Monthly Archives: March 2006

Books – Johann Wyss: The Swiss Family Robinson

Sometimes, against all better judgment I pick up a book that I’ve not read since I was a child. I like to know when last I read something so I can look back and say, “Wow. I don’t remember that at ALL. I wonder how long it’s been.” I know, for example that I finished Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, on March 18th 2002. Even today, at times the recollection of it is so vivid and inspiring that I laugh to myself for no apparent reason while walking through the grocery story. In contrast, I finished James, Washington Square, on January 27th of 2005, a full 3 years more recent than Dorian Gray and I have absolutely NO clue what it was about. I could probably go read the back cover but as I sit here going over the list… nothing. Not a sausage. I doubt that I’d even identify it as a book I’d ready before if asked.
However, I REMEMBER reading The Swiss Family Robinson and it’s been at LEAST 20 years ago. I even remember having pleasant feelings about it from across the void of space and time that separates me from it. What a difference, apparently, a translation can make. What I did not realize as a child is that much of literature is properly and scrubbed and sanitized before the average person sees it. Most translations of the Family Robinson are stripped of the endless religious droning that are so keenly present in my Oxford World’s Classic version. In many ways, it’s not even the same book.  
More to the point perhaps, even if perchance it was the same book, I’m not the same person.
The religion I could readily tolerate. Religion, for many, is THE cornerstone of their lives; first comes breathing, then comes religion, then comes defecation. So, the book was written by a pastor and has a STRONG religious message. Not a problem: so far, so good. In addition to religious lessons though, Wyss also wanted his book to convey some information about the natural world. Ostensibly this was to aid the reader in case they should ever have to survive on their own in such a situation. That’s fine too, despite my gripes about what I refer to as ‘the middle third’ of Moby Dick, I can tolerate a bit of encyclopedia in my fiction. Again, no problem.
The last straw on the pile of annoyances is really an unfair one. This little dainty was written almost 200 years ago. Because of that, the author’s treatment of women is at times utterly derogatory. His wife, while useful and industrious in their situation, isn’t really expected to be. She’s treated more or less like an invalid. Again, this is a sign of the times in which the book is written, clearly not the author’s fault. The Family also has no regard whatsoever for the natural world around them. They shoot and kill every beast they possibly can. The wife even points out at one point that they’ve brought back so much game that they can’t possibly eat it all. They’re apparently just on a holiday with an infinite amount of gunpowder at their disposal. I was also appalled by their treatment of a local troop of monkeys. They massacre one group and proceed to poison another and dump their bodies into their drinking water. How much of the ecosystem do these people need to take out exactly?
At this point, the astute reader will look at his screen perplexedly thinking simply, “But this is the way people were at the time?” And I certainly agree, I don’t expect people in novels to act in ways that conform with modern standards of behavior by any means. I applaud the accuracy of the portrayal but it was still annoying.
To sum up, the Family Robinson is a thinly disguised and by today’s standards of knowledge, really inaccurate encyclopedia. The author spends 20 pages getting them onto the island, 5 pages getting them off the island and in the middle 490 pages, one finds hundreds of unconnected episodes in which they meet with an impossibly diverse menagerie of creatures, plants and situations. I’m glad to have finally plodded my way through that mess…
What’s Next? Ah, well, time for some real misinformation: A History of Private Life, Volume I, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium. Having cheated ahead a bit, I’m really anxious to hear more about Roman contraception (a bucket of water thrown over the couple right after ‘completion’) and the like.

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The One True Gift

On an almost daily basis I lament that I cannot climb into the head of my fellow man and using his eyes peer into my own. As I sit on the couch trying to avoid reading some text that is entirely too dull to hold my attention, I often reflect on my own internal workings and attempt without success to compare them with those of other humans. For without having experienced those workings on the same level that I experience my own it’s totally impossible to make a proper comparison.

Tonight, for example, I was reminded of my own tendency towards misanthropy. For every single person I know, I can rattle off some significant number of things that I utterly despise about them. Now, as a counter-balance I can generally also rattle off a number of good things about them too but I wonder just how much of this goes on in the average human mind. I realize, of course, that people like or dislike each other for various reasons. It’s only natural that people will gravitate towards people of like mind and tend to fall away from their antipodes but do they generally know why? In the mind of everyone I know, is there a pair of equivalent lists, one labeled “Rob’s good things” and one “Rob’s bad things?” Is the whole world doing this or is this just a product of the real asses?

