Gorillas and Lions and Wolves, Oh My

When I watched a gorilla scoop some dung out of his brother’s anus to eat it, it modified my thoughts on taste. This gorilla didn’t just ingest his brother’s dung, which is disgusting enough, he slowed the process to enjoy it. Like I do when I find that one perfect strawberry in every bushel. One might think if he loved his brother’s dung that much he might suck it down quick, so he could go for another, but he didn’t. This gorilla stopped for about three seconds moving it around his tongue to touch every taste sensor, with his eyes closed. And he closed his eyes slowly, and they fluttered closed. We all hate it when people assign human characteristics to animals, anthropomorphizing them, but there was no mistaking the idea that this gorilla was savoring the taste of his brother’s waste matter before going for more. 

They’re our distant cousins right? How far removed from this species are we? We go on primal diets, like the paleo diet and the primal blueprint, and those diet entrepreneurs pitched their diet by saying that early humans had lower rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions due to differences in diet. Dietitians now state that one of the problems with the paleo diet was that it can lead to cancer, heart disease, loss of bone density, and fatty liver. What’s the difference between the diet of modern man and Paleolithic man? What if we found that one key element to Paleolithic man avoiding such maladies was eating each other’s bodily waste? And did we invent toilet paper to keep our backsides clean, or were we trying to remove temptation? Out of sight, out of mind.

How far removed are we from scooping dung from our brother’s anus? If you listen to science, we’re not as far as we choose to believe. We all marvel at the good things they do, and we associate with them in this vein. When they do awful things, like eat the product of another’s bowel movements, we don’t claim them as one of ours.  

Why? Well, it’s disgusting. Who would want to associate with a species that eats another’s waste? What this points out, more than anything else, is that taste, flavor, and preferences are relative concepts. What sounds and looks disgusting to us is something to savor for our distant cousins.

Everyone is trying to appeal to our taste when they write, painting, cook, and changing their lifestyle to try to appeal to our taste, but what do we find appealing? Something that makes our brain tingle, does not do anything for our brother. Do you have this brother, raised in the same home, talk all the time, and he’s almost 180 degrees different. That’s an entirely different routine, but the point is that taste is so relative that it’s almost impossible to create a flavor that has widespread appeal. The word flavor should have a capitalized (‘F’) on it, as it focuses on such a wide spectrum of taste. Food and drink have a flavor of course, but so do music, literature, and all of the arts in the sense that some of it creates the same but different brain tingles. 

Our own tastes are relative too, relative to need. Does water taste great? I dont think so, most of the time. If you played through a particularly grueling athletic contest, you know how great water can taste. Anyone who has run in a marathon knows water can taste like liquid gold. My guess, just looking out in the audience today, is that nobody here knows anything about that, but you do know what water tastes like after a night out. It’s the same but different, but the point is that need often dictates flavor. The polar bear prefers the seal over the fish, because of the fat content of the seal, something the polar bear desperately needs. 

Animals eat for survival rightSavoring requires a level of cognition that recognizes the limited quality of something extremely enjoyable. We all love the taste of a perfectly prepared rib eye, the perfect strawberry, and the clean, smooth taste of a cold drink of water. I think we can all agree that the strawberry is one of the best tasting fruits in nature, but there are always a few, in every bushel, that are perfect. Savoring that perfect strawberry, for just a second before eating another one, recognizes that limited supply. This gorilla not only ingested the dung slowly, but he appeared to pause for just a moment to savor whatever that other gorilla ate and whatever that other gorilla’s digestive system added to it. That elongated, almost spiritual closing of the eyes might have been a coincidence, but I thought the gorilla enjoyed the concoction so much that he wanted to savor it for moment before going back to the dispenser. There was a full tray of food awaiting this gorilla, in the southeast corner of his enclosure, but he preferred to go back to the dispenser before him. Watching that gorilla appear to so enjoy it so much that he went back for more, I realized that individual tastes are so relative to the flavors we create that it’s pointless to try to fashion our work in such a way that it pleases everyone. We can only create whatever it is we create from our own dispensaries and hope that others enjoy it for what it is.   

