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People of Earth, Lion in the Living Room - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 3, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


People of Earth, Lion in the Living Room

Nobody owns your vote. If you do not vote for Trump, you aren't "voting for Hillary." Trump hasn't lost anything, because he didn't own your vote in the first place.

Ditto with a decision not to vote for Hillary. That's not a vote for Trump, because Hillary didn't own your vote.

Your vote belongs to you.

And it may be that the most important votes you cast will be farther down the ballot. Congress, state government -- these votes are really important, regardless of whom you vote for, if anyone, at the presidential level.

*

We've stopped watching Kevin Can Wait because, likeable as the actors are, the writing is rarely funny. Everyone's working very hard in a lost cause.

But there is one new comedy series that is really, really funny. The writing is leagues ahead of the writing on any other new comedy series we've seen. And even though it's on a subject that I ordinarily recoil from, I am completely hooked and intend to watch every episode. My wife likes it too -- which is a big deal, because most of my favorite comedies are my own guilty pleasures. I have to watch them alone.

We watched People of Earth together and laughed out loud many times. We even stopped and replayed some of the best gags, because we were in awe of the writing -- hilarious throwaway lines, extra reactions that carry a joke to a new level.

The premise of the show is that Ozzie Graham (Wyatt Cenac), a reporter for a big news organization, is assigned to do a story on an alien-abduction support group. The group meets in a Catholic church in the small town of Beacon, New York, which seems to be a hotbed of alien abductions.

At first Ozzie thinks they're crazy -- until he begins to realize that he himself has had some experiences that might be similar to those of the abductees. There's a remarkable consistency across the group, including the identification of three distinct alien species.

And the writers are determined to play fair with us. They aren't going to leave us guessing. They know that uncertainty is not suspense. So by the end of episode two, we have clear confirmation that yes, the aliens are already among us.

The cast members in the group are wonderful -- each of them is an interesting individual, the writers have given them cool stuff to say and do; and this extends to the aliens as well. They are really funny, especially the somewhat dumber but way nicer Don the White (as opposed to the Grey and the Reptilian species), played by Bjorn Gustafsson in full Lord-of-the-Rings elf makeup.

I was especially delighted with the performance of Michael Cassidy as Jonathan Walsh, the eccentric, hyper-enthusiastic CEO of the media company that Ozzie works for. When I compare Cassidy's performance as the hero of Night of the Living Deb with his performance in People of Earth, I have to marvel at his range.

This one is that rarest of creatures: A science fiction comedy. It's not likely to be quite as domesticated as 3rd Rock from the Sun, but that's still a valid point of comparison. I think People of Earth will join Third Rock as the entire list of classic sci-fi sitcoms.

*

Let me be clear: I like cats. When I was a kid, we weren't great pet people -- my sister had a parakeet, Fluffy, for several years (two birds for a while, but having pets means dealing with death).

And there was an array of dogs -- a wiry-haired mutt named Skeeter, who stayed behind with landed friends when we moved from California to Arizona; and later, two Australian shepherd mixes from the same litter, named Surf and Tec.

Tec ran off, leaving Surf to be the victim when some longterm houseguests decided to "train" our dogs; poor Surf was so broken by their mean-spirited system that, although he stayed with us for many more years, he had lost his boldness and joie-de-vivre. Shame on any "trainer" who teaches a brave dog to cower.

(And shame on us for letting "good manners" stop us from kicking out those guests rather than letting them hurt that good and trusting dog.)

Cats, though -- they just weren't for my family, as I recall. There may have been a cat or two, but the only impression I had of pet cats, as a kid, came from the pampered, neutered cat belonging to an aunt. This was what I call a "manhole cat" -- a cat so fat and lazy and furry that when it lies down and curls up to sleep, you could not prove it wasn't lying on a manhole cover.

It was my first exposure to the "he loves me" kind of cat owner, the ones who talk about -- and to -- their cat as if it were a particularly sweet-tempered, emotionally fragile, and deeply devoted child.

I knew even then that this kind of cat was not and never would be interesting to me. I didn't play with dolls, and treating a cat as a doll -- making up dialogue and storylines for it -- seemed to me a betrayal of the fundamental dignity of all cats of every size in every habitat.

If you faced a lion or tiger, would you start chatting about her seeming a bit out of sorts this morning? I think not. Face to face with a predator, running and screaming seem more appropriate, though of course they are valueless tactics; shooting or, depending on the setting, stepping back from the bars are much more appropriate and likely to lead to the happy outcome called "survival of the human."

