Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ebola Choices - Stage II

The big news the last 48 hours has been the new American victim of Ebola, nurse Amber Vinson, the second such "domestic" infection case recorded, since the arrival (and demise on Oct 8) of patient Thomas Eric Duncan. Nurse Vinson flew to Cleveland that same day, then flew back to Dallas, already (at that point) showing signs of illness.

Now, the Centers for Disease Control are trying to control the outbreak by reaching all the passengers who were on both flights, and all those she may have come into contact with. The planes used in both flights continued in service after she rode on them, so there is even some concern for the passengers and crews who used those planes afterwards.

Ebola is clearly a persistent and highly contagious disease. Even for those who follow routine procedures, infection is a considerable risk. Handling anyone who has an active infection, or even anything they may have touched, is very risky business. Looking at the people who deal with the disease, wearing their white "spaceman" (or beekeeper) suits with air masks, is reminiscent of the nuclear clean-up crews in Japan.

Back when the outbreak in West Africa was first being reported, there were immediate calls for quarantine. The CDC, and our government, pooh-poohed the notion of travel restrictions, telling everyone that generic "symptomatic" screening would be effective, and that there was zero risk of infection to Americans, even with native Africans traveling freely between African nations and major American airport cities.

Diseases are opportunistic life forms. Given the right conditions, they can spread rapidly among species, and can become almost unstoppable if steps are not employed to cut the links to exposure. Ebola has a so-called 21 day "incubation" period, meaning that you may not even be aware that you've become infected for two weeks or more, days in which your movements and contacts, limited or extensive, may be impossible to accurately trace. In our highly mobile world, with people moving and interacting constantly with one another, using the same transit and appliance systems, infectious diseases have a distinct advantage, even if the method of transmission is limited to physical contact (not airborne).

I advocated strict quarantine procedures when I first heard about the crisis, suggesting that we should limit incoming traffic to Americans only, and placing them all on 21 day quarantine upon arrival. We heard the same circular arguments against this, that we'd become accustomed to with the immigration crisis. We were told that it was "impossible" and therefore could not be done, while being told (at the same time) that it was "unfair" and "a restriction upon freedom" and therefore "should not be done" on principle. Either we couldn't because we couldn't or we shouldn't because we shouldn't. Neither argument sounded intelligent to me.

There are difficulties involved in controlling a spreading disease. But with an incurable, deadly bug like Ebola, what other choices do we have? Whereas our initial choice included keeping infected individuals OUT of the country, now that we have the disease INSIDE our own borders, we've had to retreat from the airports to the cities and towns and travel corridors that the disease is now following.

I'd like someone to explain to me why this "unfortunate" but well-nigh inevitable progression would not better have been handled with greater emergency than it was. Had we taken steps to prevent the arrival of native Africans from the infected countries, and to see to it that whoever was let in was tracked strictly for three weeks, I doubt this new domestic health crisis would ever have happened.

It was another case of politically correct complacence in the face of a dire threat that we were simply too lazy and impractical to address. Yes it is true that we're only talking about three individuals here, but Bengazi was only a handful of people too. We're always ready to jump to conviction when the "enemy" is a man or a gang or an army. But when the enemy is a virus or a bacteria, the issue is the same. Before the disease arrived, we were comforted by the assumption that our hospitals could handle any unlikely case; but now we're hearing just how ill-prepared and vulnerable our health facilities are to deal with a disease like Ebola.

We deserve better from our government--and better from our health care system.

RESTRICT ALL TRAVEL BETWEEN THE INFECTED COUNTRIES AND THE U.S. IMMEDIATELY. Don't count on "screening" or "symptoms" identification. Limit the movement of humanity to the region where it's known to be active.

If we fail to control Ebola through movement, we'll end up having to fight it in our living rooms, school rooms, busses, trains, planes, restaurants, arenas, offices--in short, in every place where people congregate or live.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Giants - Post-Season Play-off Review

Back at the beginning of this season, I wrote a blog about the status of the Giants, one month in. At that point, the Giants were leading the division, with the Dodgers close on their heels. As the Spring wore on, the Giants built up an impressive, dominating lead of over 10 games over their hated rivals to the South. 

As we now know, this lead evaporated in mid-season. Marco Scutaro never recovered from his back condition (and his career now looks to be about over, given his age), and there were other problems. Angel Pagan's back also went bad (and by September, he had gone on the disabled list, opting for season-ending surgery to repair a bulging disc). Michael Morse, whose career has been marked by injury, went down in late season with a hip condition, and is apparently lost, even for the playoffs. Brandon Belt and Hector Sanchez both had serious concussions, and Sanchez is also out for the season, Belt only returning in the last week of the regular season.  

