Sunday, November 30, 2008

YouTube and music

Yesterday afternoon my children were doing as little as possible with the greatest determination. As they sat around, they engaged in one of their favorite pastimes, listening to music off YouTube. This allows them to take turns choosing songs, or to click on a suggested link and hear something none of us has ever heard before. It's a delightful thing to do, even when some of the songs my sons choose sound like an army of alleycats trying to stop bulldozers in the act of tearing down their neighborhoood. YouTube, in combination with iTunes, has solved one of the major annoyances that beset life in the second half of the twentieth century. There is a fabulous quantity and diversity of recorded music in the world, but how do you learn about anything beyond the tiny sliver that gets played on the radio? And if you did manage to hear a song you really liked, the only way to get it was to buy a whole album or cd loaded with stuff you didn't like. I have a whole stack of cds I never listen to because the only song on them I like was the one I had heard before buying the thing.

But now, with YouTube, we can spend whole afternoons listening to unfamiliar music. Hear a rumor about a band? Listen to a song. Simple as that. YouTube is very limited in some kinds of music I'm interested in, especially folk, but even so it is enormously richer and more diverse than the whole radio dial. And if you find something you like, you can hop over to iTunes and, much of the time, buy it right then and there. Just the one song, not a cd loaded with 40 minutes of filler. I know some music industry people are worried that YouTube will hurt their sales, but I have bought more music this year than any of the previous dozen.

I was thinking about this, and I remembered that there was a fragment of Sophocles about the power of music, and using that other modern marvel, the internet search engine, I tracked it down:
By Memory's daughters, the Muses,
Forgetting, named Lethe, is hated
And not to be loved.
But for mortals, what
Power there is in songs,
What greatest happiness
That can make bearable this
Short narrow channel of life!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving

We went down to my father's house in Richmond for Thanksgiving dinner. His second wife has six children, so their are lots of relatives around. Dinner was great and it was good to see my kin. To me Thanksgiving has always been about seeing people I don't see every day, and I love these get-togethers. The years when we have stayed home and had small dinners have always been disappointing to me.

My father loves his little grandchildren, and whenever we are there he spends a lot of time with toddlers.



Here Ben and Thomas tussle dangerously close to fragile things while their cousin Zoey looks on:


And this is just a wonderful picture of Clara:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Offering Thanks

This Thanksgiving Day, I find myself musing on the things for which, right now, I feel grateful.

I feel grateful that I live in a safe place, where will not be attacked by gunmen with grenades and automatic rifles.

I feel grateful that since most of my clients are in the federal government, my job is pretty safe.

I feel grateful that my family is healthy in a world of powerful medicine, so that their fevers, sniffles, and rashes never make me worry for their lives.

I feel grateful that knowing my wife is in the next room makes me feel good.

I feel grateful that I am looking forward to gathering with my extended family for dinner.

I feel grateful that I have confidence in the car I will drive down to Richmond, and the money to fix it should it break down; I remember when I used to set out on journeys in my ramshackle old Dodge, never knowing whether it would make it.

I feel grateful that my country has elected a President I respect.

I feel grateful that I have friends, and ways to communicate with them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bens Sixth Birthday

This is what being six should be like:



But this -- well, it is what it is:

Monday, November 24, 2008

vampires out of the coffin

In the "seen too many movies" category, from today's Washington Post:

"I really look at my condition as more of an energy deficiency," says one 27-year-old Washingtonian, whose condition, she says, is vampirism. She goes by Scarlet in the vampire community, but she -- like many vampires -- does not allow her real name to be printed because she has not come out of the coffin in real life. "I don't always produce enough energy to sustain myself," Scarlet says. She noticed this deficiency while a child, she says, and "awakened" as a vampire in her teens.

So the woman, who recently relocated from the South, occasionally needs to take a little energy from her boyfriend. Just a teaspoon of blood, once every week or 10 days, and always collected with disposable single-use lancet. Safety first, safety first. Feeding is "not as parasitic as people think," she says. "It's more of a reciprocal thing." While she has an energy deficiency, she says, her boyfriend has an energy surplus. "He'd been a little hyperactive, and now he can actually sleep through the night." It's almost medicinal, really.

