kingbird on fence
Journal of a Sabbatical

January 5, 1999

allegory as marine mammal

more on the Moby Dick marathon

the book pile


Journal Index




Copyright © 1998, Janet I. Egan

I bought Mark a Shawmut Diner T-shirt for his birthday even though it's an O'Mahoney and not a Worcester Lunch Car. Dinner with Mark last night at the Yangtze River in Littleton brought back MASSCOMP memories: cavorting vice presidents, the small offices in Chelmsford, the Maui Kai with its little plastic swords in the Mai Tai's. I had quite a collection of tiny plastic swords but that's a whole 'nother story. Anyway, it was really good to see Mark 'cause we don't seem to spend as much time together as we used to and I miss him. We exchanged winter holiday gifts. His to me the Photo Book, a huge coffee table collection of the best photography of the century, alphabetical by photographer, for inspiration. I would have spent the evening looking at the book were I not afraid to get Yu Hsiang eggplant all over it. Mine to him: Iggy Beanie Baby, planet earth baseball, windup toy boat, and the aforementioned T-shirt, which is really for his upcoming birthday and not the winter holidays but who knows when we can get together again.

When I mentioned that Barney read at the Moby Dick Marathon, Mark said he was picturing a silly purple dinosaur not a congressman! As you can see from the picture, Representative Frank is not a purple dinosaur. I admired the way he could just keep on reading with so many flashbulbs going off in his face. He attracted more news photographers than the Mayor of New Bedford or any of the Melville descendants. I didn't get a chance to introduce myself to him as La Madre's daughter (he and Mom go way back) as he was besieged by reporters.

And, doubtless, my going on a whaling voyage formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:
"Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States

Whaling voyage by one Ishmael

Bloody Battle in Afghanistan"

Two out of the three headlines apply today. And the whole competition between New Bedford and Nantucket in whaling days described in the next chapter has implications today too. In fact every time I read Moby Dick I discover themes and sub-themes and asides that relate to 20th century life. It's such a shame so many kids regard reading it as a punishment!

I mentioned the trip across the street to the Seaman's Bethel in Sunday's entry, and I failed to mention the similarity in the weather to Melville's account. Apparently January 3 in New Bedford is relatively consistent weather wise across 158 years!

The sky had changed from clear, sunny cold, to driving sleet and mist. Wrapping myself in my shaggy jacket of the cloth called bearskin, I fought my way against the stubborn storm. Entering I found a small scattered congregation of sailors, and sailors' wives and widows. A muffled silence reigned, only broken at times by the shrieks of the storm.

We wear Polartec and Gore-tex instead of the cloth called bearskin but January is still January.

One of my favorite chapters is "Cetology" where he goes into detail classifying whales into folios based on size, considering them like books. I've never seen a Right Whale, nor even heard of many of the species Melville mentions. I've seen Humpback and Finback whales in Massachusetts waters of course, and in the Galapagos we encountered a school of melon-headed whales so uncommon that Ernesto, our guide, had to look them up in a field guide to marine mammals and report the sighting. Gee, how did the 19th century whalers do it without field guides?

It's not like I haven't done anything worth writing about since Sunday nor thought any thoughts worth sharing. But I really felt like I didn't do justice to the Moby Dick Marathon, especially since I didn't have the pictures back yet. And after the tricky drive back home Monday night and plunging right back into busy regular life first thing on Monday, I'm living life way faster than I can write about it.

Now that Zsolt and Istvan are back from their collecting trip and have had time to read the comments from NSF on our rejected proposal, it's time to start the new year with a new proposal. So I spent a few hours yesterday going over the proposal with Zsolt at his and Gyongyi's new apartment. It's tiny living space with lots of storage space in the basement so they're no longer using the van as the herbarium. We had our meeting at the kitchen table because he's still setting up the bookshelves in the office - entirely full of tree books, of course. When I told him I'd spent the weekend reading Moby Dick, he asked "What is Moby Dick?"

I am not as single-minded as Zsolt. I have lots of interests and can't focus on just trees or just birds or just Moby Dick :-) I'd get bored. Maybe this is why I could never get a Ph.D. You have to pick a very narrow specialty and focus on it for years... although Nancy thinks I could do a dissertation on the history of sewage treatment in Narragansett Bay and get a Ph.D. in American Civ :-)

Maybe my wide range of interests is why my reading pace has slowed down so much. Who knows? Of the mere 24 books I read in 1998 (not counting Moby Dick) I'd probably rank The Name of War as the best nonfiction and The Windup Bird Chronicle as the best novel. I was going to say those two books are as unrelated as they come, but now that I think about it they both deal with the effect of war on subsequent generations and the whole of society. Lepore, as a historian, deals with it explicitly and Murakami, as a novelist, uses it allegorically, but it's all right there and doesn't matter whether it's King Philip's War or World War II, it creeps into the social fabric and the individual psyche. The best we can hope for from great literature is food for thought, and that I've gotten.