Sunday, October 30, 2005

Blogs Are Like Children

Reading the Baron's Boy's blog today, I found him thinking in some of the same circles I've been in of late. Here's what he says, in discussing the lyrics to a song, what his leaving home for college means for him at the moment:

I've written a bunch of stuff on this same subject--leaving home and the inevitable sense of alienation and abandonment it brings. In some ways, this song is an allegory. It's not just about a guy who's flying off into space. It's about leaving and coming back, and realizing how much can change. Because, really, isn't that what it's all about? Leaving home and coming home and finding out that you're not the man that your loved ones thought you were...that you aren't the man you thought you were? I've left and come back too many times to come to any other conclusion, that each departure makes me a different man.

And now here I am, burning out my fuse on Instrumental Analysis and Physical Chemistry. There was a time this week I felt really alone, for some reason. Maybe it was the fact that it was cold outside and I didn't have a coat (and if you think that's silly, try walking in the cold without a jacket. You'll feel really lonely really quickly), or maybe it was the impending PChem Test Of Doom, but sometimes college can make you feel really alone. At first it makes you feel really loved and accepted, but sooner or later you have to come to terms with the fact that it's more than halfway done and that when you leave, you're going to have to have at least a somewhat coherent plan on what you want to do with your life now that your academic security blanket has been roughly yanked away.

And maybe it will be a long, long, time. Maybe I'll always feel kind of alone. Maybe part of being human in this life is realizing that ulitmately, you are alone, and that that's OK. After all, a lot of coming to grips with things is merely letting them be OK and not doing a hell of a lot to try to change them, fatalistic as that sounds. It doesn't mean I don't want to make a difference...I just want to be able to figure out when it's worth it to try to change something, and when it's better to merely leave it be and let it be what it is. So I guess I'll just keep tilting at my various windmills until I figure out which ones are worth attacking.
Hmmm...I was just saying to the Baron this morning that my "empty nest" grieving was so intertwined with Shelagh's death -- since they occurred only a few months apart -- that it's taken me a few years to untangle the threads of each. And once I had them separated, I learned something else.

Maintaining a blog is a lot like having another person around, maybe even like having a child. You have to feed it posts regularly or it withers and dies. It grows and makes different demands in its various stages of development. It talks back to you in the form of comments, and is more time-consuming than you could have imagined when you first decided to begin.

When I was pregnant with Shelagh, my second child, I remember feeling some trepidation about how a parent could love another child as much as one does this first one. When I asked my former father-in-law how he did that, he told me that only the experience of holding the second child (or the third, or the fourth) would prove to me that love expands to take in whatever is there. When I asked him how he and my former mother-in-law had managed the work of six boys, he laughed and said --oh, that! The work with the second child doesn't double, it increases geometrically.

It turned out he was right. One time he was taking the boys up to their summer cottage and had stopped at the usual ice-cream rest stop they always used. As he and the gang of children were walking back to the car, someone asked him, "are these all yours or are you going on a picnic?" Without missing a beat, my f.i.l. responded, "yep, they're all mine and it's no picnic."

Fortunately blogs are not quite the same. While they demand attention, get off the track sometimes, suffer if you neglect them, the work of having two does not increase geometrically. In fact, it may even decrease some, if you occasionally cross post to the other blog.

On the other hand, if you have two blogs, one of them ends up as the stepchild. Doesn't get as much traffic,you don't feel the same compulsion to make sure it's alive and breathing, others don't pay as much attention to junior, and it tends to remain a bit stunted. The advantage is you can say more, link less, and be outrageous if so inclined.

I can't imagine repeating Jewish jokes on Gates, or posting pictures of modern day Madonnas, or giving out recipes. As for staying on topic...what topic? After all, The Neighborhood of God is about chaos, no?

You didn't know that? Read the fine print.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Old Man's Dream

One Sunday morning some years ago, there was a knock at the door. When I answered it, a young black man stood on the porch. I didn't know him, but that's not surprising. Though we live in a rural area where names and faces are familiar, there is not a lot of "social" mixing between black and white families. Some, but not much. Our county had too long a history of slavery and after the Emancipation Proclamation things didn't improve substantially for a long, long time. Generations of rules so repressive that you can see their shadows even now.

Fear of The Man in some of the old people is quite active still. One of our neighbors used to ask us to deal with the court house when necessary; it made her too anxious when faced with that sea of pale faces, the faces of Authority. Such a situation only spelled trouble in her mind.

"Hey, Cora," I'd say, "your worries are valid. DMV gives me the creeps." And so off I would go on whatever errand she needed. Though I do wish she were here now to see how integrated the sheriff's department has become, not to mention the School Board, the Boy Scouts, etc.

But all of that is merely prologue, the background and setting of the incident and the way things were back then.

This is The Story of the Pearly Gates, a tale which begins (for us, anyway) at the front door on a Sunday morning. The young man was poised and serious (Oh. I already told you he was serious, didn't I? Ah, the perquisites of age, the pleasures of repeating oneself). Before I could say hello, the man asked if this was the home of the Baron. I admitted as much, figuring he'd come to ask permission to hunt on our property during deer season -- take as many as possible I always say. But as it turned out, this wasn't about stalking deer or turkeys.

"Is this the Baron who paints those pictures?"

I admitted that indeed it was the same man and invited him in. No, he'd wait there --and he pointed to his car, parked in the driveway, the engine idling. I could see an old man in the passenger seat in front.

"I don't want to leave my granddaddy too long," he said. So...this was neither a social call nor a hunting pass.

