Friday, July 29, 2005

A Trench For All Reasons

This is a classic slit trench, no more, no less. There's no obscure tale associated with it, and it has no practical value as a trysting location, archaeological dig, or repository of hidden truths.

On the other hand...

For folks who just wanted to drop in and say "Howdy!", to kick around some off-topic topic, or to leave general messages for grumble, you've come to the right place. Thanks for stopping by, stay and be welcome!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

News Flash: Shadows Lose in a Squeaker

I've already slowed to accommodate the relaxed pace of things, and have found that I still have buckets of discretionary time. Or, at at least, so goes the illusion. May as well switch tunes, tap a kidney, figure out what's for supper... And while I'm at it, maybe snap back to matters at hand! It turned out to be an accurate accessment; Even after tending to the short list, I came back into the parlor as Ilsa bore her tea, and another Stella for me, into the room. "Okay, Grumble, my understanding is that you want to perform some physical tests on me, in furtherance of some theories of yours about woman's sensory perceptions. These tests of yours don't involve any sexual intimacy, won't cause me any harm or pain, and don't involve any medical practices, right? And you're interested in what particular senses? You can tell me about them in a moment, but let me finish first. You wanted to know what my interests in this experiment are, how I got interested in the first place? All of this poured out, before she even got back into her seat. Impressive! She never spilled a drop.

"Okay, I came into this pretty much by accident. I got in the middle of a conversation between two of my girl friends at work, who were talking about how insensitive guys were, what a bunch of unfeeling, selfish swine they were. You can probably imagine parts of that conversation, but eventually, the topic changed, and we were talking about illusionists, magicians, and artists who were always playing games with your head. They were just looking for something fun to do, but I tucked it away for later, you know. I started wondering how much of the way that guys treated my friends and me was, y'know, like a learned response? I tried to look into it, but most of the stuff that I could find was either so terse and boring that I wouldn't be able to stay awake, or so elementary that it may as well have been printed on kids' cereal boxes. Worse yet, I couldn't find anything useful about men's and women's different ways of perceiving things. So, yeah, you could say that I was ready for something like your experiment."

She had abandoned her yoga position, and was now hunched over intently. I could see that just this bit of revelation had wound her spring somewhat tighter- a sense of commitment had replaced her initial insouciance. Odd. I expected her revelation to have the opposite effect, a sense of relief or liberation. The second Stella, untouched, sweated into the coaster- I had barely touched the first one. Shadows lengthened from the blinds behind me, an encroaching grillwork which threatened to trap Ilsa where she sat.

I see. So, that whole 'Nature vs. Nurture' rap pretty much rolled right off your back... "Like water off a duck, I'm afraid. Ditto for 'You Tarzan, Me Jane' and 'Farmer vs. Hunter-Gatherer'." So, what have you got left to work with? "Not very much. The hardware's different, but the programming is pretty much the same. I'm hoping that your experiments can get the telescope turned back around, the way it's supposed to be." Okay, but how did you even find out about the experiments? "You ought to know. I went to see a presentation by this fellow from Cambridge about a related topic, and saw your tear-off handbill on the wall when I went to the powder room... " I'll be damned! That Junior's got quite the set of cojones, all things considered. Sheer genius! "...and decided to call the number, just on a lark. It sounded like the kind of research I'd been looking for. You may get a few other calls, too." That would certainly be helpful. How do you feel about going forward, after I get my tests back in order? "I'm still interested, though you'll have to fill in the details about the tests, before I finally decide."

It's been nearly a decade, and he just pops into the picture, out of the blue. How did he know what I was up to? Ah, the notebooks...

Okay, you're right about the basic idea of the experiments. I will be performing a series of sensory tests covering the primary senses - sight, taste, smell, hearing and touch. The tests are in two categories. One set covers basic range of sensitivities, and the other consists of mixed sensory responses, meaning that I'll be combining stimulii and getting your reactions, as well as observing your responses. The tests themselves will be in a mixed, non-linear sequence, mainly to prevent any anticipatory effects from showing up in your responses. I was planning to conduct the tests here, over a period of an hour to two hours. It's too bad my notes were ruined, because I actually had the sequence laid out, covering around fifty separate tests. As you might imagine, around half of these were focussed on smell and touch, but only because I can't get or build the gear to do sound, sight, and taste in as much detail. I won't go into test descriptions now, because if you're still in, I don't want to influence your perceptions ahead of time. I'm pretty sure I can get useable data by only testing responses from the back part of your body, but it will require your entire back, head to toes, and fingertip to fingertip. Are you still interested? Did I answer your questions? That sounded easier than it will actually be, at least, until I can rebuild the test equipment and redo the sequence. Ilsa relaxed back into her chair, thrusting both hands into her hair. Favorable body language, or that's how I saw it. I took another sip, this from the dewy Stella #2. "How long did you say it would take, before you got your test apparatus repaired or replaced?" Probably a week to ten days, maybe a bit longer for the tests for proprioceptive responses. I could give you a heads-up a day or two in advance of the actual ready date. "Okay, I'm interested, but what if I change my mind before the tests? How do I get in touch with you, if you're not here?" I generally check my service, early each evening, so if you leave a message before 7pm, I'll get back with you shortly thereafter. Just leave a number where you can be reached that evening, okay? I'll need a telephone number now, to let her know when the tests are ready. Fishing out my card, I slid my notebook toward her. Do you have a number I can call, to let you know when the tests are ready? Could you write it down? My number's on the card there. She began writing, quickly but for a bit longer than mere reflexes would have dictated. What had I forgotten? I'll answer any questions you may think of, between now and the tests, but I'll only discuss the test results with you, face-to-face, if you're even interested - not by phone or any indirect methods, okay? Anything else I can answer for you now? The interview had gone longer than I expected, or maybe it was just the little "show and tell" interlude that had drawn things out. Outside, streetlights had begun blinking back the fading daylight, in favor of their own product. Better run for it, Ilsa, before the night bars gird you. She stood, eluding the second shift of shadows, and headed into the living room for her things, offering "I'll let you know, if anything comes to mind, and wait to hear from you about the test date. Thanks for taking the time to go over your experiments with me. Your methods are a bit unorthodox, but you may be onto something ", over her shoulder. I guess she had the sense that the interview was finished. Collecting the cups and cans from the table, by the time I returned from the kitchen, she was putting her coat on. The housekeeper would view this trivial step toward tidiness a transgression worthy of rebuke, but I wanted to get the notebook up to snuff before calling it a night. Ilsa was back to her initial street appearance, but she declined my offer to see her out. "Thanks, but I'll manage by myself. Please let me know when you're ready to proceed with your experiments, Grumble. This has been an interesting couple of hours."

Monday, July 25, 2005

Lightning Up,for a Moment

I did something unusual yesterday, in response to one of those little news factoid links. I actually read it, and followed up, rather than ignoring it, as usual. It turns out that they awarded the annual prize for writing parodies as William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway might have, but badly. The top three submissions in each category were there, as well as the prizewinners from each of the last 4 years.

I've looked for similar parodies of James Joyce, but this could be harder to find, as much of what he wrote was already in the form. Thomas Mann had a like unerring talent for knowing the precise moment to turn on the words he'd just written.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I love reading these things, even though I know that they're villainous. Neither of these authors ranks very high on my list of favorites, even though I admire their individual styles. The parodies themselves are eerie whispers of literature gone very, very wrong. For various reasons, each of these authors had unique, yet incomprehensible styles which practically beg for both abuse and admiration. The parodies are a challenge to see whether the reader will give in to outrage or amusement first, before convulsing. IMO, all of the entries, including runners-up, have contributed to abdominal soreness and helpless tears of indulgence.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Easing Into My Surroundings

