Allison's Book Bag

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Four years ago, I joined Saturday Snapshot. The meme invites bloggers to share photos. One of my new year’s resolutions was to create a memory scrapbook from my childhood. I intend for the project to be a work-in-progress, where I mostly post in order of scanned photos. So far, I have posted about my parents and grandparents, the family dog, and personal interests. Next up are photos that include my aunts and uncles or my mom’s siblings (Gertrude, Kathy, Melvin, Monte) and my dad’s siblings (Ruth).

The first photo is at my grandparents’ place and is of them, my parents, some of my aunts and uncles, and me. Everything about the interior has long since changed. The second photo seems to have been taken before my parents flew to Ontario to visit relatives on my dad’s side. A favorite photo of mine is the third which shows just my uncles with me.

Naturally, my relatives have changed a lot since my cradle day photos. Most of have married, had children, and even retired. As such, they sport gray hair and struggle with some health issues. Except for my relatives who moved away from Newfoundland, I get to visit everyone on my mom’s side once a year. Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Calvin will invite Andy and I over for a home-cooked meal. Uncle Melvin and Aunt Linda share my love of travel and pets. With Uncle Monte and Verna, I enjoy long conversations about anything and everything.

On my dad’s side, there’s just Aunt Ruth and Uncle John. The first photo is of them with me and the second is of me with their dog. Andy and I have gone four times since my move to Nebraska to visit them. The first was for a cousin’s wedding; two were just to connect; and the fourth was for my nan’s funeral. Andy and I enjoyed their house in the woods and by a lake. We appreciated that they took time to show off places about their community, hike with us, and treated us to homemade and restaurant meals.

The Distance Between Us is a young reader’s edition of an adult memoir by Reyna Grande. Her memoir weaves the universal story of a family’s resolve to reach their goal against all odds. By the same token, her memoir raises the question of how much should one be willing to sacrifice to obtain the impossible dream? The Distance Between Us also makes clear how arduous the road to a better life can be, while at times also offering hope and inspiration.

Reyna grew up in a poverty-stricken area of Mexico and her family’s goal was to have their own home. Unfortunately, her Papi couldn’t find a job in the weak Mexican economy. For that reason, he’d left two years ago for the United States. All that Reyna had as a child to remember him by was a glass-framed photo. Now her Mami is also readying herself to flee across the border so that she too might help earn money and the family could more quickly build a house in Mexico. Being left behind was hard enough for Reyna and her siblings, but little could anyone have imagined exactly how much more painful their lives would become. Reyna’s grandparents took care of her and her siblings, but only from a sense of duty, and so the children regularly starved, outgrew their clothes, and lived in squalor. That was only the start of the misery. When their mother eventually returned, she brought with her the news that their father wasn’t going to return: they had divorced. Never again was life the same, for their mother now acted as if burdened by her children, instead of sheltering them with love. When their father eventually smuggled them into the United States with him, he controlled their every move. He feared deportation, but also believed that his children owed it to him to invest their entire being into toiling for success. For a time, life was as miserable or more than it had been in Mexico.

After Reyna graduated college, married, and became an author, she couldn’t help but wonder if the sacrifices had been worth it. Sure, from the moment, she’d settled into the United States, Reyna lived in an apartment instead of shack with one room. There were glass windows, solid walls, carpeted floors, and a bathroom with a shower and a toilet. Surrounding her were paved streets instead of dirt roads, and lawns with lush green grass and flowers of all kinds. In contrast to the stores in Mexico, Kmart was the biggest store she’d ever shopped at. For the first time, she got to see the ocean. If the family got sick with even a simple toothache, they could see a doctor and get treated. Despite the embarrassment over her struggles to fit into an English-speaking environment, there were so many more opportunities. Such as a good education. And a well-paying job. Yet the cost to getting these had been very high. Not only had her parents divorced, but her father had become abusive and her mother had kept the youngest sibling with her, and the children had become rebellious. Each family member would have to answer for themselves the question of whether the price had been worth it, just as we all need to decide how much we’re willing to lose for what we most wish for.

In her forward, Reyna Grande expressed the desire that her book would bring more awareness to the controversial subject and would encourage readers to not let anything keep them from becoming the person they want to be. Although The Distance Between Us tells a story as much about poverty as it does immigration, it should serve as encouragement to press on when life gets tough.

With our household of critters having expanded to include three cats and a dog, I thought it fitting to join a meme related to pets. After searching around, I came across Awww….. Mondays. The one rule is: “Post a picture that makes you say Awww…. and that’s it.” Every photo seemed to feature a pet and so the meme is a perfect fit!

