2011年1月28日金曜日

A Rosie Outlook


About the name. It has nothing to do with the color of her nose, her mouth, her feet, or her eyes (which happen to be a deep burgundy, in the right light). Nor is it intended to evoke images of diner waitresses or wartime riveters. It isn't even meant as a tribute to my own mother, Rose. Rather, the family ferret owes her name to my daughter's peculiar habit for christening pets, combined with the fluidity of the Japanese language as pertains to names. Earlier, our family had a pet chipmunk named Risu. That means, simply, "squirrel". The Japanese word for chipmunk is "shimarisu" (striped squirrel), and my daughter just shortened it to the stripe-less variety. Naming the critter 'Risu' was hardly any different than had my wife and I decided to name her  "Kid".

In Rosie's case, only a tad more thought on the part of Kid (actually, Mika) came into play. Rosie's official name is "Long", because ferrets are, that. She looks a little like a lab rat that got caught in a taffy puller. That her name has any sort of character at all owes itself not to my daughter's lackadaisical naming style, but rather to certain distinct features of the Japanese language. First, there is that notorious pronunciation issue. In Japanese, there is no distinction between the sounds of the English letters 'l' and 'r', so "long" in Japanese ends up at a midway point between "long" and "wrong". Now, how do we get from long/wrong to Rosie, you are no doubt wondering? In Japanese, especially where pets, animated characters and children are concerned, official, given names are really just starting points. There are all sorts of ways to modify, and thus "cutify" them. For example, at different points, and by different people, Mika has been called Michan, Mikabu, Mikarin, and so on. Certain endearments, particularly "chan", are standard, and every child, and I would guess most pets, get that tagged onto their given name (which is often subsequently abbreviated). The others just depend on how certain people - parents, friends, pet owners, etc. - feel about certain sounds, and which ones feel right to them when applied to the creature they wish to dote upon.

In addition to Rosie, she also goes by Ronchan, RonRon, and Ronbu from time to time. Rosie is in fact my own Anglicization of what Mika calls her in Japanese, which would more accurately be spelled "Roji" (with a  soft, French pronunciation on the 'j'). I do rather like the similarity between my mom's and ferret's names (as does my mom), however unintentional it may be. It is just one of those happy, bilingual accidents. Found in translation, you might say.

The last place we lived prohibited owning cats or dogs, hence our rather unconventional choices for furry friends. Throughout Mika's toddler-hood and on through early adolescence, we went through a handful of hamsters, "graduated" to Risu (chipmunks are quite a bit smarter than hamsters, who seem to have no other purpose in the wild than to supply the low end of the food chain), and then finally a ferret. Prior to owning Rosie, were someone to have told me that a creature resembling a stretched out hamster would steal my heart one day, I would have scoffed. What I didn't realize until we welcomed Rosie into our home is just how intelligent and friendly, and downright adorable, ferrets are, when raised properly. Like dogs, they are a domesticated species with a long history of keeping humans company. If a dog matches a human's intelligence level at roughly the age of four or five, then ferrets, by my estimation, match up with us at just shy of two. In other words, what is arguably our cutest and most endearing time of life. Looked at from that perspective, perhaps one can better understand my deep affection for lil' Rosie.

But there is more to it. Rosie came into my life at a time when I was in dire need of the kind of unconditional, nearly automatic, affection that only a pet can provide. I confess that I had put my daughter off for a few years, as she had been pleading for a ferret for that length of time. The reason for my resistance was that, as our experience with hamsters and Risu had shown, it would be I, not she, who would do all the work of taking care of her pet. Ferrets seemed like (and are) more work, and having watched her interest level and commitment decline with each previous pet, that was a burden I was reluctant to take on. As it turned out, in my early forties I fell into a severe depression that lasted for several months. With proper care and support I was able to fight my way back out, and Rosie was a part of that. Both my wife and Mika wisely (and perhaps in Mika's case, a bit opportunistically) felt that having a fuzzy to look after would be a good form of therapy for me. With my weakened mental condition leaving me too exhausted to protest, the decision was made, and our family welcomed its smallest member. It was, more or less, love at first sight, and although my predictions about having to do all (or nearly all) the work have come true, I have nothing but gratitude toward Mika for her persistence. She got what I wanted (perhaps even needed), but just didn't realize I did.

