He grew the moustache, he said, to distract from his girlish hands.
Promotional card for ‘Oxygenaqua,’ circa 1880s.
Catfish are basically swimming tongues.
~ Mary Roach, Gulp
If your epidermis were covered in taste buds, like the catfish, your clothes would become unpalatable before they became unfashionable. You would always eat dinner with your hands. You would distinguish between rain showers that were sweet, savory, sour or bitter.
My seven-year-old daughter recently asked me to write her a story, the only stipulation being that it should involve cats. Cats mean a lot to her. I’ve already mentioned her hand-made field guide to cats in the neighborhood, with illustrations, written descriptions, and names that she’s assigned to each.
One day last week she was struggling on her roller skates. Her brother gave her some grief about it and she began to cry. Curiously, while crying, her skating technique improved. When she stopped crying I pointed this out and told her she ought to think of something sad again. “Think of baby kittens,” I said, “with tears running down their cheeks.”
This is how fathers come to be despised by their children. After twenty seconds of shocked silence, the proverbial floodgates opened and she was bawling so hard she could barely stand, much less skate. I assured her that cats don’t really cry the way people do. “It’s just so sad!” she said. “The poor kittens!”
I’m trying now to repair this trauma by writing the requested story, which is quickly turning into a chapter book. My heroine, Phoebe Furbright, is a young cat with a socially unacceptable career goal: to become an ornithologist. Her father, despite the fact that he works in an office and has never so much as scratched a bird in his life, believes her aspirations contrary to cat nature. Birds, he says, are not for studying, but for stalking and killing!
And so on. This is fun writing. After recently finishing my novel and getting no response from the agents I’ve queried so far, I was feeling down and wondering if fiction just wasn’t my bag. In fact, I don’t read much fiction these days, which is perhaps awkward for an aspiring novelist.
If I had my education to do all over again, I suppose I would study biology in college rather than English and philosophy. Then I would do a graduate degree in ornithology, with the goal of working, say, for the National Park Service. Add books, of course, and I think it would be a fine life.
My daughter is discovering an interest in birds. For years now my son has wanted to be a herpetologist, in order to study venomous snakes and Galapagos tortoises – and he’d convinced his sister that she should do the same. But she recently had a close encounter with a hawk that’s made her reconsider. I wasn’t there when she saw it, but she wrote me the following report:
“We saw a hawk right up close and I walked under it and it looked straight down at me. After a while it flew away. Things I noted about the hawk: A white speckled front coat. Big yellow eyes. Long brownish red wings. A curved yellow beak!”
Patrick Kurp recently directed his readers to a Theodore Dalrymple essay about owls – or, rather, about a book about owls. Dalrymple writes that prior to reading this book he had forgotten that owl pellets were produced by regurgitation. He describes memories of dissecting owl pellets in school. I seem to have the same memories, though I can’t place the year or classroom in which this might have occurred. Perhaps I was at camp.
Dalrymple writes that a pair of tawny owls like to vociferate on summer nights from a tree near his home in France. “I never tire of listening to them,” he says. “I also never see them, and so their lives are a closed book to me.” Personally, I can’t imagine hearing owls nearby and not immediately running out to locate their nest and get a look at them.
A short walk from where my parents live there’s a nest of great horned owls. My father, anyway, claims to have seen two of them. Whenever I visit there’s only one. It likes to sit in the crook of a branch about thirty feet up, just below the nest. We spy on it awhile with our binoculars, and the owl watches us too. Then I hunt up owl pellets in the grass below to see what it’s been eating.
I’m curently reading Washington Irving’s A History of New York, a book which a month ago I didn’t know existed, but which I’ll never again be able to live without. It’s the best, funniest thing I’ve read all year, downright Shandean, and I’ll be recommending it to all my friends. Irving does, however, rather unfairly (I think) malign owls.
“There are two opposite ways by which some men get into notice,” Irving reports, “one by talking a vast deal and thinking a little, and the other by holding their tongues and not thinking at all. By the first, many a vapouring, superficial pretender acquires the reputation of a man of quick parts – by the other many a vacant dunderpate, like the owl, the stupidest of birds, comes to be complimented, by a discerning world, with all the attributes of wisdom.”
I don’t expect this is very fair to owls, but it’s certainly possible (for all I know) that they are relative dunderpates when compared, say, to corvids. It’s a question, perhaps, for Phoebe Furbright to look into.
Others advocated the great elementary theory, which refers the construction of our globe and all that it contains, to the combinations of four material elements, air, earth, fire and water; with the assistance of a fifth, an immaterial and vivifying principle; by which I presume the worthy theorist meant to allude to that vivifying spirit contained in gin, brandy and other potent liquors.
~ Washington Irving, A History of New York
Some days it’s only that mysterious fifth element which keeps old chaos at bay. No sooner had I come home from work yesterday than the beloved spouse informed me that I was required to pour the vivifying principle in the form of gin into two glasses of ice, cucumber and superior tonic water. The results managed to hold the world together for yet another night.
I’m a bit worried these days by how little I have, or care, to say. Other people’s words don’t hold much interest either. It feels ridiculous that we should be required to have opinions and perspectives, or that we should need to express them. These days I avoid conversation. I switch off the television and radio and wonder why we can’t be content, like Bertie Wooster in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, to “just exist beautifully.” How different – how better –things would be if we could only dial down (by fifty percent, say) the chatty sociability of the species.
Alfred Kazin in A Walker in the City describes the challenge of speaking when he was a child: “The word was my agony. The word that for others was so effortless and so neutral, so unburdened, so simple, so exact, I had first to meditate in advance, to see if I could make it, like a plumber fitting together odd lengths and shapes of pipe.” I don’t stutter like the young Kazin did – but like Kazin, maybe, I’m more fluent on paper than in person. Without a drink in me, I’m am awful talker. Three minutes into most conversations I become so distracted by having nothing to say that I cease listening too.
When I was four or five years old we lived in a small house built during the war with a rose bush out front and a big sycamore (I think it was) in the backyard. One afternoon while playing alone I found an old rusted tea kettle under the leaves and put the spout to my lips, pretending to drink from it. At once I felt a fluttering on my tongue and against the roof of my mouth. I opened up and, to my astonishment, a moth flew out. That’s how it ought to feel when we speak: like some living thing – a moth, a tiger, a whale – has just launched itself from our tongue into the air.
Possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy, unless he were maintaining a thesis at all costs.
~ Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
The ambiguity (in English translation) of the pronoun in that final clause is delightful. Is “he” the person who insists that the narcoleptic is happy, or is “he” the virtuous narcoleptic himself? Maintaining a thesis at all costs will often give a satisfactory thrill. “You see what I must endure?” asks the whining longsufferer who never acts to improve his situation. Misery is sometimes converted to happiness by the alchemy of being proven right.