Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cycling in Paris

                                 We spent the last week of August in Paris, just as tourists, celebrating life milestones. I quickly noticed that cycling in Paris is nothing like cycling in American cities. A case could be made for it being the premier large cycling city in the Western Hemisphere. This is not an in-depth study, though. Herewith a set of photos as tentative evidence:

Art bike:
                          A standard step-through city-use bike that is nearly always plain black; but someone went to a lot of trouble to give it a brilliant, unique Jackson Pollock-style paint job. And it gets regular use, as I found it gone some days. Maybe it was on loan to the Pompidou.

The Classic:
                                I include this shot of an ordinary vintage bike just for sentimental reasons; I rode a nearly identical bike for many years in the 80s and 90s, down to the chromed fork, top bar cable clips and center-pull brakes, and I hated having to change. (I did have a better seat post.) I forget what happened to it. Probably stolen. Nice to see someone keeping this thing going indefinitely.

Boulevard de Magenta Bike Lanes:
                               I was so amazed at seeing the Blvd. de Magenta for the first time that I was almost run down by a fast-moving young Parisian on a bike. You will note (if you are a cyclist) that there is a long, straight, well-marked, unobstructed, separate bike lane on each side of the boulevard which is protected on both sides by trees. There is a buffer zone on both sides of the lanes where the trees are planted. Cars stay on the roads, bikes stay on the lanes, pedestrians stay on the wide sidewalks next to the cafés. This was not installed last week; it has the solidity of time behind it. There is the occasional bench in the buffer zone, and bike racks on most blocks.
                               It's almost as if – dare I propose something so outré – as if the French consider cycling to be a normal adult activity on a par with any other, and cyclists to be ordinary human beings rather than depraved thrill-seeking children!
                               I'd dearly love to see a comparable photograph of any street in any major U.S. city. Anyone? 

Bikeshare in Paris:
                                   Named Vélib', it is ubiquitous, heavily used, and ridiculously cheap, considering that the first half hour trip is free, and there's no limit on the number of trips per day. A person could quickly become familiar with the locations of the stations and work it to be completely free after paying the yearly fee of 29 Euros. This would be a huge savings over any other form of transportation besides walking. There are other rate options, such as the one-week rental of 8 Euros, making sense for able-bodied tourists. According to the Wiki, in 2011 the system averaged almost 86,000 trips per day. The bikes are grey, either bland and soulless or tastefully chic, your choice, and I witnessed a wide variety of people using them, in all kinds of attire, almost never with helmets. This system was initiated in 2007. I would have thought that it would be closely studied and imitated by every city worldwide when planning their own bikeshare systems; but that would be painfully logical. To blazes with you, Mr. Spock, you pointy-eared pedant! We'll go to hell our own way, thanks.

The Bullitt Clockwork:
                                  A bakfiets with disc brakes and a Fifties-style modern art cocktail lounge.

Delivery Trike:
                           Give a man a brand-new, heavy-duty machine, maybe with one of those electric-assist front wheels, and what's the first thing he does with it? That's correct: he makes bets on how big a thing he can move with it. In this case it appears that the limit has been reached. Merde!

                                    I saw rather few abandoned bikes compared to the average American city; of those, most had been heavily scavenged. So this stood out as an oddity: a typical step-in town bike, sitting there long enough for the tires to go flat and the pigeons to coat it with guano, and yet it is still fully equipped. Alternatively, it might be an art installation. This is Paris we're talking about. Art lurks everywhere, like young love, ready to ambush you and play you for a fool.

The “Fastlife” Fixie:
                            Elegant, sleek, stylish, yet inexplicably crowned with a torn up ruin of a seat. Minor disguise to discourage theft? Victim of sabotage? Something to do with protesting the evils of globalization? Or a police search for contraband cigarettes electroniques?

The White Foldie:
                          Notice the integral welded rack and the seat with the springs, which the owner locks to the frame.

(in voce Poirot) Observe, mon ami, here we have the Most Peculiar Ménage à Trois:
                               In close cahoots, an inexpensive ordinary, a bakfiets with dwarvish coffin, and a velocipede apparently custom built for a member of some other species. Yeti? Wookie? Steve Buscemi? I regret I could not wait for this trio to emerge from their café.

The Insouciant:
                             Raffish, devil-may care, competent, and with a plywood platform (plate-forme de contreplaqué) securely mounted between the inverted bars. One imagines an impeccably Mohawked young savage briskly striding out of the bookstore with a volume of Marxist romantic poetry stuck in his jeans, clipping into his Looks and warping out into traffic as if piloting an X-wing fighter.

