Sunday, May 31, 2020

David Trinidad dishes on my teachers

I had three poet-teachers at UC Berkeley back in the early 90s: Robert Hass, Lyn Hejinian, and John Ash. David Trinidad in his Notes on a Past Life works through a lot of grief and resentment over his life in New York City. He names names and exposes his feelings: sometimes overwhelmed, sometimes jealous, wounded, hopeful, shy, ambitious, proud. Among the names who get unfriendly mentions are two of my Cal teachers. 

From “Lost Illusions”:
“John Ash (who Tim [Dlugos] detests),
… is so plastered
he falls out of his chair
onto the floor, spilling his drink
on himself. Unfazed, he keeps
talking, cigarette hand 
waving in my direction.”

From “Susan takes me to the Academy of American Poets”:
“I remember it as a series
of flashes, each more grim
than the last. …
… John Ash. I smile
expecting recognition (we’ve
met on several occasions),
but he just glowers at me.”

John Ash was the visiting Holloway Lecturer in 1993 when I was a student at Cal. Do I remember him drinking? I guess I do. We had a class get-together off campus and I do remember John getting rather sloshed. He was hardly the only drinker I knew. I enjoyed having him as a teacher. I loved his poetry, and, as a young gay man, it was pretty cool having a gay poet as a mentor.

In researching this blog post I discovered that John Ash died in December. Oh! Six months ago. That set me back. 

From “Joe”:
“… when Eileen [Myles] was directing
the Poetry Project, she paired me
with Lyn Hejinian (something
perverse there). That was a tough
reading. …
My usually crowd-pleasing Supremes
poem was met with stony indifference.”

Lyn Hejinian was the Holloway Lecturer the year before John Ash. I liked her, too! While I wish I had kept some connection with John, I have managed a friendly, if infrequent, acquaintance with Lyn. It helps that Lyn lives in Berkeley — a mere block away from the Berkeley Public Library’s Claremont Branch, where I work. In my experience Lyn is generous and open, even if she does have definite opinions. I find her work sharp and engaging. I would have been thrilled to attend that Poetry Project reading. 

What can you say?   

source: Notes on a Past Life
by David Trinidad
2016. BlazeVOX Books, Buffalo NY

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Oz in poems

I briefly published an Oz fanzine way back in the 80s. It featured a column, “Oz in Unusual Places,” that cataloged mentions of Oz elements in newspapers and books and, well, wherever I came across them. The zine could have been just that, frankly.

When I read the two poems by Stephen Danos in a 2012 issue of Court Green I flagged them with that old column in mind. Both poems use Oz, the MGM Oz anyway. Both “Place No Likelier Than Home” and “Tourist Trap” cast the speaker as a version of Dorothy. 

In “Place” the Dorothy persona sounds doomed: “I get a hernia from lifting the gray ruins off the witch. The tornado cuts my throat …”

In “Tourist Trap” the Dorothy persona is a bit more empowered. Glinda tells her “my task is to do evil     to evildoers.     Raise hell, turn acidic narratives / into musicals fit for family night.”

source: Court Green
#9, 2012 
a literary magazine edited by David Trinidad and Tony Trigilio
Columbia College, Chicago IL

Friday, May 29, 2020

betting on the future

Taking marriage equality to the US Supreme Court was not something many gay rights advocates wanted to do, not until it was a sure thing, or as close to it as they could imagine, with perhaps the majority of the population already having marriage equality via success in individual states. Despite the huge expense and the stress and hate it would stir up, there were many who thought a new ballot measure in California was a better bet, for instance. 

Margaret Talbot reported to that effect in The New Yorker in early 2010:
Plenty of gay-marriage supporters agreed that it was smarter to wait until the movement had been successful in more states — and, possibly, the composition of the Supreme Court had shifted. (During the last year of a second Obama term, Scalia would be eighty-one.)
Talbot says advocates were haunted by the sodomy law decision back in 1986. The upholding of the constitutionality of sodomy laws had impeded legal progress for LGBT equality until it was struck down in 2003, a 17-year span no one thought we could afford to endure. 

