Day 174 12/16/13: Sharks, Bad Grammar & The Mystery of Life

Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I endlessly complain about student writing. I am forever scrawling “AWK” or “Huh?” or even “Whaaaat?” along margins and above cryptic sentences that jerk and twitch between lazy slang and stiff, fake formality. I hate weird syntax, wordiness, foggy thinking, limp verbs and the epidemic misuse of words like “portray,”  “careless” and “depict.” I dread the insertion of the falsely fancy “Webster’s Dictionary defines,” invariably used to decode the most obvious words.

But once in a while, a slightly awkward sentence lumbers across the page bearing an odd gift in its clumsy paws. Like primitive special effects in monster movies, or wobbly tombstones and melting makeup on old “Dark Shadows” episodes, dopey sentences can cut through the confines of logic and expectation and help us see “beyond.”

While I criticized my class for the anthropomorphic tendencies of their first essay on Mary Oliver’s “The Shark,” strains persist in subsequent drafts:

“Due to its naivete, the shark was caught and killed,” or “Sharks and humans are similar in the sense that…neither of them can understand many aspects of life.”

As absurd and maddeningly vague as the second sentence is (“aspects” is a hallmark of the half-baked thesis), there is a promising glimmer of intrigue:

What are the mysteries of life that vex both human and shark?

I wonder about the limits of our sophisticated intellect, and their keen senses. I consider the loneliness of our respective otherness.

What does that black eye see when the white shark pops his head above the surface and “studies” the men in the boat?

Maybe it’s impossible to bridge the mystery between humans and animals without projecting, exchanging, blurring rational boundaries between man and fish.  But maybe selective, purposeful anthropomorphizing, like the accidental power of a sloppy, silly sentence, could open up some understanding between us.

I recently bought a watercolor of a shark wearing a crown and holding a scepter. I wanted the little painting because it was ridiculous and fun, but now I realize that in that picture’s absurdity there’s a certain feeling of justice restored, a reminder of the truth, of the way things should be: sharks are the natural rulers of the sea.

And I declare myself a most loyal subject to the rightful king.

Day 27: 7/22/2013: Sharkitecture

Today, I welcomed a new class of International students at Sci-Arc, an architecture school where I teach ESL in the summer. As an icebreaker, I had them ask each other a series of questions including a gem I stole from my own writing teacher:

“If faced with your potential end, would you rather confront a bear or a shark?”

These answers reveal how deeply weird our relationship to other creatures can be. Students who chose death by bear over shark gave these reasons:

1. “The bear is cuter.”

2. “The bear is more like a person.”

3. “Getting killed by a shark is all salty and it hurts.”

A few people had enough confidence in themselves as swimmers to believe:

1. “I might be able to swim faster than a shark.”

Others reasoned that death by shark would be quicker and more merciful than being scalped by a bear:

2. “The shark will just bite my head off and it will be over.”

To make sure the conversation didn’t get too sensational, I informed that students that human beings kill about 100 million sharks a year and sharks kill, oh I don’t know…a half dozen people or something.

I wish I had studied anthrozoology and could compile data like this for a living.

After class, I did get five friends to sign my slowly evolving Shark Defenders petition.

Day 23: 7/18/2013: Dreaming of Sharks in the Desert

Today I went for a trail ride/riding lesson out near Sunland. My awesome teacher Keri and I rode in this interesting desert oasis where the sounds of the freeway grew distant. As we crossed small brooks and negotiated narrow pathways between cacti, Keri told me about her experience deep sea diving. Sharks and horses are my favorite animals, and I felt the particular geeky thrill that happens when obsessions collide—riding a horse through the desert and talking of the ocean.

My biggest nerd-fusion fantasy is to ride horses in the sea–a desire born during repeated adolescent matinees of Coppola’s “The Black Stallion.” Keri mentioned that some horses become mesmerized by the motion of the water and a bit startled by the white caps. Understandable. We ask horses to do a lot. They have a right to be daunted by the vast might of the ocean. Keri and I talked of the natural awe and respect one should have for sharks, for the power of the ocean and for the strength, mass and decidedly independent nature of horses.

Action: Yesterday I posted about helping the great white gain protected status via a three-prong approach of phone calls, e-mails and letters. I confess in the tumult of the day, I only conquered “one prong,” so today I am calling and writing the folks at California Fish and Wildlife Department to tell them to give California’s great whites endangered status.

Day 9 7/4/2013: Shopping for Sharks


Why is it that I’m riveted by the carnage inflicted by a shark attack, but wrench the radio dial as soon as NPR divulges details of a hot dog eating contest?

Maybe next year I’ll do a year of daily action for pigs.

Anyway, since I can’t face dealing with the Fourth of July beach traffic, I am postponing my seaside trash cleanup. Like any sane American, I decided to reflect on the meaning of freedom by purchasing something.

I wanted to see what I could do for sharks using just the random change around my house. All the forgotten dimes and pennies I rescued from the cushions of the couch, crumpled cash in the recesses of the desk, the dull copper squirreled away in canisters or lost in the shadowy depths of my bag came to a whopping $40.87

Continue reading

Day 1 6/26/13 Love Makes a Family: Adopt a Shark

Shark Stewards offers symbolic adoptions of the sharks it tags and releases in the waters of the San Francisco Bay.

Today I became the proud surrogate parent of a hammerhead.

Here are some fun facts about this odd fish:

  • Hammerheads swim in large schools that sometimes exceed 100 sharks during the day, but at night are solitary hunters.
  • The oddly shaped hammerhead (known as a cephalofoil) is used for navigation and to detect and trap prey such as stingrays
  • Like humans, hammerheads have stereo vision, (each eye gets a slightly different view of an object), fantastic depth perception and better vision than other sharks.
  • In 2001, a captive female bonnethead (a type of hammerhead) gave birth to a shark without having had previous contact with a male. While “virgin birth” or parthenogenesis had been seen in birds, snakes and reptiles, until 2001, it had never been documented in sharks.