Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Native American mysteries

Back in the misty darkness of time - 20-25 years ago, say - I wrote a newspaper feature about how, as the last Ice Age finally was receding, ancient Lake Missoula would constantly fill with glacial meltwater and then flush, inundating much of western Washington State before rushing down through the Columbia Gorge and out to sea. In passing, I noted that while the current consensus appeared to be that Indians had not yet come to the New World in that 15,000-year-old time frame, there were increasing indications that maybe Native Americans already were plentiful. If that was the case, I said, most living in the area would have been washed away.

Now, a half-blink of geological time later, further excavations - and vast improvements in genetic investigations - have rather solidly proved that the decades-old "Clovis-point" theory that Native Americans first arrived through an ice corridor that only opened around 12,000 years ago is, as they say, history. It turns out the first Americans arrived before the last glacial maximum - well over 20,000 years ago ... maybe really well over. There remain other mysteries, like skulls that keep turning up that speak to African or Australian origins.

But despite mysteries, genetic testing has cleared up a lot (even as it raises more questions). Most of us have learned that American Indians have a "Mongoloid" appearance because their forbearers came across the Ice-Age dry Bering Straight from Siberia, chasing mastodons or whatnot. But genetic results show American Indians have varied genetic lines, including those also from the ancient "beachcombers" who settled along the east Asian coast and mid-Asian types who often contain genetic markers found in Europe.

Hence, maybe Kennewick Man.

All this is complicated (indeed, far more complicated than I've indicated. I haven't even mentioned mitochondrial DNA, or that neat part of the Y chromosome that isn't mixed up like a salad in reproduction. And so on.). But I find it cool that Native American origins, like Native Americans themselves, are a hell of lot more complicated than condescending Europeans always have supposed.

Maybe sometime in the future I'll talk about how for so many centuries, Europeans assumed that art, trade, - hell, the seeds of civilization - must have originated in Europe. I smile at the thought.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ban babies!

Now that I'm a "man of leisure," although I may lack either the money or vigor to take full advantage, I've been studying quite a bit of American history. Many common threads appear - religion, the influence of the wide-open West, resources that put every other country to shame, and so on. Unfortunately, also up there at the top of the list comes bigotry.

In the beginning, the Puritans were bigots in a religious sense, going so far as to banish religious dissenters into the wilderness. And always, of course, there was the class consciousness brought over from England like so many pewter cups, not to mention distain for the "savages."

But it wasn't until generations later, when in the mid-1800s refugees from the Irish famine began flooding East Coast shores, that Americans really got into it. The fact that the Irish people were Catholics was a big factor, but the overriding reason had to do with fear of the "other," together, on the part of many, the fear that jobs might be lost to these newcomers.

I have no doubt that I could find countless racist comments against the Irish, but let me limit myself to the two most revered American poets so far: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Whitman, as a young man, spent time teaching the poor - Irish "bog-trotters'" they were commonly called. He wrote he was spending the best years of his life "among clowns and country bumpkins, fat-heads and coarse brown-faced girls ... all with crude manners, and bog-trotters ... of ignorance and vulgarity."

As a young girl, Emily Dickinson wrote about Irish kids to her older brother - then a teacher in what today would be called the "inner city" of Boston. She was child, and she was joking, but she said that "So far as I am concerned I should like to have you kill some - there are so many now, there is no room for the Americans." You know she was parroting her elders.

Whitman went on, as we know, to celebrate - to SHOUT his celebration - of American diversity. And just before she died, at only 56, Dickinson asked that six beloved Irish servants - and none of the town's gentry - carry her casket across a deep meadow to her grave.

However, the years passed and the country went on - Jim Crow, wops, ragheads, you name it. But let's skip ahead to 2010.

The author of Arizona's new immigration law, state senator Russell Pearce, wants to ban the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States from being citizens.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, certain people in Germany invented the term untermensch, which literally meant "under-people," or "less than human," to refer to those they wanted to ... well, you know. The next time you see a racist Internet joke about immigration, think a little about U.S. and world history.

