Friday, December 28, 2007

The New Doctor Who: Questions

This show started in 1963, and ran without interruption for about 25 years. I don't remember exactly when it was canceled, but people tried for years to bring it back, and in 2005 Russell T Davies finally succeeded.

When reviving a classic show like this, there always have to be choices made about what to change, and what to keep the same. It's interesting to think about which choices work and which don't. I am very far from being able to explain it -- I'm no expert -- but I have devoted a certain amount of thought to the choices that Mr. Davies made, and whether or not I agree with him. In some cases I don't, but I still respect his decisions.

Or rather, I respect the questions he asks about the show, even if I don't always agree with his answers. That's what this post is about.
  1. Do the Doctor and his companions "love" each other? Davies' answer appears to be "yes," although the Doctor seems less willing to say the magic words. As an old-time fan, I can't really get behind this. I was never one of those who speculated about what the Doctor got up to, with all those cute girls, in the many rooms of the TARDIS, between episodes . . . and even now, to see him hugging people (or worse yet, kissing) is a bit of a shock to me. And yet it is certainly a valid question. I always believed that there was affection between them -- and when does that cross over into love? Is it sexual love, or what? Actually, my interpretation is that we, the fans, love the Doctor, and Davies is essentially trying to bring us into the show by focusing on love.
  2. When people go off with the Doctor, what happens to the families they leave behind? This is a crucial question, and asking it was one of the best things Davies did. It is in no way a departure from the old show, because obviously it was always the case that when people got into the TARDIS they were unlikely to ever see their families again. And yet by bringing it up, Davies causes us to look at the show in a completely new way. Actually, I can't really say that I disagree with his answer to this question. He might not have a specific answer, except for "they miss them." But simply pointing out that people do get left behind is a lot.
  3. Does the Doctor bring death and destruction wherever he goes? Is he, in fact, evil? Davies' answer appears to be "no" (which I would agree with) and yet more than one character has answered "yes." These tend to be people who haven't met him in person, who have only heard about him (and that's another neat trick from Davies, by the way, to postulate that a certain number of people know about the Doctor, because he has spent so much time on Earth. Well, more "Britain" than "Earth", but we get the point.) Or people, like Queen Victoria, who have only encountered him in the context of bad stuff happening, and somehow decide to blame him for the bad stuff. This is another really interesting question -- and why is Davies asking it? Where is he going to go with it? Maybe he's just going to leave it hanging, overshadowing the show. (I am a bit behind on the episodes -- as of this date I haven't seen any of Season 3 -- so I don't know if there have been any developments.) We have always seen the Doctor as a hero. From our point of view, he goes around fighting evil monsters and saving the world. So why do these people see him as the problem instead of the solution? As far as I know, Davies never sets out to explicitly prove them wrong. They're allowed to say these things without rebuttal. Is it possible that Davies wants us to think that he does cause more harm than good to the people whose lives he touches?
I started to give these questions serious thought after watching the episode "Love and Monsters." I hated that episode. And yet, after thinking about it I realized: first, that it expresses everything that Russell T Davies has to say about the show; and second, that in general I don't disagree with what he has to say. I just didn't like that particular episode. In fact, it failed to draw me in at the beginning. Some of the later bits were quite good -- but the opening scene of the Doctor and Rose chasing that monster around failed to suspend my disbelief and after that I just couldn't really get into it. Then there was the incredibly tasteless joke at the end. But I digress. (It says quite a lot for Davies' range though, that he can go from tasteless to thought-provoking to genuinely moving. Maybe he has good days and bad days.)

Love and Monsters are what Davies thinks Doctor Who is about, and he's certainly not wrong. If he wants to exaggerate the love, or suggest that the Doctor might be one of the monsters, he can go right ahead as far as I'm concerned. I might not always like it but I will watch it -- and that makes both him and me happy.

Make This Book into a Movie!

I can't help but notice that movies based on children's fantasy novels are currently popular (thanks no doubt to Harry Potter and Mr. Tolkien). Well, there is a young adult author who deserves to be just as rich and famous as J.K. Rowling, if not more so. I'm talking about Diana Wynne Jones, who has been around for a long time.

When I read the first Harry Potter book, I thought, "This is reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones, only not as good." Specifically, I was thinking of Witch Week (which was set in a school, and first published in 1982), and the other Chrestomanci novels, to a certain extent. But that's not the book that I necessarily think should be made into a movie.

Every time I read A Tale of Time City, I think it would make a great movie. It's about time travel, which I think lots of people are familiar with, and it seems to be the most visual of her books. There are lots of detailed descriptions of Time City, and plenty of special effects. Also it's not excessively long.

Ms. Jones has already had one of her books converted to film -- Howl's Moving Castle. I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard that it is only loosely based on the book. I also see from IMDB that Archer's Goon (which I don't think I've read) was made into a TV series in the UK. So, you know, she's ready for another one.

Her official website is here. (Stay away from -- someone appears to be squatting on it.) And she totally rules!!!

Monday, December 24, 2007


I first encountered the term "technobabble" in reference to Star Trek. It refers to pseudo-scientific* explanations, given by characters in science fiction movies or TV shows, for why a certain thing happens, why something can or cannot be done, why the ship they're traveling in is about to fall apart, etc.

