Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Decline of the West - Holiday Edition

I shopped at Wal-Mart this morning and walked past the Halloween costumes and decorations. A large bin of devilish walking sticks was placed in the main aisle. Right before I snapped the photo above, a cute little girl of kindergarten age snatched one the red pitchforks and happily dashed back to her father.

I have a premonition about how tonight will unfold. Things have changed from my era when young girls dressed up as cowgirls or princesses or butterflies or ballerinas. Let's raise the curtain on a little scenario.


(Dusk. The cluttered interior of the Wagman townhouse. The doorbell rings. Kindly old Mr. Wagman rises stiffly from the couch, takes a bowl of miniature Snickers bars in hand, and goes to the front door. The door opens to reveal two little girls in costume. The first girl appears to be wearing a bathing suit over a pink warm-up outfit. The other, a timid girl who remains behind her friend, is dressed in a black plastic gown and is carrying a red pitchfork.

Wagman: "Happy Halloween. (drops a few Snickers in the first girl's bag) And what are you, my dear? An Arabian princess?"

First Girl: (giggles) Wrong. I'm a rock-and-roll skank."

Wagman: (raises eyebrows) "Oh my." (He motions for the shy girl to come forward and drops Snickers in her bag.) "And what are you, miss?" (The timid girl smiles and then retreats behind her little friend.)

First Girl: "She's the bride of Satan, sir."

Wagman: "I see. Well, have a good evening, ladies. Be careful of the ice."


On a related note, yesterday at work I received a flyer for my company's annual December party.

When I first joined the company, the party was called the Christmas Party. This name was later deemed too religious and, worse yet, blatantly Christian. The name was changed to Holiday Party. But in some quarters this new name was still considered too suggestive of religious sentiments; and after several years, corporate headquarters renamed the party the End of Year Employee Recognition Event. What name could be more empty of holiday cheer? I will tell you what name. Yesterday's flyer announced that this year's party will be called Casino Night. Some sort of gambling casino (suitably sanitized by using tokens in place of cash, I presume) will be set up next to the dining hall at the Marriott for the after-dinner amusement of employees and their significant others.

By simple trend extrapolation, I predict that next year the company will host Prostitution Night. All in good fun and suitably sanitized, of course.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tree Poetry

In the interest of promoting culture, the Regional Transportation District has posted poems in all of the city buses. The poems come from local poets and relate, at least loosely, to buses or transportation.

As I was riding the bus to work this morning (in lieu of a treacherous drive on a slick highway), I looked up at the posters above the windows and saw a high school girl's poem about waiting at a bus stop on a cold autumn day. Her poem's first line was "The trees hovered overhead like skeletons." I fear that the young lady has vaulted over the line separating the vivid from the grotesque. I have never seen trees or skeletons hovering. (If I ever do, I will run into my townhouse and barricade the doors.)

This incident caused me to remember back forty years to a newspaper column by Donald Kaul, a journalist who wrote for the Des Moines Register. Here is what he had to say about another poem about trees, Joyce Kilmer's well-known Trees.

"I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree"

[What's been said here is that each and every tree on earth is lovelier than every poem. Overlooking the considerable difficulty of comparing the beauty of a poem with that of a tree, the statement ignores the fact that there are a great many ugly trees.]

"A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;"

[Either this tree is all crouched down and bent over or it's standing on its head.]

"A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;"

[Here's this remarkable tree, its mouth pressed to the ground, its eyes rolled back to look at God yet still able to throw up its arms in prayer. It's not a tree, it's a contortionist.]


"Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree."

[Which is fine, because if it were the other way round, we'd have some pretty strange looking trees.]

This was taken from Kaul's 1970 collection of columns called How to Light a Water Heater and Other War Stories. Funny stuff.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Swamp Fox Memories

This morning I turned on the television and heard the perky weather girl predict ten inches of snow for today. Rather than creep along the slushy highway in my car, I opted to make my commute via slow, safe public transportation. And so, I walked to the light rail station, took the light rail north to the city bus hub, and boarded a bus that wound through the suburban neighborhoods and finally dropped me off about a quarter mile from my office. The bus trip took about twice as much time as traveling by car, but produced much less wear on the nerves.

