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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rewards, Punishment and the Indomitable Spirit

The apple tree at Orchard House is loaded down with ripe fruit. It's really a rather small tree, but this year the yield is bountiful. I went over there several times this week to pick the red and green apples, and I have two giant bowls of them over here, and some in the refrigerator at Orchard House, and many more still on the tree.

The apples are a bit on the tangy side and the skin on them is a little coarse, and they come in irregular shapes, not like the apples from Wal*Mart. Still, they are perfectly edible, and I eat them myself. I also want Bow to eat them, but he's not sure he wants to. He's rather picky when it comes to fruit.

Yesterday, for lunch, Bow had a sumptuous feast, including a green apple from the store, a red and green apple from Orchard House, a banana, two Chinese pork dumplings, and some macadamia nuts. He chose to eat the green apple first, then the banana, then he asked for what he called "the little apple".

"Now, Bow, are you sure you want to ask for that little apple before the other things?" I asked. "You know if you don't finish it, you don't get the rest of your meal."

"Yes," spelled Bow.

I gave him the little apple from Orchard House. As I anticipated, after a couple of bites, Bow stopped eating and started examining the apple distastefully.

I waited a while to see what would happen, but when it was obvious he wasn't eating any more, I had two choices: to clear everything away or to try a more diplomatic approach.

Bow is a well-fed chimpanzee, though by most standards he seems slim, compared to chimps in institutional settings who are fed on Monkey Chow. I can and I will clear everything away, if need be, and I know he won't starve. But yesterday I was feeling more conciliatory, and I didn't feel like going through the whole day with Bow bearing me a grudge and me having to be extra tough on him.

I went and sat down next to him. "The apple is good," I told him. I took it from his limp hand and bit into it myself. As I was chewing, I made sounds to let him know I was enjoying the apple. After I finished that bite, I let him smell my empty mouth. Then I gave him back the apple. "Your turn," I said.

He started eating it again, but when he got close to the core, he stopped and gave me a searching glance. I took the apple from him again. "There's still more left to eat," I said and took another bite.

Bow smelled my breath after I was done, then he ate some more. But he never consumed it entirely, the way he does with his store bought apples until nothing is left but the stem. He left a small slender core, which by human standards would be equivalent to finishing the apple. By  chimp standards though, it was a protest against the quality of the produce.

I let that that pass, and he proceeded to ask for the rest of his meal, one item at a time.

One of my readers commented yesterday that maybe the way to get Bow to sit still and work on his penmanship would be to offer a banana as reward. But food rewards are not what motivates Bow to write. Neither would a punishment of denial of food be effective. Bow writes when the spirit moves him, and no threat or bribe can affect his output.

This is one of the things that I find most difficult to explain to outsiders. Yes, Bow loves food. Yes, food and mealtimes are important parts of Bow's day. But even when he is asking for food , or negotiating over food-related privileges, his use of language is not motivated by a direct food reward. Bow uses language to communicate, and one of the things he communicates are his individual preferences, his likes and dislikes.

I could no more motivate Bow to improve his penmanship by offering him a banana, than you could make your child excel at calculus by offering a lollipop. It just doesn't work that way!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Writing Sample

Yesterday, as Lawrence was about to leave for the day, he asked in passing: "Why do you think Bow can't write?"

It seemed like a strange question, since I never said I thought he couldn't write. "It's not that he can't write, it's that he won't."

Lawrence handed me an index card sized rectangle of cardstock and said: "See, this is what he wrote. I wrote the letters on top, and I made a box, and he wrote the letters inside the box."

I glanced at it, and he seemed to be disappointed that I wasn't more enthusiastic. "Now, they don't all look so good, but some of them are pretty close." And then he explained how he had been writing something, and Bow wanted to write, and how he had had to hold Bow's hand to steady him, but it was Bow who had written the letters in the boxes, without being guided by Lawrence. "Now, I know for proof, the fact that I held his hand means it's no good, but he can do  it!"

I reassured Lawrence that I believed him, and that I wasn't surprised because I'd seen it before.  I knew Bow could do  it. He wrote his name in  Hebrew when he was much younger. It was sloppy but recognizable. He did it with nobody holding his hand at all. But after that, he scribbled all over it, so  it wasn't visible any longer. When I let him keep the pen and paper too long, he scribbled so hard there were holes. Bow's problem isn't intelligence. It's self control!

He can read, but if you let him have a book, he will tear it apart. He can write, but even if he does write, he will destroy the paper if you let him keep at it. He can use a computer, but he's rather take it apart.