Part of the bet involved Scalia. He was old, and, boy, did he look unhealthy. If he dropped dead while Obama was in office, we’d have a 5-4 Democrat-appointed majority. Hallelujah! 

Indeed, come 2018, God looked down and saw the time had come to remove that hateful man from our Supreme Court and provide President Obama the opportunity to bend the arc of history toward justice a little bit more. Sadly, the Devil had the stronger avatar on earth, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to seat Obama’s mild-mannered, uncontroversial pick (a pick who’d been approved by Utah’s Orrin Hatch!). Thus we got two Trump picks. 

Marriage equality did go before the Supreme Court before it was a sure thing — and we won it — in 2015, a too-close 5-4 vote. Scalia still alive and hating. Waiting would have taken us into the Trump era, and likely not worked out well. 

source: “A Risky Proposal: is it too soon to petition the Supreme Court on gay marriage?” 
by Margaret Talbot
The New Yorker, January 18, 2010, vol. 85 no. 45

Thursday, May 28, 2020

“the most profound and menacing doubts”

Timothy Beal is a Christian. Yet he is also a critical thinker. Note my caveat. It is, Beal tells us, not only possible to be a Christian and a critical thinker, all the real Christians are. I am not qualified to debate who is and who is not a real Christian. No one is. Not even Christians. 

One thing that irks me about Christians is the way they have to have their own definitions of words. I was struck by a definition of “love,” for instance, that had the word’s meaning weirdly and horrifically different from everyday human affection in order to be able to declare that God loves us. Yes, he loves us even when he’s standing idly by during our torture or obliteration. That is part of God’s love, you idiot; how can you not understand that! No, I don’t remember who insisted this was love. In the paragraph below Beal does something similar with the word “faith”:

There is a widely held, simplistic definition of faith as firm belief. To many, especially nonreligious people, faith is seen as absolute certainty despite or without regard to observed facts or evidence. Yet, as anyone trying to live faithfully in this world knows full well, there is no faith without doubt. … The Bible … presumes faith in God, yet … it also often gives voice to the most profound and menacing doubts …

Let’s take a quick look at Merriam-Webster: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” 

Not among the shades of meaning: “doubt”

This is not to say I think Timothy Beal is being disingenuous. He can define religious faith however he wants to, so long as he is up front about it. He can define God. He can define Christianity. Everybody can have their own definitions — so long as they don’t hurt each other over disagreements. These are squishy terms. Not like oxygen, say. We better have a consensus definition for oxygen. If you buy an oxygen tank, it won’t be helpful to have something other than oxygen in it.

Still, the idea that it is “nonreligious people” who mainly think of faith as the absence of doubt, rather than the religious, seems to me wrong. The impression I’ve gotten from religious people, most especially the loudest spokespeople on the teevee, is that doubt is sacrilegious. Maybe they don’t read the same bible as Beal. 

source: The Rise and Fall of the Bible: the unexpected history of an accidental book 
by Timothy Beal
2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

“Baum’s innocent arrow pierced the heart of a totalitarian regime”

As I said in my last pile of reading post, I am intrigued by the alternate Oz crafted by Alexander Volkov, the Russian translator of The Wizard of Oz. Volkov titled it (in Russian) The Wizard of the Emerald City. Volkov’s Magic Land was popular throughout the Soviet bloc. Novelist and essayist Dubravka Ugresic read Wizard in a Croatian translation of Volkov’s Russian. Even at that remove, the book was easy to love, it seems.

The Wizard of Oz … was my favorite children’s book. Much later I found out that the book had traveled from the Russian to Yugoslavia and the rest of the East European world, and that it wasn’t written by a certain A. Volkov (who had ‘adapted’ it) but by the American writer Frank L. Baum. The first time I went to Moscow (way back in 1975) I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had turned up in a monochrome Oz, and that I, like Toto, just need [to] pull back the curtain to reveal a deceit masked by the special effects of totalitarianism. Baum’s innocent arrow pierced the heart of a totalitarian regime in a way the arrows of Soviet dissident literature never could.

