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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Autism of "Snow Cake"

Last night, via Netflix, we saw a wonderful "Indie" movie set in snowy Canada not far from the edge of the U.S. As with a surprising number of the other offbeat movies that we tend to prefer, we could easily relate to this one because we have been to and remember well the small town of Wawa in which it is set. Anyone who has driven that interminable Ontario stretch of the Trans-Canadian Highway is going to remember Wawa, not only because of its whimsical-sounding name but also because it is one of at least two towns on that route that go far to impress themselves on the recollection by exhibiting, in plain sight of the highway, a gigantic sculpture of the fzvorite local animal. One town sports a sharply curved fish, while in Wawa's case it is a Canadian Goose with outspread wings.

But the main reason this movie is always going to stick in my mind is that it caused me to go to bed last night wondering whether and waking up this morning thinking that possibly, just possibly, autism, usually regarded as being a dreaded condition of a small but ever-increasing number of children, might actually be a viable alternative life style -- at least as it was presented here, in an adult stage, by possibly Sigourney Weaver's best screen performance ever.

She plays the unlikely autistic mother of an equally appealing non-autistic teenage daughter, who hitchhikes a ride to Wawa with a grim Britisher played by Alan Rickman. But on the way a big truck smashes into the side of the car, killing the girl -- my only beef with this film. It makes no sense to build up a highly interesting character and then kill her off just moments into the story. As much as anything, I would have very much liked to have seen the girl interacting with her mother later.

Already devastated, as we learn later, by the recent death, by another car accident, of his only son whom he has never seen but had been on his way to meeting, Rickman decides to pay his respects to the girl's mother, while bringing her some small gifts that her daughter had bought for her. Because of the relationship that he develops not only with Weaver but also with one of her neighbors, a free-spirited woman that the Weaver character despises, he ends up staying in Wawa till after the funeral.

The upshot is that thereby he not only learns valuable things about the nature of autism but also is left better prepared to go on to see the woman in Winnipeg with whom a dalliance of years ago had resulted in the birth of that son that he never got to see.

I already knew a little about autism because the wife of H., my gun-loving neighbor, has been teaching autistic children for many years in the public schools, and in particular just recently I had a long discussion with her about the various aspects of that condition after I recorded on DVD for her the recent movie that was shown on HBO called "Autism the Musical." As my attitude toward musicals is such that even autism isn't enough to make me look at one all the way through, I saw only small parts of that film. But I can't wait to ask whether she has seen this one.

After seeing "Snow Cake," and in accordance with what I've otherwise heard, I'm wondering if autism might not actually be a logical if somewhat excessive reaction to the essential chaos and unnecessary complexities and difficulties of normal life. So in response some people, beginning as children and never actually going far from that early stage of human development, stake everything on imposing absolute order and honesty on all that chaos and subterfuge. Normal people who find it necessary to fight off the barbarians who ceaselessly threaten, themselves become barbarians, and autistic people will have none of it.

After having noted closely everything that Weaver did in this film, I have even begun to wonder if, all along, I haven't been somewhat autistic myself, except on a more acquiescent, and therefore basically more dishonest and impure level. I, too, like to impose order on things, though chaos and random effects are equally as attractive to me. I, too, am capable of blurting out insults based entirely on my concept of utter truthfulness, but only once in a very great while, though they come to my mind all the time. Whenever I see words on signs, my mind works hard on the letters in the longer words while I try to see if they can't be grouped in some form of symmetry, and feeling that something is inherently wrong with the universe when they can't. I, too, like the Weaver character, am attracted by little, bright, sparkly, colorful things. I wouldn't mind being healthy and wise, but I think wealth is a state of criminality, and that's just the beginning.

I think things like this as I contemplate how this latter stage of life is always threatened by Alzheimer's instead, and as I wonder if that might not be a long delayed stage of autism. Maybe, as in everything else, I have been distinguished from being a true autistic only by my slow rate of speed in everything.

The title of this film, by the way, refers to a cake made entirely of the snow (the Weaver character can't stand anything with gluten in it) from her back yard that Rickman leaves for her in her freezer compartment. Till then she hasn't always tolerated him, but, realizing how this shows that he has come to understand and to accept her for who she is after all, she is absolutely delighted with that simple gift, and she begins devouring the cake at once.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Obviously, to find their way around, most of the time most people rely on their own perceptions. If they are crossing a room and they see a table three feet ahead, they don't wait for someone to advise them of the fact. Instead they simply walk around the obstruction and keep bopping along. They can't and don't want to depend on others to tell them every step they should take, even though there's a surprising number of people around who feel that it is their mission to do just that.

Along with many other quirks, I seem to have been born with the determination to apply the same principle of self-guidance to every other kind of matter as well, even in those highly complex situations for which others seek the word of clergymen, counselors, psychiatrists, political leaders, talk show bozos, and the like. So far that kind of do-it-yourselfery hasn't been fatal, to me or, as far as I know, to anyone connected with me, though I've always been aware that I am, like everybody else, in no way infallible. Tables a few feet away are much easier to see than are the decisions that the Fates have made but have not yet set into motion.

For that reason it has seemed best to me to give advice only to those who are totally unlikely to take it, and that includes everyone I know. Maybe you can say the same, and that's not all bad.

That way you avoid feeling responsibility when they start tumbling into the ditch. While you will regret seeing this happen, at least your remorse will be eased a little by the forbidden sentiment that the psyche can't avoid entertaining if only for a moment and that if expressed aloud would go, I told you so.

--That is, unless it turns out that, out of spite, the person took that disastrous course solely because it was directly opposite to what you advised. Still, in that case you will at least be able, eventually, to lighten up on the remorse with a clear conscience, because then you will see the person as guilty of that most unforgivable of crimes: willful stupidity.

The LD (Lincoln-Douglas) Dare

H. Clinton, a member of the gender that scientists have determined has 30 percent more verbal capacity than males, understandably has challenged B. Obama to yet another debate. If held it would be the 22nd in an already overlong marathon of such events, though only the fifth between just the two of them.

As a fellow member of that other, more verbally challenged half of the species, I don't blame Obama for being averse to the idea. But that isn't because of the Philadelphia debate. People who are aching to see him fall have been trying their best to characterize that debate as a ringing failure for him, when actually he appears to have done as well as was to expected since he was the victim of a gang attack, and that event was a fiasco instead for the two moderator simpletons.

Recognizing that, Clinton proposes a debate in the Lincoln-Douglas style instead, a more loosely organized affair with the huge virtue of having no so-called moderators asking questions. Instead the two of them would just proceed with equal time, volleying and counter-volleying, in which we can expect that the big issues would be discussed throughout, and with civility that wouldn't otherwise be the case.

I think that despite being tired of debates -- and who in their right mind and in his situation wouldn't be -- Obama should consider taking a chance and going for the lady's suggestion. The advantage would be that it would induce some real fear in the Republicans that they would find hard to conceal -- a situation always devoutly to be desired.

If H. Obama didn't decline such a challenge, J. McCain, a man with a proven taste for pugnacity, would be even less able to refrain from picking up the same sort of gauntlet in the general election, after which his chances in such a debate against either of the two much more nimble-minded Democrats would strongly resemble those of a bull in a corrida.

All of us, especially on reaching a certain age, have to do a certain amount of backtracking, but McCain has probably never seen the year when he hasn't had to do an inordinate amount. It appears that his instinctive first choices in deeds and words too often are the calamitous ones, and that had to have had something with his being ranked so low in his Annapolis class and with having been so snakebitten when it came to bringing back safely the U.S. Navy's highly expensive aircraft, and with being put in solitary confinement for so long in the prison camp and in a comparable state on the more malfeasant side of the aisle in the U.S. Senate.

