Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A ghost story, translated from reality

(the last ghost story I posted was translated from Chinese. This one's translated from that thing which words can't approach, no matter what your ridiculous feelings about the "truth," a vacant abstraction if ever there was one)

Dad is walking around like a ghost now. He’s a little lost without his wife to complain at. And she too keeps thinking he’s still alive, the same person. They’ve been dead to one another for a long time now. I had to separate them. They were getting on each other’s nerves.

I’m a ghost myself. I’ve died lots and lots of times, and I’ve been reborn a few times too, but I don’t think the score is even. By my count, I’m still dead.

It took a while for me to realize that I’m a ghost. We all resist. We’d like to think that we’re still alive, just like my Dad would like to think that he can still drive. Actually, he gets downright ornery on the topic. It would be as if you were trying to shove me into a coffin and put me into the ground and I was shouting at you that I’m still alive. If you can imagine that, you can imagine levels of rage you have never displayed in your actual life.

That’s pretty much the way a ghost is born. It’s not the killing, it’s the resistance, and so I’m not feeling guilty here. I’m no murderer – I just divert attention, trying to come up with a few new things to put into Dad’s field of thought and vision so that he forgets the car.

I took him to his summer house, the one Mom loves, but I made her choose between having him around, which just makes her sick, or letting go of the house. She still won’t stop decorating it, but I think she’s not planning to live here anymore. But it seems important to her that the real thing looks good in her mind.

She still worries about me too, which is pretty silly considering that I’m sitting in a nice chair in a cool summer house, looking out over a calm lake in perfect summer weather. Birds are twittering. Mom worries that I’m giving up my life to take care of Dad, which I sort of am, but then, you know, how do I tell her I’m already in heaven? She might take it the wrong way, or get jealous. The sweet little lies get trickier all the time.

It’s only a car, Dad. I’m only taking away your ability to hurt yourself or others. But for all of us now, the car has become a symbol. Just like those people who think they have the solution for our economic woes by re-denominating the dollar in gold. They don’t seem to realize that gold has only symbolic value. There’s nothing more real about its value than there is about the equation between the automobile and freedom. Well, except that in our minds there is a strictly limited quantity of gold. I read somewhere that all the gold in the world would fill a brick only 80 feet by 80 feet. Amazing!! Can you imagine!! But there’s always more to be found.

Well, we can’t all keep driving cars, and that’s for sure. There’s only a limited quantity of oil under our feet, and the environment can only stand a certain amount of extra carbon. But damn if any of us want to give up our cars any more than Dad does.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve all already become ghosts, you know, kind of like those tall buildings which get demolished by an explosive charge. For just a moment afterward, they still look intact. And then they fall to dust. Just like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ incredible One Horse Shay. One minute it’s there, and then poof, it was made so perfectly and designed so well that every single piece of it wears out at precisely the same instant. Makes a good metaphor for life, don’t you think?

We’d like to think that someone could plan it that way. You know, someone so brilliant that he could get all those super patriotic operatives to agree that killing their own compatriots was the only way to save them. Some God-like figure who might just be the devil in disguise, but after all God is looking out for the greater good, always willing to sacrifice a few Jobs along the way.

What if it’s all just dumb luck? What if all symbols are empty unless we invest them with something? What if ghosts are no more or less real than the people all around you? Most of them you treat as though they were ghosts anyhow, don’t you? Brother, can you spare a dime?

Ghosts don’t like to be exposed. Like that one time when I was born again, I wasn’t all that happy about it at first. No, it wasn’t one of those symbolic religious things. I’m not that kind of emotional, as you can tell. I was living aboard my old wooden sailboat, and some random chunk of ice woke me up. It sounded like it was going to crush the hull. I couldn’t’ get back to sleep after I rescued my hull, and so I started writing.

Just a few weeks ago, I gave the boat away. I used to love sitting down below each Spring, remembering sailing adventures from my past, stirred by the smells, of salt, for instance, which lingered long after the boat was moved to the fresh water of the Great Lakes.

I must be wooden myself, devoid of human feeling, because it wasn’t all that hard to let go of the boat in the end. Sure, I’d put it off for years, thinking that I might regret it; that I might finally have a chance to fit out that interior I’d dreamed of like the glossy pictures in a craftsman’s magazine. But who was I kidding? I wasn’t born with that sort of skill.

Mom and Dad are having a harder time letting go. Still decorating, still imagining future summers with the grandkids. Some shells are harder to let go of than others.

Friday, May 21, 2010

I Am Hamlet

(Meant to stand in for a review of I Am Hamlet, presented on stage at the Subversive Theatre Collective, as Adapted and Directed by Joe Siracusa and performed by Brian Morey)

We all are, Hamlet, seeking that point of intention which dictates the act. Tricking it out. Glancing at audience to see its reaction, play within, some truth to quiet raging unknowns. The act so well rehearsed by the time it's committed; to memory, to reality, that the intention has long since receded beneath what are nearly autonomous motions and their representation emotionally. The play's the thing. The actor is beside himself, drawn along by certain knowledge of what comes next, that thing we lack, our dreams projected.

If there is a flaw to this production of Shakespeare; this spin, perhaps, off Shakespeare, but really, who can know his intentions - but if there is  a flaw, it is that the actor, even more than the words, exceeds his audience. The energy required to pay attention, to follow the words, is exceeded by the energy required even to believe that this is a one man show. That there aren't at least several persons beneath the rapid fire costume transformations, just for instance. I stared mightily trying to decide if Brian Morey was lip syncing to some professionally pre-recorded soundtrack.

He might have been. This is not just Shakespeare brought up to date, it is Shakespeare transcending date and time and place. This actor is a rock star, a female rock star, a male rock star, Avatar floating above the stage (the fog machine failed I later found out, as did the microphone for proof that there was no trick and still intention prevailed, which is beyond metaphorical requirements for acted out reality, please!) and the play within the play is film is television, is playing in my own head, the sole member, yet again, of an audience adverted, apparently, by the Buffalo News to stay away, on pain of what? Some realization of your mortality? I am growing, well, weary of presentations meant for crowds and then finding myself alone.

During intermission I was as rube from county (my actual role in life) among the theater hags, so called by themselves, who were the only other witnesses to this remarkable show this summery night. They were recalling costume and lighting and sound and stage malfunctions in their own storied pasts. I was focussed on my own mortality, staged malfunction recently so many times in Emergency Departments, in dealing with aging parents and romantically spurned children whose future cannot be rehearsed, whose future remains mystery, all futures weighing now like pendulous question marks, anon.

These skulls on stage were not the prompt to my own pounding heart, which seems to have a mind of its own these days, acting out, stealing from me my own mind's ability to pay attention, and so the words, enunciated almost beyond perfection as if there were some better way to recite Hamlet, and it turns out that there actually is, the words had to wash over me, and I had to let them, they were that far beyond my grasp.

How many times have I seen Hamlet, have I read it? Not even once, it would seem, or am I rescued by failing memory, failing to internalize the plot, the point, the theme, it's all new to me every time as Dad said last Thanksgiving when around the table we were sharing "the new" and he can't remember the conversation less than a minute previous. But I guess he still has a sense of humor.