What ferrets are, more than anything, is curious, and this is a big, perhaps the biggest, part of their charm. They want to know everything about their world! When they aren't sleeping (which they almost always are) they are nosing around. They are right there, snout to shoe tip, whenever a new person comes to the door to deliver a package or do some household repairs. A bag brought in containing groceries or clothing back from the cleaners can no sooner settle on the floor than be rifled through by Rosie, who plunges in head first and sniffs around until she has satisfied herself about its contents. There really isn't any crevice, any hole, neither nook nor cranny, that Rosie, and I suspect all ferrets (as they were bred for heading down rabbit holes and ejecting garden pests), won't fearlessly and instinctually poke her nose in, and as much of the rest of her body as it will accommodate.

During the warm months, or on sunny winter days, I often take Rosie to a park, or to the river not far from where we live, as ferrets need to run around on occasion to keep healthy. The leash hasn't been invented that she can't wiggle out of with an alacrity that would shame Houdini, so the prime criterion is that there be a large expanse of land, such as a soccer field, that offers me an uninterrupted view of her while she scampers about. This wasn't always the case. Ferrets being such curiosity addicts, in the past I let her play in places that offered enough variety to keep her in constant search mode. That was until the day of Rosie's (and my) Big Adventure.

Her favorite spot for nosing around was a small wooded knoll alongside the river. It was perfect, in that it offered enough vegetation to provide the sensation of exploring the Amazon to a small critter like Rosie, while at the same time said vegetation was thin enough that I could keep a stern parental eye on her. Most importantly, it didn't have a lot of natural or manmade holes for her to squirm into, leading who knows where. On this day, her attention was fixated upon an old tree stump, and I crouched near her while she poked around it. Eventually she managed to find a small hole that had been created by erosion around the stump's roots. I placed my own hand in and probed around, satisfying myself that it had only one point of egress, and then let her in, imagining her popping up in a short while, the color of coffee grounds but fully satisfied that she knew everything there was to know about that hole.

After perhaps twenty seconds, I was puzzled as to why she hadn't surfaced yet, and reached in to retrieve her. No Rosie. With that first rush of panic that we have all experienced, the ones that our rational minds dutifully rush in to stamp out with assurances that there must be another explanation, I nervously thrust my hand about, to no avail, and to the horrifying realization that my earlier examination had been less than thorough. Ferrets, on the other hand, don't miss anything, and it was clear that she had found another way out. 

Ferrets are tiny. They move low to the ground. They don't make any sounds. They move in unpredictable ways. Although my logical mind was going into overdrive trying to calm me down with the assurance that it had only been a minute or so at most since I had last seen her, my heart was beating madly because I knew that in fact a minute was sufficient for her to put a fair amount of distance between us, and each added second while I searched had the potential to increase that distance. This was not good.

When one's eyes are situated a mere inch above the ground, the world one sees is completely different from that which you and I see. The terrain that Rosie was happily gallivanting over now was not the one that I frantically scanned with increasing panic. A small patch of woods that five minutes ago had seemed to hold no secrets had in fact revealed itself to be a labyrinth with seemingly infinite options for getting oneself lost. The proximity to the river also scared me. Rosie can swim, and if she reached the water's edge I could easily imagine her wading in. Unpleasant scenarios began to multiply. The knoll itself was home to stray cats and large crows. Along the river I had seen the occasional hawk, and once, an owl. If Rosie was lost, the world she was lost in was not likely to welcome her with open arms. Open beaks and talons seemed more plausible.

If you've never seen a grown man crying out "Rosie!" in desperation, and then having to explain to concerned folks that it was his ferret, and not his daughter, whose loss was causing him so much anguish, then you've certainly missed one of life's more absurd scenes. Those who came upon the spectacle walked away with a mixture of relief (that it wasn't a child who had gone missing), puzzlement (a ferret? He's crying his heart out for the loss of a ferret?) and confusion as to just how much compassion was still owed, when a second earlier you had felt like nothing you could do or say would have been enough. I wondered if perhaps I should apologize to all the good people, out for a pleasant Saturday by the river, who had been led to believe that a parent's worst nightmare had just played out. In a sense, however, my anguish was related to my daughter, in that I feared that I might actually lose, not her physical presence, but her love. Rosie had won the hearts of the entire family, not just I, and I could only imagine how Mika would receive the news that, through my carelessness, she was gone.

