VERMONT ESSAYS: Volume One
The Year 2000 has come!
This Journal from the old Professor William Harris , was one of the first to sprout as BLOGS on the Internet in '98, before the great public wave of 2001. I used my own html code, my own format as a book-page, and careful writing in a world which has since gone blog-mad. The writing was started just the night before the sun rose on the first morning of the long anticipated new Millennium, a time of apocalyptic terror for some, for others a desperation about computers worldwide shutting down, and for everybody a hope that people in one shape or another would be around to celebrate the January 1, 3000
Looking back I am surprised how good it was to do a piece of occasional writing after breakfast, jelling some idea into words and sending it out into the world just as it stood, like the sailor's bottle with a note inside thrown into the sea. One considers, corrects, rewrites and adds of course, so here is my last draft for the web, formatted to look as much as possible like a printed book with the convenience of scrolling. Why the Greeks, whose books were all in scrolls, never thought of a vertical scroll is a mystery to me, but then there is the problem of pagination.
January 1:00. 2000 or V die ante Non. Jan. Ann. MM.
"Y2K Day". The sun came up this morning just as usual, everything did seem just like another uneventful day with no cataclysm, no rising of the dead in hellfire, so I went to my desk and figured best check out the computer for news about Y2K. Nothing awry, no problemo...... So it was really a case of double stupidity overall. First the computer designers back a few Decades didn't think that computers would last or that the century would ever end. Second the "date fixers" who had such a bad time with that error did manage to spend a lot of public and private money in getting the situation secured. I suppose that is the American way of life, we believe anything can be fixed if you have enough money to hire a lot of talent.
There is a long tradition for congratulating ourselves when a new year or a new millennium is born, patting ourselves on the shoulder as we survey and catalog our successes. One of our less vital achievements from that last year 1999 was the frantic job of "Fixing Y2K". But today seeing that everything turned out OK, we have to re-label the notoriously fearful "Y2K" as Dead-On-Arrival.
Congratulations, New Century, we are as usual off to a running start. How should this be dated, will it be...
January 12 2000....or
How about those Roman Numerals? I have seen a few Arabic numerals on the title pages in 16th century books, but the Roman style always looks far more impressive, serious and solidly Classical. And Roman numbers did persist into the credits of old movies for years, probably so people wouldn't be able to read the date MCMLXVIII and see it wasn't a new production at all. Why don't I take this opportunity to go Roman again and simply date these entries as MM? Of course this two letter simplicity will only be temporary, in a while it will be MMIII and soon enough something like MCCCXLXXIX, readable as
muck...(cough 3x)... excel... ecks-ecks...ICKS !
if you want to read it in Joycean. But for now isn't Roman just what we wanted, nice neat letters as plain as Arabic numbers and shorter than the goofy 2000 with its three "Oh's" ? Let's try it for a look:
Jan. 12 MM No, it looks funny.....
January 25 2000
Constant talk about the weather, which is traditional conversation for New England, but now it is about global change and dangerous alterations to the climate. Lots of scientific data to support many theories, which most people don't believe at all, while the chemical industry, which for a century and a half has been polluting land and waters, is now starting to dump heaven-wards. We are going to catch up with radioactive wastes and toxins eventually, but there are larger issues waiting for us too.
Between 40000 and 10000 years ago, it was the Ice Age, which came and went and nothing to do but suffer it through and adapt. We even had a little Ice Age from 1400-1700 when everybody skated on the Netherlands canals, now a distant memory in old paintings of the time. We hear that just one degree of temperature change now would mean major climatic disturbances, and assume that (first) we did it and we are responsible, and (second) that we could possibly hope to prevent it. This is the old overstated notion of Human Importance, coupled with a guilty conscience. If oxygen depletes, we did something wrong, if our high school son smokes pot and wears a dress, we must have done something wrong somewhere in our suburban lifestyle. We don't just take responsibility for things, we go out and CLAIM responsibility for everything.
In the case of weather, we are probably dealing with very large parameters the edge of which we can't even see. So if a guilty conscience impels us to clean up toxic wastes and stop dumping stuff into the atmosphere, that is fine, we should continue. But don't think that is the whole picture. There is more operating out there than we can even think of imagining. But in the meantime, we can do our little bit.....
"Thirty days hath September..... except the second month alone.......". There was a time when kids in school learned a great many things by rote, and by the time they were out of school they were well stored with bunches of useful information which could be retrieved on demand and last for life. The days of the months, the four arithmetic tables memorized so you could count without fingers or a calculator, the dates of important events so you knew in a flash how many years it was since the Emancipation Proclamation and even the name of the man who engineered that document. And there was more to learn by rote in later life, like names of the elements and their valences, a few often-used square roots, Planck's constant........things which have to be instantly available in your biological RAM to be useful.
By 1960 teachers in the US somehow Decided that "rote was out" and memorization was death to imagination, under the rubric of "DRILL and KILL". A whole new vista appeared on the educational horizon, maintaining that it is enough if you just know about something. You don't really have to "know it" any more. And with computers which can find anything quickly, we reinforced this view pointing to the world of the omniscient Internet, the ultimate reference book which can get you everything you need to know.
That is a flawed view. The Internet is not reliable, it is stuffed full of hype and half-baked statements along with chunks of serious information. And furthermore it is not really the "instant awareness" we need for making Decisions on the spot. What your mind knows it can summon up in milliseconds, doing search after search without pause.
So the point is: When are we going to get smart again, and start teaching roomfuls of kids FACTS and DATA in a tough, rote-learning mode, so they come out of school really knowing something? First step should be to scrap the SAT tests which operate on the basis of "intelligent guessing" in areas where you actually have no knowledge. History tests based on guesswork are a real sham, because history is a discipline based on Facts, Dates, Persons, Trends and a host of societal Informations. What about a Math test where you intuit the general sense of the Cartesian Coordinates but can't do the equations or plot the curve? Is it enough to get the idea pretty well, but come up with the wrong answer?
Woke up with a cough and a cold, and it occurred to me that February was so named from Latin Febris or "fever". This was the month of sickness. It was not as cold as December which was frosty in ancient Rome without central heating and as short of firewood as Boston is now. But this month was now just considering warming up, preparing for the planting at the start of March, and it is the change of season, the unaccustomed "Spring Fever" we still speak of, with unperceived fluctuations of barometric pressure which make people feel ill. (Note: "Ill" is the upper-class replacement for the real word, which regular people know as being "sick".) In Switzerland there is a springtime phenomenon of sickness called the Fon, which is probably the result of sudden barometric changes, and for a while many are quite miserable there. In America in the old days many aged farmers were found to have hanged themselves out in the barn in early springtime, and spring before antibiotics was always a crowded time for the city hospitals with old people and their pneumonia. February is the end of a lifetime for some and a bad time for all, but soon the natural seasonal year somehow starts again, and with a burst of new growth and fresh spirits we are in the warm and lovely air of a Springtime season again.
"....except the second month alone...." - the track a few weeks ago about February, which even TV announcers insist on calling Feb-uary for some odd dialect reason. They wouldn't think of saying on the air the local word "chimbley" or speak of railroad "singnals", but it seems to be Feb-uary forever. Well, linguists know that use does make the rules, so why argue?
More interesting is why February alone lacks the full complement of days. In Roman times the year started with the planting of seed, in the warmish climate of Italy this was the beginning of March, so March 1 was the natural start of the year. You can see evidence for this in the names September October and December which were then month # 7, 8 and 9 as the names imply, not ten-eleven-twelve as with us. So turning around to the end of the Roman year, you have a trailing February, which will be a few days short by our solar reckoning. When the error of one day off in every four years is discovered, what better place to tack it on than that limping last month of the closing year? Then start the new Roman year on March First with a clean slate.
March The Ides
"Beware the Ides of March......" but I am wondering on the well known historical morning how the logical Romans fared so well with three ten day weeks worked into their scientific Solar Calendar, while we still run the world on a seven day schedule. Well, we know the Sabbath was already there on a seven day system from the times of the Hebrews and this probably goes back half a dozen centuries before Christ. Astrologers used the Seven Day Week from time immemorial, yoking it to their planetary observations. Astrology was in fact the most popular form of "religion" in the ancient world, perhaps as popular then as it is now in our weekly newspaper columns, a semi-secular para-religion of sorts. But I am surprised that in the Western world, where Christianity has been in force for millennia, the old Near Eastern week has survived, with curiously inappropriate day-names like Saturn's Day from the Classical world, beside Thor's Day from pagan Scandinavia, along with Sun's Day from Indian Dyaus, curiously disguised in France from as "dimanche" from a Christian Domenica Dies (not the popular notion of rolling down your workday sleeves, as Fr. 'les manches').
If we had to do it over, I would suggest the ten day week, which would keep pace with the months and not shift around uncontrollably in the course of the year. I could count on March 1 to be some sort of "Monday", as well as March 10 and also March 20, which would make planning dates and events simpler and more reliable. Then we could have a seven days of work and a three day weekend, which is something available as option only to those in the medical professions. Doctors are not the only ones who need that little bit of extra play-time. But all of this is impossible, an enticing dream of calendral regularity never to be considered, because change of any serious sort costs millions of dollars today. Just remember that simple matter of dealing with Y2K?
Still a good cover of snow and a new inch or two shed last night over the garden and our garbagy compost pile, but we have a new social scene these days. A white cat with short tail and frost bitten ears comes up and sits in the morning sun after sniffing the pile for a few minutes, finally settling down for a quiet nap. The little chickadees are there to take a look as usual but they don't know about the cat's intentions. They are very nervous and wary, approaching and flitting aside quickly. The cat is of a very sweet nature, she is calm and busy with her meditation, no danger to mouse or bird, but they know about cats from way back. While they are trying to snatch a bite or two to jump-start the morning, two bluejays arrive, which sets the little ones back further from their breakfast meal. But the jays have lost some of their usual nerve facing the cat, who finally gets perturbed by all the flutter and fuss and moves a few yards away to a quieter perch. Now the birds can wing in and grab, but they never forget the cat, while she keeps one half closed slit eye sleepily on their activity. This morning a big black ugly feline appeared and chased our Snow White right up the big maple where she stayed all day, pissing on him when he tried to ascend. I finally hit the trunk of the tree with a rock and he was off in a flash, but next morning she was gone and never returned. Feral cats even those with the sweetest nature, don't get their spring distemper shots!
Spring is coming and the ubiquitous yard sales are about to start, and I in my turn will be picking out what I am greedy for --- all sorts of handtools, planes, saws, drills, mechanical contraptions. At a certain point I recognize that I am owner of a "Collection of Vintage Tools" which gives me status as a Collector rather than a Junk man. When I have too many, I do a yard sale myself to turn objects into money, that core concept in the inventory of Western consciousness.
Finishing the yard sale and adding the tally to my bank account, I feel good. Another drink at Happy Hour with some Brie on French bread, checkbook on the table beside the canape tray. The circle of goods to cash is complete, and I just cannot understand why people in those Third World countries can't get their act together and become smart, aggressive and rich.... like us in America at the top of the Greed Chain.
In fact I am not rich at all. I am careful with the trickle of money that is returned after a lifetime of teaching kids how to get well-paid jobs in our burgeoning society. I like being careful, my son might even think I am congenitally cheap, but that is my way of avoiding too much "getting and spending", the plague of this expanding age. Going by the unpaved, hardscrabble road, we fall into another malaise, which calls to mind my old uncle who was a professional Miser. How the tears streamed down his face as he pressed a five dollar bill into my collegiate hand after holiday dinners. Everything has an opposite in this world, and this miserly twist is the sad reciprocal of Greed in the catalog of human behavior.
The US economy is on a roll, we are not sure what started it off and despite predictions that a crash is sure to come, we are enjoying our prosperity with exuberance. I was talking with an artist from Scotland just last week and he said this was disturbing, that people should aim for what they really need, food, clothing, a comfortable home and time to relax and enjoy life. One part of my mind tells me that he is right. But I know there is something else built deep into human and animal nature, which is installed at the root level. It is not something comfortable to think about, but it is omnipresent, and its name is GREED
Food is the original level to hog on, it is not just having enough to tame down your hunger, but there is a certain happy over-fullness which most of us feel after dinner before we reach for the antacid. A Roman poet said "it's good to take from a big pile..." and writing a big check from a large bank account does elicit a certain smile of pride. On the national level, the Credit Card Company says if you have $15,000 income (actually under the Poverty level) you can have a Premium Card drawing a thousand bucks, if $35,000 you are beyond the Gold level and get the Platinum Card worth a hundred thousand.
They count on our greed for that dollar-potential, and we fall innocently into the trap. And they on the other end of the line with a super-greedy smile, slap on us a 22 perc. interest rate, just short of the legal usury mark. Without "credit", that great invention of the 1950's, our economy would grind to a halt. The key factor to Credit assumes greed for something you don't have but want, and possibly should not have at all.
It was just now that this year the robins began appearing back in our yard, first a tentative few and soon a crowd, stalking around on their portly manner as if looking for pennies lost in the grass. You don't have to know much about ornithology to recognize the red breasted robins even if you are not a bird fancier, and we all rejoice to see winged life again. Myself, I have a much better feeling about crows, who stay with us wintertimes and with their strong and hearty cry, sitting a row of them on the stuck out branches of a dead tree down the hill, yelling at each other and at the world and making a big thing of it like the ugly Americans who caw so loud in European hotels and restaurants. There is something healthy and egocentric about the corvidae which I admire, even their eager stopping early mornings to inspect our compost pile near the garden. We include leftovers from the table for them as part of a healthy diet, and they do their part in turn, taking away buckets of tasty garbaggio snacks which otherwise would cost money as trash by the bagful. When the experts urged us to recycle, they didn't think that it could go in this direction, but I always say: If from Nature, then back to Nature.
Summertime they are up early, a great choral show of matins in 3/5 time and a few touches of pitch shifting. They know me well it seems. Three loud caws from me, there is a long silence and they are off, so perhaps we are communicating in a sense. Ravens of course are also corvidae, the largest of the family, and I have always felt that Poe's poem did them faint justice. What honest Raven would ever think of saying anything Puritanical in English like NEVERMORE. Poe gave us the word so we could hear the grating sound first , below which stands the meaning of the word, and below that the rhyme. When you read the poem next time for the Local Library Kid's Poetry Hour, try shifting each successive stanza from a cool "nevermore ! " to end up with one final protracted, penetrating and totally unexpected "CAAAW". Scare the Moms, but the kids will love it. Wow!
The Robins are here for good now, and the traditional breast reminds me of something else I wanted to note down about "breasts". Back in the '60's I was swimming in the water off Crete when a serious young man swam up to me and asked in strained English if it were true America had "topless" clubs now, the accent on the last syllable. When I got his drift, I told him it was uncommon in the streets but in city bars it could be so. It was starting but spreading slowly, but by 1990 movies and even TV shows were first showing women undressing with bra slipped off, but only from the back. Soon crossed arms hid breasts from the front, and as the millennium approached Producers (always fearing the tomorrow which might not come) went to full frontal breast quick-snap shots, then longer, and soon it was not just skirt falling to floor over legs, but backside too. By anno MM it was frontside with cloth, soon no cloth, and then naked dancing girls in bars became a part the background bar scenery of many late-evening TV shows. A few years into the new age, we find European film surprising us with quick snatches of female groin hair, naked men's' backsides always walking away from the camera. There seems to be an aversion to admitting that man have genitalia, but that will pass soon and soon dicks will be as casual as tits, as we return in boredom to the Garden of Eden.
In this first year of the new era, everything is revealed, but not as they told us about the Day of Judgment. It is just about everything you could imagine, the milder side of what nightly Internet viewers are seeing regularly in the porn-programs.. Internet use is now estimated to be near 80 percent porn, which tells is something about how many unfulfilled millions of men and women there out there. Forty million males with chronic impotency might well want something to look at until they discover Viagra. Then there is bondage as fun at home, add a few sadistic twists and play torture and the question is this:
In this fast accelerating Galilean curve we are clearly approaching a limit. Even if Advertising continues to push SEX as sales in our faces in the name of the bottom-line, we are soon going to run out of anything new. We will have seen everything, absolutely everything, and the question is "What is going to happen when we hit the end?"
