Archive for category Derek
Growing up, Christmas and its attendant effervescence were all-consuming. We had no colored lights, inside or out – maybe we couldn’t afford them, maybe they didn’t fit into some restrained tradition I was unaware of. (I was unaware of most things those days.) I missed those lights as we tooled around the Philly suburbs looking at the wonderful grotesqueries of illumination at so many houses.
But inside, throughout our downstairs, we set up waves of decoration, mostly thin ropes of dark red crepe paper with little silver foil-on-papier bells at the ends. These wound around stair banisters and hung in wild swoops across the walls.
Absent lights, the tree hung heavy with fragile colored glass ornaments – cheap and inelegant in retrospect, but overwhelming in quantity and so distinctly ours. Under the tree we set out the accumulated wealth of miniature metal animals and citizens my mother continually collected from England.
Vic, 12 years my elder brother, had been the holiday decorator for many years. When he left to join the merchant marine, I took over and, I must confess, set to outdo him. And did. The farm miniatures expanded to cover not only the long “library table” that held the tree, but later (as I foggily remember) onto the coffee table.
So that was my Christmas as a child – devoid of any obvious religion. I loved most of the standard carols (except “Silent Night,” never could stand that drippy creak of sound), but had no idea what they were really about. Sex was never – never – mentioned in our house. I had no concept of it, so I saw Mary as a “virgin” as something peculiar to the bible, an indefinite word that did not live outside its 2000-year-old pages. Likewise, a “manger” – some kind of box or whatnot kept in stables in those days.
After I was entrapped into Catholic school, I joined the church choir and loved singing the Gregorian Chant at Christmas midnight mass. But though we sang in Latin, I understood the barest smidgeon of it. To me, “Gloria in excelsis deo” proclaimed that a a “deo” was the kind of barn where Jesus was born, belonging to one Excelsi – a good and caring farmer.
When my elder daughters, Morgan and Erin, were wee kids, I constructed all sorts of elaborate Christmas presents – playhouses with interlocking roof and walls, reversible plywood seats (taken from patterns in the back of Woman’s Day magazine – a remarkably good source for such stuff in the ’70s), things I could make over weeks that Julie and I could never afford to buy. Along the way, we did buy tree lights – ones that blinked individually in no rhythm; I would lie for hours on the darkened living room floor, watching, close to ecstasy.
As that first marriage tumbled, my Christmas slowly moved to eldest brother Rod’s house in Rose Valley, PA, where he always strove (and succeeded) in cramming the largest possible tree into the ancient mill-hand living room. There, in my 30s, I first heard Schutz’s “Christmas Story,” broadcast in the wee hours on public radio, while I lay strung back on dexedrine tablets filched from his medicine cabinet (dex was a legal weight-loss pill back then).
Christmas dinner at Rod and Ginny’s has become the lasting family tradition since those days, a half century of quietly roisterous meals that now involve Linda and me, our kids, and their attendant interests. Rod is almost 12 years fled to the afterlife, their only child, Roddy, is almost 20 years dead, Ginny has lost much of her hearing, while the rest of us have scattered here and there and (in some cases) back again – the dinners swap personnel depending on availability.
Dinner is preceded by quiet chat and as much cheese as we can stuff down in two hours. It’s a happy gathering, cut short, of course, the last couple years by pandemic concerns. But with Rod and, especially, Roddy (the best mimic and jokester I’ve ever known) gone, the core, to me, is empty. I feel like a stuffed figure in the rocker I usually choose while wolfing the cheese, less a being than an emblem.
Tomorrow our tiny tree reverts to being the Norfolk Island pine on the bathroom windowsill, and I go back to hoping it doesn’t snow as godawful much as last year.
I’m not sure what I’m a part of, what I may have lost or gained in the years of transition (everything is continually in transition). But here I am, and much (most) of my life is better than it ever was. On the days when I can’t give three cheers, I give two hearty ones, without reservation.
Sooo…the best to all of you, whatever that best may be.
Anyone who knows much of anything about the history of mathematics knows the name Cantor. He was one of the math geniuses of all time. Being neither a math genius nor a math competent, I couldn’t tell you precisely what he accomplished, what he was most noted for, what difference he made in the intellectual world.
So I’m talking about a different Cantor, who taught me calculus, who… I barely know what to say. One of the 2 or 3 best teachers I’ve ever been exposed to, and one of the most sad, most riddled people I’ve known.
While looking into the background of my friend Dave Liberman (who died way, way too early), I stumbled over a site listing the prizewinners for best freshman math paper presented at UPenn. Not surprisingly, Dave (first in his class the year he graduated) had won in 1960. I also noticed that five years previously, that freshman prize had been shared by Robert Cantor.
In the summer of 1964, at Penn, a year after I’d snuck back from a disastrous term studying truly dumb shit in grad school communications at Stanford, I steamrollered through organic chem, elementary biochemistry and calculus.
That first summer semester, it was my enormous good fortune to have Cantor as grad-student instructor. Scrawny, obviously shy, he stood at the front of the room in rolled-up shirt sleeves, a 3×5 notebook cupped in his hand throughout each session. He wrote equations on the board, copying from the tiny booklet, then asked for student questions, which he answered in specific, evolving detail. If the student remained perplexed, Cantor would provide yet more detail. I never saw him leave a student without a complete, convincing answer to a question.
At the end of his thoroughgoing course, he gave a five-hour final exam – using the exam as yet another vehicle for instruction. The next day, he held an optional meeting to discuss the exam in detail – what it was doing, what it was intended to do – what it taught. At least 90% of the class showed up for the review.
The course was an illuminating educational experience, exactly what learning should be about.
The Penn math department at the time was known for using its grad students like chattel, cleaning up research for the mahoffs who refused to release them to finish their degrees. So, assuming Cantor got his undergrad degree in ’58, he’d been tunneling through the department for at least 6 years by the time I took his course.
Two years later, he left home with a note paper-clipped to his shirt pocket that read, “I am not who I am.” He walked into the Penn math department where he shot two of the profs and himself. He and one of the profs died.
Such things are all too common these days. They weren’t then.
Cantor was not a madman. He was a dedicated, caring, downtrodden human being. Once, while I was working at the Penn bookstore, he stopped in to buy a newspaper. I said Hello. It was like offering a piece of bread to a deer. He barely knew how to respond.