Technobabble is painful to listen to (in fact, the only way one can watch any significant amount of science fiction television is by developing an immunity to technobabble.) I understand that it is also painful to write and perhaps most of all, painful for the actors who have to speak it. Why then does it continue to exist?

Unfortunately, we do require explanations for why things happen. If events succeed one another for no reason at all, they may possibly be entertaining (as in dreams), but that is not a plot. The "reasons" given may be completely implausible, which most technobabble is, but they are still considered necessary. Somehow the brain is satisfied.

What I find interesting is that technobabble does not exist in written science fiction. The science is either genuine or at least plausible. The authors appear to have put some effort into their explanations, their scientific underpinnings. Why does this hardly ever happen in film? (I will use the term "film" to refer to both movies and television, since I think the medium is crucial.)

In a novel, or even a short story, a couple paragraphs of scientific exposition are no hardship to read. We are much more patient as readers than as viewers. In TV, or even movies, the explanations have to be reduced to just a few lines of dialog -- therefore, there is really no way they can be adequate. Books and film each have their own momentum -- momentum is certainly important in a piece of writing, but I suspect that it's even more essential in film that events keep moving along. When everything on screen comes to a dead stop so that we can hear an explanation of black holes (as happened in a certain episode of Doctor Who), we notice. We get bored.

Film is not suited to explanations. There are other things for which it is much better suited. For example, a good explosion is worth a thousand words. Is there any writer who can provide a really exciting description of an explosion?

I can think of a couple other reasons why technobabble exists in filmed science fiction. Actually, I am thinking of two other examples, that come down to just one reason: other things are more important. Or, in a single word, time.
  1. Before a book gets published, it is read by at least one editor. Part of an editor's job is to say, "This bit doesn't make any sense." That is how technobabble gets eliminated, because the writer does not usually have anything better to do than to fix it. A book is only a book -- it only exists as words. Film is much more complicated -- you have to have a script, actors, cameras, locations -- and for science fiction, you have to have lots of special effects work. The scriptwriters may be able to spend their whole time working on the script, but that doesn't mean that everybody else can wait for them. (And who cares about the explanations anyway? We want to watch stuff blow up!)
  2. I mentioned above that technobabble is often used as an explanation of "why the ship they're traveling in is about to fall apart." This kind of situation happens much more frequently in science fiction film than in books. In fact, off the top of my head I can't think of a book (or short story) where it is a major plot point. But in SF television it happens a lot. This may be called lazy storytelling. But if you are required to come up with a new story every week -- if they all have to be exciting, reasonably original and, most important, come to an end within 45 minutes (or 20 minutes, for a half-hour show), then you have to rely on certain shortcuts. And technobabble is one of them. So is causing your ship or other gadget to perform beyond its previously rated abilities, possibly resulting in the destruction of said ship or gadget. That's entertainment!
One other thing: I don't mean to imply that the people who write these scripts are ignorant of science, or don't bother to make the technobabble plausible. I believe that in many cases they do make an effort. But after all, any genuine technical explanation, complete and accurate, is mindnumbingly boring to people who are not experts in the field. In the final analysis, it really is not worth it.

* Then there is the question, "what's the difference between pseudo-science and science fiction?" I believe that some people think there is no difference, and as a true SF fan I am naturally grieved and offended by it. But I don't seem to have time at present to correct their false assumption.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Novels of Jane Austen

As a teenager, I couldn't appreciate Jane Austen at all, but as I get older I admire her writing more and more. So here are my comments on her novels, listed in roughly reverse order (from least favorite to most favorite.)
  • Pride and Prejudice: I was required to read this in high school, and I could not distinguish between it and an ordinary romance novel. I understood the plot pretty well, but Austen's ironic flourishes and digressions went right over my head. Now I appreciate the book more, but I still think that Darcy is too full of himself, and although the author sets forth the proposition that his "pride" and Elizabeth's consequent "prejudice" are equally to blame for keeping them apart, I just can't agree.
  • Emma: even after I started to enjoy Austen's other books, it took me a long time to get into Emma. The first sentence -- even the first six words -- were too much for me. After reading "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich . . ." I would think to myself, "I don't want to read about somebody who's perfect." and close the book. Of course, the whole point is that Emma is not perfect -- far from it. But even now, I don't enjoy seeing her humiliated. It is a superb accomplishment on Austen's part, that she can make me feel sorry for a character who has been getting on my nerves throughout the whole book, but such abrupt changes of sentiment are too taxing for me. Reading Emma is hard work.
  • Mansfield Park: if Emma is too arrogant, Fanny Price is much too meek. The last time I read this, I started to realize that it is much more enjoyable if one doesn't think of Fanny as the heroine. She is the eye of the storm, the passive center, around which everybody else rushes and whirls. A sort of anti-heroine (like anti-matter.) I think the best part of the book is the character of Mary Crawford. She is almost modern, with her lack of respect for her elders and her cynical worldly wisdom. And it's interesting to note that even though Fanny is too good to be true, and Mary is her rival in love, Austen avoids the temptation of making her evil. We're told that she doesn't know Fanny is in love with Edmund. She is never deceitful or deliberately cruel. It appears that she genuinely loves Edmund, but she can't get past her prejudice against the clergy, which was instilled in her by the fashionable world. Maybe she thinks Edmund is also too good to be true. And maybe she's right.
  • Sense and Sensibility: This one I have no quibble with. It is pure entertainment, just like fireworks.
  • Persuasion: One of my other favorites. Sweet and sad . . . and what an astonishing progression, from the nonstop exuberance of Austen's early works (Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice) to this pensive ├ętude.
  • Northanger Abbey: This is my favorite. When I want entertainment, I read Sense and Sensibility. When I'm feeling romantic and melancholy, I read Persuasion. But this is a perfect blend of the amusing and the serious. Catherine Morland is confronted with questions that I'm still struggling with: How can you tell if someone is trustworthy? Why do people say so many things they don't mean? Do Gothic novels bear any resemblance to real life?* What, in fact, is reality? Also I think that it contains more quotable lines than any other of her novels, from Catherine's "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible," to almost everything that Henry Tilney says, to Austen's spirited defense of her protagonist's love of novel-reading, ending with "If the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?"

