“I am happier now than I think I have ever been,” I told Guion recently one night, as we were getting into bed.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately: I will probably only ever have dogs as pets, because dogs are perhaps the only animals who really want to be sharing their lives with humans. Cats could take us or leave us, and the rest of the lot (horses, rabbits, tarantulas, lizards, hamsters, parakeets, chinchillas, and so forth) would likely prefer not to share our company; they don’t revel in society of human beings. Dogs are perhaps entirely unique in this aspect.
I think a lot about animal well-being these days. And sometimes, even though we may love riding horses or wearing parrots on our shoulders, we are giving those animals a limited and frustrating existence by forcing them to live in the way we want them to. I love animals, and I want to collect them all, so this is a principle that is hard for me to accept. I’d love to have a veritable menagerie in my home, but in that instance, I am thinking only of myself and not of the animals.
What is the natural state of a parakeet? It is not in a cage in a living room. What is the natural state of a rabbit? In a den, in a meadow. What is the natural state of a betta fish? In a puddle in Thailand, not sitting in two cups of water on your kitchen table. What is the natural state of a lizard? Under a rock, in a sand dune, not in a glass terrarium. And yet, what is the natural state of a dog? In a house, connected to a human.
House cats are a secondary exception. Even though cats are not truly domesticated, many of them would not do well without human care and some seem to even like/tolerate people. I have no objection to people having cats, and I sometimes think I would like a cat, although perhaps for the wrong reasons (they strike me as excellent home decor; cats make every room look elegant).
That said, we might get chickens one day, but I don’t consider chickens to be pets, even though we will treat them with lovingkindness and not eat them. Chickens do not exist in the wild, so they, along with other livestock, are a notable exception to this rule (animals we have domesticated to suit our needs vs. animals we have turned into pets over time).
A strange thing to write or even think about, but it’s something that has been taking up space in my brain.
Gardening has become one of my chief pursuits — specifically, landscaping the front yard. (Guion has jurisdiction over the backyard, including the large vegetable garden.) My goal is to eradicate all of the grass and fill the entire space with plants. I want to spend every spare penny on plants. On Monday, we planted ferns, an obsidian heuchera, a young crape myrtle, and a full flat of pachysandra, to jumpstart my groundcover ambitions. (We also bought, in our overeager desire, allium and crocus bulbs, which will need to be planted in October.)
I consider myself an amateur, experimental gardener. The internet, along with vestiges of my mother’s advice, are the only reasons I know anything about plants. I do a little bit of research, and then I just go out and buy what appeals to me visually. Naturally, I’ve already made many errors, but my joy knows no bounds when plants succeed.
“Isn’t it strange,” Guion said, looking at Pyrrha today, sprawled out on the kitchen floor, “that an animal THIS BIG lives in our house? With us?”
It is. It is also extremely delightful. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of her, slinking into another room, and think for a split-second, “We adopted a WOLF.” Albeit a very timid, sweet wolf. I love her a lot already. She has so much to learn and so many fears to conquer, but I have a lot of faith in her.
Breaking up with Jhumpa Lahiri
I’ve more or less regained some of my reading momentum. I just finished, for the second time, the thoroughly wonderful (and surprisingly funny) Madame Bovary, in Lydia Davis’ new translation. I started Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, and finished the very disappointing Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest.
Here’s my beef with Lahiri: Lady, you write so well and you write so clearly. I gravitate toward your stories, because deep down, I really and truly love unexciting domestic narratives about relationships, dishes in the sink, and building ennui. (This is why Jonathan Franzen will always have my undying affection.) BUT. You keep reusing the same story, every time. I’ve now read all of your published work. It is a formula and it is so tedious and predictable: Bengali family immigrates to America; their children have tension with their traditional parents, because they want to be American; kids go to Ivy League colleges; kids fall in love with Americans; parents forbid it, try to arrange a marriage with a Bengali; kid marries American anyway; marriage disintegrates into boredom and unrequited longing for some vague thing. BLEH. It is narrow and it is dull. Over it.