I should at least have asked him how things were going for him. I’m sure it would not have changed any future outcome, but I missed a chance to thoroughly acknowledge a human being I admired, and who probably never fully realized his own worth.
Screenplay: Tentative title : “The End”
Opens with the world in disintegration (in other words, the world of today): climate decimation, wildfires, floods, pan-academics, cows farting methane, Brazillians whacking down trees, the US run in dictatorship by Stump, England slavering over Clown Johnson, Bangladeshis three-feet under water, reindeer eating plastic, plastic eating reindeer.
Noble underground scientist outcasts (1/2 women, 1/3 minorities) battle heroically to stem the tide of destruction as eruptions of pus and putrescence foul them.
The chaos is quelled, the traumatized two-year-old snuggles to her mother’s soot-stained breast.
As the John Williams soundtrack swells and quivers, the reformed teenage badass son points to the sky: “What’s that?’
The heroic father: “Not… the asteroid?”
All: “Oh fuck!”
* * * *
A song for those who prefer 18th century chemistry
Phlo gently, sweet giston,
Flow out of this log.
For 2000 years
You lay dead in a bog.
But now I’ve set fire,
To both our delight.
Flow gently sweet gi-i-i-iston,
Burn into the night.
* * * *
There was an old man of Gdansk,
Who stumbled around in a dance.
He said with a quaver,
“I ask you this favor,
“Drop no fire ants down my pants.”
* * * *
Two men sat on a log. There was room for a third, but he had gone into town to purchase beer.
“This is a good, solid log,” said the first man.
“Ay-up,” said the second.
“Do you think there are many logs this good and solid?”
“Do you think, if we piled them all high enough, we could reach heaven?”
“What time is it?”
“How the fuck would I know?”
The third man returned with two sick-packs of an unknown IPA. None of them liked it.
* * * *
Socrates’ butt itched.
“What the matter?” asked Plato.
“My butt itches,” said Socrates.
“Ah,” said Plato.
* * * *
Thomas prodded the Lord’s side:
“Why 12 apostles?”
“What d’ya mean?”
“Why not 15?”
“That’s not an even number.”
“It’s not even a number?”
“No, you dickhead, it’s not divisible by two.”
“Most things aren’t, unless you have a great big sword.”
“Has anyone told you how dumb you are?”
“Manny? Manny who?”
It went on that way for awhile.
* * * *
An ancient man sat under a tree and wondered in what year he had been born. He was old enough that he had forgotten his childhood, then his middle age, then his later years, and now, yesterday. He leaned against the tree trunk and thought, but nothing significant transpired.
A squirrel chittered down the tree and sat on his belt buckle. It looked up at the old man and felt a deep, harrowing sadness. What does a squirrel need of sadness? It wasn’t a need, it was a calling.
The ancient man looked at the squirrel, wondering at first why it was there, then retrieving a memory. “I’ve met you before,” he said.
“No,” said the squirrel, “but possibly one of my ancestors.”
“I’ve never met my ancestors,” said the old man, “except my parents. I suppose they are ancestors, of a sort.”
The squirrel clawed his way up the man’s shirt. “No man, no woman, no human, has ever mated with a squirrel.”
The man laughed. “Can you say this with certainty?”
“I can say nothing with certainty.”
The man gave the squirrel a pistachio from his pocket and set out again on the trail.
“Tomorrow,” he said to the hemlock branches, “tomorrow I will have the answer.”
* * * *
How many piglets will fit in a wormhole?
“It depends,”said Stephen Hawking while being fed a croissant, “where the wormhole exits.”
* * * *
Leonardo da Vinci was cleaning the spaces between his toes with a small twig. On the hillside across from him fed a flock of… what? Sheep? His tired eyes could not focus. Goats?
He put down the twig and stood to investigate. A loud noise came from the direction he had just left. An animal? No, a machine of his own invention. The sound had not existed in all the world until he had made the machine in his mind and then transferred it to paper. “Well!” he said, with enthusiasm, but not pride. His inventions would never be, so it was said, merely extrapolations.
He trod across the road. He had neglected to return his sandals to his feet but was unconcerned.
“If there was a way,” he considered, “if there was a way…”
But of course there wasn’t.
There were neither sheep nor goats, but a tiny, withered man in a shambled riding coat. Leonardo considered the man, the coat, the hillside, the circumstance.
He went home to paint.
How weird to be 82 years old and suddenly (that’s stupid, nothing is “sudden” at 82) to realize you’ve found something that you should have known years back. More than years: from the beginning.
I don/t know what that thing is. Maybe it’s honesty. I’ve pretended to be honest most of my life, but that’s the biggest lie. What I thought was honesty was a sideways shift of pretend. So it may be something else, but it’s something open, inviting. From someone who has seldom been inviting.
So what does such crap mean? As usual, I don’t know. Been listening tonight to hours of Lucinda Williams (do you know her? she’s country, not what you might think of as country, in the sense of blanded-out emotion strung on a telephone wire; no, she does it, the real honesty).
I’m sitting here at the uncaring computer, typing, knowing in my scattered mind that what I tap out will never be the same as tapping at that Olympia typewriter in the ‘70s, when I typed and the machine answered with its clicks (computers don’t answer, they lie silent or snicker).
I seldom admit this,
especially now, but I want to do something monumental. I mean, something so enormous that it will never be forgotten. This is particularly unsubstantiatable because I believe that a) I’m too limited to do it, or b) it doesn’t matter, or c) there’s nothing monumental in the universe, or d) (most likely) that life is a lie that can’t be particulated into a breakdown that tells us what matters and what doesn’t.
Tomorrow morning I’ll likely (almost certainly) wake with mental pain – the certainty that if I don’t get up I’ll lie there and suffer paralyzing negativity without reason, but if I do get up it will be just another day that will flop along with nothing to distinguish it – or worse, that distinguishing means nothing.
Oh, that’s not as negative as it sounds (is it?), just that the world’s flowing like a malignant plasma down humanity’s last-possible mountainside. We’re not at the bottom, no – we’re our own chosen obliteration.
Too often I think that’s exactly what it should be. (Oh, I’m a bad person. Or one too realistic to be here.)
