Monday, June 22, 2009

The black snake

When the black snake
flashed onto the morning road,
and the truck could not swerve -
death, that is how it happens.

Now he lies looped and useless
as an old bicycle tire.
I stop the car
and carry him into the bushes.

He is as cool and gleaming
as a braided whip, he is as beautiful and quiet
as a dead brother.
I leave him under the leaves

and drive on, thinking
about death: its suddenness,
its terrible weight,
its certain coming. Yet under

reason burns a brighter fire, which the bones
have always preferred.
It is the story of endless good fortune.
It says to oblivion: not me!

It is the light at the center of every cell.
It is what sent the snake coiling and flowing forward
happily all spring through the green leaves before
he came to the road.

- Mary Oliver
New and Selected Poems

They're books for kids but . . .

they were written a long time ago and how times have changed.

A few days ago I picked up a couple of discarded children's school books. The first, Good Health (Gulick Hygiene Series) by Frances Gulick Jewett, was published in 1906. In one chapter, the author tells of a Dr. Hodge, professor of physiology in Clark University, Massachusetts, who decided to force liquor on kittens and puppies to see how it would affect them. They didn't cotton to the idea of imbibing and so Dr. Hodge dribbled it down their furry little throats. Not surprisingly, the drunken kittens and puppies didn't thrive like their littermates and this was supposed to be a morality lesson for impressionable children. As if forced alcholism wasn't enough, Hodge dubbed the drunken puppies "Bum" and "Tipsy." Picture this in a modern health book for today's kiddies!

Next, the case of a trapper, St. Martin, is revealed in hideous detail. The poor guy sustained a wound in his side that never healed and allowed anyone who had the nerve to peak at his stomach. This inspired yet another doctor - Beaumont (no doubt urged on by Hodge) to force liquor on the unfortunate trapper to see what sort of damage would result.

"Before this time doctors could only judge about alcohol by the way men felt and acted after they drank it. Even when Bum and Tipsy used alcohol, Dr. Hodge could not tell what the drink really did to their stomachs."

Dr. Beaumont found that the liquor didn't do St. Martin any favors. "Whenever he looked in the lining was redder than it was the time before; then there were sores on it; after that the sores were worse and blood came from them." So did he stop the experiment? Of course not.

"Dr. Beaumont tried his experiments over and over again at different times and in the end decided . . . alcohol made the lining of St. Martin's stomach sore and unhealthy." Eventually he came to his senses and after he had, "found out all he needed to know, stopped giving alcohol to St. Martin, whereupon the lining of his stomach grew more healthy."

There's no word as to whether St. Martin was a hopeless sot by that time.

Well, on to the second book, Reed's Introductory Language Work: A simple, varied, and pleasing but methodical series of exercises in English to precede the study of technical grammar by Alonzo Reed, AM. This one was published by Maynard, Merrill & Co., 1904. To teach certain parts of grammar, bizarre little stories are used. In the first, kittens are once again in peril:

"One bright, sunny spring morning a family of kittens were playing about the door of a farmhouse. The mother had lain down, and was watching the playful tricks of her happy kittens. A large hawk, which had been searching all morning for his breakfast, saw them. Like an arrow he darted upon one of the kittens. The mother saw the danger of her little one, and sprang at once upon the hawk. a long and fierce battle was fought, but at last the hawk was killed. Though the cat had lost one eye and was covered with blood, she first ran to her kitten and licked its wounds."

Then we have a dulcet and sylvan story that quickly descends into utility:

"Helen, here is a pretty flower. Willie, do flowers have legs? O Helen, how much this butterfly looks like a flower! Thomas, put the net over him."

And what does one do with the following fact:

"The fly does not grow after getting legs and wings."

Thank God.

Finally, amusing Lesson CLXV: The Wise Goats

"Two goats meet on a narrow ledge. A steep rock and a deep chasm. One goat lies down. The other passes over him and bounds away. Suppose they had quarreled."

Ah, it HAD a happy ending. Why spoil it by asking why one didn't act like a horse's (er, goat's) ass?

I guess if he had, it would have made a story at least as interesting as the one about the cat and kittens mauled by the hawk.

Goodnight and sleep well, children!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

To The Matterhorn

The misspeaking crossing box in the previous post reminded me of a misunderstood phrase made into a family joke by my sister. Someone said, "to the manor born" and she heard, "to the Matterhorn!" It became a toast.

Later, and still years ago, I found myself in Zermatt. While it is a beautiful place, the thing that impressed me the most was the great number of climbers from all over the world buried there, usually as a result of dying in an attempt to climb the Matterhorn. While they hoped to add a notch to their belts they were, instead, claimed as a trophy by the mountain they wished to conquer. I was told that many climbers underestimate the Matterhorn, thinking of it as an old uncle in an age of K2, Everest and Seven Summits ascents. This old uncle still has some tricks up his sleeve. Bad weather and rotten ice can spell disaster on any climb, even on something as relatively tame as the south side of Mt. Hood.

