Tag Archives: animals

Why this ferret matters

30 seconds of a ferret trying to work up its courage to take a giant leap, h/t Gawker.

It’s a little Friday Ferret Funtime for all my readers, but if I can geek out for a minute, the fact that you’re laughing is what I’m all about. This is why I spend my life reading and writing and talking about psychology and theater. Ferrets and humans are different species with very different bodies and brains. And yet, you know exactly what this little guy is experiencing, don’t you? You know. There is something universal about motivation and the body language we–ferret, dog, human, whatever–use to express our complicated relationship with it. You’re not laughing at this ferret because what it’s doing is incomprehensible and weird. You’re laughing at the familiarity. It’s your kid at bat. It’s you before a job interview. It’s me at my first Open Mic Night.

We are all this ferret.

UPDATE: A friend of mine noted “this reminds me of pursuing a career in the arts.”

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Hangout of the “Planet of the Apes”

Earlier this week I did a video broadcast with PeaceBang and NYT religion reporter Michael Paulson about religion themes in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which Mr. Improbable and I saw this weekend. Boy, the reading glasses were a mistake! But I had never done a Google hangout before, and wanted to keep an eye on the proceedings. We do give away most of the plot–elements that aren’t implicitly contained in the title, that is–so watch with caution.

More discussion after the jump

Click to continue reading "Hangout of the “Planet of the Apes”"

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The wild hecticness of the past two weeks ought to end on Tuesday night: I will have finished the Last of the Big Projects at Harvard Business School, and Mr. Improbable will (ash willing) be home.

I’ve missed him, but Milo and I had gotten into a nice routine of walks and napping (Milo)/working (me), and then in the evenings snuggling and watching movies and TV together. (I did wind up watching “Caprica.”) It’s been okay.

And it gave Milo an excellent opportunity to practice his comic timing.

He has an uncanny knack for sighing, growling, grumbling at the perfect moment when we’re watching a video, and I swear he’s getting better at it. I’m not pretending to be one of those dog owners who insists her dog understands English (even if he did, he still wouldn’t know what’s going on on “Lost” any more than I do). But he likes the attention of being laughed at, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s figured out that growling when he hears the sound of a threatening voice, or sighing when the music swells dramatically, will get him laughs.

He comes from funny people.

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Dogs and green coats

The blogs that I like best, like Andrew Sullivan‘s and Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s, bounce around to a bunch of different topics, more or less like I do. The fact is, though, it’s easier for a new blog to get attention if it’s specialized: fashion, politics, sports, science, Christian, literary, whatever.

But don’t worry. Although I’m pretty sure no one has covered this niche, the preponderance of posts having to do with dogs and/or springtime-green coats is not going to become the sole focus of this blog. But at the risk of beating the topic to death, I did want to share a couple more pictures that I found of Milo and me while perusing my hard drive.

I’d lived in Boston for a good 10 years before succumbing to the need for a puffy coat, but having a dog who requires a morning walk quickly made it obvious that fashion was going to have to take a back seat to necessity. So I chose — of course! — a nice springy green one from Land’s End L.L. Bean. It arrived in the mail, and I tried in on, and then came upstairs to model it for Mr. Improbable and Milo.

Milo, whom we’d only had for a few months, completely flipped a nutty when the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Woman came at him. The hood covered my face, and the strong plastic-y odor of the coat’s wrapping masked my own smell.


Once he realized it was me, of course, we made up.


Take a look, though, at his body language in that first picture. That is one scared dog. Look how far down his ears are tucked, how much eye-white you can see, how his hindquarters are bunched under him, ready to protect his vitals, or to spring. Everyone knows to beware of a dog that is snarling, hackles up, baring its teeth. But a dog who looks like Milo does here can be just as dangerous, if not more so. The vast majority of the time, a normal dog’s aggression is not driven by “dominance” issues, but by fear.

Kind of like people.

So maybe the next time you’re faced with an angry coworker, or in-law, or child, if you can, take a step back and ask yourself what’s really motivating them. Often, treating angry people as though they are afraid can be a remarkable way of defusing tension.

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Friday fashion AND dog blogging!

Response was good for my fashion blogging debut on Monday, so I think I may keep this as an occasional feature. Thanks for your kind responses, everyone!

Today I thought I’d mix up two great internet traditions and do street-fashion blogging AND dog blogging at the same time. My Monday post was about the power of dressing against the season, with glamorous blacks in summer and springy pastels in winter. Well, peep this little lady who totally gets the concept:


This is Penny. Penny is owned by a good friend of mine in New York, who got her as a rescue from a puppy mill. When she first came to my friend, Penny was sick, underweight, terrified of humans, and her back legs were so weak from living in a tiny cage with her own filth that she could barely walk. She was too afraid of life to even stand up — when you stand up is when they do the Bad Things to you. Penny is also blind, which means one of three things: 1) she was blinded by someone, 2) she went blind because she didn’t receive veterinary care when she needed it, or 3) she was born that way, and a puppy mill used her for breeding anyway, despite her genetic defect.

