Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category


September 10, 2010


  Ever watch a garden spider spin her web (yes, only the girls make the big ones)?  It’s an amazing process requisite of a highly evolved bit of anatomy.  There are six different glands nearly filling a spider’s abdomen each producing different sorts of silk.  Ductwork connects the glands to spinnerets, which are in fact repurposed vestigial legs.

  When ready to set up her redoubt our little friend secures a perch some distance above the ground or any other more or less horizontal feature.  She then simultaneously secretes silk from several of her spinnerets divergently aimed.  Light wafts of air will thus cause the threads to loosely combine and form a sort of kite.  With luck, said waft will carry said kite downwind TO sticks to some solid surface.

  She will then grab the secured line with her hind legs and begin to roll it up while simultaneously attaching a new one behind her by which to let herself across – still aloft.  Once to the middle, she connects the two ends and lets herself down.  Critically, she then moves a few paces perpendicularly one way or another before affixing that end thus ensuring that the plane of the finished product will be inclined.

  Complex, but similar steps create the rest of the web’s framework.  Last but not least is the sticky part – the only sticky part.  Working from the outside toward the middle she winds a spiral of thread beaded with a glue like substance.  Guess the reason for the inclined orientation of the web plane?  Ms. Spider moves about her orb by grasping the nonstick  framework from its underside.  Neat huh?

  Even though she has eight eyes, she doesn’t use them to locate entrapped quarry.  Instead, she employs a remarkable sense of touch.  The impact of, say, a fly would of course be very apparent due to the reverberation.  To find and dispatch fly before it dispatches itself, spider plucks the threads like an angel of death with a guitar strumming a chord in a minor key. Specific vibration pattern pinpoints next meal.

  Now even if you’re an arachnophobe (and I’m related to at least one with a real problem*) that is pretty amazing.  No matter what your metaphysics, you have to agree with the preacher in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: “…human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders”.        

  Remember Charlotte?  A great book.  Eudora Welty called it “just about perfect… about friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time.”**

  Here’s Charlotte telling spring pig friend Wilbur how to construct a web: “Take a deep breath.  Now climb to the highest place you can get to.  Then make an attachment with your spinnerets.  Throw yourself into space and let out a drag-line as you go down.”  A plenty good description for a naïve little pig.

  As I’m sure you’ll recall, Charlotte soon uses her skills to save Wilbur from getting turned “into smoked bacon and ham”.  Farmer Zuckerman and soon neighbors from near and far marvel over patterns in Charlotte’s web that first read” “SOME PIG”, then when people seem to get bored with that “TERRIFIC”, then “RADIANT, and finally “HUMBLE”. 

  At one point rat friend Templeton suggested “crunchy” to which Charlotte responded “Just the wrong idea” for obvious reasons.  Asked about all that effort in his behalf she responds: “You’re my friend, Wilbur.  That in itself is a tremendous thing.”

  Wilbur returns her vital favors by ensuring the safety of her egg sack and its 514 occupants.  As we leave the scene, Wilbur regales several progeny, Joy among them, with tales of their mother.  You should maybe reread the book.  Besides the simple vocabulary, it’s easy because as Ms Welty also wrote: it is “a book for children, which is nice for us older ones as it calls for big type.”

*One time oldest daughter awoke in a small room to see a web wove just above her – plane parallel to floor – and affixed to all four walls.   She not same since.

**NYT 10/15/52

***”Salutations” was the first word Charlotte was heard to utter as well as that of daughter Joy both in address to Wilbur.


June 11, 2010


  In the June 10, 2010 New York Review of Books noted British American physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson reviewed a new book by Nobel Prize winner physicist Steven Weinberg.  The tone is largely positive, but toward the end Dyson makes an interesting observation.

  He says that Weinberg juxtaposes “militant atheism” on the one hand and absolute faith in the ability of science to explain everything on the other.  He tells us that Weinberg believes that science will soon have developed a “Final Theory” with a set of mathematical rules precisely describing every aspect of our universe.

      Dyson: “I distrust his judgment about philosophical questions because I think he overrates the capacity of the human mind to comprehend the totality of nature.”  I couldn’t agree more.  I think that our understanding of the universe has grown and will continue to grow at the exact pace of the evolution of our consciousness.

  A hope that absolute truth exists is misguided and a belief that one does often gets sublimated, cathected, and comes out as arrogance at best and fundamentalism at the extreme.  To make a contribution to the common consciousness and enjoy the experience, one need only find a way to be comfortable living in the question of it all.