Recognizing this and aware that the majority of the moderators who would be proposed by the networks and the other groups that would sponsor the debates would be in the Republicans' pocket, everybody on McCain's side would be at pains to persuade him not to accept that "LD" dare. And that perception, at least, would work to the Democrats' advantage.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Stars and Rocks

There's no reason to doubt that at some time or another and in at least a few of the other innumerable, farflung galaxies, life in some form that would be recognizable to us has similarly gotten a start. and has similarly produced creatures that aren't all attached to rocks. But Is it also possible that on at least one of those other planets life has evolved in such a way that its forms, whether simple or complex, don't have to depend on consuming other life forms for their sustenance?

In a skit that Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner did a while ago, called "The 2,000-Year-Old Man," that ancient is asked what people used for food in his earliest days, because there couldn't have been much around. He answers that actually there was plenty, because mostly they ate stars and rocks.

In the interest of an intrinsically non-dog-eat-dog existence, why can't things sometime somewhere be ordered in such a way, even beyond vegetarianism, that that isn't just a joke? Why couldn't there be a planet on which beings at least a little like ourselves could live, for instance, precisely off of sunlight and stones, a diet that could be varied in a number of ways and would never be exhausted because every day more would be arriving, like manna falling from outer space?.

Or is life itself, wherever it occurs, just a limitless variety of acts of savagery and killing?

If that is so, it could explain why the groups that reach such a stage face such huge and probably insurmountable difficulties in hooking up with each other. In that respect at least, the universe is much more benign than it ordinarily appears to be.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Advantage of a Democrat

Despite the far greater closeness that everyone would expect me to feel toward B. Obama,I have a big advantage over the legions who are prepared to be intractably bitter about which of the two Democratic candidates gets the nomination. For me it's an all win situation, and I don't see how it's at all possible to change that, because J. McCain and his party are as unlikely to reform themselves as jackals, hyenas, and baboons are to modify the unseemly behavior hard-wired into them through the eons. Either Democrat in the Oval Office would be infinitely preferable to any Republican, and that's all that matters. Therefore I'm counting on being able to maintain a much better state of mental and by extension physical health through the summer than all those who are spitefully screaming and threatening that if their guy or gal doesn't get the Democratic nomination, they will either sit out the November elections or -- with equal boneheadedness, the natural state of the angry soul -- they will vote Republican.

Now H. Clinton has won in Pennsylvania, B. Obama's lead in the delegate count has narrowed, and either candidate still has a chance to win the Democratic nod. Yet a short while ago, entirely discounting all the hard work and capital of several kinds that she and her people had been putting into it for a long time, and with the situation not much different from what it is now, many were calling for Clinton to drop out, so as to leave Obama in the same position as McCain, with the nominees for both parties thus neatly determined long before all the votes had been counted. But, to his great credit, Obama put a stop to that by saying that Clinton should run as long as she felt like it, and it's likewise to her credit that she's showing enormous fortitude in doing just that.

The thinking by some in both parties, even now, is that the extended Democratic race, compared to the foreshortened Republican one, is harmful to the Democrats and a lifesaver to the Republicans. But I notice that these Demos who are so short in sight and those Republicans who are so oversold on their own cunning, are on the stingy side when it comes to supplying the reasons as to why that should be the case. Apparently because they are so perceptive and sophisticated, we're just supposed to take their word for it while continuing not to bother with thinking for ourselves.

But my determination to think for myself keeps insisting on asking a paired inconvenient question. So far where has the advantage been for the Republicans, and how has the Democratic Party been bruised?

I'm not aware that either situation exists, and if anything the protracted struggle has instead been to the advantage of the.Democrats. Even the media, which because of the leanings of its bosses favors the Republicans, can't help but have paid far more attention to what Obama and Clinton have to say and are doing than they have to J. McCain. The Democrats are still marching, while McCain has just been uninterestingly marking time, and when the time finally comes when he really has to rouse himself and get to cracking, he may be so in that habit that he will have trouble realizing that it is another day and he has to slip into another mode...

Also -- though I am not putting all my faith in this, though who knows? -- a large number of voters have reason to feel much more grateful to the Democrats than to the Republicans, by having arranged things so that a far greater number of citizens are having a say in the runup to the nominating conventions than the Republicans have furnished... For months now the Republican voters in many states have been totally locked out of being heard from, and, for instance, in Pennsylvania just now, there was also a Republican primary, and how much attention was paid to that? Meanwhile each and every vote for a Democratic nominee is turhing out to mean something really important, as much throughout the primaries as it will in the polling later this fall.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fence Follies

This article tells of how a section of the "virtual" fence being built on the U.S.-Mexico border by U.S. people as a part of their Good Neighbor Policy has been found to be lacking, despite its cost of 20 million dollars. Good. So it is to be replaced with what? A new section of "virtual" fence that sounds much like the old one, consisting of a series of towers spaced wide apart but packed with all sorts of electronic gear designed to detect Mexicans trying to cross over in pursuit of jobs and to zip border patrol cops thereto immediately.

Meanwhile we should note that not only is the same obscene business in store for the U.S.-Canadian border as well, but also at this very moment, the men calling the shots as the ostensible heads of all three countries in North America have been huddling r and congratulating themselves on how well, as conservatives, they've been working together. Of course they tried to lump their countries into that as well, but that perception is only for idiot consumption.

Despite my deep dislike for fences of any kind, including reading about them, I liked this article, for several reasons. One is that the scrapping of a fence is always good news. Secondly I was glad to hear that at least this part of the thing being strung along the Arizona and New Mexico borders with Mexico is not actually a physical barrier functioning as a constant insult to the free movoment of all living things, especially those on foot or on belly scales or whatever.

Also I thought of how lucky we are to be able to get regular reports of the troubles they're having with erecting and using this "fence," even if being reminded of it might offend our stomachs. Other groups being walled off haven't been so lucky.

For instance, during the second half of the century just passed, in East Germany, another attempt was made to cut through populations and seal off people from each other. Just as other German efforts made even before then are being used today as models for U.S. "Homeland Security," the Berlin Wall can't be far from the thinking while this "fence" is being built through the southern deserts. But at least we can be certain that the East German authorities didn't similarly keep their citizens informed of the various difficulties that were encountered during the erecting and then the patrolling of that total monstrosity.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Ever since I wrote my post, back on April 1, about being sent to Okinawa while in the military, I've been thinking about the question of an American empire.

That act by the Government already had consigned me to taking part -- a highly insignificant part but a role nevertheless -- in an activity that later caused me to have a lot of reservations, and that was the essential terrorism and savagery of bombing people from the air, especially with nuclear weapons. At exactly the same moment did I also become the tiniest of elements in the exercise of imperialism?

By vounteering for the Air Force, I did end up helping the pilots have reliable radios while they scooted around aloft, supposedly for the purpose of staying ready for possible Armageddon bomb runs, though in my mind it was all just for show, like gorillas roaring and pounding on their chests.. But I still have no sense of having served, while I was on Okinawa, in a farflung part of the American empire. Still, that empire's continued existence is accepted even by people as acute and perceptive as the writer of inanis and vacua.

Once there was an American empire, just as there were British, French, and Dutch ones. But the Japanese put an end to all those easily enough, in the opening days of the Second World War, in their attempt to confiscate as many of those colonies in Southeast Asia as possible while creating, if only for a moment, an empire of their own.. The Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia all come to mind. The grips of the Western powers on those places, thus broken, turned out, after the War, to be impossible to reimpose, and the U.S. policy thereafter became one of military presence instead.

Some might not see the difference. They might have forgotten how the definition of empire was engraved in stone centuries ago by many groups, most memorably by the Romans. The difference is that an empire involves the presence of provinces ruled over by administrations headed by governors, who are in place to collect taxes and other goods mainly for the enrichment of the home country.

For a while the Bush Administration tried to impose a governor on Iraq, in the person of Paul Bremer, but soon gave that up as a bad idea, and they didn't even try in Afghanistan. Therefore I don't see any U.S. empire today, other than the truncated one that remained after WW 2. I just see a lot of bases maintained all over the world at great cost only to U.S. taxpayers, the most useful function of which is merely to give a sector of American young people an opportunity available to the youth of no other country to see the world in all its huge variety of tastes, sights, sounds, and other sensory experiences.

