Snapshots from Old Hawaii
Memories of Bateson, Dolphins & Aloha shirts
from Ted Rodgers
- written spontaneously on-line and unedited
Date: Mon, 24 Mar 1997
In that sort of mood, that I thought I'd see what I could remember of a bit of the Bateson years.I have actually only ever sat 'umbled in the prolonged presence of two gurus. And these two expected to be treated as gurus. One was in a semi-caged mental ward in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. The feet were those of a still wild-eyed but somewhat withered Ezra Pound. In the slightly more cramped laboratory quarters of the Oceanic Fondation in Oahu, Hawaii, on the other side of a rusting cast-off military desk, I attended the feats of Gregory Bateson.
I remember Gregory as probably larger than he was, although he was large, with a more or less constant Chesire Cat sort of grin and dropping jewels of superbly rhetoriced ideas on my ears and similar cascades of cigarette ashes on his somewhat grundled shirtfront. In his second year in Hawaii, Gregory took to wearing Aloha shirts - the then luminously beflowered national wear of Hawaii. I gathered these shirts did not get over-laundered and seemed to take additional lacquering of ash burns and mayonnaise stains as an in-stride addition to their gaudy decor.
We were both working slightly different ends of experiments on dolphin communication. We were using the same experimental animals - Puka and Maui. Maui is a Hawaiian god and name of an island. Puka is used as a catchall Hawaiian expression for any kind of indentation, hole, recess, etc. As in "My car got one puka in the fender" or "Put the mail in my puka" or "Your plan got one big puka in it." Maui was a male dolphin and Puka was a female.
Gregory was the senior scholar so his experiments nominally came first. It often appeared to him, as it happens correctly, that my experiments were undoing his. However, he was in the process of some new reflections on general systems theory and as long as I listened awe-struck, which was not so hard to do, he seemed to take my tampering with his dolphin results with equanimity. I had never heard anybody construct 10 clause embedded sentences live and have them finish up perfectly. Grammatical, dramatical and pungently to the point. When I got to his writings, which I had been aware of only peripherally prior to our pairing off over the decrepit army desk, I found sentences echoing from page to office. Gregory could recite poetry by the ream, as could most public school educated graduates of his generation. It also appeared that he had memorized most of his own writing and could deliver it as if ex temporare, by the chapter. It was a stunning accomplishment either as a on-site construction or as a monumental storage and retrieval task. When I called him on this a couple of times after he had delivered a particularly brilliant, apparently impromptu, salvo of keenly honed syntax which I had just finished reading the night before, he did not seem in the slightest put-out or defensive. In fact, he just continued on with more of the same.