Monday, August 20, 2012

Paws and Hooves and Common Ground

There are fewer than one hundred naturally occurring elements on this planet.  How many fewer depends on your definition of “natural” and whether or not you count the weirdo outlier elements whose isotopes are so unstable that they can’t really be depended on to show up on time for the party, if they show up at all, without a little help from a highly skilled chemist.  The point is, fewer than one hundred elements comprise everything you see around you.  Take a look around.  Chemically speaking, this is a mind boggling fact to consider.   Don’t leave!  I’m not going to get all blah, blah, science.  I just wanted to make that quick point because I find it so remarkable that there are so few elements that make up so very many very different things.  Countless different things, really.  Gajillions.  Fewer than a hundred elements into a gajillion-gajillion combinations that make solids, liquids and gases?  That’s an amazing ratio of relativity, right?  It makes a seemingly complex planet seem manageable, even simple.

Now consider that every living thing on this planet (except some bacteria that has a number for a name and NASA can’t even make sense of because it lives in arsenic, and nothing can live in arsenic) is made up of six of those: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur.  Whether you believe in intelligent design or strict biological evolution, you have got to geek out on that a little bit.  Every life form from the teeny-tiniest amoeba to the largest mammal, all the plants and animals in every environment, follows the same very narrow channel of DNA.  You have more in common with the mold growing on the cheese in the back corner of your refrigerator than you do with your television or your car.  But what matters to human beings is what we feel connected to, and it’s oh so very easy to overlook the obvious similarities between ourselves and the natural world, and to shun our connectivity to it.  Make a habit of that, and it becomes even easier to decide we have nothing in common with each other, either.

I was thinking about this in terms of the divisive state of the populace, what with it being an election year and all.  I don’t get too hyped up about presidential elections, assuming that by the time a dude gets his name on a ticket of that magnitude, he’s probably been bought and sold by someone much more influential than myself.  Don’t give me shit for this.  I still vote.  I’m observant of my civic rights and responsibilities, I just don’t get emotionally attached to the idea that any of them are going to tell me the truth.  I am, after all, the general public, and my head would probably explode from the gravity of that truth.  So lie to me.  I like it.  Don’t leave!  I’m not going to get all blah, blah, politics either.  I’m just noting that it’s interesting that we can become so divided over ideological issues that we feel entirely chemically and genetically different from others inside our own species.  This becomes especially apparent every four years.  

If I was a statistician tasked with charting any basic character trait of a sample populace taken from any number of random locations on the planet, I would likely find a predictable cluster of any trait (kindness, lust, compassion, greed, whatever) in the middle and a few random outliers, which I would then disregard as anomalous to my study.  Put simply, the super-rich, the people we hold to be the most powerful... they’re outliers.  Some among us may aspire to be like them, but they are not of us.  The same can be said for the zen masters, the highly spiritually evolved, the most thoughtful human beings on the planet.  So I’d have to take the Koch Brothers and Thich Nhat Hanh out of my sample survey.  Fuck those guys.  They don’t count.  Again, some of us might aspire to be like them, but we’re not, so let’s deal in the reality of commonality for the sake of the median.

What’s left upon disregarding the super-greedy-super-rich and the spiritual masters is a core group of people who probably have more in common than they think, but whose ideologies might deceive them into thinking that they don’t.  As an example, I probably have some stuff in common with Sean Hannity, but when he talks, I simply cannot hear him.  I find his approach to be entirely off-putting, and I don’t understand a fucking word he’s saying.  So I don’t listen.  I ignore him.  I pretend he doesn’t exist.  Since he only exists on television, that’s easy enough to do.  But what about the people around me who I can’t turn off?  If I was a sociologist, I might have some really interesting, in-depth analysis about how to get along with people, how to communicate, but then I’d be all blah, blah, communication model, and you would leave.  Instead, I’m going to talk about my pets, and what I’m learning from them about how to find common ground.  

For the purpose of this social study, I’m going to disregard the outliers: the chickens and the parakeet.  They don’t count.  The parakeet is out because it is a highly evolved zen master who lives in a cage up high, meditating loudly and occasionally enduring bouts of intense starvation-induced enlightenment when we forget to feed him for a few days.  The chickens are out because they are the Koch Brothers of this property, demanding tax exemptions and maintaining social disconnectivity from the rest of the animals because they consider themselves to be the real producers around here, and they’re pretty sure the gears would grind to a halt if not for their three eggs a day.  (Don’t tell them that corn and apple cores don’t rain down on them from heaven simply because God thinks they deserve it.  It would shatter their bitchy little egos.)  

That leaves our median of the dog, the cat and the goat.  

The affection between those three is evident, but they just can’t seem to figure out a way to communicate.  Here are some sample interactions:

Dog to Goat: I would like to get to know you better, if you would please stop ramming me with your very hard head and turn around so that I could give your ass a sniff...
Goat to Dog: Wham!!  You are a goat like me, yes?  We are the same.  Wham!!  Why aren’t you bouncing? Wham! Wham!
Dog to Goat: Stop bouncing.  I just really need to sniff your ass.  Hey!  Stop ramming me with your very hard head...

Dog to Cat:  You’re home!  I missed you.  Let’s play tackle!  Let’s play chase! No, tackle!
Cat to Dog: Fuck off.
Dog to Cat:  You’re home!  Hey you guys, hey goat, hey everyone, the cat is home!!

Cat to Goat:  I would like to rub against you.
Goat to Cat:  Wham!!  You are a goat like me, yes?  We are the same.  Wham!!  Why aren’t you bouncing? Wham! Wham!
Cat to Goat: Fuck off.

What’s amazing to me about this dynamic is that they repeat these same interactions about fifty times a day and they haven’t given up yet.  Sound familiar?

That’s meant to give you a little hope.  The fact that we haven’t given up on the conversation, as maddening as that conversation is, has to mean something, right?  George Orwell might disagree with my approach to this analogy I think, but he was a little cynical.  While I haven’t seen much progress in communication among the three of them, I am impressed that they still try.  They might never really line up, but they take comfort in each other.  Sometimes when the goat is feeling especially needy (needy baby goats are really loud, and if you’re trying to convince your city commission that making them legal would be a super idea, you should probably keep yours quiet) and the rest of us want to go inside and have peanut butter and crackers and watch Peppa Pig, I make the dog babysit on the patio for a while.  Usually when I come back out I find the three of them, the dog, the goat and the cat - who is there voluntarily - all not getting along while they take comfort in their shared space, blissfully unaware of their mutual chemical elements.

You're doing it wrong.  So are you.  Let's try again in five minutes.  Okay, see you in five.

Maybe it's too much to hope that we might reach this advanced level of social interaction, especially in an election year, that we might 'not get along' as well as these three, but it's something to strive for.


  1. Well put, Meg, and well written! It is sad that over politics people (especially families and friends) can become more estranged than the family menagerie! The beauty of your example is that although animals have personalities, they don't take things personally. We could learn a lot from them!

  2. I've read this maybe five times now, and it has me laughing out loud every time. Thanks! You are a brilliant writer.