Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Communing With Future Colleagues

Last September I posted some pictures of a large columbarium associated with St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The pictures are here and here. I discovered the meaning of the word, columbarium, and its use for ceteries, at that time: a “dovecote for the ashes of the dead.” St. Paul’s columbarium is on the extreme eastern edge of our suburban area. It is nearly on the shores of Lake St. Claire—and over there the dim dark line visible beyond the blue-grey waters is Canada. By that time, of course, I’d already encountered a much smaller columbarium at the opposite side of the Pointes, as we call these towns around here (Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe Shores). The extra e’s come from the French. The French settled this area and also named the big city here d’Étroit—the city of the strait.

The other day I happened to carry a camera as I once more passed by Grosse Pointe Congregational Church and stopped for a moment to commune with people who would relatively soon be my future colleagues. While taking some pictures of this small columbarium, I also discovered an old marker stone for the Jefferson Avenue Baptist Church right next to the mini-cemetery, almost as if it marked the presence of a “dearly departed.” Curiously, Jefferson Avenue is where St. Paul’s columbarium is actually located. History is tangled here. I assume that the Baptist Church, once on the shores of Lake St. Claire, had later built a new structure more inland—and that the structure had later been passed into the care of the Congregational Church. But the elders of that church had kept the original marker stone and made room for it among the dead. The rest in images:

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Three Follow-Up Notes


My post on “diamond bodies” could have mentioned the legendary Empedocles, a pre-Socratic Greek (around about 490-430 BC) who, in the Graeco-Roman-Western line of civilization was the first to concern himself with the origin of elements (or the first of whom something survives). It is from him that we have the core elements—fire, air, water, and earth—and theories of how these fundamentals generate all else. The western world embraced this classification.

If we permit ourselves patronizing chuckles in looking back at this sort of thought, we shall be viewed as very naïve and backward when we arrive in heaven. This was serious thought, on Empedocles’ part as well as on the part of those who found merit in it later. These words were technical concepts (or so we would call them today); they referred to certain fundamental qualities that fire, air, water, and earth brought to mind—rather than the actual phenomenon of oxidation, gas mixtures, H2O, or a mixture of minerals and organics. Great thinkers are never stupid; but those who dismiss them inevitably are.

In the early, creative stages of civilization the sage-scientist-poet-mystic is one complete personality; in late stages comes specialization. Newton engaged in biblical commentary, indeed spent much of his time on it. Einstein, the latecomer, only permitted himself some few expressions of not-quite-mathematical wonder. Empedocles was a wizard, you might, say—and expressed himself in verse. Here are the first lines of his poem, one of two we know of, called Hymns of Purification. We have this fragment thanks to Diogenes Laertios who wrote about Greek philosophers in the third century of our era. I've rendered this fragment in my own words to heighten its effect a little. The translation is referenced below. The lines produce the aura of its author:

To friends who live near mighty, tawny Acragas,
To those who love good deeds in the proud citadel
Crowning its noble height—my greetings to you send.
Amongst you I wander, an immortal I am,
Death have I conquered, am honored by all, adorned
With holy diadems; blooming garlands cover me.
No matter what illustrious towns I visit,
Men and women merge their praises and follow
In my steps by thousands thirsting for deliverance.
Some ask for prophecies, some beg for remedies
Against a swarm, a pest of all kinds of disease.

In the above I don’t rely on my “learning,” which is conspicuous mostly by absence, but on the Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, edited by William L. Reese, Humanities Press, 1980. The original of the edited fragment courtesy of Wikipedia here.

Dark Matter

In waxing eloquent on elements two posts back and above, I failed altogether to mention the latest fly in the ointment, namely dark matter. Dark matter is a latecomer too, like Einstein. It was first postulated the other day, as it were, in 1934, two years before I came screaming into the world one stormy night in July. With such a theory already in the air, I had reason to be displeased!

Here is my understanding of the (dark) matter in a thimble. Dark matter—you cannot see or weigh it; it is transparent and seems to have no mass—is stipulated to exist for a reason. And the reason is? The reason is that the rotation of stars on the outer fringe of galaxies takes place at a slower, a much too stately, pace than it ought to based on the laws of gravitation as propounded by the above mentioned Newton. This gravitational anomaly forces the conclusion that there is much, much more matter in the cosmos than we can actually detect. The issue really is the gravitational anomaly as such. Dark matter is the hypothesized cause.  One possible alternative explanation of this anomaly is that gravitation diminishes in force over very great distances. Now we have a description of gravitation, not really an explanation of it. We have yet to detect particles that are exchanged (gravitons, as it were). Our explanation is that mass distorts space—a theory at least as marvelous as dark matter itself. If we understood gravitation better, the anomaly might disappear. Since that problem—gravitation—is thought to be settled by space-time equations, it is, as it were, no longer on the table, hence we reach for dark matter.

I detect the seeds of a quite different explanation in the work of David Bohm (1917-1992), particularly in his book, The Undivided Universe: An ontological interpretation of quantum theory. He wrote it with B.J. Hiley. Bohm’s very novel theory is that our universe is a tiny part of a greater cosmos that has been unfolded (explicated) from a greater whole, the implicate (enfolded) cosmos. Thus what we call the universe is a minute little bubble of expansion within a vastly more compressed surround. The seed notion here (it’s mine, not one that Bohm proposed) is that gravitational anomalies may be due to the presence of the greater whole as a container—and that this influence is detectable only in very large segments of space, not in the local, e.g., the solar system.

Undivided Universe is very tough reading. It took me years to get used to its premise—and never mind the thick bristling of equations. A more accessible book is Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge, 1996.

Inspired on Tuesday by Monday

This third note to tip my hat to a fellow blogger and reader of Ghulf Genes who styles himself Montag, which happens to mean Monday in German. His blog is here. Montag made some comments yesterday elsewhere. He mentioned both Empedocles and dark matter—and these annotations made me reflect this morning and thus led to the above.

Books mentioned at Amazon:

The Undivided Universe: An ontological interpretation of quantum theory.
Wholeness and the Implicate Order.

Monday, March 29, 2010

What Music Proves...

What music proves to me is that the creative act uses but transcends intelligence, intelligence used in the sense of conceptual grasp. Our total power, the very essence of being human, is often thought to be intelligence, but that word has different connotations in different times. I gather that sense when I read scholastic writings. Thomas Aquinas’ use of that term has a more encompassing scope than my use of it today: the word sets up a different resonance in my daily use than the same word does in Aquinas’ contexts. In my hierarchy intellect ranks lower than intuition or imagination. Similarly, in Aquinas’ world imagination is linked to the lower ranges of the sensory.

