No, Really and Truly – The Absolutely, Positively Worst Ideas of 2012

Copernicus_-_Heliocentric_Solar_SystemFor some reason, The Washington Post prematurely nominated its worst ideas of 2012 way back on October 1. All the Post’s bad ideas had to do with sexual indiscretion by powerful men, political incorrectness, hubris, or all three. The one bad decision in the bunch made by a woman was the failed ouster of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan, which was spearheaded by that self-appointed defender of vision, the unfortunately-named Helen Dragas.

Speaking of hubris, though, the Post left out almost three months of bad ideas and almost an entire gender – which is sort of amusing, considering that some of the worst ideas of the year were about women. Here goes:

Do-it-yourself birth control: First, Foster Friess, a billionaire and mutual fund manager, kicked off the war on women when he suggested Bayer aspirin could prevent pregnancy: “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” In case we excused Friess’s comment as anomalous, Missouri Republican Todd Akin – also known for trying to eliminate school lunches for embryos that make it to grade school – defended prohibitions on abortion for rape victims by declaring, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Rape as God’s will: Not to be outdone, Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock argued – several times! – that any life resulting from rape was “something God intended to happen.” His idea manages to be terrible on several levels: first, that (despite its frequent appearance in the Bible) rape is acceptable because the ends justify the means; second, that God means to torture women; and third, that Mourdock somehow knows what God intends.

Ayn Rand: From Rand’s excruciating prose, eugenically-selected protagonists, contempt for acts of generosity on the grounds that they enable helplessness, and glorification of selfishness, we learned that the Romney-Ryan defeat stemmed from the triumph of mediocrity rather than Romney’s staggering ignorance of the world inhabited by the ordinary riffraff. (Dana Milbank’s piece in the Washington Post, “At Romney Headquarters, the Defeat of the 1%” does the best job I’ve seen to show that Romney’s insensitivity comes straight from the heart.)

Teachers bearing arms: If I actually have to explain why this is a terrible idea, please stop reading now.

The Second Amendment: If you skip the “well-regulated” and “necessary to a free state” parts, assault weapons make perfect sense.

Jonathan Franzen’s opinion of Edith Wharton: Based on Wharton being unattractive and sexless, America’s most popular purveyor of unpleasant characters dismisses her entire body of work. The bad idea – which you really might expect someone at The New Yorker to question – is the entire assumption that women have no artistic legitimacy without sex appeal.

New Yorker cartoons: Looking for sexism? Women carping at their downtrodden husbands? Gender dynamics that haven’t changed since the 1920s? I love The New Yorker, but I wish it would reconsider its tradition of phallocentrism.

Women are helpless, except when they’re not: Okay, I’m supposed to believe that the general of the most powerful military in the world was prostrate before the siren song of Paula Broadwell? Either he couldn’t resist – which I highly doubt, given that Petraeus was entrusted with our national security – or he could have resisted, but didn’t bother since the popular press would blame the woman anyway.

Voyeurism. Maybe Invisible Children was a showcase for the arrogance of Jason Russell, but when TMZ broadcast him staggering naked through the streets of San Diego and ridiculed what was clearly a mental breakdown, it didn’t exactly show the public in a flattering light when we played along. Same with the photograph of a man about to be hit by a NYC subway car. And same with the anguished photo of a woman trying to find out the fate of her sister, who had already been killed by the Sandy Hook shooter.

Illusions of privacy. Yes, my privacy has gone the way of the Twinkie, without the anti-union rhetoric. I value privacy, but not when it gets in the way of seeing the cartoons and photos my friends post or being able to avoid entering twice as many addresses into Google Maps on my phone.

The end of the world. The true bad idea here is that I didn’t plan an end-of-the-world potluck holiday party; I hosted one in 1999, asking guests to bring the dish they would want to eat if the world really ended at the turn of the millennium. Good times. P.S. Runner-up: blaming the prediction on the Mayans.

The end of the list. And if you believe that these are the only worst ideas of 2012, I have something I want to sell you. Close your eyes, hold out your hands, and count to ten.

Pass on the Robo-Pet…and Hold the Animals

In a gorgeous scene early in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, children bring a litter of kittens to a river and baptize some of them before an adult stops them. The kittens all find homes, but nobody remembers which were baptized. The narrator, a minister, always wonders whether there is any theological difference between the baptized and non-baptized kittens. I don’t find this dilemma troubling at all, since I have never for a moment doubted that animals have souls.

My fifth-grade teacher, who was also a former minister (and, as far as I’m concerned, a saint as well), tried unsuccessfully to convince me otherwise. He’d filled his classroom with assorted fauna – rats, tarantulas, gopher snakes, chicks, lizards, crawfish – and allowed us to hold them during lessons. I was nonchalant about snakes, couldn’t bring myself to hold a tarantula, and fell in love with the rats, especially after reading Robert C. O’Brien’s classic, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Trying to turn me into a good scientist, he showed me several science books that presented as fact that one of the factors that distinguishes humans from animals is the capacity to feel emotion. He taught me a word that felt clunky and collegiate on my tongue: anthropomorphize, the tendency of humans to attribute human qualities to animals and other things that are not human.

