Archive for the ‘Random musings’ Category

I never knew him, never heard him speak in person, rarely read anything he wrote.

I heard about him regularly. I knew, roughly, his point of view on things, although he still managed to surprise (his stance in support of the Iraq war, for instance).

For the most part, I lived my life without thinking of him much. And yet, when I learned that he was terminally ill, I felt genuinely sad. And this week, his death hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. I don’t think I’m alone in these sentiments, judging from the high readership his obituaries appear to be enjoying on the Internet, along with various tributes to him by colleagues and acquaintances.

I frequently disagreed with Hitchens’ opinions. When he published his book on religion (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), I was rediscovering a hunger for theology. I thought his decision to support the invasion of Iraq insane. (And I read in his obituary in the New York Times that he even supported Britain’s invasion of the Falklands!) I decried his blunt assault on many aspects of American culture. I thought he seemed rather full of himself.

But now that I must write about him in the past tense, I realize what a tremendous loss it is. We on the Left have become so timid in so many ways—always taking pains not to offend and to pass our lives in “moderation.” Hitchens plunged in. He lived.

I have a friend who reminds me of him. A powerful writer and thinker, a dedicated atheist, a lover of travel, unabashedly self-absorbed. And this fall, she, too, was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. As I write, she lies in a hospital bed fighting pneumonia, the ailment that succeeded in killing Hitchens. Since I have known my friend, I have encountered a number of people who have decided to forego any relationship with her because of her abrasiveness. I, too, was ready to bail at one point, but then the awful diagnosis was handed down.

Now the confluence of her fate with that of Hitchens makes me more appreciative of her distinctive brashness and courage. It isn’t easy being a left-winger or an atheist outside a big city. Nor is it a comfortable existence to write iconoclastic fiction that regularly lampoons the sacred cows of America—particularly if one is a woman. Freedom of speech may be a core value in these United States, but one can pay dearly for that privilege.

So here are a few qualities I most admire about both these writers: zest for life, self-confidence, no compunction to apologize, originality, worldliness, generosity. That last one surprises me. But Hitchens blessed us with columns about his illness and impending death, written with unflinching honesty and generosity of spirit, even as he faced severe pain and increasing incapacitation. And as my friend has navigated the end of her life, she has demonstrated remarkable kindnesses to me. Last weekend, for example, because it was my birthday, she insisted on staying up with me to watch a movie she had already seen, when she clearly did not feel well at all. (She checked into the hospital the next day.)

Would that we could all muster the courage to rise to these standards at least once in a while. And think of them when we do.


Leo and Katya met about 5 years ago, when I introduced them, and they’ve been together ever since. At the time of their introduction, Katya went by the name “Rosie,” which didn’t seem to fit her at all. Rosie suggested a more sanguine nature, not the downright cranky creature I knew. Not long after they met, in homage to the Russians, Rosie morphed into Katya. It made for a more appealing couple: Leo and Katya. Very Tolstoy.

From the start, the contrast in their personalities couldn’t have been more dramatic. Besides her crankiness, Katya evinces overall high-strungness and restlessness, whereas Leo is definitely the quiet type; he rarely says anything and is über-calm. He is also all huggy-kissy, whereas Katya clearly does not like to be touched unless she knows you really, really well.

Leo is fascinated by machinery—the television, the microwave, the HP printer. Katya, not so much. Despite her high-strung nature, she spends a good portion of every day—usually after dinner—sitting in the corner, focused on one particular spot, her form of meditation.

Katya likes to talk. A lot, sometimes. Sometimes to no one in particular. And her voice is amazingly expressive. Sometimes it is strident, relentless. Other times, very tentative and endearing.

Leo and Katya are also very different in build. Leo is angular, Katya rotund—but not in a voluptuous way. More in a cartoon sort of way.  Or maybe it’s not her build so much as the way she moves, like a gunslinger, her bowed legs braced to support a belly of considerable size.

But the thing that unites both Leo and Katya—besides their zeal for mealtime—is birds. They are obsessed. About any bird, period—not just songbirds or birds of prey or ordinary birds like crows. Anything with feathers grabs their attention immediately, no matter what they happen to be doing at the moment. It is not a protective obsession, either. One senses they’d be more than willing to crush any bird into dust. What prevents them? They never go outdoors.

