Thursday, December 31, 2009

Through the Gate

The gate into the new year is about to open, and in this charming picture from Michelle's collection, the newborn year already beckons, althought its face still remains hidden...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fashions in Madness

Humans are innately free but also ignorant, unfinished, hence a kind of madness characterizes human existence. An excellent special on PBS on the life of Louisa May Alcott the other day reminded me of the tendency of kindly, well-meaning people in the nineteenth century to rush into the wilds to start utopian communities. Alcott’s father moved the family to Fruitlands, a vegetarian community in Massachusetts where even potatoes and carrots were No-Nos because they grew in darkness under the earth. The family nearly starved, but the mere fact that they made the move makes my point. What happened to utopian communities? We’ve replaced that madness by improving upon another nineteenth century eruption, the anarchist bomber. The anarchist at least tried to survive. Our madness is presently regressive. The suicide bomber is seeking utopia in the sky with virgins. It isn’t fair to characterize that madness as theirs because to exempt ourselves from the ranks of the foolish and of the violent is to indulge in hypocrisy. Let’s by all means get back to rural utopias. Maybe we’ll learn something useful before the oil runs out.

Monday, December 28, 2009

An Angel, Unless on Assignment

An angel, unless on assignment
And straying off accustomed rounds, will
Stare into our world and there behold
A vast, indeed a dreary darkness
Unfathomable like an unlit
Morgue in which our own small earth is but
A mote of sin we do not see in
Our own eyes. Or so we’re told by that
Old Nordic Master, Emanuel

Why does the angel fail to see the
Piercing rays of sun, those vast flames that
As thinned out magnetism disturb our
Televised reality, our shows, our
Fun and games, and havoc play with rays
That bounce off satellites to feed an IPod
Here from one held over there half of a
Continent away? Why can’t the angel be
Like me, see what I see, and hear my

Old Swedenborg did not explain but
Spoke as one who just reports on what
He’s seen or had been told up in that
Lofty mansion by the very principals
Involved, by angels who at times held
Conversation with our sage and said
What they experienced, not what our
Ground-based speculators thought that an
Essence ought to see and hear from yonder

Aye, here’s the rub. As down below so
It is up above. We know the High
Or Its creation directly by
Experience, be we angels or
Mere ordinary guys and dolls, young,
Old, it doesn’t matter much because
The most refined and sharply honed
Of intellects must still cling to that
Ultimate, the base, that which we know
As our gold.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mega Millions

One of my Christmas gifts was a Mega Millions lottery ticket. Alas, it was purchased just a day late. As I held it in my hand and tried to read the number in the dim light of the Christmas tree, the ticket was only worth $12 million; but the day before it had been purchased, the prize had been $160 million. Timing, timing! At 11 p.m. exactly on Christmas day the Powers announced the winning number. I went to peek on Boxing Day by way of Internet. Alas, not a single one of my six two-digit figures matched any of the winning numerals! But I was pleased to note that no one else had won the big prize either, so if I hurry and spend a dollar, I may still be of that number—when the saints go marching in.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Day After

In Germany the twenty-sixth of December is known as the Second Christmas Day. It is a legal holiday in Germany, Austria, and some other countries in central Europe. Before Luther’s time Germans celebrated Christmas over a period of five days. That reminded me of the ancient Saturnalia. Christianity eventually displaced that Roman festival. It lasted seven days (from the 17th through the 23rd of December). In the Catholic tradition today is St. Stephen’s Day, Stephen considered to have been the first Christian martyr.

Odd how remnants of collective habit persist into the present. Christmas carries traces of the Saturnalia. Britain's Boxing Day comes to mind. Part of Saturnalia was an exchange of roles—Masters became Servants, Servants Masters. Just once a year. Just for fun. Boxing Day carries that forward at a discounted price. The 26th is an official but a moving holiday; Boxing Day is celebrated on Monday the 28th this year because today is Saturday. The idea is to give the “servants” a day off. And the name of the day comes from “boxes,” boxes bearing gifts. The rich gave these to their servants, suppliers, and other employees--shades of Saturnalia. Wikipedia tells me that after Ireland achieved its independence, it dropped Boxing Day. The Irish resumed the celebration of St. Stephen’s Day instead.

No one thinks I am a “folkish” sort of guy. Those kindly inclined call me “professor” (no standing there either); others think my nose is in the air.  But I had to laugh today. Checking these facts I came across the following (still Wikipedia):

The association of Boxing Day with sport in early village celebrations has led to the folk etymology that Boxing Day is traditionally associated with boxing, although the word box can mean a gift or gratuity, especially one given at Christmas, especially in Britain.
Turns out that I'd been captured by folk etymology throughout most of my life in the English-speaking world. Yes, I had callously assumed that boxing events are common on the day after Christmas in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Two or three years ago an impulse sent me off to check the facts. Then at last I discovered the box—the box as in:

This is my box, this is my box, I never travel without my box. In the first drawer I keep my magic stones. One carnelian against all evil and envy. One moonstone to make you sleep. One red coral to heal your wounds. One lapis lazuli against quartern fever. One small jasper to help you find water. One small topaz to soothe your eyes. One red ruby to protect you from lightning. This is my box, this is my box. I never travel without my box. In the second drawer, I keep all my beads. Oh, how I love to play with beads, all kinds of beads. This is my box, this is my box. I never travel without my box. In the third drawer… Oh, little boy! Oh, little boy… In the third drawer I keep … Licorice… Black, sweet licorice. Have some. [Amahl and the Night Visitors, Gian-Carlo Menotti]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Boldog Karácsony - Frohe Weihnachten