End Note: Just yesterday the present Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, took a chop at his supposed subordinates, the men and women of today's U.S. Air Force, on the grounds that they haven't dropped enough bombs or done enough strafing or whatever in Iraq. If true, good for them.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Weblog Return

Sometimes -- I have done it several times myself -- weblog writers will let their sites sit as if abandoned for long periods. The several whom I have seen doing this never announce that it will be their intention to do so. Maybe they didn't anticipate at all that this would happen, and so, for whatever reason, a day passes without a post, and then another and another and soon it's weeks, months, and then even a year or more.

Still -- at least inside the only weblog system that I know anything about, the free Blogger one -- nothing at all happens to the site. It just sits there like a house suddenly vacated, except that it never deteriorates and the contents just sit intact, never stolen or vandalized and with not a speck of dust to be seen anywhere, waiting patiently for the missing proprietor to return. And if the site has had any viewership at all, there will be at least one or two contemporaries who will stop by once every two weeks or so to see if the occupants have at last returned.

For a long time there've been two sites on my scope like that, Baghdad Burning, the property of someone named Riverbend, and inanis et vacua, the product of someone named James. Baghdad has been frozen in place since last October and it is still in that somewhat ominous state. But just recently new posts started appearing on inanis, after a hiatus of nearly a year, and I was glad to see that, just as people like Andante, Steve Bates, and Guy Andrew have welcomed me back after one of my absences, as I would do in regard to them, should some unfortunate circumstance make them drop out for a while.

Riverbend, due to being in Iraq and now, when last heard from, in Syria, has had several long absences, and when she returns I know she won't hesitate to tell us what has happened, even if she is otherwise notably close-mouthed about who she is.

James -- an even more tight-lipped individual, backed up by the appearance of his site, which is so spartan that it's a wonder that he even has a blogroll, a brief one -- didn't say one word about what he had been up to, though, since he has an academic air about him, it's easy to speculate that he's been on a sabbatical of some kind.

His edge is as sharp as ever, and yesterday he left for us not one but two interesting takes that, however, like all his stuff, call for some extra study, unless you are a lot swifter than I am. One was prompted by B. Obama's "blue collar" remark and the other was on the outlook for future empires.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

My Footprint

I happen to be in one of the easiest positions to use National Geographic's compilations of American consumption that they gave in their dish/cable program "Human Footprint." I am only one year short of having reached what they said is the average American lifetime, 77.9 years. and the other figures they gave confirmed what I always knew. I am way below average in the amounts of energy, food, and materials that I've consumed, and therefore I'm above average when it comes to having a footprint with the least possible impact. This also backs up what I said just recently -- smaller is better!

I know, though, that this means that I have lagged miserably in contributing to the national economy, and therefore I should expect little or nothing from its benefits, and I understand and have always been comfortable with that. So I am puzzled by how much stuff has accrued to me nevertheless. I guess that is what getting close to just the life span of an average American does for a person Things just rain from the indiscriminate skies, unless you work really hard at escaping those showers.

The times gave me a great start in contributing to the "crime" of under-consumption. I was one of the first Depression Babies, and today's average of 3,796 disposable diapers were not needed to get me through my first 2-1/2 years. None existed in those days, and right there that saved what today's toddlers are busily requiring before they even know what is happening: 1,890 pounds of oil, 715 pounds of plastic, and 4-1/2 good-sized trees. Of course keeping my little carcass clean did take more water, but in those days there were far fewer people using the spigots.

As those times were during the Great Depression, when not nearly as much money was available for food or for anything else, I early had ingrained into me a habit that I suspect is almost unknown today, and that is always leaving my plate clean, and I've carried that through to this day. It also helped that for some reason eating was never at the top of my list of the most enjoyable things to do or even to talk about, whether or not I could afford even a little of the things I like most.

I am certain that I have not drunk enough milk or eaten enough ice cream to amount to 13,056 pints of milk, which the NGC people scrounged up from somewhere and neatly set close together into long rows on someone's lawn and thereby formed an army of pint boxes that extended onto the street and then marched down the street, covering the whole of it for a block or more. Nor have I eaten 19,826 eggs or enough sandwiches to require the average buying over all those years of 4,376 loaves of bread. I haven't even remotely downed 43,371 cans of soft drinks or 13,248 cans and bottles of beer, or 942 bottles of wine. I mainly like ginger ale, but that probably hasn't amounted to more than 2,000 half-gallon bottles. And I've never liked the taste of liquor, so the amounts of those fluids have hardly been enough to shower a cat.

I think I can also safely say that I've fallen 2 short of the 5 bulls and as many as 4 of the 6 hogs that are needed to keep the average American in beef and pork over a lifetime. However, as I've always liked fried chicken, I would've had a good chance to ask for all the 1,423 chickens to sacrifice their lives, but even there my wife ruined things by adamantly refusing to allow the frying of anything in our house over these 43 years of our marriage. Meanwhile I have no memory of having eaten as many as 5,067 bananas, though I do like them, or the 12,888 oranges, which I don't like as much and hate to peel, though, aside from tea, my favorite beverage is one part orange juice to two parts of ginger ale.

When it comes to appliances, in my households so far there's been a total of 4 washing machines as compared to the average of 7, 4 of the 5 refrigerators, 4 of the 10 TV's, and only 2 of the 8 microwaves, while I've never lived in a house with even one of the 7 air-conditioners that we would have been expected to have acquired one after the other as average American consumers. It is, however, entirely possible that I've had exactly the average number of 15 computers, counting the early game machines, due to my love of buying unusual cases, such as a yellow one with lots of blue lights, and an all-clear acrylic one, and then filling them up with components..

Not counting my wife's activities, I have bought only two cars and three pickup trucks, two of the latter used. The average is 12 cars. I have moved only four times under my own responsibility and the same number when it wasn't. The average is 10. Despite having done four or five cross-country drives, once even all the way from D.C. to Fairbanks, Alaska and back again, I still doubt that I have gotten close to the 627,000 miles of driving, due to not driving at all till I was 33, and nearly imitating that same behavior, though for very different reasons, through the last 10 years.

Meanwhile, because I've been lucky, I haven't been to the doctors for nearly the 263 visits, nor have I swallowed anywhere close to the 37,320 pills, and as for the $52,975 average spent by men for clothes, I seem to have gotten by comfortably enough on only about a tenth of that amount.

All in all, I think the "Human Stain" was a very interesting way to see what a person has managed to accomplish in a lifetime, and if you put in your own numbers you will be glad to see how far along you've gotten in pulling your weight, which in a certain way is what that "footprint" amounts to!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Three Planets Short

The National Geographic Channel has been showing a program called "The Human Footprint." Actually, however, this is a bad title. It should instead be called "The American Footprint." The "footprint" being discussed barely applies to the 95 percent of humans who are not American. Nevertheless, for just that reason this hour of viewing should be required TV fare for every American. This means that actually few will see it.

The program is important because it uses vividly graphic means to show the impact that almost all Americans have on the resources of the planet, renewable or not, by presenting images of the total number of various basic items that an average U.S. citizen uses in one lifetime. This program is therefore a great way of stacking up against his countrymen one's own record as a consumer and also as a waster and polluter.

It was amazing and uncomfortable to see all of nearly two dozen kinds of items that these NGC people appropriated from somewhere and piled up all together in one place to illustrate just how much in the way of food, energy, and materials on the one hand use and on the other dispose of in a lifetime. With so many people around, especially the 304,000,000 Americans, it's a wonder that it has taken this long for serious cracks to start opening in the planet's ability to deal with it. For example, the NGC crew arrayed across a whole parking lot 43,371 closely packed cans of soda. That amazing number is how many just one average American pops open and drinks in a lifetime.

