The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

A Foot To Stand On.

How is that I have athlete’s foot when I’ve never been an athlete? Although it may not actually be athlete’s foot. According to all the sources I’ve checked the symptoms of athlete’s foot include itching, which I’ve got, and also an itchy, scaly rash, which, I’m happy to say, I don’t have. There also used to be a commercial for an athlete’s foot medication that showed a guy’s foot bursting into flame which, so far, is a symptom I’ve been able to avoid.

There is redness and cracking of the skin, but that could just be from the itching which causes me to scratch, especially between the toes, and there’s a deliciously terrible thrill in scratching there where the skin is papery and sensitive. In spite of being so ordinary scratching is one of our deepest and darkest pleasures; it tears the skin, causing pain, but releases a flood of pleasurable endorphins at the same time.

The intensity of it has me contemplating the  complicated, contradictory nature of a simple itch, so strong I feel like I could run sandpaper between my toes, drawing blood, pushing the itch from a minor annoyance, a discomfort, over into actual pain. Part of me thinks it would be worth it, but then I think of the downsides: blood between my toes, pus seeping, the risk of an infection. I like my feet, although they’re far from perfect. The back soles are heavily callused, and the nail of my right big toe is discolored with dirt that forward growth hasn’t managed to push out, and that the long, narrow file that folds out from the clippers can’t entirely scrape out from underneath. It’s too plain for a podiatrist’s intervention but more than a pedicure could handle, and really only keeps me from wearing open-toed shoes even in summer’s record-breaking heat.

When I was a kid running barefoot all the time meant it was inevitable I’d pick up something, but it was worth the risk, and at least it was only a fungus and not worms. There was a bottle of emerald liquid in a semi-transparent bottle, kept, along with all other pharmaceuticals, in the cabinet under the sink–symptomatic of a simpler time when nine-year olds could be trusted to self-medicate.  When my feet itched all it took was a couple of splashes. There’d be a chemical chill and in seconds all irritation would be washed away.

I could have gone to the drugstore, looked for the same thing or its contemporary equivalent, which seemed a better alternative to continuing to dig my nails into the tender skin between the toes and potentially ruining another pair of socks. But I thought I’d sussed out the main ingredient of that old elixir and pulled a bottle of rubbing alcohol out of the medicine cabinet behind the mirror. It wasn’t green but the antiseptic properties of isopropyl seemed like they’d be more than enough to send the source of my inflammation down the drain.

I popped open the cap, applied a few splashes, and with a pale blue whoosh the entire bathroom went up in flames.

Size Matters.

Asteroid 7335 (1989 JA), which made its closest pass by the Earth on May 27, 2022, has been described as being “the size of 350 giraffes”.

 

Asteroid 2017 VL2 which came within 70,000 miles of Earth on November 9, 2017, has been described as being “the size of a whale”.

 

Asteroid 2022 EB5 which landed in the North Atlantic between Norway and Iceland on March 14, 2022, has been described being “half the size of a giraffe”. And also “the size of a grand piano”.

 

Asteroid 2021 GT2, which, at its closest, was 2.2 million miles from Earth, has been described as being “the size of three blue whales”.

 

Asteroid 2022 KP3 passed by Earth at a distance of a little over eight hundred thousand miles the week of June 1st and was described as “the size of an average male giraffe”.

 

Asteroid 2022 NF, which passed just 56,000 miles from the Earth on July 7th was described as being “the size of a bus”.

 

Asteroid 2019 NW5, which will make its closest pass of around 3.5 million miles on July 18, 2022, has been described as “bigger than the Statue of Liberty”. And also “airliner-sized”. And “bus-sized”.

 

Asteroid 418135 (2008 AG33) at its closest was about two million miles form Earth on April 28th, 2022 was described as “the size of two Empire State Buildings”.

 

Asteroid 7335 (1989 JA) which passed the Earth at a distance of about four million miles on May 27, 2022 was described as being “the size of a small island”.

 

Asteroid 7482 (1994 PC1) which passed by Earth at a little less than two million miles on January, 18, 2022, was described as being “four times the size of the Eiffel Tower”.

