I lost my managing editor, Rusty, this week when he got promoted. Best boss I ever had.
Let’s be clear, he was a very involved manager. I didn’t book a lunch, take a story assignment, go to bed, or even walk across the apartment without consulting him first. He had his nose in every Zoom meeting, and he went with me on every vacation. Happy hour? Love to — but first, where’s Rusty’s bladder clock at? For the past 11 years, his schedule dictated mine, down to the minute. And I loved every minute. So did he, right until the end. He died Monday after a very brief — days long — fight with cancer. The picture above, which I will always cherish, was taken Sunday afternoon, just hours before he crossed that damned Rainbow Bridge.
If you are dealing with loss right now and just don’t need any more emotional input, feel free to skip to the end of this piece, where I will put on my technology journalist hat again. I’ll offer some practical tips about avoiding ads that stalk and haunt you when you are trying to grieve. But if you can, please indulge me this column about Rusty.
Rusty had a tough job. When he came into my life, at about a year old (three, they told me. HA!), it seemed he had never managed humans before. He hated office politics. So he would eat whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, wherever he wanted, no matter whose “plate” the food was on. He didn’t care what furniture was for “staff only” or what people he wasn’t supposed to barrel over and lick.
After lots and lots of negotiation, he eventually traded tackling people for backing into them and sitting on their feet, but he did that with the same gusto. And slowly, he learned to grudgingly comply with some of those other rules, but he’d still forget occasionally. And, he tended to pee on his friends — in excitement — when he saw them.
But that kind of enthusiasm is contagious and he had an incredible gift for bringing out the best in people. In fact, he’d demand it. On walks, if anyone tried to pass him without stopping to say hello he’d quite literally get in their way and sit on them. In fact, on the rare occasion we’d go for a walk and not run into anyone, he’d refuse to go back inside until he found someone — anyone — to say hello. And we walked by a familiar place, like a burger joint, or a deli, he came to expect a few French fries or some sliced turkey. If the place were closed, he’d splay on the ground, demanding those fries, and I’d literally have to drag him away.
Only a year into our relationship, I threw him a curveball when I quit my day job and became a full-time freelance writer. His job as managing editor took on far more responsibility, but he rose to the occasion. I’d be home with him every day now. That only prepared us both for the darkest of pandemic times. Ever vigilant, his wet, intrusive nose — and the obnoxious way he thrust his head under my hand so he could demand a petting — made all those Zoom meetings tolerable. He was simply a lifesaver during the pandemic. It’s a gift from the Heavens that he made it through those times, and it is not lost on me that now, with this hefty project completed, it was time for his big promotion.
Some of you know I’ve written about losing a dog before. Rusty’s older “brother,” Lucky, was a fixture in the msnbc.com newsroom and the co-author on many stories (like “Bob and Lucky’s Hidden Fee Tour of America.”) He died suddenly when we had a string of appearances scheduled and canceling those was among the hardest parts of mourning that loss. At least that’s what I thought. I later learned the real challenge came later, as it often does with grief, when the shock wore off, the well-wishers left and “regular life” restarted.
I learned that when your dog dies you often become invisible. All those impromptu cocktail-and-treat parties on the corner with dog friends suddenly end, and life gets awfully quiet. Many people don’t recognize you without your dog. The random smiles from strangers dry up instantly. These three-times-a-day affirmations of life just disappear. It feels. So. Alone.
I wrote about getting the Internet’s help with pet grief back then, perhaps the most popular story I’ve ever written. I still get frequent emails about it. Later, I wrote about this Invisible problem. And I must say that’s what makes life seem so intimidating for me now. I was naive last time. I know what’s coming now.
Every pet owner knows the silence that accompanies the loss. Rusty snored. A lot. It was cute until it wasn’t. At times I considered moving him to another room so I could sleep. I never did. Thank God. I’d give anything to hear that snoring now. Nighttime is deathly quiet. So are mornings. For the first time in 11 years, I took a morning shower before walking the dog. And I went to bed without walking the dog. The change is so fundamental.
