porcelainandporcupines

Archive for the ‘all creatures great and small’ Category

The summer after my freshman year, I had a job telemarketing. I was not particularly good at it; despite the one day I was the top seller in the office, thanks to the 8 cups of coffee I drank out of a ceramic demi-tasse with a black exterior and white interior which I stole at the end of the day and which today I regret not knowing what I did with, I never was able to sell enough to meet the minimum weekly quota to earn a bonus. So, while on the down side that meant that I was not making a lot of money, it should be noted that I was at least getting rejected a lot. People do not like telemarketers, I tell you what.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that the main problem with my sales technique was that I apologetic about the invoice : the way I hit the would in our scripted “After two months, you would be sent an invoice,” let them know that I wasn’t really behind the product. Sure, they would get the Non-Profit Board Report for 2 months, and that’s cool, but, even if they enjoyed it, they’d still have to deal with this invoice in 2 months time. Like, you’re a non-profit organization and that we respect that, and our publication might help with the management of that organization (I think? I don’t know if I ever saw a copy of the Non-Profit Board Report). But we are not a non-profit organization, and we will charge you. Of course, you could cancel the invoice, but the way it was set up, we were basically coming as close to ripping you off as the bounds of the law would allow. All of that, conveyed with a simple would.

However, sometimes the problem was that the leads weren’t very good. That was the culprit the week we were selling The Marketing Report and all of the businesses that the list of contacts spit out were slaughterhouses.

As it turns out, slaughterhouses are not really all that concerned with marketing, for the reason eloquently provided by the gentleman on the other end of the phone who, in response to my request to be connected with the marketing department, drawled “Lady, all we do is kill old pigs.”

The brilliance of that response, of the unconcerned deliberation that made it clear that the foolishness of my question would not be entertained, has always made it one of the great joys of my life. However, as much as I appreciated the laconic verbal smack-down that put my self-hating would to shame before it could even be uttered, what I did not realize until this past week is that what I truly admire about that gentleman is the simplicity of purpose expressed. This is not someone who’s ever had to worry about an elevator pitch, of breaking down an overly complex process into its component parts, who has to chase fads, keep up with the latest technology, or worry about obsolescence. As long as there is an old pig that needs killing, this guy is in business : that is the hedgehog-like focus that proves elusive for most companies.

It’s the professional equivalent of my gastronomical envy of pandas, who only eat bamboo; fortunately for the panda, bamboo is only eaten by them. I enjoy the lovely natural symmetry of that relationship, in no small part because it relieves all of panda-kind of most food-related stressors : a panda never has to figure out what to do for lunch, or what it’s in the mood for. There are no ethical implications to panda’s diet, it doesn’t matter if the bamboo has been humanely raised or if it’s locally sourced. The question of what to eat has been so solidly settled for pandas that it never even needs to be raised; a panda only gets as far as “what” before it realizes that the answer is “bamboo”. It’s bamboo; it’s always bamboo.

Make no mistake : I don’t want to switch to a diet of only bamboo any more than I want to make a career of killing old pigs. Or pigs of any age. It’s just that, every now and then, instead of answers, what I would like is a lack of questions.

Some time on a sunny day a few years ago, Naopi and I stood on the platform at Sullivan Station, waiting for the next train to arrive. The platform at Sullivan is outdoors, and as we waited, chatting of nothing worth remembering and peering down the tracks, on the lookout for a train on the horizon, a larger than small furry creature poked its head out from one of the cracks in the wall on the other side of the train tracks. The rest of its body followed, and Naopi and I watched as it snuffled through the litter and the greenery that grows between subway tracks and a cracked cement wall, investigating the area, perhaps in search of something but not in a particular hurry to find it. Rather, I watched. Naopi lost interest in what was clearly a rodent (which, from a source I believed reliable at the time, I thought briefly was a Richardson’s ground squirrel but am now convinced was more likely a groundhog) and started fishing around inside her bag for a white cane which, she narrated, she had been  using as part of her training to become a mobility coordinator for the visually impaired.

Despite the informative narration, I was incredulous. Turning briefly away from the groundhog, I asked what she was doing; an unexpectedly large cane tip  in hand (you don’t expect those things to come in more than one size, but they do), she resumed her explanation, which I again cut short with a very firm “Clearly, I need to be looking at that [nod toward furry creature] right now.”

