Thursday, October 27, 2011

Coming Saturday: Drooling oafs make good friends

What do a bundle of terrier terror and a clumsy, big footed drool monster have in common?
Not a whole lot, except they are friends – make that best friends.
What makes a good friendship? Where does it come from and why?
Perhaps it is complicated, or, perhaps as simple as simple gets.
According to novelist C.S. Lewis, it is the latter.
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
But however you look at it, one thing's for certain, life just wouldn't be the same without friends.
And as our odd pair shows us, true friends are there to fill in the missing pieces, or in the case of best friends, overlook them altogether.
This Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011, In Search of Ponies will explore the root origins of the word “Oaf” and at the same time, examine one unlikely friendship.
Check it out at and  Friday evening and in newsstands Saturday morning.
Don't miss it!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Animals capable of humanistic traits

As featured Oct. 21, 2010, on

The mare’s struggle quickly turned to quiet relief the moment she nuzzled her newborn foal on the ground beside her.
In that one instant, she changed and the change was as real as the fragile creature next to her, her focus switching from centered on self, to being centered on her offspring.
As I watched their first minutes together, I couldn’t help but relate because in those moments, she wasn’t an animal, she was a mother.
That shift of focus and nurturing care highlights common ground between humans and animals, making the line between our species seem a little less pronounced.
However, the line doesn’t cease to exist because humans and animals share some common ground and non-human animals are the “lesser” creatures.
Why is this?
We know that animals feel pain and sorrow, get depressed, feel joy, envy and form family and friendship bonds, and yet they’re beneath us.
No matter how many thousands of years they live along-side us, or how many human traits we project on to them — from dressing them in human clothes to assigning human emotions and motivations to their actions to even teaching apes to paint — they do not evolve to meet us on the same, equal playing field.
A dog in a sweater will still curl around to take a lick — because, as the adage goes, he can — and an ape with a paintbrush in its hand will still use its free fingers to pick its nose regardless of who’s watching.
Recently, I came across a blog by science fiction and fantasy author Piers Anthony, in which he contemplated the separation between animals and humans, and I found myself thinking of the foal whose birth I had witnessed.
Essentially, Anthony chalked the difference between humans and other animals up to art.
“What distinguishes human beings from other animals is art... Not only does man have the capacity to appreciate art, it is central to his existence; wherever man has gone, art has gone with him,” he wrote.
I found myself agreeing and disagreeing.
We often associate art with its product or its lasting presence, but the painting is not the true art. Rather the art is the process that made the painting and the painting is the sum, the proof.
If a predator devises a clever way to herd, then trap its prey, that process, too, is art. It is skill, technique, influence and creativity all swirled together in a unique combination by the unique mind of that particular animal, whether the result is a painting or different way to hunt or crack a nut.
The difference is why that process is applied and, yes, the proof that it happened.
Just as a human would, the mare loved her child.
However, her nurturing ends with that particular foal and its generation. She doesn’t ponder its offspring, nor consciously cultivate that child with the intent of advancing horse society or contributing improvements to the future beyond the moment that foal becomes independent of her. Instead she thinks about keeping offspring alive through the next few minutes, hours or days.
That is what separates humans from other animals — the ability to see a need and to care about it, invest in it and want to make it better, even when it isn’t real... yet.
And yes, that is reflected in the art product because it is documentation of a contribution to development of culture — something other animals don’t do.
While the animal has thin layers of “humanistic” traits between it and its survival instinct, for humans, those layers are thicker and allow us to apply our survival instinct further than our immediate benefit, something we see in technology and art.
But then again, looking at our creative products and how we often focus our advancements, sometimes you have to wonder if humans are really so different after all, or if maybe, we don’t just live like we envy the dog in the sweater — because we can.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Coming Saturday: The difference between us

