The Whippet #66: The mushroom-hunters become the mushroom-hunted


Good morning!

Last fortnight I was talking about words you can never say because you're cursed with knowing how to pronounce them correctly. Another curse is the word that perfectly, aptly, totally nails the idea you want to express - but it's really obscure, so if you use it, you'll pretty much have to explain the definition anyway, which defeats the purpose.

A third curse is when a politely-intended sentence is forbidden to you because the most direct and clear phrasing of an idea sounds passive-aggressive, because it's so often used to insinuate something insulting, even though you just mean it literally.

Example: last week my housemate left a bottle of milk out on the counter. I wanted to know if I should chuck it out, put it back in the fridge, or leave it alone because she's doing something with it. So I asked the question I needed an answer to:

"Is there a reason you left the milk out of the counter?"

Which sounds so hostile, right?

I very very often in life am genuinely, sincerely and non-judgementally curious about why someone's made a choice that's different to what I would have done. Often because I respect that person, so if they do something I wouldn't have, that probably means I'm missing info and it's a learning opportunity. If I watched a chess match between two world champions, nothing could be more truthful than the statement "I'm frankly bewildered that you would move the bishop there...". I would be! That's why I'm not a chess champion!

But our culture isn't set up well for that, so the question "Why did you choose to....?" sounds like you think they made a bad choice and you're scolding them for it.

Or, jeez, "What was going through your mind when you decided to....?" But who doesn't want to know that! Half the articles I choose for The Whippet are me trying to find out what's going through someone's mind when they do/experience something I never have. (I think the very first issue linked to an interview with a Trappist monk, the vow of silence dudes. It's not a choice I would make but my gosh I want to know about people who would.)

So, I'm very upset about this. We need to understand each other's motivations to get better at being humans,* and now that question has been turned into an insult!

Suggestions for how to phrase this type of question are welcomed.

(Note: the housemate thing is not an actual issue because we're friends, we just laughed at how it had inadvertently sounded hostile and she told me what the deal was with the milk.)

Bombardier beetles shoot boiling-hot liquid at predators

They have sacs containing two separate chemicals - hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide (weirdly, chemicals used to lighten human skin and hair, respectively). When mixed in an antechamber (still inside the beetle), they have a chemical reaction that makes the liquid heat up to boiling point. The steam produced creates pressure which opens a valve, allowing a jet of chemicals to shoot out. [Wikipedia].

Even if they get eaten they can still shoot burning bleach, which makes the toad/frog throw them up again. [A video if you must].

What it's like to have prosthetic legs (like, for an ordinary, non-Olympian person)

I see a lot of stories of "I lost my legs and THEN I BEAT THE WORLD RECORD FOR MOST PUSH-UPS ON TOP OF A MOUNTAIN" and no "I lost my legs and then I just kind of kept living my life" stories. So I love this:

"If I didn’t know how to relate to my body before I lost my legs — then, I used to half-jokingly refer to myself as a “flesh sack” — I certainly don’t know how to relate to my body now. I take parts of myself off every evening before I go to sleep, line them up next to my bed so that I can reach them easily in the morning. Who the hell else has to physically take themselves apart every day?"

and

"The very last time I saw my prosthetist before I moved across the country, I gave him a huge hug and told him thank you. “I’d be just a little worm without your help,” I told him. He laughed and said, “what?”

[I'm worried I'll sound pretentious but, this is relateable, right? The "haha what" response you sometimes get when you forget yourself and make a slightly weird but honestly pretty legible joke in a professional environment?]

Anyway, whole thing's great.


This whole issue is vaguely passive-aggression themed for some reason.

Oyster mushrooms are hunters

Fungi aren't passive - like plants, they get inputs from their environment and respond to it, and move towards/away from things by growing in different directions.

Oyster mushrooms mostly digest rotting wood, but they also need nitrogen. They get it from nematodes (microscopic worms). They emit a chemical that smells like nematode food, then a second chemical that paralyses them. Then they grow their little mycelial threads over to the nematode and eat it. Lastly they get cooked into stir-fries.

Sorry oyster mushrooms, shouldn't have evolved frills that catch delicious sauces so well.

Oyster mushrooms also make a pretty good imitation calamari, if you salt+pepper crumb them and deep-fry them, and if you don't think about the nematodes.

