Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Social Climbing in Life and Literature

Columnist Anne Applebaum wrote earlier this month about that gate-crashing scandal at the White House. The scandal per se does not interest me, it's old news now. Where the column astounds me, is in Ms. Applebaum's cerebral treasure-trove of classic literature, as she contemplates the art of social climbing. She cites the writings of Twain, Proust and Wharton, with comfortable familiarity.

I like that.

New Year's Resolution -- revive this blog

A blog does not have the instant gratification of Facebook, where your posts can instantly be read by hosts of friends. In a blog, you have to work a little harder, generally, to build up your readership and bring attention to your writings.

But in a blog, you have a little bit less cramped space. Your posts are less likely to get buried in an avalanche of other people's updates.

So I resolve in this new year to revive the friendships that were built here at Isis.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Roman Experiment

There are three kinds of people in the world, politically speaking.

Firstly: Those who believe that the greater good is accomplished by reducing governmental power.

Secondly: Those who believe that the greater good is accomplished by increasing governmental power.

And thirdly, those who are just in it for themselves, who disguise themselves in whatever cloak of political rhetoric they need in order to achieve and cling to power.

Conservatives, at least of the United States type, align with the first theory. Different labels may be put upon proponents of limited government elsewhere.
Liberals (again speaking of the U.S.), align with the second.

At times, people of both the first or second persuasion charge each other with evil motivation. In reality, both of the first two types are, by and large, good people, trying to make the world a better place.

True evil belongs to that third type, which includes horrible human beings such as Pol Pot of Cambodia or Kim Jong Il of North Korea. I read that Kim has now thrown off all pretense of leading a communist utopia and instead adopted the motto of the old Roman emperors: Take care of the army and don’t worry about anyone else.

The critical problem with increasing governmental power as a means to achieve greater good, is that it is the surest way to empower that evil third type. Lenin’s Soviet framework, built upon the idealist Marx’s vision – Marx, who never built a gulag or oppressed anyone – was the perfect structure to support the monster Stalin.

We can argue about whether other notorious world leaders, past and present, were trying to build better societies or simply enjoying the spoils of power. I speak of Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Hugo Chavez, Nicolai Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, etc. But can anyone seriously argue that any of the above preached, or preach, less government rather than more?

What has fascinated me in my study of the late Roman Empire, is the history that we don’t learn in school and how it relates to the above.

How much this entity, which survived for roughly five hundred years (if you count from the rise of Julius Caesar to the sack by Alaric and don’t count all the previous years of the Republic or the Byzantine Empire that struggled on in the east after the fall of the Eternal City), was a constantly changing, conscious experiment in human government.

How various Roman leaders, from Augustus to Diocletian, tried different and creative ways to balance power and address the needs of the people. How some of the most reviled of its rulers, such as Nero, actually started out with apparent good intentions but then succumbed to paranoia or power lust … because there was, ultimately, no one to stand in their way.

How gradually a hard-working society of independent-minded, mostly agrarian folk, with a relatively democratic system of leadership, degenerated into a an entertainment-crazed, urban mob demanding more and more hand-outs from their leadership, a mob which ignored national defense and a leadership which constantly added more and more planks to its pulpit of power and rarely, if ever, removed any of the accretions once each spasm of grumbling over their illegality had ceased.

We are fools to ignore the lessons that Rome taught by long and painful experience. Fools to think that world leaders today are cut from different cloth than the ones who once wore the purple toga. Fools to think that human nature ever changes.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Strange dream

"Those other 10 o'clock shows that come on, all you get from them is headaches and nightmares when you go to bed! At least we give you food, know what I mean?" -- Chef Emeril Lagasse.

What do you call a vision by night that is neither dream nor nightmare but something in between?

Returning home from a horribly lengthy work meeting (11 p.m. -- absolute insanity!), I stopped by Wendy's and bought an "Oriental" salad. My Beloved warned me that it would give me nightmares. I countered that only greasy, spicy foods do that and that I was so tired I would sleep like a baby.

We were both a little right and a little wrong.

My dream was simply bizzare. I was on my hands and knees in my front yard, weeding around a low berm of dirt. When I yanked up some tall crabgrass, a hole in the berm was revealed to me, a sort of entrance into a vast room carved out of the inside of the berm.

The cave-room was beautifully furnished, with a hardwood floor. But as I peered into it with amazement, a large cat shoved its way out the entrance, past me. I had a vague sense of foreboding about the animal but not quite fear. Another cat appeared but I don't remember what it did.

The narrator of the dream impressed upon my mind that these cats, not humans or hobgoblins or whatever, were the owners of the place.

And then I woke up.

I do not have a cat. Cats are not a part of my life. Neither are secret rooms in my front yard. I would be genuinely puzzled about why I would have such a weird dream, had I not realized long ago that my brain dreams randomly, assembling odd bits of this and that for its own amusement while it is forced to lie in the dark waiting for me to wake up.

In this case, the concept of cats in a cave only connects to an obscure book that I read at least 22 years ago -- a pun by Piers Anthony in one of his Xanth books on the subject of a cat-as-trophe.

That's a long reach back in the cranial file cabinet.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Blue butterflies, red ants, rabbits and cows

Fascinating story!

"In a rare conservation success, a beautiful butterfly species that was headed for extinction has been brought back from the brink, thanks to careful biological observations of the insect’s life cycle. The mysterious disappearance of the Large Blue Butterfly across most of northern Europe was originally put down to its popularity among insect collectors [Telegraph]. Then biologist Jeremy Thomas spent six summers in the 1970s studying the very last colony of large blue butterflies in the United Kingdom, and determined that the butterflies were dependent on one species of red ant for their survival–and those ants were losing their habitat."

full story:

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Pyrenees Puzzle

45 million years ago, in the Tertiary period, a certain island crashed into the western edge of Europe. Today, we call it Iberia, or Portugal and Spain. The impact shoved up a mountain range at the collision point, which we call the Pyrenees.

Not well-versed in the science of plate tectonics, the ancients had other ideas about the creation of those mighty mountains. The hero Heracles/Hercules, it seems, wandered that way during the performance of his 12 labors. Here we run into an ancient he-said, She said. Some versions of the story have him raping a Girl named Pyrene, others that She attacked him, and they all involve some brutish cowherd named Geryon. All of the stories, sadly, end with Her death. In his grief, Hercules piled up great heaps of rocks at Her burial site, forming the mountains which are named for Her.

I spent a lot of time online last night (hey, some guys watch football for hours, so sue me) trying to figure out what ancient writer actually told this story, especially since the modern re-tellings conflict so greatly. I have an obsession with going to the source of things.

I scoured my notes on Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, etc., to no avail.

It appears that a first-century Roman named Silias Italicus preserves the earliest extant retelling of the myth, in an obscure book called Punica.

Tangent-ially (is that a word?) check out this link for a scholar who connects the whole scenario to Celts and ancient ritual:;%20charset=Windows-1252

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The cut of Constantine's sword

I have journeyed this morning into a man’s mind. I have read his questions and come up with my own.

James Carroll has introduced me, in the 70 pages that I have read so far of what may be his magnum opus, Constantine's Sword, to brilliant men and women spanning 2,000 years, from Rabbi Herschel to Teresa of Avila – minds I vow to know better.

From his pen, almost casually, drop references to some of the world's greatest art -- the sign of a man who has internalized them, a man to whom these masterpieces have personal meaning.

Michelangelo's Pieta.

I started reading this book several years ago but put it aside when it became clear to me that I needed to familiarize myself first with the context of Constantine's age.

Now I am ready.

In this book, Carroll probes the very heart and history of his faith, its passion and pain.

Bernini's Passion of Saint Teresa.

Rome we know or think we know, with its Ides and its Colosseum. The Middle Ages we know or think we know, with its chivalrous knights and horrible plagues – but what of the centuries between? What of the time when Constantinople displaced Rome, however briefly, as the center of Western civilization? When Christianity exploded from an obscure, persecuted sect into a world power?

As Europeans, descendants of Europeans – or even as people from elsewhere who have for better or for worse had interaction with Europeans, whether you are a Filipino or an Inuit or the grandson of a Hottentot, that mysterious era after the “ancient” world ended but before the modern, yes, even before the Medieval period began, forever altered the pattern of your life.

What if there had been no Constantine – the first Emperor to embrace Christianity? Indeed, what if the Christian Church had never received imperial sanction?

Was Constantine a product of the Church in his way of thinking, or did his way of thinking re-direct the Church? Carroll hints, but I have not yet reached the page, that he will talk about that man’s thinking in regards to the sacrifice of a son by a father – will this concern his poor son Crispus, whose untimely death biographer Frank Slaughter blames on Constantine’s “hell-cat” wife Fausta, though suggesting that others would blame the old emperor instead.

Carroll explores the roots of anti-Jewish hatred in Christianity, finding them in the very New Testament writings but without the power to be lethal until Constantine arrived on the scene – he who called the Jews an “odious people and who moved the very date of the Easter celebration to escape the taint of Passover.

A tangent for someone else to explore: If there had been no Constantine, no Imperial entanglement with the Church, what of the endemic eastern Christian squabbles that to this day have left a patchwork of bitterly divided sects in that region (long before Protestantism supposedly cracked the monolithic wall of Christianity)?

