Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Street Repairs Completed

My last report on street repairs took place on June 22 (link). Now, some 39 days later, the scraping of our old surface—and many and varied other adjustments to it, not least the replacement of defective curbing—ended today with final repaving. Herewith some shots of the process.

Much as scraping the street required a large initially empty truck going ahead of a scraper, so this process was the repeat of the first. A large and initially full truck, carrying asphalt, moved ahead of the paver. But a month-and-a-week ago, when the truck was full of debris, it departed. This time, when the truck was empty of asphalt it went on its way. In both cases the active machinery had to wait for the next truck.

The first picture shows the arrangement for paving, the caravan approaching us on the other side of the street. The second photo shows the result—and presents a nice before-and-after. In the third shot the paver is just passing our drive-way, putting down the hot asphalt (300° F). In the last picture, the roller is smoothening the surface left rough by some careful raking undertaken by the men after the paver had passed.

A nice birthday gift, you might say. But how did they know to do it today?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Empty Monday

A need for a particular object caused me to go shopping at Sears and Kohl’s yesterday. My usual venues are Kroger and Costco—where, no matter the day, I see plenty of customers. But visits to general merchandisers, certainly of late, meaning the last decade or so, have made me wonder about that category. In both of the stores I visited yesterday—to be sure it was a Monday—the almost total absence of people gave me an eerie feeling. When, at distances like half of a football field away, I actually saw one or two shoppers, they seemed out of place—like ants in our formal china cabinet. If you long for genuine solitude, never mind mountain tops of solo sailing of the Pacific. Go to Kohl’s on Monday. And if you want a change of mountain or of ocean, walk through largely empty mallways over to Sears. In both of these stores—and the same is now uniformly true of other general merchandisers—the only actual employees one sees is at the entrances. The checkout counters are located there. Silence. Emptiness.

This morning I looked up Kohl’s 10K, wondering if the company was still viable. Well, Monday visits don’t tell the whole story. Kohl’s seems to be doing well enough, up $3 billion since 2008, with sales of $19.3 billion, earning 5 cents on each dollar’s sale. I managed to see this retailer at its slowest moment. Must go back one Saturday afternoon to see customers. Employees, I expect, will be as absent then as they were yesterday.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Attack on Monarchy

Herewith a picture of healthy milkweed beginning to flower in our own backyard. It was planted late last year from a pot and has done very well indeed. This and similar varieties of milkweed represent the principal food source of Monarch butterflies—and grow copiously in soybean and corn plantations—hence represent a nuisance in agriculture. Our solution is chemical. Over the decades a major war of extermination—a kind of final solution—has been devised to get rid of the milkweed. The herbicide used is called glyphosate used in combination with genetically-modified and therefore glyphosate-tolerant corn and soybean. Modernity at work.

The consequence of this has been a major shrinkage of the Monarch population. One estimate suggests a 93 percent drop in the 1997-2013 period. That is more than significant. It’s been coming on slowly, but now we’re reaching what might be an end-stage. A scientific study (link), published in Insect Conservation and Diversity, shows recent results for the U.S. Midwest. In the 1999 to 2010 period, milkweed declined by 58, the Monarch population by 81 percent.

The Monarch over-winters in central Mexico in an area about 62 miles north-west of Mexico City; the nearest town is Michoacán, Mexico. There, in 1986, the Mexican government established the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. It is about 138 acres in size (a tad over a fifth of a square mile), but, these days, fewer than 3 acres of that reserve are actually used by the Monarch—down from 7.14 acres last year. The same pattern there as here. Blaming the Mexican government for tolerating logging in that area has been used to explain the decline for years; but logging has stopped; and now the real reason has been tracked back to the ingenuity of Monsanto; its glyphosate is known as Roundup. Well, they’re rounding up the Monarch too.

Our own milkweed will multiply, we think. Okay, it’s just a gesture. Thus far we’ve seen no monarch in our glen, but hope springs eternal. And some gestures, eventually, become the new reality.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

From St. Anselm to Burgonya

St. Anselm (1033-1109), usually referred to as “of Canterbury” would be considered to have been Italian by birth, having been born in Aosta, in Northern Italy. He was, however, a Lombard; the Lombards were a Germanic tribe that held portions of Italy at the time. His family held fiefdoms in the Burgundian territories which are French and Italian today but were Burgundian then. And St. Anselm ended up as Archbishop of Canterbury which is in England. On the way there he was first prior and then abbot of the monastery of Bec, in Lower Normandy.

