Sunday, September 30, 2012

Green September

Two earlier years have set a pattern I would today honor by repetition—the end of an unofficial competition for the title of Most Notable Plant in our garden this season. Last year we featured twin tomato plants, the year before a pumpkin that chose to grow out of our compost heap. The decision this year was rather difficult. Our seven tomato plants did wonderfully well; they produced a huge harvest but, having been arranged in a decentralized manner, they did not produce last year’s tomato “cloud” that won the prize. The competition this year was—at least in my own mind—between a rather fantastic geranium of high old age Brigitte has seasoned over several seasons now…and a sweet potato vine. Having such vines points to another tradition, the Mother’s Day plant-buying trip we have each year, sponsored by Monique and John. Brigitte tells me that we’ve had these vines for two or even three years now—but not until this year did their placement next to the geraniums, and eventually spilling over into the pot of a tomato plant, produce the vivid color-contrast that met me each time I came home. A second such plant lives suspended from a fabric “pot” hung from one open wing of a huge wooden gate that encloses out inner courtyard, but is never closed. The brand is Wollypot, but Brigitte calls ours Wally in honor of the supporting surface. The picture shows the sweet potato, the geranium behind it, and in place of runner-up honor two of our seven tomato plants.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Taxi Mom

Peggy and Baldy, on a recent trip to Europe, rounded out their trip with a visit to Baden Baden, our last residence in Germany before we went (as I then naively imagined) to the Land of the Cowboys. They observed, among many other things, grade-school children going home—and not a Mom in sight. Okay. Check. That hasn’t changed. Indeed in the Land of the Cowboys it was pretty much the same when we arrived—except that we saw a huge amount of neon but no cowboys at all. In 1951 the past-3:00 p.m. traffic jams (middle schools let out at 3:17, elementary at 3:38) were still in the future; suburbia still in the womb. Now that school has started here, its time to re-adapt. Congestion of certain busy arteries is now in force as the latest in fancy SUVs stand in endlessly long rows—so that children actually must walk, sometimes a whole (shudder) block, to find Mom staring at her smartphone behind the wheel. The curious thing is that quite a few children still do walk, both to and also from school. Significant distances. I know. I’ve observed them. Have not yet changed the times of my walks—which give me views of about six schools of various gradation. And some may also be found waiting for the bus, believe it or not, the Municipal, not the Yellow kind. “Soccer Mom” has gone out of style; I don’t hear the phrase used nowadays. It needs a replacement. “Taxi Mom,” however, is sort of a perennial.

Peggy and Baldy? Peggy Jenkins married Boldizsár (Balthazar) Darnay, my brother. And in the Land of the Cowboys this man, with plenty of healthy hair all over his head, got renamed gradually. Balthazar was too difficult for the products of our vaunted educational system. It didn’t help exactly that we in the family, products of the vaunted European educational system, had trouble enough with Boldizsár ourselves so that we called him Boldi long before we arrived. Baldy and I both have odd first names. Arsen? The name was far too long for one of our friends going back a ways. She always called me Arse.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Esperanto Studied Here

One of my esteemed colleagues quite a number of years ago gave me a little book entitled Esperanto. It is by J. Cresswell and J. Hartley and issued by Teach Yourself Books. It’s not the kind of book you read, but one that produces delight at intervals. For that reason it occupies a “busy” shelf I tend to look at two, three times a week.

Perhaps the most wonderful creations in life are those that requires enormous, complex, and transcending efforts that—viewed from an ordinary, main-street, realistic view—are entirely unlikely to reach their goal. Esperanto was the creation of a Polish eye-doctor, Dr. L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917). He felt that before humanity was ready to tackle the grave problems that confront it, the “language problem” had to be overcome—and so he set to work. Ah, the psychic airs of the nineteenth century West. Zamenhof was “one who hopes”—the name of his language in English. Now, of course, this creative tour de force didn’t entirely vanish. Books have been written in it. It is the native language of 1,000 people; 10,000 speak it fluently; and I am one of 10 million who have studied it “to some extent at some time.” These are the sorts of minorities to which I tend to belong—never more than, at best, 10 million. Zamenhof died as World War I was raging. The first grammar of the language had been published in 1887—not time enough, evidently, to conquer the globe. Ho ve! Meaning “Alas!” in Esperanto. The roots of that? Probably the Yiddish Oy vey. Word-roots in Esperanto derive from Western languages. Asia did not as yet throw the sort of shadow over the world that it does today.

A man much better known as a creator of so-called constructed languages is J.R.R. Tolkien. He created more than  twenty Elvish languages; the full list is still being counted as his unpublished papers are studied. With Tolkien we’re yet another step upward, as it were, in the transcending direction, because his linguistic creations served art. And such efforts also have their parallels in other fields. In the realm of architecture, the monuments I admire most are the Watts Towers constructed by Sabato Rodia. The image I show is from Wikipedia (link).

Sometimes when I pass that shelf and see my copy of Esperanto, I’ve just been reading the news or, as happened yesterday, anticipated a medical day that came today—one of the less pleasant kind. Then my mind tends to produce the word Desperanto—the language I ought to learn instead. Original with me, that word—but I discovered today that others have used it too. There is even a song by that title, written by Marianne Faithful. It’s opening lines:

Desperanto spoken here, today I hear it everywhere
It is the language of despair, it's in your nails and it's in your hair
It's in your mouth instead of air, it's in your house, it's in your heart
It's in your mind, it's everywhere, it's in your heart, it's in your heart.

And then there are days that begin in Desperanto but, after the bad thing is over, my mind has switched to Esperanto again—and I am filled with energy enough to start my own Watts Towers.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How Close Are We to the End Times?