For Rusty, everything in life was cause for celebration. We made friends at traffic lights. He LOVED going to the gas station during our frequent New Jersey trips. Attendants there pump the gas, so they were a captive audience. He’d madly thrust his head out the window, or into the window if I was slow on the draw. He turned many frustrated, tired, cold gas station employees into happy humans this way. He even had regulars. I dread having to tell each one of them why I’m pulling up to the pump alone now.
Bartenders everywhere from Seattle to New York know him by name. I had to create an Instagram account, @RustyDogFriendly, just to keep in touch with all of them. We told stories together about good places to take your dog on vacation (Folly Beach, South Carolina ranks #1). And only a few weeks ago, Rusty helped me expose the folly of Instagram security and a much larger problem with two-factor authentication implementation. Beauty and brains, that dog had.
Yesterday, even while I was tearing up thinking about him as I pulled in for gas, I rolled down the back window anyway, as automatic as breathing or hitting the brakes. Rusty is a part of me down to the cellular level, which is why it feels like every cell hurts right now. And I know I’ve only just begun the hard part.
But I also know that Rusty’s friends will come to my aid. I know many readers will, too. The kindness and real empathy I felt after Lucky’s passing was overwhelming. When so many of you wrote to me about your pet grief, I set up a Facebook page just to give the energy and love a place to live. I’m sure I’ll feel a lot of that again, and I thank you for every well-wish you can share. I feel largely in a fog right now, so forgive me if I don’t respond immediately, but every bit of love does make a difference. People have so, so many reasons to grieve right now, so I am grateful you have any to share with me.
And just a word about that. The world is so full of pain today. There is so much tragedy. War, earthquake, the pandemic and its fallout. There is so much rage. People don’t trust each other, there are so many deep trenches dug — physical and emotional — that it feels like nothing will ever get solved. But in this painful, fallen world, the pure love of a pet and the grief that accompanies its loss rises above all that. I wished 11 years ago and I wish today that some of this kindness could be shared in wider ways.
One more indulgence: In America, especially among men, emotional expressions are not always welcome. Dogs offer a safe space to let out what’s bottled inside. Many of you saw the Twitter reaction to a recent etiquette piece that trollingly suggested it’s impolite to baby talk with a stranger’s dog. The universal derision, which I lustily cheered, revealed a deep truth. Dogs make it ok to laugh, to yelp, to grunt, to invent voices, to cry, to crawl, to wrestle, and most of all, to lose ourselves in the moment. Toxic masculinity? Woof. Dogs give us permission to be ourselves. In fact, they insist. They will drag it out of us like they relentlessly play tug of war. Perhaps that’s their real gift.
I read a beautiful passage recently and I don’t recall where — it’s been a tough few days — about love and stars. Here’s my version. Think of a clear night, and a dark place, when you look up into the Heavens and notice that many more stars have “appeared” in the sky. And the longer you look, the more seem to appear. Each small flickering light, we know, is a message from the past that illuminates the present. A life well lived does much the same. Moments of love fill the heavens with light that lives on, and when we take time to look, we remember more and more and more acts of love. That twinkle there – it’s when Rusty befriended Reggie, who often lives under the bridge near me. This twinkle here is when he climbed on me as I tried to do yoga. All those lights over there are every time he sat on someone’s foot or leapt onto a bar at a pub. I’ll spent the rest of my days looking up, trying to make sure I don’t forget one single shining moment, knowing there are so many I’ll never see them all.
It’s a cruel truth, that dogs live only a fraction of human lives, but I’m sure that’s because we need far more time to seek redemption. When my time comes, I sure hope I’ll get promoted to the same place as Rusty (and Lucky, and Beau). As many have said, if dogs aren’t in Heaven, then I ain’t going there. In the meantime, if you see me, please do say hello or smile. Especially if you have a dog.
HOW TO STOP CRUEL AD TRACKING DURING GRIEF
Sometimes, the Internet can be cruel. Anyone who’s ever suffered a tragedy and then been haunted by tracking ads online knows what I’m talking about. Women who’ve suffered miscarriages can be followed by baby ads, for example. So this section deals with that problem.
