Watch for falling prey

Words have meaning. We use words to communicate with one another. Often the meaning of our words is shaped by context; a word might have a narrow, technical meaning in one context and a more general meaning in a different context. A phrase might be radically different in meaning depending upon where and how it is used. This can result in confusion, and sometimes it can result in humor. A humorous example is coming, but a certain amount of context must be provided first to arrive at the humor I wish to share.

One of the things I loved about college was taking four classes at the same time, being exposed to different thoughts from different fields, moving from one branch of knowledge to another as I read assigned classwork and as I researched material for different papers I was required to write. On many occasions, the same topic would arise the same week in two or three different classes, so I was required to consider that topic from differing points of view. Because I loved that experience, I have recreated it in my private post-college life. I don’t read one book, finish it, and start another. Instead I have a stack of books from which I read each day. When I finish one book in the stack, I reshelve it and choose another book of the same genre. My stack might be six or seven books high, and if I read twenty or thirty pages from each book, I make my way through them like a college student taking several different courses and learning about various things at the same time.

Last night I had finished twenty pages from Aristotle’s “History of Animals”—part of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World collection—and wanted to glance at something light before jumping into Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. I happened to grab a book of humorous pieces by Dave Barry, newspaper columns he had written in the 1990s, and I spent a few minutes cleansing my mental palette with that light reading before diving into the profound examinations of Heidegger.

A cleansed palette might not be ready for Heidegger. Here is a selection of where I began last night: “The formal existential totality of the ontological structural whole of Da-sein must thus be formulated in the following structure: The being of Da-sein means being-ahead-of-oneself already in (the world) as being-together-with (innerworldly beings encountered). This being fills in the significance of the word “care,” which is used in a purely ontological and existential way. Any ontically intended tendency of being, such as worry or carefreeness, is ruled out. Since being-in-the-world is essentially care, being-together-with things at hand could be taken in our previous analyses as “taking care” of them…. Care not only characterizes existentiality, abstracted from facticity and falling prey, but encompasses the unity of these determinations of being….”

Nothing funny there, I know, and Heidegger had no intention of being humorous with those words. As a philosopher, he uses technical terms such as “ontological” and “existential,” as well as his own favorite word, “Da-sein,” which he uses to search for the core of what it means to exist. As I wrote a few days ago, “What is it that makes me me? What is it that makes you you?” That’s the kind of question Heidegger is asking, and is trying to answer, in the four hundred pages of Being and Time. But with a taste of Dave Barry’s writing lingering in my mind, I could not help but visualize “innerworldly beings” in a comic way. Nor could I resist an over-the-top application of Heidegger’s assertion that worry and carefreeness are ruled out. But the piece de resistance of this paragraph was Heidegger’s reference to falling prey. He is describing, of course, the danger of becoming a victim, of our being (or Da-sein) facing threats from other thinking beings in our world, a group he rather aptly describes as “the they.” (I was already considering an entire post, inspired by Heidegger, about “the they”—you know who he means, “the they” who say things that no one we know has said, “the they” who are running the world, even though none of us knows who “they” are. Heidegger had a problem with Them already one hundred years ago.

But, with a dose of Dave Barry still in my mind, I read the phrase “falling prey” and immediately pictured white-tailed deer dropping from above. I could even picture a Far Side cartoon with a road sign on the side of a mountain that says, “Watch for falling prey,” while deer are tumbling down the side of the mountain toward the road.

Another phrase from Heidegger that has stuck with me is not his own invention. He quotes a poem by Holderlin which contains the line, “We are a sign that is not read.” I spent part of one evening trying to create a meme which puts those eight words on a highway sign, but I was not happy with the results. “Watch for falling prey” would be funnier anyhow, but I still want to contemplate further the significance of those words, “We are a sign that is not read.” J.

Dave Barry fan

Dave Barry and I moved to Miami, Florida, the same summer. I was there for an internship; he has stayed in Miami. Reading some of his first columns after the move was compelling for me, because I was having many of the same experiences and reactions he had.

Aside from that, Dave Barry and I don’t have much in common. He has made a successful career from his writing; my writing has been little more than a hobby. He makes millions of people laugh with his observations; I often fail to elicit even a single chuckle. Dave Barry is able to describe life in this world with great humor and wit. Even when I disagree with his opinions, I always find his writing entertaining.

At first Dave Barry wrote a regular newspaper column. Over time, it appeared in more and more newspapers. Then Dave Barry started writing books. His first few books were simple humorous observations about home repair, parenthood, and the like. Gradually he developed a richer style in his books. By the time Dave Barry was writing about computers (Dave Barry in Cyberspace), he was showing great writing talent. In that book, he even included a short story which is written entirely in the present tense, and—what is more amazing—entirely in the second person. Dave Barry did not become less amusing or entertaining, but his writing gained substance and actually provoked profound thoughts in his readers. My favorite of his books was written about this time: Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys.

I have one post card from Dave Barry. When he wrote about music (Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs), he observed that the city of Chicago does not have an east side. (He was critiquing the song “The Night Chicago Died,” which refers to the east side of Chicago.) Barry suggested that any police officer patrolling the east side of Chicago would be in Lake Michigan. I wrote Barry a letter pointing out that Lake Michigan, like Florida, has a rounded southern boundary. Chicago does indeed have an east side in its southeastern corner, located about where the Everglades are found in Florida. In reply, I received a handwritten, signed postcard which said, “J. Stop confusing me with facts. Dave Barry.” It is one of my most treasured possessions.

Dave Barry has written two novels: Big Trouble and Tricky Business. They are not as successful as his non-fiction humor. He has also turned to writing children’s literature. My personal library holds most of his published work, and some summer I hope to be able to read the entire collection cover to cover.