Day 187: where I live every day

We—the kids, La Bonavita, his friend, Evan, and me—were at the Santa Monica beach. I was stretched out under a beach umbrella gazing at the waves crashing onto the shore under the blue, cloudless sky.

“Sometimes, it’s so surreal to me that I actually live here,” I murmured.

Evan looked up from his phone, questioningly. “Growing up in London,” I continued, “I could never have imagined living somewhere like this. It would have seemed unreal,” I added.

“Well, LA is kind of unreal,” he observed.

I’m not sure we had the same thing in mind.

I wasn’t thinking of Hollywood or the common perception that L.A. is somehow inherently ersatz (an observation usually made by people who don’t know the city well, but who nonetheless offer it up as an insight of some profundity and worldliness). I wasn’t even thinking of the distinctively sleek feel of the pocket of Santa Monica where I live, where the air hums with the soft purr of Priuses and dry bars and Birds whirring by.

All that is unreal in one way; but so too was the thisness that I had meant to evoke: the thisness of being supine on the sand hearing the waves crash and the cries of “mango mango mangooooo” ring out, the hot sun tempered by the breeze, the scent of sunscreen on warm skin, the saturated colors of beach umbrellas vivid against the sky.

It felt to me in that moment almost on the order of a category error that these sense experiences should be available to me where I live everyday.

I have memories of beaches like this from childhood holidays abroad; they were the very essence of what it meant to be “on holiday,” for normal life to be temporarily suspended. These particular sense experiences are also the stuff of fantasy; it’s what the yoga teacher tells you to imagine—“feel the weight of your body in the warm sand …”—when she guides you in a meditation.

Why is lying on the beach our shorthand for deep relaxation? Is it that lying on the beach is really so relaxing or is it that, in a version of Elaine Scarry’s argument about how filmy objects are easier to imagine, there is something about the feel of sand and surf and ocean breeze that is more easily conjured than, say, sitting quietly in a garden? Or is it that, in our collective imagination, the beach codes for carefreeness, for ease?

I remember, when we lived in Chicago, there was a book I would read to the elder when he was a toddler. It was called Skip Through The Seasons. Every page was about a different month. The picture for August was of people on a beach like the Santa Monica beach. I would linger on that page when we read the book during the Chicago winter. I would imagine the feel of the hot sand under my feet and the sun on my skin, and I would long to be in that picture, where my body, surely, would slowly unfurl from the curled up position it reflexively assumed in the cold. It seemed miraculous, during those winters, to imagine that there might be a place and season in which humans ventured outdoors with next to nothing on.

I carried around that picture in my mind like a talisman.

But now, here I was, in the picture; I could be in the picture every day, if I wanted.

I didn’t say any of this.

Instead I said, “where I grew up is just … really different from,” I gestured around, “… all of this,” I concluded.

“How was it different?” the younger asked.

She was sitting a couple of feet away from me shoveling sand into a bucket.

“Well … you’ve been to England, what do you think?” I replied. “How is England different from here?”

She thought for a moment, and I wondered what she would say. Something about the weather, I guessed, or maybe about people’s accents.

“Well,” she said, finally, “I guess one big difference is that the stores in England are a lot worse. Like, they don’t have “Aahsor “Rite-Aid.”

Evan started laughing.

“That is true … that they don’t have those things there,” I said, smiling. “That is very true.”

beach

 

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Day 186: summer holiday 2018

Part 1: London

Day 1

“No, I don’t think we need any mangos,” I heard Mum say on the phone.

And so, of course, Talal picked up mangos.

Because “should I pick up mangos?” is a rhetorical question in my family, which is to say, it’s not a question to which the answer “no” is a meaningful response.

Having an inaugural meal that culminates with mangos is an established ritual when I come home. Last year the mangos capped up off a meal that began with dahl pooris and biriyani, the latter of which I suspect were made by Nina and then transported by some family member on a transatlantic flight, which is also well-established family protocol. When the mangos are produced, there are a number of acceptable topics that may be broached by the assembled company.

  1. Are these Alphonso mangoes?
    • If the answer is yes, then the following rhetorical question will inevitably be put to me: “you can’t get these in America can you?” I will invariably reply that they are not as commonly available but that actually, yes, sometimes you can get them; however the latter part of this answer is never acknowledged as carrying any weight.
    • If the answer is no, it is uttered in a rueful tone but will usually be followed by the caveat that they are Pakistani mangoes. A variation on the above rhetorical question will then be put to me: “You can’t get Pakistani mangoes in America can you?”
  2. Discussion of Mangos Eaten on Previous Occasions.
    • Hari Kondabolu’s bit on this phenomenon made me cry with laughter, it was so accurate. My cousin Kai wins the prize for the most ridiculously picturesque mango anecdote ever, which I still remember from last year’s inaugural holiday dinner. “Ahh,” he sighed, “this reminds me of childhood, when the rickshaw would come by selling mangos and I would sit under a banyan tree and eat them.” !!!

