Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hawaii!

Participating in the Pacific Cup [Sailboat] Race with their Division C boat the Ada Helen, my son-in-law and his fellow crew members reached Hawaii around 8:42 p.m. yesterday (Hawaii time). Here's a photo they took soon after embarking from San Francisco on July 15:

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Two more

Remembering that there are numerous recycling centers in Chapel Hill, I took my three stuffed bags of newspaper, glossies, and "mixed paper" to the one at University Mall last night, when I was in the neighborhood on another errand. (It seems contradictory to make a special trip to a recycling center—if you have to burn fossil fuel to do so.)

Well, tonight is our next-to-last night in the apartment, and my back is looking forward to a lie-down. I loaded and unloaded a 14-foot U-Haul today—the main cargo's being 30 or 40 of my wife's potted plants that some former neighbors let us set in their yard until we moved to Mebane. That doesn't sound like many. Only one load? Well, it was about 300 feet from where most of the pots were sitting to the truck, which I parked on the street so as not to risk damaging something on my neighbors' property. And the pots were heavy. I moved 20 or 30 by putting several at a time in a wheelbarrow, but the others required a hand truck (or "dollie'). There was also a four-wheel wagon with a huge jade plant that I rolled up the ramp on to the truck (and rolled down at our new house). And about 20 1-gallon plastic bottles of water, which I took along to help buffer the pots, about half of which are ceramic. That is, they can chip, crack, or break. And I didn't want to damage any of my wife's pot. (She and Wally went off to Mebane early to let in the painter who would coat the new drywall in the garage and touch up the repairs from where we removed the standard shelving in two closets and the laundry room, in favor a more versatile style.)

There was also some other yard and gardening stuff under some other neighbors' deck: two metal benches; several water hoses; two shepherd's hooks and three water hose racks; four heavy rubber-wrapped rebar poles (which a local nursery sold as rose stakes); a large disassembled metal pot stand; a bag of pine bark soil conditioner; shovels, hoes, and rakes; and the wheelbarrow and dollie mentioned above. Oh, and two very heavy rocks. Yes, rocks. One has a cavity in which we poured water for our visiting birds. The other is just a dramatic-looking rock, about two feet long, that my wife likes for me to plant vertically somewhere (wherever she asks me to, I mean). Well, these neighbors have a deep front yard also...I wonder how many miles I walked today loading that truck.

I barely had a third of the truck bed loaded and my back was already feeling none too good. I was so far from having my first load delivered and being on my way back to Chapel Hill by one o'clock or so, that I didn't leave Chapel Hill with my first load until about 2:30. We didn't pack up at our new house to return to the apartment until 6:30.

We had our first experience in Mebane of working out in the rain, just after some new neighbors from across the street had come over to introduce themselves. Within minutes of their leaving (to go to Wal-Mart, which is less than half a mile away), the rain started heavy then leveled off to tolerable soaker. Not seeing any lightning (although we did hear one and only one thunder clap), we felt comfortable being out in it to unload the truck. Most of the pots had to be moved only about fifty feet. (I think I mentioned in a post of several weeks ago that we were downsizing; our old house was on 1-1/3 acre, our new one on about 1/4.

I felt more than comfortable in the rain; working in thoroughly soaked T-shirt, pants (and underpants), socks and shoes took my mind off my back (well, almost), and I drove the truck back to Chapel Hill feeling quite accomplished, even if I had managed only one load. Anyway, there are only 15 more pots (even if they are humongous). I'll have room to load everything from the storage locker tomorrow, too, plus a few more gardening implements from under the other neighbors' deck. Oh, my aching back....

And raise a toast to good neighbors, bless 'em!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Three more nights

Sunday night will be our last in the apartment that has been our home for ten weeks. We became the deed-holding owners of our new house on Tuesday and my wife has been overseeing the delivery and installation of ceiling fans, of lights, of washer and dryer, of telephone hook-up, of natural gas connection, of storm front door, of insulation and drywall to finish the garage, of a new piece of "entertainment center furniture," of the chandelier we brought to North Carolina from California, and of things my wife has spared me from even knowing about.

