Wednesday, January 11, 2012

“It Wasn’t A Temple But A School”



A while ago I looked up a title in a library’s computerized card catalogue. This is what came up:


I was at the “Palos Hghts” library so I was looking for “Y.A. G.N. MOR pb.” which I guessed meant the book was on a shelf in the area for “Young Adult paperback Graphic Novels alphabetically by MORrison.”

I wrote down the title, author and call letters on a piece of note paper.

Different libraries put graphic novels in different areas and as I was trudging up the stairs to the kids’ area I was getting all grumpy at the thought of trying to figure out which sub-section of the kids’ area I’d have to look in for the graphic novel.

At the top of the stairs the first thing I saw was that the librarian on duty was one of the prettiest librarians I’ve ever seen in any library anywhere. So I instantly stopped being grumpy and I walked over to the librarian and held out my note paper with the call letters on it. I said, “Excuse me, can you help me find this book? The call numbers are just a long string of letters that look like a foreign language.”

I think she knew I was faking because she smiled as she took the paper from me even before she looked at it. But she was nice and translated the letters for me—I had guessed correctly—and then stood up and walked with me to the correct area. She found the book on a bottom shelf and handed it to me, still smiling.

Turns out I didn’t enjoy reading the book at all. I didn’t like the writing, didn’t like the art, didn’t like the whole idea of the book.

The best part of my experience with that book was talking for a few minutes with the pretty librarian while she located the book for me.


*


I was thinking about this recently because I’ve still got that business of the neighborhood hobby shop closing down on my mind.

I’m going to miss having those people to talk to.

And also recently I bought myself a new gadget as a kind of combination birthday present and Christmas present. I didn’t go to a store, didn’t talk to any sales people. Nobody had to help me. I just ordered it from Amazon and Amazon shipped it out.


For me, lots of times the best part of some experience is talking to people I meet along the way.


But nowadays many things are either so automated often there is no reason to talk to anyone at all, or the people you talk to are just bored clerks pressing buttons who don’t really want to talk to anyone anyway.


And, of course, being me, I would think of something like this, too:


“My God,” Elliot said. “They trained them.”

Munro nodded. “Trained them as guards to watch over the mines. An animal elite, ruthless and incorruptible. Not a bad idea when you think about it.”

Ross looked at the building around her again, realizing it wasn’t a temple but a school. An objection occurred to her: these pictures were hundreds of years old, the trainers long gone. Yet the gorillas were still here. “Who teaches them now?”

“They do,” Elliot said. “They teach each other.”

“Is that possible?”

“Perfectly possible. Conspecific teaching occurs among primates.”

This had been a longstanding question among researchers. But Washoe, the first primate in history to learn sign language, taught ASL to her offspring. Language-skilled primates freely taught other animals in captivity; for that matter, they would teach people, signing slowly and repeatedly until the stupid uneducated human person got the point.

So it was possible for a primate tradition of language and behavior to be carried on for generations.


from “Congo”
by Michael Crichton


Using language, talking to each other, we are constantly teaching each other. Teaching each other, at least, about ourselves, and, really more importantly, talking to each other is how we teach each other what our culture is around us, and how we ourselves learn what our culture is around us.

But what happens when people don’t get to talk to each other?

Or when they talk but it is only trivial interaction patterned after some badly produced TV show, or a badly written book, or a badly illustrated comic?


Then our “primate tradition of language and behavior” gets all screwed up.


*


Three of us—Matt, Linda and I—got to a door at exactly the same time. I stepped aside and looked at Linda. “After you,” I said. “Ladies first.”

Matt stepped aside, too.

Linda smiled and started to walk between us, but then she stopped. She looked from Matt to me and asked, “Is this sexist? I mean, it’s the twenty-first century. Why do guys still say ‘ladies first’?”

I pointed downwards. “We still say ‘ladies first’,” I said, “because we still like to look at your butt when you’re walking in front of us.”

Linda smiled and pointed down, too. “It’s the twenty-first century,” she said. “Maybe I want to look at your butts. You guys go first. Go ahead. Men first.”

So Matt and I walked through the door first and Linda came in after us.

“Very nice,” Linda said, walking behind us.

“I don’t know,” I said, “is this something like sexual harassment now?”

Matt just exhaled a long sigh. “It probably is,” he said, “but I wouldn’t know which one of you to write up. I’m just going to pretend I didn’t see or hear any of this.”


*


“Conspecific teaching occurs among primates.”







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