Wednesday, December 17, 2014

LilthyEtta in Focus

“And the flesh was made word, and the word, exalted. And they beheld in it the spirit of grace and truth.”
                                                                                                Swami Deepsheesh Rajathustra

In literature as in life, characters come and go. Thus did LilthyEtta Saqueth Klatchbustle drop off the map, vanish like the ancient mariner who, bereft of compass and sextant, sails into the watery abyss beyond the edge of the world.

To many, LilthyEtta’s disappearance might have seemed illusory – a mere misapprehension, some aberration of the senses. For her presence or absence in the moment appeared as much akin to the quantum flux as the occasion ex nihilo of primary particles. You saw her and then you didn’t. Or perhaps you did. Perhaps you saw someone else altogether.

Not, however, to Giansanto Baptiste Neuvofresneli, like LilthyEtta, a denizen of Port City. He and he alone (more or less) had been privy to her departure and all its curious particulars – her vanishment, as he put it, for her exodus had been quite like no other.  Giansanto for one was quite certain LilthyEtta had gone.

Gian, or John, as confederates knew him, though given to the odd peregrination (mostly around libraries), incautious in the maintenance of cutis, sartorially negligent, spiritually disheveled, and for the most part intellectually superfluous, was nonetheless a glassmith of uncommon ability.

Indentured at an early age to Francisco de Vetro, doyen of Italian glass blowers, he had learnt the fundamentals of that trade on the Venetian island of Murano during  ten years’ apprenticeship. Later, through some perversion of academic admittance (some said a burlesque of St. John the Baptist; others, computer hacking), he fetched up at MIT.

There John made a study of light refringence (because he thought it so beautiful) in the so-called Prince Rupert’s drop, a molten tear of glass quenched in water to a hardness more durable than steel save for the vulnerability of its flagellum-like stem.

The latter weakness, through clever assessment, he managed to surmount. Instead of allowing the liquescent glass to drip slowing into water creating the stem, he guillotined it free with diamond glass shears whilst spinning it like a top.

Because this creation of his, unique among the glasses, needed working at some 3000° F, John christened it vitrum pyrex, or more whimsically, fever glass.

Yet what to do with this fever glass? Its one thing to invent something completely off kilter like silly putty, quite another to turn it to use.
Hammer and Nail, HG Frabel

Inspiration arrived in the form of a sculpture, “Hammer and Nail” (a glass hammer about to whack a glass nail) by lampwork artist Hans Godo Frabel, late of Jenaer Glaswerk Schott, Mainz. John happened to see the piece, part of the Hechinger Collection, in an exhibition at the Katonah Museum, New York.

There the Frabel wrought an epiphany.

“Of course!” he thought. “Why not cold forge the vitrum? Perhaps I could hammer Rupert drops into concave lenses that would be practically indestructible!”

How John contrived to do this remains known only to him, but do it he did. And the pince-nez readers he made (the ones that hadn’t burst during forging) proved as extraordinary as the material from which they were fashioned – their durability being the least of it. For gazing through them, John could see the world as it really is, uncaparisoned, polarized free of all trappings and contrivance.

Thus, observed through his lenses, a speeding vehicle might appear as nothing more than a seated driver, devoid of all physical surrounds, ensconced upon thin air as it were, racing down the highway.

On one occasion, John caught sight of an itinerant corpse, the guest of honor in a passing cortege, that sprang from its casket, somersaulted from the hearse, and ran off at a trot – only to be struck down by a phantom DeLorean.

At intervals outside John’s window, assemblages of synthetic body parts – dentures, joints, valves, metal rods and plates – paraded casually past in synchronous harmony with their otherwise imperceptible hosts.

It was under such auspices, then, that John bore witness to the vanishment of LilthyEtta Klatchbustle.

She sat, late one summer afternoon, at a long mahogany table adjoining the poetry section of the Port City library writing feverishly in her notebook – the nib of her goose quill pen making quick little jabs into a small sterling and crystal Victorian travelers’ ink well. Strewn about her on the table were a variety of volumes – poetry anthologies, chapbooks, and hardbacks by various authors (W. S. Merwin, Maxine Kumin, Theodore Roethke, D.B. Viridanstadt, amongst others). Now and then, lost in thought, she’d look up and stare intently at the far wall for a moment or two, then fall back to writing.

She’d been at work like this for some hours and was nearing completion of her manuscript when John Baptiste happened by on one of his habitual library rounds.

Inquisitive as de Torquemada, he’d buried his nose in a treatise by Teilhard de Chardin, the which he found most intelligible when studied through the medium of his fever glass lenses. Indeed, thanks to these, Nietzsche had made sense as an Old Testament prophet, Marx as an apostle of Christ.

Glancing at LilthyEtta, however, John came up short – something about her was changing, transmuting. For an instant, he wondered if he were imaging things, yet the event unfolding before him could not be gainsaid.

It began at first with her hand – her writing hand – that faded from skin tone to a pastel gray, then gradually darkened to the lustrous blue black of her ink well. Her outstretched arm, meanwhile, began to lose distinctiveness, its sharpness of contour – to deliquesce, by degrees, like ice lift out in the sun, the noir of the ink rising upward in a tide that had soon enveloped quite all of her.

Now she commenced a gentle cascade – like burgundy decanted in slow motion – along the nib of her goose quill and onto the pages of her copybook, creating through this a delicate calligraphy, page after page of coruscating verse that exalted the very dust and coffee stains.

And then the tide ebbed.

John snatched the pince-nez from his face and stared hard at where LilthyEtta had been. But like Alice’s Cheshire she’d vanished, pen and all. Collecting himself for a moment, he mused wanly “Sheesh, I’ve heard of pouring yourself into your work, but this…!”

“Where the hell did she go?” he wondered aloud, but the query was met with silence.  If others had borne witness, no one came forward.

