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Monday, July 25, 2011

The Only Course I Ever Flunked

Microbes
I was always a good student, but until law school (where my splendid academic performance resulted from an alphabetical accident, as described in "How I Became a Law Professor," see "Related Posts" below), I never worked hard at making good grades.  Mostly I succeeded as a student at all levels because I was genuinely interested in the courses, and/or was good at studying and taking exams.  I didn't do well in courses like physical education, while I made "B" sorts of grades in science or math courses, where I cared less about the subject matter.

In college at the University of Maryland my grade point average was an almost perfect 3.0.  But there was one major blot on my record that pulled it down to that level: the course in microbiology.
I flunked it.  And in addition to it being the only course I've ever flunked, I damn near flunked it twice.  This was very hard to explain to my father, Robert Whaley, who was paying a lot of money for my education.  I should say that I'm much embarrassed by the whole incident, and do not recommend following my wretched example, described in agonizing detail below.
I was an English major at Maryland, and those courses were all snaps.  But I was required to take two science courses in order to graduate, so I chose Basic Astronomy (which was interesting) and Microbiology.  The reason the latter came to be my undoing had nothing to do with the subject matter, but much to do with the fact that I'm a night owl and not a morning person.  All my life I've typically stayed up until one a.m., risen at late as possible, and done my best work in the afternoon and evening.  But the course in Microbiology met twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a two hour lab session starting at eight in the morning each of those days, followed by a one hour lecture.  EIGHT O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING!!!  I'm afraid that's a time that doesn't exist for me, not in 1966 when I took the course, and not in 2011 as I write this.  When I eventually became a fulltime law professor, I just couldn't handle classes that started at, say, nine o'clock.  No matter how much coffee I drank or how early I got up, I couldn't put nouns with verbs in a coherent order until ten a.m. or later.  I finally told the law school's academic dean (in charge of scheduling) that I was a wasted resource teaching a class before ten in the morning, and thereafter that became my earliest scheduled class time for the rest of my career.  (See "The Summer Bar Review Tours" below, for a horror story in which I woke up teaching.)
Growth in a Petri Dish
For that eight a.m. science lab twice a week, I really, really tried hard to be there and do the assigned tasks.  But dragging myself from bed in time to make it to class was difficult to do, and I frequently was late or failed altogether.  When I did make it to the lab, my eyes (nearsighted and in need of heavy glasses) would have trouble focusing the microscopes and reading the results of the various experiments we did with petri dishes and test tubes.  I would sometimes wakeup doing these trials, and would be amazed by the results of the various assigned tasks.  They were horrifying!  Microbes can grow at incredible speeds and contaminate everything.  When I was awake enough to appreciate what was going on, I was, well, shocked.  But as the semester made it to the halfway point, I wasn't attending enough lab classes to pass that segment of the course, and my instructor so warned me.  Depressed, I quit going to labs altogether, and only attended the ten o'clock lectures (which I made about half the time).  Since the final grade was calculated with one third being lab work and two thirds written exams based on the lectures, I ended up flunking Microbiology, and then—horror of horrors—having to explain all this to Dad.  My explanation, it was made clear by him, was nothing but a confession of failure, and he was very disappointed in me.  I felt terrible.  Over my strong protests, he made me promise to take the course again the following semester.

I did do that, but then I had the same problem.  The scheduling was identical, and, try as I might, I couldn't get to the labs at eight in the morning twice a week and do the assigned work in a credible fashion.  I did go to all the lectures, and I paid careful attention when there.  By getting a "A" on all the written exams, I made a "C" for the course even though I failed the lab segment.  Dad wasn't pleased with a grade of "C" either, but I was relieved I hadn't flunked the course a second time.
Food in the Open Air
The only happy thing to come out of this miserable experience was that thereafter I learned not to schedule early morning classes either in college or law school.  Oh, and I suppose I should mention that to this very day I still know a good deal about microbiology.  For example, I never leave jars uncovered or food sitting out where the evil microbes floating through the air can contaminate items I'm planning on eating later.  Even though I flunked the course, I've retained a rare appreciation of microbes and the damage they can do in very short periods of time, so I suppose that in spite of the bad grades, I did in fact receive the necessary education.  Surely that counts for something even if it doesn't show up on my U of M transcript. 
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Related Posts:
“How I Became a Law Professor,” January 27, 2010
“The Socratic Dialogue in Law School,” January 31, 2010
“Clickers,” March 17, 2010
"The Many Faults of Douglas Whaley," March 31, 2010
“The Summer Bar Review Tours,” June 15, 2010
"Women in My Law School Classroom," January 8, 2011
"The Exploding Alarm Clock," February 19, 2011
"One More Story From Law School," February 27, 2011
"Chaucer, the Miller's Tale, and Me," August 16, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013
 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Ohio State Hospital Nurses: A Letter to President Gordon Gee


For some time I've trying to think of a way to thank the many nurses at the Ohio State Hospitals for all they've done for me during my many years of medical troubles.  Finally I decided to bring my admiration to the attention of OSU President Gordon Gee, who would certainly know how to use such a commendation.  Thus, the following exchange occurred just this month.

