Penguins and Antidepressants
How bad has this winter been? It’s been
so bad, that even the penguins are depressed.
While that may sound like a line from an old
Johnny Carson monologue (he of a millennium and a Leno ago),
it’s apparently true. At least according to a human
interest (?) story that broke last month, out of a place called
the Sea Life Centre in Scarborough in the U.K.
First question: just how can you
tell if a penguin is depressed? They always seem
a bit lost as they wander about aimlessly in their tuxedos.
All dressed up and no place to go. Making no eye contact.
Indecisive. And after all, aren’t penguins about
bad weather? To be a penguin, is never having to say you’re
In fact penguins can become ill in warm environments.
I recall a case many many moons ago, when in a rehearsal for
a Barbra Streisand special, some penguins—used as a
backdrop in a musical number— became sick under the
hot lights and had to be carted off to a refrigerated area
backstage. And if memory serves, some animal rights activists
took issue with it at the time.
But this is a penguin story of a different
color, concerning a specific breed called a Humboldt. The
situation was addressed by the curator at the Sea Life Centre:
“Humboldts in the wild on the coast
of Peru and Chile can be subjected to some pretty wild extremes
of weather…what they don’t get though is weeks
of almost daily downpours and high winds.” (Which
is what happened in Scarborough).
“After the first week our birds were
just a bit subdued, but after over a month now, they are
thoroughly fed-up and miserable, much like the rest of us…"
And the solution to the problem? The same
as it would be now for any form of human depression—medicate!
Immediately. Do not pass Go! Do not collect $200!
So now the penguins are on antidepressants.
"They're doing the trick so far, but
we are all praying for the weather to change and at least
a few successive days of sunshine to give the penguins the
tonic they really need," the curator went on.
I’m glad to hear that this tactic has
been deemed a success, but it raised a whole host of questions
and curiosities regarding the solution. Which category of
antidepressants did they decide to go with? A Monoamine Oxidase
Inhibitor (MAOI)? A Tricyclic Antidepressant (TCA)? Or a Selective
Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)? This last group including
many of what have become household names: Lexapro, Paxil,
Celexa, Prozac and Zoloft. Or none of the above, opting instead
for Wellbutrin which is unlikely to cause weight gain or sexual
problems. The last thing you need are penguins with sexual
problems. Although then no doubt the curator would be recommending
Viagra or Cialis (“If your erection should last more
than four hours…”).
More questions. How does one determine the proper dosage for
a penguin? Will all penguins respond in the same way to the
same medication? Just how do you determine if it’s
working? What about side effects? How do you later wean them
off the “med?” Or do you ever? Did anyone consider
the use of medical marijuana? And I wondered if Obamacare
would cover this sort of thing if it had happened here? Given
that penguins are notoriously slow to sign up for anything.
Especially the younger ones.
Here’s an alternative solution: send them back to Peru
and Chile from whence they came.
Why they were taken out of their natural habitat
to begin with, is a question one might ask if one wanted to
be a killjoy. And because it’s been a horrid winter,
and despite claims in the previous Muse-Letter about
how “bad weather builds character,” that is exactly
what I want to be. At least until the first signs of spring
and rebirth appear.
What Will You Be Wearing?
In basic black, death will come—
a hooded robe
so as to discourage
putting a name to a face—
no wolf in sheep’s clothing here.
But love? Love.
What will you be wearing?
I’ll be waiting at life’s grand station
where the human condition passes by.
Hail to the living who come and go
in the raiment of the daily grind.
Or the tourists in their T-shirts and corny caps
that death wouldn’t be caught alive in—
but love? Love.
How will I know it’s you when you arrive?
What will you be wearing?
And might you walk in beauty like the night?
Or appear in prose as just another traveler
scurrying to catch a train?
Cloaked in fine feathers of expectation—
the checkered threads of another day
long since frayed and discarded—
you can’t miss me.
I’ll be standing beneath that space
where the big hand and little hand
navigate the bare face of time…
what will you be wearing?
Great Caesar’s Ghost
With Sid Caesar’s death last month, The New York
Times wrote a most definitive obituary, as only they
can. You don’t die as well and as thoroughly in any
other newspaper or media outlet. And what with all those who
have come to praise Caesar since his passing, there is not
much more to add on that score other than to agree, that especially
for those of us who remember him in “real time,”
they have rendered unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
His “Your Show of Shows”
was so outrageously funny, that he was literarily responsible
for people buying TV’s so as to not miss out on this
phenomena—the marriage of a new form of comedy, to that
of a new technology. Although, being of a lower economic strata,
it wasn’t until 1954, the last year of that groundbreaking
show, that we finally got our first TV, “rabbit ears”
and all. Prior to that, our TV viewing took place one flight
up at an aunt and uncle’s apartment in a Lower East
Side tenement—a household of a few more bucks and an
inclination towards gadgetry. Soon, to be without a TV set,
would be akin to someone today being without a cell phone.
