Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ever heard of this guy? (4)

Herbert Croly lived from 1869 to 1930. After editing the "Architectural Journal," he became the author of "The Promise of American Life" (1909). He founded the "New Republic." His metaphor of the foot race - all people need not only to toe the starting line, but need to do so with equal preparation - explains his idea that the government must ensure liberty for all by making sure that some kind of economic equality - "the substantial satisfaction of economic needs" - must exist. Not some kind of "socialistic" perfect equality, but something as close to it as we can reasonably get. And government - through active state liberalism - had to do it.

He understood that back in Jefferson's time, the president's idea of minimal governmental involvement made sense. Space - the frontier - was out there to give opportunity to all who wanted it. But now, in the 20th Century, the frontier was gone. And governmental protection of liberty and equality had become imperative in order to stave off a new rebellion by the country's have-nots against the haves. Government must evolve to meet the new reality, or eventually fall.

After all, sovereignty of kings and such has been rejected. It now lies in the people. All of them. And this means that the "liberty" of some must take second place to the equality of all - at least a kind of fair economic equality that is needed for the foot race to be more than an elitist joke.

This requires government - Big Government - and the resulting welfare state. Croly's thought influenced Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and most importantly, FDR and his New Deal. Many folks, on the right but also on the left, think his arguments are shaky. But, in influencing FDR's response to the Great Depression, Croly answered non-liberal ideas - socialism, communism, rising fascism - with a strong proposal for the defense of the liberal ideas about individual liberty and equality upon which our country was founded.

In a way, especially if you are old enough, you might want to thank Croly's ideas for your Social Security checks and your Medicare coverage. If you disagree with his ideas, do you want to give those benefits up?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

DVD migration

Birds need to fly from tree to tree. Monarch butterflies need to migrate to a Mexican mountainside. Caribou must hoof it south or north, depending on the season. And TV-show DVDs need to be free.

That's what I've learned. I sent my son some cool SF shows (Battlestar), and after watching them he sent them back. I watched some other (PBS) shows, and sent them on to him. I got some other shows - Boomtown, etc. - from on my last visit with him, and I'll be sending them back.

People generally aren't going to want to watch a TV show a second time. But ... you can pass them on, giving other people some fun entertainment, too. Every DVD starts out with stern "FBI" warnings about how copying DVDs is illegal and buying them is wrong, subject to a $250,000 fine or a million years in jail, not to mention waterboarding.

But how about re-gifting? DVDs want to say, hi, glad to find a new friend! When I send back these latest DVD, I expect my son to open a window, cradle a TV DVD in his hands, aim it toward a deserving friend, and let it fly.

Monday, December 28, 2009

America's fight between liberals

It turns out that most American thinkers, both of the left and right, are "liberals" in the sense of John Locke - people who respect human rationality, religious tolerance, the importance of education, property rights, and so on, and who care deeply about such basic ideas as liberty and equality.

It also turns out that the concepts of liberty, on the one hand, and equality, on the other, aren't exactly the same thing.

(Think of the need of factory owners to employ children in order to keep their costs down. Must their liberty to do so be ensured? Or think of blacks seeking to join American society as equal members. Must their equality be ensured?)

What we have here are two versions of American liberalism - A view that believes that a national government must never be a big, activist government, in order to protect individual liberty, or a view that believes a democratic government must actively promote equality and use its powers to do so because there is no other way to do what is right. These days we call these versions "conservative" and "liberal."

There have been other ideas in America - socialism, religious authority, etc. - but they have never really supplanted liberalism in this country. (Ronald Reagan tried to bridge the gap - liberal ideas of individual freedom linked uncomfortably to conservative religious ideas of 400-year-old folks like Winthrop and his City on a Hill, where freedom only involves what the church masters inform people about what God wants. You are free, but only to do that will.)

Still, the U.S has had a great run. We were the first revolution of the Enlightenment, and remain the only country to keep the same government for all these years. After viewing the course called "Cycles of American Political Thought," I can only agree with professor Joseph Kobylka's concluding thought: "If we - and our flexible philosophy of liberalism - are as exceptional as we think, perhaps this success will continue."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The world as a stage

OK, so call me jealous. Late this afternoon, as I stood over my kitchen sink, looking out the window to check the temperature outside on the thermometer attached to the side of the window, pointing in, I noticed those six deer who enjoyed my back yard on Christmas afternoon. They entered my neighbor's yard across the alley one at a time like actors in a play. Stage right, back. Stage left, front (along the alley). Stage left, back, (between two houses). Like Shakespearian thespians, they wandered gracefully onto the snow-covered boards, moving about, kicking the accumulated flakes, ignoring the "fourth wall." No asides, no soliloquies about "to be or not to be" for me, the audience.

Then they headed away, stage right, between buildings, back toward another street to the west.

I agree that urban deer, with no predators except the vehicles they have learned to avoid, must be culled. Otherwise, in a few years, they would overrun the town. But, spurned as I felt - what was wrong with my back yard? - I hope "my" deer aren't among the victims of the traps and the bolts soon to come.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Teddy Roosevelt: Our best president?

The more I think about modern politics - aside from the sad devolution of Republican Party politics - the more it seems as though many Americans thought that President Barack Obama was going to be some kind of Teddy Roosevelt.

Hey, sorry, but a Teddy Roosevelt doesn't come around that often.

Teddy Roosevelt not only exemplified America at its best, at least in its turn-of-the-20th-century sense, but exemplified the sort of brio that has yet to be even approached by another president.

Roosevelt, who essentially picked up Lincoln's "three-yards-in-cloud-of-dust" approach to political progress and turned it into some thrilling foreward passes, was well ahead of his time, and maybe ahead of our time as well. Folks like former Vice-President Cheney and former Alaska Gov. Palin would certainly like you to think so.

The youngest man ever to assume the presidency, Roosevelt was somebody who actually deserved the Nobel Peace Prize (for mediating the resolultion of the war between Russia and Japan, as well as making the United States a world power interested in enforcing peace). (This didn't last long, but hey.)

He came to believe that the main goal of government is the welfare of the American people ... not a bad idea, the devolution of the above-named party notwithstanding. The economic polarization of the country, with the benificiaries of the great trusts so far removed from the workers living in poverty, appalled him.. Therefore, those trusts must be regulated. Hell, the constant economic "panics" were reason enough for strict regulation. (While Ronald Reagon said "Trust and verify" regarding the Soviets, Roosevelt said, in effect, "Trust and regulate" regarding corporations.) Recent economic conditions suggest Teddy Roosevelt's approach was correct.

Add Roosevelt's insistance on conservation of our natural landscapes to his understanding of the need for a graduated income tax and laws protecting workers from exploitation, and you see that Teddy Roosevelt may well have been our best president. Of course, that meant his ideas would soon essentially disappear from the American scene. Ideas are scary to the extent to which they are correct.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas deer

Six does celebrated the afternoon of Christmas Day this year by hanging out in my back yard, making for a holiday scene of such ruminant proportions that I half expected a team from Hallmark Cards to show up. I watched them doing their usual deer things - shoveling the inch or two of snow on the ground with their right front leg to get at winter grass (most deer appear to be right legged), bedding down to chew their cud in comfort (bending first their front legs to kneel, then curling all four legs under their bodies), and lifting their little white (but black-tipped) tails to drop their dark pellets atop the white snow.

But I observered some other behavior, too. For instance, a larger deer (a mom?) spent many minutes "grooming" a smaller deer (her child?) She kept licking the younger deer's head, ears, and snout while the little deer had its nose in the snow, eating. (All the deer had white snow on their black noses, a detail the Hallmark crew could have documented.)

Then I saw a young deer hopping around, shaking its head. It went up to another youngster and rubbed the top of its head into the other deer's thigh and belly, pushing it into the fence it was grazing beside. What was THAT about?

I also saw how tough winter is on such creatures: They would eat long-desiccated, shriveled brown leaves finally dropped from trees, or still hanging to lilac bushes. Their Christmas dinner.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Movie tips

I normally don't talk about movies. After all, some of us like kooky indie romances, others like Lifetime stuff. A preference for monsters or kung fu guys fighting each other, a bent toward historical period pieces, a slice of real life. Whatever.

But today I watched two movies that break any mold you might keep cramped in your mind. The first one was "The King of California." Michael Douglas's best work, I think. The second was "The Wackness," Ben Kingsley's absolute best. One is about a delusional dude looking for doubloons in California, the other is about a young pot dealer and his post-Dead Head psychiatrist.