Staying at a friend's house for a writing conclave involving a dozen or so professional writers, I found that the family's cats included one who regarded me, not so much as prey and definitely not as a source of food, but rather as a nice warm mattress on a cold winter night.

I loved waking up to that warm little body draped across me, and since it had kindly refrained from smothering me, I accepted my nomination as its bed.

Alas, that was also the first time that I realized that there might be a connection between the savage "cold" that immediately erupted and the fact that when I drove home one night to print out the story I had written on my then-new PC Junior, the symptoms vanished with a shower and a change of clothes.

Nowadays, I'm good for ten minutes in a cat-owner's house -- as long as no cat touches my skin. Skin-to-fur contact sends me out of the house instantly, and I race home to wash. (Cat dander is so pervasive that it would do no good to wash up in the cat-owner's house, because where would I dry my hands? Even the towels in the cupboards are permeated with dander.)

(Yes, even your house, O obsessive vacuumer, O cat owner who thinks the cat-allergic are just mean cat-hating fakers. I don't hate cats. I wish I could tolerate their close proximity.)

So keep in mind, as I review the book The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, by Abigail Tucker, that I like cats.

So does the writer, who actually owns a much-loved cat and tells stories about Cheetoh. Abigail Tucker grew up with cats -- her mother went about sometimes with a cat draped over her shoulders. (A living cat, it should go without saying.) In fact, cats very nearly prevented, and certainly postponed, her birth, since her parents determined not to have a child until they had proven ... something-or-other ... by taming their house cat at the time.

Since cats cannot be trained (no, not even big cats in circus shows; ask the widows and bereaved ex-partners of those who found this out the hard way), this might have resulted in Abigail Tucker's nonexistence, had her parents not decided to accept their cat's chasing of a cork -- a perfectly common behavior for untrained cats -- as proof of training.

Later, Tucker saw her two daughters respond to living in the same house as a cat. She reports that "'Cat' was the first word both of my girls ever said. They begged for cat-themed outfits, toys, books, birthday parties. To toddlers, these pedestrian little house pets were very nearly lion-sized.... 'I want to be like Lucy with Aslan,' one sighed, soon after a foray into Narnia" (p. 5).

It seems only natural that, in the midst of a career of science writing for prestigious magazines, Tucker would turn her skills to researching everything about these animals that were so important to generations of her family.

Humans evolved in the presence of other animals. Dogs soon found that if they wheedled their way into human company, they got better, more reliable access to food, and all they had to do was adopt humans as part of their pack, bark to give warning of danger, join them on the hunt, submit to training, occasionally die fighting off ravenous intruders, and never, never eat a human baby.

Because our ancestors had dogs, we could allow our sense of smell to atrophy; dogs did a better job of scent-detection, so we could use our brain-space for those most vital of activities: Seeing, talking, and listening to speech. (Dogs could hear the sounds of danger far better than we could.)

In exchange, dogs lost most of their pack-hunting skills, and since we had color vision (the better to spot ripe fruit in the trees) and they did not, and we could figure things out and make intellectual leaps that remained forever beyond the dog's brain, they basically turned matters of pure reason, advanced arithmetic, and spatial relationships up to us.

There was never a trade-off like that with cats. We definitely were aware of cats, of course -- lions, leopards, and cheetahs in Africa, jaguars and cougars in the Americas, tigers in Asia. Human evolution was not possible on the savannahs of Africa until we knew how to kill big cats before they could snatch a toddler and carry it off. And if it wasn't the big cats, it was packs of hyenas.

Long vulnerability and an utter lack of any useful skills make human babies a definite liability when you live in a grassy place and you compete with the big cats for prey, while trying not to become prey yourselves. Nobody thought cats were cuddlesome then.

And that's not even mentioning that human evolution took place mostly in an era that included sabertooth tigers, along with other fearsome predators and a few herbivores that could stomp you to death the way we swat flies.

House cats didn't spread out from their original range in Asia Minor until after the big cats were mostly gone even from the fringes of human settlement, and they didn't wander alone -- we carried them. (As witness a house cat burial on Cyprus, an island, nearly ten thousand years ago).

There were lion hunts in Egypt and Mesopotamia until it became too hard to find any lions. As the Sahara grasslands became deserts, climate change drove away the prey animals and therefore sent the cats away as well.

