Friday, September 30, 2011

Lessons from big snakes and little bunnies

The East Bay Vivarium is one of the biggest reptile stores in the nation, with one of the most diverse collections of reptiles. It's a good place to go look at snakes and lizards and tarantulas and various other types of unusual pets.
It's like heaven for 10 year old boys (or anybody of any age, really) who are into snakes and lizards and tarantulas and turtles and skinks and monitor lizards and big huge boas and pythons.
Smug iguana.
Argus Monitor. Already pretty large, it'd get larger.
Oddly, I felt no need to touch the glass, with that huge python so active there.
He was about 20 feet long. He got fed a large bunny a few minutes later.
Another monitor lizard. He's the size of a large dog.
We went up to Berkeley yesterday to go there and look at tarantulas, since Riley is currently obsessed with the notion of keeping a tarantula. I have said no, not at this time, but he is researching care and species madly and so we went to research tarantulas in more depth. Somehow I seem incapable of discouraging research and learning about critters or just about anything, so it seemed like a good compromise, as long as I didn't cave and let him get another pet.
Advice on how to keep a tarantula. Females can live 12 years or more, apparently.
Turns out we got there right at feeding time, and the various dudes who work there were busy feeding the snakes, both big and small. So we got to see multiple snakes actually catching and eating their prey, which is really a pretty unusual sight to get to see, unless you are a snake owner yourself or frequent places like the East Bay Vivarium.
Time to navigate away now if you are at all squidgy about seeing a snake eating a bunny. We watched the entire process.

Bunnies of varying sizes were put into the enclosures of the biggest pythons, and the python you see here was active and hungry; this entire sequence took about half an hour total. I've edited out a lot of photos, and the quality of my photos here is not great, but I'd never seen how a snake could actually eat a prey animal so much larger than its own head, so I took pictures. The boys and I were joined by a crew of other boys and a few other parents; the guys working there were busy with feeding other snakes and were fairly unimpressed, having seen it many times before. They tried to defuse any shock exhibited by onlookers by remaining calm and casual and busy, as I'm sure they have to deal with people's reactions regularly. They enforced some quiet and an attitude of respect, which I really appreciated, since it set the expectation for everyone that this was a part of life in this place and needed to happen and was not a reason for loud voices and semi-panic, as some of the other parents present seemed to think.
 I was a bit worried that this whole process would be rather traumatic for the boys, but I decided to let them watch, since it's part of life and part of how these animals eat and live. The bunnies who were put in with the big pythons were all quiet and not panicked throughout, oddly.

 The actual capture was quite fast and the bunny let out one small cry which quickly stopped; the python wrapped its body around the bunny more quickly than I could react with my camera, and then just held it immobile, squeezing slowly, for several minutes. The bunny was alive after the actual capture, but didn't struggle; it kicked once, then died quietly and it was hard to tell when he actually stopped breathing; there was no single traumatic moment and the boys didn't seem to notice when it actually happened, though I could tell after a few minutes.
The snake seemed to know when the bunny had died; it released the rabbit and then moved around and seemed to be seeking out the position of the rabbit in order to find its head; once it had that figured out, it then methodically began to swallow the rabbit, head first. The eating part took about 20 minutes or so, and the snake worked at it steadily until the bunny was all inside.

We were told by one of the men working there that the snake's lower jaw isn't fused and can separate at both the center of the front of the jaw as well as releasing from the actual skull so that the snake's gullet can open very wide, as you can see. 

After finishing swallowing, the snake seemed to need a bit of time to simply hold still with his mouth open, as if he was exhausted. Perhaps he was reassembling his jaw and moving the bunny's body further down inside. I admit I was surprised at how quickly the snake moved the bunny's body down into the mid part of his own body. 

We were told the snakes get fed every week or so, which was more often than I had realized; the whole feeding process was much faster than I had realized, though it would still be a very long time for a snake to be vulnerable in the wild.

None of the kids freaked out, though one mother, realizing belatedly what was happening, was so repulsed and shocked she then dragged her very reluctant children out of the store with loud words about cruelty and inappropriateness and how some other parents were negligent, allowing their children to be traumatized by watching such things. None of the kids seemed traumatized to me, more just fascinated, and they had empathy for the bunnies, but the bunnies' own calmness seemed to have an oddly soothing effect on the kids. The kids were puzzled by why the bunnies didn't seem to panic or be afraid, and they discussed it amongst themselves a bit before running around to the other snakes to see how they were doing. They seemed to just accept the way the animals handled everything, the way kids do sometimes.