President Gee
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                                                               July 12, 2011
Dr. E. Gordon Gee
Office of the President
The Ohio State University
205 Bricker Hall/190 North Oval Mall
Columbus, OH 43210-1357 

Dear President Gee:
You kindly sent me a congratulatory letter after an article appeared about my 2009 heart transplant, and we've briefly met at a couple of law school social functions, so I take the liberty of passing on the following to you to use as you see fit.
I joined the law school faculty in 1976, and in March of 1978 I ruptured my appendix (at age 34) and very nearly died since I walked around for two weeks in that condition.  Only the help of a nutritionist friend (who gave me drinkable meals when I could keep nothing else down) kept me alive until emergency exploratory surgery at OSU saved me.  The surgeon who cut me open (the great Dr. John Minton) later told me he'd informed everyone in the operating room that "this one isn't going to make it."  Happily, after a month in the hospital, I did make it, though it led to five subsequent OSU surgeries for fistulas and hernias, the last being in 1995. 
In addition to the heart transplant in late 2009 (and major new medical difficulties in 2011), there have been other minor surgeries at OSU hospitals (say six or seven, depending on what you count), and these, cumulatively, result in this letter.
The doctors (who have done much on my behalf, and to whom I'm very grateful) have ranged from absolutely splendid to something less than that, but the OSU nurses have uniformly been wonderful.  In circumstances that varied from life-threatening to minor, they were terrific: talented, kind, caring, dedicated, truly interested in me, and putting patient care before anything else.  After one hernia operation in which my body, after four months, had rejected an artificial net that had been surgically wrapped around parts of my stomach, I awoke with three nurses near me.  While they were making sure I was all right, one of the doctors approached and briskly told me, "Well, Professor, that didn't work, so we'll be operating again soon."  Then he walked off without another word.  As if they were one entity, the nurses began stroking me, telling me not to worry, while proclaiming that this particular doctor had no "patient skills" and was known to be a "jerk."
Most recently in two hospital visits this spring and summer, the nurses have taken my side in sometimes difficult conflicts in ways that amazed me.  In their position—frankly—I wouldn't have had the courage to do it.
In the end, the only way it occurred to me to thank them is to bring my incredible respect for all the nurses at Ohio State to your attention.  If you can find a way to let them know how much their many patients appreciate what they do in difficult times for suffering people, I would be very grateful. 
Sincerely, 
Douglas Whaley
Professor Emeritus
Michael E. Moritz College of Law
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President Gee mailed me a response on July 14th:

Dear Doug: 

Thank you for your note.  I am so pleased to know that the nurses at our Medical Center provided you with exceptional care on numerous occasions.  We cannot thank these talented individuals enough for their important, life-changing work.  And, I will certainly continue to express my gratitude to our nursing staff. 

Again, I very much appreciate you writing to share your experience, and do hope you are faring far better.  Best wishes for a summer of rest and relaxation. 

Sincerely,

Gordon

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Related Posts:
"About That Heart Transplant," January 24, 2010
"My Heart Belonged to Andrew," February 17, 2010
"Another Letter to Andrew's Parents," March 10, 2010
"A Toast to Andrew," May 2, 2010
"Mama, Biopsies, and My iPad," May 19, 2010
"The First time I Nearly Died," August 3, 2010
"Rehabilitating Doug," June 12, 2010
"The Purring Heart," November 23, 2010
"1999-2001: A Dramatic Story, " December 15, 2010
"Naming My Heart," March 24, 2011
"Report on Old Doug: Health, Theater, eBook, and More," June 28, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jumping the Broom: How "Married" are Married Gay Couples?


When gay friends flew out to California to get married (in the brief period where it was legal in that state), but then returned to their home in Florida where gay marriage is forbidden by state statute, they asked me were they really "married" in the eyes of the law? I'm a law professor, but my area of expertise is commercial matters and not family law, but I've done some reading and research on this issue, and the answer is, well, complicated.

Article IV, Section 1 of the United States Constitution:

Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state. And the Congress may by general laws prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof.


