Thought of the Week: [Insert Number]-Legged Creatures

These have four legs. I think they’re called ungulates.

I was reading the “about” of a blog, recently, and they mentioned being an advocate for all the four-legged creatures of the world. I whole-heartedly agree, but it caused me to wonder: what about all the others? What about those with six legs, with eight, with a hundred, or with none?

I remember being fascinated by life, in general, from a young age (funny how I failed biology). I had these great children’s science books, and my two favorites were those on snakes and spiders. Don’t get me wrong – these creatures terrify me – but they also fascinate me, inspire me, and awe me. I try my best to never, ever kill any creature found in our house; many, many spiders have found themselves peacefully transported outside in a small glass I have just for this purpose. I will swat a few insects – flies and mosquitoes – but even then I feel a little bad (okay – not for the mosquitoes).

One of thousands, all working perfectly together to strengthen the whole. We humans could learn from these creatures.

The thing that fascinates me most, however, about these many and varied creatures is the startling intelligence displayed by these creatures. There are many, many humans I can think of that behave with far less intelligence than the smallest six-legged bug. I remember reading not too long ago that the octopus, about which so little is known, keeps as much as forty percent of its brain in its tentacles (note: not nervous system, but actual brain). In other words, each specific tentacle is a living, thinking unit, separate yet part of the whole. If amputated, the tentacle will continue to live on, moving, crawling, and will even attempt to capture food.

It is these alien intelligences that bewilder me, astound me, and give me thought for the diversity of all life. We are attuned to empathizing more directly with animals that are closest to us in appearance and behavior; we attribute many human characteristics to our dogs and cats, find it adorable when a parrot learns to say a word, or even when a mouse sniffs a piece of cheese. Certainly, our perspective of these behaviors is significantly different to the perspective and thoughts of the animals themselves, but it is nothing compared to the alienness of those creatures far, far removed from us.

So visceral, so frightening – built perfectly for this job.

I think often of the remarkable intelligence of spiders. Lone, solitary creatures, they defend their realms viciously, often killing other spiders in the process. They have an astonishing patience, to lay in wait for days. They have foresight, to capture food and store it for later consumption. They are master architects, building structures naturally and instinctively that the greatest human engineers have yet to better. They have senses beyond senses, able to feel imperceptible motions in the ground and air. Their eyes…what can it possible be like, to see the world from all directions, through eight, or ten, or a dozen eyes?

Look closely – what beautiful colors.

The frightening beauty of these creatures is also a thing that possesses me. Humans are nothing compared to the visual diversity of these creatures. Imagine one person having black skin with vertical stripes of white pigment, while another’s skin is burgundy, spotted with patches of green skin. The colors, textures, and dynamics of their appearance is astonishing. Even the greyest of moths has a wonderful hue, when seen close.

And then there are those with no legs, the great creatures of the sea. Sharks, so long seen as mindless death machines, know each other, recognize friend from foe, and can tell from a single taste that a human is not a fish, and not worth eating. And whales…oh, what wondrous creatures. If ever there was a creature to better the ways of the human race, it would be they. Rulers of their ocean world, they journey, they feed, they play, and their lives are perfect…except for the mindless human death machines that thoughtlessly kill all those creatures around them, ignorant of their pain, of their lives, and of the destruction they will bring upon their own world.

Douglas Adams once spoke of this intelligence of the whales’ smaller cousins, the dolphins:

Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much…the wheel, New York, wars and so on…while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man…for precisely the same reason.

How true this is.

Tales of Despair: Mostly Hopeless

Douglas Adams is dead.

As it happens, he’s been dead for quite some time, given that he suffered a fatal heart attack after working out almost exactly eleven years ago, which is a shame. Let this be a lesson to you, though, and never, ever do any exercise of any kind, or you’ll probably die too.

Douglas Adams left us with a veritable treasure trove of magic, a whole lot of unfinished work, and a perfectly unsatisfying ending to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of novels. Like most artists, Douglas suffered from spells of depression and despair, a trait he shared with his long-time (and still very much alive) friend, Stephen Fry. This is something that creeps into his writing, inevitably, and it’s fascinating to consider the emotional turmoil in his life through the lens of the Hitchhiker series.