As children growing up in Hungary, the big day for us was the 24th. The suspense began early in the day when we discovered that the doors to the living room had been shut tight. Mother had closed the door because Little Jesus and his angles would come during the day—but they wouldn’t stay if anybody saw them. We saw no Christmas trees anywhere in Hungary until Christmas eve. Indeed the festival had no public footprint until the 25th of December. In those days, in my country anyway, no one had heard of wall-to-wall carpeting. We walked on wooden floors. We called them (and wrote the word as) parkette. Carpets were common in appropriate places, to be sure. Without carpets blocking the narrow space, we could see light reaching us from the next room beneath closed doors. Many times that 24th we would tiptoe to the door, get down on the floor, and try to see something. We never did—but we could see the light change as shadows moved silently, ever so silently, beyond the heavy barrier. It was a long day for children; time wouldn’t pass. The nap still had to be taken and was especially burdensome that day. In the early evening we had a big bath; Mother would dress us in our finest. Then came the final excruciating wait in the children’s room. We were waiting for the last angel to depart. That angel always rang a little bell just before passing through the frosted glass of one of the windows headed back to heaven. And we would then rush out. All lights were out—all except candles and sparklers burning on the tall tree. The fierce sparklers burning out, the silent peaceful light of candles at last made it easier to see. We would then discover our own gifts beneath the tree laid out on a white sheet. Gifts came unwrapped in my day in my family, immediate or extended. Such was the universal custom, I think. Brigitte’s experiences as a child of a German family living in Poland mirror mine.

These first impressions never leave us. Christmas for us was a joyous expectation heralded by a visit from St. Nicholas. Like Little Jesus and his angels, so St. Nicholas also came invisibly. On the night before December 6, we put our shined shoes on the window sill. By morning they were filled with candies and cookies, apples, figs, and dates, lots of bright red paper, and birches for our parents to use if we happened to be bad. This set the holiday going. Then came the season of Advent with four candles mounted on a wreath suspended from the ceiling, one candle lit every week until, on Christmas day, all four were on. Silence. The impression was one of joyous expectation, invisible higher beings who came silently to visit, and gifts from on high.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Never Too Old

You're never too old to take your daughter to see Santa Claus!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bookish Musing

Not to generalize too much, but others may have the same experience this time of year. I do pop into bookstores, particularly the two big chains (Borders, Barnes & Noble) quite a few times during the year, but those visits usually have a purposive character. At Borders I head for the nearest free computer to see if the book I’m seeking is in the store. At B&N I go straight to the category region (I know that store better); then, if that fails, I apply at the help desk. The visits tend to be in-and-out. Purposive.

My experience at Christmas time is different. I’m not at all sure quite what I want. I wander and at least superficially see the whole. Almost always, in addition, I also shop for music with a slip or two Brigitte hands me. In the slower, surveying mode, I’m always overwhelmed. Every year this or that image presents itself to me from “out of Spiritus Mundi”—as Yeats characterized the source of spontaneous inspiration. This year, despite the fairly careful arrangements of materials practiced by both retailers, nonetheless the image of an overwhelming flood came to mind, a flood that, as its waters finally recede, leaves behind in mixed and close proximity incongruous objects—the discarded fender, dead squirrel, lost doll, plastic bag, the broken beam. That feeling arose especially at B&N this year. The store nearest our house groups books on tables in the aisles by such labels as “new and recent,” “bargain,” “special interest,” and yet other collective categories. In these arrays vastly different kinds of books are mixed; the incongruity therefore is great.

For decades now—but with increasing force—the commercialization of publishing has become ever more evident. The concept of “book” as it exists inside me—unrevised from its formation in the 1940s—has enormously expanded. I resist updating my concept and therefore book stores have become strange spaces. It amazes me what people will read and, if not read, exactly, what they will expend their money on. But visible amidst the random mixture of everything imaginable left by the great storm of money are patterns; these are also produced by commercial calculation.

These patterns—which I first noted two decades ago but which probably began much earlier—is that every year now, unfailingly, all authors with high name recognition will have, must have, another new opus ready for sale. And these books, competing with new stars in publishing (Sarah Palin, for example), are on conspicuous display as you enter the stores.

A distant relative of mine, A.L. Gabriel, a priest, wrote Student Life in Ave Maria College, Mediaeval Paris (1955). In that quite fascinating and indeed entertaining history (let us not be deceived by titles) I first encountered mention of books so equipped that they could be chained to walls as they sat on lecterns. We’ve come a long ways, baby…

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Scale's the Thing

The strange thing to your left is the photo of something like a map; it is called the Rand McNally Histomap of World History, by John B. Sparks. It purports to show the relative importance of nations and empires 1950 B.C. to 2000 A.D. This object hung on the back of the door, the door into my office—when I still had an office outside the home—and on the rare occasions when I closed that door, the large pink blob in the center of this histomap reminded me of the Glory That Was Rome. — Did so, indeed, until, on one occasion, I looked at the graphic seriously and discovered that the image did not have a horizontal scale.