Seconds or minutes passed. For such a brief interregnum, it would have seemed awkward, maybe excruciating, to someone looking on. Two people, facing one another across a small, round table, in the softly-lit parlor of an otherwise tranquil, small walk-up. The ceiling globe dispensed its light reluctantly, revealing a neat, warm setting, obviously a hundred years or more experienced. Obviously, the silence itself would have been the noteworthy thing; Some things get as much time as they need. It wasn't uncomfortable, at any rate, not to me. She was looking around the room now, casually and in no particular hurry, my seat being empty except for me. 'Well, this sure is an interesting place, at least, what I can see of it. Not a Soho loft, not a love shack, nor some Granny's tenement. Why here?' Maybe a little tour of the place is in order? "I'm so sorry! I was having a moment there." Look, the place isn't very spacious. Why don't you have a look around, yourself. Wherever you like: if you run into anything odd, just give a holler. I'll just put on some tunes and finish my coffee here. "Really? I'm sure that's got to be an awful intrusion..." She headed down the hallway. Light fled through a door ajar. As I've said before, the subject has a healthy sense of curiousity, or love of research. I'm not sure how long long she'll be back there, looking for whips, chains, video cameras, or whatever; I never found anything like that. No fancy women's clothes, no strange cards in my wallet, either. Anyway, since there's a lull in the conversation, let me talk a little about this place. I ran into an older guy, back when I was in charge of upkeep for the cemetary at a church I attended. He was there to visit, and by way of passing, I said, 'Life is full of uncertainties.' I guess it must have struck a chord. Anyway, I ran into him from time to time, and we became friends, over a few years' time. I wouldn't call him a drifter, but if anyone ever asked about him, the best I could have done would have been his 'last known whereabouts'. Our contacts have been infrequent, but he's left me with three big things:

1)Some clue about my own identity. The way he put it, we're basically Cichlids. I'm not so sure, but it's a clue, a starting place.

2)An abiding doubt of all reports, accounts, sightings and such. If you don't see it for yourself, you're risking your ass, believing what you hear. People just don't know when to put the paintbrush down, as I see things.

3)Custodial rights to this apartment, providing I leave things as they ought to be. I bought some new appliances, made some wiring changes to insure the place, but I know what he meant.The cleaning lady's on the same page, ancient though she may be. It's his place, whenever he comes back.

Anyway, that's why things haven't changed much around here. I sometimes stay here, when I'm in town, or just need some time out of the main stream, alone. The kitchen's small, but everything works, and the roaches leave it alone. The dining room seats two, maximum. The other rooms are big enough, but no more than that, and the decor's simple, unless you look closely. Comes to that, I wonder how my subject is doing. I heard about her from two other women that I know to some degree- her name's Lisa. I wonder if she'll respond to Ilsa?' Have you found anything interesting? "Wow! I lost track of time. What are all these old notebooks?" I'm not really sure, myself. His givings, a couple of volumes' worth. "No kidding? I thought it was some kind of traveling diary." 'Sorry, Ilsa, there still aren't any hidden bones here ...let's see how she's doing, back there. See, what did I say? She's got a real sense of what's worth looking into.' Her shoes and stockings were neatly set by the door, and she'd got a pair of Junior's argyle socks on. Notebooks spanning several years' worth of observations were arrayed between her outstretched heels.'There's the bedroom and the study, still awaiting biopsy. Seen enough yet, Ilsa? Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys staggered unevenly from some place in the study, distantly crooning about how it "ain't no town, it ain't no city".

That was actually one part of the upkeep that I found enjoyable, trying to track down compact disk recordings of the tunes that Junior had accumulated on wax or vinyl disks. I brought in the bookshelf system about 10 years ago, but it had no turntable, which was okay by me;I didn't want to disturb the albums at all. I even showed Junior how to work the controls, but I got the impression that he knew its strengths and weaknesses, and was listening out of politeness. It was just another piece of reality that had suddenly appeared in the picture. Come to think of it, I haven't seen him since then. I did drive him down to the port of Newark, to catch a freighter. He said something about trying to sort out some confusion in the South China Sea.

How's your tea? Want another cup? "Uh... Oh, no, I've still got some here, thanks. We ought to sit and talk about these experiments that you want to try, don't you think?" Sure, if you're ready. Did you find anything interesting,- my hand swept the arc described by her legs- in any of those notebooks? "It seems fantastic, ...", her feet retracted together beneath her buttocks, I tugged her offered hand upward" written down like that. Are those your journals?" A few of them are, but most of 'em were either old Heisenberg's, or else Junior's. I think you were looking at one of Junior's notebooks. I was headed back up the hallway to the kitchen Don't worry about them. The cleaning lady knows where things belong, and she'd be peeved if she didn't tend to 'em herself. Ilsa picked up her cup and stood uncertainly; her feet had fallen asleep.

I fished a Stella from the icebox, then sat, waiting for her heels to stop rolling, so we could talk. See? Some things just take time to get going. I could hear thumps as she wobbled up the hall, occasional bumping into the wall. How's it going there? I wouldn't worry about rousing old Heisenberg, unless you brought a shovel. And Junior's also a no-show, like as not. God, I know this place, this time, these circumstances. The motor roars with healthy appetite, waiting for the release, and a blurring disappearance down the chicane. But not this time, this being all to the honor of science, isn't it? A quick reaffirmation helped, as Ilsa dropped back into her chair, rubbing the numbness from her thighs. Good circulation is key when conversational clarity is wanted. "Well, Grumble, you've succeeded in gaining my curiousity, so let's get the obvious questions, yours and mine, out of the way now, okay? This all seems a little much, if all you wanted with me is a roll in the clover, so, what Do you want from me? 'Good! Direct is good. And you've probably at least gotten a glimmer that, while I may want to skin your panties off, it might not have much to do with sex, maybe now or ever.' Good observation, good question. You're right, if I were trying to get you into bed, I would have taken a different, more obvious approach. And I would not have brought you to this place at any time. I want to you to help me, as a test subject, to conduct experiments involving a woman's senses, or more precisely, reactions to stimulation of those senses, for my private edification. If I had sexual designs on you, then either I'd be soaking my kicked-in testicles in ice water, or we'd be in bed somewhere, thrashing around, by now. No offense intended, but you need to know that. Fair enough? Now, I have two questions for you. Second, what interests of yours have brought you here? And, first, beginning with your name, tell me what you believe the experiments will involve, what your parts will include. "Thanks for the explanation, Grumble, it might even be genuine. My name's Lisa, though for some reason, people call me Ilsa or Else. Mind if I fix some more tea while I think about the rest of my answers?" Sure, whenever you like, you know where to find everything in there.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Strings, Springs, and Feathers, p2

Sorry? I didn't catch your remark about something being underrated. I've put on the kettle, barring a prompt series of decisions about where we'd go to drink what, or for that matter, whether we'd drink anything anywhere. To Hell with it. I'll make some coffee for myself, and fix whatever she wants, when it strikes her fancy. Another close shave for Occam's Razor. "Oh! Yes, I was talking about that examination gown being underrated. It's really not uncomfortable, once you get used to the drafty back, and those hard-to-reach ties. I don't think these gowns will create much of a fashion movement, though." No argument there, though the decision is intentional. I hope that it doesn't offend your sense of modesty? The idea was to create something like the neutral but private environment you might experience, when visiting a doctor's office. But I'm no doctor, of course. If you have a little time, I was debating whether to sit down, maybe have some coffee or drinks, and talk about the experiments, background info, and our interests in this area of research. I honestly hadn't even thought much about discussion, except during the tests themselves. Wouldn't want to awaken old Heisenberg, would we? However, it might actually smooth out the process itself. I had thought of either going out to one or another of the local taverns or coffee joints, or staying here and taking pot luck on the beverages. I'm more interested in the substance than the location of our discussion, but do you have a preference? Here, away, 'No way!' or 'Some other day'? "Well, since you've already put the pot on, and it's quiet, why don't we just talk here? Mind if I hang my vest somewhere?" By all means. There are hangers in the closet, or try the pegs in the landing. 'Medium-length hair, around 5-7, maybe 55 to 60 kilos. Likes cotton and wool, natural fabrics. Interesting, she went with the Drakkar Noir, rather than something from the menu. Independent thinker? Luck of the draw? I felt like a mortician and a peeper, but it would help to know these things, whenever I got the equipment set back up. Grab the notebook and pencil, get situated, and... wait for the water to boil. She's probably looking at the stuff in the hallway.'The teapot's pregnant hissing saved me having to ask, actually saved me from reciting the kitchen options all over again. She homed in on the sound, and strolled into the kitchen, unbidden. "So, Mister Gr..., oops, Grumble, how do you take it?" Black, with a lump, thanks. If you need anything in there, check the fridge-it's all fair game. "Okay! Coffee's on the left, sugar's on the table, right?" Uh huh. 'Okay, I'm in reasonably safe surroundings. Any guy who keeps his Bible right between Arbiter's Satyricon and the Complete Works of Tacitus, is probably using one head too much, to the detriment of the other. I wonder if this whole crazy experiment he's been going on about, isn't just some far-out excuse for getting his clock wound?' "Do you mind if I put a little of this Metaxa in my tea?" Knock yourself out, but you might want to try a little shooter on the side; you know, a look before you leap? "Thanks, it looks fine..." '... but nah, he would have made his move while I was literally hanging out, in that exam gown. Wonder where this is heading?' I had already been scribbling in my sketchbook as the procession began, behind me. Shuffling feet, cabinets closing, the faint clicking of coffee cups, and the lights extinguishing. Note: either she's light on her feet, or she took her shoes off. A cup of coffee drifted down beside my open book. Strong, dark. Thanks, that smells great. Just let me finish this, okay? "Sure, take your time."I finished jotting down these recent observations and would, with any luck, also complete a set of diagrams of the test apparatus, by the end of the night. She pulled out a chair across the table from me, and took a tentative slurp of her potion. I looked up, and caught her gazing levelly at me, with a slightly querulous expression. Neither of us averted our eyes. Note:subject appears to have a sense of self-assurance. Pen down. "So, should I talk first, or answer your questions?"