I thought of all of this upon reading that Times
obituary, as well as recalling having seen Sid Caesar nearly
five years ago at the funeral of a friend’s mother,
a beautiful woman inside and out, who was the wife of the
late comedian and TV host Jan Murray. I had been to Jan’s
funeral as well three years earlier. A journal entry notes:
July 6, 2009
“And then Jack Carter took the podium. Though ancient
himself, brought the house down. I wondered why the last
time, I had not seen Sid Caesar, though I knew he was there.
This time I found out. He was now a withered man reduced
to a wheel chair; a shell of a man America knew from “Your
Show of Shows.” Noticeable finally to me, by that
little mole on his face…Is this what age has in store?
There is a cruelty in it.”
From what my friend had told me, that as big and even bigger
than life as he might have been on our small screens, that’s
how quiet and reserved a man he was in what we call real life.
He was not the one to be cutting up at a Seder, as so many
of the Borsht Belt comedians that had been guests at her parents’
home were inclined to do. Or joke at funerals, as I had witnessed
on these couple of occasions— an existential black humor
in the face of death and dying. They were always “on”…Sid
Seeing him on that day—a ghost of a man still robustly
alive only in memory—once again brought home just how
stark can be the contrast between what once was, and what
turns out to be. And his death is now the punctuation mark
to that obvious, yet always somehow surprising realization.
Quote of the Month
12 Years a Slave: From the
Crime to the Ridiculous
Going to see this movie was like going to
the dentist: you knew you were in for pain and a rough time,
and so you put it off for as long as you could. Ah, but when
it was over, you would be the better for it. And you would
make a promise in the future, to floss with the curiosity
about stories that tended to fall in between the teeth of
history. Especially those dealing with man’s gross inhumanity
to his fellow man. Or woman’s gross inhumanity to her
sister woman for that matter (i.e. Philomena anyone?
And as a sidebar, yes, of course Pope Francis met with Philomena
Lee upon whose true life story that film was based).
So there you sat, waiting for the Novocain
of about 20 minutes of trailers to numb you beforehand. But
all to no avail once the “12 Years” of lashings
started. And continued. And continued. And continued. How
could this have happened? How could slavery have happened?
Which was then but a short leap to this italicized thought:
how could the Founding Fathers who etched these immortal
words into a Declaration of Independence…
hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
…have continued to be slave owners
themselves? Sanctioned slavery? How? A question I never
remember being posed when we were being taught American History
in school. So you promise yourself to get a copy of the book
upon which the film is based— a memoir of the same title
written by Solomon Northrup in 1853, and a best seller at
the time. And you are worn out and angry as you leave the
theater, to go in search of a place to get a glass of cabernet.
Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor
But why carry on about that now — it’s
Oscar time! Let bygones be bygones. Let the games begin. And
at the moment, the only pain one might be experiencing relative
to the movie, is pronouncing the names of two of the stars
in it who are up for awards: Chiwetel Ejiofor for Best Actor
and Lupita Nyong’o for Best Supporting Actress. And
of course, the movie itself up for Best Picture. On to the
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o
The sense here is that Ms. Nyong’o is
the most certain major winner connected with the film, based
not only on her great performance, but given the PR effort
behind her. The media is clearly smitten with this young woman,
so fashionably stunning as she has been on various red carpets
and magazine covers in the last month or so. And she did after
all win Critic’s Choice and SAG awards earlier. Yet
be forewarned before stepping into any Oscar pools, no Best
Supporting award was ever gone to an actress whose last name
begins with the letter “N.” And along that same
line of trivia trends, no actor with a last name beginning
with “E,” has ever won a Best Actor Oscar. And
be aware that numbers appearing in film titles are unlucky.
Only one film with an actual Arabic numeral
in the title has ever won Best Picture— “Around
the World in 80 Days”— though nine such films
have been nominated. The latest loser was “127 Hours”
in 2010. And only two films with titles that begin with a
number, Arabic or in written form, have ever taken home the
Oscar out of twenty-two such nominated— “Million
Dollar Baby” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s
As for Michael Fassbender, who does have an
easily pronounceable name and who plays a brutal plantation
owner in the film, he most likely will not win for Best Supporting
Actor. Sadly, brutal slave owners have been done many times
before on screen, and have become a cliché in an equally
brutal chapter in history. So clearly, “12 Years”
and its cast have their work cut out for them.
You won’t get this type of info anywhere
else (most people have lives), and it’s as scientific
as anything else in trying to handicap Oscar races. And as
Larry King used to say in his newspaper column, “You’ll
thank me later.”