Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Way Home

Go straight for 800 miles, then turn left at the thistle.

The woman inside our Global Positioning System device has a bad attitude.  If I don’t follow her instructions exactly while I’m driving, there’s a moment of frosty silence, after which she says, “Recalculating.”  You can tell from her tone, though, that what she wants to do is scream at me, “you’re an idiot!”  When I eventually manage to find my destination in spite of that contemptuous woman in the GPS, I can’t help gloating a little.

One can only imagine, then, how proud of themselves monarch butterflies must feel:  They make an annual journey of thousands of miles without any help from a GPS.  What is even more remarkable is that no individual butterfly completes the whole round trip.  It takes several generations to make it back to their summer home.

Monarch butterflies are common throughout North America during the summer, but a monarch born in May, for example, will only live a couple of months.  That’s also true of a 3rd generation monarch, born in July or August. 

It is the 4th generation that lives a long time by butterfly standards; the monarchs born in September and October are the ones which head south when cool weather begins in the higher latitudes.

The eastern monarch butterflies — if you listen closely, you’ll detect their accent — head for their winter home in Mexico, a trip of as much as 2,500 miles.  The more laid-back monarchs who live west of the Rocky Mountains spend the winter near the beach in California, notably at Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz.

So the 4th generation gets to the winter habitat, and after flying all that way they settle in for a nap — in the same grove of trees where their ancestors hibernated the previous year.  That’s incredible, don’t you think?  How do they know to go back to that exact spot, even though they’ve never been there?  Scientists are still trying to figure that out.

Anyway, they sleep off the long journey, and along about late February or early March, Generation Four wakes up.  After a brief mating period, they collectively decide, “We’d probably better start heading north.”  So they do.  Along the way the females lay eggs; pretty soon their generation dies off after living to the ripe old age of six months or so.

The 1st generation — born in March and April — continues the trip, but they only get part way before they pass the torch, so to speak, to Generation Two, born in May and June.  Both of those groups die out somewhere along the route, but the trek continues with Generation Three, and the cycle is completed by Generation Four.

Various websites track the northbound and southbound migrations; one is reporting that as of late March, “Monarchs are pouring out of Mexico right now.”  (  It may be a while before the butterflies get to your town, since the speed at which they fly is roughly 6 kilometers per hour.  That’s about as fast as you could walk to your house from Mexico, assuming you had a good tailwind.  And weren’t distracted by a bad-tempered GPS lady, trying to convince you to take wrong turns.

It’s Greek to Me

Well, hello, good-looking!

Wouldn’t it have been interesting to be a fly on the cave wall when prehistoric humans were deciding what to call that substance that cooked their food and kept them warm?  How did it come to be called “fire”; did the tribal council put the official noun to a vote?  “That’s seventeen for ‘fire’, six for ‘hot stuff’, and,” — with a withering glance at the neighborhood fool — “one vote for ‘poo-poo’.”

No, language evolves more gradually than that, of course, and vocabularies are developed from lots of sources.  The English language has assimilated elements of Gaelic and German and Latin and many others; words with roots that are thousands of years old are still in use today.  OK, maybe not every day, but consider, by way of example, some of the words we have borrowed from Greek mythology:

There are the Titans, the Furies, the Sirens.  The Greek goddess of health was Hygieia, from whose name we get “hand-sanitizer”.  Nemesis has come to mean “archrival” or “unbeatable opponent”, as in “Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay is the nemesis of the Cincinnati Reds.”  The orginal Nemesis was a Greek goddess who dealt out justice, or vengeance, to the wicked.

Our word hypnosis is derived from Hypnos, the personification of sleep.  Then there’s Psyche, who started out in Greek legend as a king’s daughter and came to be associated, through a complicated tale, with the human soul, and by extension, the mind.

Tantalus was a son of Zeus who was punished for revealing secrets of the gods to mere mortals.  His punishment was to stand in chin-deep water, but when his thirst compelled him to drink, the water receded just out of reach of his mouth.  In other words, Tantalus was tantalized.

As you know, there was a lot of treachery and back-stabbing going on among the Greek deities and their underlings.  Echo was a nymph who was given the task of distracting Zeus’s wife Hera while he rendezvoused with his various mistresses at the Mount Olympus Hilton.  Echo’s strategy was to talk incessantly, but eventually Hera stopped listening and figured out what Echo had been doing.  Hera punished her by altering Echo’s power of speech — she could only repeat the last thing that someone else said.

