Stories from my life.
I don't think I can rival the stories from my father Otto, but I still have some good ones.
My mother, Joanne
My mother joked that she was a little disappointed that I didn't ask her to walk me to my Harvard extension school courses, holding my hand as she did in Kindergarten. I responded: "Children grow up so quickly nowadays." It tickled her just right, and she roared with laughter. I love when I can play along with and top a jest.
I joined Triangle Fraternity my freshman year. As a pledge, there was expected to be some humorous harassment from the older brothers, and we in turn were expected to pull some pranks. It was a small house, with about 28 members, and everybody put their schedules on their doors. One day I looked at all the schedules, and realized there was a time when EVERYBODY was out of the house. So, armed with my trusty Swiss Army knife, a bag, and some tape for labeling, I removed every doorknob in the house and closed all the doors. As I was walking up the hill with the bag, I said hi to some of the brothers and walked back to my freshman dorm. After a few hours, they realized who must have done it and phoned me to come replace the knobs. A few funny consequences. Our house had the backup transmitter for the campus radio. The main transmitter went down, and they weren't able to get in to the backup. Since the brothers were pissed at the radio guys, this worked out okay. They also tried to punish me the traditional way, by throwing me into the shower. The first time, I simply shut off the water as they threw me in. The second time, I aimed the shower head out at them as they threw me in. The third time, I wrapped the shower head with the shower curtain. The fourth time, they barricaded me in the shower stall with the door to the bathroom. As I was climbing out the top, they flushed me back down with a bucket of water. At various times, I went out pretty much every window that was ground level or had a fire escape, in attempts to evade the shower.
I had a friend from my home town, Norman, who was a math-CS major: so we called him Nor-Man. One day I went to visit him, and he wasn't in. It occurred to me that the locks on the doors were very old and would be easy to card. So I went in to pull a prank. I knotted a couple of sheets together, tied them to the radiator, and hung them out his 3rd floor window. They only reached down about 5 feet. The I wrote a note: "Dear Norman, I knocked and you didn't answer, so I came in the window. You weren't here, I guess. See you later." When I returned, he was totally confused because how could I have put the sheet in the window from the ground and it wasn't long enough anyway! So I explained to him and his neighbors how easy it was to card the door. The next day when he returned from classes, his neighbors had turned everything in his room upside down, even remounting his posters upside down.
My first roommate, a guy named Brian, told me that I talked in my sleep. I asked him what I said. He replied "I don't know. I could only make out one word, and it worries me." "What word was that?" "Toxin," he replied.
First trip to Ecuador, 1987-8
Local buses used to be much more colorful than the current modern buses. I rode on the top of one listening to the locals discussing the communist candidates. Another time, in one of the coach-style buses that were open on the sides, a woman in front held her little boy so he could pee off the side, and it blew back into our faces. In another bus, a little boy sat next to me and stroked the hair on my arm. He said: “como un mono!” I replied, stroking his arm: “como una rana!, and we both laughed.
The soda boats don’t seem to be operating now either. They were 40 foot long dugouts that would carry Coca Cola between major cities on the Rio Napo. You had to bring a cushion, because sitting on the cases of bottles could cost you your virginity (not to mention being very uncomfortable.) At one stop, a very young indigenous child was crying. His older brother grabbed his mother’s breast and squirted his little brother. :-)
Ecuador felt quite safe to me, but there were three incidents that were risky.
- I used to go in to Onore's lab at U. Catolica where he had given me a cubicle to work in. One day I came in quite early, before anybody else, and saw a small box in the middle of the lab floor with a larger box on top of it. I wondered what was in it and why it was arranged that way in the middle of the floor, but as I'm moderately polite, I left it alone. A little while later a very agitated fellow came in: "Where's professor Onore!" I told him that Onore didn't usually come in until 9:30, and asked if I could help him. He said that he'd had a fer-de-lance (Bothrops atrox), one of the most poisonous snakes in Latin America, in a basket, but that it had gotten out. Fortunately, he had gotten it into the little box, and he needed Onore's help to get it into something safer. Now, I'd had a moderate amount of snake experience, and had never been bitten when catching dozens of snakes, and I had actually brought snake bags with me that I had in the office. But I had only been in Ecuador for 3 weeks when I wanted to stay for a year. If I got bitten, I didn't speak the language well, it was too early for anything to be open, I had no clue where the hospital was and they likely would not have antivenom either. So we waited until Onore arrived. He got out a snake stick and we put it into one of my bags, and everybody was safe and happy.
