Sunday, July 31, 2011

Are Shins Actually Involved?

Late night conversation last night in wider company produced the question: “Where does the word shindig, come from?” The questioner thought that it might have Irish origins. Not quite but mayhap. The origin is Scottish. Online Etymology Dictionary dates it to 1871 (dance, party, lively gathering) and adds that it probably came from the word shindy (1821) which meant “a spree, merrymaking.” Reaching further back, we get shinty, which was a kind of hockey-like game called, even earlier (1670s), a shinny. And that word, discounted by the word “perhaps,” comes from Gaelic sinteag, meaning a bound or a leap. The same word, but used as a verb, as in to shinny, meant to climb a rope, presumably using the shins and the ankles. So shins are—remotely—involved. And, for good measures, you might have jumped up on the rope a little executing a sinteag.

But if Gaelic was the original language, the Irish may have something to add as well, for all we know, because Gaelic is a Goidelic language, thus one branch of the Celtic tongue, the one they call “insular.” The other one was presumably spoken on the bigger landmass of what we now call Europe, but it was overwhelmed by the Latin.

Our Dictionary of American Slang, using the word “probably” (useful, these words, for etymologists) dares to be literal and says “a blow on the shin incurred while dancing,” saying they found this usage in 1859, adding “perhaps [!] by folk etymology fr the older shindy.” That dictionary also associates the word with a clambake.

Next time you’re invited to a shindig, leap to the occasion—and wear a tartan skirt or, if you insist on honoring the Irish, green.
Wikipedia has an article on Shinty here as it is still played  in Scotland. Twelve players on each side. The image from the old days comes from a history of field hockey here. In Wales the game was called Bandy—now only played on ice. Ice… Ah! It has such a nice sound on this last day of a hot July!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cultural Indicator: The Opposition Response

Since 1790 U.S. presidents gave a State of the Union report—and no response from any opposition followed. For much of our history, these reports were written rather than spoken. This repeated for 176 years until, in 1966, with Lyndon Johnson president, began the practice of an opposition response. Since then, with but one exception, Lyndon Johnson’s last State of the Union, every oral presentation of this report has been followed by negative congressional echoes.

I still remember, when the first one came (and every time after) thinking that this was somehow wrong. We don’t have two or three presidents. Why two or three states of the union? The Constitution, Article II, Section 3, requires the president to give such reports. There’s nothing in the Constitution about an Opposition Response. The response demeans the office, degrades the symbol—and when the symbols are tarnished, look out.

Certain kinds of opposition are out of place. When the Queen of England Speaks—to be sure echoing sentiments approved by the majority in Parliament—the opposition keeps mum. My perception is that respect for the office of president in our country has been visibly declining, and ever-increasing “opposition responses” to every major presidential address are the formal sign of that. The actual signs are many and increasing—thus behavior that actual signals contempt for the president, done by a nod and a wink, but clearly understood by vast constituencies. But therein lies genuine danger.

Grim although the prospect is—and unlikely that I’ll actually live to see it—this too shall pass. A time will come when some future president will speak and no one will rise to give a response—because it might prove lethal. And after that future presidents won’t bother giving states of the union, either, because there will no longer be a union in our current sense. Time is on my side. Whatever rises is sure to fall; whatever sinks is sure to rise again. And when it does, it won’t be pretty. Pay me now or pay me later.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Let’s Hear it for Bombina

If members of the Kingdom Animalia could communicate through the Media and, doing so, keep a sharp eye out for discriminatory treatment of their many kinds, be sure that one of the most vocal of the Orders would be the Anura, the classification that includes all of the species of Frog. So where does the toad belong? It turns out that, taxonomically, they are frogs, and the toad designation might be viewed, if you’re a frog, as scurrilous.

