Snakes and tarantulas and scorpions. These animals are pretty common in Texas where I live. On separate occasions, we have found all three inside our house. But we are still alive. Snakes don’t normally kill you. Sometimes they curl up on your front porch. Sometimes, as happened to us recently with a rattlesnake, they sun themselves on a back porch, but they rarely try to kill you. The rattler went flying across the yard when we used a shovel to throw him off the porch. The rat snake that was on the front porch mentioned above—well that was a big one, and animal control apparently had to come to remove that hideous hisser.
But, even if there is the possibility of danger, one can fear snakes, or scorpions, or even tarantulas quite irrationally. Or anything, for that matter. When I was a lad, I was afraid of tunnels. I was sure, when Elaine would drive through the tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s North Eastern Extension, we would become trapped and die. But we did not.
And thus, I would suggest, if we are going to indulge our fears, let us do so exclusively with rational fears. Those would be, for example, when your airplane loses its hydraulic system and starts swerving, and when you land there are fire trucks all over the tarmac. Okay, that one’s real. (And, yes, that actually happened to me.) Or when you find out you have cancer, or … ( you can fill in the blanks from here). And terrorism, too, I think is not an entirely irrational fear, but it is in fact unlikely to happen to you. Indeed, terrorism does strike fear into the hearts of even pretty rational people. So what can we do?
FDR famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” I think that quote perhaps sounds a bit cleverer than it in fact is. I think what he probably meant by it is that we must trust our institutions. It’s simply too easy to become cynical and indulge ourselves in conspiracy theories about our institutions. Rather, let’s believe that, even if our institutions, such as the press, sometimes go overboard—they can swing like pendulums between the far left (I won’t mention any particular cable news network or nationally broadcasting companies) or the far right (I won’t mention any PETA inspired names)—but they are trying (or at least some of the honorable journalists who work for any of those networks are trying) to keep America free by working hard to be the credible (at least sometimes) entities of the collective free press. We have to believe, too, in the democratic values that express themselves in wacky ways, like governors who hold extreme positions on the west coast or senators who hold the opposite extreme positions in the southwest. But the institutions, those are there for a reason and, if St. Paul is right—and he was writing under much greater duress than anyone in America ever has—they are at the very least overseen from Above (Romans 13:4).
Is this the case in every country? Certainly not. But it is the case here, so don’t lose heart, especially if you’ve been doubting your institutions, and indulging in fears larger than a tarantula but smaller, presumably, than the snake on the man’s front porch in Morgan’s Point, Texas. It was seven feet long. Okay, I agree; maybe that man’s fear was rational after all.
The phrase “o possum” in Latin means “Oh, can I!” Yet this has nothing to do with the animal opossum, whose name among the scientific community is the far less catchy and harder to say didelphimorphia. The common name opossum is actually derived from a Native American dialect (Algonquian) meaning “white dog.”
Opossums, as you probably know, are marsupial omnivores. They walk with flat feet and are oddly resistant to snake bites. Even rattlesnakes cannot rattle them—they simply answer with an “Oh, I can resist you!” Even cottonmouths, said by some to be the most deadly of North American snakes, cannot kill them. Their chorus is always the same, “Oh, I can take it!”
I am thinking of these fine marsupials because I saw a family of them pass through my yard this week. They are cute as can be. I have heard that some types are actually domesticated, though I have never met anyone with a pet opossum. And, by the way, they do not sleep hanging by their tails. That is just a rumor presumably started by those who fear bats. But, they do “play possum.” While their first reaction to danger is to hiss like a cat, when deeply frightened, they can actually fall asleep for up to four hours and their body instinctively takes over, pretending that it is that of a dead animal. Their instincts make them secrete a terrible smelling liquid from their anal glands, and their lips curl back like those of a lifeless animal, leaving their teeth bared and showing some foaming saliva. Yet do not worry, for opossums are also quite resistant to rabies and rarely contract the disease.
Now why, you might wonder, am I taking so much time to delineate the particular features of an animal whose name has as much to do with the Latin “Oh I can!” as the Titanic’s has to do with Santa Claus, men’s formal dress and sunbathing. I am doing so because, of course, I find these animals fascinating. Their innate and unconscious capacity to play dead is intriguing to me: If only more nations would exercise such restraint when provoked by an aggressor. And the fact that they do not sleep by hanging from their tails—well that’s interesting, too, simply because of the misinformation that I received in fourth grade. Where did my teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, get that inaccurate description of these creatures? How did it go viral back in the days when nothing could do so because there was no Internet? Further, opossums are migratory. They don’t tend to stay in one place, unless they happen to have a good supply of food and water there. It stands to reason, but who knew?