But the memory of cats remained in the form of lion-headed gods -- or gods that were simply lions, worshipped for their beauty and power. In early Egypt, cats were worshipped -- but not house cats. Not yet.

Cats seem to have made only one major evolutionary leap to accommodate humans: They lost their fear of us. We didn't hunt them (not worth killing for food). They didn't eat the same food as us, so we didn't have to eliminate them as competitors. If they hung around and killed tiny prey animals that lived off the largesse and waste products of human civilization, humans generally didn't mind.

I had always thought that our ancestors welcomed cats because they killed mice and other grain-eating rodents. Mice are significant competitors, and a settlement that finds its stored winter grain eaten or befouled by mice -- or, worse yet, its seed corn -- is doomed. So mouse-killing would seem to make cats prime candidates for domestication.

But the fact is, house cats hunt whatever they feel like hunting. Many cats work out a modus vivendi with the local rodents, sleeping right alongside rats and mice at times. It's much more fun to hunt, while catching rodents is generally as sporting as shooting fish in a barrel.

Because here are some inescapable facts about cats:

1. They are not, never have been, and seem unlikely to ever become domesticated. There are tell-tale signs of domestication in the body forms of animals -- floppy ears and brindling, for instance -- and animals we domesticate are bred in ways that maximize their usefulness to us.

Cats show no such signs, for the obvious reason that with rare and very recent exceptions, humans have never had any control of cat breeding. Neutering prevents (further) reproduction for that particular cat; nothing stops rabbit-like breeding patterns for house cats at large.

2. House cats are hyper-carnivores. Not omnivores, like humans, able to go back and forth between meat and vegetable matter in our diet. Cats like to eat things that they killed themselves, so they know the meat is fresh. They'll accept canned fish and other cat foods, and I've seen the soon-to-be-driven-off-with-high-powered-squirt-guns cats who stalk birds around our bird feeders pause and scoop up some of the sunflower seeds chips that untidy grain-eating birds spill from the feeders. So it's not that they absolutely shun non-meat foods. But their digestive systems are designed for meat, the fresher and bloodier the better.

3. House cats are hyper-predators. They live for the chase. All their play is about chasing or killing. As soon as they get outside, even the most simperingly beloved house cats kill and kill and kill. Don't imagine that the trophies they bring to your door are even a significant percentage of their killing.

4. The complete difference between house cats and feral cats is that any cat in a house is a house cat, and any house cat outside the house is feral until it goes back home. Neutered cats, like old men with low testosterone, lose some but by no means all of their aggressiveness. Toms stop fighting other toms as much after they lose their generative equipment, but when it comes to killing prey, it never stops.

5. Few cats are good, reliable mousers. Here's a demonstration of the fact: There was hardly a ship in the British Navy, back in the days of sail, that did not have at least one ship's cat. There were also no ships that had no rats.

If the cats had wanted to get rid of the rats, the ships would have been rat-free. Cats are relentless and effective hunters. But perhaps, in their tiny cat brains (and this is my speculation, not the author's), they figured out that if they killed all the rats, there'd be no more rats to hunt. Maybe they have an instinct for not wiping themselves out by wiping out their prey.

But maybe not. Because in ecosystems that never had cats, the introduction of the common house cat can be devastating. Nowhere has this been more clearly demonstrated than in Australia, where cats outnumber humans by the millions. Most of the cats are feral, and they are wiping out fragile species of small animals that had no reason to evolve a fear of cats.

The government officials charged with protecting Australia's unique ecosystem are at wit's end, because the complete eradication of cats from the continent is pretty much the only workable solution to the problem -- and cat-lovers are outraged at the suggestion.

There are isolated islands that have eradicated cats and don't allow their importation -- but they tend to be small. And it's not just islands that suffer: House cats are devastating the population of the wood rats of Key Largo. These rats build extravagant nests -- or did, until house cats began to wipe them out.

There are Caribbean islands that have succeeded in eradicating cats, and many locales have tried poisoning, germ warfare, trapping, bounty-hunting -- but cats simply reproduce too fast.

Those who sentimentalize these stone-cold killers are, of course, striving to undo any effort at cat eradication. Many are trying to stop cat slaughter, both slaughter by cats and slaughter of cats, by a program of TNR: Trap, Neuter, Release.