I used my mobile phone to call Mika and explain the situation. She rushed over as soon as she could. We, along with some lovely children who wanted to help, scoured that area over and over. Eventually, it was apparent that Rosie was utterly lost, and as the sky showed signs of darkening it was clear that we would soon have to abandon the search. I couldn't look Mika in the eye as we headed home, nor my wife when she came back later that evening. I ate in silence, while my wife and daughter, more forgiving than I had imagined, or felt I deserved, were already making plans to go out and buy another ferret, as the house suddenly felt very empty. Dinner might as well have consisted of nothing but paper to me as I mechanically sat there eating, while descending into a gloomy, guilt-laden despair.

Sleep, that night, was a lost cause. I probably never got more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a stretch, as I contemplated what had happened, what I had caused. I feared the return of my depression. I was still in the process of recovery, and was feeling worse at that moment than I had felt since the darkest months. The months before Rosie had brought in light, light that I had just snuffed out. If I did sink back into a mental collapse, I was more or less convinced that I was only getting what I deserved, especially when considering the probable fate I had abandoned her to.

The last little stint of sleep that I got ended precisely before dawn. As I lay staring at the ceiling, a strange notion quite suddenly came upon me. I had better go back and search for Rosie. More than that, I had better go right now! In fact, what I sensed at that moment was: if I get up out of bed, and go now, I'll find her. If I don't.....

So I did. I dressed quickly, and was out the door and on my bike, heading toward the river, in the manner of a fireman responding to an alarm. I was speeding along, feeling oddly optimistic. The long shadows of first light pointed like compass needles toward my destination, the knoll where I had last seen Rosie. If nothing else, I considered, an energetic bike ride might tire me out enough so that I could at least get an hour or two of  proper sleep after returning. On my bike, I reasoned, I could start at the knoll and then proceed to cover a lot more territory than I had yesterday on foot. As I cleared the last row of houses before the vista opened to reveal the wide expanse of the river bed, the knoll came into view in the near distance. As I approached it, I saw a cat moving about. Not good, I felt. Dawn was when the strays that made their homes on and around the knoll began their first prowl. It occurred to me that indeed I may find Rosie, or rather what was left of her. I sped along, trying not to think the many uncomfortable thoughts that raced through my head.

What next came into view, at the far end of the knoll, was a shape. A white shape, contrasting strongly with the green of the foliage surrounding it. From a distance, it could have been a plastic bag, or a piece of paper. But as I got closer, it began to look more familiar. Then I observed that alongside it was another shape, the unambiguous shape of a crouching cat. Less than a second later the entire scene was clear. Rosie was there, curious as ever, and less than a foot away from her was an equally curious, and possibly hungry, cat. They were motionless, staring intently at each other. Who knows how long they had been frozen like that, checking each other out? A second? Half a minute? Was the cat about to pounce? Or was it just welcoming this oddly shaped newcomer to the neighborhood?  I wasn't about to find out. I thrust the bike between them, shocking them out of their trances, and with one swift movement scooped Rosie up in a flash, as the cat turned tail and ran off. 

With Rosie safely stuffed into the pocket of my windbreaker, I sped home, ecstatic, and hardly believing. I burst through the door, at just past five a.m., waking everyone up abruptly. "I got her! I found her!" Mika and Junko were as unbelieving as I was. In fact, at first Mika looked at Rosie and wondered if she was in fact another ferret who happened to be exploring the knoll that morning, so final had yesterday seemed and so implausible the chance of ever seeing her again. It was Rosie all right. And she stank! She smelled like every runaway animal does when they make their way home, leaving their owners to wonder just what sort of adventures they had been up to. I took her into the bathroom and scrubbed her off, while my wife and daughter stood behind, still barely believing. "I made it right!", I remember saying, to no one in particular. Coming so soon after I had experienced the low point that had been my illness, and coming so close to returning to that condition, fetching and bringing back our overly curious adventurer stood out as one of my life's greatest successes.

With ostensibly clean but still malodorous Rosie sleeping on my chest, I lay abed reliving all that had just occurred. Not surprisingly, my thoughts centered on the hunch I had received, the exhortation to "go! NOW!" If indeed the cat had intended to have Rosie for breakfast, then the stress on the importance of timing seemed almost miraculous. Another mere ten seconds or so may well have presented me with a very different scene. Equally curious was finding Rosie only a few meters from where she had gone missing, the same area that I, and Mika, and a troop of pint-sized Good Samaritans had spent hours going over with a fine tooth comb. She had since had another twelve hours to wander, and yet there she was. As if she too were answering a call. The moment felt very blessed, and I lay there radiating gratitude. As the weeks went on, Mika and I observed that our relationship with Rosie became heightened after that episode, in a way that didn't wear off as one might expect. Although we had loved her before, our affection intensified, as we valued her more, and her return seemed to have been angelically engineered. Years have passed since then, but still that feeling persists.