I went to fetch the Baron. Once again, the young man checked the Baron's credentials. "You're the one sits by the side of the road painting pictures?"

The Baron admitted as much. He was a familiar fixture to everyone by now, considering that he'd been doing exactly that for twenty years. Sitting by the side of the road painting while cars and trucks went by (startling him with a friendly honk), sitting in the middle of the field painting while cows and their attendant fliesgathered to watch, sitting near the river painting while people stood around kibitzing. And always, always, wiping his brush on his t-shirt or the legs of his jeans. Summer had long become the smell of turpentine woven into the multi-colored t-shirt, shirts which, as the season wore on, became increasingly colorful and increasingly spotted with rotted holes left by the turpentine.

The young man asked the Baron if he’d come to the car to talk to his grandfather. Mystified, the Baron stepped off the porch, walking over to the passenger side of the car. The old man rolled his window down with great effort and told the Baron he’d come on a mission: he needed to have a picture painted.

It turned out that the old man — he was bent frail with age and appeared to be in his eighties — had recently dreamed of heaven. Well, not heaven exactly, but the gates of heaven. If he described what he saw, would the Baron be willing to paint a picture of it? The Baron thought it would be a most agreeable commission, though he warned the old grandfather that since it was his dream, an artist couldn’t always translate someone else’s vision. The old man understood that very well; he’d take his chances.

His description was detailed. The gates were gold, but they glowed, too. “Like pearl,” he said. And on the top of gates, on each side, were pinecones.

The Baron stopped him. “Do you mean pineapples?” And the old man agreed — they were pineapples, but smaller than the kind you see in the grocery store. Later I told the Baron that pineapples were symbols for hospitality and had been particularly common during the Federal period in America.

What else? There was light, kind of all around, and the gates were closed. Closed but not locked. They were tall, heavy gates, much taller than a man, and if they were opened they would be able to swing on their hinges either inward or out. In his dream, the old man stood in front of the gates so he hadn’t noticed if there was a path leading up to where he was. As is the case in dreams, he was simply there and the gates were, too.

That was it. The Baron finished his notes and the young man thanked the Baron, as did the grandfather as he laboriously rolled up the window. They gave him their phone number and the Baron promised to call when the picture was done. The young man got in the car, backed up, and slowly made his way down the drive while the Baron walked back to the house.

It’s been too many years now to be able to recall how long it took the Baron to paint the old man’s dream. Probably not long. Since it appeared to both of us that this was a dream about the grandfather’s death, getting it down on canvas fairly quickly seemed like a good idea. Since I can’t remember what else he was painting at the time; I’ll guess and say that the pearly gates commission was finished a week or two after the old man’s visit. Then the oils had to dry thoroughly before the painting was sprayed with several coats of protective varnish.

Once that was done, the Baron called the old man. He appeared shortly, chauffeured again by his grandson. The Baron brought the painting out to the car for the grandfather’s inspection. It was perfect: his dream lay on that piece of canvas exactly as it had appeared in the old man’s mind. The Baron opened the back door of the car and placed the painting on the seat. As he closed the door, the grandson asked him how much the painting cost.

“No charge,” said the Baron, and refused what the grandson held out. “Some things shouldn’t be bought and sold,” was how the Baron put it. This answer must have satisfied the young man. He climbed into the car, backed up once again, and turned down the driveway.

We've forgotten their names now, only remembering that the surname was a familiar name in these parts. All this happened so long ago that the old man is surely gone by now. But his vision remains, and someone has inherited it. When they look at it, I wonder what it means to them, what associations his vision has for the grandfather’s descendants. Since this occurred in the days before digital cameras, the Baron didn’t take a picture of his work. For us, it exists only in our memories.

The important thing is what it provided for the old grandfather. It is indeed, ever and always, to be able to look into one’s future as it hangs there on the wall.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Dymphna, Patron Saint of the Insane

This essay is dedicated to Erico.

The saints’ stories were among my favorites growing up. I don’t mean the anemic virgins-and-martyrs-eaten-by-lions books, illustrated with men and women lifting their eyes heavenwards as the lions stalked them in the background, waiting for the blessing of the food before they ate it. Nor did St. Sebastian, his body full of arrows, hold my attention, other than a brief look —“yikes”— and turn the page, please.

There were lots of men and women who were canonized for more mundane reasons than dying for their faith and it was their stories which attracted me. In my house, being full as it was of expatriate Dubliners, St. Patrick had pride of place. My mother never quite got over the fact that while New York City and Savannah had large parades on his feast day, the rest of the country used it as an excuse to drink green beer. In Ireland, on St. Patrick’s Day, in serious honor to his name, the bars were all closed and the churches were open.

Alongside St. Patrick there was St. Bridgid. Early on, the Catholic Church had a rough gender equality; frequently a male saint had a companion female saint. They usually knew one another. To my mind, some of them probably got up to a little hanky-panky: the intensity of the holy can do that. One thinks of Heloise and Abelard, those star-crossed lovers who veered from the paths of holiness, dropping off into the ravines of fleshly distractions. In Spain, St. Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross were friends. He was the more mystic of the two; she was the reformer.

The thing is, the desire for union with God and the desire for union with another human being arise from the same root — the urge for transcendence, for flight from our solitary experience, for immortality. Given our differing temperaments, predilections, and experiences we can diverge in many ways from the usual paths of what the Church used to term “vocation.” The idea was not that we chose what we would do with our lives; instead we were to listen to that small inner voice in order to be given our marching orders. Within evangelical circles, I believe the term “calling” refers particularly to some kind of ministry. Back in the old pre-Vatican II days, it meant that you were supposed to have divine assistance in trying to figure out what you were going to do with this, your one and only life. Some of those choices were limited; now there are almost no limits at all and young people freeze in the quandary of too much choice and too little direction. Saint Dymphna’s situation was familiar: her "vocation" was not what she chose but rather what was forced upon her by circumstance.