The bus is a perfect environment for idle thought. I found the following chorus running through my mind:

Swamp Fox! Swamp Fox!
Tail on his hat,
Nobody knows where The Swamp Fox's at.
Swamp Fox! Swamp Fox!
Hiding in the glen,
He runs away to fight again.

This is the chorus to the Swamp Fox theme song, from the Disney television show depicting the adventures of Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion. According to Wikipedia, the show ran sporadically from October 1959 to January 1961 and amounted to a mere eight episodes. I watched several of the early episodes when I was but an urchin back in Iowa. Why would I recall the theme song from such an obscure television show after the passage of fifty years?

I used to think that memories would flicker to life one last time before they were extinguished. I saw the mind operating like a hotel clerk; the old memories were like visitors checking out. Some random memory from long ago would rouse itself, pay its respects to the conscious mind, and then take its leave.

I abandoned this notion after observing that I could repeatably trigger an old memory by repeating the appropriate stimulus. For instance, if I lean over the kitchen sink late in the afternoon when the sun is at just the right angle, I will recall viewing Fritz Lang's silent movie The Spiders ten years ago. (The movie was two episodes of a serial about a gang of criminals called the Spiders who schemed to dominate the world.) On many occasions I have leaned over my sink and found myself saying the word "Spiders" under my breath. This tells me something about the mind or, at least, my own peculiar mind.

Something about the bus ride or the passengers or the snow-packed suburban streets triggered a long-dormant memory about the Swamp Fox show. The snow storm will be continuing overnight and into tomorrow, and I plan to repeat my bus ride. What other childhood memories will be shaken loose?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Martinu, madrigals, and the mind

My younger son and I attended an excellent concert last night. Three musicians from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra – a flautist, a violinist, and a violist – performed a series of duos and trios. My favorite piece was Bohuslav Martinu's Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, especially the lyrical second movement that gave the two players enough music to keep a string quartet busy.

After the concert, my son listened to me dilate on the beauty of the Three Madrigals and suggested that I buy a recording. While I will probably do this, what I really desired was to experience all the sights and sounds of the concert again. I wanted to once more watch the violinist concentrate as he played the difficult double stops. I wanted to watch the violist toss off some playful arpeggios. In short, I wanted to relive the concert.

A CD recording can faithfully reproduce the notes. A DVD video recording can give you all the notes plus the camera's view of the performers. But I wanted all this plus the freedom to look across the hall and see the reactions of other people in the audience. What does that plump lady think of the music? Are those shaggy-haired students affected by the playing? I wanted the complete human experience.

I suppose that modern science could record all that I saw and heard during the concert. A wide-field forehead camera controlled by two sensors that tracked my eye movements – all of this merely an application of electronics and geometry – could capture everything that I looked at. And microphones clipped to my ears could record the exact sound that I was hearing directly from the violin and viola and from their sound bouncing off the curved wooden panels behind the stage. Then it would be a straightforward matter to design a pair of wrap-around electronic goggles to project before my eyes what I had viewed during the concert, complete with images seen in peripheral vision. Put a good headset on my ears for the sound and presto! I would be essentially reliving the concert. (Sight and sound are sufficient for my enjoyment. I wouldn't care to relive the hall's chilly temperature, which caused me to pull my jacket close around my neck.)

In the distant future, electromagnetic fields might be used to excite neurons and allow us to directly replay concert memories as if they were CDs. We could watch the concert again in a trance state. Or perhaps we will avoid the bother of even attending the concert by having the concert directly downloaded onto our neurons, allowing us to relive an experience that we never actually lived before. Imagine the convenience. But there is no reason to restrict this scientific wizardry to musical concerts. I'm sure someday there will be a market for a futuristic Netflix that downloads nature walks, tourist visits to the Eiffel Tower, and honeymoon cruises straight to the mind. I hope that I live long enough to enjoy such a fancy, high-tech, neuron-stimulated life. For now, however, I'll try to make do with my own plain, simple, do-it-yourself life.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Jonathan apples

One of the joys of October is the arrival of Jonathan apples. Tonight I walked to my local supermarket and bought fourteen Jonathan apples.

