Thursday, May 31, 2012

When you go fishing...

Carl Jung (1875-1961), who
made much of synchronicity
(roughly, spiritually
meaningful coincidence)
On Monday, in my Mad Men post, something prompted me to suggest that the episode (in particular, Ginsberg's jingle)'s theme might be that one of advertising's missions is to persuade us to accept the delusion that we can "truly own" anything we can afford to buy (like a Jaguar automobile).
    And Ken fairly commented, "OK, I'll bite. Why can't I truly own something I've bought? I don't own the computer I'm using?"
    And I replied, "The truth is that my statement expressed a vague intuition I was having at the time, and I can't replicate it at the moment. If it returns, along with some words to express it better, you'll be among the first I'll tell them to."
    In other words, my intuition had told me that there was something illusory (or delusional) about the idea that we could "truly own something"—or "anything we can afford to buy."

"Father and Daughter" was written
for the children's animated film
The Wild Thornberrys Movie
So it was striking today that while watching Paul Simon and Friends (via Netflix download), the 2007 ceremony of performances at the Library of Congress honoring Mr. Simon for the first-ever Gershwin Prize for Popular Music, I heard the following lyrics from "Father and Daughter" (2002):
Trust your intuition
Its just like going fishing
You cast your line
And hope you get a bite [emphasis mine]
    Well, in my case it seems to have proven to be like going fishing, but I'm not sure what, if anything, I was hoping to catch. I'm certain I wasn't hoping to catch a question I couldn't answer. (Ken has asked me a few of those.)

Maybe something of what I "intuited" is suggested by Simon's next four lines:
But you don't need to waste your time
Worrying about the market place
Try to help the human race
Struggling to survive its harshest night
The words even refer to the terrain where advertising reigns, the market place. Simon (the father reassuring and counseling his daughter) suggests that worrying about it—focusing on what we can buy and sell—shouldn't be our highest value. It isn't going to help us survive our harshest night.
     If we think it is, we're deluding ourselves?

Ken, I know that's more like a poem (or a sketch for one) than an answer to your question.
    Now I need to go back and work on the last paragraph of Monday's Mad Men post.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Justify the feeling belief

Cover of a book I
only heard about
this evening
I had to "go to the restroom" the first thing at Costco this morning. Even before I was quite through the door into the men's room, I could clearly hear a conversation in progress. But I saw no one inside and realized someone was in a stall talking on a cell phone.
    The conversation was fairly personal, about how the man's daughter, I think—or someone female—seemed to be estranged from him. He seemed to be talking to another man, but I'm not sure. It didn't matter. But, without wanting to, I had become interested in the conversation. And I didn't appreciate having been drawn in.
    The discomfort wouldn't go away. On the drive home, I told my wife about it and surprised myself by pronouncing, "It was an inappropriate conversation to have in a public restroom."

As soon as I heard myself say "inappropriate," I began to wonder what basis I had for the judgment, and I quickly realized that the only reason I had for saying what I did was that the conversation had made me feel uncomfortable. My "logic" seems to have been that, because the conversation was inappropriate, it had made me feel uncomfortable .
    But for us to judge the acts or activities of other people as inappropriate because they "make us feel uncomfortable" would be anarchical—disorderly because of the absence or nonrecognition of authority [according to a web dictionary I consulted].
    Maybe some of us don't care about anything but the way we feel, and that's reason enough for us to make the judgment without a second thought. That's reason enough for some of us to oppose same-sex marriage without needing to write a letter to an editor explaining why we voted for "the marriage amendment."
    But I think most of us want the world and the people around us to fit together in an orderly manner, so we  look for an authority that we think other people will (or should) respect, or look for reasons that we think will (or should) be recognized as authoritative. What, for example, does Miss Manners say about having personal conversations in the hearing of strangers? Or what verses of the Bible show why same-sex marriages are abominable? (I lost count of the letters about the marriage amendment, but there seemed to be about as many for as against—or maybe about 60/40.)
    We look for something to justify our position and get others to agree with us (we hope).

Why do our minds work that way? Why do we feel first, then (if we have the need) look for reasons to justify it? Because, according to Gary Marcus, in his 2008 book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind [according to Annie Murphy Paul in her April 27, 2008 review ("Patch Job") in The New York Times; I haven't read the book], "the brain, like the rest of the human body of which it is a part is an ill-assorted collection of poorly matching parts, forming a distressing whole" [as Miss Paul summarized it].
     Our ability to form beliefs quickly and act on them for self-protection evolved first, and our brains still depend on the machinery that supports that ability. The need and the ability to justify, either to ourselves or others, evolved latter. Most of us, much or most of the time, seem to use the ability not to decide what to believe, but to justify what we already believe, for reasons that have little to do with evidence.
    My friend Chuck, who brought the book to my attention this evening in an email, wrote that "Kluge cites research on how reasoning works in practice. It’ll scare the hell out of you."
    Perhaps it would, if I weren't already aware that the mind, like the body of which it is a part, evolved by adapting earlier components to new uses. It doesn't work like the text-books on logic say it should. But it did take me a long time to see this, and it was a scary realization.

