Sunday, August 31, 2008

Train Time

From my youth I've had a fascination with trains. My earliest memory is from a time when I was about four years old. My mother was finishing her education, obtaining her nursing degree, I believe. My brother and I would be dropped off at a Mrs. O'Ligney's apartment. She was an older woman who had a whippet or greyhound. Behind her apartment there was a sloping hill of grass down to the railroad tracks there. My memory is of walking down the hill, rather steep I recall, and walking down by the tracks as a train came slowly round the bend. I heard her cry out to get away from the tracks. In retrospect I am guessing she probably freaked out when my brother and I were not in the backyard and she saw us down by the tracks.

I've already mentioned the trip cross country on a train. (see "1960") There are many remembrances from that experience. Here is one that stands out. Most of the trip I sat next to the window which provided fascinating views much of the time. We did not have sleeping cars so we slept in our seats. In the middle of the night I woke and was mystified by what I saw. Our seats were on the right side of the train. It was dark, near three a.m. I later learned, and there were two lines of glowing red to the right of the train. I couldn't understand what I was seeing. The two red lines glowed like embers in a fire, brightening and duller, then bright again. I tried to decide whether to wake my grandmother who sat in the middle to my left. I believe I did wake her, but she had no explanation.

Finally, we discovered what I had been seeing. Our train slowed, then stopped. The last five cars of a train had derailed and were dragged along the limestone, off track, for maybe fifteen miles. Amazing. An announcement came that the passengers on that other train would need to be squeezed into our train. I've often thought of how frequently we see things that we do not understand, yet which have reasonable explanations once the curtain is lifted.

My dad helped reinforce this fascination with trains by creating a paper mache landscape with a mountain and a lake that became a landscape for our Lionel trains. In this manner and many other ways he demonstrated artistic skills which reinforced my own interest in art later in life. The Lionel train-scape was built on a large 8' x 12' wooden construct that could be lifted with pulleys to become a wall, or lowered to be an area for running trains using transformers and track. It was a wondrous world for us boys.

One of my paintings as an art student was titled Train Coming 'Round the Bend, a self portrait of a young hippie holding on to a pole while the centrifugal force of this massive train curled around an embankment, incorporating some of this early fascination with the power of trains. Another painting, less effectively rendered, involved a horizontal canvas with rows of trains, in sillouette, running across like rows of sanskrit.

Today, I was late for church due to a train crossing a rural roald near my house. My eyes were attracted to the grafitti and, because it was a nice day and very long train, I stepped from my car to get up close and grab some photos. When I remembered that the camera also has a "movie" capability, I captured a minute of rail cars which I have now posted on YouTube.

Life is an adventure. Much of it is infused with art, such as my father's creative Lionel landscape, or the grafitti on the trains. Occasionally there are things we experience that resonate with earlier remembrances that in some way impact us and sometimes even define us. Trains may not be at the center of my life, but I certainly have a fondness for them.

The images on this page were taken this morning, as well as the YouTube video which you can see here. Is it not amazing? Watch for the blue car...

Saturday, August 30, 2008

1960

1960 was a big year in my life. That was the year I got out of school for three weeks in spring and went cross country with my grandparents. From my home in Cleveland to Reno, NV, all by rail, through Chicago, Salt Lake City, prairies, mountains, day and night for three days each way. Destination: my cousins, aunt and uncle an hour outside Reno. Uncle Dale did geology and the Wolfe family lived a free, remote life. Later that same year we went to Niagara Falls with cousins, aunt and uncle on my Dad's side...

That's not the reason, however, that 1960 is today's theme. This year is an election year. 1960 also proved to be a significant election. Perhaps all are, but 1960 seems especially so. John F. Kennedy electrified voters with his oratory skills, charm and wit, and in November was elected the youngest president of these United States, breaking new ground as the first Catholic to sit in the Oval Office.

I've heard said that Obama is being compared to JFK. This week I can see a bit of that. He has charm, and panache. And so I went online (everything is but a click away these days!) and found a site that assembled JFK quotes, among others. Here are a few that pertain to the arts.

"Too often in the past, we have thought of the artist as an idler and dilettante and of the lover of arts as somehow sissy and effete. We have done both an injustice. The life of the artist is, in relation to his work, stern and lonely. He has labored hard, often amid deprivation, to perfect his skill. He has turned aside from quick success in order to strip his vision of everything secondary or cheapening. His working life is marked by intense application and intense discipline."

"We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth."

"I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty...an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft."

"In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation."

I chose these quotes about the arts, several from remarks made at Amherst, because 1960 was also the year that artist/poet/musician Bob Dylan emerged on the scene in NYC. Behind me here in my office is a Sept 1960 poster announcing that Dylan would be performing on the 19th at the Underground Cavern in Greenwich Village.

To think that Dylan is still making music today, 48 year later, and that that other beacon of 1960 was snuffed out 45 years ago...
Thinking of Kennedy brought to mind this very short essay by Jorge Luis Borges, which I discovered in a Fall/Winter 1970-1971 edition of The Antioch Review.

IN MEMORIAM J.F.K.

This bullet is an old one.

In 1897, it was fired at the president of Uruguay by a young man from Montevideo, Avelino Arredondo, who had spent long weeks without seeing anyone so that the world might know that he acted alone. Thirty years earlier, Lincoln had been murdered by that same ball, by the criminal or magical hand of an actor transformed by the words of Shakespeare into Marcus Brutus, Caesar's murderer. In the mid-seventeenth century, vengeance had employed it for the assassination of Sweden's Gustavus Adolphus in the midst of the public hecatomb of battle.

In earlier times, the bullet had been other things, because Pythagorean metempsychosis is not reserved for humankind alone. It was the silken cord given to viziers in the East, the rifles and bayonets that cut down the defenders of the Alamo, the triangular blade that slit a queen's throat, the wood of the Cross and the dark nails that pierced the flesh of the Redeemer, the poison kept by the Carthaginian chief in an iron ring on his finger, the serene goblet that Socrates drank down one evening.

In the dawn of time it was the stone that Cain hurled at Abel, and in the future it shall be many things that we cannot even imagine today, but that will be able to put an end to men and their wondrous, fragile life.
~by Jorge Luis Borges

Friday, August 29, 2008

Barack Obama Accepts

While normally not a television watcher, I did have the tube on for a good portion of the evening last night, tuned in to the events in Denver where the Democratic faithful have gathered all week. When possible, developing direct impressions drawn from observation will generally be more useful than weeding through other peoples’ interpretations filtered through their own biases. To the best of my ability, I make an effort here to present an unbiased account what I saw and heard last night.

The evening unfolded with many important speakers lauding the hero of the campaign, culminating in the acceptance speech of our first black presidential candidate nominated by a major party. What follows are a few of the notes I took while listening to and watching the final portion of this made for television spectacle. At the end, infinite confetti and fireworks, and a handful of talking heads expressing how they saw it.

Once you cut through those over-the-top light shows and larger-than-life projection screens, you could see that the evening was well orchestrated. By the time Obama took the platform, they had hit all the right notes. And then, for forty-three minutes he shared his vision for the future of these United States.

“It is a promise we make to our children that each of us can make what we want of our lives…” This was the opening line of the video introducing Barack Obama.

The narrator continued. “His childhood was like any other, but it was his search for self that defined him.”

“What he learned is that by discovering his own story he would learn what was remarkable about his country.”