It sounds good, doesn't it? Spend a little money removing those overactive gonads and you cut the cat population down to size!

Nope. It is impossible to TNR the world of feral cats fast enough to keep up with the reproduction of the cats who have not yet been trapped and neutered.

Cats are the most successful of our companion animals precisely because they are hyper-carnivores, hyper-predators, and hyper-reproducers. Everywhere that humans go, cats soon follow, and because they are not tame, and can survive quite nicely without the subsidies they get from cat-lovers who can't resist the cat entwining their legs and making purr-and-whimper sounds, they survive in numbers far beyond the numbers of cats that live in people's houses.

That stupid cat in the movie Alien is a very bad sign. If we take cats along on any voyage to colonize a suitable planet in another star system, chances are that any ecological damage we do will pale in comparison to the destruction cats would wreak. Please: No cats in space.

Here's another thing: Cats have now overtaken and surpassed dogs -- by a lot -- as pets that people keep. Two generations ago, as Tucker documents, if somebody wanted a cat they would go get one of the most recent litter from the neighbor's barn. But now, cats have become the pet of choice for apartment dwellers.

Why? Because cats are usually quite willing to pee and poo in a contained space -- the litter box. They've got us trained to empty these chamber pots at regular intervals. Meanwhile, nobody has to leash up the cat (ha ha) and take it all the way down fourteen floors in the elevator, in order to do its business on the street, to be scooped up and disposed of by the owner.

The problem is that cats are not happy contained in apartments. Most apartments are far too small to be a good environment for this species of hunters. They tolerate confinement only if you abide by their rules. And that means: Keep a schedule.

Cats don't want an "evening" feeding, depending on how many errands you have on the way home. They want that food at the exact same time every day. If you miss their feeding time, expect to be punished. Because cats do understand training: They are training you.

Why do we value them? They really don't value us -- for them, it's all about the food and, a distant second, the poo removal. A few cats tolerate your snatch-and-hug behavior, but really, how many of them are not trying to get away within moments?

Scientists speculate that part of the reason we love cats is that they have faces. They hunt by sight (and a bit by hearing), not smell, and they must be able to pounce accurately. So they have front-facing eyes, like ours, to create binocular vision. Dogs don't.

Yet, oddly enough, dogs do have facial expressions that humans can learn to read and respond to. They've had tens of thousands of years to develop them, and the most expressive dog faces are the ones most likely to find a happy home and have many chances to breed.

But cats don't depend on us to breed them. And their faces are completely devoid of expressions, unless you count yawning and lip-licking.

Tucker reports that they have done tests in which cat-owners are shown footage of cats doing nothing in particular, and then are asked to report, based on facial expressions, what the cat is thinking, feeling, intending, reacting to.

None of these cat-lovers agrees with the others to any significant degree. There is no cat body language or facial expression that conveys any consistent meaning. There is no facial expression at all.

Yeah, I know, this is where the hate mail begins. And I can understand it. How many years did we hear ignorant doctors tell us that the smiles of infant humans were not real. "Just gas," we were told. Until finally some anthropologists figured out that babies with early smiling skills get more attention from adults -- including more food, more protection, etc. In other words, early smiling has survival value.

But why would cats need to develop any such thing? They already have a tool that works perfectly: purring. "You have pleased me," that purr seems to say, and pleasing the house cat is surely the highest goal that humans can aspire to. Why in the world would the house cat want to do something with its face, just to please its servants?

That humanlike face allows us to read into it any feeling or intention that we need to believe the cat might have. "Are we ready for our dinner, Bootsie?"

Yes. Always. Why do you bother to ask?

"Did Bootsie miss Mommy while she was off working for the mean bosses?"

My face is toward you so you think I'm listening, but I'm just looking for the can to hit the can opener and release my dinner.

"Does Bootsie want a nice evening of television? Netflix and chill?"

Don't bother me when I'm eating. Here, look at my anus -- I've raised my tail to make it easier.

Am I saying cat-owners are crazy? Not at all. It is one of the most important features of the human mind that we read causality and intention into everything. We also project our own desires onto everything. "Here, little housefly, you felt suicidal so you came into our house and landed on our food and the baby's drooly face, so that we would squish you. Now be a good housefly and hold still so I can."

We talk to our babies exactly the same way -- with the key difference that babies, unlike house cats, generally grow up to have language, which they can use to correct our false assumptions about their motives.