Buster Posey getting a hold of one

When the season began, the starting line-up looked like this:


Second base was a problem all year, with Hicks, Adrianza, and Arias sharing part-time duties, until Joe Panik emerged as the rookie sensation of the year. Morse and Posey split duties at first base when Belt went down, and then the team acquired utility specialist Travis Ishikawa (his second tour with the team). 

Meanwhile, Cain's season fell apart and he had arm surgery in a lost year. Lincecum, whose ups and downs are now becoming routine, suddenly, after throwing his second career no-hitter, couldn't get anyone out, and dropped out of the rotation in favor of Yusmeiro Petit, a journeyman middle reliever. Late in the season, they acquired Jake Peavey from Boston, who filled in for Cain, and he has been vitally important down the closing stretch. Vogelsang has been uneven too, but not unexpectedly, given his history. It's obvious that Bumgarner has become the ace of the staff, finishing the season at 18-10, which could easily have been 22-8 if the team had given him even ordinary support. In addition, he became a dangerous hitter in his own right, batting .258 with 4 homers and 15 RBI's, better than most part-time players on any team.    

It's no surprise that the Dodgers rose to late season dominance, given their pitching (Kershaw, 21-3, Greinke, 17-8, Ryu, 14-7, and Jansen, 44 saves). The surprise is that they didn't break away faster, since the Giants were so riddled with injuries and unexpected slumps (Romo, Lincecum, Sandoval, Morse). 

Last evening the Giants persevered in a record-setting 18 inning affair over the Washington Nationals, in which the Nats did not score for 15 innings, finally capitulating when Belt went yard in the top of the frame. Now up 2-0 in the best of 5 series, they look good to make it to the League playoffs, against either the Dodgers or the Cardinals (who are 1-1 in their series). 

All in all, the Giants have fared well, securing one of two wild card spots, polishing off the Pirates (in their park), and jumping on the Nats, who were favored by everyone over San Francisco. 

At this juncture, it appears the team may actually make it to the Series, and could even win it. A month ago, when the team was mired in a long slump, who would have predicted this? In a season of injuries and uneven performances, they appear to be peaking at just the right moment. With Belt back, and Peavey pitching his heart out, it just might come true. 

The Giants won it all in 2010 and 2012. It's 2014, and we're back in the chase. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Quid, Me Anxius Sum?

Ever since America started exporting jobs, we've been hearing how we're going to become a "service-oriented" economy, selling each other things instead of manufacturing things. The things we'll sell each other, and the services we'll be providing to each other will have to replace the prosperity we once enjoyed as the manufacturing engine of the world. 

In the spirit of service, here's a word of advice to all whose job it is to serve us something, or to service something we have that needs servicing. The transaction of providing, and receiving remuneration for, a service, is a capital exchange, subject to all the conditions of competition, reasonable expectation, and courtesy that govern all business activity in the world of commerce. 

When you sell something to someone, or provide them with a service, you are their servant. If you patronize a business, or a service, you are doing them a favor, something for which they should be grateful. This gratitude may be expressed in various ways. 

Traditionally, it's been considered proper, when providing something, or taking payment, or answering a question, to say thank-you, or to signify one's gratitude in some other way. My pleasure, or we appreciate your business or come back soon also seem appropriate.

Increasingly, these days, I'm hearing the phrase "Not a problem," or "No problem" when I'm paying for, or asking for something. 

There are theories going around about how this phrase went viral, but like a lot of such phrases or words, no one seems to know or care what it's really supposed to signify, or why it's preferable to the other more generic transactional replies. 

My theory is that it's a key to the mood of our culture, one in which guilt, and fear of confrontation, on the one hand, or selfishness and indignation, on the other hand, are indirectly being expressed.

In America today, we seem to feel a need to head off difficulty and confrontation. Saying "no problem" may be a way of telling the customer that what they are asking for does not create any such difficulty, or that providing a response, of whatever kind, to a request or a question, costs the server no effort or annoyance. 

There's also the implication that the person responding to a request for something should need to reassure the customer that he is not being indisposed or offended, as if the mere act of having to provide some service is really just a bit presumptuous or unfair. 

There's something condescending about it too. It's like saying "you can't ruffle our feathers that easily" or "you don't need to feel uncomfortable about asking for that."

The idea is that "everything is okay" and comfortable and politically correct.

But the unfortunate impression is that the speaker--the one providing the service--isn't really showing appreciation or gratitude, or being courteous. Because telling someone that their request is being fulfilled without effort or difficulty isn't being courteous. It's being weirdly inappropriate, and even rude.

