Saturday, December 31, 2011

Time’s Gate

I am running out of wrought iron gates bequeathed to me by daughter Michelle’s unfailingly apt photography. Luckily this last remaining one, also from somewhere in France, serves my purpose well today.

We set symbolic boundaries to time’s vast flow. They resemble this remnant in a way. This gate probably dates back at least to the nineteenth century. It can’t deny the intruder passage. The wall itself is eroded, broken, and if we wish to reach the rich, green, shaded future, we need but step around this would be barrier. That much more modern-looking little sign affixed to the old rusting gate intrigued me for quite a while. Finally I succeeded in reading it. Attention au chien, it says. Beware of the dog. But the dog is also gone, no doubt. The wall cannot contain it. It ran away anno long ago. We pass into the coming year as easily as falling fast asleep. But the sign still serves a purpose. It reminds us, as we pass: Beware, beware!

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Year That Was

Bananagrams in January.
Orchids in a February storm.
In March the Justices decreed: Corporate “persons,” have no “privacies.”
In April Glen Beck left the Fox.
May planted our tomatoes.
June’s Robert Gates departed the five-cornered house.
July brought back our butterflies.
We raised them in August sailing Schooner Manitou.
The Euro sickened in September.
In October we just counted strikes.
November belonged to Babylon 5.
December we’ll remember as the month of Iraq.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Relationships of Choice

In describing his views of heaven and hell, Swedenborg presents a world where people choose their own environments, but these are not, as it were, geographical. Souls select communities in which they feel at home. Therefore the condemned want to be in hell; the saved choose a heaven that suits them. Indeed we see souls, as it were, doing their real estate shopping by visiting these high communities. If they sense mutual agreement, they settle; if not they move on. There is, to be sure, also an intermediate region that reminded me of purgatory, a region where the initial sorting happens.

When I first encountered this view a German word presented itself spontaneously, die Wahlvervandschaften. The word literally means relationships of choice, but Goethe’s novel of that title is rendered as Elective Affinities, a novel I’d read, but only in part. A couple invite a man and a woman for a weekend, as it were, and wouldn’t you know it, the result is a kind of mixing of affinities. Goethe’s reference is to chemistry. In the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century chemists used “affinity” as the handy concept to explain why some elements attract each other while others won’t compound.

Reading that book, as soon as I discerned what would be coming down, I lost all interest. “Chemistry?” I muttered. “In that case there is no genuine choice. So why use that word?” A kind of determinism in elegant guise. Goethe’s novels are also incredibly longwinded, hence I’ve only ever sampled them. But I liked the title and the concept—but only if real choice is actually involved.

By contrast I’ve spent quite a lot of time—usually on walks—pondering Swedenborg’s projection. In that view the choice is real. We see such choice in this dimension too. Like clings to like, although what like means is often rather coarsely spun. Thus, for instance the wealthy live together, the artsy have their quarters. The poor endure their slums but, having endured them, feel more comfortable there. Freed of the weight of matter and its rude demands? In a realm where matter does not weigh us down, in a world where residence is not a matter principally of income and proximity to work—and the need for work seems also suspended and, per Swedenborg, is also a matter of choice—surely there people would then relate with those who genuinely please them. The Internet has created a new version of such odd, virtual spaces where we may cultivate Relationships of Choice. Blogs. Here they are, floating in the immaterial world of cyberspace. Each blog creates a kind of cultural environment readers are never compelled to visit. They do so at their choice.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My Sentiments Exactly

P.D. James, now in her nineties, has published a new novel, Death Comes to Pemberly—my luck to get it as a Christmas present this year. The novelty of this novel? It is the latest entrant into a growing genre: Jane Austen—or a Jane Austen character—featured in a murder mystery. I’ve just started reading the book, so no more on that subject now. But it brought to mind (the mention of Austen always does) Sense and Sensibility. That nineteenth century work would now have to be titled Reason and Feeling, a much less fetching phrase.

In the modern sense (that word again), our access to reality is through the senses—and that reality is therefore of a material character. And there is nothing else. The material is best understood by hard, logical, scientific, rational approaches in which feeling is held at bay. Curiously feeling is, in common usage today, quite divorced from physical touching; that’s where the word is rooted. Today it means emotion. And Austen’s title, a snapshot of language at a moment of historical time, has always sharply focused for me the materialization, as it were, of a strictly human capacity, that of consciousness. In that sense(!) sense emphasizes the intellect while sensibility points to the modes of intuition, feeling, indeed also of judging: the act of putting a value of some sort, positive or negative, on that which is perceived.

Sensibility has shrunk in meaning and signals a kind of rationality. Such a quality is now ascribed to a person who’s simply sensible. Other words, all ultimately rooted in the senses, that have had similar histories. Sententious comes to mind. It once meant terse, pithy, and full of meaning, a maxim. Now it means moralizing balderdash. Sentiment, derived from the Latin for feeling, once had a neutral tone but has been degraded to mean a thought arising from pure feeling only and therefore lacking the admired teeth of rationality. Unless, of course, the person says, my sentiments exactly. In that phrase the old take on things, thus “my considered opinion,” still prevails.

