August 19, 2010

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Canvassing Catch 22

There were days this summer when I couldn’t go down the block for a cup of coffee without being faced with a dire moral quandary.

They were often out there… members of PennPIRG or the ACLU. Blue shirted. Clutching clipboards. Armed with a well-rehearsed script designed to nettle hapless passersby.

Always, their initial salutation was a question engineered to be a no-win proposition.

“Hi sir, do you have a minute for gay rights?”

“Excuse me, do you have a minute to save the children?”

“Hi, do you have a minute to stop global warming?”

Faced with this question, you have two choices. Yes, and you’re stuck in a predictable conversation that will take much more than a minute and conclude with a sales pitch of some kind. No, and even if you believe in the cause — just who is against saving the children anyway? — you cast yourself as a callous lout. Not even a minute to feed the poor? (I’ve tried passing by without acknowledging the canvasser or the question. It’s not a good choice. Makes you seem and feel like a subhuman sociopath.)

Now before I go on, a minute about the kids who are asking these questions: I don’t begrudge them a bit. I spent a week as a PennPIRG (that’s shorthand for Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group) canvasser. A group of three or so other hapless unemployed college grads — many of us were English majors — were tossed in a car and driven to the suburbs to shill for he Sierra Club.

We were expected to collect pledges and subscriptions of $90 or more. Less and you risked not being paid. After four days I packed it in. The whole thing was little more than exploitation, even if it was for a noble cause. When I see canvassers now, I know what they’re going through. I sympathize.

But back to my Catch 22: The situation reminds me of a fairly famous essay by ethicist Peter Singer. In the essay, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” Singer poses a hypothetical: Suppose you are retired and have sunk your life savings into a fancy sports car. For some reason, you’ve parked on train tracks and decide to amble up the tracks. As you’re walking along, you see a small child stuck on a separate set of tracks and then notice a train is heading right towards the child. If you don’t act, the child will die.

If you pull a switch to reroute the train, it will crush your sports car. What is the right choice? It is a choice, Singer argues, with which we are faced every day. Singer says that all people should give to charity every dime of earnings they don’t need to survive. If we don’t, we’re choosing to save our cars and allow the proverbial train to mow down the toddler.

So as I walk down the sidewalk, I’m confronted with these life-or-death questions when all I really wanted to do was get a cup of coffee. Do I have a minute for gay rights? Children? The poor? The whole planet? Is a minute all it takes? How can I say no?

I’d like to get that cup of coffee and get back to my air-conditioned office. How can I do that when lives hang in the balance on the sidewalks of Germantown Avenue? It’s a tough choice. But it is, as Singer says, one we face every day.

Pete Mazzaccaro


Learning to be a good dad and The Invisible Dog

Even before our first child Henry was born five months ago, my wife Stephanie and I already considered ourselves parents. I use the word “parent” in one of its looser and newer forms – that is, we were “parents” of a four-legged child, a dog.  Long before we decided to make some of the huge decisions that define who we are as adults, e.g., getting engaged, buying a house, having a “human” baby, Steph and I hit the Philadelphia-area S.P.C.A.s every weekend, hoping to make our couple a family, looking to turn ourselves into “parents,” and searching to find someone to love and take care of in addition to each other.

At the risk of sounding like a dichotomist, I believe we fall into two camps when it comes to the idea of pet-parents. There are those of us who understand how an animal becomes a family member and fills a role above mere pet. Then there are those who think we are anthropomorphic kooks with too much time, emotions, or money that we waste on animals who need far less than what we lavish on them.  I can see both sides, because I was the latter, but then I adopted a dog and became the former.

On the afternoon we drove Bizmark, a 9-month old Brittany, home from the shelter, we were as nervous and excited as any new parents could be. We happily changed our lives to make room for our newest addition: we read doggie books, watched Animal Planet T.V. programs, and ordered toys and treats from websites and catalogs.

We taught him tricks and were delighted to discover how smart he was. One of us (we don’t have to go into which one) would say things like “he takes after me,” as if there was a genetic connection. Steph taught him to “go get Daddy” – a trick that involved Biz running through the house until he found me. I taught him “Go get Daddy’s girlfriend” and Biz would search out Stephanie. Steph quickly taught Biz “go get Mommy,” and I learned what “in the doghouse” meant.

We made some sacrifices and efforts that all parents make. Our schedules started to revolve around the dog. We would leave work early to take Biz to his evening obedience classes across town (Biz is a few credits shy of a master’s in sitting); weekends were spent hiking through the Wissahickon trails; there were numerous trips to the Mt. Airy vet for all sorts of ailments and injuries; and almost every evening we hung out at a neighborhood dog park so Biz could see his friends.