Rabinowitz [a "psychic vampire"] is just as discriminating when it comes to empathic feeding. "I stay away from people with medical issues," she says. "There's just too much complex emotion there." Also, no drunks, no druggies, no head cases, and "I try to stay away from people who are evil, basically." Although she most often feeds from one willing donor (most often, her long-term partner), she is able to take in ambient energy from crowds, without people even realizing. Places such as Hard Times Cafe and Applebee's can be good spots, she says, because of the generally positive energy.

A frightening creature from the dark side of our imaginations, born from fear, blood, and sexuality, sent soaring by great writers and clever film makers, crashes back to earth amidst a crowd of fat suburbanites eating curly fries. So sad.

Upside Down

There is a phase through which all my children have passed some time between 1 and 5, lasting for years, during which being turned upside down will fix almost anything that is wrong with them. It gives them a joy that seems to wipe away all sorrows. I did it for Zhen Zhen this weekend, when she was distraught over some squabble over toys. And then I got to thinking about it, so I picked her up again and had Mary take this picture. Ben joined of his own initiative. What is it, do you suppose, that makes being upended such a pleasure for little ones?

Bronze Chariot

From Discovery News:

Nov. 21, 2008 -- Archaeologists have unearthed an elaborately decorated 1,800-year-old chariot sheathed in bronze at an ancient Thracian tomb in southeastern Bulgaria, the head of the excavation said Friday. "The lavishly ornamented four-wheel chariot dates back to the end of the second century A.D.," Veselin Ignatov said in a telephone interview from the site, near the southeastern village of Karanovo. . . .

The bronze-plated wooden chariot is decorated with scenes from Thracian Mythology, including figures of a jumping panther and the carving of a mythological animal with the body of a panther and the tail of a dolphin, Ignatov said.

I can't wait to see pictures of the restored chariot!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

on my daughter calling me "ancient"

from Tennyson's "Ulysses"

It little profits that an idle king
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea. I am become a name,
For always roaming with a hungry heart.
Much have I seen and known–cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all–
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought....
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads–you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

nerdists

Ben was just telling me that he hates a song. "It sounds like it's singed by artist nerds. They're also called nerdists. Do you know that nerdist is another word for artist nerd?"

And I realized that I have a new ambition: I want to be a nerdist!

reading about side effects makes you sick

From the Wall Street Journal:
Is it a good idea to read about all the possible side effects of medications you're taking?

Not if you have difficulty concentrating, headaches, fatigue, dry skin, irritability, a big project due, or an active imagination.

Research has shown that expecting to feel ill can bring illness on in some instances, particularly when stress is involved. The technical term is the "nocebo effect," and it's placebo's evil twin. "It's not a psychiatric disorder -- it's the way the mind works," says Arthur Barsky, director of Psychiatric Research at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Nocebos can even be fatal. In one classic example, women in the multi-decade Framingham Heart study who thought they were at risk for heart attacks were 3.7 times as likely to die of coronary conditions as women who didn't have such fears -- regardless of whether they smoked or had other risk factors.

Research deliberately causing nocebos has been limited (after all, it's kind of cruel). But in one 1960s test, when hospital patients were given sugar water and told it would make them vomit, 80% of them did.

Studies have also shown that patients forewarned about possible side effects are more likely to encounter them. In a study last year at the University of Turin, Italy, men taking finesteride for enlarged prostates who were informed that it could cause erectile dysfunction and decreased libido were three times as likely to experience such side effects as men who weren't told.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

More on the California Academy of Sciences

At Slate, Witold Rybczynski gives an interesting and positive review of Renzo Piano's California Academy of Sciences.

New Finds from Catal Hoyuk

This year's annual press release from Catal Hoyuk includes the discovery of another house decorated with bull's horns and wall paintings:

And this tiny, delightful fertility figure:


Did you ever wonder how people lived in little houses full of bull's horns? Weren't they always tripping over them or sitting on them?

Architectural Eras

By chance the NY Times has two architectural slide shows up right now, one featuring Frank Gehry's renovation of the Ontario Art Museum and the other on the 19th century architecture of Buffalo.

And this has been wondering again: why doesn't anyone build pretty buildings any more?

