July 31, 2005

Packing Day

We're packing for a big two-week trip, leaving tomorrow. Spread on the floor is an array of empty suitcases, backpacks, daypacks, and traveling bags, as we decide which ones to use. At various points in the house, like cairns marking a trail, are neat little piles of folded clothing -- mine here, hers there, theirs there -- and clusters of toiletry bottles, vials, and tubes huddling for safety. On the kitchen counter is a pagelong handwritten list, to be checked off as we pack.

Actually we can't get very far until the laundry's done and dried.

I take one medium-sized bag for pretty much any trip of any length. This time I'm taking four tee shirts, two tropical shirts, two pairs of cargo shorts, and, worn on the plane, one pair of jeans. One pair of walking shoes and one pair of water sandals. Four pairs of socks. The tee shirts and socks are made of special high-tech postmodern fibers known only to us experienced outdoor types, moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and crushable to any shape.

We'll be staying at an ecotourist lodge in the southern sector of the great North American continent. We hope to snorkel, swim with wild dolphins, walk in the rain forest canopy, and most of all, lie placidly on the beach.

It will probably also be a vacation from blogging. I'm not bringing a computer, and I doubt if the lodge's computer is available to guests for this purpose. But we'll see.

July 30, 2005

Mr. Gobley Keeps Rolling

Hey Mr. Gobley! is a blog I regularly envy for its high level of insight and felicitous expression on matters of religion. If you're looking for a discussion between a believer and a nonbeliever on the impact of religion on human life, in which each party has to admit the force and sense of the other's views, and each party strives open-mindedly for broader understanding, read this free-verse post from yesterday and, especially, the comments.

July 29, 2005

What Was Your Favorite Book When You Were a Kid?

My youngest child, Agent 97, asked me that question last night and it made me smile. I read a lot when I was a kid – so much so that friends used to make fun of me or even threaten me because of it. Some of it could have been called precocious – a book of Poe’s stories bought at a book fair in third grade, for example, and the occasional classic such as GULLIVER’S TRAVELS snatched from my English-teacher father’s shelves – but most of it was kid books, either fiction or science or history. I loved the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED comic books that gave me MOBY DICK and A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT and TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNER THE SEA in a quicker and friendlier form than the real things. Like most boys in my generation I read the Hardy Boy mysteries and the Tom Swift books.

But there was one series that thrilled me more than those: the Rick Brant Science Adventure books, 24 volumes written by a pseudonymous “John Blaine” and published between 1947 and 1968. They never achieved the iconic status of Hardy and Swift, but they were more exciting and they gave the reader knowledge along with adventure. Volume 8, THE CAVES OF FEAR (1951), introduced me to that classic boyhood pursuit, cryptography, and the principle of the book code. The first volume, THE ROCKET’S SHADOW (1947), had discussed rocketry in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Rick Brant, the hero, was a teenager who lived with his scientist father on an island called Spindrift off the northeastern seaboard. He flew his own Piper Cub and traveled the world with his slightly older ex-Marine pal Scotty and their slightly younger Indian friend Chahda (whose name means “fourteen”), solving mysteries that required scientific understanding and physical daring.

And there was one other science-adventure book that was equally special to me: ASSIGNMENT IN SPACE WITH RIP FOSTER, by “Blake Savage.” Rip (Richard Ingalls Peter) Foster was a lieutenant (at that age I idolized anyone called “lieutenant” – it was what I wanted to be, and come to think of it, my father had been a lieutenant in the war) in the Planeteers, an interstellar special force whose job was to explore new planets. He was assisted by the heroic seven-foot-tall pureblood Hawaiian Sergeant Koa, and I can’t for the life of me remember the slightest details of the action of the book, but there was plenty of it. And there was the same scientific foundation as in the Rick Brant books. Here’s a comment from the website of a fan, a craftsman and motor-home named Andy Baird (scroll down to "Assignment in Space"):

I was eight, and the brightly colored cover with its sleek rockets and violent explosions was irresistable. But what I discovered when I got the book home and began to read it was far more than a cheap sci-fi potboiler. The author, Blake Savage, not only spun a riveting yarn of battles in space—he knew his science. Orbital mechanics, chemistry and nuclear physics all played vital roles in the story, and as I read and reread the book I learned much that tied in with what I'd already learned from the excellent Disney book "Our Friend the Atom." This was plausibly extrapolated technology, not fantasy. Tom Swift would have located a thorium asteroid with his Electro-Metalloscope or some equally implausible gadget; Rip Foster identified it by its albedo, just as a geologist would. (I knew this because my father is a paleontologist, and many of the people my parents hung out with were geologists.)…

[Tom Swift author] Victor Appleton didn't know a gamma ray from a manta ray when it came to science. Blake Savage did, and "Rip Foster" proved it. Every detail of the story was thoroughly believable and based on sound physics; that's why the book made such a lasting impression on me. The author was clearly writing for juvenile readers, yet he refused to talk down or oversimplify.

Agent 97’s question brought all this back to me, and made me smile to realize that my two favorite adventure heroes were both named Richard. This morning it occurred to me to look the books up online, and sure enough, I found that there’s a website devoted to the Rick Brant books. And examining the site I learned something I hadn’t known, which made the whole thing fit together: the Rick Brants and the Rip Foster were written by the same person! John Blaine and Blake Savage were both really Hal Goodwin, an ex-Marine combat correspondent, NASA information officer, U.S. Information Agency science advisor, and civil defense director at Nevada nuclear tests, who died in 1990 at age 75.

Hal Goodwin was my favorite writer, and for more than forty years I hadn’t known it.

I bless his memory, and I hope that someday my kids will think back to J. K. Rowling, K. A. Applegate, and their other literary idols, with the same gratitude and affection.

July 28, 2005

Creative Writing Class

Good morning, class. For today’s warmup exercise I’d like you to imagine a group of creative writing students, eager, idealistic, passionate, dedicated. Now let twenty years pass, and imagine where they are. Which one has made it to fame and fortune, and flies through the years from conference to conference, interview to interview, realizing somewhere in the middle that she has nothing more to say, no more stories to tell, but keeps going, book after diminishing book, because she doesn’t have the imagination to change? Which one is director of creative writing at an obscure college, and spends his life hiding his defeats from his colleagues and trying futilely to ride the coattails of the famous writers who visit the campus? Which one committed suicide? Which one married a man she doesn’t like, and has him build her a studio she can write in while the kids are in daycare, and tells her friends all about the progress she’s making on her book, and never writes a page she doesn’t tear up? Which one takes a job as editor of a trade magazine for arena managers, and drinks away his evenings trying to think of an idea for a novel that will get him out of there? Which one’s annual writing output consists of a chatty Christmas letter to her classmates, to which no one ever replies? Which one went off on a motorcycle in search of material and vanished into a desert village where he fixes flat tires and sets up satellite dishes and tells stories over a mesquite fire? Which one went to medical school and dreams of publishing a bestselling memoir of heroic doctoring, as he prescribes the same antibiotic ten times a day? Which one drives a truck hauling steel cylinders from coast to coast, and writes poems in his cab at rest stops and puts them on a website for three strangers? Which one made money investing, and sits in a houseboat on the Seine writing thrillers that never quite thrill? Which one manages a superstore and has no time to write anything except inventory sheets and sales reports and employee reviews? Which one is the partner of a famous author, and no closer to success because of it, and at breakfast every morning looks at him and thinks, “Why?” Which one teaches first grade and loves it, and laughs fondly when she remembers this class?

Take a moment before you begin to write, class. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and evenly. Feel the call within you. Feel the sacredness of what we are doing, and know that you will never give up. Let the beauty that is within you rise, let it emerge from its hiding places and rejoice in the cleansing light of language, the healing air of story. And now begin.

