Monday, June 30, 2008

Strange Fruit

For the past couple weeks I've been watching and listening to Ken Burns' ten part film series called Jazz. This is a remarkable piece of work. I have enjoyed jazz since introduced to various artists through friends in college, from John Coltrane to Chick Corea, and Miles Davis to Charles Mingus and Pharaoh Sanders. More recently I listened to an eight part lecture series on the history of jazz, which was insightful and informative. But Burns' live footage from the earliest days of twentieth century jazz to the present is an amazing retrospective of the contribution of blacks to Americana.

From the raucous Twenties to the depression era Thirties, jazz was evolving, and reflecting all facets of the culture. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman... all of their stories are here.

Purportedly a film series about music, this is really a series about race relations. Some amazing footage of musicians, dancers, and singers has been captured here including the remarkable Billie Holiday. Every once in a while a song cuts through you though, and tears something in your heart. That's what happened to me when Burns gave us raw footage of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit. What a daring song for 1939. What heart wrenching lyrics by Lewis Allen.

Strange Fruit
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

The tragedy is not simply that a man lost his life unjustly. The tragedy is the signal such events would send to every black man in this cultural situation... that he dare not challenge "the Man," dare not himself be a man, raise his head and look into a white man's eyes with defiance, raise the fist. It is difficult to impossible to understand the black power movement of the late Sixties, early Seventies, without understanding the context of Strange Fruit.

The photo at the top of this entry is from a memorial here in Duluth, MN, a photo I took this evening in our City by the Lake. Most people associate racial violence as a Southern phenomenon. The memorial here is a remembrance that it can, and did, happen here. In 1920, three black circus workers were lynched downtown by an irate, irrational mob. Hepped up by hearsay, they broke into the jail and brought these men's lives to a sudden end. Historians believe they were almost certainly innocent, but the tragic affair demonstrated that "it can happen here."

Race relations in America are a complicated affair and, like Lewis Allen's evocative lament, so very sad.

May we never forget.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

When The Trucks Shut Down

High fuel costs are putting the hurt on a lot of industries right now. But no where is the pinch more intense than for truckers, both independent operators and fleets.

These are tough times for truckers. If you know someone who drives a rig, you've probably already learned what it costs to fill 'er up these days. $800 - $1000 is typical. Problem is, the truckers deliver goods for businesses that may schedule payments for thirty, sixty or even ninety days out. An active trucker may accumulate 10-15,000 dollars of expenses for fuel alone in a month, and that kind of out-of-pocket risk for owner operators is serious money.

We take our truckers for granted, no question about it. How often when fueling your car do you note that a trucker brought the fuel to that gas station? When you buy food at the grocery store, how many times have you thanked the truckers for bringing the food from wherever it was grown, packaged, delivered? But right now, due to high fuel costs, independent truckers and in a lot of pain. And at some point many will leave their trucks in the driveway.

The current transport systems that have worked for the whole of our various lives are in jeopardy. Truckers play a significant role in our society, and most of us are not aware of how much they're suffering at the moment.

I grew up in Maple Heights, Ohio, till I was twelve. One of the memorable television commercials I remember from my childhood was a Lawson's spot which showed a truck zipping along the highway with the tune, "Roll On Big O... Get that milk up to Lawson's in forty hours." I'm not sure where it was coming from, but the idea was that the milk was being transported fast and fresh. I used to go to Lawson's with my dad when he picked up milk, and always associated it with that Lawson’s jingle (among other things.)

There are truck strikes in Europe right now. Fuel prices are killing the transporters and in several countries -- Spain, France, Portugal – trucks are being parked in front of toll booths to give a visual show of what’s coming. The unions from Italy, England and other E.U. nations are meeting now to discuss more coordinated actions designed to effectively send a message.
At this moment I know no self-sufficient individuals personally. That is, people who grow their food, make their own goods, take care of all their personal business with no dependence on others. We’re not an agricultural society any more. We are dependent on grocery stores and when the store shelves are bare, how will people react? At some point something’s gonna give.

On another note, purportedly we have enough oil reserves within our borders to be utterly independent of foreign oil. It's a mystery to my why our leaders have allowed the country to come to its knees like this...

High fuel costs are going to impact us in ways we did not expect. Today’s blog is a warning signal. And a reminder to thank a trucker today.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

This Is My Best

Somewhere along life’s way I managed to acquire the 1180 page compilation of stories called This Is My Best in which Dial Press assembled over 150 self-chosen masterpieces by 93 of America’s greatest living authors. Published in 1942, the book is as interesting for its choices regarding authors as for the authors’ own decisions regarding their work.

The book not only has stories, there are also essays, drama, poems, history, reportage and profiles. Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker – these are names one might expect to see here.

Upton Sinclair offered up a selection from his novel The Jungle, with these sentences as introduction. “Anyone who reads these five thousand words will have his imagination stimulated, his sympathies widened, and his understanding of the world he lives in increased. At least, that is why the book (from which this excerpt was taken) was written, and it doesn’t happen there is something wrong with either you or with the author.”

There were surprises in the list though. Steven Vincent Benet, for example, who here offers The Devil & Daniel Webster. For some reason I’d associated him with the post-Civil War period of the previous century.

The book is a good reminder that American prose had more breadth and depth than just the big names of Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Papa Hemingway. I have always found books like these to be useful for ferreting out new territories to explore, hence the large number of anthologies on my book shelf.

The down side of all this good literature is that one becomes aware there’s just too much to read and not enough time.

