Besides learning that Rodney Dangerfield’s widow keeps a bottle of the deceased funnyman’s sweat in her fridge, “Rescuers Save Beached Greenland Shark with Appetite for Moose” by Pete Thomas is one of the oddest and coolest things I’ve read all week.
Greenland sharks are delightfully strange. They are slow. These sharks are not slate gray or blue, but a mottled color more like speckled green stone than flesh. Because they do not have urinary tracts, Greenland sharks secrete pee through their skin. Uric acid builds up in their tissues. Unless sufficiently rotten, (at which point the poison flesh becomes an Icelandic “delicacy”) eating Greenland shark flesh can cause intoxication or even make people vomit blood. I don’t know if these symptoms depend on one’s “tolerance” or not.
Most disgusting and most poignant of all, the Greenland sharks’ only friends in the frigid, Northern waters are the eye eating parasites that accompany them everywhere. As Pete Thomas puts it:
“Greenland sharks, which can measure 20 feet, typically reside in deep water, where their only reliable companions are parasitic copepods that feed on their corneal tissue (the sharks suffer some eye damage, but the bioluminescent copepods glow and lure fish closer to feeding sharks.”)
My musings on the lonely, homely, toxic Greenland shark circle back to the bottled sweat of Rodney Dangerfield. If one dared drink it, what power might this elixir grant? The ability to laugh at nearly everything?
Rodney’s rejection began at birth:
“My mother refused to breastfeed me. She said she just liked me as a friend.”
So much of his schtick involves feeling ugly and abandoned:
“When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them.”
“A girl phoned me the other day and said, ‘Come on over. There’s nobody home.’ I went over. Nobody was home.”
“I know I’m ugly. I said to the bartender, ‘Make me a zombie.’ He said, “God beat me to it.’
“I’m so ugly when I worked in a pet shop, people kept asking how big I’d get.”
“I was such an ugly kid… when I played in the sandbox, the cat kept covering me up.”
“I drink too much. The last time I gave a urine sample it had an olive in it.”
I love outsiders and underdogs. Not studied freaks slumming in the land of melancholia, but the truly transcendent losers and impossible creatures who manage to survive the daily horrors and indignities–from eye-eating parasites to cheating spouses. We ought to praise tenacity as much as we praise beauty. We should understand the value of the hidden and strange, not just the self-consciously odd and kooky. Maybe most of all, we need to see life’s brutality with a bit of humor as Rodney did:
“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy. I said I wanted a second opinion. He said, “Okay, you’re ugly too.”
Going through the notes I took during student presentations, I realized I have the rough beginnings of a poem on the weird and wonderful variety of sharks in the ocean.
So often I find these words together:
vulnerable, beautiful, strange.
Sometimes ugly is lucky.
The translucent goblin hates the sun.
Too deep for fishermen,
his nose is a flattened sword
to study currents.
When pulled into the upper world,
the Shortfin mako rebels
& aborts her eggs
Other things we know:
Nurses travel long distances for love.
Porbeagles play seaweed games.
Megalodon’s jaws were a tunnel, a gateway
crushing whale skulls like grapes.
The angel (also called the sand devil)
lies motionless on the ocean floor
waiting for a hapless mollusk,
and captured in the swirling, indiscriminate sweep
of the fisherman’s trawl.
Who has seen the flickering southern lantern?
Been ambushed by a shaggy-bearded woebegong?
The poisonous flesh
of the slow, drowsy Greenland shark
will make you drunk.
Its teeth are dense, yellowed icicles.
It sneaks up on sleeping seals,
while the twirling, breaching
spinner shark can only be called
an ecstatic hunter.
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I wanted to call this entry “God don’t make Junque” but I felt the reference might be too obscure. Still, I feel compelled to tell you that the late 1970s often return to me in a blur of tote bag inscriptions: Le Bag. Le Junk. Le Junque. (This was also the era of Le Car). Sometimes I crave the simple, homely popular humor of that era, but mostly I remember how stupid it all was.
(Strenuous transition to shark-related subjects)
The white shark, however, is not stupid.
After watching the great white dissection movie, I wanted to know more about the shark brain and found this fascinating article on white shark intelligence.
P.S. This isn’t related, but it is FABULOUS…..
I am still ecstatic from Ralph Collier’s lecture this afternoon at Glendale College this afternoon. Great turn out–students, teachers from all disciplines, and people from outside school–including one dazzled shark nerd in a Jaws t-shirt who sat in the front row, and my dear friend Lisa and her fellow shark fanatic pal, Jack.
Ralph covered some fascinating stuff about shark behavior including “spy hopping” in which white sharks (and apparently oceanic white tips) stick their heads out of the water to check out what’s happening on land and sometimes startle random seals off the edges of rookeries. They also spy hop to calculate which group of seals in the haul-out area might be easiest to sweep into the water via a giant breach. Essentially, I learned that white sharks ain’t dummies. Not by a long shot. They have memories. They make calculated decisions. Ralph doesn’t believe in calling shark encounters “accidents”–he gives the animals volition—whether the intent is to investigate or to launch a predatory strike.
I learned two more disturbing consequences of shark finning:
1. When the discarded bodies of finned sharks are thrown overboard, they sink to the bottom where ammonia leaking from their ravaged bodies destroys coral communities.
2. Increasing numbers of people in Asia who consume shark fin soup are developing neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and A.L.S. Researchers have proposed that the high concentrations of mercury in shark fin and flesh bind with other neurotoxins and create a lethal toxic compound. Could this new health concern become a powerful force in stopping finning?
Writing the introduction to Ralph Collier’s lecture tomorrow. This man knows everything about white sharks from their interactions with people to their inspections of inanimate objects and sea birds. He was the first to notice how white sharks roll their eyes during predatory or investigative attacks. The Egyptian Government asked for his help after a series of attacks in the Red Sea in 2010. He’s appeared in 50 documentaries, his work cited in over 300 publications. He’s written stuff on white shark dietary habits, and how they see colors and respond to sound.
It is a fascinating thing—the devotion of one’s entire life to understand the behavior of such an alien creature…. I wonder how one might compare this obsession with sharks to the obsessive drive of the artist? It’s a question that I’m frankly too tired to contemplate, so here’s a meme:
I marvel at how often discussions of animals illuminate human ignorance.
Why just today I was sharing this fascinating L.A. Times article on intrauterine cannibalism in sand tiger sharks with one of my classes. Although we’d already touched on this evolutionary oddity (embryos chewing through womb walls to eat their sibling competitors), I felt the subject deserved another go-round. I didn’t have much to add to the discussion except “Wow. Can you believe it?” until I neared the end of the piece and read this:
“In captivity, an alpha male sand tiger shark will guard a female when she shows signs that she will soon start ovulating.”
At various times in my illustrious career, I’ve been stunned by the dearth of knowledge that males between the ages of 19 and 25 have about female reproduction. Simply put, most guys in my classes have no idea what a period means. When I casually inquired if any males knew what ovulation meant, one fellow answered confidently, “When a girl has her period.” I made the sound of the losing game show buzzer. The girls giggled.
One young man finally explained eggs and fertility in an economical and tasteful way as his brethren looked on like hostages at the Lillith Faire.
I tried to lighten things up by asking the class to imagine if intrauterine cannibalism existed in humans.
I don’t think they quite get my particular brand of humor.
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