Of as little account as sparrows' tears

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2007/12/18 10:01 -05:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2007/12/18/6794321.aspx

Nothing technical, but since I am on vacation I feel quite comfortable with that....

Sometimes, even being sure that a fact is entirely false doesn't keep you from being able to make use of that fact when it seems relevant.

I'll explain by way of an example, an example which (in diametric opposition to the principle of falsehood in facts) is entirely true.

It was years ago.

In Columbus.

Such an odd name for a city in the middle of Ohio, on the unfashionable eastern edge of the Midwest that none of the "true" Midwestern states like Nebraska or Iowa feel comfortable to readily admit. Odd because the name suggests an explorer, a discoverer. But what is there to discover there beyond the mix of the distinct twang of a Kentuckian with the broad vowels of someone from the North coast (off Lake Erie), with a school with one of the biggest reputations for being both athletics-crazy and party crazy (it was no accident that Ken Hudson Campbell, the Animal in Herman's Head was often seeing sporting an OSU shirt).

In retrospect I discovered a few things while I was there. And a few people, too. Maybe one of them was me.

There was a guy named George I knew while I was there. I never learned his last name.

To be honest, I was not 100% sure that was his first name, either. It wasn't I was going to ask him for identification, after all.

He was a homeless guy I used to talk to from time to time. Anywhere from 5th to th Kroger's (which is a pretty wide stretch if you know Columbus near the OSU campus fron back then).

I'd mention books to him and it invariably turned out that he had read them. And could speak intelligently about him. It was a skill that impressed me, since I didn't have it and wasn't sure if I ever would at some point in the future. If you know what I mean.

He wouldn't ever take money from me -- he said money was what people had to pay for not talking to him.

I would laugh, as it was very Chico Marx of him. :-)

What I enjoyed most about the conversations was the way he would speak with authority, even though he was only sometimes able to avoid complete and utter hogwash. Nonsense. Fiction.

But it always sounded completely reasonable, and only later would I find out that something wasn't true.

Some of it I never found out, though I admit I still put an asterisk next to the knowledge -- just in case. And not because he was homeless (just to be clear). Just because he once told m about something that turned out to be made up, and I only found after I looked for more info because he intrigued me.

I never called George on any of this -- I enjoyed his narrative style too much. And I didn't want to risk losing a sharp wit every now and again.

Once I happened to quote part of a poem from a James Bond novel (the almost-Haiku was relevant to something, though I can't remember what, offand), with me saying:

You only live twice.

To which he quickly responded:

Once when you are born.
And once when you look death in the face.

Okay, so he had clearly read the book (it wasn't in the movie).

I had to ask him a question, because I'd always been kind of curious abot something. I asked him about the thing with the sparrow's tears, which had come up severak times.

He explained that it was a Japanese expression -- suzume-no namida [雀の涙] -- something very small, something of little consequence.

I was having trouble making the full connection to where the expression might have come from, though. I aked if he had thoughts on the etymology.

He continued, explaining (I'm paraphrasing the explanation here, it has been a good decade and a half since the conversation!):

When the sparrow's babies leave the nest, a clear fluid is emitted from the sparrow's eyes. They aren't really tears, despite the attempts of people to anthropomorphize them into a sparrow crying as her babies leave her nest, and so on. We so easily fall into the trap of placing our feelings and motivations into what appears to be like actions.

But whatever kind of biological phenomenon they are, the truth is that they look like tears, a little bit.

And they are in the end of no consequence. The sparrows aren't ever moved to stay....

At the time, I remember being swept away by his words.

The description was so vivid I could almost see those little birds leaving and that mama sparrow tearing up. Even though I wasn't 100% sure that I know what a sparrow was, I let that image of a sparrow's tears give lie to the notion that they meant nothing -- because right there and then, somewhere on North High Street in Columbus, those tears somehow became meaningful to me.

It may be almost entirely made up.

In fact, I am pretty sure it is (I could find no description of this anywhere, and I have looked now and again in the years since then).

But I have used the story a few times since then when it seemed appropriate (not that I can anymore now that I have put up this post!), because it is a nice story. And there are times when something important and necessary yet a little bit sad is happening that it is actually exactly the kind of story that is kind of nice to be telling.

A few years ago I was back in Columbus for some unrelated matters and I actually spent a little time on North High Street after I was done with the work I was there to take care of and before I visited some of my old friends near Riverside Methodist Hospital. I knew it was a long-shot fourteen years later.

Nine days out of ten I wouldn't even have seen him back then.

But I figured it was worth a shot.

I didn't see George though.

Maybe he isn't around anymore. He was getting older even then.

If he's not, then this particular inconsequential sparrow blog author is willing to shed a tear or two. And have them mean something, no matter what people might think of a sparrow's tears....


This post brought to you by(U+27bb, aka HEAVY TEARDROP-SHANKED RIGHTWARDS ARROW)

Arun Philip on 19 Dec 2007 2:25 AM:

Enjoyed this post, you have a nice way of reaching your emotions

mike p on 17 Apr 2009 10:38 PM:

I read Ian Fleming's books when I was a teenager and this sticks in my mind also.  It's comforting to find someone else who remembers.  Here's to you...

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referenced by

2008/05/04 Sparrows' tears? Perhaps. But never a teardrop on the fire...

2007/12/21 Shticks and stones

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