His contention that the rats had no personalities and no emotions was the one thing he ever told me that I didn’t believe. Research since then has suggested that I was right that the divide scientists then drew between humans and animals was artificial and anthropocentric. One of the experts on animal emotion, Jaak Panksepp, a professor and researcher at Washington State University, says “people don’t have a monopoly on emotion; rather, despair, joy and love are ancient, elemental responses that have helped all sorts of creatures survive and thrive in the natural world.”

The human tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, however, is also well documented. In a famous 1960s experiment I studied in college, students confided in a computer program, ELIZA, that spat out responses based on Rogerian therapy. Many participants mistook ELIZA for a human and grew emotionally attached to “her.” More recently, a New York Times editorial by branding consultant Martin Lindstrom – contended (controversially and possibly falsely) that brain scans revealed that “the subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member…they loved their iPhones.

The implication here is something like, “Humans anthropomorphize both objects and animals; objects don’t have emotions; therefore it is likely that animals don’t have emotions either.”

For those of us who spend time around them, though, it seems glaringly obvious that animals have an emotional life. Pets clearly show jealousy, anger, affection, and joy; and when their owners feel strong emotions, they rarely fail to appear with a cold nose, a warm tongue, or a snuggle. Our pets declare their personalities and desires as plainly as any child, and they share the child’s impulse to touch and give comfort in the face of human emotions they don’t understand. Researchers point out that only humans have the ability to think about their own emotions…at least as far as they know.

And then there’s Amy Hempel’s story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” about a woman’s failure to acknowledge her best friend’s terminal illness, which ends with this devastating passage about a real-life chimpanzee who has been taught sign language:

I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.

Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.

I have never been able to read this story – or, I have just discovered, write about it – without crying.

So, when I read Clay Risen’s brief article in the New York Times Magazine, citing “Robo-Petting” as an innovation we can anticipate in the next four years or so, I couldn’t help thinking that the idea was not just disgusting but a poor approximation of the love of a good animal:

Petting a living animal has long been known to lower blood pressure and release a flood of mood-lifting endorphins. But for various reasons — you’re at work, or you’re in a hospital, or your spouse is allergic to dogs — you can’t always have a pet around to improve your mental health. So researchers at the University of British Columbia have created something called “smart fur.” It’s weird-looking (essentially just a few inches of faux fur) but its sensors allow it to mimic the reaction of a live animal whether you give it a nervous scratch or a slow, calm rub. Creepy? Yes. But effective.

Right. I prefer my “smart fur” on a live animal, thank you very much…and I would be willing to bet that animals do, too.

The Stranger at the Table

Before she flew to her native Poland for the holidays, my doctor told me that, on Christmas Eve, Polish families set an empty place for “the stranger,” a person who, symbolically or actually, has nowhere else to go. In the United States, she lamented, Christmas has become so commercialized and gift-focused that Americans have lost focus on the celebration of family and friends that make the holiday meaningful.

Supposedly I can trace some of my ancestry to Poland, but my family is Jewish, not Christian, and so for most of my life, the holidays have had a neither-nor quality. Hanukkah, indifferently promoted in gift catalogs and spread out over eight days that only sometimes intersect with Christmas, doesn’t have a prayer – forgive the pun – of competing with Christmas.

To be honest, I like it better that way. I am one of those people who describe themselves as more spiritual than religious, but I can see how Judaism has shaped my outlook. Some years I light Hanukkah candles, some years not. In most Jewish celebrations, as in Poland, particular objects have symbolic meaning. The menorah, which symbolizes one day’s worth of oil lasting for eight after the rededication of a temple in Jerusalem, celebrates (at least for me) the miracle of enduring spiritual light. The symbolism of a gift-buying blowout does not have meaning I care to celebrate. In that sense, my Polish doctor and I can find common ground despite having very different beliefs.

I am also fortunate to have been welcomed as the stranger at the table many, many times. When I lived in Seattle, I spent most Christmases with close friends. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that their spectacular cooking was as good a way as any to celebrate our varied beliefs. My friends made crown roasts; I always brought homemade challah. One year, when their family piled into a car for midnight mass at St. Mark’s Cathedral, whose choir is locally renowned, I even joined them. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment when, seeing me hover alone near the entryway while my friends took Communion, a priest approached to ask if there was anything he could do for me. I shook my head, smiled, and thanked him, not feeling the need to explain. Even after years of continuing to wander between holidays, his small kindness – his offer of the stranger’s seat at the table – still warms me with gratitude.

Compassion, no matter what its spiritual foundation, is the true miracle.

The Religious Beliefs of Cats

As far as I can tell, early Christians determined the Seven Deadly Sins by observing the house cat. You may look at your cat and see a sleepy, self-indulgent unbeliever, the embodiment of That Which Must Be Resisted, but you are cheating yourself of a rich spiritual tradition. Because humans have bred into the domesticated cat some unpalatable traits like the desire to kill for fun, you might have difficulty perceiving its worshipful side, but the devotion of cats is there in plain sight.

