Archive for March, 2019

The Value Of Desolation

March 22, 2019

Few months ago a painter doing some interior work at our house volunteered that the earth is flat. He knew of a group that “went way up in Alaska, went to the edge, and looked over. You can see about it on the internet.” Apollo 11 took place in a Hollywood studio. Fake news.

Don’t know what is more incredible. That humans were able to get to the moon and back with the engineering done by slide rule and pencil or that all of the technology that ensued has, among much else, enabled beliefs such as the above. If it is on the internet it must be true…

Norman Mailer’s brilliant reportage of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins’ trip to the moon and back was prescient even regarding technical advance and the associated epiphenomenal states of mind that followed (NB This was 1969):

“Computers the size of a package of cigarettes would then be able to do the work of present computers the size of a trunk.”

“Because the computer was the essence of Narcissism (the computer could not conceive of its inability to correct its own mistakes) a view of (the future) suggested a technological narcissism so great that freak newspeak was its only cure.”

“So the mind could race ahead to see computers programming go-to-school routes in the nose of every kiddie car – the paranoid mind could see crystal transmitters sewn into the rump of every juvenile delinquent – doubtless, everybody would be easier to monitor.”

Impressive, huh. But the book – Of a Fire on the Moon – is much more than that. The author presents himself as the zeitgeist. An uber zeitgeist. He even calls himself ‘Aquarius” (as in “The Age of …”) a move so brazen that failure was virtually assured. But he succeeds. He succeeds by not allowing his perspicacity to overshadow his humanity.

“(The writer was) beginning to observe as if he were invisible. A danger sign. Only the very best and worst novelists can write as if they are invisible.”

Mailer is in no way here invisible. We are with him as his fourth marriage unwinds.

We are with him at the launch. In great detail he describes the physics, chemistry, and engineering of rockets and propulsion which in no way prepares us for the event:

“Then it came… Aquarius shook through his feet at the fury of the combat assault, and heard the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame roaring conceivable louder than the loudest thunders he had ever heard and the earth began to shake and would not stop, it quivered through his feet … an apocalyptic fury of sound equal to some conception of the sound of your death… Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!…”

And that’s only a snippet.

Also, it is impossible in this short bit to give any sense for the depth and breadth of knowledge Mailer is able to bring to bear.

A short example:

“(The writer) had been devoted to painting for close to thirty years; an amateur of the mysteries of form, it took him close the thirty years to comprehend why Cezanne was the father of modern art and godfather to photographs of the far side of the moon.”

And finally, his take on point of view:

“It was a terror to write if one wished to speak of important matters and did not know if one was qualified – sometimes the depressions helped to give sanction to the verdicts taken. It was not so unreasonable. The question is whether it is better to trust a judge who travels through the desolations before passing sentence, or a jurist who has a good meal, a romp with his mistress, a fine night of sleep, and a penalty of death in the morning for the highwayman.”


March 15, 2019

The Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend entry about Raccoons reads as follows: “Animal trickster about whom many stories are told in Eastern Woodlands Indian mythologies. Raccoon is never a creator or transformer as the major animal tricksters are (for instance see Coyote). He also differs as a trickster, being neither foolish nor a dupe; the tables are seldom, if ever, turned upon him, as they are on Coyote and other tricksters.”

Wanting to be on the good side of all tricksters, we take great care in our relations with them. Most notably this includes allowing them to be recyclers of table scraps and left over popcorn. You can see the process in action above. That repurposed bird feeder is on the deck outside our kitchen window making it easy for us all to keep eyes on one another.

There is little they will not eat, though given a choice they go after high fat/high calorie stuff first. Their capacity for consumption is prodigious. They stay in their dens when it is very cold, but after a thaw so many sometimes converge that all that can be seen is fur. They are mostly nocturnal, but in late spring the youngest brave daylight because they know the elders would not allow them a seat at the table.

Last summer, right at sunrise, I had my dog in the car with me on the way out to a local golf course for a walk and swim. The highway was a busy one. Just ahead on the left I noticed a raccoon about to launch a scurry across the road. Oh no! To my horror, an oncoming sedan did not brake or swerve and rolled right over the poor creature. The nature of my thoughts about the driver were medieval.

We arrived at our destination soon thereafter and my friend Nellie hopped right out of the car and headed for the creek. I’m no golfer, but am here to tell you that this course is of spectacular beauty. There is topography, timber, and much sound of water. Nellie, of course, had no mind of the accident and the image in mine had faded as we topped a small rise near a bridge just before the eighteenth tee.

