Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Joy of Animals

Thank you, Pushkin and Lyuba (Pushkin’s the black one pictured to the right, Lyuba’s the multi-colored one in the photo above). These are the creatures sharing our home at the moment; the reigning deities in a long line of four-footed pleasure-givers.

There have been many cats before them, and many dogs. Not to mention a couple of horses, some rabbits, a pair of short-lived ducklings, hamsters, gerbils, an iguana, a pair of birds (two-footed, but I'm counting them anyway) and the orphaned baby woodchuck we bottle and hand-fed one summer until he was old enough to take care of himself and we set him free.

There have been cats who allowed themselves to be dressed in doll clothing, a cat who liked to swim, and a dog who saved my two-year old sister from being trampled by a herd of sheep. There was the cat who took off, leaving behind a litter of kittens, only to reappear months later looking sleek and happy. That same cat, together with a dog who had joined the household, went out for a walk one morning, stayed away for days, then returned within minutes of each other, offering no explanation of where they had gone or why.

There’s plenty of scientific data showing that the presence of animals in our lives is good for our mental and physical health. For example, when animals are brought to visit people in retirement homes, there’s evidence that petting them, even just watching them, results in a decrease in people’s blood pressure and marked improvement in alertness and mood, due at least in part to the release of endorphins. Ah, those lovely endorphins.

But even if the benefits can be explained as a chemical high, I like to think that what animals bring us as the gift of pure joy. Just that, the heart-lifting experience of joy. They offer it simply by being the creatures they are; frank about their needs, but asking nothing of us beyond food, shelter, and some affection.

We chose Lyuba and Pushkin a couple of years ago at a shelter, when she was a year old and he six-months. They had been discovered alone in a house, abandoned and starving. It took months before Lyuba would leave the hiding place she found, in the back of a closet, for anything but food and the litter box. I imagine she’d been old enough during the time of their mistreatment to have learned to associate humans with all things negative. Pushkin, on the other hand, seems to have been too young to have made that connection. I think he is also innately a blithe little soul. And, happily, Lyuba has gradually become a glutton for affection.

Now that Pushkin is an adult cat, and nearly twice Lyuba’s size, he’s a perfect example of biology as destiny. Pushkin rules, especially at feeding times when he will do whatever is necessary to stay between Lyuba and the human with the can of cat food. But I can’t hold this against him; I understand it’s in his genes. And in counterbalance to his “I am master of all I survey, especially food” attitude is his totally unselfconscious zaniness. As when he suddenly decides to hurtle from one end of the house to the other, sometimes giving out a savage little cry in mid-course. It’s inexplicable, and highly entertaining.

It’s also great fun when I inadvertently startle him and he levitates straight up, a couple of feet up, makes a 180 degree turn in mid-air and comes down acting as if nothing had happened. It’s better than Laurel and Hardy. No matter what’s on my mind, this antic behavior dissolves me. I can't help laughing out loud; the joy of it just bursts out of me.

Since Pushkin seems not to take offense, doesn’t seem to feel laughed at, as any self-respecting dog would, I must admit I occasionally startle him on purpose. It’s easiest when I catch him in a moment when he’s deeply absorbed in something, say crouched in hunting pose, watching a bug cross the kitchen floor inches from his nose. All I need to do is shuffle my foot abruptly and that unexpected sound is enough to send him skyward.

It’s crossed my mind that I could borrow a video camera and film one of these leaps then play it back in slow motion and learn exactly how he manages the mid-air reversal of direction. The scientist in me wants to understand it, but I have the sense that putting a camera between myself and the acrobatics would rob me of some of the pleasure.

I think I witnessed this same kind of pleasure in my three-year old grandson recently as he watched some workmen adding a second story to the house next door. He saw one of the men climb from a scaffold into the house through an open window and burst out laughing in exactly the same way I laugh at Pushkin's leaps; overflowing with the delight of seeing something so inexplicable and so unexpected.

So I'm grateful to Lyuba and Pushkin, and all the creatures who have come before them, for helping to keep some of that child's sense of amazement alive in me, for lightening some of the darker moments, and for allowing me to love them.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Due to a mysterious computer glitch I still don’t understand, I’ve been prevented from having my say here for a whole week. My intention had been to string together at least a few words every day and it’s been much more frustrating than I would have expected to be so thwarted. But, the planet seems to have continued in its orbit of the sun nevertheless.

On the subject of orbits, acting on a heads-up from the family astronomer the other night, we witnessed the transit overhead of the Jules Verne, an unmanned “automated transfer vehicle,” followed a few minutes later by the International Space Station. As I understand it, the two will orbit in sync until April 3rd when the Jules Verne is scheduled to dock with the Space Station and unload many tons of supplies.

The two vehicles moved so purposefully across the sky, their construction and operation far beyond my ability to comprehend, but their existence deeply pleasing to me. High enough above us that they flew in sunlight when all was dark here below, they shone like stars until they entered the Earth’s shadow and vanished from sight, one after the other.