This then is my life, and I am truly Hamlet, and if I must endure one more turn as audience to myself there it will end. There will be an end to it. I will have become the narrative, without sense or sensibility. Acted out by others, even though they might call me by some name I once did inhabit. Poor Rick, I am Hamlet. You would be too if you were to dare genuine theater. I dare you, voice echoing in an ever empty skull.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Magical Thinking

The other day while driving my car some unconscionable distance, I was listening to NPR talking about the volume of oil escaping from that deep sea fiasco in the Gulf. It was somehow encouraging to hear that there are entire ecosystems which handle the natural leakage of oil from the ocean floor.

Then today I find that they are running out of clever tricks, and that it might be months, and that each week will be like another Exxon Valdiz cracking open its hull. This is not encouraging. Our little pinprick down a bit too deep could clearly overwhelm a lot of ecosystems. I can only hope the contrarians on global warming will take note.

I've recently discovered a slew of Chinese movies whose scope is blockbuster huge. These rehearse the span of Chinese narrative history. I've seen a few more rehearsing Western narratives. There's always lots of blood. Lots of miraculous fighting even after the fatal blow. I'm not really sure why that particular fiction captivates audiences, as though a well trained and determined fighter can keep on keeping on after his blood is drained..

The Earth is clearly bleeding. This wound could be fatal, though not, of course, for the living Earth. It could be fatal for us, Earth's conscious denizens. We are those for whom the oil has been meant. And we have perched ourselves precariously on oil's pinnacle with scant time to climb down before the structure beneath us crumbles.

Yes, I did say that. The oil is meant for us. And we have gone a click too far. It is long past trivial to observe that the Earth is a living organism. The balance of systems is far far more complex than that in any one identifiable organism on her surface (by which I mean to include the shallows of our oceans, by which I mean their depths). This is clear enough, since those systems include and incorporate every single individual subsystem.

We'd thought until now that the earth as a whole was rather simpler than us. That it was the ground for our complex species; we the capstone of evolution, conscious creatures of the Earth. We still secretly did and do believe that we are at the very center of the cosmos, defined in terms of the complexity of our nervous system. The elaboration of our understandings.

We are none of that. Our bodies, rather, are but the ground for dialogic thought, and this in turn, through writing, is what is meant by consciousness. We had none before we got civilized. Period.

The earth has no vocal apparatus. No means to store communications. Well, apart from us. We are the voice of the earth, and not of our individual selves, nor certainly of our "culture." Whatever complexity we represent is embedded, not separated, from the ecosystems of the entire planet. We cannot be abstracted, no matter how much we exalt that particular sense of "meaning." Earth's oil was meant for us in precisely the same manner that anything is meant. It's not about intention.

It is easy now to imagine the end. The oil will gush for months. The price impact of peak oil will hit the globe, very much as though we'd reached that magic tipping point. Cars will suddenly look absurd, and the failure of the economy, writ large, will engender anger far far beyond what folks feel now, directing it willy nilly against this or that object.

Our monocultural food basket will collapse in an instant, from some virus, from lack of oil inputs, by analog to oil blowout prevention failure. There will surely be a systemic collapse of the flimsy scaffolding of law. Nature will sort this out. We won't. We will have gone beyond ourselves, and God help us.

Against the oil leakage, we will eventually deploy all remaining resources. But it will be too late.

Not too late for nature's crops. Not too late for the Earth. But far too late for the current manner of our human organization, an economy built on an extravagant narrative of absurdist religious hope and fervor and insanity.

There will be those who Praise the Lord as he fulfills his promised destiny. I won't be among them. Our complicity in our demise will have been too obvious. We have crawled into our narrative. We are gone insane.

The massive influence of the Christian narrative is a piece of evidence that we remain willfully blind to. We might take it as evidence of Divinity, as how else to explain its clear impact on our human history and now, very recently, on the fate of the very Earth. But it would be wiser to take it as a grand example - the grandest example - of how narrative forms as much as it describes reality. Imagine others. Please!

There are alternatives, you know. It won't be luck that stops the gushing. It will be deliberate acts of care, of doctoring, of re-established equilibrium. It will be our stepping back from this Devil's brink (oh, why must I capitalize that Name?) where sweets and fats and oversalting trump our bodies' sense of safety. We must not slaughter the fatted Earth. Her prodigal Son has not returned. We have fallen.

Now hey, how is it we are so certain the the Earth herself is not in dialogic communion with other organismic planets, huh? Why is our personal narrative so compelling? Who, indeed, do we think we are? If the Earth were conscious, it would be just barely; a babe among babes whose language is only started and almost certainly not yet written.

Or are we that pathetic beginning, despite how impressed we are with our shiny toys and trinkets.

I remember changing my daughters' diapers while having a conversation with them. Assuming consciousness includes some function to control the bowels, it's not enough simply to be able to speak. It's not even enough to be able to read and write. Just now I had to deal again with Dad, who can deploy reason well enough in defense of his angry position that he can still drive a car, but then can't remember the position he's already agreed to after another minute goes by. His anger no longer belongs to him. It's ours, his family's, and utterly dependent on our manner of presentation.

Tonight I will go to a book signing for a book I feel that I must read. It details the demise of Eliot Spitzer who, the book's author claims, might have made some significant difference in the fate this great Empire State now suffers. Another sad instance of the fallacy that mind has dominion over flesh. Spitzer's is, by all accounts, one of the finest minds among the current stock of politicians. And that brilliance is now for naught, just as our most brilliant human contrivances are as naught against the ever so much more powerful juggernaut of our lowest common denominator desires. Rendered up by the magic of capitalist economics to an utter dependence on oil.

We will drive, dammit, and we will eat red meat and we will be angry at any deprivation thereof. If it is so hard to take Dad's car from him, just imagine how tough it will be for the rest of the planet, which still believes that it can hoist itself with the cleverness of its engineered narrative.

Screw that! It is fully NOT necessary that our lust for oil trump every bit of common sense. But the way in which we organize our economy would have to change. As it is, the prizes flow to he or to that organization which best harnesses the lowest part of each of us. These tea baggers are onto something, but they're not in on the joke. They seem to think that decency at the dinner table is the same as decency in the only sense that matters. The cosmic sense.

We may feel virtuous because of our polite behaviors and politically correct actions as we sail our yachts, drive leather upholstered disposable cars, set tables groaning with ethnic delicacies from around the world, and speak of edgy arts. But we are not only no better, we are no different from the pornographer who preys by means of lust. We may shutter our minds, but it's not our minds which lead us.

I am sick to death of people invoking religious or health-based objections to this or that food on offer to them as a guest. I will honor only politically motivated requests, and those only if I may be educated as to the offensive content of what I have on offer. It is not my body's purity which must be defended. Nor is it the precious sensibility of some animal which had to be slaughtered. It is the planet, and our place on it.

Parents who create perfect and perfectly beautiful minds for admission to Yale and Harvard have in fact created analogs of sex slaves; made beautiful by being trained to ape actual thought and adult creation. This is easily enough proven by the choices the graduates of these places largely make for high profile careers and lifestyles and private jets and hauty cuisine. These are, in essence, childish choices. No different from dolled up sex slaves to depraved adult lusts. Good work, helicopter parents! You have created perfect apes of humanity, brilliant in all ways but those which count. Our lust is always for youth, and yet we discount those who act as we know our priests should. They are merely normal, and the priests depraved. But each of us is trained in stimulus response to candy on offer to the babe within us.

What if, instead of the idiotic conception of the human mind as something whose power can be measured, we were to consider it like a tuning fork, in harmony with the entire cosmos. What if the range from hideous to beautiful were considered a range of gifts, and the measure of the character of their properly named embodiment was the distance between the gift and the congruence of its usage with the health of the entire planet. What if intelligence is analog to beauty, and what if all of this is culturally relative.

