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.