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Strings, Springs, and Feathers, p1

Okay, I asked for it. First of all, let me say that I should have told you about my experimental apparatus being damaged, immediately. From the looks of things, that storm which passed through the area this afternoon blew over some things, blew other things onto other pieces of test gear, and rained all over most of my technical notes. I'm sorry for not coming down and saving you the trouble that you've gone to, in just preparing yourself. And, though I deeply appreciate your willingness to participate, it appears that we won't be able to move forward with any experiments this evening. It's going to take me a little while to rebuild what was lost, so it seems we've both wasted a bit of effort tonight.

"Oh... I'm sorry to hear that your equipment was destroyed, Mr. Grumpfelfisch! And there's nothing we can do, without the apparatus? I'm not Grumpfelfisch! Look...two lies, for the price of one, right on the side of the packet: Grumble fish. Is there anything left of your experiments that we could do, without your experimental gadgets?", she asked, in a hopeful, calm voice.

I was just asking myself those very questions. And it's Grumblefish, or Grumble, if you like. Let me think about it for a moment. In the meantime, I imagine your street clothes must seem appealing, and there's Paco or Antaeus, to make up for your lost Sandalwood. Want some coffee, tea, or a drink? Let's see, there's a couple of Stellas, some diet green tea, Stolyi, diet soda, and, uh... oh no, not that nasty-assed Metaxa! A couple of thimbles of that would surely dilute any notions of ethical science ... I think there's some Old Granddad around here. It might be better if we simply stopped at a local ouzerie or coffee joint, over my shoulder."I'm sorry", approaching, "I heard parts of what you said", again with the towel, "Did you ask whether I'd rather have coffee here, or out? Did you find something that can be salvaged of your experiments?" [sigh] Well, we could have a sort of 'question and answer' session, over some coffee. "Okay. Here's an initial observation for you", as I put the bottles back into the cabinet, "These examination gowns are under-rated".

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Off to a Rocky Start

It seems I might have been slightly premature in congratulating myself, for enlisting a willing test subject. Evidently, I may have nicked some sort of cosmic tripwire by even considering research along these lines, and provoked the ire of the Almighty. Either that, or I'd left the damned window open again, and Mother Nature had seen to the details. Whatever. My test apparatus was twisted and smashed into even more convoluted forms than the original plans had called for, and the plans were pretty well hosed, literally: The thunder showers from earlier in the day had definitely passed, and right through my workspace, judging by the sodden wads of notes and diagrams laying in the small puddles. Luckily, I'd shut everything down, before taking off earlier. As I sifted through the debris for useable artifacts and information, I glumly mulled over my priorities, my options.

I threw a few towels down to soak up the moisture, and flipped the controller over to let it drain into the heap of discarded notes and broken test devices, now in the trash can. This time, I closed the window before I left the room. The rain had given me an idea, as well as a headache.

I was greeted by a bittersweet sight as I descended the stairs; Not only had my test recruit not headed for the hills, but she'd actually piled her street clothes neatly, in favor of the examination gown I'd urged on her earlier. Gone were the makeup and perfume, and her hair was responding to a rough toweling. I quietly went over to the desk and retrieved a sketchbook and pen, and had a seat on the sofa while she finished up. Hmm... How to maintain proper scientific form, and keep her interested in following through with the experiments, once I rebuild them? "Listen, there's been a little problem..." Finished with the towel, she laced her fingers, sitting side-saddle. "Tell me..."

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Sensational Pix! FAX! Flix!

For some reason, people seem to get a little charge from the vicarious flights of their senses, rather than actually allowing any direct encroachments on their own feelings or sensibilities. I don't know whether folks actually trust the calibration of their various senses, but I do know that there's a booming market for synthetic prosthetics of every human flavor. Most of them are for specific sensations, which I can't begin cataloguing without blowing some sort of bloggage fuse. It probably isn't necessary anyway, since they spin off from the five basic senses - taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell - as specialized cases. Sounds too simple to be that simple, eh? Well I did leave out something, that is, time: more precisely, the effects of the passage of time. I mean to say that any of the basic senses are subject to the effects of time passing. That pretty much covers everything, doesn't it? The 5 basics, plus the way we sense things now, in the past, and in the future- that's the gamut, right? I've got to make sure I get the categories all neatly identified. Listen, this whole subject has been driving me around the bend, but I can't prove or disprove my theories on just a sample size of one, can I? That doesn't meet any statistical significance test that I know of. Would you mind helping out with a few little experiments, to add some legitimacy to the test results? If you're in no hurry, I figure it will take an hour or so to run through the experiments, which should be painless and non-invasive. There's no medicine involved, but I swiped a lab coat and an examination gown, when I had my appendix yanked a while back, so you don't need to worry about indecent exposure or the like, and you can think of the whole experience as very clinical. Look...alright, you're probably just smirking out of being a bit nervous, which is a reasonable reaction, so why don't you think it over for a moment. In the meantime, I'll go get the experiments set up, put on my lab coat, and bring the stuff for the experiments in here. I'm not a doctor, and I won't try anything medical at all. If you think there's anything fishy about my curiousity, or the test steps, either I'll explain them to your satisfaction, or else, you can stop the experiments at any time. Fair enough? I really appreciate your help in this research! Any questions?

"Well, it all sounds kind of unusual. What would I have to do? Am I in any danger?"

I know, it does sound a bit out of the ordinary, but no, you are in no danger. Remember, you can stop the experiments at any time. I want your senses to report to your body, your body to talk to you, and you to tell me what it's saying. I'll keep your name and picture private, so you won't turn up on some Bulgarian website or anything like that. Hold up your hands, I have to check something. Grasping the proffered limbs, I detected a hint of something, but I'm no encyclopedia on such matters; I decided that, in the interest of science, I should keep this preliminary examination as short as possible. Exhalation, followed by a single sweeping nasal perusal. I pulled her closer, revolving her while drinking in her scents, straight across one arm,her shoulder, flipping aside her hair, "Hey!", behind her ear, the other, "Hey! Slow down!", Hmm... Sandalwood, isn't it? With a tinge of apprehension? That's all got to go..., then down the other side.

