Sunday, October 31, 2010

October Ends

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mortimer to Mickey

This time of year tends to remind me that once sacred or serious myths over time morph into children’s tales or entertainments. Long ago, far away—meaning pre-Internet—I once saw an article neatly illustrating this phenomenon by showing how cartoon figures, originally adult and in-your-face, become ever cuter, cuddlier, and lovable. Mickey Mouse was originally Mortimer Mouse, but got renamed, evidently, no sooner baptized, and Mortimer became Mickey’s rival. Thus also All-Hallows-Even, the evening before All Saints’ Day, becomes the trick-n-treating of Halloween. The festival has independent Celtic and Christian roots. In the former it is a festival strongly linked to spirits—and the carved turnip with a candle inside, put in the window, was intended to ward off the evil invisibles. In  the Christian the evening ahead of All Saints’ Day was a vigil. The day itself, November 1, dates to the mid-thirteenth (and the greatest of) centuries.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Neubrücke: One of Our Cradles

Monique was born this day at the 98th General Hospital of the United States Army in the little village of Neubrücke, Germany. These days it is a place of some 416 inhabitants; in those days American military swelled the numbers. Neubrücke was then and still remains part of Hoppstädten, a township that actually makes its mark on the south-western side of the German map, an economically somewhat modest region in easy driving distance of Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. The county (Kreis) is Birkenfeld; I was good friends with the County Commissioner and therefore knew something about the struggles of this region.

 We lived just ten miles from Hoppstädten in one of Germany’s two largest artillery firing ranges, Baumholder. That place is still there, still housing some 10,000-plus U.S. troops…when they happen to be there. Most of them today are “temporarily” in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The crest and the photograph are of Hoppstädten itself; Neubrücke is out of the picture but would have presented a continuation of the scene we see here had the camera panned to the left a little more. The nearest serious hospital to us, then, was in Neubrücke—and the 98th was a very serious, very modern, 1,000-room general hospital.

It lost its status in the 1970s when another large military hospital was completed in Baumholder itself. For a while this complex of some 50 buildings, of which the hospital itself was the largest, served various elements of the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Marines. Later it became property of the German government and served as a school and as residential district. I’m delighted to have found a photograph of one end of this actually much, much larger building. This photo was taken during the hospital’s period of abandonment and on a dreary day. It had quite a different look on sunny day when it was at its peak and filled with life. I was also lucky. This picture shows that end of the hospital where I actually parked my little grey VW bug on the day of Monique’s arrival and on subsequent visits. Then I walked the whole seemingly interminable half-length of the building to enter it in the middle.

Like so many places in the old world, Neubrücke has a deep history. To give a glimpse of that, here is a quote from, from an article titled “Neubruecke Kaserne, Germany”:

The history of Neubruecke can be traced back to 2,000 B.C. The area at that time was occupied by tribes of Celts who began a series of fortifications along the Idar Mountain range as protection against Germanic tribes to the Southeast. These fortifications continued until approximately 100 B.C. The defense line which ran between the Mosel and Rhine rivers was initially built of wood, but was rebuilt in stone during the Roman Era. The site of the old hospital complex covers a Celtic burial ground called …“Tumuli.” Twelve of these large earthen mounds or tombs were excavated before construction of the hospital complex. Relics typical of the Bronze Age were found. Bodies of the dead were entombed in wooden coffins fashioned by hollowing out whole tree trunks and personal items such as jewelry, vases, urns, and bowls were placed with them. Most items unearthed were of Celtic origin, but also found were bronze artifacts which probably dated back to Greek times. All the relics unearthed can be seen on display at the Landesmuseum at Trier.

John will be happy to know that the Celts were already guarding the place of his future wife’s birth before, you might say, time began. And it is strangely appropriate that a place once a tomb honoring the brave should have in time become transformed into a place where many thousands of babies saw the light for the first time ever.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Yoga's Rich Lessons

When the brave, hardworking Number 8 is finally done with the day’s work and lies down to rest thus— — it passes from the realm of Tribulation to the domain of Eternity, as do we. The inspiration for this was a Yoga exercise in which one describes, fingers entwined, elbows out, first the one and then the second figure in the air—to flex the fingers and to feel the muscles of the arms. But there is a kind of deeper lesson here. And when you separate the fingers and rest the hands on the thighs—why that describes the happy middle position between the two: Detachment.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Standing in Line

Monday, October 25, 2010

Arborum Amicus

I feel a mighty resonance with posts by Michael Gilleland
Who loves all trees and weekly sings their praise on his resplendent blog.
Arboricides he doth despise; his quotes excoriate the firebrand.
Before green trees he bows in awe and mourns each sawed and lifeless log.

To check on the latest about forests in Merry Old England, see his post today.

To Correct a Neglect

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
‘Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,’ I said, ‘art sure no craven
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’
     [The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe]
The bridge at midnight trembles,
The country doctor rambles,
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection,
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring.
The wind howls like a hammer,
The night blows cold and rainy,
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing.
     [Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Bob Dylan]
Yesterday on PBS the Nature program presented a fascinating show about the intelligence of crows—A Murder of Crows. You can see an introduction to the show here. Granted, there is a certain tension, a certain distance between Science and Poetry, but writers who prepare the narrative belong to the poetic tribes. Not this time. This pleasing program featured not one mention of the raven. Herewith the answer to the question I always ask: What is the difference between the crows and ravens? The answer: Both belong to the class of birds, Aves, the order of Passeriformes, the family of Corvidae, and the genus Corvus. Then there are forty-one species and some subspecies of the genus, of which several are ravens, the most common being, well, the Common Raven, called Corvus corax. In the United States we see the American Crow; it is called Corvus brachyrhynchos. Crows are just slightly smaller in size than ravens. They also have smaller and more curved beaks. The American Crow is susceptible to West Nile virus. They used to be quite numerous here, but we’ve noted their virtual disappearance, oh, five or six years ago. When I see one or two on a walk, it is always something I note and tell Brigitte about. Maybe they’re coming back. We like crows…

We do have a few ravens in America as well. Therefore my inclusion of a raven, one with a broken wing, into Ghulf Genes (the novel) was at least technically sound—although, to tell you the truth, appearing as it did in Pennsylvania, it was a very, very great distance from where it normally flies, feeds, breeds, and nests—in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

To Thou or not to Thou

The second person informal pronoun has dropped out of use in English. Evidently this began mid-way through the seventeenth century. Some people put the date of disuse earlier—evidently because it was a way of signaling that the speaker using the informal pronoun intended to make the person so addressed feel inferior. This didn’t happen elsewhere. Hence when we read eighteenth century German poetry or fiction, the use of this pronoun sounds perfectly natural. Not so in English.

