Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Brits sniff their/our dirty laundry

Section 7 of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, sometimes described as the “James Bond clause”, protects MI6 officers from prosecution for actions anywhere in the world that would otherwise be illegal. They would be protected as long as their actions were authorised in writing by the secretary of state. [boldface added]
The scary stuff always seems to be buried when it comes to the questionable behavior of large entities like governments.

The quote above comes from a Guardian article about the British involvement in the "extraordinary rendition" and torture that was (was??) woven into "terrorism" investigations following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on, among others, the World Trade Towers in the United States. At least the British have the courage and decency to look into the human abuses perpetrated in the name of crime fighting and national safety. Naturally, there are brick walls at every turn, but even those brick walls seem to fortify a case for moral and possibly legal turpitude... and I'm not talking about the alleged terrorists. Like governments elsewhere, the maintainers of the anti-terrorism faith justify their kidnappings and torture and claim simultaneously a cloak of secrecy which, if breached, would endanger state security further.

Trust me... I get to do the bad stuff with impunity because I'm the good guy ... trust me.

What a clusterfuck.

alligator in Florida

An exceptionally large alligator has been filmed taking a casual stroll across a golf course in Florida, as terrified golf players looked on.

Monday, May 30, 2016

hard (crocodile) facts

While it may be a tragedy, still the Australian assessment of a woman grabbed and probably killed by a crocodile stands in some contrast to the reaction I can imagine in my neck of the sensitive woods:
"This is a tragedy but it was avoidable. There are warning signs everywhere up there," he said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
"You can only get there by ferry, and there are signs there saying watch out for the bloody crocodiles.
"You can't legislate against human stupidity," he said, adding: "If you go in swimming at 10 o'clock at night, you're going to get consumed."

Memorial Day newspaper column

Appearing today in the Daily Hampshire Gazette under the title "Our Selective Memorial Day Memory:"

A couple of years back, my sister took to emailing me bits and pieces of family history. For a while, it was like eating potato chips, but in the end my genealogical interest flagged: It might be interesting to know the employment and offspring of one forbear or another, but it didn't tell me what I really wanted to know: What made these people laugh; were they yo-yo champs; what demons haunted or delighted them; and how did they react to a fart under the covers?

These are impossible questions to answer and yet without answering them, how much could I really know about "where I came from?" And it occurred to me that genealogy, and by extension history, was a study whose particulars were paradoxical: The more you learned, the more you became aware of what you did not know.

Today is Memorial Day. As ever, the day is dedicated to those who died while serving in the country's armed forces. The day is often draped with words like "patriot" and "hero" and "glory" and "courage" and  "sacrifice" and, yes, even "love." In passing, someone is likely to mention the "sanctity of human life." Meanwhile, those who stood on the battlefield might wish desperately that they could forget what others attempt to remember today.

American military adventures include, but are not limited to, the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and various interventions and invasions in the Middle East. Each was supported in its time by a reasoning that involved the human capacity to forget.

Yes, there were a dizzying number of reasons to fight, but was that an excuse to forget the genealogy of war that preceded it? Was a battle-tested soldier like Napoleon Bonaparte wrong when he observed, "If you had seen one day of war, you would pray God that you might never see another?" Was Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman just blowing boozy after-dinner cigar smoke when he said bluntly, "War is hell."

If history is any guide, these men were not wrong, but hell is pretty damned tempting ... again.

Memorial Day's broad-brush capacity to selectively remember the dead and implicitly extol the ideas that led to those deaths leaves out the fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, spouses and friends who survived and mourned and were shredded by a bloodshed far from home. It leaves out the veterans who hang themselves in basements. It leaves out the silenced screams of the mother who was quoted as saying of her own son, a Vietnam War veteran, "I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer."

On Memorial Day, with its long history of forgetfulness, what person in his right mind would imagine that peace is the absence of war? Genealogically, war is easy to grasp and chart. Peace – the stuff any man or woman might long for – remains wispy and hungering, a personal responsibility almost too enormous to bear. This is a realm in which the communist dictator Joseph Stalin's words ring true: "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." No one wants kith and kin to be counted as a statistic and yet Memorial Day is rife with statistics that cannot paper over the longing for peace.

Take Capt. Thomas Moore. Moore died in 1843. His gravestone stands tall in the Gate Cemetery that bellies up to Ireland Street in West Chesterfield. Moore, the gravestone announces, died at 91 and then, as if to differentiate this man from his genealogy, goes on to send a Tweet to future generations: "A soldier of the Revolution."

Moore did not die in battle but rather in the fullness of years. Still, he thought enough of the American Revolution (1775-1783) and those who did sacrifice their lives to remember them in his final farewell. He would have been between 23 and 31 during the Revolution, just about the age young men and women still go off to war today.

Looking at Moore's gravestone recently, two questions crossed my mind: First, what might his gravestone have said if the Americans had lost the Revolution? As quickly as the thought arose, I dismissed it: My country is not yet adult enough to remember the vanquished. But victory is not the guarantor of honor. Victory is not the guarantor of peace. Victory is the guarantor of memorial days. Days and weeks and years of forgetfulness.

But second, why, in 91 years, would Moore's gravestone choose to pass over the other 79 years of his life – the times of peace, perhaps ... a time in August when the cut grass hung heavy in the air; the time when, at last, he learned how to spell "Egypt" correctly; the lingering, heart-skipping moment when he noticed the blue ribbon that bound up her hair; or the single, gentle finger that wiped a bit of drool from the cheek of a baby sleeping in his arms?

Cruelty and sacrifice and bloodshed and loss are part and parcel of Memorial Day. However imperfectly, the living remember what the dead have long since set aside. But what is peace? Perhaps, to borrow from a Supreme Court observation about pornography, I may not know what peace is, but I know it when I see it.

Somehow, on this Memorial Day, I feel it is my responsibility to bring the same fierce loyalty to peace that is so often reserved only for bloodshed.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at genkakukigen@aol.com.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

gift and theft

Idly, then....

Every gift is a theft.
Every theft is a gift.
Is this true or false or just another piece of warming bellybutton lint?

polecat time

As the permutations of the word "fuck" wash up on the beaches of plot-thin television dramas, so too do wonderful words diminish and disappear. I guess "wonderful words" just means words I like. One of them is "polecat."

When I was growing up, "polecat" was a pejorative description, at least for slang purposes.
Older American Slang: a scoundrel, usually male; an unlikable or contemptible fellow
"If that polecat comes on my farm to steal my cow I will have my trusty gun and loyal dog a-waitin' fer him"
There were more serious definitions, as the Urban Dictionary points out, but I miss the quietly insulting words like "skunk" or "rat" or "polecat." No need to go overboard with fucking-this and fucking-that as if we were all six years old again. Skunks, rats and polecats were down to earth. They were identifiable. They could, on more than one occasion, deserve a good "thrashing." And further, "polecat" was just a fun word.

Mind you, I like cussing as well, if not better than, the next fellow, but the overuse of any word is a little like the invitation to say "banana" one hundred times fast ... it just runs out of steam and is needlessly demeaned. "Fuck" is a good word ... and yes, I can hear the connections being made between "fuck" and "banana."

But what ever happened to the quiet stamp of disapproval that once surrounded the succulent "polecat?"

Saturday, May 28, 2016

George Carlin on euphemisms

Ran across this again:

puttering in the heat

A second 90-degree-give-or-take day in the offing -- hot enough to whittle away whatever energy sectors might have been operating otherwise. I begged off a family gathering it might have been nice to go to up in the hills near here because there energy isn't there. Now the question becomes whether I have the oomph to get an air conditioner in the window.

Waiting for Monday -- "Memorial Day" -- the day I chose for publication of my latest column. It was then or the third Wednesday of the (May) month when the column generally goes. Monday is Memorial Day and the column is about Memorial Day, so .... But waiting seems to have thrown my writing machinery out of whack. Oh well, soon enough it will appear and the same people who haven't read it in the past will be able to not-read it anew.

