Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright

I was reading about that San Francisco Zoo tiger thing the other day.

It actually was the other day, because I save old newspapers. Not forever, or a lot of them, and not like those slightly hermitic older folks whose apartments devolve into labyrinthine tunnels between stacks of Look and Boys Life; but sometimes I'll save the L.A. Times for a week or two. I like newspapers and wish every city still had ten of them. I can read the parts I missed days or weeks later, and never fail to feel interested and informed. (Even the headlines often go down easier when they've had a chance to decant.) So there's always a foot or two of newspapers in our pantry.

As you may imagine, my wife loves this habit, and tries to encourage it at every turn. Of course, the Divine Mrs. M. and I are so perfectly matched anyway (like the folks who make it through the SAT exams at eHarmony), if it weren't for the newspapers I save, the only thing we'd have left to argue about is whose method of loading the dishwasher is correct and whose is wrong. (We had a brisk set-to on that one this morning.)

But I digress.

So I was reading about the tiger who jumped the enclosure and killed that guy at the zoo, and two things made me stop and think. First, apparently they were taunting the tiger. Now, there were rumors circulating at the time that they had slingshots or something, or crossbows; or catapults of plague-infected horses and burning pitch, or molten metal, or -- Oh, wait, that's the Hunchback of Notre Dame -- but these all turned out to be untrue. Regardless, we're left with this concept of "taunting". And I've heard people say, "Well, you know how boys are. They're bound to taunt things".

And I thought: No. Hold it. Why? No one is "bound" to taunt things. I didn't taunt things. I don't like people who "taunt" things, whether animals or other people. What does "taunt" even mean? Webster's says it's "to reproach with scornful or insulting words; to jeer at; to upbraid; to deride; to tease; to drive or provoke (a person) by taunting."

Or a tiger? (By the way, I always have a dictionary nearby. I hate spellcheckers. I hate the computer telling me what to do, and I don't need its help if it thinks I'm writing a letter.) For God's sake, how do you even taunt a tiger? "Hey, stripey, what's the matter, couldn't make up your mind which color you wanted? Heh-heh-heh-heh." Wasn't there an old cartoon from the forties about a trip through a zoo, and the narrator finds a kid poking a stick through the bars at the lion, and he says something like, "Say, son, don't poke that lion. You'll be sorry." The kid slinks off, but then is back later doing the same thing, and then the third time (you know comedy; three's the charm), the kid's inside the smiling lion's belly and says, "I'm a baaaaaad boy."

Look, I'm horrified that fellow met his end in this way, and I'm sure you are, too, and I'm sorry for his parents and loved ones. Taunting or not, the penalty shouldn't be to go out like the slowest antelope at the fringe of the herd. I can just hear the tiger thinking, "Hey, I've been drunk, too, but these guys are begging for it."

But, no, it's not okay or "boyish" or "typical" to find fun and humor in "taunting" something or someone. It's not funny, and it's just plain wrong. I never thought it was funny my whole life, whether I was ten or twenty or thirty, or even today, at thirty-six. (Just wanted to see if you were still listening.)

By the way, whatever other structural flaws can be attributed to boys and what they grow into a few years later, if you're looking for the real dictionary definition of taunting, try watching twelve-year-old girls deal with each other sometime.

THE SECOND THOUGHT I had from this story, and not for the first time, is about zoos themselves: I don't get them. I never got the "zoo concept", not as a kid, not as a young, sophisticated rake and roué, and certainly not now as the bon vivant and boulevardier I've become. (Yeah, Ventura Boulevard.)

Really, though, I don't get the point of zoos or why people like them. I've been to the Bronx Zoo (though not since fifth grade), and the San Diego Zoo, and a variety of other things with animals those of us with kids are forced to find ourselves doing, and I don't get it. What are we looking at? Sure, in the twelfth century in Ukraine, maybe it was interesting to see a molting camel from a traveling circus on Festivus, but don't we have better things to do today? Can't classrooms get all the information and footage they need from computers? I'm pretty sure the seals didn't ask to be moved to Indianapolis.

And let me be clear on something: Even if they did ask to be moved, I wouldn't go see them. You ever set foot in a monkey house? It smells like -- well, a monkey house.

I very clearly remember being back in New York on a job in the nineties and strolling through the Central Park Zoo on a summer's day looking through a thick, temperature-controlled glass wall at a polar bear swimming back and forth under water in what seemed to me to be a very small space. This thing kept swimming in the exact same arc, from one exact spot to another; and I mean to tell you it didn't vary an inch. And I remember thinking two things: 1) I may not know much about animals, but I think this thing is losing its mind, and 2) Why aren't I across the street at the bar of the Pierre pretending to be continental?

After a couple at the Pierre, I thought, wait a minute, maybe I know more about animals than I thought. Maybe I have it backwards. Maybe the animals know we're looking, and just looking is taunting. Maybe that's why I don't like zoos.

HOLLYWOOD IS OFTEN a bit of a petting zoo itself, isn't it? Especially when a star dies. They're on display then, too, in cages, but they can't fight back; and we all go to that zoo. Oh, yes, all of us. We all gawk, and we all leer; and sometimes people taunt, and sometimes they poke. It's not the journalists' fault, either, you know. We're all in that one together.

I was lucky enough to work with Heath Ledger in Ten Things I Hate About You, and even then on that location people were saying, Oh, this guy's going to be big, but all I knew was he had the sweetest, most genuine smile I ever saw. Even a chat on the set or later in looping wasn't even about the chat to me. It was all about that smile, which I can still see. I can see it right now. I hope we don't poke him too much in the weeks to come.

He was the "tyger", you see. Take a look at that Blake poem again sometime:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

In the forests of the night

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It's raining outside again; pretty hard, too. I think I'll grab one of those old newspapers from the pantry and see what's up.

After all, there was a headline on one I saw the other day about the Gulf of Tonkin that looked like it might be important.