Saturday, August 22, 2009

Three Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment One

Charlie, walking down Main Street, spots a Baskin Robbins ice cream store ahead of him. “Boy, I’d like some chocolate chip ice cream,” he says to himself as he makes his way to the shop. “I really want some chocolate chip,” he says to himself again, as he takes a number and waits his turn. (You always have to wait on line at Baskin Robbins.)

When the counterperson calls out number thirty-seven, Charlie steps forward. “I’ll have . . . er . . . that is I’d like . . . um . . . ok, two scoops of maple walnut ice cream with sprinkles.”

Charlie finishes his ice cream cone and says to himself, “The maple walnut was good, but I really wanted chocolate chip.”

Question: What did Charlie really want—maple walnut or chocolate chip?


Thought Experiment Two

At exactly the same moment, two boy babies were born many hundreds of miles apart, one in a hospital in Rome, Italy (to parents of Italian ancestry dating back umpteen generations) and the other in a hospital in Stockholm, Sweden (to parents of Swedish ancestry dating back umpteen generations). Almost immediately, “some night-tripping fairy
. . . exchanged/ In cradle-clothes [the] children where they lay” (I Henry IV). A few days later, the babies were taken home by their unsuspecting non-birth parents, who proceeded to raise them quite normally.

Question: Viewed from the perspective of five years on, which child was the Italian, which the Swede?
(Would it make any difference if the cities were Dublin and Dubrovnik, or Haifa and Hanoi?)


Thought Experiment Three

On January 1, 2010, every native speaker of English in the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, etc. wakes up, looks out the window, sees the great golden ball in the sky, and calls it “the cranston.” All native speakers of English, that is, except for a forty-five-year-old teacher of high school English in Scarsdale, New York, who looks out her window and sees “the sun.”

As the days, weeks, months go by, this woman gets testier and testier as she cannot make friends, family, colleagues, or strangers acknowledge that that thing in the sky should be called “the sun,” not “the cranston.”

Question: Is she right to insist that that heavenly body be called “the sun”?
(Would it make any difference if the woman was a physical education teacher?)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

'Lectronic Limbo

I pushed my shopping cart with its two boxes of cornflakes toward the checkout counters, only to discover that each line contained hordes provisioning as for a siege of the castle. Declaring (to myself) that I would rather starve than languish behind orders that had at minimum six cases of bottled water, I abandoned—without an ounce of guilt—the cart and cornflakes in front of a display of sweet gherkins. Guiltless, because I knew that before the day was through, those boxes of dry cereal would be back on their shelf standing shoulder-to-shoulder next to their mates raisin bran and shredded wheat, staring down the Maypo and instant oatmeal across Aisle 5.

In the car on the way home, I couldn’t help but think about the contents of shopping carts I had abandoned during e-commerce forays—for example, the camera that had to be placed in a cart in order to discover its price (alas, too dear) or the shoes whose steep shipping cost similarly was revealed to me only after my plucking the item off its electronic shelf. Are those size elevens still waiting for me to take them for a stroll, or did some ghostly hand remove the pixels from the electronic cart?

And then my thoughts segued to my abandoned email addresses: are they still waiting for me to click open their contents (assuming I could remember the passwords)? However, while I can summon up romantic images of a physical mailbox that I have moved away from holding, for a brief while before a melancholy return journey to the sender, a letter from a long-lost love or a dividend check from a forgotten investment, all I can imagine sitting in wait in the electronic boxes are several offers of fake Viagra.

I wonder if I have anything to eat for breakfast.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Magical Mystical Tour

“A group of rabbis and Jewish mystics flew over Israel chanting prayers and blowing ritual ram horns in the belief that they would be able to stop the spread of swine flu in Israel.”

Daily Telegraph, UK
I’ve been cogitating over this news item for a while. How, I have been wondering, does one get to be a mystic? Does one go to Mystic College or Academy? Does one get a diploma to frame and hang on one’s mystic office wall? And how does one attract a paying clientele? Does one hang out a shingle, with an arrow pointing “Mystic Inside”?

And what exactly, does a mystic do? Of course, he mysticizes, but again, what exactly is involved? Does a mystic specialize? You know: mysticizing by word versus mysticizing by deed?

And note that the story speaks of “Jewish mystics.” How do they differ from, say, Christian mystics or Hindu ones? Do they, like unions, sometimes have demarcation disputes? With flare-ups and arguments: “I’ve got Yahweh—you stick to the Holy Ghost!”

And if there are circumscribed mystic areas, surely in this case the Christian mystics have the expertise. For a Jewish mystic this is certainly an unkosher undertaking.

But, then again, with all my thinking, I’m still mystified.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Bones of Dead Men

The Bones of Dead Men

On an overcast Sunday in June I walk the block-and-a-half from my daughter's house to Avenida del Libertador, where a red light grants me fifty seconds to cross seven lanes of traffic. On the eastern side of Libertador is a series of two-story, white buildings with red tile roofs, settled on a great expanse of green lawn amongst lush vegetation. It is, seemingly, a Southern California junior college transplanted to the northeastern corner of the City of Buenos Aires.

But here no blondhaired coeds, clutching textbooks to their breasts, have ever rushed away from their surfer boyfriends to fly off to their chemistry or biology labs, for this is the home of the Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada, whose major experiments in torture occurred over three decades ago during Argentina's “Dirty War.” To be imprisoned in the bowels of ESMA one did not need to bear arms against the military junta, a typewriter or a pen would do. Here, mothers would be “disappeared” after having their babies snatched from them and awarded to faithful followers of the regime.

I peer through the metal fence for a while, then turn my back on the whited sepulcher and use all of my fifty seconds to cross Libertador. There, on the western side of the avenue, the blank faces of bland apartment buildings show no regard for the past.

To the Defenders of Torture

To the Defenders of Torture

During my many years of college teaching I would from time to time see students crossing the campus who, because they appeared different from the crowd (they were older or better dressed or, rarely, strikingly beautiful), made me wonder, “Who is that person?” And from time to time, one of those interesting persons would turn up in my English class and I, indeed, learned who that person was (alas, never one of the beauties though).

Mr. C. (as I shall call him) appeared in my composition class one summer session. I had spied him many times walking across campus with a sort of hop-limp, holding by its handles a stiff flower-decorated plastic shopping bag, the kind your grandmother might have taken to the corner grocer’s. He was at least ten years older than the majority of the other freshmen and spoke with a Middle-European accent. He was bright, but a difficult student. He wanted nothing to do with any writing that touched on feelings or emotions. Why, he wanted to know, couldn’t we just deal with the impersonal, the objective?

One day after class near the end of the summer session, I was discussing a paper with its writer when we were interrupted by another student, who insisted that I come immediately out into the hall, where he directed me to the stairway. There on the landing between flights was Mr. C., huddled in the corner, silently weeping. “He was tortured in prison in Czechoslovakia,” the second student whispered into my ear. I went over to the figure in the corner, a bumbling English teacher who had no words to console a man with a limp who wanted nothing to do with feelings or emotions.

(Originally published on my Telegraph UK blog)