Thursday, January 05, 2017

At the Zoo

Over the last several years, public awareness and outcry has led SeaWorld to change its model. No more trained orca shows. No more captive breeding. No more harvesting from the wild. It will direct its focus on rescue and research. Similar reassessments of how animals are used are taking place across the spectrum: in circuses, in feedlots, and in zoos.

The first zoo I ever visited was the Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco, California. I must have been five. I remember mostly my feeling of awe, viewing live what I’d been pointing to—and identifying—in picture books for years: bears, lions, tigers, and monkeys.

The last zoo I visited was the Lincoln Park Botanic Garden and Zoo in Chicago, Illinois. I enjoyed seeing Bactrian camels, leopards, vultures, a bear. I still felt the thrill of being up close and personal with the animals, but even in their large, naturalized areas, I felt a bit of sadness too.

Scientists have learned a lot about animals in the years between my two visits—and in the nearly 10 since that last one. They’ve learned that animals are more intelligent than first thought. Whales and porpoises travel in groups called pods. Each pod uses its own dialect. They seem to even have proper names, in the form of whistles, for each other. Crows remember faces. Don’t ever make one mad. They don’t forgive, and they don’t forget. Try to keep a squirrel off your bird feeders. Or raccoons out of the garbage. It is annoying, but it demonstrates intelligence.

 Scientists have learned that animals have feelings. Elephants who’ve known each other earlier in life, and been separated, not only recognize each other when reunited many years later, but greet each other with vocalizations and hugs. Coincidently, elephants also bury their dead—and visit their cemeteries, seemingly remembering anniversaries.

One of the best exhibitions of both emotion and intelligence in an animal is Koko the gorilla. Koko, 45, was the grad-school project of Penny Patterson, who intended to spend four years teaching the ape sign-language and documenting the process. It has become a lifelong endeavor. There is debate, to be sure, over the gorilla’s use of language, but time has won over many detractors. The public has seen Koko receive, and name, her beloved kitten All Ball, and the public watched her mourn All Ball, when it was killed at a young age. Koko got a new kitten, but alas, she signed, it was “not All Ball.” Intelligence. Feelings.

A lot of information has been gathered over the years about animal sociology, too. One of the biggest things that’s come to light is the family-based structure found in almost every animal society. The whales and porpoises mentioned earlier, horses, bison, monkeys, lions, and tigers all belong to intricately woven societies—much like our human ones—based on familial relationships. These new discoveries make a reexamination of zoos imperative.

While zoos have contributed much to the animal research out there, their for-profit business model presents a built-in conflict of interest, and chances are, the animals suffer for it. Zoos, by definition, are collections of animals. Space constraints make it impossible to import whole herds of water buffalo, or prides of lions. This means that the lion exhibit may have a handful of lions, and is probably not a true “pride” in that the animals are probably not related to one another.

But zoos have good breeding programs, and are helping conservation efforts, especially when it comes to endangered species. Breeding creatures to repopulate a habitat can have positive outcomes. Populations of eagles and the California condor have recovered since DDT nearly wiped them out.

The problem is: most species are endangered because they are losing their habitats. This leaves zoos breeding them—for zoos. It’s like breeding Siamese twins for the circus. An animal is brought into existence that will never be able to express its natural being. It will never hunt its food, or choose its mate, run its native terrain, or climb its native trees. It is only for display.

At the Lincoln Park Zoo, on the day I visited, there was a lone tiger. He had a large space to roam, with real grass and real trees. A deep moat separated him from the people who came to see him. As I watched from the back of his area, he meandered toward the crowd gathered at the front. I could hear their excitement as people got their cameras ready. But when the tiger reached the group, he turned his back on them—and defecated. To this day, I believe that big cat knew what he was doing, and I believe he did it on purpose. Take that, y’all.

So, because animals are kept in unnatural habitats, and forced to live lonely, neurotic and unnatural lives, I believe that zoos must be rethought—in their missions as well as their practices. If what’s happened with Sea World is any indication of what’s in store for zoos, then they’d best see the writing on the wall and make changes to bring their facilities in line with the latest animal research, and with the wishes of a public interested in the welfare of its natural resources.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Blogging--or a lack thereof.

I can’t believe how long it’s been since my last blog post. I apologize to those who follow WordWorks. It isn’t for lack of ideas. In fact, it may be that there are too many, all tumbling around in my head, none fully “polished” yet.

I have spent the last year teaching various writing classes at the local college. People who haven’t taught simply do not understand what it is like. It’s a lot like Disneyland’s Tea Cup ride. As a semester progresses, the spinning gets faster and more intense. It’s uproariously fun--until it leaves you dizzy and puking as it stops.

