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Baby rabbits in nest. (Photo by Karen Foreman; from the National Wildlife Federation.)

A late Saturday afternoon in the suburbs at our daughter and son-in-law’s house, in the backyard with two granddaughters and three dogs, tossing a half-deflated volleyball around (the six-year-old thrashing it wildly), birds chirping, sun beaming, tree branches waggling in the breeze … An American idyll, especially with cold beer on hand. Our dog Fergus, the beagle mix who presides over this blog, plays his favorite game of pretending to dig a hole in the lawn so that we have to chase him away from it, which leads him to dash to another spot and pretend to dig there …

Then a ferocious barking as a neighbor couple and their terrier walk by on the sidewalk. The three dogs in the yard rush through the perimeter of trees and bushes to guard the chain-link fence. The girls run over to talk to the neighbors. Eventually the animals inside realize the one outside is harmless, and Fergus exchanges a snuff through the fence with his terrier counterpart.

But as Fergus strolls away, he steps over a shallow nest hidden in the spotty ground cover around the trees. Nose alerted, he digs in, and suddenly baby rabbits are scrambling in three directions. The girls run after one rabbit. Fergus keeps his nose in the nest, jaw working, until I pull him away.

Last year, when he found a nest in the front yard and emerged with a baby in his mouth, the girls and parents tried to nurse it back to health, unsuccessfully. After a day they buried it with appropriate ceremony. Ever since, Fergus has been watched carefully when he visits Rabbitville.

Yet, once more, he was too quick for us. With the advice of—what else?—Google, we knew this time to leave the babies alone and let the mother find them. In a couple of minutes she duly appeared, hopping with caution across the yard while Fergus hyperventilated in my grip. In the end it appeared that all the bunnies were alive, though one was injured.

The nine-year-old called Ferg’s behavior “evil.” We had to explain that he can’t be blamed because it’s his instinct to catch rabbits, his basic nature. Eventually the girls did accept this.

Yet any quick excuse of that sort makes me question why we reproach humans but not animals. Consider Donald Trump: Isn’t it his nature to get up early in the morning and bark ferociously, via Twitter, in defense of his territory? Isn’t it basic instinct that leads him to keep suspicious foreigners out of his yard? What about amassing great wealth while denying health care to millions—isn’t that like Fergus refusing to share his extra treats after dinner?

True, humans are supposed to have reason and some degree of free will, making them accountable for their behavior. But the more we learn about animals, the more credit they get for having thought, some form of language and a surprising amount of psychological insight. Even plants exchange chemical signals, science tells us. So can we still insist that humans are ethically different?

Whenever I read moral philosophy, its principles seem nice enough but founded on air. Only determinism makes sense to me. While hoping there’s more to our behavior than electrochemical impulses—and contending we should always behave as if there is—I lack faith in a larger paradigm.

Still, still … I do hold Trump more responsible than Fergus. Logic be damned—the guy’s an ass.

Or, at least, if he’s as driven by instinct as a dog, I’d like to believe in the same ultimate recourse. When a pet proves dangerous and incorrigible, we take him to the vet—for a needle.

Don’t worry, Ferg, no such fate for you.

#NFLDraft Closeup

April 29, 2017

The new function of Fairmount “Park”

More observations on the #NFLDraft Experience, which I have the privilege of viewing up close without leaving my front step. In the following notes I’ll try to be as unbiased and truthful as possible. This morning my wife took a potting class at a garden center and failed to bring home any pot, so you know I’m totally unmedicated and clear-headed as I write.