Near its end the program zeroed in on the nub of things with the following statement: If everyone in the world lived like we Americans do, we'd need at least four planets to meet our demand for resources and to absorb our waste and pollution.

That means that willy-nilly the fat is in the fire, and there's nothing for it. Because, whereas Americans are ready to fight to the death any attempt to take away any of their lavish life style, especially the 25 percent of the planet's oil that they feel they have the God-given right to hog and also to buy cheaply, that world is filling up with other populations who are eager to attain -- and readying themselves to fight for -- the same standard of living. Yet, to reach that point we are always three planets short. Therefore somewhere something serious has to give, and with India, China, and Brazil in mind just for starters, that process is already well underway.

Friday, April 18, 2008


I would expect the great majority of Americans either to fail to pick up a certain subtle feature of the ongoing contest for the Democratic presidential nominee or to notice but just to nod in fond appreciation.

It has become the custom for the media and therefore for many people in general to refer to B. Obama and H. Clinton by their first names but almost never to J. McCain by his. This use of the familiar, of course, comes natural, as a time-honored way to help keep the Biblical dark-skinned drawers of water and hewers of wood in their place, and the bearers of children and scullery maids in theirs, while reserving for members of the only segment of Americans allowed to vote for a century of more the courtesy of being referred to more respectfully mainly by his sirname or by his full name.

People would counter this argument by saying that "John" as a first name is far too common, therefore the use of "McCain" is essential for making clear the identity of the person being mentioned.

They could be right, especially as "common" has another, darker meaning that isn't entirely out of keeping with the man in question. And it wouldn't do to remind people that "John" has long since escaped from being merely a name to meaning at least two other things of a much more contemporary (some would also say contemptible) nature that immediately jump to mind, with neither having any promise at all of being helpful during a Presidential campaign.

The Media As Proxies

Atrios said a short while ago that the Presidential elections were going to be a contest not between the Democrats and the Republicans but between the Democrats and the media. From all reports the most recent debate between B. Obama and H. Clinton, held in Philadelphia, Pa., demonstrated that vividly.

The two moderators, C. Gibson and G. Stephanopoulos, served as Republican proxies, and the latter had even received his marching orders during his appearance a few days earlier on the talk show of a rabid conservative. In the guise of their descents into the trivial through much of the proceedings, these two men and not Clinton turned out to be Obama's main debate adversaries.

So why are Gibson and Stephanopoulos still being honored with the title of "moderators?" I thought moderators "moderated," but obviously the decades-long attempt by Republicans to hang the same stigma on the concept of "moderate" as they've also long tried to do with "liberal" has had its effect. In the interest of preserving the integrity of the American language, in the debate just held "instigators" or "provocateurs" would be the more appropriate terms.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Every morning we continue to be amazed by the vivid, uniform pink purplish-red that is covering our redbud trees. We have four on the slope that leads from our house down to the garden. This year they've bloomed more vividly than ever before, and, though that has already lasted for several weeks, it looks as if the green is still a distance from taking over. This has been a year like no other for the daffodils, too, and there are plenty of buds on the dogwoods, the wild azaleas, and even the wisteria vines, all waiting to burst into color in their turn -- that is, if no late April severe frosts set in at night, and every year that's a threat, especially to the wisteria.

Though severe climate change is close at hand, we have no explanation for such a great spring. This part of Virginia has had droughts the same as elsewhere, including one just last summer, but this winter and spring so far there's been just enough rain. Not in abundance but just enough.

Meanwhile it's looking as if our gardening might be coming to full circle. In the first years after I cleared one of the few small sections of flat land that we have, about half an acre along the creek, I had grown mainly vegetables. But I had a hard time keeping my rototiller going, and as we weren't doing much anyway with what we did manage to grow and meanwhile failed to starve, gradually I took down the fences that were needed to keep away the groundhogs and the deer, and the weeds that when mowed became grass took over, punctuated by plantings of interesting shrubs and special trees. Now, with a food crisis being among the many dire forecasts these days, the tomatoes, corn, squash, okara, and the rest could be making a triumphant return. But the big question will be whether I still have enough energy for that.

Meanwhile my wife and I are enjoying going into the garden every day, cleaning up the cold weather debris and engaging in that great joy of spring -- going around to see what is coming up again this year.

If you were to see my garden, you, like my friend H. down the road, probably wouldn't think much of it, because it never has the numerous splashes of color or the edibles that are ordinarily expected of gardens. H., in fact, likes to say, with a sneer, that I don't even have a garden, but it looks to me as if I do, and a very beautiful one at that. I see my garden as being beautiful because it is so integrated with the woods, weeds, and bushes that hem it in so closely, and in fact some of the weeds that insist on making themselves present strike me as being flowers like any other. Pokeweed with its splashes of purple in its berries and red in its leaves in the fall is the best example.

Actually, in my opinion, anyone's garden, no matter what its appearance, is beautiful, because the most important thing about a garden is that it's an activity more than it is a place. You've created it and you keep it going, and that's the main fact about it.

For that reason I would say that people, mainly affluent people, who hire others to garden for them can't really call it their garden, though they're paying for it and it's on their property. It's the gardeners and no one else that really have the garden, because they're the ones doing it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Sarkozy Displacement

In Washington, D.C. and in Crawford, Texas there lives a man who for the last seven years has been allowed to play the role of U.S. president, though actually in more than one sense that post has been vacant all along. This indicates that it and some other high government offices may not always be essential in today's world. That world, after all, is typified by the building of ever larger and more intricate structures and transport devices that defy management by a single or even a few human hands.

The other day this imposter, named GWBush, was in Europe, and while there, he effusively praised the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, because whereas Jacques Chirac, the French president in 2003, had refused to accompany Bush into the unprovoked and disastrous Iraq invasion, Sarkozy had just now pledged to add 1,000 more to the 1,400 French troops who are already opposing the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. The Canadians, long time participants in the Afghanistan struggle, had not been happy with the situation and had threatened to withdraw a like number of troops unless other NATO countries sent in reinforcements in this "War on Terror," as GWBush sees everything, though the European countries are thought to be in there more for humanitarian purposes. .

The imposter was so grateful that he told the world that Sarkozy had already demonstrated his sterling virtues to the American people on a recent visit to the U.S, so much so that they viewed him as being nothing less than an incarnation of Elvis, that is, of the long deceased singer, Elvis Presley.

That surprised me, because after all, even though I am far removed from it in more than one way, I still see myself as part of that American public, and, were it not for one distinctly undistinguished incident, I would not have recalled that Sarkozy had ever stepped on American soil, much less that he been hailed throughout the land as the second coming of the guy who became famous and forever revered when he sang, "You ain't nothing but a hound dog."

But with Bush's remark -- and with Google's help -- I finally did recall that Sarkozy's stay here last summer on vacation in New Hampshire was indeed marked by one event. Un-French-presidentially clad only in swimming trunks, he and a bodyguard were boating on a lake when they spotted news photographers taking pictures of them from close up. Sarkozy, apparently the feisty type, pulled his craft up beside the nosy photographers, jumped into their boat, and loudly berated them -- in French.

I'm sorry, but I don't remember that deed taking America by storm. If you're going to cuss out somebody in this country, you don't do it in French. I am sure Elvis wouldn't have.

A while ago, a scientist named Charles Hapgood postulated that. in addition to the tectonic plates, the entire top layer of the earth's crust, the lithosphere, also can move around in one piece relative to the core, much like the skin of an orange if somehow it could be completely detached from the pulp beneath. The molten layers inside the Earth plus the pull exerted on its crust by various external forces makes that possible.

It seems to me that quite often national leadership also involves this kind of "earth-crust displacement," as the theory is called. There can be an almost total disconnect, in which the leaders can think and do things that have no bearing on what the great mass of citizens is thinking, provided that the subject has appeared to be worthwhile enough to them to be considered at all.

