Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The news from St Kilda

From  Atlas of Remote Islands, Judith Schalansky

St Kilda
Uninhabited; evacuated in 1930.
Last case of neonatal tenatnus in 1891.

"There are sixteen cottages, three houses, and one church in the only village on St Kilda. The island's future is written in its graveyard. Its children are all born in good health, but most stop feeding during their fourth, fifth, or sixth night. On the seventh day, their palates tighten and their throats constrict, so it becomes impossible to get them to swallow anything. Their muscles twitch and their jaws hang loose. Their eyes grow staring and they yawn a great deal; their open mouths stretch in mocking grimaces.

"Between the seventh and the ninth day, two-thirds of the newborn babies die, boys outnumbering girls. Some die sooner; some later; one dies on the fourth day, another not until the twenty-first. Some say it is the diet: the fatty meat of the fulmars and their eggs smelling of musk that make the skin silky smooth but the mothers' milk bitter. Or that it is the result of inbreeding. Yet other say that the babies are suffocated by the smoke from the peat fires in the middle of the rooms, or that it is the zinc in the roofs or the pale pink oil that burns in the lamps. The islanders whisper that it is the will of the Almighty. But these are the words of pious men.The women who endure so many pregnancies and bear so few children who survive the eight-day sickness are silent.

"On 22 June 1896, one woman stands on the deck of a ship that is bringing her home. Like all the women of St Kilda she has soft skin, red cheeks, exceptionally clear eyes, and teeth like young ivory. She has just given birth to a child, but not at home. The wind is blowing from the north-east. Long before she can be seen from the shore, she lifts her newborn high in the air."

This book makes me envious and greedy.--HH

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A place among the arts

Vince gave me a book for Christmas, the "Atlas of Remote Islands," by Judith Schlalansky, subtitled "Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will."

According to the colophon, the books was voted the most beautiful German book for 2010, and I believe it; the author not only wrote it, she set the type, drew the maps, and did the book design.

Under the doctrine of fair use, I quote from the entry for Lonely Island:

"Loneliness lies in the center of the Kara Sea in the northern Arctic Ocean. This island is worthy of its name: it is cold and barren, trapped in pack ice all  winter, with  an average annual temperature of -16 degrees; at the height of summer the temperature sometimes rises to just over freezing.

"No one lives there. A former polar observatory has sunk into the snow and abandoned buildings doze in the belly of the bay, facing the narrow spit of land beyond the frozen marsh.

"A prehistoric dragon's skeleton was found here."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pete the Moose redux

Vermont's governor-elect, Peter Shumlin, has made it clear he intends to right a wrong--the issues described in the longwinded tantrum I engaged in last July are about to be addressed and reversed. This makes me glad I voted for Shumlin, although I admit I did it holding my nose--I wanted Doug Racine, who tied Shumlin in the primary but lost on a recount.

The Burlington Free Press reports, "Key lawmakers and Governor-elect Peter Shumlin are ready to reverse a 2010 law drafted in secret and passed at the 11th hour that gave an Northeast Kingdom farmer ownership of wild deer and moose on his property, an action that provoked an outcry among hunters.

"A bill already in draft form restates the longstanding principle that wild animals belong to all people of Vermont. It requires the wild deer and moose trapped inside Doug Nelson’s elk hunting park to be removed, probably through hunting. It also allows for protection of young Pete the Moose, an orphaned resident of the park."

I object to this "orphaned" designation--it's false--but at least the smarmy, disagreeable behavior of Susan Bartlett has been dragged out into the open. Bartlett engineered a cheesy, behind-the-scenes deal to allow a single wealthy constituent, Doug Nelson, to claim de facto ownership of the native wildlife that were accidentally or deliberately enclosed in his fence--a fence put up so that unfair-chase hunting could bring him a bit more dough. It was junk politics at its very worst, and not how we normally do business in this state.

The real back story on this moose is that some dogs, unrestrained by leashes, injured a moose calf; the owners of these dogs then decided they would rescue the calf by appropriating him and taking him to an unlicensed rehabilitator, who then turned the animal over to Nelson. The moose wasn't orphaned--to be accurate, the cow was scared off by dogs and people, and the dogs did what dogs do when not properly restrained, and  then the people did what people sometimes do when they fail to grasp the difference between a wild animal and a domesticated one. 

I personally don't care one way or the other about "saving" Pete--he's toast no matter what. He has been petted like a dog and fed all manner of junk food, and he's been deprived the the environment he was designed to live in (or die in, as the case may be). He's gone a long way past the point of redemption. But the key doctrine--that wild animals are held in public trust and cannot be domesticated or owned by any individual--has been confirmed and reinstated.

Temper tantrum over.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Deck us all with Boston Charlie


Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash, and Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezing on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower, alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker and too-da-loo!
Hunky Dory's pop is lolly gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!

Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloup, 'lope with you!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

sweet potatoes baked with apple butter

Sweet potatoes are all very well, but this time of year they need all the help they can get--there's a lot of competition around the holidays for truly festive food. So here's what I'm doing with sweet potatoes this year.

Get yourself  bunch of sweet potatoes (I have a big family, so I've got eight monsters lined up).

Boil gently until the spuds are just tender,  maybe 20 minutes. Don't overdo it or you'll get mush, which will mess up the next step.

Let them cool off just long enough so you can handle them, or wear mitts, and peel the skins. They will usually just slide off the sweet potato with very little coaxing.

Slice the partially-cooked spuds about 1/4 to maybe 1/3 of an inch thick

Use some of that Pam-for-baking stuff or your usual shortening to grease a deep baking pan, and then put a layer of slices in there. Salt lightly, sprinkle maybe a quarter-teaspoon of lemon juice around, maybe a bit of pepper, maybe some nutmeg, and then top with a fairly thin layer of apple butter. Use the thick, brown, yummy kind. 

Repeat the layering  and sprinkling until the spuds are gone. Top with pats of butter (don't get too carried away) and bake about 25 to 35 minutes at 325.  

You can make this the day before the feast and reheat it in a 300 oven until hot clear through. It may look a little messy on the plate, but it's yummy.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A hole in the water

The mountain, unmoved
Ever since early October, the so-called music room in our house  has been filled with deck cushions, boat hooks, charts, logs, cruising guides, throw life rings, chafing gear, dock lines, bumpers, life vests, deck brushes, fishing gear, electronics, and even a large non-skid  mat that normally covers the floor of the pilot house. 

It gets worse. Underneath all these items is a very large blue plastic chest, a sort of monstrous Tupperware container the size of a Shetland pony. I don’t remember what it’s full of and it’s too late to find out now—there’s too much stuff piled on top. 