The twins are visiting from France, Henry and Malcolm. The subject of St. Anselm came up because their sister, Stella, had to write an essay on a text by St. Anselm. Malcolm then asked: Where was St. Anselm born? That sort of question in our day wants to have a country as its answer. And the straight if deceptive answer in this context is that he was born in Burgundy. And Burgundy is in France, now, isn’t it? But, well, nationalism, more or less based on language, was not yet a reality then. Burgundy had strange extensions southward from north-eastern France where it has shrunk today. And Anselm probably spoke Italian in childhood although his stock was German.

The boys were just a little baffled by the name “Burgundy” when I brought it back from Google. We had to translate that back into French: Bourgogne. Ah! The eyes lit up. That region they knew. And, having fetched the World Atlas, we confirmed it. There was that word, in the right place. We fell to talking about wine—which the boys associate with Burgundy. And so do we. But in the wake of that discussion—a night’s sleep later, actually—suddenly the Hungarian word burgonya was on my mind. This puzzled me briefly.

My father always used that word. It means potato. But in Hungary we have two words for it. The other word is krumpli—and it is by far the more commonly used word. I wrote yesterday about expensive and low-cost phrases. Well, in Hungarian, burgonya is the expensive word for potato. More formal, more dressed up—which my father also always was. My brief puzzlement ended as soon as I realized that the French  pronunciation of Bourgogne would be rendered in Hungarian as Burgony. And with an A added, it means: “from Burgundy.”

Yes, yes. Burgundy is a very active agricultural area—even if its fame is welded to vineyards. And the potato, even in these latter days, is that region’s largest vegetable crop.

The potato is still with us—thank the Lord for certain kinds of permanence. But can you imagine an Italian, who went wandering in early youth in France, becoming an abbot there, ending in the United Kingdom as the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Enriched Vocabulary

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (a Washington non-profit), publishes Nutrition Action. Brigitte reads it in her role as Secretary of Health and Wellbeing around here—and I read what she points out to me. Today she pointed out an amusing regular feature in Nutrition Action, side-by-side columns of which one is headed “Right Stuff” and the other “Food Porn.” In the current issue, Right Stuff is Organic Garbanzo Beans, Food Porn is Denny’s Macho Nacho Burger. Mind you, Nutrition Action may not have enriched our vocabulary by introducing food porn, but I credit them with giving that phrase some juicy illustration.

Occurs to me, reading Ellis Peter’s series of Cadfael novels again (something analogous to organic garbanzo beans in the literary realm), that foods you’d never find anywhere in the twelfth century of Brother Cadfael’s England should be avoided in the here and now. All else is safe to eat.

Low-Cost and Expensive Phrases

Readers of this blog interested in architectural detail probably know that our house has an arched extension (link). Nice but humble, just a brick-arch. Coming from the Old World as we do, we call that a port-cochère. In the local speech it’s just a car port—and never mind the arches. So which is it? One of these phrases is expensive, the other is low-cost.

The answer to that came the other day. A huge beam that supports the roof over this structure (built in 1929), rotted out at one end and partially collapsed. Thank the Lord what remains of it still holds the roof. Sparrows had also burrowed into the rotten wood and built a nest inside it—but we didn’t know that until this dramatic event. I found a significant pile of rotten wood and black dust there one morning after a particularly energetic rain.

The repair will soon be underway—and will run about a couple of thousand. From this we learned that until the damage took place some 84 years after the house was built, this facility was just a humble car port. But now, after it’s fixed, it will have become a much more expensive port-cochère.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Pre-Raptured? Not!

Some mornings, laughing at the news, Brigitte and I are quite convinced that the Rapture—or perhaps it’s only the Pre-Rapture—has already been, and the two of us were Left Behind, or maybe we were only Pre-Abandoned. So who’s in the clouds? The Pre-Rapture is that strange dimension called the social media. The occasion this morning was the discovery in the Wall Street Journal that Twitter has introduced “favoriting.” It comes in two varieties, evidently, but only in the mind of the person who does it. Straight-favoriting is, ah, the same as clicking Like on other social media sites. Hate-favoriting is exactly the same, but your vast network of followers will know that you favorite the feed because you hate it. Funny that a network that restricts messages to 140 characters would “favorite” (I count 8 letters) versus “like” (4).

