Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Captain’s Log, Stardate 11312.31

Well, let’s see now. If Star Trek is any kind of guide on how we shall measure time in the distant future, thus  roughly from the next century onward, it appears that a kind of chaos of dates will dominate and every household will have to accumulate, at the beginning of each year, a quite diverse set of calendars. A quite amazing welter of mostly opaque information on Star Trek dating awaits the avid fan. I’m something even less than a rank amateur. Therefore, to mark this last day of 2013, I will stick to the dating convention that began with Star Trek, The Next Generation—a phrase that experts abbreviate as TNG.

The dating in that series was based on a five-digit number and a single-digit decimal. Suppose the stardate was 42437.5. In that case the digits have this meaning:

4          [Twenty]-fourth century
2          Star Trek TNG Season 2
4          { A three-digit number ranging from
3          { 000 to 999, advancing in
7          { uneven intervals through the season.
5          Time of day expressed as a decimal fraction. 0.5 is noon, thus half of a day.

The first stardate used in this format was 41153.7 for the first two episodes of TNG. The last was 47988—without a decimal point, therefore suggesting midnight of the release day. The stardate I’ve parsed out above is the date of the sixth episode of Season 2, “The Schizoid Man,” which so happens to feature Darnay’s disease (link).

Needless to say, there is no way to march from a stardate to an actual year except by searching the dialogue in each episode. In some of them actual dates using our own calendar—and presumably still in use then—are mentioned. And for the avid fan, this produces hours, days, even years of useful occupation.

The Powers that Be behind Star Trek’s creation, not least Gene Roddenberry, wished to avoid repeating actual years some 200-plus years in the future. People might then be tempted to speculate if such and such a technology could or could not as yet have been invented.

My own rationalizing attempt in that title is to bow respectfully in the direction of obfuscation. Therefore I use 1 for the [twenty]-first century, two digits for year, two for the month, and two digits beyond the decimal to indicate a day. That’s good enough for dates up to the twenty-ninths century into the future until a new convention must be introduced. And no pesky annotations like Anno Domini or Current Era need clutter up the pristine screen.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Color it Brownian

Back about ten years ago I wrote a family memoir; its well known to the family. It covered our history in Europe and ended with our variously dated arrivals in the United States. Even looking back to our great grandparents, Brigitte’s and mine, it was clear that war played the major role in the history of all our lives then; it was the sky, and the turbulence in it, that formed the dome above. Therefore that book had a strong thematic. And because large parts of our families emigrated—to the United States, Canada, Latin America, and even to Australia, the theme was a kind of movement toward the goal. The title, Majd Amerikába, holds that thematic. Literally it means, Wait Until We’re in America. My Mother used that phrase often when we wanted something that could not be had.

Years after writing that book, I hazarded another. It never got finished. I had titled it America: Our Random Walk. In fact I’d quite forgotten that title; it came back a couple of days ago when, in one of our discussions, Brigitte mentioned Lauriston Place, one of our streets. And that had me checking back in that manuscript to see where it was located in relation to two other places where we had lived in Fairfax, VA.

That narrative ran aground after a dozen chapters precisely because the random nature of our life amidst the peace and plenty of the once mythical Amerika produced problems of story-telling. The tale split into two rather incompatible tines, as of a fork. The family history retained its meaning—but the outer world became chaotic, so much so that actually describing it, meaningfully, came to demand more and more space. It was a family history—not a sorting out of an ever more shattering economic/political history which here, in this land, became the sky under which we continued doing what mankind had done forever and ever—raising a family.

The random is quite difficult—to understand, to integrate, to see comprehensively. The second chapter of an old book we got for Christmas, The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance, deals with the difficulties. It is titled “The Lure of Completeness.” When too many things in some kind of motion impinge on too many other things, and vice versa, we get situations which are theoretically capable of explanation—but always only theoretically. And if we could somehow slow down and freeze the motion, infinite time would be required to trace its lawfulness. And then, suggest the author of the essay, Sir Hermann Bondi, we’d probably discover something deeper to plunge us right back into ignorance.

Color it Brownian, one might say. Brownian motion, discovered by the botanist Robert Brown in 1927, is one form of the random walk—which, whether used to understand Wall Street or those who work on Main Street, is rather a poor environment for story telling. The human experience is resolutely and defiantly teleological. Brigitte heard me say this sort of thing about that unfinished book and said: “Why don’t you just simplify it? You’re good at that. And stick with the family.” I might do that. But let’s wait for Spring.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Urbi et Orbi

That Latin phrase must please all those with even a weak ear for the poetic. The words are big this morning because the papers are reporting the Pope’s address to “City and World” (or “City and Earth”); it is the Pope’s Christmas address. It happens to be newsworthy, this year, because, in praying for peace, Pope Francis included the following sentence: “And I also invite non-believers to desire peace with that yearning that makes the heart grow: all united, either by prayer or by desire” (link). Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal rendered “non-believers” as “atheists,” perhaps because that word is more dramatic; but never mind that. In the spirit that Pope Francis urges, I enfold the media in a peaceful embrace today.

I had been under the impression that “Urbi et Orbi” goes back to ancient Rome as an early sort of “State of the Union” address. Turned out I was wrong. Wikipedia dates the address to the thirteenth century and the reign of Pope Gregory X. Wiki then adds a reference to the Polo family (whose most famous member is Marco). Soon after Gregory’s election, Niccolo and Matteo Polo brought him a message from Kubla Kahn, and the Pope then responded to it. Some people, anyway, link this fact to the name of the Christmas message—although, seems to me, the Pope is always addressing the earth, not just the City of Rome.

Urbs, in Latin, simply means “city”; the origin of that word is not know, but, seems to me, might be a modification of orbis, meaning circle, ring, hoop, or disk. Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the “circle” had begun to transform itself into a “sphere” or a globe by the thirteenth century already (in Old French)—thus by Gregory’s time. Galileo didn’t arrive until the sixteenth and died in the seventeenth century. To us in the twenty-first, “orb” certainly means a sphere and no longer a circle. And as that geometrical concept has expanded, so has our concept of peace, at least as Pope Francis sees it. It has claims on all of us, believers or unbelievers alike.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fourth Sunday in Year Thirteen

We celebrated our fourth Sunday of Advent in the last few minutes of that Sunday by lighting our last candle around what in Germany we called the Adventskrantz (Advent Wreath). The photography, you might say, phailed me this year; the wreath is not quite visible. And this posting actually comes on a Monday. But as they say, it is the spirit that matters, not its actual physical manifestation. 