Monday, June 28, 2010

America the fecund

My ankle-deep grass - hell, call it calf-deep - needs deer. If the truth be known, it also needs horses, cattle, and goats. (I leave the front gate of my fence open, but I worry enough grazers won't come.)

Actually, I plan to fire up my lawn mower soon - Wednesday, in fact, when the Weather Channel says the temperature should drop from the mid-90s to the low 70s. Think of me Wednesday morning, skipping out to cut the grass!

But now, as I gaze out of my kitchen window at tall blades of grass, the broad leaves of weeds waving in the air, the serrated growths of dandelions - together with their high-stalked puffballs of seeds - all mocking me from the ground below, I think of fecundity.

According to an article by Joel Kotkin, a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, America may or may not be the beautiful, but it certainly is the fecund.

It has a fertility rate 50 percent higher than Russia, Germany, or Japan, and significantly higher than most other countries of note. While the population of many other nations is destined to decline, sometimes sharply, the United States can expect a population growth of 100 million in 40 years.

Kotkin sees this as an economic boon - provided we provide the necessary education and jobs for all the young newcomers. Others have ecological worries. Me, I still see the need for deer.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Flipping the switch

Often, just reading a magazine article sets my brain off. For instance, while reading about the inadequacies of this country's electrical grid in this week's National Geographic, a memory surfaced. A decade or more ago, as an editorial-page editor, I started getting letters to the editor from a lady who was so proud that she and her husband were "off the grid." They lived in the mountains west of Helena, had solar panels on the roof, had a buried heat system, had, as a backup, nothing but biofuel.

I had to like her. Her politics were my politics. But I had to ask myself - what the hell did her "going off the grid" have to do with you and me?

The grid, as it turns out, is not a matter of politics. It literally keeps us alive.

The electrical grid across the nation is a haphazard mess of local cooperatives, Edison-inspired entrepreneurs, Gilded-age railroad barrons wishing to expand, latter-day dreamers who saw one more dam as the hope of the future, far-seeing, big-spending businessmen, and modern wind-farm dudes. Yet the grid is cool: When I turn on my TV, the electron energy zapping my machine into action was created only seconds before, hundreds or thousands of miles away. There that energy is, whenever I want it! Is that cool, or what?

Very recently, my (land-line) phone system crashed and a tech came out to fix it. He diagnosed the problem with a little hand-held device, was up on a ladder against my house, up to the top of a nearby telephone pole, and down in my basement. He installed new cables. The system worked again!

Without such service, where would my phone service be? Without similar service, where would my electrical power be?

But overall, according to the magazine article, the nationwide grid is in trouble, big time. It fails to meet modern needs. It must be upgraded to use greener power. It must get smart enough to avoid the failure of a system its builders created back when a "smart" electrical system wasn't even a dream.

I had an editor, back in the day, who sputtered in an editorial about a power outage that shut down the newspaper for hours.The power company responded in a letter to the editor, saying essentially that these things happen.

Nowadays, big power outages cost billions. The grid needs not only to avoid outages, but to better regulate power and get consumers to conserve it intelligently. The grid needs to get into the 21st Century. Unfortunately, the power grid across the country is old, antiquated, and in need of upgrading in a hurry. Think of that, next time you flip a switch. The chances keep increasing that nothing will happen.

Friday, June 25, 2010

'Deregulation' as a dirty word

Liberals may or may not take heart at the apparently congenital obtuseness of Republican office holders over the past half decade, suspecting that like dodos and passenger pigeons, they are such easy pickings they have to be on the way out, but as always there is reason to worry: What if they take us all with them?

The current spate of GOP nonsense began with Barry Goldwater, who said something a majority of Americans translated as "Extremism in defense of powerful corporations is no vice." The story goes on, too dreary to recount - Reagan through the second President Bush - but the latest dumbness came from U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, who apologized to BP for the "shakedown" it suffered from the Obama administration. Do these guys have any foot left? (Barton soon apologized, amusingly quoted in Newsweek as saying that "If anything I have said this morning has been misconstrued to the opposite effect, I want to apologize for that misconstrued misconstruction.") The apology was a laugh, but the original comment was a talking point. The day before, a press release by House Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price called it not just a shakedown but "a Chicago-style shakedown."

