Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Parable of The Weasel and the Music

A little story. It has no bearing on real life. It's just something to consider.

My wife is both the spiritual one in the family, and the musical one. For many years, she has been supplementing our income (sometimes very well) by directing church choirs. When I was still in the military, she often directed choirs at the base chapel. And, in fact, when I retired, she was already directing the Catholic choir on base, so she kept right on doing that.

Now, understand that she is not Catholic. However, she has often attended Episcopalian churches, which she likes to say is Catholic Lite: all the liturgy, but none of the Pope. (OK, technically, that last bit is mine. She does call it "Catholic Lite," but she's always careful not to say anything that could be taken as derogatory toward Catholicism, especially when she's working with Catholics. But I'm not as careful as she is...)

There are actually two Catholic services on base: the traditional service on Sunday morning, and a more "contemporary" service on Saturday evening. (If you can call anything "contemporary" that's based on almost 2000 years of tradition, anyway...)

Now, here's one place that military chapels differ from a regular church. A lot more military people go there. (Gee, I'll bet you could have figured that one out on your own, couldn't you?) And the Saturday service was directed by a colonel who we'll call "Col. Moon."

OK, in the interests of full disclosure here, let me explain that the choir directors are contractors, and by law, contractors to the military cannot be active-duty military. That's just how it is. So, technically, Col. Moon was not the choir director. His wife, a fairly drab woman named.... um... we'll just call her "Alice"... anyway, Alice was officially the director, but her husband was one of those pushy, annoying military types. He also, for no obvious reason, thought that he was musically talented.

In fact, let me just rant about Col. Moon for a while. In the course of 21 years in the Air Force, I worked with a number of officers, and he was definitely one of the worst. He was always confident in the absolute correctness of every thought that wandered quietly through that dark, empty place he called a brain. He was positive that he knew more about Catholicism than the priest, and he was also positive that he knew more about music than my wife, an operatically-trained spinto soprano with 41 years of training in every variety of music.

A quick aside about my wife: aside from her incredible voice, she can play piano and guitar, and she taught herself to play organ for a traditional church-sound in the services. She has played folk music, rock, jazz, classical music, gospel (she's pretty white, but she tries), opera (obviously), and in fact, two decades ago, she stage-managed for a jazz-bluegrass fusion band that is still touring (but without her, obviously). She even played backup for a kathakali troupe at one point.

So maybe she knows what she's talking about musically. What'd'ya think?

But none of that mattered to Col. Moon. Basically, he had two problems with my wife. The first was, obviously, her lack of papal attachment. And secondly, she is obviously much more musically talented than he is, and his tiny little ego couldn't take it.

Moon is not a popular man, incidentally. If he outranks you, he is dismissive with your opinions and vaguely abusive, so his subordinates don't like him. The computer people don't like him, because he can cause system-destroying errors in electronics merely by sitting in front of the keyboard. And the people who work in the chapel don't like him because he thinks that, by being a colonel, he is in charge of everything around him.

Just so you know, even though, as a colonel, Moon is relatively high-ranking, that's not how things work. An officer is only in charge of what he has been assigned as a job. But somehow, Moon has picked up the same opinion that a lot of scientists get - since he's an expert in one field, he must obviously be an expert in everything.

Now, here's where it gets weird. The priest was very happy with my wife's ability as a musician, and since Moon was leaving, Father Tim wanted her to take over the Saturday Mass, too. Nobody's sure why - maybe he just wanted to get good music in that service, too. It's hard to tell. But he set up the new contract so that one person would be in charge of both services.

To take this contract, you had to submit a résumé, and then a panel selected by the Parish Council questioned you. But we weren't too worried - my wife had years of experience, and a proven track record.

This wasn't news that Moon wanted to hear. His ego couldn't take it, apparently. Now, remember, he was leaving, and so he wouldn't be around to see her anymore. But the strain of using logic was too much for his little reptilian brain.

Moon wanted so badly to keep my wife out of "his" service that he started lobbying for another member of the congregation to take over, a woman who we'll call Nadine. And then, as a form of insurance, he brought in a ringer, a guy with no connection to the military, who'd never even attended the base chapel.

