Day 185: do not read this out loud

I want to tell you about a game my kids really like but I need it to preface this post by saying that no matter what we are doing, with the possible exceptions of swimming or eating ice cream, my kids would always rather be glued to a screen. I need to say this upfront because this game is so deeply wholesome and lo-tech that to say, “My children adore this game!” could come across as saying something like, “My darlings can’t abide screens! No, they have simpler tastes. Just give them a hand-crafted jigsaw puzzle or perhaps some fresh wildflowers to press, and they’re happy as lambs!”

This game is known in our household as the story game. I recommend it especially for an inter-generational-dinner-party type situation. La Bonavita introduced the game to us. He apparently played it with some patients in some kind of group therapy setting, but don’t let that put that off. It doesn’t involve lying on a couch or talking about your mother.

Here’s how you play. Give each player (I’d say you need at least three people and more is better) a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Set a timer for one and a half minutes. When the timer starts each person starts writing a story. When the alarm goes off, all the players stop writing and fold their piece of paper away from themselves so that all but the last line of what they’ve written is hidden. Then each player hands their paper to the person on their left. The timer is re-set for another ninety seconds and each person has to continue the story as best they can from the line they have in front of them. And then you repeat the process as many times as you like, but at least as many times as there are players. Whenever you decide to stop, each person unfolds the piece of paper and reads out the story, which is, inevitably, surreal. It should look something like this:

story game 1

The great thing about this game is that it’s one of the few things—like Ghostbusters or pesto—that we all agree is good. I was worried that the younger would be too inept at both reading or writing to really enjoy it, but, to my surprise, she is the game’s biggest fan: she just doesn’t write very much and tends to need some help with the reading part.

story game 2

A few nights ago, the younger was very twitchy. I was reading Charlotte’s Web to her in bed, but she wasn’t getting sleepy.

“Let’s just snuggle and we can talk about all the fun things we’re going to do while we’re on Iona,” I suggested.

I started us off, and soon we were whispering about sandcastles and millionaire’s shortbread and cowrie shells and Iona stones and treasure hunts.

Then the younger had an idea.

“We can teach Elo [my mother] the story game!”

“Ooh, yes, I think she’ll really like it!”

“She’ll probably use a lot of really English words like, you know, rummy, and bum, and, and … fiddle, and, and … tit …”

She trailed off.

“Tit?” I repeated.

“ …le …. tittle,” she continued.

“Tittle” I repeated. “Sure.”

“Wait is tittle even a real word?” she asks.

“Yes, tittle’s a real world, you know, like in tittle-tattle, like if you tell on someone you’re a tittle-tattle.”

“A tittle-tattle?” she repeated, frowning.

“Yeah, isn’t that what you say?”

We say a tattle-tale.”

“Oh. Huh.”

As often in this kind of situation, I felt suddenly unsure. Was tittle an English word? Perhaps, like titivate or enervated, it’s a real word but one that only seems to be actually used by Mum and me. Or maybe it’s a Tindal family word, like chittery-bite? Or maybe it’s just a phantom of the Kareemian imagination?

“Well, I think we say tittle-tattle,” I said finally. “But I might have made that up. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Elo uses it.”

I’ll keep you posted.

 

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Day 184: stuck on you

June 5th, 2018. Bedtime.

Me: [turning over onto my right side]: Good night.

La Bonavita [putting his arm around me, which produces a slight rustling sound]: What is this?

Me: [mumbling sleepily]: What’s what?

La Bonavita [rummaging under my shirt]: there’s some paper or something stuck to you.

Me [squirming]: no there’s not! Stop it, I’m trying to go to sleep!

[sound of band-aid being ripped off]

Me [sitting up angrily]: What are you doing? What is that?

La Bonavita [peering at a small piece of paper in the dark]: Why did you have your I voted sticker stuck to your boob?

Me [relaxing and turning back over]: Oh, I think I just put my shirt on inside out, it must have gotten stuck to me.

La Bonavita [perplexed]: Yeah, but didn’t you feel it on your skin? How could you fall asleep with that sticker stuck on you like that?

Me [sleepily]: I don’t know, it wasn’t bothering me.

La Bonavita [muttering]: You are just all mind, that’s why. You have no sensation in your body.

Me [smugly]: No, it’s actually the opposite: I’m very sensuous and a true patriot. So I need skin-to-skin contact with my I voted sticker.

La Bonavita: Uh-huh.

I fall asleep to the soothing sounds of La Bonavita harrumphing to himself.