But before we consider her story, let’s discuss its veracity. The oral tradition surrounding Saint Dymphna probably points to a real person, given some of the artifacts. In Roman Catholic terms, the relics of Dymphna are considered “first class” relics. But that’s hardly important here since we are talking about a mythos which likely formed around an all-too-familiar story, a situation which repeated itself through the generations in many areas of Europe (the story is too old to call these “countries” in the modern sense). There are similarly named women with comparable stories in Ireland and in Germany.

Since we can’t know for sure, and since there seem to be physical remnants of someone in a final resting place, I choose to envision Dymphna as real. For lack of a better term, call her my transitional object. But that’s my meaning: you can read her story and decide its significance for yourself. I am merely the teller of the tale. Since there are variations in the stories, I have chosen to present the dominant narrative while appropriating elements from various accounts.

Dymphna was born in the 7th century (a contemporary of Mohammed, though as far from Allah’s servant as one can be and still exist on the same planet). She was the daughter of an Irish chieftain father, Damon, and an unnamed Christian mother. At least this is how most stories present her parentage. Since Patrick knew intimately the clan system in Ireland his strategy was to convert all the chieftains first, knowing the rest would follow (a good strategy. It worked with Constantinople). Thus, it’s likely Damon was in fact a Christian, though this takes some of the luster off the shamrock. To get around the problem of his obviously murderous tendencies, he is often portrayed as a pagan rather than a Christian. Hagiography is not history.

The tragedy opens when Dymphna is an adolescent. Her mother dies, leaving behind a deeply grieving widower and his daughter. The solution for his bereavement, suggested by his councilors, is to find a replacement for dead wife. The king agrees to this advice and begins the search for a successor to his wife.

He had only two stipulations: the candidate must be nobly born and she must resemble his dead wife. Having lived among Celts all my life, I don’t find the latter requirement to be very difficult — there can be a sameness running through some of us — but it was a problem for the chieftain . After searching the kingdom — and several other clans, who knows? — no woman was presented who qualified on both counts. The king (King, Chieftain, it’s all the same. Ask an Irishman and he’ll tell you he’s “Irish all the way back to the Kings”) grew ever more melancholy until (as you guessed) his eye fell upon his daughter. She fit both requirements: she was both nobly born and she was, most unfortunately for her, the spitting image of her mother. Problem solved. Damon would marry his child.

Dymphna, let us say, demurred. Her immediate response? Probably “Yecch!” or its Gaelic equivalent. The notion of marrying one’s own father may be a genetically hard-wired disinclination; it may be that and an admixture of social conditioning about what one does or does not do with one's elders. Whatever the reason, Dymphna declined. She declined repeatedly. When push came to shove, Dymphna did the intelligent and courageous thing: she left for parts unknown. Even though her flight failed to save her, I’ll explain later why it was a smart move, however flawed it may have been in its execution.

It was also a good strategy to take others with her. There is a safety in numbers when you are fleeing someone dangerous. This is not universally true, of course, but to this day it remains a good idea to move en tourage, especially if those around you are devoted to your safety. Dymphna took her elderly confessor, Gerebemus — and some versions claim she also fled with the court jester and his wife. This strikes me as an anachronism. Did Irish chieftains maintain court jesters in the 6th century? Given what we know about the temperament of Irish chieftains, a jester in his court would seem to be an occupation with a short shelf life. And if this couple did go along we hear nothing further of them once Ireland has been left behind.

When they come aground, Dymphna and Gerebemus are in Antwerp. They move on from there to the town of Gheel, or Geel, some twenty-five miles away. Once there, Dymphna set up some kind of hermitage for herself and for Gerebemus. A Catholic church was already in existence so Dymphna’s arrival would not have been untoward. A devout, wealthy woman could well have been a welcome addition in a small town.

In short order, Dymphna was reputed to have healing powers. Being a foreigner, this power would more likely be conferred upon her than it would have been to someone known to the inhabitants from childhood. And her resources, which enabled her to purchase the poultices and powders for healing, would have added to her reputation for curing the sick. However, it was the use of her wealth which allowed her father to track her down. Sending out his minions to trace the path of the gold coins used along her route of escape — his gold coins -- it wasn’t difficult to find an errant daughter. In short order, the Irish chieftain faced his prey.

Once more Dymphna was given her choice: marriage to her father or death. Gerebemus, her old confessor, attempted to ward off the King. He was summarily executed. Dymphna was adamant: she wouldn’t marry her father and she was going to remain where she was. Her father beheaded Dymphna then and there and returned to Ireland, leaving his daughter’s body and that of Gerebemus where they lay.

One account I read a few years ago (and cannot find) said that the townspeople were so remorseful at having failed to protect Dymphna, and felt so keenly their loss, that they entombed the bodies together and built a shrine in their memory. As it goes in these stories, accounts of miraculous cures began to accumulate, enough of them over a long enough period of time that eventually a church was built in Dymphna’s honor and her remains were placed there (those of Gerebemus were by most accounts removed to Kanten, though Sonsbeck, Germany claims his relics, except for his head, which supposedly remains with Dymphna in Gheel). The church burned in 1489 and was rebuilt in 1532. It still stands.