The Practical One
I have a great, patient husband. Last night’s revelation: I want to be a dreamer, too, but I say that I can’t be, because I’m The Practical One. However, in reality, that title is just a disguise for what’s really lurking: Fear. I am practical because I am afraid of the unknown, afraid of risks, afraid of starting a brewery with my friends, afraid of quitting a job and becoming a dog trainer. And yet I am content. I like where I am. But is that a cover, too?
“I would like to learn, or remember, how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular–shall I suck warm blood, hold my tail high, walk with my footprints precisely over the prints of my hands?–but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive. The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should. And I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.”
— Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A little more on my animal theme this week. I also have sad news: We learned that dear Aoive, Guion’s parent’s springer spaniel, had to be put down last night, after an excruciating cycle of non-stop seizures. She was such a sweet, affectionate girl. Rest in peace, Aoive; I hope you are stalking birds to your heart’s content in heaven. Happy weekend, everyone.
This is something I have been feeling quite strongly lately:
“All animals, all beings, deserve respectful consideration simply for the fact that they exist. Whether animals think and feel, and what they know, is irrelevant. Reverence and awe for creation should guide human actions, along with a humble acknowledgment that humans have limited knowledge about the mysteries of our own existence.”
— Marc Bekoff, The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint
More specifically, it disturbs me how many Christians write off environmentalism and animal rights as spheres belonging only to atheistic liberals. We barely care enough about humans, it’s true, but we also have a divine calling to care about animals and the earth. It is an easy thing to forget, I suppose; animals and the earth are so easily subjugated, so often voiceless. We have so far to go until we can say that we treat all animals with gentleness, respect, and grace.
Watching dogs play is one of my favorite things to do. On Saturday, Celeste and I let golden twins Bo and Levi loose in Liz’s backyard and hilarious romping ensued. I kept saying “boy fights!” as their behavior just made me think of this. Observing Bo and Levi was very much like watching four-year-old boy children wrestle and play, get irritated with each other, cease all motion, and then start up again five seconds later. For those who share my love of boy fights/dogs playing, a more complete slideshow is on the ol’ dog blog.
In a related note, seeing Uggie on stage was the most exciting part of the Oscars for me.
I am finally reading Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, and I’ve started the chapter where he describes the genesis of his deep obsession with butterflies. His fascination with and desire for lepidoptera began when he was very young. As a little boy, he was chided for “spoiling walks” by disappearing into the brush with his net, chasing after a fleeting colorful wing. When he was six or seven, he wept pitifully when his hefty governess sat down on a tray of his recent captures, crushing them to indistinguishable, ashy bits. Nabokov did not grow out of this mania for pretty winged insects. His research and scientific contributions to the field are still being discussed today.
I’m not sure why all of this surprised me, that Nabokov’s love of butterflies began when he was a boy and marked the duration of his life. It makes sense that our most passionate obsessions are formed and solidified when we are children. I think of Grace, who was fervently attuned to fashion even when she was a tiny thing. (She once wore a 101 Dalmatians bathing suit, a tutu, and crocodile-skin cowboy boots to church. My mother was tired of doing battle with her over what she wore and so the miniature fashionista had her day.) Today, Grace is still very much involved with the art of wearing clothes. Or there’s Kelsey, whose favorite game as a child was playing office or playing with her “work ‘tuff.” Kelsey still loves organizing, planning, and achieving in that wonderfully efficient and self-created work environment. (Good for her.) Sam, to my father’s great relief and joy, was fixated with sports, particularly any sports involving a ball, since he was a baby.
Me? Well, of course it has always been animals, mainly dogs, and reading. (I didn’t have invisible friends, like some children; I had invisible animals, which I somewhat creepily called “spirit pets.” I named them all and tore their photos out of National Geographics and encyclopedias and plastered them on the wall next to my bed.) There are some things we don’t ever grow out of and lately, I like remembering that.
