Strange Company: A guest post by Jean Ryan

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post is courtesy of Survival Skills author Jean Ryan, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Strange Company

Recently I watched a program on strange animal partnerships. The first story featured an old blind horse and the goat that adopted him. Each morning the goat would lead the horse out to graze, skirting any obstacles, and all day they would stay close together. In the evening the horse would follow the goat back to the barn. This was the pattern for several years, until the horse died, and the goat, seemingly bereft, died soon after. There were other odd companions: a deer and a cat, a cheetah and an impala, and most famously, Tara the elephant and Bella the dog. And there were all sorts of unlikely mothers, animals willing to nurse just about anything. My favorite was a calico cat diligently raising a litter of skunks.

One scientist, Temple Grandin, posited that caretaking is an attribute specific to mammals, that our warm-bloodedness keeps us connected on profound levels. However, another story in this program focused on a goose smitten with a tortoise. Not only did this goose bring food to the tortoise, it attacked any other animal that came too close. There was also a story about a barn owl that cavorted with a black cat, and a crow that assumed the care of a kitten.

Maybe it’s not so odd that creatures raised together, even mortal enemies, will overcome their natural instincts and bond instead of fight. But what about animals that link in the wild? In the last segment of the program, a dog chanced upon an abandoned fawn, and they became immediate, playful friends. This alliance lasted for years, the dog waiting patiently for the deer’s inevitable return.

The central questions raised in this documentary were: Do animals feel compassion? Are they empathetic? The answer is fairly obvious, based on the evidence presented, but it invites a deeper question: what, from an animal’s point of view, does compassion feel like? Of course we can never know this, cannot enter the mind of a crow or cheetah, can never leave the frustrating confines of our own consciousness, which is why we must leave room for staggering possibilities.

From what I’ve seen, there is no limit to a dog’s ability to forgive; dogs are actually inclined to forgive: our oversights, our neglect, even our abuse. Dogs always want and expect the best from us. There is no love more unconditional than a dog’s love. Even cats, in their own haughty way, forgive us our humanness when they bunt our heads or settle on our laps. And the unions we enjoy with non-domestic animals are no less rewarding, and often more powerful, on account of their strangeness, as evidenced in that tender video many of us saw of an elephant seal cuddling with a young woman.

There is another video, a more recent one, of a spider monkey showing a person how to crush leaves. Certain plants have insecticidal properties, and monkeys in their canny, unfathomable way, will crush the leaves of these plants and rub them on their fur. In this video, the monkey seems to be trying to teach this method, placing leaves in a human’s hand and then pushing the fingers closed. The monkey seems quite adamant that the human needs to learn this. It’s one of the most touching videos I’ve ever seen because it shows how little we know of the animals we have come to depend on, for companionship, for service, even for help with psychological disorders.

There are three categories in fact, three ways we classify the animals we employ for our own needs: service animals, like seeing eye dogs and miniature horses; comfort animals, like those brought into hospitals and assisted-living facilities; and therapy animals, a group comprised of animals that help calm our demons. Any sort of creature can be considered a therapy animal. There is a parrot, for instance, that accompanies a schizophrenic man named Jim on his daily excursions. Jim adopted this bird after it had been dropped off, in bad shape, at a pet store. Jim nursed the bird back to health, and the bird apparently reciprocated. You see, whenever Jim experienced a psychotic episode coming on, he would pace his apartment, smacking his head with his hands. “Calm down,” he would tell himself. “Be good, Jim. You’re okay, Jim. You’re fine.” The parrot, hearing these words, began to utter them, and Jim found that the words, coming from another source, had a far more calming effect. The parrot also began to nurture Jim in other ways, sensing a psychotic break at the onset and tucking itself under Jim’s neck. We are warned against anthropomorphism, and I do think we are presumptuous in attributing human emotions to animals, in limiting them to the paltry depths of own feelings.

Compassion must be a far different thing in the animal kingdom, some primal, boundless urge we will never fathom.

I do know this: If I had the forgiveness of a dog, the intuition of a parrot and the kindness of a monkey, I would be one very special human.

Jean Ryan is the author of the short story collection Survival Skills and the essay collection Strange Company. Learn more about Survival Skills here, and visit Jean’s website to find other publications and posts. 

Dining well in New York

By Midge Raymond,

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since the hardcover book tour for My Last Continent. It was not only a fabulous tour but so much fun to eat well along the way. I discovered one fabulous vegan eatery when I stopped in with friends at La Botaniste after my reading at Shakespeare & Co.

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This entirely plant-based wine bar has a fabulous menu. You order at the counter, and the bowls are made to order.

I had the pasta, with vegan bolongnese sauce — it is a gigantic, flavorful, and wonderful meal.

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I didn’t take photos of everyone’s food (it all disappeared very quickly), but everything was wonderful, from appetizers like hummus and red-beet caviar to the soups and rice bowls.