  And next Wednesday being Bloomsday, of what better example might one think than Ulysses?  June 16 was the day of Leopold Bloom’s perambulations about Dublin in James Joyce’s great novel.  It is long, complex, and of beautiful erudtion.  One of its themes is the concept of parallax which in this case can be defined as the enhancement of an observation by the integration of differing perspectives.

  The three main characters provide this in great measure.  Molly Bloom’s famous final almost unpunctuated forty plus page stream of consciousness reconsiders many aspects of her life and relationships and concludes with joy and affirmation:

“…as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

*Joyce picked June 16 because that was the day of his first date with the woman who would be his wife.      

**There is beauty in the video clip, but it is no match for a reading of the prose.  Yes?

Have Any Breath Mints?

January 8, 2010

  I can see a television when I shave in the morning and while I often watch CNN or the local news, sometimes I turn to Despierta America on Univision (must see!) or VH1 or a movie channel.  While flipping through early on New Year’s Eve I found, in black and white on AMC, hay bales moving around a field to the tune of Three Blind Mice.  Remember that one?  The Three Stooges are awesome!! 

  I couldn’t stop laughing and nearly cut myself.  Wife rolled her eyes, tisk-tisked me, and asked when I was going to grow up.  For the umpteenth time.  Jeesh.  She’s lost hope.  Nyuk, nyuk.  After she left though I began to wonder about the evolution of humor.  Later I googled the notion for a bit and found but turgid prose. 

  Hobbes’ thought that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” before the grace of government came to mind.  Seems logical to me that it might have been an evolutionary advantage to have been able to be funny while standing around a campfire gnawing on mammoth bones.  Life would have been tough (to coin a phrase). 

  I’ll bet that the hot cave chicks were turned on by a smiling fellow able to flatulate via his axilla while the others stood around in a inchoate state of depression.  How else could Fred Flintstone ever have attracted Wilma?

  Base humor must go back to the moment of our awakening, or I guess I mean back to when we first developed a sense of self awareness.  Once you leave speculation and get to recorded history there are plenty of examples. 

  In the Greek play Peace by Aristophanes for example (421BC), a giant dung beetle plays a major role transporting the main protagonist to heaven to plea for the gods’ intercession.  Bystanders are urged to avoid moving their bowels and thereby distract Trygaeus’ coprophageous mount.  It is an antiwar comedy celebrating the coming of peace after ten years of war on the Peloponnesian Penninsula.

  Interesting that the work of which the Stooges were most proud was also related to war.  They considered their best to be “You Nazty Spy” which in 1940 was a mockery of Hitler and the Third Reich.  Moe played Hitler, Larry was Ribbentrop, and Curly did Hermann Goering.    

  Certainly the standard of humor of an age rides the zeitgeist.  There was no need of subtlety during the thirties.  The Stooges appeared in their first film in 1930.  The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup came out in 1933.  Etc.

  It’s 2010.  Where are we now?  Lord help us.  Here’s a clue:  

Vide Cor Meum

November 27, 2009

Vide Cor Meum, “See My Heart” in Latin, is the title of this beautiful aria written by Irish composer Patrick Cassidy.  It is fashioned after an early sonnet of Dante’s from his La Vita Nuova (“The New Life” in Italian).  The poem recounts a dream of Beatrice, his first love.

Dante but crossed paths with a nine year old Beatrice and was so smitten that he wrote: “Behold a god more powerful than I… from then on love governed my soul”.  Nine years later to the day he came across her again and she addressed him “virtuously”.  Then, “I left the crowd as if intoxicated and returned to the solitude of my own room”.

There he fell asleep and had the dream.  Love embodied held a burning heart in his hand and said to Dante “Vide Cor Tuum” (“see your heart”), woke the sleeping Beatrice, and fed it to her.  She died and they rose toward heaven.  In life they married others and she did die young – at 24.  Dante must have believed that Beatrice so felt the great power of his love that unable to requite, perished.

Guess my roommate is lucky to have me.  Anyway, what is truly incredible about this ethereal piece of music is that it was composed specifically for the film Hannibal and is an essential part of it.  How could the character of a sophisticated cannibal be better shaped than with prosimetrum from Dante employing the metaphorical eating of a heart? “Then he (love) woke her and that burning heart he fed to her reverently.”  Dante!  OMG

The scene around its performance underscores Dr. Lecter’s erudition and sheds light upon his feelings for Clarice.  He has loved her from the first moment of their first meeting, cherishes every encounter, but knows that it can never be consummated and that he must take great care toward her protection.