Ugresic talks about translation as “a game of Chinese Whispers. … Every translation is not only a multiplication of misunderstandings, but also a multiplication of meanings.” In Chinese Whispers a group of people pass along a message, whispering it from ear to ear on down the line. You’re not supposed to ask for clarification, but instead pass along what you thought you heard. I remember playing this game in school. There were times the message that came out at the end sounded nothing like the message that went in at the beginning. (I remember also the times the no-repeat-whisper rule was broken and the message made it all the way unchanged.)

The paragraph quoted has its own Chinese Whispers mistakes. It’s not Frank L. Baum but L. Frank Baum. In both Baum and Volkov Toto doesn’t pull back a curtain but knocks over a screen. (Of course, with Volkov I have to rely on Peter Blystone’s translation: “a green screen that blended in with the wall.”) It’s in the 1939 MGM adaptation of Wizard that the humbug is hiding behind a curtain. (I’m sure a swirling curtain is more cinematic than a rigid screen.)

Volkov’s version of Wizard is closer to Baum than MGM was, though Volkov does make some changes, both addition (an ogre) and subtraction (dainty china country). I wonder if Dubravka Ugresic has given Baum’s original a look.  

source: Europe in Sepia
by Dubravka Ugresic
translated from the Croatian by David Williams
2013/2014. Open Letter, University of Rochester, Rochester NY

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Where in the world is Ingersoll?

Christopher Dewdney is a Canadian poet. When he drops the name “Ingersoll” in the poem “Spring Trances in the Control Emerald Night” it’s in a context I’d never seen it. Ingersoll is a city?

Paris was there before the name. Kitchener is a thousand miles northwest of Paris, London is two thousand miles south of Ingersoll. Hungry Hollow’s epicentre is near Rochester, New York. Asphalt oozes out of the ground near Leamington

Says Wikipedia, “Ingersoll is a town in Oxford County on the Thames River in southwestern Ontario, Canada. The nearest cities are Woodstock to the east and London to the west.” 

So Ingersoll is a city in Canada. You can drive to Ingersoll from Detroit. And now that I know where Ingersoll is and that London is the nearest city to the west … 

No idea if the Ingersolls who founded the city are any relation. 

For a writing class in junior college I looked up the origin of the name. The reference said the name originated in Derbys in England, specifically a place called Inker’s Wall. When the internet was still young I checked to see what more I could find and came up with a reference claiming the site wasn’t a wall but a hill, Inker’s Hill. 

And here’s what says today, “English: habitational name from Inkersall in Derbyshire, recorded in the 13th century as Hinkershil(l) and Hinkreshill. The final element is Old English hyll ‘hill’. The first may be the Old Norse personal name Ingvarr or an Old English byname Hynkere meaning ‘limper’. Ekwall suggests that it may represent a contracted version of Old English higna √¶cer ‘monks’ field’.”

Inkersall has had some recent development, according to Wikipedia, “Inkersall is a hamlet just outside Staveley … Recent developments include the creation of a small children's park along with the building of an additional convenience shop. Inkersall has two public houses, the Hop Flower and the Double Top.”

source: From the Other Side of the Century: a new American poetry, 1960-1990
edited by Douglas Messerli
1994. Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles CA

Monday, May 25, 2020

Notes Toward an Autobiography by Others

David Trinidad draws a portrait of his mother and their relationship in his poem “Classic Layer Cakes.” I was glad to see she was supportive of his art. For instance when Trinidad visits his mother “in an extended care facility in Santa Maria[:]

The first thing [my mother] said to me was: ‘Did you bring me a poem?’

That’s something my mother would have said to me. Having a parent’s encouragement for devoting yourself to impractical things — like poetry — is heartening. 

My mother didn’t always love my poems. Like my husband, she praised some over others, but she got good at listening and making vaguely approving, nonjudgmental comments when the poem went off somewhere she didn’t follow. 

