Bedlam Farm Blog Journal by Jon Katz

22 February

Lip-Smacked: Let Us Be Us

by Jon Katz

I suspect it’s an offshoot of capitalism, but in America, there is this idea that all problems are soluble, that there is a remedy for everything, and that no one really needs to spend much time working on radical acceptance – loving who we are, living in what I call the Eternal Now.

I didn’t know I smacked my lips until I asked for feedback on my monologue and a lot of people told me I did. I’ve given a thousand talks at book readings, and it never came up there, so either it’s a new thing,  or book readers really don’t care.

If you’ve heard a lot of writers talk and read from their books, you will probably know that there are a lot worse things than lip-smackers.. I’m not sure what the lesson is here, whether is really good to ask for advice, or not really good. I try hard to be honest with people, and I am grateful when they are honest with me (most of the time).

The whole monologue thing was very healthy for me, it led to a better understanding of myself and of how I project to others. That is a valuable lesson for a writer, who works alone and rarely gets to have much of an image of him or herself. I learned I didn’t need to be reading T.S. Eliot’s poems beautiful but somber poems aloud, I need to tell my own stories in my own voice.

Since I didn’t know that I smacked my lips when speaking, and Maria didn’t either, it came as a surprise, and I was also surprised by how many people picked up on that and sent me a lot of messages about it.

Many repeated the observation that I smacked my lips when I talked for a while (dry mouth, they call it) and many had ideas and suggestions – breathing differently, chewing gum, using mouth sprays, gum and mouthwash for Biotene, the leading manufacturer of moisturizing products for the throat and mouth.

Some women refused to believe that Maria hadn’t noticed, they said she was being thoughtful. They don’t know Maria, if there is anything about me or anything else that she is afraid to say, it hasn’t come up yet.

I’ve probably received 100 suggestions about how to deal with dry mouth and keep from coughing or smacking my lips. I am not complaining about this, I asked for it and was grateful for the new awareness.

I want to thank the people who wrote me. I also wanted to tell them that I am ware of Biotene and other sprays, I used some when I went on grueling book tours and was speaking all day long, day after day.

But here’s where I landed. It doesn’t bother me a bit to smack my lips. I’m not auditioning for any movies, and I have no interest in acting, and if I did, it would be in roles about an older man who smacks  his lips sometimes.

I do not believe there are remedies for every single thing about me that might be cured. I don’t comb or dye  my hair over to hide my baldness or get plastic surgery to thin out my chin.

Older people are prone to dry mouth, especially those taking diuretics. It is who I am,  I’m not waiting for the team at Queer Eyes to come and spiff me up. Writers can smack their lips all they won’t and readers will never know.

I think the lesson for me, and perhaps for others is that every problem cannot be fixed with money or medicine, I can’t buy or prescribe my way out of getting older. Lip smacking is an almost viscerally cosmetic kind of problem, it doesn’t affect my health or work in any way.

So why should I worry about it and rush to the pharmacy and chew gum and spray my mouth unless I’m giving a speech or doing my radio show. I don’t need any more pills. Does my wife care?Do my dogs care? Do the donkeys? I have very few friends, and none of them would dare to care about my lip-smacking.

The best medicine is to love and respect myself, and accept me in all of my varying and sometimes disturbing glory.  I am not close to perfect in any way, that is who I am.

Morning Light, Chinese Food

Next Friday at 7 p.m., I’ll be doing a new monologue at the Old Castle Theater in Bennington, Vt., this one is the Story Or Red. He and I will be on stage and I will be talking for awhile in all of my lip-smacking magnificence.

“Consider your lip-smacking a gift,” wrote Diane from the Finger Lakes in way far Western New York. That’s the best advice I could get.

The Story of Red is a great story, and I will be honored to get to tell it. If I should tell his story well and  smack my lips along the way, I guess I just don’t really care.

Let us be us.

21 February

Do Dogs Think? Living With Alien Minds

by Jon Katz

If you ask any dog owner if dogs think, 100 per cent of them  will say yes.

I would agree.

Of course dogs think, living things – even fish – wouldn’t survive many minutes on this earth if they didn’t think. But beyond that conventional belief, there is not much common agreement or understanding on how they think or what they think.

I’ve been writing about dogs for many years now, and I am honestly appalled at all the junk online about what is going on in the minds of dogs. In our rush to love and emotionalize them, we are turning them into mystics, energy-senders, the angels and cherubs of the animal world, supernatural spirits who float through time and live forever.

It’s not for me to say all of those things aren’t true, how could I know. But in this world of fluid truth, I like to stick to what I like to call facts.

I’m planning to explore this subject here on my blog and also every week for a while on my radio show (Wednesdays, one to three p.m., WBTMAM1370).

