My Next Life as a Cat

If the Buddhists are right about reincarnation, then we all live many lifetimes on our way (one hopes) to spiritual perfection.  Some of those lifetimes are human, some animal, and some even insect.  If I get a choice in this process, I want to come back next time as a cat.  Of course, I want to be a cat that lives with people who call themselves “pet parents” (so long as they don’t dress me in undignified costumes).  Being a cat otherwise probably would be interesting, but I might as well be comfortable, if I have any say in the matter.

This lifetime as a cat that I’m fantasizing, would be a sort of “r and r,” rest and relaxation, from being a human living in the world created by human rules, assumptions, opinions, and beliefs.  Mark Twain once pointed out that cats are completely indifferent to the principled and moral constraints of human civilization.  Humans may think it’s terrible when cats have loud amorous encounters in the alley, but cats aren’t troubled by human opinions.  That’s why I want to be a cat, not so much to be pampered as to have a cat attitude—cattitude, if you will.  What I’m really looking forward to are the behaviors and attitudes toward life a cat enjoys or gets away with just because she is a cat.

As a cat I could exercise my curiosity without seeming intrusively nosey.  “That cat is always following me!”  Of course, the “always” probably refers to trips to the kitchen or the bathroom.  Following a person with opposable thumbs into a kitchen with a cabinet full of food seems obvious.  The bathroom is less obvious, but, as a cat, I’m sure I would discover the appeal.

In spite of their size, cats think they own whatever their paws can reach, which is pretty much everything, including a human’s dinner.  Unlike dogs, however, cats rarely beg.  They expect you to surrender some of your dinner peacefully.  And if you don’t?  Well, expect the unexpected.

However, as a cat, I can be a finicky eater, putting my nose in the air if I don’t like what I’m being served.  “Poor kitty.”  My pet parent would rummage in the fridge for something tastier or perhaps even serve me something from his own dinner instead.  Human beings might indulge their children that way, or they might decide the child needs to learn a lesson about frugality and being satisfied with what one is served.  Some cats seem to be willing to starve rather than lower their standards.  Consider how much care a pet parent might put into finding the cat food that meets my tastes.  That person might get exasperated, but she can’t treat me like a human adult or child who should “know” such demands are unreasonable.  I’m just a cat.

As a cat, my finicky behavior can extend to other situations.  For example, I won’t have to socialize if I don’t want to.  I can retire to the cozy dark under the bed and not have to make polite conversation with people I don’t particularly want to be around.  Being a cat would be an introvert’s dream!  If kitty doesn’t want to come out and greet guests, well, she’s just being a cat.   And I wouldn’t be worried about what anyone else thinks of my appearance.  Yes, cats groom themselves frequently, but it seems to be more for their own comfort than for the approval of anyone else.

Not that cats don’t want attention.  Why else do they sit on the newspaper or book you’re reading or stretch themselves across the keyboard you’re typing on?  Cats want attention but pretend not to.  In their view, they’re thoughtfully giving you a break by sitting on your paperwork.  This interruption from a cat is considered charming.  In a human being it would be infuriating or disturbingly neurotic.

Being a cat, I would be expected to sleep 16 or more hours a day.  My only movements for hours on end might be to follow a spot of sunlight from one side of the room to the other.  A human who did that would be criticized or despaired of as having no work ethic, no sense of purpose in life.  Whereas sleeping 16 hours a day is part of the known purpose of a cat’s life.

Speaking of purpose, as a cat, I could practice “pure” science, that is, scientific pursuit just for the knowledge it provides.  Human beings rarely get to do that.  They have to be seeking something useful, like developing a product or solving some sort of problem.  However, cats can test thrust and gravity for the sheer pleasure of observing what happens when they knock pen caps and other objects off desks and counters.

For all that cats seem to be self-focused, they also seem free of the socio-cultural complexity that binds human beings.  As the poet Wordsworth said about the materialistic part of that complexity, “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”  Cats don’t spend, they are spent on, even when indifferent.  A cat may seem demanding but he or she can be happily satisfied with a cardboard box to play in.  A cat values the basics, like food, comfort, affection, and a little entertainment.  Cats are literally and metaphorically light on their feet.  Gravity seems to pull down on humans harder.

Yes, I could look forward to being a cat—except for that part about horking up hairballs.

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Paperweights aren’t nearly as necessary as they were back when windows had to be left open to catch any breeze or when heavy, brass-bladed desk fans were the only source of cooling.  Those days were mostly before my time, but I do have a small collection of paperweights.  Most of them I consider artworks; they are made of blown glass imbedded with millefiore or whorls of color and iridescence.  It’s a modest collection.  However, one paperweight looks merely functional.  It is a small lead ingot, about three inches long, with slanted sides and a flat top imprinted with what seem to be random letters.  And, yet, I value it greatly.  The ingot was given to me by the city editor of the small daily newspaper where I worked when I was in my twenties.

The editor rescued the ingots on the day the scrap people came to take away the old linotype machines gathering dust in a corner of the composing room.  She gave an ingot to each reporter in the newsroom to mark the passage of an era.  The ingot has become more symbolically important to me over time.