With this humble image we send our greetings and best wishes to all who read Ghulf Genes. May your Christmas be blessed—and, as the Germans also say, a good slide into the New Year (einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr).

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Butterfly Mecoin

In what struck Brigitte as a meaningful coincidence, the New York Times today, on its front page, brought a story about the Monarch butterfly and Milkweed—to close out a year in which, in the context of butterflies, was a central event in our live this year. Meaningful coincidences, we gratefully note, are frequent enough so that Brigitte has coined a new word to refer to them: mecoin; it’s easier to write in diaries and such than the full phrase with 23 letters.

Yes, we saw our own milkweed—planted in what seemed an almost meaningless gesture to help save the Monarch from ultimate doom—bloom for the first time this summer. Today we discovered that we are not alone. Major public efforts, headed by such institutions as the University of Northern Iowa (once a neighboring state), the University of Minnesota and the University of Kansas (we’ve lived in both of those states), along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Academy of Sciences are collaborating in the establishment of large tracts of land on which the milkweed, and other ecology-friendly weeds, will grow profusely and provide the thinning populations of the Monarch a little genuine hope. To this list I should also add the State of Mexico; it is also striving to reverse this most deplorable population crash.

It’s warmish out; the snow still lies fairly thick on the ground. As it rains steadily. The year is almost over. I thought I’d written all I would, this year, on butterflies back in November. But now a mecoin gives me one last chance to promote this worthy effort.

And, by the way, we are also providing milkweed seed we’ve harvested to members of the far-flung family so that our batch will multiply and once more fill the earth.

Crossword Centennial?

Twenty-thirteen has been rich in important anniversaries, 50-year and 100. Or so it seems. It was the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, the 50th of C.S. Lewis’ passing, also the 50th anniversary of the show Doctor Who. Those of us old enough to have been in our twenties fifty years ago can at least vaguely attest to such anniversaries as that. But what about centennials?

Yesterday was supposedly the centennial of the crossword puzzle—universally proclaimed by Google’s search page. On December 20, 1913, one Arthur Wynne composed, and the New York World published, the first such thing. But a hundred years are a long time; as I pursued this subject this morning, things began to seem less clear. Wikipedia, in its article on the subject, dates Wynne’s achievement as December 21, 1913 and cites the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as its source, no less (link). Wiki adds that Wynne’s puzzle “embodied most of the features of that genre as we know it.” But the crossword is evidently older than that—going back to 1837 in the English magazine called St. Nicholas. Which means that the centennial should have been celebrated in 1937, when I had reached the ripe age of 1. Italy was not far behind. In September of 1890 Il Secolo Illustrato della Domenica published one devised by Guiseppe Airoldi. Early on the feature was named “word-cross.” If we see “the cross” as symbolizing pain, certain puzzles—certainly all those in the New York Times on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays belong to the painful variety. The words were inverted into “crossword” later—perhaps to ease our pain.

Whenever the crossword really began, it has brought Brigitte and me, both of us word-crossed sorts of people, plenty of agony, laughter, and joy—not to mention additions to our already fairly decent personal dictionaries… So let us take pencil in hand and celebrate.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Clash of Being and Becoming

The church needs to recognize that things have changed and times are changing and people are changing.
     [Frank Schaefer, former Methodist Minister]

Everything flows, nothing stands still.
     [Heraclitus of Ephesus]

The trigger for this note is the first quote. A story in the New York Times this morning relates a conflict within the Methodist Church. Frank Schaefer, one of its ministers, was expelled for violating the rules of the Methodist Book of Discipline; the context was gay marriage. The Rev. Schaefer clearly voiced his own convictions, no doubt feeling that they are self-evident and should therefore command universal assent. But that is because we are now living in an age in which Becoming has achieved at least a temporary dominance.

Having been brought up in a tradition in which Being is the ultimate anchor and reference, I’ve found it odd that our times are so enamored of Becoming. It’s everywhere. It neatly matches the spirit of an Age of Progress. That age itself takes its inspiration from the theory of evolution—which seemingly provided, in the nineteenth century, a plausible alternative to explain Life, at minimum, and, by extension the whole of reality as capable of explanation without God. Heraclitus, who anticipated the rise of Hellenism by some handful of decades, gave Becoming its brief motto; he had no access to Darwinism yet, original or neo, but still believed that reality had always been, would always be, but never the same at any moment. Job One, therefore, is adaptation—and the early bird catches the juiciest worms.

I’m speaking here of fashions—fashions in thought. “Being” is associated with God, “becoming” with matter. Nothing wrong with becoming, per se, of course. It’s a matter of observation, another way of saying that energy is present and acts in Time and Place. No time, no change. My musing centers, rather, on the promotion of this concept to a very high rank. Why is that? Perhaps because in our current social life the transcendental is effectively silenced and mere motion and change have been promoted and are evoked to justify change. Cultural epochs are marked by one or the other side of this pairing; Becoming is king now, but we are moving toward Being again.

I think this because I am convinced that we’re now passing through what might be called an anti-Renaissance; the twentieth century represented an important segment of it. Therefore philosophers—Whitehead comes to mind and, for me, also David Bohm, the physicist, in his cosmological writings—are struggling in some way to reconcile Becoming with Being. But, such is our time, they begin by looking at physical reality first in their attempts at explaining the “mystery.” The mystery is consciousness, agency. They are headed back toward a comprehensive answer but do not quite arrive.

The curious thing is that Being and Becoming are readily reconciled if one begins with consciousness, with agency, the most fundamental experience all of us share. Trying to explain what we are, we discover a hierarchy in which Being is more fundamental than Becoming, hence on a higher plain. And even that which always flows and moves must first be before it changes and thus because something else that still is. Even the flux is, first of all, before it is transformed. Reason, which is irreducibly part of awareness, then leads us to add another dimension to reality beyond the three of space and time. And with a transcending dimension added, the conflict disappears. Bohm discovered an “unconditioned order,” read intelligence, as a complement to the “conditioned order,” read matter. Whitehead discovered an evolving God. Close. But we’re not there yet. Anti-Renaissance still has a ways to go.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Benson’s Apocalypse

About a month ago we learned, on Siris (link), that Pope Francis had made reference to a science fiction work, Lord of the World, written by Robert Hugh Benson, a British Catholic priest. The book was published in 1907! Well, that was irresistible. We had a copy of it within the week, and since then Brigitte and I read it together in daily segments right after lunch; Brigitte did the reading. We finished yesterday—and indeed, it was a tour de force.

