Quirks, Quarks, and Banana Management

Quirks, Quarks, and Banana Management

By Gene Wilburn

“‘He said he would come in,’ the White Queen went on, ‘because he was looking for a hippopotamus. Now, as it happened, there wasn’t such a thing in the house, that morning.’ ‘Is there generally?’ Alice asked in an astonished tone. ‘Well, only on Thursdays,’ said the Queen.” ~ Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

If you’re an operational human being you have quirks, and probably not only on Thursdays. Quirks form part of our personalities and no one is exempt. Undoubtedly there are some quirks best not discussed, but most, let us hope, are harmless, like always cracking a hard-boiled egg on the pointy end, or aligning your saltine crackers so the wax lining seams are always on the top. I’m grateful that the checkout lady at the grocery last week made no comment about the six jars of natural, crunchy peanut butter on the conveyor. You don’t want to run out of peanut butter. And your next door neighbour? Could be the sort who alphabetizes his LP collection. You never know.

One quirk I’ve discovered about aging is that I talk to myself more than I used to. Not just mutterings like “where the hell do we store rye flour anyway?” but more pressing things like coaching myself through the process of shaving under my neck. “Okay, just put on the lather, there you go, now easy with the razor.” Or, “Let’s see what day of the week it is — check the pill case.” You know, tips on how to do things and coaching myself on what I should be doing instead of what I seem to be doing. My wife talks to herself a lot now too. She maintains a sprightly dialogue with her computer, much of it filled with expletives. With me being hard of hearing, I’m assuming it’s the computer she’s talking to.

One of the endearing quirks of my father-in-law, Ab, was on display whenever he and his wife Lillian went to the library to borrow books. He always checked out exactly ten books, five for each of them. In this way he could simply count to tell if he had all the returns in the bag when they came due.

Quirks reveal a lot about ourselves. Like baseball pitchers who carefully avoid stepping on the baseline when they come off the mound, most of us have little superstitions or habits that are telling. Like thinking there’s a right way and a wrong way to eat Pringles (the concave surface should rest on the tongue). I look both ways before crossing a one-way street. I’m not completely trusting that others will follow the rules, and to tell the truth, it once saved me from being hit by a driver going the wrong way. Call me experientially cautious, or that I share Hume’s view of humanity.

One of my main quirks is that words give me a buzz — especially puns. I have to suppress my tendency to make puns, out of politeness to others, though I’ve sometimes been less discreet about sharing puns on Facebook. And words just by themselves fascinate me. I love dictionaries, and I have many times opened a dictionary at random, just to read words and their definitions.

Interesting words can be found in some of the most unexpected places. Take quarks, for instance. There’s a quirky-sounding word if there ever was one, kind of what a duck with hiccups might say. Quarks are the universe’s elementary particles that combine to make composite particles, such as hadrons — the best known of which are the protons and neutrons of atomic nuclei. And deep in this world of particle physics lies a delight: the six “flavours” of known quarks have been named up, down, bottom, top, strange, and charm. It reminds me of the “flavours” of mind I go through while staring at the pantry shelves. What delicious names. The science behind this is a, um, quantum leap, for someone like me, but it’s fun to dwell on the names.

Because words are so central to my being, and because I have hearing loss, we watch videos on our TV with closed captioning turned on. It may be a quirky way to watch, but we’re now so used to it we miss it dreadfully when seeing shows that aren’t captioned. It also helps enormously with those northern accents on UK television productions, or watching an interview with a native Newfoundlander.

Everyone I’ve met has at least a few quirks they’re willing to admit to, such as running a fan in the bedroom all year round, not just in the summer. Or like having a favourite burner on your stove. Or watching sports on TV with the sound off because you can’t stand the blah-blah announcers.

One of the interesting quirks of the human mind is the ability to turn a quirk into a system. For us it’s “banana management.” We both like bananas on our morning cereal, but are particular about them not being too green or too ripe. The green ones have too solid a texture and not enough sweetness, while the too-ripe ones are fit only for banana bread. So we’ve developed the art of banana management, picking up a couple of fairly ripe bananas along with a batch of greener ones so that some are ready to eat immediately and the others have a chance to ripen before use. You have to gauge the colours just right for this to work out or you’ll have banana-less days waiting for them to ripen, or a surplus of banana bread.

I could go on and on about quirks and I’m certain that you could too. When writing longhand, I’m only comfortable with a fountain pen, black ink, and yellow legal pads. When writing on a computer I can only use text editors. Complicated menus and ribbon bars distract me. I only want to see the words I’m typing. But enough. We all have quirks, and they’re part of what make us unique. And as Margaret Mead once said, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

Whatever Happened to Ecology?