In the bit below we see such depth of feeling that one unfamiliar with the story line would find the Giancarlo Giannini character caddish and Lecter movingly urbane.  Indeed, Inspector Pazzi’s wife Allegra seems quite taken with Dr. Lecter when from memory he gives the sonnet from La Vita Nuova.  The short shrift given by Giannini’s Pazzi seals his fate as much as anything else.  Ironically, in Lecter’s company bad taste can be fatal.

Vide Cor Meum (Translation from the Italian/Latin)

Chorus: And thinking of her
Sweet sleep came over me
I am your master
See your heart
See your heart
And of this burning heart
Your heart
Chorus: She trembling
Obediently eats.
Weeping, I saw him then depart from me.
You is converted
To bitterest tears
Joy is converted
To bitterest tears
I am in peace
My heart
I am in peace

See my heart

“The Fewer the Men the Greater the Share of Honour”

October 23, 2009

  OK.  Enough.  Enough with the peace and quiet.  I’m not a girlie man.  Back to the blood, guts, and gore.  Real thing this time though, with The Bard’s representation to boot.

  Sunday (October 25) is St Crispin’s Day.  It’s named for twins Crispin and Crispinian who were martyred in about 286AD.  They were removed from the liturgical calendar by Vatican II, but they’re not what make the date noteworthy anyway.  Several historically important battles have been fought on October 25s: The Battle of Balaklava (The Charge of the Light Brigade) in 1854, The Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Pacific in 1945, and The Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

  The event at Agincourt occurred because King Henry V of England invaded Europe to prosecute his claim on the throne of France, the hand of Princess Catharine daughter of Charles VI King of France, and a dowry of 2 million crowns.  It is notable because of the fact that the English force of some 6,000 defeated catastrophically the French who numbered perhaps as many as 30,000. 

  Several factors worked to King Henry’s advantage including: the composition of the forces, the nature of the battlefield, and the sure knowledge that defeat would mean annihilation.  The resulting motivation helped overcome fatigue, hunger, and disease.

  Over 80% of Henry’s men were archers/longbowsmen.  Half of the French were dismounted knights and men-at-arms, a thousand or so mounted knights, and the balance archers.  These counter posed armies came to face each other in a very narrow strip of recently plowed open muddy land surrounded by dense forest.


  Short and simple, the English and Welsh archers on the flanks loosed tens of thousands of arrows killing and wounding many, hitting French horses on their unarmored hindquarters driving them madly through their own ranks. 

  The armor laden French pressed forward wave upon wave, but slogging through the muddy bottleneck tired quickly, were easy prey, and fell in huge piles.  Some even drowned in the mud.  Crucially, they were unable to outflank their opponents because of the thick wood on both sides.

  Once all arrows had flown, the English moved upon the French with hatchets and swords.  Without the weight of armor they tore through the horrible wallow with relative ease.  At the end of some three hours there were approximately 112 dead Englishmen, and as many as 10,000 French.  Uh, whoa.

  King Henry’s glory has regaled far more than just those with particular interest in military history through the agency of one William Shakespeare.  His Henry V dramatizes the story and Hank’s “St Crispin Day Speech” has to be one of the most stirring and momentous in all of literature.  After reading the play, you should rent and watch the film version with Kenneth Branagh in the lead role.  Or maybe be lazy and just watch the clip below.  Either way, be careful with your cutlery for a while thereafter.

Why try? It’s beautiful!

August 21, 2009

  The film in question, Berlin Alexanderplatz, is an influential work made for German TV in 1980.  Rainer Werner Fassbinder largely followed the novel written by Alfred Doblin in 1929.  It is the difficult story of an attempt to lead an honest life from the midst of robbers, whores, pimps, and killers.

  This short hommage by Laurie Anderson alludes to a Buddhist parable in which, near the end of his life, the sage gathered his disciples close to a pond into which he reached and withdrew a lotus flower.  As he held it up and moved silently among them,  his confused followers made obtuse attempts to relate it to the teachings. 

  Finally the master came to Mahakayapa who, zapped with understanding, smiled broadly and thus was given the white flower.  “What can be said I have said to you”, smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa”.

  Why even try to explain the beauty of a flower?  Such effort impedes appreciation.  Sin.

What Fassbinder film is it?
The one-armed man walks into a flower shop
And says: What flower expresses
Days go by
And theyjust keepgoing by endlessly
Pulling you Into the future
Days go by
Endlessly pulling you
Into the future?
And the florist says: White Lily.

ooooh yaaaa

August 14, 2009


   A while back I said that my favorite movie was The Wizard of Oz.  It’s still a pretty great flic, but the way I now constellate things has been eclipsed by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  The latter has recently been all over the movie channels due to the untimely death of director John Hughes.