Legally Married?
You'd think this language would require legal marriages in one state to be recognized in another, but that hasn't been its history. Clearly a legal judgment (in which a court rules that one litigant prevails at the end of a lawsuit) must be enforced in a different state, but a marriage license is not a judgment or judicial proceeding; at best it qualifies as a "record," an undefined constitutional term. When it comes to marriage the court cases have almost always ruled that one state need not recognize a marriage entered into in another state if it would violate the "public policy" of the new state. These cases primarily arose from two types of controversial marriages: polygamous unions and those between interracial couples. The courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have not used the Full Faith and Credit Clause to invalidate statutes invalidating such marriages, though the Court did use the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause to strike down a Virginia law prohibiting interracial marriage in 1967's Loving v. Virginia. Whether the Supreme Court would use the 14th Amendment to similarly protect gay marriages is unknown (see speculations below).


(Click to enlarge)
As of June 2011, 12 states prohibit same-sex marriage via statute and 29 via the state's constitution (including, alas, Ohio, where I live), thus indicating strong public policy would keep the Full Faith and Credit Clause from requiring recognition of gay marriages legally performed elsewhere (it's an interesting question whether a gay divorce—a legal "judgment"—recognized in a gay marriage state would have to also be recognized in other states).  The chart at the left is accurate, except that recently New York (the largest state to do so) has legalized gay marriage by statute, and Iowa's Supreme Court has held that the state constitution requires recognition of gay marriages, invalidating the Iowa statute to the contrary.

It would seem then that a gay couple married in jurisdictions like Massachusetts, which recognizes gay marriages as equal to straight ones, would only be really married in that state and in states recognizing gay marriages legally performed elsewhere, but that's not quite right either. Why not? Because federal law prohibits gay marriages from being given legal recognition at the federal level or by any state not wanting to grant such legal recognition.

In 1996 Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, 28 U.S.C. § 1738C (DOMA), and President Clinton signed it into law. It provides, in pertinent part:

No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship.

So a gay couple married in Massachusetts is not legally wed for purposes of federal law: taxes, benefits, ability to visit spouses in hospitals, and hundreds of other legal rights. That's big. Congress has, in theory repealed the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" rule, and shortly gay military personnel will not be booted from the service simply because their sexual orientation. But even if they legally wed their gay spouse, that spouse will not receive military rights routinely granted to straight military spouses: life insurance, dental and health benefits, ability to shop on base facilities (which have cheaper prices), housing assistance, etc.

What about gays who wed in other countries where gay marriages are legal? Another thorny legal area that one. In theory, international treaties recognize marriages legally contracted by signatories to such treaties, which includes the United States, but again exceptions have been made, and the issues need resolution at the highest levels.

In the meantime we have a legal mess, with perfectly good people having "quasi-marriages" only, and in limbo as to their rights and those of their children (the littlest victims of all this homophobia). Even contractual agreements between gay couples (or straight couples living together without being married) are suspect and often subject to valid legal challenges (undue influence, for example).


The United States Supreme Court will someday settle it all, but there's a problem that keeps many a gay litigant from wanting immediate action in that venue. It has to do with the makeup of the current Court. There are four liberals (the three women and Stephen Breyer) and four conservatives (Chief Justice Roberts, plus Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito). In the middle, and therefore the most powerful judge in the world, is Anthony Kennedy (a Reagan appointee), the crucial swing vote. When close cases are argued to the Court, eight other Justices are ignored while the lawyers pitch everything to Anthony Kennedy. I've seen the man speak on more than one occasion. He's an intelligent, gentle, humorous, thoughtful, and impressive person. Kennedy's a Catholic (as are six of the Court's current members, the other three are Jewish), but he's been fairly good on gay issues. Recently he's sided with the conservatives on most matters, however, including the Walmart case throwing out class actions by women claiming discrimination, and another 2011 decision baring consumer class actions in all future cases (tragedies both). The slightest change in the personnel of the Court could alter all of this dramatically, but currently no one is making bets on how the issue of gay marriage will strike Anthony Kennedy in whatever case the Court decides to consider.
 

Anthony Kennedy

Gay couples who get married deserve to celebrate their unions, but what they've legally achieved is only slightly better than jumping over the broom, the symbolic tradition of slaves wanting to marry. These happy couples are "married" in their own eyes, and in the opinion of those friends and family who love them, as well those Americans who mostly don't give a damn about the issue, but to much of the country gay "married" spouses are pretenders, to be condemned or, at best, pitied.

I've been a gay activist for over three decades, and I've seen dramatic changes occur in a breathtakingly short period of time, so I'm sure there's a happy ending to this problem. Until then I urge the current activists and their allies to keep working for change until "gay marriage" loses its adjective and keeps only the definitive noun.