By now you have probably figured out that Leo and Katya are not people. They’re cats, and they live with me. And since I gave up eating meat and consuming animal products, I’ve been freed enough from guilt to ponder their inner lives.

You don’t have to be vegan to care about the inner lives of animals, of course, but it sure helps. Watch at least 15 minutes of Food Inc., and you’ll see what I mean. To disengage from the machinery of animal death can be liberating. And since I have, strangely enough, Leo and Katya have been a little friendlier. It’s like they can tell somehow.

He is using a dog’s body

A friend once told me about an exchange between a well known swami (a Hindu ascetic or religious mystic) and a Western youth. The youth asked the following question: What is the difference between a human and a dog?

The answer might seem self-evident, but the youth asked nonetheless. The swami’s answer? “The difference is that you are using a man’s body and the dog is using a dog’s body.”

You laugh, of course. (I did, especially after hearing the anecdote told in a thick Indian accent.) But then, if you are like me, you will find yourself returning to this Q&A surprisingly often. I know what it means to use a human body. But what is it like to inhabit an animal body? The answer depends on the specific animal, of course.

Our closer cousins, not so surprisingly, spend a lot of time observing our behavior and imitating it to their own ends. I recall a chimpanzee in my hometown zoo when I was growing up, who had learned how to smoke cigarettes so expertly that he could blow perfect rings of smoke that levitated overhead for almost a full minute before disintegrating into the atmosphere. He seemed to enjoy the attention this garnered him—not to mention the act of smoking itself. (His visitors would light the cigs and hand them through the bars.) (Yes, it’s shameful, but interesting nonetheless.)

In a 1999 article on animal intelligence, Eugene Linden describes an orangutan who learned to pick the lock of his enclosure—always checking first to make sure no humans were watching—and then concealed the wire he used in his mouth as he wandered around the zoo. And in an article from 2010, Jeffrey Kluger describes a male bonobo (cousin of the chimpanzee) who knows at least 384 words and can string them together into meaningful sentences.

Not such a big surprise, you say, considering these animals are primates? Well, what about crows, who are known to fashion tools to extract food from tight spaces? Or blue jays, who hide their stored food from other animals—making sure, in the process of stashing it, that none are around to watch?

One of my relatives tells the story of a crow who showed up one day and decided to become a member of the family. It slept beneath the family dog’s floppy ear, and enjoyed digging up the dog’s bones and hiding them in a new location when the dog wasn’t looking.

And a friend told me once about a large greyhound, the pet of a family of humans in semi-rural Vermont, who adopted a white rabbit who happened through the yard one day. Shortly after, all the dogs within a mile or two began gathering at the greyhound’s digs every morning, sitting around the greyhound (and rabbit) as pilgrims would surround a guru, then dispersing every afternoon.

Clearly, something more than dim consciousness is going on in these encounters. We cannot understand it fully because we are trapped in a human body.

Does dominion = cruelty?

Back to the swami’s deceptively simple response to the question of human-animal distinctions. “You are using a man’s body, and the dog is using a dog’s body.” If the only difference between humans and animals is the body we choose to inhabit, then how can we justify our cruelty toward the animals we eat?

My point here is this: Animals are not dumb beasts. They clearly have consciousness and different forms of intelligence. Should we be treating them the way we do, forcing them into excruciatingly close quarters and shooting them full of antibiotics and hormones, stimulating them into hyper-maturity and then slaughtering them in view of their kin?

Some people use the Bible to justify this treatment. The argument goes that God granted humans “dominion” over all living creatures, so we are free to treat them as we wish. But dominion is one thing, calculated brutality another. It seems to me that any God-granted gift, such as this dominion over the animal kingdom, ought to be revered and managed with sensitivity and responsibility. Instead, we use it as an excuse not to have to examine our actions and their sad consequences. We abuse the gift, in other words. That is what being a human animal has come to mean, tragically enough.  I almost wish I were using a dog’s body.