 

Asteroid 2020 QG which came within just 1,830 miles of Earth on August 16, 2022, was described as “car-sized”.

 

Asteroid 2007 UY1 which passed Earth at around 3.3 million miles on February 8, 2022, was described as being “the size of the London Eye” and also “football-field sized”.

 

Asteroid 469219 (2016 HO3), also known as Kamoʻoalewa, discovered in 2016 at the University of Hawaii, remains at least 9.1 million miles from Earth as it orbits the Sun and has been described as “comparable in size to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy or the Cinderella Castle in Disney World”.

 

The asteroid that hit the Earth, creating the Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, and wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago, has been described as “mountain-sized” and also “the size of San Francisco”.

And finally…

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”–Douglas Adams

 

The Secret’s Out.

Source: Wikipedia

For some reason of all the films that made the summer of 1982 feel like on where I practically lived in movie theaters the one that’s stuck with me the most is The Secret Of NIMH, which came out in July of that year. I saw it twice that summer, which wasn’t unusual—this was before we had VCRs, and, in fact, just before the arrival of cable TV, and even after cable and VCRs became part of our lives I’d still frequently see a movie first with my parents or alone then go back with my friends. The second time I saw The Secret of NIMH was also a special free screening arranged by the local schools. Maybe this was because it was based on the Newbery Medal-winning novel by Robert C. O’Brien, Mrs. Frisby & The Rats Of NIMH.

I hadn’t read the book but my friend John, who went with me the second time, had, so I asked him what he thought of it.

“I hated it,” he said flatly.

I felt bad about this, as though I were somehow responsible. Yes, I thought it was a great movie and I told him how much I enjoyed it, but since it was free and every kid in my school packed the theater he probably would have gone anyway. I was so taken aback by his response I didn’t think to ask him why he hated it, but then I read the book, which I’d been meaning to do anyway, and I understood.

For the most part the book and movie tell the same story, although the name of Mrs. Frisby had to be changed to Brisby to avoid confusion with flying plastic discs: she’s a field mouse whose husband has been killed by the farmer’s cat. It’s early spring and she’s about to move her family to their summer home. The farmer plows over their winter home every spring, but her youngest son Timmy is sick from a spider bite and can’t be moved. With the help of a friendly crow named Jeremy she visits The Great Owl who tells her to go to the rats that live in the farm’s rosebush. When she does she learns her husband and the rats were the subject of experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, that enhanced them physically and mentally. Her husband helped the rats escape and they’ve built an elaborate underground city, stealing electricity from the farm. Their husband continued helping the rats by drugging the farmer’s cat. She offers to do the same so the rats can come and move her home to a spot safe from the plow. She’s caught in the act by one of the farmer’s children and overhears that people from NIMH are coming to gas the farm’s rats. She escapes, the rats move her home, the rats, who were uncomfortable with stealing, set off to build an independent civilization, and Timmy gets better.

The movie was produced and directed by animator Don Bluth, who, along with fifty other animators, left Disney in 1979 in protest over declining animation quality. And The Secret Of NIMH really does have some excellent animation. Character movements are smooth, there are realistic-looking people and animals, there are water effects, lighting effects, and reflections. The color palette is broad and vivid. And they didn’t hold back making Mrs. Brisby’s meeting with The Great Owl, voiced by John Carradine, serious nightmare-fuel, or change the fact that in the story death is ever-present. This wasn’t a condescending kids’ show made to sell us fluffy toys.

Just a taste of the quality animation. Source: imgur

The problem is the movie tries to compress far too much into its 82-minute runtime. It doesn’t take much to understand why Mrs. Brisby wants to save her son, but in the book Timmy is more developed as a character. He’s clever and quiet, although also a storyteller who protects the younger mice, so he provides a contrast to his brother who’s strong and aggressive. The idea that intellect and imagination are just as valuable as strength, even in the hardscrabble world of a field mouse, gets lost in the movie where Timmy spends so much time sick in bed and has so few lines he might as well already be dead.