At some point, probably in the 17th century, an asylum was established in Gheel, no doubt partly based on the fact that the shrine to Saint Dymphna was alleged to have cured people with epilepsy and emotional ailments. Like Dymphna herself, though, this hospital was no ordinary venture. When patients arrive in Gheel, they are institutionalized for observation and then gradually released into the community to live and work among the townspeople. This unique (and I use the word advisedly since I know of no other such arrangement between consensual reality and lunacy) seems to have great efficacy.

Other countries have come to study the Gheel model. Whether it translates to anywhere else is questionable, however. Remember that Gheel’s original response, all those centuries ago, was one of remorse for having failed to protect a young girl from a horrible death at the hands of her father. In our “so-sorry” culture, where the rush to forgive the tyrant while the victims lie bleeding, such a transplant is probably not possible.

Dymphna was not a victim. She failed to achieve her freedom, but she never knuckled under and she refused to be cowed by a homicidally melancholic father. No, Dymphna is a victor. Her life is proof that there are worse things than dying. Her decision to leave an intolerable situation was wise. Her lack of cunning in using the gold coins which permitted her determined “lover” to find her is often repeated today when abused women run, only to be tracked down by their trail of credit card receipts.


There are no links in this essay. Saint Dymphna’s life is available in many forms on the web. Choose your own version or cobble together pieces of the traditions available to make a story to your liking.

There are a number of icons available, including the statue I use to represent my blog nic. I don’t particularly like this statue because the depiction, besides being saccharine, is not Celtic; it’s American Catholic kitsch. Dymphna, to my mind’s eye, is a sturdy lass of medium height and build with flashing green eyes and an untidy mane of dark hair. The blond ectomorph of this statue is definitely not Celtic (at least before the Danes invaded Ireland). On the other hand, this version has Dymphna holding the sword, symbol of martyrdom, and you can see the serpent crushed under her foot — a symbol for the vanquishment of evil, and so I like to think, of emotional suffering also. Iconography has rules, and the portrayal of saints in sculpture or painting follows protocols. Virgins are shown holding lilies; Dymphna, given what we can see of her temperament, has been dubbed “The Fire Lily.”

When we are rich, I plan to commission someone to portray Dymphna as I imagine her. Fortunately, there are still iconographers out there; the art hasn’t died out completely. In a subsequent essay, look for more information on this.

Dymphna’s Feast Day is May 15th, as is her confessor's, Saint Gerebemus. He is the patron saint for those who suffer from gout. Her flower is the Welsh poppy.

Bollandists are modern day hagiographers. They do interesting work on old texts.

Gheel, or Geel, is still there. So is the asylum. So are the lunatics.

Obviously, Saint Dymphna of Ireland, lately of Gheel, is one of the patron saints of abused children and of the mentally ill, of which she can be numbered among the former and her father among the latter. As I’ve said elsewhere, my diagnosis for him —though it appears in no manuals of such — is homicidal melancholia. Many abusive spouses suffer from this disorder.

Prayer to Saint Dymphna

Ah, girl, you who knew how to be still in the thin places,
To hide in trepidation, to weep scorching shame,
Please come to the aid of those who beseech the heavens
For surcease from their undeserved pain.
Stay the hand of their abusers and soften the hearts
Of those who proclaim to love them.
Grant great courage of heart to the children who call on you,
And firmness of purpose to the people who invoke your story.
With your lily, with that sword, and with the strength of your heel,
Vanquish the inner demons who haunt our days and dreams
Blocking the path to freedom.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Walk, Interrupted

Box Turtle Eating Wood Pear
So I've been gradually recovering from my fight with gravity. Although gravity won and I may have a torn meniscus to show for my defiance of her laws, I have been more mobile of late. And since yesterday was so lovely and mild -- hiding mischievously as it does what is to come in a few months -- I decided to risk a walk down the driveway. Aside from a stray deer, or a revengeful Muslim come to look us up, what had I to fear? Nuthin' much, as long I kept my eyes on the road.

So OffIWent, carrying my cane to bat the occasional piece of gravel in a mock game of senile field hockey. Lo and behold, at the first turn, didn't I come upon the wood pear tree. My favorite tree on our driveway. The first to green out, the last to color up and drop its leaves...and this year, laden with fruit.

These pears look like the Asian ones -- those pricey round things in the produce department -- only they're quite a bit smaller. And they're grittier, too. But much, much sweeter. Unlike cultivated pears, they're not taken from the tree while they still feel like hardballs. And you don't have to wrap them in paper to have them ripen. The only problem is that they do ripen so much later than regular pears that one can get impatient waiting for them to drop. They are quite high up, too, so it's not easy to reach them. Especially if one has been threatened with death if one attempts to climb a ladder.

Lucky for me, I'd brought the cane. Whacking a closely growing sapling, I managed to hit the branches of fruit and knock a few off. But once they landed, I could see they were unripe and would have to be cooked to be edible. Searching around for a stray one, hoping perhaps a ripe one had rolled into the draw nearby, I came across a lovely golden fruit. Parked next to it was a hungry box turtle...a terrapin, says the Baron, but you know what I mean.

Let's see: terapins can go on land and water; turtles (as in "Painted Turtles" only in water)...and I forget the ones found only on land...?tortoises?? Anyway, they all have hard carapaces and they eat anything that doesn't move. Sounds like some of my relatives.

If figures that this guy had the only good pear. I left him to it. Tomorrow I shall walk down to see if he's still there and how much of the pear remains. Who knows, perhaps another golden globe will have dropped?