There’s a little bit of me in all my cats. Let’s start with Cinder! She’s an interesting mix of reclusive and social. Of all our cats, Cinder is the most difficult to find when she wants to be alone. I don’t know where she tucks herself, but we can look high and low and in all her favorite haunts, and that Cinder will be nowhere. Similarly, if I want to be alone, I can find the most obscure and least obvious places to hide. Even when she’s out-and-about, Cinder tends to keep more to herself than our other cats. A few times in the day, she’ll retreat to the basement. There I can hear her collar jangle as she roams, and eventually I hear her meow like a person singing in the shower. When upstairs, Cinder is most often in another room. If she does stay with us, it’s rarely where we are; instead she’s sits in a high spot and quietly watches our every move. Similarly, there are times at home when I like to retreat to the bathtub to read, think, and dream. At socials, I might be the one with a book or notepad. Being an observer can be more comfortable than being part of the picture. Moreover, if part of a group on an outing, I tend to fall behind or plow ahead, set in finding my own path.

At the same time, Cinder’s the only one of our cats who consistently greets me at the door when I return from an outing or my job. She’ll sniff my entire face over, as if living vicariously through me. Even when visitors come to the door, Cinder’s the first other than our dog to greet them. Although she’ll outright reject hugs and snuggles (and so we’ve dubbed her our autistic child), Cinder will let visitors stroke her and even reward them with purrs. Our pet sitters report that during their visits, Cinder enjoys their brushing her, playing with her, and otherwise pampering her. Perhaps when living at Hearts United for Animals, and meeting many prospective adopters, Cinder learned the importance of welcoming people, even if she’s at heart an introvert. In that way, I’d say we’re also similar. Over the years, I’ve read plenty of books about how to overcome shyness, and pushed myself often to meet new people. In time, I came to enjoy broadening my circle of friends, and hope that Cinder herself derives some pleasure from her extroverted moments.

Want to start your week off with a smile? Visit Comedy Plus or Burnt Food Dude and see what others are sharing today.

Four years ago, I joined Saturday Snapshot. The meme invites bloggers to share photos. One of my new year’s resolutions was to create a memory scrapbook from my childhood. I intend for the project to be a work-in-progress, where I mostly post in order of scanned photos. So far, I have posted about my parents, our family dog, and personal interests. Next up are photos of my grandparents.

These photos are particularly meaningful, because none of my grandparents are still alive. The first photo was taken near the time I had been christened, and is of my grandparents on my mom’s side. They both met Andy, but long before I moved to Nebraska to date and eventually marry him. I know they both would have been proud. The second photo seems to have been taken before my parents flew to Ontario to visit relatives on my dad’s side.

The third photo is of my grandparents on my dad’s side. Although she was a step-mom to my dad, I only knew my grandmother and so to me she was always my Nan. My Poppy Hunter never met Andy, but my Nanny Hunter did when Andy and I attended a wedding of a cousin. This photo seems to be around the time of my first birthday.

In my next Saturday Snapshot, I’ll post about my other relatives, all of whom I still get to visit. Enjoy the week!

In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, author Frans de Waal discusses animal intelligence. In the prologue, he stresses that he won’t provide a comprehensive overview of evolutionary cognition, but rather he’ll pick and choose from discoveries in the field over the recent decades. His specialty is primates and as such so his focus, but de Waal also refers to studies of birds, dogs, whales, and other mammals. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, was the February selection of the online Companion Animal Psychology Book Club, formed in the fall of 2016 by Zazie Todd. For this review, I’m taking a different approach by sharing highlights of the discussion by some of the three-hundred members.

Comparisons up and down this vast ladder have been a popular pastime to cognitive science, but I cannot think of a single profound insight it has yielded. All it has done is make us measure animals by human standards. It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to ten if that’s not what a squirrel’s life is about…. We don’t need echolocation to orient ourselves in the dark; nor do we need to correct for the refraction of light between air and water as archerfish do when shooting droplets at insects above the surface. There are lots of wonderful cognitive adaptations out there that we don’t have or need. That’s why ranking cognition on a singular dimension is a pointless exercise.

To start the discussion of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Todd asked, “How did you find the first couple of chapters? Which animal stories or anecdotes particularly got your attention, and why?” In general, everyone agreed that there were so many fascinating tales, it was difficult to pick just one example. A few favorites were:

  • Elephants and mirrors: Researchers conducted tests to evaluate whether an animal recognizes its own reflection. Some elephants did!
  • Chimps and distinguishing faces: At one time, scientists declared humans unique since we were better at recognizing faces than primates were. A later study proved the opposite when it used not human faces but primate faces.
  • Cats and cages: One experiment concluded that cats rubbed against a cage latch to escape and obtain a fish as a reward. A later experiment concluded instead that the cats only needed the presence of friendly people to encourage them to rub, which is a way of greeting among cats.
  • Wasps and moved pinecones: Before wasps go out to hunt for a bee they’ve buried, they make a brief orientation flight to memorize the location of their burrows. One researcher put objects around their nest to see what information they used, as well as to trick them into looking at the wrong spots.

