Thursday, August 16, 2012

John "Chauncy" Kiernan

Today is my father-in-law's 102nd birthday, or it would have been had he survived. John "Chauncy" Kiernan was a natural nobleman, a dignified, witty man whose charm and honesty was evident to everyone who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. More than three decades have passed since he did and still I can see the twinkle in his eye and the slow smile as he waited for me to process his latest bon mot. He loved honor, country and family. God alone knows what order to put those in. He loved his daughters and I suspect that he even loved me for loving his oldest girl.

I miss him.

His family came from County Leitrim, one of the poorest counties in Ireland and settled in Old Lyme, CT. They worked hard, they loved their dram and they loved the telling of stories and I only wish that I could have been there when my wife's grandfather, John and his four sons, "Chauncy", "Charlie", "Denny", and "Joe" were in the mood to drink and spin yarns. I only met Chauncy and Charlie but both enriched my life.

Tonight, in lieu of a cake, my wife and I told a couple of Irish jokes and lifted a glass of Jameson to the memory of Chauncy. If he'll forgive the Scottish toast ...

"Here's to us. Who's like us? Damn few and they're all dead."

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Today the heat wave has finally broken. Closer to the equator the past three days would not be remarkable, but here in New England it is unexpected, uncomfortable, and unwanted.

The rest of the family and our guests are on the back porch chatting and smoking. So I take my usual seat on the front steps where I can be smoke free and solitary. There's a lot to be said for the front, you can watch people come and go, the steps are lower so it's more like sitting in the garden than above it, and I can watch things happen without being distracted.

The steps are about six feet from side to side, cement slabs on brick risers. The middle one has a crack that needs patching one of these days. A brick walkway extends from the steps a few feet then turns left to head toward the driveway. The walkway also encloses part of the front garden.

As I settle onto the cracked cement slab with a mug of darjeeling and a peanut butter sandwich, the family across the street struggles to don pads and helmets for a bicycle ride, as their dog mournfully yelps its separation anxiety from inside the house. They wave and I wave back and the five of them ride off in a cheerful skein looking for adventure.

As the dog's barks slow in the knowledge that it is doomed to be alone for an entire hour, I finish my sandwich and suddenly notice that there is a large white flower on the holly bush to the right of the steps. I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that the blossom doesn't belong there. It could be from another plant that has poked its way up through the dense holly foliage. As I try to work up enough curiosity to put down my mug and investigate, the mystery is solved as the flower splits in two and takes flight as a pair of Cabbage White butterflies.

Across the walkway, a small dragonfly is firmly perched on the tip of a rhododendron leaf that bobs and sways in the breeze. It's too far away for me to make any attempt to identify it more completely. I watch it for several minutes until, at last, it disappears in a blink and returns in another blink. If I know my dragonflies, it's probably chewing off the head of something that was flying too slowly.

A handful of bumblebees are staggering around a patch of small blue flowers just to the left of the steps. They bump into things and each other as they make their way around the bouquet buffet.

Another dragonfly has appeared on the right. There's a plant with long spiky leaves that start from its base (if I remember correctly, it's an iris). One of the leaves has bent towards me at a right angle to the plant and the dragonfly is perched on this green runway like some dangerous warplane.

I go back to watching the bumbleclowns. One of them has its face in a flower at the tip of a stem. Another is sipping from one a little further down the same stem and their combined weight has bent the stem in a deep arc. A third bee lands increasing the tension on the stem, but then the two lower bees leave at the same time and the stem whips up, hurtling the bee off the top flower and deep into the rhododendron jungle.

I like bumblebees. I relate to them. Like them, I am clumsy, round, hairy, and hungry. Like them, I am peaceful, vegan, and attracted to bright colors. Like them I can do unexpected things like stinging when I have to.

I wonder if, like me, it is their ungainliness, their clumsiness that dictates their seeming preference for solitary endeavor.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A kind of limbo

I am starting to despair of ever getting any writing done. I have three novels and a history floating in a puddle of inaction, slowly dissolving into unmemorable fragments.

Part of the problem is the lack of proper chemicals to subdue my distractibility long enough for me to get some words on paper. Another part is the need to travel to other libraries and towns to gather the research materials for the history. It's not that I don't like to travel, but the sense that by doing so I am removing what little chance my wife has of getting out of the house.

I know that her depression and agoraphobia are not my doing but I seem to have persuaded myself that any action on my part underscores and emphasizes her inaction. So I don't do anything.

I have psychologically painted myself into a corner where I sit and rust while waiting for her to decide to get better.

I have written several blog entries today, and will visit a sick relative this afternoon. Perhaps I'll sort some books and try to decide whether giving her the latest Leonard Cohen album for Valentine's Day is a good idea.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A bookish day

Today I received two of the books that I ordered recently.

One of them, "Timothy Dexter Revisited" by John P. Marquand will be put on the shelf unopened until the first of his books about that singular Newburyport gentleman arrives. I am looking forward to devouring the two in order since, as Lord Timothy himself said, "I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the known world." He sounds like a man worthy of attention if not respect.