Miss Manners, by the way, in one of her columns, wrote that eavesdrop is rude. The fact that people in public places may not be able to avoid hearing others talk is no excuse; they must pretend they have heard nothing.
They shouldn't report the talk to their wife.
    Or blog about it?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Orange Terrorist alert justified

I finished reading John Updike's 2006 novel Terrorist this afternoon. After acknowledging five days ago Christopher Hitchens's Orange Alert that Terrorist might be "one of the worst pieces of writing from any grown-up source since the events he has so unwisely tried to draw upon," I was actually hoping that it would turn out to have been a false alarm. I hoped that John Updike, ill or not, could still have written an excellent and entertaining book. I mentally readied myself to conjecture how Mr. Hitchens could have got it wrong. He was deficient somehow when it came to literary criticism. And why was that? I prepared to adjust my uniformly high opinion of his judgment.
Terrorist (2006: John Updike) [Fatherless eighteen-year-old Ahmad—half Irish, half Egyptian—has been under the influence of imam Shaikh Rashid since he was eleven. Ahmad's Jewish guidance counselor in his inner-city New Jersey high school offers help, but Ahmad agrees to commit violence for his religious beliefs] 05-2012
My high opinion of Christopher Hitchens remains intact.
    Terrorist portrays aging Jewish guidance counselor Jack Levy convincingly, as I hoped I showed by my excerpts. But his young would-be terrorist Ahmad is a clichéd, one-dimensional acolyte, extensively indoctrinated in the Koran and continually reminding himself that he is supposed to abhor sex and hate America and Americans. He shows little sign of being a New Jersey teenager.
    New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani (in "John Updike's Terrorist Imagines a Homegrown Threat to Homeland Security," June 6, 2006) seems to absolve Updike for this character by suggesting that "the reader cannot help suspecting that Mr. Updike found the idea of such a person so incomprehensible that he at some point abandoned any earnest attempt to depict his inner life and settled instead for giving us a static, one-dimensional stereotype."
    That's tepid absolution, which I don't think Mr. Updike would have been happy to acknowledge. But it's possible. How does one comprehend a jihadist? Updike may have been determined to write something pertinent to 9/11 despite simply not being well-suited to undertake that particular subject. This can only be spectulation, and unprofitable.

But the plotting. Surely Updike could have done better than concoct a plot with more convenient coincidences than a 43-minute made-for-TV special? Levy, Ahmad's guidance counselor, happens to have an affair with  Ahmad's  mother. Levy's wife's sister happens to work for the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. The secretary happens to suspect that a terrorist plot is hatching in the town where Ahmad and his assistant's sister happen to live. The secretary's assistant happens to speak frequently with her sister, who happens to tell her about this Arab kid her husband the guidance counselor has been trying to persuade to go on to college rather than become a licensed truck driver....
     Isn't it about time for another commercial?

Now back to reading Physics for Future Presidents, which among other things "presents the science behind terrorism...."
Physics for Future Presidents: The Science behind the Headlines (2008: Richard A. Muller) [Physics professor explains basic physics to help government leaders and their constituents make better decisions about issues they face. Presents the science behind terrorism, energy, nuclear weapons and power, space and satellites, and global warming. Debates the future of alternative eco-friendly resources and new technologies.]
    Terror, terror, terror—terrorism everywhere. Not frequently orange anymore, but there in static white noise everyday of our lives.

Monday, May 28, 2012

At last

In the latest episosde of Mad Men, Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) puts out the line that gets the Jaguar account for Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce (& Harris, who puts out something else needed): "Jaguar. At last. Something beautiful you can truly own."
Mad Men: The Other Woman (2012: Phil Abraham) Season 5/Episode 11: Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) & Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) make career moves.
At last. An opportunity for Joan—
A partnership at 5 percent her own.
    But Peggy says she's finished, through,
    And does the only thing to do

"Good-bye, Don." He kisses her hand. She's gone.
This episode (Ginsberg's jingle) could be a symbol for one of advertising's missions: To persuade us to accept the delusion that we can "truly own" anything we can afford to buy. [Follow-up]

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Gild my day, Lilies!

Day Lilies have gladdened my days for many years, and may there be many more!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

More angels

I didn't mention that in the other Scandinavian movie from 2004 that we watched this week, Lena told Daniel that she could see his angel's wings (and the angel's wings of a few other members of the choir). I mention it now only because in the Norwegian movie we watched tonight, two angels play an essential role in stage-managing things to their rather touching conclusion. Netflix describes the movie as "spellbinding drama," and it is. There are even a few real feathers in this one.
He's literally an angel;
she only metaphorically
Hawaii, Oslo (2004: Erik Poppe) [It’s a hot day in Oslo, Norway, and a bunch of various characters are living out their lives. Vidar (Trond Espen Seim) works with slightly handicapped people and can’t sleep. Leon (Jan Gunnar Røise) is a patient whose birthday is tomorrow and is meeting a girl (Åsa—Evy Kasseth Røsten) for the first time a number of years. Frode (Stig Henrik Hoff) and Milla (Silje Torp Færavaag) are having a baby, but there are issues. Mikkel (Benjamin Lønne Røsler) and Magne (Ferdinand Falsen Hiis) are young brothers whose father just passed away. These characters and a handful of others are all on their own paths, but in time they all cross in some manner. There’s drama with Leon’s brother (Trygve—Aksel Hennie) who is in town (or is he?) for his birthday. Frode and his wife cross paths with Vidar who has had a dream that Leon gets hit by the ambulance carrying them and their baby to hospital…those around him are trying to help him see that this idea is absurd. It was just a dream, Leon is okay, and nothing terrible is going to happen...Just a simple day in Oslo with a bunch of average people making their way through life.] [E] 5-26-2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

My life is only mine

For all the slackness of its opening, the 2004 Swedish film that was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category (As It Is in Heaven) deserved the nomination, if only for the glorious ending to which it ascended.
Så som i himmelene [As It Is in Heaven] (2004: Kay Pollak) [Successful international conductor Daniel Daréus (Michael Nyqvist, who co-stars in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) suddenly interrupts his career and returns alone to his childhood village in Norrland, in the far north of Sweden. It doesn't take long before he is asked to come and listen to the fragment of a church choir, which practises every Thursday in the parish hall. Just come along and give a little bit of good advice. He can't say no, and from that moment, nothing in the village is the same again. The choir develops and grows. He makes both friends and enemies. And he finds love (Frida Hallgren)] [EO] 5-23-2012
The ending is the kind of all-come-together-in-music moment that I think the impresario of American Music Week in Bulgaria would love—and love to see happen again and again during his AmBul festivals. (I speak of my son. Do watch this movie, Geoff!)
    As far into the movie as five to ten minutes (I didn't note the time), I felt bored and ready to try something else, but by the ten-to-fifteen-minute mark I was well hooked by what was becoming a solidly compelling story, as Daniel Daréus latched onto the possibility he saw in the church choir he was asked to come and listen to. In the course of a few weeks, he literally transforms not only the choir itself, but most of its members, who, in responding to Daniel's challenge to find their "own tone," learn even more about themselves and each other.

