Monday, May 24, 2010

Fairy Tales and Social Regulation

On Saturday, I went to see an amazing example of the latest technology in film restoration. Thanks to bigwigs like Martin Scorcese, a true film classic, The Red Shoes, is now available to a new generation of film buffs.
The Red Shoes is probably the ultimate ballet movie, and maybe the ultimate art movie. Not only is there a great story - lifted from the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson - but it features surprisingly deep character development, so we really get an idea of what it's like to run a dance troop, audition before a megalomaniac producer, and find fulfillment in one's art form. (When is the last time you felt a movie explored character like a novel? Only when you see a golden oldie do you see how satisfying it is to watch. Sometimes it's easy to think modern film consists of special effects with a few people thrown in. But I digress.)
The original fairy tale is a variation on the Faustian bargain. Faust agrees to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly ambitions. The dancer in "The Red Shoes" never encounters the devil, but he is there in spirit: giving her fame through he power of the red shoes, at the cost of love, and then her life.
Victoria Page, in the story about the story, dares to be ordinary: she loves a man and marries him, neglecting her art. The megalomaniac insists she return to her art, renounce her husband, and achieve greatness. The choice literally sends her over the edge.
The lesson or moral of so many fairy tales is so remember the social contract and not to allow self-interest (set in place by the will to survive) to take up too much energy and focus. Kindness is rewarded. Selfishness and excess ambition are punished. These tales were probably written to instill social values in children (through benign subterfuge, except in particularly gory stories - and there are no shortage of those!). Yet they were also entertaining and immensely satisfying to adults - mirroring their sense of justice and fair play.
These days, we still desire social regulation, but the way we tend to go about it can be frightening. Modern Faust stories usually involve women being punished for choosing ambition (or even too much energy on an ideal) over relationships. (Men are rarely if ever chastised for the same - because they are still defined by work, not connections to others.) On the scarier end, we have Hollywood movies featuring vigilante justice: men going outside the law to exact revenge on criminals.
Can you think of any classic fairy tale with such an obvious message as "The Red Shoes"?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nibbling with the Eyes (or Ears)

Part of my grief over the loss of my little friend is due to the abrupt change in habit. Being able to be close to Pablo several times a day produced oxytocin in my brain - a neurotransmitter known to counteract stress. (No wonder pet therapy is a growing concern.) Oxytocin is most strongly produced between mother and child, but can appear in other loving exchanges. Pablo was a very touchy-feely feline - unlike other very sweet cats I have known over the years. How I miss his big, velvety paws!
Late last year, a series of fortunate accidents brought books on social isolation to my attention, including Loneliness, by John Cacioppo. One of the things he mentions in that book is something called "social snacking." In lieu of actual contact (a "meal") with a loved one, people e-mail, call, text, and gaze at photographs.
Yesterday, when I had a friend over, I showed her several years of Pablo photographs. To my surprise, it gave me solace, not pain, to see him in all those poses. I realize now I was nibbling to keep from starving. His beauty - and, if I may be immodest, my skill as a photographer - was very gratifying. I remembered how lucky I was to have that handsome animal in my life.
Today, I found this Guardian article on long-distance consolation. Seems just hearing the sound of your mother's voice can lower stress hormones (cortisol) and raise oxytocin!
The need for connection is so great, we evolved back-up measures. Reach out and touch somebody, indeed.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Patterns and Pathos

In late October 2008, my 16-year-old cat, Sara, lost the use of her hind legs. I brought her to the vet's, left her there for observation, and came home. It was a particularly gloomy day, even for late autumn, with a sky like a cataracted eye. As I stood in the living room in a daze, wondering what would happen with her (there was a slim chance she would recover), I heard a raptor cry outside. I looked out, thinking I might see a Peregrine Falcon (as I'd seen elsewhere in the city). A smaller bird landed on a wire, upright like a raptor, not a songbird. Luckily, I had my binos. It was an American Kestrel (pictured)! Given the rarity of a bird of prey in the city, and the nature of the day, I found my innate sense of superstition kick in. I saw the bird as an augury of death. (Sure enough, Sara had to be euthanized.)
Two weeks ago, just as Pablo started to act a little quieter than usual, I heard that screech again, same window. I went out and saw a kestrel chasing a pigeon (that was about its own size - talk about eyes bigger than your stomach!). Oh no, I thought, what happened last time I saw a kestrel fly overhead?! That was pattern recognition of the worst sort.
If that were not strange enough, as my husband and I returned home from a walk on Saturday, mere hours after saying good-bye to Pablo, a kestrel cried out as it flew across the street from our apt.
It is a very useful adaptation to see patterns amidst the chaos of information that pours into our senses every moment, and from the myriad events and phenomena out there. The trait is so finely tuned, it tends to look for patterns even when coincidence better explains what's going on. I suppose culture, personal experience, and wisdom (which may never come!) help us separate true patterns from false ones - and prevent us from hanging people for the latter.
In my case, it is a combination of birdwatching awe and an overdeveloped sense of narrative, for the want of a better term, that led me to frame these phenomena. When we are in the grips of a strong emotion - grief, love, anger - the tendency is greater. It pays to keep perspective.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Good-bye to a Writer's Best Friend