There are probably hyperactive humans with similar problems. Getting them to settle down is the hard part. Getting them to write is easy. If we had a breakthrough in self control with Bow, everything else would fall into place. But getting to that breakthrough is the hard part, and it's not likely to come with maturity.  Older male chimpanzees are typically less cooperative, not more so. We need to  have the breakthrough now, when we can still  go in.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Let Me Go to School

Sword started her first day of sixth grade yesterday. She has three teachers, each in charge of a major subject area, science, language arts, and math, and these will be her teachers for the next three years. Each year, one of the teachers will be her home room teacher and will be in charge of her overall performance. But regardless of who is currently the home room teacher, those same three educators will get to know her really well, and they will watch over her progress in their particular area of expertise for three whole years.

Sword has been attending the same school since pre-school. It runs all the way through eighth grade. She has known most of the teachers at  the school since she was three years old, and most of the students in her class have been with her since kindergarten, if not earlier. I myself never had this level of continuity, because we traveled back and forth between Israel and the United States for much of my childhood, and we tended to move a lot within the U.S. By the time we settled down in Grand Prairie, Texas, I was about ready to be home schooled. I didn't like school much.

Sword is happy to go back to school, and excited to have finally reached the elite "middle school" area, with its lockers and special teachers, and the greater privileges enjoyed by the older children, who are all at the far end of the building, and rank higher in status and schooling.

Meanwhile, Bow and I are stuck at home doing the same old things. Counting strawberries for breakfast; looking at videos of other chimpanzees for entertainment. After he had asked for all the food that there was this morning, Bow took my hand and started to spell:
תני לי
"Give you what?" I asked. There was nothing left to give. He had eaten it all.

תני לי פעם ללכת לבית הספר

That means "let me go to school once". (In Hebrew, "give me" and "let me" are the same phrase.) "Bow, they won't accept you at school."

He spelled:

כן תני לי בכל זאת
That means: "Yes. Let me, anyway." 

I wish I could let him. But how?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Uniting the Flocks

It's still summer, and very hot outside, with occasional downpours of rain. The peaches are ripe. The apples and pears are still hard. It's summer, but as far as Sword is concerned, summer is almost over. Next Wednesday, she goes back to school. Bow and I will miss having her around all day, though Bow will never admit it. In preparation for school, Sword is now facing a difficult task: uniting her flocks.

Sword has been maintaining two separate groups of chickens all summer. The class of 2010, which were mere chicks this easter, and the class of 2009, three laying hens and a rooster. At first the little chicks were obviously too young to be introduced to their older counterparts. Then they grew. Now they are all about the same size.

Everytime they were introduced, the older hens, especially the most hen-pecked of them all, would viciously attack the pullets. The young pullets, for their part, would run off and try to escape. They never stood their ground. They never fought back. "They don't know how to fight back," Sword told me, "because they never peck at each other. They are always nice to each other. It's because I picked them out. The ones you picked last year were mean."

It's true. Sword picked the youngest, most helpless looking chicks when I gave her the chance to do so. The previous year, I picked the biggest and healthiest looking specimens. I was afraid that the younger, smaller looking chicks might die on us. I was looking for good layers. Sword was looking for good pets.

We have the most domesticated of domesticated birds. Sword picks them up and hugs them, and they allow all that. Because she was afraid to leave the two generations of hens together, even at night, Sword would pick the pullets up one by one and deposit them each in a bird cage inside the hen house at the end of the day, so that they could be safe from the others even at night. Every morning she would take them out of that cage, one by one, and put them in our separate outdoor chick enclosure. When we went away for four days, Sword had to train Lawrence to do the same in her stead.

But now she is going to be at school all day. She will still have chores with the chickens in the morning before she boards the school bus, but there won't be time to maintain this apartheid. So this morning, Sword united her flocks.

When she came to the pens to report on her efforts, Bow, as is his habit these days, jumped on the closest metal door and made such a racket that I couldn't hear a word Sword was saying. He has taken to making such displays every time someone new enters the room, and it can be rather annoying and distracting. It is clearly an act of aggression, and he can't seem to help himself, as even being sprayed with water is not much of a deterrent. As a result of all this interference by Bow, I had to leave him for a moment and go to Sword's room to hear her report. "The younger hens have gone in to the hen house and the older ones are in the yard. The door to the hen house is open, but they don't want to come out. Sometimes the rooster goes in to look at them, but they pretend not to see him and look at the wall or get really busy eating a bug."

"But they're not hurting each other?" I asked.

"No. The big brown one wanted to, but I punished her, and she stopped."

"Good," I said and went back to Bow. He was sitting on the potty, waiting for me to wipe him. If I leave him alone even for a minute, he always takes this opportunity to use the potty. I can't walk away for any length of time. Bow and I spend all day together, but every single time someone else comes into the pen area, he creates a great big racket and tries to scare them away.