Before linotype machines were invented in the 1880s, type was set by hand, letter by letter, on a composing stick.  The innovation of the linotype was that it used a keyboard to set lines of matrices or molds into which molten lead was poured from a burner on the machine to form a line, or slug, of type.  Although this sounds cumbersome—and the machine itself was a hulking beast—the linotype increased the speed at which type could be set.  Used in some form for nearly a hundred years, it permitted the growth of the modern newspaper.  At the risk of sounding like an old coot, I suspect young people today have as much difficulty appreciating printed newspapers as I had appreciating the linotype machine back when I was a young reporter.

Today, surrounded by electronic communication media, we are constantly threatened with information overload.  We find it hard to appreciate what newspapers and printing have meant in human history.  Suffice it to say that a person with a printing press was once a political (and sometimes theological) force.

Hollywood saw the romanticism of “a man with a printing press”* and eventual crusading editors and reporters, putting them at the center of a number of films.  These famously include Deadline, USA (1952) with Humphrey Bogart facing down the mob and All the President’s Men (1976), dramatizing the Watergate scandal (newly relevant again).  More recently, Spotlight (2015) falls into the category of films about investigative, revelatory journalism.

Of course, a person with a printing press isn’t always or necessarily a social good.  A small town weekly newspaper in the region covered by the daily I worked for was owned at that time by a man who was a curmudgeon and a bit of a crank.  He was always looking for a fight, sure that he was right and anyone who got crosswise with him was wrong.   He obviously relished writing his weekly editorials and sometimes printed scathing articles on the front page.  Locals seemed to take him with a grain of salt and read his newspaper for what they had always read it for: births, deaths, marriages, police and fire reports, news about the school board, city council, sewer improvements, church luncheons, women’s club events, Rotary Club meetings, and county fair results.

Not very many years after I moved on to a different career path, newspapers fell on hard times.  The mid-sized city where I live now has a paper that, back in the day, considered itself the dominant news source for a good chunk of the state.  Now it’s a pathetic shadow of its former glory and not much more than a “penny-saver” paper published for the ads.  Some say the Internet killed newspapers, but papers were already in trouble, the victims of media corporation buyouts and “business plans.”  The new owners who swept through the region looked at the newspaper as a source of profit rather than a voice for the community.  From a purely business point of view, the money-making part of the newspaper is advertising.  The news is just a vehicle.  So, according to that logic, the areas that can be trimmed are the news departments.  The local newspaper began, literally, to shrink in size.  A smaller paper meant less personnel.  The news photographers went first, then correspondents, then section editors and their reporters, and eventually even the majority of “city” reporters and news writers.  The local paper now operates with a skeleton news staff and complains that the community doesn’t support it.  I would say that the reverse is true.

Is the Internet a viable replacement?  Through the Internet, we can be inundated by information. But the Internet is also inadequate to the needs of communities still hungry for news about themselves.  My husband and I finally let the paper subscription go when the circulation department tried to raise our rates to pay for the online version of the paper we didn’t read.  Now, we get some local news online but just don’t read much about our community at all.  As locals say in the coffee shops, what this town needs is a good newspaper.  Indeed, small town dailies and weeklies do pretty well for themselves.  It’s the midsized cities’ and metropolitan newspapers that have suffered the most.  Big dailies have hung on, although sometimes just barely.  Ironically, in the torrent of information through electronic sources, we miss solid, flesh and bone community.

At least the newspaper—or news source—as a mover in society isn’t completely dead yet.  The corruption, mendacity, and attempted authoritarianism of our country’s current president seem to have revitalized some of the bigger newspapers and media outlets to dig in and start doing some real investigative reporting.

My lead ingot is a paperweight in a society that talks about going paperless.  But paperless doesn’t have to mean purposeless.

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*For a timely article about a woman with a printing press, follow this link:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/this-womans-name-appears-on-the-declaration-of-independence-so-why-dont-we-know-her-story/2017/07/03/ce86bf2e-5ff1-11e7-84a1-a26b75ad39fe_story.html?tid=sm_fb&utm_term=.043d2e401f1f

Ephemera

Human life is full of little ironies.  For example, one hot area for collectors is ephemera, things we produce that aren’t meant to last, like calendars, tickets, magazines, and posters.  Because these things are meant to be used and thrown away, what survives becomes valuable.   Usually these items are paper, but they can also include bits of film or video or even advertising items, like plastic whistles or the metal “cricket” clickers given away with Pol Parrot shoes when I was a little kid.

Another irony that fascinates me is The Cloud and other amorphous computer storage places.  If you have a smart phone, at some point you’ve probably thought or said that it contains “my life,” like your mother’s phone number, your grocery list, the date of your next dentist appointment, fitness records, email, texts, and a dozen apps that keep you entertained.  If you’re like me, you shiver with dread at the thought of losing or dropping it.  For that reason, you may “sync” your phone with your home computer or back up the information on The Cloud.  In fact, you may back up all your computer data on The Cloud.  Our treasured electronic devices are fallible, after all.