I dug out the rolled up copy again this morning. I had been reading Dante’s Convivio (The Banquet, a philosophical work) in which our poet urges us (Chapter 4, Book 4) to accept the concept of an imperial ruler because Rome’s preeminence had led to God’s own approval of the Latin people as the exemplars of mankind.

That claim then reminded me of my retired map; I found it on a shelf. But over all these years I had forgotten about the missing scale at the bottom of this curious object. Indeed, if you accept John Sparks’ imaginative scaling, Rome does seem, during this vast expanse of time, to be by far the largest single domain ever to grace the globe. Then, sitting down at the machine again to consult the oracle about the scale once more—thinking that in the intervening time I had become so much more skilled at Googling that I would be successful now—I discovered that the missing scale is missing still. What had changed, in the meantime, is that lots of people had discovered this lack and had made their displeasure known. Too bad.

I had fairly recently looked at population data reaching back into antiquity and discovered in that process that Sparks could not have used headcounts to size his empires and realms. Not enough menaningful data. He may have used geographical extent—but surely, with Rand McNally as his publisher, someone there should have reminded him to note the fact. Yes, at its greatest extent Rome’s footprint pretty much covered Europe and bits of Africa and Asia, but how much territory did China then occupy—and India? Their populations, by guess and by golly, must have been quite large even then.

Well, too bad. We carry mental maps and censuses inside our heads—and in Dante’s world the memory of Rome, and the more recent memory of Charlemagne’s empire, still loomed very large. And, to be sure, Dante (1265-1321) might have known of Marco Polo (1254-1324) but may not have read Polo’s Il Milione; he was busy writing his own opus and may have written his Convivio (finished circa 1307) before he had heard of Kublai Khan.

The second photo shows the histomap from closer up, focus on Rome—as it usually is here in the West as we look back in time. Great realm! But without a scale, how can we know for sure that Octavian ascended the throne of empire with a nod from on High? If Dante had studied China, however, he might well have added the useful concept of The Mandate of Heaven to his arguments in Chapter 4, Book 4.

If you can stomach the price, Amazon will sell you this item even today: Histomap of World History.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Science and Poetry Meet

Today was my annual eye exam and I was off to our splendid Henry Ford Eye Care clinic where my doctor, Dr. George, approved of all that he saw. (As an aside: I’m probably one of the very few people who have two doctors with the last name of George. The other one is my urologist. Something of an achievement for someone called Arsen.) The clinic is splendid because it serves fresh coffee and cookies, is pleasantly furnished with comfortable couches and armchairs overlooked by huge prints in frames holding good art. And, crowning glory for people like Brigitte and me, there is a large shelf full of books. These are contributed by patients. We’ve made our donations there. You can pick up a book and read it—and take it with you, for that matter. A large container will hold your donation if you care to make it.

Well, today, I found there a thick volume entitled The Norton Introduction to Literature. I picked it out from among a rich array of popular paperback novels. It looked decidedly uncomfortable. Third Edition, 1981, obviously a textbook, but its contents wonderfully rich. The routine at these eye exams is that the young lady takes me through the eye examination charts and then drips a chemical into the eyes to cause my pupils to dilate. Then twenty minutes are allowed for this process to take place. So… So, while I sat in my comfortable armchair sipping coffee and munching cookies, the art work grandly observing me from the nicely papered walls, I was studying Yeats’ poetry as my pupils grew ever larger, sailing to Byzantium, you might say, science and poetry magically conjoined.

Season of Distraction

Christmas is, above all, a season of distraction, and this no less for people who’re retired and, with a vengeance, for those still in the mainstream of life. The festival certainly fits an agricultural society much better—especially one in the northern latitudes with a genuine winter. Life slowed down in those days although the chores, say of feeding livestock, still remained. In urban civilizations we live in a time shorn of all seasons—except shopping seasons: With great collective avarice, Society cheerlessly grants us one or two extra days of paid personal time off, but in its alternate manifestation, as the hysterical Economy, it uses Christmas to whip up a fierce storm of activity.

Back in those days (work-work-work) this time used to offer me mountain-sized opportunities for overcoming—reflexive tension and frustration. Some years I rose to the occasion—and those times are illuminated. Success required a harsh act of will simply to accept—and a decision to make the most of it. Mostly I failed, meaning that when “silent night” finally arrived, I could barely force my frozen features to unthaw into obligatory smiles.

More and more people, it seems to me, are joining what amounts to a silent resistance to the mad charade—certainly in my circles of acquaintance. It takes collective family effort, coordination, planning, and agreement: limit the festival. I remember when we first began (about thirty years ago) with interesting experiments—like deliberately celebrating Christmas a week late, holding down the giving, emphasizing togetherness or religious observances, and staying clear of malls. One of our nice innovations was to use large, colored sacks. We embroidered these each year with messages—and used the sacks to hold unwrapped presents. Much more fun to embroider with others while laughing together than to wrap all alone…

Large parts of the population seem to be participating in this quiet revolution. Or so it seems. For some significant number of years already, the retail sector comes up short. I feel for the sector. But having had any number of down-sized Christmases since we began, I notice that they grow on you; opting out becomes habitual. And the more people get with this sensible program, the easier it is.