Addendum: Lady Susan. This is not a well-known work, but it is very worth reading. A short epistolary novel about a beautiful, amoral woman who can (and does) charm every man she comes across. One can't help but think that Austen found it refreshing to set aside the weight of morality which is so noticeable in all her published works.

And since this is the Internet, I have to close by remarking that Pemberley is the "all Austen, all the time" web site.

* Well, okay, I don't read many Gothic novels. But I have consumed a great deal of science fiction. And I'm much struck by the fact that fiction, by definition, is not real, and yet those of us who read it and love it firmly believe that it has a lot to say about the world.

Monday, December 03, 2007

First Real Snow Last Night

A couple inches of soft wet snow, changing to rain. Here's a photo:

I have not seen any swans in a while. I seem to recall that this is not the first time a snowfall has brought them out. Maybe they understand that it suits them.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Autumn Photos II

Here's another:

Autumn Photos I

Every year I love to watch this tree change color:

Here is an earlier photo, from when it's just starting to change. Ordinarily the leaves are the normal green color.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

First Snow Today

It melted on the paved areas, and only stayed on the bare ground and grass, but it was definitely snow, not just flurries.

Does that mean it's winter now?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Past Participles

Write, wrote, written
Smite, smote, smitten
Ride, rode, ridden
Stride, strode, stridden

I came across the word "stridden" used in a story the other day, and I was taken quite by surprise. But I suppose it is correct.

Then there is "bedridden." What is the derivation of that?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cat Words

My cats are half Siamese, which means they are very vocal. Here are some of the distinct "words" that I believe I can recognize:
  • Hungry!
  • Bored! (This may also mean "lonely", as in "everybody has gone into the other room and left me here by myself.")
  • Going somewhere! (This is a funny one. When they get up, jump off the chair, walk over to the food dish, etc. they really do make a noise. Announcing what they're doing. I suppose it may also mean "Coming through!" -- ie, they're not trying to sneak up on anyone.)
  • Good morning. (As soon as they hear me stir in the morning, they jump right up on the bed and greet me.)
  • Pet me!
  • Don't stop! (This is what they say when you're petting them and then take your hand away.)
  • Love you. (This is not a demanding noise like "pet me." It's more of a happy cuddly sound.)
  • Put me down. (or, "Stop." Normally they don't mind being picked up. But if they suspect that I am carrying them towards the cat carrier, or intend to shut them in the bathroom temporarily, or do anything to them that they would not enjoy, they will complain.)
  • Angry (for when they're fighting--snarls and yowls.)
  • Intruder alert! (I wrote about this here. They never make this noise when they're fighting with each other.)
  • Playing. (If they run up to each other and fake an attack, for example, they'll make this noise.)
  • Bird! (I have heard other cats make this noise. It's kind of a lip-smacking. I think they only do it for birds--not squirrels, for example.)
There is also a typical noise they make after using the litterbox. I don't really want to try to interpret that one.

They each have individual tones of voice, different intonations. Also, they each vocalize about different things. For example, only one of them really ever says "Put me down!" The other one will just struggle silently--but, he is much more vocal when he's hungry. I also think he uses the "going somewhere" noise more than his brother.

Then there is body language. That's a whole other set of "words."

Friday, October 12, 2007

Forgiveness is Not a Virtue, or "Pomegranates"

There are some people whom I would forgive anything. There are others whom I don't believe I'll ever be able to forgive. This suggests to me that there is nothing moral about forgiveness. It's a feeling--it is, in effect, a preference.

Here's an analogy: I love pomegranates. They're only available here in one brief period of the year (namely, right now!) Now, when choosing a pomegranate it can be difficult to tell if it's any good. It might be under-ripe, or have a bad spot. And they're expensive. But none of that matters to me. None of it will ever make me want to stop buying pomegranates. I love them so much that I can forgive them anything. The ideal, the Perfect Pomegranate, is always floating before my eyes, even when individual pomegranates disappoint. (Some people claim that pomegranates are "not worth the trouble" it takes to eat them. For me, the fact that you have to eat them slowly and laboriously is part of their charm. But I digress.)

Certain people talk about forgiveness a lot. They make it sound like you ought to forgive everybody for everything, all the time. I have always had a problem with this attitude.

