Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Do woodpeckers get headaches? And if not, why not?

So early this morning I am still under the covers trying to understand why or how it was that in my dream CSB and I have become Native American activists named Coconut and Chickle, and just outside the woodpeckers are busy in the trees. Busy jackhammering at the trunks of black walnut trees and the catalpa tree and the locust trees just outside our window. And because it is still very early, I can ponder what it might be like to perch oneself on the side of a tree and rapidly, very rapidly, hammer away at the wood, using one’s head and beak as the jackhammer. As soon as I consider this, I recognize how pleasant it is to have my head unmoving on the pillow. Poor woodpeckers. Do woodpeckers get headaches? How could they not? They can, and do, repeatedly peck at the tree at the ridiculously high rate of 10,000 pecks/meters per seconds squared. (10,000 m/s2 – I am not really sure what this means.)
Yet they don’t get headaches, or at any rate they don’t complain about headaches, because their physiology has evolved to deal with this very problem.
Evolution has wisely given woodpeckers small brains nestled inside their skulls in such a way as to “maximize area of contact between the brain and skull”. Their eyeballs and nostrils are likewise protected from the potential damage of flying wood chips: the eyeballs with a nictitating membrane, like a transparent third eyelid, that closes mere milliseconds before the impact of beak on bark, and their tiny nostrils with tiny feathers covering the aperture.

If this is not enough about woodpeckers to enliven your day, you may also want to know that they all have zygodactyl feet; this means that of their four toes, the first and last face backward, while the two middle ones face forward. This arrangement is useful for climbing straight up a tree; it also resembles the finger arrangement used in Alternate Nostril Breathing – Nadi Shodhan Pranayama - in my yoga class that is so helpful with meditation.

What passes through the small brain of the woodpecker as he hammers away at that dizzying rate? Or does he meditate?

Pictures: Woodpecker from ANB sketch from

Monday, April 27, 2015

More False Departures / Encore les Faux Departs

The project continues, and I am getting to know this grandfather who wrote so lovingly of his family, and especially his wife – and in that matter I trust his judgment because she would later become my own beloved Bonne Maman.

Since you last heard, Bon Papa was en route to the Caltex headquarters in NY, planning to go to Cairo. He and his colleagues are traveling aboard the “Challenger” of the Union Pacific RR. He writes in loving detail of the towns and landscapes they pass through, especially the western vistas he so extravagantly admires: “Several ranches as described by Zane Grey”. Or: “Evanston, Utah = it was here I had my troubles with our Dodge car, 7 months ago, but that turned out well.” Or: “This evening we arrived in Omaha, the capital of Nebraska, the state always “dry”, which did not allow us, all evening, to enjoy our whiskeys. Frigid wind and we didn’t leave the station during our half hour stop.” Or: “From Albany, the capital of NY, we passed the Hudson River, whose banks are covered with ice. It is a beautiful spectacle – seen from our well-heated Pullman. The large factories on the riverbanks that I know: Phelps Dodge, Anaconda Copper Co, Fisher Body, De Lavat Steam engines…and many more. We arrived at the formidable Grand Central Station at 9 am.” (I translated formidable, the French, as formidable, the English. I know that is not properly correct, that it means something more on the lines of wonderful. But I like the word.)
While awaiting his Egyptian visa, Bon Papa worked at the office and toured New York, methodically and enthusiastically, and wrote about it for his wife.

On the 6th of February he learned that the Egyptian authorities had refused to grant him an entry visa. This news shocked my grandfather and shocked his boss at Caltex and even shocked the Egyptian consul. He had lived happily in Alexandria from 1931 to 1939, and had many friends and contacts in Egypt, friends who awaited his return.
That same afternoon, the General Manager asked Bon Papa if he spoke Spanish (he did, quite well). The G-M said (This is all written in French; the shabby translations are mine), “You know, perhaps, that the US is investing nearby to Santiago de Cuba about 20 miles from Guantanamo. $18 million for development of nickel and manganese, 2 metals absolutely necessary for war. And we miss a great deal of that. Time is pushing. The development will not be late in starting. This representation (“un chiffre d’affaire”) of the turnover of an oil field from $3 to 4 million per year, and we want it. You need to arrange that we will get this business. …Besides this, you know that the sugar business of Cuba are the largest in the world. Certain mills produce 15,000 tons of sugar cane per day. They are situated in the eastern provinces. Yours. We have to accept we have no clients; it is not acceptable and you need to correct this situation. There is the Cuban RR, but we have never had anything to do with them, and we would like to take our share of the profits. That would be one of your missions.”
About this new posting to Cuba, Bon Papa wrote: Here is the good American method. Precise, quick and broad. This work pleases me at the outset. I saw right away all the possible risks. There is a director and vice- director already in Havana, who would be the obvious ones to fill this spot. But they haven’t succeeded, it seems, and we have more hope in me.
I didn’t wait to study all that can help me in my new functions. I studied for 8 or 9 hours a day to better know the technical side of the exploitation of the mines, of sugar mills and railroads.
Every day I read aloud about 50 pages from a novel, in the Spanish language. I prepare eagerly.

