Friday, January 19, 2018

Who Speaks For Americans?

We live in strange times.

The Democratic Party is holding the federal government funding package in Congress hostage to the Dreamers, who constitute something like .00216718% of the population (allegedly 700,000 individuals, but probably many more uncounted). 

Meanwhile, the Republicans have thrown all their political weight behind the top 1%, to whom they just gave the largest tax break in recorded history. 

What about the other 98.99783282% of Americans?  

If we live in a country of representative government, who is actually standing up for the rights and interests of the vast majority of citizens? With each party so exclusively invested in tiny minorities, some not even actual American citizens, it does give you pause.

Who speaks for us? 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Cappy and Sabine

We think of genetics as a science now, not a mystery. 

Plato thought that the "soul" "entered" the body at birth, which was all the Greeks knew of inheritance, and reproduction. 

We now know that inheritance and all characteristics are passed through DNA, in random combinations, which include mutations that subtly alter the progression of the inherited blueprint.  

We acquired these two younger Siamese cats from the same breeder. They were sisters, born of the same litter, of the same parents. 

And yet, you'd never know it from looking at them today. As kittens, they looked much more alike. Both were lightly darkened at their points, and snow white otherwise. But in pretty short order, they diverged. 

Lily Sabine (below) is slightly warm cream color with light grey points. 

Cappucine (below) developed into a classic chocolate point. Cappy (for short) is a bit larger, while Sabine will always be a miniature. Cappy is stronger, and more determined, though less social than Sabine.  

They have different voices. Sabine's is a delicate "mew" while Cappy generally has a vibra-tone, like a cackle. Both are very friendly, and will tolerate being held, but not for very long. Neither is a lap kitty, though Cappy will often settle on your legs in bed. Cappy is an aggressive hunter and chaser, while Sabine is gentler, and perhaps less wild. 

Neither has been fixed, but that's not a problem since our male has been, and none of our cats goes outdoors. 

They're still young, though full grown now. It will be interesting to see if we outlive this latest generation of our family pets, or they us. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Winners Circle

In the continuing search for better cocktail mixes, one recent effort stands out, and has therefore been dubbed the Winners Circle. In horse-racing lore, the Triple Crown winner occupies the winner's circle, covered in robes of white flowers, befitting a champion. 

Secretariat, the Triple Crown winner for 1973

Lately, the results of the mixing lottery have been "mixed" but yesterday we hit on a winner. Everyone's taste is different, so each taster much judge for him- or herself. For my money, this is one for the record books. I'd bet it will be a winner for you too.

3 parts golden rum
2 parts grapefruit liqueur
1 part cachaca
1 part fresh lemon juice

Shaken and served up, with a garnish of lemon or lime.

The taste is oddly not unlike a lime-based mix, though there is no lime flavor in it. It is also reminiscent of orange, but there's no orange in it either. Something about the confrontation of grapefruit and cachaca produces this hybrid flavor.  

Taste is a mystery. Everyone's chemistry is just a little different. Vive la difference!

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Shit Hole Countries

This week, Donald Trump, discussing new Congressional proposals for immigration policy changes, was reported to have reacted strongly to certain suggested elements that were presented to him, in a private meeting at the White House. In reviewing the policy with respect to Haitians--whose special status as refugees following the catastrophic earthquake there in 2010, was revoked in November 2017, and must return by the summer of 2019--whose protected status was to be extended or granted authorization to allow for citizenship, Trump was reported by some, who were present at the meeting, to have asked "Why do we want all these people from shit-hole countries [i.e., Haiti and nations of the African Continent] coming here?"

Response in the Press and in government was swift and unequivocal. The remark was universally labeled as racist, and condemned as a diplomatic error.

Since Trump's election, his "style" of interaction with the nation, and with the Press, has been unique in the history of the Presidency. Rather than making public announcements, carefully planned and scripted before-hand, he freely ruminates and fulminates on social media ("Twitter"), offering peremptory and inflammatory rhetoric and personal observation with seemingly little regard for the delicate contexts of public opinion, or the world at large. The man speaks his mind unashamedly and carelessly, frequently causing his staff to backtrack and mend fences in the wake of the damage (intended or not) he has created.