When the weight of the empire shifted the balance, now to Arianism, now away, when churchmen found themselves summoned from all corners of the Roman world by Imperial edict, to argue out their differences, do you suppose that little fires flared up into infernos, do you suppose that positions hardened? Do you think that far from solving the problems, Imperial involvement only ensured that they would grow worse, like school children dragging their big brothers into a fight?

What of Mohammed, whose Islam is judged by some to have been a reaction in part to such squabbles, even a Christian heresy at heart? Without a Constantine, would the Quran be what it is and would the wholesale defections to Islam in the Middle East, the very birthplace of Christianity, have taken place?

Arianism, for example, can be seen as a precursor to Islam, according respect to Christ but not granting him the same status or substance as the Father. So, too, does Islam revere Christ, as a prophet, but not as a God – and even speaks of him laughing on the cross at those who mistakenly believed they were crucifying him -- a familiar concept to Christian Gnostics.

These are fascinating questions to me.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Apple fanatics

I probably looked like an idiot up there in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a converted barn last weekend, carefully loading handfuls of apples into separate bags and tucking labels into each bag.

But for once I wanted to get home and not just simply have a jumbled mix of the fruits to root through. And unfortunately, I am not an apple expert. Can't tell most of the heirloom varieties apart by sight.

It's fun to be a foodie. Some folks are generalists, like me, jacks of all trades and masters of none. Others, often mocked, are exquisite specialists, who can sip a drop of wine and tell you what vineyard it came from and what hints of leather, oak and grass it yields up to their palate.

My favorite apple this week has been the Staymans -- crisp, juicy and tart. I am discovering that I much prefer that type of flavor to the mealiness of some other varieties.

In fact, I was puzzled to find a review online for the Grimes heirloom variety, my lunchtime selection for today, which called Grimes a spicy, rich, crisp and sweet delicacy. I feel quite inclined to disagree. It tasted like a ho-hum, so-called Red Delicious disguised with a yellow skin.

It is said that Thomas Jefferson was never without an apple. His favorite, the Esopus Spitzenberg, is almost impossible to find these days, and I was disappointed that the orchard we visited last weekend, just a few miles from Monticello, didn't carry it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What chance for a child?

So they have found the body of the little Girl in Florida, Somer Thompson, who disappeared recently.

And I wonder: What chance for survival does a child have in a society where ...

"...Beseler ... said police have questioned more than 70 registered sex offenders in the area, and that process was continuing. Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show 161 offenders live in a 5-mile radius of Somer's home."

I am sure that people who get their thrills out of exploiting and hurting children have always existed. I know from reading the literature of Imperial Rome that this horror infested their society, too.

So what to do? Kill them all -- the extreme conservative position? Lock them up forever? Work even harder to solve the social ills that breed this sort of person -- the liberal position?

One thing is certain. This cannot go on. We are doomed, flat out doomed to destruction if we don't do something. There is no doubt about it. No society can hope to survive in which its children can't walk a mile home from school without being snatched and killed. No society can survive in which parents must live in constant fear, never able to allow their children out of their sight. No society can survive in which people convicted of hurting children number not in the dozens, not in the hundreds, but in the thousands and perhaps even millions.

As children, not only my uncle, but my Mother, too, thought nothing just a few decades ago, of taking long hikes alone, of unsupervised camping trips, of exploring their world to the fullest.

As a child, so did I.

Today's child will never know such joy. Today's child is no better off than some Ice Age youngster, who had enemy tribesmen, slave raiders and wild beasts ever lurking beyond the edge of the village. Today's child is perhaps even worse off, because their enemies live within his or her own village.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Got the shot

I put my money where my mouth is, so to speak today.

I am annoyed by all the fear-mongers who keep telling everybody the swine flu vaccine hasn't been tested enough. The flu, any flu, is a far greater threat, to more people, than this vaccine could ever hope to be. Tens of thousands of people die every year from the flu -- do you want to be the carrier, even if you survive, who gives a fatal case of it to someone you love?

Get the shot, people. Let us please not have 1918 all over again. I'm a needle phobe and I did it. It is worth it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

One man's conception of Constantine -- Frank Slaughter

I wonder what the buzz was in the literary world in 1967, when the late Frank Slaughter, a Florida physician and author, published the first in what was to be his series on notables in Christian history.

Of course, I was not yet born. I have come to the party a few decades late. My secondhand copy of his book on Constantine the Great has been well worn since it rolled off the press -- who knows how many hands it has been through -- its pages are yellowed and its cheap paperback binding is failing.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this book, this week. Mr. Slaughter wrote more than 60books in his lifetime. This is the first that I have read. He digs deeply into his subject -- and you have to admire a writer who would dare to take on the excruciatingly complex politics and society of 4th Century Rome, as the Eternal City had its crown wrenched away by Byzantium in the east and the old gods lost out to Christianity.

But I fear that I will have no one to talk with about the book. It's 42 years old, the author has passed away and he never seems to have become a household name.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Time is a river, sea-bound as all rivers are
A deep, dark current that fain would drown
Our bright birthright, Wordsworth’s star.

Helpless – we are dust caught in its course
We ponder where once we were
But can’t go back: the die is cast, the script rehearsed.

Can only remember, can only feel
And the pain of the memory
Is sometimes the only proof that it was ever
Truly real.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Feels So Good!

It is indeed possible to turn a weakness into a strength.

Fighting with all my might against the default of my ADHD, I am slowly winning the battle to become organized. It has taken a lifetime. It will never be a job I can declare complete.

Only someone who has been where I have been, could fully understand the sweet satisfaction of being able to open a cabinet, open a file and in less than two minutes, produce upon request an obscure but critical piece of information needed by our budget department for the annual audit.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Get to the point!

"Where are you located?" the Lady asked me on the phone this morning.

I proceeded to give Her detailed directions to our School Administrative office, right down to the 7-11 on the corner beside us.

She listened matter-of-factly.

Then proceeded to tell me She was located in Wilson County and was receiving our automated calls to parents.

"So, you have no connection to our system and wish to have your number removed," I said.

Chuckling on the other end of the line.


Lady, five minutes of my time and yours could have been saved if you had just made your request clear from the beginning!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Beefcakes and weasels

I read an article long ago which suggested that there are only two kinds of people in the world, a classification that becomes evident in high school: people who prize brawn and people who prize brain. (Note, prizing of something does not automatically indicate possession of it.)

The article went on to explain how long after the jocks have left their football field and the brainy/creative/artistic types have given up their soul patches and sired children, we still identify with those who fit whatever group we fell into in high school.

Gross generalizations are dangerous.

Sure, I myself prized brain over brawn in high school. Sure, I don't tend even today to enjoy the company of chest-thumping, butt-smacking NFL fanatics -- but neither do I go to froo-froo art gallery openings or Star Trek conventions. Couldn't tell you the difference between Kant and Kerouack to save my life.

And I just read this week in Parade Magazine a wonderful article about beefcake Matt Damon and his international humanitarian efforts and came away thinking, man, if I was a beer drinker, I'd love to sit down and have one with that guy. Heck, I'd go sit in the bleachers at some ball game with him just to be close to his awesomeness.

Here's another blog-post about the article:

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ig-Nobel Peace Prize: the death of a great idea

Today it finally hit me:

Whilst the Nobel Prizes in medicine and other fields, are honorable and generally deserved, the Nobel Peace Prize itself, being actually administered by an entirely different body of judges -- a handful of secret folk from one little country in Europe on Planet Earth -- no longer means anything.

It now bears all the grandeur for thinking folk of an award from, PETA, the NRA, the Moral Majority or a committee of delinquent kids in your local middle school. It is purely and completely in the hands of determined leftists, a sham, a mockery of the grand idea that it once was. As such, without some attempt to broaden the judging pool, it no longer deserves respect.

I began to understand this when Jimmy Carter won the last time and it was made quite clear that he received the award as a poke in the eye of the-then president of the U.S.

I don't like Jimmy Carter. I hate his politics, his disaster of a presidency and his recent generalizations. BUT, even so, I can recognize that he is a hard-working man who has labored for decades in the cause of peace. I could understand the case for Carter getting the Award.

But Obama?

Has Obama ever confronted a dictator? No, he shakes their hands.

Has he ever promoted democracy? No,he is doing his best to ensure that it dies in Honduras.

Where was he three years ago? In a gulag? Under house arrest in Burma? Confronting the People's Liberation Army in China? Hardly.

Maybe Obama will eventually do wonderful things in the world. But even some of his strongest supporters concede that this designation was a little too early given.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wise Words

"The urge to save humanity is always a false front for the urge to rule it." -American writer H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

Friday, October 2, 2009


Bang. Bang.

I heard the sound from my study room late last night. Maybe firecrackers. Or just some fool firing off his gun in a backyard.

But then the sounds were followed immediately by the yelp of a dog in pain.

Shots again.

I left my book on the floor, jammed on a shirt and ran outside. Slipped around the side of my house in the dark, heart pounding, trying to figure out what had just happened, without being spotted.