I am no savant of apples - I barely know a pippin from a bowling pin - but I know what I like, and what I like is the Jonathan apple. It has the perfect balance of sweetness and tartness. The first bite gives a spicy tang of fresh cider.

From the fragmentary history that I found on the Internet, I understand that the Jonathan originated about 1826 in New York as a chance seedling from the Espopus Spitzenberg apple tree. The Esopus Spitzenberg was an American variety first found in Esopus, New York in the early 1700s and was reputed to be Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple. Assuming a strong family resemblance between the Esopus Spitzenberg and the Jonathan, I can attest that Mr. Jefferson knew his apples.

As Jefferson might say, Pursue happiness and eat a Jonathan apple for the good of your body and soul!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The opera Aida or "Where is the elephant?"

I took my younger son to see the Metropolitan Opera HD movie showing of Aida at the local movie theater. We arrived an hour early to get good seats and found that about a hundred old people were already there. My son and I took our places in line and were greeted by an elderly lady, who observed that my son was "out of the loop" for the opera. I took her misfire of modern slang to mean that my son was much younger than everyone else present. She could have made nearly the same statement to me: I was clearly in the youngest tenth of the opera crowd.

The opera Aida tells the story of the Ethiopian slave girl Aida, who as an aid to the plot was formerly the Princess of Ethiopia. Aida serves the Egyptian king's daughter, Princess Amneris, and is secretly in love with the noble warrior Ramades. Princess Amneris is also enamored of Ramades, thus completing the love triangle that provides the foundation for this weighty pyramid of an epic opera.

Unfortunately, the opera's romantic intrigues left me dozing in my seat for the most part. I didn't care whether Aida or Amneris snared the noble Ramades, who seemed more interested in leading the Egyptian army and slaughtering Ethiopians than in pitching woo. I catnapped through the love scenes and the jealous confrontations between Aida and Princess Amneris.

Then the grand music of the triumphal procession in Act 2 made me sit upright and take notice. Verdi's music swelled to a glorious accompaniment for the parade of foot soldiers, archers, spearmen, horses, and Ethiopian captives that passed before the royal grandstand. All that was lacking was an elephant. Then male and female dancers appeared and performed an energetic battle dance. I noted that the female dancers all looked identical -- narrow-faced brunettes with lithe bodies of the same height. Perhaps the Met Opera has secretly perfected a dancer cloning process.

After this stirring Act 2, the opera returned to the love triangle and I resumed my intermittent naps. The usual operatic complications ensued and it all finished unhappily. Ramades was tricked into betraying Egypt. Ramades and Aida were then buried alive. Princess Amneris ended up all alone and feeling blue as the curtain descended. But I, on the other hand, rose from my seat feeling rested and chipper. My son, who had remained conscious throughout the entirety of the opera's four long acts, was listless and grumbly.

To fully appreciate opera, the younger generation must learn how to pace themselves.

Prof. Albert Bartlett disturbs my complacency

I ran across an interesting YouTube video of a lecture by Albert Bartlett, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Colorado – Boulder. The title of the lecture is "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy." Bartlett's thesis is that any kind of growth in population and the exploitation of finite resources can be shown to be ultimately unsustainable by simple mathematics. He claims, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."

Here is Prof. Bartlett's explanation of steady growth and the exponential function:

This is a mathematical function that you'd write down if you're going to describe the size of anything that was growing steadily. If you had something growing 5% per year, you'd write the exponential function to show how large that growing quantity was, year after year. And so we're talking about a situation where the time that's required for the growing quantity to increase by a fixed fraction is a constant: 5% per year, the 5% is a fixed fraction, the “per year” is a fixed length of time. So that's what we want to talk about: its just ordinary steady growth.