I bring this up as a genuine problem in translation—or in reading old English texts. I’ve often thought that translating the second person informal as encountered in most European languages to this day by using thou, thee, thine, and so on is a kind of artificiality. It isn’t done in translating modern fiction. Why then persist in doing so when translating old poetry? Reading Schiller doesn’t give people the sense of reading somebody old and dusty. It all sounds perfectly modern. Hence I resolutely translate that pronoun into its plural form in English. That way I give it the same timeless feel that the original in another language still retains. As for reading, the Bible comes to mind. To erase the artificially imposed but ultimately secondary meaning on everything that “this is really old,” the new translations do what I do:

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?

It profiteth thee, scrivener, to use you for thou, and yours for thine.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Best We’ve Got

The inadequacy of language for communicating thought came to mind. The short sideways L of my computer desk has accumulated books so high that they now reach the forward-leaning lamp. Among them are six dictionaries—and that’s because I needed the lamp yesterday and moved the seventh to my writing desk which in turn sports three. The shelves behind that desk have nine more—and I’m sure I’ve missed some. And that’s just in the basement—and I mention that with suppressed irritation because I spend much time going from floor to floor fetching those that have a way of staying mobile. All told this place has four levels, and all  four house their guides to meaning.

Census of Birds

Decades ago I read an article suggesting that the swarming of birds this time of year is a form of census taking. Birds realize how many of them live around here and then, in the coming breeding season, either curb or intensify that activity. A very tall tree a block away at a corner has been in process of dying. Just a few of its branches still produce leaves, and these fall early. Brigitte has named it the Conference Tree because the bird tribes make their glorious circles in the sky and often this season settle on the sad naked branches and make the Conference Tree seem to sag, rich with hundreds of moving noising fruit.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Schiller Recalled

The other day Brigitte remembered a difficult essay assignment in her school days. It came when she was in what here we would call middle school, thus when she was in her earliest teens. The assignment, furthermore, came on the first day of school one year. The professor assigned the title of the theme. It was a single sentence: Das Leben ist der Güter höchstes nicht—Life is not the highest of the goods. At her young age this theme was challenging—and more. She recalled her agonized efforts to produce something fitting. The sentence in German has a more poetic, unusual word-order than my version in English. And discussing it we speculated that it must be a famous line. And, Yes, that turned out to be true. It occurs in the last verse of The Bride of Messina, the work of Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller who, alongside Goethe, is Germany’s most famous poet:

I stand here shaken, know not if I ought
To pity or instead to praise his lot.
This one thing do I feel and clearly know:
Life is not the highest of the goods;
But of evils surely guilt’s the greatest.

We have minimally two complete works of Schiller on the shelves in German—none in translation. When such things appear, I set myself to work. Much later, on an impulse, I consulted Bartlett’s hoping to find the line. Not there. Then I turned to the older The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Not there either, but in that work the few quotations actually included showed both the German and the English.

The featured quote in both is the first stanza of “Ode to Joy”—which Beethoven who, alongside Bach, is Germany’s greatest composer, set to music. The translation in the Oxford version is somewhat baroquely decorated; the text in Bartlett’s is much better. The translators try to render Schiller’s seven to eight-syllable beat but don’t always succeed. This set me scribbling. The results are here, the original first:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische dein Heiligtum.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt,
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Translation in Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (unattributed)

Thou radiance sprung from God Himself,
Thou daughter of Elysium, Joy,
Thy shrine we tread, Thou Maid Divine,
Though light’s excess our sense destroy.
What harsh world-use has rent apart,
Thy healing spells restore again;
Where’er Thy gentle wings may rest,
Brothers we find our fellow-men.

Translation in Bartlett’s, by Theodore Spencer

Joy, thou spark from Heav’n immortal,
Daughter of Elysium!
Drunk with fire, toward Heaven advancing
Goddess, to thy shrine we come.
Thy sweet magic brings together
What stern Custom spreads afar,
All men become brothers
Where thy happy wing-beats are.

Herewith then my own, which preserves Schiller’s beat and sticks close to his wording:

Joy, the lovely spark divine,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-drunk we enter here,
Heavenly, your holy home.
Your magic’s power binds again
What custom strict divides,
All join a single brotherhood
Where your gentle wing presides.

In the background of this post lingers another experience, a recent and quite strikingly insightful essay in the New York Times by Michael Cunningham on the subject of translation that Brigitte found and we both delighted in reading and discussing. I’ve long held Cunningham’s view (and we share it, no doubt, with many other writers) that all writing is translation. The first captures the inspiration from on high. And when a piece of writing is rendered into another language, the act of translation is, once more, the capture, by a kind of incarnation, of something ineffable. As Cunningham puts it, “The translator is translating a translation.” But reading is translation too; the reader will behold what her or his inner powers are able to catch of something that barely touches down and then flies off again.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Financial Innovation

Financial products have three basic elements. Money, the unpredictability of the future; and the predictability of human nature, expressed in many ways, but “to err is human” is what is on  my mind. Money is a token for value; however much we change its name, it simply stands for value. We’ve not discovered reliable ways of predicting the future, but we have developed statistically valid ways of predicting human failure. With such unpromising raw materials, wherein does innovation lie when applied to handing B some money, waiting for a while, and hoping that B will give it back—plus some? Or does the innovation lie in gulling A to hand over the money in the first place?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Unsolicited Public Speech

The splendid technical tools provided free of charge to bloggers—enabling us to present words, images, indeed even videos to the public at large in a most professional way—sometimes produce a sense of self-importance the activity doesn’t merit. Unless you keep a family blog, you’re engaged in unsolicited public speech. As a corrective, I take time at intervals to remind myself what it is all about: addressing the few at random. My earliest notion was that blogging is like printing out something you wrote and tacking it to the back of the garage for all the world to see—which is at least theoretically possible if (although this is not my case) a public alley actually runs behind your garage.

