Thursday, March 31, 2011

Trampling a Sword?

Some questions arose about the coat-of-arms of Finland I used to illustrate a recent post. One e-mail commentator thought that it represented the Christian Lion’s victory over the Saracen Sword. Another wondered what a sword was doing there; wouldn’t it cut the lion’s paw?

March having lived up to its name this year and brought us plenty of war, I thought I’d clear this up on the last day of the month. Wikipedia’s article on this subject (here) brings the following clarification:

The earliest known blazon from this period states that the arms of Finland represents A crowned lion of gold holding a sword in the right forepaw and trampling with both hindpaws on a Russian sabre (ryssesabel), surrounded by nine silver roses in a red field, over the shield a golden crown with a red cap.
As for me, I’d rather trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored than bothering with the weaponry. But symbols are symbols, and I got to thinking about the wondrous future coats-of-arms a glorious new age of heraldry would paint. One of them might feature an upside-down lion seemingly kicking the sky filled with sleekly-drawn black and silvery birds. And some future scholar, with many words, will in that future’s more civilized future explain that it represented the nation trampling on a no-fly zone.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What Do You Emote?

Earth-flattener Thomas Friedman, the columnist sage, attempts once more to frame public reaction to a chaotic and incoherent policy in Libya—and surrounding the Arab explosion generally—by calling it “hard stuff.” Does he mean that as Tom Wolfe used the phrase “the right stuff” in a splendid book about the astronauts? Well, I wonder what you emote about all this?

Friedman approvingly quotes this portion of President Obama’s speech Monday evening: “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And, as president, I refuse to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

It is “hard stuff,” as Friedman points out, because conflicting emotions arise as we contemplate the evolving situation, e.g. in Bahrain Shi’ites (shudder) are the “democrats” and the Saudi’s don’t like that, and we don’t want to make the Saudi’s angry, so when they march in to quell “democracy” in Bahrain, we refrain from “taking action.” But let me expand the view a little.

When in Palestine Hamas won the parliamentary elections, the Bush administration did not bow its head to say that “democracy” had spoken. No. We suspended foreign aid because we did not like the outcome. That was hard stuff too. In Rwanda in 1994 Hutus killed 800,000 Tutsis in a hundred-day period. Surely that’s definable as “slaughter.” Alas, our media did not cover this holocaust with cameras; few moving images of corpses and “mass graves” reached our screens, hence we did not bother “taking action,” although we did participate in a no-fly zone in the Bosnian civil war that overlapped with the African disaster. Why? Was that because the Bosnians, Europeans all, were somehow “closer” to us than black Tutsis? And did that Bosnian no-fly zone, instituted in 1993, prevent the Srebrenica massacre in 1995? Actually, No. That one, by the way, was tiny by Rwandan standards, a mere 8,000 men and boys. But this much is enough.

Is the camera the issue? Or is it something else? Camera reminds me of a 1951 play entitled I Am a Camera. It was written by John Van Druten inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin. That book holds a sentence: “I am a camera with its shutters open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Exactly. Not thinking—but emoting. Emoting until I can no more. And then it’s time for taking action.

It’s hard stuff indeed when your emotions are in conflict and nothing else is handy to resolve the internal conflict, like thought, for example, like principle, like reason, policy. Then all the particles are in the air, frantically bouncing about, now hitting, now missing, colliding, repulsing, adhering—whatever. A tribal war erupts somewhere. Reach for the crystal ball. If images appear in it, and if you’re in the mood, and if those you hang with are also in the mood, and if there’s money in the pocket, and if the time’s right, and if it looks like you might win—but not if not—why then, forgetting what presidents are actually supposed to do, namely faithfully to execute the laws—why then it’s time for taking action. Otherwise, perhaps, we can placidly turn a blind eye. Far away, another continent, hey, they’re just lesser breeds without the law. Never mind. Issue a call or two deploring violence and asking for a political resolutions. So what’s next on the agenda?

But I’d better stop. Emoting is hard stuff. It makes me all confused. A nice bowl of crispies in cold milk? Isn’t it breakfast time? We will be back after these messages.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Linguistic Relations


In a recent post Brandon at Siris expressed his delight in the sound of the Finnish language and, to prove it, presented Jenni Vartiainen singing in that tongue sublime (link). For me this brought the language to the fore, Finland itself, and memories of my Army years.

I grew up speaking Hungarian. Both languages belong to the Uralic family, traced by scholars to regions to each side of the Urals. That range runs south-north dividing Russia between a western and eastern part. One of two subdivisions of Uralic is Finno-Ugric, and both Finnish and Hungarian are members of it; the other branch is Samoyedic spoken only by about 30,000 people. Now a question. Are such classifications based on tracing peoples? Or are there linguistic similarities the ear itself, the ear on the street, can readily detect? I would say Yes. Let me tell you a story.

Once as a young man I was visiting Heidelberg and, specifically, a single address there, a four story building. As I approached this structure by means of a narrow street, I saw three people in the street. They had their heads craned back. They were yelling up at somebody in a top-floor window. I heard Hungarian. Surprised! Here? In Heidelberg? Just a rare coincidence? I gave my astonishment expression by yelling to the three down there. I yelled in Hungarian—even as I continued on toward them. They faced toward me with looks of pleased surprise and shouted back. It sounded so very familiar—but I didn’t understand the words. At last we stood face to face. And now we realized that althought the words had very odd echoes of meanings, they did not convey them. Well. Reach for a common language. In a moment, speaking German now, we understood. And both sides started nodding. They’d been speaking Finnish, I Hungarian…. However far back Finno-Ugric might go in time, the relationship is deceivingly close even in the current now.

In the Army the colonel I worked for was a Finn with an appropriately Finnish-sounding name: Alpo Kulervo Martinnen. An American colonel now, he was an oddity. He’d also been a colonel in Finnish army and had participated in the Finno-Russian Winter War (1939-1945). The odd thing about Alpo was that he was an avid, passionate student of the Finnish language. He was forever studying it, even during field exercises. At the time I took this to be a personal interest in language, especially his own. Well, I was too young to know then—but that last name of his, Martinnen, should have been a warning. I found out the truth later. Let me tell that story next.