While I’m preparing my more in-depth reviews of the top 10 fiction books I read in 2011, I thought I’d give you my list of the top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2011. One of my reading goals this year was to read more nonfiction, and I think I more or less accomplished that aim. Here are some brief thoughts on the 10 best of them.
10. Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen
What a life! This classic memoir is crazy and makes you wish you had been around to hang out with Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, on her coffee farm in Kenya. Her stories from her pioneering life there are so outlandish that they are occasionally unbelievable. Who keeps young lions as pets? Who hosts a dance-off between warring tribes in their backyard? Who starts a romance with a dashing Brit who later dies in a tragic accident? Isak Dinesen does. And she is well worth your time. She also wrote the book in her second language, which is incredible, because she is damn good with the pen. (I still haven’t seen the movie. It’s definitely on my list now!)
9. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick
North Korea holds our fascination like 1984 or Blade Runner did. I don’t have the energy to plumb why we are forever compelled by stories about dystopian societies run by Big Brothers, but we are, and that’s a fact. North Korea is doubly mesmerizing to us because it is real. This isn’t just a story. And yet Barbara Demick, former Seoul bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, brings us North Korea through stories. She writes about the intimate lives and experiences of six North Korean citizens, all of whom later escape to South Korea (which is how she was able to tell their stories). I knew a little about North Korea, but this book absolutely floored me. There is so much I didn’t know and there is probably so much that we still don’t know about this dark, deeply sad country.
8. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch
Scott, a young philosopher, gave me this book when he moved to go to graduate school. It’s been sitting on my shelf since then, for about five years now. I think I put it off because, really, when are you ever in the mood to read about the Rwandan genocide? But I’m glad that I finally read it. This is a powerful and well-narrated account of the Hutu atrocities in Rwanda and its stories will stick with you long after you’ve finished it. Gourevitch is simultaneously objective and sincere, presenting the facts with a journalist’s attention to accuracy and detail and yet pausing to consider the trajectory of humanity, ethical responsibility, and the darkness of the human heart.
7. How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not A Novel, Alain de Botton
Having now read four volumes of In Search of Lost Time, I was already convinced of de Botton’s title by the time I picked this little book up. This is a delightful journey through the life, work, and idiosyncrasies of Marcel Proust, one of the world’s greatest writers and students of human nature. De Botton is funny and genuine and actually helpful in this book, part biography, part self-help manual. Even if you haven’t read part of Proust’s monolithic novel, this is a book that will be a steady guide to Proust’s life and invaluable contributions to the human experience.
6. Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
If there was one book I read this year that said everything I’ve wanted to say, it was this one. My general personality can be summed up in one line, borrowed from Isabella Rossellini–Animals distract me. This book, by the famed animal researcher and scientist Temple Grandin and her assistant, Catherine Johnson, captured my deeply held feelings about animals and our considerable responsibility to them as humans. People sometimes make you feel ashamed for caring so deeply about animals. I’ve experienced a lot of guilt myself for volunteering my time at the SPCA. But this book instead highlighted the charge we have as “higher” beings to care for the “lower” ones. Grandin’s thorough and engaging research emphasizes that at the end of the day, creating the best life for animals means listening to and watching them and adapting ourselves to meet their needs. Above all else, gentleness is called for. All animals are far more sensitive than we think, and this is an idea that you won’t be able to get out of your head if you read this book.
5. Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
I dare you to read this book and continue to eat chicken afterward. Or any meat, for that matter. While Foer isn’t my favorite novelist, he is a skilled writer and this is a skillful account of his journey into vegetarianism, spurred by the birth of his son. Compounding years of research, Foer covers every major meat source for the American public–and will make you never want to eat factory-farmed meat again. The topic of food is rife with emotion, horror, and ethical balance, and Foer carefully plays on all of these topics in Eating Animals. Regardless of what you think about vegetarianism, this is a book that I think everyone should read, if only to think a little more carefully about the powerful decisions we make whenever we put something into our mouths.
