Book ‘Em: Going To The Depths.

Finding the Bathysphere in an outdoor scrap yard under the Cyclone in Coney Island was like coming across a Mercury space capsule among rusting tools and nicked furniture at a flea market.
-from Descent by Brad Matsen

It’s been said that we know more about the depths of space than we do about the depths of Earth’s own oceans. I think that might either be an exaggeration or a statement that has to be made with a lot of qualifiers, but there is a valid point there. We tend to take the ocean for granted. Astronauts are national heroes, and everyone who was old enough at the time remembers where they were when men landed on the Moon. And yet Jacques Cousteau’s first test of scuba gear was known to only a few people—admittedly it was during World War II and taking place in occupied France. Very few people are familiar with the first and only manned dive to the Challenger Deep, a point in the ocean that’s so deep if you were to drop Mount Everest into it the peak would be a mile under water. And then there was the first bathysphere. On June 6th, 1930, William Beebe and Otis Barton descended to 803 feet, the first human beings to reach that depth and return alive.

Brad Matsen’s book Descent captures that moment, as well as chronicling the relationship between Beebe and Barton which, in spite of what they shared, seemed destined to fall apart. It was a symbiotic relationship: Beebe was older and a successful explorer who’d written exciting best-selling books. He was also a hard worker and serious minded scientist in spite of lacking academic credentials. Barton was young, ambitious, and a talented engineer who needed Beebe’s money and prestige to be able to finance his design for a deep-sea diving vessel.

Barton was interested in setting records, while Beebe was interested in the new science of oceanography. Where previous explorers had simply been interested in collecting specimens, Beebe had observed animals Africa with an eye to understanding their relationships, how they lived. Turning from land to sea, Beebe took to helmet diving and wanted to study undersea life in the same way. Instead of only studying fish hauled up by lines and nets, Beebe wanted to observe them in their natural habitat, recording their behavior and their depth. Helmet diving allowed him to do this some, but the bathysphere—a name Beebe came up with himself—let him see animals at depths no helmet diver could ever reach. It’s not an exaggeration to say the bathysphere helped change our understanding of the ocean and its life.


Word Of The Week: September 12th, 2009

If you were of a certain age, you watched the original The Electric Company. While just as hip (after all it had Morgan Freeman in the cast), if not always as surreal, as Sesame Street, The Electric Company was aimed at a slightly older crowd and focused on spelling and grammar, rather than just learning letters and numbers. And you probably remember The Adventures Of Letterman. Faster than a rolling O, stronger than silent E, able to leap capital T in a single bound, he fought the wicked Spellbinder, the two of them battling by changing letters back and forth.

I couldn’t help thinking about Letterman when I thought about how the word livid rhymes with vivid. Originally, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant, “Of a bluish leaden colour; discoloured as by a bruise; black and blue.” And there’s also the more recent usage, “Furiously angry, as if pale with rage.” Pale really hits on it because I’ve always thought livid meant “pale” or “white”. The botanical name livida seems to be applied to plants with white flowers. One of Webster’s Dictionary’s definitions is “ashen, pallid”. And that would put livid at the opposite end of the spectrum from vivid, wouldn’t it?

Here’s a Letterman flashback for you. I loved this cartoon as a kid, but now that I’m an adult I think it’s even funnier.

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For The Birds.

When I read about a man being cited for giving someone the finger, I remembered that the finger is also often called the bird. Every time I hear this I wonder why. It doesn’t look like a bird. Since it looks sort of like part of the male anatomy I can understand why it’s usually blurred when someone makes the gesture on television. Sometimes the whole hand is blurred, sometimes just the finger–which is pretty funny. Anyway that doesn’t come any closer to explaining why it’s called the bird. Anybody have any thoughts? I’ve tried looking it up, but all I’ve come up with is a description of the gesture, “Bird, an upward thrust with the index or middle finger”, from Current Slang (published in six volumes between 1966 and 1971, so it’s not so current anymore). And the best the Oxford Dictionary of Slang gives me is “dismissed/be dismissed; from earlier sense, hissing and booing as a sign of audience disapproval”. So maybe it went from whistling like a bird at someone on stage to a hand gesture? That seems pretty farfletched…I mean fetched.

