Fleas Destroy Dualism and Prevent Addiction

I’d like to talk about fleas. But first I’d like to talk about people. One of the tricky things about being a person is figuring out how to make yourself feel better without hurting yourself. We like to go for the big guns: Sugar! TV! Online shopping! Doritos! Heroin! What we really need are weird, personal, harmless ways to self-soothe. (I’m getting to the fleas, I promise.)

I’m not saying I’ve figured this all out, but I have stumbled on a couple of things. In college I realized that peeing outside was a huge stress reliever. I used to pee behind a palm tree in my co-op yard, hidden in the shadow cast by the street lamp. It was weird, I know, but also primal and reconnecting and effective. I recommend it.

Recently, I realized that combing Squinchy for fleas is also really soothing. It’s the ultimate primate expression of connection and caring, I guess. Squinchy doesn’t have too many fleas, but he does get some and I’ve noticed something about them:

Fleas roam in groups.

I’ll comb most of him and not find any, then find three or four in a clump. I got to wondering what you call a group of fleas. Is it a pack? A flock? A herd? Which led me to wonder — are they grazing or hunting? The answer is either neither or both or something else all together. Kabam! There goes dualism. And I feel so much better. Thanks, fleas.


That’s me on the Claps

When I was a lonely teenager, I had the conviction that the key to life was to turn the right direction down the right street at just the right time so that the Important and Spontaneous Thing could happen. I went on a lot of aimless walks where I dithered at the street corners under the immense pressure of being open to fate. Usually, nothing interesting happened. Now I think that worrying about serendipity is counter-productive. I focus more on walking confidently in a (semi) clear direction. But sometimes the random turn at the random moment does turn up a true, pure serendipitous thing.


Take my last night in Dublin this September. I had gone out to look for some dinner. I was crossing the street, when I looked left and saw the sunlight shining on a bridge over the river. That’s where I’m going, I thought, so I did. On the bridge was a man in one of those Irish caps. He had binoculars, and he was looking at another man who was stumping around in the mud where the river usually was when the full moon hadn’t pulled the tide so low. What’s he looking for? I asked the man with the binos, and he gave me a look.The man in the river had a trowel in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. I think he was a treasure hunter.


The man with the binos’ name was Joe and he was from Dublin, and we started talking about things, which was a huge relief after four days in a hostel where no one wanted to put down their devices long enough to have a conversation. (Tangential rant: people, when you’re traveling, please get off the internet and talk to people so I can have some faith in humanity.) Joe decided to show me a block on Henrietta Street where all the old tenement houses were still standing, so we started to walk across the city.


When we got to that one particular block, we heard music coming out of a building. Joe inquired and found out they were the Na Píobairí Uilleann — the Uilleann Pipe Society — recording a radio show. They invited us in to listen.

So there I was, fifteen minutes into a conversation with a stranger, in a basement with a bunch of Irish musicians playing incredible music. If you don’t know this, in studio shows are much more constructed than they sound. They don’t record the things in order. They recorded all the music, then took the clapping separate. We’ll take the applause for Sheila now. And we’d all (including Sheila) clap our hearts out. You can listen yourself if you like, thanks to radio archives. Maybe you’ll hear me cheering.


Later, Joe and I were eating chips on a picnic table, when an old man in a dirty coat rode up on a bicycle. Joe offered him some chips, which few people would do in the U.S. The man sat down with us and told us stories of his time in Brooklyn and of marching against the Iraq war, even though he felt it was futile. I never did get dinner, unless Guinness and chips count, but I did get to listen to people I so easily might never have met. I don’t know if this was an Important Thing like I was imagining as a girl. It was something more subtle than money or love or fame or purpose. But I felt the current — the story — that moves through life. I felt that sense of possibility. And that’s still a reason I walk down the street.


I have a theory about the widespread hatred of rats. Not only are they vectors of plagues and a sign you might be living in an unsanitary hovel, they aren’t in our food chain. In other words, we don’t eat rats, so if a rat eats something, that food is lost to us forever.

So if a rat eats your chicken food, there is no way to get that chicken food back. If they eat the plums off of your five Italian prune trees*, there is no way you’re going to eat those plums. Whereas, if a squirrel eats something, you can eat the squirrel back. The old Joy of Cooking will even tell you how. You can eat pigeons, too. (In high-school, my friends and I considered launching a homeless-person-self-sufficiency program that centered on teaching pigeon eating. For better or worse, we were big talkers.) Only people in Parisian sieges eat rats.

We don’t eat things that eat rats, either. We don’t eat cats or dogs or coyotes or owls or hawks or bobcats or cougars or rat poison. We can eat snakes, so that’s an exception. Go snakes.

*Raise your hand if you think I’m speaking from experience.

How Witches and Wizards Could Stop Global Warming


One of my students just found the solution to global warming:


That’s right — if we were only all witches and wizards, we could just use broomsticks instead of cars. And while that wouldn’t stop all our carbon emissions, it is true that it probably would get us under the critical 350 mark.

My student is more right than she knows. Let me explain. I had a dream when I was seventeen that I could fly on a broomstick. I could control it with my mind, by thinking in different colors. When I woke up, the feeling was still in my body and I felt sure that if I went right then and tried, I could do it. But my cousins were visiting, and I got shy, and never did it. I think about it sometimes, though, and I still believe I have the latent power. It just feels very, very latent.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was bumming around on Facebook and read a musing by my friend Caitlin, who is just like Waylon Jennings.

She asked, “Is it enough to just do what makes us happy without considering a greater service to our fellow humans? Is “being happy” or “following our passion” or being “a servant of God” enough justification for the resources and we use on this planet?”

Besides guys, poetry, and breakfast, this question is pretty much all I thought about from 2004 –2008, if not longer. I was trying to come to terms with being a writer instead of an activist like all the cool kids. The thing that gave me the permission I needed to do my work was this Howard Thurman quote: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I think that this is fundamentally different than just being happy or following our passions, because alive means feeling pain, too. It means being aware. It means changing. It means not deadening our connection to each other or the planet. I feel strongly that the more people come alive, the more capable we will be to face huge problems, because we will find within ourselves all kinds of strength we did not even know we had.  We may even find we can use our minds to fly.

Solving global warming and all the rest of the list won’t take any wizards, but it will take people using every latent, living power we have. And when we are done with global warming, we can turn to another question one of my students asked another: How can you be a vegetarian, when last year you were half-vampire?

Step alive, y’all.


My Little Animists

Supposedly I teach writing, but sometimes it turns out I teach philosophy and astronomy and people-are-not-for-hitting, which is actually a fairly profound subject in and of itself and should be required for every political nominee. This is what happens: you sit down to teach some kids a Latin word root or something, and the world pours in. Language is so intertwined with life.

I teach them the word root anima — breathe, soul, life.  Like animal, you know? That’s easy, but inanimate — what does that even mean? Is a rock inanimate? They don’t think so, and neither do I. This makes us all some kind of proto-animists, though I don’t tell them this directly because some of them have other religions or no-religions. What about a thing on the internet, they want to know — is that an inanimate object? I don’t know. A table is, they are pretty sure. But a peach? The universe? And what about the time before 1560, when English got the word inanimate: did people have another word for it, or did they not even think about the world that way?

Speaking of the universe, what if it’s actually a multiverse? Did you ever think, they want to know, about how electrons circle their nucleus just like planets circle their sun? And black holes: why are scientists scared of them? All of those people that fell in them, they probably just went through a portal.