July 27, 2005

Fine, How Are You?

A couple of days ago we were discussing the implications of the question, “How are you?” Each commenter had his or her own interpretation, ranging from offense at the question’s insincerity, to glee at the opportunity to tell people what they didn’t want to know. Tamar even posted about the subject on her own blog.

For me the question prompts memories of a bygone life and of cultural adaptation. I was raised among uncouth people, many of them immigrants, who were in the process of painfully learning American social codes. They were naïve enough to take the question “How are you?” at face value and to give honest answers. Ask the question unwarily and you might be hit by a reply such as, “Oy, I’ve got a stomach virus, I’ve been to the bathroom five times already this morning, and that shmuck who calls himself a doctor tells me not to come in.” Or, “How I am? That son of a bitch lost the rent money at the track again, how should I be?”

Most often the question was taken as an invitation to trade minor complaints, often of a medical variety. It was interpreted as a query about who had colds and whether they were getting better.

The answer, “Lousy,” was considered a good opening, to be followed by a full recital.

I was several years into adulthood before I realized that “How are you?” was just a pro forma question, a synonym for “Hello,” and not to be taken literally or answered at length. This was slightly embarrassing for me at first, when I recalled past mistakes in answering, but as time went on I became grateful for the tactfulness of the custom. Most of the time, “Fine” is all I want to say and all I want to hear.

It occurs to me, though, that there’s a corollary question we ask when we really do want to hear details: “What’s new?” People often take this as a prompt to boast about how they’re fixing their porch or how their kid won a soccer trophy or how they bought a plasma TV. This is a question that somewhat fazes me because I usually can’t think of an answer. My life is pleasant and uneventful on the whole, and the only answer I can think of is, “Daily life continues to proceed.” I would have to stop and think for a socially unacceptable length of time – perhaps a whole minute – in order to recall what has made one recent day different from another. So I reply, “Nothing much, what’s new with you?” and feel I’m disappointing my listener. To top it off, when my listener tells me details of everyday life that I would have thought unworthy of telling him, I’m often fascinated.

“What’s new?” has lately transmogrified into “What’s up?” and “Wassup?” but I get the feeling that this question usually lacks the sincerely curious intent of “What’s new?” “Wassup?” is just a pro forma greeting; you say it (the interrogative tone has been lost over the years) and get the identical greeting in response.


July 26, 2005

Do Less Better

The best thing you can do to succeed in internal martial arts is to take the primary technique of the art you do...and really practice that technique to death, ad infinitum. Not like an unfeeling mindless machine, but more like a musician playing chords until you really get what it is. It's going to be from that foundation that your natural creativity, talent, ability, and insight are going to truly emerge. As my first Ba Gua teacher Wang Shu Jin used to say, "It is better to do one technique well than ten thousand poorly."

-- Bruce Kumar Frantzis, interviewed in NEI JIA QUAN: INTERNAL MARTIAL ARTS, edited by Jess O'Brien, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2004, pp. 105-106.

And yesterday Dilys quoted this from Kierkegaard's ROTATION OF CROPS:

The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.

With that, I'll limit this post.

July 25, 2005

So How Are You Really?

An old friend, whom I haven’t talked to in months, sends me a one–line email:

“So how are you really?”

I reply: “As opposed to…?”

And add a summary about as long as a blog post.

I wonder, has my friend been reading this blog? And glimpsed, or thought to have glimpsed, something unstated behind it?

This blog is as honest as I can make it. But I’m as complicated as anyone. It can't be a complete narrative of my life or a complete confession of my soul. I have many personalities, some of which I myself am more familiar with than others.

Then who is the “I” in the previous sentence? Who is this “I” who possesses, encompasses, those many personalities, and may even misunderstand some of them? Is that “I” the most real of them, or the least real, a mere narrative persona?

“I” don’t know.

My friend’s message could as easily have been, “So who are you really?”

Over the years I’ve tried to become aware of, recognize, become friends with, as many of those sub–personalities as I can, while making the overall “I” simpler and more straightforward. To acknowledge and unify them. To turn the negative ones positive by giving them their due.

Rereading my friend’s message, it occurred to me: what if it wasn’t a private message? What if he sent blind copies to everyone he knew, and gathered the replies? What an anthology that would make!

July 23, 2005

Plano Morning

The first thing I saw through the motel window this morning was a tall, muscular black man doing the Yang style tai chi form in the parking lot. An intermediate student, apparently: he knows the moves but his pace isn’t smooth. An hour later, the lot is dotted with a few more practitioners, one of them, a middle-aged Chinese man, doing Chen style with fluidity and intensity, as if a slight turn of his palm could knock you down – which it probably could. And the Yang style black man is still there practicing: he’ll get to the next level before I do.

I’ve traveled to this northern suburb of Dallas, with its overwhelmingly aggressive highway-front of chain motels and franchise restaurants, for a Chinese martial arts tournament – tai chi, kung fu, wu shu, chi sau, shuai chiao, ba gua, wing chun, xing yi, choy lay fut, and who knows what else – because my teacher requires it, not because I want to be here. The whole idea of competition is antithetical to tai chi, as book after book tells you, for the skills of forcefulness and flashiness required to win a competition are precisely those tai chi seeks to supplant with deceptive softness and spontaneous cunning.

But I’m getting something out of the experience by taking lots of workshops – in fact I had three scheduled at the same time yesterday and had to reshuffle. All three I took were from masters who have been teaching in this country for decades after arriving here from China. In different ways, in different words (and sometimes in the same words) they emphasized the same point, which cannot be emphasized too often:


Don’t press. The force you think you are exerting is not really force but tension. Speed and acceleration are far more important than mass. Don’t go in with a plan; just follow what’s happening and respond before it happens. Leave your mind empty and your motions free and the opponent can’t follow you. Be in motion continuously. Defend on the weak side, not the strong side: start from Yin and turn it into Yang. Let the opponent overextend: take him where he already wants to go.

Time and again in these workshops, we saw how a soft movement is more effective than a hard movement in countering an attack. It takes a lifetime of patience to develop this skill, but once developed, it is almost magical. And perhaps to have the patience to get there is to have the skill itself.

Not a slack, enervated relaxation but an alert, energetic relaxation, a freedom from tension. The Chinese word is song, which is not adequately translated by any one English word.

I’m wondering how to apply it to life, which is of course the real point of all this. We all know of times when we’ve pressed too hard, meeting a force with too much force of our own and ending in a painful stalemate. Over the decades, in marriage especially, I’ve learned not to confront so much, not to insist on being right or having the last word.

Most men, most American men, in various aspects of their lives need to learn not to tense up so much, not to care about putting up a show of force, not to flood with anger, not to put their own tension into their own paths.

At the same time – having all the typical problems plus the opposite, less typical ones too – I’ve sometimes been told I’ve been too passive, too “go with the flow,” too yin. (Many years ago, long before I studied Chinese things, a therapist summed up my problem as “too yin. You need more yang.”)

The correct approach, of course, is balance. That’s really what tai chi is all about. It’s not a question of favoring yin over yang, although that is done strategically at certain points. It’s a matter of observing the constant, continuous flow of yin into yang and yang into yin. Neither of them can ever remain static, and each includes the other. (Which is why in the tai chi, also known as the “ying-yang diagram,” the black half contains a white dot and the white half a black dot.) You follow the changes and keep your balance, and you remain ready to turn each into the other.

In writing for example. What am I to write this morning? Well, I just looked out the window and found it. What words can I use to describe it best? No pressing for fancy words. As Kerouac said in “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose” (a quotation from which is always at the top of this page), “dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better.”

There are different guys out on the parking lot now, practicing. I’d better do something too.