Music is thought to influence the emotions, and its constant use in movies is an evident deployment of the art for this very purpose. But certain kinds of complex music produce something we call emotion but I classify as an elevated something else. The body mirrors it as emotion but I would name it something else if I could find a word for it.

The occasion for this reflection was our attending a musical program at the Bloomfield Township Public Library yesterday where we heard piano pieces composed by Chopin, Samuel Barber, Jan Vaclav Vorisek, Smetana, Copland, Scriabin, and Liszt and played by young and coming performers called Brian Hsu, Misuzu Tanaka, and Stijn de Cock. Lovely. The performance was free. And we had the chance to tour a lovely library while April showers, arriving a little early, drenched everything so that the parked cars out there all lost their color and looked uniformly gray.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bodies Made of Diamonds

I was reading an essay in an old book of mine. It dates to 1956 and was published by Scientific American. The paper, by William A. Fowler, then working at the W.K. Kellogg Radiation Laboratory at Cal Tech, is titled “The Origin of the Elements.” Attempts to understand how the elements originated, Fowler tells us, began by measuring their abundance in the cosmos. Now people know this, in a sense, but in another they do not: hydrogen is the most abundant element. If you weighed the cosmos, 76 percent of its weight would be the weight of hydrogen. If you counted all of the atoms, 93 percent of all atoms are hydrogen. Helium, in turn, accounts for 23 percent of the weight and 7 percent of the atoms. What is left? Almost nothing. Of the most abundant elements in our body only hydrogen in water is abundant. Others, like oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, calcium, potassium, etc., are in the 1 percent of weight and the less than 1 percent of atoms in the universe. Our bodies belong to the rarest of rare objects in the cosmos. We have bodies made of diamonds. And that view is not commonly held.

Here’s another wonder to ponder. Fowler traces how elements formed from protons and neutrons after the Big Bang. He mentions George Gamow and Fred Hoyle. Gamow offered the broad hypothesis: everything is made of protons and neutrons—but don’t ask how those two got made. Hoyle produced a plausible theory of the process—actually many interlocking processes—by means of which heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen were formed—also how the really heavy characters like radium could have come into being. Hoyle proposed that elements formed, and still form, inside of stars. But the interesting wrinkle is that the first red giant processing “virgin” hydrogen could only make the basic starting blocks: helium, carbon, oxygen, neon, and a little iron. All of the other, heavier elements—and the lighter nitrogen—required the following sequence: this first sun dies; it spews all of its mass into the cosmos; the handful of newly minted elements, not least a lot of helium, mix with great clouds of virgin hydrogen; that cloud in turn collapses by gravitational forces into a second generation star. Finally, that star, now containing some already heavier elements, will manage to create the whole periodic table. But that sun, too, must die and spew out its product into the void. The products must form planets. A third generation star must then appear and shed its light onto this “diamond” of a world in order to produce from its substance the vehicles that carry us.

Science is a process of looking, seeing, measuring, hypothesizing, and then, later, revising. It amused me to read the following sentence in Fowler’s paper: “Gamow starts from the postulate … that the cosmos started from a core which exploded in a primordial ‘big bang’ some five billion years ago.” I found one of my penciled annotations in the margin, a circle around the word “five” and then a comment. The comment says: “13.5 billion in 2004, 48 years later.”

Yes—look, see, think, and revise. Five hundred years from now the theory might be that a great fiery dragon spat out the elements in anger when challenged by an upstart humanity riding the Starship Enterprise.
The book is The Universe, a Scientific American Book, 1956, New York.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


In the context of American life today the word is intended as an admonition. Be tolerant of the Other. Tolerance is ever more needed not only in the United States, long the home of multiple cultures some of which have refused to melt in this famous melting pot. More and more Europe needs to cultivate this attitude as Arabs, Africans, Hindus, and Turks settle in ever large numbers. In post-war Europe Brigitte and I discovered that you didn’t have to be culturally different to be labeled the Other—even if you were from Europe but had moved. The locals in Bavaria were just as tense about German-speaking Flüchtlinge (the refugees) who settled among them as the French today are tense about Arabs.

I am for multiculturalism provided that, using that phrase, the value of culture is not reduced to a secondary quality, like hair color or mode of dress. I favor genuine multiculturalism, thus the effort to understand other cultures from the roots on up—in order to understand how other people think and feel about reality. Some differences are fundamental and strain tolerance. A good example of this is the Christian and the Muslim attitude toward governance.

In the Christian conception of reality, church-state separation rests on Jesus’ words reported in Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” In the Muslim culture, religion and governance were fused from the start; Islamic law, Sharia, is at once civil and religious. In that culture living at arm’s length from the secular world is not really an option; such a life is, by definition, a temporary accommodation to a bad situation that, Inshallah, will someday be righted. It’s valuable to know that while dealing with Muslim countries. It produces problems that can’t be resolved by compromise.

At some higher level than the one where we now live, the differences between cultures are transcended. From that level—but we’re not there yet—differences appear like the different portions of the splendid wrought-iron inset I’m showing today. They’re all part of the same design and all connected. Knowing cultures deeply brings that higher design into view.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Notes on Words

I always wince when I hear some politician or journalist use the phrase “bully pulpit” to mean that the presidency is “a good pulpit from which to bully”—when the actual meaning that Theodore Roosevelt intended was: “The presidency is an excellent pulpit,” or “The presidency is a splendid pulpit.” He was using an informal expression current in his time. Even in Teddy’s time, the President could easily attract media attention, and that’s all that he had in mind. I don’t believe the phrase would ever be used today were it not for the fact that the word acquired the principal meaning of Webster’s 2 a: a blustering browbeating fellow; esp. : one habitually cruel to others weaker than himself. The word used to mean sweetheart and fine chap, being derived from the German buhle by way of the Dutch boel, both meaning lover. It still means, in addition to 2.a. above a pimp, a hired ruffian, and in dialectical British English a fellow workman. Webster’s still lists the adjectival meanings of excellent and first rate. And some may still recall the nineteenth century slang expression used here, bully for you! Jolly good word, that, bully.

