Archive for February, 2024

Animal Geniuses

Recently for the kid’s magazine I was asked to write an article on the world’s smartest species of animal. (Species, so not specific animals, so the chicken who could do math in that Liam Neeson film was out). Of course, I found that our animal friends are quite intelligent and talented. What started as surprise led to admiration and then, as usual, terror.   

How smart? Look. Whenever someone makes an observation, there are morons on the internet to point out the limits of the statement. These limits had already been assumed by most people who possess a brain, and so let’s just say that, no, most animals could not draw us a map to Munich and most animals wouldn’t be able to get us back from Jupiter after space travel gone wrong or start cooking a pot roast before in the slow cooker should we be running late home. Many animals are, however, more intelligent than those who force us to point out these things. Those people are also responsible for warning labels telling us not to clean your eyeballs with Windex or to eat chemical laundry pods to fight respiratory disease. But here we are.

Nevertheless, there are some smart animals. Should you be the type of person to mess with animals, you might want to lay off your local populations of octopus or crows. Both can recognize specific people and gain revenge on those who wrong them. Octopus have the added benefit of owning eight arms and being able to open containers. Crows understand physics. You wouldn’t piss of Neil deGrasse Tyson, so why would you piss off his spirit bird?

Raccoons can break into homes and play chess. As for which is more terrifying to me, it’s a tossup. I don’t want a racoon to break into my house, but I really don’t want to lose to one in chess. And the thought of one who can break into my house and then beat me in chess is an existential threat nobody ran by me when they were registering me for a trip on Planet X. The African Grey up the road from you is as smart as the three-year-old human child next door. I mean, virtually everything is. But still. Spooky.

Not just that, but many animals seem to be learning. A shark just carried a turtle with a plastic bag around its neck to a chip of people. How? Is Earth so endemic with people making ‘watch me save the animals’ videos that sharks have gotten wise to the practice. Also, are sharks and turtles now teaming up? I gotta be honest, I didn’t have sharks and turtles team up on my 21st century Bingo card. But then, neither did I have congressional republicans and Putin. So, there you go…

Animals are smart. Sure, we have opposable thumbs and airplanes and aircraft carriers, but you’re not ready 100% of the time, are you? No, one minute you’re just some guy bringing home his groceries and the next minute you’re being tricked into the Rook-King switch by some local racoon who broke into your house. My dog and cat are geniuses in their own way. My cat’s genius fully centers on her ability to drive a 49-year-old man clinically insane. My dog’s genius is all related to getting food or getting carried.    

Spooky.

Perhaps a good rule of thumb is to just be nice to animals. They may, after all, be in charge one day. Not of us, for we will thankfully be dead long before they hit their Stone Age. But for our kids’ kids’ kids’ kids, who may one day be working in the court of a local crow and his octopus friends, just be nice.

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Entertainment in the Eternal City

We recently took a weekend trip to Rome (I’m unpacking my bags now). If anyone doesn’t know why Rome is called the Eternal City they should walk through a neighborhood in the afternoon. On our hike from the Trastevere train station to our room around 3 pm, the sun shone red and gold on the buildings. It transformed gas stations and shabby apartment buildings into fortresses of time. Resting up against the Tiber’s left bank, the little section of Trastevere is warm and small and inviting. There are winding cobbled lanes I know I will get lost on and small shops selling gelato and pizza by the slice and cappuccino where I know I will lose a month’s pay. It’s no matter. You don’t come to Rome and not indulge.

We take in the sites. The imagination roils at what the Circus Maximus, Senate, and Palatine Hill looked like. Though my sophomore year Latin teacher would kill me if he knew I kept calling it Palpatine Hill. Each wander down an ancient lane blows your mind when considered that Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius’s sandals scuffed these cobbles. At night, we make reservations at a local trattoria and eat fish and pasta and bread and drink wine and eat more pasta. We are certain our doctors are suffering night sweats without knowing the root cause. Everything is homey. Everything is awesome.

Our neighborhood’s demographic is surely the young and hip. Fortunately, to rent a room there we were not forced to answer questions of pop culture or fashion, for we would have surely been cast across the river with the rest of the old folks. Our hotel is encircled by pubs and bars. Outside our window at night is the incessant, too-loud chatter of the tipsy traveller punctuated by the impossible screech of bottles being dumped into a dumpster or a recycling bin.