Compare this facade, from Louis Sullivan's 1895 Guarantee Building:


With the facade of Gehry's latest:


Or compare a staircase by Gehry with two by Daniel Burnham:



I look at these, and all that comes to mind is that my own age has somehow gone completely insane. I hope they do manage to preserve Buffalo's most beautiful buildings, because we have lost the ability to build new ones anywhere near as lovely.

Friday, November 14, 2008

online psychosis

Via Mind Hacks, a fascinating look at online groups where psychotics share their delusions.

As the New York Times reported the story,

FOR years they lived in solitary terror of the light beams that caused searing headaches, the technology that took control of their minds and bodies. They feared the stalkers, people whose voices shouted from the walls or screamed in their heads, “We found you” and “We want you dead.”

When people who believe such things reported them to the police, doctors or family, they said they were often told they were crazy. Sometimes they were medicated or locked in hospital wards, or fired from jobs and isolated from the outside world.

But when they found one another on the Internet, everything changed. So many others were having the same experiences.

Type “mind control” or “gang stalking” into Google, and Web sites appear that describe cases of persecution, both psychological and physical, related with the same minute details — red and white cars following victims, vandalism of their homes, snickering by those around them.

Identified by some psychologists and psychiatrists as part of an “extreme community” on the Internet that appears to encourage delusional thinking, a growing number of such Web sites are filled with stories from people who say they are victims of mind control and stalking by gangs of government agents. The sites are drawing the concern of mental health professionals and the interest of researchers in psychology and psychiatry.

As Mind Hacks points out, these networks may eventually raise a serious problem of diagnosis. Part of the standard description of a psychotic delusion states,
if a belief is held by a person’s “culture or subculture,” it is not a delusion.


Putin and Bush

Put this in the category of, "so amusing it ought to be true." And, hey, it might; the source is the London Times. According to the Times, French President Sarkozy saved President Saakashvili of Georgia from a gruesome fate with this bit of cleverness:
With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr Sarkozy told Mr Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia’s Government. According to Mr Levitte, the Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls,” Mr Putin declared.

Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. “Hang him?” — he asked. “Why not?” Mr Putin replied. “The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.”

Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: “Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?” Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: “Ah — you have scored a point there.”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hubble photographs extra-solar planet

Amazing news from NASA:
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has taken the first visible-light snapshot of a planet circling another star.


Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter's mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Australis, or the "Southern Fish."

Fomalhaut has been a candidate for planet hunting ever since an excess of dust was discovered around the star in the early 1980s by NASA's Infrared Astronomy Satellite, IRAS.

In 2004, the coronagraph in the High Resolution Camera on Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys produced the first-ever resolved visible-light image of the region around Fomalhaut. It clearly showed a ring of protoplanetary debris approximately 21.5 billion miles across and having a sharp inner edge.

This large debris disk is similar to the Kuiper Belt, which encircles the solar system and contains a range of icy bodies from dust grains to objects the size of dwarf planets, such as Pluto.

Hubble astronomer Paul Kalas, of the University of California at Berkeley, and team members proposed in 2005 that the ring was being gravitationally modified by a planet lying between the star and the ring's inner edge.

Circumstantial evidence came from Hubble's confirmation that the ring is offset from the center of the star. The sharp inner edge of the ring is also consistent with the presence of a planet that gravitationally "shepherds" ring particles. Independent researchers have subsequently reached similar conclusions.

Now, Hubble has actually photographed a point source of light lying 1.8 billion miles inside the ring's inner edge. The results are being reported in the November 14 issue of Science magazine.

"Our Hubble observations were incredibly demanding. Fomalhaut b is 1 billion times fainter than the star. We began this program in 2001, and our persistence finally paid off," Kalas says.

"Fomalhaut is the gift that keeps on giving. Following the unexpected discovery of its dust ring, we have now found an exoplanet at a location suggested by analysis of the dust ring's shape. The lesson for exoplanet hunters is 'follow the dust,'" said team member Mark Clampin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Observations taken 21 months apart by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys' coronagraph show that the object is moving along a path around the star, and is therefore gravitationally bound to it. The planet is 10.7 billion miles from the star, or about 10 times the distance of the planet Saturn from our sun.