Many years later one of my business trips took me to Finland. Here I encountered a similar puzzle. Every person I visited on business—and all the people in the offices—spoke Swedish, not Finnish. I heard a lot of Finnish spoken, but not in these places. And when I asked my first host about this, he acted embarrassed. “Well, at home. At home we speak Swedish. Lots of people do. But I am learning Finnish.” And the index finger was out to give this emphasis. In due course I learned that Finland’s upper elites are decidedly Swedish. The root of this is that Finland was under Swedish rule through most of its history, from the twelfth century until its independence in 1917. The elites were Swedish. But they, like Colonel Martinnen, were learning Finnish.

Monday, March 28, 2011

In Tsunami’s Trail—Jishuku

A fascinating article in the NYT today carries the headline “In Deference to Crisis, a New Obsession Sweeps Japan: Self-Restraint.” Now those who write the stories don’t usually write the headlines, and here we have a case to show it. The headline writer used the word obsession—a word that carries a negative connotation—whereas the story itself is altogether more serious and hints at cultural depths. The essence of the story is that the Japanese are almost uniformly restraining their behavior to conserve resources and energy, not least loud and aggressive behavior in advertising and in politics.

What fascinates me about the story is the mysterious underlying element in culture which, in Japan, now manifests as jishuku, their word for self-restraint. Something like that, to be sure, is present at least among an element of the population whenever great disasters visit us—but by no means uniformly. My memories go back to 9/11 and its immediate aftermath, a time in which I was quite aware of greater seriousness and sobriety open to my view—but absent in the media. It awakened most of us in the street to the serious aspects and dimensions of life. Not everyone, and not at every level. Now it is present in Japan to a degree that the headline writer (who presumably read the article) labels it obsessive.

It is customary to explain such behavior by saying that the Japanese are very disciplined, formal, courteous, hierarchical, etc. And, yes, they are. I’ve seen it. I was in a large hotel in Japan decades ago when a national holiday occasioned families to meet at the hotel for lunch—and I mean big, extended families—from grandma down to toddler. And each family lined up, age facing age, youth youth. And they bowed to each other formally once, twice, three times—before, paired by age, they entered the dining room in proper order. And everything in Japan was like that. But the interesting question for me is what lies beneath this? Discipline, formality, courtesy, hierarchy—all these are symptoms of something else. Is Japanese culture more coherent, orderly—and orderly in a complex way? Is Japanese culture more cohesive? And is that state a kind of ordered unity? And if so, what lies beneath that?

Such questions are too, too rarely asked—and only when the issue is sharpened to a very fine point, as it is in this case (monstrous troubles, natural, nuclear—yet self-restraint) that genuine cultural difference, and the fact that they matter—are even noticed. (And labeled obsessional?) I happen to be keenly aware of such underlying mysteries, hence I find much of the media’s commentary on international matters very near-sighted. One example is the notion that, for example, the revolts in North Africa and the Near East are upwelling of secular culture—as if, at last, a culture roughly 1,400 years old would suddenly vanish because people have I-Pods and chat on Facebook.

Cultural cohesion invariably arises from a correct view of relationships, including obligations, horizontally (other people) and vertically (eternal values). I’ve long thought of the Japanese as a relatively young culture—where a laudably correct cohesion is still strongly present. The real values in our culture really arise from the ever-fracturing consensus that we hammered out together during the centuries of Christendom. But except as legal rigidities, these are almost indiscernible in our public life today—although still present, spottily, on the street.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Startled Out of Logarithms

Engaged as I have been (and continue to be) in studying numerical series—(that process began very innocently but rapidly became a kind of obsession)—I sat down yesterday to take a moment to look at the other screen. And there was John R. Bolton. He produces in me the twin reactions certain once prominent people do. First comes a wonder: I wonder what he’s been up to—immediately followed by the thought: No, no! Don’t tell me; I don’t want to know. John Bolton was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush late 2005 through most of 2006. He was addressing Iowa conservatives yesterday with an eye on a presidential run.

His opening words were an attack on President Obama as the first “post-American” president. He defined that tag as follows: “I didn’t say un-American, I didn’t say anti-American… [I said this] because he’s a citizen of the world. He doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism.” You didn’t see it? Here is a brief note about this speech on Politico. But this was not the first time Bolton had already said the same thing. He also said it at a Heritage Foundation do on May 18, 2010. Recycling speeches is parsimonious. The source for that is here from the Free Republic.

What Obama said was, to quote a Los Angeles Times story here—and Bolton repeated this as well—was “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

Now I’d always thought that that phrase simply means that Americans have had a unique experience—and little else. People have traced it back to some laudatory comments by de Tocqueville. Startled by the spin Bolton was giving this phrase, something rather metaphysical and strongly reminiscent of the Biblical chosen people, I went looking this morning to discover what Wikipedia might have to say. There I learned that this notion took on a stronger sort of meaning, a balsamic meaning, as it were (in the sense that balsamic vinegar is a lot more vinegarish than vinegar) under George W. Bush’s administration, namely that the United States is, in a way, above international—and therefore collective human—law.