People tell me all the time how their dogs mourn and grieve, although I have never witnessed it.

They tell me all the time how their dogs were obviously abused, even though their dogs can’t tell them.

They tell me how unhappy their dogs are to be left alone, how jealous their dogs will be if they pet my dogs (they don’t know that envy is not a dog trait, but a very human one.) They tell me how their dogs have so much anxiety when they have to go to work that they must medicate them with antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills.

I have never in my life had a dog who suffered from separation anxiety.

I wonder if this is might be because I don’t believe in it. More than 300,000 dogs in America are now on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. For many thousands of years, dogs didn’t need anti-depressants. Why now?

I think it’s more likely that the reason is that we are dumping all of our shit onto them  because they can’t protest or complain. I am always drawn to the idea dogs as partners  until I realize that they are totally dependent on us for every single thing they need to survive.

That doesn’t sound like an equal relationship to me.

On my radio show “Talking To Animals” I’ve launched what I hope will be a continuing discussion  about dog dreams and dog consciousness. I will be upfront about where I am coming from. I believe in science and I believe in listening to people who do their research and have a certain accountability about their findings before they make sweeping and all-encompassing statements about the truth about dogs.

It’s a free country, people can say  and think what they want, but I like to back up my statements with whatever facts I can muster. I think the people listening or calling deserve no less.

All of us hope that we can learn what our dogs know and what they think.

People are always telling me what their dogs think, even when it is apparent that they couldn’t possibly know what their dogs think. There is something about dog love that brings out fanaticism and absolutism in some people, and a good deal of emotionalizing. The Boomers are passing into history but their attitudes about children are spreading out into the animal world.

We get the dogs we need.

The major obstacle we face, of course, is that we are human and they are not. We can only think and reason and feel like a human does. The experience of animals is totally different from ours, it is alien to us, and in many ways, unfathomable.

They can’t know how we think, and we can’t know how they think.

We have no reliable reference points that allow us much certainty behind the behavior of dogs. We can only guess and reason in human words and feelings, because that’s all we have to reason with. I can’t tell you what my dog is thinking any more than I can tell you what those bats are thinking as they fly through my attic.

Within those boundaries, there is a lot of communicating, at least for me. The epidemic emotionalizing of dogs is not good for them, or, I think, for us. Sorting out the truth takes time and thought, and yes, even some research.

I believe the key to learning is accepting what I can’t know and don’t know.  In the animal world, the rarest words ever spoken are “I don’t know.” It goes through my head all of the time.

Having said that, there are some things that the most knowledgeable among us believe we can say and do know about how the minds of dogs work.

There are all kinds of ideas about the minds of dogs and about their consciousness. But certain scientific facts  – yes, I do believe in science much more than I believe in the opinions on social media – can be and are agreed upon when it comes to the thinking of dogs, writes  author Stanley Coren a psychologist and author (How Dogs Think).

Coren is my favorite and most trusted thinker on the subject.

What follows is his list and my list combined about what those largely agreed to facts are:

  1. Dogs sense the world and take information from it.
  2. Dogs learn and adjust their behavior.
  3. Dogs have memories and the ability to problem solve.
  4. Early experiences with their mothers or in the litter shapes the behavior of the adult dog.
  5. Dogs have emotions, they just don’t have all of our emotions.
  6. Individual dogs have distinct personalities, different breeds have different temperaments and psychologies.
  7. Social interactions like play and life with humans are very important to dogs.
  8. Dogs do communicate with one another and with humans, they talk and they learn and they listen.

When I think about what dogs think, I try to separate what I want and need them to think and what they might be thinking. Dogs have simpler brains than we do, and they lead simpler lives. I’m not sure how much thinking dogs really need to do to get food and shelter and some activity. Darwin believed that intelligence and consciousness are evolutionary, they evolve with need.

And I do notice that with each passing year, fragmented and disconnected humans really need dogs to have a very wide range of human-like emotions, and all kinds of deep thought. The line between our ideas about dogs and are ideas about children are converging rapidly. Just listen.

The best and most compelling research I’ve read suggests that dogs have movies of the mind in their heads, they are believed by biologists to think much like autistic children, through a series of movies that reflect their lives and genetic history. Remember, they don’t have words, so they could not possibly comprehend ideas like death or wealth or love in the ways that  we do.

People often tell me that their dogs love them  unconditionally.

But try starving them or beating them or screaming at them all day, you might find that love is quite conditional. Even though we often like to see it as more complicated, dogs love the people who feed and care for them. And when if they need to move as millions of dogs do each year, they love the next people who feed and care for them just about as much, give or take.