I don’t physically vomit at the end of a term, but I do go through a certain malaise, a grieving almost. The classroom becomes a community, almost family. We get to know each other, through interacting, and especially through our writing, which becomes quite personal and intimate as experiences, philosophies, and feelings are related. It is a great loss when it disbands.

A theatre professor early in my own college career impressed upon me that good theatre grabs a person, lifts them, carries them away, and then sets them down, but never quite in the same place. This is what teaching does to me. I hope, and like to think, my students experience somewhat the same thing.

As class work ratchets up, much of my normal life falls by the wayside. Laundry piles up. Dishes. Dust. Correspondence. Classes ended for me in mid-December. It has taken me six weeks to get back to my “normal.” At least my physical normal. I think I am still working on the mental normal. I’m still having classroom “flashbacks,” things I could have done, ideas for future classes, stories and ideas my students have presented--and that we have worked to hone.

I m still waking at 6:00 a.m. (partly because the cat got used to getting his “good stuff” at this time, and begins to pester me if I try to sleep longer). I still feel I should be “doing something” school related--lesson plans, papers.

But I am slowly recalibrating. reorienting toward the writing side of my career. I have realized the two do not blend well and I am not sure why. Perhaps because it is difficult to commit to and meet deadlines--like trying to hit the bull’s eye of a dart board from a spinning teacup. It may also reflect my own somewhat obsessive nature. I like variety, but I like to focus on, and finish, one project at a time.

I will get back in the groove though. I have started with writing this blog post.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Celebrating the Winter Solstice *

Yea! The days are getting longer! We’ve reached the winter solstice. December 21 marks the point in Earth’s annual trip around the sun where its tilt changes--and the days begin to get longer again!

I have realized that, more than the cold, more than the snow, more than anything about winter (well, maybe not the heating bills . . .), I hate that the sun goes down at 5 and doesn’t rise until 8 the next morning.

I am not the only one who celebrates the lengthening of days. In fact, it is the single most universal and ancient of celebrations. What I mean is, nearly every civilization since the beginning of recorded time has celebrated the winter solstice--Mayans, Native Americans, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and eventually, Europeans, whose traditions modern western societies have incorporated into their Christmas holidays.

Structures like the famous Stonehenge--and numerous others--are ancient, but precise, calendars marking the solstices, both winter and summer, as well as the equinoxes of spring and autumn.

The seasons were extremely important to the agricultural communities, and concerns for the food that ensured their survival was paramount. Early peoples were afraid of “the day the sun stood still,” fearing it would not bless them and their crops again. They also feared the forces of evil they believed ruled the dark. They pleaded with their gods to return the sun to the earth. They lit fires and candles in homage to the sun.

Many of these celebrations recognized a “reversal of order.” Feasts--often served by the masters to the slaves--marked the season, and criminals were pardoned. Presents were exchanged.

Homes were decorated with “powerful” evergreens for good luck. In Scandinavian countries, holly was hung around doors and windows to snag evil spirits trying to enter the buildings.

Mistletoe was especially magical. It was the sacred “Golden Bough” of the Druids and the Norse, and protected the Celts from evil. To Native Americans, it was the medicinal “All Heal.” And in Scandinavian tradition, soldiers meeting under it in the forest were obliged to observe a truce.

There was of course, practicality to many of these rites. The fires helped warm the people in winter, the feasts supplied extra fat reserves for the lean months ahead, and the celebrations provided recreation during a season that was slow--between harvest and planting--and dreary.

It is amazing how much of this holds true today. I guess the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” holds sway. The sun is still a symbol of rebirth and hope.

And so, even as winter descends, I will sip my hot cider (a remnant Romanian rite), content to bide my time and comforted by the knowledge that the days are getting longer--and spring is on the horizon.

*This post is another "oldie but goodie," pulled from the past to honor the rare full moon eclipse that occurred on this, 2010's, winter solstice. Alas, a view of the event, which is the first since 1638, was blocked by clouds in my neck of the woods. Another is not due again in my lifetime . . . .

Friday, October 22, 2010

Is Our Democracy Dying? *

I’m disappointed with the current state of politics in the United States of America. Not because the candidates I've voted for have won or lost. Not because policies have, or have not, gone the way I think they should. I’m disappointed because, it seems to me, running the country has become a power game, and elections more a sport than a time to come together and decide the business of our government.

The very language used--horse race, winning team, point spread--turns them to game. The candidates come out “boasting” of their feats, and deriding the opponents’, posturing reminiscent of the mudslinging that precedes wrestling matches.

Commanding our government is not a wrestling match. In his letters, Thomas Jefferson states, "The equal rights of man, and the happiness of every individual, are now acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government." Since we, as the people, are the government, our job becomes to promote and ensure the liberty and opportunity of everyone--not ourselves, not the few, not even the majority, but all.