One of the members is Gabriella (Helen Sjöholm), whose husband (Conny) frequently beats her and becomes predictably jealous of Daniel (who finally realizes that Conny was one of the schoolboys who bullied him). In a stirring act of compassion and understanding, Daniel draws Gabriella out by composing a song for her to sing solo in their upcoming concert. Reluctant (even refusing) at first, she assents and her performance is greeted at first by a stunned silence in the awed audience before it breaks into thunderous applause.
    You can hear Sjöholm's performance on YouTube:

    My title comes from the song's lyrics, and I found an English translation of Gabriellas Sång (side-by-side with the original Swedish) at

Daniel & Lena
However, Gabriella's Song is not the movie's ending. Nor is Gabriella the love referred to in the synopsis above (see picture at right). I believe that if you share my taste in movies at all you'll like this one very much and thrill at the joy it provokes.
    There is a spirituality to it, and I'm sure that many will consider the movie religious (the title, after all). But in some ways it's more anti-religious than religious. The pastor's wife (Inger) is so transformed by the truth she discovers by participating in the choir that she is able to tell her husband for the first time what a hypocrite he is.
    In misguided self-defense, the pastor gets Daniel ousted from his formal leadership of the choir—with the cinematically pleasing result that Inger moves out and the choir separates itself from the church.
    When the pastor asks Inger whether she will come back to him, she says she doesn't know. Maybe the following lines from Gabriella's Song catches where Inger is at this point:
I want to feel I’m alive
All my living days
I will live as I desire
I want to feel I’m alive

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reading Updike

Because I'd just finished reading Shibumi (whose Nicholai Hel is the world's #1 professional assassin, targeting terrorists), I next turned to my digital recording of Terrorist, by John Updike (2006).
    With Updike, the subject hardly matters. Who was it who said that Updike never wrote an uninteresting sentence?
The orange of the Gulf sign at the all-night gas station two blocks away is the only emphatic touch of color in the pre-dawn vista. Here and there in the neighborhood a wan, low-voltage night light warms the window of a child's room or a stair landing. In the semi-darkness, under a polished dome of darkness weakened by the climbing rot of city glow, the fore-shortened angles of roof lines, shingles, and sidings recedes to infinity. [at approximately the 55-minute point of a 10-hour, 37-minute reading]
(How could my Yale roommate Jim Carney possibly have been sincere in comparing my own collegiate letter writing to Updike's?)

When he wrote Terrorist, Updike was about Krapp's age, and mine—a few years older. And high school guidance counselor Jack Levy, who witnessed the scene depicted above, was only a year ahead of me in high school:
Prize student at Central High, Class of '59, before it felt so much like a prison and you could still study and take pride in the praise of the teachers.
Yes, those were the days.
    Jack has been lying in bed reflecting on his life:
It was like tuning the violin he used to play in his boyhood. "Another Heifetz, another Isaac Stern." Is that what his parents had hoped for?
    He disappointed them, a segment of misery where his own and the world's coincided. His parents grieved. He had defiantly told them he was quitting lessons; the life in books and on the streets meant more to him. He was eleven, maybe twelve, to take such a stand, and never picked up the violin again, though sometimes, hearing on the car radio a snatch of Beethoven or a Mozart concerto or Dvořák's gypsy music that he had once practiced in a student arrangement, Jack is surprised to feel the fingering trying to live again in his left hand, twitching on the steering wheel like a dying fish. [at approximately the 44-minute point]
    But now,
He lies exposed, as to a sickening blast of radioactivity, to an awareness of his life as a needless blot, a botch, a prolonged blunder imposed upon the otherwise immaculate surface of this ungodly hour.
    In the world's dark forest he had missed the right path. But was there any right path, or was being alive in itself the mistake?
    In the stripped-down history that he used to purvey to students who had trouble believing that the world didn't begin with their births and the proliferation of computer games, even the greatest men came to nothing, to a grave, their visions unfulfilled—Charlemagne, Charles the Fifth, Napoleon, the unspeakable but considerably successful and still, at least in the Arab world, admired Adolf Hitler. History is a machine perpetually grinding mankind to dust.
    Jack Levy's guidance counseling replays in his head as a cacophony of miscommunication. He sees himself as a pathetic elderly figure on a shore, shouting out to a flotilla of the young as they slide into the fatal morass of the world, its dwindling resources, its disappearing freedoms, its merciless advertisements geared to a preposterous popular culture of eternal music and beer and impossibly fit and thin young females. [at approximately the 49-minute point]
    It's the world in which American-born Muslim teenager Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy will be drawn (implausibly? see below) into a terrorist plot against "infidels"....