“His grandfather fought in Patton’s army, his grandmother worked on an assembly line…”

From here, we learned about the values his mother taught him, how his relationship with his wife Michelle developed, about his schooling, and how after graduation he came to develop his passion for the downtrodden, needy and forgotten who have taken a hit due to insensitive political and business decisions. “That’s not right, someone ought to work to fix it.”

Other callouts from the intro video:

“In Washington, he would remember who he was fighting for…”

“It is a promise we make to our children that each of us can make what we want of our lives. It is a promise that his mother made to him, and that he would intend to keep.”

“Imagine what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes. One person’s struggle is everyone’s struggle…. That’s the country I believe in. That’s what’s worth fighting for.”

In an event that is bigger than life, Obama begins the last leg of his journey to the White House, “Change” as his theme.

Barack Obama’s opening sentence to the nation, after much fanfare from the faithful who had gathered for this historic moment: “With profound gratitude and great humility, I accept your nomination for presidency of the United States.”

Followed by a tip of the hat to Hillary, to former President Clinton, to Ted Kennedy “and to the next Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden,” and to the lovely love of his life, wife Michelle, he declared, “This moment, this election, is our chance to keep the American Promise alive.”

The position Obama seeks to establish is that John McCain is a Republican no different from Bush, and that change is a must, therefore Obama is the only real choice in November. According to Obama, McCain at the Republic Convention in September will strive to give the impression that he is not like George Bush.

Obama’s appeal is to those who are needy, and those who have been hurt by the policies of Big Money and special interests.

Reiterating another message from the intro video, Obama underscored the Promise. “I am my brother’s keeper.”

His goals were specific. “I will cut taxes for 95% of all working families.”

“And within ten years we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East,” he said. “Now is the time to end our oil addiction.” With this, and many other platform initiatives, Obama repeated his edict, “Now is the time…”

Citing Kennedy, he likewise appealed to our personal responsibility if we are to see change. Government can’t do it all. Parents must turn off the television and help their children with their homework. Fathers must help in the home. Mutual responsibility is his appeal.

“This election has never been about me,” Obama said. “It’s about you.”

“The change doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.”

“America, we cannot turn back…. And in the words of Scripture, let us hold firmly to the hope that we profess.”

His specific promises are many, and presented clearly. Can he accomplish all this? It will be interesting to see how the Republicans position their man.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Magnificent Seven, Consultants

Last night I was watching The Constant Gardener, featuring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in a compelling drama set in Africa, when at 100 minutes into the film the DVD freezes. Not able to watch the rest of the film. Bad.

I reached into a stack of DVDs from library and grabbed The Magnificent Seven, a film classic. It’s a film packed with big names – Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and others – and a memorable film score that everyone in my generation recognizes in an instant. Essentially the film is a remake of a Japanese story of heroes protecting common people, Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai.

I remember as a kid thinking James Coburn was just so cool. And the heroic opening with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen putting their lives on the line to bury a Negro in the cemetery on Boot Hill takes you to the epitome of cool.

There are a lot of great moments in the film, though. The seven men who come to rescue the Mexican villagers from the cruel band of outlaws led by Wallach (Calvera) are hired guns, men who have put their lives on the line before, though usually for a reward. In this case, the reward is integrity and honor.

One of the great lines in the film is delivered by Bronson when three of the boys from the village express admiration for his courage, and contempt for their fathers’ lack thereof. Bronson verbally chastens the boys saying that the burden of responsibility their peasant fathers bear for nothing more than love for their families, whom they could easily abandon, shows a greater courage than he has ever shown by carrying a gun, having no family and no responsibilities.

Afterwards, I began to think about how the consulting industry is something akin to these hired guns. Each has a different specialty, a different personality, and in the end, when the job is done, a different destiny. There is an appeal to that fly-away freedom that gives the appearance of being greener grass for many. But the reality, by this film’s end, four have been shot dead. And one decides to remain in the village.

In one scene the youngest of the seven is blathering about the thrill of it all when he is brought up short by Steve McQueen’s hard bitten observations about the realities of life on the road. The youth declares to Brynner, with admiration, “Your gun has gotten you everything you have. Isn’t that true?” Brynner looks up, ever the realist, “Everything?” Then McQueen outlines this “everything” that he has gained from being a hired gun. He knows 200 bartenders by name. “Rented rooms you’ve lived in, 500. Meals you eat in hash hounds, a thousand. Home none, wife, none. Kids… none. Prospects zero.” McQueen scratches the sheen off the veneer with realities about life on the road, lessons learned the hard way.

Many consultants are superbly talented with a panoply of tools and weapons, but may lack the ability to remain for the long haul in a structured and potentially boring commitment. Others have personal issues and avoid working things out by constantly being on the move. Still others have great social skills but suffer from wanderlust and limited attention spans. Some see rainbows with bags of gold at the end everywhere they look. Some are simply not cut out for unexpected circumstances, get cut down from behind in the heat of battle. And some ride off into the sunset, with jubilant villagers writing songs about the great things they have done. All these can be recognized in the Magnificent Seven.

At the end of the day, Charles Bronson’s words are the ones that resonate most fully for me. It’s lonely on the road, and there is value in being able to get rooted in a place where you can bloom. It’s a good reminder, too, that it takes more courage to stay than many people realize.

Whether the road or the office, if you make your choice with your eyes open it will be better for you.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Web 2.0

At some point in the last year or so I began noticing a new buzz word in business periodicals and other places. Web 2.0

What's that all about, I wondered. The history of the human race seems to involve people naming things, from Adam on down to the present day. Planets, technologies, species of plants and viruses of all kinds began as unnamed entities at one time. The lands we inhabit had no maps or names. Even our own names were once simple. Leif, son of Eric. William, son of Kyle. (As opposed to Mary Kantor-Carpenter.)

So, when a new buzz word emerges, I often ask if it is a real thing that needed naming, or simply a namer seeking to make a name for him or herself by being first to identify and label something truly new.

Well, Web 2.0 is useful and does indeed describe how the internet has evolved. The best way to understand Web 2.0 is to compare the interactive blogger world to the more old fashioned websites that were essentially posted for viewing. For example, compare how you get around on my personal website at http://www.enewman.biz/ with Twitter and Blogger and MySpace. Yep, there seems to be enough difference to call it a new generation of webwork. I created my personal site in '94/'95 using Adobe PageMill and HTML. Today, there's a whole host of tools, gizmos and widgets for developing your modern virtual landscape.

YouTube is another of the new communities of Web 2.0... For entertainment, nothing beats it right now. Comedy sites online are bombing while comedy and humor on YouTube is burgeoning. (Speaking of bombing, the Unabomber Ted Kacynski would probably never have had to go to the New York Times if he'd had access to an audience through the internet like today.)

YouTube is also a practical tool with businesses putting training videos online to not only tell how to do things, but show it as well. I just replaced a toilet this weekend using a half dozen YouTube toilet installation how-to vids, each not more than three minutes in length, produced by people as diverse as a Brit plumber and the Home Depot.

RSS feeds, Atom and Feedburner enable new content to be delivered directly to inboxes when properly configured. On and off switches, re-directs, blog posting via cell phones... it's all evolving for sure. There is even a virtual world called Second Life where you can create a character and live, go to malls, preach on street corners, whatever. I once read that Hillary went there (as a virtual Hillary) as part of her campaign efforts.

I took an interest in blogging from two directions. First, in order to understand the marketing potential of social media as part of what I do for a living. But second, I am an artist and creative person and like stand up comics and public speakers, most artists and writers produce not for an empty room but for an audience.