A piece on the future as it gradually unwraps for our view on, “Growth is the Problem,” by Chris Hedges (link), prompted Brigitte to wonder what the social conditions were like in Rome just before the Roman Empire collapsed. Good question—but really a trick question. Arguably we have not yet reached that stage in civilization matching the end of Rome. That began around about the time of Diocletian (244-311 AD) when that emperor partitioned the Roman Empire in 295 AD. In our times, in the United States, we’re still waiting, as it were, for that decisive marker, the crossing of the Rubicon (49 BC)—the first clear sign that the end of the Republic has arrived. But let us take a look at what led up to that.

In 494 BC the Roman Republic was just 15 years old when a general strike, as we would call it today—they called it the Secession of the Plebs—signaled a period known as the Conflict of the Orders, thus between the Patricians (call them the oligarchy of the wealthy) and the Plebeians (call them the common people, more recently the 99%, more recently yet, the 47%). The first consul of the republic, one Appius Claudius Sabinus Inregillensis, behaved so harshly that the common people left the city en masse and repaired to one of the hills of Rome (Mons Sacer), and effectively shut down the economy. This resulted in the creation of the representatives (tribunes) of the people. The first Secession of the Plebs was followed by others in 449, 445, 342, and 287 BC. Hence the Conflict of the Orders was said to extend 494-287, a period of 207 years. But, in fact, that conflict never really ended until the Roman Empire dawned  with Octavian’s ascension to the throne in 27 BC.

The formation of the Plebeian Council, which elected tribunes, became functionally similar to a lower house. In fact it was more powerful, eventually, than the Senate of Rome. It came to represent what today we’d call the Left—and its principal strategy was income redistribution, its secondary but closely related strategy was distribution of power—to its own members and to the lesser nobility, the equites or knights. Income in the Roman context was land. Land to be distributed was land conquered by Roman armies.

Concerning land, it was the emblem of the franchise itself. Land-owning plebeians were entitled to vote—and also obliged to serve in the military. The Romans were straightforward realists. Material power was political power. The abstract notion of individual liberty had not yet dawned. We have to thank Christianity for that.

The end-times of the Republic really began in the second century BC when the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius Gracchus (162-133 BC) and Gaius Graccchus (154-121 BC) both tribunes, passed laws distributing land to the plebs; both were murdered in the convulsions that resulted. Despite such setbacks in detail—and the Senate was oblige to accept some of the reforms voted into place to avoid massive conflagrations—the Plebs gradually gained more and more power in Rome. Its tribunes would eventually hold the Consulship and the Censorship and acquired seats in the Senate itself.

At the same time—and such is real life—periods of crack-down appeared, most notably during the right-wing dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BC). But the impulse set in motion by the first Secession of the Plebs continued right on after Sulla’s death and produced, first, Caesar and then the caesars.

The historical path described here is one beginning with the dictatorial monarch, in this case Lucius Lavinius Superbus (535-496 BC), to the arising of Augustus (63 BC - 14 AD). Augustus, known as Octavian before he took power, hailed from the equestrian branch of a plebeian family—but he had been raised to patrician rank by adoption by Julius Caesar. (That, by the way, tells you how the poor (plebeian), grown wealthy (equestrian), could be enlisted in the ranks of the nobility (patrician) by adoption. In our pre-democratic times the method was to marry a wealthy daughter into the nobility.) Between those two monarchs lay a period of 482 years during which an oligarchy ruled, was gradually weakened, and totalitarianism became possible again.

Now for those who dream of reestablishing the old-fashioned patrician rule over the masses, all I can say is—dream on. And those who dream of the ultimate victory of the 99 percent, they’re also just dreaming. When the left finally wins, what follows then is military rule. Want to secure your long term future? Join the Army. If we follow anything like the Roman pattern, we are now still in the midst of the battle between the patricians and the plebs. We’ve clocked 236 years from the establishment of our own republic. If the same pattern holds, the crossing of the Rubicon will take place circa 2236—and then roughly another 300++ years of empire are waiting before the end times even begin. Now, of course, the two situations have major dissimilarities. For instance. We’ll have run out of fossil fuels when the next century begins. And that may speed things up a little…
My illustrative emblem, the icon of the Roman Empire, comes from Wikipedia (link). The acronym stands for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (“The Senate and People of Rome”).

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Age of Aquarius

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
The Age of Aquarius
Aquarius! Aquarius!
   James Rado, Gerome Ragni
   In “The Age of Aquarius”

That age, or rather its dawning, may still have some resonance in pop culture—if you’re old enough—and that’s because before we started having “bad hair days” we had Hair, the musical, and it introduced the notion of that age in its most celebrated song, “The Age of Aquarius.” Now the notion that we have celestial or astrological ages derives from the precession of the equinoxes, discussed in my last post. This is an add-on to complete the picture. Yesterday I pointed out that a mismatch has developed between the dates on which astrological “months” begin and the actual constellation showing in the sky on those dates. Thus, yesterday, began the period of Libra, but the sun actually rose in Virgo. The reason for this is because precession has caused the seasons to begin earlier and earlier—but we still observe an astrological year fixed far back in time. The astrological age, however, is determined by actual astronomical observation.

The “age” in which we live, at any one time, is determined by the constellation in the sky as the sun rises on the day of the vernal equinox. This year that took place on March 20, and the sun rose in constellation of Pisces. Therefore, these days, we are in the Age of Pisces. So why is Aquarius dawning? And when will its Aquarian sun actually rise?

Well, our current calendar conveniently begins with the first year of the Age of Pisces. Some put that at year 0, others at January 1, 1 AD. Each age lasts 2,160 years. And while the regions actually covered by the 12 houses of the zodiac are of varying width, by convention they are of the same size, each describing 30 degrees of a circle. Therefore the Age of Aquarius will begin with the vernal equinox of 2160—or if you insist on observing a Year 0,  2161. Now for the math.

The Great Age, meaning the time it takes for our poles to point to the same points in the never-changing sky, lasts for 25,920 years. If we divided that number by 12, we get the time during which each house “rules”—2,160 years. Since each such period covers 30 degrees of the sky, the precession of the equinoxes moves 1 degree every 72 years.

