Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Gnostic Bizzaro World

As my long-suffering blog readers know, I am engaged in a project to read every book in the world, in chronological order, expecting to maybe reach the literature of the nineteenth century or so before the Grim Reaper taps my shoulder.

And as my long-suffering blog readers know, I am currently struggling through the chaotic writings of the Gnostics, who flourished in the first centuries of the Christian era.

The most comprehensive collection of their sacred writings is entitled the Nag Hammadi Library. It's not easy reading, by any stretch of the imagination. Much of it is virtually impossible to understand, although the nature of the translation or my unfamiliarity with the sect may be to blame.

But towards the end of the collection, I have encountered perhaps the strangest document that I have read in my entire life. I literally couldn't help laughing, which I generally try not to do when reading literature that someone else holds sacred.

The Paraphrase of Shem takes some of the Gnostic doctrines at which other texts have hinted, and goes nuts.

It is as if its writer was trying to create a Christian Bizzaro World, or an anti-matter universe, based on the opposite of the Bible. Literally, everything considered good in the Christian Bible is explicitly bad in this text, and everything bad is good. The Creation and the Creator God are evil, for starters. That's well known as a Gnostic tenet, but to continue ... The Flood was an evil idea intended to destroy good people. Sodom was a city of righteous and holy people, destroyed by a vengeful and evil god. And even the Christian hero, John the Baptist, is herein called a demon who used the impure material medium of water to bind souls in his evil baptismal rite.

Interspersed through this strangeness are lurid accounts of demons masturbating and cosmic sexual activity that makes the Biblical Song of Solomon seem tamer than a child's picture book.

It is really, really hard to comprehend that any sane mind, uninfluenced by powerful drugs, could have written this material.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Hungarian meditations ...

"Magyarorszagon szulettel, es magyarul beszelz. Edesanyadtol tanultad az elso szavakat. Ez az anyanyelved. Olyan termeszetes, hogy magyarul beszelsz, mint az, hogy kek vagy barna a szemed, es hogy ket kezed van. A szemeddel latod a korulotted levo vilagot, a kezeddel megfogod targyait, a beszeddel meg nevet adsz nekik. Ki tudod fejezni, amit gondolsz es erzel ..." -- Tanuljunk magyarul, Sarosy Jozsefne.

Translation: "You were born in Hungary, and you speak Hungarian. From your dear mother you learned your first words. This is your mother tongue. It is as natural that you speak Hungarian, as that your eyes are blue or brown and that you have two hands. With your eyes you see the world around you, with your hands you grasp its objects, with your speech you give names to them. Who can imagine, what you think and feel ..."

Only fifteen million people worldwide speak Hungarian -- a mere drop in the global linguistic ocean. It is forever a stranger among the Germanic, Slavic and Romance languages that surround it. Oh, but I love this beautiful though difficult language, its very poetry in prose, its strong and meaty cadence -- such a reward for struggling to comprehend its complexity!

Paul Lendvai writes in "The Hungarians," for which I spent my birthday money this year:

"Except for the Albanians, the Hungarians are the most lonely people of Europe, with their unique language and history..."

One can clearly hear the passion and the pathos in their national anthem, Isten aldd meg a Magyart, (God Bless the Hungarian), a prayer for strength, a prayer for survival. One can feel it, and one never forgets it.

To be so unique, is both a blessing and a curse.

Reading those lines by Ms. Josefne, I imagined bright-eyed kids in a Hungarian classroom, opening up that grammar book on the first day of school and agreeing with her that speaking Hungarian is as natural as the color of one's eyes. In years to come, they will realize that their beautiful language comes to an abrupt halt beyond their borders, with only ethnic enclaves here and there in which it can still be heard.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Canoeing -- we could do this!

Riding home today in the back of the in-laws van, I got a glimpse of scenery that I don't see when I am at the wheel. Swamps, creeks, lakes and rivers -- beautiful even at this drab time of year.

Then it hit me -- my Sweetie and I could explore these wild lands. We could save our pennies for a used canoe and we could learn together and go exploring.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Of speech and song

Isn't it fascinating that the mere action of stretching out one's words produces the vocal phenomenon that we call singing?

At what point does talk end and song begin?

I learned today that the word "accent" comes from the same Latin root as "to sing." An accent, then, is a different way of speaking but it is also, in a way, a song, a song about your heritage.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Of journalists

Journalists are like flies -- passionately attracted to crap and buzzing around it until every bit has been digested. They are necessary but nonetheless a ^%$#^% nuisance.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Deerly beloved

"Poor deer," said Sweetie, as I washed a chunk of venison in the sink.