Sorry for that rather abrupt gesture, but since you will be using your nose for parts of the experiments, I needed to know what kind of background scents you would be experiencing. Maybe we can try it both ways later, but I was worried that these could prejudice your responses during the tests themselves. If I had explained it ahead of time, that would have influenced your scents as well, but you took it well. I think it will work better if you take off your facial makeup and the scent on your neck and ears. There's some alcohol and salt water in the bathroom, so, it's alcohol to remove makeup, water to remove alcohol, salt water to get you back to neutral. I left the examination gown hanging in there, too. "What's wrong with the clothes I'm wearing now?" Nothing, they're very becoming on you, but they will also influence the results. During touch tests, they will also complicate things, as I'll need complete exposure of long stretches of your flesh, in order to gather your impressions. There are no hidden cameras, and I will not be entertaining any visitors, so your privacy will be preserved. I'll get skewed or unusable data, if you aren't perfectly at ease throughout the tests. Can I do anything else to alleviate your anxieties? I don't want to do anything that will discomfort or embarass you. It'll take me about half an hour to take care of the preparations, which I'll gladly show to you and explain, as we go through the steps. I've been doing the linens in hypoallergic detergent for months, so everything's probably going to smell like nothing. If you're okay with letting me push your buttons for a while, just scrub up, get changed and relax on the bed. There are some CD's over on the desk, if you like music.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Elegance Matters

Damn! Did I fall asleep in front of the TV ag... Yo! My head reflexively snapped back. A pale green spider, out on it's nightly rounds, had it's spinnarets going full tilt, as it lowered itself from the ceiling to the coffee table, or points south. I would imagine that the arachnid was equally surprised to find something moving in it's downline path (my head), or maybe it had planned to rappel down my torso, as part of it's journey. It's plans altered, the spider swung languorously in place, where my head had been, only seconds ago. I looked at it, as Rushmore's Washington might, given flesh for stone, gaze upon me. It wasn't a Recluse nor a Black Widow, obviously: tensions eased. The spider had evidently decided that I wasn't a predator, just some sort of large obstacle to be gotten around. I blew faintly against it's filament. The spider gracefully retreated halfway to the ceiling, as if to say, "After you, pal!" I stood up, turning the TV off as I left. Happy hunting!

Be it mosquito, flea, bed bug, or whatever, something's casting a meditative glance upon our various buttocks, with fork in hand. Spiders have already figured that part out, and will set up picnic spots of their own, from which they may cast meditative eyes of their own... on the little bloodsuckers. People will sometimes remark, when a subject expert performs a specific task that it is done "under the eye of the Master", but many life forms, including insects, spiders, moles, and various deep sea aquatic creatures have pretty poor visual acuity. Basically, their problem set has to be small enough to fit within a narrow, somewhat nebulous field of vision, and be scaled to a size proportional to their ability to deal with it, otherwise, of what use are eyes? Many creatures have compensatory sensitivities to things like vibration, heat (technically, mid-infrared emissions), or ultraviolet light. If a spider bit you on the neck, for instance, consider what your reaction might be to an invisible person, approaching you in the dark and pounding on an oil drum that you can't even see. Scaled down to spider-size, that's probably what your common carotid artery sounds like, at a resting heartbeat- and that's a sound that we rarely even notice. So, faced with such enormous perils, why don't these lower life forms just throw in the towel? At least two reasons come to mind. First of all, their inability to process much larger predators perceptually, combined with whatever natural defense mechanisms they may have, tends to reduce problems to two categories- ones they can deal with directly, and a set of transfinite threats which, if addressed at all, will end badly for them. Simple. Stay and eat, or move your feet. Fight or flight.

The second reason is pretty simple. They may not have gotten instructions to simply perish, even though dire circumstances might make that seem a foregone conclusion. Put another way, they won't automatically give up the ghost, just to satisfy the rules of the game. What they don't know will either kill them outright, or it won't matter at all, so what's the point of building in an elaborate self-defense strategy?

People get to wear both hats - prey and predator - many times in their lives. We've also got our list of potential prey and predators pretty well sorted out. In most cases, it's us versus us, or people versus people. Cannibalism isn't as trendy these days, so man's aggressive acts are rarely motivated directly by the same predatory instincts that other animals experience, but of course, we have compensations of our own to make up for any predatory shortcomings. Then there is the technology, which far outstrips anything available to species subservient to us, in the food chain. Sounds like we have nothing to fear, except fear itself, right? Well, not exactly.

The further down this road to omnipotence we go, the more opportunities we encounter to make serious judgemental errors, the greater the likelihood that when we need the clearest possible view of reality, hubris and ignorance will obscure our vision, and mute the warnings of our better angels. "The Tortoise and the Hare" may have had a happy ending, but is it directly portable to "The Wisdom and the Knowledge"? We have the knowledge to create more problems than we have the wisdom to solve. It doesn't mean the problems won't be solved over time, but the solutions may lack basic wisdom, and may be deeply flawed in other ways. It does us little good to develop huge pecs and six-pack abs, without the knowledge to balance our diets and prepare meals. Apart from their fleeting value as art, are there really that many real-world requirements for people who can bench press a Karmann Ghia? A scientist might have the intellect to create new strains of viruses or particle beam weapons, but when do we see the wisdom which justifies such inventions, and what "wisdom" would make such demonstrations necessary?

I'm not trying to be some sour-grapes, doomsaying Luddite, but is anyone thinking about this? It is in the nature of man to seek some commemoration of his existence, a monument in fact or deed. At 6 billion people and counting, accomodating even a fraction of these hedges against mortality is going to be tricky work. If we continue to be our own most credible enemies, then we need to learn more about taking in the situation, with our limited perceptions, and deciding when to back off, gracefully.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

What We'll Stand For

Those of you who may have read other posts can attest to my penchant for orotund excesses, but it's not just 'cause I like hearing myself grumble. I get a little thrill when I come across a word, or some obscure phrase that's perfect, regardless of it's syntactic neighborhood. I can give you directions for the fastest route to the airport, but if you're not specific in what you ask for, I may send you by the most scenic route, instead. I see most ideas in the same light. If you want stilted, precisely phrased verbiage, go get a Hemingway anthology; If you want stupefyingly convoluted, run-on sentences, then Joyce is your man. Luckily, I don't have any baggage to hump over the paths that famous authors have blazed. In this electronic, "Blow away, then go away" age, my anonymity's as safe as a nun in Boy's Town. On the other hand, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of most of the back roads around here, so if you've wondered about prime locations to pull over for a nap, or a picnic, or a walk in the woods, I might know a few places. Curious about swimming holes where you could swing from a tree naked, and cannonball into the cool water? Maybe the sunshine and fresh air have inspired you to find a secluded knoll, to enjoy an unscheduled noonerization? I might recall a spot or two. Be assured that there are faster, more direct ways to your destination than I would be willing to offer. Life is less about fare collections, and more about fair recollections.

It may sound as though my head's in the clouds when I describe things, but I listen with much greater attention than you might believe possible. People move their mouths, and sound comes out, but that's usually where the similarity ends, as far as communication goes. I have an ongoing fascination with messages, and how far they may appear from their conveyances, whether through speech, letters, body language, or smoke signals. Usually, it's a pleasant enough pastime, but as with anything else in life, there's always the exception, like a loud fart during a church service.

At first, I thought it must be some new performance art, but it was only a performance, old and not particularly artistic. Artful, maybe. After discreetly skirting the channel for years, I was finally watching the closing arguments for Bill Clinton's impeachment hearing, and listening to the comments made by other politicos, who were out for his hide. "Goot Gott! Are these idiots on mushrooms? Who's writing this separable view of reality for them?", then it struck me: These guys aren't dummies, but they know that 99.9% of Americans could care less about CSPAN, and the balance were so bound up with conspiracy theories that they hadn't been listening to much that was actually said. Perfect! Now's the time to clear up a few inexpiable items for the official record, drop a few smoke bombs, and head upwind. Never mind that the official record is painted in pastels, while reality is a greyscale study.

In the aftermath of any major battle, both the victor and the vanquished will (circumstances permitting) study the tactics of their opponent, as well as their own, to see what worked under battlefield conditions. This philosophy carries over to the government as well, where senators, congressmen, and of course, the executive branch will stir the dregs of previous campaigns to determine the popular appetite for second-hand oats. Again, that's not news. However, for decades, there was at least a fleeting attempt to connect words to their formal definitions, even if the truth got one into hot water. Somewhere over the last 20 years or so, this form of public banter fell obsolete from the field of battle, as politicians realized that they had several enormous advantages over other message bearers: 1) A popular sentiment that politicians are self-serving, self-aggrandizing, lowdown pole cats, as crooked as hen's teeth. Voter participation began to fall. 2) A low regard for iniquitous uses of political capital, especially in light of lobbyist access issues, had dropped the credibility of both politicians and the press media. In a perverse way, we as customers of both politics and press failed ourselves, in that we never punished either for pursuing a downward slide into the quagmire. Our expectations are about as low as I've ever seen them, regarding candidates and their qualifications for governance. Unfortunately, in a battle marked by irrelevancies, mud-slinging, and disinformation, one of the candidates still winds up in office, even if what they deserve is a public flogging. 3) At some point, some of the spinmeisters must have noticed that we voters not only couldn't decipher the messages, but that we weren't even paying attention to the wording any more. One can only imagine the joyous peeling of church bells upon that glorious revelation! Blessed are we who no longer have to follow any logic or causality in our prevarications, for the meek shall be in a new world of ordure.