Now to think that my family is special—or that my children are—all right. That’s understandable. It is a kind of feeling of self-worth. It doesn’t mean much more than that. It is just an expression of élan. But what John Bolton was saying shocked me out of my numerical trance with the realization that our elites are, nowadays, really, really below the salt and beyond the pale. Or is it that our exceptionalism hasn’t quite cancelled original sin? Having said this, I will now seek solace again contemplating the square root of minus-one.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

From Stone to Life

On my walk yesterday I decided that I’d pick up counting rabbits again. It takes a certain amount of attention—somewhat denied in a season when you keep the hood of the parka tight, the bill of the cap low. Mild, overcast weather. To get into the swing of things, I started counting rabbits made of stone, the cute things people put on their front stoops. It was a long walk, an hour and a half. As I neared the end of it I entered a cozy hidden little street called Roosevelt in Grosse Pointe. Here I found my tenth, eleventh, and finally my twelfth stone rabbit. Almost at the end of Roosevelt I peered through the gap between the side of a house and a tall hedge into the depths of a back yard. There in the back was another one. Big, grey. It looked very real to me, but its absolute stillness suggested a very successful sculpture. Birds were walking across the lawn. I was tempted to clap my hands to test this statue. But then a bird passed the rabbit—and the big old rabbit turned its head. My thirteenth rabbit was the live one! Mission accomplished, I wended my way home.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Age of the Inmates

Sometimes I look up something I know—but only know in a manner of speaking, by name and distantly. That happened yesterday in the context of the Usedom (see the last post). The town of Usedom—a small palace, 2,000 souls—is on Usedom the island; its eastern part belongs to Poland, the rest to the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Now Mecklenburg is one of sixteen German states (Länder). Most foreigners divide that country into West Germany and East, the latter the old Democratic Republic. Words like Bavaria and Saxony are widely known as regions—which of course they are—but not as states in our sense. And Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is not a household-word. Prussia, of which it was once a part, is. Germans—and those who’ve lived there—know it better. As I was pondering such matters, one of those vaguely meaningful associations came. They happen to those of us getting on. I sighed and thought: The age of the inmates…

Oh, the age of the inmates, I remember quite freely:
No younger than twelve, no older than seventeen.

These opening lines of Bob Dylan’s song, Walls of Red Wing—a song I featured a few days ago—have been coming back in this sort of context for many decades now. For me the thought simply means that some people, and peoples, and cultures, and regions are ancient beyond words—and some no older than seventeen. And that things are often relative to age.

The feeling came back again this morning. The New York Times greeted me with a color image of a huge red smoke and fire plume produced in Libya yesterday by a Tomahawk missile worth one million dollars. It had been launched to destroy some vehicles. Odd emotions surface in those early moments when I’m still coping—coping with the need to wake up again, and it’s still pitch black outside because the Supermoon has set. Present there was also the thought that Germany has sixteen states of which most people would have difficulty naming more than three. Because things are relative—and relative to age and distance, relative to time and space.

Germany’s land area is 138,000 square miles. But 82 million live there and nearly 600 per square mile. But think of it this way. With sixteen states Germany’s population per state is 5.1 million compared to the average per state in this country of 6.2 million. Comparable. But next consider that Texas has nearly 269,000 square miles. You could fit Germany into that space twice—with just a tiny sliver spilling over into Oklahoma. But Texas has a mere 24.1 million people, not quite 100 per square mile. To make another comparison, you could carve two-and-a-half Texases out of the land area of Libya (679,359 square miles). Yet only 6.4 million people live there and its population density is 9.4 people per square mile, less than a tenth of Texas’.

The age of the inmates? Human settlement in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, documented by megalithic tomb sites, goes back to the fading Ice Age 10,000 years ago. In Texas? There the Mississippian Culture emerged around about 1000 AD. And Libya? Well, the Neolithic Berbers frolicked there as early as 8000 BC. Frolicked? Yes. Things change as we move backward in time. When the Mecklenburgers of the post-Ice Age built their first stone tombs, Libya was a kind of paradise of lakes and forests teeming with fish and wildlife. And what did the Libyans do in their leisure time? They drew and painted lovely giraffes and gazelles on rock formations still surviving to our time.

I think I’m finally awake.
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Images from Wikipedia, the map here, the cave painting here.

Church and State

Researching the meaning of a dream—yes, a dream—Brigitte came across this image on the Internet. It represents St. Mary’s Church and the town hall of Stadt Usedom. She called me to see what she had found.

What prompted me to reproduce this image is that barely perceptible separation between church and state. Acts speak louder than words, and this proximity, in this old town in northern-most Germany, signals how things once were.

Usedom is a small town. In German Stadt means both city and town. The town hall is called a Rathaus, thus Council House. Usedom is part of one of the German states called Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

What equally prompted me is the odd nature of dreams. They rise up from the greatest depth of time—and space? Brigitte related the dream early in the morning. It was about a funeral and difficulties finding something black to wear. And then she said: “All this was taking place in a place called Usedom. Ever hear of a place like that?” — Ever ready to help interpret dreams, I offered: “Maybe Xanadu. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree. There is a dome in there—and Xanadu has a useful U.” — Brigitte looked rather doubtful. But later on, after getting up, she asked another and more useful oracle, Google. Well. Usedom actually exists. It is the more inclusive name of a large island in the Baltic Sea (see more in the next post). Brigitte spent her summer vacations on the shores of the Baltic in her youth. The name was there, somewhere, in her oldest memories, but the route by which it surfaced now is a mystery.

Church and state? Well, the parliament (Landtag) of West Pomerania embraced Christianity in 1128. Soon after that Usedom Abbey was established and built on the island—and the little town of Usedom aggregated into a settlement quite near it. And its people went on, building too, a church and, cheek by jowl, a Council House.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spring's Hello

First day of Spring, with footnotes by Winter.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Sun of York

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

On this last day of Winter, the words from Shakespeare Richard III reverberate. But we discover in the first line already, if we read it closely, that the subject here is really discontent, not the season that, just now, buds energetically in a young but still weak sun. Comes the second, punning line. The sun of York was King Edward IV of England. He’s dubbed the sun because he later adopted a blazing sun as his badge. And he was the son of York because he was the son of Richard Plantagenet, third Duke of York. Richard III, briefly king of England himself, was Edward’s youngest brother. Edward’s dates were 1442-1483, a mere 41 years. Despite living in a violent time—much of the violence caused by his own good self (but in a good cause, as always)—he died of natural causes. So much for life expectancy then. And though a king of England, he was born in France. Now to provide the flavor of the fifteenth century, here is Edward’s early resume as brought to us by Wikipedia: “Before becoming King he was 4th Duke of York, 7th Earl of March, 5th Earl of Cambridge, and 9th Earl of Ulster. He was also the 65th Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece.” (Image source is here).