She loved coming to my readings and introducing herself around as the poet’s mother. This was embarrassing for me, of course, and I think I asked her once not to do it, but not vehemently — mumblingly, probably. Anyway, I decided it was tolerable embarrassment and sweet. She was supporting me, sharing my enthusiasm, and proud of me. 

source: Dear Prudence: new and selected poems
by David Trinidad
2011. Turtle Point Press, New York

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Where husbands and wives speak different languages, literally

Jared Diamond, in his studies of traditional societies, has learned that multi-lingualism is common among them. Large areas dominated by one language (and inhabited by monolinguals) just did not exist before the burgeoning of big states. There remain some examples of highly-linguistically-diverse areas that may have been what all the world used to look like (or sound like), Diamond says. 
[I]n the northwest Amazon Basin [live the] Vaupes River Indians [who] are linguistically exogamous [that is, when they marry, they make sure to marry someone who does not speak their language] … While boys remain as adults in their parents’ longhouse … girls from other longhouses and language groups move to their husband’s longhouse at the time of marriage. A given longhouse contains women marrying in from several different language groups … All children learn both their father’s and their mother’s languages … from infancy, then learn the languages of other women of the longhouse. Hence everyone in the longhouse knows [all] the longhouse languages (that of the [local] men, and those of the … women), and most also learn some other languages from visitors. 
Only after Vaupes River Indians have come to know a language well by hearing and passively acquiring vocabulary and pronunciation do they start speaking it. They carefully keep languages separate and work hard to pronounce each language correctly. [It tends to take] them one or two years to learn a new language fluently. High value is placed on speaking correctly, and letting words from other languages creep into one’s conversation is considered shameful.

Each Amerindian his or her own French Academy

source: The World Until Yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies?
by Jared Diamond
2012. Viking / Penguin, New York

Saturday, May 23, 2020

“putting a name to [the] lack of an answer”

In a discussion of the origins of religion, and what religion does for us, Jared Diamond remembers a professor:
[T]he great theologian Paul Tillich def[ied] his class of hyper-rational undergraduates to come up with a scientific answer to his simple question: ‘Why is there something, when there could have been nothing?’ None of my classmates majoring in the sciences could give Tillich any answer. But they in turn would have objected that Tillich’s own answer ‘God’ consisted merely of putting a name on his lack of an answer.
If there had been nothing, nobody could have asked any questions, not even why there was nothing rather than something. Thus, in order to ask the question, let alone come up with an answer, there has to be something.

Why is there God when there could have been no God? What would Paul Tillich have thought of someone asking students to answer that one scientifically? Or, why is there no God? And could there ever have been one? 

Silly stuff. But millions have been tortured and murdered in the name of God. So, not silly. 

source: The World Until Yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies?
by Jared Diamond
2012. Viking / Penguin, New York

Friday, May 22, 2020

Be a Bust!

Poets David Trinidad, Jeffery Conway, and Lynn Crosbie collaborated on Phoebe 2002, an epic exploring All About Eve (the 1950 movie starring Bette Davis). At nearly 650 pages, including notes, it's a commitment, but full of Hollywood detail. Wizard comes in for a mention:

In the film The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy defeats
(read: drops her house on) the Wicked Witch, the Munchkins

celebrate her by singing, ‘You will be a bust, be a bust, be a bust
in the Hall of Fame.’


I remember the line. But I don’t remember understanding what the Munchkin was really saying. Maybe it was that I didn’t hear the words clearly. I often have trouble picking the words out of sung lyrics. Besides, the Munchkins’ singing voices are tweaked a little higher than normal, or sped up slightly? But once I did get the words, they didn’t mean much. After all, there’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Baseball Hall of Fame … why wouldn’t there be an Oz Hall of Fame? 

The poets of Phoebe 2002 help us out:

[T]he first [Hall of Fame] was located
in the Bronx and originally belonged to New York University. Its official

name was the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. The Hall opened in 1901
with 29 inductees, among them the first and only unanimously elected member,

George Washington. Others that first year included Benjamin Franklin,
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee,

David Glasgow Farragut, Gilbert Charles Stewart, Peter Cooper,
Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Mann, Ralph Waldo Emerson,

Washington Irving, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall,
Ulysses S. Grant, John James Audubon, and Eli Whitney.