Neither sounds promising. But each is better than just about anything you might want to watch this year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

History hurts

Youngsters usually see history as a boring exercise in the irrelevant. What does history have to do with what's on You Tube or the latest text message?

But for me, history hurts. As a case in point, thinking about John Calhoun (middle name Caldwell!), and about Abe Lincoln (did he have a middle name?) has led inevitably to the travesty called reconstruction, and the racist Supreme Court's decisions gutting constitutional amendments and new laws designed to protect the right of freed slaves to equal citizenship.

I knew it was coming, (not to mention all that 20th and 21st Century stuff, God help us), but I hate what happened in the decades following the Civil War, especially in terms of the court.

Following the war, Republicans (not to be confused with the current variety) pushed through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments - prohibiting slavery, guaranteeing equal protection, and mandating voting rights for all citizens, especially including blacks - and giving Congress the authority to enforce the amendments. The Civil rights Act of 1875, among earlier laws, was based on these amendments.

But such laws weren't to last very long. Former slaves had to kept in their place. The high court eviscerated the idea that the federal government could require that the states truely respect the Declaration of Independence's assertion that all men are created equal - and ushered in another 100 years of legally approved Jim Crow racism.

I can hardly wait to move on to Teddy Roosevelt and the progressives. Unfortunately, I fear I'd like to stay there. Beyond that, the future really gets bleak.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Waiting for Santa

I have, this Christmas season, four albums filled with songs of the holidays. They are: a collection called "A Jazz and Blues Christmas," Patty Loveless's "Bluegrass and White Snow," Celtic Women's "A Christmas Celebration" (on DVD), and Diana Krall's "Christmas Songs."

So why do I keep turning them all off?

I no doubt wouldn't do so if I had family here this Christmas. Background music is cool. But sitting in my recliner, thinking about Santa Claus and J.C., with no kids I can watch with wonder, throwing wrapping paper into the air, squealing with delight, hugging the dog, I get a little tired of staying up, watching the cookies and milk, waiting for the supernatural.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ever hear of this guy? (3)

George Fitzhugh was a person who was born in Virginia in 1806, who died in 1881, and who was a staunch defender of slavery. He probably is going to want to make you want to hurl. But, hey, is Limbaugh or Beck any different?

(By the way, this stuff about little-known 19th-Century folks comes from Professor Joseph K. Kobylka of Southern Methodist University, and is so abbreviated by me that he bears no blame.)

Fitzhugh didn't buy the liberal, Declaration-of-Independence stuff about individual liberty, but instead thought that society must always be based on class distinctions, for without them society must descend into chaos and anarchy. He thought slaves were secure, well-fed, and well off because their master viewed them as property, and so took good care of them. Unlike, he said, capitalists who really didn't care if their workers or their families had enough to eat, as long as they showed up for work in the morning.

Hey, people are cannibals who would eat each other, unless class distinctions prevented it!

So force, not some idealistic "all-men-are-created-equal" drivel, is necessary to keep society safe. After all, in some sense, slaves are the most happy and free people in the world! Don't let "mass rule," (democracy) mess this up.

Of course, democracy messes things up. But as we never tire of telling ourselves, any other system messes things up a lot more. (Fitzhugh did not have to go through the 20th Century, but I'm not sure that excuses him of a hell of a lot.)

Ever heard of this guy? (2)

How did liberalism - the basic ideas of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke that stressed the primacy of individuals who must consent to any government, which in turn will protect their rights to life, liberty, property, etc., (the philosophy upon which our country is based) morph into the current weird dichotomy of the "liberals" who scare conservatives so much and libertarians who tremble at the thought of black helicopters?

Surprisingly, to me, one reason might be an American thinker whom I had never heard of before, but whose socialist writings pre-dated Marx and Engle's "Communist Manifesto" by nearly a decade.

The dude is Orestes Brownson, a fellow who eventually turned to Catholicism but in 1840 published "The Laboring Classes," at book that blamed liberal capitalism for the sufferings of workers and sought economic - not just hollow political (yes, you can vote) freedoms - equality for all. Liberalism be damned, was his point, real equality demanded so much more. Wealth, said Brownson - before Marx, before the Haymarket Square riot, before the Russian Revolution - must be redistributed.

No wonder we haven't heard about this guy.

But folks like him, thinking quite outside the accepted Lockian box, insisted that society's acceptance of haves on the one hand and have-nots on the other is simply wrong.

The year 1840 - and Brownson - languish deep in forgotten history. But his ideas linger, scary to some, progressive to others, almost dead, but not quite. In some new, modern form, acceptable to today's Americans, might they crawl out of their grave?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Deer family values

Kermit might have complained that, to quote the frog, "it's not easy being green," but this afternoon I saw that it's not easy being a half-year-old deer either.

A doe and two youngsters spent much the afternoon lazing around my backyard. Most of the time they nested in the snow, legs curled under their bodies, doing some digestive chewing. Occasionally they'd get up, use their right front leg to move snow, and munch grass that had to be a lot less juicy than the late-spring grass of the youngsters' birth in June. Usually the two young deer would stick together, within inches, apparently bonded.

Eventually, mom decided to leap my front fence and move on. The two kids were sitting in the snow, and watched her go. Soon they got up, pushed some more snow around, munched a little more, and started getting restless.

One of the young deer drifted toward the fence, backed up a little, and suddenly leaped it - escaping the confines of my back yard into a larger world in which its mother roamed, somewhere nearby.

The other young deer, slightly smaller than the first, was clearly stalling. It made a couple of half-hearted approaches to the fence, but no jump was in the cards. It pushed some more snow around, ate some more winter grass, bunched itself up for a little bladder release, eyed the fence with what looked to me like a certain amount of trepidation, and ended up moving away into the center of my back yard for some more snow pushing. Then, suddenly, it started a run at the fence ... but it quickly stopped, and started moving some more snow around. It returned into the center of the back yard.

Then, with unmistakable determination, it charged the fence, leaped it with ease, crossed the street, and rejoined its family in my neighbor's front yard.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The "positive thinking" panacea

I'm reading a new book by Barbara Ehrenreich (author of "Nickel and Dimed") called "Bright-Sided," in which she points out the silliness, mendacity and outright economic and human damage caused by the gurus of "positive thinking." It is a refreshing debunking of claptrap that is pervading the country.

While certainly not against being happy or cultivating a positive, can-do attitude, she gleefully pops the balloons of mega-church "preachers" who ignore traditional theology to stress that God wants you to prosper (heck, that's what He's for!), CEOs who require self-help optimism exercises for their employees in an attempt to patch over their angst over massive downsizing, so-called academic psychologists who join the snake-oil "motivational" salespeople who say you only need to imagine getting what your want in order to get it, often with arguments from quack quantum mechanics or other pseudo science, and how the "only think positive" attitude toward baloney like derivatives and subprime mortgages torpedoed the economy.

Particularly powerful was her scorn, as a person who had breast cancer, of the pink-tinted insistence that happy, positive thoughts will make you well. Pink Teddy Bears, anyone?

But I knew this stuff. What I learned from Ehrenreich's research was that the whole "positive thinking" thing actually began in this country in the mid-1800's with a (partial) rejection of the Calvinism that was brought to our shores by the Puritans and devastated so many subsequent lives. Calvinism, of course, damned most people to hell even before their birth, and commands believers to spend most of their time contemplating their own sinful ways, such as ever having a good time. This old-time-religion was making people sick, most often middle-class women denied any meaningful work by the culture they lived in and left to do little but ponder their own worthlessness. It turns out, she says, that the "New Thought" movement, soon to be Christian Science, could help these people simply by telling them to get out of bed and ignore the disease of Calvinism. Ehrenreich traces this beginning to the current cults of positive thinking, which still requires that people monitor their thoughts (as Calvinists were required to do), but now in order to guard against "negative" thinking. After all, if you don't find success - if you lose your job, you don't get that big new house or cool new car - who do you have to blame but yourself for not being positive enough?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ever heard of this guy?

OK. Raise your hand if you've ever heard of J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. Hmm. Aside from a few historians, I don't see very many people raising their hands. Until recently, you certainly wouldn't have seen mine in the air.

Crevecoeur, a French surveyor sent to the new world during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), stayed on in the colonies after the war ended, married, and farmed in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Later, after returning to Europe, he wrote "Letters from an American Farmer," an idealistic series of tracts explaining a romantic vision of American possibilities and the impact of American space and nature to a readership that little understood what this whole new "American" thing was all about.