When our firstborn was a toddler, he broke our hearts by saying something that sounded like "I feel abandoned." Now, we're rational humans, and we knew that an abstract word like "abandoned" was far beyond his reach at the time. Yet it was also exactly the kind of word that stirs up all the latent guilt in the parental heart.

Hugging him, though, did no good. Nor did offering to play with him. He was disconsolate. Until finally my wife noticed that he was holding out a finger with a teeny tiny red spot on it, and what he was saying was, "I need a Band-Aid."

(Actually, he really said, "I need a band-aid" -- no capital letters. And he most certainly did not say, "I need a Band-Aid brand self-sticking bandage," because he was way too young to care about trademark protection.)

We leap to conclusions about the needs and motives of others. You hear people talk about their evil bosses or horrible co-workers, telling stories that depend entirely on groundless assumptions about the motives of the people they've decided to resent.

When we decide to love cats, even bad cats, we might even recognize that their motives are not as kindly as we might prefer to fantasize. "Wimsy doesn't like people very much, including me, in case you've wondered about my scabs. I don't shave my face, I just occasionally try to bathe Wimsy, and his protests are not non-violent. I'm so glad I didn't name him Gandhi."

Wait a minute. What about those expressive cats on the Internet? What about Grumpy Cat?

Most of the famous Internet cats are permanently or temporarily deformed. Lil Bub has a crippled jaw, which "gives her a constant, quizzical smile; her rival, fellow feline dwarf Grumpy Cat, has a frown so deep that it was initially thought to be photoshopped."

There are unusual body or color configurations behind the look of Colonel Meow, Sir Stuffington, Hamilton the Hipster Cat, while "Princess Monster Truck's hideous underbite" is a "classic Persian deformity" that gives her a "crooked grin." Cats with cleft palates look expressive of ... well, something.

"These 'expressions,' of course, have nothing to do with the animals' interior states -- Grumpy Cat is apparently an affable creature, and smiling Lil Bub is often in pain due to her health problems. But online all that matters is whether we want to look" (p. 179).

The biggest problem with cats is not anything they do or anything we do to or with them. It's a parasitic disease of which they are the prime vector: Toxoplasmosis. Related to the malaria parasite, Toxoplasma doesn't just focus on one kind of human body cell: it even takes over immune cells and rides them into our brains ... where it can make us crazy.

What kind of crazy? It suppresses fear, for one thing. For instance, if rodents get infected, they lose their instinctive aversion to the smell of cat urine. You can see how this might make hunting them way easier for cats. So Toxoplasma may be helpful to house cats.

And no matter what else Toxoplasma may do to humans in the crazy department, it may also attract us to cats. "With morbid fascination, I read a study of our closest primate relatives," says Tucker, "which found that toxo-infected chimpanzees are drawn to the urine of their major predator, leopards" (p. 113).

Hmmm. Toxoplasma makes primates love cats.

Now, you don't have to live with a cat to be vulnerable to Toxoplasma. Yes, it can spread by eating infected meat, but mostly it spreads from the poo of infected cats, which cover the ground with oocytes, which can be tracked around by feet, blown by breezes when the poo breaks down into dust, and then ingested on anything that grows in the soil. Like organic carrots.

Toxoplasma needs cats in order to reproduce, but it spreads cat-to-cat through the intermediary of its poo infecting other animals that cats eat. And if toxoplasmosis also causes big people with can openers to proffer open cans of cat food, so much the better.

Since toxoplasmosis is not yet a well-defined disease, there is all kinds of speculation -- and data -- suggesting dire possibilities. Toxoplasmosis seems to encourage reckless, life-threatening behavior, and not just in teenagers where such acts are expected.

For some people, toxoplasmosis leaves them physically weaker over a long period of time; it may slow reaction time, so that people who are driving recklessly (because of toxoplasmosis) may not be able to steer or brake in time to save them from an accident.

AIDS made many of its victims far more susceptible to the brain lesions that toxoplasmosis can cause, so the fact that toxoplasmosis is already widespread in the population makes it so HIV reaped an even deadlier harvest.

One researcher thinks that toxo-infected people are more guilt-prone than others; toxo-infected men tend to be suspicious and dogmatic, while toxo-infected women are more social and snazzier dressers.