And for anyone who’s British or Australian or from anywhere else in the commonwealth, maybe you can answer a question I have about a gesture y’all use, with the back of the hand turned out and two fingers held up in a V. You know what I mean. Anyway, what do you call that? Here’s several examples of it from the poster for the movie The Commitments.

Apparently that poster offended some people. I remember seeing it all over the place and then, magically, overnight, it was replaced with this stuffier version.


Give The Finger.

I’m all for freedom of speech, but with every freedom comes responsibility. The classic example is that you can’t scream “Fire!” in the middle of a crowded theater. And I’m pretty sure most areas, including Pittsburgh, have an ordinance stating you can’t honk your car’s horn unless there’s an imminent danger of an accident. Or unless you’re picking up one of the guys in your carpool and even though you’ve told him you’d be there at six, and even though you were five minutes late, he’s still in his house drinking coffee and eating a doughnut. Anyway, I thought about this when I heard about David Hackbart, who was cited for giving a police officer the finger. This happened back in 2006 and the charges were dropped, but Hackbart has decided to take the case to court, arguing a First Amendment right to give someone the finger. And while I wasn’t there, it sounds like he might be in the right. The story is “he made the gesture at another driver while trying to back into a parking space”. So maybe he was inconveniencing someone a little bit and I assume they honked their horn or yelled at him or maybe even gave him the finger, and he had a right to respond. Then “he heard someone else yelling at him, Hackbart gave the finger again”, only this time he gave the finger to a police officer, who’d been yelling at him.

Is a case like this a waste of time and money? Yes, but there is the serious question about how far the police can go. The police have a lot of power, and they should use it responsibly. I was once riding in a car with a friend of mine and I had my hand out the window. We didn’t even realize we’d driven by a cop until we saw flashing blue lights behind us. The cop pulled us over and made me get out because he claimed I’d been giving him the finger. I honestly hadn’t, but for a few minutes I was seriously afraid I was going to jail.

And then there’s something that happened to me earlier this week. I was driving home. I was sticking to the speed limit, coming to a complete stop at all stop signs, being a good driver. And I noticed a big green van behind me that looked like it was close enough to be scraping my bumper. This guy was practically pushing me forward, sticking right with me, breezing through stop signs. He was close enough that I could see in my rearview mirror that he needed to trim his nose hair. And then, in spite of the double-yellow line, he suddenly pulled over into the other lane, sped up, gave me the finger as he went by, and continued accelerating down the road in the wrong lane. In a 35-MPH zone he was doing at least sixty when I lost sight of him as he went over a hill. Now there’s a guy who should have been cited, not only for reckless (and probably drunk) driving but for making an obscene gesture. He’d already made his point (that point being “I should lose my license”) and if anybody had the right to give the finger it was me. But I didn’t. I didn’t even honk my horn.


Happy Birthday, Mr. Larkin.

Philip Larkin would have turned 87 today if he were still alive. He was, in his lifetime, often described as one of Britain’s best-loved poets. He was offered (and turned down) the post of Poet Laureate. He’s known for his simplicity, his straightforwardness. His is poetry that, to people who don’t like free verse and don’t like untangling complicated linguistic contortions and arcane symbolism, sounds like, well, poetry. He’s the ordinary guy but speaking in poetry, a bald geek with glasses who, even though he was successful enough as a writer that he didn’t need a steady job, still spent most of his life working quietly as a librarian–work he called a “toad”. His quiet resignation and feeling that life had passed him by is captured beautifully in his poem Sad Steps.