Back in the day, Mad Magazine was a satiric, albeit sophomoric, humor magazine aimed at kids and teenagers. Its cartoons and gags and caricatures were the nutty, idiotic, sick side of American rebelliousness and free-wheeling nonsensical hijinks. Its mascot was a freckle-faced, big-eared little nerd named Alfred E. Neuman, whose portrait appeared on countless Mad covers, accompanied by the phrase, "What, Me Worry?" (The Latin for which is this blog's title.) 

Neuman's anxiety about the innocent pleasure of immature amusement seemed a badge of honor in the 1950's, when it was invented. Some of my best friends got a lot of ghoulish merriment out of it. Though we all quickly outgrew it, it was a necessary stage in the development of full-fledged American adult mediocrity. We probably should have recognized it for the stupid indulgence it was, and grown up quicker. But this was the complacent 50's and there were few alternatives to corny humor then. 


Somehow, in my mind, "No problem" equates with "What, me worry?" 

Most of the people who use the phrase probably don't know why they are saying it, but those who wonder may think it's a panacea or a shield against complication or crisis, the elixir against the infection of misunderstanding. 

Everything is alright, everything is under control, we're on top of it, we're ahead of the curve, we're handling it, we're dealing with it, we're not in denial, we understand, we get it, we care, we've thought about this, we have a plan, there's nothing to worry about, relax, chill out, wait patiently until you are called, it's NO PROBLEM!!!  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Inevitable Beethoven

I'm not religious, either by inclination or upbringing, but occasionally one can be drawn into a logical cul-de-sac by a purely rational pathway.

I can recall when I first heard Beethoven's 6th Symphony, on my own record player--an LP recording of the New York Philharmonic directed by Leonard Bernstein, a nice staunchly American interpretation.*

Bernstein in the 70's

It may seem a preposterous proposition, but the piece struck me then, as it does now, as what I would call inevitable music. I remember telling a friend, then, not long after I'd listened to the piece, that it was so inevitable, that "if Beethoven hadn't written it someone else would have."  Yes, yes, I know that you are already chuckling at this absurd notion, that the creation of any human hand is nothing more than the literal transmission of some intervention.

Beethoven Life Mask

The Greeks believed that artistic inspiration was the literal result of being instilled with a divine spirit--of having that spirit breathed into one by some supernatural influence. Being touched, if you will, by the supernatural.

Plato believed in the idea of universal forms--our tapping, if you will, into entities of shape or sound or ideation--as a borrowing from the storehouse of perfect things in eternity. These "universals" pre-existed their human "creation," and anything you might think to make or devise was indeed already "there" in the void of time/space.

The whole range of sounds or colors or shapes that may be combined is not infinite, but to the human capacity for understanding, they may as well be. Any instrument or combination of instruments has a limited range. Indeed, there are instruments that have yet to be invented, just as there are sounds (music) which have yet to be composed.

But along a time-line which presupposes a very much longer human endurance, it is perhaps not an improbability to imagine that our efforts and apprehensions may have taken place, over and over again in a countless number of instances, as the physicists suggest, in identical worlds across a limitless universe. The music we compose and appreciate may indeed be a rehearsal for a debut performance that has happened many times before, and will be reprised again, endlessly, in the future. (How odd to think of oneself, existing at some distant point in the past, or in the future, living the same life, with the same successes and failures, the same tics and accidents and sudden encounters!)

Beethoven's symphony, which he worked on simultaneously with his writing of the famous 5th Symphony (talk about a fruitful period!), is divided into 5 movements, disguised perhaps by the fact that the last three run together. In addition, he gave each movement a descriptive phrase:

One: Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside
Two: Scene by the brook
Three: Merry gathering of country folk
Four: Thunder, storm
Five: Shepherd's song, cheerful, grateful feelings after a storm

The theme of the first movement is a repeating figure of great spontaneity and warmth, as of the rhythmic buzzing of bees, or the vital pulse of flowing water. It is "cheerful" and spring-like, with twittering grace-notes suggesting bird-song, and a wending coursing quality as of a stream flowing through meadow. It is full of optimism and vitality, like a spring morning. Light penetrates through green, and light breezes lift and shiver leaves. 

The second movement is more melancholy, while perpetuating the rhythmically insistent and deliberate vital spirit of the first. Its lilting melody begins more reflectively, in the first stirrings of devotion or affection, a consciousness of the other, the implications of separation and loneliness, even of sadness at parting or awareness of death. But the comfort of continuity and the life-force never flags. 