This minor mountain has been sitting there six or maybe seven weeks, ever since  a big Nor’easter came through and forced our boat (and many others), out of the water and up onto what’s known as “the hard.” (I’m charmed by this usage and deploy it in a showoffy way whenever I can. Like now, for instance.)

Of course we talk every now and then about putting  this great tangle of gear in the loft of the barn where it belongs, but we can’t seem to do it—for some reason we like it right where it is. 

It’s said that a boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money, and maybe that’s true. I have to add, though, that a boat, once purchased, costs quite a lot less than a horse, and the boat hardly ever goes lame or needs shoes more expensive than the ones I wear, and mine don't wear out every five to seven weeks.

I’ve also read that, when people are asked to name the one purchasing decision in their life that made them utterly miserable, buying a boat is invariably at the top of the list. 

I understand that—boats make you work hard, and you are often wet and anxious, sometimes hungry, and always  a long way from any sort of internet connection. Boats also attract insects at the dock and repel bass when you’re away from it. We have a fish finder, so I know this to be true. This instrument displays fish with great accuracy as they light out for the territories, and these vanishing edibles show up on the instrument display looking exactly like those little Pepperidge Farm cheese snacks; all that’s missing is the little baked-in smile. 

And yet we cannot move this pile of gear. 

It’s not laziness—we’re talking about two people who spent most of the past summer moving things in and out of storage boxes and up and down steep stairs to accommodate a major kitchen renovation. And it’s not sloppiness, either—my husband is as tidy as a cat, and the sort of person who unplugs toasters, alphabetizes sheet music, and folds laundry so swiftly and neatly I’m shamed by my lumpy halfwit efforts. (I do cook and wash dishes, but it seems inadequate penance.)

Here’s the honest truth: This mountain fills a hole in both of us, and the dimensions match  almost exactly the length and beam of Clancy's Jig. It seems likely that the mountain will not move until the boat comes off the hard and displaces the clean, sweet water of Champlain  again.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Ziggy experiment

Haflingers are a breed of horse named for a village, Halfling, that's now in northern Italy, although it used to be in Austria and most of the people who live there speak German. Things like this happen in Europe--I read once that the Dutch national anthem, "Het Wilhelmus," declares allegiance to the king of Spain.

Anyway. I bring this up because, for the past three weeks, I've been doing groundwork with a rugged, clever Halflinger named Ziggy, full name Sigmund Freud. Ziggy is a school horse, and like a lot of school horses he has some issues with the way he is ridden and handled--he is  nibbly, pushy, a pain to lead, and unfortunately knows his own strength, which he uses to snatch at hay bales and get in some unsponsored, stubborn grazing. Even for fairly skilled people, he's a major pain in the neck to handle, and a few years ago he dragged an inexperienced handler out the barn door and broke her collarbone.

His endless, anxious chewing means his reins are a slimy, toothmarked mess, and he's probably munched any number of cross ties down to a frayed nubbin. Plus sometimes when he's asked to pick up the right-lead canter he runs away, very fast, and scares the bejeezus out of his rider. 

But I can't help it. I like him. He is obviously intelligent and has figured out how to make his life easier with his rapid-fire resistance and his heavyhanded leaning and shoving. It's hard for me not to admire his resilience and his commitment to results, since one of the main outcomes is that no one really wants to ride him. He gets to loaf, which from his perspective is a pretty good arrangement.

But there's also more to Ziggy than I knew: Groundwork has let me feel and see his ferocious anxiety about whips and his defensive posture toward people in general, but at the same time I can also see he wants to trust, wants to be a contributing partner in a horse-to-human relationship. I think maybe he trusted once and still remembers--when I use ground exercises the right way and can get his attention and admiration, he becomes soft and yielding and instantly beautiful. We trot together, halt together, pivot, back up, set our safe boundaries, fool around with poles on the ground, and generally talk about what to do with pressure and how to make pressure go away. He's in the game and interested; I am convinced that Ziggy sees the point of the experiment and the value of what I'm trying to explain.

Today, about halfway through my session, my groundwork coach, Betsy, suggested that I could try gently manipulating Ziggy's tail while he was resting between exercises. I've never really monkeyed much with any horse's tail except to braid, so I carefully felt under his dock and noticed right away how tucked and stiff his whole tailbone was. With help from Becky, I slowly loosened the muscles around the bones so his tail actually arced slightly away from his haunches. As soon as this happened, he dropped his head, mumbled, and then made that little flutter noise that horses make when they have let go of something that worries them. 

Good boy.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

talking to imaginary friends

One of my longstanding bookmarks takes me to a plot bank--this is a collection, not really of  story lines, but more like a random, weedy compilation of prompts that might trigger a story. 

I go there when my head feels unusually empty--I like to scroll down the list and just pick something more or less at random to write about for an hour.  It's a low-stakes game but one worth playing: If the writing stalls out it's not my fault, and, if it flies, I'm a genius after all. 

Today, though, I started getting interested in the list itself, not as prompts but as legitimate discourse that just happens to be in random order.

Back from prison with some new vices,  
there's more to him right now than meets the eye.  
Grandma is convinced he's in some kind of cult. These days,
it looks  like he lives out of his car.

He sees the face of Christ in a anthill
and tries to make the car into a work of art;
He says, "The fumes from the new asphalt are too much,"
and starts assuming the role of a dead sibling.

Then he starts confessing to old sins, and we all notice,
that the puppet show plot is very close to his real life.
This is what it is like when a family disapproves,
and when a close friend begins talking to an imaginary one.

Selections from Hatch's plot bank, reconfigured.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

handy dandy

I have just finished sweeping up after yet another kitchen catastrophe--I dropped a favorite mixing bowl while making stuffing for fish. 

That's probably the third glass bowl--I got a set of them as a present--and all three go into the same debit column as the two wine glasses, the blue-and-white creamer, and the nicer of my two teapots. And then there were all those Christmas ornaments last year, some of them old and lovely.

It's always the right hand, and I suppose that's the upside--I'm left-handed--but where does it end? Will I soon be typing with a little stick taped to the end of my nose?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A good hurt

Today, for the first time in a very long time indeed, I rode a horse.

The back story: In 2005, I had an accident that injured my neck and spinal cord; this led to a botched surgery in 2005, a corrective surgery in 2007, and, just last fall, a third surgery that we hoped would improve my grip and balance and ease at least some of the chronic pain. As you can perhaps imagine, I am heartily sick of doctors, neurologists, and pain specialists, although I love my surgeon, a rider herself, who has coached me and motivated me through the worst five years of my otherwise fairly cushy and comfortable life.

None of that matters today. It's not behind me, but it doesn't matter.