Generally, I like to cite this episode, specifically Naopi’s condescending response* to my completely inoffensive preference of rodents to her conversation, as evidence of the justification of the dissolution of our friendship and a reason to lament that I did not take a more active role in said amicability abatement. However, what I recently realized is how this incident demonstrates that, contrary to my belief that I’ve gotten astoundingly less intelligent in the past two years, I’ve actually been getting stupider for much longer than that.

Initially, I had feared it was my job at the Illustrious Institute, which began roughly two years ago, that could be held accountable for my newfound stupidity. Not long into my employment, on a day that I had mistakenly taken off due to a misunderstanding of the holiday policy, I realized that the calculations I used to determine the frequency with which I had to attend yoga class to get the full benefit of the monthly membership for which my sister was generously paying contained a very basic error, to wit that I had divided by 3 when I was under the impression that I had divided by 4. And, I further realized, that this was the second time since starting at the Illustrious Institute that I had made that very same error, which was of some concern, as I had always considered myself to be strong in the field of basic mathematics, particularly in regards to 3s and 4s, although I will admit to experiencing some confusion regarding 7s and 8s (56? Come on. And 15? No thank you.).

Embarrassing though it may have been, it seemed likely that, rather than symptomatic of some new ill, this problem with division was merely a sign of the distinguished new company I was keeping : I merely seemed stupider, because the people around me were smarter. Of course, the problem with this theory was that many of the people around me were not smarter, certainly not those around me most often, and definitely not more than those around whom I had often found myself in the past. And, of course, a greater problem with the theory was that it did nothing at all to justify the rabbits.

And the rabbits need justification. Because, like a dog and a squirrel (and also this one, because it’s the best) if there’s a rabbit around, I can’t not pay attention to it. To a degree that I do, on some level, understand is abnormal, because it’s not really a hallmark of maturity to abruptly end a conversation by excitedly shouting “Oh my god – a rabbit!”, and then standing, transfixed as if by a hypnogourd, unwilling to focus on anything else. Even though I can see, out of the corner of my eye, that the rest of the world has not stopped because of the rabbit, that while people may take note of the rabbit, none will be detoured by it, much less frozen, and I know that my response is the weird one, all I can think when I see them continue to go about their business, is “Oh my GOD, what is wrong with you? There is a rabbit right there! How do you not see that? And it’s hopping! Look, its hind legs are longer than the front!”

It’s weird. Ever the moreso because there is no shortage of rabbits on the grounds of the Illustrious Institute. There are so many rabbits that even the rabbits are blasé about them, nibbling grass unconcerned by a person getting too close or a loud heavy truck going past. I see a rabbit practically every day that I walk across campus,  and even though I’m slightly concerned that their abundance is due to some terrible hybridization experiment gone wrong (you guys : I have some theories, but I really have no idea what happens at the Institute outside of the libraries), every time I feel that thrilling zap of recognition – rabbit! – I have to stop and stare until it moves on.

Yet the rabbits were not of concern to me, not really, because it was other people who were too busy and because I had misunderstood the significance of the groundhog from all those years ago. But then a few weeks ago a co-worker brought her dog into work one day and suddenly the groundhog was put in a whole new light. The dog had been in the library before – not my library, but another one on campus not too far away – but I had missed it on every occasion. I knew that there was a chance that the dog would be in that day, which I tried not to get too excited about, but when I got an instant message letting me know that he was actually there, I abandoned any pretense at work to rush to the dog’s location. By “rush,” I don’t mean “hurry.” I mean “ran.” I ran to see a dog. Because, sure, I was excited, but also because I was walking down this really long hallway, and it was taking such a long time, and I thought you know, I bet if I run, I’ll get there faster.

And that, I hope, is the apex of my diminishing mental capacity. Not that I ran to see a dog, which, admittedly, kind of shows poor impulse control even if dogs are rarer in my life than rabbits. But that I actually had to think about running. Running is not a decision that you make when you need to go faster – it’s what you do. It’s instinctual; (most) rabbits do it when danger gets too close, dogs do it to greet you at the door, cats do it because they have an inherent flair for the dramatic and know how to exit a room.  Without comprehension, animals understand that running makes you go faster, whereas I had to take a moment to calculate the effect of running on my travel time. On the bright side, I did at least get that particular calculation right.