Saw nothing. Nothing but an old white car near the intersection in front of my house that may have had nothing to do with the situation.

Heard nothing. Nothing but a slight rustling from the darkness a house or two over by the treeline. Might have been someone walking, might have been a possum creeping along.

For the first time in my life, I called 911. Told them I thought I had heard a dog being shot.

Don't know if it was one of our trashy neighbors or some outsider, like the child-of-hell demon-spawn scumbag who once threw a dog out of his car in the street in front of our house -- a dog whom we took in and loved, sweet little thing, til the day he died.

So 911 asked me if I had seen anyone or any vehicles in the neighborhood. I told them what I remembered.

To their credit, two police cars were in the neighborhood within a few minutes. I don't know if they discovered anything. They drove up and down and then drove away.

By dawn's early light, our neighborhood appears quiet and seemingly deserted. People have hauled their recycling to the curb.

But something happened here last night. Something terrible was done.


Note to the world: If you are going to drop the 10 bucks or whatever it costs these days for a vanity plate on your car, maybe you should pick a combination of letters that actually means something.

Unless of course you get the giggles just from riding around making people wonder what the &^&% your secret acronym means.

Or maybe I'm just really stupid and everybody else in the world but me can solve this riddle.

Maybe it's a line from some movie I missed.

Maybe it's Yiddish.

Maybe it's Martian.

Well, happy YD SPRZL to you too, buddy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mean People Suck

Mean People Suck.

That used to be a bumper sticker you'd see around.

So true.

I detest the Simon-Cowellization of our culture. Suddenly, everybody thinks they are entitled to be a critic and to rip up other people at every possible occasion.

Go on Youtube sometime and observe the downright vicious comments people post on videos of anybody attempting to do anything creative. Most disturbing is when the putrid vitriol is directed against children.

The sort of boorish nastiness that used to be the provenance of comedy club hecklers, has now infected our entire society.

I tried to watch America's Got Talent one night. I couldn't stand it -- not because some of the performers were awful (and some indeed were!) but because of the way they were hooted and hollered and virtually chased from the stage.

Back in the day when society had a little more class, back before we handed over the job of evaluating talent to the mindless mob, things were done differently. The judges don't tell a Miss America contestant that Her butt is too bony and Her singing voice sounds like an angry alleycat trapped in a garbage can. They give Her a performance number, no more, no less.

There is a time and a place for criticism -- constructive criticism that helps a performer improve. Such criticism includes basic steps, the advice of true experts, such as "you need to sing more from your chest, not your nose." Such advice does not include Kindergarten-level insults or the suggestion that the would-be performer go away somewhere and kill themselves for the good of society.

I fear that people today do not grasp this concept.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A conversation

"Whatcha readin'?" She asked,kicking off Her sneakers and settling onto the chair across the room from me.

I tried in as simple and brief a manner as possible to explain that the book was about the "invention" of time. The concept of hours, minutes, etc.

She nodded, maybe caring, maybe not.

I read on for a few more minutes. Then I put the book away. I remembered what I had realized long ago -- every person is a story and while I could read my paper and ink book any time, far more precious is the story that one draws out from a living, breathing person in your presence.

It takes more work, granted. You have to actually listen. Come up with questions.

Already this evening I had had an unexpected, lengthy, but enjoyable conversation with a man I know as a colleague and acquaintance. Now, I thought, why not do the same with this almost-teen whom I know as an acquaintance at my church? We were both stuck in this room waiting on family members to finish with meetings.

She opened up unto me Her seventh grade world -- a world of teachers gruff and kind, of constant social jockeying, and of those notorious mean Girls that mystify guys like me who with all our might and mind want to believe that Girls just can't be like that.

"I'm not scared of 'em," She said. "If they hit me, I hit back. It's just a reflex. If they spread a rumor about me, I confront 'em."

"My Mom says, 'You won't get in trouble with me if you come home suspended for fighting -- if you didn't start it.'"

How quickly we forget, how hard it is to be a child!

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Can O' Beans

Two days before payday. So ... a can of pork and beans for lunch. The pork is but a vain hope in a heap of beans. How do they get away with that lie, year after year? There's so little pork in that tin can, it could almost pass a Kosher inspection.

Contemplating the bean can, thinking about the inherent humor in such a simple thing.

Imagine a hiker moseying into his campsite, tossing down his pack and pitching his tent. Meanwhile, a furry paw reaches from a bush and borrows the pack for a moment, then tosses it back. Camper fails to notice. Camper sits on a rock and extricates from the pack a can of beans. Reaches in again for the can opener. No can opener.

Goes berserk. Dumps out the pack. Searches the campsite. Then makes several attempts to open the can, using a fork, a stick, a rock, a hammer, etc.

Finally gives up in a rage and throws the can against a tree. It of course bounces back and knocks him out cold.

At which point we see a very dignified bear stride into the campsite and say:

"Man, I thought he would NEVER give up."

The bear then picks up the can of beans and calmly opens it with the can opener that he borrowed earlier from the camper's pack. Then sits on the rock and enjoys his meal.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Swimming for the children of Angola

My so-called geography project has two goals: One, to help me (and via this blog, all you wonderful readers) learn, month by month and country by country, about the many peoples of this world. Two, as I learn of a country and its peoples, it will become no longer just a word on a map, a geographic stranger, but rather, a friend.

So when I read this blip about an Illinois pastor swimming the English Channel on behalf of a school in Angola, it meant a little something to me, because Angola means a little something to me,now.

September 20, 2009
Illinois Pastor Swims English Channel for Charity
Filed at 7:28 p.m. ET

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) -- Twenty-one miles and nearly 14 hours later, a northern Illinois pastor has fulfilled his goal of swimming the English Channel to raise money for a school in Africa.

It took the Rev. Mike Solberg 13 hours and 31 minutes to swim from Samphire Hoe, England, to Wissant, France, on Saturday.

Solberg is senior pastor of Second Congregational Church in Rockford.

His goal is to raise $50,000 to build a school in Waku Kungo, Angola. So far, he's raised more than $30,000.

Solberg wrote on his blog after his swim that the first five hours were good, followed by four hours that were not.

Overall, he says, ''it was a great experience.''


On the Net:


Information from: Rockford Register Star,

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Benin, Africa, is my geographic contemplation for September. History is layered deeply upon this tiny wedge of a country on Africa's west coast. Its capital, Porto Novo, was built in the 1600s by the Portugese as a slave port -- one of the wounds, then, through which Africa bled her people into the world.

It is to Benin that many emancipated slaves, especially from Brazil, later returned -- adding the flavor of Brazil to an African country whose official language is French.

Porto Novo is not a big city, as cities go -- has about 200,000 people. It would be a thrill, though, to turn on my t.v. and see this place featured, instead of yet another cliched re-tread of London or Rome. For every city in the world is unique; it centralizes and embodies the zeitgeist of a nation.

I found some tasty-sounding Benin recipes to enjoy this month.

Africa has problems -- but can you find any continent without them? Maybe Antarctica, but hey, it's melting.

Egypt, Madagascar, Morocco, South Africa, Ethiopia ... and Benin. Vastly different places, a scattering of geography, a handful of names out of so many on the map. And exquisite refutation of the notion that Africa fits a stereotype.

Of sinks and smart folk

Fixed the leaky "stem" in the kitchen faucet this morning, with just a little help from my Time Life Fix-It guide.

Feeling quite proud of myself.

Here's someone else who should feel proud: (My thoughts, besides being amazed at this man's stamina, are that his emphasis, "specializing in the works of Chuangtze, a 4th century B.C. Taoist master," should remind us that human genius is not limited in space and time to New York, London, Athens and Rome. That philosophy is more than Sartre and Plato.


96-year-old grad student’s secret? All-nighters
Taiwan man says method is only way to keep up with younger classmates

Chao Mu-he, 96, will receive his Masters degree in philosophy in Nanhua, southern Taiwan, this weekend. He says he's uncertain about his future plans, but that he just wants "to stay healthy."

TAIPEI, Taiwan - A 96-year-old Taiwanese man who will receive his master's degree in philosophy this weekend said he was able to compete with younger students by pulling all-nighters before exams.

Chao Mu-he, better known to his classmates at Nanhua University in southern Taiwan as "Grandpa Chao," said he began graduate school after being told he was too old to continue as a volunteer at a local hospital.

"I was bored after I left the hospital," Chao said Thursday. "I don't play mahjong or have other hobbies. I felt I had to do something with my life."

A spokeswoman for Guinness World Records said she could not say if Chao is the oldest recipient of a graduate degree because the company does not keep records in this category.

Memory lapses
Chao said the most difficult part of his studies was coping with a poor memory.

"I can't remember things as well as my fellow students," he said. "So before a test I would wake up at midnight and study all night. That way, the material was still fresh in my mind when the test began."

He specialized in the works of Chuangtze, a 4th century B.C. Taoist master.

Twenty-five-year-old classmate Liang Yu-chen described Chao as a polite and modest man who got on well with fellow students and paid great respect to younger teachers — making a deep bow before addressing them.

"Grandpa Chao is a living example of Chuangtze's teachings," Liang said. "He is always at ease, not fighting anyone."

