Four Things About Animals

cats-2Cats: We’ve had Ladyjane the Busy Bumblebee Cat for about a month now, and she and Rosie are settling into a new two-cat dynamic that’s a bit different from the prior Lyla-Rosie axis. The younger Ladyjane has still got the big kitten factor in effect, and plays hard with toys, us and Rosie. We’ve all gotten used to walking around the house and suddenly having her leap out from behind a plant to bounce off our legs and then go roaring around the house on her giant polydactyl feet as if she’s pleased and satisfied about having put us in our proper places. Rosie is fascinated with her, and while they’ve not quite yet the chums that the prior pair of cats were, they do seem to keep themselves amused and entertained together.

Chipmunks: We have a chipmunk burrow right underneath our back deck. Whenever I go out to fill the bird feeders, I always pour a little seed right into the mouth of the burrow, and then check back a few hours later, and it’s always been grabbed and moved into the nest. It makes me wonder what the chipmunks think of this seemingly divine bonanza that appears at their doorstep every so often, and what they might be doing with the increase in leisure time that my benevolence has provided them. Have they crafted a new chipmunk religion to explain why manna seems to rain upon them without rhyme or reason? And when the manna doesn’t arrive on schedule, do they fall prey to heresy, building little Golden Voles to worship in lieu of their rightful, deserving deity? Or are they secular chipmunks, using their free time to build little telescopes or dissect other chipmunks to explore the mysteries of their vascular systems? I keep looking at the deck to see if any smokestacks start popping up around its edges, indicating that the Chipmunk Industrial Revolution has begun, now that the little mammals have been freed from their serf-like dedication to gathering seeds and grains. I’ll let you know when they rise up to shake off their bourgeois shackles and embrace the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Crows: A week ago, I was out for a walk and saw a group of about half a dozen crows on the ground in the middle of a big field. Being a big fan of corvids, I headed toward them as I always do when I see them. As I drew closer, all but one of them took to the air, awwking and graaking at me as they did so. But one crow remained where it was, hunkering down a bit into the grass to make itself less conspicuous. I got to within a few feet of it when it stood and clumsily walked away from me, with a noticeable limp in its gait. The other crows went berzerk when it began walking, and began swooping between trees to draw my attention away from their wounded comrade. I couldn’t tell whether the injured bird had fallen from the nest before it was ready to fly, or whether it was in a particularly serious moult (it’s tail feathers seemed to be mostly missing), or whether another animal had grabbed it and shaken it. Eventually, it got airborne, but didn’t get more than a foot or so off the ground as it glided to the other side of the field, followed by the other crows, cursing at me as the flew away. I’ve returned to the field every day since (taking Katelin with me one day), and everyday I’ve seen the same thing: a group of healthy, adult crows sticking close by and running interference for the weakest member of their murder. The last time I saw them, the littlest crow was able to get about five or six feet into the air, and actually managed to land in the lower branches of a tree, the first time I’d seen it off the ground. Had there been but two adult crows tending to the injured bird, one could assume some instinctual parental prerogative was in play. But when a whole community of birds is caring together for one weak member, there’s clearly some higher form of intelligence and society at play, which fascinates and pleases me to no end. We do a great injustice to creatures we share this good earth with when we assume we are the only animals that are able to feel compassion and empathy.

Human: I’ve spent the weekend laying out a proposed course of study for my PhD, starting this fall, and finishing in May 2013, four full school years later. It’s ambitious, but doesn’t require any more class time in any semester than I took during my Masters program, when I was spending two and a half hours a day on the road from Latham to Great Barrington on top of my studies. I have to meet with my advisor to get it approved, but it feels good to have a plan.


When I was a kid, my dad was always good about dragging me in to watch important sporting events with him when they aired on television, letting me stay up late if necessary to catch something that he considered worthy of remembering. I didn’t necessarily appreciate it at the time, but I’m grateful now that he made me watch (among many other things) the Dolphins completing the only perfect season in NFL history by stomping his beloved Redskins, Hank Aaron hitting home runs number 714 and 715,  the last three horse racing triple crowns, Arthur Ashe winning Wimbledon in ’75, and then the epic Borg-McEnroe match there five years later.

I have active, personal, vivid memories of watching each of these events, but all of them pale in comparison to the memories I have of the heavyweight boxing matches that my father brought me in to watch through what I (and many others) would consider the pinnacle of the Sweet Science’s history, through the heart of the 1970s, when Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and a score of colorful supporting characters fought each other in a series of epic, mind-blowing, gut-churning, ring battles. The build-up to these events was thrilling, and as sporting spectacle they were simply untouchable.