But what's interesting is that he also, perhaps without quite realizing it, recorded reports later in his book quite at odds with his wildly optimistic views. On a trip to Charleston, Crevecoeur enjoyed sumptuous dinners, but couldn't help reflecting that his enjoyment was made possible by the misery of slaves. One day, walking off such a dinner, he encounter a black man left to die in a cage, already pecked by birds and bitten by insects. The man pleaded for poison.

It seemed the "new" man, the American freed from the oppressive history of his European past, was still just a man, capable of evil as well as good. Crevecoeur's opposing views of American "exceptionalism" would do much to inform the political battle over just how the country's upcoming Constitution should take shape. Unlike the writings of others like Thomas Paine, who simply chose to assume that the Revolution would bring about some sort of utopia, Crevecoeur helped inform the Federalism of Madison and John Adams, people who got it that governmental checks and balances must be added to any democracy. Be glad also that the anti-federalists insisted on a Bill of Rights.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Here's a deer narrative

It turns out that in nature, as well as in human life, mothers can be ambivalent. This evening I watched a doe in my back yard, moving snow aside with her hooves, nibbling what had to be second-class grass, and just hanging out. What is interesting is that the doe's two children, yearlings now, were hanging outside my back-yard gate. They were leery of making the leap. (One of them already had been hurt in the attempt.) The doe would move around, trying to forage, sometimes turning on my movement-activated backyard light, sometimes not. But it was of two minds. It would rush the fence, as though to leap it, but then quit and graze some more. Five minutes later, after kicking more snow aside and munching, it would rush the fence again, only to stop, stand there a moment, and then start grazing again. I watched for half an hour. Suddenly, it jumped over the fence and disappeared into the darkness. Who knows where it went. But, hey, I need to imagine my own narrative.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Political hypocrisy

Politicians' hypocrisy isn't exactly new under the sun. To be sure, the GOP's stance that health-care reform is freaking expensive just a few years after pushing through a hugely expensive prescription-drug benefit probably tops the hypocrisy chart. (A chart Republicans practically own.) To be sure, Democrats have their failings. But at least they usually are human failings, rather than inhumane ones. For instance, Montana Senator Max Baucus is in hot water because he nominated his girl friend as one of several people for a top federal job without mentioning the relationship. As Chuck Johnson, probably Montana's most respected news guy, said in a column Sunday, that doesn't pass the smell test.

But there is no little hypocrisy in the rest of us, those of us who bitch about those very politicians. First off, we voted for them. Our bad! Second, is there any chance - even the slightest - that we'd do any better in the office? I rather doubt it. (Any more than those big brains who decided that it was necessary to put a "b" in "doubt" just because certain words in Latin had such a construction. l know a lot of grade-school kids who would like to stick a kick-ball where the sun don't shine because of that "b".

Dumb decisions abound, of course. I've made them, and so have you. If we had not, we'd all be wonderful folk. (Not to mention insufferable.) But let's be glad that a least we're not like people like (to be nonpartisan, let's name an Independent) a guy called Lieberman.

OK. So being "nonpartisan" isn't so apolitical after all. The guy manages to be insufferable and politically dumb-headed in a right-leaning way at the same time. But, still, people like you and me elected this person. (Not literally here in Montana, but ... well? would a certain ex-Alaska governor win office in this state? 'Fraid so. Let's not start patting ourselves on the back.)

Not working for the newspaper anymore, I no longer have to write judicially about Montana (or U.S.) politics. I just get to sadly shake my head. Unfortunately, it doesn't make me feel a whole lot better.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bloody (non) good movie

How many more times will you have to watch a movie in which the male and female leads must run toward the camera and away from a huge explosion, heroically silhouetted by the flames? Well, maybe a million or so, each one as ultimately boring as the last.

Well, today, courtesy of Netflix (which is getting pretty darn good at anticipating my likes), I watched an excellent movie which lacked a single violent act, explosion, or flash of nudity, yet was permeated by that most interesting kind of sex - that of the mind.

"Enchanted April," a 1991 BBC TV movie that was released in the United States in theaters, was perfectly cast. (Albeit with British actors, which meant my poor ears needed captions to get it all.) This isn't a review; suffice to say it is a tale of 1920s British manners which is as true to, and as smart about, humanity in 2009 as it was to folks back then. A great movie you should look for.

And while I'm plugging a product, thanks also to "caller ID." The damn phone rang about four times during the movie, each time showing on my little phone screen that it was from a mysterious but, after years of such calls, an all-too recognizable anonymous source. (Yes, I need a cell phone.) Still, there is something satisfying about refusing to pick up another telemarketing rant ... an emotion that Elizabeth von Arnim, the author of the 1921 novel upon which the movie is based, would no doubt have understood among so many others

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dumb Extremities

The temperature having reached a lofty minus 3 degrees, I ventured outside into the dark this evening to shovel snow from my front sidewalk. (Hey, old ladies walk it on their way to early morning mass at the nearby Cathedral!) As is my practice, I shoveled snow from half of my neighbor's sidewalks as well. (I leave the other halves to them ... I'm tough that way.)

The cold isn't really a factor out there while you are tossing snow this way and that, although the hood on my parka sort of flaps, mussing my pretty hair and exposing my ears. But, hey, the snow must go.

There are those who would latch onto my Montana-winter experience, and suggest that, therefore, global warming is a myth. I would suggest looking at a rather bigger picture - say, those glaciers that aren't there anymore, or the rising sea levels. Still, as I make popcorn and melt butter in the microwave oven until it just starts to drip, my toes still feel sort of cold. I understand the need for earthlings to wise up about global warming. It's those dumb extremities that still need convincing.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The mystery of music

I've been listening to (and watching) a DVD this evening by my favorite singer, jazz-pianist Diana Krall. (Her bass guy, drum guy and guitarist are equally wonderful.) And I question: How can I love this stuff when I don't know beans about music?

As a kid, in junior high, I had a course in music - musical notation, the various instruments, etc. - but I was a dumb dude who learned very little. Later, I took another course in music appreciation ... and damn near flunked it. Hmm? Which of those classical masters was I listening to - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven ... or Little Richard, Simon & Garfunkel, Norah Jones? Elvis? Hey, I wasn't quite as out-of-it as that - I knew classical from pop (from blue grass, from rock) - but still, just how is it that you can be as musically illiterate as I am and still love the stuff? How can you have trouble tapping your feet to a beat, be unable to sing a note, be incapable of carrying a tune, and still be awe-struck by musical passages, blown away by talent you don't really understand?

How come I can melt listening to "Some Enchanted Evening," weep listening to "Strange Fruit," grin at most anything by Cole Porter? And get so much satisfaction from the Stones? Not to mention the damn Beatles. Dolly Parton. Alison Krauss. Sheesh.

I guess the cool thing is that I do. Let there be mystery, I guess. As long as it sings to me.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A stand-up deer

I've never before seen a deer stand up on it's hind legs, straight as a man or a woman, head stretching further up, front legs dangling, just to get at the remaining, frozen, berries on a tree.

This was a short, year-old doe. But as I watched from my kitchen window into the back yard this afternoon, the doe became an upright six-footer, sticking its head toward goodies passed up by other deer. The movement shrugged the accumulated snowfall off her back, head, and snout. After 10 or 15 stand-up munchings, she took off, following the handful of other does that already had leaped my lowest fence and headed out to other neighboring yards.

But, hey, a stand-up deer is cool. Certainly worth putting a book down to watch for a while.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Living in deerland

It was about 10 below the other morning, but I had a 9 a.m. appointment and had to go out. Still, as I looked into my back yard, those five big does were out there, shoveling a couple inches of snow with their front legs to reveal some grass, and I hated to bother them. But I had to go, so I opened my back door. The five leaped to attention as one, staring at me, ears at full staff, ready to vault over my fence and disappear down the alley. I walked out, shut the door behind me, and descended the few steps. I angled slightly away from them toward my garage door. The deer noticeably relaxed. I entered, pushed the button to raise the garage door, hopped into the car, started it, and looked into the rearview mirror.

There was a yearling, only feet from my rear bumper. I backed up an inch or two, then stopped. The deer stood there, apparently too young to fear a creeping car. I backed up some more, and then again, but slowly and haltingly, afraid of hurting the animal. It still didn't move. So, at a resolute one mile an hour, I advanced rearward toward the dumbhead.

It finally got the picture, and moved off.