Ironically, The Cloud is, itself, merely an electronic device, an array of computer servers somewhere, consisting of diodes and circuit boards, with wires hanging off the back.  Although the industry depends on redundancy to keep running, all the machinery is merely machinery and just as susceptible to flood, fire, insect infestations, human error, and natural and man-made disasters.  It is all also susceptible to business failures and power outages that can be permanent.  Even though we intend to keep the details of our lives, the medium in which we keep them is by its nature ephemeral.

Perhaps, in the cosmic view of things, this transition from paper records to ephemeral electricity is a good thing.  All life is transitory.  After all, human history and the brief lives of mayflies (genus Ephemera) are different only in matters of scale.  In one sense, humanity has been preparing to disappear for millennia.  We’ve gone from writing on stone and clay tablets to writing on paper and now to zeroes and ones in the wiring of big black boxes.  No new iteration of humanity or potential intelligent species is going to stumble upon our banks of computers a thousand years from now and devote years of scholarship to deciphering what is written there, because nothing is written there.  It is encoded and requires wiring that lasts a thousand years plus knowledge of specific electronic manipulation to even be available for decoding.

But we don’t have to wait for a thousand years for bits of the future-past to disappear.  While we might feel blushing amazement still to find and read the love letters grandpa and grandma wrote 60 years ago, the love notes we might write on email or the limited characters of Twitter have already disappeared, never to be seen by wondering grandchildren decades from now.

Maybe it doesn’t matter, because our grandchildren’s Internet-influenced attention spans will be shot to heck anyway.

From a Political Black Sheep: Baaaaa

In the past several years, ambitious parents-to-be have tried to enhance the developing brains of their babies in utero by playing classical music to them, sometimes through headphones placed on the mother’s belly. If this does indeed affect those developing brains, then my brain was shaped by my mother’s avid attention to the 1948 national political conventions. Long before yuppie parents bellied up to Mozart, my mother insisted I surely would be influenced by convention speeches I heard before birth during that steamy summer.

The 1948 Republican convention, June 21-25, and Democratic convention, July 12-14, were both held in Convention Hall, Philadelphia. Holding both conventions in Philadelphia allowed fledgling television networks NBC and CBS to broadcast the events to the east coast, using a cable system available only in that part of the country. Home television sets were not all that common, so most people listened to the conventions on radio. (Yes, I’m that old.) I was born on the day after the end of the Democratic convention, apparently waiting politely for my mother to get through both.

I suspect Mother didn’t give as close attention to the Democratic convention as she did the Republican, but the egalitarian experience in utero seems to have fired up enough liberal-option neural cells in my brain that, despite being steeped in my mother’s conservative views for the next 18 years, I developed progressive political views. This continues to horrify my mother, who often reminds me that I helped her canvas neighbors for Goldwater and was (briefly) a Young Republican.

The 1948 presidential election had some interesting features. Members of both parties attempted to recruit General Dwight Eisenhower, but he declined to get involved, at least for the time being. The Republican convention was relatively sedate, although three ballots were required to settle on running New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey for President.

The Democratic convention provided much more drama. In fact, the conflicts splintered Democrats into three parties, Progressives, Dixiecrats, and centrist Democrats, each of which ran a presidential candidate in the November election. Henry A. Wallace was the presidential candidate on the ballot for the Progressive Party, which was strong on the New Deal and certainly wouldn’t have run screaming for the bunkers if you called them “democratic socialists” –or worse. A number of southern Democrats walked out of the convention and left the party to form what became known as the Dixiecrats. They ran then South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for President on a pro-segregation/pro-states’ rights platform. The Democrats that constituted the party after the split tepidly supported the incumbent, Harry Truman.

Because of this split and a disastrous midterm election two years before, no one expected Democrats to win—including Democrats. However, the pro-union and pro-civil rights Truman poured himself into campaigning, including a traditional whistle-stop tour across country by train. He aggressively went after Dewey, ridiculing him for avoiding the issues, while Dewey himself ran a campaign designed to attract all voters and offend none. By comparison, Truman’s campaign was sharply critical. He called the Republican-controlled Congress a “do-nothing” Congress, which sounds pretty familiar these days. Truman had nothing to lose, since he was unpopular and not polling well. In a publicly more civil era, he could afford a little bombast.

Republicans were sure they had Truman beat. Democrats were fairly sure they did, too. The press and what we now refer to as Washington Beltway insiders were convinced Dewey would win. The Chicago Tribune was so certain, they printed an early edition proclaiming “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Photos of a triumphant Truman holding up the front page of the newspaper are famous. This is what was going on the year I was born.Dewey Defeats Truman

Fairly early in my adulthood, I learned not to discuss politics with my mother. Alas, she hasn’t come to the same conclusion regarding me. She has no intention of allowing me to continue in the error of my ways. Even pushing 90, she is sure she can “win me back” to the right political philosophy and the right way of thinking about the world if she just hammers at me long enough. However, in my most recent conversation with her, she said she wouldn’t discuss politics. I suspect the respite is temporary and has something to do with blood pressure—hers and mine.

Although political opinions don’t seem to be hereditary, passionately held political opinions apparently are. I get just as wild-eyed and upset about politics as she does, only from the opposite side of the political divide. I blame my passionate political opinions on the drama I heard in utero—that or clear-headed, realistic thinking. One or the other.