Anything that smells like cat urine is weirdly attractive to infected men, and some kinds of wine may be popular because their odor resembles cat urine. "New Zealand specializes in this style of wine, and New Zealand just happens to have the highest levels of cat ownership in the world -- and national toxoplasmosis rates hovering around 40 percent" (p. 115).

Another researcher suspects toxoplasmosis as, not the cause, but a common trigger for the development of full-blown schizophrenia. No one knows why there's a correlation, but toxo-infected people are three times more likely than uninfected people to receive a schizophrenia diagnosis (p. 118).

Of course, toxoplasmosis affects a third of the global population, while schizophrenia is down around one percent -- and has long been known to have a hereditary aspect. So if your family has a history of schizophrenia, perhaps you should keep them away from cats.

At the same time, "countries with sky-high toxoplasmosis rates, like Ethiopia, France, and Brazil, don't have elevated schizophrenia rates" (p. 119). So the correlation is still very much in question.

What if you're already infected?

Well, first off all, keep in mind that along with the toxo-related health risk, pet owners and those who work with animals get distinct health-and-happiness benefits. It may balance out. For instance, Tucker cites a study that finds that 94 percent of heart attack victims who own pets survived the following year, while only 72 percent of non-pet owners lived.

But that's pretty non-specific. Another study shows that cats are not so beneficial. "Compared to dog ownership, or even having no pets at all, cat ownership was 'significantly associated with increased risk of death or readmission'" to the hospital after a cardiac event.

Cat owners are more likely to seek out mental health treatment. And cat owners seem to have, on average, higher blood pressure, a risk factor for ... well, almost everything. However, part of that may be that cat owners are less likely to exercise, because tending to an indoor cat (or, if you're a cynic, being fulltime jailer and butler to a cat imprisoned in a house or apartment) makes it harder to get out and exercise.

Maybe people who don't want to get outdoors to exercise are drawn to cat ownership; who can drawn the cause-and-effect line with any certainty? (p. 129).

Those are statistics, odds, chances. Most toxo-infected people show no ill effects -- or are so used to the ill effects that they believe them to be part of their personality.

A third of the world has toxoplasmosis -- this is already a radical epidemic that happened long before anybody recognized that it was happening. U.S. infection rates are lower than most of the world, but they're still high.

Meanwhile, with all the risk of disease transmission, with the possibility that our attraction to cats is partly (at least) the product of toxo-poisoning, why do we keep cats?

Cats have been proven to recognize their owner's voice, but they still don't come when called unless they feel like it. Tests show that cats feel zero attachment to their owners, especially compared with test results between owners and dogs and between parents and children.

And cats are not particularly attached to each other -- even other cats living in the same house. They don't have any herd or pack instincts; they don't fall in line under the leadership of an alpha. Even lions, who live in groups, don't hunt together.

So, let's see. We spread cats everywhere in the world, and then can't control their population as they destroy other species and ecosystems. Cats carry a disease which can make us a little crazy -- or a lot -- and a third of the world has already caught it. Cat's don't really like us or care about us. They're fairly ineffective at their ostensible job, rodent control (rat terriers, by contrast, are relentlessly effective, because dogs know how to follow through on a job). Anybody who detects facial expressions in cats is pretty much delusional.

Yet nothing said here is going to change the great affection and admiration that millions of people (including me) have for cats. There are those who respond to this information with outright furious denial -- insane hate mail is not uncommon, though it rather tends to confirm a diagnosis of toxoplasmosis.

Most cat-lovers, though, will read the book (or this long review) and think, Yep, that pretty much describes cats, all right. Then they'll get up and open a can of cat food and annoy their cat or cats by petting and hugging and saying, "You really don't like this, do you? You don't feel any attachment to me, and you're probably making me sick and turning me into a loon, but I'm attached to you, and I have the can opener, so live with it, kid."

A macabre thought experiment: Imagine the death of a person who shares his house with dogs and cats -- and no humans. Let's say, as sometimes happens, the body is not discovered for a week. Meanwhile, the animals are stuck inside the house. Which pets start to eat the owner's body first -- the dogs or the cats?

The dogs, of course. They hold off as long as they can because of their loyalty, but they're starving, and there's meat there.

The cats never eat the owner's body at all, because they already know all the ways to sneak out of the house, and when the cans stop opening, the cats are gone.

*

Even though I've seen several movies and many television shows since I saw The Accountant, it still is dwelling with me -- or at least, that gun-to-the-head moment when J.K. Simmons's character has to judge himself. Your kids are grown; were you a good father?

