Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Passing Has Commenced

In December comes the task of writing the Christmas letter; it’s meant to help those people who are not in frequent touch keep track of our general status; the letter therefore is sent with some of our Christmas cards. Reading last year’s letter, I noted that 2018 ended with Rex Turner, my sister Susie’s husband, passing from our midst; Rex was the first of our generation to say farewell. In preparing the 2019 letter, I noted that this year’s early events circled around my brother Baldy. He was brought down by dementia at the time, roughly, of Rex’s death. Then Baldy deteriorated rapidly; he died early in 2019.

Age colors one’s own reaction. Rex was older; I expected him to leave before me; but Baldy was our “little” brother—and in every way, I think, healthier and more energetic than I am. So a kid brother passes before his creaking elder.

I note this here in passing, almost. The end days are not really in any sense a public matter. Others of our age, of course, will know what I am saying and can rest in the knowledge that the strange feelings of lifting a hand in farewell to someone you’ve lived with all your life is odd, to say the least. And the desire to see him or her again, soon (Auf Wiedersehen, as the Germans put it) is a quite perceptible feeling.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Good-Bye Old O

Through a glass dabble-blurred by raindrops and the faint presence of the summer screen I see the vague dark roof randomly decorated by wet yellow leaves from a combination of maple and linden. Very distantly it seems a tall dark green mass is the top region of a wide pine or fir; it never sheds. Very far away behind it trees light green and yellow brown stand in line like words that run together; the telephone pole in that direction is a very tall comma or perhaps a dash. Days on end with rain we cannot see but feel when outside even before the first drops touch our face. Halloween is here to put an end to a short October in which, it seems, the highlight came last night in Houston where Our team (we lived there once) (and yes, the oldest, as we are) won the World Series away from home. For some reason the word cilantro wants to be written. My mind wants to spell it with an S and the Internet tells me that it is coriander; confusing in a way. But it’s not even nine o’clock yet I’m already closing on October by wishing for a heat wave in November. With Global Warming here with us, anything is possible and in California already is.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

We May Have Been Immune

By a strange coincidence, Brigitte and I had a discussion yesterday morning about viruses. The context was reading the phrase “going viral” for the 50th time that  morning in the papers. Then, yesterday evening, we heard a new word on MSNBC’s The Last Word. Lawrence O’Donnell was interviewing Norman (“Norm”) Ornstein; Ornstein is a political scientist who is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI is a conservative think tank.

Now the coincidence I started with is not at all obvious; but I discovered this morning that the word Ornstein was using, unknown to Brigitte and me, kakistocracy, had been virtually unknown until April 13, 2018. On that date, the former CIA director, John Brennan, had used it on twitter to describe Donald Trump’s administration: “Your kakistocracy is collapsing after its lamentable journey.” You know what comes next already. The word went viral!

Yes, it went viral. But to our great surprise in this humble household, it took 556 days to reach us. Thus something is wrong with us—or else we were immune to viruses. Another way to say that is to use another old-fashioned phrase: we must sit “below the salt” (link). Otherwise we would have been using the word by at least by April 15, 2018. But no. We’ve only heard it yesterday. Shame.

The Internet gave us choices when we tried a search: cacistocracy or kakistocracy. We were betting on the K; the start of the word sounds Greek. Yes, so it turned out. The Greek for “worst” is kakistos. And if children are listening, I must tell them that, yes, it derives from kakos, meaning bad, and may be related to kakka, “to defecate.” Anyway, kakistocracy means the worst government one can imagine.

Finally, what took us 556 years to learn took modern humanity 375 years to remember. (Trump would claim that he is the Greatest Word Associationist who’s ever lived.) The first usage of the word (link) has been traced back to a sermon given in 1644 during the Civil War—no, not ours!  —the English Civil War.

Now if you are sitting even lower at the table than we are, thus even further below the salt, then even you will now know what hides there in that potty.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

October Horse and Other Miscellany

I missed the feast of October Horse (Equus October in Latin), anciently held on the 15th of the month. I did so for a perfectly logical reason. I’d never even heard of this celebration! How could I observe it? It belongs to the oldest Graeco-Roman times; indeed, the Greek historian Timaeus (345 BC – c. 250 BC) was the first to mention it—and he got his explanation wrong. Timaeus lived in BC times; hence October Horse belongs to the very deep past.

To understand this festival (categorized as religious but more likely a vulgar entertainment), it might help to put it into modern dress. Imagine that every October 15 a massive auto race were held. No limits would be placed on the size and power of the engines used, hence some really fast and weird cars would race with predictably many hair-raising accidents along the way. At the end of the race, the fastest and therefore the winning car would be displayed with masses of spectators present. Then men with powerful hammers and saws would attack it. They’d cut into its engine compartment and extract the engine any which way—and never mind if it was damaged. Others would attack its rear end and saw away its exhaust pipe.

Both teams, front and back, would then rush away in a fleet of trucks, each truck going in another direction. They would carry the engine and exhaust pipe, hiding each. Which trucks did these end up in? Nobody in the massive audience could know. The very expensive vehicle, the winner of the famous race, would, of course be left behind, an un-drivable wreck.

Our explanation is only half finished, at this point. In the real October Horse, the race was run by chariots drawn by horses, two to each chariot. The left-hand horse of the winning chariot would be sacrificed, i.e., killed by a spear. Then its head would be cut off—and also its rump with the tail. These would be carefully hidden someplace in the city.