If you're really interested in understanding the new media, the emerging arena of evolving cyberspace, the best thing is to learn by doing. When you hear about podcasting, try it. When you read about blogging, see what it's about by doing it. Maybe you can start at the library or a book store and fetch a good book to help with initial decisions (like costs and where to plant your space) but in general, the web itself has more answers than you can shake a stick at.

Be sure to watch the new generation of young professionals who have grown up on all this stuff. For example, Desarae Veit is a Twin Cities Web professional seeking to maximize the power of social media for companies moving into Web 2.0 and co-founder of a new Wiki called Sniki.org. Follow her connections, and they lead to more connections. Find the right guide and you can move fast though the hoops and over the hurdles. (Meet Desarae here)

These are all uncharted seas, to be sure. And as noted in another post businesses have not necessarily figured out how to take advantage of the commercial aspects of it. But hasn't that been the philosophy of the internet from the beginning? Pre-world wide web there was still an internet, and it was not populated by Neanderthals. These social parts of the internet have proven vital in an increasingly high tech world. You Digg?

Thus spake ennyman.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Joy of Lifelong Learning

Eight to ten years ago I started listening to audio books during my morning commute. Our library has a rich selection to choose from.

At some point during that time, perhaps through a random catalog in the mail, I stumbled upon The Teaching Company. To paraphrase the company's founder... Do you ever wish that you could go back and hear some of your professor's lectures now that you have matured a little and or actually paid attention to what they were saying the first time? To go a step further, what if there was a way you could sit in on and listen to the greatest lecturers of our time as they shared their insights on the great themes of learning?

Well, that's the motivation behind this company. Whatever your pleasure, Business and Economics, Arts and Music, Literature, Philosophy, History, Social Sciences, Science or Mathematics, this company has done a bang up job of assembling some fantastic material for your personal listening pleasure and mental stimulation.

Currently I am listening to Masterpieces of Short Fiction, a series of 24 half hour lectures by Professor Michael Krasny. From Poe and Hawthorne to Updike and Carver, Krasny digs into the life and work of 24 literary masters of the short story oeuvre. Like much in literature, there is more to everything than initially meets the eye.

Rather than bore you with my own effusive praise for what this company has achieved, I will borrow a few testimonial quotes here from their website.

“When we find a master teacher… we should indeed, as the Teaching Company does, distribute the fruits of their labor widely and preserve them for posterity. This is the vision of the Teaching Company's ‘Great Courses’ series.”
—Chris Armstrong, Managing Editor
Christianity Today

"A dream come true for the lifelong learner, The Teaching Company's The Great Courses series features a semester's or more worth of lectures in hundreds of disciplines by some of the country's leading scholars."
—Video Librarian

"If you always wanted to attend Harvard, Yale or Princeton... The Teaching Company... offers Ivy League entry without the tedious application process, the astronomical fees, the undesired required courses or the pressure of final exams."
—The International Herald Tribune

"Whether they're commuting to work or hammering out miles on the treadmill, people have made these digital professors part of the fabric of their lives."
—Christian Science Monitor

We've purchased more of The Great Courses than we can probably afford, but consider each purchase an investment in our personal development. In the philosophy category I have enjoyed Will to Power: The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, a series on St. Augustine's Confessions, and No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life. We are also listening to a 48 lecture overview of the great ideas of philosophy as part of a Philosophy Club we started in our home three years ago.

Be enriched.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Harry Gold

It’s Monday again already, and our short story hour is upon us. Today’s original short story is actually a crock of plagiarized material, refined and reconfigured for my own storied purposes. It was inspired by a literary incident ten or so years ago involving a novelist whose book turned out to be half plagiarized.

I forget the actual details, my safe haven being a poor memory when it can be used to my advantage. What I recall is that in response I wanted to try to write a story that was 100% plagiarized. My version, however, involves taking sentences from a variety of sources, mixing it into a stew in which there is the appearance of design and intent. Like much abstract or surreal art, or a Rorschach test, the mind synthesizes the details and images to infer meanings that are likewise self-revelatory.

Obviously for continuity’s sake I had to use the same name throughout, so I did alter a couple of the sentences to insert my primary character, Harry Gold. In retrospect I wish I had identified all my source sentences, but alas, I recall these few. A couple lines from Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. A sentence from something by Gide. A sentence from Eric Hoffer’s True Believer.

Of the making of many books there seems to be no end. Not everything has quality, but there’s plenty of quality out there. And many great sentences. Reading the great writers is somewhat akin to watching a magician. I’m constantly impressed when I read a simple sentence that is constructed in a manner I just never would have thought of myself. It may be vivid or vague, but it carries a latent spark of dormant kinetic energy that is explosive, and sometimes even profound.

Sometimes there is nothing so wonderful as a good sentence.

Harry Gold

The rule of "nothing unessential" is the first condition of great art. --Andre Gide

After dinner Harry Gold reads us the last two chapters of his La Nuit. The next to last especially seems excellent to us, and Gold reads it very well. Being rich is an occupation in itself, particularly for people who arrive at it via parachute in middle life.

We go out for a walk -- William Williams, Gold and myself. Never has it seemed such a long way to the top of this hill. The road with its tossing broken stones stretches on forever into the distance like a life of agony. It is hot as a furnace on the street and we sweat profusely.

I bring up the question of ownership. "Who owns language? Can a man words? Sentences? The turn of a phrase?"

Gold's face becomes agitated, defiant. "It's mine now. No matter what they say, it's mine."

It occurs to me that Williams doesn't like this reply, but there are no others to turn to and we are forced to accept it. Gold feels guilty because his work is heavy with borrowing. Ideas, phrases, sentences, even whole paragraphs have been shamelessly appropriated, pilfered without attribution, plagiarized.

Harry adds, in a low voice, "The will of man is unconquerable. Even God cannot conquer it."

I can not bear to see him like this. To myself I think, Why do you do these things? In human affairs every solution only serves to sharpen the problem, to show us more clearly what we are up against. I consider how sages of the future will describe this historic day.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Zappa

While blog surfing I came across a collection of quotes attributed to Frank Zappa. Many are quite poignant. Others reflect his wit and somewhat amusing ways of turning a phrase.

The images of Zappa on this page were created two nights ago for the purpose of embellishing this collection of quotes.
In many ways he stood alone, dedicated to the craft of his art and inner vision. Over a three decade period he produced as many as sixty albums, with few becoming commercially successful. Not surprisingly, Zappa’s creative commitments made him uncompromising. He would not be a sell out for fame, and was reputedly an exceedingly demanding taskmaster in the studio. Sloppiness was not acceptable in an artist.

Zappa’s canvas was anything, no holds barred. Thus he stood against religion which set arbitrary boundaries on where an artist could explore. He likewise opposed recreational drug use, which was permeated the music scene at the time his star was rising.

It takes little effort with Google to find more than your money can buy in terms of Zappa data. So, if you want more, you know where to go. Here’s a collection of quotes purportedly originating with da man.

Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.

Stupidity is the basic building block of the universe.

Tobacco is my favorite vegetable.

There is no hell. There is only France.

Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.

It is always advisable to be a loser if you cannot become a winner.

A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it’s not open.

If we can’t be free at least we can be cheap.

Sometimes you’ve got to get sick before you can feel better.

There will never be a nuclear war; there’s too much real estate involved.

Why do you necessarily have to be wrong just because a few million people think you are?

Outdoors for me is walking from the car to the ticket desk at the airport.