As a short story writer myself, I find the short form exhilarating. But there’s not enough “public” to really motivate publishers to produce the works of unknowns. It’s a celebrity culture, so mags that pay money want a name on the cover that will lead to sales. Unknowns don’t have the clout.
For the record, Hemingway selected “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Mencken selected his autobiographical “The Days of the Giants.” Dreiser chose “The Hand.” Katherine Anne Porter gave us “Flowering Judas.”

Steinbeck was indifferent as to what was selected from his body of work, an attitude I understand. Every piece has been crafted with the highest aims in mind, and either reflects this or one doesn't attach one's name to it.

As for me, I’m hoping you’ll read everything I write, but I know you don’t have time. So I’ll point you to a story and a poem. The story is long, the poem short, and both hopefully entertaining while thought provoking. And if I'm lucky you'll rejoin me here on my blog again tomorrow.

Media Manipulation

The image of Francis Schaeffer in yesterday's (and now today's) post requires additional comment. I took that photo in the 1980's during a large anti-abortion rally in St. Paul, MN. Dr. Schaeffer had been in treatment at Rochester's Mayo Clinic and had been invited up to the Cities to be one of the keynote speakers for the event. He had been an outspoken critic of the Roe v. Wade decision as a symbol of the culture's continuing devaluing of life. The rally was organized by an interdenominational coalition and took place in a park with baseball diamonds across the street from an abortion clinic. There were 5,000 people present, with speakers from a range of faiths including Jewish rabbis.

In his book and ten-hour film series titled How Should We Then Live, Schaeffer gave some attention to the power of the media to manipulate. What I found particularly fascinating was that the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the city's primary news vehicle, did not even mention this event. At the same time, the following day's paper included a front page story on the actions of eight protestors in Boston against nuclear warheads.

How strange, I thought. Silence. It's a form of shunning.

The newspapers have a right to ignore a story under their nose. But the people in response have an obligation to understand that what is happening in the world today, the things of real significance, have to be ferreted out by other means.

With the advent of the internet, the power brokers in network TV and news media have seen an erosion of power. And in many circles a loss of respect. It's about time.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Legitimate Responses To Unjust Authority

My horror story of June 15th and 16th is incomplete without sharing at least one of the lessons learned through the experience. As with all young idealists, there are times when you hit a wall, get tested. How you respond at this point is all important.

Our education system is not designed to make people truly strong individuals, is not really designed to produce leaders and free thinkers. If you read Noam Chomsky's books you will find him occasionally reciting the philosophies behind our public education system, which is a tool to help control the masses by making them docile, compliant, obedient. The message in the churches is overwhelmingly similar, with its emphasis on submission to authority, being humble, meek, "nice."

And so, when we went to Mexico, we were not really prepared for what we experienced. We did not see that there really are acceptable alternate responses to bad leaders and to tyranny.

It was only upon our return from Mexico, during a time of much reflection, sifting through all the broken pieces of our experience, that I discovered a book that presented other options besides compliance, Francis Schaeffer's A Christian Manifesto.

In this book he cites 19th century evangelist Charles Finney's philosophy with regard to unjust authority. Finney was one of the great voices that spoke out against slavery, striving to rouse the peoples to take action against this unjust system. Option one, he stated, was appeal to authority. Sadly, this is what most people are led to believe is their only option. Hence wife beaters and other brutes can quote Scripture and maintain order in their homes.

Legitimate option two, according to Schaeffer and Finney, was to flee. We do not have to stay in the situation. Susie and I were crushed by guilt for leaving the orphanage, yet we inwardly knew it was right. We simply did not have the rationale to articulate it. We were misunderstood and even rejected by some who had no interest in hearing the reasons for our decision and action.

In Finney's case, he organized the churches of Ohio and the corridors going South into the underground railroad. He rejected the critics and took bold action. He believed in the dignity of the humanity he sought to rescue.

But Finney and Schaeffer do not stop there. The third legitimate option is to fight to bring down the unjust strongholds. For sure, this kind of action is most definitely going to be misunderstood, especially if the unjust tyrant is acting in the name of religion.

Southern leaders believed God was on their side. They believed they would win the Civil War, because they were on the side of right. The Almighty God was leading them. How could they lose?

For Susie and I, we were not prepared to fight. It took years for us to even understand that fighting to bring down this bad situation was an option, or that leaving does not always mean you failed. Ultimately, the whole experience fell into the past and new circumstances preoccupied our lives. We still had a place in our heart for the orphans of Mexico and have supported a different orphanage built on better values with higher standards. (You can read about it here: Hungry Kids International)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The current July/August edition of The Atlantic has an eye-riveting cover story: Is Google Making Us Stupid? The sub-head of this feature by Nicholas Carr is, WHAT THE INTERNET IS DOING TO OUR BRAINS.

Carr insists he is not a Luddite, no doubt for fear that if he gets labelled "anti-progress" his thesis will not be taken seriously. He claims that computers in general, and the Internet more specifically, and Google most deliberately, are changing the way we think in ways that should alarm us.

The positive side of Google is self-evident. Information that once might have taken days for a college paper may often be located in minutes, or faster. There are tremendous efficiencies here with regard to information.

But Carr proposes that what's going on has insidious side effects with regard to our human-ness in the same way the Industrial Age crushed people through its commitment to "maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output." Google's mission, he says, is to make our brains more efficient.

According to Google's chief exec Eric Schmidt, the company is founded on the idea of total measurement and systematization. The mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

Who can argue with that? We all know about useless data and useless information.

Carr points out that this kind of efficiency creates new absolutes that do not leave room for "the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed."

