Saturday, March 31, 2007


One of the things people criticize about Modern Society is our lack of community. People move far away from their families; they live in suburbs where they never get to know their neighbors; they lose the tight interconnected circles that used to bind us all together. That loss can also be perceived as freedom, and I’ve never personally minded it much… except when people die.

It’s so hard to know how to grieve when you lose someone who lived far away.

A week or so ago, a friend of mine in Midwestern City was struck by a car as she crossed the street. Badly injured, she fell into a coma, and last night she was taken off life support and died within minutes.

Usually in human communities we gather together at the time of a death; we bring food and drink and tell stories. We comfort each other, and we chip in to do whatever tasks need to be done. But here I am a thousand miles away from the people who knew my friend. Nobody in this city ever met her; there’s no one here to share memories with. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen her (I’m startled to realize how many; it didn’t feel like long), so that even if I were there, I wouldn’t know most of the friends she has now; the circle of friends we shared several years ago has itself divided and moved on.

I’ll call her Dancing Woman, because my favorite memory of her is from a goofy little Irish bar in Midwestern City. My brother was performing that night, and I joined him on stage to sing a few duets. We loved to do unbearably cheesy Everly Brothers kinds of songs (I sing a mean Everly Brother) and that night when we sang “Dream” (I can make you mine, taste your lips of wine, anytime night or day), I saw her dancing, eyes closed, huge silly smile on her face, swaying her hips in happy abandon to the music. It made me so happy, to see her enjoyment and to have inspired it.

Dancing Woman was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met; she could charm your socks off, but she was also tough as nails and took no shit from nobody. She was street smart more than book smart, though the streets weren’t always easy, and she struggled to make ends meet as a single mother. But she was always fierce and determined and strong, and she could always make you smile, and she was always ready to dance.

These are the kinds of things I wish I could share with her friends, in the kind of laughing-crying-drinking-singing wake she would have loved. But I’m here, and drinking and crying alone just isn’t as satisfying. All I could do last night was to walk out into the thunderstorm raging over our neighborhood, admire the turbulent sky, pour some wine into the rain as a libation, and silently wish her well.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Colorful language

Squadratomagico asked about the synesthesia (#15 of the previous post) a while ago, and I thought that would be fun to write about, now that people seem to have heard of it enough to think I’m not totally psycho. For those of you who haven’t, it’s a neurological condition that makes some of your senses overlap; in my case, I have “grapheme-color synesthesia,” which means that letters and numbers have distinct colors. I think I suspected for a long time that not everybody saw the world this way; once in a while I’d mention how somebody’s name clashed or how nice it was that their address was the same color as their house, and I’d get weird looks. So I just quit saying things like that, and didn’t think about it much.

I’ve known what to call it since a couple of years ago when I read an article in Smithsonian about it, and thought – OH! – you mean not everybody sees words in color? Cool. I think it happens in about 2% of the population, and different people have it in different forms – for some people, sounds have a distinct color, or colors are associated with smells and even distances, or whatever other combination you can come up with. Those all sound pretty bizarre to me, except of course for my version - of course words have color! How could they not?

I didn’t really talk this out with anyone until a few months ago, when I mentioned it to my talented artistic (and very color-oriented) sister, who did indeed think I was nuts. She asked me a bunch of really interesting questions about it, though, which helped me be more aware of the “rules” of how it worked. For example, each letter and number has a particular color; the color of a word is determined most by the word’s first letter, though vowels tend to make it lighter or darker: an ‘a’ will add a reddish-orange glow; ‘i’ adds a reflective whitish/silver tint; an ‘e’ tends to thin the dominant color, like adding water to paint, and so on. It’s the letter itself and not the pronunciation that matters, so a ‘c’ is sand-colored whether it’s hard or soft.

Wow – I’ve just looked this up for the first time on wikipedia, and people seem to know a lot more about it now than they did a few years ago. (Must be the brain weirdness of choice these days.) One cool thing the entry says is that while individual grapheme-color synesthetes don’t always agree on the same colors, there are some common patterns, such as A being likely to be red. What’s surprising is when I read other people’s accounts and they differ – A is indeed red, but another person reports that S is red, C is yellow, and J is yellow-green. Is this person crazy? That to me is like insisting that the sun is blue. How can S be red? S is beige, and thinking of it as red is just… really disturbingly wrong.

One interesting thing ArtSister asked was whether I thought this would work with other alphabets. And that question was the first thing that really made me understand what this looks like to other people. If I imagine Greek or Russian or Japanese, why, they’re just lines and shapes on paper! How the heck could anybody associate color with that? …Oh. So I guess it’s just the Roman alphabet with me, though I wonder if I really learned another alphabet, whether it would carry over. And it works with the Roman alphabet across different languages, whether or not I understand the word.

