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16 MAY, 2013

Wild Ones: What an Obscure Endangered Butterfly Teaches Us About Parenthood & Being Human

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“Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything.”

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (public library) by journalist Jon Mooallem isn’t the typical story designed to make us better by making us feel bad, to scare us into behaving, into environmental empathy; Mooallem’s is not the self-righteous tone of capital-K knowing typical of many environmental activists but the scientist’s disposition of not-knowing, the poet’s penchant for “negative capability.” Rather than ready-bake answers, he offers instead directions of thought and signposts for curiosity and, in the process, somehow gently moves us a little bit closer to our better selves, to a deep sense of, as poet Diane Ackerman beautifully put it in 1974, “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

In the introduction, Mooallem recalls looking at his four-year-old daughter Isla’s menagerie of stuffed animals and the odd cultural disconnect they mime:

[T]hey were foraging on the pages of every bedtime story, and my daughter was sleeping in polar bear pajamas under a butterfly mobile with a downy snow owl clutched to her chin. Her comb handle was a fish. Her toothbrush handle was a whale. She cut her first tooth on a rubber giraffe.

Our world is different, zoologically speaking — less straightforward and more grisly. We are living in the eye of a great storm of extinction, on a planet hemorrhaging living things so fast that half of its nine million species could be gone by the end of the century. At my place, the teddy bears and giggling penguins kept coming. But I didn’t realize the lengths to which humankind now has to go to keep some semblance of actual wildlife in the world. As our own species has taken over, we’ve tried to retain space for at least some of the others being pushed aside, shoring up their chances of survival. But the threats against them keep multiplying and escalating. Gradually, America’s management of its wild animals has evolved, or maybe devolved, into a surreal kind of performance art.

Yet even conservationists’ small successes — crocodile species bouncing back from the brink of extinction, peregrine falcons filling the skies once again — even these pride points demonstrate the degree to which we’ve assumed — usurped, even — a puppeteer role in the theater of organic life. Citing a scientist who lamented that “right now, nature is unable to stand on its own,” Mooallem writes:

We’ve entered what some scientists are calling the Anthropocene — a new geologic epoch in which human activity, more than any other force, steers change on the planet. Just as we’re now causing the vast majority of extinctions, the vast majority of endangered species will only survive if we keep actively rigging the world around them in their favor. … We are gardening the wilderness. The line between conservation and domestication has blurred.

He finds himself uncomfortably straddling these two animal worlds — the idyllic little-kid’s dreamland and the messy, fragile ecosystem of the real world:

Once I started looking around, I noticed the same kind of secondhand fauna that surrounds my daughter embellishing the grown-up world, too — not just the conspicuous bald eagle on flagpoles and currency, or the big-cat and raptor names we give sports teams and computer operating systems, but the whale inexplicably breaching in the life-insurance commercial, the glass dolphin dangling from a rearview mirror, the owl sitting on the rump of a wild boar silk-screened on a hipster’s tote bag. I spotted wolf after wolf airbrushed on the sides of old vans, and another wolf, painted against a full moon on purple velvet, greeting me over the toilet in a Mexican restaurant bathroom. … [But] maybe we never outgrow the imaginary animal kingdom of childhood. Maybe it’s the one we are trying to save.

[…]

From the very beginning, America’s wild animals have inhabited the terrain of our imagination just as much as they‘ve inhabited the actual land. They are free-roaming Rorschachs, and we are free to spin whatever stories we want about them. The wild animals always have no comment.

So he sets out to better understand the dynamics of the cultural forces that pull these worlds together with shared abstractions and rip them apart with the brutal realities of environmental collapse. His quest, in which little Isla is a frequent companion, sends him on the trails of three endangered species — a bear, a butterfly, and a bird — which fall on three different points on the spectrum of conservation reliance, relying to various degrees on the mercy of the very humans who first disrupted “the machinery of their wildness.” On the way, he encounters a remarkably vibrant cast of characters — countless passionate citizen scientists, a professional theater actor who, after an HIV diagnosis, became a professional butterfly enthusiast, and even Martha Stewart — and finds in their relationship with the environment “the same creeping disquiet about the future” that Mooallem himself came to know when he became a father. In fact, the entire project was inextricably linked to his sense of fatherly responsibility:

I’m part of a generation that seems especially resigned to watching things we encountered in childhood disappear: landline telephones, newspapers, fossil fuels. But leaving your kids a world without wild animals feels like a special tragedy, even if it’s hard to rationalize why it should.