Perhaps, despite sodden times, I can work a little on the question, "Was it worth it?" The question refers to an longish-standing interest in spiritual life and the energy I put into it. At 76, I get to ask a question like that and then retrace a few footsteps and bloviate. What is it that sets anyone on a course that leads bit by bit to the backward look and the question, "Was it worth it?" Does anyone say "no?" Is there some built-in face-saving device that insists on a favorable response?

It's hot. Today may not be the day for it.

7,000 frames per second

Slow motion lightning.

Friday, May 27, 2016


When a "two-by-four" no longer measures two inches by four inches....

When a "life insurance" policy has no meaning until the subject is dead....

When what was once called the "War Department" slips seamlessly and without demurrer into a "Department of Defense" ....

There is something logical about Donald Trump's becoming the presumptive Republican presidential candidate in 2016. I'm not entirely sure if this observation holds much water, but it sort of feels as if it might: Donald Trump is a man devoid of honesty and sand and it's all good because does anyone really care that a "two-by-four" is not a "2x4?" Lies and contradictions don't matter to Trump adherents because, well, because anyone can change his or her mind later and besides, Trump is as forceful as he is incoherent. His campaign slogan -- "Make America Great Again" -- nowhere describes what greatness has been lost and what prescription might fix it.

In somewhat the same vein, a friend sent along in email a National Review essay on the arrogance of policy-wonk 30-somethings running feel-good, leftist scams on an American public they dismiss and demean with all the vigor, but less of the vinegar, of the right-wing neo-conservatives. "The Pajama Boy White House" is a literate essay and yet I found myself not quite sure of who was being called to account when the same feather-merchant criticisms could be applied both to the left and to the right. Whatever the case, it was nice to read something readable from the right.

I guess, with age, feather-merchandizing by well-shod youngsters with too little to keep them busy just gets tiresome. Yes, war is a good way to divert attention from thinking, but in the meantime, actual people actually die. It's sort of like getting hit upside of the face with a two-by-four.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

flipping a water bottle

Passed along and therefore pointed out in email came this video clip of a young man flipping a water bottle that lands on a table and does not tip over. The crowd -- and the Internet -- go WILD!

Never have I felt so out of touch or left in the dust. I had to look it up in order to get a linear description of it all ... which left me even further in the lurch.


Passed along in email and, given the mass forced migrations in the Middle East, is sort of silly and ridiculous and sort of serious and true.

early cadaver replicas

In a bid to depict humans in a more realistic way, visual artists of the Renaissance carried out their own dissections – more even than anatomists of the era. According to Ebenstein, Leonardo da Vinci “is said to have dissected more than 100 bodies, and famously ‘sketched cadavers he had dissected with his own hand’”. One key anatomical text of 1543, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), was illustrated with woodcuts “thought to be by Titian’s studio in Venice”. That overlap of disciplines was the background for the anatomical Venus. “One of the things that makes the Venus so hard for us to understand is that we’ve now divided up all those things in ways that wasn’t divided in the time that it was made,” Ebenstein tells BBC Culture. “We have this division between art and science, and between religion and medicine, that didn’t exist at that time.” (Credit: Josephinum, Collections and History of Medicine, MedUni Vienna/Photo Joanna Ebenstein)
Time passes, curiosity and education remain, but I do remember an artist friend who was entirely serious after she wheedled her way into a New York City morgue as a way of -- like the old masters -- sketching the interior particulars of the human body.

 I wonder how many would like to think of themselves as artists or experts and yet stop short of the in-your-face particulars and sweat and perhaps horrors 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

shake hands with the devil

Is there any cultural or spiritual persuasion that does not partake in defining what is "forbidden?" I doubt it and from this deduce that such limitations are a sine qua non even in cases where the objective of the persuasion may be deemed limitless.

Further still, is there any cultural of spiritual persuasion -- assuming it really is nourishing -- that does not put its adherents in a position where they must meet what is forbidden, and un-forbid it? And at this point a curious knot is tied: To enjoy the fruits of a persuasion, you must-not do one thing or another; simultaneously, in order to enjoy the fruits of the persuasion, you must indeed do or embrace what is forbidden. Relaxing into an Ayn Rand amorality won't quite cut it. What will?

Shake hands with the devil.

I guess what brought this munchy to mind was the tale of two Muslim brothers who refused to shake their teacher's hand in Switzerland, a country in which shaking the teacher's hand is a tradition of respect. The boys, whose father is an imam, said that shaking hands with a woman teacher crossed into a forbidden zone: You don't touch women who are not part of your family. [Other Muslim groups disagreed with the interpretation.]

Muslim students in Switzerland must shake their teacher's hand at the beginning and end of lessons, a regional authority has ruled.
A controversial exemption from the tradition had been granted for two teenage brothers whose interpretation of the Koran meant they were unwilling to touch a member of the opposite sex.

robots replace 60,000 workers

Apple and Samsung supplier Foxconn has reportedly replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots.
One factory has "reduced employee strength from 110,000 to 50,000 thanks to the introduction of robots", a government official told the South China Morning Post....
Economists have issued dire warnings about how automation will affect the job market, with one report, from consultants Deloitte in partnership with Oxford University, suggesting that 35% of jobs were at risk over the next 20 years.
Former McDonald's chief executive Ed Rensi recently told the US's Fox Business programme a minimum-wage increase to $15 an hour would make companies consider robot workers.
"It's cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who is inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging French fries," he said. [Italics added]

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

dogs at the doctor's office

Last week, I had a nothing-special appointment with a cardiologist. His office was one of many in a honey-combed floor of offices in a staid stone building. The waiting area was painted in a stolid tan with a number of sometimes-interesting oil-paintings on the wall. The year-old magazines were on various coffee tables. All in all it had the usual mausoleum-esque seriousness that most doctor's offices seem determined to impart. There was no likelihood that anyone would tell a good joke and any farts would be muzzled by tight cheeks.

After the doctor had caught up with my current status and seemed roughly satisfied, I suggested to him that it might be nice if he added a dog or two to the waiting area. Dog or cat ... something human and tactile and unblinkingly affectionate. He gave the knee-jerk responses why it wasn't a good idea -- allergies, fear of animals, etc. -- while I plumped for the positive side of the coin. It was clear the idea was going no where.

Today, I had an appointment with a dermatologist and lo-and-behold, there were two sheep-dog-sized dogs lying about obediently. The dogs belonged to the doctor. They were not obtrusive, but they really made me feel good ... there was something reassuringly human and alive about them.

A small concatenation.

religious deflation

Juices seem to be stagnant this morning, though I did noodle a little on a Buddhist bulletin board:
If I had to pick a single impetus for the dwindling social toe-hold of religion, I think I would pick the Internet. It is harder to weave wondrous tales where information -- right, wrong or indifferent -- is so readily available.
But I agree with the sentiment that suggests spiritual life will find another channel, another expression, in future. Just because popes and imams and rabbis and gurus lose their claim to some high seat does not mean that individuals have lost interest in a realm that is without doubt or free or joyous or enlightened or whatever word anyone might choose. The unsatisfactoriness/dukkha of Buddhism is true whether or not anyone calls it "Buddhism."
Is the diminishing-religion situation any more true or credible or devoid of fault than what preceded it? I seriously doubt it. Most of the truths anyone finds in life require a lot of wading through the lies. So I think new names will be found, but the wading will be pretty much the same.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Israel performs a right-er face

Reuters, a news agency whose straightforwardness and clarity I generally appreciate, has offered up a story depicting the political discontent in Israel as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turns even further to the right.