In some ways this is not a new phenomenon. Edwin Aldrin, in his walk on the moon with Neil Armstrong in 1969, had fifteen seconds for "being human." The rest of his four hour stint was an effort to efficiently set up and execute eight hours of experiments. Some would say, "Hey, you got the privilege to have someone else pay for the ride that gave you a dream experience." But it could also be argued that this scientific approach to everything does something unkind to the soul.

Maybe that's Carr's concern. I don't really know how much weight to give it, but I sort of hear where he's coming from.

The author appears fair in his assessments. That is, he notes how Socrates objected to writing because people would rely on the written word and not use their brains to remember things. Yet the written word has opened worlds for us. And Gutenberg likewise had critics, but the availability of books has likewise created manifold blessings.

My take here is that we need to assume some personal responsibility in this matter. I myself do art, putz about the yard trimming a few branches, listen to music and in this manner bring balance to that "other side." And a daily time of reflection, journal writing, re-centering is for me something akin to the "breathe in, breathe out" rhythm of life. The goal of life is not to become a brain, but to become fully human, which includes mind, will, emotions... and soul.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Another Day, Another Dollar

Woke this morning thinking about the transfer of experience from older to younger people... and to some extent what is involved in the harnessing of youthful energy toward productive ends. More specifically, as it pertains to business or career.

As an "idea person" it has always seemed to me that the ideas exceed the time frame allotted to accomplish them. Ideas for articles gurgle up from the subconscious pretty regularly, as well as ideas for businesses and art projects, aong other things. Ideas are also triggered through encounters with daily readings or daily conversation.

I had lunch with a young person yesterday who seems to be taking life by the horns. He is not passively waiting for life to happen to him. He has began mapping the terrain as regards local career options, to see where the good places are to dig a hole and start mining or, to use a garden metaphor, sow seeds.

Simultaneously, there are many young people who see the end of their college experience with trepidation. Uncertainty await all of us, but the one who unflinchingly moves forward into the future with expectation will go further than the one who shrinks back.

Getting fitted for life doesn't happen in four years anyways. It is a lifetime process, with the first stage being, "Who am I, really? What are my strengths? How can I minimize the impact of my liabilities?" And if you are lucky, maybe you will find a mentor, or friend, who can help you through the muddle into the next level of issues with questions like, "How can I best contribute to the success of my company, or community?"

To some extent deadlines and responsibilities dictate how we fill many, if not most, of our hours. But in the free hours outside the confines of these boundaries, what is your passion? Is it cars? Self-improvement? Solving the world's problems? Becoming a virtuoso musician? Becoming a writer? You will not get there simply by drifting.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Last night we met at the Green Mill in Duluth... a farewell meeting of sorts, as Rod Johnson was moving South to the Twin Cities. We called ourselves the M5, which was code for the Five Million Dollar Men, what we believed we were worth to the companies we worked for. It was an interesting group that met every two or three weeks for seven years and then occasionally since that time.

Rod and I conceived the idea for the group over lunch in the Library, a restaurant on Tower Avenue in Superior. We'd each read Napolean Hill's Think & Grow Rich, and were both taken up with the idea in chapter nine of a Mastermind Group. The Mastermind Group concept is essentially based on the idea that when a group gets together with its various perspectives on a problem, ideas emerge that no individual would have conceived in isolation.

In affirming that we each liked the key point of the chapter, he blurted out, "Well, why don't we do it?" Thus we invited three others, and gave birth to the group. At the time we had no idea how this first step would impact all facets of our lives.

At one point we called ourselves a "portable board of directors." What professional has not had a wish for objective counsel outside oneself and outside the political environs of one's business or corporation? For most of the years we called ourselves the M5, but in the beginning, at our first meeting on January 24, 1997, we were the T&GRPPC. We all knew what the T&GR meant, but none of us in last night's dinner together could remember what the PPC stood for. We got a good laugh from that, too.

What follows is the Proposed First Meeting Agenda that Rod assembled, follow by some ground rules. The rules proved durable, as have the friendships. Dean now owns the company he worked for, John is president of a company in the energy field, Rod has several major projects in the works and I haven't done too bad myself either.

Proposed First Meeting Agenda
January 24, 1997

1) Introductions (rod to lead)
~ Meeting Guidelines
~ Review Think & Grow Rich Workbook issues

2) In the box

3) Skills Identification
~ Skill Area
~ Experience

4) Review what each person could benefit from the group
~ Ongoing
~ Project
~ Other??

5) Where to from here??
~ Do we want to meet?
~ How often?
~ Where/when/format/other??

Ground Rules
* Leave titles at the door
* What is said will stay in the room
* Everybody participates
* Taking risks is encouraged
* Humor is acceptable - (as long as it is identified as such)
* Time-out means stop

We also developed rules for the admission of others into the group. As it turned out, we never did add anyone and eventually lost one, but even these discussions as regards membership proved insightful. In the beginning we avoid religion, politics and some personal topics. Over time, there were no boundaries as mutual respect and trust developed and deepened.

Perhaps you're seeking a professional team of advisors who can help you gain clarity about your self and your career. This blog entry is intended to strongly encourage you to take the first step... you'll never know where it can lead till you make a move.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Horror Story, continued

Continued from previous post.

To see what is really happening in any situation requires going beyond the surface of things. The orphanage management maintained a front that allowed outsiders the opportunity to paint their own picture. The smiling faces of the children were your first encounter, but the bright eyes and happy faces concealed much of their real stories. Visitors did not readily notice the unsafe bare electrical wires in many places where kids would get shocks... or the nightmares, or Lolita the mongoloid child lying in her own filth covered with flies, or the trash, frogs and children’s toys in the well.