There is no doubt that Trump's style of communication is unconventional, though it bears some comparison to the new era of "reality television" and social media, which feeds off of rumor and innuendo. Trump is a new kind of President, perhaps a symptom of the times. One who is willing to offend and shock, sometimes deliberately, as a strategy to create unrest or reaction, or to keep his image and personality constantly before the public eye. 

Trump's immigration policy positions have been pretty clear since the beginning of his campaign. He thinks our policy with respect to both legal and illegal immigration has been deeply flawed, and he's used that position to promote his "base" (supporters). Trump believes in a tightly controlled inflow of foreigners, one based not on "need" and sympathy, based not on racial preferences or perceived obligation, but on more traditional criteria, including fitness, skills, and suitability for assimilation. Over the last half-century, our immigration policies have tended more and more to be based on accommodation of perceived "need," refugee-ism, and conversion of those residing here illegally, in violation of their present or continuing status. 

Trump's question arises out of a sense of frustration, that our immigration policies seem to have become a huge welfare system in which tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people are either given a free ticket to America, or granted amnesty from deportation and offered a pathway to citizenship, despite having flagrantly violated the laws of our country. The tide of public opinion has shifted over this period, from one committed to the fitness of application, to one of adoption and refuge. The question no longer seems to be whether someone might sensibly be expected to contribute to our country, but to be whether someone seems to "need" to escape from their respective country. 

According to figures I've checked on the internet, Haiti is considered the poorest country in the world. Its poverty rate is the highest in the world, and the condition of its population, with respect to public health, education, employment skills, etc., is uniformly terrible. If any nation in the world could qualify for shit hole status, it would be Haiti. The magnetic attraction of America to Haitian immigrants must be overpowering. Between 1990 and 2015, the Haitian immigrant population in America tripled in size. Of that number, nearly 50% subsist here on welfare, and as many as 100,000 Haitians reside in the U.S. illegally. 

The question at hand is, what should our criteria be for American immigration policy, broadly speaking? Should we continue to prioritize our system to accommodate large numbers of refugees, and illegals, and those whom we feel we owe some reparations, in preference to the classic model of candidates who are educated, healthy, law-abiding, trained, least likely to be a burden on society, and who apply legally

Criticisms of Trump's remark have focused on its racial aspect, though Trump himself has repeatedly denied a racial component in his attitudes. Certain stories have said that Trump has insulted "countries of color," as if any nation could be so described. Indeed, to insist on such designations seems more racially biased in its assumptions than one focused on traditional models. In the case of Haiti, its population is primarily of African origin. Those who claim "countries of color" as a criteria for policy adjudication, seem to want an immigration policy based on reverse racial preferences, as if we had an obligation to accommodate more "people of color" than so-called "other" racial types. 

There is no doubt that President Trump is rude, and speaks his mind. There is no doubt that he is often ignorant, and even foolish in his behavior and speech. But the point here isn't racism. It's about actual immigration policy, and whether we should continue to adjust that policy to suit models and targets that prioritize race over other measures. 

Reality is often unpleasant. We've had Presidents in the past who spoke bluntly, and sometimes rudely (usually in private). The difference with Trump is that he doesn't care how he's perceived, or he believes that creating embarrassment, or distress, or confusion--even if it backfires or reflects back on him--is his prerogative. 

Frankly, I don't care if he's rude. I've disagreed with almost every program he's advocated, and he's clearly, despite his style and campaign claims, a classic Republican who serves the interests of the rich and big business. But the issue here isn't racism. The media simply has it wrong. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

James Merrill, about whom I wrote in my last blog entry, is not a poet whom I had ever much admired. As an aspiring poet in the 1970's, I knew his books and comprehended his style. I knew vaguely that he came of privilege, and that his highly decorous, highly decorated verse seemed to be carried along on a prosperous negligence--that it belonged to a world I could never properly appreciate, having never had any direct experience of it, and unlikely ever to see it up close, first-hand.