I would put the Bushian 2003 decision to invade Iraq squarely in that class, but there is a more recent example involving Ukraine and Russia, as shown by this quote from an article in RIA Novosty. A senior member of the Russian Parliament, A. Ostrovsky, was threatening that if Georgia and Ukraine accepted the recent invitation to join NATO, Russia would feel free to claim the Crimea.

However, Ostrovsky admitted that Ukraine was unlikely to join NATO any time soon, saying that the Ukrainian president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker were the only people in the country seeking membership of the Western military alliance. His comments referred to recent opinion polls that have indicated that about 70% of the population is opposed to joining NATO..

Similarly, I'm sure the French feel intensely relieved that none of their feet are buried in the Iraqi bog. Is it likely that they're thinking any different about Afghanistan?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Smaller is Better

Many things are never said yet are understood implicitly. This has long been a high art in our society. While it is easily seen by an unsophisticated, observant member of a minority, this art is so deeply ingrained in the sophisticated majority that the fact that it is so widely practiced can't easily occur to them.

For example, on TV and therefore in what passes for the popular "wisdom" of sophisticates, the saying that "bigger is better" is gospel. This is always expressed with a certain smirk, because, though it is rarely said in so many words, all sophisticates understand that the most popular application of this dictum is to the male sexual organ, and from there one can then go everywhere else. But I, being an inveterate unsophisticate, can never understand why the sophisticates never seem to realize that that principle must mean that females who appreciate such wonders with such fervor are also saying that, through habitual promiscuity, their receptacles have become so badly stretched that something oversized is needed to produce sensations -- a condition that I had thought is highly undesirable, though these ladies would deny with the utmost fierceness that their apparatus is in any such state.

I think that generally the opposite is true. Smaller is better.

I could give numerous examples, each one worthy of a post by itself. For today I would just like to mention big farmers and their subsidies in connection with big populations -- one of the most important of subjects because it involves food, and when one gets down to the bare essentials of life -- which is happening all over the planet at this time -- food and water are at the top all by themselves. One can get along for long periods without all the other things that are also considered to be absolutely essential, but it's understood that without food and drinkable water....

Nowadays, with small farmers largely a thing of the past, their properties having been swallowed up by larger fish, too often farmers with big acreages, and non-farmers also with large agricultural lands and both with only monetary profit in mind, are falling all over themselves either to let their fields lay idle or to grow crops to produce fuel, instead of producing badly needed food. These people then use some of their gains to persuade Congress to perpetuate the subsidies that have nothing to do with producing food but instead guarantee profit for the landowners regardless of what they do with their property, up to and including nothing, and therefore they in turn reward the legislators with resources that help guarantee reelection.

It's as if these people are not aware or don't care that there are billions more people around than there used to be -- nearly tripled just in my lifetime, to six and a half billion at last count -- who have been brought forth with the expectation that somewhere on the earth there would always be others who believed in the traditionally noble occupation of farming to produce food, with profit to themselves and to people with mouths and stomachs. However things have worked out that much of the land is being unused or misused only for the profit of a few, while the huge mass of others are left only with recourse to protests, riots, being hungry, and a wonder as to what was up with being brought forth into a world with too much competition for the small amount of food that, for whatever reasons, that world had to offer.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sustenance for the Needy and the Greedy

On his show last night on PBS Bill Moyers addressed a problem that is spreading around the world like a plague, and that is the growing food shortage.

He started with a survey of several food pantries in and around New York City. Not so long ago these sites of mercy were well-stocked with edibles of many types, but now they are in very short supply, especially diary products and fresh vegetables. Almost all of what they had to hand out to the needy was in cans, which are rich in sodium. . One of the main reasons why the pantries are in such short supply is that the companies and others who used to donate to the pantries are now selling that food overseas.

I couldn't help noticing, however, how even here, the disparity between the well off and the needy could not be hidden. The two pantries they showed in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn definitely had lots of nearly empty shelves and closets. But the one in the affluent suburb of Westchester seemed to have lots more supplies, though they spoke of how the numbers of bags they gave out had increased greatly in recent weeks.

From there Moyers swung to examining a series that Washington Post investigative reporters ran on farmers and others who own large acreages in the nation's "breadbasket" in the Midwest. But rather than really doing any farming, it's been more profitable for many to simply let their land lay idle while collecting money from the Government for "disaster relief."

These disasters ran mainly along the lines of droughts, though in many counties enough rain has fallen for several years. But still farmers and absentee landowners are collecting millions every year for doing little or nothing with their land.

Droughts, however, can't be used forever, and these people -- who most likely are quick to snarl with disgust and resentment at any mention of welfare for city dwellers -- needed other disasters to justify these windfalls at the taxpayers' expense, and the midair explosion of the "Columbia" shuttle during reentry a few years ago furnished just such an opportunity. Some of the shuttle fragments had scattered over parts of East Texas, and that was enough to qualify these landowners for millions more in disaster relief.

Moyers informed us that the current Farm Bill containing all these boondoggles for use not only in East Texas but also all over the country is due to expire in a few days, and Congress is conferring on the new one. While providing for more in the way of help for the needy, such as food stamps, the House is not expunging those giveaways to the farm landowners and is keeping those at the same levels. The Senate is also providing more assistance to the needy, but it is also increasing the farm subsidies.

One would think that with all the clamor building up throughout the world for food, the farmers who are farming would not need so much help from the government, while those feeding at the disaster trough could be turned away entirely. But maybe one trick mode of thinking is that all those countries in high distress -- such as in Haiti where some have been reduced to eating biscuits made of mud, for which they even have to pay -- can't afford to pay good prices and so the subsidies really can be said to come under the heading of "foreign aid."

It is certain that the new Farm Bill, therefore, will be even worse, as typified by one U.S. senator, a longtime monster from Kentucky named Mitch McConnell, who has quietly slipped in a provision giving a subsidy to the breeders of race horses

It was a very good report, though I noticed one glaring deficiency that Moyers seems to have overlooked. Not once was the word "greedy" ever used. Not once.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Weblogs, Dangerous and Desired

Recently there was news that two proprietors of weblogs had died, and a third had had a heart attack, and that prompted speculations as to whether maintaining weblogs has life-threatening aspects. The qualifications here were that these people were getting paid for their work and that their subject matter, mostly on technical subjects, was such that they were under the twin hammers of having to come up with something fresh nearly every day and they had strict deadlines that they absolutely had to meet.

The general concensus of the responses that I read agreed with my reaction, though my efforts are as far from that high-powered level as it is possible to get and still be in the same world. Those responses all went along the lines of, "Ho-hum. So what else is new?"

(I don't like and try never to use the word "blog." It's too close to two other unpleasant words, "blob" and "bog." But apparently pioneers in the computing world, while experts in technical matters, were born without an ounce of aesthetic appreciation for language, as shown by numerous other transgressions, of which using "mouse" to denote a perfectly handy, inanimate little peripheral that few people would be in the habit of gripping with their fingers is just one.)

Though well aware that I'm in the lowest bracket of weblog writers, I was still almost astounded by the fact that people actually get paid for an activity that for me is just a casual indulgence of sorts. It was crazy for me to be so surprised, when all the activities that have interested me the most have resulted in a pronounced modesty of money sliding my way, to say the least -- fiction writing, chess playing, picture taking, beekeeping, gardening, horseshoe pitching, picture painting, computer building, stained glass working, house building, firewood cutting, weblog writing -- you name it.

I was also surprised that anyone would want to see weblogging as being life-threatening in any way. I've always seen it as being just the opposite, a life-enhancing experience, in the same way that expressing one's self in any manner can be -- any manner except the psychotic ones, that is. For instance, I'm depending on my weblogging to go a long way toward holding Alzheimers at bay.

Yet I have wondered about one respect in which doing weblogs could be bad for one's health. It applies mainly to those with political content. This requires reading an abundance of articles and other sources of info that are consistently and definitely on the downside. Too much of that can't possibly be good for the stomach or the mind.

On a second but related note, another article says that some who would advise the defence establishment are recommending that bigtime webloggers be hired or recruited in secret, to help get across the message of those who want to fight wars and terrorists.

