Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rats: the reality

Gambian giant pouch rat with trainer
(photo credit: www.animalplanet.com)

Before you start shrieking and running from the computer, say hello to the bravest rat you'll ever meet: the Gambian giant pouch rat, also called African giant pouch rat. This fellow has been trained to detect landmines—40 million of them in Africa—and has the ability to rat out TB virus in humans, through its acute sense of smell. These pouch rats are not only hard workers, but are on first name basis with Jane Goodall, who's teamed with APOPO, a humanitarian group that "researches, develops and deploys detection rat technology." The rats save lives all for a liter of bananas! Nicholas Kristof was so impressed he wrote about their work in an article about Father's Day, called "Dad will really like this" (thanks to Lu for pointing out). 

Talking about dads, my father hated rats. Once when I visited my parents' home in Florida, I was hit by the most putrid stench as soon as I walked through the door. "What's that smell?" I asked. "What smell," my father said, eyeing me suspiciously. Me: "That death smell." Him: "I don't smell anything." He left it and turned back to whatever he was doing, while I turned to tearing the house apart to find out what had died. The next day, while doing laundry, I saw two long, stiff tails sticking out from a hole behind the dryer. The dryer vent had been circulating that rankness in every corner of the house, to which my parents were oblivious because they'd lost all sense of smell. My mother remembered putting out poison, but hadn't thought about it since. "Oh, so that's what happened to them," she said, amused.

Why do people hate rats so? The answer to that question can be found in Joseph Mitchell's Up In the Old Hotel in the chilling "The Rats on the Waterfront" (written in 1944 about NYC rats, although things haven't changed that much according to recent reports).

 Joseph Mitchell
(photo credit: www.nytimes.com)

Mitchell, the great New Yorker writer, interviewed exterminators, ship's captains and fish mongers to get the real story of rats in the city. Even I, a rat lover, could barely sit still reading about the rat that climbed up a mop pole and bit off a ship boy's thumb nail. "A trap means nothing to them," said a NYC exterminator, "no matter how skillfully set. They just kick it around until it snaps; then they eat the bait. And they can detect poisoned bait a yard off. I believe some of them can read." 

To that point, I'd agree. Rats are extremely intelligent; but domesticated rats are as different in temperament from street rats as domesticated dogs are from wolves. From my experience, their intelligence and sweet disposition ranks right up there with the pouch rat (also their love for bananas!). APOPO trainers say they take clues from their rats as to where the landmines have been buried, but the thing of it is, each rat communicates differently, i.e., each has a distinct personality with a distinct way to point out where there's trouble. I'd say for a liter of bananas, Malka, our pet brown Dumbo, would do the same.

Malka, just another crazy, banana lovin' rat.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

She rides the lion—at least it's not a car

As I was trudging up the hill to my house today, I had the illogical expectation that someone would pass by and give me a ride, the same expectation I used to have as a kid of five, hoping someone in a big limousine would drive by and adopt me. It's similar to the childlike and illogical expectation I have now hoping that someone—Obama? Tony what's his name? Steven Chu?— will make the oil spill go away and the environment, the sea turtles, the birds, the marshes, be okay again.

Meanwhile, I still keep driving. But today, I walked. I headed down to Highland Park—the northeast community below Mt. Washington—because my husband's going out of town for a week with the camera and I needed to load up on pictures. I hadn't expected to walk so far—my goal was the art gallery down by the railroad tracks.

But after I got there I kept on walking and ran into a guy at the burger stand on Figueroa. His name was David, the same as my brother.

 David from the San Fernando Valley in Highland Park, looking for trouble?

David my brother in India, looking for Nirvana?
 (photo credit: unknown)

This David, from the Valley, was on a job; when I told him I'd put his picture on my blog, he asked, "What's that?"  He'd never heard of "blogs" or done email, and didn't know how to get around a computer. When I told him he could get a Pell grant to study computers, like at the school where I teach for instance, he scoffed; he'd learn the computer on his own, little by little, he said. It dawned on me that Highland Park, although only a few blocks from home, is another hood altogether—one where I'd be prudent to keep my illogical expectations to myself.

By the time I'd finished walking I was almost two miles out—the way back, mostly up hill. Now where's that ride? 

Some shots of Highland Park, day and night:

Ruby at Society of the Spectacle on York Ave.

The Shop at Ave. 50th and Fig

Hand display at Time Nails

Torres Barber Shop

El Takitaco parked near Food-4-Less on Fig.

(More photos are on my fb page under "Highland Park" Album)


Lately, I've been admiring those stalwart National Geographic Society photographers; you know the ones, the men and women who sit in wait for hours, days, weeks, for certain animals to show up. That's how it's been in our back yard for the past week, waiting for the baby coyotes to appear. I was beginning to think I'd hallucinated seeing two of them, and then I saw one crossing below our house at sunset: he hurried along the path, and then out of nowhere, another baby coyote came to greet him, just like that! They leapt at each other with their over-sized baby mitten paws and quickly disappeared together under the brush. Needless to say, I didn't get a picture.

Soon after, I heard a rustling in the bushes from the same direction where the first coyote had emerged...