Let’s imagine a situation in which the Order of Anura took part in what is known as the Great Dialogue on Living Being Rights. And just so that we, the humans, would get the message right up front, face-to-face, and personally, the chief spokesperson chosen by Frogdom to represent it would no doubt be a European Fire-bellied Toad, a person of quick wit, sardonic temper, and stunning looks—and she would be known frequently to say to the press. “Linnaeus Schminaeus! look. Just tell me what I look like. Do I look like a frog or don’t I? Did I call myself a European Fire-Bellied Toad or did I call myself Bombina bombina? The latter, you will find. Look high and low in Linnaeus’ classification scheme. I urge you to do it. Dig, dig, dig. Nowhere—I assure you, nowhere—will you encounter the word ‘toad’ within the order of Anura. Yes, yes. I know. One of you will say that the Family Bufonidae are called the ‘true’ toads. You might say that. But we, in the Order of Anura, deny any such designations apparently based on your distorted aesthetic sense and well known color prejudices. Do I look brown to you? Only if you’re color-blind. But I’m a toad so far as you’re concerned. Nor will you find Bufonidae anywhere in my name. But I’m still a toad. Well, in defense of the Bufonidae—and the 500 species they represent—I must insist that none of them thinks itself a toad either! You point to special glands in the back of their heads that they use to squirt poisons? Well, my dears! What you call poison is a uniquely delightful chemical feature of all frog designs, in some more, in some less self-dramatized. Our research—and we’ve done it in depth—suggests that Linnaeus never used the word. Neither should you. There are no toads—only frogs. And tell them Bombina told you.”

Inspired by reading “I killed the Bufo Toad,” by Mark Derr in the New York Times (July 23, 2011). Pic thanks to Wikipedia here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Nests of All Kinds

They rest, float, hang. They’re scraped, found, dug, hung. They’re formed of pebbles, sticks, living plants, horse-hair, reed, stalks, mud, anything at all. They are often reinforced, wedged between branches, carved out of living cactus plants, and suspended or glued using spider-silk. Most are hidden or carefully camouflaged; in some the bird seals itself in and is fed by its mate through a slit. Some are rudely appropriated from groundhogs—and some the most visible feature of the landscape as you look up—or of the urban skyline in a town, provided of course that its population tolerates birds. More on that in a moment. My subject is Avian Architecture, the title of a new book (June 2011) by Peter Goodfellow, just recently published by Princeton University Press. Brigitte saw a review of it intriguing enough so that we bought a copy then and there. It has given us great pleasure and we recommend it to anyone interested in the natural world—and as Sidney Lanier once put it, in the greatness of God:

As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God.
         Sidney Lanier, The Marshes of Glynn
Goodfellow is a retired English Teacher, birdwatcher, and author of other books on birds. Avian Architecture has wonderful pictures but is much more than a coffee-table book. First, it’s short, 160 pages. Then it is organized into twelve chapters—each one about one of the major categories of nests. Goodfellow divides his chapters into an introductory text with illustrations, a spread with “blueprints” that lay out the schematics of the nest-type under discussion. Next comes a spread on materials used and special features. Then follow case studies of different species, in all manner of environments, and how they deploy this type of nest. Fascinating stuff. And, indeed, one cannot help but wonder about the creation of such marvelous ways of hatching eggs and raising chicks.

We grew up in Europe in smaller towns and therefore grew up with stork nests. My first experience of one was in Tirschenreuth, in Germany, where a nest sat on top of Tirschenreuth’s famed church, Mariä Himmelfahrt (Mary’s Assumption). A stork nest was evidently continuously present on that church since the nineteenth century, although not always on the church’s roof. It now has its home on the roof of the vicarage, as shown in the photograph. You may have to click on the photo and then enlarge it to see the nest well. Sometimes humans participate in nest-building too. This particular stork’s nest has a steel platform installed there with some effort, using a fire-engine crane, in 2009, to give the storks (they arrive unfailingly in Spring) a better home.

To show another kind of highly visible nest, the picture on the left shows the suspended nests of the Crested Oropendolas. They are black birds, with blue eyes, yellow beaks, and have a long, vividly yellow tail. Goodfellow classifies such nests under the category of Hanging, Woven, and Stitched Nests and covers them in wondrous detail in Chapter Eight. The one I’m showing is a sub-category called the woven pendulous basket. It is three feet long and seven inches wide at the bottom. You will find a detailed blueprint in the book. The photograph I’m showing, however, comes courtesy of the Trinidad Birding website here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hot July

It’s blistering outside but cool in my basement. The head doesn’t work in the heat and must be distracted. I’ve distracted myself by looking for long-term temperature charts provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Mind, they don’t actually administer the oceans and the atmosphere; nor do they service the weather through the National Weather Service. But they measure and record things. Here, for instance, are charted data for two years, 2000 and 2010, showing both temperature and precipitation for the Detroit, MI metro area:

Of interest here is the dark blue quiver overlaying the green and topped and tailed by pink and blue. The dark blue indicates actual highs and lows. I’ve looked at a decade of such charts, and with one exception (2003, in which August looked hotter), July uniformly ranks as the hottest month. The inset is a legend to the graph above. Clicking it will make it easier to comprehend. The pink colors are all time highs, the blue the all time lows, and the green is an average of the highs and lows.

