20 April 2018

Skip The News, Kiss A Donkey In The Morning

By: Jon Katz

Kiss A Donkey In The Morning

I have an idea. Instead of looking at the news in the morning and getting depressed, why not kiss a donkey as a different way to start the day? It is calming, uplifting and loving. We do it every day.

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Book Review: The Truth About Animals By Lucy Cooke. WONDERFUL!

By: Jon Katz

The Truth About Animals

As we rush to transform pets and animals into human-like creatures with our intelligence, emotions and values, we are losing sight of what animals are really like.  We shroud them in our myths and needs, we seek to turn them into varying versions of us.

It's not enough for dogs to be smart, they must be brilliant, wiser than we ever imagined. Animals must now foresee death, spot cancer, check blood sugar, give us 24/7 emotional support, on the ground, in the air, on vacation. We want them to possess unrecognized depths of emotion and consciousness.

It is not enough that we accept them as the wonderful creatures they are, they must be like us, the most conflicted and tormented  and violent species on the earth. Do we hate them this much?

I love animals because they are so different from us, but more and more people are insisting that animals are just like us.

Lucky Cooke doesn't think they are just like us, and unlike millions of people running their mouths on social media, she knows something about them

Cooke is a filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer with a masters degree in zoology from The University of Oxford.  She is also the founder and President of the Sloth Appreciation Society, which now has about 10,000. Once they receive my check, there will be 10,001.

She has written the most wonderful book,

it's called "The Truth About Animals: A Menagerie Of The Misunderstood." I believe it is not an exaggeration to say that for me, this book may be one the best animal books, if not the best,  ever written.

Cooke has gathered together the biggest misconceptions, mistakes and myths we have created about animals, from Aristotle to Walt Disney to your Uncle Harry, and created her own "menagerie of the misunderstood." Don't look for sappy rescue stories here, you will learn an awful lot about animals, and you will learn a lot about how much you don't know.

We are losing track of what animals are actually like, seeing them instead as we need to see them. We project all of our fantasies and needs onto them. We cling to our myths about them, even as we drift farther and farther from the truth about them. Cooke is profoundly knowledgeable, her book is as refreshing  as it is urgently necessary.

In our urbanized and over-developed world, very few people actually get to see the animals Lucky Cooke is writing about any longer, we have driven them out of our habitats and out of our lives. Rather than learn about animals, we increasingly exploit them, increasingly their only work and purpose is to make us feel good about ourselves.

The animals the poachers and developers and greedy corporatists and animal rights myopics don't get will soon fall prey to climate change and the animal rights movement, which is spending millions of donated dollars to  take animals away from  people and drive them into oblivion.

Most animal books are either sappy or pandering. How Spot rescued me, and I rescued him. Or How My Border Collie learned to speak French and quote the Encyclopedia Brittanica. (And why he was almost certainly abused.)

Cooke is a myth popper, she takes an exhaustive knowledge of medieval animal writing to trace or common views of animals from the silly myths about them to why these myths continue to foster great ignorance about what they are actually like.

It turns out sloths are not lazy, but quite efficient. Penguins are not loyal symbols of family structure, they are quite often unfaithful prostitutes. Hyenas are not cowardly, bats are not vampires in general and vultures are noble and necessary creatures.

Cooke has the advantage not only of being especially knowledgeable. but a gifted and very funny writer. Her essays on beavers and their defensive testicles is a classic. But the wonders never cease in her writing.

We humans may be intolerant and resistant to change, but Penguins have been embracing same-sex partnerships forever. And Moose, who have a tendency to get drunk on certain plants and go on hallucinogenic drug trips.

"When seeking to understand animals," writes Cooke, "context is key. We have a habit of viewing the animal kingdom through the prism of our own experiences, our own rather narrow existence. The sloths arboreal lifestyle is sufficiently extraterrestrial to make it one of the world's most misunderstood creatures, but it is by no means along in this category. Life takes a glorious myriad of alien forms, and even the simplest require complex understanding.."

She challenges us to open our minds to the true stories of real animals and discover the truth about them. You will never look at Penguins in the same way when you read about their sex lives and penchant for prostitution.

This is a promise on which Luce Cooke delivers, again and again, from the Eel to the Beaver to the Sloth, Hyena, Vulture, Bat, Frog, Hippo, Moose, Panda, Penguin, Chimpanzee. Each animal has its own myth, each has its own true. And she is funny, there is nothing hectoring or pompous in the book.

The New York Carriage Horses are, to me the most timely argument for Cooke's message (OK, mine too).

Many animal lovers would rather see these wonderful horses dead or imprisoned in preserves than do their light work amongst people who love them. The reason for this is that the people arguing that work for these animals is cruel know nothing about them.

Work for carriage horses is essential to their health and survival, and they love doing it. The truth might just save their lives.

It is important that we animal lover stop trying to turn out pets and all the animals of the world into us. Look what a mess we have made of the world? Do we really want them to be like us? And get greedy and arrogant and violent and unhappy?

Truth doesn't matter to a lot of people these days, and we are losing a grip on what it even means,  but it is out there if we are willing to go and find it. That is what  Cooke has done. I doubt there is a single person reading this review who would not love reading The Truth About Animals.