And he went to movies. He went to a movie almost every day. As I translate, I am compiling a list of the movies he went to, imagining that I will see the same movies and know him better. Movies he saw from mid-January to the end of March, 1942 include but are not limited to: Tobacco Road, The Corsican Brothers, Chocolate Soldiers, Hudson Bay, Design for Scandal, Ruggles of Red Gap, Woman of the Year, Louisiana Purchase, The Mutinies of Elsinore, The Last of the Duanes, White Fang, Mister V, Remember the Day, Two Faced Woman, Riders of Sage Brush, Adventures of Martin Eden, Bedtime Story, Reap the Wild Wind, and Sullivan’s Travels.
He loved the moves, but I think he loved the Rockettes more. I have not kept count of his visits to Radio City Music Hall.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Three Things You May Need to Know

Three things I learned today that I simply cannot keep to myself.

1. Bishop, California is the MULE CAPITAL of the world. Since my #1 daughter and her husband and children will be teaching and living at Deep Spring College for the months of May and June, and since Bishop is the only large town, or any town, nearby (It has more feet above sea level, 4150, than it has residents) and not all that nearby, it seemed like a good idea to learn something about Bishop. And I learned that it is the MULE CAPITAL of the WORLD. This seems a bit hubristic on Bishop’s part, given that Mexico has the #1 mule population worldwide, with 3, 280,00 and the USA ranks a lowly #26, with a mere 28,000 mules. But that hasn’t stopped Bishop from hosting the Annual Mule Days.and I dearly hope that my grandchildren will have to opportunity to participate.
2. I also learned today, from Boris the Guatemalan painter, that bananas are considered bad luck on a boat. I never knew this, and now I will be careful never to bring bananas on a boat. I even checked with, and yes, this is a ‘true’ superstition. That is, people believe it, based on absolutely no true facts.
3. The Mayans came as far north as Georgia, USA. (Before it was Georgia, USA.) This was discovered because the Mayans liked to paint themselves blue with a very special blue dye only available at this one spot in Georgia. I was told this item by Boris; but unlike the Mule Days and the Banana Superstition, it is not verifiable or universally agreed upon. Far from it. In northeastern Georgia there is a place with ancient mounds called the Kenimer Site, and one guy, an architect, claims that Mayans once inhabited the site. Another website talks about a petroglyph in Georgia that looks very Mayan. Another website is scathing about the architect's fact-checking. There appears to be no consensus, and absolutely no one mentions the blue dye posited by Boris.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Seven False Departures or Les Sept Faux Departs

A project is a good thing to have.

A project can keep those demonic lost memories in their demonic cages. And also because I have a tendency to get antsy, and because it seems like a good thing to do before it is too late, I have embarked on the project of translating Les Sept Faux Departs with my mother. French is after all her native tongue. In the past few years, while sorting through the sedimentary memorabilia that buttresses my parents’ home, I found this thick bound volume written by my grandfather in the 1940’s. All 346 pages are handwritten, elegantly and legibly, in French, and the whole is bound in red leather.
I thought that as we translated I would learn the details of the family’s sorrowful wartime separation, along with some French vocabulary.

There are many things we do not know about our parents and grandparents. That is normal and unless one is obsessive and weird, it is also completely desirable. But certain things one does know. For certain.
One thing we all knew for certain was that my grandmother, Bonne Maman, and her children – my mother and uncle – spent the duration of the Second World War in Long Beach, California, while my grandfather, Bon Papa, was in Asia and then Cairo, working for Caltex, managing the oil business in the Middle East and perhaps passing on intelligence to the allies. The family was separated for the duration of the war. That was axiomatic, and of course, sad.
But it’s not true.
The three hundred and forty-six page handwritten book, Les Sept Faux Departs, proves the untruth.
I am not the only one who believed, absolutely, in the truth of their wartime separation. My cousin, a singular Brancart in the new world, was as convinced of that fact as I was. Until I disabused him. On a sunny California Easter while admiring a flock of goats, while noting how much less goats smell than a similar number of pigs would smell, even if they do have disturbing slotted eyes. We admired the goats and agreed that the fact of Bon Papa’s non-presence in Long Beach during the war was a seminal detail we had believed and been told numerous times, and never doubted. Because the point of telling such a story is the sadness of it: to be separated. Except they were not, or not entirely.
I know now the true-truth, as distinct from the story-truth. Bit by bit, garbled sentence by awkward conjugation, I am getting to know Bon Papa. He was delightful, sincere, and he was in California with his family in 1941 and 1942.

