Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Widget is Fractious: Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

We call our little family the Potts/McCoy house, but really, it's the Spike/Widget house. They run things around here. Potts and I can't force each other to make coffee in the morning or clean the bathroom, but the kitties can, and routinely do. If the food bowl is empty in the morning, Widget climbs into bed and pulls my hair until I get up and feed her. If I've let the litter box go a day or two without scooping, Spike will take a spiteful tinkle on the kitchen floor to alert me to the problem.

They're not our children, and they're certainly not our "furbabies" (gag), but when we took them in, we made an unwritten oath to take care of them and make them as happy and secure-feeling as possible for the rest of their lives.

Temple Grandin's books on animal behavior are uniquely useful because they seek to bridge the gaps between scientists, non-academics who work in the field with animals, and anyone who has animals in their lives, which is pretty much everybody. Grandin's insights are also unique because she is autistic, which informs her observations about animal behavior. She's said on many occasions that autism makes her think in pictures rather than words, and causes her to become highly attuned to the small details in her environment -- and these thought patterns place her more closely in synch with animal behavior than most other people.

Early in her career, Grandin was best known for her work in slaughterhouses, which puts some people off right away. However, it's worth looking closer. Grandin observed that in many slaughterhouses, cattle were going to their deaths in a state of terror and panic, forced along with electric prods. So, she designed the center-track restrainer, which nearly every cow will walk straight through without fear. It's now used in most slaughterhouses in the U.S.

If we're going to eat meat, she reasons, we at least owe the animals that we eat the best life possible, and a humane death.

In Animals Make Us Human, Grandin expands her scope to include domesticated animals, wildlife, and animals in zoos, as well as a wider range of livestock, including horses, pigs, and poultry. The premise of the book is that animals do experience four core emotional behaviors: RAGE, FEAR, SEEKING, and PANIC (Grandin always writes these out in all-caps in the book). Our job is to encourage the positive seeking and play behaviors, and to properly manage animals' environment so that FEAR, PANIC, and RAGE play as small a role in animals' experience as possible.

With a well-socialized, easy-going dog that gets a lot of attention and exercise, this is pretty easy to do. With a large animal confined in a zoo, it's a lot harder.

Grandin's chapter on zoo animals is particularly upsetting, especially when she's talking about the conditions faced by the large animals. For example, polar bears are ranging animals that will travel over 5 miles a day in the wild. So, when they're confined in zoos, it tends to affect them badly. One polar bear she writes about would spend up to 80% of his waking hours engaging in what Grandin calls "stereotyping," or abnormal repetitive behaviors. After an animal behaviorist was called in to enrich Gus the polar bear's environment, the zoo was able to get his stereotyping down to about 10%. However, these kinds of observations really call into question the ethics of keeping large animals in zoos.

On a happier note, if you have dogs or cats, you'll likely learn a great deal about their own behavioral quirks, what you can fix, and more importantly, what you probably can't.

Grandin writes that animals with light skin and eyes tend to be a little more neurotic than those with darker skin and eyes - they're recessive traits. When I read, "I've noticed that neutered orange males and females can be very affectionate. Some orange cats will rub on you all day. However, orange cats startle and scare easily," I looked up at Spike and said, "She's TALKING about you." And then Spike nuzzled my hand, and ran away. And when I read, "Sarah Hartwell, a shelter worker in England, calls black cats "laid-back blacks" and tortoiseshell cats "naughty torties," I looked up at Widget and said, "Now she's talking about YOU." And then Widget stuck her butt in my face and started to attack my feet for no good reason.

Ah, my little darlings.

It's an engaging, thought-provoking book, which I recommend to anyone who has animals in their lives, which once again, is everybody. Here's Grandin talking about the book and her work:

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Throw Me Sumthin'

Over at Sociological Images today, I've got a guest post up on Mardi Gras and Margaret Brown's film The Order of Myths, if you're inclined towards such a thing.

Being painfully sober and working on Fat Tuesday probably constitutes some kind of venial sin for me, so I thought I'd festive up the joint with a couple of historical images from The Chattanooga Bakery's webpage. Get over there and order yourself a box of the single deckers - chocolate's the classic, but I prefer the banana.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Original Mr. and Mrs. Draper: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I wish I could know what it would have been like to read this book in 1961, when the ideas of suburban hell and thwarted, if vague, creative aspirations and painfully loveless marriages hadn't been dissected and exorcised in books to the point where they'd practically become cliches. Would the story of Frank and April Wheeler living the life they never wanted, in a neighborhood that suffocates them, with friends they secretly hate, and jobs they openly despise have seemed fresh and honest then?

But then, I wonder if the suburbs weren't already something of a cliche in 1961. In the Los Angeles Times's "Worthy, Though Neglected, Novels of 1961," John W. Aldridge wrote that Revolutionary Road was "a rare example of an effort to be honest about suburban life in the face of the almost irresistible pressure to dress it up in one of the fashionable, ready-to-wear cliches."

I guess the story of people rebelling against conformity, complacency, and the uneasy comfort that those two provide is always a cliche. It's all in how it's done. On Mad Men, the trappings of the Draper household -- the high-powered city job, the heavy drinking, smoking, and womanizing, the housewife's malaise -- are all cliches, but the characters of Don and Betty Draper aren't. They're compellingly doomed.