All this illustrates how very long it takes for vast collectives to change behavior. A tanking economy certain helps, but the price, it seems to me, is high. What is intellectually thinkable and physically possible—namely to shift to an economic system in which far fewer jobs depend on retail consumption and more and more on public services—is not always achievable without the helping hand of trouble and chaos.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In Search of Anna Magna

It is my pleasure to announce that the second volume in the series, Symphony in Ghulf Major, has now been published and is available. It is In Search for Anna Magna. This book continues the Ghulf saga and presents a view of human endeavors (and tribulations) in the generations that follow the first emergence of Ghulfdom into view, the subject of Ghulf Genes the novel.

First availability. This book may be purchased directly from Lulu, our distributor and printer, here. The cost is $31.51 plus shipping. The book is also available from Amazon at the same price—and more rapidly. Amazon stocks copies. Alas, we make much less money on copies bought from Amazon than from Lulu—but be assured: what pleases me personally is readership. I use words like “our” and “we” not to suggest my own royal self but because this project is that of our family enterprise, Editorial Code and Data, Inc.

Now some comments on these first two volumes. Most readers of Ghulf Genes consider that book a little difficult at first because of its breathtaking compass and deliberate beginning: the background, the history of the Ghulf clan, of societal changes in the future, and the development of spaceflight are first outlined in multiple briefer takes featuring minor characters. In our internal discussions of this book, someone once likened Ghulf Genes to a space rocket. After the countdown ends, it just sits there for a while, fire gushing from its rear, but then, slowly, it begins to lift into the vertical. And then, very rapidly indeed, look out! It really takes off. And the combined experience is awesome.

In Search of Anna Magna is much more accessible. The book begins with a great trauma that marks the lives of the principal characters—and of humanity as a whole. The conflict emerges at once. The reach of the novel, however, is at least as extensive as that of Ghulf Genes. Before we’re done, we’ve seen human settlements on a number of planets, and phenomena that were maddeningly incomprehensible at the beginning (i.e., in Ghulf Genes) are beginning to sort. But the readers of Anna Magna see everything through the eyes of Ghulfs—as this clan, vastly extended by now, takes the lead, again, in the exploration of the outer limits.

And then there is Anna's Song—but before I get to that, I have to finish proofing its often magical pages...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nations and Persons

Nations aren’t persons—which is rather obvious. This popped into my mind today for a number of reasons. To cite one, I was reminded of one of Castaneda’s stories in which Castaneda’s hero/guru, Don Juan, suggests that collectives should be viewed as natural phenomena—like storms, hurricanes, and floods rather than as agencies. Nations aren’t persons—but our reflexive behavior is to treat any and all structures formed by human beings as if they were. I can understand why we think so. People head up all collectives with one person in charge. Therefore we think that the collective ought to behave as a person does. But a moment’s reflection will remind us that collectives—and never mind nations—behave much more like unconscious animals or vegetative structures than as conscious individuals. The reason is that no person is able to feel the collective or make it move in response to his or her will. The intention of the leader is rapidly diluted as it moves outward to be implemented. The returning feedback is muted and deformed as it reaches the decision-maker.

Another source of today’s thought was pondering the rise of China into much greater prominence. This brought to mind Pat Buchanan’s long standing advocacy that the United States should abandon its imperial tendencies, concentrate on its limited role in the world, and just do things right for a change. And yet another source was looking at long-term trends in U.S. manufacturing (see recent entries on LaMarotte). I noted that the U.S. performance is not as shoddy as I had assumed it was; the hype doesn’t quite reflect the situation on the ground. And it occurred to me, in Buchanan style, that we’re all right, Jack—provided that we just pay attention to our knitting.

In both of the cases above, the underlying notion is that such phenomena as the U.S. international policy or the collective I label as Manufacturing are subject to intelligent and rational direction. They are subject to a certain influence, to be sure, but not to active steering. The U.S. international policy is, whether we like it or not, anchored in facts on the ground so vast and extensive as to be well beyond the control or even effective influence of a national government formed of an executive and a nearly deadlocked legislature. Executive and legislature are themselves collectives and only mildly subject to direction by figures such as Obama, Pelosi, and Reid.

The mistaken notion that great aggregates are human—and subject to the same laws of morality and reason that rest upon each of us individually—is the source of much frustration. We can be sure of disappointment. We’re expecting the weather cock to crow. It won’t. As usually ancient wisdom suggests what not to do. But notice that, even in the Psalms, the collectives are viewed as individuals: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.” Psalms 146:3.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Inconstancy of Fortune

The Wayne Country Treasurer once more issued a paid supplement to the Detroit Free Press advertising listings of forfeited properties subject to foreclosure. The supplement runs to 127 pages. I sampled some pages, counted the listings, and the extended that count to the entire publication. Thus I conclude that the county wishes to seize something like 26,400 properties because their owners, listed with every posting, have failed to pay taxes.

Everything leaves its paper trail in modern culture. Those of us who, sometimes—perhaps because visitors want to see the devastation they’ve heard about in the news—engage on hour-long drives into the abandoned wastes of the City of Detroit thus could, if we wished, thanks to the labors of our county treasurer, actually identify the people who once inhabited homes through the broken roofs of which now strong trees are growing. In summer the structures are sometimes quite hidden by the obscuring foliage.