I’ve always found the connection between creativity and despair to be fascinating. Finnish rock band HIM (His Infernal Majesty), throughout their career, have released album after album of music almost entirely about the pain and heartache of failed love, except for a large gap of time between 2003 and 2005, when the lead singer finally found himself in a stable relationship. Funny how the creativity there stopped for a bit.

Yet beyond even this, the connection between art and depression seems all the stronger in the realm of comedy. Countless comedic artists have used the laughter of their medium to help survive against the inside torture of personal despair. Woody Allen, Jim Carrey, Spike Milligan, David Walliams…the list goes on. Often, their wittiest and best-loved work comes from the darkest times in their lives. Occasionally, though, the unhappiness leaks through and stains their work in a way that transcends the humor, and bares the sadness in their soul. This is not black humor – this is depression.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy began life as a radio comedy in the late seventies, ending up translated into a plethora of mediums, including film and TV, but perhaps best known as a series of novels. The five books in the series are The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe and Everything (1982), So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the original tale in the world of Arthur Dent, is a voyage of essentially pure silliness, introducing us to such wizardry as the infinite improbability drive, the person who designed Norway’s fjords, Deep Thought, and of course, 42. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, published only a year later, essentially continued this same plot line, and in fact the titular restaurant features only briefly at the beginning of the story, before meandering away to discover the universe is run by a single man in a shack in the rain, and abandoning Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect on prehistoric earth.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is possibly the beginning of a downward slide for the author and the tale; despite the wit and humor throughout, the themes of abandonment and confusion lend the story a sense of frustration – a feeling that despite all effort and will, the world will never quite make sense. The fact that the book ends with what appears to be Arthur’s resignation to his fate, rather than a desire to escape it, is one of the first signs we get in the ongoing tale that things may just not quite pan out for our characters.

The third tale, Life, The Universe and Everything, seems to pick itself up out of the lethargy at the end of Restaurant, involving quite of bit of intrigue and action, and ultimately ending with Arthur saving the entirely of the universe from ultimate destruction.  The fourth tale, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, brings the story out of the haze that had surrounded the previous two books, and allows Arthur to actually find the love of his life, in the form of Fenchurch (rather amusingly named after the train station in which she was conceived). The whole book, from start to finish, feels imbued with a feeling of warmth and hope, from the fact that earth was replaced by dolphins to the touching and bittersweet ending in which Marvin, decrepit and ancient, is able to see god’s last message to creation just before he finally expires. It perhaps no coincidence that the publication of this book arrived at the same time that Douglas met and fell in love with his future wife, whom he would be with until his death, seventeen years later.

Then we have a break. Eight long years before the next Hitchhiker book. And oh my, what a tragic difference. Mostly Harmless opens with Arthur having lost Fenchurch, and the entire tale from there on follows his desperate and impossible search throughout time and multiple universes to find her again. The story is filled with despair, doom and tragedy, to such an extent that the sense of loss begins to overpower the humor.

In the years since the publication of So Long, Douglas endured a drawn-out and troubled relationship with his wife-to-be, including several separations, which even resulted at one point in their engagement being called off. Ultimately, the two rejoined and were married in late 1991, but perhaps the damage was done, and the material for Mostly Harmless already planted firmly in Douglas’ head.

In the end, we are treated to a lost love, a plot to destroy earth in every possible universe, an unwanted child and insolent teenager, and even an unintended assassination attempt. Even the one, brief moment of happiness we are allowed, when Arthur takes up as a sandwich-maker on a small, backwater planet, is torn apart when Random arrives, followed not long after by Ford Prefect. In the end – right at the very end – earth is destroyed, taking along with it every main character in the series. And this is how it ends – not with a bang, but a silent whisper into the night.

Every time I read the series (I am lucky enough to have all five stories combined into one giant anthology, and I find I have to read them from start to finish), I am left with the unnerving sensation that I am surreptitiously paralleling Douglas’ own personal traumas, and being led down the path to despair whether I would go there or not. Mostly Harmless does not relent, and in this the seams begin to show. The book’s humor lies entirely in the writing, while the plot itself is allowed to descend into ever-greater bleakness.

It was for a long time assumed Douglas intended to, at some point, write a sixth installment (it turns out a sixth was written, though not by him, and so far I haven’t read it). Even without any further knowledge of what Douglas would have intended for this new tale, it is interesting to contemplate the very fact that he had been planning it; almost by definition, resurrecting the destroyed characters and throwing into yet a further adventure would have felt like a return to hope – we haven’t abandoned them entirely.

