Sunday, October 12, 2008

Of Monkeys and Men

In the summer of 2006, Sarah was pregnant for the first time. Nate had a name and a face, but we only knew one of them. We wouldn't know his face or his voice until August. It seems like an impossibly long time ago.

It was a hot summer in New York. In the weeks before Nate would be born, the threat of brown outs loomed, and Sarah and I both somehow found a way to stop taking the subway during the morning rush while keeping our jobs. It wasn't just the crowd, it was the reasonable fear that the subway would lose power and that Sarah would find herself eight months pregnant and trapped on a crowded subway somewhere beneath the East River with temperatures underground exceeding 100 degrees.

It was a brutal time.

I'm reminded of that summer now and again. Sarah is 33 weeks into her second pregnancy. We know the name of the little girl in her belly, but her face (4d ultrasound notwithstanding) and voice are still a mystery. Today it feels more like autumn than it ever did during the summer of 2006, but this morning I saw something that brought me back to a specific day, two years and a few months ago.

It was early summer. The heatwave that began in late July and dragged throughout the month of August had not yet begun, but it was summer in New York, and it was hot, and it was unpleasant. Still, it wasn't unbearable, and Sarah and I were looking for memorable moments of that time somewhere between duet and trio. That day, we were at the Central Park Zoo.

The zoo, not that one in particular, but zoos in general have always played a role in our lives. We both like zoos. We have no qualms about liking zoos, and think people who hate zoos are of bad moral fiber. She actually worked at a zoo and interned at the Duke Primate Center (not exactly a zoo) while we were in college, and if she had her druthers, I think that's something she'd be pleased to spend the rest of her life doing. None of this is important except to drive home the point I've already stated, that we like zoos.

The Central Park Zoo is at the southeast corner of the park, it's small, and regardless of what you may have seen in the movies, there are no lions, giraffes, hippos, or zebras (though there are penguins). It's cute though, and it's an inexpensive and fine way to spend an afternoon.

The basic layout of the place is something like I imagine zoos being thirty or forty years ago. Like the zoo in Rocky II or the one in The Graduate: unapologetically artificial. It's all concrete and open. The enclosures are not cages like they definitely would have been decades ago, but there's nothing about them that seem designed to create the illusion of a natural environment.

Maybe I'm a sucker for primates, but the best exhibit in the entire place is the Macaques. It's the largest enclosure in the zoo: a big rocky tree hill in the center of a little pond on which a whole community of little macaques spend their days sleeping, grooming, and playing. It's clearly the centerpiece of the entire zoo, and I've rarely been there when the monkeys weren't doing something interesting. But again, I'm a sucker for primates, and I find friendly grooming to be fascinating.

On this day, with Sarah seven or eight months pregnant, what caught my attention was a child macaque playing near the water's edge. He grabbed (with his foot) a branch that grew out over the water, so that he could use both hands to reach for wood chips, or leaves, or whatever was floating near the drop off. He seemed neither confident nor cavalier. He was just being a kid, I guess, and as I watched him, I felt myself becoming a father. I knew he was going to fall in, and I had no way to stop it.

Now, I think macaques, Japanese Macaques anyway, may be the only species of primate (besides humans) that can swim. I may be wrong about that, but my mind is full of all sorts of images of Japanese Snow Macaques swimming in the hot springs, so I know some Macaques can swim. I don't know whether the behavior is learned or inherent. Nor do I know whether the African Macaque shares its cousin's ability to swim, so as I watched this monkey playing precariously at the drop off, I believed with some certainty that I might be about to witness a monkey drown.

But that didn't happen. What happened was the little monkey catching the eye of one of Central Park's ugly geese, a mammoth white bird with barnacled red face. A territorial dispute was in the making, and the little guy stretching over the water was apparently too much of an affront for the goose to bare.

The goose swam at steady pace directly at the little monkey, displaying his wings, baring his tongue and making a sound recognizeable to most small children who've thrown a little too much bread to the ducks and not quite enough to the geese: Hisssthsssss!

Keep in mind, the goose probably outweighs the monkey five or six to one; he's huge, and the monkey is tiny. Either out of instinct or force of habit, the little monkey retreats to solid ground, but the goose is unsatisfied. He speeds towards the shore, now flapping his wings wildly. And a moment after I had worried about seeing the child drown, I fairly confident that I was about to watch him be manhandled by a bird. Luckily for the little monkey, I wasn't the only one watching.

It happened so quickly that the visuals are something of a blur. But I remember the screaming. The island was not the home to one monkey, but many, and as the bird approached shore, two adolescent monkeys arrived, but the screams were bigger than them. They seemed to come from everywhere. One monkey became three, which became five, then eight, all jumping and screaming like australopithcines stumbling upon an obelisk. The goose continued to display, but stopped short of stepping on shore.