When I am out of sorts two other images come from my days in Washington, DC. There at lunchtime or going from place to place, I used to encounter two quite different figures at regular intervals. One was an always very well-dressed, very presentable woman in her mid- to late-forties. She obviously suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. A small minority of such people shout obscenities for anyone to hear. Her words stood in stark contrast to her facial expression and her upright and civilized looks. Everyone listened but did his or her best to look away.

The other figure was a little man who carried a tent-shaped man-sized wooden board, his little head on top. On its surface he had laboriously written out in inch-sized capitals his troubling suspicions about the world. The story began on the front. To complete reading it, you had to go around him and read the continuation on his back. I don’t remember if the front ended with the words: “Read more…” as some blogs let you say to shorten the post and thus to tease the reader at least to sample your immortal thought. Atomic radiations released by a great government conspiracy were penetrating this unfortunate man’s mind, he claimed, and he was seeking public support to hunt down the criminals and to restore his rightful humanity. He went into the subject with a vengeance—the physics of it, satellites, the physiology of it, the whole nine yards. I once actually did what very few allowed themselves to do. I stopped and took time to read the whole message, front and back. But he was so accustomed to being ignored, he did not register my brief but concentrated attention to his story; he just kept staring straight ahead as he always did.

I’ve never been to Hyde Park in London—never been to London, either—hence I’ve never seen soapbox oratory at the famous Speaker’s Corner. But, to be sure, the audiences that drift past that corner on Sundays would no doubt make a pretty good random sample of the people who visit any blog—unless they belong to one’s narrow circle—and smile, or frown, or laugh as they pass, your voice echoing a partial meaning in their heads as they head on to their entertainment.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I Blogged Before I Blogged

In a notebook I chanced across while doing some serious Fall Cleaning, I came across some brief writings—I called them notes. Lordy. I have notebooks upon notebooks just like the one I found—a lifetime’s entirely private effort of making sense of reality and/or capturing insights, never intended for readers. I will reproduce one from April 2005 here. Until today, no one has seen this; but I did read it to Brigitte just five minutes ago.

Carriers of Meaning

Formal systems do not carry meanings—but fairy tales do.
     I assume that worlds full of meaning are actually real—in the conventional sense of the word, tangibly: touch it, taste it. By worlds I mean not only this one, but this one is a sample. I mean the others as well: heavens and hells, choirs of angels, vast imaginal landscapes and oceans of spirit with white ships and billowing red sails.
     By formal systems I mean Aquinas’ Summa or Kant’s Critique. For that matter I also include quantum mechanics and Einstein’s two relativities, as mathematical formalisms. And so on.
     All formalisms produce a kind of satisfaction, but no sooner do I feel the satisfaction than the formalism coils back on itself and causes me to question it; my satisfaction turns uneasy. My mind begins to probe the logic. Thoughts rise and flicker with exceptions. Invariably something won’t properly fit.
     On the other hand the grand epics live on. They shimmer in memory like the events of my own life or true events of history. Tales are good carriers of meaning, but the meaning remains diffused. When I try to concentrate it, I start to build a formal system. Then, with Ross Perot’s vividly put “great sucking sound,” the life departs from it.
     Formal systems are static. Reality is dynamic. To capture that dynamism, algorithms are simply not enough.
     Our inner life is a constant swaying between polarities: the static certainties of structure and the dynamic movements of myth.
     This is in part a comment on these very notes. They are effective because they’re organized disorganization. They are a net that captures meaning without formally reducing meaning to a system.
     Much of this dilemma is due to complexity. We are capable of comprehending it as story, but it loses its coherence as a listing of relationships. I describe living by starting somewhere. Blood circulation, say. The heart seems central. I delve deeply into the muscles of the heart, the electrical triggering of the contractions.
     I go on and build the whole system—the vast highways of arteries, the reflux of veins. I have to explain in turn lungs and respiration, capillaries carrying oxygen to feed the cells.
     I go on. I am still at it, detailing various organs and then organ systems. Then I detail how they relate. I weary myself describing the central and the secondary nervous systems, the autonomic and the central one which gets its stimulation from “out there.” The eyes take me a day, the skin, the olfactory organs.

He took her on a walk, that first time. There was a park nearby. It was toward evening, but not quite dark yet. Fresh. It had stormed that afternoon but the sky was now clear and bright. They stood by the lake for a bit, hand in hand, and she told a funny story about the time when her Dad had carved a boat. It had a little mast and a sail fashioned of a silvery container top. And how the boat, being uneven, listed ever to the side. And how her Dad was down there on all fours, blowing at the little boat, but it wouldn’t go anywhere. It was too heavy… And he, with her, looked at her as she was telling this story, and she was all full of light and merriment, her eyes shining.
     And they were out there, waiting for the sun to sink. And the lake got darker and darker, and the horizon bright, the trees and houses like black silhouettes across the lake, the sun sinking behind them.