Would we ever learn to see as truly hideous the winners who indulge only themselves at the expense of everyone on the planet less fortunate? Would we ever learn to see the luscious bodies on display as the monstrous embodiments of decay they really are? Doubtful. But, you know, that was the narrative which got us to this point. That was the burden of Christ's story. It is not our cleverness which can harmonize with the natural impulses of our planet.

Well, this is tiresome. My voice gets weird when I try to work these things out. I would far rather ride my Walmart (guilty!!) bicycle around town on such a sunny day, and marvel at this beautiful but empty city, decked out in springtime glory, waiting for the fall. Wheeee!!!! (plus, I stopped along the way to get my locally roasted Sumatra, which is almost too wonderful to embody in words).

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Power, Control, Metaphors and I'm Beat

President Obama came to town the other day. I wanted to mount my bicycle and ride over to check out the crowds, but instead I learned that Mom would be out for the afternoon, giving me my chance to do the family's bidding and get Dad's car keys from him. I'd taken him to the doctor on Monday, after having gone driving with him several days before, and the verdict was clear.

This was not fun. It felt about like murdering someone you love, who is using every single non-violent tactic in the book to get you to stop. We drew a truce. He gave me the keys just to get me out of his face. I had the legitimate threat to have his license revoked to make me unanswerable. It wasn't exactly a fair fight.

Now I've just returned from a trip to Albany where I hope that I was helpful to a fellow traveller in the game of divorce your feelings. Home again, I notice that the Preakness stakes are about to run, and having somehow gotten snared by the Kentucky Derby, I'm snared again, rooting, of course, for the winning horse and jockey combination; hoping for the odds-defying triple crown. Not to be.

I read of a fellow China watcher, who also watches the blogging and freedom of speech scene in China, who observes that the nature of Chinese blogging is the same as blogging all over. Lots of self-disclosure, blah blah blah.

Of course, I engage in lots of self-disclosure, and it would seem I'm just another Lonely Girl, wanting people to pay attention to my life. But, of course, I prefer to think that I'm developing yet another form of performance art, where the random happenstance of my every day is disclosed as some sort of context for the events of the day on the larger stage which I feel compelled to write about. I say compelled, because, honest, I wouldn't be writing if it weren't that I feel that I have something of some importance to say.

That doesn't mean that I'm saying it here and now and that there's something wrong with you if you don't see it. It means that I feel the need to practice, to work it out, to learn how to write, and, I suppose, to develop what I hear gets called a "voice" to my writing. I'm not sure it's going too well.

It's my sense that "self-disclosure" might lend a kind of credence to what I'm writing about. It tells both why I'm paying attention to what I pay attention to, and relates myself as microcosm to the larger scene. My feelings, after all, count toward my slant on the events on the large stage, and I figure that if I disclose those feelings, and in particular how they might relate to what's going on in my life, then what I write about will be less contrived and abstract and ideological.

Needless to say, I'm not a great believer in logical "truth", truth in any kind of abstract, nor in understanding as an even possible outcome of argument or study or dialog or discussion. I'm disturbed by the certainty which people seem to lead by, as they enter into arguments, take positions. It seems clear enough that there is almost never any grounds for certainty on ideological or scientific or depth of preparation grounds.

There might be, however, grounds for certainty on various emotional grounds. I'm reasonably certain, for instance, that we should stop raping the earth. I'm certain that I would prefer that there weren't so many miserable people on the Earth, and I'm pretty certain that the lack of imagination among those of us with the power of choice have a lot to do - at the very least by our omissions - with the plight of so much of humanity.

The means for amelioration are very very debatable, and I'm always amazed at the certainty displayed by so many people about what means are best. Especially in the face of what is clearly the randomness at the root of most historical sequences.

So, it seems clear to me that my Dad need not attach so much significance to his ability to drive a car. It is clear to me that if he were still reasonable, he would be able to stand beside himself, as it were, and agree that it's just not a good idea. He would do that if he were blind. But in this case, it's his cognitive abilities which are lacking. Plus some real deficits in what might be called reaction time. There is some horrific Catch-22 at work here. He hasn't the sense to discern the irrationality of his demands.

For Europeans and Americans north of the equator, and increasingly for people everywhere, to own a car means to be a free agent. There is no way that the Earth can support this collective compulsion toward such an extreme manifestation of such personal freedom, but each of us who has it seems loathe, ever, to give it up. The very economy is organized to make it seem as though our vehicular freedom not only makes economic sense, but is even economic necessity. You can't even get to the first square of making a living without one.

So, in that sense, we are, as a people, as irrational - as embedded in our own personal Catch-22 - as is my Dad. He isn't 'with it' enough to understand why he must not drive. He only knows that something very important is being taken away from him. He also knows that he's a good driver. In terms of body memory, that remains true. But he can't find the right pedals if he thinks about it. Only if he doesn't.

Now, I know you think I'm going to attempt some kind of environmentalist case about how each of our cars must be prised from us in the same way that Dad's was from him. But I'm not. I wouldn't give that enterprise a snowball's chance in hell.

No, what interests me now is how certain we all are that the Chinese, for instance, are just simply dead wrong in their censorship of what we call "free speech." We are certain that such censorship will doom their form of capitalism, just as we labor to bring them fully into the Western regime of intellectual property protections. They not only censor free speech, but they tacitly encourage theft of intellectual property, in the form of industrial knock offs, but most prominently, in the form of software theft. Media theft. General laxity about copyright and copy protection

Perhaps this is just as evil of them as their artificial pegging of their currency to the dollar, instead of letting it float freely according to market forces. I guess that they like to manipulate the directionality and quantity of import/export flows. It all just seems unfair. As though they are able to get for free what the rest of the world must pay for., As though they have inputs to their economic engine which they have not properly earned.

Well, no-one earns their winnings. No one earns the natural resources they are lucky enough to find under their ground. No-one earns their smarts of the social capital they started their schooling with.

Just today, I learned from the radio, some on this side of some great divide are celebrating this new piece of stealth software which is being deployed by hand to hand combat in Iran against the totalitarian regime which our American narrative insists that they have. I'm certain that theirs is a god-awful regime, but I'm not entirely sure about how this software achievement should be received.

For a long while, there have been ways to skirt around firewalls and censors by going through anonymizing proxy sites, and by using encryption. But this product offers to go a few steps further, so that you don't even have to go so far as to disclose your intentions in the first place by heading over to that wrong part of the Internet town.

Since it can't be downloaded, for obvious reasons having to do with the censors spoofing or infiltrating the download site - in the target country, the censors presumably  have privileged access - the idea is to distribute this software hand to hand from trusted person to trusted person. They were very public about making Iran 'target regime number one.' They were coy about which country would be number two, but only a fool wouldn't bet on China. (Although you can easily see why naming China as a part of any 'axis of evil' would get a little dicey really quickly, since, well, they hold all that debt of ours)

OK, so even apart from the liklihood that dissident Iranians (or Chinese, for that matter) will actually trust that this software is somehow pure, coming as it does from the U.S. of A. Hell, even apart from the liklihood of you or I trusting that it hasn't somehow been concocted by our own government's secret services as a stealthy way to infiltrate and co-op the friendly to the U.S. ranks of these targeted countries. I mean, who really knows about the viruses attacking the Afghani opium crop, you know? And even apart from the simplicity with which the target regime could insert their own stealthy code for use in rounding up the usual suspects (that's a hack so trivial, even I could accomplish it)

Even apart from all that, what I want to know is why this kind of software is any different from all the various techniques now out there to aid and abet the criminals among us who would steal digital property by sharing files and keygen cracks and pictures and music and all the rest. It's the use to which the software is put that gets celebrated.