Culture wars begin when one side tries to force your women to wear a veil — or when you try to force freedom and democracy down their throat at the point of a gun. Regime change is deliberate double talk to suggest something drastic but ultimately benevolent, something akin to a painful but necessary cancer operation. It's actually an attempt to cover in a clinical phrase the fusion of two ideas: one is that we are militarily and economically powerful and therefore can bully (there is that word again) other nations to be quiet; the other is that we are willing to overstep the line and engage in unjust war. The media, repeating the phrase without quotes around it, are abandoning their supposed mission. I picture the Canadian government announcing that it aims at regime change in the United States…

The tonalities used by the current and the last administration as they discuss Pakistan reveals to me something I keep observing elsewhere. It is that we are still engaged in relationships toward all parts of the globe, exempting only Europe and Israel, as if we were dealing with inferiors whose cultures, life-styles, and institutions we can discuss insultingly in public. Our media follow suit. We’ve acquired, without even noticing, the worst habits of Rule Britannia. Hence we cannot understand “why they hate us.” I do. I’ve got imagination. How would we react to a successful Chinese invasion followed by forcible herding of our elites to till the soil in re-educational camps while our crassly ambitious, a category plentifully populated, is helped to form single party rule? Hey! It may actually happen some day. Let us not forget the very useful rule of governance long held to be a kind of law in China: the regime that loses its virtue loses the Mandate of Heaven.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Almost there...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

That Peculiar Relationship

As I reached maturity, my thinking about international relations was much influenced by George F. Kennan, a one-time ambassador to Moscow, a sober and rational diplomat, later a marginalized factor in government but an influential academic. He advocated a kind of self-evident doctrine of the spheres of influence. Nations have interests, and they defend these the more important they are to their survival. Defense of territories, their own or adjacent, and defense of resources (access to oil, grain, or the freedom of the seas) being primary interests. Kennan therefore frowned on the pursuit of so-called idealistic ventures like the promotion of freedom and democracy abroad. President Wilson was not one of his heroes. This view pleased me. It was realistic, rational, and marked by a kind of sane humility. Such a doctrine was at the core of George Washington’s foreign policies as well.

Later, over the years, I realized that this straight-forward doctrine based on national interest is deformed not only by idealistic crusades and dangerous temptations of empire (e.g., globalism); no; it is also deformed by a powerful cultural tendency present in international affairs based on collective memory, heritage, and so-called values. This element is what produces irrational, “special,” and “peculiar” relationships—like the relationship between the United States and Israel.

Its roots ultimately go back to the clash between Christianity and Islam, the Crusades. I don’t for a minute blame the Muslims for harking back to it. That peculiar relationship with Israel is a secularized modern version of a clash of cultures that continues still—but disguised by new phrases like…well, like freedom and democracy.

Israel began by waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine; the earlier waves took place under the still prevailing Ottoman empire. Pogroms and persecution in Europe drove Jews to Palestine—and under an umbrella that was at least mildly accepting of all “People of the Book.” The Ottomans were still in charge when Theodor Herzl published his book, The State of the Jews, in 1896. The British occupied Palestine aided by battalions of Zionist volunteers during World War I. In 1917 came the Balfour declaration—projecting, without calling it a state, what Herzl had imagined:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

In such a declaration, I would suggest, the Muslim majority residing in Palestine was viewed roughly in the same way by the British as the American Indians were viewed by the immigrants who had “discovered” America. Under the British Mandate (1920), officially a grant of power by the League of Nations, violent clashes developed between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine. A minority (the Jews had 11% of the population in 1922) of largely European background—but, itself marginalized in Europe—was aiming to consolidate its power over a population that seemed not to register on any international scale to have any weight at all. Later, after World War II, and another rather massive upheaval of antisemitism in Europe, Truman’s support of Israeli statehood, crucial in the U.N., imposed a state on a region the people of which had not been consulted to vote in any plebiscite. So much for freedom and democracy.

The “special” relationship—thus between England and America—helped produce the “peculiar” relationship between America and Israel. I detect nothing resembling “national interest” here. Israel is neither strategically nor tactically important; and most of it, alas, is desert. But what there is, and plenty of it, is a cultural feeling and centuries of lingering enmity. Israel therefore is a modern, secular footprint inside the borders of the Muslim world, a beachhead, as it were, reminiscent of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in crusader days, which lasted from 1099 to 1291. Our being there lacks rhyme and reason, at least as George Kennan might have seen the matter. But then we aren’t rational, are we? So the chaos will keep churning on, the strange dance will continue. We are the big and successful boy of Britain, grown up and mighty. And we have this nasty but willful problem child we tolerate and fund, to the tune of $3 billion a year—much as Saddam Hussein once tolerated and forgave his nasty son Uday.

Monday, March 22, 2010

La Forza della Fortuna

Since the dawn of modernity, which Jacques Barzun dates from 1500, we’ve substituted nature for fortune in an effort to deny soul to anything existent—not least to humanity. But I prefer to think of the force of nature, especially when we speak of the human sphere, in the Italian phrase—and if I wish to sound even more ominous, I use the Spanish: La Fuerza de la Fortuna. In parentheses I note that I’ve always found this denial alien, suggesting that I’ve never managed to emerge from the medieval—but never mind. The phrase was there this morning, its object the vote on the health care issue. The image in my mind, neither Italian nor Spanish, was that of Nancy Pelosi standing before a badly baked and sagging chocolate cake. Look at it. It leans dangerously to the right. Nancy holds a spatula in hand. A troubled look on her face, she takes a bit more chocolate from the bowl and smears it very carefully—lest the whole thing tumble into ruin—on the left side of the lean in an “historic” act of bakery.

Relating strange things on my mind on waking threatens to skew this blog too far into the subjective—but I promise. I’ll find some other way to introduce my future posts. This time around, I also remembered an angry phrase Brigitte spat out the other day as we were chatting over the news. “Too Big to Work,” she said—and then her grim expression changed, her face lit up, and we both laughed. Inspiration comes from above.

La forza della fortuna, at present, it seems to me—is perhaps a quite natural development. It comes about precisely because we’re so intent on sucking soul out of reality. In the process we relinquish the power to hold things together, weakening the centripetal force of community. The current bill is an attempt to make the center hold, but it’s so weak that the message, even of its passing, produces the opposite meaning. The bill, after all, enables states, at their initiative, to opt out of the provisions of the bill if passed and signed, and thirty-six states incline to do so.
Such structures of thought are in the air. The other day, at yet another of our discussions over news, Brigitte and I went into flights of futurism. What will the future look like if the center actually fails to hold? It was quite interesting. We contemplated a future America which had devolved into separate and independent political units. We contemplated the largest and most powerful state after the slow-motion breakup. It would be California, primus inter pares: it has people, good agricultural land, and access to the ocean. Water is the problem, and your prophets confidently predicted the Water Wars of 20XX. We guessed that the Great Lakes states would cohere into a federation (Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan - Mother Mimi?); their union would be to guard fresh water and, perhaps, to engage in a brisk export of protein. How? Well, the invasion of the Asian carp suggests its exploitation as an export item. We imagined Missouri as the Capital of Wheat, its port on the Missouri, the wheat flowing from Kansas and Colorado toward the east—people of the east flowing into Kansas and Colorado drawn by land grants which, in modern language, might be called the recapitalization of the poor. The running out of oil might be the occasion to draw on labor, once again, and those horses from the Land of Wheat—the best in the land. And, yes, we went on. If the company is right, this makes for an interesting subject.