  • Around 9 a.m. about 75 police swarmed our neighborhood’s famous gilded Joan of Arc statue. It was interesting to see these beefy guys in blue surrounding slim little Joanie on her horse. She campaigned to protect a country and a prince that she loved from foreign invaders. Our cops are out there to protect NFL multimillionaires from their fans and the fans from themselves.
  • I never realized that choosing up players for teams required so many speeding black SUVs and siren-blaring motorcycle escorts. Back in junior high it was much simpler. The team captain just pointed and you stepped over next to him. I fondly remember the day I wasn’t the very last one picked.
  • The uniform for an NFL fan is a jersey with someone else’s name on it. The psychology is a little hard for me to understand. I mean, yes, you show allegiance to your favorite player, but at the cost of submerging your own identity? If I were going to wear a jersey with someone else’s name, I wouldn’t settle for any old All-Star runner or passer or tackler. I’d want to honor a rapist, girlfriend beater or dog torturer. Luckily there are plenty of those to choose from.
  • Despite the huge traffic jams clogging our streets, not many horns are blowing. This proves that most of the drivers are from out of town.
  • A traffic jam is actually entertaining to watch when you’re not in a car. Poor schlubs, hee-hee-hee. As long as no one has a heart attack.
  • People have been engaging in loud arguments on the sidewalk in front of my house, in the middle of the day. This, too, proves they’re from out of town. Philadelphians would wait till midnight.
  • Not even locals realized the iconic stature of our Art Museum. Because the mammoth stage constructed for the draft blocks the view of the Museum’s noble columns, the stage incorporates fake columns made of foam. Don’t believe that? Read about it here and here.
  • Realizing that exactly none of the estimated $80 million generated by this event will go to our impoverished, traumatized public schools, neighbors have brainstormed other fundraising options. For instance, what about the magnificent Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the boulevard leading up to the Art Museum that all these outsiders love to appropriate for mega-events? Noting that Franklin has done little for us lately, we’re proposing to sell re-naming rights to the street, all proceeds going to the schools. Corporations, think of this: with every televised event your name would be mentioned hundreds of times. We already have Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field, so how about the Comcast Parkway? The McDonalds Mile? The Oprah Oval? Applicants, please write to Mayor Jim Kenney, and attach an appropriate political contribution.

 

Here in Poland, formerly known as the Art Museum neighborhood of Philadelphia, we are proud to welcome the NFL Draft Experience Extravapalooza. One in a long series of events that bring us hundreds of thousands of visitors and, in this case, the largest temporary stage ever seen in the city and perhaps the galaxy, this celebration promises days of enjoyment for all.

Already, in the run-up to the event, we’ve savored the following benefits:

  • Hundreds of convenient porta-potties installed around the neighborhood
  • Closure of major traffic arteries, offering the opportunity to sit meditatively behind the wheel and view the sights of our city through clouds of exhaust
  • Attractive military-style trailers and vehicles lining the streets
  • Outside security staff warning locals not to walk their dogs in the area
  • The sweet thrash and blare of helicopters cruising overhead
  • As shown in the picture, the locking of mailboxes, to defend us both from terrorists who hate football and from drunken fans who can’t distinguish a mailbox from a trash can

Some grumps—and I admit to knowing a few—have begun complaining about the frequency with which our neighborhood is rented out to private organizations that want to capitalize on the iconic Parkway and Rocky Steps. But we’re getting an estimated $80 million for this deal!—money that the city, still in many ways the most impoverished in the nation, desperately needs. With this influx of funds, we’ll be able to raise the salaries of our corporate leaders who live in the suburbs, bolster the political clout and intimidation power of union heads like our famous Johnny Doc, and ensure that agencies like our Parking Authority and Housing Authority—national models of featherbedding and corruption—continue their good work.

That is why the residents of our neighborhood have formally agreed to rename the area Poland, in honor of the frequent invasions from outside our borders. The entire city, in fact, has temporarily relabeled itself, as shown by this newspaper headline:

Most amazingly, the fuddy-duddies at the Art Museum, those conservative upper-crusters who have long sneered at the Rocky statue as a mere movie prop and lamented the sacrifice of the Museum steps for TV ratings, are now finally getting with the program. At a recent meeting, the Board of Trustees voted to allow the sale of naming rights for iconic objects in the Museum collections. The first such treasure, formerly known as Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, has now been unveiled in the main lobby with its new corporate moniker:

Trump Hotels® Luxury Visitor Accommodation

Shocked!

February 19, 2017

Change Seven magazine has posted a guest blog entry of mine about surviving a (Trumpian) shock to the system. Here’s the link.

The general theme, in keeping with the magazine’s name, was “change,” and I started to ponder how our former ideas about change seem both still-relevant and terribly quaint. The old term “future shock” popped into my mind—which was kind of like reading a letter you wrote as a teenager and realizing that, back then, you understood far more than you do now.

Writers ResistYesterday in Philadelphia, an event called “Writers Resist: United for Liberty” filled to overflowing a 300-seat auditorium for more than two hours of readings about freedom of speech, racial justice, economic justice, and more. It was linked in spirit to the New York event sponsored by PEN America, but it had a uniquely local flavor, with passages from historical speeches and writings set in Philly. The organizers (and who knew writers could organize so well?) were Alicia Askenase, Stephanie Feldman, and Nathaniel Popkin.

There’s a good write-up at Philly.com, and many ongoing comments on the Facebook site and Twitter feed (@ResistPHL), as well as photos and videos. Most important, the plan is to carry on with further events and actions, beginning next month.

