In animal psychological experiments, they use a lot of dogs, and a lot of rats.
If you see the human race as a noble thing, this fact is probably to your dismay. But we are pack animals, like dogs, and we are xenophobic, like rats. We are not aloof and dignified like lions, nor are we majestic like horses. We are lumpy with bald patches; we cannot run. To communicate, we make chattering noises.
I bought a pair of rats from a chain pet store. They came from the same cage, and had known each other for a long time before I came along. I bought two rats instead of one: every piece of literature ever published on the subject of rat care stresses one thing above all, even above the unholiness of cedar bedding: don't keep them alone. They get depressed.
To study operant conditioning, B.F. Skinner placed creatures such as doves and rats inside boxes fitted with levers. The hence unfortunately-slanged Skinner Boxes dispensed a treat upon movement of the lever. When the lever was modified to produce a treat with each and every press, the animals got bored; when food distribution was randomized, the critters started hitting the levers furiously.
I spend upwards of an hour each day on Everything2 — an hour I could spend driving in the sun, or collecting rocks. I remember that I used to collect rocks — quartz especially. And coins. I spent hours getting sunburned searching for wheat back pennies on the ground.
I think a lot lately about rats hitting levers.
The death of a spouse is one of the most stressful things a human being will ever endure. Frequently, when one spouse dies, the other follows within five years.
Small mammals are not good at regulating body temperature. When you are six inches tall and shaped like a pear, the core of your abdomen is not far removed from the outside world.
As you are aware, planet Earth was the victim of a heat wave this summer. I can imagine Michael Crichton, sweating audibly, decrying the myth of global warming.
My rats were too hot to fight, or even chatter. One day when it was 110 Farenheit in the shade I found one of them facedown.
After work the next night I stopped by the pet store, hoping to find a companion for the one who was left. The place was closed. I drove home, contemplating the cost of a portable air conditioner.
Don't keep them alone.
When I arrived, there wasn't the rustle of a rat standing on its hind legs, of paws gripping the bars, perhaps hoping for a bit of bread crust. He was curled up stiff as a board in a clearing in the bedding, exactly where the first one had died the day before. His eyes were open.
I'm never buying rats again.
We were at the 99-cent section of a Target Supercenter, looking for business card holders among the notepads and needle-nose pliers already rusting in their packages. This is the first time my sister has ever contemplated business cards: she just became an attorney.
She made up her mind at age four that she would be a lawyer. She is a lawyer.
In law school, she decided she would spend the first ten years of her career working as a public defender.
When she starts looking for a new job in the summer of 2016 I plan to give her the Help Wanted page from a newspaper. She'll smile.
More recently, she's made up her mind that she will become a judge in the field of international law. She plans to advocate amnesty for Cubans firehosed in the Florida tide. If after floating ninety miles on an inner tube — or more optimally in a washtub — you manage to step on dry American soil, you are granted amnesty. If you're intercepted, well, you get shipped back (it's okay, even with the embargo). With immigration officials guarding the sand and waterlogged Cubans skittering up out of the ocean, some days the beaches in Florida look like a game of children's football.
Except for the firehoses.
Still, Fidel Castro is not dead.
An entire generation of Cuban immigrants has died here, stateside. They died waiting for Fidel to draw his last breath so they could return home. While he is not gone yet, he is set to go soon. Intestinal troubles, they can be mean. An entire country may soon find itself in the confusion that comes with the death of a despot. The recent history of that country, and at least some of its future, is closely intimate with the feeling of being out of place. Decompression sickness is not a strictly physical affliction.
Chances are, Fidel will be in the ground before my sister becomes a judge. Chances are, there will be no more embargoes; there will be no more Cubans floating up on washtubs. She will be out of place.
See, when I give my sister the Help Wanted ad a decade from now, it will be for a reason entirely between us and those who have died waiting. And she'll smile.