Then there’s the matter of the rats’ transformation in NIMH. In the book the rat leader Nicodemus tells Mrs. Frisby a lengthy story that could be a movie in itself of how they were captured, caged, and given injections, then taught to read. He tells her how they excelled but kept it a secret from their captors and how they eventually got to the farm’s rosebush. It’s almost Flowers For Algernon but from the mouse’s perspective. In the movie they’re given an injection and, in a trippy sequence, they’re magically transformed into sentient, literate super-rats.

In the book the rats’ lair has hallways and meeting rooms, but the film makes it strange, filled with multi-colored lights and twisting passageways. The unique look actually makes sense. Rats aren’t human so their civilization would look different. However Nicodemus, their leader, is changed from a rat like the others to a frail, raspy-voiced wizard who writes with glowing ink, makes objects levitate, and can summon up visions in a large ball by waving his staff.

The presence of magic in the film is the biggest divergence from the book, and it’s really what ruins the story. In the book the rats move Mrs. Frisby’s home with elaborate engineering. In the movie their apparatus is sabotaged by a conspiratorial rat named Jenner who also murders Nicodemus, Mrs. Brisby’s home sinks into the mud, there’s no explanation for how Timmy and the other children who are inside survive, and then Mrs. Brisby magically levitates her home with the help of a magical amulet Nicodemus gave her.

Bluth said he wanted to share his beliefs about the power of faith but this rewrite seemed more like an excuse to show off more elaborate effects and increase the drama of the ending.

I’m not opposed to remakes or even reboots, and plans for a new version of The Secret Of NIMH have floated around for years. It would possibly be redone as a miniseries, which makes sense—there’s too much story for even a long movie. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in actually doing it, though, and maybe that’s just as well. The book stands very well on its own, and while the movie has its weaknesses it also has equal strengths, including some necessary comic relief from Dom DeLuise as Jeremy the crow. For me there’s a certain amount of nostalgia attached to it but, watching it critically, as an adult, I can see the bad and good in it. I no longer love it. But I don’t hate it.

Climate Change.

One day the rain just stops. A day goes by, a few days, then a week, then more weeks. You notice that the grass is getting brittle and dry and the ground is rock hard. Then the grass turns the color of sand and even the air seems brittle with the dryness of it. The weather reports become numbingly uniform: sunny every day. Reports of record-breaking temperatures become repetitive. Something in the back of your mind says that this is wrong, but the heat saps any energy you might have for thinking about it.

On your way home from work each night you start counting the number of neighbors who are watering their yards, the ones who stand out because their grass is a patch of emerald in a sea of buff and sepia. You get wicked ideas about sneaking into their yards and cutting their hoses with a pair of garden shears in the middle of the night. Maybe they’ll pay a fine for using so much water.

Maybe you should think about xeriscaping, but this isn’t the desert. The rain will come back eventually, won’t it?

Desiccated tree branches fall in the yard. No need to move them just yet. The lawnmower sits in the garage, its small reservoir of fuel sending out a slow stream of fumes.

One morning you notice a spider hanging in her web next to your house. She’s brown and white speckled with big yellow dots on her abdomen. You saw her early in the spring, just like you watched her mother, her grandmother, and a whole line of her great-grandmothers going back several years.

The lack of rain affects everything up and down the food chain, and you haven’t seen as many rabbits, snakes, or even squirrels as usual. This spider, like you, is not native to North America; her ancestors probably came with yours, around three centuries ago. She’s nocturnal so it’s strange that she’s still out on a sunny morning when the temperature is already higher than it would be at noon in a normal year.

You fill a birdbath in the backyard. You fill another in the front yard. You watch cardinals, bluejays, even a sleek-headed crow dip their beaks in it. You watch squirrels come to drink then flip the birdbath over. It’s only a few minutes before you go to put it back and refill it but the ground is already dry.

You have a side bed of morning glories and other small plants. After the sun goes down you turn the nozzle on the hose to “mist” and you realize you can’t remember the last time you heard a tree frog. They always sing in the dark after it rains.

Wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and even tsunamis are all horrible, often tragic events that come in suddenly, sometimes with no warning, or not enough warning, but then they disappear, often as quickly as they came. Flood and tsunamis recede, wildfires burn out all their fuel or, hopefully, are stopped, and tornadoes just spin themselves out.

A drought is a tragedy in slow motion.