I was a few minutes late for my appointment, but such is living in deerland.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The mouth of 12-year-olds

I had the wonderful experience this year of watching, after nearly two years away in a sort of time-lapse photography, my grandaughter change from an 11-year-old kid into a 13-year-old. Wow! Isn't it cool?

Humans are just so neat! They do this transition all the time, and I'm beginning to understand how middle-school teachers can keep doing it!

Some years ago, I read about an important study done by psychologists regarding how kids grow up. (I don't remember the details, which I'm sure are important, but here's the basic idea:)

The pyschologists would tell kids ranging in age from 8 to 13 this story: A man has a wife who is dying unless she can get expensive medicine that the man cannot afford. He tries to get a job to get the money, but cannot, he begs on the street, applies to charities, does all he can, but he can't get the money. So one night he breaks into a pharmacy and steals the medicine needed to keep his wife alive.

Asked whether the man did the right thing, almost every kid aged 8-11 (randomly chosen from all ethnnic groups) said: No. Stealing is wrong! But kids who were older, 12, or 13, responded: Wait a minute, is stealing worse that letting a person die? There is more here to talk about!

(Is it any wonder that the Jewish rite of bar mitzvah, and Christian confirmation, and the practices of so many other religions, concentrate on young people of this age?)

Often, as I watch today's politicians, I think of those 12-year-olds, spreading their arms, wondering how all those grownups they have depended upon for guidance all their lives, could be so dumb.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Zombie liberation

Something has to be done about this discrimination against zombies. For instance, I'm finally reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and in the novel it seems to be perfectly all right to behead the unfortunately living-dead voracious eaters of innocent human organs. Do you call this multiculturalism?

Would Jane Austen not have cast her keen eye on such a social display?

(Perhaps not: Especially in "Mansfield Park," where one of Austen's most sympathetic, esteemed characters makes his fortune in the West Indies, and so almost certainly makes that fortune via the slave trade in one way or another circa 1800. Perhaps Austen would have felt that zombies must also be discriminated against, politically incorrect as that might be today.)


OK. Actually, I was hoping "Pride, Prejudice and Zombies" would be a little more clever. But, hey, how would YOU incorporate zombies into the novel beloved as "Pride and Prejudice"? Perpetrating author Seth Graham-Smith, who gets a well-deserved second billing to Jane, imagines that a plague of some sort decades before the time of the novel had created zombies, and beheading the sorry staggering dead was the only solution. So the girls of Pride and Prejudice, especially Elizabeth, were well training in zombie fighting, although Mrs. Bennet was a lot more interested in getting them married off, preferably to young men with excellent incomes.

The book's idea is a hoot, but the joke wears a bit thin. However, I liked the "readers discussion guide" at the end, particularly the last topic: "Some scholars," it said, " believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen's plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be like without the violent zombie mayhem?"

Hey, I'm trying to.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

So-so etymology

I was standing over the sink today, wanting to wash my hands and busy setting the water temperature so that it was lukewarm, when I started to think: What the hell is LUKEwarm? Luke? As in Matthew, Mark, John, etc.? Where does Luke come from ... and is the word just a regionalism for "tepid."?

Turns out not. Lukewarm comes from the Middle English (and from the elderly French language that visited England circa 1066), and probably is related to the old high German "Iao," which meant moderately warm, and the Latin "calere." It is related to "lee," which had to do with being warm in Old English, and now means the side of a ship that is out of the wind, protectect from the storm.

Actually, well protected from the snowstorm outside, but which storm was all-too visible outside the window over my kitchen sink, my interest in the whole question of "lukewarm" started to lack conviction. Become halfhearted. After all, pretty soon I had to shovel my sidewalk. My interest in doing so was tepid at best.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Big eyes

I've been a science fiction fan since I was old enough to walk to the Eau Claire library on my own but, being eight or nine or so, finding myself being shuttled off to the children's section. ("What! Me! A fourth grader!) But there I found great science fiction - stuff about relativity and the twins who diverged in age during really fast space travel, and the time-travel paradox about killing your grandfather! (I really wasn't much into the sword-and-sorcery genre.) But for a pre-teen, this stuff was mind-blowing! I fell in love. (Of course, I also snuck into the adult stacks. Hi there, Norman Mailer! What are you and that gal doing on the floor?)

I've been a sort-of SF fan every since. But it didn't take long to realize that the writing, all too often, was a bit weak. In not too much time (at least as grownups measure it) I was a snotty youth who wanted to read Great Literature, ahem. However, old love dies hard. I found myself in later years subscribing to Asimov's Science Fiction, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Analog. Cool stuff!

But I've found that short stories, rather than novels, work best in the genre. Sure, some of the novels are wonderful (It would take far too long to think of them all), but so often they are just stretched out versions of a good short story. I read two examples this week - Jack McDevitt's "Time Travelers Never Die," (I'm still a sucker for time-travel stories but - talk about stretched!) and the usually fine writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "Diving Into the Wreck," which quickly reminded me why stopped paying for "Analog."

Still, somewhere in my 63-year-old body, that fourth-grader still is searching the shelves, on his tiptoes, looking for wonder. His eyes might be a little jaded, but they're still big.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The march of equality

During my lifetime, there have been two great social revolutions (if you don't count texting and reality shows): Civil rights, and the woman's movement. Each change toward greater equality is, of course, very unfinished, but nonetheless they are profound. And both of them, although centuries old, only really started gaining traction during my youth. (Hey, don't we all believe in our hearts that our youth and young adulthood were REALLY IMPORTANT times?)

Back then, however, another social revolution had yet to begin. But it seems clear today that once the smoke clears - and enough young people, who also believe their times are important, keep replacing old people - the revolution to also guarantee equality to gays will gain similar traction.

When I was in high school, it wasn't uncommon for me to hear certain other kids talk bravely about going out that night to find homos to bash. (I'd always look at them funny: after all, back then the rather stupid term "latent homosexuality" was still in vogue.) Still, those kids were part of their culture. Contrary to the "South Pacific" song, you didn't have to be carefully taught; homophobia was in the air you had to breathe.

These days, the sitcom catch phrase "not that there's anything wrong with that" is becoming politically correct. Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont allow same-sex marriages. (Maine voters overturned that state's same-sex marriage law; in California it took $43 million in donations to overturn a state Supreme Court ruling on the subject.) But the tide is turning. A CNN poll last May found that 58 percent of people 18 to 34 years of age think gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry.

Unlike the air I breathed as a kid, the air today finds no surprise at interracial marriages, and the old riddle about the man who takes his injured boy to the hospital, only to find that the doctor refused to operate because "he is my son," seems oh so quaint. I suspect it won't be too long before the shock of the idea of two mommies or two daddies seems just as antiquated. Equality, let's hope, marches on.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Night thoughts about determinism

I've always rather detested the idea of determinism. Life without free will seems meaningless and futile. Things on big scales might be deterministic - planets don't just zoom off - and things on the smallest scales might may be equally so, albeit probabilistically - the odds are beyond doubt - but surely for us middle-sized creatures free will must reign.

But consider the subject of humans and their religions. The matter of religious belief or unbelief would seem to be the ultimate exercise in free will, but is it? For it seems not to be a moral thing, nor a logical thing. It would seem to be a genetic thing not under our control.

For instance, I was born to be incapable of faith in a received religion. The very idea makes my hair hurt. The logic of the matter - gosh, isn't it a neat coincidence that the religion I was born into just happens to the only true one! - utterly prevents me from adopting it. For a person with my genetically imposed sort of brain, it simply can't be done.

But others have to suffer a similarly imposed genetic fate: The deep need to give themselves to these stories, regardless of logic. Faith beats everything else. The beliefs of 80-90 percent of the people in the world (never mind that they believe entirely different things) make that clear.

So, while I can talk about logic and evidence, others can talk about leaps of faith. But the important question is the same in each case: do any of us have any choice? Perhaps not. Perhaps it simply has to do with the kind of brain our genetic heritage gave us.

To be sure, history shows that religions always fade away. Sometimes only after thousands of years, sometimes next week. But there's never a shortage. I knew a Christ figure once, one of so many that dot the landscape in every generation. For every Christ or Mohammed or Joseph Smith - rare successes - there are hundred of other candidates. This one, named Curly Thornton, was a young evangelist who blew into Montana with a small flock of (mostly female) adorers, considered himself the chief spokesperson for God, ran for governor, lost, and last I heard died in a hotel room in Chicago. I suspect, and worry, that his brain left him little choice but to lead a flock to glory. When I revealed in the newspaper that one of his pretty young supporters had financed the last few months of his campaign, he assured the press he would pay her back. He didn't. But what he did do was sincerely believe. I could tell he really did. But what I had no way of knowing was whether he had a choice in the matter.