That's all I want to say about that, except I assume that no weblogs that regularly have posts featuring the likes of cats, personal photos, or chess games need apply

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Successes of Iran

This post was prompted by what strikes me as being an especially insightful and eloquent mini-essay that was posted on the 15th of last month on a site that for me is a real find, called "The Downside World News." The article is titled "The Iranian Coup" and its author is one Ghassan Charbel Al-Hayat. I don't know his nationality.

Before going into what he meant by the "Iranian Coup," Al-Hayat first, in an interesting refrain style, spoke of the responsibility Arab citizens have for keeping track of elections outside of their own countries, first in the U.S., then in Israel, and finally in Iran. So the first paragraph reads:

The Arab citizen is expected to keep track of American presidential elections. Certainly, the point is not for him to develop a desire to imitate Americans, but simply to secure the future of his children. After all, the man who will occupy the Oval Office will be the general leading the world’s sole superpower, until further notice. His decisions will affect the world’s security and stability. His actions could beget disasters for both his country and the rest of the world. It is enough to refer to the foolishness of invading Iraq to verify that US elections, as remote as they may seem, are of concern for our stability, economy, and hopes for the future.

He goes on in the same vein about Israeli elections and then he comes to Iran. But instead of the "Coup," it was the following passage that really caught my attention:

...The ability to deal with a neighbor like Iran, to cooperate with it, and perhaps to occasionally contain its impulsiveness, requires the knowledge of its demands, fears and appetites.

I write this in light of what I have heard from an Arab official who said: “We have to admit that, as a result of its aggressive policies, rising energy prices and the American adventure in Iraq, Iran has achieved a series of successes that have enabled it to gain control of certain assets in the Arab world.” When I asked him to clarify further, his response was: “It is not possible to build a stable Iraq without Iran’s approval and without taking its interests and a significant portion of its demands into consideration. It is not possible to elect a president in Lebanon without Tehran’s approval. It is not possible to resume dialogue between Fatah and Hamas without its approval either. Iran is present in Gaza through its allies. It is present in the Mediterranean through Syria and Hezbollah. It has, through all of this, the ability to influence the region’s two most prominent issues: the security of oil and the security of Israel.

For a long time there's been a regular drumbeat of articles about the Bushie threats against Iran, so many of them in fact, and so many in a deliberately overwrought style that sometimes I wonder if the authors' aim isn't to encourage an attack using American forces on that much smaller country. Many charges have been leveled against Iran as justification, but the two main crimes of which they are supposed to be guilty are, first, a desire to develop nuclear arms, though the U.S.has been overloaded with them for over 60 years, and, second, the hand the Iranians have in the affairs of Iraq to the point of helping terrorists, though the terrorists had no foothold in Iraq till the Bush invasion of 2003 made that possible and an inviting prospect.

I don't expect the GWBush administration in its waning days to attack Iran. Instead I think all the rhetoric and the marshalling of forces above and around Iran is psychological warfare, trying to discourage Iran from developing nuclear arms and to encourage it to stay away from its next door neighbor. But that warfare is failing to much the same extent that a military attack would, except in a different way, as indicated especially by the second paragraph in the last excerpt that I included above.

Al-Hayat gave hardly any details of the "Coup" that he thinks the Iranians are engineering in the Middle East, except that it's of a purely political nature. Meanwhile the article, which isn't long, is well worth reading, as many others appear to be on that Downside World News.

...That Said, About Sarcasm ...and Nuclear War

If a man is the literal sort and is troubled by the use of sarcasm, why, then, for about a year back in the late 1960's or early '70's, did he have hanging on his dining room wall a small canvas that he himself had painted and whose subject matter consisted solely of three large, bright, seven-letter words that read: "SUPPORT NUCLEAR WARFARE?" Isn't that the height of sarcasm?

The answer had nothing to do with wanting to see total and irremediable destruction and death rained down upon himself, and on the people he loved, and on the other people in his city (one of the two likeliest targets in the event of such warfare, the other being Moscow), and on the other people in his country and on his planet. Nor did it have anything to do with the shock value of the painting's words or even its neat use of his two favorite numbers, 3 and 7. Instead -- on the face of things -- it had had to do with his perception of nuclear weapons, for which he could see nothing but negatives stretching as far as the mind could see.

To him the mere existence of weapons as incredibly deadly and destructive as first atom bombs and later the much more powerful hydrogen bombs was already absolutely abominable and obscene enough, even if they were never actually used and instead served only as threats guaranteed to make enemies bow down in abject acquiescence...

Maybe this man's particular personal experiences heightened the strength of his feelings about this.

As a longtime chessplayer he knew all too well the effectiveness of one of that game's most basic tenets: "The threat is stronger than its execution." And he had always deeply resented being threatened about anything, nor was he in the habit of making threats. (It helped greatly that he had absolutely no credibility in carrying them out.)

Also he had a distinctly unpopular idea about the only time nuclear bombs had been dropped on people. He had been to Nagasaki once and Hiroshima twice, and it seemed to him that the destructive powers of Fat Boy and Little Man could've been demonstrated to the Japanese somewhere else and in ways other than on unsuspecting cities.

So it had already been bad enough to have actually used those weapons. He thought that the most profane part of their contemplated use in the future, especially by countries as large as Russia and the U.S.A,, was that, if they emptied their bomb bays and missile silos, the effects wouldn't be confined just to those countries. All of the land and water masses beyond their borders where dwelled other human beings and flora and fauna that had no stake or involvement in the differences between the warring parties, would be terminally affected as well.. And the parties wouldn't even be warring over essentials. Instead the supposedly "life and death" issues would be over matters as picayune as the opposing virtues of different political and economic philosophies. Nevertheless innocents the world over would also be swept by the detonations into the maelstrom of all-encompassing, radioactive destruction and death, and it seemed to this man that you couldn't get more obscene than that.

He had not glimpsed to the fullest yet another highly immoral aspect of nuclear weapons, namely that, if not their use, their threat would be exerted mainly against smaller and weaker nations abroad, from which the fallout boomerang was within acceptable limits.

These considerations led him inevitably to the conclusion that any country that would tolerate having leaders that would seriously consider using these weapons deserved to experience the throughly hellish effects of those bombs themselves.

This man never carried that poster-painting out of his house, and the few that saw it, while slightly taken aback, regarded it as being only the meaningless raving of a complete but harmless weirdo.

After about a year he destroyed that painting, but the words on it hadn't contained an ounce of sarcasm. Instead he had meant every inch of its message. He had meant it without any sort of smile, and instead only with the deepest sadness, dismay, and disgust.


Oddly, it has taken me years to realize that actually that painting had had a second meaning even beyond nuclear warfare.

When, in the presence of certain company a few years earlier, I had started painting, we had always referred to our works not as paintings but instead as "statements."

So I see now, many years later, that that painting had been, even more, a statement about the distance I had long since felt from the species that had produced such weapons (not to mention from the subspecies of which I was seen as being a member). I had decided that the hands of humans are too heavy not only on each other but even more, and more inexcusably, on the planet, and so the less of it there was the better it would be for all concerned, and that was really what had been at the heart of the matter.

Isn't it interesting how we often don't know what we're doing, at the precise moment when we couldn't be more confident that we do know!.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Sarcasm's Pit

Early in a thread attached to an article on nuclear proliferation in Common Dreams, "KS" submitted a comment saying that the use of nuclear bombs is okay, and that they're "safe and effective." Several comments later "N" posted a counter-comment saying, yes, and he had also heard that decapitation was the best treatment for head lice. Thereupon KS returned and said he was sorry that N had missed his "dripping sarcasm."

It is almost certain that N had not missed the sarcasm at all, and that KS knew that he hadn't. So I suppose they were just trying to jazz up the discussion with a few pokes of some cattle prods. But then you never know, and meanwhile why resort to such means?