Ah, Fortuna. What Brigitte and I concluded—and our discussion ranged all over time and space—was that the Romans never noticed the end of the Roman empire. The barbarian invasions (Vandals, Goths, etc.) were paced in time far enough apart so that they seemed more like ordinary wars and times of trouble, and these things also passed. When, some day, Kansas imposes export duties on its precious wheat, it will produce a flurry of news. But the army will not march to instigate regime change in Topeka. There will be an artful euphemism to cover the will of the people of Kansas. And later, when you’ll need a visa to enter California, it will seem something quite natural to those who fill in the application.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Immaterial Structures

Multiple coinciding and recent experiences must have occupied my sleeping self during the night—because I woke up this morning thinking of invisible castles in the air. Do we think or meditate in sleep? I’m sure we do. In the first instance I was thinking of my and others’ blogs but by extension of all creations of the mind that take the form of words. Before I read, say, Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, that work was just a title—and a little distrusted. Mann? Writing about biblical characters? What later I read was a physical book of fairly substantial heft. Since that time the structure has existed in my mind as an immaterial reality. I’ve consulted, meaning “remembered,” a sequence of it, or the whole atmosphere of that book, quite often over the years. The whole of that, or any other novel, can’t be experienced instantly. A compressed feeling brimful of complexity is there. Or it’s there as a physical object. After it is finished, the author’s own experience of the book is exactly like mine.

In a post on form and content on The Ruricolist yesterday Paul Rodriguez suggested that the blog has unique characteristics. In his words they are familiarity and flexibility. Yes. Let me draw some contrasts. Common to all books is their physical manifestation of pages bound between covers; the content never changes unless the reader adds scribbles in the margins. Common to all blogs is their electronic form and their life-like quality of sprouting at least superficially new content all the time. Books are finished creations in which, to use terminology from Dorothy Sayers (The Mind of the Maker) an idea is worked out, executed, brought into form, and—if the idea is worthy and the effort has succeeded—will have a power, a radiation that will reach an audience. Sayers suggests that this trinity of Idea, Energy, and Power (she likens it to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), underlies all creative effort, thus every immaterial structure, not least those designed to be material—like sculptures and architectural works.

Are blogs creative structures? That is the question. Some are—to the extent that they express the process Sayers describes. In that process the idea comes first and, if the work lives up to its intention, the idea must also permeate the work. The execution, needless to say, must also express it harmoniously. Applying this rule at once suggests that most blogs are, well, something else. The outer form—an electronically rendered and distributed serial presentation of content—may qualify the effort as a blog. But to achieve some quality beyond “diary,” “chat,” “family journalism,” “journalism,” etc., it must display the trinity—even in its episodic, serial, and open-ended execution. I would bet that the majority of creative bloggers quite regularly struggle with the urge to finish this thing, to round it out, to have done, enough already! Some give this urge expression by restarting the blog on another platform. At least then it is new, another start. Veering from my subject still, there is no sense as hollow as the end of a work finally accomplished after traumatic wrestling with the angel—and nothing so blissful as the dawning of the new…

But the thought that came to me this morning and central to this post is the idea of immateriality. Blogs express this feeling well. Yes, I keep copies of posts on the hard drive. No, I haven’t printed them out. The twenty-minute failure of WordPress some weeks ago brought to mind the ephemeral character of works that persist as bits and bytes. And that event also left its mark on me and produced the early seeds of “castles up in air.” But immateriality may be—and I for one think is—more permanent than the material expression of thought in print or stone or pigment on canvas. But in this dimension for the radiating work of the creation to have its effect, it must have material incarnation, even if only electronic.

A final note on this subject. Blogs attract their own readers by their radiating power. This, in turn constellates ideas like affinity, revulsion, and adequacy. I glance at many blogs that I rapidly forget. Very few get book-marked; of those, too, quite a few fall away after I’ve followed them for a while. We choose our own reality. I’ve read lots of lots of things in the service of work; for work we need information; but then there is life. The recent upsurge in visitors to Ghulf Genes was also in the background of this post. It was a flurry caused by name recognition. Very, very few of those visitors—as indeed but a tiny handful of those who chance across this blog by doing searches on names or words—become real readers. And those who do tend already to be inhabitants of an invisible continent I also call my home.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Equinocturnal Frustrations

Welcome Spring and so forth. I note that the weather, which cooperated magnificently for about the last two weeks of so-called Winter, refuses to smile today. It’s gray out there, cool, and humid. The weather perhaps shares my frustration at six month intervals when it’s time, once again, to celebrate the equinox. I understand this thing perfectly well in conceptual terms. The sun today is directly above the equator, straight up there in the perpendicular. As time now advances, that angle will become more and more acute, the sun appearing north of the equator until the summer solstice on June 21st. After that, back we go again, the angle increasing until the arrival in September—on the 23rd of that month this year—of the autumnal equinox. Thereafter the angle becomes obtuse (from our point of vantage), the sun beaming south of the equator to the delight of all Patagonians until December 21, the blessed winter solstice. Then it marches back again to March of 2011. I do get all this. Yes. But I can’t picture it properly. It’s all due to the earth’s tilted axis, isn’t it, which puts us now closer to the sun and now removes us farther away in wintertime. Every season—it’s amazing, actually, how this sort of thing fades from memory in six months’ time—I end up getting my ice-pick and an apple, and actually doing a kind of dance around a lamp holding the ice-pick at an angle until my geometrically dense brain finally gets it again. With that comes a moment of satisfaction, but the juices of frustration that came before—while trying to find good visuals on the Internet—linger long enough in my body to yield…well, a post “celebrating” the Vernal Equinox.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

French/English Pronunciations

We have a street called Charlesvoix
Et c’est peut-être le nom d’un roi
But in Detroit, in English, Charlesvoix
Rhymes with the phrase, City of Troy.
Yet in the French that name, d’Étroit
Rhymes as if our city were a spa.
It ain’t—but that’s Okay avec moi.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Vanished Author Hasn't Quite

I just became aware that a one time reader of my novels has put a post on his blog today titled “Another quest to find a seemingly vanished author of my youth ends.” The post is here in its native form. In days to come it will wander deeper, I suspect. I would point to the single post itself, but when I isolate it, it causes my machine to hang. Suffice it to identify the blog. The blogger styles himself pyropyga and lists the Chicago Speculative Fiction Community as his website. That site is here. Now while all that follows is available on this site, I am indeed eager to be known to exist, what with two new novels out and a third about to issue. Therefore I will repeat here that more is to be learned about me at Dwarf Planet Press. And my author page is here. Amazon also lists my two latest novels. I’ve been submerged, to be sure, but now, in the Chicago community, evidently, I’ve been found. And delighted to be found!