July 22, 2005

I'll be on the road this morning, driving to an ambiguous function on the outskirts of a large Texas city. I'll be in a motel with Internet access, so I hope to get back to you tonight or tomorrow morning.

In the meantime, thanks to overnight commenters on three recent posts!

July 21, 2005

We Are Prey

After he’s made his kill --- those are the best times. Then we can breathe easy. In the settling red dust cloud we tiptoe back to the river, glancing sidelong at him tearing his prey with his beautifully curved white fangs. Blood all over his jaws, and the humble sacrifice of the carcass tossing with the tugs of his head, its slender legs flopping against the ground: not to run away anymore, not in fright, but in complete acceptance.

Who was it this time? An albino, easy pickings. None of the rest of us are albinos.

How foolish it seems in retrospect, our panicked flight! We were not the target.

Muddy–hoofed, our hides coated with the dust and grass stalks we kicked up in alarm, we check our families. No one we know has been lost.

A frisson goes through us, a message passing along quivering flanks: he’s coming to the river again! But this time only to drink and clean his face -- no need for fear. His belly is full, he is drowsy. How regal he is, how majestic! Watching him is worth giving up a gulp of water, a mouthful of seeded grass. The ease of his padded stride, the instantaneous, total power beneath the loose–hung skin.

We look a little like that, don’t we, our backs clayed with the dust of our run? It camouflages us just as his coloring does him. Eyeing him, we try to lap the water from the stream the same way he does, shake the droplets from our cheeks as if we had whiskers. When he looks up, we look up too, learning to look dangerous.

When he turns toward the trees with that lazy gait of fullness, some of us, the brave ones, do the same. We trot behind him with our own lazy swaggers, chuffing through our nostrils with full–belly contentment. How close can we get? Who’ll get the closest? If he turns and snarls at us, we’ve scored points: he’s noticed us. If he bats at us with his paws, high points indeed. Who cares if we lose an ear flap or the tip of a tail, or if a claw lightly rakes a side? Honor to those who receive such wounds.

We return to the river, breathing fast after playing with him, the meat-scent of his breath still in our lungs. (He needs us. We give him life.) We’ll tell our young how we got these slightly bleeding cuts. Then we’ll settle peacefully to graze among our kin. We are safe.

July 20, 2005

Dreaming for Answers

One of the constant private themes of my mental life since childhood has been that life is a beautiful wonderland that confuses and baffles me, and that when I ask people for explanations I’m more confused than ever. In waking adult life I realize that no one has the answers, we’re all puzzled and mystified, but sometimes in dreams I find that I’m still the same child asking the grownups for answers and being so frustrated I want to cry.

I’m waking up very late this morning after a series of dreams that held me down in sleep, fascinated, desperate for answers and not getting any.

-- A bunch of people call me on the phone to arrange a social gathering, claiming we know each other, and I begin a long, labyrinthine journey with them even though I have no idea who they are – and yet later my best friend assures me that I know those people from past get-togethers.

-- I’m a car passenger on the main thoroughfare to a writer’s colony called Loincloth. Everyone else in the crowded car is a guest at Loincloth but I’m only a gawking spectator, subject to dismissal if they feel like getting rid of me, because I haven’t made the smart career choices they have. I ask one of my fellow riders what I should do next in my writing career, and get no answer.

-- I’m at a crowded, shabby beach resort, streets lined with amusement park attractions and gaudy restaurants. I want to get back to my wife and kids, who are in a quieter place, but I can’t figure out how to work the dream-strange message system, which has elements of bingo and pinball about it.

-- I make a new friend there, a guy of my size and type, and I demonstrate push hands, a form of two-person tai chi training, throwing him over a sea wall. But when he returns it becomes clear that he’s a far more advanced practitioner than I am: he’s a member of a troop of military commandos who are putting on an exhibition at the beach, throwing sharp metal discs back and forth like Frisbees so that they make sinuous paths through the troop (who stand at intervals like pinball posts) without hurting anyone. My friend mocks me for thinking that my puny amount of training has taught me anything worthwhile. I beg him to teach me more, but he won’t even tell me the name of the martial art he practices. “How can you call yourself a teacher,” I plead, “when you won’t explain anything?” The unstated answer, that I’m supposed to figure things out for myself, frustrates me immensely and makes me want to give up. I’ve been hearing it all my life. I decide that only a small number of extraordinary people have the courage and strength to figure it out for themselves, while I have only enough to go partway and then stop.

(In a previous post about dreaming, I mentioned that my dreams often have song associations which I discover after waking. This one, of course, would be Dylan’s song “Series of Dreams.”)

July 18, 2005


“Be with you in just a minute,” the aide says, poking her head into the doorway. “Soon as I finish helping this lady next door.”

The old woman in the chrome and rubber chair by the bed frets to herself for the next five minutes. “When is she coming? I called and called. They hire untrained people – I never know which one they’re sending – always trying to take a break – it’s impossible.”

The aide walks in, brisk and smiling. “What can I do for you, honey? You need to go to the bathroom? Look at you, you’re all squooshed down in your chair! Let’s get you more comfortable.” Making sure the wheel brakes are set, she stands in front of the old woman, squats slightly, and hoists her patient up by the armpits a few inches. The old woman gasps in pain. “Ow!” – it sounds like a child. “That’s where I have a new lump.”

“I’m sorry – “

“It’s not your fault.” Wincing, the patient catches her breath in diminishing gasps. “But that’s not what – “

Her tongue moves against the backs of her upper teeth, but no word comes out.

“That’s not what you called me about? What is it, sweetie? What did you want?”

The old woman shakes her head, with a faint, faroff expression. “I know you don’t like when I call.”

“What are you saying? What do you mean? You call whenever you like, you hear me? We want you to call. That’s what we’re here for. You’re paying me to help you, you understand? You need to go to the toilet, you need to change your clothes, you need a drink of water, anything. You press that red button by the bed.”

“It’s only for emergencies.”

“Who told you that? It is not only for emergencies.” The aide steps closer, places a hand on the old woman’s hand. “Get that out of your mind, you hear me? That button is for you to use any time, you understand?”

With a meek exhalation, the old woman says, “All right.”

“Now what did you call me for?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” Her eyes go cloudy; she looks past the aide, at the open doorway. “I didn’t know whether to call or not. It’s – “ She shakes her head. Mouth half open, her tongue seeks her teeth and only sometimes finds them, glancing off them and floating behind them like something trying to find its way out of a sea cave. “I’m losing my bearings. I’m trying to tell – it bothers me – I can’t -- ”

The aide is looking at her, letting her try to talk.

“I couldn’t remember -- ” the old woman begins, and then stops, tongue dabbing air, forehead wrinkled, one hand lifting as if dislodged by a current. “What couldn’t I remember?”

“I’ll get you a glass of water, all right?”

The old woman nods, resigned. A glass of water looms up at her and wets her lips, which tentatively touch each other as if to check whether they are still there.

“Is there anything else I can do for you before I go?” the aide asks. “Do you need to go to the bathroom?”

The half-closed eyes flutter. “If you could put me in – “ she searches for the word “that thing –“ The eyelids flutter almost fully closed, looking for words in the dark. “You could take me to the garden room, if I was in – “ she shakes her head, frustrated. “That thing –I could sit – you could move me.”

“You mean your wheelchair?”

The old woman sighs. “Yes. Wheelchair. You could put me in it and take me– “

“Honey,” the aide says, “you are in your wheelchair.”