This morning I rode Prince, the lead character in my book, Conversations with a Prince, and, thanks to a set of adaptive reins and a patient teacher, I was able to produce an almost-acceptable twenty-meter circle. This doesn't sound like much, I know,  but Prince is a squirmy, amiable mess, so this was an accomplishment.

At first I couldn't find the the sweet spot--I felt like I was hovering in the right general vicinity of a real seat, but my crooked, weakened body would have none of it. My coach Jeannette talked me through that part in her way, and Prince talked me through that part in his. Slowly, I was able to balance on my seat bones and get my midline in the middle of my horse; I doubt there is anything nicer than that quiet moment when you feel yourself find   physical harmony with a strong, trustworthy creature who speaks a little human and you speak a little horse. And using my cripple reins--reins I  could actually hold onto--I felt for the first time in a long time that light buzz of contact electricity that, for me, signals the arrival of complicated joy. I rode at the walk and rising trot for half an hour.

Now everything hurts--neck, shoulders, arms, and (weirdly) the bottoms of my feet. But it's a good hurt. I am also dirty, covered with a sheen of silvery-yellow hairs. But this is good dirt--after I got home I spent several minutes just smelling my ratty black schooling gloves.

I've seen dogs show this same kind of focused, olfactory interest in my riding clothes, so dogs and I agree--horses smell nice, a complex mix of ammonia, dust, sweat, and something else--cardamom? Marzipan? I've never been able to identify the sweetness, but it's something you would gladly put into a batch of cookie dough.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The musical horse

One of the unexplicated mysteries in riding is why horses like human music and why so many horses have specific tastes in music. 
Big Band for a big horse
    I had a big spotted mare when I was growing up who was a fearless jumper but who otherwise unpredictable and often quite cowardly. Scatty, unfocused, and  prone to  panic, she liked Bach--I found this out quite by accident one year when I was teaching at a summer camp and brought her with me. The only station we could get on the radio there was a sort of light-classical mix, pure mayonnaise, but each Friday morning from ten to noon they played Bach. And, as it happened, Fridays morning was when I would usually work her on the flat, with Bach in the background. She would settle into the music and stay on tempo, her ears flopping to the sides like a donkey's, completely relaxed. She was my  first horse.

My last horse, before all these neck surgeries put a stop to riding, was a huge Dutch Warmblood gelding (above) who had nothing whatsoever going on between his ears. This was nice sometimes, when a spectacular lack of imagination made my life easier, but it also made schooling him up both boring and frustrating--we could work on transitions and brightness off the leg on Wednesday, and by Thursday morning he'd simply forgotten everything we'd talked about. It was as if he'd done a full system dump overnight, and all I came back to was a blank screen and a blinking cursor. 

He liked big band--String of Pearls, Parade of the Milk Bottle Caps, Walkin and Swingin, stuff like that. And like the spotted mare, he set himself inside the tempo, flopped his ears, and danced. And the four horses I have had in between all did exactly the same thing, once I stumbled over (and learned eventually to hunt for) the music that liked best.

It's easy to dismiss this phenomenon and say of course horses like music because music is beautiful. But that assumes that horses share our opinions about beauty, whatever beauty is, and these's no real evidence that this is true. I've never seen a horse admire a painting or get caught up in an interesting movie or play, for example, and I'm quite sure that the stories horses tell to themselves and to each other are very different from the stories we tell about them or, for  that matter, the stories we humans find beautiful and describe as literature. 

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and wonder if musical preference in horses is linked to their individual body music--their natural tempo and their individual nuances of gait. One of the things that make horses so interesting is that they are all so  different--they trademark themselves, and elaborate along a consistent theme. They know who they are in a purely physical, very specific way, and their reliance on tempo is far more advanced and complicated than a cow's or or a pig's or any other domesticated barnyard creature. Pigs are very intelligent, and I'm a fan of pigs, but horses trump every species but our own in this one dimension. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

True Confessions: Why I love The People's Court

Marilyn Milian
Over  the past five years I've spent a lot of time loafing around the house waiting for surgery to heal or for some chunk of neck hardware to settle in, and one result is a secret, intense passion for the television show, The People's Court.

Featured in Rain Man and often referred to in the olden days simply as "Wapner," after the then-presiding judge, this semi-bogus show walks like a courtroom, quacks like a courtroom, but is actually a session of binding arbitration between plaintiffs and defendants who have agreed to appear on the show in exchange for an appearance fee and relief from actually paying any sort of judgment that's handed down. 

In our household, this show goes by the alternate title of My Boyfriend Owes Me a Thousand Dollars,  since this accurately summarizes what about a third of the cases are about. Couples in love fall invariably fall out of love, then use the court system to wrangle over broken cell phones, gifts that have morphed into loans, and bail paid out when the lover-turned-defendant got picked up for DWI. But there are also fender-bender cases, dog bites, home-improvement squabbles, and landlord-tenant disputes over why a security deposit is being withheld.

I like watching people argue, and when the argument is proceeding within the structure of the law, it's even more compelling. But I also like Marilyn Milian, the Latina judge who has been around since 2001. Unlike that other television benchmeister, Judge Judy, Milian cares about the law and is interested in explaining how it works; Judy Sheindlin scolds, vents, insults, and humiliates, and the spectacle is not edifying.

"See, here's how it works," says Milian. "You can make that decision, but it comes at a cost. You signed this contract. I didn't sign it--you did. And you can break it or ignore it or use it as a doily, but you have to understand there are consequences to those kinds of decisions. And you certainly aren't allowed to make money off that kind of decision."

It's fun to watch the body language of the losing parties as it slowly dawns on them that being hopping mad is not necessarily grounds for legal action. Their eyes narrow, their shoulders come up, and they cross their arms defensively over their often ample bosoms. There are rules, and the rules are real, and the rules are not working in their favor. This gives me an intense pleasure that I find very difficult to explain.

But fairness--and especially structured, evenhanded fairness--is important. Each new case seems to reinforce this essential concept, whether we're squabbling over a puppy, a broken windshield, or a slip-and-fall with injury resulting. And this fairness relies on proof--Milian reminds both plaintiffs and defendants that talk is cheap but real documentation, credible evidence, is what gets the job done. Often, when a plaintiff or defendant claims they have proof of something but forgot to bring it, she asks, "So, are you saving that for some other judge?"

I admit I'm a little bit ashamed of my liking for this slightly cheesy show, and I never would have gotten started on it if I hadn't spent so much time hanging around the house with nothing to do. But now I am well, and yet I still knock off work at four each day to watch Marilyn Milian do again what she did yesterday--demonstrate the essential beauty and logic of civil law. 