These days Rosie leads a decidedly less risky lifestyle. For her it is not as interesting loping over grassy fields than burrowing through wooded knolls, but since I'm the only one of us that managed to learn anything from that earlier misadventure, I'm not taking any chances. Ferrets don't live forever after all, and in fact their average lifespan is considerably less than a cat or a dog. Not a pleasant thought to be sure, but neither is it one that I dwell on. I'm more interested in enjoying every precious moment of time I have with Rosie, the little gal that got away. And I got back.

2011年1月12日水曜日

The Politics of Spanking

This article is reproduced from Planet Pov, a progressive website. It was written by my good friend, Stefanie Lindahl, with accompanying illustration by me.

Proverbs 22:15: "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him."

I was once spanked in public, in broad daylight... and as an adult.

The spectacle happened umpteen years ago.  It included me, my boyfriend, a New York City backdrop, and a Greek chorus of anonymous boys from the hood.  To add to the romance, the chorus appropriately consisted of rappers.  My boyfriend and I were  walking along, I  must have said X Y and Z , when suddenly he spun me around and discharged three perfectly executed rapid fire smacks on my patootie.  Dazed, I turned only to see said chorus approaching, grinning, with one of them rapping the words "Slam Slam Cinderella.”   To add to the surreal quality of the event: I didn't feel humiliated.

Ever since that incident I've thought about what spanking  means in general.  The politico-bio-psycho-sociology of spanking became a compelling topic, fueled by this ambivalent reaction of mine and the overall ambiguous nature of pleasure/pain, notions of feminism, humiliation, attention, punishment, anger, and fetishism that can come from being spanked.  I can’t remember ever having been formally spanked as a child and so I wondered how those who were routinely spanked as children are later affected; even to the point of what sort of political choices they might make.  Could there actually be a politics to spanking in our nation's family?

Some form of innocuous spanking exists throughout the human life cycle.  The archetypal smacking on the bottom of a newborn is the first zen slap when life says “OK, now contend”.  It may continue as a  possible item on the retribution menu through childhood and then into adulthood usually assisted by a proxy, e.g. the salvo of a snapped locker room towel.  On the fun end, beyond it being the seat of punishment both mock and real, the bottom cannot help but be erogenous.  It is served by the same plexus of nerves which serves the flip side.   Moreover,  since the nerves are deeply buried beneath fat and muscle, it requires more than just a soft brush to activate them. It requires the solid, nearly Puritanical work ethic of a focused and penetrating spank.  To spank is to pay attention. It forms a percussive connection between the two cheeks, either of the two hands; the locations of both that can be adjusted to maximal variety.  The invisibility and possibly imagined anonymity of the spanker, the faceless, non-witnessing aspect of the spankee.  It is dramatic and holds a certain degree of theatricality that has not gone unexploited in cultures worldwide. Spanking can be fun even if done in public.

After the Chinese New Year is a week long affair which culminates in light spanking of the men and light whipping of the women to expunge bad luck.  In Eastern Europe,  boys chase girls in the Spring sprayng them with perfume whereupon the girls tagged with scent in turn chase the boys to issue their spanking revenge.  Egypt  may have been the birthplace of the birthday spank as it was intended to prepare the body for the afterlife.  And you can bet your bottom dollar Ancient Rome had "Spankatoria".

But there is the sinister side to spanking which affects the US today.  Spanking is still a vestige from the pre-sixties mentality of disciplining children coming mainly from binary-thinking right/wrong authorities who do not believe in the relative merits of talking through and time-outs.  Research has shown that spanking children as a punishment based on pain and humiliation is a typically Republican activity.  Democrats tend to choose time-outs and discussions.  The right wing, moreover Conservative Protestants, whip asses and tend to dwell in appropriately “red states”.  Research has shown this to be true.  The power of control, the need for hierarchical dominance, the unwillingness or incapacity to talk through a transgression  whereupon "justice" is measured and evidenced by tears.  In the days before Child Protective Services, that is to say, in the days of Tea Partier childhoods, spanking was the norm.  If liberals tend to talk and conservatives tend to spank, what does this mean?