This scene, described as system, as sensations, as hormonal movements, as the firing of trillions of brain cells, as blood circulating, as skin sensing a light breeze, as metabolic states mirroring brain messages and brain cells responding by triggering deep sighs, as uncountable sense impressions flooding in, as heat issuing from uncountable pores, gushing from ears and mouths and other openings, would describe nothing of meaning. Yet all of this, this vast machinery, is there. To understand it is important.
     It is a puzzlement. That which permits us to understand something in close detail destroys the phenomenon. That which we experience hides the details. We have a devil of a time disentangling the vehicle and that which it carries, form and substance, structure and function.
     The map is not the way and not the destination, but you cannot get there without a map. When you get there, the destination is a big brick structure painted white in reality and on the map it is a red star on the screen and a black star on the print-out.
     And this all makes perfectly good sense.
     A cosmology—an orientation—is like a map. And little more than that. A really great map has artful figures at the corners, the four winds; their lips are puckered up to indicate that they are blowing. And in the map’s artfully drawn oceans frolic unlikely dolphins spouting bright streams.
     In other words the map is trying to tell a story by way of excusing its own inadequacy of being a mere formalism.

Where Realism Trumps Idealism

I’ve mentioned George F. Kennan (1904-2005!) once before here. I learned to respect the man, and his approach to international relations, while I was in college. He was a realist and disdained any kind of initiatives in foreign affairs motivated by convictions of national superiority. He would have put thumbs down to nation building or regime change. In an interview in 1999, with the New York Review of Books, he said:
This whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable. I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights. I submit that governments should deal with other governments as such, and should avoid unnecessary involvement, particularly personal involvement, with their leaders.
“Free markets” might be added to that list. The problem is that treating huge human collectives as if they were inferior or moved by evil motives, while appealing to our own public, also suggest that we are somehow superior in every conceivable way. Realism in international relations seems very rough, but it hides within itself the virtue of humility. Yes. We must look out for our own interest and defend ourselves when we’re attacked. Beyond that? Full stop. Beyond that nothing.

Our policies are productive not of spreading enlightenment but of Quislings. The next step is to accuse our Quislings of corruption, which will inevitably happen if the charade goes on too long. Eventually we’ll see the Quislings toppled by local forces that stuck to the hardest but only rule people can obey when attacked from the outside. Never serve the enemy. Better to starve. This comes to mind, needless to say, as I read today that Sunni forces bought with our money in Iraq are now changing coats again, and in Afghanistan we’re watching the Taliban engaged in reclaiming power by infiltration.

Kennan was the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952 and to Yugoslavia in the period 1961-1963. He came from Milwaukee, WI, and his long life provided him a very long view of history.

I found the quote above as part of Wikipedia’s article of Kennan here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Cyclic History in Brief

Now the natural tendency of humanity is upward, in the direction of the ethereal—and that tendency is much helped by hardship, which concentrates the mind. When hardship is overcome, the upward striving weakens because attention is then collectively scattered, and if things don’t worsen, a slide develops toward the physical. The choices are spiritualization or commercialization. In due time marching in what for humans is the wrong direction produces disorder and then chaos. With chaos hardship grows—whereupon it is once more natural to seek the heights.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Roots of Hospitals

As years march on one gets to know the medical system much more intimately, be it as the patient or the patient’s “accompanying person.” If you’re by nature curious the process begins quite early. My first conscious notice of hospitals began when I was in college and daily passed a venerable institution known as Menorah Hospital in Kansas City on my way to classes—and realized for the first time that hospital names don’t all have to start with “St.”

Since coming to the Detroit metro area in 1989, we’ve had “intimate” relationships with six of the area's hospitals and, in process, the four great so-called “health systems” that, these days, serve as imperial umbrellas under which individual hospitals and many more specialized clinics shelter. The roots of the institutions—how they got going, what the underlying motive for their founding had been—has always interested us. Yesterday we’ve added yet another one when I got to undergo another “procedure” and Brigitte got to be “accompanying person” in her turn. The sample has now become large enough to show us clearly the roots of hospitals at least in our area. The odds are very high, however, that they are similar all over the country.

Of these six facilities, the oldest can trace its institutional origins all the way back to 1650. Of the six two (St. John and Bon Secours) were founded by orders of sisters, the underlying motive religious; one (Hutzel Women’s Hospital) was founded by seven women in the post-Civil War era to care for unwed mothers and children; one (Cottage Hospital) got its impetus from a neighborhood club reacting to the ravages of the 1918 influenza epidemic; and two (Beaumont and South Macomb) were started by local leaders stimulated by their areas’ distance from convenient health care. Tiny (10 bed) Cottage Hospital later came under the sway of the Henry Ford Health System—which also operates several other hospitals, including Henry Ford Hospital itself (802 beds); its root was Henry Ford’s own philanthropic impulse. Beaumont (1061 beds) acquired Bon Secours (289 beds) a couple of years ago. And St. John Providence Health System acquired South Macomb and renamed it St. John Macomb (376 beds). St. John’s itself has 804 beds, and Hutzel, part of the Detroit Medical Center, the area’s largest health system, has 61 beds. We’ve thus been treated by each of the area’s large health systems and most of the major hospitals.

Beaumont is the leading hospital in the metro area—and indeed, measured in annual admissions and surgeries performed—first in the nation. Every year it tends to be first in one or the other of these two categories. We got to know Beaumont because, as a research hospital, it had deeper insights into heart-beat irregularities than any other around here (the Women’s Heart Center). Beaumont began in 1955 when two civic groups, each trying to start a hospital—because their areas in Royal Oak and Bloomfield were too far from Detroit or Pontiac sites—joined forces and broke ground on a 55-acre farm donated by Asher and Harriet Parker in Royal Oak.

The closest major hospital to us is St. John; but for the heart-stent I received in their cardiac wing, I don’t suppose I would be writing this. The hospital began in 1952; the Sisters of St. Joseph, that particular branch founded in Kalamazoo in 1889, began fund-raising in 1947. The Sisters of St. Joseph, however, reach a ways back in time, to 1650, when they were founded in Le Puy, France by Jean-Pierre Médaille, a Jesuit. St. John Macomb, yesterday’s destination, began in 1966 as South Macomb Hospital, founded by community leaders in Warren, MI. It joined the St. John Health system in 1997.