The illustration shows Pisces in the center and part of Aquarius in the lower right corner. I've inserted a little orange sun to inicate where the sun rises these days on the vernal equinox. The movement of the sun, over extended ages, on that date, is from left to right, appearing ever more to the right—but it takes a lifetime for it to cover a single degree of the circle—not perceivable through 76-year-old eyes. The image is from Wikipedia (link).

A geometrically more pleasing presentation comes from Roy Taylor’s “Precession of the Equinoxes” (link). It shows the movement of the Spring and Autumn equinoxes over time on a circle of the sky rendered into equal 30 degree segments, each owned by a house. The first shows the Equinoxes after the Age of Pisces just began thus around 2000 BC, the other the situation around 2005 AD. Are we at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius? Roy Taylor thinks so, and the astronomers bear him out.

Food for poetic contemplation, this. The fish-symbolism is intimately linked to Christianity. When I think of Hair, I think of the New Age. But then, when  I contemplate the precession of the equinoxes, I think to myself: What goes around comes around.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Seventh House

When the Moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars.
   James Rado, Gerome Ragni
   In “The Age of Aquarius”

Among the constellations of the zodiac, the seventh house is Libra, the scales. Those born between September 24 and October 23 are born in Libra, but (and don’t be surprised) the sun doesn’t rise in Libra at that time of year. Astrology is, as it were, behind the times. The actual, you might say physical, period of Libra’s rule arrives on November 6 and lasts until November 20. There was a time, of course, when the sun, rising at dawn—and not yet shining brightly enough to obscure the sky immediately above it—would be rising in the seventh house. But that was a long, long time ago. The culprit here? It is the precession of the equinoxes.

Now that’s a subject for the geometrically challenged (turns out) and also for the linguistically lazy. Precession? Well it means “coming before.” But what is it that “comes before”? Well the phrase tells us. The equinoxes come before. But before what? It drives you crazy all this techno-jargon. The answer is that every year, the equinoxes arrive 20 minutes before they…ought to—that is to say if we measure time not by our experience of the sun, thus locally, but in reference to the stars. Junk yard dog that I am, today I discovered that there is a so-called sidereal year and also a tropical year. The first comes from the Latin sidereus, “starry,” the second from tropicus, “related to a turning,” thus of the seasons. The first of these is the time it takes for the sun, as seen from the earth, to be in the same place against the fixed stars, thus in the House of Libra, for example. That time is 365.25636 days. Remember. We’re measuring by the stars. The tropical year is the time it takes the equinoxes to return; days and nights are of equal length.  That year takes 365.2421988 days. The difference here is 20.4 minutes. Thus the end of the year, as measured by seasons, comes 20.4 minutes before it should, looking at the fixed stars.

But this, of course, presents a logical problem. What causes this 20 minute difference? The answer is that the earth has two different kinds of rotation. The whole of the earth rotates around its axis—once every twenty-four hours. But the axis itself also rotates—describing a circle, if viewed against the fixed stars, every 25,920 years. It’s movement is tiny—but it results in a slight change in the seasons if their beginning is measured against the fixed stars. Therefore Polaris is only our North Star temporarily—and by 4100 it will point at the Constellation Cepheus, where that constellation’s bright Alderamin will have become the “pole star.” To explain the “wobble” of the axis most people refer to the behavior of gyroscopes or to the wobble of a spinning top. Those examples illustrate axial wobble—but in our case the time scale is so great, speaking of a wobble suggests more motion than is perceivable. We’ve known about this wobble, however, since the Greek astronomer Hipparchus (circa 190-120 BC) discovered it.

There is, therefore, no logical problem. The fixed stars are a great clock—and measure time unerringly. But in their case it really matters from where you’re looking as you are consulting the clock. That wobble moves us ever so little every year, hence we must correct for that movement every time. When we do, those twenty minutes of discord disappear; they are just apparently present because of our change in position relative to the  sidereal clock.

The moon is in the seventh house? Yes. Every night for a while. When Jupiter aligns with Mars? That means that one is above the other in a vertical direction. That happens every twenty-seven months. The Age of Aquarius? It has everything to do with the precession of the equinoxes, to be sure, but let’s do that tomorrow. Today our condolences to every Libra—or Leo, or Aquarius, for that matter. If constellations are responsible for our characters, we’d better talk seriously to our astrologer.
Image credits: Libra: Skywatching, Daviod H. Levy, Time/Life Books, 1994, p. 183. Top: Wikipedia (link). On that site you can see it spinning—but keep in mind that the bottom of the axis also describes a circle in the case of the earth.

I found the site Astroplot (link) helpful in sorting actual versus astrological dates. And Precession of the Equinoxes, by Roy Taylor (link) is a very good all-around explanation.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Two Orientations

The New York Times features an interview today with the president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. Mentioned in that article is a plaque on Morsi’s desk that says: “Be conscious of a day on which you return to God.”

The words derive from the second chapter of the Quran, The Cow, verse 281. “Fear the day when you shall all return to Allah; when every soul shall be requited according to its deserts. None shall be wronged” (N.J. Dawood translation). Another translations uses the word “fear” as well (‘Abdullah Yusu ‘Ali); two others use the words “guard yourselves” (M.H. Shakir and M.A. Haleem Eliasii). That “be conscious,” therefore, is a sort of modernization.

There is an orientation to the beyond and an orientation to the here-and-now. Call them other-worldly and this-worldly. Got to pondering that. Got to wondering about genuine change. The prevailing this-worldly view is that real change requires collective action; hence there is a continuous attempt to persuade the masses. The other-worldly view is that change comes about when an individual becomes aware of the greater whole, invisible from here. The two orientations also have a different time scale. The this-worldly is here-and-now; the other-worldly is mindful of the last minute of an individual life; it is more expansive. And real change, it seems to me, is when we move from one orientation to the other, either way, as individuals. The rest is just detail; it will take care of itself. Morsi’s stance, therefore, based on that plaque on his desk, appears to be other-worldly. Oh, my. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Might Try Wearing a Sign

To Brandon’s brief mention of a man hit by a stray bullet right next to Brandon’s apartment building in Austin, TX (link), I would add a recent story published here. In broad daylight (11:30 am) a gun-wielding man pushed a teenage girl to the ground at the intersection of Charlesvoix and Lakeland in posh-posh Grosse Pointe, MI and took off with her cell phone. It happened last Sunday.