We don’t mind. We have a comfy bed and pizza can be carried home. Besides, after walking 20 miles on Friday and 8 miles on Saturday, a comfy bed and a TV is very welcome. It’s here that we find our happy place. It seems reasonable that while on a trip in Italy or to some other mecca of human civilization and cultivation a person should infuse themselves with culture 24 hours a day and immerse themselves in history and knowledge, the fact is, sometimes you just need bad TV. And Italy knows how to deliver bad TV.

A range of American TV and movies are represented on Italian TV. There are sci-fi shows (La Brea), the 1970s PI show The Rockford Files suggest that James Garner has a following among the inhabitants of the peninsula. But most of all, Italians seem to love the American western frontier. Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman and Dances with Wolves were on every night. But it was the wholesome adventures of the Ingalls family that really got them. Every day multiple episodes of Little House on the Prairie (i.e. L-Hop) were on Italian television.

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The Do

One of the great things about living in my little community is the tons of shops and services that are here to take care of the needs of families and people who have dogs or cats. We get our dog groomed at a little place up the road. We got our Christmas cookies from a kiosk in the square. Gift socks were obtained at a weird kiosk that pops up every Thursday like Brigadoon. Half of the pubs we visit are run by our neighbors. And then there’s my hair.  

Getting a haircut is pretty weird when you think about it. This forest on top of your head gets shaggy and starts growing down your back and so you arrange a time for a professional head gardener to trim it into submission while they talk to you about Ted Lasso.

For me, it’s a little weirder. It’s small talk in Czech with a woman circling me with clippers. In any event, my head forest had become overgrown and shaggy, and so I made an appointment and I crossed my fingers.

Marcelas are always spunky and so is the one who owns a barbershop a few doors down from me. There are four others, but as she was the only one to answer my message or pick up the phone when I initiated my head into the local haircut scene in December, I have thus devoted the next couple of decades of my hair maintenance to her.  

Marcela’s shop is small and cozy. It’s tucked into the side of the entrance to a building a few doors down. Once coming through the door you feel relaxed. There are a couple of curved seashell armchairs and one chair in front of a mirror so you can watch a closeup of your face getting worked on. Another chair sits up against a head-tub.

Marcela is smaller than me. She has very blue eyes and looks like she would have run a saloon in the Old West on her summer holidays. She speaks quickly and she is alert and focused. Her haircuts are a thing of obsessive beauty. When I come through the door she is spraying water onto a head cushion and wiping it clean. She looks up when I walk in.

“You have a helmet! I forgot! You should have come last month!”

Czech sometimes to me is like a hand grenade. Someone throws an explosive ball of language at me and a few seconds later I go: “Oh yeah…” I do exactly that now and offer apologies that I have waited two months as opposed to the verbally-agreed-upon one month. By the time I apologize, she has forgiven me and points me to the head tub.

“Want me to wash your hair?”

“Oh yes,” I say with a little too much eagerness. But the thing is, Marcela cuts hair the same way that I think I would. She has a small place and focuses on your head as if it’s the only thing in the world. I sit and she washes my head for what seems like 15 minutes. I am in heaven. She wakes me up and I float over to the seat. I sit. She goes to work. After a few explosive phrases and questions, I stumble through the directions and questions and then she buckles down.

My haircut takes about thirty minutes. Marcela takes her time and does it right. She’s obsessive and that’s right up my alley. We talk about height (we measure, I am taller). We talk about glasses (She needs ‘em, doesn’t want ‘em). We talk about an upcoming trip to Rome I’m taking. We talk about cooking and I think we parlay into chicken vs. turkey. Though it’s entirely possible that she’s asking if I went to the sock place over Christmas.

After my do has been done, she washes my hair again. My hair decorates her floor. I pay. We shake hands firmly. I promise that I will come back in one month rather than two. I suppose in my old age it’s nice to find a place nearby where the service is also worthwhile. Also, I get to field language grenades. On my way out, she calls a few things to me and I agree confusedly. It’s only on my way up the sidewalk that I realize she’s telling me about the sock place.    

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