But let’s go on. The contributions of the spectators now began. They were divided into two groups. The first were drawn from inhabitants of a huge neighborhood in Rome, Subura. Subura was a slum, in a way, inhabited by the poor, miserable: red light districts, and so on. The other group was drawn from a wealthy neighborhood in Rome’s best area, the Via Sacra. Off these people raced, running in masses. Their job was to find the Head (engine) and Tail (exhaust pipe) of the Horse (car). If these groups clashed along the way and fell into violent battles, why that was just part and parcel of Equus October. Those who found the Head displayed it for the next year; those who found the Tail, likewise. If one group found both—why the next year would be glorious—until October Horse returned again on the ides of October. Image source.

Now did I get this all correctly? Of course not. Even Timaeus had failed. But I can add what both of us now know. The festival was held on October 15 because it was the end both of military activities and of agricultural labors. So it was a festival of Mars, the god of war, and agriculture, the Sustainer of All.

It’s best to absorb even the few details I’ve managed to put forth. Destroying (i.e. sacrificing) a very expensive vehicle or horse—just for the hell of it? Letting the poor and the rich fight each other for ownership of the engine? Vast masses assembled to take part in the “fun”? October Horse was something even worse than we see all around us. But our festivals are on the social media. And the destruction is harder to see but much easier to cost out using Big Data and 5G.

Now for some miscellany. I discovered October Horse because I thought I’d find some festival in October beyond the well-known “celebrations”—like beer consumption at the October Fest or the children’s Halloween. My mind produced “The Rites of Spring” as an example, the ballet composition. I asked Google to display what it had stored under “The Rites of October.” In due course, I chanced across two entries on October Horse. Whaaat? October Horse? Discoveries then followed.

I also found an article titled “The October Horse.” That is the title of a novel by the Australian writer Colleen McCullough. Her novel is based in Rome. The sacrificial horse of her novel is Julius Caesar. Caesar was certainly, as a political figure, one of the best, brightest, and thus one of the swiftest. And at the beginning of his reign, if we may call it that, he was sacrificed by being stabbed with a knife. Et tu, Brute?

The image I show is Laocoon spearing the Trojan horse—an act from which Timaeus derived the October Horse festival. Both ancient and modern historians think he was wrong. And when you think of it, the horse shown is not exactly huge—or wooden. Never mind. The Trojan war has at least as many landmines as does Equus October.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Late Statue of Humanity

Let me start with the Statue of Humanity (source). I am able to capture its image as it existed in 2011, shortly before it was demolished. If the statue itself could be made to disappear, so might images of it if Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, decides on erasing them.

The Statue stood outside of the Turkish city of Kars. The city is located near where the border between Turkey and Armenia runs, close enough so that, standing where once the Statue stood, one could see Armenia in the distance if powerful binoculars are handy. Why had this Statue been built? It had been intended to commemorate an uneasy peace formed between Turkey and Armenia in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1916); in that genocide at least 600,000 Armenians were killed by Turkish troops in an action weirdly reminiscent of recent events on the border of Syria. Meaning: is a Kurdish Genocide now to be anticipated? The next question? Why had this Statue been taken down? Well, Erdogan, then still only a Prime Minister, had seen the Statue on one of his trips in 2011; he had expressed a strong dislike of it, calling it a freak. Despite local opposition, the City of Kars had then begun its disassembly, removing the heads first. So there is a link between the genocide, back when, and the possibility of another genocide, in the future. That link is Erdogan.

Finally, concerning the Statue, its designer was the sculptor Mehmet Aksoy (1939-); he got his commission in 2009; he was still laboring on the work in 2011 when the men with the crane and front-end loaders to take it down again arrived.

Not that there is a bigger picture than Humanity, but there is an historical big picture here, best represented by a map. The picture is that the collapse of great social structures, such as the Ottoman Empire, leaves behind troublesome echoes for years, sometimes even for centuries. The Ottomans ruled from Turkey. Under their governance, the many peoples they oversaw included the Armenians to the east. Armenia is a thinnish wedge of land between Turkey and Azerbaijan. And the part of Turkey that Armenia adjoins is what is still referred to, at least by Kurds, as Kurdistan. The map I show will reveal the situation (source).

The lightly-colored region is labeled Kurdish-inhabited. Thus the Kurds inhabit parts of Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria—going clockwise. The map also shows Armenia, of course. The Armenians irritated Turkey in the early 1900s by being friendly with Russia. Ah! There is Russia, too, in this great ethnic mix.

Problems, problems, problems. Back in the good-old days (but don’t look too closely), the Ottomans kept the peace all around inside their domain of rule. My late guru, the historian Arnold Toynbee, explained that situation by saying that the Ottomans regarded the peoples they ruled as species of stock—cattle, horses, sheep, and such. It was best to keep the various stocks from fighting and profit from their use or sale. But the Ottomans didn’t last. Nor, for that matter, to name another large domain, did the Soviets. Hence we now have “residual” problems in the Ukraine too. All kinds of problems. In human history, bigness usually spells peace; breakup causes chaos. Perhaps we should replace the Statue of Humanity by renaming the Gobi Desert The Pasture of Humanity. But is the Gobi big enough?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Color of October

Noticed, on waking, that the two calendars on the wall looked very similar through blurred eyes. They were both patches of yellow-orange. Later I went about the house and examined other calendars too. Most were obediently pumpkin-colored.

