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Soon this space will be too small

January 6, 2010

That’s the title of one of Lhasa’s songs, one that I remember well from her 2004 concert tour. When I heard her sing that song up on stage only a few feet away, I thought for the the first time, “wow, here is somebody who really isn’t afraid of death.” At the time I imagined Lhasa growing into a wise and very old woman – her incredibly sensual and passionate presence was her way of fighting off melancholy with every word she sang into the mike. I never thought she would leave so soon.

A few days before one of her concerts in February 2004, I was given her personal phone number to call for an interview. It was during the two-year period when I was experimenting with freelance journalism, while translating and gingerly working my way back into vet medicine after a soul-destroying year of farm practice. Writing for the local English daily, the Sherbrooke Record, I was regularly asked to do pieces on arts and culture. I didn’t feel like the right person to write about those subjects, and would’ve preferred to stick with the wildlife/pets/environment and health beat I’d tried to carve out for myself, but after several months of talking to artists and performers, I started to enjoy the interviews that gave me a new view of life. When my editor asked me if I’d be interested in doing a piece on Lhasa de Sela to stimulate interest for her concert, I was fairly intimidated, as unlike most of the artists I’d interviewed, she was suddenly getting a good amount of publicity. As part of the bargain, I was offered two tickets to the concert (which were actually worth more than what my piece would pay, in dollar terms).

I called her and we talked for what seemed like a very long time. I could hear her washing her dishes, and that helped me imagine I was chatting with a friend. We talked about her musical influences, her background, her languages, and her views on life. I discovered a person whose philosophical outlook was remarkably similar to mine, even though our backgrounds and personal essence could not have been more different for two people who had grown up in the same generation and part of the world. She sounded ageless,with a lifetime of thought and experience behind her as well as the simplicity of a highly intelligent and unspoiled child.

It took me a few days to dig up the article I wrote on that interview – it was missing from the pile of all the others I’d written and was never available online, so I had to go to the paper’s offices and ask for a copy. I’ve decided to put it down here so that I won’t have to go looking for it again.

Juno and Felix award-winning artist Lhasa de Sela has a singular voice that perfectly matches the peripatetic life she’s led since birth: unforgettable and intoxicating.

In 1998, Lhasa won the Juno for Best Global Artist with her first album, La Llorona, produced in Montreal with the help of Yves Desrosiers, and sung entirely in Spanish.

Her new album, The Living Road, was released in late 2003 and contains original songs in Spanish, French and English. While writing them, Lhasa spent four years in France – in between stints as a travelling circus performer – reflecting on her kaleidoscope life.

Lhasa’s mother tongue is English: born of an American mother and a Mexican father who taught and wrote in Spanish, her very first stop was a tiny village in the Catskill Mountains.

She didn’t stay there for long – her parents were also modern-day gypsies, preferring to follow the road from upstate New York to Guadalajara, in spite of the fact they would eventually have 10 children. There was no television, no formal school, unrelenting travel in the family bus. In the evening, the children would prepare shows for the family’s entertainment.

Today, nine of those 10 children are performers, artists to the core: musicians, tightrope walkers, clowns, acrobats and jewelry designers.

Lhasa had a brief experience as a regular schoolgirl in the mid-1980s in San Francisco. There, for the first time in her life, she didn’t feel like she fit in, and there was also where she began to find her voice, through the inspiration of 1940s blues singer Billie Holliday, and the memory of the soundtracks she had listened to for years – a medley of American, Mexican, Middle Eastern, European and Asian music provided by her parents.

Fast forward six years or so and she finds herself in Montreal. She was accompanying her circus performer sisters to the national circus school and the Cirque du Soleil.

“I just ended up living in the francophone part of town – one thing led to another, I made friends and among them was Yves Desrosiers.”

For close to five years, they made the rounds of downtown bars and created enough original material for La Llorona. That album sold nearly a half a million copies in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, where she has a cult following, especially in France and Germany.

Her present tour includes concert dates that are already sold out in those countries.

The languages she uses represent “different parts of my life. It’s so natural for me to sing in three languages. Changing from one to the next isn’t meant to be shocking or disturbing – some people are surprised the first time they listen, but then they accept it.”