That group illustrated the range of professions acknowledged
and also brought the first but enduring charges that the electors

were elitists. No women, Americans of color, or sports figures
were included, a lapse soon remedied by a few token additions,

for all but sports heroes. The last year of elections to the Hall
was 1976, after which the program was abandoned for want

of funds and, probably, interest. That explains why the Hall is
unknown to so many … especially those under 50. 

Even now, bronze busts of four of the 102 honorees are not
in place, there having been no money for the sculptures.


Who are David Glasgow Farragut, Gilbert Charles Stewart, and Peter Cooper? Never heard of ‘em. Perhaps the poet didn’t know them either, so grouped the obscurities together. Fame is fickle. 

source: Phoebe 2002: an essay in verse
Jeffery Conway, Lynn Crosbie, David Trinidad
2003. Turtle Point Press, New York

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Bitcoin is destroying the world

When I first heard of Bitcoin (two? three years ago? a decade?), I tried to figure out what it was. Mainly what I figured out was that I didn’t care. Cryptocurrency? Blockchain? I don’t know. After awhile it just became one of those tech buzzwords that I didn’t need to understand because it wasn’t going to have any material impact on my life. 

Now I learn that Bitcoin is destroying the world. Literally.

Bitcoin … consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined. … Bitcoin … produces as much CO2 each year as a million transatlantic flights.

When we make any progress toward creating a greener world, somebody wipes out all that progress. Easily. Indifferently. 

source: The Uninhabitable Earth: life after warming
by David Wallace-Wells
2019. Tim Duggan Books / Crown / Random House, New York

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

“The Footsteps,” a poem by Jonathan Hayes

The Footsteps

for Glenn Ingersoll

Are in the pome

Side by side with each word
Keeping cadence or wandering

Depending on the next …


I didn’t know Jonathan Hayes had dedicated a poem to me. So when I came upon it in his book, A Full Moon in Santa Cruz, I was surprised. But what really strikes me — is that it kinda sounds like me. Not just that it’s roughly in the poem poem genre, a poem talking about itself, often with a sense of self-awareness (I’ve done a whole series of those), but that it has that “wandering” in it, that readiness to enjoy uncertainty that I think of as one of things I need in poetry. Where are we going next? Let’s find out together! 

Jonathan Hayes is also the editor of the literary magazine, Over the Transom, and the anthology, —ah: American haiku anthology

source: A Full Moon in Santa Cruz
poems by Jonathan Hayes
2018. Mel C. Thompson Publishing, Lafayette CA

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

rite of passage

Bill Barich traveled the length and breadth of California back in the early 90s and filled a book with his observations. Of course he had to visit Disneyland. Spoiler alert: he didn’t like it. 

I was a child in the 1970s, and Barich’s observation in this passage felt true then:

Disneyland [is] a cultural rite of passage. A child, especially a California child, could no doubt file a suit in court if his parents hadn’t taken him there by the time he was ten.
I pictured how the scene would play on the evening news, with some postliterate yellow-haired TV reporter kneeling to get the scoop.
‘We’re here with young Peter Piper of Gardenia,’ he’d say. ‘Pete, can you tell us why you’re suing your mom and dad?' 
‘I’ve never been to Disneyland.’ 
‘How old are you, Pete?’ 
I’m eleven!
My childhood was so far along by the time I successfully pestered and bothered and cajoled my mother into scheduling a trip to Disneyland that I knew I was severely at risk of missing that golden window — I couldn’t be a grown up before I got to Disneyland! As Bill Barich harrumphs, for “an unaccompanied adult [Disneyland i]s not [the] great time,” the transportive ecstasy, that is, that it inevitably is for a child. 

It was clear to me that my brother and I were the only kids in school who had never been to Disneyland. It wasn’t fair! I remember poring over a library book about Disneyland; was it a Time-Life book? Whatever it was, the library owned it so it was scholarly not advertisement — oversize, filled with color pictures and breathless prose. I imagined myself skidding down the Matterhorn, the thrill of splashing into that pool at the bottom — the amazingly lifelike animatronics of the Country Bear Jamboree or the Enchanted Tiki Room — the meticulous attention to detail in the recreation of Main St (okay, I almost cared about Main St) — the African riverboat — the spinning cups of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. It was all so magical. Plus, every kid I ever talked to loved loved loved Disneyland and had been there many times. 