Religions are a dime a dozen. But then, unfortunately, so is most everything else. I firmly believe that the (scientific) truth is out there. But can man, genetic children of mindless one-celled creatures, even get close to it on his own?

We're already come a long way, and I insist on thinking we can indeed do it on our own. But then I would, wouldn't I?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A loaded gun

Of all American poets - Emerson, Whitman, Frost, Stevens, Auden, and all those who came after (Yes, teenaged girls, including Plath) - Emily Dickinson remains the greatest. Nobody else really comes close.

I first was attracted to the myth: recluse in white, etc. But then I started reading the poems. Pretty much half of the 1,700-plus poems are amazing! But the poem that really drives critics wild, that scholars cut their teeth on, that generations of folks interpret according to their time, is this one:

My life had stood - a loaded gun -
In corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
and carried me away -

And Now we roam in Sovreign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
Ane every time I speak for Him -
The mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the valley glow -
It is as if a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live -
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill
Without - the power to die -

A first reading goes: ah, the colorful yellow blast of a flint-lock, an echo off the mountains, a warrior-woman guarding her charge (content not to share his pillow), the irony of a man living longer than a rifle, simply because a man lives at all.

But there's a lot more going on here. And that's where the scholars start drooling. Is Dickinson talking about the "Vesuvian" power of art? The feminist yearning for equality? An embrace of violence caused by well-deserved rage?

Or is she just going, hey, sometimes a rifle is just a rifle, and I'm damn good at what I do! How, mister, does self-empowerment look from the barrel of a gun?

Don't know. But this poem is cool precisely because of its enigmatic brilliance.

Emily Dickinson was no weirdo-recluse. She chose a life that let her use her powers to the fullest. And we are so lucky that her younger sister, Lavinia, recognized her genius, and saved her poems.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Deer thoughts

There is nothing quite so relaxed as a doe, curled up on a patch of grass, not even chewing cud, just sitting there ... happy, as perhaps only an animal like a deer can be. (An animal unaware that that come deep winter, 200 of their number in Helena will get the bolt into the brain.)

Two does graced my back yard this afternoon, each on the west side of my slim concrete back yard sidewalk, sitting almost perfectly still for hours, bending down the grass, a bed they assume is their birthright. Who knows what thoughts grazed their minds, thoughts beyond "My belly is full," and "Keep an eye out for trouble." I'd like to think they were really feeling happy, although I doubt it. I think we have to feel it for them.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Video introspection

I have to wonder why I even bought this video: "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," and why I even started watching it. I'm upstairs at my computer, and I don't need that NOVA show about the Dover trial to tell me that the trial blasted Creationism into shattered (legal) pieces, pieces I already knew were in sad, stupid shards by the time I was 12 or so, around 1960. Maybe it just was seeing a smart (Republican-appointed) judge doing his judicial thing. Or seeing dumb-heads being made fools of.

But, hey, I grew up in a home in which loving parents kept telling me that imposible things were true. (Walk on water! Food for everybody! Fish and wine, you meek dudes! Hey, there, Lazarus, get up, welcome to life!, etc.) I loved my parents, as I was loved. But try being a loving son while stepping so gently through religious cow pies, watching grown-ups marching off to church each Sunday to show off their lack of brains. Not easy.

Hmm. I think I am going to go back downstairs to watch the rest of this video. God bless.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Turkey Day entertainment

Today I watched a 1991 movie called "Impromptu." Like the title, which implies (in fact, promises) some sort of effortless brilliance, the movie watches as though its makers just turned on the camera and did their thing, no sweat. We all know better than that, and in this case, the reason is startlingly clear: Judy Davis as George Sand.

I first saw Davis act in the 1979 movie "My Brilliant Career" and immediately fell in love with her wicked-smart smile. Unlike most actors in movies, her intelligence simply reeks through the screen and zooms into your brain. (If you are not interested in her, well, there's always Britney Spears.)

"Impromptu" is about the Nineteenth-Century novelist George Sand - Aurora to special friends - who wooed and won a composer named Chopin. It is a wonderful movie, full of clever stuff and good actors in addition to Davis (Hugh Grant, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Emma Thompson, etc.), and it more than made up for today's lack of turkey. So did "Mamma Mia!," the movie musical starring Meryl Streep. If you think that old disco ABBA group is passe ... I have some worms, complete with partly excreted nematode poop, which you might enjoy.

Believe me, the lasagna I pigged out on today is better than nematodes. And, hey, I'm almost ready to start reading "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

British pop

Here's a name for Americans: Katie Melua - the British pop-singer's answer to Britney Spears, except without any of the dumb baggage, and about 10 times as good a singer.

I first heard Melua in a video in which she and her band ventured below hundres of feet of salt water to perform a concert at the bottom of the North Sea. They were in a Norwegian oil rig, where the folks spoke a Scandinavian tongue that sounded a lot like German, except worse.

Later, in a clultural turn-around that pro-golfer Ai Miazato or all those Korean golfer gals might smile about, I watched a Melua video subtitled in ... Japanese, Chinese, or whatever it was ... and was pleased that I could enjoy the music, despite all those Asian ideograms at the bottom of the screen.

What's cool is that foreign pop singers like Melua do just fine without having to have kiddie lunch boxes with their faces on them, or Disney promoting them until they grow arm-pit hair. I'm not saying American pop singers are bad ... just that they don't sing:

If a black man is racist,
Is it okay?
If it's a white man's racism, that made him that way?

"Cos the bully is the victim they say,
By some sense,
They're all the same.

"Cos the line between
Wrong and right,
is the width of a thread
From a spider's web ...

This was a little part of "Spider Web," a Melua song I rather liked. But the point is: Americans don't know beans about pop music around the world. Maybe they should open their ears.

As to their minds, well ...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Straws in the wind

The days grow cold in late November, dark with low clouds and hints of snow, and I get chilled as I read another late November reminder: a previously unpublished Nov. 26, 1902, letter by Mark Twain (in the December issue of Harper's). Twain was responding to a Danish writer, Carl Thalbitzer, who found dark thoughts between the lines of the American's works and wondered whether he would write about the pros and cons of civilization. (How can you not think of the close of "Huckleberry Finn," where Huck plans to escape from "sivilization"?)

Twain replied that he believed that many people in all ages have "examined man with a microscope," and "found that he did not even resemble the creature he was pretending to be," and have "perceived that a civilization not proper matter for derision has always been and must always remain impossible." But almost every one of these observers over history, he said, has "put away his microscope and kept his mouth shut."

Like them, said Twain in the letter, he wouldn't write such a book unless his much-loved wife, who forbade it, were to die before him. And besides, he wrote, 99 percent of his reluctance was just cowardice. Well, she did die before him, in 1904, and in 1906, putting his "cowardice" aside, he published "What Is Man?" Mark Twain couldn't keep his mouth shut.

(Twain told Thalbizer in the 1902 letter that he had started the book several years before, and "Whenever I wish to account for any new outbreak of hypocrisy, stupidity, or crime on the part of the race, I get out that manuscript and read it, and am consoled, perceiving that the outbreak was in obedience to the law of man's make, and was not preventable.")

Mankind, and not just its leaders, seldom fails to live down to Twain's expectations. But I'd rather grasp at those straws that rise higher. For just one example, today an excellent organization called the Lewis and Clark Library Foundation sent me a solicitation. The group does wonderful things besides raising money for the library, including providing books for school kids and great programs for adults. I'm gonna make a donation. I'm a sucker for straws in the wind when it comes to "man's make."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Spooky stuff

I finally finished Stephen King's "Under the Dome," a 1,072-page monster of a novel not only capable of door-stopping the main entrance to Helena's St. Helena's Cathedral, which has doors big enough to let God and all his angels in at the same time, but perhaps the door to Fort Knox itself. The book is typical King, although in my opinion it is better than most. You don't get GREAT LITERATURE from the guy, but name me a more natural storyteller. It is, at heart, an allegory, albeit with spooky and scary stuff. I will tell you no more, in case you want to check it out.

But in King's case, spooky stuff has weird and entertaining causes. In my recent case, spookiness turns out to have a readily understood reason, fully explained by the state of my rather sadly dim and rapidly disappearing brain cells.