What sort of world was the fifteenth century? Here in the Americas, the big name was Moctezuma. The Aztecs had reached their pinnacle—but the European ships were heading out their way. Just nine years after Edward died, Columbus landed. In the Old World the Ottomans were just beginning their great expansion into an empire. The Hunnish Golden Horde had invaded Siberia a couple of years before Edward was born. Joan of Arc was a big name, but she was burnt alive (at 19) eleven years before Edward was born. In Edward’s time, and under his rule, civil war raged in England, not between the haves and have nots but between the House of York and the House of Lancaster. That was the War of the Roses. Other wars? How about the Thirteen Years War? In that conflict the Teutonic Knights buckled under and Poland seized Prussia. There was the Hundred Years War, the Valois v. Plantagenets (to the latter of whom we are related, in this post, by way of Edward’s dad). The Sikh religion was founded in 1469 with Edward just 27.

Now some footnotes. The Order of the Golden Fleece was a chivalric order founded in 1430 in Burges in Flanders. That word in the quote, lour’d? It comes from Middle English louren. One of its meanings is to lie in wait; another is to look sullen or to frown. And thus the line might be rendered modern by saying “And all the clouds that frowned upon our house.”

Now our distance in time from the Sun of York’s ascension to the throne (1461) is 550 years. And his world looks very, very different from ours—except for the important things, the wars. So I got to thinking. What might it be like 550 years from now, thus in the year 2561. I was hoping that Star Trek would help me. But it happens that the farthest-out episode in that glorious series, in this millennium, anyway, is 2387. Now around our clan we like to sigh, or acerbically remark, that we’ve not yet achieved a Star Trek level of civilization. And, indeed, I rather suspect that we won’t. But what we might achieve is whatever blazing glory Edward IV represented. And with that in mind, the winter of our discontent might ease up just a little—especially since the sun will dawn on Spring tomorrow.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mandala

The word simply means circle in Sanskrit. Sanskrit is one of the oldest subdivisions of Indo-European languages of which our own (a blend of Germanic and Italic) is one as well. But my subject, is sanity, and, today, its symbol. More narrowly the mandala is a religious symbol of Hinduism and Buddhism, but you’ll find it everywhere, not least immediately underfoot. The photo shows the old, worn carpet in Brigitte’s study. The eternal conflicts of humanity are harmoniously balanced in the mandala and disappear in its center. In Christianity the cross is the symbol of the conflict, Jesus Christ its center and resolution. The International Red Cross emblem is also a mandala. The most interestingly suggestive symbol I found this morning is a Navaho sand-painting (one of many used in religious ceremonies) which is a kind of circle built of bodies, and it also features a cross in the center. I found it on Wikipeia here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

No Self-Consciousness

Nations have no self-consciousness, obviously. They never look into the mirror. They’re never genuinely shocked, ashamed, or startled by their own behavior. They never “catch” themselves. Similarly animals. Animals never blush. Winston, our Lab, sometimes cowered and slunk away in fright; I might have interpreted that as shame, but it was simply knowledge that a certain behavior would cause me to berate him. He felt no guilt as such. We project ourselves into the animal.

Several days of catching glimpses of the news brought this to mind again. Japan and earthquake, Japan and a potential meltdown. In the flurry of coverage, our reporters are saying things spontaneously. On the one hand they’re struck by Japanese formality, sang froid, discipline. On the other they project the notion that Japanese are in some way inferior, that they somehow don’t understand nuclear power like we do. One CNN correspondent assured us (yesterday, the day before, it blurs) that we’ve no cause for concern. American experts are present, advising, and U.S. troops are there too. It didn’t therefore surprise me at all that the NYT lead with a story today telling me that our Nuclear Regulatory Commission sees things in much darker light than the Japanese government evidently does. Or, perhaps, chooses. But never mind that. It’s the same in every context. Other nations can’t even police their streets if we don’t dispatch our experts to train them.

This way of seeing isn’t new. It is a tribal projection. It is biological, low, chthonic. It led to pogroms in the past. It is the fear of strangers. The Yellow Peril. The White Man’s burden. Etc. It can be positive or negative. A positive form of it was the view of America by the rest of the world after World War II. Superior. For those of us who came here as naïve immigrants, it was a bit of a shock to discover that Americans were just human, like everybody else.

The peculiarly modern form of it, due to the enormous spread of the media, it seems, is the strange feeling on the part of often very sophisticated and sensitive people that something like a group mind (and therefore self-consciousness of the many) may actually exist—or may be in the process of evolving. I’ve recently encountered this in Doris Lessing’s science fiction novels, collectively Canopus in Argos: Archives. There she projects both a very benign collective consciousness, that of Canopus, and a very dark one, Shammat. But it does not actually exist, not in high forms, nor in low, the low suggested by rhetorical forms proclaiming that the American people have spoken—for this or against that.