But Dr. John became concerned and later alarmed by what we could not see, and in an effort to learn the true health status of the children he brought another contingent of student doctors to the clinic to examine the children, including the Bible school students this time. I’ve already mentioned we had near 120 children and 25-30 Bible school students. Here were the results from the 157 tests that they performed.

123 cases of amoebas
13 instances of tapeworm
7 instances of protozoa, giardia lambia
5 cases of whipworm
6 cases of roundworm
3 incidents of pinworm

These results are not the horror story.

Dr. John outlined for me a course of treatment for these manifold internal maladies. He said that all the medicines would be provided free, but we would have to administer them ourselves.

That afternoon, I brought his notes to Wyman, the head of the orphanage and presented the results of the tests, noting that the medical follow up required would take about two months of giving shots three times a week.

Wyman’s eyes glazed over as he slid into a far off expression staring into the distance. Without looking at me directly, he replied, “I’ve always thought we needed more dorm space. Maybe we should get rid of that clinic and put more kids in there.” This statement, this revelation of what was inside the director of the orphanage, is our horror story.

There were three couples from the U.S. serving/assisting at the orphanage at that time, along with a half dozen Mexican staff employed as dorm parents, plus Juan and his wife, who did the cooking. Susie and I met with the other Americans to determine a course of action. After a time of prayer, I returned to Wyman to present the case a second time, stating that we ourselves would give all the shots and he would have no responsibility. A second time, he denied that there was a problem.

By day’s end I made a third appeal. Finally, he conceded that it would be good to administer medicine to the children. We had permission to proceed.

In short order, we began treatment. My parents visited during that summer and even my mom gave a slew of shots for a few days. I was the guy who handled the “tough cases.” About eight of the kids, including a couple of the Bible school students, required special handling… they did not like getting poked with a needle. I was the “point man” in these cases, making sure they got the point (of the needle).

Despite small successes in getting the meds administered, septic systems fixed, electrical system re-wired, screens on the cafeteria windows, church building re-roofed and buildings painted, the reality was that nothing had changed in the management. Promises made were quickly broken, and we were too young to see the craziness of it all with much clarity. Everything is easy in retrospect, of course. But the process of sorting which occurred when we returned to the States did give us a deeper understanding of ourselves, the structurally impaired belief systems we’d embraced, and the motivation to get a better handle on who we were and what we were about.

Our hearts go out to the needy children of this world… There is much brokenness, disease and despair out there, due to a host of cultural complexities. It’s not enough to just send money though, not when human hearts are hurting.

As always, much more can be said about that. I was just trying to give you a glimpse of an incident that might reveal one of the formative experiences in my life, that year in Mexico. And maybe sometime when we have a little time, you can ask me for details. Next time, I’ll begin with the rat story.

Horror Story

In 1980-81 Susie and I worked at an orphanage in Mexico called Casa de Ninos, which means House of Children. The children’s home housed approximately 120 kids ages three to fifteen, and a small Bible school of thirty or so muchachos y muchachas. The experience put our zealous youthful ideals to the test.

Mexico, being a Socialist country, provides health care to the rural poor by means of clinics staffed by student doctors. There was a clinic on the grounds of the orphanage which by good fortune was staffed by an English speaking, compassionate man from Pennsylvania. Unlike many of his predecessors, he remained faithful to the needs of the community and our orphans for the duration of his term.

To Dr. John, there were clearly health concerns present here at the children’s home. He soon became aware of a full assortment of external signs of dismal hygiene, much of which we had taken for granted being in the midst of it. We were fully aware of the shockingly bad conditions for the kids, many of whom lacked shoes (“They’ll just lose them”) despite the inoperable septic systems with raw sewage spewing on the ground in a stream that ran past a cafeteria with no screens.

One day the good student doctor brought a team of fellow students to evaluate the children. Dressed in white lab coats, they examined 117 children. According to my notes, on June 15, 1981 there were:
87 children with BCG
Pediculosis capitas, 66
Pina de cabeza, 29
Tina de los pies, 27
Pitriosis alba, 26
Onicomicosis, 9
Dermatitis seborreica, 8
Piodermitis, 7
Verrugas vulgares, 7
Tina de cuerpo, 6
and another 20 conditions with various names on individual children or pairs, along with seven instances of a positive reaction to TB tests.

But this was not the dark day. The darkest day was yet to come.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Swamp Sisters, Revisited

Well gosh, was that ever yummy! If you've never been, you owe it to yourself.

Their story begins in the late nineties when the six Armstrong sisters started talking about opening a shop to sell buffalo meat, which sister Suzi raises about two miles to the east. After a lot of debate, they decided the best location would be the old farm where they grew up. They called themselves the Swamp Sisters because their relatives always joked about their family trying to farm in a swamp.

A special feature of the menu is Bonnie’s Swamp Skillet with buffalo sausage or ham, onions, peppers, mushrooms, tater tots, eggs and cheese, which I should have taken a picture of before I ate it. I have liked these skillets so much I've never ordered anything diff, but I've alreasdy decided I'll do that next time I eat here.

They're only open Fridays and Saturdays from eight till two, so you better skidaddle out there while you can and don't be late, or you're missin' something special.

Occasionally they have too many dang customers, and you have to wait outside in the sun or poke around in the gift shop, which can easily occupy a person for hours with all the interesting gifts, antiques, bison meat, crafts and other goodies they have there.