Mom was not excited. Big crowds, big expense (cheap compared to today), long drive to get there (we lived in Northern California, not Southern California), and nothing much of interest to her. She had friends who lived near Anaheim so wangled a weekend stay-over at their place. And my dreams could come true. I was 12. My brother was 13 or 14, a little long in the tooth for the fullest wonder experience, but young enough not to be jaded. 

Oh my God, I was so excited. I counted off the days on the calendar. I positively flopped about the floor like a fish gone to glory. 

I was disappointed. I’m glad I went. But every endless line in the hot sun, every worn facade, every underwhelming ride, every pushy tourist was a personal affront. Even space mountain was just a roller coast in the dark, not a science fiction-like blastoff to the beyond. This is the Happiest Place on Earth? The Magic was humbug.

This was back in the days of the graded tickets with E tickets for the exciting rides and A tickets for a seat on the trolley drawn by a plodding horse. You had to use all your tickets, of course. But when you got down to it, some of them weren’t worth tearing out of the ticket book. 

I’m glad I prevailed upon my mother because, as Bill Barich says, it was a rite of passage. Everybody else had gone, and loved it, how could I miss out on that? 

I’ve been a few times since. My high school graduating class went in 1983 (I saw Berlin live and didn’t know who they were). I went with my now-husband Kent who practically had the run of the place as a kid, he told me, and knew all the best secret places to hang out. The restaurant at Pirates of the Caribbean did have a beguiling atmosphere (crickets, twinkling stars) for something totally fake. California Adventure has been built since but I haven’t been back to see it. California Adventure? I already live in California. Fake Alps, fake Mississippi, fake Africa, sure, those places were all far away. But fake California? 

source: Big Dreams: into the heart of California
by Bill Barich
1994. Pantheon / Random House, New York

Monday, May 18, 2020

where the Emperor got his name

The Roman historian Suetonius is tracing the family of the Emperor Galba, who ruled Rome after the death of Nero (though briefly). Where did Galba’s family name come from? Suetonius asks himself. The Emperor’s ancestor, Sulpicius, was the first in the family to be known by Galba, Suetonius declares, and Sulpicius passed the family name to his descendants. But where did Sulpicius get “Galba”?

One suggestion is that after a tediously protracted siege of some Spanish town the Sulpicius in question set fire to it, using torches smeared with resin (galbanum). Another is that he resorted to galbeum, a kind of poultice, during a long illness. Others are that he was very fat, the Gallic word for which is galba; or that, on the contrary, he was very slender — like the galba, a creature which breeds in oak trees.
In other words, who knows! 

source: The Twelve Caesars
by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus; translated by Robert Graves
1957/1979. Penguin Books, New York

Sunday, May 17, 2020

recipe for serving yellow jackets

We’ve had three yellow jacket colonies on the property in the last few years — one out in the back yard in the ground, two taking up residence inside one of the house walls. The first colony in the wall we didn’t really even know was there until Kent got stung, having riled the nest defenders for sweeping leaves off the porch. Kent declared war, eventually tearing away the cedar shingle siding to get the last of them out. The ground nest lasted a year, then died or moved on. We have just finished killing off the other yellow jacket colony that decided our house wall made a good home. I suppose we don’t know that we’ve gotten them all yet. But Kent doesn’t want to rip open the wall this time. After an extended assault with a shop vacuum (the yellow jackets get sucked in and drown in a pool of soapy water) and the stuffing up of their holes with steel wool, it looks like the colony has been vanquished. ... Though a few rather dazed individuals keep showing up. 

When I came across Maria Melendez’s poem, “Recipe for When You’re Tired of Feeding Your Family Cereal from a Box,” about harvesting a yellow jacket nest for food, it made me perk up. We could have eaten them?