Well, if it takes a fixed length of time to grow 5%, it follows it takes a longer fixed length of time to grow 100%. That longer time's called the doubling time and we need to know how you calculate the doubling time. It's easy. You just take the number 70, divide it by the percent growth per unit time and that gives you the doubling time. So our example of 5% per year, you divide the 5 into 70, you find that growing quantity will double in size every 14 years.

Well, you might ask, where did the 70 come from? The answer is that it's approximately 100 multiplied by the natural logarithm of two. If you wanted the time to triple, you'd use the natural logarithm of three. So it's all very logical. But you don't have to remember where it came from, just remember 70.

I am accustomed to using the Rule of 70 (or the more familiar approximation called the Rule of 72) for interest calculations. Right now I am getting roughly 0.7% interest on my credit union CDs. At this rate I will double my money in 100 years. This is a miserable state of affairs. (What's worse is that during the past 100 years, inflation has reduced the purchasing power of the dollar by about 95%. It makes a man throw up his hands, say "to heck with it!" and dissipate his small hoardings on wine, women, and song. )

But enough about me and my financial and character deficiencies. Let's look at what Bartlett has to say about population growth:

A few years ago, one of the newspapers of my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, quizzed the nine members of the Boulder City Council and asked them, “What rate of growth of Boulder's population do you think it would be good to have in the coming years?” Well, the nine members of the Boulder City council gave answers ranging from a low of 1% per year. Now, that happens to match the present rate of growth of the population of the United States. We are not at zero population growth. Right now, the number of Americans increases every year by over three million people. No member of the council said Boulder should grow less rapidly than the United States is growing.

Now, the highest answer any council member gave was 5% per year. You know, I felt compelled, I had to write him a letter and say, “Did you know that 5% per year for just 70 years [...] means Boulder's population would increase by a factor of 32? That is, where today we have one overloaded sewer treatment plant, in 70 years, we'd need 32 overloaded sewer treatment plants."

Bartlett's thinking was greatly influenced by his University of Colorado colleague Kenneth Boulding, an economist and social philosopher (and poet and Quaker and peace activist and ...). Boulding expounded three theorems in 1971:

First Theorem: "The Dismal Theorem" If the ultimate check on the growth of population is misery, then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.

Second Theorem: "The Utterly Dismal Theorem" This theorem states that any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the only check on population, the [technical] improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of [technical] improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population which is to increase the total sum of human misery.

Third Theorem: "The moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem" Fortunately, it is not too difficult to restate the Dismal Theorem in a moderately cheerful form, which states that if something else, other than misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and starves, and it can be stably prosperous.

The First Theorem is nothing more than a restatement of the Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) analysis that societal improvements result in population growth which eventually gets checked by famine and disease. I think of this theorem as the "Welcome to Los Angeles" scenario.

I find the Second Theorem utterly dismal and depressing. It claims that heroic efforts to benefit the health and well-being of mankind (e.g., Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution that provided food for a billion people in India and its neighboring countries) will only delay and exacerbate the inevitable misery.

I find only faint cheer in the Third Theorem. No doubt the population trends in the coming century will be driven by both misery and changes in reproductive behavior.

Albert Bartlett assembled his own set of theorems and laws concerning growth, sustainability, and exponential use of finite resources. (See his website for his articles and lectures.) Here are his laws that I found most striking.

First Law: Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

Second Law: In a society with a growing population and/or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population and/or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.

Fifth Law: One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.

Seventh Law: A society that has to import people to do its daily work ("we can't find locals who will do the work") is not sustainable.

Ninth Law: The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.

Tenth Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.

Thirteen Law: The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.

Seventeen Law: If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.

Albert Bartlett summed up his thinking with his Great Challenge: "Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?"

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The future ain't what it used to be

The evening news seems especially disheartening of late. The airways are full of predictions of worsening unemployment, a crippled economy, the crisis of global warming, and looming hyper-inflation. The future is painted as dark and threatening.

