Sunday, July 15, 2018

July 15: Blessings, Classic Saint Marty, Blueberry Picking

I have felt very blessed today.  Church in the morning.  This afternoon, I drove out to some great friends' house to pick blueberries with my daughter and her boyfriend.  My friends have ten acres of prime blueberry country along Lake Superior.  We had a wonderful time, despite it being close to 102 degrees in the patches where we were picking.  And then, to cool off, we went swimming in Lake Superior for about an hour.

Like I said, it was a day full of blessings.

Four years ago, I was focusing on my blessings, as well:

July 15, 2014:  A Whole Noodle, Finding Blessings, Giving Thanks

Wilbur ate heartily.  He planned to leave half a noodle and a few drops of milk for Templeton.  Then he remembered that the rat had been useful in saving Charlotte's life, and that Charlotte was trying to save his life.  So he left a whole noodle, instead of a half.

Wilbur struggles with his feelings for Templeton.  After all, the rat doesn't do a whole lot to make himself likeable.  He steals food and prowls the garbage dump.  Templeton is a rat, and E. B. White didn't have a great fondness for rats.  But White makes Templeton a hero.  Wilbur knows that Charlotte would have ended up in Avery's bug collection if it hadn't been for Templeton's buried rotten goose egg.  The little pig recognizes that the rat has been a blessing, and Wilbur gives thanks.

Sometimes it's hard to recognize blessings, especially if you're a natural pessimist, like me.  Right now, I could complain that I'm tired, that I don't have enough money to pay for my daughter's braces, that I just received another shut-off notice from a utility company.  I'm great at complaining, because modern society is geared toward making people feel inadequate.  I'm not thin enough.  My house isn't big enough.  My car isn't new enough.  I don't look like Brad Pitt or George Clooney.

Yet, blessings are all around me.  I have a job.  I work with good people.  My kids are healthy.  My car is in good shape.  My house doesn't have mice.  There's food in my refrigerator.  I sometimes get to do things I love--read my poetry, play in a band, have friends over to talk about books.  Eat an occasional brownie.  So, I really am blessed.  I have enough.  Just enough.

My prayer focus this week is giving thanks, every day.  Thanks for the good things and the bad things, because bad things (like rats) can sometimes be the catalyst of grace.

Repeat after Saint Marty:  "I am blessed.  I am blessed.  I am blessed."

A blessing for a disease-carrying, filthy rodent.


Tonight, I'm going to be working on poems for a Bigfoot Poetry Reading that I'm giving tomorrow night.  

Saint Marty is the most blessed person in the world tonight.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

July 14: Father's Birthday, 91st, "The Quiet Man"

You will excuse me if I step away from Moby-Dick for this post.  Today would have been my father's 91st birthday.  Last year, on this day, we had a huge birthday party for him.  Relatives drove in from out of town.  My dad's sister was there.  They hadn't seen each other for a few years.  He was smiling more that day than I'd seen him smile in a long time.

So, this evening, I give you a poem that I wrote for my father.

Saint Marty wishes his dad a happy birthday.

The Quiet Man

by:  Martin Achatz

Last night, I dreamed my dad and John Wayne
were sitting around a campfire, eating
peaches out of a can.  Stars thick as cattle herds
milled above them, and the prairie grass
hummed some sweet old song like "Red River Valley"
or "Shenandoah."  I'm not sure if was heaven,
but my father was young and perfect, the hook
of his back as straight as a railroad spike.
Duke was young, too, the retired prizefighter
who chased Maureen O'Hara through the green
Galway countryside.  There weren't any Nazis
crawling along the ground in ambush, no
Richard Boone-faced kidnappers, skin
leathery as buffalo jerky, trying to steal
their sleeping horses.  I'm not sure
if you can smell in dreams, but I remember
smelling manure and smoke and something else.
Maybe the coming of rain.  My dad and Duke
didn't talk, just forked golden crescents
into their mouths, looking as if they were eating
solar eclipse after solar eclipse.  Their forks
made hollow cowbell noises in the dark.
When they were done, they tipped the cans
to their lips, drank the syrup inside
until it ran down their chins.  I kept
waiting for something more to happen,
a runaway stagecoach to crash through
or a baby elephant nosing for hay.
Instead, my dad took a deck of cards
from his pocket, started dealing.
They played gin rummy, hand after hand.
My dad let John Wayne win, because he was
John Wayne and because that's what
my dad did every morning with my mother
for years and years.  He did it because
it was a habit of love.  Maybe that's the name
of this movie:  Habit of Love.  It starts out
simply enough.  Two cards.  Dealt face up.
The king and queen of hearts.