But while October might be pumpkin-colored, another and more subtle question is What’s the Color of a Pumpkin? The kindly loan of the pumpkin picture I am showing came from this source. The blog is called my little cottage in the making. The image I show is the first of many more in a blog post titled “The Many Colors of Pumpkins.” Incredible variety, nicely displayed. Nothing’s simple in this crazy age of ours—not even the color of a pumpkin.

We Don't Need a New Thermometer

This morning after waking up and having a sip of cold coffee, I checked NBC News, curious, don’t you know, if Europe is still there. The headline in text at the bottom of the screen said:

Politics is taking a toll on Americans’ health, according to a new study

The text was actually shorter, but what I’m quoting is an online article by NBC published September 25, 2019. That date is what “new” means in the headline. The NBC article is here. NBC itself was summarizing the content of an article that appeared in Plos One, a recently founded scholarly journal. The original article, titled “Friends, relatives, sanity, and health: The costs of politics,” is available here.

The essence of the content? The study is based on a survey of individuals reporting their own feelings. One in ten of those participating reported feeling badly about politics these days. From the Abstract:

Though anecdotal evidence suggests that the costs of politics may in fact extend beyond economics to frayed personal relationships, compromised emotional stability, and even physical problems, no systematic evidence on these broader costs exists.

Thus the article thus is what you might imagine. Scientific up to a point, but mostly reporting on how people felt when asked about politics. One in ten is not a very high number. But the headline makes you think that things are in a pretty sorry state. “Even physical problems” were reported. We need a new thermometer now. On the other hand, I saw an ad the other day that showed a man giving himself an EKG by touching two tiny pads on a table with his left and right index fingers. The EKG results appeared on a cell-phone sized screen. So maybe we don’t need a new thermometer now. But we certainly need a new politics.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Snap Shot

From a living room window we see people walking their dogs every day, yes even in the rain. There are hardy types of owners who are not stopped by a little down-pour. But of them all, we know two very well.

One of them is Leo, the Shi Tzu in my picture. Leo lives next door with Pat and Lloyd. The other is Katie the Beagle, a personality who occurs multiple times on this blog. Katie lives across the street with Monique and John, who’re our family. This is Leo’s first appearance on Ghulf Genes.

Leo is quite young, energetic, and very territorial. It's quite possible to miss the genuine dog traits of a little dog with a name like Shi Tzu; but when you get to know them and watch them in action, you realize that the canine is as strongly present in these fur balls as it is in some giant labrador. I think of Katie, by contrast, as a great-grand-mother: she spent her early years in a breeding place; she's lived a "civilian" life now for many years and she is getting old; she's also suffering from chronic ailments. But a nice day will make her pull you on a leash so that you feel your own age. Can't walk that fast any more...

Thursday, October 3, 2019

A Picture of Eternity

Next to our coffee machine, in a kitchen corner, lies a tray we got along the way, no memory when and where. The corner is well lit by a strong bulb mounted under a kitchen cabinet; you see the light but not the lamp. The tray is more or less covered by objects, but in that light some surface of it is always brightly visible. It is one of the many images of the Moulin Rouge painted by Michel Delacroix (born 1933). I see it multiple times every day; and what with its undeniable qualities and charm, it feels like it is part of me.

Part of me and yet, curiously, a picture of eternity. It is always, predictably, reliably, and pleasingly the same. Its colors neither change nor fade. In a time in which seemingly nothing remains untouched by whatever you want to call it (I call it blight), it is a rock hard reminder that some things, even quite trivial things like a tray, are there to remind us of another reality which faith would have it (and faith these days is absolutely needed) stands in contrast to the blight and holds on firmly to hope (as a mother’s hand holds on to a child’s).

The subject is now uppermost in my mind for obvious reasons. Incidentally, we’re now also reviewing the BBC Sherlock Holms series; in a moving fashion it also serves the same role as the tray. I keep telling Brigitte, as we watch the repeating opening sequence with its horse-drawn carriages and men in fancy hats buying newspapers, “Images of my youth.” Well, of course, not quite. My stay here began a mere three years after Delacroix was born. But yes. Horse-drawn carriages. Yes. I might hear the sound of those hoofs as I opened my eyes in the morning. And once past, all is eternity: rock solid so that even a tray can hold it forever.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Odysseus the Little

Lovely sunny day. It follows a series of very rainy days and such adventures as a partially flooded basement, a battle with the sump pump, walking Katie the Beagle, and then toweling her down.

Today is different. The sump pump hums. The basement is dry. Katie went walking in sunlight. Incidentally, when women with children see me walking Katie, they say, “Look, look, honey. See? A puppy!” But this puppy is a great-grand-mother, almost blind, and suffering from a chronic lung condition. Alas. Katie went walking with Monique this morning and, again, looked like a puppy.

Inside the house I glanced at the aquarium where we are raising two Black Swallowtail caterpillars. Startled by something, I stopped dead. Can’t be! But it was. One of the pupae, by far the smaller of the two, had opened and released a Butterfly. Just last night I was sure that pupae was done for. Join me in saying Welcome—to Odysseus the Little shown here in two versions: in the shade and in the sun. The yellow coloration says male. Brigitte is into Greek names for butterflies, hence Odysseus. She shortens that to Ody. This little fellow had had a fight to be born.