Benson was a quite prolific and popular writer. He wrote science fiction (3 works), historical novels (7), contemporary novels (10), children’s books (3), devotional works (8), apologetics (10), plays (4), and other books (4) including biographies and a book of poems.

Lord of the World is a profoundly philosophical work—its story being the ultimate victory of absolute materialistic secularism the world over. That might suggest slow, weary reading. But the book was intensely suspenseful, quite a thriller, and we had a real job keeping from reading on and on, as rapidly as possible, to discover what happens next—although we already knew the end before we even began.

Benson was born in 1871 and died in October 1914, thus three months after World War I began. He’d lived intensely and had died young of heart failure. His prophetic gift was significant—but muted. He saw the future clearly in its essence, but not its tawdry nature. The future’s technology is smooth, clean, silent, and pleasing to the eye. He projected the triumph of materialism in every category—except the spiritual. The few great outbreaks of disorder that he shows carry powerful premonitions of, say, Nazi mobs. There is no sense of what we see now, the “war of all against all,” disguised as markets, free speech, and competition. The world’s a kind of physical paradise, its air-traffic almost silent, its ground-traffic underground, its surfaces soft and sound-absorbing. The conflict is all in the “sky”—as in Dürer’s image (shown elsewhere here). Nor does he recognize that everything constellates its own resistance—in reality—so that the great tendencies he saw have not yet, and never shall, actually achieve victory. The reason for this, however, is explained in Benson’s brief prefactory paragraph:

I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as many others. But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people. Whether I have succeeded in that attempt is quite another matter.

At the same time, the book has extraordinary insights into spiritual life—at the collective as well as at the individual levels. These passages in no way interfere with, indeed they heighten, the story-telling tension. Surprising subjects are touched upon, like the post-death vision of one of our favorite of four major characters that carry this story, Mabel Brand.

A most unusual book—weirdly modern, weirdly out of this world. The book produced some widespread reactions—because of its gloomy ending. This impelled Benson later in his life to write a kind of utopian work, Dawn of All. Needless to say, Amazon is flying it to us now—not yet on Benson’s famous volors nor yet on Bezos’ future drones—just by plane and UPS truck. We can hardly wait.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Messiah Down Through Time

With John and Monique we heard a rather exceptional performance of Handel’s Messiah yesterday at snowbound Christ Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, MI. The conductor was Scott Hanoian (a well-known musical figure here and nationally); the chorus was Christ Church’s own, 58 strong. Exceptional, also, were the program notes. They brought a bit of the history of this masterpiece and of its initial reception in Dublin, where it was first performed on April 13, 1742. Part of the notes holds this quote from the Dublin Journal appearing on the 10th and 13th:

Many Ladies and Gentlmen who are well-wishers of this Noble and Grand Charity for which this Oratorio was composed, request it as a Favour, that the ladies who honor this Performance with their Presence would be pleased to come without Hoops [hoop-framed skirts], as it will greatly increase the Charity, by making Room for more company. The Gentlmen are desired to come without their Swords.

Controversy surrounded the Oratorio initially because it was performed in regular theaters. And neither the places nor ordinary performers were thought, by some, appropriate to handle sacred texts and music. An anonymous letter-writer to a London paper, for instance: “I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word.” We had a good laugh about that after the performance while dining at Grosse Pointe’s “The Original” Pancake House—until it occurred to us that much the same reaction might take place today if Hollywood got into this particular act.

In 1785, Abigail Adams was visiting London and attended a performance of the Messiah. She was quite as entranced as we were; she spent a guinea on the ticket; she thought that expensive but well worth it. So how much did she spend? Various sources on the Internet have done their best to inform me. A credible answer, translating Year1800 guineas into our current dollars puts a guinea at around $60. One thing certainly has changed. Prices have dropped. We only spent $25 per ticket.

The program notes also brought us the actual text of the Messiah. It turns out to be quite an amazing collation of biblical quotations from the Old and the New Testaments assembled for a particular context. This was the first time that we could listen while also clearly grasping what the voices actually said—and it gave this evening an extra dimension we’d never experienced before.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Ins and Exes

It surprised me to discover that the word influence, as used today, originated in Renaissance times and arose from astrology. As Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, it meant “streaming ethereal power from the stars acting upon character or destiny of men.” Before the fourteenth century, the word simply meant in-flow, as of water and such. Quite rapidly, in a cultural sense, thus by the mid-fifteenth century, it had come to mean “exercise of personal power by human beings,” thus the “influential person.” The emphasis in both instances is mine. I see this as the rise of the secular. What once emanated from the stars, and earlier still from God, had come to be something that emanated from humans—though not from all of them.

There is no such word as exfluence—despite its utility and nicely democratic aspects. We may not, as individuals, be very influential but we’re most certainly exfluential. I ponder that daily when I perform my first action of each morning on waking up. But those things that we all do, and quite regularly, like breathing and blinking, are not actions likely to be used as honorifics.

There is a sense in which secular times are an inversion of religious ages, and the word in question is a nice example of that. Influence once signified something coming into us, from on high; and now it means something that comes out of us and changes our environment. In has become ex. We retain influence in its old meaning only when describing that staggerer over there who’s “under the influence.”

This brief ramble had me next researching intuition. In my personal dictionary, certainly, the word has great significance. I think of intuition as knowledge flowing into me and, what with my not having done a thing, from a higher source. OED therefore surprised me again. In that word that prefix, in, actually means at, or on. And tuition has the meaning of “looking after.” Intuition therefore means knowledge acquired after looking at something—presumably with a bit of an effort. That amounts to “observation.” If that’s the case I’m not surprised that its origins go back to the mid-fifteenth century as well, from Late Latin. That’s not at all the model in my mind, namely a kind of heavenly whispering of vital knowledge or insight—the cognitive form of grace.

To be sure, Webster’s third (and last) definition of intuition comes close to my personal one: “the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.” Here again we have a pairing corresponding to contrasting cultural realms: intuition as a kind of grace, intuition as scientific observation. Fortunately there is no extuition in the dictionary. An extuitive individual might be a bore—unless he or she wrote very fine poetry.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Who Can Deal With Excess Complexity?