Friday, July 13, 2018

July 13: Carcase Sank, Friday the 13th, Superstition

The predestinated day arrived, and we duly met the ship Jungfrau, Derick De Deer, master, of Bremen.

At one time the greatest whaling people in the world, the Dutch and Germans are now among the least; but here and there at very wide intervals of latitude and longitude, you still occasionally meet with their flag in the Pacific.

For some reason, the Jungfrau seemed quite eager to pay her respects. While yet some distance from the Pequod, she rounded to, and dropping a boat, her captain was impelled towards us, impatiently standing in the bows instead of the stern.

"What has he in his hand there?" cried Starbuck, pointing to something wavingly held by the German. "Impossible!- a lamp-feeder!"

"Not that," said Stubb, "no, no, it's a coffee-pot, Mr. Starbuck; he's coming off to make us our coffee, is the Yarman; don't you see that big tin can there alongside of him?- that's his boiling water. Oh! he's all right, is the Yarman."

"Go along with you," cried Flask, "it's a lamp-feeder and an oil-can. He's out of oil, and has come a-begging."

However curious it may seem for an oil-ship to be borrowing oil on the whale-ground, and however much it may invertedly contradict the old proverb about carrying coals to Newcastle, yet sometimes such a thing really happens; and in the present case Captain Derick De Deer did indubitably conduct a lamp-feeder as Flask did declare.

As he mounted the deck, Ahab abruptly accosted him, without at all heeding what he had in his hand; but in his broken lingo, the German soon evinced his complete ignorance of the White Whale; immediately turning the conversation to his lamp-feeder and oil can, with some remarks touching his having to turn into his hammock at night in profound darkness- his last drop of Bremen oil being gone, and not a single flying-fish yet captured to supply the deficiency; concluding by hinting that his ship was indeed what in the Fishery is technically called a clean one (that is, an empty one), well deserving the name of Jungfrau or the Virgin.

His necessities supplied, Derick departed; but he had not gained his ship's side, when whales were almost simultaneously raised from the mast-heads of both vessels; and so eager for the chase was Derick, that without pausing to put his oil-can and lamp-feeder aboard, he slewed round his boat and made after the leviathan lamp-feeders.

Now, the game having risen to leeward, he and the other three German boats that soon followed him, had considerably the start of the Pequod's keels. There were eight whales, an average pod. Aware of their danger, they were going all abreast with great speed straight before the wind, rubbing their flanks as closely as so many spans of horses in harness. They left a great, wide wake, as though continually unrolling a great wide parchment upon the sea.

Full in this rapid wake, and many fathoms in the rear, swam a huge, humped old bull, which by his comparatively slow progress, as well as by the unusual yellowish incrustations over-growing him, seemed afflicted with the jaundice, or some other infirmity. Whether this whale belonged to the pod in advance, seemed questionable; for it is not customary for such venerable leviathans to be at all social. Nevertheless, he stuck to their wake, though indeed their back water must have retarded him, because the white-bone or swell at his broad muzzle was a dashed one, like the swell formed when two hostile currents meet. His spout was short, slow, and laborious; coming forth with a choking sort of gush, and spending itself in torn shreds, followed by strange subterranean commotions in him, which seemed to have egress at his other buried extremity, causing the waters behind him to upbubble.

"Who's got some paregoric?" said Stubb, "he has the stomach-ache, I'm afraid. Lord, think of having half an acre of stomach-ache! Adverse winds are holding mad Christmas in him, boys. It's the first foul wind ever knew to blow from astern; but look, did ever whale yaw so before? it must be, he's lost his tiller."