Fact is, of course, that the reason we sell so much more software around here than gets stolen is purely ideological. Well, OK, there might be a little bit of fear of getting caught thrown in, but our narrative about why the Chinese don't speak freely about their government would have it only because they are afraid to do so. Even while we marvel at how fully co-opted the Chinese intelligentsia have become, we seem to think they would speak freely if only they weren't afraid to.

Supposedly, the Chinese self-censor because they are afraid of government sanctioned consequences, and it is this fear which tones the language well on the inside of some kind of shifty and only partially discernible barrier.

But is it fear which keeps us honest, or some kind of true belief in the fundamental validity of intellectual property law? If we win, we want to be able to keep our winnings. If we come out with something first, then we want to be able to lay claim. Even though this approach, like all and every one of us owning a private powered vehicle, will doom us all collectively. We equate intellectual property rights to the chastity of our spouse, the inviolability of our private space and the ownership of our bank accounts. Well unless our stuff is ill gotten, in which case, all bets are off.

Let me ask you. Do you think it's fair that farmers who don't police their land to be sure that no stray patented seeds are taking root should be sued for patent infringment (our courts do)? Do you think that someone surfing for adult pornography should be held accountable when some site slips in child porn which is then discoverable on that hapless lonely person's hard drive? Do you think that users of health insurance should be accountable to understand all the rules before getting sick, on threat of being financially accountable for expenses incurred as ordered by expert health care practitioners (I have stories to tell)?

The Chinese arrange things a little differently is all. I imagine they never did learn anything about the inviolability of private space, and chastity was always more about pledges than romance, and well, as to the bank accounts, until recently, private wealth was never a real possibility.

My guess is that the most dangerous move the Chinese government has ever made was to open the possibility for personal ownership of automobiles. This was as calculated risk, since the automobile has been the engine of vibrant economies the world over. And it would be hard to stop it without stopping the exuberance of the Chinese economic miracle altogether. But the danger of the automobile is that it will embed notions of personal autonomy, the inviolability of personal and private space, and the priority of individual rights and possession over all else. Demands for free speech will follow, right?

It's not, in other words, that the Great Firewall of China won't be able to keep up with the quest for freedom of thought and speech craved by the newly wealthy and emboldened citizenry. Rather, it is that the citizenry will forget about its individual responsibility to labor in concert with the interests of the whole. It would be as though the entire U.S. populations collectively and suddenly decided it would be alright to "steal" digital property. It would be like the futile exercise of trying to get people to stop smoking dope, or before that, to get them to stop drinking alcohol. Not gonna happen.

OK, so I've got to find some way to wind this up. Over here, we are getting all exercised that Google would sneak up on us, Facebook would give away our privacy rights, ignorant that it's all a grudge match against Bill Gates' company, because of what he once did to the leaders of these newer upstart companies. They have tried and tried to brand themselves as something other than the goon-squad of Microsoft's marketing engine, and in the end look rather, well, evil.

But this stuff is trivial and almost meaningless up against what agribusiness does in defense of their patents over genetically modified crops. This is as nothing against the consequences of our mono-culture when the bee population risks collapse, and global starvation is one virus away from a genetically neutered food production regime. The powers of natural evolution have been stopped dead in their tracks by the American Intellectual Property regime, which has ensured that most of the food the world over is dependent on both petroleum and a very very few genetic lines. Not quite as few as were allowed for stem cell research or as get used for cancer research, but you get the idea.

Nature requires diversity in the face of stresses. Especially such global stresses as are being applied by humanity against the entire planet. Intellectual property law now is like Nature rewarding the winners of some evolutionary contest with rights in perpetuity against all possible variants. Sure, the intellectual rights are termed, and I can read my Melville free, but for Monsanto or ADM, they have all the marbles, and are pretty much guaranteed to be able to keep improving their patented varieties of whatever mono-cultural corn is most effectively produced on the back of cheap oil. The term never runs out for so long as there is "innovation" once you have the monopoly. Another Microsoft lesson.

So here I am very nearly favoring Chinese censorship over freedom of speech, for so long as freedom of speech is constrained by copyright and intellectual property law. I do so for the sake of the planet. Of course, only an idiot ever really believed that there is any such thing as free speech. Speech is one of the most dangerous tools at our disposal. Just try talking your Dad out of his car keys. But wait until he's too old to hurt you.

Meanwhile, if they had any sense, good farmers everywhere would do the bidding of the patent holding companies. They would boycott agribusiness altogether, plant biologically diverse crops using proven techniques for combatting pestilent hoards of insects and smaller organic enemies. We would all refuse to purchase any digital product that is copy protected, or protected by any sort of digital rights management. We would disclose our full identity and particulars over the Internet, just like the Chinese make their citizens do. And we would work assiduously within the constraints of powers deployed against us to be sure that we are never ever placed in the position of utter powerlessness to know which actions of our own are consequential and which are not.

I'd say it's a toss up which regime is more dangerous in that regard. As I drive, I must remain ever vigilant of the tricky speed limit signs. As I submit my written work to the academy, I must somehow first use the same tools my professors will use to check for snippets which might, by happenstance or perhaps by some workings of my subconcsious, match those of published authors from whom I will be assumed, by default, of stealing.

Google now will do this for me, and remove from exposure anything I might have seemed to cut and paste. Will they soon learn to discern the idea that was never mine in the first place, and remove my very thoughts? Or will I learn to game their system, submit my writings first to the 'hand me in' engines, change a few phrases until I pass, and then fool the professors into thinking I'm that much smarter than I am. Catch me if you can . . .

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Volcanic Ashes

How shall we then remain composed? When even Ginsberg's Howl would get no play were it written today? Now that those 15 minutes of fame are moving in the direction of equal distribution in some kind of bizarre lockstep against the flow of money magma, which concentrates, ever concentrates at some pinnacle of vertical marketing miracles of patented mono-cultural seed creations, meant to feed the world, cross linked with particular pesticides and fertilizers, it looks a lot like evil.

How render good from ill events? Will the weather be changed by the eruptions? Will there be perpetual winter now to mock our enthusiasms for global warming? Will the jet engines condense the ash to glass on their internal workings and fall to earth? Will all of China run amok in school now, seeking treatment for psychological ills not even recognized in a culture which could use some Prozac nationalism?

My news is so fragmented. There are brilliant YouTubes to have just missed in their true season, which is about a mayfly's lifespan. There are longish emails against the tide of children now, who only twitter and might respond to a composed email months beyond its ripeness. Days seem like months. A moment is eternity.

There is lust conveyed between bored bodies getting off, and only in the mind of some viewer. There are authors abundant, published and republished because they are read because they are published. But the fragmentation is positively tectonic. As though the earth were moving beneath our feet. As though the overheated core was about to spew forever, slick upon our surfaces, waging some kind of war against our presumption of innocence.

Which accidents will we count? Which discount? Which give away for free? There surely can be no meaning when the plates shift, which would have nothing at all to do with our preparation to be disturbed by them. But that we could, remember, wink out in a nod, which is something less than an instant. Because within it there remains an I. Which accident do you prefer? There are so many on offer.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Too Much Complexity?

