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Category Archives: Pets & Animals

The Paperwork of Loss

My paperwork-overloaded desk, with the green animal license cards.

We all encounter it: the paperwork required to lead a contemporary life. In fact, from the moment we are born, we are subject to paperwork—birth certificates, vaccination records, report cards, drivers licenses. By the time we turn 16 and encounter the DMV, we are thoroughly immersed in bureaucracy. Now that I’m in my 50s, and working at a public university as a state employee, I’m sometimes so overwhelmed by it all that I feel there’s time for little else in work or personal life. (I started to list all the adult forms, but it was so long and boring a list that I just deleted it. You know what I’m talking about.)

Most of all of this paperwork is just deadening. Sometimes, however, it actually connects in poignant ways to what’s important to us.

Last week, I received in the mail three bright green “courtesy” notices that it’s time to pay my Seminole County Animal Licensing fees. I don’t mind paying these modest fees. They go toward supporting Animal Services in my county, and though I’m sure they euthanize far more animals than I’d like, I do support their work in keeping animals from dying on the streets. Even getting these little cards reminds people that they need to vaccinate their pets and be responsible pet owners. The fee is lower when your pet is spayed or neutered. In these ways, they function as an educational tool as well as a tax on pet owners.

This time, of course, I have to send one back with the box checked off that the “Pet is deceased.” Little Cameo is no longer, and the green card with her name stamped on it will go back without a fee.

My grandfather at McFerrin School, c. 1908 or 1909.

Perhaps because it’s November again, this has reminded me of the months after my grandfather died on November 2, 1972. My mother, of course, was the main one in our household dealing with the practical implications of her father’s death, as well as the emotional ones. These must have been enormous. My mother was closer geographically than her two siblings to her parents’ home, but was nonetheless more than 400 miles across the state of Tennessee, and her mother had grown fragile and fractious and was soon to enter into nursing-home-land. My mother filed changes of address on numerous accounts from their house to our house, so she could make sure that nothing slipped between the cracks. My grandfather had been in the hospital for several weeks, and the lengthy and incomprehensible medical bills kept coming. Other bills had to be paid. The estate had to be settled.

What I remember about this is that we kept on receiving relentless communiques sent to my grandfather months and months after his death. My mother handled the important ones, but somehow I took it upon myself to help handle the subscriptions and other minor stuff. My grandfather had been an avid reader—Newsweek, Life, Look, American Heritage, Smithsonian, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Forbes. The list was large, and these companies kept sending renewal notices relentlessly, long after we had canceled the subscriptions.

Today, of course, I understand that in those times removing someone’s name from a subscription list might take time. No instantaneous computer could make him disappear off the rolls at the touch of one button by one employee. In some ways perhaps we should have taken comfort in this echo of my grandfather’s life, at the difficulty in purging someone from the world. However, it just seemed to us like torture.

I remember the day about eight months after his death when an envelope arrived in the mail from one of these magazines—fortunately, I don’t remember which one. The envelope was thick, not the usual postcard, and I wondered momentarily as I took it out of the mailbox at the end of the driveway if they’d sent an apology for harassing us every week for all these months even though I had sent numerous handwritten notes explaining that Paul Meek had passed on and would not be renewing his subscription. (This was a time when we were far less used to just dumping whole loads of mail in the recycle bin.)

Instead, the letter started off, “Dear Paul,” and went on with the most maudlin and begging kind of diatribe—how he had been such a long-time subscriber that they just couldn’t understand his betrayal now. How if they had done anything to displease him in the pages of their magazine, they hoped to make up for it with the fabulous new content slated for the coming months. How if he continued to care about his own standing in the world based on the insights this magazine gave him, then he would surely re-subscribe NOW! They allowed as how they wouldn’t raise the rates, even though they had the perfect right to do so because he’d let his subscription lapse. This went on for bpth sides of 2 solid, single-spaced pages with red ink used here and there for emphasis. Then came the clincher: They just couldn’t stand to lose someone who had been a member of their x-publication family for so many years!

My little 13-year-old head didn’t exactly explode, but the use of the word family evoked in me a bitter sarcasm about commercial enterprises who made grandiose, even delusional claims to try to guilt people into continuing to buy their products. I envisioned the pained look that crossed my mother’s face every time she took in a pile of this exhausting mail. By now I myself had burdened her further with my two broken bones and a diagnosis of diabetes. In fact, my grandfather’s actual family had enough to deal with and was getting pretty tired of this crap.

I decided that afternoon that hand-written notes would no longer do, and I sat down with my mother’s typewriter. “To Whom It May Concern,” I typed for the first time in my life (though I have typed it many times since then), “my true family has been writing to you for months to explain my lack of desire to renew my subscription to your magazine. Their missives have been ignored, and you continue to bother them, so I now take it upon myself to write you.”

I paused. Then I pressed the keys once more, click-clack, with the tears bulging but not spilling from my eyes.

“I am dead,” I wrote, “and unless you deliver to heaven, nothing you publish will reach me. You are not my family, and I wish you would quit bothering my family. While not on the pages of your magazine, this constant sales harassment is offensive, and none of them will be subscribing.”

Wondering if I were breaking the law and feeling like a rebellious crusader, I signed my grandfather’s name with a childish, girly flourish, and then folded it neatly into the automatic-return, no-postage-required envelope and put this letter out for the mailman. I don’t think I even told my mother about it.

Though I’m relatively sure now that my letter had nothing to do with it, that we had just reached the end of the natural life course of their pleas, we indeed never heard from x-publication again. I patrolled the mailbox for weeks as though I were anticipating a secret love-letter, making sure, feeling vindicated, hoping that someone had been at least embarrassed.

My grandfather with my brother and me, about 1963.

Nowadays, receiving the green card with Cameo’s name on it, I feel a little differently. First, of course, Seminole County will not be sending me missives for months—they provide a check-box for just such circumstances as a regular part of pet ownership. And SC is not a commercial enterprise, so there’s not a matter of them trying to get someone, anyone to just write them a check whether or not there’s anyone there.

It’s also true that I will be printing out a form from the Internet and filling it out and attaching a fee for a new little cat, the pesky Paka, who has since attached herself to our household. The life cycle is shorter with pets, and we are perhaps more prepared for their loss and their replacement. There is no replacing your grandfather, but while no two pets are ever the same, new ones appear to fill the gaps the gone ones leave behind.

Perhaps it was getting the reminder cards, but yesterday I took up all the cat beds in the house and washed and dried and re-arranged them. A couple of these beds had been used primarily by Cammie in the last weeks of her life, and the other cats haven’t touched them since. They have sat empty in Cammie’s favorite spots, reminding us of her absence. This weekend, I felt ready to have them used by other cats. We’ll see if the other cats are ready, or if they would rather they could send me a letter to the effect that she’s gone and I should get rid of her things.

I’ll try to pay better attention than a bureaucracy would.

The Presidential Character Issue

I attended a small dinner party last Friday evening, and politics came up. One young man at the party commented about the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that determined just six percent of Americans are undecided about which presidential candidate they will vote for in November. Other news venues, including The New Yorker, have discussed how these are the very voters who don’t follow politics or make much effort to understand the issues. They are no doubt what we might call emotional voters, and they will play a huge part this year.

I am, quite frankly, hoping that Barack Obama can win the larger portion of those voters, even if it isn’t on a sophisticated understanding of the issues. I usually like to focus on issues, but today I want to talk about “character.”

Both of the presidential candidates this year are, of course, highly successful men. Both of them attended elite private preparatory schools, and both of them have degrees from the Harvard University Law School. Both of them have been involved in government for some time—Romney as governor of Massachusetts and Obama as a senator from Illinois.

Both Romney and Obama are also tall, stately men with pleasant demeanors. Many studies have shown that good looks are correlated with various types of success. More recent reports have noted that it’s a little more complicated than that, but that appearance does have an outsize effect. One of the most important factors, mentioned at the end of this Slate article, is that people prefer those who look like themselves. This may be one of the reasons Obama has encountered so much subtle as well as the not-so-subtle racism. A friend who (by strange circumstance) lives in the notoriously right-wing Villages recently created a satirical poster that said “Vote Romney. He’s the white guy,” based on the “totally racist vibe” he’d gotten from overhearing a neighbor at the mailbox complex near his home. But unless someone demonstrates that kind of fear of skin color, Romney and Obama are a toss-up looks-wise.

The other main component for emotional voters is, of course, “the character issue.” I can’t change someone’s incipient racism, but I do believe that Obama wins on character hands down. I believe he is a better fit with the American people in terms of both experience and values. Here’s why.