With their ear for the natural rhythms of language and their abilities in mimicry, many singers are able to perform in more than one language, but Lhasa is one of the few who has written all of her songs as well.

“That was what gave me the courage to do this. It holds together, it’s one person – myself – who is being truthful about who I am: not Mexican, not American, not Quebecoise, but a whole.”

Human identity is at the heart of The Living Road and Lhasa, in her early 30s, is at a point in her life where she’s acquired not only the maturity to explore her own past, but has also had the time to develop friendships. Through her friends, she’s realised that many people are in a situation where their identity has little to do with ethnic or linguistic origins. “My friends in Montreal are from Lebanon, Russia, Ukraine, France, all over the world…everybody’s a mix – that’s the human story; and if someone’s not a mix, then that’s a story too – like what is it from their past, from their parents’ or grandparents’ lives that made them come from one place instead of several places?”

Lhasa’s deep, rich voice comes even more alive when she speaks about her musical influences.

“There were a lot of voices. A lot of ways of singing that influenced me. My first love was Victor Jaras, a Chilean singer. And Billie Holliday, she was amazing. One of her songs was called “Strange Fruit” and she sang it so intensely. It’s about the lynching of black folks in the South – the black folds hanging from the trees were the strange fruit…she was so courageous to sing about that in her time, and it was what pushed me to become a singer.”

She also cites Chavela Vargas, a Mexican singer, as well as Fairouz, from Lebanon (“a sweet, beautiful, deep voice that makes you want to cry”), as current favourites.

Artistically, and by extension, politically, Lhasa makes a stand for diversity.

“What really bothers me in the world is the say that people are treated like they’re numbers, consumers, and their only usefulness in life is to buy things, to make the economy run…they’re “consumers” of health care, or this and that, the surveys talk abou the average person…but there is no average person. Life is an incredible voyage for each individual on the planet. Doing what I do is all about honouring my voyage – I will not be a number.”

“The world doesn’t adjust itself to the soul: the beauty, the magic of the soul is what I want to bring out. My job is to do it my way.”

This is the third time Lhasa will visit Sherbrooke, the third stop on her new tour. In the next few months, she will be performing in Toronto and various venues in Europe.

Lhasa will be performing at the Granada Theatre in Sherbrooke on Saturday, February 21. Tickets are still available by calling the theatre at 819-565-5656.

Lhasa, I was so sad to learn you left us on January 1. You once wrote a song about the end of the world or the coming of a new year. And you sang about how soon this space would be too small, and how you would go outside, strong as a ship and wise as a whale. I am grateful you shared these songs with us, that you shared the beauty of your soul.

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Thinking about Skinny

August 30, 2009

I was feeling very alone yesterday. I was trying to get some work done at the tail end of a chaotic summer while the kids spend their last weekend before school starts at the country house with their dad. I was supposed to be focused on work, but instead I could only think about myself. So alone, I felt like inviting the cat we call Skinny, one of the three black and white cats around here, inside the apartment, just for some company. The other two black and whites are fat and glossy, and run away when the kids try to make friends, but Skinny doesn’t even wait for us to come to him. It takes him forever to walk over to us, he never runs, just picks his way over the gravel and sits down for a chat and some patting. Lately, the kids have been giving him food while I pretend I know nothing about it.

Fatty and Glossy appear to have homes, but I’m not as sure about Skinny. The guy in the basement apartment has placed an old wooden chair, a blanket and a bowl for food beside the door (it’s always empty), and Skinny can often be found there, though not looking quite as if he owned the place. I don’t think he ever goes inside; and I’ve never even seen basement guy – I think he’s a hermit. Skinny is often wet, he’s no more than skin and bones – probably has chronic renal disease – and has the thick claws and appalling teeth of an elderly cat. The claws are only on his hind paws, the top of the front toes have been amputated. It’s what we still call declawing, something I deeply regret having done to one of my own cats, many years ago.