Here, of course, the necessarily personal character of perception plays a role in producing ambiguity. We think of the rational as capable of confirmation. Out there. Feelings are subjective and, as such (unless we are celebrities), of no importance whatsoever—unless some sort of hard, material underpinnings can be dug out of all that sentimental mush. Sentiment and navel-gazing are both condemned. But there is that Know Thyself. And when all is said and done, sense as rationality produces nothing but statistics, dry as dust.

Pemberly, by the way, was the great estate owned by Fitzwilliam Darcy, he who won the heart of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

News from the Vendian

Headline-writing is an art most resembling free verse. Free verse is a flattering sort of writing genre, much like modern art. Anyone can do it. The two headlines I want to talk about today come, respectively, from The State Column (link) and Science News (link):

Fossilized cells found in China may challenge theory of evolution
Early animals dethroned

The actual stories beneath these leads deal with the same subject; it’s the discovery of some fossilized blobs of once living matter 570 million years old. Such blobs were once thought to be algae; then, in 1998, they were reclassified as the embryos of animals; now X-ray methods have revealed that they are neither. They appear to be some precursor creatures that divide by a process called palintomy. New cells form inside the blobs until they are compressed so much that the blob explodes and lets them out. Cell-formation by palintomy resembles cell production in an embryo, hence the 1998 reclassification. And since no animals, as such, in embryo or otherwise, have been found as far back as 570 million years ago, the current discovery is best described by the headline from Science News: Early animals dethroned. Sorry, folks. Animals came later. The State Column, however, is a political publication; its pages are as thick with news of Gingrich, Trump, Perry, Romney, and Ron Paul as those blobs are thick with would-be spores. Therefore this minor re-dating of a recent back-dating of animal origins suddenly becomes a “challenge” to the very “theory of evolution.” Goodness gracious.

The real formation of animals took place in the Cambrian period 543-490 YA (that’s years ago). Therefore the blobs date to the Vendian (650-543 YA). Darwin hoped that life could be extended back and said that “the difficulty of assigning any good reason for the absence of vast piles of strata rich in fossils beneath the Cambrian system is very great” (Origin of the Species, Chapter X), hence the effort by some means to extend the records backwards, and the Vendian is the new frontier of that. Two steps backward, one step forward. Ain’t that a shame? For the sensitives it shakes the very foundations of reality.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Advent Season, Short and Long

The Advent season lasts three or four weeks all depending on which day of the week November 30 falls. November 30th, the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, anchors the season. The temporally nearest Sunday is always the first Sunday of Advent. Therefore if the last day of November falls on a Sunday through Wednesday, the season is long, if Thursday through Saturday, the season is short. This year Advent began on November 27, therefore we’ve just completed the longest Advent, lasting fully 28 days.

As soon as I was a little grown, which meant that we were living in deeply Catholic Bavaria, lighting those four candles on the four Sundays of Advent has been the most memorable part of Christmas for me. Now I discover that the Advent wreath has its origins in a Lutheran tradition dating to 1839. That year a Lutheran theologian and teacher, Johan Hinrich Wichern, took on the care of several poor children and moved into an old farm house with them. Came the Christmas season, and the children began to agitate. They wanted to know when Christmas would finally come. Wichern took an old wagon wheel and constructed the first-ever Advent wreath. He placed 20 small red candles for the days of the week and four large white candles to mark the Sundays. The reason for this arrangement emerges when we look at a calendar for 1839, presented herewith.
December 1839

Ever since, as it were... Now, mind you, controversy soon surrounded this custom, and in a few decades or so Wichern’s origination of this custom came under fire. Someone claimed that a poem, written by a famous German poet, Matthias Claudius, who’d lived in the eighteenth century, had already appeared back then celebrating the Adventskrantz. But thanks to the diligence of the German Wikipedia, whence I have this lovely story (link), the actual author of the poem was a grand-nephew of Matthias, himself a lyricist and teacher, named Hermann Claudius (1878-1980). Thus Wichern retains his title. Not that people have got message yet—hence I encountered accounts of the wreath placing it into the dim pasts of antiquity.

In any case, we lit our candles yesterday evening for the first time, just about a week late. The long season’s done. And thus we wish you all a Merry Christmas on this Christmas Day.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

In Memoriam

German Wikipedia (link).

We get a German-language weekly, the Wochenpost, passed on by friends. A recent brief feature told me something I should’ve known, having lived in Bavaria, but in our youth we just absorb the old and worn and don’t think much about it. Life draws us on. Seems that in old, poor days Bavarians buried their dead on a board or plank. They called it the plank of the dead (Totenbrett). They wrapped the body in a sheet and tied it to a narrow board. They lowered the board into the grave or, untying the strings, let the body slide into the grave. When they saved the plank, the carpenter shaped and decorated it to make a marker erected either by the grave itself or in some other public place. They often carved some motto on the board—as later, also, onto grave markers made of stone. Here is a sample:

This Plank here says to Thee:
“What You are now were we,
What We are now you’ll be,
For all Eternity.”