ADDED LATER: Thanks to James Davis Nicoll's tip—he is the author of the actual post mentioned above—I now know that the post is available directly here—and without hangs of any sort. The blog is called More Words, Deeper Hole. James Nicoll's base is in Canada, but the blog platform he uses,, permits the sharing of entries between friends. The Chicago linkage I discovered and reported on above turns out to have been one of Nicoll's friends. The mysteries of the Internet deepen. In any case, thanks to one brief post yesterday, Ghulf Genes had an unaccustomed surge of traffic. What Me Worry? Among the visitors was David Dyer-Bennet of the Minnesota Fantasy and SF community. David wondered about rumors that I'd once been a Minnesota author. The list he maintains is here. Yes to that question too. Ah, those crisp Minnesota winters, and the crunch of the cross-country skis over snow...

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Ruins of Detroit

It is one of the wonders of modern life that I learned of a photo presentation about Detroit from a friend, Leanne Ogasawara, who lives in Japan. In this moment of time, the eyes that see may be anywhere. The photo series, with the same title as this post, is accessible here. The pictures present some wrenching yet magical internal images and external shots of the Detroit metropolis, the latter at least familiar to anyone who’s lived here long enough. The pictures speak for themselves. For me they are prophetic. Their creators are Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. They tell us that these photos will appear as a book this year.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Descent of an Angel

An angel descended to see if in truth a
A much-fabled region others had mentioned could
Really be found—where great orbs perpetually burned
And— gathered in clusters by magical pulls—they
Slowly, majestically, whirled and thus formed diamonds
And sparks that lit up domains of permanent dark.

In its descent the angel with pleasure noted
A fading of heavenly light as it now left
The infinite mansions behind and, so it seemed,
Approached a vast zone where darkness and light,
Stirred into twilight that seemed like a froth on the
Surface of oceans of impenetrable night.

“First the darkness,” thought the angel, “then the diamonds
Shall appear.” Into the darkness the angel now
Felt its magnificence gradually drawn until
The last faint light of home blinked out and true darkness
Came. But it was empty, empty, a vast neant.
No trace of sentience, of life, of thought. A void.

“Where are the sparks, where is the light—where have I erred?”
The angel thought. “My heavenly vision. Am I
Now blind?” The angel saw nothing, but God sees all.
The angel’s great wings swept right through whole clouds, whole swarms
Of galaxies, trillions of stars; its subtle
Substance could not perceive this coarser region’s touch.

Nor could it see or even guess that its great wings
Touched, interpenetrated the bodies of trillion
Lesser creatures on countless tiny balls, creatures
As blind, indeed, in their own way, as the great angel
was. Gazing up into their skies they also failed
To see a gorgeous angel in its flight distraught.

To this, by way of commentary, two quotes from Swedenborg:

Since angels have no notion of time, they have a different idea of eternity from that which men of the earth have… There were angels who were admitted more nearly into my thoughts, and even into natural ones in which were many things from time and space; but because they then understood nothing, they suddenly withdrew; and after they had withdrawn, I heard them talking and saying that they had been in darkness. [Heaven and Hell, Emanuel Swedenborg, ¶ 167-168]

The superiority of [the angels’] outer senses to those of the world is as that of sunshine to cloud darkness in the world, and as that of noonday light to evening shade; for the light of heaven, because it is Divine truth, enables the sight of angels to perceive and distinguish things the most minute. Their outer sight also corresponds to their inner sight, or to the understanding; for with angels the one sight flows into the other, so that they act as one; hence they have so great power of vision... But the rest of the senses with the angels are not so exquisite as the senses of seeing and of hearing, since seeing and hearing serve their intelligence and wisdom, but not the other senses, which if they were equally exquisite would take away the light and joy of their wisdom, and would bring in the enjoyment of pleasures of the various appetites and of the body, which obscure and weaken the understanding so far as they prevail—as is the case with men in the world, who are gross and stupid as to spiritual truths so far as they indulge the sense of taste and yield to the allurements of the sense of touch. [Heaven and Hell, Emanuel Swedenborg, ¶ 462]

And yet another note: An earlier version of this general idea may be found here. Michelle, whose sense of thematics is very keen, will point out that I sometimes put posts in the wrong places—and that this one belongs on Borderzone. It is here because I like to keep the poems all on one site.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Only Hearing Those Who Sing Our Song

With the sharp polarization tangible in public discourse, we see this subject surface in various contexts. John Magee of our circle addressed the subject the other day (“Wisdom overheard in the YMCA locker room”) here. The issue in a nutshell: People avoid written or broadcast messages critical of their own views. This subject rapidly turns complex—and here is why: Two important elements of information, always fused, rush at us from the media and need to be teased apart—but time is precious.

A message will typically contain facts (“dark clouds are overtaking the sky”) and interpretation (“a thunderstorm is in the making”). The journalistic ideal is that facts should be presented objectively, thus without slant or interpretation. Opinion should be separated from the factual presentation and clearly labeled as such: editorializing. The difficulties arise right here. Why? Because a genuinely factual presentation is extraordinarily costly. Reality is almost infinitely complex, and therefore selection of what to report—and by selection, therefore, to emphasize—is always involved: what aspects of an event to highlight—which of many different camera-shots to include—how long to dwell, say, on the suffering of victims and how long on the energetic or haphazard actions of those charged with the rescue. And those who do the selection may do so, consciously or unconsciously, in light of their own values. Is “objectivity” really achievable? Here I’m reminded of the Supreme Court justice who, speaking of pornography, said that we know it when we see it. But that’s a way of saying that objectivity, paradoxically, is subjective.

We still keep hearing McLuhan’s phrase, “the medium is the message.” The problem goes back a ways. The victors write the history. We have at least two histories of America. One is written by the European invaders, another by the conquered and marginalized native tribes. The history of America written by a buffalo would be the story of a holocaust. An update of this slogan might be, “the framing is the message” or “the framer is the message.” He who holds a certain set of values will select the facts to suit his purposes. Therefore the facts themselves will be in question.