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate –
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

He could also be bitterly funny and dark. His poem This Be The Verse may be most famous for dropping the f-bomb in the first line, but it’s really the end that sticks the knife in and twists it. Here’s Larkin himself reading it:

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While there had been critics who didn’t like him, they didn’t gain the upper hand until after the publication of his “official” biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life by Andrew Motion. While Larkin comes across in his poetry as a generally gentle, thoughtful, occasionally bitter but funny man, the letters and details of his private life revealed a racist obsessed with pornography. There was a total reversal, at least in critical opinion, that was more of an attack on the man than his poetry. As an addendum to an obituary he wrote for Larkin, Martin Amis said,

A couple of years ago Larkin was still our best-loved postwar poet; now, for the time being, he is the most reviled. That revaluation has been unprecedentedly thorough…Already I can trumpet the assurance that the present controversy will soon evaporate; nothing of importance will have been affected by it.

He seems to have been right. The angry backlash against Larkin the man has been tempered by the realization that while the man had his faults his poetry deserves to be judged on its own.

Happy birthday, Mr. Larkin.


Straight From Crapvalanche To Pukevalanche.

The perfect way to start the week: Strongbad introduces a dictionary that we can only wish was available in stores. If you want to be droppin’ your bad quotient quotables, check it out. It’s even booby-trapped with endless “see also” loops.

Because, as he explains, the problem with dictionaries is “there’s too many words and not enough butterscotch sauce.” I feel that way myself sometimes.


Book ‘Em: Feeling Wicked.

In L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz the land Oz was a real place. In fact in one of the later books Dorothy returns to Oz with her aunt and uncle, fleeing the hardship of Kansas. There’s no place like home, but home is also where you make it. Being a real place it follows that the characters Dorothy met were real people, with their own complicated life stories. The same is even true of the Wicked Witch of the West, who wasn’t always a witch and who wasn’t always wicked. Her story is the center of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. Born in a time and place of terrible unrest to a deeply religious father and a frustrated mother, young Elphaba—yes, that’s her name–struggles with having been born with freakish green skin and an aversion to water. At school she’s even more of an outsider. She only becomes friends with her roommate Galinda (who later changes her name to Glinda) when they discover they have a common enemy—their wealthier, snobbier classmates. Later on she’s joined by her sister Nessarose (future Wicked Witch Of The East), born with normal skin but lacking arms. The Thropp sisters are unquestionably unlucky even from birth. After leaving school Elphaba joins a group of rebels, all but disappearing. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz ain’t so wonderful after all, it seems, but then the Wicked Witches of the West and East aren’t so wicked either. But I’m giving away too much. All this is prologue, anyway, and it raises questions not only about how evil originates but even its very nature. What causes people to go separate ways, and to see things so differently?

Where Maguire’s novel really excels, though, is the richness of the language. The moon is described at one point as “a lambent bowl among the trees”. When Elphaba twists her fingers together they are “a puzzle of green sticks”. On her first arrival at school Galinda examines the architecture intently, “although the vines and flatmoss fudged many of the finer details of the buildings.” Although I’d had Wicked on my reading list for a long time, I read it recently prior to seeing the stage play, which my wife and I went to last week. A friend told me, “You’ll like the book better,” but I found that, in spite of a few similarities, they were as different as Maguire’s novel and Baum’s. Where the novel is dark the play is quirky, and the play had to simplify the story significantly. It stays true to the novel’s spirit, but the two really can’t be compared. The Wizard tells Dorothy, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” The truth is behind the man behind the curtain there’s another curtain and another man behind it, and another curtain and another man, on an on into infinity.

And there are alternatives to looking behind the curtain. For instance one could simply defy gravity.

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Word Of The Week: September 5th, 2009.

One of the nice things about working in a library is I’m always running across interesting things. I feel like I’m constantly learning and constantly discovering things I might not have even thought about if I didn’t work in a place where books and periodicals regularly pass through my hands. And sometimes it’ll add to my vocabulary if I see a word I don’t recognize. For instance I had to place an order once for some back issues of the Journal of Cave And Karst Studies. Now I know what a cave is, but what exactly is karst?

I’ll skip to the Oxford English Dictionary’s second definition, since it’s the definition of karst, as opposed to Karst. Here it is:

A kind of topography of which the Yugoslavian Karst is typical, found in areas of readily dissolved rock (usually limestone) and predominantly underground drainage and marked by numerous abrupt ridges, fissures, sink-holes, and caverns; a region dominated by this kind of topography.

