Sunday, January 11, 2015

World's Fattest Animals

            My son has a library class three days a week. This is so different from my third-grade experience, which involved merely visiting the library once a week to check out books, or to forget to check in the books I had checked out the previous week. But this is the information age, and my son’s class teaches information literacy and all the ways to find out what we need to know. It’s really pretty great—a way to create lifelong learners, instead of mere memorizers of facts. And he gets to check out books, too, when he’s resisting the influence of the overdue-book gene he got from me.
            The other day, I asked him what exactly he does in library class, since I had no equivalent grade-school experience to draw upon. He told me that they learn about the different parts of the library, listen to a story read aloud, practice finding and checking out books, and search for information on the computers.
            After this detailed explanation, however, he switched from a matter-of-fact tone to a stage whisper to give me the straight scoop.
            “Mostly I just look up the world’s fattest animals,” he said.
            There must be a name for that tendency we have, when given the opportunity to learn anything, to default to the ridiculous.
            I brought home my first personal computer in the early 1990s. It was one of those all-in-one Apple McIntosh systems with the tiny screen. I admit I feel a little nostalgic for the simplicity of that machine—how I’d just carry it up the stairs to my apartment by a back handle and plug it in to the wall, with no separate hard drive, speakers, or other accessories.
            After I had found a spot on a table and plugged the computer in, there was the simple matter of removing the cord from the phone and sticking it in to the computer’s data port. Everyone who computed in the 1990s remembers the bleeping wind-tunnel sounds of the connection being forged (and having to go through several phone numbers to find one that was not too busy to accept the log-in). It’s very strange to have to explain something so recent in such detail, but the fact is that a reader under the age of thirty would have almost no recollection of these sounds, or the excited-for-me tones of a disembodied male voice saying, “Welcome! You’ve got mail!” We over-forty types may as well have driven a covered oxcart to hop on to the Internet—it’s exactly that strange.
            What’s less strange is what we did the first time we were alone with that new home computer. Like everyone else then, and now, and in all the days to come, we plunked as many filthy words as we knew into the search engine and pressed “Go.” It’s really no wonder Jeeves turned in his letter of resignation, considering the nature of the things we had been asking him to tell us about.
            A young child’s version of forbidden fruit is manifested in the sneaky Internet search. It’s looking for the “world’s fattest animals” while the rest of the class is looking for “Abraham Lincoln.” Out of curiosity, I replicated my son’s search.
            Most of what came up were huge housecats, held awkwardly under their arms, their great girth suspended like bulbous pears. I saw an obese giraffe, but I’m pretty sure its ground-touching gut had been photographically manipulated into place. There were some sad-looking dogs with back problems—pity the corpulent dachshund, overindulged and bucking at his center of gravity. There were representatives of the naturally fat animal set, elephants and hippos and pigs and whales. There were also some dolphins and manatees that looked quite satisfied with their fat lot in life, and some huge baboons, stuffing their faces and staring into the camera with fuck-off eyes.
            It was an interesting search, with widely varied results. My unfiltered computer brought back some pictures of naked fat people—the rescued-from-their-own-bathroom level of fat—because searches of any topic will yield something for voyeurs like us to sink our teeth into. I doubt my son saw these in the school library, where he contented himself with puffed-up winter birds and squirrels whose cheeks were packed to capacity with nuts.
            I do wonder what led him to that particular search, within the entire universe of odd and worthwhile things to see. He gets picked on at school sometimes, and it’s possible he was looking for something kind of jolly, like he might find at home, or something fierce and defensive—like he also might find at home.
            It’s hard to let them go into this sharp-edged world, and when he ambles back to me, I can’t help it—I become the mother hen, fluffing myself around my skinny chick’s defenseless down. I think of home as a round nest, as a soft place to lay one’s head.


  1. Love your writing, Karen! It's so engaging. You integrate memory and new thought so well, and your phrasing is, of course, brilliant. So glad you're blogging!