Friday, December 31, 2010

Out with the old, in with the new...

New Year's Eve morning started with some pretty apocalyptic and worrisome weather. Tornado sightings, unseasonably warm temperatures, pouring rain, hail, wicked lightning, crazy wind, and an eerie red sunrise punching through ominously heavy black clouds. But the nastiness had cleared up by afternoon and the temperature plummeted, so we'll probably be in the freezing range tomorrow. It certainly beats twisters, though.

2010 was a much better year than 2009. Nothing dramatically amazing happened, but hell, I like the monotony of my secure, boring routine. I'll keep on keepin' on like Bob Dylan for as long as I can.

Let's hope 2011 is just as solid or even better. And in the mindset of positive change, I've got a pair of New Year's resolutions:

1. Ride better. Sounds simple, but it's far easier said than done. I'm having some issues with a couple of my horses, and most of the problem stems from the fact that I haven't taken the time to address the root causes. Horse riding and training really is an accurate metaphor for the path through life, and well, I've been rushing through the important parts that need a slower, more sensitive approach, and lingering on the fun aspects that more often than not do more harm than good. If I just focus, I'll be more effective, more humane, and better overall. Now to put that into practice....

2. Let it be. I'll admit it, I can be a tenacious, self-righteous bitch at times, when moral, ethical, or factual issues come to light. Usually, I think it's justified. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. Regardless, some times are worth fighting for, and some things just aren't. May I have the wisdom to differentiate and choose my battles, the humility to admit the possibility that I might be incorrect, and the diplomacy to make a point without excess.
I've got my work cut out for me.
And to everyone else, family, friends, and strangers worldwide--may the new year bring you hope, peace, and happiness.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Giver and the Taker

I'm home on break now, after an exhausting but productive and swift semester. Finally, a moment to gather my thoughts. Time to slip from strenuous student to the profound lethargy of apathy and laziness. I'm not particularly motivated to do much of anything but sit around, complain about the cold weather, and stuff my face with leftover Christmas goodies. Which is why, for the sake of intellectual and spiritual development, it's a good thing I've found a new job to whip me into shape.

I'm at another vet clinic for a very short winter stint, working as an impromptu veterinary assistant at a hospital which specializes in avian and exotic pet medicine, in addition to the standard canine and feline treatment. It's a good gig—except for the commute and 8 a.m. starting time—and I've already learned a bunch about birds. Parrots and their kin are amazing animals; an untapped world of intelligence. And tricky as hell to treat.

But I've witnessed something else at the clinic in the past week, something that I've experienced before but never from this perspective: Euthanasia.

I know of no other position where a professional is in charge of both bestowing life and taking it away. Birth, preservation, care, and supportive medicine are coupled with the termination of life. First, do no harm is the doctor's oath, and yet the animal doctor quite willingly (and kindly) gives the ultimate harm and the final gift of release. Two sides of the same coin. Yin and yang.

Whether human doctors should provide end-of-life options for suffering patients is another issue. The fact is that they do not, and any talk to the contrary is frowned upon anddismissed as unethical or worse. Yet for non-human patients, the expected outcome is "good death," assisted by a pink barbiturate deftly injected into a vein.

Thus the paradox. Human(e) compassion against cold medical/scientific practice. The veterinarian loves animals, chose this job because of this love, and yet every killing is just another day at work. For the animal owner, however, this is usually a heart-wrenching, emotional, and horrific decision. I know. I've been on that end. The veterinarian's job, however, is last-rites giver, counselor, friend, doctor, and executioner—quite the mix of skills.

It's a bizarre snapshot into someone else's life. The first death last week was that of an ailing cockatiel. The elderly owner was in utter hysterics. She left the bird because she could not bear to stay. The crotchety vet was touched; sad. She stalled. She said, "I do not want to kill this bird"—but how many birds has she killed in her career? But the time came, and she put the animal in place, administered gas until she slowed and dropped, shot her up, and pronounced her dead. I watched. I am yet working on desensitization; I was moved by the owner's tears and saddened by the bird's limp body (the bird who had, minutes before, sat on her perch and squawked at me with head feathers raised in indignation). But still, I was not particularly affected. Perhaps I'm already turned the cold scientist. Perhaps "it was just a bird." Perhaps I knew it was for the best. Perhaps I've already mastered the art of disassociation. Regardless, the bird was dead, and we cleaned up, forgot, and moved on.

The next euthanasia was that of a little old dog in the midst of a shuddering seizure. There wasn't anything to be done but put her to sleep (what a euphemism, that, but perhaps it's more correct than we know). It was the day before Christmas Eve. This owner elected to stay, crying and stroking her tremoring pet's head as the vet explained the procedure, explained brain death and the cessation of heartbeat and the possibility of the reflexes of a dying body. Observing passively, with literally no dog in this fight, no emotional attachments, and no particular care for whether the animal lived or died, I felt like an interloper. I was intruding on such an intimate affair and I felt conspicuous and out of place. Of course there was compassion for the poor red-eyed woman who was losing her beloved friend—stroking the head and calling her name even after death—and even a sense of loss for the dog. And of course, empathy for the whole situation (as I said, I've been there). But this, too, passed, as did the dog. And after exchanging sad glances and sighing for the gravity of the situation, we packaged the body up in a trash bag and carted it off to the freezer.

And so, snapshots of lives and deaths. I don't know the people (they are merely clients) except for what I have seen in their time of intense grief. I never knew the animals until their final moments. It's simply a bizarre phenomenon.

I haven't any particularly profound thoughts on the topic, expect that I'm beginning to understand why veterinary medicine is one of the professions with the highest suicide rate. It's not that vets are miserably depressed and self-loathing. Rather, they just understand life and death better than most people. It's a different conception. Live as well as you can as long as you can, but terminal suffering is senseless.

Better to just move on.

(the opening image, by the way, is the accidental capture of a firefly's trail against a summer night sky)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Morbid Little Update

But nothing too profound.

Well, I've been quite the irresponsible little blogger. More than five months since my last post. I'm not sure if that's a bad thing (shame on me for abandoning my online journal, for which so many countless eager people are on tenterhooks just dying to read) or a good thing (does this mean I actually have, like, a real life now?). But I had to pop in, at least for a moment, and update on Almost, Finally's (now Carbon Dating's) two-year anniversary. Who brought the cake?
Brief synopsis and catch-up with my life: still lame and boring, still lovin' it. Continuing to work, cranking along through school, shadowing more jobs…
That's a funny little anecdote, though not for the faint of heart. I saw my first leg amputation a few weeks ago. Golden retriever with cancer. I arrived just as they were slicing into the skin, the area prepped and shaved. Promised myself I wouldn't faint this time. Grimaced as the serrated bone wire sawed through the femur. Winced as the thin bone remnants snapped in two. Jumped back in shock as an artery was nicked and a geyser of blood shot three feet in the air, splattering the walls and landing at boots. Gripped my own legs as the dog's leg turned at an increasingly bizarre and grotesquely impossible angle from the rest of the body. But when the veterinarian, without thinking, severed the last flap of skin and unceremoniously handed me the heavy dripping stump, I was surprisingly rational about it, and not the least bit queasy. Mission Desensitization accomplished.

