Category Archives: At Random

Sometimes you just gotta’ say what you just gotta’ say….

On ‘We Aren’t in Vegas Anymore’

Ross Douthat of the NYT had an interesting column this AM, ostensibly about the value of taking social policies only to some rational balancing point of benefits and risks, rather than insisting upon one extreme ( total prohibition) or the other ( total laissez-faire permission). While his argument made great sense, it deserves to be expanded, particularly in relation to some of the issues often associated with what is lumped together as the political ‘right.’

What Douthat says about the inevitability of some gambling always existing, and therefor the preferability of reasonable limits and regulation rather than either total prohibition or complete lack of regulation – bet anywhere, anytime, on anything, at any stakes – is well taken. He neglected, though, the logical extension of this argument to some very comparable similar issues; prostitution, for example, or abortion, both of which have been around at least since biblical times despite every effort to universalize their prohibition.

Even positive issues such as freedom of speech are most-effectively handled by a society and legality which do not permit their most extreme expressions (yelling fire in a football stadium being the classic one; intentional libel for financial gain another, or defending one’s castle with a bank of automated machine-gun emplacements). Yet another salient reference would be to freedom of religion, where the reasonable desire to worship without persecution has been stretched into the supposed-right to run businesses and corporations in ways that discriminate and limit the freedom of their employees or their customers. The Citizens United campaign finance decision suggests this list could go on, and on.

What Mr. Douthat was actually – and correctly – warning of is the danger of fundamentalism in any realm.

Whether coming from the supposed ‘left’ (permitting pornography, legalizing marijuana) or the ‘right’ (striking down Roe v. Wade, refusing to put a same-sex statuette on top of a wedding cake), taking any social proposition to its logical extreme is never a good way to make law or public policy, especially in an aspiring democracy which aims to cultivate internal peace and comity.

Two Guys Walked Into a Movie Theater

One day in the spring of 2020, two men paid their money and stepped into a darkened movie theater, just as the trailers were rolling. TC sat in right-about the same spot where he always sat when he went to the movies, because it was familiar, and easy, and comforting to always know where he was going to sit without having to think too much about it. SB, after looking around carefully to see which seats were available, picked the one where he thought he’d get the best view of the screen, and the best-balanced sound…

That scene came to mind as I thought back on two recent reads. Ship of Fools, is by Tucker Carlson, who worked for CNN and MSNBC before joining the Fox network in 2009, where he is now far more opinion-entertainer than newsman, and is said to be one of the three or four most listened-to Trump whisperers. Tailspin – the People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-year Fall, is by Stephen Brill, whom Wikipedia describes as a lawyer, journalist and entrepreneur, founder of The American Lawyer magazine and cable channel Court TV. Seeing the two volumes on the local library’s New Arrivals shelf I was struck by how similar their pitches were, both claiming to illuminate the reasons behind the present economic stagnation of middle and lower-middle class incomes, the persistence of poverty, decline of manufacturing, slow death of rural communities, tragic rates of incarceration (particularly among minorities) and frighteningly-high unemployment among high-school-educated men of all races, etc., etc. Despite the superficial similarity of focus, the books could hardly be more different, thanks to their authors’ individual approaches.

Where Brill’s writing is thoughtful, Carlson’s shouts. Where Brill cites data and quotes specific articles and documents, Carlson cites anecdotes. Where Brill criticizes both sides of the political aisle, Carlson exclusively blames ‘liberals,’ on the basis that they are no longer ‘liberal enough’ to counteract unnamed other forces (he cannot bring himself to admit those forces may claim to be ‘conservatives’) against whom they should be more effective. Nor is Carlson willing or wise enough to point out the role of corporations’ single-minded pursuit of short term profits in all this.

Both authors do note the role of ‘elites’ in all this decline, but again with differing critiques. Carlson wags the scolidng finger and derides the lack of success which so-called experts and academics have had in making things better, without offering any credible alternative.  Brill drills deeper and highlights how well-intentioned efforts to end discrimination and hereditary advantage have allowed – even driven – the brightest and most self-centered among us to work the systems and levers of commerce and government to their own advantage, thus empowering the 1% (or thereabouts, the blame is not nearly so centralized) to entrench their own wealth and power to the detriment of all other forces and factions.