Cottage Hospital is a mere two blocks away from where we live. I’ve had two cataract replacements surgeries there (to see you better) and Brigitte has been there for physical therapy contra spondylolysis. What’s that? All in good time. Old age has its mysteries; suffice it to say that it has to do with pain in the vertebrae. This lovely, small, but highly efficient hospital shows no signs of the horrid times in which it had been started, the influenza epidemic of 1918. In that year life expectancy in the United States suddenly plunged from 50.9 years in 1917 to 39.1 years in 1918—recovering again to 54.7 years in 1919.

Bon Secours (now known as Beaumont Grosse Pointe) became Brigitte’s favorite hospital. I can easily pass by there on my longer walks. She had been treated well there undergoing an operation on her toes; she bent her artificial knee there for the first time ever; it’s also our favorite emergency room (heart flutters for Brigitte, uncontrollable nose bleeding and falling off the ladder right onto the saw for me). These episodes always take a long time so that, by now, arriving there, we each have our favorite chair in the ER if we’re going as “accompanying persons.” Bon Secours began in 1979 at the initiative of the Sisters of Bon Secours. They had their start in Paris in 1824—and the convent that built the hospital began in 1909 in Detroit.

In some ways Hutzel is the most interesting of the hospitals on this list for us. It was founded in 1868 by seven women concerned with the welfare of other women—the unwed and their children. The hospital, originally the Women’s Hospital, was renamed in 1965 after a singular leader, and a nurse, Eleanore L. Hutzel. She served the hospital for 54 years and was also its trustee. Our linkage to this hospital was also very fortuitous. Brigitte has volunteered for several clinical trials over the decades—motivated by wishing to be of service and interest, generally, in medicine. She volunteered for a program administered from Hutzel. At her initial examination for purposes of participation, the doctors discovered a sizeable tumor and decided to remove it ASAP. In trying to help others save lives, Brigitte thus probably saved her own. I was the anxious accompanying person; I wandered the halls many an hour; and before we left, I knew the history of this remarkable institution very well indeed. It struck me then the extent to which women are associated with the foundations of health care institutions—and it matters not whether they are religious or lay. It’s the deeper impulses of caring that are behind it and bring solace and help to others.

By far the largest, most sophisticated, most resolutely modern of the hospitals above mentioned is Beaumont. It is generally very difficult to discover the histories of these hospitals on the web. They either neglect or hide their origins lest they offend some potential clients. Indeed, Beaumont’s was the most difficult to discover. This resolutely secular institution began in a tug of war between two groups of local leaders; but, fortunately, they joined hands. And it gave me a certain poignant pleasure to discover, in these researches, that just off the southeastern corner of the vast tract of land on which Beaumont now resides there stood then, and still stands today, at Woodward and 12 Mile Road, the National Shrine of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Clouds of War

We don’t know where the electron is. All we know is its probability of being, well, inside this cloud, right here. Statistics conquers all. Based on the most recent orthodoxy, there are no “laws” of nature—only high and low probabilities that matter will behave in certain ways. True. The probabilities that I will fall when I walk out of the tenth story window of this building, right here, are extraordinarily close to one. But in theory at least—meaning that it is permissible to think this—somewhere, sometime, a million years ago but, for that matter, perhaps tomorrow, someone will go on a walk and start rising into the air, getting ever more desperate, until, not even visible to the naked eye of his dog, who lives by other odds, he gets into the stratospheres where the oxygen’s no more.

Destruction at a distance is my subject, actually. It is associated with artillery, bombing, and drones. In David McCullough’s biography, Truman, Truman is quoted as saying (p. 439 of the 1992 Touchstone edition), “It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood were worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were and are.” Reasonable estimates from Japanese sources put deaths in Nagasaki at 87,000, in Hiroshima at 90,000, suggesting that the trade of 177,000 for 250,000 was numerically the better bet—provided, of course, that the same probabilities applied in both cases and that only two cases were possible—an atomic attack or the slow grind of warfare on land. It wasn’t at all certain that a quarter of a million Americans would die; different strategies might have kept numbers much lower; that around 170,000 Japanese civilians, among them a small number of Japanese soldiers and sailors, would be boiled, burned, and blasted to ash—that was a great deal more probable. The case is further “clouded” by the fact that the civilian inhabitants of the two Japanese cities (and surely some were children) were not, as it were, organized state forces opposing that flower of our manhood.

The third way might have been to stop U.S. advances and to tighten what was no doubt a serious blockade of the island of Japan. Time would have eventually produced a Japanese surrender. Japan was already on its last leg. But inside the vast clouds of public opinion, impatient expectations, and the mood of the times generally, the rational solution wasn’t even contemplated.

Destruction at a distance by an explosive device—or bio-bomb—treats opposing states as if they were single bodies made up of cells and directed by a single mind. Therefore the laws of war have been obsoleted by another rather questionable and very nebulous theory under which non-combatants, not least children, are combatants, become combatants by the mere fact of belonging to the enemy domain.

We don’t know where the enemy is. All we know is its probability of being, well, inside these borders here. Shock and awe will do it.

Thinking of drones, it occurs to me that small numbers of casualties and shielding verbiage, as in collateral damage, in no way change the underlying moral situation in any way. I ought to withhold a carefully calculated amount from my income taxes because drones are immoral; I am, after all, as a U.S. citizen, directly responsible. But it turns out that the amount I should withhold gets washed out by the mere fact that TurboTax rounds numbers before submitting them to big brother, one of whose obedient cells I happen to be.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Trend Going the Other Way

Turkey’s top education board has proposed its own answer to the long-running headscarf controversy, tacitly allowing covered women to attend classes in what essentially amounts to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” solution. [Hürriyet Daily News, October 4, 2010]
Turkey has always interested me for multiple reasons. Turks were the boogey-men of my childhood—because the Ottomans had occupied Hungary for several centuries, and children growing up in Hungary were not going to be allowed to forget that. The Hungarian language carries traces of the Turkish language. And, later, I was fascinated by Turkey’s secularization, from within, under the leadership of Kemal Atatürk—so far as I can tell the first (and only) Muslim country to go in that direction. Now, of late, I’ve watched in absolute fascination as Turkey is in the process of loosening its embrace of the West in small but significant ways. Atatürk secularized with a vengeance, reaching right down to modes of dress. These strictures are now being eased ever so carefully.