This confluence of factors, plus our patchwork 19th century voting processes, bodes poorly for conducting a legitimate election, and the proposed paperless voting machines may introduce even more skepticism about results, but these issues must not dissuade voters from participation.

If there isn't enough social tension among US voters in the coming electoral season, I'm pretty sure that accommodations can be made to take everyone's minds off of the matters at hand, which will have very serious implications for us, and generations to come. This is not like rooting for Notre Dame or Southern Cal, though recent elections have had a lot of the same hollow, jingoistic trappings-political traditions may create more problems for party faithful than they solve, if we don't all consider possible outcomes carefully.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Heads, We Lose;Tails, We Fail to Win

"Defined by rumors and fallacies,
seems I been down, since I begin to poll
If it wasn't for troublesome dichotomies,
I wouldn't have got re-elected at all

You know, my policies really stink
I'll tax Peter's kids, to pay Paul
But if them voters ever stopped to think,
I wouldn't have got re-elected at all"

"Mysterious Powder Blues"
Lyrics by W.J. "Cathouse" Clinton and G.W. "Buy A Vowel" Bush
Traditional Arrangement by Chester Burnett
Bronx Lip Music accompaniment by arrangement with Grumbleton Fish

If there was a neutral sense of the word "fantastic", then I'm sure it would find application of our changing view of reality. I have no clear progression from the naive, "A=A" mentality, to where we are now, wherein A may equal A, except in certain states, where specific rules apply, consult the side of the two-dimensional package for details... (yawn!) Okay let's try it another way. How much of this bumpf can we ignore safely, and still not get hit by an asteroid or worse? (Note the subtle shift downward in our expectations)
It's no startling discovery that people will routinely make decisions, even when bits of data are missing or suspect. Too much data? No problem, just roll down the window and heave some of it into the culvert. Heads, I win;tails, you lose. Another camp might say, "No, no, all data is sacred, the more the merrier. The more we have, the greater will be the accuracy of our decision". Yet another, perhaps larger, group simply tries to make the best calls possible, with whatever data they can scrounge. The Achilles' Heel of the last two approaches is that the data has to be meaningful, for the decision to make sense. That could be a sticking point, if we showed any sign of caring about outcomes. The first approach is the simplest, by Occam's Razor, hence it's popularity in the halls of legislative power. Any of the three are completely interchangeable, so long as the outcome is ignored, which is the secret behind the tremendous popularity of our sitting elected officials among active voters. If you asked your representative whether free-ranging across the old system of checks and balances was fun, you'd probably hear an answer like,"It sure is! Hot-wiring the Constitution is more fun than paired, opposable thumbs", though the wording might vary slightly: "We will continue to hold that an individual's rights are inalienable... after we get done alienating a few of 'em!"
If this sounds like a disgruntled, liberal rant, it's supposed to: talk is cheap, and you can talk all you want, so long as none of the words are actually supported by deeds. This country is coming up on a mid-term election, which may usher in an era of auditless electronic balloting, directly on the heels of two hotly contested federal election cycles. Now might be a good time to set aside ideological swords and shields, in favor of some deeper, forward thinking. Voters supporting either the majority or the minority may feel as though there's some tactical advantage that goes with their opponent's view. Fine, that's the nature of politics, but look out a bit further than just immediate results, and consider the possibilities. Do you believe that governmental checks and balances are of any personal interest or use to you? Are you willing to answer to your children about your decisions now, in the future? Do you believe that either party is capable of sustained, thoughtful stewardship of our nation's rights and interests, without succumbing to corruption or erosion of your civil liberties? Do you truly believe that ANY candidate for public office actually supports relaxed criminal enforcement, or the free expansion of terrorism in this country? I'm asking folks to think about these issues now, before the rhetoric machines get cranked up.
I have my own set of core beliefs about the role of government, beginning with the notion that they serve all of the people, before any other abstraction. I do not propose to stand on party affiliations as a determinant of support for any candidate. Finally, whatever the outcome of the coming election, politics is a bed that won't stay made, meaning that over time, your own interests may gradually fade from politicians' view, but you may be signing away your ability to do much about it. That part of the checks and balances may be determined in this election. Think hard about this, because there will be long-term repercussions for all of us.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Equity of Sweat

As if on some divine cue, my summer house guests are settling in for a few weeks' stay. It's not as though there's a whole lot of room left, after accounting for the other trappings of my reverie- a dozen computers, plus the other stuff that I use to talk with them; a few hundred books; mountains of papers about one thing or another; my bed and dresser; and occasionally, my cat Colette. I can't tell if it's Custer's Last Stand, or the Last Custard Stand. But, like Jello, there's always room for suffocating heat and humidity, regardless of the available volume or density. It's only around 90 degrees right now, but by this time tomorrow, I should be pretty well slack-jawed. I can almost hear my southwestern buddies exclaim, "Ha! 90 degrees... try 125, day in and day out!", but it's a little different when sweat only evaporates to the surface of one's skin, before turning back into marinade. Wrap yourselves in Saran, then call me back and we'll talk.

Admittedly, it's not the ideal environment for clear, unblemished reasoning, but I'm too much a tightwad to make more than cursory improvements to my situation. Besides, the seasons now reside in me, after years of recidivist behaviour gone awry. Although this blog has (thus far), been a model of concise, linear composition, I wouldn't be too surprised if reality got short-sheeted, over the next few weeks- I'm kind of hoping that I can replicate the same delirious state that one achieves, after a few hours in a sweat lodge. Imagine what will come of that, maybe, but not the degree, order, or volume of outpourings. Your guess is at least good as mine.

Comes to that, it may be the more natural state of things that we should devolve to a kind of primitive, even reptilian state, from time to time. It certainly makes you pack a little bit differently for any journeys you might be taking, emotionally. There are probably good, practical reasons why both men and women spend so much time and energy, trying to whip the more primordial urges of their nature into something a bit more formal and predictable, something that will lend itself to polite conversation or acceptable behaviour. I think we just have to purge the air (mainly, the hot air) from of this Quixotic pursuit now and then, as much to keep our systems in balance, to rotate and expend our inventories of unresolved feelings and experiences (instead of simply storing them away for a day which may never arrive). Some of the artifices that we've concocted to tiptoe around our animalistic tendencies are really ludicrous anyway, even at a casual glance. In a few minutes, I could retrieve a proposed list of remedies which would, if I was fool enough to catenate them into a lifestyle, change me from a man of decided appetites, into a freak of nature, albeit one possessing laudable, manly characteristics (and a few less appealing side-effects).

Let's see...first stop, get a new Hummer or Cadillac, and spend a little time figuring out how to make it follow basic steering commands at speeds below 100mph. Take the new car down to CVS, and pick up a few essentials: a collapsible cane for the blind, some Kaopectate, and the usual stuff, like Vioxx and Cialis. I'm very sure that, if I take the Vioxx and Cialis, then take the Caddy downtown, I'll leave lasting impressions on any women I might run into. "Run into" is the operant expression here, since I still haven't figured out how to make the car do much, beyond cutting doughnuts at 60 mph while playing some Led Zeppelin soundtrack. But even if I have to take mass transit, it'll only be a minor inconvenience. The news gets better and better. Not long ago, I'd have been forced to make a choice, but now, I can shit AND go blind, while prospective dates debate just how "lucky" they've gotten, and mull over the joys of dealing with my four hour erection, and my powerful, new aura. It wouldn't surprise me if, in the ecstasy of the moment, any woman would be so swept away as to drop her basic dictum, "Your sense of urgency has nothing to do with my sense of urgency, Sport..."

Yes, indeedy, that sounds like quite the probable scenario. Either that, or more compassionately, "Sir? Let's get you some prompt, professional counselling".