As a boy in Tirschenreuth I saw those Dead-Planks standing here and there awesomely weathered, indeed almost black, in the cemetery where we used to go sleigh-riding in the winter. It had a little building, too, and, sometimes a dead person was laid out in there on a stone table. For this reason we always went and looked through the glass door. It was a strange sort of moment, always, but at that age we took it all in stride. Other days, those. We lived with death casually. It was a part of life.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Realism and Humility

Humility is not some sort of pretended self-belittling, not some kind of show to demonstrate piety. It is the consequence of observation. It arises from hard realism. A brief Sufi account about a sage illustrates this. I read it in one of Idries Shah’s book. A group of would-be Dervishes surrounded a sage to tell him how much they admired his humility. The sage dismissed them gruffly. He said: “My humility isn’t there to make impressions. It serves another purpose.”

I am thinking of Iraq. I am thinking of our unrealistic expectations that, magically, democracy will break into blossoms in that country now that we’ve removed the Overwhelm. Realism would have counseled quite another slant on things. That region, to be peaceful, has always demanded an overbearing force.

Safavid Dynasty of Iran ruled there
British occupation
World War II and British re-occupation
Baathist era. Saddam Hussein takes power in 1979
US occupation
We shall see

Mind you, this tabulation is too neat. There were regime changes during the Ottoman era as different elements of the Ottoman empire held power there. Civil and tribal wars as it were spiced up that period as well, and in the 1622-1638 period the Safavids held power again. There were coups, rebellions, and other messy situation throughout the Baathist era too. And the U.S. occupation was marked by almost constant combat.

Today my paper says that Al Maliki is embarrassing President Obama because the precious power-sharing arrangements that we forced into place there are breaking down at once. Pride—national, party, personal—prevents us from being realistic in public. Part of that is the phony pretense that our holy collective can never do wrong. Realists therefore are punished or marginalized and politicians make a huge pretense. Iraq was an unjust war, itself caused by pride. Obama did not approve of it, but now he too is dyed in the color of the same lie. It is for reasons such as the above that I assert that collectives are by definition inferior to individual humans; therefore the religion of nationalism is a kind of animal worship.

While on the subject. Iraq, the name of this place, harks back to the ancient city of Uruk once located in Sumer, the predecessor of the Akkadian, later the Babylonian empires. The Hebrew was Erech, the Latin Orchoi. It was located in the south-eastern part of today’s Iraq (link).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Daughter Zion

To mark the first day of the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, I bring a famous oratorio written by Handel. The music itself was composed around about 1747 and fitted to words written by Thomas Morell: See, the Conquering Hero Comes. It was originally part of Handel’s Joshua. A few years later, Handel lifted the piece and used it, again, in Judas Maccabaeus, he who was the famous hero linked to the Festival of Lights. The first two verses of the song run as follows:

See, the conqu’ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets! Beat the drums!
Sports prepare! The laurel bring!
Songs of triumph to him sing!

See the godlike youth advance!
Breathe the flutes and lead the dance!
Myrtle wreaths and roses twine
to deck the hero’s brow divine!

When I came to this country and attended one of my earliest Advent-time musical events, it surprised me to hear that music and those words. What I had gotten to know was something quite different—not in sound but in its words. What we heard in Germany, sung to the same music, was Tochter Zion. I always thought it was the German version of Judas Maccabaeus. Not so—at least so far as I’ve been able to determine, and time is running out today. Thus, for example, I could not find “Tochter Zion” in the sole German-language libretto of Judas Maccabeus I’ve managed to find on the web. What I do know follows, but first two verses, in German and then followed by my translation:

Tochter Zion, freue dich,
jauchze laut, Jerusalem!
Sieh, dein König kommt zu dir,
ja, er kommt, der Friedenfürst

Hosianna, Davids Sohn,
sei gesegnet deinem Volk!
Gründe nun dein ew
ges Reich,
Hosianna in der Höh!

Daughter Zion, sing for joy,
Gladly shout Jerusalem!
See, your King approaches now,
Yes, he comes, the Prince of Peace.

Hosianna, David’s son,
Blessed is thy folk in thee!
Founder of eternal realm,
Hosianna in the heights!

The words certainly fit the context of the story but are quite different. Indeed they were written around 1820 by an evangelical theologian, Friedrich Heinrich Ranke. He set the words to Handel’s music. The piece became enormously famous—as indeed the English-language version has as well.

In whatever language, by all means let us celebrate the Festival of Lights—in the most universal language of all, that of music. But, to tell you the truth, I side with Daughter Zion. I rather have my fill of conquering heroes.