• Pumpkin spice: I’ve never had it, would never want it, but how did the idea of pumpkin flavoring in your coffee possibly come about? You carved your pumpkin into a jack-o’lantern, made pie from the filling – that was it! Anybody puts that crap in my Yukon Jack, they’re in mighty big trouble.
• Oatmeal in soap: Not Cream of Wheat or Lucky Charms or Raisin Bran soap. Does it just have to be breakfast? Bacon-and-egg soap, English-muffin soap, hash-brown soap.
• “Dead as a doornail”: OK, this one’s a cheat, because I do know it goes back to at least the 14th century in English poetry. And of course doornails are dead – a live one would be pretty scary (“Ma, the doornail bit my ass!”). But I maintain, without formal proof, that the expression arises from the fact that after a doornail is pounded through the pieces of wood you join together, the point of the nail is hammered flat – a process of “deadening” the nail. So, a doornail, in place, was and is dead(ened).
• Blind Lemon Jefferson: But no Blind Orange Pekoe?
• “Our number-one priority,” as claimed by corporations and politicians who have no sense of priority beyond power or profit.
• “Unacceptable” and “inappropriate,” as terms applied equally to poor counter service and genocide.
• Egg in beer: Really? Really? Who in hell?
• The revival of vinyl records: I grew up with and loved LPs, but the continuing annoyance of trying to keep dirt out of the grooves (couldn’t), adjusting the needle weight, and futzing with the player’s self-minded innards took more patience that I’ll ever have. Today, I can slip a CD into the slot and it plays, without the background grinding of a slow landslide. At my age, my hearing’s gone to hell, so I’m losing more frequencies then dimes under the bureau, and I may be wrong (I was once), but I think the “more natural” sound of vinyl is largely a delusion of nostalgia. I have intense nostalgia for singers I’ve heard and watched who have died, but not for creaky technology that’s been supplanted by something easier, cleaner and more dependable to use (though I do miss the elaborate liner notes). Likewise, I love looking at and fondling old plumbing, but to install a new line and expect the water to flow rather than leak, I go with plastic tubing and SharkBite fittings.
• “FRIB”: This is the acronym for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, at the University of Michigan, a new particle accelerator. I thought: “Wow, will they really say it “frib”? No, they pronounce it “eff-rib”. That’s damned disappointing, since most research scientists have a wild sense of humor. But… anyway, it should really be “ffrib” – which is likely a Welsh beetle.
• Signs for “Trucks Entering Highway”: I should be surprised? Isn’t that what trucks do?
• Mineral spirits: I was using some to dilute a spill of hydraulic fluid from my log splitter, and I wondered: With the growing idea that everything in the universe has consciousness, there must be room for spirit mediums who reach out to minerals.
* * * *
I don’t think I finished Kerouac’s On the Road or anything else of his, just I just don’t relate to him at all. Odd that with the poetry-reading group that the Friends of the Library here set up, I finally got into Ferlinghetti (about a month before he died at 101) and love much of his work, especially the humor. The rest of the Beat poets have affected me about as much as Kerouac.
Growing up in and into the ‘50s, my life was often hell, but a very different – personal, hardly societal – hell. I knew nothing of drugs or dissolution, only alienation – not from society, but all of life. There have been lots of self-revelatory books out (I’ve read none of them) about growing up with this or that perceived mental or social disturbance (skin color, sexual orientation, autism, depression, abuse, etc.), but I haven’t heard about anything that describes how I saw (didn’t at all see) myself as a child: as someone outside the world, someone who knew none of the rules of existence, who lived in terror of everything human. That’s, I suppose, an exaggeration or I wouldn’t be here today, but it’s something that after 8 decades I still can’t adequately express: the constant terror of being.
Some disordered thoughts about the rush to electric cars:
• Electric vehicles may produce “zero emissions” at the tailpipe, but that “green” electricity doesn’t arrive by magic. The emissions take place at the generation plant. While coal is fading as the fuel for generation (in the U.S., not in China and India), it’s been replaced mostly by natural gas – another fossil fuel.
• If instead we assume that all electricity can be generated by solar or wind energy, how do we sustainably produce the massive quantity of generation components, such as solar panels or wind turbine blades?
• Local solar power is unrealistic in places like ours in the northern Pennsylvania woods – we’ve looked into this.
• Similarly, what about the sourcing and production of the batteries, etc. necessary for electric cars?
• Current dependence on lithium-ion batteries requires quantities of lithium that may be beyond possible production if cars go all-electric.
• Lithium mining is already devastating the environments in countries such as Peru, Chile, China (and now Portugal!).
• Most lithium-ion batteries also require cobalt and manganese, which are in more limited supply than lithium.
• All these battery materials are difficult and expensive to recycle; recycling is not yet close to being sustainable.
• So basically, we need a new, more efficient battery design.
• Taken together, subsidies to support electric cars at this point could be as disastrous as the subsidies given to promote biofuels:
• Instead of sawgrass and weeds providing biofuels, as originally foreseen, corn has become the major biofuel source.
• Much if not most American corn now goes to feed cars rather than people or crop animals.
• The remaining native prairies in the U.S. are being devastated by expanded corn production.
• Activists at COP26 have called to move away from cars, and instead make cities and towns more amenable to walking, cycling and public transport. This is an encouraging approach but unlikely to take hold worldwide in the near future.
* * * *
We cannot approach the climate crisis realistically as long as we maintain a population of 8 billion humans. We’re animals – particularly dirty ones. Even if we eliminate meat from our diet, thus reducing methane and other feed-animal pollutants, we can’t sustainably feed our population without turning almost all arable land to food production, which is already destroying diversity and eliminating natural open land. Soo… we need to reduce our population – rapidly. How?
I can think of numerous ways, none pleasant or ethical.
* * * *
I don’t share complaints I’ve read about billionaires shooting themselves into space—as long as they stay there.
I don’t know if college English classes still bring up this distinction when teaching 18th-century lit, but I remember how Jonathan Swift was presented as someone who loved individuals but hated humanity, with Alexander Pope seen as the opposite, a difficult if not impossible friend, who firmly believed in humanity’s worth and the cosmic outlook (“Whatever is, is right”).