Part 2: Iona

Day 3

There are certain games, like “animal, vegetable, or mineral,” and “I spy,” that we only seem to play in the U.K., possibly because we spend more time over there than we do over here en famille for long stretches when there aren’t other entertainment options available. “Animal, vegetable, or mineral” is a particularly challenging game for us because Ada doesn’t understand exactly what “mineral” means and is, frankly, a bit fuzzy on “vegetable” too. She also, mystifyingly, sometimes chooses the same object she has used during a previous game when it is her turn to think of something, a case in point being “a daikon radish.”

Days 5 through 11

What is it about Scottish rolls? Or is it just Iona rolls? Or is just rolls baked by the Grants? And are they actually better than other rolls or is it just that they taste the same as when I was a child? And that you can only eat them on Iona where the air is fresher and your appetite is keener? (Answer: no, they are better than other rolls.)

Day 6, 7, 8, etc.

My barometer for gauging the temperature in the U.K. is whether the weather has tipped over from being absolutely beautiful, in Mum’s estimation, into being rather enervating. This tipping point was reached almost daily on this visit.

Day 7

It’s not a proper family visit until we’ve had our regular, semi-annual argument about whether anyone other than Mum believes the final t in the word trait to be silent. Mum maintains that everyone else is mispronouncing the word, which is French, and so the t should be silent.

This year I had a devastating comeback:

“And how do you think the word herbal should be pronounced, Mum?”

Day 7 and following

Both Ada’s reading materials and my will to make up bedtime stories were quickly exhausted.

“How about if we have a bed time conversation, instead of a story?” I suggested.

To my surprise, she assented. The conversations followed a particular form: she put questions to me, and I would then struggle to answer them. Her questions ranged from matters of fact to hypotheticals. They included the following. Why did dinosaurs become extinct? Was Alexander Hamilton African-American? Did Abraham Lincoln have children? Would toe-less socks (i.e. the sock equivalent of fingerless gloves) enable one to wear socks with flip-flops? Why did Elvis wear those big white suits? If there was a zombie apocalypse, where would you hide?

Day 8

I sighed heavily.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mum.

“Oh, I have to write this statement in which I talk about a challenge I’ve overcome in my teaching, and I don’t know what to say.”

“Oh,” Mum said.

Five minutes later she came back into the room with a little smile on her face.

“I know a challenge you’ve had to overcome in your teaching!” she exclaimed.

“What?” I asked.

“Your accent!” she said, brightly.

Day 9

Walking home from Port Ban, I passed by a farm with some sheep milling around next to the path. I wasn’t really paying attention to them, but my peripheral vision told me that one of them was a little less sheep-shaped than the rest and, sure enough, when I turned my head, frolicking amongst them was a bare-bottomed toddler, dressed only in a jumper and a pair of wellies. Exercising considerable restraint, I refrained from taking a photo, because I have a shred of decency left. And also because, earlier in our visit, I had overheard an American tourist sheepishly asking permission (and only asking permission having been intercepted in the act) to photograph cousin Neil’s fishing wellies, which were just sitting there on his doorstep, all Instagram-ready, and, I, shuddering slightly, had resolved not be That Tourist.

Day 10

Mum called my decision to allow the kids to watch “The Matrix,” which was in the house’s DVD collection, “deeply misguided.” I had another glass of wine and every time there was an epic shoot-out tried to drown out the racket by announcing loudly, “It’s really a film about Descartes.”

Part 3: Bristol

Day 12

“What is that?” I asked Roy, pointing to a tiny hut in the back garden.

“Oh, it’s just a hut for solitary bees,” he said.

“A hut for solitary bees,” I repeated. “Are bees solitary?” I asked.

I thought that one of a bee’s defining character traits (silent t or not) was its, you know, hive-mind.

“Well,” my brother explained, “not all bees live in hives.”

“They don’t?” I asked, truly incredulous. “Where do they live then?”

“Well, they just, you know, flit around,” my brother said vaguely.

“They’re like nomad bees?” I asked. “Something like that,” he answered.