  Ferris opens and closes the film succinctly summarizing his approach to life, as well as the best work of many philosophers that I particularly admire:  “Yep, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  Life moves by pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around you might miss it.”

  There is an early allusion to his predecessor Huck Finn.  Ben Stein, as teacher taking roll reads: “Bueller, Bueller, Bueller.”  No response.  Same thing happens in Twain’s book when Huck skips class.  Guess which one said of his ploy: “it’s childish and stupid, but then so is high school”.  Could be either.

  The storyline is also like that of Ulysses (Joyce’s that is) in that while a rich and deep tale, it only spans one day in a life.  There is even a counterpart to Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at its end: “…first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes”.

  After following Ferris across Chicago (instead of Dublin) for a day his girlfriend, Sloane Peterson, is amazed and totally taken by his preternatural wisdom, adroit maneuvering, and incredible joie de vivre.  This is a high school comedy though and so at the end, watching him with confidence enter a gauntlet impassable for all but he, she simply offers:  “He is going to marry me”.

  As sort of a coda after the narrative is complete Bueller looks at us and says “You still here?  It’s over.  Go home, go.”  He has committed  day of his life to show us how to take hold of our own.  He figures that those who’ve learned something are on with it and those who haven’t will never get it. 

Only that thing is free which exists by the necessities of its own nature, and is determined in its actions by itself alone.
Happiness is a virtue, not its reward.
Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
-Diamond Sutra as translated by the Dalai Lama
What, me worry?
– Alfred E. Newman

My Name Is Nobody

May 15, 2009

Road trip. Mind can’t help but wander. Remember in college I took a seminar entitled “Literature of the Trip”. Started with Odysseus. Modern era was ushered in by Kerouac and On The Road which was an exploration of the newly unlimited freedoms of the American Dream. Here in the US, we emerged from WWII with comparatively unscathed success and with the west also won continental ontological parameters disappeared and a search for new meaning began.

It was the ‘Beats’ who led the quest. I’d long thought that the term related to a musical concept. However, upon reading background notes to Kerouac’s second book I learned otherwise. First it was a term employed to relate a sort of “exalted exhaustion” and then in reference to a Catholic vision of beatitude. Evolution of etymology is interesting, isn’t it?

Jung wrote that “The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality”. The collective norm doesn’t point the way ahead. It obviously aggressively reinforces the status quo. Or worse, to a banal evil. Kerouac was the perfect sort of person to break new ground. Among other factors attenuating any rootedness was the fact that he was French Canadian and English was his second language.

Makes me think of the current Hispanic diaspora. To me it’s heroic. Operatic even. The struggle of those forging north, setting out for the territory ahead, Tom Joad like is only a current example of an innate capacity for adventure that lies dormant in a dominant culture. At least in 3D. I say more power to them. Poetic justice for us.

Kerouac and other artists of his time didn’t end well for the most part. Forward scouts often end up carrion by some means or other. Boredom at the end of the journey often led to substance abuse, suicide etc. After their return George Rogers Clark went on to great things, but Merriwether Lewis self destructed…

This here road trip is for a graduation and the ensuing second stage in the diaspora of our family. Some of the same stuff applies. Hunger, a new skill set, and a sense of adventure seem, in this case, to point over the western horizon.

Grandma’s along for this trip. She’s made it to eighty-one without any stripped gears even though having traversed some difficult terrain and uncivilized territory. Perhaps she will offer up her perspective on how to find one’s way through unfamiliar territory.

Dog Is My Co-Pilot

May 8, 2009

sauger mirror

Dogs aren’t impressed by large vocabularies or fancy philosophizing.  They’re experts on nonverbal communication.  They catalyze mindfulness of the way things are and prevent one from being forever lost in thought.  They present the universe in a canine microcosm to young children with whom they form special bonds.

Once, years ago, I was reading one of the Babysitters Club series to our oldest child.  Kristy and the Snobs. Met the family dog Louie early on and was engrossed in the narrative well enough that I didn’t pick up on the clue when Louie was limping and Kristy said “We’ll tell Mom, but it’s probably nothing” on page 7.

Next evening I read that “… last night he walked right into a table when he was aiming for me” and still didn’t get it.  But by chapter 12 “Louie was in bad shape” and I can remember thinking that “this is a kid’s book, this can’t be happening”.

It is often said and written that children’s books are the most difficult to write and that kids make for the most demanding of audiences.  Their books are comprised of sparse spare prose and a straightforward storyline.