I often wonder if today's human beings are overburdened with thought about the future. There is a place for prudence and reasonable foresight, to be sure; but modern journalism tends to emphasize dire possibilities and extrapolations. The future - and especially fascination with future dangers - seems to be the major product marketed by the news media. It appears that anxiety is even more addictive to the general public than sex.

The mind becomes distracted with scenarios – inflation, deflation, nuclear proliferation, loss of job, loss of health care benefits, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's, incontinence. For those of us that brood on worst-case scenarios, the result is often nervous exhaustion.

The first step to recovering one's peace of mind is a moratorium on the evening news, the front page of the newspaper, and the internet. Then I would advocate the following prescription: an invigorating stroll around the neighborhood, followed by relaxing with a good book, with some baroque music playing softly in the background.

One of Bertrand Russell's saucy quotations sums up the matter: "I saw a photograph of a large herd of wild elephants in Central Africa seeing an airplane for the first time, and all in state of wild collective terror... As, however, there were no journalists among them, the terror died down when the airplane was out of sight."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bring me a rock

"Bring me a rock" is a phrase often used in the aerospace industry. I have never heard it used anywhere else. The phrase commonly arises during the writing of a proposal. Here's how it works: sections of the proposal are parceled out to various authors, who write up their assigned sections and then bring them to a senior technical team for review. If the reviewers request a substantial rewrite, the author may complain, "They said, 'Bring me a rock.' I brought one, but they didn't like it. Now they want a different rock."

If the author does the rewrite, returns for a second review, and is told to make further changes, you can bet that he'll gripe, "I brought them a rock. They didn't like it. I brought them a second rock. They didn't like that one either. Now they're asking for a third rock. Who knows what they want!"

The reason for this frustrating situation is not that the reviewers are capricious or cruel -- in most cases, that is. The more common reason is that as the reviewers look at all sections of the proposal, they have a growing sense of how the overall themes and proportions of the proposal are taking shape. If the reviewers' vision of the whole proposal is evolving faster than the frequency of a particular author's revision cycle, the guidance given to that author may be outdated before the revisions can be made and brought back for review.

I am currently working on a proposal section that will be reviewed for the third time tomorrow morning. (Sundays are work days during a proposal effort.) The guidance from my first review was that I was too wordy and had introduced extraneous material. I trimmed my section to the bare essentials. The guidance from my second review was that I was too terse and needed to restore the "extraneous" material I had taken out earlier. I have no idea what tomorrow's guidance will be. I will bring them a brightly polished rock and hope for the best.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Indian Summer

It is Indian summer and the trees are losing their leaves. (I couldn't think of a good metaphor to describe how rapidly and completely the trees are shedding their leaves. The image of Hollywood starlets dropping their clothes for casting directors might be fitting. But this metaphor would detract from the tone of the blog.) It took me some searching until I found a colorful tree to photograph. Only a few short trees in sheltered spots escaped the hard frost.

Today was a fine day for an urban nature walk. While I was out looking for a tree to photograph, I saw a blue jay fly between two tall trees. Any day I get to see a blue jay is automatically a good day. Later I saw a garter snake disappear beneath a bush. Even in the midst of pavement and rows of sterile townhouses, Nature breaks in.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Frontage Road Game

Traffic was creeping along on the highway this morning during my drive to work. A mile from my usual turnoff I decided to play the frontage road game. The game is simple: pick a highway traffic marker, something large and easy to keep track of -- a moving van or a bus or a semi -- and then beat the marker by traveling along the frontage road instead.

The game owes more to luck than skill. The off ramp to the frontage road leads to a stoplight at a busy intersection. If my timing is off, I can lose a whole minute to a red light. And if the highway competition speeds up to 30 mph during that minute, I'm a hopeless half mile behind and the game is lost. However, if I happen to catch a green light and shoot the intersection, I can cruise along the frontage road at 45 mph and usually win.

Today my luck was average: the stoplight was already red as I came down the off ramp; I got nicked for ten or fifteen seconds. The light turned, my Volvo surged forward. My marker, a white moving van, was still creeping along at no more than 15 mph. And better yet, I saw a lot of red brakelights on the cars farther up the highway. My confidence was rising. I pulled hard around a bend and then sped up on the straightaway.

