Beto and the Basking Shark

          The great white shark is “one of the more charismatic, popular sharks in the world.” Greg Skomal, Senior Biologist, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

The Boston Herald

I was walking along the beach in Hyannis Port, enjoying the warmth of the last day of the summer vacation season, when I spotted a basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, lying propped up on one fin, staring out at the Atlantic.

He seemed distrait, despondent, dejected, so I sidled up to him.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Okay,” he muttered. I could tell he wanted to be left alone, but the Cape has a fairly high suicide rate, and I wanted to make sure he wasn’t so depressed that he’d try and end it all. If he made it to the Sagamore Bridge, the most popular place to end one’s life around here, he’d tie up traffic for hours and I wanted to drive home around 2.

“Just okay?” I asked, hoping to get him to snap out of his melancholy reverie.

He let out a sigh. “‘Okay’ is exaggerating,” he said finally. “Pour some water on my gills, would you?”

I picked up a styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup and filled it with water. “Yuk,” he said. “French vanilla.”

“Next time try the hazelnut.  So what’s the matter?”

“Did you see The Herald the other day?” he asked. We’re still a two-paper town; hard-headed realists like sharks and myself read The Herald, dolphins and goo-goo sentimentalists read The Globe.

“It’s the first thing I read in the morning,” I said. “Was it something on the op-ed page?”

“No, a news item. Some ‘Senior Biologist’–whatever that means–said that the great white is one of the ‘more charismatic, popular sharks in the world.’ I nearly sprayed chum all over the sports page.”

“You’re exaggerating,” I said. “I happen to know you’re a passive filter feeder whose diet consists exclusively of zooplankton, small fish and invertebrates–you don’t eat chum.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so blunt, but sometimes that’s the best way to handle a mopey shark.


“Ooo-you make me so mad!”

 

He was silent for a moment, except for a hissing sound that put me on notice that an explosion was on its way.

“Goddamn it!” he shouted, slapping his fin on the wet sand. “I can’t catch a break. The whale shark is the biggest shark–I’m number two–and now I find out the great white is Mr. Popularity, Mr. Charisma.”


Miss Popularity, board game once owned by my sister.

 

“The guy didn’t say the great white was the most charismatic or popular shark. And I can think of lots of sharks with less charisma than you.”

“Like who?” he asked.

“Well, to be completely bipartisan about it, there’s Rahm Emanuel for the Democrats. And Ted Cruz for the Republicans.”


Emanuel: “You say I’m a shark like that’s a bad thing.”

 

I let him stew for a moment, then began as quietly as I could. “You know, being charismatic and popular isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

He rolled over and gave me a look; receding hairline, big forehead, nerdy glasses. “And how exactly would you know?”

“How do you think? I read about it in a book.”


Dale Carnegie

 

“Which one–‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’?” he asked with a snort.

“Did you know that Dale Carnegie, the author of that book, was born in Sedalia, Missouri–the town where I grew up?” I said, with no small amount of misplaced pride.

“Who cares?” the shark said. He was really in the dumps–I decided to stop being so flip for once.

“No, it was Max Weber’s On Charisma and Institution Building. Did you ever read it?”


Max Weber

 

“I’m not a big reader. The only reason I finished Jaws was some doofus threw it at me when I got too close to his kayak.”

“That was a very successful book,” I said. “You can’t begrudge the guy a little positive p.r.”

“Hey–look me up in Wikipedia. It says I’m a ‘cosmopolitan species, found in all the world’s temperate oceans.’

“Well, you’ve got that going for you. On the other hand,” I said in a voice that reaked of reasonableness, “the great white has been glorified in movies and ESPN 2 fishing shows.”

“Big freaking deal,” he said.

I thought his defensive tone gave him away. “You’re just jealous,” I said.

“Jealous?” he said. “You think I’m jealous of a mackerel shark that’s so dumb it can’t tell the difference between a boogie board and a seal?”


“Say ‘Ahh’.”

 

“Here’s the deal with charisma,” I said. “Weber said that in a democracy it’s difficult to maintain because it’s based on short-lived mass emotion.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“There are plenty of charismatic humans who are worse off than you.”

“Like who?”

“Beto O’Rourke.”

“Who’s he?”  I guess one of the advantages of living your life underwater is you miss out on a lot of politics.

“According to mainstream media accounts, he gave the guy Ted Cruz a run for his money in a Texas Senate race.  The day he announced he was running for president he raised six million dollars, and $9.4 million in his first month.”

“Wow–can I run for president?”

“Sorry, you’re not 35–are you?”

“No.  If I’m lucky, I may live to be 30.”

“I thought so.  Anyway, last quarter O’Rourke only raised $3.6 million.  And his poll numbers are lower than . . .”

“Please don’t say ‘a whale’s belly.'”

“Actually, I was going to say the tin on Kirsten Gillibrand’s squash court.”

“Gosh,” the shark noted primly.  “So what happened to him?”

“His charisma wore off.”

“Huh,” the shark huh’ed.  “What was his charisma made up of?”

“The usual.  A snips and snails and puppy-dog tails collection of endearing self-conscious eccentricities.”

“Like what?”

“Skateboarding.”

“Okay–for starters I guess.”

“He dressed up like a sheep.”

“Is something that weird . . . unusual for a presidential candidate?”

“Since Lyndon LaRouche died in February, yes.”

“Is that all?”

“Well, there was the cross-dressing thing.”

“Whoa–are you serious?”

“Yep.”

“So sort of a poor man’s Kurt Cobain?”

“Actually, a rich man’s.  He married a billionaire’s daughter.”

I could hear the shark’s gills flapping as he exhaled, an expression of wonderment forming on his mouth.  “Who in their right mind would consider him a serious candidate?”

“Are you kidding?  The media lapped it up.  He was the odds-on favorite there for awhile, and all because he was the most . . .”

“Charismatic.”

“You got it.  But the Kool-Aid wore off.”

He was silent then, so I bent down and patted him on his dorsal fin.  “So maybe you should stop worrying about other sharks, and just work on your own personality.”

He rolled over and looked at me. “You think so?”

“Just a suggestion,” I said. “Every summer you float into Boston Harbor and people panic even though you’re harmless, all because you come on like you’re going to bite the ass off of every bikini-bottomed babe on the beach.”

“I’ll give you props for alliteration,” he said. “But the great white is scary. How did he get to be so popular?”

“What works for him may not work for you,” I said. “You’ve got to be yourself.”

I started to fill the cup again, but he spoke up. “I’m fine, thanks.”

“You sure?”

“Nope–all set. I think I’m going to swim over to the fish pier, entertain the kids a bit. Give me a push, would you?”

“Okay,” I said.


Sly Stone

 

I got him back into the water and he turned to say goodbye. “This has been very helpful.”

“No problem.”

“Where’d you pick up the shallow, pseudo-psychology that reduces apparently complex problems to simple answers composed almost entirely of words of one syllable.”

“Sixties hit machine Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stone, that’s where,” I said, not missing a beat.

“Really?”

“Yeah–‘Different strokes for different folks.’”

 

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