(Technically, that didn't work out too well for him. Take a note here - if you're going to bring in a ringer, the best choice would be a reliable ringer. Somebody, maybe, who will show up for his interview. It's just a thought.)

Anyway, back to our story. In his desperation to screw over my wife, Moon tried to get on the panel to appoint his successor. But that wasn't going to happen. The chapel manager, Don, saw from the beginning what Moon was trying to do, and was having none of it.

So Moon's next trick was to explain that he needed to act as an expert witness for the panel, essentially. He tried to explain that he was the only person who could understand that highly-technical musical jargon that my wife was going to start spewing. That didn't work either.

So, in desperation, Moon did what any reasonable person would do. He cheated.

We're not sure how he did it - whether he stacked the panel, threatened them with his lofty colonel's rank or what. But after extensive talking to the members of the panel, suddenly Nadine was selected to take over both services, and my wife was out of a job.

Oh, well. That's the way things work sometimes, right? Luck of the draw. This is all just sour grapes on my part, right?

Not so much. You see, when I went looking for Don after the panel interviewed everyone, I noticed that he had left the results on his desk. And you know how they voted?

A whole lifetime of music on my wife's part, and wide-ranging levels of experience at composing, directing, teaching, scoring, and playing instruments; she has literally been directing choirs for decades (two of them, but "decades"), and has sung in choirs for even longer. Nadine had a degree in music, and she taught in the elementary school system some years back. But Nadine scored higher than my wife in "Experience."

My wife had worked with both the Protestant and Catholic sides of the chapel. She'd organized a number of ecumenical services. (Ecumenical - a fancy word that just means "all the services working together" - you know, that whole mythical "spirit of Christian brotherhood" thing.) Nadine admitted that she might have met a Protestant at some point in her life, but she didn't socialize with any of them on a regular basis. But in the rating for "Plurality" ("How well can you work with other faiths?"), she scored top marks across the board, and Annette was marked down.

And here's the kicker. My wife, figuring that this was a job interview, wore a skirt, a nice blouse, some tasteful jewelry. Nadine went to see them in jeans and a tee shirt. And guess who scored higher in "Appearance"?

Are you starting to see a pattern here?

My wife was pretty upset for a day or so. She'd gone from having a job, to needing to go find work. Her talent had been ignored. Her music (which is a large part of her self-image) was ignored, for petty partisan reasons.

However, do you recall that old saying about "the best-laid plans?" See, Moon had subverted at least a few members of the panel, but guess who he hadn't turned to the Dark Side?


It seems that Nadine had no interest in conducting two choirs. She just wanted to work with one of them. So she subcontracted Annette to continue directing her own service. But, as the primary contractor, it was Nadine who had to go to Parish Council meetings, do paperwork, sign forms, and generally do all the administrative details that my wife hates.

So, as all this boils down, my wife is doing the same job, for the same amount of money, but with less stress. Moon has shown himself to be a vicious, backstabbing weasel. And when Nadine goes on vacation (as she does for several months out of the year), you know who's going to be directing "Col. Moon's choir"?

My wife. Now I've just got to make sure that he knows that. (Not that I'm petty or anything.)

Of course, you realize that none of this actually happened or anything. It's just a parable. It wasn't an example of God looking down on his people (not that I really hold a lot of truck with that anyway). Not anything remotely related to reality.

What's that newly-popular word? Oh, yeah.


Monday, April 24, 2006

Xenu Loves Me, This I Know...

Scientology has been in the news a lot lately: everywhere from Isaac Hayes leaving South Park, to intimate discussions of Katie Holmes' pregnancy and Tom Cruise's public melt-down. But how much do you know about Scientology?

From the outside, Scientology looks like a combination of a religion and a social club ("Save your soul, and network with the stars, all at the same time!"). But once they get you into their clutches, they'll explain how all of your problems are due to some psychological blockages that they can cure (Of course, it's not really a "psychological" block, because they hate psychology... so it's a blockage... maybe it's a "Thetan blockage"... oh, just keep reading, maybe you'll understand soon... maybe not...). Then they put you through a combination of religious training and brainwashing, all in the name of "helping" you. And you get pulled into their cult gradually. Almost painlessly.