He should have stopped a little shorter than that.

Monkeys, I've always sort of known, but learned without a doubt that day, run a lot faster than a goose can swim. Another thing I learned, which I'd already known, was that you do not mess with the little monkey when his daddy is nearby. Alpha monkey, still probably outweighed by the goose two-to-one, tears to the front of the pack, gets his feet wet, in one hand he grabs the branch the little one had been using for support, with the other hand, he grabs the goose by the breast, and he began to pull.

That was when Sarah turned her head.

Nobody died that day. Nobody at that zoo anyway. The goose, the bully, was easily overpowered by the considerably smaller (but stringy) monkey, and had the monkey truly wanted to, he could've dispensed with that bird in seconds. But that didn't happen. The bird was pulled halfway onto the island before the monkey let go. The goose swam back to his mate at the far side of the pond, and a patch of white feathers drifted off in another direction.

And that was it. The single most wonderful and horrible thing I've ever witnessed at a zoo. A clash of cultures. A clash of continents. A real life version of Animal Face-Off that, while its outcome could never truly be in doubt, was exhilarating nonetheless because it was at once impossible yet happening before my eyes.

It brought Sarah to tears. It was too much for her. Not because she was pregnant, or not entirely; it was very nearly too much for me. Nearly, but not quite. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was lucky to be there. To have witnessed it. At any rate, it was a moment that will forever stay with me. For better or worse, it's one of a handful of memories from the Nate pregnancy that is forever burned into my psyche.


Nate was born on August 11, 2006.

Something else happened that day. George Allen who was, at the time, the junior United States Senator from the commonwealth of Virginia was having an outdoor rally in Breaks, near the Kentucky border. Allen's opponent, Democrat Jim Webb had a supporter in the crowd. The Webb supporter, an Indian American named S.R. Sidarth, was recording the rally for opposition purposes.

Allen recognised Sidarth, one of (if not the) only non-white face in an Appalachian Virginia crowd, as someone who worked for Webb. Given the choice between making note of his presence or ignoring it, Allen chose the former. It was without a doubt the beginning of the end of his senate career and what many considered a bright political future.

Here's what he said:

"This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent... Let's give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."

You know what happened next. It's sort of a bellwether moment for YouTube and for the Internet as a political tool. Some people, journalists in particular, felt the need to give Allen the benefit of the doubt. That is to say that it's unclear whether he called the lone brown face in a sea of white a monkey. After all, a Macaque is a monkey. Macaca isn't really anything, right?

Actually, that's not right. "Macaca" is the genus to which all species of macaques belong. I actually didn't know that at the time, but I did know that he was calling him a monkey. There was part of me at the time, and part of me still that wonder whether he knew he was calling Mr. Sidarth a monkey. It could easily have been an inherited racial slur passed down from an older generation whose meaning was somewhat hazy for the good senator. What didn't cross my mind then and what seems inconceivable to me today is that he didn't recognize it as a slur or, more specifically, a racial slur. And that's important. He singled out a brown face in a crowd of white people and ridiculed him in a way he felt they would understand.

Did he mean to call him a monkey? Maybe not. Did he call him a monkey? You're god dammed right he did. And in the end, everybody knew it. Or if they didn't know that, they knew that he called him something he would not have called the sole white face in a sea of brown people. And really, that's all they needed to know.


I was reminded of both of these stories today when I saw this:

Earlier in the year, Rush Limbaugh got a call from a woman who thought it was hilarious that her daughter thought Barack Obama looked like Curious George. Limbaugh laughed initially, but apologized later, claiming he'd never heard of the beloved cartoon monkey whose been in print since the early 1940s. Limbaugh, racist or not, knows one thing for certain, you don't call a black person a monkey or laugh at another person making the characterization. Or, you may do those things, but not in mixed company.

I don't know whether George Allen is a racist. I do know that he peddles in racial slurs to ridicule people of color when he is among white folk. I know this because there's video of him doing it. I have no idea whether or not either John McCain or Sarah Palin are racists. My assumption is that at least one of them is not. Still, this is who they're attracting. These are not simply the votes they want, they are the votes they need to have any chance at being elected in November.

And some of these people are unapologetic racists. These are people who flaunt their racism. And they may be the only people still excited about a John McCain candidacy. As disappointed as I've been with the tone of the last few weeks, I can only imagine the shame John McCain must feel today. This is who he has left. It's most definitely a bed of his own making, but he clearly didn't mean for this to happen. Not in this way.

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