July 17, 2005

Great Looks

At least three-quarters of the railroad passengers from Connecticut to New York on a Saturday morning in the summer are female: they’re going shopping in the city. Groups of girlfriends all the same age, or multigeneration family groups, a grandmother, her daughter, and the daughter’s teenage children, all questing together for the great look, the designer names that will brand them as sophisticated – a perennially frustrated quest, for when they bring their packages back to the suburbs and try on their new purchases, they’ll find that the garments have magically lost the glamor of shop windows and mannequins, instead marking the wearer as coming from exactly where she comes from.

I haven’t lived in New York for more than twenty years, and to me its people now look doughy and gravity-sagged, and no matter what their ethnic skin color, they all have a yellow-gray air about them, the tinge of dealing every day with subway fares and rent increases and the endless search for the next restaurant, the next clothing store, the latest show, the hottest stock. They’re eating big bites of fast food from soggy oversized wrappers; they’re talking loudly across aisles; they’re stretching their arms forward to take telephone photos of themselves. They’re wearing famous brands, and they’ve spent too much on haircuts, eyeglasses, makeup, and accessories that don’t suit their faces. They feel they’ve done it right because they’ve spent too much.

I’m traveling down to see my half-sister L., who’s twenty-one: I moved away from the city just a few months after she was born, and every time we meet it’s a grand reacquaintance. We meet on a corner on upper Lexington Avenue – we hug – I tell her she looks great, which is true, and she returns the compliment. She ran in a five-mile race earlier this morning, and now we’re going to walk all over the Upper East Side, my earliest Manhattan stomping ground. I show her the building I used to live in on 91st Street – this block of five-storey tenements looks almost the same externally as it did a generation ago, but you can bet that behind the old brick walls, the apartments have been upgraded and rewired for the benefit of those who spend two thousand or more per month for their apartments, unlike the $175 that was my rent for a two-bedroom with an airshaft view and a claw-foot bathtub in the kitchen and one 15-amp fuse for the entire apartment and a roach population approximately equal to that in the whole state of Connecticut.

L. and I eat an elegant Chinese lunch and, later, a delicious strudel in a Hungarian pastry shop on Second Avenue. In between, we stroll west to Central Park, through the streets of old New York money, the promised land I dreamed of as a Bronx boy and never got closer to than walking distance. We talk about L.’s experiences among the rich – for, being an orphan, she acquired the financial resources to become the only member of my family ever to attend private schools. We talk about her brother, my half-brother T., a sweet and sensitive twenty-something with developmental difficulties who is thriving in a group home. We talk about marriage and divorce, for L. is living with the boyfriend she’s had through most of college. We talk a little about our family, but not as much as I’d expected. Maybe we’d need more time together for that. And there’s so much in the present to talk about: this city and how it’s changed and how it’s the same, the great overall constant being that there’s something to exclaim about at every step.

I’m trying to think of more things to show L. that belong to my old city. And the perfect destination occurs to me: the Frick Collection, that grand white stone mansion at the corner of Seventieth and Fifth, one of the great small museums of the world. Like many people who don’t know New York well, she’s never heard of it. Along with certain Fifth Avenue churches, it’s one of the oases of peace in midtown. It’s got an atmosphere that seems to me simultaneously illumined and shaded, suffused with the quiet glow of times that knew what real beauty was, and knew how to create it.

In the few exhibit rooms of the mansion’s lower storey, this is what you can see:

-- Bellini’s “St. Francis”
-- two portraits by Titian flanking the Bellini
-- El Greco’s “St. Jerome” on the other side of the room
-- Holbein’s “Oliver Cromwell” and “Sir Thomas More” flanking that
-- Velasquez’ “Philip IV of Spain,” the dotty king gripping a rolled map at the precise angle of an erection and shielding his crotch with a tricorner hat
-- Van Eyck’s “Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor”
--Rembrandt’s “The Polish Ride” and “Portrait of Himself”
-- several Franz Hals portraits bursting with joyous brushwork
-- two or three Van Dyck portraits alive with personality
-- Constable’s “Salisbury Cathedral” and “The White Horse”
-- Whistler’s “Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink” – the only painting in the place that makes me think the moderns had something over the old masters, it’s so fresh and such a perfect balance of the flat decorative and the rounded psychological
-- Goya’s “The Forge”
-- Vermeer’s “Woman and Maid”
-- Millet’s “Woman Sewing by Candlelight”
-- Chardin’s “Lady with Bird-Organ”
Piero della Francesca’s “St. John the Evangelist”
-- and assorted Turners (though not his very greatest), Corots, Lorrains, Gainsboroughs, Cimabues, Breughels, Ruysdaels, and an exhibit of French drawings from Goethe’s collection at Weimar.

And clocks! Intricate table clock mechanisms from the 1500s, gold and ivory and inlaid with painted scenes of the zodiac, putting our digital genius to shame.

And an inner courtyard with a fountain and marble benches where you can sit and remember what you’ve just seen and get ready to walk through it again.

And a living example of contemporary beauty – a classic New York celebrity sighting – an imposingly tall, slim blonde with tied-back hair and rimless glasses and the straightest posture I’ve ever seen on a human being, who turns out to be Nicole Kidman, striding through the museum with a tall gray-haired man. She’s wearing a taupe jeans-style jacket, a knee-length white lace petticoat, and pearl gray Asics walking shoes with violet stripes. Her cheeks are rouged to a high pink and the rest of her face is china white, she looks prim and stiff like someone trying to appear comfortable. Is it really she? We take surreptitious glances – everyone in the place is taking surreptitious glances – as she walks through the rooms just slightly faster than we do. She passes very close; she sits on a courtyard bench just across from our courtyard bench, not making eye contact with anyone. Yes, it is. While obviously not wishing to be approached, she’s not making much of an effort to pass unnoticed: I’d imagined that people like her would sneak into ordinary life with sunglasses on, makeupless faces shadowed by hats, bodies concealed by unstylish anonymous clothes. NK’s wearing a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of fastidiously chosen and coordinated chic. She’s beautiful, yes, but if I hadn’t known who she was, I would have thought of her as an aristocratic young woman who knew how to make the most of her long lean lines and fine features. She looks like a first-year teacher at a school for royal children. She’s not, however, the hottest item in the room, for along with viewing paintings I’ve been glancing at fleshly works of art in these rooms, and some of them have been … well after all, this is Manhattan.

L. and I leave the museum and walk back to her neighborhood. We hug again before I head for the train. It’s been a lovely, really perfect few hours. Have a great rest of the summer, dear sister, a sister I didn’t grow up with, but the only one I have. Choose your life with care and courage. Make the most of your fine mind and complex soul, which I hope I will someday know.

July 15, 2005

From a Smaller State

When I visit back East nowadays, the strange thing is that I’m not going to the place I grew up. My family doesn’t live there anymore. Instead my mother and youngest brother and his family live in Connecticut, a small suburban place which, during my childhood, seemed remote and socioeconomically intimidating. This place holds no memories for me. I’m learning new associations: with my nephews’ adolescences, with my mother’s terminal illness.

The familiar thing here is the cramped, smoggy feeling of the Northeast: an overstuffed greenness of tulip trees and lindens, old narrow roads choked with cars, old houses with steep roofs and small windows. Summer heat here is cooler in temperature than out West, but more oppressive: stickier, cloudier, as if the sky is closer to the land. I think that the heat in Texas is like playing baseball with a father who burns in fastballs that sting your hands, making you proud you can take it; and the heat back East is like a mother who makes you wear too much clothing.

I’m staying in my brother’s house for the weekend and visiting my mother in the nursing home. Arriving at her shared room, I hugged her warmly, kissed her forehead and cheek. Held her parchmenty hand. I put flowers in a vase; I checked something about the menu at the nurses’ station; I wheeled her into the courtyard for some air.