The third movement is dance-like and celebratory, with vigorous steps and light-footed maneuvers. There is strength and determination, showiness, but always with the throbbing, muscular beat. 

The fourth begins subtly, with onrushing pursuits and a series of runs and escapes. There are disturbances, water crashing on rocks, foreboding intimations, then a general rest with resolutions.

The fifth is characterized by more fitful surmises, recollections and searchings, with uncertain acceptance, we are at a higher elevation, the air is thinner, fresher, clarity is apparent through mists, and almost unexpectedly, we are at an end. 

I've always thought the ending was anti-climactic, though the overall structure of the piece does not suggest a struggle with a concluding triumph or tragedy. The peace isn't tragic, or comic, it's pastoral. And pastoral suggests a static context. There is birth and death, but traditionally it's about peacefulness and harmony. 

Is the symphony an oversimplification of the pastoral, or a perfect expression of it? The shepherd tending his flock, the green meadows, or the dancing goat-footed satyrs? There's almost no sense of complication--of problems, of evil, of the competition inherent in nature--in this music. It's programmatic, no doubt about it, but its purity is really spiritual, rather than narrational. Music may be the purest of the arts, because the least programmatic, at least classical music is. 

But to return to the point: Is it possible, from a purely speculative vantage, to view a piece of music as "inevitable"--that is, as having an absolutely necessary and natural reason for being? Was Beethoven, in effect, the vessel through which this inevitable sound traveled, and perhaps just a convenient one? Throughout literature, there is a repeated reference to the repeatability of events, of things "echoing in eternity" or of rehearsals of situations which will take place again, and again, of relationships which are symbolic. 

Having once heard a certain piece of music, one is forever bound to remember it. It's locked inside the memory where it may be recalled and replayed repeatedly, though not necessarily at will. Is the power and purpose of a work of music (like any art) to be measured by the intensity of the memory of its event? Long pieces of music, like romantic symphonies, are like journeys, traveling along constructed landscapes and spaces designed to evoke feelings and scenes (and other memories, personal or generalized). 

Beethoven is often characterized as a strong musical mind, whose certainties and convictions tend to overwhelm the listener. There's very little that's "ambiguous" in any of his works. They mean to do what they mean to do, without reservations or footnotes. This kind of intellectual certainty tended to fragment and decay in the 20th Century.  

Does my adolescent surmise about the timeless inevitability of Beethoven's symphony imply a kind of religious apprehension about the structure and meaning of time and matter, or of the relationship of mankind to greater powers? Great philosophers have meditated about this for centuries, and physicists have found themselves often at the threshold of such a problem. Matter has structure, and it vibrates to varying degrees, at different registers of scale and density. These oscillations may or may not seem euphonious to human ears. Would an atomic explosion, occurring, say, once every year, produce a series of oscillations, at some unimaginably huge scale, sensible as a tone? Certain tones are too high up on the scale for the human ear to perceive. Dogs can hear higher than humans. The slower the rate, the lower the tone. The more brittle (or attenuated) the string, the faster the vibration. 

Are we "in touch" with higher truths when we commune with certain works of art? What are higher truths? If we cannot explain how a certain work attains its majesty or perfection, is this because its riddle is beyond our comprehension? Is our inability to figure out the universe a prophylactic against the knowledge that is too difficult to know? The desire to make innocently pure and satisfying works--such as Beethoven's 6th Symphony--or the pleasure we may experience in imagining them as an expression of something greater than the mere organization of notes, may coincide in the magic of perfect accident. Is genius as impenetrable as the equations of advanced physics? Is the conundrum of grace a jingle on the way to grandma's cottage?  

" . . . and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." --T.S. Eliot (Four Quartets)


*A good recording of a later performance conducted by Bernstein is this one in studio with the Boston Symphony orchestra (date unknown) though it's probably in the 1970's judging by Bernstein's face.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Backlog of Stored Up Concoctions

When we visited Venice, we took the Vaporetto out to Murano, where they make the fine glass, hand-blown and delicate. Not unlike what you see in this photo. The boat takes you right up to the dock where the factories front the water. I'm not a great fan of finicky decorated glass, which tends to detract from whatever you're drinking. Most Murano glass is meant just to be looked at and appreciated, not to be used, even on "special occasions." Cocktails have a certain crystal purity of aspect, which it is not good to complicate with fine glass. A simple classic cocktail glass is really best.  