A big fat skunk came waddling by, right under my nose, timing its sojourn just right. Fatso was on its way to Thea's, my next door neighbor, to chow down on the cat food she leaves out for the neighborhood strays (which—is it just my imagination?—have been diminishing in number). I hope the baby coyotes don't get wind of that food. Like all wild things, they'll need to stay clear of humans if they're going to survive.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Shock and stupidity

On Sunday night, we went to Bottega Louie to celebrate our twenty-third wedding anniversary! (It was a shock really, since I still don't feel like a "wife"—can't someone come up with a better name?) I'd been wary of this restaurant's slick white marble floors, blank white walls and hip downtown crowd, but once inside, it was surprisingly warm. They have a young crowd because the food is so good and not too expensive; you can expect huge portions too, maybe too big, but that's how they do things at Bottega Louie. The only drawback is the noise—hundreds of excited voices bouncing off the glass and marble make it hard to hear. If you're like us, don't forget to bring your ear trumpets!

Ear trumpets come in handy at Bottega Louie

I've gotten my daily dose of shock lately—besides being married for so long— from just reading the newspapers, and I know I'm not alone. After the initial shock of the Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla, Michael Chabon wrote a piece in the NY Times formulating the idea that the "blockheadedness" of Israel was but a grim reminder that our illusions of Jewish intelligence are but a lie: "We construct the history of our wisdom only by burying our foolishness in the endnotes..." You can read the entire article here.

I never bought into the idea of Jewish intellectual superiority, although that idea was bred into me on a daily basis, much like Chabon. Why did I not believe? Because, for the most part, the Jews I grew up with were all hard- working, poor (at least at the beginning), first and second generation Jews who strove to do better than their out-of-touch immigrant parents and grandparents. Among them were smart kops and dumb clucks, but mostly, people like anyone else. In fact, I often felt the opposite: some exceptionally unenlightened people populated the Jewish community of Louisville.

illustration by Maurice Sendak, 
from "The First Shlemiel," by I.B. Singer

Within my own extended family, one could find enough stupidity to last a lifetime: there were crooks and gamblers, the mentally ill and the incurably angry, the ones who went to school and squandered their good education, and the many who never made it past high school; the beauties and the old maids, the businessmen and the door-to-door salesmen, the envious and the greedy, the well-off and the ones incapable of making a penny, who, when faced with their own miscalculations and failures, grew bitter. These were the shlemiels and shlimazels of my childhood, who still populate my head.

illustration by Maurice Sendak, 
from "The First Shlemiel," by I.B. Singer

When people talk about the exceptionalism of Jews, it's supposing Israel should have relied on its superior intelligence and not attacked the Gaza flotilla, but Israel is no more or no less wise than any other nation, its Jews no smarter than any other people, its military, no more enlightened than our own. As Chabon writes, he neither condemns nor condones, makes excuses for or forgives, but adds Israel to the long list of nations that have acted— and I might add, will continue to act—stupidly.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dog days of summer

I don't know why, but this morning I woke up feeling hopeful. Maybe it's a stupid move given the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but when I took off to the market this morning, everyone else seemed hopeful too: the men filling the potholes on San Rafael, the workers unloading furniture in Highland Park, the UPS man delivering packages on York. Even the chihuahuas in the neighborhood were busy being hopeful.

 a hopeful dog 
(photo credit: http://www.dogsindepth.com)

It was an all dog alert, with the little guys chasing delivery men, barking at small children only slightly larger than themselves and stopping cars with their antics on Ave. 50. It must be because it's June, I thought, the beginning of summer, a hopeful sign. Everything good happens in the summer (except jury duty): the kids are home, the neighbors are on vacation, the beach is within grasp. As the day progresses towards afternoon, though, I sense the feeling slipping away, but I want to remember it, not forget how good it felt... this feeling of hope.


Continuing with the subject of dogs, a few weeks ago I thought I saw two red foxes in the back forty behind my house, the hollow we call Red Hawk Canyon, an acre of steep hills with a gully running through it, overgrown with wild artichokes, black walnuts and dry grasses.

 Red Hawk Canyon

But foxes in L.A.? Impossible. A few days later Tom saw what I had spotted; two baby coyotes, not more than a foot high, with huge ears and tails that stood straight out, following their mother along the path, dipping into the wild underbrush as soon as they saw/heard him. 

I hadn't realized how much young coyotes look like foxes. My Peterson guide for mammals says that coyotes are larger than foxes but smaller than wolves (all under Carnivores: Dogs), and the illustrations vary only slightly in size, not shape.

 coyote and a swift fox

So, the other day I went looking for the baby coyotes, toddlers now, in the canyon. As I climbed around, slipping and sliding on the dry grasses, I came face to face with one of the babies crossing the path. I tried to take a picture, but slid backwards, ending up with this shot: a ghost? a fox? a young child with big ears?

Picture enhanced to see the image under the leaf: a ghost? a child with big ears?

Over the weekend, I went looking again, walking towards a particularly wild part of the canyon where I'd seen one of the youngsters disappearing. I hadn't been down there for more than five minutes when I stumbled upon one of the babies sleeping, just like a human baby, oblivious to the world. 

 Brilliant camouflage: a sleeping coyote toddler

He didn't wake when I walked within feet of him. When I made my next move, trying to get to another location, his ears began to twitch; he was so well camouflaged I could barely make out when he stood up, dazed, and then took off under the underbrush, moving noiselessly like a ghost. I went back yesterday but he had gone, a day older and wiser, probably forever avoiding this spot where he saw a human.


I'd like to end this post with a picture of another dazed baby, taken 22-years ago: my son with his pal Ernie, waking from a nap.