In the hours and days after Rusty passed, my computer kept reminding me of his final, chaotic days. Naturally, I had frantically searched for anything that might help him. My vet and I were initially worried about arthritis. So there were ads for slings, fancy leashes, glucosamine, CBD oil, toe Grips and socks that supposedly add traction for dogs that slip on wood floors. The ad industry calls this “retargeting.” It’s of questionable utility to sellers, but it can be unquestionably cruel for consumers.
Now I was haunted by all of these ads, each one an arrow to the heart. As a coping mechanism, I set out to do what any privacy reporter would – to learn how I might eliminate these painful reminders. You won’t be surprised to find it wasn’t easy, and there is no foolproof solution, but I think I can offer help.
First, here’s what I wouldn’t do: Don’t follow the trite advice you’ll see in many corners of the Internet, which is to delete your cookies and web history. That’s the kind of glib, oversimplified advice you’ll hear from tech experts who don’t actually have to live with the advice they give. If you do that, you’ll be rebooting most of your digital existence — akin to opening up a brand new computer – which can be a cure that’s worse than the disease. You might lose all your saved settings or passwords, all your preferences, and many other shortcuts that make your web surfing life much easier. In short, it’s a pain in the ass. Yes, you can do it, and for some people, that kind of radical change might be cathartic. But if you use your computer for important things, like work, that’s a sledgehammer you’ll regret using.
Try this first:
Amazon actually has a pretty nifty tool to remove unwanted products from its recommendation engine. Go to your account (probably the “account & lists” dropdown) and pick “browsing history.” There, you’ll see a comprehensive list of items you’ve looked at with a simple “remove from view” button under each. I deleted everything that had to do with aging dogs in one frantic session, and that worked. Amazon no longer shoved dog product recommendations at me. And by the way, why wouldn’t Amazon make this easy? I did them a favor by freeing up screen space that clearly would have been wasted on me.
For the wider web, it’s not nearly so easy. But generally, odds are high that any ad you see online will be served by Google (see this recent antitrust lawsuit). If it is, squint hard and you’ll find a funny-looking sideways triangle in the upper right-hand corner. Hover over it and it’ll say “AdChoices.” Click on it and you’ll be sent to a “Why This Ad” page at Google.com. See if ad personalization is toggled on, and if it is, turn it off. Next, you can hurt around for a link to something called AdChoices (at the bottom of several pages in Google’s https://AdSettings.Google.com tool). Or I’ll just give it to you: Click on https://optout.networkadvertising.org/ which brings you to something called WebChoices (I told you this wouldn’t be so easy). Wait just a moment and you’ll be given a chance to opt out of customized ads from 100 or so various ad networks that work with Google. They have names like AdBrain, Amazon Ad System, Cognitiv, Facebook, MediaOcean, Microsoft, and Outbrain. There’s a button that lets you opt out of all of them at once. Do that. In truth, while confusing and opaque, it only takes a couple of minutes.
Once I did this, I was freed from most of those cruel ads. There’s no guarantee this will work, of course. We’ve all had enough experiences when our preferences are somehow “updated” when we aren’t looking. And this doesn’t cover all ad networks. But it did massively improve my experience.
There are other solutions. You could try using an incognito browser window, or just try another web browser altogether, like DuckDuckGo. I’d encourage this method long-term, but if you are in mourning right now, do you really want to change something so fundamental about how you go about your day?
Whatever you do, you’ll also be taking a stand against unwanted surveillance of your digital footprint. And hopefully, it’ll give you just a little more control over how and when you face those reminders of your grief.
As I leave you, here are some more pictures of Rusty. Also, I’ll be doing 30 days of Rusty pictures at @RustyDogFriendly on Instagram because… Well, I just want to. If you’ve been moved by my story today, buy your dog a toy or a treat, or give them a pet. If you are on the fence about adopting a rescue pet, do it. You’ll never regret it. If you feel like contributing something, give to your local shelter. Rusty had many fun happy hours with people from the Liberty Humane Society in Jersey City, NJ, so you could donate to them if you don’t know your local shelter.