My spooky stuff involved my car. It was, if not exactly blowing my mind, at least pissing me off. I am in the habit of locking my car when visiting stores, etc., but I don't want to do so after pulling into my garage, leaving the vehicle quite safe. But, damn it, I have kept going out to the garage in recent weeks and finding my car doors locked anyway. I assumed I was mindlessly locking up the car out of habit, senior-moment(s) style.

(Yet, somehow, I knew I wasn't. Spooky!)

Then, today, a light bulb lit. (Not a jump-out-of-the-bathtub Eureka! moment, nor an Einstein Hey! Relativity! moment, but more of a Norwegian slap-on-the-forehead Oof-Da! moment.) I recently had been carrying a fingernail clipper in the same pocket as my keys. As I moved around, it was setting off the radio signal to lock up the stupid car.

(Last summer I had managed to set off my car's panic button in much the same way. But, hey, when you're a slow learner ...)

That's one of the things I like about King, as much as I have to skim so many pages: he makes the mysterious interesting, while in real life most mysteries are just dumb.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Rockin' in Helena

Imagine a roughly square block of granite, something like a cubic yard in volume, with a score or so of railroad-spike sized holes on its top surface. To my knowledge, no one else in the world has such a boulder sitting beside a 100-year-old lilac tree near his back-yard garage.

OK, I'll try to explain. A person who owned my house back in the late 1960s discovered the boulder near Marysville, a ghost town about 25 miles northwest of Helena not far east of the Great Divide. It was a relic of mining past, in which miners would gather for festivals, perhaps on the Fourth of July, and have contests. One of those contests involved pounding spikes into rock. (In the mines, a stick of explosive would be shoved into the resulting hole and set off, thus expanding the mine.)

Anyway, this fellow wanted it (today one hopes such scavenging would not occur), rounded up a bunch of helpers, drove to Marysville, and somehow got it into his pickup truck and drove it back to his house. (I learned this from a friend of the guy, and I regret that I didn't ask more questions. But the opportunity ended shortly after when, in a casual conversation about drugs, my then-wife mentioned that, oh, yes, we had tried pot in college. My up-to-then friend and his wife were shocked to their gentle cores, and shunned us from then on.)

I did learn, however, that unloading the boulder involved the loss of a tailgate.

At any rate, this afternoon, while staring into the backyard hoping to see some hissy does or feisty bucks but only seeing this dumb rock, I got to thinking - just how much does that thing weigh? To the computer I hurried, Googled the question, and learned that an average weight for granite is 166.5 pounds per cubic foot. If my boulder is a cubic yard, that makes 27 cubic feet: about 4,500 pounds!

If anybody wants to see this wonder, just come around. And if you want it for your own backyard, heck, just pick it up and take it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Difficulty of Kindness

I've been thinking about how offensive, how rude, how uncaring, a position on religion such as mine must be to others. After all, I think every religion ever invented by man is a fool's exercise, believed by dumb-heads, signifying nothing except a reason to persecute others. This is not exactly a kind way to think about so many people.

(But then, I was brought up to learn the Old Testiment.)

Still, I fully understand human needs. I also contemplate mortality, look up at the stars, and have those same needs myself. And making other people unhappy with my ideas is not precisely an example of the Golden Rule. (But note: the Golden Rule - don't mess with others as you would not want to be messed with - is a humanistic idea. Every religion - every one! - has always screwed it up.)

Sure, being wedded to Bronze- or Iron-Age thinking is dumb. It is like deciding that pre-Copernicus thinking is a good way to get to the moon.

But still, one has to be understanding, and loving, of one's fellow man. That should go without saying.

And then, they start talking about voting for Sarah Palin for president. Sheesh.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mating on their minds

We all know about the aggressive behavior of male deer during mating season, but the other day I got what to me was a surprising look at doe behavior as well.

I was walking past my kitchen window late in the afternoon and noticed that three mature does and a juvenile had jumped the fence into my back yard. But their actions were strange. Instead of calmly grazing, chewing cud or just lazing about, as is usually the case, the grown-up does were skittish, irritable, and giving each other grief.

They'd make fake runs at each other, getting in the victim's space and causing it to stalk away. Once a doe came up behind another one, reared up, and made a couple of quick kicks at it, missing by only an inch or so. The does also would walk right up to another's behind (much to her obvious displeasure), and, nose nearly touching the target, sniff up that natural pharmacy of sex signals under production this time of year. Were they checking out their rivals' potency? ... readiness? ... allure?

I know it can be a mistake to do the anthropocentric thing, but it sure looked as though these does were jealous of each other. (The whole scene reminded me of a bunch of girls I knew in high school!)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Because it is there

Why do climbers ascend the mountain, shoppers flock to a sale, politicians aspire to a higher office, and adolescent boys yearn for what, to them, is their greatest wish? The answer, of course, is BECAUSE IT IS THERE.

That works in book marketing, too. For way too many years I have been buying Stephen King books - sometimes enjoying them but all too often being disappointed once again, put off by what we in the news business used to call "diarrhea of the typewriter," King's story-telling genius run amok, blathering on for hundreds and hundreds of pages, signifying in the end way too little.

Yet, like the mountain, the sale, the higher office, and you know what, a new Stephen King novel IS ALWAYS THERE!

So this morning, at Helena's Hastings book-music-movie store in search of Norah Jone's latest album, I stumbled on King's latest: a 1,000-page tome about the size of a cement block titled "Under the Dome." Selling for $19.99, well under the $35 list price. Hey, a little Maine town suddenly gets cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious glass-like but unbreakable dome. What happens inside? I wanted to know, so I hefted the huge book, staggering only a bit, and lugged it to the cashier.

I'm just 200 pages into it, but this might be one of the good ones. Let's hope so - just holding it in my lap is a chore.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Some ancient history

Americans like to think they are pretty savvy about United States history, and I'm among them. But most of that history starts with George Washington and the Declaration of Independence - not the couple of centuries of history before the founding of the country which also took place on what came to be American soil.

Today I learned - for the first time! - about John Wise (1652-1725), a New England minister who grew up as the son of an impoverished former indentured servant. Wise, together perhaps with the better known Roger Williams of Rhode Island fame, basically helped set the stage for the Revolutionary War that came so many decades later.

Wise didn't buy the John Winthrop-Increase and Cotton Mather line about how the government's main purpose is to have elite churchmen keep people, reeking with original sin, on the straight and narrow. Instead, Wise - a feisty guy who was jailed in 1687 for resisting what he thought were arbitrary taxes - insisted that the Bible itself demanded democracy - the natural state of man in which people gathered together, hashed things out, and through majority rule arrived at a covenant.

Wise was by instinct a Puritanistic fellow, with views based on Calvinistic thought, although of the more Congregationalist kind, but somehow his ideas followed the path of John Locke who so influenced the Founding Fathers. Guys like him not only did in the Puritans, who never again dominated (if always influenced) American political thought, but set our country on it's path toward revolution, freedom, and Fox News.

(Has there ever been a blessing that is unmixed?)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fun on the Golf Channel

At a time when sports can be less than inspiring - football players banging themselves into early dementia, baseball players pigging out on what's now going on generations of steroid use, etc. - games still can give a sports fan a wide, goofy smile. Such was the case for me this afternoon watching Michele Wie, 20, "finally" win her first professional golf tournament. Wie, horribly mismanaged by her parents and promoters since the age of 12, had the kind of grin I won't soon forget after hitting a sand bunker shot to within a foot on the final hole for a birdie and a two-stroke win over the best female players in golf.

And, in a silly take on the old ABC Wide World of Sports slogan, it was a case of the joy of victory and agony of de feet. (Her ankle brace didn't prevent some missed shots. Asked about the discomfort, she told an interviewer she didn't want to think about it.) Still, let's root for not only some more LPGA wins, but for the time and peace to take advantage of a top-notch Stanford University education.

Golf, I can testify from personal experience, is a rather fickle mistress. She'll probably do you wrong. An education, on the other hand, might not make you rich, but it won't let you down.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

An old argument, well put

Understatement alert: Garry Wills is a smart, interesting guy. A long-time and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, he also has written nearly 40 books and currently is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern. What interests me is his wide-ranging mind. A conservative early protege of William F. Buckley, a young scholar who entered and then left the Jesuit order, his thought took a more liberal turn after his coverage of civil rights and the debacle in Vietnam. Fiercely intellectual, he has remained a devout Catholic, to me a dichotomy of Grand Canyon-like dimensions for any and all religions. But he has remained an open-eyed Catholic who has been a tough critic of Vatican policies and theology. He is one of those Americans with whom it is easy to disagree but hard to ignore.