Self-consciousness requires a genuine agent. There must be a there there. The blended voices of several hundred thousands of people, our communications elites, do not a person make. But they do reflect a tribal reflex.
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The Uncle Sam teddy bear may be purchased for $69 here. I found the little Samurai here; if sold at all, it will probably run a lot more.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

State of the Village

Our own John Magee, who is president of the village council of Wolverine Lake, MI, provides a summary of his State of the Village presentation to the community on his website, here. Wolverine Lake is a small community of 4,415 people (2000 Census) on the western edge of the Detroit Metro area. It is a lake community. The population described in other ways is 1,671 households and 1,253 families. The report is well-worth reading in order to get a feel for what governance means at this you might say cellular level of American life. Things are quite complex. As members of the family, we know a lot of details hidden behind the points John makes, and every time we hear about them, the same thought occurs to me: Nothing’s simple, and the world’s complexity is all there at the lowest levels. The work that goes into being the president of a village council is enormous—and compensated with the great Nada. It’s a labor of love. This month’s theme on this blog is the search for sanity, and John's report is a worthy contribution to that search!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Walls of Red Wing

In a comment to yesterday’s post Brigitte mentioned another of our Joan Baez, Bob Dylan favorites. She did so unaware that just below it I’d linked to “Spanish Boots.” So herewith a link to the song. The last verse, as before:

Oh, some of us will wind up in St. Cloud prison
And some of us’ll end up to be lawyers and things
And some of us’ll stand to meet you on your crossroads
From inside the grounds of the walls of Red Wing

The photo of Baez, also from Wikipedia’s article on her, shows her at age 62. The shot, above, courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, is the actual Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing. It’s address is 1079 Highway 292, Red Wing, MN 55066—in case you’d like to arrange to meet a best friend on its grounds. The walls, of wire, are also visible…if you look closely.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Original Paradise

During my walk yesterday, just supervising Winter’s rapid retreat, I came across a green door in a wall. A modest house, a proportional wall, a pleasing door. The photos show the exterior and then the space the walls contain. I was pleased, struck, and memories arose, quite curious memories, memories of the time long ago when Brigitte returned to school and we became life-long students of biology. If this sounds like a non-sequitur, be patient. We used to sit around endlessly and talk about the cell, and I can still hear Brigitte saying: “In the beginning, there was the wall!”

Yes. The first assertion of life’s presence is the cellular wall. It carves the first ever private space out of the vast chaotic random. The wall of the cell, to be sure, is already a very complex something, but it is a final something, a triumph! Closure, you might say. At the same time it’s the beginning of something destined to become enormous and always magical. Life. Or at least its manifestation in the order of matter.

Long before the cell came into my conscious view, architectural enclosures had already fascinated me—the Roman atrium, the courtyard, the vast hollows of cathedrals. Humanity’s first habitation was in Paradise, and it had pleased me to discover that that word derives from the original Persian words for surrounded and wall, pairi and daeza: the walled garden.

The rest of my walk turned into a contemplation of this very basic subject, the inner and the outer—and I examined every enclosure for its meaning. Low, decorative walls easy to see over spoke of a desire to define but yet to invite eyes to admire. Bald wire fencing told me to say out—and that I would be closely observed as I passed. If they were further thickened by hedges, the wire meant to keep out animals; it was the job of the hedges to block intrusive human eyes. Wrought-iron proclaimed the presence of money, the stature of the owner, sometimes high taste. Tall solid walls always proclaimed that two realities exist—one within and one without, and the within is sacred.

Inside and out. Another pair in the endless duality. But these enclosures also emphasize that those two are never equal. It must have been a dark day indeed when Adam and Eve, heads bent, had to pass through that gate east of Eden.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Spanish Boots

Joan Baez is one of the great stars for us, and here she is, singing a Bob Dylan song, one of her best. Here the last verse of the song:

So take heed, take heed of the western wind
Take heed of the stormy weather
And yes, there's something you can send back to me
Spanish boots of Spanish leather.

The photo, from Wikipedia here, shows them both. Lord, do they look young! Time passes with a swirl...

Newfoundland Time Zone

This time of years, resetting clocks, I’m sometimes reminded of the fact that Newfoundland, in Canada, has a time zone named after itself. It’s 8:30 am here in Detroit as I write and 10:00 am in Newfoundland. That zone also covers the eastern parts of Labrador, which is to the north. If you live in St. John’s, NL, and are talking to someone in New York, you can’t just tell them: “I’ll call you back at ten-thirty my time”—without a little more explanation.

The first time I heard of this, it startled me. Time zones ought to be, I thought, separated from each other by a distance that divides evenly by hours. Here we start getting decimals. Time zone assignment are also quite arbitrary here and there. In Canada Saskatchewan is in the Central Time zone, but the Northern Territories directly to the north of that province operate on Mountain Time.

Time zone anomalies (as these are called) occur in the United States as well. A really fun post on a blog called Twelve Mile Circle here discusses time zones within the Navajo reservation. Arizona on its borders and the Hopis whom the Navajos surround—except for one enclave that the Hopis surround (!)—have different approaches to daylight savings time. Arizona and the Hopis do not observe it; the Navajos do. The same post also has a map showing how Mountain and Pacific times zones are bounded along Idaho’s border. Strangely, is the word.

Daylight savings time was officially introduced on April 30, 1916 by Germany; Germany’s allies in World War I observed it. It was called Sommerzeit (summer time). The ancients also observed it but in another way. The Romans divided the day into halves, each of 12 hours, 12 daylight, twelve dark. Roman water clocks had different scales for summer and for winter time. If you read the summer scale, daylight hours had 75 minutes; on the winter scale they had 44 minutes. Smart, in a way. But, of course, no wristwatches then. (My source here is Wikipedia).

What all of this proves for me is that humanity reigns supreme even over time. Time’s made for us, not we for time. And different strokes for different folks. Europeans don’t begin saving their daylight this early in the year (wastrels!), but virtuous we do.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Our Games Teach Us Pop Culture

We were playing Bananagrams again. I was finished with a perfectly square 10 x 10 structure requiring only the placement of a Z. After long staring I finally put it in. The partial image here shows where I put it. The top horizontal is PROKARYOTS, the left vertical is POTENTIALS, the middle word is TACHOMETER. The CHE is, of course, the first name of someone called Guevara.

I showed the puzzle to Brigitte, who is a quick study, mind, and instantly she said “RZA? What is that? OZ I recognize as the Wizard, but RZA?” — “That’s RCA as they might write it in Russia,” I said, both laughing and blushing a little.

