Sunday, September 19, 2010


Praying mantis studying me through the study window
or When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

When Alice talks with the White Queen in the famous scene from Through the Looking Glass, she clings to realism for all it's worth:  "One can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen.  "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day.  Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

I'm always intrigued in a work of art—whether fiction, film, opera, or anything else—at the fine line between what's believable and what isn't, and the tipping point between the two.  You go along through the whole work, perfectly willing to suspend disbelief, and then suddenly wham!  As far as you're concerned it has "jumped the shark," and it's all downhill from there.  There may have been half a dozen equally over-the-top moments along the way, but for some reason one feature among the rest swings the balance for you between "coming along for the ride" and "give me a break."

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was like that for me.  I was happy to go along with logical fallacy after logical fallacy for the sake of a fast plot and cloak-and-dagger intrigue, but when it was revealed (possible spoiler alert, but not a very big one) that Debussy had been a keeper of the great secret, I threw the book down in disgust.  Debussy was a jerk, a nasty piece of work; no one in his right mind would have given him a sacred trust.  If Brown was fool enough to believe that Debussy was a trustworthy and noble fellow just because he composed some nice music (rather than being a creep who happened to be handy with notes), I was done with him.

Reality, of course, is sometimes even stranger than fiction.  Take giraffes, for example.  It's easy enough to believe in each individual feature of a giraffe, but added up they come to something a little too over the top—about 15 feet over the top, in fact, and most of it neck.  (It's odd how the balance can tip back toward belief, too.  The last time I was at the zoo to disbelieve in the giraffes, one came over to say hello, bent down its head, and dribbled a bunch of green plant gunk all over the enclosure railing.  There's something all too real about dribbly green plant gunk, and now I believe in giraffes again.)

Or flamingos.  As if their color isn't startling enough, the way they sleep on one leg with their necks turned around 180° and snaked along their backs—sorry, but that's just a little too Maurice Sendak (or Roald Dahl) for me to accept.  I used to find the way their knees bend backward to be a little too strange and then discovered that those are their ankles; their knees are right under their hips and hidden by feathers, which doesn't exactly make things any better.

But even in our own backyards, there are plenty of creatures I'm not quite ready to suspend disbelief for.  Spittle bugs are a case in point.  The thought of an insect surrounding itself in a cloud of spit for protection ("You can't tell I'm here, Mr. Predator, because I'm hidden in my own saliva!")...Hmm.

Spittle bug(s?)

How about twig caterpillars?  They're a kind of inchworm.  This one seems to have gotten a little confused by the concept of camouflage—it's not enough to look like a twig, little caterpillar; you also have to hang out with the twigs.  I've only seen this kind of inchworm once and have no idea what its moth form looks like.  It's sufficiently twig-like that the moment when it started "measuring" was pretty disconcerting—I almost expected it to snap in half.

Redroot amaranth flowers with out of place camouflaged twig

Praying mantises?  Albuquerque is probably too close to Roswell for me to see them as anything other than space aliens, come to study our culture and then report back to the mother ship.

"Interesting.  Ve-ry interesting."
Then we have this little spider, which was (and still is, for all I know) about half an inch long.  If a sock monkey were crossed with a tarantula and then shrunk in the wash, this is what we would get.

And it has this gorgeous mask on its back (as if its front weren't scary enough).  Tattoo?  Gang symbol?  Tribal marking?  (You can click on the photo to enlarge it.)  (If you're into that kind of thing.)

I've been practicing believing in them all before breakfast—before I've even finished my coffee on the patio, no less, because that's when I always see them.  (I'm up to four unbelievable things now—two to go, and I tie the White Queen!)  For me, they're all right on the cusp of credibility.  One more oddity, one more human-common-sense defying quirk, and they'd jump the shark.

They'd better not make any silly claims about Debussy.


  1. I don't believe in several animals, Stacy. Kangaroos for instance - no way. And giant ant-eaters - you're having a laugh. Rhinos? Unlikely. Hammer-head shark? Like, er, I don't think so. Three toed sloth? Does not exist. But if they had ever existed (in some long-gone dream-world), we would no more be able to imagine living amongst them than we could sabre-tooted tigers or woolly mammoths. (And I'm not convinced by that twig caterpillar you've rigged up. You might have spent a little more time on it, Stacy. Screams fake, I'm sorry to say).
    Haven't seen or read the DV code; the whole hysteria that surrounded it just annoyed me for some reason and I had no interest in dipping into it. Looks like I didn't miss much. I gave up on one of the Daniel Craig Bond movies after twenty minutes. It was so ridiculously unbelievable (and like you say, I'm prepared to suspend a little belief) that I just thought what's the point? This is just silly. And I do I like silly. Really. But it does indeed have to be credible silly. Disappointed the jumping tarantula isn't leaping to the attack (captured in all its glory in permanent ink) across say, your upper arm. He/she is very beautiful but in the second shot looks terribly sad - though terribly intelligent too. Quite a feat. I shall practice in front of the mirror. Dave

  2. Kangaroos...I'd have to say you're right, Dave. About the ant-eaters, too, as well as the rhinos, hammer-head shark, and three toed sloth. And what about platypuses?? (Platypi?) Whose bright idea were they?! But as far as the twig caterpillar goes, that's just God's honest truth. Scout's honor. (Fine print: I was never a Scout.) I thought the little bud on its...back? Is that its back? was quite convincing.

    I didn't read the DV Code for a long time for the same reason. The plot does move at a wicked pace and has a great premise, but in a few more years I doubt anyone will even remember that the book existed. I haven't seen the Daniel Craig Bond movies yet (it's a Netflix issue) but am sorry to hear that they're so unbelievable. I had high hopes for him as Bond--I thought he might have the sardonic, dangerous, "only a good guy because he's on the same side as you" loose cannon-ness of Sean Connery. Isn't the spider a lovely one? I think you're right about the intelligence--it was definitely studying me every bit as much as I was studying it. I wonder what griefs a jumping spider faces? Jim will be moved and impressed if you perfect the look. (As will we all.)