Saturday, February 26, 2011

Chatting with Cavemen

The ancients understood very well that languages were related to one another in groups such as Celtic and Germanic. Whether they recognized broader interrelationships and common origins is unknown. The rigorous study of these relationships is usually dated to lectures on the subject by Sir William Jones in 1786. In the two centuries since then, we’ve come to understand the self-consistent ways languages diverge and evolve, so often it is possible to discover a common origin for languages that might not have many obvious similarities. In the case of Indo-European languages (which include English, Greek, Russian, and Hindi, among many others), researchers actually have reconstructed an ancestral proto-Indo-European language more than 5000 years old with a vocabulary of hundreds of words. African, East Asian, and Native American languages also have been categorized into a handful each of large language groups.

A controversial question is whether these broad language groups in turn also have a common origin. Was there a single mother tongue? There are tantalizing clues. Researchers at the University of Reading have used supercomputers to cross-analyze languages and believe they can trace some words back 30,000 years. Even a cursory comparison of vocabularies in widely dispersed languages turns up spooky similarities. Take the word “who” as single example among many: Khoisan, “!khu”; Latin, “qui”; Austric, “o-ko-e”; Dene-Caucasian, “kwi”; Amerindian, “kune”; and so on.

Linguist Merritt Ruhlen finds the evidence for a single mother language more than compelling. I recommend his book The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue as a readable and cogent argument by a radical unifier. The unifiers have been making substantial academic headway lately, but still are outnumbered by conservatives. Conservative linguists don’t so much deny a monolingual origin as say it cannot be reconstructed if it existed and that coincidence is an explanation for similarities among unrelated tongues. Unifiers don’t buy “coincidence” for what they see as far too many correspondences among supposedly unrelated languages. Some roots Ruhlen proposes as coming from an original language:

ku= “who”
ma= “what”
pal= “two”
akwa= “water”
tik= “finger” (as in English “digit”)
bungku= “knee”
putv= “vulva”
chuna= “nose, smell”

We don’t know when humans first spoke a full-blown language, defined as words with discrete meanings strung together with a true grammar. (How chatty the Neanderthals may have been is a question that starts angry arguments among paleontologists, but nobody really knows.) It is all but certain, though, that by the time anatomically modern humans spread out from Africa 100,000 years ago or so, they happily were bragging and gossiping. We should keep in mind just how small the modern human population was at this time: a few tens of thousands at most. This is one of the best arguments for the monogenesis theory of language: a few thousand people populated the entire world. We may not have much in common with the denizens of that era, but it’s nice to think we could have exchanged a few words.

Post Script

Two tales of my own featuring talkative ancestors: Neander Valley Girl (or Cavemen Behaving Badly) at , set 35,000 years ago, and Modern Times at , set about 100,000 years earlier and 9000 kilometers to the south.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Of Myths and Men

A recent Livescience article, titled “The Midlife Crisis is a Total Myth,” argues precisely that, “particularly in its application to men.” Damn, I wish I’d known. I’d have done without mine.

The article quotes several experts, such as life span researcher Alexandra Freund in Zurich: "There is no specific time in life that predisposes you to crisis." I think this expert perspective comes from being too close to the subject matter. We see similar blinders on practitioners in other fields. For decades, mainstream geologists, for example, insisted continental drift (first proposed by a meteorologist) was a total myth even though anyone who looks at a map of Africa and South America can see it. When asked to explain the jigsaw puzzle-like coastlines, the geologists said “coincidence,” because they were educated enough in their field to know there was no mechanism by which continents could drift. (The mechanism turned out to be heat generated by the decay of radioactive elements in the earth.) Well, anyone who looks at the middle aged can see their crises are no myth. I know the next objection already: “That’s just anecdotal evidence.” Well yes, but enough anecdotes become statistical, don’t they?

Perhaps the problem is the word “crisis.” I suspect the professionals are giving the term greater weight than the rest of us do in common parlance. I’m sure the good doctors are correct when they claim that 40-somethings are no more likely to be “in crisis” than teens, 20-somethings or 60-somethings. Yet, while admitting that not all Mean Girls are teenagers and that some problems can affect anyone at any age, does anyone doubt that teens face a peculiar set of anxieties and challenges characteristic of their age group? Are there not difficulties common to 20-somethings and 30-somethings that are less common for teens and seniors? So too for 40-somethings and 50-somethings. Even if the absolute level of stress – measured on some hypothetical objective stress-o-meter – is no greater (perhaps less) at 46 than at 16, it is quite likely to be stress characteristic of that age.