Well, look at her now, owning the mean streets of New York! (All right, the gentrified streets of Park Slope, but don’t mess with my narrative.) Penny’s all right. My friend says that springtime green just somehow is Penny’s color, and I can see why. Penny’s like those shoots of grass that come up through the sidewalk in April. Fragile, vulnerable, delicate, but with enough hope and strength and spirit to bust through concrete.

If Penny’s story upsets you, don’t ever buy a dog from a pet store or a “backyard breeder.” Get a reputable breeder, or better yet, get a rescue dog.

And get some clothes that make you feel as good as Penny does in this picture:


Penny says, “I don’t have to see to know I’m lookin’ fly!”

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Friday dog blogging


Milo (right) and our houseguest Kaiser (left). This rather serene-looking photo does not nearly do justice to the epic, pitched battle of tug that was going on. Milo is a terrier mix with speed and home-field advantage; Kaiser is a French bulldog with terrific muscle power on his side. As Mr. Improbable put it, “It’s like watching a soccer player versus a sumo wrestler.”

The Ear Club for Dogs: they’re not just members, they’re the presidents.

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Does a Bere’shit in the woods?

Whether they are Reform or Orthodox, all religious Jews are literally on the same page: we all read the same section of the Torah every week, broken up so that we read the entire Torah (i.e., the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) every year. Each Torah portion is named after its first word or phrase. We finished the Torah, this year, on October 10, and started it again in Genesis this past Saturday.

Genesis begins with “In the beginning,” which in Hebrew is Bere’shit, so that is what we call it. Four years ago, I’d started writing a little essay on Sundays, a personal reflection on that week’s portion. Because I couldn’t find anyone interested in publishing these, that didn’t last too long. But I thought I’d share the one I wrote on Bere’shit with you. Even if you’re not religious, I think it speaks to something about the nature of creativity and otherness. Or maybe it will leave you cold. I don’t expect every post to hit home with every reader.

This week’s Torah portion, Bere’shit, contains one of the oddest and funniest scenes in the Torah. In Genesis 2:18-21 we read, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone, I will make a fitting helper for him.’ And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for Adam no fitting helper was found.”

Now this, to me, clearly indicates that HaShem* may not have known exactly what it was He’d created when he made Adam. The issue of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, as well as the entire question of how we can have free will if God already knows everything we will do—that I will leave to theologians. But taking a purely literary or theatrical approach to the passage, there is no doubt that HaShem is, at this point, a bit confused about what he might have on His divine hands, if He seriously thinks that He can find Adam a suitable mate from all the animals in creation.

It’s a scene I’d love to see the old Monty Python crew perform (John Cleese as God, of course, and Michael Palin as Adam). “All right then, Adam, let’s get you some company, my boy. Giraffe? No, no, too tall. A tiger, perhaps? Erm, might be a bit dangerous, that. Sheep? No, you’re not from New Zealand, are you … Bother, I’m not quite sure what is going to work here …” And when He does finally decide He’d better just make another human, He creates her from the original model, as though He’s not quite sure what might happen if he tried that “breathing life into dust” thing again.

To suggest that God may have been a bit unclear about the nature of His creation is not to take away from His authority or wisdom. Parents, and artists, can all attest to the “shock of the new,” the awareness that this thing you made has a life, and a spirit, entirely of its own. I think this is what’s going on in Parashat Bere’shit, and it shed light, for me, on why, perhaps, God created us.

Here’s what I think: I think He wanted to be surprised. Look at verse 19, in which God brings the animals before Adam not just to see which might make him a suitable mate, but “to see what he would call them.” What’s he gonna do? That’s what God is asking Himself. I feel a sense of play, of experiment, in HaShem at this point. What will Adam make of all of this? It’s the same delight you see in a parent giving her baby a new toy. Will he like it? Will he be afraid of it? Will he do something utterly surprising and funny, and take my breath away with delight?

Of course, as the Canadian folk singer Jane Siberry so wisely noted, “Everything Reminds Me of My Dog.” And I suspect having gotten a new dog—on Simchat Torah, no less—is strongly influencing my reading of this passage. Milo pleases me when he obeys me. But he delights me when he surprises me—by doing something so purely and ineluctably him, that for all my superior wisdom and learning I could never have predicted it. When he jumps straight up in the air, almost as high as my shoulder. When he decides for his own obscure canine reasons that he must, right now, protect us from the evil, menacing bunch of bananas lying on the kitchen shelf. When he puts the side of his head on the floor and rotates himself around in a circle like Curly from the Three Stooges. His obedience pleases me, his affection warms me, but his ability to surprise, to always be the unique creature that he is, breaks me out of myself and into sheer joy.

