Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Symbol of the Horse Chestnut



The horse chestnuts are littering the ground. It's a great time of year.

The other day, I found the spiky whole shells and the half open ones and the glossy chestnuts. I took one of each with me. They are in my car's cup holder--waiting for me to have an opportunity to tell my kids how great these symbols of autumn are.



I adore horse chestnuts.

So did one of my Eastern religion professors at college, Albert Sadler.  

He had a pile of horse chestnuts on his desk. We'd talk about how useful they were.

"They're a beautiful color, and they're nice to touch and hold, and the flowers of the trees smell great in spring," I think he said. 

I agreed.

Professor Sadler used to walk around campus with pockets bulging with horse chestnuts.

He once told me that it was his personal mission to plant as many as he could.

"They were growing; they were saplings, maybe six inches tall," he told me excitedly. "I was watching them from my office window. I was thrilled that I could finally see some chestnuts I planted actually growing into trees."

And then, "BZZZTTT....here come the weed whackers. I watched them go. Ah, well," he said, good-naturedly.

I always thought that was such a Zen thing to say.

This story is one I think about every time I see a horse chestnut.

I am also reminded of Professor Sadler when someone compliments me on my "flawless" Chinese accent (in all honesty, I only know about six or seven Chinese words, but I learned how to pronounce them from you-know-who).

Professor Sadler is dead now, I believe,

But I will always remember him when I see a horse chestnut. 

I think he'd like that.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"...Struggling to Explain the Concept of a Grapefruit to a Man Who Just Didn't Get It..."

Comedian Aziz Ansari has a great bit on eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant, and, long story short (the video clip is below, so I urge you to watch for yourself; it's very funny and only two minutes long), some words and ideas, such as "grapefruit," are hard to explain.


The comedy sketch got me thinking: how do we explain things, and why are our explanations sometimes unclear? 

Almost every little kid has to eventually be told that grapefruit tastes nothing like grapes, and it's a mystery why these fruits were called grapefruit. Unless grapes are also giant, sour, citrus, and yellow/pink, then honestly, there is no rational reason for using the prefix "grape" in the word "grapefruit." It is a ridiculous name for this fruit; the name tells the observer nothing at all, and in fact, the name of the fruit is wildly misleading.

When my daughter was little and asked me, "Why is this called a grapefruit?" I first explained that there is no connection between grapes and grapefruit. Then, I said I thought it was called grapefruit in order to make it sound more appetizing. 



Grapefruit is okay, but it's not the first fruit I'd reach for. How about you? Grapefruit can be bitter and a chore to eat. Plus, it doesn't mix well with many medications (just a little health tip there, but I think it adds to the relative unpopularity of grapefruit--as opposed to apples).

The word "grapefruit" is probably a euphemism--or even a trick, like the way "Grape-Nuts" cereal is called that because this cereal is comprised of very hard, tiny nuggets that don't taste bad but bear a disturbing resemblance to kitty litter. The inventor of the cereal had to print more palatable-sounding (if utterly inaccurate) words onto the box so people would give it a try.



Tricks aside, simply trying to be clear and succinct in our writing is always a challenge. I know that I can be wordy; I can fall back on filler words that ought to be cut--and yes, there must be times when I could be more clear. 

Some ideas are, however,  difficult to explain.

I always come back to Madeleine L'Engle's description of fire in her classic novel, A Wrinkle in Time. L'Engle's main character, Meg, has to explain what "fire" is to strange beings on the planet Uriel that do not share our senses and comprehend life in an entirely different way. Describing fire to them is a seemingly impossible task--and yet, L'Engle does it masterfully.

The point the author is making is that words can be inadequate. I agree, but I'd add that words are our main form of communication, so we need to learn how to use them well.

Still, some concepts have no words. We must appreciate these ideas (or things) for what they are and not try to slap an inadequate label on them. Some ideas are ineffable. Grand, spiritual ideas and even our most basic emotions (such as love or fear) are difficult to explain precisely. We just have to know (and we know through experience, mostly).

I don't believe that grapefruit is ineffable. I think we could do a better job naming and explaining this fruit. 

We should all try to explain a difficult concept in simple words that our listeners will "get." It's a good exercise for writing and for life. Could you explain the concept of a grapefruit? Could you explain the concept of fear? How would you do both of these things?