One day it will rain again and when it does it will be terrible, the water overflowing the earth unprepared to hold it.

The Summer I Almost Remember.

Notes from my school guidance counselor on my essay “How I Spent My Summer”, from 1982 which I just found in an old box:

Dear Chris,
Well! It certainly sounds like you had an exciting summer. I’m not surprised you spent some time playing video games. In fact from the way you describe it you actually designed some video games of your own only to have them stolen by someone named Dillinger. I assume this is a boy who lives in your neighborhood. He must go to a different school since I can’t find any record of him here. I’m also a bit confused by this part where you make it sound as though you actually spent time inside a videogame and ultimately defeated the evil MCP. Well done. I’m glad to hear you also spent some time outside, which brings me to the next part of your essay.
You say you traveled across Thra, which, from the sound of it, is a wooded area in your neighborhood, and, with the help of a friend named Kira, restored a missing shard to the Crystal of Truth. I assume Kira also attends another school. I’d like to meet her sometime and perhaps her pet Fizzgig who is, from the way you describe it, some kind of small dog. I assume she lives near here.
I was also very surprised to learn that you’re an orphan. There’s nothing in any of your school records about that, nor is there anything about you being in the care of a Ms. Hannigan. But it was nice to hear that you had an enjoyable time with a Mr. Warbucks who took you on extensive tours of New York City, and that you had quite the adventure with a couple of people who tried to pass themselves off as your parents.
I see that you did even more travel. I’m not sure where Ceti Alpha Five or Mutara Nebula are. These places sound like they must be in Europe. I was very disturbed to read about what sounded like some very unpleasant experiences with a Mr. Khan and some sort of ear slug. I was also very sorry to hear that you lost a close personal friend in making your escape. It’s a relief to hear that you think there’s a possibility he might return.
From the next part of your essay it seems you again have parents and that they decided this summer would be the perfect time to install a backyard swimming pool. I’m sorry this plan was interrupted by the mysterious disappearance of your younger sister Carol Anne. Perhaps it’s because of this disappearance that I can’t find any record of her. It sounds as though she was returned to your family, though, in a rather terrifying ordeal involving parapsychological researchers and a psychic woman. I’m also glad you escaped that horrible tree.
Perhaps we should skip over your assistance in helping a Mrs. Brisby move her home, though that was very generous of you, your pursuit of a neighborhood bully you call Thulsa Doom, your rather surprising trip to Antarctica, or your boxing matches against Mr. T.
I would really like to focus on what sounds like a very special friendship with an unusual sounding boy whom you met in the woods behind your home. You say he had been left there accidentally by those he was traveling with. Well, he certainly sounds like a remarkable young man. You know, I like Reese’s Pieces very much too. Even better than M&M’s. I was rather startled that your friend, whom you only refer to by the initials “E.T.”, was almost forcibly taken away by the authorities and only returned to his family in a daring escape in which you pedaled your bike so fast it seemed to fly. I do think it’s inappropriate that you called your brother “penis breath” and I don’t know why you included this in your essay.
Speaking of inappropriate, I was both shocked and confused by some exploits you describe in what sounds like summer school. While I was amused by your ordering a pizza in class, there are several incidents which clearly should have been out of bounds for someone your age. I think you must have snuck in to “Ridgemont High” without permission.
I would like to meet with you and your parents to discuss this and whether 
you did anything this summer besides go to the movies.

Sum It Up.

Almost Summer

Performed by Celebration

Written by Mike Love of The Beach Boys, released May 8, 1978

 

Summer ’68

Performed by Pink Floyd

Written by Richard Wright, released October 1970

 

Summer Of ‘69

Performed by Bryan Adams

Written by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, released June 17, 1985

 

Suddenly Last Summer

Performed by The Motels

Written by Martha Davis, released August 1983

 

Here Comes Summer

Performed by Jerry Keller

Written by Jerry Keller, released May 1959

 

When The Summer Moon Comes ‘Long

Performed by Cole Porter

Written by Cole Porter, released 1910

 

Summer’s Here

Performed by James Taylor

Written by James Taylor, released July 1981

 