If we compare the two years, looking at July, we see that temperatures were generally lower in 2000 than in 2010. And looking at all of the annual plots (available here—and you can enter your own city to localize the display) shows a steady increase in temperature to the current time.

The graphic on the left shows July-only data for 2000, 2010, and 2011. I graphed the 2011 data myself from published figures through July 21, thus yesterday. 2011 looks like it is aiming for a record too…

Knowing which I pause for a moment to contemplate our fate. The dehumidifier is working hard in the background by the work bench, its sound rather calming, reassuring. It’s still working—and my screen is lit—but several very large communities are without power. The basement may still be cooler than the living room—and in those power-challenged communities you will enter the bedrooms upstairs at your own peril. The flashlight directed at the screen of the computer downstairs will show nothing but screen! Ah, the bennies and brownouts of a high tech society.

Illusions of Empowerment

Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? Psalms 2:1
Why do the news enrage me? My best teachers have taught me that if I do—experience rage—I must look within, and in a hurry—thus not outside at the supposed outer triggers of that low emotion. Rage is a sign of not being grown up. At 75? Exactly. Time to look within.

The cause of rage, undoubtedly, is a sense of my own impotence. But if I feel impotence then surely I’m identified with a group in government. I am projected. I’m permitting myself to enjoy an illusory sort of power, and my rage comes because “my” power is not being wielded as “I” think that it should be.

To withdraw these projections is to face reality. Reality is always sobering, indeed boring, quite banal, quite pedestrian. It is that I’ve no effective power to shape public life at all—not in the sense that I attach to the verb “shaping.” I’m shaping this log post, not that out there. The illusion arises from the very structure of news reporting. I can follow almost hour to hour what plans are ripening—or not—in a city about 1,000 miles from here. The huge machinery that brings this news suggests that it is “important.” It might be, for all I know, but is it important for me? The suggestion of such phrases as “the people’s right to know” is that I need to know because…? Because knowing things, and being well-informed, I can act appropriately. But here is where impotence begins to show itself. My one and only future act will be to vote, 15 months from now, for maximally 1 of 3 presidential candidates, one representative, and one senator. I live in a district gerrymandered so that it is overwhelmingly democratic; the Democrat will win. Therefore the vote is predetermined as I sit here—shaping this post. That election-outcome is not mine to shape.

The structure of our political life has lost its organic rootings. It is now the function of the fluidity of money, of communications, and of huge numbers. They produce a kind of delusional effect. The news produces a consciousness that what I’m reading is important, but in any realistic sense “important” can only mean that I can actually do something about unfolding events. In effect, and this is the lesson of the huge numbers, I actually cannot.

All of my actions, to be sure contribute to what are public outcomes. But any personal act is so tiny that it does not actually matter at the public scale. My spending produces jobs, GDP, affects the value of the dollar. My vote elects some of those on TV. To influence my infinitesimally tiny contribution a tsunami of communications difficult to avoid discharges its relentless waves over me. They cause a feeling of empowerment (knowledge is power), but while I have huge knowledge, I have no power at all. Not really. Therefore my expenditures of emotion are just wasteful. To be effectively informed, a monthly summary, if done well, would be more than enough. “Done well” would mean factual reporting of actual outcomes augmented by statistical reporting on the consequences of past actions.

News function in two ways. One of these is as education of a sort: here is humanity in its collective form. The other is as entertainment. Watch your heroes and villains. Experience the ecstasy of victory, the shame of defeat. But it’s rather poorly written fiction.