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Related Posts:
"The Aging Gay Rights Activist," March 24, 2010
"Frightening the Horses," April 4, 2010
“Homosexuality: The Iceberg Theory,” April 25, 2010
“How I Lost a Gay Marriage Debate,” April 29, 2010
“Straight Talk,” May 10, 2010
“Marijuana and Me,” July 11, 2010
“How To Tell if You’re Gay,” August 31, 2010
“The Thunderbolt,”September 3, 2010
“How To Change Gay People Into Straight People,” September 20, 2010
"How Many Homosexuals Are There in the World?" November 8, 2010
"Choose To Be Gay, Choose To Be Straight," January 25, 2011
"The Homosexual Agenda To Conquer the World," February 8, 2011
"Seducing Straight Men," March 3, 2011
"Coming Out: How To Tell People You're Gay," March 27, 2011
"The Legacy of Homophobia," August 2, 2011
"Going Undercover at an Ex-Gay Meeting," September 19, 2011
"The Presumption of Heterosexuality and the Invisible Homosexual," October 2, 2011
"Gay Bashers, Homophobes, and Me," January 27, 2012
"On Being a Gay Sports Fan," March 9, 2012
"Sexual Labels: Straight, Gay, Bi," April 15, 2012
"The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio," June 4, 2012
“I Support the Right of the Boy Scouts To Ban Gays,” July 24, 2012
Straight People: Thanks From the LGBT Community,” November 20, 2012
“Gay Marriage, DOMA, Proposition 8 and the Mysterious Supreme Court,” January 15, 2013
"Gay Marriage, the Supreme Court, and the Future," June 26, 2013
“A Gay Hoosier Lawyer Looks at Indiana’s RFRA: The Religious Bigot Protection Act,” March 30, 2015; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2015/03/a-gay-hoosier-lawyer-looks-at-indianas.html
“Oral Arguments on Gay Marriage in the Supreme Court: What Was and What Wasn’t Said,” April 28, 2015; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2015/04/oral-arguments-on-gay-marriage-in.html 
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-guide-to-best-of-my-blog.html

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is Evolution True?


Readers of this blog know that whatever topic I harp on I'm dedicated to making sure what I write is true as far as I know it. I have no belief, no matter how strong, that I wouldn't abandon in an instant upon being shown it wrong. When I write on something where I don't profess to have all the facts, I say so (see Related Posts below such as "Muslim Atheist," "Two Cat Stories: Mama and Barney in the Wild").

So let's talk about evolution.

I have a neighbor who's a very devout Christian. When he learned that I was going to see the Steve Carell movie "Evan Almighty," he rang my doorbell the next day to give me some literature proving that Noah's Ark still exists and can be found today on Mt. Ararat. Contrary to what some of my steady readers might guess, I then thanked him politely, took the items he handed me (and even read them later), and moved the topic to something else ("Have you heard that barking dog behind our property?"). I've learned when to pick my battles and when it's a bad idea to antagonize your neighbors. We're friends, and he and his wife and I have helped each other through minor difficulties. They're nice people.

But the law professor in me, who's used to conducting Socratic dialogues in the classroom to get at the truth, wanted so much to ask him some basic questions. Did Noah include all the dinosaurs on the ark? Breeding requires genetic diversity to succeed, so with only two of each species was that enough to populate the planet, and, if so, why aren't all the species clearly generated from the same part of the planet (given that there are no kangaroos in Europe, for example)? What did the lions eat on the ark? What did they eat the night they were released? The next night?


The truth is that my neighbor is not interested in the truth. He's only interested in converting me to his very constricted view of the past. Being quizzed about the truth would offend him. If I could show him that the bible is an ancient book, full of wisdom but also full of many misunderstandings of how life works, would he want to know that? I strongly suspect the answer would be a resounding "no." He's invested his entire life in a faulty belief system, and it's too late to have something like reality interfere with how he will live the rest of it.

Now to the point of this post:

The slightest objective investigation of evolution shows that it's not only true, but not even subject to scientific question. One of the things that depresses young devout Christians (and their parents) who believe the earth is only 6000 years old, but who then go to college with an open mind and study biology, is that they, often reluctantly and with great anguish, become convinced that evolution is the only rational explanation of how life works and has always worked.

Yes, there are debates within the scientific community about the details of evolution. That's the tradition of science: getting it right, rooting our mistaken beliefs of the past, doing peer reviews of new explanations, testing, testing, testing. But, again, no reputable scientists doubt the fact of evolution (which is, scientifically speaking, only a "theory" the same way gravity is a "theory"). Oh yes, there are books by people with science degrees proclaiming that evolution is false, but none of them (and I mean none) come to the topic without backgrounds proclaiming their religious beliefs paramount, and they shamelessly misshape data to conform with those beliefs. Google up "Of Pandas and People," the intelligent design textbook that Texas attempted to foist on the nation's schools, to see the ugly things done in the name of pseudo-science/religion.