Like Any Other Day

                            The brain is wider than the sky.
                            For, put them side by side,
                            The one the other will include
                            With ease, and you beside.  —-Emily Dickinson

What is it about the holiday season that stirs up the mind? Memories are at the base of it, of course, that and the way memories are made. Like many people, my memories come to me in short or long flashes linked to emotional experience. Emotions intensify experience to imprint it on the brain. In our culture, the holiday season in particular generates emotion for children, and those memories return to us over and over, no matter whether the emotions were joy or disappointment. We’re likely to run through many of them again every year. Of course, as we get older those memories spin off thoughts and ideas inspired by the context of this moment in our lives.

Last week I was in Michael’s, a craft supply store, picking up yarn for a crochet project. As I was leaving, the glass doors slid open and the light inside struck the threshold and sidewalk outside just right, so that I saw a faint trail of multicolored glitter leading toward the parking lot. It made me think of a messy Christmas candlestick craft project we did in Girl Scouts when I was nine. I remember the project involved whipping warm wax and glitter to a froth and using it to frost candles.

Whatever sophisticated people might say about glitter, I had to smile at the sparkly trail, thinking about the hopeful craft projects, decorations, and gift wrappings that had crossed that threshold on the way to making someone happy. Of course, the someone made happy might only be the crafter or giver and not the recipient, but I like to believe the glittery something, whatever it was, made both the giver and receiver happy.

Inevitably, especially as I get older, happy thoughts like that are challenged by less happy thoughts during the holiday season. Perhaps that is simply because the longer one lives, the greater the number of both warm and cold memories and the closer we come to mortality.

During the eighteen months between when my grandfather died and when my grandmother followed him, she was often depressed. Prior to one of the Christmases in that period of time, my mother asked her what she wanted to do at Christmas. My grandmother replied with a shrug and said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s just a day like any other day.”
Technically, she is right of course. No one can actually say with certainty what day—or even what year—Jesus was born. Many people who, nevertheless, believe in Jesus’ message doubt that he was an actual person. So, my grandmother was right: December 25 is just a day like any day. But the ancient church leaders settled on that day, and they made it into the celebration that can move us so deeply today. Let me correct that. They initiated the celebration of Christmas, but we re-make it every year.

Sometimes how people make Christmas is appalling. Pushing, shoving, and fistfights at “Black Friday” sales (which now begin on Thanksgiving Thursday) to me represent the worst of what people make of Christmas. However, I did see one woman interviewed on the nightly news who said she found the exciting chaos and competitiveness of Black Friday to be necessary for her to “feel like it’s Christmas.” To each her own, I suppose.

Even if they don’t participate in the sales melee, parents must put real effort into making Christmas for their children. They buy gifts, yes, but they also wrap them, decorate the house, bake cookies, watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” yet again, and attend Christmas plays and pageants at their churches to see their children participate in ritual and the many stories we have created to convey the meaning we find in this time of year. When their children are grown and the nest is empty, parents may lament that Christmas isn’t the same. They made Christmas for their children, but the children’s anticipation, excitement, and, one hopes, spiritual discovery (as well as their being delighted by gifts from Santa and Mom and Dad) made Christmas for the parents.

We string Christmas lights, decorate with tinsel and shiny ornaments, and light candles at this season to make the darkest time of year bright and hopeful, to sustain ourselves symbolically through the rest of the cold winter in anticipation of renewal, whether seasonal or spiritual. We make Christmas.

Although my grandmother found no meaning in that one lonely Christmas, she lived a long life in which she and my grandfather made many happy Christmases for themselves and others.

So, I hope you’re progressing through this holiday season leaving a trail of glitter. And I hope that someone you love gives you a strange candlestick made with Styrofoam, whipped wax, and glitter—or the symbolic equivalent in your own life. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your faith or lack of it, I wish you joy.

Getting Back Up on the Hobby Horse

When I was about 5-years-old, my typical fashion statement consisted of scuffed tie-shoes, droopy anklets, skinned knees, a dress of the sort typically worn by little girls in the 1950s, a holster holding a cap gun, and a painted straw cowboy hat (red, with a chin string).  Not having access to a real horse, my steeds were either a stick horse for outdoors or a rocking horse in my bedroom.  The only cowgirl role model I had at the time was Dale Evans on the Roy Rogers Show.  She hardly ever had any fun, and I’m pretty sure I never saw her handle a pistol, much less carry one in a holster.  She rarely even got to ride a horse.  It was tough being an adventurous little girl in those days.

Those memories came to mind as I was looking online to see if I really understood the term to “ride a hobby horse” before I used it in a post.  I know how I’ve always used the term, but I wasn’t sure the rest of the English-speaking world used it the same way.  Definitions I found ranged from etymological references to an extinct Irish horse breed and tourney-horse costumes worn by English morris dancers, to the “particular obsessions” of Laurence Stern’s character Tristram Shandy, and, inevitably, to use of the phrase as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.  Of course, almost any word or phrase in human language can be or has been used as a euphemism for sex.  Sometimes I wonder if human beings developed language specifically to give themselves euphemisms for sex.  The definition that came up most often was that riding a hobby horse referred to pursuing a favorite activity or pastime: thus the word “hobby” as we hear it most often.  The implication is that a hobby, like a hobby horse, doesn’t get you anywhere.