Resting upon the mahogany table, however, there remained a solitary volume, a chapbook of poetry by one LilthyEtta Saqueth Klatchbustle. John picked it up and replacing his pince-nez spectacles, began to read.

Somewhere a siren wailed, and street lamps flickered to life. A Stryker hip with a rosary and cassock hurried by on the way to confessional. One might have thought it was closing time.

John thought it had begun to rain.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Raleigh, a Natural Raccoon

Raleigh is a California raccoon who inhabits a jelly palm (Butia capitata) in our backyard.

He first appeared to us in the form of a giant undulate shadow snaking its way up the trunk of the mountain yucca that stands just next to the jelly, providing easy access to the big fronds of the crown where he dens.

It was the Malibu landscape lights playing upon him from the ground that produced his extraordinary umbra. If you’re close enough to a light source, you can cast an impressive shadow even though you’re quite small. That’s why upon first sighting I wondered if Raleigh might be a puma!

Pumas, however, don’t leave muddy little five-fingered paw prints all over your porch or rummage through flowerpots looking for grubs. Nor do they generally raid trash cans.

Sometime later we saw two raccoons swarming up the yucca. Raleigh, it seemed, had acquired a partner.

One night Raleigh ambled onto our back deck and ramped up against a glass panel, peering in at us. Delighted, Leah put her hands on the glass just opposite his, and there commenced an impromptu game of pat-a-cake. As Leah hopscotched around her side of the glass, Raleigh shuffled paws to match her – not unlike a wrong way encounter through the visitors’ glass at the slammer.

“What a bright, inquisitive little creature he is,” I thought. “Maybe I should have a chat with him.”

Late one evening whilst puttering around the garage, I got my chance. Raleigh, sporting his little black domino facemask, suddenly appeared athwart the open garage door, poised like a sprinter awaiting the starting pistol. As I turned toward him, he began to move off.

“Wait a sec, Reilly,” I called after him, “I’d like to have a word.”

 “Is this about the trash cans?” he ventured, pausing and glancing suspiciously at me over his left shoulder. “ – and its Raleigh, not Reilly!”

“Sorry,” I said. “No, its about you and Leah playing pat-a-cake.”

“Oh, that” he said, stretching up to his full height (to impress me, I thought), then crouching down on his haunches. “What about it?” He seemed more interested now but still wary.

“Why would a raccoon want to play pat-a-cake in the first place?”

“Because I ran into an invisible something – or if you'd rather, a quite solid nothing – on your back deck and wanted to find out about it.”

“You mean the glass?” I offered.

“If that’s what you call it,” he replied. “I kept thinking your mate – Leah – had found a way through whatever it was, so I went about checking from my side, too. Looking back, she might have been thinking the same thing. In the end, we got nowhere at all, and I feel little the wiser."

“Like the blind leading the blind,” I laughed. “Oh, the peculiar things that separate us, one from another!”

“Sure, make light of it,” Raleigh rejoined sounding truculent, “but you’d have to be dumb as a woodlouse to put up walls you can see straight through. After all, you go into your den to sleep, away from the light and safe from your enemies. Why would you build invisible walls that let in the one and reveal you to the other? If you ask me, that’s pretty lame!”

“We humans spend a lot of time in our homes and we don’t like to work in the dark,” I protested. “That’s why we build a few transparent walls.”

“Gophers nearly always work in the dark,” Raleigh scoffed, and they almost never come out of their homes. I should know ‘cause they’re on my menu. Maybe you’d best adapt like the gophers before you run short of that glass stuff – it could happen, you know!”

“I take it for granted there’ll always be pane glass,” I replied with annoyance and a trace of distain. “What’s more, you seem improbably opinionated even for an urban raccoon. You sound like one of those environmentalists with an attitude. I may have to reconsider the dog food rations I’ve been putting out for you.”

“And I may have to reconsider your trash cans,” rejoined Raleigh without missing a beat.

“Ok, ok, let’s try to be civil here. By the way, who’s living with you in the jelly palm now?”

“That’s Ursula, my partner.”

“Ursula?  Sounds like an odd name for a raccoon,” I mused out loud.

“Why would you say that?” he replied. “The word means ‘little bear’ – bears are raccoons’ closest relatives.

Anyways, what about your own name, Steven?  Surprised I know who you are? I found your call sign in the trash, that’s how. ‘Steven’ from the Greek means ‘victorious,’ but you’re hardly that – I’ve noticed all those rejection letters.”

“Maybe you have a point,” I conceded ruefully. “Why, even as we speak the wildlife on this place is taking over the property.”

“No need for sarcasm. Ursula and I are happy to share our territory with you so long as you pay us in dog food. (You should try it yourself with frogs sometime). Now that I think of it, your current payment is already past due – and now that I have Ursula, you need to pay double, too.”

“That’s just what I was doing here in the garage,” I said, suddenly defensive “ – dishing up your pound of….”

“…rent,” interrupted Raleigh.

“I’m starting to think its more like extort….”

But he’d already disappeared into the night.

I loaded several more scoops of chicken-flavored Pedigree dog chow into a galvanized pail and trudged off to settle up my account, feeling much perplexed over the exchange with Raleigh.

I could feature myself as a gopher, I reckon, but could we really run out of pane glass?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Throw Down at Sci Beta Phi: The Cosmology Fraternity in Turmoil

“I am now convinced that theoretical physics is actually philosophy.” Max Born

“Why Are Physicists Hating On Philosophy (and Philosophers)?” asks philosopher/ physicist Adam Frank in a 2012 piece for NPR.

Since, like matter and energy, love and hate are pretty much interchangeable, his question may be less straightforward than it sounds. It’d be much more bothersome, for example, if physicists and philosophers were merely indifferent to one other, not talking at all. That might lead to real trouble.

As it is, with no one yet burned at the stake, I think this conflict stands to be beneficial. It brings into focus important questions about cosmology and how different ways of thinking may apply to them. It sells books and newspapers, too, and fills the media with worthwhile stuff for a change.