Flirting with Black Hole Denial

In the New York Times’ Science Times yesterday came a story of a massive cold gas cloud being sucked into the black hole in the center of our galaxy. The observations, using infrared light, come from the Very Large Telescope in Chile. Sagittarius A* is at the center of the galaxy. It is sucking at the cloud so that the cloud moves at 1,000 miles per second. The NYT story contains this reassuring observation: “Sagittarius A*, pronounced A-star, has so much gravitational pull that it will eventually consume everything in the galaxy.” Sez who? Sez Relativity.

At times like these I feel akin to those (if they still exist) who assert that the earth is flat. I’m always flirting with black hole denial, although, to tell the truth, it’s really part of my heretical clinging to a Steady-State theory of the universe. Consequently I doubt that the big bang ever took place, that the universe is expanding, that gravity bends light, that space-time is real, etc., etc. Black holes are an inference from equations based on the theory of relativity, specifically that mass causes the deformation both of space and of time. Without such an idea, no black holes. Relativity has become sacrosanct; hence we now “see” black holes where all we actually see is light.

Herewith some pictures of what we do see.

Above I show a photograph of the Milky Way with a line pointing at its center. The line is not pointing at that dark formation with a tail; it points at light beyond it. The dark stuff in the foreground is formed of dust. What delights me in this view is that we see actual buildings as well by way of telling me what, on a very lucky day, the naïve man-on-the-street, that’s me, might actually behold—unless they were using some kind of fancy lens.

Next comes a telescopic view using infrared light. This is still our own galaxy. Obvious from this view—because we don’t see the galactic arms spread out individually—is that we can’t look down at its center from above, not from where we take such shots. Trying to see through to the center, we’re always looking through a screen of stars, at least at this level of resolution. We have to magnify enormously so that ever narrower segments become ever more resolved to view.

This next infrared image, taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, is another infrared photo of the galaxy, its center, and it shows us a bright central spot where Sagittarius A* is one of the donors of the luminosity we see.

Finally, here is a close-up of Sagittarius A*, taken from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The two circled spots are sites of fairly recent major explosions, the reason why they are marked. Sagittarius is that triangular and bright formation marked by NASA so that we can’t miss it. So where is the black hole? Even light cannot resists its awesome devouring suction. Now, looking at this, it amazes me that anyone could possibly see a very large cold cloud here; and cold, I remind myself, means that it’s not emitting light. Yet we are able, at this enormous distance, to calculate its speed with great precision. I know, I know—what do I know.

But I do know what to do when satanic forces attack my faith. I must put doubt resolutely to one side and pray fervently using these words: “Black Hole, I do believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
Sources for the images are in order: one, two, three, four.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The 38th Parallel

The passing of Kim Jong Il, the ascension of Kim Jong Un (the young’un, we might say), has been accompanied by news stories, not surprisingly, about our own presence is South Korea and the fact that the only power likely to have any influence on North Korea is China. This got me thinking—about spheres of influence. That subject, in turn, always reminds me of Geroge F. Kennan, the diplomat and thinker, to whom I owe my basic understanding of international affairs. Kennan was a rational thinker and, for me, the best guide in assessing what the media invariably confuse and distort. (An earlier post on Kennan is here). We look to China because that difficult-to-grasp country, invariably labeled a “failed state,” is in China’s sphere of interest—whereas South Korea marks, as it were, a point beyond which we have real trouble reaching. And that line of thought then produced another. The 38th Parallel North is the only formal geographical boundary that also sharply marks two spheres of touching influence.

Not until today, attempting to find a map with that latitude marked, did I realize how close we’ve lived to it—here in the United States. We were just north of it in Kansas City, MO, our first home in the United States—which we reached just as the Korean War was winding down. When he was still in Evansville, IN my brother Baldy lived about as close to it as is possible in the United States. Other cities within shouting—and certainly within easy driving—distance are Sacramento, CA, Richfield, UT, Hutchinson, KS, St. Louis, MO, Louisville, KY, and Charleston, SC. We’ve driven right through that parallel and never even knew it…

Monday, December 19, 2011

Capricorn Approaches

We shall enter the astrological period of Capricorn with the Winter solstice on Thursday. Looking ahead a little this morning, I met this image on Wikipedia (link) and thought it lovely enough to reproduce. It originates in a fifteenth century astrological book captured by an unknown scanner and placed on the world wide web a while back. The pleasing image suggests to me that even a pagan (or in the fifteenth a kind of neo-pagan) view of this season beats anything our time routinely produces to celebrate the ultimate feast of Commercial Consumption.

Capricorn is the sea-goat—although we see no ocean anywhere here. The name of the constellation evidently arose in Babylonian times and, at one time, featured a fish as well as a goat or a goat’s head. Such is the nature of staring up into the sky and connecting luminous dots. Anything goes.

In astrology constellations mark the year. For a period of roughly a month, in this case from December 22 through January 20, the sun rises in the House of Capricorn. Looking up at the still dark sky very early in the morning as the sun’s first rays appear, it is that constellation that is directly above the sunrise in the northern hemisphere, hence that is the “house” the sun enters.

