Category Archives: Story

Swimming with Sharks

Lately I’ve been hooked on a TV legal thriller called “Damages.” I first heard about it during an interview with Robert McKee, a writing teacher and author of “Story.” He singled it out as a TV series he likes.

The story and the characters are engaging and the acting is superb. The lead character, played by Glen Close, is a top NYC litigator. Each season revolves around only one case told from many points of view in a nonlinear narrative with lots of plot twists. I’m sure the quality of the series is the attraction for the list top actors, from William Hurt to Ted Danson, who appear as major characters.

Because McKee had mentioned it, I thought it’d be worth checking out. I’d never heard of the show; but then I don’t have a TV and I live in Mexico. I was able to find it online. The series first aired in 2007 and is still running. Now, I’ve gone from having never heard of “Damages” to not being able to limit myself to just one episode at a time. It’s a slippery slope.

Old Fish

I want to introduce you to the coelacanth (pronounced sea-la-kanth).

The coelacanth is an amazing fish. Amongst animals with backbones, the coelacanth is ancient. It’s been around for about 400 million years. To put that in perspective, dinosaurs were around for less than 200 million years and died out around 65 million years ago. Until 1938 coelacanths were thought to have been extinct for about 65 million years. But in 1938 someone realized the fishermen on the Comoros Islands near Madagascar were catching them!

The coelacanth has not really changed much during its 400 million year run. What’s the secret of this successful life form? One big factor is their very slow metabolism. A tuna needs 100 times more oxygen (per kilogram per hour) than a coelacanth. And, a coelacanth  can get by on 12 grams of food a day, a portion of food lighter than three US nickel coins.

Because coelacanths possess the slowest metabolic rate of any vertebrate; they can live in parts of the ocean where more active fish can’t. So coelacanths can be found flourishing on the barren undersea lava fields in the Indian Ocean which are unlike the food rich coral reefs favored by faster fish. There’s not a lot of competition for food nor is there lots of food where they live.

Coelacanths look a little bit different. They sport heavy, armor-like scales and a few more fins than most fish. Growing to almost 2 meters long, older coelacanths can tip the scales at 90 kilos. Because they have more fins than most other fish coelacanths have a unique and usually slow swimming style.

I’ve known about coelacanths for years and recently I saw a video clip of one by a German explorer, Hans Fricke. It’s hypnotizing, and I wanted to share it. Check out this short     (51 sec) video of a coelacanth just hanging out. It’s mesmerizing.


Simple But Not Easy

I was surfing with some friends from Colorado who are visiting Mexico. They don’t get to surf very often, but had a good time surfing out in the sun and warm water here. As I watched them adjusting to the other surfers in the water, I was struck by something I read once, “power is never given, power is taken.”

The group of surfers waiting for a wave to show up is called the line-up. Your position in the line-up is the equivalent of your power and you can interchange “line-up position” for “power” in what I just quoted above – “a line-up position is never given, a line-up position is taken.”

It’s been many years since the Aloha spirit prevailed in surfing. At most spots there are now more surfers than waves available, so there’s a sort of athletic Darwinism at play. The weaker or less skilled surfers are always noted, and then disregarded as having any real shot at catching (m)any waves and they’re usually avoided if they’re too far out because they often make mistakes that can hurt other surfers. This isn’t done out of meanness, it’s just how things have developed and an order establishes itself as surfers come in and out of the line-up.

Even though a few surfers might paddle to catch an approaching wave, the main rule is that it belongs to the first person up and riding and the others are expected to pull off of it. On bigger waves there’s sometimes the feeling you pick up on in basketball photos of one player slamming a dunk over the player guarding him, or maybe it’s like the famous “look” Lance Armstrong gave to Jan Ullrich, taunting him to follow up a steep climb in the Tour de France. Power is taken.

Somehow weakness is sensed within the line-up, like a dog somehow sensing fear. You can feel it when you first paddle out, particularly if you’re by yourself at a new spot because “the line-up position is never given.” But soon enough the pecking order is set.

I guess this situation is a metaphor for life. Friends surfing with each other cooperate with one another, and friendships are formed in the water too. And it’s all fun. But the operating principle these days is competition more than cooperation. And everyone is subject to the same code that “power never steps back except in the face of more power” and that’s part of the fun because the only real loss is a wave; and another one will show up soon.

Modifying Habits

Modifying a habit is usually tough. When I moved to Mexico I needed to adjust some habits.

Here’s an example. Plumbing and water treatment are approached differently here in Mexico at least compared to how it’s done the States. Mexico’s septic systems depend on people throwing all used toilet paper into the ubiquitous waste basket found next to each toilet. Never into the toilet. That would cause some real issues quickly. If you can make a minor adjustment everything works quite well.

Surprisingly, this minor adjustment took some adjustments. Talking to other North Americans, I found they also had a difficult period of adaptation. It takes some getting used to, after years of tossing toilet paper into the toilet bowl, now in Mexico there was a subtle but significant habit modification to make. At first it feels like you’re trying to brush your teeth with your nondominant hand.

Most new comers to Mexico run into two issues trying to adapt to this new twist on a habit that we acquired as a young kids. One issue is the unconscious act of the toss, you never think about putting toilet paper anywhere else other than into the john. After you succeed in the switchover from a two point shot to the outside three pointer, the next issue is overcoming the strangeness of depositing used toilet paper into a waste basket. The waste basket always has a plastic bag lining it and it’s changed out every other day, but it still takes some getting used to mentally.

My guess is that the older you are the more difficult modifying your habits become. There are a few oases of  gringo septic systems in Mexico but who wants to move into the Four Seasons where you could be anywhere and nowhere at the same time.