Not only scientists believe in evolution, so does every intelligent person who's studied the issue. Whenever the concept has been tested in a court of law, including multiple United States Supreme Court opinions, it's prevailed over the pitiful alternatives—such as "intelligent design" (meaning God created everyting) or "creationism," as ID was originally called. The argument in favor of exposing student to alternative origin of man theories is that no one could possibly know exactly what really happened, and students should be taught to think critically and make up their own minds—sort of a class vote. Well, by golly, that sounds democratic and worthwhile, until you realize that one of those choices being put forward has no factual foundation and is the teaching of religion in new terminology. Our constitution forbids religious indoctrination in public schools. If you're a devout Christian and think the constitution shouldn't ban this ("Repeal the First Amendment!"), consider what your children would be subjected to if the population of the local school district happened to demographically change to believers in Islam, who then demanded instruction in the Quran for all district children. The constitution protects freedom of religion, and we must all be guardians of that important idea. Religion should be taught outside government control. We don't expose students to alternative theories about other subjects: the shape of the earth, gravity, etc. Nor do we let students choose the rules of grammar, or where to geographically place the continents, or whether computers are powered by magic. In public schools we're teaching only what can be proven to be right.


Using that as a benchmark, "intelligent design" has flunked all legal tests. The most exhaustive case (the federal judge's opinion ran 135 pages as he, a Bush appointee, examined the evidence on both sides and concluded that intelligent design violated the First Amendment) is Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F., Supp.2d 707 (M.D. Pa, 2005). The full text, which is damning to proponents of intelligent design, can be found at http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=16465861447416053365&hl=en&as_sdt=2&as_vis=1&oi=scholar.

If this were a discussion as unimportant as whether Noah's ark still rest on Mt. Ararat, I wouldn't be writing this post. But because of this controversy (or because some instructors, of course, adamantly believe in intelligent design), many biology teachers at all levels of public education prior to college either skip teaching evolution entirely or give it short shrift. At the college level, biology professors must endure hate mail and loud comments to indoctrinate the basics of a topic explaining how everything on the planet came to be.

And when I say "explaining how everything on the planet came to be," I mean exactly that. Evolution lays it all out and fits perfectly with all known facts. As I said above, no one seriously doubts this. But American students end up befuddled by mysticism, untrained in the basics, and therefore at a serious disadvantage on the international stage. Other countries in the world think that when it comes to science Americans are ludicrously mired in denial.

I fear they're right.
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Related Posts:
“Catholicism and Me (Part One),” March 13, 2010
“Superstitions,”March 21, 2010
“Catholicism and Me (Part Two),” April 18, 2010
“How To Become an Atheist,” May 16, 2010
“Imaginary Friend,” June 22, 2010
“I Don’t Do Science,” July 2, 2010
“Explosion at Ohio Stadium,” October 9, 2010 (Chapter 1 of my novel)
“When Atheists Die,” October 17, 2010
"Escape From Ohio Stadium," November 2, 2010 (Chapter 2)
"Open Mouth, Insert Foot," November 21, 2010 (Chapter 3)
"Rock Around the Sun," December 31, 2010
"Muslim Atheist," March 16, 2011
"An Atheist Interviews God," May 20, 2011
"A Mormon Loses His Faith," June 13, 2011
"Atheists, Christmas, and Public Prayers," December 9, 2011
" Urban Meyer and the Christian Buckeye Football Team," February 19, 2012
"Intelligent Design, Unintelligent Designer?", May 12, 2012
"My Atheist Thriller: Another Book Reading," May 17, 2012
"'The God Particle' and the Vanishing Role of God," July 5, 2012
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012
“Atheists Visit the Creation Museum,” October 4, 2012
“Mitt Romney: A Mormon President?” October 17, 2012
“The End of the World: Mayans, Jesus, and Others,” December 17, 2012
“If Humans Are Descended From Apes Why Are There Still Apes?” January 27, 2014; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2014/01/if-humans-are-descended-from-apes-why.html
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-guide-to-best-of-my-blog.html

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Two Cat Stories: Mama and Barney in the Wild

Barney and Mama
As readers of this blog know, after my heart transplant I was finally given permission by the doctors to have a pet, but there were restrictions. I had to get rid of my beloved parakeets (who flew to my shoulders every night when I came home), but was allowed a mammal as long as I didn't have to deal with the feces. Well, that eliminated dogs, and I ended up with two much-loved cats, Mama and Barney, both of whom were rescued from the urban wild and now live happily with Old Doug. In prior posts I've told stories about them, and I'll not repeat those here, but as I get to know them both better I've begun to speculate about what their former lives might have been like prior to meeting me. This is all conjecture, of course, but their stories are very different, just as the two cats are very different.