The roles those two gorillas played in this enclosure defined for me what proved to be what I consider one of the most unusual and successful pairings in music history: Ben Folds and William Shatner. I’ve been a fan of Ben Folds for a long time, but my taste in music is such that I’ve never listed him as of “my guys”. He has had some fantastic songs, but if I were to run into Ben Folds, and I informed him how frustrated I am that he comes so close to reaching me, I’m sure he wouldn’t care. Not only would he not care, he shouldn’t care. If I met him and told him that most of his music misses the mark for me, he should say, “That’s on you. I can only do what I do. I can’t worry about pleasing you, offending you, or entertaining you. If it pleases enough people that I can make a living at this game, that’s great, but I’m not going to change what I do to please you or Betty Beatle from Idaho.”  

William Shatner is not one of “my guys” either, but he’s always around. He’s the green bean casserole of the entertainment world. I doubt anyone who has yet to try green bean casserole would look at it and think, “Yum!” but it’s at so many family get togethers and potluck dinners that we eventually “what the hell” it, until we discover it’s not too bad. As long as we don’t overdo it, repetition can even lead to a level of fondness for it, until we look forward to the next get together or potluck dinner that has a tray of it. William Shatner has been in so many movies, TV shows, and other formats that we now look forward to seeing him in various productions.

No one should confuse the term “my guys” with a description of talent. I’ll drop the typical line that people drop to explain the discrepancy. “I respect the heck out of what Folds and Shatner do, but it just doesn’t reach me on a personal level.” I know people who love John Lennon so much that they suggest Paul McCartney was not talented. I understand that we all take sides in any rivalry, but to suggest that a talent on par with Paul McCartney has no talent is ludicrous. The Silly Love Songs vs. Important Songs debate rages on in some quarters, as Lennon fans suggest Lennon was not only more important he was more creative. These people relate more with Lennon, and because of that Lennon was “their guy”, but to prove that point, some try to so by belittling McCartney’s Silly Love Songs talent.

I missed Folds and Shatner’s collaboration for years, because they weren’t “my guys”. When I eventually heard the album Has Been, however, I was blown away. It reminded me of one of my favorite concoctions: cranberry granola and banana flavored yogurt. Banana flavored yogurt is too sweet for me on its own, and while the cranberry flavor of granola is tasty, I probably wouldn’t eat it as a standalone. When I put the two together, however, I enjoy it so much that I’ve considered submitting it to the overlords as my reward for living a decent, moral life. When I pass on, I want to meet my long-deceased relatives of course, and I wouldn’t mind it if someone played me a Brahams Sonata on the harp, but if you’re wondering how best to reward me for a life well lived, might I suggest that the floors and walls of my reward taste like the banana-flavored yogurt and cranberry granola concoction I created.

When we eat concoctions like these, we spoon too much of one flavor most of the times. Some of the times, we spoon too much yogurt, and some of the times, we spoon too much granola, but there are occasions, at least once a container, when we hit a Goldilocks spoonful. The album Has Been is the Goldilocks concoction of talent for me, and when I listened to it often enough to recognize its brilliance, I closed my eyes and savored the moment. I did so, figuring that this production would be a one-off. I loved Has Been so much that I went back to the other concoctions they’ve made together, and I went back to their solo work, but neither of them hit the mark in the same manner. On their own, Shatner and Folds create interesting, quality material that doesn’t quite hit that Holy Crud, brilliant mark, but together they created what I consider their Goldilocks moment. I would think that such moments are so fleeting in any artist’s career that when they hit one, they would immediately run back into the studio to dispense another collaboration, but perhaps they don’t think they can create another Goldilocks moment together. I know they did singles together before and after Has Been, but that album was so good that I would think it would drive them right back into the studio to do another collaboration. We know that Folds’ affinity for Shatner brought them together, and that their work together impressed Shatner so much that he calls Folds a genius, but we don’t know why they don’t make another album together. Perhaps they think that fate and whatnot only permits one Goldilocks moment a life.

Carnivores in Cartoons

Yesterday, I thought carnivores were the mean, bad guys of the wild. Today I realized that the cartoons we watched conditioned us to believe that when a lion, shark, alligator, or any animal at the top of the food chain eats one at the bottom, they do so with some sort of evil intent. We can find a definition of this in Aesop’s fable in which a mouse removes a thorn from a lion’s paw. After the mouse removes the thorn, the lion states that it will not to eat the mouse as a display of gratitude. The mouse does something nice for the lion, and the lion, in turn, agrees to do something nice for the mouse. The inference is that if the lion betrays this agreement, and the lion follows its instinct and eats the mouse, that means the lion is mean.    