She seems in good spirits, everyone says, and considering she’s been told she has an incurable cancer, it’s true. She’s calm, and seems uninterested in anticipating the future or, for that matter, remembering the past. What she dwells on are the hourly trials, the little accomplishments like doing her leg exercises, and always the fundamental question of whether a good aide or a bad aide is on duty to give her a bath, take her to the toilet, undress her for bed. My brother assures me that the care at this nursing home is first-rate (Connecticut has the most expensive nursing homes in the country), and from what I can tell, he’s right: the aides seem responsive, friendly, and competent. But my mother says, “That’s what it looks like objectively, but I’m not objective, I’m the subject.”

As you can tell from that comment, she still has a good many marbles to play with, at 84, at least when the topic is one she wants to focus on. Many topics, though, seem to go past her. She’s been told the nature of her disease, but she never alludes to it: I get the feeling that she’s put up a merciful wall between her consciousness and her fate. Good enough, but she’s also increasingly unable to think of ordinary nouns and unable to finish sentences. She also seems almost unable to answer a direct question: “Do you want your clothes put on the top shelf or the bottom shelf? Should I find another channel for you?” Etc. It makes conversation frustrating and sad. Flightiness of thought, lack of sequence, digressiveness, is nothing new for her, but now this lifelong character trait signals decline.

“It bothers me when I can’t think of a word,” she tells me, and then lapses off, setting her jaw as she tries to remember what she might want to say next.

My mother was the one who taught me about human personality. She was a psychiatric social worker and a longtime therapy patient. In most families, discussion of family history probably takes the form of narrative: which great-grandfather abandoned his wife and went seeking his fortune and married an Indian woman and was arrested for embezzlement… In our family, the history took the form of case study: which uncle was obsessive-compulsive, why this one hated that one and that one got divorced and the other never amounted to anything. It affected my writing as much as my father’s influence, which gave me intimacy with literature.

Every time I’ve see my mother, despite the strain, I have looked forward to more analysis of people we’ve known. But this time there was almost none of it. I tried to prompt her: what about sweet Aunt ______, whom, I was surprised to learn, my cousins feared and at times detested? But Aunt _______ is in a care center with Alzheimer’s, in still another state with no associations for me.

“I just can’t picture her like that,” my mother says.

The most common things are the hardest to picture. Back in the room, my brother’s first wife visits. She used to be a good friend, and now she’s a figure in a margin.We hug tight – years and years go by without our seeing each other – and she doesn’t remember the name of one of my sons or what stage of education he’s at, and I’m relieved when I recall correctly what she does for a living. “I hope we see each other soon,” she tells me when she leaves, but this moment has been the “soon,” and another won’t come up for a long time.

Then a phone call from my middle brother in North Carolina. He’s surprised when I pick up the phone. We were inseparable as kids. When, in childhood, I used to imagine death (a subject that preoccupied me back then), the image I used to capture the horror of annihilation was that I would never see my middle brother again. Now I see him every couple of years for a weekend, a day, or even less, when neither of us is inconvenienced.

“I had this dream last night,” he tells me. “Dad was in it, and he was totally healthy, robust, about 60.” Our dad died seventeen years ago at age 70. “We were all there, Mom and all three of us, and I said to him, ‘But you’re dead,’ and he said, ‘I’m feeling great.’ It was the ideal of being together, like we never had.”

My mother came out of the bathroom, helped by the aide, and I put her on the phone, and she and my brother talked for a couple of minutes and then the conversation lapsed and she said goodbye, and although I wanted to say something more to my brother, she didn’t hear me say so and I didn’t want to grab the phone out of her hand. My mother’s feeble arm stretched out to replace the handset onto the console, so slowly it seemed to take forever.

July 14, 2005

I'm taking off in an airplane this morning for a family visit, will return Monday night. I'll be staying in a computer-full place, so I hope to kep you apprised at least somewhat in between.

July 13, 2005

The Shortcomings of the Founders

Ever notice how the founders of our country had no interest in irony? You can read The Federalist Papers from front to back and not find an unmeant sentence, a facetious overtone.

They did not spend their time strutting, posturing, boasting emptily or vaingloriously. “Give me liberty or give me death” was a literal statement, a measure of real expected consequences, not a line thought up by an image consultant.

They did not advertise themselves or glorify themselves or sell themselves. Washington was so unselfserving that we have almost no inkling of who he was – a man who awed the likes of Jefferson and Adams.

They did not indulge in smarter–than–thou sophistication, though they were smarter than anyone. Franklin, their greatest wit, was earnestly trying to help his countrymen live better.

They put their money where their mouths were. They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, and having said it, they had no choice but to mean it. If they had lost, they would have been hanged as traitors, their estates likely confiscated, their names spat upon by history. Remember that, the next time you think of them as fighting to maintain inherited privilege. To maintain inherited privilege, they would have only had to do nothing.

Which of us even has a sacred honor to pledge?

And they did not look back with intolerant superiority at their predecessors. They did not castigate the Romans for their flaws; they tried to live up to the Romans’ virtues. We sneer and call them hypocrites because their reach exceeded their grasp, because they did not live up to the ideals they created -- as if creating ideals like those wasn’t enough for one generation. We look back at them through the lens of our own cynicism and insincerity.

They bequeathed us a treasure, and have we enlarged it as they hoped? Or have we lived high off it, laughing as it dwindled?

Which of us will not have to beg forgiveness of the future?

If they came back, they would hear our criticisms thankfully and admire our progress. They would admit their shortcomings, which they made their system to protect us from.

And then we could ask them what to do.

"It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis, at which we are arrived, may with propriety be regarded as the area in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act, may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind."
-- Hamilton, THE FEDERALIST, No. 1

July 12, 2005

First Drugs

Dad gave me five dollars to buy snacks with at the orca amusement park. Then he gave me the usual talk: “If someone comes up to you and starts talking to you and seems nice, get away as fast as you can. If someone grabs you, scream for help as loud as you can.” He even gave me his cell phone, because it was the first time I’d ever traveled so far away from home with just a camp, not with him or Mom.

That was great, having his cell phone. A few times I wanted to take the phone out and call someone, but Dad had told me not to, it was just for emergencies. I felt it in my pocket the whole time, except for when I gave it to my counselor to hold while I went down water rides. I remembered to do that when I stepped onto the ladder to the top of the first big slide. Dad was really glad when I came home and the cell phone hadn’t been ruined by water.

I got splashed by an orca because I was sitting in the first row of seats at the orca pool. I also got to pet two dolphins and I got to talk to the orca that was walking around in the stands. He wasn’t a real orca, he was someone in an orca costume. He took a photograph with me and I interviewed him.

“Have you ever drunk beer?” I asked.

The orca shook his head, like, No, no, not me, never. I think the orca wasn’t allowed to talk.

“Have you ever drunk Mountain Dew?”

The orca nodded up and down many times. Yes!

I bought two Mountain Dews and a cotton candy. I love Mountain Dew! It is the greatest soda. I’m not sleepy at all even though I was walking around in the sun all day. It’s after ten now and I’m playing Gameboy in bed, under my blanket. I bet I can stay up all night.

Mom walks in. “What are you doing in there? Would you turn that thing off, please? Do you know how late it is?”

“The caffeine is still working! I just have to save this one game.”

After she makes me close up the Gameboy, I’m bouncing up and down on the mattress and climbing on the doorjamb in the dark. The caffeine is making me not even afraid of the dark anymore. Come on, dark! Let’s see what you’ve got!

I love being ten!

July 11, 2005

The Witch of Shallow Stream

When he was three or four he had a recurring nightmare, entitled “The Witch of Shallow Stream.” It was very simple. In a wide, flat valley, a shallow stream meandered toward him, and in the background, a castle stood above a forest. A woman’s voice came on, wailing in a demented, banshee coluratura, “The Witch…of Shallow…Stream!”