Whether breakfast or lunch, it’s home cookin’ at its finest, seasoned with warmth and a sense of humor. Be sure to take in the signs. These sisters, and the ever faithful brother, have a wry sense of humor that pervades all they do.

Hope you enjoy these photos I took this morning while enjoying a Half Skillet. And the price is just right... Under five bucks with the orange juice! I always leave a big tip 'cause I have a crush one of the waitresses. (She's my wife.)

Check out the pics here (click images to enlarge) and if you get a chance, as you head north on Hwy. 53 from Duluth, make a left at Twig out County Road 7. Only five minutes further... You will not regret it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Things I'd Like to Write About

There just aren't enough hours in a day. Once you get your pump primed, and the flow flowing, there are so many directions you can go. Some of the things flitting across the skydome of my mind that I have been wanting to write about this week, if I had more time, include an exploration of the implications of our celebrity-enthralled culture, the miscellaneous fads that have exploded on the American pop scene over the past fifty years, unshared poems I have extracted from my journals, reflections on my experiences during the 1971 May Day protest in Washington, profiles of various inmates of Puerto Rico's Bayamon prison when I was doing ministry there once a week in 1979, and a few topics I find too controversial to even dare write about. Oh well. We do the best we can.

There are some truths we can't get away from. The more we run from them, the more we run into them.

Quotes from my Notes
"I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as "the masses." Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time." ~ Jorge Luis Borges

"A man's life is his image. At the hour of death we shall be reflected in the past and, leaning over the mirror of our acts, our souls will recognize what we are. Our whole life is spent sketching an ineradicable portrait of ourselves. The terrible thing is that we don't know this; we do not think of beautifying ourselves. ...We flatter ourselves, but later our terrible portrait will not flatter us. We recount our lives and lie to ourselves, but our life will not lie; it will recount our soul, which will stand before God in its usual posture." ~ Andre Gide, Journals, Jan 3, 1892

"It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn't the test of a man have been carried out in fewer years?" ~ Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter

Thursday, June 19, 2008

More Images from South o' the Border

A few more pictures and another scene from my unpublished story, The Red Scorpion.

Chapter 2
Comstock sat at an outdoor cafe adjacent to the main plaza, El Zocalo, sipping a large concoction of jugo de tamarindo, a sweet thick juice squeezed from the brown, beanlike fruit of the tamarind tree. By his third day in Mexico, he had become increasingly aware of the passage of time. His first two days were spent in leisurely excursions about the city, consumed with a curiosity similar to a boy turning over fallen logs in the woods seeking salamanders and snakes. Now he was becoming anxious about how to achieve his objective. The days would pass quickly. He berated himself for having already wasted two.

A small band of peasant musicians playing an assortment of primitive flutes, whistles and drums had gathered in the street in front of the cafe. A group of children began marching around in circles making whimsical movements, whimpering and bouncing like puppies overeager to see their masters. Another group of boys worked the tables, selling Chiclets to the tourists.

Comstock recalled how the incessant begging had disturbed him during his first trip south of the border. By the time he left he had grown weary of the burros, mongrel dogs, roosters, strange smells, gritty eyeballs and clashing colors that seemed to throw themselves at him from every side. He was tempted to think that first trip had been a mistake and a preposterous waste of time.

Afterwards, however, Comstock missed Mexico immensely. He knew intuitively that one day he would return. He only needed an excuse. He found it in the legend of Quetzlcoatl, the plumed serpent.

According to native mythology Quetzlcoatl, also known as Yoalli ehecatl, was the third son of the Lord of Fire and Time. He was given to bring hope and light to the Nahuatl people in the same way his three brothers were given to three other peoples. When he betrayed his father, he was to be banished forever.

Comstock’s intent on this journey had been to find contacts who would be useful guides to the actual places where Quetzlcoatl was born, grew up, lived and died, even though legends said that the god/man simply “went away” and never died at all.

Click on images to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Among other things in life, I have taken a stab at writing a novel. The setting for part of the story was Mexico, having lived there a year and having become enthralled by its magic. The Red Scorpion is its working title.

Last night I came across a disk with some of the slides I took in Mexico that year. Over the next few days I'll try to share some of the images here. The people and places of Mexico, and the accompanying memories, will always have a special place in my heart.

What follows is the beginning of The Red Scorpion.

Chapter 1
He woke abruptly, jostled to alertness by the screech of brakes and final recoil as the bus jerked to a stop. He was surprised to find that he had managed to fall asleep at all. The crowded bus included peasants with chickens, crying babies and a crush of people from all stations in life.

Dr. Comstock, glancing out the window, was dismayed to find the bus had not yet reached its destination. It was picking up more passengers, even though the aisle was now full. Several villagers squeezed up onto the steps, some hung out through the doors which had been left open. The bus lurched forward, gears grinding.

A small boy eating a mango placed a sticky hand on the rail in front of Comstock’s knee. Comstock smiled at the boy, but the boy turned his face away. Comstock was a stranger and a foreigner. The boy had been trained not to trust him.

Once more the bus screeched to a stop. This time he could see they had arrived. It was the last leg of his journey, descending to Cuernavaca from the high altitudes of Mexico City. He was eager to begin his work.

Dr. Comstock, a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, had come to Mexico to locate the final resting place of Quetzlcoatl, the plumed serpent of Aztec legend. This was Comstock's second research expedition in Mexico. He intended to develop contacts that would enable him to obtain funding for a longer trip the following year. It was Christmas break back home at the University. He could think of nothing better than being in Cuernavaca. While arctic winds chilled the Minnesota countryside, flowers remained perpetually in bloom here in the land of Eternal Spring. Red and coral bougainvillea, lavender jacaranda, flaming poinciana, and golden geraniums splashed the air with color and fragrance. The floral tapestry delighted his eyes in every direction that he looked.