Soon now Ody will take off. We’re guessing that it will be in a north-westerly direction. Always so—whether back east in Grosse Point or here in Wolverine. And Monarchs have the same sense of direction. They know something we do not.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

What Used to be 4E

As a senior in high school, I had to come up with my future occupation. The word chosen would appear under the name placed under the picture in the Year book. The word I chose then was Journalist. I’d enjoyed very much both writing for our school paper, the Lillistrator. My work there also earned me a trip to Chicago to take part in a national conference for high school journalists. As fortune had it, I fell in love for the first time with one of the girls from across the country. The romance reached its highpoint when we walked along the Loop on a sunny day and actually held hands. (Those were the days.) Furthermore, as if all this were not enough, I enjoyed writing more than any other occupation, So Journalist in the Year Book. For a while in college, indeed, I aimed for a degree in journalism; but that did not last long. And though I worked in several of the great sectors in American life, journalism was never one of them—not even peripherally.

Despite this, I’d been exposed to journalism in some classes, and what with Lillistrator in the background, I had (and continue to have) a kind of proprietary view of the profession. I think I know what journalists have to do—and have to avoid. Early on I’d heard and approved of the idea that journalism was The Fourth Estate. The First is the Clergy, the Second is the Nobility, and the Third is the Commoners. The Fourth received its name in 1787; Edmund Burke used it, and Thomas Carlyle told us so in a book titled On Heroes and Hero Worship (source). The phrase spread to many other countries in Europe and perhaps beyond. The notion of “estates” has virtually disappeared in ordinary language, but it did provide a useful way of at least initially viewing social reality. Today’s keywords, like Tech and Media and Middle Class—and places like Below the Poverty Line—lack the organic rooting that “estates” once sank into the soil.

Long ago, down at the working level, different rules applied to the News Story, the Feature, and the Editorial. The first two pertained to news reporting; the news story, above all, was intended to be straight and factual; the feature could have color and did not need to begin with a summary sentence. Opinion and advocacy were restricted to the editorial; it was not only permitted but expected that the editorial writing, including opinion columns, would take a more human view of unfolding events than the value-free camera of a news account or the artistically lively feature.

This morning, by chance, I woke at 4 am and wandered out of the bedroom to my usual armchair before the TV set. Groping in the dark I found the remote and turned on the TV, muting the sound. There was CNN, Fourth Estate, in modernese 4E. To my amazement CNN had actual news stories running—and such as one no longer sees on cable these days—unless one has access to CGTN (for those who don’t know, that’s China Global Television Network (which we watch a lot)). Here came stories from Europe, Africa, China (Hong Kong), India, Afghanistan and even the USA in which neither whistleblower, impeachment, nor Donald Trump were even mentioned. Amazing. Fascinating stuff; had quite forgotten.

Traces of 4E still remain—more in the print than in the chatter media. But even in print, the thinned out remnants have been more and more replaced by what has become just another (if still somewhat unruly) new slice of what in the Old Days we’d called Entertainment but which the New York Times is trying, very hard, to rename Style.

Reach for the wand. Off button. Push. Faint light in the grey sky. Nights getting shorter. Equinox is over.  Everything changes. All the time.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Our Colonial Heritage

In our childhood—perhaps to this day—children playing too loudly or wildly were routinely called “Hottentots” and reminded to Stop it! Stop it! It occurred to me that there might really have been Hottentots once; and in Europe Africans might have been viewed at a great distance as generally wild…

Turns out it is true. The word comes from the Dutch settlers of the southern tip of Africa, the Cape Colony. The word was initially a way of imitating the speech patterns of the Khoikhoi peoples native there. The Khoikhoi used many click consonants in their speech (clip-clop being an example in English). That wildness is associated with them is obviously due to Europe’s distance from Africa and ordinary Europeans’ general ignorance.

As the enclosed illustration shows, they were pastoralists with orderly habits, shown here preparing for one of their recurring moves (source)

Those who’ve followed my source-link above will have noted that the article referenced is titled “Hottentot (racial term)”. When I began this post, I did not know that it was. Then I recalled Prime Minister Trudeau’s problem, reported yesterday, that he had worn “blackface” in the 1990s. Was “blackface” also a “racial term”? Evidently not. Wikipedia’s article on that subject is not so designated. Racialism, of course, is a problem. But its practice and use in language is recent. Now it happens that Hottentot is based on the Boer’s difficulty in understanding the language they heard—not on the skin-color of the speakers. So the Boers used a repetitious but meaningless sound to describe the people they’d encountered.

My next topic should now be “barbarians,” but time’s run out. That word comes from the Greek and was descriptive of people who seemed to repeat themselves—bar, bar, bar. Humanity’s earliest racialism appears to have been directed at those who couldn’t speak their language.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Hobbits Put an End to Summer in Detroit…Soon

This morning’s conversation took us (prematurely, I thought), to the End of Summer. Prematurely because it seems to me that the real summer had only shown precursors of itself, not a whole deck of its cards. But, of course, as Brigitte reminded me, we were now in September! And I should have known. In my childhood we were told that months ending in ber were generally of the colder sort.

So we to the calendars went. A few informed us that, indeed, in just five days Summer would be definitely Over. The Fall Equinox comes on September 23—at least here in Detroit. Another calendar calls it Beginning of Fall. Equinox, of course, means that day and night have the same length on this day. No wonder we kept wondering why the lights had to be turned on earlier and earlier.

All this, of course, is the bad news. So what’s the Good News? It is that September 22, thus exactly the last day of summer, is Hobbit Day. Those are the small humanoids created by the mind of R.R. Tolkien—Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Now according to this Wikipedia source, there is a conflict here. According to Shire-Reckoning, the two birthdays fall between September 12 and 14. Our Gregorian calendar produces September 22—and only one day.