According to Jefferson, again, this is done, not through wrangling, but through honest pursuit of truth. He further contends that it is the expression of differing opinions that uncovers truth. "Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry, truth,” he wrote to P. H. Wendover, in 1815. Uncovering truth means honest debate and honest discussion.

I do not hear that taking place. I hear a lot of positioning, I hear a lot of rhetoric, I hear a lot of buzzwords and sound bites. True discussion would have each person truly hearing and understanding others’ positions. True discussion would clarify the rhetoric and define the buzzwords. True debate would tell not just what, but how something could be accomplished. I believe true debate would bring us, not to a 51-49 split, but to general agreement.

Dr. Phil often asks people on his show: “Are you fighting to be right, or are you trying to resolve the issues?” I think, as a nation, we should ask ourselves the same question.

Our job is not to decide a winner, or even to choose the person who presents the best ideas. Our job is to figure out how best to safeguard the liberty and happiness of our citizenry. When we have done that, we send the person to the capital whom we deem best able to carry out our wishes.

In 1787, Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at The University of Edinburgh, made the statement: "A democracy is always temporary in nature . . . . A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship."

Tyler saw that each of the great civilizations of history followed a pattern “from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; [and] from dependence back into bondage."

Our founding fathers thought Tyler was wrong. They had great faith in the human desire for justice, and in the human ability to reason. "If ever the earth has beheld a system of administration conducted with a single and steadfast eye to the general interest and happiness of those committed to it, one which, protected by truth, can never know reproach, it is that to which our lives have been devoted," wrote Jefferson to James Madison, in 1826.

It would be a shame to lay their work to waste, and to return to the bondage against which they revolted.

*In light of upcoming elections, I am reprising this essay. I think it still applies, not only to the United States' system, but to all democracies. My hope is that it will spur people to think about the purpose of government--and the part(s) they might play in achieving and maintaining a system that benefits everyone equitably.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Tribute.

The first time I met my aunt Robyn, I thought she was the coolest woman I had ever met. She had a wicked sense of humor, and her laugh, while melodic, had a husky quality, with a hint of mischief. I was 14, she was 23. It was the early 70s, and she was a perfect blend of hippie and LA chic. Even her name, spelled with a "y" was cool. She had a flaming temper, though, and you truly never wanted to set that off (though it could be fun to watch when others did!).

Of course, she wasn’t my aunt then. She and my uncle were dating. She had accompanied him, from California to Arizona, to help my mother whose car’s engine had run dry of oil and seized. My uncle set up the appropriate repairs and then returned to California, with Robyn, and with me. It is one of those “times of your life” you never forget.

We left as the sun went down. It was summer and we had to cross the desert--something knowing folk don’t do under blazing sun. We made the trip in my uncle’s ‘63 Cadillac convertible. I can still feel that air as it hit my face and roared over and around my body the whole way. It was the sunburnt air of day being cooled by the ever so slight dampness that arises out of who knows where in the nighttime desert.

I don’t remember how long exactly I stayed with Robyn and my uncle in “the valley,” but it was long enough to change me forever. When I returned to my father’s home in Ohio, I put away my Bobby Sherman and Monkees records, and bought albums: Elton John’s Honky Chateau, the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, and Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat. And, these were not played on my record player, but on my father’s stereo.

In time Robyn and my uncle did marry and there were other trips and vacations spent with them. There were visits to Malibu Beach, and Magic Mountain, and “the Strip.” The roughly ten year age gap between Robyn and I closed as I got older and we became less adult-teenager, and more adult-young adult, more pals. We did some crazy things--some things we shouldn’t have, some she wouldn’t have if not for me, but she rolled her eyes and giggled when we got away them. Maybe she was recalling her own not so long ago youth.

We did some serious things too. At one point, I decided I wanted to be a magazine editor, and since the magazine I knew best--and had recently “graduated” from--was TigerBeat, we called and made an appointment. She didn’t laugh at me, but instead donned professional attire and took me over the Hollywood Hills to the Highland Avenue office where the editor patiently showed us around her office and explained her routine.

It was also my Aunt Robyn who, as an executive secretary at Paramount Studios, took me around the grounds, popping into a taping of “Little House on the Prairie.” During a break, I met Michael Landon, who I still remember as gracious and kind. He had a ready smile, and a warm and generous handshake.

Eventually, my aunt and uncle went separate ways. I understood the divorce, but was still disappointed. Robyn and I stayed in touch at first. She took me to my first, and only, studio preview--where the studio shows the latest movie for employees. I don’t remember the movie, but I remember the “Wow!’ Aunt Robyn was still cool.

