Friday, October 31, 2008

Haiku, Therefore I Am


In school, we were introduced to a lot of literary forms from novels to drama, short stories to sonnets. Within the poetry realm we learned about various styles and structures of verse, rhyming and unrhymed, free verse, blank verse, epic and limerick, and pentameter iambic… But one favorite of not a few students was the haiku.

Haiku was a Japanese poetic form that was assembled in three lines of five, seven and five syllables each, totaling 17 syllables in all. The irony is that when we learned the structure of the form, we thought we knew how to haiku. That is, we… or I did anyways, assumed that getting the number of syllables right was all there was to it.

I am reminded of the children we met in Mexico City when we were there in 1981 who had learned English for years in school, but couldn’t speak a word of it. In the same manner we learned how to create a poem called haiku. In other words, there was more to it than what we were really doing.

If you really want to develop an appreciation for haiku as a form, you can learn a lot by going here.

The poems I share here, written over a period of ten years or more, are probably unsatisfactory to a purist, but they were written with a measured earnestness. It's my hope that you will enjoy them, even if only briefly. In all seriousness, my apologies to the purists.


III.
White paper, black ink.
Words form sentences that make
no sense. Mysteries.

IV.
White paper, black ink.
Words define truth and obscure it.
Sublime engima.

VI. On the Mountain
Behold, an angel
sleeps, wrapped in tissues of dream.
No, it is a man.

XII. The Angels
There were three of them
radiating holy bliss.
We saw them, and fled.

XIV. The Word
Rich choral frescoes
flashing rhapsodies of light
infused with purpose.

XXI. Firewalkers
Pursuing our dreams,
wild hearts blazing with passion,
we walked the fired coals.

XXIV.
Pulled in all directions
when all he wanted
was to retreat inside.

XXX. Again
The answer to
a question he never asked
left him wondering why.

XXXII. Pariah
Grey wind like gloom dawn;
Fermin, followed by outcaste
dog, perceives his death.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Between This and That

“The boundary is the best place for acquiring knowledge.” ~ Paul Tillich

Life has many challenges. Transitions are always fraught with challenge, for example. Whether from adolescence to adulthood, employment to retirement, or geographic relocation, every transition stirs up things within us that can cause emotional upheavals.

There are many other kinds of challenges, of course. The struggle against temptation (a word one hardly seldom hears in a post-Christian culture) is ever with us, simply because we live in a broken world and none of us is exempt from its influence.

There are also matters that do not pertain to ethics per se. Year in and year out complications beset us as we strive to understand who we are and how we fit together with others who are often so different from us. In many respects we even get caught in the middle between polarities that divide our own selves. If it is a challenge knowing ourselves, no wonder we occasionally scratch our heads when we try to read others, and are in turn misread.

Theologian Paul Tillich’s book On the Boundary is an autobiographical exploration of the polarities that were at war within himself. In his attempt to understand his life he discovered that there were many parts of himself that were at odds with other parts of himself. One chapter describes the tension that he experienced between the temperaments of his two ancestral heritages. Each of his parents came from different kinds of backgrounds. As a result one part of himself tended toward the melancholy, contemplation and consciousness of personal duty. His counter-temperament tended toward a zest for life that was at odds with that other part of himself which sought composure and harmony.

Another chapter addressed his struggle between city and country. City life has a different character than rural. He found a part of himself in each, but occasionally they were at odds with each other.

Social classes also present issues. The family of humankind flows through all walks of life, from doctors to beggars to everything in between. Often we find tensions created by these differing backgrounds and experiences. Tillich experienced this within himself, but churches and communities can likewise experience it.

Another area of conflict is the tension between idealism and realism. It is good when young people are idealistic. Such idealism makes us discontent with the status quo and can motivate us to try to change the world, to make it a better place, to bring it into conformity with higher values. Idealism empowers us to take action. But realism does not mean we have abandon ideals. As we get older we see that there are more variables than we initially recognized, and perhaps that the world's brokenness is more serious than we could initially comprehend. Yes, it is possible to overcome, but are we willing to pay the price to get there? It might be a higher price than we originally expected and, perhaps flippantly, paid lip service to.

In another chapter Tillich wrestles with autonomy and conformity to an imposed dogmatism. It is very difficult to think for ourselves. It takes courage to question what we have been told we should believe and to discover for ourselves the truth through honest inquiry. For many, who grew up being “told” what to believe, it is almost feels like sin to question, to break free from the safety of acquiescence. Once free from imposed systems of belief, such persons react strongly against being corralled.

My mother used to always say, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Truth emerges from within and cannot be imposed from without.

From my earliest days I have always pictured God like an enormous chandelier of cut jewels. God, who is light, is in the middle of the chandelier, but we do not see Him because He is “immortal, invisible… in light inaccessible from our eyes,” to quote the hymn writer. What people see are the jewels and diadems, each of us different, and in different locations on the chandelier. We each reflect God in a different way, yet contribute to the whole in a unique and beautiful way. What we forget is that those jewels began as rough stones that needed chiseling and polishing. They did not “just happen.”

Paul Tillich affirms that the places where he has grown most are in those places where he experienced conflict and upheaval, often within himself. This is the chiseling that turns us into diamonds. Our suffering is not in vain.

It's normal to try to avoid conflict. It feels dangerous, but is often essential to growth. As the psalmist once wrote, “weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

And So It Goes

Yesterday's action on Wall Street was nothing short of a stampede... this time to the upside. And no doubt a lot of cheering. That's how I picture it anyways. The DOW flew up more than 10% after testing the 8000 region. And it reminded me of a scene in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

To describe the scene we'll need to give some background. The hero in Vonnegut's tale is Billy Pilgrim, a character who has unintentionally become "unstuck in time." In short, instead of his life flowing in a natural progression, the various scenes occur in apparently random order so that he is in his suburban home, then back in Dresden during World War II, then in a strange place captured by aliens with all these other humans. Vonnegut uses the technique to form allegorical associations, and creative satirical commentary on our times. And so it goes.

I can't help but think the name of the main character is somehow a reference to this modern Pilgrim's progress, except intead of Christian, he is more existentially alienated.

The scene on Tralfamadore, the place where the aliens have taken him, is as follows. (Or at least, this is my recollection of it.) To make the earthlings feel at home there is a large board with stock prices on it. Many of the earthlings watch it unceasingly, with their emotions rising and falling as these numbers go up or down. But the amusing thing is that the Tralfamadorians do not even have the real stock prices there. The numbers change randomly, but the effect on the stock price watchers' emotions is a direct correlation. The Tralfamadorians are simply replicating what they saw on earth so these earthlings feel at home.

It is a hilarious barb at market watchers whose happiness is totally dependent on variables outside their control and the action of the market. That scene came to mind when I heard at day's end that the market had gone up yesterday.
A second scene also came to mind, that of an impoverished Pakistani woman whose life without prospects and despair had resulted in her walking in front of a train with her children... The incident was reported to me not by news media but by someone from Pakistan with whom I have become acquainted through blogging. He witnessed this and said it has been happening a lot as the Pakistan economy continues to unravel. This is not an isolated incident as lack of food and humane living conditions take their toll throughout the world.

The market went up ten percent yesterday. But more than a billion people live in such dire straits that... well, you do not need my help connecting the dots.