Wealth and Privilege

Mitt Romney was raised wealthy. His father was a CEO and governor of Michigan, and his mother was a housewife (though she did run for governor herself once, unsuccessfully). In other words, Romney’s life of expensive prep school and Ivy League grad school was taken for granted. He was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, was raised by a single mother with a career as an anthropologist, partly by a step-father, and by his grandparents. His absent father did not provide major financial support. His family believed in education (his mother continued to study and earn degrees through much of her short life), and so they made the necessary sacrifices for him to attend expensive schools. But Obama is much more like you and me when it comes to his background.

Both men may have worked for their accomplishments, but Romney started out with important connections in government and business, whereas Obama is a self-made man.

On Modern Women

Obama and Romney both appear to have solid marriages and to be devoted family men. But it is enormously important that Obama both had a working mother and has a wife with a career of her own. Romney’s mother was a lifelong housewife, and his wife is the same. He has no experience in a household where both partners work, where family and work have to find a balance. He has no experience in his intimate life of women who are his professional equal. In this day and age, when more than 70% of women are in the work force, Romney is out of touch. He has little understanding of the importance of women in the American workforce or the issues that families face when both partners work.

Multi-cultural vs. Insular

Obama, as everyone is well aware, is mixed race as opposed to the supposedly pure white of Romney. By 2008, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. had fallen to 66%, and it is predicted that this demographic shift will continue. Soon, “minorities” will not be minorities at all, and this is a valuable understanding for our leader to have.

Of course, a white president could very well be attuned to these demographic changes and understand them well. I certainly don’t want to say that a white person could not possibly lead the nation. But Romney is from a background of exclusive white privilege in which he has had little exposure to people different from himself. Even when he did a missionary stint for the Mormon church, he spent that time in France, not in Africa or Asia or a culturally or racially more distinct location.

Obama, on the other hand, not only had a black father, but one who was Kenyan. Though his father did not play much of a role in his life before dying, and he was brought up by his white mother and grandparents, Obama has spent time with his relatives in Kenya and has always been motivated to take an international perspective. His step-father was Indonesian, and Obama spent several years there as a child.

I know that some people have tried to use Obama’s international background against him, to claim it indicates he is not really American. But to me, Obama’s background reflects precisely the melting pot of American society and the complexities of many contemporary American families—families who have immigrated, as well as those who have “blended” through divorce and remarriage, those where the bond of family extends across distance and even borders.

We live in complex times where an understanding of international issues is key, and Obama has had an international perspective his entire life.

Early Work and Faith

There’s controversy over Romney’s time at Bain Capital, both in terms of his support for a financial system that is rigged and his continued involvement after he now claims to have resigned. That’s been discussed far and wide, and I will leave it be.

For me, it’s simpler than that. Mitt Romney’s main focus in his adult life has been on enriching himself. Period. Though he served as the governor of Massachusetts, he established his financial power well before that. He could turn to government because he had so many millions that he could quite easily live a lavish life on his overseas investments. Now he is focused on keeping laws and policies in place that will allow him and his super-rich cronies to amass more and more wealth unhindered by any semblance of fairness. His net worth is estimated at $190-250 million.

Obama, by contrast, is estimated to have a net worth around $3-11 million (information given at both Celebrity Net Worth and The Richest; update summer 2013: both estimates have since gone up). Still a lot more than you or I have, but it is clear that his major goal in life is not to amass a personal fortune: When he won the Nobel Prize of $1.4 million in 2010, he donated it to various educational and cultural charities, hardly the behavior of someone trying to pad his accounts as much as possible. (Yes, Romney donates considerably to charity as well, but, again, that is in the context of his enormous existing wealth.)

In addition, if we compare Romney’s and Obama’s efforts in their formative years, Romney went to France as a missionary. Now, much missionary work is highly valuable—think, for instance, of the ways in which many religious organizations feed the hungry in drought- and war-torn sections of Africa or tend to hurricane victims in Haiti. But Romney’s missionary time was spent in a comfortable country primarily proselytizing. Even if you read a sympathetic account of the hard work, modest living conditions, and accident injuries of his time there, you can read between the lines to see that Romney’s focus on the poor was likely simply as potential converts, not as people who deserved material assistance.

A few things about this experience bother me. First, I don’t appreciate proselytizers. I do respect that it is a part of some faiths to do so, but that focus in life seems to me wrong for the leader of a religiously diverse nation. I would prefer to have a president who respects a variety of religions and doesn’t think that pushing one’s own on unreceptive people is a good choice. Second of all, if this represents Romney’s full exposure to social justice issues, as the sympathetic Washington Post article linked above implies, it’s woefully inadequate. During that time, Romney wasn’t necessarily trying to understand people’s problems; he was just trying to convert them to Mormonism.

In addition, contrary to stepping up and volunteering to enter the military, he even used his missionary work to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. He actively sought (and received) deferments based on his missionary service. This implies to me that even though he makes this out to be a tough time that faced him with life’s realities, it was actually a way to skirt what could have been much worse for him personally.

And then, Romney’s professional career in the finance industry was clearly focused on amassing wealth.

Obama, of course, was a child when Vietnam raged, and he has also not served in the military, but the choices that he made as a young man were all about helping people on their own terms. Between college and law school, Obama worked for two public interest organizations, including New York PIRG. After relocating to Chicago, he worked as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project (DCP), a Catholic-based (but non-proselytizing) organization that worked to set up job training programs, college-prep tutoring services, and to foster an understanding of tenants’ rights. Obama is not a Catholic, but has been a member of the Church of Christ and characterizes himself as a “progressive Christian,” yet he could cross denominational boundaries to work for shared values. He worked for the benefit of the poor in Chicago very directly for three years.

When Obama returned to school to earn his law degree, he maintained an involvement in organizing and even conceived of his degree as an avenue for more effectively doing so. After his graduation, he taught law on issues such as due process and voting rights. He also grew increasingly active in local politics.

Clearly, Obama was ambitious from the beginning, and clearly he was ambitious because he wanted to help people less fortunate than he had become. It is this generosity of spirit and public-mindedness that I so respect in Obama, even when I don’t agree with particular decisions he makes. I know that some people see in Mitt Romney’s financial success something they hope to emulate, a sign that he can balance the books and manage the money. I might give that some credence, except that Romney doesn’t seem particularly interested in anyone’s bottom line but his own. He seems to me dedicated only to the benefit of himself and those very similar to him.

His recent selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate means that most surely, Romney’s intentions as president are to work for a very narrow and selective public good. When Ryan released his proposed budget in March, numerous religious leaders from a variety of faiths weighed in that is “immoral” in its abandonment of the poor. This is the one of numerous candidates that Romney has chosen as running mate.

This issue, of course, borders on policy whereas I promised to focus on character, but it is a clear indicator of how character does in fact often affect policy. Romney is a man who values his own personal wealth first and foremost; Obama is a man of the people who works to help them.

“Youthful” Indiscretions

Both Obama and Romney have been criticized for certain personal behavior in their youths. To me their indiscretions and their own later commentary reveal men of two very different moral capacities.

Obama smoked pot, drank in excess, and even tried cocaine while he was in high school and college. As NORML points out, it is difficult to get any accurate information about drug use in this country, but even the probably way underestimated numbers indicate that 41% of the population has smoked pot in their lifetimes. I can say with certainty that there were very few students I went to college with who didn’t try it. So, Obama is quite average in this regard.

He has also gone on to state his regret for his behavior and to give a self-aware analysis of what drove his use of drugs. Clearly, as with the case of Olympic champion Michael Phelps, he moved on from that phase in his life, did not become addicted, and went on to achieve a great deal.

It is important to me that Obama disclosed this himself, very early on in his own books, and that he has made it clear that such drug use was a “mistake” and no longer part of his life. No one had to uncover it in an expose because Obama humbly recognized it as an issue.

Romney has not so clearly disavowed his personal indiscretions, which came in the form of bullying during high school and animal abuse as an adult. Assault and animal cruelty are both also currently illegal, but Romney has not admitted any real problem with his behavior in either case. When a conservative publication like Forbes notes that Romney’s response shows a lack of empathy even today, then you know that it is indeed a problem. That Romney claims not to remember the bullying incident when it was cruel enough that five others remember it clearly, and then characterizes it as part of his pattern of high school “hijinks,” there’s an indication that Romney is a man who breezes through life with no idea of the consequences of his actions and decisions on other people.

Much less other creatures. Even those he has taken into his family as pets and that he would ostensibly have some affection or sense of responsibility for. On the Dogs Against Romney website, there is an extensive archive of commentary about the most notorious cases and other issues involved with how the Romneys have abused their animals. Unforgettable is the one in which the Romneys strapped their Irish Setter’s open kennel to the roof of their car for a 12-hour drive. The dog became sick and defecated all over itself and the roof of the car—Romney’s reaction was to hose the dog and the car down, and to continue on in the same mode. As the Rachel Maddow video below points out, this is both cruel and illegal. Romney doesn’t care.