First of all, cats worship the sun. They spend their time looking through windows because they are seeking the hot, sunny places where the domesticated cat originated. Find a patch of sun on a rug, and a cat will be lying in it. When cats pray, they roll onto their backs and let the sun make their bellies hot. When they feel especially spiritual, they begin grooming. They are not actually licking their fur, but licking sunshine off their coats. Cats are more active at night because they are seeking their vanished sun.

Just like practitioners of the great religions, cats must obey complex rules for behavior. Strange cats must be greeted with hissing. If something flies, skitters, or rustles, it must be chased. Before undergoing a pilgrimage to the veterinarian, a cat must humble itself under a bed and pray loudly when forced into a cat carrier. If a cat’s owner drops something on the floor, a cat feels obligated to sit on top of it in order to maintain the neatness of the room. Claws must be nurtured and cultivated like the jewels they are.

A cat who appears to be staring at nothing or puffing up its tail and rocketing around the room for no reason is actually experiencing religious visions. Cats lucky enough to have owners who read books must position themselves within the gaze of the printed page; those whose owners have mice or insects must conduct animal sacrifices. Anyone who thinks felines feel no shame has never seen the distress of a cat whose business has occurred outside the litter box.

Finally, these children of the Egyptian goddess Bast must share the blessings of the sun with others, which they do through shedding. You might call shedding dander, but cats shed to cast the sun’s warmth throughout every nook of the universe. By vacuuming their fur off floors and furniture you are committing blasphemy, which is why so many cats are so outspoken in their hatred of vacuum cleaners.

On special occasions, a cat will sometimes deliver to its owner, often with much effort, a concentrated cylinder of sunshine in the form of a hairball. Your cat believes this cylinder is a treasure and is dismayed when you call it disgusting and throw it away. Like all people around the world, your cat wants only to have its beliefs respected and honored, even though these beliefs are different from yours. At a time of year when we celebrate so many holidays, compassionate owners will take the time to embrace their cats’ traditions…or at least embrace their cats.

Cold Shoulders

When the water heater in our building fell unconscious on a Monday morning, I had no idea that Google would produce over 12 million hits for “how to take a cold shower.” Already sick, I’d turned to Google in an effort to lessen what I knew would be water torture.

If I hadn’t been in such a rush to get the shower over with, I might have taken the time to appreciate the marketing might devoted to cold showers, which, I have since learned, are purported to boost masculinity. According to the Meditations on Manliness website, cold showers and baths have been endorsed by James Bond, and before him the Spartans, the Finns, ancient Russians, Shinto practitioners, and hydrotherapists – including, evidently, Charles Darwin. Everyone in this august history is now dead, so it is impossible to say whether their icy ablutions extended their lives or shortened them. Knowing that my shower would make me more manly, however, did not increase its appeal.

I was also unswayed by the supposed health benefits, which didn’t seem relevant to a shivering woman with a sinus infection and laryngitis. I am fairly sure I have no use for higher testosterone or more robust “little swimmers” (that’s Meditations on Manliness again). According to the Sikh Dharma International website, a cold shower approximates a dip in a sacred pool. Um. Right. But wait – this expert was female! Writes Bhai Sahiba Dr. Bibiji Inderjit Kaur: “When you take a cold shower in the morning, it is like the first battle of the day.”  To combat the cold, you should rub yourself with oil and shout “Wahe Guru!” if you shiver, so that you “come out victorious.”

I was more in the mood for a warm bed than a frigid sacred pool, but I kept the good doctor’s words in mind when I turned on the shower and stuck my hand in it. Instantly my hand froze. I poked a toe into the freezing spray – okay, I know the water wasn’t actually freezing, or it would be sleet – and my foot froze, too. I thought about the many countries in the world that have no running water, never mind hot running water. These countries include the U.S., I discovered – 1.7 million people, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. In fact, the World Water Organization reports that only 20% of the world population has access to running water, including one billion people who have to walk 3 or more miles to a water source.

Guilt did not warm me up, but it did strengthen my resolve. I thought about how I had succumbed to the American compulsion to wash one’s hair every day, and then I stuck my head in from behind, arching my back more than was probably prudent. I shivered, I writhed, I hyperventilated to the point that it was hard to breathe, and I thought about the billions of people for whom “the first battle of the day” was not a choice but a daily occurrence. (Yes, I really did, and I didn’t feel virtuous, either.)

I emerged a short time later – you didn’t actually think I was going to describe my own shower, did you? – unenlightened, telling myself I’d won the first battle of the day but not feeling particularly victorious. I felt even less victorious after a couple of hours of work, when I had to go home sick; and even less victorious two days later when I lost the ability to speak and then finally dragged myself in defeat to the doctor’s office. If my immune system was strengthened, it was so imperceptible that it felt just like weakness. And those “little swimmers” – maybe those were the bacteria in my sinuses? Or maybe the health benefits were only for men.

Whatever the reason, if there were ever any doubt, it seems that I’m no James Bond. And when our hot water returned, I celebrated. I guess that means I’m no Mother Teresa, either.