This reminded me of an essay in my The Portable Renaissance Reader, written by Poggio Bracciolini in 1430 and titled “The Ruins of Rome.” Goes around comes around. Bracciolini, in company of his friend, Antonio Lusco, ride out and mount the Capitoline hill. From there, dismounting, they survey a scene of Rome in ruins and meditate about the inconstancy of fortune. Curiously the chapter of my Portable Reader in which this essay is reproduced is titled “Learning of the Best Sort.” I find that apt today. Because in some ways it is instructive to contemplate the movements of the great water-wheel of time. It descends into the depth empty but rises again at right repeating rotations carrying the living waters to disgorge them into channels. At times we see the water, at times the emptiness. And to see both is to learn something meaningful.

The mood of reading Dante is still present for me. And reading the Divine Comedy strongly reminded me that the extreme compressions that produce words like “The Renaissance” hide the reality beneath temporary glows of light or gathering darkness that different eras manage to produce. Dante’s times, seen from the ground, as he saw them, were not that different from ours. And he wrote at a time  roughly 130 years or so before Bracciolini sorrowed over Rome. I wonder what Rome looked like in Dante’s days. Not much better, I don’t suppose. The balance of good and evil in every time is much the same.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Daughter of Zion

To mark the day, I present here “Thine Be the Glory, Risen Conquering Son” in the French version written by Edmond Budry. The music and English lyrics, by Thomas Morell, form part of Georg Friedrich Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. Brigitte and I know this choral as “Tochter Zion Freue Dich” (Rejoice Daughter of Zion) and dedicate it here to our most distant family branch—a daughter and her daughter…

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Worthwhile Movie

We saw a very fine French movie the other day—impressive enough to recommend. Its English title is The Secret of the Grain, the French is La Graine et le Mulet. It was made in 2007. It is set in a southern French port city. Its subject, outwardly, anyway, is couscous. The best couscous I ever ate I ate at a French officers club in Baumholder, Germany, my hosts the commanders of a French unit made up almost exclusively of Arabic soldiers drawn from North Africa. That’s an aside but meaningful: the family and society featured in this film are of mixed French-Arabic extraction. Brigitte and I were floored. The theme of the movie—its discovery I leave to you—catches up with you some time after seeing it. And then it carries a strange impact difficult to put into words.

Flowering December

One of our jade plants, a Crassula ovata, broke into flower in December. It produced a tiny, small delight—and the more so as the sky outside that day chose to frown down on us darkly in disapproval of this unseasonal exuberance. We got the first of these plants ages and ages ago, but they proliferate beneath Brigitte's green thumbs. We now own a small forest of them, the original having turned into a tree of sorts. I need a pushcart to transport it about the yard in summer and in or out of doors as the seasons change.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Fiction of the Home Team

The sale of All-Star centerfielder Curtis Granderson by the Tigers to the Yankees—a matter of collective woe to that part of our clan living in Detroit—produces memories. The first of these, for me, is of watching FSV Tirschenreuth play soccer. Never heard of this famous team? It played (and plays) against the likes of SC04 Marktredwitz, SV Waldsassen, and SV Schönhaid. FSV is the German acronym for Football Sports Club, and the members of this team in my day were all sons of the small community of Tirschenreuth in Bavaria, thus our own. The club was our home team. We also had both male and female handball teams we followed with great enthusiasm. Watching the games cost nothing. We just hiked out to the distant railway station and from there, another quarter mile, to the field. No benches, either. And our passions for these teams ran high. Other reflections rise: passionately rooting for Argentina in the World Cup Soccer finals of 1986 because Roberto, our foreign exchange son that year, came from there—and the joy of victory! For a brief time, in those days, Argentina was our team. Other emotional highs come to mind, most potently the 1987 World Series in which we saw the Minnesota Twins triumph first over the Tigers—who later became our team—and then over the St. Louis Cardinals. Heroic names still echo from that time: Gary Gaetti on third, Kent (“Buy Yourself a Vowel”) Hrbeck on first, Kirby Puckett the mighty slugger in center field, and that awesome closer Juan Berenger: how we exulted when he finally came on… But in these later cases, the players came from all over the world; virtually none was a native son; and, for that matter, we ourselves were strangers from a strange land temporarily parking in some city that, at the beckoning of job opportunities, we were as likely to leave as the players we loved to watch were likely to depart to bolster some other team. Odd, isn’t it. Much as exchange students became real children to us, so players from South America, and from nearer but still distant places, became our local heroes, and teams with no real local linkage except ownership became home teams. We live in worlds much less rooted in the physical than we realize.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Shock and Awe in 1940s Style