As it is, however, we are left sad, miserable and unsatisfied, and in relation to those other famous tales of despair in the world, this makes it almost the very definition of a tragedy. In some ways, I am reminded of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathétique, with its manic third movement and utterly desolate fourth movement; so the Hitchhiker series feels in the realm of literature.

And in the end, of course, it should have been no other way.

Douglas Adams on Tea

Yesterday, I ate a small chocolate egg and it gave me a throat infection. It isn’t very nice, and put a bit of a damper on the last day of our friends’ visit from England.

In fact, it seemed a little weird that the egg should make me sick, so I consulted with my biologist wife, who confirmed that I likely had a virus/bacteria already colonizing the wetlands of my esophagus, and the sugar from the egg was like rain after a drought – they just ate it all up, and then made lots of nasty germ babies.

Anyway, the upshot of it is that I’ve been eating very little, and drinking lots and lots and lots of tea. I like tea; I usually poison myself with coffee most days, but only because it gives me a swifter kick up the ass. Tea is good at night, and good in the morning, and…well hell, it’s good pretty much all the time.

All this thinking about tea, coupled with our delightful British friend who drank somewhere between five to ten cups a day while she was here, got me thinking of what Douglas Adams had to say on the subject, and since it felt pretty relevant right now, I thought I’d share it with you all.

As a side note, I have no idea how copyright plays into this; I’ll give all due credit, and if someone asks me to take it down, so be it.

Tea

One or two Americans have asked me why the English like tea so much, which never seems to them to be a very good drink. To understand, you have to make it properly.

There is a very simple principle to the making of tea, and it’s this – to get the proper flavour of tea, the water has to be boilING (not boilED) when it hits the tea leaves. If it’s merely hot, then the tea will be insipid. That’s why we English have these odd rituals, such as warming the teapot first (so as not to cause the boiling water to cool down too fast as it hits the pot). And that’s why the American habit of bringing a teacup, a tea bag, and a pot of hot water to the table is merely the perfect way of making a thin, pale, watery cup of tea that nobody in their right mind would want to drink. The Americans are all mystified about why the English make such a big thing out of tea because most Americans HAVE NEVER HAD A GOOD CUP OF TEA.  That’s why they don’t understand. In fact, the truth of the matter is that most English people don’t know how to make tea anymore either, and most people drink cheap instant coffee instead, which is a pity, and gives Americans the impression that the English are just generally clueless about hot stimulants.

So the best advice I can give to an American arriving in England is this: Go to Marks and Spencer and buy a packet of Earl Grey tea. Go back to where you’re staying and boil a kettle of water. While it is coming to a boil, open the sealed packet and sniff. Careful – you may feel a bit dizzy, but this is in fact perfectly legal. When the kettle has boiled, pour a little of it into a teapot, swirl it around, and tip it out again. Put a couple (or three, depending on the size of the teapot) of tea bags into the pot. (If I was really trying to lead you into the paths of righteousness, I would tell you to use free leaves rather than bags, but let’s just take things in easy stages). Bring the kettle back up to the boil, and then pour the boiling water as quickly as you can into the pot. Let it stand for two or three minutes, and then pour it into a cup. Some people will tell you that you shouldn’t have milk with Earl Grey, just a slice of lemon. Screw them. I like it with milk. If you think you will like it with milk, then it’s probably best to put some milk into the bottom of the cup before you pour in the tea*. If you pour milk into a cup of hot tea, you will scald the milk. If you think you will prefer it with a slice of lemon, then, well, add a slice of lemon.

Drink it. After a few moments you will begin to think that the place you’ve come to isn’t maybe quite so strange and crazy after all.

* This is socially incorrect. The socially correct way of pouring tea is to put the milk in after the tea. Social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatsoever to do with reason, logic, or physics. In fact, in England it is generally considered socially incorrect to know stuff or think about things. It’s worth bearing this in mind when visiting.

Taken from “The Salmon of Doubt”, published 2002 by Macmillan

Original text written May 12, 1999

© Completely Unexpected Productions Ltd. 2002

And that’s how I’ve been drinking my tea for the past few days. Thank you, Douglas.