More importantly, you can’t bullshit a kid.  One juvenile non-sequitur and it’s over, you’ve lost them.  They’ll yawn and/or interrupt and interest completely lost, you’ll have to start something new next time.

Not coincidentally, in Children’s Experience with Death author Rose Zeligs maintains that “You cannot ever fool a child.  He is closer to the deep inborn collective unconscious and senses any default in … dallying with the truth.  No matter what the seriousness and shock the truth may invoke, the child must not lose trust in those who attempt to serve him, be they parents or professionals…”

The momentum of this particular story soon became relentless and I started to worry how I was going to handle it.  It was not easy.  Louie was old.  He had accidents of all sorts.  Poor eyesight combined with a bit of confusion led to his tumbling down the basement stairs.

Mom took Louie to the vet who said that he “was deteriorating rapidly (translated into regular speech that meant ‘getting worse fast’)”.  Chapter 12 ended with an ominous recommendation by Dr. Smith.

Not far into chapter 13:

“The receptionist called Mom’s name then, and she stood up.  David Michael and I gave Louie last pats and kisses, and then Mom disappeared down the little hallway.  When she came back a few minutes later, her arms were empty…”

Child psychologist Zeligs also wrote that: “Being closer to the earth and sky [the rural child] learns to accept death as part of life’s rhythms”.  Most children no longer live on farms and not all have pets.  The arts can help touch the earth.  Scientist Stuart Kauffman (who I introduced in my last post) wrote that Shakespeare is just as important as Einstein. I quite agree.

We had zillions of those Babysitter Club books around the house.  They all look the same and their titles are almost interchangeable. Unbelievably, perhaps, even so – two more times did I find myself lying in bed with a child and coming across Louie unprepared.  It never got easier.

I can’t wait to get home and pat our dog.  He’s twelve.

* FYI God Is My Co-Pilot is an autobiographical account by Col. Robert L. Scott of a life of flying in general and at the controls of a fighter over China in WWII.  It was a huge best seller when published in 1956, and is a great tale of ambition, determination, and bravery.  However, it has more recently been criticized for ethnic insensitivity.  “Japs”, “Huns”, “Darkies”, etc.

My Kind Of Town

March 27, 2009


  Next time you stay overnight in Chicago and get up for your morning run, make sure to go south along the lake a bit, past the Shedd Aquarium, and then east out the Solidarity Drive peninsula to the Adler Planetarium.  Then turn around and look back. 

  You will see why the Economist called it “…architecturally the most interesting city in America”.  And a better point of vantage could not be had.  If done just as I described you’ll already be on an endorphin high and with your first look, your breath will be taken away as it was just after first hearing the major movement of some great piece of music.  You will agree with (Chicagoan) Frank Lloyd Wright that “architecture is nothing more than frozen music”.

  With each repeat of this experience, I get the feeling that the final reverberation ended just the second before I turned.  Instruments are at rest.  Orchestra standing about to bow.  Remember – this is far removed from the sounds of the city.  In the early AM there is near silence out there.

  When I noticed a nearby statue I figured it must be of a great composer, seated, listening to a performance of his finest work.  Upon closer inspection however, it turned out to be of Copernicus which in a sense is just as appropriate.

  Chicago’s architecture would not be nearly so moving and dramatic had it not been for the great fire of 1871 which burned a wide swath to the ground.  From the ashes arose what is there now there to be seen.  A big bang of sorts.  It thus makes sense to have that important early cosmologist looking upon what hath been wrought.

KC-GULL-3C-830PM_MET 0624 C03 KOZ24

  It is especially fulfilling to consider this particular measure of the built environment as of a whole rather than of its pieces.  It is a nearly perfect oeuvre of quite large scale and, in comforting contrast to the terror and turmoil about these days, shows what can be achieved through harmonious collaboration. 

  Iris Murdoch wrote: “Good art, whatever its style, has qualities of hardness, firmness, realism, clarity, detachment, justice, truth.  It is the work of a free, unfettered, uncorrupted imagination.  Whereas bad art is the soft, messy self-indulgent work of an enslaved fantasy.  Pornography is at one end of that scale, great art at the other end.”*   Hardness, firmness, realism; doesn’t that sound like Chicago?

  It is incredible to learn that the city was built upon a swamp; that its name relates to the onions found therein by Native Americans; and that the land from Michigan Avenue to the lake was reclaimed and filled with the conflagration’s remains;

  As Carl Sandburg wrote in his Chicago Poems:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning


By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars
and has a soul

  My kind of town.