Most definitely, another sweet October day will have melted away by then.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Virginia Blog Carnival VII

Like I didn't have enough to do. Like I'm not already behind on getting up the Watcher's Council Posts over on Gates.

So? Who ever said logic was my strong point? Not I. Come to think of it, I loved Symbolic Logic in college, though I sure could confuse myself if I thought on it for too long.Best to do your homework quickly and move on.

Anyway, I've been wanting to read more Virginia bloggers, since that's where I've somehow ended up. I went looking for them the other day -- other Virginia bloggers, I mean. At first all I could find were various opinions on our Attorney General race, with which I will not bore those unfortunates who have not the blessings to dwell here. Besides, if we were smart, we'd limit state races to two weeks...all right, maybe a month...and get on with life. Long campaigns make people regress and talk ugly.

Refusing to be daunted, I persevered, hopping from blog roll to blog roll until...

Lo and behold, I stumbled across a Carnival of VA bloggers. We don't have to be special or do anything other than (1) be from Virginia, and (2) show up. How cool! No competition, just be there.

So I was. And so were a number of others from around the Commonwealth.

Go here and taste the variety. They range from a movement to get a Gay/Straight alliance into the public schools to campaign coverage of the above-mentioned race, to a celebration of Navy Day to a guy who links to my "real blog."

It was fun. And effortless. And this week's host, Nothern Crown, has some photos you should see. The composition and the subject matter on this one are particularly striking. Almost painterly in its attention to detail.

Ah Sweet Mystery of Life

Finally. At last. Proof that dreams indeed come true. The complete works of William Shakespeare Bill Watterson. In hard cover no less. One thousand four hundred and forty pages of Calvin and Mr. Hobbes, weighing in at twenty two-and-a-half pounds. Just the kind of heavy reading to take you through those long winter nights, the ones where you sit exactly in the middle of the bed so nothing can reach up from underneath and grab you. The kind of cold, dark night when the puddle of drool seeps across the uneven, creaky floor boards in your bedroom. A night so dreary that even if you were old enough to collect Social Security you'd still need your dad to leave the light on in the hall.

You know those nights.

At the Amazon site, Art Spiegelman --no less -- delivers the encomium:

By the 1980s the once glorious newspaper comics section had become a wasteland, ravaged by shrinking space, editorial timidity and other ills. The real excitement in my medium had moved to the fertile margins of the alternative press. Bill Watterson, as uninterested in underground comix as I was in the mass media's bland concoctions, marched directly into the wasteland and made the comatose syndicated strip form kick up its heels and dance.From 1985 until Watterson abandoned it at the height of its popularity 10 years later, Calvin and Hobbes echoed the classic strips the artist most admired. Stirring the richly conceived characters and efficient drawing of Peanuts with the visual virtuosity and linguistic playfulness of Pogo and Krazy Kat, he applied his intelligence and supple cartoon skills to come up with a creation beloved by the millions who still mourn its passing.
"Mourn" is exactly the right word. Watterson has inspired those who followed him as surely as he was influenced by his comic forebears. But his inspiration has alighted not just on would-be comic strip artists; Calvin has influenced us all. Or is it Hobbes? Could you choose between Bertie or Jeeves? Of course not; in each case it is a "both-and" story. You cannot envision one without the other.

That happens with real people sometimes, too. Twins, perhaps. Or very close siblings. Or long-married couples. My cousins, Buster and Tommy, were such two. They were Irish twins (i.e.,born about ten months apart). Wherever you saw one, there was the other. Until they were adults, I don't think I ever said their names separately, not even to myself. Why would I, since they themselves were inseparable? The strongest memory I retain of them is from their middle childhood: I was about to be married and everyone was busy with the preparations. It was mid-May -- magnolia time in Florida. The morning of my wedding, Tommy and Buster climbed the huge trees to bring down large, fragrant blossoms for the church hall. I can see those sneakered feet disappearing into the high branches; I can hear the blossoms and buds falling through the leaves to hit the mossy ground below.

Buster-and-Tommy grew up, flew the nest, and banked away in different directions. But they stayed close, always brothers, always friends. And then, Tommy, the youngest of six brothers and sisters, was the first to go. Beaten by the ravages of diabetes and an appetite he could neither master nor understand, Tommy gave up. So now it's only Buster, no Tommy.

Time can be cruel beyond speaking.

Because Calvin is making his reappearance with Hobbes, I am reminded of those funny, freckle-faced boys. And because Calvin is returning, so are the days of my son's childhood, his little five-year-old face buried in the pages of Something Under the Bed is Drooling. I can still see him standing on the porch that Thanksgiving, I can hear his little Elmer Fudd voice reciting from memory:

Another night deprived of slumber,
Hours passing without number.
My eyes trace round the room. I lay

Dripping sweat and now quite certain
That tonight the final curtain
Drops upon my life’s short precious play.

From the darkness by the closet
Comes a noise much like a faucet
Makes: a madd’ning drip drip dripping sound.

It seems some ill-proportioned beast,
Anticipating me deceased,
Is drooling poison puddles on the ground
Something Under the Bed is Drooling in SpanishOf course, it's easier to keep some memories in mind when you have a video of the performance. It was then, watching the images and hearing my son's piping little voice, that I discovered he had a prodigous memory and a flair for Latinate words. With Calvin taking the lead, it's no surprise that years later the Boy won his own National Latin Prize and can write sonnets and sestinas with ease (if memory serves, his first sonnet -- in homage to Charlie Brown -- was to a red-haired girl).