So now I've confessed and actually feel better for it. Just for the record, though, I have no appetite for soaps. I tried them, and it's no go--the people on soap operas never seem to have  anywhere they need to be in the middle of the day and they spend way too much time talking behind each other's backs. That's distasteful, and all the chatter leads to crisis after crisis but never any real conclusion--I'll take the gavel and the final ruling any day. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

The hind leg off a donkey

My husband's sister has just decamped after three solid days of nonstop talking--we listened to hundreds of hours of pressured, pointless, controlling, and profoundly boring discussion of unrelated minutiae, one incoherent topic chained tightly to the next.

She told us about every single plant in her garden, the weave of the carpet on the stairs of an apartment she rented in her twenties, the many things an old boyfriend spake unto her, the provenance of a specific stone on an ankle bracelet, the mysterious mixing bowl with the flowers on it,  how many times, exactly, she went to the store and why and who she took with her, the names and individual habits of her three hermit crabs,  and the night she spent at the Red Roof Inn and why the Red Roof Inn is superior to the Comfort Inn and Motel Six.

She was so busy talking it became impossible to do anything--when we finally got her dislodged, after many overt prompts and signals, to, say,  go for a ride on our lovely boat in perfect weather on the bright blue waters of Mallets Bay, she just kept yakking away, so utterly absorbed by all the unsaid things that she couldn't even notice her surroundings.
Now that she's gone, I can uncoil long enough to understand that this strange affliction is probably a kind of mania and not her fault. But it feels like her fault--the woman can talk the hind leg off a donkey.

Of course I can be intolerant and uncharitable, but my husband, in contrast, is amazingly polite, always willing to make other people's comfort a priority even if it means being excruciatingly uncomfortable himself. Yet even he had had enough when he had to listen to a lengthy disquisition on how she calculates her car mileage in this certain specific way.

What kind of life is that? Is it a life that someone would choose? Of course not. It must be torment for her as much as it is for the people around her, but she cannot simply stop. What's that old joke about the twelve-step program for manics? Alanononononononon.

I'm glad she's gone, and of course now I feel guilty in that gladness, but the peace that descended as soon as she left was blissful beyond description.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Kitchen Musician

Loomis Street Irregulars

I just spent a couple of hours poking around through CDs and on line, looking for a version of "The Home Ruler" that's slow enough for me to hear and learn from--I can play well enough, at least some of the time, but I can't for the life of me figure out sheet music. (And for those of you who can, spare me the instructive lecture; I spent a year trying to learn and my neurons just don't fire correctly.)

I play only by ear, and I only play tunes I actually like--this explains why I know only one polka. I learned "Maggie in the Woods" early on in my dulcimer career and found it deficient and glib. Polkas, for me, are like squid: Once was enough. And I think I was attracted to the hammered dulcimer, at least in part, because it's basically impossible to play "Proud Mary" on it, although now that I've said that I'm sure someone has tried and probably posted a video on You Tube.

I was thinking, as I piddled around, about the pleasure that comes of  having absolutely no musical ambition. I don't even like to perform because it makes me nervous, and being nervous isn't what music is for. Once a week, five of us gather and play--my friends Art, Tracy, Carol, and Michael, plus yours truly--and in a weird way this has become an anchor, or maybe the pivot, that the rest of my life revolves around. Sometimes we will play a potluck or a community gathering, like in this photo, and Art and Michael just did a very nice guitar duet CD, but in general, as a group, we have no ambition.

For me, music is the opposite of writing--I've never seen the point of diaries or other private scribbling, except perhaps as practice for work written for other people to read. But music is different; it seems to exist in its own right. It's enough to just play, and it doesn't seem to matter (or at least not to me), that no one else is listening. Because it's this internal, self-sustaining quality that keeps me interested, and what motivates me when I spend two hours looking for a version of "Home Ruler" that I can pick up by ear.

In my travels around the music sites on the web, I've found and bookmaked a place called the Kitchen Musician, and there I can listen to midi files all afternoon--"Crabs in the Skillet" and "Lost Farm Waltz" and "Pigeon on a Gate," this last tune being, as far as I can tell, made up of spare parts from every other reel ever written. Or perhaps, conversely, it's the first reel ever written, and it has spread its parts out over all subsequent ones. Sadly, they didn't have "Home Ruler," but that's okay--I found a version on a CD by Susan Sherlock that will probably do.

I'm about to go learn this tune, but before I do that, I want to say that I just now decided that I really do have a place in traditional music, despite my many shortcomings, right down to the purpose-built hammers I need because my grip is so sketchy. Because even though I actually play in what is supposed to be, in my house, the dining room, I think I'm really a kitchen musician. The room is just a technicality.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Candy from away

This little bit of candy was a gift from a local Thai restaurant. We've gotten friendly with the owner, and this was a freebie add-on to an order of rad nah and plah sam rod--the names of what you can eat at this place all look like that, as if the vowels and consonants have been sucking on a bhong.

Here's the thing--we tried the twin of this one (he gave us two, with a giggle and a little flourish), and it tastes almost exactly like a dog yummy. Remember those? We do, because we both ate dog treats when we were little; maybe a lot of little kids do. Kids are always hungry and always curious.

When I was small I ate a lot of crayons, candle wax, and dirt, and it looks like my palate has gotten a bit more sophisticated since then. But apparently this is legitimate candy if you come from Thailand. Which raises a question--what do their dog treats taste like? And would I like them?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Politics and Pete the Moose

See the nice lady pat the moose? Tell me: What's wrong with this picture?

About two weeks ago the Vermont legislature played along with a last-minute, back-room deal that allows a private individual to fence native moose and deer in a game preserve in our Northeast Kingdom—this despite a longstanding doctrine that wild animals are held in communal public trust and can’t be converted to private property. This game preserve is run by Doug Nelson of Irasburg, and Nelson charges a hefty fee (from $2,000 to $7,500, according to local media) to people who want to hunt inside the fence; this violates another longstanding hunters' principle called “fair chase.” Nelson has been in conflict and negotiations over this preserve since it was established in the 1990s; he stocks it with imported elk.

This story heated up when hikers, out with their unleashed dogs, came across a month-old moose calf; apparently these dogs injured the calf, and the adult promptly vanished into the woods with an uninjured twin. These misguided animal lovers appropriated the injured calf and gave him to David Lawrence, a wildlife rehabilitator who has a history of coloring outside the lines when it comes to wildlife policy, which clearly states that wild animals are wild and belong only to themselves. They cannot be taken in, domesticated, or converted to pets or private property.

And where did the young moose eventually end up? On Doug Nelson’s elk farm, along with the other native species that he illegally trapped inside when he put up the unethical (and illegal) fence.