You drank beer, you played golf, you watched football -- WE EVOLVED!

Interviewer: "So Frank, you have long hair. Does that make you a woman?"
Zappa: "You have a wooden leg. Does that make you a table?"

Without deviation from the norm, ’progress’ is not possible.

Hey, you know something people? I’m not black, but there’s a whole lots a times I wish I could say I’m not white.

Most people wouldn’t know good music if it came up and bit them in the ass.

Politics is the entertainment branch of industry.

There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.

Let’s not be too rough on our own ignorance, it’s what makes America great.

Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is THE BEST.

The creation and destruction of harmonic and ’statistical’ tensions is essential to the maintenance of compositional drama. Any composition (or improvisation) which remains consonant and ’regular’ throughout is, for me, equivalent to watching a movie with only ’good guys’ in it, or eating cottage cheese.

Fade to black.
Frank Zappa: 1940-1993

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Young Messenger

This is another of the more vivid "story dreams" that I recorded when I was younger. This one is from somewhere in the seventies or early eighties. There is nothing here that has been embellished. I recorded it, to the best of my ability, just as I dreamed it.

The Young Messenger
The earliest image in the dream is that of a house, the front door opened slightly as a hand is extended to give me an envelope. It is my understanding that the envelope contains an important message and that I am to deliver this message.

The setting is Washington Valley where I grew up in the foothills of the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey. I am on a bicycle. The envelope with its unknown content is to be carried to Pluckemin. There is a sense of responsibility attached to bringing this letter to Pluckemin and I understand that I am not to be diverted from my task.

The road is approximately three miles to where I am going. The valley sweeps up on the right side of the road into trees, but at one point there is a clearing, a wide expanse of meadow, and a farmhouse. Beside the farmhouse there is a large bonfire with somewhere between two or three dozen people surrounding it. I wanted to go over and see what was happening, but continued on my way.

While returning from delivering the envelope I indeed stopped, ditched the bike and walked up to the bonfire. As I drew near I could see that most of the people around the fire were young like myself or a little older. While standing near the flames I became aware of a presence at my side, a slender girl with pale skin, long dark hair. She slipped her arm into mine and I had the sensation of becoming warmer, though I was already warmed by the pulsating heat of the fire. It was dusk and her eyes glistened, reflecting the light. There was a suggestiveness in the way she leaned against me. It seemed that she was inviting me to join her away from the fire.

We walked toward the open garage door of the farmhouse and entered the darkness.

Suddenly, in the instant we disappeared from view of the others, the girl was transformed from a sensuous seductress into a blood-thirsty, fire snorting bull, possessed by savage madness, intent on one purpose: to gore, trample and destroy me. The massive razor-horned beast shifted its weight, flashes of demonic violence quivering through every muscle as it prepared to charge.

My legs buckled in terror as I backed into a tablelike workbench. As the bull came lunging forward I had managed somehow to clambered up onto the workbench. By some quirk, in my frantic effort to defend myself I grasped hold of the bull's horn and, pivoting, used the momentum of the charge to hurl the bull in an arching vault through the air. The bull crashed with a heavy thud onto the concrete floor.

For a brief moment I felt exultant at the ease with which I had eluded to monster's rush. But to my horror the enraged bull scrambled to its feet, more frenzied and furious than ever and I found myself overwhelmed by a sense of doom.In the same instant I caught sight of a large wooden beam in the back of the garage up which I might be able to climb high enough to avoid being gored.

You know how it is in dreams where you're running and it seems like forever. It was like that. I made it to the beam and with all my strength leaped up, working my arms and legs, climbing in spasmodic bursts, shimmying upward until my strength was spent. I hung there trembling, exhausted, agitated and relieved, looking down at the bull's futililty. Remarkably, the massive raging thrusts of the bull could not reach the position I had gained.

When I turned my head to hold more tightly to the beam, I saw before my eyes the bleeding, nail-pierced feet of the Christ. I had been saved by the cross.

I awake.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dream of the Minotaur

"There are great things to be done. Claim yourself." ~ Andre Gide

Carrying on with the dream theme... Here is another of my detailed storylike dreams, this one from about a dozen years ago drawing upon imagery from the ancient Greek story of the minotaur, a creature half man and half bull, who was housed in a labyrinth. Perhaps I had been influenced to dream as such by my readings of Jorge Luis Borges, in which labyrinths are prominently featured. Or, it may have been at the time when I was reading Andre Gide's fabulous story Theseus, which I recommend to you without reservation.

The last portion of the dream involving New York City may be related to my once having been in the fine arts as a young man. At one time I was preparing to do a three man show at a gallery in The City, but walked away from it all to head down a different path. Life, like labyrinths, is a maze that never deposits you back in the same place. Like Frost's Two Roads, "knowing how way leads on to way" we never do return exactly... though occasionally fragments of where we have been will re-emerge in other forms, as dreams and memories.

Dream of the Minotaur

A very rich man leads me behind his estate to where he has a long, narrow bull pen. Its dimensions I would estimate to be 10 to 15 feet wide and 200 yards long. The pen appears to be a maze of fencing with at least three corridors going the length of the pen. At various places there are openings that would permit the bull to go from the interior section to the perimeter sections, and in certain places allow the bull to exit the fencing altogether.

My host leaves and it is my understanding that the object of this little game is survival. As I see the bull approaching from the far end, I begin examining the fencing to see where or whether I can climb over or whether the bull will be kept from me if he charges. It is mostly made of rickety slats and wire. I soon realize that since the bull can leave the maze of fencing, I must be able to enter it in order to escape, and suspect that the bull will be faster than I, so that survival will become a matter of wits for me, man against beast, as well as a matter of endurance, since I have no weapon. As long as I am pursued, I must make plans for escaping the bull's reach.

The central corridor is lower than the outer alleys. As I pass the bull, he is down below and I am safely able to reach and explore the complex fencing at the other end of the pen/cage/maze, which seems more elaborate, with higher fences. I see that I am able to climb up on the fencing here and perhaps find safety somehow.

Suddenly, the bull becomes a man. Another young man arrives, and after a brief hug (old friends?) they say a few words and this other man departs.

The bull / man turns to me now, a tall red headed fellow with short dreadlock like curls. We strike up a conversation. I learn that the rich man at the dream's beginning was the bull's father. He, the bull / man, is extremely interested in my life, my background, and especially my involvement in the arts. He wants to arrange a trip with me to New York City where we can go take in the New York arts scene.

I wake.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "Nothing great, nothing of value, and nothing that will last can be got without effort." ~ Theseus

Thursday, August 21, 2008

On Another World

My daughter sent us an email sharing an unusual dream she'd had the other night about a purple bicycle that seemed alive, hunted people down and ran them over. It was like a horror movie, she said, but she found it "fun and scary at the same time."

What's interesting is that my wife noted how she does not dream in stories per se, but has more of a boring jumble of images, whereas I dream in the surreal story style that this dream epitomizes.

As early as seventh grade I found many of my dreams so interesting that I began keeping a journal of my dreams. In fact, I kept that up for six years and had hundreds of pages of details about my night life, which was far more interesting than school. (What I wouldn't give to put my hands on those documents today!) I could remember up to five dreams in detail.

Since that time I have occasionally recorded my dreams and sometimes turned them into short stories. Or, I simply share them as a form of thought provoking entertainment. Some have been quite unusual, each in its own way. Here is one such dream, recorded exactly as I dreamed it.

On Another World

In this dream I was being held captive on another planet. The people of this planet were in bondage to false ideas about God.