The thematic here is not all that new on this blog—but worth repeating. Not that such insights help in any sense at all—except the individual. When we are caught in a horrendous storm, it is reassuring sometimes to glimpse a few recognizable landmarks.

The motivation today is an editorial in the New York Times on the subject of ambiguities that surround the so-called Volker Rule. That rule, in a nutshell, is part of the Dodd-Frank financial law and restricts U.S. banks in the making of speculative investments on their own behalf. But it’s not the Volker Rule that interests us here but, rather, its extraordinary complexity—now that it is being implemented. Brigitte flagged the editorial for me with heavy commentary. In effect she said that complexity is simply swallowing us.

Indeed, having read the thing, I could not but agree. But as is often the case with me, I had a rather apocalyptic reactions to the thing. As I noted that reaction, the thought came that sometimes, certainly not all the time, the apocalyptic solution is the only one available. And we have quite excellent historical precedents for it.

The first of these is the Gordian Knot. That knot, no doubt, was the same sort of thing in ancient Greek times as the Volker Rule is for us today. And Alexander the Great dealt with it, metaphorically, by using his sword to disentangle it—with prejudice, as we used to say a few years ago. No doubt he wiped the slate clean and had his underlings start from scratch again, something that, alas, is absolutely necessary at long intervals in social affairs when things have become unworkable. The Hellenistic era, call it Ancient Modernity, is dated from Alexander’s death.

Our own era, Modern Modernity, can be dated from, say, the French Revolution. The Alexandrine figure of that time was Napoleon. He made order again—and that order then was copied by his friends and enemies, certainly in mainland Europe. He wiped away centuries of accumulated law in France and started again.

These are my landmarks. They give me a kind of futuristic hope amidst the prevailing vast confusion. Alas, it takes a single individual with genuine power to do what Alexander and Napoleon managed to do. No such figure is visible now. Therefore my use of that word, futuristic. To the old wisdom, “This too shall pass,” we might add a complement: “That too shall come…”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Hired Help

News comes this morning that the House and Senate negotiators have agreed on a budget that will be good enough until September 2015. So we were told by two papers that reach this house, the one with the lower-case h. Is that the end of the fiscal meltdown crisis? Well, the vote is still ahead.

Just yesterday Brigitte wrote as follows in one of her notebooks; she keeps up several, each on a different major aspect of our lives:

I have become more and more aware of how speculation is the major content of news reports:  “should, may/might, plans, expects, soon, near, suggests, etc.” are operative words. Those definitive words “is/are, will, etc.” are used only in reports of little if any impact on any real action, rules, and described facts!

If House members and senators actually bless this agreement soon, we will be able to say that the hired help has finally gotten around to doing its job.

Yes, the paradox of democratic government. We the People hire the people we hope will govern us. But democracy is either unnatural or Janus-faced. Those hired in this way cannot help but think that they are now our masters—and free to spend their time quarreling with one another.

Truth  to tell, the news caught me by surprise. I made what might have been a very costly error recently. I bought a laptop (called “Tyke” hereabouts). Getting it up and running right has cost lots of time, money, and stress—enough so that all those mountain-sized public problems had entirely disappeared from my view. This is the first post composed on Tyke—whom I am constantly having to remind that it is the servant and I am (at least titularly) its Lord and Master.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Perplexed from A to Z

The words I have in mind are aghast, bamboozled, bewildered, flustered, rattled, uncanny, weirded-, and zoned out—all produced, in unalphabetical sequence, when I got to wondering about the meaning of bamboozled.  

These words are linked in turn to 1) ghosts, 2) baboons, 3) wilderness, 4) bustling around, 5) noise, 6) knowledge (its absence), 7) fate, and 8) drugs. My source for dispelling my perplexity is the Online Etymology Dictionary—except for the last two.

Aghast means to be terrified in Old English, the verb being gaestan which itself is derived from gaest, read ghost or spirit. The word is still very much with us, but ghosts are rarely involved. A quick search yielded two recent headlines: Was Norman Rockwell gay? Family aghast at biography; Kashmir Lawyers Aghast Over Conditions of Kishtwar Jail Inmates.

Bamboozle seems to be a word welded together from the Scottish word for “to perplex,” bombaze, and the French embabouiner, meaning “to make a baboon of.” The Scotts, here, seem to me to have the greater voices since, to be bamboozled, is to be bewildered—a word derived from the feeling of being lost in the wilds.

To be flustered has its origins in excessive activity—a kind of fuss, stir, or commotion. It comes from Scandinavian sources, as in the Icelandic flaustra,  “to bustle.” The word came to be linked to activity while being under the influence of drink—but that original meaning has been widened to being agitated by something which is never altogether pleasant.

To be rattled is to be distracted, by noise or commotion, thus related to being flustered. Rattled is what I always am when I see bright lights, men, and guitars and my flustered finger can’t find the mute button fast enough. Uncanny, curiously, is simply the state in which effective knowledge is denied us—thus when the supernatural intrudes. Canny is to be knowing and therefore careful; but if ghosts appear or strange noises rattle us in the dark—and we’re therefore aghast—why then, in retrospect, we’ll describe the situation as uncanny—because we didn’t know what to do.

Low on the list but not yet last, being weirded out is defined for me by our Dictionary of American Slang (DAS) (2007 and therefore, presumably, quite obsolete): it describes weird out as “To become or make hallucinatory or intoxicated; to feel a loss of reality because of a strange experience.” That’s the modern take. Back in the Long Ago weird meant fate, as in the Proto-Germanic wurthis. Then, as now, I would insist, what comes around and then goes around in turn is often quite enough to weird us out. And that is fate.

Zoned out? DAS describes that condition as “Intoxicated with narcotics: HIGH.” Yes. We are in Orwell age of 1984, where HIGH means LOW. And if you’re missing a word for confusion starting with C, confusion will do. And if you’re missing an S, zoned out can also be spaced out—lifted high by the same fuel.