Repeated spanking  of a child is a reinforced connection  between a parent, who is supposed to love, and the “bad” child.   This inherent cognitive dissonance creates a conflict which needs to be integrated somehow into the psyche. Some may go on to eroticize it, but many  will develop a view of distrusting authority and identifying with the aggressor.  By identifying with the aggressor the displaced conflict ends up in subsequent spanking of the "weak" and, indeed, masochistic "self-spanking" since so many of the spanked ultimately vote against their own best interests politically.   For a butt regularly spanked will sculpt the brain’s neurobiology to dedicate more brain area to represent "butt" and if the spanking is linked to conservative views of right/wrong, good/evil, then the brain becomes  a bio-political hostage to the butt.  Beyond a brainwashing there is political brainspanking.  .

If families are the first form of government then James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" type  is the first experience a child brought up in a traditionally Conservative home has with government as a truly intrusive and noxious entity.  “Painful enough” spanking according to Dobson, is a necessary practice to teach right and wrong because kids "just want to feel free to do what feels good" and "feeling good" is, in a word, liberal.  Fortunately, Dobson recommends not spanking a child under fifteen months, but some Conservatives advocate spanking from birth.  It would make perverse sense: good disciplining at birth means good fiscal discipline later when  kids enter the free-market.  But spanking doesn’t stop there.  What if you don’t succeed in the capitalist system?  Then you weren’t disciplined.  Not disciplined? Then you’re not moral.  Not moral?  Then you deserve to get punished: >>Spank<<. You deserve to be in poverty >>Spank<<>>Spank<<, without prospects <>.  Just turn your other butt cheek so God and the Spanking Right may take cracks at you.  To assure you understand your place you will be relegated to a life more suffused with alcohol and drugs to dull the sting and be given lawlessness and violence for your recreational and intellectual outlets.

Yet the basis for democracy is fairness and freedom and these moral values are predicated on empathy.  Fairness and freedom should exist for everybody and not just those in authority. Yet fairness in a certain sense goes unrecognized and freedom is by and large corporally punishable in the Conservative home.  Forget "pursuit of happiness" which is a higher order of approximation and one that can only be based on fairness and freedom in place and fully operative. These values have been spanked out of our country because of a long-standing conscious and conscientiously spanking by the right wing.  It is best evidenced by the fact that many conservatively leaning people vote against their own self interests, masochistically punishing themselves to substandard lives and sadistically punishing the next guys down the totem pole, usually immigrants and minorities.

How did this happen?  The short answer is, working class liberals who were strong on family values and who probably spank and were spanked (even Dr. Spock was an advocate of spanking at a time) made Conservatism their identity after the sixties spanked them with feminism, civil rights and war protestations.  It extended far beyond values and into the fiber of how they see themselves in the world.  In addition, the idea of "liberal elite" was concocted and the recognizable party demonized.  Hollywood made fly-over country the butt of jokes and so the poorer liberal was spanked by the enlightened, educated and emancipated liberal at a time when the right wing had strategically placed the seed of "the liberal elite" as bogeymen into their mindset.  With a sense of a strict father-run family already in place, the working class liberal opted out and has been brainspanked ever since by the highly structured and organized conservative message spreaders including the right wing-run media.  The reporters may be liberal but the messages, the linguistics and words are straight out of a right wing dictionary.  The simple and repetitive messages are so amenable to be like spanks: "Death Panels! Death Panels! Death Panels! Government Takeover! Government Takeover! Government Takeover!" and so on.

The empathic father and mother in our nation's family are not recognized.  The father who listens and at most gives time-outs, who expects enlightened discourses on policy (like our President), who care about protection through consumer rights, workers rights, affordable health care is seen as  socialist Kaiser Söze.  The brain that went un-spanked, that stayed all-brain and continues to communicate the truth in all-brain language about caring, something that exists on a visceral plane, will never be able to compete with the spanked brain that has made that exquisitely trigger-able connection between brain and butt.  If the best the left can do is smack trolls on places like Huffington Post then it needs to up its game.

Regaining the balance requires those on the Left to understand several things: 1). The need to connect and communicate on an emotional level which means giving a straight-out narrative of the truth without fear of "playing dirty" like the other side; 2). Appearing authentic and unscripted, a "I'm like you" tack and not a "you can't even spell right, you hillbilly" one; 3) Describing the core values of America, including moral ones like available and affordable health care since life and death are moral issues, issues that supplant whether gays are allowed to marry, or any other "moral" red herring issues dangled before us by the Right Wing; 4). Engendering trust (eventually) so the 5) Identity can be re-established as one which is aligned with its own self-interests.

