Beautiful melodious compositions

I don’t remember counting friends before the rise of social networks. Now, that number is part of our public identity. Profile boxscores quantify our performance and provide easy comparisons with others.

Every photo and thought we share online, from the perfect brunch to a deeply personal essay, has a number attached to it. We're told that what matters is how many people see it, like it, share it, and comment on it.

Higher numbers serve as a proxy for popularity and sometimes, value.

When shown a set of numbers, we can be counted on to find ways to make them go up. These services thrive on our efforts to attract more friends and followers and increase the number of people who see and share our contributions.

My son recently completed his first semester of college. He attends a small liberal arts school where students receive narrative evaluations from professors instead of grades.

I didn’t know what to think about that until he shared his first evaluations. Each page summarized the course and traced his work and development from the first class to the last. The notes included thoughtful reflections on strengths and weaknesses, followed by recommendations for future study. Absent a value and scale, these evaluations strip away the ability to compare with others. Only after reading these personal, helpful essays did I realize how much a grade fails to capture, like a Wikipedia plot summary that leaves out the story.

When Uncommon first formed and our online home was still in the distant future, we decided that the site would not have any numbers. There wouldn’t be totals of friends, views or likes, and no red number telling you that you’re falling behind. The crowd wouldn’t determine what is seen and what isn’t. On a front porch, everyone should have a chance to speak and be heard.

There's a place for counting and competition, but not within the bonds of community and friendship. Uncommon is a neighborhood, not a network.

Prompted

The latest dispatch asked, What memories do you have of your first pet?

Kyra wrote:

My first pet was a rescue-hamster called Beau. She was living in a super small cage with her last owner, so when I adopted her I decided to give her the biggest cage I could find. Beau was half a year old when I got her, and since most hamsters only live to be around 2-3 years old, my parents were a bit afraid how I would handle having a first pet. I absolutely loved playing with her, most of the times I would let her run around in my room, which I 'hamster-proofed'. It gives me warm memories and a big smile now when I think of it. Since my parents divorced, I decided I needed to bring her with me when I would go to the other parent.

To do this, I made some sort of hamster-carrier which I would have on the back of my bike (1 kilometer biking between the places). I had two big cages at each of my parents homes, and would travel with Beau between the houses. Some extra water in the hamster-carrier during the summers, an extra blanket over the carrier in the winter. I built up a really close bond with my hamster, and I've had more hamsters after she passed away on one of my birthdays when my grandmother asked to see her. It made me really sad to see that she wasn't there anymore, but I learned soon that you should enjoy the things in life when they're there, and not wait too long to enjoy the (little) pleasures in life.

Right now I don't have a pet, but I would love to have one again when I live in a house that allows them.

Simon wrote:

Our first dog was a giant German Shepherd named Max - more guard dog than pet. I was four and we were living in Managua at the start of the 90s. The Sandinistas had just lost the election, and without the US embargo hanging over the country things were starting to look up for Nicaragua. My mom talks about how the grocery stores were always empty, and how much that changed over the period we were there. We had a small house, which was very dark, and a fairly large garden (with a coconut tree up front and out back!). Max wasn't allowed in the house, so to pet him or play with him, we had to go outside. He towered over both me and my brother - and would probably have been scary if he hadn't been so friendly. I'm still not sure what happened to him when we moved back home four years later.

Joanie wrote:

My first pet was a black cat named Midnight. When I was 5 yrs. old Midnight gave birth to 2 kittens we named Peanuts and Buttons. She dug a hole in the underside of my parent's mattress where she put the kittens to stay warm. The entire neighborhood came with flashlights to get a look. My vivid memory was looking down onto the floor where 10 sets of legs stuck out from under the bed. As the commotion ensued I saw from the corner of my eye, Midnight sneaking both of her kitties out from under the bed without a soul noticing. I never told.

Anna wrote:

One day a stray cat wondered onto my family's farm -- a gigantic, wild orange tabby that slept in the barn and caught all varieties of rodents. Because of that usefulness, my parents let him stay and named him Whiskers.

While I was the youngest and the only girl, my brothers were stereotypical country boys. They spent a lot of time chasing Whiskers, hitting him with things, throwing him in the pond, and most of all ignoring me. Whiskers would hiss and claw at anyone who came near him, but I thought he was beautiful and soon became the only person he trusted.

