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19 April 2011


My favorite one goes something like this: The newest fad among the wealthy elite of the world (Milan, Lima, LA) are cats artificially grown to remain very small from kittenhood by insertion into glass bottles, where their cramped space suppresses growth, and they are sold as a novelty. These Bonsai Kittens spend their entire life in little glass bottles. There are pictures. There is a website. Poor, abused little kitties!

My sweet, newly teen niece was horrified. Daddy, can I use your computer to send an email? Sure, sweetie. It went to every name in his address book.


Three engineering students thought this story up—not as a way to artificially stunt the growth of housecats, but as a sick online prank. There are no “Bonsai Kittens” only a fake website that MIT took down after three days. I repeat: Bonsai Kittens do not exist. Three young men invented the idea as a joke.

Think that’s sick? So did the Humane Society, the ASPCA and the FBI. Ultimately, so far as I know, three young men were expelled from university, and the story is still circulating the internet. No cats or kittens were harmed in the making of this urban legend.

Now, first, there are problems with the story since mammals do not react the same way a Japanese maple does to cramped space. A seedling is selected with small leaves. The tree is pruned, babied with just enough water and soil to thrive, but snip snip! It’s not allowed to grow. With meticulous care it will develop into a fair replica of an ancient, but very tiny tree.

We don’t work that way. Poor nutrition can certain stunt growth in mammals, but not limited space. Not in the way described. And all who have ever owned a cat should shudder when they consider how those so-called bonsai kittens defecate.

I’ve received many such bogus emails over the years—most often from highly intelligent people who should know better. Afghan women, everything you’ve been told about what to do during earthquakes is wrong, plastic water bottles gave Sheryl Crow cancer, click here and Pepsi or Microsoft or somebody will give something to someone. Right now the one I keep running into is about 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, and 5 Sundays in July—it happens on once in about 823 years... except it happened in July 2005, not to mention in the last October... Doesn't anyone check facts? Try Snopes.

Once upon a time people believed whatever they found in print—result: yellow journalism. Politicians and the powerful have famously spread lies. “Remember the Main”? How about any number of lies told to trigger the sympathy of any numbers of populations to support measures that are directly counter to their own interests?

Right now, for example, Social Security and Medicare almost pay for themselves—they’re off by about 2%. It’s a self-supporting “entitlement”—most Americans pay into it their entire working lives—to which you and I are entitled to benefit. We already paid for it. I’ve paid for it for over 40 years. I don’t want to hear about how it’s “going broke” because I know that for decades it produced a surplus that the federal government used to pay for other things.

Wars, mostly. War is a costly item in any budget. I’m not talking about body armor or Veteran’s benefits. I’m talking about millions and billions spent on helicopters and armaments. Warships. Smart Bombs. Tomahawks. Money to defense contractors. Landmines that earn some companies a very healthy bottom line and blow the feet off people in third world countries. Look it up—go to the U.S. government and have a look at actual dollars. (I could be mistaken. I could be lying.)

Right now we are spending more than we take in. No one doubts this. Some are insisting that we have to ensure that the wealthy of our country don’t see their income dip because only they can make new jobs. I see business people every day who make products or sell services. They are the truly small business people of America and they are having a hard time because many Americans can’t afford to buy what they have to sell.

In other words: If the poor starve, who is going to buy what the wealthy produce? Oh, wait, you don’t have to produce anything to be rich. I forgot. But give them a tax break anyway, because somehow, the rest of us are supposed to believe they deserve it?

I don’t believe they deserve it.

We’re at war and war means sacrifice. It should not only be the service men and women and their families who sacrifice life, sorrow, grief, and loss. How about the rest of us pony up what we can, a few dollars. Surely money is easier to part with than the life of a loved one? Yes, Americans are hurting, but I have a job and I should be asked to contribute. My income has gone up 3% in the past five years or so. Raise my taxes a little. I can afford it. Remove the tax cuts for everyone. We should all pay and we should pay according to our ability. Paying should not take food out of the mouths of children. Maybe it costs us a vacation or remodeling the bathroom or a second or third home—others are paying with life.