OK, so if you read about the oil rig which blew up, you'll find that the operation had as much complexity as the space shuttle. If you read about the stock market's recent wild fluctuations, you'll find that there are interactions among all the computer assisted trading systems which are simply impossible to plumb. If you follow the recent history of the CERN supercollider, you'll find that earnest physicists suggest much simpler experiments to test the limits of control.

The trouble with the CERN fate-testing experiments is that they won't work unless you make an earnest effort actually to do the underlying measurement. You can't trick fate. So, the idea is that you build the machine to find out if the Higgs boson really exists, but you insert into the control apparatus a kind of random process like tossing dice - and then if the dice toss comes up that far from random, to some degree similar to the liklihood of all the complex parts of the supercollider working in concert, you don't actually have to make the machine work. You can consider it a message from the lacunae where God is thought to reside, that the experiment will be fruitless. That's what beating the odds in this case would mean.

In other words, you will have made a machine with enough complexity to change the odds of probabilty for something as well understood as the toss of dice. Something trivially simple like that. Everybody knows that you can't change the odds of random events, but this model suggests that this is exactly what the supercollider itself is attempting to do. The limits of control are in collision with the limits of control.

This, of course, is "meant" to be something only God can do. It's what's meant  by the word miracle.

Now any given miracle can be chalked up as that natural and mathematically inevitable fluctuation in random stuff. A coin which always came up heads then tails then heads then tails, while it wouldn't change the odds, would be just as bizarre as one which came up heads 100 times in a row. Neither one could be called a "fair" coin.

But somebody will win the lottery, even though the odds of that particular someone winning are astronomically against him. That's what's meant by beating the odds. Winning. It's only a miracle if some desperate emotion is involved. Well, desperate emotions are in plentiful supply, so I can easily imagine that almost every beating of the odds feels like miracle or catastrophe to someone. I guess it gets to be a miracle if it seems connected to some seeming act of extreme wanting which, if your think about it, is a funny thing to think of as an act.

As you know, I just finished reading this quite wonderful book about a smart fellow who came to the rational conclusion that life is better lived without such an absurd concept as God. He presents plenty of evidence, or rather, he represents that he's seen plenty of evidence, that there is no evidence that prayer "works" or that religious people act according to any higher moral standard than the rest of us. And then he represents plenty of evidence that religious organizations seem capable of behaviors, in defense of themselves, even more horrific when you examine them, than the faults by omission of such mega-corporations as BP Oil, or Toyota, or AIG, or take your pick.

Part of what makes these behaviors horrific is of course that these religious organizations purport to represent Jesus, or perhaps Mohammed, and that the person in whose Name they act would never condone or execute the behaviors done in defense of the institution created in His name. Calculations apparently get made about the greatest good to the greatest number, and, well, the little guy is just plain screwed. Um, literally. And, globally, the church behaves no better, and perhaps worse, than the globo-cap predators of our enthusiasms.

Recently, I was asked to exercise my privilege as a graduate of Yale College, to vote for one of three candidates on a slate of proposed board members, some of whom get chosen by alumni. I'm vaguely proud of this process, since unlike so many college or other boards, it seems to give the little guy - me - a say in the governance of the Institution which anointed me.

Well, except that of course this is a ridiculous proposition, since the number of intellectual lefties among the minor hoard of graduates would likely fit into a school auditorium. If you aren't an extravagantly successful inventor, scientist, capitalist, author, professor, runner of institutions, then Yale has failed you famously. Or perhaps there's something wrong with your psyche. Something you could deploy a pill against.

One of the candidates seemed like a superman inventor. Apparently just popping with ideas about how to cure disease, but also popping with lots of money from his endeavors. Wouldn't you just love to know how to cure all your genetic deficiencies? We already do the silicone implant nose-job stuff, but now you can nurse hopes to cure such things as Turettes, or well, you just have to imagine that the sky's the limit, right?

Or are deficiencies sometimes not exactly deficiencies? We lefties once heaped venom at that Harvard dude, Herrnstein, who studied IQ (the Bell Curve) and had the temerity to suggest that blacks were genetically deficient in that measure compared to whites (he's dead now, so we can talk about him). But we should be careful about our battles. What if it turned out that the genome really is divergent according to geographic dispersals, and that humanity doesn't consist in genetic capacity? I mean, what if there's a whole range of genotypes which could qualify for full humanity, but some were stupider than others by some measure?

Why should this be any more shocking than that white blondes show up more often on nudie sites? (Do they? I may be making an unwarranted assumption). Or that there are more fast runners who are black? (are there?)?

I just re-met this former student of mine who is "profoundly dyslexic." I was gratified to hear him describe this "defect" as an asset when it comes to certain ways of understanding. I've worked at a school for dyslexics, and conducted a fair amount of reading and research on the topic (although you couldn't call any of it really organized), and had concocted my own sense that what he told me might be true. That there is a different and largely non-analytical way to see things, for which facility with the logical arrangements of the written language might get in the way.

The example used by this fellow was from his current work as the "incentives director" at a large public school in the Bronx. Coming into the school, he questioned the wisdom of using expulsion as a punishment for kids who misbehaved. Especially when what was wanted was inclusion. So, he implements and supervises a system of positive feedback rewards for good behaviors, which give the kids the ability to participate in a periodic hip-hop in-school rave. I guess no-one wants to be left out.

Of course, this sort of behaviorism is what got old Herrnstein in so much trouble. It fairly (or unfairly?) formed the political battle lines at Harvard, reverberating throughout the land, between the biological/evolutionary determinists and the liberals.

OK, I know I'm jumping all around here. I always do! And I'm laboring to restrain myself about what's up with cellular internet, computer operating systems, and a few more things which all seem connected in my random mind. But getting back to where I started - too much complexity, ha! - a lot of time it does seem as though there is some basic opposition between a way to understand things which is based on logical scaffolding, and a different way which is based on a matrix of interconnections, and never mind the logic.

When things get too complex, sometimes it's really hard not to imagine clever minds feverishly at work looking for ways to take advantage. You know, the stock market when it spiked downward gave tremendous opportunity to anyone who would have known about it ahead of time to buy valuable stock at bargain basement prices. Well, actually, at a whole lot less than bargain basement.

Lots of people just can't suspend the temptation, say, if no-one's looking and something is there for the taking. In the midst of complexity, if you happen to find a weak spot where flicking a lever might just have a massive outsized impact, why wouldn't you do it just to take advantage? So sometimes it might not be about clever minds so much as about perfect positioning. Right place, right time, lucky.

OK, so it's so windy right at the moment that my apartment is shaking. No, I'm not just imagining this. It really does shake when it gets really windy. It's kind of unnerving, but it also does serve to remind me about the limits of control. The weather is a very complex matter, although one now where lots of us are worried about human impacts; a kind of wilding of the weather caused, paradoxically enough, by our trying too hard to make our own lives more predictable, comfortable, and, well, civilized. Except, of course, for the humans whose lives have been immiserated in that effort though no deficiency in themselves other than the accident of birthplace, skincolor, intelligence perhaps, or gender.

The trouble with complexity, when it's human engineered, seems to be that it allows way too much temptation for someone with the right kind of knowledge and position to take way too much advantage. Plus, in the case of the Large Hadron supercollider, for instance, if only a few people actually do understand both how to construct the device, if it can possbly work, and how to guarantee random to the extent that the dice-throw cheapening device inserted into its control mechanism is really random, then for the rest of us it's still all a confidence game.