I was on my walk yesterday some brief time after school let out—nice sunny day. The incident was far, far from my mind. I came up to an intersection just as a teen-age girl was crossing at right angles to me. She was picking some music on her smartphone and then, listening to it, passed on. Then I recalled the incident and looked to see where I was. I was at the intersection of Charlesvoix and Lakeland. Please note, editors of the Grosse Point News: the young do not read papers. I continued on, reminding myself to “Stay Positive.” Therefore I was trying to discover ways of preventing such holdups. The thought occurred that someone should be selling large signs you can pin to chest or back. It should say: “I’m Not Carrying an iPhone.” Here is an opportunity for our go-get-’em private enterprise. Where are those signs? Better yet, where are those jackets, overalls, elegant tops, and baseball caps—with the message front and back as such caps are often worn wrong-way ’round by young males…

Friday, September 21, 2012


Learned today that Black Swallowtails do not migrate to warmer climes as the Monarchs do. They over-winter as chrysalides instead—and much more rarely as caterpillars.

The butterfly in chrysalis stage can evidently detects the season from a combination of the temperature and the length of the daylight; it then knows what is coming and begins to prepare. In that process it generates a kind of anti-freeze; the chemical protects it for the duration. If it is still a caterpillar, one source informs me, it will burrow a deep hole and, within that, wrap itself into a leaf. I think we witnessed such a case late last fall when a fairly large caterpillar simply disappeared; but we knew too little. Its feeding plants were then in a large pot full of earth, and it may have buried itself. That pot went outdoors for the winter.

Two quite cold nights—with our furnace coming on—sent me on this investigation. We have two candidates for over-wintering. Brigitte has named them Castor and Pollux (although they might well be Castoria and Polluxina). They formed their chrysalides on September 14 and 16 respectively. We shall see. For starters, I took their container out into the cold this morning lest they be deceived.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Any Day Now

I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home
Who uses all his power to do evil
But in the end is always left so alone.
That man who with his fingers cheats,
And who lies with every breath
Who passionately hates his life,
And likewise fears his death.
    [Bob Dylan]

A comment from Monique brought strong memories of a famous Joan Baez album, Any Day Now—and of a particularly meaningful song within it, “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” As immigrants ourselves, the title intrigued us—and even more so after we grasped the more cosmic meaning of the song. The Genius and the Angel. They’ve left a deep impression on our lives, our memories of the 1960s, and beyond. Here is Baez singing it.

When his gladness comes to pass…

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

She Also Knew Her Horace

Herewith another quote—with a nod to a fellow blogger—from Angela Thirkell’s 1961 novel, Three Score and Ten.

    “Only an old Roman poet,” said Lord Stoke. “And now I come to think of it, it isn’t particularly applicable [the quote he just made]. Quotations mostly aren’t. My dear mother used to keep a book of quotations, one for every day in the year. A biggish book it was with violets or something sticking up on the cover.”
     Mrs. Morland said Perhaps embossed.
     “I daresay, I daresay,” said Lord Stoke. “Words are queer things. My mother had north-country blood and she used to put two pieces of thin bread and butter together with hundreds and thousands between them and called it Matrimony. I daresay there aren’t any hundreds and thousands now,” but Mrs. Morland indignantly opposed, saying that the children at the village school bought them regularly.
     “Not what they were in My young days,” said Lord Stoke, determined to be a laudator temporis acti.

So whence comes that phrase? It comes from Horace, Ars Poetica, line 173, and here it is in Latin and then in three different translations into English.

Multa senem circumueniunt incommoda, uel quod
quaerit et inuentis miser abstinet ac timet uti,         
uel quod res omnis timide gelideque ministrat,
dilator, spe longus, iners auidusque futuri,
difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti
se puero, castigator censorque minorum.
     [Horace, Ars Poetica]

Many troubles surround the aged man, because he
Seeks savings, yet sadly won’t touch them, fears their use,
And because in all he does he’s cold and timid,
Dilatory, short on hope, sluggish, greedy for life,
Surly, a moaner, given to praising the years when
He was a boy, chiding and criticising the young.
     [Translated by A.S. Kline (link)]

Many troubles assail an old man, whether because he seeks gain, and then wretchedly abstains from what he possesses and is afraid to use it, or because he attends to all his affairs feebly and timidly; a procrastinator, he is apathetic in his hopes and expectations, sluggish and fearful of the future, obstinate, always complaining; he devotes himself to praising times past, when he was a boy, and to being the castigator and moral censor of the young.
     [Translated by Leon Golden (link)]

A thousand ills the aged world surround,
Anxious in search of wealth, and when ‘tis found,
Fearful to use what they with fear possess,
While doubt and dread their faculties depress. 
          Fond of delay, they trust in hope no more,
Listless, and fearful of th’ approaching hour;
Morose, complaining, and with tedious praise
Telling the manners of their youthful days;
Severe to censure; earnest to advise,
And with old saws the present age chastise.
     [Translated by someone labeled Francis (link)]

The word “curmudgeon” does not appear above, but comes to mind—not least when we contemplate that old charmer, Thirkell’s Lord Stoke.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Stormy Weather

It’s just an anecdotal thing—in contrast to a vast, exhaustive survey—but as I scan expressions of public critique of everything (excepting only certain sacred subjects) I am always reminded of reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a respected German daily back in the 1960s.  Just for the record, the FAZ has also changed; I’m not hoisting up some icon. But my memories are of lengthy analytical articles looking at current events and developments, written with huge care and empty of the emotions, clever flourishes, and ink-on-paper eruptions of outrage that now are pretty much routine.