So, that's where I'm at right now. Transporting disembodied dog legs on the road to those eventual far-off-but-every-so-scarily-approaching goals, jumping through all of the appropriate hoops on the way. This semester is almost over (just two more papers to write and three finals to take), then a break, more school, then even more school, then, then, then….
But I'll remain in the present for now. It's plenty occupying as it is. Happy Thanksgiving, y'all.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Midsummer Night's Dream

It’s late. After ten, anyway, maybe pushing eleven. The sky is as dark as it gets out here on a night like this. West, where the sun set long ago, a faint purple emanates only to be snuffed out by the oppressive night air. Far off to the south you can catch the distant glow of the Big City of Springfield; to the north above the black trees, it’s a dulled haze that must be Buffalo. I face this way. Behind me, if I crane my head, a bare bulb in the barn catches the heads of the sleepy horses as they poke out of the stalls to eye me with lazy curiosity. It’s past their bedtime, too—I’m keeping them up.

I squat on the grass; my legs tire and so I sit down, Indian style, in the dew. I look up. Stars everywhere, dizzying millions of stars. Didn’t I, once, in elementary school, make a mock planetarium, or did I dream that? I, or the I in my dream, took a piece of stiff black paper and pricked a hundred holes in it with the sharp point of a compass. And then I folded it round, and held it over my head, and looked through it at the long buzzing fluorescent bulbs. Behold, I am the LORD. Let there be light. And I have created the heavens and the firmament, go forth and multiply, be fruitful and prosper.

There’s Venus over there, hanging heavy in the sky, the brightest light of all. The compass must have slipped and punctured too far; too much light comes in.

“But here there is no light,” wrote Keats, “Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown / Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.”

And what are those green and yellow flickers? I reposition myself in the damp grass. My eyes have adjusted to the dimness by now. Fireflies. An eerie stillness. The only motion I can see are the flittings of the luminescent insects. They are different species, different shades, different patterns of glowing abdomens. It’s invertebrate Morse code. I’m here, and here, and fertile, and free. Let’s sanctify this dark night and consummate our union.

Beyond the lightning bugs there is real lighting on the horizon, out Buffalo way. Sometimes there are fireworks over the trees back there, and this has the same pinkish cast. There are no bolts, and no thunder, just silent flashes and brief illuminations. Static electricity. The power of heat. It’s humid and sticky; the clouds approach, pulsating with energy as they come. But there will be no rain tonight.

I would sit out here forever, now that I am entranced in the moment, but still, reluctantly, I rise and head back to the house, taking care not to disturb the now-slumbering horses. The lights outside the garage are on, and the driveway is littered with tiny black beetles. I can’t take a step without crunching a dozen obsidian carapaces. Meanwhile, the larger June bugs and big brown moths are dive-bombing my head and falling dumbly to the concrete. There’s even a huge dung beetle stuck on its back, clawing helplessly at the air above it. And there are a couple of wise fat old toads sitting there at the buffet.

I pick one up; he’s got a slight yellowish cast to him, and he’s medium in size. This one’s a talker. He starts chirping immediately, pushing against me with his powerful hind legs, glaring at me through beautiful gold-flecked eyes. I remember a favorite pastime of my childhood. Carefully scooping the toad up in one hand, I rush back out the pasture. I wait for my eyes to readjust to the dark, then I follow the seemingly random motion of one of the small green lights. I zero in on my target. I can’t see the firefly, but I move closer with each flash until I can reach out and swat with an open palm to knock the insect to the ground. Then, gently, I reach down with a soft thumb and forefinger to collect my prize as it climbs up a blade of grass. Now I retreat once again to the light.

I place the squirming toad on the ground and he stays put. Then I lightly toss the bug in front of him. He turns to face it. The bug spreads its wings, starts to walk off. Hop, hop, a lunge and gaping fast mouth, and it's over. The amphibian is quite the warty little lion. I snatch him up and hold him in the dark, hoping to catch the faint glow of the still-live firefly as it slides down his throat, but I am disappointed. Ten or more years ago, this used to work wonderfully, and provided many nights of diversion for the neighborhood children. Oh well.

And now I must snap out of the moment, of the trip down memory lane, of the perfect sticky dark night. There are things to do. I’m tired.

I leave toads and beetles and lightning behind and come inside, to the laptop and the TV and my parents and dogs and a cold shower and a warm bed.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?

--John Keats

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Of Enchiladas and Encephalitis

A couple nights ago I met up with some old friends from high school. Our numbers are dwindling, and the groups get smaller with each successive reunion. We’ve scattered, dispersed, changed. It’s the inevitable fact of life that people leave—you yourself leave—you move on. When I was younger, this bothered me immensely. Now I’ve accepted it for what it is and instead look forward to new meetings and encounters, and cherish all the more strongly the relationships that really last.

Anyway, the six of us met downtown for some good Mexican food and chattered on with our requisite catching up on the past semester’s activities. We’re a science-heavy group, and all but one of us are Biology majors, so despite our differences in curriculum and locales we had a lot in common to compare and contrast our “shared” experiences.

Afterwards, we tromped off to a nearby park as twilight fell, passing on the way an odd production of Shakespeare. The play was A Comedy of Errors, but the set was clearly St. Louis, and the actors were all wearing Cardinals uniforms. I’m not sure how well Shakespeare translates to modern-day Missouri, and I’ll never know since I couldn’t hear their words through their overly-exaggerated but poorly enunciated hick-British accents and lack of microphones. We walked on.

If I thought up a list of the most dangerous things for children to play with, gigantic rocks might be up there, following piranhas and machetes. But apparently playground designers beg to differ, for in the middle of the park sat a giant fake rock. “Fake” in the sense that it was obviously not naturally occurring (unless a meteoroid had struck the center of Springfield, MO but forgotten to leave a crater), and if you tapped on it hard enough it sounded hollow, but you would also cut and bruise your hand for it looked and felt very rock-like. It was probably about eight feet tall at the highest point, and had crude “natural” steps coming up one side. All the other sides, however, were either vertical drops or actually slanted backwards, probably to discourage climbing but really having the exact opposite effect. There were, of course, no warning signs anywhere about parental supervision. A tiny plaque on the side of the rock said that it was recommended for children aged five to 12 and might cause death if installed over concrete. Luckily, the park directors had installed it over shredded tires. Safe! Painful on the feet! Enough to cushion a landing, but not enough to prevent a neck from being broken if someone tumbled down headfirst from the slippery precipice!

So, of course, we climbed it. Including the backwards-slanted side, which had neither handholds nor footholds, and which I completely failed to summit after nearly mooning everyone else in the party and destroying a day’s worth of upper body strength. There were also a handful of young children—no parents in sight—who fearlessly joined us strangers and catapulted themselves from the sides while I winced. The guys in our group attempted jumping and rolling from the top (success) and doing a back flip off the walls (repeated complete failure, accompanied by multiple pathetic sprays of tire shreds).

Afterwards, we sat and talked in the dark. A baseball game at the nearby stadium ended, and there was a pretty cool fireworks display. We ooh-ed and ah-ed appropriately.

Topics of discussion ranged from the extraordinarily efficient microflora in cattle stomachs (did you know that you can cut a hole in a cow’s side entering the digestive system, leaving it permanently open to the outside world, and everything will be hunky-dory?) to the ruthlessly cutthroat and competitive industry of apple farming and copyrighted fruits (those hybridization laws are intense) to whether or not you could kill someone with a Taser if you first dipped them in salt water and them positioned the probes far enough apart. Yeah, we’re nerds, I guess.

Eventually we parted, this time for at least another year. It had been a nice meeting, with good food and good old friends. Some of us were going off to summer classes, others to continuing research products, some to jobs.

