Thursday, June 28, 2007

An Editorial Limerick

The editor stood there and blinked
At the author whose lips were all tinct-
ured with black.
Then, taken aback,
Said, "That's not what I meant by succinct."



While in Seattle recently, I was at one of the best bookstores I know, the Elliot Bay Bookstore.

In the store there is a sign posted prominently. It says ...

Children left unattended will be given a cup of espresso and a puppy.


I was sitting on the back porch in shorts and a t-shirt this morning. It cooled down overnight from yesterday's muggy high 90s. A cup of coffee was close at hand, and my nerves were twitching for the ritual of the cigarette (which I have once again pushed away from).

I fidgeted, irritated by the fact that I was irritated by my attempt to break an expensive and anti-social habit. I brought the dog's attention to a squirrel on the fence and urged her into action, then immediately got surly when she would not stop barking at the place it had been.

The time that I miss smoking the most is when I write. Right now, for example. Smoking provides a ritual pause a time for thinking and gathering oneself together. To be literary about it, the cigarette ritual is like a comma, a brief pause, mental punctuation.

It is not the health risks that have inspired me to give up this comfort, it is the mess. I've emptied one ashtray too many. I can't have a fan going or the ashes get spread around my study, and the type of cigarettes I smoke are too expensive for me to be able to justify.

But that's not what I'm supposed to be writing about. It's just an extended explanation of why I was irritable and out of sorts, and how something small changed my mood.

I have a pleasantly large back porch. It was screened once, but now it is merely a wooden platform covered by an extension of the house roof. It needs painting and the wood is so old that the heads of the nails protrude above the surface. It's about two feet higher than the backyard which gives Penny the ability to leap joyfully as she launches her pursuit of anything smaller than herself.

I am sitting on this porch hair and teeth unbrushed, toes starting to roast in the puddle of sunlight that has sieved through the branches of the large white pine. Two inches from my toes is a small stand of evening primroses. I decide that they are open during the day by design ... just to irritate me further.

The primrose flowers consist of four overlapping bright yellow petals with a notched outer edge. I wonder if I could use the term 'bi-lobal' but I haven't the desire to do the research. Dark creases radiate from the center of the flower up each petal but disappear before they get to the edge. In the center eight stamen stand surrounding an X-shaped stigma. A pleasant enough looking blossom and at the very least admirable for its having volunteered its way into my yard.

And, as I said, a small stand of them were moving and bumping in the morning breeze a few inches from my bare toes. I idly stared at them trying to avoid thinking of my self-imposed fast. Suddenly a dark object plopped into one of the larger blossoms, increasing the sway and setting off a chain reaction in the blossom siblings, caroming brightly in the sunlight. It was a small bee which seemed to have landed awkwardly.

As I watched, the small insect righted itself and walked out to the edge of a petal. The petal promptly folded inward depositing the intruder on its back at the base of the stamen. The bee righted itself again and once more tried to walk to the edge with the same results.

The bee apparently stood for Buster Keaton, as the hapless insect repeated its actions with tenacity. Finally it seemed to have given up (what was it that was so attractive about the edge of the petal anyway?) and instead started climbing the stamen ... up one, down the other, up the next, fall off, choose another randomly. Up ... down ... up ... fall ... up ... fall ... up ... down ... up ... fall ... The bee's manic but inept concentration seemed to be similar to a drunk person trying to climb a flight of stairs or get a key into a keyhole.

I suddenly realized that the little thing had never seemed to stop long enough to get any nectar. It seemed to be fascinated by the swings and roundabouts and uninterested in gathering nectar and flying home.

Eventually it lay, either exhausted or in a stupor at the base of one of the petals. A few moments later, a gust tipped the flower and Buster rolled out of the blossom and hit the ground. I leaned over the edge of the porch to watch.

He righted himself, preened a bit, and took off heading for parts unknown.

I reached for my coffee and suddenly realized that, at least for the moment, my craving for a cigarette was gone.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Stone

There was this young farmer, Jacob, who married his sweetheart, Amanda. They lived in happy poverty living hand to mouth, one season to the next. The land was poor and they could barely feed themselves. But they subsisted.

Until one day Amanda felt ill. Days went by, then weeks and she felt no better. Jacob sacrificed one of his precious hens to pay the doctor to come. It was congestion of the lungs said the doctor. Get some of this medicine in town. But they had no money to buy the drug. Amanda grew weaker and one night died in her sleep.

He buried her out in the meadow beyond the orchard. He sold all her clothes and the things she had owned and finally managed to scrape together enough money to have a headstone made.

Jacob grew bitter. For want of money he had lost that which was most precious to him. He made no vow. He did not shake his fist at God. But he changed. Scrimping took over his life. He spent little on himself and saved what money he could in stashing it in hidey holes throughout the house. He made the farm pay through hard work, but any profit went into the secret caches.

Many years later, Jacob found himself attracted to a local widow. He cleaned himself up and went courting. He was tired of living alone with nothing but fields, animals and an empty house.

Elizabeth was near his age, her children were old enough to be helpful in the farm work. Did she find him attractive? Did they fall in love? Perhaps. Back then marriage was not always as romantic as we imagine.