Kluger, Jeffrey. Inside the minds of animals. Time magazine. Aug. 5, 2010.,8599,2008759,00.html.

Linden, Eugene. Can animals think? Time magazine. Aug. 29, 1999.,9171,30198-1,00.html.

Markham, Beryl. West with the Night. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1942, 1983.

Day 1. A few days after I friend my cousin on Facebook, I notice garish cartoon postings populating my news feed. My cousin is offering pink cows, golden chicken eggs, and green calfs to the fastest clicker. I dismiss the postings as childish stuff, but decide not to block them from my stream. My cousin and I just reconnected after several years, and I want to stay in touch this time, even if farm animals are part of the package.

Day 5. My cousin invites me to be her neighbor on “Farmville,” and, wanting to be polite, I accept—though I am not sure exactly what Farmville is or what neighborliness entails. Clicking through the request brings me, eventually, to a Farmville play screen. There I am prompted to render an avatar in my own image (except she is wearing coveralls, which I wouldn’t be caught dead in) and am deposited on my “farm”: 6 tiny plots of land sowed with virtual eggplants, strawberries, and soybeans. The first thing I do is turn off the hokey music, which is punctuated by loud animal sounds—a moo, a bleat—and marked by a square-dancey rhythm. In the blessed silence that follows, I create a couple of additional plots of land, plant more soybeans, and leave, wondering what the big Farmville deal is.

Day 10. In a moment of boredom, after watching cows and eggs and cartoon announcements stream across my Facebook page by the dozens, I return to my farm. My soybeans are dead. Apparently, there is no grace period for harvesting. Either you’re there when the time comes, or your crops croak. I plow my land to eliminate the evidence. In the process, astonishingly enough, I am promoted to level 2, awarded some gold coins and given something called “XP.” I am also offered the opportunity to broadcast my promotion to all of my Facebook friends. I cringe at the thought. What would my Harvard-educated boss think of me being named a “Kinderfarmer”? I click on “Cancel” and skedaddle.

Day 12. My cousin sends me a Farmville “mystery gift.” I’m intrigued enough to return to my farm. Demystifying the present requires that I locate and open my “gift box” to extract a pretty purple cube. I click. A violet cloud appears, unleashing a mass of swirling stars. When the virtual fog dissipates, I discover that my gift was a tree. An acai tree, to be exact. Not bad, as offerings go. I put the tree in the corner of my farm, plant some pumpkins, and leave.

Day 14. My cousin sends me a goat. I return to my farm. The pumpkins are dead. The electronic farming experience is turning out to be remarkably similar to my houseplant experience: lots of fried plants. I plow away the debris and place my goat at the perimeter of my farm. Something about owning a “live” creature makes me a little more attentive. I use some of my gold coins to buy some fences—my inner farmer knows instinctively that animals must be fenced in. Just as I run out of money, I am promoted again, awarded more gold coins and more XP. I also get a free bale of hay. I place it next to the goat, plant some more pumpkins, and exit.

Day 15. I return to Farmville to check on my goat. It’s alive. Miraculously enough, so are most of my pumpkins, though a few have gone crispy on me. I harvest the live ones, collect my gold coins, and plant some soybeans. My goat watches from the far centimeters of my land. It’s kind of cute. Every few seconds it blinks its eyes, ducks its head, and wiggles its ears. It has a “goatee”—is this where the word originated, with a goat?