Organic forms of political organization would develop from the local level. The local would in turn be mirrored on ever higher levels in much the same way. The citizenry would only ever elect local officials, local officials the county officials, county the state, and so on. Money would have to be taken out of it. Keep it personal in order to maximize responsibility. The current system, which appears like bad fiction on the media, actually is a fiction based on abstract principles. It is the fiction that all people aged 18 and over are qualified to elect officials at every level of government. This system only works because money enables power seekers to reach the public by means of communications at essentially the emotional level only. Fluidity of money, of communications, huge numbers. Illusions of power. Chaos. Rage.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Suspense…

The suspense began about a week, ten days ago when—in thrilled shock—we saw a Black Swallowtail butterfly fluttering energetically, erratically in our back yard and, sure enough, briefly pausing at every one of our dill plants. The lovely creature lingered, always moving, at least fifteen minutes and made several rounds of the whole domain, now disappearing behind the garage, now reappearing over the wooden fence. At Brigitte’s suggestion three days I ago I went and inspected our dill plants. On one of these I discovered three tiny black forms. There was just a hint of color in the center of at least one of them. Yesterday morning they all had the marking and had grown visibly in length. By afternoon we could discern them moving under a magnifying glass. Last evening Michelle, impatient at my hapless fumbling with the camera (and my fuzzy results) took it out of my hand and produced the first image in 2011 of Artisto’s Return. If the suspense is too much for you, look here

We noticed one caterpillar last year on the 27th of July, by then already quite big. This year we’ve counted nine separate tiny caterpillars at the stage shown in the photograph. Michelle took a very tight close-up. The little creature is barely visible to the naked eye. Today, almost by way of confirmation that, indeed, Black Swallowtail butterflies are in migration, we saw another one this morning. It visited—and fed on—the same plants where the tiny caterpillars are, communed with us for fifteen minutes, and then headed on north.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Garden in July

Hostas in bloom...

And tomatoes going crazy in confinement.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Stoutly Naive

Not a year passes but I read, usually in some philosophical context, the common man berated for his naiveté. But why do writers use that word? To signal nest odor? The word comes from just born, thus immature. It has connotations of native (“primitive”) or rustic (“stupid”). Thus to use the word is to claim superiority, sophistication, a certain elevation above the great unwashed.

The roots of this usage appear to rest on the notion that ordinary people, when they see an apple, think that they actually see an apple—and are too stupid to know that what is in the head is actually a representation of an apple, not the apple itself. But when people see an apple, they think of it out there, on the table, in the bowl, not in their heads at all. To be sure, what reaches the eyes is light reflected from the apple. It is then transformed into signal. The signal is translated by intellect, aided by memory, into a state of the brain that the mind then, if it needs to, can actually name using a concept. But the light must come from something. The machinery that translates it into a signal is naturally formed by a normal body. Description of the process—which I’d venture would take at least two or three months of very intensive study even mildly to grasp—in no way takes anything away from the concrete facts that something is out there. There is nothing immature, primitive, or stupid about the ordinary person’s naive realism. As ordinarily seen, people see an apple. When this act is painfully analyzed, we get a process—knowing which is not in the least necessary to get along in the ordinary world. So why else call people naive unless it is to shine in the eyes of those initiated into the “higher mysteries.”

Is Bertrand Russell right when he says:

Science seems to be at war with itself.... Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows naive realism to be false. Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false. [Bertrand Russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth]
When Bertrand Russell sees an apple, does he actually see uncountably many atomic cores surrounded by probability waves of electrons and enormous voids between these structures? Or does he just see an apple? Which is the true picture of reality? Must it be the voids and only mathematically accessible waves—or is it the shiny red thing there? Or both? Or the cellular structure, with its mitochondria? What scoffers call naive may just be an indication of scale.

This is a minor matter, to be sure. People tend to be silly and try to make themselves look bigger than they are. No big deal. But such charges of naiveté are also used to suggest that people naively believe themselves to have minds (whereas all they have is neurons) and that they have souls (whereas all they are is dissipative structures). That last is a little obscure. The phrase is Ilya Prigogine’s who suggests that life is just a certain kind of self-organizing natural system. When it comes to such extensions of the concept of human naiveté, one wonders who is lost and thus needs a stiff dose of amazing grace.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Incredible Diversity