The truth is that most of us will never experience the Earth’s endangered animals as anything more than beautiful ideas. They are figments of our shared imagination, recognizable from TV, but stalking places — places out there — to which we have no intention of going. I wondered how that imaginative connection to wildlife might fray or recalibrate as we’re forced to take more responsibility for its wildness.

It also occurred to me early on that all three endangered species I was getting to know could be gone by the time Isla is my age. It’s possible that, thirty years from now, they’ll have receded into the realm of dinosaurs, or the realm of Pokémon, for that matter — fantastical creatures whose names and diets little kids memorize from books. And it’s possible, too, I realized, that it might not even make a difference, that there would still be polar bears on footsy pajamas and sea turtle-shaped gummy vitamins — that there could be so much actual destruction without ever meaningfully upsetting the ecosystems in our minds.

In fact, this “generational amnesia” is what Mooallem was hoping to prevent by showing Isla endangered animals in the wild, helping her learn about a baseline that preceded her and, in the process, learning about a baseline that preceded him — an antidote to “shifting baseline syndrome,” the concept coined in 1995 by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, positing that each subsequent generation of scientists uses wildlife populations at the time they entered the field as the baseline, leveling the awareness of how much these populations may have plummeted between that point and the “baseline” of the generation before. In humans, psychologist Peter H. Kahn, Jr. has termed this phenomenon “environmental generational amnesia” — our tendency to adopt the natural world we come to know in childhood as our psychological baseline against which we measure all change and which defines our expectation of how the world should be.

One of Mooallem’s missions takes him to Antioch Dunes, one of America’s tiniest but most rigorously studied wildlife reserves, home to the little-known and gravely endangered Lange’s metalmark butterfly, which inhabits no other locale on Earth. In an effort to establish a baseline for the butterfly’s conservation, the government seeks to record the species “peak count” — the highest number of butterflies spotted on a single afternoon. But with plummeting environmental subsidies and national park budgets, much of the responsibility falls on volunteer citizen scientists. So, one afternoon in August, Mooallem heads to Antioch Dunes as one of sixteen volunteers — or, more precisely, fifteen enthusiasts there voluntarily, ranging from elderly couples to a college student with a Day-Glo tiger tattoo to a spiritually reborn former Chevron executive, and one man doing mandatory community service.

Once the leader gives the signal, the frantic counting unfolds amidst excited shouting and counter-clicking. Mooallem recalls the exhilaration and glory of citizen science:

It was a monstrously eventful and confusing ten seconds. And in that pandemonium, it was immediately clear just how unscientific this process was going to be. The very baseline understanding of the species’ health was being provided by us, a bunch of civilians, who had only just been shown a photo of the bug a moment ago. And yet this is a common situation. As the budget for protecting endangered species and managing wildlife has stayed relatively stagnant, but the workload has exploded, more of that work has fallen to a standing army of curious and often retired volunteers—citizen scientists whom Princeton ecologist David Wilcove has compared to volunteer firefighters. In Maine, they count moose and frogs. In Ohio, they snatch Lake Erie water snakes out of the water and measure them.

But most powerful of all was that moment of transmutation when the butterfly metamorphosed from an abstraction to a living thing:

I squatted and looked at the butterfly for a long time. It was the size of a quarter. The wings were rimmed in black with white speckles, then gave way to sunbursts of deep orange. I’d seen lots of photos of the species before that afternoon, but the butterfly was always blown up and perfectly centered in the shot. Looking at it now for the first time in the wild—seeing it as a tiny blotch on a big leaf, with so much air and space and civilization around it—brought a deflating new sense of scale. The bug seemed vulnerable to the point of helplessness. You wanted somehow to zoom in, to make it feel important and central again — a worthy protagonist of the bizarre, generations-long saga that’s played out at Antioch Dunes on its behalf.

You wanted to make the butterfly look big again.

Much of what’s driving our perception of animals as abstracts rather than real beings, Mooallem argues, is rooted in the symbolic narratives of our cultural mythology — the plethora of anthropomorphic animals in children’s books to the propaganda of the anti-suffragist movement. He writes:

There was no shortage of butterflies in Isla’s life. They spread their sequined wings on her favorite hoodie and flitted out of sticker books, winding up on the walls. By now, the wild animals were everywhere in our house—the geese on her quilt, the fawn on her wall. They seemed to be spontaneously generating, like a cuddly infestation, spreading through every storybook on her shelf. I read that one researcher, pulling a random sample of a hundred recent children’s books, found only eleven that did not have animals in them. And what really struck me as strange was how often those critters have almost nothing to do with nature at all, but are only arbitrary stand-ins for people: the ungainly pig that yearns to be a figure skater; the squirrels that look disapprovingly at the bear who cannot stop biting her nails; a family of raccoons that bakes hamentashen for the family of beavers at Purim. It had all started to feel slightly insane, and I was hungry for an explanation. As Kierán Suckling, the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, had pointed out to me, “Right when someone is learning to be human, we surround them with animals.”

