Challenging notions: what is cruel?

Beck flare

While walking in the park with Beck one morning, I stopped to speak to an elderly lady with two small dogs. “You didn’t crop the ears,” she said, referring to Beck’s floppy ears, and then pausing to lean on her cane.

“We chose not to,” I said, over her small barking terrier running circles around Beck.

“Good,” she said. “That’s cruel.”

I thought back to our previous cropped-eared Boxers. The breeders, Vi and Muriel, we bought Gunnar and Ruby from had encouraged cropping (surgically removing part of the ear to make them stand up) since they showed many of their dogs and that was the preferred breed standard at the time (1995). They had their experienced veterinarian perform the procedure on their puppies around 8 weeks old. So when we picked up Gunnar, and later Ruby, their ears had been cropped and were mostly healed.

Beck came from a different breeder who didn’t feel ear cropping was necessary. James and I both liked Beck’s large floppy ears, so we didn’t crop. While cropping ears (and docking tails) – also common in breeds like Dobermans and Great Danes – isn’t necessary, I always felt, that it was my choice.

What does cruel mean?

My handy, tattered Webster dictionary defines cruel (an adjective) as “deliberately causing suffering to others.”

I wondered: what other observations in life might I consider cruel?
Is shooting a dog tied up to a lamp post while filming it art? Or is it cruel?

Is spanking a child an act of discipline? Or is spanking a child an act of cruelty?

Would piercing a baby’s ears before she can speak be considered cruel? Or is it a cultural thing?

What about sentencing a Saudi woman to 10 lashes because she drove a car in Saudi Arabia (which is not against the law)? Is that cruel?

How to castrate a lamb

Mike Rowe – the handsome rugged guy from Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs – had a job herding sheep. Castration was part of the required animal husbandry. Rowe usually does no research or prep before entering into a dirty job (he and his crew just go in and shoot unscripted). However, this castration requirement hit a bit too close to home for Rowe. He wanted to make sure that he knew what to expect about the humane way of castrating. So he called the Humane Society, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty in Animals (SPCA), and PETA, just for fun (because they don’t like castration.)

I won’t go into details, but Rowe admitted that his notion of the right way of doing something – castrating lambs – was wrong. (If you’re the least bit curious, Rowe gives a vivid description during a fascinating TED talk) During Rowe’s “discovery moment,” he began to question what else he may have been wrong about.

Excuse me, I’m having a Neo moment

When Neo in the movie The Matrix discovered that he was living in a computer program, he realized that everything he believed to be true was a lie. The moment of recognition that alters Neo’s behavior and sense of self is also a familiar concept in stories with plots.

Life is not simply a progression from point A to point B. It involves reversals that upset our best laid plans. There are many elements in ourselves and in the world around us that undermine our fate. Often we learn of some important piece through a moment of belated recognition.

Had I been wrong about ear cropping in the past, and only now fully realized it? If so, what else in life have I gotten wrong?

What have you discovered that led to a new realization?

What happens when you share yourself with the world?


As a writer, I’m influenced by everyone and everything around me. I can’t help it. I write stuff down all the time: things I hear, read, or imagine. Often, I file away these bits of wool to use in future great projects. However, since my four-legged, personal assistant doesn’t possess opposable thumbs (sigh) I tend to forget about my “file-for-future-greatness” projects.

Papers are stuffed in my overflowing inbox; notes are scribbled in journals, typed in web apps like Evernote and Mac Notes, saved in documents on my computer, and captured in my new, productive desktop blog assistant, Mars Edit. Due to my idiosyncratic system, a nugget often pops up weeks, months, or even years later when I’m cleaning my inbox, searching my Mac for a document, or just putting off the semi-annual garden weeding.

So, when I recently read Chris Guillebeau’s “Legacy projects and the love of true friends” post, it sounded like something I had tried to write about before.

What could possibly happen when you open up and share your important work with the world?

