Julie Sherman (julieswn) Sat 11 Sep 10 10:52
This week we welcome our own <sumac>, Susan McCarthy, to Inkwell for a discussion of her books and articles. Susan McCarthy is a science writer focusing on animal behavior, and a humor writer. Proof: she's been anthologized in Best Science Writing and Mirth of a Nation. Her blog, The Nature of the Beast, allows her to do both at once. She's co-author of When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, and author of Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild. A carbon-based life form, she is a native of Earth. I love your sunsets, she reports. Interviewing Susan will be Mary Mackey: Mary Mackey is the author of thirteen novels including The Widows War, published in the fall of 2009 by Berkley Books; and five collections of poetry, including Breaking the Fever published by Mash Hawk Press. Her novels, one of which made the New York Times bestseller list, have been translated into eleven languages and have sold over a million and a half copies. During her twenties, she lived in the rain forests of Costa Rica. Recently, she has been traveling to Brazil and incorporating her experiences into her fiction and poetry. Mackey lives in northern California with her husband Angus Wright, and is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Sacramento. To learn more about her and sample some of her work, you can visit her webpage at: <www.marymackey.com> Welcome to Inkwell.vue, Susan and Mary!
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Sat 11 Sep 10 10:55
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Julie Sherman (julieswn) Sat 11 Sep 10 10:56
If you would like to read some of Susan's articles, here are some links from the author: Straight reporting on wildlife rescue following the Gulf spill: <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/07/26/MNQQ1EIDI2.DTL> Reporting on medical research, with added cute dogs: <http://www.parade.com/health/2010/06/20-dogs-sniff-out-disease.html> Interview with promoter of rapture insurance for pets: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/jan/12/pets-second-coming- rapture-atheists> First-person piece on herding class for dogs: <http://www.sfgate.com/cgibin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/01/23/CMGAB98FL01.DTL> And some of my favorite Salon pieces are one on how not to apologize: <dir.salon.com/people/feature/2001/08/23/sorry_if/index.html?sid=1045639> ; Making fun of a football team's name change: http://www.salon.com/people/satire/2001/04/04/team_names/print.html> Unkind analysis of study inducing marijuna use in monkeys: <http://www.salon.com/news/health/2000/11/29/stoned_monkeys> Discussion of different ways of being sick: <archive.salon.com/health/feature/2000/07/25/sick/print.html> Profile of cartoonist Gary Larson: <www.salon.com/people/bc/1999/12/21/larson/index.html> Survey of some trends in evolutionary biology: <www.salon.com/books/it/1999/05/21/evolution/index.html>
With catlike tread (sumac) Sat 11 Sep 10 21:25
And then there are pieces that seem to have vanished utterly, like the ones I did for UnderWire once upon a time....
Mary Mackey (mm) Sun 12 Sep 10 11:14
Perhaps in the course of this discussion someone will tell us how to find them, Susan. I'm delighted to be hosting this conversation with you. I love your work which is scrupulously accurate, very accessible, and frequently hilarious. Let's start out with a question that I suspect people often ask you: how did you develop such a strong interest in animals. It's clear you love the topic. What led you to it? A childhood pet? A messenger cat from Mars?
With catlike tread (sumac) Mon 13 Sep 10 10:40
I think most kids display biophilia -- it's fascinating how city kids often get the "what does the horsie say?" drill even when they've never seen a horse.... In my family I think that got amped up by the story-telling prowess of my mother's family, and the scientific approach to just about everything promoted by both my parents, but especially my father. "Pibl [a cat] doesn't want that food, and the stray cat outside does. What would Pibl do if we opened the window?" This was an experiment my father performed documented in some old Polaroids. (I don't remember it -- I think I was too young.) Answer: when the stray cat reached in to try to hook the dish out, Pibl would issue a mighty SWAT. Cat in the manger. I do remember the experiment to see if Lightfoot could figure out how to walk away from the food she could see through the sliding glass glass door, and walk around through several rooms to get to an *open* door giving access to said food. (No, but there were confounding factors.) I think the combination of empathy, narration, and the scientific approach is almost a complete explanation.
Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 14 Sep 10 10:33
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Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 14 Sep 10 14:18
That's very interesting. In fact, you have a rare talent for finding what I like to call "fun facts"--things that make your descriptions and explanations riveting. Another question for you: What is the most interesting thing you have ever discovered about animal behavior? After you tell us this, could you please tell us your best story about an animal or animals?
With catlike tread (sumac) Wed 15 Sep 10 10:24
Most interesting is always the latest to hummingbird mind. One very interesting thing I learned while researching Becoming a Tiger was that people are generally dreafully inept at teaching things to animals. In fact they make lots of the same mistakes teachign things to people. Animals do not do well with instructional videos (would probably hate PowerPoint even more), drills, repitition, blackboards, being put on the spot, quizzes, language tapes, etc. Latest animal story I heard was told by a woman who was visiting in Costa Rica, lounging with friends in their yard when she heard an odd sound and looked over to see that a boa had grabbed their cat by the head and thrown coils around it. Woman leaps up, grabs boa's tail, tries to unwind it, no luck, calls to friends, they come and unwind snake, allow it to trickle off into bushes. Cat appears dead, woman gives it artificial respiration, cat revives. Owners sigh. Apparently they did not want cat, were burdened by thought of finding new home for it, now they STILL have to find home for it. Not an inspirational story? Hey, the cat probably appreciated not being dead.
David Gans (tnf) Thu 16 Sep 10 07:28
Just driving by to shout that the 1999 Gary Larson piece referenced is just wonderful!
With catlike tread (sumac) Thu 16 Sep 10 11:42
Oh, here's the url for the blog: <http://natureofbeast.typepad.com/>
Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 16 Sep 10 11:48
I was fascinated to read a post in your blog about dogs that diagnose cancer. Could you tell us about that research and what you discovered?
With catlike tread (sumac) Thu 16 Sep 10 17:29
It's a new area of research. People have mixed feelings about the sense of smell, and scientists have been slow to focus on it to the extent we've focused on vision and hearing. It's so *analog.* And dogs? They're worse than analog, they're hairy. They have great noses, but it takes work to teach them what you want them to tell you about. And to keep them interested while you use them to accumulate large data sets. The way this has come to serious attention is through documented reports of untrained dogs making a fuss about things that later turned out to be skin cancer. Clearly dogs can be trained to detect skin cancer, but that's not very useful, since skin cancer is so easy to spot and biopsy, and if the dog says "cancer" you're going to do that *anyway.* The big push is to see if dogs can reliably detect interior cancer by sniffing breath samples -- ovarian cance,r lung cancer, uterine cancer etc. The goal is to a) show that dogs can detect it; b) find out what exactly it is that they're detecting -- which chemicals -- c) design a handheld machine to detect those same chemicals and take the hairballs out of the loop....
Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 16 Sep 10 21:33
In my experience, writers have a trajectory. That is to say, they become interested in a subject, write about it, and are led to another subject-- sort of a building slowly being constructed. Could you tell us about your career as a writer, how it began, and how one book (or interest) led you to the next book or interest? What is your path? Where did it begin and where do you think it is going?
With catlike tread (sumac) Fri 17 Sep 10 09:22
Oh dear. I don't even have a platform yet, and now I need a trajectory? Sad to say, I started writing in large part because my late friend Lori Twersky asked me to write for her zine, Bitch: The Women's Rock Newsletter with Bite. (I drew the dogs too.) Then my SO suggested I go to journalism school. Then Catharine MacKinnon put me together with Jeff Masson, who was looking for a co-author. So I fear my trajectory has a lot in common with Brownian motion in its random collisions. Although the focus on biology, especially animal behavior, isn't really random.