I'm sorry. Did that last paragraph sound a little negative? Well, let's look at their core beliefs. (Hold on, this is kind of a bumpy ride.)

You see, 75 million years ago, there was a huge space empire run by a guy named Xenu. He gathered together billions of dissidents from all over his empire, transported them to Earth, and piled them up around volcanoes. He then blew up the volcanoes with hydrogen bombs. But these dead people didn't disappear. Their souls stayed on Earth, and clustered around all of the survivors. This is one of those "blockages" that Scientologists want to help you with. It's called "Incident II," and they cure you by locating clusters of "body Thetans" and peeling them off of you.

OK, "peeling them off" isn't quite right. But if I said that they located them telepathically, would that sound any less crazy? But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Now, all of these "Thetans" (remember them? They're the souls of the people Xenu blew up) were gathered up by Xenu's forces using electronic ribbons, and taken to get processed (they call this the "R-6 Implant") in what looked like giant movie theaters, where they were brainwashed with "all kinds of misleading information." As a result of this processing, humanity gets religion, psychology, and doesn't believe science fiction (but, oddly enough, it doesn't keep us from watching movies).

Once they were processed, these Thetans also lost their sense of personal identity, which is why they started clustering around the surviving humans.

You can understand why something like that would be traumatic, right?

Now, L. Ron Hubbard wrote a lot of this stuff down in 1967 and 1968, while drunk and on drugs (as he said in a letter to his wife, "I'm drinking lots of rum and taking pinks and grays"). But he probably developed these ideas before 1960, when he published a book called Have You Lived Before This Life?, where he gave details of 41 case studies of Scientologists and their memories of reincarnation. (He didn't actually write the book; it was put together by Scientological "auditors," which is what they call the guys who run the "e-meters." I would explain e-meters, but pseudoscience just makes me tired.)

There are plenty of other details to the story, about how Earth (or "Teegeeack") was actually a prison planet, run by evil beings ("entheta"), but why go on? With Scientology, you get to learn the "actual history" of Earth and the universe by going through training. The whole Xenu story is revealed in OT III ("Operational Thetan, Level III").

Scientologists are a secretive bunch, and don't like letting the details out. So how, you might ask, do we know all this information about them? Well, some people go through the training, and the brainwashing doesn't take. Robert Kaufman, for example, wrote a book in 1972 called Inside Scientology: How I Joined Scientology and Became Super Human. And the Church of Scientology sued Steven Fishman, who claimed that he had been assigned to murder his psychologist (Dr. Uwe Geertz) and then commit suicide. And in the course of Church of Scientology International v. Fishman and Geertz, Fishman introduced, as evidence, the textbooks for OT-I through OT-VII. (There was apparently also a fake document, claiming to be OT-VIII, which talked about pedophilia being a good thing. But let's not deal with all that.)

That is how Scientology tries to protect itself. It sues. They've never argued that the OT-I through VII documents were lies. Instead, they have gone to court claiming copyright violation, and several times they’ve said that even rewording the documents would reveal trade secrets. And they've sued a bunch of Internet providers for reprinting the documents, too. Fortunately, since the entire story was introduced in court documents, it’s all available for people to read.

Do your own research. Check Wikipedia. (And then, because it's Wikipedia, verify everything.)

None of this stuff really affects most people's lives. But it does get in the news once in a while. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are obvious examples. Plus, there's the South Park controversy. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of the show, had an episode where they revealed most of the Xenu story, with a footnote at the bottom of the screen reading "This is what Scientologists actually believe." They were going to rerun the episode on March 15, 2005. On March 13, Isaac Hayes released a statement that he was quitting because Stone and Parker were insensitive to "personal spiritual beliefs." (It’s possible that he never released this statement directly, since he apparently suffered a stroke in January and hadn’t been seen by his friends since then.)