Twitter has earlier sounded the Retweet—which became a monumental fave thus probably evolving into favoriting other streams which now, appropriately iconicized, decorate the once very arid Twitter page.

Norman Mailer, who started well but then grew ever more needy, as they say, needy for more attention, so much so that he once stabbed his second of six wives, and also ran for Mayor of New York, once wrote a book entitled Advertisements for Myself—and thus might be viewed as the chief prophet of the social media. Soon after his death in 2007, the End of Time produced the explosion of Pre-Raputure—which, as it unfolds, renders those of us left grubbing in the ground, raising our butterflies (of which three new ones are approaching the chrysalis stage again) totally baffled about the nature of genuine reality up in the sky.

Meanwhile, to keep the unbelievers down in the trenches properly penitent, the paper companies have introduced their own magical innovation, called desheeting. You don’t know what desheeting is? Well, the toilet paper roll? The paper towel roll? Remember those old things? Now they cost the same or more than they ever did; but, innovation!, they have fewer sheets. But, with the employment of new arts of puffing up the product, they look as fat as ever.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bankruptcy Up Closer

I’d like to draw attention to a post on Market Size Blog, maintained by Editorial Code and Data, Inc. Here is the link. It shows what happens to housing prices when a rather monumental shift in population takes place—as it has taken place in Detroit. In a recent op ed column (NYT, July 22), “Detroit, the New Greece,” Paul Krugman examines that comparison and comes to the conclusion that the two are not comparable—although they are likely to be linked. The referenced blog post shows at least one of the reasons for the Detroit bankruptcy: a vast population exodus. The city had 1.029 million people in 1990, 701,500 in 2012.

Monday, July 22, 2013

We Were All Young Together Then

To what year of the U.S. Civil War do you think that this image of a Captain of the Signal Corps belongs? 1862, 1864?  Later? Well, the answer is…later. Based on the discernible age of the man portrayed here, I would say that this ferrotype was made in the twentieth century. But how do I know this? Well, I know this because I knew this man! He is Tom Foster. Along with my friend Phil Cavanaugh, Harry Seyler, Michael Vickery, and Gary Wiese we all served together at the U.S. Army’s 8th Infantry Division’s headquarters—first in Colorado Springs, then in Goeppingen, then in Bad Kreuznach, the last two in Germany. We were all young together once.

Dr. Foster ended his career as Deputy Superintendent of Baltimore Schools and later taught, with his wife Jean, Civil War dance at several community colleges. To see a picture of Tom in a much later modern setting, follow this link.

I have the current image from Cavanaugh. (The habits of army life still dominate: I still think of Phil by his last name.) Tom Foster, in his later life, also became a Civil War reenactor in Maryland, and in that role organized both Union and Confederate signal corps of reenactors. Hence his appearance here, using the ancient art of ferrotyping (began 1853, a relative of dageuerreotyping dated to 1838) which some people still know how to practice in this day and age of the instant iPhone photo equally instantly broadcast to the entire globe—if you know where to look. Clicking on the image will enlarge it.

What a pleasure to see Tom again—and in such a novel image. My thanks, once more, to Phil for passing this along.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Gettysburg at 150

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863. This year, therefore it saw its 150th anniversary. My oldest friend, Philip Marshall Cavanaugh—soldier, military museum director, Civil War reenactor, and weapons restorer (just to name some of his talents)—had attended the 100th reenactment in 1963, the 125th in 1988, and planned to attend the 150th as well. He had already made plans, shipped his uniforms and equipment to Gettysburg ahead—and then was hospitalized with intestinal problems just days before departure. Once he was well enough again, he sent me some updates—and having missed the event, sent me some pictures, one of himself in 1963 and one of this year’s reenactment sent him by some friends.

I present these here to remind us of how things once looked—not very long ago, when you think about it. Concerning the 2013 picture, below, I am quoting Phil’s own description taken from his letter.

