If you’ve raised a young child, then you know that cuteness comes with the territory. Indeed, parenthood is nothing if not an endless parade of cuteness — not just the child and his or her succession of outfits, facial expressions and silly “hurry-up grab the camera” inducing moments either, but every single accoutrement as well, from fuzzy feet pajamas and bunny rabbit toothbrushes to sequined hiking boots and little rocking chairs with butterflies painted on them. The list goes on and on due to the fact that Mommies and Daddies worthy of the title naturally want to surround their kids with an aura of love, innocence and safety, and cuteness is the easiest way to create just such a vibe — after all, other than hugs and kisses, nothing says “everything is going to be alright forever and ever” like, say, princesses on the curtains and unicorns on the pillowcases.
This is all well and good, except for one thing: things aren’t going to be alright forever and ever, and no amount of puppies or singing frogs (or dollars or real estate holdings) can change that fact. We can think all the positive thoughts we want, eat all the organic food we can afford, manifest goodness in every possible way and focus on the glass half full until the sacred cows come home, but none of these acts is going to do away with the cold hard fact that some portion of our existence is suffering, and that this suffering (pain, disease, loneliness) only ends when we die, an inevitable event so potentially horrible (car crash, tumor, snake bite) that we suffer even more just thinking about it, and do everything in our power (sex, drugs, rock and roll) to ward off the inevitable, or at least to keep our mind on other things.
Twenty years ago or thereabouts, my tie-dyed and slightly smelly bebackpacked self was traipsing through the City of Angels when I came upon a school playground full of kids. They were doing kid stuff. Sliding. Swinging. Sandbox. Terrorizing each other. I watched from afar as a girl, about eight years old, was brought to tears by the incessant teasing, dare I say bullying, of her classmates. Right then and there, I decided life was just too hard to bear and that I was never going to bring a child into such a world, and, at least partially due to feelings associated with this event (but mostly due to an extended period of self-absorbed navel gazing), I waited an extra long time to do so.
Of course, I believed in a lot of things at age 19 or 20 that seem laughable now — conspiracy theories, changing the world by getting stoned, forsaking underwear — and fortunately that solemn vow gave way to marriage vows and a subsequent little blonde bundle of joy that changed my life forever and for the better. But I still remember that moment on the playground, and want to do whatever I can to shield my daughter from ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that might cause her to experience pain and suffering.
At its core, that’s what all the cuteness is about: creating an island of innocence in the midst of a dangerous world so that our kids can avoid having to experience, or even become aware of, the darker side of existence. Daddy might be reading Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” before bed and watching “Apocalypse Now” for the 78th time when nobody’s around, but he wants his daughter to live in a Never Never Land, where the horrors depicted in such stories never rear their ugly heads. All parents hope against hope that the smell of puppies might overpower the stench of burnt flesh in warzones. That picture books of baby dolphins will blot out starvation and disease. That frilly ballerina outfits and little pink cowgirl boots will prevent our children, for just a little while longer, from having to learn about racism, child molesters, serial killers, ecological collapse, extinction, genocide.
According to the Legend of Wikipedia, the Buddha was the son of a king, and his father, in an effort to keep him happy, hid him away in the palace and surrounded him with everything he could ever need or desire, while at the same time shielding him from religious teachings as well as the realities of human suffering. Like all kids everywhere, the little Buddha surely had moments of sadness and confusion: nasty tropical bug bites, skinned knees and the occasional wormy mango. Painful moments, but not existentially so — just a quick glimpse of the little facts of life, a momentary tearful breakdown, and, we can assume, eventual consoling in the loving arms of Dad or nursemaid (Mom had died in childbirth). Of course, the illusion couldn’t last, and one day the Buddha caught a glimpse of an old man and was informed by a servant that all people grew old, including himself. He started sneaking out of the palace and saw what it was all about: sickness, death, decay. He was changed forever, for he now knew that all the palatial beauty and wealth (read: cuteness) was a fraud,and spent the rest of his life trying to find some sort of solution to the whole mess. Young Mr. Buddha had an epiphany that shattered his childish view of the world and set off a chain of events — assuming there is a kernal of truth to the story — that affects humans thousands of years later.
Similar myths and legends are part of the foundation of civilization, and represent any number of awakenings we wish humanity had never had to experience, often involving a golden age now lost forever (or at least until some great battle occurs, or some great redeemer shows up to make it right again, or a devil’s bargain is struck). Pandora opening the box full of evil. Balder the Good killed by a dart of mistletoe. Naïve Persephone snatched away from flowery fields and raped by Hades in the underworld. Luke Skywalker glimpsing the charred remains of his protective Aunt and Uncle on Tatooine. And, of course, Adam and Eve lounging around the Garden until they glimpsed the BIG PICTURE and were cast out, suddenly ashamed of their nakedness and forced to toil for their survival.