The BP oil spill - the worst in U.S. history - may be fodder for GOP talking points, but the credibility of those points is on a rather severe downward spiral.

I try to steer clear of politics, but sometimes that task resembles tiptoeing across a pig sty. The pigs are thinking about eating me; never mind the state of my shoes.

Liberals and conservatives alike deplore the government's slow response to the oil disaster. Conservatives, hypocritically, demand more government action, while liberals blame the problem on the desecration of agencies like the Minerals Management Service by GOP ideology.

The long-term answer, of course, is to junk as ancient, failed history the Reagan chant of "deregulation" as the disinformation and obtuseness it is. Deregulation, as Newsweek's columnist Jonathan Alter pointed out in a separate article, "must be transformed into an epithet."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

But where did I park my car?

I was in the editorial-page business for roughly a decade and a half, handling letters to the editor as well as writing editorials, and one thing you learn in that game is that opinions are a dime a dozen. Opinions are cheap, a colleague once said: Walk into any bar - you can get as many as you want.

But reading an article about aging and the brain reminded me that those alcohol-soaked, fuzzy opinions found in any bar aren't limited to old folks nodding on their bar stools. The opinions - the quality of thinking - hardly get better as you progress down the age scale. Bar talk is bar talk, regardless of age.

Abandoning the tavern for the laboratory, it has long been thought that, unlike in a bar, thinking ability sharply and quickly declines with age. A graph plotting the proportion of people of various ages scoring in the top 25 percent of standard lab tests of reasoning ability drops like a brick with age. Just 6 percent of people in their 50s are top scorers. For people in their 60s, it's only 4 percent.

That sounds grim, but we all know that in real life it doesn't hold water. We know too many people in middle age and beyond whose thinking, savvy and all-around smarts usually put younger people to shame. Hell, these "old farts" are running most every big company, government agency and important activity in the country.

Sharon Begley, the acclaimed science writer who wrote the Newsweek article I refer to, can't help bringing up what she calls that "inchoate thing called wisdom," But she is a font of other, more specific, information. For instance, studies show that while aging brains begin to lose the type of dendrites that do new-thing learning (old dogs, etc.), the dendrites for long-term learning never go away. That's why, perhaps, self-control and social and emotional intelligence improve with age.

Other studies suggest that there is little that is more important to keeping the brain healthy than exercise, just as it is for one's other organs.

Hmm. Exercise. I'll have to consider that. True, it is boring. But not as boring as bar talk.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cave-man sex

For years now, ever since genome analysis discovered such things as the fascinating fact every human can trace his or her ancestry (at least in small part) to a single "Eve" back in Africa some 190,000 years ago, it has been common knowledge among anthropologists that humans (Cro Magnons) and Neandertals could not interbreed. For instance, a book I am reading called "The Real Eve: Modern Man's Journey Out of Africa" (copywrited 2004 - my paperback was reissued in 2007) states confidently that "there is no evidence among the tens of thousands of non-Africans who have had their (male and female specific) chromosomes studied for even a minimal degree of this kind of mixing."

Well, oops.

It turns out this common knowledge ain't. Up to 4 percent of the DNA of people today (who live outside Africa) came from Neandertals. (Ah, the power of sex!)

The news - shocking to investigators - came from new studies of the Neandertal genome based on 38,000-year-old Neandertal bones from a cave in Croatia. The work was reported in the May 7 "Science." Back in 1997 the lead scientist of the new study, Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, wrote that his studies at the time showed Neandertals had made no such contribution.

So it goes.

Many people like to research their family trees looking for famous or accomplished forbearers. Few find them. But all can be sure that, going back far enough, they will find folks with huge jaws, flattened craniums, and pronounced brow ridges. (On the bright side, remember that Neandertals, on average, had bigger brains than humans do.)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Regulating bullshitters

I find it difficult to believe that anyone could have been more addicted to cigarette smoking than the fellow typing these words. Still, four or five years after quitting, I crave. I miss the taste. I miss the work breaks in which my friends and I would step outside and gossip, blowing smoke. The little nicotine rush, always unnoticed except in its absence.