Yes, sorting. It’s almost certain that the order of reality we inhabit here is lawful in the sense that chemistry and physics rule. At best we can arrange it so that chemistry and physics shield us from what looks to us as random flux. But beyond arranging that which absolutely rules this world we cannot change a blessed thing. All of life—and not just ours—is engaged in this arranging and this exploitation; and the more efficiently it is adapted, the humbler its attempt to fit itself into available ecologies, the more it also resembles inorganic nature. It seems easier to be a bird or bee than to be a human.

It makes a contrast to compare a life lived as a simple herder—say of sheep in Mongolia, living in yurts—and one in which a bus, subway, and elevator deposit our bodies in a New York skyscraper where, managing computers bouncing signals off satellites, we communicate arranging vast inventories of, say, electronic parts, while our children study in places or are still just tended by nurseries or schools reached by similarly complicated transportation networks to meet cohorts of care-givers who, like us (hopefully) earned degrees and have the skills to do their jobs—not least CPR, say, should a maddened terrorist crash a plane into our 40-story highrise or the dozing driver of a train cause his cars to roll off an embankment into a preschool’s playground.

The contrast comes into full view when I assume that human life takes its meaning (let me keep it simple) from saving our souls. That should be possible whether we’re simple herders (Mongolian, Kikuyu, or whatever) or Moderns who form the cells of a Babel of Secular  Extravagance. The herder will have his tribal religion and traditions. We moderns will be sophisticated. But in which life is it easier to achieve the ultimate end? Which life is more centered on reality? In which are distractions minimized?

Our birth, of course, assigns the particular curriculum we shall be obliged to follow. You can’t grow up herding in Manhattan. But as consciousness grows, keeping things simple is always wise. And those of us living in Secular Madhouse would be surprised to discover just how complicated it is to make a living herding sheep. But the vast tundras are also empty and silent, most of the day—although  they won’t support a decent crop.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Only in Puzzles

In the USA Today crossword puzzle (Saturday last) appears the following clue: “45. Propel a gig.” It is supposed to produce a three-letter formation. That’s an easy one. In goes ROW.  




Trouble was, the upper horizontal word, 4 letters, was clued as “44. Unit of loudness.” And the lower horizontal as “51. Suffix denoting wealth.”  That ROW in 45-Down produced a whole lot of frustrated searching. There seemed to be no real alternative to ROW if the clue is read as referring to a verb. DECIBEL was too long for that unit of sound. Now as for that suffix signifying wealth—we both knew that that was a work-around. The puzzle’s author was left with a meaningless series of letters and thus found those letters in a suffix. Eventually we wrote in SONE for unit of sound —but that, of course, rendered ROW obsolete. And as for that suffix, it came to us that a “millionaire” might work.




These two answers worked splendidly with other words that came from above and continued below but left us no choice but to insert an A between the O above and the R below. Trouble is that “oar” is a noun and not a verb. But. The but in this case is that fact-checking is at least as important a task for crossword puzzle as for political editors—if not more so. So to the dictionary we go. Turns out that “to oar” is a transitive verb. I can “sing” without any further reference (intransitive verb). But I can’t simply oar. I’ve got to oar something—say a gig? And there is a further limit imposed. You can only “oar” in crossword puzzles. When it comes to the real world, the following verses don’t fit the bill:

Oar, oar, oar your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

It’s okay grammatically, if not otherwise. So we crossworded that word into the space erased and sighed a sigh of muted satisfaction.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Vivos voco...

A convoluted and amusing discussion had Brigitte writing in her diary a funny line modeled on the opening verse of Friedrich Schiller’s immortal poem, “The Song of the Bell.” We have two separate and complete “Works of Schiller” in the attic—but we now live in the latter days; thus instead of going up to fetch a volume from that these days frigid sphere, I went to get the poem, much more quickly, from the Internet. Alas.

Herewith the first verse in German and in English. The English version was produced by Margarete Münsterberg (slightly edited to bring it closer to a literal translation). The entire poem is available here (in German) and here (in English).

Fest gemauert in der Erden
Walled in fast within the earth          
Steht die Form, aus Lehm gebrannt.
Stands the form burnt out of clay.     
Heute muß die Glocke werden.
Today will give the bell its birth.
Frisch Gesellen, seid zur Hand.
Fellows, lend a hand to-day. 
Von der Stirne heiß
Sweat must trickle now                 
Rinnen muß der Schweiß,
From the burning brow,         
Soll das Werk den Meister loben!
Till the work its master praise.           
Doch der Segen kommt von oben.
‘Tho blessing comes from heaven’s blaze.

What struck us today was that the poem features a motto in Latin: Vivos voco. Mortuos plango. Fulgura frango. We’d both read this famous poem as children, later as adults. Each time new surprises await us. One of those, this time, was that motto. Translated it means: “The living I call, the dead I mourn, the lightning bolt I break.” Schiller used that motto because these words, once, were used as inscription on big bells themselves—either all three on one or one on each of three bells. The first symbolized Faith, the second Hope, the third Love. We have a case here of Schiller quoting the bell itself… The illustration, from Wikipedia (here), is the Bell called Faith in the Hoffnungskirche Berlin-Pankow. Close examination will show the words Vivos voco in the metal of this bell poured in 1913. The word above the motto is Glaube, German for Faith.

Endless discussion—perhaps a little too rich for a grey Monday morning—followed. Brigitte began with trumpets and speculated about the relationship of these two different instruments of sound in the context of religion and of culture. Eventually we came to a somewhat vague but satisfying conclusion. The trumpet, surely, was there before the bell, sounding with strident fury in the Old as well as the New Testament. And the trumpet will come again, resounding in the End Times when Revelations Seventh trumpet is finally heard. Meanwhile we have the siren. But as for the Bell, did it, perhaps, mark a geologically brief but a culturally meaningful interval when Faith was more triumphant—and raised on high—during the centuries of Christendom?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Marking Nov 13

This year, the only one numbered
Thirteen, I raked last leaves one cold
And windy day, and shoveled snow
The next with no delay excepting
But a single night between—a
Night already lit by Christmas
Lights put out by those who practice
Early rites.

This morning on the thin snow left
I saw a few late leaves I shall
Remember as marking this unique
November—and silently left
Prints of a cat’s paws. Thirteen now
Wanes. That number for us has a
Certain weight. But when it’s over
All—it’s fate.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


The word surfaced for us yesterday when reading fairly extensive parts of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation titled Envangelii Gaudiam available in English here.  The entire document is some 224 pages long. And there, in the very title of it, is that word: Gaudium, Joy, The Joy of the Gospel.