Just wants ‘to stay healthy’
A spokeswoman at Nanhua's graduate school, where Chao will get his degree Saturday, confirmed that he was born on July 4, 1912.

Chao, who lives alone, said he was uncertain about his future plans.

"I just want to stay healthy," he said.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Random thoughts

Need to visit Molly, Chase and my other neglected blog friends -- and take off the blogrolls others from whom I've drifted away.

Need to start blogging daily again -- SO MUCH to write about, all the time, that it just seems overwhelming. And I hate the way Facebook forces me to limit my thoughts to one or two measly paragraphs, wrtng lke a txtng teenagr.

Listened to Vivaldi on the way in to work -- I simply love Baroque music. If it wasn't a time of such filth and cruelty, I might have liked to live back then. How did such gorgeous music arise in such a dungheap of a society?

Noted that one Fabio Biondi recorded this particular CD of Vivaldi. Looked up his name online. Fascinated by a line in his bio, "driven early on by an inexhaustible cultural curiosity ..." My kind of guy! Not that I care much about guys. But you Ladies might enjoy his baby blues glowing at You from

Weekend is on the way -- a palette of possibilities!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The cure for common education?

Could the idea with the funny name -- Waldorf -- be it?

Could this be the cure for that which is wrong with education in the U.S. -- schools in which the students feel and act as if they are in prison -- teachers who dare not leave a coffee cup unguarded lest the inma -- er, students -- defile or poison it -- and learning that is as ephemereal and elusive as a rainbow?

Meanwhile, I am told that children in Africa walk for miles to sit on a dirt floor in a boiling-hot, tin-roof shack with the barest of supplies, so hungry are they to learn.

I am intrigued by a public school concept in which love of learning is intrinsic to the curriculum, in which personal character is integral, in which a foundation is laid for a lifetime love of intellectual development and in which the classroom connects to the real world.

I myself love to learn. I read hard books, old books. I watch documentaries on everything from World War II to the bulldog ants of Australia. I enjoy participating in the great pageant of life.

I'm no prodigy, no genius, by any stretch of the imagination. I am not a know-it-all, either, I am a want-to-know-it-all. God gave you and I our brains for a reason. It is natural to want to learn -- watch a toddler exploring his or Her world sometime and you can't help but realize that.

So what happens? They go to school. They encounter bullies, boors and boredom. They discover that learning is not cool and playing down their natural intelligence is the way to survive socially. What should be a thrill -- classic literature, mathematics, the history of the world -- is made into a chore and becomes loathsome -- left behind gratefully upon graduation.

Whatever person, philosophy or organization kills the desire to learn, blights a human life and threatens civilization.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sis in Law to marry

Such wonderful news!

Alone for so long, now to be married.

When I first met Her, my future Sister-in-law was a very unhappy Woman. Anyone could see that She was beautiful, though She battled a weight problem. As I got to know Her, I became quite aware that though She had the famous temper common to the Ladies of Her family (surprising, fierce and sudden, like a summer storm), She also had Their great big, golden hearts.

She was alone.

She of course was an enthusiastic part of Her Sister's wedding to me, but it had to have hurt, to go home alone that night.

Now we have met the wonderful man from the Bahamas, who has captured Her heart and She, his.

In delightful Caribbean fashion, the family patriarch will be forever-more addressed as "Dohd," as opposed to "Dad." We will learn a new culture as we bring this beautiful man into our Southern-fried family.

And we will celebrate that two have become one, now and forever.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Morning Cyber Journey

I tore open the foil-paper packet and inhaled the spicy, familiar fragrance of McCormick's taco-seasoning mix. Is there anyone in America for whom tacos are not a happy, comfort food?

I don't eat tacos in the morning, typically. This was preparation for a church event tonight.

While the beef and seasoning were bubbling together on the stove, I took a cyber journey. Tracked down Hunt Valley Maryland in my atlas, from whence came my savory packet -- just a stone's throw from I-83. Meaning I passed by it the last time I drove down from Pennsylvania.

Then I found the McCormick website and browsed the history of this venerable company, started by Willoughby McCormick in a Baltimore basement in 1889. The quintessential American success story.

I liked the details on the company's C-Day charity ideas and its support for reading, and of course, its efforts to research the health benefits of spices.I signed up on its site for coupons and recipes.

Later, I found a column of Baltimore nostalgia, including the tale of the demolition of McCormick's landmark plant in the city. Surely that was a painful day for the city, economically and otherwise. The column is at:

The company's hq is now in Hunt Valley, as I mentioned, and is apparently a peculiar juxtaposition of bland corporate architecture and delightful fragrances scenting the air.

Next time I'm up that way, I am going to see if I can drop by.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Idiots don't write comedy

Sure, two guys kicking each other in the butt is funny for most people ... for about two or three seconds. Anybody could write a script for that.

But real comedy, the kind of stuff that people will still find to be funny decades, even centuries later -- think the best of Aristophanes or Shakespeare -- is the fruit of genius.

So don't be surprised that the author of this fascinating article below is the same fellow who brought you Monty Python:

"I was a history teacher for ten years and I enjoyed it very much indeed. But today's educational trends, which focus on specific metrics of accountability, represent a fundamental change in mind-set that demands some pretty astounding creativity on the teacher's part.

I've been interested in what makes people creative ever since I started writing forty years ago. My first discovery was that I would frequently go to bed with a problem unsolved, and then find in the morning not only that the solution had mysteriously arrived, but that I couldn't quite remember what the problem had been in the first place. Very strange.

Then I came across research done at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s by Donald W. MacKinnon. He had examined what made people creative, and he found that the professionals rated "most creative" by their colleagues displayed two characteristics: They had a greater facility for play, meaning they would contemplate and play with a problem out of real curiosity, not because they had to, and they were prepared to ponder the problem for much longer before resolving it. The more creative professionals had a "childish capacity" for play -- childish in the sense of the total, timeless absorption that children achieve when they're intrigued."

More at:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

More reasons why turtles are cool ..

More reasons why turtles are good neighbors...

...and why people who poach or run them over ought to be drop-kicked off the planet:

We already knew that sea turtles are a primary predator of poison jellyfish.

But did you know that having a freshwater turtle in your local pond is more effective against the mosquito population than frogs, birds or even bats?

From somewhere on line:

"In a community in Honduras, each cement water-storage tank received a single 6-12 month old turtle. Turtles did well in the tanks and provided complete control of mosquito larvae (Marten et al. 1992, Borjas et al. 1993). In the USA, turtles were introduced into an experimental enclosure of a roadside ditch in Louisiana, for control of Culex larvae (Marten 2007). The investigator reported that the turtles reduced the number of larvae by 99% by the 5th week of the study.

The need for supplemental feeding and the ability of turtles to move away from the area are two potential issues. The researcher suggests that turtles might be useful in isolated water bodies such as retention ponds where the turtles would have little motivation to leave and supplemental food could be provided if necessary."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In forest gardens ...


Botanists have discovered that the origin of Tahitian vanilla (Vanilla tahitensis), an orchid that when pollinated yields the most delectable vanilla bean on the planet, actually had its origins in the Mayan forests of Mexico and Guatemala. What’s interesting about this finding is that the Tahitian vanilla orchid is found only in cultivation and not in the wild.

Using DNA and ethno-historic analysis, Pesach Lubinsky, a postdoctoral researcher and Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics in UC Riverside's Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, appear to have traced Tahitian vanilla back to its evolutionary beginning as a pre-Columbian Maya cultivar. Modern day Tahitian vanilla appears to be a hybrid between V. planifolia, a species cultivated for commercial vanilla that is primarily grown in Madagascar and Indonesia, and the never cultivated V. odorata both of which grow in the tropical forests of Central America.

The research team theorized that the Mayan people created forest gardens and introduced different types of species including wild cacao and vanilla from the surrounding region. Species that had previously been geographically separated were then able to hybridize simply because they were in the same location. Eventually French sailors introduced vanilla to Tahiti from cuttings of plants growing in the Philippines that had arrived there via the Spanish trading ships that sailed between Manila and Acapulco, Mexico.

Once again, we are reminded that much of the pre-Columbus American continent was not the empty savage, howling wilderness that European settlers imagined it to be, but a rich, productive environment, indeed shaped by the hand of man but in which both man and wild things could co-exist -- a vast garden.

What have we done in our paltry 500 years of ownership?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

By the dark of night ...

Through the gloom of the evening I plodded along, pushing my wheelbarrow loaded high with black plastic bags.

I passed two neighbors out for a walk. I bid them a cheery good evening. They mumbled some response and kept going.

I can't blame them. Who pushes a wheelbarrow around the neighborhood in the middle of the night -- well, at least, late in the evening?

It was the only time I had available, to retrieve the sacks of lawn clippings and shredded leaves from my father-in-law's yard that will make fine mulch for my garden.

If I ever get a moment to pull up the weeds, that is. Might have to start doing that by moonlight as well.

Fifteen more years til I can retire.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Taking my name in vain?

If you miss a keystroke when attempting to visit Isis, if you type, you reach some kind of Christian merchandising site. Weird. Well, at least it's not porn.