Slam Slam Cinderella.  This spanked,  impoverished, working class girl of a nation amidst the ashes of her own defeat has choices of godmother.    Hopefully, it will be the one who isn't part of a fairytale.

2011年1月10日月曜日

Hair of the Dog

Here are three dogs that have partied a little too hard! Meet Yuzu, Marquis and Duke, after a night of revelry at Crumpets. This is the latest in my serious of pet artwork for the local pet owners of my neighborhood. Hopefully you'll find it to be a nice postscript to the Christmas/New Year's festivities!

2011年1月6日木曜日

"War and Peace", sans Tolstoy


(click on image to enlarge)


“My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

-J.B.S. Haldane, geneticist and evolutionary biologist

Let’s imagine a world very different from our own. The only thing on this world are tiny curves and tiny straight lines. These tiny curves and straight lines get tossed around by the wind a lot, and so they often bump into each other. Sometimes, when they bump into each other, they connect. So, for example, amidst all the many possible shapes that may arise from that happening, you sometimes get alphabet shapes, such as “f” or “S”. Now, imagine that for some reason, there is something about the makeup of this world that selects for alphabet shapes; in other words, there is some advantage to the 52 letters of the alphabet (lower and upper case), the digits 0 to 9, and all the punctuation marks of the English language, over the other myriad of shapes that form. Therefore, when these selected shapes form, they reproduce. The other shapes do not; they quickly become extinct. Keep in mind that none of these letters that are forming and reproducing are the slightest bit aware that they even exist, much less that they are reproducing. There is just something about this planet I am describing that promotes their existence.

After a very long time, the 70-odd selected shapes are the only forms left on the planet, and they flourish. Naturally, the same wind that caused the tiny curves and straight lines to bump into each other causes the letters to bump into each other as well. All sorts of combinations follow. “cY”, “tIw”, etc. Inevitably, combinations that we recognize as words also come together. “And”, “so”, “on”, and so on. As before, there is some property of this world that selects for the word-combinations, and not the meaningless ones. Eventually, after a very long period of time, all the words in the dictionary exist on the planet.

The next progression, also by process of selection, is short sentences. “I am”, “It is hot”, “Today I will go”, and so forth. Combinations such as “wood to shabby” and “door bag never” are de-selected. They have no advantages which would enable them to survive on this world, so they go extinct.

You get the idea. The key thing to keep in mind is that when a sentence forms, even a really beautiful one such as, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, it has no idea that it even exists, far less that it is beautiful. It’s just selected for. There is some advantage to being exactly like it is, so it gets to make more of itself. From sentences we go to paragraphs, and so on. If we were to take the case of the line from Shakespeare’s famous sonnet quoted above, it won’t select for that one line to just keep repeating itself, the way the mad writer inThe Shining kept writing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. It also won’t select for this:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May

Thou art more lovely and more temperate

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

That, after all, is backwards. Of course the idea of “backwards” would only have any meaning if the lines above were aware that they were composing something meaningful. They aren’t aware of this. They just keep on blindly reproducing, but they only manage to survive and propagate by being in the right order. This world offers advantages, the greatest of which being survival, to passages of prose and poetry that have meaning.

After long, long periods of time, and the same processes going on blindly and mechanically, we move from paragraphs, to short stories, to novellas, to novels, ultimately to “War and Peace”. No author, just the natural selection of meaning over meaningless-ness. “War and Peace” doesn’t know it’s a novel, or a work of brilliance, or even that it is very long, as novels go. It just is. A work of art, unknown to itself, equally unknown to the blind forces that brought it into being.

Until eventually a being from another world comes upon it. This person is a scientist, and so he begins to study it. He can see that it is exquisitely organized. However, he is a little confused about some parts of it. On his world, there are no such things as names. So every time he comes upon a name in “War and Peace”, he doesn’t know what to make of it. Moreover, the names don’t help him understand the story; i.e., who is doing what to whom, etc. So he calls the names “junk”, and just tries to make the most of understanding the novel as best he can.

