Word Of The Week: January 16th, 2010.

lettercRecently I’ve been thinking about the word compassion. The prefix com comes from the Latin word meaning “with”, so in a way it means “with passion”. Maybe that’s why, even though I think of sympathy as a synonym for compassion, I think compassion has a more active connotation. You feel sympathy for someone, but you have compassion. I know it’s a very subtle difference, and I’m not knocking sympathy, but I think of sympathy as an involuntary reaction, while feeling compassion for someone is a way of reaching out. In fact the word compassion in Latin means “to suffer together with”.

The philosopher Simone Weil once said that the only honest question one person can ask another is, “What are you suffering through?” That’s a pretty bleak, cynical outlook, but maybe there’s a bright spot in it. I happen to believe that pain shared is pain halved, and being able to share another person’s pain begins with compassion.

Consider The Source.

haitihistoryandthegodsThe remarks made by Pat Robertson about Haiti’s supposed “deal with the Devil”, which he claims has resulted in the Haitian people being cursed, have sparked outrage. Obviously with any statement such as that we have to consider the source. Robertson is dishonest, a charlatan who’s profited from the misery of others, and I think it’s fair to ask whether he even believes what he’s saying. He may just be spouting off because it’s a way to get attention.

The problem with giving such remarks any attention is they risk making them seem credible. Robertson’s supporters may be so delusional they think the attention he’s getting somehow proves him right. And yet I don’t think such stupidity should always go unchallenged. Fortunately for the challenge there is a credible source. Vanderbilt University professor Colin Dayan has responded to Robertson’s remarks. The author of Haiti, History, And The Gods, she made some interesting points, particularly the fact that the story of Haitians’ “deal with the devil” was written by the French, who were upset that the Haitians staged a successful rebellion and gained their own independence.

Dayan also says that she’s glad that, in spite of Robertson’s remarks, people are still giving money and aid to the people of Haiti. Ironically one of those asking for money is Pat Robertson himself, although, if he really believes what he’s saying I don’t know what good he thinks it will do. It may be that most of the money he’s asking for will only go to benefit Pat Robertson. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Toying Around.

chummy155Do you ever wonder where your old toys ended up? I have some extremely dim memories from childhood (not that dim memories are unusual–I have dim memories of what I had for lunch yesterday) of a toy lobster that I carried around with me. I was three years old, and remember almost drowning when I dropped him in a swimming pool and went in after him. I didn’t realize lobsters can breathe underwater. I also remember my mother commenting on my knack for naming my toys. I had a stuffed seal I named Digby, and a stuffed frog I named Quincy. I have no idea where I got these names. At the risk of showing my age I named Quincy years before the show with Jack Klugman first aired, and I really don’t know where I could have heard the name Digby.

I’m going to turn off of memory lane now and take the on-ramp to the present where there’s the blog City of Sad Toys. Check it out. It’s sad, funny, and sometimes darkly sarcastic. My favorite is this one of a headless doll where the comment is, “I dunno if this gal washed in from the French Revolution or what, but this is pretty tragic.”

Occasionally I find abandoned toys when I’m out walking. Now I’m tempted to take pictures of every one. This blog also makes me think about converting to Frisbeetarianism, which is the belief that when you die your soul goes up and gets stuck on the roof.

Book ‘Em: Under The Sea.

seakingcousteauWhen I was a kid and dreamed of someday being a marine biologist my hero was Jacques Cousteau. And there’s a good reason for that. Without Cousteau, who, along with engineer Emile Gagnan, developed the Aqua-Lung, the first scuba equipment. Cousteau himself was the first to test the equipment, which he describes in The Undersea World. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that marine biology would be a very different science without him, and there’s a lot that we just wouldn’t know.

Because he was my hero I hesitated to pick up Brad Matsen’s book Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King. It’s usually part of growing up that we find out our heroes have feet of clay, and I wasn’t sure what sort of revelations there would be about Cousteau and how they might change how I feel about him. When Lawrance Thompson wrote a biography of Robert Frost he was initially motivated by admiration but ended up hating Frost the person. And yet I couldn’t think helping that, unless he secretly spent his weekends clubbing baby fur seals or something like that, there wasn’t anything about Cousteau that really would shock me. I’d also enjoyed one of Matsen’s earlier books, The Descent, about the two men who invented and tested the first bathyscaphe.

Matsen brings the same quiet, thoughtful insight to Cousteau that he gave to Beebe and Barton, trying to understand the individual behind the discovery but avoiding unnecessary speculation or analysis. And Cousteau would, in one way, be a difficult subject for analysis because he was so open about his motivations. In the book’s first chapter, Matsen quotes Cousteau telling one of his sons that asking about his past is a waste of time. In response to a question from a reporter about what The Cousteau Society means to him personally, Cousteau says, “That is an introvert question and I am not introverted…I like to look the outside world.” It seems that no one was really close to him, and there were some who felt used then discarded by Cousteau. He all but cut off his son Jean-Michel for several years, until the death of his son Philippe when he asked Jean-Michel to become his collaborator and eventual successor.