The way I’ve used the term is to refer to my own particular obsessions (other than my hobbies) that don’t get me anywhere.  For contrast, one of my hobbies is crochet, which sometimes does produce a colorful afghan or throw, even though the results tend to go a bit off.  For the most part, the hobby horses I’m referring to are my opinions about politics and social issues.  Metaphorically, I have an attic full of well worn old hobby horses that never get me anywhere.

If you read my last post (thank you!), you saw a couple of paragraphs listing many of my hobby horses.  A few years ago, someone I know suggested I start a blog as an outlet, “because you’re certainly opinionated.”  Fortunately at the time, I fought down the impulse to protest, “I am not!”

So, I may sometimes warn you that I’m about to climb onto one of those hobby horses.  If my hobby horse riding annoys or bores you, then please feel free to go bacRide em cowgirl (3)k to researching the scholarly article you’re writing, checking Facebook, or googling old classmates to see how much less successful they are compared to you.

And, as you may have figured out from my opening paragraph, I may just get up on my feminist hobby horse once in awhile.  Sometimes my cap-gun trigger finger gets itchy.

[This post was originally published on my new blog, “Ten Minutes With a Friend.”  More of my future posts will appear only there.  I’m saving Wandering Hare for when I feel a serious rant coming on.]

Roaring for Our Humanity

Cecil
Cecil the Lion. Photo source credithttp://leftfootforward.org/images/2015/07/Cecil-the-Lion-BBC-800×450.jpg

The lion—alive—was magnificent. When I saw photographs and film clips of Cecil, the lion killed recently by an American trophy hunter, I was struck by the animal’s beauty and power. If I were the sort to look at the world as a matter of dominance and hierarchies, I could see why the man who killed Cecil wanted to do so. Taking the head of this glorious animal to stuff and hang on the wall is an assertion of power and dominance unlike any other. It is primal—and pointless.

Luring a lion out of an animal refuge to be killed in an arranged “hunt,” is the epitome of cowardice and weakness, no matter how “legal” it may be. It is offensive to our humanity and an offense, I believe, to the Divine. What we feel about the death of that beautiful African lion is unambiguous. In the Natural context, Cecil was an innocent, living his life according to the rules of his world. The human hunter unnecessarily intruded into and disrupted that world. That isn’t dominance, it’s violation.

The response on the Internet has been dramatic. Since the report of the killing, we have seen an amazing out-pouring of grief, from anger by vigilante-wannabes to a flood of charming photos of cats and kittens anthropomorphically asserting, “I roar for Cecil!”

All of this attention, unsurprisingly, has been followed with complaints from people who are outraged that so many “roar” for Cecil while appearing to ignore the horrifying police violence against African-Americans in the U.S. or the shameful neglect of U.S. veterans, too many of whom end their own lives. Indeed, we should feel outrage about deadly racism, ideologically driven violence of all kinds, and shameful neglect of our responsibilities to veterans. Humanity has no shortage of hideous behaviors that should be stopped. Now.

The fact is, we live in a new era of brutality. Perhaps I’m being unfair to call our actions brutality, since the word implies animals (brutes) are more savage than humans. We know this isn’t true, even though a definition of the word “brutal” is “inhuman.” Usually, we apply the word brutish to an insensitive or crude person, someone irrational, someone showing a lack of intelligence. We humans do consider ourselves intelligent. But, clearly, we merely have the capacity for intelligence, with less and less encouragement to use it. It is as though the characteristics we once assumed were human and those we assumed were animal have been reversed. This is not the trajectory or destiny humanity once believed it had.

Although some people tell us overt violence has decreased statistically, socially tolerated brutality has increased to the point that we must force ourselves to be aware of it. It’s “just business.” If we look, we can see it all around us. News outlets batter us with sensationalized stories that are more about attracting “market share” than about relaying important information. Vicious cyber-bullying is responsible for increasing anguish and child and teen suicides. Employers no longer have a sense of responsibility to the people they employ or to the country whose opportunities have made them rich.  Anti-intellectualism and financial self-interest have led to climate change denial and the gradual destruction of a liveable environment. The social safety net is being ripped to shreds by privatizing and a relentless demand for tax cuts and smaller government. Teachers are being humiliated by union-busting governors, and public education is being sold out to profiteers. Students trying to better themselves are crushed by debt. Higher education is being sold to donors and ideologues, who want to bend the truth to suit their own interests. More and more children are being cast into poverty with little hope of escape.  Soon-to-be senior citizens are being told they should work more years and receive less support from the Social Security insurance and Medicare they’ve paid into all their working lives.

Our politics and social allegiances are so polarized that even the way we talk to each other is brutish. And how often do we tacitly approve of ruthless business practices, admiring whatever rapaciousness it takes to get ahead, to win, or, better, to get rich? In our elections, we reward vicious personal attacks and slimy, misleading commercials by not taking our disgust with us into the voting booth. We brutalize each other and ourselves by not being serious about the responsibilities of citizenship and community.