Whatever Happened to Ecology?

By Gene Wilburn

Words have lifetimes — some very long, some short. Many words are elastic and stretch from their original meanings to wider application or a more specialized meaning. Some words define and encapsulate eras. Think of disco and discotheque. Or flapper and Charleston. Eras gone by, and the only remaining life the words have is to give reference to the pop music of a different time. Another such word that comes to mind, from my earlier years, is ecumenical.

Ecumenical is a fancy word, imported in the late 16th century from Latin which in turn imported it from Greek and meaning, for the most part, “promoting or relating to unity among the world’s Christian churches” in the sense of “belonging to the universal Church.” The original Greek meaning appears to be something like “the (inhabited) earth,” meaning principally the Roman Empire.

The word came to renewed prominence in the mid–1960s and was especially popular on university campuses in the U.S. There were several ecumenical services that I and many others attended to see the ways the various branches of Christianity worshipped. It was the era of Pope John, folk masses, and Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Baptists getting together for pot-luck gatherings — perhaps the last such era of its kind before the echo of the Civil Rights marches and the ever-present war in Vietnam opened the rift that has continued to split the US into two separate, superimposed countries. Goodwill became less fashionable. Nixon was elected President. Goodbye ecumenical. Ceremonies of innocence were drowned.

It was around this time that many young people left the organized churches to find more contemporary ways of exploring their relationships to the universe. Transformations were in the wind — the times they were a-changing’. It rang through in the music, poetry, novels, hairstyles, and lifestyles of the young in what Mexican poet Octavio Paz called “an explosion of the spirit.” Its symbols were seen in peace signs, painted VW vans, concert posters, flowing hair, headbands, dance, and underground newspapers. Marijuana became the new communal sacrament, and LSD, mescaline, peyote, and magic mushrooms were portals to new kinds of perception. It was a heady time, unsustainable of course, and as with all things, tragic for some, but it was also a pretty time that, if experienced, can never be forgotten. Ah, the sunsets… but I digress…

It was in this time period that I first encountered the word ecology. The word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary first entered the language around 1875, in the original, scientific meaning of the term, “The branch of biology that deals with the relationships between living organisms and their environment.” The word grew gradually beyond its more limited definition to a broader sociological definition: “The study of the relationships between people, social groups, and their environment; (also) the system of such relationships in an area of human settlement. Freq. with modifying word, as cultural ecology, social ecology, urban ecology.

In the late 60s and early 70s it took on a more political flavour, meaning “The study of or concern for the effect of human activity on the environment; advocacy of restrictions on industrial and agricultural development as a political movement; (also) a political movement dedicated to this.” By this time ecology had become a buzzword and was frequently featured in such archives of the time as the Whole Earth Catalog, along with geodestic domes.

Ecology wasn’t a new concept — the interrelationship of organisms and their surroundings had been known for centuries — but the word gave clarity and weight to the concept, and in the world of DDT, Agent Orange, inappropriate dams, and urban sprawl, it began to take on an urgency as we learned of more species going extinct due to the clearing or altering of habitats and the encroachment of people.

Yet oddly, it’s a word I only hear now occasionally. One of the natural extensions of ecology is climate change. As the ecological and other studies added up, it became obvious to just about everyone in the world, except for a strange cadre of U.S. Republicans who have, for inscrutable political reasons, chosen to turn their backs on science and knowledge, that Earth, our very planet itself, is headed for a change that will not be good for the human species, much less the rest of the planet’s ecological systems.

Yet the word ecology is getting a new boost in usage, this time for the bacterial communities of our stomachs and intestines. Evidently we, and the bacteria in our bodies, co-evolved to make mammalian life, as we know it, possible. Our insides are literally crawling with them. The good ones help us digest food and contribute to our health. Whatever else our existence means, it is a life that, biologically, is only achieved by committee. Every “I” is literally a “we.” I’m glad to be seeing the word in use again because I always felt, in my gut, that ecology would make something of a comeback.

At a more abstract level, there is an ecology of the mind. The more you learn, ponder, and read, the more complex your mental landscape becomes and the more scope you have for ideas, counter-ideas, imagination, and insights. Who you read — which thinkers you have chosen to help guide you along the neuronal highways and byways of the brain — creates the type of mental ecosystem you live in, and determines whether it’s a rich, varied, healthy ecosystem, or a more limited ecosystem with poor mental soil. So, as the acolyte said to Indy, “Choose wisely.”