Just when you’d think an unattractive story couldn’t get much uglier, this tame moose, who has since learned to eat doughnuts and Snickers bars, became a media darling, and when Fish and Wildlife officials made it clear that there were policy and biosecurity issues with the interspecies contact and the continuing violation of public doctrine, Pete got a Facebook page and a silly and sentimental following of people who couldn't tell the difference between a wild creature and a domesticated one.

“Saving” Pete has now became a politicized rallying cry, mostly coming from the throats of people who fail to see that he was doomed from the get-go—first by dogs, then by his removal from the environment he was designed to live or die in, and then by being hand-fed junk food that isn't good for people, much less a creature designed to live on browse. And, as you can see from the photo, he has also lost any adaptive, necessary fear of humans.

As the chair of Fish and Wildlife put it, “This is just wrong in so many ways.”

Beyond the story of Pete qua Pete, a lot of so-called animals lovers can't seem to grasp a second issue, which is that there are real risks to putting cervids—deer, elk, and mule deer—into enclosures, since this concentrates the risk of a certain transmissible spongiform encephalopathy called chronic wasting disease, or CWD. These diseases take a lot of different forms—scrapie in sheep, mad cow disease in cattle, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans.

CWD was first identified in 1967 as a disease in captive mule deer at the Colorado Division of Wildlife Foothills Wildlife Research Facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, and it has since spread, mostly through exports of captive elk, as far east as New York and north into Canada. There is no treatment, and the disease reaches critical levels quickly when populations of cervids are concentrated and enclosed—from 50 to 90 percent in research and unfair-chase game reserves in places like Nebraska and Colorado.

To my considerable delight, one of the behind-closed-doors legislators mentioned earlier, Susan Bartlett, has opted to run for governor, and this has given your correspondent the opportunity, for the first time in many years, to write grumpy letters to the editors of the statewide newspapers and also write large checks (for me) to the Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund. I’m also watchdogging a possible constitutional challenge to this action, and will probably separate myself from a bit more money to help pay for that as well.

This is all about politics, Pete is toast, and I’m very clear in my own mind about who’s to blame.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Is it Eggs McMuffin or Egg McMuffins?

Forming a satisfactory plural can be harder than you think. Is it Eggs McMuffin or Egg McMuffins?

One the one hand, it looks like a crossover from eggs Benedict--a French construction, I think, like attorneys general. And since it's taking that borrowed form of putting the noun first and the adjective second, then that Frenchy rule should probably apply. And I think it's clear that the egg is a kind of McMuffin, not the McMuffin a kind of egg.

But then on the other hand it seems like the whole item, Egg McMuffin, is tightly glued together, and may actually be a compound noun that is inseparable despite the misleading space--so maybe it's *not* like eggs Benedict and needs to be Egg McMuffins.

So I write them both on a piece of paper and look at them for a long time, and I even go to the McDonald's web site to what Ray Croc (may he rest in peace) thinks it is. The McDonald's people avoid the plural as much as possible, but when they use it they say Egg McMuffins, which doesn't mean it's right, it's just what they say, and in the end I can't decide. But it's an interesting accidental fold in the language, since the two ways of doing it are equally clear and equally valid. That's rare.

(Oddly, the number of eggs in this plural is immaterial--it's always "scrambled eggs" or "eggs Benedict" even if there's only one egg in there. But then when you have eggs for lunch, the rule seems to change--egg salad, for example. That's interesting too.)

I concede that Eggs McMuffin (Egg McMuffins) are weird and oily and not good for your insides, but I had more fun with this chain of thought than I ever have with the web site I manage at work or worrying about whether the hundred-pound gloss I'm using for a print handout is better than the flimsy card stock that costs about the same. This also tells you more about how my brain works than anybody needs to know.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Killer transportation

In January of 2001, a young man named Eugene Hunter shot and killed his mother in their shared home in Wells, Vermont, population about 1200, near the New York border and south of Lake Champlain. The back story was sad--the savagery of the matricide aside, it was obvious that Eugene was nuts at the time of his mother's death. His sister told police that her brother, 23 at the time, thought the Mafia was looking for him. He was afraid to go outside, and when he wasn't holed up in his room he would often roam the house searching for enemies he was sure were there, hiding.

Eugene was arrested and immediately put in the state hospital--there was little question he was both guilty and psychotic.

Then, as often happens with stories like these, a whole lot of time goes by. In late winter your correspondent and honorable husband decide it's time to upgrade the kitchen, which means spending a lot of money, and we decide to sell a handsome Nissan pickup that we bought in 2005. We've never used it as much as we thought we would, and, since we both work most of the time at home, we don't really need a second car. The ad runs in late May, both in the local papers and on line.

Eugene Hunter calls from a place that caller ID pinpoints as Copley House; he's interested in the truck and wonders if it's been sold. We run through the usual stuff--the truck's condition, the age of the tires, the mileage, all that stuff. An unremarkable transaction on every level except for one minor point--he can't just come over and look at the truck because he will need to arrange a ride. "I'm not sure when that will happen," he says, so I give him directions and explain that someone is here almost all the time--I tell him to call ahead just to make sure the truck isn't out trucking around because I'd hate to have him waste a trip from Morrisville.

Eugene calls again that evening and talks again to honorable husband. As far as I can tell, the call is a near-perfect clone of the first call, except it's Vince doing the explaining.

Eugene calls again two days later to say he hopes he can get a ride on Thursday; I give to phone to honorable husband since it's his truck after all. The next day, Eugene calls again and we learn that Thursday won't work after all.

By now I've had enough incoming calls from this Copley House whatever-it-is to be curious, and a quick web search reveals that this is a group care facility in Morristown that looks like it was built at the turn of the century--it has a lumbering turret and a massive porch and three different kinds of exterior shingles. All the pictures and copy indicate it's a place for old people who have dementias, and I figure Eugene is on staff. On the phone he sounds sort of young, and Vince and I decide he may work in the kitchen or in maintenance or something and walk up to work from town.

But I am nosy. I Google people who attract my attention for some reason. Often this leads to uninteresting results, but not always, and this is how I learn about Eugene's past and about his mother. I also learn that, back in November, Eugene was ruled competent to stand trial and released from the state hospital to an undisclosed secure location. There's a black-and-white photo of Eugene's mother with the story and she looks nice, pretty but a little tired at the same time. She took care of her hair.

Our decision point on Eugene Hunter passes almost immediately--Vince and I don't think there's any obvious problem with selling a pickup to a psychotic murderer, and that he seems a nice enough fellow on the phone. "Just don't piss him off," I joke, "and don't imply that someone is following you or anything along those lines." Vince has five or six years of mental hospital staff work under his belt, plus a degree in psychology, and he explains that Eugene will probably be fine since he's got keepers and medications. The meds, he says, really do control the symptoms but also flatten the person out and make them seem off, disconnected, and tired. We spend half an hour talking about how devastating schizophrenia can be, how painful it is for the person who has it, and the people we've known whose lives have been ruined by it.