Now in the astrological scheme of things, every period has its ruling planet. Here “planet” must be understood somewhat loosely if we use a modern conception of things. Thus not only the planets but also the sun itself (associated with Leo) and the earth-satellite, the Moon (associated with Cancer), act as rulers. Capricorn’s ruler is Saturn, evidently because the planet is in the ascendant during this period. Its glyph symbolizes material reality as a cross burdening spiritual nature, symbolized by the half-circle—the inverse of Jupiter’s symbol, in which the spiritual dominates matter. Saturn therefore suggests limitation—a fitting sort of message in our currently troubled economic times. It is the ruler of this season, of course, that gave this festival, in Roman times, its name: the Saturnalia.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Curiously Middling

Just a note. Political candidates find it permissible to be pro middle class, laudable to bewail the shrinkage of that class, and Okay (indeed obligatory) to say nothing about any other class. Here I am naively persuaded that those who wish to serve “the people” ought not to slice-and-dice them into classes and only pick the middle. Those below the poverty line—they numbered 43.6 million in 2010—are by definition below the sacred middle. Have pollsters discovered and told our candidates that the over-whelming majority considers itself middle-class, views the poor as under-human, and the upper class as its own next stop on the Progress Shuttle? Maybe. I must recalibrate my visor. Every soldier is a hero. All firemen are heroes too. To create a job you have to be a millionaire. All businesses are small business. All citizens are middle class. All journalists are trembling in their eagerness to defend the public’s right to know. To know what? That they are middle class. And by that great achievement, magically entitled to—well, to be flattered.    

Heavy My Fardels Today

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
          [Shakespeare, Hamlet]

Use short, declarative sentences. Yes. Unless you’ve learned your letters and you are Shakespeare. But this but an aside. My subject is fardels—and my superficial ignorance. Today’s waking shock for me was reading that the Senate had passed a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut, so called, and the word “fardel” came spontaneously to my mind. Why, I wondered. And then I wondered: What does that word actually mean? I realized that I meant pigsty, a word that seemed to me very descriptive of today’s Washington, but a troubling undercurrent told me that I had it wrong. Shakespeare, wasn’t it? Had only ever seen that word in Shakespeare somewhere. But first, the dictionary. F-A-R-D-E-L.

Turns out that fardel means bundle today. Thus Webster’s asserts, and they know more than I do. But archaically, and that surely could mean Shakespeare, it meant burden. Not pigsty. On to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It never fails to enlighten. I learned that the word probably came from the Arabic, fardah, where it means a package. Reminded me that distant wars always introduce new words into the language, and that fardah entered French no doubt as far back as the Crusades, thence into English. Nothing propinqs like propinquity, and thus I also learned, sort of by the way, that when a woman puts on makeup, she is actually farding her face, but that word, turns out, comes from the Germanic fard, no doubt the root whence Germans get Farbe for color.

My superficial linguistic memories are spotty, but my deeper unconscious caverns are deeper. Reading about the Senate this morning made me feel the burdens of my times, and hence that word was there to give them a proper name. But pigsty is not a bad update. Not bad at all.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


I imagine with amusement Christopher Hitchens’ amazement on finding himself still there, just outside the Pearly Gates, after cancer took him away December 15 at the relatively young age of 62. But, of course, the arrival of such a figure over there must have attracted a crowd of those still interested in our doings in the lower realms. It’s not every day that a prominent, witty New Atheist experiences the unveiling. And seeing those smiling crowds assembled and St. Peter opening the gate undoubtedly energized Christopher at once. He liked nothing else quite so much as an audience. And no doubt, minutes after entry—and of course he went right in—he was already saying utterly clever things, his audience much entertained. He went right in, I here assert, because he was, down here, and remains still, up there, a wonder-child, a precocious, likeable, and ultimately innocent young thing. His very quick wits, of course, already saw the new approach to pearly fame—up there too. His new theme, rapidly unfolding, is the curse of atheism and how, cleverly, he’d managed to overcome it, down here, by pretending to embrace it with sufficiently wild exaggerations to make it sound ridiculous.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pulled Shade

Blue door, black iron in the shape of hearts.
The door has lost its handle and
The shade has been pulled down.

Once this grate gave a view
No doubt into a darkened hall
With a Persian rug visible,
Barely, if you stared.
Beyond it light and hints of
Living space with a kind of,
Sort of, warmth.