This article on Politicker gives an overview of the case, noting that the Romneys have been added to two national animal abuser databases, and this one reveals even more about their lies and attitudes. First, the Romneys seem to go through dogs like caviar—they give them away, they don’t responsibly fence them, and they seem to have no regrets. Romney’s only reason for saying that he would not strap a dog to the roof of the car again is because the episode has received so much attention. In other words, he still insists that he did nothing wrong whatsoever in torturing the family pet rather than allowing it to ride in the car along with the children.

In a more recent incident, Ann Romney was sued for fraud after selling an over-drugged horse. The case was settled out of court, but indications are that the Romneys knew the horse was lame, and that Ann Romney continued to ride it for years with a debilitating and painful condition.

These animal abuse stories move into Romney’s adult years. He can’t even excuse them with claims of youthful ignorance, and so he doesn’t bother to even apologize. He is not the least bit regretful for breaking laws or causing pain and distress to living beings.

The Rachel Maddow video moves from the bullying and dog issues on to Romney’s laughing about his father’s decision to move jobs from Michigan to Wisconsin. She points out very well that Romney seems completely oblivious to the pain of these lost jobs. But that is getting into policy issues, and I’ll stop on that border again.

* * *

All I ask is that if you know anyone who is undecided in terms of this election, give them some information. If you can talk policy with them, great. But if you can’t, go right ahead and talk about character. Obama wins hands down.

Pretty Bird

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This is one of my all-time favorite songs—for its melancholy, yes, but also for the amazing, unaccompanied a cappella voice of Hazel Dickens and for her story of overcoming poverty and finding herself an artist of the highest caliber. I thought I had included her on this blog already, but evidently I was just remembering posting her obituary on Facebook when she died in April of 2011. (Usually I link to lyrics, but the versions online are not at all accurate. “Love is such a delicate thing” gets particularly garbled. So, we’ll just have to listen.)

I first heard the Hazel & Alice (Gerrard) album when I was in high school in the mid-seventies. Probably they performed at the Laurel Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. Although the Laurel burned down in 1982 and was rebuilt, I remember the creaky floors and old bricks of the original church structure. I heard a lot of folk music there by the likes of John McCutcheon on the hammered dulcimer and a lot of poetry readings there by the likes of Robert Creeley. There was always something going on at the Laurel Theater, and evidently there still is, though I haven’t been there in years.

Both Hazel Dickens’s life and the continued vitality of the Laurel Theater are testaments to the enduring nature of the spirit of creativity in all manner of people and places. And yet, it remains tragic that anyone has to be born into situations like that of the Dickens family, or that artists have to struggle quite so much to survive, as reflected once again in this Salon article by Scott Timberg about the impact of the current economic bad times on the creative class. (It’s bad, very bad.)

It is this dilemma that we call the human condition—the bad and good all rolled together. And another story sent to me today (via this video) reflects this as well. It’s related to this post because it’s about a bird—not one in song, but a living creature on this earth, a magnificent bald eagle whose beak was shot off by some stinkin’ human being I can’t understand. On the other hand, there are some truly lovely human beings who have worked to give her a new beak. It seems to me that some of us work endlessly to repair the damage caused by those whose hearts are bleak, unsympathetic places.

In the meantime, a stray kitty has shown up on our doorstep. I’m pretty sure that someone dumped her—she’s about six or seven months old, not at all feral, and wanted nothing but to come in and get a bowl of grub. She was skinny as a rail except for that slightly bulging belly that indicated that whatever person had trained her to be so affectionate had not bothered to spay her. Tomorrow morning, she will have her little kitty abortion and then be back in my care. The last thing I need is another cat, but I will at least foster her until she finds a new home. If Jupiter and Kollwitz can tolerate her, I suppose we will keep her. As my mother said, “Saving these little lives is a good thing.” As the vet tech said when I took her in today, “Well, kitty, you lucked onto the best cat mom in the world.” I could accomplish worse in life.

But in this day and age, it is beyond me to understand how someone could let a cat or dog go unsprayed or unneutered for more than a second past the appropriate age for surgery. Or how someone could dump an animal he or she had so clearly treated kindly before. It simply boggles my mind.

Not that any of us is pure good. When I said to the vet today that I felt a touch of sorrow about getting the stray a kitty abortion, she said, “Don’t.” She informed me that if I had taken this little cat to Animal Services, she would have been euthanized immediately. They can’t keep pregnant cats, she noted, because they can’t vaccinate kittens until they are two months old, and they can’t keep unvaccinated cats in the shelter. They try to place as many as possible in foster homes, but they are always full. They don’t have the resources to do a spay-abortion, since there is such an overpopulation already. So any kittens under two months and any mothers-to-be are killed instantly.

We all face difficult choices. But indeed some people are more evil than others, and some people become forces of bad because they don’t stop and think. What does it mean to shoot the beak off an eagle? What does it mean to dump a pregnant kitten? What does it mean to fail to support public schools and universities? What does it mean to support tax breaks for the wealthy while the poor and the disabled and the elderly struggle? My brother said to me last week that he feels as though he is living in Weimar Germany just before the collapse into Nazism. I agreed, and I said to him, “The one thing I can promise is that I will not be one of the average folks who will cave in to the Nazis. They can kill me first.” So many disturbing things go on every day. I don’t want to be one of the ones who does them. I want to be on the side of the angels, as imperfectly as it may be possible for me to do that. Sometimes that means being too honest for some people’s taste, and sometimes I flub up and hurt people, sometimes even those I could never construe as deserving it. But I have some pretty good ethical boundaries that I am devoted to keeping firm.

One is that I actually do the job that I am paid to do, unlike so many scammers that surround me.

Another is that I rescue animals in need.

And I respect the right of people to live a decent life even if they care primarily about something other than money and even if they are born into less than ideal circumstances.

That includes artists with their connection to the holy rather than the materialistic.

May we survive.

Schizoid About Pets

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Cat Comedy

In my ongoing contemplations of why it is that I am compelled to write about my pets and other animals, even while trying to avoid the slime of sentimentality, I present you with two stories ripped from the headlines and a couple of anecdotes from my own past, plus a question I wish someone could answer.

I had intended to be purely jovial. Rare, I know, but there are genuine moments of silliness and they bear exploring just as much as the tears. At any rate, I heard on NPR’s Marketplace yesterday that the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is putting on a cat video festival. You can submit a nomination from the official site.

And, of course, video is not the only medium: cats do very well in still photos through such sites as I Can Has Cheezburger? Thus, I chose “The Internet Is Made of Cats” for today’s song, which was suggested by Minnesota Public Radio’s coverage of the upcoming event.

In the Marketplace discussion I first heard about the video festival, Jack Shepherd of Buzzfeed was queried about why cat videos are so popular, especially for people as breaks during a workday at the office. Shepherd notes, “It’s aspirational. You’re sitting at work and what you really want to be doing is at home lying in a sunbeam. And cats have got that figured out.”

I agree, but would like to also add another reason: I believe that the easy home video has finally given people an effective way to share how great cats are. Cat relationships tend to be much more private than dog ones. Dogs go out on walks, car rides, to visit friends, to romp on the beach, and so forth. They generally enjoy being out in the world, and people long have used them as conversation objects in parks and on sidewalks. We have showed off our love of dogs easily and eagerly.

But cats are different. Many of even the cutest and most loving cats hide when strangers come into the house, and few enjoy the spectacle of a walk on a leash in a public place. (Granted, there are some notable exceptions, but few.) It may have taken the internet video for us to get a real, culture-wide understanding of the delights of cat companionship.

Cat videos are, then, a great example of a paradigm change fostered by a particular technology. In this case, I think it’s a wonderful paradigm shift, as I’m all for a wider understanding of the beauty, humor, and wonderfulness of cats.

Dog Tragedy

Unfortunately, news this week had a tragic downside, too, in the pet world. Lennox the dog was executed in Belfast, Ireland, after a long, but unsuccessful legal battle by his family to keep him alive. By all accounts, this is one of the stupidest instances of animal cruelty I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve heard of plenty. The Belfast City Council and its “animal services” staff clearly had some dictatorial ego problem and continued to insist this dog was a danger in spite of much evidence to the contrary and in spite of offers from both of the Animal Planet dog behavioral show experts Cesar Milan and Victoria Stilwell to rehome the dog in the U.S.

The Council’s continued insistence that Lennox was “dangerous” and “unpredictable,” in fact, is so unbelievable as to call into question the integrity of any process it oversees. All the numerous photos of Lennox with the Council dog handler and even this one video in which they try to elicit aggressive behavior show a well-behaved dog. They have continued a policy of secrecy and have never released any video or evidence of Lennox behaving aggressively, which means there likely is none. I mean, if they could have released a video showing this dog being aggressive for five seconds, it would have instantly quieted the furor.