Most tellingly, after each section addressing one of these maladies, and after thoroughly analyzing the problem and its origins, Brill cites at least one specific example of individuals or programs who are working with at least some degree of effectiveness, to address the issue. None of these efforts are big enough to make a ton of difference, but each of them is a signpost, suggesting what might work if applied at a larger scale. As an entrepreneur, he is well aware of the power of markets, when they are properly motivated (when there is profit to be had, that is). As an observer though, he is also wise enough to recognize that some problems (availability of health care to the poor or elderly, for example, or useful job-training for inner city and deeply-rural residents) will never motivate a pure free-market. Some issues will not be improved without communal action driven by other motives, which historically has only been mobilized at large scale through government action, or at least leadership.

Carlson makes little or no effort to suggest solutions except to demonize liberals, experts, academics and, it seems, just about everyone but bloviators, reality TV figures, radio talk show hosts and avid fans of the above.

As the current period of self-isolation tapers down, Americans (and those in other countries too) need to decide how to address its impacts. In so doing, we can treat the immediate symptoms and in the process perpetuate the problems that predate Covid 19, or we can see solutions that address both the short and the long term. It is that challenge which sent me back to thinking about these two very different ways to illuminate the same issues.

Halfway through the movie, TC and SB both smelled smoke, and watched in horror as a thick dark cloud quickly rose up to block out the screen image. Before they could react, the film stopped running and the house lights came up for just a moment, then immediately went black, revealing that, for some reason, the exit signs were not working either. In the darkness the audience started to panic.

Sitting in his familiar spot, TC began talking excitedly to those around him, reminding them that back in the good old days theaters used to have ushers who carried flashlights with lovely little red shields over the lenses. “If this theater still had ushers like that,” he emphasized, voice rising with indignation, “we could follow them out.” Standing full height in the choking darkness, he shouted to the entire theater, presumably out there listening for his leadership. “I want to talk to the manger,” he screamed several times, before falling into a fit of coughing and wheezing.

Meanwhile, SB, seeing the darkness around him, had whipped out his cell phone and powered up its flashlight app.  Crawling to stay below the worst of the smoke, he used his light to find others and encourage them to follow his example as he made his way to one of the exits. Others who had lit up their own phones made paths to the other exits, and out through the lobby to daylight and safety.

“Where the hell is the manager?” TC screamed, between coughing fits loud enough to be heard throughout the unseen, and now nearly empty, theater.  “I’m gonna rip him a new one,” cough, cough, “to make sure he brings back those ushers. If… “ cough, cough, “we ever,” cough, cough, “get out of here, that is,” cough, cough, cough.

And the rest, as they paraphrase, is silence.

The Death of Politics, Peter Wehner

Subtitled ‘How to Heal our Frayed Republic After Trump,’ this comes from a former speechwriter to Ronald Reagan, protégé of Wm. Bennet and official in both Bush administrations.  Credentials which would have made him a credible conservative and Republican in earlier years, but not today, as he would likely be labeled a RINO for calling out the willfully-ignorant behavior of the current administration and its enablers. Call it out he does though, beginning with a brief history of the term ‘politics’ (the affairs of the City, to the ancient Greeks) and progressing to analyze what has led to such contempt for the actual hard work of governing and for those persons who commit themselves to an honest effort to get it right. The ‘death’ to which the title refers is more an assassination, by those who’ve given up hope of getting anything right through diligence and have turned instead to destruction, or who’ve seized on past dysfunction as an opportunity to advance for their own agendas/celebrity through claiming to hold the magic wand that will make it all better, effortlessly.

Wehner presents himself also as a Christian, and includes a chapter on Politics and Faith, which will probably prevent the loudest current voices in that realm from hearing his arguments either, as he has no truck with their support for Trump. Religion is, in the author’s view, a necessary component of a decent life and an integral basis for ‘Politics’ with a capital ‘P.’ Agree or disagree with that (I disagree…) but it is refreshing to hear one of such beliefs who is not fooled by Trump’s charade of piety for the sake of votes.