I can’t add much to the eloquence of the other voices, so I’ll simply quote three passages that I found most moving—ones that didn’t have specific connections to Philly but shared a universal resonance.

The program concluded with poet Tom Devaney reading Langston Hughes’s stirring poem “Let America Be America Again,” which includes these lines:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

A dream that’s never quite fulfilled but that we can, we must, keep aiming at—that states it perfectly.

Valerie Fox read a translation of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “When Evil-Doing Comes Like Falling Rain,” a reminder not to let ourselves be anesthetized by the quantity of outrages:

The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread. When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out “stop!” When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.

Finally, here’s a quotation that connects with my frequent screeds about American voting behavior. Kelly McQuain read this passage, among others, from Elie Wiesel’s 1999 speech “The Perils of Indifference”:

In a way, to be indifferent to [human] suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response.

Let’s say that one more time in capitals: INDIFFERENCE IS NOT A RESPONSE.

 

Bluster’s Last Stand?

November 9, 2016

Waking after the long election night… What, is the world still here? There are people who still dare to go out on the street? They’re, like, heading to work or something? Really?

So I manage to walk the dog, make breakfast and pick up the paper. There I find a column by Helen Ubiñas headlined “Stunned at the Victory of Self-Destruction.” (An updated version of the printed column is here.) Her take on the election corresponds to what I wrote on June 3 about a national death wish. She talks about “the xenophobia and sexism and hatred and racism Americans either embrace or are willing to overlook to send a message. And that message,” she adds,

is one of self-destruction, because although Hillary Clinton has her flaws, her many, many flaws, the message we are sending by being so willing to make a carrot-colored caricature the president of the United States is that we are willing to throw our country under the bus, that we are willing to be the world’s punchline, that we are willing to make a man with zero political experience and less global respect the 45th president of the United States.

Yeah, that says it. My image was a flaming explosion, an Armageddon, but the bus metaphor is good too. I am feeling rather squashed right now, and some of my friends seem to be having trouble breathing.

Wasn’t it ironic to hear that this election was about “change”? When it simply reversed the previous change? How many more times will voters be able to feel like conservatives simply by choosing the candidate who’s sane and competent?

By IProspectIE (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

photo by IProspectIE, via Wikimedia Commons

Dreading the possibility of a morning like this, I’ve been toying with the idea of moving back to the land of my ancestors (some of them), and living quietly in a stone cottage, enjoying the fruits of the land (see picture) around a wee turf fire. I won’t really do that, of course, but it’s a consolation to have a refuge in mind.

More consoling is the fact that a large majority of those who are not white males voted for Hillary. So did a huge percentage of voters 18–29, and a smaller but clear majority of those 30–44.

These people are the dominant electorate of the future, folks. And they showed their disgust for the vile orange pussy-grabbing dictator-worshiping sexist racist fascist charlatan. (Oops, I was trying to be less polemical than Ms. Ubiñas.)

Trump voters in the near future

So what I’m saying is: there’s a good chance this is Bluster’s Last Stand.

Another, less direct comfort comes from nearly a century ago, in a passage by the English writer Ford Madox Ford. In his novel Some Do Not…, the first of the Parade’s End trilogy, set in the years surrounding World War I, protagonist Christopher Tietjens is accused of hating his own country because he detests virtually everyone in charge. His accuser is the young woman he cares for more than anyone else, so he replies honestly:

Don’t say it! Don’t believe it! Don’t even for a moment think it! I love every inch of its fields and every plant in the hedgerows: comfrey, mullein, paigles, long red purples, that liberal shepherds give a grosser name … and all the rest of the rubbish … and we have always been boodlers and robbers and reivers and pirates and cattle thieves, and so we’ve built up the great tradition that we love … But, for the moment, it’s painful. Our present crowd is not more corrupt than Walpole’s. But one’s too near them.

Maybe it’s the same now. Are we just too near the current boodlers to see things in perspective? Maybe Donald Trump is no worse than George Wallace (who wasn’t, however, nominated by a major party) or Huey Long (who got shot before he could be nominated). Maybe Sean Hannity is no crazier than Father Coughlin. Maybe the Alt-Right media are no more scurrilous than Marcus Pomeroy, who wrote of Abraham Lincoln in 1864: “The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor and murderer.… And if he is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good” (quoted in Don E. Fehrenbacher, “The Anti-Lincoln Tradition”).

I hope those maybes are true. I hope.

Election Day

November 8, 2016

WebVotingSticker

Click either sticker for a rant about their meaning.