With eyes further above ground than Nellie’s I saw first the small pair of newborn raccoons on the abutment of a bridge across a stream. I quickly snapped on her leash. Once she laid eyes a sense of horror returned to me for I was not certain I’d be able to hold her off. I fell to the ground, but held on and listened to her raspy breathing constricted by the choke collar.

Finally she relented and I was able to drag her in another direction leaving the raccoon kits sitting in wait of their mom. As we made back to the truck (me hoping Mom gave them a good talking to) it dawned on my that I had no way of really knowing the mind of the driver that had killed the raccoon an hour before. Perhaps he/she could not avert and was beset with remorse. In a parallel universe maybe the first coon felt but a passing draft.
Nellie slipped my grip and extinguished those flickers of elan vital.


Deer Mom

March 8, 2019

Last summer Mom called late one afternoon to tell me that a fawn had fallen into her swimming pool and was doing laps, unable to get out or touch bottom. Mom’s house is in a wood and there is no fence on the property, so ducks that visit come and go as they please, but most other uninvited guests fatigue and drown before being spotted by the lifeguard. Mom noticed the young deer in distress from her kitchen window and when she went out to see what might be done saw Deer Mom but a few paces away.

Deer Mom was the first thing I noticed as I got out of my truck. Her alarm and sense of helplessness were made apparent by the simple fact that she made no move in retreat. Immediately came to mind events of similar circumstance in the life of me. Kid getting clobbered on the tennis court. Kid in a bad business bind. Kid at a loss in a piano recital.

Much has been written about animal emotions and should the concept come as a surprise, well, something is either wrong with your wiring or your experience of life. You need a dog. Appropriate to this bit is a recent tome on the subject: Mama’s Last Hug – Animal Emotions and What they Tell Us About Ourselves by Frans de Waal. The titular ‘Mama’ was a chimp who on her death bed pulled a human friend close for a last hug. A recent review of the book ends with a similar anecdote, but with the non human half of the pair having been an octopus. (NYT Book Review 3/3/19)

“By examining emotions in (animals and humans), this book puts these in evolutionary context, revealing how their richness, power and utility stretch across species and back into deep time.”… “Emotions are our body’s way of ensuring we do what is best for us… They focus the mind and prepare the body while leaving room for experience and judgement.”

As I approached the pool, my inner big man flashed years back upon a visit to the Seminole Village in Florida were we watched a tribe member swim after an alligator and wrestle it into submission. Deer aren’t carnivores and I thus wasn’t worried about the ripping of flesh, but still wondered about their bite. After herding it into the shallow end, I cornered it and slowly reached for its neck.

Never saw any teeth, but was amazed by the silence of its panic. From time to time I’ve heard the horrific screaming of a rabbit in the claws of an owl and had to guess that evolution has not made deer so enabled – epiphenomenal as the ability might be. I slowly gathered the four legs, lifted the soaking thing to my chest, and made my way to the side of the pool. When I set it upon the deck it was so tired that its feet splayed wide several times plopping it on the sidewalk like a dropped washcloth in a bathtub. Deer Mom took a few steps closer. Finally, firm footing was found, the two rubbed noses, and disappeared in the trees.

Isn’t that rare?

March 1, 2019

In 1954 Mom took me on a train trip from home in Iowa to visit her aunt in Miami. About the trip she wrote to my father:

“Well I must say the train trip was even better than I anticipated. He was just a gem. Slept most of the first afternoon… Did a funny thing ever happen – You know how sound I sleep. Well, I woke up on the train and there was no Budge. He had crawled over me with his blanket and was sound asleep under the berth. Isn’t that rare?”

Mom always thought that everything I did was wonderful. Who was I to disagree? Jung would have used the term ‘puer aeternus’ to describe my state of mind. ‘…men who have difficulty settling down, are impatient, unrelated, idealistic, given to flights of imagination.’

I have been in food fights. I did swim in beer on the floor of my fraternity in college. I have spent a night in jail. I have told jokes at the expense of everything imaginable. Matter of fact, I usually speak without thinking. Uhm, just a few weeks ago I introduced myself to the attractive young woman in the office across the hall from me.

“I have a lot of neat stuff in my office and I get lonely over there. You should come over and visit sometime.”

Needless to say that when I recounted this recent episode to my wife and kids their eyes rolled. With Mom gone guess I’m going to have to grow up. I’m only sixty-six though. There’s still plenty of time.