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Doing Good: The Wish List Initiatives, RISSE and the Mansion

By: Jon Katz

RISSE And The Mansion

The Amazon Mansion Wish List requests are up and running, the RISSE Wish List, the first one, is a runaway success. The Mansion Wish List is only two days old and is off to a fine start, we went from 43 items to 6 overnight. mostly board games and trays and puzzles for the Activity Room, where the residents spend much of their day. I brought three sombreros today for the  upcoming Cinqo de Mayo celebration.

Activities are the structure and foundations of life at the Mansion, there is always something to do and try, thanks to the Army Of Good.

A new RISSE Amazon Wish List went up yesterday, there are 16 items on it,  it is focused on learning tools for the refugee children, and some practical things for adults. I have been pushing the idea of wish lists for some time, it's an effective and innovative way to do good. I start every morning that way, it is a powerful antidote to the news and life's frustrations.

You can see the new Mansion Wish List here.

You can see the RISSE Wish List here.

It is fascinating for me to see how these two lists converge and also diverge. Both needs stimulating or educational activities, both need practical things like working gloves trays. Both have been neglected or pushed out of sight by our culture. Both are in great need. Thanks for supporting them.

To me, both groups are symbols of the people and country we wish to be, I think, statements of our values and empathy. I am startled at how much the same they are.

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19 April 2018

When Movements Become The Dance Of Destinies

By: Jon Katz

Julz Irion, Kathleen McBrien

"One  step, two steps, three steps,; like winds of time experience joy of centuries, when movements become revelations of the dance of destinies." – Shah Asad Rizvi, on the meaning of the belly dance.

On Saturday May 19th at 7 p.m., Maria's dance group, the Bennington Beledi Tribal Belly Dancers will perform along with other dancing groups from New England at the Masonic Hall, 504 Main Street, Bennington. There will be refreshments served, tickets are $10, they can be purchased at the Bennington Cafe, 124 Pleasant Street,  Bennington, Vt. For information, call 802 442-8012. 


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“This Is What We Look Like…” Belly Dancing Concert in May (Maria’s Group)

By: Jon Katz

Belly Dancing Concert In May. Kathleen McBrian and Jules Irion.

"Dance to inspire, dance to freedom, life is about experiences, so dance and let yourself become free." – Shah Asad Rizvi.

About a year ago, our friend Kitty Farnham invited Maria and I to a Belly Dancing Concert at the Mason Lodge Auditorium in Bennington Vt.  We were both surprisee and delighted. And hooked.

This is not something I ever paid much attention to, I had seen it once, at Disney World, and had no sense of its history or meaning.

The evening changed my understanding of it and both of our lives a bit. This dancing is infectious, it lifts spirits right up out of their chairs. On the way home, we couldn't stop talking about what we had seen.

Belly Dancing is a dance of the times in a way, it is both intensely political and boisterously mystical at the same time. It reveals the power of women, and also defies their vulnerability.

To me, it celebrates the sometimes the sometimes unseen strength and growing power of women. There is no hidden strength in belly dancing, it's right out there for us to see. And something about it dances right in the faces of men. An old world celebrates the new.

One poet said of belly dancing that it is the narration of an ancient and magical story, that  recites itself on lips, illuminates imaginations and embraces the most sacred depths of souls.

I felt that in Bennington last year, Maria feels it every week in class.

Belly dancing was one of the first forms of feminist expression in the world, it is thousands of years old.  The dancing has a proud message to the world: "look at us, this is who we are, this is what we look like, we are proud of ourselves and strong and filled with joy."

Maria felt it deeply, she shocked me by joining the Bennington Beledi  Tribal Belly Dancers a few weeks later. I have never known Maria to join any kind of group, to my surprise, this was her place, she belonged.

She was the last person on earth to show her belly to anyone, she practices every week with the group and comes home happy and affirmed, bumping her hips, snapping her zills. She used to say she could never learn this dance, she doesn't say that any more.

We are happy to announce that her belly dancing group will be performing once again at the Masonic Lodge on Main Street, Bennington on Saturday, May 19th, at 7 p.m. Tickets, which are $10,  can be purchased at the Bennington Cafe, 124 Pleasant Street, Bennington, info at 802 442-8012.

In addition to the Bennington dancers, Belly Dancing  groups from all over New England will also perform.

Belly dancing is not an exotic amusement for men. It is about a joyous physicality, hard work, community and pride. It's about putting oneself out there, loving your body, loving yourself. Maria loves her classes and works hard at learning the many parts and moves of belly dancing. It takes years, she says, to be good enough to perform.

Belly dancing fits in beautifully with the rising tide of change affecting women all across America. They are aroused and on the move, they have no intention of turning the clock back or of sitting by while angry old men do it. I would say to these unnerved and threatened men:  get out-of-the-way, women are making history, they are the change.

Come and see them dance.

Maria is not dancing in this year's program, called "Spice Routes." The concert will benefit Meals On Wheels, a free food service for the elderly.

I saw Maria's class for the first time and for a few minutes tonight in their home studio, I went to take some photos of Kathleen McBrien and Julz Irion, two leaders of the group. They will be performing on May 19th. I'll be there taking photos and Maria will be helping to design and set up the stage backdrop for the dancers.

I'll put up a short album on Facebook tonight, they are a photographer's dream.

One of these days, I'll get to see Maria up on stage, I can feel it coming.

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