What makes Mooallem’s narrative particularly compelling is that he approaches the subject not with the familiar agenda of a conservationist — though he is deeply concerned with conservation — but with the mindset of a philosopher, a student of the relationship between self and universe, sharing in the same awe that drove Henry Miller to ponder the meaning of life and urge us to “leave this dear fucked-up planet a little healthier than when we were born.” Mooallem reflects:

For me, wildlife has always been a reminder of all the mystery that exists outside my own experience — out there, beyond the suburban rec room I felt trapped in as a kid, watching Wild America on PBS. There’s a special amazement that comes from watching a grizzly smack a salmon out of a river, or even from seeing just how hideous certain bottom-dwelling fish look. It enlarges your sense of the world, the way looking out from the top of a tall hill does. It’s the perspective that William Temple Hornaday feared American kids would lose if they only stared into microscopes instead of strolling through the woods with a field notebook.

In the end, rather than telling us what to think and how to feel, Mooallem invites us simply to think and to feel something:

In Antioch … people were clinging to the last Lange’s metalmarks — believing in the butterfly, and clapping as hard as they could, so that, like Tinker Bell, the species wouldn’t disappear from the stage. But what if the greater, more progressive challenge was to work through the guilt and knowingly let the butterfly go?

In the end, part of me wants to argue for that. But, then again, maybe letting go once only leads to more letting go. Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything. Maybe giving in a little only hastens the terminal disenchantment. . .

At times poignant, at times playful, at times provocative, Wild Ones is altogether fantastic.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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16 MAY, 2013

No Kidding: Women Writers and Comedians on the Choice Not to Have Children

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“Motherhood Personality Disorder is a complex, interfamilial compulsion fueled by estrogen, culture, religion, and the Family Values Industrial Complex.”

Mother’s Day has come and gone, and with it history’s finest letters of motherly advice. But while most people have a mother or mother-figure to associate with the holiday, far fewer than half are a mother or mother-figure, placing the occasion on a spectrum from irrelevance to alienation and discomfort for them. Those of us who have chosen not to have children harbor particular unease around the implicit cultural value judgment embedded in this holiday — after all, what does it say about a culture when its only national holiday celebrating womanhood celebrates women’s uterine capacity or adoptive aspirations?

In No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood (public library), comedy writer Henriette Mantel rounds up a troupe of female entertainers and authors whose essays explore various facets of what it means to be happily childless — or, as one contributor aptly puts it, “child-free.” Most women desisted from motherhood by their own volition, and some by nature’s, by way of reproductive health issues and painful surgeries, but all share a contentment with the final product of not reproducing. And though some of the essays hang dangerously on the precipice of defensiveness and apologism, perhaps this is due to their authors’ genre rather than gender — great comedy, after all, relies heavily on self-derision.

In the foreword, actress and comedian Jennifer Coolidge, with equal parts heart, humor and humility — a trifecta that recurs across the essays — points her inner radar to a lifelong inability to multitask as a tell-tale sign that motherhood is beyond her abilities:

I knew my limitations at a young age. I was very aware of my inability to multitask by age five. I admitted this to my mother when I came in from playing, spit out my chewing gum, handed it to her, and said, “Mom please hold my gum, I’m going to the bathroom right now, and I can’t handle both.”

Mantel sets the stage in the introduction:

Years ago, I remember watching The Tonight Show with Joan Rivers, who was the guest host. Gloria Steinem, who was about forty years old at the time, was her guest. In her usual obnoxious way, Joan said to Gloria, “You know, my daughter has been the biggest joy in my life and I can’t imagine not having her. Don’t you regret not having children?” Gloria Steinem didn’t miss a beat. She answered, “Well, Joan, if every woman had a child there wouldn’t be anybody here to tell you what it’s like not to have one.” Joan looked at her like that thought had honestly never crossed her mind. It was a true gift for me to be able to pull together writers who are here to tell you “what it’s like not to have one.”