It’s just a game…

But then, later, I went down to see if there is an abbreviation like that, something that isn’t all that obscure. Googled RZA. Well! You learn something every day. The very first item Google presented was a Wikipedia article (here) on Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, described as “an American Grammy-winning music producer, author, rapper, and occasional actor, director, and screenwriter.” It turns out that RZA is his stage name. Our Bananagrams rules are that the word must be in the dictionary or be notable in the culture so that one can readily write a clue for it, as in a crossword puzzle. The clue for RZA is therefore “Stage name of Rapper Robert Diggs.”

It’s just a deadly serious and tense game around here, each of us peering over ramparts of dictionaries…

Friday, March 11, 2011

Put Not Your Trust…

Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. Psalms 146:3.
I was a boy of six when I won my first award, a golden star, and my peers’ approval. I’d memorized the Hungarian national poem and recited it to my first grade class with shining eyes and childish force. The children cheered, and my teacher, a sister, had tears in her eyes. Big emotional moment. Golden star.

I was born into an age of nationalism, and in Hungary as elsewhere—never mind that I was in a Catholic school—the love of country was the powerful thematic, constantly in front of us. Small Hungary is not a country, Great Hungary is heaven. That rhymes in Hungarian. We all knew that rhyme. The maps we used showed Great Hungary, with fat borders—small Hungary with faint borders; much of the great country was Slovak, Austrian, Serb, and Romanian.

Love of country was conflated then, and still is today, with political power and the figure of the ruler. In Hungary our ruler then was the Regent, Admiral Horthy. Horthy was a decent man, by the way, a worthy sort; he rose to power in opposing a communist take-over of the country in 1919, in the course of which both of my grandfathers had either been arrested or faced by a mob. But worth is not my point. To love one’s country is appropriate, My country, right or wrong, is not. And growing up involves learning that famous verse in Psalms and, further, discovering a modern wording for it: Put not your trust in collectives.

I was a young man of twenty, a newly-trained soldier in the United States Army, en route by air to Germany to join my unit there, when the 1956 Hungarian revolution flared up briefly. During a brief stop-over in Scotland, I was astounded to discover the little airport filled with Hungarian refugees. I spent my stop-over talking to them. Would Eisenhower intervene and help this uprising? I hoped that he would; I was then still young enough to hope; but by then I was grown up and my hope therefore faint.

Over and over and over again. The same patterns repeat. The words are in the holy books but the reality on the ground is always something else. These thoughts recurred the moment the recent revolutionary phenomenon began in Tunisia and rolled forward, the Media Chorus excitedly cheering and, nowadays, sobering as Khadafy seems to be getting a grip. No-fly zones are up in the air, sanctions take wing in the skies, security councils secure things in the abstract but never in the real. Meanwhile little children, right hand laid over little young hearts, sweetly sing the words: “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.”

A work in progress, as we say nowadays.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Maundy?

I haven’t researched a word in a bit, and with Easter now looming ahead, Maundy Thursday tempted me. I’d never looked at that word before—nor have I ever seen it used except as a decoration of the Thursday before Easter Sunday. This year it will come on April 21. I learned from my trusted source (Online Etymology Dictionary) that the word derives from the Latin phrase Mandatum novum do vobis: “A new command I give you,” found in John 13:34. Jesus said this on the night of the Last Supper after washing the feet of the Apostles. In Middle English maunder meant “the Last Supper.” Thus from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to Old French, where it is mandé, to English. Our 1909 Webster, the oldest dictionary we own, adds another meaning, that of alms. Evidently alms were given on this Thursday, known as the maundy, and in England a “royal maundy” is still paid out. This formulation appears to be uniquely English. In Germany this Thursday is simply Osterdonnerstag, in French Jeudi saint.

For me this word is a nice example of how the mind interprets language it doesn’t understand precisely. I’d never looked up maundy because I assumed that it meant “sad,” probably an old meaning that stems from to maunder, to grumble, to wander about listlessly (which we do when we are sad), to speak in a mumbling, disconnected way—also a symptom of sadness. Turns out that that word, to maunder, is derived from the sixteenth century to maund, to beg; and that root from the French mendier, also to beg. It’s sad to be a beggar, of course. And Maudy Thursday is a sad sort of day, leading up to Good Friday as it does. The mind copes. But it’s more enlivening to look things up.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

God’s Back, But Not the Word

I was out shopping yesterday, hence plugged into NPR. Driving to Costco I heard about James Gleick’s book, The Information. NPR’s Robert Siegel was interviewing Gleick on “All Things Considered,” the subject being this new book. Gleick is a writer on science and technology. The five-minute segment is accessible here.

Here is a summary statement in Gleick’s own words: “Information is, we now know, the vital principle of our own world. It’s what the world runs on.” Gleick tells us that physicist tell us that information at its absolute core is a single “bit.” That bit has two possible states, yes/no, either/or, on/off. Robert Siegel then suggests that such a thing as the moon, for instance, surely as it were exists, just so, and that it becomes “information” only when a person sees it. Gleick’s response is an interesting summation of this new view of information. He says:

I am not suggesting that physicist have given up on the idea that there are such things as matter and energy, far from it, but physicist have started to talk as though at the fundamental core of things lies information.
What is missing here, of course—and the aspect that Robert Siegel was trying unsuccessfully to introduce—is that the concept of information, as either an idea or as “knowledge communicated”—necessarily implies the presence of a conscious being that holds the idea or communicates it to another being who is also conscious. Information in the total absence of a person is unintelligible. Gleick does, at the very end, say that this all sounds a little mystical. And it does—unless, of course, we include the missing element banned from the concept of information (agency, intentionality). When we do, things rapidly sort.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Notes on the News

One sub-genre of journalism consists of handwringing about the exploitive journalistic coverage of persons who’ve gained notoriety. Contributors to this genre must surely be aware that their handwringing itself is also exploiting this same exploited notoriety.

