Wednesday, March 31, 2010

losing my grip

About six years ago I started losing my grip in a perfectly literal way--I began dropping things and wrestling with can openers and fasteners, and using my teeth on what seemed to me excess and impenetrable wrapping. Like these creepy, individually wrapped bananas (courtesy of treehugger)it seems like the packaging is meant to define its contents in what is sometimes an unhealthy way.

I found out later that the underlying issue with my grip was neurological, but that's not the point. Isn't there something a little weird about a culture that seems to value packaging above what's inside? And no, this isn't just another consumer tirade about bubble packs, although they are horrid. Because what I realized, as soon as a package morphed into a serious barrier to use, is that we actually use consumer wrappings to accelerate desire and simultaneously inspire dislike for a new purchase.

It's a strange dynamic--you buy something, presumably because you want it or need it, but by the time you've penetrated the protective shell, the new thing is sadly diminished. Partly it's the extra work, but it's also the resentment that the work is necessary--I mean, you paid for the thing, so why should it be inaccessible? Frustration poisons the reason for the purchase, and you (by this I mean me) begin to have doubts about individual judgment. And it's chiefly this false sense of weakness that triggers another purchase.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Color me stupid

I recently got an e-mail from someone who disagrees with me about PETA and is genuinely, relentlessly upset about the plight of the New York City carriage horses. She cited last year’s comments from New York Governor David Paterson, who advocates banning the practice of using horses in the city. He said: “These animals are kept in stables that are too small, often they're cold, they work long hours and they don't have time off. … There was a horse about three months ago that got his foot caught on a parking meter and had to be destroyed—it's awful.”

Yes, it’s awful, and yes, I’ve seen horrible accidents involving horses, sometimes with death resulting. Sometimes riders die as well, and I am firmly in the Jim Wofford camp of doing everything we can think of to make equine sports safer for people and animals—three-day eventing makes racing on the flat look downright benign, and the chief difference is that eventing accidents tend to be on the radar of people who spend a lot of time managing, training, and participating in the sport—in a nutshell, people who may or may not be ethical but who at least have their heads wrapped around what the transaction called eventing consists of.

PETA says, “An animal’s inability to understand and adhere to our rules is as irrelevant as a child’s or as that of a person with a severe developmental disability.”

This raises the legitimate question, never asked by PETA, of what the rules are and who makes them in the horse-human relationship. Horses are not helpless, nor are they children with a developmental disability. They are horses. They are very strong. Anyone who thinks that responsible training between horse and rider has any relationship with coercion has clearly never tried to bully a horse, because it can’t be done—I’ve been handling horses all my life, and know firsthand that man proposes, horse disposes.

PETA also claims, based on no evidence I can see, that “animals are not always able to choose to change their behaviors, but adult human beings have the intelligence and ability to choose between behaviors that hurt others and behaviors that do not hurt others.” I reject this—domestic animals choose, refine, and selectively deploy different behaviors all the time. When I can’t catch my horse, I know my horse is expressing an opinion that I need to internalize and repair; when my horse approaches me apparently willingly but in a too-straight line (horses always travel in arcs, and so do good handlers), then I need to spend time on building our partnership and our mutual cooperation.

Color me stupid, but I submit that the governor of New York knows nothing about the species and what triggers certain behaviors. This doesn’t mean he’s not wrong about any individual carriage horse in the city, who may be poorly housed or not kept in good condition, but it does mean that a horse that got a foot caught on something is a horse with a catastrophic problem. Horses are prey animals, and this means they are obsessed with the status of their feet; when their feet are in danger, they are programmed to do everything in their power to find a remedy, even if it means they die trying. But the other side of the ledger is that they also hand their feet over willingly to us people for trimming, picking, shoeing, and routine inspection; this insight seems to be something outside the understanding of the e-mailer, the governor, or people who claim to know something about interspecies ethics.

Friday, March 19, 2010

agnosia, aphasia, and adventures in Chicagoland

I just returned from a longish visit to the suburbs of Chicago and my eyes still hurt from so many days of having nothing whatsoever to look at. Downtown Chicago interests me, and Oak Park really interests me, but once you get out to places like Romeoville, where we were, there's simply nothing but nonstop generica.