In the current New York Review, Wills' brief (half-page) essay is headlined: "A One-Term President?: The Choice." Wills begins by pretty much agreeing that if Obama pulls out of Afghanistan he would become a one-term president because the same arguments used to keep America in Vietnam for so long would be "toxic" enough to oust him. But, although Wills yearns for Obama to have two terms in which to "realize the exciting new things he aspires to do," Wills still "would rather see him a one-term president than have him pass on another unwinnable war to the person who will follow him in office" - as, of course, so many recent presidents have done in hopes of winning that second term.

"It is unlikely," Wills wrote, "that we will soon have another president with the moral and rhetorical force to talk us out of a foolish commitment that cannot be sustained without shame and defeat. If it costs him his presidency, what other achievement can match it?"

Obviously the Vietnam experience colors Wills' views. But unlike the thinking of those who suggest that the lesson of that war teaches us to just fight harder, he raises questions more difficult to refute. After all, he wrote, "Presidents who just kick the can down the road are easy to come by. Lost lives and limbs are not."

Friday, November 13, 2009


Back in 1961, when I was all of 15 years old and the war in Vietnam was just getting underway, the author Joseph Heller published "Catch 22," that WWII farce that noted that a pilot in wartime Europe would have to be crazy not to be terrified of missions over Nazi-land. Therefore, the freaked-out pilot must be sane, and competent to continue flying more missions!

The book was a little more complicated than that, although as a kid I didn't exactly get it all, but the idea of "Catch-22" has endured. (In the George W. Bush era, it flitted about like Tinkerbell. Clap your hands if you're a conservative!)

Anyway, the Catch-22s of life continue. Today I endured one of them in trying to get, by hook or by crook, (actually by email or by 800 number,) my 401k account information. No luck. It turns out you need a login name to get into the system in order to get a login name.

Of course, I made my efforts after east-coast business hours. I'll try again on Monday, when officies open near the Atlantic Ocean and one hopes the robo voices can be bypassed. But, yes, Catch-22s endure: Stupid health-care reform that can't work rather than a simple expansion of Medicare, American-soldiers dying in battles in Afghanistan that can't be won, drooling politicians who can't think beyond their dumbest constituents. The Catch-22 Tinkerbells contine to flutter about the land.

Maybe I'll feel better on Monday, when I might actually get to talk with one of those really smart people on Wall Street.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fun with nomenclature

Snow covers the grass outside my house like fuzz, not hiding this dead leaf, or that one, or the other thousands of them, but sculpting them into a low-lying blanket of frizz. The snow turns the deer beds white - flattened blades of grass are more easily covered - but deer poop seems to pop out. A light snow like this says, Hey! We'll let your poop pebbles be seen!

Of course, we could debate the use of a made-up word like "frizz." But, hey, I kind of like it! - and face it, sometimes you need a new word, in this case a word for a freezing little light coating of frost/snow. (Is there any doubt that Merriam-Webster is eventually going to pick it up? Nah.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Not a bad idea

I suspect that Ken Burns' latest documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," hits closer to home to many Americans than many of Burns' earlier efforts, spectacular as they were. Lewis and Clark's journey, the Civil War, and even World War II, for instance, recede as mere history in many minds. But to the millions of Americans who have visited national parks as children, or with children or grandchildren of their own, the unlikely creation of national parks and monuments speaks to their actual memories, or to their dreams. My two trips to Glacier National Park this summer, one with each of my kids, remains by far the highlight of my year, or, really, of my decade.

Burns' six-part, 12-hour film carries many lessons, most importantly the quintessentially democratic idea of special places set aside not just for the rich, but for all. Then, many years after the first parks were formed, came this key concept: the preservation of wildlife, not just scenery. But what will bring tears of gratitude to many viewers is the realization that our national parks could easily have never come to be.

Conservationists, of course, will lap up this documentary, much as red-meat conservatives devour commentary on Fox News or liberals wolf down columns by the likes of Paul Krugman. People always have divided themselves into such categories, whatever the causes or labels may have been over the centuries. And it is human nature to favor the balm of what we already believe.

But whatever your politics, the fact remains that unless the government had not wrested these lands out of the hands of red-faced, sputtering entrepreneurs unable to see how bureaucrats could be allowed to hinder progress, there's not a conservative living today who could visit these crown jewels, not of only our continent, but of our democratic way of life.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Eschatology 251/4

Today I did one of the scariest things a person can ever do. No, not a bungie jump. No, not a speech before a bunch of strangers (you always can imagine the various states of their bladders. Heh.) No, not even a prostate examination, fearful as it is.

I'm talking about going to talk to an estate lawyer about a will.

EEEEEeeeeeEEEEEeeee! Pant pant pant. Yikes! Yikes! Yikes! Pant, pant.

OK, I think I'm ready to contine

Let's face it, thinking about one's death is bad enough. But thinking about how you might deal with things from the damn grave is, well, ghostly. Ugly. In a very real, out-of-the-grave way, unholy. (Out of the hole, so to speak.) Or, one might say, worm-holy.

Anyway, I visited a nice man named Dale Reagor who knows Montana law on "ISSUES OF DEATH" backward and forward. We discussed a bunch of options, and I expect a draft will in a couple of weeks, together with a medical power of attorney document, and some such stuff. EEEEeee(slap!) (That was the sound of my hand across my mouth.)

All this is a joke, of course. To not do a will, especially at my age, would be an extrordinarily selfish thing.

But the whole "will" thing raises, among many other issues, the question of whether other animals sense impending death ... or is it just humans who really get it when the end comes near? I've been reading this week about the extent to which other animals can do language. But hey, isn't it language that enables foolish thoughts about things like religion and an afterlife? Or are such thoughts somehow extra-linguistic? In any event, are animals better off without it? Is language, which throughout our lives is such an important part of our existance, at the end of life just an enabler of self-deception?

And therefore, in the end, should we become mute to be smart, or at least not dumb?

I don't think so. But I think this is an interesting take on a rather age-old question - a question that has been discussed over thousands of years by folks a lot smarter than me. Therefore, I should shut up. Right?

But then, there's this will thing.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

To the moon

As I was re-chewing a book called "The First WORD: The Search for the Origins of Language," I came up short against a phrase author Christine Kenneally used: "The language SUITE." Of course, she meant the whole thing, the total collection of stuff that the speaker of a language can call on, the vocabulary, the grammar, the intonation, and all.

But my mind, that nasty, independent thing that it is, went off in its own direction. I thought of an old guy, entering a large hotel's collection of rooms, spreading his arms and saying: "How suite it is!" Then I imagined somebody else, a young bellhop, say, one that never had seen that old TV show about a goofy bus-driving fat every-man who would spread his ample arms and tell his wife, Alice, "How sweet it is!" And I imagined the young guy thinking: "Hey, suite sounds like sweet, OK, but is this supposed to be funny?"

But imagine that the young bellhop hears this "joke" from old farts again and again. He starts to think: Is something else going on here?

Finally, after hearing this dumb joke again and again, he asks one of those old farts, "What is this joke about?" The old fart asks: "Do you know about Jackie Gleason?"

It turns out that the joke, such as it is, only is funny to the extent that it bleeds comedy off the old sitcom. Those old folks are not smiling at somebody's wit, but at the wit of 50 years ago.

"How sweet it is" is a dying joke, on its last legs, as disappearing as the phrase, "To the moon!"

When I was young, I would read "language mavens" like Edwin Newman spreading fear that the English language was deteriorating. These days I laugh at them. The English language comes and goes. But it always grows more than not. Language grows, with every rap song, every book, every sitcom. To the moon, Ed.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Most everyone, I suspect, is familiar with the idea of cows lying around a pasture, chewing their cud. (If you are from the Midwest, you also probably are familiar with the similar concept of people cooking ears of sweet corn atop the tractor motor and then chewing the corn, cud-like.) Anyway, after at least a week of absence, my buck, who gets noticeably grayer and longer of fur as winter approaches, returned today to spend most of the day flattening a patch of my back-yard grass while chewing cud to beat the band. (I can't chew my nicotine gum that steadily, although I try.) But once again, despite it being the tail end of the season of rut, I was able to calmly walk outside with my load of garbage bags, stroll within a few feet of an animal that rather seriously outweighed me, and that had antlers like sabers and hooves of steel, and my passage never caused him to so much as to show the slightest agitation. The deer just looked over its shoulder at me as I dragged along my huge garbage bags, and glanced away again, munching cud from one of his uncaring stomachs.

