Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Sometimes, I hear that English (modern English, which is the fourth variation to evolve over the last 1,400 years) is a difficult language to learn. I also hear that it’s relatively easy.

The real answer is that it depends. Depends on the similarity of your native language to English. Depends on your brain’s affinity for languages.

And here’s another angle to consider: language weirdness.

A few years ago, Idibon, a technology company that specialized in the analysis of languages for global operations such as Google and Facebook, assessed the world’s languages based on how weird they are. In other words, the degree to which they are unique and unlike other languages.

On the weirdness scale, English was ranked number 33 out of 239 world languages. That’s fairly high, but 32 languages scored even weirder.

The prize for weirdest language went to Chalcatongo Mixtec, spoken in a remote part of the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. In second place was Nenets, the language of the Samoyed people, who are reindeer herders in Siberia. Number three was the Native American language Choctaw.

Being a wordsmith and knowing English relatively well (it is, after all, my thing), I consider my native tongue (1) pretty darn difficult and (2) seriously weird.

English grammar and sentence structure are fairly straightforward and sensible. But English is poised to trip you up because of constant contradictions and exceptions to the rules.

Why is the “h” silent in herb, hour, honest, and rhapsody, but not in house, home, human, and hospital?

If it isn’t words with multiple meanings that throw you a curve, it’s words with multiple pronunciations.

Or it’s colloquial words and phrases that don’t make sense.

Why in the world is a handbag called a pocketbook?

How can a newcomer to English know what “working the graveyard shift” means?

What about “It’s a piece of cake” or “I’ll take a rain check”?

You get the picture, right?

All in all, English is flexible, fun, quirky, and endlessly fascinating, but oh, so easy to botch.

Allow me to elaborate, beginning with an anonymous poem entitled “Why English is Hard to Learn.”

Weird-1

Methren. Shim. Very clever.

More examples of English weirdness:

— The word inappropriate means not appropriate; but the word invaluable means very valuable. Likewise, the word inconceivable means not conceivable; yet, the word inflammable means flammable.

— There is no egg in an eggplant; no ham in a hamburger; and neither pine nor apple in a pineapple.

— You can make amends, but you can’t make an amend.

— Goods are always shipped, whether sent by ship, truck, or oxcart.

— We park on the driveway and drive on the parkway.

— Your nose can run, and your feet can smell.

Slim chance and fat chance mean the same thing; wise man and wise guy do not.

— Your house can burn up or burn down.

— You can fill in a form, or you can fill out a form.

— An alarm can go off, or it can go on.

— The words tear and tier are pronounced the same. But if you shed a tear and tear your pants, they aren’t.

— Quicksand works slowly.

— Boxing rings are square.

Weird-2

Imagine that you are freshly arrived from the old country, and you set out to learn English. How would you react when presented with these statements?

— The bandage was wound around the wound.

— I had to desert my dessert in the desert.

— A shot rang out, and the dove dove into the bushes.

— There’s no time like the present, so it’s time to present the present.

— Farms produce produce.

— Being full, the landfill refused my refuse.

— No, I don’t object to the object.

— The drummer put a picture of a bass on his bass drum.

— The boss needs to get the lead out and lead.

— That book I just read, it was a great read.

English is weird, man. Truly weird.

Weird-3

Weird-4

 

 

Tune o’ the Day

The Promise” is a simple, pleasant love song by “When in Rome,” one of the British new wave bands from the 1980s. You may recognize the tune from the tetherball scene in the 2004 film “Napoleon Dynamite.”

When in Rome” was a good band that fell apart for the usual reasons: internal squabbles, creative differences, rancor, jealousy, no doubt hurt feelings. After the original members broke up in 1990, the legal wrangling began. Today, two independent groups are touring: “When in Rome II” and “When in Rome UK.”

Three decades later, has either band scored a hit as good as, or as popular as, “The Promise”? Of course not.

When in Rome

The Promise

By When In Rome, 1987
Written by Clive Farrington, Michael Floreale, and Andrew Mann

If you need a friend, don’t look to a stranger.
You know, in the end, I’ll always be there.
And when you’re in doubt, and when you’re in danger,
Take a look all around, and I’ll be there.

I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say.
I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be.
But if you wait around awhile, I’ll make you fall for me.
I promise. I promise you, I will.

When your day is through, and so is your temper,
You know what to do. I’ll always be there.
Sometimes if I shout, it’s not what’s intended.
The words just come out, with no cross to bear.

I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say.
I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be.
But if you wait around awhile, I’ll make you fall for me.
I promise. I promise you.

I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say.
I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be.
But if you wait around awhile, I’ll make you fall for me.
I promise. I promise you, I will.

I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say.
I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be.
But if you’ll wait around awhile, I’ll make you fall for me.
I promise. I promise you.

I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say.
I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be.
But if you’ll wait around awhile, I’ll make you fall for me.
I promise. I promise you, I will.

Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● While exploring Asia in the late 1200s, Marco Polo encountered a rhinoceros and concluded it was a unicorn. “They are very ugly brutes to look at,” he wrote. “They are not at all such as we describe unicorns.”

● Writing with pen and ink was a messy and frustrating business until a ray of hope appeared in 1888. That year, a patent was issued for a pen with a rotating ball in the tip to control the release of ink. A clever concept, but the thing was still annoyingly unpredictable.