And this interest in the outside world is kind of a revelation and it does provide some insight into Cousteau. As a young man he wanted to be a filmmaker, documenting the world. He met his first wife at a party at her father’s which he attended with a film camera. As soon as he began diving he and his collaborators worked on ways to photograph and film underwater. Ironically, though, his personality and his innovations meant that he became a celebrity. His later documentaries, such as a two-part one about the Mississippi River, were panned by some critics for being more about Cousteau than about his subject, although, as Matsen says, “What Jacques Cousteau said on television was important to the world mostly because it was Jacques Cousteau saying it.” He was an important advocate for the environment, even though he would often be away from Calypso for long periods, showing up only to film sequences involving him before going off to raise research funds.

This is not to say that Cousteau didn’t have his secrets. The biggest was that he led a secret second life with his mistress, Francine Triplet, and even had two children with her. After his first wife died he married Triplet and insisted that she be part of the Cousteau Society, which put a strain on his relationship with his son and threw the society’s finances–which Jean-Michel, a pragmatic businessman, had tried to control–into chaos. The most shocking revelation, though, is the one that opens the book: Matsen’s discovery of Cousteau’s research ship Calypso, all but abandoned and rotting in a dock.

While it’s ironic that Cousteau, who insisted he was only interested in the outsidw world, would become a celebrity, he did use his position to do as much as he could to make marine biology and ecology accessible to a broad audience, and he promoted an understanding of the environment. Early on Cousteau saw how devastating human activity could be, and how fragile the ocean is, and he tried to bring that knowledge to the world. For that I think he’ll always be a hero.

Word Of The Week: January 9th, 2009

letterbI’ve had a debate with a friend over the word bizarre, specifically in the title of the show Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern. My friend thinks the word is inherently insulting, that it treats other cultures like circus freaks. I think, first of all, that Zimmern’s stated desire to understand and celebrate what’s different about other cultures is clearly positive, and also that calling something bizarre isn’t necessarily negative. It’s synonymous with unusual, and ultimately bizarreness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The debate got me wondering about the word itself. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as

At variance with recognized ideas of taste, departing from ordinary style or usage; eccentric, extravagant, whimsical, strange, odd, fantastic.

That bit about “recognized ideas of taste” sounds a little fishy since taste is also in the eye of the beholder, right? As Ben Elton once said, “Wearing the right clothes only takes money, while wearing the wrong clothes takes initiative,” but that’s another story.

Where I have real trouble is sussing out the etymology of bizarre. The OED traces it back to the Spanish and Portuguese word bizarro, which means  “handsome, brave”. How’d it get from handsome and brave–and even, in early English usage, “soldier-like”, to, well, bizarre? The OED  doesn’t say a word about that, and I think it’s so bizarre I can’t even think of how it might have happened. There’s also Webster’s Word Histories, which claims that the word is used by Dante to mean “irascible”. And maybe there’s a clue there. The Italian Renaissance painter Salvator Rosa is described, in the book Born Under Saturn, as first going to Rome, penniless, “dressed in a bizzarro Spanish garb with the inevitable sword at his side.” Maybe a bizzarro was originally a Spanish soldier, maybe a mercenary. The “irascible” reputation may have come from a stereotype of the Spanish, so the word may have originally had a derogatory connotation, based on a false assumption about people of another culture. So maybe my friend really was on to something.

I Guess You Had To Be There.

proppThere’s probably nothing more quixotic than trying to explain why humor is funny, and I can say without reading it that Vladimir Propp’s book On The Comic And Laughter may be one of the least funny books ever written, simply because it’s a serious philosophical study of humor, including studies from the works of Shakespeare, Moliere, and Gogol. Now I know you’re thinking that there’s nobody funnier than Russian authors, especially if you’re the sort of person who giggles while reading obituaries. Actually one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard is set in the former Soviet Union, and may have even originated there. It goes like this: Two guys are sitting in a bar. One of them says, “Eighteen” and the other guy starts laughing hysterically. Then the other guy says, “Fifty-four” and the first guy laughs and pounds his fist on the bar. The bartender notices this and says, “Okay guys, what’s so funny about the numbers?” One of the guys says, “Back in the Soviet days we couldn’t tell political jokes so we memorized them all and gave them numbers. That way we could tell each other political jokes without getting caught by the KGB.” The bartender laughs and thinks for a minute then says, “Hey guys…twenty-seven!” The two guys just look at him blankly, then one says, “You know, it’s not so much the joke, it’s the way you tell it.”