I've been feeling a bit sad about vacating the apartment, even more than I felt upon leaving our house of 25 years. The contrast has made me wonder whether I need more time than two months to "process" a home. Twenty-five years seems to be longer than necessary; everything in the old place seemed to have been worked through, digested, eliminated.

During our time in the apartment we haven't continued to collect vegetable matter for composting, but we have continued to recycle. The apartment complex has bins for plastic bottles, metal cans, and glass bottles and a dumpster for cardboard. I carefully segregate these items and flatten the cardboard. I don't put my collection bags into the receptacles. I don't put cereal and other non-cardboard containers into the dumpster. I've followed these practices for years (decades).

The complex has no receptacles for newspapers, glossies, or "mixed paper," but we still sort and collect them, and when I'm in the vicinity of the dumpsters near where we used to live (in Orange County, with its more aggressive recycling policy than Durham County), I've recycled them too. My three big paper-collecting bags are currently stuffed again. What am I going to do, have them moved with our furniture and packed boxes to Alamance County on Monday? But we haven't learned yet how enlightened Alamance is about recycling....Anyway, with all else that is going on this week, including going to work, I'm still concerned about recycling our paper! I admit that the thought crossed my mind this morning that I could just toss the big bags into the apartment complex's garbage dumpster and be done with it. But I don't, and won't.

It has long puzzled me why so many other recyclers aren't very careful about it. Cardboard dumpsters would hold a lot more if cardboard boxes were broken down and flattened. But week by week I've seen the dumpster overflow, with boxes in their original state on and around it. I guess people put cereal boxes into the dumpster because no bins are provided for that kind of paper. Or maybe they don't know the difference. And maybe they don't flatten the cardboard because they don't know they're supposed to (a sign on the dumpster requests it) or haven't thought about using the dumpster more efficiently.

Or maybe...they're ambivalent about recycling in the first place? Doing so is so far removed from the evolutionary history of the race, when the primary activities were gathering food and mating. Individuals recycled personal things that there was a clear advantage to recyle. The supposed advantage of taking certain things to recycling centers is "not natural." Maybe many people take their stuff to the center (because they're supposed to), but balk at doing it mindfully, with deliberation, taking the trouble to sort it properly. Maybe they're making a statement, the way I imagine certain people are making a statement when they throw their garbage along streets and roads. "I don't have to. I'm free to do what I want."

Or maybe not. Anyway, that's what I imagine. I imagine I'm making a statement myself by doing it the way I do it. I don't think I'm just acting out of habit, recycling because I've always done it, because I want to conform. I'm not a conformist. Ninety percent of Americans might "believe in God," but I deny that there is one to believe it. Blasphemy is a victimless crime. Many if not most voters vote their self-interest, but I vote what I consider the common good. No, by caring and taking trouble, I think I'm making a statement:
Life and the stuff of living are, as I used to say, holy. Holy in the "this is it" sense. This is all there is, or all that I will have. I do this in my own kind of remembrance.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Sound of Trumpets

[written 3/14/2008 but forgotten until today]

In 1998 appeared The Sound of Trumpets, the third (and presumably concluding) novel in John Mortimer's "Rapstone Chronicles." It followed Paradise Postponed (1985) and Titmuss Regained (1990).

One suspects that Mortimer's use of a phrase from John Bunyan's circa 1730 fable of The Pilgrim's Progress... for the title of his third Chronicle is ironic. Bunyan tells the story of Christian's struggle to attain salvation and the Gates of Heaven. He must pass through the Slough of Despond, ward off the temptations of Vanity Fair and fight the monstrous Apollyon....In Part 2, his wife and children follow the same path, helped and protected by Great-heart, until for them too "the trumpets sound on the other side."1 Leslie Titmuss—who is now, thanks to his hero Margaret Thatcher, Lord Titmuss—is no Christian, however hard he has struggled all his fictional life to attain a secular kind of salvation of power and prestige.
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  1. For this gloss on Bunyan, I'm indebted to Kid's LearnOutLoud website.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Penelope Mortimer (the first's) autobiography

Like many Americans who have become acquainted with the work of John Mortimer, I was introduced to it through British television by way of PBS. "Mystery" brought us a dozen or more dramatizations from Mortimer's "Rumpole of the Bailey" (starring the late Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole), and "Masterpiece Theater" dramatizations of the first two novels of his Rapstone Chronicles trilogy, "Paradise Postponed" and "Titmuss Regained," and of his memoir, "A Voyage round My Father" (with Laurence Oliver and Alan Bates as Mortimers father and son). I've subsequently read the books (except for Voyage) and three or four other novels and the 2003 memoir, Where There's A Will.