We’ve all entered the real world.

We’re grown up.

I’m grown up.

When the hell did that happen?

Monday, May 24, 2010

That am a Proverbial Chicken

As sunsets go, the one Sunday evening wasn’t particularly impressive. There were no vibrant red hues and no striking purple clouds to sear fire-orange for a split second as the haloed orb sunk behind the leafy hills. Instead, the sun was a rather nondescript shade with dulled, hazy edges that crept lazily across the sky. But there were, however, rays of light emanating from the drowsy star that shot out across the paling blue. The rays were so numerous, and so defined, and so large and long and bright, that I found myself unconsciously reaching for them. I could have plucked them like the chords of a harp….and released sweet music. But I couldn’t reach, so instead I snapped a few quick pictures.

Later, I went on Facebook and noticed that one of my friends had also taken photos of the sunrays on his phone and uploaded them to his wall. He had different clouds that I—he’s in a different town, after all—and of course a different house and different hills. But it was the same sun, and the same majestic rays streaming from the center. Funny how we’d unwittingly shared a moment.

And I almost didn’t spare that moment to stop and gaze at the lyrical strings of the sun. Since school let out (and of course before), I’ve been running around like mad trying to tie up loose ends. Why? Now that’s a good question. First, I’ve got my two jobs. Those are legitimate concerns. Gotta go on call with the vet and do all the “fun” reproduction work—collect stallions, cool and package semen, clean and inseminate mares—in short, it’s a paycheck and good experience for the ol’ résumé. Then I’ve got the other job, where I ride and train the horses and help out with any odds and ends on the farm, assisting with marketing and such. It keeps me pretty occupied, that’s for sure.

[Side note: I’m typing this in MS Word, and the grammar check is insisting that “that’s” should be replaced with “that am.” I’s pretty sure that am wrong.]

Beyond my ~30 hours a week of jobs, however, I have few pressing commitments. Yes, there are the daily chore responsibilities around the farm. Stalls need to be picked, waters changed, horses fed. The latter need to be ridden, too, and exercised occasionally, tuned up, and practiced. If the gray mare stays sound I’d like to start back up barrel racing her again. I do miss it.

But in between important engagements, I frantically scramble to do….noting. Putz around on the Internet, for one, but also slightly more noble tasks like creating a big hardbound book/ photo album and beading some tack for sale or personal use. And reading. I’m so intimidated by my stack of To Read books that I hardly dare to pick one up. I started out strong, racing through An American Childhood. It was good, but not as great as I’d hoped. Since then, I’ve stalled. I’ve got a half-completed volume of Jack Kerouac novels—started a year ago and still not finished—but I’m procrastinating because, quite frankly, I don’t much care for Jack Kerouac. His road-ready bum and devil-may-care persona are so far removed from my own way of living that I can hardly relate. Still, I do enjoy his stream-of-conscious prose (and find myself imitating it after reading a bit too long), and there’s that whole “cultural exposure” deal, and that whole “can’t start something without finishing it deal,” so I forge ahead, making myself miserable with my own self-imposed agenda, as we are all wont to do.

The past two days it’s just been too damn hot. It went up to 87 degrees Fahrenheit today, with high humidity, and I was dying. Never mind that we’ve got at least another 10 degrees to go. And I thought this was the sublimation point. The heat bakes me into an unproductive lethargy. Alas.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Endless Round

“Spring is when there are new babies in the meadow.” This was a line from a beloved childhood story, I think, perhaps told by an anthropomorphized animal. The circumstances are forgotten. The words surface out of context. New babies in the meadow….and new nests in the birdhouses. And in this particular nesting box, there were five speckled brown eggs, from which five wrinkled and pink aliens emerged—bulbous-headed, jerky, reptilian, blind, and hideous. I found the first one shortly after it hatched, before its siblings has chipped their way into the bright blue world, and held its tiny limp and wobbling form cradled in the palm of my hand. New babies…new life. Everywhere.

The birds are the most obvious examples, in their lively courtship rituals and rowdy fights and poorly concealed hidey holes (beneath the lid of the propane tank, for one, or along the back walls of the horse stalls, where I watched transfixed as a tiny few-day-old chick moved too close to the edge, faltered, frantically flapped its budding ineffectual wings, and tumbled haphazardly down the gap behind the wall; alas, rescue efforts were in vain and the mice—themselves teeming with offspring—must have feasted well that night). Trees and shrubs bud, the voles in the field build their endless network of dens and hide their litters safe below, and the music of the frogs at twilight is deafening. And everywhere, everywhere at night, beetles and moths and craneflies blanket the ground, crunch underfoot, slam stupidly into buildings and cars and ricochet down, cluster around light fixtures, get tangled in hair.

But this outstanding fecundity comes at a high price. Of the five chicks in the northern birdhouse, the first one jumped out of its own accord—free at last!—proceeded to hop and scuffle into the garage, and was quickly dispatched by my mother’s curious and brain-dead dachshund, who carried her prize triumphantly around, clamped tightly in her vise-like jaws. The last bird to remain in the nest seemed healthy enough when I checked a couple of days ago; this morning, it was a crumpled and ant-riddled sack of feathers. I fished it out with a long piece of pasture grass and dumped it unceremoniously in the field so that nature could continue to take its course. Its parent squawked angrily at me from the roof of the house. “Your child is dead,” I wanted to tell her. Instead, I retired inside. I don’t know what happened to the other three chicks.

An old professor saw me sitting vacantly in a campus computer lab the other day and decided it was the perfect opportunity to catch up on things. We discussed polite social subjects: my schedule for next semester, my summer plans. I asked him what he had been up to. Hadn’t he been on sabbatical? And then he got so excited to tell me his story that he glowed like a boy and stuttered and fumbled in his rush to get the words out fast enough.

Yes, he had been on sabbatical. He had gone to Africa. He had seen Tanzania, the Serengeti. He had been close enough to a bachelor band of giant elephants that he had heard the beating and whooshing of their ears as they lazily fanned themselves. He had seen a leopard crouched low in the tall grass, stalking an antelope. He had heard the noises of night life on the African plains, the fighting and dying and bleeding and breeding that went on under cover of darkness, that world into which tourists like American Chemistry professors were forbidden to enter, lest they become victims of the night.

But, he lamented, there was one thing he had not seen, and one thing that he wanted to go back so that he could experience: the great wildebeest and zebra migration. He told me, through his tripping tongue and brilliant eyes, that millions upon millions of the herbivores make the trek across the river annually, and here they calve and foal, millions upon millions of gangly-legged babies cavorting through the rich green grass of spring, before the oppressive summer heat burns it down to yellow desert. There are so many of the young wildebeests and zebras that the predators are sated. The lions have all they care to eat, and after gorging, they laze in the shade and watch, eyes complacent, tails idly flicking. The crocodiles eat their fill, and the hyenas, and the giant black African vultures—in turn fueling their own reproductive success. Yet, by sheer mass of numbers, the wildebeests and zebras preserve, nay, thrive. It’s a brilliant strategy.

Elton John had it right:

From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round

It's the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life

Let us all jump from the nest and ford the river—dare to do, or die. Take our chances. Stretch our legs and spread our wings—full of vivacity—let’s go!

Friday, May 14, 2010

An Empty Chair

I return from my little lapse in blogging, Semester-From-Hell ended, just in time for the commencement of graduates. It’s a funny occasion. All Pomp and Circumstance and a few long boring speeches and cheers and then waltz outside for a photo opportunity with parents and siblings, go party or whatever, and then move on, and forget the past four years. Another chapter completed. One door closes, one door opens. I myself am halfway there!