The real breakthrough came in the 1940s, when Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor, observed that printing ink dries faster than writing ink. Biro developed a formulation that worked well in a ballpoint pen, made millions, and eventually sold his patent to the Bic Corporation.

In most of Europe and Asia today, a ballpoint pen is called a ‘biro.”

● The first woman elected to Congress was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, who served two terms in the House of Representatives, 1917-1919 and 1941-1943, both during wartime. A Republican, she was a long-time leader of the women’s suffrage movement and a committed pacifist.

During the 1916 campaign, as World War I raged in Europe, she said, “If they are going to have war, they ought to take the old men and leave the young to propagate the race.” After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she was the only member of the House to vote against declaring war on Japan. “As a woman, I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.”

● In the Western Hemisphere, hurricanes are classified according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Developed in 1971, the scale rates a storm based on sustained wind speed and anticipated property damage.

The scale’s creators were Herbert Saffir, a structural engineer, and Robert Simpson, a meteorologist. They patterned it after the Richter Scale, which quantifies earthquakes.

Hurricane scale

● Vodka is a tasteless spirit distilled from fermented grain or potatoes. The name comes from the Russian word “voda” (water) and/or the Polish word “woda” (water).

Both countries claim to have invented vodka. Russia says it invented the stuff in the 9th century. Poland says vodka was first distilled in Poland in the 8th century. Russia dismisses the early Polish version as a crude brandy, not real vodka. Take that, Poland.

● The largest national park in the U.S. is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Established in 1980, the park covers 20,000 square miles, which is a bit larger than Switzerland and a bit smaller than Ireland.

● Cleopatra (69 BC – 30 BC) ruled Egypt as the last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greeks who took power after the death of Alexander the Great in 305 BC. Cleopatra was the only Ptolemy to speak Egyptian instead of Greek. After her death, reportedly by suicide, Egypt became a Roman province.

● Nike, Inc., the footwear and apparel behemoth, began in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports. In 1971, having settled on a new “swoosh” logo design, the company sought a new name.

Among the top proposals by the founders and employees were Peregrine, Bengal, and Dimension Six. Then, employee Jeff Johnson called in from a business trip to Portland, Oregon, and suggested Nike, the name of the winged Greek goddess of victory.

CEO Phil Knight made the final decision. “I guess we’ll go with the Nike thing for a while,” he reportedly said. “I don’t like any of them, but I guess that’s the best of the bunch.”

Nike

● The 17th Century Native American woman Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, is famous for intervening to save the life of Captain John Smith as her father was about to execute him. For the most part, her story has been romanticized and exaggerated.

In real life, she was kidnapped by the English, converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, got married, had a son, toured England as an example of a “civilized savage,” and died there at age 21.

● You know how bags of potato chips are inflated and puffy, and they go whoosh when you open them? That’s because the bags are filled with nitrogen gas before sealing. Nitrogen is used because it’s a stable gas that doesn’t react chemically with the chips, so they remain fresh longer.

● At present, 24 countries around the world are named for men (Bolivia for Simon Bolivar, Colombia for Christopher Columbus, The Philippines for King Philip of Spain, etc.). Only one country, the Caribbean nation of Saint Lucia, is named for a woman.

Saint Lucia of Syracuse, aka Saint Lucy, was martyred in 304 AD by the conquering Romans for distributing her considerable riches among her Greek countrymen. This displeased her betrothed, a highly-connected Roman, and she was sentenced to be defiled in a brothel.

According to legend, the guards who came to arrest her were unable to move her, even with a team of oxen. They tried to burn her at the stake, but the fire went out. Finally, she was sent to her reward by sword.

The late comedian Jackie Gleason (1916-1987) is buried at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami. Etched into the marble steps leading to his grave is one of his well-known catchphrases, And away we go!

Gleason grave

 

Dooku? Naboo?

The concept in literature and the movies of a fictional universe, a fully-formed imaginary world, goes way back. Thomas More wrote Utopia in the 1500s. Conan the Barbarian appeared in the 1930s. The Lensman sci-fi novels came out between the 1930s and the 1960s.

We have the worlds of Middle Earth, Narnia, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones. Not to mention the endless parade of comic book superheros. (A tiresome fad that I wish would go away, but, alas, will not.)

This proliferation of alternate realities surely says something about society, the national psyche, and the mentality of the average Joe.

But I’m not here to address that. I want to gripe about something that has mystified me for years — specifically, since 1977, when the original Star Wars movie came out.

Why, I want to know, do the characters and places in the Star Wars movies have such dopey, feeble names? With very few exceptions, Star Wars names are turkeys. Gutterballs.

In most fictional universes, the creators take special pride in the names they choose. Names are an opportunity to make a statement. Names can be revealing, evocative, dramatic. At minimum, you want them to be appealing and memorable.

Not in the world of Star Wars. In Star Wars, the names elicit a “Whaaaa???”

Take, for example, this list of duds:

– Chewbacca
– Lando Calrissian
– Jar Jar Binks
– Qui-Gon Jinn
– Poe Dameron

Yes, I know, Star Wars is popular and beloved. Those names and others are now familiar, and people have become accustomed to them. But as character names, what were the writers thinking? Were the names generated at random? Did they just string a few syllables together and move on?

