Thursday, September 16, 2004

Nice But Dumb

My cat Caissa – named after the goddess of Chess – was feeling under the weather recently, so I took her to the vet for some blood work. The twenty-something receptionist at the desk of Caring Critters was nice enough but she stumbled over my name. But I was in a good mood, so I didn’t mind it too much. She didn’t even try to pronounce it which I suppose is better than mangling it. I don’t cotton to being called Valenzuela, Valencia, Vermicelli, Varicella, Valparaiso or Vladivostok. Don’t make me into an Hispanic. In these parts, if your are not Hispanic you are an ‘Anglo.’ That doesn’t sit well with me either.

Perhaps I should be happy that I do not rejoice under the name of Znosko-Borovsky or Bonch-Osmolovsky. Nor do I stagger under such burdens as Witkiewicz, Brzozowski, or Rynasiewicz. The latter is the name of a philosopher I knew when he taught at Case Western Reserve. Alvin Plantinga once mentioned to me that he had been interviewed at Notre Dame, except that ‘rhinoceros’ was all Plantinga could remember of his name.

Actually, none of these names is all that difficult if you sound them out. But apparently no one is taught phonics anymore. Damn those liberals! They’ve never met a standard they didn’t want to erode. I am grateful to my long-dead mother for sending me to Catholic schools where I actually learned something. I learned things that no one seems to know any more, for example, grammar, Latin, geography, mathematics. The next time you are in a bar, ask the twenty-something ‘tender whether that Sam Adams you just ordered is a 12 oz or a pint. Now observe the blank expression on her face: she has no idea what a pint is, or that a pint is 16 oz, or that there are four quarts in a gallon, or 5, 280 feet in a mile, or 39.37 inches in a meter, or that light travels at 186, 282 miles/sec, or that a light-year is a measure of distance, not of time.

Even Joan Baez got this last one wrong in her otherwise excellent song, Diamonds and Rust, a tribute to her quondam lover, Bob Dylan. The irony is that Joanie’s pappy was a somewhat distinguished professor of physics! In a high school physics class we watched a movie in which he gives a physics lecture.

I was up in 'Flag' (Flagstaff) a few years back to climb Mt. Humphreys, the highest point in Arizona at 12,643 ft. elevation, (an easy class 1 walk-up except for the thin air) and to take a gander at the moon through the Lowell Observatory telescope. While standing in line for my peek, I overheard a woman say something to her husband that betrayed her misconception that the moon glows by its own light. She was astonished to learn from her husband that moonlight is reflected sunlight. I was astonished at her astonishment. One wonders how she would account for the phases of the moon. What ‘epicycles’ she would have to add to her ‘theory’!