For those interested in more about the Vonnegut book, here is an excerpt from a review on amazon.com:
Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

And here is an excerpt from from a reader:
One of the major themes of the book is fate. The prayer of serenity appears twice in the book stating that we need to change the things we can and be wise enough to know which things we cannot change. Also the Tralfamadorians speak of fate. They say they know how the universe is going to end, but they do nothing to stop it. Vonnegut seems to say that yes, war is one of those things we cannot avoid, but we need to change the things we can about it, like the atrocious bombing of Dresden.
For the record, the phrase "and so it goes" appears one hundred times Slaughterhouse Five. I probably relate to the sentiments it expresses, which correlate to my own phrase which I have expressed for most of a lifetime: "We'll see what happens."

As a complete aside, if you are interested in reading more about Kurt Vonnegut, you can read my tribute here, written when he passed from this life a couple springs ago.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Another Way To Use Twitter

“I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” ~ Thomas Carlyle

“The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations” ~ Title of 2004 bestseller by James Surowiecki

I don't remember when Twitter first caught my eye. I saw it referenced in an online article, and whatever was said must have connected with me because I checked it out. If I remember correctly, the journalist seemed to be almost raving about this new social technology.

According to Wikipedia Twitter is a free micro-blogging service “that allows its users to send and read other users' updates (otherwise known as tweets), which are text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length. Updates are displayed on the user's profile page and delivered to other users who have signed up to receive them. The sender can restrict delivery to those in his or her circle of friends (delivery to everyone being the default).”

It’s easy to do, hence its popularity. There are now purportedly 3.2 million accounts registered, though it’s anyone’s guess how many remain active.

Yes, I tweet. Essentially I’m trying to learn how to use or understand the uses of this new social networking tool, though an email this morning from a fellow tweeter indicated to me that I do not have my Twitter site optimized properly, or something like that. Obviously it is all a learning experience.

Anyways, when you log on, the Twitter interface has a single question that it asks: What are you doing?

It’s a very clever question. It’s a probe of sorts. Everyone who is watching the debate would state not only that they are watching the debate, but would include their feelings, impressions, thoughts about the said event. Some are participating in events (they can use their cell phones to text message their activities) and some are simply active in self-promotion.

It seems to be a great research tool because you can quickly and easily gather a wide range of viewpoints by plugging in to their tweets on various topics. Researchers and writers are able to set up their own mass of info sources, or plug into the automatic feeds on various topics that Twitter collates for you.

Here is an example which I extracted during Sunday’s Meet The Press program in which John McCain was interviewed by Tom Brokaw. Some might complain that it’s a bit jumbled, but despite the noise, when you compare this electronic equivalent of raw footage to the fragment of Larry Rohter’s review of the same show, the gist of what was happening and how it was perceived is not wholly divergent.

Note: Twitter users will notice that I’ve reversed the order of these entries so as to have the flow read coherently for the purposes of this blog entry.

breathmint Watching Brokaw hand McCain his ass on meet the press. 36 minutes ago

mainelife McCain is being crabby on Meet the Press, but he's not afraid to fire off a "my friends" while looking exasperated. 35 minutes ago

wiredbirds »» Meet the Press: McCain refers to Brokaw as "my friend", and is speaking to Brokaw like the man is an idiot. Brokaw knows the gig is up «« 34 minutes ago

SandiLincoln Ohhhh my! McCain on Meet The Press is getting very tough questions from Tom Brokaw. He is doing really bad! He is gettin pissy!! Flip Flopn! 34 minutes ago

yellowmello McCain is on meet the press and his hands and head are not the same color... can you say air brush. 33 minutes ago

JerryStanford Hey, been up for a couple of hours and listening to McCain on Meet the Press. Think I'll Sim a little. 32 minutes ago

SandiLincoln @maddow u watchn McCain on Meet The Press! He's gettn really pissed! (Love ur show btw)! 31 minutes ago

wiredbirds » Meet the Press: "I don't defend her - I praise her" - McCain on Palin [as she is stabbing the man in his 'obviously blind' back] «« 28 minutes ago

wiredbirds » Meet the Press: "We're both Mavericks" - McCain on Palin «« 26 minutes ago

area517 Watching McCain on Meet The Press. Looks very uneasy. 26 minutes ago

mainelife Take away from Meet The Press this morning: John McCain disagrees with the polls, the American people and it appears, reality. 25 minutes ago

realtortweet McCain on Meet the Press right now. He is very uneasy and more Bush like. I think he even said Joe the Biden. 24 minutes ago

wiredbirds » Meet the Press: McCain is ∙<-------- [this close] to losing it. « 22 minutes ago

gregwind Just can't watch any more Meet the Press with J McCain. Too painful. I feel really bad for him. (But recording, just in case.) 22 minutes ago

randomspaces Stunning McCain "senior moment" at 25 minutes into Meet the Press. Brokaw "Try to stay with me here." Get it on iTunes later if you miss it. 21 minutes ago

CanWeBowlPlease rt @mainelife Take away from Meet The Press this morning: John McCain disagrees with the polls, the American people and it appears, reality. 22 minutes ago

randomspaces Stunning McCain "senior moment" at 25 minutes into Meet the Press. Brokaw "Try to stay with me here." Get it on iTunes later if you miss it. 21 minutes ago

sgtret TwitterScoop word "brokaw" just grew rapidly. It would seem McCain is not having a good time of it on Meet the Press. 18 minutes ago

mwurzer Felt bad watching McCain on Meet The Press this morning. He should have been elected eight years ago. 17 minutes ago

To see how this peanut gallery of tweeters compares to the actual news story coverage, you can read this review:


McCain on ‘Meet the Press’
By Larry Rohter

Updated 11:58 a.m. Appearing on “Meet the Press” today Senator John MCain said he does not believe the polls that show him significantly trailing Senator Barack Obama and argued that “we’re going to do well in this campaign.”
“We are doing fine,” he said. “We have closed in the last week, and we’re going to continue this close in the next week.”
He also rejected the idea that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, his running mate, is hurting his campaign.
“I don’t defend her. I praise her. She needs no defense,” he said.

On a related topic, the latest use for Twitter has been revealed this week in an InformationWeek story titled, Terrorists Could Use Twitter For Mayhem, Army Report Muses

An intelligence paper outlines technologies that terrorist organizations could use to inflict harm, including cell phone GPS data, voice-changing technology, and Twitter updates.

By Thomas Claburn InformationWeek October 27, 2008 04:04 PM
"Terrorism and Twitter go together like Darth Vader and Tribbles -- the former aspiring to instill fear, the latter chirpy and not very threatening. Yet a draft Army intelligence paper, "Al Qaida-Like Mobile Discussions & Potential Creative Uses," contemplates just that combination."

All I know is... well, let's not go there.

In the meantime, if you're not a terrorist and you happen to be on Twitter, I invite you to follow me @ ennyman3.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Empty Space, Part 1

Short Story Monday. I've still not decided what the right length for a a story should be on a blogspot. Nor have I decided whether it is best to build the setup and link to the rest of the story elsewhere. This morning I will evade making a permanent decision and set down for you here the intro to something of a haunted house story, except it is a haunted apartment. Enjoy...

The Empty Space

I heard this story from Stuart M----, caretaker of an apartment complex on Stevens Square in South Minneapolis in the early 80's when I made my living as a painting contractor. After a fire in one of the buildings Dennis, my painting partner, and I spent quite a few of weeks there painting walls, ceilings, stairwells and doors. On the surface the likeable and loquacious Stu appears eager to engage in the typical banter one expects from those elaborately involved with a public. I soon perceived that this was all an act and thereafter I determined to respect his privacy.

