Saturday, June 27, 2015

Saving Hamsters

I cannot imagine why he does it.  The Great Hamster of Alsace, which is the name given to a wild creature (Cricetus cricetus) is about 10 inches long and weighs about a pound.  It roams the fields near Wittenheim, France. While it's black belly and golden appearance might make it cute, especially when it stands up on its back legs and roars, it is hard to imagine why Jean-Paul Burget has devoted his life to saving it.  Due to a number of environmental factors the Great Hamster population, which used to number in the thousands, is down to about 500 according to a newspaper story I read.  This news is so disquieting to Mr. Burget that he quit his job at a zoo and took up a part-time job as a street sweeper so he could devote every afternoon to saving the Great Hamster population.  He is committed to doing all he can to, as he puts it, "fight to the last hamster."  What's more, Mr. Burget is not alone in this quest.  He has set up a foundation for saving animals and others have caught the vision for the mission.

Julie Ledet, only 31 years old, has been at the task of saving hamsters for 10 years.  Her toughest month of the year just ended. You see, each March the hamsters mate.  Ms. Ledet discovered something special about the female hamsters one March.  She is breeding the hamsters in captivity to enhance the chances for survival of the species. She drops a male into a female's cage in an effort to create a reproductive moment, if you know what I mean. If the female doesn't take a liking to a male's amorous advances, Ms Ledet discovered, the female tries to kill the male.  The female will fight the male to the death if given the chance. Now, in the wild fields of France the spurned male can turn and run, but in captivity's cages there is no escape.  Ms. Ledet's colleague, Julien Hoffman, is working on a special double cage design to allow the male to escape.  The problem is, there are just the two of them, Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Ledet, to keep track of hundreds of the fighting couples.  So, for Great Hamster advocates, March is busier that tax season for accountants.  The difference is, according to Mr. Hoffman, "This is not about making money, it's about saving the species.”

Why do people quit their jobs to save hamsters? Don’t they realize they that no one really cares?   Unless, of course, the God does. Now that would make it worthwhile.

I’m counting on that being true.  How about you?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

"Nothing Is Ever As It Seems"

I was not quite 11 when Sonny went down.  Muhammad towered over him in his white trunks and red gloves, his muscular right arm bulging and his face contorted as he screamed at Sonny to get up and fight.  But, was the scene really what it seemed? Had Sonny Liston really been knocked out in the first round of his rematch with Muhammad Ali? Had the Mafia demanded Liston lose? Was Liston fearful of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X now that Cassius Clay had become a convert and taken on his new name and identity? Fifty years later the controversy continues: what really happened in Ali-Liston II? There is an iconic photograph of the moment, one of the most famous sports photographs in history which carries for me the image of what I have quite recently come to realize as an adult, “Nothing is ever as it seems.”

I wonder if this is how we ought to look at all of life.  What if the truth lies hidden in a story behind the photographs of life’s story? I wonder if there is always another story behind the scene we see which explains what really happened. It doesn’t have to be sinister. It could even be something wonderful.  What if the fact that two people who meet randomly, say in grade school, and fall in love and get married, what if it wasn’t random? What if it isn’t as it seemed, and there was some “force” in the universe which brought them to the same grade school class. Would you be upset to know that it was all a part of a grand design we cannot see? What if the decision you made to move, to change jobs, to adopt the child, to have the baby, was part of a “behind the scenes” plan of Another? How does that make you feel? Does it make you happy or angry to hear that, perhaps, “nothing is ever as it seems”? What if there is a story behind the story which would explain it once and for all, but, well, no one is telling us that story. Yet.

What if the same applies to death? What if the truth is not the body in the box or the ashes in the urn? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if death is not what it seems because, well, nothing is ever what is seems? Believing that to be true is what I think, at least partly, faith is about. Faith is believing that there is some better explanation, some higher answer, some redemptive purpose to our living and our dying.

Faith is believing that nothing is ever as it seems.

(Written in memory of my father, Walter, with whom I spent many a Saturday night in my childhood watching Saturday night fights, and of whom, I am sure even now, it is not as it seems.)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Life's Second Chances

I might never have known of Judah P. Benjamin if my wife had not taken to using my encyclopedias as paper weights.  But she did, and one sleepless night I took up the paper weight and started reading random articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 1, A-Bib.  It is an eye-opening experience to discover how much information I do not know. Like why Judah P. Benjamin has his very own article. 

Mr. Benjamin ended his life as a famous barrister in England, to the point of being appointed queen’s counsel in 1872. His fame-earning work included writing a treatise on property law that was used widely in Britain and the United States.  That work was published in 1868, which in notable because he didn’t arrive in England until 1866, where he was quickly recognized as something of a genius.  So, why should you care?

You may recall that the 1860s are a time when the United States almost became a divided land during the American Civil War. You will recall that the Confederacy formed in reaction to the policies of one President Abraham Lincoln.  What you may not recall is that the Attorney General, then Secretary of War, then Secretary of State, and confidant of President Jefferson Davis was, you guessed it,  Judah P. Benjamin.  Secretary Benjamin came to the post after having served as the first-professing Jew in the United States Senate as the Senator from Louisiana. He was a successful lawyer, business-owner, farmer and slave-owner. A slave-owner who proposed that the slaves be armed to fight for the Confederacy and emancipated.  His idea, if adopted earlier, might have changed the course of history.

How do you assess a life like that of Judah P. Benjamin, Queens Counsel?  I say this: life does not offer “do-overs”, even to geniuses, like Mr. Benjamin.  The decisions he made, the positions he advocated, the work he did, he could not take back. However, life does offer “second chances.”  The stories of Mr. Benjamin’s escape from the United States would make a great television movie (see Wikipedia’s article), and he found a way to, not so much “start over”, as he did to “continue anew”.  Is there some part of your life that you would like to escape from? You cannot pretend your past didn’t happen. But you can, with work, escape it. And then you can continue anew. Why wait?