LETTER WRITING

I recently wrote about the waning art of letter writing and return to it again for this is a subject that resonates with me: I enjoy writing letters. Real letters. Letters that give the recipient a flavour of what we have been doing, what is happening in this country, and that share opinions about cultural and social issues. My favourite form of letter-writing is by hand. I usually sit at the small stinkwood desk that used to belong to my grandmother and later my mother.

Holding a pen in my hand seems to provide a connection of some sort to the person I am addressing. More importantly, sitting at my desk focuses my attention on the act of writing. True, I look up now and then to watch birds as the pass the window or call from the tree tops; to observe the effect of the changing light on the landscape; or simply to gaze into the distance while my thoughts flow.

Letter-writing is a pleasurable activity for me. I have three, maybe four, faraway friends who also still use what has disparagingly come to be known as snail mail. One only writes by hand and another often adds a page or two of handwritten comments at the end of a typed letter – often a ‘one-size-fits-all.

I used to assume that most people resort to e-mail. I certainly type a lot of letters these days and attach them to e-mails – more often because I am unable to get postage stamps. Even these ones though are composed with care, the recipient always in my mind as though we are having a conversation. They are satisfying to compose and I look forward to receiving some interesting replies.

Articles and blogs I have read during recent weeks decrying the waning art of letter-writing and ‘old-fashioned’ face-to-face communication have confirmed that ‘most people’ do not resort to e-mail after all. Like SMSes/text messaging, e-mails have become passé, used for internal business communications and as a vehicle for would-be scammers.

We were discussing the role of Facebook the other evening. One brave soul commented that she had withdrawn from Facebook and faced a barrage of reasons from the others present why Facebook is such an important vehicle for communication these days. I remained silent for I have never joined that community. One person said “I rely on Facebook to remind me of birthdays” while another wondered aloud whether wishing all one’s ‘friends’ a happy birthday through that medium was as meaningful as sending a message via Whatsapp – or even e-mail – might be.

Articles about the benefits of taking a break from Facebook, switching off Twitter, and promoting family time without the ubiquitous cell phones abound. A recent article pointed out that modern society has become so dependent on social media that people feel they are losing out if they are not constantly ‘plugged in’. This reminded me of articles discussing the etiquette of watching television that were published once South Africans were at last able to have that broadcasting medium in their homes!

An apt phrase that is often repeated follows the lines of ‘don’t miss the actual beauty of the sunset because you are so busy Tweeting it.’

I leave you with this thought from Matthew Arnold:

Is it so small a thing to have enjoyed the sun, to have lived light in the spring, to have loved, to have thought, to have done?

STERNUTATION

You know what it is like: silence descends in a church or a hall, during a family gathering – any place where the proceedings have moved forward to pause for a solemn moment, be it to pay homage, show respect, await an announcement of some import … the hush is all encompassing – and you sneeze!

Sternutation seldom happens as a once-off interruption. It frequently causes faces to turn your way – some of those glaring looks sharply prick their way through the crowd and, in flinching from them, you sneeze again … and again!

Someone nearly always sneezes during a dramatic pause in a play, an opera, or a symphony concert. I have listened to a concert of sternutation at church services and public lectures. At some times of the year the situation is direr than at others – especially when there is a yellow haze of pollen about.

Crossword lovers would have come across this scientific term for ‘sneeze’ in cryptic clues.

I wonder what the term is for the inclination to want to giggle during solemn moments.

DENDRITIC PATTERNS

Dendrology is the study of trees. The term has the same root as dendrite which comes from the Greek dendron, meaning tree. Who would have thought that having to wait for a while outside the local electrical shop would yield such a beautiful source of dendritic patterns in the stone cladding of the building – one I have either walked past or have parked outside many times:

Although they look like fossilised imprints of ferns or minute trees, they are actually the result of manganese oxides that have crystallised on the surface and are fairly commonly found on sedimentary rocks.

KAKISTOCRACY

Of course you have heard of ARISTOCRACY, referring to a high ranking class in some societies who believe they are born to rule. They tend to enjoy certain ranks and privileges such as inherited titles or positions of power. These days even those societies which do not have an entrenched social class system have one imposed on them by economic advantage (or disadvantage).

This leads to me thinking about PLUTOCRACY, which refers to a government by the wealthy or an elite class who derive their power from wealth. In both cases wealth plays a part in terms of wielding power over those who have neither.

Now, Americans and South Africans – you could presumably name several other countries too – currently bear a very public cross in the form of their respective governments. In both countries the government leaders were legitimately voted in, leaving others feeling aghast and scratching their heads in a ‘what were they thinking’ kind of way.

As with all elections, once the celebrations of victory – or the commiseration of defeat – have subsided and the reality of the full-term of the elected government hits home, citizens of all persuasions have to live with the consequences. Media reports indicate that the Americans are saddled with a government by persons least qualified to do the job – I cannot speak for them – and in South Africa we have long been the butt of jokes that make us wonder if we have not drawn a government by the worst persons.

In both these countries the concept of democracy has turned us into a KAKISTOCRACY.

