Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Of Mice and Mean

I grew up with cinnamon flavored Lavoris mouthwash, but in recent years have found it increasingly difficult to find on the supermarket shelves. Apparently, the only store stocking it locally is one of those dollar stores. So, I found myself in Dollar Tree in search of Lavoris, and happened to stumble through the pet supply aisle. The entire aisle was filled with dog and cat food, litter, pet toys, and other pet supplies. But directly beneath the “Pet Supplies” sign were two shelves stacked with wooden mousetraps.

I did a doubletake. My eyes shot from the pet supplies sign, down to the mousetraps, and then back up to the sign. At first, I suspected a dyslexic clerk might have been the culprit. It’s easy to confuse “Pets” with “Pest.” It’s only the transposition of a single letter that separates the cuddly from the cringe-worthy. Or perhaps there was an entire subculture of pet owners with BDSM fetishes. It begins with collars and leashes, and before you know it, the mousetraps come out.

I got back into my car and, coincidentally, tuned into the podcast to which I had been listening: an old episode of Ira Glass’ This American Life, specifically, episode 12, entitled “Animals.”  As an aside, I’m a big fan of Ira Glass and his show and highly recommend it. For those who haven’t experienced it, each episode of the radio program consists of multiple segments (called acts) based on a common theme. In Act I, which you can listen to here, photographer Catherine Chalmers was interviewed in her apartment, where she raises small animals and insects, feeds them to each other, and photographs them eating each other.

Chalmers discusses her hobby with a detachment worthy of Hannibal Lecter. At one point, she describes placing a newborn mouse, still furless and not having yet opened its eyes, on the table with her other pet, a snake she has not fed in a week. The two-day old mouse cannot see and can barely move. She has to wait for the snake to realize the “pinky,” as she calls it, is meant to be its meal, but eventually the snake wraps itself around the tiny creature and constricts it. The defenseless mouse cannot see what is attacking it, but it can express its fear and pain in piercing squeals, which it does.

The interviewer asks if she thinks she could be charged with animal cruelty. Chalmers replies, “I don’t think so,” adding maybe, if she took one outside and ripped it apart where everyone could see. This struck me as an interesting defense: that it is not the act, but rather who sees it, which determines criminality. A more common argument is predators routinely consume their prey in nature, and what Chalmers has done is simply a recreation of nature. But it’s not.

In nature, a pregnant mother would have found a spot safe from predators to birth her children, allowing them time to learn to walk, and see, and learn to defend themselves. In the vastness of the wild, there are opportunities for prey to escape their predators, and even for predators to become prey themselves as they feast. This was not the case in Chalmers’ apartment. This was a premeditated slaughter conducted for entertainment and profit.

I see such arguments and defenses employed repeatedly in discussions of political topics. Analogies are frequently made to bolster one side that conveniently leave out salient facts which, if known, would render the analogy meaningless. No, it’s not just as in nature, because in nature there exists maternal instinct and opportunity for escape. Often, an argument may sound rational unless you examine it closely to spot its flaws. For this reason, I advise all my readers not just to listen and read, but to apply critical thinking to what one has heard and read.

It’s a good thing I found my Lavoris; this seems to have left a bad taste in my mouth.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

It’s Later Than You Think

I started this blog three and a half years ago, as most authors do, to call attention to my books in the hope readers might be motivated to purchase them. I've tried to keep the blog interesting, filling it with social commentary, philosophical musings, and humorous anecdotes, but unlike many other authors who blog, never discussing my personal life. Today will be the first, and likely only, exception.

Today is my birthday. And it’s my first birthday in more than half a century that my grandmother will not be here to celebrate it with me. Somehow, that makes me feel much older. The last survivor of her generation in my family, she died four weeks ago, four months short of what would have been her 104th birthday. She outlived my grandfather, who was born the year the Wright brothers flew the first airplane from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and had lived to watch a man walk on the moon. When Grandma was born in January 1911, women did not have the right to vote in America; when she died, Hillary Clinton was the likely Democratic presidential nominee.

She lived through enormous changes in a lifetime that encompassed two world wars, a global influenza epidemic that killed 50 million people, the Great Depression, the atom bomb, the moon landing, and the inventions of talking motion pictures, radio, television, computers, and the Internet.
When Grandma was born, William Howard Taft (a fat, white man weighing in at 354 lbs.) was the 27th President of the United States; when she died, the 44th president, Barack Obama (a skinny, black man), was in office. Edward VII was King of England, succeeded later that year by his son, King George V. The Mexican revolution was in full swing; famine was killing thousands in China; and in New York City, 146 men, women, and girls, mostly recent Jewish and Italian immigrants, would perish in flames that year in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It was the year the U.S. Supreme Court dissolved the monopolistic Standard Oil Company, and the first Indianapolis 500 took place.

