Monday, September 05, 2011

A Walt by any other name

"I think I could turn and live with animals," wrote Walt Whitman, offering a number of compelling reasons: "They do not sweat and whine about their condition, / They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins," nor are they "demented with the mania of owning things." If I were writing the poem today, I would add to Whitman's list:

Animals don't worry about plumbing. Wombats are utterly unconcerned about leaky pipes or black mold growing on the ceiling tiles, and they never leave a nest of power tools near gaping holes in the ceiling.  If they wake up in the morning and discover that there's no running water in the bathroom, they just shrug it off. To the wombat, bathrooms are irrelevant.

They don't keep pets. Elephants might mourn the loss of family members but you don't see them crying over the deaths of wildebeests or putting leashes on them to lead them around the neighborhood while carrying little baggies to pick up the wildebeest poop.

They get their exercise au naturel, so they have no need of gym bags or locker rooms, and if an alpaca happens to walk right into, say, the Women's Faculty Locker Room unaware that it is temporarily being used by a group of adolescent male soccer players, she (the alpaca) isn't suddenly so overwhelmed by vivid memories of locker-room trauma and humiliation that she has to flee the building.

They don't worry about keeping pests out of the house. You never see a hyena having hysterics just because a spider the size of Zimbabwe happens to come waltzing up the hall, even if he's barefoot. (The hyena, not the spider, although I suppose the spider could be barefoot as well. And there's another advantage: no tight shoes.) And if a barefoot hyena notices a gigantic spider waltzing (or even doing the Macarena) up the hall, the hyena just moseys on by rather than, say, grabbing the nearest bottle of spray-cleaner, spraying the spider mercilessly until it shrivels up and dies, and then slipping and falling on the slick floor and smashing some vital joints.

They don't have to deal with contractors. If, for instance, the front porch slab suddenly splits and crumbles away from a fox's den, he can just move out and find another den or, better yet, curl up on a bed of soft leaves in the woods. The fox doesn't even consider grabbing a flashlight and venturing into the crawl-space beneath the house to determine whether the damage extends to the foundation, and neither does it scour the yellow pages for a reputable contractor while trying to suppress memories of previous disastrous encounters with dishonest contractors.

Animals don't feel any need to process traumatic experiences by transforming them into blog posts or fiction or poetry. I think that's why Whitman ultimately decided against turning to live with animals: "Leaves of Grass" couldn't have been written by Walt Wombat or Walt Wildebeest or Walt Earthworm. If bad plumbing, falling porches, pain, and humiliation are the price we have to pay for poetry, then I think I could not turn and live with animals. I'll call a contractor instead.

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