And now the entire span of Calvin's adventures are here between hard covers. No more limp, wilted and well-used copies of the separate books...except,'s what one reviewer says:

This is definitely an archival collection and not ideal for constant casual perusing, though the attractiveness makes it hard to resist. The printing, layout, paper, binding are beautiful but any wear and tear would be heart-breaking. This leads me to describe one drawback: these books aren't really hardbound books. They look so, because of their hard covers, but actually they are what's called "cardboard articles", meaning the pages are not stitched to the spine, and instead glued. Albiet, this is common book binding practice, but I'm sure most of us wouldn't have minded paying some more for real hardbound articles for the sake of longevity in preservation. So although this collection is best left for archival purposes, it's unfortunate they are not exactly archival quality.
In other words, of course we have to buy this Sunday-best collection -- how could we not, if only to bring Calvin back for a moment? But now we know to hang on to the tatterdemalion copies we already have, just for love.

Now we know...this collection is Sunday best, not meant for the bathroom. As for the publisher's decision not to take the binding of these pages as seriously as he ought have, I am even now making up a little doll to look like Andrews McMeel Publishing. And I am arranging the stick pins to use on my effigy of an obviously venal and mendacious operation.

This application of karma is something I learned from Calvin. I'm sure he would do no less.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Vice President at Haifa University is an Israeli Arab

Want to make a bet this won't make the MSM reports anywhere?

Sociology professor Majd el-Haj has been named Haifa University's next dean of research, making him the first Arab faculty member to serve at the vice presidential level of an Israeli university.
Since the idea of a Jew serving in a like capacity in an Arab university is enough to cause apoplexy in some quarters, you'd think this appointment would make a big splash in the legacy media, wouldn't you? Or rather, you would if you were Rip van Winkle and hadn't been up and reading the news since 1948. That was the last time they printed good news for Jews. Times have changed.

Which is why the Israelis deserve recogniton for this. Since they won't get it many other places, here's my voice. Good job, guys.

el-Haj will be responsible for the cultivation of academic research at the university as well as research cooperation with universities abroad. el-Haj is held in international esteem in his fields of research - multiculturalism and the sociology of education. He has extensively studied the Palestinian minority in Israel, conducting comparative studies with other minorities in the country and abroad.
Sounds like academic babble, but that's okay. Given the incredible number of "minorities" in Israel, his work might even have a point.

(Yes, one of my prejudices is academic mandarins).

Vice President el-Haj is grateful for his appointment...kind of.

[he] called the appointment historical, but added that it represents a larger problem. "If it took the state and its academic institutions 57 years to appoint an Arab as dean, then this indicates deep discrimination."
Hmm. He has a point there. And exactly how many Jewish scholars have appointments at Arab institutions of higher learning? Just asking.

The VP thinks his new promotion proves that "nothing is impossible" and that it is indicative of change, despite the "glass ceiling" (yes, he really did say glass ceiling. He may be a change, but he's still a professor) that prevents other minorities from advancing.

I'll bet he thinks life ought to be fair, too.

Well, good on you anyway, Haifa University. But I do hope your other folks aren't as snarky as this fellow. Hope you have your rabies shots up to date, too, since he seems a mite inclined to bite the hand that feeds him.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Useful Idiots Devise a Quiz

There’s a political questionnaire making the blog rounds. It’s a bizarre and simplistic “quiz” loaded with questions that are difficult to answer with any real meaning. After responding to these strangely phrased “do-you-still-beat-your-wife” examples, you get your score and find out what your label is. Everything from Totalitarian to Socialist to Capitalist to Centrist Democrat -- I didn't read them all.

No, I’m not going to link to the test. It’s easy enough to find on many blogs. Besides, since the whole thing looks like something out of the old Pravda I’m not going to join in. But in order to show you some of the creepiness, I’ve excerpted a few of the items so you can judge for yourself.

By the way, at the end of the test, they ask how you voted in the last election. So far, the respondents line up like this:

KERRY: 211,649
BUSH: 109,683

Here are some of the questions or statements, along with my comments. They are not in the order they appear in the “test”; I just picked them at random. Note that you have four choices ranging from "Strongly Disagree" on through "Strongly Agree" --there are no "Maybe" or "Sometimes" choices:

Being poor and black is an advantage in getting into college.
How do you answer that? In some cases it is, but not always. And it certainly is a disadvantage when it comes to actually staying the course. Black kids drop out of college at an alarming rate, disaffected and defeated by a system designed to take their money (or the government's). This question can’t really be answered in a way that’s honest.

America isn't as free as it thinks it is.
This may be the case, depending on which “America” you talk to. Or which immigrant. Are we losing population or are we gaining? Are people lining up to come here or are they lining up to leave? What is the questioner's definition of "free"?

Since parents can't be trusted to monitor what their children watch, TV content needs to be more regulated.
How’s that for snarky? I want the content regulated so my senses aren’t assaulted when I turn the thing on. It has nothing to do with trusting or not trusting parents….who don’t stand guard duty 24/7 on their kids anyway.

If a company invents a pill that cures cancer, they should be allowed to charge whatever they want for it.
The old socialist double bind. No big pharma company is going to do that; they’d get clobbered eventually in the market and they know it. On the other hand, what did it cost them to go through the bureaucratic maze to get the pill to market?

Blind patriotism is a very bad thing.
At no point in this exercise do you have the opportunity to observe whether you think patriotism is good. Only “blind” patriotism is on the table.

It bugs me when somebody names their child something like 'Sunshine' or 'Charm'.
It doesn’t “bug” me so much as it lets me peg their mindset. People identify and project their hopes and dreams onto their kids. “Sunshine” has a lot to live up to at her house.