Got to thinking, looked up the word “jeremiad,” reviewed the career-path of Savanarola (1452-1498), noted with pleasure that he burned objects like mirrors, cosmetics, playing cards, and fine dresses in what came to be known as bonfires of vanity, on which fascinating subject Tom Wolfe (he who also wrote The Right Stuff) fashioned a novel in 1987. Just in time, one might say, honoring the Japanese.

Got to wondering if this whole nexus of public speech ever resulted in appropriate reform? My guess is that it never did—or does. By the time the hell-fire preachers arise, secular or religious, the game is always over. The preaching is a symptom of its times. The preachers, to be sure, always find huge audiences. They’re entertaining. The times, at such times, have the character of vast storms. Huge masses of people are swayed this way, that way. All coherence disappears as baby carriages get magically embedded in the trunks of mighty trees. And above it all is a demonic howl—and that howl is then the public speech.

What helps small minorities of people then—and it is only small minorities that remain unaffected—is the still, small voice of reason, but it must also be publicly audible. It helps remind the members of the minority that they are not entirely alone. The proof that only minute groups retain some sanity is brought by the tiny circulation of a handful of periodicals one opens with pleasure when they arrive and, taking a glad breath, sits down to share with someone near.

Red September

This post to match an earlier one titled Red March. The geranium set the theme for our rowdy internal plantation this year. The March picture was taken about a week into Spring, the September one about a week until Fall.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


The city is located in the south-western corner of Germany, in Baden-Württemberg. These days the town has just shy of 58,000 inhabitants. It’s current claim to fame in Germany is Frisch Auf Göppingen, the handball team—a sport we watched avidly during the Olympics. Its more venerable fame derives from Mount Hohenstaufen, in its vicinity—indeed within Göppingen’s borders. Only the ruins of a castle survive atop Hohenstaufen, but there, for a while the most famous of Kaisers, Friedrich Barbarossa, once spent some time.

I got to know this place because Cook Barracks were part of the town, an American military facility, and in my days (1956) briefly the headquarters of the 8th Infantry Division. I’d only spent a year there before our division moved to Bad Kreuznach (Rhineland-Palatinate). In succession, Cooke Barracks was the home of the 4th Armored Division, later renamed 1st Armored Division, then the 1st Infantry Division, which came to be deactivated in 1991—and Cook Barracks returned to the Germans the following year. It began as a civilian airfield, later became a Luftwaffe site called Fliegerhorst Kaserne, and also served to house DPs and refugees (1945-1949). We were not among them, but we had once been DPs. The acronym stood for “displaced persons” in those days—maybe still does.

The first image I show here with thanks to Landkreis Goeppingen (the county, link). Beneath it is the city’s coat-of-arms, depicting the antlers of a deer. The large image is an aerial photo of the post itself. It is a happy image because it shows, about in the middle, a low red building that used to be my own rather exclusive barracks; three of us (rather than twenty) shared a room. A close examination of the airport itself reveals that it was (perhaps still is) used as a golf course. One of my very best friends ever, Stanislav Opalka, worked there as a groundskeeper. Stan was, like me, an immigrant. He originated in Poland but had reached the United States the round-about way—by way of India, South America, and then the United States. We knew each other only briefly, but it was an amazing friendship. Let me illustrate. One day, having had a late Saturday lunch, I entered the hallway leading to my room. On the top bunk of an adjacent, and more crowded room, a man was sitting reading a book—aloud! But he was all alone—and, judging by his accent, probably practicing his English. The book he was reading was An Historian’s Approach to Religion. Even the brief passage I overheard was enough to put me on high alert. We got to talking. I’d never heard of the author before, Arnold Toynbee. It was, that meeting, the beginning of many, many things.

Not that I haven’t tried, but I’ve never been able to locate Stan. Shortly after his appearance, he was reassigned. And the authorities, knowing that he would be, gave him that temporary but very cushy job of taking care of the Göppingen golf course.

The immediate motivation for this post? I got another comment from a lady who had been born at Neubrücke military hospital, Monique’s cradle, as it were. The post on that subject has, over time, become the most read posting on this blog. Vast numbers pass through the military. And as they age, the mind remembers more. So why not remember Göppingen too… 

Saturday, September 15, 2012


The population just isn’t “in the mood”—to shop ’til you drop, that is—and merchants are going crazy. That must be the reason why, on our last shopping trip, we saw three different “early Christmas” displays. They simply ignored Grandparents Day (September 9), Halloween (October 31), and Thanksgiving (November 22) and are already jingling the bells.

With that in mind I feel entirely justified in heralding the Erntedankfest, German, literally, for the Harvest-Thank-Fest. That takes place on October 7 this year. The word came floating into my mind on a recent walk. I usually wander without a bill-fold, but this time I had an urge to take some money—thinking of children selling lemonade at the curb. That turned out to be a guiding intuition.

My first destination was one of the Grosse Pointe’s oldest cemeteries—where many gravestones and crosses have sunk deep into the ground over time and where you can move from family group to family group and reading the last names think that you’re looking at a street map. Here lie the ancestors after whom major arteries are named. This time I discovered Frazho, a street that just happens to cause Brigitte and me frequent laughter when we’re lost. And there it is, again, Frazho!, and we are delighted and always laugh. But why? You figure it out. We haven’t.

The cemetery more or less marks the farthest line I reach in my walks—and all that time not one lemonade-selling youngster. I figured that my hunch had been off target. Then, continuing on my way back along Moross, a major artery, going west I espied a stand. Two mothers and a clutch of children were madly waving at the passing cars. Alas! I sighed inwardly, glad that I’m still “in the zone” of unfailing intuition. But when I got nearer, I had a surprise. They were selling—

cucumbers. The picture you see is the one I purchased. The spoon is there for scale.