His wife Adele had wanted to join him, but he balked at the idea. Her presence would interfere with his work, he said. He promised she would accompany him on next year’s trip if they could find caretakers to run the Eagle’s Nest, the bed and breakfast they owned and operated.

Comstock had an angular face with deep set eyes and thick, dark eyebrows. He wore his hair cropped short. He felt he looked too British to pass for Mexican, though occasionally it worked out that way because he tanned easily and well.

Exhausted from the journey and relieved to have arrived at all, he carried his baggage the two blocks from the bus station to the hotel.
click on photos to enlarge

Monday, June 16, 2008

Amazing Scenes From Outer Space

A number of years ago I heard a recording of Hugh Downs in which he was left speechless while trying to describe the beauty of some spectacular ice formations in Antarctica. The ultimate crime in television or radio is dead air, but Downs was simply so awestruck he literally didn't know what to see. His first words, once he could find words, were an attempt to ask a profound question. Why would God make such incredible beauty and place it in such an inhospitable place where no one would ever see it?

That same question comes to mind when I muse on the photos that have been coming back from outer space via the Hubble telescope.

We've always known that it's an amazing universe. And photos from our Hubble spaceship telescope have made us aware of increasing quantities and varieties of remarkable vistas, images and scenes in nearly every corner of our impossibly vast universe. For example, the Sombrero Galaxy, above, 28 million light years from Earth, has 800 billion suns and is 50,000 light years across. Put your mind around those numbers.

The red image here is called the Cone Nebula. The portion pictured here with the red background is 2.5 light years in length or the equivalent of 23 million round trips to the Moon.

Numerous websites are posting these images. Do a Google search for Hubble telescope photos. You will be amazed. Some sites highlight the "top ten" and others share the "top one hundred." This blogsite here only makes note of a couple from the wondrous array of images, with the hope that you will proceed to explore further.

I am reminded of musings of David in his oft-quoted Psalm 8: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him?"

Danger Plus Opportunity Equals Crisis?

I'm not sure where I first heard if, but it seems like the insight came from my brother Ron while studying for his Masters in psychology. He later got his Ph.D. and I doubt ever changed his tune about this very interesting Chinese word for "crisis." The word was composed of two different Chinese characeters, Wei and Chi, which mean Danger and Opportunity. Every crisis in life has these two components. Our response is to recognize the danger and embrace the opportunies presented in the crisis moment.

Well, guess what? I stumbled upon a blog today that essentially blasted this notion to smithereens. According to the Pinyin website, this notion that the Cinese word for crisis is composed of danger and opportunity is a myth. The writer is not really pleased at having to be the one to point out the facts, but he does feel obligated to set the record straight.

Goodness! I think I have even written about Wei Chi and I know that the idea has been ricocheting across many a printed page and continues on the internet with no signs of abating. There may be as many as a million web pages with this incorrect interpretation of the Chinese word for crisis.

My take is that it sure was a handy insight, even if misguided and mistaken. I get the distinct impression that this guy is for real and his knowledge of Chinese firmly established. And until I hear otherwise, I will have to search for a better way to face my own crises, even if only linguistic.

To read the whole account as to how a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray, check it out here. It's a good read.

Excerpt: "I first encountered this curious specimen of oriental wisdom about ten years ago at an altitude of 35,000 feet sitting next to an American executive. He was intently studying a bound volume that had adopted this notorious formulation as the basic premise of its method for making increased profits even when the market is falling. At that moment, I didn't have the heart to disappoint my gullible neighbor who was blissfully imbibing what he assumed were the gems of Far Eastern sagacity enshrined within the pages of his workbook. Now, however, the damage from this kind of pseudo-profundity has reached such gross proportions that I feel obliged, as a responsible Sinologist, to take counteraction." ~ Victor H. Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, University of Pennsylvania

Sunday, June 15, 2008

20th Century Death Tolls

"Women will get the vote, and will become the peer of man in education, in literature, in art, in science, in the home, the church and the state." ~ Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 1900

In 1900, there was a great confidence about the new century. It would be a century of wonder and achievement. Freud, it was said, introduced his Interpretation of Dreams that year because the time was ripe for a new golden age in human history. There was even optimism that housework chores would no longer be a chore. It would be an era of Utopian Paradise.

I am reminded here of an article I was reading about twenty-five years ago along the same line that in the 21st century our robots would do our housework. At the time I was painting an apartment and, looking out the window at a street person rummaging the dumpster I thought, "That guy will never have a robot."

The ivory tower visions of optimists need a dose of reality-based rootedness once in a while. It is true that human achievements in the 20th century were nothing short of astonishing (manned flight, walking on the moon, telecommunications, etc.) but there has been a dark side as well. And a lot of that dark side is not going away, no matter how hard we try to avoid looking. When people study what really happened in the past, it is easy to understand why some are uneasy about the future as well.

Milton Leitenberg, of the Center for International and Security Studies, published a 2003 paper which gave very detailed estimates for all major conflicts between 1945 and 2000. His estimate for the total century is based on the following numbers:
World War I mortality, between 13 and 15 million.
The Armenian Genocide of 1915, 1 million.
The Russian civil war of 1918–1922 and the Polish-Soviet conflict towards its end, deaths of over 12.5 million in Russia alone.
The Chaco War, between Paraguay and Bolivia, 1928–1933, approximately 3 million deaths.
The Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939, 600,000 deaths.
Various colonial wars, approximately 1.5 million deaths.
World War II, deaths of between 55 and 65 million.
Wars/conflicts between 1945 and 2000, deaths of 40 million.
Soviet collectivization and "dekulakization" 16 million to 50 million, though some included in World War II totals in these estimates.
Deaths under Mao, between 16 million and 30 million.