Even though it’s a word that comes from a part of the former republic of Yugoslavia called Karst which has lots of caves, sink-holes, and other really interesting subterranean and even terranean features, karst itself can describe any place on Earth marked with those features.

Like most of the information I’ve picked up this has, so far, been pretty useless. I haven’t been able to go on Jeopardy! and win a big daily double by saying, “What is karst?” I haven’t even had a chance to go spelunking and say, “It sure is nice all this karst is here.” The last time I visited Mammoth Cave was before I knew the word karst, so I wasn’t able to use it then, although I hope I’ll go back or visit other caves and maybe get a chance to use it then.

Whether I do or not, though, I firmly believe there’s no such thing as truly useless information. Even if I never put it to any practical use, I’m glad to know what karst is. Someone once told me that Sherlock Holmes, when told the Earth was round, replied that he would do his best to forget that fact because he considered it irrelevant to ever solving cases. I pointed out that, first of all, Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, and, secondly, no one has any real way of knowing what information will be relevant and what won’t. Anyway, the mind isn’t necessarily like a box that can only be filled with so much stuff. Learning one new thing doesn’t push out something you previously knew.


Sticks And Stones…

Supposedly there’s nothing left that can shock us, but, as Kathleen Deveny says in a Newsweek web exclusive article, “There is still one word I can never bring myself to say in front of my mother.” She’s referring to a word I personally won’t say in front of anyone, including myself, a word so shocking, so vulgar, so crude that while George Carlin included it in his list of seven words you can’t say on television he used it more rarely than any of the others. It’s a word that supposedly refers to a part of the female anatomy, although in Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer it’s used as a synecdoche, referring simply to a woman. The word is almost universally considered to be derogatory, and, even when Miller doesn’t say it with any anger or bitterness, he’s clearly not using it as a compliment either. In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m referring to a word I’ll just call the c-word.

The word seems so harsh, so angry, so vile I’m surprised when Deveny says it’s “losing its bite”. She explains that it’s even been used on the front page of the British publication The Guardian, although she adds that “Brits seem far more comfortable dropping the C bomb than we do.” Maybe this is because Brits have at least one other epithet of their own which, although gentler–so much so that we Americans don’t even consider it a swear word–still seems to pack a punch. And of course in American slang the British epithet refers to a different part of the anatomy, which is why a friend of mine was confused when he told an English girl, “Your fanny looks great in those jeans” and she got really upset. Of course this same friend thought it was funny to go up to English people and say, “Bugger off, you bloody sod”, but that’s another story.

To get back to the c-word, though, I’m even more shocked when Deveny says, “I have to admit, I use the C word on occasion, as do the sassiest of my female friends.” The idea that the word is used by anyone, but especially sassy women, shocks me. Honestly, I feel uncomfortable even writing about the word. Even if I’m not saying it I’m still keeping the word circulating because I can’t help thinking about it, and you probably can’t either.

Why does the word remain shocking? I can think of numerous reasons, although the main one, I think, is that it’s a derogatory term for a specific group of people–women, in this case. This separates it from most other swear words. Some feminists like Germaine Greer have suggested “reclaiming” the word in the same way that, say, “gay” has been appropriated by homosexuals. Inga Muscio has written a provocatively-titled book-length argument for such a reclamation.

This is something that always makes me uncomfortable. Putting an end to the use of the c-word as an expression of contempt for women is a good thing, and I’m all for it. I understand the desire to wrest the word from the mouths of misogynists, but does it really work? If, as a kid, you were picked on, insulted, hurt by words, chances are you also learned that no matter how many times you said “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” it didn’t help. There is also something to be said for keeping the word cordoned off. It shocks now because it’s become a symbol of misogyny. Taking away the word’s power might take a weapon of the misogynist’s arsenal, but does it really deal with the issue?

Here’s another thing to consider: perhaps, metaphorically, the c-word is the linguistic equivalent of arsenic. In trace amounts we need arsenic. It’s a vital element to keep our bodies operating. In more than a trace amount, though, arsenic becomes toxic, even lethal. There is no way to immunize oneself against arsenic either. Even taken over a long period of time it builds up in the body, becoming increasingly destructive. Could overuse of the c-word be the same way?