Early in the morning I was taken to a private meeting with the leader of this planet. We were alone in a large, clean unfurnished room. A single guard stood outside the open door.

By some means I had been paralyzed so that I could neither pray nor speak nor think straight. I was standing in the middle of the room in this strange, paralyzed state. I had no consciousness of the passage of time.

In the dream, Dr. Spock (of Star Trek fame) came to the door of the room and requested permission to enter. It is possible that I was captain of the Enterprise, though I do not know this for certain. I do know that I was from earth, as the following dialogue will attest. After obtaining permission, Spock entered the room carrying a bucket of what appeared to be a powdered cleanser. He stumbled and pretended to spill the cleanser on me accidentally. Immediately, I found myself released from my paralysis and I started to pray, standing by a wash basin with my eyes closed. (It was one of those chrome sink basins that you find in painting studios at college with multiple nozzles spraying water.) Upon seeing my fervent attempt to pray the leader of the planet was in stitches with laughter. He asked what I was doing.

I said I was praying to God.

"This is hysterical!" he said. "We would never pray to God like that," and he wanted to know how I got the notion that I could talk to God."

God came to our planet once," I said.

"God came to your planet? What was God like?" The leader was suddenly interested in hearing this new thing. "What was God like?"

"He came to our planet as a human."

"A human? A weak, pitiful thing like that? A human! God came to your planet as a human?"

"He took the form of a human, a man, actually, and lived on our world, on earth."

"And what happened?"

"We killed him," I said.

I woke.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover’s presidential reputation is not one that smacks of wonderment as it has been presented to us in our modern time. In point of fact, there seems to be little to admire in the man if he is not forgotten altogether, according to the way he is referred to by many historians.

I guess you might say his own words came back to bite him, as happens all too often in the public eye. Hoover had been an entrepreneur and multimillionaire by the start of World War I. One quote that came back to haunt him during his failing presidency was “If a man has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty, he is not worth much.”

Well, as the Roaring Twenties devolved into the Great Depression, Hoover had this and many other such statements thrown in his face.

One book I am currently taking in is The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Steinbeck made his name writing about the Okies and the hardships of the fictitious Joad family in the dust bowl era. Egan has meticulously researched journals, diaries, newspaper accounts to assemble a retrospective look at the real people who endured this disastrous experience. Egan catalogues the false hopes of those who settled there and the shattered dreams of these same who were destroyed by what can only be called a national travesty.

There are numerous references to President Hoover, resident of the White House during the onset of the Thirties decade. There’s little in this book to alter the image I’ve always believed reflected who he was. But when I sought to find the quotes referenced by Egan in The Worst Hard Time, I came across a collection of other quotes from Hoover’s lips and pen that seem to fill pieces of a picture which has been heretofore incomplete in my mind.

And so, whatever your take on this rich dead Republican, put it aside and enjoy these few snippets of wit and candid observation.

After Losing the Election of ’32
“You will expect me to discuss the late election. Well, as nearly as I can learn, we did not have enough votes on our side.

America
“My country owes me nothing. It gave me, as it gives every boy and girl, a chance. It gave me schooling, independence of action, opportunity for service and honor. In no other land could a boy from a country village, without inheritance or influential friends, look forward with unbounded hope."

On Being President
"Many years ago, I concluded that a few hair shirts were part of the mental wardrobe of every man. The president differs from other men in that he has a more extensive wardrobe."

Privacy
"There are only two occasions when Americans respect privacy, especially in Presidents. Those are prayer and fishing."

On Children
"Children are our most valuable natural resource."

Politicos
"When we are sick, we want an uncommon doctor; when we have a construction job to do, we want an uncommon engineer, and when we are at war, we want an uncommon general. It is only when we get into politics that we are satisfied with the common man."

How Capitalism Works
"Competition is not only the basis of protection to the consumer, but is the incentive to progress. Herbert Hoover Depression I'm the only person of distinction who has ever had a depression named for him."

The Wry Humorist
"Once upon a time my political opponents honored me as possessing the fabulous intellectual and economic power by which I created a worldwide depression all by myself."

The Realist
"About the time we can make the ends meet, somebody moves the ends."

The Realist II
"All men are equal before fish."

An Observation
"It is a paradox that every dictator has climbed to power on the ladder of free speech. Immediately on attaining power each dictator has suppressed all free speech except his own."

The Knife Cuts Both Ways
"Honor is not the exclusive property of any political party."

Fish Stink from the Head Down
"When there is a lack of honor in government, the morals of the whole people are poisoned."

With Impeccably Bad Timing
"In America today, we are nearer a final triumph over poverty than is any other land."

And Again
"We have not yet reached the goal but.. we shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty shall be banished from this nation."

Still True Today
"No public man can be just a little crooked."

Clever
"A good many things go around in the dark besides Santa Claus."

Global Warning
"Every collectivist revolution rides in on a Trojan horse of 'emergency'. It was the tactic of Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini. In the collectivist sweep over a dozen minor countries of Europe, it was the cry of men striving to get on horseback. And 'emergency' became the justification of the subsequent steps. This technique of creating emergency is the greatest achievement that demagoguery attains."

On War
"Older men declare war. But it is the youth that must fight and die."

Sad, But True
"Blessed are the young for they shall inherit the national debt."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Monday Night at the Dubh Linn

Well, last night was another show at the Dubh Linn. Open mic amateur comedy. Free entertainment, and actually a lot of pretty funny people.

In my humble opinion, I am usually the least funny of any given batch, but felt quite comfortable last night. The crowd was decent (eventually, since we started late) and responsive to everyone.

What follows is a portion of the set I originally wrote for my last gig. I usually write out a bunch of ideas with the intention of using a portion for my intro. Last night, I started right off in left field and never did touch the bases in order, but eventually found my way home. It was fun and we'll do it again sometime.

August 18 Intro Ramblings

Here’s some great news. My son and his wife came home from California a couple weeks ago. I ran out to greet them, shouting, “My son is home, kill the fatted eggplant.” His wife is vegan.

I’ve been asked where the eggplant humor comes from. It’s not demented, if that’s what you mean. It’s what you get when you cross certain strains of ethnic jokes with lawyer jokes. It awakens the dormant genome within the structure of the lawyer joke DNA.

For this reason, my favorite eggplant joke is...

Q. How many eggplants does it take to roof a house?
A: It depends on how thin you slice them.

I raise eggplants on the side. I catch them in the wild using eggplant traps. They’re not easy to have around though and they go bad pretty fast. First they steal pencils, then they steal money from your wallet, and the next thing you know you have an eggplant crackhouse in the back yard.

I’ve not given up on my attempts to domesticate them despite the reports of eggplant violence in parts of Florida and the Southwest.*

It’s good to have Micah home. He is a very talented cook, but on the side he’s been making extra income as a mime. He developed a skit in which he impersonated the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. He calls it Random Acts of Silence. A lot of his punch lines seem to fall on deaf ears, he confided to me last week.

I was thinking recently how the real Free Speech Movement and a Bowel Movement had a lot in common. Ever notice how a bowel movement varies in duration based on how constipated one is? Maybe if our nation hadn’t been so constipated, the Sixties would not have given us such a hard time.

The irony is, the Free Speech radicals won, and now poets can stand in public on soapboxes quoting poetry with the F-word in it. This has evidently been deemed a great advance for Western Civilization.

What I don’t understand is why the list of things you CAN’T say today is longer than the original list. If it ain’t Politically Correct… you better scrub out your mouth with soap. In fact, don’t even think it.