I know he was far from what most think of as a "pet", but sometimes he would be there when I got off the school bus and brush against me if I was still and quiet. He was the first animal I felt was "mine", and it made me feel special to have someone who thought I was better than my brothers. :)

Sara wrote:

I've never had a pet of my own, but the first dog I felt close to was the pet of my husband's family, Seamus. He was a handsomely dopey English Setter—lots of white muppety hair splashed with blonde speckles, who had a peculiar taste for green beans. He was a very loyal and happy dog. Though his dander made me sneeze every time we visited my in-laws, I happily let Seamus sprawl across my lap while we watched movies because he made me feel like I had been accepted into his family. I was there with his parens when we finally had to put him down, once we determined he was too old to recover from an accident. I wept along side them, for the dog that was leaving my new family.

Just the other night, he came to me in a dream in the form of some kind of bull terrier that bore Seamus's name and had his coloring, too. The dog came to me, like he knew I missed the dog he reminded me of. I let him sit in my lap, and I wept.

Carie wrote:

I don't have ONE memory of ONE first pet because there were always lots of animals around my house growing up-- dogs, cats, fish, rabbits, and when I was very little, chickens. Things like hermit crabs and lizards popped up every once in a while through the years as well. Our acre of land, which has been in our family for seventy years, is a veritable pet graveyard. Buried among the cats and dogs are also shetland ponies, birds, rats, a skunk, and a monkey-- pets from before my time. I don't have ONE memory of ONE pet, but I clearly recall how much pride I took in being the kid in class with the MOST pets. I loved listing them all for anyone who would listen or who couldn't get away.

Some things change while other things stay the same. I still have a lot of pets-- four cats, a dog, and a husband. Although now instead of being backyard animals, they live in the house, on the furniture, and eat more organic food than I do. I complain about the hair and the hairballs (two very different things) and am amazed every day that a beast as noble and gentlemanly as our labrador mix will, if left unattended, eagerly eat used tissues. But the joy and comfort provided by these furry family members far outweighs their shortcomings.

I do not ever want to be without at least one pet in my life.

Marina wrote:

I could never have what I called a “proper” pet when I was a kid – a cat or dog – because my older brother was horrendously allergic.

When I was 10, my parents bought me a hamster, who I very creatively named Hammy. I couldn’t have been more excited that I finally, FINALLY, had a pet! I loved Hammy to bits. I played with him endlessly, kept him in my room, cooed at him like he was my baby – good times! But, sadly, about 6 months later, Hammy got very sick and my parents took him to the vet. I waited in the car while they took him in (back then, leaving a 10-year-old alone in a car wasn’t a big deal, I guess) and when they came back without Hammy, they explained that he was indeed sick and the only way he could get better was if he went to live on a farm.

I accepted this – after all, I only wanted what was best for my little boy; and for years, I carried around this image in my head of little Hammy running around in the grass while horses galloped by.

It wasn’t until years and years later (okay, I’ll admit it – I was probably close to 30) that I realized - “Ohhhhhh, a FARM…..”

Andrew wrote:

My first pet was an old black cat named Boo Boo. My Mom had gotten him in college, and I was the only other person he seemed to like. He'd been named Boo Boo because he regularly hurt himself in stupid ways. Once, before I was born, he jumped into the refrigerator as it was being closed. 10 minutes later my parents hear this sad yowling, and soon enough open the fridge door to see him shivering inside. Another time, he jumped inside a fold-away couch-bed as it was being folded up. Same story, but it took a bit longer to find him.

He was already pretty old (around 15) when I was born, and so I don't remember him too much. But I do remember that he would lightly headbutt me when he wanted love. He was a good cat, and I'm glad we had him.

Jon wrote:

As a toddler I named my first bird Birdy. And my first hamster Hampsy. Everyone thought it was cute, which made me wonder why. Then it hit me. "Oh, they think it's cute because the names are so bad." That frustrated me. I worked from then on to try to be more imaginative.

Vivian wrote:

At the age of 2 or 3, I recall that my first pet was a yellow canary. He was paired with my mom's yellow canary and they made beautiful melodious compositions together.

My canary was named "Roller coaster", reason being that every song he would sing would resemble that of a ride on a roller coaster. Up, down, twisty, fast and slow. It was always fun to sit and listen to him just go. It would be extra special when he and his mate would be in the sun together. They would create so many wonderful creations. Both me and my father would always try to join in when it came to that time of the day when the both of them would be at it. At one point it was almost like a tag-team of composers. (Hilarious!)

They lasted with our family for about 3 years. Since then, I have not had any canaries, but those are always fond memories of childhood and pets.