Finally, Comedy Central pulled the episode and replaced it with the "Chef's Salty Chocolate Balls" episode. (If you've seen the show, I don't need to explain that last sentence. If you haven't... well, hell, I'm not even going to try to explain...) Why would they do pull the episode? Well, remember that Viacom owns Comedy Central. Viacom is also tied to Paramount, which was about to release Mission Impossible III. And there are some anonymous sources who've suggested that Tom Cruise threatened not to promote the movie.

I don't know the truth. I just lay out the facts. You figure it out. But remember that Stone and Parker released a statement to Daily Variety where they said:
So, Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for earth has just begun! Temporarily anozinizing our episode will NOT stop us from keeping Thetans forever trapped in your pitiful man-bodies. Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail! Hail Xenu!!!
It sounds a little odd that thousands of people have been taken in by this crappy science fiction script. But remember that billions of people have believed in an invisible man in the sky who, despite being omnipotent and omniscient, gets testy if you don't debase yourself to him every day. (See? It hurts when it's your religion that's getting mocked, doesn't it?)

I just know one thing. Scientology must be destroyed. But not because it's a cult: I don't care about that. All I know is, they're responsible for that steaming cinematic turd called Battlefield Earth.

That's enough reason for me.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter - Jesus gets hammered and learns about rock and roll

Every religion sells something. But Christianity seems to lead the pack in salesmanship. Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States: is it an aspect of the "Yankee Trader" mentality? Or is the less-abrasive "Christian Left" trying to become its own subculture?

(Didn't Jesus once throw the money-changers out of the temple? I have some vague memory about that... And by the way, did you notice that several churches are holding an Easter sunrise service. See? SON-rise? That's because God loves puns.)

Despite the various efforts of some of the less-ethical media to sell us on the idea of "the Hijacking of Easter," Christianity seems to be alive and well in America today, and available on every street corner, and at every price range.

The selling of a religion can take many forms, from the somewhat classier jewelry merchants, to the potentially-blasphemous Crucifix Dildo. Depending on your tastes, you can find a religious diet book (What Would Jesus Eat?), or an entire line of Biblically-based nutritional supplements. There have always been religious books, but the Word of God can now be found in every form of media, even video games. (There's even a long-running series of super-hero videos starring Willie Ames, of "Eight is Enough" fame.) And particularly since Mel Gibson made his movie, although it's still difficult to find a piece of the True Cross, you can, once again, find "Passion Nails" and other simulated relics (not to mention an endless supply of end-times literature). Some of the more egregious examples have been collected here.

And it doesn't stop with simple religion. Easter in America has, for many years, been a celebration of commerce. Although military-themed Easter baskets didn't go over real well, the more traditional Easter baskets filled with fluffy bunnies and ducks are widely available. Ignoring the possible correlation between pagan and Easter symbology, you can find children's bibles right next to decorated eggs.

Despite the prevalence of chocolate rabbits and marshmallow ducks, you can easily find other types of Christian-themed candy (although if you're not careful, you might find chocolate-covered mushrooms).

However, there is another style of Christian marketing, one that tries to emulate the mainstream culture. It's a lifestyle more comfortable with t-shirts than shirt-and-tie, one that wants to relax and listen to music.
Is this the face of the new evangelist, is it watered-down Christianity, or is it just another face of Mammon?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Benzene: The Choice Of A New Generation!

I had a paranoid moment last week.

It wasn't that anything actually happened to me. It was simply that a couple of facts came to my attention at the same time. Now, combine that with the flu that I'm fighting off, and you end up with the perfect brain setting for paranoia.

You see, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has acknowledged that benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, has been found in soft drinks at levels that far exceed the amount considered safe for drinking water.

But the federal government insists there is no cause for concern. While they accept that benzene is a dangerous chemical, they insist that the new findings are not placing anyone at risk.

Strangely enough, by admitting that the levels of benzene are higher than previously estimated, the FDA is contradicting a statement they issued last week, when officials said they had found only insignificant levels of benzene in soda. "We haven't changed our view that right now, there is not a safety concern, not a public health concern," said FDA official Laura Tarantino, "but what we need to do is understand how benzene forms and to ensure the industry is doing everything to avoid those circumstances."