I wrote the following poem when I was 13 years old; I have seldom written poetry since. I’m no Whitman or Keats, let’s put it that way, but this one little piece, for some reason, sticks out as the highlight of my poetic literary achievements. I penned it to commemorate and lament the high school graduation of a friend of mine, and her subsequent departure from the concert band we both enjoyed. Now, as I prepare to watch some new(er) friends graduate from college, the words of my younger self rise and beg to be remembered:

We sat with horns to lips and eyes ahead
As the magical scene before us unfolded
And we watched, caught in the joy of the moment
A single day to be cherished for a lifetime
And yet with bittersweet regret
There was a silent lonely place
Amidst us all
Its hapless grace
Was all alone:
An empty chair

We could see him sitting in the ranks
Of all the young who met their future that day
Who thought, or joked, or cried, or prayed
All present there, waiting their turn
But as the bold, brassy music we played
There was a quiet spot
All but forlorn
Left there, forgot:
A vacant chair

And loudly
Pomp and Circumstance we played
Our tapping feet and blissful smiles belied
That inside we laughed and cried
As we watched them step up to receive
An honor, yet
Our eyes wandered
To the left
That forgotten token:
That empty chair

We lost them that day, and they left us behind
They went forth, for futures must be made!
Their diplomas taken, and new levels reached
But remembered the band where memories were made!
Sorrowfully we watched them go
The five seniors
And five seats
Unoccupied there:
Five vacant chairs

One day the rest of us will follow them, away
We too shall proudly step up to take the honor
And go forth into our worldly conquest
Our destinies to find; our futures to mold
And leave behind us memories and friends
Who sadly gaze
At the lonely spots
We have forgot:
Our empty chairs

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Classified Information

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow I had gone to high school with, asking me if I would serve as a reference for him and give a good report of his character. Apparently he had been accepted to a highly prestigious government intelligence internship, pending security clearance. He needed people who still lived in southwest Missouri, he said, so of course I agreed to speak to the representative for the government agency. I did not realize until later that this would entail actually meeting with the guy, but by the time I learned that little fact, it was too late to say no and I couldn't leave my friend in the lurch.

That week, I wondered how the meeting would go. My imagination, I must say, ran wild. I secretly hoped that the super secret spy would be some version of James Bond. He would sneak up behind me unannounced while I looked blindly about in the other direction—then, before I could make a move, stifle my surprised scream with a gag and blindfold, stuff me into his spymobile, and whisk me away to some hidden location. There, I would be informed that I had been chosen to fulfill some Very Important Mission. The cover story about the internship reference was simply a ruse. I would be obligated and bound by duty and honor to serve my country…or die trying. And I would accept this Magnificent Task (would I have a choice?) and become a legendary secret agent / super sleuth / incognito spy. Etc. It was quite dramatic.

The evening before the appointed interview, I received a call from Mr. Bond. He asked me when and where we could meet, and I told him where I went to school. There was a pause on the other end, and then he replied that he did not know where that was, as he was not from this area. I named the streets and cross-streets and general direction, then added, "But I'm sure you can Mapquest it on the Internet and find it much easier." To which he replied, "But I'm traveling and don't have my computer with me."



So…so much for accosting an unsuspecting me in a crowd. He couldn't even find a big well-known college campus in the middle of town with a bunch of signs pointing to it.

We finally agreed to meet in the parking lot of a nearby credit union, so that he wouldn't have to worry about on-campus parking (you mean your car doesn't fold up to the size of a briefcase? can't fly to land on roofs? isn't equipped with anti-security measures and a pass-all parking permit?). The interview itself was a touch awkward. Mr. Bonds was aging, beer-bellied, and gold-toothed, but pleasant. He flashed his badge when I got out of my car without skipping a beat of his introduction. Then it was straight into grilling me about, my business at the college (sir, student, sir!), my major (is Biology satisfactory?), and so on. It was a bit intimidating. Then on to questions about the prospective intern (mentally stable? loyal to the US government? would he ever do anything to harm the US government or put it in jeopardy? good at keeping secrets?), followed by random chitchat. Seems he used to breed PMU horses in Canada. Sounds suspicious, Mr. Ulterior Motive.

Then we parted, me feeling as though I had just passed an examination. Egads. All I know is that the safety of our country is in semi-incompetent hands—the sort of hands who are just as likely to find a big ol' university as they are to find bin Laden.

…or maybe I'll be caught posting this, and suffer the consequences. If I disappear, kindly check the ditches for my remains, but whatever you do, don't notify the authorities unless you want to be next.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

I wish by golly I could spread my wings and fly
And let my grounded soul be free for just a little while
To be like eagles when they ride upon the wind
And taste the sweetest taste of freedom for my soul

To let my feelings lie where harm can not come by
And hurt this always hurtin' heart
That needs to rest awhile
I wish by golly I could spread my wings and fly
And taste the sweetest taste of freedom for my soul

Then I'd be free at last, free at last
Great God Almighty I'd be free at last
I'd be free at last, free at last
Great God Almighty I'd be free at last


The recent tragic incident involving the death of a SeaWorld trainer at the flippers of a captive killer whale has inspired a flurry of debates about the ethics and practicality of confining dangerous wild animals. There are no easy answers, of course. On the one hand, the animal is probably happier and healthier out in its natural environment—and people are safer. On the other, perhaps science can benefit from studying these creatures, and we can preserve and protect threatened species, and we can find ways to mentally stimulate and entertain them so that they have perfectly content lives.

I think the whole overemphasis on a "natural" environment can get a bit silly. Who defines what is and is not "natural?" There are no corners of the globe which have not in some way been influenced or even "tamed" by human intervention, so it's a bit of a moot point if human tampering is supposed to be the deciding factor.

Most zoo animals take quite well to captivity. The majority of them aren't particularly intelligent. So long as their basic needs are met, they're thrilled with their safety and routine. It's a security blanket, and they settle into a happy complacency, although they might be cramped for space to roam.

It's a different story for the truly smart animals. Things like macaws and yes, orcas, require far more than iron bars or the concrete sides of an aquarium can provide. I don't think it's impossible to keep them humanely, but I think it's exceedingly difficult, requiring a lot of extra work on the part of their human caregivers. And it really bothers me to see the great apes, like gorillas and chimpanzees, on display for gawking crowds. To me, it might as well be a Down Syndrome child down there. Not much difference in principle. Leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Some people, like the rabid PETA activists, believe that domestic animals are inherently abused. True, many are maltreated, or kept in less than stellar living arrangements. Horses, for example, need plenty of room to roam, but sadly few receive this basic life requirement, leading to severe mental and physical implications. But at the same time, I can look at my spoiled and pampered half-dozen and know without a doubt that they are happy in their posh lives. Sure, they enjoy frolicking in the fields when the weather's nice, but the first hint of rain or cold and they're standing at the barn door, begging to come into warms stalls, to have their soft blankets put on, to sleep in the cushy shavings, to eat their sweet food mixed with their myriad of costly supplements. Yeah.