As I stood admiring the Matterhorn nestled in its corona of clouds, I knew that there was something that had to be done. In the town there are many shops offering postcards of the famous mountain. A stamp, an address and - on the back - "To the Matterhorn."

Why nya non!

I was headed home afoot after taking care of errands in the downtown area of Portland. At busy W. Burnside and 19th, while waiting for the light to change so that I could cross, I was surprised by a "coo-coo" noise issuing from the pole nearby followed by a Buzz Lightyear voice uttering the phrase, "Why nya non!" followed by the coo-coo noise and a repetition of, "Why nya non!"

Bemusement sent me halfway across the intersection before I realized that the voice had been trying to say, "Walk sign on!" but had some sort of problem. Long ago, my younger sister owned a Chatty Cathy doll. With four older brothers in the house, let's just say that Chatty's life was not an easy one. She fared better than Raggedy Ann, who had been dismembered in a reenactment of a Spanish Inquisition torture chamber interrogation . . . but not by much.

Rough handling had distorted the normal functions of her voice box so that when her string was pulled, rather than hearing, "I love you!" or "Let's play!" something like "Frabbl tramus noon!" or "Zent grams!" was more likely to come out, phrases that might be understood on the Klingon world but not in your everyday American home. We found this hilarious.

It would have been interesting to skulk somewhere near the crossing and watch for peoples' reactions but I would probably have been disappointed. Portland had a naked bike ride last week and things like a bowling ball garden in SE are not uncommon sights. An uncommon sound, though - that's something new.

When I got home, I gave Lola a treat and intoned, in the Buzz Lightyear voice, "Why nya non!", driving her into a frenzy of excitement.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Pride" is a Poor Term

With the month of June, the Gay Pride parades and festivals put in an annual appearance throughout the country. And once again I am confused by the concept of being proud of something that is an innate condition.

Of the many gay and lesbian individuals I know and have met, many would not choose to be gay if it were a choice they could make. They acknowledge that life would be much easier if they had been born heterosexual. Regardless, they are good people who live lives of dignity and joy. Others would express their position as having come to terms with their lives, considering their sexual orientation as secondary to their identification as a whole person, a parent or a partner to whoever they love, regardless of what the gender of that person may be. "Pride" in ones homosexuality doesn't enter into the equation in the opinion of those who simply want the same opportunities, safeguards and access as anybody else.

I am short, nearsighted and right-handed but it has never occurred to me to join others and march to demonstrate "pride" in any of these conditions. "Pride" is a demanding sort of word. The Oxford dictionary defines it as, "Overweening opinion of one's own qualities, merits, etc.; arrogant bearing or conduct; exalted position, consciousness of this arrogance." It is one of the seven deadly sins.

So what might a better term be? How about "Gay Hope?" "Gay Joy?" "Gay Community?" None of those things demands that a sceptical public extend carte blanche to every gay antic across the spectrum. But they do demand respect for a community that is intrinsically cohesive and supportive and deserves to receive the same human, partnership and family rights as any other.

Our society pays far too much attention to labeling others by gender and sex and should pay more attention to individuals and people. We'd all be far happier if we let each other be who and what we are without qualification so long as we don't harm each other in the process.

People who see the world in black and white have no idea how many rich shades of gray exist between the two.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Shouting Until I Die Of Cold

Today while reading the words of the poet Pablo Neruda, I came upon these lines:

"Just the same it would be delicious
to scare a notary with a cut lily
or knock a nun stone dead with one blow of an ear.
It would be beautiful
to go through the streets with a green knife
shouting until I died of cold."

"Sin embargo seria delicioso
asustar a un notario con un lirio cortado
o dar muerte a una monja con un golpe de oreja.
Seria bello
ir por las calles con un cuchillo verde
y dando gritos hasta morir de frio."

. . and contemplate the mind that could conjure these words and these images.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why Not Doing The Right Thing Is Understandable

I've long considered why many hit and run drivers don't stop. Why a mother who abandons her baby doesn't come forward. IMO it's not because they don't feel terrible about what they did. I think the reason is more practical and tied to today's deadly economics.

I remember reading the reminiscences of people who either tried to help the injured and were then sued for whatever followed, whether they were responsible or not. And the reports of people who returned found property or money only to be accused to stealing it or not returning the complete amount.

The person unfortunate enough to hit someone, which they almost certainly didn't do on purpose, or the desperate or confused person who abandons a baby may want to do the right thing but so often doing the right thing means that they will be reviled, sued or financially destroyed.

So often nothing but punishment awaits someone who might otherwise do the right thing. Given this scenario, why are we surprised when they do not dare do so?

How different the result might be if these people could expect forgiveness, help or understanding?

We may not like it when people flee rather than staying to face the music, but I think we can understand why they don't want to accept an invitation to that dance.