I need to find out more about Skinny. I’ll have to be the cat-home police, and go knocking on basement guy’s door to ask questions. Is this remotely any of my business, I wondered yesterday as I contemplated inviting Skinny inside. Not a great idea – he’s dirty and has a runny nose, and my three cats will come to live here soon…

When it suddenly got cool and started to rain, I figured I should make it my business, so I went outside and and downstairs to see if he was there. When I reached the basement apartment door, there was Glossy sitting on the chair. He saw me coming and ran away to hide under (his?) porch. I couldn’t find Skinny.

It’s raining again tonight, as it has been most of the summer, and I’m thinking about Skinny. If he’s homeless, he won’t last through the fall (and I don’t think he’ll last through the winter even if he does spend it inside) so I do need to at least find out if he belongs to basement hermit guy. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure yet what I’ll do. It wouldn’t be right to take him to the SPA, because an elderly cat like that is not adoptable, and he never gave his consent to spend the last of his days in a 2 X 2 foot metal cage, even if the deal includes regular meals and a warm place to sleep. And that would be the best option to hope for – it’s more likely a medical evaluation would consider his chronic disease to be a motive for euthanasia.

Ah, it’s just another homeless cat…

Analogies and abortions

June 12, 2009

Having sat through too many evangelical sermons in my younger life, I’ve developed a strong resistance to arguments that draw on analogy. Most of the sermons I endured as a teenager and young adult were heavy-laden with analogies; now I can’t help seeing them as a recourse for lazy-mindedness (not always deliberate) and tendentiousness (usually deliberate). They’re useful for when you want others to believe something for which you don’t have concrete evidence, or which may contain many different truths that are unendingly complex, and the analogy helps you to focus on a single one.

I strongly object to analogies when it comes to pregnancy and abortion. Having been pregnant a couple of times in my life and not reeling anymore from the experience, I’m amused or offended, depending on my mood, when pregnancy is compared to owning a house in which you are hosting the homeless and you’re obligated to keep them overnight because there is a blizzard outside. Pregnancy is not much like organ donation; and it is certainly nothing even potentially akin to being a slave-owner or a (female supremacist) Nazi. (Seriously: those two last ones are central arguments of the anti-abortion movement’s desire to enshrine fetal rights. Anti-abortion advocates imagine that pro-choice women see fetuses as “subhuman”; therefore, much like Nazis and slave owners, they allow them to be eliminated at will. That leap of (ana)logic leads directly into the abyss of manipulativeness and dishonesty.) I’ve always seen the abortion-is-murder analogy as a shocking distortion of the reality of an unwanted pregnancy and the maternal-fetal relationship.

I’ve also considered abortion from the angle of the animal rights movement, something more of a personal and professional interest for me. While I can see a few parallels between the anti-abortion and animal rights movements, there are more divergences than similarities, and in fact the philosophical argument for animal rights is more of an evolving process with a rich philosophical framework. Most importantly to me, animal liberation/welfare/rights arguments are not based on analogies and projections; they are based on the realities of animals’ lives and the way we think about them and use them.

Because being pregnant – and being a fetus – is not like anything else or any other stage of human or animal development, analogies are inappropriate for describing what happen to a body and a mind during that time. Perhaps because I have observed and dealt with a lot of non-human animal pregnancies and deliveries, I’ve grown more sensitive to messy and complex medical realities and the risks involved for both mother and fetus, and therefore can appreciate the wide range of potential calamities that can occur. I can also appreciate the incomplete but evolving state of knowledge regarding diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, and people’s varying capabilities in handling problems and catastrophes. Most of the common things that can go wrong during a pregnancy or to a fetus can be addressed and corrected, but there is a small subset of devastating problems that cannot be fixed, not even with current technology.

Since the assassination of Dr Tiller, the renowned late-term abortion doctor from Wichita, by an anti-abortion zealot, I’ve been researching and reading about some of the conditions that have resulted in women choosing to abort a pregnancy that was initially desired. I was amazed at the number of conditions I had never heard of – though I shouldn’t be, as these most serious ones never come up in veterinary medicine and may have something to do with the complexity of the human genome, fertility treatments, and other factors: twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, trisomy 13, triploidy, fragile X syndrome, severe osteogenesis imperfecta, and many others. Another one here. And here. A few others I already knew about, such as severe neural tube defects and anencephaly.