This happens roughly every other year—whenever I have an unusually long wait at an airport and, as a consequence, see unusually large numbers of people. I suppose you have to be at a major city’s airport. Detroit certainly works, and I’ve seen the same both east and west and in Chicago too. One sees every race, age, and every conceivable body type, male and female—and for each of those categories, in addition, I also see them in quite ordinary American dress and in traditional garb from all over the world. It’s amazing. I first had this feeling—namely that humanity is extraordinarily—and physically—diverse when perusing one of Jared Diamond’s books (I think it was Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed); there I saw photographs of all kind of people from around the globe thickly clustered, and the impression was striking. Now airports are enough to bring the feeling back. Hasn’t always been so. In the heydays of my travelling (1970-80), the fabulous diversity was beginning to appear. Now in a community like Detroit it is the norm, especially in summertime, when families visit from all corners of the world. Reminds me of a fascinating discussion of human nature Mortimer Adler presents in Ten Philosophical Mistakes. He invites us to consider animal species. Looking at each, he says, you would note differences. But…

The dominant likeness of all members of the species would lead you to dismiss as relatively insignificant the differences you found, most of which can be explained as the result of slightly different environmental conditions.
He then invites us to make random drop-in visits to look at human societies.

You would come away [from such a venture] with the very opposite impression from the one you took away from your investigation of the populations that belonged to one or another animal species. You were there impressed by the overwhelming similitude that reigned among its members. Here, however, you would find that the differences were dominant rather than the similarities.
Adler was, of course, not talking about physical differences—but they’re also present. As above, so below.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This Mare Has No Stallion

What mare do I have in mind? Let me get there slowly. Another word I chanced across this time caught my attention—although I’d seen it hundreds of times before: hagridden. I’d never looked it up before and assumed it meant an old man nagged to distraction by an old woman. Why, I wondered, don’t we have a word like, say, grump-ridden? Where is the masculine of hag? Boy! Let me tell you. Questions like that do open up the linguistic abyss. To get to the bottom quickly, hag originally comes from diviner or soothsayer, and, in European paganism, these were always and exclusively women. The root of the word is Old English hægtesse (witch, fury). The same word in Old Middle German was hagzusa, from which we get the German Hexe. Remembering Robert Graves (always fondly), it comes to mind that European paganism had a matriarchal background, hence divine males and grumpy old men did not have much standing. To be hagridden, therefore, means to have an old witch badly troubling your dreams.

“Of course!” I said to myself. “That’s why we have nightmares, not nightstallions.” But I was wrong again. The mare in the nightmare is not a member of the genus Equus which comes in female and male genders. No. The mare in nightmare comes from Old English mera or mære meaning goblin, the female kind. Not a horse in sight.

We have to go back to the resolutely masculine Latin culture before we discover the incubus, the masculine dream-entity that lies down and suffocates the sleeper. My favorite etymology dictionary dates it to 1200 as the evil protagonist of nightmares. We have to wait until the 1300s before he is joined by succubus, the female ghost that has sex with men in sleep—that word formed from the Late Latin succuba, a strumpet. Those familiar with Google’s Ngram Viewer† can easily discover that, whether ghost or flesh, males are always much more eager for sex than women:

†Ngram viewer is a Google facility that scans digitized books accessible to Google from 1800 to 2000 and counts the frequency of words used in these sources. You enter two words or phrases separated by a comma. The address of the facility is here.

A Cultural Indicator?

I love this graphic! I first showed it, going all the way back to 1929, on the old LaMarotte here. This time I’ve updated it to 2010 but show it from 1951, the year I arrived in the United States. Of course this is an economic chart, taken from that very sanctuary of money wisdom, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, keeper of the Gross Domestic Product’s holy value. Nonetheless, I view this figure as a cultural indicator although it shows disposable income per capita in constant, thus inflation-free dollars. When I arrived on these shores (in New Orleans), the figure was $9,352 per living human; at the midpoint of my stay here, in 1980, the figure had more than doubled to $18,863. And now it stands at $33,010, nearly again double the 1980 figure. Since I arrived here the measurable purchasing power per person has increased three-and-a-half-fold!

Why is this a cultural indicator rather than a kind of capitalist’s version of Amazing Grace? I don’t need to point it out to likely readers of this blog. The chart came back into my memory as I contemplated times in which stopping Social Security payments (yes, to little old me)—and payments to the politicians’ most venerated subgroup, veterans (that’s me too) is now being used as a threat to avoid the country officially falling into technical bankruptcy. Back in 1951 there was no talk like that, no “drama” in high places along these silly lines. Back then real income was less than a third what it is today. And we were then in the middle of fighting the Korean War (36,516 dead versus 6,026 dead in Iraq/Afghanistan as of June 5, 2011). World War II with staggering costs in money and lives (416,800 dead) was still a recent memory then. The feel of the times back then was so very different; indeed energy, confidence, and public courtesies were all quite high.