With those possibilities in mind, consider these misfires:

– Emperor Palpatine
– Grand Moff Tarkin
– Darth Vader
– Count Dooku
– Yoda

Palpatine? Grand Moff? Dooku? Huh?

My first suspicion was that Georgia Lucas simply has a creative blind spot for names. Indeed, that may be the case. But when Disney assimilated Lucasfilm in 2012, the names, if anything, got worse.

For example, here are the main characters in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story:

– Cassian Andor
– Jyn Erso
– Baze Malbus
– Chirrut Îmwe
– Bodhi Rook
– Saw Gerrera
– Mon Mothma

With a little effort, I was able to commit the first two names to memory. But the others? Ha!

In contrast, consider some of the character names created by J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling in their Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter novels.

Tolkien gave us these excellent and emotive names:

– Aragorn, son of Arathorn
– Thorin Oakenshield
– Smaug
– Arwen Evenstar
– Meriadoc Brandybuck

Rowling matched him with these:

– Hermione Granger
– Albus Dumbledore
– Severus Snape
– Nymphadora Tonks
– Draco Malfoy

As for place names, here are some destinations in Middle Earth:

– The Shire
– Rivendell
– Fanghorn Forest
– Mordor
Lothlórien

Place names in the world of Harry Potter:

– Hogwarts
– Little Whinging
– Slytherin House
– Ollivander’s, Makers of Fine Wands Since 382 BC
St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries

Meanwhile, in the Star Wars universe:

– Naboo
– Dagobah
– Mos Eisley
– Tatooine
– Hoth

The pattern is clear and painful.

Part of the explanation may be that, as a creative enterprise, Star Wars doesn’t come close to Tolkien or Rowling. Mind you, I’m as fond of Star Wars as the next guy. But viewing them as artistic works, if Tolkien is George Washington and Rowling is Abraham Lincoln, Star Wars is Donald Trump.

That aside, being a lesser form of art is no excuse for:

– Padmé Amidala
– Obi-Wan Kenobi
– Darth Maul
– Biggs Darklighter
– Jek Porkins

Remember, I brought up this subject because I find it curious and a little baffling. I didn’t say it was remotely significant or consequential.

But Jek Porkins? Seriously?

Jek Porkins

Jek “Piggy” Porkins, X-wing pilot for the Rebel Alliance, call sign Red Six, a casualty of the Battle of Yavin. (Yavin?)

 

My Own Grandpa

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988), known as the “dean of science fiction writers,” was brilliant, influential, and, throughout his career, controversial.

Heinlein was a libertarian, a nudist, and a proponent of the free love social movement. He believed that only a world government, ruling all nations, can prevent nuclear annihilation. Many of his personal beliefs were openly reflected in his novels and short stories.

Naturally, his themes about sexuality brought criticism. Some of his stories dealt with pedophilia. Several times, he employed a special workaround to make adult-child relationships less offputting: he transformed the child into an adult through time travel.

In the short story below, Heinlein used time travel and multiple paradoxes to take the issues of gender and procreation (not pedophilia this time) to a head-spinning extreme. The fact that the story makes any logical sense is a tribute to Heinlein’s creativity and skill.

At the end of the story, I’ve included a graphic timeline that may be useful. Also, a good plot summary is here, but, hey — read the story first.

———

‘–All You Zombies–‘”

By Robert A. Heinlein
Published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1959

2217 Time Zone V (EST) 7 Nov. 1970 NYC — “Pop’s Place”: I was polishing a brandy snifter when the Unmarried Mother came in. I noted the time — 10:17 P. M. zone five, or eastern time, November 7th, 1970. Temporal agents always notice time and date; we must.

The Unmarried Mother was a man twenty-five years old, no taller than I am, childish features and a touchy temper. I didn’t like his looks — I never had — but he was a lad I was here to recruit, he was my boy. I gave him my best barkeep’s smile.

Maybe I’m too critical. He wasn’t swish; his nickname came from what he always said when some nosy type asked him his line: “I’m an unmarried mother.” If he felt less than murderous he would add: “at four cents a word. I write confession stories.”

If he felt nasty, he would wait for somebody to make something of it. He had a lethal style of infighting, like a female cop — reason I wanted him. Not the only one.

He had a load on, and his face showed that he despised people more than usual. Silently I poured a double shot of Old Underwear and left the bottle. He drank it, poured another.

I wiped the bar top. “How’s the ‘Unmarried Mother’ racket?”

His fingers tightened on the glass and he seemed about to throw it at me; I felt for the sap under the bar. In temporal manipulation you try to figure everything, but there are so many factors that you never take needless risks.

I saw him relax that tiny amount they teach you to watch for in the Bureau’s training school. “Sorry,” I said. “Just asking, ‘How’s business?’ Make it ‘How’s the weather?'”

He looked sour. “Business is okay. I write ’em, they print ’em, I eat.”

I poured myself one, leaned toward him. “Matter of fact,” I said, “you write a nice stick — I’ve sampled a few. You have an amazingly sure touch with the woman’s angle.”

It was a slip I had to risk; he never admitted what pen-names he used. But he was boiled enough to pick up only the last: “‘Woman’s angle!'” he repeated with a snort. “Yeah, I know the woman’s angle. I should.”

“So?” I said doubtfully. “Sisters?”