Fast forward about four days: Eugene arrives with a driver-cum-keeper. He's a stubby fellow who looks older than his mid-thirties, with a large beard and a habit of looking mostly at the ground. But he really looks at the truck, carefully, and he likes what he sees--his keeper retires to the car they arrive in and lets Eugene talk to Vince on his own.

After just a a few preliminaries, it becomes obvious that Eugene wants this truck--he has no plans to look at any other vehicles once he's seen this one. He doesn't have his license, just a learner's permit, and says he wants Vince to test-drive the truck for him while he sits in the passenger seat.

Off they go, but on an unfortunate route--they end up clogged up in a road-repair mess on the Paine Turnpike, sitting for many long minutes while a stretch of paving gets rolled flat, and Vince says it was a little bit uncomfortable but my husband is very poised. They fill the time talking in a general way about mileage and winter handling, and Vince runs an orange light just going to red on the way home. He makes a joke about breaking the law and sort of regrets it later.

When they finally get back, Eugene looks at the ground and looks at the truck, but he doesn't make eye contact with either of us. But he clearly covets the truck, and reluctantly accepts that he must shake hands with us to put the first seal on the deal. Then he asks if we can keep the truck in our driveway until he can get it registered and insured and pass his test and actually drive it. We say sure.

Two days ago, Eugene came (with a keeper) to the house to deliver the check; it's for the full asking price, and oddly there was never any discussion or haggling on this point. It's also a treasurer's check, the reliable kind. Eugene's driver explains that, while they're in Montpelier, they will get insurance and go to the DMV, so they may have new plates by the close of business. Would it be okay if they came back then and switched out the plates? And then, once Eugene has his license, they will come and get it.

I have an idea: "What if we bring it up to you once the plates are on? It's no big deal to do that, and it just seems like once you've paid for it, it's yours, and you should have it. Would that work on your end?"

For the first time since we've been face to face, Eugene looks at me, then Vince. "You'd do that?"

"Sure. I mean we're happy to store it for a while, but if you have it at your place you can practice driving it on your permit and take your test in it. Or just sit in it and listen to the radio or something."

"You'd do that?" he asks again. He has brown eyes, flat and lusterless, and gray streaks in his big beard.

"How about this evening? If you've got plates by then, there's no reason not to."

Eugene and his keeper exchange a look and the keeper gives a short little nod.

Eugene says, "Thank you." It's a short, strange moment--my radar tells me that this change in plan gives Eugene an actual moment of power over something in his life. He looks at both of us again and, once we confirm the timing and the details, he willingly shakes hands. He doesn't offer to, but he's willing.

As I follow Vince in what is now Eugene's truck to Morrisville, I try to think about what it might be like to be Eugene, and my imagination fails me. I just can't do it. I am heartily sorry for Eugene's mother, but my prayers are for Eugene. I am suddenly worried about whether Eugene will be required to go to trial now that he's been judged sane. He should be tried, our society requires it, but for a lot of complicated, confusing reasons that I can't locate, I'm bothered by the thought of all those courtroom people looking at him. Guilty as I'm sure he is, he hasn't earned that.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A few bricks short of a load

The past four days have been gobbled up by the technical support service at the University of Vermont, the medium-sized land grant where the USDA program I work for is housed.

The adventure begins in March, when my work desktop, which I didn't use much because I mainly work at home, died after one of those automatic updates corrupted something important. I swiftly decided that even if the six-year-old desktop could be fixed (not a sure thing), this was the right moment to get a dedicated work laptop--I've been struggling because it's very hard to keep my files in sync when I move around from place to place.

I looked through what the campus computer depot had for sale, and went many times around the barn with them about wanting a CD drive. They told me I didn't want one, not really, and I said that I did, really, since I routinely install at lot of graphics and layout software and tend to save out very large files to CDs for transport and output and safekeeping.

"But," I was told, "you can download all the software you need from our archives!" I looked in the archives, which offered all the usual Microsoft stuff, an Adobe Reader, and a web browser with an e-mail utility laid on.

"You're kidding, right?" I said. "Please--I just want a laptop with a CD drive. That's not a strange thing to want."

"But you don't need one!" they said.

I finally persuaded them to order me what I wanted and paid for it. Seven rather long weeks go by.

When the laptop finally arrives, I pick it up and bring it home to load my stuff--my graphics and layout software--only to learn that I don't have the administrative privileges needed to do that. Or anything else for that matter--I couldn't even delete the cutesy beauty shots of campus the computer gods installed and made into a little slide-show-cum-screen-saver. I sent an e-mail asking how to walk around this and was told I could download all the software I would ever need from the archives.

"So," I said, "who is in charge down there? Could you please put that person on the phone?"

"I don't like your tone," she said. "I'm just trying to be helpful."

"It's not good enough to try," I said. "Succeeding is what matters."

After a half a dozen more plaintive calls and e-mails, I was grudgingly told by a person the next rank higher how to walk around this issue by switching users and using the serial number of the machine to act as an administrator--cumbersome but better than nothing. I spent half a day loading my software, getting rid of some of the junk that was pre-loaded, and deleting the silly slide show.

I then brought up Word to work on a document, only to be told, to my amazement, that the pre-installed and pre-configured Microsoft Office that was part of the purchase wasn't activated. It was useless.

Another call: "You need to be logged into the campus network," I was told. "It will authenticate itself as soon as that happens."

"I am," I said. I was.

"Well, it can't be a wireless connection."

"I'm logged in over a DSL line."

"But you're not on campus. You'll have to come to campus and log in from here."

I hadn't quite realized there were magical properties to the campus lines, so off I went to Burlington, 40 miles away. The activation didn't work from my tiny, windowless office, so I took the machine into the computer depot and hitched myself up to one of their magical DSL lines (superficially identical to the DSL line I use at home), and finally got authenticated. But while I was at it, I perversely decided to delete all the university administrator accounts, leaving only myself in charge, and left. I figure if the computer ever needs any intervention from tech support, it will be their turn to call me.

Four solid days.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Redefining cruelty

For more than 50 years, the Heifer Project has worked to feed humans by distributing animals—-chickens, rabbits, cows, guinea pigs, sheep, and other creatures—-to needy individuals and families. In terms of spreading the misery of animal agriculture around the world, the Heifer Project is a champion. ...

First, as with all animal agriculture, the process of creating a pound of edible flesh involves feeding many more pounds of plant food and grain to the animal before he or she is slaughtered. It’s hardly an efficient method of producing food.