In The Summertime

Performed by Mungo Jerry

Written by Ray Dorset, released 1970

 

Summer Skin

Performed by Death Cab For Cutie

Written by Ben Gibbard, Jason McGerr, and Chris Walla, released August 30, 2005

 

Hot Fun In The Summertime

Performed by Sly & The Family Stone

Written by Sly Stone, released July 21, 1969

 

Summer In The City

Performed by The Lovin’ Spoonful

Written by John Sebastian, Mark Sebastian, and Steve Boone, released July 4, 1966

 

All Summer Long

Performed by The Beach Boys

Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, released July 13, 1964

 

Summer Breeze

Performed by Seals & Crofts

Written by Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, released August 31, 1972

 

Summer Wind

Performed by Frank Sinatra

Music by Heinz Meier, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, released August 1966

 

Summer Rain

Performed by Johnny Rivers

Written by Jim Hendricks, released November 1967

 

Summer Madness

Performed by Kool & The Gang

Written by Kool & the Gang and Alton Taylor, released September 1974

 

Summer Fever

Performed by Donna Summer

Written by Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte and Donna Summer, released October 11, 1976

 

Cruel Summer

Performed by Bananarama

Written by Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey, Steve Jolley, Tony Swain, and Keren Woodward, released June 27, 1983

 

Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days Of Summer

Performed by Nat King Cole

Written by Hans Carste and Charles Tobias, released May 1963

 

Summer Nights

From Grease (musical)

Written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, released August 25, 1978

 

Lonely Summer Nights

Performed by Stray Cats

Written by Brian Setzer, released November 1981

 

Summertime Sadness

Performed by Lana del Rey

Written by Lana Del Rey and Rick Nowels, released June 22, 2012

 

The Other Side Of Summer

Performed by Elvis Costello

Written by Elvis Costello, released April 1991

 

Our Last Summer

Performed by ABBA

Written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, released November 3, 1980

 

This Ain’t The Summer Of Love

Performed by Blue Oyster Cult

Written by Albert Bouchard, Murray Krugman, and Don Waller, released May 21, 1976

 

Summer’s Almost Gone

Performed by The Doors

Written by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore

 

Summer’s Gone

Performed by The Kinks

Written by Ray Davies, released March 18, 1985

 

The Real World.

Whenever I see high school portrayed in TV shows or movies it never looks anything like my real experience. Not that I assume any other high school is anything like the one I went to. For that matter no one else’s experience even at my alma mater was the same as mine, even if they were there at the same time, and a lot of what I remember is filtered through what I’d like to forget and what I did forget because so many of the days ran together. But even when I was in high school the way high school was portrayed never quite seemed to get it right. Here are a few tropes that stand out for me:

-Well-equipped science classes.

It always gets me to see kids carrying around trays of test tubes and laboratory flasks, sitting at lab tables blending chemicals, using Bunsen burners, dissecting animals, and doing other science-looking stuff, usually while wearing fancy goggles. There was the biology room at one end of my school and the chemistry room at the other end. The only thing that differentiated them from all the other classrooms was one was used by the biology teacher and the other was used by the chemistry teacher.

In biology class we did dissect an earthworm, a cricket, a starfish, and a frog, and by “we” I mean a class of twenty-nine kids was divided into groups of four and we each got one specimen to dissect while the others stood around and took notes—and by “took notes” I mean “chewed gum and talked”, except for that one unlucky kid who didn’t get to dissect anything.

In chemistry class we did get to do some experiments where six of us would crowd around a table and use an eye-dropper to add tiny drops of liquid to tiny trays of chemicals. If I remember correctly the purpose of this was to demonstrate that if you add one chemical to another something might happen. The teacher did show us how if you put a piece of pure sodium the size of a grain of rice in a beaker of water: it fizzes and smokes, which seemed pretty cool even though we all had to stand at least ten feet away because the teacher was the only one who had a pair of goggles.

-Well-defined cliques.