Frankly, these lifestyle enhancements don't hold very much appeal for me, and I can't feature them as being a picnic for any other person to deal with, either. Obviously, the scenario above was a contrived one, but one which could be pasted together by a numbskull after watching only a minute of contiguous CNBC commercials- seriously. The ability to go reptilian would sidestep this series of improbable moves completely, but only if reptilian behaviour was accepted in both men and women. Notice that the prescriptive remedies above assume that any issues of physical attraction, power, passion, etc. are things that a person can unilaterally address, that one's problems would be expunged, and that through expungement, the person would magically overcome disinterest or aversion in others (who aren't part of the treatment). What have we done to our relationships that would make this rigamarole necessary or desirable? Have we been spending our lives, smoothing over and blotting out the part of ourselves that meets the primitive in others?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Overground

Compared to the labyrinthine tunnels of the London Underground, my little slit trench is a pretty trivial affair. Apart from its intended purpose - to fix some busted and leaky pipes - I was able to salvage some other useful stuff from the experience, but that was a luxury. The recent explosions in the Underground resonated in some odd ways, by my reckoning, but that just leads me to wonder: What, against the background noise of news stories, politicians, and other distractions, do people actually hear, when something like this happens? I'm not talking about opinions, whether whispered by a friend, or shouted into one's ear by some talking head. I'm asking about something a little more subtle, like the way one can feel the air change right before a thunderstorm, or the rumbling of a distant train that reveals itself to a receptive ear, placed on the rail though miles away. These are faint, but immutable signals, regardless of other noise in one's environment.

When it was running by the book, the Underground was definitely the way to get around London proper. Even for a novice like me, it took only a few rides to figure out the system. Information theorists might have a look at the route map, and casually brand it a degenerate tree structure, but it's really more about roots than branches or leaves. I wasn't giving much thought to the perils of excavation at the time, but some sections of the Tube are layered 6 or 7 layers deep, and all underground. People have this wonderful ability to temporarily push aside such details, and simply go about their commutes. The Tube stands out in my mind, though. In the process of getting from one subway line to the next, one frequently has to traverse combinations of ramps, stairways, escalators, and hallways. These bow to practicality as well as tradition, meaning that you may recognize a particular region of the Tube, from a scene in a movie which was shot seventy years ago. Nothing's broken them in the passing years, and even if so, they're wedged into the design. Londoners, like denizens of big cities everywhere, probably take little notice of these details, apart from their value as either a fleeting convenience or nuisance, in the moment. But I remember occasionally looking for the rabbit, consulting his pocket watch while darting down some narrow passageway. We're all growing a bit late for something, it seems.

I know that some other bloggers that I visit are city folks, and I love reading about the ways that simply moving around in such complicated environments affects their views of things. It's easy to dismiss me as either a bumpkin or hick from the sticks. I don't have a problem with either of these descriptions, but bear with me a little longer, before punting me into the ether, okay?

Events like the WTC bombing have both predictible and subtle repercussions, for both the perpetrators and victims. Like people everywhere, Americans have a daily job of trying to keep some semblance of equilibrium among our various mundane decisions. On the whole, it's better for the world if this process is allowed to run unattended and unaffected by external events, even if our motivations aren't always pristine. Apart from smashing a bit of our emotional and economic crockery, such bee stings force us to step outside our day-to-day problem set, and respond in a visceral way to circumstances which we lack the power to affect ourselves. Sad to say, reasoned analysis and measured response aren't huge factors, after the bees sting us. Instead, we look for any bee-smashing implement, and start swinging at whatever's flying. Never mind that the original bees had disemboweled themselves in delivering their stingers, and that all of the flailing is just stirring up extra bees, who avoid our intemperate swipes with insulting ease. In a quieter moment, we might realize that a beekeeper would have been able to take care of the bees without needing a bunch of meat tenderizer and tweezers. Rest assured, we are not going to get many such quiet moments for reflection. Instead, we get 24x7 news coverage of the growing bee menace, profiles of truly wicked bees, round-the-clock movies about heroic bee-swatters, video games in which dexterous teenagers take on entire hives of bees, etc. Armed with a heightened awareness of the lurking bee, we suppose that we're in any better position to take care of business, should bees threaten us in our homeland. Our bee-fighting forces stand at the ready, brandishing the latest anti-bee technology, such as baseball bats and pump-action shotguns. Some of these folks are bound to get stung themselves, but they knew that going in, didn't they?

Okay, I've managed to pound that metaphor into submission, and then some. The point is, we aren't requesting or getting reasoned, proportional responses to real or percieved crises, when we should be demanding them from our leaders. And, if any of us loses sight of that basic requirement, including our leaders themselves, we will be lucky to ever see our country as we once may have. Apologies to generations past and those unborn are likely to be met with a stony indifference.

There seems to be a relationship between the simplicity of a problem, and the weakness of signals that it emits while in it's throes. Here in America, we're constantly immersed in loud, contrary signals, many of them our own creations. The fact that we've grown accustomed to life in this deafening racket, doesn't obviate the need to listen for less prominent signals. If anything, it's on us to "amp up" the silence, so we won't be the last ones to figure out when or if we've run amuck. It's not a question of hearing, but one of listening.

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
[Quatrain #49, "The Rubaiyat" Omar Khayyam]

We have had the luxury of knowing that we've lain in one place too long, embraced as dear false promises, and held fast to some disproven philosophies. The price for such luxury is stupendous, likely more blood than we can promise of our own, and so we subscribe others to foot the bill, who may like it or not. "Eventually...," becomes "Now!", as our creditors demand to know the true value of all of our lives. Have we, at last, molded the world into our own likeness? To what end? And if we were neither dead nor lying down in the face of circumstances, then how was our time best spent?

Friday, July 08, 2005

A Low Pressure System, Moving Eastward

Summertime is the one tradition for which I have the hardest time composing turns. I wish I'd thought up the notion of turns myself, but Heinrich Boll beat me to it by a few decades. In "The Clown", Hans Schnier is a clown with issues, whose livelihood depends upon his ability to perform entertaining skits, or "turns", for his clientele. But life doesn't imitate art, instead, art and life take potshots at Hans, and things pretty much go to Hell from there. It's an interesting read, but this isn't a book review. I just wanted to explain turns.

Any lasting tradition has it's own recipe card, a set of circumstances, or maybe blessed events, which actually mean something to the celebrants. Nowhere are traditions more rigidly held than in the bosom of one's own family. Beyond the usual religious and historical holidays, a whole host of privately special days demand acknowledgement within a family. That's just the holidays, but there are also things like vacations, picnics, day trips and the like, burdens all awaiting the willing backs of well-meaning souls, with a little room in their guilt budgets. I'm no scrooge, but for the sake of conversation, let's say I have a greatly attenuated sensitivity to most of this fol-de-rol. For people that I love, like, respect or think about, I'm pretty direct in making my sensibilities known, when and where the moment catches me. If those moments happen to coincide with a calendar's markings, call it the luck of the draw. I don't celebrate things like Father's Day, but if one of my frequent conversations with him falls on that day, my traditional greeting is something more like, "Hey, Dad! How are you doing? What do you make of all the bullshit?" I just don't buy that honoring or celebrating his life has much to do with expensive cards, or Huge Savings on One-Day Absolutions at a nearby mall. I have friends, and I make a strong attempt to call or visit them around their birthdays- not because I'm cheap or experiencing a pang of guilt, but because it's the one day that people can appreciate a personal acknowledgement. Another gift-wrapped "My Friend Flicka" tie isn't going to materially improve their day, or their lives. The people in my life who are important to me may not always understand how I manifest things like love, or demonstrate the simple happiness that they're in my world, but I don't remember anyone asking me to rephrase my sentiments.

The notion of turns arises when I try to compensate my kids for this seemingly dour attitude about traditions. Both of them have, in quiet ways and loud, asked for some understanding of how traditions are carried forward, in effect, have implored me to add more punctuation in their lives. That seems a fair request, since we live in a world where traditions may have mutated, but are still held by many people. I know the rituals involved, know the sentimental values that were to be celebrated originally, and understand that traditions are either adopted or rejected at a personal level. They're ready to sort through traditions, and make their own statements. My turns are merely templates, though I try to make them as authentic as possible.