We really do reflect on our lives after 40 and we do it with an awareness that “time is running out” for some major changes. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard folks in their 40s make some plaintive remark such as, “I can’t believe my life has turned out this way.” Some do something about it and some don’t, but the remark alone justifies the term “mid-life crisis,” at least in my book. Marrieds consider divorce. Lifelong singles consider marriage – usually (as I did) to someone young and inappropriate. The childless consider children: “If I don’t now, I never will.” Company drones consider starting their own businesses or becoming artists. And yes, Corvettes look more appealing than they have for 20 years.

The middle-age crazy stock characters in books and movies need not be retired yet. He and she have some life left in them, and for good reason.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Graduating from The Graduate

The Graduate is one of the must-see movies of the 1960s, and I have seen it once every five years or so starting in 1967. That means nine or ten times overall, including last night, and that, I think, finally is enough. Besides, nowadays the film raises a question, at least for those of my generation, that was unintended in 1967, and it is one that has no pleasant answer.

Like all the best movies, The Graduate is very much of its time, yet transcends it. Dustin Hoffman is at his finest in his breakthrough role as the new college grad Benjamin. The script is intelligent and funny. The Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack is just marvelous. The clever direction is chock full of small metaphors that are easy to miss on a first view; as one small example, when Mrs. Robinson tosses Benjamin the keys to his car, it is not just the keys he fails to catch.

It is more than just a period piece. Young 21st century newcomers to the movie still can relate to the generation war; the rebellion of offspring against parents is, after all, a constant. All teens and young-20s in every place and time, when contemplating their futures, agree with Benjamin when he says, “I want it to be different.” They mean different from the lives of their parents. While more recent college movies (comedies anyway) might lead a viewer to believe college campuses are populated entirely by shy brainy geeks and incredibly good-looking self-satisfied idiots, few campus denizens, in truth, are either. The typical student is in between: as unbrainy, ungorgeous, yet ungeeky as Benjamin. The time immediately after graduation remains today, as it was then, full of disorientation and confusion for them. They face the post scholastic world with awkwardness, inexperience and uncertainty. Their fantasies of a Bohemian future, which were easy to sustain while in school, upon graduation suddenly look like fantasies indeed; what looms instead is an unpleasant prospect of a dull grind to pay bills – or, almost as daunting, yet more school. As for romance, there either is no wonderful relationship in prospect or the existing one is looking a lot less wonderful than it did at first.

The purely 60s elements of the film include (not very jarring) matters of style and fashion – and, of course, the sound track. For the most part these are quaint. Less quaint is an undercurrent of conceit (truly part of the 60s Zeitgeist) that Boomers really would have lives different from those of their parents or of any previous generation—that we had burnt the old rulebook and wouldn’t be trapped by the old corrupting social constraints and hypocrisies. We were liberated. When Anne Bancroft shouts at her daughter, “It’s too late!” Katherine Ross shouts back, “Not for me!” And yet it was. We didn’t know it in 1967, but it really was. After some still-youthful self-indulgence (overindulgence really) in the 70s, Boomers pulled the rulebook back out of the ashes and found it had been charred only slightly. Ultimately, you see, most of us didn’t have the courage to be so very different from our parents after all; the ways that we are in fact different (e.g. a lower work ethic) aren’t much about which to brag. The dawning of the age of Aquarius simply will have to wait, maybe forever.

The Graduate still works as a story about individual young people, and first time viewers can and do relate to it in that way. Most enjoy it – though, be warned, the pacing is more leisurely than is typical in today’s movies. For those at whom it initially was aimed, however, the movie may well evoke a twinge and the question, “Where did we go wrong?”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Up the Down Osculator

Among all the chocolates sold today are Hershey’s Kisses. They date to 1907. Actual kisses are considerably older. How much older is anyone’s guess. Bonobo apes like to French kiss, which is a disturbing mental image I’ll pass along to the reader. References to kisses turn up in some of the earliest ancient writings, including Vedic texts from India dating to 1500 BC. In Greek New Comedy of the 300s BC and later, comic playwrights sometimes would name a sexy female character Philematium (Kissy). The Romans, methodical as always, had a separate word for each of three categories of kisses: 1) Osculum, a kiss on the cheek appropriate for friends and family members; 2) Basium, a kiss on the lips for more intimate connections; and 3) Savolium, what we today call a French kiss. (That last Latin word sounds wet, doesn’t it?)