Hürriyet, which is Turkey’s English language daily, reports here that YÖK, the country’s Higher Education Board, is more or less ignoring a 2008 Constitutional Court ruling which held that headscarves of the Islamic kind were not permitted to be worn inside public institutions. The paper opines that YÖK’s decision will prevail if it meets popular support.

From my peculiar point of view—as an amateur student of culture and cycling historical patterns—it is most interesting see this sort of development. It suggests that the hypnotic power of the West is weakening. Its power, after all, more or less triggered secularization in Turkey as a defensive reaction to western encroachment in the wake of World War I; the Republic was established in 1922. But the Muslim culture is younger than the Western, and it would make sense that it would reassert itself as it is able. Is that what’s happening?

Season of the Saints

In the early days of October each year, the award of the Nobel Prize reminds me that secular ages have their saints too, not least those formally recognized at the culmination of a process akin to canonization. As in religious times so also in secular, when the official powers disdain to recognize a popular figure, the folk proceed to loft certain people into undying visibility for long veneration. Today’s announcement that Liu Xiaobo, the incarcerated Chinese activist, has won the Peace Prize coincides with Google’s celebration of John Lennon’s birthday on its search page. The British government is also prone to grant titles of nobility to leading practitioners of popular arts; no doubt that happens elsewhere too.

The Nobel Prize, established in 1901, is granted for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. In 1968 the Prize in Economic Sciences was added. Notice here the absence of the word “Nobel” in front of the word “Prize”—at least on The foundation administers that prize too, but it was established by a bank, the Sveriges Riksbank, in celebration of its 300th anniversary and in memory of Alfred Nobel.

Unlike religious sainthood, which postdates a person’s passing sometimes by many years, the top secular prize is awarded only to the living. The Nobel’s reach, to be sure, is beyond mere physical science, but in my lifetime certainly the literary prize has tended to go to writers who’ve resonated with modernity rather than with tradition. An aura of conflict surrounds this year’s peace prize—as in other years as well—sure to anger the Chinese. I’m reminded of Matthew 10:34: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” The Nobel Committee didn’t quite get it right. I’ve always approved of titles like “revolutionary” and “assassin”—but “activist” doesn’t quite measure up. In China the Mandate of Heaven is bestowed on people who storm the citadels with sword in hand…or, in modern times, tossing dynamite.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Where is the Rage?

There are at least two approaches to this question, and today I’ll take a physiological route. Rage is an emotion. It is viewed as negative if it’s directed at us—positive if directed at some perceived enemy—whence, of course, comes the popular question, asked in frustration: “Where is the outrage?” Viewed from another angle, rage is a natural reflex to threats. For this reason our bodies are constructed so that we respond reflexively, very rapidly—more rapidly than our intellectual brain-cycles can.

Experts tell me (there are lots of articles on anger management on the web) that rage is set off by the amygdala. That’s the singular name for a complex structure of nuclei located in the mid-brain but linked to the temporal lobe. We have two amygdalae; their purpose is to process emotional stimuli. They interpret incoming perceptions, relate these to memories, and set off spontaneous reactions to threats. They cause the release of catecholamines (flight-fight hormones), adrenaline, and other neurotransmitters that prepare us to act—and violently if need be.

Rage is therefore a response to something that threatens. Threats may signal mortal danger, hence the body has no time to waste on thought. The processes set off by the amygdalae bypass the usual bureaucratic brain-procedures and lead directly to action—or at least to preparation for action. Rage is a reflex—and the body is stimulated. Rage acts like a drug. The emotion may be negative, but the body feels good.

To be sure, the amygdalae evoke memory, first of all; they look in memory for appropriate responses based on our past behavior. This suggests that over time we can educate our own reaction to all kinds of stimuli, not least to threats. Thus it’s possible to develop very exaggerated reactions to threats that have not the least potential of immediately harming us—as well as very cool reactions to stimuli that threaten us with immediate, actual, physical harm—sang froid, as the French call it. In the long run, you might say, over time, we can develop optimal reactions to threats.

The modern tendency to raise the emotional above the rational—expressed as “sensitivity” and demonstrated by fictional heroines like Diana Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation who always empathically asks, “But how do you feel?”—produces the widespread cultural message that “rage” and “anger” are appropriate—and human—responses to the endless flow of sewage that spews from the media. Not quite. Rage and anger produce reflex responses. When the threats are vague and nebulous, when most of the news are trial balloons, when the messages, especially in an election year, are designed to rouse and aim the public rage so that it will express itself without the least bit of thought—why then the consequences are worse than all those things that cause us to flare up in righteous indignation. But that indignation feels good, you see. It makes us think that we are real somehow. Thought is so . . . so thin, so nebulous…

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Meet Pepo

As promised, I bring here a photograph of the sole surviving product of our pumpkin plant profusion. The other two fell prey to squirrels.

Now it turns out that this splendid, if small, specimen is an eccentric acorn squash, officially known as Cucurbita pepo. But, of course, as the experts know (but I was a bit shocked when Brigitte first tutored me) the “squash” name should not confuse us. The pumpkin is itself a squash. Hence my long persistence in clinging to the “pumpkin” designation, even after I noticed that the leaves were ever so slightly different than last year, was perfectly all right. This variety has Mexican origins.