At the end of a particularly busy week I was washing out paint rollers and brushes in the laundry room when Stu came in. "You got plans for dinner?" he asked. It surprised me, though I appreciated his thoughtfulness. I assumed it was because he was lonely. His wife was out of town. Having no other plans I felt inclined to accept the offer. Dennis had taken off early to go camping with his family or something like that.

At some point during the meal Stu told me his wife had taken a one year journalism position in St. Louis in order to get newspaper experience. He made contradictory remarks about her absence, saying that it felt good to be alone, and then again saying that he missed her terribly.

Over dinner we shared a bottle of wine, and through the course of the evening a second. It was late when I realized the evening had fled. He asked me not to leave. I reminded him that it was almost midnight and made a lame joke about turning into a pumpkin. He said he had something he needed to talk about.

Evidently he had wanted to be certain about me before he could share what was really on his heart. Perhaps the wine added to his courage. As near as I can reproduce it, this is the story Stuart told that night. To my shame I pretended to believe every word.

Stuart's story:

I owe the discovery of the 'empty space' to the death of my father. Within a week after the funeral I began searching for an apartment in South Minneapolis to be near my ailing mom and came upon an available efficiency just off Hennepin in the Uptown district.

While the manager was showing the room I asked questions. He spoke in short, dramatic bursts in a manner I found unsettling, so I probed more deeply and learned that the apartment had been let to at least four tenants in the previous year. When he asked me to sign a year's lease, I was surprised that four successive tenants would break that kind of a contract. You can tell how badly I wanted the place since I went ahead anyways. Later I learned that as many as six tenants had occupied the apartment that year.

The efficiency was located in one of those old-fashioned buildings built in the 1890's with exaggerated baseboards, a murphy bed, and ten layers of wallpaper. While moving in I learned from a woman across the hallway that the room was haunted. When I asked in what way, the lady couldn't explain.

"Is it ghosts? Was someone murdered here?"

She said that wasn't it, but didn't offer any more than that.

The very first night I became aware of it but didn't know what it was. After all the commotion of moving in I put the radio on till late, pulled the bed out of the wall and turned in. It's a downtown apartment complex, so one expects a certain amount of noise. While lying in bed I kept hearing the sound of a breeze blowing, crickets, and the rustling of leaves. What was strange about all this is that the windows were closed. Furthermore, there were no trees alongside the apartment building. The nearest tree is across the square. The noise seemed as if it were right there in the room.

I was too exhausted to investigate the source of the sound and fell off into a deep sleep. The following morning I was awakened by the singing of birds and the loud cawing of a crow. I sat up with alarm, again noting that the windows were closed. The birdsongs came from somewhere within the room. It was as if there were a speaker in the room playing one of those nature recordings. I was confused, walking about from here to there in my small space, unable to see anything, but clearly recognizing that the noises were vividly present. Upon more serious investigation I was able to determine that the sound was most prominent in a region approximately two feet from the ceiling and three feet
from the corner furthest from the bed.

Throughout the day I told myself it was not too late to break the contract and find another place, but I demurred. A week passed. Occasionally I heard the lowing of cattle. On other occasions the voice of a woman. Once I heard children playing a game. Several times the distant barking of a dog. Most of the time it was the wind, and a few birds. Early evenings, the cattle. After nightfall, the crickets.

I consulted with a friend who believes in all kinds of strange phenomenon. He was an avid sci fi fan and had all those Frank Edwards books like Stranger Than Science, things like that. I told him it seemed as if there were a microphone somewhere picking up sounds and projecting them into my room. He found it 'interesting.'

I wouldn't tell my mother about the room. She doesn't like things she can't control or explain.

Occasionally I would catch my neighbor across the hall studying me. She was watching to see when I would start acting funny. The old man next door also asked how I felt about the room. I got that fishbowl feeling about my neighbors and it made me want to withdraw.

While doing laundry, a white-haired lady from the third floor said that she heard I had the room with the empty space in it. I asked what an 'empty space' was and she said she didn't know. That's just what she was told it was called.

I consulted with my friend again -- Michael Tucci is his name -- and asked what an 'empty space' is. He said he'd talk to a woman who works at the food co-op. 'She's into all that occult stuff,' he said. 'If it's weird she's into it.'

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK ON SHORT STORY MONDAY

Sunday, October 26, 2008

More Numbers

My September 23 entry on Numbers got good reviews, so I looked forward to the next slow news day as an excuse to assemble another list of numbers. Every picture tells a story, they say. Some numbers tell pretty vivid stories as well.

$9.6 Billion
Amount of money Warren Buffet has lost in his investment holdings in 2008.

$52 Billion
Current value of Warren Buffet’s holdings.

$3 Billion
The current value of Rupert Murdoch’s holdings after losing $3.9 billion in 2008.

1500
Number of employees Yahoo last week announced they will lay off.

7200
Number of workers Merck is laying off in its current restructuring.

24
Number of megacities over eight million in 2004.

1
Number of cites of this size in 1950.

300,000
Population of Lagos in 1950.

13,500,000
Current population of Lagos, Nigeria.

193,800,000
Number of Chinese currently living in urban slums.

35,600,000
Number of Pakistanis currently living in urban slums.

84.7
Percentage of population of Bangladesh living in slums.

5.8
Current percent of U.S. population living in urban slums.

99.4
Percentage of Ethiopians living in slum conditions.

200,000
Estimated number of slum communities in the world today.

4
Number, in millions, of people living in Mexico City’s largest megaslum in 2005.

320
Number of children per thousand who die before age five in Luanda, Angola.

34
Number of inner city slums in Karachi, Pakistan.

66
Number of Karachi slums on the city’s periphery.

107,000
Number of people evicted from slums in Hong Kong in 1950.

In addition to the problems of overcrowding, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, the poor must deal with the constant insecurity of not owning their homes. In recent years, enforced evictions by the State have caused untold disruption in countless lives. Here are some numbers from a few famously awful slum evictions of the past two decades.

1988 ~ Seoul, Korea… 800,000
1990 ~ Lagos, Nigeria… 300,000
1995-96 ~ Rangoon, Burma… 1,000,000
1995 ~ Beijing, China… 100,000
2001-03 ~ Jakarta, Indonesia… 500,000
2005 ~ Harare, Zimbabwe… 750,000
2007-08 ~ Beijing, China… 350,000

Less than 300
Number of toilet seats available to the 480,000 people in 1100 Delhi slum settlements.

Sources
Wall Street Journal, October 23, 2008.
Planet of Slums, Mike Davis
Elements of a slum for the purposes of this report: Overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Patterns

While watching an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, "Night Call" (Episode 139 -- February 7, 1964) there is a scene where the old woman has been assisted into a wheelchair. The camera angle is from the viewpoint of an adult looking down to the woman. Across her lap is a knit afghan with a zigzag pattern similar to the kind my grandmother used to make, and it seems like for just a moment the camera lingers on the pattern.

One of the thoughts I had at that moment: what would an afghan look like if instead of being knit into a pattern, the colors and knitting were totally random? Isn't it the pattern or design that gives the afghan its interest?

I recently wrote about color as a facet of making or appreciating art. Design and pattern could be added to the list of things which can make a drawing or painting interesting.

Nature is full of patterns, from atomic structure to the design of galaxies... from the incredible Fibonacci sequence to the rhythm of waves... from the phenomenon of day and night to the miracle of a heartbeat...

Many patterns are useful and many "just are." Daily routines, tastes, patterns in our relationships, patterns of thought, of behavior, of interaction with our personal space... patterns in how we go about getting self-understanding, patterns of taste, of desire, of haste, of waste.... Patterns feel right and normal to us.

