Monday, March 12, 2012

In Our Own Backyards: We Otter Paws to Reflect

My friend told me this story about her Persian grandmother, who lives in south Florida: it seems that in her backyard garden, Grandma has an artificial waterfall, flowing into a small fish pond stocked with carp. One day recently, she called the local police, complaining that her backyard had been invaded by a herd of seals. The seals were catching and eating her carp. She demanded that the police do something.

The 911 operator was unclear about tactics for dealing with marauding seals -- if seals, indeed, there were, since none had ever inhabited that part of Florida -- but promised to find help for Grandma. Grandma, however, did not want to wait. Racing to the kitchen, she threw open her freezer and grabbed a whole, frozen fish. Then she slammed open her sliding glass door, and brandishing the frozen fish on high, charged across the lawn, screaming at the seals in Farsi. The seals were completely nonplused, and put to rout.

Minutes later, Grandma received a call from an animal activist group which had been alerted by the police. The animals in her backyard, it was explained, were not seals at all, but a group of large, rare otters. Because they are an endangered species, the caller suggested, and because their survival is precarious, and their food supply diminishing, Grandma should show them hospitality, leave them in peace, and allow them to eat.

So -- what is the importance of this story, anyhow? A Persian grandmother, rising to the occasion, racing, shrieking in an unintelligible language, across her lawn, to attack an endangered species with a frozen fish? What does it mean that she chose for a weapon the very item which these animals sought as food? What was her message in choosing a frozen fish, instead of, say, an umbrella, or a rolled-up newspaper, or a bread board? And what larger dimension does this little vignette occupy in our cultural consciousness?

I do not pretend to understand the vagaries of thought of our Persian grandmother. But it seems possible that her message to the otters went something like this: You marauding savages! Stop stealing my fish! Why don’t you get your own fish, by honest means, like I do? See? I have here not only fish for today, but fish for tomorrow, because I have been wise. I have supplied myself with extra fish, which I have frozen for the future. You unwise animals! Take a lesson from me! I, too, was a stranger in a strange land, but I adapted. I will survive. Learn to get your fish by honest means, and you will survive, too! Now get out of my yard, you lazy, thieving beasts, and leave me in peace!

Something like that.

This is a cultural dream, isn’t it? A strange, almost aberrant image, this fish-wielding grandmother, shouting at rare otters. And so, I wonder how many times this theme is repeated in our culture, more or less unawares.
Imagine now, instead, that you are coming down the street to your parked car, cell phone in hand, ordering your supper from a Chinese take-out place. You look ahead and see that your car is surrounded by a gang of kids, who seem to be attempting to pry open the passenger-side window. Without giving it a thought, you race forward, brandishing your cell phone, shrieking, “Get out of there, you thieving little bastards!”

Are you now the Persian grandmother, brandishing as a weapon the very thing these feral creatures need for food? What is a cell phone but an instrument of communication? Yet, what was communicated to these wily street denizens but anger, rejection and divisiveness?

In the strange, foolish cultural dream manifested in a crazy old woman, can we see ourselves reflected? How television and the newspaper, those instruments of cultural communication, hold at bay converse with a lonely and isolated mate? How alcohol, pills, tobacco or gambling fend off the need to inquire of our deepest selves what nourishment would truly feed them? How spending wards off fear of debt? How attendance at sporting events covers a bulging belly and flabby thighs in a ‘9er’s coat of illusion? How political hatreds project out our own self-hatred? In each and every case, how the very thing needed as food for survival is frozen, then brandished as a weapon?

Before we laugh too hard and long at the zany antics of Grandma, let’s take at least a fleeting glance at the demonic fury raised here. Let’s feel in our own bodies how the eyes bulge, the tongue stiffens, the belly is afire. How quickly we reach for the cigarette or the credit card or the political dogma to appease the demon.
Are our gardens only ersatz? What shadows are falling across the carefully manicured lawns of our backyards? Do we build fences to keep out what is native, while cultivating the inauthentic, the exotic import, the illusion of naturalness?
And how often do we awake from feverish sleep, with our fingers reeking of fish, and a powder of scales, like a vanishing dream of demon’s skin, across the backs of our hands?        



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