Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thumb

The story of little Jack Horner is simple but simultaneously enigmatic. We know he was sitting in the corner. There may be a myriad of reasons to sit in a corner but the three most common are punishment, timidity, and stealth. It seems unlikely that Jack Horner was sent to the corner as punishment simply because he is there with a Christmas pie, and being sent to sit in the corner with an entire pie provides both carrot and stick and thus provides no lesson. Timidity is a valid explanation, after all he is either a child or naturally small and in therefore may well feel intimidated. This is especially true if the context of the rhyme is some sort of large celebration, which we may assume with some confidence given the presence of a Christmas pie. The presence of the pie doesn't in and of itself damage the premise of timidity, but it seems unlikely a small child would be given a whole pie, and equally unlikely that someone with social anxiety issues would take an entire pie, no matter how bountiful the fare. So then the most likely explanation is that of stealth. Jack stole the pie, or at least took more than would be considered polite and has retired to a secluded corner to feast on the spoils of his raid.

Regardless of his motivation for sitting in the corner, and of whether his pastry consumption was sanctioned by the relevant authorities, the actions of Jack Horner once he started eating are inexplicable. Who puts their thumb into a pie? Even if eaten without the aid of cutlery, the typical grip would be to rest some part of the base of the pie on the thumb (and potentially little finger), and to hold the side and top of the crust with the remaining fingers. This can be one or two handed depending on the size of the pie. A particularly barbaric diner might dig into the pie with his hands, but even in this case the obvious action is to scoop with the fingers leaving the thumb idle or, at best, holding already scooped pie contents in place. What possible motivation could a person have for simply plunging a thumb, with either care or recklessness, into a pie. We must assume for Jack's sake that the pie was not particularly hot, for otherwise it would be not only bizarre but also stupid to pursue the course of action he did.

So we are faced with a boy (or small man, it is unclear) sitting in a corner, his thumb knuckle-deep in a Christmas pie. Again we cannot be sure what sort of pie precisely this means. It might be a fruit mince pie, often associated with Christmas, or equally it could be a meat based Christmas pie (such as this one). It would seem more likely to be a fruit pie given he pulled out a plum but the idea of a plum in an English meat pie wouldn't shock me. In either case, it seems quite lucky that his thumb should neatly skewer a plum, and do so in such a way as to survive the thumb being extracted from the general slurry of the filling and through the more rigid crust. His final act, to congratulate himself, seems at first height of the inanity. Why congratulate oneself for an act of idiocy? And why be pleased to have retrieved a plum from a pie which one presumably can eat as much of as appetite dictates? The obvious explanation is that Jack doesn't like plums. He has removed (albeit using a non-traditional method) the ingredient he doesn't like and is now faced with a pristine pie to enjoy. Also possible is that he is congratulating himself belatedly for having stolen the pie in the first place. Using the expression "good boy" would suggest his moral compass is somewhat off balance, but taking satisfaction in one's work is not unusual.

Although little context is provided overall, most of the behaviour of little Jack Horner can be easily explained. All except the thumb. Thumbing a pie is inexplicable.

Next week's word is type.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Flimsy Excuses

I have missed two alphabet supremacy (still unsure on the capitalisation on it) posts in a row which is a poor effort. Being a professional level dodger, shirker and prevaricator I do of course have excuses. I am not providing them to avoid my rightfully (or wrongfully as it may be) earned forfeits but simply to have written something.

Week the first

There are many comforting feeling of laziness, from the simple having nothing to do to the exotic anticipatory thrill of maybe not having to do anything if the last hour of frenzied work functions as expected. The greatest of them is without a doubt being woken up in the morning by an alarm clock, briefly experiencing that sinking feeling of having to go to work, then remembering that it's a weekend or public holiday. This goes double if it's the middle of winter.

Other classics of the genre include: taking day off work and sitting around doing nothing beyond wallowing in the knowledge that everyone else is at work, having a social engagement of dubious quality cancelled at the last minute, the thrill of figuring out how long to wait before writing off the day when there's an office power outage, and the gap between one job finishing and the next one starting.

During the week of my first missed post I felt the powerful urge to dodge a responsibility. There is an obscure pleasure to be taken in not doing something that you should be doing. Some people experience this sensation as shame, do not trust them as they probably have a work ethic. I don't have many (any) responsibilities at the moment so I did the only thing I could and didn't write a blog post. In hindsight it was a poor substitute, some sort of laziness carob, but I worked with what I had.

Week the second

Sunday was day four of what has turned out to be a six day gastric event. My ability to sit at a keyboard, or indeed anywhere outside of a plumbed room, for more than fifteen contiguous minutes was seriously hampered. Enough said. Too much, probably.

I aim to be back this week.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Rat

Rats aren't like mice. When I see mice in the house, my reaction is to feel a bit sad that they're going to get killed. They're cute little things and I wish them no ill will on principle, but I don't want to be eating a cupcake and having to make a determination on whether it’s topped with chocolate sprinkles or, well, not chocolate sprinkles. Rats on the other hand are an adversary to be vanquished.