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Day 182: Damn girl

Under the definition for allured, adj., the OED cites the following example:

thurlow

I decided to look up the passage mostly because I wanted to know who it was, exactly, whose looks had trapped the wary Tritons and whose voices had drawn allured dolphins from their native depths. I suspected it was the Sirens, but then, perhaps it was some other kind of watery nymph—nereids, perhaps, or just some common or garden mermaids.

You’ll notice that I assumed the alluring object would turn out to be feminine, which is, I think, a rational assumption given the culture we live in. An aquatic creature whose physical features entice others is generally characterized as feminine. A notable recent exception is the creature in The Shape of Water; indeed, the film draws attention to the exceptionality of this gendering in the very first line of dialogue that is spoken to Elisa, the film’s protagonist: “Did the sirens wake you up?”

The sirens of myth are more famous, of course, for lulling their listeners (“go to sleep you little baby,” they croon in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) into what is inevitably, a false sense of security.

For this is generally the other prevailing feature of an alluring aquatic creature: she is dangerous.

Sometimes it takes a child to spell this out for you.

Maybe six months ago, the younger was lying on her bed flipping through a book she loves called Beastworld: Terrifying Monsters and Mythical Beasts. Every page is devoted to a different mythological monster—so there is one page devoted to the yeti, another to the werewolf, another to vampires, and so on.

Suddenly she exclaimed, “Oh, this is the page of women who tempt men to their death!”

“Wait, it’s the what page?” I asked.

“They tempt men with their beauty and then they kill them,” she explained matter-of-factly.

When I looked at the page I found that it had a picture of the sirens, with whom so far as I knew, the younger was not previously acquainted.

sirens page

Since this was before the younger could really read (her reading skills have accelerated from zero to sixty in the last six months), I was curious to know how she had arrived at the conclusion that this was the page of women who tempt men with their beauty and then kill them. I mean, yes, the pile of skulls is a clue; but the depicted Sirens also don’t look terribly alluring.

So I asked her.

Pirates of the Caribbean,” she answered immediately.

There aren’t any sirens in Pirates of the Carribean, but there are mermaids who feature prominently in the second movie, On Stranger Tides. 

Now, these are no little mermaids. No, they are all grown up, and I remembered, then, that when we had watched the one featuring these voluptuous killer mermaids, the younger had asked curiously, and quite reasonably, “why are mermaids always sexy AND dangerous?”

Why indeed.

The association is built-in to the very concept of what it means to be alluring. The word allure comes from aleurir meaning to lure a hawk—not with food, but with a contraption made of feathers tied to a cord—that mimics their favorite quarry.

Something that allures, in other words, is both attractive and deceptive. It allows the perceiver to believe itself the pursuer in order to entrap it.

But I’ve gotten distracted, just like a dolphin with ADHD. Killer mermaids will do that.

What I was trying to tell you is that I wanted to look up the lines from the poem called “Moonlight,” so that I could confirm exactly who it was whose looks trapped the Tritons and whose voices allured those distractible dolphins, and whether it was in fact the female of the species.

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t find the lines. I could find the poem—the very edition that seemed to be cited, from 1814, but it did not contain those lines. See for yourself.

I looked hard, and eventually enlisted others (Dr. Lake, that wrangler of Tupperware drawers, literal and figurative, and La Bonavita, he who had previously solved, seemingly effortlessly, the mystery of “lights for cats!”) in the search. We combed the internet so thoroughly that I was forced to admit defeat and, in desperation, emailed one of the etymologists at the OED, whose email address, yes, I happened to have on hand for lexicographical emergencies such as this and, no, I don’t think that’s odd.

When, after a few days, I still had not received a reply, part of me became fully convinced that the reason for the delay was that the entire staff of the OED was on emergency duty working around the clock to hastily cobble together a James-Macpherson-style-fake poem from which these lines could plausibly have come, because they knew that I had caught them red-handed and that these lines did not exist anywhere except for in this entry in the OED.

Because the more I thought about it, the fishier those lines seemed.

  1. Would the Tritons really have been trapped by the Sirens’ or mermaids’ or some other water nymphs’ looks? Wouldn’t the Tritons be wise to them? Aren’t they basically all related? (Although, in that case, perhaps it is an all-the-more-potent allure for being slightly transgressive, like being attracted to your hot cousin, so … never mind.)
  2. Dolphins are also canny, as we already know. Surely they wouldn’t be allured out of their depths by singing. And can dolphins even hear underwater? Thurlow’s lines clearly imply that the dolphins were underwater when they (supposedly) heard the singing, rather than, for example, poking their noses out adorably and listening from above the surface. No, the dolphins were clearly fully underwater because the voices allured them from their native depths. But is it even physically possible for a dolphin (or any other creature, for that matter) underwater to hear a song being sung, presumably, above the water, since sirens and mermaids are generally depicted singing while perched elegantly on uncomfortable looking rocks?