The planet is brighter than expected for an object of three Jupiter masses. One possibility is that it has a Saturn-like ring of ice and dust reflecting starlight. The ring might eventually coalesce to form moons. The ring's estimated size is comparable to the region around Jupiter and its four largest orbiting satellites.

Kalas and his team first used Hubble to photograph Fomalhaut in 2004, and made the unexpected discovery of its debris disk, which scatters Fomalhaut's starlight. At the time they noted a few bright sources in the image as planet candidates. A follow-up image in 2006 showed that one of the objects is moving through space with Fomalhaut but changed position relative to the ring since the 2004 exposure. The amount of displacement between the two exposures corresponds to an 872-year-long orbit as calculated from Kepler's laws of planetary motion.

Future observations will attempt to see the planet in infrared light and will look for evidence of water vapor clouds in the atmosphere. This would yield clues to the evolution of a comparatively newborn 100-million-year-old planet. Astrometric measurements of the planet's orbit will provide enough precision to yield an accurate mass.

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2013 will be able to make coronagraphic observations of Fomalhaut in the near- and mid-infrared. Webb will be able to hunt for other planets in the system and probe the region interior to the dust ring for structures such as an inner asteroid belt.

November Rain

I'm home now, trying to shake off a nasty cold and watching the rain fall on the gray November world outside. Sometimes this time of year makes me sad -- the chill, the rain, and especially the darkness. It weighs on me when I leave for work in the dark and get home in the dark. There is still work to be done outside, but often the weekend days are either wet or cold and windy, so it isn't much fun.

But really I like having four seasons. There is something to love in every time of year and every kind of day. Days like today are perfect for being cozy inside, drinking coffee and reading. They are perfect for baking cookies. They are perfect for writing. And they are perfect for doing nothing at all.

The Enemy

From a just published speech that Leonard Bernstein gave in 1986. He had been on tour with the Israel Philharmonic in a year when there had several high-profile terrorist attacks:
It was all bells and beauty, Hatikvah in our hearts, enraptured audiences—except for one thing: security. We were, after all, the Israel Philharmonic, streaming from airport to airport, concert hall to hotel, public place to public place; we were the messengers of music (that is, beauty, therefore truth) and everywhere around us was something called terrorism. That was also a truth—not perhaps so absolute as Plato’s Aesthetic Truth, but a formidable reality nonetheless. Paris had just undergone a relentless storm of terrorist abuse, and we were en route là-bas. I need not tell you about airports—Heathrow, Leonardo da Vinci, Athens, Vienna—everybody’s favorite headlines. We were therefore heavily guarded; wherever we went there were Carabinieri, Sicherheitspolizei, La Sureté Nationale, Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the charming Swiss Army. I could go nowhere without a personal bodyguard, not even for a walk down Piccadilly or the Champs Elysées. I visited the breathtaking ruins of Pompeii, after 15 or 20 years; what a joy, but again attended by a helicopter overhead, soldiers with ferocious dogs on chains, and chummy plainclothesmen in Italian silk shirts concealing stomachs of pure fatal metal. Guns. I hate guns. What a great way to see Pompeii. The next day I swam in the Bay of Sorrento, carefully cruised by two poliziotti. What fun. What was happening was that day by day, going from triumph to triumph, from one set of old friends to another, from joy to joy and sunshine to sunshine, an invisible character gradually came into being, slowly and steadily developing a special identity called The Enemy. I had never before been so aware of this metaphorical being, The Enemy; but the more protection one has, the more danger is implied; the stronger the defense, the greater must be the threat. At one point I suddenly realized that this is the way the world lives, is practiced in living—existing in terms of an enemy. It’s exactly the target that Jesus aimed at all his life, and Buddha too, and Freud; and Gandhi and Martin Luther King: trying to make this invisible creature unnecessary. Love thy neighbor as thyself.
The need to defend against real enemies must always be balanced against the danger of letting the Enemy in our heads control our lives and corrupt our souls.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

hating Vista

So I bought a new laptop. I got a cheap one, partly because I thought I already had most of the software I needed. It came with Windows Vista.

Why, oh why, does Microsoft do this crap? Why Windows 98, why Millennium Edition, why Vista? Using XP I had almost gotten over my old Mac-user's contempt for them. XP works fine, and the corporate version I use in the office is even better. For the past couple of years I have had no complaints about Windows at all. So why did they change it?