This is why I hope more and more people are moved to roar for Cecil. When we deplore this killing, we confirm that we still know right from wrong. If the death of this beautiful lion breaks our hearts, then we know we still have hearts that can feel pain for other beings and righteous anger on their behalf.

If I could speak to those who are trying to shame the people that seem to feel more compassion for a lion than for fellow human beings, I would tell them we can’t allow compassion to be degraded into a contest, like the contrived, winner-take-all conflicts of “reality” tv . We don’t have to be that way.

To fulfill the potential of our humanity, shouldn’t we stop dividing up everything to create winners and losers? What if we let our grief for Cecil awaken us and inspire empathy for all God’s creatures? Our culture as a whole has been so dehumanized that it teaches us the only option in life is to establish superiority, to dominate, not just our enemies, but anyone or anything we can subjugate or force into inferiority. Grieving, even for a single murdered lion, is a tiny crack in the concrete built up and hardened around our hearts. Compassion is like love—or it is love—which increases as it is given.

I believe we should encourage people to roar for Cecil. We should all roar our hearts out for Cecil! And, at last, we can begin to return to feeling compassion for each other, as well as righting so, so many wrongs. This is within our power as human beings.

Roar for Cecil!

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I am publishing this post on both Wandering Hare (where I’m inclined to climb on a soap box) and on my new, more casual blog Ten Minutes With a Friend.

My Strange Addiction

I am right

Although my “addiction” isn’t nearly as strange as that of a woman on tv who felt compelled to lick walls (or a particular wall, but I don’t remember the details), my addiction and its origins are still a bit odd.

I have become fascinated with cats and confess an addiction specifically to LOL Cats, those hilarious little feline madcaps on the Internet who communicate with such cute mispronunciations and misspellings.  What makes this especially strange is that I’ve never owned a cat, and my spouse’s allergies will likely prevent me from ever owning a cat.  So, how did this happen?

If the genes for becoming a cat lady come down through the maternal line, then genes don’t account for my new proclivity.  My mother doesn’t like cats; she considers them sneaky.  She prefers dogs, proving my theory that everyone would like to have at least one sycophant in his or her life.  I know I certainly would.  But that too is prevented by my spouse’s allergies.

My grandmother had little use for cats.  She was a pragmatist who grew up in hard times.  As far as she was concerned, an animal’s value was determined by its contribution to family survival.  She tolerated barn cats, but warned us kids not to play with them or feed them, because it would distract them from their work as rodent exterminators.  And she certainly didn’t want them showing up at the back door expecting to be fed.

So, my attraction to cats (or “kittehs” in LOL-speak) isn’t genetic, even though it hit me at roughly the same time as menopause—making it seem like my biology had somehow pulled a genetic trigger.  However, I’m not entirely giving up on biology as a culprit in my attraction to cats who say things like, “Wer owt ob parakeets. Yoo goan to teh stor?”

Since I believe my approach to life is somewhat intellectual (or I have that illusion), I have to consider the possibility that my cat-fascination is an age-related sign of cognitive decline.  How else to account for my emotional response to anthropomorphized cats?  On this point, I’m a little comforted by my related addiction to the Animal Planet series “My Cat From Hell.”

This is a “reality” show that follows the day job of a cat behaviorist named Jackson Galaxy.  As Mr. Galaxy’s name may indicate, he has a night job as a musician.  Based on his appearance, his music of choice might be funk, but I haven’t tried very hard to find out.Cat Daddy2

In each show Galaxy applies his vast knowledge of feline behavior to solve the problems of hellish cats on the verge of exhausting their owners’ patience and getting booted out the door or into an animal shelter.  Most of the time, the biggest problem in the situation isn’t the cat, but rather the humans’ assumptions about- and reactions to- the cat.  Galaxy spends as much time retraining the humans as he does working with the cats.  I tell myself this interest in the study of cat/human behavior is a viable balance to a fascination with LOL Cats, at least in terms of anthropomorphization.

Tell me I m cuteDepending on how you look at it, LOL Cats is a pretty light weight addiction.  I’ve had (or have) worse compulsions.  (I’m lookin’ at you, Sonic Cherry-Limeade.)

 

 

 

Images are from    http://jacksongalaxy.com/

and http://www.lolcats.com/

Skin in the Game

William Blake's Cain and Abel

William Blake’s Cain and Abel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Budget season has started in Congress.  I’ve heard that this is also called “silly season,” but that term could apply to most of what happens in Congress.  Although the ultimate consequences of the budget battle are profoundly serious, the next several months will consist of a lot of political posturing and agit-prop (a form of street theater intended to “agitate” on behalf of a cause, aka propaganda).  The outcome will determine if rich people have bigger bank accounts or if the rest of us keep jobs and our access to important services.  The conflict driving the debate is ideological: is small government better for the country than safe food, a protected environment, student loans, medical and scientific research, preventing terrorism and crime, and caring for the poor, elderly, disabled, and people temporarily down on their luck.  This essential conflict in caring for each other is an old one.

“And the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ And he said, ‘I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?’”