All that goes down very well with this reader; Wehner seems knowledgeable and reasonable (except his defense of the invasion of Iraq, but that is more of an afterthought, something he seems to feel needs defense for sake of his overall credibility).  Unfortunately though, his prescription for ‘healing’ the situation is minimal; basically an exhortation for us all to be more rational, more committed and to work harder. There is precious little specific advice on how to get the nearly-half of the populace that voted for and still supports Trump to change their behavior. Except perhaps to wait out the generational shift which is in progress, until enough of us old white males have died off to allow the rest of you to return the nation to some level of reason and endeavor – if it survives the wait.

One More Time

(I know this is just a tiny echo from a much, much larger and more-profound story, but it’s my echo, and after trying many times, this is the best way I’ve come up with to tell it.)  


You wake up early to run a big-city marathon –

Early enough to pick up your phone in the darkened hotel room and check the weather, then shave and sunscreen before putting on the clothes laid out the night before –  Smear your toes with Body-glide to fend-off blisters, before pulling on socks and the shoes that have been broken in just right. Early enough to gather up extra warm layers and hat and gloves for the trip to the start, and energy-gels and water bottle and music player; to touch your wife’s sleeping shoulder so you don’t wake her, and whisper ‘Goodbye,’ before stepping out into the silent and deserted hallway, shutting the door as quietly as you can.

Familiar tasks, that you’ve done before, – not because you’re some kind of natural-born athlete, or an athlete at all.  No, you actually got into it because you were turning fifty and your 12-year old towered over you and your business had slowed to a crawl after 911 even as your country was sliding downhill into war and it all made you desperate for something – anything – that felt like moving forward.  The first marathon hurt like hell, but the atmosphere was electric, the energy and optimism of all those vibrant persons, and that part clicked, so that you wanted to try it one more time, to see if you could do better.  And when you actually did worse, that drew you in to do it one more time, and then one more.

And every time, there came a point somewhere along the distance that it seemed it would never end, where you told yourself ‘this is ridiculous, I’m not made for this, I will never ever do this again.’  With the result that, when you happened on a chance to run here – in the big-time – you said, yeah, that’ll be a good way to end it all. One more time, and then it’s over: you don’t ever have to do that to yourself again.

Which is what you’re thinking out on the street and in the coffee shop, where half the people you see are other runners heading for the subway, which takes you to the park where 20-some-thousand people are converging to board the hundreds of school buses arriving like clockwork and where you find yourself next to two women who are also from Colorado, and as you chat and watch the sun come up along the highway, you all know this is going to be a great day.  Filing through security; milling about a high school campus that’s been organized like a military marshaling yard, you feel the excitement, see the smiles and anticipation on thousands of faces. The armed soldiers on the school roof seem like overkill, as do the sniffer dogs being handled through the crowd. A couple hours of shivering and finally the sun is starting to warm the treetops as your wave – the last and slowest wave that is – make their way through the usually-sleepy side streets to jam up behind the tape.  Music is playing and everything is under control as your group reaches the line, then a gun goes off and you’re running again, along with several guys doing the distance in combat boots, fatigues and field packs; six kids in hamburger suits, and twenty-six-thousand of your closest strangers.

Along the way you stop a couple of times to take photos of the hoard – never brought your phone on a run before, but since this is the last one, and since it is the big time, it seemed like a good idea, and it lets you catch a photo of the sign for Framingham – where your father returned again and again for surgery after the war, which connects in your mind with the uniformed servicemen and women controlling traffic at many of the cross-streets.  There are a hundred little things like that to see and remember, but mostly it’s the continuous cheering crowd lining both sides of the route, with their signs and high-fives and kids reaching out for hand-slaps as you pass by, that make it feel like coming home, generating warmth not just from the rising sun or the sweat, but from the good will pouring out all around you.