If I couldn't imagine participating in a world accessed through leisure, wealth and social connections, then my appreciation of Merrill's work would forever have a vicarious, excluded quality, like a child who, looking with intense interest upon a toy train behind a department store window, presses his nose against the glass. Literature, though, is one door into the unknown, a medium through which other lives, other milieus, can be viewed, estimated, judged, appraised, or envied or despised. I read somewhere once that "we love all worlds we live in," a fairly pretentious homily at first glance, though the more we think about it, the more intriguing it seems. Some Victorians believed that suffering was its own kind of romantic thrall, a notion you can see in much 19th Century verse and fiction. No one would suggest that people actually can love to suffer, but making art out of suffering is an old technique, certainly not limited to those at the bottom of the social or economic scale.  

Though James Merrill grew up in relative splendor and riches, with everything provided and taken care of, his was not a happy childhood. His parents neglected him, and fought with each other, and divorced when he was 11. Though brilliant, from an early age, he was effete, ineffectual and isolated emotionally. A classic case of the incipient homosexual, with an intense and conflicted relationship with his Mother, while irretrievably distanced from his domineering but distant Father. By his late 'teens, he'd been initiated into the gay alternative, and he never looked back. This choice, whether voluntary or not, was unacceptable at the time, and led to difficult accommodations throughout his life, with a long-delayed coming out.

The poetry, early on, rather than becoming simply a refuge from the difficulties of a deceiving identity in the world, would become the testing and proving ground for self-examination and scrutiny,  a forum for the dialectic between the outward projected man, and the inward questioning soul. In terms of the progress of his career as a writer, the volume Water Street [New York: Atheneum, 1962] is in several ways the key transitional turning point. A short collection of only 51 pages of text, its lead poem, An Urban Convalescence, is like a declarative statement of where his future lay. Reacting indirectly to the new vogue of confessionals (aka: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Frederick Seidel) then sweeping across the literary landscape, the poem addresses a real event--the tearing down of a neighborhood building in New York--and makes what sounds like a very personal and emotional statement, unusual up to that time for Merrill, and somewhat unexpected.

Formally, the poem isn't fussy or straight-jacketed, hinged with cleverness or artifice. It's almost conversational. Unpretentious.

Reading it now, really for the first time, I can see qualities in it that I mightn't have appreciated before. There's that terrific image of the huge crane "fumbl[ing] luxuriously in the filth of years / her jaws dribbl[ing] rubble," and "wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver." There's a sense of displacement, even disorientation that the speaker experiences with the leveling of part his familiar landscape, as if the transformation of the urban architecture had done a kind of violence to the unconscious. There's that peculiar reference to Robert Graves in The White Goddess, an ambiguous reference meant apparently to imply a clumsy deus ex machina in which the crane operator (note the pun on a classical bird) wreaks destruction as an agent of change. 

The meditation turns sour as the speaker rejects the pat sarcasms of popular cant -- "the sickness of our time . . . certain phrases which to use in a poem . . . bright but facile . . . enhances, then debases, what I feel." Conflicted between the superficial disorientation of urban demolition--a shifting of the gestalt of his past--Merrill now turns against that very past--its tradition, its continuity, its smarmy models of performance and identity, and vows "to make some kind of house out of the life lived, out of the love spent." But it's the ambiguity of a love spent, as if exhausted. Though Merrill would perpetuate the empty husk of his relationship to David Jackson for the rest of his life, and would maintain roughly settled homes in Stonington, Connecticut, and in Athens, Greece, these were indeed "another destination"--of serial male relationships, primarily sexual in character, and ephemeral, and in that way love "spent" rather than permanent and "honey-slow." 