I get that these are often useful for building a narrative, especially ones where a kid from one group makes the crossover to another group, followed by confusion, chaos, growth, and a valuable lesson being learned by all. Maybe there are schools where there are clearly defined hierarchies and cliques, but mine wasn’t one of them. There were definitely groups, but mostly we were just a muddled mass. In art class I sat next to a kid named Sam who was definitely much cooler than I was and ran with a different crowd but we talked and laughed a lot because we were stuck next to each other for an hour a day. We didn’t talk much outside of class but we still nodded at each other in the hallways, and learning to get along with someone just because you don’t have a choice was good training for working in an office.

-Student government that actually governs.

This is a less common trope but it still irks me because, well, twenty minutes after the election for class president and whatever the other offices were I couldn’t tell you who won, and twenty minutes before the election I doubt I could tell you who was running. I only remember the year my good friend Tony decided to run for class president, not because he had any ambitions or interest in politics, but just because he thought it would be fun. When it was his turn to give a candidate speech he stepped up the podium, let out a bloodcurdling scream that blew out the entire sound system, waited a minute while everyone recovered, then said, quietly, “Tension breaker. Had to be done.” The only other thing I remember is he lost.

-Every kid who fits the classic nerd type is smart.

High school stories don’t always rely on stereotypes, and by that I mean they acknowledge that jocks can be smart, but if you see a kid with thick-lensed horn-rimmed glasses wearing a button-down shirt and carrying a calculator you know he’s smart. Unless you’ve met Scott, who was in my class and who was a perpetual C student, not because he was super-intelligent and had mastered calculus in third grade, but because he just wasn’t that bright. At least he worked hard and I think he’s found his niche in middle management where all he has to do is sit behind a desk and look smart. The only thing he ever used the calculator for, as far as I know, was to show me how to use it to spell BOOBS.

-Everything rides on the big game.

Maybe for some kids it did but even for guys I knew who were on the football and basketball teams if they lost there was always another game next week that they could also lose.

-The drama club puts on big elaborate productions.

First of all there was no drama club. The closest thing we had was the debate team which had a sub-group that would do dramatic interpretations. I went once because I was interested in that. The teacher said, “Here, work on this,” and gave me some xeroxed pages of a scene from The Odd Couple. Okay, I could be both Oscar and Felix, but was I supposed to mime their movements? Should I bring a pot of linguine to the next meeting? I never found out because the teacher left, everybody else was debating or chewing gum, and I never went back.

My senior year a few teachers did arrange a production of Oklahoma! which was pretty good and the kid who played Curly was really perfect for the part in every way except he couldn’t sing.

High school seemed so big and important at the time because, well, it was big and important. I think one thing that is true for most of us is that there will never be another time in our lives when so much about ourselves changes in such a short amount of time, when we go from the larval stage to, well, a very different larval stage. I look at how high school is portrayed in countless films and TV shows and think that, if, for the creators behind them, their high school was anything like that, I really missed out. Then I think maybe they did too. Maybe they’ve rewritten their past to be something it never really was.  

The Night Was Humid.

I like humidity.

There. I said it. I know it’s a controversial statement, especially for all those people who say, “You know, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” as though they feel the heat is being unfairly blamed when people complain about the weather. There are so many genuinely terrible things in the world that I just want to take humidity off the list so we have one less thing to worry about.

And I do know how much difference low humidity can make. I’ve been to Palm Springs, California, in July, so I got to experience firsthand how almost zero humidity can make triple-digit temperatures not only bearable but even comfortable, which is the problem with low humidity. I was at an outdoor gathering and a woman next to me said, “Oh, it’s so pleasant out here,” right before she collapsed from dehydration. Across the street from my hotel there was a bus stop that had the kind of misters grocery stores used to keep the fresh vegetables damp. Only these misters were used to keep people damp and that’s when I realized it was a place where people really don’t belong. We should leave there and leave the misters and the desert will never miss us.

What prompted me to think about this is the morning weather report where the meteorologist had a dew point chart that listed comfort levels from Perfect Summer Day to Comfortable, Muggy, Sticky, Sweltering, and finally Oppressive. None of these sounded particularly technical and, again, going back to the list of things in this world that are genuinely terrible, I think it’s wrong to call humidity “oppressive”. People oppress other people, and that should stop because it’s a deliberate and terrible choice. The humidity isn’t trying to oppress anything. It’s just doing what it does, keeping the air moist.