People raising children have a responsibility to live up to society's standards.
Uh…say what? Since part of raising children is civilizing them, what is this question supposed to indicate?

Tradition is a reliable guide in deciding what's right.
It would have been an answerable question if they'd asked if it might be just one of the guides for decision-making. But you don’t get any nuance here.

I could continue fisking this thing, but you get the idea. Load the questions and point them at your head. "Bang!" You’re whatever they say you are.

Here’s another interesting twist. They have some follow-up yes/no choices, which is reasonable enough: What’s your view on abortion, the death penalty, gun control, the War on Drugs, and the War on Iraq. Notice it's not in Iraq, but on Iraq. Get it? Did you know we were at war with Iraq? I didn't either.

But the twist gets kinkier, because here’s their tabulation of the results:

42% pro-choice
( that means 58% are AGAINST it)

27% pro-death penalty
(oh, maybe they’re just using the “pro” stats here. Sorry )

35% for gun control
(that passes their “pro” alignment. Also means 65% of us like guns, which they neglect to mention)

28% against the War on Drugs
( we’ve got an “against” instead of a “pro”. What gives here? It’s also surprising that so many Kerry supporters favor the war on drugs. Why phrase the result this way? Beats me -- lack of education in logic or statistics maybe?)

15% for the War on Iraq
(the creepy question. No wonder they get this result, considering the way they phrase it)

As Stephen Vincent said, "words matter." I wish they did for these folks.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

“The Long Finger of Life”

CALL ME SLOW: I am the original "hunh?" kind of learner. I entered this post in the Virginia Carnival of Bloggers and obediently posted the link when they put up the entries the following Monday. Ummm...I should have linked here, on the original post, so people could find it, not HERE, on its own separate post where no one would see it if they linked to the post I entered.

Follow the link for my thoughts on the first entry to the Virginia Carnival. I'm sure I'll do others when I recover from my idjit attack...doh.

Mother always said it was a good thing I'm cute.

Michael Jordan's handIn the interest of increasing your knowledge of science, today we give you “The Long Finger of Life.” The information presented here is a subchapter from Chapter Six of The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns on Nurture. You may decide for yourself what the author, Matt Ridley (he of Genome fame), means exactly by “turns on.” Mr. Ridley has a sly sense of humor so you are free to interpret the meaning as pleases or amuses you.

At this point, if you are male, examine your fingers. The index finger and the ring finger, to be precise. For our purposes, the other fingers may be omitted from the discussion. In women, these two fingers — index and ring — are usually the same length (though, I will have to admit that my female ring finger is a bit longer than my index finger. We may jump to our own conclusions about that at another time).

A scientist named John Manning reports his interesting hypothesis in, among other journals, Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, that for most men their ring finger is longer than their index finger. The difference in size, according to Manning, is an indication of the level of prenatal testosterone exposure. Thus, the more testosterone, the longer the ring finger. Ridley claims that this has a good biological explanation: the hox genes, which control the growth of the genitalia, also control the length of digits, and he says
the subtle difference in the timing of events in the womb probably leads to subtly different finger lengths.
Subtle, huh? I suppose that's one term you could apply to this information.

And if Manning’s measurements of the ring finger give us some indications regarding in utero testosterone exposure…umm, so what?

Well, it seems that the guys with long ring fingers -— i.e., high testosterone —- are at greater risk for autism, dyslexia, stammering and immune dysfunction. And they are also more likely to father sons. The short ring finger fellows, while somewhat safer from stammering, are left with a higher risk of heart disease and infertility.

One time Manning used his hypothesis to predict the outcome of a race. Since testosterone is a strong factor in male muscle, Manning predicted that the man with the longest ring finger would win the race. And he did.

The point of all this? Check the ring fingers on the contenders who are running in the next Olympics before you make your illegal bets. Shortens the odds a bit to have this digital information.

I promise, I'll never tell anyone how you won your millions (however, blogging being what it is, a small finder's fee would not be unwelcome).

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats

Deer Eating Ivy

Here are the ivy-eating deer that I’ve been told don’t. Eat ivy, I mean. They promised, "deer don't eat ivy. That's why you can plant it; deer will leave it alone."

Sure they will.

As you can see, there they are, bold as anything, munching on the stuff. Since deer are the moral equivalent of ivy — both are attractive, invasive, and difficult to manage — there is some kind of moral balance in these deer's diet.

Still, this picture probably wouldn’t have happened were it not for the long dry spell of late. One doe looked particularly thin considering how it's October and thus how much fat she ought to have stored for the coming winter. My son-in-law, a hunter, suggested she was probably pretty old and that's why she was thin. Seems like the drought to me, since they're not waiting for the cover of night time to come into the yard.

As I watched them nibbling on the plants from the kitchen window (where this picture was taken through the glass), it reminded me of the old Bing Crosby song my mother used to sing:
Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you
Yes, mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you

If the words sound queer and funny to your ear
Alittle bit jumbled and jivey —
Sing: mares eat oats and does eat oats
And little lambs eat ivy

Oh, mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you-oo
A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you
As a kid myself, I sang that song for years before I recognized it was actually English and not just nonsense syllables. I was walking to the bus stop humming it one morning and the "real" words appeared, plain and clear. Now that sudden recognition made me stop in my tracks and stand there, holding my books, amazed that I hadn't seen them before now. When I came to, I had to run to make the bus. That particular driver always thought I was a bit of a flake. He was right, too, but he seemed to tolerate it. This particular day, he honked to let me know it was move it or lose it. Back then I could really move.