Vista is constantly doing thing I didn't know I had told it to do. It scrolls when I think I am just moving the mouse, it opens things I haven't clicked on, it jumps around in mysterious ways. So I have spent much of the morning surfing web sites with names like "How to Disable Twelve Useless Features in Vista", turning off mysterious functions.

And even if I ever manage to make the system work the way I want it to, it still won't run my old software. Wordperfect 11, my favorite word processor ever, is no more. Sigh.

Why, oh why?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Enriched Environments

In this week's New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell muses on whether tough breaks are a useful prerequisite for success. He refers several times to Andrew Carnegie, who believed that growing up poor helped him succeed in business. There was an advantage, Carnegie insisted, to being "cradled, nursed and reared in the stimulating school of poverty." People facing disadvantages learn to compensate for them, and this compensation is more useful than any advantage of birth or education. Gladwell devotes a lot of attention to Sidney Weinberg, the son of poor Jewish immigrants who became Wall Street's most successful banker. Weinberg constantly played up his outsider status, interrupting boring technical presentations to say, "I'm just a poor guy from the Bronx, explain this in terms I can understand."

Gladwell writes, "This idea" -- that those who have to compensate for disadvantages go further in the long run than those given every advantage --
is both familiar and perplexing. Consider the curious fact that many successful entrepreneurs suffer from serious learning disabilities. Paul Orfalea, the founder of the Kinko’s chain, was a D student who failed two grades, was expelled from four schools, and graduated at the bottom of his high-school class. “In third grade, the only word I could read was ‘the,’ ” he says. “I used to keep track of where the group was reading by following from one ‘the’ to the next.” Richard Branson, the British billionaire who started the Virgin empire, dropped out of school at fifteen after struggling with reading and writing. “I was always bottom of the class,” he has said. John Chambers, who built the Silicon Valley firm Cisco into a hundred-billion-dollar corporation, has trouble reading e-mail. One of the pioneers of the cellular-phone industry, Craig McCaw, is dyslexic, as is Charles Schwab, the founder of the discount brokerage house that bears his name. When the business-school professor Julie Logan surveyed a group of American small-business owners recently, she found that thirty-five per cent of them self-identified as dyslexic.
Gladwell doesn't mention it, but this obviously applies to the President-elect. Obama was the son of a teenage Kansan mother with psychological problems and an African father who immediately abandoned him. His elementary schooling, much of it in Indonesia, was spotty. He rebelled against the white grandparents who raised him by insisting on his blackness, accepting an identity that created serious problems for his political ambitions. True, his high school was an elite institution, and he went from there to the Ivy League, but his early experiences are hardly what any ambitious parent would choose for his or her children.

I like to tell a story I heard on NPR many years ago, about a son of migrant Mexican farmworkers who went to Harvard. According to him, when he told his white high school guidance counselor that he had been admitted to Harvard, the man replied, "that's great, and if you fail out, we'll be here for you." He was enraged by what he took as a dismissal, and when he had trouble at Harvard, he always thought that he couldn't fail because he couldn't go back home and face the jerks who expected him to. Which raises the question, was his guidance counselor just a jerk, or was he maybe a motivational genius? I can imagine him thinking, "what this punk needs is a kick in the ass from a mean white guy."

So what do young people need to equip them for success? Is the sort of perfectly safe, well-coddled upbringing my children are getting really the best thing for them? Is the everyone's a winner, medals for participation, nothing but praise culture of American suburban childhood actually good for anyone?

This is not a new question. In many ancient and medieval European societies, parents often sent their children away to be fostered by friends or relatives, and one of the reasons they gave was that parents would be too kind and loving to impart the toughness essential for success in those violent times. The British elite long sent their sons to boarding schools where a regimen of bad food, cold showers and freqent beatings gave them "character." American law schools used to practice a sort of ritual humiliation of first year students.

