Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I Brake for Baby Seals: On choosing your battles, and other life lessons.

There's this awful Geico commercial that shows squirrels as they take turns sprinting into the path of an approaching car, competing to see which one can cause the most accidents. The little miscreants give each other high fives whenever they send a motorist spinning off the road. I think that actually happens. I mean, seriously- have you ever seen an animal, from a distance, wavering on the side of the road, pacing, faltering, calculating, waiting for the right time to cross? And have you also noticed that the moment of their bravery is often followed immediately by their moment of reckoning? What exactly is happening here? Is this a depth perception issue? Is it untreated animal depression? A possum at the end of its rope? What aspect of a raccoon's meandering gait makes him think that crossing a street is ever a good idea?!

When I was growing up, my parents would tell me about the horrific car accidents that people got into when they swerved to avoid hitting some animal in the road. Did your parents do this? My mom would bemoan the ridiculousness of the crazies who gave into temporary insanity and lost control of their vehicles, veering into another lane in order to avoid hitting a comparatively insignificant fuzzy thingie. I have to say I agree; the exchange of human for animal is quite a short-change.

Now before you all PETA on me, let me say that I love animals as much as the next person. I heart kittens and stuff. Sarah McLachlan's blatantly manipulative ad for the SPCA tugs at my heartstrings and I cry when I watch Old Yeller.

But I also love my
own life, thank you very much. And my mom has promised me that if I ever swerve to miss a animal darting out into the road, she will kill me.

So here's whats running through my mind this past weekend as I'm driving along a dimly lit country road in my newly acquired little 87 Toyota Corolla; I hunker down at the steering wheel as my eyes dart to the right and left, assessing possible animal movements. And all the while, I'm preparing myself for the fact that I
will not stop in the event of an unexpected animal crossing. Its like a recording I play in my head as I go: Thou shalt not stop, thou shalt not stop.... There are enough cars driving in either direction on this two lane road that swerving or braking suddenly would jeopardize the lives of fellow drivers. Its kind of a sad and scary thing, practicing an unwavering, rather militant trajectory and hoping against hope that Peter Rabbit doesn't run out of Lithium and decide to throw himself under my tires.

Its important that we know how we will react if this ever happens, because... it happens. I nearly swerved across the off-ramp on my way to church last weekend in an attempt to avoid hitting what appeared to be an unusually large kangaroo rat, or a very small possum, twiddling his little thumbs on the shoulder, carelessly skirting the line between life and death. Neither of these creatures would be pet of the month; their presence prompts a call to the exterminator. But the swerve instinct is inborn, I tell you. Next to me was a minivan carrying a family of non-possums, innocently going about their business, blissfully unaware of the sudden dilemma I had faced in the neighboring lane.

Its difficult to drive through rural countryside and know that your disciplined callousness toward squirrels and possums is really for the best. Breaking for ROUS's is a bad habit.

Larger, cuter animals are a different story. You know the ones... deer, cows, dogs, cats, owls... (Cats aren't
really larger than possums, but how many people keep domesticated possums and tie little bells around their necks and give them scratching posts in their living rooms? Ask Jeff Foxworthy and Roseanne Barr for exact numbers.) You wouldn't want to hit a deer, either. At least, not with your car. If you want to hit them with other things, thats your business... But its Bambi; and depending on what car you drive, you never know who will come out on top in this sort of encounter. My car would put up a mighty fight but she'd probably be put out of commission. As for owls; well, those winged creatures.... they definitely choose you. It's a special moment. Our windshield, for example, experienced the impact of an owl the size of a tricycle.

To swerve or not to swerve; that is the question. But it is not nobler to die so that Reepicheep and Alvin can live. These are the things they don't tell you in school. Secretly, they hope that you
will brake/swerve. If you don't, possums and kangaroo rats might become endangered, and then we wont be able to drill for oil in our attics, basements, and other traditional rodent habitats, until all the rodent life is re-located to ANWR. If you die or get maimed in the process of swerving to save, at least you had good intentions. Which is a sweet sentiment, really. And so is socialism.

So don't jump on the bandwagon of "I Brake for Baby Seals." As Jimmy Neutron's father said: "Well, Jimmy, if all your friends were made of cliffs, would you jump off them? I don't think you would."

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Blog Schmog

So... I'm a bookworm. I buy books compulsively, the way some women buy shoes and handbags. It's ridiculous, really, because if you look at the floor of my room, it's covered in books. Piles and piles, arranged by subject matter or author (I have a heap of Shakespeare about 2 feet high, as well as several stacks of books about early American history that are bleeding into the section set aside for Irish poets and authors); I sometimes arrange them autobiographically, which means there is a box in the corner of my bedroom filled with books that I read from third to sixth grade, like The Moffatts, Anne of Green Gables, The Borrowers, A Cricket in Time Square, Nancy Drew, A Secret Garden, Caddie Woodlawn.... you get the idea. I have outgrown several bookshelves already; I need a whole wall. My room has become a library with a bed in it.

I learned to read when I was five. At nine, I read Roald Dahl's Matilda and felt like I'd been called on the carpet. She was practically born with a book in her hand. Sure, she wasn't real.... but the girl read everything. I felt so belittled.

