Tuesday, February 01, 2011


There have been those times, rare but intense, when life as a hamster has seemed an agreeable option. A blue plastic wheel to while away life's endless days, and stay fit as one spins; a bowl full of water, to sip at one's leisure; a bed of brown woodchips, a comfy mound to crash on when one's legs are all sore from tense hours of exertion. Does not this sound like a comfortable means of existence? Boring, you might think, but I say: Don't judge. Boredom might be pure serenity's price. My grade-school experience informed me quite early: tragicomedy divides its rich spoils between humans and animals in equal measures of farce.

Can we even compare our own lives in this realm with a gerbil's strange trip? Here is the point where a confession must come: I'm not sure of the difference between a hamster and gerbil. There. I've said it. More educated readers may snort with derision until snot exits nostrils in short spurts of disgust at my small feeble brain, but what can I say -- tomato, tomahto. I get that they are two, separate sorts of small mammalian creatures, but to define that distinction? I haven't a clue.

As a child, TV Ontario featured a series called Hammy The Hamster, a live-action saqa of grim hamster drama -- up close, if not all that personal. In memory, these episodes usually consisted of our young hero, Hammy, floating on rafts through perilous rough waters, probably filmed in some sink the size of a red picnic-size cooler, with stagehands off-camera creating illusions of building-high waves with a hair-dryer's weak gust. Nevertheless, he looms large in my mind, Hammy does, and that, I admit, is where my whole image of hamsters most likely was formed -- those large, brave animals that embarked on adventures alone in the wilds of Ontario.

A gerbil, by contrast, is a small, meek creature, a portrait of helplessness that cries out for compassion; weak, almost feeble. Perhaps this (admittedly biased) conjecture on my part stems solely from one childhood encounter with gerbils, hilarity and horror intertwined ever since.

In Grade 4, our teacher gave the class a gerbil to take care of, to nurture and love. (This same teacher was obsessed with everything Garfield -- the cartoon and the books, the mugs and plush toys -- and she she often told us funny tales of her life lived with a woman named Gracie. I couldn't figure out why a grown woman was living with another grown woman; in my small world, I had never heard or seen of such a thing. Only a decade or so later did I suddenly piece things together.) One student fed the gerbil at lunchtime; another changed its water bowl during recess; another would clean out the cage -- you get the idea. This was seen, I'm sure, by the adults as a chance for us kids to learn responsibility, even ethics; after all, one only gains empathy and caring through concrete forms of endearment. To achieve such a goal, selected students could take our gerbil home for weekends and holidays. Grand idea in theory; potentially disastrous in practice.

Which it was. One student -- G.Atkins, I believe, if my memory is spry -- brought our pet home for a Saturday and Sunday of good-hearted frolic, only to tell us on Monday, teary-eyed (but just slightly!), that his little sister had sat on the couch and smooshed our gerbil to death.

What an image! Comedic and tragic, together, at once. Please imagine a tiny young girl plopping down on her couch's comfy cushions to watch some cartoons, and cruuuuunch! Her eyes growing wide with alarm, she stands up and looks down. Confusion turns to surprise; shock shifts to horror. Her first encounter with the death of a loved one, and by way of her butt! The sound of a neck slightly snapping, and her tush somehow still feeling the slight touch of its fur. The carcass is wedged between plush purple pillows, small neck at an angle, craning, but still. The girl leaps up the stairs, screaming. Her mother, concerned, quickly follows her back down to the rec room, views the mild carnage, stifles a smile and a sob and a laugh none too small, and kisses her daughter's head softly, twice on its top. Shhh. Shhh. It was only an accident. Everyone will understand. The gerbil must have slipped out of its cage through a door left unhinged. Went for a roam. Discovered how comfy a couch truly is. And met its cruel fate between a child's cheeks of pure doom. A girl under age five who pees her own pants is awash in urine and shame, but to accidentally kill the pet that's on loan from your older brother's whole class? By sitting right down on its head? I can only imagine.

Nevertheless, I'm sure that that tiny critter who died for us all led an enviable life. Short, yes, but I'm cautiously confident that gerbils and hamsters live condensed little lives, complete with all the great joys and small sorrows us humans endure. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that the death of that gerbil may well have been worth it, in life's grand senseless scheme, if only because it gave a group of nine-year old kids their first true glimpse of dark death in its most nonsensical form. That poor gerbil's demise provoked sadness and pity -- but more than a few chuckles, too.

I asked myself: How COULD such a death be both funny and sad? Ridiculous and tragic? I, myself, sat on a couch quite often, every day after school; if a giant woman had sat on my head, and I'd died from her rear end, would my classmates have laughed at my death as they'd done with the gerbil? Don't we now, as adults, regularly roar at other peoples' pratfalls and misfortunes on YouTube, and forward them straight off to friends so they, too, can mock their small stupid slips, their pathetic pratfalls?

Perhaps the hamster is on to something. Once you escape from the cage, you run the risk of being smothered by buttocks, asphyxiated by farts. Best to stay safe inside, where there's water to drink, gentle woodchips for rest, and a wheel you can run on, endlessly, forever.

Unless life itself is our own wheel that we tread upon daily, and there's no cage to begin with, no wire mesh to protect us and shield us from danger's delight. In that case, dangerous asses are everywhere, descending at random. We better keep looking up.