Let me be more clear: Taxes shouldn’t go up for the poor, because we are, despite all the hype, a wealthy country and it is shocking that we have poor people here. We are also good people and sometimes very smart people. We should understand that the desire to be poor isn’t genetic, and it’s not part of our national characters. If we are getting by, we should be paying our debt, and it should not come out of the pockets of the weakest, sickest, youngest, and most vulnerable among us.

Years have gone by since I first started fact-checking online. My little cousin is all grown now, and wiser. She's no longer entitled to mess with her dad's email account. She's paying her own way these days. She's paying into Social Security and Medicare, and she is entitled to expect that the society she's supported her whole life will also support her when she needs it. But if you still believe what circulates as truth about entitlements, you might shed a tear for the Bonsai Kittens.

ABOVE: the square watermelon was said to be inspired by the Bonsai Kitten hoax.

15 April 2011


Years ago now (a decade?), boys on a local high school sports team held a drinking party at the home of a boy whose parents were out of town. The police showed up and several boys were cited with MIPs (minors in possession). One, attempting to flee before being caught, received a more serious citation for driving under the influence (DWI, driving while intoxicated). There were other drugs beside alcohol at the party, and though not everyone had indulged, all team members had previously signed a pledge not to use any drugs or even be present while drugs were used. Some boys thought this meant it was okay to indulge out of season. Some simply ignored that pledge altogether.

These boys came before a committee I served on, and the overwhelming attitude of that committee and the parents of those boys was that “drinking is something all kids do.” I had to think about that. They had broken the law. The actions of the boys could have sent them to the hospital, could even have led to an accident and death, but people forgave them.

Later that same year, another sport team entertained themselves after a game by taking turns mugging for a borrowed camera. They took dozens of pictures and got carried away emulating music performers and popular images in the media. While these girls may not have set out to be offensive or indecently provocative, there was a little too much skin, a little too much suggestion. They recognized this themselves, so the story goes, and deleted the images from the camera. But this was a while back when digital cameras were still new, the camera was borrowed, and the girls naïve. They deleted the photos, but failed to dump the trash before they returned the camera. When the owner, a younger boy considerably more tech savvy, found the images in his trash folder, he moved them out and onto the internet. Then the FBI and regional news crews got involved.

It was terribly embarrassing for the girls, the school, the entire community. The boy was the only one who had broken the law, however, and his family suffered more than embarrassment. The family computer was confiscated and the boy was subject to close scrutiny and legal action. This is one of those cases that get people excited—some shocked at the behavior of youth today, others shrugging and figuring that if you can’t learn from your mistakes while you’re a kid, when will you learn? In the end the news crews lost interest and the FBI went back to investigating adult crime.

Nevertheless, there were people in the school who wanted those girls to pay. Those “indecent” photos were evidence of immorality. Some lips curled into a sneer at the very mention of the photos and their subjects. People wanted the offenders expelled from clubs and organizations, publicly humiliated. One unthinking teacher asked a student to print the photos, still wandering the internet, and bring them to school, since printing them off at school would have been “inappropriate”.

I never saw the photos so I can’t say just how “bad” they were, but I can say that sex doesn’t have to be dirty and most people, at some point in their lives and perhaps throughout their lives, will enjoy sex with someone. I believe if they are very lucky, they will find sex a source of pleasure, passion, and intimate connection to the person they love for most of their lives. That’s something I would wish on everyone. In committee I argued that while the girls had exercised questionable judgment they had not violated the law or any honor code. What they’d done had not risked a life. We might not like it, but we were not within our rights to punish them.

