Story Collider has a show at the Oberon tonight at 8pm, on the theme of “Survival of the Species.” Story Collider is one of those “paratheatrical science events” I’ve talked about, and it’s a good one. From their website:
Science surrounds us. Even when we don’t notice it, science touches almost every part of our lives. At the Story Collider, we believe that everyone has a story about science—a story about how science made a difference, affected them, or changed them on a personal and emotional level. We find those stories and share them in live shows and on our podcast. Sometimes, it’s even funny.
Tickets to tonight’s show are only $12–$10 for standing room–and you can drink, and meet interesting people, and walk around Harvard Square before or afterward. What are you waiting for?
I did a Story Collider last year, and I hope it was funny. It was about two baby rabbits that I raised as a child, and what I learned from them. Here’s the podcast–it’s about nine minutes long. The theme of the show I was in was “It Takes Guts.”
And a transcript:
Nine years old, and the next-door neighbor comes over with a big cardboard box. In the box, hasty handfuls of freshly mown grass. In the grass, two baby rabbits, the size of mice.
Do I want them, he says. He found them in his lawn, and picked them up before he thought twice, and now feared the mother would reject them. Did I want to try my hand at raising them.
Do you not understand that I am a nine-year-old girl? Some part of me wondered, as the rest of me shrieked agreement in a pitch so high a dog began barking across the street. Of course I want the bunnies!
My mother was ready to sue the guy. A Depression-era baby from Queens, she was like some deeply religious primitive who looks at animals with no grasp of their differences in locomotion or dietary requirements, only of their ritual cleanliness or uncleanliness. There were the horses in Central Park, which were Nice, and there were all other animals, which were Not Nice. Intellectually, she was capable of recognizing differences in species, but emotionally, every animal was either Horse or a Cockroach to her.
She was furious at the notion of Not Nice animals in her clean house, but the love of a nine-year-old-girl for small baby animals is a love that burns too bright to be denied. So she got her revenge another way, by explaining in graphic detail exactly why our neighbor had picked them up in the first place, and the connection between the unusually small size of the litter and the presence of that freshly mown grass in their box. The horror! Oh, the rabbinity!
Which, on the metaphorical level, one of my little rabbits had to a far greater extent than the other. And this was where a psychologist was born. I would put my hand in the box—one would crawl in and explore, the other would race in panicky circles. One was tame and calm, the fat bunny Buddha of his cardboard world, happy to be petted, to eat bits of apple right off my fingertips. The other one treated me like I was a war criminal. My footsteps signaled terror. The day I took the box to a vacant lot and tipped it over, one dashed for cover—the other lingered, unwilling to leave.
Two rabbits. The same litter. The same rabbit upbringing, disrupted by the same nightmarish slaughter, the same miraculous rescue. And they were so tiny! Their little brains smaller than pencil erasers.
Somehow everything I had ever noticed about how the same song could make one person happy and another person sad, or how the kids in the Oklahoma school were nice to me but when we moved to Kansas I got bullied, or how Sunday School teachers could sometimes draw opposite conclusions from the same Bible story, crystallized around those rabbits and their impossible, irreducible difference.
Two years later, I read Watership Down, Richard Adams’ saga of a band of brave, bonny, British bunnies escaping existential threat for a better life. I cried for a week. (My mother was like, “Honey, it’s just a book. About cockroaches.”) I took to imagining the adventures my own foster rabbits’ adventure in Watership Down style, and it occurred to me that if those rabbits could tell their own stories, what very different versions they’d tell. Were their happy early days the source of a sustaining faith, or a childish illusion to be ripped away? Were the mysterious giants benevolent rescuers or only more subtle tormentors? Did the tipping over of that box into that field represent long-dreamed-of freedom, or expulsion into a savage and chaotic wilderness?
Personality is story. The story of a glass half empty or half full, if nothing else.
A friend of mine is a developmental biologist who works with all kinds of small lab-able animals, from mice to fruit flies. I asked her once how simple an organism could be and still have anything akin to personality.
She said she had worked with flatworms that can do one of two things with their lives: plank on the bottom of the beaker, or hug themselves against the side of the beaker. This is the big existential choice you face as a flatworm; being a career counselor for flatworms gets boring fast. Cut a flatworm in half, each half will regenerate into a whole, equally traumatized flatworm, identical to the original. And frequently, one half will be a side-hugger, the other, a bottom-planker. Planaria personality! Flatworm flair!
We once thought that humans were the only animals who used tools. No. Who made tools. Not that either. Who possessed language, an artistic instinct, morality—one by one, we are nudged from our exclusive pedestals. But still, still, we are the only species that tells stories. Homo narrativus. Who express that willful nubbin of self we call “personality” through planking plot, side-hugging symbolism. Tell me your stories, and I’ll tell you who you are.
My own stories have always been those of wanderers, of the ones born in the wrong place who must seek a new home. And the day came that like Hazel and Bigwig and Fiver from Watership Down, I too began to sense that the place where I lived (Missouri) threatened my well-being. So like those brave and bonny bunnies, I too set out for a better place: Boston. Where I would become a psychologist who studied the science of stories. And that is my story of science.