I think we have been getting intimations of this already. As plain old-style sex loses its sex-appeal, the next areas of interest May be violence, mayhem, aimless murder, sex-crime and pedophilia. Once on this road there is no way back, that is for sure! But there must be a way out, the development of a personal sense of becoming fulfilled, content, enjoying our psyches and our bodies just as they came and just as they are. And we might ask: Who got us into this curious psychological state of frantically reaching for some further levels of sex outside our own bodies and personalities?
Why, it is the hyped-up sales-based Advertising and Entertainment Industries which have connected a message for our inner consciousness, that SEX is something external, it is outside our personal range of experience, but ultimately a purchasable commodity.
WE have to get out of this situation. We must reclaim for our own use the working parts of our bodies, ranging from a pituitary gland instigating hormonal processes with adrenaline hop-up, which operate the amazing reproductive processes built into our selves, and we can learn to use these for our personal and psychological inner-selves. As to success in re-orienting our minds, is this possible at this late state after half a century of sex-charged salesmanship through the media? I am afraid that there is no choice! As the curve flattens out and the limit approaches, something simply has to be done.
It was more years ago than I care to remember when as a student I picked up for a dime in Boston's grand Morgan Memorial a copy of Gilbert White's "Natural History of Selborne". If I remember rightly, I thought it was about Borneo and never read it till years later when the name Gilbert White was being tossed about as a literary stylist and observer of the nature scene. Of course I was fascinated, his modest and sharp observations were consonant with the disarming epistolary style which was so common then, and I thoroughly enjoyed it at first reading. Recently I have been reading it through again, with a few new observations on this careful observer.
First, I guess the modern Bird Watching Fraternity would be shocked by his habit of shooting birds, not only to get specimens for shape and gut contents, but in his younger days (he says) as a sportsman. He knows about avoiding rare species but must have shot hundreds, thousands of birds for sport and dinner as well as anatomical observation. Since his time we have become accustomed to mass murder in the acceptable name of National Defense when done by our side, calling it outrageous inhumanity when done by someone else. But a bird with a broken wing touches our hearts, and a condor doomed by evolution raises more public funding than a hungry child sleeping nights in a cold alley. Our sensibilities have indeed gone through some serious changes in a fast moving and ever-evolving world.
Second, White is praised as originator of nature observations, my 1908 Dent edition editor even cites him as "this Father of Nature Study". But there was much activity around and before him, Pennant was then compiling systematic materials in his time, Ray a century earlier had done many of the same kinds of observation but in larger scale, and Scopoli in the Alps was currently writing his Annus Naturalis, which White was reading in the l770's. What is special about White is that he writes in fine English, while the European observers used Latin as the common language which it still was then, so that they could work in concert across the educated world.
The good lesson that Gilbert White gives us, is that careful observation can be done in any relatively tight geographical area with benefit. But now we know so much more about the geological sub-strata, the botanical world which supports the avian in large part, and the human and social aspects of any county in any country, that we can now do a far wider reaching study than White's, although with more hands involved and a great deal more cost. I have proposed to a number of people that a section of Addison County in central Vermont would be just such a place for a detailed general study of White's sort, but with the vast data and techniques now available. The rolling land between the towns of Vergennes on the north and Brandon on the south, with the Shire Town of Middlebury lying central between them, also standing central between the west ridges of the Green Mountains and the glacial plain which borders on Lake Champlain ---- this thirty mile square of land would be an ideal base for just such a study. The sheer size and complexity of the materials which we could collect from dozens of experts and observers is too large for any book, but would be completely suitable for publication on the infinitely expandable files of the Internet. Links to move us to new areas of study, or delve deeper into comprehensive materials which have accumulated, would make the Internet an ideal vehicle for "A Natural History of Addison County". We do have people in this area interested in such a project, excellent computer webpage designers who could guide the format of the project, but we need someone to set the scale and range of the project, with advice about work already done in similar locales. And of course we need advice about securing funding available for this project, since nothing can be done these days without money.
When you eat enough candy and keep on stuffing, you get really sick of it. The same is true of "eye candy", which we have been getting in increasing doses in the world of film and TV. Over the last Decade we have seen more and more doses of high-tech visual technology in all the media, from advertising to entertainment. The public eye seems to expect flash floods, fireball explosions, grotesque morphism of men into reptilian aliens, megalosaurians on Fifth Avenue, and we are probably as much entranced by the idea of "How they do that...? " as interested in the actual visual display. Seen a few times, these things, like pornography, get trite and finally boring. But to revive interest, we are told how much a movie grossed in six weeks, how many millions Julia Roberts get s movie, and we Americans are always suckers to be impressed by figures like $200 million invested in a movie which failed. We live in a country where everybody is agog to dollar figures, and really "wants to be a Millionaire". Americans may be hurting to pay the bills, but we spend more than our pocket money on Lotteries which have less change of giving you a win than getting hit by lightening. We have a national and almost patriotic interest in money and we really do admire the Big Bucks.
Most of the movies you see these days are heavy on visual technology, which came along with computer manipulations of pictures in ways which were unthinkable a couple of Decades ago. This new wave of Blockbuster technology has claimed its place in the public eye, to the extent that nobody seems to notice the absence of convincing and meaningful scripts, or the speaking of reasonable dialog. Many movies seem to have no script at all, they meander through complex scenes furbished out with visual complexities, and much of the dialog material sounds to have been ad-libbed on the spot. Since the words no longer have much value, they are often mumbled to the point of becoming a part of the background track, along with a constant musical background of popular song which seems required for all film. The martial symphonic themes in the old War movies might have been an encouragement to go enlist in the Army, forgetting that there was death in the field and no music there beyond the rattle of machine guns. But now we seem to feel that Life itself is lived to a musical background, our students and carpenters on the job turn on the radio before they can go to work, and the movies are no exception to the musical rule. Life is not like that, it is not a musical comedy!
Thinking of fireworks, how bright and quick they are, how impressive for the few seconds they light up the evening sky fading quickly into nothingness with a memory, I wonder if we haven't become used to living in thank kind of a startling and quick-flash world visually. TV is the most attention-commanding force in our society, and here where each second costs thousands of dollars, we have to learn to understand information, advertising and segmented storylines in short-second flashes. Strangely we do get the messages since we have very quick brains which can outstrip the fastest computer a thousand to one, we comprehend and even understand today's speeded up displays amazingly well. BUT something is lost, something is missing. We don't have time to think, to consider, to evaluate. Everything is moving fast and in order to keep up we have to move with it. But watching a fast action scene on a tape, if I press the pause button my control I can really look at the scene, stop a moment and think about it what it shows and what is really means. I can move along and then look again, the way we do in real-time life situations, where I can stop and think. You can't get a mental grip on something which is continually fluctuating, which is why the myth of Proteus who could continually change shapes seemed so fantastic and dangerous to the Greeks.
Last night saw on Sundance Channel the film "Heavy" with Pruitt Vince and a director who knew how to stretch scenes out to long seconds of virtual "still shots". Everything was slowed down, the actor's facial responses were intense but restrained, his speech held back to the point of our having to wait on him. I thought of the classics Danish film work of Dreyer, his restrained but pointed slow-panning of the camera eye, the quiet moments in which you could look at the actors and stop to think about them and their world. "Heavy" was such a relief, to be allowed to stop and really consider what I was seeing, but to those of you who follow the blockbuster trail, this might seem intolerable. In 1950 when the French now-classic "M. Hulot's Holiday" was shown in a SF Bay Area Drive-In, the audience hooted horns to get it turned off; it was simply out of their range of perception. Decades later we have learned more about restraint and slowing down action, and it is a classic. So if a film like "Heavy" doesn't catch the public eye now, wait a Decade and let's come back to see it when we are ready for the lesson.
When the Internet began to take shape only half a dozen years back in early 1990's, it connected up with the US military's old private line, extending it with spurs to universities across the country, then interlining it to Switzerland as the hub for the Western World. Right away all sorts of folks began to think about all sorts of uses for this new tool. This nascent Web was the germinative seed for changes which none of us could have envisioned, nobody could have imagined the variety of electronic flowers of many petals, the variety of its poisonous spines, or the in-eradicable underground feeders which have laced into the social and economic fabric of the planet.
Entertainment both good and bad, business going like a fire or going bust, the investment market all skewed but still smiling, and the populace convinced that the Information Highway is to be the super-library of the future. And the corollary is that "books" . that earlier invention from the days of the Renaissance, have had their day but are now on the way out. WRONG on several counts:
First of all, the Web is based on code written on magnetic film, which has a life less that half a dozen years before things begin to crash. Compared with information on rag paper like Gutenberg's, which seems as good as the day it was printed up, this is absolutely ephemeral. Second, as the Internet has developed, content has suffered. There is a lot of "information" out there indeed, but much of it is abbreviated to a page or two for glance-reading, and a lot is without author, without authority, without source and even without date. Much web-based information is what in law is called "hearsay", and hence inadmissible. Third: Since a major focus of the Internet carries information for Sales, the bright wording and flashy formatting of the advertising people has to be sifted out as Junk-mail by the wary. But an unwary public is easily dazzled by Novelty of access and glitter --- the very point of advertising. Fourth: It has been estimated that over eight percent of web activity is in the area of pornography. Enough said!
A colleague who encouraged the use of the Web in his teaching, mentioned that once when he was in another city eager to see a certain film, it was all sold out. A woman next in line pulled out her Palm Pilot and told him from the Web that the same film was playing half an hour later in another theater two blocks downstreet. You see (he said) how remarkable the Web can be! I thought this a light-duty and peripheral use of the Web, so I ftp'd to his university url to see what better use he made of the Web on his academic website. A blank page with only the words "I have not setup my home page yet. Please be kind." There are a lot of blank pages on the Web, some like this and others with lots of pictures, a few paragraphs of words, but just no content at all.
Students encouraged by teachers to use the Web for their "research" are getting used to glancing at short, often uncritical articles of a page or two, never having to settle down and read a three hundred page book right through. The Anthologies started this half a century ago with ten page excerpts for class reading, and the Web might be thought of as am electronic Super Anthology of Anthologies. Students who use the web a lot do get a wide spread of information, but they get the habit of avoiding or short-circuiting long and deep reading, as serious scholarship starts to go down the drain.
The whole point of Aldo Manutio's invention of the little, portable "Aldine" book in 1500 was that it was cheap, easy on the eyes ---- the laptop of the Renaissance. By contrast, the computer is expensive, hard on the eyes, and as desk-based as the ten pound giant folio of Gutenberg's incunabulist era. Our modern and costly laptop with a couple of hours use before it cries for the umbilical cord, is a useful notebook but not a real book at all. By contrast, books are still selling by the millions, people were gullible at first for Novelty, but not really foolish at base. It is almost an oxymoron that Amazon flourishes selling paper books by the route of an electronic sales medium.
And then there are people who really love books not only for reading but as things worth having and collecting, some verging into the fringes of Bibliomania. As a former addict to this curious malady, and one who has come to realize at last that a book is mainly a tool for a purpose, I have started to disband my collection of books. Amazon was right, what better way is there to sell books than on the Internet?
Racism shows up in every level of a society, but I was surprised to find it stated explicitly in an old illustrated child's edition of Mother Goose which I had around for years unread. I don't know if you know the stanzas of "Ten Little Injuns", so let me quote the specific ones which jarred my eye:
Eight little Injuns never heard of heaven
One kicked the bucket and then there were seven
Six little Injuns kicking all alive
One broke his neck and then there were five
Two little Injuns fooling with a gun
One shot the other and then there was one
One little Injun living all alone,
He got married and then there were none
These "accidents" grisly as they are, must have seemed humorous to someone once, but that last entry is doubly strange: Getting married was apparently enough the kill off the last survivor, and then (the wished-for point of it all) the little Native Americans were all gone. Was is that once married, he couldn't find a job, went to drink, faced the usual infant mortality and hence no family line? The part of this story that is omitted is that they didn't all die by their own accidental mischance, historically they were hunted and shot, condemned to poverty, and gradually ground down into the earth of the Reservations. One way or another, we recognize this now as "social genocide", but imagine all this in a genial, nicely illustrated book for little children.?
I bring this up for a specific purpose. Julius Caesar's "Commentaries on the Gallic Wars", a remarkable piece of military writing from the first century B.C., chronicled the domination of the advancing but still Neolithic Gaulish tribes by the well organized and efficient Roman Legions. Skirmish and war after war, Caesar always wins, even against a resolute and clever adversary like Orgetorix or Vercingetorix, the model for Sitting Bull of the American campaigns. Clearly "Civilized Man" must win out. Caesar was never t taught in European schools, but the Commentaries were introduced as the prime Latin text in America by l730. Here is the lesson drummed into every schoolboy from the 18th century on, who did his Latin paragraph by paragraph in American one-room school houses. These boys became the soldiers, the officers and the politicians who waged the Indian Wars of the Colonial Period, which were continued for economic and territorial reasons up to the very end of the 19th century, and continued for another century in the search for silver, gold and uranium ore.
We try very hard to see the bright side of the ancient world as enlightening, humane and a model for modern thinking. But there is a dark side which cannot be ignored. Athenian prosperity started with the slaves in the silver mines of Laurium, it fostered forced trade arrangements which brought in heavy taxes from the whole Aegean world. The Romans show us a world in which slaves did the work of building an infrastructure of remarkable proportions, they were the real working backbone of a prosperous society, and we moderns took that as advice to develop our lower working class with the slave trade from Africa. Caesar's triumph over the indigenous peoples of Gaul gave us a clear idea of how to treat our Native Americans, and the Classics enforced this message in every classroom throughout the country where Latin was taught ---- theoretically as literature, incidentally as political propaganda.
My case rests! I would invite Classicists with a conscience, and especially any with Native American background, to undertake a serious study of this long-buried use of the Classical interface. A group with ability to pursue this thread with philological diligence on the Latin side, while examining in sociological detail this peculiar phase of a twisted message from the Classical past used in an unholy mode, can be of great value as a prime example of Man's contrived in-humanity to his fellow man.
July 21 :
Everybody from the Vice President of the country down to the local Elementary School computer teacher has been talking about the infinite usefulness of the Internet in this brand new age, but sure enough Academe is again trailing its feet and not quite sure. The problem I am thinking about, this bright July morning in the cool air of the Green mountains, is the refusal of colleges to consider publications of academic writing on the Net when a teacher comes up for tenure or promotion. The official line seems to run like this:
'"We will consider only materials which have been accepted by Juried Journals for publication......"
Now this has several meanings. First, the piece of writing must be published in a printed academic Journal which will be subscribed to by a limited number of people, and read by even less, perhaps a few hundred at best. Academic credit is given on acceptance of an article, even if actual publication is two years away, hence long before the public gets a whiff of the work! Second, that key word JURIED means that a board of respectable, reliable and probably older scholars will be sitting in judgment on the work at hand, and the tenure granting College Administration will trust their judgment implicitly. Why should they even read the paper at all, leave it to the Experts in the field? This is what is known in Academe as proper procedure, but everywhere else as passing the buck!
It is wrongheaded these tight days to publish new and presumably important information on paper at high cost for a severely limited readership. The Internet should have solved that problem Decisively, using paper printout where needed for study, and the Web for world-side distribution of ideas. There is something inherently suspicious about holding printed information back for "our group". On the other hand, the "Jury" can be something far more insidious. It is something like an academic Credit Check, you give the name and reference of the work in question, and the CC company tells you if it is good or bad. For dollars in your account, this is perfectly suitable, for ideas in the mind of a young teacher this is cold, distant and impersonal. If the College Administrators can't tell if the candidate is any good on their own, they shouldn't be running a college at all. Maybe that is why they go running to a Jury, knowing they are out of their depth.
Two stories to make my point clear: I have here a letter from the Editor of a jurying Journal of high prestige, which states flatly that they "accept only papers which add to or solve problems which have already been stated." Here in a nutshell is sure death to the world of ideas, and one of the reasons that many of us value the openness of the net so highly. In this world of infinite flotsam and jetsam, your new thinking can be searched and seen by everyone everywhere, you can Decide what you want to say and how you want to format it without even appealing to a Standard of Style. You are the judge, and if you say something foolish, you will be rightly judged for that foolishness.
But a second scenario drives the point home on an individual level. A young scholar and Ph.D. holder has been doing some unusual work in a humanities field, assembling vast collections of text and museum quality images on an extensive set of websites, all material directly useful for teaching and otherwise not available. Applying for positions, this person was rejected flatly because of lack of juried Journal publications. Join with this the French teacher who writes a book for second year study of the language, puts it on the Web so it can be used online. Rejected: We don't credit work done on the Web.