- I was traveling on a field trip with some researchers, and we stopped in the southern mountains at one of the military check points to show our documents. Ecuador was still at war with Peru (since the 1940s), and so they checked everything. As I was wandering around to stretch my legs, I noticed that they had a mascot: a mountain lion! It was on a wire, pacing back and forth. I saw one of the soldiers walk by and pat the puma! I thought: "Oh, Shit, I gotta pat the mountain lion too!" So I positioned myself where it would pace past me, and as it passed I stroked its back. Yes! Then it turned around, wrapped its paws around my leg and its jaws around my knee: it could easily have crippled me. But I haev long experience with house cats, and I recognized that it was playing. The first rule when cats are playing with you is DON'T PLAY BACK! They will only play harder. So I relaxed, saying "ow" in a low voice and waited. I knew the soldiers wouldn't help: they'd shoot me before they shot their kitty. After a few seconds, the cat let go, and walked away. I made my escape with only some indentations in the skin around my knee.
- I travelled with a pair of Danish botanists down the Rio Napo to their study site on the opposite side of the river from Anangu. They were glad to have me along because they thought my Spanish was better than theirs. In order to go that far down the river, we had to get a permit from the Military, so I made an appointment with the local commander. He invited us in, and then grilled us as if we were CIA! Finally, he signed off, and we took a speedboat the half hour down river to an abandoned oil camp where we set up our tents inside a crumbling building. We hadn't been there a half hour, when he flies in in a helicopter with machine-gun armed soldiers hanging out the doors. Truly a brown pants moment! I wondered if we should try to hide or if we should just stand around and innocently wave. Considering that these soldiers are trained to track people in the jungle, we waved. When he landed, he said he was just checking that we had arrived safely, and the soldiers were very friendly, showing us their favorite survival techniques such as tapping the giant bamboo for drinking water. Then they flew off. I think he was just bored and wanted a joyride on the helicopter.
I hung out at Harvard, predominantly at the Museum of Comparative Zoology Entomology Department, hanging out with a number of famous entomologists including Stefan Cover, Lynn Kimsey, Scott Shaw, Al Newton, Margaret Thayer, Jim Carpenter, and numerous others. I spent a lot of time working in E. O. Wilson's ant collection room on my Evaniidae.
Frank Carpenter was the grand old man of the Entomology department. His specialty was fossil insects. He had an enormous number of graduate students over a 60+ year career. There was a big celebration of his 90th birthday (I think) where an auditorium full of former graduate students (at least 40, including E. O. Wilson) celebrated and told stories.
I sometimes attended the high teas run by Frank Carpenter. Somebody would volunteer to bring the tea and some pastry/snacks to go with it, and it evolved into a sort of competition. So one day I brought in sushi and green tea, and another day I brought in Viennese pastry and coffee mit schlag (with heavy cream.)
Stephen J. Gould
I saw Gould a few times, including when he gave a tour of the fossil collection. He was a very pompous man.
One day there was a seminar for candidates for associate professor to present their research. This one presented his research, and when it was time for questions, Gould got up. He rudely went on and on about one of his current hobbyhorses for maybe 10 minutes (it might have been female hyena pseudopenises.) When he finally finished, one of the graduate students shouted out: "Could you repeat the question please?" The audience roared with laughter, and Gould turned purple in anger.
Birds of Paradise
I went to the Harvard MCZ one night to attend a guest lecture about Birds of Paradise, which are a showy group from New Guinea. I happened to sit right behind two of Harvard's most famous biologists, E. O. Wilson (who wrote Sociobiology and invented Island Biogeography) and Ernst Mayer (considered the father of the evolutionary New Synthesis and the biological species concept.) Mayer was about 100 years old then, but his early work included a major expedition to New Guinea to collect and study birds, including Birds of Paradise. I've got a personal policy of never speaking to an important person unless I had something to say that I thought would interest them. Thus, while I'd spoken to Wilson a few times, I'd never introduced myself to Mayer.
Modern ornithologists seldom collect or even handle birds they are studying: it is as if they are too sacred to touch or disturb.
So I was listening to their conversation during the talk, and when one species of Bird of Paradise was on the screen, Mayer leans over to Wilson and says: "And them's good eating too!" (Old time naturalists in the bush would make skins and skulls/skeletons of their specimens, but eat the rest to save on provisions.) I would have loved to hear what the speaker and audience would have thought if they had overheard Mayer.