We'd have to trust the integrity of those in on the design. We might say that the dice inserted weren't really fair dice, or that the experiment wasn't really designed actually to work, corners being cut, and so forth. That if it were really designed to work, the only proof could be its working, just as the only proof for fair dice would be to try them lots and lots of times outside of their insertion into the running of the massively complex apparatus into whose control stream they've been inserted. But the point of insertion is exactly what's meant by sleight of hand. How could one know? What would be the various motives?

We'll never ever know. Except that the results of, say, our economy make it look as though the game is rigged. The winners keep on winning and the losers, well, they're out of luck.

One thing which is perfectly knowable is that we could deploy our human efforts in different ways than is now being accomplished. We don't have to give so much power to accidental advantages of place, genetics, upbringing, whatever. Those things should dissipate once spent, and not feed back on themselves like some kind of nuclear chain reaction. What gets fed back should be such things as love, warmth, protection.

What does, in fact, get fed back now by the taking advantage of what one has been lucky enough to come by  is more ability to take more advantage. Power, by any other name. And there seems to be no limit to the desire of human beings to concentrate that in the face of mortality. No limit at all.

But the interesting thing is that the powerful are never the ones actually doing the work. They don't design the incredibly complex oil rigs to suck the oil out from beneath a mile of ocean and then another seven miles beneath that.  They don't design the incredibly complex trading and odds-calculating instruments which get deployed in the trading of our various futures. They just call the shots and calculate the odds from a position where things like the weather and normal odds are, for practical purposes, non-existent.  These are not bets at all. Just simply calculations, where winning is utterly assured. If you're calling shots, you're already a winner.

Well, until complexity overwhelms even the bank, and the whole complicated construct comes crashing down, or blowing up, and then the guy calling the shots is suddenly aware of the things which can't be predicted. Sometimes the whole economy melts down. Sometimes the well blows. Sometimes things go wrong, even though they've been done smoothly a thousand times before.

Actually, in fact, that's the only thing that's really certain. If one well is going to blow, according to reasonable and calculable odds, after the point when a few thousand have been drilled, but if only one of them blowing is required to wreck the whole game, then is it morally acceptable to keep drilling?

Would you play Russian roulette? What if there were 1000 chambers and the reward was $1 million bucks? What if the show were put on TV? How many times would it be fair to play it? Certainly not a thousand times! After a certain point, it is near certainty that someone is going to have his head blown off!

How about if the family were to get the million even if his head gets blown off? Then it's all win/win, right? No losers except for the guy who's no longer there. Who was, if he was sane, willing to lose in the first place. Now the trouble is that you'd have to set up a lottery to determine who gets to play, since rationally just about everyone on the planet would want to play against those odds. Imagine the insurance policies, and the money that could be made premised on the general public's idiocy when it comes to basic math.

Something about the picture is morally repugnant, no? But the thing is that this is pretty much how we do organize our economy. The real winners are the ones who have the savvy to set up the insurance funds. The ones who get the math. The ones who call the, um, shots.

From this perspective, things don't look so much like conspiracy plots to immiserate people, or peoples. Corpoprate titans start to look a lot like priests. Sure there are some pedarists, but the really guilty parties are the ones who protect the institution at the expense of the victims. And their number is legion.

No, wait, our number is legion (numbers are?). The victims. Why, indeed, do we give all these priests that much power?

Next time, I promise, I'll talk me about Operating Systems. How the big mega corporations have finally figured out that there is no real distinction between hardware and software. That people just want the machine to work seamlessly and they don't really care what goes on inside it to make it so. That making it seamless is easier, a la Apple, if you control the whole design. That these big corporate honchos are getting tired of having Microsoft bossism control all their shots. That the famous WebOS from Palm can make the basis for a killer iPad competitor, HP branded, which contains nothing from Microsoft. That it's all about the cloud and getting 4G access to it from anywhere. Which is two or three orders of magnitude more bandwidth than we get now. Which is a lot. So, TV and video conferencing from anywhere and everywhere on anything. Which is a whole lot more powerful than what happened back in '89 on Tiananmen square, powered by nascent cellphones and, shades of Model T, faxes (????!!!!).


Talk about truth to power! How are the Chinese going to firewall point to point realtime screen connections? And how are they going to power their economy without them?

Wouldn't it be really cool if all the burgeoning complexity of our world, gifted us by the accident of oil, was tending toward the stunning and spectacular simplicity of individual people making informed judgement about other individual people so that they could decide who and what to trust? If losing a job or getting a speeding ticket or being fired for your political beliefs might cost you only a chance at winning some lottery, but were not accompanied by the raw terror of wrecking your day, your year, your life?

Each of us does depend on the stunning complexity of the natural order. What if we were to put human barriers in the way of replacing that complexity with the ordered complexity which springs from the abstract human mind; of the sort which is, after all, guaranteed to fail, periodically. Nature makes use of failure according to the marvelous processes of evolution. Humanity, it now seems, wants to ensure failure by building dependence on a kind of logical complexity into as much as we can about as much of our lives as we can extend it to. This is lunacy. This can only provide a guarantee of an unhappy end.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Buffalo Bloodline

Although I'm not settled enough to be a subscriber, sometimes I think the Buffalo News is written exclusively for me. The other day, I saw a notice for the Boom Day ball drop. I rode my bicycle along the breakwater which goes under the Peace Bridge where I was pretty much the only one to watch the event. I'd expected at least a small crowd. What people had come were all dignitaries on the Fireboat, but I still felt the hosing was all for me!

WHAT A HOSER, EH?

Then yesterday, I decided to see how hard it would be to bike down to the Small Boat Harbor, since the News had indicated that one of its new draws is a bike path. Along the way, I found that I could ride up to the top of a parking ramp alongside Pilot field, and watch the ball game as though I'd bought a ticket. Whoops! Coca-Cola field. I find on Wikipedia that I've blown right by Dunn Tire Park. Well, anyhow, it's the home of the Triple-A Bisons. Whoops, I guess that's "International League." I'm so out of touch. Or do even names just go to the highest bidder now?

From my perch on the parking ramp, the stadium looked pretty empty. I had a blast zooming back down the levels, although it sure did look as though the beams were going to clip my head off. You can't ride your bicycle over the Skyway Bridge anymore, so if I wanted to get to the Small Boat Harbor, I was going to have to do the drawbridge thing. It made me a little nervous, since I'd bicycled down there the other day to the General Mills plant, where they make Cheerios, and the young guard told me "you can't be here" even though it looked like a public road. They must have worried I would be secretly counting rats or something.

I'm a little skittish about these things, like the other day when I pulled aside to let the siren by and then the cop figured I must be guilty of something so she followed me off to the side. You know, you try to do the right thing . . . like I eat Cheerios all the time for my high cholesterol. Why don't they want me hanging around?

So I ended up biking down this long and really lonely, and very wide thoroughfare, feeling like I'm in a Hitchcock movie, knowing all the while that this used to be bustling with factories and businesses of all sorts. The one newish and clean  looking plant had a realtor's sign on it, which can't be a good, um, sign. I checked on my handly smartphone, and sure enough the place had been closed down upon buyout. I  guess this is more evidence of the efficiency of our capital markets.

Eventually, I did get down to the Small Boat Harbor. It's a Sunday, and the weather is fine (although thunder storms had been called for), but there isn't exactly a crowd there.