The story struck me as simultaneously muddied and important. It may be that my brain is simply not operating well. On the other hand, it may be that the reporter was drunk or tired or unedited.

Anyway, the spookiness of Benjamin Netanyahu is worth keeping an eye on. He's the kind of fellow, like Dick Cheney or one of those other American neocons, who could be very generous with other people's lives.

sharks ... what's for lunch?

so nice to make nice

In defense of mediocrity, critics beware: Pretty soon everyone will speak and write in the dulcet, understanding tones that offend no one and ... teach nothing.

I can't pretend to understand the legal chess moves involved, but I can smell the advance of personnel departments everywhere ... let's all play nice ... and do things my way.

Here's an article about getting a choke-hold on criticism by claiming copyright infringement. As I say, I don't get all the ramifications, but I can smell the rise of yet more mediocrity.
Writing a bad review online has always run a small risk of opening yourself up to a defamation claim. But few would expect to be told that they had to delete their review or face a lawsuit over another part of the law: copyright infringement. Yet that’s what happened to Annabelle Narey after she posted a negative review of a building firm on Mumsnet.
If you put forth an idea or project, isn't it to be expected that someone will disagree or point out its flaws? Isn't that part of the price of being an adult? Is it necessary to resort to the oleaginous insertion of legal leverage? Is there something wrong about having an opinion ... "s/he's a lousy worker" or "it's a poor product."

Sunday, May 22, 2016

the resurrection of Eido Shimano

If you wait long enough, the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler will be remembered for creating the autobahn, for conceiving the Volkswagen and for restoring the stature of a Germany battered by World War I. The mercilessness of World War II that Hitler stoked will become a footnote -- an oh-well -- if you wait long enough.

And so it probably is with all events. Harboring critical thoughts takes energy. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu's treatment of the Palestinians is -- oh well -- an acceptable approach, however Hitler-esque it may be. He may not have an autobahn in mind, but he certainly has proven his willingness to build housing projects without much consultation.

And now too, Eido Shimano's questionable and self-centered activities can be relegated to an oh-well status too as time passes.

Shimano was an expositor of his version of Zen Buddhism in America. He was part of the effort that created a Zen temple in New York City and a monastery in upstate New York. He was brought down and expelled after his shoddy treatment of various women students came to light. His financial shenanigans were never fully investigated. His expulsion meant that, since he had no lineage on which he could base a connection to the Zen establishment, he became an old man on a mostly-deserted island.

But now, with the passage of time, his resurrection is at hand. In connection with the anniversary celebrations planned at the Dai Bosatsu monastery Shimano helped to build, the current abbot, Roko Sherry Chayat has invited (May 7, 2016) Shimano to be part of the occasion, albeit a shadowed participant.
I would like to invite you and your Sangha to a special private commemoration on July 4, 2016, from 1 to 5 p.m. in honor of the Fortieth Anniversary of International Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji.
As I mentioned when we met at Shobo-ji, due to the unwillingness of many special guests and speakers to come if you were present, we moved our public commemoration on July 3. That way, we can acknowledge you for your great accomplishments on the actual anniversary date.
I am sorry that there is continuing ill will toward you in the hearts of so many people; this arrangement seems to be the best solution.
I send my warmest wishes, and hope that you and your students will be able to come on the afternoon of July 4.
Shimano responded on May 20:
Dear Roko,
Thank you for your letter invitation dated May 7, 2016.
Right now, both Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo Ji and New York Zendo Shobo-Ji are like barren deserts waiting for drops of rain. I will attend the July 4th afternoon event at DBZ with the request that there will be drops of rain consisting of two periods of Zazen. No festivities or entertainment is necessary. Just pure sitting to commemorate the 40th Anniversay of International Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji.... [Letter dictated to Martin Hara by Eido Shimano.]
All of this is collected to in the Shimano Archives, long a repository of Shimano machinations.

Reprising the years and years of Shimano depredations is beyond my energy. I do wonder, however, if Shimano and his loyal adherents will show up for the festivities in a spanky new Volkswagen.

sap and syrup

Come March here in New England, the days grow warmer and the maple tree sap begins to flow. Cool nights and warm days are best for the collection of maple sap that drips from taps in the trees. Nowadays, long plastic tubes are sometimes used to harvest the sap, but when I was a kid, two lumbering dray horses pulled a large sledge through the remaining snow. On top of the sledge was a vat (what was it? -- 100, 200 gallon?) into which the kids would dump the harvest from the tapped trees in the surrounding woods. The vat was then dumped at the sugar shack, the boiling-fires would be set and fed, and the steam would begin to rise through the still-bare branches ... boiling, boiling, boiling the sap down like some Kentucky still. And in the end, there was maple syrup -- a thick and viscous and astronomically sweet stuff distilled from the watery sap. The flavor of that syrup seemed to reach back and back into the earth that had given birth to the sap. This was the result: A single drop of syrup spoke of gallons and gallons of sap. A single drop of syrup told the whole story and there was no longer a need to repeat every detail of the story.

Isn't this the tale of any devotion -- great and particular effort expended and then, with the passage of time, a shorthand of understanding arising? One phrase is enough to paint an entire tableau ... and everyone's tableau is different. But no one has the energy to reprise all the energy spent: The phrase or drop of syrup will do. Others may consider it far too facile or just plain wrong, but that's OK -- sweet is sweet.

I think of spiritual adventure. Drip, drip, drip. And of the various drops of syrup that I employ and others may deride. They're just reminders of the warming soil for me and some sound like this:

-- No baby ever came forth from the luxuries of its mother's womb imbued with a spiritual persuasion. Spiritual life is an acquired taste and this means that individual responsibility is a sine qua non. No amount of wriggling or petition or argumentation can erase this fact. Read 'em and weep.

-- Just because you are indispensable to the universe does not mean the universe needs your help. Yes, kindness is a more salutary direction whether in terms of self or in terms of others, but cruelty is apparent at every human turn and so must be granted a place at the dinner table.

-- Explanations are like cock-teasers -- all promise and no delivery.

-- Belief and hope are useful tools in the initial stages of spiritual adventure, but over the long haul they are destined by their nature to lose force as experience kicks in. Belief and hope are limited and yet what is sought is not. From this it may rightly be inferred that the deeper the belief and the more touching the hope, the greater the doubt. And yet what is sought is beyond doubt.

-- Nothing is for free, but when has freedom ever concerned someone else?

-- Is there room for laughter. I think there is.
These are not clubs I would use to beat others into submission. They are just bits of syrup in my life. A formatted spiritual adventure, of whatever sort, has only one purpose -- to provide an adherent with the ammunition to shoot down that persuasion and recognize that "this is bullshit" and "I can do it better." And that observation is 100% on target ... you can do it better because you are the sole proprietor of whatever spiritual persuasion you choose. You can do it better -- that's the point of a formatted spiritual persuasion.

You can do it better.

So do it. 

That's the whole point. 

Drip, drip, drip.

Just noodling.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

marinated human flesh

China's foreign ministry has denied reports that Chinese food companies are canning human flesh and selling it in Africa as corned beef.
The country's state-run Xinhua news agency said one tabloid newspaper in Zambia was falsely quoting an unnamed woman living in China.
She said Chinese firms were collecting dead human bodies, marinating them and packing them in tins.
Chinese spokesman Hong Lei said the reports were "irresponsible".
As long as it's marinated, who could complain?

On a more serious note, it's interesting that no one is testing to see whether the claim is true and the flesh is/isn't human.

en passant

How the hell anyone would know beats me, but it sounds likely: "Parallel lines meet in infinity."

Similarly, various disciplines strike me as likely to mix and mingle, assuming anyone really digs in. Sort of like one whiff-waft of campfire smoke mingling against the night sky with another. Smoke heaped upon smoke.