Dogs, of course, are put to death all the time, and pit bulls, who are often trained to fight and bred for that purpose, are some of the most common. I understand this—and I even agree that death is better than them suffering a fighting life. I understand that even though many of these dogs might be re-trained and salvaged, animal rescue organizations don’t have the necessary resources to do so. I also fully understand that dogs who are actually aggressive and pose a threat should be destroyed.

However, Lennox was a family pet, who had lived for five years without ever showing any signs of aggression to anyone. He was seized because Northern Ireland has a law against the existence of “pit-bull type” breeds. The Dog Wardens Department had measured him and deemed him a “pit-bull type,” though later DNA testing would demonstrate that he had no pit bull genes at all, but was rather an American Bulldog-Labrador mix. The dog had been previously neutered, licensed, vaccinated, and microchipped and was kept in a secure fenced enclosure with two other dogs with whom he lived peacefully.

He was taken from his family (including a young girl with health problems, whose reaction is discussed here) and incarcerated in a small, concrete, windowless cage. It must have been like arriving in hell. The family was not allowed to see him, not even to say good-bye. One of the photos accompanying this article shows major hair loss indicating the poor health of Lennox after months in confinement and suggests that the dog was in such bad condition that these official and legal animal abusers feared the consequences of the dog being seen before they killed it. Perhaps the so-called responsible apparatchiks who had “cared” for this dog had even driven it to aggressive behavior in order to justify themselves or had actually killed it long ago.

If I lived in Belfast, I would be calling for a major overturning of government. Yes, based on the case of a dog and what has apparently been the Belfast City Council’s flagrant lying, callousness, and cruelty in dealing both with the dog and the humans that loved it.

This story breaks my heart, and it outrages me near to violence. Animal and child abuse are the only things that ever really get at me in that way, but they do.

Stella at the poison house, right where I would later threaten to punch the landlord in the face, 1988.

My Own Love and Rage

I recall my own physical rage when, years ago, my landlord flooded my apartment with paint remover. It was sheer chance that my cats, Cassie and Stella, survived. I had not been warned that the man was having the paint removed from the bricks on the front of the house, but I happened to be home on that weekday morning, preparing to leave on a trip. As I packed my bag, what I thought was water began streaming down the walls under the window wells in my half-basement apartment. I thought someone was washing those windows. But when I ran out to tell them they were causing flooding, I found a man in a space suit with a high-powered hose.

Another man, who would later explain he was the space man’s assistant, ran forward and warned me back. He told me that the substance would take the skin off my bare feet. When I told him that the substance was flooding my apartment, he admitted to me that legally my landlord was required to notify me, but said that since they were almost finished they would just go ahead and complete their job.

I ran back around the house to my rear door, grabbed up my cats, and put them in their carriers as far from the mess as I could. My next act was to put on my shoes because, by then, the brute petrochemical smell of the paint remover made its unhealthiness clear and it was pouring across my floors as well as down my walls. The removal assistant came around and began helping me move furniture and other belongings out of its path, though it was too late for one desk of papers and numerous pots and pans hanging on the wall in my kitchen.

Then I called my landlord. He refused over the phone to interrupt his workday, but soon enough he stood angrily at my back door to inform me how selfish I was to bother him.

I am pretty sure that I have never at any other time in my life been so angry. I got right up in front of this man, who was several inches taller than me, and told him that if he didn’t get out of my face I would punch him. Though not much of a fighter, I had my right fist clenched tight. He left.

Soon enough, my boyfriend arrived to take me to the airport. I explained to him that he would have to keep Cassie and Stella for the weekend at his apartment. Fortunately, he was glad to do so, and off we went. I would have to deal with the mess when I returned, but at least my cats would be safe. I trembled at what might have happened had the timing been a little different. I loved these cats so much, and they had brought so much joy to my life.

Cassie happy on her new porch, 1992.

Schizoid and Sociopathic Human Behavior

The accumulation of these stories suggests to me something very odd about the human psyche, and that’s the lack of empathy that so many people have.

My idiotic landlord had a cat himself, but couldn’t understand why I would be upset that he’d nearly poisoned mine. Certainly at least some members of the Belfast City Council have pets. And yet, they have no sympathy for pets that they do not know. In fact, they have no sympathy for even the humans who love pets besides their own. The Belfast City Council insists that it acts to protect people when, in fact, it harms people as well as animals in its myopic behavior.

There are also many people who just claim not to like animals. I have often wondered at the cavalier running down of dogs or cats by some supposedly perfectly responsible people. One of my worst moments as a teacher came once when a student in a creative writing class noted that his father hated cats and would often attempt to hit them when driving in his car. I told the student that his father was clearly an asshole, and that we weren’t going to consider him in our conversation. But maybe we should have because there’s an enormous issue here.

If his father hated cats or just didn’t care about the animals he might run over, that’s bad enough, but clearly he didn’t even care about the people who do care about the animals. That is human-aggressive and sociopathic behavior.

Why, I ask you, do we find it so acceptable to live with these people? And how many of them are the same people who circulate cat videos from youtube, never making a connection between the two unreconcilable contradictions in their behavior? How can such love for animals and such hate for them co-exist so close together? Are humans expressing their emotions for each other through these innocent animals? Or is it about something else? Why? Not only why cat videos? But why dog murder? What do these two phenomena have to do with each other?

Cameo: A Little Life

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“Candy” and her kittens, 1997.

It was not exactly love at first sight. I adopted Cameo because no one else would. She had been adopted twice from Centre County PAWS, the animal rescue organization where I volunteered, and then she’d been “returned” because she scratched people. When any of us took her out of her cage, she would get all excited—would purr and roll around on the floor, bright-eyed, or would run around attacking every toy in sight, ecstatic. When playtime was over, however, and we’d go to put her back in her cage, she would cling, hiss, and claw us viciously. Who could blame her? She had come into the shelter a teenage mother—a tiny little thing with seven kittens. She had been in the cage for nearly nine months with those doggone kittens, waiting while all of them grew up and went off to homes. You could see the accusation of injustice in her eyes.

Candy out of her cage, 1998.

The look of accusation, 1998.

I had also discovered that one volunteer—a local optometrist who later admitted that he wasn’t really a cat person and that he’d volunteered only in order to meet women—had been man-handling her by putting on thick leather gloves, holding her down, and roughly trimming her toenails. Of all the cats I’ve ever had, she was the only one whose claws I could never trim at home. One vet had to sedate her in order to do it. This gradually got a little better, but she was a sensitive soul with a long memory.

After I’d lost my old cat, Stella, I knew the time had come for young cat blood in my house, and I picked out two gangly teenage kittens—their shelter names were Boots and Snowy, and they would become Jupiter Boots and Maya Lin. I knew, though, that I would take Candy, too, because otherwise she was destined to live in one of the outdoor colonies that one of our volunteers kept, but where life was not comfy. I also knew that she’d have to have a new name. Candy—an awful name under any circumstances—certainly didn’t suit her, though it would return in the nickname Candy Cane Tail because the end of her tail was almost always bent. She never relaxed enough for it to straighten, not until the very end. Hyper-vigilance was one of her prime characteristics.

Candy Cane Tail.

It’s an odd thing to adopt a cat you don’t particularly want. And it changed my view of what relationships with animals are about, at least a little bit. It became not about my love for her, but about her love for me.

Cammie loved me. There is no doubt in my mind of that. She was my cat, a one-woman cat who, as Bruce always says, was a Sartrean. She believed that hell is other cats. What she thought of most humans wasn’t much nicer. But she loved me. Sometimes she had a funny way of showing it, but she loved me.

The day that I took her and Jupiter and Maya home from PAWS, Cammie followed me around like a puppy. (One of her nicknames was Puppy Cat.) She would not let me out of her sight. While Jupiter and Maya hid under the bureau in my study, huddled together for animal warmth in their strange, new setting, Cammie sat at my feet, followed me when I moved from room to room, and purred her head off. I had never known of a cat to purr while in motion, but she did it. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she purred, her little body shaking with the effort. She somehow knew that I would never take her back to the shelter, no matter how many times she unleashed her claws across my arm or leg.

And I never would. At one point, however, I did consider having her de-clawed even though I am anti-de-clawing on principle. By the time I moved to Florida from Pennsylvania, I had five cats and was down-sizing. In the new rental house, the cats had less space and fewer windowsills and hiding places. The proximity and lack of privacy stressed her out, and Cammie took to slashing me across the leg whenever I would walk by her. She would curl up on my lap only to turn suddenly and sink her claws into my arm. I was constantly bloodied. I located an animal behaviorist at the University of Florida, who came down for a visit. She never saw Cameo, though she took pictures of the other four and we talked about what to do with my little monster-under-the-bed. De-clawing, she said, would probably only turn Cameo into a biter.