That season is back: whole pages of pictures of fashion show runways feature females dressed as I never see them dressed at Kroger. This makes me wonder if the economic footprint of haute couture is in any way proportional to its coverage in the papers. My guess is, not—but since this is an international activity, Census won’t have data on it, which is tedious, tedious. Those tall starved figures, those pouty expressions, those languid movements…

With Khadafy refusing to play the role assigned him by our myths, maps of the campaigns in Libya are in the papers, and with a sudden shock I realize that I know where this place is—and I also know the kind of country that it is. Why, isn't this the country that’s nothing but a single road tracing the edge of the world’s greatest desert on its northern extent, the road Rommel fought his way east on and retreated west again on his way back? Yes, it is. Yes. Geographic memories sunk into darkness suddenly surface. And I realize what a fantastic showman Khadafy really is—to make this desert strip into a country in the first place—and so vividly I thought it was somewhere else. But I know this miserable strip. I do. Again.

Note on Note. Brigitte informs me that Tripoli used to be the site of an enormous American air base. Yes. Libya is a part of the globe ambitious powers use to get somewhere else. Okay, so it has a little oil…

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pressure

Rapid and efficient means of communication, especially coupled with sufficient leisure to use it, have increased what these days is known as “pressure.” The word occurs so often and so casually, it struck me that a closer look might be worthwhile. The thought floated into my mind while we listened to a reading of Lincoln first inaugural address. March 4th marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s swearing in. In that address the President gave an interesting tutorial on the meaning of “faithfully [to] execute the Office of President,” and this in the context of “pressure” on the government that soon after his oath had been rendered took the most extreme form of all: war. The Civil War began a mere thirty-nine days after Lincoln’s inauguration, on April 12, 1861.

The contrast between the nature of pressure and the President’s exposition of the meaning of constitutional government is interesting. What Lincoln said in essence was that no element of the Constitution had been violated by the government, hence any action that fell outside the constitutional rules represented a fundamental breach of law and of the union. The secession had commenced February 4 of that fateful year; thus the Constitution had been already been broken, de facto. But no violence had yet taken place. That happened with the attack at Fort Sumner.

Now my present intent is to examined the milder meanings of that concept, “pressure,” in order to examine how to understand that word in a political context. It certainly means something other than “providing information” or “engaging in debate.” When someone corrects my spelling or hands me the right tool when I’ve grabbed the wrong one, when someone reasons with me calmly to show me another way of seeing things—such things surely aren’t pressure—although they might produce annoyance. When people complain of “high pressure sales tactics,” the line has been crossed. Polite persuasion has descended a step and is now attempting to engage my emotions which (why else complain) I view as inappropriate in a selling situation.

Pressure tactics of whatever kind, therefore, involve a kind of force that, viewed soberly, falls outside the reasonable arrangement of a situation where restraint is required instead. President Lincoln argued for orderly behavior within the rules—while agreeing that, had the rules really been violated, revolution would be legitimate. He pointed out that that frequent elections give the people legitimate ways to change the government if the public is disappointed—especially under rules where minorities are protected.

Government under laws or government under pressure. Or, what the actual situation is today, government under laws but also under great pressure. The job of the President is not to lead but to execute the laws. The job of legislators is to make laws, not to drum up popular support, read generate pressure, to overcome legislators who would vote the other way. It was oddly refreshing to hear Lincoln's speech—attempting to persuade, without a threat in sight—in a day and age where the exertion of pressure through endless mechanisms of the Information Age is politics—by way of polls, pundits, press releases, talk shows, focus groups, conferences, demonstrations, and on. Very interesting. So pervasive is pressure, in our times, that those engaged in politics barely have time to remember what their actual job description is, never mind getting down to business. And the public, similarly, embraces pressure when it emanates from groups it favors—and only critiques it when it emanates from the opposite side. Can I think of recent demonstrations I don’t disapprove of? Yes, I can. No sooner have we elected representatives than we rally to undo the will of the majority. By pressure. But pressure is always the use of illegitimate force—at least as viewed from the highest human level. Yes. We’re all in this together, as it were. Force against reason. Not doing—once our representatives have been elected—is acutely painful after all.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

An Artificial Sensory System

In the so-called Information Age we can know much more rapidly and much more vividly (if not comprehensively) what transpires in countless areas that fall outside the region we can actually touch in daily life by ordinary action. This age, of course, is the fruit of electronic communications technology. Before this artificially maintained “sensory system” came into being, we were well adapted to the information that managed to reach us. A nice balance existed between input and output. If we saw, heard, touched, or smelled something, we could act upon it. Now we cannot. We can know, but we cannot act. But our biology is still adapted to the old dispensation; it tells us that we can. But we cannot. Structures of persuasion have evolved to exploit this new impotence of ours in various ways. We’re told: “You can, too. Just send some money.” But we cannot really. No doubt this all came about innocently enough, people doing what promised to be successful. The Big Lie just came about. It was made plausible—and remains somewhat plausible still—because democratic processes remain in place. These, at great intervals of time, provide a relatively low-resolution feedback mechanism. By low-resolution what I mean is that we never vote on narrow policies but in favor of huge ambiguous clouds in the shapes of which we’re invited to recognize concrete actions that only seem to be there—like that lamb in the cloud. In practice, however, it is best to resist the Big Lie and to accept our impotence as real. We cannot actually micromanage the collective reality. Our powers to influence it are limited. The efforts to influence us by constant bombardments of persuasion waste our emotional energies. At the same time, all this furor, if resisted, leaves untouched our ability to do all sorts of useful, helpful things in daily life.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Basic Error?

A basic error hidden behind all forms and kinds of social and cultural critique may be an almost-never examined assumption, namely that all human beings are uniformly conscious and alert. This sometimes comes in a milder variant, namely the assumption that the wealthy and powerful people are uniformly conscious and alert. Holding this assumption then produces the conclusion that their thoughtless, self-centered, exploitive actions must necessarily arise from conscious and knowing choice of evil over good.