Years ago a friend who was Assistant Dean to the graduate School at Yale, told me about the infinite care of the old Dean, a respected biologist, who made it his business to read every scrap of writing from all candidates, and if he felt unsure about his grasp of the field, he read further in other peoples' work so he could make a solid, personal evaluation on the candidate for a Yale position. You can say that was in the old leisurely days, no longer possible in today's rush of duties, but that sounds like a hollow excuse. Decisions of importance take time and effort, you have to do your homework. Now the Dean can sit at his computer and read everything that the candidate has published on the Web with great ease, he doesn't even have to go the library and shuffle around the dusty stacks for his information. But he still has to get the papers read, and make an informed judgment to take to the Committee, and if he is unsure he can email a copy of the paper to a few colleagues for opinions. HE can be the chairman of the Jury, and if the wants the respect of his candidates, he had better stop passing the buck now, because the level of dissatisfaction is growing in a whole generation of the younger scholars, who are soon to inherit that comfortable Dean's chair and hopefully do business in a different way.
Ah! Academe, have we wandered so far from Plato's Gardens of Academus?
July 25 00
It is pretty clear by now that if you want to be a Poet, you either write poems for a few friends to read, or get a Ph.D. and become a college Professor of English. One of the nice things about teaching English is the new mode of running an effortlessly egalitarian course, where each student has ample opportunity to voice an opinion, while the teacher "moderates" or virtually "hosts" the occasion. So the professor needs little preparation for class and has
plenty of time to think about writing his poetry, which may range from moderate to poor, but if published on paper becomes a credit-list for tenure and promotion.
It is no surprise that many modern poets sounds like Professors of English, with their well tuned vocabulary, sly allusions to things educated people are all acquainted with like Prufrock, the Cantos, even the UV deterioration of the ionosphere and the Uncertainty Principle, all just sutured into verse here and there en passant as it were. And of course there will be a great deal about Ideas as the core of what life is built upon, mixed with a little practical psychology like things slipping away out of memory, or your whole life displaying in a flash at the moment of dying.
Yes, Dying is always a good theme for a poem, especially when it is stated as a necessary part of Life. Such poem bore, but no more than the leafy trees on Main Street in a village calling up memories of youth in simpler days....
But there is an antidote, and it might go like this:
Under the tight stretched overalls protruding
A big gut hard as a rock, belted by muscle, arms
Like pipes. Face blotchy with stubble of black hairs
Shaved only for Sunday, haircut no-style military.
Surprising how agile he jumps off his crawler seat
To lurch toward a patch of flowering asphodel,
Picking one flower between his smoke
Stained thumb and missing end of digit
Delicate, examining it with one curious eye
Before crushing it, squirting out a strand
Tobacco juice over the meadow grass.
July 26 00
We were dining on Octopus tonight, in a delicious tomato Ragu sauce on spaghetti, which I suddenly thought of the evolutionary track of what we were eating. The distance of the Octopoda from the bi-valve quahog known to the Native Americans, with its basic heart, circulatory system and a neural set of connections, protected by a growing shell and one "foot" to attach it or move it short distance---- is simply immense and even hardly credible. The Octopus has forsaken the protective shell which it no longer needs in face of its remarkable evolutionary successes. First, it has eight legs which enable it to move, to grasp for stationary reasons, and to grasp in the search of food. One of the legs has even developed the function of what we call a penis in the male, it can reach inwards into itself, find sperm and inject it into the body of the female to fertilize inside her body. Compare this with the randomizing fertilization of fish which need millions of spermatozoa in order to fertilize eggs ejected in sea water. But walking with legs is not enough, the hollow mantle can jet-propel in any direction, flying in water while the lobster and crab still crawl down below.
Octopus have two eyes, a great deal of intelligence which can be favorably compared with that of mice in laboratory intelligence testing. Pressing the correct button they get food, and they learn this remarkably quickly. Locomotion is critical for live animals, and the Octopus has not only its eight motive and controllable legs for moving about, but has developed a water-jet style of movement which utilized the mantle, the last remnant of the "shell", to compress water and shoot forward with great rapidity. Beyond this, an ink we call " Sepia" from Greek times, can be ejected to cloud the water and permit fast jet-escape.
So now the question remains: Is this evolutionary stride lesser than ours? Compare Mr O. with that of the self-satisfied human who has to walk balanced on two feet, writing this note his ten fingers on two hands fidgeting buttons on a machine he doesn't understand, forever proclaiming himself the king of the Universe?
In terms of the time span involved, and the actual development of new functions, we are far behind in the trail of the Octopods. If I look at the mouse I just caught in a spring trap, I see most of the functions which I have ---two eyes, a mouth with tongue and teeth, fingers with nails on hands and feet, body hair, a brain less smart than mine but still pretty adroit. The reproductive system is virtually the same, with mammary glands for nourishing helpless young, but the tail has disappeared, although my skeleton has a subcutaneous portion if it in hiding.
Going up a few ranks, I find the monkeys uncomfortably near to me with hands, feet and ears quite identical, also a system of locomotion which is in the case of the Bonobo walking-upright group not unlike ours. And this is in a span of less than 50 million years. It is true the Octopods have taken longer to move from quahog to Octopoda, but standing as they do at the top of the mollusk-based beginnings, they seem to have traveled farther and better and more securely than we have overall.
What is the meaning of this diatribe? Simply that in terms of what we understand now as Evolution, we are perhaps a quarter of the way to the top of our potential chain. Compared with the Octopus I have just been contemplating at dinner, we are not terribly far along in our evolution from some little shrew-ish beastie, getting ahead in our developments beyond the Lemures, but pretty monkey-ish overall when you think about it. Final word: Patience with the imperfect, stretch out your notions about Evolution, and (please) a good dose of Humility. Amen!
July 27 00
I was reading something about diurnal rhythms recently, and just remembered some experiments about half hour sleep periods being used in offices as a way of avoiding the long-day fatigue which most of us feel when we are hard at work. The theory was that a point about halfway between waking and going to sleep, just about 12 hours, is the ideal time for a short nap, and people who have tried this found themselves remarkably refreshed. But a nap in the middle of the work-day seemed better for people on a job, while sleep longer than thirty minutes was hard to rouse from. So the naps we took when little kids had a great deal of sense to them, and the siestas of the Mediterranean countries which date from time immemorial, have a sensible functional meaning. I remember in Greece years ago seeing a young man suddenly plopping himself down in his wheelbarrow for his nap, oblivious of cars, trucks and people passing by. Now I see he was quite right, following the diurnal recommendation, he was not lazy at all, but doing what we should all be thinking about.
These July days in Vermont are nice and cool in the early morning and I have been going to the garden or my workshop mid-morning's for the harder work. Now after lunch I find myself thinking new thoughts, a good time to digest both food and ideas, and Maybe write a note or two on the computer. Soon a siesta might suggest itself, then as the afternoon cools down I can go back to a project with a fresh mind. It did occur to me that the need for a nap might be a sign of my advancing age, but when I hear about roomfuls of people in a large insurance office bedding down on the floor with a pillow, I see this is something natural which I have been missing for years. Oh well......yawn.....and.......
July 28 00
Sooner or later we all come back to that nagging and uneasy question: WHAT IS ART AFTER ALL? There are so many opinions and roomfuls of books, that one doesn't usually dare to voice a view. But I can summon up a few comments, which I will try to abbreviate so as not to nag or bore. There are two general considerations which I think affect our time deeply:
First when Wordsworth and Coleridge touched off the latent Romantic Revolution in 1798, they put into the concoction the elements of "Feeling, Sensibility, Heart and Personality", and this determined the tenor art for most of the 19th century and beyond. But by 1900 a wave of revolutionary thinking swept the world embracing political institutions first and soon most scientific thinking especially in the new electron based physics. As ancilla to these there came a complete overturning of everything that had come to be called ART in the previous century.
Now we as the inheritors of two centuries of first building up and then breaking down, are faced with several things to exorcise:
First of all, there are those Romantic sensibilities which now seem self-indulgent and overly subjective, with a sweetness of wording and Decoration which does not accord well with the hard edge of the Industrial World as the true child of the New West. Renoir's lovely portraits seem a little to pretty, Mahler's symphonies may seem at times to have the over-richness of chocolate layer cake, far distant from the real world of machinery, metalwork and production and the rise of the labor Unions.
Second, there entered the new modern wipe-it-clean Nihilism, which wanted a clean break with a tired past and a prospectus into the future. It became usual to assume that each artist must completely break down all tradition, and somehow build up anew his own style out of his own thinking, as a product unquestionably stamped with his own mark. Painting after 1910 went geometric at first, distorted from what the eye sees later, and dozens of approaches to a new way of seeing followed.
By late 20th century we seemed to be reaching the end of this process of experimentation, because there seemed to be nothing new left, nothing that Art Scholarship has not already categorized, documented and relegated to the world of academic history. It was the same in Painting, Sculpture, Music, Dance......everything had already been tried, we seemed to be approaching the end of the list of possibilities, a mathematical limit of sorts.
But there are of course no real limits, the final limiting factor is nothing but our selves. There are some things we can quit doing and some which we can have a try at still. Looking back from the edge of the new millennium, we might well put together a list of Cautions for ourselves, and here is a short list of areas where I personally have to tread with a light step for myself:
Stop trying to tear up the world as we find it assembled already, while we search for something personally "unique" on that ever vanishing horizon of the "cutting edge".
Stop learning the canned and momentarily IN techniques in school, things like Serialism in music, scrap assemblages in welded Sculpture, object mal-trouve's in the garbage, Post Impressionist smears in painting.
Stop producing work built specifically for a the concert hall or the gallery "art scene", which are no different from work for tenure-credits or advancement in a teaching position.
BUT...... do continue to watch all the inputs from all periods and all traditions, don't be ashamed of using the old, which when re-cycled always come out as something quite different, and if properly done from the inside out, it will always be quite fresh and new.
AND above all, do something personal, something which feels good and complete in itself, which marks all serious artwork. It must pass the final test of your personal endorphins by generating pride and pleasure, before it can give pleasure to viewers either now or for future ages.
Is there more to be said? Of course there is, more and other views from different points of vantage. But I wanted to get a start on some specifics which have been on my mind. Best go take a walk among the trees and see what they have to say about it.
Living in a science-concerned atmosphere we like to think of the words "Cause and Effect...". as standard terms in our operating logic. But I have a feeling that they often mean different things in different situations, and can be variables in changing social and historical settings. The early Greeks said "ek dios panta.... everything comes from God/Zeus" but the Greeks quickly learned that there can be a specific secular etiology to many diseases they soon learned to speculated on causal reasons for most things in the world .
Heraclitus in mid 5th c. BC flatly stated at there was a single "factor" at work behind everything, something largely unknown and unseen. This was quite the opposite of the Manichaeans who envisaged a world pulled this way and that by forces of Good opposed to Evil, which could later be metamorphosed into God and the Devil. But when we enter the Scientific Renaissance of the 16th century, we begin to see single factors giving single results, like the law of accelerating-acceleration, or the gravitational force dependent on the moon's position.
What strikes me as curious is the statement one hears more and more in recent years : "Of course there are multiple factors at work and no single one can be responsible for the situation we are dealing with".
A man shoots himself in the head, I say he was fatally tired of living and Decided to die. But you tell me there was a possible DNA coded genetic pattern for suicide, or that electrical connections in the brain were misfiring because of a chemical imbalance, which itself may have been the results of dietary deficiencies, reinforced by drugs or smoking, all falling under the aegis of Chronic Stress and Depression. So we have two radically different ways of considering his suicidal act:
Mode A is simple, single factor based, historical, while Mode B is complex, multi-factorial, and infinitely expandable.
Of course there are situations where either approach can be reasonable. The apple falls to the floor in the kitchen, I say "gravity" and can close the discussion without going into Newton vs. Einsteinian physics. For one situation this is clear and probably sufficient. For a classroom of high school students, the dropped apple is of no special interest or importance, whereas the involved multi-factorial explanation should be enlightening and a good tool as an educational paradigm.
BUT when we take a simple fact which can be answered with a simple explanation, and automatically assume that "multiple factors are always involved" we can easily cloud the issue and drive ourselves down the wrong road.
When the boy steals candy from the store, I guess he wants something sweet to eat. But the other way says: He is expressing his anger at........ parents?.... society? social status of the underprivileged? So is this is a complex symbolic act deserving discussion, treatment and probably not punishment as such?
It is only when we regularly assume that multiple factors are and must be at work, that we force our logic into a bad corner. There are still, in this complex and increasingly complexifiable world of ours, situations which can be traced to a single, dominant factor. The automatic assumption of multi-factorial inputs in most situations may not only cloud the issue, but actually mask the origin of the situation. Let me give you an example that I know from some years back:
A man I knew was suffering from depression, he had a variety of body pains with a general depletion of energy, to the extent that his work was affected and he had to resign from his position. He was advised to consult a psychiatrist and had weekly sessions with him for six months, during which his condition slowly worsened. They explored his parental background, his childhood development, his failed social relationships, his sense of "self" and self-esteem, to no avail. He stopped psychiatric treatment and four weeks later died of undiagnosed cancer.
There are cases for considering simple, single effective factors, which may obtain in certain cases. Quod erat demonstrandum.
August 1 00
(College starts now in a month and I wanted to get this written before the semester starts. This subject has been much on my mind, so I will include it here as a formal "article".)
"LIBERAL ARTS IN THE NEW CENTURY....?
"The notion of the college grad as "well rounded" and semi-skilled in lots of things rather than an expert in any one has been around for Decades, but may not suit the climate of this new century well for the coming years.
"In the first Decade of this fast-moving and competitive 21st century, the whole subject of the Liberal Arts and how they fit in with the needs and uses of the society at large, is something clearly due for discussion and re-evaluation.
"In the post WW II period of economic expansion, there was a need in the business world for a well-rounded, verbally facile person with a general knowledge of our cultural background, and such a person went easily into a personnel, sales or eventually an administrative function in a world of growing business enterprises. The slogan back then was "the well rounded person", and this fit the bill well for that time.
"But as times changed, we found there was ever more need for people who knew a great deal about certain things, rather than a general smattering of many things. We are now clearly living in a "business society", one which values up-to-date knowledge of a roster of expanding techniques, where the final word unfortunately has to be is "the bottom dollar". Colleges may be embarrassed by the crassness of this view and still genuflect to the Humanities as our spiritual source, but the new Global World is without question economically (not culturally) founded.
"American Education has been forced to graduate into the business world in order to survive, and the first step toward survival is recognizing education as the new EdBiz and attending to education's economic base. But Education is conservative with a long memory, and has adhered firmly to the old notion of the value of the Liberal Arts Tradition which was so well accepted in 1960. Colleges are organized with standard departments of English, Philosophy and Art, all staffed with tenured professors, while the Graduate Schools are firmly locked into their traditional Ph.D. spawning functions. Attacking the Humanistic Tradition is about as unpopular as attacking Motherhood and Apple Pie, or that recently invented cliche' about Family Values. In Academe, even more than elsewhere, change comes slow and hard.
"But students coming out of college with their B.A. in English, always a popular major, have little hope for the future, unless they plan graduate study and go into teaching. But good teaching positions are now hard to find in a world which has at last realized that Education is one of the last areas which offer job security for life. True, a college graduate with an attractive personality, good imagination and a good helping of luck will fare well in the business world. But what about the others, is there a chance for anything better than waiting on table, or driving taxi?
"Let me try to clear the air by distinguishing between the academic "tools and technique studies" as against the "commentative studies". In the first class we find most of the sciences, always strong in their use of specific tool-disciplines, whether biology, physics or geology. Some of the social sciences share this hard-edge learning, with large amounts of statistics in Economics and Sociology, along with use of computer technology in data-analysis. These will also qualify as what I call "hard knowledge", which has a clear place in our expanding technology.
"But the hard edge world of science and technology cannot be Separated from the spiritual world which constitutes another part of Man's nature. Classifying the humanistic part of the Liberal Arts as "Commentative Studies", does not denigrate their value at all. It is important to be able to think about things critically, and to be able to discuss your thinking with a group around the seminar or conference table. What is important here is the opening of minds to examine and discuss possibilities, and it is the quality of the discussion which may be more important that the topic being discussed.