My dad has been engaged in a running skirmish with a particularly large and devious brown rat for the last several years. Other rats have come and gone, often with a helping hand, but when my dad says The Rat there can be no mistaking that of which he speaks. Truth be told I'm pretty sure at this point that the battle of wits is with Son of Rat, or even Son of Rat Junior, but the genes of the original adversary remain.

It's not the mere fact of its existence that has caused the protracted man versus rodent trial by combat, but the brazen attitude of the protagonist. There is a large window in the lounge room, maybe six feet by five, which looks out onto a nice little flower bed. Four or five feet from the window is a bird bath where the starlings and silver-eyes used to come and bathe and delight onlookers. No more. The bird bath is now The Rat's watering hole. Around dusk each day where once butcher birds would drink and babble about the day, instead The Rat struts in to drink. To look out the window and see eye to eye with a rodent who could not care less about being in plain sight is not a soothing experience. It is the unspoken contract with outdoor vermin: you stay out of sight, we'll pretend you're not there. That it has the confidence to flaunt this tradition is untenable.

There were rat traps, effective at first, then ignored, then the food taken off them without being triggered. On one famous occasion a rat got caught in a trap and was then eaten by other rats, this is the nature of the foe. There is poison where appropriate (not, for example, where neighbourhood pets can get at it). The poison takes out the suckers but grizzled veterans like The Rat don't go near it. There was even, for a time, the blowgun, constructed from a piece of PVC pipe, some nails, and visions of Boys’ Own Adventure tales gone horribly domestic. Dad hit The Rat with a blowgun dart on one occasion, but only succeeded in making it angry.

There's no point bringing in the professionals. The backyard is large and verdant, populated with fruit trees, a variety of berries, and a giant walnut tree to provide them storage for winter. It would be, if not for the crotchety old man hell bent on genocide, rat heaven. The best an exterminator could do would be to give a few weeks respite. Even if the professionals could solve the problem, I think it's gone too far at this point. It’s personal.

Every so often dad updates me on the struggle and mostly I treat it as the description of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Sometimes, though, I can’t help but wonder if I’m listening to the Ahab of suburbia.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Real

Let me tell you the problem with "real" Christians.

Man, I bet a few readers are already angry in anticipation of what I might write next. Those scare quotes look like a setup for some good old fashioned religion bashing, don't they? I bet +Jonathan Lange  read that and his chapter-and-verse gland went into overdrive, probably had some Irenaeus ready to go (I have no idea if Irenaeus is remotely relevant to modern theology, I'm guessing not). Sadly, it is not to be, the quotes are a little misleading. For starters I’m using Christian here solely because it’s the religion I have been most exposed to, feel free to find and replace with any other worldview if you’d prefer.

I used to be interested in religions, any and all, despite not being religious in the slightest. One part of it was the same curiosity that I have about almost everything and the history, mythology, and philosophy facets in particular tickled my fancy. The major part, though, was the idea that understanding religions would help me understand people better. The principle is simple enough: in their own ways every religion lays out some beliefs, from which some rituals and ethics are derived (this is not intended to be a full description of a religion, clearly, just the bit relevant to my point). It follows, roughly, that knowing somebody’s religion should say quite a lot about how they feel they ought to behave, if not how they actually behave.

Why did the interest fade? Never to be underestimated is my dilettante nature; there is no area of endeavour I cannot approach in a poorly structured and non-committal manner. That was a contributor, to be sure, but the primary cause was what I called the “real” Christian problem (before later finding out it was a subset of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy). I liked the idea of a person’s religion being a shorthand descriptor of some of their core values, but in the end it simply isn’t the case.

On the large scale this clearly isn’t true looking at some of the ideological differences between various denominations. On the small scale I have noticed no particular correlation in my acquaintances between faith and morality; I know good people and bad people on every point of the faith spectrum. In cases where the disagreements are small, within a certain bracket of deviation, they are explained as difference of interpretation and everybody is more or less happy. After all, a person’s relationship with God is personal and with personal relationships comes personal interpretation. When it comes to large differences, outrageous acts, or those questions of particularly strong emotion, the response turns into a variation on the same theme “someone who does/says/believes that is not a real Christian”. On occasion “good” may be substituted for “real” but the intent is the same.

This, then, is my problem. As somebody who is not a Christian and therefore in a very poor position to act as arbiter in such matters, who do I take advice from on who the “real” Christians are? For Catholics I guess the Pope would be the go to guy, although the differences between Benedict and Francis make me wonder how consistent the messaging is there. What about all the other denominations, is it by general acclaim? Who decides which fundamentalists are too fundamental, or which liberal dioceses are too liberal, or whether that’s even a decision that should be made? And if there isn’t anybody who can make the decision is the definition simply that anybody who believes themselves to be Christian is Christian? And if that's all it takes, what use is the word?

I imagine some people might read this and think “ah well, I can explain to Bice how I know that I'm a real Christian/Hindu/Rastafarian.” Please don’t. That urge means you missed my point, or more likely that I made my point badly. If you can explain how the classification problem is solved, go ahead.

Next week's word is rat.