“No. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Now, now,” I answered mildly, “bartenders and psychiatrists learn that nothing is stranger than truth. Why, son, if you heard the stories I do — well, you’d make yourself rich. Incredible.”

“You don’t know what ‘incredible’ means!”

“So? Nothing astonishes me. I’ve always heard worse.” He snorted again. “Want to bet the rest of the bottle?”

“I’ll bet a full bottle.” I placed one on the bar.

“Well –” I signaled my other bartender to handle the trade. We were at the far end, a single-stool space that I kept private by loading the bar top by it with jars of pickled eggs and other clutter. A few were at the other end watching the fights and somebody was playing the juke box — private as a bed where we were.

“Okay,” he began, “to start with, I’m a bastard.”

“No distinction around here,” I said.

“I mean it,” he snapped. “My parents weren’t married.”

“Still no distinction,” I insisted. “Neither were mine.”

“When –” He stopped, gave me the first warm look I ever saw on him. “You mean that?”

“I do. A one-hundred-percent bastard. In fact,” I added, “no one in my family ever marries. All bastards.”

“Oh, that.” I showed it to him. “It just looks like a wedding ring; I wear it to keep women off.” It is an antique I bought in 1985 from a fellow operative — he had fetched it from pre-Christian Crete. “The Worm Ouroboros… the World Snake that eats its own tail, forever without end. A symbol of the Great Paradox.”

He barely glanced at it. “If you’re really a bastard, you know how it feels. When I was a little girl –”

“Wups!” I said. “Did I hear you correctly?”

“Who’s telling this story? When I was a little girl — Look, ever hear of Christine Jorgenson? Or Roberta Cowell?”

“Uh, sex-change cases? You’re trying to tell me –”

“Don’t interrupt or swelp me, I won’t talk. I was a foundling, left at an orphanage in Cleveland in 1945 when I was a month old. When I was a little girl, I envied kids with parents. Then, when I learned about sex — and, believe me, Pop, you learn fast in an orphanage –”

“I know.”

“– I made a solemn vow that any kid of mine would have both a pop and a mom. It kept me ‘pure,’ quite a feat in that vicinity — I had to learn to fight to manage it. Then I got older and realized I stood darn little chance of getting married — for the same reason I hadn’t been adopted.” He scowled. “I was horse-faced and buck-toothed, flat-chested and straight-haired.”

“You don’t look any worse than I do.”

“Who cares how a barkeep looks? Or a writer? But people wanting to adopt pick little blue-eyed golden-haired morons. Later on, the boys want bulging breasts, a cute face, and an Oh-you-wonderful-male manner.” He shrugged. “I couldn’t compete. So I decided to join the W.E.N.C.H.E.S.

“Eh?”

“Women’s Emergency National Corps, Hospitality & Entertainment Section, what they now call ‘Space Angels’ — Auxiliary Nursing Group, Extraterrestrial Legions.'”

I knew both terms, once I had them chronized. We use still a third name, it’s that elite military service corps: Women’s Hospitality Order Refortifying & Encouraging Spacemen. Vocabulary shift is the worst hurdle in time-jumps — did you know that a ‘service station’ once served oil fractions?

Once on an assignment in the Churchill Era, a woman said to me, ‘Meet me at the service station next door’ — which is not what it sounds; a ‘service station’ (then) wouldn’t have a bed in it.

He went on: “It was when they first admitted you can’t send men into space for months and years and not relieve the tension. You remember how the wowsers screamed? — that improved my chance, since volunteers were scarce. A gal had to be respectable, preferably virgin (they liked to train them from scratch), above average mentally, and stable emotionally. But most volunteers were old hookers, or neurotics who would crack up ten days off Earth.

So I didn’t need looks; if they accepted me, they would fix my buck teeth, put a wave in my hair, teach me to walk and dance and how to listen to a man pleasingly, and everything else — plus training for the prime duties. They would even use plastic surgery if it would help — nothing too good for our Boys.

“Best yet, they made sure you didn’t get pregnant during your enlistment — and you were almost certain to marry at the end of your hitch. Same way today, A.N.G.E.L.S. marry spacers — they talk the language.

“When I was eighteen I was placed as a ‘mother’s helper’. This family simply wanted a cheap servant, but I didn’t mind as I couldn’t enlist till I was twenty-one. I did housework and went to night school — pretending to continue my high school typing and shorthand but going to a charm class instead, to better my chances for enlistment.

“Then I met this city slicker with his hundred-dollar bills.” He scowled. “The no-good actually did have a wad of hundred-dollar bills. He showed me one night, told me to help myself.

“But I didn’t. I liked him. He was the first man I ever met who was nice to me without trying games with me. I quit night school to see him oftener. It was the happiest time of my life.

“Then one night in the park the games began.”

He stopped. I said, “And then?”

“And then nothing! I never saw him again. He walked me home and told me he loved me — and kissed me good-night and never came back.” He looked grim. “If I could find him, I’d kill him!”

“Well,” I sympathized, “I know how you feel. But killing him — just for doing what comes naturally — hmm… Did you struggle?”

“Huh? What’s that got to do with it?”

“Quite a bit. Maybe he deserves a couple of broken arms for running out on you, but –”

“He deserves worse than that! Wait till you hear. Somehow I kept anyone from suspecting and decided it was all for the best. I hadn’t really loved him and probably would never love anybody — and I was more eager to join the W.E.N.C.H.E.S. than ever. I wasn’t disqualified, they didn’t insist on virgins. I cheered up.