I guess I should be flattered. Well, there are a few delightful people who visit here regularly but I highly doubt that enough folk are beating down my blog-door, eagerly whacking out the keystrokes and missing that little "s," to make that sneaky trick profitable.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cosmic consummation

I read in the paper the other day that scientists have actually found definite traces of one of the basic amino acids of life on a comet, bolstering the theory that those celestial bodies could be carriers of life through the cosmos.

Does anybody else find it fascinating to think of a comet, long tail trailing behind it, colliding in space with the great beautiful sphere of a planet and the combination of the two bringing forth new life?

Does anybody else see the connection with how life begins in our own understanding?


Still hooked on Facebook -- Blogger gets neglected.

Updates ... made fig jam this month, from the fruit on our tree .. and an apple pie last night, from our McIntosh apples ... still reading good books, planning a trip out West ... not much else to write.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

No place is safe

No place is safe anymore, not a school, not an office building, not even a fitness center in Pennsylvania, from the ravages of people with diseased souls.

There is nowhere to go,nowhere to hide, no way to predict whether your building will be the next one targeted.

Miserable people killing only themselves has gone out of vogue; now people must kill complete strangers along the way, to inflict upon others the pain that tortured them.

Seems that all we can do is to make sure that each day when we leave our homes, we kiss and hug our loved ones and tell them that we love them; that we savor each day and never take a moment for granted; that we live without regrets and hide nothing in our closets that we might not have time to come back and clean up.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Twitter world

I do not twitter. Yet. Then again, ten years ago I had never surfed the Web. Five years ago I had never blogged. Two years ago I had no idea what Facebook was. In time, I probably will twitter.

In the meantime, those of you who are tech-savvy and/or own small businesses, might find this article of interest:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

All your books are belonging to us

The following column exposes a terrifying possibility with that trendy innovation, the ebook, as typified by Amazon's Kindle. Such books have "digital strings" that can yank them away from you.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Threaten a dog with a stick and he will do one of two things: Attack you or cower/flee.

Lay a slab of meat in front of him and if he is not sick, he will invariably eat it.

Present him a female in heat and he will invariably mate.

Such behavior is necessary for the survival of the beast and his species.

He does not care about the consequences of biting the man with the stick -- that it could get him shot, for example, or land his owner in trouble.

He does not count the calories in the meat or measure his body fat index before indulging.

He does not ask his would-be mate about her past s$x partners or consider how he will support the possible puppies financially.

For the beasts, such questions are unnecessary. Aggression must be responded to in kind; turning the other cheek gains no advantage in the jungle. In nature, food is rarely over-abundant. Most creatures are lucky to live long enough to reproduce and to hesitate or demur is to risk having your genes die with you.

What of man?

We have eliminated or pushed back many of nature's boundaries and yet we still grapple with the internal beast.

Some of the world's most miserable people seem to be those who have triumphed over those natural limitations but not their own minds.

I submit that self-control is what leads to peace of mind, is evidence of true strength. How pitiful the person who flares up in rage at every provocation -- he is a slave, his emotions are at the mercy of anyone who pokes at him. How pathetic the glutton or the addict, ever craving.

The ideal: To be a man or Woman of temperance, who enjoys a life of positive emotions regardless of circumstances. He or She is in constant control, impervious to negative influence.

What are you feeding your pet?

I just learned about this controversy today. If you have a pet, you should do your own research. Apparently, some big name pet foods on the market may contain the processed carcasses of diseased animals, roadkill, even euthanized animal carcasses from shelters still containing the drugs used to put them to sleep.,8599,1607483,00.html

Monday, July 13, 2009

Peachy shortcut?

Sweetie and I bought some Carolina peaches from the farmer's market the other day -- so tangy and delicious -- and I discovered that the one I had for lunch today had a split pit.

In the peach business, that is apparently a defect.

But I am curious. It looks ready to sprout. I wonder if that means I can short cut the whole "bag it in moist dirt, refrigerate three weeks and plant it in the fall" thing.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Flat Earth

Ever wonder why the old Christian church fought so hard against the concept of a round earth?

It's a tragedy, because it was a fight that never had to happen, based on ideas that had no basis in the Bible.

Many people in antiquity actually believed that the Earth was round and bounded by a wall of fire near the Equator. Beyond that impassible wall was a portion of Earth called the Anti-podes. Some of the ancients believed that people lived there, on its bottom half, hanging upside down. To their credit, some of the medieval Christians scoffed at such a bizzare idea. However, they threw the baby out with the bath water. No topsy-turvy people down there -- no people at all, no people possible, because they could not be sons of Adam living trapped behind that wall of fire, beyond the reach of the gospel.

Rather than dump the idea of a ring of fire, which had no basis in scripture, they trashed the idea of a round Earth instead, which scripture doesn't preclude.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Amazon Mystery and Soil Appreciation

Today is Soil Appreciation Day, with a focus on one very special type:

Deep in the Amazon jungle lie layers of thick, rich soil, dubbed "terra preta," and they abound in mystery.

They are not a natural phenomena. The natural Amazon soil is poor and quickly stripped of nutrients when farmers cultivate it.

The experts are quite sure that terra preta is man-made -- and it is amazing stuff. A thousand years after first being laid down, five hundred years after its creators were exterminated by European weapons and disease, taking the secret of its formulation with them to the grave, this soil is still incredibly rich.

Some people believe that terra preta once enabled a population of millions to inhabit the jungle region, living far more in harmony with the environment than the settlers who replaced them.

Their destruction disgusts me. What a holocaust of humanity and wanton obliteration of wisdom it was! I wonder what other secrets of knowledge perished with them. But careful research is underway to unlock the terra preta formula, which could be a blessing all over the world, just as are the Native American gifts of corn, tomatoes, chocolate, avocadoes, chili peppers, allspice, vanilla, sunflowers, turkeys, chinchilla, quinine, llamas and potatoes.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

In praise of pencils

I declare today National Pencil Appreciation Day.

Do you realize how long humanity has struggled to find the perfect writing implement?

For permanent scribbling, chisels and stone, wax tablet and stylus, feather quills and parchment were all we had since the dawn of time. Writers endured the flaws of all these tools until the typewriter, then the computer keyboard, finally liberated them.

But we have long had, and perhaps always shall have, the humble pencil. An elegant sandwich of wood and graphite-clay, it offers its little round head without complaint to scrub out errors.

I love a good, sharp pencil with no mutilation of the eraser. Always have. I never use the eraser -- I buy one of those little rectangular ones and leave the pencil top alone. It's nerdy. So be it.

I don't chew my pencils, either. I cringe when others attack the poor defenseless thing like some kind of overgrown beavers ... but there was that time, back in eighth grade, when beautiful Brandi borrowed my pencil and it spent the rest of history class alternating between Her fingers and Her lovely lips and sharp, pretty teeth, and that once, I didn't mind at all.

Somebody, I have read, sells cleverly fashioned "pre-chewed" pencils these days, to discourage nibblers.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Celebrating the Avocado

Life should be about celebration, of all that is good. The Creator gave us eyes,ears, fingers, noses and brains for a reason.

I declare today, July 7, Avocado Appreciation Day.

This weird but tasty fruit is another gift from the New World, like tomatoes and chocolate. Doesn't taste anything like a fruit. Not tart. Not sweet. Not juicy.

You either love it or you hate it. And guacamole, its most typical performance, is, like chili, something you enjoy with the tastebuds, not the eyes. Think too hard about what the green goop looks like, or ask a ten year old boy for ideas, and you probably won't finish your serving.

Don't look up the etymology of the word "avocado," either, if you are of a Puritan mindset.

You looked it up, didn't you? Serves you right.

Avocadoes are a reminder that God has a sense of humor or perhaps that He/She got a little bored with making fruits that were all basically variations on one theme.

Monday, July 6, 2009


My blogfriend Kat's healthy, well-informed attitude towards snakes is an inspiration to me. She knows to watch out for them, but She doesn't panic at the sight of them nor seek to kill them.

Lately my state seems to be racked with snake-a-phobia. I overheard someone at a meeting last week express relief that another friend had run over a snake in their neighborhood. My nephew-in-law,who does maintenance work at an apartment, told me with great exaggerated gestures the other day, about how he had deliberately run over a "big copperhead snake" with his riding mower and "chopped it all up."

When I conjectured that perhaps what he saw might have been a harmless black snake, gestures of annoyance were sent my way and insistence that indeed, it was a copperhead.

Now I know that copperheads and water mocassins do live in my area. I also know that they don't seek out people and are part of a snake population that also includes serpents of a non-venomous nature. I have hiked the swamps and hills of my surrounding woodlands for more than ten years and failed to see a single snake, whether venomous or non. In other words, we are hardly in peril.

And I really get annoyed with people who kill a harmless, even beneficial creature, just because it is a snake.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Faux Cicero

"A bureaucrat is the most despicable of men, though he is needed as vultures are needed, but one hardly admires vultures whom bureaucrats so strangely resemble. I have yet to meet a bureaucrat who was not petty, dull, almost witless, crafty or stupid, an oppressor or a thief, a holder of little authority in which he delights, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog. Who can trust such creatures?"

