Saturday, September 06, 2008
Life Sweet Life
In the midst of the electoral cacaphony, a small item in the Globe caught my attention the other morning. A local man was sentenced to 2 1/2 year in prison for stomping a cat to death and burning its corpse.
I put my toast down.
I felt fur swirling about at my ankle, one of our herd. I was too tired to look down. I had not slept well. The night before, DK had turned on the Republican Convention, and had refused to relinquish control of the remote. As Mitt Romney's face filled the screen, I cringed.
"Make it go away !" I cried. My eyes were burning.
"No !" he replied, high mindedly evoking our civic duty to be informed.
I stared glumly at the set. The Mitthead hair was as it always is: perfect. The Mitthead suit was, as it always is: expensive and empty. The Mitthead rhetoric was, as it always is: mean and mendacious. A loud, painful, competing tinnitus was blooming in both my ears. I smelled sulfur.
"The sun," he announced, "will from now on rise in the west !"
"Great," I thought, as the room began to spin. "The Republicans have learned how to control the cosmos."
"Money ! Cash ! Prosperity ! Ownership ! Entrepreneurs !" He snarled.
"USA ! USA !" screamed the crowd.
"Eastern liberal elites !" he snarked.
"Mooooooo!" replied the crowd.
I swooned. When I woke up, Rudy Giuliani, wearing a massive set of blinding, fluorescent dentures, was screaming and pummeling an invisible punching bag.
It only got worse. By bedtime, I was hallucinating. A thousand pairs of Governor Palin's byzantine eyeglasses were swarming around me like an outtake from Fantasia. I pulled the covers over my head, turned out the light and began to rant at DK.
"I swear," I hissed," that if McCain and Palin win I am going to shave my head. I'm going to make it my mission in life to do everything that's NOT within their definition of family values, those hot-button values they reduce to slogans and shamelessly, cynically exploit for electoral gain. From this moment on I will deny the cuteness of children ! I will wear drag ! I will espouse Marxism, Syndicalism, monasticism, anarchism, veganism, eremeticism, outsider art ! I will lust in my heart after women !"
"Mmmmph," muttered DK, "You already do all those things. Go to sleep."
I slept badly. I dreamed of restless crowds in large public spaces. I woke exhausted.
And now, here was something trying to ruin my experience of breakfast toast.
I stared out the back window. The neighbor's cat, an aggressive Tom named Jack, was staring back at me. Undoubtedly hoping our big, gentle, passive Manny might venture out for another session of bullying. I sighed.
Animal abuse is usually a sign of deep, psychological affliction. The article about the cat-stomper referenced "heroin addiction." Clearly the perp was an anguished, damaged soul. I wondered how imprisonment would help anything. What, in the eyes of the outraged people cited in the article, was the value of the trangressor's life ? I wondered how many of the people expressing so much smug and self-righteous satisfaction at the verdict would leave the courthouse for a lunch of tasty hamburgers.
"And why," I thought, "does this episode of animal abuse merit 2 1/2 years of prison, when the cruel, corporate murder of billions of other sentient beings -- cows, pigs, chickens, sheep -- goes unpunished, unquestioned even, and some of the very same people going shrill and vengeful about a dead kitten have no qualms about eating a grilled chicken breast or a lamb chop ?"
It was family values, again: Kitten, good. Lamb, source of tasy chop. Puppy, our fur-baby. Pig, a commodity destined for our BLTs and weiner buns. Heroin addict, worthless, unredeemable trash. Blastocyst, too sacred to be used for medical research. Insentient two-month embryo, valuable; sentient mother, no matter what, just a vessel.
What is a life ? I once asked DK whether he thought we would be our current selves -- our current, experiential "I's"-- if some proximate, runner-up spermatazoa had reached our mothers' various eggs instead of the two that did.
"Sure," he replied.
I was not so sure. I contemplate this moment of absolute, cellular contingency and facticity and grow dizzy. This is the abyss below our feet, the abyss I have been trying to equate with God. I was nearing freefall in this matter, the Holy Trinity notwithstanding. I backed mentally away and picked up my toast. We are, from the very first moment of our existence, skating on thin ice over nothingness.
What is a life ? A popular, best-selling preacher and media darling recently interviewed Senators McCain and Obama. "When does life begin?" he asked them.
"At conception," replied McCain, with no hesitation.
Obama, alluding to the complexity of the question, said it was "above his pay grade."
Biologically, McCain is correct. My improbable, contingent life began when a single one of Dad's spermatozoa won the race and plunged into Mom's ovum. That's the easy answer. That's the answer, I reflected, that would prompt Governor Palin to regard me as a serial infanticide because of the IUDs I used for 25 years. That's the answer that refuses to allow condoms in lethal STD epidemics, and denies contraceptive information to adolescents, that would have every act of intercourse result in a child and would otherwise forbid and demonize erotic expressions of love, especially if between two people of the same sex.
I was in desperate need of a Almodovar film festival.
I wondered why people so anxious to protect a two month, insentient human embryo often have no qualms about killing, say, a moose -- a sentient creature with a life, emotions, social and family connections. With killing a moose just for the sport of it. Or doing painful medical experiments on higher primates -- and prisoners. Or exercising the death penalty or supporting a war. Or eating sentient beings tormented in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Or saying that the established life and emotional, medical, familial or social needs of any given woman must always be secondary to the potentiality of an embryo.
But the issue is not simply biological. It is religious, ethical, social, pragmatic, existential. It is a matter of choice and definition, doctrine and belief. If a religion says: no abortion ever under any circumstances, no contraception, no sex ed, no sex except to make babies, no fucking unless you're married, a man and a woman and intend to procreate -- fine. Admirable rigor. Go for it. I respect you for it. If that's the spiritual practice that grounds you in the Mystery of Being, great. But I'm not joining up. And, s'il vous plait, don't enshrine your denominational doctrine in the lawbooks of this thank-God-not-yet-a-Theocracy. Regulate abortion, sure -- anything not subject to regulation tends toward fantastic excess (cf. capitalism) -- and do all you can to eradicate its necessity, but don't make me abide by your doctrinaire catechisms.
I sighed. Humans are, understandably, anthropocentric. We make God in our image, and ride roughshod over Creation, despoiling it, citing the Bible as justification. Absolutism is so attractive. Relativism, take it from me, I know, is anxiety. But
Ordinary life fits the absolute
as a box and its lid.
(from The Sandokai)
and, to be honest, I am beginning to realize that I prefer the word "being" to "creature," and "dependent origination" to "Creation."
But, look. I am a vegan who buys meat for her omnivore family. I don't wear silk or eat honey, but I kill our kitchen moths and decline to legislate absolute protection for embryos. Just as, I suppose, people who will not kill an embryo agree with capital punishment and war. One woman's relativism is another woman's -- different relativism ?
I finished my toast, by now cold, and reached down to pat the kitty.
Something was happening that I did not like. Not one little bit.
And I was not thinking, in that moment, of politics.