We call it waiting because we don’t find it valuable in and of itself (if we did, we’d assign a different name): it’s time that doesn’t have its own meaning—a holding place until the real event starts.
These days it’s often possible to avoid waiting—we carry cell phones and lap tops and PDAs to chase the waiting time away or turn it into time with a purpose. But there can still be odd moments when we’re unprepared for the wait, or get bored with or need a break from whatever we brought along to do.
Last week I had an unexpected wait when someone had to excuse himself temporarily from a meeting. After wearing out the other options, I took a look in the magazine rack. Among magazines featuring recipes and decorating ideas, I didn’t expect much of real interest or use. But I got a surprise.
At the bottom of the rack, a good bit below eye level, was a March, 2008 issue of the magazine Natural History, a magazine I’d never even seen before.The cover caption? “Samurai Shrew,” and the related article contained a description of the characteristics and attributes of shrews, in particular the North American water shrew, by shrew expert Kenneth C. Catania: “No Taming the Shrew,” also available online.
Now, it’s not that shrews per se are of general or intrinsic interest. It’s the fact that articles like these focus on unique and, often, recently discovered features of the animal that leads me to recommend them. When you’re trying to develop characters with interesting and unusual traits, to find an example of characteristics that are not only not typical characteristics of people but are rare and distinctive even among animals might help you get beyond the tall/short, fat/thin, smart/unintelligent, brave/cowardly, etc. character. Or if not you, perhaps students in a writing course you teach.
What these shrews can do is something that doesn’t even seem physically possible: they can smell their prey underwater. Since there isn’t air underwater, it’s initially difficult to understand how this could be. It turns out that the shrews exhale air bubbles onto whatever they’re investigating and are able to re-inhale the air to identify prey. It happens so fast that it took slowed-motion on high-speed cameras to make the process observable. Moreover, an amazingly large percentage of the water shrew’s brain power is given to processing sensory data from its whiskers, giving the shrew a multi-faceted approach to scoping out prey.
Not a bad springboard for brainstorming some new traits for a human or non-human character. And that’s only one of the stories in the magazine . . .