For the Dionysian, chaos is the preferred realm. Order and structure feel confining. Daily routines get boring. A steady job is like working on a chain gang. Admittedly, there is something appealing about the unknown, about loss of control... temporarily.

But how many are there who can truly live an utterly patternless existence? You don't know when you will rise, or lay down, go out of return home again... if at all...

In the realm of art I have at times enjoyed making totally abstract art. Yet even then, when painting random colors in a random way, I would have to say that total arbitrariness is unnatural. Our mind keeps wishing to interpret, to organize the impressions made by the colors, lines, strokes, shapes... While adding more lines, I can choose to define the shapes or leave them totally loose. But we are attracted to a measure of order, shape, balance and pattern.

We notice it in music, too. A beat, rather than arbitrariness. In jazz, the straight beat may be replaced by syncopation, but even syncopation structures itself. Chord progressions, harmonies, all conspire to organize sound into pleasing patterns.

In certain realms patterns are especially comforting. Breathing, for example... regular breathing, in and out, easy, nourishing us with vital oxygen, this is good. Difficulty breathing, due to failing lungs, lack of air, being held underwater... these can be pretty frightening.

I guess that's one of my patterns, to take a string of thought into an unexpected direction. Come back tomorrow and we'll see where it goes next.

Friday, October 24, 2008

It's About Time

"Redeeming the time for the days are evil." ~ Ephesians 5:16

Who was the most written about person in the 19th century? Many would guess Abraham Lincoln, whose influence extends to this day. They would, of course, be wrong. Thomas Jefferson, one of our founding fathers, was a luminary at the beginning of that century, but likewise, to guess Jefferson would be an incorrect answer.

A few who know me may know the answer to this question, because I have written about this person and consider his achievements somewhat remarkable, even though we know him best for the major failure which was a turning point in his career. I speak here of Waterloo, and with that you have guessed I speak of Napoleon Bonaparte. By the end of the 19th century more than 100,000 books were written about Napoleon, his life, thought and achievements. Considering how little we know about our American presidents, it comes as know surprise that we know hardly anything of some of Europe’s past leaders such as Queen Victoria or Archduke Ferdinand... other than the names.

I discovered Napoleon while reading one of my several books about Ulysses S. Grant. It was in the preface of the book Grant Wins the War, a volume detailing his victory at the Battle of Vicksburg, that I learned what a brilliant general Napoleon was. The author, James R. Arnold, noted that military historians cited two battles from the Civil War as significant enough to be termed “brilliant” by the standards of leadership, strategy and implementation. One of these was Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, the other General Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign. The author noted, almost as an aside, that of history’s top twenty battles, there were fourteen conceived and executed by the martial genius of Napoleon Bonaparte. Fourteen of the top twenty battles of history. It made me desirous to learn more.

What did he do and how did he do it? After doing a bit of research on the Internet I learned that the best single volume was a 1200 page book by a writer named Chandler called The Campaigns of Napoleon. Here are just a few insights from this volume which I feel worth sharing.

One thing I learned was that one of Napoleon’s greatest skills was translating theory into action. Indeed, he considered himself a man of action, and one who did not feel it necessary to always be original. He read extensively and borrowed from history.

According to Chandler he was "a developer and perfecter of the ideas of others." He drew his major ideas from books. "Read and meditate upon the wars of the great captains,” he said. “This is the only means of learning the art of war."

His attitude toward planning was interesting. Chandler writes that Napoleon was "extremely thorough in his planning. Very little was left to chance.” Yet, at the same time, he recognized Chance as a variable and believed every plan should allow a period of time to remedy or exploit the unpredictable.

Plan well, but be open to the unexpected, is as applicable to our personal lives as it is to any general. As the Proverb states, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” (Prov. 16:9) Or to paraphrase, “Man proposes, but God disposes.”

I find Napoleon’s attitude toward time to be most instructive. For Napoleon, the loss of time in war was irreparable. He considered strategy to be the art of making use of time & space. However, "space we can recover, time never." And my favorite of all Napoleonic quotes: "I may lose a battle but I shall never lose a minute."

You can always get money to replace lost money or goods. Lost time is lost forever.

I think this is what was meant by the quote above about redeeming the time, for the days are evil. Children have no concept of the brevity of life. It is only as we age that we begin to appreciate what a gift it can be. One day that gift will be all used up, and we shall not have the chance to re-do it.

As Napoleon once noted, "All that is to happen is written down. Our hour is marked and we cannot prolong it a minute longer than fate has predestined." Hence his efforts to seize hold of each day and make the most of it.
Good advice. Go and do likewise.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Two Flicks: A Pick and a Pan

Watched Iron Man last night. Two day rental from Blockbuster. While researching other things online I attempted to enjoy this politically correct caricature of a special effects driven Hollywood cliche. Big names like Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges and the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow garnered some acclaim for the film last winter. Exceedingly high praise for what seemed to me a tired re-hash.

The skinny on this thin plot: Downey's father made a fortune as an arms manufacturer in World War II, and afterwards. Downey, the arrogant punk heir who has everything gets kidnapped and put in touch with his conscience when he learns that his weapons are also the same weapons used by terrorists in other parts of the world. Mix in a little Marvel Comix magic and you have a superhero, a.k.a. Iron Man.

Everything about this film seems borrowed. Downey's home is an echo of Bruce Wayne's digs. Downey's character development is an echo of Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky (a much more fascinating story). And the evil Iron Man knock off that clothes Jeff Bridges in the end (spoiler alert!) is an echo of The Mask.

The mystery here is why the critics raved over it so. It's the same old song.

A second film I watched this past week: Michael Clayton. I'd watched it sometime last winter and thought it griping then. It was even better this time around. Yes, this is also politically correct Hollywood fare, but it's an intelligent, character driven thriller.

In this instance, the bad guys are U/North, a multinational agri-chemical corporation. Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a fixer for a major law firm that serves clients like U/North. It's a given that his life is filled with ethical compromises, but it comes with the turf. In this instance there are complications when the the lead attorney defending U/North in a class action lawsuit goes bonkers, tears off his clothes in a deposition and exhibits other bizarre behaviors. Also from the firm, Clayton has to "fix" this problem to keep it from interfering with a mega-merger that is simultaneously in the works. The real problem is that Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), this lawyer who had a meltdown, is Clayton's friend who, like Downey in Iron Man, got bit by his conscience. After years of devoting his life to this case he realizes he is on the wrong side.

With so much at stake, certain powers that be must resort to the "ultimate fix" and do the dirty on Edens. Clayton's life at this point is no picnic and in the midst of it all he discovers he is likewise no longer indispensable.

The screenplay is great, the dialogue fresh, the issues real, the characters complex. And in that true Hitchcockian style, you know who the bad guys are but you just don't know what will happen next.
It's pretty easy to see which is the pick and which the pan here. O.K., I admit my criticisms of the Iron Man are overly harsh. Sorry. I just needed to air out a little. And in the meantime, have a great day. See you at the movies.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wired

Got my November Wired yesterday, the one with the high tech ear of corn on the cover, if you can call it that. A striking, eye-popping black and yellow motif, one of my favorite color combos.

I was introduced to Wired on May 24, 1994 when I took a one day class called "Internet: Introduction to the Global Information Resource." The instructor recommended the mag, noting it was the best way to see what was happening in the fast-growing wired world. He said it was what the geeks were reading. Upon obtaining a copy, I especially recall the sense of wonder that every page contained, and by this I mean the visual impact... from the layout to the ads beginning on page one. This was something different. Newly emerging creative forces were being unleashed.