“It wasn’t until my skirts got tight that I realized.”

“Pregnant?”

“He had me higher ‘n a kite! Those skinflints I lived with ignored it as long as I could work — then kicked me out, and the orphanage wouldn’t take me back. I landed in a charity ward surrounded by other big bellies and trotted bedpans until my time came.

“One night I found myself on an operating table, with a nurse saying, ‘Relax. Now breathe deeply.’

“I woke up in bed, numb from the chest down. My surgeon came in. ‘How do you feel?’ he says cheerfully.

“‘Like a mummy.’

“‘Naturally. You’re wrapped like one and full of dope to keep you numb. You’ll get well — but a Cesarean isn’t a hangnail.’

“‘Cesarean’ I said. ‘Doc — did I lose the baby?’

“‘Oh, no. Your baby’s fine.’

“Oh. Boy or girl?

“‘A healthy little girl. Five pounds, three ounces.’

“I relaxed. It’s something, to have made a baby. I told myself I would go somewhere and tack ‘Mrs.’ on my name and let the kid think her papa was dead — no orphanage for my kid!

“But the surgeon was talking. ‘Tell me, uh –‘ He avoided my name. ‘did you ever think your glandular setup was odd?’

“I said, ‘Huh? Of course not. What are you driving at?’

“He hesitated. ‘I’ll give you this in one dose, then a hypo to let you sleep off your jitters. You’ll have ’em.’

“‘Why?’ I demanded.

“‘Ever hear of that Scottish physician who was female until she was thirty five? — then had surgery and became legally and medically a man? Got married. All okay.’

“‘What’s that got to do with me?’

“‘That’s what I’m saying. You’re a man.’

“I tried to sit up. ‘What?’

“‘Take it easy. When I opened you, I found a mess. I sent for the Chief of Surgery while I got the baby out, then we held a consultation with you on the table — and worked for hours to salvage what we could. You had two full sets of organs, both immature, but with the female set well enough developed for you to have a baby.

“’They could never be any use to you again, so we took them out and rearranged things so that you can develop properly as a man.’ He put a hand on me. ‘Don’t worry. You’re young, your bones will readjust, we’ll watch your glandular balance — and make a fine young man out of you.’

“I started to cry. ‘What about my baby?’

“‘Well, you can’t nurse her, you haven’t milk enough for a kitten. If I were you, I wouldn’t see her — put her up for adoption.’

“‘No!’

“He shrugged. ‘The choice is yours; you’re her mother — well, her parent. But don’t worry now; we’ll get you well first.’

“Next day they let me see the kid and I saw her daily — trying to get used to her. I had never seen a brand-new baby and had no idea how awful they look — my daughter looked like an orange monkey. My feelings changed to cold determination to do right by her. But four weeks later that didn’t mean anything.”

“Eh?”

“She was snatched.”

“‘Snatched?'”

The Unmarried Mother almost knocked over the bottle we had bet. “Kidnapped — stolen from the hospital nursery!” He breathed hard. “How’s that for taking the last a man’s got to live for?”

“A bad deal,” I agreed. “Let’s pour you another. No clues?”

“Nothing the police could trace. Somebody came to see her, claimed to be her uncle. While the nurse had her back turned, he walked out with her.”

“Description?”

“Just a man, with a face-shaped face, like yours or mine.” He frowned. “I think it was the baby’s father. The nurse swore it was an older man but he probably used makeup. Who else would swipe my baby? Childless women pull such stunts — but whoever heard of a man doing it?”

“What happened to you then?”

“Eleven more months of that grim place and three operations. In four months I started to grow a beard; before I was out I was shaving regularly… and no longer doubted that I was male.” He grinned wryly. “I was staring down nurses necklines.”

“Well,” I said, “seems to me you came through okay. Here you are, a normal man, making good money, no real troubles. And the life of a female is not an easy one.”

He glared at me. “A lot you know about it!”

“So?”

“Ever hear the expression ‘a ruined woman’?”

“Mmm, years ago. Doesn’t mean much today.”

“I was as ruined as a woman can be; that bum really ruined me — I was no longer a woman… and I didn’t know how to be a man.”

“Takes getting used to, I suppose.”

“You have no idea. I don’t mean learning how to dress, or not walking into the wrong rest room; I learned those in the hospital. But how could I live? What job could I get? Hell, I couldn’t even drive a car. I didn’t know a trade; I couldn’t do manual labor — too much scar tissue, too tender.

“I hated him for having ruined me for the W.E.N.C.H.E.S., too, but I didn’t know how much until I tried to join the Space Corps instead. One look at my belly and I was marked unfit for military service. The medical officer spent time on me just from curiosity; he had read about my case.

“So I changed my name and came to New York. I got by as a fry cook, then rented a typewriter and set myself up as a public stenographer — what a laugh! In four months I typed four letters and one manuscript. The manuscript was for Real Life Tales and a waste of paper, but the goof who wrote it sold it.

“Which gave me an idea; I bought a stack of confession magazines and studied them.” He looked cynical. “Now you know how I get the authentic woman’s angle on an unmarried-mother story… through the only version I haven’t sold — the true one. Do I win the bottle?”