In theory, the multiverse is mostly bubbles
Without recounting the whole megillah, the flashpoint for the current dispute seems to have been Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe from Nothing. As Dr. Krauss explains it, “nothing” represents a quantum vacuum, a state of quantum fields that’s devoid of elementary particles. But being unstable, such a quantum vacuum can jump to configurations with lots of particles that over time form whole universes (the multiverse)

If all possibilities—all universes with all physical laws—can arise dynamically, and if anything that can arise, must arise [remember Murphy’s law?], says Dr. Krauss, this implies that nothing and something must both exist, and we will necessarily find ourselves amidst something.

The Absolut Nothing of classical philosophy and religion, in other words – nothing all by its lonesome (no laws of physics or quantum fields) except for a creator God – may be an unnecessary, not to say inaccurate, take on reality. Quantum fields and the resulting multiverse could be eternal and represent the true nature of nothing and something (and something from nothing). Deadpans Krauss, “Well, its true, I don’t like God, but the multiverse was proposed because the laws of physics are driving us to it.”

If all this seems to violate common sense, welcome to modern science. Attributable to science, beginning during the 17th century, is almost everything that distinguishes the modern world. Science constantly revises its assumptions to reflect real world observations, which is why it constantly reminds us of just how wrong those assumptions can be. Indeed, it may yet do as much for the quantum multiverse – the Lawrence Krauss Show [public lectures, tag team appearances with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), interviews, books, movies, news articles], perforce being but an epiphenomenon of science’s ceaseless journey. 

So stay tuned.

In the meantime, how might quantum science effect our ideas of God, religion, and philosophy? Is God dead? Is philosophy, as Stephen Hawking claims? 


Religion has played significant psychological and cultural roles throughout history and continues to do so. As an element of self-concept, its closely bound up with culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and the like. Beyond this, in his/her own way, every human yearns for a measure of spiritual solace, a connection to something eternal or at least greater than ourselves.  Here the quantum multiverse – terrain that might seem all the more bleak should it turn out to be true – affords cold comfort. You need myth and art to soften the texture.

As for philosophy, the objections of Krauss and others might well draw some sympathy. Traditionally, in addition to cosmology, philosophers have tried to create systems of being, ethics, morals, politics, and religious belief. Unfortunately, the touchstone of such projects has typically been self-consistency: in order for a system to be valid, or so the logic went, it had to be internally consistent. This has sometimes led to strange outcomes – bizarre philosophical constructs like that of Frederick Nietzsche which, though self-consistent enough, were disastrous whenever adumbrations of them showed up in the real world.* 

Observed Bertrand Russell:

“No one has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent…A philosophy which is not self-consistent cannot be wholly true, but a philosophy which is self-consistent can very well be wholly false…There is no reason to suppose that a self-consistent system contains more truth than one which…is obviously more or less wrong.”

Nowadays, especially when it comes to cosmology, many scientists consider the traditional “Why?” questions of philosophy – e.g., “Why does the universe exist? – unanswerable and meaningless. Yet while philosophy and metaphysics remain undeterred by this, the answers they proffer typically boil down to myth or poetry. “Why?” questions, in other words, if you wish to consider them, properly belong to the province of art.

Thus, at least in the view of scientists, philosophy has long labored with a credibility problem stemming from how it deals with the inescapable paradoxes and contradictions of the real world and how it so facilely substitutes art or myth for fact. This issue tends to become acute whenever someone lacking a firm scientific background makes bold to philosophize about scientific matters. Or when someone who does have training in science nonetheless clings to an outmoded paradigm – like Absolut Nothing, let’s say.

Scientists complain, too, that philosophers have plenty to do without tackling scientific questions beyond their ken or building lifeless intellectual constructs. For example, they ought engage more directly with issues posed by real world problems, like ethics in technology and medicine. 

Bertrand Russell’s vision for contemporary philosophy was this:

“To teach how to live without certainty in a quantum universe, not paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”

For their part philosophers and some scientists object to the likes of Lawrence Krauss as triumphal, superficial, and hubristic.** 

“Given that there is so much that we don't know, humility is at least advisable,” cautions physicist Marcelo Gleiser.

Beyond the ad hominem, though, critics also contend that, driven by quantum mechanical (and here’s irony) consistencies, theoretical physics has gotten too far ahead of itself – lacks sufficient empirical data to shore up its speculations, too many of which remain unproven. Moreover, even where data is available, the nexus between the evidence and the theories they purportedly support may be tenuous.

In any case, science by its methods can’t necessarily establish whether all truths about nature are discoverable.

Here it seems fair to mention that philosophy of late has taken some encouraging turns. Writers, like Bettina Stangneth and Peter Gordon, now consider it the task of philosophy to “protect thinking as something beautiful,” to expose subversion of thought, especially as this relates to malefic personal behavior or attitudes on the part of a thinker. While such a project poses obvious risks, the extremes of the last century perhaps make it inevitable.

Recently, the New York Times has hosted a series of lucid, fascinating plain English interviews conducted by philosophy professor Gary Gutting on topics ranging from cosmology to atheism. It’s a small step, but such exposure can only be positive for philosophy.

What if, after the dust settled, the theory of the quantum multiverse proved correct? Where that would leave notions of God?

No doubt many religionists would still cling to theistic causation as, if needs be, an infinite regression of cases: if the universe arose from the multiverse, then God must have created the multiverse, or whatever came before that, etc.

On the other hand, you could adopt the idea that God (if you believe in God) stands inside creation rather than out- and came into being along with everything else. Or perhaps with human kind in particular.  Or even as a part of human kind.

Such a notion might invigorate concepts of a Personal God (as opposed to an impersonal Cosmic Creator) bound up with or inherently part of a collective human psyche. Karl Jung explored this idea in his discussions of the Collective Unconscious. It also appears as the Monopsychism of Sabianism, Jewish Kabbalah, and Averroism, and is a part of Rastafarian beliefs.  