There is also a wonderful selection of pastries, cookies, pies, and puddings. It’s a friendly place with good wines and great prices, especially for New York.

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Dining well in Berkeley: The Butcher’s Son

By Midge Raymond,

The Butcher’s Son on University Avenue is a vegan deli but also feels like a “classic” deli, with its huge portions, its “meats” and “cheeses” behind glass cases, and the preparation of all the foods just over the counter.

It’s a small space, with about a half-dozen tables inside and a few more on the sidewalk outside. Sandwiches and salads (including bacon macaroni, creamy coleslaw, potato salad) are served all day, and brunch on weekends includes pancakes and a “steak and egg hoagie.” Appetizers include fried mozzarella, and there’s a kids’ menu and a mouth-watering selection of desserts, from cupcakes to cannoli.

The menu changes regularly, which is a good reason to go back as many times as possible. (If you’re looking at the menu online, check out the little camera icon to see what certain dishes look like.)

On the day we were there we had three delicious (and gigantic) sandwiches. (Important tip: Consider sharing meals so you’ll have room for dessert.)

I had the tuna salad sandwich on rye (I’d ordered the tuna melt but got this instead, and was not even slightly disappointed; I think I liked it even more than I might’ve enjoyed the melt). The sandwich comprises perfectly prepared and spiced tempeh tuna salad on rye with vegan mayo, mustard, onion, lettuce, avocado, and tomato. The bacon macaroni salad was delicious, and I got a side of bleu cheese (which normally goes with the melted version), and it was absolutely delicious — tangy with a crumbly texture.

We also sampled the chick’n pesto…sliced chick’n with pesto mayonnaise, hot cracked pepper chick’n, grilled mozzarella, and tomato. The bread was lightly toasted, the mozzarella perfectly melted, and the creamy coleslaw on the side was delicious.

And finally, the turkey grinder, which was even more gigantic than the other two overwhelmingly large sandwiches. This one is a toasted French bun with “grinder meat” (thinly sliced vegan turkey, gorgeously spiced), cracked pepper turkey, bacon, melted nacho cheese, pickled jalapeño, and iceberg lettuce. Because it was impossible to finish in one sitting, we discovered that taking home the leftovers is well worth it; it was just as delicious the next day.

For such a busy and popular place, the service is quick and efficient. And if you don’t save room for dessert, be sure to get some to go, along with plenty of vegan “meats” and dairy-free cheeses.

Dining well in San Francisco: Shizen

By Midge Raymond,

If you’re a vegan who used to love sushi, you will rejoice over San Francisco’s Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar & Izakaya. As a vegan who never liked sushi, I nevertheless rejoiced upon visiting this lovely place, which has vegan raw fish and so, so much more.

The restaurant is tiny, and there is always a long wait (for our party, which arrived after eight o’clock on a Wednesday night, the wait was more than an hour and a half). But it’s well worth it.

For sushi lovers, there is a seemingly endless menu of vegan options — the carnivore among us loved every bite and vows to return again. Even if you’re not a sushi fan, there are a great many dishes to enjoy. As an appetizer, the garlic edamame is to die for.

For those who like miso and ramen, there are several delicious choices; I loved the soy ramen, which came with perfectly prepared noodles, a savory broth, and bacony-flavored tofu (which, to our delight, very much impressed the carnivore).

The rolls include Philadelphia rolls, California rolls, “tofuna” rolls, and so much more.

There’s also a dish known as the “Surprise Ending,” in which one (and only one) of the bites is incredibly spicy.

And all this is just the beginning; there are myriad more dishes, including tempura, stuffed mushrooms, gyoza (glorious fried dumplings), and sweet potato croquettes…and on and on. You’ll need more than one visit to enjoy all there is to offer here; we are already looking forward to going back.

 

Dining well in San Francisco: Samovar Tea Lounge

By Midge Raymond,

When I was in San Francisco for Litquake last fall, I enjoyed a lovely post-event lunch with friends at Samovar Tea Lounge. It was a perfect spot for a tea-infused mimosa and a bite to eat on an autumn weekend — and there are myriad vegetarian and vegan options.

I ordered from among the dishes that pair tea with food, and in this case my “Japanese Service” came with a Ryokucha Green Tea.

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The Japanese Service itself was delicious, with seaweed salad, brown rice, kale, butternut squash, nori, and handmade tempeh.

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One friend enjoyed toast with almond butter, banana, and sesame seeds…

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…and another had the veggie sandwich, which included avocado, roasted peppers, arugula, baked zucchini, red onion, olive oil and basil pesto.

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The location was lovely, with outdoor seating and open-air indoor seating, all overlooking Yerba Buena gardens and a short walk to the Museum of Modern Art and many other wonderful places to visit.