The “Railway”:
                              Probably the most typical privately-owned bike. Chain guard, mud guards, generator, headlamp, rack, wire basket, bell, paint it black. Practicality gone mad!

The “Gazelle”:
                               Poorly named, but with many interesting features: the braking rod below the handlebars, the integral rear-wheel lock, the full chain guard, the heavy duty mudguard, the fancy rear light, the heavy-duty rack, and the frame pump. Stolid, totally reliable, lasts forever. Maybe owned by a German?

The “Sparta Pickup”:
                              Alright, wipe that smirk off your faces, wiseguys. This is the bike that that original Marathon runner – Pheidippides, I think his name was – would have died for if he hadn't died from running so hard. Note the super-duty front rack, the extra-heavy-duty chromed seat springs, the doubled top bar, the fully enclosed chain and the industrial-strength bifurcated kickstand. If you're going for practicality, dammit, go all the way. None of this plywood crap. Spartans – We brake for nobody.

The “Kolkhoff” - For Madmen Only
                                  Okay, let's take the mystique of the Practical Black Bicycle one fucking step too far! Take your time as you scan this magnificent machine. Your eye is irresistibly drawn to the sex toy in the center, on which the cyclist sits and pilots his Mystery Ship. A passenger sits in the back, his feet on the bars (check your shoelaces!), wearing a little black bowler and reading his newspaper; a charmante mademoiselle perches elfinly (there is so such a word) on the seat welded to the front bar, her feet on the bars bolted to the fork and her silk scarf waving gaily in the breeze. It would be nice if she'd tear open her blouse and start waving a huge tricolor, but let's not go nuts. We're trying to get to work and deliver a gross of perfect croissants in the big plastic crate in front before the expresso passes its peak. And when we arrive, we will have a choice between the sturdy bifurcated kickstand or the standard kickstand – unless the latter is actually some kind of antenna that continually reports back to the Central Scrutinizer somewhere deep under Paris. 

Velotaxi at Work:
                           Velotaxis are common wherever tourists might be found; they go fearlessly into traffic. They come in such varied design that I don't think I saw two alike. A fine thing I'm sure, but I wouldn't ride in one on a bet.

Velotaxi waiting for a fare:
                            I have no explanation for this. Perhaps the guy just got this job last week. Maybe he's filling in for his cousin. Maybe the round thing behind him is a grill full of sausages. That would get my business. But the colors! Sacre Bleu! (I picked up lots of French in a week.  It's an piss-easy language.) Unfortunately this was typical of the place: filled with outstanding works of art, gorgeous women dressed in impeccable taste, and all kinds of monuments of great charm and dignity, and, with dismal regularity, things that are exactly the opposite. Ugly graffiti, ridiculous clothing on people other than tourists, establishments selling le cigarette electronique under the moniker Le Crapoteur. Truth. Will supply proof in my essay in preparation entitled Paris Street Scenes. 

The Yellow Delivery:
                                Another very heavy-duty practical bike with impressive racks, but at least it's not black. Two big locks. We did not meet any of the legendary suave and debonair Parisian thieves, but I'm sure they still ply their trade with alacrity and diligence. 

 The Little Local Velovia:
                               Bakfiets for sale!  I didn't actually see any of these orange wheelbarrows in use anywhere.  All the ones I saw looked both more functional and more elegant.  But somebody must be buying them.  Pilgrims from Portland?

To Sum Up:
                        Ah, Paris. Elegant, oblivious women everywhere; small dogs lifting their legs over the bizarre shoes of store-window mannequins. Interesting bicycles on every block. And should you feel for some reason deprived of the refreshing sight of beautiful naked breasts (les beaux seins nus), simply raise your eyes and scan the majestic buildings for statues, and soon you'll find relief. Just don't stumble into a busy bike lane as you are gawking thusly; it would be terribly gauche.

 Typical Parisian university students cramming for exams.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Iron Man of Brackney

                 Hannah and I left our pond, headed north, slogged through mud, briars and deep wet meadow to reach the spring and cistern; I pulled out a few buckets of silt, and we left, veering northwest, off the property, across the road and onto Scott Van Atta's land, through young maples and old apples, the latter locked into a doomed struggle to keep some light, growing tall and spindly, then curving down over to reach open space at the edge of the meadows.

                 Scott died not long ago. He was about 80 and in generally fine health. He still rode his fancy road bike with great regularity, and in the winter he snowshoed his way up the nearby Catskills. At some time not too long ago he had a sort of fainting spell while riding, and went to the doctor, who after careful examination cleared him to ride again, as they couldn't find any specific reason to forbid it. Then he had another episode while riding and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance; he was conscious and joking with the rescue people, and gave them contact information; that night he died in his sleep and could not be resuscitated.