He had the dream again and again. It would wake him up and he would run into his parents’ room.

“I dreamed about the Witch of Shallow Stream.”

His mother laughed. “If that isn’t a panic. The Witch of Shallow Stream is me.” His mother was a psychotherapist.

“No,” he protested. “It’s not you, Mommy.” He didn’t understand what she could mean.

“Are you kidding? It’s obviously me.”

But he went back to bed somewhat reassured, the dream having been broken for that night.

Many years later he realized that his mother had been right: the dream had been about her. It was too obvious, actually. The stuff about the shallow stream: too Freudian.

His mother was an old woman. She was not frightening anymore. She no longer had a stream, shallow or not, to feed him. He visited her sometimes and tried to be nice to her. She was after all a human being like any other.

One night after visiting her and successfully avoiding any of the old tensions, he wondered what had happened to that dream. When had it suddenly stopped, and why? He called his mother on the phone.

“Mom, remember that dream I used to have?” He asked for details: how old had he been exactly? How often had he had have the dream, over what period of time?

She laughed. “Who remembers all that stuff? You dreamed I was a witch? Listen, darling, I used to believe in all that Freud crap but I’m too old for that now. I’m focused on the present, that’s all. If I remember my doctor’s appointment, that’s good.”

“Okay, Mom. Have a good night’s sleep.”

That night he tried to make the dream return. Before shutting his eyes he told himself to dream about the Witch of Shallow Stream. But he woke up the next morning without having been awakened by any scary voice, any castle–guarded landscape. He forgot to try the next night. Then he remembered he had forgotten to try.

He sat for a long time, eyes shut, remembering the dream as well as he could. But there was no action, no detail. He needed more. He needed to feel the terror again. If he couldn’t feel it again, who was he, and what would become of him? Who had stolen his terror? He had, all by himself, long, long ago, and now what?

July 10, 2005

False Hunger

There are two types of hunger. Genuine hunger occurs when you need food. You feel a gnawing emptiness in your gut. You think, “I’m hungry because I haven’t eaten in a while.” You eat and the feeling goes away.

False hunger occurs because you’ve been eating – because eating is what you do and you always feel like eating. Because you always feel like eating, you believe you are hungry. You ate a couple of hours ago, and now you feel like eating again because time has passed. If you weren’t eating, you wouldn’t know yourself. Yet there is no hunger in your body.

False hunger is different from addiction. Addiction is true hunger for something destructive. The addict’s body tells him he needs the drug. False hunger is the mind entertaining itself with self–deception.

I have succumbed too much to false hunger lately and I’ve gained five pounds. I’ve been going around thinking, “I’m always hungry,” and yet I haven’t been hungry at all. I couldn’t have been hungry; I was always eating.

Five pounds above my ideal weight isn’t a lot in absolute terms, but on my build five pounds shows. I need to pay attention. I need to refrain from eating when there is no feeling of hunger in my gut.

When I wake up in the morning and my stomach isn’t empty, that’s a sign I’ve eaten too much the night before. A sign not to head automatically toward breakfast. Funny how one can forget the obvious.

We are a culture of false hungers. We watch television not because there is something we hunger to watch, but because we have been watching television -- watching television is what we do. We don’t know ourselves as non-watchers of television.

We lust for sensation, we crave adrenaline. We watch one action movie after another not because they are any good or because we are particularly interested but because watching them makes us think we are excited, even though we are not. We go on a roller coaster or we watch a movie about people being rescued from Mt. Everest, or if we can afford it we climb Mt. Everest. Many people climb Mt. Everest not because they know anything about mountain–climbing but because it is the thing people who can afford it do to get the next adrenaline rush. They don’t know themselves without frequent adrenaline rushes.

There must be people who click from one porn site to the next not because they crave sexual release -- how could they, so soon after the last one? -- but because that is what they do. They believe they are sexually active because they click on a lot of porn sites.

I’m working on feeling emptiness in my gut. I’m also thinking about not reading another book until there’s something I hunger to read, not writing another story until there’s something I hunger to write.

Hunger feels good.

July 09, 2005

Hitchens on London

Christopher Hitchens writes this in the London MIRROR:

I remember living in London through the Provisional IRA bombing in the 70s. I saw the very first car-bomb explode against the Old Bailey in 1972. There was no warning that time, but after a while a certain etiquette developed.

And, even as I detested the people who might have just as soon have blown me up as anyone else, I was aware there were ancient disputes involved, and that there was a potential political solution.

Nothing of the sort applies in this case. We know very well what the "grievances" of the jihadists are.

The grievance of seeing unveiled women. The grievance of the existence, not of the State of Israel, but of the Jewish people. The grievance of the heresy of democracy, which impedes the imposition of sharia law. The grievance of a work of fiction written by an Indian living in London. The grievance of the existence of black African Muslim farmers, who won't abandon lands in Darfur. The grievance of the existence of homosexuals. The grievance of music, and of most representational art. The grievance of the existence of Hinduism. The grievance of East Timor's liberation from Indonesian rule. All of these have been proclaimed as a licence to kill infidels or apostates, or anyone who just gets in the way.

FOR a few moments yesterday, Londoners received a taste of what life is like for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, whose Muslim faith does not protect them from slaughter at the hands of those who think they are not Muslim enough, or are the wrong Muslim.

It is a big mistake to believe this is an assault on "our" values or "our" way of life. It is, rather, an assault on all civilisation. I know perfectly well there are people thinking, and even saying, that Tony Blair brought this upon us by his alliance with George Bush.

A word of advice to them: try and keep it down, will you? Or wait at least until the funerals are over. And beware of the non-sequitur: you can be as opposed to the Iraq operation as much as you like, but you can't get from that "grievance" to the detonating of explosives at rush hour on London buses and tubes.

Don't even try to connect the two. By George Galloway's logic, British squaddies in Iraq are the root cause of dead bodies at home. How can anyone bear to be so wicked and stupid? How can anyone bear to act as a megaphone for psychotic killers?

The grievances I listed above are unappeasable, one of many reasons why the jihadists will lose.

They demand the impossible - the cessation of all life in favour of prostration before a totalitarian vision. Plainly, we cannot surrender. There is no one with whom to negotiate, let alone capitulate.

We shall track down those responsible. States that shelter them will know no peace. Communities that shelter them do not take forever to discover their mistake. And their sordid love of death is as nothing compared to our love of London, which we will defend as always, and which will survive this with ease.

Read more here.

I'll add only one thing: The fact that Muslims were killed by the bombings was no accident, it was deliberate, indicated by the setting of a bomb at Edgeware Road, a largely Muslim area. Non-fundamentalist, "apostate" Muslims are indeed the jihadists' ultimate target, as was seen when the Taliban took over Afghanistan.

(Hat tip to my friend Dan Ramirez, whom some of my readers know as Hombre, and who is in Europe this summer at an artists' colony.)

July 08, 2005

Remembering Their Finest Hour

I'll let Winston Churchill speak for me today. The following speech is posted at The Churchill Centre website out of Washington DC. I found the link to it in the Comments section at Roger L. Simon's post "London and Optimism." (Scroll down to the 18th comment. There are other good Churchill quotes there too.)

Churchill gave this speech on July 14, 1941 -- Bastille Day -- five months before the US entered the war, and when the future of Britain was still very much in doubt.

The impressive and inspiring spectacle we have witnessed displays the vigour and efficiency of the civil defence forces. They have grown up in the stress of emergency. They have been shaped and tempered by the fire of the enemy, and we saw them all, in their many grades and classes - the wardens, the rescue and first-aid parties, the casualty services, the decontamination squads, the fire services, the report and control centre staffs, the highways and public utility services, the messengers, the police. No one could but feel how great a people, how great a nation we have the honour to belong to. How complex, sensitive, and resilient is the society we have evolved over the centuries, and how capable of withstanding the most unexpected strain.