But there are people in Dug's Dive, and there is a bike path. It's still early. I'd learned from the News that the Harbor had been opened two weeks early because of our fine spring, and I guess the boats were still on their way in:


You know, it's actually a bit tricky to follow the designated bike paths around Buffalo. Some places have signs, and sometimes you can see the faded outline of the bike path on the roadway - washed down from the famously harsh winter - but then sometimes it just seems to end, and you find yourself on a road where no-one else seems to have ever thought of biking.

The same thing happened in reverse when I biked past the Small Boat Harbor. This time there was a brand new asphalt bike path, which still has yet to be completed and doesn't have it's painted striping yet. I followed it along, past the smoking fishermen - I think that might be a reason to escape to such places; you can smoke in public. Well, it would be public if anyone else were around.


I ended up at the old headquarters for the long since closed Bethlehem Steel Plant, which looked far worse up close than it does from the highway, although its grass was mown.  It is a beautiful structure, and I was struck again how much the old business edifices, striving for a kind of legitimacy, look the same as schools from the era, striving for the same.


I sat there for a while, chatting on my cellphone, feeling very much as though I was still in the Hitchcock film, in some nowhere crossroads, with some catastrophe impending. The building is right next to some offices for the water authority, which did seem to be populated on a Sunday. Since these are Homeland Security protected sites now, I wasn't sure about getting pulled over again. I remember once or twice in Taiwan, innocently taking a picture only to have some guard appear seemingly out of nowhere, becuase I'd managed to take a shot of some infrastruture installation. I think they were paranoid about having targets identified by mainlanders.

Well, that ship has sailed, but still it seemed as though I should keep moving. Heading back along the trail, I couldn't help wondering about the legislative process which created this path, apparently just for me. There was landscaping and new planting, and the bases for what promised to be some nice lighting, although such signs as there were all seemed to indicate "closed after dusk." Government decision-making can be so confusing sometimes.

ROAD TO SOMEWHERE?


See, there's Buffalo rising in the distance. I did notice, on my way out from the Boat Harbor, that there is another paved bike path which would take me down past the Tifft Nature preserve. I almost can't imagine that anyone else would ride this one, but there it was, just for me.


I decided to keep going, heading into South Buffalo. By now, I'd gotten familiar with the expectation that the bike path would end, but I was pretty sure that I could make my way back home along South Park Ave., and that it wouldn't be much longer than the way I'd come. Perhaps less desolate?

But there is a really long stretch of Fuhrman Boulevard where I did actually pass another biker, though he was walking his bike along with fishing gear and looked to be heading to where I was coming from. Another view from another bridge of another way in to Buffalo:

TRACKS WHICH USED TO GO SOMEWHERE?

Anyhow, along I went, catching the flag on the huge South Park high school through someone's back yard. This one doesn't look quite so stately as the Bethlehem Steel offices - it must have come along at some more modern period of efficient production. I used to supervise student teachers in this facility, and let me tell you, there is a kind of martial efficiency going on in there.



Well, further along was an older, more stately school, where the kids had a bit more freedom



Still, you can see the direction of things. Now, a lot of the schools I rode by are special "charter schools" where the thing to do seems to be to find a theme, and move backward along the liberating assumption that all kids would benefit from general education, and maybe try to fit them sooner into whatever it is they're most fit for. The funny thing is that this just seems to leave the ordinary public schools whose purpose still is general education full of those kids who aren't fit for much. Anyhow, I'm sure glad I never had to decide about my fate that early. Otherwise, I'd be stuck in it right now, you know, having a clue about what I'd like to do for the rest of my life. 

Well, I have lots more pictures, and thousands upon thousands more words. I really wanted to paste up here the pictures from a recent canoe trip when I saw the other side of all these things from the perspective of the Buffalo River, but paddling a canoe in the city is even stranger than riding a bicycle, and you'd probably get really really bored. Or maybe it's just me?

Anyhow, it's really really hard to see any sort of renaissance amid all this vacant space where things used to get made. I even saw the offices of the massive hydroponic tomato greenhouse complex which was being put up during one canoe trip, and magically disappeared before the next one. I should have been reading the Buffalo News every day, and then I would have known what the heck was going on, you know? The headquarters still looked pretty spiffy. Maybe they sold all that glass to Dubai or Abu Dabi or something. Like they need greenhouses in the desert. Oh.

Well, there it is. My city. It used to be a thriving place, just like I used to be a young  man. You have to squint really hard to see a bright future. For the city, I mean. Obviously I won't be getting any younger. You know, we're all doomed by our astrological accidents, like who we chose for parents, what the great roulette wheel in the sky had in store for us, whether we're on this side or that of some border or other.

These are all the accidents of birth. Sometimes they become the accidents of death and dying. Sometimes it's how you look at things. To tell you the truth, when I ride (or paddle) through Buffalo, I see lots of possibility. It's like a blank slate. We could try other things besides letting global capitalism put labor against the wall of too cheap to meter. We could take the oil out of most production processes, and bring the work back home. We could make it really costly to commute out to the lawn-belt, and by mixing it up a little better, make it really safe to live in cities. Modern industrial production doesn't even need to be hazardous or exclusive of kids who might want to learn.

These are choices, which bloodlines are not. Or maybe we really don't care about what got us here anymore. Well, at least the cars did stop to let a few geese across the road. If you squint, you can see the chicks. Peeking out behind the old grain elevators are windmills. It's easier to see possibility in Spring, don't you think?


Yet Another Unreadable Review of a Very Readable Book

Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America-and Found Unexpected Peace Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America-and Found Unexpected Peace by William Lobdell


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
OK, so I find this really funny: Just yesterday, I was visiting my extremely well-read friend who is just exactly 20 years older than me, and facing not just his mortality, but the fact that he can no longer master things. A cellphone, for instance. Or walking to the library to return a book which friends had so helpfully transported him to borrow. There was some sense of resentment that the return trip, whether by him walking or by the helpmates returning, was never anticipated. Getting old can really make a person cranky, don't I know.

Well, of course, I offered to return the book along my way, since I would be walking right by the library. But, well, you know, I glanced at the book, and decided I might like to read it. Despite the lines of people no doubt more justified in their desire than I am in mine, queued up in orderly fashion as the computer can now arrange.

I wasted no time, and am only now an hour and a half beyond the library's opening, so I don't feel too bad. Nor, for that matter do I regard it as a terrible sin that my friend had once pilfered some hundreds of dollars in library fines proffered him in a part-time job he once held as a college student, when he realized that there was quite literally no accounting for the fines. I guess it weighed enough on him to tell me. I guess my own sin of stealing a read from this book weighs on me that much. So I'm confessing it publicly, dear reader, to you. Yes, I secretly read books about religion. Off the record. Privately.

Anyhow, I was just dying to see how this story would unfold. I was glad to find the author not overly intellectual. He is honest in his telling, and skilled as the celebrated journalist he actually is. I could easily get away with this without any worry about any accounting. Ordinarily a somewhat painfully slow reader, I do find that I can be extraordinarily quick if the read is of merely professional interest. I guess that's the case with this one.

I mean, I've differed from Richard Dawkin's take on religion, suggesting that he throws the baby out with the bathwater, to make an utterly atrocious pun on Jesus. This one disappoints me for mildly different reasons. And those, if you are a careful reader, have already been embodied in what I've written to this point here and now. It seems that baby Jesus has now been placed in some sort of limbo. And it's hard for me to get past the pure coincidence of the book landing in my hands.

Well, it would be if there were any program to my reading at all.