Is aggression in chickens, in chimps or in humans, in-born or learned? I think it's a little of both, and the degree that it is in-born varies from individual to individual. Selection of the less aggressive individuals over the more aggressive can also work to tone down the aggressive instincts of the group as a whole. Are all chimpanzees aggressive? Well, yes, compared to humans on average. Are they all equally aggressive? No. Is all the aggression only a matter of nurture? Clearly, not. Bow and Sword were raised together in the same environment. He's much more aggressive than she is. But on the other hand, he is much less aggressive than he could be. He can be very sweet, and he does exercise great forbearance in his relations with me and Lawrence.

Is there a future for chimpanzees and humans together? There might be, but the aggression issue has to be dealt with. To some extent, it's a matter of nurture. But it is also a matter of selection. If a chimp is too aggressive to deal with, then fewer people will deal with him. It's as simple as that.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Peaches Aplenty

It's peach season again. Our trees are bearing plenty of fruit, and we have peaches with every meal. So much so, that I have taken to not always offering Bow a peach, because he has become blasé, and is not finishing every one. Plenty and wastefulness go hand in hand, and this reminded me of an old hub that I published on the subject two years ago during peach season: More Than We Can Possibly Eat.

In nature, when things seem to go to waste, they don't really go to waste. If the mammals and birds don't eat the fruit when it is ripe, then the the worms and the ants will finish off the job. And whatever else is not consumed will be absorbed in the ground and help to fertilize next year's crop. Sometimes we have good years and sometimes not so good. The year after I wrote that hub was a bad year. The blossoms were killed by a late frost. Because we don't depend on our peaches for sustenance, we can treat the good years as a bonus, and we can afford to be very philosophical about the bad years. If more people looked at having a job the way we do our peach supply, then fewer people would be so hard hit by fluctuations in the job market.

The other side of the coin is, the peaches really cost us nothing. I didn't plant the trees, I didn't fertilize them, I didn't water them, and I did not spray them with insecticide. I don't need a return on my investment, because there is no investment. All I did was buy the property, because I needed a place to live.

However, keep in mind that it also takes time to pick the fruit. If I am very busy doing other things, I have less time to pick fruit. A part time job or too great a pre-occupation with my online writing, for instance, could keep from getting out and picking the fruit that is ours by right. This is an example of how too much employment and not enough free time might actually lead to failure to consume available resources.

The more fruit I pick from my own trees, the less fruit I buy at Wal*Mart. If I had a full time job, I would not have time to pick fruit, and the economy would gain from all this buying and selling, but Bow and Sword and I would lose. When they talk about unemployment as a waste of human resources, they forget about the peach factor.

Would it be a good investment in the future for me to plant more peach trees? Not really, because I can't harvest anymore myself, and paying someone else to do so would in all likelihood destroy the benefit of having the extra fruit.

I want to have fruit trees lining the farther shores of Bow's island someday, but he and his family can't be trusted to harvest the fruit without damaging the trees. If only there were some way to use the force of gravity to deliver the ripe fruit to Bow and his kin without any harvesters, then we could have a self-sustaining economy! Maybe we should plant trees on little hillocks, and arrange funnels in the air above the island? Seems a little  tricky. It will take more thought!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Liked the Music, Not the Movie

While I was away for four days, Lawrence and Bow watched two videos together. The first was Phantom of the Opera. After they had finished watching, Lawrence asked Bow: "Did you like the movie?"

 Bow spelled: "I liked the music but I didn't like the movie."

The second video they watched was The Wizard of Oz. When Lawrence asked Bow about it, Bow had no reservations. "I liked the movie," he spelled.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Good to Be Home

Sword and I were away for four days, and we returned home last night around 10:00 pm. Bow, who was supposed to be asleep, was watching me from the pens as I unlocked the front door.

Sword went straight for her room, to check on her parrot, Summer. The chickens were already locked away for the night, and the dogs were in the laundry room, where they've been sleeping. Everyone was in tip top  condition, thanks to Lawrence who stayed here close to thirteen hours a day in my absence.

After Bow has gone to bed for the night, I don't usually like to disturb him, but since he was wide awake, I went in and sang him "the Pomegranate Tree." He was very mellow. There was no teary reunion. He had been in good hands in my absence, he was happy to see me, but not at all surprised. I had phoned and talked to him every day during my absence, and he was apprised of my itinerary.

This morning, I asked him: "Did you know I was coming back?"

"Yes," he spelled.

"Was everything okay when I was gone?"

"All okay," he spelled.

Later, at breakfast, he complained: "The guy didn't give me enough grapes." (This is not a complaint I take seriously.)

"What did he give you, instead?"

"Just stuff."

"Did he let you have some of his cereal?"


And then he added: "Every mommy is good." That was as close to a welcome back that I got.

"Thank you, Bow," I said.

It's good to be home.