A different study found the amount of benzene in 19 of 24 samples of diet sodas was, on average, four times the levels accepted in tap water. Tarantino says those chemists are overestimating the amount of benzene, and the FDA is not yet ready to release the results of their own study of benzene in soft drinks.

The Environmental Working Group says that the FDA is supressing this information. "If they're so confident the situation is not a safety risk, they need to release the data to prove it," said Richard Wiles, the group's senior vice president. "The only data available to the public contradict their claim."

Coincidentally, when the tobacco corporations were forced to reveal a list of the dangerous chemicals in their products, they also failed to mention benzene. In this case, though, it was completely understandable. Benzene does not need to be added to tobacco, because it forms naturally when you burn it.

Benzene is, of course, not the only risk associated with soft drinks. Despite studies showing that habitual coffee use will not increase rates of high blood pressure in women, apparently drinking a cola will. And aside from obesity, soft drinks are suggested as the cause of other health problems.

Of course, despite numerous studies showing the links between soft drinks and poor health, there will always be a dissenting opinion. And, as usual, that opinion can be found on Fox News.

So, if everybody except Fox News thinks that something is bad, I'll admit that I usually figure that Fox News is wrong. (Let's just say "they're wrong." We don't have to argue about why they're wrong, do we? After all, I can't think of any way that it would benefit a major news corporation if they always changed stories to reflect what the White House wants to hear. Can you?)

In March of 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set limits on the amounts of mercury that could be emitted by power plants. At the time, the EPA said that they couldn't make the limits more "aggressive" because the cost to the industry was already more than the public health benefit.

Which would have been true, if they weren't ignoring a study by Harvard University that said that slightly greater limits would have health benefits worth more than five billion dollars per year, but would cost the industry three quarters of a billion dollars.

This was a study that the EPA had paid for, that was co-authored by an EPA scientist, and that was peer-reviewed by two other EPA scientists. In common language, the EPA wasted our tax dollars to ignore a study that might have made Americans healthier.

At first, the EPA claimed that the study results didn't get to them in time for their deadline. When interviews and documents proved that to be a lie, they switched their stories, and claimed that the Harvard study was using "flawed" data about the heart problems caused by mercury contamination. They did manage to stick by their original claim that the health benefits would only be around fifty million dollars, though.

The government's action is probably completely unrelated to the fact that the EPA dismantled a previous working group on mercury, just as they were about to require much more stringent regulations from all coal-burning power plants in America.

With their new ruling, the EPA completely ignored previous studies that showed that mercury contamination in seafood caused irreversible damage not only to the hearts of adults, but to brain functions in infants.

Let's repeat the most important word there: "irreversible." As in "can't be fixed." The EPA had accepted those studies at the time, and as a result, had already suggested that pregnant women limit their intake of seafood to no more than twelve ounces per week.

Remember the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the ONDCP), the guys who make those stupid anti-drug ads? Here's what they have to say about inhalants:
Upon inhalation, the body becomes starved of oxygen, forcing the heart to beat more rapidly in an attempt to increase blood flow to the brain. The user initially experiences stimulation, a loss of inhibition, and a distorted perception of reality and spatial relations. After a few minutes, the senses become depressed and a sense of lethargy arises as the body attempts to stabilize blood flow to the brain, usually referred to as a "head rush."
Did you follow that? If the brain isn't getting enough oxygen, the body tries to compensate, and the owner of that body (and by extention, that brain) gets high.
Damage is also caused to the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum, resulting in personality changes, memory impairment, hallucinations, loss of coordination, and slurred speech.
Part of that damage is caused by the chemicals that are being inhaled, of course. But part of the damage is caused by oxygen starvation to the brain. Now, let's see if you can remember that high school biology class. What carries oxygen to the brain? That's right: red blood cells. And remember that benzene that the government is allowing into our sodas? Do you know what it does to the body, aside from causing cancer?
The major effect of benzene from long-term exposure is on the blood. (Long-term exposure means exposure of a year or more.) Benzene causes harmful effects on the bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia.
So, what do you think would happen over a long period of time if the brain couldn't get enough oxygen because the blood couldn't carry it?