But the title of this blog mentions the notion of safe spaces, as well. Though these have been in the news quite a bit lately, few of my readers are likely to be deeply concerned with the concept or practice, so removed as it may seem from our everyday life. On the light side, there are some obvious problems with the term, right off the bat: one need only rent the movie Gravity to ascertain immediately that space is certainly not a safe place. Yet, of course, this is not what is meant by this term. Its deeper meaning has been a topic very much in the news and is no laughing matter.
Recently the Washington Post reported that students at Emory felt unsafe because someone had written pro-Trump slogans in chalk on some of the pavements of the university. These were merely slogans that, as far as I could tell from the photograph, said, “TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP” or ” TRUMP 2016.” Also recently, students at Oberlin demanded increased and more diverse—though someone might cogently argue less so—safe-space havens on campus. Last fall a number of students at Yale surrounded and berated a faculty master, whose very title has been deemed racist, to tell him what a poor job he was doing because he had suggested in an email that they not be too put out by the possibility that some Halloween costumes can be deemed offensive, should they happen to see one.
Indeed, Halloween costumes are often offensive, and are meant to be so. This possibility, of course, offended some at Yale. But more offensive to them, apparently, was the suggestion that someone should ignore or write off as “in poor taste” Halloween costumes that were, in fact, in poor taste. The idea that merely ignoring, rolling one’s eyes at, or even snarkily retorting in passing to those wearing such costumes might in and of itself be an adequate way to deal with such offense set off a firestorm. To suggest as much was, it seemed, a violation of the notion of the safe space, the “home,” as one student called it, that Yale is expected by those students (or at least one student) to create for its constituents. Students are, it seemed to be argued, entitled to feel safe and secure at college. The very notion that something or someone could challenge that was not deemed tolerable to a number of the students.
According to the New York Times, the faculty master/lecturer has since left Yale, an outcome no doubt seen as a great victory for those students. Yet, I wonder, had any of them ever considered the opossum? The opossum resists the bites even of venomous snakes. The opossum hisses when mildly threatened, but when greatly threatened simply plays dead and is left alone. The opossum moves on, if necessary, the opossum is not known for being an attack animal. No one has ever heard of a “ferocious opossum.” An opossum would not cost a young lecturer and his wife a job at Yale. An opossum would not demand a safe space; he would simply persist; he would hiss if necessary; under duress, he would simply play dead. And, whether hanging from his tail or not, he would be able to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, because he did all that he needed to do to keep himself safe, and he had done so decorously by animal standards, instead of acting out on feelings of entitlement and a false sense of temporary power. Opossums rarely have such feelings, I imagine. That’s why we like them.
I truly feel sorry for those young folks who feel so empowered now, especially after gaining their victory over their faculty —if the term still exists at Yale—master. There’s just a chance that when they leave the safe confines of the safe spaces of their safe university they won’t feel so empowered or so enabled, or even so safe. Will they be able, like the opossum to say, “Oh, can I!” when they try to tackle their first big assignment on their first job? And even if they do say something like that, will they in fact be so able as to get the job done without accusing their boss or co-workers of upsetting their safe space, puncturing the fragile casing of their feelings? However it may go for them, I hope for their sake, they eventually realize that they were not so smart as they thought. That ruining someone’s career over a Halloween costume is, well, not opossum-like, but asinine. Perhaps it’s something worse. Perhaps it’s downright bestial.
Two weeks ago I wrote a blog about a parrot with a Brooklyn accent. And just when I thought that I was done with talking animals, I went to Verona which made me think of a conversation I once had with my fifth oldest child. She was not born in America; in fact, she was born in Ethiopia, and she came to America with little English. When I was walking her home from school one afternoon, after her ESL class, she mentioned to me that she was hungry, so I told her that I would fix her a little snack when we got home.
“I don’t want one,” she said.
“Oh,” I replied, “I thought you were hungry.”
“I am,” she said.
“Well then,” I responded, “I will fix you a snack.”
“No, no, no,” she said, “I don’t want one.”
“How hungry are you?”
“Just a little.”
“Then a snack would be perfect. Just a little one. There’s no need to fix you a big one.”
“No, no, no. I don’t want one.”
Only later did I realize that her hunger pangs followed by moments of apparently complete lack of hunger were engendered by her misunderstanding of the word snack. She thought, of course, that I was saying snake. Now I know that some of my Texan friends eat snake. But I am not a herpavor. I come from Pennsylvania where, to my knowledge, no one eats snakes. But my daughter thought I was referring to making her eat a small snake (as opposed to a large one) after school.