At this point in the game I tend to improve upon the speed limit slightly. What sportsman doesn't try to get an edge in the heat of competition? But I glanced to my right and discovered that I was looking down the barrel of a radar gun held by a motorcycle cop. And my speedometer needle was well over 45 on this 40-mph frontage road. My goose was cooked. I hit my brakes, giving up the game.

Time froze. During a long moment I observed the cop's facial expression beneath his dark sunglasses. He sized me up, wrinkled his nose, and then looked back up the frontage road. All that I could conclude was that he didn't want to give me a speeding ticket and have me show up in court with a picture of my old Volvo and tell the judge, "Your honor, look at this car. Does this really look like a car that can go more than 40 miles per hour?"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dirty tricks in the health care biz

The actors were already on stage. They milled about quietly mouthing their lines, trying out different angles and inflections.

A heavy, red-faced man rushed down from the back of the theater and bounded up the stairs to center stage. "Okay, people, listen up. We only have three hours before the evening news. You two, are you supposed to be the worried middle-class couple?" he said. They nodded. He waved them forward. "Wait a minute. Is this a joke?" he said. "How old are you, darling?"

"Twenty-three, but I can play forty-five," she stated with a tone of defiance. Her makeup made her look freshly embalmed.

"Oh, for Pete's sake. Joe!" shouted the red-faced man.

A thin, dapper man eased out from the shadows at the back of the stage. "What do you need, Mr. Bozigian?"

"What did I tell you about hiring your girlfriends?"

Joe smiled a small, guilty smile. "But Janice is a marvelous actress, Mr. Bozigian. She was an understudy at the Maltz Jupiter Theater last season. Great reviews."

"Joe, the girl looks like a cheerleader with a bad hangover." Bozigian turned to the indignant young woman. "Sorry, honey, you're out."

Janice looked daggers at Joe, who lifted his hands as if to say, I did all that any man could do. She stormed off the stage.

Bozigian turned back to Joe and snapped, "Joe, you put me in a jam here. I need a middle-aged woman – tired, anxious, not too pretty."

"May I suggest Ellen from Wardrobe?"

"Not a bad idea." Bozigian went to the side of the stage and yelled, "Hey, Ellen! C'mon up here."

A middle-aged woman – tired, anxious, not too pretty – appeared holding a monk's robe. "What do you want?"

"My dear, I need your help and I know that you're a trooper. Come stand next to this guy. Here, give me that," said Bozigian, taking the monk's robe from her and flinging it offstage. "What's your name, fella?"

"Ted, Mr. Bozigian. Ted Adkins."

"Right, I remember you from the Willie Horton gig. Glad to have you on board, Ted." Bozigian steered Ellen into position. "Okay, Ellen, here's the scene. You're Ted's wife. You've been through tough times together and are finally making a good life for yourselves and your four kids. But your health insurance premiums are going to skyrocket and wreck everything. We've arranged for a news girl, Dorothy from Channel 7 Fox News, to work with us when she's doing her Ask America interviews. It's all been greased. She'll happen to stroll up and ask Ted what he thinks of the Democrats' health care package. Ted will look sad and say, 'I don't know how we'll pay the higher medical premiums.' Go ahead and give it a try, Ted."

Ted cleared his throat, assumed a hangdog expression, and drawled, "Our medical premiums will be goin' up. Why, I just don't see how we'll pay them."

"Not really looking for Henry Fonda in the Grapes of Wrath, Ted. Just stick with the script."

"Yes, sir."

"Ellen, your line is 'How will we have the money to care for our children? It's not fair.' Go on, give it a try."

"How will we have the money to care for our children? It's not fair," said Ellen in a tired monotone.

"Brilliant, Ellen. You've got acting in your blood. You and Ted go backstage and polish your lines." Bozigian looked around, "Where's Joe?"

"Here I am, Mr. Bozigian," said Joe, once again slipping from the shadows.

"Where's my bum?"