Summertime is a real bear for holiday turns. My daughter's birthday is in the summer, and she's still young enough to appreciate traditional birthday celebrations, but the rest of season holds only political holidays, which seem fully contrived to me. I understand the fun of a Fourth of July fireworks display, or a Labor Day barbeque, but the days themselves are effigies that increasingly seem divorced from what they're meant to commemorate.

A few years ago, the weather collaborated in my scheme to foist another holiday onto their heap of known traditions. We're not Catholic, but that didn't stop us from taking a day off in early October to celebrate St. Nobodius' Day. We spent a perfect day at an empty beach, flauting our fervor by bodysurfing (my first time at this: it was an unexpected pleasure, apart from getting my britches filled with sand), laughing, and watching squadrons of small birds in their wavetop, close-order aerobatics. The sun eventually went down, but not before I viewed the kids, clambering over the rock jetties, raising hell, shrieking, and releasing tiny crabs which were trapped between the rocks, beyond the grasp of hovering seagulls. Across the inlet, the clouds tumbled by, interrupting a negotiation between the moon and the lighthouse. It seemed that the conversation might go on forever anyway, as we shuffled across the cool, dark sand, watching the stars ricochet off the waves. As turns go, it was pretty nearly perfect. The kids slept as full, and the drive home was silent.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Relax...Go to it...

Even after boiling off all of the foibles, idiosyncracies, and misconceptions that I recognize as being parts of me, I found that there are a bunch of things left that I can turn my kids on to, and all without interfering with their own development. Practically speaking, that's the only way that our relationships to each other have worked as well as they have, so far.

"Why did I wander,
Here and there, and yonder,
wasting precious time,
with no reason nor rhyme?
Isn't it a pity?
Isn't it a crime?..."

In any rational sense, they couldn't have had an easy time as little kids, trying to sort out the parallel universes that they were moving between daily. In theory, we were already past the "candy store" and headed back into the age of reason, when the kids came. In practice, we were actually somewhere else, and headed to yet another place, without many recognizable guideposts. Most married couples would view this as a detour into dicey territory, and take pains to get their families back onto life's smooth, sunny highway as soon as possible. As toddlers, the kids accepted our life as their universe, warts and all, since there was always plenty of love, food, and enough cats to go around. A rip widened in the fabric, as they began to make friends with other kids who were coming from more conventional upbringings, and saw different modes of living from what they'd experienced. This digression has raised more eyebrows among the parents than among their friends, over the years. A Rosetta stone would have been a useful implement at times, but my son didn't get his until I returned from a trip to London, and by then, the moment had passed. Another portable lesson (Are you paying attention, Uncle Sam?): People are perfectly capable of working the details out among themselves. For the most part, your attentions aren't needed or wanted, so it's more important to learn reverse gear first, and how far to back off. I saw this policy work beautifully, twice, as my kids developed their circles of friends. I found that it was better to examine the rough spots (especially, before they cropped up), and to consider that the other person might have legitimate reasons for being upset. The kids took to this like mother's milk, but even better, they've actually adopted the idea that listening to the other person's beef can teach you useful things, even while you're opposing their thinking. It's helped them navigate through some ugly issues with their friends, without a lot of blood and feathers. I don't have a magic formula to help them reconcile our philosophies with the zero-sum world at large, but if they stay with it, they'll have a running start on some problems that are heading this way, farther down the road. We are all recidivists, by varying degrees. In going though life, some decisions lead to a desirable outcome, while others fall flat on their faces. Unfortunately, there's no "Rewind" button that would let us record over our last screwups. It all winds up floating around in your grey cells, win, lose, or draw. In the animal kingdom, your first mistake may very well be the last, but humans often survive life's little mishaps. The price we pay is that we have to outlive our mistakes, without repeating them, which is harder to do if we've survived the initial experience. Otherwise, there's the eternal possibility of repeating the mistake, out of sheer familiarity, and reinforcing it in our memories. About the best one can do is to make the initial experience as successful or fulfilling as possible, thus "priming the pump" with a template which could work. Recidivism doesn't give a damn, one way or the other. Good experience or bad, it doesn't matter: you'll be back on this road again at some point, scouring your brain for some historical precedent to help you through the current crisis. If you've been there before, then recidivism hops in, and serves you up the first thing it finds in your memory, regardless of how things turned out originally. Your best options are either no prior experience, or a lobotomy- you'd have a 50%-50% chance at a successful resolution, from scratch- or, you could have a model for success stored away for such occasions, which might degrade to a still-workable solution.

"...My journey's ended,
everything is splendid..."

'Isn't It A Pity?' by George and Ira Gershwin

Monday, July 04, 2005

A Painful Reminder of the Past

No additional enticements were required to get my head to the pillow, after yesterday's little jaunt. I was perfectly willing to lead the parade to oblivion, just let me go horizontal and shut down. Fatigue was actually my traveling companion (along with my son, of course) and each seemed hellbent on grabbing my full and undivided attention on the train ride homeward. Curiousity about the city had his mind going a mile a minute, and questions weren't much slower in coming. I heard the questions as a random stream of syllables; God only knows what sort of gibberish made up my replies. I had a vision of the soccer game, as it would have looked, had I viewed it from 100 feet above the parkway, with the playback set for delayed single frames. Roofer's Syndrome, I might call it. It was the same consciousness one experiences when their brain is baked, and it's impossible to distinguish one's ass from a wide spot in the road, producing in a facial expression that makes others immediately begin talking to you slowly, in a louder voice. The train wheels clicked and clacked, as I puzzled over what was missing from my recollections of the concert. I shook it off, and fielded more questions from my son. I promised myself to try and be a little more coherent while answering them. 'For the love of God, Veet, keep 'em to two syllables or less...I'm not all here.', a hopeless warning flickering feebly in my mind. This thrust and parry with consciousness continued until the train slowed at our stop. Getting up and walking out into the cool evening air proved both physically and mentally rejuvenating. The train clattered away to it's remaining two stops, and we drove off, with the windows down. We were home in a few minutes; a few plus two minutes later, my bleary noggin was on it's final approach to the pillow.

Early Sunday morning, a piercing muscle cramp in one of my calves cut right through the REM state, and sent me cartwheeling from the bed. Dazed, I eventually massaged the protesting knot of muscles down from the ledge. Sweet Mother, Jeezus! Oh well, so much for the salutory effects of a good night's sleep. No harm done, though, at least nothing beyond Saturday's little aches and pains. I flipped the CD player on, sat down, and began to pick through my recollections of the concert. We heard parts of three separate acts, and yet, I couldn't remember a bar of what any of them had played. That was the missing ingredient! All of the mental imagery, plus a small vignette of my own were there, but there was no soundtrack. It occured to me that, owing to the short play times of songs over the last decade or so, the fine art of jamming was an unknown idea to contemporary musicians. I fished around for some old-school jams, eventually settling on Cream's "Wheels of Fire", the live side. Listening to "Spoonful" confirmed it - the imaginary soccer footage suddenly synced up and made sense - the call and response jam which follows the opening lyrical verses had the perfect cadence and point-counterpoint to mesh with the visual in my head. I had a similar sense of a completed image as I listened to "Traintime", and heard in the train, rumbling homeward. In fact, it was probably unconscious tapping of my toes, during the ride home, that led to my predawn Charley Horse. I think that some techno artists do a pretty good job of capturing industrial syncopation, but not so well at straight improvisation. Can it be that the inner voice that leads, which (through synthesis) distinguishes the path from the rut, has somehow been muted? If the best I can say about current music is that "it's ubiquitous", could that explain why it had left no trace in my memory?

The power to improvise seems to be a missing ingredient in much of what passes for modern living. Maybe it's not actually missing, but only operating in anonymity, unacknowledged or ignored as we search the shelves for the familiar, family-sized, Brand X solution to our many problems. Yes, Brand X works as advertised, but there are trade-offs and prerequisites to meet. The biggest of these is the loss of life's flavors, and over time, imagination fades as well. We can hope that the critical lion is merely sleeping, and not truly dead. In the end, accepting the status quo or public fiat costs us something, if we don't take the time to assess the details. "Go along, to get along" may have sounded like an easy panacea, when your 'X' was needed on the ballot, but it won't matter much in the end. An admitted lack of comprehension or analysis won't exempt one from walking the plank with everyone else. The two extra pounds that we got as a bonus won't be of much use, if a box of BrandX won't wash the crust out of our societal fabric, or if we give up the right to do laundry.

