Monday, November 13, 2006

Ginkgo Season, or Why I Hate Fall

Well, I don't really hate fall.

And the only reason I hate fall is that I grew up in Chicago, where fall was cold and rainy and portended a Chicago winter.

And another reason I hate fall is that it means the start of the school year, which for years meant the end of the freedom from bullying that summer provided.

But the main reason I hate fall is that it is when ginkgo trees drop their berries. According to the relevant Wikipedia article:

The seed coat contains butanoic acid and smells like rancid butter (which contains the same chemical) when fallen on the ground.

This is an understatement. The smell is in fact quite complex, and redolent of just about any foul-smelling substance or object you can think of. Perhaps the only worse smell I've smelled was produced by a small cyst on someone's back that, umm, exploded. I'll hide the identity of the afflicted, since I'm married to her. The incomparable David Sedaris describes the smell of a popped cyst thusly:

The stench... was unbearable, and unlike anything I had come across before. It was, I thought, what evil must smell like—not an evil person but the wicked ideas that have made him that way.

The smell of ginkgo berries is better, but not much.

I've been obsessed with plants since the summer before I started high school, and I knew in theory of the smell of ginkgoes, though I hadn't experienced it firsthand. This was, I thought, because ginkgoes are dioecious -- there are separate male and female plants. (A more famous dioecious plant is Cannabis sativa, the females of which being the ones that are of recreational use.) There were ginkgoes aplenty in the Chicago neighborhood I grew up in -- ginkgoes are famous for their ability to thrive in harsh urban environments. Yet it was not until I was in college that I smelled ginkgoes in the fall -- there was a row of them next to the library. Studying became even more of a chore now that it involved running an arboreal gauntlet. Yet each fall an elderly woman, presumably originally from East Asia (she actually wore a conical hat) would brave the stench and gather the berries, which are eaten in many East Asian cuisines.

I was shocked, then, when I lived for a year between college and graduate school in the neighborhood I grew up in and found that in the fall the plentiful ginkgoes, or more accurately half of them, would produce copious and malodorous berries. What had changed? I can only assume that they were planted recently enough that they hadn't yet reached maturity when I was growing up. After all, I can't imagine that they were commonly planted in American cities a generation or two ago.

I quite like my current neighborhood in New York, but it is rank with ginkgoes. There is in fact not a single route I can take to campus that does not involve walking over patches of sidewalk piled with stinking ginkgo berries. Which is my current excuse for not going to the library.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Before the election is over...

... and now that the furor has died down about Macacagate, I'll contribute my belated opinion on the origin of the term "macaca."

Or rather, what I'm sure it isn't. When I first heard about this scandal, I was told that it was a Tunisian French slur against native Tunisians. I bought this explanation. But then it turned out

1) Okay, that term is actually "macaque," pronounced basically the same way as the English word. Furthermore,

2) It was used in the Belgian Congo against Congolese natives (and perhaps North African immigrants to Belgium).

A fair amount of smushy thinking is involved to make the Belgian colonial slur into the likely etymon of "macaca." The steps, as I see them, go like this:

1) So "macaque" is a kind of monkey, the latin name of which is Macaca. And

2) French Tunisia, Belgian Congo -- it's all Francophone colonies in Africa, after all.

But these are both stretches, and are only plausible to someone who really wants to how that George Allen used a known epithet. The problems are obvious - Tunisia and the Congo are nowhere near each other, and though they may speak French in Belgium (at least in parts of it), Belgium ain't France. So how, in short, would a francophone Tunisian crypto-Jew learn a Belgian slur against Congolese natives, and then transmit it to her son as the Latin name of the monkey from which the slur may come?

This bothers me not because I like Allen. In fact it bothers me because I do suspect him of being a barely closeted racist, and I think that this specious etymology 1) weakens the case against Allen with its leaps of logic 2) hides the real story, which I think is far worse.

I take Allen at his word when he says that he "just made up" the term on the spot (you can watch him claim this here). This, to me, does not excuse it -- if anything, it suggests that S. R. Siddarth's South Asian ancestry made him so ridiculous to a crowd of rural Virginians that Allen could make up a vaguely "primitive" sounding name for him, one that wouldn't seem out of place coming out of Johnny Weissmuller's mouth. This, to me, is much more plausible. And much more offensive.