Good news, yes—but the usual scholarly not-so-is-so hullaballoo.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Waivering? Here is a Little Help

Yesterday came the news that the Trump Administration aims to do away with the State of California’s more stringent rules on automotive emissions. This subject arose a few weeks or months ago when the administration changed its own rules; the auto industry did not like that action; it would impose two different kinds of rules; those for most of the nation and those in one state. Regarding that word most above, please wait a moment.

News about this intended change refers to the word “waiver” or “California’s waiver.” This caused me to write this post. Two questions arise immediately. First, how come California can set its own standards for auto emissions? Second, if the California waiver will now be revoked, where is that word “waiver” coming from?

The facts are these. Automotive emission standards are set by the U.S. Clean Air Act (CAA). It was passed in 1963; for those who don’t understand dates starting with 19, 1963 was a long time ago, not quite 50 years. The word “waiver” is inside that law; more specifically it is called U.S. Code § 7543. State standards, and even more specifically it is paragraph (b).

The first paragraph (a) Prohibition begins by stating that—

No State or any political subdivision thereof shall adopt or attempt to enforce any standard relating to the control of emissions from new motor vehicles or new motor vehicle engines subject to this part. 

There is more detail, but that quote says enough.

The relevant paragraph (b) Waiver sets out the rules under which the U.S. Government may provide a waiver to paragraph (a) Prohibition to any State if that State already has such rules and if the State determines that the State standards will be, in the aggregate, at least as protective of public health and welfare as applicable Federal standards.
In other words, States may apply for a waiver if they have rules at least as stringent as the federal rules. For full details, here is my source.

It turns out that in total 13 states and the district of Columbia have all obtained waivers under the CAA. Therefore the removal of California’s waiver must after that be followed by similar actions against Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia (source).

I end with an observation unrelated to the substance above. Journalism, in our day, seems directed at people who already know more about the subject than the reporters. Since I’m rarely so knowledgeable, I have to do research. My number one slogan is: “Hands off Google.” No waiver will be granted to that rule.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Milkweeds and Monarchs

We moved to our current location (west side of Metro Detroit) from our decades-long residence on the east side around in late summer of 2014. That also turned out to be a move from a tiny but very active backyard, garden, and Swallowtail butterfly ranch to a huge yard with much grass, a pear tree, and a grand rectangle all around it of bushes and trees grand trees.

Back in the old country, to call it something memorable, anxious then to diversify our Swallowtail population by adding Monarchs, we planted a milkweed bush bought at a garden store. Pictures of that plant back in 2013 are shown here.

After settling here, we discovered milkweed growing wildly off an almost daily-taken road called Ladd. We dug up a couple and planted them in our new huge yard. They multiplied. We now have what amounts to a milkweed forest. It looks like this:

Indeed there are more plants than shown here; the largest are to the right. As these plants took hold, our new terrain became a kind of Mecca for Monarchs. Every day this summer at least one Monarch took a leisurely but intense inspection of our forest. We even raised a few—but nothing like the number of Swallowtails we used to raise; by the end of our stay, that activity had become something of a job. The reason for this difference is that Monarchs are more difficult to find (in their bug form) and to keep alive indoors as caterpillars; partly our fault: we’ve grown more forgetful and careless. Thanks to chance (is there such a thing?), we settled next door to Pat (for Patricia), who turns out herself to be a Grand Mistress of Monarch Raising. With her help we’ve managed to raise about three or four—and to release them to the Wild (read our backyard). To our delight, we’ve seen that both Swallowtails and Monarch all take off in the same direction when released, flying generally to the northwest, much as they did back in the “old country” we left behind.

What’s a blog without a mention of our closest friends and the plants they eat. Here, to be complete, I must mention that with zero effort, lots of Cotton Whites also inhabit our paradise. They live in the grass, we think; it is never too closely cut by the myself, the Mower of the Grass.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Kimbern und Teutonen

In conversation today, somehow, the Teutons entered our talk. This triggered in Brigitte’s memory the phrase “Die Kimbern und Teutonen.” She asked me if the phrase meant something to me. “Yes,” I said. “The Teutons naturally do. That great victory in the Teuton Forest in which Herman beat the Roman legions.” Brigitte said “yes, yes,” but still wanted to know about the Kimbern, a peoples I’d never heard off. Next thing I know, she is handing me my Amazon tablet by way of saying that a look-up is necessary. (We fetch, in roughly the same order, coffee, bread, peanut butter, the ears, the telephone, and the Amazon tablet before we begin our mornings. The ears, of course, are tiny devices to let us hear better.)

My look-up made it plain to me that a very cold climate began to spread in the last millennium of the BC age. It played havoc with agriculture. And by the year 120 BC, some very large Germanic tribes inhabiting what is now the Danish peninsula, began to move south. The biggest among them were the Kimbern; they were joined by Teutons and others. In Latin (and in English to this day) they are known as the Cimbri. And the Cimbrian Wars are, you might say, the first of multiple folk migrations that accompanied the Decline of the West.

By the time the Kimbern reached the Alps (around 113 BC), the Age of Global Cooling was beginning to end and a period in climate later known as the Late Roman Warming had begun. Mass movements of humanity—as of temperatures, be it up or down—seem to go together.

I wonder if in some very distant time, when this Our Time will be as ancient to the living as the “late Roman” is to us, somebody will be looking for a famous tribe called the Hispanics—and have problems knowing who they were…

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Paradoxical Detachment

Let me start with paradox. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the word comes from the Greek and is made up of para- meaning “contrary” and doxa meaning “opinion”; The OED then provides a meaning which seems to have been framed in the 1560s. It is a “statement that is seemingly self-contradictory yet not illogical or obviously untrue.”