All gone now. What we see now is
Eyes, eyes staring out, from a flat
surface, just looking.
At you. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Confusion of Tongues

Deep students of the Bible might these days find a quite wonderful example of the “confusion of tongues” developing in plain sight and hearing right now and today—as our legislators try desperately to finish their business and get out of town for the Christmas holiday.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

St. Peter, Paul, and Mary

In other words the Public Broadcasting System is having its Christmas-season fund-raiser. This means that the Public TV programming changes, becomes more popular. In turn I learn what popular means. It means André Rieu, Celtic Dancing, Jazz, lectures on Diet-Health-and-Self-esteem, lectures on Wealth-Management-Wills-and-Heirs, Pop, Rock & Soul, and … Peter, Paul, and Mary. Alas, Mary Travers is now only alive on film; she passed in 2009. At least two decades and probably longer, fundraising time brings these people whom—was it the teens of our own children? Probably—we somehow missed. We checked out of “folk” when Pete Seeger waned and haven’t kept up with later Woody Guthrie wanna-bes. But we loved Pete. The PBS slogan is Be more. But when they are soliciting for funds—which is what “public” means in the United States, richest-country-in-the-world-etc., my temporary slogan is, Be less. Be less and wait until As Time Goes By resurfaces again; no matter how often we see those episodes, the pleasure remains entirely undiluted.  

Monday, December 12, 2011

When Will This Spring End?

I note that opportunist Mikhail Dmitrievitch Prokhorov is suddenly running for the presidency of Russia. Who is this Prokhorov? Why, he is the owner of the New Jersey Nets. He is also a billionaire from Russia, born in 1965, who got to be a billionaire in the chaos of Russia’s transition to “democracy” at age 28 when, having managed to become head of the Management Board of the International Finance Company, he “acquired” a state-owned bank that just happened to own vast mining properties that he later sold. Well, enough already.

It looked for a while as if Russia were sensibly abandoning its “democracy” in favor of order, but what with the virulent Arab Spring spreading its spores all over the world, things appear to be unraveling there. Headlines speak of Russia’s “awakening,” the protests against Putin are led by a punk rock band called The Last Tanks in Paris, and the Last Tanks are helped by a rap group called Rabfak whose symbol is a skeleton’s hand giving us the finger. Billionaires, punk bands, and university students. Rock on, comrades, rock on.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Unordnung und frühes Leid

The phrase means disorder and early pain. I came across it when I read a novella by Thomas Mann of that title in my youth. It’s usually translated as Disorder and Early Sorrow, but Leid has many meanings, among them suffering, grief, sorrow, and pain. I was nineteen at the time, and the moment I read it, it became part of the fabric of my life. I’ve repeated it countless times since, always in German, always just to myself, and always when I felt genuine pain—which has a much more active quality than sorrow. But never mind.  Mann’s story is set in the Munich of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic, a time of virulent inflation and disorder in Germany. We see that world through the eyes of a history professor, Abel Cornelius, his family, his parents, his wife, his teenage children. The resonance was present right away. Cornelius saw his times—indeed the present—as lawless, insolent, and unaware of history. The theme of the story is withdrawal, into the private, and the conservation of the timeless and therefore holy and beautiful past—which the professor feels guilty in embracing, seeing his animosity to unfolding history, while embracing that which is no more, as the unclean love of death. So he felt—the character—echoing his own creator, Thomas Mann himself, who was writing something strongly autobiographical. Yet here I was, nineteen, filled with life and energy, and yet I agreed with him. And through my life I came to see it differently; I’ve come to see what he regarded as the past as something in another dimension, and his embrace of death as a mistaken embrace, instead of the transcendental.

Of late I’ve been lending a hand to the family enterprise, and, in the process, looking deeply at a score or more of major industries at a far deeper level than I usually do these days in retirement. Not surprisingly, therefore—the repetitious assault of chaos finally wearing me down—that the old phrase, Unordnung und frühes Leid, was once more on my lips. Lordy, lord, lord. To hell in a handbasket. But this disorderly present, as I see from my studies—and remembering Thomas Mann and the 1920s—is always with us. And the holy and the beautiful remain, as always, at one remove.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Oh, the Suffering!

A story in the NYT yesterday amused me—and fit into my theme on attention seekers. Headline: “Britain Suffers as a Bystander to the Euro’s Crisis.” How does this suffering manifest? Simple. Britain wanted no part of the Euro. In effect, come to think of it, Britain is quite ambivalent about Europe as well. But in its having-it-both-ways approach, it is part of the European Union but not of the Eurozone. Not being “in the zone,” it has no influence. It’s standing by but nobody is looking, never mind bowing. Today another story comes, in the same space, echoing the same message. Is the NYT here using Britain as a stand-in for the United States? Also just standing on the sidelines? Well, Timothy Geithner was over there, was at least trying to be influential. But, guess what? He didn’t get to lean on the Big Kids, thus Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. He only got to talk to bankers and other ministers like himself. A puppy barely noticed by the big stomping elks? Oh, so painful, not to be at the center of attention. That’s suffering!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Roi Soleil

I wish I could remember the source. I don’t. Nevertheless I well remember reading in the early 1960s something to this effect. “Any man observed to have been in conversation with Louis XIV for at least fifteen minutes, could turn that event into enduring personal wealth.” Back then—I mean in the 1960s—the media had certainly already emerged. It hadn’t as yet turned into the modern version of the court of Louis XIV. The media’s power, to be sure, is not quite so concentrated as that of the Sun King, but these days it sheds the same sort of sunlight once shed by Louis Quatorze.  My author had not elaborated—assuming that his readers were sophisticated. The statement puzzled me at first until, by simple reasoning, I saw how that could indeed be true. People seek those who’re close to the source of power; being sought-after gives them opportunities; furthermore the mere appearance of being connected will suffice; the person need have no genuine power. It’s all reflection, as it were, like that of sunlight. Today’s Roi Soleil is actually the media. Therefore, de facto, we already live under a monarchy. We just haven’t realized it yet.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