As much as any of us is one or the other, I think I’m definitely in the Swiftian realm. Not that I like everybody indiscriminately (hell no!), but that, while delighted with my friends and fond of most acquaintances, I see humanity as pretty much a slopheap. Pete Seeger, on the other hand, from what little I know of him personally, seemed the opposite, his songs rife with uplift and hope but possessing an ability to piss off the people who dealt with him (though how he or anyone could end up a committed Stalinist is incomprehensible).
What does this prove? Not a damned thing, except maybe that we’re all just who we are, little of it makes objective sense, and individual human complexity can’t be sorted out through generalized claims.
* * * *
I have this almost unholy admiration for Greta Thunberg and the other young protestors today – especially the women. Most of them started fighting the idiocy of the world in their early to mid teens. Back in my (thankfully unnamed) generation (early ‘60s), it was college students, mostly male, who ignited or supported the national anti-war and integrationist movements. I’m hoping that the current youth group has more tenacity and better shelf-life than ours.
So many ’60s stars came a-cropper (Abbie Hoffman by suicide, Jerry Rubin by becoming yet another millionaire, Rap Brown from SNCC ending up a bank robber, the Weather Underground turning to pointless, fatal sabotage). That old mob failed beyond the immediate effect of halting the Vietnam war and aiding the limping start of integration. Zero Population Growth – needed now more that ever – vanished almost without a trace as the earth’s population swelled to beyond 8 billion of us destructive little buggers; and once Vietnam was down the tubes, marching for demilitarization and societal change (along with the support for unions) disappeared for most of the succeeding half century.
I never marched for anything (I seldom even hike), so I have no right to complain, and I don’t for the most part. I’d rather celebrate what seems a genuine resurgence of caring. That it had to come as the expense of endless Black deaths, social brutality and mindless environmental destruction only underlines my sense of hopelessness for humanity as a viable conglomerate.
But maybe we can at least have (somewhere, should there remain a world left to incorporate them), small enclaves of decency, acceptance and cooperation. These “kids” on the front lines, holding their elders’ feet to the fire, embody that hope, realistic or not.
* * * *
Why does Thump still retain a “base” of supporters, despite being a vile and vicious human being? Because they accept him as their model – he cheats, he lies, he denigrates those who oppose him and degrades those who grovel to him – exactly what these supporters would do if they were in his place, and they know it. “Base” is the right word – not for those who admire his few (but never implemented) “policies” – but for those who embrace his evil as the proper basis of existence. Though philosophy has never successfully defined “the good,” for most of us there are some pretty widely accepted designations of evil. We’ve lived through and with a lot of them in recent years.
Though Crumpet is often compared it Hitler, he’s really much closer to Goebbels (with less than half Goebbels’ mind). Goebbels invented the idea of continual promotion of the Big Lie through use of modern media – that if you lie often and consistently across all channels, the lie will be accepted as the truth. This approach became (and remains) the basis of nearly all modern advertising and politics, but Chump has returned it to its purest foundations: never retreat, never admit a mistake, ignore all inconvenient facts and champion the worst outcome.
* * * *
Bumper sticker suggestion:
* * * *
Europe stole this country from it’s native population.
Then our government stole Florida from Spain and Texas from Mexico.
For god’s sake, give them back!
[Various noises accumulating in what passes for my mind]
Reading an article about how best to save the older digital “versions” of whatever you’ve been working on, it suddenly came to me that the digital world has, in a sense, reinvented (or resurrected) something close to oral tradition.
Literature, after all, arose from oral tales that expanded and switched emphasis depending on the teller and the audience. It’s unlikely that Homer ever sang the Iliad in exactly the same form every Saturday evening, or that those who inherited the task for repeating his work didn’t slip in their own new tales, excise old ones, or forget a few dozen lines after their second bottle of retsina.
Once the oral tales were written down, they became, to one extent or another, frozen in place and time. Copyist errors crept in, of course, but usually minor (“What the hell’s an ‘amphora’? I’ll try ‘camphor holder.’ Damned Greeks.”) The printing press, though it too introduced typesetting errors, further solidified the tales. An author might release a few different editions during her or his lifetime, but at death, there lay the final Definitive Version, “what the author wanted.”
Digital publishing, by contrast, allows the author (or others, if sneaky) to change a story on the fly, if and when they choose. Versions can abound, be edited, emended, tossed about, caught, dropped, “corrected,” rejected with each iteration. It works too (moreso, actually) with music, something Bob Dylan exemplifies, reimagining his material each time he appears on stage (which can also be recorded on the spot). There is no Definitive Version of “Tangled up in Blue.”
* * *
Linda and I read the daily comic strips online, as we did every morning the paper. It felt weird at first, not thumbing through the floppy sheets of a print to get to the back pages. But now, by subscribing directly from the comics distributors, we get exactly the strips we want, without having to evert our eyes to skip over such egregious crap as “Tank McNamara.” Too many of our favorites are repeats of older strips whose authors have retired (“Calvin and Hobbes”) or died (“Cul de Sac”), but many of the continuing ones (“Overboard”) or more recent additions (“Brewster Rockit”) are equally excellent.
What has changed in the last year or so, since the slavering idiocy of the Frump years (I will not type that man’s name) and the age of climate collapse, has been a subtle creep of social and political commentary into strips that previously dealt only with pratfalls and universal human foibles. Covid, initially ignored by almost all the “funnies,” has quietly slipped into strips that once were constrained to the haw-haw minutia of home life.
Is this a good thing – a righteous admission of the spreading mire of current reality – or another indication that even the simplest joys in life are no longer quietly comfortable?
* * *
The constant upheavals about the side effects of specific drugs serves to erect important signposts, but what I don’t see noted is that the entire history of rampant pill-taking goes back no further 60-70 years. There have been herbal remedies since the dawn of time, and concocted elixirs for the last few centuries, but the assumption that we should all wake each morning to downing multiple concoctions of oddly shaped capsules and pastel chemical blobs is a true change in direction. So, even if we manage to comprehend the side effects of each and every drug on the market, we still won’t know the overall side effect of the embedded legal, medically supported, pill-popping regime.
Universal chemical-ingestion is as revolutionary a development as the social media, yet it has been accepted as right and inevitable without serious examination. Is it necessary to saving and extending life – and should saving and extending life be our major concern?
* * *
The failure, so far, of SETI to detect evidence of alien intelligence has left us scratching our collective heads: Why haven’t we heard from anybody else in the universe?