I apply that word in adjectival form to detachment. Appropriately, I believe. When we detach, we detach from something. In an ordinary situation, we get exercised about something ridiculous in the news. Our mind is so on-and-on-and-on about it that, finally, we say: “I’ve got to get detached from this.” One of the paradoxes of detachment, for me, anyway, is that taking up my diary and then meticulously recording the irritation, in every conceivable form, sooner or later (usually after writing about three-quarters of a page), the emotional turmoil has diminished. The attachment to my description of it has caused a distance to develop. And from the distance the whole thing has lost its hold on me. And this is so even if the ultimate pain comes from a source we can rarely shake, e.g. noting that I owe a huge sum of money for something I was unaware of and, having examined the circumstances, I see that I’ll have to pay it. Detachment eventually comes when I shrug, at last, and think to myself: “It’s only money.” This though indicates that I’ve reached a point of awareness in which I’ve managed to detach even from the value of money. It won’t last, of course, but for a meaningfully sufficient moment I’ve achieved freedom.

The paradox is that genuine detachment means the embrace of nothingness. That statement is seemingly self-contradictory; but the way it feels is both logical and obviously true.” Another name for it might be religion (another paradoxical word).

I say that because, in a really meaningful way, especially in a time like our own which is utterly attached to sensory reality and its extensions into abstractions like money, a time eventually comes when the world’s madness has reached what seem like maxima; life seems to have lost all value and meaning; everything is going into the bottomless pit. At such a time, in a seemingly self-contradictory way, parts of humanity embrace belief in the unbelievable, a reality beyond the one available for examination. They form or join religions. In effect they detach from the madness all around. And, paradoxically, the continued practice of this detachment creates a reality in which, if you have social patience enough, life resumes again. And the madness then seems to have passed.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Time's Flavor

I’ve spent 64 years of my life in the 20th century. The time just ahead of mine was my mother’s and father’s. When visiting with my grandmother, on the paternal side, she whose hair went all the way to the floor when she combed it in the mornings, I was with someone who had seen the light of day in the 19th and, for many years, when she said “Today,” it was another time than mine, a time with another flavor. A very thin, very unsteady, very withered ancient old lady lived with my grandmother—her own mother. A year or two after we children met her, she passed away. She’d spent most of her years (probably more than my 64) in the 19th, the century that ushered in the two World Wars with its passing…probably unaware what she was causing. The 19th was an odd time, a kind of renaissance of something that will eventually develop fully in my own future time: another time, another season.

Time has a flavor. Of course it’s constructed of memories. And children’s are more sunny than those of octogenarians. The late 1930s therefore were more bright and shiny than the 2019s will be for me: miry jungle, too much dark. I make this note because a few days ago someone young referred back to the twentieth in tones that I recognized as being similar to mine when thinking of the 19th. Already! The 21st has barely begun—but it is already labeling the 20th as “the past.” And so it is. So it is. Never mind the monstrosities and glories that it showed a stumbling humanity on its way to Eternity. Yes; one wonders about Eternity’s flavor in one’s eighties.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Modern Extremes

Two stories featured on the WSJ front page today (lower right corner) deal with extremes. One covers very expensive Japanese whiskeys; another deals with new drugs, sold at astronomical prices, to treat rare diseases.

The Japanese whiskeys range in over-the-bar prices of $100 to $529 per shot. People aiming to display their wealth drink these and then announce the fact on social media. The expensive drugs are in support of gene therapies and range from $850,000 to $2.1 million per treatment regime. The story on drugs tells of schemes insurance companies are trying out to help employers pay for such treatments; the schemes involve collecting small sums monthly from all employees to accumulate totals that will be spent on the rare few. Such approaches, of course, leave people who are not insured under corporate health plans to their own devices.

As at the bottom, so at the top. I’ve never liked the taste of whisky; down a glass, make a face. Ugh. The effect that comes later is equally available drinking cognac or vodka. So the first group is drinking less for the effect and more for the status of being able to pay the price. But one has to announce that on Facebook, etc.

At the top another issue is involved. The general belief seems to be that life on earth, in these our bodies, is the absolute value second to none; hence millions of dollars are well worth a few months or years. Our own culture began with a much more sophisticated theory—namely that life on earth does not end with death; has that old theory really been disproved effectively? If yes, by all means labor hard to build up a few million in case your genes need therapy. If not, the answer to dire diagnosis is to shrug—and get on with making sure the will is written and the funeral paid for in advance. Wisdom seems easier. And a trip to the bar to get a $15 shot of U.S. whisky—while handing an $85 roll of bills to some homeless wretch sitting half a block away under a wall—may also be kinder.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Institutionalization and Reform

Most innovations probably arise from intuitions; the intuitions are triggered by external observations of reality or changes in society. How did calculus come to be invented at roughly the same time by Newton (b. 1643) and by Leibnitz (b. 1646); the occasion was a desire to predict mathematically points on a geometrical curve. It’s easy to predict the location of a point on a line; but when the damned thing is sloping away from you in an ark, not easy. The desire in both cases was powerful, the need to get good answers pressing. The new math worked! In due time we’ve come to formalize its procedures into calculus. And now it is institutionalized; it is taught in school. The reason why most people frown, their features signaling unease, when calculus is mentioned is because the method has become institutionalized. People taking calculus don’t have the burning need to understand curves in order, say, to understand the orbits of planets. Institutionalization makes it relatively easy to learn an art; no invention is necessary, no repetitive testing, frustration, torn up sheets, and back to the start. At the same time, if the art is a difficult one—and is taught because it’s part of some grand scheme (you want to graduate in some science eventually); it is rarely taught in answer to a burning urge.