They did seem to be comfortable with each other, but there was a problem. She knew of his miserliness. He persuaded her that he could change. After some thought, she decided that it would do no harm to look at the house that she might choose to live in.

Jacob had scrubbed and cleaned the place inside and out. It may have been bare, but it was clean. Elizabeth arrived with her father and the two of them looked the place over.

"Very well, said she, next week I shall bring the rest of my family here and I shall prepare them a meal in your kitchen. Here is the list of things I shall need.

Jacob looked at the list. Most of the provisions could be had in his own pantry and cellar. The few he did not have would not be too expensive.

"I will make biscuits," she said. Jacob blanched. To make biscuits she would need a baking stone in the oven. During the cleaning the old one, unused for many years, had shattered. When he went to town the next day, he gathered the other provisions he needed, but the baking stone was so expensive. How much did he want this? Which was dearer to his heart ... love or love of money?

The following week Elizabeth arrived early in the morning. Jacob had the wood stove going. She cooked as he set the table. After everything was almost complete, she rolled out the biscuit dough scored it with a knife and put it in the oven on the stone.

People started arriving. Jacob seated them and helped carry out the feast. The last to be brought out was the large unbroken sheet of biscuits.The family tucked in. Then one of Elizabeth's young sons noticed something.

There's a pretty pattern on the bottom of the biscuits, he said. He reached over and flipped the sheet of biscuits over. It took a moment for them to puzzle it out since the writing was backwards. It said

To the
Blessed Memory
Wife of Jacob

Some thoughts on belief

Belief is a curious thing. Essentially it is a codified set of prejudices about the world.

I don't use the term prejudice as a negative here. What I mean is a set of assumptions that a person does not want to challenge. And I am not getting all "holier than thou" either (if you'll excuse the use of the phrase), I am quite aware of the masses of material that I take on faith.

Everyone has prejudices ... everyone. Whether they are true or false, whether deity centric or logic centric, there are large portions of our life individually and communally that we do not challenge with analysis.

We look at a glass and think, "it's empty", not "it's full of air". The best science teachers struggle constantly to break the preconception that air is nothing. The Annenberg Project has an excellent documentary on the continuing failure to actually get students to understand photosynthesis and the students' belief, even past graduation from MIT, that a plant gets its building materials from the water and nutrients in the soil. (Okay, everybody who had to rethink or look up photosynthesis raise your hands ... oh right ... I'm talking to a bunch of geniuses am I?)

We accept black boxes, cars we cannot build, cell phones we cannot diagram the electronics for. We accept their operation on faith. How many people are reading this note of mine who could read and understand the diagram of a computer chip. We are told that the circuits are logical ... and we believe it. We believe because it works and because we don't want to spend the time that it would require to find out for ourselves.

Sometimes that leap of faith pushes logic. Think of the faith in technology (or perhaps in humanity or even a deity) that would let some one strap themselves to a block of metal weighing several tons in the expectation that it will soar thousands of feet above the earth and land thousands of miles away. An aeronautics engineer will know the science. But most others have to use shared experience not knowledge.

I remember reporting aboard an aircraft carrier and hesitating on the pier knowing that the damn thing weighed 95,000 tons. My gut told me that it shouldn't float but my brain (and fear of prison) persuaded me that it did.

Belief, in and of itself, is not bad. It lets us concentrate on what's important to us and leave the rest to people who are interested in it. I don't want to know about the engineering of the aircraft, I merely want to get on it in Boston with the expectation of getting off it in Seattle. I don't need to know the cavitation of the screws of the ship to realize that I'm on the equivalent of a very large office building that is traveling at more than 50 mph.

So if someone who knows nothing about chaos theory wants to describe Hurricane Katrina as an "Act of God" rather than an "Act of Butterfly" I don't see that it makes much difference. Whether your belief is couched in technical terms or religious terms it is still belief.


What is bad, is when you let your belief in stuff that you don't want to understand take over your life. The perversity of people continues to amaze me. The fact that they will turn around and say. Gosh I don't know anything about this so I'll do anything that anyone who claims to know about it says.

I'm not just talking about religion guys. You can make that connection yourselves. I'm talking about cell phone and MP3 players and computers and cars. I find it touching, for example, to see the simple yet transcendent joy in a teenager's face when gazing upon the glory that is iPod. It is the one true iPod and thou shalt have no others before it. All their friends have iPods, so it must be the right, the true, the only way. "Suffer the little children to MP3." All other forms of music are anathema.

Look at advertising. Talk about faith-based initiatives. An auto ad touts the speed. Can you drive that fast? No. But wouldn't it be nice to know that you could! We'll just wear the speed limits like the chains of martyrdom around our necks. Ooooh this detergent gets things whiter than white ... that beer will help me get friends ... 

But the total rejection of belief is as unbalanced as the total acceptance of it.

Our minds, all of them, are hybrids of what we believe and what we know. Often, belief and knowledge exist in dynamic opposition, providing us with two interpretations of the same thing.