As an overladen Indiaman bearing down the Hindostan coast with a deck load of frightened horses, careens, buries, rolls, and wallows on her way; so did this old whale heave his aged bulk, and now and then partly turning over on his cumbrous rib-ends, expose the cause of his devious wake in the unnatural stump of his starboard fin. Whether he had lost that fin in battle, or had been born without it, it were hard to say.

"Only wait a bit, old chap, and I'll give ye a sling for that wounded arm," cried cruel Flask, pointing to the whale-line near him.

"Mind he don't sling thee with it," cried Starbuck. "Give way, or the German will have him."
With one intent all the combined rival boats were pointed for this one fish, because not only was he the largest, and therefore the most valuable whale, but he was nearest to them, and the other whales were going with such great velocity, moreover, as almost to defy pursuit for the time. At this juncture, the Pequod's keels had shot by the three German boats last lowered; but from the great start he had had, Derick's boat still led the chase, though every moment neared by his foreign rivals. The only thing they feared, was, that from being already so nigh to his mark, he would be enabled to dart his iron before they could completely overtake and pass him. As for Derick, he seemed quite confident that this would be the case, and occasionally with a deriding gesture shook his lamp-feeder at the other boats.

"The ungracious and ungrateful dog!" cried Starbuck; "he mocks and dares me with the very poor-box I filled for him not five minutes ago!"- Then in his old intense whisper- "give way, greyhounds! Dog to it!"

"I tell ye what it is, men"- cried Stubb to his crew- "it's against my religion to get mad; but I'd like to eat that villainous Yarman- Pull- won't ye? Are ye going to let that rascal beat ye? Do ye love brandy? A hogshead of brandy, then, to the best man. Come, why don't some of ye burst a blood-vessel? Who's that been dropping an anchor overboard- we don't budge an inch- we're becalmed. Halloo, here's grass growing in the boat's bottom- and by the Lord, the mast there's budding. This won't do, boys. Look at that Yarman! The short and long of it is, men, will ye spit fire or not?"

"Oh! see the suds he makes!" cried Flask, dancing up and down- "What a hump- Oh, do pile on the beef- lays like a log! Oh! my lads, do spring- slap-jacks and quahogs for supper, you know, my lads- baked clams and muffins- ho, do, do, spring,- he's a hundred barreler- don't lose him now- don't oh, don't!- see that Yarman- Oh, won't ye pull for your duff, my lads- such a sog! such a sogger! Don't ye love sperm? There goes three thousand dollars, men!- a bank!- a whole bank! The bank of England!- Oh, do, do, do!- What's that Yarman about now?"

At this moment Derick was in the act of pitching his lamp-feeder at the advancing boats, and also his oil-can; perhaps with the double view of retarding his rivals' way, and at the same time economically accelerating his own by the momentary impetus of the backward toss.

"The unmannerly Dutch dogger!" cried Stubb. "Pull now, men, like fifty thousand line-of-battle-ship loads of red-haired devils. What d'ye say, Tashtego; are you the man to snap your spine in two-and-twenty pieces for the honor of old Gayhead? What d'ye say?"

"I say, pull like god-dam,"- cried the Indian.

Fiercely, but evenly incited by the taunts of the German, the Pequod's three boats now began ranging almost abreast; and, so disposed, momentarily neared him. In that fine, loose, chivalrous attitude of the headsman when drawing near to his prey, the three mates stood up proudly, occasionally backing the after oarsman with an exhilarating cry of, "There she slides, now! Hurrah for the white-ash breeze! Down with the Yarman! Sail over him!"

But so decided an original start had Derick had, that spite of all their gallantry, he would have proved the victor in this race, had not a righteous judgment descended upon him in a crab which caught the blade of his midship oarsman. While this clumsy lubber was striving to free his white-ash, and while, in consequence, Derick's boat was nigh to capsizing, and he thundering away at his men in a mighty rage;- that was a good time for Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. With a shout, they took a mortal start forwards, and slantingly ranged up on the German's quarter. An instant more, and all four boats were diagonically in the whale's immediate wake, while stretching from them, on both sides, was the foaming swell that he made.