Our house is hardly a garden of eden (daddy sometimes comes home grumpy after wrestling ADHD kids all day), or a land of perpetual spring blossoms (he cuts some mega burrito farts too), but we do our best to weed out what darkness we can. We peruse library books before bringing them home, and have chosen not to have any television channels in our house, opting for DVDs and the internet — two mediums which (for now) allow us to filter out violence, disturbing images and the barrage of gotta-own-this-right-now toy commercials or gotta-gobble-this-garbage-down-for-breakfast kiddie food ads. Despite these precautions, reality lurks around every corner, and darkness recentlydescended upon our house via a kind gesture by a family member and two seemingly safe vehicles of cuteness: Disney cartoons and the Hallmark Channel.
It all started with a visit to my hometown in Colorado, where one of my mountain-man cousins showered us with some elk and deer meat, all wrapped up in butcher paper and labeled: ground meat, round steak, chuck steak. Our daughter witnessed the conversation and the packing of the meat on ice for the car ride home, but said nothing. A few days later, we were back at home for a lazy Daddy Day Care day — sardines for lunch, for me and the four-year-old, followed by a couple rounds of Snow White whilst I mopped, napped and, uh, blogged. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, one of the hallmarks of Snow White is the fact that it pretty much set the standard for animal cuteness: birds, mice, deer, squirrels and more — all helping around the house whilst partaking in singalongs and just being unbearably adorable. Elsie loved it, especially the singing, and before my extended moment of lapsed parenting was over, she had watched it an undisclosed (to Mom) number of times … enough to be able to name all seven Dwarves and sing most of the “Silly Song.” Most importantly, she saw animals being exceptionally cute over and over again.
The final catalyst for the big, unwanted epiphany was nothing less than that innocence destroyer known as “Little House on the Prairie” —not the old teevee show, but a relatively new four-hour Hallmark Channel (I think) miniseries faithfully based upon the first book of the same name by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in which the family leaves overcrowded, hunted-out Wisconsin for a new start in Kansas, where they squat on Indian land and await the inevitable march of cavalry and government agents who will clear out the Osage Injuns, survey the land and most certainly honor the family’s illegal homestead claim to the 160 acres (spoiler alert: they don’t, and the family is forced to move on). The movie was actually pretty good, and dealt with some complex issues in a very nuanced and balanced way. That’s what Mom and Dad (called “Ma” and “Pa” for the next couple weeks) saw; our daughter zeroed in on a series of adventures and misadventures involving two little girls and a menagerie of non-singing animals of all kinds: dogs, horses, cows, wolves, bears, mountain lions and deer. One harrowing scene involved a pack of wolves trying to run down Pa and Laura as they galloped towards home. Being the good environmentalists that we are, my wife and I did our best to explain that all creatures have to eat, that the wolves were just hungry, that wolves used to sometimes eat people but don’t do so anymore, and that there aren’t many wolves left and we have to protect them.
There were Indians in the movie as well, dressed in the finery of the times (1850 or thereabouts) and looking quite fierce with their war paint, animal hides and weapons. At one point, when the heathen tribes were starting to raise hell about the squatters encroaching on their no-doubt treaty-given lands and had begun to menace the settlers with threats of violence, our daughter asked us why the Indian had a gun. Hoping to steer away from the ugly truth — that the Indian was thinking about shooting the whole family, little girls and all — we told her that the fellow needed the gun for hunting animals like deer and elk. She asked what hunting was and we told her: hunting is when people take the lives of animals so they can eat.
She was quiet for a moment. Five, ten seconds. Then she burst into tears. A waterfall of tears and howls. “BUT I DON’T WANT THE DEER TO DIE! I DON’T WANT THE ANIMALS TO DIE!”
Mommy and Daddy momentarily stunned. Pause the video. Gather up some kind of caring response, an answer to this dilemma. Daddy blurts out: “Honey, all animals need to eat, and some of them, like wolves, eat other animals.You eat animals too … hot dogs, hamburger, turkey. We even have some deer meat in the freezer.”
Wrong answer. Totally, completely, utterly wrong answer. She begins howling: “BUT I DON’T WANT THE DEER TO DIE! I WANT TO PROTECT THE DEER! BRING THE DEER BACK TO LIFE!” Inconsolable. Howling. Shaking with anger, sadness, despair. “TAKE THE DEER OUT OF THE FREEZER! I WANT TO PROTECT THE DEER. I WANT TO BRING THE DEER BACK TO LIFE!”