It's been a while since I've recorded new cocktail recipes, so there are quite a few--five more to be exact. Cocktails aren't that popular. Confirmed drinkers generally settle on one kind of goods--say, Johnny Walker Black Scotch--and have that on a usual basis. People who like wine, or beer, also tend not to be cocktail drinkers. I'm getting close to fashioning all my accumulated recipes into a book. There are plenty of cocktail mixing books, but most of them are just color novelty editions, which reiterate the usual formulae, and many of the rest are so-called "exotic" mix compendiums which evoke tropical settings. 

All these are traditionally shaken and served up in frosted cocktail glasses. The first four use "white goods" while the last is made from Jack Daniels. The thing about "themed" drinks is that you quickly exhaust the possible "occasions" for a drink. It's possible to prefer a vodka martini forever, which some very sophisticated people do. But it seems a little grey to me. A great vodka martini is the perfect accompaniment to a plate of freshly shucked oysters. But we like other snacks, like salted cashews, or a freshly peeled avocado with lemon juice and salt & pepper. Once upon a time, there was something called the "free lunch" at taverns, which were snacks placed on the bar to encourage the patrons to order drinks. The practice gradually went out of fashion. Once in a great while, you'll see free barbecue potato chips set out, but it's rare.       

3 parts white rum
1 part dry vermouth
1 part triple sec
1/2 part marashino
1 part fresh sweet lime

4 parts gin
2 psrts midori
2 parts st. germaine
1 part lemon

3 parts gin
1 part triple sec
1 part limoncello
1 part genepi des alpes
1 part lime juice

3 parts white rum
1 part Galliano
1 part banana liqueur
1/2 part key lime cream liqueur
2 parts fresh lime juice

3 Parts sour mash whiskey
1 part maraschino liqueur
1 part peach liqueur
1/2 part st. germaine liqueur
1 part sweet lime juice

Friday, September 5, 2014

FLEMISH by Caroline Knox. [Seattle & New York: Wave Books, 2013]

A book review can be in any form.

It could be an account of meeting the author.

It could be an interview.

It could be a biographical account of the author's life.

It could be a discussion of contemporary poetry, in general.

It could be a discussion of literary taste.

It could be about the physical qualities of the book, the typeface or the binding or its design.

Many book reviews attempt to place the author within the context of her own work, or within a tradition to which she may be thought to belong.

Reviews of books of poetry are often written by people who have no knowledge or feeling for poetry at all.

Some book reviews of poetry are by friends or colleagues of the poet, and are written to give encouragement to the author.

Some are meant to discourage the poet from writing or publishing any more poems.

Some are written by people who don't know the author, who have never heard of her work before, and have no feelings one way or the other about her work, prior to reading the volume in hand.

This last instance applies here. I have never read any other books or poems by Caroline Knox. I had never heard of her before I bought this book last month at a used book store. I had no preconceptions about how old she was, where she lived or came from, or what she might be doing for a living. This may be an ideal vantage from which to view a book or a work of art. Once we're familiar with a writer or artist, and their work, we may have difficulty seeing it without prejudice or misconceptions. Coming fresh to a work, on the other hand, can be a refreshing experience.

Flemish is a beautiful cold-white clothbound book, with red endpapers, and a matching white dustwrapper lettered in black. The page layout is broadly generous, with lots of white space around the poems. I don't know if the work in this book is typical of the author's previous published work, or if it is a new departure. A book can be simply what it is, without any reference to anything else the author may have done. That is how I am thinking of Flemish.

Caroline Knox, a little older perhaps than expected

The first thing to say about the thirty poems in Flemish, they aren't "about" anything. The events and things that are named or appear in them are not subjects to which the poems refer. They are not descriptive, not expressions of feeling towards an object. In this sense, they are impersonal. They are about the thoughts that occur to the author in a certain accidental or gratuitous order. A poem may begin with a phrase, or an object, but the poem quickly shifts into alternating voices or layers of elaboration. A theme or trope may be reintroduced later in the poem. Nothing in any of the poems seems to need to be there, which gives the poems a kind of free irresponsibility with respect to the reader. The poems have no obligations to make sense, or to make a point, or to communicate anything of importance to the reader. This isn't poetry of high purpose.

Here's a prose poem towards the end of the collection.

The Scottish Play

The Scottish play the bagpipes with dignity to escort people from here to there. You can read about this in Wee Gillis. An English teacher was teaching himself Finnish: "Every morning my wife and daughters ask me, Have you finished your Finnish?" Well, had he? Finnan Haddie! It's an appealing idea, costumed musicians accompanying you wherever you go. Bath is an antithesis of Scotland, fount vs. tarn. Elsewhere, a mighty pinto was named Atlas not because he was strong (which he was) but because his markings described the Americas. Suppose you are headed up the crags to visit this tarn.* In the US your car has bumpers; in the UK, guards. Bumpers is defeatist, isn't it? As if you knew you'd crash. This text could be set in Helvetica.