I pushed it toward him. I was upset myself, but there was work to do. I said, “Son, you still want to lay hands on that so-and-so?”

His eyes lighted up — a feral gleam.

“Hold it!” I said. “You wouldn’t kill him?”

He chuckled nastily. “Try me.”

“Take it easy. I know more about it than you think I do. I can help you. I know where he is.”

He reached across the bar. “Where is he?”

I said softly, “Let go my shirt, sonny — or you’ll land in the alley and we’ll tell the cops you fainted.” I showed him the sap.

He let go. “Sorry. But where is he?” He looked at me. “And how do you know so much?”

“All in good time. There are records — hospital records, orphanage records, medical records. The matron of your orphanage was Mrs. Fetherage — right? She was followed by Mrs. Gruenstein — right? Your name, as a girl, was ‘Jane’ — right? And you didn’t tell me any of this — right?”

I had him baffled and a bit scared. “What’s this? You trying to make trouble for me?”

“No indeed. I’ve your welfare at heart. I can put this character in your lap. You do to him as you see fit — and I guarantee that you’ll get away with it. But I don’t think you’ll kill him. You’d be nuts to — and you aren’t nuts. Not quite.”

He brushed it aside. “Cut the noise. Where is he?” I poured him a short one; he was drunk, but anger was offsetting it. “Not so fast. I do something for you — you do something for me.”

“Uh… what?”

“You don’t like your work. What would you say to high pay, steady work, unlimited expense account, your own boss on the job, and lots of variety and adventure?”

He stared. “I’d say, ‘Get those goddam reindeer off my roof!’ Shove it, Pop — there’s no such job.”

“Okay, put it this way: I hand him to you, you settle with him, then try my job. If it’s not all I claim — well, I can’t hold you.”

He was wavering; the last drink did it. “When d’yuh d’liver ‘im?” he said thickly.

He shoved out his hand. “It’s a deal!”

“If it’s a deal — right now!”

I nodded to my assistant to watch both ends, noted the time — 2300 — started to duck through the gate under the bar — when the juke box blared out: “I’m My Own Grandpa!” The service man had orders to load it with Americana and classics because I couldn’t stomach the ‘music’ of 1970, but I hadn’t known that tape was in it.

I called out, “Shut that off! Give the customer his money back.” I added, “Storeroom, back in a moment,” and headed there with my Unmarried Mother following.

It was down the passage across from the johns, a steel door to which no one but my day manager and myself had a key; inside was a door to an inner room to which only I had a key. We went there.

He looked blearily around at windowless walls. “Where is he?”

“Right away.” I opened a case, the only thing in the room; it was a U. S. F. F. Coordinates Transformer Field Kit, series 1992, Mod. II — a beauty, no moving parts, weight twenty-three kilos fully charged, and shaped to pass as a suitcase. I had adjusted it precisely earlier that day; all I had to do was to shake out the metal net which limits the transformation field.

Which I did. “What’s that?” he demanded.

“Time machine,” I said and tossed the net over us.

“Hey!” he yelled and stepped back. There is a technique to this; the net has to be thrown so that the subject will instinctively step back onto the metal mesh, then you close the net with both of you inside completely — else you might leave shoe soles behind or a piece of foot, or scoop up a slice of floor. But that’s all the skill it takes. Some agents con a subject into the net; I tell the truth and use that instant of utter astonishment to flip the switch. Which I did.

1030 VI 3 April 1963Cleveland, Ohio Apex Bldg.: “Hey!” he repeated. “Take this damn thing off!”

“Sorry”, I apologized and did so, stuffed the net into the case, closed it. “You said you wanted to find him.”

“But — you said that was a time machine!”

I pointed out a window. “Does that look like November? Or New York?” While he was gawking at new buds and spring weather, I reopened the case, took out a packet of hundred-dollar bills, checked that the numbers and signatures were compatible with 1963. The Temporal Bureau doesn’t care how much you spend (it costs nothing) but they don’t like unnecessary anachronisms. Too many mistakes, and a general court-martial will exile you for a year in a nasty period, say 1974 with its strict rationing and forced labor. I never make such mistakes; the money was okay.

He turned around and said, “What happened?”

“He’s here. Go outside and take him. Here’s expense money.” I shoved it at him and added, “Settle him, then I’ll pick you up.”

Hundred-dollar bills have a hypnotic effect on a person not used to them. He was thumbing them unbelievingly as I eased him into the hall, locked him out. The next jump was easy, a small shift in era.

7100 VI 10 March 1964 Cleveland Apex Bldg.: There was a notice under the door saying that my lease expired next week; otherwise the room looked as it had a moment before. Outside, trees were bare and snow threatened; I hurried, stopping only for contemporary money and a coat, hat, and topcoat I had left there when I leased the room. I hired a car, went to the hospital. It took twenty minutes to bore the nursery attendant to the point where I could swipe the baby without being noticed. We went back to the Apex Building. This dial setting was more involved, as the building did not yet exist in 1945. But I had precalculated it.

0100 VI 20 Sept. 1945 Cleveland Skyview Motel: Field kit, baby, and I arrived in a motel outside town. Earlier I had registered as “Gregory Johnson, Warren, Ohio,” so we arrived in a room with curtains closed, windows locked, and doors bolted, and the floor cleared to allow for waver as the machine hunts. You can get a nasty bruise from a chair where it shouldn’t be — not the chair, of course, but backlash from the field.