The following extract is taken from a strange and wondrous essay titled Air War and Literature (Luftkrieg und Literatur) by W.G. Sebald, published in 2003 by Carl Hanser Verlag. Its thematic is that the air war in Europe was an unspeakable horror such that a collective forgetting has wiped it from memory—and that the literary community has utterly failed to record it. Well not quite. As I learned this morning, the essay is available in English as part of On the Natural History of Destruction, by Sebald, but the following extract is my own translation from the German. The book I own was a gift to me of son-in-law and Michelle’s husband, Thierry Paret.
In midsummer of 1943, during a heat spell of long duration, the Royal Air Force, supported by the 8th American Air Fleet, flew a series of attacks on Hamburg. The object of the mission, called “Operation Gomorrah,” was the most complete possible destruction and burn-out of the city. During the attack during the night of July 28, which began at 1 o’clock in the morning, ten thousand tons of explosive and fire-bombs were unloaded over the densely populated residential area east of the Elbe, a region that included the districts of Hammerbrook, Hamm-North and South, Eilbek, Barmbek and Wandsbek. Following an already proven method, four-thousand-pound explosive bombs were deployed by means of which all windows and doors were broken and ripped from their frames; then lighter igniters fell and set the roofs ablaze even as fire-bombs, with a weight up to 15 kilos, broke through into the lower storeys. Within a few minutes gigantic fires burned everywhere over the roughly twenty square kilometer attack terrain; the fires joined their edges so rapidly that a quarter-hour after the descent of the first bombs the entire airspace, as far as one could see, became a single ocean of fire. And after another five minutes, around 1:20, a firestorm of such intensity arose that no human, until that time, could have imagined it possible. The fire, exploding now two thousand meters into the sky, devoured oxygen with such violence that the air currents reached hurricane strength and roared like mighty organs on which all registered had been pulled. It burned like that for three hours. At its peak the storm lifted up gables and roofs and whirled beams and plaster walls through the air, twisted trees out of the ground and drove people before it like living torches. Behind crumbling facades flames shot house-high into the air, rolled like a flood wave with a speed of more than 150 kilometers an hour through the streets, whirled like fireballs in odd rhythms over open squares. In some canals the water burned. Glass panes melted in streetcar wagons; sugar stores cooked in the cellars of bakeries. Those fleeing from their underground shelters sank in grotesque twisting forms into the liquefied asphalt that formed thick blisters. Nobody really knows how many lost their lives that night or how many went mad before death overcame them.

The horrors of modern war, mirrored on the other side by the 57 nights of German bombing of London, called The Blitz, by the twin nuclear descents of atomic bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, echoed by words like Dresden, and marked more modestly on childish memories—mine were those of a child who lived through such things but managed to escape unharmed, Brigitte’s those of a young girl who had to help clear rubble—should be, if at all possible, kept vividly in mind as we contemplate yet more mayhem, endlessly, and the decades keep rolling on.

W.G. Sebald, I think, has a very legitimate point to make. It is that our memory is rather selective. We remember the Holocaust and keep its memory alive, forgetting that it was a part of a much greater display of collective inhumanity in that weirdest of all times that Brigitte and I have lived through. We remember what flatters and not that which instructs. And, indeed, reading such posts as this one does not exactly make one’s day.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Houston We Have Lift Off

She’s the cutest honey gal who’s ever worn a spacegal’s suit
That darling Anne, that sweet of mine in silver, gold, and mighty cute.

Houston we have lift off—
In Nashville Tennessee
My Anne of Seven Gables
Is singing at Opree!

Just watch those rosy lips of hers soft-parted in mute song
Just watch that cute gloved hand of hers wave to the Nashville throng.

Yes Houston we have lift off—
In Nashville Tennessee
Anne soon of Seven Cables
Will now be on TV!

I love to watch her moon-bounce dance high on that cratered stage up there
Her tiny boot-prints leave a trail and in her helmet, golden hair.

Oh Houston we have lift off—
I hear the countdown’s sound
Anne soon of Seven Labels
Will now be Branson bound!

Tuesday or Wednesday of last week the news in the evening were thick and murky enough so that, in some weariness I went to Channel 400 or thereabouts on our Comcast cable service to find one of those music channels rather than endure the beat of punditry. There I chanced across country music channels—not one but several—and having chosen one I spent a while listening to the music. In the midst of that the amusing thought occurred to me that it might be fun to write country-western songs. I had all the equipment for producing the lyrics already—and as for the music, Brigitte and I have been talking a bit in past weeks of buying one of those electronic pianos anyway… So then Brigitte joined me to watch a movie, and the thought then sank a little but not entirely out sight.

Today, as we set out for one of our rounds—Post Office, etc.—and we were on the way, the thought came into my mind that we had lift off at last. And then, almost instantly, came the two lines of the refrain of the piece above: Houston we have lift off—in Nashville Tennessee. At once I knew that I had something. I began writing the thing while waiting in a long line at the Post Office on the back of a postal form (PS Form 1093, if you must know) that had some white space. I herewith declare myself as having entered the arena. And if composers, producers, and other Grand Ole Opry types wish to contact me, my e-mail is available by way of My Complete Profile…


An article in the Business pages of the New York Times yesterday (“In Animated Videos, News and Guesswork Mix”) exercised Brigitte enough so that she dispatched a stinging letter to the editors. It may or may not appear in print but may appear online. The article speaks of “Maybe Journalism.” It deals with computer-generated news reports, so-called, in which what might have happened is shown in video format. An example is the recent way-way-over-wrought uproar over Tiger Woods. Brigitte’s message to the Times was: Maybe Journalism also appears in the mainstream media—endless speculative stories about what people plan, intend, seek, project, surmise, etc.—with little actual news content beyond the opinions of politicians and celebrities and the posturings of institutions.