So, instead, I learned to pay attention to very small clues. If Cammie’s tail or ears twitched, I quit petting her or backed away. The behaviorist explained that Cammie’s problem was primarily petting aggression—a not uncommon phenomenon where cats get overly excited by the petting that they crave. She told me that the best approach was probably just to make sure to watch even the subtlest communications and always make sure that Cammie had her way. And so I watched and Cammie prevailed. Eventually, we regained our trust of each other and she ceased to shred my arms.

She remained the most opinionated creature I’ve ever known—and contrary. Bruce eventually took to “imitating” her. Whenever I would lean down and ask her a question—“Are you a good girl?” he would say in his Cammie voice, “No.” “Will you swallow your pill?” “No.” “Will you eat your supper?” “No.” “Who’s my baby?” “No.”

Bruce imitating Cammie’s no:

And she was never averse to a fight. If she was in the bedroom and two of the other cats started to hiss and swat in the living room, she would come running to join in. Whack, whack, whack. Smacking things was one of her greatest pleasures. Every night at dinnertime, she would whack first Maya and, after Maya was gone, Kollwitz. She loved to buffet the flaps of open boxes, and she loved to wallop repeatedly at the windows and sliding glass doors. She just knew that she could dig through them to the other side. We noted that she had a bit of OCD.

Whacking Maya, 1999.

She was, however, the softest cat I’ve ever touched. For years, of course, I was not allowed to touch that downy belly—even though one of her cute habits was to roll around on the bed or the sofa in greeting, as if she meant for me to give her a belly scratch. That was not what she meant, she made plain with her teeth and claws, but eventually I developed a sneaky way of experiencing her softness. She loved to be picked up and perched on my shoulder, where she would latch on as tightly as any koala bear, claws sunk through my clothes. In this position, I could get by with massaging her soft parts and rubbing her chin, as well as pulling her ears back as I stroked her silky head. When she had something to hold on to, she loved being petted.

The dangerous, tempting belly, 2001.

She also loved to play. Though she was well over a year old when I took her home, she played like a kitten. She played with such vehemence that her eyes would dilate and she would run up and down the living room until she panted. Later I would learn that she had a heart murmur that probably contributed to her high heart and breathing rates, but all I knew for years was that the other cats would have to wait until she lay off to the side panting, still watching the feathers-on-a-string as though it were the most fascinating object in the world. Even into her old age, she had the habit of sitting on top of toys to claim them. One of her last holidays, she decided during the decorating of the tree that the Christmas lights belonged to her. She grasped the tube on which they were coiled, and she got that possessive look in her eyes. “Can I have those?” I asked. “No,” she answered. Bruce said she was a bit like the seagulls in Finding Nemo. “Mine,” was another of her favorite messages.

Playing with vehemence, 2006.

These Christmas lights are mine, 2010.

She not only took possession of more cat beds, she also accumulated nicknames like no other pet I’ve ever had. When I’d adopted her, I’d found it difficult to replace “Candy” with another name, partly because she already knew and responded to the sounds. At the time, I had a hard time coming up with something similar-sounding that suited her. Cameo fit the bill because of her beautiful dilute orange tabby color. But perhaps I’d already gotten into the habit of tossing around possibilities. Or perhaps it was just that the many nicknames indicated something about the complexities of her personality. Cammie was the most obvious, but another early one, in response to her playing passions, was Kamikaze Cat—she threw herself off pieces of furniture and around the room after a toy with complete abandon and disregard for her own safety. Similarly, Camyl-amyl-nitrite referred to the chemical name for poppers, famous for increasing heart rate on the club scene. But we also played with the other C words we know—by the time Bruce came around I more frequently called her Campbell (one of my family names) or Camel (my favorite nickname because when mad, she could flatten her ears, open her mouth, growling, and spit as vociferously as any angry camel). Bruce added many more—Camelot-Cam-a-little, Camrose (for the town where he used to live), Cam-shaft, and Cama-Lama-Ding-Dong. I was fond of calling her Cream Puff and Pumpkin.

She also came to be known around here as the Kramer of cats, after the Seinfeld character, for her habit of bursting through doors, especially the bathroom door every time anyone went in to use the facilities. If a door was closed, she would just bonk her head on it repeatedly, waiting for a crack she could widen. She could push a door so hard it would bang against the far wall. Her enthusiasm and kookiness were hard to contain. The explosive “k” and “p” sounds were our favorites for her.

But she also inspired me to call her “a little baggage,” a word with a meaning seldom used and that seemed just right for her—a pert, playful young woman or girl, but often used disparagingly or offensively with implications of prostitution or bad reputation. She was a cat that begged for teasing, and we teased her with our terms. “Are you my little baggage?” I would ask. “No,” she would say.

My little baggage, 2009.

Camel ailed the last four or so years of her life. She took beta blockers for her heart murmur, but she had also developed arthritis in her hips that made it difficult for her to pass her poo comfortably. At the end, we found out that she had also probably been suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (not to be mistaken for the much less serious irritable bowel syndrome), a condition that sometimes responds to treatment and sometimes doesn’t. We nursed her through one terrible crisis, and we had a couple of very good weeks after that, but she had her good days and her bad days, with the bad days increasingly common. The way that I knew it was time to say good-bye was that I could no longer comfort her. I picked her up in her distress and, instead of clinging to me as she usually did, she just whimpered and pulled away. The pain had gotten to be too much.

Because Cammie was so difficult, and because our relationship emerged more from what she felt than what I felt, I think that she helped me prepare for the emotional life of marriage. She didn’t teach me how to be in love, or how to be swept up in my own needs or feelings for another person, but how to compromise, how to share space with another separate creature, how to think about someone else’s needs beyond the obvious. She was not always an apparently pleasant cat to have around—but I will say that over the years I grew to love her a great deal. I knew it already, but she taught me concretely that love doesn’t have to be a Hallmark card, and it’s certainly not a one-way street.

If I asked her if she agreed, I’m sure she’d say, “No.” But then she would curl up on my tummy and say, “Mine.”

“Mine,” 2012.

Cammie always had to have the most space, 2005.

Watching over everything, 2007.

In the study, Puppy Cat keeps me company, 2009.

“Are you coming in off the porch?” “No.”

Sitting under the teddy-bear angel Christmas ornament. Next she will take it off the tree and kick it.

Watching birds on the computer, or TV for cats, 2011.

My all-time favorite picture of her.

Cracked.Com on Crazy Cat Ladies

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I’ve been stretched to my limits the past couple of weeks, even though I have been spared the final grading stress and have skipped out on attendance at graduations and reunions. So, today, I really needed a laugh til you cry episode of crying, and, fortunately, Bruce greeted me with’s “8 Books That Prove Cat Lovers Are Insane” first thing this morning.

In my search for the genuine, it is good to be reminded that even the genuine can be far from helpful, and even the completely ersatz can be wonderfully whacky. In contemplating how to write about animals intelligently, it’s also great to have some examples of what not to do…. Except, except, they all seem to be having so much fun.

Don’t forget page 2. The wigs are to die for.

I just want you to know that this is not the kind of writing about pets I ever hope to do, much as I love it.

T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and My Garden

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The glories of spicy jatropha contrast with T. S. Eliot's cruelest April.

I’ve had cause the past days and weeks to think a lot about life and death and resurrection. My little old cat marshals on, happy at the same time that she is not perfectly healthy. It’s been a lot of work getting her through her recent crisis, and we don’t know whether she has lymphoma, which will kill her in a matter of weeks, or inflammatory bowel disease, with which she could live on for quite some time. All we can know right now is that for the time being she jumps up on my lap for a cuddle and she rolls around on the patio bricks in the sunshine.

Early spring sunshine in Florida is incomparable. This is the time of year to be here.

With the help of a couple of wonderful gardeners last week, Bruce and I also finally took steps to make the yard beautiful—we replaced the dead grass in the front with shade-loving camellias, crepe myrtle, impatiens, and lorapetalum. We (or rather Lois and Allan) ripped out and relocated (some of) the overgrown ligustrum, put an herb garden in the side yard, and filled in our formerly sunken area by the patio with a butterfly- and hummingbird-friendly rim of firebushes, spicy jatropha (seen above), plumbago, shrimp plants, and tea olives. The confederate jasmine I planted last year is in full, fragrant bloom, and the gardenia that Pat gave us for our wedding three years ago is budding. I have been reveling in it.

And so it is that I was reminded of T. S. Eliot’s most famous line, “April is the cruelest month.” I think that April has this reputation for cruelty for many reasons. I used to always think about it during Pennsylvania Aprils—the alternation of snow and new green plants trying to poke through the muddy ground, the ice that would so often fall from the sky and kill those new green shoots—those were cruel weather days indeed, and days that could easily remind a person of the vicissitudes and unpredictability and fragility of life.