All of the kids present in the store formed a cohesive gang as soon as the feedings started. They would split up, running back and forth, reporting to each other on the progress of various snakes' feedings; they didn't stay long at any single feeding, but they were all certainly aware of what was happening. I was almost as fascinated watching the kids' behavior as I was watching the snakes; they almost instantly worked together and acted as a team as though they had known each other for a long time, and it was obvious that they felt the need to cooperate and stick together no matter what the adults did. It was something to see. No shyness, no social jockeying, more of an instinctive clumping together in a tight-knit group. It reminded me of bands of monkeys in trees watching a big predator in action from a safe distance- wary, alert, very interested and a bit afraid, but fascinated. And ready to help each other out no matter what happened.
Blue-tongued skink.
Eventually we looked more at tarantulas; Riley was sorely tempted by a little spiderling tarantula in exactly the species he was researching, for only $5. It would have needed to be fed pin-head crickets or tiny fruit flies, and the thought of adding the task of tracking those down every week and feeding the spiderling helped me keep my resolve; I held firm and we did not go home with a spiderling tarantula. We eventually managed to make our way out into the sunlight, and Casey spotted a tiny baby gecko that had gotten loose and was clinging to the wall outside.
With the baby gecko rescued and turned back in to the store guys, we talked in the car on the way home from Berkeley about geckos and tarantulas and how cheap a spiderling was and how you could make friends really easily sometimes and how calm the bunnies were and detachable jaw hinges and eating other animals, and death.  And how sometimes, it's not a scary thing but just rather matter-of-fact and a part of living.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Saying goodbye

Yesterday evening we went to Mark's 40 day memorial service. Actually Monday was technically the 40th day since he passed over, so there was a graveside service on Monday and this service in the church on Tuesday to mark the 40th day as well. Mark's wife is from Russia and is Russian Orthodox, and so Mark's services have all been done in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
There have been a number of services for Mark, since they hold services on the 1st, 3rd, 9th and 40th days after the person has died, and there are numerous other holy days dedicated to those who have passed over. Karen gave us a link to the Russian Orthodox practices which seems to explain it fairly well, though I find it convoluted and complex; I don't have even the basic Catholic knowledge in order to understand their traditions, and several Roman Catholics I know who were there said the Russian Orthodox tradition was very different from the American Catholic traditions.

I was not raised with any formal religious tradition.We are now members of Mission Peak, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation (we don't formally call it church), which is about as all-inclusive a denomination as is possible; I don't know of any other group that is as open and willing to allow its members to believe whatever they wish, actually. It's not any one type of religion, but welcomes in anyone who seeks a supportive community. There are a core set of beliefs centered around 9 Principles, which include treating all people kindly, that all people are brothers and sisters. I can get behind that. The kids in the religious education program get educated about many different religious traditions and are taught to be open-minded and accepting, which is a really important thing for us with our 2 boys. This has worked fairly well except that Riley tends to go about telling people that he's not Christian and we don't believe in God, which can be rather disconcerting for people. Some people within the congregation do actually believe in God, while others don't have a clear picture of any formal deity, and others have different notions. It's all part of being inclusive, but can obviously be rather confusing for people who have a clearly defined set of beliefs that they follow (or for young boys who don't have an easy, well known name for their religion when asked what they believe). We have never actually made it a 'thing' in our family to say we do or don't believe in God, so I'm not really sure why Riley feels the need to say that; it seems to come up when he has friends who talk a bit too proudly about being Christian, so I suspect he may be trying to set himself apart from them or else trying to shock them or trying to sound cool. Yeah, we need to have more talks about that sort of behavior with him, anyway. Church and God and all of that sort of thing is complex and probably rather confusing for our boys, since it is for us as well.