This, of course, suggests that one must read all sorts of stories—left, right, erudite, popular, high, low, foreign, and domestic—even to gather sufficient number of facts for personal synthesis. This is John’s point, in a way. Every side will impose its selection, and it is therefore necessary to read others’ takes. I emphasize, again, that this approach is needed even understand what happened. Never mind the interpretation.

Is this a modern phenomenon? An aspect of decadence? I would say No. It has always been this way. The big difference between the 1950s, for example, and the 2010s is that in the earlier period the fragmentation of society had not as yet advanced very far and therefore the slant in most publications and broadcasts was the same. But it was still a slant. Already aware of cultural biases by having been an immigrant, I felt braced by learning in my late teens that other cultures also had interesting and novel takes on reality. There is a view of history as seen from China, too—in which the West still appears as an uncouth barbarism—however well armed. It is a view that, as a Chinaman, I no doubt would have found persuasive.

Brigitte and I enjoy sessions of reading out loud to each other from various publications. These realities came into focus as she read an eye-opening article by Philip Jenkins from The American Conservative yesterday (April 2010 issue). It is titled “Third World War” and deals with the clash of Islam and Christianity in Africa. The article is very well worth reading—and is not what might spontaneously spring to mind. It is enlightening and surprising in large part because every kind of western slant on Africa’s development resolutely filters out a whole dimension of cultural evolution on that continent as irrelevant—if even noticed—by the infrequent flyer to Nigeria or Somalia. The article is available online here.

So much simply on getting all of the facts. Now I come to interpretation. The more experience we have—emphasis on experience—the less likely we are to ask others to interpret what we see. As a child, learning how to fish, I listened with great eagerness to elders on how to read the water, bobber, shore, the tension of the line, the bend of the rod. At my age others’ opinions fall into the category of reading for amusement. I treat opinion as another species of fact to absorb and store away. But the many who only read stuff that confirms their existing biases—why, folks like that are way, way below the salt, as far as I’m concerned. Too bad they also have the vote. But, as we often hear it said, there is no justice in this vale of tears…

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Keep Looking Up

Valentine’s day is now well, well behind us, but in this household it was a late bloomer. In a reversal of 50 years’ tradition, Brigitte decided to give me a Valentine’s Day present for a change, and she decided to give me the stars. The package took a long time arriving, so we celebrated late.

But let me unwrap this. Decades ago now, in the late 1970s, Jack Horkeimer appeared on Public Television in brief vignettes about the stars—and how to make the most of them by looking up with naked eyes. The program then was called Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler, but Horkheimer changed the name to Star Gazer thanks to the inadvertent influence of the Internet. Children looking for his videos using a search engine got the wrong kinds of sites when they typed in the phrase “star hustler.” Rolling my eyes. In any case, Brigitte got me Horkheimer’s most recent disk, Space Oddities, which is a collage, with linking commentaries, of his recent and some older brief video “articles”—and it is a delight. The place to go to is here. And here you will find a YouTube broadcast of one of the shortest kinds of items Horkheimer produces for PBS, a one-minute snippet.

Jack Foley Horkheimer is the Executive Director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium at the Miami Science Museum and has been at his job for more than 35 years. Each of his episodes ends with the phrase “Keep looking up”—very good advice at any time, not least in this day and age.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fame By Scholarly Acclamation

At some point in my younger years—it must have been when (still in the Army) I became interested in Gothic cathedrals—I discovered with mild surprise that the word “Gothic” had once been used, and not all that long ago, as a word of deprecation and dismissal. That meaning is still preserved in my Webster’s, where meaning 1 c: (2) is uncouth, barbarous. This was my first encounter with a process that seems always active in culture, namely the elevation of something new to a status worthy of high praise—and the demotion of the once famed and valued to the nether regions of the barbarous. This process tends to be in the hands of scholars—thus not those who are predominantly creators or doers, although their subjects always are in the those categories. An interesting example of this process is Camille Paglia’s labor to promote pop culture to the higher dimensions of cultural achievement. Now, mind you, Brigitte and I like Camille Paglia even when we don’t agree with her. I’m using her as an example. Other examples will occur to the culturally literate. These efforts also collide and compete—small groups, for instance, labor to reinstate Wagner in Olympus while others battle to keep him locked up in the nasty compound where the rise of Nazism managed to confine him.

I was reminded of this by a story in the New York Times this morning which begins:

By at least one amusing new metric, Michelangelo’s unofficial 500-year run at the top of the Italian art charts has ended. Caravaggio, who somehow found time to paint when he wasn’t brawling, scandalizing pooh-bahs, chasing women (and men), murdering a tennis opponent with a dagger to the groin, fleeing police assassins or getting his face mutilated by one of his many enemies, has bumped him from his perch. [Michael Kimmelman, “Caravaggio in Ascendance: A Bad Boy Artist’s Time to Shine,” front page]
The last him and his, of course, refer to Michelangelo. The metric referred to is the work of the scholar,Philip Sohm, who has undertaken to do statistical studies of scholarly papers about both artists. Counting papers, a nice scholarly activity, produces the conclusion that more of them deal with Caravaggio. The question then arises: “So what?”

To be quite frank about it, I haven’t got a horse in this race. In the quite wondrous series by Lord Kenneth Clark, Civilisation—it came out in 1969 and we saw it on Public TV—I had had a fairly comprehensive view of the Renaissance and, watching that and other segments once again about a year ago, I came to the conclusion that I was no longer (if ever I had been) a great fan of that period’s art—with some exceptions like Fra Lippo Lippi. No. This is not that kind of rant.

Rather, it strikes me as interesting how the climate of opinion shifts with cultural change. I’d encountered a similar article five, six, seven years ago already, the first time I’d noted that Caravaggio even existed. Then, as today, the reason for the focus was not his art so much but something that seems to appeal to modern pundits and scholars. He was the bad boy. How very, very exciting indeed!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Welcome Back

The temperature now hovering near 60° F…and eyeing the disorder in our backyard from the bedroom window, I glimpsed the first rabbit of 2010 in the backyard of our neighbor. Remembering my boyhood skills learned pretending to be a Redskin, I made a very slow and noiseless approach, shielded by trees, to take this commemorative picture of a member of the family of Leporidae. Note, please, the snow still on the ground.

In Rome...

The dog rejoiced quite visibly,
She writhed, she almost shed her skin,
When mistress finally came back,
The trunk stuffed full of grocery sack.

I wonder, I do, honestly,
If in the wild dogs and their kin
Behave like that and celebrate
The homing of a canine mate
With similar exuberance?