Here in Florida, we don’t really have that kind of cruelty, though, of course, we have the threat of hurricanes half the year (and their occasional massive actual destruction), and we have the suffocating heat and humidity all summer long that create our own upside-down indoor season. The way the flowers blossom so riotously all year round, however, often gives us the delusion down here that life is never-ending.

But we have to remember that the resurrection that so many celebrate at Easter entails death. A former student sent me a message asking if I would like to adopt a stray cat she found. The answer is “not right now,” but the timing points out to me that eventually my old kitties will all be gone, and they will make way for new kitties. The same is true of all of us, even for the Nobel Prize winners such as Eliot, and lately I have been experiencing this fact more concretely than usual. Not because I’m near death, but because I have been enjoying life so much and letting go of my desire to be immortal.

So much of our usual human endeavor (but perhaps especially if we are writers, artists, or intellectuals of some kind) is an attempt to be immortal. This comes in different forms, from having children to making ourselves important or indispensable at work somehow. Sometimes it comes in the form of grasping for fame or notoriety. Sometimes people even see beyond the surface fame to a desire to create something lasting in the way of art. Sometimes we have a desire to change things beyond ourselves, to have a positive effect on a culture that seems unhinged. These efforts sometimes result in good work, and I don’t mean to castigate anyone for making them. Certainly I haven’t entirely stopped myself. I’m just in a different place, at least mentally, right now.

I am finding it enough just to be. I know, cluck, cluck, this should be too simple.

Last night I heard Cameo the cat chirping and mewling low in the dining room. At first I thought this was a symptom—she might be in pain or distress of some sort or about to throw up—and I leapt up to go see what was wrong, as I have so many times in the past few weeks. But as I stood, she came running into the living room and put a small dark object on the rug in front of me. I bent down and poked it, the largest dead spider I had seen in years.

Cameo the cat had been hunting. I couldn’t believe it. She’s never been a big hunter to begin with, and I certainly wouldn’t expect it in her current state of health. But she had made the most of some accidental opportunity, and she’d brought me the proverbial cat gift. I praised her and petted her and apologized for taking the spider away (I certainly didn’t want her to eat it).

I feel silly and trivial for the small, domestic frame of my life these days. I feel retrograde and haus frau–like. Yet it is not that I have forgotten about the larger world or the social, political, and intellectual issues of our day. In fact, when I got out Eliot’s famous poem because of its first line, one of the things that struck me was how prophetic it is. If Eliot thought that the first decades of the twentieth century were fragmented and confusing and grim and showing signs of cultural decline, what would he think of the first decades of the twenty-first century?

What would he think of the strength of our anti-intellectualism, the put-downs of the “reality-based community” that Bruce mentioned in his guest post last week? What would he think of the dominance of the short-short form of fiction and nonfiction (which I adore like everyone else), or the impatience with reading that even writers show so often (which I despair of)? What would he make of the fact that, though I love poetry, I hesitated before taking the time to read his entire long, allusion-filled, complex, five-part poem?

I paused, but I then took the time to read it. Then I listened to it on a compilation of YouTube videos (all of these feature T. S. Eliot reading, except part IV, which is the voice of Ted Hughes). And I don’t mean to blame anyone else who doesn’t take the time. I’m on sabbatical, after all, and taking the time is what it’s for. But even a short dip into listening is a good thing.

I. The Burial of the Dead (with the overall epigram) 5:07 minutes
II. A Game of Chess 5:29 minutes
III. The Fire Sermon 8:05 minutes
IV. Death by Water (read by Ted Hughes) 48 seconds
V. What the Thunder Said 6:30 minutes

Art, I believe, takes time, and that has to be okay. I wish it were as easy to make that claim for politics—that it could get beyond the sound-bite, beyond the knee-jerk, beyond the name-calling, beyond the superficial answers that answer nothing. However, the mass scale of politics is a challenge to any slow unfurling or contemplation. Would that it were not so and that “The Waste Land” were not indeed still so relevant. Would that the call to peace in its last line were more optimistic and less wishful thinking.

Eliot’s poem builds to that end with a reference to Dante’s Arnaut—“I … who weep and go singing; contrite I see my past folly, and joyful I see before me the day I hope for.” Though interpretations of Eliot’s poem vary widely in terms of the lack or presence of hope, I believe it leaves us with the inevitability of both. A grim outlook does not disavow hope. And at least sometimes the greatest activity can be disguised by a quiet and self-contained demeanor, the greatest complexity in paying attention to the smallest things.

In other words, spring will happen with all its implications. I like feeling my eyes open to it as well as my mind. I like hearing T. S. Eliot’s nasal and weary voice—and Ted Hughes’s more gravelly and pleasant one—marching out the syllables. I like observing how unflawed their delivery is—how neither ever trips over a word. You can tell that they have spent a lot of time memorizing and reciting poems. They did that instead of playing Scrabble on the iPhone, no doubt.

Ah, these choices about how we spend our short time.

Animal Love and Genre Stereotypes

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It’s been a hard week. One of my cats nearly died. I won’t go into the details, but I will admit that it’s involved trips to three different vets, a lot of poop, and a lot of suffering. I had come to grips with the fact that this morning I would likely need to ask for her euthanasia. But, no, after four and a half days of dire illness, she has rallied. No little kitty will last forever, and her days are numbered, but maybe she will enjoy a little while longer.

When I try to think about writing about my pets and why I love them, I encounter whole layers of prohibition, disrespect, sentimentality, and boredom. Yet they are important enough to me that I feel compelled to include them in my literary world, or at least my communicative world. What I write about them may never achieve anything near the level of art, but I think somehow there must be ways of thinking about them that go beyond “Awww, how cute.”

Perhaps, in fact, my desire to write about animals is something akin to certain others’ devotion to genre fiction. My husband sent me this morning a short example of the frequent flailing of professors of creative writing for discouraging students from writing genre fiction—in this case science fiction. It uses a long quote by Michael Chabon expressing some outrage about how he’d been “limited” by this lack of acceptance of his favored genre in his youth.

This dissing of professors this way is a tired hobbyhorse. Genre fiction was far more disrespected before creative writing was commonly taught in universities, and creative writing professors certainly didn’t create the “limitations” Michael Chabon speaks of. That responsibility would have to lie at the feet of literature professors and literary reviewers and critics, though creative writing professors no doubt have partaken in it in their attempt to get a toehold in the academic world over the past fifty years.

However, it is also undeniably true that much genre writing—and much writing about animals—is pretty uninteresting and awful stuff.

The writing professors that I know (in composition and as well as creative writing) place “limitations” on students in order to try to avoid reading the worst of this kind of thing and to encourage students to shift away from the stereotypical thinking many of them are most familiar with. Most of us have tried a variety of strategies—and it is true that some forbid any genre element (monsters, vampires, magic of any kind, futuristic settings, etc.). Some use prohibitions about “realistic” topics as well—I once knew a composition instructor who forbade all broke-up-with-boyfriend or -girlfriend stories. Another banished all first-love stories for similar reasons. Some try less blanket warnings, like “I suggest you not use a gun in your story unless you are actually familiar with guns and know how they work.” I even knew one teacher who disallowed any student from writing about pets.

Mind you, these are from teachers who may admire Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Who may know that Paul Auster wrote Timbuktu very successfully from the point of view of a dog. Who may even think that the Harry Potter books are good. Even those professors who disallow genre elements entirely in their workshops are not unaware of exceptions in the general low quality of certain genre-like or realist-sentimental subjects.

But there’s another, little understood issue, and that is that we try to sort in order to focus our instruction somewhat. This starts, of course, with the more basic use of the word “genre” to distinguish between fiction, poetry, drama, and creative nonfiction (which also is distinguished from journalism). Slicing further, fiction becomes “literary” and “genre,” and then genre is divided further into particular genres like sci-fi, mystery, chick lit, and so on. Those genres are broken down even further: this website, for example, lists ten primary sub-genres of sci-fi.

These designations are seemingly designed to be descriptive, not necessarily evaluative, but, because people develop favorites and antipathies, they become evaluative, too. And, I would argue, also because there are certain goals that differ between those writing for “entertainment” purposes and those who at least aspire to loftier ideals. Whether the latter ever achieve them or not is uncertain, just as entertainment purposes or other ideological pursuits in writing don’t necessarily preclude profundity.

