November 2001

Sick Doctor

Good grief. My succulent vendor at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market just sent me Dr. Barad’s astonishing Stapeliad site.

I have never seen such horticultural obscenity. Satan himself designed these flowers. Even though they smell like rotting meat to better attract their preferred pollinators, they don’t need a scent. Any small flying creature that caught a glimpse of one of these out of the corner(s) of its eye(s) would immediately buzz right into the middle of it and wallow orgasticly until it fell to the ground spent. It was all I could do to keep from licking the screen.

This link is to the Stapelia, but there are equal or greater obscenities in the other genera. Do go ahead and click on them to blow them up full size. We’re talking one sick doctor here, eyes dilated as he zooms in for another close-up.

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The Mouas

And now, in response to popular demand, if one correspondent’s mere admission of unfamiliarity with a tale be construed as popular demand, The Tale of the Mouas.

Over the past year I have found myself buying more and more stuff from the Mouas at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, as their quality is just outstanding. They’re a little standoffish, even faced with (or perhaps especially faced with) a shopper who chats up his vendors. As a socially-challenged buddy remarked after I’d taken him to the FPFM, “You don’t give anybody a chance to give you attitude. You just swarm all over ’em.”

But the Mouas yielded to the swarming during the boiled peanut season, and they’ve become much more outgoing. And since we’re practically friends now, it occurred to me to wonder about their ethnicity. I mean, to me, “Moua” does not ring an ethnic bell like, say, “Cohen”, “Schickelgruber,” or “Cabeza de Vaca.” Theylook sort of generic Pacific area dweller, but not Hawaiian, not “round” enough to be Samoan, and certainly not Chinese or Japanese or Korean or Thai or Vietnamese…just tantalizingly unidentifiable Asian.

So I plugged “Moua” into Google (an Internet search engine). Of the eighty gazillion hits, a few seemed to be out there somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, but overwhelmingly the hits were on Vietnamese text, which I can’t read even though I can recognize it. But, see, these folks don’t look Vietnamese.

So I swallowed my pride last Saturday and asked one of them. He said they were Vietnamese. I told him about doing the search and getting all the Vietnamese hits but being confused because they didn’t look Vietnamese to me. He allowed himself a small smile, and said, “Actually, we’re Hmong.” I think I deserve a discount for being able to tell the difference, but I’m terribly embarrassed for not thinking of the Hmong as I certainly knew but had temporarily forgot that large numbers of them immigrated here after The War and that they tended to go into farming.

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Nouveau Gonzo

I am more and more frequently nowadays brought up short by the discovery of the error of my ways. Case in point: since September 11, I have been reading voraciously in an attempt to avoid thinking about, and more importantly to overlay in my memory, the horrific images I saw on television immediately after the terrorist attacks.

But what did I turn to? Well, the catch of the day consisted of those books I’d bought but not yet got around to reading, and I’ve made a serious dent in the stack. Unfortunately, the great bulk of them were either nonfiction detailing various outrages upon society or novels written by persons who wished to share their depression with me. Hardly upbeat material.

But then yesterday my eye alit on a slim paperback volume titled Frisco Pigeon Mambo by C.D. Payne. It was a continual delight, and I cannot too highly recommend it to persons capable of some suspension of disbelief who’d like a little break from bombings, vanishing civil liberties, and anthrax.

Just suppose that in a laboratory in Berkeley there is a group of pigeons employed as laboratory animals. They were all born in captivity and think of themselves as human, doing things like falling madly in love with lab technicians, being unaware that they can fly, and exhibiting other humanoid behavior. In their cages are the Drag-o-Matic, which allows them to smoke as much as they like, and the sherry tube, at which they can refresh themselves whenever they want.

Then suppose that this group of alcoholic nicotine addicts is seized by an animal rights activist, taken to San Francisco, and liberated.

Their adventures will take your mind off all that other stuff.

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Great Difficulty

I’m currently reading with great difficulty Stephen Pinker’s newest, Words and Rules. My intellectual capacity is actually no longer quite up to the challenge, but even partial understanding is great fun. Fun, of course, is relative. I can understand that there are persons for whom three hundred copiously footnoted, closely packed pages explicating current theory on the formation of English regular vs. irregular verbs would be less than entertaining. Those persons might not obtain the aha experience I enjoyed upon reading: “English phonology doesn’t allow a long vowel to precede a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable unless all the consonants are produced with the tip of the tongue”. Pinker throws this in for the benefit of those who might have questioned his earlier statement that “toask”, unlike “toast,” is not a possible word in English. But he’s far from all work and no play, as the book is larded with delightful lines that keep me reading despite only partial understanding.E.g. “Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien; beloved from coast to coast for mangling the two national languages with equal proficiency….”

And now, the pop quiz: When was “oink” first used in print as a verb? Pinker would, of course, have got his answer from the newest release of the OED, which I don’t have. Ooooh. I see that I’ve at least partly given myself away, so I might as well give the answer now. It’s later than you’d think. It’s 1969, this being one of the few exceptions I’ve seen to the general rule that word usages are always far older than I’d have thought possible.

And oh yes, for those who wish to cut to the chase, Pinker’s thesis, for which he uses those three hundred pages to make a seemingly airtight case, is that when you need a past tense verb, you first check your memory for an irregular form. These have to be memorized since there are no good rules for the generation of irregular past tense forms. If you do not get a hit in memory, then you apply the past tense generation rule to get the correct form. All this, of course, takes place in a fraction of a second.

My previous reading of any note was the last half of Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, subtitled John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. The first half, that dealing with Powell’s running of the Colorado River, I had read a couple of years ago and for some reason set the book aside, leaving Stegner’s treatment of the remainder of this astonishing man’s life for later.

It seems that I postponed a treat. Powell is just fascinating, and Stegner writes entertainingly. Case in point: On page 263, which I selected more or less at random, are two eminently quotable lines. Stegner is discussing James Constantine Pilling, the man who, devoted to Powell, devoted twenty years to the compilation of the first bibliography of American Indian tribes by linguistic affinity, a “vast tome…which grew as Pilling’s sight weakened.” Another of Powell’s associates said Pilling “reminded him of George Hurst, who in Tucson was bitten on the privates by a scorpion, which fell dead.”

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