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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

Nelly had a very Nelly day today. And I had a very childish one. That is, I was conversing a lot with my child today about Nelly, about animals and why they do what they do.

I gave my son the second-grade version of the ol' Cycle of Life rigmarole: everything is food for something else, and some things are food for lots of things, which is why so many of them are born (rabbits, mice). I couldn't remember what eats hawks. Then my son asked what eats humans. Hmmm. Something needs to get on the case immediately. Not much anymore, sweetie, which is the short answer to the long question of why I can't let you ride your bicycle on the road, or be my little man and take out the garbage all by yourself as you plead--too many of us.

We talked about the only controls there are on the human population: disease, natural disaster, and war. This wise seven-year-old proclaimed war a bad idea, and wondered why someone didn't just stop it. Indeed. However, he allowed, there had been three necessary wars: the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. I countered with something that just occurred to me in that moment (and you're going to be amazed how smart I am!): if someone could have, would have, rearranged the economic system of the South, so that the great plantations that were unworkable without masses of slave labor would no longer require it, the war might have been averted. Do you think the people of the South were genuinely more evil than the abolitionists of the North? Or is this great monument called Morality nothing but expedience in regal robes?

It will come as no surprise to the average church-goer that we are proud of our virtues, and ashamed of their failures. Because fail they must. "You're only human," your friends will soothe. But that is merely a half-truth: you are an animal in an environment that continually rewards or punishes you. And everything you do--whether you build a curlicued fable about the story or not--is in service to naught but your survival, your DNA, or your pleasure.

It's all about the resources, baby. I am an acolyte in the Marvin Harris Church of Economics Rule All Behavior (aka cultural materialism). If you possess a nose for truth (and to me truth is the only perfume worth smelling, the most sensually exciting substance on the planet), try reading Harris's Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches or Cannibals and Kings. See if there aren't vast clouds of sweet-smelling truth issuing from these books. His explanation of the sacred cows of India, for example, could not ring any more of truth if it had been cast of bronze and came with a clapper. These cows (and they have to be these cows, because another breed would not be suited to the requirements of their hard lives of labor and sporadic food) are resources in a very particular environment. The religious proscription against eating them is fol-de-rol applied later: the real reason they don't eat them is because they'd be eating the one possession they have that will enable them to survive.

Wars, man's inhumanity to man (TM), systems of governance and rituals and institutions and all manner of inexplicable behavior--all boil down to resources, presence or lack thereof.

Why didn't anyone stop those bad wars? Good question, darling. [Perhaps because they were all started by men, whose emotional development almost always seems unable to progress past the age of eight? Just kidding.] My son's face brightened. "Maybe I could stop wars!"

And you know what? In that moment something filled me with a proud spreading warmth, and I believed: yes. You just might grow up to be humankind's impossibility. For you are my child, and there is nothing you could not do. First, however, you might want to think about becoming a behavior analyst.

In some ways I think that children are idiot savants. Or at least they are keen watchers, like the dog. They see a barely perceptible tremor pass through an isolated muscle in the face, and they know it means something. Their sensorium is more acute than that of the grownup, and we have forgotten what it is like to see through youthful eyes.

Children do know things we don't. I have seen a child recoil in fear from a dog who was threatening harm (and perpetrated it, too), even though the dog's benighted owners never could figure out what signal preceded his bite. (The dog was ours, another lifetime ago, and is the subject for another time, provided I can gather the courage to revisit a black dog named Roscoe, sweet and sad and violent and treated therefore to the ultimate violence in return.) Smaller children, say under three, may not have developed this ability to react with appropriate fear--and I would guess this is the age group who most often visits the plastic surgeon after a session of ear-pulling. It would make sense that we would go through developmental stages of fear formation: Mercy up to the age of nine months thought children were cotton candy for dogs. Then they became like, um, snakes are to me. They make me scream, notwithstanding that they live in my house. But my three-year-old boy gleefully reached for one on the lawn.

It was a Nelly day because she has learned to jump out the car window if it is not rolled almost all the way up. She exercised this new agility event as I was dropping off at a birthday party--went and immediately offloaded the indigestibles from her colon right before the front door with the hostess looking on, then dashed around to the back looking for digestive system replacements (birthday cake would have done just fine), then ran in the back door and caused much squealing among the diminutive guests. I caught her as she sped through the kitchen in search of that cake.

At home, she got out of the car, and stood still as a stone as she spied a small brown furry creature down near the barn, who likewise froze, but for different reasons. Then, white blur.

My son asked, "Mom, what is Nelly saying?" I told him she was saying exactly the same thing he says when he see one of those pictograms of a soft ice cream cone as we drive by the dairy bar. Words wouldn't work as well. She said, I said, Yum.