A lot of women have decided to come out with their stories in the aftermath of Dr Tiller’s murder, and that is a very good thing. The holocaust rhetoric and imagery around later-term abortion were deliberately chosen by Francis Schaeffer (for which his son has recently apologised) when he wrote his treatises lamenting the decline of traditional religion back in the 1970s. While it’s understandable that women who’ve had a later-term abortion would just want to either grieve or forget the experience and get on with their lives, it’s important that they speak out in order to bring some truth and first-hand accounts to the table. People who casually imagine that women dispose of their half-grown fetuses cavalierly or out of convenience, or who believe that they must accept even the most severe congenital defect and care for a non-viable baby until it inevitably dies, no matter the consequences to their own reproductive and mental health, or the needs of their already-born children. These people need to understand that late-term abortion involves the most intensely personal situations, which sometimes include severe depression, cancer treatments and families with children who already have multiple disabilities. These issues should never have been allowed to become the target of a movement that pretends to be pious, but which has always been intensely political.

As for the pious individuals who still insist on sticking their noses and religious morality into the most private and intimate business of others, I think they should learn the meaning of empathy, and shame. A generation or so back, it was considered shameful when a woman had a baby out of wedlock, but with the decline of traditional religions and structures, the stigma of single parenthood has been erased. I can only hope that the appropriate stigma will attach itself to people who try to interfere in these most intimate problems and decisions of others.

Hens in peril

February 26, 2009

I was outside this afternoon, brushing my collie (colley?) Principessa with a currycomb, as she’s been looking winter-ratty. I’m planning a makeover for her in the spring, complete with a bath, trim and furstyling. It should be a Great Event: she’s 8 years old and has never experienced anything of the sort. She seems to enjoy the currycombing, as long as I don’t pull on the tangles.

In general she’s a very, very good dog. Nowhere near a Lassie standard of intelligence, but maybe that’s a lack of training on my part. She’s a responsive and trustworthy dog with no aggressive tendencies toward other dogs – and yet she won’t be intimidated. Her approach to humans is 100% friendliness.
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Cats: not so much. Even the cats who have befriended her still have to watch their backs, and are advised to walk away slowly, never, ever run.

But you can see where I’m going with this: it’s the chickens that bring out the worst in her, and that’s only relatively recently. It was only last spring that she decided to sample chicken, and she started small: one banty hen. At the time, I figured she mistook it for a pigeon, and forgave her. But then she reduced a young rooster to a pile of fluffy white feathers, and there is of course the unexplained sudden disappearance of the gentle Polish rooster. Then there were the systematic attacks on hens who we saved just before she finished them off. I had to make the difficult choice last summer: it was either the chickens or Principessa. Who would run free, that is. I tried a few days of alternating between the two: one day of freedom for Principessa, the next she remained tethered and the hens roamed free. (Technically, both freedoms are discouraged in municipal law or federal poultry guidelines, but I’ve disregarded both as unnecessary and harmful to animal welfare.) Finally, I came to a different compromise, siding heavily with the hens: they would be free from sunrise till sunset, and then Principessa could be off her tether without supervision. Once the snows came, the hens stayed inside everyday, and Principessa was once again free as a…bird.

So as I was combing her today, I noticed a small pile of brown feathers in the snow. Upon closer inspection, it was in fact the head of one of my six (now five) hens, who must’ve slipped out while I was feeding them. Principessa must have taken note of that and returned when I went into the house.

The warm season dilemma of dog versus hens is going to come again in a few months, and I’d love to find a way to stop the poultricide. If anyone has any suggestions, please tell.

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Temple Grandin, feeling like an animal

February 11, 2009

Temple Grandin is back in the news, with a new book, Animals Make us Human (the sequel to Animals in Translation). A university animal science professor and consultant and designer of livestock handling facilities, Grandin is also the subject of an upcoming HBO semi-biographical film with Claire Danes.