I must, however, admit that when the storm broke in September, I was for several weeks very anxious about the result. Sometimes the gas failed; sometimes the electricity. There were grievous complaints about the shelters and about conditions in them. Water was cut off, railways were cut or broken, large districts were destroyed, thousands were killed, and many more thousands were wounded. But there was one thing about which there was never any doubt. The courage, the unconquerable grit and stamina of our people, showed itself from the very outset. Without that all would have failed. Upon that rock, all stood unshakable. All the public services were carried on, and all the intricate arrangements, far-reaching details, involving the daily lives of so many millions, were carried out, improvised, elaborated, and perfected in the very teeth of the cruel and devastating storm.

We have to ask ourselves this question: Will the bombing attacks come back again? We have proceeded on the assumption that they will. Many new arrangements are being contrived as a result of the hard experience through which we have passed and the many mistakes which no doubt we have made - for success is the result of making many mistakes and learning from experience. If the lull is to end, if the storm is to renew itself, we will be ready, will will not flinch, we can take it again.

We ask no favours of the enemy. We seek from them no compunction. On the contrary, if tonight our people were asked to cast their vote whether a convention should be entered into to stop the bombing of cities, the overwhelming majority would cry, "No, we will mete out to them the measure, and more than the measure, that they have meted out to us." The people with one voice would say: "You have committed every crime under the sun. Where you have been the least resisted there you have been the most brutal. It was you who began the indiscriminate bombing. We will have no truce or parley with you, or the grisly gang who work your wicked will. You do your worst - and we will do our best." Perhaps it may be our turn soon; perhaps it may be our turn now.

We live in a terrible epoch of the human story, but we believe there is a broad and sure justice running through its theme. It is time that the enemy should be made to suffer in their own homelands something of the torment they have let loose upon their neighbours and upon the world. We believe it to be in our power to keep this process going, on a steadily rising tide, month after month, year after year, until they are either extirpated by us or, better still, torn to pieces by their own people.

It is for this reason that I must ask you to be prepared for vehement counter-action by the enemy. Our methods of dealing with them have steadily improved. They no longer relish their trips to our shores. I do not know why they do not come, but it is certainly not because they have begun to love us more. It may be because they are saving up, but even if that be so, the very fact that they have to save up should give us confidence by revealing the truth of our steady advance from an almost unarmed position to superiority. But all engaged in our defence forces must prepare themselves for further heavy assaults. Your organization, your vigilance, your devotion to duty, your zeal for the cause must be raised to the highest intensity.

We do not expect to hit without being hit back, and we intend with every week that passes to hit harder. Prepare yourselves, then, my friends and comrades, for this renewal of your exertions. We shall never turn from our purpose, however sombre the road, however grievous the cost, because we know that out of this time of trial and tribulation will be born a new freedom and glory for all mankind.

July 07, 2005

The Nature of the Threat

British journalist Nick Cohen (no relation), on Normblog, reviews Paul Berman's book Terror and Liberalism, a powerful critique of liberal wishful thinking in the face of Islamist fascism.

[Berman's] central point is that Islamism and Baathism are continuations of Nazism and communism, not only in their fine points - founders of the Muslim Brotherhood and Baath Party were admirers of Hitler and Franco - but in their fundamentals. Once again we had the promise of earthly paradise, but now the paradise wouldn't be the paradise of unexploited labour or the paradise of an Aryan Europe, but the paradise of the early days of the prophet or a reunified Arab nation, pure and free. Once again there were great leaders who were semi-divine as they led the faithful into cosmic struggles. And once again their programmes were insane. . . .

Berman is trying to overcome the resistance of Western readers who have watched the Iranian revolution and the murder of millions and the enslavement of whole African tribes in the Sudan and the destruction of every last remnant of freedom in Afghanistan and not understood that what they've seen is a totalitarian movement going about its business. . . .

You are confronted with totalitarian movements . . . and your first thought is to blame them on the West. Your second is to make excuses for them. Your third is to betray your comrades. Your fourth is to go up to the totalitarian movements and shake them by the hand.

Cohen was one of those wishful thinkers, he admits, until he read Berman's book. And that's a powerful admission coming from a journalist with a previously comfortable position on the opinion spectrum.

Read Cohen's piece on normblog here.

Then read more about Berman's book here.

I learned about Berman's and Cohen's pieces at Harry's Place, where Harry quotes and responds to a letter from a wishful-thinking UK friend about today's terror bombings.

And I learned about Harry's place from The Glittering Eye.

UPDATE: I corrected a broken link, above, to the amazon listing for Berman's TERROR AND LIBERALISM.

July 06, 2005

Circumcision Is Good For You

Circumcised men have a 70% lower risk of HIV infection than uncircumcised, according a French–South African study reported in the SF Chronicle.

And don't say He didn't tell you so.

Via Althouse.

In the Realm of Six Senses

Amba invented this one and Nappy40 took it up, with many comments on both sites to expand our palette of sensations. Here’s my list.

1) What are your 5 favorite smells?
mimeograph ink and related childhood intoxicants (gasoline fumes, isopropyl alcohol at doctor’s office, shoe polish)
fresh paint
cooking or baking aromas – almost any
pipe tobacco (another childhood memory)
pine needles

Noxzema skin cream
ozone-filled air after a thunderstorm

2) What are your 5 favorite sounds? (This can include a musical instrument or combination of instruments, or a particular performer's or composer's "voice," but not a particular piece of music. That's too complex to be described as "a sound.")
electric guitar chords heard in the distance, calling me
women singing, especially Joan Baez singing “Wild Mountain Thyme” (sorry, had to break that rule)
“Dad…” (not always my favorite when it happens, but someday it will be)
Pacific surf at night
the footsteps of the woman I love

3) What are your 5 favorite sights?
my children’s faces, in person or in photographs
my wife changing her clothes after work
the island of Santorini
the Pacific coast at Big Sur or points north
first sight of Manhattan after being away
Possible sixths: the Southwest desert; a starry sky in West Texas; my garden as seen from my study window

4) What are your 5 favorite tastes?
barbecued ribs -- pork or beef
rare steak -- rib eye or porterhouse
chocolate malts (or vanilla or banana malts)
blueberry, cherry, or banana cream pie
pates and organ meats, especially chopped chicken liver
Possible sixths: pasta, either Italian or Asian; dim sum; chipotle sauces; mango; cherry; cashews
(Really I like almost all tastes, including most vegetables, and it would be simpler to say what tastes I don’t like: mint, strawberry, caramel, butterscotch)

5) What are your 5 favorite touches?
tree bark
pine needle forest floor
good black soil
bubbling water: waterfall or ocean waves

6) What are your 5 favorite kinesthetic sensations?
running (when I could still do it)
fielding or throwing a baseball or Frisbee
carrying a baby in my arms
plunging into cool water on a hot day
clicking into the right body alignment in tai chi
Best of everything (a multisensory sensation: movement, vision, sound, smell): being in a beautiful landscape in waking life or dream

I’d love to read yours on your own blog or my comments section.

July 05, 2005

Reading Log: J. A. Baker

This is a way I would like to write:

East of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine. Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflections of distant water, and there is a feeling of sails beyond land. Hill trees mass together in a dark–spired forest, but when I move toward them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory of winter shadow. The calmness, the solitude of horizons lures me toward them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata.