It was a terrific, most pitiable, and maddening sight. The whale was now going head out, and sending his spout before him in a continual tormented jet; while his one poor fin beat his side in an agony of fright. Now to this hand, now to that, he yawed in his faltering flight, and still at every billow that he broke, he spasmodically sank in the sea, or sideways rolled towards the sky his one beating fin. So have I seen a bird with clipped wing, making affrighted broken circle in the air, vainly striving to escape the piratical hawks. But the bird has a voice, and with plaintive cries will make known her fear; but the fear of this vast dumb brute of the sea, was chained up and enchanted in him; he had no voice, save that choking respiration through his spiracle, and this made the sight of him unspeakably pitiable; while still, in his amazing bulk, portcullis jaw, and omnipotent tail, there was enough to appal the stoutest man who so pitied.

Seeing now that but a very few moments more would give the Pequod's boat the advantage, and rather than be thus foiled of his game, Derick chose to hazard what to him must have seemed a most unusually long dart, ere the last chance would for ever escape.

But no sooner did his harpooneer stand up for the stroke, than all three tigers- Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo- instinctively sprang to their feet, and standing in a diagonal row, simultaneously pointed their barbs; and darted over the head of the German harpooneer, their three Nantucket irons entered the whale. Blinding vapors of foam and white-fire! The three boats, in the first fury of the whale's headlong rush, bumped the German's aside with such force, that both Derick and his baffled harpooneer were spilled out, and sailed over by the three flying keels.

"Don't be afraid, my butter-boxes," cried Stubb, casting a passing glance upon them as he shot by; "ye'll be picked up presently- all right- I saw some sharks astern- St. Bernard's dogs, you know- relieve distressed travellers. Hurrah! this is the way to sail now. Every keel a sunbeam! Hurrah!- Here we go like three tin kettles at the tail of a mad cougar! This puts me in mind of fastening to an elephant in a tilbury on a plain- makes the wheelspokes fly, boys, when you fasten to him that way; and there's danger of being pitched out too, when you strike a hill. Hurrah! this is the way a fellow feels when he's going to Davy Jones- all a rush down an endless inclined plane! Hurrah! this whale carries the everlasting mail!"

But the monster's run was a brief one. Giving a sudden gasp, he tumultuously sounded. With a grating rush, the three lines flew round the loggerheads with such a force as to gouge deep grooves in them; while so fearful were the harpooneers that this rapid sounding would soon exhaust the lines, that using all their dexterous might, they caught repeated smoking turns with the rope to hold on; till at last- owing to the perpendicular strain from the lead-lined chocks of the boat, whence the three ropes went straight down into the blue- the gunwales of the bows were almost even with the water, while the three sterns tilted high in the air. And the whale soon ceasing to sound, for some time they remained in that attitude, fearful of expending more line, though the position was a little ticklish. But though boats have been taken down and lost in this way, yet it is this "holding on," as it is called; this hooking up by the sharp barbs of his live flesh from the back; this it is that often torments the Leviathan into soon rising again to meet the sharp lance of his foes. Yet not to speak of the peril of the thing, it is to be doubted whether this course is always the best; for it is but reasonable to presume, that the longer the stricken whale stays under water, the more he is exhausted. Because, owing to the enormous surface of him- in a full grown sperm whale something less than 2000 square feet- the pressure of the water is immense. We all know what an astonishing atmospheric weight we ourselves stand up under; even here, above-ground, in the air; how vast, then, the burden of a whale, bearing on his back a column of two hundred fathoms of ocean! It must at least equal the weight of fifty atmospheres. One whaleman has estimated it at the weight of twenty line-of-battle ships, with all their guns, and stores, and men on board.

As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony! Not eight inches of perpendicular rope were visible at the bows. Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended like the big weight to an eight day clock. Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said- "Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!" This the creature? this he? Oh! that unfulfilments should follow the prophets. For with the strength of a thousand thighs in his tail, Leviathan had run his head under the mountains of the sea, to hide him from the Pequod's fishspears!