Barney's Story:

Barney is a little over four years old, and he's quite large (one and a half times as big as Mama), having thick, beautiful dark grey fur which he trails behind him like a small whirlwind as he moves through the room. Barney loves to be petted, and will come up to strangers and rear up, putting his front paws on their legs, begging for attention. But here's the interesting thing: until the last few months he's never been affectionate himself. He never, for example, rubs up against people as cats usually do (though he'll rub up against nearby furniture while purring). Also, he never likes having a hand come directly at his face, no matter how slowly—he jerks away in terror. Indeed, all sudden noises send him running. When the alarm system in my house malfunctioned one afternoon and emitted a piercing beep, Barney went up the second floor stairs like a tornado, bunched the runner on the upstairs floor into a tangle, and hid in the guest bathroom (Mama never stopped licking herself except to notice the blur of Barney going by). It took me fifteen minutes to calm poor Barney down. Why would that be?

It seems obvious to me that Barney was abused from a very young age. He's afraid of sudden movements, and particularly hands coming towards him, and that suggests beatings. He approaches others when he wants to, but shies away from unknown people approaching him unbidden. Also, alas, he's not smart, my poor Barney (his trials in trying to master the cat doors in my condo are the subject of "Teaching English to Cats," see below), and ideas penetrate very slowly to his consciousness. Mama knows a large number of English words; Barney knows five ("Barney," "no," "cat," "wet food," and "window"). My guess is that those beatings resulted in brain damage to the young Barney. The wonder is that they didn't make him mean or reclusive—he's a very friendly, a "get-along-go-along" kind of guy. He knows that Mama and I tell him what to do a lot, and he's fine with that.

At age three he was found outside an empty home by neighbors who told the cat rescue people that he'd belonged to the family who'd moved out a few weeks before. When contacted in Florida, this family denied ever owning a cat. My firm suspicion is that anyone who would abandon their cat when they moved also didn't treat him very well earlier in his life.

Now things are very good for Barney. If I move very slowly, he'll let my hand come towards his face, and he trusts me in all things (like the indignities of a vet's office). He still climbs into laps and loves being petted, but in recent months it's occurred to me that he's become fond of me. He'll sit in front of me, look at me with no goal in mind, and simply purr with happiness. That's heartwarming, and it leads me to wonder if he's ever loved any other creature before (or been loved in return). Mama comes up to him every once in awhile and rubs up against him purring, and one of these days he's going to do the same back to her. Right now they're great friends, chasing each other around (and it's not always the same cat doing the chasing), sleeping together, and spending much time looking out the windows contemplating life outside, both of which they've experienced firsthand.


Mama's Story:

No one would name a kitten "Mama," of course. She acquired that name because when she was rescued from a Columbus neighborhood she had two kittens with her. She was one year old, untagged, declawed, but not spayed (what sort of vet would do that?), and feisty—very protective of those kittens. She was taken to a veterinarian, the kittens were weaned and given away, and "Mama Cat," as she was called, became the office cat for the vet and his staff. When I came to pick her up five months after she'd first arrived, both the vet and his staff were misty-eyed at seeing her leave for a new home. She was super friendly with everyone who came through the vet's door, and in fact rubbed up against me as I entered, cat carrier in hand, little dreaming she would soon be off to a new life with this stranger. She still greets all visitors to my home, demanding attention and getting it.

In many ways, Mama is the opposite of Barney. She's very smart, quick to learn, clever at figuring things out, playful, and full of confidence. She's a control freak, as I am, and we're forever battling over which mammal is in charge. At our house the old saying is all too true: "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." She's very affectionate, and I'm amazed at how fast and how deeply that cat has learned to love me (see "The Purring Heart," below).

I suspect she has always known love and that her former owners miss her very much. Here is my guess as to what happened to her. One day in late October or early November of 2009 (shortly before I received my heart transplant), she took advantage of an opportunity to explore the outdoors when a door was left open too long (or something like that). Being little more than a kitten herself, she must have been at first intrigued, then annoyed, then worried. But she obviously met a tom cat, had a romantic adventure with him, and then, all by herself, discovered what giving birth alone means. I looked it up: cats typically produce litters of three to eight kittens. Imagine poor Mama and what it must have been like to be inexperienced, clawless, in the cold of autumn, with all those kittens, and no idea what to do. To this day she's scared of dogs and passing cars. Somehow she kept two of those kittens alive until one of the vet's customers snagged her and the kittens and brought them to him.

Mama is also more empathetic than Barney. He's often not aware (or is confused) by things around him, but she's always on top of the situation. When she's annoyed with me (or him), she makes this known. But when I had a recent bad turn of health that prevented me from making a trip to New York, I was so weak I was having trouble moving around, and Mama was right there, rubbing up against me and mewing pathetically, as in "get up—don't just lie there." I'm fine now, and she's back to bossing me around.