Intoxication leads to thousands of traffic fatalities each year, other accidents, addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Those boys had broken several laws and as a result of their actions they might have died. Nothing those girls did was going to hurt anyone. Careless sex can result in unwanted pregnancy, disease, but rarely death—and they weren’t having sex. They were showing off before a camera. [For the record—I had to argue forcefully to win my point. There was a great deal of heat in the room.]

Despite the American reactions, sometimes overreaction, to sexual issues, it is well to consider real life consequences of all our actions. Irresponsible behavior deserves condemnation, but a knee-jerk reaction to sex serves no one. Sexuality is not inevitably more dangerous than intoxication, and it isn’t more deserving of scorn. Bottom line, sex isn’t dirty. It’s supposed to be fun.

…and while I’m on the subject and just for the record: I believe that sex is something that adults do. I believe that being responsible is one of the ways an individual proves they are ready for sex. That means that you don’t have a baby when you’re still a child or risk transmission of a disease or insist you “got carried away” and that’s why you had sex. Having a baby while you’re still in high school is a sure sign that you are not ready to be a parent and you shouldn’t be having sex. Responsible adults consider the impact on the possible child and their own lives before bringing a baby into the world. Every child deserves to be wanted and cherished. It is not the baby’s job to make the lives of others better and anyone who wants a baby to love them, or as some kind of evidence of their manliness or maturity, has rocks where their head should be (maybe their heart needs some attention too). Sex isn’t inherently wrong, but cruel, selfish, or childish sex can be a dirty trick to play on the next generation.

Maybe I’m talking about moderation. A glass of wine with dinner isn’t bad; getting wasted at a tavern or party and driving home is criminal. Patting someone on the shoulder can be affectionate; punching someone is assault. Loving your life partner is intimate, glorious; “getting some” is at best vulgar and at worse… well, save that for another day. 

ABOVE: Giovanni Baglione, 1602, Amor sacro e amor profano

03 April 2011


A couple of years ago my husband and I were on Whidbey Island for a wedding. We were struck by two impulses—one, every time we visit an island, we find it difficult to leave, and two, perhaps we could find a place we'd visited years ago. 

About 700 years ago the Skagit Indians began living permanently on Whidbey Island. Within the rain shadow cast by the Olympic Range, the land is nevertheless rich, the sea bountiful. Whites arrive to settle in the 19th century, among them the original settler Isaac Ebey, who brought his family out and then was shot dead and beheaded in 1857 by a party of northern Indians in retaliation for the unprovoked butchery of 28 Native people. Some report the killers as Haida, led by a female relative of the chief who had been among those slain. Whoever killed Ebey, Native presence on the land would soon end. Although there were well over a thousand Indians on Whidbey Island (perhaps closer to 2000) in those years, their presence would be erased by white settlers, the American military, and disease. We learned only part of this story all those years ago. The most infamous details had to do with Isaac's missing head, and rumors of his scalp. No one lived in that part of the island while we visited, except our friends.  

In the early 70s, my future husband and I visited a friend and her family in a cabin she used each summer above Ebey's Landing on Whidbey Island. At the time the entire area was privately owned and the people we stayed with were hoping to protect it from development—plans were in the works.  We went with Billie to pick up drinkable water in former peanut oil drums—the water always tasted a little rancid. There was a wood-burning sauna, and an outhouse, of course. The view to the north and west was lovely and at the back were trees dripping lichens. I pulled some of the soft pale green lichens and used them to dye wool I had spun myself. This would make our visit about 1973.

We slept before a fire in the south end of the long narrow house. We walked down the hill to Ebey's original farmhouse (shown above) and used a key to get in and admire the high ceilings, the inland facing bay windows that came all the way to the floor. Today all this is a National Historic Reserve and the Jacob Ebey House Visitor Contact Station has opened in that lowland spot that I remember. Someone also stays at the edge of the forest where we visited decades ago. The drive in from the road is gated and shows regular use. 

It's probably true that you can't go home again, but it's good to know that some of those places that remain dear in our memories are building memories for others still. 

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