"Reading Chaucer and Steinbeck, we are not just reading historical information about 1400 or 1940. We are discussing the human condition, in short we are discussing ourselves. BUT there is very little specific technique involved, so the student brought up on an English Curriculum will miss some of the grit need to digest a harder fare. Chickens know to swallow some gravel to break up grains of corn, just so our literature and art history students need the grit of exact procedures to aid in digesting notions and ideas. The humanistic student needs more than a cultural, non-mathematical introduction to Physics or Astronomy to provide the grit he needs to understand the new world we are now entering.
"The answer I suggest is doing a Double Major in college. One side can be on the Commentative Campus learning how to read insightfully, how to consider and discuss with perception. But on the other will be the Science Center with full-tilt, pre-professional introduction into a field which uses laboratory hands-on experience and computer technology as a basic tool to analyze complex data into meaningful information. The value of this two-horned approach avoids the two-worlds dilemma which CP.. Snow adumbrated a generation ago, one which we have not still squarely faced or solved.
"As things stand the cultural and scientific landmasses are shifting ever further apart, and the Richter reports of low economic rumblings indicate a widening of the split. But there is an answer, to put one foot on one side and one on the other, and prove to ourselves for once that we won't fall into an impossible abyss.
"To be sure, not all of us have capacity for both side of this equation, and not all of us have the energy and determination to do two fields in college when only one is required for the graduation. If it is the Diploma which is what you are really after, ignore what I have been saying. But if you are after a real place in this newly developing world, then consider the two path journey which I am suggesting. I am sure Robert Frost chose rightly for himself when he faced the diverging roads in the yellow wood, but I maintain that if you take BOTH roads, that will make for you in the long run even more of a difference."
August 7 2000
It was out dissatisfaction with a straight Classical education that Harvard's Dean Briggs in l895 instituted the revolutionary "English A", a course which spread through the country almost immediately. For the first time in American education, students were required to read examples of good writing and turn in weekly papers or "themes", and this was the start of a whole new approach to reading and writing in this country. This formula is so familiar to us now that we can hardly imagine college without it.
But since mid-century student writing abilities have dropped enormously, and despite widespread concern we are not mending the situation yet. I am sure Dean Briggs would be shocked to see where we stand in terms of student Writing Skills if he were time-shifted for a week into the current century. He might even feel that English A was a failure after all, and that students would have been better off staying with their Latin authors as models for clear thinking and good writing.
For a fuller statement on this situation, with some thoughts on whose is to blame and what can now be done, take a look at my essay on writing on my website in "A Century of Re-gress" under Education.
August 10, 2000
I was washing engine parts in the shop in gas and gunk
August 12 00
Years ago I was teaching a course in The Art of Translation, when a girl who had spent a year in Russia came in with some translated samples of "Worker Poetry" from the then USSR. She burst into tears at the cold and unsympathetic reception of the class, who were tuned to 19th c. European "Weltschmerz" with its sad threnody for lost something-or-other. But 20th c. poetry has become just as strange, little thought-poems furbished with clever wording which demonstrate little more than the writer's education. Just now I was reading a lot of Daniel Defoe, who wrote two some 210 books and papers beside Robinson Crusoe, mostly forgotten. But he writes out of a firm Non-Conformist mind, what he says is clear and unadorned by anything more than his fertile and remarkable imagination. Everything he says can be understood in "plain English" even though the sentences are longer than modern taste allows.
I am not advocating Worker Poetry per se, but I think it is a good corrective to the airy and delicate "Poesie" which has settled like a wet morning dew on the current publishing scene. There is a place for the real, gutsy, prosaic and commonplace in our poetry, and we are in need of a Daumier in words to set our notions right again.
August 14 2000
We humans, as Jung pointed out a couple of generations ago, are perhaps he most social of the many social beasts which have evolved over the years. I don't need to remind you that most of us live in a web which embraces everything, running from church to PTO to United Way with our mate and children. We can now even reach out to " touch someone" by phone effortlessly every little once in a while. Dogs and monkeys are now understood as high on the socializing scale, but WE are the absolute super-social breed. Even when physically lying alone on the TV sofa, we tune into people going back and forth (it often doesn't matter what they are doing, angels or serial killers), cracking a baseball into left field in an entourage of thousands of watchers, or hole in one somewhere while the crowd applauds. We seem locked into this sort of thing with people all around....
A friend who was a model of the Social Human Being, learned to fly a plane late in life after his aged mother gave him permission. He told me there was really nothing in the world like Flying Solo, which was a surprise to me at that time considering his social proclivities. I on the other hand never got into the social swing of things, no clubs since I am not a Joiner, no church since if I prayed I would do it as Jesus said in a closet, although I am not a recluse or arcane philosopher at all. I do like people, although I can't quite comprehend Will Rogers' statement that he never met a man he didn't like. There are lot of folks I don't like, and I don't mind keeping it that way. Must be a matter of taste!
I remember Frank's words about flying alone, and feel that is not a bad way to think of yourself at all. Ideas don't come to you in a Committee Meeting generally, Mozart didn't write out a symphony in a dance-hall, the oriental philosopher does go to the mountain to get his thoughts clear at the end. So if I am writing a book on something which is hard to grasp, and there is nobody I can ask to read copy or comment on the ideas, that can be OK. I can go my own way, follow my nose, in fact I can afford to Fly Solo.
August 20, cool evenings and summer soon to end....
After a quiet Sunday driving around in the mountains, we came home and I felt the sudden need to make something, just to "make" something. Down in the workshop, I started making up a three foot square rolling dolly on an angle iron frame I had made up Decades ago, welding into the corners four large casters. This should be good for moving the large red steel sculptures from the 1960's which I am "restoring" for the front yard. Finished with a feeling of satisfaction as the sun threw a smile into the workshop before retiring for the night. And then it came upon me with a flash:
What was this great accumulated workshop, this little empire of sorts which I had been adding onto for years since as a boy I bought my first malleable iron C-clamp at the dime store? Rows of power machines, Skilsaws galore, clamps and jigs and devices rarely used, with every square foot of a long room crammed around a twelve foot worktable. Twenty years back a Russian journalist who had defected in Japan arrived at Middlebury as a place where Russian was taught and spoken. We met in a bar over drinks and next day I took him over to my house. "Take a look at my shop, Sergei.....!" All he could say was "Who owns this factory? How many men work here?" No, it was not like Russia, but the question remained: "What was all this?"
This evening I thought of old Horace on his Roman estate, as he considered his treasures, his wine cellar, the trees he had planted years before, all to be abandoned and left to a careless inheritor who would spill rare wine on the mosaic floor in a drunken splash. Who would inherit this little domain of mine? Should I leave a list of values for my wife so she can tell the auctioneer where to start the bidding? Will all the things I thought so much of finally go for almost nothing? Last year I visited the shop of a sculptor in forged iron, remembered him many years ago pumping the coals into a blaze in the evening while he lifted out pieces of red-hot iron to hammer together into a shapely female torso. Now it was all dust and cobwebs, that little piece still standing on the shelf in the corner where he had put it then. Is this the way it all ends, does it all come to this?
No, not at all. The little treasures you collect are only there for your joy in living and seeing, the tools are equipment for activity, for making something, for fabricating whatever your instant wish commands. It is the making which is valuable, that central act of being a human being. And what you had assembled as your workshop Treasure House is no more important that the cartloads of made objects which you constructed, or written, or set to music in a lifetime of endeavor. What counted was that you were there, that you did something and made something , made anything, (an object, an idea, a new view of something puzzling...). What counted was the MAKING.
The Greeks knew that "poiesis", as the Art of Making, was the point and peak of human achievement, and they knew this sense of making or "Poetry" was our best business in living. (It was the Greek word. poiein or as they wrote it "noieiv"). So this evening as I had thoughts in my shop about what it all meant, I recalled that it was the mainly the action and activity of making which was important to me. The large red sculptures may rust away someday in the yard, the tools dispersed to other hands, my domain finally become impersonally a part of other peoples' world. But this is actually the way it should be, the way it was supposed to be all along from the very start.
I am washing my hands now before dinner, and thinking to myself that this is all OK. I have been able to do something on my own in a very complex and confusing world, where the individual can easily get lost. Civilization is what we do in concert with each other, the cumulative result of large effort over long time. But at the core is that curious restlessness of individuals who for one reason or another find themselves "making" something new on their own. My intimation is that they are hoeing the seedbed of Civilization.
College study of English and American literature is such a basic part of our Liberal Arts tradition, that we might easily accept it as it stands and not inquire further about its aims and methods. But there are problems, which I would like to summarize briefly as follows:
a) Most of what is being intensively "studied" originally appeared on the book publishing market as pleasure reading of one sort or another. People bought and read copies of Sterne, Dickens, Faulkner and Steinbeck because they enjoyed reading, not because they wanted to study them. The college study of books shifts the emphasis and changes the meaning of Literature, it re-orients they way we think about it. We study literature rather than read it.
b) The study of Literature is basically "commentative", that is it talks about the nuances of meaning, about plot development and about subjective reactions to what is read. In a typical literature course, this gives students a good chance to develop their conversational skills around the seminar table, and these are skills which will be useful later in life without question. The teacher can merely "host" the discussion and often prefers to let the students take the lead in discussion. Some students might even wonder if the teacher is needed there at all, he or she is so quiet and unobtrusive at times.
c) Serious study implies tools, techniques and analytical skills, as in the Sciences. So the study of science is intrinsically different from literary studies. This is not entirely because of the difference of the material being studied. It can be, as I suggest, a difference in approach and technique. Literary studies tend to be essentially "techniqueless".
Now the question is whether Literary Studies can change and develop in a fast-changing global scene, or whether they are lock-stepped into an outmoded Liberal Arts scheme of education. I have discussed this in an essay on the Liberal Arts in more detail than I can outline here. But there are many ways of developing literary studies to bring them into line with the kinds of work being done in other sectors of Academe.
1) Use of globally available Internet resources for bringing together all pertinent information bearing on the literary topic at hand. For example, in the case of Faulkner, there is a wide range of social, geographical, historical, photographic and linguistic material available which bears on Faulkner's world. Some of this is in printed books, much background material can be dredged up through serious work with electronic searching, and this kind of study-in-depth can begin to assemble "tools of technique" which should be the ancillary core of literary analysis. Discussion must follow the assembling of ground materials, you cannot not discuss intelligently just on the basis of reading the book and talking out the storyline.
2) Students majoring in college in English and American literature find themselves in a terrible situation after graduation, since the new technological and competitive society we live in finds little use at the present time for finely tuned literary sensibilities. But a student trained in deep research, well trained practice in searching out and evaluating electronically available materials, will have along with his literary skills, some working sense of the research and communication methods now widely used. This may not qualify for a job, but it opens the way to learning how to qualify, rather than throwing up hands in despair.
3) Pressing this one stage further, the new Literary Student I am describing, who is familiar with the current electronic world and has used it in college study beyond word-processing a paper, can produce studies as part of the course assignments which verge into the HyperMedia, an area which has been growing within the realm of Literature. This means new techniques and new ways of thinking in writing a student paper, and opens the doors of the mind to enlarging possibilities. This enlarging of the mind is of course what education is all about.
4) Now the new literary student can also process the papers and written work from his courses into a personal academic Web Page which summarizes all the thinking and stages of development done in the college sequence. Work rewritten into a final form should become part of the ultimate personal "dossier", a record of the curve of learning and exploration. This recorded on a single CD ROM has a coherence and a value for the future which piles of marked up student papers will never have. Reviewing where you have come from and where you are now should be invaluable to the college graduate, not as a sentimental memory of seminars and discussion and professors in the receding distance, but as your own document which register who you have become.
5) Then there is the matter of going into the "microstructure" of the writing, often largely ignored in favor of the theme and storyline, which are too simple and easy to discuss in class. This is too large a subject to outline here, since it addresses the matter of detailed study of text down to the level of paragraph structure, the phrase and the word-constructs at ground level. In music this would be analysis and discussion of a Mozart symphony in the range of the pitch and instrument of a given phrase, to sections building into motifs, to developments in blocks and only then on to the overall form. But without attention to the sounds as sounds, the orchestration and harmony functions, and the "small constructions" on the score-page, you would miss the essential and basic sense of the music as music. It is exactly so with written text. Especially when it is Literature and art-writing, we need attention to the micro-structure, and this entails linguistic analysis, stylistics and great attention paid to the actual sound of the words and phrases, since language is basically an oral and sound-based phenomenon. In recent times we have often thought of Literature as the printed word, and much modern poetry has become silent paper-poetry. Attention to the Microstructure reclaims Sound and reminds is that Literature is a part of the activity of Human Speech. I find it strange that we should have to be reminded!
6) As individual students assemble large batches of information in such a literature course, their cumulative and common work must be put into some sort of accessible form to make sense and to be usable in the future. By tying together all inputs into a well designed Internet accessible html document, a course generates serious "Academic Papers on.... " with a double identity. For the students it is a record of the group's activity and results, and they should have a CD copy for off-line browsing as part of their personal library. But this material is also available online through the Internet for other courses in other places, a valuable asset for other students who do not have to begin their research at ground-zero. Global linking of information which is such an important part of the scientific and economic world today, should also be a part of Literature
In short: We can think about a new approach to Literature involving the modern range of tools and techniques for exploration, with a sense of the widest possible range for each finite matter under the critical microscope, which should bring the study of Literature into range with other "hard" college disciplines, and incidentally match better with what is going on in the outside "real" world.
"In order to become an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must, above all, be a sheep. -Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
It is not easy to find the way into the use of the unconscious mind.
Yesterday I found the gas lawnmower really wasn't at the cutting edge anymore and needed attention, so it was either forget and back to Sears, it or the usual round of things to check out. The spark plug looked OK but maybe try another, I had an old one full of black carbon which had to be sandblasted (I have all that equipment around, years of experimenting with things) and it turned out OK. Check the spark, also good, so it must be the carburetor or....... Off with the carb and tank, some little springs and wires to the fan operated speed controller, and sure enough Junk and water in the tank. Drained, cleaned out, all the carburetor parts blown off nicely and then everything put carefully back into place, screws tightened down and see how she works now. ----Well, it runs..... but seems weak in the deep grass and the hand lever won't give any speed control. Disappointing after all that fussing with it, I was thinking about it all through lunch and I don't know what is up. Open some mail, check stuff on the desk, Maybe take a short nap
It was just at the moment of waking, it all came instantly clear. If the Briggs and Stratton motor was running weak in power but fast, then that meant too much air giving a weak mixture which would always run uncontrollably fast without power. So that must mean an air leak in the carb intake, which had to be that O-ring seal between the carb body and the tube it slipped over in assembly. The thin ring would easily miss the retaining groove, and......... sure enough, there it was!
I know you are not interested in a practical lesson on gas engine mechanics, and are wondering why I am running on about a lawn machine motor in such detail. The lawn mower motor was not what I was talking about, I just wanted to say something about that hard-to-find avenue into truth, and the function of the unconscious mind.
September 1 00
Now that elections are coming up again, we might take a look at the tone of the political press in the past to see if there has been any change in style and technique. In a political pamphlet dating from l7l3 Daniel Defoe had this comment about the political commentators of that time:
Roper and Ridpath.... have thrown night-dirt (feces) at one another so long, and groped into so many Jakes's (outhouse toilets) up to their elbows to find it, that they stink now in the nostrils of their own party. They are become perfectly nauseous to read; the nation is surfeited of them, and the people seem to be tired with ill-using each other.
Some things have changed. Now it is the Candidates themselves who are tempted to vilify each other,. restrained only by a fear of public opinion. Of course what a Candidate says is really the writing of his advisory staff and script-writers, the party-journalists of our time. Scandal searching lies forever behind the scenes, a fine-toothed combing for anything which could disfigure the opponent, reaching down to his convictions or lack of personal convictions, and these days it is in the recently unearthed area of "family values".
Back to the past! Let's follow current political procedure, and see if we can find anything scandalous about these two zealous party activists. Roper was a Tory journalist who had earlier been imprisoned for aiding revolutionary conspirators, while the Whig journalist Ridpath was earlier imprisoned for burning the Pope in effigy and banished from Scotland, was again in jail in l712 for libeling the government, then fled to Holland, later avoided by friends on suspicion of bigamy. So the mud-slingers were also muddied apart from the slung mud. and I come to the conclusion that there has been some shifting of roles, but little essential change in the world of political journalism.