Around 22 miles you look for Jennifer, on the corner the two of you picked out with Google Earth, and there she is, camera pointed. A quick hug, a hearty kiss, wisecracks from the people standing beside her, and you’re off again knowing now the goal is to spend these last few miles burning up whatever strength is left, to get the most out of this one last time and the pulsing humanity lining both sides of the course, now two and three deep.

The closer you get, the deeper the crowd is, and louder, voices bouncing of tall brick buildings, fueling you to think “it doesn’t get any better than this,” this glorious celebration and welcoming – four-hundred-thousand people, the press predicted – pouring out their goodest-good-vibrations for strangers and family alike, a festival of community as you make the final left onto Boylston and get your first glimpse of the finish three-and–a-half blocks away.  The emotion builds as you push still harder, breathing locomotive-loud with every footfall, heart beating like it wants out of your chest and your only goal is to drain out as much of yourself as you can, to be spent and exhausted at the end of this road, and then in an instant you’re across the line, legs stuttering to a stagger.  Someone hands a bottle of water as you try to stay upright and get some air into your lungs, then, another volunteer puts a plastic cape around your shoulders as she tells you to keep moving. Farther down the block, they hand you a medal to drape around your neck, and despite the fact that every limb is screaming with pain you begin to really feel the glow of triumph and self-satisfaction, to realize what a great day this is – one of the best days of your life – when  POOMF


Not Blam! or Bang! or any other comic-book-speech-bubble-sound, Not thunder or earthquake or ground moving beneath your feet, or even very loud, really.  Just ‘POOMF’, but a sound so out of place you know in an instant what it is, and when you turn you see down the block the back-side of the finish line arch, with dozens of people strung-out between here and there and every one of them turning just as you are, to stare at the column of white smoke rising from where, two minutes before, you passed the shoulder-crammed crowd of spectators.

‘Maybe a gas line burst,’ someone says hopefully, and you say no, that wasn’t a gas line, because you know – but of course you’re wrong: it wasn’t a vest and it wasn’t a belt. It was a backpack-filled-with-pressure-cooker-filled-with-fireworks-nails-and-ball-bearings.

Which is also not a gas line.

‘Where’s Kathy?’ one runner cries out – or maybe it’s ‘Mary’ or ‘Judy;’ the name doesn’t mean anything to you but the point is crystal clear.   ‘She was behind me,’ answers another, and whether one of them says ‘Oh my god,’ or you just think it, the meaning is the same.  In your head you do the quick math – Jennifer was at least three miles back of the line; however long it took you to run that, it’ll take her a lot longer to walk it, so there’s no way – unless she hopped a  bus or took the tube…. You pull out the phone – which you never take on runs but you did today because it was going to be the last one – and text Jennifer, just the letters: “I M O K R U”’, but the first time you check for a response the networks have gone down and it will be hours before you receive or send another message.

There are no sirens yet, just a murmuring stream of runners, and the race workers urging you all to keep moving, their voices calm and gentle as if nothing at all has really happened.

You start walking again, dazed and confused, body starting to chill though you don’t quite notice it yet.  You’re farther down the block and it all seems kid of distant and unreal until – POOMF –a second time, and this is when it hits home; in this moment everything else about this day seems small and silly and pointless as you seek out the nearest stable object and grab-on tight with both hands, the words clearly verbalized whether the syllables come out of your lips or not – “people are dying, right over there” – while your entire body starts to vibrate and the tears come, the first time.

By now the sirens have started, distant and inconsequential at first, like they could be any city street any time of the day or night, except they continue and multiply as you heed the volunteers’ instructions to keep moving away under a darkening sky, sun hidden now, the wind picking up; reminders of the morning’s cold; or the cold of midnight; the cold of things that end forever.

As cold as you soon become, focus is impossible; it’s half an hour before you remember the long-sleeved shirts tied round your waist miles ago, and fumble to get them on, though they do not help at all as you arrive at the lamppost you and Jennifer had scouted for a rendezvous, to find her nowhere in sight.

It’s an hour from the moment – an hour of no cell service and no word from Jennifer, who you’re so sure was far from the scene, and yet so not-sure at all – an hour of listening to people trying to figure out what’s happening, the news so far all cryptic, half-conjecture – before she appears out of the chaos to find you shivering and blue-lipped, arms-wrapping and feet stomping to try to get warm, and seeing her face and feeling her hug is about as welcome as anything has ever been.