Playlist

1. Napoleon Quote
2. Johnny Depp
3. Sign Language
4. Eggplant Humor
5. Romeo & Juliet Rewrite
6. Chinese Condoms

Monday, August 18, 2008

Liz Mills

It's Short Story Monday. The following is a short story I wrote perhaps fifteen years ago, give or take a decade. It is a work of fiction.

Liz Mills

"We cannot afford to forget any experience, not even the most painful." ~ Dag Hammaskjold

"Will you remember me when you're famous? I know you won't."

"How could I forget you? I can't even imagine it." Steve Lawrence had been showing Liz his sketchbooks when she said this. She saw an unusual strength in his work, and a unique style that transcended what was trendy and fashionable. For a young art student, he had been incredibly prolific.

"Someday you'll be famous and I'll be just one more girl who foolishly threw herself at your feet," she said.

He laughed. He had enjoyed her immensely. She was delightful, funny, thoughtful, profound, and incomparably sensual. He affirmed it repeatedly. He would never forget Liz.

The following semester, when Liz dropped out of the university and went to Mexico, Steve became involved with Stephanie Bond with whom he remained involved for two years until he met Gloria, which wrecked things with Stephanie, but that was O.K., until Gloria went off with his friend Chuck. For a while, after he graduated, he dated several girls at once until he moved in with Marianne, whom he later married.

Over the years his career path was equally circuitous. Political activist, social worker, kitchen help, janitorial work and a cabinet manufacturing position all helped pay the bills until he got plugged in at the ad agency. Minneapolis agencies had just begun to get the attention they deserved and his was spotlighted frequently as a national trendsetter. Awards followed along with much success.

In his twilight years he received numerous lifetime achievement awards for his creative work and accolades from around the globe for his "World Peace Through the Arts" initiative. Two presidents entertained him in the White House and as an ultimate grace he was nominated for, and received, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Success in art, business and global statesmanship... what more could any man want? Yet there was something he wished for. He wished.... he wished somehow, that he could find Liz Mills and tell her that, indeed, he had never forgotten her.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he even said as much. There were chuckles when he told the little anecdote about Liz Mills, and several reporters included the story in their account of the speech. Newswire services picked it up as well. And several internet newsgroups debated the merits of the story, whether there really had been a Liz Mills, or whether it was simply a metaphor for youthful aspirations and long lost dreams.

A search was undertaken, initiated by several friends, as a surprise for his seventy-fifth birthday. They scoured every database conceivable. There was a difficulty in that she may have married and had someone else's name. Nevertheless... in hope, the search commenced.

Liz Mills, the tall and sleek Liz Mills who was known by Steve Lawrence in those days way back when, the real flesh and blood Liz Mills, now living in a nursing home -- having been placed there by her family -- was blankly watching the television, watching Ted Koppel and Nightline, on the evening Steve Lawrence and the Nobel Peace Prize were being discussed. Celebrities and scholars debated the merits of Steve's achievements, two endorsing and two assaulting. A brief snippet of Steve Lawrence's acceptance speech was also aired, including the anecdote about Liz Mills.

Liz smiled and turned to a nurse who, standing nearby, was also listening. "Isn't that funny? My name is Liz Mills, too."

"Did you know him?" the nurse asked.

"No, I never knew anyone by that name," Liz said. "I'm sure I'd remember someone like that."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Coloring Outside the Lines

My grandmother said that when I was a toddler I never scribbled. From the start I used to draw, to trace, to make lines. I can’t recall those days but I do know that I learned early the value and importance of coloring inside the lines. Somehow this was pleasing to art teachers. You were a good art student if you could color inside the lines. I guess it took skill to get up close to the edges without going over when coloring a block of white space… but sure enough, I was pretty good at it. Probably because I liked the praise. It was pleasing to people whose opinions apparently mattered to me.

To some extent it’s a good skill to be able to control where you lay the colors. But interesting things can also happen when you color outside the lines. And at the end of the day this is one of the basic challenges of life. How much do we conform to what is expected of us, and how do we establish our own imprint, our own identity in a world that expects us to stay inside the lines? Besides, who decided where all those lines should be drawn in the first place?

These thoughts came about because I was thinking that I would like to share more of my stories and poetry, my creative writing. At first I thought maybe I would spend the next week putting a story a day on my site. Then I thought maybe I should actually create some kind of structure to my blog entries, with a different theme for each day of the week. Monday would become Short Story Monday. I started making boxes with lines.

Next I was laying out other theme days, from political musings to movie reviews, recommended readings and various recurring themes. Yes, I would leave a slot for Hodge Podge, the swirling miscellaneous fountain of froth and foam that occasionally emerges without notice.

Even while writing my schedule, I cringed inside. I’ve spent a lifetime battling with having to color inside the lines. I just can’t do this schedule thing. Yes, it’s a useful tool, but feels stifling nevertheless. With so many hours of my day already spoken for, I just can’t squeeze the rest of myself into a schedule that feels like a straitjacket. I want to be free.

And so, if there appears to be no rhyme or reason to a day’s entry, so be it. For sure, I have high standards for this blogspot. Aesthetically pleasing is one goal. Creative expression another. Literary quality is a third. Mentally stimulating. Hopefully.

Perhaps it’s when we color outside the lines that we begin finally to find who we really are. Parents, teachers and other authority figures had designs for us based not on who we were as individuals, but on what they thought was best for us from the standpoint of adults who had lived a little. These expectations did not always take into consideration our own varied temperaments, talents, interests.

For this reason, the primary aim for all young people is to know themselves, to know who they are and what they are interested in for themselves. You want a career that dovetails with your strengths and interests, not somebody else’s expectations.

Whoever you are, wherever you may be, don’t be afraid to color outside the lines. You may even want to get rid of the lines altogether. See what happens. At the end of the day, remember what you’ve learned and build on it.

Lightning Bolt

All the world's a stage, they say, but for the moment the Olympic Games are the main stage where all eyes are turned. Many remarkable athletes have come into the limelight thus far this past week. Michael Phelps is a story that has gotten plenty of attention. But last night, I just saw Jamaica's Usain Bolt run the men’s 100 meter dash semifinal and I've never seen anything like it. The guy literally appeared to be lackadaisical as he loped to one hundredth of a second from a new Olympic record. OK, so he already owns the world record, so who cares, right?

The irony of a 100 meter dash runner named Bolt is readily amusing. When the starter’s gun fired the runners lunged forward as you would expect, but Bolt seemed to be hardly moving. The other guys burst off the blocks and he just bopped along. I realize he was probably exerting himself, but you sure couldn’t tell from the footage. Did the Jamaican even break a sweat? [Note: After this was written, Bolt did go on to set a new world record in the final, breaking his previous record by three hundredths of a second, easily.]

The 100 meter dash is historically equated with the moniker “World’s Fastest Human.” There was a time when twelve seconds was a world record for the men’s 100 meter dash. I remember when Bob Hayes set the record at ten seconds back in 1964, a breath taking clip. No sooner had Hayes taken gold, he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys as a receiver. Turns out he had good hands, too, which made him an asset.

Four years later a fellow named Hines took the title, and broke the ten second mark by a tenth of a second. Even superathlete Carl Lewis, who took gold medals in two Olympics, never bested Hines. It wasn’t until 1996 that this Olympic record fell, to Canadian Donovan Bailey. But I don’t ever recall any of these guys making it look so easy. As Bolt pranced past the field, he wasn’t looking ahead at the tape, he was looking around to see how everyone else was doing.