Now, now, South Africans … while this word bears a strong resemblance to the one commonly used to dismiss something out of hand or to describe a situation or feeling that is simply too awful for words [the root for that one is the Indo-European kakka-/kaka, meaning to defecate], the origin of this word is more refined and was coined by the English author, Thomas Love Peacock in his 1829 novella The Misfortunes of Elphin. You mean, you haven’t read it? It begins with the words, In the beginning of the sixth century, when Uther Pendragon held the nominal sovereignty of Britain over a number of petty kings, Gwythno Garanhir was king of Caredigion, and is a comic romance filled with wit and humour.

Kakistocracy comes from the Greek kakistos (meaning ‘worst’) plus the suffix -cracy (meaning ‘rule’ as in aristocracy and plutocracy mentioned above).

Now you have a word for it, you can describe your feelings about the government with a clear conscience in polite society.

I am grateful to Worsmith.org for introducing me to this word.

PATTERNS, PALINDROMES, PANGRAMS AND THE MAGIC SQUARE

Patterns are pleasing, be they in the form of shapes, colours, words or numbers. Look at the pattern and colouring of this lizard in methylated spirits:

lizard

Palindromes are words, phrases or numbers that can be read forwards or backwards without changing the meaning.

Think of MADAM

What about MADAM I’M ADAM

Then there is the famous quotation ABLE WAS I ERE I SAW ELBA

A simple palindrome number would be 12321

As anyone who has formally learned to type will know, we also get Pangrams which are sentences that make use of all the letters in the alphabet. The most commonly known one is

THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER A LAZY DOG

I do not have a photograph of a fox so a Black-backed Jackal will have to suffice:

blackbacked jackal

I also like HOW QUICKLY DAFT JUMPING ZEBRAS VEX

zebras

Numbers have an attraction of their own. I was reminded of this the other day when I received an e-mail about Albrecht Dürer’s MAGIC SQUARE in which all the columns and lines add up to 34.

magic-square

Source: http://www.albrechtdurerblog.com/real-secret-in-the-magic-square/

BREAD AND CIRCUSES

BREAD AND CIRCUSES

A number of common expressions have been derived from a variety of cultures and languages and handed down to us through generations from so long ago that we seldom even think of their origin. A pertinent one is bread and circuses, which captures the cynical political view that the attention of the masses on the political problems they are experiencing can be diverted by food, entertainment and grand parades that will make them happy. Popular tax cuts, for example, are often a thinly disguised attempt to distract attention from underlying economic crises.

These days we tend to think of circuses as a ‘big top’ with trapeze artists, performing animals and clowns, but circuses originated in Roman times when crowds were treated to spectacular performances such as chariot races and the contests between gladiators. What has this to do with ‘bread and circuses’? As I recall from my readings about those times, there was a significant gap between the rich and poor in the Roman Empire, where much of the actual work was done by slaves acquired by conquest, leaving the ordinary Roman citizens at a loose end.

An idle, hungry, and largely unemployed citizenry could spell trouble and so the emperors introduced holidays with lavish entertainment for the crowds. The powerful Roman satirist of the time, Decimus Junius Juvenalis – commonly known as Juvenal – was disgusted by this behaviour and accused his fellow citizens of falling for the ‘bread and circuses’ bribery designed to stop them from complaining or making an issue of the problems of their daily lives or the political situation of the time.

We see this ‘bread and circus’ attitude whenever elections appear on the horizon: food parcels and or free t-shirts in the colours of whichever political party are ploys frequently used to attract the largely ill-educated masses to political rallies. At one such rally in Port Elizabeth in recent years, blankets were brought in to be handed out to the elderly – instead a lot of the latter were trampled and injured in the rush by youngsters who grabbed the blankets and fled. This is an example of a ‘bread and circuses’ tactic that backfired for that particular political party.

Regardless of the state of the economy at the time, South Africans have come to expect a decrease in the price of fuel (however slight) at the onset of the festive season – which is when much of the country is on the move: landlubbers migrate to the coastal areas and seaside dwellers seek out inland attractions; families travel long distances to be together … it is a time for wholesale celebration which is greatly enhanced if the cost of fuel is just that much less. The reduction in the fuel price creates the required ‘fuzzy’ feeling of well-being – even though the population is generally slapped with a whopping increase in January. That is how ‘bread and circuses’ works.

I cannot resist concluding this with an extract from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, Constantly risking absurdity:

Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of day
performing entrechats
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
any thing
for what it may not be …

DERMATOGLYPHICS

Yesterday I referred to the stripes on zebras being akin to the uniqueness of our fingerprints.

finger print

Fingerprints are essential to proving who we are for each fingerprint is unique, so much so that the fingerprints on one’s right hand are not the same as the ones on the left.  You need to provide (albeit electronically scanned these days) finger prints in order to apply for a passport, a driver’s licence, and – in South Africa – an identity card. They are still widely used to verify the identity of people unable to sign their name as well as, in some work places, to unlock doors.

hand

Then this morning – quite serendipitously – I came across the name of the scientific study of these unique patterns of ridges that occur not only on the inside of our hands, but on the feet too: dermatoglyphics. The term was coined in 1926 by Dr. Harold Cummins from the Greek dermato, skin + glyphein, carve, a choice he is reputed have explained by saying, “The word is literally descriptive of the delicately sculpted skin surface, inclusive of single ridges and their configural arrangements.”