So we went to Mark's 40 day service yesterday and went into the small, beautiful church and Alex, Mark's 9 year old son, carefully handed out beeswax candles to everyone, which smelled wonderfully of honey. Yesterday was very warm and we stood there holding our warm honey candles and it all smelled like summer honey with the sunshine floating all around us. We women covered our heads with scarves and hats and whatnot and we all made our way into the church, which is small and dusky with lots of gold leaf and many tiny Russian Icons on the walls.
The space was small but completely open, with a few benches set close against the walls; obviously everyone was expected to stand unless there was a desperate physical need to sit. So we all stood with our candles, and the priests had a censer with incense that they were waving and twirling about with expert ease and a small choir started singing in both English and Russian. We stood and listened while the choir and the priests alternately sang and chanted, and the priests intoned occasionally and waved the incense in a ritual manner. I was surprised at how much the censer was used; in Catholic services that I've been to they use the censer perhaps at the beginning and end of a service but they frequently seem rather embarrassed and almost apologetic about it, as if they might offend people with it. Here it was a very central part of the ritual and the bells on the censer were chiming continually throughout the service. The priests went through the crowd with it several times to make sure everyone present was bathed in the incense. It was a pleasant scent, actually, but it has a powerful sort of feel to it. If you've ever smelled Frankincense maybe you know what I mean. It smells like Ritual reduced to a deep primal level. Between the standing, the twilight atmosphere, incense and the rhythmic chanting it puts one into a meditative state whether you're prepared for it or not.
This picture isn't of the actual church we were in, since I didn't take pictures, but it's very similar. There was an ornately decorated wall up in the front, with a space behind it where the priests and alter boys disappeared occasionally. I found out later that women are not allowed back there. I leaned over and whispered to Paul at one point and asked him what was behind the wall, and he said, "God!", like an awe-struck six-year-old kid. So apparently only males, or at least people who have the proper credentials, are allowed back there to chat with God.
Yeah, I'm being a bit facetious. It was all very solemn, the entire service seemed to consist of alternate singing and chanting, no speaking in plain talk, no sermon per se. It was all very ritualistic and seemed quite set in its patterns and repeated phrases and verses. It had a rather mesmerizing effect, though I admit that all of the repeated verses and chants puzzled me; is it considered hard to get God's attention, so you end up repeating the prayers many times? Or is it that you have to ask for the soul to be forgiven multiple times to forgive each possible sin? Or is it that the more prayers that are sent up will carry more weight with the ultimate judge and therefore you want to have a lot of friends praying for your soul repeatedly and constantly to assure you a better chance of ascending to heaven? It seems like the latter, from what little I understand. It's obvious that I don't understand that set of beliefs, even though I try to respect others who choose to believe that way.
I hope it all brings some comfort to Natasha. I was so impressed with Alex, Mark's son, throughout; he was quiet, well behaved, handing out candles, robing up as an alter boy and reading a rhythmic sort of prayer in the service with poise and a clear, steady voice. He was so superb throughout the service. My boys sat on a bench over near the back, with us nearby, holding their candles and only occasionally getting the flames dangerously near their hair or other things. They were respectful and quiet, at least. For myself, I had a hard time associating any of the church experience with what I knew of Mark, but it was really quite lovely and touching, and I'm glad I had a chance to see a Russian Orthodox service.

Afterward many of us went a few blocks away to a local eatery and sat around and chatted and told stories about Mark and caught up on each others' lives a bit, as frequently happens after a memorial service, and Alex and the boys got to play a bit of Magic the Gathering while the adults indulged in boring adult talk. The boys all got along well, as we thought they would, and I know Mark would have been glad to see them together having fun. 

When Natasha and Alex left, I was so touched at the way everyone chimed in yelling goodbye to Alex as they walked away, past the fence. He paused and turned, maybe in surprise, to hear that many voices calling his name, and he shyly waved to us before following his mom out of sight. That's when I got all teary, actually. Mark himself was such a good, kind person, and his son obviously is as well.

Hopefully we'll get to see him again soon and the boys can all play together.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Patriotism and Ripples In Time

10th anniversary and all that. Most everyone I know is done with that topic, sick of the news stuff, the repeated footage and all. Sick of it. I couldn't even really think of it all yesterday, on the actual date. It was a busy day with lots going on, and while I tried a few times to stop and pause and look inside for a bit of peace to hold it all in my heart and think on what it had meant then and all that's followed, it was too much to deal with in a small moment. It still is.