Pepo is eccentric because it is technically known as a winter squash, but it decided to appear in summer. I am happy to follow up one sequence of development this past summer, the magical metamorphosis of a caterpillar into the splendid Black Swallowtail butterfly, with the presentation here of the last chapter of another process, a pumpkin that morphed into a squash.

Viva Pepo!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Through the Lens of History

It is very difficult to see one’s own cultural tradition in the clear, as it were. The western civilization is particularly awesome in that it balances its evils by its merits. It is easier to be objective, for example, about the civilization of which the Aztec Empire was the last decadent expression. In that case we can unhesitatingly abhor the practice of ritual human sacrifice. And it really helps our objectivity that virtually nothing of that civilization’s thought and poetry survives. As I ponder our own, its root beliefs as well as its culminating might, raining atomic bombs out of the skies, I find it eminently thinkable that in some very distant future our own will be viewed as aberrant. If my view strikes you as extreme or dubious, check with me in, say, 5,000 years; we’ll then go and have a look together.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Here Comes the Judge

Stop eatin’ that fudge
’Cause here comes the judge
        [Shorty Long, 1968]

Herewith an example of how memories are evoked. A while back a post on Siris (“American Aristocracy”) pleased Brigitte (link). She discovered that Aristotle had advocated choosing leaders by lot. Now it so happens that we’d discussed that method ourselves quite a while back. In the process we’d elaborated the idea into a practical shape, speculated on its possible consequences, and found this approach to politics pregnant with possibilities. Neither of us had ever read Aristotle’s Politics, hence we didn’t know that this idea had such an eminent provenance. Fine. But how do we get to the judge?

Well, we talked about the subject again yesterday, reviewing various parallels. This triggered memories of the three occasions on which I’d served on a jury, twice in Minnesota, once here in Wayne County. Public service by lot, you might say—the servants selected from a “qualified pool”—exists in miniature in the justice system. My own experiences have been altogether positive. I discovered that the people I served with were a genuinely random selection, a tiny but representative slice of society, and—in the jury room, considering another fellow human’s fate—remarkably serious, responsible, and adult in approach. We’re getting warmer, right?

Now it so happens that, my first time ever, long before I’d been selected for a jury, I was sitting with perhaps fifty other people in a huge room engaged in total passivity, the usual fate of the still unemployed juror. Reading, of course. A group approached me, two men, a woman; the men hung back, the woman did the talking; men always leave this sort of thing to ladies. The three were part of a film crew engaged by the Hennepin County justice system to make a film intended for the “briefing and education” of future juries. Scenes from an entire fictitious trial would be filmed and used for demonstration. Now this team was, as it were, choosing characters for different roles. I had a beard, the beard already grey. They wondered if I'd volunteer to play the judge… Before I could even react, the lady assured me that this would be done right now, while you'd just be sitting around. I laughed. I agreed. In consequence, about half an hour later, dressed in the robes of a judge now, in an unused jury room, I saw the judge’s tall podium and lectern from close up, saw the kinds of things that typically hide under the ledges there, and went through my paces. The team must have guessed that beyond looking like a judge, I was also a genuine ham. Some hours later it was all over.

Months passed. Then, one evening, Brigitte came home one afternoon after an outing. She was beaming from amusement. She packaged her story neatly so that I had to wait a bit for the punch line. Evidently she'd run across a casual acquaintance of ours and had fallen into a conversation. Along the line, not at first by any means, the lady friend said to her, “You know, Brigitte, I didn’t know that your husband is a judge. Why didn’t you ever tell me?” It appears that the lady had been on jury duty and, at the outset, she’d seen an introductory film where, my God, the husband of a friend of hers was up there in black explaining the law…

More months passed, and I was called to jury duty once again. This happened to be a most inconvenient time. I was surprised and irritated to be called again so soon after serving. And yes, I saw it too, that film. There I was. Of course we sat in darkness while the images were on the screen. And after the lights came up, I was a little disappointed that not a single person noticed that me, myself, and I, yes, I had been the judge on the screen. Then I remembered that after a certain age, younger people don’t see you any more. But, getting on in years, I hadn’t lost my initiative. I marched straight to the administrative offices and demanded that I should be released from jury duty for good cause. “And the cause is?” I was asked. I explained that for the last year and a half, every working day, I’d been serving this institution voluntarily. “Served how?” I was asked. I explained, again, that my handsome, bearded features were teaching prospective jurors what a judge looks like and how you must address him. This caused mild amusement for the staff, but I was told that service of that kind did not qualify as cause for a release. So I went back to the big room and sat down to read again. I’ve got a rich résumé

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Authority: Obvious Aspects and Odd

The establishment of an authority begins with a discovery—that something is true, that some arrangement or behavior has been found to be efficient, useful, and reliable. Next comes its confirmation. More and more people test this observation on their own; they confirm it for themselves. Their collective experience is the authority. Once it exists, those who accept it no longer need to test the observation—but, of course, they can if they wish.

At one extreme authority appears as common sense. We know that night follows day; we don’t retire nights in great anxiety wondering if we shall wake again. Hot stoves will burn us. At the other, bolstered by the experience of huge numbers over vast periods of time, they appear as wisdoms. The first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes (link) present a wonderful mass of such. You don’t believe the Preacher? Just stick around. In the center, between these two extremes, reside all manner of authorities that usually originate with one or a few persons, come to be believed and obeyed by many without personal confirmation. That’s where the oddities of “authority” appear.

These oddities are visible when parts of this complex thing, authority, are separated out and are confused with the totality. The originators of authority will tend to become famous, thus many, many people will come to know their name and fame. This feature, if separated from any observation or discovery at all, produces celebrity. Celebrities then speak with great authority on matters they know nothing more about than John or Jane Doe—but they’re celebrities, hence many people feel confirmed.

