20 August 2011

Brightness was drenching through the branches

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Discovery Channel will no doubt be aware of its much publicised "Shark Week", wherein what passes for normal programming (rough and tumble shows about competitive deep sea fishermen, rough and tumble shows about competitive Canadian truck drivers, rough and tumble shows about competitive Austrian-born dictators of Germany, etc) is suspended for an entire week so that the masses can feast their eyes and what's left of their other senses upon a steady stream of rough and tumble shows about competitive fish.

"Live every week like its Shark Week" said the great philosopher Tracy Jordan, and here at Booming Back we would certainly like to embrace that aphorism, but this being Ireland we have nothing so exciting to offer you by way of dangerous and life-threatening fauna, and so must settle instead for cows. Thus welcome to the second of a series of at least two posts in what surely will come to be called, "Cow Week".

Coincidentally enough this morning's stream of synaptic detritus was also triggered by the aforementioned Mr Jordan, whose mention of a Temple Grandin Hugging Machine set off a flurry of Rube Goldberg activities in my brain that culminated in what can only be described as a Eureka-moment, crying out to no-one in particular, "Yes! We are all stuck in a Grandin Chute!".

But who is Temple Grandin, and what is she squeezing in her chute? (If you guessed 'cows', good for you, you've been paying attention)

This too was the first question on my lips, to which the Very Understanding Girlfriend happily supplied the answer and a print article. Dr. Grandin is an American animal scientist at Colorado State University, was the subject of an Emmy-winning HBO movie starring Claire Danes, named one of Time Magazine's most influential people of 2010, and lives with high-functioning autism. All of which somehow managed to pass me by, probably because here in Old Europe nobody watches the Emmys.

While still a teenager Grandin noted that cattle on a relative's farm calmed down when forced to squeeze through a narrow enclosed chute (or Cattle Crush), and thought that if physical pressure was applied to her in a similar way it might also calm her down during her own frequent fits of anxiety. One effect of her autism was that she did not like to be touched by other people, so she constructed a Hug-Machine to apply pressure evenly across both sides of her body, with remarkably calming effects.

She describes herself as literally thinking like an animal, in that she thinks first in pictures and images, and uses words as a second language. This has given her a huge insight into animal psychology, something that has shaped an entire career improving animal conditions in the farming and ranching industries, and she is responsible for the transformation of the physical layout of cattle pens, the holding areas where large numbers of cows are held before being sold or slaughtered.

She noted that cows have a tendency to try and move back to somewhere they have already been and doing so calms them down, a combination of the physical act of moving in a circle and a possible reaction to the thought of returning to somewhere familiar. With this in mind she redesigned cattle pens to include as many curved chutes as possible to take advantage of this natural tendency to walk in circles, and to prevent them from seeing any people or objects moving around at the end of the chute. More than half of US cattle now end up in a Grandin-designed curved chute on their way into the slaughterhouse, and both McDonalds and the US Department of Agriculture have consulted with her extensively.

Disneyland also uses this layout when constructing the queues for its rides, for much of your hour-plus long wait you cannot see the beginning of the line or its end, and at no stage can you actually see the entirety of the queue and how many other people are in line with you. All of this has a calming effect only slightly mitigated by the cloying sound of the saccharine-sweet piped music and the disapproving stares of scores of parents who have just noticed that you are standing in the middle of the line for the Dumbo ride and don't appear to be accompanying a child under the age of five, or of any age for that matter.

Now prepare yourself, because here comes the laboured pseudo-psychology...

It was at this moment that I suddenly realised why there have been no significant protests in the streets of Ireland, no mass strikes, no riots, why we have taken and continue to take all the government imposed austerity measures lying down, much to the scorn of the Greeks, and the Spanish, and the Portuguese, and even the Israelis who managed to get 150,000 people on the streets to complain about the high cost of day-care and rent.

We are all trapped in a Grandin Cattle Chute, obliviously marching towards the slaughterhouse.

Eighteen months ago all the evidence was pointing towards the need for a loan from the IMF, and yet even in the days leading up to November's bailout the politicians were stressing that no such bailout was happening. The line we were all in ended at the abattoir, but the Government kept us all calm by obscuring the exit with half-truths, misdirection and out-right lies. Today all the evidence points towards a default on our loan repayments, and yet this new government follows the same pattern of obfuscation.

But we ourselves don't need the external hand of the cattleman to hide the truth from us, we happily walk round and round in circles of our own creation. The obsession with the Instant at the expense of the long term, where we happily sacrifice mature and considered analysis on the altar of Real-Time, our Twitter-blinkered eyes shielding us from the horror of seeing the cow up ahead of us disappear into the Happy-Meal box, all of this is self-imposed myopia.

And if we do glance around at our chute, all we will see are reflections of the eighties cast back upon the walls, the shoulder pads and back-combed hair, leggings and leopard-print, skinny jeans with faded denim and rolled up trouser legs, Fine Gael and Labour in government here, the Tories in the UK, a washed-out excuse for a summer and Gaybo back on the telly. All we need now is a lick of a Fat Frog. None of it is exactly right, but enough of a shadow to convince us were heading back in the same direction. We've all been here before and we came out of it, what's the point in making a fuss? All very calming, all very soothing. Pay no attention to the machinery sounds up ahead.

And as the October budget starts to approach and we're told that we have no choice but to slash and burn, that our hands are tied by the terms of the IMF bailout, and the cuts and the taxes start to squeeze us tightly on either side we still won't be out on the streets, for by this stage we are so well trained and the gentle squeezing calms our anxiety as the Government whispers softly in our ear, "There, there, you're doing so well. Its all for your own good".

We go round and round, calmer and calmer, right up until the moment we look up and see the man approaching with the bolt gun, single shot to the forehead and its all over in a second. How very humane.

This is Ireland, a nation of cows. Our national epic is the tale of a cattle raid, our fight for Independence and Civil War is eulogised in the body of an errant heifer, a cow was immortalised on our money from the shilling to the 5p, and more than being a part of our national psyche, it is our national psyche. Generation after generation led by the nose to the slaughter house, literally and figuratively.

Every week we live like its Cow Week.

Anyway, to end on a happy note here is an interview with Dr Grandin where she explains autism using Mark Zuckerberg as an example. Which is nice.

Much more information can be found on Dr Grandin's website, from where I've taken these diagrams.
You can also take a look at the HBO movie site for some pretty clips.

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At 4:09 pm, Blogger lusciousblopster said...

cows towards the slaughter indeed. drugged up, docile, ecologically dangerous and fond of moving in herds.

sometimes the lost heifer is just a cow stuck in a bush, as i remember saying in secondary school to the consternation of my english teacher.

the word verification for this comment has come up as bolite. i kid you not.


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