The reenactors of the 14th Virginia are, I discovered, not all from the 14th Va but from a couple of other Va units that came together to form a company-sized unit for the event. The first sergeant is Brent Feito (whom I don’t know personally). The officer leading the group (with sword, black beard) one might call a Dean of Reenactors;  he is Robert Lee Hodge. Hodge was a major character in a book that appeared about twenty years ago entitled Confederates in the Attic; it describes a New York journalist’s journey through Virginia and his exposure to the reenacting community; it’s a fun read. The 14th Va served through the war from 1861 to Appomattox in 1865, they were at all the major battles. When I see the picture I think of the description of Lee’s army penned by a Pennsylvania woman in June 1863; the quote is not exact but very close. “They were the most ragged and dirty bunch of men I had ever seen, yet, there was an air about them, something in their step that was lacking in our northern men.”

The 14th Virginia was a regiment. Phil’s own long-standing regiment is the 21st Virginia—which had to give him medical furlough for this year’s event. There are many different ways to experience the Present. These photos illustrate one of the more novel ways to do so—every now and then.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Mystical River

The linkage between the mystic and the riverine turns out to be Mystic, Connecticut, so named because the place was once called missituk in the Algonquian language. So the English settlers there, who were, perhaps, still closer to the “mystic” generally, labeled the place with the English word that most closely approximated the sound the locals made. So now, the obliging associational framework that I’m blessed with immediately suggests that Mississippi must be related here. Slowly, please. Well, it’s best always to be thorough—and Online Etymology Dictionary comes to the lazy man’s aid. In that Algonquian missituk the missi actually means large; the river is the tuk.  So what about Mississippi?

Turns out that comes from the lingua Ojibwa, if I may put it that way. The original was mshiziibi. Here the front part mshi also means “big,” suggesting some kinship between the two languages. The latter part, ziibi, however, is river. Big river. Therefore my title, linking Mystic, CN to a river is slightly overstated. It really means “big” with a “tic,” but Mystic, with a population of 4,205 is actually small.

Which brings me to mystic as such—a word that recently surfaced again in Brigitte’s and my conversation. The word has its origins in Greek (mystikos), a word then echoed in Latin, the languages derived from it, eventually also English, what with the Norman Invasion playing a role. It’s core meaning is the “secret,” “occult,” and “hidden”—traditionally associated with religious faith and the secrets that it contains, extended to practices and knowledge associated with such faith. The Greek mystes, meaning “one who has been initiated,” is the root of mystikos. Initiated into what? The hidden, occult, and hard-to-know.  Life, you might say, is a mystical river, very hard to understand if we think about it. Parts of it, certainly, like the banks that it passes, are graspable enough. Always changing yet never or always the same. Some of it, like its rapids and great waterfalls, mean “interesting times.” But what it’s really all about—why that’s a puzzlement.

Other News on ZNN

For the first time in a while, all three papers that reach us here—Detroit News, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal—all featured the same story prominently on the front page: The City of Detroit has filed for bankruptcy. The Detroit News, of course, is only delivered thrice weekly (Thursday, Friday, and Sunday—the days that advertisers still insist upon), thus it illustrates one of the changes that’s taking place gradually in the media: the slow fade of the local daily.

Another change, of more recent date, is CNN’s renaming itself ZNN with the onset and still virtually continuous coverage of the Zimmerman trial—yes, even after the case has been decided. Well, the renaming isn’t official yet, but in this household we’re ahead of the curve. That trial’s coverage is also the early introduction of might be called the News Serial, thus wall-to-wall introduction of coverage of some event certain to be extremely popular with the public. The Z-phenom is not the first. Some earlier trials were run this year with tornados.

ZNN still covers “Other News,” much in the same way that the PBS’s Newshour does. We tune in to that program daily too, but only to hear the Other News, usually delivered by Hari Sreenivasan. That’s real news—but it only takes about five to seven minutes of the entire hour (all right, 45 minutes) of that show. So also with ZNN. But it is taking such a long time of watching the trial, the tornado, the tsunami, or the hurricane before a little Other News shows up that one is tempted to zero in on Google’s newspage to get any kind of news at all, and that’s becoming problematic too.  