It seems to me that "forgiveness" means various things to various people. It can mean "Pretend that what that person did was not wrong" or "Allow that person to keep treating you badly." Nobody has the right to treat another person badly. There's nothing moral about that. If someone is not going to change their bad behavior, it is completely unacceptable to condone what they're doing. And even if you feel that you should forgive them for what they did to you, what if they've hurt other people as well? You can't forgive them for that.

I also wonder if some people believe that "forgiving your enemies" means you're morally superior to them. (Self-righteousness is not a virtue either.) This reminds me of the late Doreen Valiente's remark, "I cannot see any virtue in unctuously professing to forgive someone against whom you can do nothing. The only time I can see merit in forgiving an enemy is when you have your foot on his neck."

The only interpretation of forgiveness that I have any sympathy with is the idea that it means "not holding grudges." But even then, the problem with holding a grudge is that it's bad for you, not for the person you're angry at. It's just self-interest. (I would argue that with true forgiveness, the grudge never even gets formed, so it doesn't have to be let go of.)

Furthermore, "holding a grudge" is not the same as "holding someone responsible for their actions." Neither is it the same as remembering "This person would hurt me again if they got the chance." That's self-preservation.

The problem with forgiveness is that it can lead to your being taken advantage of. I think I might go so far as to say that forgiveness is too risky to be a virtue. Forgiveness is spontaneous, it comes from the heart, it doesn't care about self-preservation and that means it has to be tempered with something more moderate. Or to put it another way, sometimes it's best to forgive but not forget.

Oh, pomegranate . . .

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

My Two Favorite Movies

When I was a teenager, my favorite movie was Harold and Maude. It's a perfect movie for adolescents, because it depicts hopelessness and hope with equal accuracy. Or to put it another way, if Harold can finally decide not to kill himself then I can too.

I haven't watched H&M for a few years now, and I'm starting to think that my new favorite movie is Performance. The two films have a lot in common. Most significantly, they date from the same era, the late 1960s (yes, I was born 20 years too late.) Performance was filmed in 1968 and released in 1970. Harold and Maude was released in 1971 but the screenplay was probably written some time earlier. They are both very rebellious films, I would say . . . "unconventional," perhaps, although that's an understatement.

Another thing the two films have in common is the high quality of the music. H&M is almost all Cat Stevens--I've heard that he wrote a couple songs especially for the film. Performance features Mick Jagger prominently in the supporting cast. He only performs two songs (as I recall), but all the rest of the music, I would say, even when not by him is the sort of music you would expect in the sort of film that would cast Mick Jagger. I like it, anyway.

Performance is a much more adult film. There are no easy answers. There is quite a bit of sex and violence. The protagonist is an anti-hero, in the sense of not being someone you (or I) would really want to emulate. He thinks he can handle anything, but he gets in over his head. I think that's why I've come to like this movie--because life will do that to anyone.

Neither film has a traditional happy ending, although of the two Harold and Maude is slightly more optimistic. And yet the ending of Performance doesn't bother me--and I am someone who usually insists on a happy ending. It's a very low-key ending. It just fits. I suppose there is one easy answer, after all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Feeding the Pigeons

Last week I was waiting at the bus stop. A couple pigeons were pecking around. Suddenly a tortilla chip appeared out of nowhere (honestly, I'm not sure where it came from) and the birds leapt on it.

One of them managed to stake a claim, and as more and more pigeons arrived, he spent more time fending them off (and making sure that nobody snuck in and grabbed the chip while he was busy dealing with another challenger) than actually eating the chip.

At last, the others gave up. But the victorious pigeon was not having very good luck with his prize after all. He pecked at it for a while, but it seemed to be too big for him. Finally he flew off as well.

I walked over to the chip and carefully stepped on it. It broke into four pieces, and I went back and sat down again. Soon the birds returned, and now the chip fragments were manageable. They ate all of it.

I enjoyed feeling that I had helped them out, although it was kind of unsettling to realize that they were willing to eat something I had stepped on. I suppose that all pigeons really do is consume garbage and transmute it into an even less acceptable form. But still, they were happy and I was happy.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Still Life with Tomatoes and Red Pears

I don't know if people still do still lives. It seems rather old-fashioned. But here is one anyway.

(In French, a still life is called nature morte -- "dead nature" -- an interesting reversal.)

Friday, September 07, 2007

Cat in Window

Here is the story to go with this picture:

This cat once had his leg injured, and although he's normally fine, I have noticed that he doesn't seem to do as much jumping as his brother. Specifically, one day he wanted to jump up on the windowsill but he couldn't quite go for it. He sat up and gazed at the window, he ran back and forth under the window, he mewed, but he didn't jump.

Meanwhile, his brother was sitting up in the window and decided to come down. He could jump, but he's too lazy. Instead he climbs down by way of the couch.

On this occasion he noticed that the other cat wanted to get on the windowsill. So he stopped with his front legs on the back of the couch and his hind legs on the windowsill, and stared at his brother. He waited until his brother saw him up there, and then he very slowly climbed down. He was obviously showing him how to do it. His brother observed this, came over and climbed past him up to the window.

Now they can both sit up there--as long as I have the window open.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Power of Silence

Recently I wrote about "the power of speech." Today I started thinking about the power of silence.