This article came soon after another one on the decline of the Media in which the author mentioned the birth of purely ad-driven journalism. I did a post on that for LaMarotte a few days ago (here). The matter was therefore on our mind.

Talking about it reminded me of the definitive book on the subject. It is Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image, subtitled A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. The book appeared in 1961. The cover shown here is that of the Vintage Books edition of 1992 that I happen to own. The intriguing premise of the book is that Journalism, barely born, rapidly discovered an awful truth: real news are rare but dailies must be filled with something. Adapting to this situation, journalism quickly discovered the solution as well. When nothing happens, why not fill the news hole with reports on things that sound like news: pseudo-events.

In support of Brigitte’s letter, I dug through a brown bag of old papers and extracted phrases from headlines as follows: “A Candidate Plans,” “U.S. Judge Opposes,” “Report Examines,” “Obama Team Defends,” “New Plan Rattles,” “Talks Continue,” “Europe Stews,” “President Vows,” and “Marcos Seeks.”

For good measure, to show headline snippets from one paper only (this morning’s Times), here are more: “Experts Sure,” “Officials Stress,” “Candidates Claim Victory,” “Rules Raise Questions,” “Justices to Decide,” “Push Intensifies,” “White House Urged,” “Criticism Rises,” “Fears Recalled,” “Deal Puts in Doubt,” “Programmers Try to Serve,” “Shows Stir Publicity,” “Univision to Make,” “Japan May Limit,” “Letdown is Predictable,” “Executives May Proceed,” and “NFL May End.”

To be certain that we’re reading unquestionable news, the Obituary Page is highly recommended. It reports genuine events. I’ve yet to encounter there news of the fact that So-and-So may, plans, seeks, or expects to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Words are magical—if only we look at them. The thought behind this entry comes from pondering the scurry of squirrels in our yard as they prepare for winter. We have a great Y-shaped tree in our backyard on the left strut of which Y, this year, the clan has built itself two nests. We didn’t consciously see these nests until the leaves reluctantly went south during the last few weeks. But now we see them. And the squirrels, as every year, are in a seemingly frantic hurry to store-store-store up there the treasures they find on the ground, scurrying to great heights. To complete this picture I must say that they don’t always work. This time of year some impulse also causes several or maybe all of them to clamber about in the branches of a set of smaller trees, entirely bare of any kind of nutrition, while performing astounding feats of acrobatics, apparently strictly for fun—often chasing one another in the process.

Squirrels came into our sharper view here in the suburbs of Detroit for the first time because the area is densely populated with people and with trees, and the trees are full of squirrels. Here, for the first time, we saw black as well as grey ones. Brigitte and I come from lands across the Atlantic where squirrels are seemingly smaller and almost reddish brown. American squirrels draw European attention. Our granddaughter Stella demonstrated this on walks in the Grosse Pointes here during her recent visit—absolutely fascinated with the creatures and avidly making photographs of little beasts in actions that, for us, no longer invoke much interest; they’ve become mere background.

It’s been going on like this forever here, the same patterns repeating, repeating. And, yesterday, when my eyes followed squirrels in their play and labor, the world “social Darwinism,” mentioned in that day’s blog here still on my mind, a meditation on innocence began spontaneously, as follows, more or less: Nature is innocent—humanity cannot be. For a while there I was muddled as I pondered this, thinking that innocence is rooted in knowledge, thus rising from the Latin for gnoscere. In meaning not and gnoscere meaning to know. Unknowing. Not so, it turns out. Innocence is rooted in the word nocere, meaning harm: not harming. But, of course—and never mind the etymologies—it comes to the same thing. Nature does not know. Therefore, no matter what it does, Nature can do no harm. Man always knows, also does, and therefore always knows when it does—harm. Our superiority carries a high price.

Images of the Garden loomed up, of course, that Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—and thoughts of the paradox of humanity’s fall—or was it humanity’s rising? For you must already know good and evil before you’re able to disobey. The disobedience is present in potential before the teeth sink down into the apple. And the corollary, of course, is that a way of life aping the purely natural, thus obeying the hidden hand of the market or the roar of the vox populi, is not good policy. But, having arrived at that thought, the innocent pleasure of watching the squirrels faded away and I went indoors to make a cup of coffee.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

We're Oddly Privileged Observers

The chart I present today is a somewhat more rationalized version of data from the Bureau of the Census that I had already posted here a while back. It shows the best scholarly estimates available on the subject of human global population for the period 1 to 1950 A.D. What I have done is simply extrapolated data points to fill in the gaps in the estimates, thus enabling me to show population on a continuous scale at 50-year intervals for the current chronological era. The raw numbers are available here. To this I might add that the original tabulation also provides estimates from 10,000 B.C. down to 200 B.C. The estimates for the human population for the time—and it’s nothing more than a guess-and-a-golly—suggest that in that entire period the human headcount was always below 230,000 million. When I arrived in America—the 1950 census was still being processed then—our population here was just a hair under 151 million. If I’d charted the entire range of the scholarly guesstimates, it would show a straight line running just above zero for all recorded history—and a huge, unbelievable spike appearing the day before yesterday.