Adding in a variety of other pogroms and civil wars, he comes to a final estimate of 216 million. This does not include what he calls "structural violence": deaths in under-developed nations because of crime, poverty, environmental degradation, disease, malnutrition not part of famine, contaminated water and lack of available medicine. He estimates that this reached 17 or 18 million per year by 2000.

No wonder Larry Norman closed one of his most famous songs, "Only Visiting This Planet," with the words, "This world is not my home."

"Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn." ~ Robert Burns

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Day in the Life: Bud Wagner

Tuesday, December 9, 1941
Another alert at 12:30 a.m. Hard to get up, but off-duty cooks always have to help load. Most of our personal things go along as well, except for our foot lockers.

Had a bad headache. My things are in a mess. We left at 1:30. Got somewhere around Leesville to the firing range at 4:00.

Tarman and I put up our tent together. The situation is non-tactical, so we built a big bon-fire tonight.

As we gathered together around our fire, and after, we had an arousing talk by Captain Genung. Some of the things he said were, "This is it, men. We go for the duration. You will learn to bayonet the Japs and Germans as they sleep in their tents. It's all-out war now. Be prepared to go and do what you are told."

After that, we wondered if the Germans could see our big fire, and maybe come and bayonet us.

The United States and Great Britain had both declared war on Japan. In his address to Congress, President Roosevelt described the events at Pearl Harbor as the forming part of a "date that will live in infamy." Roosevelt did not ask Congress to declare war on Germany or Italy.

Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands, The Free French, Yugoslavia, and several South American countries all declared war on Japan. Also, China declared war on Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Some sobering facts had come in since Sunday's attack on Pearl Harbor. At 07:55 local time, Japanese carrier aircraft attacked the main base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. There was complete tactical and strategic surprise.

Six Jap carriers were sent with a total of 423 planes. Two waves of attacks were sent in. All eight U.S. battleships in port were damaged, five of them were sunk. Also, three cruisers and three destroyers were sunk. We lost 188 aircraft to the Japs' 29.

Words and accusations were flying. The Admiral in charge of the Pacific Fleet would be dismissed because of having all Anti-Aircraft (A.A.) guns locked in peace-time. Then it was Sunday, and many officers and crews from ships were ashore.

We had a lot to talk about, and wondered at how many more mistakes we would be going through for the "duration?" There were some. And those who made the mistakes were sure to try to cover them.

All in all we were able to say, as we could many times in the future, that "Error is Error, and Truth is Truth."

A Day in the Life: Robert Lookup

Monday, June 4, 2001
The Raid 570 6:46 am - 7:57 am
Lee Marvin ~ Van Heflin ~ James Best

Five Fingers 575 8:10 - 8:30 am
James Mason ~ Walter Hampton

Conspiracy 500 9:50 - 10:35 am
Pete Sullivan ~ Owen Teale

Five Fingers 595 10:46 am - 12:02 pm
Michael Rennie ~ Danielle Darrieux

The Domino Principle 605 3:03 - 4:07 pm
Gene Hackman ~ Eli Wallach

House of Games 400 4:20 5:12 pm
Lindsay Crouse ~ Joe Mantegna

Opposite Sex/How to Live 565 5:18 - 6:32
Aryle Gross ~ Courtney Cox ~ Kevin Pollak

Conspiracy 500 7:51 - 8:36 pm
Barnaby Kay ~ Jonathan Coy

Nixon 565 8:45 - 10:24 pm
Tony Plana ~ Bob Hoskins

The Boss' Wife 555 4:03 - 4:55 a.m.
Robert Costanzo ~ Daniel Stern

Typical Entry
from the Journal of Robert Lookup

Friday, June 13, 2008

PR & Propaganda

"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” ~ Edward Bernays, Propaganda, c. 1928

“We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.” ~ ibid.

I have finally obtained my own copy of Edward Bernays' ground breaking manual on mass manipulation. The irony is that the word propaganda was a good word back then. When this book was written, the liberal elite liked the idea of controlling the masses without having to resort to guns.

Unfortunately for the mind-shapers and benders, a not so nice guy across the seas liked these ideas so much that our first mental association when we say the word Propaganda these days is Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda who made the famous statement “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Quite naturally, after the war American proponents of values shapers and manipulators could no longer call what they did propaganda. Thus was born the public relations industry. Today, it is PR that rules the world. No elected official in high office could exist without spin-masters at his or her right hand. Spin…. organizing today’s massive quantities of information into a tool for massaging minds, controlling perceptions, creating a pseudo-harmony that enables our complex society to function as a somewhat cohesive whole.

Heaven forbid, however, that people should read between the lines and think for themselves. What’s really going on here? What’s really happening in America today? How much of what is really happening do we see in the papers… and how much is spin?

This is a theme that I will undoubtedly return to…

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Yesterday's Fortune Cookie Advice

I wasn’t feeling myself yesterday. Turns out I was feeling the waitress’s knee.