In the Biblical book of Genesis, Cain, son of Adam and Eve, kills his younger brother Abel because God has shown preference for Abel’s offering of “the firstlings of his flock” of sheep.  Cain, a farmer, had made an offering of the fruits of the land.  Something seems to have been wrong with Cain’s offering, because God did not respond favorably.  This and God’s acknowledgement of Abel’s offering made Cain angry.  God said, “Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen?”  Cain does not respond.  God continues, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.”

Biblical scholars have speculated for millennia as to why Cain’s offering was unacceptable.  The most logical reason seems to be that Cain decided to hold back part of his offering or make an offering of lesser significance, apparently favoring his own ego or at least keeping more of his profits for himself.  If this is so, it emphasizes the contrariness of Cain’s reaction to God’s admonition to do better in the future.  Instead of examining his own actions and motives in relation to God’s displeasure, Cain gives in to the sin that lies waiting outside the door:  He kills his brother Abel.  Then he compounds his sin by shrugging it off in what is essentially a lie to God’s face.  When God asks where Abel is, Cain answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Cain need not have “kept” or guarded his brother in order to prevent Abel’s death, since he himself was the murderer.  He needed only to feel the love or even just the kinship of brotherhood.

The early 19th Century Presbyterian minister Albert Barnes, amplified this passage in his commentary on Genesis 4:9—

No man is the absolute keeper of his brother, so as to be responsible for his safety when he is not present. This is what Cain means to insinuate. But every man is his brother’s keeper so far that he is not himself to lay the hand of violence on him, nor suffer another to do so if he can hinder it. This sort of keeping the Almighty has a right to demand of every one – the first part of it on the ground of mere justice, the second on that of love. But Cain’s reply betrays a desperate resort to falsehood, a total estrangement of feeling, a quenching of brotherly love, a predominance of that selfishness which freezes affection and kindles hatred. This is the way of Cain.

The members of Congress who voted against or delayed relief for the people whose homes and lives were wrecked by Hurricaine Sandy certainly didn’t push the hurricane ashore, so they might think they can respond to God’s question as Cain did.  But the truth is they should have felt kinship—some even more than others.  And they should have honored the justice of helping people who had helped them in the past.   Instead, they were willing to let others suffer saying, “We can’t afford it.”  To be blunt, these politicians refused to vote for disaster relief for others because they had no skin in the game—their constituents weren’t the ones suffering.

“We can’t afford it” is also what conservative politicians say about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, student loans and other programs of mutual support and compassion.  They are loyal members of their own small but powerful ideological and socio-economic cohort, but they are not responsible citizens of the whole United States of America.

Having skin in the game isn’t just a matter of whose home is being destroyed by winds, swept away by floods, or destroyed by wildfires.

Skin in the game has to do with brotherhood, sisterhood, shared national identity and shared humanity.  When conservatives say, “We can’t afford it,” they are shrugging their shoulders and saying, as Cain did to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

We can define the issue in theological terms, but the theology simply reflects the basics of human community.  Anthropologist Catherine Bateson points out our species could not have survived without “caring for the weak.” She observes the “success” of human beings depends on cooperation and mutual support.  As Bateson says, “Nor would we have survived if our families, tribes and communities had been based solely on calculated advantage.”*  The conservatives in this Congress look at budgeting as a matter of calculated advantage for the “makers” as opposed to the people they see as “takers.”  They have no skin in the game because they do not value our shared humanity.  It gives them no advantage.

Republicans haven’t always been this way.  How sad that they are now.  When they say we can’t “afford” to take care of hungry children, veterans who have fought to protect us, seniors, and the poor, they are actually saying people—the lives of real human beings—are not important compared to cutting taxes for the wealthy.  They are saying they are unwilling to find a way to pay for the needs of community.

Modern conservatives have decided to dumb-down the heart.

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* There is more on this in my 2/27/13 post “It’s Just a Game, Really.”

It’s Just a Game, Really

Not everyone finds pleasure in the same way.  I like web-surfing, riding the waves of interest.  I begin with something I want to look up for some purpose, and then find myself following a trail of names, ideas, and/or places.  Sometimes I find myself on familiar paths, and sometimes I wander off into something I’ve never seen before.  It’s like stream of consciousness, but more a stream of curiosity.

That’s what happened Friday.  I started with the reference list of a paper on humor I was reading.  I was browsing through abstracts and descriptions, looking for something that would spice up my preparations for class.  One of the references on the list was Gregory Bateson’s book on “ecology of mind.”  Bateson was an English anthropologist, linguist, semiotician, and systems theorist. Our university library didn’t have the book, but Bateson had an interesting, eclectic mind so I decided to see what the library did have of his writings.  Looking up Gregory Bateson therefore led me to his daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson.

I’ve respected the work of Catherine Bateson since I read Peripheral Visions in the mid-90s.  Her ideas about learning in particular resonated with my own at that time.  But I haven’t read anything of hers in many years.  So, I followed her publishing trail and ended up downloading various articles she has written.  (Or that I thought she had written.  It turns out there is a children’s book author named Catherine Bateson in Australia.  A journey for another day.)