Yet another form of the error may be the assumption that all humans are capable of the same high level of consciousness—if only they knew the facts. This produces the conclusion that reform will naturally happen by informing or “educating” the public.

But these assumptions may all be factually wrong. The basic error may lie in projecting capacities onto the entire human population never uniformly present in any majority no matter what its economic or educational status may be. And if that is true, any kind of improvement begins to look a whole lot more difficult—and critique alone may then be seen as largely useless (if not unprofitable).

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Better Definitions

In our march to greater sanity, good news came yesterday. The Supreme Court decided unanimously (Justice Kagan had excused herself) that corporation could not claim “personal privacy” in protecting their papers. The case is Federal Communications Commission et al. v. AT&T Inc. et al. The Court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, is here. The good news lies in the fact that the Court, while not challenging the notion that corporations are persons, does affirm that corporations are not human—and as such have no right to privacy. The relevant language is this:

AT&T’s argument treats the term “personal privacy” as simply the sum of its two words: the privacy of a person. Under that view, the defined meaning of the noun “person,” or the asserted specialized legal meaning, takes on greater significance. But two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation. We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold. A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky, and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed. “Personal” in the phrase “personal privacy” conveys more than just “of a person.” It suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns—not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T. [Emphasis added by me.]
Well! I find this encouraging. What Justice Roberts is doing here is actually weakening the concept of “person” as applied to an “entity.” That’s a step in the direction of sanity and promises possibly other definitional ventures.

One that comes to mind is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the core of which is a definition. Our President has decided that it is unconstitutional, but he is not actually the person or the branch of the government designated to decide such matters. Hence DOMA may eventually be decided by the Supreme Court.

I hope that Justice Roberts also writes that opinion. He has a colorful way of expressing himself, and therefore I anticipate that he might, along with a whole slew of other examples taken from ordinary language, say something like the following: “When in that variant of the game of poker known as ‘Texas hold’em’ a player claims to have a ‘marriage’ in his hand, the player may be presumed to be holding a king and a queen, not a pair of jacks or a pair of queens.”

The use of the word “march” in the first sentence of this post is a pun intended.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reading a Book

One madness worthy of practice in the search of sanity is to do something so very rarely done it might be dubbed miraculous. That is actually to read one of the famous books everybody knows all about but only scholars ever read—and possibly they only do so because other scholars might then discover that they hadn’t, and then it would be Katie bar the door. March is a good time to start.

Contrarian that I am, I did that a while back, last fall, and read Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Yep, the paper version, cover to cover. I have an ancient version with illustrations from the 1865 original. It’s not in very good shape, and if I took it to the Antiques Roadshow the next time it swings by, I wouldn’t get on camera with it. Where it comes from I don’t know, but on its blank outer page is a touching inscription in pencil in a rather childish hand:

FROM S. CLAUS
To
Margaret
Victoria
Mauder
December 25, 1909
Braymer
Ma

It’s a fascinating experience to read a book like that in a quiet room, no music, you know what I mean. Reading is emphatically not the same as watching a movie, and the qualities that arise from the experience are radically different. For this very reason, I’ve always avoided movies made of classics, most recently shunning Lord of the Rings. Alice is a slender little book, a mere 159 pages in extent—and mad, mad, mad in that sense of the word suggesting that it presents a Higher Sanity.

Written as it was in the mid-nineteenth century—thus far enough back in time so that its relevance to current times might seen rather dubious—it is doubly effective as a portrait, no doubt, of social life in its time—and in ours, squared. Carroll was just falling into the rabbit hole and, on the historical time scale, described just the first few moments of that fall. We, by contrast, are in Wonderland. But it’s already all there: swimming in our own pools of tears, the caucus race which is, by definition, in a circle and everybody wins (then) and loses (now), the meaningless but harsh-sounding commands from above, the tea party that never ends, the house of cards. Some of the verse is amazing; it takes real genius to imitate the sound of sense while depriving each sentence of all coherent meaning.

What struck me as one quality of this book that simply can’t be captured in a movie is the relentless nature of the madness depicted. It goes on and on and on—and yet entertainingly, absorbingly, full of sound and fury, action and event. On and on. Unrelenting. Meaningless—except to show in dire mixture human values boiling away in mindless bursts of inanity. The script of today written a century-and-a-half ago.

To refresh my memory, I took a look at Disney’s treatment of the subject in cartoons and films, looking at trailers. It had me nodding my head. Alice in Wonderland these weren’t. Not as written. Not as experienced by those who’ve read the books. I look forward to reading the next great book I know all about but have never opened. Beats cable, every time.

March Thematic

A good one might be “Search for Sanity”—and that because March, in a sense, is dedicated to madness. Is that because Spring comes, at last, late in the month—and by that time we’ve lost our sanity to Winter? Yes, come to think of it, Spring must have something to do with it. I’m told that the phrase “Mad as a March Hare” goes all the way back to the mid-sixteenth century. As the weather turns mild, we expect to see squirrels behaving madly here. The Mad Hatter is closely associated with that famous hare. March Madness comes this month, the NCAA basketball championship. Hiding behind the furnace, I can mutter madly that frenzy over basketball is madness anytime, but never mind. We also live just a short canoe-ride from Canada across Lake Saint Claire, and in that country March is a mad month because it is the last one in Canada’s fiscal year. Frantic budget battles break out.

In my country of birth, humble little Hungary, Március tizenötödike, March 15th, thus the day right smack in the middle of the month, is the national holiday. It is Hungary’s independence day. Its first celebration took place in 1848. Now I submit that a little country like Hungary is mad to imagine that it can be independent for very long. Hungary’s independence lasted until 1849. Then came Russian troops (much as they also came later, in another revolution, in 1956, that one also crushed), but that first time the Russians came at the behest of Austria’s Franz Joseph. And so on it’s gone ever since, with brief and troubled periods of token, quasi, and actual independence. Sheer madness to aspire. But the aspiration alone, the Search for Sanity, is itself worthy of national celebration.