In later years, when I took up running for my "health" it was never fun. Running for the bus made sense and was exhilirating. Running when you were released from the prison of school was glorious exhiliration, especially if you could kick through the mounds of leaves on the sidewalk as you flitted by. But running because it was good for me was never better than tediously virtuous. By then I was too old to flit.

Turkeys seen through the back door screenAs if The Invasion of the Starving Deer wasn't enough, today several flocks of wild turkeys headed through our yard and into the woods, traveling east at a good clip. Ever seen a turkey fly? Makes you want to turn your eyes away in embarrassment for the turkey. One of them made it over the dogwood tree — an amazing, if perverted feat.

As the battalion moved through they stopped here and there to peck at the “lawn” — that withered brown chaff covering our yard. It took a moment to figure out what they could have been eating, but perhaps it was some of the weed grasses gone to seed.

Tomorrow, the rain. The beautiful Tammy rain. Lord, if I had whined sooner, would you have sent a hurricane remnant this way before now? I'm so grateful for the sound of rain on the roof I haven't the heart to see if this one did any real damage. The Baron, who loves to track hurricanes, told me it came ashore at Jacksonville -- where I was born and grew up. When I lived there, we were always lucky: got these wimpy, windy tropical depressions that did little damage, left a whole lot of water in the yard -- I floated in an inner tube briefly, and moved on.

One time the wind drove the rain through the windows over the bookcases. Before we noticed, there was water damage on Mother's copy of Ulysses. Not that she ever actually read James Joyce. It was just that he was a fellow Dubliner and she got homesick sometimes. Besides, he was on the Index and having his evil works in the house made her feel wickedly modern. Sorry, Mother -- you couldn't quite pull that one off. Especially considering you would never open the damn book. Or rather, you opened it once and it scared the bejaysus out of you so you slammed it shut and put it back on the shelf permanently. Can't say I disagree. And I'm glad you chose James Joyce, that you never put little china leprachauns on the mantel.

I hope Tammy kept the faith...that she was wimpy and windy and moved on. And if she is responsible for the resurrection of the curly willows, the forest pansy redbud, the wild hydrangea, the raspberries I planted in the Spring, the camellias, the poor wilting virburum...what can I say but gracias plena?

The only problem is, one's gratitude for the wind and rain is somewhat marred by the thought of what I'm enjoying might have done to someone else before it got here. After Andrew, I lost my taste for hurricane weather.

On the other hand, those poor folks in the Pacific had it much worse than even Katrina. Dumped on by a typhoon with the undignified name of LongWang whilst simultaneously being wracked by an earthquake. Florida and California combined, sounds like. Or Hell One and Hell Two, since I'd never live (again)in either of them. They're both too crowded and full of places you can no longer go in safety.

Tomorrow: Long Wang, or The Genetic Theory of Digits. I'm serious.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Desert or the Flood

Pictures of New Orleans have burned through all our retinas by now. Which is worse --the toxic waters or the toxic politicians that swam to the surface of the roiling waters Katrina left in her wake? Some strange species emerged from the muck.

Meanwhile, here in our little neck of the woods everything is dry and brown. The last significant rain was August 26th. September 2005 was the second driest on record. Now, in October,the weather is lovely: typical October days in the 70's, sunny, warm and dry. Oh so dry. It is dispirting to crunch across the brown chaff that used to be our lawn, to see the dogwoods shrivel as though they'd been burned. They are grey and limp, waiting for moisture.

I've long let the annuals go, hoping to save some of the larger perennial specimens without running the well too long. But even some of theose will have to be planted again when normal weather returns. The dwarf astibles will likely not come back next year, nor will the bleeding heart I put near the holly. Also, the wild geranium -- cranesbill -- is no doubt going to die off. Their roots are so shallow anyway, they don't do well in prolonged dry spells.

We are seeing more wildlife in the yard, too. It must be that the woods are dry and not producing their usual seeds and fruits. There have been several turkey flocks, and the deer have come out during the day to eat the ivy. You know things are bad when the deer will do that. Ask any extension agent, they'll tell you deer don't eat ivy. Unfortunately, ours seem to find it quite palatable.

I'd planned on putting tulip bulbs in this Fall, but when the dry weather settles in here, the red clay soil begins to resemble the bricks it is used to make. You'd need a pick to dig those holes.

One bright spot, though: the tree man came today to begin the long procrastinated job of pruning the oaks and removing the trees and limbs that might come down in a storm. In less than half an hour he had that sixty foot wild cherry topped and dropped. Amazing. He left it in two long sections for a cabinet maker we know to come and get them for his wood working shop.

Pruning the oaks takes longer. One is mostly done and the result has opened up parts of the east side of the house to much more sun. Perhaps the red currant tree can grow straighter now that it's out from under the shadow of that huge oak branch. And we can rest easier knowing that the other large branch is no longer hanging over the roof, waiting for a good storm to take it down.

In one of my first summers here we had a storm so severe I wondered if the house would hold. The rain came down so fast and furiously it filled up all the window wells and ran into the house, down the walls and across the floors. Ball lightning flashed in the kitchen outlets and the cat and I tried to figure out the safest place to be until the darkness blew over.

When the Baron came home from his landscape painting we talked wonderingly about the intensity of that storm. The Baron said the tree must've made a tremendous noise when it fell. Tree? What tree? Why, the oak out back...I looked. That huge oak, one of three that must be at least sixty years old or more, had simply fallen over. And in the sturm and drang of that noisy storm, its fall had been muffled.

Never mind the tree falling in the forest. The tree falling in the storm has no one to hear it fall, either.