I can honestly recall no television moments more stunning, more shocking, and more deeply memorable than Ken Norton breaking Muhammad Ali’s jaw in the ring in 1973, Ali outlasting Frazier in the Thrilla in Manilla in 1975, Ali losing his title to Leon Spinks in 1978, then regaining it in a rematch six months later, then losing it for the last time to Holmes in 1980. (I should also note that I vividly recall watching Ali and Frazier shooting marbles on Wonderama with Bob McCallister just before their second fight, though I suspect I watched that alone, since my dad was probably still in bed when that wonderful early kid-babysitting show aired).

I was always an Ali man throughout those glorious days of sport, despite the fact that my father was a Frazier fan, and Smokin’ Joe was from my own birth city of Beaufort, South Carolina, making him a home-town hero of sorts. (We used to drive past the plantation he bought his family after he achieved fame when driving down the Old Sheldon Road between Beaufort and the family homestead in McPhersonville). Ali moved me (and moves me) in a powerful, visceral fashion, changing the ways I viewed self-identity, self-worth and self-improvement at a particularly formative phase of my young life. I’m not naive, and I understand the ways that he abused the people around him (especially Frazier and his wives), but, you know, I don’t really care, when push comes right down to shove. The man’s always been a bigger-than-life hero to me, and he’ll always be the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) in my eyes and mind.

My appreciation for those epic 15-round boxing battles of the ’70s grew immeasurably when I went to the Naval Academy in the early ’80s, where all male midshipmen at the time were required to box during our plebe and youngster (a.k.a. freshman and sophomore) years. The coaches would line us up by weight in gym class, and then pair us off from heaviest to lightest, which always seemed to work to my disadvantage, as it seemed I was always the second heaviest person in the class at around 210 pounds, which meant I had to fight the heaviest person in the class, who was inevitably a mutant like my room-mate Jamie, a 6 foot 5 inch, 250 pound monster with a six-foot wingspan.

We fought Golden Gloves rules, three rounds of three minutes, and those ten-minute bouts (counting the 30 second breaks between rounds) were among the most excruciating, difficult, painful things I ever did, as I was typically pummeled around the ring by heavier opponents with longer arms. Consider, then, the fact that I had a head-guard on, while Ali, Frazier and their foes fought unprotected for five times longer than we did, throwing punches that had to be at least five times harder than anything I ever threw or received. If you’ve never been punched repeatedly in the body by a bigger, stronger person, then you can’t imagine what pain-management and discipline Ali’s “Rope-A-Dope” strategy must have entailed. If you’ve never tried to stay on your toes and out-dance your opponent for ten minutes, then you have no ability to conceive of what a titanic athletic achievement Ali’s “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” approach to boxing was. He was an athlete’s athlete. I watch his classic matches now, and still recoil at the punishment that he dished out and received, round after round after round, bout after bout after bout.

Twenty-some odd years after I left the Academy, I started integrating boxing back into my workout regimen, and these days, it’s essentially the cornerstone of my physical fitness program. I don’t take punches to the head anymore, obviously, but as a general rule, I work the heavy bag at the gym hard at least three times a week, throwing 1000 or more punches per session, usually while listening to brutal death metal, ideally by Napalm Death. This makes for an absolutely untouchable workout, as the act of moving the heavy bag requires your shoulders, arms, and core muscles to be active and coordinated, while staying on your toes throughout the workout keeps legs and glutes working hard as well. I easily sweat and soak through whatever I’m wearing after 20 minutes or so of throwing punches, so the regimen’s got hard aerobic and anaerobic elements. Plus, there are few things better for letting off the steam of the day than punching the blazes out of something, so there’s a strong sense of psychological satisfaction involved as well. I’m grateful for the coaching I got at the Academy on the proper ways to beat stuff up, because I quite like doing it at this stage of my life, as much as I hated it at that stage.

I have to note in closing, though, that as much as I love the classic era of boxing, and as much I enjoy punching things, I absolutely detest the whole contemporary world of mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting and whatnot, and find nothing noble or admirable in a “sport” where one assailant can defeat the other by choking him into unconsciousness during the first 30 seconds of a match. Boxing earns its title as the Sweetest Science due to its refereed adherence to the Marquess of Queensbury Rules or their relatives, which provide a controlled structure for physical conflict, and put an emphasis on strength, stamina and coordination over the raw, brute-force ability to kill another human being. There’s nothing noble about that, and I applaud legislators and sportsmen who oppose such tawdry, dehumanizing spectacles. I appreciate warriors. I don’t care for thugs.