No, actually I was in a Chinese Restaurant for lunch and feeling in a funk. You know, sort of gloomy. I am sure it's not the weather, which was 41 degrees and wind chill of minus 18 in mid-June. I was doing my introspection thing, asking those "Who am I? What is my life all about?" type of questions. Fortunately, when I get that way I pull out my self-talk cards from the Success Motivation Collector’s Set, Gold Leaf Edition Volume 3, Series 2, version 2.01, copyright 1999, Milton Bradley and I find the one with the little picture of a chameleon on it, his eyes glowing, lips curled slightly with that smug "cat that ate the canary" look. It says on the card, which has very worn corners from years of handling, "You can be whatever you want to be."

So I am sitting there waiting for my order, the Happy Season, which I always order because it sounds so cheerful, repeating my success script like a mantra and imagining being a leopard who can change his spots into stripes so he can blend in with the zebras. I just walk around in the African wild in Nairobi or some other nature preserve where the hippos and antelope play, while lions and hyenas eat their hearts out... I would have an advantage as a chameleon leopard, because I wouldn't have to outrun anything. First I would blend in with the grass, then get my stripes going and blend in with the zebras. I'd get to eat a big healthy zebra instead of the weak and sickly ones, which the other carnivores settle for because the healthy ones are too quick.

So all through my meal I was getting hepped up on my self talk, "You can be whatever you want to be. You can be whatever you want to be."

I paid my bill, feeling pretty smug, muscles poised, ready to conquer the Serenghetti, or at least an afternoon of paperwork at the office. Then I opened my fortune cookie, which said, “Quit your wishful thinking. Quit your wishful thinking.” Naturally it set me back, but as I was driving back to the office through the sleet and freezing rain, I realized she probably gives that cookie to all the guys.

Next time I think I will picture myself as a dinosaur.

This attempt at a comic interlude has been brought to you by the Zounds Corporation, proud sponsor of the Edline News Affiliates of Boston, Toronto, Chippewa Falls and Toledo. We now return you to our depressing economic news, including rising oil prices, worldwide food riots, killer viruses, incurable diseases, epidemics, and other general disasters.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

On Self Awareness

Notes and quotes on self-awareness snatched from readings and various places on the net. Be sure to take your time to reflect along the way.

“Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.”
~Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

"We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done."
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live."
~Mark Twain

"People of the world don't look at themselves, and so they blame one another."
~Mevlana Rumi

"If we are too busy, if we are carried away every day by our projects, our uncertainty, our craving, how can we have the time to stop and look deeply into the situation--our own situation, the situation of our beloved one, the situation of our family and of our community, and the situation of our nation and of the other nations?"
~Thich Nhat Hanh

"It's surprising how many persons go through life without ever recognizing that their feelings toward other people are largely determined by their feelings toward themselves, and if you're not comfortable within yourself, you can't be comfortable with others."
~Sydney J. Harris

"Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself."
~William Faulkner

"Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."
~Margaret Thatcher

"It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching."
~St. Francis of Assisi

Please click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Another Dylan Portrait

My friends know that from spring to fall I turn my garage into an art studio. They also know that I am a Dylan fan. This here is a portrait of Dylan which I did this past week. (click image to enlarge) I’d painted the background a year ago, but hadn’t known where to go with it. Last weekend I spent an evening working on several pieces with a variety of colors on my pallet. The background from last year, perched on the easel, had been patiently awaiting my attention. In a moment of spontaneous exuberance I decided to flatten my easel against the center of the painting.

For some reason the image of Dylan appeared, and with the help of a few additional brushstrokes, the face took the final form you see here. Since the image seems to reflect a Sixties Dylan, I will add the lyrics to a Dylan song from that same period, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)"

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child's balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying.

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool's gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying.

Temptation's page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover
That you'd just be
One more person crying.

So don't fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It's alright, Ma, I'm only sighing.

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don't hate nothing at all
Except hatred.

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It's easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.

An' though the rules of the road have been lodged
It's only people's games that you got to dodge
And it's alright, Ma, I can make it.

Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you're the one
That can do what's never been done
That can win what's never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks
They really found you.

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy
Insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not fergit
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to.

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something
They invest in.

While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him.

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society's pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he's in.

But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it's alright, Ma, if I can't please him.

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn't talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony.

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer's pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death's honesty
Won't fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes
Must get lonely.

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards
False gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough
What else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine
But it's alright, Ma, it's life, and life only.

Witch Hunts

In our philosophy club last month we listened to a lecture on witch hunts titled, “Let Us Burn the Witches to Save Them.” It is not a pretty piece of history, and it lasted for several hundred years. (The witch hunts, not the lecture.)

There is much more that can be said about the topic than I have either the time or inclination for here, but I wanted to draw attention to one facet of the witch hunt phenomenon. These witch hunts were a little different from lynchings which are essentially a mob action. The witch hunts involved “experts” and proceedings that had an air of legal authority based on the Pope-endorsed document Malleous Malficarum. (Protestants had their own rigorous codes as well.)

According to the book, there were three tests for determining if someone were a witch. The Tear Test (as in shedding tears, or not being able to), the Float Test and the Prick Test. The float test itself seems a no win proposition. If you float, you are a witch. You had better be able to hold your breath a long time after exhaling because you sure don't want a lot of air in your lungs if you're aiming for the bottom of the pond. Evidently, you have to sink in order to prove you are not a witch. I'm not sure how you're supposed to breathe down there. Looks like a bummer if you have osteoporosis, like many older women do.

The Prick Test involved pincers which the “experts” would use to probe for the “devil spot” where the evil entered you body. These experts would pinch you all over looking for a spot that has no feeling, a dead spot where the evil one entered through your skin. It was an ugly business.

Witch hunts today are of a different character, of course. We no longer burn them at the stake. But they still have the same effect: making people afraid to become heretics.