It should also be noted that while I’m compiling the list of good and bad about other people I’ve reserved the longest lists for myself. I am keenly aware of my ability to come across as a complete and thoughtless ass along with a litany of other equaling damning qualities. I have no delusions of perfection whatsoever but despite my own judgments, there’s absolutely no way for me to know what the rest of the world thinks.

Now, this is not to literally say that in practice I actually dislike anyone. I’ve often tried to think of someone who, if I saw them in some dire circumstance, I wouldn’t try to help. I’ve yet to actually come up with anyone for this position. Even those people whose ‘bad’ list far outweighs their ‘good’ don’t qualify for real genuine hate in my book. The world seems outwardly to have a high capacity for hatred but I can’t personally relate to it. Everyone has something on their ‘good’ list or at least everyone I’ve gotten to know. I suspect that despite their rough exterior, the average human isn’t nearly as capable of real hatred as the news might have you believe. Or perhaps I’m just being dangerously naïve and need to watch my back.

One reason this is all such a mystery is that people simply don’t want to talk about it. People don’t really want to know what you think of them. I, on the other hand, would be completely fascinated to have someone follow me around for a month and tell me every annoying and endearing thing I was doing. What greater gift could you give a person than the complete and unvarnished view of themselves? It’s a bizarre kind of gift too because everybody you know is capable of giving it to you for free but you absolutely can’t get it by yourself. You have to get that truth from another person; you’re too closely involved with your own actions to judge them with anything approaching impartiality.

It’s also important to note though, that not everyone is ready for this gift. Obviously, some people… well, probably MOST people will never speak to you again after you give it to them. Perhaps it’s because most people see themselves as generally better than others and any crack in that perception is offensive. I have to wonder, How do people in the world see really view themselves? Take away the machismo, take away the pride and the fear of other people looking down on you for what you say. What do you really and truly see when you look in the mirror? Sniveling little mouse? Mighty lion? What? Are people even capable of separating their mental processes from their identity long enough to make such an assessment?

Only when you can be honest with yourself and have your own perceptions clearly and honestly set in your mind, are you ready to receive the gift. When you think you’re ready, ask the people around you. If they’re really your friends (and if you make them read this blog entry perhaps) then they’ll tell you. Once you know how the outside world truly sees you, then you can use that information to make yourself a better person. What greater gift could you ever ask for?

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Books – Neal Stephenson: Quicksilver

Under completely normal circumstances, I would file this massive tome under the category of ‘junk fiction.’ Also under normal circumstances, I would not bother with anything in this category. For some reason that I can’t explain, when I was in the bookstore looking for something new to run my eyes over I wandered over into the sci-fi section. I’ll admit that at first its attraction was purely physical. It was massive, hardcover and was the first of a multi-part series. My sense of bibliosnobbery was fully and thoroughly engaged. Then I opened it. The first pages I beheld contained something I’d never ever seen in a science fiction book before: an equation. It was at that point that I quietly closed the book, readied the ubiquitous bookstore coupon and proceeded carefully to the checkout area hoping insanely that nobody would see the book and decide they needed to steal it from me.

Stephenson’s massive tome is 920 pages and every bit filled with an almost Dickensian level of detail as he describes the life of his main character, Daniel Waterhouse. Daniel makes his way through 17th century England, witnesses the deaths of three kings of England, becomes a member of the Royal Society and hangs out with a vast array of real scientific minds of the day including Newton, Leibniz, Hooke and countless other contemporaries. This is really more of a lesson in history and science than it is a work of fiction. His descriptions of the scientific thinking of the day is at once unsettling (Hooke is constantly drinking mercury in an attempt to lengthen his life) and awe inspiring. The frenetic activity of these people is truly amazing though despite their example, I’ll admit that I’m not ready to vivisect anything.

To compliment the scientific cast, Daniel wanders through an incredibly detailed backdrop of European cities ending up in the Tower of London and involved in many of the momentous events of the period. I feel thoroughly educated and yet wholly entertained at the same time. That, in my opinion, is what fiction should really be about. I bow to Mr. Stephenson and wholly recommend his works. 