I'm on Orange Alert, however. Christopher Hitchens sent Terrorist "windmilling across the room in a spasm of boredom and annoyance," he wrote in his review in The Atlantic (June 2006, "John Updike, Part One: No Way") [p. 101 of Arguably]. He judged it "one of the worst pieces of writing from any grown-up source since the events he has so unwisely tried to draw upon" and judged Updike as "someone who has been keeping up with the 'Inside Radical Islam' features in something like Newsweek. [p. 103]
     Hitchens did allow, though, in his "Farewell to a Much-Misunderstood Man" (Slate, February 2, 2009), that "Perhaps Updike [1932-2009] was too ill by then. And something seemed to have gone wrong with his confidence toward the end. His 2006 novel, Terrorist, was a failure of nerve...."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Letting go...sooner or later

Fair Oaks, California (2011-10-10)
In "Is today Saturday?" (May 6), I wrote about browsing folders of letters and postcards before consigning them to the recycling bin. One of the school friends whose letters I mentioned wrote me a short reflection on this, which he gave me permission to share.
    Jon Price was an undergraduate at Yale when I was. I enjoyed his derisive wit, which never seemed mean, but simply just. We were both interested in philosophy; we discussed Zen frequently and believed we had discovered a Zen way to approach the game of pool, which we played frequently, if not particular well. (Not sure that our "Zen way" worked.) But a game of Eight Ball became for me a way to get away from academic concerns for a while. 
     Later we played Scrabble also. Jon usually trounced me in this—he'd mastered the use of the high-score letters, and he had a larger vocabulary as well. But surely I won a few games over the years (I liked to play all seven of my letters).
    Jon seemed a master of living right here and now and screw everything else. He could handle anything that came along; he knew where he fit in and how to get from here to there. I didn't know any of that.
     I don't know what he saw in me, unless maybe he liked the fact that I tolerated his friendly abuse and admired his ease. Plus, "Morris" was also his father's name.

Jon was the friend I mentioned here in "Still" (October 16, 2006). My wife and I visited him the summer after we got married (1966). It was his kid sister I wrote about who told us forty years later what a "powerful" impression we'd made on her. "The way you looked at each other," Susie said.
    And Jon's mother (Madeline) had made an impression on me. I'd told them of our eloping and remarked that we "really couldn't afford to get married," and Madeline hadn't hesitated to ask, "Then, why did you?" Maybe that was part of what impressed Susie. What did money have to do with love?

Jon wrote:
Hi Morris,
    I read your blog post on your second retirement. Congratulations.
    I retired twice or three times in a way, although all part of the same process. First as a full-time faculty member at the California State University, seven years ago. Second as any kind of faculty member at the CSU, except emeritus, two years ago. And once again after returning from my Fulbright in Portugal. This one feels like real retirement, and I'm not yet as proactive as you. When I first left CSUS [Sacramento] and abandoned my office, I had to clear out forty years of files. I threw away many of them, but kept a whole file drawer's worth.
    Your letters are still sitting in my files. Maybe someday I'll reread them, like Krapp and his tapes [a reference to Samuel Beckett's one-act play, Krapp's Last Tape (1958)].
    It was nice, though, that I got a mention in your blog.
    It was nice you enjoy each day. Sometimes I feel like that, others not.
    It was good you hugged your wife. Say hello to her for me. She has been a very good person and a good wife to you. That reminds me of how long I've known you—known you both—though we haven't seen much of each other lately. But I do remember we celebrated my 21st birthday together and, for me at least, that is a very positive memory; it was nice to have a very good friend visiting, along with his new wife. I also drank too much. I hardly every drink much any more.
    So stay it touch, and let me know how your retirement is going.
I take "proactive" the only way I think actually applies here: I was getting rid of stuff before I died and someone else had to do something with it.
Harold Pinter as Krapp
    Krapp was the same age in the play as I am now. It's his sixty-ninth birthday, and the tape he (and the audience) listen to is the one he made when he turned thirty-nine.
    When I was thirty-nine my wife and I were still in California, and we had visited Jon fairly often in Fair Oaks, from the time we put our daughter in a padded child's seat in the rear of our 1967 VW; our son had recently graduated to a standard seat belt.
     Since we moved to North Carolina (the year I turned forty), I've seen Jon only a handful of times. I visited him and his wife in 1987, I'm sure. I was a surprise guest at his fiftieth birthday party (arranged by Susie)—that would have been 1995. I remember being very tired at the party and taking a nap on a couch in an adjacent room, within hearing of the happy din. And sometime after that he visited us with his son in Chapel Hill. In 2002 or 2003, I think, he visited me at another friend's I was visiting in San Francisco. And, as the top picture indicates, I visited him (with my daughter and her husband) last October. I'm not sure there have been other occasions, but I think there was one (or two).
    In all those years I think the birthday card (or email greeting) I sent failed only once to arrive in time. I suspect that I've enjoyed Jon's appreciation of my remembering more than he's enjoyed my remembering.
    I may have discovered a minor reason why Jon thought of Krapp and his tapes.

A more significant reason might be that Krapp's tapes mark the passage of Krapp's life. His "last" tape might not just be his most recent but literally his last.
    Our lives, Jon's and mine, have passed, since Yale, in letters (and emails).
    We'll keep in touch until the last.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Blue bird happiness

Working in the garden shed crumbling turf turds, I noticed that birds were coming freely to the feeder about 15 feet from me, close enough to use my digital SLR to capture some close-up images out the door of the shed without the aid of a fieldscope. I took the shots below at about 4 p.m. yesterday, with my Nikon D60, its 55-200mm lens fully zoomed in (still, the images have been cropped).
    I trust that my feathered friend was happy. I was.