I’ve been thinking about Grandin on and off ever since I was in veterinary school in the mid-1990s, when she was starting to gain recognition for her approach to fixing problems in cattle handling facilities such as feedlots.

In 1998, I was invited to be on a committee to rank candidates for a major U.S. animal welfare award. Of the list of candidates with impressive resumés in animal welfare work, she was the only one I had heard of; the one who had made the most notable impression on veterinary education and practice. I ranked her as my first choice, based on her resumé and what I had learned about her when I was a vet student headed for large animal practice. In one of my classes, we briefly studied some corral designs by this professor from Colorado State University, designs which had rapidly replaced the old models in the space of a few short years. I had presumed Temple was a man’s name, and only found out later that not only was Grandin a woman, but she was autistic, and that she was all about a cinemascope attention and memory for sensory details plus fundamental knowledge about cattle instincts. Her novel designs for corrals and squeeze chutes meant that handling for vaccinations and other procedures went more smoothly for everyone involved.

I learned in bits and pieces that she saw the world through animals’ eyes, and translated their experience so that “neurotypical” people such as myself (I presume that’s what I am) could understand their reactions and motivations a bit better. In the end, she was awarded the prize from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (that’s R$ for Rockefeller, and Dodge, for the car company), along with Diane Halverson.

In 1997, I had a summer job as an assistant researcher in the bovine medicine department, and one of our projects was to study a new Big Pharma cattle dewormer. On the first day of the project, we had to put a group of jumpy dairy heifers through a corral with a squeeze chute at the end to identify each one with an ear tag, take individual manure samples, and collect a small vial of blood from the tail vein. Once we were done, we opened the squeeze chute and sent each tagged heifer into one of three study groups. Halfway through, in spite of our improvised Grandin-style corral, the remaining heifers decided as a group that they wouldn’t be cooperating with us anymore – one of the farm hands was drunk and behaving unpredictably, periodically yelling abuse and jumping at them to chase them out of the chute. About fifteen heifers backed away and galloped off to the opposite end of the field, some 500 metres away. Rounding them up looked impossible, at the very least it looked like one of those time and energy-consuming activities that I dread. Some of us wanted to call it a day, but the head researcher reminded us we’d have to start all over again at the beginning if we put it off.

Inspired by Grandin, I remembered my pre-veterinary experiences with cattle, back when I was delighted by their friendly curiosity. If you walk into a field of cattle, they won’t take their eyes off you for minutes on end, and if they are docile like dairy cattle, they’re likely to come right up and lick your boots and clothes. I walked out towards them till I was about 10 metres away from the boldest ones, and showed them a long rake I’d brought with me. Then, I turned around and dragged it behind me, hoping they would follow. I started out slow at the beginning and then faster so they’d have to pick up the pace. The long stick dragging along the ground was intriguing enough for the more dominant heifers, and the rest of the herd followed. Nobody wanted to be left behind in the field all alone.

I always thought this mix of curiosity, skittishness and attention to random detail was something more scientists and vets should think about, just as Grandin pays scientific attention to sensory details and behaviours. It would add some interest to the boring data collection we always seemed to be doing, and would contribute to animal well-being.

But when I left research and started practicing bovine medicine, the more I paid attention to behaviour, reactions, sensations and emotions of cattle, the less I was able to concentrate on doing my job. Not the jobs where I was caring or healing, relieving pain, replacing a prolapsed uterus or helping an exhausted cow during a calving – those were invigorating and rewarding; it was the job of fitting in and playing my role in the industrial-agricultural system – treating the intractable metabolic diseases and lameness that result in short lifespans and which are caused by the kind of nutrition and genetics that make cows produce incredible amounts of milk; endless infections of the mammary glands from bacterial resistance, crowding, stress, little or no time outdoors, milking machines, etc.; and most important of all, ensuring that estrus and pregnancies are properly detected and monitored so that no time is wasted between a calving and a new gestation, to keep the milk flowing. The objective of my new job as a farm vet was increasingly oriented toward figuring out ways of making dairies more efficient and profitable, and culling the non-profitable animals. It’s a system that not only wears down the animals, but it wears down everyone who’s involved with it, including me, and it wore me down quicker than most. I wasn’t in it long enough to even glimpse the rewards, but I always suspected they were driven by the evil twins of debt and profit.