Today the ads are still fairly engaging, and to their credit, the editors have kept the look and content engaging as well. While paging thru over lunch yesterday a number of short pieces caught my eye. Here are ten items to chew on.

1. The ads. Maybe I’m just a sucker for good ad copy. I mean, I really enjoy a clever turn of phrase or a witty idea. The Subaru headline: Who cares if you’re there yet? There were some other decent car ads, and an unbelievable number of ads for expensive watches, which says something about who they believe their readers are. Anyone need an Infantry Vintage Chrono, Breitling or Omega?

Speaking of the Chrono, there were a couple ads for the new James Bond flick coming out in November. This is the new Bond, whose debut featured possibly the most dramatic on-foot chase scene in film history, and whose torture late in the film was the most memorably gut-wrenching and terrifying thing I'd ever seen. (I get the chills thinking about it.) Oh, the tie in to the watch of course is that Bond is endorsing it on the back cover. Inside the mag, the bad guy endorses another model. What's that all about?

2. Time Zone Enlightenment. Here’s three things I did not know about time zones which you can find in this issue. A. Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time, but the Navajo do, though the Hopi there do not. Weird huh? B. Venezuela is off by 30 minutes. President Hugo Chavez decided to turn the clocks back thirty minutes. Sort of like Superman making time go backwards, maybe? C. All of China is on Beijing time. Do you think Californians would like to be on New York time? If that’s what China wants to do, I guess it’s their call. Maybe the whole world should be on London time.

3. Page 36 has a breakdown of the ingredients of Ben-Gay under the title “Eases Pain, Disgusts Moths.” Hmmm. The article goes into detail on each ingredient, but you can do your own research. I’ll just outline these goodies for you. Camphor, Menthol, Methyl Salicylate, Carbomer 940, Polysorbate 80, Edetate Disodium, Lanolin, and Potassium Hydroxide. Yummm. Got a headache? Good thing you mom didn’t make you drink this stuff.

4. On page 42 Chris Hardwick goes on a rant against the way high tech advances in the bowling industry have resulted in higher bowling scores, and it just ain’t fair. He calls it “Technology’s Gutterball,” but is he throwing strikes here? I sort of liked that 194 I bowled last time I was home.

5. The Ten Best iPhone Apps We Wish Existed…. Here are two: The Yo, Mama, for example, automatically send your mom a loving text message right before she calls to ask why you never call. And the Meta-4 crafts metaphors and similes faster than a $2.99 Indian buffet passing through your digestive tract.

6. The Unblinking Eye (page 50) details the advances Big Brother is making in terms of public surveillance. The town of Liberty, Kansas, for example, spent $5,000 to install a camera in the town park. Population 95. Maybe there is more to this story? Perhaps they’ve experienced a rash of purse snatchings recently…

7. Page 62 has an article on how to do donuts… after dropping your kids off at school. First, you need a rear wheel drive car. Guess that counts me out. The same page has an column on how to speed read, in case you’ve ever wondered.

8. An ad for the Rio in Las Vegas has an eye-catching photo and inviting copy. It’s curious to me because I’ve always cast the Rio as a bit “different”… Isn’t it the Rio where all these men do a show dressed as famous women. Or am I thinking of one of the other casinos I've not yet been to. I’ll be in Vegas in less than two weeks, but most of my hours are booked already with meetings and dinners, and possibly an engagement to do some stand up comedy at Pounders. And after dinner Tuesday the 4th, maybe find a place to watch the election results. I wonder if they bet on elections out there.

9. Scott Brown on Facebook, Steven Levy on interacting with the digital world, Roger Hibbert on Laptops (I hate the aspect ration on my new HP laptop from the office), and lengthy features on the Godfather of Bangalore, and the Future of Food, this month’s cover story. Who’s eating what? And what lies ahead? A quote from the intro: “The good news: Our capacity for innovation is as limitless as our appetites.”

10. Paul Boutin’s opening salvo on page 27 is aimed at blogging. Titled, “Kill Your Blog,” Boutin says blogging is useless and pointless, the wave is over. If you do not have a blog, don’t waste your time. “The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter,” he writes. Well, guess what, Paul? No one reads yoru Twitter tweets either. But getting published in Wired must feel pretty good because at least there you have an audience. That’s more than I’ve got here.

IN THE MEANTIME, have a great day. And y’all come back now, ya hear?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Blue Hole

“Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things." ~ author unknown

When I was a kid in Ohio, I remember on at least two occasions going with my family and grandparents to a place called the Blue Hole near Sandusky. What I recall is a pond that seemed infinitely deep with water that was crystal clear and an unusual brilliant blue. There was something unique about it that had turned this spot into a popular tourist attraction.

I’d forgotten all about this place until yesterday, when I received an email containing a number of photos of unusually large holes, man-made and otherwise. One was a blue hole near Belize (left), which triggered this memory here of the Blue Hole in Castalia, Ohio. According to the Sandusky Register, “The natural springs were so prominent in the area that in 1836 the village was named for the Fons Castalius Fountain near Delphi, Greece.”

A quick Google search uncovered some interesting facts about this blue pond. It’s actually a giant spring, fed by subterranean waters that flow upward through deep limestone orifices, disgorging more than 7500 gallons of water per minute, or enough to supply a city of 75,000.

Supposedly divers have never reached the bottom of this Blue Hole, although this could be a myth to have made the spring more mysterious. I can imagine that I may have wondered if one could reach China through this waterway into the depths of the earth.

An interesting feature of the spring is that its waters contain no oxygen, thus it is unable to sustain life. In order for the stream it feeds to support trout and other aquatic creatures, it is aerated by waterwheels.

What I remember most about this blue hole was its depth and its stillness. It gave no hint that water was gushing from this hole. Rather, it seemed little more than an unusually blue pond that calmed you with its pleasingly placid restfulness. And the adults who came to see it were fascinated enough to go out of their way to be here. Castalia is not your typical waystop on the main drag.

Evidently the tourist traffic was not financially viable enough to cover the costs of making the Blue Hole wheelchair accessible. Thus, in 1990 or so they had to shut it down. Perhaps interest lagged because the culture has changed. Instead of natural wonders like the Badlands and Blue Holes, modern families prefer amusement park rides, water slides and megamalls. Maybe it’s just a cycle our culture is going through. Perhaps one day our children’s children will get bored with virtual gaming, online shopping and blogging… and will watch sunrises, enjoy estuaries, catch frogs, grasshoppers and lightning bugs, and discover anew the constellations that shimmer in the night sky.

"Open your eyes."

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Angry Visitor from Xon, Part II

Short Story Monday. The first half of this story is located on last Monday's blog. The central character, Rau, has come to earth from the planet Xon. The name that Xonians use for earth is Tortell. Rau looks human, and passably handsome. Upon finding suitable clothes he goes to a county fair where he meets a girl, Lisa, who is on the outs with her boyfriend. What follows is our exciting conclusion.

The Angry Visitor from Xon, Part II

Awkwardly, he reached out and put his hand on her upper arm and nodded slightly. He realized she did not hear him, that his words were all locked up in his head. He hoped that his touch would reassure her.

"Lisa, look,” Melissa said, “It’s Curt.”
Sure enough, Curt, Roland and Billy were standing beneath the awning of the shooting gallery, staring at Lisa and the stranger from out of town. As soon as Lisa saw them she, too, reached out her arm and slipped it about Rau’s waist.