For a long time, I'd dream about me, in one dream adventure or disaster or another, suddenly looking down at my hand. It held a glowing cigarette! "Oh shit," my dreaming mind thought, "I've screwed up! I'm smoking again!"

Actually, although such dreams rarely but sometimes occur to this day, I never actually screwed up. I quit for good, in my late 50s. But I think of the kids. They are just starting.

It goes without saying that tobacco companies, for their long-term financial "health," need to addict kids. For what other reason would those companies in recent years come out with berry-flavored cigarettes?

And for whatever reason would new rules be formulated - effective today - to ban such shameful (and shameless) advertising? Common sense, perhaps?

I'm no advocate of banning tobacco smoking. That would be even dumber than Prohibition was back in the 1920s. But in a country in which people are constantly blind-sided by disinformation, special-interest spin gone amok, direct-to-consumer drug ads that fail to mention negative results, companies with a vested interest in trying to discredit climate warming with a careful campaign of deceit, fear-mongering attacks on health care reform, I can handle some regulation of the bullshitters.

Regulating bullshitters, including Wall Street types who bet against their customers, is just fine by me.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Weathering the storm

Last November there arose a great clamor among the birthers, drill-baby-drill chanters, anti-evolution chest-beaters and climate-change deniers when someone hacked into the computers of a noted British climate-research organization and found stuff that cast doubt, to them at least, on the whole enterprise. Various scientists were seen to make disparaging remarks about people seeking basic data, talking about "tricks," and so on.

Now, half a year later, no less that four separate, independent investigations have exonerated the organization.

To be sure, (surprise!) scientists can prove to be human. You bet they were stingy with data for critics. Why help their debunkers? The investigations recommended better transparency. As for "tricks," the investigations showed the reference was to ways to deal with mountains of data - much as Sudoku solvers use what they call logical "tricks" to (accurately) solve difficult puzzles.

But overall, the probes found no scientific misconduct. Said one panel: the "work has been carried out with integrity, and the allegations of deliberate misrepresentations and unjustified selection of data are not valid."

Of course, the brouhaha in no way addressed the many other studies showing that it is human activities that are accelerating the warming - just as minor academic squabbles among biologists have nothing to do with the essential fact of evolution. (Or oil-company lovers can convincingly ignore spills, or birthers' paranoia can change the place in which Obama came into the world.)

But the investigations, in an ideal world, should put an end to the climate-change carping. (Sure, and Rush Limbaugh will go off the air due to a lack of listeners.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Hey, a few billion?

One of my favorite singers is Ketevan (Katie) Melusa from England. (As a kid, she was from Georgia, USSR). And one of my favorite songs of her's is "Nine Million Bicycles." The song includes this:

"We are twelve billion light years from the edge
That's a guess
No one can ever say it's true
But I know that I will always be with you."

A British astronomer, Aimon Singh, took umbrage. The "edge," such as it is, is 13.7 billion years back, he harrumphed, not 12 billion. Katie was flaunting science! On a BBC talk show, she sang a version of the song, with Singh in the audience, that included ""we are 13.7 billion light-years, according to estimates, in agreement with error bars." Singh had to admit that it probably wouldn't sell.

A cool performance.

Melua goes on to sing, "There are six billion people in the world, more or less, and it makes me feel quite small, but you're the one I love the most of all."

Hey. Six million. Close enough. Bicycles? Close enought. Just let me hear her sing.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Emily's words

There's something about an Emily Dickinson fan that, I'm sure, gets tiresome. I mean, for Pete's sake, she died 114 years ago. Who cares?

But people do. And, as is often the case, new studies keep popping up. New views. New perspectives. New stuff to piss off the pros.

This spring, a woman named Aife Murray published "Muse as Maid" a thorough study of Dickinson's servants, and showed that every time Dickinson's poetic output dropped, it was when the Dickinson house was without servants. Victorian life for women was grim - hard work from dawn to dusk - and a poet could hardly produce while sweeping, polishing, and working in the kitchen. Later, her live-in maid, Margaret Maher, not only gave her time to write, but the Irish language which Murray demonstrates informs Dickinson's poetry.