Zero, for example, is the poetry. But add a one and it becomes prose. Yet both are mathematical constructs, exact as a scalpel and not at all the wafting, winking, infusing components of a passing brook or shading tree.

Not that it's important or worth chiseling in stone. It just crosses my mind like indistinct chatter on a warm summer beach. All this and a couple of bucks will get you a bus ride.

Friday, May 20, 2016

starkers Shakespeare en plein NYC air

On top of a hill in New York’s Central Park about a dozen women flit about naked, as two more play a pagan folk tune on the violin and acoustic guitar. The sunlight is slowly disappearing, and murmurs of the oncoming cold are quieted as on the makeshift stage, a storm erupts.
This is an all-woman, fully nude, abridged adaptation of William Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest, performed in part to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Produced by the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society (they go by Topless Book Club for short), this is the first of two consecutive performances.

hot-type news; Morely Safer dies

They smoked cigarettes, back then. The newsroom floor was littered with butts and the worst-kept secret in around was the fact that some reporters kept a pint of Old Turkey or some other rot-gut whiskey in the lower right hand drawer of their desks. As deadline approached, reporters sitting cheek-by-jowl could be heard screaming into phones -- yes, they said "fuck" -- in a bid to squeeze some last bit of information into a story that was rolled half-written in the manual typewriter.

In my early days -- there was no Internet and not so much as a single TV in the newsroom during the late 1960's -- someone took me out to the composing room where what was typewritten in the newsroom was transformed into hot-type lead and thence into long, narrow trays whose contents were then fed into frames that were used to print the stories as they appeared in the printed product.

My tour guide took me to a stack of long narrow trays neatly filled with column-wide chunks of type that had already gone through the press. The trays were to be emptied into a bin, then remelted and used in future stories. "You see this?" my guide asked rhetorically as he picked up one of the trays. I did see it and I knew the story it contained though I had an imperfect ability to read it all in its backward format. With great precision, my guide fingered the last paragraph of the lead that told the story. He picked it up and dropped it in the waste bin. Then he did the same with the newly-created last paragraph. And the one before that. And the one before that ... until all that was left was perhaps three paragraphs' worth of story. He looked me seriously in the eye: "THIS is how you have to learn how to write," he said of the remaining three paragraphs. No matter how complex or deserving or important -- THIS was how to write ... as if the story would be reduced to three measly paragraphs.

As a would-be writer of stories, my stomach dropped. How could anyone dismiss all that might be said on one story topic or another? How was this different from lying? But the fact was that there was only so much room in the paper and throwing stuff out was a large and wracking part of the business. Telling the truth involved creating a lie ... and it was MY responsibility.

The impact of my small tour was strong, not least because in that time, news was taken seriously. It was part of an important civic discourse. Throwing stuff away was every bit as important and challenging then as ... as including everything and the kitchen sink is today. The 24-hour news cycle had not yet evolved and news organizations made decisions about what to include and what not ... what was important and what was not. Nowadays, news organizations stuff increasingly thin and inconsequential stories with more. Fact checking, adducing evidence and a horror at sensationalizing were still in vogue. News was taken seriously.

Yesterday, longtime CBS reporter Morely Safer died at 84. If I read the obituaries correctly, he had a lifelong skepticism about what was visual (TV) and put his money on the words and argumentation and clarity. People should be encouraged and allowed to think. TV is not good at that. It prefers to parade at the truth while ducking the need to parse and dig into the truth. Safer came. Safer plied his trade in a world where, at one time, the president of the United States, would call up the president of CBS and read him the patriotic riot act because of a report (far from perfect) Safer had made from Vietnam.

But Safer's old-school reporting extended not just to serious stuff. He seemed genuinely curious about everything. Art was not off his radar screen and he could offer wry reports on all sorts of 'soft' subjects.

I'm glad to have grown up in a time when news was important ... not so much because news is important as because writing news requires -- or anyway did once -- the capacity to ask and ask and ask and ask. Find the verification for the assertion and find the verification for the verification. It used to be called critical thinking. News was important and now it is not. I cannot think of a reporter today who would be remembered as men (and women) like Morely Safer might be remembered ... people willing to make agonizing decisions about what to leave out AND to be aware that they were leaving it out and the story was less complete because of it. If that isn't a personal lesson, I don't know what is.

How much confetti anyone can stuff into a story is not the same as filling the story with relevant concrete data. Of course news stories cost money and of course it's nice if the girls have tits, but how many compromises does anyone want to make as they tell their tales?

Lying and inflation are such a dispiriting way to live ... though I'll grant you the reporters have pretty clothes and the executives are endlessly adroit at defending against broad-brush critics who wonder if the president any longer bothers to call the department of agitation and propaganda.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

the mountebank

Decorous and now damn near defunct, the word "mountebank" rolls around in the mind like a pretty good piece of bubblegum... it's got a lasting flavor, but who chews bubblegum any more?

Once upon a time, a "mountebank" was, according to an Internet dictionary, "a person who deceives others, especially in order to trick them out of their money; a charlatan." And Wikipedia provides a chart that gives some evidence of the word's diminishing currency
I like the word "mountebank." Probably it's partly a function of age and once-learned vocabulary, but also I wonder why. Why does this sense of warming 'yummy' whisper from the wings? Why not just be content with a "fraud" and have done with it?

And I guess the answer is mostly that I like the cocoon of trust and back-story that "mountebank" once implied in my mind. No need to be j'accuse insulting. Just mention the word "mountebank" and those in my neighborhood could fill in the blanks for themselves and, most important, agree with me ... this guy or gal being assessed was a fraud and a blowhard ... gently spoken ... easily dismissed.

But that agreement is now worn out. Given the amount of information available, it might almost be asked these days, "who is not a mountebank?" And with that question, the comfort of society is frayed. It's an age thing, sure, but the quiet decorousness of the once-upon-a-time is lost and -- ergo -- I have lost my social footing.

What once was a "mountebank" is now a turn-up-the-volume accusation. Everyone wants to be heard on the topic of idiocy and chicanery but the volume does not assure the social fabric or the fact. And it's the same for those who don a mantle of reasonableness. Bleah ... writ loud. Lies are OK because, what the hell, everyone lies. Never mind that the human stakes might be high -- it's my volume-up opinion that counts.

I still like the word "mountebank," but I miss the social cohesion it once posited for me. I miss my trust.

Oh well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

zero emissions in Portugal

Portugal kept its lights on with renewable energy alone for four consecutive days last week in a clean energy milestone revealed by data analysis of national energy network figures.
Electricity consumption in the country was fully covered by solar, wind and hydro power in an extraordinary 107-hour run that lasted from 6.45am on Saturday 7 May until 5.45pm the following Wednesday, the analysis says.
News of the zero emissions landmark comes just days after Germany announced that clean energy had powered almost all its electricity needs on Sunday 15 May, with power prices turning negative at several times in the day – effectively paying consumers to use it.

an animal day

Today was an "animal day" for me -- just seeing unexpected customers in my suburban setting:

There were four or five deer browsing on a field usually populated by voke-school cattle.

There was a ground hog crossing the street where I live.

And there was an uppity rabbit that seems to become less and less shy as time passes: S/he ducked under a bush as I entered the house and didn't budge as I passed.

I keep daydreaming that an anteater or water buffalo or even an alligator will show up, but that's pushing the fairy tale, I imagine. The critters I did see managed -- by what magic I'm not sure -- to lighten my load somehow.

Perhaps it was they who inspired me to suggest to the doctor with whom I had an appointment this morning that he get a couple of dogs or cats the roam the waiting area. Doctor offices are notoriously adult and drear. A little tail-wagging wouldn't hurt.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

we know who you are

If the founders of a new face recognition app get their way, anonymity in public could soon be a thing of the past. FindFace, launched two months ago and currently taking Russia by storm, allows users to photograph people in a crowd and work out their identities, with 70% reliability.
It works by comparing photographs to profile pictures on Vkontakte, a social network popular in Russia and the former Soviet Union, with more than 200 million accounts. In future, the designers imagine a world where people walking past you on the street could find your social network profile by sneaking a photograph of you, and shops, advertisers and the police could pick your face out of crowds and track you down via social networks.
Strange how the sense of anonymity can simultaneously be an aspect of life that weighs painfully on consciousness and yet privacy beckons with insistent force.