*Condescending response blogged separately**.

**Not as of yet, nor on the agenda.

One of the stories I plan to include in the memoirs I will realistically probably not get around to writing is the tale of the time I saw a rooster on the way to yoga. I don’t want to give to say too much now for fear of spoiling the story for you when it eventually doesn’t come out, but I think there are a couple of salient points we can safely discuss now without affecting your experience for when you never get to read the whole thing.

Without giving everything away, I’ll just tell you that one time, I saw a rooster on the way to yoga. Which is to say that it was me who was on the way to yoga, and that I happened upon a rooster while en route, and not that I saw a rooster that was itself headed to yoga. However, even without any avian theatrics or mysticism, the unexpected appearance of a rooster in one’s path can lead a person to certain realizations that that person may not be prepared to face. To wit:

  • There is no previous experience in your life that you can call upon for guidance on how to behave in this particular situation – not even having seen a seal several months prior;
  • That number for the Marine Animal Rescue League you’ve been carrying around in your wallet for the past several months will not help you now;
  • Your life has gone astray if calling on the assistance of a someone who still lives at home with his parents reveals you to be the weaker party;
  • Although you have no association with the rooster outside of this one interaction, people will think you’re weird because of it.

Obviously, not everyone will think you’re weird for having seen a rooster on the way to yoga; not at first, anyway. Your friends will probably have some questions, the most harrowing of which, you suddenly understand, will be “What did you do?” Because the true measure of a human being is not the number of unusual situations they face, but how they behave in the face of those situations. Having seen the rooster is not a defining characteristic of who you are any more than the color of your clothing is a defining characteristic of who you are, unless you’re wearing textiles that borrow from mood ring technologies and/or you’re the sort of sullen high-school student who can only fully express the futility of algebra by composing poetry on your arm.  In the long run, though, while your friends will probably remember that you saw a rooster, that’s not a way that they would describe you to a third party – as “saw a rooster one time,” – although they might describe you as having a weird obsession with poultry.

But the people you will immediately encounter after the rooster encounter, the ones at yoga with whom you will likely be most eager to share the story in response to their perfunctory how-are-you’s :  these are the ones who will think you’re weird, because they have little to no other frame of reference for you in which to store that information. “Saw a rooster one time” is all they’ll be able to say about you, until their memory of the actual event starts to degrade and the information changes in their brain, metamorphosing from “There’s that girl who saw the rooster; weird,” through “There’s that weird girl who saw the rooster,” and then pausing briefly at “Every time I see that girl, I get this weird craving for chicken,” before finally arriving at “That girl is just weird.” And that seems unfair to me : just because you sometimes find yourself in a place where weirdness is happening, that shouldn’t necessarily mean that you’re weird.

One of the major drawbacks, though, of constantly planning a story that you’ll never get around to writing, is that you still do a whole lot of revising, which can lead to drastic changes in the resolution. In the early drafts, I was just the poor, unlucky girl who happened upon a rooster, a victim of people’s poor memories and misunderstanding, doomed forever onward to be uncomfortable in the presence of the sharply kitten-faced gentleman who was staffing the check-in desk at yoga that day, thwarted from ever responding to his usual “Can I get your name?” with the grandpa-esque “Will I get it back?”

Now, however, older & wiser (although I should like to point out that I was at least wise enough at the time not actually to tell anyone at yoga about the rooster, nor ever to zing Kitten Face with my quippy comeback), I understand that being repeatedly exposed to weird things does in fact make you weird. Not in the same way that exposure to radiation will alter you at a cellular level, but in the way that, if the only common factor in every situation is you, there must be something particular about you that is contributing to these situations. Which is very easy to understand in terms of other people : people who are constantly complaining about work, their neighbors, drivers, people in the library or in the grocery store; whatever they are bringing to these interactions is somehow contributing to whatever it is they’re complaining about, even if (or especially if) what they’re bringing is a simply a lack of understanding how to resolve the situation amicably.