Kisses aren’t quite universal, but they are nearly so. Some 90% of human culture groups kiss as part of common romantic behavior. A LiveScience article notes the remaining 10% do something similar to kissing “such as face blowing.” (But do they face blow on a first date?) The same article says that the area around the mouth is rich in an oily substance called sebum, which contains a lot of chemical information about a person. Ah, that explains it; we kiss because we want to sniff out clues from the sebum. What other reason could there be?

Incidentally, if you’re looking for a Valentine’s Day movie, let me suggest Don Juan (1927). It still holds the record for the number of kisses in a film. John Barrymore divvies up 127 of them between Mary Astor and Estelle Taylor.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Transcendent Trash

The actress Tura Satana (nee Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi) died earlier this week. A walking melting pot, she owed her exotic look to Japanese, Filipino, Cheyenne, and Scots-Irish ancestry. I met Tura briefly about a year ago, but I first saw her image on screen in the cult classic B movie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). She acted in many other films, but none so special as this one.

The mid-60s were a peculiar period in filmmaking when moviemakers tossed the Hays code into the waste bin, but still exercised significant self-restraint, partly for commercial reasons and partly to avoid provoking government censorship. (The MPAA rating system was adopted in 1968, paving the way for more graphic adult films.) No movie illustrates this moment of cusp better than Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! It is superb trash. It is trash transcending itself. There is not a scene in it that cannot be aired on primetime free broadcast TV; not a word needs to be bleeped, not an image needs to be excised. Yet, the movie never airs there because, collectively, the scenes make something definitely not for kids, even by today’s standards. There are busty killer babes, a threatened innocent, and (four years before Manson) a perverse murderous family in an isolated desert ranch.

It is commonly said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. True enough. Yet it is also true that one man’s trash is another’s garbage. No, the words aren’t quite synonymous. Garbage is just…well… garbage, but trash (as John Waters, for one, is proud to call his films) is something more sublime. It is the high art of low life. Done right, it is more satisfying than either high art or low life alone.

So, thanks, Tura, for helping to give us some truly satisfying trash – and yes, that’s a compliment. I’ll be slipping the DVD into my player tonight.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Guilty Pleasures

We all have them. I don’t mean criminalities one hides from police (though some of us have those) or infidelities one hides from a spouse (though even more of us have those). I mean the secret joys of the oil rig roughneck who rushes home to see Spongebob Squarepants, of the museum of art curator who is addicted to Jersey Shore, of the hard-nosed county prosecutor who cries when she watches Dumbo, or of the NFL halfback who never misses The Princess Diaries when it is on cable. That sort of thing. There is nothing really wrong with it, but it’s just not something you’d like most people to know.

What’s one of mine? OK, I’ll admit it. Between 1999 and 2003 I was addicted to a primetime teen soap opera called Roswell. More than that, when the dvds were released I bought all three seasons. But that’s all in the past, right? No, not exactly.

A few months ago, a friend and her teen daughter were visiting at my house. The teen mentioned she couldn’t stomach the hit teen soap Twilight even though many of her friends were obsessed with it. I suggested she introduce her friends to Roswell, which was a vastly superior show. I dug out the pilot episode and put it in the dvd player. Both mother and daughter liked it, but there was an unintended side effect. Damn it, now I’m addicted again, and I see no alternative but to see the series once more all the way through to the end – actually, I just finished the second season yesterday.

The show’s premise: the mysterious crash of an object outside of Roswell NM in 1947 that originally was reported by newspapers to be a flying saucer was in fact a flying saucer, rather than a weather balloon as the Air Force later insisted. Two alien survivors of the crash escaped the scene and secreted away pods in which alien and human DNA were blended; the pods incubate for decades until out pop human-looking kids; the alien-human hybrids grow into teenagers and attend West Roswell High. Silly? Utterly. Yet strangely mesmerizing.

What did the show do right? Solid writing, clever directing, a great cast, dry dark humor, and a core plot of two young literally star-crossed lovers. The show won a fiercely dedicated following, yet, the following was cultish rather than large. Roswell was always on the verge of cancellation; it lasted three seasons only by switching networks. So what did the show do wrong, at least commercially? It didn’t focus specifically on the teen audience, especially girls. In particular, the two male leads in the show, while good-looking, lack the swoon-inducing presence of, say, Robert Pattinson on Twilight, and so failed to win a female teen/tween following outside the pool of sci-fi fans. After all, if a middle-age bachelor can enjoy the show, the target demographic wasn’t hit with precision. The female aliens played by Emilie de Ravin and Katherine Heigl are the real eye candy on the show.