To be a well-informed citizen? It’s growing more arduous. Even Google is caving. The three leading stories on Google News this morning? One: A Massachusetts cop released snapshots of one Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Dzhokhar who? Oh! Yes. I do. I do have the vaguest. That was the Boston Marathon News Serial of which Dzhokhar was a leading character. Two: Why was Zimmerman (yes, the Z-phenom) tried by only six jurors—the cosmic question that’s been plaguing me all night. Three: Why, it’s Mr. Snowden, still holed up somewhere in Moscow’s airport. Now as for Other News, keep hitting PageDown in arduous labor to keep informed.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Another Instance of the Commercial Burqa

As a culture we’re disgusted with the Muslim veil—while permitting its use to shield corporations from face-to-face communications with their customers. Corporations are wrapped up in layers and layers of veiling made of recorded voices, long waits, and musac dispensed while we wait. Many a long wait is then brusquely terminated by a dial tone as the imperious Other just cuts off the call, no doubt by a clock-driven computer or by the length of a call-queue. It was of those days yesterday that make it all too easy to be a grumpy old man…

This is a deep subject, actually.  It brings resonances of the tragedy of the commons, suggests that free markets don’t actually work, and that our “greatest economy” is committing slo-mo suicide. What began positively when Henry Ford realized that his employees ought to be able to afford the cars they make, ends with corporations so hating “labor” that they decimate their customer base. But let me go and clean up my pitchfork. It may come in handy one of these days.

The first instance on this blog? It’s here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Absolute Sunrise

It’s early, too early for things to kick off,
But the light has invaded in force from the east.
A vivid yellow slant marks a part of the door
Of our garage—why slanted, that light? Who knows?
—while all else remains in shade and waits in a
Kind of immobility as if this yard
Were not moistly alive, but were instead painted
On Reality’s translucent canvas and
Represented mere drips and drabs and smears of
Primordial color to indicate, to point,
Rather than to mark some kind of substantiality.

Tall hosta blooms, delicate blue, hang like bells
And wait for the ringer who sleeps still in some
Narrow Quasi Modo garret hidden somewhere
And swirled about by dreams. Not a leaf stirs, not
Low, not high. Silence reigns in this absolute
Sunrise until, suddenly, a single bird’s
Keen tweet reminds me that the day, officially
already on, will soon disrupt this magic pause.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Towering Hosta

A late and very wet spring, spilling over into early summer, has produced blooms on our hostas that set something of a record this year. The tallest blooms are measuring four-and-a-half feet. By happenstance we also ended up with eleven tomato plants—each of which is striving to set height-records. It’s rather lush around here.

Dido and Aeneas

Of some thirteen eggs deposited on our dill plants early this butterfly season, six survived to form their pupae. Of these four had taken flight as of yesterday morning. Brigitte named the two still in chrysalis Dido and Aeneas. We took Aeneas across the Metro to Monique and John’s domain, thus paralleling Aeneas own travel from Troy to North Africa. Dido emerged yesterday morning—and luckily for us was indeed a female. I bring her image here. She was quite large and flew off in the already well-established and, one might say, blessed northerly direction.

Butterflies, fortunately, have not as yet reached the exalted stages of existence where the conquest of great cities, murder, suicide, tragedy, and high poetic drama play any role at all. Dido therefore is safe. Indeed she was a splendid specimen, quite large, and fluttered off with great energy. Brigitte’s naming strategy, by contrast—drawn from Greek and Roman culture—and their latterday operatic re-celebrations—caused me to have to look up who Dido actually was, and this despite having dipped a little into Virgil’s Aenead. A dip is all it has turned out to be and may remain so. I’m coming around to the view that butterflies may be on a culturally much more exalted level then the Greeks and Romans were. As for Aeneas, he is still in his chrysalis and will be the last to go.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Dramatic Way to Go

This season Brigitte has frequently said (touch wood): “We are so lucky!” She means that  dramatic events caused by weather have left us more or less untouched: No tornadoes, forest fires, no searing drought, no flooding flash or otherwise. Of late we’ve had rather a lot of rain, to be sure, but what with a new lawn having been put down as May expired, that has been a benefit. But frequent rain or even the distant threat of a thunderstorm have cut into the summer’s twice-weekly swimming exercise.

Yesterday, for instance, a session was called off at its midpoint because a vast cloud formation moved in. The cloud was quite magnificent—a layered mirage of tan, grey, and faint blue haze, towering. From within came the very distant but clearly perceptible sound of thunder—whereupon the folk who run our Pier Park pool shooed all swimmers from the water, blowing whistles, and a long line of young-and-old in swimsuits and draped in big towels began to form a thick snake headed for the parking lot.

When lightning hits water, massive waves of electric current spread, endangering life. Even when seemingly distant, rapid action is wise. We drove home. By the time we got there, the cloud was gone; not a drop of rain disfigured our concrete. At the pool a few drops fell on the windshield, but not enough to run the wiper.