But one thing does become clear, and this applies equally to the years l713 and 2000: The public then and now is pretty sick of the stink of badmouthing in the public ear, and if you think I mixed my metaphor by accident. I will tell you it was intentional. The offensiveness is in the air and attacks us through all avenues of sensation, down to the stomach. Defoe's phrase "perfectly nauseous" still fits the bill.
Thoughts for LABOR DAY
If there are two pin-points to locate the summer season in America, they are the Fourth of July, the origins of which we know since school days, and Labor Day about which we seem to know almost nothing. My first surprise this rainy morning spent with the books is that in England "Labour Day" is still the First of May, celebrating along with most of the world this May day of celebration. On the one hand this is the day set aside by the Second Socialist International in 1889 to commemorate Labor, and is retained as such by all former Communist countries and most socialist states as well. But in England this was superimposed on an ancient May Day which can be traced back to Roman times when the springtime holiday of Flora ranged from April 28 to May 3. If March First was the start of the Roman year and the day to begin planting, then May First was the time of the blossoms which indicated that everything had been done right, a tribute to the agricultural labor of the previous two months. This is suspiciously near to modern Easter at April 23 in the year 2000, formerly a lunar computation itself and it may have come from India and Egypt with the same date as May Day. So May Day in England may have a double root after all.
Labor Day in the United States, Canada and Australia is quite different, tracing its origins back to the "Noble Order of the Knights of Labor in America", an organization which was founded in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day l869 through the efforts of Uriah S. Stephens and six associates, all garment cutters. This was started as a trade union but soon changed into a broad spectrum social and philanthropic organization under the guidance of Stephens who was himself a Mason and fostered a Mason-like direction. A secret ritual was initiated, of which no copy has been was found in writing, a first local assembly was called in l880 and that same year a second assembly of ship carpenters and caulkers employed in Cramp's shipyard in Philadelphia was called. From that point membership grew, a new constitution was adopted in l882 even admitting women members, with a membership of near a million workers in the mid l880's. This was the high-water mark, by l900 other Unions were in place and the Knights had shrunk to only 130,000.
It was probably the two parades of the Knights in New York City in l882 and l884, when membership was at its peak, that spurred Colorado in l887 to designate the first Monday in September a legal holiday, a date which Congress approved in l894, while in l909 it was approved in all states except North Dakota and Arizona, although in Louisiana it was observed only in New Orleans parish, and in Maryland, Wyoming and New Mexico it could be proclaimed annually by the governor if so wished. Slowly Labor Day became a national holiday, a long weekend of end-summer festivities, with little more than a token tip of the hat to "Labor".
At this last century ended, Unionism with its long and hard-won history in the fight for acceptable working conditions, pay and benefits, was on the Decline. A thriving US economy which believes that big business and capital power are the surest advisors in the running of the country, has largely bypassed the massed force of the once-powerful unions. Might it not be suitable for us to pause today to think how far the old union activities have brought us in improving the life of the common man? And we might think soberly for a minute about Labor Day as a memorial to the vanished men and women of the l9th century who gave us the economic base our working men and women enjoy? This is a time to visit distant family, to take vacation trips to resorts, to spend money freely and fully enjoy the prized days of this grand holiday weekend.
September 5 00
When you try to find the historical track by which we inherit the term "Liberal Arts", there is a curious jumble of things which don't give a very clear image. At the far end stands the Latin phrase 'artes liberales' , which means the learning suitable to a freeborn Roman of the upper classes, presumably of an ancient family and probably a landed proprietor, not unlike the Jeffersonian landed gentleman who received a good education in l8th century Virginia. But in-between lies the layer of the medieval 'Seven Studies', defined as the Trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric, beside the Quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. This in turn is based on Greek thinking from the 4th c. B.C., filtered through Byzantine school texts, preserved and edited by the Arabs of the 9th century, and "rediscovered" in the 12th century in Europe in a translated Latin form. Our use of the term stems from Renaissance usage, but it has gone through further alchemy in this last century as it became the catch-all term for a high quality college education.
Old dictionaries are useful for defining exactly the meaning of a term in their period of publication, and it was revealing to find in a l950 dictionary this definition:
Liberal Arts: A course of college education in America which lead to the greatest degree of self-expression and personal fulfillment.
So here was something new, a subjective and completely personal pathway to enlightenment and wisdom, taught in the span of four college years and presumably good for life. I had thought that self-expression and fulfillment were matters for a long life of study and thinking, the result of serious living and not a "course". But remember those were the days at mid-century of great expansion of the post-war economy with a great increase of the number of people who went to college. As business grew and needed well-informed, self-assured and culturally confident people for sales, personnel and later administration, the college education was geared to produce personal factors which fitted well with this growing economy.
I need hardly add that the times have shifted again, and as this new age begins, the "well rounded college grad" can no longer rely on his college diploma for a job. Now the world demands specific training, especially in the new techniques which our world employs everywhere. There is nothing wrong with using the above dictionary quotation for one's personal life as a worthy aspiration, but one part of the college curriculum should be reserved for something that ensures a place in the employable world of the job market. Satis sapientibus....
September 16 00
You can feel fall coming in the evening air, a sharp reminder to get the wood piled and that axe handle wedged up for work, so I'll make this note short:
After the university critics have had their say about of everything in the world of art, there are two areas which still defy analysis. There is absolutely nothing you can say about how Humor comes to be, or how a musical melody is put together. There is an undefinable quality about one of the good Mozart melodies which has nothing to do with the harmony or the sequence of notes, just as many of Irving Berlin's songs still ring well in the ears seventy five years later. Humor does go in and out of our grasp as society changes, but there is a continuum of the indefinably ridiculous which stretches from Aristophanes to Charlie Chaplin and on. There is a lot of sly humor in certain passages of music, but music which is trying to be funny is often cutely grotesque.
My point is that these two areas, constituting only minor if precious segments of what is written and what is played, stand somehow proof against analysis in a most mysterious way. There are areas of human thought which do not yield to discussion and dissection, which I find reassuring in a time when everything seems commutable to something else in building-block terms. Some things just are what they are!
September 20 00
Well, fall is clearly coming and the colors are starting to appear early this year. If you go up on a hill and watch your favorite roadway, you can see hues appearing here and there. First the bright and brilliant red of a Mitsubishi Sport Coupe veering around the bend and disappearing in a swatch of verdure, a minute later the rich maroon of a Honda followed by the gleam of a porcelain white Taurus standing out like an bleached elephant bone. There goes a classic Chevvy with its green and white Tu-Tone paintjob, all bandaged up in streams of gleaming chrome, followed by a blue Mercedes sky-hued, restrained and calm.
The people downtown on Main Street contribute to the Color Season too, those New Jersey fellers who sport a red hunting cap far ahead of hunting season just for the joy of it, and the obvious kids in Army camouflage who think they are invisible. Or the delicate touches of brightness which the tourist ladies always wear, perhaps as a protection against getting lost on some distant mountainside. Now that city ways have emigrated north, we have stop lights with bright red, tenuous green, and a yellow which says "you can go....sort of...".As dusk settles the flashing blue lights of a state police car following a purple street rod which only looked as if it were going too fast, or the Christmas tree lighting of the big trucks evening time, hauling two trailers all moving along in threesomes. And soon the town lights will go on and flush the valley in yellow with touches in windows of ubiquitous TV blue.
Yes the colors are coming in early this year, with bits and pieces of natural hue scattered here and there. But when the forests get the signal they have been patiently waiting for, there will be a burst of orange and red at which we will gape in sheer wonderment, our eyes amazed by so much change in one week of frost. And we are quite put to shame for the weak bits of colors we have proudly displayed, in the face of chromatic wonders which must have made the dinosaurs pause in their tracks, staring in surprise at all this colored majesty.
September 26 00
I had an interesting talk today with a man who runs a small farm goods store and I would like to make a note of it. I had made out of a large pallet the base for a shed for kindling, with a slanting roof of the translucent green plastic they use for barn roof lights, and wanted an eight foot length cut into three pieces so I could get it into the car. Well, we went out to the shed and Gil said he could use the Skilsaw but would rather handsaw it, so he cut and I held the jittery material for him. When we were back at the register and he was adding up the tally of this and some roofing screws, he touched the top of the three pieces leaning against the counter, and remarked something which I think no young person of the age of my son, a recent college grad., would have ever thought of saying:
"Well, they are pretty accurate, all three pieces. I guess my father must have taught me something right about measurement..."
Gil was from a country upbringing in Vermont back in the '30's, where learning from the learning of your elders was necessary, a tool for surviving with Decency. So I come back to my young son's generation where nobody listens to his Dad and nobody can cut a straight line on a board with a handsaw, or what is more important in the figurative sense of the woodworker's phrase, very few can in any sense of timber framer's term, "hew to the line".
Catching myself sounding like an old fogey, I have to add there are different parameters in this mixed new world. A bright young feller who just yesterday bought from me an old Sears tablesaw which he isn't sure how to use yet, is earning his living coding up documents for a company which sells websites nationwide. There are different lines to hew to, and I have to nudge myself and make a note: Never forget that!
October 5 00
Today it became clear that the fall foliage followers were going to be disappointed, because this year's coloration ran to the yellow with only touches of the expected bright red on ailing maples and the ubiquitous sumac. Driving around, we were surprised to see a bridge crowded with tourists snapping pictures of the deep gorge underneath, apparently fascinated by the trickle of a stream at the bottom. But isn't that the nature of things, that water runs down there where it is deep? I suppose it's only interesting because there are no gullies in the suburbs and the water is found mainly in the mains where you can't get a picture of it. It was then I realized, thinking over what I was saying to myself, that city snobs are not the only breed, they can also thrive in the sticks.
October, Friday 13 00
Sometime you anticipate things going wrong, I kept thinking that all evening, but I got the bad new at 9 AM on Saturday. I was writing at the computer, when the power went off and the dead screen reminded me that the power company was going to install some stuff today or a week later in the morning hours. I find the traditional word "stuff" useful for situations like this since it avoids the clumsiness of saying in neo-Boolean terminology "installing hardware AND/OR software". Whatever the reasons and whatever the stuff involved, the lines were dead. I thought this might be a good time to test out the Luddite convictions of some of my woodworking friends who feign hating electricity in the shop and see how it felt.
I had a curiously grown and twisty maple walking stick with an odd turn at the top which always bothered me, so I Decided to cut off the top six inches, put a long tenon on the stick and mortise the handle to it crosswise. Nice old-fashioned work to do completely by hand. First thing I noticed is that although the shop has fair north light, it was pretty dim without the overhead fluorescents I was used to, and I had to pencil the marks a few times over to make them visible. I was going to get the flashlite to locate the mortising chisels on a back shelf, but figured that was probably cheating.
This was a good chance to use that razor sharp Disston handsaw which gets sharpened more often than it gets dull, so I put the piece in a vise and marked off the cut to sever the head. Actually it came out at an unexpected angle, it would have been much neater on the bandsaw where I had two hands to hold the work at an exact angle. But when I pointed the edges a bit with my fine toothed rasp so I could run the adjustable tenoner over it, I saw how much easier it would have been with one quick swirl against the sander disc. Trying to work the tenoner in a brace was impossible; without the speed of an electric drill it locked onto the work and gouged one side badly.
Back to the rasp to clean it up. No sense even trying the mortise since the piece was too odd shaped to pound holding in a vise, so hold it to do later with the power machine in two swift operations.
Back in my study waiting along with the stopped clock for them to turn the juice on again, I automatically reached for the radio for the morning Classical Music hour. It was so silent in the house without the hum of the refrigerator motor or oil burner downstairs, and I guessed how it would have been in 1925 in Vermont before rural electrification had reached out to Shoreham. So I did what they did then when they wanted music, I sat down to the piano and played out some improvs a la Chopin. Music must have been the essential difference between then and now, when a turn of a switch brings you pop tunes or a Beethoven Sonata, a symphony or new compositions streamed into your computer from somewhere far away. Back then there was a lot more silence, and when you wanted music, you had to go make it yourself, whistle or hum, or simply do without.
Power went on toward noon, just in time to flush the toilet, open the refrigerator and get out a BLT for lunch, then turn on the CD player for that new Tomsic recording of the Beethoven Waldstein, and plan to finish up the walking stick handle in the light of much better than day fluorescents. Goodbye, my Neo-Luddite friends, I have delved into your dark corner of the old world, and am glad to be back here after all, in this brave new electric world.
October 19 00
There has been so much discussion about whether the Internet will eventually displace the traditional paper-based library, that one could construct bibliography on the subject large enough to guarantee that nobody would read it through. But some things are clear enough by now to elicit a few general statements, like these:
The monitor screen is good enough visually for reading short papers, say up to ten pages, but nobody is serious about going through a 400 page book on-line. Hard on the eyes with light coming through rather than illuminating the page by reflection off white paper, while you sit straight up on a chair at attention with hands on the table --- this is not a stance one wants to maintain for eight hours of serious reading.
Many of us are shifting out attention from whole books to summaries, which makes sense on the web. Students like this because it gives them digested samples which they can use in a term paper, a cluster of them gives the impression of "research", but this is in fact the Reader's Digestation of the library, with all the dangers that summaries offer. The result seems to be a verging away from the labor of reading whole books, and the responsibility for cheap work has to go back to teachers who accept condensed, instant "research" in their students' work.
On the other hand the excellent electronic searches, especially bibliographic ones you will find in the library, are a wonderful new way of navigating in the world of printed paper. If the Internet is used as a book selector, then it offers something truly remarkable, far better than the card catalog ever hoped to be. And there is a good coverage of the tens of thousands of Journals on every topic in every language, and electronic abstracts with links to the source can provide a path through an intractable Jungle into primary level research.
There is the constant complaint that there is much unreliable Junk on the web, but there are plenty of stupidities and dead-ends on paper too. The low cost of mounting writing on the web does make it more prone to thoughtlessness, but this is not a characteristic of the web as such.
Some of us have to be reminded that the Library has a history of holding and saving information going back to the Renaissance if not to the Greek libraries at Alexandria, and inked paper is still the most reliable and long lived medium for preserving information. Electronic data bases are so new that we cannot predict accurately where we will be with them in half a century. In the meantime we have little reliable information about the life of electronic data on magnetic film, other than the fact that their life is remarkably short. My mechanically encoded vinyls are still as good as they were in l960, while my cassetted tapes have already lost a good part of the overtone. On the other hand my Apuleius from 1512 has just a few insignificant wormholes. The laser encoded CD promises long life, but for that we will have to wait a couple of generations to see for ourselves.
Internet or Libraries? This is one of those temporary quandaries which everyone was concerned about for a while in a whirl of hot opinions floating in the air. This like many other splits of public opinion will certainly disappear in time. When I was a kid we had to use steel point pens with an inkpot to write in New York public schools, my prized new "Fountain Pen" was disbarred entirely from school work. When I got my first portable typewriter, I was told to submit schoolwork written by hand, and it wasn't till many years later that I pressed on an unwilling college the idea of letting a few students do final exams with a typewriter. Just now I have been talking with a middle aged psychologist who objects to the Web as "instant gratification", an odd choice of words from one who counsels people with sex problems.
My point: There is always someone who is going to object to new devices, new technologies, and of course to New Ideas. I don't find many people sticking to the steel tipped pen and inkpot for writing these days, or damning the qwerty keyboard as a block to imagination in writing. But sure enough, there is a movement in which the members call themselves "Lead-ites", writers who maintain that all you need to become a writer is "a pencil and a piece of paper". This may be true, but have you every brought four hundred pages of penciled manuscript to a publisher, and have you any idea of what he would say? And the last straw is that the Leadites now have a site on the Web to diffuse their beliefs in a non-electronic world.
October 24 00
Now that we are all at long last publicly concerned about the high cost of pharmaceuticals, even in the flurry of a Presidential race, I thought this might be a good point to mention the work of Elizabeth Lee Hazen (l885-1975 and Rachel Fuller Brown (l898-l980) who developed a drug of great value and widespread use, all on their own time. They named their powerful antifungal NYSTATIN, after New York State where their were both working. Hazen started the initial research and sent samples to Brown by mail for testing and checking, and when the drug was approved they claimed no part of the 13 million dollar profits, which in the l950's market was a fraction of the eventual value from sales.