Now I had almost forgotten about this event until we arrived in Verona two days ago and, on the advice of an acquaintance, went to one of the finer dining establishments in this beautiful town, a five minute walk from the House of Juliette, which features, of course, the balcony said to have inspired the bard. Drifting on from the mildly (if tragically) romantic courtyard of Juliette, we came to the aforementioned restaurant, one that astounded me, only in part because the tortellini that I ordered was deliciously garnished with fine northern Italian Balsamic—real Balsamic comes from either Reggio Emilia or Modena (whose accent rests on the first syllable). Indeed, the pasta that I had chosen was delightful, far more delightful than the menu which featured, to my great consternation, both pasta with a meat sauce made of horse flesh and another with a donkey ragù. Good heavens, I thought, it has come full circle. Now I have become my daughter—but this time they really are eating the forbidden animal. And the couple at the next table fulfilled my worst fears, he ordering the horse and she, with a chuckle that sounded to me a veritable bray, the donkey.
Now this seemed to me especially wrong on two counts. First, having been a mule skinner for much of my childhood years, I can never brook the notion of eating the father (a jackass) of one of my beloved coworkers—hybrid, yes, but certainly almost human. Second, the woman who ordered the spaghetti a la donkey ragù herself cavorted in an asinine manner. I’m not sure what nationality she was, but suffice it to say that the manner in which she displayed her discerning palate was a bit too much for my taste. Thus it seemed to me that a bit of cannibalism might just have been going on at table 12.
Coincidentally or not, there are only two animals in the Bible—that is the donkey and the snake—ever reported to have spoken Hebrew (presumably Hebrew). The ass, was of course, that of Balaam and the snake, well, that was Eve’s little friend in the Garden. But the horse, while never having been said to speak in the Bible, has human characteristics, too, as anyone who has owned one can tell you. Some horses have been very famous. Need I mention Silver, of Lone Ranger fame, who spoke, or rather at least understood, perfect English and would come when called and do exactly as he was told; or Bucephalus, who despite his ox-headed name was said to have been the best of horses in antiquity, his master’s favorite and often depicted in artistic renditions along with Alexander. The equus of Caesar was said to have been equally beloved of his master. Both were said to have been portrayed with hooves resembling human feet. And should I even mention Mr. Ed? Of course it’s a horse, of course, of course, but not ever meant to be a dinner course.
So, when the waiter offered me the spaghetti a la donkey ragù, I, as my daughter had once said to me, found myself stating repetitively, “No, no, no…!” I was amazed at how visceral my response was, but I simply could not and would not dare even think of eating a donkey or a horse on basically the same principal that my dear daughter had innately adopted vis-à-vis even a small snake. Even though the waiter insisted it was tasty; even though the woman at table twelve was by then ravenously devouring it; even though it is part of Veronese culture, new to me on this trip (new since Switzerland, where I was two days ago, studying more manuscripts in lovely Bern); even though I normally try to embrace as fully as possible a new culture when I am travelling. In spite of all this, I simply could not eat an animal like Bucephalus or Balaam’s ass, or even Eve’s slithering sidekick.
Wait, what about dogs and cats? They don’t speak in the Bible, but they certainly have human characteristics and are a part of many a family in ways that snakes and donkeys normally are not. Well, that can be gotten around easily enough. First, the dog is the one animal in the Bible whose name is everywhere, just written backwards, of course. So, the Eucharist notwithstanding, I think we can safely say that we should not eat dogs on roughly the same biblical principal as not eating donkeys. It’s a bit harder to come up with a biblical refuge for cats. The best I can find is about as convincing as Mr. Trump’s by now quasi infamous (but somehow not damaging to him) “Two Corinthians” reference. Still for the sake of the species, I will try. The word “according to,” used for titles of each of the gospels in Greek, is “kata,” which is easily shortened to “kat/cat.” So, cats, it seems, are if only indirectly, like dogs, in the Bible and thus sort of protected from being dinner—at least according to me. Besides, our own dog, Knight, is a Great Dane, and thus qualifies both under the backwards goD heading and the horse category, as well.
But I will eat balsamic, and I will eat palatable pastas in peculiar places. So I leave you with but a trifle this week–you should try a trifle as well, or I should say a truffle, which in Italy are fresh and quite lovely in late November. Indeed, though I normally recommend trying the odd foods and accepting the strange things that life throws at you, I don’t recommend eating animals that can talk or whose names can be somehow manipulated as to being semi-divine, even if they can’t quite talk. And I do recommend warm Verona and snowy Bern, both lovely. Bon apetit, mon ami.