“I have to say, you’re really blowing my mind here,” I said. “I never realized that hives were, like, a contingent aspect of bee-being. I thought they were essential to beeness.”

I mean, yes, there’s the Jerry Seinfeld bee in Bee Movie but that’s the entire joke of the movie—a bee who wants to be an individual! (N.B. that movie is also basically the same story as The Shape of Water but with Renee Zellweger and a bee instead of Sally Hawkins and a fish).

“So is there a bee living in there now?” I asked.

“Uhh, I don’t think so,” Roy said.

“To be honest,” he admitted, “I’ve never seen a bee go in or out of there.”

I decided that there were two possible explanations.

1) The house for solitary bees is actually a magical chocolate factory.

2) solitary bees are real and they are not only solitary but also stealthy, eluding detection by emitting a silent buzz not unlike the silent t that some say can be found at the end of the word “trait.”

3) Solitary bees are mythical creatures, possibly invented by bees, possibly invented by my brother, possibly invented by David Attenborough.

bee house

a hut for solitary bees, should they exist and be in need of a hut

Day 14

Left to my own devices, I don’t watch sports. But I can readily enter into them as well as anyone—possibly better than most—if I suspend disbelief and decide that I care; it’s like reading a novel. The conditions in England last month were particularly propitious for encouraging this kind of casual fling with football . The problem is (isn’t it always?) that, even if the relationship is casual, the feelings can’t be held at bay.

And so I found myself gripping Max’s wrist with what was apparently a painful intensity, covering my eyes and moaning repeatedly, “Oh God I can’t bear it, I can’t watch them lose on penalty shoot-outs, it’s just too painful.”

This from someone who was also asking questions like “are we red?” and “are we going left or right” at various points.

Even as the finer points of football (well points both fine and fundamental) elude me, certain cultural traumas have clearly seeped into my consciousness such that I couldn’t tell you exactly the rules of a penalty shoot-out but I know in my bones that losing to penalty shoot-outs in a World Cup knockout round would be a devastating blow.

Day 15

I didn’t know before this visit to Bristol that iced hibiscus tea is delicious and beautiful. Thank you, Roy.

Day 16

The whole day with Claire in Bath was glorious. Especially satisfying—because when do you ever find three great dresses—dresses that that fit!—within 15 minutes—was a whirlwind visit to a little shop called Bibico in Bath, where I wriggled in and out of lovely frocks as fast as I could, because I kept getting texts from Mum (but actually from Max, who had commandeered Mum’s phone) asking if I was done yet, to the soundtrack of Praying for Time era George Michael.

Day 17

The most relaxing part of this whole trip? It was the morning of our final day in Bristol, when Roy took the cousins out for breakfast and then to the park, so I could stay home to pack up our stuff.

I had the whole house to myself and it was glorious. I packed while listening to Joan and Jericha and shaking with laughter and, since I had followed JK’s tip and packed an extra duffel bag, the packing was not fraught but oddly soothing, even with all of the extra items acquired along the way, not to mention the fact that the two copies of War and Peace Max and I had brought along, were, neither of them, any lighter or less bulky than when we started, nor much more read either.

The packing went so smoothly that I had even had time to read a little—not War and Peace, but rather Amy Schumer’s memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, which I had noticed on the bookshelf of the guest room, and which beckoned to me just as insistently as my fingers resisted the urge to crack open War and Peace after day four of our trip. I had started the Schumer memoir a few nights earlier.

“My favorite chapter so far,” I had told my brother, just the night before, “is about being an introvert. It’s how about how even when you’re with people you really like, even people you really love, you sometimes need to be by yourself for a bit. To recharge. I mean, honestly,” I added, “I don’t think that’s being an introvert, I think that’s just being human, wouldn’t you say?”

He made an expression of assent, I thought.

The point is that, that morning, I had time to read a little more, and then to shower in a leisurely fashion and put on one of my lovely new dresses, and then to walk to meet all the rest of them at Pi Shop, a really fantastic pizza place in Bristol, for lunch. And slipping into my new dress made me think, naturally, of George Michael, and so I listened to his greatest hits as I walked to Pi Shop, beginning with “Faith,” and indulging in a little fantasy that I was sauntering through Pond Square while George Michael was still alive, and that I just happened upon him, leaning against a wall strumming his guitar, and that we did a little two-step there in Pond Square, just the two of us. And then I played “Freedom 90” and just the opening beat was enough to make me suck in my stomach and lift my chin and muster up as much supermodelish poise and stature as a person of five foot three inches and a quarter wearing flip-flops can muster. I walked tall and the sun felt good, and when they all came into view—my children, and my niece, and my brother, and my sister-in-law, and my mother—all sitting together at a big outdoor table eating olives and drinking cold beer and drawing dragons—it was a sight for sore eyes.