War’s Shadows

We arrived in the United States in the summer of 1951, thus some months before the last veteran of the American Civil War died on December 31 of that year. He was Albert H. Woolson aged 106. That war ended in 1865. Some long shadow. An image of Woolson is on Wikipedia; he looked exactly like the men whose images are now being shown as veteran survivors of Pearl Harbor. This suggests that not until 2033 will our energetic media fail to find a person who had been there when the time to recall the “Day of Infamy” returns yet again. What is said at such occasions tells me something of our current culture. Maybe in 2033 we’ll mark the day with silence.

- - -

I stand corrected. Albert H. Woolson died August 2, 1956. I have friends with keen ears and eyes in the Civil War field. My eye may have slipped as I looked at that list...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Szent Mikulás

In my childhood, on the night of December 5, we shined our shoes and put them on the window sill before we went to bed. This morning we rushed to the window to see what Mikulás had brought us. Here read St. Nicholas. December 6 was the opening day of the Christmas Season for children. The gifts were fruit, candy, and such—lots of wrinkled up red wrapping paper for atmosphere—and for each child a switch (see image) our parents could use to punish us if we were bad. Those must have been sold at the market, I think—and then saved for next year when we weren’t paying attention. My last such Szent Mikulás celebration was problematic. On December 5 of 1944 we found ourselves aboard a train. The carriage had been equipped with beds and such; it had windows but they didn’t open and had no sill. What to do? My Mother told us that Szent Mikulás would “understand.” Therefore we placed our shoes next to our beds… Well, train or no train—we were bound out of Hungary and on the very first stage of our long voyage into the greater world—we discovered that Mikulás had found a way. And in the morning, to our delight….

That name, in Hungarian, is pronounced Sent Me-cool-lahsh. Image courtesy of Wikipedia (link).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Contemplating the Big Picture

It frustrates many to do that. When done right it produces understanding and knowledge of what must be done. But what must be done is puny, over against that picture, unlikely to have any effect. What must be done turns out to be the usual daily grind done right with a cheerful attitude, whereas the “Big Picture,” to be changed in any way, appears to require gigantic deeds of transformation. But understanding of that picture teaches that that can’t actually be done. “Yes, yes, yes!” cries the impatient activist, “but if we could just get people to back us…” But that, in turn, suggests that we should see “people” in the aggregate, and, once more, the Big Picture is sobering. That reminds me of The Little Duck.

That was a poem published by Donald Babcock in The New Yorker on October 4, 1947. Babcock died in 1986, hence his poem, part of which hangs in a frame on one of our walls, is still under copyright until 2056, thus I can’t quote it. But it deals with a little duck “riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf, and he cuddles in the swells.” A great heaving moves the Atlantic, but it does not bother the little duck. “He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic,” Babcock tells us, ignorant of the ocean’s vastness but aware of it. “He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.” Babcock then ends by saying:

I like the little duck.
He doesn’t know much.
But he has religion.

So that’s what contemplating the Big Picture really is. To have religion. It’s humbling, is what it is. Most people don’t want to be a little duck. They dream, instead, of being Conan the Barbarian.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Saved by Pipes and Ignorance

When I hear the water rushing, carrying waste through the pipes,
And it’s the small dark hours still, and most are still in bed asleep,
A thought occurs, a shudder at the thought, that soon that rush
And gurgling echo will become a thund’ring roar through miles of pipe
As millions wake up and shower and drive to power breakfasts
In sleek cars whose massive mufflers dim a hellish roar that, if it could,
Would cleave the very sky.

We lift our eyes adoringly at human grandiosity
And worship our genius, while we ignore the wastes that flow
Down from our bodies into tubes. But were in not for saving pipes
And walled lakes where raw sewage rests, awaiting its timely release
Into our riverbeds, why then we would be forced to feel
A certain shy humility. We save our pride by using pipe,
Keeping all that out of sight, the body’s nasty turbulence,
Practicing willed ignorance.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dew of the Sea

Herewith some images of our own Rosemary in bloom. This variety, Blue Lady, is one of the common three; the others have white or slightly pinkish blooms. Its name is Rosmarinus officinalis, which, teased apart, means dew of the sea. That officinalis comes from officina, meaning workshop, and Linnaeus et al. presumably mean apothecary shops where such herbs as Rosemary were sold. The unscientific but older tradition associates this herb with helping memory—hence worn at funerals and placed on graves. “There is rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” quoth Ophelia in Hamlet. The herb also alleviates pain, spasms, and helps the circulation. Good for you.