For my part, I think God would show up in quiet and subtle ways – in the still, small voice, perhaps; or in dreams, the numinous telemetry of the Collective Unconscious; or in the inexplicable strangeness of random experience. Such a God would represent the deepest part of (collectively) whatever we humans are.

Of course, there’re many other ideas about the Personal God. The most personal take I’ve seen yet, though, conceives of God as a “Cosmic senior partner” – almost like a business associate to whom you're indentured. Hopefully, such a God wouldn’t play office favorites or cheat you in a real estate deal! 

But then contracts are made to be broken.

Finally, what of Lawrence Krauss? Where does the multiverse leave him – philosophically, I mean? 

Here’s his benediction for an audience in Australia:

“You are far more insignificant than you ever thought [because the universe wasn’t created for Man], but be happy because you’re here today…endowed by evolution with consciousness and intelligence, and you can ask these questions [e.g., where did the universe come from?]. So instead of requiring meaning in the universe beyond your own existence, you can create your own meaning and enjoy your brief moment in the sun.”

Surely in this there’s a quantum of chastening -- and joy! -- for everyone.

*According to Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche gave rise to Stalin, Rousseau to Hitler. No doubt causality ran in the other direction as well  – Stalin gave rise to Nietzsche, etc.

** To some extent, Krauss and company are merely following the First Law of Thermodynamics: all publicity is good publicity.

"A philosopher who is obsessed with consistency needs to get it out of his system" -- Swami Deepsheesh Rajathustra


Friday, August 29, 2014

Trufflems – Pseudo-amnesia and the Google Image Search

Trufflems? Pseudo-amnesia? It sounds technical, but it really isn’t. By pseudo-amnesia I don’t mean feigned memory loss. I mean a kind of false memory evoked by objective evidence of a prior real one now completely forgotten – a memory of a memory, so to speak, a true-false memory. What I’ll refer to as a trufflem.

But let me explain.

During the summer of 1967, I and two college buddies, Mike and Ken, teamed up for a European road trip. Meeting in London’s Trafalgar Square, we set out by train and ferry for Wolfsburg, Germany, where the following day we took factory delivery of a brand new, bright red, Volkswagen beetle. Promptly dubbing the car the “Red Flash,” we hit the road for Copenhagen, Denmark and points beyond*.  Later, we would remember the trip as the Red Flash tour.

It was an interesting moment in history. Hardly two decades had passed since World War II, and the conflict still reverberated. Here and there, relics of the fighting – Vienna’s massive concrete flaktürmes (flak towers), Bordeaux’s colossal submarine pens, artillery bunkers dug in on Normandy beaches – persisted as ugly reminders. Many Europeans remembered the war firsthand. Perhaps still wary of rampant inflation, they preferred greenbacks to their own currencies – the Marshall Plan having made America the guarantor of political and economic stability.

The Berlin wall had gone up just six years before, and the Cold War was at its height. So was the war in Viet Nam.

Thus, the reception we got was a mixed one. Good because America had defeated Nazi Germany and now stood between Europe and the Communist USSR. Bad because the US was seen as warring on Viet Nam for no reason. Moreover, as we learned all to quickly, driving a German-made car in once Nazi-occupied territory could occasion dirty looks and rude treatment in traffic.

Six weeks went by in, well, a flash. We were men on a mission, absorbing the sights in double time, sampling the ambience more like ozone detectors than esthetes, recording images indelibly in our heads. Or so we thought. Neither Mike nor I had brought along a camera, assuming our steel trap minds would retain every detail. Besides, we didn’t wish to be taken for tourists. In the event, of course, we were taken for tourists just the same.

Minox IIIS
For his part, Ken showed better sense. He’d brought a state of the art Minox III-S subminiature film camera – the kind you saw in spy movies – about the size of a pack of Doublemint gum. You could conceal the thing in your hand. Ken was taken for a tourist, too, but certainly not because of his camera.

All told, Ken made some one hundred sixteen photographs of trip.

Yet as we embarked the ferry from Dover to Oostende I began to wonder how Ken would remember his pictures once he got home. He was not taking notes, and it seemed to me that left unidentified, the photos could end up of no value.

Then I noticed him lining up the Belgian flag in a shot over the ferry’s stern. “Good idea,” I thought, “that flag might identify the photo all by itself.”  Forty years later the flag did exactly that, distinguishing the Oostende ferry from photos of two others.

But what about the rest of Ken’s pictures?

After the trip, we each went our separate ways. Over the years, we’d exchange postcards from trips of our own, sometimes to Red Flash destinations that invited a more leisurely encounter. But the Red Flash tour faded from memory.

In 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the tour, I dug out an old AAA tourist map of Europe I’d marked up with the Red Flash destinations and scanned it in order to share it with Mike and Ken. I sent it on DVDs along with some reminiscences. Ken promptly replied with high-grade Xerox copies of his Minox photos – plus apologies for not knowing what a lot of them showed!

Some, like the ones of the Eiffel tower or Copenhagen’s little mermaid, were no-brainers. I recognized the Oostende ferry from the flag on the stern. But after so many years, most of the pictures were simply a mystery.

How to put names to them?

Since my AAA map catalogued our destinations, I began to wonder if a Google image search might turn up identifying comparators from other folks’ trips. By 2005 Google had indexed over a billion images, so it seemed worth a try. And indeed, except for a few cryptic shots from the countryside it worked surprisingly well.  Moreover, identifying a photo this way would usually jog it back into memory, and with that I could flesh out the backstory from, say, Wikipedia.

Yet for some of Ken’s pictures I still drew a blank – as though I’d been zapped with a neuralyzer, that memory eraser thingy from Men in Black (Columbia Pictures, 1997) – even after I’d found out what they were. His images of Chateau d’Amboise** are perhaps the best example. Despite all the reminders, I simply couldn’t recall the place or ever having been there.