That is the first paragraph of a book called THE PEREGRINE, written by a nearly anonymous Englishman named John Alec Baker. Nearly anonymous because his name is almost all that’s known of him. He lived in Essex and is thought to have been a librarian; he was born in 1926, but the year of his death is not known. He wrote the book after he had been diagnosed with an undisclosed illness. THE PEREGRINE, his first book, was published in 1968 and won the Duff Cooper Prize. THE HILL OF SUMMER, another nature book, was published in 1969, and that is the last we hear of him. THE PEREGRINE is dedicated “To My Wife” -- another anonymity.

Baker became obsessed with peregrine falcons and followed them for a decade, watching their kills and their matings, fusing with them in his mind until he almost thought of himself as one of them. This is how he describes learning to track them:

Approach him across open ground with a steady unfaltering movement. Let your shape grow in size but do not alter its outline. Never hide yourself unless concealment is complete. Be alone. Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms. Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts.

These quotations are from the first chapter, which is all I’ve read of the book so far. I want to tell you about it right away.

There is a deep calm about Baker’s descriptions. To read his sentences brings peace. Even when he is describing the violence of a hawk killing in midair at two hundred and twenty miles an hour, his contemplative pen draws it as a stillness. Yet the violence is not denied or avoided. “I shall try to make plain the bloodiness of killing,” he writes. Stillness and deadly speed coexist in the same lines: motion on the surface, calm underneath.

As in most great descriptive writing, while there is sufficient physical detail for us to see the scene, the physical is only the underlayer, the preliminary wash. Though Baker does not confess the details of his life, he makes himself a presence in all he describes. We would not recognize him in his parlor or know how he sounded on the phone (if he did use the phone), but within the world he writes about we sense him as a guiding, all–seeing consciousness. “Everything I describe took place while I was watching it, but I do not believe that honest observation is enough. The emotions and behaviour of the watcher are also facts, and they must be truthfully recorded.”

That is a writing lesson. Description always implies the describer. The details may be based on facts, but they must go beyond fact. Emotional coloration, choice of vantage point, selection of detail, and verbal shading make the same physical landscape different for each writer who renders it.

In that opening paragraph, for instance, the landscape could have been described in many different ways. A peaceful Essex landscape -- what could be cozier, less adventurous? Yet Baker sees it as a stimulus to the open–ended forward movement of self-discovery, and he enlists us as fellow discoverers by luring (his word) our attention toward a series of endless horizons. Details of the unseen -- “distant water,” “sails beyond land” -- carry us even beyond the ostensible terrain of the book. We are ready to follow him far into unknown country, which will not be a matter of countable miles. And out of innumerable similes he could have used, he chooses one -- “the skyline like the low hull of a submarine”-- that again summons up views of distant water, of land turning into sea. Finally the horizontal horizons are rotated: they become vertical geographical strata, and geography becomes memory. The outer is the inner. A watercolor of forested ridges becomes an exploration of the watercolorist’s soul -- without any loss of tact.

THE PEREGRINE has been reissued this year by New York Review of Books Classics, a series I’m very fond of. The Introduction by Robert MacFarlane is worthy of its subject.

UPDATE ON PEREGRINE SPEED (also see Comments):
An emailer writes:

I recently had a second opportunity to watch a program about a
sky-diving falconer and his pet peregrine. At one point, when stooping,
the bird was officially clocked at 254 mph. Absolutely amazing.

Assuming the diver and falcon were in the air simultaneously, what amazes me
about this is that the terminal velocity for the human body is generally
held to be 120 mph if arms and legs are outstretched, and around 200 if
specially trained to dive low-drag. Much higher rates require diving from
extreme altitude. All in all, a little on the doubting side of suspended
judgment about this statement, but it does tend to corroborate what you



July 01, 2005

Divinity School

The godlings straggled into the classroom and lined up in order of seniority, wondering under their breaths what He was going to put them through this time. First they went through their warm-up exercises: storms, quakes, ice ages, asteroid collisions. A few quick shifts of the magnetic poles to limber up. Then the Professor went down the rows checking their last assignment: an epidemic.

“Too mild,” he shook his head, passing quickly from one to the next. “This one’s been done before, the same old buboes and fevers, the reviewers hate this kind of stuff… A disease in echinoderms? Who cares?… Let go, use bold strokes, make those symptoms colorful, find your own ‘Let there be’!”

As a break after the rigors of the critique, the Professor entertained them with stories of His exploits: universes He’d created and destroyed in a blink, rewards and punishments He’d doled out. For their amusement He stretched out His arm and in the palm of His hand appeared a little drama, two worlds fighting to the death: tiny explosions, infinitesimal wailings of despair and agony rising through a miniature atmosphere, effulgent clouds and plummeting airships and all. Every detail immaculate, down to the last weeping orphan.

“He makes it look so easy,” one student murmured to another.

“He’s because He’s been doing it forever. Maybe when we’ve been doing it that long…” A wistful, hopeful, sigh.

Then the Professor called them up individually to show their latest projects: intelligent species. One student had made a huge peaceable contemplative marine mammal: it received an A. Another had created a group intelligence in a social insect: risky and imperfectly executed, but A- for level of difficulty. A third was working on a still more ambitious scheme: collective intelligence in a virus. This student asked for, and received, an extension.

Then the slowest student in the class shambled up to the Professor’s desk and placed a diorama on it. The Professor peeked inside, wrinkled his nose, and made a displeased sound.

“I don’t understand the intention,” He chided. “This is messy work, this is ill–conceived. Original, maybe, because no one’s ever thought it worth trying before. But what can it possibly achieve? It’s got no defenses. It can’t bite, it can’t run, it doesn’t even have a protective covering, and the briefest observation tells me it’s not all that bright either. Put it on a world and this thing will go extinct in a week. I mean, primates? Treetop academies, coconut–throwing metaphysicians?“

“No -- I mean, of course Your comments are omniscient, Professor, but if You‘ll forgive me, I just wanted to try out an idea that came to me while I was -- well, actually I was in the bathroom when I got the idea.” The godling winked at her laughing classmates. “But look.” She gently slid a finger down into the diorama and began manipulating her creatures this way and that. “They’re flexible, see? They don’t do anything all that well, they’re not committed to any one thing, so they can do anything. It suddenly occurred to me -- don’t think about where they come from, think about where they’re going. Give them less to start with, and they’ll have to hurry up and do more. And don’t make them all that intelligent, either -- that costs too much. Just smart enough to survive and spread. I think I can save quite a lot on the budget with this one, Sir, and plow it back into things like -- oh, I don’t know. Hubris.“

The Professor wriggled His nose impatiently above His immense beard. The class snickered on the sidelines.

“All right, I’ll give you till next session. Show me something good by then. Otherwise -- “

“Otherwise I’ll burn it,” the student agreed, nodding eagerly to appease Him. “Absolutely. Next class. You’re so right – of course.”

The Professor dismissed the class, and outside, the godling carried her diorama tentatively under cloudy winter skies. At one point she tripped on the icy sidewalk and almost dropped the thing.

She walked over to the library steps, sat down, and took some deep breaths to try, unsuccessfully, to calm herself. “Come on, do something, you little morons,” she said, rapping the roof of the diorama, which was made of an old shoe box. “Why did I have to get that primate idea? Why am I always making the wrong choices, putting my energy into things that never work out? If I fail this course I’ll never earn my capital letters. I'll never get the chance to create anything really good.”

Inside the diorama a naked man and woman were stumbling about in a garden, testing their bodies mutely -- for they had no language yet. Then they started hitting each other. Sighing, the student set the diorama beside her on the stairs. She almost hoped someone would come by and step on it: then she would have an excuse. But no such luck. After a moment of pure blank idealess suspension -- not thinking of boys, not thinking of parents, not thinking of homesickness, not thinking of parties -- she picked up the diorama and trudged to her dorm.