Do dogs change materially
When they live, our inferior twin,
In our homes? Or is it that in
Rome they do as Romans do and
In the wild, another ambiance,
They live a dog’s life quite happily,
Thank you?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Traditions Preserve…the Good and the Bad

Tradition, tradition! Tradition!
     [The Fiddler on the Roof]
A pleasing story in the New York Times this morning (“Wartime Pope Has a Huge Fan: A Jewish Knight”) reminded me that tradition is a two-edged sword. It preserves both the good and the bad. The story concerns the activities of a Gary L. Krupp, a New Yorker, who once received a distinction from Pope John Paul II for fundraising activities on behalf of an Italian hospital. He was named—
A Knight Commander of the
Pontifical Equestrian
Order of St. Gregory
The Great
—the mere citation of which justifies the effort required to write this post, hence my elevation of the title to the status of verse.

In later years Krupp, a medical equipment dealer but now retired, engaged in research regarding the long-standing assertion by Jewish groups that Pope Pius XII failed during World War II to exert himself energetically to save Jews from the holocaust. Krupp’s conclusion was that Pius is innocent of the charges levied against him. The Times quotes him as saying: “Listen to me: Pius XII was the greatest hero of World War II. He saved more Jews than Roosevelt, Churchill and all the rest of them combined. We should not let him be an issues between Catholics and Jews.”

I applaud this sort of effort to lean a single shoulder against a “tradition” that, I don’t for a minute doubt, will linger on and on in time for centuries to come. It is difficult to live in human community. One is invariably lonely. My roots rise from very conservative soil, a royalist past, and I’m very comfortable in reading books like Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind in which the concept of tradition takes on a multi-dimensional aspect and even a word like prejudice undergoes an interesting transformation. But while the company may be congenial, I must preserve a certain reserve. Traditions preserve, and if the balance of the past has been positive, its preservation is laudable. But tradition also carries forward all manner of other detritus that ought to be examined, sifted, and, occasionally left behind as information rather than serving as a carrier of resentments that pass from individual to individual for generations unexamined.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art

Thinking of The Thinker yesterday reminded me of my youth in Kansas City. A full-size reproduction of Auguste Rodin’s statue stood, or should I say sat, at the back entrance of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art. The original may be found in the Musée Rodin in Paris.

The Gallery (as we used to call it) was within walking distance of our house (for Europeans, anyway); we visited frequently enough so that the place became almost an extension of our ordinary environment. My mother, the Beatrice of my life, lead the way in this venture as she did in all things cultural. The Gallery has greatly expanded since. Its long name is actually even longer. It is the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Atkins Museum of Fine Arts. This name is now officially rendered as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The museum was opened in 1933. In 1993, long after we’d left Kansas City, a rather stunning but very modernistic new wing, the Bloch Building, was added to the western side of it—creating one of those weird hybrids of modernity. In the manner of the day, which still worships Progress even as tides of barbarism are rising slowly on all sides, most photographs of the Nelson-Atkins show the modernistic façade.

Long names are the consequence of our desire to be remembered—which is aided by great wealth. William Rockhill Nelson was the founder of the Kansas City Star; Mary McAfee Atkins was a wealthy widow. In these situations I’m always anxious not to sound—or even to be thought to sound critical. I don’t mind long names and don’t mind remembering those who gave their wealth so that the more humbly endowed can benefit. For each such donor there are countless others who give nothing to the collective at all.

The Gallery is on the edge of a district known as the Plaza, an extensive, ornate, and rather up-scale sort of shopping and office region. Midwest Research Institute (MRI, another of my alma maters) and the Gallery are to the East; St. Luke’s Hospital, where Michelle, was born is to the North; and the Kansas suburbs, where we lived for some years, lie to the west beyond State Line road not too far away. The second photo, taken from the front steps of MRI looking north) shows the Volker Fountain, a wondrous and amusing piece of art of which I’ve written before on Ghulf Genes (here) and which I like well enough to show its picture yet again.

The Volker Fountain? Well, behind it was William Volker, a man who made a fortune making picture frames. He gave away his fortune anonymously; indeed, he was known for a long time as Mr. Anonymous—because nobody knew the name of the donor. One of his donations was a large mansion and land around which, a little to the south and east of this fountain, the University of Kansas City took shape—another Kansas City institution with great merit, not least a splendid theater. Eventually anonymity also fades. And hence this fine fountain received Volker’s name…

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Last Chance

Way back I obtained a discount card from Barnes & Noble. Its structure is simple. I pay a relatively modest amount for the discount card each year. Thereafter I enjoy a regular discount on all items I buy at the store. I save money because my purchasing volume is high enough to earn back the price of the card every year—plus some. The plot now thickens. A while after I got used to the B&N card, Borders offered a free discount card and, of course, I got one. Free is good. But these two book chains have quite different approaches. Borders’ card is retroactive. After you’ve made some purchases, you get discounts coupons for future purchases. But these are often limited to certain items and certain periods.

In both cases, the stores try to get you to be a frequent buyer. Someone at B&N imagines that I sit about at home thinking like Rodin’s The Thinker, worrying: “Have I purchased enough books from Barnes & Noble to have recovered the fifteen, twenty-five dollars (forget the amount) I spent on my discount card? Let me stop thinking and consult my discount diary NOW.” Then, seeing that I still have three, two, or one dollar unredeemed, I rush out to acquire the latest best seller. The folks at Borders imagine that I find e-mailed coupons irresistible. These arrive after I’ve been to the store to buy something. Borders thinks that urgent e-mails with deadlines can move me. The upshot here is that I buy my books at B&N by preference although the B&N store is farther away. B&N’s program is more rational.

Today I get an e-mail from Borders titled: Last Chance: Up to 40% Off at PETCO Up to 70% Off at The Home Depot. Now here is a wonder. What does buying books have to do with PETCO? You know the place, don’t you? PETCO is—Where the pets go. And Home Depot, while certainly a close acquaintance, only sells how-to-do-your-plumbing kind of titles. Well. This particular e-mail promotion offers me nine, count them, nine different coupons—and all because I’m the proud holder of a Borders Reward Card. Almost all have expiration dates, some tomorrow, some the day after tomorrow. I can buy shoes from Nordstrom, hotel rooms from Pricelines, skincare products from Philosophy (Philosophy??). Of the remaining four—The Container Store, Sephora, Staples, and Gilt Groupe I only recognize Staples. I honestly haven’t a clue what the others have on offer—although the Gilt Groupe actually names two items. One of the is Marc by Marc; the other is Zac Posen. Even after I resume my The Thinker pose, I cannot for the life of me remember if I’ve run out of Zac Posen or not.