When I learned from a review of a new biography of Mortimer, A Voyage Round John Mortimer, by Valerie Grove, that his first wife Penelope (1918-1999; his second wife was also named Penelope) had written a novel about their marriage, I decided to read it. Of course, such a book raises far more questions than it provides reliable answers1, so this morning I started to thumb through Mrs. Mortimer's autobiography of the years 1940-1978 (About Time Too), which include the years of the marriage (1949-1972). I was immediately hooked, and I would have been hooked even if John Mortimer were never mentioned. From the very first page:
My husband [her first, Charles Dimont] was an intelligent and sensitive young man, brought up by a mother who was, or had become, a nonentity, and a teetotal clergyman father who claimed that he had found no reason to change his mind about anything since making it up at the age of twenty-one. In search of mystery their son had taken to drink and the doctrines of heathen religions. My father too was a clergyman, but a man with such an insatiable need for consolation that no faith could satisfy him. No longer finding any comfort in God, he gobbled samples of Communism, spiritualism, nudism, Nietzsche, free love, the Douglas Credit System, Krafft-Ebing, Freud, but was still ravenous. He went through terrible bouts of mourning for some satisfaction he couldn't remember or had never known and during these attacks the house would be chock-a-block with gloom, it was hard to find a breathing space. I inhaled his misery by the lungful, just as I did his tobacco smoke. My mother carried her own supply of wintry air. She and my father never shared a bedroom and I remember witnessing only one occasion when she didn't move away from his touch.
Now that's incisive writing.

I already knew, from studying a section of Mrs. Mortimer's family tree at the beginning of the book, that she had two children by her first husband and one child each by two other men (neither of whom she married) before her two children with Mortimer. But only minutes ago, in checking the dates of her marriages for this post, did I realize that she wed Mortimer the same year she divorced her first husband. When did she have those two middle children? Answer: 1945 and 1948, while she was still married to Dimont. (Actually, the family tree gives the year of the divorce from Dimont and the marriage to Mortimer as 1947, so for a few minutes it looked to me as though the second child was born after their marriage! Apparently not. After discovering that MSN Encarta—see the footnote—says she and Mortimer were married in 1949, I checked her index and found this on p. 39: "John and I were married at Chelsea Register Office on 27th August 1949, the day my divorce to Charles was made Absolute." A significant error in that published family tree! Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1993.)

There was something incisive, too, about the person the writer was, if that's quite the word.
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  1. MSN Encarta does say that the "unhappy experience of [her] marriage [to Mortimer] was reflected in her best-known novel The Pumpkin Eater, the story of a woman who seeks validation through repeatedly having children, and who having been persuaded by her husband to undergo sterilization discovers that he has been unfaithful."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The One Commandment (in just two words)

In response to my report on George Carlin's Two Commandments, the author of Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out goes a step further than Carlin. How about, he proposes, just one commandment—two words:
Be Decent
Some dictionary definitions of "decent" are:
  • conforming to standards of propriety, good taste, or morality
  • free from immodesty or obscenity
  • conforming to current standards of living
  • having praiseworthy qualities
Decency of course depends on which standards are considered to apply (and on who's doing the applying). This is the same as with Moses's "Thou shalt not kill," which depended on who or what was considered off-limits to kill (such as a fellow Jew, but not necessarily anyone else and, of course, not the "dumb" animals, who were subject to ritual sacrifice to flatter and placate the Jews' "jealous god").

Be that as it may, I should note that Jim Rix's book convincingly demonstrates that the police and prosecutor who put his innocent cousin away for ten years for murder (Ray Krone was finally released, in April 2002) were not behaving decently with respect to such publicly accepted standards of fairness and justice as discovery of evidence, presumption of innocence [until proven guilty], and reasonable doubt.