“Let’s go this way,” she said, leading him toward the arcade games. Somewhere behind her she heard Melissa mumble, “I’ll catch ya later, Lis,” but she didn’t turn. Rau, so much taller, rested his arm across her shoulder.

They stopped at the darts game, the one where you pop balloons, and he won her a stuffed frog. At the baseball throw, where you knock down the bottles, he won her a stuffed snake. It went on like this till her arms were full.

At first she talked a lot, but his silence made her feel quietly foolish and after a while she became as mute as he. They walked around behind the stadium and down through a gate to the horse barns. She had been to the fair every year since she was ten and she knew the places where they could be alone. “Is this all right?” she asked as she led him to a stack of hay bales in an empty stall. He seated himself and she, with bold abandon, climbed into his lap and curled up against his chest.

For Rau, of course, everything in this world was new and he had been taking it in like a newborn gasping for its first breath. But this, this was beyond his expectations, beyond his comprehension, beyond his capacity to believe. This beautiful young female person-species seemed genuinely desirous to be his, to share a moment of pleasure-time with him. With fear and awe he anticipated that he was about to experience the most truly wonderful experience in the universe... and his heart began pounding hard in his chest.

Rau had never experienced pleasure-time with a woman before and he was insecure. He had learned about it in school, but on Xon one is expected to be thirty years old (Xon time, which is approximately 200 earth years) to engage in such activity. Rau had secretly grown tired of waiting (it would be another 70 earth years before he turned 30 in Xon time) and one of the secret aims of his mission was to discover this experience. He had no idea it was to actually fall right into his lap.

Lisa, her face tucked into his neck, was uncertain what she really wanted to do. She knew that she had no intention of getting into trouble with this guy. She still liked Curt. But she felt like there would be no harm in a little kissing. She made little nibbling movements with her lips, up along the side of his neck to his earlobe. He tilted his head back to see what she was doing. She in turn looked up into his eyes, which glistened in the silver slivers of light that broke in through the slats.

Telepathically he kept repeating, “Thank you for this gift. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” But she could not hear his thoughts, nor his heart.

She, too, was grateful, for she knew that Curt was going to be pissed. And it served him right, teasing her like that.

Rau placed his strong hands on her shoulders, then slid them down across her back, pulling her up toward his face. His mouth parted slightly, and his tongue, a long pencil-like snake, slid swiftly up her nostril into the upper recesses of her nasal cavity. Immediately, five threadlike probes darted out from an opening at the tip and pierced the tissued wall there, boring directly to the pleasure center of her brain. Her initial revulsion flipped all about so that she was conscious only of the direct and timeless stimulation of her pleasure cortex. On Xon they call it the X-spot.

Rau, however, was not pleased. He saw, by the rolled back eyes, that he had taken her There. But she, in her selfishness, in her insolent selfishness, was not reciprocating.

"What is this?” he thought. “It is supposed to be a mutual experience. How could she do this to me.” Whereupon he stood up and she fell backward off his lap to the ground, the side of her head striking the boards, jarring her back to consciousness. Rau, furious, slipped away from the fairground under the cover of darkness and returned to his pod.

Lisa clambered to her feet and staggered from the barn just as Curt and Melissa were approaching.

"What happened to you,” Melissa said. Curt was too outraged to speak.

Lisa, still basking in the afterglow of her ecstasy could only say, “Incredible. It was incredible.”

Curt slammed his fist against the building and stomped off, slinging curses against the night.

Rau, meanwhile, returned to Xon, with no fondness in his heart for the planet Tortell or its people. Because his father, Som Felo, was a man of influence in high places, Rau urged him to set an example of Xon’s power by destroying Tortell.

Rau’s father was surprised by the intensity of feeling in his first-born son, and determined to learn what was beneath it. During a long fishing trip in Xon's Northern Waters Rau shared his experience with the female person-species from Tortell. To Rau’s surprise, Som Felo only laughed.”

You are so young. One day you will understand. I have a book for you. Your mother and I read it together once a year. Here it is.” And he handed Rau the book Men Are From Roipal, Women Are From Mintza.

So it was the that planet earth was spared from destruction by the wise counsel of an understanding father.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Words

“Come, let us… confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” ~ Genesis 11:7

I was recently reading a book on advertising in which the author noted that words do not have meaning until we invest them with meaning. That is, words do not have meaning in themselves, but are just a shell that the hearer fills with meaning.

This idea immediately intrigued me for a couple reasons. First, because it explains why sometimes we say things and other people don’t know where we are coming from. Try describing New York City skyscrapers to people in New Guinea who have never seen a two story hut. And what does love look like to people who today for whom the word is only a sex act.

We say a word, and people hear something different than what we mean. The word Conservative is highly loaded these days. For some it means “family values” whereas for others it means narrow-minded bigots who (if they had their way) would become jack-booted, freedom-stealing fascists. To some the word Liberal means compassionate people who care for the less fortunate, and to others the word means anti-American, anti-business, tree-hugging communist or idealistic airhead.

The point is, we say a word, and it is invested with lots of different meanings by the hearer. Words are like triggers that awaken meanings in the mind.

Take the word God, for example. For many people of faith this is far more than a word. It is the Almighty Creator, Yahweh, the high and holy one, awesome in power, who humbled Himself to die in shame to conquer death and make a way for us to be part of His great family, for eternity. But if you say “God” in some circles, it means “a concept by which weak people comfort themselves.”

How are we to communicate in this world where words have become so divested of meaning? Think about it. What do you do when words no longer have any meaning? How do we reach people? How do we help meet needs or make a difference if we can’t use words?

One way we can be understood is by our behavior. Our lives are a book read by all. Our deeds communicate, even when words fail. And if we are kind, friendly, open-armed, show interest when others speak, it will say things that are important.

On this topic, the problem of communication, much more could be said. But rather than digress, let's save those discussions for another time.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

China Road

China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power

In a variety of ways over the past decade we have been told that China is either economically eating our lunch or going to. It’s said that they are smarter and that they are more motivated. They’re growth rate is fast and their appetite for being fully modern is insatiable.

Who are these people? What are they all about? And how much does it really matter to me?

Today there are nearly 1.3 billion Chinese, and four hundred million who have newly moved into the ranks of the middle class with all this entails, from a desire for creature comforts to the typical Western menagerie of success symbols. Are these people a real threat to America and the American way of life, or is it just something that is happening in another part of this third rock from the sun?

The best way to find out is to live there. You won’t learn much by passing through, but after a measure of years, if you can talk to enough people and go to enough places, you’ll start to develop some conclusions about what is going on.

Naturally there are not too many who can really follow through on that plan. But there are some who have lived in China and made it a point pay attention, ask a lot of questions and to listen with care. One of these is National Public Radio’s Beijing correspondent Rob Gifford who has written a first rate book about what is really happening in China today. After six years traveling throughout China as a reporter for NPR’s Morning Edition, you can be sure he has seen a lot more that any tourist would ever see.

Gifford’s China Road is without peer in terms of insight and understanding of what is happening in China today, its history and potential as a world power. He’s also an excellent writer, so it’s a darn good read.

At the core of Gifford’s book is a single question. What does China’s future hold? Global influence or national implosion? With more than twenty years of intimacy with the world’s largest nation, Gifford has seen much that sketchy news headlines fail to convey. Despite the country’s achievements, the nation carries a lot of baggage, along with various forms of cultural cancer.