Good Lord. I’d never seen such a mass of gigantic cucumbers—or a little boy so wildly excited. He was literally jumping up and down hoping to get me to let him show me the Pumpkins. His mother, at last, judging me the right sort, agreed. She told me that they had had an overwhelming harvest of both. I followed the little boy to the backyard where he showed me dozens of pumpkins, still on the vine, hidden by huge leaves. It was a wonder. Erntedankfest! And the little people competing avidly with the grocery store in selling their surplus.

This morning, nudged perhaps by jealousy, I went out and counted the still-to-be-harvested small tomatoes on just one of our seven plants. Mind you, we have been harvesting them for about two and a half months already. On this plant I counted thirty-six—and the other plants are larger. Something to be thankful for. Meanwhile, starvation drives our merchants mad. We expect soon to learn that Valentine’s Day is only 155 days away. Better start buying that precious present while the sale lasts.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Herewith a bit about “the birds and the bees” for booklovers who may have been wondering, innocently, why it is that every free square foot is eventually piled high:

It is well known that it is not safe to have books in the house as they marry and have children, so producing over-populated neighborhoods; but attics are just as bad.
     Angela Thirkell in Three Score and Ten

Predators Beget Editors

The now still explosive clash between Secular and Muslim culture—arising from a predatory sort of film or trailer attacking the Prophet Muhammed—once more shows that freedom is a coin with a flipside; the flipside is responsibility. If you do not control yourself, sooner or later somebody will control you—hence my title. This case is as good as any to highlight the fact that a so-called progress founded on the expansion of “rights” is by definition self-limiting. If the granting of every new right were accompanied by the energetic enforcement of the responsibility that accompanies it, the agitation for new rights would greatly diminish. The model that pictures humans as kind of perfect and innocent “in the state of Nature,” read allowed to do anything and everything, produces monstrosities at the margin. The grim view of a humanity subject to original sin, while not exactly cheering, produces much better social results. Sooner or later editorial functions will evolve on the Internet beyond those already present and used, very reluctantly. It will, of course, eventually hobble or inconvenience lots of people who use the current freedom responsibly.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Brigitte posed the question this morning: Why such a lot of hullabaloo about Iran and nuclear arms—when lots of other countries in earlier times acquired them without a corresponding global upheaval? Good question. Here is this long-toothed, blood-dripping, utterly aggressive nation—Whoa! Hold it! Not so. The last time Iran/Persia attempted to conquer another country was…? Well, it was 492 BC. And Persia failed. Since then? Well, helped by a BBC timeline (link), I note that Alexander the Great invaded Persia (330 BC), the Arabs invaded it (636 AD) to institute Islamic rule, Genghis Khan’s Mongols invaded (1220), Russia and the Ottomans invaded (1722); the last in a series of Russo-Persian wars ended  in 1828; Anglo-Russian forces invaded (1941), and Iraq invaded Iran (1980).

My untutored guess is that the current hullabaloo has much to do with something simple or something more complexly cultural. The simple is Israel’s fear, what with Iran in close proximity to its east. The complex answer is that Iran is the first theocracy to go nuclear, and therefore, not being safely secular and therefore predictable, brings shudders of incomprehension. Seems to me that if Saudi-Arabia planned to have nukes, no problem. Their rulers are safely rich and hedonistic; the worry would be if the royal family fell. China a ways back? Too big to tackle. How about Pakistan? Well, no hue and cry about that. Pakistan was part of India once, familiar territory. A Muslim country yes, but only, you know, so so. First, no year goes by without some Muslim-on-Muslim massacre livening up its internal affairs—and at the top safely secular rich families rule or it’s the military. Would anyone get worried about Indonesia? The world’s largest Muslim realm? No. Why? Well, they’re Muslim in a different way, don’t you know. As for Iran, well, it was once a great power, even if we have to go back to 500-plus years BC. But now a cleric runs it who can put fatwas on such lovable figures as Salman Rushdie. As Netanyahu said recently, one has to draw a red line somewhere.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hylephila Phyleus

Fall set in early, but when I wondered here whether or not the butterfly season was over, I was wrong. We are now raising Number 10 and 11 of our year’s flock of Black Swallowtail butterflies. And others are still very active in our yard.

Today I want to introduce a member of yet another Superfamily of the Lepidoptera, the Fiery Skipper. It belongs to the superfamily Hesperiodidea (a great word for practicing skill in keying). It consists of eight families, of which our little yellow creature is a member of one. Of the three superfamilies, we have now seen representatives of two. For an overview, herewith a tabulation:

The Butterfly Big Picture
In Our Yard
    Grass Skippers
      Fiery Skipper
    7 other families
      Common Buckeye, 
     Mourning Cloak
      Painted Lady
      Red Admiral
      Black Swallowtail
      Small Cabbage

The fiery skipper is a quite small and a very quick-moving insect, especially as it hops around from bloom to bloom on our mint plants. It reveals itself as a butterfly only when it flies some distances, and then it looks like a miniature butterfly. The first picture I show, as close to a close-up as I’ve yet managed, reveals a creature I first took to be a bee with very big and colored wings. The Fiery Skipper actually has two sets of wings, nicely visible here.

There seem to be the same class distinctions between insects as there are in our society: the hoity-toity upper layers and then the massive humbler classes. The Fiery Skipper belongs to the latter group. In their world decorum, especially in public, is less cultivated—so that Brigitte observed a public mating no sooner than I’d learned to spell Skipper. She called me in excitement from the basement—and I rushed to take the second picture. In my haste, the focus is bad, but our testimony is true. You can also see how the Fiery Skipper looks from the side, its wings folded up. The wings are held like that for all serious activity—thus for eating and for mating.