For help I turned one again to my number one source for aquatic questions by virtue of her name, Dr. Lake, who drew my attention to several interesting articles in the proceedings of the Royal Society.

Reader, the articles showed that, at least in the eighteenth century, I would not have been alone in pondering these questions.

In 1748, Mr. William Arderon committed several thoughts to print “concerning the hearing of fish,” (in which category he includes dolphins—he’s from the eighteenth century, cut him some slack!). After performing several frankly dubious sounding “experiments” including one in which he made people strip off and go under water and try to hear what he was saying, he arrives at the conclusion that fish, including dolphins, can not hear under water.

naked experiment

Other sources, however, indignantly refuted this thesis, noting the weakness of some of the evidence upon which fishes’ presumed deafness and muteness was said to rest:

mute as a fish copy

This source also contests the hypothesis that the medium of water is incapable of transmitting sound and argues, on the contrary, that if fish are unable to hear, it is due to a lack of ears, and through no deficiency of the watery medium.

Royal Society 2 conclusion

Still other accounts lent credence to my suspicion that it’s dolphins who are likely to be the perpetrators and not the victims of such sonorous manipulations: “They will leave three Days out of the Water, during which time they sigh in so mournful a manner as to affect those with Concern, who are not used to hearing them.”

affect those with concern

But other reports appeared to corroborate the poem’s implication that dolphins are suckers for a haunting melody:

lute

And then here was Buffon, who likewise supports the view that dolphins are easily lured: “their too eager pursuit after prey occasionally, however, exposes them to danger, as they will sometimes follow the object of their pursuit even into the nets of the fishermen.”

By the time I had waded deep into these murky depths and finally resurfaced, I discovered the lexicographer at the OED had written me back with a definitive source for the quotation. I have to admit that my pleasure at discovering the quote’s source was almost canceled out by the disappointment of being divested of my fond daydream that the OED‘s crack team of lexicographers had been burning the midnight oil concocting a plausibly nineteenth-century poem.

The lines, it turns out, are from a poem called “Angelica; or the Rape of Proteus” published in a different 1814 collection titled Moonlight. Moreover, the lines are taken from a stanza that Thurlow had rewritten, so they are especially obscure. (The whole poem as well as the re-written stanzas are available on the database Literature Online. I haven’t read the whole poem, and don’t have much interest in doing so; Thurlow describes the poem as “carried on from the Tempest of Shak-speare,” (it was crying out for a sequel!), “only, the name of Miranda is changed into Angelica,” just to keep things interesting. The plot involves Proteus trying to rape Angelica (i.e. Miranda) and eventually being foiled by Neptune and Amphitrite.)

Maddeningly, the discovery of the source didn’t resolve the mystery. Here are the lines that immediately precede and follow the lines cited in the OED‘s entry:

Yet have I seen the wonders of our globe,
Oft passing to their hymeneal beds,
When Summer smooth’d the seas; whose looks have trapt
The wary Tritons, and their voices drawn
Th’ allured dolphins from their native depths.
And yet I lov’d not; lov’d not, ’till I saw
Angelica, thou merely mortal foe,
Yet more, than thrice celestial to my soul!

The final lines are clear enough, but the first three are not particularly helpful in clarifying who it is, exactly, whose looks have trapped the wary Tritons and whose voices have drawn the allured dolphins. After puzzling over the lines for some time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the sentiment being expressed is the nineteenth-century equivalent of this:

I’ve been around the world
Seen a million honeys
Really special girls
Gave all my time and money
But, there’s something ’bout ya
Something that’s kinda funny
It’s what you do to me, aw

(From “Damn Girl” by our very own twenty-first-century Edward Thurlow, Justin Timberlake). In which case, it’s no special siren or mermaid who traps those Tritons and allures those dolphins. No, it’s all women, everywhere.

Damn.

 

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Day 181: on gambolling

Scene: Friday evening, after dinner.

Younger: Mom, can I go play with the basketball outside with Olivia?

Me: Yes. [pause] BUT … if the ball goes into the street, what are you going to do?

Younger: [rolling eyes] I’m going to come in and ask you to help get it.

Me: That’s right, you’re going to come in and get one of us, and we will help you get it.

La Bonavita: Because otherwise you might be smushed by a car.

Elder: Or trampled by elephants.

Younger: Or crushed by pirate ships falling out of the sky.

