On legroom

When I was living in York I went to see a neurologist for one of my semi-regular check-ups. Being a new hospital for me, they lacked all my records, so I had to go through my full medical history and while I was running through my various other collected complaints and conditions I told the consultant that I have essential hypertension. “Essential” here is medical speak for “just very high, but we don’t really know why.” I mentioned that it was clearly genetic, however, because my twin brother has it too.

“Oh,” he piped up, suddenly alert, “you have a twin brother. Are you identical?”

Indeed we are: we have actually had our zygosity tested as we were once used as subjects for narcolepsy research.

“That’s very interesting,” he commented, and paused a little. “So does he have very short upper arms too?”

Genetics is a complex affair. You don’t, really, have a “gene for blue eyes” or a “gene for chiselled good looks”—I certainly don’t. A gene is just a recipe for a protein, and it’s quite common that one single gene can have multiple and phenotypically unconnected effects. So I presumed this was a possible pleiotropic correlation. “Well, yes, he does,” I replied. “Is that often associated with narcolepsy?”

Mr Duffey gazed at me thoughtfully. “Not that I know of,” he mused, “but they are very short.”

Yes, once again we’re back to my stubby appendages. I don’t want to give the impression that I am some kind of a grotesque, a sort of human Dachshund or maybe a two-legged Barquentine, dragging my withered, useless limbs around behind me. And these diminutive appendages come with a few benefits: when necessary, they provide a decent pushing capacity, and I’ve already written about how I think they have granted me a surprising talent for staying on a stand-up board, but they also carry another great advantage.

Trains, planes, the back seats of cars: none of these hold great fear for me. The flight to Brazil is a minimum of a little over ten hours, and though those ten hours are not the most exciting in the world, I never have to contort myself into strange and uncomfortable shapes simply to fit in my allocated space. There are few transport seats in which I cannot fit with reasonable ease which, given a taste for travel, is an undoubted boon. The obvious ability to sleep in pretty much any position means that, all in all, I can get pretty much anywhere I want in if not comfort, at least a notable absence of discomfort.

Elegance and svelteness in personal style may be ruled out for me: I have a great liking for the mod rocker look, but have long since realised that skinny cut suits are not for me. But the truth is, of the quiet little boons that life hands you, I kinda dig my stumps. In an over-populated, crushed-up world, I never want for legroom.

On kvetching, klutzdom, and kibitzery

There is something wonderfully satisfying about Yiddish loan-words to me. As a mother-tongue monolingual, the consonant conjuncts they offer are meaty and enjoyable, and they seem to have an pleasurable specificity in meaning: providing that satisfying feeling of having found exactly the right term that you required. But the problem with them, as a Brit, is lack of exposure. Whilst these words may be common in American English, they are less frequent in British—I was well over thirty before I actually discovered that the initial sound in chutzpah, which I had only ever seen written, was not “tch.” Consequentially I only use a few of them, and then with care, because for many I am uncertain of precisely those specifics of inference that I so relish. This is a shame, because I would love to have a few Yiddish epithets that I could apply to myself: I was recently described as a mensch, which I had to look up, and was pleasantly surprised to discover it means an honourable or decent person; especially pleasing since the person using the term is in no small way responsible for my continued employment. However, I think that there are three that can almost certainly be applied to me with some level of accuracy.

Professionally, though I am no longer strictly an editor, I cannot stop myself from providing editorial input, which almost certainly makes me a kibitz. But, to be fair, the result is higher-quality books, so it’s also this that makes me a mensch.

I may, also, be a kvetch. I certainly am when ill—of course I am, I have a Y chromosome—and when cold, but it is possible I am also so in my wider life. Not for no reason does this blog have a category entitled “Rants.” But this is where a knowledge of the detail of the semantics is necessary. Can one only kvetch about insignificant or trivial matters? Or can one kvetch about great and important affairs? I fancy to myself that it is these for which my ire is usually reserved: in my personal life, when neither cold nor ill, I like to think I am relatively easily satisfied: as long as you give me good book, somewhere soft to fall over, and plenty of lime in my gin and tonic, I’m quite a happy chap. So I am uncertain whether I’m a kvetch, though I am certainly capable of kvetching.