Is sharply climbing wealth, therefore, a reliable cultural indicator—so that its every increase signals a step down in culture? Wealth as a contrarian indicator? If that is true our economic troubles these days may signal hope for the future—albeit our leading circles have not as yet discovered that.

Walking on My Own Floor

Retirement has benefits if you take advantage of it. From spring to late fall I wear simple sandals with firm rubber soles and Velcro straps—so that by now I have stripes of tanned and light skin on my feet where the straps expose or shield skin from the sun. Mine is an informal life so that wearing socks and shoes is an “occasion” usually tied to stress. It’s wonderfully simple to slip on sandals; Velcro provides a rapid, firm fastening. I love Velcro. We owe it to seeds of the kind that move from place to place by hooking on to living things—the burs. The Swiss electrical engineer Georges de Menstral, on a hunting trip in the Alps, noticed them clinging to his clothes and dogs and, curious, creative man, he looked at them under a magnifying glass. Inspiration came. In the 1950s. With the effort of putting on socks and shoes replaced by donning sandals almost without any effort at all—hey, these things become genuine issues with septuagenarians—I oddly lost the sensation of “wearing” shoes. The sensation has become another: “I prefer to walk on my own floor.”

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Deep Memory of Quince

We planted a quince bush in our garden, a Father’s Day gift—one that surprised and specially delighted me. I encountered quince when I was five in the gardens of a vast, cold, impossible-to-heat old house we moved into on one of my Father’s frequent transfers. But summers there were like Paradise. The yellow, pear-shaped quince, and especially what Mother made of it, remained sharply imprinted on my memory. When Monique and John, entirely on their own, discovered quince and bought their own bush, my enthusiasm was evident. And they decided that I should have my own.

Soon after we planted ours, I went to the Village Market. It is a small but very potent store in walking distance of our house. I had a talk with the manager there—we often talk—and asked him if anyone produced quince jelly. Schmuckers had done so long ago, no longer. The Village Market’s manager had learned his trade at the knees of his grandfather. In my opinion he is the most knowledgeable grocer certainly in Detroit and environs. He said at once that the Trappist Monks in Massachusetts sold it; then he also found another outfit in his huge printouts. Trappist sounded good to me. Friday last I picked up our jars at the market. They’d arrived from St. Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer, MA (founded in 1950; the order itself goes back to 1098 in France). Now I’ll tell you honestly: This was just a pious gesture because I know what a jelly is. But what I remember eating 70 years ago was not a jelly but something you could slice. But what it was and might be called was buried too deep in memory.

I had some of that jelly for breakfast today. “It’s all sugar, mostly,” I told Brigitte. “Lord. I wish I could remember what it was Mother used to make back in Cegléd. Too bad we can’t just call Heaven by cell phone.” Brigitte also remembered something you could cut and, just sitting there, she invented a recipe she thought would work when, finally, our bush produces fruit. I said: “I’ll just go and try to find out what quince is in Hungarian. We live in the age of the Internet now.” Before I went I made my second cup of coffee. As I was stirring the cup, suddenly into my mind came the word birsalma. (The s is sounded as sh, the a as in awl.) And no sooner had this thought arrived than came a combination: birsalma sajt. Sajt means cheese. I knew at once that now I had it! Yes! Birsalma meant quince. And the solid something I remembered eating was called a cheese. Just calmly stirring my coffee, my memory finally brought the words—or my Mother got the call in Heaven and whispered the answer; no need for cell phones in such communications.