This illustrated what appears to me to be a frequent problem when people are talking to each other online, and that is the use of sarcasm (under which heading I include being satiric, ironic, and sardonic). For me personally sarcasm is a peril even when talking face to face. It's all well and good to show how clever one is, but I've always thought that in a conversation involving anything close to seriousness, sarcasm has no place. It disrupts clear communication by disguising the speaker's intent and therefore clearing the way for misunderstanding to set in. And that can be an especially big stumbling block online because there a person doesn't have the advantage of being in a setting in which he can at least hope to gauge intent accurately by noting such nuances as facial expressions, verbal inflections, and tones of voice.

In addition, online places, especially comment threads and chatrooms, are subject to the presence of entities called "trolls," whose views run absolutely counter to the general tenor of the discussion, and they state these views quite seriously and the higher the shock value the better. Yet, if the trolls disguise themselves well enough and appear to be otherwise rational, their most unacceptable statements can be indistinguishable from ordinary sarcasm.

Finally sarcasm is like a fishing hook. It has barbs, and barbs means inflicting pain on the listener.

So it seems to me that in the interest of clear and non-lethal communication, online sarcasm should be avoided if at all possible. .

In this weblog and elsewhere I never intend to be sarcastic. I take pride in being unsophisticated, which among other things means being the literal sort. I sincerely mean everything I say. But such are the vagaries of language and carelessness that once in a while I may trip up and fall into that pit nevertheless. But not often, I hope.

In person I'm not quick and sharp-witted enough to use sarcasm anyway, and even the ability to change my written words at my leisure doesn't enhance my "talents" or my inclinations in that direction in the least.

Monday, April 07, 2008

My Little Black Friends

Till recently, with my wife absent for long periods to attend to family affairs in Florida, for days at a time the only half-way human being that I got to see and to talk to was a short-haired male black cat with golden eyes, named Beauty. At about 18 Beauty may be even farther along in years than I am, but he is still strong, agile, and clear-eyed. Though his conversational skills are limited, he is still good company. He tolerates all my delays, and he humors all the crazy remarks I address to him as well as being picked up and the other such indignities that he has to suffer at my hands. He never hides intentionally, and he usually answers to his name if he isn't asleep.

Beauty is an outdoors cat, as have been all that we've had, though he loves to clamor and scratch to come into the house. Once inside, one of his favorite activities is to stroll through the kitchen while noting any interesting changes in the surroundings, especially a just-filled food tray, before exiting the house again by another door.

Yet he is not the cat that we would have wished to be the last surviving from the wonderful family of eight that we had as recently as four years ago. In fact he would've been among the last two choices. Instead my wife would have liked that last-standing to have been another short-haired black male named Magic, an affection junkie that she spoiled rotten during his early years, while my choice would have been a more poised long-haired gray female named Fuzzy, who from the start had singled me out as being worthy of special regard.

But two years ago Magic fell victim to terminal illness, while one morning a little later I found Fuzzy moaning, bleeding, and jammed up into a corner amid some drums and boxes, unable to move and having been badly mauled by one of the various beasts, wild and domestic, that occasionally pass through here. Meanwhile that same morning I couldn't find her near twin, another gray female named Lilith.

Coyotes are believed to be in the area, because they seem to be in all the states. I have never seen or heard one, but a neighbor who claims to have seen the carcass of one plus to have spotted another crossing our road thinks that species is the prime suspect for Fuzzy's undoing.

With enormous sadness I had to relieve Fuzzy of her pain and suffering with a firearm, just as I had had to do with Magic earlier, and I never found any trace of Lilith.

In contrast to all three, Beauty had always been one of the most standoffish of the cats and the one most liable to snag you with a claw if you reached out to him a petting hand. But cats can amaze by how quickly they can adapt while still being creatures of habit. As soon as he realized that he had been left with only the two-legged beings around, he adjusted his personality and seemed to take on a lot of the attributes of his more naturally personable but now forever departed kinfolk.

My other little black friends around here are the crows. Because right now I don't grow things that they would want to pull up and eat, I can say that I love them. Crows are so absolute, in the deep, unalloyed saturation of their color, in the certainty with which they can be identified (forget ravens), and in the ease with which they can be seen. I even like to hear their outcries, though that can get to be a real racket in the warmer months. I think they are ineffably stately and graceful birds, soaring through the air and among the tree trunks with a radar system that any flyer in an F-18 would love to have, and alighting with the gentlest of touches on the tops of fence posts. .

Sometimes I hold debates with them, when they are close enough up there in the trees and grow too contentious with their statements that they must think are irrefutable. When I point out to them the errors of their positions, , they grow quiet and look at me with wonder, but, as with humans, I don't think I've ever convinced them of anything.

Still, I especially enjoy seeing crows walking around on the ground. Then they remind me of oldtime, stuffy, big-butted, beady-eyed English barristers, waddling ahead with authority and with their beaks thrust out as if to say, "What it is!"

My friend and neighbor, H., a hunter, tells me that there is a season on crows, meaning they can be shot only at certain times of the year, and he resents that. He has lots of guns, along with a mandate that he feels he has gotten from somewhere, instructing him to kill a wide range of animals large and small, and crows are second only to snakes on his list of favorite targets.

In most other ways H. is all right, but it's good that he lives on the other side of the river, a mile and a half away. But I know there's always that expression, "as the crow flies."

Sunday, April 06, 2008

After the King Shooting

In the days that followed the Martin Luther King shooting, I drove around to the four main corridors in D.C. that had been devastated by the ensuing riots. I was totally familiar with all of what had been those hustling, bustling thoroughfares.

The nearest was H Street in N.E., just a few blocks from my house. The others were all in N.W., on U, 7th, and 14th Streets. Lots of National Guardsmen were standing around. People were wandering about, picking in the trash and the piles of rubble. The smell of water-soaked ashes was heavy in the air. I took a few photos, but mainly I was in such a numbed state that no words ran through my mind, while I stared at all the still smoldering wreckage.

Yet it wasn't as if I hadn't expected this. Till then D.C., despite its large rainbow population, had been spared the ravages that had already been wrought in so many other large cities. Every time I had looked at the blocks of modest businesses on H Street, I had wondered - with dread -- why it hadn't come to some minds to put the torch and the looting urge to those blocks as well? H Street looked ripe for the same disaster. I didn't think people in D.C. were materially different from those in Newark or Watts or Detroit or Harlem, and with the death of King it turned out that they weren't.

It was reported later that Stokeley Carmichael, the late, well-known rainbow militant leader, happened to be in D.C. that day, and as the looters and burners went to work on 14th Street he circulated among them and yelled, "Brothers, this is not the way!" But few listened. They may not have known who he was.

And they clearly had no idea of who Rev. King had been, either.

This reaction to the shooting was so completely opposite to my nature that I was sickened by it, and I still am, as if it happened just yesterday.

I associate those riots with bathtubs.

One of the pictures I took was of a bathtub that was hanging two or three stories up in the air, still sitting perfectly level but with no floor under it and supported only by pipes that attached it to the wall of an adjoining and still-standing building. The rest of that tub's bathroom and of its building had all fallen away, collapsed into a pile of debris far below.

And my main simile for those riots is of people crapping in their own bathtubs ...and then having to sit in it ...while likewise suspended from almost nothing, high and dry.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Day King Was Shot

It's the easiest thing in the world for me to relive what happened with me this day 40 years ago, for several reasons. Weather-wise, it was a wonderful early spring day, and the famed D.C, Japanese cherry trees were undoubtedly in full bloom. But my mind was focused dead center on my wife and my mother, after the news of the shooting came in to the company where I worked, in suburban Maryland, and on the heels of that word of the riots that had already broken out in D.C. where I lived. I was quickly given leave to jump into my little black Bug and head south to D.C. and the Navy Department where my wife worked, because it was clear that with a tension gripping the whole Washington area as if it had been bombed by the Russians, I knew that EVERYbody would be getting off work and heading home or wherever they felt it was appropriate to be at such a time.