Day 30. After a couple of weeks of plowing, planting, and harvesting mostly alive plants, I hit level 15 in Farmville. I am—get this—Professor of Agriculture. Thanks to my cousin, who is level 48, I now have 10 cherry trees, 4 goats, eight chickens, a tool shed, a fountain in the shape of a heart, an Eiffel tower, a penguin, and a tent. I have been growing mostly soybeans. I’m not sure why I’ve chosen soybeans to farm, but it coincides, funnily enough, with my eating lots of edamame. Farmville is growing on me—ha, ha, ha. (That’s what we farmers say a lot in FV—ha ha ha.) It’s rather uncanny how the FV designers rope you in. With very little effort, you start raking in the money and the points. You amass possessions. You win prizes. Your access to various plants and animals increases as you rise through the rankings. I’ve even enlarged my farm a couple of times. The one thing I’m still NOT doing: broadcasting my progress on Facebook. The truth is, I’m ashamed of my Farmville activities. I have an MFA, for chrissakes. My friends would NOT understand. Still, I can’t seem to stay away. Today I clicked on one of my cousin’s golden eggs and was rewarded with a pink cottage! A whole cottage! Eureka! I’m more successful, materially speaking, in Farmville than in real life, where I own a tiny 1-bedroom apartment in one of the less desirable neighborhoods of New York City, and absolutely no land. ☹ I’m even starting to use emoticons. I never used emoticons before I moved to Farmville.

Day 32. During a Facebook chat, my cousin asks why she is my only Farmville neighbor, and why I never post any of my agricultural accomplishments on my Facebook page. I tell her I’m trying to stay beneath the radar because some people from my office are Facebook friends. I am discovering that, apart from her Farmville fanaticism, my cousin has a lot to commend her. She has an irreverent sense of humor (we laugh about the way real trees remind us of FV trees, instead of the other way around). And she spends her Farmville bucks to buy me nice presents—a French Quarter-style domicile and a large lake, for instance, complete with a dock and jumping catfish. She also hooks me up with a couple of her Farmville neighbors, who agree to keep my activities on the down-low. Now I can send them gifts and expect them to be returned, fertilize their crops and have mine enhanced in exchange, and so on. I am surprised at how much more entertaining the game becomes as a result.

Day 36. I discover that my cousin has 182 Farmville neighbors, and I wonder where she found them all. After harvesting my crops, I mosey on over to the Farmville fans page on Facebook to have a look around, and I am shocked to discover that the game has more than 22 million official fans. I poke around some more and stumble upon a shitload of folks clamoring to play the game. “Friend me-plzzzz!” “need nayborz!” “fertilize fertilize fertilize!” and other emphatic messages abound. This is when my Farmville strategy transforms from a minimalist approach to an all-hands-on-deck embrace of the game. I return to my Facebook page, tinker with the privacy settings, and make my wall invisible to all my old friends, family members (apart from my cousin), and colleagues. From now on, when they click on my page, they will see only my photo and status. Then I head back to the Farmville page and begin friending all the desperate folks I can find. It’s surprisingly easy! My Facebook friends tally rises well into the triple digits. Oh how satisfying! Laissez les bon temps roulez!

Day 37. I now have more than 50 FV neighbors. Hitting that magic number enabled me to expand my farm, now officially a “plantation,” into a “mighty plantation”—once I forked over 500,000 coins, of course (not an inconsequential number, even in FV). I’ve finally quit growing soybeans. It’s grapes for me—a vast vineyard that will produce some of the finest wine in FV. This period coincides with my drinking, in real life, lots of cabernet. Once I hit level 3 mastery of grapes, methinks I will move on to coffee. Ha ha ha.

Despite my 50+ neighbors, it’s been a little lonely on FV. I seem to be the only fanatic in my circle of farmers able to maintain an appreciation of the absurdity of the experience. That is, I’m the only one until a neighbor of a neighbor friends me, along with a couple of his neighbors, and we discover that we have compatible sensibilities. These folks are from the Netherlands, where, it seems, the citizenry doesn’t take every aspect of life so seriously. Here in America, if you create a cartoon capitalistic system and set a bunch of people loose, they take their fake wealth-building completely to heart.

Day 39. My Dutch friends and I post snarky comments under our FV postings. We are not openly ridiculing of our regular neighbors—that would be crass. But we do poke fun at some of the animals, such as the “Luv ewes,” pink sheep with heart-tipped antennae hammered into their skulls. Another target: the “wandering stallion” that appears periodically on our screens, with a message prompting us to find a home for him for the night. Should you agree to put up the stallion, there’s a surprise in store for you: The very next day one of your FV mares gives birth (oh so discreetly) to a foal.

“Even the mares get an occasional visitor,” Tom mock-complains. “What about us farmers?”