4. Dog Years, Mark Doty
Yes, I know, it’s got “dog” in the title and dogs on the cover, but this is the best memoir I’ve read all year. Mark Doty is a celebrated American poet and this is his beautiful and sad story about navigating grief. Doty writes about the years between the loss of his partner, Wally, who died of AIDS, and the subsequent gain and loss of a dog, Beau. The memoir is about all of the difficult, dark issues of grief and comfort, of solitude and community–and about the more complicated issue of how dogs can offer us something that no humans can. Doty writes with heartbreaking honesty and skill. He is not sappy. He is not self-indulgent. He is humble and honest and every line of his prose speaks with sincerity and strength. It is a book for the brokenhearted and for those who will one day be brokenhearted, because, as Doty gently reminds us, no one escapes.
3. New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton
Ah, Merton, it is good to return to you, the mystical forefather of modern Christian contemplative thought. I read Merton when I was a teenager, but my father-in-law reintroduced him to me via Merton’s edited collection, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, which is the most profoundly affecting volume on the humility of the spiritual life I’ve ever read. This book, which is actually one of Merton’s older books, is a journey into the life of a contemplative. Merton strips away all of the pride and self-importance from the increasingly rare Christian discipline and makes you think that maybe, just maybe, you can enter in to such peace and fluid communication with the divine, too. But you won’t get there by trying. Merton constantly reminds us that it is by grace alone that we are able to do anything, even contemplation itself.
2. Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer
I couldn’t stop talking about this book after I read it and I think it’s the book that I’ve recommended to the most people this year. Joshua Foer, younger brother to Jonathan Safran Foer (mentioned above), got an assignment from Slate to cover the U.S. Memory Championships. (This is a real thing that happens.) People gather to exhibit feats of memory, like repeating back two stacks of shuffled cards in order or citing the 600th digit of pi or memorizing a poem in five minutes. Foer assumed this event was for savants, but then he met a competitor who told him, “Train with me for a year, and in one year, you will be the next U.S. memory champion.” Foer laughed at him, saying he couldn’t remember a shopping list or his girlfriend’s birthday. But he took him up on the challenge and began training. Then, a year later, Joshua Foer is crowned the U.S. memory champion. This is that story, but even more broadly, it is a story about the history of the human relationship with memory and an encouraging polemic that our brains are much more powerful than we can even begin to know.
1. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
This book simultaneously ripped my heart out and made me passionate to ACT. I have not read a book all year that made me sob like this book did; I had to put it down in numerous places and then proceed to totally lose it for 10 minutes. How could I sit here and read this in the safety of my home? A college-educated woman with a job who did not live in daily threat of rape and violence? Of social injustice and inequality? How was it fair? It’s not. It’s not fair at all. But by the end of this book, I felt that there was hope, that the plight of women and girls around the world could actually improve. Unlike many books about the world’s grave injustices, Half the Sky does not unnecessarily dwell on the hopelessness of the situation and the towering challenges that face women around the world today. Rather, this book explains the extent of the problems women face worldwide, and then shows hopeful examples of local women changing their communities for the better. It doesn’t talk about what rich Americans can do to swoop in, presumptuously thinking they can fix another country’s problems. Rather, the book focuses on what we can do to empower women in their own communities to change the way that women are treated. Small steps, but they’re on a path of greater justice and equality for the countless marginalized women and girls worldwide.
For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton
Today, importantly, is Guion’s 24th birthday! I wish I could have just stayed home to celebrate with him all day long. I love that man very much and I think I love him more every day, as totally absurd and romantic as that sounds. He’s the best. I hope his unsurprising birthday present, Bon Iver’s LP, comes in the mail today… G., love you forever and always. Happy, happy birthday!
On Saturday, we went adventuring in the gorgeous wilderness of White Hall with a band of friends. We bought a wheel of gouda from a Trappist monastery and then went to a forbidden but wonderful swimming hole on the Moormans River.