Lou Roth was the foremost authority on cockroaches in the world. He was best known for his enormous book, The Biotic Associations of Cockroaches. Most of his life he worked in a lab for the US government, but I knew him after his retirement when he was a Harvard Museum Associate and worked daily in an office there. We talked a lot because he was very approachable and because I study Evaniidae, which are parasites of cockroach egg cases.
One year, he had a ton of species to name in a paper, so he named one after each person he knew at the museum, including me. Now, all those species looked alike, so the type specimens were based on microscope slides of genitalia. Somewhere in the literature, there is a pornographic drawing of cockroach sexy bits with my name attached. So I teased him that when he died, they were going to make a slide of his genitalia.
Another day, he told me he had published a genus named Eowilsonia, named after E. O. Wilson. Then he complained that while he had named genera after several people, nobody had yet named a genus after him. I don't remember if I promised him I would, but I named Rothevania for him shortly after his death. Quite appropriate: after all, they both make their living from cockroaches.
I practiced Aikido at New England Aikikai for 30 years, the first 20 with Mitsunari Kanai sensei (8th dan.) I also practiced Iaido for 15 years. I was promoted to 4rth dan in Aikido and 3rd dan in Iaido. I had to stop Iaido and gave up on seated Aikido techniques as I developed hallux limitus (arthritic limited motion of the big toes.)
My first experience of Kanai Sensei was in my first week of classes. During kokyu ho, he came by and seated himself to practice with me. He grasped my wrists and I tried to move him, and it was hopeless. I struggled for a minute or so, and started to relax, and he said "Don't give up! Don't give up!" So I resumed struggling fruitlessly, and after another minute or so I started to relax again, and again he said "Don't give up! Don't give up!" I started again, and after a little time he graciously rolled over. Then it was my turn to grasp his wrists. It was a strange sensation: he had these enormous thick wrists from decades of sword work and Aikido, starting in his early youth. They felt like iron bars wrapped in foam rubber. I graped his wrists, rose into the air and landed on my back a few feet away without feeling why. I was convinced! In my last (30th) year of practice, I finally was able to make people rise like that sometimes, but I never integrated it into that sort of throw. I've never felt that from anybody else, either.
At the Aikido dojo, some friends were massaging each other. I remarked on it to some of the others, making vague pronouncements about giving and getting, karma, and finishing with a fully extended two-armed circular gesture to illustrate that it was "all part of the great circle of bullshit."
I made it a point to not bother Kanai Sensei unless I had a medical problem or something that might interest him. He was tired of people asking him what ki was and other foolish questions. When I had to drive him a couple of hours each way to Smith College one day, I was racking my brains for something to converse about that might be new to him. Finally, I asked him: "Sensei, what do you hate the most about teaching Aikido?" He got a big smile on his face and said (roughly) "I hate it when they ask a question and they don't understand me but won't tell me that. They just say 'Yes, Sensei' and continue to misunderstand."
When I was in Ecuador in 1988, I found the Aikido dojo in Quito. I went there, and Mishi Lesser greeted me at the door in English. She asked me where I was from, and I said New York. She asked where in New York, and I said Long Island. She asked where on Long Island, and I said Plainview. She was from there too! We went to the same high school and had most of the same teachers, but she was 3 years ahead of me and so we had never met. She asked me if I knew Yamada sensei, and I said yes. She said "He's coming here in two months to give tests and a demonstration!" Small world! So for the next two months, I assisted in test preparation for the students (I was first kyu, had practiced for 7 years, and was well aware of the USAF test requirements.) When Yamada sensei came, we gave a demonstration that was on all three Ecuadorean television stations, with a live audience of about 3000. I had to be his uke that he threw around, because the Quito instructor was a small woman, and it wouldn't look good for him to throw around somebody much smaller than he was. During the freestyle demonstration, he told me to grab his hair, an attack I had never practiced in Aikido, so I grabbed enthusiastically. He did a cool sankyo technique and threw me. Afterwards, he said to me "You pulled my hair hard!" Oops!Omar Rayyan, an artist and Aikidoist from Martha's Vinyard, made a splendid painting of Kanai Sensei throwing a demon on a bridge in irimi nage. He very kindly provided me with a copy. As I was heading to the framing shop with the picture, I walked past a restaurant and saw Kanai sensei and two other senseis eating there. I went in and said "Guess what I've got here." When I showed him the picture, he said: "Oh! That's me throwing you!" Those were the last words he ever said to me: he died the next weekend in Canada of heart failure.