The other problem is that on his world, the concept of philosophy doesn’t exist in prose, only narrative. As you may know, “War and Peace” contains long sections of philosophy interspersed throughout its narrative. The scientist from another world is not able to recognize these very long passages as having any meaning whatsoever. Again, he calls them “junk”, and concludes that, taking into account the names, and the philosophy, somewhere between a third and a half of the novel is nonsense. To him, it has no meaning (although to us of course it does). Let’s say that  another, more intuitive and less analytical member of his species (let’s say a female!), were to suggest to him that perhaps the novel did not come about by purely mechanical processes, but was actually composed. He would scoff and ask her, “If it were composed, why would it contain so much junk?”

On this world, short sentences become longer sentences, and onward and upward, by a series of mutations. These happen for no other reason that thatthey just do, because the duplication process is not 100% accurate. However, each mutation, for it to survive, has to conform to the same selective criteria, the “laws” of this planet; it must mean something. So let’s take an example of a very common error, both in our own writing, and on this hypothetical planet. Let’s say a comma accidentally reproduces as a period, in the sentence, “When I left the office, I was very tired.” Due to the error, we now have two new, shorter, “sentences”:

When I left the office. I was very tired.

You can easily see the problem. The first sentence does not obey the rules of grammar. It doesn’t make sense. Therefore, it is rejected. We are left with the much shorter, and less informative sentence, “I was very tired”. This represents a loss of information, hardly unusual on this world. Loss of information is, as you may guess, by far the most common result when a mutation occurs, since they are random.

On the other hand, it may happen that two mistakes can occur at the same time, which effectively cancel each other out so that no information is lost, or even that new information is added. For example, the capital W at the beginning of the word sequence could erroneously reproduce as a capital T, at exactly the same time that the period subs in for the comma. In that case, you’d have:

Then I left the office. I was very tired.

This is new information, and because it makes sense, it reproduces. We have now added to the pool of available sentences on this planet. Still, to be truthful, the information has changed only slightly. To get from really simple sentences all the way to stunning prose – to “War and Peace” -  these positive mutations have to occur millions upon millions of times, and only the mutations that make sense, each step of the way, can go on to reproduce and be a part of the evolution chain from sentence to paragraph, and so on.

In other words, if we want to go from a sentence in a child’s reader, such as “See Jack and Spot run”, to this line from “War and Peace”:

“Gazing into Napoleon’s eyes, Prince Andrei mused on the unimportance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.”,

we can’t have something like: See Gazing into Jack Spot, eyes Prince run mused, etc.

That may be considered a crude link between the two, but it can’t survive, because it doesn’t meet the fitness requirement of this planet. It makes no sense. We would need to have something like this:

See Jack gazing into Napoleon’s eyes, musing on the unimportance of greatness, which Spot can not understand.

Hardly beautiful prose, but it does make sense. Remember that beauty is entirely irrelevant on this world, as nothing is even aware that it is doing anything. The natural laws of the planet are simply operating, and the only thing they require is meaning.To make it even more complicated, even to the precise step before we see the longer sentence emerge, long after Jack and Spot have been abandoned, we can’t have the sentence go haywire at the end, and finish with, “….which no one alive could understand on explain”. If that happens, the entire sequence may end up being rejected. Clearly, moving from a simple sentence to a very complex, and more meaningful one, is a very, very, very,very iffy business.

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Now you know how “War and Peace” can write itself! You also have a fairly workable analogy for how Leo Tolstoy himself, in all his genius, came to exist without any “creator”, in the absence of even the tiniest iota of consciousness;  with nothing more than natural laws playing out over a few billion years and trillions of mutations, beginning with a chemical reaction that took place in the distant past that resulted in a self-duplicating piece of matter. All things, from a grizzly bear’s biceps to Leo Tolstoy’s incomparable mind, in fact every living thing and every part of every living thing, are merely variations on that first chemical reaction.

You are forgiven for finding that hard to believe. You are forgiven for thinking that no matter how many monkeys you have banging on typewriters, and being rewarded with bananas only when they type something that makes sense, you are never going to get “War and Peace”. Personally, I don’t think the universehas that many bananas! However, those who are convinced that the emergence and evolution of life on Earth can be fully explained as a result of natural selection by random mutation will adamantly disagree with you. They may even call you deluded, for imagining that if there’s a novel, there must be a novelist.

Oh, how could I forget? “War and Peace” is a Russian, not English novel. Not to worry. On my imaginary world, novels have even learned to translatethemselves! You now have a glimpse of the incredible world of the genetic code. But that, my friends, is another story.