Monday, May 16, 2016

pope chastises western 'generosity'

Pope Francis criticized Western powers for trying to export their own brand of democracy to countries such as Iraq and Libya without respecting indigenous political cultures, according to an interview published on Monday....
Francis has frequently attacked what he calls "cultural colonialism", in which Western countries seek to impose their values on developing ones in return for financial aid.
The pope said that "ghettoising" migrants was not only wrong but was also misguided in the fight against terrorism.
Once, "charity" was a quid pro quo for those inclined towards "heaven." Now, perhaps, it is a quid pro quo for those inclined towards oil.

"ignorance is not a virtue"

In a commencement address at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama was quoted:
"In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue,” he said. “It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about. That’s not keeping it real or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about."
Imagine that -- a president of the most powerful nation on earth finds himself apparently constrained by current social and political circumstances to underscore what any half-decent educational arena might consider an axiom ... and yet the axiom appears withered and wan: This is a time -- and I don't just mean Donald Trump -- when ignorance is a virtue ... perhaps because it is so much more comforting.

the battalions of love

When there were fewer miles on this odometer, I was never much of a fan of opera, but when I was in the army in Berlin, I did manage to go once or twice. Like Castor Oil, I suspect I thought it might be 'good' for me ... or maybe some friend was insistent ... or maybe I was trying to entice the girl. Anyway, I did go.

And the thing that interested me the most was not so much when the fat lady sang as it was the audience. Looking over the swell of people, it was clear that these Germans viewed opera as a democratic occasion. Many, if not most, were dressed neatly, but they were not predominantly dressed up, as they might have been in the United States where -- dress-wise -- there was a kind of adoring solemnity that you might find in a funeral home. In Berlin, the audience looked much more like an American audience that had stepped out to see a John Wayne western.

But there was more.

Not only was this audience at home with the cultural event, but also it was not about to sit still for any bullshit. In the United States, opera-goers are wont to leap to their feet and applaud after some signature aria or duet or whatever. But I have never been to an opera in the United States where the audience was willing to stand up and boo the performers. Nobody boo's in a funeral home, right? But in Berlin, there was a willingness to applaud AND, if the audience deemed anything sub-standard, they let out with a chorus or boos or whistles (a sign of disapprobation in Europe). Opera was not a matter of adoration. It was a matter of love. If you can't call what is loved to account, how deep can that love actually be? An asshole family member may be a member of the family, but that doesn't change the fact that s/he is an asshole. If applause is the only reaction allowed, how much applause can anything actually be worth?

A long time ago, my friend Frank LoCicero invited me to come with him and have dinner with his grandmother. I remember Frank's grandmother as a petite, sinewy woman who must have been in her 80's when we arrived. She came from Sicily and had come over on the boat in 1918. During the trip with her two young sons, an older man from the more well-to-do upper decks had approached her about the possibility of purchasing one of her sons since he and his much younger wife could not have children. She said no, but was not surprised by the suggestion, which was not so uncommon at the time.

Frank's grandmother bustled in the kitchen while Frank and I sat at the dinner table sipping drinks. When I asked her if I could help in any way, she gave me a withering look reserved for idiots who have no grasp on how the world worked. Women prepared and provided ... men did not. End of story. Needless to say, the dinner went on and on and on. "Eat slow, but eat a lot" was a saying in Sicily.

Frank told me that occasionally a young Catholic priest would visit his grandmother and she would use the occasion to cuss out the much younger man. He was doing it all wrong, she would complain. The Catholic church wasn't as he portrayed it. It was as omnipotent and implacable as a woman in the kitchen. Get a clue ... father! His imagined compassion was reduced to ashes in her presence.

She loved the church. The religious chachki around her apartment -- palm fronds, crucifixes, Hallmark depictions of someone supposed to look like Jesus, votive candles -- stood testimony to her devotion. She loved it and because she loved it, it was hers ... much as the opera belonged to the audience in Berlin. I felt sorry for the singers and that young priest: How is anyone supposed to defend themselves when faced with the battalions of love? And yet, without a stick-straight grandmother to call people to account, how could any applause be called credible?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

stars and starlight

Perhaps, I am not sure, it is not the star that casts the starlight. Rather it is the heavens whose beginning and end cannot be tabulated.

This thought crossed my mind after watching "Bridge of Spies," an overlong drama starring Tom Hanks, whom I like. The movie, which focuses on the 1960 exchange of U-2 spy-plane pilot Gary Powers (the Russians shot the plane down) and alleged KGB spy Rudolph Abel (held by the Americans), has all the elements of a good tale and yet seems to cop out and dwell on the determined-yet-sensitive presence of Hanks.

Different from Hanks' "Charlie Wilson's War" or "The Green Mile," "Bridge of Spies" seemed beholden to the stars instead of to the heavens of the story. A cheap date, from where I sat. The movie seemed incapable of deciding which elements of the story to dig into and as a result, everything became a bit wooden ... everyone behind the camera winking at the audience: See all the great people (Steven Spielberg directed) involved in this movie? It must be good, right? On its own merits, I think it rated a B to B-minus at best.

The movie made me wonder if taking things head-on is the best approach to a good story. Leo Tolstoy, one of the greatest novelists ever, fell flat on his face with "Resurrection," a book that took on the author's interest in spiritual life. Spiritual life is woven in his novels to good effect, but when he addresses it head-on ... flop!

And I think Somerset Maugham (or maybe Christopher Isherwood) tried to write a god book as well ... going straight for the jugular and trailing off into something other than starlight. (Can't remember the name of the book or even that Maugham wrote it). "Who is god?" is a perfectly reasonable question, assuming anyone has an interest, but presuming there is a suitable, appealing answer worth crediting by others is a loser from the get-go.

Why can't those persuaded by spiritual life be content in their own persuasion and leave it at that? Why must they sweat and strain to round up agreement? No one -- NO ONE -- ever came out of the womb imbued with a spiritual attachment. That means that any subsequent collection of theology and belief and joy and anguish is an add-on to the 'miracle of birth.' Nothing wrong with add-ons, but doesn't it seem sensible -- or indeed necessary, to the extent anyone takes spiritual life seriously -- to concede that this add-on is just that -- an add-on for which each individual must shoulder the personal responsibility? And having shouldered the responsibility, wouldn't it be useful to wonder what life might be without its add-ons?

I don't mean any of this in a snarky sense. It's just that without assaying the starlight all around, how could anyone hope to penetrate the star itself?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

the Mongolian dzud

The piles of dead, frozen sheep and goats lay stacked against the rocks, just out of sight.
They are victims of the dzud, an unseen and brutal natural disaster unique to Mongolia where a summer drought combines with a harsh winter and vast numbers of livestock die from either starvation or cold.
The last dzud in 2010 killed eight million animals. It is thought to descend in five-yearly cycles and each time it wreaks havoc
Again and again, there is something sad about people who lead what appears to be a simple and peaceable life overtaken by nature that plays no favorites ... at the same time that elsewhere men with cuff links and flags jockey and raze on behalf of their favorite sons ... themselves.