It is easy to say that those were simpler times both for research and for FDA drug approval, but what cannot be avoided is the unusually dedicated and conscientious work of these two remarkable women. Does it seem possible that individual researchers can still operate with such a high level of conscience, while large research and development businesses are forgiven for squeezing out the bottom dollar? It would seem that in this last half-century, as we moved out of a long-term Depression and a half- Decade of War, that we somehow Decided to ride the crest of expansion and go for the big bucks on every front. Cars........OK? Gadgets and toys......why not? But MEDICINE........ ? Did we really mean to put that on the economic fast-track, leave supervision and control to the wind, and tell our citizens to empty the piggy bank or cookie jar when they had to go to the drug store? No, we didn't really mean for this pharmaceutical gouging to develop the way it did.
We just let it happen!
October 26 00
There is something fascinating about the idea of an island floating in a tranquil and bright blue sea, a place to retire to with your millions and bask in the rewards of your industry. But it can also be the desperate retreat from a society which is beginning to crowd on conscience, as many people from Gauguin and Robert Louis Stevenson to Marlon Brando thought in planning their societal escape to and island paradise. Or it can be the one way in this complex and ever-complicating world where a person can actually learn to do everything on his own, to do "more with less". This is a theme which stretches from Robinson Crusoe to Harrison Ford shipwrecked on an island three hundred years later. Is this the leftover mythology stemming from a remote ancestor crawling out of the deep onto the sandy shore on his flippers and thinking "this new world is great, this must be heaven..."?
But there is another chapter to this. Society has a way of ostracizing people who somehow don't match the average. They may have special talents, special intellectual endowments, the very tools of the future in their possession, but once they are marked as unacceptable or dangerous, this must be got out. It is interesting that the final plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, the Philoctetes and the Tempest, are both built on this theme, which seems to fit the temperament of the thinker who has seen society in all its forms and still has something more to say. I advise anyone concerned with isolation to read these two plays together, it helps the soul see that you are not alone.
To get the full sense of the Philoctetes you really have to read it in the Greek, word by word and line by line. It is not a play to read through in a hour. But the outline is clear: The man who has the bow which cannot miss its mark has been shanghaied to a desert isle ten years ago, on pretext that his cancered foot is an offense to his army and an ill omen from God. Losing the War on Troy, envoys come back to kill the man and steal that bow, and who would be a better ambassador of such trickery than the effective Odysseus, the man without a conscience. Philoctetes is still there, tattered and distraught but still dangerous as the Master of the Bow. Achilles' son comes along, young and full of honesty and the foil to the treacherous Ambassador. The play elicits every shading of the kind of tragedy which isolates men of quality and mind from their thoughtless and "practical" society, it is written in a harsher and more acrid mode than the gentle Prospero's island sojourn. Both do return to society eventually, but as duty calls rather than by a choice of the heart.
I must add another chapter from an entirely different period but one which has the same elements of distrust, fear and ostracism. Robert Oppenheimer was one of the early workers with the atomic energy project at Los Alamos. As a research scientist he contributed to the development of the Atomic Bomb, but soon realized that Hiroshima was not going to be the end of the situation. The enormous dangers, both politically and in mass destruction, pressed on his conscience and as he voiced his thoughts those in charge of the security of the project Decided that he was dangerous and had to be removed. First his clearance to classified information was canceled, then he was denounced as un-American and possibly a threat to our security, and finally removed to a place where he could do no harm, a safe desert isle as it were. It so happened that this isle was the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, where he could work and think in peaceful isolation, so long as he kept his hands off the Ultimate Weapon and its use. Now that we have had time to consider things and look back over the last half century, Robert Oppenheimer's conscience seems to be the sort of conscientious ingredient which in those days we had in such short supply. Had we listened to his message more carefully, we might have managed this last half century in a better way, and not found ourselves on the trigger edge of worldwide destruction.
Philoctetes' Bow must have had a double meaning to the Greeks, since Gr. 'bios' is actually two Separate words with the same form. One word 'bios' is: a) the Bow to kill, and the other 'bios' : b) Life itself. Some niggling academicians have argued that Philoctetes' Bow has both functions, the taking away of life, and the giving of life. This may sound reasonable in a Christian funeral service, but has no place in Greek thought. The two words even have different origins. The Bow = bios is cognate with Germ. biegen, Bogen, Engl. bow; whereas Life = bios is of the family of Skt. gyvas, Latin vivus "living". The Greeks were remarkably poor etymologists, full of fanciful but wrong associations and it was not until the time of the Grimm brothers that etymologies and word derivations began to make sense. While playing with words, it might be more to the point to consider the name of the lonely man on the desert isle: Philo-ktetes in Greek means "he who gets friends"!)
Does the BOW of Philoctetes have the saving grace to bring forth life? What about General Electric's claim to "bring good things to light" while it manufactures the modern Gatling machine Gun. Some people will always claim that Atomic Energy is really a tool for peace, and it does have some possible potential. The Greeks had to have the Bow to win the war, we needed the Bomb for the same reason, but once that Decision was made in both cases consideration and conscience were thrown to the wind. The world we live in is a world skilled in weaponry, but at last we begin to see the dangers . Whether we will have the wisdom to foresee danger the next time around is something still not clear, only the future will sketch out that chapter in Man's curiously erratic history.
October 26 00
There is something lovely and at the same time ominous about the Fall season. The warmth of the days is emphasized by the foil of the chilly nights, and there is a certain urgency to get the wood piled, the yard cleaned up for the snowplow truck, all things which are not needed in wintertime moved to the outbuilding. But beyond that there is a nice feeling of cleaning up the corners of your mind, attending to the circle of chores which can be done now but not a month later. Wind-chill and deep snow are coming for sure.
This rearranging of home and mind is personal work, nothing shows and there is nothing to tell friends about. Which reminds me how much of our life and work is closely tied to an audience of some kind. If it is a job, it is the Pascal of the company and the approval of the boss, if a writer you have to think of the audience if you want to get published, and teachers like myself have the danger of doing their teaching in a classroom filled with a captive audience. If you are successful teaching, they like you and you like the work, but you get seduced by the fact that there is always someone out there to be reached. If they are not listening , you continue anyway but you have lost your audience. I was recently telling a young teacher that an older colleague in retirement had in the last three years read all the plays of the Greek dramatists in the original Greek. He was surprised, and said: " Why in the world would she do that.....? After all she had no students!"
Can this be a professional liability, that you only read your classics when you have a class coming up? Then is there nothing that you would read for yourself, just read for yourself with no chance of telling anyone how good it is, or how clever you are in your critical perceptions? This may be the liability of over-educated teachers who believe that reading has to be work, scholarship, checking references, delving into the Journal literature. If there are golden books in this world, this would be a reverse alchemy which turns gold to lead.
If I may quote a pointed line from one of Horace's Satires: "Well, what about you....? You don't suffer from this failing...?" I thought I was pretty clean of this danger until it struck me that I do enjoy the public eye however small in the writing of this journal of mine. I think I am doing it for myself, for my own pleasure, but would I actually do it without the Internet.? Did I write that page a few days ago on Sophocles' Philoctetes because the play is so deeply involved in my unconscious thinking, or was it the chance to get another audience if only for an hour? I am not sure about it, but I just might be guilty too.
Of course there is no compelling reason for me to read Shakespeare through now, there is no waiting classroom full of impressionable faces, no Dean beckoning me out of retirement to do one more popular course. But if someone catches me late some winter afternoon with the Tempest on my lap as I gaze out the window past the cedars burdened with heavy snow, and asks what I am reading, I'll deflect the question and answer: "Oh, nothing special. ". And when he leaves I'll go back to sifting the words and phrases as they create a personal kaleidoscope of ideas and images. I wouldn't want to tell him how engaged I was furnishing the treasure house of my mind.
Pre-Thanksgiving thoughts, in the culinary department:
The following "Recipe" is so odd and in a sense timely as Thanksgiving approaches, that I cannot refrain from reprinting it here. It was printed in a local weekly newspaper in upper New York State, snipped out and pasted into one those Commonplace Books which were an ancestor of photo album in the days before Mr. Eastman's clever invention of the camera flooded the market. Little chunks of text snipped from the newspaper were use to document events, personalities, births and deaths, and scenes portrayed in printed woodcut format. Once photos came in, they overtook the old "commonplaces", and special albums replaced old books as a better system of filing visual moments in time.
In the old system each selection was pasted onto a page of a bound book you didn't want anymore, in this case a work on the United States from about l860 . If you wanted something better you could buy a bound book of blank pages, but any old book was just as good if you could ignore the print. From a few datable articles in the filled-in section of this book, this Commonplace can be dated near l880 with relative certaincy.
This period near the end of that century was the time of initial ferment for Women's' Rights, which one might say was a situation coming to a boil then, which explains the tone of this essay. Yet I am surprised at the tough tone of this lady writer in discussing her process of marinating of the male ego.
After all, when we speak of women's rights, we are speaking of legal and voting status in public matters, but must not forget that clever women always had a way of speaking their mind in the home, and watching a macho husband go about the business of cooking their own goose. Here is the text:
"A good many husbands are spoiled by mismanagement. Some women go about as if their husbands were bladders and blow them up. Other seep them constantly in hot water, others let them freeze by their carelessness and indifference. Some keep them in a stew by irritating ways and words; others roast them. It cannot be supposed that any husband will be tender and good managed in this way, but they are really delicious when properly treated. In selecting your husband, you should not be guided by the silvery appearance, as in buying mackerel, nor by the golden tint if you wanted salmon.
"Be sure to select for yourself, as tastes differ. Do not go to market for him, as the best are always brought to your door. It is better to have none unless you will patiently learn how to cook for him. A preserving kettle of the finest porcelain is the best, but if you have nothing but an earthenware nappy, it will do with care. See that the linen in which you wrap him is nicely washed and with the required number of buttons and strings nicely sewed on. Tie him to the kettle be a strong silk cord called comfort, as the one called duty is liable to be weak. They are apt to fly out of the kettle, and be burned and crusty on the edges, since like crabs and lobsters you have to cook them alive.
"Make a steady fire out of love, nearness and cheerfulness. Keep him near as this seems to agree to him. If he sputters and fizzes do not be anxious, some husbands do this until they are quite done. Add a little sugar in the form the confectioners call kisses, but no pepper or vinegar on any account. A little spice improves them,. but it must be used with judgment.
"Do not stick any sharp instrument into him to see if he is becoming tender. Stir him gently, watch the while lest be lie too flat and close in the kettle, and so become useless. You cannot fail of knowing when he is done. If thus treated you will find him very digestible, agreeing nicely with you and his children, and he will keep as long as you want, unless you become careless and set him in too cool a place."
I was surprised when I discovered this recipe to find how similar it was in essence to an academic version from over a century later, which I found in my old file cabinet written out in my handwriting:
"RECIPE FOR A PROFESSOR
"Take from a hundred collected dossiers of
Ph.D.. candidates (and graduate school has more
Than it can remember) and pick out one....
It doesn't matter which, they are all the same:
High verbal quotient, low index of ideas, some
Experience but not much of the world, as it is.
In academe, neatly dressed without a trace of style,
But very clean, especially under the fingernails.
First degut him, since there won't be much need
For that where he's going. Some debone
But we advise against it, he's got to stand
Somehow before a class when lecturing.
They say he can sit, but I think a lot of them lie.
Marination in Frosh courses which no one wants
Softens tissue, makes one better able to yield
To forking at the table. More pounding, the better,
Since we shouldn't make this Jack into a dull boy....
"Passing reviews and yearly intervals he learns
The academic password YES and says it seriously
Whenever some business needs a good support.
The YEA's have it. And they really do. Too bad!
Not worth having, nor wanting nor suffering for.
"It's time for tea and tenure, what do you say? Yes?
Then out the door with him, we don't want yes-men here.But no-men die early, I suppose that's true.
We want yes-men who can say no, convincingly.
To those who make it through it's a long set of NO's
From this point on to retirement or imbecility,
Whichever comes first. "Bratsworth's coming up
For tenure you know. Brilliant chap, list of books
Long as your arm, students think he's great. NO!
Wormsley would make a chairman, he has a flair
With a bit of leadership. Volunteer fireman too. NO!"I know you hate Funk's guts, let's transfer him out
Or put him in Drama, unnoticed. What say?" NO!
"Rodney, you've been slipping a lot, we think
Retirement might give you time for your own.....
No need to wait for an answer, scuttle for the door.
"Our innocent, clear-eyed, lively Assistant Prof.
Has been changed by some hidden alchemy
Into a tough old bird, which no cooking now,
With the thermometer in the appropriate hole,
Will ever make palatable. Strange that he of the
Interminable potboilers can't be boiled. Nor stuffed,
This lecture stuffer. No fryer he, of churchly faith.
Thank God for bacteria or he'd be there for all time
Crammed into his Dean's chair stuck far upstairs
Basted with liquid dripping apathy.
He has what they always said he had:
Good firm texture and consistency.
"f you've a taste for exotic dishes, friend,
Try at least to avoid academic cookery. "
October 29 00
An unexpected snowfall last night:
Winter is i-cumen in
Lhude sing damn snowe
Snowe doth drop
And maketh slop
Lhude sing damn snowe
Nov. 5 00
Today was a grim Sunday, not cold but damp to the heart, and it seemed better to go out driving in the hills rather than sit at home looking out into the drizzle and mist. A grey fog wanted to cling everywhere, the short color of October had completely faded from memory and now the countryside was viewed in the "gray scale" of computer lingo. You can actually see everything through the fog but it doesn't look very interesting. We ended up at a Grange Hall where there was a regular Sunday morning tag sale, and I noticed that the atmosphere there was also tired and somehow nervous under the skin. After all, it was only two days till a most unusual National Election.
Nobody thinks that either Presidential candidate was really the man for the job. Neither had the kind of personal attractiveness or style which movie-conscious Americans think they have a right to expect. Some even reminisce for a Kennedy-like charisma, forgetting that he almost got us into an atomic war over the Bay of Pigs. If Nixon was clever verbally and politically a good planner, it turned out he was dishonest, so maybe look for a bone-honest man like Harry Truman. But that style doesn't surface in these high-cost days of expensive campaigning, and we might not trust it after all these years of earnest promises to the public for things which are mentioned only around election time. Our present pair of candidates are not unlike the Bobsey-Twins, who think alike in every respect, everything except the idea of the other one becoming the President of the United States!
Is it that a politic political candidate has to resist the contrary magnetic pulls of an emotional but uncritical public on the one hand, and the highly organized and powerful thrust from big business with its moneyed lobbies on the other? Caught between the tides, a candidate could become confused and never develop the kind of sincere political voice which a statesman of stature simply must have. These men are clearly not statesman, we all know that and it makes a grim and dreary Sunday in the week before voting just so much more bleak and depressing.
Did I hear correctly that one proposed after all these years to put Roosevelt's Social Security out for bids on the stock market, and let it ride the economic graphs as best it can? Or the churches receiving Federal money for welfare to be dispensed locally like church welfare before l935? Or on the other side, the bright idea of keeping paid-in Social Security funds in an inviolate account, and adding interest accrued to that account to cover inflating and rising cost of living? Novel idea? As a longtime payer into Social Security, I always thought that was the way they were handling my funds, and I find it outrageous that this is suggested as a new idea from an electioneering candidate. Are our funds and fates in the hands of fiscal incompetents? If questionable at home, how can they direct us in global politics and a global economy?
Maybe the answer is that the system will run in its present azimuth more or less by itself, with business interests watching the bottom line and tending the rudder. But that changes the whole idea of democratic government, the notion that the people have their best interests in hand through the vote, and that they will hold onto their rights with tenacity. For some many Decades now corporations have had assigned to themselves the rights which individuals slowly won as "persons" before the law, thus equating massive corporate interests with the rights of citizens as individuals. Most of us don't even know about this strange switch of identities, and even less are prepared to fight it out in the courts. Lacking helmsman and even rudder, we are still sailing ahead of all the world in earnings and our standard of living. So a cynic might ask: Why worry? Why fidget with it or try to fix it if it is still running?
History has shown little interest in personal rights through the millennia. The social rights won in the last century have come slowly with resistance at every step. Hard won rights are never guaranteed, and they tend to erode badly when they are not protected. We seem more interested now in our dollar earnings than our personal rights, and in a time when leaders do not seem to have deep convictions about serious matters, we must be on our guard. I believe our government has a first responsibility to protect the personal rights of citizens, after that there is surely responsibility for support above poverty level and then clearly medical attention for all. But Rights must come first or the rest isn't going to matter very much in a society which is losing the meaning of its Constitutional Guarantees.