In the European occult tradition, there are said to be four "laws," or "powers." (Just to make them sound more impressive, they are sometimes referred to as the "Four Laws of the Magus" or "Four Powers of the Sphinx." But I digress.) They are: To Know, To Dare, To Will, and To Keep Silent.

In order to practice magic, or any other art, one must first acquire knowledge. The desire to practice magic, to dare, is in itself a power. The will to persevere is also necessary, to put some work into it, just like anything else. But what is silence?

Many practitioners of magic say that you should talk about your magical work as little as possible. There seems to be a belief that talking about a spell disperses the magical energy. I can also think of a practical objection, which is that up until comparatively recent times practicing magic could get you burned at the stake, and even today you can be ostracized and ridiculed. It was, perhaps still is, much safer not to let anybody know what you're up to.

But Silence, in the magical/creative sense, is also the equivalent of leaving the seeds you have planted to rest quietly in the ground. We all know that you can't keep poking at them and digging them up to see if they're doing okay. They need time to grow, time in the dark.

Silence has a power all its own. I suspect that if you want something to have power, it's better not to talk about it. I suspect that things which are hidden don't go away.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Love "goes too far."

Love is disruptive. Love is corrosive.
Love dissolves. Love transforms.

Love takes one outside oneself.
Love is not oneself: it is other.
Love is the presence of another in the universe.

Only love is strong enough to break through.
Only love endures.

Love is the end and the beginning.
Love is the end.
And the beginning.
Love changes everything.


Despite some of my recent posts, I have no intention of turning this into a political blog. However, I just have to say one thing:

Rats leaving a sinking ship
Rats leaving a sinking ship
Rats, rats,
long-tailed, smelly, garbage-eating, baby-chomping

Sunday, August 26, 2007


As I approached the lake, I heard a splash and looked up to see a large bird flying away. I was quite disappointed, until I realized that a second bird was still there. It didn't move for a long time. I took several pictures, wandered around the lake, came back and took more. (Most of them didn't come out too well.)

At last I was ready to leave, but I decided to try for one more shot. Just as I thought this, the heron spread its wings and flew away. I thought I had finally scared it off. but then I saw its mate rising up from another part of the lake.

They met in midair, circled and flew off together. I lifted my camera, but I was too astounded to think about framing a shot. Also, I know that it's hard to capture moving objects with digital camera. So, unfortunately, this photo is only a pale reminder of the most exciting thing I saw at the lake.

They have a huge wingspan, as you might expect, and when they fly a pattern of black and white splotches is revealed on their back and wings.

In this place standing

Ever since I started this blog, I have wanted to put up a picture of a certain group of trees near my house. "In this place standing" refers to them, because of the way they stand, so peaceful and so strong. I tried many times to write about them but it could not be done. Only a picture would work.

So I hope it looks nice. Obviously I had to crop the upper part of the trees--I didn't really want to but I didn't want the picture to take up too much space either.

Update (March 23, 2008): I changed the blog template. The picture now appears to be too small for the header area. This is not my fault! It won't allow me to make the picture any wider. I like the new "stretch" layout, but the awkward header design might turn out to be too much for me.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Power of Speech

Back to Howard Zinn: another thing that made an impression on me while I was watching the documentary was some footage of him speaking at an anti-war rally during Vietnam. He went on for quite some time advocating non-violence. The crowd cheered. The cops all stood around, and when he was done they lifted up their clubs and moved in.

I asked myself, "What caused them to respond to non-violence with violence?" I could only believe that they were scared. They felt threatened by talk of non-violence--more than that, they felt threatened by someone who was willing to stand up in public and criticize the government. Such things must not be allowed. Speech is dangerous. All he did was talk.

Speech is dangerous under other circumstances too--in families, for example. Many families, perhaps all, have secrets--things that they believe it's better not to talk about. In some families, the secrets relate to child abuse. I have personal experience of this.

The first rule of child abuse is "Don't tell anyone." You might expect that the abuser doesn't want anyone to know about what he did. But in many cases, nobody else in the family wants to know either. And when they start making excuses for the abuser, one begins to get the impression that talking about abuse is worse than actually doing it. Child abuse is not seen as a threat to the family. Telling the truth about it--that's a threat.

Speaking out is a powerful and frightening thing. But for some of us, the truth is necessary.

See also "Without Struggle There Is No Freedom" and "The Power of Silence"

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Finally, I Can Use the Web for its Intended Purpose

. . . posting pictures of my cats.

Here they are:

Here they are again:

Here is the devil kitty:

Awwww . . . so cute.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: Howard Zinn

Yesterday I watched a documentary about the life of Howard Zinn, author of The People's History of the US and several other books. The film seems to be loosely based on his memoir of the same title. I read at least part of the book (can't remember if I finished it.)

In some ways, Zinn is a very ordinary man. Born into a poor working-class family, fought in World War II, married and raised two kids, the first member of his family to go to college (apparently, neither of his parents ever got as far as high school), he eventually became a professor of history. Many people who have fought in wars take a dislike to the whole notion of war: that's not unusual either. But his passion stands out.

For me, one of the most moving parts of You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train (book and film) is an episode that happens at the end of WWII. Zinn had joined the Air Force in order to fight evil, in the form of Hitler. He dropped quite a few bombs on various German cities. The war was almost over when his squadron was sent out one night to attack a French village (they were told that it contained a large number of German soldiers, as well as civilians.)

