Why do you never see wild hamsters?
Keep in mind that hamster lore, hamster trivia, hamster biological data and true hamster facts of any kind can be a powerful secret weapon during conversation lulls at a cocktail party. Don't just stand there in silence, looking like an idiot, when you can knock 'em dead with something like, "Say, did you know that the Syrian golden hamster can hoard up to 100 pounds of food for its winter store?" Trust us: You won't go home alone.
We've been seriously wondering about wild hamsters ever since we heard that Rolling Stones song where Jagger goes, "Wild ha-am-sters, couldn't drag me a-wayyyy." It turns out that there is a single good reason why you never see wild hamsters in the United States: The hamsters that are sold in pet shops and tormented by millions of kids are called Syrian golden hamsters, and are native to only a small piece of desert in Syria, around the town of Aleppo. The only hamsters at large in a place like Kansas are the ones that have somehow escaped from their masters, and even if they could adapt to the conditions and find some grain to eat they'd be awfully lucky to run into another such hamster and start a family.
There is a creature called the common black-bellied hamster that lives in Europe, but these are pests, not pets. They breed like mad and erupt in veritable plagues of hamsters, inciting farmers to hamster massacres. But the Syrian golden hamster is a recent biological discovery. The first such hamster was described in 1797 by Alexander Russell, a biologist who lived in Aleppo. He didn't quite grasp how unique his discovery was, so the credit for naming the species went to a British naturalist named George Robert Waterhouse, who presented a dead specimen to his colleagues at a meeting in 1839.
That was the last mention of the hamster until 1930. (Editor's note: Only two more paragraphs and then the hamster item will be over.) A zoologist named Israel Aharoni captured a female and 11 pups on a farm near Aleppo. He did it by digging up, intact, a giant clod of dirt about 8 feet high. Unfortunately, the mother became so freaked out that she killed one of her own young. One of Aharoni's fellow hamster hunters then became so enraged by this that he submerged the mother in a bottle of cyanide. (This whole saga would make a charming bedtime story.) Aharoni had to nurse by hand the still-blind, nearly hairless pups and, although several of them escaped, he managed, thanks to hamster fecundity, to raise 150 of the suckers within a year.
They turned out to be easily adapted to captivity and ideally suited for laboratory experiments. In 1938 the first batch arrived in the United States, and after the war the home hamster market boomed. Every pet hamster in America is descended from the one that died in the bottle of cyanide.
Why do you never see parents in the comic strip "Peanuts"?
First we should note that Charles Schulz, to his credit, refused to kill the parents of his preteen stars. This is unusual in the world of TV and comic strips. Check it out sometime: Among the parents of child heroes, the mortality rate is shocking.
Lassie rescued Timmy after he ran away from an orphanage. Nancy, that awful little girl created by Ernie Bushmiller, mysteriously lives with her Aunt Fritzi. Jody and Buffy of TV's "Family Affair" lost both parents in a plane crash or something terrible like that. Batman's teenage sidekick, Robin, lost both parents in a trapeze accident. Spiderman alter ego Peter Parker went to live with his Aunt May after a burglar killed his parents. Opie Taylor lived with his father, Andy, a widower, and his Aunt Bea. (Aunts and uncles are constantly pressed into parental roles: The kids on "My Three Sons" were raised by their widower father and the cantankerous Uncle Charley). And of course the Brady Bunch came together thanks to a pair of dead spouses.
Why such carnage? Because parents are such a repressive, authoritarian force that, if not slain initially, they would prevent the prepubescent heroes from doing dangerous and dramatic stunts. So why, you might then ask, can't they simply be eliminated through the more common practice of divorce? It's a taste question. Divorce is unseemly. Death is nicer.
Back to "Peanuts." We called the office of Charles Schulz in California and were given the official, traditional line: "Adults are never mentioned or shown because the readers are supposed to see the world through the eyes of children."
A bit unsatisfactory, we'd say. Why not show parents through the eyes of children? Parents are the major force in a child's life, and yet in "Peanuts" they barely exist. So let's float our own theory: The children in "Peanuts" don't need parents because they're not really children. They are proxies for everyone, of all ages. Listen to Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown:
Patty: Do you think I'm beautiful, Chuck?
C.B.: Of course. You have what is sometimes called a "quiet beauty."
Patty: You may be right, Chuck. I just wish it would speak up now and then.
Children don't talk that way. They aren't so tormented. Although it's true that Charlie Brown flies kites (ineptly) and plays hockey (ineptly) and manages his own neighborhood baseball team (ineptly), these strips aren't about childhood sports so much as about ineptitude, mediocrity, perseverance. Umberto Eco, in an article titled "The World of Charlie Brown," writes, "The tragedy is that Charlie Brown is not inferior. Worse: He is absolutely normal. He is like everybody else."
That said, it is true that in the early years, the Fifties, the kids on the strip were more childlike. Lucy Van Pelt was first seen in a high chair. And we might also note that many of the strips from the last couple of decades are hardly profound, but rather laboriously cute. Still, the strip comes up with surprising moments even after 40 years, like this strip from a few years ago when Charlie Brown is talking with Linus about Charlie's aging grandfather:C.B.: My grandfather says that after all these years he's beginning to forget the multiplication tables. The nines went first. ... Now the eights and sevens are going. ... It's very sad. ... I wish there were something I could say to him. ...
Linus: Six times six is 36.
(Editor's note. Why Things Are is produced by a staff of 75 researchers operating out of a bunker deep beneath The Washington Post, plus several supervisors who remain constantly airborne in a radiation-proof jet. All correspondence, questions, tedious arguments and secret documents should be funneled through Joel Achenbach, c/o Style, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C. 20071.)