Declining to contemplate any possible hostile uses for this technology, I prefer to look at the exploration of space as one of the clever things we humans have managed to do with our opposable thumbs. I’ve enjoyed such sightings since my first look at Sputnik crossing the night sky back in the 1950s. At the time it was simply astonishing to realize I was observing something designed and built here on earth; not a planet, not a meteor. I didn’t care who had put the thing up there, I was awed by the human achievement. And I still like the fact that Sputnik means “traveling companion”; a modest, non-technical name.

The delightful sky-watching experience of the other evening followed on the heels of a weekend gathering that had brought together a group of family and friends spanning four generations, from nearly nine months to 90-plus years. The composition of this group fluctuates somewhat from one occasion to the next, sometimes including more members of one branch of the extended family, sometimes more from the other. In this case the group included people we only see on such occasions, people we hadn't seen in years, and others we see almost every week.

This collection of people reminds me a little of a galaxy, if galaxies could alter their composition from time to time. Some of us are blood kin, some are related through marriage- our own, or someone else's. Some of us, like moons, circle a parental planet. Some of us have spawned moons of our own. We travel through our separate lives, in our separate orbits, sometimes intersecting, sometimes running parallel to each other. Most of the time we're not conscious of ourselves as a group at all. Yet from the right vantage point, say, someone observing us from another galaxy, perhaps our overall form would be evident in some other night sky.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Our house is filled with the smell of freshly-baked bread; I’ve just taken two whole wheat loaves from the oven. Yesterday I baked some challah and will bake more of that tomorrow.

After a lapse of many years, I began baking bread again sometime after Christmas and have produced nearly all the bread we’ve eaten since. It wasn't a total lapse, I’ve continued to bake special breads for holidays, but in terms of baking everyday bread, I can’t remember how long it’s been since I’ve done that on a regular basis.

Aside from the aroma, which is almost sufficient reason alone to bake bread, and of course, the pleasure of eating it, I love the process. Most of all, I enjoy kneading the dough before the first rising; bringing about the transformation of a bowlful of raw dough into a smooth, elastic mass.

What is it about the quality of the time spent kneading? It’s so simple, requires no conscious thought, the mind can wander. But, and this is the important thing I think, my mind doesn’t wander. I get mesmerized by the tactile experience, the patterns of the folding and turning, the rhythm of my hands. I suppose it’s something like a meditation.

Recently, I've been experimenting with a recipe for a no-knead bread that results in the closest I've ever gotten to making a French boule. It's delicious, though a little hard to cut; the crust is crisp but the interior of the bread doesn't offer enough resistance and sort of squishes down under the pressure of the knife. And I'm concerned about the necessity of preheating the pot you bake the bread in. The only pot I own that's big enough to contain this large loaf, is enamel, and I think you're not supposed to heat such pots while empty.

Eventually, I suppose I'll buy myself a pot for this purpose, the bread is so good. But in the meantime, I need to adjust to the concept of not kneading, of leaving out my favorite part of bread making. It's a yeasty paradox; I love the end result, but miss the meditation.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Caterpillar Soup

Not long ago, I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition about a new study which found that moths and butterflies can remember some of what they learned as caterpillars, even after the process of metamorphosis has turned their bodies into a sort of soup before reconstituting them as flying creatures.

Since I’ve reached an age at which I sometimes feel as if my brains are turning into soup (though I have grave doubts that I am in the process of metamorphizing into anything with wings), I find this discovery fascinating.

I’m fully aware that this study was not concerned with say, a moth remembering where she left her car keys when she was still earthbound, but it started me thinking once again about memory; in particular about how little control we have over whatever it is we refer to by that term. I can’t control my memory in the sense that I can’t necessarily remember something when I want to, nor can I make myself forget a memory I’d be happier without.

My nonagenarian mother has some of the memory loss associated with her age; she complains about her short-term memory in particular, but I’m aware of changes in her long-term memory as well. In fact, even before hearing the NPR piece, I might have described my mother’s memory bank as a sort of soup. You never know what the next ladleful will contain (though often it’s the very same stuff she just served you.)

Asked a question about some era or event in our shared family history, she might start out on what seems to be a good path to the desired information, but within a sentence or two, she seems to change course; other memory bits have sidled into the mix and in the end my question is left unanswered. Happily though, because of her short-term memory loss, she is unaware of not having reached the goal I had in mind, so I’m the only one disappointed.

So where, exactly, has a lost memory gone when we can’t dredge it up? Yes, yes, I know, memories aren’t stored as discrete little bundles. Instead, it seems they are chemical and/or electrical somethings; non-entities that occasionally appear to us as if they were entities, in response to some stimulus. We don’t actually lose the information; we lose the ability to provide the stimulus that would retrieve it.

If one considers the daily lives of most elderly people, it’s easy to see how, as they lose the stimuli that once elicited memories (a mate, siblings, friends, work), the memories become more difficult to retrieve. It’s all in there, somewhere, but less and less easy to get at. I see this coming down the road in my own life eventually and I don't like it.