Then, there comes "Lives like Loaded Guns," which does a lot of things. But the most interesting part of Lyndall Gordon's book is her assertion - convincingly documented - that the reason Dickinson sequestered herself was because she suffered from epilepsy.

All this is cool for a Dickinson fan like myself. But, hey, let's not forget the poems:

"A narrow Fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides -
You may have met Him - did you not
His notice sudden is -

The Grass divides as with a Comb -
A spotted shaft is seen -
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on -
But never met this fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And zero at the bone - "

Or ... Check this out:

Wild Nights - Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights would be
Our luxury!

Futile the Winds -
To a heart in port -
Done with the compass -
Done with the chart!

Rowing in Eden-
Ah, the Sea! -
Might I but moor - Tonight -
In thee!

This stuff from 150 years ago. From a Victorian, Calvinist household! Dickinson's health, and her help, are interesting. But her poetry ...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Inquiring minds

Maybe I'm just in a bad mood, but the main headline on the cover of the latest Scientific American magazine bummed me out. It said: "The Universe is Leaking." (The story was about the fact that light waves are red-shifted as they cross expanding space, therefore losing energy in apparent contradiction of the Law of Conservation of Energy." Where does the energy from those now-weaker photons go?)

Make no mistake. I am no physicist. Maybe I still could factor first-year-algebra-class equations (or maybe not), but my understanding of advanced math is at the earth-worm level. (For instance, popular-science books teach a kid by the time he reaches middle school about Einstein's famous "energy equals mass times the speed of light squared" - and we kids get it (a little mass, a hell of a lot of energy). But wait a minute: why is it the speed of light "squared?" Why not cubed? Why not the power of pi? Why not something, anything, else?

OK, I know it is because the math comes out that way, and that putting the reason into middle-school English is essentially impossible.

But it seems to me that the Scientific American cover does little but take advantage of our mathematical weakness to sell magazines. (Oh no, the universe is leaking energy! Gasp! Is Brad back with Jen? Is Angelina pregnant? Is Bigfoot the father?)

As it turns out, as the article lucidly explains, the question of the conflict between energy conservation and the energy loss of light waves is meaningless. It's all a matter of perspective. As our friend Albert would say, it's all relative. Because the total amount of energy in the universe is beyond our ken, and any conceivable measurement must take place in a galaxy moving in a specific and unique direction and speed, the answer to the question remains fundamentally out of reach.

This might seem like a bunch of gobbledygook - sorry about that - but I still feel bummed. Why put such a simplistic headline on the cover of a leading magazine like Scientific American? (Sure, the answer is obvious ((selling mags, do you suppose?)), but inquiring minds still want to know ... or at least bitch about it.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hanging on to wonder

I've been sitting on my butt, as the no-longer-working class is wont, reading the first few stories in the latest issue of "Asimov's Science Fiction." And I've been thinking about a question some of my head-scratching friends have asked me over the years: "What's with science fiction? Why not read something real?"

I've just read four short stories, each completely different from the others. They all have three things in common. They are technically competent: pacing, tone, plot, all work together in a brief but satisfying way. They have that all-important "idea" - the new little twist on SF tropes that tweaks a "sense of wonder." And they feature people who, in a few short pages, the reader come to care about.

(SF is the preferred term. "Sci-Fi" ((some sort of bastardization of "Hi-Fi?)) makes no sense. Who abbreviates "fiction" as "fi?" Those of us who as grade schoolers in the 1950s scoured the children's library section for "young adult" SF ((and, heh, heh, snuck into the adult section)) know this.)

The first tale involves a man 100 years in the future living in an unfortunate world in which the ecology is so damaged that even books are banned as a waste of resources. He cheats on his wife, who demands he use his (equally illegal) time machine to retrieve for her an exquisite leather purse she saw in a store-front-window photo from 1900. (Use of any animal products also is illegal now.) To prove his love, he does so, sending the purse back and waiting for her to retrieve him as well. She dithers, waiting too long, and he zooms off back in time toward the Big Bang, happy, enjoying a new and expanding sense of existence. She's sad, but gets over it. She fingers her illegal but beautiful purse, amazed how "the past could still surprise the present with its riches."