No trouble. Jane was sleeping soundly; I carried her out, put her in a grocery box on the seat of a car I had provided earlier, drove to the orphanage, put her on the steps, drove two blocks to a ‘service station’ (the petroleum-products sort) and phoned the orphanage, drove back in time to see them taking the box inside, kept going and abandoned the car near the motel — walked to it and jumped forward to the Apex Building in 1963.

2200 VI 24 April 1963 Cleveland Apex Bldg.: I had cut the time rather fine — temporal accuracy depends on span, except on return to zero. If I had it right, Jane was discovering, out in the park this balmy spring night, that she wasn’t quite as nice a girl as she had thought. I grabbed a taxi to the home of those skinflints, had the hackie wait around a comer while I lurked in shadows.

Presently I spotted them down the street, arms around each other. He took her up on the porch and made a long job of kissing her good-night — longer than I thought. Then she went in and he came down the walk, turned away. I slid into step and hooked an arm in his. “That’s all, son,” I announced quietly. “I’m back to pick you up.”

“You!” He gasped and caught his breath.

“Me. Now you know who he is — and after you think it over you’ll know who you are… and if you think hard enough, you’ll figure out who the baby is… and who I am.”

He didn’t answer, he was badly shaken. It’s a shock to have it proved to you that you can’t resist seducing yourself. I took him to the Apex Building and we jumped again.

2300 VIII12 Aug. 1985 Sub Rockies Base: I woke the duty sergeant, showed my I. D., told the sergeant to bed my companion down with a happy pill and recruit him in the morning. The sergeant looked sour, but rank is rank, regardless of era; he did what I said — thinking, no doubt, that the next time we met he might be the colonel and I the sergeant. Which can happen in our corps. “What name?” he asked.

I wrote it out. He raised his eyebrows. “Like so, eh? Hmm –”

“You just do your job, Sergeant.” I turned to my companion.

“Son, your troubles are over. You’re about to start the best job a man ever held — and you’ll do well. I know.”

“That you will!” agreed the sergeant. “Look at me — born in 1917 — still around, still young, still enjoying life.” I went back to the jump room, set everything on preselected zero.

2301 V 7 Nov. 1970 NYC “Pop’s Place”: I came out of the storeroom carrying a fifth of Drambuie to account for the minute I had been gone. My assistant was arguing with the customer who had been playing “I’m My Own Grandpa!” I said, “Oh, let him play it, then unplug it.” I was very tired.

It’s rough, but somebody must do it, and it’s very hard to recruit anyone in the later years, since the Mistake of 1972. Can you think of a better source than to pick people all fouled up where they are and give them well-paid, interesting (even though dangerous) work in a necessary cause? Everybody knows now why the Fizzle War of 1963 fizzled. The bomb with New York’s number on it didn’t go off, a hundred other things didn’t go as planned — all arranged by the likes of me.

But not the Mistake of ’72; that one is not our fault — and can’t be undone; there’s no paradox to resolve. A thing either is, or it isn’t, now and forever amen. But there won’t be another like it; an order dated ‘1992’ takes precedence any year.

I closed five minutes early, leaving a letter in the cash register telling my day manager that I was accepting his offer to buy me out, to see my lawyer as I was leaving on a long vacation. The Bureau might or might not pick up his payments, but they want things left tidy. I went to the room in the back of the storeroom and forward to 1993.

2200 VII — 12 Jan 1993 Sub Rockies Annex HQ Temporal DOL: I checked in with the duty officer and went to my quarters, intending to sleep for a week. I had fetched the bottle we bet (after all, I won it) and took a drink before I wrote my report. It tasted foul, and I wondered why I had ever liked Old Underwear. But it was better than nothing; I don’t like to be cold sober, I think too much. But I don’t really hit the bottle either; other people have snakes — I have people.

I dictated my report; forty recruitments all okayed by the Psych Bureau — counting my own, which I knew would be okayed. I was here, wasn’t I? Then I taped a request for assignment to operations; I was sick of recruiting. I dropped both in the slot and headed for bed. My eye fell on ‘The By-Laws of Time,’ over my bed:

– Never Do Yesterday What Should Be Done Tomorrow.
If at Last You Do Succeed, Never Try Again.
– A Stitch in Time Saves Nine Billion.
– A Paradox May Be Paradoctored.
– It Is Earlier When You Think.
– Ancestors Are Just People.
Even Jove Nods.

They didn’t inspire me the way they had when I was a recruit; thirty subjective-years of time-jumping wears you down. I undressed, and when I got down to the hide I looked at my belly. A Cesarean leaves a big scar, but I’m so hairy now that I don’t notice it unless I look for it.

Then I glanced at the ring on my finger.

The Snake That Eats Its Own Tail, Forever and Ever. I know where I came from — but where did all you zombies come from?

I felt a headache coming on, but a headache powder is one thing I do not take. I did once — and you all went away.

So I crawled into bed and whistled out the light.

You aren’t really there at all. There isn’t anybody but me — Jane — here alone in the dark.

I miss you dreadfully!