It struck me that all the directions anyone gave us seemed to involve turning left (or right) at a CVS. And all the CVS installations looked exactly like this, and they were all, invariably, across the intersection from a bank that looked suspiciously like a CVS, and one of these banks was named, in consummate generica-speak, the "Third Fifth Bank." No fooling.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines sense of place as "Those things that add up to a feeling that a community is a special place, distinct from anywhere else." This distinction is what gives us identity; the tragedy of the Chicago suburbs is that the gobbling-up of farmland for CVS-style development has resulted in an endless, interchangeable strip of nothing at all.

I'm not exaggerating, not even a little: This sameness has penetrated and overtaken everything, to the point where there are not even place names that offer any traction to the mind. They all seem to come from some depraved developer database that combines words and ideas in a kind of weird, Prozac-induced interchangeability: Bay Meadow, Meadowlark Run, Woodlands Glen. Give these a good shake and all you get is more of the same: Meadowlark Bay, Woodlands Run, and Meadow Glen. And the bay has no water, the run has no path or rill or any feature other than a flat, straight access road, and as for glen, forget it.

At one point we drove past a structure with a flat roof and a shortage of windows that was named, alarmingly, General Memorial Hospital. I don't want to criticize, but I have to--for a species that supposedly named all the animals, we've fallen very far indeed when we evoke a general memory of hospitals and think we've done something meaningful. It made me eager to come home to Vermont, where we have a Frog City, a Tommy Squatter, a No Nothing, and a rocky, infertile, useless lump on the landscape known as Government Hill.

Friday, March 5, 2010

I'd walk a mile

Another friend, Sophia, sent me this picture. That's a poodle, in case you're wondering.

The poodle's owner says on her web site, "For those who are overly concerned about the dogs emotions. Cindy loves the attention. She will prance around and expects your attention." I don't mind that this owner can't punctuate--so few people can--but I refuse to play along with the assumption that a "prancing" dog is by definition a happy dog. It's a dog in motion.

About ten years ago, I locked horns with an animal-rights activist who didn't approve of my tendency to ride my horse at every opportunity. He said it was coercive and artificial; his working definition of animal rights seemed to be that humans should have no contact with animals at all--a position born of ignorance.

Horses were first domesticated on the Eurasian steppes in about 4000 B.C.E. Domestication, always, is a contract between two species, and it's only a certain small number of species who are willing to sign on. And domesticated animals are, in a broad sense, all technophiles--they tend to adapt to and even seek out human environments.

Of course not all technophiles are domesticated--if they're not, we call them pests. A rat is profoundly technophilic; skunks, bears, and deer are also great admirers of human infrastructure, especially vegetable gardens, dumps, and bird feeders.

When we work or live around domesticated animals, we enter a different moral realm, where we have an obligation to understand the contract and know where interests intersect. The animal is there for a reason, and so are you, but these reasons don't always align perfectly; horses are herd and prey animals who will bargain away quite a lot to escape a tiger, but they are unwilling to cast off their options to kick, bite, or vacate the premises as needed. A thoughtful owner concedes these points, internalizes them, and works with them. A really thoughtful owner celebrates and studies the horsiness of horses, always on the lookout for new points of agreement.

Dogs actually occupy a singular niche in the human moral scheme, since there is good evidence that we didn't domesticate them at all--they domesticated us. This interesting point aside, the ligature between dogs and people is durable, complex, and ancient: A burial site in Germany called Bonn-Oberkassel has joint human and dog interments dating to 14,000 B.C.E. To put that in context, there were still mammoths wandering around Great Britain at about the same time, and we've been revising and attaching addenda to the contract ever since. But we still have an absolute obligation, despite the long connection, of internalizing the dogginess of dogs--they aren't camels, and when they fidget or show discomfort they are not "prancing for attention."

I'll stop now, but it won't take much to get me fired up again.

decorate your dog today

My friend Bob Frost sent me this picture after my temper tantrum about the costume class at horse shows last month. This picture, and maybe twenty others of the same stripe, not one of which assured me that pet ownership is headed in a good direction.

According to the breed standards for beagles from the AKC, beagles are trailing hounds whose purpose is to find game. "All phases of work should be approached eagerly, with a display of determination that indicates willingness to stay with any problem encountered until successful. Actions should appear deliberate and efficient, rather than haphazard or impulsive."

Maybe we need breed standards for humans--this certainly qualifies as haphazard and impulsive, although the expense and obsessiveness required to do this does indicate a certain willingness to see a project through to the bitter end.

I resent and dislike the PETA people--it's clear from what they say and do that most of them have had no direct experience with handling, training, or communicating with animals. Worse, most can't tell the practical or moral difference between a wild animal and a domesticated one. I can, and this is unethical.