Part 4: London

Day 17

I have to preface this by saying: we are all OK. There were no broken bones, just scrapes and bruises; the toll was mostly psychic. I still can’t quite make sense of what happened. I was looking up at the escalator at Paddington station, and there they were: Max, then Mum, then Ada, sailing up before me; I looked down for a split second to make sure I had all the bags and when I looked up again everything was topsy-turvy: Mum was now upside down, her head beneath her feet and she was moving not upwards but downwards, on her back, on top of Ada. Someone screamed—I’m not sure if it was me—and, thank God, in response to some passerby’s quick reflexes, the escalator stopped moving as I dropped the bags and ran up, trying to cradle Mum’s head and then at the same time, as Ada’s face began to crumple and she looked to me to help her, I tried to lift Mum off Ada’s body and started to feel myself flooding with chemicals of some kind as the thought entered my mind that perhaps I shouldn’t be moving anyone’s body.

Suddenly there were strangers everywhere; and this was a good thing. Two men lifted Mum under her shoulders and I saw that she was able to walk. Another man, a passerby, knelt next to me as we moved Ada. He spoke gently, introducing himself to her in softly accented English, and explaining that he was just going to look at her legs and that he would be very gentle. He told me he worked for the Red Cross. I think his name might have been Paulo. Her legs were indented with marks from the escalator slats, but the injuries all seemed to be superficial. Somehow we got up to the top of the escalator (did he carry her? Did she walk?) and Ada sat down in a chair next to where Mum was now also sitting having scrapes and bruises tended to.

I knelt on the ground next to Ada. A uniformed station worker knelt down next to us and took our names and details and our description, so far as we could provide one, of what had happened. He was South Asian with a London accent; he looked and sounded like he could be a cousin of mine. Maybe it was that along with the way that he knelt next to us that felt comforting. Ada seemed unable to speak and didn’t respond when asked, very gently again, what hurt. The station worker wiped her scrapes with an antibiotic wipe.

“You’re a brave man,” he said to her, “because that must sting.”

“She is brave,” I affirmed.

“Oh, she!” he exclaimed, sheepishly.

“My little nephew has really long hair,” he added, by way of explanation, which might seem like a non sequitur, but I understood him perfectly. His tone was not “kids these days!” but “gender! It’s so fluid innit?”

When we got home and Mum was lying down (later she went to the emergency room to get checked over, at La Bonavita’s urging, where the doctors confirmed there were no major injuries) and the kids were conked out in front of the iPad, I shut myself in the bedroom and texted Roy. When he called back all I could say for some time was “we’re all all right,” in between sobs.

Day 18

I slept poorly that night, which was our last night.

I kept waking up drenched in sweat, my skin itchy. I wished I could plunge my body into cold water. And so when it was light, I decided that I would, and I walked to the Highgate women’s pond, enjoying noting which women walking the opposite way on Merton Lane had just swum; they were distinguishable by their damp locks, plastic carrier bags, and the barest hint of a self-satisfied smile playing around their mouths.

“The water is cold and deep,” declared the sign on the gate and my soul said “yes.”

deep and cold

It’s cold and deep and also silky, somehow. It was perfect. And so too was the sight of all these ladies—they were all here! The ones swimming in schools like porpoises. The ones with their daughters. The one executing a perfect swan dive off the deck. The gaggles lolling in the meadow.

We had a plane to catch so I couldn’t dawdle: I swam a circuit of the pond, which was just enough to feel my blood pleasantly cool, and then I climbed out, barely dried and pulled my clothes over my still wet suit (actually, Claire’s suit). And I walked back up Merton lane, with my wet hair and my plastic bag and my hint of a self-satisfied smile, and I went straight to the newsagent to buy a Guardian for Mum and croissants for all of us … and I could tell that, unlikely as they looked, sitting there on the counter next to the Oyster card machine, that they were going to be my favorite sort of croissants, the kind with a bit of heft to them, what I think of as a Germanic or a Mexican style croissant.

And they were.

***

“West End Girls” came on the radio right when we were passing through Ladbrooke Grove on the drive to Gatwick. Made me smile.

***

Best captain’s announcement ever on the flight back to L.A.: “You probably think the match between England and Sweden is all over. IT IS NOW. England 2, Sweden nil.”

Well-played, Captain.

You probably think this post is all over; it is now.

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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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