Because, after all, there are many ways to leave meaningful legacy besides childbirth:

[Legendary anthropologist] Margaret Mead suggested that the generative impulse could be expressed in other ways, such as passing ideas on to the younger generation through teaching, writing, or by inspiring example.

Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho pens one of the collection’s finest, most disarmingly witty essays:

Korean children get a lot of fuss made over them, I guess because life was tough in the old country, and it was a big deal if you survived. There’s a big party thrown when you are one hundred days old, followed by another when you make it to one whole year. My parents took a lot of pictures of me at these parties, although I don’t remember a thing as I was really drunk at both. From the pictures I see the cake though—all these big multicolored rice cakes, each pastel stripe a steamed layer of pounded and steamed rice flour, not sweet like birthday cake but a delicious treat all the same. It looks like a chewy Neapolitan ice cream, or a gay pride flag made of carbs. It’s the best and I want it, but I think wanting that cake isn’t enough reason to have a baby.

[…]

Babies scare me more than anything. They’re tiny and fragile and impressionable—and someone else’s! As much as I hate borrowing stuff, that is how much I hate holding other people’s babies. It’s too much responsibility. Of course they are lovely and warm and adorable, and it’s so funny when they decide they like you and hold you in return, but I am frightened of doing something wrong that will alter them forever. Give them a weird look and they might be talking to their therapist about me fifty years later.

[…]

It might not be a fear of kids themselves, as in truth I usually get along with them pretty well. They like my tattoos and my uncomplicated child/adult face. They identify with my orange shoes. I look like I would let them get away with stuff, and I do. My fear of having children is that, frankly, I just don’t want to love anyone that much. I have my own problems with love, and I have processed and played the same games for a lifetime, but what if I had to do that with someone I actually MADE?! (Or went all the way to China and adopted. This is not a joke—I have long thought I would adopt one of those baby girls from China, because really, who’s going to know the difference?)

Comedy and fashion writer Bonnie Datt shares her tragicomic solution to the cultural pressure for childbirth:

“Okay, here’s the truth I can’t have children:” I told my cabdriver somberly. I attempted to look distraught, my lips quivering. And my ploy worked. Finally this man, who’d relentlessly argued that I would change my mind about my decision to not have children, clammed up and began focusing intently on the road. Yes, after years of being told by complete strangers that I didn’t know my own mind, I’d finally learned the secret to get people to stop insisting, “You’ll eventually want to have kids.” I just had to lie about it.

[…]

I should have just told them to butt out, but I was raised in the Midwest, so this rude option never crossed my mind. Thus was born my all-purpose taxicab “confession.”

SNL’s Nora Dunn takes head-on an inconvenient truth about the perilous potential of motherhood:

In the current abortion debate, there is no talk of children. Those who are anti-abortion never mention them. They seem to be the same people who want to cut food stamps and get rid of social programs that might help children and mothers. They never talk about nineteen-year-old fetuses. They don’t talk of war or hunger or about how much it costs to buy shoes and socks and how hard it must be to have children without a washer and dryer. They never seem to take into account who the father is, or who the boyfriends might be. I never wanted to have a baby if I wasn’t positive I could give it a wonderful life and my undivided attention. I didn’t get that from my own mother. When I was little, I didn’t understand that there is no such thing as undivided attention. My feeling was I needed to become a good mother to myself before I invented a child that needed one.

Author Laurie Graff examines the root of the palpable pang she feels when bombarded by images of idyllic family life during her Facebook voyeurism:

That pang is about feeling out of step with the stages of life more than of having missed out on them. This is not to say that I haven’t, for maybe I have, but I have also been too busy to notice. Good, bad; up, down; I continue to stay the course. Still part of the non-civilian us, still in the city, I still continue the pursuit of my dreams. It’s who I am and how I live.

Writer, director, and comedian Debbie Kasper delivers a deadpan quip:

I was always too self-centered and irresponsible to have kids. I know that never stopped many others, but I am a narcissist with a conscience.

In an essay titled “Mother To No One,” writer and crossword-constructor Andrea Carla Michaels illustrates just how deep the bias of our cultural expectations goes with an anecdote wildly amusing on the surface and rather poignant at its heart:

A dozen years ago, when I was approaching forty, my eight-year-old niece Hanna asked me, “Aunt Andrea, are you married?” I said, “No, are you married?!” She seemed alarmed and asked, “Why would I be married?!” and I said to her, “Well, why would I be married?”