"I have three of them. Okay, guys, step forward." Three slovenly dressed men – one black, one swarthy, and one Nordic – presented themselves to Bozigian.

Bozigian clapped his hand on his broad forehead in dismay. "Joe, you know I can't use a black guy for this. Sorry, sir, you're out. And you, what are you, an Arab?"

"Greek, sir."

"Can't use you for this gig. You're too ethnic. I need a deadbeat version of Joe the Plumber." Bozigian turned to the remaining candidate, a clean-cut man with blond hair. "Swedish?"

"Danish, sir. Tom Johnsen."

"You'll do, Tom. Joe, tell Ellen that he'll need a dirty blond wig. Don't spare the Crisco. And have Makeup give him a splash of blemishes and tattoos. All right, Tom, Dorothy the news girl will ask you if you have anything to say to Congress. Your line is 'Thanks for the cheap health insurance.' Let's hear what you can do."

"Thanks for the cheap health insurance."

Bozigian shook his head and scowled. "No, try again. More attitude. You're a punk, a parasite."

Tom slouched. His upper lip twisted into a sneer. "Dudes, thanks for the cheap health insurance."


Monday, October 12, 2009

Zen thoughts

Thich Nhat Hanh, the genial Zen master, says, "The seed and the fruit are not two different things. The fruit is already contained in the seed. It's waiting for different conditions in order to be able to manifest. The fruit doesn't have a separate existence; it's a formation. Using the word 'formation' reminds us that there is no separate existence in it. There is only a coming together of many, many conditions."

These statements are a characteristic expression of the Buddhist idea that all things are connected and contingent. A fruit must come from a seed, but conditions in the surrounding world -- favorable and unfavorable, same direction and opposing direction -- determine how the fruit is manifested. Not a bad general framework for analyzing everything from nature to business endeavors to geopolitics. Modern systems engineering employs similar ideas in turning requirements (seeds) into fully implemented designs (fruit) under the guidance of operational concepts (conditions and constraints).

Thich Nhat Hanh also says, "The best way of preparing for the future is to take good care of the present, because we know that if the present is made up of the past, then the future will be made up of the present. All we need to be responsible for is the present moment. Only the present is within our reach. To care for the present is to care for the future."

While I find Zen Buddhism unsatisfying with regard to ultimate meaning and consolation, it offers a helpful counteractive to the tendency toward narrow and hasty thinking common in the consumerist West. This practical advice about mindfulness has some wisdom, and wisdom is to be valued whatever the source. The advice, of course, is echoed by many other religions and philosophical traditions. The New Testament itself offers a teaching about living in the present, although Christ stated this wisdom with authority, as commands to be obeyed rather than mere advice for peaceable daily living amidst an enveloping web of life's causes and effects.

Matthew 6:31-34 "So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat? or 'What shall we drink' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nobel Peace Prize

According to Alfred Nobel's will, an award was to be given to whoever "during the preceding year [...] shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." What are we to conclude about the 2008 work offered as justification for this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

To my recollection I have never pointed to Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese general, politician, and diplomat, as an exemplar of honor and judgment. Yet I must acknowledge that Le Duc Tho behaved justly in declining the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize on the grounds that actual peace had not been established in Vietnam. This is an example that warrants consideration.

The present situation is like a marathon runner being handed the trophy after the first mile and being told by the officials, "You are a most excellent runner. We admire your relaxed and powerful stride. You clearly are in splendid shape and no doubt capable of setting a record time in this event."

The only honorable response is to respectfully decline this unearned award.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Peace of God

My younger son is trying to launch a career in popular music. At present this means doing first-rate performing (most recently for a nationally known festival) for third-rate earnings.

It is important that I encourage my son during this trying period. And I make every effort to do so. But not being a constitutionally buoyant person -- in fact, I am often anxious, dubious, and excessively analytical -- I recognized that I needed the help of someone wiser and steadier. I found such a someone in the person of Rev. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981). I have been intermittently reading through his collection of sermons on John 4 for the past month, and last week I read a sermon (Chapter 25) in which Lloyd-Jones summed up the principles for Christians regarding vocation and peace of mind. Here are some extracts: (I am plucking the main headings.)