“There’s always the Saturday nite barn dance,” I reply, “but I hear the local girls have moustaches.”

Day 40. Tom is not content to play the official game. He messages me and several other neighbors behind the scenes to alert us that he will be posting a prize at a certain time. We are to be waiting so that we can be the first to click on it. That way, we can determine exactly how many clicks (i.e., bonuses) it yields. In the back and forth that follows, Tom reveals that he is descended from a long line of farmers, dating all the way back to the 16th century. He still lives in the family home and drinks out of teacups that are more than 100 years old. I tell him my grandparents were farmers in Texas in the early 20th century, growers of cotton and maize, but that the farming ended with their generation. I, too, have some teacups, but I don’t use them. If I ever have a real house, instead of a closet, I might expand and take them out. Until then, it’s a giant coffee mug for me, thank you very much. I also wonder, is this what our ancestors had in mind when they envisioned the future? Their descendants planting fake corn and staring at a computer screen from dawn to dusk? (But who would know, really, what time of day it is…)

Day 40. The latest FV craze—of which there is a steady supply—is the French maison you can build for a mere 5,000 coins. It’s cheap because you have to collect all the necessary materials—10 aged bricks, 10 weathered boards, 10 clinging vines, and so on—from your neighbors. Until you gather all 50 items, only a skeleton of a building appears on your farm—the bare wood frame. Tom places a mystery gift beneath the frame on his farm, detonates the gift (remember the whirling stars?), and takes a picture using his FV camera. (Yes, there’s an app that allows you to take pictures of your farm.) Then he posts it on Facebook, with a caption that reads: “explosion at the construction site.” Lots of ha ha has and lols follow. Pretty clever, no?

Day 43. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, which is fast approaching, all FV farmers are given a metal pot and invited to collect gold pieces to put in it. You get the gold pieces, of course, by asking your neighbors for them. Almost immediately, there is a gold rush—so many requests and receipts of gold bars, coins, bears, necklaces, and nuggets—that FV temporarily grinds to a halt, malfunctioning all over the place. The frenzy infects even me. I want my share of the shiny stuff. Although I am partial to the gold bars, I’ll take any form of the metal. I send out a mass mailing to my neighbors, requesting bullion. The gold trickles in and I place it in my pot, which begins to emit a weird glow. After I’ve collected two dozens bits of gold, I realize it’s a rainbow forming just above my pot, hovering like a UFO.

Oh, I get it.


Day 44. It has taken a while, but I’ve stored away enough Farmville coins to buy a tractor, harvester, and seeder. My farm is now completely mechanized. No more clicking on each individual plot three times just to produce one crop. Now I can roll over four at a time. The only problem: Machines need fuel. I get a modest increment each time I log on to my farm, but now that I have a mighty plantation, that is nowhere near enough. I buy a big jug of fuel with my FV bucks, of which I don’t have many. This is going to be a challenge.

Day 45. The gold rush continues, and it is brutal. The system keeps track of how much gold each player collects, and when one player passes another player in the tally, an announcement appears on Facebook:

Debbie has collected 52 pieces of gold and just surpassed Dick.
Debbie currently ranks 13 out of 47 amongst their neighbors.

Along with this announcement are posted the photos of the surpasser (Debbie) and the surpassee (Dick), who, in this case looks to be a kid. Way to go, Debbie, crushing the dreams of an 8-year-old!

Day 46. One of my neighbors seems to think that FB is a proselytizing platform. Her name is LaVerne. I call her crazy LaVerne. Her photo shows an elderly woman with white hair and a kind face leaning into the camera. But her posts are hard to take:

I am out to prove that my friends will repost, I hope I am right!!!
When Jesus died on the cross he was thinking of YOU and me.
If you are not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, copy and repost!!

ATTENTION!!!!!!!!!! DO NOT join the group that runs
currently on facebookwith the title “Becoming a father or mother was
the greatest gift of my life.” This is a group created by
pedophiles whose aim is to access your photos!!!!!!! Please
copy & paste this to your status and pass it round.