What I ended up remembering about these “neuralyzed” (though comparator-identified) photos came mostly from the internet. Any faint recollections called up by the images quickly melded with internet narratives ‘til what emerged was a fusion of the two, trufflems or true-false memories: true because they pertained to my real past experiences; false because their content was drawn (almost) entirely from the internet, not from my head.

Interestingly, once a trufflem takes hold it begins to feel like the real McCoy, not a plug for a hole in your recall. Its as though you’d remembered everything right from the get-go after all! So in a sense, trufflems are like memories of memories or perhaps a kind of pseudo-amnesia.

Psychologists have a theory for my kind of forgetting – output interference. Supposedly, it happens when “the initial act of recalling specific information interferes with the retrieval of the original information [my italics].” Intelligent individuals, it seems, forget more hastily than duller ones, yet still manage to store up more memories that can cause interference – impair recall for specific material. What the theory says, in other words, is “I’m so damned smart I forgot!”

Seems like cold comfort, but it works for me!

As it turned out, Mike, Ken, and I got back quite a lot of the Red Flash tour. Nowadays, when cocktail conversation turns to travel, I shamelessly claim bragging rights to every detail of the trip. Its especially gratifying for anything on my list of trufflems – practically like reading about a place in a book and then declaring you’ve been there. Except, well, you have!

*Left: outbound from London   §Red Flash Itinerary§   Right: return toward Amsterdam

**Aerial view of Chateau d’Amboise showing the vantage points, at opposite ends of the castle, for each of Ken’s two Minox photos. Can you find them?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Bookends – A Pulp Non-fiction Narrative

Shit don't come with trophies, ain't no envelopes to open
I just do it cause I'm 'sposed to, nigga
                                                            Trophies by Drake

Bookends are often symmetrical, mirror images of each other. But there can be bookends for things besides books – your career, for instance, or even your life – and these may not be symmetrical at all.

For years, Manneken Pis stood in the
buff on a shelf in my office. Ladies of the
department eventually swaddled him
in essential blue packing tape.
Consider the bookends to my career, Manneken Pis and Professor Owl.

Everyone knows Manneken Pis. He’s a small bronze sculpture of a naked boy peeing into a fountain, a famous icon of Brussels, Belgium. Designed by Hiëronymus Duquesnoy the Elder, he’s been situated at the junction of Rue de l'Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat since about 1618.

Brussels offers a plethora of bronze-toned, scaled-down replicas of Manneken as souvenirs, and after a series of lectures I gave in Belgium circa 1986, I was made a present of one by my host Dietger and his wife Anaïs. Dietger handed me the trophy as I sat in the back seat of their car, just like that, a sort of Oscar for my performances, I suppose, or at least a memento of my visit. For me it was one of those “Thanks, I think” moments. Yet I was soon to discover even greater reason for gratitude.

Following the simple presentation, the three of us stopped at a Brussels winebar, Les Caves du Sablon, for some libations and convivial conversation. Glasses were hoisted and refilled. After an hour or so we left.

Now, at this point I had only the merest velleity of taking a pee. Since we weren’t far from my hotel – and I assumed my hosts would want to get home – I figured I could hold it.

Once in the car, however, everything changed. Dietger quite unexpectedly – a surprise even for Anaïs, it seemed – announced an impromptu "son et lumière" tour of Brussels after dark as the evening's finale.

I was beginning to feel a little less sanguine about my bladder capacity, but what could I say? Hadn’t I’d just been awarded the Manneken Pis? In retrospect, I should probably have claimed inspiration on that very account and requested a pit stop, but we’d already departed the winebar and by now it was getting late.

I won’t attempt to detail the sites we saw. I didn’t even remember at the time. For by then, you see, I had to pee so bad I was seeing double, responding to the jolly docents’ monologue coming from the driver’s seat with little more than muffled grunts. Dietger and Anaïs, for their part, seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. If they’d noticed my predicament, maybe that was part of the fun!

However, I do (vividly) recall the tour’s final attraction: the Manneken Pis. The little imp stood there grinning fiendishly at me through the back window of the car, blithely going on with his eternal tinkle, well aware of my wretched predicament and probably in league with my hosts.

If you’re in obligatory urinary retention, there’s no torture quite like the sound of running water.

Nevertheless, I made it back to my hotel continentiam intactum. Tottering over a commode that through my stupor bore an eerie semblance to the handiwork of Marcel Duchamp (this is Belgium), I  began to regain some presence of mind and hope that Manneken would someday get prostatism.

Yet Manneken has not only endured, he’s given rise to a whole genre of Belgian excretory sculpture, including Jeanneke Pis, Zennike Pis, and even a couple of leaky goats.

Which is more than can be said for some other Belgian landmarks I visited. In Liège, for example, l'Hôpital de Bavière, a grand old institution dating from the 17th century and one of the stops on my speaking tour, was subsequently abandoned to dereliction, replaced by more modern facilities (complete with trompe l`oeil toilets, I bet).

Fast forward some thirty years to my recent retirement from academics.

Under his wing, Professor Owl carries
The Birds of America by J. J. Audubon.
But to the professor, alas, the book’s
more menu than reference text!
On my way out of office, a small assemblage of colleagues – this time it was a déjà vu moment – presented me with another bronze-toned idol, Professor Owl, who quite unlike Manneken Pis is solemnly clad in academic regalia dating from the Middle Ages and the great horned owls of Oxford and Cambridge. Under his robes, Professor Owl wears lots of feathers, whilst under the feathers there’s surprisingly little of him at all, perhaps making him the quintessential academician.

Yet it struck me that if Manneken and Owl outline my progress from lecturer agonistes to absent-minded professor, they also raise some questions.