In the instructions stanza Mendez says you build a fire near the entrance of a ground nest, then “Push smoke down the hole with the wide fan you wove last winter. After the yellow jackets are paralyzed by the smoke, dig out the nest. Carry it to a prepared bed of coals. Roast the nest. Shake out the dead larvae onto a basket tray. Mash them, then boil in a basket with hot stones. Drain and serve with manzanita berries.”

Sounds like American Indian cuisine. Whoever figured out this recipe had to be pretty nervy. 

I wonder how many larvae are still in our wall.

source: New Poets of the American West
edited by Lowell Jaeger
2010. Many Voices Press, Flathead Valley Community College, Kalispell, MT

Saturday, May 16, 2020

“is not faith enough?”

Surgeon Sherwin Nuland asks some questions about the way religious people use the tools of reason:
Why do [the religious] attempt logic and reason to prove matters which by their very nature are beyond any logic and higher than all reason? Why do so many of them feel that it is beholden on them to apply the rules of proof and evidence in arguments for which such rules were never intended? Is not faith enough?
I don’t think Nuland has this right. The tools of logic were not invented by atheists, nor are proof and evidence foreign to theology. Nuland seems exasperated because these tools fail the religious, so he wonders why they try to use tools that don’t work for them. After all, if whatever you say doesn’t really matter because you can’t actually ever lose an argument, your trump card being faith, which is impervious to all logic, fact, or evidence, why bother going through the motions? Your failure on the way to your success just makes you look bad. 

I rarely get into religious discussions with the actually religious. I don’t want to argue over this stuff. In fact, I have a policy against talking religion with people I don’t know well. I remember with some discomfort a discussion I failed to avoid. I was talking after class with another student in an American Sign Language course. The conversation might have gotten started innocuously with a question like, Why are you studying ASL? The other student seemed sweet and sincere, but she was “churchy” (as another classmate put it), and her communication goals had something to do with helping deaf people get with God. I soon found I was fending off her evangelical approach toward myself. Yes, she confronted me with arguments that seemed to offer proof and evidence, but when these arguments fell apart, and we were getting annoyed with each other, my churchy classmate pulled out her trump card, supposedly quoting scripture, “The faithful’s arguments will seem as nonsense to nonbelievers.” 

I bet my classmate asked me what my thoughts were and, seemingly friendly and sincere, overrode my policy against talking religion. She saw an opening to gain a convert. 

I am curious about faith, where it begins and ends, but I don’t want to get into an argument about it. I mean, I don’t get why one believes one thing without question while having no difficulty scoffing at something else. And organized religion is responsible for so much evil in the world … 

source: The Mysteries Within: a surgeon reflects on medical myths
by Sherwin B. Nuland
2000. Simon & Schuster, New York

Friday, May 15, 2020

Reading a Man

Judy Melinek is a medical examiner for New York City. She autopsies dead bodies. 

On this day off she’s just seen a movie with her husband, T. J. They are enthusing about the movie while waiting in line at a taqueria. Judy casually looks at the back of the man in front of them in line. I love the way what she observes begins to come together for her into a portrait not just of the man’s lifestyle but in particular something that happened to him. Any of us could have picked up on the man’s sex, age, clothes, but it’s the thing at the back of the man’s head that Judy recognizes from her job. 
He was a huge man — six two easily — in his midtwenties, with a shaved head and nickel-sized black lacquer plugs piercing both earlobes. His forearms were covered with the sort of tattoos I had seen on drug users as a way of camouflaging needle tracks. Some of them I recognized as prison badges. The thing that really startled me, though, was the back of the man’s neck. He had a perfectly circular scar at the base of his skull just to the left of midline, and a vertical, linear, well-healed surgical cicatrice extending down his cervical spine. …
This man had done something awhile ago that had induced somebody to shoot him carefully in the back of the head. Based on the rough diameter of the scar, the shooter probably used a .22 or other small-caliber weapon at close range. The blow had knocked the tattooed man down and probably out, but the bullet lodged in the thick bulb of bone at the butt of the skull and didn’t penetrate. A skilled surgeon had extracted the slug, stemmed the bleeding and saved [the man’s] life. I could even see the textbook pinprick scars of the suture staples on either side of the old incision going down his neck.
As they are eating, Judy and her husband notice the man is sitting nearby. Is he casing them? T. J. begins talking loudly about Judy’s police colleagues, naming them, wondering who is on duty in this precinct. The man with the scar abruptly gets up, leaving his drink unfinished on his table.