A taste of irony

Photo taken yesterday in Durham
Hogs are like humans...
When in their natural surroundings—not on factory farms—pigs are social, playful, protective animals who bond with each other, make nests, relax in the sun, and cool off in the mud. Pigs are known to dream, recognize their own names, learn "tricks" like sitting for a treat, and lead social lives of a complexity previously observed only in primates. Many pigs even sleep in "pig piles," much like dogs. Some love to cuddle and others prefer space.
    People who run animal sanctuaries that include pigs note that they are more similar to humans than you would guess. Like humans, pigs enjoy listening to music, playing with soccer balls, and getting massages. Pigs can even play video games!
                        –From "The Hidden Lives of Pigs"1
In many ways...
Researchers have found that pigs are among the quickest of animals to learn a new routine, and pigs can do a circus’s worth of tricks: jump hoops, bow and stand, spin and make wordlike sounds on command, roll out rugs, herd sheep, close and open cages, play videogames with joysticks, and more.
    Last week, an international team of biologists released the first draft sequence of the pig genome...Even on a cursory glance, “the pig genome compares favorably with the human genome...Very large sections are maintained in complete pieces,”...barely ch in the 100-million-plus years since the ancestors of hogs and humans diverged....
    Many physiological and behavioral parallels between humans and pigs are reflected in our respective genomes. Pig hearts are like our hearts, pigs metabolize drugs as we do, their teeth resemble our teeth, and their habits can, too. “I look at the pig as a great animal model for human lifestyle diseases...Pigs like to lie around, they like to drink if given the chance, they’ll smoke and watch TV.”
                        –From "Pigs Prove to Be Smart, if Not Vain," by Natalie Angier2
Maybe hogs do...go to heaven too3?
  1. On the website of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
  2. Article in the November 9, 2009 edition of the New York Times
  3. Humans often throw...them a chance to go:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Shibumi eats (and spits out)

Trevanian was a pen name
of Rodney William Whitaker
Driving back from Chatham County on Saturday after walking with Ralph, I continued to read Shibumi.
     It was lunch time, and awaiting me was an outing to Hillsborough with my wife. A description of lunch at Nicholai Hel's chateau in the Basque region was therefore timely:
"Eating for me [Nicholai's concubine is speaking to their guest] is for me what you might call a managed vice, a vice particularly difficult to control when one is living in France, where, depending on your point of view, the food is either the world's second best or the world's very worst."
    "What do you mean?" Hannah asked.
    "From a sybaritic point of view, French food is second only to classic Chinese cuisine, but it is so handled and sauced and prodded and chopped and stuffed and seasoned as to be a nutritive disaster. That is why no people in the West have so much delight with eating as the French. Or so much trouble with their livers."
    "And what do you think about American food?" Hannah asked, a wry expression on her face because she was of that common kind of American abroad who seeks to imply sophistication by degrading everything American.
    "I couldn't say really, I have never been in America. But Nicholai lived there for a time, and he tells me that there are certain areas in which American cooking excels."
    "Oh," Hannah said, looking archly at Hel. "I'm surprised to hear that Mr. Hel has anything good to say about America, or Americans."
    "It's not Americans I find annoying, it's Americanism, a social disease of the post-industrial world that must inevitably infect each of the mercantile nations in turn, and is called American only because your nation is the most advanced case of the malady, much as one speaks of Spanish flu or Japanese Type-B encephalitis. Its symptoms are loss of work ethic, a shrinking of inner resources, and a constant need for external stimulation, followed by spiritual decay and moral narcosis. You can recognize the victim by his constant efforts to get in touch with himself, to believe his spiritual feebleness is an interesting psychological warp, to construe his fleeing from responsibility as evidence that he and his life are uniquely open to new experience. In the latter stages, the sufferer is reduced to seeking that most trivial of human activities—fun.
    "As for your food, no one denies that the Americans excel in one narrow rubric, the snack. And I suspect there's something symbolic in that." [at approximately the 11-hour point]
Another arresting bash* a bit further along:
[Hel's concubine is speaking] "I have been wanting to ask you, Hannah, what did you read at university?"
     "What did I read?"
     "What did you major in?" Hel clarified.
     "Oh. Sociology."
     He might have guessed it. Sociology, that descriptive pseudo-science that disguises its uncertainties in statistical mists as it battens on the narrow gap of information between psychology and anthropology, the kind of non-major that so many Americans use to justify their four-year intellectual vacations designed to prolong adolescence.
* ...In view of the curious fact that sociology is the academic discipline of the chief academic officer of the University of North Carolina.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The music of time

Nicholas Poussin's painting, c. 1636,
gives its name to Powell's opus
I fell into reverie yesterday evening while listening to the song of a finch in the back yard. I say "song"; it was unmistakably musical, as are the night-time ensembles of frogs and insects and owls, the sonar discourse of whales, grass swaying in a wind.
    I say unmistakably musical, but how so? What is music? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on the philosophy of music reveals that the answer isn't so simple. One might pursue a doctoral degree in the philosophy of music.
    And the interplay of human activity in time—would that too be music?
    Yes, according to English novelist Anthony Powell, who, after the painting of Nicholas Poussin, titled his cycle of twelve novels A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975).

Powell's work was dramatized for television in 1997, in four parts of an hour and a half each. My wife and I watched them again recently (by way of Netflix download).
A Dance to the Music of Time (TV 1997: Alvin Rakoff, Christopher Morahan) [Nick Jenkins reminisces, recalling the people he met over the previous half-century, his encounters with the great and the bad] [G] 5-15,16,17,18-2012
    The narrator of the story, Nick Jenkins, describes the painting early on. He and a companion have happened onto it in a museum (its location is the Wallace Collection, London). In the first book, apparently (according to Wikipedia), Nick simply reflects narratively on the painting:
These classical projections, and something from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin's scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure, stepping slowly, methodically sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. [emphasis mine]
    I don't recall that the dramatization makes use of the italicized words, although maybe it does, for it had already occurred to me (that is, before seeing this passage) that the title could be a metaphor for history as controlled by no one, but simply unfolding, one moment determined by the preceding moment, as Sam Harris seems, in Free Will, to be saying of our lives (of his life and of yours and mine). We witness our life happening with no more than the illusion that we are freely choosing the sequence of our thoughts and feelings and actions, for each of our thoughts and feelings and actions has actually been formed in our brain prior to our becoming conscious of it. I often only discover what I think, for example, in the course of writing something, answering a question, essaying on a provocative topic.