In other words, most creative writing professors that I know combine their aversion to the worst possibilities of genre fiction in their classes with an aversion to trying to teach everything in one course rather than any blanket condemnation of genre. How many different sub-genres must we be asked to examine in one semester? How many different conventions and their upending must students be asked to critique in each others’ manuscripts all mixed in together? At my university we actually offer a course on science-fiction writing, separate from the other fiction workshops that focus on literary realist fiction. No one who teaches fiction here disses genre—a couple of them even write and promote it. This may be a new development, distinct from the experience of someone like Michael Chabon from a tonier universe. We live in an era when literary realism is getting harder and harder to publish (at least in book form) and in which there’s an emphasis on the acceptability (even, perhaps, desirability) of hybrids and mash-ups. Genre elements creep in all over the place, and an array of examples are emerging of how to use them without being dominated by clichés and formulas. (One name for this is post-modernism, I suppose.)

Nowhere, though, does anyone talk about the less macho, might I say the less sexy issue of how to approach more domestic subjects without sentimentality. Science-fiction, fantasy, and horror have made inroads in academic creative writing circles. But the fiction world has cast the romance into the world of memoir and has dissed it one genre-definition level up: there are many fiction writers and critics who now claim that memoir (or even all of nonfiction) is inherently inferior as an entire genre to any and all fiction. In literary circles, in other words, it’s now more common for memoir to be dissed as unworthy than it is for sci-fi and fantasy to be.

Which reconnects to my own desire to occasionally write about my pets or about other animals and issues regarding them. A few years ago, I wrote an essay about an elderly neighbor of mine who was feeding strays and my efforts to help him and find real homes for these cats. (One of them became a permanent resident in my home, and I placed six others in good homes and got the one feral one spayed before she escaped capture and disappeared.) It was a great compliment to me when one of my writer-friends, who at that time was not an animal lover (though she has since become one) said to me that I had “managed to make the inner lives of cats interesting,” something, she said, she had not thought possible. Yet I still have not managed to publish this essay. I believe it’s a good essay, and I believe it’s a shame that “cats” are off-limits in most of the literary world.

Still, I have to acknowledge that this is not without reason—people react to the plethora of sentimental schlock about pets, and I can’t blame them even though I’m trying to do something different and even though I believe editors (and professors) might be able to take a little more responsibility for distinguishing value rather than dismissing entire subjects in their entirety. In fact, for a number of years, I have refused to place proscriptions on what subjects my students write about; on the rare occasion when I teach fiction, I suggest very heartily that if they would like to write something with genre elements, they need to make sure they do it in a non-formulaic way and that they toe to literary standards of character development. Few of them try it, but on at least a couple of occasions students have produced great stuff. So, I’m personally not into the proscriptions even though I find about 90% of the well-published sci-fi and crime/mystery stuff I’ve ever read to fall into the dreck category. Still, I believe it would be silly of me to attack lit mag editors for their antipathy toward cat stories.

Similarly, I believe that the genre-fiction aficionados lashing out at the literary realist world are wrong-headed. What they might more usefully do is examine what’s closer to home and begin to make real and substantial distinctions about what has merit within the realms of their specific genres.

In the usual sense of the word, of course, genre fiction refers to the kind of simplistic, poorly written, stereotypical character–filled, predictably plotted kind of stuff that creative writing professors disparage. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t terrific fiction that shares certain features of science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, action, crime, or mystery. The many torrid memoirs don’t mean that there don’t also exist memoirs of the finest order. Whether we speak of any of this work as solidly ensconced in its specific genre or of it “transcending” its genre status doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is that we understand and make distinctions about what is art and what is on the borderland or what falls completely into the category we might call dreck.

Some people are capable of this. Jonathan Lethem, for instance. I just read his essay “You Don’t Know Dick,” in which he examines both the variable career of Philip K. Dick and his own youthful obsession with it. He notes more than once the “disastrous unevenness of his [Dick’s] prose.” Now, this is an intelligent examination of how a writer can fascinate us while we also see his flaws. I wish the same strategy could be applied more commonly to genres as a whole instead of the simplistic valorization of underappreciated genres or the alternate demonization of them.

There will always be contention in terms of the issue of quality in areas where it’s hard to pin down. Math is “easy” in this regard: either you get the right answer or you don’t. Engineering in this regard is “easy”: either the building or bridge stands up or it doesn’t. In both of those arenas, it may be difficult to master the correct answer, but you at least can identify it.

In many walks of life, however, there is no hard and fast answer. A book, for instance, may be good in a million different ways or bad in a million different ways. It can even be good in some ways and bad in others, or good and bad at the same time to different people in different circumstances. For instance, when I criticized Kris Carr and her Crazy, Sexy Cancer empire, one of my former students noted that she could see what I meant, but that Carr had been important to her in dealing with a chronic illness because it gave her a sense that she could still enjoy much of her life. I think Kris Carr is a hideous fake and her writing is awful, but I can’t and won’t try to deny that someone might find her bromides useful at times. In fact, she probably doesn’t even consider what she does “art,” and so is perhaps not the best example. But think of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, think of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, think of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, think Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. All of these books have formed important cultural commentaries on their times, and all have inspired numerous readers to think in new ways. That doesn’t mean they are all well written or even particularly intelligent.

Well, I’ve already gone on way too long about this today. I’ll just have to revisit it later. This post will be a true rough, rough draft. There’s a place in the world for that, just as there is for laser guns and green slime creatures and murders on the orient express. Just as there is for the basic, accepting love between human and animal. Now I am off to retrieve my cat from the vet so that she may scratch out another day if not my eyes. She is not a particularly sweet cat.

Ironically, when I adopted her, her shelter name was Candy. The only remnant of that is in the sound of her name, Cameo, and in the fact that we sometimes call her Candycane Tail because she is so uptight that she never uncurls her tail. Except, I should say, when she’s very, very sick. A limp tail is a terrible thing.

P.S. I really loved this discussion of “The Top 40 Bad Books” (It’s a PDF, so works only if you search the title or paste the URL into your browser: What variety! What disagreement! It takes a village to ferret out insights about what’s good and bad.

Dissecting Dissection

Students at a school in Texas played a "prank" with a cat from dissection lab. Photo from PETA website:

There’s a lot going on in my life this week, but even with my own personal dramas unfolding, both happy and sad, the thing that has moved me most is a conversation I had with a friend last Sunday. Her teenage daughter, she told me, was being compelled in her high school biology class to dissect a cat.

For a sweet young girl with two pet cats of her own at home, even the announcement of this practice had proved traumatic, but she had asked her parents not to intervene, as she also felt the pressure, like most teenagers, not to be different, not to make a scene. She had been careening through emotional conflicts ever since the teacher had announced the upcoming procedure in no uncertain terms.

As soon as the words came out of my friend’s mouth, I recoiled. I couldn’t imagine myself as a teenager having been required to do such a thing. The frog and the sheep heart had been bad enough, and suddenly long-forgotten sensations of evil in the biology classroom and lab came over me—the rank smell of formaldehyde, the freezing cold temperatures preferred by my hugely obese biology teacher, the glittering edges of the scalpels, the shockingly bright yellow strands of fat in the frog’s belly, the vaguely sexual implications in the way that the teacher had made us run our fingers into the slimy aortas of our sheep hearts while he leered at our trembling hands and bitten lips.

It isn’t that I don’t understand the need for dissections to be performed. I believe that it’s important for all young people to acquire a basic knowledge of anatomy, and I believe in the value of the higher study of biology. I even went on in college to take not only Bio 10, but also Field Biology, and in one we dissected chicken embryos and in the other we collected specimens, including insects we killed and birds and other creatures we might find dead. These classes also provided much discussion revolving around respect for the life forms with which we dealt, a wider context, if you will, than simply learning anatomy.

I also have a good friend, a former field biologist for the Fish & Wildlife Service who now teaches middle-school biology. He is far braver than I in the face of animal death, and in his many long bicycle rides, he comes across many injured animals that he puts out of their misery by breaking their necks. After he and his wife and I had observed a rabbit hit by a car one evening when we were out walking, I watched him go into the shrubs to perform this act of kindness. It is indeed only his knowledge of anatomy and his toughness in the face of death that allows him to do it, though it hurts him every time.

But for a school or a teacher to require high school students to dissect animals frequently kept in the home as pets, without doing mental health checks of these students or preparing them emotionally for such an event seems to me sadistic at the least. I told my friend so, and she encouraged her daughter to ask for an alternative assignment. Her request was granted, and she is now being allowed to do a “virtual” dissection in a separate room.

In the meantime, I found out that the Humane Society “opposes the practices of animal dissection in pre-college classrooms for numerous reasons.” Not surprisingly, most animal welfare organizations also speak out against it–PETA, the Animal Liberation Front, the Animal Welfare Institute, and In Defense of Animals. All of these organizations support the use of computerized imaging software or plastic models (both of which are long-lasting, re-usable, and ultimately cheaper) to teach anatomy to any but those involved in veterinary and other fields of learning where hands-on experience is required.