That's right. Brain damage.

So, here we have the US government allowing mercury, which is known to cause brain damage, into the environment. And then it allows benzene, which could cause brain damage if it was consumed over a long period of time, into our sodas.

And I have two teen-aged sons. I know exactly how much soda they'll drink if you leave them alone. (OK, one of them is twenty. If you squint your eyes just right, he's not technically a "teenager" any more. He still sucks down soda like a vacuum pump.)

So that's why I had my paranoid moment. Can you imagine why a government that isn't very good about hiding their lies might appreciate a brain-damaged electorate?

But with a little further thought, I realized that I was giving too much credit to the planning abilities of that same government. Why set up an elaborate, long-term plan when simple, short-term stupidity is more likely to be the cause?

They didn't let mercury into the fish and into the air around the coal-burning plants because they wanted people to get mercury poisoning. They did it because it would cost less if the corporations didn't have to pay to get the mercury out. For that matter, they didn't let benzene into the sodas because they wanted people sucking down quarts of poison every day. It would just cost the soda companies money to take it out. The problem isn't that the government is trying to harm the American people. It's that the government doesn't care.

And what about the corporations who are making all this money off of the people? Shouldn't they care about the fact that if the people are all dead, there won't be anybody left to buy the products?

You know, there's a very strong movement out there to prevent sex education, limit birth control, and outlaw abortion. I wonder why that would be?

Aw, crap. Now I'm having another one of those paranoid moments...


Update: May 22, 2006
And will you look at what happens almost two months after I posted this? It seems that the FDA finally released their results. Out of only 100 drinks that they tested (not just sodas -- "drinks" -- anybody want to try and figure out how many thousands of drinks are on the market today?), they found five with more than the 5 parts per billion limit that they set. One of them (Safeway Select Diet Orange) had 79 parts per billion.

The article then goes on to explain the various health risks associated with benzene:
As well as being linked to many health disorders, respiratory and skin problems, blood disorders, high benzene exposure is linked to the following cancers:

-- ALL (acute lymphocytic leukemia)
-- AML (acute myelogenous leukaemia)
-- CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia)
-- CML chronic myelogenous leukemia)
-- HCL (hairy cell leukemia)
-- Hodgkin's disease
-- MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome)
-- Multiple myeloma
-- NHL (non-Hodgkin's lymphoma)
So, hey, enjoy that soda.

By the way, despite the title of this entry, Coca Cola doesn't have either sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate. However, most of the other varieties (Diet Coke, Cherry Vanilla Honey Almond Licorice Coke, and all of 'em like that) do. Read your labels.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

How to end up a zookeeper without even trying

Here's how you, too, can find yourself living in a zoo.

I spent 21 years as a military cop, and one of the many lessons I've learned is that, according to criminals, the best burglar alarm is not electronic, and is not some kind of mechanical, Bugs Bunny-style Acme Safe with optional explosive trapdoor. It's a dog. So for many years now, we've had a medium-sized dog running around the house.

Not a useless little yappy dog, but a good German Shepherd-sized, fang-laden, friendly (but slightly territorial), four-legged burglar alarm.

My wife, however, is a cat person. She's happiest if she has a small bundle of fur purring in her lap. So, for many years, we've had two cats to keep each other company. Bucky (short for Buckethead) has grown into a fairly relaxed, if stubborn, old matriarch, and Phantom (because he has a mask like the Phantom of the Opera).

My youngest son has a bearded dragon, a 25" lizard, which stays in his room and hardly infringes on my life, so, other than to mention that we go through about a dozen crickets every two days, we won't really deal with him much.

Now, our primary dog, Tasha is a Labrador /German Shepherd mix: a lab/shep, in the simplified shorthand that we like to use. She is an even-tempered, pure-black German Shepherd in appearance, with a Labrador undercoat and webbed feed, so she swims like a fish and shakes off water like a seal.