Their planes were loaded with some new type of bomb: Zinn later discovered that it was napalm. He came to believe that the only reason he had been ordered to bomb that village was because the American military wanted to test its new weapon. This didn't sit too well with him, and neither did the thought of how many civilians he must have killed, in that bombing raid and all the others. Soon he became an advocate of non-violence and civil disobedience, starting with the civil rights movement, and protested against wars from Vietnam to the present day. (He has had no lack of opportunities for protest.)

I've always had a certain admiration for conscientious objectors, and anybody who stands up for what they believe in--without resorting to violence. But Zinn's story reminds me that in some ways, those who deserve the most respect are people who have made mistakes and risen above them.

It's all very well to have a clear conscience and never to have gone to war in the first place (for example.) But what if your conscience is not clear? We've all done regrettable things. Few of us, I hope, have the same thing to regret that Zinn did: killing a large number of people. How do we cope with our comparatively minor regrets?

I don't recall Zinn expressing particular guilt or remorse for his warlike actions (although it was a long time ago.) He doesn't have to: his later actions speak for themselves. He came to believe that war is wrong, and he does his best to ensure that such things will never happen again. That is all a person can do.

I think to myself: If he can live with what he did, then I have nothing to complain about at all.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Curse These Prolific Writers!

Every time I turn around, I find out about another book that I have to read. Most of them are old books too--by which I mean, written ten years ago or more. I'm not even trying to keep up with new writing. (Similarly, I've given up on getting ahold of new music.)

When I was younger, it used to make me sad to discover that certain of my favorite authors had been alive when I was born, and subsequently died. As if the fact that we had both existed simultaneously in this world would have enabled me to meet them or write to them or something. (Never mind that I might only have been four years old when they died, or that I've never actually written to a writer.)

But at this rate, I'm going to start being glad when good writers hop the twig. Then at least I'll know that the number of their works is finite. Not that I'll ever get caught up anyway: because they outnumber me. Damn them all.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


One goldfinch ("That's not a yellow butterfly, it's a bird!")

One red-winged blackbird (not near my house--on a family visit)

What is it about the red-winged blackbird that tugs at my heart? There are plenty of medium-sized black birds around. But the sight of that red and yellow epaulet . . . tells me I'm in the country. Grackles and starlings seem common and ordinary. The red-winged blackbird is a wild bird.

Update (August 21): I have seen the goldfinch twice more since then, once in the same location and just today, in another spot about half a mile away from the original sighting. I assume it is the same bird. They must have their own territory. The second time, I also saw him with a plain brown bird which I assume to have been his mate.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Ruined House: A Metaphor

When I was 18, I went to therapy for about six months. Almost the first thing I explained to my counselor was that I didn't intend for this to be "a lifetime project." I wanted to get in and get out. I had gathered that some people spent years in therapy (although at that time I don't believe I knew anyone who actually had) and to me that seemed like a bad idea. Since then I've become more confirmed in my belief that lots of talking does not actually help. Some people get very adept at talking about their emotions and their traumas--analysing themselves--and they genuinely feel bad. But talking is no substitute for actually doing the work.

The time that I spent talking to my therapist was only the tip of the iceberg. Outside of our sessions I spent hours thinking and remembering and feeling my feelings. That was the real work. Having a professional person to talk to was also vitally important. But I was doing the work myself. And it took years . . . much, much longer than six months.

Just today I realized what it is like, this work.

Imagine a house that's been gutted by fire: not completely destroyed. But there's a lot of structural damage, and all the furniture and belongings that were in the house have been charred and water-soaked, reduced to rubbish and sludge. Or perhaps the house was struck by an earthquake, or bombed.

In any case, therapy is the task of clearing out all the junk. It's hard work. It's sad work. And when it's over, you don't have much to show for it: only the ruins of a house. (It's almost exasperating.) Now the work of rebuilding begins . . . and maybe the house is so damaged that you have to tear it all down and start over.

It is possible to do. One does make progress, slowly. (One of the odd things about it is that you can make progress without even being aware of it. You just keep slogging along, and one day you lift your head and notice that the house is actually looking quite nice.) Of course, houses require a lot of upkeep. There's always something that needs to be worked on, and perhaps the carpentry will never be quite finished. I've never owned an actual house--it seems like a daunting prospect, on top of all the work that this imaginary house requires.

The very strangest thing about this house, the self, is that even though this metaphor of building the house is so useful, it's wrong in one important respect: the house builds itself. Each one of our houses has hidden rooms, passageways, staircases, sometimes entire floors that we can discover one day and announce "I had no idea that was there!" Where do these rooms come from, when we are quite certain that the house was at one point almost completely destroyed? Were they there all the time? Maybe.

Some parts of the house we need to build for ourselves, I think. Or at least decorate. We need to know what's there, and where it is, so that we're not constantly bumping into the furniture. But these unexpected rooms . . . personally I rather enjoy them. After spending so much time clearing away the rubbish and having to worry about the whole thing falling down, it's nice to explore some rooms that are, in my opinion at least, well-furnished and clean. My compliments to the decorator.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

City Bus Windows

City buses come in three configurations:
  • The air conditioning works
  • The AC doesn't work, but you can open the windows
  • The AC doesn't work and none of the windows open
Recently I observed an official personage going through the bus and unscrewing all the window handles so that they would open. It never occurred to me that they might have been locked shut on purpose. But in fact it would be highly unlikely for all of the windows on a bus to be broken at the same time.