"Poor deer nothing," I said. "That's one deer that won't starve this winter, or be chased by feral dogs, or die slowly on the side of the highway after being hit by a car."

She remained unconvinced. But when this succulent slab of meat is roasted to perfection, after marinating all day in Italian dressing, even She will bury her scruples and partake.

It was worth the dark and rainy drive to a friend's house tonight, who called with news that a friend of his had bagged a deer and had some left over.

"I wish I was a hunter," I told Sweetie. "Think how much we would save on the cost of meat."

"I'm glad you aren't," She said.

Happy news

I was about ready to give up on my plan for a special Christmas present for my third grade "lunch buddy" this week.

I had wanted to take him to the local high school to shoot hoops with one of our high school basketball players. As usual, I could not get his mother to return any phone calls to give permission or to transport him there.

So I called Coach G. today with the bad news.

Coach G. wasn't taking no for an answer. If little B. couldn't be brought to the high school, he told me, then Coach G. would bring the high school -- or at least one star player -- to him.

It's happening this Friday. I am so excited. I think this star player could help little B. to think about what he needs to do to improve his behavior and to value his education.


Chemistry fascinates.

In bugs, a substance called ecdysone (see molecule of the month, at lower right) regulates larval molts, onset of puparium formation, and metamorphosis. Plants make the same chemical to disrupt all of the above, which punishes insects who would otherwise make a meal of their tasty leaves.

But, in scientific news worthy of some B-grade horror flick, humans have discovered that ecdysone can also function as a muscle-building steroid. Presumably, when we left the bug stage of evolution, we lost the receptor that utilized ecdysone for non-insect bodily purposes but our systems still recognize its potential to stimulate growth.

What if some ethically challenged athlete took a shot of the stuff without realizing that he possessed vestigial ecdysone receptors?

Sunday, December 14, 2008


The first thing that I have learned about Azerbaijan is that it spent many centuries under Persian rule.

The Persians!

Today's Iranians are the remnants of that once-vast empire, which nearly overwhelmed Classical Greece; which drew a line in the Mideastern sand that Rome never crossed; which remains to this day mysterious and unknown to most of us. We can name a few of the Caesars, most of us -- but who other than specialists can name a Persian, or a Parthian?

Azerbaijan in the modern era passed back and forth between Persia and the new power in the region, Russia. Most of the 20th Century it spent as a Soviet republic, supplying the bulk of the USSR's gasoline.

Today, it finally enjoys independence, and in what is left of December, I shall try to learn something of its ancient culture, and maybe a few words in its native language.

If nothing else, I now know the capital: Baku.

Dream details

I am back in the Pacific Northwest, trying to climb down a steep cliff. I tumble and land inside a giant nest, an eagle's aerie. I feel fear, knowing that the great bird will soon return. I scramble out of it and somehow climb down the tree to the beach far below.

There I find the carcass of a turtle which the eagle had dropped. I find its missing skull nearby and desire to take it with me, as I am a collector of skulls. [That last line is a real-world detail, readers; now you know something more about me].

Incomprehensible, disconnected details follow. Something about kids swimming in a dirty pool rather than a clear stream, and a debate over it.

Then I am employed, working along with my parents for a boss who is not much of a Lady, at some sort of convenience store. Finally, in front of a bunch of smirking customers, the boss assigns me some menial task, something to do with figuring out how much I deserve to be paid, and I say:

"I quit. Find someone else to work in this hellhole."

The smirking stops.

[I awake for a few minutes. When I dream again, it is of things much more pleasant, at least to me, and with no apparent connection to the former sequence -- a Woman in a bank line blows cigarette smoke my way; two beautiful Girls decide that They are too pretty to use the sidewalk, and so, succesfully, They walk down the highway, casually tossing candy wrappers upon the asphalt, as traffic good-naturedly weaves around Them.]

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mind your c's and b's

Zahra Eshragi wants to see better days for Iran, but She doesn't see them anytime soon.

Eshragi is the granddaughter of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the 1979 revolution in Iran.

It is no secret that many Iranians are unhappy with the leadership of their country and with the fruits of the revolution that they so eagerly fomented nearly 30 years ago.

Iran, contrary to the understanding of many Westerners, is something of a democracy. But it has a flaw, a deadly flaw, the same flaw that doomed two previous revolutions in history, in France and in Russia.

No checks and balances.

The Soviets believed that if only the capitalists and the opiate of religion were swept away, the long-suppressed good nature of mankind woulod rise to the surface. Everyone would work hard and all would be well.

We know how that turned out.

In a previous century, the French believed that if they swept away their monarchy and broke the power of the Church, then a secular utopia of equality, brotherhood and fraternity would rise up.