Merrill's upper story digs in Stonington Connecticut

The abrupt shift from free verse to quatrains and rhyme from "indoors at last" to the end is like a retreat from the chaotic book of the world, to the private sanctuary of formal discipline, yet one in which secular confession and private desire will be reconciled in the structured context of verse. 

The poem is remarkable for the frankness and casualness with which it initially expresses personal feeling, measured against the discipline of higher principles. While the second part at first feels superficially to be a kind of conviction, this falls apart at the end, as the speaker acknowledges the ambiguity of his moral position, an honesty that is unusual. At first, change is encountered numbly, and with revulsion, only to be grudgingly accepted in the end--the intervention of unwanted necessity. Hearing Merrill read this poem, later in life, with his dead-pan baritone, made it seem elegiac, and resolved, though this never happened in his life. Such declarations of principle are always provisional--as the poem admits--always subject to revision, accommodation, the small failures and retreats which constitute a life lived, out of a life spent.      

        An Urban Convalescence

Out for a walk, after a week in bed,
I find them tearing up part of my block
And, chilled through, dazed and lonely, join the dozen
In meek attitudes, watching a huge crane
Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years.
Her jaws dribble rubble. An old man
Laughs and curses in her brain,
Bringing to mind the close of The White Goddess.

As usual in New York, everything is torn down
Before you have had time to care for it.
Head bowed, at the shrine of noise, let me try to recall
What building stood here. Was there a building at all?
I have lived on this same street for a decade.

Wait. Yes. Vaguely a presence rises
Some five floors high, of shabby stone
—Or am I confusing it with another one
In another part of town, or of the world?—
And over its lintel into focus vaguely
Misted with blood (my eyes are shut)
A single garland sways, stone fruit, stone leaves,
Which years of grit had etched until it thrust
Roots down, even into the poor soil of my seeing.
When did the garland become part of me?
I ask myself, amused almost,
Then shiver once from head to toe,

Transfixed by a particular cheap engraving of garlands
Bought for a few francs long ago,
All calligraphic tendril and cross-hatched rondure,
Ten years ago, and crumpled up to stanch
Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,
And thought of neither then nor since.
Also, to clasp them, the small, red-nailed hand
Of no one I can place. Wait. No. Her name, her features
Lie toppled underneath that year’s fashions.
The words she must have spoken, setting her face
To fluttering like a veil, I cannot hear now,
Let alone understand.

So that I am already on the stair,
As it were, of where I lived,
When the whole structure shudders at my tread
And soundlessly collapses, filling
The air with motes of stone.
Onto the still erect building next door
Are pressed levels and hues—
Pocked rose, streaked greens, brown whites. Who drained the pousse-café?
Wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver.

Well, that is what life does. I stare
A moment longer, so. And presently
The massive volume of the world
Closes again.

Upon that book I swear
To abide by what it teaches:
Gospels of ugliness and waste,
Of towering voids, of soiled gusts,
Of a shrieking to be faced
Full into, eyes astream with cold—

With cold?
All right then. With self-knowledge.

Indoors at last, the pages of Time are apt
To open, and the illustrated mayor of New York,
Given a glimpse of how and where I work,
To note yet one more house that can be scrapped.

Unwillingly I picture
My walls weathering in the general view.
It is not even as though the new
Buildings did very much for architecture.

Suppose they did. The sickness of our time requires
That these as well be blasted in their prime.
You would think the simple fact of having lasted
Threatened our cities like mysterious fires.

There are certain phrases which to use in a poem
Is like rubbing silver with quicksilver. Bright
But facile, the glamour deadens overnight.
For instance, how “the sickness of our time”

Enhances, then debases, what I feel.
At my desk I swallow in a glass of water
No longer cordial, scarcely wet, a pill
They had told me not to take until much later.

With the result that back into my imagination
The city glides, like cities seen from the air,
Mere smoke and sparkle to the passenger
Having in mind another destination

Which now is not that honey-slow descent
Of the Champs-Élysées, her hand in his,
But the dull need to make some kind of house
Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.