The urban deer thing in Helena has come down to this: Not only do deer look both ways before crossing a street, (and probably vote in municiple elections, for all I know) they hardly even bother to look up as a grown man passes by them a few feet away banging along garbage bags. This inversion of the natural order of things is not likely to turn me into a Republican (Teddy Roosevelt being long dead), but it does make me wonder ... what do you have to do to scare a deer these days, put on a George W. mask?

Anyway, here is my second come-down of the day. I went to the local library to return a book, and grabbed another one I had noticed called "The First Word," a popular science book about linguistics and the recently resumed search for the origin of language itself. I started reading it, and that old deja vu started all over again. Sure enough, when I checked out my bookshelf most likely to hold such a book, there it was, purchased about three years ago. Frankly, I was enjoying reading the book again. But tomorrow I will return the borrowed copy to the library. I may well read my original copy again, however. And I'm sure that to any deer peering into my window, I will look like just another ungulate, re-chewing some cud.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Two books, one idea

As is often the case, I am reading two books at a time.

The first is Steven Shapin's "The Scientific Revolution," which starts out: "There was no such thing as the scientific revolution, and this is a book about it." As you start reading, smiling, you find something that to a journalist is interesting: Shapin's game plan is simple, and ... journalistic! His three-chapter plan invokes questions a journalist tries to answer quickly, on top of a new story, in case the bottom of the story has to be cut to fit the news hole: What, How, and gosh, What is this knowledge for. Now, I know any comparison to journalese is no compliment to an academic, but tough. (Sure, his chapter headings leave off the other "inverted pyramid" necessities: Who and When and Why. But do you think a historian is going to leave them out?

I've only read the first third of the book, the first chapter of the three, which asks What was known?, with How was it known? and What was the knowledge for? yet to come, but already I'm impressed with the density of his writing. I don't mean "dense" as in Wittgenstein or somebody, I mean thick with condensed smarts. I've been zapped with a really cool beginning, roughly from Copernicus to Newton, with the deeper stuff yet to come. Heh!

The second book is a hard science fiction novel by Helen Collins, an East Coast English professor, whose "NeuroGenesis" came to my attention certainly not from any mainstream or even sort-of-semi-mainstream science fiction publisher, but from an acerbic critic of the SF publishing business named Norman Spinrad. Spinrad, an accomplished fiction writer himself, has written reviews for decades, often in "Asimov's Science Fiction," and in this case I could quote him at long length about this book, which apparently had to be published by a really obscure outfit called Spinrad has much to say about the quality of this book, it's amazing ability to meet every criterion of excellent SF, but he worries that the reason it hasn't been published elsewhere is that its readers must be "at least minimally scientifically literate in physics, biology, sociology, cybernetics, anthrophology, and so forth, and from the evidence in the culture at large this is not exactly a large demographic."

I can only agree, and suggest that Steven Shapin's "The Scientific Revolution" should be required (beginning) reading in every high school in the land.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Our cool tongue

I'm not a linguist, but I dig 'em.

An example is David Crystal, a wonderful writer who really gets it in books like "Words, Words, Words." One of the neatest things inside the book is this appreciation of Emily Dickinson:

"One of the best poems ever written about words, to my mind, is by Emily Dickinson:

A word is dead
When it is said
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day."

(A post about Emily Dickinson is coming. Most of us don't get her; we should.)

But for now, is there an anti-David Crystal? Heh. Is there ever.

His name is John McWhorter, and the book in question is the popular-linguistics short book called "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English."

McWharter raises the question of why most linguists, like Crystal, don't get it about how English actually formed. Just as one example, think about the "meaningless do" as in "How do you do," or "Do you know what he is doing," or "Do you care?" It turns out, according to McWhorter, the Celtic (pronounce it Keltic) Welsh and Cornish tongues have the "meaningless do," which the Celts added to Old English, naturally, as part of the natural mixing of languages. No other languages in the entire world have such a dumb "do."

Later, the Vikings, a bunch of adult adventurers too old to easily pick up a new language filled with hard-to-learn inflections, simplified English because they couldn't quite figure it out. Their kids just copied the old man's bastardization of Old English! Gosh: We get Middle English. And soon comes Shakespeare!

I am simplifying McWhorter's book to the point of stupidity. Sorry. But maybe you'll buy it anyway! I hope so. It is fascinating.

more on urban deer

Alison - I saw your comment on my blog about the injured fawn. The question is, should an answer come in an email like this, or on the blog, or in a "comment" responded to your comment? (Old guys are easily confused.) I guess I'll do both, although what both means remains uncertain.

Anyway, yes, the limping deer you photographed this summer was back. But here's more:

Today, that male with the skinny antlers, after taking a day off, once again lounged around my back yard all day, getting up now and then to munch on some grass, or hopefully test the taste of a dying lilac leaf, or snack on a bit of tender bark. Face it, the guy is a sponge. Then, about 4 p.m., as the buck was quietly chewing its cud, a herd of six deer, including the lame one, calmly crossed my front residential street, paraded along the south side of my house, crossed the alley, and started feeding on my neighbor's grass. One youngster, a buck with a couple of little antlers the size of pencils, stuck its nose through the gate into my back yard, staring at the reclining buck. The buck glanced back, over its shoulder, and pretended not to care.

But within a few minutes it stood, nibbled grass for a little longer, and then, from a standing start, leaped my back fence, landed in the alley, seemed to be heading north away from the herd, but then changed course, unable to avoid joining the other deer.

They chomped grass for a while, until suddenly my viewing turned into anthropology. My across-the-alley late-30-something neighbor, in a car driven by her similarly aged girl friend, pulled into the yard. Their car doors remained shut, no doubt because their back seat was filled with a couple of good-sized pooches. But the friend opened her driver's-side window and stuck out her cell phone, photographing (or filming) the deer. This went on for several minutes until another nearby neighbor banged out of his house and started banging stuff into his truck. The deer skittered over to the other side of the yard, stood still for a minute or two, and then somehow collectively decided to vamoose.

Just another day in urban-deer land. I see the need for authorities to cull Helena's deer herd. And the food goes to Helena Food Share, after all. But I hope my deer survive another year.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


When, last February, I was informed that my job as editorial page editor of the Independent Record had gone poof - a victim of all those smart folks running our corporations - I decided to economize. So, among other things, I did not re-subscribe to a cool magazine called "Fantasy and Science Fiction." But recently, I noticed its annual double issue on the news stand. And I bought it.

At the back of the magazine was its monthly "competition:" this time called "Hooked on Mnemonics." It harkened back to the old memory device for recalling the planets: "My Very Earnest Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets." But now, given that Pluto has been relegated to a "minor planet" status and other bodies have been added as other "minor planets," the editors said a new mnemotic is needed for the new line-up: planets and minor planets called Mercury Venus Earth Mars Ceres Jupiter Saturn Uranis Neptune Pluto Haumea Makemake Eris. (A science fictional twist was good, the magazine's editors said.)

OK; here's mine: My Vicious, Evil, Mad Cyborgs, Just Suppose Unexpected New Possibilities: Humans Might Emerge!

I realize this is not particularly funny, or clever. But ... would such an emergence be good, or bad? It is the ambiguity that is cool!

New urban deer update

For the second day in a row, my young buck lazed about my back yard in the middle of Helena, first digging out a little lie-down space before dawn in the sparce snow near my suddenly stick-like lilac tree, then enjoying the greening grass as 38-degree sunshine made more and more of the snow go away. The buck, three points on one side, two on the other, antlers skinny as twigs, was gone by 4 p.m., but around 6one of my does - the one with her two near-grown children - came strolling down my alley. I walked outside toward my back fence to get a better look - I was wondering how the youngster who had injured itself jumping my fence this summer was doing. She was the injured fawn that stumbled around my back yard for hours until I noticed the mother hanging around outside the fence. After I opened the gate, the mom timidly stuck her head around the fence-post - and her kids leaped up, animated again, and scooted to her side. (Except the injured one, who limped to her side.) Anyway, today as I walked toward them, the little family froze, as deer do when something is approachinbg. But by now, I am a known factor ... known to be benign, so they resumed feeding on my back neighbor's grass. The injured young gal - noticeably smaller now than her sister, - is no longer limping so noticeably. But her gait is stiff. I daoubt she could scamper across a street if need be.

Anyway, the threesome, at 60- to 90-second intervales, walked across the relatively quiet street in front of my house and disappeared into another neighbor's back yards. As always, I hope to see them again.