In that sloping afternoon sunlight, the shadows that the three boats sent down beneath the surface, must have been long enough and broad enough to shade half Xerxes' army. Who can tell how appalling to the wounded whale must have been such huge phantoms flitting over his head! "Stand by, men; he stirs," cried Starbuck, as the three lines suddenly vibrated in the water, distinctly conducting upwards to them, as by magnetic wires, the life and death throbs of the whale, so that every oarsman felt them in his seat. The next moment, relieved in great part from the downward strain at the bows, the boats gave a sudden bounce upwards, as a small icefield will, when a dense herd of white bears are scared from it into the sea.

"Haul in! Haul in!" cried Starbuck again; "he's rising."

The lines, of which, hardly an instant before, not one hand's breadth could have been gained, were now in long quick coils flung back all dripping into the boats, and soon the whale broke water within two ship's length of the hunters.

His motions plainly denoted his extreme exhaustion. In most land animals there are certain valves or flood-gates in many of their veins, whereby when wounded, the blood is in some degree at least instantly shut off in certain directions. Not so with the whale; one of whose peculiarities it is, to have an entire non-valvular structure of the blood-vessels, so that when pierced even by so small a point as a harpoon, a deadly drain is at once begun upon his whole arterial system; and when this is heightened by the extraordinary pressure of water at a great distance below the surface, his life may be said to pour from him in incessant streams. Yet so vast is the quantity of blood in him, and so distant and numerous its interior fountains, that he will keep thus bleeding and bleeding for a considerable period; even as in a drought a river will flow, whose source is the well-springs of far-off and indiscernible hills. Even now, when the boats pulled upon this whale, and perilously drew over his swaying flukes, and the lances were darted into him, they were followed by steady jets from the new made wound, which kept continually playing, while the natural spout-hole in his head was only at intervals, however rapid, sending its affrighted moisture into the air. From this last vent no blood yet came, because no vital part of him had thus far been struck. His life, as they significantly call it, was untouched.

As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. Still rolling in his blood, at last he partially disclosed a strangely discolored bunch or protuberance, the size of a bushel, low down on the flank.

"A nice spot," cried Flask; "just let me prick him there once."

"Avast!" cried Starbuck, "there's no need of that!"

But humane Starbuck was too late. At the instant of the dart an ulcerous jet shot from this cruel wound, and goaded by it into more than sufferable anguish, the whale now spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask's boat and marring the bows. It was his death stroke. For, by this time, so spent was he by loss of blood, that he helplessly rolled away from the wreck he had made; lay panting on his side, impotently flapped with his stumped fin, then over and over slowly revolved like a waning world; turned up the white secrets of his belly; lay like a log, and died. It was most piteous, that last expiring spout. As when by unseen hands the water is gradually drawn off from some mighty fountain, and with half-stifled melancholy gurglings the spray-column lowers and lowers to the ground- so the last long dying spout of the whale.

Soon, while the crews were awaiting the arrival of the ship, the body showed symptoms of sinking with all its treasures unrifled. Immediately, by Starbuck's orders, lines were secured to it at different points, so that ere long every boat was a buoy; the sunken whale being suspended a few inches beneath them by the cords. By very heedful management, when the ship drew nigh, the whale was transferred to her side, and was strongly secured there by the stiffest fluke-chains, for it was plain that unless artificially upheld, the body would at once sink to the bottom.

It so chanced that almost upon first him with the spade, the entire length of a corroded harpoon was found imbedded in his flesh, on the lower part of the bunch before described. But as the stumps of harpoons are frequently found in the dead bodies of captured whales, with the flesh perfectly healed around them, and no prominence of any kind to denote their place; therefore, there must needs have been some other unknown reason in the present case fully to account for the ulceration alluded to. But still more curious was the fact of a lance-head of stone being found in him, not far from the buried iron, the flesh perfectly firm about it. Who had darted that stone lance? And when? It might have been darted by some Nor' West Indian long before America was discovered.