Here are a few possible reasons I can think of:
⁃ The intelligent others aren’t using the “broadcast” channels or mechanisms we in our limited wisdom expect them to. (Maybe instead they’re, say, blowing up used planets in a Morse-code-like sequence?)
⁃ We’re tuning in too early or too late for the time frame when these others are choose to broadcast. To me it seems unlikely that any one alien group would keep their broadcast up for centuries or millennia – and we’ve been listening for less than 60 years.
⁃ Different forms of life may think entirely differently from us – or not “think” in any way we can imagine.
⁃ We’re assuming that any intelligent lifeform will want to make contact with any other such – but what if they don’t? Maybe most are happy by their lonesome.
⁃ Something or someone interferes with or intercepts their broadcasts – a more advanced is civilization putting the clamps on all us cosmic upstarts.
⁃ And finally, the eternal religious explanation: God limited all of intelligent creation to the third planet of a second-rate sun on the edge of an undistinguished galaxy. Where we have now quite possibly fucked up our only chance of continuation.
* * *
What if life is an error?
I don’t mean my life or your life or even human life. What if the existence of self-developing, self-replicating beings is a monumentally ill side-effect of evolution?
Humans are mammals, mammals are animals, animals are a sub-set of living entities, and when you look at what life – all life – is up to, it ain’t pretty. Intelligent design? There’s neither intelligence nor design to any end beyond reproduction. We exist only to create others to keep existence going.
Would the universe likely be better off then it was just stars and inanimate rock? Hard to say… even stars and galaxies grow old and eat their young.
* * *
I woke the other morning (as too often) with a sense of panic, so I spent time thinking about the possible coming end of civilization. Then the panic just flipped over—if humanity’s going to crap out, what the hell do I have to worry about? My duties, my failures? Ha!
The absurdity of existence can be kind of cuddly.
Christ willed himself free of the cross and spread havoc among the frightened soldiers guarding its base. He hurled a centurion against the foot of the cross, trumpeted imprecations at the jeering throng come to extol his suffering, dug clods of earth with his hands and heaved them at the backs of the now fleeing figures. Behind him, the battered centurion raised his spear to hurl at him. Christ raised his hand to smite, then turned it softly and instead spread forgetfulness across the legionnaire’s mind.
Where were his disciples? They had cringed and hidden away. He looked at the holes in his hands and feet and bid them heal. They healed but stung, a prickling reminder. He wore only a loincloth, stained with blood from the wound in his side. He bid the wound heal. The wound healed, the blood fled his loincloth. The few remainders of the crowd separated like Moses’ sea as he walked forward, head down, toward the streets of Jerusalem. Stragglers followed. Most stayed behind to watch the bracketed thieves curse existence and breathe their last.
Dust welled over him from the hot wind. Those following dissipated one by one or family by family to their homes, shaking their heads at the viewed unlikelihood. Others who passed in the street stared in confusion at his bloodstained body and his loincloth. He saw that he should wear a burnous such as theirs to cover their concerns. He willed one into existence and as quickly obliterated it. No! He must live like them now, become them to see why they might be worth saving. “I can save no one if I’m dead,” he called to his father. His father answered nothing.
He passed a stall where fruit well past its prime warred in odor with ointments claiming to heal all manner of illness. “Just stink it to oblivion,” Christ muttered. He stopped at a table heaped with clothing. “I want a garment.” The merchant, short, stocky, showed little immediate interest in making a sale. He spread his hands, ”I have many garments, what form would you prefer?” “A standard covering, what anyone of no concern would wear.” The merchant pointed to a a grayed bedraggle of cloth. “This.”
“I’ll take it.” “Fifteen shekels.” Christ willed the coins into his hand and held them out. The merchant refused the offer. “What is the problem?” “You did not haggle, and now you perform magic for payment. Your coins will disappear once you leave.” “They are real coins, solid metal, take them and give me the cloth.” The merchant registered the fury in Christ’s eyes and exchanged the garment for the coins, which lay heavy and familiar in his hand. As Christ turned away, he tested one with his teeth.
Along a side street where no one walked, the undoored openings of the houses registered despair. “They don’t know how to live, to build.” He felt a mental tug… his father wielding a bolt of remonstration? Christ waves his hand at the sky. ”You’re up there, I’m down here. You sent me. Don’t berate me.”
A low wail floated from one of the house openings. It registered not as a response to death, but to some lesser evil. He stopped at the low, rounded doorway. “What help do you need?” “Go away.” “Gladly.” But he stayed. “You block the sunlight.” “Is that all you were calling for, more sunlight?” “I want to sweep the thoughts from my head.” “You need a brain broom.” “That is a good way to say it.” Well, thought Christ, I’m working some good.
He stepped tentatively inside, bending his head to enter. The sun reached, barely, to where the woman sat crosslegged on the dirt floor. She was not pretty, likely had never been pretty, certainly now was not pretty. The years had used her, as they did all the poor and wretched of the earth. There was no one for him to save here, because she had not strayed, she had been strayed upon. “I don’t sell brooms.” “Do you sell new thoughts to replace old?” “I sell nothing. I have been sent to… give something away, but lately I can no longer recognize what it is I can give.” “Nothing is easy, whatever the task.” “That’s simplistic. Generalizations do not recognize individual circumstance.” “Why do you come into my home to argue?” “We call it debate.”
Christ sat on the floor, not near the woman, and vigorously scratched his head. “This city gives me welts.” “They crucified three more today.” “I was there.” “Why do they choose such a slow and painful way to kill? They could just split his head with an ax and have it over. All forms of death share the same end.” “It’s supposed to set an example for evildoers – ‘this could happen to you, pisshead.’ It doesn’t work. Evildoers do not think that way.” “You know this?” “I do.”
The woman stood and moved to a small, low table pushed against the rear wall. “We know this as well. Do you have any new thoughts?” Christ remained hunkered in the dust, resisting the urge to create a seat. “You have lived here all your life?” “So far.” “Humor.” Perhaps she smiled, now, in the shadow. “The gift of the gods.” Christ barked a raucous laugh. “That is most definitely funny.” “I don’t know why you came in here.” “Nor do I, but I’m almost… enjoying myself.” “Please give me an original thought – any thought not evil. Just one.”