The reason we watched A Dance to the Music of Time a second time (I'm not sure it merits it) was that I had recently read in Christopher Hitchens's last book of essays (Arguably, 2011) his 2001 review (in The Atlantic) of Anthony Powell's memoirs, To Keep the Ball Rolling (an abridgment of the memoirs' four original volumes).
    If you've read Wikipedia on Anthony Powell, you know that "Powell" does not rhyme with "towel," but is pronounced "pole." However, according to Hitchens's review ("Anthony Powell: An Omnivorous Curiosity"), it is pronounced as though an American Southerner were saying "pole"—in the drawn out, two-syllable Southern way:
To get one question out of the way before we begin:
At one of these public interrogations (I am not sure which college) a professor prefixed a question by saying—rather archly—that he was uncertain how to pronounce my name. As an inspiration of the moment I replied that like the Boston family of Lowell I rhymed it with Noël rather than towel. [emphasis mine]
Here Anthony Powell was describing an incident on his tour of New England in the early 1960s....[p. 311]
Comparing Powell to Proust, Hitchens writes that, "Like Proust, Powell was not exactly pithy (I can't offhand recall any 'quotations' from Powell, as one can from his great contemporaries Wodehouse and Waugh)...." [p. 315]
    Googling, though, did find me a few good ones:
  • Growing old's like being increasingly penalized for a crime you haven't committed.
  • He fell in love with himself at first sight, and it is a passion to which he has always remained faithful. Self-love seems so often unrequited.
  • Parents are sometimes a bit of a disappointment to their children. They don't fulfill the promise of their early years.
  • Books do furnish a room. [I've browsed a used-book store of that name in Durham, although I have now given up the practice of using books to furnish rooms.]

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The good life

Besides being one of four pen names of Rodney William Whitaker, Beñat Le Cagot was also a character in Shibumi, by Whitaker under the name of Trevanian (1979). I'm reading Shibumi now (listening to it in digital recording1). It's an accomplished, thinking man's thriller with healthy dashes of philosophy and worldly wisdom for added seasoning2. One such dash that struck me today was the following monologue of Le Cagot, made high on a mountain in the Basque Pyrennes, at night, to an audience of two shepherd smugglers and three caving3 companions just come up from the depths of the mountain:
"It is the good life," Le Cagot said lazily. "I have traveled, and I have turned the world over in my hand, like a stone with attractive veining. And this I have discovered: A man is happiest when there is a balance between his needs and his possessions. Now the question is: How to achieve this balance?
    "One could seek to do this by increasing his goods to the level of his appetites. But that would be stupid. It would involve doing unnatural things—bargaining, haggling, scrimping, working. Ergo—
    "Ergo, the wise man achieves the balance by reducing his needs to the level of his possessions. And this is best done by learning to value the free things of life—the mountains, laughter, poetry, wine offered by a friend, older and fatter women.
    "Now, me, I am perfectly capable of being happy with what I have. The problem is getting enough of it in the first place."
    "Le Cagot?" one of the old smugglers asked, as he made himself comfortable in a corner of the [hut, which is rendered in the Basque language in the book; I have no idea what it looks like]. "Give us a story to sleep on."
    "Yes!" said his companion. "Let it be of old things."
    A true folk poet who would rather tell a story than write one, Le Cagot began to weave fables in his rich, basso voice, while the others listened or dozed. Everyone knew the tales, but the pleasure lay in the art of telling them. And Basque is a language more suited to story-telling than to exchanging information. No one can learn to speak Basque beautifully. Like eye color or blood type, it is something one has to be born to. The language is subtle...Basque is a song, and while outlanders may learn the words, they can never master the music....[at approximately the 10-hour point of a 15-hour, 57-minute reading]
    I shared the gist of Le Cagot's rumination with my friend Ralph on a walk this morning in Chatham County. Ralph was of course familiar with the moral. "It's ancient."
    I told him I'd quote it in today's blog. There it is, Ralph.
  1. At any rate, the character's name sounds like "Beñat Le Cagot."
  2. I'm indebted to Motomynd for recommending it. In describing Shibumi, he said:
    Nothing turns me off a writer more quickly than someone with an obvious lack of knowledge of a real, historical subject, or a lack of ability to maintain a plausible plot line from their own created topic. With that set up, have you ever come across Trevanian? Shibumi is a model of sharp, crisp creativity and detail nicely blended to sell the whole package.
  3. Caving is known as spelunking in the United States—or so I'm informed by Wikipedia, which also informs us that speleology (a term used in Shibumi) is sometimes applied to the recreational activity of exploring caves, even though speleology proper is the scientific study of caves.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Leviticus again

I've changed my mind. I don't like the English version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo better than the original Swedish version—or not better than the extended edition, at any rate. As the blurb from Netflix (where I downloaded the extended edition yesterday) points out, "this complete version...restores notable characters and subplots from Stieg Larsson's...novels." What could be better than a sort of Masterpiece-Theater completeness in adapting Larsson's compelling stories? Or than Noomi Rapace as the girl? (Meant with no disrespect for Rooney Mara's portrayal in the English version.)
Män som hatar kvinnor [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] (2009 Extended Edition: Niels Arden Oplev) [Netflix: The extended edition of the trilogy contains more than two hours of additional footage not seen in the theatrical versions of the original Swedish films. Amassing a total of 9 hours of story content and presented in 6 parts, this complete version of the international hit series restores notable characters and subplots from Stieg Larsson's best-selling novels. In the first two parts, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) team up to investigate the unsolved disappearance of wealthy Henrik Vanger's teenage niece, Harriet Vanger] [E] 5-15-2012
    Watching Dragon Tattoo again (my fourth time if you include the two viewings of the Swedish theatrical version and the English version) reminded me how crucial the Book of Leviticus is to the plot. Lisbeth Salander discovers its significance, and Mikael Blomkvist comments that it's the best clue they've discovered so far. The novel's way of using Leviticus underscores by connotation how pathological was the culture that produced Leviticus.
    And it underscores in turn how pathetic it is to base one's "principled" objection to gay marriage today on a selection from ancient Leviticus.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The situation