So obey God. And love God. But just as importantly, always, always be yourself and hope that somewhere up there He is laughing in delight at you.

*HaShem is Hebrew for “The Name,” and is one of the ways we refer to God. So please, people, if you’re trying to be all interfaith and tolerant, stop writing things like “Whether you pray to God, Allah, or Yahweh …” For one thing, Allah is God. It’s the Arabic word for “God.” Arab Christians pray to Allah, too. It’s not like some whole different character. For another, no one prays to Yahweh, at least no Jews do. If you want to come up with a Jewish way of saying “God,” it’s “HaShem.” We don’t say “Yahweh,” and we don’t say “Jehovah,” either, except when we’re quoting “Life of Brian.”

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We know some real characters, we do

Our friend Dan Meyer, professional sword swallower and winner of the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize in medicine, is … well, really, where do you go after that? Of course he’s an unforgettable character. In addition to swallowing swords, Dan has a passion for collecting languages and exotic animals. From a recent Facebook exchange:


All together now! “Watch me wallaby’s feed, mate, watch me wallaby’s feed! They’re a dangerous breed, mate, so watch me wallaby’s feed!”

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Do you look like your dog?

This article in the New York Times tackles an issue of burning social import: do dogs and their owners look alike?

The research, apparently, is as mixed as the heritage of the beloved Milo. Milo is an exceedingly good-looking little fellow, and my immediate reaction upon seeing the headline “Some Dogs Look Like Their Owners” was, “I wish!” My brains and Milo’s looks and general adorability would be a potent combination indeed. And there would have been no question of me winning that “Mad Men” contest, either: Milo is the epitome of sleek, understated early-60s design. Peep this handsome little man:


Does your dog (or cat) look like you?

More interestingly, do you see your dog or cat as being similar to you in personality or life story?

Milo’s black-on-white spots aren’t the only thing he has in common with a Rorschach test. As I wrote on his first Gotcha Day, “I know you grew up in a suburban backyard, without many friends, and that once you were old enough you got bored and lit out for something more. I could identify …” I also identify with Milo’s hatred of the heat, his neuroticism, his distrust of strangers, his love of Greek yogurt and olive oil, and his fastidious grooming.* Mr. Improbable, if asked to describe some of his favorite things about Milo, would probably note his boundless energy, his curiosity, his athleticism, his friendliness, and his love of being laughed at.

I don’t think this is accidental.

Research** suggests that people do see their pets as being similar to themselves in personality, and that the more similar you think you and your pet are, the more you like your pet, and the more you think your pet is better than other pets. (This would explain the wholly objective observation that Milo is, in fact, the Best Dog in the World.)

What about you? Do you think your pet resembles you, either physically or psychologically? How do you feel about that? Do you identify with your pet’s positive or negative qualities, or both? (I listed all positive ones for Mr. Improbable, but I’m sure he sees some of his own flaws in the little guy as well.)

*I generally take a lot of care with my appearance, but before any major event my beauty preparations really ramp up. You can imagine what having my first book come out, and “Today Show” appearances and all that, did to me. I–being, as noted, somewhat neurotic–tortured myself over this for a while. Was I betraying my principles? Or was I making a rational decision to invest in my appearance as a career asset? Were the pedicures and retinol and facials an expression of self-love or self-hatred? Then it occurred to me: when I get nervous, I groom myself. I am not the only animal that does this. There didn’t seem to be any need to pathologize or politicize it nearly as much as I was.

**El-Alayli, A., Lystad, A.L., Webb, S.R., Hollingsworth, S.L. & Ciolli, J.L. (2006). Reigning Cats and Dogs: A Pet-Enhancement Bias and Its Link to Pet Attachment, Pet–Self Similarity. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 28 (2) 131-143.

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Miss Conduct’s “Pet Etiquette” video

… featuring, of course, the incomparable MILO! This is the second of two promotional videos that Mr. Improbable and I put together for the book. Yes, it’s got that “not ready for prime-time” feel, but aren’t Milo and I cute?


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Welcome to the new blog for Robin Abrahams, and the website for Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners! NOTE: This post is going to float around up top for a while to say hi to the newbies. New content will be added below.

I’ll continue to blog Monday-Friday at my Miss Conduct blog, which will focus primarily on the advice column and New England events. This blog will be more comprehensive and will cover–well, on Facebook I described my interests thus:

Theater, Judaism, social sciences, narrative, genre fiction, art, human-animal interaction, behavioral economics, fashion, good home cooking, media and how we relate to it, body acceptance, diversity. Also, feeding cute animals by hand.

So that’s not a bad look at what you’re in for.

We’ll start in reverse order.


(As with my other blog, some posts will enable comments and others won’t. Comments are open here so you can say hello–and so I can get some moderating practice on the new software.)

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