[pause]

Elder: Uh, that’s not a thing.

Younger: [stubbornly, suddenly on verge of tears] it is a thing.

falling ship

From Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvellous Travels (1786)

As Baron Munchausen well knew, ships that rise and fall through the skies are actually a thing, and, generally speaking, you are far better off getting on top of them. Loiter underneath them, and you’ll be crushed. Hop aboard one, and you could well get stuck up a tree. And that’s just terribly awkward.

stuck in a tree

From Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvellous Travels (1786)

Crystal B. Lake and I concur with the Baron. You need to get out from under and otherwise extricate yourself from any looming ships. If you would like to read our recommendations for how to wriggle out from under the weight of the soul-crushing pirate ship of modernity, I suggest you read this, stat.

Or, you know, you can take your chances and possibly be crushed by pirate ships falling out of the sky.

It’s your call, of course, but, inveterate Humeian that I am (and bon anniversaire, by the way, le bon David!), I’d say don’t gamble on it.

Instead: gambol on over here, and find out why we’d rather be rambling.

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Day 180: the new nubbin

“Mom, do we have any baguette?”

I squint at the plastic wrapper that once contained a baguette, and which now lies limply on the kitchen counter like a snake’s shed skin.

I wrinkle my nose as I pick the bag up gingerly and peer inside.

“There’re just these two little nubbins, and they are rock hard.”

With just two heels of bread swaddled in its flimsy coils, it is hard to tell which is the wrapper’s open end. As I attempt to wrest the stale ends from their casing, they fall out the open end onto the floor.

“Also, they’ve been on the floor,” I add.

“So,” I continue, to sum up, “they are not only stale little nubbins, they are also stale little nubbins that have been on the floor.”

“I’ll take them,” the younger says.

I shrug and hand them over.

“Floor nubbin!” trills the elder, in his best ad jingle voice. “The new nubbin.”

“Now with extra floor!” I add.

 

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Day 179: smash the penguinarchy

“A. Room. Of. One’s? Own,”* the younger read haltingly.

“A room of one’s own,” she repeated.

“Yes, that’s right!” I said.

“But what does that mean?” she asked. “‘One’s own.’ Is that like at Dad’s house?”

It took me a second to reply because I instinctively bristled at the idea that “a room of one’s own” existed “at Dad’s house” but not at my house (I’m a Girtonion, for goodness’ sake! Woolf gave the lectures on which that essay is based at Girton!); but then I got it: of course, at their Dad’s house the children each have their own room; at my house they share one.

“Well …. yes,” I acknowledged, sheepishly. “Yes, like at Dad’s house. It means having your own room.”

“But why does it say that?”

“Well, it’s the title of a book. All these mugs, the words they have on them are book titles … and the mug is designed to look like the book cover. They are all books published by a company called “Penguin Books” and that’s why there’s this little penguin at the bottom.”

“I think we have some books at school with that penguin.”

“Yes, you probably do … and I have loads of Penguin books.”

“Why is it called ‘Penguin Books’?”

“Well … I don’t know, actually. I suppose whoever started the company liked penguins? Or …. maybe—but this seems unlikely—maybe the company was started by someone whose name was penguin? Mr or Mrs Penguin?”

“Or maybe …..” the younger said, in a mysterious tone.

“Maybe what?”

“Maybe it was started by a penguin.”

“You know, I honestly never considered that possibility until this very moment,” I say quite truthfully.

“Penguins are very intelligent,” she says authoritatively.

We have been watching a lot of Planet Earth recently.

“Are they?” I say.

“Yes,” she says. “But not as intelligent as dolphins.”

“Huh,” I say. “So it would be more likely to have been started by a dolphin.”

“A dolphin pretending to be a penguin?” she suggests, scrunching up her face the way she does when she’s really puzzling something out.

“Well, it’s a possibility,” I say, feeling that we are on the brink of unraveling a massive, decades-long, inter-species publishing conspiracy.

penguin

* Helen, I wrote this post several months ago and totally forgot about it; your mentioning A Room of One’s Own the other night reminded me of it, so I went rooting around in my giant Tupperware drawer of unposted blogs, and eventually found it at the bottom of the drawer … xoxo

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Day 178: contraddiction

Scene: we start off on our walk to school, and, as we do, the sun breaks through the clouds illuminating the sidewalks, which are slick and puddle-filled after an early morning rain shower.

Me: Ooh, it smells good after it rains.

A: It doesn’t smell good. It smells like dirt.

Me: I like the smell of wet dirt.

A: I don’t.

[A minute of silence follows]

Me: Look, the sun’s come out! I think that’s the last of the rain today!