It has been a tense month indeed, made worse by a bleak and thin pair of Presidential campaigns, forever trying to win the fight by conceding to lobbies while alluring voters by unsecured promises, and amusing the public by a public verbal boxing-match done without style or grace. Maybe this will teach us next time around to look for persons of substance, men and women with real ideas and plans which make sense. And above all we need candidates who rise above bickering to provide us again with a sense of personal dignity in our leaders.
A grim Sunday today, but I do expect the sun to come out later this week with some better weather, as the Weatherman promises. And I also expect sunshine in Washington some time in the future. We had a bad time waiting out this last rainy summer, but it did finally change and we had a colorful fall. It seems we are going to have to wait for a bright political season, it will come about in the course of time with a step by step change in our political climate. But we are going to have to wait!
(Afternote from perspective of 2004:
Gore won the vote, Bush became President, the WTC was crashed by Ben Laden out somewhere unknown, so we went to war with Iraq in retaliation. Failing in our aim to find WeaponsOfMassDestruction, we substituted Freedom for eager Iraqis as our purpose, but found them unwilling to accept our democratic gift, preferring to wage guerrilla warfare against our troops of Occupation. We found it too expensive to stay there but politically impossible to retreat having lost world respect for our peacekeeping efforts via military power. No clear aim is now evident and the end of the situation is far from sight.)
Nov. 11 00
ELECTION: Still no news that is worth listening to, but there is going to be a lot of legal argumentation and political grumpiness and clearly some careful hand-counting of the ballots before we are done with our Presidential porridge. Everybody is concentrating so intensely on the present moment that we have lost sight of where some of our problems come from.
(We are going to have to face this one again....)The whole concept of the Electors seems to have been borrowed from the Kurfursten or Electors of the German princes, which operated from the 13th to the early l9th century to elect a formal "King of the Germans" to rule nominally over half a dozen German sub-kingdoms. In l806 on the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire the Electors ceased to exist, but by that time some seeds of their functions were in a much altered form planted in the new operation of the American government. By having a land and region based group of controllers finalize the results of a popular vote, the danger of a populous area of the country dominating the whole country could be avoided, a serious consideration. After all, the new democratic notion of the People Deciding on their officers was untried and perhaps dangerous in the long run.
I am surprised that none of the political commentators mention a parallel situation where the Democrat candidate won the popular vote but lost the election. This was the case of the Tilden and Hayes election in l876. Tilden was a man of principle who had broken up the Tweed political corruption, then dealt legally with the illegalities of the New York canal graft, and was a good candidate for the Democrats. He won the p[popular vote, but the Electors, composed of one more Republican than Democrats, Decided for Hayes, and Tilden withdrew from the contest. Florida Louisiana South-Carolina and Oregon had delivered two sets of returns, but the Electors made their own Decision without discussion of recount or examination of irregularities. As it turned out, Hayes with his insistence on currency reforms and "hard money", did good work during his term, but he was never clear from the cloud of suspicion which hung over the election. The interesting point to be drawn from this chapter of American political history is the "cloud of election impropriety" which followed Hayes throughout his term, a clear warning to any winner in a questionable election process.
It is a common truism that the present is the child of the past, that our society has its roots in everything, near and far, which went before our time. But when it comes down to actually learning anything significant from History, again and again we draw a blank. Is the Historical Record merely a part of our academic propensities, and not to be taken seriously when we come down to serious situations of the moment, when the rule is horse sense and hard tacks? Couldn't we have learned from the past that the American election process had more than statistical errors in any given contest, masked by wide margins in the returns?
Why not fine-tune the election engine early on, before is starts to misfire? And why keep that Electoral College out of the public eye, safe in the closet all these years, and wait until it jams the works before wondering why we had it at all? Is the answer that we are a hard-headed people by nature, we don't learn quickly, and we don't learn anything from History at all?
Nov. 16 00
One of my colleagues, a long retired Professor of Mathematics, told me that back in the l950's his students entered difficult problems on hand-punched cards which they took in a shoe box to the nearest University which had a modern computer to process. He added with a smile that these were problems which you could now solve in a few seconds with a hand held calculator, but to them this seemed one of the Miracles of Modern Times.
What is amazing and almost beyond belief, is that card-punch machines of exactly this vintage are now being used to process the most important calculations of the new millennium, the National Elections. In case you didn't notice, the "butterfly" voting machines have a punch-card slipped down the middle of the machine, and you push a pencil through the hole nearest your candidate's name. In the old days a punching device made a clean hole for the computer to read, now it is just a pencil perforation leaving a hairy edge in the paper.
So I would like to raise the question: Is it possible in a country abounding with millions of modern computers in every business and most homes, that we cannot afford better than these antique machines for our elections?
There are now websites for collectors of old business equipment, not only mechanical calculators with rows of white buttons on the front, but also early calculators and computers from the l960's. The voting machines of this variety do still have a place in the modern world. But it is not in the voting booths anymore, it is in the museums of collections of odd and obsolete machinery. Or were we planning to run another election with them, and follow up with hand counting just to be sure they were still functioning? There is a place for quaint tradition in our national history, but it is not in the voting booths for sure.
Monday, November 20 th, 2000
Waiting these last moments in the days before the election news is announced, a stream of odd thoughts crowds me here. This is not the first time masses of humanity have waited for a political moment with held breath. I think of multitudes with bent neck assenting to a new Pharaoh, the tidings of peace with Octavianus becoming "The August one", or on the other side of the political coin the statues of Se Janus or Stalin toppling while the crowds cheered. I think of Kennedy flashing into our view with all our happy enthusiasm, then laid out dead in an Emergency Room while we wept universally for the Leader, the Head, the CHIEF. We seem to have a gene for Leadership, both creating and also adoring.
But it is not the Julius Caesar who makes the state run, or that ante-penultimate President or ours (what was his name....?) on whose identity the pivot of our society once turned. At Rome we think of Nero and the sexual excesses, the bloodletting as politicians died in the warm bloody water of their hot-tub.
But it was an entirely different class of men who stayed at their desk or mensa scriptoria, to did their daily accounting, filled requisitions for road-stone and building bricks, and kept Rome running in an orderly fashion for years ..... even for centuries. We know what these men looked like from the late Empire portrait busts, the tired men with thinning hair, deep creases of responsibility on their faces, the nameless people who did the work which the society mandated. For them no applause at the theater, no bowing at receptions or hailing to the public from a balcony.
So I remind myself that whether this one or that other one gets the Presidency in the United States of America a short while from now, it won't really make a great deal of difference. First, neither man is presenting ideas of policy, neither has anything vital and gripping to say, nobody really likes completely likes the idea of either of them as our National Leader. But, it will be the man and women with tired eyes who keep on with their work, whether Republican or Democrat in the Oval Room, and make the country work. The People may want a great leader, but don't really need anyone out there in front, because the staff at the desks know what has to be done. They have been doing it one way or another for Decades, and are going to keep on doing it until others step up to take their place.
THAT is what a society is about. It is the thrust of the many who live and disappear unnoticed, doing their assigned piece of work two thousand hours a year without acclaim and nothing more than a living salary. What flashes up at the top can make a difference, but only a small difference. Think of the ocean, which swells on over the horizon, ignoring space and time discriminations. Our political Head Men on whom we spent such time and effort and love, are nothing more than the waves at the shoreline, breaking with crashing roar and show on the beach, things of the moment and soon gone into the pages of history.
(Review again from 2004:
The above discussion turns out to be entirely wrong. As it turned out, the President who got in by shenanigans with the recount and the thinnest of margins, went and got us into invasion of a foreign country in a war where we could not win or get out. Crushing costs without limits, loss of respect worldwide, a depressed internal economy, all these things stem directly from the leader's unexpected wartime mentality, which his appointed cabinet enforced and a thoughtless Senate endorsed. So we are back in the old world of military empires, the stronger attacking the weaker, forcing the world into our patterns of social and economic behavior. Who would have thought we would be at this state back in the year 2000, when we were looking forward with enthusiasm to a new day?)
Thanksgiving Day, 00
We have been so involved with the process of the election antics that I almost forgot to remember how thankful I am for the basic sanity and good, old-fashioned horse sense of the American People. After that ridiculous episode with the President being sucked up to by an aggressive intern, and a sneak leak to an investigation on another topic of an illegal taping of a confidential conversation, and then the legally trained President forgetting the Fifth and trying to talk himself out of trouble, only to be impugned for Perjury by the other party en masse (they forgot that the VP in the curule chair would be a strong incumbent in the coming election?) .......... and then it all disappeared like an ice sculpture on the Fourth of July.
But the public took it all with a grain of salty humor, and when the dust from the press settled down, it turned out that the language had been enriched by the slang term for oral sex, which was now as it were on everybody'll tongue. And Monica surfaced without effort in public places, at parties, in a new gown, now thinking of marriage and children, and doing very well selling her own design of a lady's handbag. So the public, in its great good sense, has finally delivered its final word on the situation with a deft: SO WHAT?
When the dust shaken down from the electoral storm settles, we will have another chance to take a look at American common-sense in the works. We could take violently opposite Party positions, and rant and roar at the other guys over the party fence for the time, but we knew all along that there was little difference between the two political views. In their eagerness to WIN the Parties merged, melded and even overlapped in their positions, so you could hardly tell which was which. The party jocks and the press Horatios did all the talking for a while, but when the silent populus had its say with ballot in hand, it turned out they knew neither candidate was much better or a lot worse than the other. Despite much interest and a huge voter turn-out, there weren't enough real issues to make a difference. The people have spoken, they tried their best to make a distinction, and in the end there was none. The American people have a way of not being fooled, and in the end the vote told it all.
December 1 00
When I was a kid we had a game of trying to see how long someone could hold his breath, but now while we are waiting for the Election Results I have a reminder of that same sensation. How long can this go on? Are we in the hands of pettifogging legal minds forever, or is the long ignored Electoral system so faulty and patched up that it is generating repairs automatically while we are waiting for a New President? Once the Supreme Court got into the fray I had the feeling that there must be something substantive involved in the deliberations, but Jack's aggressively growing bean vine can climb right up the judicial pole with remarkable speed, given the situation. In the meantime we have time to deliberate privately.
Is it possible that the myriad psychological afflictions which the American people have in part wished upon themselves, can have a counterpart in the Body Politic? Could it be that the Political Scene can suffer an undiagnosed psychological Depression, with repercussions in sales, exports and the stock market? Everyone gets a touch if minor Paranoia sometime in life, when your friends cut you and you start thinking about Body Odor, when nobody answers your emails and the Credit Card company informs you that your are broke. What about the Stock Market going Paranoid over a bomb in Israel, over a bad OPEC meeting which might have changed oil supply, over the possibility that we might have to do the whole Presidential election over again from scratch? Or a middle-age crisis in major investors who suddenly were reaching out for something new and dynamic, like an Internet Run Society, only to sit back and wonder if after all it was all nothing but a bad dream? In other words, could my personal unstable microcosm be inexplicably turning up as a major force in the Political Macrocosm? I know, just an old Academician's pipe dream, but what if it were true?
December 3 00
There seem to be signs from the Stock Market indices that the economy is slowing down, which analysts take with a smile knowing that it all evens out over a Decade. But we the people don't like this news at all, we have been telling ourselves that WE are the strongest nation on the planet, that while the European and Asian markets are wringing their corporate hands, we are doing just fine. We all thought that the Internet was going to sell everything to everyone and this was a new era for our market economy. But already they are say that Internet sales are lagging, that customers still like picking up the telephone and talking to a real person to place a perfectly satisfactory credit card order orally. There are nagging thoughts out there.
We can hope that this is only the political uneasiness about this bothersome election, and that it will all go back to a normal up-curve on the graphs as soon as Someone is installed in the White House. Our economic formula --- which has worked well for us so far --- has been that as long as you make things better, people will come for them. The fact that the brand new computer I bought for my son as he went off to college four years ago, is now totally obsolete on today's high speed web-world, did mean that we were all going to have to get new computers just to keep up with the pace. If I thought 333 megahertz on the Mac I am using for this note was staggering, against the speedy 28 MHz of l994, I was sure going to be disappointed with the arrival of 800 MHz computers at bargain prices, and higher speeds on the way. So the rule seemed to be that if you build better mousetraps, or more enticing customer-traps, your customers will simply have to come running.
In the long term view, is it reasonable to assume a continual series of improvements and new horizons for all our marketable goods? Can we year after year market "new cars" which are warmed over versions of the year before, fitted out with new hi-fi speakers, new telephone access, new satellite based guidance systems, automatic driver sobriety testing, computer run accident avoidance, provisions for the coming New Fuels built in............? Is everything going to be replaced by a better, faster and more reliable model every year or two? Are we going to have to install new toilets every five years, you know, the advanced ones which flush with no water at all?
What about ourselves? Well, you see that is really no problem, because the car industry with its warehouses of exact replacement parts has given the medical art, or should I say the Medical Industry, the cue for a total re-configuration of people with new body-parts when the old ones wear out. Of course these are going to be more expensive than the old water-pump or the starter-motor, and as with cars we are going to have to take a hard look at whether the old chassis is really worth rebuilding. Some will not be worth the cost, and like the worn out cars, they will land up in the scrap yard eventually, like it or not.
But the scrap yard that I remember from year back, with rusting hulks along the back fence stretching back to the woods, interesting reminders for antique car fanciers of the days of the Lincoln Zephyr with its twelve cylinders rusted into place forever, the l928 Cadillac Sedan which my Dad had when I was a boy still there behind the rows of sunflowers, the Henry J sporting micro bumps at the rear in hopes of becoming a jet-age Chevrolet ---- these scenes may live in our memories but they are a thing of the past. The Car Yards are now highly organized businesses where each car is stripped down to the bare skeleton, all parts examined, cleaned and entered into a data-base, ready for a worldwide market. Nothing worth anything gets lost, it all get happily recycled and nothing goes for nothing.
No, I wasn't talking about car parts. I was thinking how markets evolve from one area to another, the escalating levels of recycling from paper and cans to crushed car bodies and rubber tires, and finally at the top of the recycling chain, what else can there be but the recycling of pieces of ourselves? Not a dream, you can already sign over the good parts before you breathe your last. Is this mere altruism? Or just another up-swing in the expanding Med Biz Marketing? Or is it something deeper, more pervasive, more sublime? I was just now thinking of something more like Immortality.
Dec. 8 00
The weather was warmer than usual for this time of the year, a cloudy atmosphere seemed to make everything the same, snow piles, trees and grass all a dull gray to the eye. Thoughts wandered restlessly over the expanse of a gray world, a note to a man in Yugoslavia, email from a scholar in Bulgaria, a question on the net from a high school student in Japan, that fellow in Brazil even called and asked about used machinery parts he was looking for. Everything seemed to be spreading out from under the dull umbrella of a cloud hanging over us here.
Last night the cold snapped and this morning it was all gone. The thermometer at the kitchen window read a clear zero, the air was clean and hard and dry again, and now it was piling firewood into the iron stove in the living room, bringing up logs from the cellar, as life reconfigured itself in the cold of the new day. This is why we northern people like winter, it gives us a rough shake before the year is out and puts the accent back on the fireplace or stove as the center of the universe. I have a favorite chair which sits eight feet from the stove all through the year for no special reason, except waiting for wintertime in the summer, I can sit there with a cool glow of satisfaction.
Global is for business people, for politicians and for newscasters, it is what linguists and anthropologists have been talking about for Decades under the title "synchronic". Cut time the other way back to the dawn of things and you have a perspective, which could also be called global in terms of area, but with a dimension of depth in time. This is the layered mine of History, going back through the layers of the years, giving us microtomed views of what has been going on. Call this the diachronic dimension. Caught between these two modes of thinking, we find ourselves in a small and uneasy place which we call the Present. Uneasy because it is all around us like a water saturated cloud about to rain, uneasy because we are trapped inside it, there is no past to remind us and the future is only a hope or a dream.
Inside the moment of the Present, I am feeling better again. The accent comes back and rest squarely on ME, on my cup of coffee as I sit before the crackling stove, looking out over the lawn to the stone wall with the neighbor's cedars and a yellow POSTED sign which tells me in no uncertain terms to keep out. This little "here" feels good, it seems right, thinking again 'cogito ergo sum'. Stopping and looking around is a healthy remedy for the press of duties and the rush of things in life. The coffee cup is finally empty and the fire is going down, yet the sun is coming in the windows and the good feeling about the morning's contemplations persists, so I guess there is nothing more to do now that wait. Yes, I am waiting for the future, I am waiting for the snow.