I’m not sure what the ideal height and weight is for a sprinter. I do know Bolt is a big guy, six foot five inches. But there are lots of big guys in the world. How did this one get so quick?

Anyways, it was fun seeing him run. It was supposed to be a race. It turns out to have been no contest. He’s one of a kind, I think. Age 21, a Tiger Woods of the sprinter set. We’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

Good luck, kid. Enjoy your new super hero status.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

29 Lines from Crazy People

Occasionally people recommend movies to me that were never big hits but touch on some area of interest for me in one way or another. Not too long ago the film Crazy People was recommended to me and added to my list. It’s about an advertising executive and deals with ad copywriting. While watching the film, I wrote down a bit of the dialogue.

The film stars Dudley Moore, Darryl Hannah and Paul Reiser, among others. Yes, some of the language is a bit off color, and true, the film has not been highly rated by critics or even viewers. And admittedly it’s not a great film as far as great films go, but it does give an interesting take on the advertising scene. It also raises a few good questions about what advertising itself ought to be.

I remember when I first came to Duluth in 1986 seeking a job using my writing and creative talents. When I interviewed at one of the local television networks, an ad copywriter showed me a little bit of the challenge he was up against. In the course of an eight hour day, he was expected to come up with creative, compelling scripts all day long for a wide range of products, gadgets and gizmos. He had one hour for each product. I challenge anyone to come up with eight new TV commercials in one day for eight products or services. From nutcracker to tire iron to ice scraper to used appliance repair services, whatever gets thrown at you that day is yours to tackle, stuff and mount. I don’t recall his name, but I got the impression he himself was ready to be admitted to an institution.

In Crazy People, Moore is an ad copy writer who has apparently fallen to pieces. He's been placed in a mental institution. His last ad mockups, over the edge and outlandish, are inadvertently put into print and prove to be dramatically effective. This is the starting point of a long, winding road.
The film is actually a clever exploration about truth and lying. The ad agencies represent a culture of lying to, or misleading, the public. The tragic characters in the mental institution represent the myriad ways we lie to ourselves, lie about our circumstances, and avoid the truth. It's actually an interesting set up for addressing serious issues. Even when scenes are not working or come across as forced, there's still grain to chew on.

Anyways, as I was saying, I wrote some of the dialogue from the film while watching. Just for the heck of it, let’s make a game of this. Which of the following is NOT a line of dialogue from the film?

1. Relax. Settle in. Make yourself comfortable.
2. I know what this is. It’s group therapy. This is a mental institution.
3. Try to relax.
4. Great. Great… first a mental institution. Now rain.
5. Hi. I’m Cathy. I’m a patient here, too. Do you want to go to a support session?
6. Yeah. Yeah. I’ll need slippers. Blue.
7. The world is a mistake. Why don’t we all jump in a lake?
8. That’s George. He only says hello. It’s the only word he has an affection for.
9. We have someone new in the group today.
10. Who can give me an example of a feeling?
11. I feel sad, for Emory.
12. Emory, why do you think you’re here?
13. Well, I realized I was lying all the time. Lying in my work. Lying in my relationships. Lying to myself.
14. I have fears. I have fears of being in closed places. I have fears of being in open places.
15. I don’t like the woods, by the way. I think I have a fear of woods. I’ve always had a feeling the trees were displeased with me.
16. I never felt I could get in on the ground floor with the really appealing people.
17. I’m changing the subject now.
18. You’re the first person I’ve ever shared this place with.
19. It’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.
20. How can we be getting so romantic so fast without any courtship or anything?
21. I’m nuts.
22. You don’t have to admit that you’re ugly, sir.
23. Business experts agree this no nonsense approach appeals to a new breed of consumer that wants to be dealt with honestly.
24. Emory Leeson is an advertising genius. I want him back.
25. Your ads are a huge hit. I want to get you out of here.
26. The staff is so friendly, and mental health is important these days.
27. Come to New York. There were fewer murders last year.
28. Ask him about the ballet tickets.
29. They’re coming out of their shells for once. Something important has happened to these people.
30. Don't look at me like I'm lying to you.

To find out which line of dialogue above is not in this film you may have to watch it. Thanks for stopping by and checking in.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Of Masks & Men

Yesterday the kiln was opened after this week's firing. My kids had been home the past couple weeks and something we all did was make masks. Our walls are slowly filling up with them.

Masks have been a long part of human history. Witch doctors and warriors wear masks. Actors in Greek tragedies wore masks. It seems like there are several Woody Allen films incorporating Greek tragedians absurdly placed into a modern context, something like Michael Palin's Spanish Inquisition interlopers.

I recall a scene in R. M. Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge involving a mask. The story was Rilke's single novel, somewhat of a lament on the significance of life, death and the quest for authentic individuality. The writing is often impressionistic. The scene I recall, somewhat hazily, is of the main character trying to decide which face to put on in the morning, as if faces themselves are masks. His real face, if I remember accurately, had a hole in it.

We all know something of masks, which can be used to both reveal and conceal identities. When there is a great pain in our hearts, a cheerful mask is convenient lest too many people get too nosy, asking too many questions and picking at the scabs which you hope will soon heal. Clowns put on faces to project an impression that may be at great odds with the clown within.

"I heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley," Dylan sang in Hard Rain's Gonna Fall.

Masks are all the rage at masquerade balls, as well. I remember a Halloween party in Athens when I was in college in which my face was concealed neath a white sheet with the eyes cut out, more like the scarecrow on Wizard of Oz than a KKK style of hood. As the evening wore on, many people wondered who I was. The clue was a piece of curved rib in my hand, which I later used while beating percussions during the music we made late into the night. Only Netty connected the clue to my identity, with an eye twinkle that indicated she was not going to spoil it by telling the others where that guy in the mask had gone.

What I remember from the experience are several things. First, when we wear masks that conceal our identity, it makes people curious. Who are you? It becomes a game. In the Batman story, one ongoing theme was the perpetual curiosity regarding his true identity. Second, this concealment also gave the masked person power. Self-revelation was the masked one's perogative. Third, and also important, the mask left me alienated as well. I wanted to show people who I was. I wanted to reveal myself... and the mask left me separated. Our own masks do the same when we project something other than who we are.

Perhaps this is one of the problems with masks. And the more our mask-face it at odds with our real selves, the more alone and alienated we feel. The mask might bring us momentary attention, but there is no heart communion. To kiss, to touch, to embrace... masks and robes must be discarded.
TO BEST ENJOY THE MASKS, CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Himalaya

We all know the Himalayas. Or rather, we pretty much all know that they are the highest mountains in the world, somewhat forbidding and full of mystery.

I just finished reading (again, listening to) the unabridged account of Michael Palin’s book Himalaya, read by the author. Palin is the familiar face from the BBC’s Monty Python comedy troop, one of my favorite characters in whatever skit you find him in. His “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” sketch is always a gut splitter, but in almost anything where he is teamed with John Cleese you can be sure it’s going to be funny.

Himalaya, however, is a serious book, essentially an ongoing chronicle of Palin’s travels while filming his travel show for the BBC. This adventure covered 3,000 miles and took six months to complete, a little much for a four day weekend. Beginning at the Kuyber Pass at the Afghanistan border, Palin takes in everything, sharing it with his viewers and readers. High altitude polo in Pakistan, penetrating dialogue with the exiled Dalai Lama, and a whole range of mountain top experiences are shared with enthusiasm. The wide variety of cultures, religions, peoples and political expressions are highly informative.