Mary Catherine Bateson is a cultural anthropologist, retired university professor, and just plain interesting person.  She is the daughter of Gregory Bateson and pioneering anthropologist Margaret Meade.  As it turns out, her interests in recent years have turned to leadership and the “wisdom years” of older Americans.  Intriguing.

But what caught my eye among the downloads I did on Friday was a brief commentary she wrote for the New York Times in August, 2000.  The headline was “It’s Just A Game, Really.”  The piece is about the reality tv show Survivor, which had completed its first season.  She was not a fan.  I’m not either, but that isn’t what appealed to me.

As an anthropologist, Bateson was irritated by the inaccuracy of the “reality” show’s contrived circumstances and premise, summed up by the show’s motto: “Outwit, outplay, outlast.”  Bateson objected that “If, in the course of evolution, human beings really had practiced Hobbes’s ‘war of all against all,’ our species would not have survived.  Nor would we have survived if our families, tribes and communities had been based solely on calculated advantage.”  (See note below about Thomas Hobbes1 .)

Bateson points out that “Even some sociobiologists who argue a direct application of the ‘survival of the fittest’ acknowledge that fitness refers to reproductive success, which includes, for human beings, caring for the weak.”  She describes what she witnessed in that tv show in its first season:

The directors of “Survivor” designed the game to require the players to eject other members of their own group and to betray their allies.  They surrounded the game with an elaborate and corny setting and a set of rules and rituals that seemed to be inspired by memories of some ill-understood Introduction to Anthropology course.  The trappings of a popular image of the primitive were used not only for cosmetic purposes, but also to legitimize behavior that many people would find unacceptable in other contexts.

Bateson found the premise of the show to be shallow and simplistic as well as foolishly self-interested.  She implies a comparison between decisions by the show’s producers and economists: “As in economic analysis the theory gets easier if one assumes that human beings have very simple motivations, like always seeking to maximize profit.”  She observes that the million-dollar prize, introduced from outside the wilderness environment, “reduces complex human motivations to a single goal,” completely negating the more realistic complexity of human action and interaction, including compassion, mutual support, and what she calls “the joy that comes with relationships.”

Bateson insists:

If the outcome of “Survivor” convinces people that there is something fundamentally, primally human about competition that legitimizes betrayal, it moves us one step further into being a society whose values are defined by the economists.  But if it reminds us of the artificiality of such a society, it can help us avoid the kind of stage setting that forces such behavior. [Emphasis is mine.]

She concludes with a comment about the final “test” for the tv contestants, which involved standing the longest on the end of a log while keeping one hand on a “fantasy idol”:

This is no more than another piece of kitsch cooked up by the producers, but it makes a suggestive metaphor.  Our simplifying assumption about human behavior is the assumption that profit is our god.  The danger is that believing it might make it so.

Bateson’s reference to economists is more complex than the usual sniping at “bean counters.”  She is talking about economists as those who set the stage, those whose “principles” or ideologies establish the values by which we conduct our society.

I believe her hope that people would recognize the artificiality has been frustrated in the dozen years since she wrote the brief essay.  Immediately, I think of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s worship of Ayn Rand, whose philosophy promotes so-called “rational” self-interest and “ethical egoism” while rejecting altruism of any kind.  Ryan’s worship of Rand is reflected in the ideology currently promoted by the far Right in this country and profoundly represented in the person of Congressman Rand Paul, whose father named him for the anti-humanist Rand and who was elected to office based on his touting of a hyper-individualistic philosophy promoted by the so-called Tea Party.

I am also reminded of the famous memos by strategist Frank Luntz, who directed the Republican framing of issues including climate change (the term he created to replace “global warming”).  In a 2007 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Luntz defined “Orwellian” as a positive concept: “To be ‘Orwellian’ is to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening.”  Of course, the rest of us define “Orwellian” the way Orwell did, as public control through propaganda, misinformation, and denial of the truth.  Luntz was apparently the muse of the George W. Bush administration.  The title of his best-selling book describes the Bush-Cheney public relation policies:  Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.  Apparently, the words that work are propaganda, misinformation, and denial of the truth.  We all remember the difference between Bush’s words and his actions during and after hurricane Katrina destroyed so much of New Orleads.

Coming across Bateson’s piece in the New York Times was a bit of synchronicity for me.  As some of my posts here have indicated, I worry about the money-centered, anti-altruistic radicalism of right-wing politics in our country.  But my concerns have broader connections that I’m trying to work out.  What finally prompted me to do that working-out here and now is a comment by one of my colleagues at the university where we both teach.  He is on the verge of retirement and was lamenting what he sees as destructive changes bearing down on higher education.  He said to me, “We’ve failed.”  He was referring to the intention of Liberal Arts education to open the minds of our students, to get them to think for themselves.  So, my question to myself lately has been—is he right?  Have we failed?  Or has something else failed us?

When I came across it, I realized Catherine Bateson’s essay is a small piece of the answer.  And I’m looking for more.

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1  Thomas Hobbes was a 17th century English philosopher who laid the groundwork for much political philosophy.  He is generally most well-known for his assertion that human nature is fundamentally self-interested and for his observation that human laughter is “sudden glory” at realizing one is superior.  He was also the inspiration for the tiger Hobbes in the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.”