What’s next? Sadly, I feel obligated to finish what I’ve started. The Swiss Family Robinson sits on the end table with a bookmark on page 323. As amazingly dull as this book as turned out to be, I have no choice but to finish. *sigh* Hopefully the encyclopedia will end soon and the plot will resume…

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That Little Face in the Mirror

My daughter’s six and sometimes I worry about her. Yeah, sure I worry in the way that all parents do but I also worry in this vague way that has to do with intellectual snobbery. When I was but a wee lad, my solace and my light in life was the written word. I certainly couldn’t talk to my parents but with my nose between the pages of some good book I felt that I had the absolute attention of some great and wise person. Books were my one true escape so like any good little kid I tried to escape as much as possible.

In a way, I’ve carried that forward to my adulthood and sometimes apply it to my attempts to be a parent. While I certainly don’t want our children to have to find all their entertainment in books it would be nice if they displayed some interest and it worries me sometimes when they don’t. I worry about what experience or bit of knowledge they might lose because they’re not curled up with some great bit of literature. Actually, I should say that I used to worry.

The other day our six-year-old, we’ll call her Miss Six, was getting ready for bed. Bedtime is a somewhat lose process in our house; the first step involves actually getting into bed but very little sleeping and so she was taking something to do to bed with her. Lately she’s been on an art kick so she had gathered up the 20 pieces of paper for the book she’s drawing and toddled off to bed. Daddy, having a moment of concern, saw the art and declared that Six needed to be reading in bed instead. Well, as with all strong-willed children this sent Six into a tizzy. She looked daggers at me but relented and trudged unhappily off to her room to look gloomily at some books. It seemed reasonable to me for a split second that she should be reading a book in bed rather than working on her other interests.

After the split second passed however, I realized the injustice of what I’d just done. A bit of history on Six is probably appropriate here. Six is a child of intensely varied interests; for two weeks she will be utterly and completely devoted to science. The entirety of her existence will be about animals and dinosaurs and fossils and digging things out of the yard but after a few days the furnaces will cool and she’ll move on to something else and the cycle will begin all over again. Her pursuit of everything is absolutely frenetic and single-minded. For the brief period in which she’s interested in a topic it will be impossible to draw her in any other direction without a major fight. Her father exhibits not dissimilar tendencies. As you might tell from his blog, his interest in everything (including blogging itself) is subject to change without notice.

It was exactly this image of myself followed by an image of Six that flashed before my eyes after I told her to go read in bed. In the moments following the split second, I realized just what a shitty thing I’d done to my child. How would I feel if someone stood over me and made me read a book when what I really wanted to do was write a blog entry or tinker with the microscope? What a cad. Well, only one thing to be done. I called her in from her bed and said in my most level voice:

“Hey, I’m sorry about that. I realize now that it wasn’t fair of me to make you read a book when you were working on something else. You do so many different and cool things that it’s not appropriate for me to make you do one thing over another. Go ahead and do what you want in bed.”

And that, was that. Some of you may well say that I’m an idiot for not making her read. We’ve impressed on her many times that reading is the most important thing she’ll ever learn and no doubt next week she’ll be off of art and on to reading voraciously and I’d rather have her do what she wants with enthusiasm than have her do what I want begrudgingly. The difference between success and failure is not knowledge but passion. She has passion, she’ll find a permanent target for it in due time. I officially don’t worry about Six any more.

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You and Your Penis

You can tell a lot about a person by his penis. The complexity of the penis seems to be related to the competition for females. Bushbabies and many other small primates have obscenely complex and fanciful penises with knobs, spikes, bristles and other accoutrements designed to stimulate the female to accept his sperm more readily. Competition for females among these groups is quite intense and any competitive advantage is worth the effort. Compare this to the male gorilla. He presides more or less unchallenged over a harem of females and as a consequence this 500 pound behemoth has a penis only 2 inches long. So much for the big-shoes/big-wang theory.

As usual though, the insect world has the world of mammals beaten by a mile. Damselflies have inflatable penises with horns and bristles that it uses to clean the female’s vaginal opening before copulation. Now that’s “washing that man right out of your… well, not hair…” Others have genitals so complex that females will forcibly eject the sperm of other suitors when a new male comes to mate, but only if he’s got “the right stuff.”