When it’s you, though, it can be difficult to see what makes up your negative contribution. But, with maturity, I have come to understand that, if you don’t want people to think you’re weird, a simple thing you can do is simply stop telling them how fucking weird you are all the time. And this, finally, is one of the major reasons that the memoirs will probably never get written : it’s difficult to write a story about yourself in which you’re not the hero, you’re not the victim, you don’t transition from one to the other even once, never mind back again. You’re just a person who saw a rooster one time, and watched it walk away.

Dear Scientists,

When this article was recently brought to my attention, I thought it would occasion nothing more than the 3rd in my series of Why Scientists Should Stop Fucking Around with Woolly Mammoth DNA Already. As it has been a while since last we spoke on the subject, let’s begin with a review:

1. Nature has already filled the void created by the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth, and it wasn’t with more Woolly Mammoths; which is to say – there is no place in the modern landscape for such an animal;

2. It is beyond cruel to resurrect an animal that can not survive in the wild and would therefore spend its entire existence in captivity;

3. If you were to ask 1,000 people who don’t work in natural history museums what they want out of life, none of them would answer “More interactions with Woolly Mammoths”; to bring back the mammoth is to spend an exorbitant sum of money on something that is neither necessary nor desirable to the world at large; it is to create a new New Coke for a new generation.

4. Since you are not working on anything of value, scientists who are “working” on the Woolly Mammoth “issue” could better serve society simply by becoming trainers for seeing-eye dogs. Or even garbage men;

5. There are actual issues of scientific importance that need to be addressed out there.

One of these issues, you may recall, is the Tasmanian Face Cancer. Yes, I am still moved by the plight of  our adorably ugly little friend, the Tasmanian Devil, spreading cancer amongst themselves at an alarming rate.

I know I’ve been bugging you – for years – to get on this, so you might think I would have been happy to discover this. Sure, that’s a couple months old – and horrifying, with the tumor-riddled face of a Tasmanian Devil [in all seriousness, that picture is rough; you may not want to look, and you wouldn’t be wrong] –  and it does seem to be good news:

After years of unrelentingly dire news, biologists have found a possible hope for Tasmanian devils, which are threatened with extinction by a contagious, highly virulent form of cancer.

A small group in Tasmania’s northwestern tip appears to have survived the scourge largely intact. It’s the first population to do so, and represents the first real sign — however tentative — that the beloved marsupials may survive.

Certainly, it’s good news that there are some Tasmanian Devils that are resisting the spread of the cancer. And, even considering that Tasmanian Devils who appeared resistant in the past did eventually succumb, it’s encouraging. But, I do question the idea that “biologists have found a possible hope for Tasmanian devils,” since, having read the full article, it sounds like the Tasmanian Devils did it all on their own:

The new findings describe what they [scientists] found: a population [of Tasmanian Devils] that, four years after the disease arrived, looked much as it did before, though the populations around them have been decimated. They still contract the disease, but in lower numbers, and to far lesser effect.

You want credit for what now? Honestly, I’m not seeing evidence of anything that the Tasmanian Devils didn’t do on their own. I do, however, have some concerns about what you’re planning on doing in the face of this progress:

“The best outcome would be that some devils in this population are resistant,” said McCallum. “We might be able to spread the resistant genotypes,” repopulating Tasmania with devils bred from the West Pencil Pine survivors.

Do you know what Dr. Frankenstein’s error was? It wasn’t that he made the monster wrong; it was that he made the monster. Period. Full stop.You getting involved in this situation, now that the Tasmanian Devils seem to be making progress on their own, it just seems like a bad idea to me.

Which, I know, is a complete departure from what I’ve spent years saying. And I do understand your impulse to help them; no one wants them to be cancer-free more than me, especially now that I see a resemblance between their horridly wonderful faces and my Oola’s sweet and beautiful face; (certainly, they are alike in temperament.) It’s tough to sit on your hands when something you love is dying and you think you can help. I’m sorry I was so pushy for so long, I really am. But please, let’s hold off on the spreading of resistant genotypes until we’ve given the Devils a chance to spread it themselves. You can use the time to work on other projects! Really. Anything but Woolly Mammoths, and I won’t say a word.


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