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.