The same day I reported here "Why I decided to retire," I mailed the President of the University of North Carolina a formal, signed version of the email I'd sent him the preceding Monday (and mentioned in my "decision" report). Today I received a cordial reply in which the President thanked me for sharing my concerns and said he regretted that I'd had to go through that. He said he'd "keep a close eye on the situation."
    I was encouraged by that, and also cheered by the President's taking the opportunity to thank me for my "many years of service to our great University." He acknowledged that I had "contributed immensely to [its] operations" and said he sincerely appreciated my work.
    And I appreciated hearing it from him.
    From him, whose words I can believe.

Because I didn't wish to hear similar words spoken insincerely from one of the supervisors involved "in the situation" (which I described in the cited post), I had emailed the President on April 16, under the pretext of apologizing for not being at his staff meeting that morning, to let him know that:
The reason I'm not there (I'm writing this during the meeting) is that I could not bear the thought of having to suffer the possible utterance of my name by [either] supervisor when they reported their division's activities*. It's the same reason that I declined their offer on Friday to host a retirement party for me on my last day.
    I had told them:
Some friends will be taking me to lunch on April 23. I don't need or want a party hosted by you. Thanks.
    Thanks, but no thanks. Not in your situation.
* A friend who attended the staff meeting told me that my name and retirement had indeed been uttered by the chief supervisor, so my absence had spared me the hearing thereof.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Every day of retirement?

When I retired, I expected that henceforth I would never miss a day of blogging. But a few late evenings of desperation, when I was tired from turf-turding, or just tired, or empty of inspiration—perhaps because I had some inspiration earlier in the day but made the mistake of ignoring it for later—have taught me that my daily post had better not be forced. Writing something because I "should" or because I promised myself I would hasn't done it for me.
    Posts I've written for those reasons likely haven't done it for anyone else either, for I suspect that even some posts I've written and really liked didn't do it for anyone else, but only for me.
    It would be too sad for a post not to do it for anyone at all.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Another movie tie-in to current events

As the black humor of Adam's Apples reflected the unruly weirdness of the Biblical basis of support for the marriage amendment, so did the plot line of the 2011 movie Margin Call reflect (or at least bring strongly to mind) the plot of the recently reported failure of JPMorgan Chase.
Margin Call (2011: J.C. Chandor) [Follows the key people at an investment bank, over a 24-hour period, during the early stages of the financial crisis] [E] 5-2?-2012
    New York Times movie critic A. O. Scott wrote on October 20, 2011 ("Number Crunching at the Apocalypse") that
There have been reports of hurt feelings among the bankers and brokers who have been the focus of public ire and Occupy Wall Street protests. And it is true that those poor, hard-working souls have been demonized and caricatured. Surely the much-reviled 1 percent does not consist of plutocrats in top hats or predators in blue suits, but of human beings just like the other 99 percent of us, albeit with more money and perhaps more to answer for.
    That, in a way, is the message of J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call, which does a great deal to humanize the authors—and beneficiaries—of the 2008 financial crisis. But the film, relentless in its honesty and shrewd in its insights and techniques, is unlikely to soothe the wounded pride of the actual or aspiring ruling class. It is a tale of greed, vanity, myopia, and expediency that is all the more damning for its refusal to moralize.
    To what extent greed, vanity, myopia, and expediency played roles in the recent failure, I'm not able to say, not being much of an observer of such matters. I'm just saying.
    And recommending Margin Call as an excellent film deserving of your serious attention and cinematic enjoyment. It's blackly comic, too, in a way.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

How to slice & peel a mango (in that order)

Yes, slice a mango before peeling it. In previous years I peeled first, and doing that with but a single mango should have been enough to tell me that that isn't the right approach. Instead, I kept trying to learn how to slice a peeled mango without launching it across the room (or cutting myself).
    I guess it was my inability to slice without launching (or without coming perilously close to cutting a finger) that led me to try a whole new approach, as shown in this series of chronological photographs taken this very evening:

A perfectly soft mango (softening accelerated by the
mango's having been enclosed in a paper bag,
to collect the ethylene exhaled by its skin)
I've sliced the right half away from the mango's fibrous seed
Now both sides have been sliced away from the seed
(shown in the lower left)
Ooh, I forgot; at this point I do a bit of peeling,
of the skin around the narrow perimeter of the seed
(sometimes I get a single long piece of skin, but not this time)
Now I've sliced away the flesh from around the seed edges
And I've sliced one side into eight segments
...and wrapped the other half for having in the morning
Now I've sliced the side segments
(and already put the skin into the compost collecting container)
I've halved my wife's segments,
arrayed them casually on a small plate, and
provided a round toothpick for dainty eating
Now I've added eight large strawberry halves to her plate
The chef likes to delectate over smaller pieces,
and to do so still in the kitchen, off the cutting board