I guess I don't want to even try to do justice to the other three tales. There is "The Lovely Ugly," in which dog-like animals far superior to humans come to understand that people really are (sort of) worthy, a post-apocalypse story in which a young grandmother who deeply loved her dead father must decide whether to unearth his corpse to cut a "life-recorder" out of his head, and a story by a Native American author about an Indian scientist fighting for funding so she can create a "history viewer" to reveal Indian life prior to the white conquest.

The point of this, I guess, is to stress the variety. A tiny, tiny sample. But, says the 1950s grade schooler so glad he can read, addressing the 63-year-old in 2010 via his time machine, "don't let the sense of wonder go away."

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The sound of water

It's kind of silly to think very much about the wanderings of urban deer. After all, most of them are born-and-bred urban natives, unafraid of people or dogs, able to look both ways when crossing a street, calm at sudden traffic noises they'd never hear in the woods.

But their ears still are up.

Today a lone doe, lounging in my back yard, contentedly chewing grassy, leafy cud, legs curled up beneath her body, was the picture of contentment.

Then, from behind a double-pane window and a strong steel door, I happened to (rather quietly, I thought) set a glass on my kitchen counter. The mule deer's ears swiveled immediately, its eyes staring straight at me in the window. It kept eye contact, refusing to look away. Finally, after about a minute, it did. But then I dropped an empty frozen-food box into my garbage can. It dropped with a predictable little noise.

The deer's ears twitched again. Eyes stared at me, through the glass. It wanted to know: Should I be alarmed?

Finally, before I left my viewing post, I ran a stream of water into my sink - louder, I think, than anything else I had done. The doe paid no attention. Running, splashing water wasn't an alarm.

Some 10 minutes later, the doe walked away, out of my yard and across the street. Off to other pastures. Reminded, maybe, of the sound of water.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dabbles of baby deer

Few things are as loveable - and as awkward - as a baby deer. I was privileged this afternoon to watch my first fawn of the year explore my back yard, seldom far from its mother - a fawn that just may have come into the world this very day. (Maybe my failure to close the gate in my fence leading to the street had been more prescient than lazy!)

The fawn was all legs and white spots and yearnings for its mother's milk. The legs were huge in relation to its tiny body, and it walked with all the grace of a staggering drunk. It carefully moved one wobbly step at a time, as if this whole walking thing was way new.

The fawn generally stayed very close to Mom, weaving unsteadily around her legs, milk on its mind. At one point, Mom obliged, standing still and spreading her back legs for better access. As her baby drank, the doe bent down and for about three minutes licked the fawn - hind legs, back, belly, backside, all the parts she could reach - as though she still was cleaning up after the birth.

Once, the little fawn appeared to follow some baby-prey instinct and hobbled its way to one of my overgrown bushes. It pushed inside, under the foliage. From my kitchen window, I only could see little dabbles of white - like little pinpoints of sunlight filtered through the leaves.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Deer just want to eat

The other morning, as I often do, I got up early. It was getting close to 5 a.m. and, at my latitude, dawn wasn't far away. But it still was dark in my backyard, at least until my motion-sensitive light flashed on. I walked to my kitchen window. Outside was a doe, scorning grass, munching lilac leaves as though they were the finest caviar, the most exquisite pheasant-under-glass, the best cheeseburger, the world had ever known.

Then, suddenly, the deer quit eating. She looked out into the night, ears alert, then walked toward my fence, took a little run, and hopped it. She disappeared into the dark.

I was reminded of a day or two earlier, when another doe - the same one? - wandered into my front yard in daylight and fed on an overgrown bush beside my front door. Thin branches swayed as she grabbed spring-time leaves. Off to the south, two doors down, another deer fed on grass in another front yard.

My deer, stomach apparently full, glanced at her friend down the street and apparently made a decision. She took off across the road (repeatedly looking both ways) and vanished behind a neighbor's house.

Somehow, I'm beginning to think that deer don't visit my place because of my winning personality.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

When to say no

Late today a rather obvious thought occurred to me: In English, it is "yes;" in Spanish, it is "si." So why in English is it "no," and in Spanish it also is "no?" I mean, English is a Germanic language. Spanish is a romance language. What the hey?