I feel similarly about the state of heavyweight boxing these days, as the concept of title by acclamation has been diluted by the profusion of title-offering governing bodies. I doubt that we’ll ever have a champion as grand as Ali or Frazier (or even Mike Tyson, for that matter) when there are at least half-a-dozen money-making entities out there with their own money-making champs in the ring. I’m a sport junkie, so I know who the heavyweight champs are these days (do you?), though I don’t much care. None of them move me. None of them are heroes to me.

And I certainly wouldn’t make my child stay up late to watch any of them fight.

Guest Blogger: Katelin’s Salutatory Address

Our lovely daughter Katelin graduated from High School today, finishing three spectacular years at Darrow School. She was Salutatorian for her class, and in that capacity, got to deliver an address at the Baccalaureate Service last night at the school. I thought she delivered a wonderful speech, and with her permission, I re-print her remarks below, proudly, humbly, gratefully, recognizing what a good kid we have, and what a blessed, fortunate life we live.

Salutatory Address, by Katelin Smith, June 5, 2009kake-sr-pic

When I was much younger, I would write and tell stories without a beginning, middle or end. Long, rambling lists of inconsequential details, with “THE END” tacked on when I felt like I’d gone on for long enough. I was always able to observe and record a lot of details that way without ever figuring out what they meant. Figuring out and explaining the meaning was always the hardest part, even after I learned how to give a story a beginning, middle and end.

Stories aren’t the only things that have beginnings, middles and ends. Decisions do too. Every decision starts somewhere, triggers a series of events in the middle, and then ends somewhere else. Sometimes decisions lead to greatness. Sometimes they lead to tragedy. But no matter what, they all move us forward, from the reason, to the act, to the consequence. So it goes.

Our time at Darrow had a beginning, and has a middle, and soon it will have an end. There are a million different ways I can look at this story to try to find its meaning. I can think of what I would have done, what I should have done, or what I did. I can think about what I did wrong or what I did right. I can compare who I was before to who I am right now, although that is always hard for me, because I tend to want to focus on who I will be tomorrow, especially now that the future, college and eventually being a “grown-up” seem to close.

Sometimes during my Darrow story, I wanted to be there at the end already. Just skip a few steps, and jump straight to tomorrow. It was always easiest to think that way when what was happening was difficult. But no matter how much time I spent thinking that, I was still writing that paper, taking that test, or doing whatever I didn’t want to do in the first place. Waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting to see what the next chapter would bring. Ultimately, it was always worth the wait, and many times it was surprising how the story’s plot twisted in ways that I wouldn’t have appreciated had I just skipped to the end of the tale.

At times during my Darrow story, I didn’t even want to be in the present. I wanted to jump back and change an event that had already happened. Make a better choice, just to evade the consequences that I was dealing with at that current moment. But I know that’s a false approach to story-telling as well, as you can’t go back and erase an earlier chapter without changing everything that follows it, and you can’t put consequences in front of acts in front of reasons.

Fortunately, for most of my Darrow story, I was happy to be where I was, when I was. I was spending time with people who let me question everything. Who taught me lessons about Science and History and Music and Language and Art and Math and English that I will never forget. Who made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt. Who supported me in any way they could. And for all of that I am eternally grateful. And I am most grateful to the people who made it possible for me to come to Darrow, my family, who supported me throughout everything, no matter what.

To try to find deeper meaning in my story, I had to use someone else’s. In Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, there is a scene in which Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer, walks into a room full of important people, who he wishes to disgust and offend. He is covered in dirt and mud after a long journey to get there, and leaves tracks on the floor as he crosses the room. Vonnegut writes:

It was Trout’s fantasy that somebody would be outraged by the footprints. This would give him the opportunity to reply grandly, “What is it that offends you so? I am simply using man’s first printing press. You are reading a bold and universal headline which says: I am here, I am here, I am here.”

I believe that our story, our decisions and their consequences are all very similar to Trout’s footprints. What we decide, what we say, and what we do will define what we leave behind, and how people will read our stories. When the Class of 2009 graduates tomorrow, every action will say the same thing: We are here. We are here. We are here.