The PaperNet

With the new year I started thinking about influences on my life. Here’s one of them.

B.F. Skinner once said “education is what remains after what you’ve learned has been forgotten.” This is an homage to the “The Whole Earth Catalog” (WEC) because exploring the world of ideas both big and small in the WEC was a huge part of my education.

When I was a young teen I stumbled across the WEC and it became my portal to a parallel universe. I grew up in a somewhat restrictive environment in the deep South. If you accepted and followed the status quo things were easy, if not, there weren’t alternatives that were presented or encouraged. At that time the WEC presented so many different ideas and access to those ideas that for me it was incredible. It was a paper version of the internet.

The WEC was a very large format paperback printed on coarse, unbleached paper which added to the experience of immersion into a big world of possibilities. There were tools, resources for independent study, and things that weren’t already common knowledge. If something was inexpensive, or high quality, and was readily available by mail, then there was a good chance it would show up in the WEC. It really was an immersive experience for me. You could follow threads of related information all over the catalog, for example hopping  from house design to info on owner built houses to the best tools to use and why they were preferred. Also accompanying each item were excerpts from submitters, staff reviewers and if it was a book, quotes. Plus the WEC was a book about other people doing other things.

From the first edition in 1968 to last incarnation of the Whole Earth Quarterly in 1998 updated editions came out every couple of years with more ideas and information. Now with the instant availability of info and links on the internet it’s hard to recall what a breath of fresh air the WEC was. Just looking through it you were sure to be waylaid by something new to investigate.

Of course with the internet there’s no real place for the WEC anymore. It almost seems quaint now up against the internet, the way a Farmer’s Almanac compares to the weather report on TV. But before there was an internet the WEC was where I was educated.

Four Guys And A Book

This is a hurricane Katrina story with a happy ending.

The story involves four guys and an old book. They’re all in the photo above taken this Thanksgiving while celebrating my father’s 80th birthday in New Orleans. From left to right are my brother-in-law, our family friend, the book, my brother, and my Dad.

When hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans my parents were luckily out of town. Luckily, because their house was flooded with five feet of muddy water. They didn’t return to size up the situation until more than a month later after authorities began allowing residents to come back.

But just a few days after Katrina, my brother-in-law who lives fairly close to New Orleans (in Baton Rouge), snuck (because civilians weren’t permitted into to the city) into my parents’ flooded neighborhood by canoe to sort out the situation in their house. He rescued what he could from the receding muck and got out not paying any attention to a pile of wet books ruined by the flooding.

My Dad had a small collection of antique books which were unfortunately stored within five feet of the floor in their house. His favorite was printed in 1597, an over-sized, heavily illustrated medical text written in Latin.

Our family friend is Dutch and has lived in New Orleans for 50 years and has known my parents for more than 30 years. Shortly after the Hurricane and my brother-in-law’s visit, he checked in on my parents’ wrecked home while they were we still away. There, he discovered the antique book from 1597, waterlogged and spread out in the mud like a  crow that had flown into the ground and exploded.

Our friend mentioned finding the book to my Dad who was overwhelmed with more pressing Katrina recovery issues and didn’t express much concern for a wrecked book. But having witnessed people’s reactions to traumatic life events as a young man in 1940’s war torn Europe, our friend retrieved the ruined book, put it in a plastic bag, and froze it in his freezer. My Dad might want to do something with it later, our friend thought. And so the book stayed in our friend’s freezer for four years!

Katrina hit in the Summer of 2005 and four years later our friend still had a rock hard, mud soaked book in his freezer when he talked to my brother about getting the book repaired. My brother who lives in New Orleans then transferred the book into his freezer.

Next my brother began researching restorers of antique books, eventually settling on an expert in Indiana. Once the book got to the restorer a year-long process of soaking, cleaning, page rebuilding, and rebinding started.

The resurrected book finally returned to my brother looking as fresher, I’d guess, than any other 400 year old book.

This year my Dad turned 80 and three generations of our family converged on New Orleans to celebrate. All of the people from Louisiana involved with the book rescue were there representing different links in a chain to the past.

At his Birthday party on Thanksgiving, my brother gave our surprised Dad the book he never expected to see again.

Happy Birthday Dad.

Small Gestures

Katharine Hepburn said “I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people.”

I clipped out part of an article several years ago that struck home and backs up Hepburn’s idea. All I have is the clipping, the magazine and it’s author are lost in my marshy memory, sorry. The back story was about a writing program for older people. The program seemed to help them to better deal with aging. Participants ranged from violinists to bricklayers and from cowboys to doctors. The author said what struck her is what older people chose to write about.

“No one regardless of what they did for a living, ever writes about their jobs, or their weddings, or the birth of their children, or the war, things that many people would assume most older folks would write about.” She said “they write about the relationships and the very small gestures that have made them human.”

I guess this rang true to me at the time as well as now. It was just something I’d noticed and suspected was true and it was reassuring to hear it from someone with experience with a large pool of people.

About fifteen years ago I was driving across France. I didn’t speak much French and was traveling alone. I had some camping gear with me and pulled off at a nondescript rest spot to cook dinner. A French tour bus pulled in to let the passengers stretch their legs. I was cooking away on a small stove atop a picnic table.

Some of the passengers had brought along snacks for their journey. As I was cooking, a middle-aged woman walked over to my picnic table. I thought she was going to ask if she and her traveling buddies could share the picnic table since I was obviously solo. Instead she offered me a slice of the lemon tart she’d made for the trip. With my hand gestures and toddler French I accepted. She gave me a slice and I thanked her.

A few minutes passed and the break was over. Everyone reboarded their bus and motored away to where I don’t know. But that was a damn good lemon tart and a lasting memory of a small gesture.