These examples and others led to a discussion of the concept of unwelt, or looking at the world from an animal’s point of view. One reader pointed out that we “tend to compare other animals with us and then describe their abilities in terms of lack, as in ‘dogs have the cognitive abilities of human toddlers but nothing more’, which doesn’t tell us an awful lot about dogs’ unique abilities, some of which we don’t share.” Another reader noted that it’s easier to “assume an animal lacks skill rather than asking, ‘Are our methods valid?’.” Many readers felt the first couple of chapters were more of a human story than one about animal cognition.

The next two chapters focused on specific aspects of animal intelligence. For chapter three, Todd asked: “What did you think of the studies of tool use? Did it affect how you think about animals, especially primates?” One reader expressed fascination with the expectation that most species would be incapable of using tools, even though the more studies scientists conduct the more it seems other species can and do use tools. De Waal wrote about crows in the Southwest Pacific that will spontaneously alter branches until they have a little wooden hook to fish grubs out of crevices. He also described real-life rooks that, akin to the crow in Aesop’s fable, successfully solved a floating worm puzzle by using pebbles to raise the water level in the tube. This chapter wasn’t without its controversy, with some readers debating the “risk to animal welfare if we assume cognitive abilities which are comparable to that of humans”.

For chapter four, Todd referred to a quote from de Waal and asked what ones thought about it: “You won’t often hear me say something like this, but I consider us the only linguistic species.” Initially, responses focused on the concept of language. Answers ranged from “If we mean the ability to communicate in symbolic language, then we are likely to be the only linguistic species” to “there are so many others forms of communication”. More than one reader recognized that animals do well at interpreting body language. There was also an acknowledgement that there are unknowns in communication, such as how elephants use rumbles to speak to one another, and so many animals may very well indeed have some sort of language. Then there were the more flippant remarks such as, “No doubt language is important to humans, which must be the reason we so doggedly try to teach other animals to “speak” and use this as a sign of intelligence” or “All we’ve shown (when we proof animals to ‘speak” is that other animals can pick up foreign languages.”

Todd followed-up with another question, ”What did you think when he said it caused an incident when he told people he doesn’t have a voice telling him right from wrong? Do you have such a voice?” This led to a brief discussion about morality, but mostly to a comparison of how that inner voice appears to individuals. For some it’s a feeling, while for others it’s words or pictures or a combination of both.

If cognition’s basic features derive from gradual descent with modification, then notions of leaps, bounds, and sparks are out of order. Instead of a gap, we face a gently sloping beach created by the steady pounding of millions of waves. Even if human intellect is higher up on the beach, it was shaped by the same forces battering the same shore.

In the remaining chapters, de Waal goes back and forth between discussing specific aspects of animal intelligence and the generalities of cognitive evolution. Todd posed three more questions, one about the social life of animals, one about whether there is a cognitive gap between animals and humans, and the last a catch-all question. By now though, the discussion had started to dwindle. Not everyone agreed with de Wall, and one reader contended, “As an archaeologist, I found his blanket statements about what other disciplines think about humans to be a bit … well, wrong? Archaeology and anthropology are social sciences, and I’m sure when I was in school there wasn’t a wall around human thinking or biology….” As this quote shows, some involved in the discussion had studied extensively studied social sciences of some form. As such, they were familiar with at least a few of the ideas presented. They also had the ability to discern some of what was truth and what wasn’t. Neither was the case for me, and I suspect several of the other readers, and this may have also led to the drop in conversation.

Do check Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? out from the library. While the content proved heavy reading for an unscientific person like myself, de Waal did give me renewed respect for animals. It also inspired several conversations between my husband and me. We debated what might happen if society were to view animals as smart as humans, but just in different ways. Would we so casually destroy the homes of wild animals? Would we so inhumanely treat farm animals? Would we so easily view domesticated animals as disposable? The implications are endless, making de Waal’s book an important read.


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Spring Reviews

Almost a year after I announced that it was time to take a step back from this blog, Allison's Book Bag is still here. I'm slowly working back up to weekly reviews again. Each week, there will be one under any of these categories: Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, religious books, or diversity books. Some will come in the form of single reviews and others in the form of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Freddy the Frogcaster and the Terrible Tornado by Janice Dean
  • The Distance Between Us by Reya Grande
  • Hearts of Fire from The Voice of Matyrs

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