By Robin Abrahams
November 2, 2007 | 08:07 AM
The Genova Festival della Scienza was quite a wonder. Mr. Improbable has never spoken in a room so grand as this before:
... nor, I imagine, have the words "homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck" ever rung across that august hall before. And the organizing certainly gave the lie to any stereotypes of Italian lack of facility in such matters. The Festival wasn't an ordinary science conference, but was tightly integrated into the Genovese community and open to the public, with many events for children, families, and schools.
A particularly nice thing that the organizers did was to persuade wealthy Genovese families to host informal dinner parties, every night, for the speakers. The hosts would invite some of their own friends and colleagues as well as the visiting scientists and journalists, so locals got to meet interesting foreigners and foreigners got to meet interesting locals.
And I got to meet Jane Goodall. Anyone who remembers my sadness when Alex the grey parrot died knows that people who do scientifically solid, non-exploitative research with (not on) animals are very, very high on Miss Conduct's list of Good People. So, Jane Goodall! And she is small and charismatic and very, very beautiful. Photographs don't do her justice.
We spoke for a bit and then got whisked away from each other, as happens at interesting parties. And then she was leaving and I went to say goodbye, and took her hand and said what an honor it was to have met her.
And she said, "You're pushing me away."
I looked down, and sure enough, I was pushing her hand down and sort of back toward her. (Of course she was right. I'm a primate and she was analyzing my social behavior. It's not the kind of thing Jane Goodall is going to get wrong, is it?)
I sort of "erm"-ed about that a bit, because it hadn't really occurred to me that I was doing that, and she laughed and said, "Well, at least you don't shake hands like this," and demonstrated a sort of French-inflected handshake style. Which, in fact, I do use a lot, but I sure as hell wasn't going to say anything at that point. Then she said, "In my research group, we just do like the chimps do." Then she hugged me while making a rather loud, panting, "Hoo-hoo-hoo" sound.
If she can get chimp colonies and grant-funding agencies as simultaneously charmed and disconcerted as she had me that night, Jane Goodall must be the most powerful woman in the world.
I spent a lot of time afterward thinking about my handshake style. In a business context, or most ordinary friendly ones, I do the French-inflected two-pump and let go. (Though I might rethink my grip. According to Jane, that style can hurt people who have delicate or arthritic hands.) But in my "you mean something to me" handshake, as opposed to the "nice to do business with you" handshake, I hang on a bit longer. Sometimes I hold on with both hands, but I think that night I must have had something in my left hand that I couldn't easily put down--a cocktail or a bambino or some such. I hold on, but I sort of give the person's hand back to them while I do it. It's not meant as pushing them away, it's meant as "I realize that you are your own person and there is no reason for me to mean anything to you, as you do to me, and I am not a stalker and I do intend to let go of your hand quite soon now." A gesture of humility, not rejection. The fact that they can look so much like each other either says something deep about my psyche or is, more likely, tribute to just how much of a Bostonian this Kansas girl has become.
By Robin Abrahams
November 1, 2007 | 07:03 AM
A friend of mine sends this article, from Variety, about "spoiler etiquette." It's yet another area of social life where the rules aren't set, and which reflects how much diversity and technology have changed things. I'd imagine that 100, 150 years ago, giving away crucial plot points of a story wasn't considered a major faux pas. Everyone was assumed to be cognizant of the plots of the major canon of literature, already ("What, you say Prince Hamlet and all his retinue save Horatio perish at the end, and Denmark is o'ertaken by Norway's Fortinbras? D--- you and your meddling ways! I shall not finish the work now, what point is there?"). And the popular literature of the day was published serially, in short form, and there were no chat boards on which one could feverishly discuss Little Nell's chances of survival.
I'm not a hard-liner when it comes to spoilers. Yes, some plot elements are best kept under wraps, at least for a decent interval. (People who rent television series on DVD have no grounds on which to complain about spoilers. You want to be surprised, get cable. You want to watch six straight hours of "Dexter" in a mesmerized haze, get DVD. Make your choice and take the consequences.) But too much fetishizing of "what happens" reflects a thoughtless elevation of plot above all other narrative elements. How "it" happens is at least, if not more, important. And that part will always contain surprises. One of the most page-turning books I ever read was Anne Sexton's Transformations, a series of poems based on the Grimm fairy tales. Knowing how the stories ended didn't matter. Not knowing what turns of phrase, allusions, confessions, pop-culture references Ms. Sexton's brilliant, diseased imagination would lace those stories with did matter.
By Robin Abrahams
October 31, 2007 | 09:27 AM
Mr. Improbable and I returned from Italy last night where we had a wonderful time. More thoughts on that trip, including how I got chimp-hugged by Jane Goodall, later.
In the meantime I wanted to share some terrific letters in response to Sunday's column about nosy kids. One reader writes:
[T]he most effective defense is known to all New Yorkers. Answer a question with a question. I am reminded of the dialogue that I had recently with a waitress at a New York deli as I attempted to order dessert:Another, who signs herself "A Grandmother from Winthrop," has this excellent and amusing advice:
Re: questions that an adult may find too personal. It helps to turn the question back to the child: "What do you think is a good number of children to have?" or to answer in the silly extreme, thereby not answering with any info you don't wish to give. "I've been to the moon and back. Have you ever been there?" Children are learning to be social and their parents assume you're smart enough to only answer/give out what you want!Finally, another reader shared a terrific and very appropriate comic strip with me:
Regarding asking kids personal questions you'd never ask an adult, I thought you'd like this. (For the record, I definitely believe in respecting kids' privacy when you're not their parent.) It's the second cartoon down. Here's the text minus the pictures, if you insist:
I would also add "Calvin & Hobbes" to that list. Thanks to all who wrote!
By Robin Abrahams
October 30, 2007 | 09:00 AM
Jean Berko Gleason, a psychologist and one of the world's top experts in language development, offers some guidelines on what parents can expect from their children tomorrow night:
1. Don't expect your tiniest kids to be able to say anything. They just stand there with their little bags open, if they are toddlers (2 or 3 years old).
(Jean is a former advisor and current friend of mine, and her comments above are based on her 1976 article "The acquisition of routines in child language," in Language in Society, Vol 5(2), pp. 129-136; co-author, Sandra Weintraub.)