What other marvels might have been rummaged out of this monstrous cabinet there is no telling. But a sudden stop was put to further discoveries, by the ship's being unprecedentedly dragged over sideways to the sea, owing to the body's immensely increasing tendency to sink. However, Starbuck, who had the ordering of affairs, hung on to it to the last; hung on to it so resolutely, indeed, that when at length the ship would have been capsized, if still persisting in locking arms with the body; then, when the command was given to break clear from it, such was the immovable strain upon the timber-heads to which the fluke-chains and cables were fastened, that it was impossible to cast them off. Meantime everything in the Pequod was aslant. To cross to the other side of the deck was like walking up the steep gabled roof of a house. The ship groaned and gasped. Many of the ivory inlayings of her bulwarks and cabins were started from their places, by the unnatural dislocation. In vain handspikes and crows were brought to bear upon the immovable fluke-chains, to pry them adrift from the timberheads; and so low had the whale now settled that the submerged ends could not be at all approached, while every moment whole tons of ponderosity seemed added to the sinking bulk, and the ship seemed on the point of going over.

"Hold on, hold on, won't ye?" cried Stubb to the body, "don't be in such a devil of a hurry to sink! By thunder, men, we must do something or go for it. No use prying there; avast, I say with your handspikes, and run one of ye for a prayer book and a pen-knife, and cut the big chains."

"Knife? Aye, aye," cried Queequeg, and seizing the carpenter's heavy hatchet, he leaned out of a porthole, and steel to iron, began slashing at the largest fluke-chains. But a few strokes, full of sparks, were given, when the exceeding strain effected the rest. With a terrific snap, every fastening went adrift; the ship righted, the carcase sank.

Now, this occasional inevitable sinking of the recently killed Sperm Whale is a very curious thing; nor has any fisherman yet adequately accounted for it. Usually the dead Sperm Whale floats with great buoyancy, with its side or belly considerably elevated above the surface. If the only whales that thus sank were old, meagre, and broken-hearted creatures, their pads of lard diminished and all their bones heavy and rheumatic; then you might with some reason assert that this sinking is caused by an uncommon specific gravity in the fish so sinking, consequent upon this absence of buoyant matter in him. But it is not so. For young whales, in the highest health, and swelling with noble aspirations, prematurely cut off in the warm flush and May of life, with all their panting lard about them! even these brawny, buoyant heroes do sometimes sink.

Be it said, however, that the Sperm Whale is far less liable to this accident than any other species. Where one of that sort go down, twenty Right Whales do. This difference in the species is no doubt imputable in no small degree to the greater quantity of bone in the Right Whale; his Venetian blinds alone sometimes weighing more than a ton; from this incumbrance the Sperm Whale is wholly free. But there are instances where, after the lapse of many hours or several days, the sunken whale again rises, more buoyant than in life. But the reason of this is obvious. Gases are generated in him; he swells to a prodigious magnitude; becomes a sort of animal balloon. A line-of-battle ship could hardly keep him under then. In the Shore Whaling, on soundings, among the Bays of New Zealand, when a Right Whale gives token of sinking, they fasten buoys to him, with plenty of rope; so that when the body has gone down, they know where to look for it when it shall have ascended again.

It was not long after the sinking of the body that a cry was heard from the Pequod's mast-heads, announcing that the Jungfrau was again lowering her boats; though the only spout in sight was that of a Fin-Back, belonging to the species of uncapturable whales, because of its incredible power of swimming. Nevertheless, the Fin-Back's spout is so similar to the Sperm Whale's, that by unskilful fishermen it is often mistaken for it. And consequently Derick and all his host were now in valiant chase of this unnearable brute. The Virgin crowding all sail, made after her four young keels, and thus they all disappeared far to leeward, still in bold, hopeful chase.

Oh! many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend.

Well, it is Friday the 13th.  What better way to celebrate this unlucky day than a chapter about the killing and sinking of a sperm whale.  Yes, the crew of the Pequod slays a huge creature, bigger than their previous victim.  This one is old, injured, slower than the other whales in the pod.  Melville states that such a specimen would fetch close to $3,000 in oil.  That's over $75,000 today.  Yet, the whale is so heavy that it almost capsizes the ship.  Instead of collecting blubber and oil, Starbuck and company watch the lines snap and the whale sink into the ocean.  Bad luck.