Echo also figures in the story of Narcissus, who is the patron saint, so to speak, of reality-show performers.  Our word narcissism, which means “inordinate fascination with oneself; vanity”, is derived from Narcissus, who found himself utterly irresistible.

According to the legend, he was a good-looking guy and Echo fell hard for him, but she placed a distant second in his affections — he was too busy admiring his own hunky reflection in a pool.  As one version has it, Echo was so distraught at his rejection of her that she cried until nothing was left but a trace of her voice.

Narcissus eventually died of frustration because he couldn’t have a satisfying relationship with his own reflection.  But what could he do — that face in the pool was just too beautiful for words.

Photos by Strangers

Did you take this picture? If so, thanks!

“Excuse me, would you mind taking a picture of us?”

You have probably been asked that sometime, or have said it yourself to a stranger.  If not, you may be spending too much time in your La-Z-Boy, because that exchange is common at tourist attractions all over the world.  It is followed by brief instructions:  “Just press this button.”  “This one, right?”  “That’s it.”  Then the couple or group strikes a pose in front of the waterfall or museum or whatever.  You snap the shutter, you hand the camera back, and you never see each other again.

It always leaves me wondering how they liked the picture I took of them once they had a chance to study it.  Did they love it so much that it’s now hanging over their mantel?  Or were they disappointed:  “It’s OK of the Grand Canyon, I suppose, but I spent three hundred dollars on these shoes, and that guy didn’t even get them in the picture!?”

I’d like to believe that a photo I once took of a couple in Key West is a keepsake, but who knows?  Maybe she didn’t think her hair looked good that day.  I’d also like to know if the tourists in London who spoke no English ever had second thoughts.  They had insisted on posing near Big Ben — with them facing in the opposite direction!  I could not get them to stand with that famous landmark in their picture.

Sally and I have handed our camera to strangers on quite a few occasions, with mixed results.  In Paris, a gentleman made it look as though we were at the Leaning Tower of Eiffel.  A young woman in San Francisco composed the shot in such a way that our bodies blocked the Golden Gate Bridge, which, I should have explained to her, was the reason for taking the picture.

On our way to a show one night in New York, a uniformed security guard in Times Square stopped us and said, “give me your camera, I’ll take a picture of you two.”  I try not to argue with armed men, so I not only handed over the camera, I didn’t protest when he demanded that I pose with my arms folded across my chest like I was the newly crowned heavyweight champion.  Then he instructed Sally to drape herself over my shoulder and “look hot”.  As you might imagine, the picture turned out… pretty well, actually.

Once in a while, a stranger proves to be so skilled — or so lucky — that you wind up with a wonderful preserved memory (which, when you think about it, is what a snapshot is).  Unfortunately, there’s no way to express your gratitude to the photographer, since you have no idea who they are.

Still, I wish I could say “great job” to the person who took our photo at sunset on the Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence, and to the guy who framed the shot perfectly at Versailles.  Then there was the man who took our picture at a Memorial Day event at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.  His first attempt had cut off the top of the dome; Sally asked him to take another one, and he graciously did.  The second try was outstanding, so — thank you, whoever you are.  I hope you like the one I took of you.


Pressed for an Answer

The course of history has occasionally been changed by inspiring speeches; Winston Churchill certainly rallied his countrymen during the darkest days of World War II, to give just one example.  There have also been turning points that were set in motion not by soaring rhetoric, but by a pithy phrase.  In effect, someone told a supposedly superior opponent to go to hell.

Among those was John Paul Jones, a sea captain during the American Revolution.  He was locked in a fierce battle with a British ship called the Serapis in September, 1779.  You probably recall Jones’ famous response to a surrender demand:  “I have not yet begun to fight,” he said.  It’s hard to appreciate how bold that retort was unless you know that his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, was on fire at the time.  And sinking.

Jones and his men continued to fight; three hours later the British captain surrendered and John Paul Jones took command of the Serapis.  A day or so later, the Bonhomme Richard was on the ocean floor.

A similar act of defiance occurred during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.  German General Heinrich von Lüttwitz conveyed a surrender ultimatum to his American counterpart, General Anthony McAuliffe.  An official reply was typed up and carried back.  It read:  “To the German Commander, NUTS!  The American Commander”.  Apparently the Germans weren’t sure what that meant, so the guy who delivered the message to them, Col. Joseph Harper, explained it in even more colorful language.