It’s maybe two days later, that someone asks – do you want to come back?

“One more time,” you were thinking, waking up in that darkness. “One last time and you’ll never need to put yourself thru that again,” but now the answer comes in a heartbeat: “absolutely”.  To hear that crowd, to run that last hundred yards past where it all went down?  To stab a middle-finger in the eyes of the impotent losers who did this to all those beautiful smiling spectators? Damn right you’re coming back.

It’s maybe a month after the day that you realize you were wrong – about everything else being small and silly and pointless. When yet-another person asks you what it was like and you realize you don’t want to talk about the tragedy, because that gives the idiot bastards too much credit. What you want to remember and to tell about is the crowd that day, the outpouring of support and encouragement and what certainly felt like a kind of love.  About how it was really those spectators and volunteers who were targeted, who paid the most in blood and sorrow, who deserve to be remembered; and they who make you want so badly to do it all again.

Which is why, six weeks after the day, you run again in another town, and find something has changed; despite it being as hard as ever, there’s a sense that this is now something you do.  It has become a part of you, though underneath the handshakes and smiles of the finish line you feel the emotion bubbling up from the deepest places inside, and sneak off into a nearby alley to huddle in a doorway as the tears return; not for the last time.

At  five months, you apply to go back, only to learn that so many people want to run that first-year-after – so many people want to thumb their noses at the fiends and all their like – that you don’t quite make the cut-off.

And so you suck it up and train harder and run more, and now – two years and five days after that moment,– you get to go back and do it again. Travel those same roads and tour those towns and campuses; turn that same final corner feeling the warmth of that mass of humanity and shout ‘THANK YOU’’ and ‘BACK-AT-YA’ to them, for being there, year after year – though no one ever gets a medal for spectating or for volunteering. To honor and to thank them for coming out again to welcome thousands of strangers into their city –


On the Inside, Looking Down

The December 2014 issue of Vanity Fair contains an article by Michael Kinsley about the battles between Amazon and Hachette over e-book pricing – and thus, quite possibly, the future of publishing.  Amid many entertaining anecdotes and some useful insights, Kinsley inserts own prejudices towards that future.

Speaking of “Amazon’s self-published authors’ books…” Kinsely blithely dismisses them as universally “genre” work (his quotes not mine), then goes on to characterize these authors as taking their revenues from those on the print publishers’ side: “biographers, historians, midlist novelists… the authors of books that sometimes took a decade to write…”  In other words, self-published authors are hacks, who are stealing the bread from the mouths of real writers.

This is, to put it in decidedly non-literary terms – bullshit.

First off, the financially-successful self-published authors  who so frighten Kinsley are a teeny, tiny, infinitesimal fraction of self-publishing authors (for convenience, let’s adopt the acronym SPAs), the vast majority of whom will spend considerable time and money creating, self-packaging, self-listing, self-printing and attempting to self-distribute their work, and make very little or no money for their efforts.

Second, while some of those SPAs may indeed crank out work quickly, so do plenty of paper authors – perhaps Mr. Kinsley is aware of one James Patterson, profiled in the very next issue of the same mag.?  For every crank-it-out SPA, there are far more who have spent years or even decades on their works too, many with no support from the “Universities and foundations” to whom Kinsley worries his more-worthy paper-bound scribes must turn for support when advance and royalty checks are not available.  Truth is, most authors, paper or print, will never make a living wage from their work (just like most actors, most musicians, dancers, visual artists and mimes), and whether or not a writer gets an agent or publisher depends on far more than either the quality of their work or the amount of effort which went into writing it.  That Mr. Kinsley seems to think otherwise, suggests that he – being an industry-insider, is ignorant of – or perhaps has just forgotten – the obstacles which most authors must surmount in order to achieve the elevated viewpoint.