Ryan wrote:

Bubbles was the most catty cat that ever catted. Standoffish, irritable, and extremely touchy about her personal space, she did her best to reject my affection, and since I was only a year old or so when she came to us, I can hardly blame her. I don’t think she ever forgave me for treating her like a toy when I was little, but I loved her anyway and constantly tried, without much success, to snuggle with her.

My dad named Bubbles, no doubt because of a vague resentment that he had to welcome an unruly and messy animal into his orderly home. The name never fit, but it did give her haughty and curmudgeonly demeanor an extra edge of irony that made taking her scowls seriously ever so difficult.

I grew up before the era of ubiquitous photography, so I don’t have any pictures of Bubbles, a beautiful tortoiseshell—still my favorite kind of markings for a cat. She got cancer when I was 12, and even though we didn’t have much money to spare, my parents took her in for surgery. This ultimately failed, and when I was 13 the lump became so big and painful that we had to put her down. I didn’t get another cat until I was out of college.

Pat wrote:

My first pet was a black and white cat called Nat (well, Natalie, but Nat was what everyone called her). She arrived as a kitten from an animal shelter when I was 7 or 8, and once my siblings and I learnt to give her a bit of space and gentle affection, she warmed up to us.

She was never the bravest cat - my sister’s pet rabbit ruled the yard while she was with us - but she loved sleeping by the fireplace during winter, and sprawling in the kitchen during summer. As she got older, she had a habit of pestering my parents in the middle of the night, mewing that she wanted food - only to be led out to the kitchen and then she would realise there was food in her bowl.

Nat the cat stuck around until the grand old age of 22 - a solid innings indeed, and longer than we expected. It’s been a couple of years, but she still gets unfairly blamed for others’ farts.

Ben wrote:

I don't remember my first pet, a dog named Jasper, because I was too young when he died. Really, he was my parents' dog. The next dog, Dodger (after The Artful by way of Disney's Oliver & Company), was the pet that taught me what living with a pet meant. I have a few, brief stories.

Dodger hit two cars. Not "was hit by". One was parked. He was running down the street along with several children of various ages as we called and hollered at each other. I think he was looking behind himself as he ran... head long into the rear bumper of our neighbor's suburban. As I recall, he was a little dazed thereafter, but suffered no serious effects. The other was a jeep that was driving down our street. It happened to drive in front of our house just as Dodger decided was his moment to pounce on the squirrel he'd been stalking... from across the street. He hit it, as best we could tell (I was outside at the time and saw the whole thing), head-first in the center of the driver's side door. The woman driving immediately stopped, horrified that she might have just maimed someone's beloved dog. Dodger, however, was not so concerned and was off down the block treeing that squirrel. I remember, correctly or not, that there was some damage to the woman's door, but she waved it off and we all just kind of shrugged about it.

Those are happy stories. He was a loving, energetic, friendly, hard-headed (obviously), not-super-bright dog. I also remember the day he left us. We'd been to see some movie as a family and when we arrived home, he was standing on our front porch looking worried. As we turned the car off and he saw it was us, he urinated and fell over. My dad rushed him to an emergency vet (the fact that he let us put him in a car at all was also worrying), but they couldn't do anything for him. The vet theorized that he'd been hit by a car and then run off home. I like to imagine that the person who hit him stopped and tried to help, but Dodger was too afraid and in pain to understand and so fled. Every time I see an animal, especially a pet, in pain I think of the look on Dodger's face: something is horribly wrong and I have no idea what's happening, but here is my pack, surely they can fix it. Often we can, but sometimes... not.

Sorry to leave it on such a downer, but these are my memories of Dodger.

Uncommon reads

To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This by Mandy Len Catron:

Ours was the kind of accelerated intimacy I remembered from summer camp, staying up all night with a new friend, exchanging the details of our short lives. At 13, away from home for the first time, it felt natural to get to know someone quickly. But rarely does adult life present us with such circumstances.

How stories change hearts and brains by Elizabeth Svoboda:

It’s always up to us whether to turn our backs on a story’s landscape or to step into the fresh possibilities it offers. But when we do decide to venture into an unfamiliar story we emerge as revised, perhaps unexpected, versions of ourselves. Stories allow us to travel, time and again, outside the circumscribed spaces of what we believe and what we think possible.

When Stress Rises, Empathy Suffers by Robert M. Sapolsky:

More typically, stress literally and metaphorically narrows our field of vision; it tends to makes us less generous and cooperative in economic games, more xenophobic, more likely to interpret ambiguous expressions as hostile ones, and more likely to displace frustration and aggression onto those around us. As this new study on the biology of stress found, it also makes us less likely to feel someone else’s pain.

Your turn

What class had the biggest influence on the person you've become?