    A. You build a fan club of people you’ve never met, from around the world who love your art
    B. Spammers email you crap on Viagra, vitamins and how to make a million bucks
    C. Family refuse to participate in your latest Lady Gaga video spoof at the annual picnic because when you posted last year’s video on YouTube, your Aunt Fanny got “voted off” by your followers
    D. You are plucked from the obscurity of Pittsburgh to become an internet celebrity like Justine Ezarik
    E. No one leaves a comment on your latest brilliant post about “Dog poop”
    F. All of the above

Not everyone you love gets you and your work. And that’s okay. Others will. You’ll find your stride and community. Some people may criticize you, reject what you create, or do nothing. However, you’ll keep plugging away. Drip by drip you’ll share what you do because you were meant for it and you love doing it. It’s called art and it’s worth doing every day.

“If tomorrow morning the sky falls, have clouds for breakfast.” – from the book If You’re Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow, by Cooper Edens.

What do you think?

P.S. Thanks Mom. I love you.

Tomorrow is a better day

“Tomorrow is a better day.” James says from the bubbly tub. I groan and roll my eyes as I try and cajole my (then) 8-year-old, who was busy organizing and dunking his jungle of animals, to wash his hair.

“You’re supposed to wash your hair when you bathe,” I say. “It’s part of getting clean.”

“But I don’t feel like it,” says James.

“Why not?” I say through clenched teeth, as he works my last nerve on a long day.

“It’s not now.”

I sit back on my heels and think about his answer.

I see James enjoying his bath, playing with his animals in the tub. I can understand that it’s more fun than washing his hair, or scrubbing his body with a bar of soap. During his last bath he created a world in which Arctic and Antarctic animals came together for some bubble bath fun. Of course, in real life a polar bear would never come into contact with a penguin because, as James learned from his research on animals, penguins live south of the equator; polar bears live at the northern end of the earth.

Occasionally, however, polar bears are found wandering parts of Canada looking for something different to gnaw on. I’m sure they would love to snack on a penguin if they could. But Mother Nature won’t allow it. In James’s world, however, the two species co-existed in harmony. When James plays God (of the tub), anything he imagines can happen.

I thought James was procrastinating, but he doesn’t know the meaning of procrastinate. Grown ups, however. do know – and some of us are pretty good at postponing doing something we don’t like to do, especially as a regular practice.

For example, I hate to iron. I’d rather be supervising James’s bath than standing in the basement pressing the wrinkles out of my shirts. They stay on hangers until I’m left scrambling for something to wear. Ironing is really not that important to me. It’s only urgent when I need to wear a shirt with buttons and a collar – something I try to regularly avoid.

James floats on his back enveloped in snowy, white bubbles that fizz like a soft summer rain. His eyes flutter shut and he enters his creative, zen zone. I know if I wait too long, I can’t motivate James to shampoo his hair. So what? So what if James doesn’t wash his hair? What’s the worst that could happen? It smells funky?

While clean hair is important to me, it isn’t to James. So I understand what James meant: if it’s not urgent and not important to me, then tomorrow is a fine day to do that other thing I really don’t want to do today.

That night, James didn’t wash his hair. The next morning, I squirted spray gel on his curly mop. Sometimes, tomorrow is a better day to do something.

What do you think?

Bonus: 4 Questions to Ask Yourself About When to Do Something

1. If it’s important and urgent do it today – like taking your dog out to pee. Right now!

2. If it’s important, but not urgent plan for it another day. Assuming this thing will make a difference in your life 5 years from now – like paying your mortgage – set a deadline to get it done. Most things will fall into this category.

3. If it’s not important, but urgent is it worth doing? Decide whether or not you really need to buy that “half off” Groupon deal on that pole-dancing class you’ve been meaning to try just because it expires tomorrow.

4. If it’s not important and not urgent, why is it on your list? Take item #46 – return bottles to Wegmans – right off your “To Do” list. (Better yet: assign it to your husband since he’s the #1 contributor to those dead soldiers cluttering up the garage).