Second, the animals are not raised on factory farms, so they often graze in the neighboring area, which results in the loss of habitat for nondomesticated animals and furthers the extinction of other animal species.


Well whaddaya know.

Is it categorically bad for humans to eat meat? In some ways, this is a little bit little bit like wondering whether it's bad to have an abortion, and whether one life should be treasured above another. But the similarity is actually superficial--relations among members of the same species is very different from relations among different ones.

A lot of ink, both real and virtual, has been spilled around this and a few adjacent questions, and often the vegetarian argument hinges on the conditions found on farms. People--invariably people who have not spent much time on commercial farms--announce that these conditions are bad: They fret over mud or crowding or cage construction, and because I work in an agency that serves the farm community, I know some of those concerns are not just legitimate but urgent. Self-interest alone should galvanize us to focus on animal health--when we don't, we risk salmonella, e.coli, giardia, and mad cow disease.

But a lot of these concerns are sentimental and projective. Cattle, for example, are herd and prey animals, and if you watch them carefully you see that they don't react badly when they get squished together, especially when they're uneasy--the lion is less likely to eat a given individual when there's a large and potentially dangerous group as opposed to a vulnerable individual. This reaction probably has adaptive elements in common with schooling behavior in fish.

But because humans don't like being squished, most humans assume that squishing is unpleasant--the underlying assertion is that all creatures have the same standards of comfort and discomfort that we do. (I can't resist adding that one common result of raising "cage free" eggs is that removing the cages makes room for more chickens per square inch. Since I don't know a whole lot about chickens, it's hard to be confident about the chickens' position on this purported improvement in their living conditions.)

We make the same category error when managing non-farm animals, sometimes with very bad results. Is it cruelty to feed a dog human food? Since dogs have digestive systems very different from ours, I think it is--some dog owners poison their much-loved companion animals because they think chocolate is a key food group and the dog is missing out if it's not on the menu. And to make matters worse, most dogs like sweets for the same reasons we do--they offer access to compressed calories.

But choloate also contains theobromine, which is a neurotoxin in canines, and even a small amount can trigger heart arrhythmia and seizures. The even wider human habit of feeding table scraps to dogs not only encourages begging, but inserts in the dog the processed, sweet, salty, and nutritionally ambiguous foods we humans often eat. Yet this is never labeled for what it is--animal cruelty.

The Heifer Project is one of my favorite charities--it opens doors of self-sufficiency and boosts the human enterprise by giving third-world farmers access to improved strains of domestic livestock, selectively bred--in humans we call this eugenics--to produce a more edible product and more technophilic offspring. And is that cruelty? No, it's not.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

PETA piper

Here's a picture of PETA people outside the Westminster Dog Show back in February, all dressed up to make a really good impression.

The message, as I half-understand it, is that dogs shows are bad, but the symbolism here seems ambiguous at best. I wasn't there to pick up one of the flyers--I lived in New York long enough to know I won't be going back--so it's not at all clear who the Klan outfit is directed at.

It's apparently not all that clear to PETA, either--according to their own news release, the Halloween outfits are meant to convey the idea that the AKC sounds the "death knell for many beautiful, healthy, and loving dogs whose lives end at animal shelters. Shelters do their best to help the millions of animals dumped on their doorsteps every year, but life in a cage is no life for a dog, and euthanasia becomes a sad necessity."

But wait--if that's their position, doesn't it follow that the white sheet and hood are on the wrong side of the door? Aren't the people on the inside of the building the oppressors, the sworn enemies of shelter dogs everywhere? Something's gone horribly wrong here, unless--let me see--could this actually be about a photo op, and the siren allure of getting above the fold of tomorrow's paper?

Which worked: The story made USA Today, the LA Times, and NBC, to name a few.

But, to be frank, launching ad hominem attacks on the people who are involved with PETA is just too easy--we can chant in unison that Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, is personally responsible for killing 23,000 shelter animals in a single 18-month period, while finding homes for eight.

Or we can point out that PETA has gotten into legal trouble in Virginia for illegally dumping dead shelter animals.

Or we can laugh at the PETA initiative to rename fish "sea kittens" on the theory that people won't eat a creature with a cute name.

But if we want intelligence injected into the debate about right relations with other creatures, PETA has not earned a place at the table. And, if my poking around on both sides of the story is accurate, the supposedly more middle-of-the-road Humane Society of the United States hasn't either.

My point here is that throwing stones at tempting targets (this is code for "people I don't agree with"), is pointless--name-calling only freezes people more firmly into their positions, even if they know those positions are illogical and untenable, sea kittens on dry land. I'd much rather focus on the disagreement itself. Like the snappy little dog described in an earlier entry, that is where the rubber meets the road.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

once bitten

Earlier this week I was waiting for something else to happen and watched a woman with a small dog get her wrist bitten. She deserved it--people who get bitten generally do--but what was interesting about the transaction was her complete surprise and her apparent inability to see life from another creature's point of view.

Here's what happened: The setting was an urban (well, sort of urban) campus, and it was a warm day between classes--the sidewalks were very full. Even from about 500 feet away, I could see the little dog was signaling a lot of unambiguous anxiety about the crowding, the feet, the bicycles, and the periodic outbreaks of humans running with Frisbees. Whenever some new alarm was raised, the dog would flatten its ears and half-lower its rump, pulling backward on the leash, and the human on the other end would pull the dog forward. They progressed at a snail's pace down the block, slowed by anxiety on one end of the string, exasperation on the other.

When the pair came to the crosswalk, the woman reached down to pick the dog up and presumably carry it safely across the busy street, and this is when the bite occurred--just as she moved to get one hand under the dog's ribcage while the other hand was flapping around, busy with winding the slack of the leash around her palm. Suddenly a balky, worried little dog became a biting dog, a frantic bundle of defensive rage. The dog latched on to the woman's wrist, just for a second, but with the momentum of sheer panic. I'm sure it hurt, even if the dog was diminutive, and this hurt escalated when the dog got thwacked fairly hard for misbehaving--an event that probably reinforced the original message that humans do unpredictable, hurtful things with their strange appendages.

Why does our species find it so easy to disregard clear signals from other creatures? Episodes like this are a form of cruelty that seem to be off the radar of people active in the animal-rights movement, perhaps because so many people in the movement don't seem to know very much about canine or other species behavior. Yes, PETA, puppy mills are bad, and you can take a picture of how very bad they are, but I argue that this is worse.

If a dog has rights, then one of them is to be understood, especially when the dog is yelling at us, as loud as possible, at the top of a pair of tiny lungs.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

a slave in the fields of the lord

"This is interesting that you say farmed animals 'enjoy' a relationship with man... As if they are willing subjects to the enslavement and eventual permanent end/use of their bodies. And while the goal might be to 'protect them from predators' we forget that man is the most 'successful' predator of them all."

