Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Heather Hamilton on Shrimp, Radiolab, Facebook, and Welfare Moms

“If you live in a country that provides comprehensive social programs (read: everywhere but here) I have to explain the connotation of that word “welfare”. It is said like the lowest and most disgusting thing ever. People here say “she’s on welfare” they way they’d say “she kills baby seals”.”—Paige Lucas-Stannard (from an essay called I’m a Welfare Mom published on everydayfeminism.com)

I didn’t understand what it meant to receive government assistance when I was a child, and by the time I did, we were off of it, or nearly. I was thankful my family was being helped in less public ways—free school lunches, court ordered and garnished child support. My mother was and is a fighter and is curiously fascinated by the Praying Mantis, which seemed important as I listened to a Radiolab show called Colors on my treadmill.
About the time President Obama was reelected, a girl I knew from junior high school posted a Facebook status that likened government welfare programs to the National Park Service and welfare recipients to wild animals. The meme had a title, which was something like “A Lesson in Irony: Please Don’t Feed the Animals.” Her point, and that of the meme’s— which I saw replicated over and over on social media—was that the US government is fostering a dependence (as do campers who feed animals) on handouts, leading to animals that will not care for themselves. It was the only time I’ve engaged in a fight waged via the Internet. It ended with my promise to eat granola and watch Jon Stewart from the backseat of my rainbow stickered car.
The eye of the Mantis shrimp is such that he is able to see an object with three different parts of the same sphere. Instead of two cones (a dog) or three (a human), the Mantis shrimp has sixteen color-receiving portals, the most complicated visual system of any animal by a factor of two. His rainbow does not then follow ours, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violent—it consists of colors we cannot imagine.
When I heard this on on Radiolab, I memorized it and used the information to write a bad poem. I liked the sounds of the hired choir as they speculated in song about the shrimp’s rainbow: super duper ultra violet, very ultra violet, ultra ultra violet, violet, and so on. What a luxury, I thought.
There was a time when I believed in God and a woman called me an angel of him, that is, you are an angel of God. I was sixteen and charitable, I took pride in that, the very idea of being charitable. Part of the school-hosted community canned food drive, my faculty driver and I brought in box after box of canned spam and oranges, a Christmas tree, a turkey. A bag of dog food, some books. I’d never seen anyone cry like that, weeping so openly amidst the smell of an old apartment, an apartment I knew to be, well,  poor.
Stowed away in hovels and holes, the Mantis shrimp does not leave home, save to feed or relocate, and 20 or so times to breed—as dictated by the tides and thus the ability to perceive the phases of the moon. After, depending on the species (which range from finger to forearm in size) the eggs are either kept within the burrow or carried around under the mother’s tail until the time of hatching. Often, these couples are monogamous. They are good mothers, these shrimp, and they are making good homes.
Now I am 27 and it has been eleven years since I was an angel, ten since I stopped believing in God, and I wonder what became of that woman and her family. I wondered so much that, over Christmas, my boyfriend and I volunteered to drive high school students from the school I attended to the lists of homes they’d collected and for whom they’d prepared boxes of food. Macee and Mandy sat in the back of the Buick I was driving and comment on the awesomeness of the shocks. They sung when Justin Bieber came on the radio, and laughed at the mildly inappropriate jokes my boyfriend and I made. It’s been so long. It seems good to be young. None of the addresses were on Fourth Street.
Our first house was a few blocks away from the school, and the girls giggled nervously as they approached the door. There were two families living there, four parents, more children then I could count. On the stairs there was a boy who was maybe sixteen. The girls whispered, he is in my English class.
            Mantis shrimp are named for their weapon, a sort of arm similar to that of the Praying Mantis insect, and are found in multiple oceans, in many homes. These shrimp are grouped into two categories—spearers and slashers, so named for the way they attack their prey. Though beautiful, the shrimp are largely considered violent predators. In Cantonese cuisine, they are the pissing shrimp, squirting streams of water when lifted. These shrimp are survivors though, and fighters, capable of breaking the glass of an aquarium in a single strike.
All of this to say, and simply, too simply, what I should have said then, Dear Michelle, please remember —if we are to compare humans to animals let it be the Mantis shrimp,, in our shared ability to fight and overcome. And to other animals--the ability to demonstrate compassion, to express empathy toward others, and Michelle, it is never who you think, and the colors are still beautiful and, well, maybe you aren't, but I’m happy to help a Mantis shrimp—
And I’m happy to be one too.

Heather Hamilton is currently a nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of Arizona, where she serves as Co-Editor-In-Chief of the Sonora Review.

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