My good mare, Bones, was injured last May. I'm sure I blogged a few snippets about it in the past, but for a quick summary she turned up lame and unridable, and after months of waiting and failed diagnostics, I buckled down to have her taken to the big equine hospital in Oklahoma. The diagnosis was a badly torn tendon. Apparently the mare was even more steadfast than I realized, for the injury was severe although she hardly limped or seemed to care. Treatment was costly and cutting-edge, involving the cultivation and injections of stem cell-like proteins from the horse's own blood plasma and applications of shockwave therapy. It also included a strict stall rest regimen: first three months of 12-foot by 12-foot confinement, with little to no hand-walking a day, followed of two more months limited to a 30-foot round pen. Bones took in all in stride, which is surprising given her very high strung and reactive nature and her relatively young age. She would gaze longingly at her friends as they cavorted about the pasture or ate the grass she so desperately wanted but could not reach. Many a time I saw her leap in the air and pivot mid-buck to avoid slamming into the metal panels that hedged her in. Most of the day, however, she stood with her head lowered, her eyes half-closed, her hindquarters to the cold wind and snow, depressed and unmoving, perhaps resigned to her fate which she could not affect.

And then, on Tuesday, freedom. Time, according to the doctors' instructions, to turn the horse loose. And you've never seen a happier animal. She flexed her atrophied muscles (to look at her frail frame now, and compare it to her previous bulked-up Schwarzenegger appearance, is quite the juxtaposition) and bolted across the pasture, slid in the mud, leapt up, pivoted, charged another horse, spun around and dashed hell-bent the other way. She's the very picture of athleticism. I cringed to see her fly and slide, because the fibers of the tendon, even if they are healed, are still weak and prone to reinjury—but what can I do?

And so, with trepidation, I saddled her up for the first time in nearly 10 months. She watched me with a cautious eye. Everything fit differently. Her whole conformation has changed. She chomped the bit, perplexed. And I slid into the saddle, adjusting my weight, scared. She balanced beneath me. I asked her to move out. She responded, an easy walk. And then she remembered that she had a reputation to fulfill, that of Crazy, and she gladly reassumed her role, attempting to bolt, throwing her head, prancing sideways. This is the Bones I know!

I was only allowed a few minutes, as the leg and weak muscles can not be overstressed. And I thought she might have limped again, which would mean that all the time and money would have been for naught. But I can't say for sure, so I'll hold off on judgment and pessimism until later. For now, I'm just glad to have my horse back. And I'm sure the horse is glad for her freedom.

I'm back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly gypsum weed
Back in the saddle again

Ridin' the range once more
Totin' my old .44
Where you sleep out every night
And the only law is right
Back in the saddle again

Rockin' to and fro
Back in the saddle again
I go my way
Back in the saddle again

--Gene Autry

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Knack to Vivify

There's a swale ditch that runs through the pasture, and in times of heavy precipitation such as these, it fills with flowing runoff water and there's a veritable creek that cuts the field in half and trickles down through the muddy woods before joining up with other small tributaries and meeting the Pomme de Terre River. It's frozen now with a sludgy kind of snowy ice so that when you try to walk across it bends and moans and stretches down before giving way and setting your feet down gently on the muddy bottom. Stuck out there today, in the oppressively bitter cold with a few casual snow flurries carried on the whipping wind, once again shackled to a grazing horse, bundled up in Carhartt coveralls, earmuffs, and scarf, I entertained myself by trying to balance myself on the ice without breaking it. Good practice, I thought, in case I ever found myself stranded in the middle of a patch of slushy thin ice and had to safely maneuver to solid land. My efforts, unfortunately, were unsuccessful, as time and time again my thankfully waterproof boots splashed through and stirred up murky eddies. Having failed at this objective, I next diverted myself by picking up glassy shards and observed their clarity and ripples. In breaking the ice and peeling it back, I suddenly thought about the microcosm in the cold water below. Was I disturbing it in my thoughtless destruction? Would the cold kill the organisms that lived inside?

And so, in the mud of the woods in the pasture, while my horse nudged the frozen grass halfheartedly and gave me a look like I was crazy, I bent down on my knees and peered into the icy water.

Instant gratification.

For what did I see almost immediately, crawling and sliding among strands of filamentous algae, but a tiny turbellarian flatworm? Yes, less than a centimeter long and a millimeter wide, the tiny paper-thin form reared its head and searched along the bottom of the muddy still water. I leaned and stared and observed its life.

We studied these things in a Zoology course I took last year. They truly are fascinating creatures, if you're into that invertebrate sort of thing. Like many of the so-called "lower" animals, they possess remarkable capabilities of regeneration. We performed an experiment on them once—"surgery," the professor called it, but "butchery" would have been more appropriate. My partner and I cut off our worm's head with a fine razor blade, then split the body halfway down. The head should have grown a new stunted body, while the bisected remains should have sprouted two new heads. Alas, some contaminant killed our unfortunate fellow(s) within a week, just as they were starting to heal and regrow. Another one makes the ultimate sacrifice in the quest for scientific knowledge.

If I was a planarian, what would my world view be? I try to recall knowledge from the class. Turbellarians cannot "see" in our sense of the word, but they can detect light through ocelli which look like nothing but the eyes of a comical cartoon character. What else? They can feel touch, and they don't much like it. They feed through a "mouth" on their ventral surface which rather resembles a penis, yet they are hermaphroditic.

And what if someone lopped off my head and cleaved my neck? Would I split in three? What would my new heads say? Would they share my memory? Would they act and talk and think like the original "me?" Would I curse the person who cut me, or thank them for allowing me to grow to this new wonderful form?

So I sat and stared and pondered until the horse urged me on up the creek to another spot, where she contentedly stopped to graze. I peeled back the ice here, too, and got right to work just looking. And oh God, what have I been missing all these years when I didn't know to see?

There's a story about the Native Americans; whether it's true I don't know. As the tale goes, the Indians, when the first European ships sailed to the New World bearing White Man, could not see them. For days they gazed right through the slowly growing blots on the horizon. Without comprehension, without a point of reference for comparison, the ships simply did not exist. Only when a shaman stared down the clouds did he realize the truth, which he then shared with the people, and their eyes were opened.

Yes. And here, down in the murk, my newly-sighted eyes spied one, two, no, seven, eight planarians creeping and feeding in a five square inch plot of mud. But they've been there all along! And around them little tiny aquatic plants released little tiny bubbles to the surface—oxygen!—the product of their photosynthesis, light- and carbon-fixing. And that's been happening all this time!

I'm reduced to a simpleton, a child, finding fascination in the most mundane things. But they aren't mundane. They are remarkably complex, intricate, complicated, important, and even in the midst of this bitter winter—the worst I've ever known—they continue on.

There's hope there. As the flatworm regenerates its severed head, so too will the trees put forth new buds and leaves, and the ground will thaw, and the air will warm.

Spring is around the bend, bringing whispered promises and hope.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Another Depressing Death

Yep, poor Frosty. Didn’t stand a chance against six horses who gathered their collective courage and banded together to neutralize the threat. After losing his ears and eyebrows to a hungry Buddy, the beleaguered snowman was deprived of his arms by a smug Rebel. Bones and Mack knocked his head off while Brandy hung back apprehensively. Then Sawyer moved in and with a few powerful pawing kicks toppled the whole thing over. All the horses seemed a little too proud of themselves as they clustered together to sniff and lick the battered mound of snow.

I thoroughly enjoyed the snow (look how much!)—but the aftermath of mud is a different story. Today, while tromping through the pasture, horse in tow, I walked clear out of my sole. The rubber bottom of one of my nice boots simply stuck firm in the slop and pulled completely away. It was a pitiful one-legged hop back to the house to change footwear.