In this chart I’ve plotted, along with the lower and upper estimates of scholars, the running average of the low estimate (green bars) and, overlaying them for most of the temporal trip, the difference between that average and the actual low estimate. What this tells me is that the real divergence from the perennials of history had its beginning in or around 1700, thus before the Age of Oil actually began. The early rising of the curve no doubt owed a great deal to advancements in agriculture discovered and applied in medieval times as documented by Lynn White in his fascinating Medieval Technology and Social Change. Coal mining began in the late 1740s; the steam engine appeared in 1770. And it was “hold on to your seats” after that.

We’re oddly privileged observers. We’re also, if you think about it, challenged to make the most of this odd and wondrous opportunity. The Age of Oil has already begun its descent from Mount Petroleum, and in another wink or two of historical time, the found wealth—which we, in fact, did very little to obtain beyond extraction—will have been consumed. We have a tiny window of time in which, somehow, we must, if we can, learn something from all this—and make the kinds of arrangements whereby we save and protect the physical gains we have been able to realize—not least electric light and the vast deposits of knowledge leisure has made possible to study under lamps—and to apply that knowledge to social well being.

The oddity of all this is how little one person can actually do. Thus this subject, already once touched upon in this blog, deserves this repetition—in new words and with a chart that features a blue sky.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Two Takes on History

For those who share my interest in the deeper past—and attempts at grasping its enormous complexity and maddening structure—I recommend two fascinating and original essays by Paul Rodriguez on The Ruricolist, titled Xerxes and Civilizations.

James Joyce, writing in Ulysses, wrote the sentence, “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The words are usually attributed to Joyce directly with the “Stephen said” omitted—yet one more indication how rapidly context is usually lost even in our own time. Joyce died in 1941 when I was not yet five. The quote stayed with me because history has fascinated me throughout my life; Paul’s second essay sums up some of the imponderables that any attempt at making sense of the big picture, so called, bedevils the would-be sage.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Wrought Riches

On her visit over the Thanksgiving holiday, Michelle brought us an exquisite album of wrought iron images she had taken in France over a number of visits here and there—titled Iron, Lace, Leaves and Light. Then, on the day of her departure, she left a CD with additional photos—some 402 of them! The picture shown here, one of those in the album, I chose for display because the talented photographer is herself dimly visible behind the iron.

In this and other pictures on this blog, the technical distinction between cast and wrought is not reflected in the blog entry titles. The screen in this photo shows cast iron, more common in that land of grills than wrought. The significant cost difference between the two explains that. But the effect is pleasing. With such riches in iron—and, incidentally, of the architecture of France revealed in fragments—my ability, occasionally, to lighten up the discourse has been greatly enhanced. Thank you, Michelle!

DIY Culture

I’ve finally finished reading all of Dante’s Divine Comedy—a very strange work indeed. Having read it and, alongside, several commentaries from various times and slants, I am powerfully reminded once again that “culture,” that elusive whatever-I-mean-by-that, is certainly a do-it-yourself enterprise. Having read this vast poetic work, I’m now at least personally acquainted with it. And the commentaries now give me quite another feel. I agree with bits and pieces, here and there. Nothing beats travelling a land yourself.

I’m not about to burden the reader with my take on Dante’s work; I knuckled down to read the work precisely to avoid such hear-say. The Comedy is a cultural phenomenon not a recitation of physical observations where the facts alone communicate something—although I must here note that it is sometimes equally valuable to read people like Newton in the original (or in translation from Latin for ignorami like me). There is nothing quite like the actual voice. Personal encounters often produce surprising outcomes. My views of Conan the Cimmerian abruptly changed when I read Robert E. Howard’s actual stories as they appeared in Weird Tales long ago. Commentaries swirl like clouds around the works of culture. Time and again I’ve discovered that thinkers whom scholarly consensus dismisses have genuine merits—or that lauded greats are muddled, empty, vain, or simply sick. One of my memories, on reading (or is it perhaps better to say trying to read) Plato’s Timaeus was the irritated reaction: God, I wish this man had had some sense for structure! Artistically splendid works sometimes convey loathsome themes. I think of these as beautiful sculptures made of fecal matter; but you might not realize that until you draw near.

In a way it’s maddening that we must do all the work to get some kind of reliable sense of what is out there. Art is long, life is short. The only half-way adequate work-around to this that I’ve discovered is immersion in a culture deeply enough so that you get to know its foibles and prejudices intimately enough to see them sharply. Then, if the culture is rich in values, I can use its dictates as the initial filter to look at the world of cultural creations. In this endeavor relying on multiple cultures is much recommended because, through one lens only, some things will remain more or less invisible. In our time, fortunately, access to multiple cultures is possible.

Alas. To get to a state where the features of the cultural landscape become more or less visible, something must be neglected as your back curls leaning over books. Here the half-broken ceiling of the hall-way closet of my house comes sharply to mind—and my fingers itch to put Home Depot on a to-do-slip. Alas and alack. Sometimes cultural do-it-yourself really must give way to honest to God DIY with sheetrock and plaster and moving all of the coats and hats and shoes and scarves and umbrellas and what-not out of that closet to get at the ceiling, your head hurting as it bumps against the cobwebby but now exposed dark rafters overhead.