LaVerne Davis became a fan of Laura Ingraham

LaVerne Davis joined the group Christian
Anti-Defamation Commission

Day 47. One of the ways to amass XP and FV coins is to collect small quantities of certain items, such as garden tools. The way to collect these items is to click on other people’s postings. Every time you complete a collection, you are awarded 5,000 coins, 500 XP, and 5 refills of fuel. I now see the solution to my petroleum needs. I begin rising early every morning and scrolling backward through 24 hours of FV postings to collect as many collectibles as possible. This strategy proves to be remarkably fruitful. This morning alone, I completed 3 collections! I might as well have struck oil! The black crude begins to flow into my tanks. I cruise among my vineyards on my pink tractor without a care.

Day 48. St. Patrick’s Day. The gold trading continues at a brisk pace, with no end in sight. But another event begins to draw some attention as well: the vote on the health-care bill. As it begins to appear likely to pass, despite opposition from Republicans, FV farmers begin to vent. Several of them join the FB group I bet we can find 1,000,000+ people who disapprove of the Health-Care Bill. Ire over the bill also stimulates ire over other social ills. My neighbor Mary, who went out of her way to help me build my French maison, reveals a different dimension of her psyche, becoming a fan of Attention ghetto moms, NOBODY is gonna hire your child named Shenequataylicha. FV begins to feel a bit like the Deep South during Jim Crow. The pretty grape clusters on my farm seem sinister. I log out and go to the gym to work through the negative vibes.

Day 52. Spring has sprung. We have achieved vernal equinox. For the first time since I joined the FV scene, I’ve spent several days away from my farm. Today is no exception. I am caught up with the health-care debate, and I keep the television on in the background throughout the day so that I can monitor developments. Something historic is in the works; I can feel it. For once, rather than being frustrated by the Democrats’ timidity, I’m proud of them. I spend the day cleaning and paying bills and watching the proceedings. The weather is pleasant enough that I open the windows for the first time this year. A freshness washes over me. The trees are still bare, but across the way, my neighbor’s daffodils are roofing through the soil, and the kids in the apartment below me are drawing pictures on the sidewalk with colored chalk, making lots of noise. Ah, city life. The day is almost over when the vote finally comes. I sit right in front of the television until it is decided: 219 votes in favor. It’s a done deal. Then I turn in for the night and lie in the darkness with a smile on my face.

Day 54. I return to Farmville to check on my grapes, which are, of course, withered. I plow away the remnants of vines and plant tomatoes. A good basic vegetable is obviously needed here—I don’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. Then I cash in all the collections I have completed: 12 assortments of feathers, bugs, butterflies, etc. That means 60 fuel refills. I try to get excited about it, but I can’t help but notice the anti-health-care postings and rants. Four neighbors have joined the group REPEAL THE BILL. I become a fan of Nancy Pelosi in retaliation (and sincerity). I also fan the Democrats. Nobody remarks on my positions. I halfway expect to be defriended. Then an especially ominous post appears:

On this day 3/23/33, Adolf Hitler legally obtained plenary powers
and established his dictatorship by signing “The
Enabling Act”. On this day 3/23/10, Barrack Obama
signed America’s first order to demand unprecedented control
over it’s citizens through “ObamaCare”.
Interesting, huh? Copy and repost if you think this is more
than a coincidence…

I head straight for the logout.

Day 56. I return to FV to find my tomato crops evaporated. Crazy LaVerne has also posted the following:

Dear Lord, in the past year you have taken away
my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress,
Farrah Fawcett, my favorite musician, Michael Jackson,
my favorite salesman, Billy Mays, and my favorite
athlete, Chris Henry. …. I just wanted to let you know…..
my favorite president is Barack Obama. Amen

Some grand gesture seems called for on my part, and I know just the thing. I spend the next hour photographing my farm and doctoring the photo with an image of a giant mushroom cloud. I chuckle to myself through the cutting and pasting. There is something deeply satisfying about imagining the cartoon cottages, barns, shrubberies, and barren fields—even the Eiffel tower—going up in flames. I scan the image into my computer and post it on facebook, with the caption: 96 gallons of fuel. Then I log off. Think I’ll head over to the local market and buy some greens and tomatoes.