Looking around I can at least imagine some time in the future when much of what we now experience as twenty-first century culture may have been largely lost, especially the complicated parts. Then some people in the future may meet the problem of the curve again. Those experiencing the difficulties will once more be powerfully motivated to find the math to help them. Imagine such a group when one of its members bursts into a laboring group; he’s  holding some ancient book. “It’s been done before,” he cries. “And it’s all in here. A little hard to understand, but it’s the answer.” The mood in the room can almost be felt. And it represents what I’d call Reform: the renewal of an art that began as an intuition, got institutionalized, and now will be reformed. The reform will be present because this new group will make additional innovations to the math while trying to understand that ancient text.

This subject is of value in the context of my current ponderings. Everything we live now was once an innovation; many things have become ritualized so they no longer live in us as driving needs. And institutionalization is followed by decay. Reform, however, has no doubt already begun—even if we don’t fully see it yet.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

One Forgets

During my time of rarely violated absenteeism from blogging, I’d quite forgotten how much labor goes into this activity. Now memory is itself a vast subject. One of its mysteries is that we often forget something; that “something” can be quite trivial or complex; the truth is that we often simply don’t remember... Then, some short period after, our better half (usually), says something like “I’ve got it!” and she (or he) then produces a name or an account. Our mind then immediately knows that it also know—and can meaningful make additions to the partner’s first mention. In other words, we know that we remember before we actually know. So it was with the matter of forgetting the effort that blogging constitutes. The memories were instantly back when I settled before this machine to do today’s little chore. But no chore in blogging is ever “little.”

One thought I had some time after writing the last posting was that the decay of a civilization is marked by many events indicative of decay which seem to be far and few but definitely cumulating in “slow motion”; but so do many events that ultimately signal something positive—the slow appearance of a new order of thought and feeling which in their turn set the stage for the birth of another culture somewhen in the far future, i.e., also in slow motion. “I’ll write about that tomorrow,” I said to myself while reaching for the lights-out switch.

When we are no longer accustomed to put our thoughts on paper (figuratively, these days), we forget that notions that seem self-evident to us are not so obvious at all. They need illustration and presentation backed by lucid argument. And half the time the intuition is correct but to flesh it out is labor.

Therefore, a mere note today to hint at future content. Let me simply say that the nineteenth century already showed, in many developments that surfaced then (e.g., in psychology and in religion to name two subjects) that the Age of Reason began, having reached its peak in the eighteenth, to build a new way of thought even as rationalism was just beginning to decay into what we now label materialism (to pick a single word). More anon.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Decline in Slow Motion

Back when I began this blog, in February 2009, thus more than a decade ago, I kicked things off by introducing one of the main interests in my life, cyclic history (that post is here). Now I’m urged to resume making entries to this blog by a person who cannot be denied. And what with having watched CNN and MSNBC all these months (rather than posting blog entries), I am keenly aware just how accurate my cyclic historians have been. Hence this post too will deal with cultural decline; indeed, if I wished to reflect the decline I see in the title of this post, I’d call it Decline in SloMo. That phrase is much more up-to-date with the linguistic trends. After all, as yesterday’s New York Times reported, our President is either quite unaware of the difference between there and their, or he does not give a damn. Now to explain “slow motion”…

Long ago and far away, back when I first became aware of the cyclic nature of cultures and civilizations, the world looked much more rational than it does today. I was then reading books about the societal collapse of Rome; and, looking around, etc., I wondered how it might have manifested in ordinary life. A clue was present in the very few fictional works that have survived from roughly the fourth through twelfth centuries of Europe. In those no one held forth about the Decline of Rome. The stories may have been about disorders, military or otherwise, but the landscapes were still green, the forests still dark, and the rivers just kept running on. They’re still running on today.

The facts is that every culture/civilization exists in a different time zone than ordinary human life. It often take a culture 500 years to reach adulthood and once again as long to reach senescence. If we are living eighty-some-odd years of one of those periods, developments marking growth or the decline of these gigantic and seemingly organic structures will not show, in detail, changes that, in cumulation, produce new societal patterns that, in their turn, will be called cultures. One of my gurus, the German historian, Oswald Spengler—he who argued most convincingly that cultures/civilizations are organic—used the words “culture” for the youthful and “civilization” for the adult phase of these structures. In the late stages of civilizations, absurd and often irrational events sometimes multiply so that even the half-asleep among us begin to shake their head. Such a time is with us now, are, indeed, displayed across the world. Then, looking around, some days, one can’t help but see that the old historians, who saw all this coming back in the 1930s, had glimpsed something real in the future. Events still proceed in slow motion; hence we still maintain hopes that normalcy will once again return; and return it will, eventually; but in SloMo that might take another 500 years.

With that cheerful thought, my resumption of blogging has begun this Labor Day 2019.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

*That* Day in February

It may seem very odd indeed to make a post about that day in February on the 19th -- a day that this year was on the 18th and originally (in 1732) on the 22nd. My own interest in that day came about because I entered the U.S. Army on February 21, 1956; and the next day was a day off. The next day, of course, was Washington's Birthday; it had been made an National Holiday in 1885. Then, in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act; it became effective in 1971. Since that Act Washington's birthday is celebrated on the third Monday of February every year; that gives the nation three days off in February. The third Monday this year fell on the 18th. The same day also celebrates Abe Lincoln's birthday, which actually took place February 12, 1809.