Lynxes sound like human kids who aren't even very good at imitating tigers: "Raaaaahh!!" *claw hands*

Listen to these two lynxes yelling in each other's face.

(Best after the first 10 seconds.)

To baffle someone originally meant to disgrace them

Originally = 1540s. Probably from the idea of fooling someone.

Now it means "to confuse someone". If something is baffling, you can't understand it.

I'm interested in how - given what I was saying at the top of this newsletter - we present "I can't understand". Normally that would be a failure on the part of the observer, right? I looked at this maths problem but I couldn't understand it.

But actually it's pretty often framed as a failure on the part of the person being observed. "Baffling behaviour". Your actions are incomprehensible to me. But the 16th century use of baffle, to confuse someone else was to be the more powerful one. (It's in the Bible! Send confusion to my enemies!)

And then also, "understanding" is interpreted as sympathy+agreement rather than simply getting it. If someone reads all the research on the laws of thermodynamics, they can say "I understand the laws of thermodynamics" and it's fine. But if they read all the research on why terrorists commit acts of terror, and then say "I understand why terrorists do it" they sound sympathetic and will probably get dragged in the media.

I don't have an exact point, only that our language around understanding/failing to understand is massively loaded, and that's a barrier to communicating some really basic things.

Makpal Abdrazakova hunting with her trained Golden eagle in Kazakhstan

The Venn diagram of "people whose outfit I want to steal" and "people I could successfully mug" is two very far-apart circles. Especially in this case since Abdrazakova is also a lawyer.

Unsolicited Advice

Suggestion for people who want to do stuff with friends, but get frustrated organising groups of friends to do stuff

I cannot tell you how much less annoying [this part of] my life got when I stopped saying "Who wants to see [concert/comedy show/Detective Pikachu movie]?" and started saying "I'm going to see Detective Pikachu at 7pm at Palace Kino on the 23rd, if anyone wants to come with me, here's the URL to buy tickets".

Because you're never just saying "Who wants to see Detective Pikachu?" You're saying: Who wants to see it, on what day, what time, okay cool so that's 6 of us? I'll buy 6 tickets? Oh someone's cancelled. Someone else wants to change dates. Should we change dates? Okay we'll change it. Now someone wants to go back to the original date but wants to see a different movie, which you hate. Also the one person who was the most enthusiastic will cancel 10 minutes before the movie starts.

If you have the emotional wherewithal to handle this then go for it, but just making a decision to see the thing you want to see and then totally opting out of anyone's individual deliberations and vacillating is hugely refreshing.

To be clear, I'm as bad as anyone else at responding functionally to group organisation chats. But on the other side of it, I absolutely love an "I'm going to be in Place at Time, come or don't"-style invite. There's no pressure on you to decide, because their plans aren't reliant on your decision. If you cancel last minute, you won't have to send them a guilt-message, because they never knew you planned to go in the first place.

I called this only a suggestion because it's not exactly better or worse, just a different method with different costs and benefits, that won't even be possible for some people's circumstances.

Best time to use it: when it's something you're trying to push onto your friends a bit. Like a comedian you love, that they don't know, and you're trying to convince them they should give it a shot, and you know they would love it but they don't know they would love it so the wrangling is extra-difficult. Just let it go and book your tickets. Make it easy for them to book their tickets (hence the URL) but be prepared to go alone and then be surprised and delighted if you run into some friends there.

Worst time to use it: something where you would really care if your friends didn't go, like a graduation celebration or gallery opening or birthday, if these matter to you. For the love of god don't pretend to be cavalier about something you'd be hurt by them not attending. Say it'd mean a lot to you if they can make it.

Core belief:
In a close relationship (platonic or romantic) you have a strong obligation to protect the health of the relationship. Resentment is destructive to relationships, so protecting the relationship means protecting it from your own resentment, not just the other person's. That means not stepping up to to organise an event if organising it will make you resentful, not saying "I don't mind if you come or not" if you do mind.

Maybe the work is dealing with your unreasonable resentment, rather than asking the other person to change, but either way, only you know whether you have secret resentments, which means you are the sole guardian of that aspect of the relationship's health. You have a duty of care!

(Trust is a really complicated idea, but that's one part of trust for me: trust that they are monitoring any resentments and keeping them in check, including via asking me to change my behaviour.)

If you want solicited advice, send questions to thewhippet@mckinleyvalentine.com or just reply to this email.

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