Why in the world do folks need passels of trophies, medals, plaques, and awards to celebrate their professional careers? Shouldn’t achievements of any significance be rewards unto themselves?

In ancient Greece, Olympic champions received only an olive or laurel wreath to honor their victories. Today, trophies mass- produced from cheap plastic, metal, glass, and wood pervade life from kindergarten to committal. After finishing high school, my kids had scads of these things – columns, statuettes, and loving cups festooned with ribbons, gold-toned paint chipping off, tinny inscription plates glued to pulp bases – crowding their bedroom shelves.

I certainly don’t object to giving kids tokens of recognition, such as  merit badges or sports letters, that acknowledge their effort and participation. But I do object to today’s plague of lame trophies: cheap junk that perverts the significance of achievement and sends a false message about excellence.

Unless, of course, a trophy's sketchy composition turns out to be quite apposite! The Academy Award Oscars, for example, are ninety-two percent tin.  Maybe we don't need the the Razzies after all.

At the other end of the spectrum are legendary trophies of such renown that merely getting your hands on one would be an achievement. There’s the Arthurian Holy Grail, for example, iconic unto itself. And before that, the Israelites’ Golden Calf Idolatry Prize (which may still be around).

Thanks to mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, the Knights’ Templar solid-gold, gem-encrusted Maltese falcon became the holy grail of film noir.

The Woodlawn Vase, awarded to winners of the Preakness Stakes, is valued at $4,000,000, though you don’t get to keep it.  Same for the four-pound, solid gold Jules Rimet soccer trophy before it disappeared in Brazil.

Because achievements that earn you, say, a Congressional Medal of Honor, Nobel prize, or Olympic gold medal seem indisputably exceptional and beyond reproach, there's usually wide consensus as to  legitimacy of these awards.

But for the rest, especially in academics and the professions, the bestowal of awards too often resembles a groupie back-scratching fest – “Award me this year and I’ll award you next” – amidst no special achievement at all. When one of my sons graduated from medical school, all too much of the ceremony was taken up with a succession of dubious faculty awards, one after another, calling to mind a bunch of trophy-drunk Millennials playing "my turn" musical chairs.

If you’re a professional, why should you be rewarded for simply doing your job, even if you do it exceptionally well? Isn’t that what it means to be professional? To be self-motivated, your own harshest critic? Wouldn't a professional worth his or her salt feel patronized rather than honored by a succession of silly awards?

Forget the trophies and trapping. Encourage confidence and self-respect. Express admiration where its merited. Praise your kids or students for good grades in school or winning the regional championship – and especially for making the effort. Reward an outstanding worker with a bonus or pay raise, not some ten-dollar fake mahogany plaque.

For an old academic like me heading into retirement, though, Professor Owl represents an apt bestowal, almost like having my statue carved. Yet I simply can’t bring myself to venerate the old bird or that rascal Manneken Pis as the totems of excellence they fancy themselves. For one thing, I’m as different from them – I have more brass – as they are from each other. For another, they’re too self-important – one thinks he’s Pisistratus, the other, Socrates. Still, they stand up stalwartly to my books and wink whenever I pass by. I nod back cordially – and believe that’s enough.

Its the thought that counts, after all, as they’re there to remind me.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hamlet’s Ghost - A Postmodern, Postmortem Encounter

The coastal fogs of southern California can trifle with the senses, or so I once believed. But one foggy night in early summer I came to be the wiser.

I was strolling down a sidewalk near Hendry’s beach as has been my habit upon occasion.  It was dark and moonless, the hour late. Sea mist shrouded the land, swirling like wisps of lufted cotton about the orange halogen street lamps, dampening my footfalls. I fancied myself quit alone.

Then through the fog ahead I observed a young man dressed all in Elizabethan garb. Marvelously luminous yet somehow indistinct of form, he gesticulated theatrically and appeared to be declaiming something. Curiosity overcoming fear, I drew nearer and heard what I took to be well-pronounced lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

I made bold to address the apparition. “Who are you, sir? You’re quite an excellent orator.”

The specter gave me a fulsome if somewhat sheepish grin. “I ought be – I’m Hamlet, prince of Denmark. But ev’n I need practice now and again.”

I was completely taken aback. An ordinary ghost was one thing, but Hamlet of theatrical repute?  The Hamlet? 

[Me] “The dickens you say! For starters, Hamlet exists only in the quartos. If that’s not enough, Laertes kills him. And yet you’d have me believe you’re him, declaiming on this beach? 

[Hamlet] I’ve been extant close on five centuries, not only on the page, but also on the stage. This beach is public realm, is it not, so why not here as well?

[Me] Go to! I doubt I’m seeing you at all! You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone…

[Hamlet] 'Swounds, man! You’re reciting from A Christmas Carol. Try to be original!

[Me] (Aside) Such a brittle critic – it may indeed be he! (To Hamlet) Very well, I’ll try but I’m not Christopher Marlowe. Maybe you could at least explain how you came to be here.

[Hamlet] ‘Tis a lengthy tale. In life I was afflicted with an agitated melancholy. Three centuries of the afterlife ‘midst Denmark’s dreary winters did nothing to improve it. Forsooth, I lacked ev’n music to lighten up the mood. “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” was noble Horatio’s last bequest, but no celestial choir did e’er appear.

So close on a hundred years ago I bade farewell to Elsinore and betook myself to Solvang, a town not far from here founded by the Danes where winter is much sweeter – I’m sure you know the place. Sometimes I grow nostalgic and dally at this beach for to haunt a Danish tourist or two – mayhap you’ve noticed how plenteous they be. If ‘tis foggy, I take on corporeal shape – these vapors being a cunning  snare for ghostly vibes. I’faith, when the mist my lively aspect doth portend, I’m the very dog for spooking English majors. 

[Me] (Aside) Still playing the peasant rogue, I see. (To Hamlet) Well, I barely speak Old English, but I’m glad I ran into you. I’ve got a few questions, if I may.