Now I come to certain final general rules that I have found to be of considerable value in my own life and in my attempts to help others.

First, never try to anticipate God's leading. That is, do not sit down and start asking yourself questions such as, is it right to be doing this? or should I be doing it? The rule is this: go on with your work, and if it is not God's will that you should be doing it, he will stop you. Do not anticipate him. Do not ask yourself theoretical questions. Do not create problems.

Secondly, tell God, and tell him honestly -- and this to me is perhaps the most important principle of all -- that you put yourself entirely in his hands.

Thirdly, watch for openings, and at the same time watch for closings. You keep doing your work, but you are a spiritually minded person, and while you are not creating the problem or thinking theoretically, you always have your eyes open. Good approaches us and speaks to us, as we have been seeing, in many different ways.

That leads me to the next point, which is this: be prepared for delays and for testings. Oh, this is a tremendous thing! God tests us! It is his way of training us; it is his way of enabling us to grow. So nothing is more important than that we should be patient. Is that not one of our biggest problems? We are in such a hurry. God is never in a hurry, and the more Christian we become, the less we shall hurry.

Now I come to what I have had to say more frequently than anything else in this pastoral context. Make sure to remember Philippians 4:6-7.

Be careful for nothing [in nothing be anxious]; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Never be anxious! In nothing be anxious! Never be tense, never be worried, never be troubled, never be frantic, never be divided -- never.

Generally people like this come to me, and they are perplexed and troubled. Sometimes they give me the impression that I have only to say, "Do this!" and they will do it. I will not say that -- I am in no position to do so. I cannot be their conscience. I do not know the will of God for people. What I say is "You're worried about the wrong thing; you're worried about what you are supposed to be doing -- is it this or is it that? But what you ought to be worried about is, do you have the peace of God that passes all understanding?"

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Searching for a tree like a rainbow snow cone

It is October and the leaves are changing color. Therefore, today I made it my ambition to find a tree that looked like a rainbow snow cone. After some driving about, I came upon a suitable specimen growing near a library parking lot. The tree is a mixture of lemon, lime, and cherry. In another week there will be dashes of grape.

If you look closely, you will notice that I seem to have inadvertently violated the privacy of a man and his young daughter. They are crouched beneath the tree and have covered their faces with their hands. They may be camera-shy celebrities, fugitives from justice, or members of a witness protection program, who knows? Or they may be normal people who dislike having some strange nitwit take their picture for no good reason. It's probably just as well that I didn't accost them and start a conversation about snow cone trees.

Flushed with success at finding my multi-colored tree, I decided to make an international phone call. This was as simple as calling the toll-free number to check on my Macy's Visa card balance.

I slipped through the automated menus by saying "operator" firmly (even though "operator" was not one of the authorized menu items) and connected with a young customer service worker named Albert. He was Indian, probably in Bangalore, and probably finishing his day on the night shift -- a hard day's night, as Ringo Starr once said. Owing to some peculiarity of time zones, Bangalore is eleven and a half hours ahead of Denver. The odd half hour must cause continual problems for the out-sourcing businesses. At any rate, my late afternoon call was arriving at dawn on the other side of the planet.

Albert and I had a leisurely discussion about the quirks of billing cycles -- I had bought my Father of the Groom suit the day after the Macy's billing cycle closed, which had the effect of extending my grace period by an extra month. Albert's explanation was clear and succinct. I had an impulse to ask him about the weather in Bangalore, but prudently refrained. Macy's monitors the service calls and no doubt wants to preserve the illusion that the service center is some place in the United States, although it would have to be some place where you could find a lot of young men and women with Indian accents, such as a university mathematics department.

And so, what have I learned today? If I had encountered white people of various hues -- sunburned people, jaundice sufferers, albinos, and so forth -- or people of various ethnic skin tones, I would sum up my day with a fulsome and sentimental metaphor of the human race as a great rainbow snow cone. But I didn't encounter such people, so I won't.