I'm not really superstitious about Friday the 13ths.  When I was a teenager, the slasher horror movies were all the rage.  I remember going to the movie theater to see Jason Vorhees' first rampage at Crystal Lake when I was about 11 or 12.  My brother took me, despite its R-rating.  There I sat, watching horny teens skinny dipping and having sex, then being hunted down and slaughtered by a guy in a hockey mask.

While I wasn't particularly frightened by this series of films, I didn't take any chances as a teenager.  I stayed out of the woods and avoided having indiscriminate sex with girls.  (Actually, the sex part wasn't by choice.  If given the opportunity, I probably would have screwed any girl who had a thing for geeky bookworms into theater and Star Wars.)  These days, my superstition on Friday the 13th is limited to not walking under ladders (more for safety reasons) and avoiding black cats (because I'm allergic to them). 

In about a half hour, I'm going out to dinner with my family at a local Italian restaurant.  Lots of garlic bread and a plate of tortellini drowning in garlic butter sauce.  Plus, some wine.  I don't think Freddy Krueger is going to storm out of the kitchen and carve us up like live Thanksgiving turkeys.  And Michael Myers isn't going to be our waiter.  The only thing that I'm really concerned about is whether or not the bartender has the kind of gin I like.

As a Christian, I'm not supposed to be superstitious, and I pretty much adhere to that dictum.  I do get a little weird about the kind of pen and journal I use when I'm writing a poem.  It's always a fountain pen and Moleskine.  Recently, since I'm working on a collection of Bigfoot poetry, I try to wear one of my Bigfoot shirts when I'm composing.  Not superstition.  It simply gets me in the proper frame of mind.

As a Catholic boy, I used to believe that, if I committed a particularly serious sin (usually involving a dirty magazine and some alone time in the bathroom), God would not just punish me.  He would punish people I loved, as well.  This line of thought carried over well into my young adulthood.  Thus, I used to think that I was the cause for things like car accidents or serious illness.  In fact, when my sister was dying of lymphoma of the brain a few years ago, I had a few nights of questioning myself, wondering how I had ticked God off enough to kill my sister.

I told a pastor friend after my sister died how I thought I had done something to cause my sister's death.  He shook his head and said, "I wouldn't work for a God like that."  Superstition can be incredibly harmful.  I learned this the hard way.

So, I try to avoid thoughts of a vengeful Supreme Being these days.  My God isn't about anger and pain.  My God is about love and forgiveness.

And if that's superstition, Saint Marty is thankful for it.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

July 11: Spinal Branch, Edmund Hillary, Mr. Rogers

If the Sperm Whale be physiognomically a Sphinx, to the phrenologist his brain seems that geometrical circle which it is impossible to square.

In in full-grown creature the skull will measure at least twenty feet in length. Unhinge the lower jaw, and the side view of this skull is as the side of a moderately inclined plane resting throughout on a level base. But in life- as we have elsewhere seen- this inclined plane is angularly filled up, and almost squared by the enormous superincumbent mass of the junk and sperm. At the high end the skull forms a crater to bed that part of the mass; while under the long floor of this crater- in another cavity seldom exceeding ten inches in length and as many in depth reposes the mere handful of this monster's brain. The brain is at least twenty feet from his apparent forehead in life; it is hidden away behind its vast outworks, like the innermost citadel within the amplified fortifications of Quebec. So like a choice casket is it secreted in him, that I have known some whalemen who peremptorily deny that the Sperm Whale has any other brain than that palpable semblance of one formed by the cubic-yards of his sperm magazine. Lying in strange folds, courses, and convolutions, to their apprehensions, it seems more in keeping with the idea of his general might to regard that mystic part of him as the seat of his intelligence.

It is plain, then, that phrenologically the head of this Leviathan, in the creature's living intact state, is an entire delusion. As for his true brain, you can then see no indications of it, nor feel any. The whale, like all things that are mighty, wears a false brow to the common world.