PS: the white clover that I described in my last post is all growing back now. It is indomitable.

Friday, June 15, 2007

I Do Not Approve of Lawnmowers

Across the street from my house is a river, and a sort of elongated park runs along the river on both sides. Lately the lawn was absolutely white with masses of white clover, along with some purple clover and some "white" clover that had turned pink. It was very pretty and it smelled good.

But bit by bit, it all got mowed. They missed a couple patches of white clover, and even one stalk of purple clover, but not much. Stupid lawnmowers. The grass wasn't even that tall.

However, I will say that this year there are several clumps of yellow iris growing on the river bank. I don't recall seeing them before -- perhaps they are newly planted. Or perhaps this rainy spring was good for them.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Obligatory Cute Cat Story

Last night I was having a private moment with Cat #1*, when Cat #2 jumped up on the bed and laid down between us.

Cat #1 promptly bit Cat #2's tail. Then he did it again. After the third bite, Cat #2 mewed and gave his brother a look that clearly said, "Why are you biting me?" ("Why do you think he's biting you?" I asked.)

Cat #1 immediately jumped on Cat #2's back and bit him on the neck. Then they rolled off the bed together.

* They do have names, but they're also interchangeable. Whichever one you see first is Cat #1, or "Thing One" as I called them when they were kittens.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Aerial Photography

So, you know those satellite maps that they have on the Web now? Looking at the place where I grew up on one of those maps was a strange experience. (Yes, I'm easily astonished.) Tracing the road from the nearest town to our house . . . I remember that road, not every bit of it, but some parts in better detail than the map can reveal. I still dream about that road.

Aerial photography shows the trees and rivers, but not the topography, so much. It shows the roads that led to friends' houses, and the side roads that I never got a chance to go down. The unknown roads that concealed some magic place right around the corner. (Satellites can't see those secret places, of course.)

It must show the lake that we went to, but it can't show the excitement of those summer evenings, or the humidity. Or the frogs. It shows where the river runs alongside the road, but it can't show what I remember, one particular bend of the river and the light coming through the trees. Perhaps the water was unusually high? For some reason it has stayed with me. Maybe it was a dream.

It can't show the road from my vantage point, the back of our old pickup.

And yet, it astonishes me that the road of my memory has its counterpart in the real world. No, I don't expect it to still be the same (although I bet it hasn't changed all that much.) Just the fact that it's real is enough. Not to mention the fact that the Internet knows where I lived. I can type in the name of that dead-end dirt road and it pops right up. A map of Nowhere. A real place. As real as my dreams.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

There They Are!

This is the second year now that I've grown basil indoors. It takes about 10-14 days for the seeds to sprout. I haven't yet lost my amazement that it actually works. Little tiny green sprouts come out of even tinier black seeds. And then they get bigger. It's astonishing.

(Yes, we always had a garden when I was a kid. And I must have been amazed then too. But it's different when you're doing it yourself -- in a pot, what's more.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Subtropical Sunsets

So there I was, at 33 degrees North latitude. As everyone knows, the Tropic of Cancer is located at 23.5 degrees North. (No, I didn't know that. I had some vague idea.) Normally I hang out in the forties.

I mention this because, my second night there, I was invited to dinner. We sat out on the deck overlooking the ocean, and our hostess remarked, "It's time for sunset."

Well, okay. I've seen plenty of sunsets. I glanced over -- yes, there's the sun above the ocean, very pretty. I looked again just a couple minutes later and the thing had moved. Sunsets don't do that where I come from. You could literally watch it setting. The word I used for its motion was "Bloop." It just went "bloop" and was gone.

Does the sun rise just as fast? I don't know. Everything out there faces west.

Sunday, April 29, 2007


My friends and I went to the country fair. (That is what it amounts to, even though you can get there on a city bus.) Among the many farm animals they had were a number of goats.

I grew up with goats. It was great to see them again. I had forgotten, until I saw them do it, that goats lie down by putting their front legs on the ground first and then their back legs. They always do it this way, and when I saw it I remembered "Yes! That's how they do it!"

It's a very strange sensation, to be reminded of something that you haven't thought about in years, but is still etched into your memory. I think what makes it strange is that it happens entirely without your own volition. Your brain retrieves the memory -- your conscious mind is only a spectator.

Another interesting thing about goats is that their legs are articulated in the opposite way from human limbs. They have "knees" on their front legs and "elbows" on their back legs.

I don't know what kind of tree it is . . .

I'm not good at identifying trees. But it was welcoming the spring so exuberantly that buds were sprouting out all over its trunk, as well as on the branches where they normally belong.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922 –2007

When I was in high school, I was a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan. Then I drifted away from the "white male" school of literature. Although it's amazing how much those white males actually understood. One thinks of them as being self-absorbed, indifferent to -- if not contemptuous of -- anybody who's not like them. But (even with these constraints) some of them were able to understand human nature, and many of them in fact experienced suffering. Strange, that.

