, but most of the rest is available. The Schnauzer won’t be interested in any of it though. In fact he’d prefer an amnesty on gifts, so he can get back to his ratting work.

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9. The Optional Illusion.

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Facing my inquiry panel.

It is bank holiday weekend and I am waiting for the news to show the usual rioting in Brighton, as rival gangs of philosophers – down from ‘the smoke’ – fight each other with motorcycle chains. The battle between Positivists and Constructivists continues more ferociously than ever.

It’s all to do with the way you like to see Reality. The R word is an issue for mental health specialists, since mental disorders are loosely defined as a breakdown in reality testing. Positivists like to measure reality with a ruler, whereas Constructivists like to feel it through their sensory experiences.

Positivists are quite certain you have a dining room table made of wood, whereas Constructivists aren’t even certain they are in your house at all.

Having watched the Matrix, there has to be a chance that we are all just brains in buckets being fed information via the higher number Sky channels.

There are times when Positivism is essential, like measuring the dose of insulin and checking the blood sugar level, or flying a jumbo jet. When it comes to appreciating a restaurant or a book, it is probably better to judge the overall experience than rate it with a star scale.

Consider this experience: a car goes past you. There is a large dog sitting in the passenger seat, facing forwards. The dog has the window slightly open and a serious look on its face.

Why is that funny?

The humour is at the expense of the dog. It thinks its a human. It probably thinks it is driving the car. Sadly, the dog probably does not possess ‘theory of mind’. It is happily oblivious to its station in life, which is having no rights whatsoever and certainly no vote, not even for the European parliament.

Pets are big business in the UK. How much of the supermarket is devoted to pet food? How much greenhouse gas is produced by pet related activity?

What are pets actually for, if we exclude working sheepdogs and guide dogs?

OK, horses are arguably a form of transport. And I believe ferrets play a vital role in carrying cables through underground pipes. I think there are mites that play a role in cheese production, oh yes, and the little worm that goes in Tequila, though I’m not sure what it does.

I ask just to get some comments from pet owners and tequila experts.

If the answer is ‘for company’ then I’m thinking do pet owners display the same kind of obliviousness as the dog in the passenger seat?

Treating dogs and cats as people is a strange distortion of what animals really are. But in a way, we are all like the dog in the passenger seat. We construct a view of the world, but the view has many blind spots, illusions and distortions.

If the world was presented to the senses in a completely clear and unfiltered stream, it would probably seem unbearably harsh. Nature can appear very cruel if we don’t give it a bit of positive PR, which is when it becomes all things bright and beautiful.

You would like more friends so you create an imaginary friend in the shape of a grey cat. It has a droopy moustache and its name is  Zorro.

How many movies, how much merchandising, has gone into ‘anthropomorphism’ – projecting human characteristics on to animals?

The brain seems to have a tendency to attribute human like characteristics to natural phenomena and even inanimate objects such as steam engines and curling tongs, so its not surprising that creatures with two eyes and four limbs are treated as though they had finer feelings.

How much are you really empathising with a dog if you regard it as your loyal friend?

By now you have guessed that I just don’t ‘get’ animals as pets, and not much really as food. Some time soon I hope the genetic engineers will be able to make fillet steak from cell culture on a giant loom in Milton Keynes, and our cows (and horses) can relax again.

Animals have a key role in the eco system and they are incredible in how they can look and behave. They are magnificent creatures. I nearly said they are magnificent pieces of machinery (they are). I love Disney films, and Tom and Jerry, but I think I have placed these firmly in the Fiction section.

I just don’t think Toads can really buy motor cars and get put in jail for dangerous driving. Not even in Hartlepool, where they allegedly hanged a monkey having mistaken it for a French spy.

Just to leave the pet lovers alone for a while, let us turn our attention to motorcycles. From a positivist perspective we find that these accelerate very fast in a straight line. They are very cold and noisy, don’t really go round corners as fast as cars, use more petrol and tyres than cars, and are quite dangerous.

That’s if you actually ride them outside their safe operating radius of one mile from Cafe Nero. As a form of transport they get only one star.

But to counteract this, using a constructivist method, we temper our initial experience of noise, cold and danger with a range of romanticised imagery borrowed from Marlon Brando, Bruce Springsteen and Ewan McGregor, that sets motorcycling into a grainy black and white arts movie with a working class hero.

So Pets. And Motorcycles. The fantasy does not match the reality. We use ‘sentimentalisation’ to reduce the discord between the ways things are and the way they really ought to be. War has probably been sentimentalised more than pets, and slightly more dangerously.

And luckily, there is an absolutely huge industry whose job it is to help us not see things correctly, spanning politics, advertising and business. Advertisers construct chains of feel good imagery and attach them to our perceptions. Yogurt and Skiing, for instance.

In the motor industry engineers try to reduce what they call ‘NVH’, noise vibration and harshness. Sentimentalism is a defence against NVH in the personal environment. It’s a cosy room with cats and cuddly toys, where Liberace plays Candle in the Wind.

Consider this statistic:

Of the 26.4 million households currently in the UK, 7.6 million – or 29% – are made up of only one person, with the growth in single occupant households owned by the middle aged creating extra demand for homes.

There are many reasons for this social trend, but it seems we are becoming increasingly intolerant of living with other people. This trend has also been termed ‘schizoid society’, where we all inhabit a little bubble, and our only contact with others is as spectators.

Such a process was well anticipated and described by Isaac Asimov, in his novels about the planet Solaria. People, in proximity, just cause too much NVH. People – most people – just wouldn’t fit in the yogurt commercial.

Some of the most attractive, well thought out and effective types of therapy have devoted themselves to seeing the world more carefully and sensibly. Some nice examples include rational emotive therapy, now called REBT; personal construct psychotherapy, and Karl Rogers’ person centred therapy.

Interestingly these were all developed in the 1960s and 70s. Sadly none of them are really available much now, not in a pure form at least, though they continue mainly through strands of CBT and counselling.

I don’t think anyone has invented an anti-sentimentality tablet. Nor can I find a sentimentality rating scale to measure its effects. The lifestyle advice is relatively simple however.

Avoid sending cards for anything apart from birthdays and Christmas. Better still, avoid sending cards at all. Avoid most of Steven Spielberg’s output, and anything with James Stewart in it. Rationalise your yogurt buying to the 1000g ‘Eridanous’ pots from Lidl.

Sentimentalism is a kind of emotional clutter. There is a lot written about ‘decluttering’ your house, most of it rather obvious. First order a skip, then rescue ten things you really need.

Not you Tiddles.