The dog park was essential because we realized there were many like us and part of being a parent is interacting with other parents. We shared advice and recommendations, and we came to know each other by our dogs (e.g., that’s Wink’s Mommy, or that’s Rufus’ Daddy).

Our Friday evenings were spent at “yappy” hours, standing in a park with cocktails in our hands and leashes drabbed over our shoulders. One memorable weeknight there was a doggy birthday party. We bought gifts and ate cupcakes. We sang Happy Birthday to Dylan, a Labradoodle who spent most of his first birthday party eating dirt.

We thought of our dogs like children, which is different from thinking our dogs were children. To some of the younger owners, our dogs represented responsibility, a transitional step that brought us closer towards parenthood. To some of the older owners at the park, their dogs replaced the kids that moved away, or that they never had.

We talked, thought, and cared about our dogs like they were children because we were preparing for a possible future, practicing a parenting style, or replacing something gone.  (My mother did something similar, she had a cat before having my sister and me, but I’m pretty sure we were primarily practice for more cats.)

The way Steph loved and cared for Biz showed me that she would be a loving and capable Mom someday. When she was pregnant and Biz would sit on what was left of her lap, she would scratch his head and reassure him that he would always be her first born. It was sweet, and the word choice of “born” was a little weird, but I kept quiet because it had been months since I had been sent to the doghouse.

And then we had a baby. To say things changed is a hilarious understatement.  I can still see how Biz looked the first time Steph used her “mommy voice” to Henry, and her wife voice to the dog (she stopped talking to me altogether). The familiar was now strange, the words “baby” and “parent” now meant something new to all of us.

This was as Kafkaesque as it gets for the family pet, and I re-imagined the first line of Metamorphosis: “As Bizmark Chomentowski awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic dog.” We may have been a family before Henry arrived, but now it was different; together we were greater, but as individuals we were somehow a little less.

Biz treated Henry as an inconvenience that he hoped would soon disappear, like a double-parked car or a foot of snow. He warily eyed the baby  and stayed as far away from him as he could. When Henry cried, Biz would look at us as if to ask, “what have you brought into our happy quiet home?”  He would disappear and we’d find him under the dining room table or on the back porch. When we would enter a room with Henry in our arms, Biz would dejectedly slump out of the room.  It seemed Biz’s newest trick was that he could now turn himself invisible.

 When Steph or I played with Henry, Biz would sit on the loveseat, head in paws, his basket of doggie toys untouched, and watch. Then, one day, a few weeks ago while Henry and I were on the floor practicing “tummy time,” Biz couldn’t help himself and he jumped down onto Henry’s play mat and flipped over on his back. While I scratched both their bellies, Biz wiggled his nose under Henry’s arm and Henry screeched in delight. They were just two boys playing together. Biz is now curious about his “little brother” and doesn’t pass his bouncy chair without giving him a passing sniff and a big tail wag.

For all the progress Biz has made we still have a ways to go. When we hold Henry up and tell Biz to “go get Henry,” Biz drops his tail and runs into the kitchen. On the other hand, now when Biz disappears he’s most likely asleep on the rug in Henry’s room, keeping him company during naptime.

So it looks like we’ll be a happy family­–all four of us. When Steph talks to Henry about Biz, she uses the term “brother.” I’ll usually try to counteract this later by sitting Henry down and explaining that Biz is his dog. It’s one thing for us to think of Biz as a child, but something else for Henry to think of Biz as a sibling. I wince at the thought of Henry at a playground with other children when a dog walks by. I can see all the other kids excitedly pointing and saying “doggie,” while Henry makes a confused face and yells, “Brother!” To me, Henry has a dog and Biz has a brother. That makes sense, right?

Now our “first-born” is 6 years old and the one without fur is almost 6 months. Biz’s halcyon days of being an “only child” are gone, and he will spend the rest of his life as Henry’s best friend and favorite plaything. While I’m sure Biz will not love that Henry finds Biz’s ears infinitely tuggable and his stubby tail the perfect target for water-pistol practice, I’m just as certain Biz will love the manna of tossed food that falls from the highchair and the extra set of hands in the house for belly scratches and Frisbee tosses.

Ultimately, I hope that Biz likes having a little brother to protect and look after and that he discovers one of life’s greatest truths: it’s far better to take care of someone you love than it is to be taken care of. After all, that’s a secret all parents eventually understand, and we started to realize it the day we brought home our dog.





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