Based on her expertise Judy Melinek could read a lot more here than the average person. She is humble enough to say that she could have been misreading the situation, that the man may not have been looking to rob them. 

I love the way people with a particular expertise can see through things that to the untrained eye would be opaque. This doesn’t mean they always get it right. But their education gives them access to information that they just might be able to use. 

source: Working Stiff: two years, 262 bodies, and the making of medical examiner
by Judy Melinek, M.D., and T. J. Mitchell

Thursday, May 14, 2020

“the skin of a living thought”

In a discussion about how the word “nigger” means different things in different contexts — from being the most hateful thing ever to being a loving endearment — essayist Randall Kennedy quotes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:
’a word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged.’ A word is instead ‘the skin of a living thought [that]* may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.’ 
*Kennedy’s brackets

I love Holmes’ definition. A word often does not mean just one thing; and that’s more likely the more it’s used. 

Kennedy cites Towne v. Eisner, 245 U.S. 418, 425 (1918) for where he found the Holmes.

source: Nigger: the strange career of a troublesome word
by Randall Kennedy
2002. Pantheon Books / Random House, New York

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

“flaunting, brazen!” … you say that as though it’s a bad thing

About the time I came across an anti-feminist poem by a Japanese poet, I came across an anti-feminist poem by a South African poet. The poem is so baldly wrong that one might suspect it means to parody anti-feminism, but considering the era in which the South African poet is writing (turn of the 20th century) and the emphatic last lines, I’m guessing he’s serious. It’s an ugly poem, and I debated with myself whether to present it here, but I think it’s interesting as a piece of propaganda and for its use of vivid language. But it’s also ugly in a funny way, a way totally unintentional and campy that makes you roll your eyes and shake your head and, yes, laugh.

The New Woman

On the Threshold flaunting, brazen,
See the Coming Woman stands:
Bold her mien, absurd her garments,
Harsh her speech and strong her hands.

Loud She prates at public meeting,
Solid plants her massive foot;
Shrieks her message: ‘Man, the tyrant,
Of all evil is the root!’

Howls for equal rights for woman —
Right to don divided skirt;
Right to swear, to smoke, to gamble —
Right to drink, too woo, to flirt.

Dread Emancipated Female —
Wants to make man share the ‘Curse’;
Wants to see him rock the cradle,
Wants to wreck the Universe!

Wants man’s vote, his pants, his latchkey,
Wants this passed and that repealed —
Wants all sick’ning social festers
To her morbid gaze revealed!

She-crusader, with a ‘mission,’
Let her motto be unfurled:
‘Woman’s will must sway the senates —
Unsexed neuters boss the world.’

— Thomas Craig

Oh Craig, Craig, Craig. I am so on the side of Woman here. I’m for bold women, for women with strong hands and big feet, who can swear at injustice and flirt with the cuties, who can bring social festers to light, who can pass this and repeal that, who demand equality and have a real say in how the world is ordered. 

Like the anonymous Japanese anti-feminist Thomas Craig thinks a woman’s attractiveness has something to do with whether she has human rights. I doubt he would make the same argument about his own gender. But double standards are just fine with Craig. No problem with smoking, swearing, gambling and social festering for Craig! So long as it’s exclusively men who do it. And I guess seeing a man rocking a cradle would give the easily quailed poet a conniption. 

I’m always weirdly amused by the fetish such people have for gender roles. A woman in pants is bad all right, but “unsexed neuters,” whew, those are what will really wreck the universe. I mean, if you can’t tell a man from a woman, well, how will the world persist? Presumably, people who can’t tell men from women won’t be able to figure out how to have children, and the next generation will have sharper faculties. 

source: A Century of South African Poetry
edited by Michael Chapman
1981. AD. Donker / Jonathan Ball Publishers