Those of us born in Europe, and at a time before the absolute spread of secularism took full hold, many will have absorbed an old, old college song which begins with the following verse and is known popularly as “Gaudeamus” and formally as “The Shortness of Life.” We still know the melody too.

Gaudeamus igitur.
Let us then all rejoice
Iuvenes dum sumus.
While yet we are still young
Post iucundam iuventutem.
For after a youth pleasing,
Post molestam senectutem.
And after troubled aging,
Nos habebit humus.
The humus will consume us.

Different forms of joy. Gaudeamus dates to the eighteenth century, per Wikipedia, and therefore celebrates joys associated with the life of the senses. Pope Francis’ Exhortation, reaching us early in the twenty-first, points upward to a dimension which has been practically forgotten with the march of progress—but offers hope for the future. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The X Percent Solution

The most famous of these is the 7 percent solution of cocaine Sherlock Holmes used on occasion to stimulate what I must assume had to be his Huge Gray Cells. I last encountered this one quite recently when reading Anthony Horowitz’s The Silk House, a Sherlock Holes story. Horowitz is probably best known for writing British TV series, among them most notably Foyle’s War. Well, there it was again.

The linkage between  that seven percent and the drug scene has produced, among others, such phenomena as a book by that title, also a Sherlock Holmes novel, and a rockband, active 1992 through 2003, founded in Austin, Texas. Chancing across that band reminded me again of my abysmal ignorance of pop music. Austin’s Seven Percent Solution belongs to subgenres of rock called shoegaze and spacerock. (My Online Etymology Dictionary is stymied.) Well, to some it’s magic, but descriptions suggest heavy uses of guitars for shoegaze with voices, sort of, absorbed by the din—as, presumably, the mind is by cocaine; and spacerock is similar, but a vast noise by other new electronic instruments is added to the ecstasy.

OED is more helpful in explaining “solution.” It has two meanings, the second derived from the first. The first is the result of dissolution—thus of grains of sugar in a liquid. In that sense something hard is taken apart. The second meaning uses the process of unraveling to indicate loosening, untying, say a knot—or a problem. In that case the solution to a problem also means its disappearance.

Other than pop culture, the chief fans of various numbered solutions are economists. In the recent meltdown problems in Europe (Greece, etc.) some have promoted the 2 percent solution. Stimulate the economies of Europe by expending up to a maximum of 2 percent of the Eurozone’s GDP. Earlier, in the Bush II era, the 4 percent solution aimed at so arranging the world’s economy that all countries grew at 4 percent per annum. The 50 percent solution, also labeled “Get Rich Slowly,” suggests that we all halve our consumption and save the rest. And a recent book, titled the 86% Solution (2005), suggests a fabulous future if only corporations stopped trying to grow by serving the top 14 percent of customers with real money and tried instead to serve the 86 percent that’s left behind.

Is there a 100 percent solution anywhere? It’s often suggested, in various context, in adventure shows. Things have been getting worse and worse for our hero. The hero’s sidekick eventually asks, his or her face a study in terror: “What do we do now?” And the hero then says: “Pray.” Depending on the context, we are supposed to feel even more tense—or to laugh. We last saw this on an episode of People of Interest—that show something of a tour de force. But I got to thinking. That is, after all, the 100 percent solution. It is guaranteed to work—if only you give it time.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Monarch Decline

A feature in the New York Times this morning brings news of the belated arrival of the migrating Monarch butterfly in Mexico. The Monarchs always arrive on November 1, a day celebrated in Mexico as the Day of the Dead. This year they were a week late. Both that Day of the Dead (link) and the dramatic decline in Monarch population (link) have been noted on this blog before. The Times story says that last year 60 million monarchs arrived in Mexico—a greatly diminished display of what the Mexicans think of as the souls of the dead. This year just a shade fewer than 3 million reached Mexico. The cause for this decline is summarized in my second link: it is the use of herbicides which devastates the milkweed.

As behooves people with our convictions, we have a very long view of the future and therefore expect that “this too shall pass.” There are balances in Nature that Long Time corrects even when the Near Term visits its mindless destruction on the environment. But I won’t be around when our version of the milkweed suddenly disappears and human numbers begin to collapse dramatically. At the end, I hope, the few millions left of us will still see a few million Monarchs once more migrating across the continents for landfall on the Day of the Dead. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Doctor Who Turns Fifty

Google Search, in its thematic today, informs me that Doctor Who, the BBC science fiction series, turns fifty on this day. To say that Brigitte and I are great fans of Doctor Who would not be altogether accurate. To say that we are great fans of the fourth Doctor Who, played by Tom Baker, is certainly true. We watched that series with unmixed pleasure in the 1970s with our children. And for a while we also followed, but with decreasing attention, the continuing exploits of the fifth, Peter Davison. That transition also marked our own move from Minneapolis to Detroit. Thereafter? Well, it seemed to us that the Doctor Whos who’d followed had in a way left us behind.

Such series are a popular art form not as yet deeply studied (or so it seems to me), but some early terminology has emerged which literary criticism will in the future use to shape its scholarly development. One such phrase is “it jumped the shark,” signifying that what at first was a very fine effort eventually decayed. Brigitte and I are active amateur scholars of this sort of criticism in that retirement gives us the time and the easy availability of series on DVD gives us the means for concentrated study. Our view of many other series is similar: we much approve of parts of them, but the time always comes when multiple disks are returned to the library unwatched because the series has suddenly lost its—should we call it charisma?

The image of Tom Baker is from Wikipedia (link).

In the Land of Individualism

There are some 19 posts on “collectives” on Ghulf Genes, accessible under that word in the Labels section in the left column. Our ability to think in general categories and the shortcuts that generics provide in communication have a very serious drawback, especially when applied to humans. We project collectives of people and then pretend that they are and behave as if they were individuals. Now a word signifying a collective, say United States, or say Dallas—when what we mean is the people that these words can legitimately reference—certainly has an actual reality behind it. The population of the U.S. or of Dallas is at least theoretically present for verification. In actual practice, to be sure, a scientific verification is not possible. To take a census of such collectives takes time; it cannot be done in an instant. Therefore some people will be dead by the time the count is finished; others were not yet present when it began. Cohabitation on a landmass does not meant that every individual on that landmass has exactly the same views. Therefore speaking of these people as if they had some fundamental commonality at the specifically human level is obviously wrong. Yet our ability to generalize—and our love for simplification—make us write headlines like the one that appeared in the New York Times this morning: On Day It Can Never Escape, Dallas Tries To Heal. What the headline actually meant is that 5,000 people met in Dallas (of a total of more than 1.2 million) to commemorate the assassination of President Kennedy.