Got to thinking about lighting in the pool. In this day and age, the most arcane kinds of information are very easy to get. Hence I present here a tabulation of deaths by lightning in the 1959-2005 period from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Lightning kills on average 46 people every year. There are 2.5 million deaths a year according to the CDC—therefore death by lightning is extremely rare—and a rather dramatic way to go. Herewith the stats:

Lightning deaths and location of occurrence, 1959-2005
of deaths
of deaths
Open fields, ball parks and open spaces
Under trees
Boating, fishing, and water related
Near tractors, heavy road equipment
Golf courses
At telephones
Various other and unknown locations

Fewer than six deaths of this type take place yearly related to boating, fishing, and other water venues—an even tinier fraction. And as for death caused by lighting striking pools—well it happens so rarely that from a statistical point of view it might as well be never. But we appreciate Pier Park’s decisive action in clearing that pool. Such things also contribute to being lucky.

The table comes from a 2005 NOA report (link). The image is from, a weather blog (link).

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Spontaneous Difference

Two of our grandchildren, Malcolm and Henry, are over from France spending a month at Monique’s. Brigitte and I were discussing the surprising width and breadth of their cultural knowledge, drawn, to be sure, at age 14, mostly from popular culture. Part of that discussion involved looking back to our youth, where pop culture, as it is known today, did not even remotely have the reach it has today. “Of course,” I said, “we’re all affected meaningfully by pop culture ourselves. Aren’t we?” I paused to let an example surface. Then I said: “Thunder Road.” Virtually simultaneously—we were both expressing the same impulse—Brigitte said: “Country Roads.” We had quite a good laugh about this as our discussion veered off into the differences between men and women. “You would,” Brigitte said, laughing, “you would say Thunder Road. Men.”

For the pop-culturally challenged, “Thunder Road” is a song by Bruce Springsteen, “Country Roads” a song by John Denver.

Now if a car company names a car the Thunderbird, another names a car the Nightingale, who will be drawn to buy the one, who to the other? Ah, feminism. Ah, kickboxing female action heroines….

The Daylily

The brief season of the daylilies is rapidly coming to an end. Outside our favorite inner space, our sunroom facing the back yard, visible through its generous bay window, quite a flock of them come—and then all too rapidly go again—this time of year. Ours both start and end early, possibly because ours get a lot of sun. By my count we have two days left to go. So many of our stalks have already finished, I bring an illustration of this flower from Wikipedia (here). Ours are very similar but slightly more orange in color.

Daylilies signal their behavior in the Greek name of the genus, Hemerocallis, where the front comes from hemera meaning “day” and the back from kalos meaning “beautiful.” Each stalk bears six stamens on average. Only one is flowering at any time. The flower opens in the morning and then closes and dies during the night—to be replaced by the next flowering stamen. What with some of the plants starting their serial blooming early and others at later date, the daylilies last a couple of weeks or so, perhaps even three—and invariably, every year, remind me of the glories, the impermanence, and the persistent return of the glories of nature…next year.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Caveat Emptor

My subject is the impending bankruptcy of the City of Detroit—and the anxieties that in that process such institutions as the Coleman A. Young International Airport, Belle Isle Park, an island in the Detroit river, and the holdings of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) might be auctioned off to satisfy Detroit’s bondholders and other creditors.

The dominant impression that arose in my mind while reading an article about this in the New York Times (our distressed city is now national news) concerned the very strange disconnect between ultimate buyers of municipal bonds and the condition of the entities whose bonds they buy. Let me spell that out more. We hold municipal bonds. But to tell you the truth, we’ve no real idea just how financially solvent are the cities whose bonds we own. Why this ignorance? Well, we rely on an intermediary, in our case Merrill Lynch, in general the financial industry. If we trace the slow deterioration of Detroit’s financial standing, it is obvious that shoddy goods were sold, in massive quantities, by our financial sector to all kinds of people—that bond rating firms must have failed to give the right signals, or loudly enough, years and years ago. A decade ago already, Detroit should have found it impossible to sell any bonds—if our financial system practiced, on behalf of its customers, that old Roman warning: Caveat emptor.

The feedback systems aren’t working. It benefits the financial sector to sell bonds, good or bad. If the transactions are large enough, government will eventually bail out the banks, investment type or otherwise. The Great Recession was the direct result of major financial giants’ actions, their selling questionable instruments with a caveat emptor and a wink, but the wink only visible to their insiders.