And yet. It's hard to believe it's been 10 years already. People who were kids then are grown adults, some of them; my 10 year old boys weren't yet one year old then. I found my blog entry from back then, stored away in the bowels of my long-neglected art site. When I wrote that post I was hunting for a flag to show, because it felt like one of the few outward ways I could display the sense of community I felt, that I was an American. That meant so much to me right then. I am an American and since that day I have felt keenly aware of it in a way I never had before that day. I do love this country. It's not a popular thing to say these days, and I was never very comfortable with rabid flag-waving patriots, but the way people pulled together to help each other and support each other on 9/11 and the days after made me proud of my fellow Americans.

I'm not a rabid patriot. I love the ideals we were taught in school as kids. I love the declaration that all people are created equal, that all people have a right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It's a hard thing to put all of the values the founding fathers wrote down into practice, but it's damned well worth a good try. A hardened, hopeless sort of cynicism and outright hatred of others are more common now, ten years later. It's been a sad and frightening decline into various forms of hatred in many ways since 9/11.
The boys don't really understand all the hype about 9/11; after all they were babies then and it's ancient history to them. Any mention of it slips by them like flotsam in a river. But for me, it lurks in that same water like a wooden spear that conceals a whole forest of wrecks underneath, waiting to snag an unwary traveller.

I followed a link to a post talking about 9/11 just today, and I'll admit the tone of it really set my teeth on edge. Among other things, the writer says:
"No, we talked about our feelings. Americans were bloated with empathy in the weeks after 9/11. But something fatal was happening: as a nation, we were consenting to pursue vengeance over mercy. We were deciding – with the help of all that deeply feeling propaganda on our television sets – that the only human suffering that mattered was American."

So sharing our feelings was wrong? Bloated with empathy? That's insulting and demeaning to anyone who had strong feelings about what happened, and let's get real-- many if not all of us did. He goes on to compare this one incident, this tragedy with its one-time loss of life, to be meager on the scale of overall human loss of life. And on a relative scale, it is. I can understand that argument. But mourning or marking the anniversary of a tragedy of this scale, this impact on an entire country, does not devalue other losses; tragic events in other countries, or even individual losses that people suffer. The media may turn it into a circus, but despite all of the hype, it doesn't negate or diminish the impact it had on us as individuals and the country as a whole. Of course we need to help our fellow men and women and right the wrongs and suffering that happen all around us, around the world. But an epic tragedy of this nature does deserve to be remembered, explained to those little kids who were babies, who don't understand its importance and the effects it is still having on our country. It's worthy of looking at and observing the ripples it has had and recognizing mistakes or things done right, and that changes need to happen to move on and grow and heal from it.

This writer says 'we were consenting to pursue vengeance'. I don't recall ever consenting to pursue vengeance in any form. And I sure as hell never decided that the only human suffering worth considering or trying to fix was American. I was, however, feeling a real connection with other people, on an individual and community-wide, country-wide scale, that hasn't happened since. I felt so completely that we were all connected, all together, all one family. I felt that we had a choice in front of us, to pull together. This country of stubborn individualists felt their connectedness to one another. We could have and should have used that close sense of brotherhood, and many did, on a grass-roots level, but the leadership of the country would not, could not, pull together or figure out what to do to deal with such a catastrophe. Leadership failed in such a huge and unimaginably long-lasting way, and actively sabotaged grass-roots efforts to pull together. My view is that as a country, we've never really recovered from what happened. So I suppose in that way Osama bin Laden succeeded.

I can understand people being sick of having the whole thing stuffed down their throats. The same footage endlessly shown over and over. I haven't watched any TV coverage at all, this anniversary or any other since that day. Maybe the media is indeed ghoulish, wanting to use that helpless inability to look away from a horrific event to boost their ratings. Maybe also part of the notion is that if we watch those carefully selected, carefully edited bits over and over it'll get easier to deal with, but of course it's more like picking at an open wound.  We haven't gained much perspective over ten years, really, but the media has managed to edit the experience down to certain dramatic portions and sound bytes and to carefully forget select parts of that day and the aftermath. Maybe if we were allowed to know and talk about some of the unspoken things, it could all be faced in the open, rather than denied and buried to fester. We feel the reverberations through all the weird things this country has been going through in the last ten years, but the wounds from that day's actions and the subsequent reactions haven't really healed. 