Despite the fact that she had watched us pack up the meat when my cousin gave it to us a few days earlier, I realize she just might be picturing an actual unbutchered deer in our freezer, frozen stiff, hooves pushing up against the bags of frozen corn and blueberries, antlers stuck in the ice tray, just waiting for one of us to open the door, take him out and shoo him out into the driveway so he can thaw out and run back into the woods.
I also realize that this is no mere tantrum. This is not about missing a nap, or not getting a toy at the toystore, or feeling a little bit sicky or cranky, or bonking her head on the door jamb, this is her very first true glimpse of the nature of reality: LIFE FEEDS ON LIFE. Cute little animals die and we store them in our freezer and cook them and eat them. The first step towards the inevitable YOU ARE UTTERLY ALONE IN AN UNCARING UNIVERSE AND WILL EVENTUALLY DIE.
The sobbing and pleas for animal mercy lasted about 15 minutes. She eventually calmed down enough for us to wash her face with a cool washcloth and carry her into her bedroom, where the conversation continued. We sat down on her bed and tried one more time to gently explain that some of her favorite foods are made of animals, and that’s why we say a blessing each night to thank the earth and the animals for giving us food to eat. She wanted nothing to do with any of it. No more chicken legs. No more chicken soup. No hot dogs. No meatballs. Nothing made from animals ever again. We told her she didn’t have to eat animals if she didn’t want to, then we read her a couple of stories and she crashed out, utterly exhausted from the whole ordeal.
I was a vegetarian for most of the 1990s and a bit beyond, not for my health either but for reasons similar to those that had brought my daughter to tears: the sheer amount of industrial-scale murder and suffering required to allow for civilization-scale carnivorism seemed unnecessary, especially since there were other options. Before that, I had been the sensitive kid who watched in horror as just about every other kid I knew gleefully threw rocks at birds or put firecrackers in toads’ mouths, and when I shot my first bird (a robin) with my new BB gun and saw the death stare in its tiny wounded eyes, I (temporarily) gave the gun back to my mom, crying as I told her I didn’t want it anymore. Eventually I became a teenager, and got a real gun, and like normal redneck offspring, I was soon blasting away at small wildlife for no good reason, but something about it never felt quite right. Suddenly, everything had come full circle, and it seemed to me as if our daughter had grasped some bigger picture about the world, had felt, if just for a few moments, the pain and suffering of all animals everywhere, and her little-girl vow not to eat them anymore seemed profound. I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe she was onto something, that adulthood had made me callous, had killed the compassion I once automatically felt for other living creatures. Maybe I should be heeding her advice. Maybe our household should jettison the meat and go vegetarian once again.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that my rekindled feelings of guilt and compassion had little to do with the suffering of animals and everything to do with the fact that my daughter had been forced to wrestle with an undeniable aspect of reality that made her sad, which in turn made me sad and desperate to do something to “fix” a problem as old as the hills, or, more precisely, as old as the ancestors of the bacteria living under rocks in those hills. Despite all the very legitimate reasons for giving up meat, I was unlikely to ever do so again — indeed, I’d subsist solely on baby bunny stew and kitten burritos for the rest of my life if it meant that my Little Angel wouldn’t have to wrestle with those existential moments of awareness that pull the happy rug right out from under her growing feet. I simply wanted to take her pain away, wanted to turn back the clock an hour or two to that time when she didn’t know that it was kill or be killed, wanted to fly away to that Great Toystore In The Sky where the lion snuggles with the lamb, swords become ploughshares and everything is as cute and cuddly as it can possibly be.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the passionate animal lover moved on, and within a few days she was once again enjoying chicken legs and roasting (all natural) skewered hot dogs over the last summer campfire, seemingly oblivious to just what she was chomping on. Like her Dad and his regret over the cold blooded BB-gun bird slaughter, she had gotten over her initial compassion and sadness and decided it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Just to make sure, I cautiously mentioned the animal origins of the food she was enjoying and she said she was okay with it, so I reminded her that it’s important for us to thank the Animals for letting us eat them and left it at that.
But as usual, Ma and Pa can’t leave it at that, not easily anyway, for here was yet another glimpse of the future: death of innocence by a thousand little cuts, and an ever-growing, ever-widening expressway straight to the hellishly long list of painful awarenesses and trials by errors our precious daughter will have to undergo before long: that glimspe of her first homeless person; the death of a friend or relative or pet; the pain of her first broken heart. Nothing we can do about any of it of course, for as the Buddha says, “shit happens,” and anybody lucky enough to grow into adulthood, including our daughter, will figure this out for themselves, but for now at least, we’ll try to cushion the fall by surrounding her with as much furry fuzzy cuteness as possible.