Sadly, most birds lack penises entirely. They must be content to just rub themselves together and deliver sperm that way. Nonetheless, males have devised ways to get rid of his rival’s sperm. Some will perform oral sex on the female to remove her other lovers sperm and some species have even evolved a ‘fake’ penis that it uses to scrape out the vagina before copulation. I guess all this explains the male obsession with tools.

Bibliography

Judson, Olivia, Dr. Tatiana’s Sex advice to all creation,

Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2002.

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Bateman’s Principle

In 1948, A.J. Bateman established a concept in the sexual sciences that has made its way into popular thought and stayed there. He argued simply that sperm was cheap. So cheap and easy to manufacture in fact that men were born to spread their cheap seed as widely as possible and ignore all else. Females, on the other hand, had to pick their mates carefully. Since they have to carry the children and care for them, they have to be very careful who they mate with to get the best and healthiest babies. The women choose, he claimed, while the men simply flit about trying to pollinate every female they can find.

This concept has been accepted even in non-scientific circles to explain all manner of male behavior including the tendency to philander. The simple argument was made that men are simply carrying out the programmed response of evolution. Men are SUPPOSED to spread their genes as far as they can; it’s as nature intended.

Sadly for Bateman and the philanderers, he was, in fact, mostly wrong. Bateman had been studying a particular species of fruit fly, drosophila melanogaster. The females of this particular species do behave as Bateman describes in his theory but they’re a rare exception. Other species within this genus and in fact insects and animals in general exhibit exactly the opposite behavior. Typically, it’s the female who seeks out as many mates as she can while the males are desperately trying to protect their genetic heritage.

In fact, the more mates a female has, the more healthy offspring she will produce. This competition between males (and between their sperm) ensures that her eggs are not only fertilized, but fertilized by the fittest and strongest sperm from a wide variety of sources. This process also safeguards against the loss of an entire breeding season because she has chosen a mate who is infertile or simply genetically incompatible. With a wide range of sperm from many different males competing for her eggs, she raises the chances that each attempt at reproduction will be a successful one.

So as it turns out, women are really the ones programmed to sleep around. Enjoy!

Bibliography

Judson, Olivia, Dr. Tatiana’s Sex advice to all creation,
Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2002.

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The Bible – Genesis – Chapter 31: Jacob Leaves Secretly for Canaan

When they see Jacob amassing a huge flock at the cost of their father and their own inheritance, Laban’s sons are noticeably annoyed. Sensing the shift in the wind, Jacob receives the verbal blessing of his God makes ready to return with all his amassed wealth and to Canaan. Jacob calls his wives to him and retells the story of how he acquired the rights to all the animals he’s about to take. Jacob’s story to his wife differs significantly from the events stated in chapter 30; the JSB explains this in terms of another change of authorship. The NASB ignores the contradiction. Jacob tells his wives that God gave him the flocks because Laban continually cheated him and omits the detail that he actually employed mysticism to influence the color of the flock.

Rachel and Leah respond that their father has cheated them as well. He has frittered away the bride-price paid by Jacob that was really theirs by right. As Jacob’s retinue is preparing to leave, Rachel sneaks into her father’s home and steals his idols. She hides these items away and tells no one. While Laban is away shearing sheep, Jacob and his whole household pick up and start off.

After three days, Laban notices Jacob’s absence and takes off after him. God appears to Laban and warns him to back off but Laban finally catches up with Jacob and questions him on his unannounced departure and the missing idols. Jacob answers that he feared Laban would take his wives from him by force and claims forcefully that he’s stolen nothing. He goes so far as to say, “anyone with whom you find your goods shall not remain alive.” Laban conducts a thorough search and finds nothing except Rachel sitting on a set of saddlebags. She claims she cannot rise to allow him to search the bags because “the period of the woman is upon her.” Laban buys this excuse and leaves her with her stolen booty undetected.

After the search, it’s Jacob’s turn to be angry. He lays out a litany of complaints against Laban and the conditions under which he worked for 20 years. If it hadn’t been for God, he says, Laban would have sent him away empty handed. Laban relents and proposes a truce. They establish a boundary between their two lands and construct a mound to witness this pact before God.

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