The oddest forms of authority arise when the observations underlying the authority are taken out of context, are not really understood, or they are thought to be in one category when, in fact, they belong into another. The example I would offer here is Einstein’s notion of gravity. It relies on entirely untestable assertions, namely that there is such a thing as space-time—and that material mass can cause space-time to curve. There is nothing wrong with philosophical concepts expressed as mathematical relations. Here what matters is the consistency of the terms and the logic of the math. But it is strange indeed to apply a mathematical relation ship to something like gravity, which is a matter of tangible experience.

Space, thus extension, appears to me to be an aspect of matter. Time, thus duration, is not commensurable in any way with extension. Time, as change, has to do with energy—something that causes change—not with extension. But space and time, s and t, can be conceptually manipulated in equations. To fuse these two into a single complex layer of some sort called the geometry of the universe is an imaginative creation—much like the tooth fairy. Shall we call it tf? To say that the mass of matter causes the tooth fairy’s pleasing curves is equally imaginative.

Here we have, I would propose, is a nice example of the “etherialization” of the physical—common in times when culture is in transition; the same thing happens in reverse in other times: the transcendent is then “materialized.”

The sun also rises. Yes, sir. I’m there with you, Preacher. All the rivers run into the sea, but the sea is not full. Yes, sir. Give me the old-time authority. I’ll reserve judgment on the new—even if Glenn Beck happens to confirm it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Alas and Alack

You might wonder why this blog occasionally features words about words—and you might assume it does because I fancy myself to be a writer. True but not quite. Most of these posts arise from “morning conversations” as Brigitte and I commune about—well, Everything. But we’re two people who’ve both spent large parts of our lives, including our working lives, concerned with books and words. Today began with Brigitte asking: “How do you say but in French?” “Mais,” I said. Next she wondered how you said however, and there I felt a blank. Then Brigitte wondered if, perhaps, alas had however as one of its meanings, in English and in French? That’s how these things begin. Our conversations take place upstairs; my computer’s in the basement; two flights of stairs; such things cause at least five ups and downs; they keep me fit even on rainy days like today when I’m not much moved to go on a long walk.

Going down in search of however, it occurred to me that mais is an odd sort of word for but. What could be its etymology? As usually, in French, it is eccentric and oddly evolutionary—and because English is half French in origin, people from the European mainland have a hell of a time with English. Mais comes from the Latin word magnus, big (believe it or not), but from its adverbial form, magis. That word means more, better, and also rather. Now, oddly, the French have latched on to the last of these meanings whereas in Spanish, as más, the meaning of more has clung to this root.

However in French? Lordy lord. Just its use as a conjunction produces cependant, toutefois, néanmoins, and pourtant meaning yet, nevertheless, however—and for pourtant we can use all of the above and add the word still.

Both alas and alack mean roughly the same thing. The first syllable in each case is an ah, as in a deep sighhhh. The last syllable comes from the Old French, las, originally meaning weariness (note the related lassitude), later more generally unfortunate. In the case of alack, the second syllable, from Middle English, means just what it says, a lackloss, failure, and even shame. The two together really do bear witness to the fact that English is a stew cooked from Latin and Germanic ingredients.

Alas and alack, language is like, hey, a forest, a jungle, a universe.

Registering October

Perhaps the most memorable October event in modern times was Red October or the October Revolution of 1917. It brought the Bolsheviks to power in the city of Petrograd. Nowadays it’s no longer viscerally noted just how long it took for the Soviets ultimately to gain total power—15 years. With Red October began the Russian Civil War. It lasted until 1922. But did that famous October Revolution really take place in October? Yes, so far as Russians were concerned. But in that time two calendars remained in active use. In most of western Europe the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582, was already in use—as it is now all over the world. But Russia still measured time using the Julian calendar. Where dates appear to conflict, thus in historical accounts where one side measured time using the Julian, another using Gregorian, historians annotate the date with O.S. and N.S., thus old and new style. Red October (O.S.) 1917 in my home country, Hungary, would have been Red November (N.S.).

The Gregorian calendar is named after Pope Gregory XIII (good number that). It was introduced to correct for a decimal point error which plagued the Julian calendar. That calendar was based on the assumption that the length of a year was 365 days and 6 hours; in actuality it is 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 12 seconds. By Gregory’s time the calendar had accumulated an error of 10 days; it was time to correct the calendar rather than, one day, celebrating Easter in the heat of summer.

For all of us of European, African, or Asian extraction living in America now, October also figures (both in O.S. and N.S. measurement) as the month in which Columbus discovered, well, the Bahamas. But he didn’t stop there. The original natives of this landmass came a long, long time before that—indeed before fancy calendars, those stopwatching the vernal equinoxes, had even been considered.

Closer to home, October was the beginning of the short-lived 1956 Hungarian Revolution; it might have been glorious, but Ike was unwilling to aid the rising masses in Budapest; ultimately the Russian tanks prevailed.

And closest to us personally, Monique Suzanne arrived late in October. The weather was warm and sunny in that corner of Germany. Monique was premature, but came into the world weighing a solid six pounds and two ounces. Totally worn out by a difficult birth, Brigitte could barely keep her eyes open; her greeting, as I arrived from many miles away, was the shadow of a smile. The hospital’s pastor had just left; he’d come in anticipation of a bad outcome. And the doctor had a very serious look; he did not give high odds for the baby’s survival; indeed he used such words. I insisted on having a look at this baby—and thought that she looked just fine—so red, so feisty—inside her incubator. I rushed back many miles and spent a small fortune on all manner of baby things, including a new crib and mounds of diapers, blankets…and even a rattle. I was grimly determined to vote for life with cash. We hadn’t bought most of these things yet because we had thought that we had more time. And, yes. I’d read the signs correctly…

Friday, October 1, 2010

State Alphabet Defect

Bound on a walk I chanced on a fact I hadn’t noted
E’er before. We omit some letters, others we ignore;
Just nineteen of the twenty-six start every name of states.
Quite a scandal, this, that not even my literary
X-ray eyes have managed to correct. Let re-naming begin:
You’ll find the Missing at the start of this short poem’s lines.
Zounds! I almost zapped the most important last. A state named Zing?