Meanwhile, does a moth ever wonder what it was before that dimly-remembered, and most disorienting, soup experience?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Anthony Minghella

Anthony Minghella has died. He was only 54. I didn't know him, but his death feels far more personal to me than the deaths of well-known people usually do.

Minghella's direction of the film, The English Patient, based on his adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's wonderful novel, I have come to see as having been largely responsible for my decision to try my hand at screenwriting, which in turn led to the most satisfying (and most frustrating) decade of my working life. More on that another time.

From the New York Times obituary:
In a 1996 interview with The Associated Press, Minghella said too many modern films let the audience be passive, as if they were saying, "We're going to rock you and thrill you. We'll do everything for you."

"('The English Patient') goes absolutely against that grain," he said. "It says, `I'm sorry, but you're going to have to make some connections. There are some puzzles here. The story will constantly rethread itself and it will be elliptical, but there are enormous rewards in that.'"
There certainly were.

Monday, March 17, 2008

car inspection

A few weeks ago I realized I'd better get the car inspected before the month was out. This is one of those minor chores that belongs in the category of things I tend to procrastinate about for no particular reason. I'm lucky, the car is still in good shape, so there's nothing to fear and no reason to put it off. Spend thirty minutes or so in a garage waiting room that smells of grease and tires? Not enticing, but there are much worse ways to spend time.

One of the hardships of moving to a new town, especially if you have lived in one place for some time, is the loss of the familiar: shops, a plumber, doctors, shortcuts, etc. Over time, you learn who you can count on. In a new place, it's almost as if you don't speak the local language, let alone know who you can trust.

But the car needed to be inspected and time was running out.

It was one of those ugly mid-February days; bleak, rainy, and colder feeling than the thermometer admitted to. My mood pretty much matched the weather. We'd moved since last year's inspection, so I found myself pulling in to a garage I'd never been to--one of the least inviting-looking garages in town as it happened. Aging cinder block in need of fresh paint; it hardly looked open for business. But it had a sign indicating it was an official inspection station, and there were lights on inside, so I took a chance.

I left the car in the inspection bay, in the hands of a slow-moving, 40-something guy, and made my way to the door leading into the main part of the building. This was a cavernous room half-filled with ancient vehicles and heated by an exposed, wood-burning furnace. I was met in the doorway by the octogenarian owner of the place (I'll call him C.) and spent the next half hour talking with him. I listened, mostly.

I know very little about antique cars but think a lot of them had a style, a sort of classiness you don't see much anymore. Is this the "old codger syndrome" setting in? Or perhaps I just have romantic associations based on old movies.

In any case, my admiration and a couple of questions were all C. needed to get him talking.
Among his treasures was what he said was a Model B truck and a two-door sedan of some kind (a Packard, I think? from 1931), neither of which was in very good shape. C. told me he used to drive the sedan and that it could hit 75 mph--ye gods!

C. told me about growing up in the area, about how it cost five cents to ride the bus to the nearest town with a movie theater, but that they usually walked to save the nickel. A movie ticket cost nine cents. He also told me he had earned and saved $8000 before he finished high school, selling tobacco he grew on a few acres of the family farm.
He wasn't saving it for anything particular, it was just what you did with money back then, he said. He talked about the old days, about raising a family, about how the area has changed since his boyhood.

But the best of his stories was this one: Senior year of high school, right after the end of W.W. II, his civics teacher set out to teach the class how the stock market works. She asked each student to study the stock market pages in the local paper, choose a stock to pretend to invest in, then watch what came of it. C. chose one of the big farm machinery manufacturers (International Harvester, I think he said) and watched his "investment" grow like crazy.

Thinking it over, he decided to make an actual investment and used half his savings to purchase some shares. Within a short time he was doing so well his mother asked him to invest some of her savings, too. They both made a bundle.

C. told this story with much amusement; after all these years still surprised by his "good luck," as he put it. When I suggested it wasn't luck but a smart investment, he demurred with a shrug, "No, I never was college material."

Meanwhile, C. continued to raise a little tobacco and opened a car-repair business in an out-building on the farm. By the time he was 20, he had enough money put aside that when he noticed a local garage for sale (the very one we were standing in) , he said he walked right in and asked the owner how much he wanted for it. The man named his price and teased C., "What would you be doing with that kind of money, anyway?" C. returned an hour later with a bag full of cash which he emptied out onto a workbench and asked the owner to count. He'd brought the entire asking price, in cash. But for all that, C.'s mother still had to co-sign the bill of sale since he wasn't yet 21.

There was more, about how he does most of the shopping and cooking now because his wife doesn't get around as well as she used to, about cooking his favorite cabbage soup, about how everyone in his large, extended family is still on speaking terms, which he says he's noticed isn't the case with a lot of families.

But then his son interrupted us, the fellow who had been inspecting my car, and told me I was "Good to go."

And so I went, out into the same dismal-looking February day, but feeling as if I'd been far away somewhere for a little stretch of time. If the garage is still open when my inspection sticker needs replacing next February, I'll be back.