Last Chance? I think I’ll miss it. The gates of the heaven of the Kingdom of Commerce are closing on me. And the choice is all mine, too.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Let’s Ban the Word

Those of us living in metropolitan Detroit now sigh as we read about Governor Patterson’s problems in New York and Representative Charles Rangle’s temporary yielding of the hammer over House Ways and Means in Washington, DC. Here we have been embroiled in a mayoral corruption scandal for more than a year. It led to the ouster of Detroit’s mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick last year; most recently we’ve learned of a belated FBI investigation of his reign about to boil up in earnest. In seeking distraction from steamy and/or monetary corruption charges, we are then treated (we were yesterday) to proof positive that the man appointed to lead the Detroit School Board cannot actually write a grammatical sentence. To describe the Detroit school system as “failing” is to use a euphemism.

I tend to see these things through a cultural lens. Corruption has everything to do with morality and morality with custom. In sorting through these matters in the past, I’ve looked at the distinction between morality and legality on LaMarotte (here) and have pondered the fact that corruption in one domain may be custom in another (here). This morning, glancing at the New York Times over coffee—and setting aside a sudden impulse to join the Coffee Party on Facebook at once—it occurred to me that the loud cries of Corruption! are not, perhaps, relevant to modern, secular culture at all.

Such cries suggest that morality has actual standing in our secular culture. Is not the public promotion of morality the nose of the camel under the tent flap? Isn’t it religion trying to get itself established again? That, my friends, should be treated as a problem, an assault on the modern values of staunch value-free realism. All right. Morality, arguably, has its place, may be tolerated. It belongs to the lower, the less important, the voluntary, the life-style, the private sphere. As such, we know, there are as many different moralities as there are cultures, and we’re resolutely multicultural. If it isn’t illegal, it should simply be labeled behavior.

Let me illustrate. It is perfectly legal to finesse in bridge. If you do it, and it works, you win. If you guessed wrong, you lose a trick. Is it illegal to send a message to the battered mistress of a governor’s aide that she should keep her yap shut? Isn’t speech free? Is it illegal to make assignations to fornicate outside of marriage? Or is the illegality merely confined to using City-owned texting devices when doing so? Get it right, Media. If a presidential candidate sleeps around, isn’t that his private business? Or perhaps his wife’s? If being homophobic is a no-no, shouldn’t being adultryphobic be condemned as well?

I urge all sectors—media, punditry, politicians—to be consistent. Use the word Illegality! Avoid the word corruption. It implies too many things that reek of the Old Time Religion. To be sure, even that nasty word, corruption, is inconsistently applied. Why hasn’t it been applied to the Too Big To Fails when they engage in underhanded, deceptive practices however legal? Why do we call that creativity or financial innovation?

Ban the word, I say. It’s just behavior, stupid. Behavior. Got it? And when it’s illegal, why then, by all means, let the wheels of justice slowly grind away. But let’s not get judgmental. To be judgmental is to act immorally in the context of modernity.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

As Above, So Below

With sixteen days to go before Spring is officially with us, namely at 5:32 pm on March 20, 2010, the weather now is showing a certain restless anticipation. Huge puddles form on sidewalks—and trees seem to grow out of the concrete.... Oh, yes. I do anticipate yet another big snow-storm either before or after the Vernal Equinox, but walks now are much, much more interesting.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Post Deserves Support

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. [Herodotus (484 - 425 BC)]
The Postal Service is deeply rooted in our history. It was established in 1775, thus before there was a United States of America, and the first Postmaster General was Benjamin Franklin. The quoted motto—most people believe that it is the USPS’ own—was actually written by the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, in praise of an even older postal service, a kind of pony express operated by the Persians; and Herodotus was celebrating the stalwart behavior of those forerunners of our men and women in blue. The motto appears carved into the stone of the General Post Office in New York City located at 8th and 33rd Street. And it applies to our own. Indeed it applies, all around the world, to mail carriers everywhere, one of the least noticed but ubiquitous living symbols of genuine civilization. For some statistics on our own postal service I refer the reader to today’s post on LaMarotte (here) where, as here, I advocate support of this venerable service lest the acids of modernity begin to eat away at it and we shall be obliged, in some future time, to reinvent it.

Postmaster General John E. Potter, in company of other postal execs, appeared yesterday before a group of postal clients, congressional aides, and union representatives. He urged several changes—including reduction in the number of post offices, elimination of Saturday delivery, and changes in the Service’s contributions to retirement benefits. The reason? The USPS projects losses of $238 billion over the next ten years.

The changes projected are neither dramatic nor threatening. Congress, for once, is unwilling to act. The unions are opposed, of course. So are the big postal customers. Nonetheless, we must become alert. I’ve become gun-shy. I don’t want another pillar of civilization thinned down, reshaped, or even painted a new color. Hands off the Postal Service! Subsidize it, dammit! Raise taxes, if you must. No way, José. Let’s not tolerate the nose of the camel under the tent flap. First you cut this, then you cut that. Pretty soon its privatized. Once we had a decently operating airline system and a coherent system of telephone communications. If it hadn’t been for Enron, we’d be bombarded daily with calls urging us to shift electrical, gas, and water suppliers. I say No! Fie on you, Progress. Fie on you, deregulation!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Let’s Hear it for Leporidae

This being the first ever March the First with a post on Ghulf Genes, I wish to honor one of the families of the Mammalian class, of the phylum Vertebrata, superphylum Chordata, of the kingdom of Animalia. This is the family that shelters both rabbits and hares. Hares are bigger and belong to the genus Lepus; rabbits are smaller and their genera are also many (eight), of which the genus Sylvilagus is closest to me in daily experience, the classification of the Cottontail. From Spring (around the corner) until late Fall one or more members of this genus appears/appear somewhere on my property—else, to keep things balanced—let me just say that we both nest on the same minuscule area of the surface of the earth. March Hare and Mad Hatter thus inhabit the same space. As it should be.

My fascination with and love of the Leporidae is no secret to careful readers of this blog. The subject occurs here, here, and here. In the last of those posts I even claim to have been born on the Island of the Rabbits in Hungary. Biology, literature, and even sculpture celebrate these creatures. Herewith I show the March Hare from Alice in Wonderland, the first edition cover of Richard Adams’ Watership Down (courtesy of Wikipedia here), and proudly present a photograph of my own, taken last fall, of The Lord of the Rabbits of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the biggest representative of this genre in my own neck of the woods.

Thus let us march into March.