American politics

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- Dutch police say two tigers have escaped from their enclosure at a big cat sanctuary and are prowling around the terrain of the park in the northern province of Friesland.
Police spokeswoman Nathalie Schubart says police officers and a vet have the animals in sight and are trying to tranquilize them as the sanctuary's outer fence is not fully secure.
For reasons not entirely clear to me, this small story puts me in mind of the political train-wreck referred to as the presidential primaries here in the United States. Certainly the Republicans, who find themselves reaping what they sowed over the last eight years, have got a wild card on their hands with Donald Trump -- a man of no credentials, and much self-involved passion. If you tie up a wild animal, you can hardly be surprised that it will do what it can to escape. But the parallel really doesn't hold much water. Trump is leading the charge in the effort to create a third-world entity out of the United States. There are simple answers to complex questions and, if there aren't, he can say "my bad" and find forgiveness among his supporters. Trump stands for nothing, but the cheers are gratifying.

Trump may irritate lefties like me but that's too simple. He's a somewhat bedraggled tiger that nonetheless has teeth and claws. He lacks honor -- the willingness to lead from principle -- but expresses a public sense of frustration born largely out of the Republican desire to block everything and anything suggested by the (unstated) head nigger, Barack Obama. Bernie Sanders taps into the same sense of helplessness and anger but offers a vision, like it or lump it. And Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee in all but fact, exudes a persona of "same shit, different day."

But all of them have claws and teeth. It is very tiring. When was the last time the Republicans put forth a program or vision of their own? To attack is easy. To envision is risky. And the whole thing is a crock of shit since the American government is tri-cameral and the president can dream all s/he likes, but no one knows what the Congressional or Judicial future holds. Tiring and uninspiring. The tigers may be bedraggled and house-broken, but caution is required: The impinging return of feudal hierarchy lasts for a while ... and then the slaves have had it.

Tired ... won't someone please say something sensible about the possibility of fixing the roads?

Naw ... it's only newsworthy when the tigers are loose.

As one voter, I've got to say I'm sick of dishonorable people. But I won't say that ... that would play into the tiger's game.

I'm lousy at politics.

Friday, May 13, 2016

the birth of death

Spring -- a time of birth. Daffodils, tulips and dandelions -- pop-pop-pop. A time of birth and yet not my fave. Autumn seems to warm my heart more. Nevertheless, a time of birth.

And too, the birth of death as it seems.

All around, in the soft airs of spring, hints and examples. They aren't sad, but they seem to have coalesced recently like a pick-up game of tag football: Huddle up!

Last week in my arena, my friend Jonathan's father, Dan, died at 103. Jonathan's wife Rebecca is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer and Jonathan is unsure whether the two of them will ever see Paris again together. On Monday, my stepmother Madeline was readmitted to the hospital with pains in her left chest and arm. She is 92, I think, and her live-with of so many years, Bill, is getting hard of hearing and forgetful and the trip to the hospital unnerved him, according to my half-sister who is doing the heavy lifting. The doctor said Madeline would probably die of a heart attack, but she is back at home now with her rapid heartbeat under comparative control. And then too, my friend Kobutsu is waiting. Waiting. Waiting. And how could all of this be any different from me?

Gently, softly, the rug slips out from under the feet. The birth of death. What are you supposed to do when there is nothing to be done?

The coffee is good.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

whistling and spitballs

I seem to remember that Enrique came from Mexico, but when you're a kid, where someone comes from is nothing notable. What was notable about Enrique when I met him in grade school was that he knew how to whistle loudly -- as for example when summoning a cab or cheering a team -- and I wanted to be able to whistle shrilly as well. Enrique taught me.

It started by sticking the two forefingers in the mouth. By the time, months later, that it ended, I could do it without using my fingers. In between, there seemed to be endless amounts of spit that dribbled down my chin and fingers as I tried to get the placement just right. It was the kind of kool thing a kid wanted to be able to do and, after a lot of practice, I could do it.

Whistling and spitballs were part of my upbringing. In high school, there was a fellow who took professional whistling lessons. At first, I thought that was pretty nerdy, but when I heard him whistling a complex tune, I changed my own: This was beautiful.

Whistling: Does anyone do that any more?

Spitballs: Does anyone do that any more?

Of the former, there is still an annual competition and even a language in the Canary Islands. There is good luck and bad associated with whistling. There were "wolf whistles" when a pretty girl passed by. But I can't remember the last time I heard someone whistling a tune or whistling one myself.

Of the latter, Google serves up a disquisition on the illegal spitball in baseball. But it does not immediately take up the use of rubber bands to propel a (sometimes chewed) bit of paper at a classmate. The ability to zing a classmate without getting caught was a prize possession. Teachers frowned and orated, but hell, teachers frown and orate as a matter of course. There's nothing new in it and the fun or a spitball is not diminished.

Whistling and spitballs ... sic transit gloria mundi.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

selflessness and selfishness, the conjoined twins

Feeling scraped raw somehow this morning after reading 1. a useful corrective note from the editor at the local paper ... something assessing what I have written so far for a Memorial Day column and 2. an essay by Brian Victoria about, as ever, the complicity of religion in the latest war, wherever it is.

As I wrote back to Brian, one of life's enduring pisscutters is the conjoined twins of selfishness and selflessness. Conjoined twins means just that: same ten fingers, same ten toes, same lips and yet tinted with utterly different hues that it would be unwise and unhealthy to try to separate.

How desperately kind.
How desperately cruel.

To my mind, these 'two' are proof-positive that the notion of something called "paradox" is utter nonsense. Trying to separate these conjoined twins is the pastime of an asshole and I am that asshole. Speak of cruelty and it is too much. Speak of kindness and it is too much. Saying there are two is too much. Saying there is one is too much.

Fingernails on a blackboard.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

damnation heaped on damnation

Up around 3:30, wanting to shape or finish my picayune monthly column for the local newspaper. Usually, the column appears on the third Wednesday of the month, but I was given the option of delaying it until Memorial Day on May 30. The editor wrote to say I had "first dibs" on space during the holiday that remembers the service members who died in America's wars. I opted to wait.

So earlier today I picked and critiqued and cut and added and worked myself into a writer's dither. I wanted to get the column right. Get it clear. But then, about an hour ago, around 8:30, I watched the Vietnam War segment of a serial ("The Sixties") on the movie channel Netflix. The serial carries the name of actor Tom Hanks and I have a hunch that's why it was approved. The series is badly edited but nonetheless compelling here and there ... as tonight.

There I was fussing and dithering when a single look at a single combat soldier let me know that it didn't matter what the fuck I wrote. What counted was that I did write and express myself. Not because I am right, but because my conscience won't let me do otherwise. Speak up, asshole! If you've got a platform, even if it only reaches one person, use it -- speak up or be damned.

Twenty-twenty hindsight is easy as pie as always. The government didn't/doesn't know what it's doing and yet young men die or are ripped to shreds within. My desire to get the words right, the cadence right, the finger-nails-on-a-blackboard right is minor, minor shit. Look at that face ... look! look!

It is hard not to use the word "soul." Some idjit is bound to start spouting scripture in an arena where scripture finds no footing. Pissing on a man's soul, shredding that way-inside decency ... fuck the smarm! Look! Death is as nothing. Look!

It is said that Gautama the Buddha wept when he beheld the future and its unkindnesses. I am not the Buddha: I'd like to knee-cap every set of perfect cuff links that made this shit up. Just because people have the capacity to be assholes is no reason to encourage them.


Monday, May 9, 2016

John Oliver critiques what passes for "science"

Passed along in email:

preserving dead bodies

When you've got a dead body -- even if it's nothing but a replica of a dead body -- what, precisely have you got? Is it some sort of proof positive that the memory has wings and can soar? Is it some kind of P.T. Barnum money-maker? Is it adoration on the hoof? Is it a suggestion that death can somehow be cheated of its price tag? Is it a way of reaffirming the glorious government now in power ... a lineage that does not look kindly on deviations?