This is not a cynical view of dogs, this is why I love them. Because they are not like us. It helps me to think about what dogs almost surely don’t think about.

Do they perceive a wider world beyond their lives? Do they see life in the same way we do? What can we sense that they can’t, and what can they sense that we can’t? Are there memories shorter or longer than ours?

What role does intellect play in their lives, and does their intellect decline as ours does? Can dogs understand time and beauty? How can we better comprehend the many ways dogs get us to love them and care for them and spend enormous amounts of money on them, when we are busily driving most animal species off of the planet as quickly and thoroughly as our greedy leaders can? Is temperament the same thing as personality in dogs, or is it different?

One biologist said he believes dogs are really just simple but efficient computers with fur. Their natural lives, he says,  revolve around food, a place to sleep, shelter from the rain and sex. If they can’t have natural lives, then people will do.

So there is much to think about and much to talk about if we can open ourselves up and acknowledge how little we really do know about their minds.

I’ll be writing about this very good subject here on the blog and on Talking To Animals, Wednesday, one to three p.m. Let me know what you think: 801 442-1010 or 866 406-9286. It’s your show. Come on by. You can also e-mail me your question and comments any time:

21 February

Storm Pizza: Vegetable Art

by Jon Katz

It’s become a new marital tradition for us. On storm nights (we had an ice storm last night), or belly dancing class nights (Thursday), I make one of my gourmet (my word) pizzas and I am moving aggressively to prepare my pizzas for Spring and Summer, when the Moses Vegetable Stand reopens and we get to eat the way we love to eat and want to it – fresh fruit and vegetables for months.

Tonight was my first all-veggie pizza in awhile, I’ve done clams and sausage and Chorizo and various kale and spinach mixes. Tonight was special, it was almost art.

I made pizza with sliced sweet potato, goat cheese, squash, kale, spinach, red pepper, and vegetable sprouts. I let the dough reach room temperature, cover it with a thin layer of wheat flour, roll it into a thin circle as wide as I can. I do spin it with my hands to thin it out.

I baked the crust – wheat flour from the supermarket –  for 14 minutes (I spread garlic paste all over the pizza and paint the rim with virgin olive oil) at 475 degrees.

Then I let it cool, it was crispy and firm.

When I was ready to get started, I put Paul Newman’s tomato sauce on it, spread it with a rubber brush. I sliced the squash into think circles, and laid it out intermittently with the sweet potato, which I cooked in the oven first for 20 minutes until it was firm and crispy.

I placed kale and spinach on over the pizza, sprinkled chopped red pepper around the squash and potato, spread ground parmesan cheese lightly on top of the tomato sauce, and then sprinkled goat cheese in between. I also chopped up some scallions and spread them around the mix.

I think it’s a creative thing to arrange all the ingredients into circles and patterns. I thought this one looked pretty and inviting.

I added my signature half a cup of pine nuts for crunch and flavor. Then spread some vegetable sprouts over everything and sprinkled virgin olive oil around to keep the vegetables from getting too dry.

I cooked the pizza for 14 minutes at the same temperature, 475. Maria was hungry when she came home, she loved the pizza, said the flavor was delicious, I also liked it very much.

I am not a great chef, and have no pretensions to be, any more than I want to be an actor. But I think these lean and healthy and flavorful pizzas are a good thing for us to eat once a week. The rest of the week we seem to be doing fish or vegetables.

Spring and Summer are wonderful times for eating up here, since I do the shopping, I can stay away from supermarkets for months at a time.

I’m going to get adventurous with my pizzas this Spring and Summer, looking for ways for bring different fresh vegetables – even fruit like pears – into the mix.

You can really put almost anything on a pizza, including lean hamburger and ground turkey also, although we eat very little meat, especially in the summer.

I like this new tradition, thanks for your interest. I never imagined I would be sharing recipes but it’s great fun and I appreciate all of the feedback. Pizza on healthy dough is a pretty versatile meal.

21 February

Filling The Holes

by Jon Katz

The more I work with people at the Mansion, a Medicaid facility in Cambridge, N.Y., the more I see my role – our role – as filling the holes in their lives.  We have no miracles to offer, we can’t change the course of my life.

If my work at the Mansion and with the refugees has taught me anything, it is to think smaller and smaller, not bigger and bigger.

A lot of people have noticed our work with the Mansion, I am often asked to think about expanding this program, or to urge other people to replicate it in their towns, or to establish the Army Of Good as a federal non-profit, or to set up crowd-sourcing pages.

I feel more strongly every day to stand as we are, to stay small, to stay manageable. To choose our deeds well and knowingly.