A few other things happened that year, besides my grandmother’s birth. The first public elevator was unveiled (in London’s Earl’s Court tube station); Procter & Gamble brought Crisco cooking oil to market; the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre (they got it back two years later); Roald Amundsen became the first man to reach the South Pole; airplanes were used as military weapons for the first time in history; and the first Marconi wireless transmission was received in New York, all the way from Italy. Also, the Titanic was launched; it would sink on its maiden voyage, the following year.

The American flag had only 45 stars when Grandma was born. The zipper had not yet been invented; nor had the aerosol spray can, frozen food, penicillin, the yo-yo, Scotch tape, or bubblegum. A postage stamp cost two cents, the average wage was 22 cents an hour, and the average annual income was between $200 and $400. There were 8,000 cars in the country and the speed limit was 10 mph. Only 14% of homes had a bathtub, while only 8% had a telephone. Grandma never attended college, but then, in 1911, only 6% of Americans had graduated from high school. Beer wasn’t available in cans, but the local drugstore did dispense marijuana, morphine, and heroin, over-the-counter.

This was the world into which my grandmother was born. I knew her my whole life, and yet I never really knew her. I've often said people, like diamonds, are multifaceted. When you hold a diamond, you can never see all of its sides. The side of her that I saw was that of a loving and devoted grandmother. There were smaller facets I also saw: that of wife, mother, sister, and aunt. Those were the roles I saw her play in my lifetime, but there were facets I had never glimpsed, because I hadn't been alive to see them. She had lived nearly half a century before my birth… what some would consider an entire lifetime in itself. She had been a daughter to my great-grandparents whom I had never met; a sister to several siblings whom I’d never met; and a cousin to individuals who were very close to her, including one who came to live with her family after being gassed as a soldier in World War I; all strangers to me.

These were the facets I never saw, yet these people were as important to her as those of our family who have survived her. She could never bring herself to talk about her oldest sister, Mollie, without tearing up, even though Mollie had died in 1926, before the rest of us were born. I learned secondhand, through Grandma, about all of these people, our distant relatives who were far from distant to her. Through the photographs and her stories, which she shared with me as I was doing my genealogy project, I saw a little more of the diamond, and was able to meet, albeit vicariously, some of the people who had shaped the early years of her life.

Grandma was delivered into this world by a doctor who was also a cousin. At the age of 19, she was a clerk at a New Jersey hotel, where she would connect phone calls for the guests, including some prominent gangsters of the time. She became a legal secretary for three lawyers, and married one of them. My grandfather opened a law office above his uncle’s dress shop, and he and my grandmother also worked in the dress shop during the Depression. Later, they opened their own dress shop in New York and ran it until my grandmother became pregnant. They retired to Miami Beach in the 50s, where my grandmother became a licensed real estate agent and, with my grandfather, were owners of two Collins Avenue motels.

At her funeral last month, I said in her eulogy:
“Grandma had a wry sense of humor, yet her other quintessential traits included stoicism, stubbornness, and perseverance. Her endurance of hardship and pain was a hallmark of her stoicism. Into her 90s and 100s, she would endure frequent painful spinal stenosis at restaurant meals rather than take a prescribed pain pill, because, as she explained, she didn't want to become addicted to them. As for her perseverance, we often referred to Grandma as the “Energizer Bunny,” a phrase that has entered the vernacular as a term for anything that continues endlessly.

“These past few months have been difficult. We didn't lose Grandma this week; we lost her piece by piece, as her advanced age gradually eroded her mobility, hearing, eyesight, and lucidity. With each passing month, we buried a part of the once vibrant woman we knew, until today, when we inter her final remains.

“I spent this past April living with Grandma. One night, she was lying in bed with her feet under the air-conditioning vent, and she said her feet were cold. She asked, “You know what that means? It’s time for me to go…” poignantly adding, “but I don’t know how.” Each day, Grandma would sit in her recliner, tapping her hand and leg to the beat of a song only she could hear. When asked what she was singing, she’d reply, “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think.” Grandma had a great sense of humor. One day, I woke her to tell her I was leaving and said, “You fell asleep. You should go to bed; you must be tired if you were napping.” She replied, “I was just rehearsing.”

“Another night, she awoke confused, crying out for “Mother”. I asked her mother’s name, to be sure it was her mother she was calling for, and not mine sleeping in the next room. She replied, “Ida.” I reached across to the dresser and brought her a photograph of her parents. I passed her the photo, and said softly, “I never knew her, you know.” She studied the photograph, and whispered, “She’s gone, isn't she?” I nodded and replied, “We have her pictures and the stories you've shared, and that’s how we’ll keep her alive in our memories.” Grandma nodded and smiled, and I think that made her feel a little better.