After we’d had our fun and settled down with some gouda and wine, we were discovered by a pair of old and understandably grumpy farmers, who kindly asked us to leave and stop trespassing on their land. We complied. Although we won’t be going back there again and felt bad about clearly violating their “no trespassing” signs, it was definitely worth it.
Snax with Trappist cheese and wine on a rock outcropping:
Catching the Bouquet. Here, Emma gives prime advice on how to catch the bouquet at any of the zillion summer weddings you’ve probably been invited to. Heed her wisdom, friends. She “caught” my bouquet and saved that moment from an otherwise awkward end. She’s a pro. (Take Two)
Animals distract me. This, the title of Isabella Rossellini’s new film for Planet Green, could very well be the story of my life. It premiered a few weeks ago and, of course, I really want to watch it. Rossellini is busy training her eighth guide dog and making this documentary, a tribute of her lifelong love of animals and a public exhortation for people to realize how their actions affect other living creatures.
I watched the series of bizarre trailers (in which she impersonates a chicken on hormones and an eyelid parasite) and just kept thinking, “I want to BE this woman. Maybe I AM this woman.” I wish. If only we could all be rich, quirky, gorgeous Italian model-actresses…
I think it’s the title, though, that especially resonated with me. What a perfect description of my (now well-documented) condition! Guion certainly knows this is true. We can’t go on a walk without me pointing out every animal in sight: Pigeons, feral cats, skinks, songbirds, squirrels, and dogs, of course always and forever, dogs. We’ll be driving through the Virginian countryside and I’ll point out cows on the hillside. As if they were something novel! As if we hadn’t passed 700 of them minutes before! It’s a problem. But, like my kindred Isabella, I’ve always been this way.
My parents were fairly tolerant of my animal obsessions as a child. They let me get six mice to “train” for a “science” experiment when I was in early middle school. Really, I just wanted some mice because I thought they were cute. I named them all after Shakespeare characters and kept the males in females in separate glass tanks. Then I found out that Romeo was a Juliet and we had a potential population problem on our hands. The parental edict descended and I had to get rid of them. But they were fun for a while. If extremely smelly.
I went through a brief budgie obsession, which culminated in me getting a pair, Monet and Renoir, for my 13th birthday. They were cute and affable and liked to use my fingers as landing perches. However, I was not prepared for the nocturnal activities of such birds. My annoyance with the noise grew and I began to pray that they would die. This is a dark confession for an animal lover. But there you have it. God rather unceremoniously answered my prayers and about a month later, I found Renoir dead on the floor of the cage. I grieved, but not as much as his pretty gay lover, Monet. Monet died of a broken bird heart a few weeks later. We buried them both in the backyard and ornamented their graves with twig crosses.
Spencer was our family rabbit, a large and happy Dutch lop. He was our first true playmate and easily the most tolerant rabbit ever to live. We acquired him from our irresponsible neighbor, who was running a de facto rabbit colony in her back yard, which met up with ours. She probably had anywhere from 20 to 30 rabbits back there and never fed or cared for them. I like to think we rescued him from that situation, even though he could still play with all of his poor half-siblings, cousins, and assorted relatives along the fence line. Dad built him a two-story rabbit mansion in the back yard. We believed that he played hide-and-seek with us. He never bit us, not even once, which is remarkable, considering that we tried to dress him up and smuggle him inside for tea parties.
Then, of course, you know about Emma, my beautiful, intelligent Australian Shepherd that I failed with my teenager-ness. I think she’s the primary reason I want another Aussie; I have this feeling that I have to make it up to her somehow.
My need to lavish affection on an animal has even extended to Reuben. A fish is barely a pet–they’re about as much fun as a plant–but I love this fish. I talk to him in the mornings when I feed him. I think he’s very handsome and I worry about his manorexia.
The other day, during my lunch break, I made a list of all of the animals I wanted to own on our fictional 300-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley. Here is my ideal menagerie:
Pack of dogs, at most four (Shepherds from most regions: Australian, German, and Anatolian. And probably a Great Pyrenees.)