Most of Knox's poems contain odd bits of information or data, sometimes in foreign language, with which the reader may not be familiar. The reader quickly picks up that there is no particular reason that these odd bits are there. They may be suggested by the sound of another word, or by some mental association the author has of them. 

In children's nonsense verse, silly word combinations may occur as rhyme, or as attempts to provoke a sense of possibility or fun on the part of a child's reading perception.  The most ornate kinds of writing--in Shakespeare's Plays, for instance, or in Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake--may be so jammed with unexpected word combinations that it may seem almost to be a kind of nonsense word play, at least initially. Highly energetic language may also hold loads of meaning, but that is clearly not the case with Knox. The poems are serenely cool, and the content isn't the point.     

In the poem above, which is typical of the kind of progression Knox's poems follow, there is a cluster of objects, nouns and phrases which all refer to Scotland. It is, then, a "scottish play". The poem works off of the clichés we may think of as scottish, but it seeks to tell us nothing of any import about Scotland or Scots. The poem is basically about itself, and nothing else. It is self-referential. Wee Gillis happens to be a famous children's book by the author Munro Leaf (also the author of The Story of Ferdinand [1936]), which was published in 1938. Wee Gillis is juvenile literature, the kind of story that may become the common inheritance within a common speaking culture (English). The juvenile sense of Scotland matches the faux naive spirit of the writing: "Have you finished your Finnish?" Well, had he? Finnan Haddie!" Thence to Bath, founts, tarns, a pinto named Atlas, a map of the Americas, automobile bumpers, guards and a typeface known as Helvetica. This cluster of nouns and things may have other gratuitous threads of association. A Pinto is an American car. And there are formal jokes: the poem might "crash" instead of landing; and then there's a jolt of context with the reference to typeface. The words in the poem may be said rather to be like toy cars in a demolition derby, bumping off one another. The whole exercise has been a not very elaborate put-on, neither really very witty, nor intriguing. Not joyful, not sad, not ingenious. 

On one level, its casual glibness is a statement about the unimportance of free variation, how the mind makes irrational connections out of ganglia of association. In a sense, no one can keep from having trains of thought like this, because the overwhelming burden of data we inculcate from the constant stream of experience and self-generating conscious and unconscious thought guarantees that these kinds of accidental sequences will always outnumber the more deliberately organized kinds of thinking and expression we usually associate with intention.   

The original cover of the first edition of Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf

* (Tarn is Scottish for a cirque lake, which is to say a lake formed as a depression excavated by a glacier. We have cirque lakes in North America, but we don't call them tarns. We call them alpine lakes, or cirque lakes.) 

                He Was a Chartist

He was a Chartist in his apartment
opening cherrystones for guests at lunch,
cutting his hand and getting lemon in the cut.

Rats! his apartment was on the seventh floor
over the 1920s brick courtyard
with sawtooth dentils and long railings.

He was an allergist when he opened the window
to the blue shadow over half the ceiling.
He was a Zimbalist, a cousin by marriage.

Spraying the hinge with WD-40,
he was a parodist, he was a quietist.
But he was a kabbalist when he opened the book.

when he read the words of Aragon
Les asperges revent / sans témoins,
Asparagus plants / dream secretly,

he was a dynast, he was a gymnast
whose T-shirt said IRON-ON.
He was a cubist when he heard Mass

in a Latin rite, which has no epiclesis.
As a humanist, as a panelist,
he put away a glass of workhahol.

Yet he was a centrist in a balaclava;
on his plate was baklava:
when in doubt, add food and clothes.


Initially, we might be given to believe that the poem will be about Chartists, the suffrage movement in Great Britain in the 19th Century. But as we read, we quickly realize this isn't the case. Not only is the poem not about Chartists, or a Chartist, it is in fact a play on words that end in the suffix -ist. Thus, in order, the "he" of the poem becomes in turn an allergist, a Zimbalist, a parodist, a quietist, a kabbalist, a dynast, a gymnast, a cubist, a humanist, a panelist, and a centrist. The inclusions summoned include food, architectural details, a chemical, a window, a book, a T-shirt, and clothing. The poem seems to be a way of associating objects by virtue of the similarity of their sounds, as if the mere recital of such freely associated references were enough to justify the experience of reading it. We will either know (or discover upon looking it up) that epiclesis is the eucharistic prayer common to some Christian church ritual. We will note the slightly off wit of "workahol" (from alcohol), the rhyme of balaclava with baklava. These stray throwaway bits of wit aren't amusing, certainly not to a schooled adult mind. They're cute, in an immature, antiseptic sort of way. 