Richard Yates makes Frank and April Wheeler a little too bound up in, and too self-aware of, those constructs. However, they're compelling in a different way. They're compelling, because they're also aware that they're completely ordinary, not particularly talented or creative individuals who were, somewhere along the line, led to believe that they were special and deserving of extraordinary lives. But then their ordinariness butts in and gets in the way, and fouls everything up.

The way the book is framed is particularly effective. It begins with the Wheelers at the height of their ordinariness, their nasty squabbles and their contempt for one another. And then, there's a glimmer of hope. They just might love each other, take a risk, and escape it all. And then, well, you've seen all the distraught, teary, sweaty-faced movie trailers with Kate and Leo...

Though Sam Mendes's adaptation is the first to see the light of day, Paul Wendkos, best known for directing several Gidget movies and numerous episodes of numerous television programs in the 1960s and 1970s, planned to make Revolutionary Road under the entirely inappropriate title, Love's Lovely Game in 1964. However, the project fell apart. Maybe it was the whole extramarital affair/aspiring home abortionist thing that did it in.

I haven't seen the movie, but I'm inclined to agree with the friend who gave me Revolutionary Road, and say that while it's a good book, it might make for a dull film adaptation. It's a very dialogue and interior monologue-heavy book, and while it moves along at a very nice clip on the page, I just don't think that kind of thing translates very well to the screen.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Found Objects: Telephone Service and the War Effort

I found these ads in the 1944 Southern California Telephone Company phone books for West Los Angeles. While I knew about victory gardens, war bonds, loose lips, and butter rationing, this was a new one on me.

Text: "Night-time is about the best time a service man has to call home. That's a good point to remember when you feel the urge to make a Long Distance call between 7 and 10 P.M. If it isn't important, we hope you won't make it. Let the men in service have first call on the wires."

Text: "We appreciate the help you are giving us in keeping the Long Distance lines open for war calls. The production of munitions... the movement of troops... the building of ships and bombers... have put the Long Distance lines squarely up against their biggest task. Materials for building telephone lines are no longer available -- they are needed on the fighting fronts. That is why we ask that only really necessary calls be made to war-busy centers. Thank you for your fine cooperation."

(This one says pretty much the same thing as the one above)

Text: "The trained eyes and fingers of telephone operators are needed, these days, at the switchboards that are heavily loaded with war calls. Telephone equipment of every kind is deep in the war task. Will you help us to make every bit of equipment count? Here is one way: Please look in the Directory for any number you are not sure of. Please look there first before you call 'Information.' Thousands of calls daily, in which 'Information' is asked to help, are for numbers that are IN the Directory. Our foremost job is the war job. It just is not feasible to do all the things for our customers that we were able to do in peace time. We appreciate your understanding and your friendly cooperation.

Quotable Quotes

"Maize is self-fertilized and wind-pollinated, botanical terms that don't begin to describe the beauty and wonder of corn sex."

Who said it?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

No Happy Endings: City of Nets by Otto Friedrich

City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich

City of Nets begins with Sid Grauman, ends with Ronald Reagan, and in between, drops in on nearly every historical personality, event, and movement that figured into the tumultuous and transformative decade.

The title comes from Bertolt Brecht's libretto for The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, about a town of "gin and whiskey, girls and boys" that begins as a hedonist's paradise, but ultimately falls to destruction. Brecht himself turns up periodically in City of Nets, and his own Hollywood story is detailed by Friedrich. It's a doozy -- flight from Nazi Germany, various unsuccessful turns as a Hollywood screenwriters, and finally, a summons before HUAC.

There aren't very many happy, Hollywood endings for the people Friedrich writes about, but there are some great stories -- Bette Davis running the Hollywood Canteen; Olivia de Havilland's battles with Warner Brothers; the madcap life of Preston Sturges; the sad decline of Charlie Chaplin.

The book is also packed with stories of happy accidents, near-misses, and half-truths turned legend. Casablanca became one of the best-loved pictures of all time, despite the fact that no one involved with the film really wanted to be there. George Raft's inability to recognize a good role if it bit him on the face gave us Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Fred MacMurry as Walter Neff. And it will probably never be known who really stole the body of John Barrymore and propped it up in Errol Flynn's favorite chair, but Friedrich tells both versions of the story.

And then there's the labor battles and the Hays Office, the War and the war at home, the Red Scare and HUAC. Chandler, Faulkner, and Billy Wilder's awesome telling-off of Louis B. Mayer.

There's never a dull page, and chances are you'll be loading movies into your Netflix queue the entire time. City of Nets provided my happy introduction to Preston Sturges's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which is a smart-assed finger in the eye of the Hays Code and just about the funniest thing I've ever seen besides.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

It's ON!

Well, we were all thinking it - even my teenage cousins who've read all the Twilightbooks - but Steven King came right out and said it.


Now I'm just waiting for Meyer to make a snide remark about hackneyed "folksy" dialogue and then maybe Wordloaf or whatever it's called can sponsor a cage match or knife fight or something. Me? My money'd be on King, even after the van accident. He's got the background knowledge, clearly is not troubled by gore, and, I dunno, seems like he'd be handy with a pig-sticker.

Although, if we're being honest, King really isn't in a position to criticize anyone's writing of what he calls in the interview "the physical side" of writing. I mean, I've read IT - you ain't foolin' me on that one, Uncle Stevie.