Throughout the book Gifford shares with readers what the Chinese people are saying about their own country. Here is a typically telling statement from a man named Liu. “In the past, everyone was poor, but everyone was honest. Now, everyone is more free, but there is chaos. Money has made everyone go bad.” And to underscore this, “It’s man eat man now.”

After recently finishing the unabridged audio version of this book, and being wholly impressed with its contents, I obtained a hard copy, which includes sixteen pages of color photos showing many highlights of Gifford’s journey along Highway 312, the world’s longest highway stretching from Shanghai to the Gobi Desert and China’s upper northwest. From China’s first Hooters to rural peasant karaoke bars to factories, and from Shanghai’s thoroughfare’s to border crossings, we see China today in its unblinking attempt to be wholly part of the modern world. In the U.S. our traveling salesmen may get free Internet and free in-room movies, in Northwest China, the hotels also offer free women.

We also see the seamier consequences of all this modernism and wealth, from the growing drug and sex trades to the rise of AIDS, government cover ups, and the heavy toll on the environment as well as to the peoples whose aching backs are carrying this nation into the future. With “progress” the highest priority, people have become a commodity. Unsafe work conditions result in many deaths and much suffering, but no one fights to fix it because everyone wants the wealth progress is creating and they want it as fast as possible.

Gifford’s magnificent book is one that I would call important because it is a true summing up of everything in China that has gone on before, which all taken together sheds critical light on the present. The sufferings borne by these people under Mao and at the hands of the Japanese are still open wounds. The problems created by Colonialism are not far behind.

Chinese destiny as a world superpower is not a forgone conclusion, but there are reasons not to keep our heads in the sand.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Four Letter Word

It is a much hated four letter word that begins with the letter F. Many people try to say that this word is not part of their vocabulary. It is usually synonymous with pain and no one likes to experience it. Yet it is a part of life and we all have to deal with it. The word is Fail.

Failure is one of life’s most challenging experiences, and how we react afterwards has a large bearing on what we will become.

Failure can run along a wide range of lines. For many reasons kids fail in school, some because of inadequate preparation, and other times perhaps due to personal handicaps that cause them to get behind and not have the support they need. They are lost in the shuffle, possibly shy, not a fighter for the teacher’s ear, blaming themselves instead of understanding that it could be circumstances set against them.

I knew a girl in college for whom a biology degree was out of reach because she failed chemistry class twice. Her dream went up in smoke, though maybe down the road something good came of it later. The experience was hard, and disheartening.

Failure in the job scene comes in a range of guises. Failure to get the job, failure to succeed in the job and that ultimate indignity of being dismissed from a job, these are just a few painfully harsh experiences. And such failures do an inner work on us that can distort our vision of ourselves. When we most need affirmation, that sting of rejection has an especially harsh edge.

I had a friend, an old man, who used to sell real estate in the late sixties. He was the sole breadwinner in his family and the economy had taken a downturn. Selling houses was not easy, so he was under a lot of pressure. Ralph said that women were entering the field who were not breadwinners, who were doing it for social reasons as well as income, but as a second income. The selling situation for them was free and easy, light and breezy. Buyers preferred doing business with these women because of the atmosphere created, as opposed to the repressed anxiety he tried to conceal. This new variable ultimately resulted in his becoming a failure in real estate sales and he had to change careers.

An article called "Failure", Ode magazine October 2007, details how J.K.Rowling’s early failures became a springboard for her future success. Many other other high profile failures are cited, such as Henry Ford who went bankrupt numerous times before his car company found traction.

Good relationships, whether with friends, lovers or everything in between, can be one of the most rewarding things in life… and also the most painful when things turn. Finding a way to deal with the pain once a relationship falls apart is hard. First off, we do not have a clear picture of what is going on within us at the time. Second, the rejection is such a personal assault on our self esteem.

In my own personal life, it was my inability to know how to deal with a broken relationship and rejection by friends that led me to cry out to God. This did not solve all my life problems, but it put me on a better path than the self-destructive one I had been traveling along for a time.

Later, after Bible school, my wife Susie and I made a three year commitment to serve at an orphanage in Mexico early in our marriage. At the end of a year we had to call it quits. We believed our decision the right thing to do, but many looked on our return as a sign of having failed. We ourselves felt confused and did a lot of soul searching. Life goes on, either with you or without you, and eventually we found the next step for us. Ultimately, it was this failure that led to my becoming a writer, which resulted in the career success I have experienced, being able to provide for my family these past twenty-five years.

Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes takes place in a small town where a travelling circus arrives, and its evil is palpable. In one scene the father of one of the main characters goes into the House of Mirrors late in the story and is stuck there, for what he sees are not distortions of himself, but rather images of his life, his failures. He is overcome with regret.

Regret is a great snare. While looking into the chasm that is our past, we must be careful not to become so hypnotized that we become paralyzed like this man in the Hall of Mirrors.

Failure is not an end, but a beginning. And there is no one who has ever achieved great things without at some point along the way coming to grips with it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Brushes

There are many kinds of brushes in the world. Lint brushes, hair brushes, bottle brushes, wire brushes... Last week one of my paint brushes broke. In over four decades of painting, making art with paint brushes, I don't believe I've ever had a brush break like that.

It’s hard to believe that some of these brushes I have been using more than thirty-five years. Actually, a few are so worn down they are practically nubs, but I love my brushes.

In the early 80’s when I was a painting contractor (doing freelance writing at night) my paint brushes were like intimate friends. Even those brushes I loved, and my paint rollers, too.

When you care about something you take care of it. And paint brushes need special care or they will end up all gummed with dried paint, thereby becoming useless.

It’s interesting how the different brushes create different effects. With flats you can lay the paint down thick and get wavy effects. Oriental calligraphy is created with fine tipped brushes that almost have a teardrop shape. And of course the various brush styles all have names. Rounds, brights, fans, riggers, mops and the domed filbert.

My favorite brushes have been so used that many are quite a bit shorter now from when purchased long ago. As they scrub across various surfaces they become increasingly worn down. Some do little more than smear the paint on the surface like applying lipstick. Some simply stain it.

In point of fact, there are many ways to apply paint to surfaces including rags, fingertips, and pallet knives. The photo at the top of this entry, however, only shows a few of my brushes. Maybe I'll show you the rags, fingers and other tools another time.

Making art can be very gratifying as well as personally rewarding. As Thomas Merton noted, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Whether it is painting, making pottery, or creating a garden, as you lose yourself you often in turn enrich others. Hopefully some of my work here on this blogspot has done that for you.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Colors of the Day

Line, shape, form, texture... Creating art involves giving attention to all these facets of what makes visual art what it is. And perhaps most significantly, whether vibrant or subtle, explosive or simple, we are fascinated by color.

Our very first lessons in elementary school art class include learning about the color wheel, how the primary colors red, blue and yellow are combined to make the secondary colors green, purple and orange. In college, these basics are once again revisited, with an introduction to techniques, color harmonies, optical effects that colors create.

My father was a chemist who mixed colors for house paints, analyzing the effects of various tints, pigments and additives in base stocks. In my early art adventures he supplied me with both acrylic base stocks and a range of pigments so I could mix my own paints, and unique colors. It was an advantage not available to every art student in Siegfried Hall.

The beauty of painting (making art) is that it teaches how color is altered in its appearance depending on where it is applied. For example, many paints are semi-transparent and when applied to a white background, they flash more brilliantly than when placed over a dark one. Or, to put it a different way, color is enhanced by light, made both vivid and visible by light.