That wasn't quite what happened.

The founding fathers of the American nation, by contrast, were not utopians. They did not believe that any man was above corruptibility. So they created a system of checks and balances -- the missing element in all three of the revolutions mentioned above.

It is by no means a perfect system. But it has worked for more than 200 years.

Why does Eshragi feel so gloomy about Iran? In a recent interview, she lamented the "hard-liners lock on power."

Well, there's the problem. In America, people unhappy with our current president picked the "candidate of change" this year. Imagine if a body of American authorities, religious or secular, had the power to disqualify Obama from having run.

In Iran, a body of clerics has exactly that power and they are accountable only to Allah.

The revolution was meant to bring freedom to Iran, Eshragi said. Well, if so, instead of taking American hostages, its architects should have studied the American Founding Fathers.

Instead, she says, "with this trend, nothing remains of the republic. And they have left nothing of freedom."

If you are reading this as a rant about American superiority, you have totally misunderstood me. It was precisely because they recognized that their fellow citizens were no more superior than people anywhere else, no less likely to become corrupted and do evil, that the U.S. Founding Fathers did what they did.

Checks and balances. You gotta have em.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I will decide what I am and what I am not

So the Christmas Party is over. Not too shabby. I feel the relief wash over me like the warm caress of my beautiful Sweetie. Who accompanied me last night. Who is everlastingly my confidante, cheerleader and best friend. She worried during the whole drive home in the blasting rain and fog, but we made it.

The great, big snarly ball of party-planning logistics can be put to rest for another year.

When I was a child, one of my teachers lamented that I was horribly disorganized. It remains a frustration for me to this day, not the lament, but the problem. ADHD and all.

But I refuse to lean on a crutch. If teacher and nature insist on telling me that I am incorrigibly disorganized, that is all the more reason that I will fight that label and win.

Today I was asked to perform the impossible: to locate a series of digital photos that I took at some point last year, among the thousands that I have taken, and forward them to a School Board member.

Mister Disorganized went promptly to his daily logbook that he made for himself, remembering that the event took place sometime near the beginning of the 2007 school year, found the entry for September 7 confirming the trip and when the pictures were taken, inserted the CD-Rom archive of 2007 pictures that he made for himself, opened up the September 7 file, found them and sent them.

Take that, O teacher of mine! Take that, ADHD! Don’t you dare tell me what I can’t do, what I can’t be. Don’t you label me.

Whence absolute?

Absolute: (1)free from imperfection. (2)Marked by restraint from control. From the Latin absolvere, to set free.

Wow. What power in a word, what intrigue in etymology. To be absolute is to be free. Although I might note that the clever marketing company that co-opted Absolut as a brand name might not wish to explore just how unrestrained from control an imbiber of their product might become.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Voices in my head

My last post was number 666. Not a good omen. But without 666, nobody would ever get to 667, now would they?

There are voices in my head.

I'm not insane. I'm pretty sure of that, although an independent diagnosis might disagree.

But I performed some mundane little action yesterday and realized that a voice in my head was guiding my actions. It was the voice of a person I respect, who had long ago given me advice on similar matters.

I realize that there are many such voices whispering in my head: my parents, my grandparents, former bosses, friends, even my own past self who has learned his lesson. And while I pride myself on rock-solid immunity to peer pressure, these voices guide me quite often as I go about the business of being alive.

I appreciate good advice, recognizing that there are a whole lot of people in the world wiser and more experienced than I am.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Birthday week

Thirty-some years ago this week, I screamed and kicked my way into the world.

I like being alive, most of the time. Days of flu and dealing with consequences of my personal stupidity cause me to reconsider albeit briefly.

I like the taste of hot sauce, marshmallows, shrimp, pasta, pork, lemon, chocolate and pizza (not in the same mouthful). I like the sight of Woman from head to toe, or of a wide green valley or a desert vista; the smell of pines in the sun or rain on a hot, dusty day or of bread baking; the sound of Bach or Korn or children laughing or Women singing; the feel of soft cotton or warm skin or milkweed fluff in my hands.

I like Saturdays, creative but well-behaved children, old musty books and fresh, crisp books, the smell of coffee and pipe tobacco, cold mountain streams and warm tropical seas, old trees and little seedlings.

I like space and comets and the contemplation of DNA and atomic theory.

I like warm, spring soil and cold, fresh snow.

I like great old church hymns and simple, pretty melodies.

I like hard, sweaty work and I like the feeling when it is all done and I am tired and able to sink into a warm bath and clean up.

I like flowers and fish, hedgehogs and lemurs.

I like allspice, vanilla, anise and mint.