In another fable, on the theme, a frog agrees to assist a scorpion across a pond. Before doing so, the frog says, “Wait a second, you’re going to sting me.” 

“If I stung you, we would both drown,” the scorpion responds. 

The frog reluctantly agrees to help the scorpion across the pond, and the scorpion stings the frog. As they’re both drowning, the frog says, “I thought you said you weren’t going to sting me.”

“What do you want me to say, I’m a scorpion. This is what I do.” 

Some allege that the moral of the story, for young people, is that there are vicious people in the world who, no matter how nice you think they are, will stab you in the back. While I think that is a valuable lesson to learn, the more valuable lesson is that which exists in nature. No matter how nice and cute that wild animal appears, and no matter how many cartoons we watch that display that animal as cuddly, they will probably scratch and bite us if given the opportunity. They might not understand why a seven-inch gash in our skin prompted our decision to stop playing with us. If they could talk, they might say, “C’mon, I was just playing.” The point is, in most cases, they did not intend to hurt us, and they’re not being mean. They’re relatively brainless creatures, compared to us, that operate almost entirely on instincts. Biting and scratching is just what they do. 

Think about all the cartoons we watched and books we read in our youth. They depict carnivores with jagged teeth and menacing growls. As we often do, we confused being scary with being mean or bad. Today I learned that they’re not mean, or bad, they’re just hungry, and like all other animals, they eat when they’re hungry. Regardless what it does to their reputation as a beautiful animal, wolves enjoy eating fluffy bunny wabbits. They do awful things to bunnies if they’re able to catch them, but that does not mean they’re mean or evil in the manner we define such terms. By teaching young humans lessons, using animals as main characters, some of us anthropomorphize these characters to such a degree that we assign them human characteristics. Lions, tigers, and bears aren’t nice, they aren’t mean, and they don’t make decisions on what to eat based on how other animals interact with them.   

Yesterday I learned that even if the animals at the top of the food chain are not the meanies we thought they were when we were kids, we should still consider doing everything we can to avoid one in the wild.

After watching videos that focus on animals biting humans, nature lovers qualify the instinctual actions of these wild animals by saying, “We are not on their diet.” The nature lovers then provide a number of theories regarding how these incidents often involve nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. These theories are true, of course, as most animals in the wild, and in the ocean, have never seen a human, and self-preservation is more important to animals than eating in most cases. Animals often take a pass on eating anything unfamiliar if they think they could get hurt in the process. Sometimes, however, they’re so hungry that they’re willing to eat anything that moves, especially if it moves slower than other prey.

Most animals don’t know what a human is, and that’s why they fear us, but we are also a point of curiosity for them. Thus, when they see us walking around in their domain, or floating on the surface, they’re curious, and that curiosity is almost exclusive to considering whether they should consider adding that slow moving case of meat to their diet. Yet, seeing, hearing, and smelling us might not be enough to satisfy their curiosity, and they obviously cannot communicate with us, so their last resort is to taste us to try to figure out what we are to determine if we are a delicacy they’ve never considered before.

The nature lovers further their argument by opening up the belly of a bull shark. “When we open up the belly of a bull shark, we find everything from license plates to cans of paint to packs of cigarettes. The bull shark, unlike other sharks, is not very discerning. They’ll eat anything they see floating on the surface of the water, even if it happens to be a human on a surfboard.” Translation: They do not intend to devour us. They’re just curious. They just want to taste us to see what we are. I see the nature lovers working here. I know they’re trying to relieve our fears about sharks, and in turn preserve the shark population, and I know wild animals are not bad or mean in the context humans define the terms, but it does not comfort me to know that all they want to do is taste me. If I happen upon one of these carnivorous beasts, and it’s clear that all they want to do is taste me, I’m still going to do whatever I can to get away. If I fail to escape, I’m probably going to shoot it, because I have to imagine that even though they’re just tasting me, it’s still going to hurt like the dickens.


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