Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Beast with Unfair Burdens: SAVING SIMON

All of us, animals and humans alike, carry some baggage from earlier days, either in the form of trauma and abuse, or just simple regret. Some carry a freight-train amount; others just a fanny pack. What Simon the donkey carried was almost beyond comprehension. He started life with a good family of humans and horses and one other donkey. He grew up as a companion to a young boy who loved him. But the recession hit their farm hard and Simon’s owners were forced to sell off their family of animals.
Where Simon ended up was a living hell, and he sank into the muck of the poverty and neglect until he was barely alive. The farmer who allowed his slow suffering was so deep into his own depression he couldn’t bear to check to see if the donkey was still breathing. He had shut down, becoming almost soulless.
Fortunately, not everyone is willing to turn away from those in need. Simon was rescued, and found a new life with Jon Katz and his menagerie. But his rescue and recovery are just the tip of this book’s message. It is really about compassion—What is it? Who practices it? And who deserves it?
Mr. Katz is a bestselling author and a photographer, whose written and visual portraits of Bedlam Farm are widely known and admired. His blog is read by thousands, and is an example of how different the relationship is now between authors and their readers. He does not shy away from difficult topics, and is honest about his own participation in the “tooth and claw” aspect of the animal world.
There are contradictions in Mr. Katz’s premise and actions, but he also acknowledges his own stumbling journey as he ponders his reactions to animals in need against the kneejerk response of condemnation for animal abusers. Why are we not compassionate for the people who have obviously fallen so low as to treat their animals or children with such utter cruelty? he asks.
The question should be asked. When an animal is abused, the anger against the abuser is strong and righteous. Mr. Katz suggests that perhaps we need to step back and consider who is really in need of compassion. A little bit does go a long way, and could, in fact, prevent the kinds of situations Simon was in. Compassion for a loving, gentle donkey is easy; compassion for the hardened, despairing farmer is not. Both are badly needed. When Simon displayed his natural but less than adorable aggression toward an aged blind pony, the author’s outrage nearly usurped his love for the donkey:
“Ever since I adopted Simon, a rosy glow had surrounded my notions of animals. Rebirth and resurrection are powerful ideas, and I think animals make it possible to experience both time after time. And, of course, I was a hero. Everywhere I went, people thanked me for saving Simon, for taking him in, for giving the story of his rescue such a happy ending. And among animal people, happy endings are precious….
“But one thing more powerful than our love of animals is our love of self….”
He recognizes that Simon’s actions were completely predictable and understandable, and yet neither predicted nor understood. He swallowed his anger and apologized to the donkey: “How quickly my own convictions about mercy and compassion had collapsed in a fury because Simon had behaved like a donkey instead of a human being, instead of me.”
The other animals who benefit from Bedlam Farms also arrive with their own particular baggage. But Simon is the leader, both physically and psychically, at the farm. It is from him that the author ultimately defines compassion, and admits to and takes ownership of his own heavy burdens.

Friday, October 10, 2014


My father, Irving Townsend, wrote in the essay “A Continuity of Collies,” (Separate Lifetimes):
“Shakespeare divided a man’s life into seven parts, perhaps because he never owned a dog. My life, measured by the lives of collies, is better divided by five…. Two months ago the fourth part of my life came to an end with the loss of my thirteen-year-old companion…. I found a new collie to accompany me through the fifth part of my life, and although so far it is an uneven match, we will adjust, he and I.”
I suspect my father would have loved A Dog’s Purpose, and The Art of Racing in the Rain, although he may not have accepted the belief that a dog’s reason for being is to benefit humans. It’s hard to argue against such a concept, however, when I look into those muddy pools of trust, adoration, and expectancy in my dogs’ eyes. They do seem to believe that I am the center of their universe. Well, usually. A squirrel, treat, or the UPS truck will often trump that position.
In A Dog’s Purpose, Toby, a puppy in a family of feral dogs, tries to determine his place in the puzzling world around him. His mother chooses to remain wild, but he finds some possibility of comfort, of love even, with the rescuers who take him and his siblings in. But, comfort and love are not in the cards for Toby. It is in his next incarnation that both become central through his boy, Ethan. And caring for Ethan—protecting him, comforting him, loving him—is his purpose.
Or is it?
And that’s the question he continues to worry like a chew toy as he goes from old age to puppyhood again and again.
Aside from the appealing philosophy of the book, the storytelling is pure pleasure. W. Bruce Cameron knows how to keep the pace and rhythm of the story at a fine doggy trot, making this a hard book to put down. And it is a completely ageless tale, easily picked up by youngsters, who will glean their own understanding of the dog universe from it, and adults who have—like my father had—gone through several lifetimes of dogs, and long to believe each sad ending leads to a happy beginning.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Learning to Live: review of THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

“Gestures are all I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature.” Having too large a tongue to speak as a human, and lacking thumbs, Enzo feels the unique pain of being aware of his shortcomings, as well as his potential.
Because, of course, Enzo is a dog, but he is a dog on his last round of life as a canine, and believes—or rather, knows for a fact—that his next life will be as a human. His observance of life around him, therefore, is particularly intense. He wants badly to understand human nature. As he studies the broad spectrum of interactions, he is in the position of an overseer: He recognizes evil, or at least, inequity, before his person, Denny, does. He smells the disease and the doom coming, and he does his best, through gestures, to warn or advise those he loves. When his gestures are misunderstood and misinterpreted, he suffers intense frustration, but continues to forge on.
It’s this premise of journeying from the animal world to the human that makes this novel so wonderful. As Enzo learns the intricacies of car racing from Denny, he longs to understand the art of living a good life, or being a good person. At times his animal nature intervenes, and he struggles to control it. What he doesn’t always recognize is that his nature is arguably more humane than human nature.
As he watches the mistreatment of his human family, he struggles to understand why people abuse one another. And he questions Denny’s reluctance to fight back. Enzo has no problem growling at the perpetrators of their troubles. Why won’t Denny growl as well? The reasons are complex, but he does gradually understand that perhaps people are not just good and bad, just as dogs are neither one nor the other. And that life is very much in our hands to screw up or enhance:
            In racing, they say that your car goes where your eyes go. The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.
            Your car goes where your eyes go. Simply another way of saying that which you manifest is before you.
            I know it’s true; racing doesn’t lie.
There’s no spoiler in saying that Enzo is nearing the end of his life; he speaks of it in the first chapter. His anticipation of this transition and his certainty of the next stage are contagious, giving his reader more hope than sorrow. I found this to be an incredibly optimistic book, while at the same time, a solid warning to all of us to beware of spinning out of control.