Now it strikes me that selling off the airport, Belle Isle, or the arts held by the DIA is illegitimate. The bondholders need to be asked: “Do you own airport bonds? No? Do you own Belle Isle real estate? No? Do you hold DIA bonds? You don’t? Well, in that case, you cannot have these things. What you own are Detroit municipal bonds. You shouldn’t have bought them in the first place. Then Detroit would have had to cope, years ago, before the debt accumulated to an $18 billion mountain.”

The debt should be cancelled. Bond sellers bought them knowingly—even if they resold them later to the stupidly innocent. Let those who hold the debt pay for their failure of due diligence. And leave what belongs to the public to the public.

First Impressions

One of my earliest impressions of life in America, I was fifteen when I got here, was the Hostess cupcake. To be sure, Europe has no end of delicacies of the baked variety. The difference here was the almost universal availability of this product, in packages of two, in every drug and grocery store everywhere. We, the children of the family, became very fond of them; I was still buying them years later in the Army. What we didn’t know then was that the maker of these cupcakes, then called Interstate Bakeries Corporation, had its headquarters on Armour Boulevard, in Kansas City, Mo. Armour is actually 35th Street—and our first address in the United States was 3632 Tracy, meaning that at least in the North-South direction we were just a block away; but we were much farther removed in the West-East dimension. The company began in 1930—and went bankrupt in 2012. By that time, to be sure, I hadn’t tasted a Hostess cupcake for many decades already; that’s the difference between youth and age. I learned this morning that the cupcake will be back, on June 15, 2013. Some new owner of the brand will be producing it again. Everything passes. Some things return. The things that return, however, are never what actually passed.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Stella Passed Le Bac!

A great delight touched the family when word reached us here on July 5 that Stella had passed her baccalauréat. Many fingers had been crossed and earnest prayers said in the evenings as the test approached. Le bac is officially a national examination administered to determine if students are qualified for college or university examination. It is administered by locally by delegation from the Minister of National Education in France. It looks like a high school diploma but serves another purpose. Hence, in the European cultural setting, it is far more important. Stella wishes to study music. She had applied for acceptance at a well known academy—and had been accepted there provisionally. She would be enrolled if she obtained her baccalauréat. Not only did she do it, she also had very fine grades, not least in philosophy, where the test assignment was to write an essay on a text from St. Anselm. At the moment we lack other details on that particular part of the test. Fireworks and Jubilation! And Congratulations, dear Stella. So happy. So glad!

The Roots of Separation

The separation I have in mind is that between church and state. The subject is still on my mind because events in Egypt underline it—and I got to thinking that my previous post on this subject did not go far enough. It suggested, vaguely, that religion should be reflected in governance of people.

To be sure, separation of church and state is a fundamental and crucial element in the implementation of democracy, and not just in the Islamic world.  And it strikes me that in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition—and by extension also in Islam—the unification of secular and religious rule was very intimate, in our own case well past Renaissance times. Moses was, in effect a ruler; as was Muhammad. In the Christian tradition itself, after the Reformation, which created a cleft within Christianity itself, we have the Peace of Augsburg (1555) in which the parties agreed to a formula: Whose realm, his religion (cuius regio, eius religio); thus whatever religion the ruler professes shall be the religion of his realm. It therefore seems that the real separation between church and state required the dawning of the Enlightenment and the consequent rise of secularism. But is that really true?

It occurred to me that it isn’t. The roots of separation come from Christ’s own teaching in some memorable words recorded in Matthew (22:15-21). There Jesus is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus asks to be shown the money rendered as a tax. He is handed a coin. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Jesus asks, looking at the coin. “Caesar’s,” is the answer. And then comes the saying: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The curious fact of “separation” is that we owe its institutionalization to our own Founding Fathers, whom I’ve described as “secularists to their very enlightenment cores.” They introduced this concept, and it is entirely consistent with Jesus’ words in Matthew. Moreover, the current liberals in Egypt also insist upon it when saying, as quoted in the New York Times this morning, that Egypt’s constitution should include “a separation of religion and politics, because parties should not be built on religion.”