Yesterday, I lost Pablo, one of the best friends I have ever had. Most cats are good companions for writers, but Pablo was the best. He loved life, loved us, and even taught us several distinct types of his vocalizations. How many cats have different sounds for "feed me" and "cuddle time, please?"
The study of our relationships with animals (and nature in general) has dominated my life work, dovetailing with my studies in neuroscience, ecology, and even poetry. The animals we bring into our homes are welcomed (or merely tolerated) for many reasons: as servants (mouser cat, guard dog), companions, child substitutes, but most of all (in my opinion) as surrogates for the wild animals out there, which are largely beyond any attempts at communion.
When I connected with Pablo – through sight, sound, touch, and smell – I engaged with the Other, to be sure, but our 13 years of cohabitation made him part of my Self as well. The reason I am in mourning now for the loss of the little mammal with the big character is that something has been ripped out of the fabric of my world. I often chided myself for loving him “too much.” Now my memories of doting on him and being adored in return are truly a consolation. He was no “merely tolerated” cat. He was not “just a cat” either.
When he developed mysterious symptoms late last year, I flew into a panic (not exactly making me popular at the animal clinic). When the danger seemed to pass, I relaxed - if not 100%.
Something – perhaps something epigenetic from his mother (allegedly abused while she carried him and his six siblings) – disturbed his internal organs at some point in his life. Most recently, in early February, he stopped eating for a week, freaking us out after we discovered that cats cannot live off their fat. (In fact, it’s a ticket to liver failure if they start off obese.) I force-fed him a nutritional supplement and yogurt, and after we brought him back from a second visit to the vet’s in one week, he went right to his dish and chowed down. The all-clear was sounded. A few expensive tests and much head-scratching later, I found myself holding back from loving him as much as before, and swearing I would cherish every minute with him. I was no longer in denial about his mortality. (Losing another cat, 16-yr-old Sara, more than a year ago, brought this into sharper relief.)
I tried to prepare (and it did help), never suspecting the end would come quite so soon.
When his appetite slowed about 10 days ago, he lost weight noticeably. Then a few days ago, he began breathing more heavily. We brought him in on Saturday morning, and the x-ray showed an enlarged liver, and cloudiness around the lungs obscuring the heart. The vets had us recorded as requesting “no heroic measures” in Feb., so I am not sure if there would have been any therapies on offer had we asked. But the vet who examined Pablo told us she would not want to extend his suffering, either. So with a clear conscience we decided to euthanize him.
My husband said his good-byes, and then I stayed with Pablo for about half an hour. He connected with me one more time, on his terms, as if to remind me what we had had for more than 13 years. It was both heartbreakingly touching and deeply consoling. I want connection, and that was Pablo's final gift to me.
I can't believe he's gone. Nothing much else seems to matter right now.
However, that feeling too will pass. Life always continues, even if a little tattered at the edges.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poetry & Pollution

Those who know me well would never (I dare say) accuse me of sticking my head in the sand about world events. I read depressing things all the time (though less than I used to). When you write about science, especially the environment, it comes with the territory.
However, one thing I refuse to read about in detail - and sometimes read about at all - is an oil spill. My empathy with filth-covered creatures, and even with seaweed dotted with tar blobs, goes on high alert. It's just too painful. Time for me to be selfish and turn the page. In a way, the reports are only preaching to the converted (I of the Church of No-Oil, don't you know).
But plenty of people are far from converted, yet they too turn the page. What of them? Is a sickening litany of corporate incompetence or criminality, dying birds, poisoned turtles, ruined livelihoods, and environmental devastation the best way to tell them we need to change our energy needs sooner rather than later?
If not, then maybe we should use another way into the mind: through the heart. A novel called Uncle Tom's Cabin alerted people to the plight of slaves - undoing more legalized brutality than any number of petitions gathered by well-meaning abolitionists. Poetry can also appeal to our natural tendency to empathize with fellow humans in trouble and even with other species - even with the abstraction called an ecosystem.
In the excellent on-line environmental journal, run by my friend Simmons Buntin out of Arizona, a recent post features the Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda's poem about a terremoto (earthquake), almost presaging the Big One of 1960. (It was the biggest ever recorded anywhere, by the way: an 8.8.) Although he wasn't commenting on that seismic event - or even on an earthquake, being an intensely patriotic and political man - it got me thinking about communication of world-scale events.
Where are our modern observers of environmental change?
Ian McEwan's latest book, Solar, concerns climate change. I hope more novelists as clever as he will follow suit. What of other creative genres?
I imagine there will be "nature" poets as long as poetry exists, but environmental poetry is something else. It is more than an "is" (the way things are). It is an "ought" (the way things should be). In other words, it is commentary. As vitally important as journalism may be, the commentary found in good environmental poetry could really make a difference. Maybe "the environment" won't be #176 on a list of promises next time there's a major election.