The 'body' of Vladimir Ulyanov (better known as Lenin) was the first dead body -- if that's what it was -- I ever saw. That was in 1968. Lenin died in 1924 and has been preserved in a perpetuity ever since. Long lines queue up outside the mausoleum where the body rests in Red Square in Moscow. I once stood in such a line and yet I still can't quite figure out ... any of it. Is history confirmed or reconfigured by such a corpse?

If it is Lenin's body, what does that tell us? If it's not Lenin's body, what does that tell us?

Does the Moscow Times article from which the above-linked Guardian article was embalmed shed more light or shadow when it reveals that the lab assuring the body's comeliness declined to comment because its work was an arena "subject to commercial and state secrets."

Snickering at the Russian effort seems not to be entirely easy: Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh, Bulgarian leader Georgi Dimitrov, North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have also been customers for Soviet techniques. And Buddhists, minus Soviet assistance of course, are keen on the endurance of some long-dead monks. In what way(s) would political or religious life be diminished without these artifacts?

I guess it may all be a little like the die-hard lovers of animals: Animals and dead people are so much less mercurial than living human beings.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mother's Day between piss and shit

There is something frisky about saying "we are all born between shit and piss," a phrase attributed to Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian philosopher and a man dubbed "saint" by some.

The down-to-earth friskiness seems to be leached out of the matter when employing the Latin from which it is a translation: "inter faeces et urinam nascimur." You can almost hear the deep and dulcet bowing of cellos in the background of a sentence spoken in Latin. "Piss and shit" are more rock 'n' roll.

It's Mother's Day today -- a day between piss and shit and yet so much more as well. Freud does a jig and untold numbers remember their memories as they remember them ... warm, fearsome, salving, loving, hopeful, dashed ... all emanating from between shit and piss.

Who remembers what and how? Are such memories born even as all were born, between shit and piss?

Say one word on the topic of Mother's Day and you can count on it -- you're fucked.

A frisky business, that.

beloved catastrophe

 There is something in equal measure ludicrous and touching about the person of Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman devoted not just to opera but also to the performance thereof. She couldn't carry a note in a hand basket and yet she was apparently both loved and derided for her sweet sincerity.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a 20th-Century US socialite and music-lover who styled herself as an operatic coloratura soprano and became a sensation. One of the most famous singers of her day, she was incredibly rich, a generous philanthropist, and garnered legions of fans including celebrities such as Noël Coward. Florence’s fame, however, rested not on her musical talent, but rather its opposite. Her astonishingly bad voice and abject inability – seemingly unbeknownst to her – to pitch correctly became the stuff of legend as she worked hard to lovingly massacre her way through gems by Mozart, Strauss and other leading composers.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

details of deployment

I wasn't entirely sure what time it was, but there came a moment when I realized the lights were going on around the house this morning. I felt more or less rested as I lay in bed, so I guessed it must be time to get up. I got up.

It was 3 a.m.

My younger son had returned from the bouncer's job that takes him into the late night or early morning hours of Fridays and Saturdays. He was churning around purposefully, holding some papers in his hand. He said he was glad I was up because he had to fill out, scan in and send in his application for a passport. The computer near where I sleep has a scanner. He needed the passport as part of the "deployment" his National Guard unit is scheduled for next year.

He filled out the application. I scanned it in and then sent a copy to his phone. He looked relieved (his sergeant had been on his and other asses to get the damned thing done) and went to bed. I too went back to bed, though it took a while to sleep.

Bit by bit, the noose tightens. At some point it will snap taut and my son will be "deployed."

the Okefenokee Swamp Syndrome

It's probably a sloppy and inept metaphor, but I toy with it anyhow -- The Okefenokee Swamp Syndrome.

The Okefenokee Swamp is a 438,000-acre wetland that straddles the Florida and Georgia borders here in the United States. And before anyone asks, yes, alligators live in its dank and channeled land mass.

Rightly or wrongly, I imagine a swampland as an arena in which no sane person would ever do his laundry and expect that anything would dry out completely. A shirt or set of blue jeans may be clean as a whistle, but always there is a lingering, inescapable dampness... just a little, perhaps, but the universe is such that dampness simply cannot be avoided or dryness achieved.

It was the groves of academe that made me think of the groves of the Okefenokee.

I grew up among people devoted to smarts. My father was an English professor at an Ivy League college and my mother was smarter than my father. Smart folks give birth to a smartish kid who, in due course, recognizes the aloofness that may or may not be part and parcel of the intellectual quest, even when it is just posturing. Kids just want to be loved and anything that sidetracks that longing or stands in the way of its truth is not a friend. How smart or learned anyone might be is just plain small and sometimes painful potatoes compared to the boots-on-the-ground of love.

But I grew up among smart people. And my shirts and jeans never entirely dried out. Being stupid was not really an option, though I certainly investigated. Naturally, as with other investigative efforts, there were alligators to bite my ass.

Is there any environment that doesn't linger like the dampness of a swamp? Cult members flee their cult and yet the dampness of the cult comes along. Carpenters and greed-merchants swear off the atmosphere that shaped them only to find the dampness of having been shaped.

And it's a strange function of the Okefenokee Syndrome: Some spend their lives clinging to the dampness that was visited upon them. Some try to dry out that which insists on being damp. And either way there is no escape.

As I say, a far-from-perfect metaphor. I guess I just like the word "Okefenokee."

Friday, May 6, 2016

it's China vs. the banana

China, the second largest economy in the world, is facing down a potential erosion of power and prestige. The enemy, however, is not as wily or complex or devious as capitalism. Instead, this storied land is squaring off against ... wait for it ... the curvaceous comestible known as the banana.
Chinese live-streaming services have banned people filming themselves eating bananas in a "seductive" fashion....
"How do they decide what's provocative when eating a banana?" one person asks. Another wonders: "Can male live-streamers still eat them?"
And plenty think people will be able to get around the banana ban: "They will all start eating cucumbers, and if that's no good, yams," one user says.

the calipers of love

Creeping up in memory of late is the tale (no I can't find it, but I've got it here somewhere) of the South American indian tribe that accepted a Christian missionary into their midst. He was there to convert people in the style of Christians. The indians were friendly and listened to him and accepted him into their midst.

But after they asked if this missionary had actually met the Jesus of whom he spoke so warmly and after he said that no, he had not, the tribe simply declined to put any stock in the beloved Jesus. They weren't mean about it, just practical: How could anyone know what they were talking about if they had not made some face-to-face, living moment contact?

I think the indians had a good point.

Isn't it easier to love what you don't know than to love what you do? I don't mean this in a snarky sense. Just a simple question worth examining within.

In the old days, before television, people would listen to dramas on the radio. You couldn't see the protagonist or the antagonist. You had to fill in the colors and details on your own. But once television made an appearance, things got smaller and more specific and more limited... and possibly less easy to love.

Spiritual effort, among others, contains a large dollop of radio, don't you think?

death and disruption ... of what?

In order to sound kool and in control and sage, I suppose I could call it all a "confluence" or something similar ... and then invent existentialism or some other hip-pocket folder of explanation or vision....

This morning, out of the blue, I got a small Internet note from someone in Belgium saying she had discovered and was hooked on this blog. Belgium -- imagine that. I suppose it's a sign of my advancing infirmities that I still think of such an instantaneous connection as wildly magical. Yes, I enjoy being flattered as well as the next guy, but more seriously, Belgium???!!! How did that happen?

Dan Aaron
A week ago tomorrow Daniel Aaron, father of boyhood friend Jonathan and colleague for a while of my father at Smith College, died at 103. I wasn't aware of it until yesterday and I hastened to send Jonathan a note of acknowledgment and sympathy. I seldom read the newspapers that consider themselves important, like the New York Times and the Boston Globe, and I didn't see the obit elsewhere. I don't imagine Dan would mind that I was late. I knew him as an easy-going human being who was father to a friend and something of a wild-card in conversation. But I was a teenager ... what could I possibly know or care about his literary 'stature?'