We all nod our heads, remembering the last time we encountered some office zombie with ink-stained fingers ...

This pithy quote appeared in a letter to the editor of my local paper recently and I cut it out and was going to file it, as its authorship was attributed to the ancient luminary Marcus Tullius Cicero. (106-43 B.C.)

Alas, credit for the paragraph goes not to the old philosopher but to one Taylor Caldwell, who in 1965 wrote a novel,A Pillar of Iron,based on the life of Cicero, and put those words into his mouth.

Unfortunately, like so many hoaxes that began innocently enough, this faux quote will probably make the rounds forever and a day, incessantly being applied to a man who lived centuries before the Roman bureaucrat was even invented.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My first meme

After politely putting off doing one of these meme things forever, I have finally succumbed, to the lure of the Lone Grey Squirrel. So,here it is: I will compel no one else to follow but feel free to do so of your own free will.

1. I Will Always Love You – the Dolly Parton original.
Dolly’s voice could induce global warming on Pluto.

2. All Love Can Be – Charlotte Church.
Another Woman with an angel’s voice.

3. Concrete Angel – Martina McBride
An achingly powerful indictment of child abus and those who abet it by looking the other way. If this song didn’t put a lump in your throat the first time you heard it, you might check your pulse.

4. Werewolves of London – Warren Zevon
Hey, not every one of my favorite songs is serious and/or sung by a Woman!

5. Jesu, the Very Thought is Sweet -- Bernard of Clairvaux
A sweet, elegant, simple hymn.

1. A Beautiful Mind
Powerful. Poignant. Leaves you wth a new perspective on dealing with mental illness.

2. Grease
It’s a stupid movie. The moral is deplorable, as well: Take up smoking and dress like white trash to catch a man. But I saw it when I was seven and it wrapped certain tendrils around my personality that I cannot escape. A guilty pleasure.

4. Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Soooh funny! John Candy earned his place in heaven with this classic comedy– and if you don’t cry at the ending, once again, you are probably dead.

5. Cinema Paradisio.
An old foreign film, a bout a boy and an old man and their unlikely friendship. Saw it in college and its sweet memory lingers in my heart.

1. Charlotte’s Web: One of the first books I ever remember reading. How I loved sweet, gentle Fern, goofy Wilbur and of course, Charlotte.

2. Lucretius: On the Nature of Things. A surprisingly good read for such an old book. Probes into the nature of the universe, from the mindset of a brilliant Roman of the first century of our era.

3. The Collier’s Encyclopedia. I get teased for reading this, but I have found fascinating details of history, biography and world culture in its pages that I would never have otherwise learned.

4. The Egyptian Book of Breathings and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Two ancient books that remind us how long humanity has hoped for immortality – and which express that hope in beautiful prose.

5. The Hardy Boys series. I had to include these because I read about 170 of them as a kid and if I have developed any vocabulary beyond the level of Homer Simpson, these books are the reason why.

1. Laura Ingalls Wilder, aka Melissa Gilbert. I loved that spunky little pioneer in my earliest childhood and vowed to marry Her, long before I was old enough to understand that the original pioneer was dead and the actress who played Her was not likely to show up at my school or accept my proposal.

2. Audrey Hepburn: What is not to love about this enchanting, playful, elegant Goddess of a Woman? She was a Star who never let us down.

3. Daisy Duke. Yeah, I was a typical young man of that era who greatly appreciated Her, umm, taste in dress.

4. Andrea Parker. From the Pretender television series. Beautiful but tough as nails on the outside – not hard to imagine Her bringing you down with a boot to the groin and then grinding out Her cigarette on your face – but if you watched the show long enough, you glimpsed the real Woman behind the fa├žade – a Woman who actually did have a heart.

5. Oliva Newton John. See Grease, above. A beautiful Woman. Even in trashy spandex smoking an ugly corktip.

1. Wildflowers.
2. Foods I have never tried before.
3. Swimming in real water (i.e., rivers and creeks, not chlorinated pools.)
4. Toads and hedgehogs.
5. Interesting people.

Monday, June 22, 2009

And you thought being a teenager was tough in your part of the world?

From Wikipedia:

The Satere-Mawe people of Brazil use intentional bullet ant stings as part of their initiation rites to become a warrior. The ants are first rendered unconscious by submerging them in a natural chloroform, and then hundreds of them are woven into a glove made out of leaves (which resembles a large oven mitt), stinger facing inward. When the ants regain consciousness, a boy slips the glove onto his hand.

The goal of this initiation rite is to keep the glove on for a full ten minutes. When finished, the boy's hand and part of his arm are temporarily paralyzed because of the ant venom, and he may shake uncontrollably for days. The only "protection" provided is a coating of charcoal on the hands, supposedly to confuse the ants and inhibit their stinging. To fully complete the initiation, however, the boys must go through the ordeal a total of 20 times over the course of several months or even years.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Back in touch

If I could have just one wish ...

(and it couldn't be for more wishes, world peace, prosperity for all, an end to all misogyny or a picnic with God)

...I might wish to be able to re-contact anyone in the world I have ever met.

I would find that little Girl, all grown up now of course, of whom I made fun in second grade for Her drab lunch box. I would beg Her forgiveness.

I would find the bully who tormented me in third grade -- and have a nice conversation during the visiting hours at his penitentiary.

I would find Kekulani S., whose every molecule I worshipped in eighth grade, whose footstep in the dust I would certainly have kissed given half a chance back then, and ask Her forgiveness for having tried to steal Her hairbrush as a keepsake of my juvenile idolatry.

I would track down Lara S., whom I wanted to love in college but just couldn't force the spark and whom I had to let go when I fell in love with my Beloved -- I would meet Her lucky husband and shake his hand and tell him to always be good to Her.

And I would render grateful thanks to a number of people who have been good to me in my life.

I don't know why this has weighed upon my mind lately. I fear that I have been wasteful in my life with the precious gift of human interaction. It is not titles or stuff that matter as the years advance: it is the gold of human intimacy.

Last week I googled the address of an old boss, my first real boss. I wrote a letter to him. I still haven't sent it. I intend to do so this weekend.

Facebook has been good for this. I am now back in sporadic contact with Darlene Tsu, as my longtime blog readers know, and other friends of whom I thought I had lost track forever ... my old buddy Jim B. (the B. is not short for Beam); and Heather from high school, too; and possibly I will be able to track down my one-time best friend Lawrence.

Just today, I Facebook-searched a former mentee from a writing class I taught years ago -- and it was great to re-connect with this brilliant soul, who now lives in Italy, vowing never to lose touch again.

Of Days



Thursday, June 18, 2009

Garden Dreams

As I consider the lilies today ...

My yard needs so much work. I am rarely there, an absence not by choice.

I dream of colorful beds of flowers, a Thomas Kinkaide sort of fantasy. Reality is stubborn-as-hell wire grass everywhere and the never-ending struggle with Virginia's capricious weather.

I will be giving a clump of some very special daylilies to a relative this week, a unique cultivar that was given to me years ago by a couple who were passionate about hemerocallis.

Good gardeners are givers and thus they live on. In my little 1/4 acre, flowering almonds and apple trees were the gift of an old friend now lost in the fog of dementia. Fragrant thyme came to me from a friend who has now passed away. Honesty plant with its purple blooms and silvery seed disc, evokes the memory of my great Grandmother, who grew it out West -- my Great Grandmother who I have discovered this week was a player for Her turn-of-the-century high school Girls basketball team. Imagine that.

I will make room for lilies this month.

Reflections upon a Lily Show

I walked today amongst lilies
Of every size and color

I paused before a bloom of bold and brassy bronze
And then a bud barely there
demure and downcast

I almost wished to lift its petals
To face the sun again.

And then I realized as I drove away
This is metaphor for Woman
in all Her wonders
In the garden of our world.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A dimunitive beauty

When A.R. and I went hiking the other day, I was excited to find one of my old-time woodland neighbors in bloom. It only grows in two places that I know of in the entire forest behind my house. She wanted to pick it but I had to help Her understand that this flower is too scarce to do that.

The little beauty is called Chimaphila maculata (Spotted wintergreen.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Nature Walk

My little Niece-in-Law, A.R., showed up to Sunday dinner dressed beautifully, as always, in a dress and fancy shoes. I reminded Her that we had talked about a nature walk for the afternoon, so She got Her PaPa to drive Her home to change.

I am a firm believer that for a child to be pyschologically healthy, they need to have times where they learn the importance of being dressed up,clean and mannerly; and they also need times where they are out and about in the dirt and the mud, or learning how to use basic tools to take things apart; or just reveling in being alive. That goes one hundred percent for Girls as well as boys.

I had so looked forward to this nature walk, especially since acquiring Rachel Carson's book recently about helping children to maintain their sense of natural wonder.

I was very honored to be trusted, I a grown man, by myself with the safety and care of this little Girl. That is so rare of a parent these days, with very good reason. You may know, and I certainly know, that I would select the slowest and most painful death possible for myself rather than hurt a child in any possible way -- but a parent cannot read a caregiver's mind. Trust. It was all about trust.