Mama in the Tunnel
We have our rituals. Every evening at around six o'clock I ask the cats "Do you know what time it is?" Yes, they do (even Barney). It's WET FOOD time, meaning I'm about to open a can of wet cat food with much ceremony ("smell the bouquet—it's "tuna feast"), divide it between them and stand back. They eat the kibble happily enough, but wet food is a special treat. I won't serve this culinary adventure, however, unless both cats are present, and Barney (often asleep) sometimes is slow to join us. Mama meows at me ("open the damn can") and I ask her "Where's Barney?" She looks annoyed, perfectly understanding the question, and looks around the corner to see if he's coming. She certainly knows his name, even if he's unlikely to have a clue as to her's. When Barney arrives, licking his lips, the bacchanal is on.

Some interesting things I've learned about cats. Did you know that they don't "meow" to one another? Only to humans—they make various different sounds to cats and other animals. Another fact is that they sleep more than any other mammal. A cat that lives to be fifteen will have slept away ten years of its life.

I certainly hope Mama, Barney, and I have that many years left to us all.
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Related Posts:
“Dog Meat,” December 27, 2009
"Parakeets and Me," February 5, 2010
“Bears,” February 23, 2010
"Mama, Biopsies, and My iPad," May 19, 2010
"Milking Cows," June 8, 2010
"Teaching English to Cats," August 6, 2010
"The Purring Heart," November 23, 2010
"The Dogs In My Life," April 18, 2011
"My Parents and Dummy," May 13, 2011
"Zoo Stories," August 30, 2011
“Mama Cat Saves My Life,” October 23, 2011
"Stepping on Cats," February 8, 2012
“Snowbirding, My iPhone 5, and the Coming Crazy Cat Trip,” December 5, 2012
"Barney Cat and the Big Mammal Nightmare," January 7, 2013
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Picking Your Battles: The Meaning of Words



Because I care about getting things right, and because I'm a teacher (also qualifying for some uglier labels such as "pedant," "curmudgeon," and "control freak"), I can't stop myself from writing this post, knowing all the while that it's probably an exercise in futility. I frequently tell my son, nephews, and students that you have to "pick your battles." Wasting energy on debates not worth having is stupid. I only wish I would always follow my own advice.

This post is about the mispronunciation or misuse of a number of words that are pet peeves of mine. But they are not all equal. Some of these words are so engrained in society that their mispronunciation is now the norm. This means that the English language, as it always has, is changing, and I just haven't caught up. Those battles are not worth fighting, but even though the war is over, I thought I'd mention them all the same. There are others listed below where I'm still standing guard, sword in hand, fighting off the mistakes with desperate slashes.


A. The Battle Is Lost and I Surrender

"Celibate": Catholic priests take both a vow of chastity and another of celibacy. The two words can't therefore mean the same thing, though people constantly confuse them and say "celibacy" as if it meant sexual abstinence ("chastity"). It doesn't. The word "celibacy" derives from the Latin caelebs, meaning "unmarried." However this misunderstanding is so common (and the word "chaste" is itself dying out), that I quit. If you're abstaining from sex, call yourself celibate if you like, and I certainly hope you enjoy yourself, but you're technically right only if you happen to be unmarried.

"Decimate": The word derives from the Latin: decimatio; decem = "ten," and originally meant to reduce a force by one tenth. Why have such a strange mathematical word? It came from a Roman army punishment in which a group of soldiers who did something wrong were told that instead of slaughtering them all, only one tenth of their number would suffer that fate as an example to the rest. Hence the "decimation" of the troops. Nowadays "decimate" is almost never used in this fashion, but has morphed into meaning any great reduction in number ("the town's population was decimated").

"Dry" Martini: People now use the word "dry" when ordering a martini to indicate it should have very little vermouth added to the gin/vodka. That is not its original meaning, which referred to the choice between "sweet" or unsweetened ("dry") vermouth. I've long ago given up mentioning this, but I do have something more to add about the proper amount of vermouth in martinis. Many martini "experts" are proud of how little vermouth they allow in their drinks. One told me that the ideal method is to pour in the gin and then quietly whisper the word "vermouth" over the glass. Nonsense! That drink isn't a martini—it's iced gin! A martini should have some vermouth, and among epicures there are wide variances from 50/50 to the classic 4 parts gin to 1 part vermouth. I use that formula when concocting the "Whaley Martini," which people tend to enjoy. When asked what's the new ingredient, I shake my head solemnly and reply it's a secret, but the real answer is "vermouth."

"Forte": This is an instance where I weep for a lost pronunciation. If you're saying the word as two syllables ("for-tay") you'd better mean "loud," as in a musical passage ("the pianist played the opening notes 'for-tay'"). The use of "forte" to mean someone's special ability or talent ("he had a forte for imitating others") is properly pronounced as one syllable, rhyming with "court." However, this mistake is so pervasive that the battle is over, and my white flag is waving sadly in the air. If you say "forte" as one syllable when referring to ability, people will simply think you don't understand how to pronounce the word correctly and will sneeringly look down upon you. (Evil person that I can be, I sometimes pronounce it correctly in my classroom just to see if anyone will have the temerity to come up later and challenge me.)