My first though had to do with "n" words. (No, not that one.) After all, "no" in Russian is "nyet." In German it is something like "nein." In French (I think) (at least sometimes) it is "non." I know absolutely no other languages - like how they say "no" in Portuguese or Italian - hell, I don't know any other languages, period - but I grabbed a dictionary and learned that in both Latin and Greek, "no" seems to come from one or another pronunciation of "ne."

Which doesn't help much - except that some root from Proto-Indo-European starting with "n" must be involved - but it reminded me how languages change, often when they brush up against another language. Which in turn reminded me about a book I've just read called "Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language."

For the last nearly 20 years of her life, Emily Dickinson's maid was an immigrant Irish lass named Maggie Maher, and before that there were other Irish servants. Emily may have cloistered herself from much of New England society, and she may have been filled with the New England prejudices against the immigrants that were so much a part of her time, but it was the Irish immigrants' speech she continued to hear as she baked bread and made cakes in her kitchen alongside Maggie. And the sounds of Maggie's language spoke to her. Her "slant" rhymes may well have rhymed perfectly - in an English-as-second-language Irish dialect. Better than anyone in her century, Emily had an ear.

She didn't care what about seemed proper to her fellow New England types. She cared what spoke.

And it turns out that Maggie had guts. The author of "Maid as Muse," Aife Murray, is convinced that both the maid, Maggie, and Emily's sister, Vinnie, had been asked by the poet to burn all her papers upon her death. Vinnie, who had the letters written to Emily by her friends, did so. Maggie, who had kept the poems in her trunk for so many years, did not. She knew better. She had to say no.

In whatever language, I think I love her,

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Peculiar, peppery men

Columnists, as William Safire once observed, like to write in circles. They like to start with one topic, raise another, and then bring them together into a whole.

That, frankly, is more easily said than done. But I do something similar, in my head, with things like poetry and music lyrics, which are the same thing. For instance, there is the Simon and Garfunkel song "A Most Peculiar Man." It's about a loner who committed suicide with gas.

"And all the people said, 'What a shame
that he's dead,
But wasn't he a most peculiar man?' "

Somehow, that lyric popped into my head as I was listening to lines sung by Natalie Merchant (in her new double album "Leave Your Sleep") and written as silly poetry called "The Peppery Man" by the American poet Arthur Macy (1842-1904). In part:

"His ugly temper was so sour
He often scolded for an hour;
He gnashed his teeth and stormed and scowled,
He snapped and snarled and yelled and howled."

Parts clanged together in my brain like 19th Century industrial cogs. What did a lonely suicide and a noisy crank have in common but an inability to get along and prosper in a modern world, be it 1965 in Paul Simon's world or Macy's world sometime in the late 19th Century? Their problems mesh, somehow, in a way that certainly hasn't gone away. When, as the world keeps changing, will we ever have a shortage of peculiar, peppery men?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Global dumbness

I recently read some objections to the concept of human-caused global warming that were too empty-headed to bear repeating, but that got me thinking. How to get through?

The first thing is to say, yes, the geological history of the Earth is filled with great temperature fluctuations. Far greater than anything being experienced now. Huge cooling came from gigantic volcanoes or hits from sizable asteroids that darkened the skies, causing ice ages, and warming came from a lack of such things, coupled with earthly orbit wobbles and variations in solar output. But all that misses the point.

The point is that every civilization on this planet arose well after the last ice age. Changes in climate prior to that time simply aren't part of the argument. (To be sure, early man was affected by the last ice age. And surely hunter-gatherer clans retreating from a colder north had conflicts with those to the south. Many must have died. But there was no global civilization to fall apart.)

Now, of course, there is. And we haven't had any giant volcanoes, huge asteroid hits, (or nuclear wars), to cool things, nor any reasons to think that orbit wobbles or solar variations are to blame for any warming. It is happening way too quickly.

Instead, the obvious culprit is none other than human-caused changes to the make-up of the atmosphere. It's a no-brainer.