This week (coming Oct. 22, 2011) In Search of Ponies will focus on a pretty basic question, which as it turns out, doesn't seem so simple once you look into it.
What makes humans different from other animals? 
Duh... who's holding the leash?
And yet there are a lot of theories on the differences and most of the great minds of civilization have pondered the question. 
Aristotle developed his philosophies and conducted his studies between 385-322 B.C., identifying the soul as the key defining factor for different levels of living creatures, with animals having higher souls capable of feeling and humans having rational souls capable of reason, elevating them even further. He chalked it up, in its simplest form, to language, or speech, as a conveyance of higher reason, as I quoted in a 2010 column.
“For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech. The mere voice, it is true, can indicate pain and pleasure, and therefore is possessed by the other animals as well.
“But speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special property of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities.” 
Aristotle's are some of the earliest philosophies on the differences between us, and while his theories weren't perfect, much of his concepts carry through to modern thought, and I believe, contain the core truth.
 We know that we are the higher animal and we can conclude it from what animals show us in their day-to-day function (chasing cars, spinning in circles, running away from perfectly good homes, using the restroom indiscriminately) but it is also pretty clear when you look at the difference between our societies. We have computers, airplanes, bridges and skyscrapers, they don't.
And we have symphony orchestras and the Mona Lisa.
But is art enough to distinguish us? And what is art? I was faced with this question while reading the October newsletter of author Piers Anthony, a witty and interesting writer that posts a monthly newsletter where he "vents," as he puts it.
Reading his views on the issue got the wheels turning and led to this week's column in which I essentially conclude it is the capacity for abstract thought, virtual vs. tangible concepts, big picture thinking, that makes us different. 
After writing the column, I discussed it with others and discovered I had likely only scratched the surface, particularly from the perspective of an artist I spoke to, who believes that art is uniquely human and it is language that divides the animals.
I still think language and art are merely manifestations or products of the difference between animals and the human animal. 
Something deeper has to make those things possible, and so it would be that thing -- whether it's reason, or the soul or moral compunction or an extra set of brain cells -- that is the difference between us. But I also got the feeling I could easily find plenty of people with other theories.
In terms of columns, it isn't something I would write about very often, because, quite frankly, it's probably pretty boring to most people unless someone is in the mood for a debate or they're just into that sort of thing. But every now and then it's OK to get a little philosophical...

To see what it's all about, check Friday evening and the print edition Saturday

Success understood across species

As featured Oct. 8, 2011, on
We just didn’t speak the same language.
And it wouldn’t have been such a big deal if he didn’t have the ability to run over me like a Mac truck, a point which was driven home with every nervous or confused twitch he made.
I can still see him standing there, nose to the fence, trembling hind quarters pointed my way, as I tried everything I could think of to get him to respond... to show me that he heard me... to do anything.
Waving arms, yelling, the whip snapping through the air, the plastic grocery bag tied at the end of a stick, annoying tapping on his rump... you name it, I tried it, thinking that the size of the communication needed to match the size of the recipient.
That poor horse.
To this day I have a soft spot in my heart for him, partly because he didn’t swat me like the mosquito I was, but mostly because I now know he was trying to learn my language even harder than I was his, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time.
I thought I knew what I was doing, or at the very least, I knew what I wanted – to get him to move in a circle around me. It should have been simple.
But it wasn’t.
Spending hours upon hours staring at his unmoving backside, I’ll admit I thought he was messing with me and having a big old joke at my expense — an opinion onlookers were quick to share as they chuckled and shook their heads.
But even with his stubborn behind pointed at me, his posture was that of a martyr and I just didn’t feel good about the heavy scare tactics that, as far as I could see, had only left him trembling and jumpy but too uncertain to move.
And then, one quiet day having nearly given up, I tugged his nose away from the fence, lined him up the direction I wanted him to go and stepped back, like I had a thousand times before.
I had never hit him and had no intention of doing so, but my aim was off as I snapped my wrist and the whip licked the saddle with a loud, “CRACK!”
In one solid movement, his head snapped up, hind quarters gathered and he bolted forward with wide eyes.
Lowering the whip in shock, I encouraged him forward, giddy as could be.
Trotting around me, the negativity melted away for him too as his neck curved and his trembling uncertainty was replaced with sure-footed steps.
Life is full of “Duh” moments and anyone who says differently is just not in touch with their inner idiot. For those, like me, who sometimes have difficulty hugging their inner fool and uttering that particular word, I have found a positive alternative — “Eureka!”
We had finally clicked.
By the following week you wouldn’t have known there had ever been a problem at all as he circled, his posture confident. He was so in tune to me; he would screech to a dusty stop or move from a slow walk to a steady jog, then back to a walk, in response to a slight gesture.
In hindsight, it wasn’t really the crack of the whip against the saddle that changed things because I soon realized I didn’t need it.
Rather, it was the success that changed everything.
In that single and brief eureka moment of celebration after our first win, we broke the language barrier.
Up to that point, we had taught each other a lot about failure and error, and we had reinforced it until we were both so frustrated we were literally getting nowhere.
Looking back, I had all the right commands, because the instructions I give him are the same today as they were back then.
But the syntax only mattered to me, never him. All he really needed to know was the bottom line, and it needed to be one he could feel good about — eureka!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rat had chip on her shoulder