She folded her arms and said, “You’re weird.” “Good weird or bad weird?” She grumbled that she hadn’t decided yet.

But it was already so clear to her at eight that people were married and had kids, and if you didn’t, you were “weird.” It’s amazing how young those attitudes start. This “chat” with my niece didn’t prepare me for the now-daily shock of being mistaken for someone’s mother.

I overheard my other ten-year-old niece Alexa patiently explaining things to her six-year-old brother, who was piecing together family relationships. He asked who I was the mother of. Alexa dramatically turned to Ricky and exclaimed, “Aunt Andrea is the mother to no one.”

Playwright Jeanne Dorsey considers the ambivalence of motherhood, reminding us of Hamlet’s great insight:

It is not an experiment in which I will have the chance to participate. Motherhood is not in the cards for me. Is it a loss? How would I know? I’m too busy living. I am blessed with a full, healthy, and interesting life. And then every once in a while, true to my gender, I ask myself: How would I feel if I were someone’s mother? And how would that someone feel about me? I will never know. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

In an essay titled “The Pathology of Motherhood,” comedian, actor, and TV producer Valri Bromfield playfully proposes the inclusion of Motherhood Personality Disorder in the DSM-5, the next edition of the psychology bible that is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, placing it in the Cluster D category of overly intrusive/dissociative disorders:

Motherhood Personality Disorder, or MPD, is a complex, interfamilial compulsion fueled by estrogen, culture, religion, and the Family Values Industrial Complex.

She lists several of the diagnostic features:

  • Intrusive preoccupation with offspring
  • Episodes of major martyrdom
  • Intermittent cooking and cleaning

She itemizes the three main subtypes:

PARANOID TYPE: This type presents in cases where the expectant mother has seen the film Rosemary’s Baby and clings to the hope that she will give birth to the demon child. (Note: Only diagnose MPD if the delivered baby does not present signs of being the offspring of Satan.)  

DISORGANIZED TYPE: This subtype has the greatest impact on the patient’s family. From the ages of two to sixteen, the offspring must be transported everywhere by grandparents or other guardians, as the mother is habitually preoccupied with behaviors incompatible with child supervision, such as: an inability to find her car keys, sleeping, watching “her show,” or intoxication; or the patient is simply not available, perhaps because she is attending a Zumba Fitness Party or because she flew to Cairo in a manic state earlier that morning.

CATATONIC TYPE: This has been found to be the most adaptive type for the MPD mother with teenagers. The patient lies motionless in bed staring at the ceiling and soiling her clothes, but otherwise does not really give a shit. The patient’s children often take advantage of this particular presentation of symptoms, as it facilitates the use of the family home for underage recreational activities, since, when friends’ parents later ask if the mother had been present at the time, the juveniles can reply honestly in the affirmative.

Under Prognosis, she concludes:

With treatment, MPD patients can hopefully achieve partial remission, eventually replacing their child(ren) with several dogs or cats. While personal hygiene suffers with this intervention, the replacement of obsession objects can allow for the eventual reintroduction of human children and grandchildren, but only under strict supervision.

No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood features contributions by writers, comedians, and politicians like Cheryl Bricker, Cindy Caponera, Jane Gennaro, Judy Morgan, Carol Siskind, Suzy Soro, Amy Stiller, and more.

Thanks, Kaye; public domain images by Nikolas Muray via George Eastman House

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15 MAY, 2013

Fail Safe: Debbie Millman’s Advice on Courage and the Creative Life

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“Imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time.”

The seasonal trope of the commencement address is upon us as wisdom on life is being dispensed from graduation podiums around the world. After Greil Marcus’s meditation on the essence of art and Neil Gaiman’s counsel on the creative life, here comes a heartening speech by artist, strategist, and interviewer extraordinaire Debbie Millman, delivered to the graduating class at San Jose State University. The talk is based on an essay titled “Fail Safe” from her fantastic 2009 anthology Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design (public library) and which has previously appeared on Literary Jukebox. The essay, which explores such existential skills as living with uncertainty, embracing the unfamiliar, allowing for not knowing, and cultivating what John Keats has famously termed “negative capability,” is reproduced below with the artist’s permission.

If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.

Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design is an absolute treasure in its entirety, the kind of read you revisit again and again, only to discover new meaning and new access to yourself each time. It was preceded by How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and followed by the recent Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, both excellent in very different but invariably stimulating ways.

Images and audio courtesy Debbie Millman

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