The rest was easy. Soon I had a recipe for birsalma sajt in Hungarian. Then I discovered that the phrase translates into English directly. Quince cheese is a well-known product to those in the know. Therefore soon I had multiple recipes, Spanish-style, Turkish-style, Hungarian-style, all in English, too. And one site, this one, also brought me a picture that confirmed it all visually. Yes, sir! That’s what it looked like. Quince is yellow on the outside but red inside. And quince cheese is quite firm, easy to slice, and lasts for a long time. Seventy years ago…

Friday, July 8, 2011

Melting Pots Old and New

Back in the (mercifully brief) Nazi days in Hungary, all people employed by the state—beginning, I suppose, with a certain rank—had to present proof-positive using birth registry extracts, three generations back, that they had no Jewish blood. That gave the country’s registrars a bit of a work-out. By happenstance all of the papers my family had to file (my father being an officer in the army) eventually ended up in my hands. They filled a rather large box and turned out to be a treasure showing the lineage of my family. Some of these records were carefully notarized extracts from church registries—and in the earliest of these records I recognized no name at all. My father, of course, had to account for his wife as well: an officer married to a Jewess could not be trusted to be reliable. Therefore more than forty birth certificates were in this archive. Twenty-eight would have satisfied the strict requirements, but some of the people (like my grandfather) had married twice, and under the rules subsequent spouses, even if their “blood” had not entered the stream, had to be accounted for—presumably because their ideas and influence could nevertheless corrupt the succeeding generations. Insanity is not something we’ve invented recently.

But my topic is melting pots, not collective aberrations. These record showed that a phenomenon we associate with America is and has been alive and well in Europe—and everywhere else, for that matter, as far back as memory can be traced. My family originated in the Duchy of Württemberg in the southwestern part of Germany. My forebears, called Dorner, were immigrants to the Austrian Empire, which then encompassed Hungary. This happened sometime in the nineteenth century. They were enticed by incentives. Austria was attempting to attract industry, and we were in the iron business (foundries and the like)—indeed, parts of my family still were, even in my day, although the rich part of the family had long since diversified into all kinds of other businesses as well.

Now what I found fascinating, studying the deposit of documents from the bad-old Nazi days, was how persistently my family, extending backwards, had always and only married into other German families. Every name was German until the twentieth century. The family was evidently too wealthy to mingle with the lower orders of the native population—but not rich enough to marry into the nobility. That finally happened when my great-grandfather married into a genuinely Hungarian family—not in trade, they, no! Landed aristocracy—to be sure of the lower sort. But they were the real thing: lots and lots of land and going back lots of generations too! And my father, in turn, married a woman who came from a Slavic line (Gluzek, they were called—but renamed themselves Gyulafia (“Son of Gyula”) to erase the Slavic traces as Nationalism rose but before it married Socialism). That line had reached prominence through the professions—and a great uncle of mine, the towering figure in that family, had had charge of all psychiatric hospitals in a country unapologetically operating a centralized, state-run medical system.

Melting pots all over the place—just less obviously visible. And here I hasten to note that Brigitte’s family has an identical history, different only in minor details. Her family had settled in Poland, attracted there by Poland’s own desire for industry. And the industry was textiles, not iron. Her family’s was a somewhat later exodus. Like Swedish Finns, they didn’t speak Polish much—whereas my family, longer in residence, spoke Hungarian. They too were all expanding by marrying into other German families, also all resident in Poland. But had mayhem and war not unpleasantly intruded, and thus caused some more bubbling in that pot, Brigitte might have ended up marrying a stalwart Polish duke rather than me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


When I first came across this curious word I understood it right away—and that because my little Latin sufficed to tell me that the re stood for the Latin res, thing. Therefore the word meant thingification—and signals the process whereby something that isn’t is turned into something that is—a thing. The word comes from German, Verdinglichung. It was coined by Marx, but for German readers it is as immediately understandable as thingification is in English, but with a lesser feel of awkwardness, the reason being that both parts of Verdinglichung come from West Germanic roots, but in thingification the thing is West Germanic but the -ification comes from Latin; the smell of a mongrel is in the air. Not surprisingly, therefore, translators rendered that German word in Latin. A variant is Versachlichung, rendered as objectification, and that English word is much less awkward because object comes from Latin too. Germans are less inclined to form neologisms from Latin—one reason why it is relatively easier to read philosophical works in that language. That Norman invasion has done strange things to English.