The words of defiance that I marvel at most were those of Giles Corey, who got caught up in the hysteria surrounding the Salem Witch Trials.  Giles was an 80-year-old farmer and church member; his wife Martha had dared to publicly question the wild charges that were being made.  That got Martha accused of being a witch.  When Giles came to his wife’s defense, he was accused, too.

There was a quirk in the law of Massachusetts colony at that time:  anyone who refused to enter a plea could not be tried.  To keep people from avoiding justice, though, the law provided the means to encourage an individual to plead.  The accused was placed on the ground and heavy rocks were placed on top of him until he either admitted guilt or claimed innocence.

That’s what happened to Giles Corey:  he got pressed.  Knowing that he would probably be hanged by the mob no matter what he said, he refused to enter a plea.

Boulders were piled on him.  At one point the sheriff stood on top of the boulders, staring down at Giles’s bulging eyes.  This torture went on for two days.  Then, on September 19, 1692, the authorities thought they had softened him up, so to speak.  The sheriff asked him if he pleaded guilty or innocent.

Giles Corey gasped out a defiant reply:  “More weight.”

So the authorities piled more weight on the old man, and of course he died.  Because he refused to plead, though, he died in possession of his estate.  If he had entered a plea and been found guilty — as he inevitably would have been — his property would have been forfeited to the government. 

I guess you could say that they crushed Giles Corey, but they didn’t break him.

Friends In High Places

El Greco, "The Burial of Count Orgaz" (1586)

If you have ever had a fever of 103° and your cough medicine has strong side effects, then you know what it’s like to see some of El Greco’s paintings.  It’s not that his art is as unpleasant as your bad case of the flu, but his images sometimes have that fever-dream quality.  

Understandably, not everyone loves El Greco’s work.  As art historian Paul Johnson put it, “Some consider him an uplifting genius.  Others find his work garish and repellent.”

His real name was Doménikos Theotokópolous, but since he was from Crete, his contemporaries dubbed him El Greco — “The Greek”.  He spent some time in Italy as a young man, and may have been a student of Titian in Venice.  In 1577 he moved to Toledo (the one in Spain, of course, not Ohio) and made a living doing portraits and devotional subjects.  Then he got the commission for a painting that is considered his greatest work:  “The Burial of Count Orgaz”.

The pious Count had died in 1323, and the local legend in Toledo was that at his burial, the heavens put on quite a show, with visions of Christ and the Virgin along with lots of angels.  Supposedly St. Stephen and St. Augustine miraculously appeared and lowered the count’s body into the grave.  (After all that, the punch-and-cookie reception in the church social hall must have seemed anticlimactic.)

El Greco was hired to portray this event a couple of centuries later for the Santo Tomé church, where the count had been a regular.  Even critics who don’t particularly like El Greco’s style acknowledge the technical skill that is evident in “The Burial of Count Orgaz”, and the reaction of El Greco admirers to this painting is Orgazmic.  Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, includes it among the 15 “greatest works of Western Civilization”.

Maybe so.  It is certainly a fascinating combination of mysticism in the upper half of the painting, and realism in the lower portion.  Then there’s the guy in the middle of the funeral party who is looking up — his gaze connects earth with heaven, as does that golden drapery around the lowest angel.

The painting was completed in 1586, and it was very well received by the prominent noblemen and clergy of Toledo.  That may be partly due to the fact that El Greco had included their likenesses among the mourners at a funeral that had occurred well over two hundred years before.  It’s like including Warren Buffett and Steven Spielberg in a historical painting of George Washington’s inauguration,  but sometimes that’s what artists have to do to keep the customers happy.

One of the distinctive characteristics of El Greco’s rendering of faces and bodies is that they are elongated.  In recent decades that spawned a theory that El Greco suffered from astigmatism, a vision problem resulting from oblong-shaped corneas.  Other experts say he distorted figures for dramatic effect, just as Tintoretto and other Mannerists had done around the same time.  The debate about El Greco’s supposed astigmatism goes on, but we’ll probably never know for sure if he needed glasses.

We’ll probably also never get a satisfactory explanation of another El Greco mystery:  What’s the deal with his name?  In Spanish, “The Greek” would be El Griego.  Greco is Italian, but the article in that language would be “Il”, not “El”.  I’ll go along with El Greco, though, because it’s a lot easier to say than the way he signed his paintings.  He used his full real name.