Christ put his mind to the task but felt drained of ability. He could will anything of substance into existence, but the coruscations of his brain produced nothing. “You can make new thoughts of your own. If nothing else, take an old thought and turn it over, see what lies underneath.” “Well, that is a new thought!” “A circular one. In a sense.” “You demean yourself.” “I’m trying to be one with humanity, but I can’t even comprehend where I came from.”
“Would you like something to drink?” “I would like to… understand my own existence. I am eternal, eternally begotten, which means that I was always. Therefore, I was there before I was? That rattles the mind. I was there before time. We, the three persons, invented time. But how could time ‘begin’? If there was no time before the start, there was nothing to begin from. You see? How and from what did my father generate the idea of creation? If there was no time before creation, there could be no action to take, only stasis, no thought, no idea, no way of planning – of ‘beginning.’ There was nothing or there was everything, but immobile. I have no memory of a beginning, of a ‘before,’ because without time, how can there be memory? Memory is action through time. I started to have memory when I came to earth, when I became human within time. Did my father or he and I and the Holy Spirit create the universe? If so, what was, before the universe and time? It was all god? Well.”
The woman looked neither fearful nor confused, only piqued. ”Are you completely certain you are in your right mind?” “I cannot say what my right or wrong mind would be, since I cannot, could not, remember. I have been sent here to save… to save whom? Some or all of mankind? I didn’t plan to be here, yet god planned it and I’m a person of god. A segment.” “There is no one, true god? There are many? That is blasphemy, we are told.” “The three are one together – god in three persons. Each of us is an… aspect? of god. The Holy Spirit shows little activity, most times, but he must have been planning with my father and me, even when it was impossible for us to plan, before time.”
“I don’t understand.” “Exactly.” The woman smiled. “These are surely new thoughts, if silly ones. They sweep some of the sad thoughts from my head. But not all.” “And most will come back. They’re insidious.” “Why is that?” “Something we did when we created you, all of you, or allowed you to create within yourselves from the muck we laid down.” “You believe yourself god. Part of god?” “All of god through part. I know that much, beyond belief, but it leaves me with nothing that I can impart.” “You are god.” “Yes.” “You are a man?” “Yes.” “You are hungry, you get urges, you suffer hurts?” “I suffer hurts such as you cannot imagine.” “How can god suffer hurts, even as a man?” “We should talk of something more comprehensible.”
The woman brought Christ a cup of a cool beverage, slightly sweet, with an herbal tang. It tasted good and it relieved the thirst he had forgotten, the drying out and draining of fluids from his hours on the cross. Was he fully man if he could ignore his ravenous thirst? “Thank you, this is refreshing.” “It is my mother’s recipe.” “Does you mother live here with you?” “Mother is dead. No one lives with me.” “Would you want someone to live with you?” “God should know this.” “The man does not.” “Consider it from what you see. I don’t need a man.”
Christ rose, preparing to leave. The woman turned her back to him. Christ stood still. “I was not offering myself. I was asking a question to bring clarity to myself. The answer might help me realize some of what I don’t understand.” “They say you know much, more than any other man.” “So you know who I am?” “I have seen you on the streets a-time and know who you are said to be. Why are you here in this room, not dying on that cross they promised?” “Because I do not yet know what I would need to know to take success back to my father.” “He sent you to find out?” “I don’t fully know why he sent me, or what it means for me to have sent myself in consort with him. I was prepared to die, to play my father’s game, but it is equally my game, since we are equal and in sense the same. I grew angry – mad as hell, some would say it. I had not been taken into my own confidence in this decision. Is that possible? If so, is it a correct thing to ask of me, my death, when I am so intimately concerned? Thus I withdrew from the cross, which I could by will, just as I could have made these clothes, as I could destroy this house you live in, with the lift of a finger.” Christ looked embarrassed. “I would not do such.”
“You should leave.” “Yes. Would you accompany me for a bit? I have had only three days in which to see Jerusalem, and I barely know its ways.” “It’s your burden, not mine, this business of saving people that you know so little about.” She gestured at the sparseness surrounding her. “What do I have that I should be saved from? I’m alone by choice, I bide my time. And you tell me you come from before time. Can you save me from time? Can you harvest time for others to use in better ways?” “I told you, I don’t know who or why I’ve been sent to save – or have sent myself to save. If we searched together, you and I, I might learn somewhat.” “It seems unlikely.” “Is it more unlikely than my being here?” “That would depend on whether I believe you.”
Christ did not ask the obvious question, instead, “Who are your neighbors?” “There is an old cripple next door. I feed him supper.” “And breakfast?” “No, he wants to do that for himself, but sometimes I put leftover food by his door. Too often the dogs eat it.” “Why not knock and tell him you have left it?” “It would disturb him.” “So he is undisturbed and the food goes to feed the dogs.” “Only sometimes.” “I do not understand food.” “How is that?” “Why is it necessary, why would my father with my help or equally decided, have created the need for nourishment? Why should people not simply endure?” “Why should we be born in the first place?” “That too.” The woman began to laugh and shake her head. “God is a ninny.”
“Come with me, show me the town, the parts that I would not notice.” “To what purpose? How could that do you good, and how could doing you good do me good? You have galloping arrogance beneath your assumed simplicity.” Christ showed anger for the first time. “I do not pretend to simplicity. God is complex. I, as god and man both, am still more complex.” The woman twirled, flaring the hem of her single garment. Its passage lifted dust from the floor. “You are simply arrogant. You escaped pain and torture, you say, shucked it aside by the mere waving of your godly hand, yet you feel badly used. You see no shame in that?”
Christ retreated to the doorway and beckoned. “Show me the city.” “Do you know how I exist with no man to care for me?” “Tell me.” “I weave magic baskets.” She reached into a recess and retrieved an unadorned basket of flat woven strands. She pointed to its open surface. ”Make a wish.” “I have no need to make wishes. I will my desire and it becomes.” “Then wish for something for someone else who’s wish you do not read.” “I could read it. God can read all.” The woman threw the basket on the floor. “Then know Jerusalem with your all-encompassing mind and do no ask me to be your guide.” “I must experience it as a man. I could have seen it all even on the cross, but the knowledge would be empty.” The woman picked up the basket. “Then I wish you not to be shattered by your arrogance.”