Brigitte’s comment on this issue, however, is also important, thus illustrating the dilemmas humanity also faces. She points out that while separation is good, the establishment of unbelief, often a feature of secularism, errs too much in the other direction. She points to lawsuits attacking religious displays in public, the pervasive celebration of nationalism by the flying of flags, the signing of the national anthem before every sports event in reverential tones, the attack on public prayers at high school events—matched by seemingly obligatory prayers recited before every session in both houses of Congress.

Yes, one might say: There are no shortcuts, alas. Our relations to the divine cannot be institutionalized, be it by constitutions, establishments, or treaties. But the history of a religion, like Islam, and the conflicts in a decaying culture like ours, makes avoiding such shortcuts very tough indeed.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Egypt as a Lens

Egypt is an interesting lens through which to view democracy. Yes, I know. I have a bit of a hang-up here. Egypt keeps recurring on this blog, in the current context especially here, here, and here earlier. The country is more than  97 percent Muslim; in the last parliamentary elections, the vote was 30 percent secular, 60 percent Muslim; Mohamed Morsi won his election by 51.7 percent of the vote. Not good enough, evidently.

The sentimentalized view of democracy as “rule of the people” is too simple. For it to work effectively, not only must the people be extraordinarily homogeneous in culture, they must also be predominantly secular in their convictions. Democracy is the governing institution of secular mercantile peoples. It is uncomfortable with genuinely held religious belief. And the surrounding environment is also important. Imagine the situation in Egypt if it were reversed. Suppose that 60 percent of the country was secular, that the demonstrators, agitators, and Tahrir-squarers were all Muslim fundamentalists and a minority, and the Army were siding with them. Would the U.S. government’s reactions then be muted and sort of hands off?

Memorable Wastes

An episode of Inspector Lewis we saw on disk yesterday, “Your Sudden Death Question,” written by Alan Plater, features a quiz in which one of the questions is: “What is the connection between The Wasteland and Waste?” The answer was: “The Wasteland was written by T.S. Eliot—the letters of whose name may be formed into the word ‘toilets.’” That sort of thing is appreciated by someone like me, once known as the Nation’s Garbage Man.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Gloss on Glossolalia

Many posts on this blog have their origins in conversations between Brigitte and me—certainly all those that deal with language. The context of this one may illustrate how that works. We were actually talking about what are known as the Left Behind novels—and films—by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The novels, which deal with the End Times, have achieved amazing sales. But the cultural meaning of their popularity is not really remarked upon—because the secular culture regards these books/movies as attacks on itself by a residue of resistant elements of the population, which alas, resistant to conversion to the modernity. That, of course, is deplorable, from that perspective, indeed embarrassing when the residue seems much greater than the new faith. Sixty-five million copies? Multiple, long-time disfigurements of the New York Times best seller list?

That reminded me of Tolkien’s view that in cultural decay the three responses to it are futurism (read pro-freedom, rights, and technology), archaism (nostalgia for past times, return to former customs, disgust with modernity), and the transcendental view which sees the solution in the religious dimension, which has room for the supernatural. The Left Behind phenomenon is, therefore, a recognizable indicator that at least part of the population belongs to this category. The novels, surely, are a popular presentation of that view—but is not taken seriously because the dominant culture considers such people of a kind of lower class.

This then suddenly made me think of a very close friend of ours, particularly Brigitte’s, once a neighbor, still a close friend, who, after her husband absconded leaving her to fend with children still in the home, coped magnificently and made a brand-new career for herself at an age where most people start getting ready for the slow fade out. A life-time Catholic, this lady joined a charismatic Catholic church in which (Woe! we thought at the time) some people engaged in glossolalia. So finally we get to the word.

Now here is the curious fact. Because of our friend—and the really wondrous qualities she suddenly began to show forth when pressed by circumstances—my view of an ecstatic or semi-ecstatic religious behavior began to change. Until then I’d viewed it with a great deal of caution. It’s not class, region, education, or even culture that really matters. It is the inner quality of individuals. And our friend has qualities.

Now for the word itself. It comes from the Greek glossa or glotta in usage meaning an obscure or foreign word (but literally meaning tongue) combined with lalia, meaning to speak or to prattle, babble. Hence, also, a “gloss,” in English, is an explanation of a word because it is obsolete or foreign. And a “glossary” is simply a collection of those glosses. The explanation of what people mean when they are speaking in tongues, alas, is not translatable into language—except by something like faith. Which, if the popularity of those novels is an indication, may be on the rise.