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 17 Sep 10 09:32
I guess what I am really asking is: how did you decide to write your books?
Paula Span (pspan) Fri 17 Sep 10 10:21
I'm still goggling over the science experiments your father conducted with household pets. Good thing you weren't more intrigued by, y'know, modern dance or something.
With catlike tread (sumac) Fri 17 Sep 10 13:00
Mary, the first book,with Jeff, was written because Jeff really needed a co-author who was comfortable with science and agreed with his thesis. The second, Becoming A Tiger, was written because I thought it was an interesting idea -- aaaaaand I was able to interest publishers. The next is yet unwritten. the publishing world is running scared right now, which means they are running predictable.
Eric Gower (gower) Fri 17 Sep 10 14:33
Do an ipad app of cute kitten experiments! Will pay for all subsequent research projects.
With catlike tread (sumac) Fri 17 Sep 10 14:48
Ooh. What a splendid notion. Can I borrow your kitten?
Scott Underwood (esau) Fri 17 Sep 10 15:01
Lately, you've been covering a different animal for the Guardian, man the (ir)religious beast. How did that come about?
With catlike tread (sumac) Fri 17 Sep 10 15:15
Brownian motion! Specifically Andrew Brown (formerly on the Well as (andrewb) and as (seatrout)) moving to be editor of the Belief page at the Guardian, and hearing of my scheme to write a book about the bible from an atheist's point of view (a scheme that blew up when a blogger on the Slate staff starting doing the same thing for the OT), inviting me to write for the Guardian. It's fun to do, though Andrew correctly describes the remuneration as "derisory."
M (martyb) Fri 17 Sep 10 15:35
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Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (peoples) Fri 17 Sep 10 18:19
Hi Susan, glad to see you here in Inkwell. I *lovelovelove* your columns in the Guardian. I was especially amused by your piece on non-believers adopting the unfortunately abandoned pets of Christians who've been swept up to Heaven during the Rapture: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/jan/12/pets-second-coming- rapture-atheists Your delivery is so deadpan, yet so ... um ... er ... well, so frisky! Of all the odd [to me] religious beliefs, the whole Rapture concept seems particularly mean-spirited and exclusionary. But until I read your piece in the Guardian, I didn't realize that Fundamentalists who believed in the Rapture are even willing to accept that their own beloved pets -- TRUE INNOCENTS!! -- will be left behind to suffer the Tribulation. You've done a wonderful job skewering the absurdity of this whole train of thought. Did this particular piece draw more fire than any of your other columns? And do you ever write with the hope of provoking controversy?
With catlike tread (sumac) Fri 17 Sep 10 18:41
ZThank you very much, Cynthia! I don't feel like I'm skewering anybody. Perhaps this is an area where straight reporting reveals people skewering themselves -- but they would disagree. Writing for the Guardian's Belief page is odd--*everything* draws fire. In a story liek this, most of the fire is directed at the Rapture- believers, not at me. But always some is reserved for me. Guardian readers--or at least commenters--seem to rise in the morning with a fresh senses of grievance and look for someone to attack, and qquite often it is the chirpy American. But that's okay. I am particularly immune to attacks couched in traditionally British terms. "'Rubbish'! He says I'm writing 'rubbish'! 'Rubbish!'" So far I never write with the hope of provoking controversy, but I'm not ruling it out. With the Guardian, why bother? A cheerful piece on Thanksgiving (requested) draws such rage at the thought that this is one more American holiday I am trying to force on the British public that there is no need to be provocative....
For Rosetti, wombats held a peculiar fascination (loris) Fri 17 Sep 10 18:52
hi <sumac>, you and i had an email exchange a few years back musing on why it was some people seem distinctly uncomfortable with the notion that we are on a spectrum with animals --- things like tool-using, guilt, grief --- are behaviors we share with animals. do you have any further thots about this? i.e. the passionate need to assert human Otherness?
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