And familiarity breeds contempt. I worry that disempowering certain words, even if it’s for the right reasons, breeds contempt for language itself. Can we take away the impact of certain words without lessening the overall value of language? I’m half tempted to suggest that maybe language is overvalued, or that at least the value of language is debatable, but I think the fact that we’d have no way to debate without language speaks for itself. So I leave the subject open to debate. Should we be desensitized to the c-word and its ilk, or is it better to give it its special status?

As a final thought, I’m reminded of this quote from David Sedaris, talking about his father:

My father is the type who will recite a bawdy limerick by saying, “A woman I know who’s quite blunt / Had a bear trap installed in her…’ oh, you know. It’s a base, vernacular term for the female genitalia.” He can absolutely kill a joke.


Get Schooled.

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder I can think at all.

Paul Simon, Kodachrome

When school budgets are cut the humanities, particularly the arts and music, are always the first things to go, along with languages and sometimes even history. The reason is obvious: these things are really useless. Teaching students things they’ll actually use as they go out into the job market is the only thing that matters. Now you’ve probably guessed that I don’t really believe that, and you probably don’t either. Most of us feel there’s a need to teach the arts, along with languages, history, and even subjects like psychology or anthropology, and yet it’s hard to justify that feeling with facts. For one thing standardized tests emphasize reading and math and occasionally the hard sciences, but rarely, if ever, touch on history, and never consider the arts even from a cold, factual perspective (such as when Mozart was born). And while I’d like to see subjects other and reading and math given prominence in the curriculum, I’ve always thought that it would be futile to try. School is, at its most basic, about training workers, about preparing students to enter the business world. I was taught how to tell the difference between Manet and Monet, but it’s never helped me in my job, so, from a practical perspective, have learned it was a waste of time.

I know this is an incredibly utilitarian view of education, one that probably no one really subscribes to, or at least that no one would admit to believing in, and yet it seems like our society only thinks of education in terms of the job market. A lot of jobs are simply off-limits to anyone without a specific degree. While this makes sense, it’s also been said that a high school diploma or even a bachelor’s degree is nothing more than certificates that says, “Yes, I can be taught!”

What got me thinking about this was hearing a recent interview with Mike Rose, whose new book Why School? addresses the value of education not just from a practical perspective but in a more abstract sense. Speaking to Tess Vigeland of Marketplace, Rose first addresses the economics of school, but adds a comment about the value of education for its own sake.

Now, look, the economic motive has always been very important in the United States. And as somebody from a working class background, for whom schooling made a huge difference, I’m all for that. But there’s been other motives as well: The Jeffersonian motive of wanting to develop citizens, the motive of intellectual growth.

But he goes on to explain why there’s value in education, why there’s even value in teaching subjects that, from a business perspective, might be considered useless.

The business community, time after time in position papers and opinion pieces, tells us that it needs people who can make frontline kinds of decisions, who communicate well, who are creative, who think outside the box. And again, if you have a curriculum that doesn’t generate and encourage that kind of thinking and learning, then you’re not going to produce those kinds of folks.

While he doesn’t necessarily address teaching the humanities, he does say, earlier in the intereview, that a curriculum geared toward a standardized test will “hit math and reading hard, and those are important, but literature, the humanities, arts, science, history, knowing history, that tends to be downplayed.”

There’s something else to consider here. It’s been said that, given the rate of technological change, most of what this year’s freshmen who are studying computer science learn will be obsolete by the time they’re juniors. Consider that: most of the things they’re taught in their specific field will be useless almost two years before they graduate. So what’s really more valuable: the technological information that will be obsolete in a short time, or something like how to tell the difference between Manet and Monet? Being able to distinguish subtle differences between two painters teaches, among other things, critical thinking. It has practical value, as does reading great books. Art, in almost any form, imitates life because, while it takes work to understand it, there are rarely any simple answers. Besides, there’s more to life–and more to education–than just work.


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