The last time I saw her, my mother and I met her for dinner somewhere off Sunset Boulevard. We sat outdoors, and the rest becomes a blur of mellow wine and laughter. I still hear her gentle laugh in my ear as she hugged me good-bye and kissed my neck. I was a bit annoyed when I found her lipstick on the collar of my satin blouse the next day. It took some doing to get it out. If I’d known this would be our final meeting, I might have just left it.

Earlier this year, Robyn was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The doctors convinced her to try a round of chemotherapy. The treatment caused a stroke that left her unable to talk or eat--though my uncle told me they could sometimes hear her crying. They didn’t even try to save her, and instead let her starve to death. I do not understand this, but will save discussing the medical industry for later. She was 61. I regret I never told Robyn the impact she made on me, or how much she meant to me, how much I just plain liked her. I guess that’s just how things go. We take things for granted until we lose them--and all we have left are our memories.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

In Praise of Poetry

April is National Poetry Month, and so, before the month is through, I want to share a couple of my favorites. Both are by e. e. cummings, a writer known for his unconventional punctuation and syntax. Many people are confused by his works--myself included at times. I think he did this on purpose to challenge his reader, and to make them work for the interpretation--to make them invest themselves, and at the same time to make them let themselves go and just intuit the meaning--a sort of “free association” of words, images, emotions, and thoughts.

The first poem is “the greedy the people,” the second is “dive for dreams.” Happy spring!

the greedy the people

the greedy the people
(as if as can yes)
they steal and they buy
and they die for because
though the bell in the steeple
says Why

the chary the wary
(as all as can each)
they don't and they do
and they turn to a which
though the moon in her glory
says Who

the busy the millions
(as you're as can i'm)
they flock and they flee
through a thunder of seem
though the stars in their silence
say Be

the cunning the craven
(as think as can feel)
they when and they how
and they live for until
though the sun in his heaven
says Now

the timid the tender
(as doubt as can trust)
they work and they pray
and they bow to a must
though the earth in her splendor
says May

dive for dreams

dive for dreams
or a slogan may topple you
(trees are their roots
and wind is wind)

trust your heart
if the seas catch fire
(and live by love
though the stars walk backward)

honour the past
but welcome the future
(and dance your death
away at this wedding)

never mind a world
with its villains or heroes
(for god likes girls
and tomorrow and the earth)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Barbie Turns 50.

My father recently sent me a newspaper clipping celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Barbie doll. It brought back some memories.

My first Barbie doll was a gift from my father’s aunt, Mae. I was going to spend a school break at Aunt Mae’s. She lived in the city, where, unlike my small town, they had toy stores. I had decided I would get her to buy me a Barbie. I had been saving my allowance and planned to contribute it toward the purchase.

In my father’s desk drawer, he always kept a little box labelled “My Two Cents.” It contained two pennies. At the age of six, I didn’t fully understand the meaning of this, but Dad always got a chuckle out of it.

So, when the time came, instead of packing my savings, I packed two pennies. My aunt did not get my joke and was not amused. But she took me to the toy store anyway. She refused to buy me Barbie, though, insisting instead on Barbie’s cousin, Midge. She was more “wholesome,” my aunt explained.

I’m not sure why I even wanted the doll. I was really not a “doll” person. I can only think I must have felt left out when my cousins played with their Barbies--of course they had “real” ones, and Kens, too. There was a decided difference between “baby” dolls and adult dolls, though.

With adult dolls, one could make up stories and dress them in the latest fashions. We would make them zoom around in hot cars and do fun things. They could go on vacations, or to the beach, or just lie around the pool. The possibilities were endless.

With two brothers still in diapers, I found baby dolls much too close to real life. The only story lines available were “mommy” ones--and they came with a lot of work! I have since come to see baby dolls as a societal ruse to train little girls to be mothers. I could maybe forgive this if they were also used to teach little boys to be fathers. But I digress.

The small town I lived in was a rather conservative town, with a decidedly religious population. When I returned from the city with my “Barbie,” folks were wary. Might this be some evil influence in disguise? And none of my friends had one (which should have made me the object of envy, right? But, no . . . . ). And so, Midge, and later, my favorite, Skipper, only got to live in my little dream world, or when we went to the city.

This all changed when one of the teachers at my school created a series of instructional skits. One was designed to show the proper way to brush one’s teeth. It involved a huge set of choppers and an equally large toothbrush. For some reason--maybe to play the germs and bacteria?--they decided small dolls would be the perfect thing. But the only dolls anyone had were baby dolls. And then someone remembered my Barbies. The teacher called my mother, and Midge and Skipper finally got their moment in the spotlight. The ice was broken. My Barbies were no longer contraband.

In the end, my Aunt Mae gave me quite the gift. Now, forty-five years later, Midge dolls are rather rare--and that makes them worth a fairly pretty penny. Not a bad purchase--for my two cents!