I have his wonderful little book, "A Pickle for the Knowing Ones," sitting on my desk for inspiration. He was a canny and very lucky businessman for someone who declared himself a lord (although he insisted that it was popular acclaim that did so), who faked his own death in order to see who would turn up for the memorial, who kept a personal "poet laureate," and who seems so oddly disorganized and self-absorbed.

John P. Marquand fictionalized Dexter's life. That is the book that I'm waiting for. The book I just received is more of a memoir and historical piece written 35 years after the first one. It is my fancy that it is important to read them in chronological order

The second book I received today is "What I Require From Life" writings on science and life by J.B.S. Haldane. I am looking forward to reading it. Haldane is a witty and engaging writer and, whether you agree with his politics or not, time with him is well spent and challenging.

I met Haldane once in (I believe) 1961 when he visited the Stazione Zoologica in Naples. That would have made me 13 years old, just old enough to be terribly embarrassed to meet the 70 year old author of one of my favorite books in person. In addition to his political and scientific writing, he had also written a wonderful book called "My Friend Mr. Leakey" (a copy of which still sits on my shelves).

But if I start dipping into Haldane tonight, I'll have to set aside "1493" by Charles Mann with only a third of it read.

Ah me, the vagaries of distraction send me tumbling hither and yon like a crisp, dry maple leaf in an hibernal gale.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Vegetarian tipplers

«A modern vegetarian is also a teetotaler, yet there is no obvious connection between consuming vegetables and not consuming fermented vegetables. A drunkard, when lifted laboriously out of the gutter, might well be heard huskily to plead that he had fallen there through excessive devotion to a vegetable diet.» --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Sharing Meme

It seems to me that this whole sharing meme is a bit out of whack. Someone puts a picture or a quote identifying some reprehensible behavior on facebook and gives you a moral shove saying that, “if you don't pass this along, then you are a bad person who condones this." Alternately, they do the same thing for positive stuff.

A case in point is a picture posted in my FB stream recently showing a bruised woman wearing a slit skirt and pink blouse collapsed at the feet of a man wearing bluejeans and a plaid shirt. The man's hand is closed, but you cannot see his face. The bruises, the spraddle-legged posture of the man, the position of his hand and the camera angle lead you to leap to the conclusion that he has just beaten her. The message beneath the picture says, “hit share if your against women abuse. lets get 1000 shares."

Well! Who wouldn't be against the abuse of women. So why not click?

But I have two problems with the post. The first is the picture. It has too many inconsistencies to be effective. The man's hand, though closed, is not clenched, his forearm is not tensed, his knuckles do not show the damage that would be evident had he been beating someone. His posture is as likely to be that of someone reaching down to help spreading his legs to balance as he helps her to her feet. So now there are multiple new possible scenarios involving helpful strangers or off-duty EMTs coming upon auto accidents, or the aftermath of a drunken brawl or perhaps a woman being abused.

So the photo is either bad staging or a misrepresentation. So what‽

Too many people skim their emails and social media, not reading deeply or interpreting, making snap judgments and, when they see something for which they can construct an easy conclusion, saying “me too" by hitting the share button. They have constructed a scenario, supplying the missing pieces according to their own prejudices. That can't be helped. Our brains are hard-wired to supply narratives, sequences, causal chains to fit what we see. There is an excellent recent article in Wired about how that propensity for humans to construct a narrative has occasionally led science in some disturbingly bad directions.

In a way you could say that my problem with the photo is that it was done poorly and offends my editorial sensibilities in such a way that it interferes with my ability to create the expected response. I would add that it seems to me to be a gratuitous use of shock values, no better than using a pornographic photo and saying “share this if you are against pornography."

But the problems with the photo are petty compared to my real gripe.

I want to talk about the veneer of involvement that we apply to ourselves by tapping the share button, a kind of non-invasive soul-surgery accomplished with a single click. The question to ask is, “What does that click on share do?"

It does a couple of things. It lets the person, who is saying “me too" think that they have added their voice to some kind of petition, or that they have joined some kind of movement. It lets the “me too" feel that they have raised their voice in outrage. It lets them think that they are on the side of good. Solidarity!

Give me a break.

What it actually means is that the “me too" has been socially engineered through embarrassment and implied social pressure into passing along a message with someone else's name on it. At best the result will be that the originator of the message will be able to harvest the names of, in this case 1000 people who forwarded their message on. This then gives them the chance to “friend" them (since the initial contact has been made) and potentially sell that list of names, spam them or, in the best case scenario, inflate their own importance.

What it doesn't do is anything else. It doesn't pay for shelters or medical treatment, it doesn't provide psychological or social support, it doesn't change the mind of any brutalizer or victim. It does nothing except make “me too" feel like they have done something. It lessens the impact of real appeals for actual support. In essence, it lets the person say that they support something that they are actually ignoring. They can pretend they have done something. It's like the ultimate, “I gave at the office" excuse.

“I condemn the battering of women by clicking on an ambiguous photograph," they say. “My soul is clean and I am a good person and I can be counted among the morally upright without any cost to my wallet, my time or my life."

You cannot dry clean your soul so easily. Don't share the damn photograph. Go do something about it.