After my review of The Accountant, a good friend in a faraway place wrote to me about his own father, and about his own child-rearing.

My father was not pleasant to me (nor my brother, who had it worse), growing up. I was very angry about it as a boy.

He was tough, and I was not. He was gruff, and I was emotional. He shouted and ordered. I was more passive.

My brother lacked even my thin veneer of normalcy, and my father was pretty awful with him.

When I was in college, we had it out, and things went better after that. I came to respect my parents better as a grown man than I ever did as a child. And I started to see something important.

My father taught me one thing above all: to have honor. Different people define honor, well, differently. But my father told me that the measure of a man was not how he treated people he liked or were kind to him; that was easy.

No, the measure of a man was how he treated people he disliked, or who had been unkind to him.

Now, I was a weird kid. My brother pushed particular books on me when I was way too young. So I read "Nineteen Eighty Four," "Brave New World," "Animal Farm," and "The Grapes of Wrath" before I was ten years old. Plus too much H.P. Lovecraft. Fortunately, I also read "The Count of Monte Cristo." And the juvenile novels of Robert Heinlein saved me, I think.

My poor mother didn't know what to do with these bookish kids of hers. Except remind us to never ever brag about anything, ever. Psychologically Amish, I guess. She also insisted we read, and educate ourselves.

But I remember two vignettes with my father that are always with me.

When my first son was born (and I was an older first time father---42), my father said, "Kid, now you have the tough job. You have to be his father, not his friend."

It took me some time to realize that he wasn't talking about my firstborn at all, but his own losses and fears.

The other took place while I was still single. My father was watching a guy down the street playing with his kids in a little park.

Pointing his cigarette down the street, he said "Look at that guy. He lost his job six months ago, and his wife went back to work. He just plays with those kids every day." He paused. "What must they think of him?"

Without thinking, I responded "That their father is at home, and plays with them."

And it took me a while to realize I wasn't talking about that scene down the street, either.

Now, my mother and father were Depression era babies. They carried their own psychological Samsonite everywhere. We all do, I know, but given their upbringing, theirs weighed so much more than mine.

When I was a grown man, I finally understood that they really were trying their best. And I could honor them for that. I had the opportunity to tell both of them that, before they passed away.

I think that my father's lesson came through in a harsh way. I do not believe he liked his sons. He loved them despite what he thought of as being normal. He did his best for these kids who were weird mysteries to him. Especially when it would have been easier to just shrug his shoulders and move on.

Honor.

So all I can do as a father is provide the kind of environment I wanted...for my kids. It won't be perfect. But I am trying. That's all there is, really.

I hug them every day, and tell them that I love them (my father didn't tell me that until my late 20s). I listen to their problems, especially when they seem minor to me. I let them know I have their backs, no matter what. Particularly when we disagree.

Sorry for the speech, but this has been much on my mind.

That's the end of my friend's letter. But I do see something more than I could ever see looking just at my own life. My friend's father might seem to have failed, or partly failed. But I know what kind of father my friend is, and so even though I never met his dad, I know one measure of a man that his father passed: What kind of father is his son?

By that measure, his dad did just fine. He did not fail. Yes, much of what my friend does right is by contrast with his father -- he's trying to learn from his dad's mistakes. But that's not failure.

Failure would be if his children refused to have children of their own. Or if his children repeated all his mistakes, as children of abusers often grow up to abuse their own children (or other people's). Unpleasant as some times in their childhood might have been, this man's children grew up with the strength of character to decide for themselves who they would be.

So I looked again at my own children. The two oldest have grown up and have children of their own. They married wisely, as I did, so they have good partners in child-rearing -- and in everything else. I watch them being more patient with their children than I was; I watch them speak to their children openly and candidly; I see that they are creating happy homes, full of love and joy, learning and encouragement.

(We had a home like that, too -- but my contribution was to choose a calm, reasonable, kind, and encouraging mother for my kids.)

So even though I have no illusion that I did everything "right," it can't have been too awful.

Gun to my head, I'm going to give myself a passing grade. It can't match J.K. Simmons's line: "I got that right." My own self-judgment is, "I didn't suck." But hey, maybe that's enough. I don't know if not-sucking gets you into heaven, but I sure don't think it sends you straight to hell.

Thanks to my friend for letting me share with you a letter he wrote only for me.

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