Some 25 years ago or more, when the concept of global warming was being born, I was asked by my editor to write a story about how warming would effect our country. Of course I knew the assignment was stupid. Nobody knew, the variables were endless, etc. But back then there wasn't even a Google to turn to. I went to the library, found a book with a bunch of wavy lines across the country denoting equal temperatures in a given season, boosted them by a few degrees, and wrote a story. (Hey, you have to choose your battles.)

Now, a quarter-century later, we know that by the time our grandkids or great grandkids are around, huge spaces now occupied by people are likely to be either deserts or under water, causing gigantic migrations of a billion or more people. Conflicts, anyone?

Sorry, kids, but we felt we had to listen to Rush Limbaugh.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Learning from silliness

There's something to be learned about writing well - not from clever use of political talking points, or perfectly grammatical and logically pristine paragraphs (semicolons and colons all used to perfection), or the capture and squeezing of nuances and figures of speech until they squeal - but in pure sound.

Once again I call on a poem found by Natalie Merchant, this one by a British writer named Marvyn Peake (1911-1968). He called it "It Makes a Change":

There's nothing makes a Greenland whale
Feel half so high and mighty
As sitting on a mantelpiece
In Aunty Mabel's nighty.
It makes a change from Freezing Seas,
(Of which a whale can tire),
To warm his weary tail at ease
Before an English fire.
For this delight he leaves the seas
(Unknown to Aunty Mabel),
Returning only when the dawn
Lights up the Breakfast Table.

Of course the poem is silly. A whale dropping by to perch on a mantel to enjoy the fire's warmth (and a nighty), then disappearing near dawn? But you can see little children grinning as they listen. Grinning at the silliness, sure. But grinning, more deeply, at the sounds. As so are we.

Friday, June 4, 2010

I hate it when I poke my eye with this pencil

Like many of us, I've been watching this spring's internal GOP primary battles between moderate Republicans and the nut-case right. Surely many on the left are hoping for the far right to take over the party, but that's something I'd hate to have happen. I see little good coming from the end of the relatively balanced two-party system that has evolved in this country.

Spurring this worry today was the amusing painted cover of this week's "New Yorker" magazine. On it, in a congressional committee room, oil-covered fish, a dolphin, and several species of water birds sit behind the curve of congressional desks. In front of them, holding up his right hand to take the oath, is an older man wearing a gray suit, hair white except for a circle of baldness on the back of his head. No caption is necessary. We know who this man is. We can hear the dolphin, the oil-spattered "congressman" with its mouth open, asking: "Drill, baby, drill?"

Meanwhile, from this week's "Newsweek," comes the news that investigative reporter Joe McGinniss has moved in next to Sarah Palin in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska. And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who got where he is by freaking out about Big Government, screams that Big Government isn't saving his shorelines.

In my state of Montana, Republicans of different stripes have taken out their knives against each other. From knives, I fear, it isn't very far from tatters.

Back in my youth, the radical left really, really damaged the Democratic Party. I hate to say it, but welcome to a similar but opposite story in 2010.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Little girl on the beach

When was young, I fell in love with the poetry of e.e. cummings (1894-1962). The dude didn't use capital letters, which I thought was delightfully bohemian. And irony dripped off his words. In an ironic lower-case sort of way.

I hadn't read him for years, and then I bought a double album by Natalie Merchant, who over five years wrote music for old pieces of poetry designed to ignite the imagination of children. The album, "Leave Your Sleep," is really cool. And here - something I'd never seen before - is the e.e. cummings poem she chose:

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea.

What a cool, insightful look at little gals discovering themselves in the incoming waves.

But Merchant dug deeper, discovering that e.e. cummings fathered a daughter, Nancy, born in 1919, that he never properly acknowledged. The woman didn't realized who her father was until she was a mother who was nearly 30. Father and daughter had a few strained meetings thereafter - at one point the poet asked her, "Did anyone anyone ever tell you I was your father?" - and he always forbade her to call him "father" instead of his middle name, "Estlin."

So which was Nancy ... Maggie or Milly, Molly or May? I imagine watching a little girl on the beach, and I think she was them all.