So—is it Spring yet? I’ve seen a few robins, those happy harbingers of the fairest season, but if Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions hold true, we’ve still got a lot of cold ahead of us. Which might explain the freezing fog this morning and the eerie frosty landscape. Oh well. I’ll crawl back under the covers for another six weeks of hibernation and bide my time ‘til rebirth and renewal.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fragility and Futility

Yesterday while meandering through the winding country roads (blanketed in a treacherous layer of slick snow, as I had found out earlier that morning in an enlightening incident involving a tight curve, a barbed wire fence, and a punctured tire), I passed another vehicle which was stopped blocking the lane. The motorist was not experiencing mechanical difficulty, however; he had his digital camera out and was delightedly snapping pictures of something. I looked to the field ahead and saw the object of his focus: six light-footed agile deer bounding through the sparsely wooded creek bed, then out into open grass, sailing effortlessly over the barbed cattle fence, loping across the road ahead, clearing the fence on the other side, flying off, gone like snowy specters. The fluidity of their movement and apparent nonchalance was enviable—a real visual treat.

But several nights ago this picturesque scene turned a little more sinister. My father had been walking the dogs shortly after dark when I received a panicky call from him: “There’s a deer caught in the neighbor’s fence and the dogs are attacking it and biting it and would you please come help me get it out now.” So I assembled a flashlight and beach towel and wire cutters and after securing the dogs we both drove down to the deer’s location. It was a small, young buck—the buds of tiny antlers were just starting to appear on its head. When he saw us approaching, he started bellowing and bouncing, but I quickly covered his eyes with the towel and he stopped all movement. He was caught from the left hind leg—apparently he had cleared the top of the fence with trademark cervid grace, but had kicked back after the vertex of the leap in a freak accident that caught his hoof between the top two wires of the Red Brand fence. And the hoof was neatly caught, squeezed tightly at the very base with bright red blood pooling around the wire. The deer hung vertically down, front legs swinging, head pointing at the ground. As he was rather small, I was able to support the majority of his weight, and I lifted his body up to ease the strain on the injured leg. He struggled slightly; not knowing what else to do, I rhythmically stroked his sides and spoke calmly. The legs were slender as twigs, the cloven obsidian hooves were sharply pointed. The fur, I noticed, was not a uniform tan at all but rather a gradient of gray and brown and black going down each hair shaft—the color that in mice is called agouti. I ran by gloved hands through it, caressed the heaving sides, felt the ridges of the ribs, the tight muscling—and the echoed pulsing of the beating heart.

I insisted, at this point, that my dad call the neighbor to inform him of the situation. After assessing the severity of the deer’s plight, I wanted someone on hand with a gun lest the leg be badly broken and the animal attempt to hobble off into the night mortally crippled. He acquiesced reluctantly, and soon the neighbor arrived. I supported the deer’s weight while the two men worked at the wire and freed the foot. It only took a minute, and then we were lowering the animal down to the ground. I half expected him to jump up and charge me in an irrational wild terror, but he stayed lying prostrate. My heart sank a little. The neighbor gave him a gentle boot. He attempted an awkward crawl, all four legs splayed spider-like until he slid haphazardly into a shallow freezing rivulet in the ditch. The men pulled him back out and checked his legs for any obvious signs of injury. There were no apparent broken bones, and the wire cut on the injured hind, while deep, was by no means life-threatening. The back didn’t seem to be broken, either, as the deer could move his hind feet somewhat, although dragging seemed the preferred means of locomotion. And now he drug himself off a few more yards and stopped to look at us, only the head upright and alert, trademark soft liquid black eyes staring, ears pricked, nervously licking his lips.

We debated the best course of action and decided that, since the deer had probably been hanging there in a most awkward and unnatural position for quite some time, and was undoubtedly in shock, that perhaps a wait-and-see approach was the best course of action. Half an hour, the neighbor said, and he’d come back. If the deer was still incapacitated, he’d put it out of its misery.

That evening, I hoped the coyotes wouldn’t come and I listened for the gunshot. I pretended that it’d be all right; but I found out the next day that it wasn’t—the deer had been shot after all. Better than the alternative, still, and at least we gave the little buck a chance.

It was a sad event, but I wasn’t affected nearly as much as I thought I’d be. Just a humdrum “oh well, that’s a pity” when I heard the news before I turned back to devouring my sandwich. Emotional detachment, surprisingly, wasn’t all that hard, even as I held the wild animal in my hands and felt his frightened heartbeat through my glove and knew he would probably die.

And that emotional detachment will certainly serve me well in my chosen future profession. I read a touching essay on this very subject last week, and the other day a favorite professor accosted me in the hallway for a chat. In our conversation, she brought up how she had originally been a nursing student, but she had gladly given up on it when she discovered how easily affected she was by the misfortune of others. She’s not the kind of person, she said, who can shrug that kind of thing off lightly. She doesn’t know how doctors can deal with it, then come home and eat dinner with their families and talk and laugh about trivial matters. No, for her, plants are much safer and far less personal—and so now she teaches botany and is writing the first-ever field guide to Romanian plants.

Something odd: Thursday night, while taking a shower, I suddenly had a rather vivid flashback to the day when we noticed, out of the blue and icy-cold day, that Shorty was sick and thus started on our tragic six month journey with the cancer-stricken horse. It’s not that I don’t think about him often, because I do—that little charcoal-colored pony meant a hell of a lot to me. But it was strange how a perfect image of that fateful day suddenly tumbled across my consciousness. Curious, I turned to my blog archives to look it up. And sure enough—thanks to coincidence or subconscious memory or divine interference—it was exactly one year from the discovery. But I still have to say that, one month in, 2010 is looking a whole lot better than 2009.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nose to the Grindstone

I am a student. Not a “professional student,” I guess, though it sometimes feels that way, given my laborious hours of studying and paper-writing and the daunting prospect of at least another six and a half years of formal university and graduate education to go. I try to take my classes seriously; I fret about my grades and worry about my knowledge retention; I remind myself that I’m here because I want to be here and not because I have to be here. I’m lucky to have this opportunity, after all. Now I’ve got to take advantage of it and make the most of its potential.

I’m getting back into the swing of things, finally, slowly, reluctantly. It’s a short but intense schedule this semester: only 15 credit hours, but that includes three four-hour core Biology/Chemistry classes. Not exactly easy or fun stuff. (But again I’m here because I want to be here and not because I have to be here! The end result, a decade away, will be worth it.)

But while I’m working as hard as I can on my education, I find that others are less than impressed. I was recently confronted with a scathingly derisive description “[someone who] still lives at home…still ‘wet behind the ears,’ who has yet to leave the safety of the ‘nest.’” Ouch. And this coming from a person who has never met me and knows nothing whatsoever about me aside from the minimal info discussed in a few online exchanges. Wow.

One of my new professors this semester has tried, on three occasions already, to get me to drop his class. The reason? I’m a sophomore. The class is designed for juniors, apparently. I have all of the prerequisites and the grades to attest to my proficiency in the subject. No matter. He’s convinced that because I have a year (or two semesters) less experience than the other students enrolled, I’m destined for a crash-and-burn in the course. Thanks, sir, and maybe you’re right, but that’s my concern, not your problem.