Friday, May 11, 2012

And now for some relieving laughter

Now that we've had a moment of silence (and removed our black arm bands) following Tuesday's election, let's indulge in some weird laughter by watching the 2005 Danish film
Adams æbler [Adam's Apples] (2005: Anders Thomas Jensen) [In this black comedy, a utopian clergyman finds his starry-eyed outlook challenged by a neo-Nazi ordered to perform community service at his church.] [E] 5-9-2012
The operative words in that brief description from Netflix are black comedy. The film, writes New York Times movie critic Matt Zoller Seitz (in his review "Religion with Guns," published March 15, 2007)
The clergyman (Mads Mikkelsen)
and Adam (Ulrich Thomsen)
is one of the latest examples of the post-Pulp Fiction bloody comedy [Pulp Fiction is one of my all-time favorite movies]. It's also one of the weirdest, mixing glib humor with dead-serious spiritual inquiry.
    My wife and I actually watched it the day after the election, so we had our laughter prior to putting on our black arm bands on Thursday. The movie and the passage of "Amendment One" in North Carolina do have one thing in common—weird. Well, two—religion also.
    But, then, religion is weird. You justify voting for the Defense of Marriage Act by quoting Leviticus 18:22, which states that homosexuality is an abomination, but you conveniently ignore
  • Leviticus 11:20*, which says the same thing about eating shellfish,
  • Leviticus 25:44, which states that you may possess slaves,
  • Exodus 21:7, which permits you to sell your daughter into slavery,
  • Leviticus 19:27, which forbids you (if you're a man) from having your hair trimmed,
  • Leviticus 11:6-8, which forbids you to play football [well, literally, it says that touching the skin of a dead pig makes you unclean],
  • Leviticus 24:10-16, which requires that you stone your neighbor to death if he curses and blasphemes,
  • Leviticus 20:14, which requires you to burn people to death if they sleep with their in-laws....
The black humor is pretty thick here too.
    Still, I recommend Adam's Apples if you like black comedy in film and are looking for an excellent one. (By the way, every time the Bible that the clergyman gave Ivan falls onto the floor, it falls open to the first page of the Book of Job.)
* I didn't check all of these references (I break out in a rash when I open the Book of Leviticus), but just used them as I found them, in a humorous letter to Dr. Laura Schlesinger written by James M. Kauffman, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus Dept. of Curriculum, Instruction, & Special Education at the University of Virginia. Dr. Schlesinger had said on her radio show [I am told by my friend Jason Jolley]
that homosexuality is an abomination, according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned by an observant Orthodox Jew under any circumstance.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A moment of silence, please

‎"All the fools in town are on our side—that's a majority anywhere."
–Mark Twain,
The Man Who Corrupted Hadleysburg
Put on your black arm band
"A setback for human rights and dignity," as a headline in today's Durham Herald-Sun put it. Sixty percent of North Carolina voters had somehow voted for "Amendment One," or the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA).
    In the column beneath that heading, Chris Fitzsimon, the executive director of North Carolina Policy Watch, explained the outcome this way:
Polls showed that the amendment would pass in large part because the vast majority of voters did not understand what the amendment actually would mean, how many lives it would affect, how many laws it would threaten, how many families it would hurt.
    Judging by the many Bible-thumping letter-writers who got their diatribes printed in newspapers in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's election, I think it's fair to say that the voters they represented didn't give a jot or a tittle about any of that.
    If the amendment didn't pass because of ignorant (intellectually aberrant) voters, it may have passed because of the Bible-adherent, morally abhorrent ones.  (Hmm, enough rhymes here for a limerick or two....)
Mr. Fitzsimon's text can be found on the NC Policy Watch website under the title "The morning after and the morning after that," dated yesterday.
    Thanks to my friend Mr. Tom Lowe for the Mark Twain quote.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mebane, NC's famous teenager

Fourteen-year-old Jake Foushee, of Mebane, North Carolina, came to my attention only recently, but his voice has been in the news for about a month. Listen and you'll understand how that could be.


About a month ago, while I was still commuting to work (that is, before I retired), I happened one day to ask a passenger sitting in the seat ahead of me whether he'd ever been told that he looked like the actor Bob Balaban. He said he hadn't, but that was an interesting thought.
    A few minutes later, he turned to me and said that because I seemed to be knowledgeable about movies (how many people have heard of Bob Balaban?), he wanted to tell me about this terrific video on YouTube. "Someone has done a collage of Rita Hayworth dancing with different people, and set the whole thing to the Bee Gees' song 'Stayin' Alive'."
     I finally got around to watching (and listening to) it today. It is terrific, and I think you'll like it too. Right now. Not a month from now.

Up against a wall of hats

It's fun today to remember the fun we were having on February 26, in the colorful shops of Pescadero, California.
    There's a self-portrait in there somewhere. (Wearing the cheesy grin.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Those dull, blank eyes

When I told a friend of M. Scott Peck's line about the eyes of "people of the lie" ("...hooded with reptilian torpor....," [People of the Lie (1985), p. 196], he said
that's the classic look of the crocodiles in Africa as they swim toward you. They don't rush, they don't show expression. They just give you a look that says "you mean nothing to me but food and I am coming to eat you and there is nothing you can do about it."
    In workplaces characterized by reptilian disregard for employees among the positionally powerful, the help are advised to get out of the water.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Modern face of a katydid

A caryatid (Greek: Καρυάτις)
was a sculpted female figure
used in architecture;
a katydid is a cricket 
When I was pointed out* to the new white lady
by the old, a Judas look passed between them
that I didn't register then. I was distracted—maybe
I could come to think her comely, she was tall and slim,

the bridge of her nose had something in it Greek,
and her buggy eyes—didn't Socrates also stare?
But soon I came to see that no lamplight peeked
from inside out, nothing gleamed, no brilliance flared,

no love radiated from her unsmiling mouth;
no light, no nurture, no glistening from that face.
An agenda had been given her, her project set.

Rilke himself could not have seen a glow within
her eyes—so dull and blank. There was no place
that really saw me. My choice to retire was a given.
* January 17, 2012, in the Board Room