Dec. 5, 00
Poised, we find ourselves in the swath of a global economic and political world, we sometimes find it hard to remember who we are and exactly where we are positioned. Whether mind or the body, we too can go away to the mountains, we need an escape, a private place of our own in the hills or in one private corner of the imagination. But there is nothing new in this private search for the self:
"The North-West Frontier"
by Hsu Ling, A.D. 507-583, tr. Waley
The road that I came by mounts eight thousand feet
Dec. 11 00
We have a Sunday habit of going to the gas station early to get the Sunday paper for the coupons, then we often roll twenty miles down the to the first town over in the next state to have a look at their indoor flea market. A hall about the size of a high school basketball court is laid out with a mosaic of tables, each crowded with all sorts of things, objects, priceless finds and discoveries, Junk. Whatever our society once wanted enough to buy, but soon discovered it didn't really want or need anymore ....... all these things are here by the thousands, each hopefully tagged to sell for a small sum. Some of the selling people are very old, they have lots of things to let go now and may need the small cash to extend their purchases at the A+P. Others are young and gruff, got a box of stuff from grampa's house after the funeral and might as well see if it can finance a couple case of beer.
Then there are the two men who are there every Sunday in the year, who knows where they get their assortments of oddities, old books, rusty tools which lay for Decades on one side in damp earth, objects which nobody can identify and nobody would ever want to own, pots and lampshades and more under the counter. This man is sharp, he takes a look at you and gives you a price suitable for who he thinks you are. If you look like a city tourist in color season, he prices it up but not too high, because he has to get you hooked and pull the line up quick before you move along. If you looked and put something back a few weeks ago, he remembers and knows you are cheap, says a buck or fifty cents. He knows a lot about people, this compact middle-aged man with gray hair and a sharp eye, smart but not what you would call a modern business type. But he goes home each Sunday with a smile and a three inch roll of bills.
Last week I got a shoebox of hardware stuff from him, he asked three dollars but when I hesitated he was asking himself he if really wanted to cart it home, so it went for a buck. I threw a handle-less socket chisel on top with a finely turned mallet to tap dowels into place in glue, and added in another fifty cents. No need to haggle since I knew what he had he got for free, and he knew I was cheap. We understood the situation.
But when I got home and started picking things out of the box, a new scene unfolded itself. Not that anything was valuable or collectible or really worth anything much. But the variety stunned me. Here was a part of a time-capsule from the last half century, bits and pieces which only a person who had lived through that time could understand. What about that ancient baseball, the suede skin turned out, linen stitchwork around the two figures eights as strong and hard as when it was sewn up, the leather turned a dark brown from sweaty hands rubbed in the dirt to get a better grip. This was a baseball from another ancient world which was long since gone?
Then there was the pair of cold chisels, the kind you have to use to knock off rivet heads when the thing won't come apart, but they were no pair at all. One was mushroomed over at the head from hundreds of poundings, Maybe thousands to make the steel roll over like that, and the body was suspiciously shortened from many sharpenings. But its mate had never been struck, head and toe were as new as when they came out of the hardware store on Main St. Decades ago. Like some married couples, you might wonder how they every happened to come together.
But the two little elegantly turned boxwood handles with their hard steel points sticking out just one inch...... what lost craft were they used for? And then there was the assortment of a dozen screwdrivers, somehow come together to display the evolution of the tool over the years. From the years before the War were the ones with wood handles, a steel ferule jamming the wood forever onto the blade, easy to handle with their hand-filling wood shank which never slipped in a greasy grip. Then came the ones with Unbreakable Plastic in an amber hue, still solid and a good fistful to grab onto, handsome even if spattered with two or three colors of house paint. I had some lacquer thinner and got the paint off, amazed as the resplendent color of the amber handle, just like the one I bought at the local store when a boy for an extravagant 44 cents. Some screwdrivers were long and skinny, others short and stubby, just like the variety of the folks who used them. Couple of unfired rounds of 22 long rifle, can use in my old single shot Colt for the garden rabbits next spring.
This all brings back memories of more than half a century ago, when little treasure-troves like this lit up the eyes of a small boy who liked the feel of tools on the workshop shelf in the cellar where he could line up the items in his treasury. He spent his quarter allowance each Saturday at the Five and Ten buying a half inch Auger bit, a coil of copper wire, a couple of half inch bolts to make a device to do something or other. Funny things for a kid to spend his allowance on. Even funnier to think that as an old man he is still spending his allowance on the same sort of things, even on a shoe box full of rusty Junk.
Dec 18, 00
Having been a teacher for most of my working life, I have wondered at times if there was more to it than trying to do a Decent job, even hoping the students might be a little better for my efforts somehow, and not fretting overly about the importance of saving the world. After all, the teachers are the permanent cadre in a college, they stay on for over thirty years under normal conditions, whereas the students have a four year turn over and disappear like ghosts into another world. Popular teachers get a Christmas card this time of the year from former students, for others there is neither a word nor a whisper. One can wonder if it has all been worth it.
Twenty five years ago I was teaching a course in Fullerian Geodesics. That summer some students stayed on and we worked on building a 39 foot dome, which I was completing through the fall with a student who had just graduated and was looking for something interesting to do. Sam knew nothing about carpentry but I took him seriously and taught him everything I knew. We were photographed for the NY Times as doing a Novel academic project, later he became a serious carpenter in the area, although we never ran across each other for years. I was about forty five then, Sam was about the same age recently when I found he had trained himself as a skilled computer technician. I asked how he got into this work, his replied that he learned from me that a person could learn anything if he believed in himself and worked at it. There was part of my answer to the question about whether teaching mattered.
Last week my wife's older Mac went blank, nobody at the shops seemed to have any idea what was wrong, so I called Sam. After a moment's thought, he told me to open the case, pull the little 3.6 volt battery on the motherboard, and try a new one. I did it, it worked, and beyond being glad for the revived computer, I came into focus on myself. If I taught a student one thing, it should be up to him to go on and develop a body of knowledge beyond anything I knew about. Sometime that will take time, it does not happen right after graduation. But if Decades later I can go back to someone I worked with once, and find he or she has moved far enough ahead to mentor me in an area where I am ignorant, that is the kind of growth which I think makes teaching worthwhile.
I have always found that after working with me for a while, the best students get impatient somewhere in the second year, and are in a sense done with me. Formerly I thought this was academic ingratitude, but now I see it is an index of their rate of growth. Teachers do learn continually, but on a slow curve measured by Decades, while students learn almost everything they will know in the fast-moving college years. It took me a while to understand this. But now I am wondering about what happens as they enter their adult slow-growth period.
When a former student can teach me something, the circle comes around complete. This is what makes the work worth doing, even if I never connect with many of them. But if there are some like that out there, then I can rest easy, then I am satisfied.
Dec. 20 th, 00
There isn't much point talking about the Election Voting any more, even if only talking to myself. An old fellow who it turns out designed the first computerable election machines way back a generation ago, appeared on TV and said he was just plain amazed that his invention was still being used after all that time. If some of us thought that the butterfly-ballots were poorly conceived, that was wrong. In that time when the jump was first made from the IBM cards with holes punched out back before WW I, to reading those card with an automatic machine ---- that was a real step forward. But like many a step forward, there was no step on the ladder after it, and our election fell flat on its nose as a result.
Who would have thought that this country, in the throes of the Computer Revolution, would be using an ancient and virtually historical piece of equipment for the election of the most important official in our "modernized" country? It would be like UPS delivering packages nationwide in Model T pickups. Or pre-rotary dial telephone of the artichoke-on-a-stem style with hanging earphone. still being used in the offices of the Pentagon.
Of course we will have that fixed up next time around, Maybe we will. But I suspect the party which won with the old system will have objections to change, with arguments about not fixing what ain't busted, and changing boats in the middle of an election. Or Maybe it will all be redone, with new glitches on the first run of all new computer equipment, as always happens. I wouldn't be surprised by anything any more.
Dec 23, 00
It was the custom of some nations of the Northwest American Indians, whose culture involved giving and matching gifts as an index of wealth and honor, to burn large piles of the blankets which the tribe had been making throughout the year. The group which in a public display could afford to burn the largest number of blanks, often in the thousands, was considered the most wealthy and hand worth of respect. This custom of "potlatch" had existed for many years before the start of the 20th century, and although it seems outlandish to outsider, it made perfect sense within the cultural ring which embraced it.
We found out later that the custom was initiated by white politicians, who figured that if they could keep the Indians busy doing something useless, they would have less trouble with them later on.
We have our own ways of making waste. Early in September we begin getting flyers in the mail preparing us for the annual Christmas giving-season. If in the old days the gifts at Chrismastime were simple and homey, by now they have escalated to a system of high-cost gifting, which links the traditional the old idea of the potlatch to our financial ability to give something precious, costly and an index of our personal affluence. For the wealthy this is fine, but for those of modest means, it works even more effectively as a status symbol.
Many families are driven into the credit card debt annually, but economics aside, they would not think of doing it any other way. Being poor at Christmas time means nothing short of seeming cheap, and if anyone has a question about this, just tune the TV to Dickens and you have your answer. Each Decade does the story over again, different sets and different actors every time, but there is always a clear picture of what it means to be a Scrooge.
My childhood can just about date back into Depression years, and then Christmas was kept simple. Money was tight and gifts were kept within the reach of anyone who had any sort of a job. My family gave us token gifts, things with more feeling than dollar value, but there was a proviso, that gifts were to be thing of value and personal importance. So when I wanted a camera in March, the gift was there after due consideration of need and cost. In fall so that could be counted as the giving season too. I always felt comfortable knowing that the gifts were potentially there any time in the year, and in the ensuing years we have kept it that way.
But put the other way around, if Christmas giving was somehow to fall into disfavor, the country would go into an immediate economic tailspin. We need those free-spending markets of Christmas, Mother's Day and now Father's Day, and before we are done there may well be a few more.
Since it is the idea of the gift rather than the actually value as something precious which counts, we are verging into the area of the potlatch year by year. But the West Coast Americans could afford to burn blankets, because they had the craft to make them themselves, no Credit Cards there and 21 % interest doubling the debt in four years. The potlatch has got some of us by the tail, and wiggle and waggle as we will, it is not going to let us go.
Dec,. 24, 00
Stepping into the shower one chilly morning last month. as I looked into the little, polished chrome water-restricting showerhead, I somehow remembered the five inch ones of my childhood, with hundreds of little holes and a drip of green oxide from the copper under the nickel plate. In those days it was felt that hot water opened the pores on the skin, and sure as shooting that was an invitation to the invisible enemy which carried fever, colds and the flu. The answer was to turn on the cold water for a minute before exiting, and come out shivering but disease proof.
It was hot water coming out of the showerhead one morning in the week before Christmas, but as it hit my chest I ducked and crouched over, as if I had been hit by a load of ice cubes in the middle of my chest. Yes, I had been doing that for years, a habit from my early years, and somehow it seemed this morning completely out of place. It was not, as my wife insisted when I told her about it, a typical mark of stupidity on my part. It was an excellent example of what we all know about since the days of Pavlov. It was a Conditioned Response.
How do you uncondition a Conditioned Response, I mused. Pavlov only told us about the conditioning, and we assumed that the CR was permanent and inevitable. Then I found the answer which was remarkably simple:
I put my hand up over the showerhead and blocked the flow of warm water.
And that was the end of it. Since then the hand goes up, the water is warm and soothing as it reaches my chest, and I am un-conditioned, unconditionally.
It write this not for the charitable purpose of helping people who are afraid of taking a shower. What I have discovered is when you have a built-in twist in your brain which makes you do something unreasonable, don't try to figure it out. Just tack on to that habit something else, something quite different and for the future only symbolically related. Mom always made me take out the garbage, and I find I still tend to put it off the garbage chore. I found a way around this, now I don't "take out the garbage" anymore. I go out with the pail to feed the crows who are waiting for me every morning, swinging around impatiently in the air and yelling at me for being late. I bring their breakfast out, and they miraculously seem to carry almost all of it away in a short while, leaving just a little for the bluejays, and a snack for the neighbor's cat who is our ten-o'clock scholar. Problem solved!
Christmas eve, in the year of the Lord MM
The tree was the last one of the dozen I planted when we built the house ten years ago, a fine Vermont grown balsam which started as a ten inch cluster or roots with a weak stem, grown into an eight foot dandy which was ready for Christmas in the living room. While they were growing I and the boy had to go buy a tree, but the cuts ones were already losing their needles, while the good ones were up the side of a hill in a drift off an unplowed road. So this was a special year, last of a kind and it was to be cut down.
My wife takes great pleasure in combing the summer yard sales for boxes of really nice tree Decorations, she has a hand with the silvery festoons and the strings of lights, so our tree is more of a verdant sculpture than the re-usable plastic ones our friends in town seem to prefer. She was brought up in Korea in a Buddhist household, as a young adult she went to the Catholic church which is a minority religion there, but when she came here she left her religious thought in the air for the time being. On the other side of the fence, I was brought up in a secular Jewish household, we observed the few sincere holidays at home with the traditional ritual, but the rest of the year we did our religious thinking on our own. But father would not allow me a Christmas tree, so his only son aged eight begged and wheedled and even cried real tears. A picture cut out of a poster in front of the mantel was as far as I could get, and in a few years I forgot about the disappointment.
When my wife's tree is standing in the family room in all its glory, I admire it of course, but with a certain unsaid reserve. Could it be that this Scandinavian Yule thing was too foreign to my Middle-European origins? More likely it was that I learned early that this tree was not my tree at all, and that a tree I planted in earth outside and watched grow, was for my life span to be what I really would call "My Tree". But this all comes from something quite specific, the early learning does not really go away, and this applies equally to the Bad along with the Good and the Indifferent as well .
New Year's eve,
Well here we are again at the end of a year, but this time it is nothing so spectacular as a grand Millennium, just another old plain-Jane year running out its time as expected. The usual people at the usual party, nothing to talk about but the usual common friends and acquaintances, the small talk about what a small world it was getting to be with the Internet. After a while we Decided to go home and catch the New York scene on TV, but by the ghostly hour of twelve, we were tight asleep in our own private worlds of Separate dreams
It seems a characteristic of human nature that there is always something important to worry about. Last year it was about everything from the Y2K Day of Doom to failure of the electricity, all the computers everywhere going bust with all the financial data of the world jiggling into nothingness. Actually nothing happened, but that wasn't important, because there would always be another worry around the corner. Someone once said that everybody should have one good friend and one good enemy, now I would modify that to say that everyone has to have something to worry about. With the USSR gone, China would be a good bet for the position. When things seemed secure in our economy, someone started to worry about the Stock Market, and sure enough that threw a bug into the market which immediately collapsed.
In a few weeks a new President will ensconce himself and family in the White House, and then we will have a double set of things to worry about First, we don't know what he will do or want to do, so that is a good solid worry in itself. Then when he does get his act together and get something through Congress, then we will have an even better worry to worry us. What if Congress doesn't know what it is doing? What about the spies in the Pentagon, and corruption in the FBI? There is no shortage these days, you can bet your last buck on that.
This New Years eve we went to bed without much sense of worrying about the strained political scene. But when you fall asleep there is an inner mind which picks up uncut threads from the day's work on the fabric of the worn year's cloth, to remind us that all is not yet done. Most dreams are forgotten on waking, but I have a recurrent series which I remember very well.
In these curious dream sequences, I am talking with something with whom I have been on bad terms, and I am surprised how suddenly he has become friendly, interested in my welfare, asking if I were enjoying myself doing what I am doing, and showing the kind of consideration one expects only from a close friend. I enter into his spirit and as we talk into the evening, I note to myself how different he seemed this night. Is it I had him wrong all along? Or is it that he repented his ways and wanted at last to come to peaceful terms with me.
These singular dreams were for one showing only and they never recurred. Later I understood that this was my mind's way of saying goodbye to a worrisome and hostile situation, a final farewell in peace. I was saying to the ancient, inveterate enemy a final Goodbye, dispatching him from the data-base of my memory.
Early in the morning of January 1, in the year 2001, I was in a dream drawing room with a number of people I had been dealing with during the past year, some good friends and a sprinkling of enemies. But this was a special night, and I realized I was not saying good-bye to the fleeting midnight crowd. I was thinking of the just passed year, number two thousand in a long series, and I was telling this last annual circle of the planets a quiet and satisfied "Good-bye".