While I was already 38, B.H. Obama was only seven, and in addition he was living way over in Indonesia with his mother and his Indonesian stepfather. Because of those two factors he could not have had much appreciation for the significance of things that had happened that day not only in Memphis, Tennessee, and in Washington, D.C., but also in the rest of the U.S., especially in dozens of cities where the first plumes of smoke from civil disturbances were rising in the air.

At the same moment J.O. McCain had no access to radio, TV, or even a good rumor mill. Instead he was several months into a stay of over two years in a !0' by !0' room with a tin roof in a North Vietnamese prison camp, with no companion except his thoughts -- a truly dreadful fate for anybody, considering the mindsquirts he was likely to have had. Having been shot down by a missile the size of, as he described it, a telephone pole, and having been thoroughly banged up not only by that incident but also by his captors later, he had also been singled out for special attention because his father, a Navy Admiral, had been named none other than Commander of all the U.S. forces in the Vietnam Theater of war.

Since he was in solitary confinement and was not allowed access to anything much except food and sometimes a bath, it was probably a while before J.O. McCain heard about what had happened to Rev. King. Today he, Obama, and Clinton are dutifully going around commemorating the King tragedy, but if McCain is saying he shed any tears, I would have great trouble believing him, just as I would if he said he jumped up and down with joy in the prison when he heard about his father's ascendancy. --Well, maybe he did, but his constitution surely had something else to say.

In guessing McCain's reaction to the King thing, I'm going partly by my own experience with his Naval colleagues and superiors at exactly the same time. For several weeks I was a civilian copy editor in the company of all these high-ranked Navy Commanders and Captains who had been specially assembled by a certain famous admiral -- not J.O.'s father --to do some brainstorming in coming up with the specifications for a new ship that this man badly wanted the Navy to have.

I don't recall if I was on that project when King was shot but I do recall that when two rainbow Olympic runners named Tommie Smith and John Carlos won medals and on the awards stand they raised their fists while keeping their heads bowed in a silent "black power" salute while the "Star-Spangled Banner" was being played, you could've cut the hostility in those high-powered Navy rooms with a knife, though nothing overtly hostile was said to me. But that's a very poor indicator to give of their attitudes, isn't it? Because how else would it have been even remotely possible for them to feel?

Of the three main candidates currently running to be President, only H.R. Clinton was doing things that are directly related to what they are doing now, short of the normal stuff involved in merely staying alive. On that day in April of 1968, she was 21 and a junior at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, busily undergoing political transformations. As a freshman she had been the head of the Young Republicans there, but having already started seeing things in a different way, she was deeply affected by the assassination of King, and she started assisting the rainbow students in achieving the changes they desired to see at the college

So today, whereas Obama and McCain must've been completely oblivious, though for widely different reasons while being oddly esconsed not far from each other in the same distant part of the world, H.R. Clinton can at least say that when King was assassinated, she was fully cognizant of the event and its significance.

Meanwhile, when I reached the Navy Dept, buildings, my wife was nowhere to be seen. So I hurried home, while able to see the smoke rising in various places over the city, which I easily circumvented, and I found her safe at home with my mother. So I stayed there with them while only a few blocks away in two directions for two days businesses were burned down and rioters ran amuck and some were shot. I had no desire whatever to see up close what they or the police and the National Guard were doing. I knew all too well how other cities had already long since been partly reduced to ashes in the same inexplicable way, though not till then had that calamity happened in my town, and I have not been quite the same since.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Good Duty

Sometime in April of 1954, I arrived in Okinawa along with hundreds of other Air Force and Army enlisted men, to start a tour of duty that was supposed to last for 18 months. We came by troopship, a method of transport that I believe the Air Force has long since stopped using, preferring to use its planes instead, apparently because it has so much gas to waste.

It shouldn't have been a great crossing for me, because I had had to spend much of the trip buried below decks in the soaking wet grime and labor of the worst job of KP, washing pots and pans, from dawn through the day till well into the night, every other day. Added to that was sleeping in one of a number of holds that were crammed with guys piled in tiers of canvas bunks three or four high, that had a habit of swaying in the usually active seas, below the waterline where you could hear the waves constantly and loudly crashing and banging against the steel bulkheads.

But I was 22 and secure in the knowledge that I could easily endure any indignity that would only last two weeks, and I treated the trip as a pleasure cruise that, when not on Pots and Pans, I spent topside, leaning on the rails and checking out every sight that offered itself, and they were all unusual, compared to everything I had ever seen before.

When we landed on Okinawa and were loaded into strange buses that had no roofs, to take us to our various bases, I was fascinated out of my mind, because everything looked and sounded and even smelled so exotic and different. I had already lived in D.C. and had been to New York City many times, and in the Air Force I had spent time in southern Illinois and in southern California. But Okinawa was something else! It was definitely on the other side of the world, as far as it was possible to get from the tried and true comfort of anywhere in the U.S. It was definitely the Orient, and closer, even if it hadn't been a bitterly contested battlefield, to 150 years ago than I am certain it is now. I know I wouldn't recognize it if I were to go back..

In 1954 the island was still recovering from the total devastation that large areas of it had suffered from the fighting that had started with the American invasion on this day of the month, April 1, in 1945, plus in the interval since then huge typhoons had swept through and added to the woes of living there. All the people I saw from my bus looked different and wore different kinds of clothes, oriental yet also threadbare -- except for young ladies standing in front of buildings labeled simply "Bar," in tiny communities that looked a lot like the frontier towns that you see in Westerns that don't have big budgets. Those ladies were sheathed in tight-fitting, shiny outfits, and they seemed especially happy to see us passing through, smiling broadly and cheering and waving and carrying on, as did the children though with more restraint, while the other adult Okinawans, wearing their wide-brimmed Oriental hats, gave us scarcely a glance before bending back to their activities. And here and there I saw genuine rice paddies, neat as could be, with green shoots sticking up as uniformly as the spikes in fakirs' beds of nails, and the trees and bushes looked so intensely green and healthy with their branches extended in evocative shapes, just like those in Japanese prints.

Because of this experience and others subsequently, I have never known what to say about the American policy of plopping down military bases everywhere they can, all over the world. It has its drawbacks and its benefits, depending on the locations and the attitudes of the citizens in those farflung countries.

In observance of April 1, 1945, the day that American marines and soldiers landed on Okinawa and, against the bitter resistance of hard-bitten, fanatical Japanese soldiers, started a three-month battle that ended up causing close to a quarter-million deaths of themselves and others on an island only one-third the size of Long Island, I just want to comment on how happy I was that the U.S. government afforded me an experience like this that otherwise I would never have had.

I have had the peculiar fortune -- I suppose that mostly it's good - to have noticed that strange obverse, yingyang phenomenon in other areas, too.

The people who made the recent movie "Jarhead," about American marines in Kuwait during the first Gulf War, put their finger right on this paradox, in what is for me the climactic scene in the film.

Though till then they haven't particularly enjoyed each other's company, the platoon leader, played by Jamie Foxx, and the main character, a private or something played by Jake Gyllenhaal, are sitting together in a Kuwaiti oil field, at night. Exhausted and with their clothes blackened by oil-drenched sand, they are taking in the incredible scene in which they have found themselves. Dozens of oil wells, set afire by Saddam's retreating Iraqis, are burning in the distance in every direction, the flames vivid against a background in which the desert and the skies have blended into an otherwise solid pitch blackness,.and the two men, staring, are awestruck in spite of their normal blase ways.

Finally the Foxx character says something like, "Look at this! Just look at this! This is why I just love being in the Marines. I just love it, because where else would you get to see s--t like this!" And the Gyllenhaal character can't help but agree.

The military is great for allowing young Americans to see all sorts of fabulous things, save when somebody calls on them not only to suffer grievous injury and death themselves but also to inflict even more of the same on others. The first situation in my day was called "good duty." The second was called "chickens--t."