So, if you are someone who is likely to have your TV set commandeered by teens, let me suggest keeping the Roswell dvds handy. They might save you from being driven from the room by what is on your screen. Be warned, though. You might find yourself watching them alone, too. I promise not to tell.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Anything for a Gag

A nation’s constitution – particularly any bill of rights it may contain – often is said to embody the values of a people. More often it does the opposite. Constitutional rules describe not what comes naturally to a people but what comes hard to them.

Take as an example the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, quoted in full below.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

We need it. Tolerance does not come easily to us. We are such a touchy people, taking offense at the drop of a word, that we gag each other at every turn if we can. The Supreme Court, consisting of nine lawyers, all too often has been willing to co-operate by somehow reading “no law” as “some laws.”

Extreme events are particularly dangerous pretexts for bad policy and bad court rulings. In 1954, for example, a gang of four teenage Brooklyn boys committed a series of outrages. The ringleader, Jack Koslow, was an extraordinarily intelligent sociopath with a fondness for Spinoza and Nietzsche. He also read Mein Kampf, and, though Jewish himself, openly admired Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, even wearing a Hitler mustache and giving Nazi salutes. He despised Americans, whom he regarded he regarded as weak, stupid, and pathetic, while noting, “Now the Germans are smart.” In a summer crime spree, the boys targeted vagrants, whom Koslow called “parasites on society.” They set some on fire and beat one to death. In addition, they terrorized girls they caught in the parks, flogging them for fun. They finally were caught when a witness saw them beat a man, burn his feet, and then throw him in the East River where he drowned; the witness identified them to police.

A psychologist named Frederic Wertham interviewed the boys. Wertham, a crusader against comic books, previously had warned in his book Seduction of the Innocent that in comics, “Blood flows freely, bosoms are half-bared, girls’ buttocks are drawn with careful attention.” Dr. Wertham appears to have given them careful attention anyway. After the interview, Wertham declared that the boys had been corrupted by comic books, though I think anyone else might have picked up on that little Nazi thing instead. The boys didn’t make any such excuse, by the way. Wertham simply showed them comic books and asked if they read things like that. Of course they said yes. If he had shown them a baseball bat and asked if they ever played with one, they would have said yes, too.

Wertham singled out Nights of Horror as a particularly baneful example of what can corrupt youth, though there is no evidence Koslow ever read an issue. Nights of Horror had a tiny circulation. It was a comic with very mild S&M themes; it was drawn by Joe Shuster, of all people, one of the inventors of Superman. Shuster at the time was broke and made money where he could. (DC owned the rights to his big hit.) New York City authorities were convinced by Wertham’s arguments, and they brought charges against the publishers of Nights of Horror. A NY judge upheld the charges, calling the magazines pornography and marking them down for grammar: “The volumes are replete with misspelled words,” he said. The case was appealed and went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a 5/4 decision the Court agreed with the lower court and the destruction of the magazines was ordered – a few survive. The decision was written by Felix Frankfurter, a founder of the ACLU.

Ancient times? Not really. Fortunately, the courts are a little less quick to uphold bans on the written word in 2011, but the same old attitudes prevail among the public, resulting in soft censorship. Look at the hysteria over the MTV show Skins, which is trashy but hardly the threat to civilization the Parent’s Television Council acts as though it is: the UK has managed to survive the BBC version of the show. Look at the recently released expurgated edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn—and the fact that I can’t quote what was expurgated on this blog site without violating the terms of service. (Whatever will they do with Pudd'nhead Wilson?) Incidentally, Twain’s whole point (even more blatantly in Pudd'nhead) was that casual racism and evil doctrines such as slavery easily can be indoctrinated into young boys; it undermines his message, which is entirely politically correct in modern terms, to change his language. As another example, back in 2005 I caught the revival of Sweet Charity on Broadway with Christina Applegate in the Charity role. (Spoiler follows.) In the original, Charity, a good-hearted woman with a past, is dumped by her presumed white knight boyfriend who, in the end, can’t get past his socially conservative hang-ups. In the revival, he regrets what he did but then is counter-dumped by Charity. This ending may be more in tune with the state of the gender war in the 21st century, but it really does miss the point of the original. It actually makes the guy less of a jerk and turns her recovery into revenge instead of self-affirmation.

The cost of living in a free society is sharing it with people who live and speak in ways of which we ourselves don’t approve. I’m happy we have a Constitutional rule that (usually) forces us to do it. I’d be happier still if we didn’t need it.