Christ felt a warmth flow into him that he had not known in three yeas of preaching and dispensing useful hints on mountainsides. It pushed against his breastbone and drove out distance, breached the divide between his godhead and his humanity. Pictures, new memories flooded him, assumptions became fact, fact became innocent completion. The divine no longer had need to master the human. They nestled like litter-mates.
“How did you do that, through a wish?”he asked. She laughed. “God knows all.” Christ felt shock that he did not, as god, know the answer. “Come,” he said. “Is that a command?” “It is a request.” They passed into the street, no longer empty, as the remnants of the crowd returning from the crucifixions melted back to their homes. No one recognized Christ, no longer dressed as they had seen him, his wounds healed, yet they eyed him suspiciously. The woman spoke quietly. ”You are too clean, they don’t know what to make of you.” Christ willed dirt onto his garment. “Better.” An approaching couple flinched. “Better still not to do that as they watch.”
The city quickly bored Christ with its tawdry sameness, one hovel following another, slapdash constructions of dried mud, bits of stone and last season’s waste heaved together without order. “Why not take the time to build their houses carefully?” “Why waste time on that when there are so many easier paths to waste it? They have no way to make a living, nothing to live for. Most die young.” “They don’t weave magic baskets?” “They weave despair.” A form sprawled in a doorway, its arms and legs twisted unnaturally. Christ stopped and raised his hand to affect a cure. The drama of the gesture was unnecessary, but he had found it effective in performing public miracles. “Stop showboating. He’s only drunk, like every other day.” Christ lowered his arm. “What keeps him alive?” “Nothing. He just goes on, continues happening. Tomorrow he will wake up, then one day he won’t.”
“Will you tell me your name?” “You don’t know it by will?” “Your wish changed me. Do I seem less arrogant?” “More settled, perhaps. Less concerned about what you don’t know.” “Look out!” A loose stone rattled from a rooftop, narrowly avoiding the woman’s shoulder. “Do not do that! If it was meant to hit me, let it hit. You have no business changing what is intended. You destroy the order of things.” “I did nothing, it simply missed you.” “Truly?” “Yes. I don’t lie.” He looked puzzled. “I can’t lie, and it feels like a lack.” “Truly, it is.”
Christ remained silent for several minutes. “You have not told me your name.” “Look into your godness.” “I will not. Cannot.” “How do you pick and choose what you can and cannot know or do? How do you choose between god and man?” “That is yet another mystery.” “I think you make up these distinctions – these seeming-distinctions.” “I am here to try to find a path through all the distinctions. I’m hoping that you are a signpost on that path.” “Your explanations stink of donkey poo.”
Turning a corner, they entered a small market square filled with mini-tents erected over tables of unmatched items. Stones on the tables held down cloth next to wilted flowers and shoddy toys – lumpy constructions of wood intended for children or pets. Some items had no clear form, as though grown in dark corners. Christ picked up a hemisphere of poorly polished stone and turned it so the baking sun reflected from its warring facets. The vendor smiled crookedly and quoted a price. Christ shook his head. The vendor named a lower price. Christ placed the stone back on the table, where it shattered to dust. The vendor looked in awe, then squealed vituperation at Christ. Christ stared at the vendor’s hand. It began to smoke and the vendor withdrew it in terror.
The woman turned back toward her home. “Wait.” “For what? For more assault on people who have offered you no harm?” “I meant nothing by that.” “So much the worse.” Christ stared at the roadway. The woman stopped. Christ spoke, perhaps to the roadway.
“I was sent by my father but also by myself, as one though different persons. We know all, we know the same all or knew it all before I came here. Now I know almost nothing. In surges I do things that the man of me sees as magic, beyond magic, the realm of all-control. If I released myself from the dampening of those surges I could wield immense evil – what any man, most men, would view as evil. Yet as god, anything I do, however motivated, is good, because good is greater than evil and absorbs it. As god I know this absolutely, yet as man I do not believe it. I left the cross because the man of me could not believe that the death of god at the hands of man was a good greater than its clear evil. If I cannot remedy this conflict, I cannot allow my death. To reconcile this I would have to be only god and drive out man, which would negate what motive my father and I had in sending me here. On the cross I asked my father why he had forsaken me, and he did not answer. He left it thus because to speak with me would negate my purpose – a purpose I can never fully comprehend while I remain man. It ties my being into a huge knot made of a thousand smaller knots. As man, I see no way these knots can be undone. As god, I know they can and must be undone so I can become complete.”
“Your death would make you complete?” “Are you not listening? What I say is that I cannot die, cannot be killed until I am complete. I must bite the knots loose with my teeth, because my hands are still nailed to the cross.” “Do not sneer at me because you fail to make your quandary clear.” “Forgive me.” “Forgive god?” “Forgive god who put you here. And the man who harasses you.” “If you were flavored dough and I was kneading you, how would I separate the spices from the rat turds? God from man?”
Massive clouds reared up on the horizon and flew toward Jerusalem with the speed of an invading army. As they reared overhead, the ground began to shake, the road to heave. Fury filled Christ’s face and he raised his hand at the sky. “I will not go back to the cross. I will stay until tomorrow and the next day and the day after. I will stay until I understand and can reconcile. And if I cannot reconcile I will die of old age, forgotten. Why should mankind be saved? From what and for what? Explain!” The father made no answer and Christ lowered his pleading hand.
The woman had fallen to her knees, whether in awe or because the upheaved paving had thrown her down. She arose. ”You argue with your father, with yourself, with all of creation. Be man and be content. Throw god away.” “I have a duty that will not leave. What I was sent to do is incomplete. I rail to my father that I have changed my mind, but I could not change my mind if I would. Or so it feels to me as man. Free will is the greatest of God’s gifts, leaving mankind free to defy even god, but is god free to defy himself?” “If we are free to defy god, why should we be sent to hellfire for employing that gift?” “Something else I must discuss with my father. When I return to him.” “You always have an answer, but your answers lead nowhere.”
The tempest had stilled as they walked back to her home. The roadway was now filled with the crowd from the crucifixions. Some turned their heads as they passed, nudged each other, made signals, but if they recognized Christ, they did not accost him. He stuck out his tongue at them and made faces.