So, finally, we meandered down into the woods. She was far too little to use my big walking stick, so we found Her one that was more Her size. I remembered what Carson wrote and just let A.R. explore and ask questions, rather than be subjected to a litany of botanical nomenclature.

I did point out and identify poison ivy and help her remember the tricks to identifying it: leaves of three; with smooth, not sawtoothed edges.

She found the skull of a raccoon or possum and insisted on bringing it home ... along with a handful of rocks, little freshwater clam shells and a sprig of wild ginger.

We reached the creek and She was a little reluctant to take Her shoes off and dip Her feet into the water -- but again remembering Carson, I knew that She needed that sensory experience. So I didn't press the issue. I dipped my toes in the water first and She eventually did the same.

I let Her clamber around on the creek boulders, ever poised to catch Her if She slipped, biting my tongue as She neared the edge where the water flows a little fast, doing my best to keep the difficult but necessary balance between over-protection and risk.

The hike wasn't all pleasant. She hit up at one point against a nasty branch of multiflora rose and it hurt -- but these experiences are needed, too, the development of woodland awareness -- one always watches where one's feet are going -- critical not just for avoiding thorns but also snakes and ankle-twisting loose rocks or holes.

She came home a little muddy, a little soppy, but full of excitement about Her day and the treasures that She had found. I hope we made some memories, the kind that I treasure from my own childhood.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A failure to help

I am a fast lane freeway driver.

Freeways are boring, especially when one is traversing the same one that one has traversed for decades.

So I do not dawdle.

There is a drawback to this, however. One, my view is invariably one of a long, grimy concrete jersey wall. The scenery two lanes over to my right is just a vague green blur.

Two, I like to help people. Just always have. Was raised that way. Going 70-ish on the freeway, by the time your eyes register someone on the side of the road hefting a spare tire and your brain beats down all the reasons that you shouldn't stop, you are a quarter mile ahead of said person and your chance to help is gone.

Today, I espied a young lady crouched in the most dangerous of places, on the freeway shoulder beside her driver's side tire, preparing to change a flat, or possibly already in the last stages of doing so.

Stop and help? A mere second or so of cudgeling my inner wimp into submission -- I'd be late for work, I might die, etc. -- and I was ready to be of assistance. But of course, I couldn't. I was too far left and too far ahead.

Nevertheless, I decided to turn around at the next exit and go back. I did, but She and the car were gone. She'd done the job just fine on Her own, which is entirely to be expected of a sensible Woman in the 21st Century.

I couldn't help but feel that my need for speed cost me this morning, the chance to dirty my hands but brighten a day.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Water Willow

I was so excited this Memorial Day when, down at a certain wetland with my Sweetie, I discovered Water Willow in bloom.I have searched for this plant for years, ever since first coming across it in a distant location where I have not seen it since.

It is of course not related to true willows, which don't have flowers like this. It's in the acanthus family, whose more typical members are thorny residents in dry areas. Acanthus leaves show up on a lot of ancient Greek art, for example.

The genus name for water willow, justicia, comes from James Justice, an 18th century Scottish botanist. I wonder if he choose it in a proud moment of discovery or whether it was homage paid by an admirer of his work. Things to research, things to research.

I trimmed off a stem and am now trying to root it in a bucket of water for eventual transplant into the bog garden that I hope to build someday in place of the crumbling deck in my backyard. I'm just not a sit-on-the-deck kind of guy.

Now I have a new quest: to find the only other representative of this family that is native to my area: the so-called wild petunia, ruellia spp. Once again, it is no relation to actual petunias, which are in the potent nightshade family.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Word of the Day

Adaw: Daunt or subdue: Comes from the Old English "of + dagum," literally "out of days."

"Daunt" sounds so sissy and foppish, like two dandies dueling. Far more true to our hairy, barbarian, Anglo-Saxon past is the grunted vow, "I shall adaw thee, thou vile curr, I shall end thy days like the dog thou art!"

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Glue traps

From sad experience, I have learned the following:

If you ever feel compelled to use a glue trap to catch mice or rats, and something gets caught on it that you didn't intend, such as a little bird -- can happen quite easily in a crawlspace or shed ...

Use vegetable oil to dissolve the glue and release the captive.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Nature's gamble

In the days when few people lived to see old age even in the best of circumstances, Mother Nature apparently took an evolutionary gamble -- in the hope that the new human being would survive long enough to at least pass along his genes.

In Africa, a mutated gene in some persons distorts the shape of the red blood cells. This, for reasons too lengthy to explain here, helps to protect such a person from malaria -- an ancient, rampant killer on that continent. We call that mutation sickle cell anemia and we also call it a disease, an awful, painful disease. But malaria kills much faster than sickle cell anemia.

Today, I have learned about another one of evolution's trade-offs.

From wikipedia:

"It has also been hypothesized that the cystic fibrosis genetic mutation has been maintained in humans due to a selective advantage: heterozygous carriers of the mutation (who are thus not affected by cystic fibrosis) are more resistant to V. cholerae infections.[19] In this model, the genetic deficiency in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator channel proteins interferes with bacteria binding to the gastrointestinal epithelium, thus reducing the effects of an infection."

Cholera kills much, much faster than cystic fibrosis.

It makes one wonder how many more of these trade-offs have been made, how many more of the autoimmune diseases have a hidden silver lining in their dark cloud.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Eating June Bugs

So I watched last night perhaps the best two "Bizzare Foods" episodes I have ever seen. Was an incredible reminder that one does not have to hike into the Burmese rain forest to encounter fascinating cultures and foods.

First in Maine, then in the Appalachians -- practically my back yard -- the narrator, Andrew Zimmern, cruised through lands of stunning beauty and antiquity. I really appreciated how he sought out and spent time in Cherokee country, talking about and sampling America's "original cuisine" -- such things as trout seasoned with sumac berries.

Ever craved eating a roasted June bug? I didn't before last night. Now I am very curious. They are described as having a rich, sweet,walnutty taste.

In doing a little more research on the subject, I found another great blog to enjoy:

Friday, May 1, 2009

Who ARE these people?

When droughts hit, I read officials who implore us not to wash our cars more than once a week.

I think I last washed mine a year ago.

Now this, from the New York Times:

"...Extrapolated to all Americans in the age group studied, the new findings suggest that over the course of a decade, the deaths of one million men and perhaps half a million women could be prevented just by eating less red and processed meats, according to estimates prepared by Dr. Barry Popkin, who wrote an editorial accompanying the report.

"To prevent premature deaths related to red and processed meats, Dr. Popkin suggested in an interview that people should eat a hamburger only once or twice a week instead of every day, a small steak once a week instead of every other day, and a hot dog every month and a half instead of once a week."

Hey, I love me a burger and I love me a steak. But WHO eats a hamburger every single day? WHO eats steak every other day? WHO are these clueless carnivores with fat wallets and fatter bellies?

Five things wrong ...

Five things wrong with the U.S.of A. today:

1. A society based on the rule of law is a Roman innovation, and a brilliant one, a bulwark against tyranny of the minority or the majority. Thus, in history, law codes gradually supplanted tribal justice and the use of community shaming in order to maintain a sense of morality. However, relying wholly on the rule of law can cause a problem: No one fears to offend, or feels shame in violating, mere ink and paper scribblings. If the law is not "written in our hearts," we have a problem. Rule of law also spawns legions of lawyers making their fortunes trying to outwit it, and keeps legislators in a constant battle to keep up with the latest outrages, from cell phones while driving to the plague of underage "s$xting." Basic shame is so very old-fashioned.

2. Education. I sound like some wheezy old grandfather, but there are countries in the world in which children walk for miles each day to sit in some hovel of a building with the barest rudiments of educational materials, so hungry are they to learn. By contrast, most American children consider "school" akin to prison and being devoted to learning horribly "uncool." Also, far from being the respected sage he/she once was, today's teacher must constantly walk on eggshells lest he/she be sued, and runs the risk of poisoning if he/she leaves a coffee cup unguarded in the classroom.

3. Economy. It's based on an ever expanding cycle of exploitation, a sort of pyramid scheme with Earth as collateral and all of us as eventual suckers. This is certainly not solely an American problem. And world socialism proved no better, even much worse, than capitalism, at resolving this dillema. There is a problem when prosperity depends on wringing more and more crops out of more and more exhausted soil, on building more and more gas stations and shopping malls where forests once grew, on constantly taking, taking, taking. That problem is that eventually, the soil is dead, the forests are gone and the minerals are all extracted and shipped away. You can only eat so many potato chips out of a bag before it becomes empty and useless.

4. Two-party system. These days, it's becoming more like one and a half. I am quite aware of the flaws of parliamentary rule in other lands, where coalitions constantly form and break up, and centrist parties can be at the mercy of wacky loons and fringe parties. But I am emphatically neither a Democrat nor a strong Republican so I am in essence left out of the political process, forced each election to choose one or the other of people I more and more like less and less.