Obviously, it would have been useful to have embarked on this project and learned this before….before the great dividing moment, before this, before that, so that I might have asked my mother why she always told us, and why her brother always told his children, and why my grandmother always told all of us, that they were separated for the duration. Now I can’t ask. Now she can’t answer. Whatever the reason, it has been rewritten, retold, and re-forgotten in the implacable landfill of neurofibrillary tangles.

So now I am the one to tell my mother that her father was in California in the summer of 1941, and they all vacationed at Big Bear. I remind her how much they loved Big Bear. Her father writes rapturously about the American West. He devoured Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. Even as she translates, I explain to my mother that the first of the Seven False Departures occurred in August of 1941, when his scheduled sailing back to Saigon, via Hong Kong, was cancelled. The second came in November of that year, when he was booked aboard the SS Lurline from San Francisco via Honolulu to Singapore; from there he would cross the peninsula of Malacca by train and somehow get to the Cambodian border. On the morning of November 29th, Bon Papa’s luggage was on board and he was making his fond farewells, when a FBI agent found him and announced that under a new regulation no one, neither American nor alien, was authorized to leave the US after December 1without the personal written approval of the Dept. of State, Washington, DC. My grandfather noted that it was still November. Yes, agreed the FBI agent, but the ship was due in Honolulu on December 4th. Bon Papa debarked, and returned home.
The proper papers were duly acquired, and Bon Papa was then booked on the SS President Polk, sailing out of San Francisco on December 7th. The night of the 6th he and Bonne Maman dined with friends: “Oysters, a shrimp bisque, fried sole, good wines.” At noon the next day, the ship steamed past Alcatraz and Angel Island and ventured into the Pacific. At 1:30 that afternoon, they all learned what we all know, that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor.
The SS President Polk returned to San Francisco. That was the third False Departure, and it meant that my grandfather returned to Long Beach and was able to spend the Christmas holidays back at Big Bear Lake with his family. It meant he could enjoy his children’s enjoyment as they experienced snow for the first time in their lives. (Having lived only in Egypt and Indochina, despite their Belgian passports.)
In January 1941, Caltex beckoned Bon Papa to New York, with the plan that he would depart from there for Cairo. He traveled by train across the US with two good friends, Gordon and Mac. (Years later, traveling with my grandmother, we will stay at Laurie and Ivy Gordon’s Hype Park flat, and I will eat tongue for the first time.)
We will translate some more pages, I will write of the excellent meals they consumed, and of the great sights they saw from that transcontinental train. I will learn how it is that this projected voyage to Cairo became the fourth False Departure.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Losing a Fairy Tale

Until recently I believed fairy tales were hard wired into our universal unconscious. And then I was wrong.

Was my reading of Jung sloppy? Did I actually read Man and His Symbols or do I just imagine I did? What don’t I know about sibling rivalry and Oedipal conflicts? (Per Bettelheim) Are my convictions any different from my mother’s insistence that she and Dad visited Bhutan, twice, on their way home from Pakistan? (She has in fact been almost everywhere, but not Bhutan, or Antarctica, or Alaska.)

I thought if there was one movie I could safely take my mother to, it would be Cinderella, on the assumption that the plot would be easy to follow, or unnecessary to follow, because isn’t the story of the kind orphaned girl who gets her prince one of the cornerstones of the Western imagination?
How could I be so very wrong?

It’s true my mother has never watched much television or movies. The notable exception when we were children was Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges, because she was an accomplished scuba diver (those childhood vacations along the Red Sea) and every episode of Sea Hunt afforded ample opportunities for critiquing his technique, correcting the details, and then spoiling the suspense by assuring her poor deluded children that of course Mike Nelson would survive the crisis of the moment, because he had to return next week.

So it is fair to say that even before spiraling down the rabbit hole, my mother was not in the habit of watching movies or television, so she is not in the habit of granting to the small or large screen that willing suspension of disbelief most of us effortlessly cede. No, that cottage in the woods is not meant to be ‘real’. Nor is it ‘true’ that young girls, even the prettiest and kindest, can communicate with mice. I cannot explain why the stepmother is so mean; she simply is; the story relies on her meanness.
I thought we would settle into our seats, shed our winter garments, smell the aroma of popcorn, and watch a story we know so well that no amount of updating could disguise it. We would relax and delight in the slightly vulgar but very amusing polychromatic costumes of the wicked stepsisters. We would each hold our breath as Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a shimmering ball gown. We would shed a few tears for true love winning out.
But my mother did not want popcorn. We were the only people in the theater that wintry afternoon (technically Spring). Later when CSB asked about the movie, she announced with great solemnity that we were alone in the theater. That was all.

This worries me. If a fairy tale can be eradicated by the ravages of amyloid plaques, then what is sacred?

*Illustrations by Adrienne S├ęgur, from The Fairy Tale Book, a Deluxe Golden Book ca. 1958, and beloved by me.