But, as Gladwell writes, there are obvious problems with the imposition of disadvantages:
There’s no question that we are less than comfortable with the claims that people like Schwab and Orfalea make on behalf of their disabilities. As impressive as their success has been, none of us would go so far as to wish dyslexia on our own children. If a disproportionately high number of entrepreneurs are dyslexic, so are a disproportionately high number of prisoners. Systems in which people compensate for disadvantage seem to us unacceptably Darwinian. The stronger get stronger, and the weaker get even weaker.
What if this is true? If a school of hard knocks approach to raising children leads to a flattening of the bell curve, with more spectacular successes and more total failures, would that be a good thing or a bad thing? This sounds, at first, like a liberal vs. conservative distinction, but some of my most liberal friends worry that our educational system is designed to produce happy mediocrity. I think it is simply an inevitable problem for a rich and peaceful society. We are stuck with our wealth and committed to non-violence and non-discrimination, and we will just have to deal with the consequences.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election 2008

Yippee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

brush clearing

Yesterday I took my crew up to Newark, Delaware to test around an old box factory that may be torn to build an office complex. The caretaker was a sort of personal metaphor for the decline of industrial America: he worked at the factory when it made boxes, he oversaw the removal of the machinery, and now he oversees the maintenance of the empty building and opens the doors for potential buyers and other busybodies. Like a character in a Michael Moore documentary.

Turns out that part of the property behind this factory building was overgrown with a thorny tangle of wild roses (how much breath I've wasted cursing the people who planted those imported weeds as hedges, thus spreading them across middle America), small pear trees, honeysuckle, and blackberries. There was no way to get in except by cutting a path. S0 I walked across the street to the Southern States and bought two machetes. The blades of these were mysteriously coated with some sort of rubbery plastic, which I had to rub off on a rock to expose the cutting edge. I'm sure lawyers are involved in this somehow. Machete in hand, I waded into the brier patch, hacking at the thorny canes that tore my clothes and skin. A haiku came to mind:

Rose hips are lovely
Shining red in the dense brush
Behind, always thorns

and

I cut the rose canes
Though they slash at my bare arms
Steel beats wood again

Later on, I mused that I was communing with our current President, who is said to greatly enjoy cutting brush on his Crawford ranch. It is rather fun, actually.

I wondered, does he compose haiku as he works? Perhaps

Bombs fall everywhere
I destroy evildoers
Mission accomplished

Or maybe

I hunt bin Laden
In caves, over mountaintops,
He gets away.

Or

Governing is hard
I should have studied harder
Oh well, too late now

Well, probably not.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Halloween 2008

I love Halloween. I love to see my children having fun in non-electronic ways, and I love to see them participating in such ancient rituals.

Here are my daughter Zhen Zhen and my nephew Augie welcoming a neighbor to the door:

My big kids all went off with their own friends this year, so only Ben (5) and Zhen Zhen (3) went with me. Ben was funny. He was nervous about some of the creepier decorations, especially the ones that made noise when you came close. He wouldn't go to a couple of houses, and he started saying he wanted to go home after two blocks. But Zhen Zhen was fearless. She marched right up to every door, princess crown on her head and pumpkin basket in her hand, said something approximating "trick or treat" and then marched on. I think she would have kept going much longer if Ben had wanted to. I don't know if she is braver than Ben or just doesn't understand that ghosts are supposed to be scary things.

I wonder if this was my eldest son's last trick or treat. He is 15 this year, and he was still really into it. He wanted to keep going all night and cover all of Catonsvlle -- he wants to roam, we joked, like a young male panther. Now that it's considered inappropriate to throw eggs and light fires, what do older teenagers do on Halloween?

But to get back to ancient history. Halloween as we know it is a fairly recent creation, but it is an amalgam of very old customs. Aggressive begging, as folklorists call it, goes back at least a thousand years in Europe, done on an assortment of holidays. One of my favorites is from the English midlands: on St. Stevens Day the young men used to kill a wren and carry it around in a little coffin, demanding contributions to the funeral. The time of year when we celebrate All Saints Day, the end of Autumn and the start of Winter, has been associated with the dead and ghosts since ancient Roman times. In some parts of Europe, going back at least to the 1600s, young men and adolescent boys used to dress as ghosts or dead souls and either march through town or go begging, and we have scattered reports of such groups of young men trying to surprise and terrify people in lonely spots.

It pleases me to see that these old ways live on in my own children, and not in a spirit of doggedly keeping to custom because that's what we do, but in pure joy.