As for Grandin, I am sure that she is driven by a desire to do what is right by animals. She believes it is ethical to use animals for food, and she wants it to be done right so that animals can have a decent life and a painless death. I think that’s a good and sensible approach, but I can’t help noticing that her designs and push for ethics are co-opted by a cattle industry that wants things working more smoothly for its own ends (debt and profit again), not for the animals. Still, I suppose that what she does “has to be better than simply wishing [the system] didn’t exist in the first place.”

Still. In her new book Grandin claims that it’s hard for “normal” people to think like animals, because we think in words, while the animal world is all sensory-based, all the time. Her own lifetime spent overcoming a purely sensory-based world as an autistic human supposedly places her in the unique position of identifying with and empathising with animals, and encouraging everyone else to tune into sensory experience to think more like animals.

I haven’t read the book, and I’m not convinced that thinking in words is really all that easy for humans. Most people struggle to find the right words to communicate their feelings and experience, whether in speech or in writing, and a lot of the time we don’t even come close, especially if we count the part of our lives we spend as babies and small children. And yet words have been used skilfully in so many books to communicate animals’ experience, by recording observations and sometimes even imagining what they might be thinking. One of the best examples of this is Black Beauty, but there are so many others. Some of my greatest revelations about animal and human experience have come to me through reading novels; then I’ve returned to animals and humans with a different attitude that has made me more empathic and observant. In fact, my own sensory experiences haven’t always made me more empathic, sometimes they’ve even had the opposite effect.

But whether our empathy comes from sights, sounds or words, there is still the fact that we have this food-producing system that’s built on the backs of suffering animals, a system that grinds them down for as long they have something to give, after which we dispose of them callously – when it’s not with outright cruelty.

Grandin worries that there are less people all the time who are willing to go out into the field to work with cattle, to observe, to participate and to make changes that will give them decent lives. I see the same thing she does, but from the other side of the fence. I’ve crossed that field already, and I don’t wish to go back, because I’ve seen that the role of workers such as veterinarians and scientists is to find ways of making things work more smoothly, more profitably; animal well-being is only a collateral benefit. Problem is, the more we acknowledge that animals share our emotions, sensations and perceptions, the more we shy away from engaging with them in the system we’ve built.

The upshot is that the ones who stay to work with it are those who don’t think about these things, or if they do, they have no other viable choices to make about their working lives. I don’t mean to say that there is no one left who engages empathically with animals; certainly there are, but as long as they are playing the role of facilitators of an industrialised system, I’m not sure what to think about their efforts to improve animal welfare. Vet students know this; every year it’s harder to get students to choose farm animal medicine.

Not that I ever got away from it myself: as long as I drink milk, and eat butter, cheese and meat, or wear leather, I’m still participating in a system that makes me shrink inside.

Here’s Temple:

Obama puppy from Canada?

January 23, 2009

Although I’ve already expressed my semi-professional unsolicited advice that the Obamas should adopt a greyhound, it would be a nice gesture if they adopted a puppy from this shelter in my hometown.

The Winnipeg Humane Society helped police break up an illegal puppy mill in the city in December, and seized 55 Labradoodles, including 21 puppies and two pregnant females.

One of them, named “Lilly,” has since given birth to a litter of 11 “bright and happy” puppies, the shelter’s executive director Bill MacDonald told AFP.

“When I learned that President Obama’s first official state visit would be to Canada, and that he was looking for a puppy for his daughters, I thought a shelter puppy would make a great gift from our government,” he said.

I’ve seen a few Labradoodles in my rural practice, and while I retain a bit of healthy skepticism about new-fangled crosses, I have to admit the doodles are nice-sized dogs with a good temperament – not as rambunctious as Labs, smart like…well, poodles, and hopefully the poodle genes will diminish the risks of hip dysplasia.

Of course, it’s never good to see a breed come into super-vogue, but I’m hopeful that we’re moving past that era into a new one where dogs are appreciated as mutts rather than as a specialised breed.