By the way, the publisher recently lowered the retail price of Jingle Jangle to $24.95 (from $39). It can currently be had with no charge for shipping or handling from Broken Bench Press. A growing number of discriminating, well-informed readers consider this one of those indispensable books that don't come along often.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Oh, glorious! glorious!

...Ken Marks's latest photographs from Wyoming! Click in the slideshow window to view them.

À-propos "Thou shalt not kill"

In Jean Rostand's 1939 book, Thoughts of a Biologist, he writes1:
Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conquerer. Kill them all, and you are a god.
How apt to have read this only hours after writing yesterday's post, and then to read this morning the following paragraph in Tom Engelhardt's June 29 dispatch, "The Good News in Iraq (Don't Count on It)," about the United States's use of air power in Iraq:
Consider, for instance, a small passage from a recent piece by New York Times correspondent Thom Shanker on inter-service rivalries in Iraq. The U.S. Army, he reports, is now ramping up its own air arm (just as it did in the Vietnam era). In the last year, it has launched Task Force ODIN, the name being an acronym for "observe, detect, identify and neutralize," but also the über-god of Norse mythology (and perhaps a reminder of the godlike attitudes [emphasis mine] those in the air can develop towards those being "neutralized" on the ground).
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  1. According to Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, 2007

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Carlin did Moses, Dawkins, and me eight better

When I took Richard Dawkins up on his suggestion in The God Delusion that the Ten Commandments needed updating to align them with the advances mankind has made in understanding what's what (and what ought to be what), I rather slavishly followed him in retaining the number 10. Of course, he was only following Moses, so why not?
 
 
 
 

But since then George Carlin died (on June 22) and I've been looking into this great man's work. At a UNC library (on June 30) I listened to a CD recording of a live performance he gave not long after 9/11/2001. I was struck by the final segment of his performance, titled on the liner notes, "Why we don't need 10 commandments." Unfortunately, I didn't take notes, or I'd have shared this with you sooner. But fortunately, I discovered yesterday that in the library's copy of Carlin's 2004 book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, there's a section titled "The Two Commandments" [pp. 14-18, emphasis mine] that contains the same material (possibily edited and improved).

Carlin shows his brilliance right off. Unlike Dawkins and me, he's sensitive to having a numerical
problem with the Ten Commandments....Why are there ten? We don't need that many. I think the list of commandments was deliberately and artificially inflated to get it up to ten. It's clearly a padded list.
    Here's how it happened: About five thousand years ago, a bunch of religious and political hustlers....
Of course, Dawkins and I too knew about the hustlers, so why didn't we follow suit, perhaps along Carlin's lines:
...Ten sounds important. Ten is the basis for the decimal system; it's a decade. It's a psychologically satisfying number: the top ten; the ten most wanted; the ten best dressed. So deciding on ten commandments was clearly a marketing decision. And it's obviously a bullshit list....
In all fairness, I have to acknowledge Mel Brooks for having a similar insight. In his 1981 movie, "History of the World, Part I," Moses comes down from Sinai bearing three tablets and begins to explain them as "the "Fift—" but he drops and breaks one..."the Ten Commandments...."

Back to Carlin:
Okay, right off the bat, the first three commandments—pure bullshit. "Sabbath day," "Lord's name," "strange gods." [He's using the Catholic version "because those are the ones I was fed as a little boy."]...Spooky language designed to scare and control primitive people. In no way does superstitious mumbo jumbo like this apply to the lives of intelligent, civilized humans in the twenty-first century.
That leaves seven. Then he's quickly down to six by observing that the next commandment (about honoring thy father and mother) overlooks that
obedience and respect should not be granted automatically. They should be earned. They should be based on the parents' (or the authority figure's) performance. Some parents deserve respect. Most of them don't.
Then, in the interest of logic ("something religion has a really hard time with"), he skips the fifth commandment for a bit and proceeds to the sixth and seventh (against stealing and bearing false witness), which he points out "cover the same sort of behavior: dishonesty." He combines them as "Thou shalt not be dishonest." Down to five.