They stopped at her doorway and stood silent. Christ swung his head to left and right like a camel. The woman patted the dried earth of the doorframe. “I will not invite you in.” “I would not accept.” “I have never spoken with god before. It doesn’t seem like a two-way street. We beg, he says nothing.” “So you believe me, what I’ve said?” “I think you believe in yourself, and that could be enough. Where would you have gone, if you chose not to return to the cross?” Christ scratched his head, his most human gesture. “I would wander, I think, and wait for word from my father.” “Who I suspect would then be angry with you. And what of your disciples? How would they deal with being left alone, whether by your death or by your earthly abandonment?” “Either way, they have learned enough to spread the word, and the word will become distorted and debased, then… who knows what follows? My father knows, and I will know, when I return. Or is that only an assumption? It is how I, the man, believe godhood should work.”
“If you choose to die, will your teachings too die, regardless of your disciples? I don’t see what dying will add.” “Nor do I, clearly. I simply assume, again, that it is necessary. You must weary of my rambling. God should be precise. Instead, I dither.” She laughed. “Life has dithered you.” “Something to place on god’s mortal tombstone, ‘Dithered by Life.'” Christ turned away. “Goodbye,” he said, not facing her. He did not tell her that he had showered on her a blessing, because that knowledge might lead her to resist the free will to defy God. ”Good journey,” she returned, “wherever it leads. Tell your father you made a friend.” “Tell him yourself. He hears, even when he does not answer.”
The woman melted into the shadow of the room. Christ spoke to the sky. “What is her name? She never told me.” His father did not answer. But on the 40th day following, he called his son back home.
First, some questions about modern waitressing:
Why would I want to know the name of my “server” before ordering a hamburger?
Who introduced the now-universal, ear-splitting waitress bat-squeak?
Is there a required course in “How to be Obtrusive While Serving Broccoli”?
When and why did servers start saying “Let me get that out of your way?” My plate, my napkin, my butter knife are “in my way?” What would Frank Sinatra say to that?
At the Covered Bridge up here – a restaurant sadly gone – the most heart-poundingly sexy woman ran the few tables – boisterous, succulent as ripe cantaloupe and dead-on with every order, especially the drinks. I once made an internal bet that she would spot my empty gin and tonic glass within 15 seconds. At the count of 13, her finger shot out and
They can’t teach that in bartender’s school.
The Dushore Hotel, during our first years here, was run by a laconic Donald Sutherland lookalike who tended the tiny L-shaped bar and cooked some of the dinners. When he poured a shot of Yukon Jack, you could not have forced another drop into the glass in a hyperbaric chamber. He also served dynamite prime rib on Fridays (seasoned with rosemary).
But his server trio sealed the deal:
The barmaid was a mass of muscular, exuberant flesh only somewhat restrained by a halter and surrounded by an almost visible cloud of pheromones.
Can a 5′ 10″ woman be cute? Oh my, yes. Our usual waitress would lean just so over the table with a smile equal parts sweet reticence and expectancy. Purrrr.
The other waitress had magnificent legs. The first time we dropped by, she was standing in the alleyway to the kitchen in shorts, one foot cocked back, knee bent. I’d never seen the like and never expect to again. Funny though, I never really found her erotic (which, for me, is pretty strange). It was more an appreciation of perfection in form. How often do you witness a living ideal – what should be, even when you had no advance notion of “should”?
Though that waitress takes my All-Time Gam Award (told you there was a connection), others were not far behind. Out the window and through the louvered shutter where teen-me would mush over the rabbit-owning girl next door, I also ogled Gertrude, our landlord’s wife, smokily tanned in the shorts-and-halter set that was near ubiquitous in 1950s summers (but never featured in TV sitcoms of the times, leaving later generations with the impression that all females back then were encased in frilly blouses and knee-obliterating skirts). A local amateur actress – her name once appeared on a program as “Gerturde,” which sent her into repeated hoots of hilarity – she could and would cross and recross her legs succulently with unstated ease.
While I was in college, a co-ed from Rhode Island with an unexceptionally pleasant face had lovely, delicate, shapely legs that seemed to belong to someone else. I was glad she’d borrowed them.
In the office of the UPenn book store, in the basement of the student-union building, a pert young woman with glasses and high heels had the habit of sitting on the edge of her desk, legs swinging in a sexual metronome while I pretended to look for something in the file cabinet. One of her duties was to fetch minimally edible snacks from the takeout counter upstairs, where she stood in line holding a cardboard carton marked “Peggy’s Box.”
The Welcomat advertising department held an unofficial position tagged “Lustful Lower Limbs,” held by three extraordinary lasses in a row – one after the other, I mean – they weren’t on linear display (alas).
During the 20-plus years we shared the massive Italianate twin on Baring Street, LCH [Let’sCall Her] Effie, the female half of the other couple, had a most unlikely and provocative physical presence.
In the early years, our two families shared communal meals. Wearing a loose denim skirt, she would draw her bare feet up onto her chair and consume her dinner with her skirt dropped to her waist. She took the same position on the porch swing that faced the street, presenting an unhindered view of expansive, delicious legs and cotton panties. Working in the back yard, she would sit in the grass with feet drawn up slightly, clipping at the weeds beneath her raised legs in a relaxed, remarkably inefficient but stunningly erotic pose, constantly fidgeting and rearranged her contours.
She fit into the ’40s soft-porn, pinup category. I’ve never been able to figure out if this unexcused exhibitionism was intentional or incidental, whether it sprang from innocence, physical disinterest or suppressed aggression. Whatever, I benefited.
One unlikely candidate was the office assistant at the funeral parlor that was arranging my brother Rod’s burial. (The reception room was strewn with clocks of all sorts, few working, none telling the correct time.) A cheery, funny, early-40s woman, she had legs that would put 99% of the world’s models to shame. I think she was genuinely unaware, certainly unconcerned. I was neither, but it’s impolite to pant loudly during your brother’s funeral preparations.
Oh, and there’s the 6’ 1” blonde insurance agent in town up here. (That description is enough in itself.)
Such stuff marks me as the quintessential dirty old man, I know, but I come by it legitimately: I was previously a dirty middleaged man, a dirty young man, a dirty teenager and a dirty little boy. I fantasized about anyone and anything but never deliberately hurt another being higher than insect or rodent. Any serial-killer genes I may possess are quiescent.
For which I’m glad.