Jonathan's return email informed me that the death, while not unexpected, created a "puzzlement" of some sort for him. Who the hell doesn't feel "puzzlement?" Anyway, we linked up in the small way that email provides and Jonathan retailed a little of....

His wife Rebecca is in the strangle-hold of chemotherapy and by extension (unstated) Jonathan is too. Father dead, wife dying ... a puzzlement puzzling itself like a fistful of lively maggots. You want to say something nice, something consoling, something true and ... puzzlements don't work like that. They wriggle and writhe like some hundred-year-old hoochie-cootchie dancer showing off an impossibly daring bit of boob. Dan's death and Jonathan's difficulties make me realize that somehow I loved and love both of those men and my love tapestry has been somehow frayed. How? I don't know. But I know it. A puzzlement.

And then, this morning, my wife noted in passing that it was Friday and she had "missed Thursday." Days go missing in action as time passes and the scariest bit is not so much that they are lost but rather that there is no import or impact or meaning to that loss. What would you know if you knew it was Thursday? Sure, Thursday was once important enough to fit into the weekly category -- to imply that things needed doing, errands run, obligations met -- but how long can you maintain that fiction?

It's a confluence -- that's what it is. A confluence I tell you! Apparently disparate events convening like some curia of well-dressed clerics. If I call it a "confluence," I can sound competent.

But who can be competent where the hoochie-coochie dancer waves her boobs?

Thursday, May 5, 2016

mind games

Just a bit of fun:
There’s a word game we used to play at my school, or a sort of trick, and it works like this. You tell someone they have to answer some questions as quickly as possible, and then you rush at them the following:
“What’s one plus four?!”
“What’s five plus two?!”
“What’s seven take away three?!”
“Name a vegetable?!”
Nine times out of 10 people answer the last question with “Carrot”.
The BBC article referenced above circles the ways in which the mind organizes itself, sometimes for good and sometimes for money.

presidential politics

It seems that we can stop pussy-footing: Donald Trump, the American billionaire, is the Republican nominee who will run for president in 2016. His last, dribbling rivals -- a go-to-hell Christian named Ted Cruz and a more staid, white-bread John Kasich of Ohio -- dropped out after Trump's victory in the Indiana primary on Tuesday. He will run against Hillary Clinton, a Democrat who cannot seem to arouse an enthusiasm that would qualify as much more than a "soft-off."

Trump, a man who neither projects nor promises a dignity his constituency deserves, has tapped into a simmering anger and confusion in the electorate. He touches emotions and champions their wrath, but shapes no credible path forward outside of critiquing the parlous state of affairs ... a gridlocked Congress, an influx of immigrants, a sell-off of American jobs, a smarmy liberalism full of un-Christian devotees ... all of whom have screwed a pooch that has been beaten down and left behind. Well, go fuck yourselves!

In one sense, Donald Trump is a wonderful result of the kind of block-the-nigger Republicanism projected over the last several years. The Republicans are getting what they deserve. But in another sense, his stirring of the emotional pot points out how badly others -- not just Republicans -- are confused and angry and sick of being taken advantage of. Banks and insurance companies and stock brokers make the money that others have sweat for.

The election of 2016 is coming and it's largely about emotion. About the only one suggesting a way forward is Bernie Sanders, the liberal/socialist/Democrat whose popularity keeps stunning Hillary Clintion. Jobs, decency, equality in apportioned justice ... is Bernie spreading fairy dust? Sure he is, but at least it has a ring of something from which Americans with families or those in need of education might benefit from. It may be emotional claptrap -- the presidency is only one branch of government -- but it outflanks a drum-beat of anger and confusion and cusswords and religion.

Bernie and Donald -- the emotional duet of 2016. Trump's touchstone, "Make America Great Again," really does tell it (though accidentally) all: The greatness of America is on the wane. It's just a fact, but if there's one thing emotion doesn't give much of a shit about, it's facts. Trump says, "You're getting fucked." Bernie says, "You're getting fucked ... so stop bending over, already!"

It's all pretty tiring.

Or anyway, it tires me out.

It's so tiring -- living on edge.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

sex toy angel

Jesus, Joseph and Mary have all been discovered in everything from grilled-cheese sandwiches to chocolate bars. Statues weep. Relics heal. There is religious magic afoot. Now Indonesia has entered the fray:
Indonesian police have confiscated a sex toy from a remote village after its inhabitants and some on social media mistook it for an "angel".
The doll was found in March floating in the sea by a fisherman in the Banggai islands in Sulawesi province.
His family took care of the doll, and pictures soon spread online along with claims it was an angel.

connect the ecumenical dots

At first, when hound-dogging the groves and hollows of religion or spiritual life or whatever you want to call it, I think there is a period when it is important that the beliefs and longings in one time or place be strikingly similar -- or perhaps exactly similar -- to the beliefs and longings in another.

That touchstone of similarity brings encouragement where there may be some secret and not so secret doubts. If men and women in India or China harbored ideas and revelations similar to those of men and women in Europe or Africa, well then, my quest takes on a wider agreement. I am supported in what is, in part, a quite wobbly adventure: I may be crazy, but at least I have company and one of my ways of judging validity and certainty is to check out and find comfort in what others think or believe.

Ecumenism: If everyone agrees, then it must be so ... or anyway the truth takes on a more concrete validity. Says the Vedas, "Truth is one. Wise men call it by many names." Sometimes I think spiritual life amounts to little more than overcoming the recognition that following a spiritual path is a crapshoot: There simply is no way to know if it's true without practicing and finding out if it's true.

OK, it's nice to have people to hug and be hugged by. Were Jesus' "lost years" spent soaking up the spiritual understandings in India? Did Buddhist monks travel to the Middle East and leave their imprint behind? Was Idea XYZ-271 that rose up in Australia replicated in Tierra del Fuego? Connecting the dots is something that supports and encourages and, when the truth be told, is what individuals know how to do and do it because, as yet, there is no better proof in the pudding. A nice intellectual or emotional snuggle may not be exactly the kind of overarching comfort and ease that spiritual life can seem to promise, but it's better than nothing.


What saves the day in this world of connecting the dots and imaging that connecting dots is what religion offers is practice. Bit by wobbly bit ... just practice. In the middle of your prayer or meditation or disciplined focus, where is India or Tierra del Fuego or even the most delicious hug festival? This is not a critique. Just take a look.

And a bit at a time, I think the need to connect dots falls away. When you stop and think about it, what man or woman is not perfectly capable of reaching understandings that have nothing to do with group-huggery and everything to do with paying attention and simply being human? Instead of marveling that individuals in India or Europe should reach similar understandings, wouldn't it be more astounding if they didn't? People are people. The longing for surcease and peace knows no geographical or cultural boundary. It also knows no time lines: There is nothing saying that what the Chinese discovered and enunciated in 237 BC won't be discovered in Europe in 1521: And the time lapse does not prove that the discovery is any less profound or that Europeans are somehow more backward or the Chinese more advanced.

The connect-the-dots efforts of ecumenism do not deserve to be derided or snarked. It's entirely understandable in the early going. Very human. But what practice shows is that what is understandable is not entirely effective over the long term. And if it doesn't work, why use it?

A little at a time, practice takes hold, even as connecting the dots loses its allure. Do the dots connect? Sure, if you like. Do they not connect? Sure, if you like. But the hug festival of ecumenism deserves a closer look, a look that sets aside the doubts implicit in ecumenism. Practice: See what happens. Try not to be too assured or too doubtful. Whether the dots connect or don't -- well, if spiritual life rested on intellectual and emotional cornerstones, how satisfying could that possibly be?

On the one hand it may sound a bit silly -- learning what you already know.

On the other, what other choice is there?

Oh well ... just noodling.