Flemish is the Dutch language spoken in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium. When I first saw the book, I imagined that it would have something of the clarity and order associated with Dutch painting--Vermeer, de Hooch, etc. But the author's intentions are far from anything this discrete. 

                         Giant Culinary Otters

They were a close family of giant culinary
otters from suriname. The low growling sound was their
hunger and anticipation of whelk and abalone. Their
even-tempered facial expressions and eyes of intelligence

and stylish whiskers appealed to everybody,
so these otters could have any dish they chose immediately
prepared for them and served by experienced cooks.

I read about giant otters in Jackson Mac Low's poem
anthologized in From the Other Side of the Century,
edited by Douglas Messerli. Their low growling was their hunger
and anticipation of shad and shad roe broiled in butter
around the time of asparagus and new potatoes.
You couldn't tell if their growls were from their
mouths or their stomach, but it didn't matter. 

Giant otters have been styled insecure.
It was at Spark in Newport that I first beheld
the giant culinary otters dining, where there's easy access
from the water. Another night,
I saw them, twice as many, sixteen maybe,
at Persimmon in Bristol, similarly maritime;
they had completely taken over the place and were
lying around playing Let's Be Stupid, drunk with nutrition. 


There is an interest in taxonomy, the simple delight in enumeration. A fondness for spices, and cooking metaphors. A resistance to substantiation, or to affirm the existence or importance of anything outside of the poem's initial occasion. In this, it shares with nonsense verse and some of the abstract products of Surrealist automatic writing, a delight in the unexpected, and in fresh combinations. Anyone looking for a poetry of feeling or of made edifices of sense, would best steer clear of this book. 

Is writing like this nourishing? Does it feed some hunger in the human mind for frivolous folly? Golly, Miss Molly! How should I know? I'm just one of the hoi-polloi. Oy!   

Thursday, September 4, 2014

We're the News Hour, and We Don't Approve This Message

Yesterday, Wednesday afternoon, September 4th 2014, the PBS News Hour show ran a segment in what it calls a "series of one-on-one interviews about how to handle the border crisis." As News Hour co-host Judy Woodruff said, in introducing the segment, "as President Obama is delaying . . . whether to take executive action on immigration . . . a Pew Research Center survey released today showed a spike in favor of making border security a priority and a drop in support for creating a way for undocumented immigrants to become citizens."      

The interview can be viewed now in its entirety here as a tube video, or in text version by clicking on the text button below. Ironically, the News Hour chose to use the same photo of illegals crossing the border that I used in my post of August 29th, 2014.  

Jeffrey Brown

The intreview was conducted by Jeffrey Brown, a regular interviewer-moderator on the News Hour. It's commonly acknowledged that the News Hour has shifted somewhat further to the left, since the departure of the program's founders, Robert MadNeil [1995] and Jim Lehrer [2011]. Though the News Hour maintains an official bi-partisan position with respect to many issues, on others it drifts precariously far to the left on others. On the issue of illegal immigration, it has tended to maintain a "compassionate" point of view, attempting to focus on the "human" side of the difficulties encountered by immigrants, rather than the problems they cause in the United States.          

It is not clear why the show chose to interview the County Sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts. Massachusetts has received almost a thousand unaccompanied minors between January 1 and July 31 of 2014. Sheriff Hodgson has had a distinguished career in law enforcement, that you can read about here, which has included work with Homeland Security. In any case, it became obvious, once the interview started, that Hodgson's view of illegal immigration, and the recent surge of unaccompanied minors across the southern border, differed considerably from what Brown may have expected to hear in answer to his usual questions.       

Sheriff Thomas Hodgson

I can't reproduce the full interview here, but will quote a few relevant parts of Hodgson's statements, which happen to accord with my own feelings and reactions to the crisis. 

In answer to the question "why do you believe they're coming to the United States and even Massachusetts," Hodgson replied:

"Well, I don’t think there’s any question why they’re coming. And it’s been verified by the EPIC report done by the El Paso Intelligence Center. It was leaked out several months ago.

And what they learned in this report was that, in 2012, when the president signed the DACA act (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), there’s an immediate correlation between that signing of the DACA and the sudden influx by the thousands of unaccompanied minors coming here.

And in that report, they interviewed 230 individuals who came here illegally. Of the 230, 219 said: The reason I came here was because I was told I could stay.

