or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, January 14, 2008


I'm just going to go on about television for a while, and not even in a way that has anything to do with my usual blog subjects. I mean, I could tie it in somehow--it's not as if I haven't done that before--but no, this is just about television. You can skip down to the real stuff if you like: just go to the plus sign.

When we got back from the UK last September, we immediately began planning our next trip. We knew we had to go back: alongside all the places we didn't get to go, we want to spend more time in glorious Bath, we need more of London as well, and one day isn't enough of Edinburgh, to say the least. We also figure since we're going all that way, we might as well go to France for a bit; I haven't been to Grasse in a long, long time, and I figure you haven't lived until you've been to Paris, so Jim has to see that. Well, that's going to cost money, so pretty much the day after we got back, I decided to just stop spending money, and I more or less have. There's still food and shelter and transportation and other essentials, but everything I don't need--ordinarily a very fluid category in Western society--I simply don't buy. It's really remarkable how much you can simply do without if you put your mind to it.

The same is true of TV. Since the writer's strike, when the shows I used to watch started going off the air, I realized that I can, for the most part, do very well without television. Heroes went completely off the rails in its abbreviated second season, so I won't be watching that any more. I realized that I don't really care a fig for the whimsical folks on Ugly Betty and Pushing Daisies, either, though I did enjoy those shows well enough. When and if they come back on the air, though, I'm pretty sure I won't be tuning in.

If you don't count Project Runway, which I enjoy but which I could live without if it came down to it, that leaves two things to which I am eternally devoted. I still watch E.R., despite its many detractors who haven't liked it much since Doug and Carol checked out back in the day (I didn't even start watching the show until about season 9, so their plotlines mean nearly nothing to me), and I love love love The Amazing Race, which is just about the only reality show that's ever been worth a damn.

The Amazing Race is modeled on every other reality show: throw a bunch of disparate people into a pressure cooker, turn on the heat, and see who explodes. But TAR has a patina of class; the contestants, in teams of two, have to travel around the world performing various tasks that are at least marginally connected to the country or region they find themselves in, and they have to deal with all kinds of people who are by definition unlike them, and these, as it turns out, are often a pretty good tests of just who a person is. You can badger and berate locals when you don't get your way, or you can treat people with respect and common courtesy. You can notice, as the confoundingly nice/nasty Jen did a few weeks ago, that Mumbai has a certain smell that isn't like anything you smell at home (which is no doubt true), or you can whine and complain that the whole country stinks and you can't wait to get out of it, as more than one contestant has done in the past. You can treat your travelling companion with respect, even when the going gets rough, or you can scream at them, insult them, and tell them that you never want to see them again once the race is over.

If I ever wanted to believe in a benevolent god, I'd think I had some kind of evidence when, last night, the horrible Nate and Jen (they're only nice when they're not around each other, which is disturbing) were ousted in the semifinals, leaving for next week's big million-dollar finale three generally nice and equally deserving teams. For once, it doesn't matter to me which team wins, because there isn't a team in the final three that I'm desperate to have lose. Some people would say that that takes a lot of the drama out of the big finish, but I don't care: it means I don't have to watch some loathsome people like Freddy and his gross, racist model girlfriend Kendra from Season 6 or the smug, frattish Tyler and James from Season 10 win a million dollars.

As far as I'm concerned, the only reason for TV to exist is to make me happy, and last night, this show made me very happy, and next week, I'll be happy again. Who'll win? The spectacularly smart and capable Christina and her difficult but loving father Ron? The sweet, laid-back TK and Rachel? Tough 68-year-old Don and his adoring grandson Nick? Don't care. I'm happy.


I thought I was going to get to the topic at hand, but as it turns out, I'm just going to go on about cats for a while. You can just skip to the next bit (after the next plus sign) if cats don't interest you. This is barely, tangentially related to the usual subject at hand, but not really. There is something pertinent coming up, honest.

I'm up to lecture 32 in The Story of Human Language and it's still great. Have you bought it yet?

Here's an example of the sort of conversational tone of the lectures:

Pidgins...cannot distinguish, for example, "nibble" from "bite" from "munch" from "graze" from "gnash" from "fondue". There's no such thing as that. For them it's all just a matter of, you know, shoving it in your mouth. All pidgins have a word for "eat", and there you go; there's no "nibble". For them, it would be "eaty, eaty, eaty...small". Or something like that.

I love "eaty eaty eaty small".

But I am not so enamoured of his grasp of cat psychology. He has a cat, which he uses as a sort of metaphor for languages in parts of the course, and at one point he's relating how whenever he's packing to go somewhere, the cat will jump up on the bed and into the suitcase, and just settle there. This is perfectly normal cat behaviour, but if I understood correctly (I don't remember which lecture that bit was in, and I'm not going back over all of them to find it), McWhorter thinks that the cat was acting as if it had conquered this little piece of land.

But really, that's not it at all. (A single cat with a household all to itself is more likely to treat the entire place and everything in it as its own personal territory and fiefdom; it doesn't need to make a special claim to any part of it.) I hesitate to say "all cats", because I haven't met every cat on Earth, but pretty well every cat, certainly every cat I've ever known, and that's a lot of cats, loves two things: to be as high up as possible, and to be in small enclosed spaces. If there are cat acrophobics or claustrophobics, they're exceedingly rare. If a cat can get to the top of the fridge, or higher, it certainly will,

and if you put an empty box or stiff paper bag on the floor, a cat will climb inside it,

and you can take that to the bank.

The African wildcat from which the modern domesticated cat is descended is nocturnal-crepuscular: it hunts mostly at night (or during the dim hours of the early morning and late afternoon), when its prey is also most active, and during the heat of the day spends its time in trees and bushes, where it is well hidden from anything that might want to eat it.

And this is why cats love the high and the enclosed; because those things mean you're safe, or as safe as it gets. It's why some cats will even crawl under the covers with you and sleep down at the foot of the bed, despite the fact that you're afraid they'll suffocate themselves with carbon dioxide (they won't). Housecats might not be able to hide in a tree all day, but they can climb to the top of the bookshelf (even if it means they have to hook their way up the drapes to get there), or they can slither behind the couch and sleep contentedly.


And now....

I've mentioned Mouseprint before. It's a charming site that, once a week, talks about some fine print in an ad. Last Monday's posting contained the following sentence:

The consumer has a dilemna.

There is no doubt that "dilemna" seems as if it ought to be right. There are quite a few words in English that contain "-mn-"; lots of common words such as "damn", "hymn", and "column", in which "-mn" is at the end and pronounced as "-m", and words in which the letters are in the middle and therefore both pronounced, such as "gymnasium" and "indemnity", plus slightly more exotic specimens such as "somnolence", "limn", and "lemniscate".

But if you want to argue that spelling is important in English, a word like "dilemma"--for that is how it is properly spelled--is the perfect example. "Dilemna" might on the surface of it seem logical, or at least on an equal footing with "dilemma", neither better nor worse, but that incorrect spelling obscures the root of the word, and that isn't logical, or even purposeful.

"Dilemma" is, as you might have surmised, from Greek "di-", "two", and "lemma", which still exists in English today and still means what it meant in ancient Greece: "proposition" or "premise". Specifically, nowadays a lemma in logic is a proposition that is used to prove another, more important proposition. ("Lemma", for what it's worth, comes from the verb "lambanein", "to take", which doesn't have many relatives in English.) A dilemma, then, is what you have where there are two (presumably equally attractive, or unattractive) propositions in front of you, and you have to choose one and only one of them.


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