The book ends with a kind of celebration of Howard Stern. I must say that just as the movie "8 Mile" did for me on behalf of the rapper M&M, I may have to take another listen to Howard Stern. I'd rather thought him to be a celebrant of gross and crude, which of course, he is, and, you know, I'm in favor of better taste than that. But there seems to be something about honesty and openness that I'm missing.

Well, until you see what's generally hidden by attempts to distinguish, by rules of civility, the ranks of us radically equal humans, I guess you don't really know what gross is. Which it is the burden of this book to expose. Not just the evil of the Church or churches of whatever denomination, but the evil more generally of the fictions we pose for ourselves. The fictional postures we make of ourselves. The fictional narrative we try to fit ourselves to. Etc.

But, you know, ultimately if playing out a role in public makes me somehow less than good, I'd like to see the gutsy person I'm meant to be. Or rather, yuch, no I wouldn't! A bit of taste is a good thing. I've never cared very much for Howard Stern, but then again I never really considered him very different from lots of priests I've known. They just cloak it better. Sorry.

So yeah, no personal God for certain. But not quite random either. Now, I've gotta go see a Man about a Book. It's the decent thing to do. Plus, I wouldn't want to be accountable for my friend's fines. Oh. I meant I've gotta go see an institution about a book, silly. There's just no accounting for Capitals in English.

Confused? Me too. But I can say this about religion. Get lost! You're in the way of my life, which has always been partly truth and partly fiction. I think the author agrees with me. Maybe.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Illegal border crossings are on my mind today, the day after May Day (OK, now it's the day after the day after). May Day is the international day of celebration for labor. It got its start in the United States, but at some point it made us nervous. We tamed the day and moved it to coincide with the start of school each fall.

I celebrated with a house-busting crowd at Subversive Theatre last night. Funny. There is a ton of parking at this former factory facility, but last night it was over-full. Turns out there was a fashion show of some kind at the same venue. I had to park on the grass.

What a day! I caught the Kentucky Derby. They opened the Small Boat Harbor. Someone planted a carbomb and got Times Square evacuated. Subversive Theatre gets a full house! I learned about Mother Jones, who was, I believe, channeled more than she was acted out. It was as though a ghost was present, as we all sang songs of labor; defiance of the capitalist Man.

I missed the real protest march, some small echo of the big one I heard they had in L.A. But I was there in spirit, asleep on my couch, blacked out somehow from too much excitement the day before, although I can't remember exactly what I'd been doing. Oh yeah! Reading my ghost story. Staying out late afterward to have dinner with a friend.

Then last night my phone rang three times before I figured out that someone really needed to get in touch with me. I didn't recognize the area code. It was my daughter on a borrowed phone, distraught because her own had been stolen. M'aidez papa!

Three dots three dashes and three more dots, the universal call for help at sea. Well, I'm at sea. I told them at the reading, trying to locate the story I was about to read, that I'd translated it some 30 years ago while living aboard my old wooden sailboat. The one I just now gave away. It was my molted cocoon somehow, and I'd thought I'd emerged from it that many years ago, but in fact I am only recently shed of it.

And now I'm stuck in some sort of limbo. No income, no clear sense of where I'll be living come labor day. No sense of any further energy to endure more labor pains for myself aborning. I never could fall back to sleep last night. My heart had taken on a kind of ringing beat. My mind would not let go of the day.

No question for me that the labor movement, proper, must itself now move offshore. These goods and services we pay so little for are created on the backs of workers in some Chinese or Indian sweatshop. We have exported all the misery we once fought so hard against. And now even those on the left seem all too eager to regain control of our borders, as though that will ever work.

The osmotic pressure at our limits goes both ways. Capitalists have always craved desperate workers to put alongside the ones who have become too comfortable. That's what the union movement was all about. Now unions have been rendered not just irrelevant but somehow deserving of the contempt of working folks. It's all very very confusing.

This will be a lazy post I should have posted yesterday, but I was too busy taking a bike ride to check out the city. Stay tuned . . .

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Countdown in Cairo - GoodReads review

Countdown in Cairo (Russian Trilogy, #3) Countdown in Cairo by Noel Hynd


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have just now finished this third in Noel Hynd's Russian Trilogy. It must be said that I have never read a trilogy so well conceived as such. Each book stands on its own, and yet reading all three lends depth and satisfaction to the whole.

At the beginning of Part II of this volume, Alex, the accidental master spy of the series, remembers how she got her start. A young student alone in Europe, she faced and mastered that most extreme form of self-reliance - away from home in alien surroundings but without even rudimentary experience. She'd had to trust and to judge and to master alien tongues and ways. She might have turned around, but random bits of luck enabled her not to. Others might have ignored them, or mistrusted potentially dangerous offers of help. She's a good reader of the people and signs around her.

What is a spy but someone who must, on pain of instant death, master all the subtle signals the rest of us can safely ignore as random happenings? Nothing is random when you are plotting against powerful people able to deploy armies against you. Everything can become a sign. Everything can have meaning. Nothing is as it seems - it's meant not to be.

And what is a spymaster - a writer of spy novels - if not someone who can convince the reader that his descriptions are trued to the actual goings on among those with decision making power over our own lives? As a Buffalo boy, Hynd almost lost me with his ham handed description of a terrorist border crossing near Buffalo, the impossibility for which would be obvious to anyone who bothered to consult a map. But nothing is as it seems, and I must forgive.

But of course, that minor lapse served mostly to highlight this good author's truest artistry; to get the reader to keep turning the pages, which happened for me all too quickly. The particulars gain your confidence for the larger scheme, and it, in turn, makes you want to know this protagonist's innermost workings. What will she do, how will she feel, why does she do it.

Of course, she doesn't really know. Neither does the author, who also writes to find out. Why would any of us put ourselves in harms way? Alex doesn't exactly buy even her own handlers' motives for deploying her the way that they do. They are automatically included among those she can't entirely trust. She is hardly a blind patriot. She is not a rote order taker.

But all of us are, in fact, in harms way all the time. The real question Alex sets out to answer is the one all of us really would rather not bother with, or have its answer handed to us somehow, stripped of doubt, stripped of ambiguity.

Why wouldn't you put yourself in harm's way, when the alternative is to play victim to life's meaningless impingements. Take the meaningless accidents of fate as they come, and leave meaning to some greater power. Why wouldn't you make something of your life? The same ending will come in any case.

I continue to marvel at how well Noel Hynd foregrounds that most fundamental matter; faith. Faith in oneself, in meaning; for him and for his protagonist apparently, faith in God. Alex finds in herself a capacity for love and for forgiveness, which must be strange to the reader, since she has been wronged and betrayed and has found man all too capable of betrayal of any confidence.

Except that she has read the signs well, and was never disappointed in her certainty that there was in fact meaning to it all. Not meaning as in conclusion, story lines tied up(although Hynd does that masterfully for each book, and especially for the trilogy) some answer revealed. But meaning as in living her own life to its fullest potential, exercising every one of her God-given talents and bits of good fortune in a way, if not to make the world a better place, certainly not to serve only herself; her aggrandizement here on earth.

She is not patient with those who would do otherwise. But she'd rather help them to wake up than to kill them. I'd rather read another of these books than to pick nits about what falls short. Well, I do have interesting thoughts about border crossings near Buffalo. Anyhow, if each of us were to make courageous decisions without mistrusting what we already know to be our morally correct instincts, the world really would be a better place. The pages would keep turning.

Imagine that! Me a fan of spy novels!


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