The Freedom to Yell Fire

Free speech, rightly valued, has its limits. Of late several stories across the world have thrown light on that—in the United States constitutionally protected—right. Last month came the trial of members of a punk band for attacking the Putin regime from the altar of an Orthodox church. Yesterday came stories, repeated today, that next-in-line leader Xi Jinping hasn’t been seen in days, but China’s authorities are absolutely mum. Today comes an escalation of the 2005 Muhammed cartoon controversy: a film attacking the Prophet of Islam as a fraud. Ah, the Internet. Riots came at once in Libya and Egypt (one American died). In the realm we now inhabit excess of good produces the bad, excess of bad produces the good. In both cases the innocent are hurt—but then, who is really innocent? Paradoxical but true.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Public Fisticuffs

Sometimes mornings, taking stock, I come across mildly interesting stuff, interesting to peruse until I see it properly. An example this morning was another of those public fisticuffs that break out between opposing parties, this time a Christian Apologist and his would be Atheist Opponent.  The first look tells me that I’m seeing round eighteen, and the bout will never end. Behind each combatant a large fan base cheers, its members uninterested in real thought but enjoying the fray and eager to scribble endless comments. Nor will a winner ever emerge. After each round the fan base on either side cheers; in commentary each fighter portrays the same blows as superb punches that landed—but on the opponent’s chin. The subject here is unimportant. It could be anything at all: politics, water rights, foreign policy, Euro zone. If the aim would be to find the truth, the methods employed will never work—nor can it be discovered in such settings. Nobody loses—by design. Spectator sport with fuzzy scoring. As for the detached viewer some distance from the cheering, jeering crowds—he is tempted to fetch a dustpan and a broom.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Origins of Aschenputtel

A pot of beans that ended on the kitchen floor—on the way to being soaked for some hours—caused a discussion of that, you know, that fairy tale, the girl who had to count beans or peas or something. Can you think of the name of that? Snow White it certainly was not, nor Sleeping Beauty, nor Little Red Riding Hood. At last it came to us—but in its German version, which was done by the Brothers Grimm: Aschenputtel. Cinderella.

When it comes to fairy tales, the original author is usually lost in the mists of time. So with our Aschenputtel. The second part, puttel, is not present in German, but some scholars think that it comes from buddeln, to dig, thus “ash digger.” But since there is a German word for a lowly servant, a scullion or kitchen helper, called Aschenbrödel, it might be safer to assume that the Grimm brothers formed that ending to suit themselves. The word is treated as a masculine noun, hence one experiences the fascinating linguistic phenomenon, reading the German version, of having our Cinderella referred to as “he” in contexts where that name appears. But for the German-speaker that produces no dissonance at all.

Now there are clear differences between cinders and ashes, so why do the Germans use ash? Cinder is hard slag, ashes are dusty. The German for it is Sinter. The reason for the usage is because the Grimms translated Cendrillon (that’s our Cinderella), and the word for ashes in French is cendre.

The story appears to originate in China circa 850 AD (Online Etymology Dictionary). Its “recent” history begins in 1634 when it appeared in a collection of stories written by Giambattista Basile in Italian; there she is called “Cenerentola.” Next came the French version by Charles Perrault, “Cendrillon.” The Grimm’s version appeared in 1812.

Well worth reading the story using grown-up eyes (link). Like all such tales, it has endless levels of meaning. In the modern day it mirrors the experience of children who undergo the traumas of divorce.

The man [Aschenputtel’s father] had taken another wife. The woman had brought with her into the house two daughters, who were beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart…

Saturday, September 8, 2012

In Parentheses

Back in the long ago, probably in the 1950s, I read a strange book entitled In Parenthesis. It was written by David Jones, published in 1937, but it dealt with Jones’ experience of World War I, a period of such collective horror and disorder for participants that Jones thought of it as a suspended period of his existence, between parentheses. Jones was a painter and engraver not a writer, hence perhaps his use of the singular. But it’s obvious how he used the word. I didn’t know his background at the time of reading—nor did I have sufficient background to understand his mythic or literary allusions. What struck me then was the reality of war—and the originality of Jones’ conception—that isolation of something unspeakable, its separation by parentheses from the rest of experience.

Sometimes only the “idea” of a work remains in my memory—but is deeply embedded there and surfaces like a reminder. For the participants, wars belong there. A while back now I mentioned W.G. Sebald’s book, Air War and Literature (link); in that book he attempts to answer critics of German post-war literature who berate the Germans for not writing about the war. Sebald’s book itself provides the reason why; the more remembered, the more repressed. Placed between parentheses.

Now of course it is almost ridiculous to liken great violent upheavals like world wars to the recurring phenomenon of national elections; the more fitting reference in the latter case is to circuses. But yet for me the phrase, in parentheses, recurs right on time every election year, just about this time in the cycle; it comes in the form of a reminder: put all this aside, ignore it. It is a kind of collective madness, really. And if it has the smell of war and of insanity, it is because elections are exactly that: wars. They are sublimated wars—but real; why else would I recall In Parenthesis each time, and each time with a little shudder.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Getting Real

One of my etymological reflexes—and it arises particularly when a term is philosophical—is to ask myself: “What is the German word for it?” That’s usually enlightening because in German the commonly used word is usually still rooted in Old Germanic; the Latin word we use is present too, but is not the dominant word. Sometimes the roots of the two are different. Take the word real. I’m on this subject because a sentence in the paper once more repeated that tired old “in the real world…” An interesting phrase. The intention is to point to conflict. In the dream world or in the imagination, anything is possible, not so in the real world. In the real world you will be up against it—people, matter, etc. Now that word, used in so many different ways, derives ultimately from the Latin res for thing or matter. The real world is the world of things. So what is the German word for it?

The German for reality is Wirklichkeit. It is rooted in the verb wirken, derived from the same roots as our “work,” but wirken has a slightly more expansive meaning, including to invent and to discover. Wirklichkeit has a more dynamic flavor because the verb is to the fore: That-which-has-been-wrought. It corresponds much better to our actuality, although at least my sense is that we don’t think of acts when we speak of actuality. The reason for that, according to Online Etymology Dictionary, is because we took it from the French actualité, which the French use to indicate the “now existing, up to date.” The older root is the Latin actualis, viewed as a Latin loan-translation of the Greek energeia. The Romans meant by it “active, pertaining to action.” That’s dynamic, but that meaning in the word has faded. It is still present in German.