Letting Go of the Handlebars

Trying to get train connections into the city was either a microdrama or a comedy of errors, if one even took the time to notice. My son and I had been kicking around the idea of just taking a day to wander around the neighborhoods, exploring and sifting through experiences that one rarely sees, out in the sticks. Good excuses for such a foray began to pile up as the weeks went by, which made it easier to decide on a day to go. I was very interested in visiting the "Eyes Wide Open" memorial presentation at the meetinghouse, and a very large free concert promised to either block or gridlock most of the streets to automotive traffic for the day, meaning that trains would be the order of the day. Better still, pedestrians not at the concert would have free reign over the low-pressure areas not in the immediate vicinity of the event. Sweet!

The mass transit folks had anticipated a tremendous upsurge in traffic, owing to the various events (mainly, the concert) all occuring over a holiday weekend, and had added extra cars and trains to the schedule. We would be boarding at either end of our line, so the odds were pretty good that we'd be sitting for both the inbound and outbound legs of the journey, regardless of the ridership. Passing time makes little details like that important, but my son was so pumped that he would have probably agreed to travel by pogo stick to get there, if it meant going.

I can give my view of the trip, but only an educated guess of how my son saw the same images. As advertised, there was an abnormal volume of passengers on the train, which eventually swelled to "standing room only" as we came into the city. I'd never seen it packed like that, and it made gestures like giving up one's seat to a standing passenger pretty meaningless. Most of the riders were young adults or teenagers, who were agog and excited by the day's possibilities. My son was engaged in a survey of reference points, flying outside the window. Some of them were places that I had either worked on or at, over the years. Much of the trip passed pleasantly discussing the geography along the route.

The terminal, a vast underground maze spanning several blocks in the heart of the city, was much like a venturi. The train pulled in and immediately decompressed into the terminal, which in turn, exhausted into the streets heading north and west, toward the concert venue. But we weren't heading there, at least not quite yet. Instead, we went east. I always suspected that his memory would be his strongest asset, and my son set a course to the meetinghouse, though he'd only been there once before: "See, Dad? I know where I'm going!" I was happy to follow, as we talked about the corner of Chinatown that we'd pass through. A few blocks more, and we were at the meetinghouse, which seemed pretty quiet. The "Eyes Wide Open" was across the street. The ceremony was simplicity itself, following the odd arrangement peculiar to Quakers: roughly 1,800 pairs of boots, whose owners were casualties of the war in Iraq, were arranged neatly within the bounds of irregular plots of grass. A woman read the names of the deceased in calm, measured voice, as a bell tolled for each person. There was a tent with refreshments, and another with pamphlets about Quaker positions on peace, aid, the war in Iraq, and conscientious objection. My son looked on respectfully, but mortality's still a rather nebulous concept, and he'd have to chew on the idea that respecting the deaths of a bunch of people that he didn't know, killed in a faraway place, is a small but meaningful step of recognizing our own motives and motivations. It takes time to grasp, but is crucial to being a person.

We resumed our journey, heading south by southeast, down through Society Hill and Queen's Village, toward the river. As he was unfamiliar with this area, I made a point of identifying landmarks as we passed them. Eventually, we crossed a bridge and found ourselves along the waterfront. The area would normally have been much busier, but the concert had evidently drawn off many of the usual denizens, so we were able to visit several ships and observe others. We took a southerly exit and headed west, as my son speculated about which navigation would return us to our starting place, some 12 blocks north and 10 blocks west away, including a stop for lunch.

After our refreshment, the path was entirely in my son's hands. Given no further clues about the direction to be taken, he led me back to the meetinghouse, and from there, toward the train terminal. It was slightly past mid-afternoon, an we debated whether it was worth walking over to check out the concert, which was actually an all-day series of performances. I was ambivalent about the music, but very curious about the way people were getting along in such large numbers. It would have been considerably easier to catch a train out, since many of the other passengers would still be in the streets, rather than crowding the train station. Carpe Diem eventually overruled wisdom, and we set off toward the other meetinghouse, which was the only information that my son needed, to pick up the trail to the concert venue. The police had cordoned off vehicular traffic, starting only a few blocks away, and the numbers of pedestrians began to increase as we headed up the parkway. We began to veer through the thickening crowd, like running backs charging the goal line. There were easily hundreds of thousands of people, possibly a half million, all milling around, but no signs of violence, only distraction. Street vendors lined the route, hawking water, beverages, food, tee shirts, and the usual things found at a concert, and large video monitors had been placed at intervals of a few blocks, as we drew nearer to the stage. Debris was everywhere, and the onrushing crowds heading in both directions created a kind of unavoidable, unintentional soccer scrimmage: water bottles and other trash were being kicked back and forth by involuntary players, flowing through the sluice innocently, bent on ingress or egress. It was hard to watch your step, in that you couldn't actually see your feet, in many places. We tilted onward against the flow of an opposing lamina of people and low-flying debris, drawn by curiousity more than of necessity. Unlike first generation festivals like Woodstock or Altamonte, it wasn't necessary to be within earshot of the stage, to figure out who was playing what- remotely distributed monitors and speakers have reduced it to matter of personal tastes. We eventually made it to a barricade roughly 100 yards from stage right, snapped a few pictures, then began searching for a way back out through the mob. Nothing to it- just put your head down like a charging rhino, and mambo your way back to clear space. Again, this turned out to be a rather civil, polite exercise, despite the frenzied darting, shimmying, and gyrations involved. I'd seen much smaller concerts devolve into much uglier situations. 45 minutes later, we'd gotten back to the end of the parkway, back to the rarifactions or smaller gaggles of people. An entrance to the terminal appeared in the sidewalk ahead, only about six blocks from our original port of entry. Only a few blocks from the second meetinghouse.

The mass transit folks got some things right, but evidently, crowd control and navigation of the underground labyrinth by the unfamiliar weren't high on the list. Large queues had formed at the entrances to the boarding tracks, which were one level below the concourses. Obviously, it made a difference which queue you found yourself in, otherwise, you'd spend an hour figuring out that you were waiting to get on the wrong train out. On second examination, they weren't queues, except by the loosest definition- they were linear groupings of people, with new members hopping in or out of line, all along the edge. It was a crapshoot, since the monitors spoke of mythical creatures who alone knew which queue was headed for which train, for which destination. None of the queues had any outward indication of its purpose, which meant that word of mouth rumors ruled the line. After about half an hour of standing still, I collared one of the doleful gnomes in red vests, and demanded to know where this line was going. "R5", as he scurried down another passage. Of course, R5 goes in two completely different directions, but it would be at least another half hour before that piece of the puzzle revealed itself, to the dismay of a group of girls who had surrepetitiously slipped into the queue. I suppose that they were heading to West Parts Unknown, whereas the train was headed for East Jibbip. Things looked worse than they were. The line rarely moved, but when it did, it was for yards at a shot, as packets of passengers were ejaculated into waiting trains. It was standing room only again, but we lucked into some seats. Good thing, too: my calves had grown into steers, with all the walking around. I'll remember the puzzled looks of people we left standing in the stations we passed through. Sorry folks, next stop is Calcutta.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

A Ditchdiggers Confession

Hooray! I'm done with the shovel for a while. The trench was excavated successfully, served its intended purpose, and got filled in. I still have questions, a few answers that I didn't have, going in, a sunburn...oh, and some grass seed to spread. I also came to appreciate the neatness required within the confines of trench, which happens to be portable wisdom. I found that it doesn't take much looking to identify clutter, whether mental, spiritual, sexual, or plain old debris. And ,if you can identify it, you can get rid of it, whether it's in a trench,or in your life. Thanks to Paul and MB for visits to the process. I still have that invisibility issue to deal with, but the way I see it, it'll only save me on laundry bills and such, and I ought to be able to "travel light", as I look in on friends, without creating an uproar. I'm not an artist, unless you count slit trenches (I don't), but I appreciate it when I see it, so I've got some visiting to do.