Age. Life experience. Knowledge is compiled and wisdom is earned throughout the years, it’s very true. At my youthful age, I know I should—I must—remain humble and attentive. I’ve got volumes and volumes to learn…but we all do. Not that I would want to compare with someone much my senior, lest I fall far short in the “life experience” and “hard-earned wisdom” categories. But if said senior isn’t also humble and attentive, then there’s a problem. Because you don’t magically turn into a grown-up one day, having amassed all the answers in the universe. Nope. It’s a constant, eternal refrain of looking, watching, learning, internalizing, developing, evolving. Otherwise you’re stagnant—set in your ways, unable to change, stubborn as hell, lumpy—and your knowledge is useless. So please don’t discount someone’s opinion based solely on the holder’s age. Although the years in their life may not be numerous, that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been packed with meaningful experience.

And while I’m on a somewhat-related subject, I’ve noticed an odd phenomenon among my peers: fierce inter-discipline competition and resentment. Chemistry majors scorn Biology majors for taking an “easy, overdone” route, while the latter think the former is too uptight, overly analytical, and lacking an appreciation for the big picture of things. All science majors are lumped together and treated with suspicion by the more artistically-minded students, while math majors are discounted entirely for being just plain weird). After all, science is just memorization and how hard is that? But the science majors fire back, yelping that they’re doing real meaningful work with real-world applications and results, dammit, while everyone else is puttering away in theoretical la-la land. And the Architecture majors whine too much, and the English majors are slackers, the Philosophy students are conceited and egotistical, the Music majors are delusional, the Business majors are stupid, and so on and so on.

Absurd. What’s up with this competitive drive and one-up-manship? I don’t think I’m being naïve when I say that we really can all learn a lot from each other.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Viva La Revolución

Comparative physiology, assisted by the biogenetic law and paleontology, gradually traced the evolution of man from the common ancestor of man and primates down through some primitive species of lemurs (night monkeys), thence on through marsupials, duckbills, saurians, fishes, to ascidians. Then Haeckel advanced his gastrula theory and divided the lowest organisms into unicellular protozoa and protophyta, and multicellular metazoan and metaphyta, bringing the descent of man down to some primordial common protist ancestor of animals and plants….

--Ernest Untermann

One day last semester, I was kicking along the sidewalk with some time to kill between classes. I noticed a benefit bake sale on the steps of the library and was unable to resist. I exchanged 50 cents for a cookie, dispatched the latter quickly, and proceeded into the library to fool around in the computer lab. The remaining two quarters were clicking together most irksomely in my pocket, however, and wouldn’t you know but the first thing I saw when I entered the building was a sign saying “Books for sale - $0.50 each” propped up on a few shelves of tired old volumes. How serendipitous.

So I shuffled through the stacks of books trying to find something worthwhile. A crappy 90’s play. A book of nature photography with poor-quality grainy images. Numerous biographies of people I’d never heard of. Histories of some literary movement or other, hundreds of pages long and unbelievably dry. I had almost resigned myself to an ugly book about American Realism when I spied a tiny hardcover with the provocative title Science and Revolution. I pried it from the row and looked it over. It was dirty, a pale blue in color that was rapidly fading to gray. The pages were yellow and brittle. The cover was embossed with the insignia of the Library of Science for the Workers. The original owner had penciled his(?) name on the first page: Illegible Scribble Ph.D. 1905.

Dr. Scribble annotated several other pages of the book, living up to his name each time. On the back he listed the taxonomy of kingdoms, including amoeba, gastrula, amphibians, and other things that I think might say peninsula, symphony, carbonform, ice aye. Or maybe not. Perhaps he was a medical doctor as well.

But to hold this book in my hands I feel the history there; I feel some inexplicable connection with the late professor. When he read these words they were undoubtedly new and controversial. They were written in an age before “socialism” was a swear word, or an insult, or a synonym for communism and fascism. Untermann, in fact, proudly declares his Marxist ties. The very purpose of the work, as near as I can tell, is to show that the march of time and human history is leading up to the ultimate inevitable triumph of evolution—a socialist society. This is pre-WWII, pre-atom bomb, pre-Holocaust and pre-environmental crisis and pre-War on Terror. How naïve. How quaint.

Today, the words are stuffy, outdated, archaic. Old news. Boring. So boring, in fact, that after trudging through the first 40-odd pages on a long bus ride during a worthless music trip (and reading the words “proletarian” and “bourgeois” so many times I began to hate the Romans and the French), I grew so tired of Untermann’s history of philosophical thought that I nearly discarded the whole thing. Recently, however, I picked it back up, turned to a random page, and found the excerpts quoted here.

And there’s some good stuff:

Once that the unity of all organisms in the world had been established, two questions immediately required an answer. One of them concerned the unity of psychological phenomena, the other that of life.

If the physiological development of mankind, animals, and plants knows no line of demarcation, but only degrees of organization, and if psychology is in reality a branch of physiology, why should there be a line of demarcation between the psychological development of man, animals, and plants? And if all organisms are descended from some common primordial protoplasmatic form, then the discovery of the origin of the vital processes of that form, or of any form, would solve the question of all organic life in the universe….

(Here Dr. Scribble writes a tentative question mark in the margins. I, too, had trouble understanding the author’s meaning. But then, skipping a few paragraphs ahead, comes a technical essay that suddenly flowers into intricate prose.)

The quest after the origin of life compelled science to penetrate far beyond so-called living organisms. It led on into the inorganic, and wiped out the line of demarcation between organic and inorganic, living and dead matter. It showed that organic life arose through the mechanical evolution of inorganic life. It revealed that life and death are but two poles of the same universe, that the distinction can no longer be between life and death, but only between different degrees of organization and intensity of life, between positive and negative life.

Personal immortality now resolves itself into personal evolution. Life and consciousness are now revealed as attributes of all matter, going through as many different stages of evolution as the various material forms in the universe. The personal immortality of any definite form would involve the control of all evolutionary processes which endanger the persistence of that form. So long as such control is not established, there is a ‘transmigration of the soul,’ but not in the way that the mystics use this term. The physiological processes of a certain positive consciousness, or ‘soul,’ are converted by the process of ‘death,’ into negative consciousness, which in turn becomes the positive consciousness of some other form.

One hundred and five years later—after the discovery of DNA and inheritance and penicillin and nuclear energy and radiation—we’re still at this same spiritual threshold. We’ve got a lot to learn and, it seems, a lot of lifetimes to do it.

I guess it’s a good thing I’m going back to school tomorrow.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Sore Spot

A couple hours ago, I chanced upon a link tonight of a video stream portraying a mare actively foaling. They had a camera set up in the stall that fed to a popular website whose only purpose is to post such videos. The mare was obviously agitated and in extreme discomfort. She paced and turned and shook and trembled, lay down, stood up, looked around, backed into the corner of her stall, sweated, quivered. And then, as I watched with rapt attention: the miracle of life. Two tiny white feet enclosed in a membranous sac. They would appear for a moment, and then recede from view. People bustled about the tiny stall, interfering all too much as humans are wont to do. They bothered the mare and someone grabbed at the little hooves and pulled and pulled while the mare pushed and pushed. Slowly a form emerged from some alien void. And then—new life, a little wet misshapen thing that looked around in total squinty-eyed shock. A tiny head wobbled on an unsteady neck. Four spidery legs stuck out haphazardly. Vet and owner dried the thing and cleared it of its casing. Oxygen was administered, for it seemed a little weak. Someone held up a sign to the web cam: “FILLY.” So she was a girl, a little red sorrel, the much anticipated result of a breeding 11 months before. She was naturally unsure of herself, and for a while she simply gazed stupidly at the hustle and bustle that surrounded her as her exhausted mother periodically snuck a peek behind. Then the mare rose to lick her new baby, and the foal attempted to sort out her uncoordinated and unresponsive feet. The front ones seemed to work all right, but the two in the back flailed around and fought vainly for a purchase. She flopped on her side again and again. And then, finally, about a half hour after her unceremonious entrance to the world, success! She rose and wobbled over to her dam, looking for the life-giving milk that she instinctively knew she needed. She soon found that it was not located between the front legs, as overly helpful people ushered her to the correct end. Here I stopped watching.