5. Losing touch. We are losing touch with history. Go to Mt. Vernon and you will find out how long it has been since a sitting U.S. president bothered to visit our first president's estate, a stone's throw from Washington D.C. We are also losing touch with nature. And we are losing touch with the values taught in our mostly agrarian past: Love for the land, self-reliance, a sense of the seasons, hard work, love for hard work, patience in adversity and even delayed gratification -- corn doesn't grow in a week unless you are playing Farmtown on Facebook.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A story

A woman was taking a much-needed vacation to Florida, after enduring the break-up of her marriage, the loss of her job – since her ex had been a friend of the boss – and a number of other miseries.

Strolling alone on the beach one morning, barefoot in the sand, comforting herself with a Capri Menthol and contemplations of better days, she spied a brass lamp ahead of her, half buried above the surf line.

Not being a woman who passed up opportunity, she scooped it up and gave it a rub. A rather odd-looking genie appeared. He appeared forlorn rather than feisty. Much like herself.

“This is a non-smoking beach,” the genie said, jerking his purplish thumb towards the woman’s cigarette.

“Your lamp might make a nice ashtray,” she warned, not in the mood to take guff from another man, especially a purple one.

He thrust his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Okay, okay, keep the smoke. But I can’t wish away the fine if the warden catches you.”

“Warden?” she snickered. “You are one confused little genie. Wardens hunt for poachers, not smokers.”

The genie threw up his hands again. “So sue me. I’m a foreigner.”

“Ah, you don’t look as foreign as some of the university freaks I’ve seen around here,” the woman said, taking another drag of her Capri.

“I will take that as a compliment,” said the genie.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” said the woman.

“Look, I ain’t no ordinary genie,” the apparition said.

“Is there such a thing?” the woman asked, exhaling a stream of smoke purposefully at him.

The genie coughed and said:“Yes, there is. Most of us grant three wishes. You know the drill.”

“You can give the coughing routine a rest,” she said, “since you are made of smoke anyway. You men are all alike. Playing your head games.”

“I could say something about you dames, too,” the genie grumbled.

“’Dames’ hasn’t been in the lingo since the ‘40s, genie,” the woman said. “Who taught you English, Al Capone? Just run the wishes routine and get lost. I’m in no mood for men right now, of any kind.”

“Sheesh, what ingratitude,” the genie said. “Like I tried to tell you, I ain’t no ordinary genie.”

“Ain’t isn’t proper English,” said the woman. “So what makes you special, Archie Bunker Genie Boy?”

“I don’t grant wishes, I grant curses,” the spirit said. “Just one, please.”
The woman sighed and sat down upon the sand. “Figures. Men and curses, a natural pair.”

“You don’t get it, lady. I grant you a curse on someone else, anyone. The ether of the universe has sensed the injustice that you have suffered and wishes to balance the cosmic scales.

“You may wish upon your enemy death, poverty or a debilitating disease. You may curse him to be the victim of identity theft. Or to hear Muzak constantly in his head. Or to have chronically irritated bowels, incurable flatulence, bad breath, insomnia or a lazy eye. Or to be impotent, unemployable, itchy, annoying to all who meet him. I assume, since I have been sent here, that you DO have an enemy.”

The woman took a long, thoughtful drag on her cigarette, staring off into the distance across the waves.

“Yeah, I do,” she said, finally.

“Well, what shall it be then?” he asked. “I could give him horrendous heartburn. I could make a harpy fall in love with him and drag him through hell. The real one. Not the metaphor.”

“Care for a drag?” said the woman, extending her cigarette.

“Don’t tell no one,” said the genie, gingerly taking the Capri from the woman. “But thanks.”

He blew a perfect ring that danced away over the ocean and wiggled itself into the shape of a fish, ducking down into the waves and disappearing.

“Nice trick,” he said to himself, since the woman said nothing.

The woman sighed deeply.

“For my enemy, a man who once claimed to love me but broke all his vows, I wish …” she said.

The genie rubbed his purple hands together.

“… I wish him no evil but one,” she said. “I wish for him to have a conscience.”


Intelligence beneath your feet

How do you define intelligence?

Is it the ability to make tools? To reason out the solution to a problem?

I have been alerted today to the publication of a fascinating book, which almost sounds Star Trek-y in its depiction of the vast and mysterious intelligence living beneath our feet: fungi.

Fungi can colonize bare rock or thrive in a rich forest, or even the walls of your home. A fungal organism can live for thousands of years, be the size of a pinpoint or cover entire acres. They create partnerships with plants and even with viruses, and according to this author, they can possess a sentient awareness of their environment.

The linked article below certainly will get you to rethink these mysterious, ancient and essential "beings" -- neither plant nor animal.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday morning

I am in my favorite place, one of them at least.

I am sitting in my little wooden chair, at my study room desk, looking out over the freshly mowed lawn into the woods beyond. The dandelions are daunted for a day and I can pretend that I have a real lawn, not a tapestry of weeds.

The apple trees have leafed out but a few clumps of white blossoms linger like leftover snow. The smooth bark of the big beech in the corner is now veiled behind the season's new growth.

Some bird is perched in the fig tree. A wasp is giving himself a concussion against the window pane. No sign of the resident chipmunk or ravenous, garden-ravaging rabbit yet today.

I almost wish I wasn't committed to go to church this morning but I owe a debt to the sacred.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Chocolate Fruit

In the tropical parts of the world, the local folk enjoy a fruit called Black Sapote or the Chocolate Fruit.

The fruit flesh is "rich, dark brown colored and custard like ... with a sweet, nut-like mild flavor... when the pulp is blended with milk or ice cream, it tastes like mild chocolate ..."

I want me some sapote!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cranial Pilot

All that we experience, all that we do, depends wholly upon a blind, deaf, mute glob of cells lodged between our ears.

I am fascinated by that marvel of nature, the brain.

Every murder and every war, every kiss and every cuddle, had its origin up there. We have our cranial pilot to thank for every book ever written, every building ever built, every fire lit and every song sung.

Despite its bony helmet,the brain is terribly vulnerable. Any number of chemicals, from caffeine to nitrous oxide, to a slew of natural hormones, can knock it around like a wimp on a football field. We still don't know why some brains go haywire and drive their associated bodies to do horrible things -- and how much of an effect that pyschological trauma, such as a childhood $exual assault, can have on how the brain will behave later in life.

My own brain has a minor peculiarity, a sort of logjam for which I have no explanation. I will be faced with some complex project, unable to wrap my thoughts around it, daunted by the conundrum, sometimes for days -- and then all of a sudden, the logjam breaks, the answer flows free and all I can do is wonder what took so long and why I couldn't figure it out before.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Keys to Success

As I chewed through three years worth of newsclips, columns and Internet printouts this week, I came across two columns that I had saved. Both were written by men with much experience in working with children.

The first, by David Brooks with the New York Times, can be found at .

The second, by Leonard Pitts with the Miami Herald, can be found here:

Each writer discussed a certain, critical skill that every child must possess if he or She is to grow up to be a successful, happy member of society. One is the ability to delay gratification. The other is the ability to focus, to keep "one's eye on the prize."

Perhaps they are more or less the same thing.

Both columns discussed how children who were not taught or did not develop these skills, had a much higher rate of later failure in life, including incarceration.

Something to think about. Parenting is more than providing food, clothing and shelter.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Until about a week ago, I personally knew only one person who was an adopted child -- grown now into a sweet, affectionate wonderful Lady -- and none who had gone through foster care.

Then someone special whom I know, in the funeral for his Mother last week, revealed the poignant, heart-wrenching details of his early childhood. It was a complete surprise to me. For a reason he did not disclose, he was in foster care for a time, able to see his Mother only every few weeks, and he cried on the porch of his foster home every time that She left, wanting nothing more than to see Her again, praying with all his little heart that each car that passed was Her returning.

This someone special has now grown into a sweet, affectionate man, with a good marriage, highly respected in the community.

Now, just moments ago, I have learned that another person I know was also adopted. She, too, is a fine, fine Lady.

So what is my point? Maybe it is just that if you happen to be an adopted child or in foster care and reading this blog, you should never forget that you are just as wonderful and special a human being as any other. You can achieve your dreams and change the world -- google Dave Thomas for one well-known example. Just because you come from a background in which there was pain and loss, doesn't mean you can't achieve stability in your own future, in the relationships that you will build.

I certainly do not think less of any of the people whom I have mentioned above, now that I know their backgrounds. If anything, I love them all more for who they are in spite of the pain that they have endured.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ice Cream Man

My Beloved heard the tinkle of the ice cream truck yesterday and had a sudden craving.

Because I do not say no to my Sweetie, I grabbed some change and hiked through the copious dandelion fuzz of my yard to the edge of the street where the truck was idling. Through the haze of its exhaust fumes, I made my request, feeling very silly and trying to make grown-up small talk to cover my embarrassment.

I scored a second hubby-point for picking precisely the flavor of Italian Ice that She wanted, blue raspberry/cotton candy as opposed to mango/pina colada.

When I stepped back inside, gratefully, away from the unseen but surely mocking eyes of neighbors, Sweetie had another idea:

"Maybe you and I should look into buying an ice cream truck. We could make some money that way."

Afternoons of exhaust fumes, annoying music and grubby kids with grubby coins shoving each other in line? I didn't say no. I said we could research it. Maybe She will forget.