In fact, the Humane Society cites several studies that demonstrate higher levels of student learning of anatomy with computer simulations, and other studies note that the practice of dissection in high school discourages students from further study in biology because, obviously, they are not prepared to deal well with it emotionally. It is simply inappropriate and does not meet any feasible educational goals. Even the National Science Teachers Association now recommends non-dissection practices.

I also found out that Florida is one of ten states that has a law that requires that students be offered an alternative assignment without penalty (Florida passed the law in 1985). Of course, my friend’s daughter’s teacher did not exactly offer it. Instead, this young woman had to buck convention and go to the high school counselor to ask if such a thing would be possible.

To me, this indicates a real problem with this particular teacher and maybe with the school. It seems to me the teacher broke the law. But even more disturbing is that, in spite of numerous protests over the years, cat dissection is still used in numerous public school systems, including that of Miami, where my friend and her family live. Why this practice continues in any high school anywhere, I have no idea.

The issue of high school cat dissections was raised a couple of years ago in a case in which a Miami teenager was arrested and charged with a spree of cat kidnappings, killings, and dissection-like manglings. Recently, the case against this teenager, Tyler Weinman, was dismissed, and he and his father are countersuing for malicious prosecution. They claim that a pair of wild dogs killed the 33 cats that were found in the two neighborhoods that Tyler lived in with each of his divorced parents. The case had been entirely circumstantial, and the Weinmans found a forensic expert who would testify that the cats were killed by bite wounds, not the cutting instruments that Tyler supposedly had in his possession.

Whether Weinman committed any crimes in this situation or not, two things are salient. First, he behaved very strangely with the police by eagerly describing the tearing sound made when a cat’s skin was removed during his high school dissection (also reported by CBS and NBC). Secondly, it was not difficult to believe that a teenager who was having emotional difficulties with his parents’ recent divorce would commit such crimes. It was proper for the charges against Tyler Weinman to be dropped if the case could not be proven, but that does not mean that it’s not a problem for high schools to be teaching dissection of cats. In fact, the connection was so intuitive that the case immediately set off a debate about the use of cat dissections in Miami high schools.

I’m not saying that all students taught this way will go out and slaughter family pets. But it is clear at the very least that the lesson in school gave this student knowledge that he could have used to torture animals in his neighborhood. And, although the study of sociopaths is difficult and ambiguous, there is some evidence for the Graduation Hypothesis, the idea that one (of numerous) signs of a potential serial killer (of humans) is the youthful torture or abuse of animals. Why should our schools provide any potentially disturbed young men such tools?

Some educators continue to insist, however, that such instruction is beneficial. This article about the Tyler Weinmen-dissection issue quotes Milagros Fornell, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Miami-Dade schools, as saying that “I don’t think you want to take your animal to a veterinarian that doesn’t know what the inside of an [actual] animal looks like.” No, I don’t. But I can’t emphasize how utterly and totally inappropriate, even stupid, I think Fornell’s response is. High school is a far cry from veterinary school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 3,011,040 students were expected to graduate from high school in 2009, and according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, only about 2600 graduate from veterinary school every year. Those who enroll in veterinary school have been sifted by admission requirements and by their own dedication and desire to help animals, not hurt them. Even though far more graduate from medical school (16,838 in 2010), these veterinary and medical students are not equivalent as a group to all high school students.

It is also true, as one university educator noted in that last article about Tyler Weinman, that millions of cats are euthanized by shelters every year. If a cat is going to be euthanized anyway, what is the harm of using its body to teach? None. However, this line of procurement is not at all clear, and the cats and other animals used in dissection labs are obtained in a variety of other detrimental ways. At least one study cited by the Animal Liberation Front of cats obtained there noted that some procurement companies in Mexico paid for employees to go out and steal pets for $1 each. Procurement methods are often brutal and/or environmentally harmful, as noted by Dying to Learn.

For me, the justifications given by these educators are downright dodgy. If the reasons they give for continuing this practice are so clearly false, then what are the real reasons? Sheer stubbornness? Habit (it’s always been done this way)? Some questionable relationship with purveyors of dead cats, rats, frogs, and other creatures? Or just a complete avoidance of really thinking about it at all?

Most of the justifications given are based on the premise that those who oppose dissection in high schools oppose all dissections under any circumstances. And some no doubt do.

But most, including many animal welfare agencies, argue very specifically that dissection has its place. It’s only appropriate, however, a) if the students are given the proper emotional screening so that we don’t help produce any more Jeffrey Dahmers, b) if even the emotionally healthy students are of a maturity where they can handle it, c) if the lesson taught goes beyond anatomy to discuss the method of procurement to make it clear that no animals were killed expressly for the purpose of dissection, and d) if a discussion is begun about the ethical use of animals and the related problem of pet-animal overpopulation in the U.S.

And for me this last point is key to why this issue makes me think about the issue of authenticity.

In the U.S., we have a widespread schizophrenia–or at least a serious cognitive dissonance–about domestic animals. More than 62%, or more than 3 in 5, of households have at least one pet. We consider ourselves a nation of animal lovers, and the relationship between pet and person is often profound. Marketers know that “pets sleep in bed” and “get gifts.” They are often considered beloved members of their family.

Yet, according to the ASPCA, 3 out of every 10 dogs and 7 out of every 10 cats that enters a shelter is euthanized due to lack of a home. That is 3 to 4 million a year. This doesn’t even count the ones that eke out a meager existence or die from illness or injury after being abandoned or abused.

In my humble opinion, it would be of far more use for high school biology classes to take or send students to animal welfare organizations to observe, or to invite veterinarians into the classroom, and to get students talking about humane treatment of pets and other animals. I believe that your average high school student would learn far more about the sanctity of life and far more of use to our society by some participation in humane education than they do in an anatomy lab. A high school biology class could even be devoted to discussion of spay and neuter efforts and could thereby help lower the number of those cats that are euthanized every year. And, yes, I realize that some students would giggle, but such programs already exist for even younger students.

I urge everyone to find out what the practice is in their local area, and educate the educators about alternatives to animal dissections in high schools. Support strong local and state laws against animal cruelty. And instead of buying your fat and happy dog or cat one more bag of treats, make a donation to or volunteer at one of the many animal welfare agencies, national or local. If you’re an animal lover, any of these will be an act of great authenticity.

Louise Nevelson on a Messed-Up Day

A small section of Dawn's Wedding Feast from

This has been a colossally strange day. Worst, Jupiter’s cancer is probably back, much sooner than we’d hoped, but we won’t even know today because the real diagnostics have to wait til a biopsy on Wednesday. Keeping fingers crossed that it will be rogue scar tissue, though it’s likely a swelling new tumor.

I couldn’t even drive Jupiter to the appointment as planned because I myself suddenly was having dizzy spells and staggering around after getting up on a step-ladder to get into a box in the closet early today. It was a mess indeed, as my car was in the shop and I had driven Bruce to campus and left him without a car. He couldn’t get home, and I couldn’t go get him, and we had this appointment for the cat, and I was trying to negotiate with the guy who has been redoing our rotten gutters.

In the meantime, my blood sugar went down to 45 mg/dl, which contributed to my panic and confusion. Was I having a stroke for real this time? What did it mean that even my right hand didn’t seem to type right? Might I pass out? Should I call 911? My right side seemed uncoordinated and loose.

Finally, after Bruce borrowed a car and came home to check on me and take the cat in, and after my blood sugar normalized, I realized that I was feeling in some ways very good. I didn’t want to drive to the vet’s but I could go, too, and on the way I realized that my body was somehow just adjusting to some kind of nerve or ligament or muscle release that had occurred in my shoulder when I stretched so awkwardly in the closet. After about four years (four long years!), some tightness in my frozen shoulder had finally let go a bit, and suddenly my nerves were learning to control my movements again. My dizziness abated, and I suddenly felt my arm more than I have in a long time.

Earlier in the day I was planning to post my usual sad, maybe sentimental song as I usually do on Mondays. But by now, I feel instead the call of the intensely cool, the emotional in deep reserve, the less obvious feeling, and so I’m posting a picture of a Louise Nevelson sculpture, whose work Dawn’s Wedding Feast I first saw at the Whitney in 1980 and which was recently recreated at the Jewish Museum.

Louise Nevelson is another one of those artists for whose work you just have to be there in person. The small pieces make up much larger rooms, and the work’s power is stark, its emotion apparent only in accumulation, the subtleties of its colors and shades are much more moving when you stand among the pieces as large as you yet made up of pieces as small and unique as every moment of your individual, irreplaceable, inexplicable daily life.

I just feel like that today: there’s no way to convey it. I was here. It was an odd, odd day in a thousand little details. That’s all. You know what I mean.