I’ve never seen the live birth of a horse before, either in the flesh or on a screen. It was a touching experience. But at the same time, it makes me think of the overbreeding problem….

Let me preface the following by saying that you probably shouldn’t read it. If you aren’t involved in the horse industry, it won’t make a lot of sense because I leave many important facts and arguments out, both in support of and opposing the current slaughter ban. If you are involved, you’ve heard it all a million times. It’s old news. An d it's all packaged in the wonderful format of an unorganized tirade. *Ahem.*

I don’t generally comment on current events, usually because I’m sadly uninformed and pathetically apathetic. There is one issue, however, that I feel the need to address because it’s such a hot-button one in the agricultural community. Two years ago, Congress banned the slaughter of horses for human consumption on US soil. This was after a huge public campaign by animal rights activists and celebrities who decried the murder of Trigger. Prior to this, 100,000 equines per year were processed in the States, with many more being shipped out of the country for the same intent. The closing of the kill plants created an even greater surplus of horses, with even greater numbers being shipped, often crowded into inappropriate trailers and hauled for obscene distances with no food or water, to Canada or Mexico, where conditions are, to say the least, appalling. But quite frankly the conditions in the US plants hadn’t been much better.

There’s a whole lot to get into here, so I won’t even bother with the details. Suffice it to say that there are good arguments for each side. Neglect, abandonment, and starvation do increase when there is a surplus, and a surplus results from a lack of disposal method (slaughter). But there are currently no regulations in place to ensure a humane method of killing. The industry is corrupt.

They’re now talking about bypassing federal regulations and opening up a slaughter facility in Missouri. I don’t think it will happen; the public outcry is too strong and the legalities are formidable. But it reopens this tired old debate. I don’t know what side of the fence I’m on. It depends on the day and the facts being presented….and the facts are so often twisted. I’m for the welfare and the best interest of the animals. That is all.

We can’t force our moralities on other cultures, obviously. Just because we in America find the idea of a Trigger burger appalling doesn’t mean that other people feel the same way. It's not wrong to eat horsemeat. It is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to animals.

We’ve got a problem here. It’s called “irresponsibility.” There are too many damn horses in the US, and it’s because of breeders who overproduced subpar stock with no plans for their future use, training, or marketability. Many perfectly useful horses end up on a plate in France after enduring a stressful transport and a painful death simply because no one wanted them, or no one saw their potential, or no one had time to train them, or, simply put, someone decided to buck responsibility. If we’re going to have slaughter, find a humane way to do it. Regulate it better. Have vets and inspectors at every step in the process. But until that day comes, it’s an entirely inappropriate and greedy means of getting rid of excess (which should have never been created in the first place!). Dammit.

I apologize for the ramble, but I’ve got to type this out somewhere. I’d give more facts and information about euthanasia and carcass disposal if only I had the room and time….

[Anecdote: When asked to write about a controversial national issue for a scholarship essay, I chose this very topic, arguing that the slaughter plants should be reopened with the appropriate safeguards and regulations in place to ensure the humane treatment of horses on American soil and to prevent export to Mexico or large scale neglect and abandonment. They apparently assigned interviewers based on the topic of the paper, and I was paired with a French professor who just so happened to be a radical animal rights activist. She is heavily involved with an animal advocacy club at the university and is currently working with Bob Barker to develop the nation’s first Animal Ethics minor. I, unfortunately, did not know this at the time. I imagine that my seemingly cold pro-slaughter viewpoint did not impress. Oops.]

Friday, January 8, 2010


There’s a -18ᵒ windchill outside. This cold is insane. Perhaps other places get colder—much colder—but we Missourians can’t handle this relentless wind, the heavy snow, the icy roads, or the intense chill (“frigid,” says the weatherman, while warning of frostbite). Even the horses, though hardy creatures, are suffering the effects of the inclement weather. They can hardly wait to come into the warm barn at night, and when the snow comes down and melts into their downy underfur, they shiver beneath their turnout blankets and turn their backs to the wind. When I, stupidly, tried to ride the other day in 6ᵒ weather (“It’s not really all that bad once you get moving!”) I didn’t make it more than five minutes before my frozen-lunged mount was panting beneath me, and my extremities were numb, and my face was burned from the wind.

It’s beautiful, but it’s a cruel beauty. Dry crunchy snow is blown and whipped by wily winds, drifting into thick piles, exposing frozen rutted ground. Turn towards the wind and your face is blasted; eyes freeze; frigid air whistles through ears until it sears the brain; nose goes numb and dribbles like a faulty faucet. Turn away and the wind seeps through the neckline of your jacket to tousle your hair and make you shiver.

I hold my horse steady. The vet mandated 10 minutes of hand-walking a day for her rehabilitation, so 10 minutes a day is what I shall do, braving the bitterness. The cold and wind make the mare crazy; she plunges at the end of her lead line, pulls away from me, turns again, swivels and bucks and rears and paws. She flattens her ears and shakes her head at me, blaming me for her confinement, then vents her aggression on the snow, striking it with exaggerated motions until she finds some buried grass, then tearing violently at the hidden green blades. She stops to roll in the powder, and I urge her on. We repeat the whole process as she grows more agitated and I grow weaker. I’m panting from exertion by the time I’m done, but I’m still awfully cold with dulled senses and slowed reactions as I drag her back to the only marginally warmer barn.

I chose to go into town the other day to meet some old friends before we once again parted our separate ways. It was a bad decision because the snow was heaping down and the roads were slick with ice. On the way home, the highway was unrecognizable. I crept along at 35 miles per hour and felt reckless at that speed. The lanes were gone, and it was impossible to tell where the edge of the road met the shoulder or median. Soft whiteness enveloped all, and fat flakes marred by windshield as my wipers slashed to clear it. Everyone was driving smack dab in the center, straddling the place where we presumed the lane lines would be. A few fools tried to pass me, but quickly gave up once their tires hit a slick spot and their cars lurched. My headlights showed the paths that many before me had taken—sliding off the road and into ditches, over hills, into woods, out of sight. I’ve made that mistake once and, knock on wood, don’t intend to do it again. Something about having your car sliding backwards down the highway, slicing through a reflective road marker, and coming to rest just feet from an imposing wall of rock has a sobering experience that one doesn’t soon forget, let me assure you.

But at the end of the day, the consolation prize is a warm house. Even during the worst of it—even when I’m carrying an eight gallon bucket full of freezing water over uneven terrain, and even when I trip on a snowdrift and spill the whole damn thing all over myself (and it instantly freezes on my coveralls and gloves and my already-slow movement becomes even more impeded) and I utter things not worth repeating and bury my face below my collar when confounded by the futility of it all—even then I know that there’s a fire to go sit by, and good food, and a comfy bed. And I can gaze out the window as a simple spectator to the sullen beauty of the snow.

And then it will be all right.