But there can be little doubt that I am a klutz. I spent a significant portion of the first twenty years of my life training my fingers to be really remarkably precise and rapid—nowadays my playing is rusty and awkward, but at the age of twenty-one I could knock a piano about with not unimpressive skill. However all that seems to have been at the expense of any other level of spatial awareness or precision; I suspect that we all have a finite quotient of dexterity available to us, and I squandered all mine on the Waldstein sonata and Schoenberg’s opus 33a. My absurdly underlong limbs seem to crop up with regularity upon this blog and one might presume that, giving me as they do a fairly limited range of contact with the external world, I would be compact in my effect upon my surroundings. Yet this is not the case. My blast radius is vast: I merely need to sit in a chair one side of a room to cause widespread devastation upon the other. To be frank, even if you’re simply reading this, I’d move the family china a safe distance away. I can only suppose that I exude a field that disrupts gravity in my proximity, and there is no reason not to speculate that it may be transmitted electronically.

So there it is: a kvetching, kibitzing klutz I am: confessions which amply satisfy the K requirement of this blogging challenge; though they are, I suppose, nothing to kvell about.

On jararacuçus

I’m a city boy, without any doubt. I was brought up in Bristol and then Plymouth and, as an adult, have largely lived in medium-sized cities: Oxford, York, Bath. The inability to drive coupled with a cripplingly infrangible requirement for americanos means I cannot spend too long more than a short bike ride from an espresso machine.

This is not to say I disapprove of nature, quite the opposite. However, as I think is clear from a previous post, I generally meh English nature. I am not a subtle man: I like my scenary spectacular, my climate hot (without the benefit of carbon emissions), and my rain to be proper rain—tempestuous downpours are far more enjoyable than months of endless drizzle working its way up, in poor excuse for a climax, to windscreen-smothering blatter. I like my flora weird and odourful, and my fauna to look like it lives off something other than cream teas and whimsy. Buttercups and shrews entertain me not: I want a dama da noite and an ariranha that would eat its English cousin for breakfast. Brazil provides me with nature of the kind I enjoy and, when there, I often stay in the village of Picinguaba, which is surrounded by the stuff. But it is also there that, a few years ago, I came up against the limits of my fauna appreciation, on a nature trail nearby.

I went with a couple of English friends (one resident in Picinguaba, the other visiting her) and a Brazilian chap to a waterfall near the next village, Ubatumirim. Visiting waterfalls is a popular alternative to a beach: there is considerably more shade, and usually a pleasant stroll through the forest to get to the falls. A pleasant stroll indeed was had, and then a few hours lolling around and sunbathing and reading and generally being indolent. We started back, and the Brazilian guy was in the front, which was fortunate as but a couple of meters down the path he stopped, held us back, and warned us to be careful, as there was, he said, a snake on the path. Coming up next, I looked at where he was pointing a saw, well, nothing. It took me a quite a few moments before I could make it out, and there is no way I would have spotted it just walking past, but there was, indeed, a smallish brown/yellow snake curled up on the path. Camouflage works really rather well actually out there in the wild, it would appear.

Anyway, our Brazilian friend told us to be very careful. This was a jararaca or a jararacuçu (pronounced ja-ra-ra-ka and ja-ra-ra-ku-su). Whichever it was, he warned us, the snake was very venemous. Can I admit to you that a little voice in my head pshawed him? I mean, it was clearly a biter rather than a squeezer, but it wasn’t that big, and more importantly we know—don’t we, fellow city-dwellers?—from David Attenborough documentaries that nature warns of venom. Poisonous or venemous creatures are brightly coloured or otherwise flouncy and exhibitionist: I cite you the coral snake, the lion fish, and the magnificently-named Pfeffer’s flamboyant cuttlefish, a cephalopod which clearly spends far too much time in the dressing room. So it was clear to me that this well-camouflaged brownish-yellowish thing couldn’t really be properly venomous. Nevertheless, it could at the least leave two unwelcome punctures in my shin, and might sting a bit, so I gave it, as did everyone else, a wide berth.

When we arrived back at Picinguaba I was chatting with my friend Peter, and I mentioned this snake to him. He seemed impressed, and reiterated the line that they were very dangerous. Pshaw, the doubting voice in my head went, but slightly less confidently so than it had previously. On the pretext of establishing whether it was a jararaca or a jararacuçu I got out my laptop and started to look it up online …

… and found that it’s a pit viper. That’s a genuinely rather venemous snake, and aggressive to boot. (Can snakes be anything to boot?) Indeed, of the jararacuçu—which, from the colouring and geographical distribution, I now think it was—the first scholarly article I found said that it is “one of the most dreaded snakes of Brazil.” I appealed to reason. According to most online sources they grow over 2m in length, and this one couldn’t have been more than 50cm. So it couldn’t be that bad, could it? Peter demurred. The small ones, he claimed, are more aggressive and more likely to inject their entire venom reservoir.

The pshaw-voice in my head was oddly muted by now. Perhaps, after all, local knowledge should be respected. And maybe shrews aren’t so bad, either.