And then quickly down to four with the combination of the eighth and ninth (about adultery and coveting thy neighbor's wife) as "Thou shalt not be unfaithful."
And when you think about it further, honesty and fidelity are actually part of the same overall value. So, in truth, we could combine the two honesty commandments with the two fidelity commandments, and, using positive language instead of negative, call the whole thing "Thou shalt always be honest and faithful." And now we're down to three.
And the next (the final one on Moses's list),
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods" [note "that coveting takes place in the mind"]
    ...is just plain stupid. Coveting your neighbor's goods is what keeps the economy going: Your neighbor gets a vibrator that plays "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," you want to get one, too. Coveting creates jobs....You throw out coveting and you're down to two...,
one of which is the one we skipped, the fifth:
Thou shalt not kill.
    Murder....But, if you give it a little thought, you realize that religion has never really had a problem with murder. Not really. More people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason.
    To cite a few examples, just think about Irish history, the Middle Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisition, our own abortion-doctor killings and, yes, the World Trade Center1 to see how seriously religious people take Thou Shalt Not Kill. Apparently, to religious folks—especially the truly devout—murder is negotiable. It just depends on who's doing the killing and who's getting killed.2
He offers the revision,
Thou shalt try real hard not to kill anyone, unless, of course, they pray to a different invisible avenger than the one you pray to.
Finally,
Two is all you need, folks. Moses could have carried them down the hill in his pocket.
Carlin can be heard and seen delivering this deconstruction.
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  1. The World Trade Center is where Sam Harris starts in his own heraldic 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
  2. "Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conquerer. Kill them all, and you are a god." – Thoughts of a Biologist, Jean Rostand, 1939.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Jesse Helms curbed their enthusiasm

When we moved to North Carolina (twenty-five years ago last month), we saw a fair number of bumper stickers around liberal Chapel Hill that said, "I did not vote for Jesse Helms!" Today's huge headline on page one of our local newspaper announces Helms's death yesterday:
1921-2008
JESSE HELMS
HE REDEFINED POLITICS IN NORTH CAROLINA, REINVIGORATED U.S. CONSERVATISM

An accompanying article, by Bob Christensen, explains that

North Carolina was a one-party state when Helms was growing up, and he helped transform it by making it acceptable for conservative Democrats to vote Republican....
    More than that, Helms changed American history.
    He and his political organization rescued Ronald Reagan's political career during the 1976 North Carolina Republican primary. Although Reagan did not win the nomination that year, it set him up to win the White House in 1980....
    Had Reagan not been elected, would we have had the two George Bushes?....

Later, as I was washing a few dishes and my wife was poring over the newspaper, I heard her cry out in disgust, "What did he do now? That's so stupid!"

"What did Bush do now?" I asked.

"No, not Bush. Me!" (She must have said, "What did I do....")

She was only doing a Soduko. Sometimes she screws up like that. But my reaction reminded me of another uproarious theme during Season Four of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Probably in the same opening episode in which Mel Brooks hears Larry David sing to Karaoke, Cheryl reminds Larry that their tenth wedding anniversary is approaching. For her wedding present, Larry agrees that they'll repeat the wedding ceremony, this time with more pomp apparently than Cheryl enjoyed the first time. "And what do you want?" she asks him. "Oh, don't you remember? You already told me what my present would be."

There's a ten-year flashback to the evening they agreed to get married. Larry was reluctant to take that step, their relationship was fine. Cheryl got him to go along with it by offering to let him have sex with another woman for their tenth anniversary....

Larry's attempts to find a woman to have sex with provide a series of entertaining situations throughout Season Four. There's the big, black hooker, who just doesn't quite appeal to Larry in that way. Besides if he's seen with her, it could put the kibosh on his attempts to join a new, very conservative country club....There's the randy wife of the local dry cleaner. They arrange an assignation (to which Larry brings a satin sheet with the hole already cut for his penis), but while she's telling him that the business about Hasids' only making love through a hole is bullshit, an earthquake begins to rumble....