And we know that the homicides are down in all three of those countries, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. We also know that there was no sudden change in the culture or the atmosphere within those countries. So the surge was directly related to the president’s new policy."

In answer to Brown's question "you simply don't believe they're coming from desperate situations and would leave because of that?" he replied:

"Look, these desperate situations they’re talking about have not suddenly just emerged since 2012.

And I think if you look at the surge in numbers, it’s pretty amazing that we have had 37,000 children placed in foster care [between] January 1 [and] July 31 of this year. That didn’t just suddenly have some change in those countries. They have had problems in those countries for a long time. So to suggest that suddenly we’re seeing 90,000 come across, now next year possibly 145,000, that this is some sudden, dramatic shift in the danger within those countries, it’s just not so."

In answer to "what do you want to see from the federal government, he replied:

"Number one, we need to change the law immediately so that these individuals coming in from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are treated the same way the Mexicans are, which is there is no right to trial, you get turned around and immediately sent back.

There is right now . . . almost a 400,000-case backload for these unaccompanied children that are now being booked into dockets of 2017. So we need to get the law changed and have them treated the same as we do with the illegal Mexicans coming across.

The other thing we need to do is . . . do what law enforcement has been asking for — for two decades, secure the borders. Bring the Israelis in, talk to our people, build the sophisticated kinds of systems that they have in place . . . like law enforcement has been asking. We have our boots on the ground. We know what the problem is.

And, thirdly, if we’re going to deal with the administrative process, we need to send more administrative judges to the border. Don’t ship people who are going to have administrative hearings all over our country, at the expense of taxpayers. Keep them there. Get the judges down there and let them do these cases. If you have to do them around the clock, like they do in Pennsylvania for regular court cases, then do them around the clock. But we need to process these people and get them right back if they’re entitled to a hearing, until such time as the law is changed.

Look, the reality is, we can't sustain this. We're the most compassionate country in the world. Why don't we load up planes from Iraq where these people over there are being slaughtered by ISIS and put them here? If anybody needs refuge from violence, we know what's going on. What about our own kids in Chicago who are being killed eight or nine a weekend? So the idea that somehow we're able to sustain this through medical costs, costs for additional teachers who speak the language, special needs costs, I mean, it's about $9000 per unaccompanied child in our schools. 

So these are the kinds of things that are going to devastate our country, and not give us the opportunities we otherwise [would] have to be compassionate for those we can bring in and do it the right way."

As the questioning progressed, Brown became increasingly indignant, visibly angered by Hodgson's remarks. Brown and his producers may have expected that Hodgson would only provide details about the problems they were encountering in Massachusetts, but were shocked that Hodgson was informed enough about the real causes of the problem, to be able to speak authoritatively about them, with conviction. 

Given Hodgson's credentials, the News Hour couldn't simply pretend that he was a Red State Tea Party conservative, and set him up as a naive caricature of reactionary sentiment. The producers of the News Hour have steadfastly refused to inform their audience about the real causes of the recent wave of illegal immigrant minors, preferring to emphasize their vulnerability and jeopardy, rather than telling the real story, that they're being sent here to exploit a loop-hole in American immigration law, and not as a result of some new increase in violence or crime or social disintegration in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. 

Occasionally, even when partisan news media have a very specific agenda in mind, they will inadvertently allow the real truth to escape through the locked gates of the propaganda compound. This was one of those instances. Jeffrey Brown's stiff, resentful attitude was a clear message: the News Hour doesn't approve Hodgson's message. You have to ask, in this context, why the News Hour should feel so strongly about an issue, that they'd reject the testimony of a decorated law enforcement officer who is not only intimately acquainted with the circumstances of the case, but well informed about the larger issue and its causes. 

American political life is characterized by deep divisions over crucial issues. With immigration, each side prefers to give us only one partisan view of the problem. Perhaps if we all allowed ourselves to be moved by facts, rather than comfortable sentiments, we might be able to find common ground. If we're going to solve the immigration crisis on our southern border, we have to be willing to address the real issues, and not be swayed by appeals to casual sympathy. 

We've gotten into the habit of thinking of issues like this as "government" problems. "Let the government handle it. We're a rich nation, we can afford to let in a few scofflaws. It's easy, let the government pay for it. Welfare, schooling, language problems, health issues? Let the government pay for it. We're a rich country." This kind of casual apathetic approach to large problems is hugely impractical, and ultimately not sustainable. 

So the News Hour can pat us all on the back and say "everything's just fine, the government will handle it. Obama has asked for three billion dollars to take care of all these kids for ever. It's just a drop in the bucket, no one will notice. You won't notice. Now roll over and have a nice nap, everything's under control."