One to two cats. (I do not know anything about cats and I’ve only met a few that I’m fond of; I loved Kitteh, my housemate in Denver, for example. Yet I probably shouldn’t be allowed to get a cat because I think of them as purely decorative beings. Cats are so elegant and pretty and they go with everything! If I got cats, they’d probably be functional barn cats.)
Two to three bunnies. I love bunnies!
A flock of finches or two budgerigars for the parlor. It’s only proper.
Goats for lawn control and cheese.
Sheep for the dogs to guard and herd. And for wool. And lamb kebobs.
A llama. For inter-species friendships with the sheep. And because they’re super-soft.
If we suddenly inherit millions, two horses. For riding around the property and for brushing. Haven’t gotten over My Little Pony yet.
Chickens. Guion will probably make me get chickens. I have no interest in them, but I think I could learn to love them.
This list has the potential to grow. Consider yourself warned, husband.
I am finally going to my volunteer orientation at the Charlottesville SPCA this weekend and I could not be more excited. It’s absurd. I was talking to Emily yesterday about her life and she’s talking about huge things like her career and moving to the West Bank for six months and she’s all, “What’s the big thing in your life right now?” And I’m just, “OMG, I’m going to the animal shelter!!” No comparison in the magnitude of these life plans.
But there you have it. Animals distract me. That’s all I really need to say.
First: HAPPY 19th BIRTHDAY, GRACE! You are, by far, the most accomplished and incredible 19-year-old I’ve ever met. I will never be as cool as you. Hope your migrant worker-life in New Zealand is still going well and that you will come back soon. Very soon. I feel like I’ve been living for a year without you already.
“Mmm, that’s what that veggie burger was missing: Some meat.”–Guion at lunch, after putting some bacon on his “garden vegetable” Boca burger. Cue eye-roll sequence.
I had a busy week, kids. Slim pickings with the Snax today. The links generally involve cute animals, though, so there’s that.
Pratt Libraries Ex Libris Collection. Because, well, it’s our name, and because I always loved getting pretty bookplates when I was little, even though they’re fairly impractical things to spend money on. (Wolf Eyebrows)
Crazy, long, fun weekend. I even posted a few pictures on Flickr to demonstrate. We did so much this weekend: had Kelsey and Alex stay with us, threw the Belmontonia bash with our neighbors, met the nicest cop ever after setting off fireworks, went hiking on Humpback Rock, had a dinner party at the Blue House, watched “There Will Be Blood” and finished “Daniel Deronda.” Very full, very fun.
Also, for the curious, I have posted a new portfolio page on my calligraphy site from the job I just finished.
And now, for your special edition of Tuesday snax! A big dose. Apparently, there was a lot of really great stuff on the web this week.
You and Everything You Own. Beautiful and stark photographs, especially the ones from China. Amazing, too. In my consumerist-American mindset, I look at some of these pictures and marvel: How on earth do they live with only those possessions? And then, What would my stuff look like in front of our house? And finally, What a huge pain for those families. (Mint)
Missed Connections. I hope Jonathan reads here occasionally, because he will just love this. Illustrator Sophie Blackall creates paintings from the “missed connections” section of Craigslist. Beautiful, haunting, sometimes creepy–as missed connections tend to be! (Modish)
Diva. “Someone did not get the Cheerios she had written into her contract for photo shoots…” Yes, it’s a blog about a mom in Utah, but it’s probably one of the best on the whole world wide Interwebs. I’ve been following Heather Armstrong and family for two years now, and I just love them more than ever. (Dooce)
Kisses and Pigtails. So cute! The blog Like Mom, Like Dad lets people send in photos of themselves (and, possibly, their own children) imitating photos of themselves with their parents. This is one of my favorites I’ve seen. (Like Mom, Like Dad)
Ways Christians Have Messed Up with Sex. I think this is a really sincere and true perspective on the ways many of us Christians have distorted and perverted God’s message on sex. His point that “we write 10 books about lust for every one on sex” was also very resonant. (Stuff Christians Like)