Finally, it looks as though it's going to happen, only a few hours before the deadline imposed by Cheryl. Cady Huffman (playing herself playing the Swedish typist in "The Producers") invites Larry into her dressing room an hour before opening night. Everything's going fine until Larry spots a big framed photograph of Bush on the wall. "You're a Republican?" he asks, in disgust. Of course, it's all over.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Mel Brooks is Max Bialystock

Last night, while watching the credits for Episode 9 of Season Four of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," I noticed for the first time (incredibly) that there was a "story by" credit. It was by Larry David. And just a little while ago, at the end of Episode 10 (the seasons' final episode), there it was again, "Story by Larry David." I went back to Episodes 6 and 7 to confirm that their stories, too, were by Larry David. I didn't bother to check Episode 8. They all had to be by Larry David, and I suppose that all of the stories of all of the seasons (whose DVDs I've returned to the library) were by Larry David. I feel even more emphatically now that the EO (ExtraOrdinary) rating I've given Seasons Three and Four was deserved. Extraordinary story writing indeed and extraordinarily satisfying to this viewer's taste (and his wife's, who has also seen more than half of the first four seasons' forty episodes).

The final episode of Season Four, which we watched after lunch today, revealed the major premise for the whole. In Episode one, none other than Mel Brooks hears Larry sing to Karaoke at a club and in Episode Two approaches him about taking over the role of Max Bialystock in "The Producers" on Broadway, to play opposite Ben Stiller as Leo Bloom. It takes only a few episodes for Ben Stiller to become so irritated by Larry that he tells Mel, "It's either him or me." It barely occurred to me to wonder why Mel didn't hesitate a second to tell Stiller good-bye and start looking for a replacement...David Schwimmer. Larry and David's relationship is similarly rocky, but at last (in Episode 10) we're on Broadway for opening night.

And here's where that major premise was revealed and took my breath away: Mel, viewing the opening from the back of the auditorium, doesn't look as though he's enjoying what he's seeing. In fact, he looks as though he thinks the spectacle is putrid. Both my wife and I felt puzzled about this. "What's going on?" I actually said outloud. Then Larry David forgets a line and draws such a blank that the show seems to stop dead. Some members of the audience (including Jerry Seinfeld) get up and move toward the exits. Mel leaves for the bar and meets Anne Bancroft (his wife of 41 years, before her death in June 2005), whom he tells he was right, Larry David is terrible. "I knew when I first saw him he was a disaster, and everything he touches is a disaster...At last, we're going to kill off this show and be done with it!" In other words, Mel Brooks is trying to pull a Max Bialystock: put on a show that is sure to flop.

In the meantime, back on stage, Larry (and most everyone else in the audience) hears an altercation in the middle of the theater between a turbaned sikh and the man sitting behind him whose view is blocked. Larry knows both men. He has given them tickets to the show: the sikh handyman who has adjusted his hotel room thermostat and his cousin Andy. Larry smoothly seques into a monologue about his cousin and soon has the audience in stitches. The people who were heading toward the exits start to return to their seats. And eventually Larry remembers the line he missed and the show recommences.

Of course, the show's a big hit, just the way Bialystock's "Springtime for Hitler" is in Mel Brooks's original movie, with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder (and in its remake and original Broadway production, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick). Larry David places the capstone of his premise, and Mel Brooks's identity with Max Bialystock is complete!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A most extraordinary mathematical proof