As featured Oct.1, 2011 on

While sitting in the dentist chair, my attention was suddenly drawn to an announcer on the softly playing radio.
“Doritos inventor Arch West, dead at 97... to be buried in his beloved chips,” the voice said.
It was apparently something the family wanted to do and they planned to toss handfuls of their loved one’s innovative 40-year legacy — fried and flavored corn chips into the grave before the urn containing his ashes was covered.
Initially upon hearing the report I wasn’t quite sure whether to scoff or laugh, but then a memory started to emerge.
Godzilla was a tough little bugger.
A designer breed of rat referred to as cinnamon, her dark coat had a glistening, reddish-brown hue.
At just over 3 years old, she had outlived her two sisters Pepe and Daria, both “blue” rats, with a soft, velvety gray-blue color.
Pepe went first, she was my favorite. One day she was just laying there. No explanation, no signs or symptoms, just gone.
I have gotten pretty tough from years of loving and loosing animals but I mourned for Pepe. She would come to the door of the cage when she saw me, waiting to be held. She’d sit on my shoulder contentedly and never bit or scrambled.
Daria was a little less personable, a little more cagey, a typical middle child. She went next, the same way. Quietly and with no warning.
Godzilla, the bully hung on. At first I was angry with her, not understanding how I got stuck with the nastiest one while the others, the nicer ones, had to die.
But as time passed, I kind of felt sorry for her — Living alone, no one to steal food from or push out of the cozy spots.
I made sure she had clean bedding and checked on her more often, dumping banana chips, assorted nuts and other goodies in her cage frequently.
She got a little fat and less active with no one to pick on, spending copious amounts of time in the corner under mounds of shredded newspaper.
I figured it was her battle with karma — all her good deeds coming back at her 10-fold with huge doses of loneliness and silence.
So I kept tossing in the goodies, feeding the beast.
Simultaneously, there was a smell in the garage where she lived.
As the days passed the smell increased. A mouse must have crawled in a crevice and died, I reasoned.
The unpleasant odor became more poignant.
Suddenly it dawned on me. When was the last time Godzilla moved?
“Oh God no,” I thought.
Sure enough, there was her lifeless body, covered in a mound of untouched banana chips, pretzels and peanut butter crackers.
I’m still not sure how many days I poured food on top of her dead body.
I wrestled with guilt, feeling like a callous heel, but no matter how I looked at it, I knew there was nothing I could have done. After all, it wasn’t like she was in the habit of coming out to thank me for the food, or, for that matter, engaging in any other level of activity that would have clued me in that something was wrong.
Looking back, I’ve come to terms with it and I tell myself it was a fitting ending for her, launching into eternity from her cozy spot, covered in her favorite foods. Who could ask for more?
But now that I think about it, I bet she would have returned from the afterlife for some Doritos... If only I’d thought of that.
So long and thanks for all the chips Mr. West, may you find a good queso on the other side!