A little farther along in the article, Kinsley recounts a visit to his agent’s palatial offices, where “I sat in the waiting room with Picasso’s grand-daughter – it’s that kind of place.”  Apparently Kinsley is so besotted with rubbing those surnamed elbows that he does not realize he’s just admitted one of the reasons the SPA movement is not only not evil but necessary: one’s admittance to the offices of today’s agents and print publishers is far more contingent upon having a famous name than having a great book, whether it took months, years or decades, to write.

This condition exists for a good reason; the limited capacity of the print-publishing marketplace .  Publishers daily face an onslaught of written work, not all of which they can possibly print and sell at a profit.  To deal with this, the industry has spawned exclusionist mechanisms; a complex and effective filtering system (of which agents are the first line of defense) to weed out all works other than those most likely to be commercially successful at the scale required by industrialized print publishing.  Add to that a celebrity-crazed culture, and it is growing more and more difficult for any work, regardless of merits, to be hard-published unless its author has a ‘platform’ – a pre-existing public identity to serve as advertisement without reference to the work’s merits.  Thus it is easier for a reality-TV supporting actor, minor pro-athlete or painter’s granddaughter to get an agent and a print deal than a previously-un-published biographer, historian, novelist or academic.

And yes, I am taking it as a given that print-publishers are less than perfectly-efficient; that they do not actually locate and publish every worthwhile work that has been created.  Trusting that Mr. Kinsley would not argue that point, I will in fact go farther; I believe there are large numbers of worthwhile writings that will never be seen by any but their authors unless those authors take upon themselves the financial burden and risk.  Fortunately, many of them are willing to do that, which is the real reason SPAs abound, not some rapacious desire to steal out of the mouths of their betters’ babes without doing the work of ‘real’ writers.

The true value of electronic- and self-publishing is this: no longer must an author convince first an agent and then a publisher that her work will appeal to a wide-enough segment of the hard-copy market to justify a five- or six-figure investment of someone else’s capital for printing, promoting and distributing hard copies. It is now possible for a work of value with (perhaps) more limited appeal to be brought to light, albeit usually for a much smaller audience.  This, Mr. Kinsley, is not a bad thing; for writers, for readers, for the general culture.  And it does not come about because SPAs are stealing the legitimate paychecks of paper-authors.  It comes about because the times they are a-changin’.

I am reminded of another famous inside-down-looker, Rousseau’s un-named “great princess.”

SPAs are not settling for cake either.

Images of The Prophet?

In the aftermath of Paris, we’re hearing a lot of talk about whether or not Islam truly prohibits images of the Prophet, but that is an entirely wrong-headed question for the broad public debate. 

Sure, that particular question is important to practitioners of Islam, and if they believe it is so, they should be (and so far as I know, are) free to not create such images, not display such images in their homes, their mosques, etc., and to not purchase materials which contain such images.

But their freedom to practice their religion cannot be allowed to create a constraint on the equal religious freedom of others.  I am not a Muslim, and I do not accept that their religious teachings have any bearing on whether I wish to draw, sell or view images of the man they call The Prophet.  To accept or legislate that would be an abridgement of my freedom of religion.

If you are offended by Charlie Hebdo, don’t buy it!  If you are offended by even seeing it for sale,  stay away from places that sell it – or better yet, take control of your emotions, and walk on by.  Any human being can be (and probably is) exposed on a daily basis to appearances or behaviors they do not like, or by which they feel offended, but your feeling offended is not sufficient reason to curtail anyone else’s freedom.

Which exposes the true breadth of the issue at hand; that if criminality or prohibition of any behavior is determined on the basis of whether or not someone is offended or their feelings hurt by it, then all semblance of rationality, consistency or proportionality is lost, because persons can choose to be offended by anything.  That is neither freedom nor justice.


On the Bookshelf

Thanksgiving Day today; so many things for which one can and should be thankful and a new one just hit me:

In the room where I write is a deep bookshelf, and over the years it’s been packed full – valued volumes first in normal line-up, then lain down sideways and piled till they filled the space right up to the shelf above, then when that was still not enough space, a second row stacked in front of those, so you had to pull out one bunch to even see what was behind. Later small stacks inserted on the rest of the shelves wherever a small niche afforded – six books here on top of the board games, ten over there next to the stereo equipment.  Down there, they were packed in between boxes holding the good china we used to bring out for holidays but rarely do any more. Wall to wall books, eventually, and something of a reassurance, a comfort.