All those who dislike the study of history do so because too many dates compete for our attention -- with little reward for the actual knowledge. This post illustrates the reason why. Presidents' Day. Okay. It's on the calendar. As for the rest, what difference does it make?

Sunday, January 20, 2019


It took a while this winter. The first big snow came yesterday. All earlier attempts by our local Winter Fairy to produce the first genuine “must shovel” snow had failed. She had, presumably, become confused by Global Warming talk and trends. The earliest attempts came in November but never even fully covered drives, never mind roofs and roads. “It snowed a little,” was the phrase. And while the white did unevenly mark the grass out back, it was light enough so that even shy autumn leaves could hold up small brown sails; some even moved east in the wind, reminding me that Fall Raking had fallen short of one hundred percent.

So January 19, 2019 (a properly uneven year) came with skies triple-grey and dumped snow any which way. It cumulated to about four inches and piled under wind-pressure to hillocks high enough so that taking the garbage out resembled an Arctic trek. We too got snow, not just the East Coast. But continuing to trouble our local Winter Fairy, in Alabama they had tornadoes.

Very white out there, very bright the sun. Lovely, lovely. A neighboring oak’s still holding on to leaves with the usual oaken tenacity; but that’s just a species. Other trees have all obeyed; the evergreens are decorated with white jewelry.

Question to the Fairy? Will this first 2019 storm be the last as well? Who knows, these days. Everything’s confusing when oceans boil and icebergs melt.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Conscription and Some Relatives

Back when I was in the military, thus well before 1973, military conscription was still in force. Most of the men I served with were therefore draftees. Tending to the contrarian, I had enlisted voluntarily and was therefore considered to be Regular Army. I signed up for four years; the Draft kept people for just under two. In addition I served another extra year so that we (Brigitte and I) could organize our transition from Germany to the U.S. more efficiently. We’d met in Germany and married there.

One of the largely overlooked benefits of the Draft was that large numbers of at least the male population actually experienced most aspects of military work. That experience taught a person that military life and work was, most of the time, about as far removed from heroism as is construction, farming, factory work, or professional sports. And what with the public fully aware of the nature of this lifestyle (let me call it that, tongue in cheek) the tendency to view soldiers as heroes was not continuously on display back then; now it is on display far too much. But that sort of talk or oration has its own benefit too. When people glorify “our heroes,” we  may be sure of two things. First, they may never have served themselves (indeed they had often heroically schemed to avoid service) and, second, they often praise our heroes to cover themselves with borrowed (if sometimes fake) glory—not because they believe a word of what they say.
These thoughts arose as I put away one of my 2018 calendars named “America the Beautiful.” Its thematic, built of photographs of statues (half the months) and landscapes (the other half), is “patriotic.” In effect, it is similar to the glorification of the ordinary GI, but at a larger scale. To be sure, the landscapes show that the American land is beautiful—but so is land across the globe. As for heroics and military events, all countries have the equivalents in their history. Using such images to point at “beauty” has a flavor of self-praise; it’s innocent in the calendar, but it's a way of bending from the hard truth of things.

It only takes small steps from these instances (and flag-worship too) to White Supremacy, American Exceptionalism, and other dangerous forms of tribalism. To praise the soldiers, let’s praise service. To praise the country, let’s praise its mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and plains. Patriotism? Let’s pay our taxes. The higher achievements of humanity are never mere collectives you can put on— like fatigues.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

2019: Superstitiously Yours

I’m not superstitious, but, alas, inside of me (down in the slums of my not that shining city of a self) lives another person, actually a very close but often troublesome friend. And that friend certainly is. Superstitious.

One of my superstitions is that even years are unlucky. Therefore I wear my watch on my right wrist (Wrist 1) in even years because the watch will counter the misfortunes that come with my left wrist (Wrist 2). Now like most right-handers, I’ve worn my watch on the left. But then, years ago now, I began to wear my watch on my right wrist whenever the year became divisible by two. I began this in order to fight the bad vibrations which, I thought, a year like 2018 would certainly bring. The year 2016 had, again, proved my dark self’s superstition (nor had my watch, on the right hand, help): the election results that year. And when 2017 arrived, with my watch still on the right wrist, I decided that I would leave it where it was—in its “guarding” location—even if the year was, otherwise, favorable, being uneven. 

Today, a little late for January, I am once more faced with the choice. Do I treat 2019 as a year that needs protection against malign forces that invisibly hover beneath grey and even sunny skies? Or do I burden my left wrist with a watch and, for some days, look on the wrong wrist for the time?

The BREXIT vote in the UK suggests that 2019 has not yet taken a positive hold. To be sure, Theresa May kept her office as Prime Minister the next day, but only by a slim margin of 20 votes. Anyway, she won. In an even year she certainly would have been kicked out: thus my dark self assures me. The U.S. is still a member of NATO. Thank you, uneven year. But can I be sure of you? And Mueller is still biding his time and may be barred from making his Mueller Mysterium public.

So decision time is difficult. A helpful idea, however, might be tried in 2019. I have, like most fogeys of my age, more watches than I have years left to live. For about $11.99 I can get a battery for one of them and, in this crucial but unpredictable year, wear two watches, one on each wrist. You’re wise. You get it. Such matters actually mean something when you are forced to wander slums.