Complaining of sloppy use of language, and therefore distorted projections of reality, makes me think of Bernard Shaw who naively (or perhaps tongue-in-cheek) hoped to reform the spelling of the English language. Not likely. The assignment of collective guilt on the one hand (Dallas still healing from one assassin’s deed) and collective glory on the other (Boston sharing the Red Sox’ baseball prowess) will continue as ever before. Yes, here, in the land of individualism.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Projecting Heroes

A day like today, the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, makes me ponder the curious way in which collective emotions are produced and maintained. Kennedy’s legislative efforts had quite stalled just before he died. The media were full of reports wondering if all that charisma would ever produce anything tangible. His charisma had not managed to reach me. My father thought the Kennedys were a true aristocracy—which I found ridiculous. My reaction to the assassination produced no emotion because, well, I was not identified. I also knew very little about Kennedy or his family; later, as more and more came to light, I was more and more persuaded that my distance from this leader had been altogether justified.

The fact is that this man, who, apart from getting elected with much help from his father, had no high level accomplishments, beyond his courageous military service in World War. He had become prominent but did not have a record suggesting future deification. Yet here is his memory, regularly painted on the skies, especially on big anniversaries, in some ways reflecting, as well as being caused by, a rather primitive urge of a segment of the population and of the media elite.

What enabled his projection as a hero, beyond his assassination, was, indeed charisma: a great talent of self-projection. There is his book, Profiles in Courage (co-written with Ted Sorensen but that debt not acknowledged). There was Camelot, etc. This quality, a charismatic personality, Kennedy shared with Ronald Reagan, another hero-projection by another segment of the population but with less media cooperation.

All right. The anniversary today will saturate the media coverage. Ritual marches and music will fill in for lack of great deeds. But how long will this go on? Not too much longer, I would say. Those who were young adults then are all more or less my age. When we pass, this will begin to fade. I infer as much from the fact that I cannot recall any huge April 15 “media day” in any recent year recalling Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. In looking for a President with some genuinely heroic traits, I think of Jimmy Carter. But then there are useful projections suitable to an age severed from basic transcendental values and people who in partial ways attempt to live up to them. The latter are not suitable for painting on the clouds.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

We Never See All of Venus

We were returning from an outing the other night (on the 19th) and Venus in the sky had a great brilliance. In the wonder of watching it—on the road and then later from home—my early telescopic days back in Kansas returned to me. A bit of knowledge returned as well, but knowledge, unless well-maintained, has a way of eroding. What I remembered was that Venus has phases. And so I said, “It must be a full Venus up there.” Alas.

It turns out that Venus is at its brightest when it is quite close to the earth and shows an intermediate crescent shape. At that point the planet is about 42 million miles from the earth, and now is such a time. The image shown, from the U.S. Naval Observatory’s web site (link), is an apparent image, not a photograph. It is for November 19th. Visible portion of Venus will continue to grow, and grow brighter, until December 10th of this year.

When Venus is closest to us (25 million miles away), it goes dark; it is directly between us and the sun. It is full only when it is on the other side of the sun from us—and therefore we cannot ever see her full face. At that point Venus is 162 million miles from us—and bright although Venus is, almost full as it approaches the sun from the back, its brightness has decreased by more than one fifth.

The next image, from Wikipedia (link), shows images of the planet in 2004 (the date stamps are month-day-year). After “new” Venus is reached (the last image), the same images appear but in reversed orientation.

Beautiful planet—but you have to be outside to experience it. Watching Venus and reading about the planet is a nice illustration of the difference between knowledge and experience.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Doris Lessing (1919-2013)

Noting here the passing of Doris Lessing at a delay; this is written some time after the date of her passing on November 17. She touched quite a few members of our family over the years. My own encounter with Lessing took place quite late—when Daughter Michelle gave me Shikasta as a present. Eventually I read the entire series, titled Canopus in Argo: Archives. I’ve not read any of her other seventeen novels. I view the Canopus series as really meaningful fiction, call it science fiction. A major idea, present in that whole series is, SOWF. As for what that means, let me reproduce here the last two paragraphs of a post on another of my blogs (link):

In her science fiction novel, Shikasta, Doris Lessing tells the story of a galactic empire, but of a different kind. Multiple planetary settlements have taken place over many eons from the star system Canopus, in the constellation of Argos. All kinds of species have been, as it were, planted, and they are evolving. Sustaining their evolution is an energetic emanation called Substance-Of-We-Feeling, abbreviated SOWF. It isn’t necessary for simple survival, but it is what sustains harmonious development. All is well for a long, long time—but then the emissaries from Canopus notice that something very troubling has taken place. An unexpected cosmic realignment causes the flow of SOWF to thin. Another empire, Canopus’ enemy, Puttoria, attempts to exploit this situation. A degenerative disease begins to affect settlements, among them Shikasta (read Earth); it’s not a physical disease; it is the higher levels—spiritual life, community life—that are affected.

The story of Shikasta, of course, merits interpretation as a new or as a renewed revelation—this one emanating from Sufi roots. Doris Lessing was associated with the Sufi teaching projected by Idries Shah from Britain. When I first read Shikasta, I had to smile when I encountered SOWF; to me it was an obvious reference to Sufism; later I discovered that others had had much the same thought. Lessing’s series of novels, collectively known as Canopus in Argos, is the framing of a cosmology in modern terms, thus accessible to a secular and technological age. SOWF functions as Grace—a gift, a source of higher nutrition, regenerative, as Webster’s has it. Lessing’s intent, to be sure, is far from suggesting that God is a distant galactic civilization. The effect of her, alas, very difficult fiction is to make such ideas of a conscious and meaningful cosmic plan—in which, as it were, energetic emanations like Grace play a vital role—visible to modern minds and, when thought about, illuminative of ancient and by now moribund structures of belief we’ve come to dismiss as backward superstitions.

Farewell Doris Lessing. Your journey continues.