I'm choosing to focus on the positive ways that people pulled together to help each other in an unimaginable crisis situation. Like this:
Or this wonderful article, sent to me by Allysson. I will never forget the way that people all over the world at that time felt the shock, the loss, the tragedy, and they sent their love and support to Americans. We've lost that support since, for all the wrong reasons, but it was an amazing and wonderful thing, to feel that all over the world, people were together. There was an amazing outpouring of love towards this country. I keep hoping that we can all pull back together somehow, and that it doesn't take an immense and sudden tragedy to make it happen, and that we can hold onto that sense of togetherness. I can hope.
Just walk towards the light, I keep thinking towards everyone. If we can just hold hands and walk out of the darkness together, we'll see the green grass and the ocean and that blue, blue sky...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Leadership Qualities

Second week of school  has finished and the homework has started in earnest. The boys are very happy with their new teachers this year; both men, both intelligent, funny, approachable and willing to listen to the kids, while still being structured and fair. When I think about it, it's really quite amazing that my guys have the great good luck to get such excellent teachers despite all of the state budget woes, the school cuts and pitiful salaries teachers get around here (though that may be pretty universal, actually).

This week Riley asked me for pictures- one of me and one of President Obama. I said 'ooookay', and he picked some out and I printed them out. He told me he wasn't going to show me why he needed them.
"Well, I'm going to look it over before you turn it in, you know."

His rough draft listed things he considered to be required qualities for a good leader:
-- He/she must be kind and compassionate, and able to understand the needs of the people they are leading
-- They must be courageous, and not afraid to take necessary steps to do things that aren't easy but must be done.
-- They must know fear so that they can make good decisions and know what people are feeling
-- They need strength to make hard choices
-- They need to be organized and able to get things done
-- He/she needs  to be able to communicate really well
-- They need to be good speakers
-- They must be friendly and easy to talk to
-- They need to be able to understand and explain complicated things
-- They have to be firm and fair

And there were others he listed but I don't remember them all. At the top of the page he had stapled my picture alongside Obama, as exampes of people he considers good leaders. These are the pictures he picked out:
He wrote a paragraph on each of us detailing our good qualities. I am (at least in his mind) a good, kind person who listens carefully and tries to solve problems in a kind and compassionate manner (his words). I'm also a very busy person who takes care of lots of things and keeps things organized and running smoothly. (Wonder when he'll see through that one?) Obama had lots of good qualities as well: "He's very patient, a good listener and a good speaker, very busy but organized and able to get things done, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner for crying out loud!!" I told him he probably shouldn't say 'for crying out loud' on a paper like this, so that was later edited out.

So how cool is that?

He explained his choices to Paul by opening with "No offense, Dad, but I think Mom does more of the things needed for leading the family and making things happen than you do so I hope you're not upset..." Paul took it well, I thought. I kept very low-key and matter of fact about it all, of course, helping where asked and not getting mushy or anything.

Okay, yeah, of course it's a cliche to have your kid write about you as a person with admirable qualities, and maybe his teacher sees a lot of that. But it's never happened to me before in this way, unsolicited. It's damned cool, it is. I'm quite chuffed that my kid would pick me as an example of an admirable person who demonstrates good leadership qualities. I don't think of myself in that way, that's for sure. And it's quite humbling to find out that your kid really does admire you; that's a surprising and rather sobering responsibility there, not to let him down.

And everyone has their varied opinions of President Obama and how he's doing as President and all, but Riley's list of why he's worthy of admiration and respect were good ones. Whether you believe the man himself exemplifies those ideals or not, they're certainly qualities that we hope for and want in a leader. Little kids really, really want to believe that our President is a good, kind, compassionate man who understands the fears and needs of everyone whom he represents, and who tries damned hard to serve them well. Riley still has hope, even if we adults are pessimistic and jaded and disillusioned. I hope Riley hangs onto his idealism a while longer, even if/after President Obama and I let him down in some way.
Is it inevitable that his idealism will fade, that he'll decide that his heroes are a bit tarnished? I hope that at least he can hang onto these ideas of his of what makes a good leader, and work to be like that himself.