The Last Word

July 17-21, 2017

Ann is reading Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, and starts the week thinking about ancient Greece:  I started to wonder about the strange discrepancy between these revenge-addled murderers and the rational, educated ancient Greeks who were the foundation of Western civilization; who founded much of our sculpture, architecture, philosophy, literature, math, and science; and who told these terrible stories over and over.

Almost a century ago, Isabel Cooper accompanied scientific expeditions to the tropics, documenting biodiversity with watercolors. Helen is fascinated: On Saturday, I happened to be looking at Isabel Cooper’s art with her great-granddaughter, moaning at how we couldn’t imagine ever being that good at watercolors. . . Just look at this sloth. Doesn’t it look like it has wisdom to impart?

Christie celebrates the many pleasures of singletrack. What I love is that riding singletrack makes me feel fully present in my body, fully aware of its relationship to my surroundings and fully capable. 

Beware: next week is Shark Week. Beware more: next week is Snark Week. But Erik gives a preview: …the most annoying part of Shark Week is all the faux science. I don’t mean megalodons and mermaids, I mean the illusion that we know anything about these animals.

And on Friday, I write about lipstick. Sort of.

Come back soon—Snark Week is upon us!


Art by Isabel Cooper, courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society Archives

What’s My Lipstick?

The rumors are true: I’m kind of a slob. In high school, I wore baggy pants during the day and boxer shorts to volleyball practice. In college, I wore pajama bottoms to morning classes. I also wore them at least once on an afternoon coffee that turned out to be a date.

Recently, while at a wonderfully dirty camp in the mountains, a friend and I were talking about what we wore when we took the kids to school. I looked down at my holey yoga pants and my sweatshirt and my dusty running shoes and said that I looked like this pretty much all the time.

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We Humans Know Nothing About Sharks

Next week is Shark Week, which means that we at the Last Word will be spending the week specifically not talking about sharks. Instead, we will scour the globe for far more dangerous and adorable critters in a yearly tradition called Snark Week.

And while I might argue that Snark Week is a far bigger deal than Shark Week, I’ll allow that a few people will also be watching shark documentaries starting on Sunday.

Like any passionate shark lover, I once adored shark flicks. The brave scientist pressing into the unknown, the cool gadgets, the thrashing of a hippo-sized toothy fish from the deep that quickly returns from whence it came – this is the stuff of obsession for any nerdy 11-year-old kid.

But today, most of these movies make me want to wretch. It’s not just the puffy-chest posing and the gravely-voiced narrators, it’s the whole vibe. Sharks on Shark Week aren’t really animals anymore, they’re props. And increasingly the stars aren’t scientists, they’re stuntmen like Dickie Chivell, who gets on surfboard-like things to see if he can tempt a white shark to bite him or Micheal Phelps, who … I honestly don’t know what the hell that guy has to do with sharks.

This isn’t David Attenborough, this is Jackass. Danger porn.

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Why Is Singletrack So Awesome?

I never knew it needed explaining until someone asked me — why is singletrack so much more fun than wider trails like double track or dirt roads? We’re talking here about mountain biking and the allure of the singletrack trail — a narrow path, usually 18 to 24 inches wide, that meanders through a given terrain.

The most obvious answer is that a singletrack is more aesthetically pleasing than a wider road. Continue reading

Wild-Animal Painting in the Jungle

A watercolor of a snake's head and a coiled snake

It’s not obvious how to draw a snake. Here, let Isabel Cooper tell you about it, in a 1924 article she wrote for The Atlantic Monthly.

For instance, there’s no such thing as a school of snake artists, so when the problem of making a portrait of a snake presented itself I had to think up the technique for myself. There are many odd little worries connected with this problem, such as the invention of the proper anaesthetic for deadly reptiles, to put them out of the misery of posing and yet allow the colors of life to linger from day to day.

Unlike birds and butterflies, she explained, the snakes and frogs don’t look so nice after you preserve them and put them in a museum collection.

Most remarkable and significant in the appearance of most of these creatures—and soonest extinguished by death—are their eyes. This is especially true of snakes. The instant they pass, a dreadful mildew creeps up over the sparkling black pupil and the decoration of the brilliant iris, until the eye looks like a mouldering moonstone.

In 1920, photography couldn’t touch the glory of these animals. But watercolor could. Cooper painted this snake’s portrait at a field station called Kartabo in British Guiana (now Guyana), established by the explorer William Beebe.

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The Atreides vs the Ancient Greeks

Clytemnestra just murdered Agamemnon

I’d been reading a book by Colm Tóibín called House of Names.  The house is the House of Atreus; Tóibín explained through a character why he substituted “names,” but I didn’t understand it.  He took the story pretty faithfully from the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripedes about one or all members of the family.  The family was dreadful, every one of them, and Tóibín made each individual dreadfulness understandable, as did the original Greek playwrights.  The family is soaked in its own blood, generation after generation; crime begets murder which bets revenge killing and more revenge killing and revenge killing that never stops. The translator of the Greek plays, Robert Fagles, calls it an “inherited infection.”

Somewhere in the middle, I started to wonder about the strange discrepancy between these revenge-addled murderers and the rational, educated ancient Greeks who were the foundation of Western civilization; who founded much of our sculpture, architecture, philosophy, literature, math, and science; and who told these terrible stories over and over. Continue reading

The Last Word

A small white flower with only half a complete corolla of petals--just five petals spanning 180 degrees.July 10 – 14, 2017

Guest Elizabeth Preston’s baby — what’s she doing? what’s she thinking?  Darwin had some ideas about that.

Emma is in Tahiti — isn’t everyone? — and sees a flower so rare, so strange, so precious, that it has to be kept in a cage.

If only mental illness were simple, says guest Laura Dattaro.  We could just take pills, instead of dealing with gray scales on every known axis.

Michelle is stretching a bit on Harrison Ford’s chest waxing being a metaphor for the deforestation of the tropics.

Don’t listen to the climate Cassandras, say Cassandra.  Well, ok, listen, but calm down a bit.


Cassandra and the Climate Apocalypse

When my mother named me Cassandra, she didn’t know anything about Greek mythology. She had never heard of the princess who prophesied the destruction of Troy. But I inherited some of Cassandra’s attributes all the same. I’m a doom-and-gloom kind of girl. My visions of the future involve illness, poverty, and untimely deaths. Each headache surely heralds a brain tumor. Each sidewalk stumble will no doubt beget several busted teeth.

But unlike Cassandra of Troy, I’m a terrible soothsayer. My visions are mostly wrong. This fact allows me to revel in worst-case scenarios without entirely believing they’ll come true. I get to spout death and destruction, yet I still manage to get up each morning and face the day. I know the worst probably won’t come to pass.

But what if it does? Continue reading