As a kid, I loved to read so much that I spent every moment of every car trip with a book in my hands. For road trips/family vacations, I'd pack three or four books, in the off chance that.... maybe I'd get an irregular amount of reading done by the light of my special booklight, which I kept for such purposes, or if that died out, then by the car's dim ceiling bulb (unlikely, but always worth a shot); or maybe I'd develop a proclivity for speed reading; in any case, I'd have a backup available if L. M. Montgomery or Beverly Cleary failed to deliver readable material (which never happened, of course). Whenever I went with my mom to run errands, I had a book in hand. I suffered for this later, as a newly licensed 17 year old, when I got lost on my way home from the DMV in the Tower District... because I had a very foggy idea of where home was. I'm serious. I'd been so distracted reading in the passengers seat for the greater part of my adolescence that by the time I was unleashed onto the road, I was well read and about as navigationally astute as a carrot.

I wish I was exaggerating. Case in point: there's nothing quite like that moment when you realize you need to ask your eight year old cousin for directions to his house (where you've been asked to drop him off) and you find that not only is he perfectly acquainted with his north/south/east/westerly coordinates, but that he could probably name every major intersection within a two mile radius of his house. While slurping his Gogurt and playing his Gameboy. Of course, I would try to play it off... "Chase, which way does your mom usually take to get home?"

I attribute this malady (at least in part) to an congenital deficiency. I'm sure my mom didn't consume enough zinc or phosphorus or cadmium or something. Maybe nickel? Meh... one of the minerals. Whatever the cause, my dad recognized the limits of my directional capacity and started initiating compass quizzes at random.

"Hilary, what direction are we driving right now?"

"Uhhh... north?"

"No. Try again."


"Good. Okay if I turned right at this street, what direction would we be heading?"


*sigh* ".... no."


"Just... stop."

Its a lot more stressful than it sounds, I swear. Sometimes I buckled under pressure:

"Hilary, what direction are we facing?"

"West. I'm sure."


Acid reflux begins to rise...

"No. How about North?"

"Never mind. Okay this is an easy one. What direction does our house face?"

...cricket, cricket...

"Are you serious? Hilary, think about it. Engage your brain. (He loved to say that almost as much as I hated it.) Which way is THAT way?" (pointing vigorously)

The sky is falling. I fold like a lawn chair. "Southwest? Straight!!! Cat. ELEVEN?!! Who cares?! Mmmm mmmm care. North?! What is North?! Every time we play this game, it gives me hives."

"Engage your brain."

"YOU engage... my... your... brain...mmmmpphhheffalump."

My navigational prowess has improved significantly since then.

I now know that my house faces South, my car is parked facing East, and that the 168 runs any direction it wants to; and, thanks to Edith Hamilton and the Chili Peppers, I know that Zephyrs were the West winds, and that the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, gets its name from the Greek god Boreas, the god of the North Wind. So if I get blown off the road during a windstorm (likely, for those of you who've seen my munchkin of a car or ever experienced the nightmare of the Santa Ana winds), I'll know who to blame. Cheers to random pointless trivia.

Summarily: Aside from my congenital aluminum (Eddie Izzard would say "al-u-MIN-ium") deficiency, I blame my old perpetually disoriented state on my maxed out library card.

However, book reading wasn't the sole ambition of my childhood; book writing seemed quite rewarding, too. But for some reason, I just didn't tackle this with the same zeal. I made a few concentrated attempts at authoring books; and not just any books, mind you. No, these were chapter books. Oh yes. Unfortunately, I was thwarted by my all-or-nothing tendencies. I would write the first five chapters and realize I didn't have enough ideas to supply a series-level plot development with compelling heart-rending pathos... not enough to suit my adolescent inclinations, as modeled by the likes of L.M. Montgomery, Mary Norton, and Eleanor Estes. My parents, who read my stuff and liked what they saw, encouraged me to keep at it. My dad's solution to my perpetual writers block was simple: keep a journal. He said that I would only grow better at writing by.... well, writing. The man speaks the truth. But... journaling? I thought this was stupid and powder-puffy.

Negatory. I was stupid.

Case in point: that Harriet the Spy, man. E.L. Konigsburg's little nuisance was pretty much the Lara Croft of enterprising young authors. Sure, like Matilda, she was fictional. But she was the queen of getting-better-at-writing-by-writing! She wrote about everything she saw and elaborated on every speculation she conjured up in her incredibly irreverent imagination (how's that for alliteration! I am quite pleased with myself). I wished I could be like that; but I was paralyzed by this stultifying certainty that I hadn't anything important enough to write about.

So why am I keeping a blog? I don't know. I might be tempted to look back on this decision as one divinely inspired, or born of boredom, or kindled by a desire to try my hand at good old fashioned free-lance muckraking. My problem is this: I love to write. I don't necessarily like others to read what I write... but at the same time, I think that at some point I might inadvertently write something worth reading. This is what a psych major might label as histrionic schizophrenia.

Oh well. E.L. Dogterow said "Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." William Wordsworth (who drives me up the wall) said, "Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." I don't particularly like this because if it's true, then I might find out that the my heart has nothing to exhale but tired, dusty metaphors and sarcastic, sometimes cynical observations about trivial issues.

I hope not.

I am caught between (1) the desire to write for myself, and myself only, and (2) the awareness that, ultimately, no good can come from this shrinking violet act. I hope that my thoughts will-- in the sorting and processing and sifting and rifting and bleeding and dying and reviving-- become more clear, more practiced, more flavorful, more bold. So bear with me. Or don't.... Either way, enough apologizing and qualifying: I'm here. And they say that life is 90% about showing up; so I'm guaranteed at least an A- in blogging... histrionic schizophrenia notwithstanding. Which is all that matters.