What Marx had in mind was turning living labor into gold, thus into a lifeless, tradable good. I came across the word in a more philosophical context and discovered, only this morning, that Marx and economics loomed behind it. In the philosophical context it stands for turning spiritual values into the material. Hence this word is a terrific single sound for characterizing cultural decline. It’s everywhere. Life is just a species of chemical reactions. Mind’s just the firing of neurons.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The 2011 Welcome Sign

While celebrating the achievements of the Paret branch of the family, I thought I’d bring here the Welcome sign marking our reserved parking spot at Wolverine Lake ahead of the July 3rd fireworks. Most of these signs over the years have been drawn by Stella, Michelle’s second child, whose many gifts include a penchant for design. Indeed the only image on this blog of me is one that she drew and I presented here. The signs are different every year, always hiding behind what looks like ink-work, from a distance, images that arise from Stella thoughts from the paper at the movement of inspiration. In this family, so far as I know, several people write their dreams down—but only one paints hers…

Max Passed Le Bac!

To know the feeling of immense gratitude, pride, and relief we feel in Ghulfdom today, you have to know something about the horrors that surround European education. Words want to fail. The tension was enormous. But we’re wiping tears after having danced up and down the stairs. Max, for the record, is Michelle’s oldest, thus the first to meet this trial—and he made it on the first try!!!  Jubilation! Jubilation!

Talking to Ads

“Does your money cross borders as easily as you do?”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Well, stop reading this ad.”

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tiki Night 2011

The date and time of this post exactly match the time when these pictures were taken at Wolverine Lake, Michigan, the occasion being Tiki Night, always held on July 3. Looking back more than a decade now, we note with gratitude that the weather has always been perfect! Tradition, tradition! Thank you, again, Magees! Your hospitality, community spirit! Splendid! They light up the summer. And note in low voice that, for them, Tiki Night means mountains and mountains of Tiki Work in advance and in arrears...

And God said...

Clawing around trying to find my password notebook, I just came across an ancient slip Brigitte had chanced across and had put on my desk the other day with an annotation. Her note says: “Too bad I did not indicate where this came from. But it is so perfect for your most recent research effort on LOGARITHMS!” The slip, courtesy of my little Kodak and some painstaking efforts to camouflage coffee stains using Paint, is shown here. It is, indeed, the perfect—and possibly the earliest—version of this cartoon. Try as I might, I could not find a copy on the Internet, hence my efforts. One usually sees a much simplified version on T-Shirts, showing only Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism. The T-shirt photo I am showing comes from this Zazzle site.

Friday, July 1, 2011

One Song Does Not an Opera Make

This was our conclusion after seeing Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, and the song within it, which certainly has had and will have a long life, was Barcarolle, in this YouTube version sung by the sisters Iordachescu, Irina (soprano) and Cristina (mezzo-soprano). We went on an opera marathon here recently and saw two versions of Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Godspell. Andrew Lloyd Webber composed Superstar in 1970 and Joseph in 1968. Superstar is much better; in Joseph a few songs call attention to themselves, but the work as a whole appears to be a loose stitch-together of the songs. We found Godspell weak—but filled with memories: Monique had played in a version produced at Eisenhower (that used to be a high school in Hopkins, Minnesota).

We noted, this time around, that Superstar and Godspell, both of which trace Jesus’ final days, both stop short of the resurrection—which gave us things to talk and think about beyond opera and music …

The older a thing, the more we approach it with awe—at least in anticipation—hence we waited for the first strains of The Tales of Hoffmann in appropriate awe. In its final, finished version the opera was first produced in 1879, one of the last works of Jacques Offenbach, widely celebrated by that time as the composer of fifty some odd operettas, among these Orpheus in the Underworld. Well. We were not very impressed by Tales. Perhaps romanticism is too far in the past, perhaps we’re tired of recycled Mephistopheles, and the music, here and there almost achieving beat and melody, invariable fell apart, distracted as we were by the kitchy baroque of the production-values of this 1951 film.

One song does not an opera make. We did enjoy Barcarolle. But it only consumed 3 of 128 minutes of this seemingly endless confusion.

A Reluctant Conclusion

Despite their entertainment value, I’ve decided to delete two earlier postings this morning highlighting the Strauss-Kahn affair and a rash of stories that marked cultural meltdown in the papers this morning. The thought came that such efforts at critique have virtually no value—and interfere with those who have wisely decided to avoid the media in order to avoid the untreated sewage that reaches them in that fashion. Hereafter, I’ll constrain myself—and consequently postings may thin out. But that’s all right. It’s summertime.