Renaissance painters were masters in their understanding of how layers of color create various effects. A book of colored plates just won't do justice to the images hung in the world's great galleries. Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby.

Evidently color is a visual perception, because as I understand it many animals do not see color. And color blindness is not uncommon among humans, though usually it is in a specific color sphere. My dad had a book with 100-plus plates of various images that were designed to identify color blindness in people, since his job required a keen perceptive acuity. He'd brought it home on one occasion and we discovered that Kenny Koons next door was color blind in the realm of reds and greens. He saw both colors as grey. This helped explain why on one occasion when a red mustang went by he said, "There goes Mike Martin," who drove a forest green Mustang. We laughed and thought he was kidding. But he wasn't.

I decided to write about color today because of the richness of our fall colors here in the Northland these past several weeks. I thought it would give me a chance to color your world a little by sharing some images I have taken recently. What a wonderful gift color is. Its visual splendor is an aesthetic delight to the eyes, and one we occasionally take for granted, made possible by light...

Yes, ... Let there be light!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Daily Mirror

"...leaning over the mirror of our acts, our souls will recognize what we are."- Andre Gide

For nearly all of us mirrors play a role in our morning rituals. Whether for shaving or make-up, fixing one's hair or straightening one's tie, the mirror is a useful tool, presenting to our eyes a true reflection of what is there.

On other occasions, a reassuring glance in the mirror before a job interview or an important date gives us confidence that at least the external things are taken care of - our hair isn't mussed, collar turned right, no food crumbs on our chin.

At the end of the day there is another mirror which is equally valuable to us, and perhaps even more so once we practice using it. We can call it the mirror of our acts. As we quiet ourselves and reflect on the day, we discover that our actions reveal our souls as surely as the bathroom mirror reveals our faces.

The mirror of our acts reveals us as we truly are, giving a more precise picture of ourselves than we may wish to see. For it will reveal not only our strengths, but also our limitations; it will show not only our inward beauty, but also the defects that mar that beauty. When I look back on my day, with honesty, standing before this mirror of my soul, what do I truly see reflected there? Thoughtfulness and sensitivity? Selfishness? Duplicity and deceit? Laziness? Industriousness? Courage? Courtesy? Foolish pride? Pettiness? Carelessness? The character defects we see need not discourage us. Recognizing one's shortcomings is the essential first step toward seeking a cure.

As we "get ourselves right" we are making the world a better place by at least a little. Personal reflection can also help us become more effective in helping others. Taking time for reflection at day's end can be a useful tool to help us achieve these ends, improving our selves and making a positive impact in our world.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Angry Visitor from Xon

Short Story Monday. This week a little sci-fi... My grandmother was a voracious reader of sci fi, with many Asimov books prominent on her shelves. I'd enjoyed a fair share of it in high school and perhaps this strange little story was birthed from those early readings.

The Angry Visitor from Xon

He landed his spacepod in a field near Carlton, Minnesota. It was night and he hoped that there had been no sign of his landing. He had landed without lights.

He meant no harm, visiting this planet for the first time in more than a hundred earth years. During his last visit he was instructed to refrain from making contact with the residents of this planet, called Tortell in his own world (which means, Two Thirds Water.) It was not a creative name, as most of the inhabitants of Xon are factual, reality based engineers, lacking in imagination. (Xon means, “The Largest Blue Planet in our Solar System”, which it was.)

His name was Som Felo Fint, which translated means he was the first born son of Som Felo. His parents, however, called him Rau, which means “Male Boy.” Happily, Rau had discovered in his previous visit that Tortell had ample supplies of oxygen, that the molecular designs and carbon based life forms corresponded to his own planet and that, but for his clothing and one other handicap, he could practically pass for a Tortellian, that is, earthling.

Rau’s unfortunate handicap was the lack of vocal chords. The peoples of Xon had developed their telepathic communication skills to such an extent that it was believed by Xon scientists that vocal chords were irrelevant. The vocal chord gene was removed from the genetic code shortly after the elimination of the genes that cause migraines, cancer and an assortment of other miscellaneous maladies. The only peoples to be infuriated by this decision were Xon’s pet owners and pet trainers. Telepathic communication with animals has yet to be developed, in spite of that “can do” attitude of high ranking Xon technologists.

The spacepod landed without mishap in a farmer’s field shortly after dusk. He made only a modest attempt to conceal it, intending to depart by morning.

Rau’s visit to Northern Minnesota corresponded with the county fair season, and as luck would have it, these were the days of the Carlton County Fair. His first stop: a farmhouse just off Highway 61, to pick up a set of clothes. The farmer and his family had gone to the fair and for a Xonian, subduing the family watchdog was a cinch. In no time at all Rau was appropriately decked out. He smiled when he caught his reflection in the mirror. On the surface, at least, he made a passable rural Minnesotan, and a handsome one at that.

Rau was off to the fair.

*

Lisa Flanagan was mad at her boyfriend Curt Steffle and she intended to let him know it. Curt had made fun of her in front of his friends. Roland Kinney and Billy Mitchell were laughing so hard tears spilt from their eyes. And if that wasn't bad enough, Tess Harper saw everything and she probably wouldn't get off Lisa's case for a year. For definite and for sure Curt was finished.

Lisa took a walk in the field beyond the parking lot and found a place to be alone with herself while her friends went off to have fun. She cried into the folds of her sweatshirt, then quietly composed herself in the dark. As she stood up to head back toward the fairground she heard the sound of footsteps and whirled about only to see a man's silhouette moving toward the lights.

At first it frightened her to think that she may not have been alone. Then, she wondered if maybe it had been Curt feeling awkward and guilty, having followed her but being too timid to approach her.
Walking briskly, she pursued the dark figure until she reached the open lighted space between a tent and a vendor's trailer. The figure turned, and it was not Curt at all. In fact, it was a young man, taller and fuller in the shoulders, and very handsome, with deep set eyes that seemed to possess an understanding which exceeded his years. The glare of lights shone on her face and he saw that she was looking at him with a strange expression. Rau turned and walked out of sight around the corner.

About ten minutes later she found her friend Melissa. “Did you see him? That new fellow. Know anything about him?”

But Melissa hadn't seen him.

“Where’s Curt? Didn’t you come with Curt tonight?”

"Curt’s history,” Lisa said and she spat. She wasn’t very good at spitting, so it was more like she sprayed a bit of spittle in the direction of the ground. The sound was effective and showed what she thought of her former boyfriend.

"So what’s his name?”

"I don’t know,” Lisa said. “We haven’t really met.”

"You don’t even know the guy and you –"

Lisa cut her off, pointing. “There. He’s over by the cotton candy.”

Rau was standing alongside the glass, mesmerized by the furls of air and sugar that were being wrapped into pink and blue clouds of cotton.”

Come on,” Lisa said. “Let’s go meet him.” Reluctantly Melissa went along.

Lisa acted like she had lost her footing and brushed against him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m such a klutz.”

Rau looked at her and smiled. He found her features delicate and pleasing to look at. Using his telepathic powers he attempted to tell her she was beautiful and that it was O.K. that she bumped into him. He said he was shy and wanted to comfort her in the field, but sensed that she wanted to be alone. He said many more things, but on his face he wore only a smile that seemed strangely sad.

Unfortunately, human comprehension of Xonian telepathy is zilch and Lisa wondered if she may have said or done something wrong.

Awkwardly, he reached out and put his hand on her upper arm and nodded slightly. He realized she did not hear him, that his words were all locked up in his head. He hoped that his touch would reassure her.

TO BE CONTINUED