Anyway, a couple Vonnegut quotes have stayed with me:
A gun is a tool for killing people with.

Like Joseph Conrad, English is my second language. Unfortunately I don't have a first one.

I read that he described himself as a pacifist, which not many people dare to do these days. One imagines that getting firebombed in Dresden had something to do with that. Although I'm a pacifist too, and I've never been firebombed. But one of the benefits of being human is the ability to learn from other people's experiences.

Kurt Vonnegut, y'all.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Turtle Rock

I can't remember if I've written about the turtle rock before.

In the river near my house there's a rock that sticks up out of the water. (When the water's low, you can see that it's actually a cement block. But it serves the purpose of a rock.) Last spring, a friend and I were walking along the river when we observed, "Those things on that rock look exactly like turtles." Shortly thereafter we observed, "They look exactly like turtles because they are turtles."

I saw them throughout the spring and summer, into fall. Then they went away. Now, today, is the first really nice day we've had. The turtles are back.

Happy spring, turtles.

Later (August 25) - Here is an illustration:

(While I was taking the pictures, the turtle lifted up its head and turned around on the rock, almost as if it were posing for me.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Early Spring

pussy willows
someday, lilacs

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Field Trip

Recently I spent a few days visiting a friend who lives in Southern California. I'm here to tell you, the weather was perfect. Then I came back here and the next day it snowed. Oh well.

My friend lives right on the beach, and we also spent a day driving out to the desert. There is so much I could write about it. But this post is going to be a list of the animals and other noteworthy items I saw.

  • Dolphins, playing in the surf outside my friend's house.
  • A hummingbird
  • A desert lizard
  • Two or three beach lizards (on the cliffs above the beach, not on the beach itself)
  • Also in the desert, a jackrabbit and a couple medium-sized desert birds, looked rather like quail.
  • Some crows and seagulls (unusual because they were familiar)
  • One gray squirrel, rather scrawny-looking, not like the muscular gray squirrels we have around here.
  • Many of the orange and blue flowers that are called "birds of paradise."
  • Some trees which my friend claimed were also birds of paradise. All I have to say is, birds that size are really scary.
  • Eucalyptus trees, palm trees, and cacti - in some places, all mixed together.
  • A surprising number of horses, in the "ranch country" between the beach and the desert. Also some cows and one batch of sheep.
  • Various citrus trees, including huge orange groves in "ranch country."
  • Some kind of tree that had lumps growing out of it. They looked exactly like green lemons but they were not.
  • One date palm, producing dates.

Monday, March 19, 2007

More Adventures in Chocolate

Today's adventure revolves around "Renew," chocolate with blackcurrant, from Newtree. This chocolate is made in Belgium, and on the package the copy appears in both French and English. But some rather entertaining stuff got lost in translation. So here we go:

The French version:

Gagnez en sagesse sans sacrifier l'éternelle jeunesse! Délectez-vous du noir chocolate RENEW et décelez en lui la douceur subtile du rouge cassis, lui aussi synonyme d'influences antioxydantes. Sitôt l'expérience achevée, vous brûlerez d'envie de la renouveler!

My rough translation:

Gain wisdom without sacrificing eternal youth! Savor RENEW black chocolate and discover the subtle sweetness of black currant, also synonymous with antioxidant influence. Once this experience has been achieved, you will will burn with desire to renew it!

The English text, as it appears on the package:

Out with the old, in with RENEW. Savor the sweet sophistication and antioxidant rejuvenation of blackcurrant and dark chocolate. RENEW, refresh, repeat.

Now I ask you: isn't there something missing? A certain élan vital? Why are we no longer burning with desire for this chocolate? Maybe no English-speaking person could take that seriously. But how boring.

Nice chocolate, though.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I wonder if . . .

the road to Heaven is paved with bad intentions?

That sounds like fun.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Red-Tailed Hawk?

If you see a bird with a red tail, and a generally hawkish configuration of the tail and wings, does that mean it's a red-tailed hawk? I didn't get a very good look at the head, but it may have been vaguely hawkish. There are hawks around here, but I've never been so sure of seeing one as I was today. In fact, there seemed to be a pair of them. They were not large birds.

I wondered if they were taking an interest in the dead squirrel that lay almost exactly in the middle of the road. That could be dangerous. I waited until no cars were coming, and then walked out to the center line. Not giving myself time to think, I kicked the corpse. It flew into the air and landed by the side of the road. I followed and kicked it again, so that it lay squarely on the sidewalk, and then got myself out of the road. It seems disrespectful, doesn't it? But it is in fact safer, for birds and animals that eat carrion, if their meal is not lying in the path of oncoming traffic.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Swans and Snow

Well, it finally snowed around here. And for whatever reason, the waterfowl came back. The Canada geese probably never left, but I don't recall seeing so many ducks recently. Most noticeable, though, are the swans.

I had a perfect opportunity to decide which is whiter, snow or swan. I observed them very carefully, as I walked to and from the store. My final verdict was:

Snow is cold. The essence of its brightness is cold, and the sharpness with which it strikes the eye. Swans, on the other hand, are alive. That gives their color a sort of depth, solidity, which seems to me to be a different sort of brightness. As if you can perceive their body heat.

All of these birds appear to enjoy hanging out in the cold water, or even sitting on the ice. It would not suit me at all.