Lately though, I’ve been culling.  Pulling out volumes one by one and asking if each of them really deserves to be kept. If I were to pack up and move tomorrow, would I really want to carry this book with me?  Or that?

Three boxes have gone to local libraries so far, for their used-book sales (funding local libraries being an unalloyed good cause, in my book).  Gone the collected copies of every novel by John LeCarre (still revered, but I know I can find them if I ever wish) keeping only the Smiley series and Little Drummer Girl, favorites to which I might want to refer for some hint at character or pacing.  Gone too, Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass series – fun and valued, but I’ll be fortunate if I can ever get around to re-reading Tolkien, I seriously doubt I’ll never make it to Pullman.  Gone are several volumes by Ann Patchett and Michael Chabon – favorite authors but I’ll keep only my favorites of each, and not necessarily the most widely known.

No big surprise that it’s been satisfying to see the space become less full and a bit more ordered, but what struck me just now, looking at the remaining titles, is how my bookshelf has been concentrated and fortified.  Names pop out,; there’s Woof and Winterson, there Krakauer and Gaiman and next to them.  Attwood, Ishiguro, Ondatje and McEwan.  Like grape juice fermented into wine, and wine distilled to brandy, so my library is improved with editing.  Now when I turn away from the computer to ponder an idea, I find myself confronted with a collection of truly-valued works; a chorus of voices worth looking up to, a challenge to emulate.

So this year’s Thanksgiving resolution is to keep culling and selecting, to create a bookshelf that truly inspires, reflecting the literary abundance available to us in this age of free libraries, portable e-books, and self-publishing.   Bookstores are struggling( a real loss) and hard-copy sales declining (I rate myself a lover of the hard-copy experience) but e-books are growing quickly, and self-publishing means voices that would never gain a for-profit publisher can now be heard, if only be a lucky few.

My bookshelf may someday be replaced by an index of file names – but one way or another, story-telling will be with us as long as human beings have imagination and the ability to visualize what is not physically before their eyes. So long as humans are humans, that is, and as long as there are stories being told, even a small collection can be a treasure trove, and an abundance.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Curioser and Curioser

When I was taught science, we learned there was a clear divide between physical forms – defined by genes, varied by combination and mutation, passed down through procreation – and knowledge – which could only be passed from one living creature to another through behavior, communication and living memory; not encoded in a genome.

In a recent Nat Geo (11/14) I came across the fact that Monarch butterflies migrate on an interval longer than their life span, so the individuals who make one migration are the great-grandchildren of those who made the last.  So how do those youngsters know to migrate, if none of the individuals present when it’s time to start were alive to experience and remember the previous migration?

It’s not too difficult to imagine genetic traits that would pre-dispose butterflies to travel in groups, to flee cold weather, maybe even to sense that traveling south is generally the way to do so. But to cause them to all fly at virtually the same time every year, on virtually the same routes from year to year, purely through some combination of physical traits?  And even if those pre-dispositions are passed from one generation to the other, wouldn’t we expect the behavior to be eroded by those generations that never get to experience it – “Oh yeah, Grandpa’s always talking about his famous migration. He’s so full of pollen….” (Unless, of course, butterfly adolescents are much wiser than human ones…)

Or do butterflies have the intelligence to understand and recall their own migration, communicate it to their offspring – and those to theirs and those to theirs – and then to act on that knowledge passed down to them; even though they themselves have no experience with the act of migration, or the conditions that make it the most likely path for survival? Not exactly the level of cognition we generally attribute to the brain of an insect.

In the same issue, Neil deGrasse Tyson is quoted as to how the ember of curiosity seems nearly extinguished in some adults he meets, while in others it barely burns, and I wonder – how could anyone not be curious when confronted with these fluttering Magellans.

“Everything you think you know is wrong,” they say, and what fun it is to think about what might be right!