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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 04, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Nostalgia, Family, and Animals

You know how it is when you're middle-aged. You're riding along in a car or stuck in some elevator and suddenly an old song comes on and it's one you absolutely hated when it first came out, but all the memories flood in and you're in another place and time.

Like that Tony Orlando and Dawn song -- "He Don't Love You." From "Knock Three Times" to "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," I hated their songs even when I liked them. But "He Don't Love You (Like I Love You)" threw me back to an old love triangle I was in back in college.

Of course, everything turned out great for everybody (except for my poor wife, who got stuck with me), but still, there's something wistful about remembering old pain -- especially old pain that didn't last.

That's one kind of musical nostalgia, and it really hasn't that much to do with the quality of the song itself. I mean, heck, "Hair" or "Rockin' Robin" or "Yummy Yummy Yummy (I've Got Love in My Tummy)" can be nostalgic, if they trigger memories.

But there are singer/songwriters who can turn on that switch in your brain the first time you hear the song. You feel haunted because they have a way of evoking memories you wish you had, and tying them to the real ones sometimes, too.

The first song I remember hitting me that way was Dave Loggins's "Please Come to Boston." Got a collection of his songs recently and that one still works. It's partly the bruised-sounding voice he sings with, partly the longing of the words, and partly the music. I used to listen to that one on the stereo I set up in my office at BYU Press when I was an editor there, fresh out of college. On 8-track. I am really really old.

But there are others who have that gift of instant nostalgia -- or, if you prefer, deep truth.

I'm not talking about songs that are about remembering -- most of those aren't really very good. Yes, I know that "The Way We Were" was a big hit, and it's vintage Streisand, but it never had that effect on me. Except, maybe, for "Lazy Afternoon," Streisand has never really had a song that felt like memory.

Aimee Mann did it when she was with 'Til Tuesday -- the song "Coming Up Close." K.D. Lang has a song like that on every album, it seems.

Joni Mitchell did it on her Blue album, with "River" and "Carey," and even earlier, on her first album, with the classic "Michael from Mountains" (which was also recorded memorably by Judy Collins on her Wildflowers album).

Julee Cruise's album Floating into the Night is a strange and wonderful evocation of fifties rock 'n' roll and girl-group songs, but done at a slow tempo with dissonances and surprises that make it all feel like a dream. This is one of those brilliant albums where you can't believe anybody even thought of doing this kind of thing. I've listened to it a hundred times over the years, and it still works its magic on me.

Beth Nielson Chapman came close to being the best at this kind of thing, with her achingly beautiful "Sand and Water" -- not to mention "Years" and "Life Holds On."

But for me, the all-time champion of wistful songs that are full of truth and faded light is Mary Chapin Carpenter. She has plenty of upbeat rockin' music that makes you glad you're alive --songs like "Down at the Twist and Shout" and "I Feel Lucky" and "I Take My Chances."

But again and again, even in love songs and losin' songs and cheatin' songs she goes straight to the heart of memory and wakes up everything good and sweet and lost and longed-for that you've tucked away and thought you forgot.

"Passionate Kisses." "What You Didn't Say." "Shut Up and Kiss Me." "Quittin' Time." "Someone Else's Prayer." Even an up-tempo number like "Halley Came to Jackson" or "He Thinks He'll Keep Her."

And when she actually sets out to write a song that is about wistful memory, she does it better than anyone else. "Swept Away" is proof of that.

But that doesn't even compare to the greatest nostalgia song ever written: "Come On, Come On." It's like a drug. It takes you on such a trip back into the past. A past you never even had, but it feels richer and truer than your own.

*

Margaret Maron has been writing for eastern North Carolina a set of mystery novels as rich and connected to the community as Sharyn McCrumb has been doing for the mountains of western Carolina.

Where McCrumb's novels touch the roots of mountain magic, Maron's are tied to family. Her main character, Deborah Knott, is a judge in the same area where her daddy used to be a still operator and rum runner. Plenty of run-ins with the law in the old days, and in that large and close family the tradition of skepticism toward authority still runs deep.

Some people who try to write about large extended families produce novels that feel about as interesting as reading somebody else's genealogy. But Maron keeps it alive.

Her latest, Slow Dollar, is the best of a good lot. A carnival has come to town, and one of the carny-owner's sons is murdered. Deborah Knott finds out that it's more than a tragedy happening to strangers -- the murdered young man is actually a relative (her great-nephew, if you want to be exact) and his mother is a long-lost family member.

But just as important in this book is the story of her own decision to marry, after a life of wildness and searching and one busted marriage years before.

If you want a lot of danger and killing, these books aren't that kind of mystery. But if you want stories about community and family torn and pushed and, yes, sometimes strengthened by the tragedies of life, Maron is doing it as well as anyone.

*

One of the surest ways for a biologist -- or a writer about biology -- to earn the contempt of serious scientists in the field is to indulge in "anthropomorphism" -- asserting human feelings and motives to explain the behavior of animals.

It's all right for the owner of a pekinese or poodle to say "Poopsie's upset with mommy because I talked too long on the phone," but heaven help the scientist who speaks of an animal's motive.

The trouble is that the rule against anthropomorphism doesn't work very well. Though it is designed to protect science from sentimentality, it can also keep scientists from admitting the true nature of some animal behavior.

There is little doubt that we are the smartest beings on this planet. We are certainly better at explaining our motives (or making excuses) than any other animals.

But the genetic difference between us and our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, is only a tiny fraction of our genes. The fact that our degree of intelligence is unique does not suggest that we are unique in having intelligence at all.

Eugene Linden's book The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, intelligence, and Ingenuity is not, strictly speaking, science -- but it is written with a keen awareness of what science is, and the author makes clear distinctions.

He knows that what he is doing is telling stories, not reporting on controlled experiments. Nevertheless, he makes a strong case for the idea that the reason we have no data on animal intelligence is that scientists are, in most cases, effectively barred from entertaining even the hypothesis of deliberate behaviors that might appear to be "anthropomorphic."

Good science does not have to reject whole swathes of possibilities because of a rule, when the rule itself is, ultimately, sentimental. There is no credible evidence that animals are not capable of a degree of intelligence similar to that of humans. Yet we arbitrarily reject even the possibility, without attempting any kind of experiment to justify our assumption.

Maybe it's arrogance to think that smarts belong to us alone, and the scientific thing would be to search for signs of intelligence under controlled circumstances and treat the data with respect when we find it.

In the meantime, this is a fascinating book and will open many possibilities in your mind.

Linden doesn't claim that animals are "just like us," but he does leap to the moral assumption that if they resemble us at all, then we have no right to conduct experiments using the "higher" animals, as if intelligence were the only scale that matters.

But he does not ram this down the reader's throat, the writing is good, and the stories are fascinating.


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