A resident at the Mansion asked me to loan them $50 yesterday so they could go out with his family. I said no, we don’t loan money, we aren’t a bank. I think he was surprised. We fill the small holes in people’s loves. Socks, stationery, sweaters.

The refugee work, which has been difficult and often painful for me – the suspicion and hostility in the refugee world has stunned me. Helping is a battle, almost every time. Even helping.

That has been hard for me, I won’t lie about it. You can have the best intentions in the world, but there is great pain and hurt and anger out there, it is a great wall to break through. Sometimes I could break though, sometimes I just ran headlong into it. My thick skull is black and blue.

I’ll write about this more one day, but not now. It would harm helpless people.

This work has also taught me something about money. It is not about money, it is not about raising tons of money and distributing tons of money. Me – we – are way too small to alter the difficult reality of refugees in America with gobs of money. Money, I have learned, can be a poison. Sticking our thumbs in dikes can’t work.

We can do enormous good in many ways with small amounts of money. And we are. With young refugee children, with the Mansion residents.

Only government can do what needs to be done with the refugees, and used to be done.

The tragedy is that government, for the most part, has stopped doing that. It’s hard to see. It tore me up.

My focus now is on helping refugee children one at a time. And if the refugee groups won’t help, then I’ll work to set it up myself. We are close to getting a gifted refugee student  Eh K’ Pru Shee Wah, into a private school. If she succeeds, then I’ll seek another, and another and another and hopefully make this an annual and continuous work.

I can’t think of a better way to change lives.

I am asking the schools to undertake the fund-raising and offer generous scholarships, we can help if we like, but we won’t be bearing the brunt of this work. If the schools want diversity, and they say they do, then they will have to pay up, and not simply rely on others. I can help find the students.

I am also working to team up with parents and kids within the private schools. There is tremendous support for this idea, and I think this is the path for me an for the Army Of Good that will change lives in a profound but realistic way. It isn’t about money, it’s about creativity, as always.

But it is the Mansion that has provided the best model and inspiration for me, day after day.

Small acts of great kindness. Filling the holes, not knocking down the house. We do the best than we can for as long as we can. I tell people to think small, go low. It is the small things of life they most need – letters, music, movies, sweaters. They will need a lot of new clothes when the warm weather comes in a few weeks.

(Picking up Chinese Food for the Mansion aides today)

I am so grateful to the Mansion for letting me do this work and supporting me.

Yesterday, a book for Matt. Watercolor pencils and a pad for Tim. A  wristwatch for Art, and a Christian video. Today, a stuffed dog for Katherine, who seems lonely at times, and who came to the Mansion with little. Some socks and some sneakers. A new wristwatch for Peggie, a stuffed dog for Ruth. Some photo books for the Activity room, some stamps for Sylvie (who said, for the first time ever, that she thought she had enough stamps for this week!) Underpants for T—-, soap and shampoo for the bathrooms. Valentine’s Day cards and gifts.

A new TV for the Great Room, and a bunch of DVD’s.

Today, I spent $117 to bring Chinese food to the Mansion aides, who worked so hard and patiently during their month-long evacuation ordeal. A small thing to me, a big thing to them. It was a joy to see.

I love this work and am deeply grateful for your support, none of this would be possible with you. I think we are working on scale now. If you wish to help me,  you can donate via Paypal, The Mansion Fund. Or you can send a check to Jon Katz, Mansion Fund, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. All donations help, those $5 bills lift my heart right up.

New Mansion resident list:  Winnie, Ellen, Matt, Mary, Gerry, Sylvie, Alice, Jean, Madeline, Helen, Barbara, Alanna, Linda, Peggie, Dottie, Tim, Art, Wayne, Kathryn, Ruth.

They love getting letters, but I can’t promise they can respond, and it would be inappropriate for me to ask, that might feel like pressure to them.


21 February

Morning Light, Chinese Food

by Jon Katz

There is a magic moment between night and day up here, if I am lucky and alert, I can sometimes catch it, although it is rare to be ready when the moment comes. It came this morning, the dark and blue/black stormy night was clearing at the other end of the valley, the sun would soon break through that beautiful  hole.

I think I was in the right place at the right time, I even caught the frost on the chair and the stick in the ground. This always seems a mystical transformation to me. Today I’m going over to the town’s only Chinese restaurant to fulfill a promise I made to the Mansion aides when everyone moved back after the flooding:  that I would treat them to Chinese food meal to honor their hard work.

I brought Chinese food to the residents so they could celebrate their return, but it has been much harder to get a list from the aides, they are scattered and busy. Finally got the list yesterday and I’ll bring the food over at noon.

I was so uplifted by the morning light. It inspired me to make an all-veggie pizza for Maria tonight when she returns exhausted from belly dancing class.

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