Aren’t brains interesting things? I guess if I’m going to have wires crossed in mine, this is a good way to do it; it certainly doesn’t do any damage. The only thing is that I get confused with centuries… for me it’s weird to say that a certain event happened in the 1500s but also in the 16th century, because I remember dates by color, and “1500s” is orangey, while “16” is a dark matte blue. I’ll learn that the Battle of Lepanto happened in an orange time, but when I try to remember it later, that doesn’t tell me if it was the 1500s or the 15th century.

And none of this means I’m artistic or any good at all with color; I can listen to my sister talk about color wheels and values and saturation (and see all of these things in her work), and I don’t begin to comprehend any of it; that’s a whole different language. All I can tell you is what color the word “color” is.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Random paragraphs of crap

Topic the first: I just got an email from my sister, with an update on the still-fascinating chicken question. She writes:

I brought up the chicken question to some friends for cheap conversation, and they immediately reminded me of the scene in Rocky 1 where Rocky was supposed to get in shape by chasing a chicken. When he could catch it, he was ready to go into the ring. So either the chicken thief was preparing to start a life as a lady boxer, or I need new friends.
I think we should definitely incorporate the boxing idea into our analysis. And there must be a good title in there somewhere as well: "Rocky XVIII: The Chicken Thief."

Topic the second: I've posted on this before, but it happens every semester, and it never ceases to amaze me. I'm the faculty adviser to an honors society, and every semester I look over the transcripts of interested students to see if they're eligible. And I have to ask you this: if you were a student in your second year of college, and you weren't doing very well (Ds in some fairly easy classes, and a rather grim GPA overall), and - most importantly - if you were taking your FIRST EVER basketweaving class, why, why, would you indicate your interest in an honors organization for which you are only eligible if you have twelve hours of basketweaving credit and a 3.1 GPA? Are you mad?

Topic the third: I had something else funny to share here, but I got so fussed up again over that previous one that I forgot what it was. Sheesh.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Watch out for them dogs

In the category of "this must be shared with the blogosphere":

I'm doing some reading on the origins of physiognomy, the practice of interpreting people's faces to understand their character. (You know how it goes - a strong jaw indicates courage, little beady eyes mean you're greedy, and so forth.) Apparently there are physiognomical treatises in Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Chinese traditions going back thousands of years... but the oldest evidence comes from cuneiform tablets in ancient Mesopotamia, which include the following gem:

"If a man with a contorted face has a prominent right eye, far from his home dogs will eat him."

Dang, that's pretty specific.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Calling all chicken thieves

Get ready, guys, here comes a serious academic post. (Can you believe I originally meant this to be an academic blog? I did, but then everybody started getting in trouble or fired for their blogs, and I chickened out.)

Ha! What a great segue! Speaking of chickens, that's my question. A student of mine (we'll call her Clever Shy Girl) is working on a great project related to gender and crime in the 18th century, and among other things she has a list of cases of people stealing animals (horses, sheep, pheasants, rabbits, you name it). Mostly just one animal is stolen, or a few easily herdable animals, like sheep. But in a few cases, a single person is accused of having stolen chickens - lots of chickens, in one case a few dozen chickens.

Initially CSG just plugged this information into the database with everything else and worked on figuring out the patterns of who was stealing what from whom... but then as we talked about people's reasons for stealing animals (to sell? to eat?) we started to do more imagining about how those thefts would actually have worked, and we began to wonder: how does one person steal a whole bunch of chickens? These were live chickens, and I can imagine one person carrying two chickens, or maybe four or five in a sack, but twenty or thirty chickens? How do you do that? You'd have to at least have crates, and then some sort of small cart, and even then it seems like a pretty messy and complicated endeavor.

CSG and I are both city girls, with little experience in the ways of chickens, so I called my sister. Art Sister doesn't have chickens, but she lives in a small town and works part-time for the county extension office, so I figured she must know somebody who knows about chickens. She confirmed that it's virtually impossible to carry more than one chicken at a time, but didn't know more than that. I asked her: "Surely you know someone who raises chickens?" and she said "Well, yes, I do, but I am NOT going to call them up and tell them that my sister wants to know how to steal chickens."

My sister does not have the proper adventurous spirit necessary for academic pursuits.

So I turn to you: some of you are historians, and some of you are rural, and all of you are good creative adventurous thinkers. Give me a brainstorm on this one: if you were suddenly taken with the desire to go out and steal say twenty or thirty chickens, given the ordinary tools and resources available to a relatively poor person in the 18th century, how would you go about it?