I like unspoiled wilderness and the magic of cities.

I like being alive.

Happy birthday to me. Thanks Dad and especially Mom, for making it so.

I will celebrate with dinner at a Turkish restaurant. Can't wait.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Economics 101

I posted this to a friend's blog today, and wanted to repost it here:

The problem in America today is not the "greedy guys" of capitalism. Our nation's wise founding fathers, unlike the Marxists and other misguided dreamers, knew that the smart thing to do was not to try to throttle capitalism with a government rope but rather to get out of its way and let it run like a river.

What does a "greedy" businessman do? He works long hours and risks his shirt to make his dream succeed. He makes his product more efficient and less costly, so that it will outsell his competitor. Society benefits. If he tries to cheat and cut corners, in a free society he eventually gets caught, his competitors pounce and his customers go away.

What happens in socialism? The government curses "greed" and tries to control it. And shoddy products are made by lackluster factories, if at all,with a sour attitude towards any fool who tries to purchase them. Ask anyone who lived through the shadow days of the Soviet empire.

In Praise of Olive Garden

Rolling back to work from paying a lunch-time bill, worrying about the squealy fanbelt and whether or not the district Christmas Party next week will be a logistical success or a horror fest, I caught sight of the Olive Garden Restaurant in town and remembered a warm summer afternoon spent there with friends.

What is with the snootie people who refuse to grant that place the status of a real Italian restaurant? What is it with the foodies who poke fun at it in their fancy magazines? Olive Garden sends its culinary staff for training to Italy, for crying out loud (sorry, Chase)-- which may be more than some poseur pricy places can say.

Only a redneck yokel would confuse their menu with real Italian food, the snobs say, a beer-belly redneck that couldn't tell you the difference between burned biscotti and Brussels sprouts.

Well, reckon I done mewtated into one o' them there yokelly-types then, because I enjoy a meal at Olive Garden now and then. I also appreciate the prices. Maybe that's what annoys the snooty folks. Can't stand to see the kind of people who have to keep driving on a squealy fanbelt until payday enjoying the privilege of fine cuisine, Olive Garden style.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A dirty little secret

It’s a dirty little secret, a dirty little lie.

Because smokers, by conventional wisdom, are weak-willed reprobates, they deserve whatever fate has in store for them. And only smokers get lung cancer, so nobody else needs to worry about it.

How much of the above paragraph did you find to be false? I contest virtually every word. And the second sentence is a killer.

Many, many people – and for reasons unknown, although science suspects estrogen may be to blame, a high percentage of them are Women – get lung cancer even though they’ve never smoked nor habitually been around smokers.

Do a little googling on the Internet and you will be horrified at the stories of people whose symptoms were ignored, because they weren’t smokers. Or who asked about having tests because the cancer runs in their family, and were put off, again, because they weren’t smokers.

This you must know: Any organ of the body can get cancer.

An organ such as the lung, which has unique exposure to pollutants, is vulnerable to cancer – from radon, diesel particulates, formaldehyde, etc. – even if one never smokes nor spends time with smokers.

Genetics can play a role, too. Being Female can increase the chances, as previously noted.

Whether you smoke or not, don’t assume that you don’t have the risk. And do not allow your doctor to put you off either.

Some smokers get lung cancer. Some non-smokers do, too. It is just as worthy of research as any other cancer. Its sufferers deserve just as much compassion.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Meditations upon Youth

She is dancing
my little niece-in-law
pirouetting to choreography
of Her own design.

She is pure as a dewdrop
lovely as a little fawn
utterly perfect
a young Goddess whirling in the living room

Then She shoves Her Sister
off the piano bench
and makes Her cry
Human after all, beautiful but flawed

Monday, December 1, 2008

Of India

Lone Grey Squirrel has expressed in beautiful words, in his blog today, what so many of us thought when we heard of the horror in Mumbai.

India is a beautiful country, working so hard to become a 21st century success story.

India did not deserve this.

Good news out of China

Sometimes I need to be reminded that, in spite of the Orwellian thuggery that rules China, ordinary people there are no different than their counterparts in Oslo or Oklahoma. They care about their children and about making the world a better place.

I was heartened to read that tens of millions of Chinese people now heat their water with rooftop solar water heaters, saving the electricity equivalent of 54 coal-fired power plants. That is far more impressive to me than some PR environmental stunt by the central authorities, such as shutting down a factory and throwing people out of work. Grassroots, not jackboots.

Azerbaijan for December

New month, new place.

It will be fun to learn about a country about which I know absolutely nothing. It took me a little while to even find it on a world map.

Last of the "a" countries, a fitting end for 2008.