Rosemary likes warm, dry weather and naturally grows in Oregon, California, Texas, and in the two Carolinas—or in Michigan if you let it migrate indoors in the winter. In warm climates it may bloom the year around, but its natural blooming period is mid-Spring. Well, its mid-Spring here, in our sunroom, in December. Our plants think that Brigitte is Mother Nature—and rightly so, I think.

Not Quite So Simple Simon

Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair;
Said Simple Simon to the pieman “Let me taste your ware.”
Said the pieman to Simple Simon “Show me first your penny.”
Said Simple Simon to the pieman “Sir, I have not any!”

Said Paul Krugman to Simple Simon, “Why don’t you print you some?
When one is pressed in matters money, printing it beats having none.”
Said Simple Simon to Paul Krugman, the pieman near forgot,
“Why don’t you give me some of yours and stop talking fancy rot.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

Money is ... What?

Money is fungible. That certainly sounds sophisticated. I might—indeed I’m almost forced to—consider that very word, all by itself, to be a sign of sophistication. So if someone trots out a definition of money like that, he must seem doubly smart. The odd thing with fungible is that it points to a triviality. Next, that it isn’t actually true, at least not over time. So let’s see what it means.

The word’s literal meaning is “capable of being used in place of another.” Taken literally, this translates into saying that “money is capable of being used in place of money,” which, to be sure, is true enough, but, if so, why bother with the definition. We already know that money is, ah, money. But what the sophisticates have in mind is something else. Let me illustrate that by using another something that is also fungible. Crude oil is fungible. To make this meaning plane, let me put it this way. Somebody knocks on your oil well door and says: “Can you lend me a barrel of crude?” It’s a friend, and you say “Sure.” Out goes the barrel of crude. A couple of weeks later a pickup pulls up. It’s your friend. Two of his helpers are rolling a barrel toward your oil well’s door. It’s full of crude oil. One glance tells you that. Now when you lent that first barrel, you did not take an exhaustive chemical analysis of the crude. So now you don’t bother repeating that analysis to make damned sure that the barrel you lent is actually still the same oil. Oil is oil. And money is money. Both are fungible, meaning functionally the same. Not surprisingly, our word function derives from fungi, thus “to perform, execute, or to discharge.”

Stupid definition, but if you fancy yourself an economist, at one point in your life at least, that phrase must come out of your mouth. This is my occasion. The $10 bill you lend, when the $10 is returned, does not have to be the same bill. Indeed it could be two fivers or some combination of other bills or coins amounting to ten.

Now to my second point. It turns out that this definition is not strictly speaking true—unless the exchange takes place over a very short time. Fungibility applies much more appropriately to crude oil or wheat or barley or pork bellies than to money. Money retains its nominal value, not its purchasing value. In deflationary periods it gains, in inflationary periods it loses value. It is for this reason that the sophisticates of the world are urging Europe to print money in efforts to stem the tide of the Euro Debt Crisis. It takes sophistication to know that inflating money robs somebody of purchasing power—but money is fungible. Therefore you pay your $10 debt, if you pay it later, with a bill that’s only worth $9.45. There is a real gain here of 55 cents. Multiply that by billions—and that’s real money.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Oh, a Quotation

Never hesitant to promote my favorites, herewith another small snippet from Angela Thirkell’s 1958 novel, Close Quarters:

     “You know, Margot, you are a remarkable woman,” said Everard. “You never lost the childlike in the larger mind.”
     “Haven’t I?” said Mrs. Macfadyen. “Who said that?”
     Mr. Carter said Tennyson.
     “Oh, a quotation,” said Mrs. Macfadyen. “Donald was always saying bits of poetry and bits of prose too. His people were very poor and he taught himself to read and save up his pennies, when he got any, to buy books off the second-hand stalls on market day. But I don’t think Tennyson was one of his poets. It was mostly Scott and Burns and the metrical psalms. He would have liked that line you quoted just now—he never lost the child’s mind.”
     “I think the biggest people don’t,” said Mr. Carter. “That’s why one can meet them so easily.”

The quote comes from a longish poem by Tennyson and a passage quite remarkable especially after the years have cumulated and taught a body the actual truth of it. I’ll quote it here, piling it on, as it were:

For woman is not undevelopt man,
But diverse: could we make her as the man,
Sweet Love were slain: his dearest bond is this,
Not like to like, but like in difference.
Yet in the long years liker must they grow;
The man be more of woman, she of man;
He gain in sweetness and in moral height,
Nor lose the wrestling thews that throw the world;
She mental breadth, nor fail in childward care,
Nor lose the childlike in the larger mind;
Till at the last she set herself to man,
Like perfect music unto noble words;
And so these twain, upon the skirts of Time,
Sit side by side, full-summed in all their powers,
Dispensing harvest, sowing the To-be,
Self-reverent each and reverencing each,
Distinct in individualities,
But like each other even as those who love.
         [Lord Alfred Tennyson, The Princess]