Cerberus’ Bark

Having recently wondered in public about the sister of Pegasus, one of Brigitte’s comments yesterday, referencing the ancient three-headed hell-hound, Cerberus, made me wonder how a creature like that might have barked. Would the Guardian of the Underworld greet its visitors with a simultaneous “Woof,” “Woof,” “Woof” issuing from three hellish jaws? Or would any of the heads just give it a pass (as shown in the illustration I’m including)? Got to thinking, further, that the hell dog would probably have language, and, after acquiring recognition from the Romans, might have barked in Latin thus: “Servus,” “Servus,” “Servus.”

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Shires of England

With the exception of a single landing once in London Airport, I’ve never been to England—if you can count a two-hour layover as “being” anywhere. Brigitte did a wee bit better. She spent a brief time in Halstead, northeast of London, visiting a distant relative in anno long ago. Halstead is in Essex. With such exposure, we are therefore quite challenged when reading novels set in England or watching television series set in such places. The county in English life is of major importance—unlike county here in the United States, particularly near big cities. With that in mind, I thought I would produce here a map of the shires of England, courtesy of Wikipedia (link). As a minimum the map will serve us in reading and watching TV.

On the map that I am showing, space does not permit the spelling out of all the counties/shires, therefore this additional gloss. Read North to South and West to East. Clicking the map will enlarge it.

Greater Manc:  Greater Manchester
South Yorks:    South Yorkshire
Derbs:              Derbyshire
Notts:              Nottinghamshire
Staffs:              Staffordshire
Leics:               Leicestershire
Worcs:             Worcestershire
Warks:             Warwickshire
Northants:     Northamptonshire
Cambs:            Cambridgeshire
Heref:              Herefordshire
Beds:                Bedfordshire
Glos:                Gloucestershire
Oxon:              Oxfordshire
Bucks:             Buckinghamshire
Herts:              Hertfordshire

One of our recent series, Foyle’s War, took place mostly in and around Hastings. That place is in East Sussex on the south-eastern coast. An earlier series I’ve noted recently, Cadfael, took place in Shropshire and in adjoining Wales.

Reading the novels of Anthony Trollop—and Angela Thirkell, who put her stories into the same county—we have Barsetshire, England. Alas, it is fictional. And a series we are now revisiting, with somewhat mixed feelings (are people really so deeply corrupt, we wonder), takes place in Midsomer county and its many hamlets—also fictitious. That’s Midsomer Murders—based on the novels of Caroline Graham. By now a year or two in the past, watching Lark Rise to Candleford provided us with much more quiet pleasure. That place, Lark Rise, is placed in Oxfordshire, and the series was based on a trilogy by Flora Thompson.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Cockles of My Heart

Seashells in their habitats tend to come in pairs. The creatures that make use of this kind of outer body, invertebrates all, like clams and mollusks, belong to the biological class called Bivalvia. Our word “valve” comes from there and originally meant, in Latin, a section of a revolving door. Bivalvia dates to the seventeenth century and means “halves of a hinged shell” (Online Etymology Dictionary (OED)). What happens when clams shuffle off this mortal coil is that the hinge eventually breaks; what we then collect on the seashore are the halves, not the whole.

The most likely origin of the phrase, “that warms the cockles of my heart,” originated in 1660 per OED. “Cockle,” as a synonym for “shell,” has lost currency if you ask Google’s Ngram facility, which tracks words used in writing in the 1800-2000 period: it was used nearly seven times more frequently in 1809 than in 2000, and even in old times, “shell” was much more popular. Nonetheless, we still have that song, Molly Malone:

In Dublin's fair city, where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow
Through streets broad and narrow
Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!

The legend of Molly Malone, who died young of a fever, produced the belief that such a lass actually lived once in the seventeenth century. Scholars demur, but the Dublin Millennium Commission opted for reality, at least that of the heart. It proclaimed that a real Mary Malone, who died on June 13, 1699, had been the original—and declared June 13 as Molly Malone Day—and we’d say Cockles and Mussels Day. Mussels are yet another kind of shellfish. And as for Molly, I owe that to Brigitte—who started to sing the song as I was reading the first version of this post to her.

Cockle comes to us from Old French, coquille , Shell from Old English sciell—and the predominance of “shell” is probably due to the fact that eggs are much more commonly consumed than mollusks.

The image I am showing, depicting the Giant Atlantic Cockle, photographed by Andrea Westmoreland (link), makes it plain how the bivalve creatures resemble the heart shape. The next question then becomes, what does warmth have to do with these cockles? Turns out that closed shells, when heated, begin to open. Therefore whatever “warms the cockles of my heart” causes my heart to open in sympathy and in approval.

The inspiration for this post? Last night late I spread a minute amount of Smucker peanut butter on a single Trisket and took it to Brigitte. She’d said that she was getting cold. “Something to warm the cockles of your heart,” I said, handing her this tiny snack. And then got to wondering about those cockles.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Where is that Peak in Darien?

To introduce the phrase, herewith a famous poem by John Keats (1795-1821) entitled “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Some preliminary notes. In the paranormal field, a vision of the realms beyond this one, call them the heavenly regions sometimes glimpsed by people on their deathbed or in near-death experiences (NDEs), is called a peak in Darien experience, that phrase itself drawn from John Keats’ poem. It is in such a context that I first encountered the phrase.

Cortez (formally Hernán Cortés (1485-1546)) was a conquistador; Darien, therefore, is presumably somewhere in South America. But Cortez is famed for his conquest of Mexico. So far as we know, he never ventured much west of what we call Mexico City today. He couldn’t have “stared at the Pacific” at all. The so-called “discoverer” of the Pacific—that word in quotes because, of course, it had to have been a European—and the natives that looked at it all the time where not “discoverers”—was actually Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519). Therefore Keats must have been wrong...

Now Balboa’s travels had him crossing today’s Panama. And in the eastern portion of that country is a region called Daríen, complete with some meaningful mountainous formations some of which, no doubt, feature peaks. So a peak in Darien is in Panama. Balboa really did see the Pacific, the first European actually to do so.

Today in that region—marked on the map that I show—is a very extensive national park, called Parque Nacional Daríen. It has plenty of peaks in its western-most region—and while Balboa did not get quite that far down, he did travel to the big island in the Gulf of Panama; it was known by his people as Isla Rica and is on today’s maps called Archipélago de las Perlas. Gold was what the conquistadores wanted; but they took pearls when they could.