A: [rolling her eyes] You don’t know that.

Me: [exasperated] I know I don’t know that. I’m just saying that’s what I think. [pause] I think your favorite thing is to contradict me.

A: What does “contradict” mean?

Me: It means say the opposite of what I say.

A: It means say the same.

Me: [like the sap I am]: no, it means say the opposite.

A: It means say the same.

Me: you’re contradicting me right now.

A: [triumphantly] I am NOT contradicting you right now.

contraddiction

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Day 177: on being enpeached

“What does ‘impeached’ mean, literally?” wonders La Bonavita aloud. “It sounds like what happened to James in the book,” he adds.

I think about this.

“No,” I say slowly, “no, James wasn’t impeached. He was enpeached. Because the –im prefix is a negation, like impolite, but the en prefix, is, like, being in something, like enfolded, or engulfed. Right?”

La Bonavita looks unconvinced.

I continue, “So, being enpeached is much, much better than being impeached.”

“In fact,” I say, warming to my theme, “you could even say they’re opposites. Because being impeached is being, like, slapped in the face, whereas being enpeached is … well, I mean obviously I don’t actually know,” I admit, sheepishly, “but from the book it sounds, you know, pretty amazing.”

enpeached

Illustration by Nancy Ekholm Burkert from the first edition of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach (1961)

 

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Day 176: believe in the wonder

I thought I had a psychotic break this morning.

Often, when it’s not one of my days with the kids, I will bolt out the door at the time when He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved usually walks the younger to school, so I can give her a hug on the way.

This morning I was a little late, and they had already passed by my front door, so I called her name and then ran, in my socked feet, along the sidewalk and through the dewy grass, my arms folded tight across my chest because I didn’t have a bra on under my T-shirt.

I felt slightly conspicuous, dodging the other families in my strange cross-armed run, like a particularly standoffish jogger.

The two of them stood, a little awkwardly, waiting for me to catch up. When I finally caught up to them, breathless and wet-footed, and knelt to hug her, I found that the face I nuzzled against was encased with a silky fringe: a beard.

“Awesome!” I exclaimed.

“Err, thanks,” she mumbled, sheepishly.

As I walked back home, arms still crossed, I looked to see if I saw any bearded or otherwise unusually adorned children en route to school—but no.

So I texted He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved when I got home.

“What’s the story with the fake beard?!”

His answer genuinely shocked me.

“What fake beard??”

I started and texted back, “She was wearing a beard! Am I going insane?”

I replayed the scene in my mind. I was running in my socks through the wet grass. I was wearing the black leggings and grey T-shirt I slept in last night—the T-shirt Brandy gave me that says “BELIEVE IN THE WONDER” on it. My arms were crossed over my chest, though, as if striking out those lines. The sun was shining. People were staring as I ran. I bent down to embrace my bearded child.

It did have the quality of dream.

Was it not a beard?

Had I not run through the wet grass?

But my wet socks were lying on the floor where I had discarded them!

I texted him again.

“What was that furry thing around her face?”

text 1

Was it some kind leonine halo? Some kind of ruff or fur collar? The prospect of my daughter wearing a fur collar, honestly, seemed much more implausible than the idea that she would be wearing a fake beard.

But I couldn’t rule out the leonine halo. For it seemed that I had indeed hallucinated that soft fringe. Was it possible that hair falls into that category of objects that Elaine Scarry, in Dreaming By the Book, says lends itself to the imagination—a category that includes objects like shadows and gauzy curtains?

Today, it was a bearded child; tomorrow might it be a shadow cat? Or perhaps an imaginary mosquito net canopying my bed?

So this is what madness feels like, I thought: the same as reality, but more interesting.

I remembered a quote from Winnicott. “We are poor indeed if we are only sane.” If my insanity consisted only in bestowing soft fringes upon the hairless—a beard here, a mustache there; perhaps a luxuriant tassel once in a while—perhaps it needn’t be the end of the world: I’d just be another, slightly downy, shade in the neurodiverse rainbow.

Then He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved texted back.

text 2

Later he told me that her first words upon waking up this morning were, “it’s beard day!”

Later still, when I picked her up from school, I heard the full story from the (still) bearded lady’s mouth.

And later still she asked, “Mom? I need to get something from Dad’s house before school tomorrow.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“My mustache,” she said.

Before bed, she wondered sleepily if we might make a pair of wings like Maleficent’s out of wire, paper, and feathers.

Bearded one day, mustachioed the next, bewinged tomorrow? Why not?

Believe in the wonder.

believe in the wonder

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