Humidity makes us feel warmer, and when is being warm a bad thing? Part of what makes winter so miserable is the air gets really dry, although my own saying, “You know, it’s not the cold, it’s the dry” hasn’t caught on yet, but that’s another story. Admittedly it’s also possible to have weather that’s humid and cold which people say is “clammy”, which I’ve never understood because I’ve never had a cold clam, even after I’ve dipped them in cocktail sauce.

And I know there are limits. As much as I like humidity, especially when it makes my hair weirdly puffy which I know bothers some people and they should get over it because it’s just hair, it can get pretty uncomfortable. Even I don’t like to be out in one-hundred percent humidity, although I respect that humidity can actually give a hundred and ten percent—which is mist or fog, and it can even go beyond that, although at that point it’s, well, rain, and if your humidity hits two-hundred percent you’d better have scuba gear or gills.

Also while safety and health are important—never exceed your limits—there’s something very satisfying about working up a good sweat, and you can’t do that when the humidity is so low the air wicks away your body’s water. The salty sheen of a good sweat can be a reward for a job, or a workout, well done, or just a way to relax. The Scandinavians invented the sauna because they also gave the world ABBA and the Vikings, which is enough to make anybody feel like schvitz. And I want to point out that you can’t spell “sweltering” without “swel” and all’s well that ends swel.

A Copy Of A Copy.

Source: The New Yorker

So I heard about an author whose upcoming book was withdrawn from publication because of plagiarism and the author offered an apology which turned out to also be partly plagiarized. I won’t go into any more details partly because the author has been dragged enough and there are a lot of articles out there already about this specific case that it would be really tempting to me to just copy and paste, but also while I don’t want to defend plagiarism I’m also kind of defending plagiarism.

This also isn’t the first time I’ve thought about plagiarism so forgive me if I repeat myself. Besides you have to figure even the first person to say “Originality is overrated” got the idea from somewhere.

In science, of course, if someone repeats your experiment and come up with the same results that’s a good thing because it means the original conclusions are probably right and it’s a major part of the scientific process called “reproducibility”. In the arts on the other hand repeating someone’s work is called “plagiarism” or “forgery” even though you’d think they’d be thrilled if you came to the same conclusions. I’d like to have someone tell me I’m right about something because I hear so rarely.

Would a truly original idea even be relatable? It’s hard to say because I can’t think of a truly original idea. Even Shakespeare lifted plots from various sources, as many scholars have pointed out. He’s also credited with inventing a few dozen new words, and why can he get away with it when I can’t? Sometimes I’ll drop an unusual word in conversation and I’ll be accused of using a “made up word”. Every word is a made up word, although some words are free-range, organic, and locally sourced.

I get that every author, composer, and artist has their own distinctive style or voice, and that’s part of what makes art great—because we’re all individuals we all bring something new to the table, but right now there are more new pieces of writing being added to our collective culture than ever before and I’m sorry for making the problem worse by adding my own thoughts right now but I can’t seem to stop. And there are constraints. For one thing to be understood, and I think in most cases we want to be understood, we all have to use the same words. There’s a finite number of words in every language and an even smaller number of combinations that make sense. I realized that when I was in grade school and a teacher told me to describe something in my own words. I said, “I don’t have any words of my own. Can I use some from the dictionary?” And the teacher said, “Oh, like I haven’t heard that one before.”

My favorite story of plagiarism, though, isn’t one that happened to me but was one a philosophy professor shared with a class I was in as a warning to us not to try plagiarizing. He had a student who was failing his class and at the end of the term the professor offered everyone a choice: they could take the final exam or they could write a paper instead. The student opted to write a paper and what he turned in started with, “Immanuel Kant transformed the hylomorphic distinction from an ontological to a noetic order.”

The professor offered him a second choice: he could explain just what that first sentence meant or he could flunk the class, and I kind of wish he’d pulled it off but he went with the second option.

In retrospect that wasn’t the best example since the student’s attempt was pretty obvious, but I didn’t think about that at a time because the story reminded me I was supposed to turn in a paper for that class and I was in the back quickly grinding out five pages of analysis of Nietzsche which, I must say, were pretty original.

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