Monthly Archives: February 2012

Marginalia, no.247

I little suspected that at that very moment my unlucky comrade was lying on a buffalo-robe at Fort Laramie, fevered with ivy poison, and solacing his woes with tobacco and Shakespeare.

~ Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail

On an afternoon hike last month I went down a gully to inspect the rusted husk of an ancient Ford that had been dumped there God knows when. For my curiosity I got a bad case of poison oak. There’s only a relic itch now but at its worst my swollen, blistered forearm looked like a piece of meat that had been turned on a barbeque. Next time I’ll try Parkman’s prescription (it can’t be any less effective than calamine lotion). But what’s the proper dosage? An act of The Taming of the Shrew maybe? A choice scene from MacBeth? I was so desperate for relief three weeks ago I might even have re-read A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Marginalia, no.246

You can’t expect a dog to pass up a policeman on a bicycle. It isn’t human nature.

~ P.G. Wodehouse, Code of the Woosters

The trouble with ideals is their nonexistence. The final motivation for judging oneself or others by an abstract perfection can only be sadomasochistic. It guarantees failure. Meanwhile, Bartholomew (Stiffy Byng’s dog) can be reasonably impressed with himself if he gives up the chase after only a half mile.

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Marginalia, no.245

It was also said of Descartes that he entertained the sick with mathematics.

~ Gaby Wood, Edison’s Eve

Oscar Wilde writes in De Profundis that friends have a right to share in each other’s sufferings and when denied that right may pound at the door till admitted. It could only have been violence like this that persuaded Descartes’ friends to let him into their sick rooms. As Job once discovered, there are friends for sickness and friends for health. We hope they know which kind they are.

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“The conspirators called for brandy and drank death to the horseless carriage.”

Dinner on horseback at Sherry’s restaurant – New York City, 1903.

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Little People and Big People

If the fog was thick we might not see the ocean, but the one infallible sign that we were nearly to my grandparents’ house on the coast was the sudden, strange blanket of ice plant that grew in the sandy soil on either side of the highway. Being small I liked to imagine myself big and this sort of landscape helped. In the afternoons I was a giant running up and down the dunes through the miniature forests of ice plant. At dinner I tore up broccoli oaks from the mashed potato hills and crushed them between my molars.

We spent two nights on the central coast last weekend. At the local toyshop in San Luis Obispo my daughter picked out a Playmobile set with a little girl and boy like herself and her brother, but three inches tall. We spent an afternoon at the beach. The wind was cold and our ears began to hurt so we explored the sand dunes instead. My son and daughter, little people just moments before, ran towering over the familiar forests of my childhood.

We went to see The Secret World of Arrietty. The movie is based on the Borrowers books by Mary Norton and concerns a family of tiny people who live beneath the floorboards of a house. In one memorable scene Arrietty steps from a small borrower-sized passage into the vast cavern of the humans’ kitchen. We experience a similar change of scale, perhaps, when we enter the high airy theater where giants and giantesses act out (on the screen) their literally larger than life conflicts and romances. On the big screen even little people like Arrietty are brobdingnagian.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose about a lost colony of Lilliputians living on a dilapidated English country estate. White tells us in the first paragraph that his heroine, Maria, was “one of those tough and friendly people who do things first and think about them afterward. When she met cows, however, she did not like to be alone with them.” I kept expecting the phantom cow (mentioned twice more) to arrive on the scene at a crisis in the plot. It never did. Rather than a Holstein or Jersey, this one was a MacGuffin.

Like Alice we find ourselves little one moment, large the next, then little again. These transformations follow their own schedule, you can’t plan them. The professor in Mistress Masham says that “people must not tyrannize, nor try to be great because they are little.” Trying to be little because you are big is just as hopeless. My son recently told me that the “Kid Community” (himself and his sister) wanted rights. What rights do you want? I asked. “We want to be treated like miniature adults,” he said. When I was eight years old I thought I was a grown-up too. Now, at thirty-eight, I feel more like a child.


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Marginalia, no.244

He believed that swallows hibernate at the bottom of lakes; that if the back of a puppy were rubbed with aquavit it would grow up dwarfed; and that Lapland was the home of a creature called the Furia infernalis, the Fury of Hell, that flew through the air without the aid of wings and fell upon men and cattle, fatally running them through.

~ Armand Marie Leroi, Mutants

If your eligibility for membership in the human species is ever challenged, the question is technically decided by whether you’re the same sort of creature that Carl Linnaeus was. One hundred and fifty years after his death the father of taxonomy was honored by being made the lectotype for homo sapiens. Take comfort then in the fact that for all his insight and intelligence Linnaeus still made laughable blunders. It means that your own mistakes affirm your humanity.

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Marginalia, no.243

Aesop, that great man, saw his master pissing as he walked. “What next?” he said. “Shall we have to shit as we run?”

~ Montaigne, Essays III, 13

This past Saturday night we were honored with the sight of a man following the example of Aesop’s master. Such acts of efficiency are commonly witnessed in the big city where the pace of life is faster and no one has time for anything. New labor-saving techniques are prized for their own sake. Former urbanites, now suburbanites, my wife and I had forgotten how to admire this sort of thing. As the quote proves, however, there’s no such thing as real innovation.

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