“We have Grandma’s pictures, and lots of stories, and that’s how we’ll keep her alive in our memories. Maybe that will make us feel a little better.”

Saturday, October 11, 2014

When Bullets Fail…

Exactly two years ago, to the day, I introduced you to the bravest girl in the world. I wrote:

“Today, I want to tell you about the bravest girl in the world. She doesn't fight demons or slay dragons. Fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai fights for ideas like freedom and education. She doesn't hate school like many American kids; she fought to be allowed to go to school. For years, the Taliban controlled her village of Swat Valley in Pakistan and strictly forbade girls from attending school... under penalty of death.”

When Malala was only 11, and the Taliban was blowing up more than 150 schools, she diarised the Taliban’s atrocities, like a modern-day Anne Frank, and the BBC republished her blog accounts pseudonymously to the world. This did not go over well with the cutthroat slime terrorizing Pakistan and Afghanistan. Taliban gunmen boarded her school bus. They asked which girl was Malala Yousafzai. The students pointed her out. They watched, as a gunman aimed his pistol at her head and fired.

A Taliban spokesman justified their cowardly act of terrorism: “She considers President Obama as her ideal leader. Malala is the symbol of the infidels and obscenity.” They had employed the only two weapons at their disposal: fear and death. The Taliban believed Malala’s story, and the threat it posed to them, had ended. They were wrong. Malala’s story had just begun.

Malala Yousafzai knew this was her reality, the world she lived in, the world in which she was growing up, and the childhood that would shape her life. Yet, she spoke out -- bravely, loudly, and clearly. Malala knew freedom isn't free -- it's earned. So she stood up for the right of girls to receive an education, amid rising fundamentalism, when few Pakistani adults would do so. In retaliation, the Taliban sought to send a clear message of intimidation by shooting her on a school bus. They failed. She survived. Malala, the bravest girl in the world, continued to write, even from her hospital bed, unintimidated by these murderous scum.

Today, exactly two years later, the world acknowledged it had heard Malala, as she became, at 17, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Appropriately, she was given the news while in her chemistry class, at school, in Birmingham, England, where she now resides. Two years ago, I predicted Malala would one day return to Pakistan, displaying her same spirit, pluck, and confidence, along with a newfound education, to lead her country from the Middle Ages into the 21st century. While I may not live long enough to see it come to pass, I can envision this young girl growing up to become the woman who enables all the girls of her native Pakistan to pursue their educations, not as refugees in a foreign land, but as equal citizens in their own country where they can learn whatever they want and become whomever they wish to be.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Inexorable Weed

I saw a lovely display of outdoor plants at the supermarket, today. I imagined how nice they would look on my patio and was tempted to buy them, until I remembered I have a black thumb. Some people are born with green thumbs, that nurture and nourish whatever flora they touch. My hands, however, are anathema to my chlorophyll producing friends that share the planet with me. Besides, I have a lovely weed at home.

Over the years, I made many attempts to populate my patio with greenery. My patio still displays a scattering of empty pottery filled only with soil, vestigial remains that stand as ceramic monuments to my fruitless endeavors at gardening. Except for one pot. As if to defy Persephone, the goddess of springtime, or more likely merely to mock me, something did take root in the potting soil in this one planter – a weed.

It began as a small weed, but quickly grew, as weeds are wont to do. It covered the surface of the rather large planter, and one day I stepped out on the patio and pulled out the weed by its roots, leaving my planter barren again. A few weeks later, I noticed a small weed sprouting from beneath the planter’s soil. In time, it grew … and spread. Eventually, I yanked it out and assumed I was done with it.

The weed was resilient. It returned with a vengeance. It spread across the circumference of the ceramic planter, and then, to my surprise, grew skyward. More and more, my weed came to resemble a plant. It was green. It looked full. And it had appendages resembling leaves. Visitors would comment on what a lovely plant I had. At first, I would correct them. “No, it’s not a plant; it’s a weed.” I soon tired of that. I learned to nod and mutter a quiet “Thank you.”

Now, whenever I step onto the patio, I’m greeted by the lush greenery spilling forth from the once barren pot. It actually looks rather nice. I can see where people might think it was a plant. I water it, and take undeserved pride in its colorful appearance. I’m uncertain if I've accepted the weed or been co-opted by it.

I came to see the weed as an allegory for aging. Each generation enters the world filled with energy and the irrefutable belief that it will change the world. Yet, as the years turn to decades, that youthful energy fades as entropy sets in, and those once hopeful in their callow, optimistic naïveté realize, despite all their well-meaning intentions and efforts, the world has not changed. Poverty, disease, crime, war – the scourges of humanity – are inexorable weeds in our garden. Eden, like the lovely display of flora at my supermarket, is not the garden to which we come home. Aging, you see, is the process of learning to accept the inexorable, that which we cannot change.