[Hamlet] Don’t expect too much. I’ve looked at life from both sides now and still wot not whether ‘tis better to be or not to be.

[Me] Since I’m not a physicist, we can skip the philosophy. Has the name “Hamlet” ever bothered you? I mean, it makes you sound like a shoat or suckling pig that’s been turned into smoked vittles. Just sayin’…

[Hamlet] Indeed, its always vexed me. Considering the brash speech the Bard puteth in my mouth, you’d think he’d have giv’n me a name with greater pith than “Hamlet” –  Fortinbouche, for instance. He called his own son Hamnet, but did he do ev’n as much for me? Nay!  Fie on’t!  Fie! 

[Me] Now, please don’t get excited. What’s done is done. I didn’t mean to upset you. But be forewarned. The next question may seem just as irksome. Were you diddling Ophelia? Was Claudius? How about Polonius? Inquiring minds have always wanted to know.

[Hamlet] Claudius was a randy rascal who by his wont would fain have foined the lads. Though he tendered her most charitably, his union with my mother was chief for policy. So, too, that lackey, Polonius.  But I’ll say no more on’t for I am a yet gentleman.

[Me] Maybe so, but you didn’t treat Ophelia like one, and after four hundred years I…

[Hamlet] Discretion is the soul of brevity. Move we on.

[Me] Very well. Then tell me what really happens in the play. I mean, what is rotten in Denmark? 

[Hamlet] In sight of all the speculation you might well ask. After my father’s untimely expiry, having received an earful of poisonous rumors, belief took hold of me that uncle Claudius had murdered him, most like by poisoned wine. In the end, of course, ‘twas poisoned wine got Claudius hoisted on his own petard. Naturally, I wanted to kill the blighter and be king myself, but I lacked the mettle to pursue it.

Slave was I to irresolution and to, to…I’ve ne’er e’er before revealed it…to drug abuse. Ay, I was doing hebenon* – henbane to you – an herb of passing psychedelic potency. God fixed His canon 'gainst self-slaughter but not self-medication.  

Yet I waxed more loopy by the day, and Claudius grew alarmed. Matters took a plunge, and it ended in a blood bath withal.

[Me] (Aside) Wow, tripping on scopolamine in the 14th century! Who’d have guessed it? (To Hamlet) Don’t be too hard on yourself, man. You seem to have learned a lot since you’ve been dead, and after four centuries I’m sure you’ve kicked the habit. 

But where’s the rest of the cast of Hamlet? I read recently that Kronborg castle had been swept for ghosts and nothing much turned up. What’s up with that?

[Hamlet] Most, in imitation of my journey, betook themselves to California.

Ophelia resides at Black Bear Ranch i’th’ north. The hippie movement’s dead, of course, but she’s a flower child original and like to thus remain. She prattles on of worldly venture but doth protest too much, methinks.  A commune’s her best station. ‘Tis much in likeness to a convent save for country pleasures. She’s i’to water sports as well, not to mention leaf of hemp.

Gertrude and Claudius frequent divers haunts in Newport Beach. I attend them at their leisure but do not drink the wine.

Polonius, again the counselor, plies sage advice for Ghost Hunters in Sherman Oaks.

Laertes is in Solvang wherest he ghostwrites by a nom de plume.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain on stage, in service of one Tom Stoppard, a scrivener who by my lights is but a shadow of the Bard, Hyperion to a satyr. 

[Me] Hyperion to a satyr? Now its you who needs to be original. Besides, Stoppard’s not all that bad. 

What about Yorick? I’ve always wished I could have known him better – through the play, I mean.

[Hamlet] He was dramatized as dead, and dead he did remain. What more would you oblige? There’s only so much plot manipulation you can do, you know – try to get that through your skull!

[Me] Lord, but you’re testy all of a sudden! (Aside) Could this be the hebenon talking after all? (To Hamlet) What about your father, Hamlet senior… if dare I ask? 

[Hamlet] Old Hamlet’s show was mere hallucination, a vision of the zeitgeist in martial aspect as it were. The boys and I were doing hebenon one night, and we’d gotten passing high. Horatio spied a talking ghost and then we all began to see it. I set to “conversing” with it – i’faith, conversing with myself. The lads did swear ne’er to reveal that I, Hamlet, prince of Denmark, had been chatting up a spook whilst doing drugs on watch. 

By the by, I sense another presence here, a lissome spirit dwelling within you. Mayhap a tot of brandy? (Hamlet guffaws) 

[Me] (Aside) Forsooth, said spirit doth this conversing much relieve.  (To Hamlet) Courvoisier Napoleon if you must know. But I’m glad to hear that a conversation with a purportedly real ghost wasn’t prologue to that soliloquy about “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” – pronounced, as it appeared, close upon the heels of commerce with just such a one! To me, that’s always seemed a little out of joint. 

[Hamlet] Ay, that’s been the rub for many Shakespeare fans, but think no more on’t. The scenes with Hamlet pater were but dissipated drug trips, nothing further.

[Me] I shan’t. Thanks for clearing it up.

I have one more question about the text if I may. Some versions of the play say “Oh, that this too, too, sullied flesh…;” others, “…too, too solid flesh…” Which is it?

[Hamlet] Neither. ‘Tis “…too, too, studied flesh…” Mankind’s e’er obsess-ed been with this mortal coil – the corporeal self. You observe it in the arts, from masterpiece to pornograph. The Bard did express it thus – “studied” – yet the word’s been corrupted in translation.

[Me] Boy, how right he was…is! You should visit a modern hospital sometime.

[Hamlet] But soft! It’s nigh time for my departure. Methinks I scent the morning air.

[Me] Nay, tarry awhile. There’s not a cock to crew ‘round here anywhere, and..

[Hamlet] Ev’n so.

[Me] When will you be back then?