We can believe that a hole is empty, and know that it is full of air. We can believe that the stars twinkle, know that it is just an effect of the atmosphere, then be bemused to find out that the light of some stars varies as its planets block its light. I believe that my car works properly, because I don't know how it works and I can't prove that everything is functioning as it should.

This balance always exists. It has to. Belief is at the basis of discovery just as it is often at the basis of the rejection of discovery. Knowledge comes from the successive proving of a chain of beliefs. A scientist believes something to be true and sets out to prove it. If he does, then it becomes knowledge, if he proves it untrue, it does not. Scientists are just people who can believe more creatively and extravagantly than other people.

But, in a way, scientists have it easy. They have a kind of call and response way of dealing with the world. The difficulty comes when you are dealing with the unprovable, those beliefs that are not subject to evidence.

Gods were created as a catch-all explanation for the unexplainable, for things that our ancestors could not understand. George Gamow in his book "1-2-3 Infinity" derives the title from the counting used by a tribe of hunter-gatherers who felt that it was unnecessary to count higher than three. Their numbers were 1, 2, 3, Many. To them, many was infinity, a number which stood for all those other numbers for which they had no names, and for them it was sufficient.

God is infinite. God is our "many". The concept that stands for everything we know is there and yet cannot be proved because we don't have the capacity or the tools. Does that mean that those things aren't there or cannot be proved? I'm sorry, I don't have the capacity or tools to answer that, but I do know that there is more to know, and I don't care what you call it.

Okay, I'm rambling a bit, so let me wander back on to the topic. The problem is not belief but, as I mentioned before, "blind faith".

Blind faith is such a wonderfully appropriate term. I see it as an atrophying of the ability to perceive anything but what is pointed to, as if you were an old carthorse wearing blinders. (A particularly potent image for those of us gifted with Hunter Mind ... ADD to the rest of you.)

If it were not so pervasive throughout history, I would suggest that it is a reaction to the stress of the info age, a way to let someone else take the burden of understanding. People who suffer from this form of mental atrophy seem tired of having to think, extrapolate, make decisions, and discover. They want to be led.

Is it any wonder the degree of vitriol they can spew when an article of faith is challenged. To argue logically seems beyond their capacity. Their vehemence born of the fear that all might not be as they have been told. Most people don't subscribe to "blind faith". Unfortunately, some of the loud people do.

Those of blind faith believe that "every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill laid low" without considering what it would do to the ecosystem and the economics of ski resorts. The sameness, the lack of surprises, comforts them and they "like sheep" desire only an immense sameness of flat pasture.

What a drab and boring place it would be if everyone on earth were just like us, believed like us, knew like us, acted like us, etc. It sounds an awful lot like a kind of Hell. Give me people who think I'm a pinko commie scumbag, or need the services of a mental health professional and are willing to argue. Give me diversity. Diversity is fun.


It's odd to become aware of one's own inconsistencies. 

I'm sitting here avoiding cleaning my desk and the sheer oddity of the paraphenalia scattered across it strikes me as worthy of a line or two.

The bulky stuff is, these days, probably common to most writers. From left to right it consists of: 

  • A printer
  • The left speaker of a pair
  • A black riser that my laptop lurks under and that supports ...
  • A monitor and
  • A desk light
  • The right speaker of a pair (Pandora Radio is playing Brubeck through them)
  • A table lamp

Pretty consistent so far, right? But wait. Going back to  the left:

  • A staple gun
  • A short stack of books consisting of Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds
  • A stack of CD-Rs in jewel cases containing backed-up data topped by one of the pair of disks of Janis Ian's concert album Working Without a Net
  • Two packages of origami paper
  • A small spiral-bound notebook
  • A stack of music CDs consisting of:
  • Fretwork - Purcell: The Fantazias and In Nomines
  • Dave Brubeck Trio and Gerry Mulligan - Live at the Berlin Philharmonie
  • Michaela Petri and Keith Jarrett - Handel: Recorder Sonatas -
  • Louis Prima - Let's Swing It
  • The Love Dogs - Heavy Petting
  • Nickel Creek - Nickel Creek
  • Wendy Carlos - The Well-Tempered Synthesizer
  • Chuck Brown and Eva Cassidy - The Other Side
  • An almost empty pack of Djarum Lights
  • A large and bulky computer headset
  • A disposable cell-phone
  • A stapler
  • A netsuke of rats on a bag of grain
  • A small semi-functioning digital camera
  • Another short stack of books consisting of: a 1966 Indian cookbook and O'Reilly's HTML Pocket Reference
  • A small stone ashtray sits on top of the books with the last cigarette from the now empty pack fuming in it.
  • A disposable lighter
  • A pack of small post-its used for bookmarks
  • A coaster advertising the last high-tech firm I worked for full-time with the remains of an iced four-shot Americano on it
  • An brown ceramic jar that once held preserved Tien-tsin vegetables that now is overstuffed with an assortment of pens and pencils
  • Two stray pens
  • A Petersen System full bent tobacco pipe
  • A can of Frogmorton tobacco
  • A Leatherman pocket tool
  • A full pack of Djarum lights
  • A stack of random papers that I WILL get to eventually held in place by a Japanese cast-iron turtle paperweight.
  • A pair of broken reading glasses