Ouroborus

 

 

All You Zombies

Print

On board

Next war

Daddy

 

Demand and Supply

One thing that irritates me bigly is when I discover I have a knowledge gap about something — when I find I’m uninformed on a subject commonly known to others. It shows that I’m not as educated and erudite as I like to think. I hate that.

Recently, while on a road trip, I got schooled about something new — new to me — and I’ve been pouting ever since.

It happened earlier this month on a trip to Land Between the Lakes, a national recreation area in northern Tennessee and southern Kentucky.

(Before the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers were dammed to create Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, the place was called Land Between the Rivers. But that isn’t the thing I got schooled about.)

Among the amenities and attractions at LBL is the Woodlands Nature Station, a small zoo that houses a variety of orphaned or injured animals. In residence there are hawks, owls, deer, groundhogs, a bald eagle, a coyote, and other critters that no longer can survive in the wild.

I found it interesting that, during the day, the raptors are not caged, but instead are restrained by tethers. Each bird has a perch and is free to move in a radius of about five feet. Every day, just before closing time, the birds are transferred to their night-time shelters in the “Parade of Raptors.” A clever bit of marketing there.

Woodlands-1

So I bought a ticket and spent half an hour wandering around the place. The woodsy setting was attractive and pleasant, and the animals seemed unstressed, which was nice.

Before long, in a clearing between the wild turkey pen and the possum enclosure, I arrived at a large turtle pond. Submerged in the pond were three large alligator snapping turtles and a dozen smaller turtles of various types.

(The jaw power of an alligator snapper is impressive. An adult can bite through a broom handle.)

Woodlands-2

My timing was pretty good. Two employees were just arriving with a bucket of lunch for the turtles.

What do the turtles at Woodlands Nature Station eat? On the menu that day was dead mice.

It seems natural enough to feed dead mice to the raptors, the coyote, and other critters, but to the turtles? I would expect turtles to be fed fish, insects, worms, or maybe commercial turtle food. Mice? Intriguing.

With some difficulty, the male employee, a portly gentleman, assumed a sitting position beside the pond near a group of the smaller turtles. He reached into the bucket and withdrew a dead mouse. Holding it by the tail (Of course. How else would you pick up a dead mouse?), he dangled it in the water in front of one of the turtles.

Here ya go, Lulu,” he cooed. “I got a nice mouse for ya.”

Remaining underwater, Lulu propelled herself forward, grabbed the mouse, and quickly retreated from the group; the other turtles had taken notice.

Better feed Alice next so she don’t steal from the others,” the female employee said.

The man dangled a mouse in front of Alice. Alice snatched it and promptly swam away.

By then, the other turtles had assembled in a rough semi-circle, waiting to be fed. One by one, the man presented them with lunch. Then it was time to feed the alligator snappers.

Hey, y’all — wake up!” the man called out. He struggled to his feet and moved the mouse bucket closer to where the three snappers were snoozing. They noted his presence and came to attention.

As the man doled out mice to the snappers, some of the smaller turtles arrived, hoping to score again. The man tried to maintain order and keep the turtles apart. From a nearby bench, the female employee offered advice and occasionally admonished a turtle for getting too close to the business end of a snapper.

Up to that point, I had been quietly observing. I finally spoke up.

The turtles really like those mice,” I said. “I didn’t expect that.”

Oh, yeah, they love ’em,” the man replied.

Where in the world do you get dead mice?” I asked. “What’s the source?”

We buy ’em wholesale.”

Wholesale? Mice?”

Oh, yeah. For places like us, with animals to feed, it’s crucial. We couldn’t operate otherwise. We place the orders automatically. The merchandise comes frozen.”

Of course.”

Anyway, that’s the new thing I learned on my road trip: there is an entire world out there, previously unbeknownst to me, in which large national companies — nay, large worldwide companies — raise mice, rats, chicks, quail, and even little bunny rabbits to execute, freeze, and sell as a food source.

Why wasn’t I aware of this? Because the logistics of animal food supply never appeared on my radar screen. I’ve never had a bird, turtle, or snake as a pet, never had to consider the food issue.

When I got home a few days later, I Googled the dead mouse business and got further informed. In the trade, the product is called feeder mice.

And, as a business, it makes sense. Selling feeder mice is just a case of meeting an industry need. A matter of demand and supply. It’s all there — production, R&D, purchasing, marketing, finance, distribution.

Systems have to be in place to euthanize the little things and sort them by category — size, weight, color, and so on. The merchandise must be properly preserved, packaged, shipped, and delivered. And certified as healthy and disease-free.

What, you ask, is the cost of a dead mouse? There are variables aplenty — size, weight, nutritional content, quantity ordered.

As I write this, RodentPro.com has a special sale on extra-small “pinky” mice, sold in bags of 100. Normally 35 cents each, they are now available for the amazing low price of 24 cents each!

If pinkies are too small for your needs, RodentPro sells small adult “weanling” mice for 65 cents each (bags of 50) and large adult mice (choice of brown, white, or hairless) for 75 cents (bags of 25).

If the sale ends before you have a chance to act, don’t worry. The other big names in the business (Mice Direct, American Rodent Supply, The Big Cheese Rodent Factory, etc.) are sure to have special offers that interest you.

Woodlands-3

Woodlands-4

Like I said, it’s mortifying to discover something that is new to me, but common knowledge to others.

On the other hand, looking at the bright side, at least I’ve narrowed my knowledge gap a bit.