[Hamlet] Tomorrow or tomorrow or tomorrow or perhaps the day after – I know not. But don’t wait for Birnam wood to come closing in.

[Me] Hold the phone! Isn’t that from Macbeth?

[Hamlet] And what if it be?  Is’t not thee who fancyeth mixed metaphors withal?

[Me] I’faith, ‘tis as I like it! Nice to meet you, Hamlet. Hope to see you around.

[Exeunt both]

*The first known toxin with the potential to be lethal when applied topically, i.e., to the skin or ear canal, may have been nicotine, originally described in 1828.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


I do windows.

Several weeks ago, whilst cleaning picture windows in the den, using what I’d taken to be Windex, I began to daydream, to imagine being done and off to something –  anything! – more interesting.

It was one of those dulcet coastal mornings with a light breeze, a gossamer haze off the ocean, and sunlight filtering through Sycamore leaves…big, floppy, smug-looking, patchworks of xylem and phloem that all too often, detached from their moorings, oblige drudgerous cleanups of their own.

Time plodded by, and my bottle of Windex slowly emptied.

Yet it wasn’t the growing ullage that got my attention. Nor was it the brazen alligator lizard that skittered past on the tan-colored stucco, vaulting to the flagstones below like a predacious little revenant from the Jurassic. Nor was it the lurid squeal of Michelin rubber from Frottage Blvd. at Chillido, or the whirr of a humming bird over my head, or even the sodden splat of titmouse poop against the top rung of my ladder.

No, it was the fact that my right arm had somehow gone through the windowpane almost up to the elbow, straight into to the den!

Yet there had come no jangle of shattering glass or clink of falling shards. My arm had simply passed soundlessly through.

From round about where the glass – or what ought to have been glass – met the skin of my half-inserted limb, there emanated an eerie blue radiance like the glow of uranium in a reactor pool, blurring the boundary between skin and glass, serving almost as a kind of gasket or seal. As my arm, nearly of its own accord, pushed further through the pane, the uncanny blue halo sputtered and fizzled as though the traversing skin were striking sparks from a vitreous edge.  

Yet there remained no pain or bleeding, no rasp of shredding skin – only a small sensation of warmth.

FFFFFFFFT -- I yanked my arm back with a start!

The glass, now so clear it seemed to have vanished, was still just visible if you looked at it from nearly edge on. As I gazed spellbound, the pane gave off a single sudden coruscation, jolting me alert the way a mesmerist snaps a subject out of a trance.

Such were the curious events that morning that stirred me from apathy and introduced me to what, on account of its provenance, I shall call glass~ix. What I’d taken for Windex, moreover, proved to be a species of liquid which, when applied to ordinary window glass, produced a most extraordinary effect.

But more of that latter.

To be perfectly candid, ever since moving into this house, I’d noticed something peculiar about the den. Events viewed through its windows, whether from indoors or out-, appeared to be out of sync – an effect like one of those TV movies where you hear the conversation before the actors’ lips start moving.

Whereas sound entered the den unimpeded, the passage of light through its windows was slowed – sometimes to quite a leisurely pace indeed.  For example, you might hear the lawn mower running yet all the while it was the sprinkler you saw at work. On one occasion, when inside the den it was merely late afternoon, elsewhere about the house the time was already past 9:00 p.m.!

Light refraction in an acrylic block. 
Courtesy, Fir0002, English Wikipedia
Glass~ix, it seemed, slowed time for what you saw but not for sounds.

Truth to tell, the preternatural passage of my right arm through the window pane that extraordinary morning came more as reassurance than bother. If the very light of day got no special treatment in the den, why should my arm fare any better? My senses weren’t playing tricks after all!

In the days that followed, as I tried to absorb this uncanny business, I made discoveries anew. Not only were solid objects and light effected by glass~ix, but so were one’s thoughts and imaginings – mental conceptions, of course, being just so much electromagnetism. Bad, muddled, or malefic notions bonked right off the glass or tended to get stuck going through, manifesting as vague smudges or chaotic whorls of dark and light. In contrast good ideas flashed freely by, exciting the blue aura in their passage and leaving the glass perceptibly clearer.

Thus, if one went about the den in a positive frame of mind, the windows became more lucid, and the room brightened. Contrariwise, a dark mood tarnished the windows, rendering them more opaque. Just as those tricky Oakley sunglasses darken in ultraviolet light, so the windows of my den dim in the presence of attitude.

As for the mysterious glass cleaner, glaze, polisher, what-ever-it-was – the stuff I’d mistaken for Windex – it had come with the house, its origin otherwise cryptic. I found it hermetically sealed in a repurposed Chock Full O’Nuts Coffee tin kicking about the garage. But Windex it surely was not. Rather, it was Medix with alcohol-ix, an amazing fluid that polymerizes ordinary soda-lime glass into a type of borosilicate matrix, namely glass-ix, not found in nature or even in stores (including Home Depot).

Though it may be surprising to some, I must confess that my encounter with glass-ix and its apparent progenitor, Medix mit alcohol-ix, has left me amazed and humbled – stronger in the conviction that all things are possible through faith in physics. But for a leap of faith, for example, I’d never have figured out the refractive index for glass-ix:

The best of it may be that by modulating my thoughts, glass-ix in effect liberates me. In the midst of drudgery and toil, it allows me to muse at great length over almost nothing at all, yet not miss out on the dinner bell.

I actually look forward to washing windows now!

                                           Amazing glaze, how sweet the sight,
                                           That saved a drudge like me,
                                           I once was blind but saw the light,
                                          Was bored but now I'm free.

If you’d like to partake of this life-changing experience yourself, contact me*. I’ll let you know when the windows need cleaning. Bring a clean rag and a positive attitude (no Cloud Nine, if you please), and I’ll supply you with all the window cleaner you need.

And, yes, its absolutely free.

*Individual experience with Medix and glass~ix may vary. Open to persons 21 years of age or older.