Palin’s wit is with him throughout, and a keen eye for details that make the journey memorable for those of us who weren’t able to join him. On some occasions there were parties and social encounters where the most remote peoples were familiar with Palin from his Monty Python days, and a few times he even sang for them The Lumberjack Song. The book is an entertaining and informative experience by a highly entertaining writer.

If you're interested in this part of the world, I also recommend the Brad Pitt film Seven Years in Tibet, the true story of Heinrich Harrer, an Australian mountain climber who became friends with the Dalai Lama. I've watched it several times, never without being moved. Pitt is superb, the cinematography spectacular, the story uplifting, and yes, the film is a masterpiece.

But the backdrop for all, whether Michael Palin's adventure or the Hollywood re-creation of a slice of history, is a mountainous region of the world known wondrously as the Himalayas. In whatever form you wish to take it in, please do.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More Than a Peanut Farmer

Yesterday I finished reading (listening to) a truly inspirational audio book by Tony Dungee called Quiet Strength. At the outset he explains that this book is not about football. It is about the meaning of life, faith, God, truth, and all the lessons of his lifetime, both on and off the field. Dungee was an athlete who became a coach, and the first NFL coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl.

I would say more about this book, but his numerous George Washington Carver quotes, from whom he’d clearly found inspiration, led me to make Carver -- whose image graces this page -- the topic of today’s blog entry.

I’d read a Scholastic Book Club book about this remarkable man when I was young. I remember it making an impact on me at the time. George Washington Carver, though born a slave, grew up to be a prestigious scientist who made significant contributions to agriculture in the South. He learned about crop rotation and how to restore the nutrients which had been depleted from the soil during decades of growing cotton.

What he’s possibly most remember for is his creativity with regards to the peanut. He had purportedly discovered over 300 uses for the peanut. The story I most vividly recall from the book was the banquet he served on one occasion, all dishes being some kind of peanut variation. You might say he was nuts about peanuts. It wasn’t just foodstuffs that he made from nuts, however. Adhesives, fuel briquettes, ink, linoleum, shaving cream, talcum powder and wood stain were just a few of the kinds of innovative uses he developed.

His Christian faith was also central to his personal life. Perhaps it was this, as much as the fact that Carver was an influential black man and role model, that led Tony Dungee to find such encouragement and inspiration from Carver’s life and work.

Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia. “Dr. Carver's faith was foundational in how he approached life. He viewed faith in Jesus as a means to destroying both barriers of racial disharmony and social stratification. For Dr. Carver, faith was an agent of change. It increased knowledge rather than competing against it. The greater his faith increased, the more he desired to learn. The more he learned, the greater his faith became.”

Many chapters in Dungee’s book began with a quote from one source or another. A few of these were from Dr. Carver. I share several here. For more check this website.

"Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom."

"How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these."

"I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in."

"Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses."





"No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving something behind."

"There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation - veneer isn't worth anything."

"Where there is no vision, there is no hope."

And last, but not least, the one most frequently cite in Quiet Strength: "When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Golden Shield

The Golden Shield is a project run by China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS), initiated in 1998. Theoretically it was designed to improve information systems for the police. Employing 30,000, it serves as a gigantic “Big Brother” system, filtering Internet content so as to keep the nation safe from evil. The ultimate aim, say some, is to create an all-encompassing online database and systems network for the security of the nation.

The project is condemned by Amnesty International and the group Human Rights Watch. Google, the search engine giant, has been criticized for working with the MPS. From my limited understanding of what I read, the Golden Shield blocks certain Internet content from the people within the country. That is, it censors content by making it unavailable in China.

This raises certain questions. Should the State decide what is and is not acceptable for its people? And should Google, the company, work hand in hand with those censors? I guess if Google wants to make money in China, they have to play turkey.

Google has an informal motto to not be evil. Yahoo has a poster mocking this motto with a Google logo and the statement, “Sometimes Evil?”

But Yahoo has not been immune from controversy with regard to China, having turned over info that led to Chinese dissident Shi Tao being sentenced to ten years in prison.

Microsoft, in 2005, cooperated with Chinese censors by helping remove words like “democracy” and “freedom” from Chinese bloggersblogsites.

The search engine giants have some tough issues to work out with regards to operating inside countries that censor freedom of speech for their people. How far should these countries go with regard to helping the various “Big Brother” systems of the world?

And how many Internet police do we have in our own country? How much stuff is going on here that we don’t even know about because it has been censored?

Time to take a deep breath. Best not to think to hard on that one. Let’s just root for our American swimmers. They're sure bringing home a lot of gold.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Of Pirates and Other Scallywags

What is it that causes children to become so fascinated with pirates, gangsters, hoodlums and Wild West outlaws? Perhaps it's because adults are fascinated with pirates, gangsters and others outside the law so that they write books and make movies and tell stories. There's an air of bravado and daring-do. And it's a lifestyle outside the boring routines of most peoples' daily lives.

The popularity of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow then is nothing new. A traditional yarn with exceptional Hollywood skill in terms of production, Depp took it over the top with his rendition of heroics and villainy.

Pirate yarns, however, go way back. Edgar Allen Poe's The Gold Bug certainly fits the bill for stirring up pirate adventure as two men strive to de-crypt a code that purportedly carries instructions to Captain Kidd's hidden trove of treasure. The cryptogram in the story created such a fascination with decoding mysteries that to the very present our newspapers carry a daily cryptogram in them! (You didn't know that Poe started that, did you?)

Treasure Island is another tale featuring pirates and buried treasure. Long John Silver was the villain in that coming of age story. Pirates also have a prominent role in bringing dread and adventure to the storied Swiss Family Robinson, though adventure is not exactly the right word in real life, because these lawless rulers of the high seas were not nice very nice men. Terror is a more appropriate term.

Captiva Island, now a beautiful resort area, is where the pirate Bluebeard purportedly kept the women his men absconded with after making husbands walk the plank. Yes, pirates have needs, too, besides money... and our daughters and wives were part of that booty. I'm willing to bet they did not always shave and bathe either.

The names I remember from my childhood include Captain Kidd, Blackbeard and Bluebeard. There were many other famous and infamous pirates on the high seas, including Black Bart, Calico Jack, the Gentleman Pirate Stede Bonnet, and "The Corsair" Jean Laffite. There were also famous women pirates like Mary Read and "Ann Bonny" Cormac as well.

Once commerce commenced between the "New World" and Europe, it was easy for opportunists to take advantage of chinks in the system. Sir Francis Drake was considered a pirate by the Spanish, but a hero to the English, so some pirating is simply a matter of interpretation.

Maybe that is why some people who "pirate software" consider themselves heroes to a certain group of like minded peers. Software and music pirates today can potentially disrupt commerce, but as of now I know of none who took captives of made others walk the plank.

The most famous symbol for pirates was the Jolly Roger, a flag which was employed to terrify others into giving up without a fight. If you can take what you want without losing any men, you have more fighting men for the next adventure. Is this not why bank robbers brandish guns? Napoleon used the same strategy in several battles, not with a pirate flag, but with the element of surprise causing terror to disarm his enemies.

There are still pirates on the high seas today off the coasts of Indonesia, Somalia and Nigeria. In 2004 there were 251 reported incidents of piracy, with nearly a third of these in Indonesian waters. If you are planning a little boat ride around the world some time, there are certain waters you may wish to avoid.