So, of course, we brought her to Albuquerque. Where else would you take a water-loving dog but the middle of the high desert?

She has one minor personality quirk. When we lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, we didn't have a fenced backyard, so we put her on a run. And there she was, tied up, when a pack of dogs came along and attacked her. So she's never really gotten along with other dogs. Cats, yes. But dogs, no.

As she got older, we knew we were eventually going to have to replace her, and we thought it might be nice if she had somebody to play with. So last year, we got a puppy. Like all of our dogs, he came from the pound. We're reasonably certain that he's a Chesapeake Bay Retriever - a light chocolate-brown shorthair.

And sure enough, her maternal instinct overcame her dislike of other canines, and we were allowed to bring Boris into our house.

Unfortunately, as Boris got older, we discovered a minor problem - he's an idiot. Dumb as a bag of hammers. This might partly be due to a badly-healed skull-fracture that the vet discovered, which also led to his nose curving ever-so-slightly to the right. It might be due to the fact that Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are known to be a little vague. Or it might just be that he doesn't even have two brain cells to rub together.

Whatever the reason, we have Natasha and Boris. Tasha is a dignified, intelligent, beautiful beast, and Boris is both moose and squirrel rolled into one dust-covered package. He's lazy - he doesn't just sit, he'll lie down, or he'll lean against a wall. Some stray atom of thought will roll through the dark recesses of his skull, and he'll go bounding down the hall, running into walls, and either skid to a stop in the living room or ram, full-speed, into some piece of furniture. And then he'll stand there, looking around confused, because whatever phantom had momentarily interested him has apparently vanished into thin air.

Boris is also extremely friendly. He loves other dogs, people, cats, birds - anything that moves is his friend. We have hopes that a burglar breaks into our house while Tasha is still around, because left to his own devices, Boris will lick their faces and show them where we store the good china and the big TV.

So, there we were, with two dogs, two cats, and a lizard. Enough animals for one family, right?

Oh, no. My daughter Nicole broke up with her boyfriend, and the only thing that could console her was a kitten. So she ended up getting Pandora, a little black kitten with the strangest needy spells - she'll suddenly realize that she's alone in the world, and nothing can console her except to be held and actively petted. Which can be annoying at 2 a.m., by the way.

And I put my foot down. "We're done. No more animals." Is that unreasonable of me? We don't have a big enough house for the five humans we have living in it, and we're suddenly outnumbered by the animals! How the hell does this happen?

It just does.

But never make magnanimous statements like "Nope. No. More. Animals." Because Fate loves to hear a challenge like that.

My older son brought home another kitten one day, a younger version of Bucky. My first words, upon seeing this cat, were "Nope. We aren't taking it." And being a relatively reasonable human being, Luke (that's my older son) agreed that, indeed, we had no need of another cat. We were just watching it for his girlfriend, who'd be taking it off our hands any day now.

Well, as days rolled into weeks, we discovered why his wannabe-Goth girlfriend wasn't taking the kitten. She already had two cats at home, and she needed to get rid of them first. Or, more accurately, somebody else needed to get rid of these cats for her, because her family had apparently turned in their quota of cats to the pound already that year.

Luke's now-former girlfriend liked kittens, but once they weren't kittens any more, it seems that she didn't want them any more. So she wanted Luke and one of his other friends to each take one down to the pound, so that she could clear her house of cats, and her parents would let her have a new one.

That was a little too much for me. Nobody's going to kill two adult cats just to get a replacement, who'd probably suffer the same fate as she also grew into an adult (as kittens tend to do, after all). So, against my better judgment, we ended up with a fourth cat.

Did I mention that Luke's now-ex-girlfriend wanted to be a Goth? She did. And she'd named the cat Abandon. Stupidest damned name in the world: a verb, present tense, with negative qualities (like, say, Sting). So we truncated it, to Abby (or, occasionally, when she's particularly dim, Abby-normal, in honor of Mel Brooks).

That's how you end up living in a zoo. It's not your fault, it just happens.

And somehow, I have the feeling that, even if we can ever convince the kids to move out, the animals are going to stay.

Because that seems to be how my life works.