Reminded recently by Richard Dawkins1 of Aldous Huxley's mostly forgotten classic novel of eighty years ago, Point Counter Point, I've been reading it again, and last night I arrived at the passage whose "extraordinary proof" Dawkins quoted:
"Mutton must be going out of fashion," sail Illidge. "Like God," he added provocatively, "and the immortal soul." Lord Edward was not to be baited....[Illidge] was interrupted and Lord Edward saved from further persecution by the ringing of the telephone bell.
    "I'll deal with it," said Illidge, jumping up from his place.
    He put the receiver to his ear. "Hullo!"
    "Edward, is that you?" said a deep voice not unlike Lord Edward's own. "This is me. Edward, I've just this moment discovered a most extraordinary mathematical proof of the existence of God, or rather of...."
    "But this isn't Lord Edward," shouted Illidge. "Wait. I'll ask him to come." He turned back to the Old Man. "It's Lord Gattenden," he said. "He's just discovered a new proof of the existence of God." He did not smile, his tone was grave. Gravity in the circumstances was the wildest derision. The statement made fun of itself. Laughing comment made it less, not more ridiculous. Marvellous old imbecile! Illidge felt himself revenged for all the evening's humiliations. "A mathematical proof," he added, more seriously than ever.
    "Oh, dear!" exclaimed Lord Edward, as though something deplorable had happened. Telephoning always made him nervous. He hurried to the instrument. "Charles, is that...."
    "Ah, Edward," cried the disembodied voice of the head of the family from forty miles away at Gattenden. "Such a really remarkable discovery. I wanted your opinion of it. About God. You know the formula: m over nought equals infinity, m being any positive number? Well, why not reduce the equation to a simpler form by multiplying both sides by nought? In which case you have m equals infinity times nought. That is to say that a positive number is the product of zero and infinity. Doesn't that demonstrate the creation of the universe by an infinite power out of nothing? Doesn't it?" The diaphragm of the telephone receiver was infected by Lord Gattenden's excitement forty miles away. It talked with breathless speed; its questions were earnest and insistent. "Doesn't it, Edward"? All his life the fifth marquess had been looking for the absolute. It was the only sort of hunting possible for a cripple. For fifty years he had trundled in his wheeled chair at the heels of the elusive quarry. Could it be that he had now caught it, so easily, and in such an unlikely place as an elementary schoolbook on the theory of limits? It was something that justified excitement. "What's your opinion, Edward?"
    "Well," began Lord Edward, and at the other end of the electrified wire, forty miles away, his brother knew, from the tone in which that single word was spoken, that it was no good. The Absolute's tail was still unsalted. [pp. 134-135]
Lord Gattenden's "proof" does have a certain charm about it, don't you think? I still think it's a nice maneuver, poetic, whimsical. Even Bertrand Russell was initially, if only briefly, convinced by the ontological proof, whose real power, of course, is to console those who already believe.
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  1. The God Delusion, 2008 edition, p. 108

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Home, revisited

The topic of home came up over lunch today. My friend said that she has many, many times dreamed of home, her actual physical, recognizable home. To her, "home" seemed to have much deeper significance than the place where your toothpaste or the coffee beans are (as I suggested in my post, "Rounding third," the other day). She thought it was more a question of the people who live (or lived) there with you, and, going by the recurrence of her dream, it also seemed to be a particular, very special place. I had to agree that "the people" in my home too (my wife and our dog, Wally) are essential—so much so that I didn't even think of defining home in terms of them. They were just part of the indivisible "we" from whose point of view I wrote. Wherever "home" was, it was our home.

But no particular physical place seems to have the power to be home for me. I've been amazed over the past few weeks how quickly I've detached myself from our home of twenty-five years, with its rooms and gardens in which I spent literally thousands of hours. I have no sense of longing for that place. (My first few years in North Carolina, I amused myself when asked if I missed California by looking at my watch and saying something like, "About seventeen minutes so far." That is not a judgment about California, which is a fine and beautiful state, not to mention generally more liberal politically than North Carolina is.)

No, I am "at home" in our apartment. I look forward to returning there this evening. To having dinner there. To walking Wally in the apartment complex after dinner. To sitting down there to watch some episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Season Four, before perhaps reading another few pages of Pinker or a chapter of John Mortimer's first wife Penelope's novel about their marriage. (His second wife was also named Penelope.)

Home in the sense of a particular, continuing place just doesn't seem to make it for me. I suppose this could derive from my childhood experience of moving around a lot as my dad looked for work following World War II. I was born in 1943, when he worked in a naval ship yard in Alameda, California. I attended five schools in the first grade before we settled down and I finished the grade in Liberty School, a country six-year elementary school outside Petaluma, California. Except for almost a year away again during the sixth grade (to a logging camp at four thousand feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where my father dynamited terrain for the construction of roads), I finished my elementary schooling at Liberty School and went into the town of Petaluma for the seventh grade, before we moved again to the town (Tulare, in the San Joaquin Valley) where I attended eighth grade and high school.

Besides, philosophically, I am clear that even "my home on earth" is transient. I was born, and I will die. Home here has been wherever I and my people at the time were, us and our toothbrushes (Wally has one too). Many of those people have died and, contrary to the belief of many of them while they lived and of a number of their survivors, they are not in some other home now awaiting our arrival.