B. The Battle Goes On

"Cognoscenti":  Here is the dictionary definition of the word:
co•gno•scen•ti [kon-yuh-shen-tee]
plural noun: persons who have superior knowledge and understanding of a particular field, especially in the fine arts, literature, and world of fashion.

The problem is how to pronounce the strange spelling, and it's a bear of a task to get right. In the chosen family I've developed here in Columbus, Lorri Latek (who has been my non-biological sister for over 30 years) and I struggled to master it, knowing that it's an embarrassing word to mispronounce (given that it means someone who has superior knowledge). As the years went by we kept finding new little things about the word until we finally succeeded. The two key sticking points that most people miss are (a) "cog" is never the first syllable—instead think of the liquor named "cognac" and you'll be on the right path, and (b) the "scen" is pronounced as if it were "sh," hence "shen." Practice until you can say it correctly without stumbling and then—at the risk being thought a snob—you'll be a paid-up member of the cognoscenti.

"I Couldn't Care Less":  This means just what it says: "I don't care at all."  Compare: "I could care less," which means you care some, since you could care less.  Is that really what the speaker usually means?


"Nuclear": George W. Bush was the chief offender here, saying "nucular" and causing people the world over to worry about his having the nuclear button near him at all moments during his Presidency.




"Often": To most people it's a surprise to learn that the "t" in "often" is supposed to be silent. In recent years you hear it pronounced more ofTen than not, but that not its proper pronunciation. In Gilbert and Sullivan's famous 1879 operetta "The Pirates of Penzance," the Major General learns that his many daughters have just been captured by the pirates, and the following dialogue occurs (with the Major General using his knowledge that, of course, these pirates never attack orphans, being orphans themselves). Note that if "often" were pronounced with the "t" intact the whole scene wouldn't make sense, but pronouncing it in the regulation way produces all the humor:

GEN. And now that I’ve introduced myself, I should like to have some idea of what’s going on.

KATE. Oh, Papa – we –

SAMUEL. Permit me, I’ll explain in two words: we propose to marry your daughters.

GEN. Dear me!

GIRLS. Against our wills, Papa – against our wills!

GEN. Oh, but you mustn’t do that! May I ask – this is a picturesque uniform, but I’m not familiar with it. What are you?

PIRATE KING. We are all single gentlemen.

GEN. Yes, I gathered that – Anything else?

KING. No, nothing else.

EDITH. Papa, don’t believe them; they are pirates – the famous Pirates of Penzance!

GEN. The Pirates of Penzance! I have often heard of them. But wait a bit. I object to pirates as sons-in-law.

KING. We object to Major-Generals as fathers-in-law. But we waive that point. We do not press it. We look over it.

GEN. (aside) Hah! an idea! (aloud) And do you mean to say that you would deliberately rob me of these, the sole remaining props of my old age, and leave me to go through the remainder of my life unfriended, unprotected, and alone?

KING. Well, yes, that’s the idea.

GEN. Tell me, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan?

PIRATES. (disgusted) Oh, dash it all!

KING. Here we are again!

GEN. I ask you, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan?

KING. Often!

GEN. Yes, orphan. Have you ever known what it is to be one?

KING. I say, often.

ALL. (disgusted) Often, often, often. (Turning away)

GEN. I don’t think we quite understand one another. I ask you, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan, and you say “orphan”. As I understand you, you are merely repeating the word “orphan” to show that you understand me.

KING. I didn’t repeat the word often.

GEN. Pardon me, you did indeed.

KING. I only repeated it once.

GEN. True, but you repeated it.

KING. But not often.

GEN. Stop! I think I see where we are getting confused. When you said “orphan”, did you mean “orphan” – a person who has lost his parents, or “often”, frequently?

KING. Ah! I beg pardon – I see what you mean – frequently.

GEN. Ah! you said "often", frequently.

KING. No, only once.

GEN. (irritated) Exactly – you said “often”, frequently, only once.


"Zoology": If you're applying for college and tell the admitting officer you plan to study "ZOO-ology" you'll have trouble getting in. The first syllable of the word is pronounced with a hard "o": "zō-ology." There's no "zoo" in zoology in spite of the spelling.


Conclusion: If your forte is a love of animals and you often think about going into zoology even in this nuclear age, (being celibate yourself and therefore free of family entanglements) my advice is to study hard and join the scientific cognoscenti.
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Related Post:
"I Hate 'You Know,' You Know," November 28, 2010
"Is It Okay Note To Use Perfect English?" August 10, 2013
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013