This joke is hilarious, but like most jokes you just can’t analyze it. Once you do it’s no longer funny, and if, like Vladimir Propp, you write an entire book analyzing jokes like that you probably won’t think anything’s funny ever again because you’ll be too busy analyzing the ontological implications of the rabbi, the priest, and the minister walking into a bar and the bartender saying, “Hey, is this a joke?”

The only author I know of who really made a serious effort to understand why humor is funny without ruining it is Dave Barry, in his essay Why Humor Is Funny, which you can find in the book Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits. Fortunately he doesn’t come to any firm conclusions, although he does offer some very sage advice, such as this:

Never attend a large dinner party with my former mother-in-law, because she will shout across the table at you: “Tell the one about the man who’s seeking the truth and he finally gets all the way to Tibet and the wise man tells him that a wet bird doesn’t fly at night,” and then she’ll insist that you tell it, and then she’ll tell you you told it wrong, and you might have to kill her with a fork.

By the way, in that same book Barry also has a piece called Public-Spirited You, which also deals with humor and in which he asks such thought-provoking questions as, “Does Queen Elizabeth ever hear any jokes? Who tells them to her?” Actually Queen Elizabeth is married to a pretty funny guy, but that’s another story. What I’d really like to know is this: in that piece Barry refers to a joke involving “marital infidelity and a closet”, with the punchline, “Ding, dammit, DONG.” Like every individual with a Y chromosome on the planet I can remember every joke I’ve ever heard and I’ve never heard this one. The only joke I know involving marital infidelity and a closet ends with a small boy in a confessional saying, “Boy, it’s dark in here” and the priest saying, “Not YOU again!” So if you know the joke Dave Barry was referring to please share it.

Happily Ever After.

fairytalesWhether it’s thanks to or in spite of Disney, fairy tales continue to be part of our collective, public consciousness. Many parents will still read versions of fairy tales to their children if they don’t actually recite them. I have memories of falling asleep while my parents held a party in the other room. One of their friends would come in and tell me the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The second and third times I listened politely but still thought, “Gee, doesn’t this guy know any other stories?” And, like most of us, I grew up with Disney versions of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, not to mention other versions of either the same stories or other ones, such as Tom Tichenor’s marionette version of Mother Holle, and Shelley Duval’s Faerie Tale Theater. I always enjoyed fairy tales but I never thought of there being any written-down versions of most of the tales I either saw in various versions or heard references to, including The Frog Prince, which Disney’s finally adapted. I don’t know why it took them so long. Maybe they had to figure out a way around some of the story’s sexual implications—but I’ll come back to that.

It wasn’t until I was an adult and started studying fairy tales seriously that I realized there were written versions of most tales. As a kid I thought the title of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was meant to be descriptive and not actually someone’s name—or even the name of two brothers, who started out studying linguistics and ended up writing down folk tales. And I never knew about Andrew Lang, who collected fairy tales in his series of colored Fairy Books, starting with Blue, Red, and Yellow, and eventually filling more than a dozen, including Grey, Violet, and Olive Fairy Books. Lang tends to be snubbed by most critics because, even though he thought of himself as an anthropologist, his versions weren’t traditionally collected, and he altered and bowdlerized stories, and his brilliant original fairy tale Prince Prigio is almost completely forgotten. And yet the Grimms also changed some stories, or even omitted stories they collected. And then there’s Charles Perrault who predates the Grimms and who, like Lang, altered stories for his audience, taking folk tales and retelling them in his own way. There’s a new English translation of Perrault’s The Complete Fairy Tales by Christopher Betts. In a review for the Los Angeles Times, Jamie James claims that Perrault’s work was “the collection that would have the widest and most lasting impact”. While it’s true Perrault did have an influence on the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Lang, and other collectors and retellers of fairy tales, while he did give us versions of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty that we’d recognize, I think he has to be considered at least equal to the Grimms and the anonymous authors of the Tales of the Arabian Nights. Perrault gave us the modern version of Little Red Riding Hood, but our culture would still be so much poorer without Hansel and Gretel, not to mention Aladdin and his lamp.

It’s ironic that James makes such a claim after saying, “where the storytellers go, critics are right behind them, Rumpelstiltskins spinning ingenious interpretations out of every theoretical straw that floats by: Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Christian, feminist, postmodernist — you name it.” He goes on to say that,

Children are thrill addicts who relish imaginary gore — and have no interest in theories about why they do so. Only a child can hear the story of “Little Red Riding-Hood” and see it as a straightforward, “what happens next” narrative. We didn’t need Freud to tell us that there were powerful sexual currents in a story about a little girl who ends up in bed with a cross-dressing wolf, who amazes her with the prodigious size of various parts of his anatomy.

Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, James does seem to be dealing with a contradictory impulse many of us feel when it comes to fairy tales. On the one hand we want to read them as just stories, but on the other there’s a desire to understand them. For parents I think there’s a good reason: they want some reassurance that the stories of murder and stealing and danger are teaching their children the right lessons. Although she doesn’t talk about fairy tales, the whole premise of Alison Lurie’s book Don’t Tell The Grownups is that the best stories teach children that grownups are incompetent, untrustworthy, and that, to take one example, it’s more fun to be Peter Rabbit stealing vegetables from Mr. McGregor’ s garden than it is to be Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail who are good and only get blackberries, bread, and milk for supper. And Lurie assures us that these lessons are okay. Hopefully the kids who read about brave princes slaying ogres will be able to deal with the ogres they’re going to meet—and won’t become ogres themselves. And there’s sex in fairy tales as well as violence. Why is Rapunzel put in a tower by her stepmother if not to protect her virginity? When the frog turns into a prince it happens in the princess’s bedroom—although in the Grimms’ original version he’s transformed not by a kiss but when the princess throws him on the ground (or against a wall, depending on the translation). The story of the frog prince is, of course, all about growing up. The princess starts off selfish and immature, while the frog is noble and brave. There’s something to think about the next time you hear a woman ask how many frogs she’ll have to kiss before she finds one who turns into a prince. Disney’s version, in which the princess herself is turned into a frog, may be closer to the original than the way the story’s come to be interpreted. Anyone—male or female—who complains about kissing frogs might need to look in the mirror.

The fact that there are numerous bad parents in fairy tales—in one of Perrault’s stories, Hop o’ My Thumb, is very similar to Hansel and Gretel in that parents are unable to feed their children and abandon them in the woods. The abundance of parents who either abuse or abandon their children in fairy tales may serve several purposes. One is it assures parents that they’re pretty good parents, even if they have doubts. A parent reading a fairy tale can at least think, well, hey, I’m not abandoning my child in the woods. They can also serve as a warning to parents to be good. While the wicked mother in Disney’s version of Snow White is chased off a cliff, which is bad enough, in the original she’s forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies. Finally the fact that the abandoned, abused, or kicked-out children survive and even thrive, overcoming obstacles on their own. This is meant, I think, as a reminder to parents that eventually their children will have to grow up and leave and also a reassurance that they’ll be okay—that they may even live happily ever after.

Word Of The Week: January 2nd, 2010

letteraI thought I’d start off the new year with the word abyss. Most people think of it as a frightening or even depressing thing. It comes from a Greek word meaning “bottomless”, after all, and the same root gives us the word abysmal. The ocean’s depths are usually referred to as the abyss, and it was once thought to be lifeless. We know now it’s teeming with life. In fact scientists are only just beginning to understand life in the abyss and how it’s affected by life on the surface–and, possibly, the effects the abyss can have on surface life. And there’s still so much more to be learned. The only true abyss–the only thing that’s really bottomless–is our ignorance. That’s not a depressing thought either, though. Challenges are exciting because they’re opportunities for us to test ourselves and learn new things. It wasn’t that long ago that researchers in fields from philosophy to physics thought they were close to figuring everything out, to having all the answers. They couldn’t have been more wrong, and that’s a good thing. The most depressing thing would be not having any more challenges ahead.

Here’s some footage of a Pacific Black Ghost Ratfish. I think it’s actually a beautiful animal, in spite of being called a ratfish. It’s one of 94 new species documented by the California Academy of Sciences in 2009.

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A Spin Around The Universe.

Here’s a little video to take you around the universe as we say farewell to the old year and hello to the new. You get bonus points if you know what radio play turned bestselling novel turned lousy film used this song as its theme music. And if you don’t know, don’t panic.

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Google Books Keeps On Giving.

It was a sad day when the Weekly World News ceased its print publication in July 2007. Although they continued their online version, it did make standing in the supermarket checkout line a little less interesting. I also remember in one of my college writing classes we were each given a headline from the Weekly World News and told to write a story based on it. Mine was about a boy who’d swallowed a seed and had a fruit tree growing out of his mouth–“AND BAFFLED DOCTORS DON’T KNOW HOW TO REMOVE IT!!!” It was probably the hardest assignment I ever had in a creative writing class because, really, how do you improve on that?


I’ve also just learned that Google Books has archived the Weekly World News issues, preserving them for however long the digital format lasts. If you still prefer print you can always pick up the collection Bat Boy Lives, but the digital archive is perfect for wasting time at work–er, I mean, it’s very thought-provoking. Browsing through the covers I noticed some interesting repeating themes. There were, of course, the usual suspects–aliens, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, celebrities both living and dead–but also an apparent fascination with Biblical themes, fat people, cats, and information on how to either make huge amounts in the stock market or prepare for the next major recession–which was always just around the corner. I guess now I know why the Weekly World News went out of business. It’s been replaced by cable news shows.