--comment posted here, April 11

Domesticated animals are not slaves--slavery is a purely human construct. They are animals of various species who have chosen the path of technophilia--otherwise, they would be impossible to domesticate.

Not all technophiles are domesticated--rats, mice, certain wasps, raccoons, bats, white-tailed deer, and that endless parade of carpenter ants in my back shed all feel the pull of the man-made environment, but they aren't domesticated. Instead, we classify them as pests. Are they to be classified as slaves as well? Seems like some very loaded and disapproving language to use for creatures who have a liking for human waste, human food, and human infrastructure.

As predators go, man is barely adequate--we don't stack up well against lions or sharks, that's for sure. But predation is morally neutral, and in many species an absolute requirement: Most predators have digestive systems that requite they eat meat and nothing else. What's difficult, and not neutral, is the real root of our species' success. We are omnivores, with scavenging and predation in the mix, and this has helped nurture our apparently endless flexibility. It is this flexibility that has gotten us into no end trouble--it's our chief adaptation and our default behavior, and lies at the heart of a lot of very hard problems.

"For me, the crux of it is that killing/eating animals is not necessary for human health. Indeed the more we learn the more it's understood we can thrive on a plant based diet. So the question becomes... If we don't 'need' to place 10 billion animals inside of warehouses and slaughterhouses... Why do it at all?"

--same comment, same date

Does it really matter whether people can get adequate nutrition without eating meat? I don't eat meat, and I don't think it matters. It's not a moral position for me, although others sometimes use vegetarianism as a propellent for their self-regard. And it's not a question of doing or not doing something--it's a question of understanding that having right relations with other creatures requires thought, humility, and an understanding of evolutionary constraints and evolutionary behavior.

What does matter is that almost everyone I have engaged with in the animal-rights movement seems to be amazingly short on hands-on, in-depth knowledge of how different species behave, react, and are profoundly different from each other. This includes an ignorance of how the human species really operates, since we, too, are animals.

To speak broadly of "animals" as a class that includes any being that isn't us is morally unacceptable. We're in this together--bears, dogs, bees, elephants, menhaden, rats, grasshoppers, penguins, and humans--and we need to be able to tell each other apart.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

more than one kind of difference

"What place should non-human animals have in an acceptable moral system? ... [P]ublic outrage is strong when knowledge of 'puppy mills' is made available; the thought here is that dogs deserve much more consideration than the operators of such places give them. However, when it is pointed out that the conditions in a factory farm are as bad as, if not much worse than, the conditions in a puppy mill, the usual response is that those affected are 'just animals' after all, and do not merit our concern."

--From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Boy. For a fairly snooty academic web site, it's hard to believe you can run across something as airheaded as this.

The status of puppy mills versus factory farming has nothing compelling to with the conditions as conditions, but has much more to do with the fact that dogs and people have signed a mutual aid contract that is durable, complex, and weirdly symbiotic. So yes, a puppy mill, by definition, is far more alarming to people than a factory farm. Farm animals enjoy a very different kind of arrangement--they are normally raised, and protected from predators and illness, just long enough to be milked, have their eggs stolen, and then be killed and eaten.

There's something implicitly wrong with the a phrase like "non-human animals," as if the only thing that's knowable or important about the many species sharing our planet is that they aren't like us, thus rendering all animals basically the same. It's an appealing construct because it lets us be lazy--now other creatures can be talked about generically, as if a raccoon and a blue jay were interchangeable.

But it doesn't take much real-world, hands-on experience to know how bogus this position is. Because not only are different species animals different from us, they are also wildly different from each other, and, what's more, the difference between a raccoon and a blue jay is a different kind of difference than the difference between that same blue jay and and a Great Dane.

The more I read what the ethics community writes about our right relations with other creatures, the more I think that having an advanced degree in philosophy is a serious impediment to coherent thought. I'm not anti-academia, not at all--I'm ABD in literature and treasure the many important things I now know about how language works. What I don't treasure, and feel a need to fight, is the complete absence of clarity in the animal-rights train of ideas.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The earworm of the Easter Rising

I woke up this morning vaguely aware that Easter is tomorrow, but the truth is that Easter has very little traction for me--I like biting the heads off peeps with Nick, but after that Easter's over. But that song, that terrible, beautiful song about the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin has haunted me all day.

One of the most damaging, thrilling, and upsetting renditions of "Foggy Dew" is by Sinead O'Connor--the tune is borrowed from "Foggy Foggy Dew" (yes, there is a difference of exactly one "foggy") and the lyrics were written by some fellow named Charles O'Neil, at least according to the stuff laying around in the music room.

I don't know from Charles O'Neill, but he wrote wonderfully well about what happened in Dublin during that Easter week, and in particular what the conflict sounded like. He says:

As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
There armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
No pipe did hum, no battle drum did sound its loud tattoo
But the Angelus Bell o'er the Liffey's swell rang out through the foggy dew.

I like that--the muffled secrecy of the advance, the treachery and secrecy, followed by the tongue of the bell, the call to decency, faith, and prayer. Later on he says:

Oh the night fell black, and the rifles' crack made perfidious Albion reel
In the leaden rain, seven tongues of flame did shine o'er the lines of steel
By each shining blade a prayer was said, that to Ireland her sons be true
But when morning broke, still the war flag shook out its folds in the foggy dew

Sinead left this stanza out of her version, so I didn't know it even existed until today, but reading the lyrics confirmed that this lament is all about what was heard as much as what happened. Think I'm making this up? How about:

Oh the bravest fell, and the Requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Eastertide in the spring time of the year.

There's that bell again, but not the Angelus this time.

So "Foggy Dew" is today's earworm, that song that will not leave you alone, and it's time to just accept that it's going to play in the background for the rest of the afternoon, perhaps into the evening.

Here's an odd, contradictory detail: I know that the Angelus is the thrice-daily prayer that faithful Catholics say to remember the incarnation, and I'll add quickly that, for a Quaker, I seem to know more than I should about Catholicism, but we'll leave that problem for some other day. And here's the contradiction--I have another idea that the Anglus isn't actually part of the prayer cycle during Holy Week. (Where do we learn these things? From novels? Probably The Nine Tailors, but sheesh.)

The song ends with a rewind, with the narrator going home once the carnage is over--

Back through the glen I rode again and my heart with grief was sore
For I parted then with valiant men whom I never shall see more
But to and fro in my dreams I go and I kneel and pray for you,
For slavery fled, O glorious dead, when you fell in the foggy dew.

Happy Easter.