Things and action. Matter and energy. Our “reality” is a little hollow. What lies behind Reality is something alive and energetic. And the “real world,” therefore, is a great deal more than the endless battle for survival and success in the realm of matter.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Trianon Ignored—Again!

It gave me a heart-felt shock to note that the Democratic Party Platform (and, for that matter, the Republican Party Platform too) once again simply ignored Hungary’s right of access to the Adriatic—which that country had possessed until 1918. The Treaty of Trianon stripped the country of my birth of territory, mercilessly—especially lands where Hungarians were in a minority. The framers of the treaty wrong-headedly assumed that the mere speaking of a language should entitle a population to possess land—ignoring the time-honored right of conquest. Come to think of it, things do get confusing. Sometimes lands can be carved out of others by energetic immigrants—provided they have the backing of the United States and of world public opinion. At least one such comes to mind. If Hungary is lagging in its reconquista, it is due to lazy lobbying.

The map shows what we call Nagy Magyarország (Greater Hungary). The light green shows what remained. Note the tiny “separated territory” of Fiume in the lower left corner; it is also colored dark green; it had been governed by Hungary until 1918. The intervening larger region became the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs; it is colored grey to make Fiume stand out.

Alas. Our port then was Fiume, since then awkwardly renamed Rijek. Fiume on the Adriatic! It’s time to get back to lobbying; the 2016 election is just around the corner. As we say in Hungary, hold on to your gold korona, Greater Hungary will rise again.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Oklahoma: Smart People

It surprised me to learn today that only 29 of the 50 states in our United States have officially designated butterflies, indeed only 43 of 50 have officially designated insects—and Michigan is not on either list (ht Brigitte). Well, turns out, that Michigan is trying. An Oakland County web site tells us that the state insect is the Green Darner Dragon Fly, but that’s only unofficially. Now in our opinion any legislature so focused on tax cutting and levying fees that it has no time to designate a State Insect by majority vote needs drumming out of office. Around this household we know what is important!

We salute the smart people of Oklahoma for selecting the Black Swallowtail Butterfly, the star of Rancho Mariposa, as its state butterfly—and the European Honey Bee as its state insect. Not all participating states do—but some have both. Oklahoma has gone the whole nine yards.

Got to wondering about places where places where we have lived. Missouri, Kansas, Virginia, Minnesota, and now Michigan. Missouri and Kansas both have state insects, the European Honey Bee. Virginia, another smart state, has a Swallowtail too, but it is the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Minnesota opts for the Monarch. The Monarch, incidentally, rules! It is the state butterfly of Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia. The hands-down winner among the insects? The European Honey Bee: Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming: The United States of Honey Bee!

Can’t this man get off this fluttering subject already? Impossible, dear friends. We have lots of butterflies now. Two Monarchs came to the Rancho just yesterday to partake of the nectar of our Japanese Knotweed, a kind of bamboo—not counting dozens of Fiery Skippers and our regulars, the Small White Cabbage. The knotweed is now in full bloom, and its high branches and white blooms were aswarm with the winners of this morning’s state competition: Monarchs and Bees.

And then, last night, my eyes just casually brushing some small fennel plants, I detected our tenth caterpillar of the year astride one of its slender green stems. It looks like another Swallowtail hoping to be born here so that it can flutter off to where it really belongs—Oklahoma. Unless our efforts here result in the designation of the Black Swallowtail as the official Michigan State Butterfly. Dream on. Dream on.

The images in sequence: the European Honey Bee, state insect of seventeen states; the Monarch Butterfly, state butterfly of eight states; Oklahoma's Black Swallowtail; Virginia's Tiger Swallowtail; and Michigan's "unofficial" state insect, the Green Darner Dragon Fly. Here some links: State insect web site, State butterfly web site; and Michigan State symbols. The images shown were taken from these.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Brigitte flagged for me yesterday Glenn Haege’s piece in  the Detroit News. Haege writes a column for the paper (“The Handyman”), and this was his finger pointing at Labor Day today. His approach was novel: he listed eight unions all concerned with the building trades, four of which contributed concretely to the installation of a central air system in this house in July: Plumbing and Pipefitting, Electrical Workers, the Sheet Metal Workers International, and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. The list brought to Brigitte’s mind several members of the “grandchild” cohort in our extended family, a sufficient number so that we could locate one in eight of the nine Haege listed. One was left out, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsworkers.

The article also brought other old memories to the surface—not least what would strike most as the arcane naming conventions used by the Department of Labor to name the crafts—vast lists of which we regularly labor on at our company in publishing a title called Salaries and Wages. Back further still lay my “awakening” to the reality of the labor movement which came in college. I thank the Jesuits for making mandatory a course on the history of labor in my day (1950s); maybe such a course is still required. Finally, in a chapter on a book about ordinary life in Roman times, I read with great amusement a long, long list of “associations”—of craftsmen and trades, principally. The list was such as to make you raise your eyebrows twice, first because there were so many and so diverse—and no thick books on Caesar or Nero or Caligula (or even Augustus) ever mention them—and second because Brigitte then was editor-in-chief of Gale’s flagship reference book, Encyclopedia of Associations, the very book that started Gale Research.

Labor is—submerged. So, I discovered, are my reference books on it. I could find neither my college text nor yet the book on the Roman’s everyday life. What I discovered is that as knowledge vaporizes, dust collects—and that my highly diversified deposits of books need lots and lots of labor to organize again.

Quite instructive, actually. Labor Day goes back to 1882—celebrated that year in New York City. We owe to the labor movement the relatively civilized decades of the second half of the twentieth century. And alongside the slowly but steadily dropping curves of labor union membership, median income in the United States has been falling right alongside. And there is more, much more, that could be said in addition. Once a year, briefly, with a bit of sentiment—not enough. If we don’t mind our knitting, soon all the knitting will be done by slaves.