If you unload his skull of its spermy heaps and then take a rear view of its rear end, which is the high end, you will be struck by its resemblance to the human skull, beheld in the same situation, and from the same point of view. Indeed, place this reversed skull (scaled down to the human magnitude) among a plate of men's skulls, and you would involuntarily confound it with them; and remarking the depressions on one part of its summit, in phrenological phrase you would say- This man had no self-esteem, and no veneration. And by those negations, considered along with the affirmative fact of his prodigious bulk and power, you can best form to yourself the truest, though not the most exhilarating conception of what the most exalted potency is.

But if from the comparative dimensions of the whale's proper brain, you deem it incapable of being adequately charted, then I have another idea for you. If you attentively regard almost any quadruped's spine, you will be struck with the resemblance of its vertebrae to a strung necklace of dwarfed skulls, all bearing rudimental resemblance to the skull proper. It is a German conceit, that the vertebrae are absolutely undeveloped skulls. But the curious external resemblance, I take it the Germans were not the first men to perceive. A foreign friend once pointed it out to me, in the skeleton of a foe he had slain, and with the vertebrae of which he was inlaying, in a sort of basso-relieve, the beaked prow of his canoe. Now, I consider that the phrenologists have omitted an important thing in not pushing their investigations from the cerebellum through the spinal canal. For I believe that much of a man's character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are. A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul. I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world.

Apply this spinal branch of phrenology to the Sperm Whale. His cranial cavity is continuous with the first neck-vertebra; and in that vertebra the bottom of the spinal canal will measure ten inches across, being eight in height, and of a triangular figure with the base downwards. As it passes through the remaining vertebrae the canal tapers in size, but for a considerable distance remains of large capacity. Now, of course, this canal is filled with much the same strangely fibrous substance- the spinal cord- as the brain; and directly communicates with the brain. And what is still more, for many feet after emerging from the brain's cavity, the spinal cord remains of an undecreasing girth, almost equal to that of the brain. Under all these circumstances, would it be unreasonable to survey and map out the whale's spine phrenologically? For, viewed in this light, the wonderful comparative smallness of his brain proper is more than compensated by the wonderful comparative magnitude of his spinal cord.

But leaving this hint to operate as it may with the phrenologists, I would merely assume the spinal theory for a moment, in reference to the Sperm Whale's hump. This august hump, if I mistake not, rises over one of the larger vertebrae, and is, therefore, in some sort, the outer convex mould of it. From its relative situation then, I should call this high hump the organ of firmness or indomitableness in the Sperm Whale. And that the great monster is indomitable, you will yet have reason to know.

So Melville moves on from the sperm whale's head to its backbone, making the argument that the true measure of a creature's character resides in its vertebrae.  Of course, this phrenology of the spine is no more accurate than that of the spine.  Big head or little.  Long spine or short.  This is not science.  It's pseudo-science, sort of like Donald Trump's truth is pseudo-truth.

This afternoon, I climbed a mountain.  A small one, with several flights of stairs installed to reach the summit.  It took me about 20 or so minutes with my daughter and her boyfriend.  It was our "adventure" for the day.  I have to say that it was more difficult than I remembered.  By the time I stepped onto the mountaintop, I was drenched in sweat and out-of-breath.  It took me about 10 minutes to recover.

I'm not sure that this little trek really required any spinal fortitude.  There was nothing dangerous about it.  As I was starting out, a little two-year-old boy was coming down.  He was carrying a stuffed dog and looked like he'd just watched an episode of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood instead of climbing a mountain.  Relatively speaking, he was the Edmund Hillary of two-year-olds today.

Tonight, I have to finalize my plans for the poetry workshop I'm leading tomorrow.  Ice cream is the theme.  Some people think it takes spinal fortitude to teach.  Or write poetry.  Or eat ice cream, if you're lactose intolerant.  Courage is just as relative as mountain size.  It depends on what frightens you, I suppose.

Tomorrow night, I'm doing something I enjoy.  It's not a challenge.  It's a joy.  I don't need a strong backbone for it.  I need a journal, pen, a bowl, spoon, and ice cream scoop.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight that Sugarloaf Mountain wasn't a hundred feet taller.
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