Spring-fed cistern that feeds the pond

                I've known him at a distance all my life; he was a childhood and lifelong close friend of my mother. He lived in a very small house on eleven acres just up the hill from my parents, who retired to the ancestral farm in Brackney, Pennsylvania about twenty years ago. He was a fairly introverted person, apparently, but did show up occasionally, and was an excellent neighbor, always willing to help my parents out. One would not call him a hermit, as such, but his house consisted of one room, a small enclosure holding a hot tub, a deck along the southwest edge of no great extent, and a modest woodshed. One might call it a shack, but it did have electricity and a wood stove, and was well-built and insulated. Hannah and I, walking his meadow, found his long gravel driveway and went down it to pay our respects.

Just as he left it.  Chainsaw, splitting tools, this winter's heat all ready.

                   On our right as we neared the house was an area devoted to splitting large rounds of wood into firewood chunks; on the left was the woodshed, about half full of neatly stacked chunks. The single object leaning against the back of the house was a high-quality bicycle pump. There was no trash, litter or clutter of any kind. There were no windows except the entire southwest wall: an expanse of glass facing the beautiful hills surrounding Quaker Lake. Under the deck behind a low door I could see, through a gap, a large gas-powered snow blower, a wheelbarrow and a lawnmower. There was nothing resembling a lawn, though; he must have mowed immediately around the house as it suited his convenience. I asked Hannah if she saw any books inside; she said no, but then said, yes, there's a stack of books apparently propping up a piece of furniture. There was a large bird feeder on the south side, with two heavy-duty cylinders, and it looked as if the metal-sheathed post was smeared with axle grease to discourage those without wings.  Behind the woodshed there are eight plastic garbage cans full of rainwater.

Patton Road

                Perhaps a decade ago my cousin and I went to visit him at home, though I can't remember the circumstances; he invited us in and we admired the view, and it seems in my memory we said very little, or perhaps it was just Scott who said almost nothing. But we were all comfortable; although the visit was a unique occurrence, the three of us are aborigines, so to speak, of these hills, and there was none of the normal underlying tension one feels with the average human gathering.

Scott's View

                So the mystery of the man himself remains. Was he, as I might idealize him, a sort of Zen master or simple Taoist sage, or, had he just come to resemble such a person through some kind of convergent evolution? The subtraction of things from a person's life can destroy the person, or teach him and change him. He had lost his marriage; his four children had all moved away, though as far as I knew they were not estranged; he did have a female companion though they didn't routinely live together; he had little money, or if he had it he did not use it on worldly goods, except his bicycle. To me he always seemed quietly cheerful and content enough not to have to speak of things general or specific. It's a much overlooked, but nevertheless high achievement: to feel no anxious pressure to chatter, to fill the silence, but rather, to inhabit the silence comfortably – to enjoy rather than fear it.

Haiku for Scott

The bicycle pump
leans against the silent shed;
split wood is stacked high

for the winter he
will not see as it returns
to his hills this year.

The great window looks
southwest and down to the lake,
now an empty stare;

no hungry birds wait
on the empty feeding post
at the meadow's edge.

We remember him
with respect and affection;
yet hardly knew him.

Ancient giants: locust and willow

Let us imagine
a phantom cyclist circling
the beautiful lake.

Scott's deck chair

In another month
the maples will conjure fire
and the last blooms fly;

The insidious Fallopia Japonica

I will walk the woods,
harvest wild apples among
squirrels and walnuts.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Magic Carpet Ride

May 18th, 2014

Remembrance of Geoff, at Carderock.

                It was a fine spring day; the river was high, and Carderock was a sea of mud in all but the central core, from Biceps to the Dream. A crowd of mismatched persons of all types gathered in the parking lot and told stories, passed around old snapshots, listened to an old tape; trying to pin down a man who was widely known and liked, and instantly identifiable, and yet was also elusive, secretive and perplexing when one tried to get too close. He was notoriously averse to having his picture taken, yet many have surfaced, which might or might not yield clues to the man. Not imagining I had fewer years of his company left than I had anticipated, I was never systematic about recording his exploits or documenting him, though I and others often thought we ought to get together and do that. But eventually he became more at ease with my occasional camera, as does a wild animal with the naturalist's camera trained on its watering hole.

                  We stood around and talked, lunched on excellent potluck fare, drank lemonade in the shade, and eventually drifted away; some of us filtered down to the X and did a little very lazy bouldering, and lay around in casual conversation. There was a sleepy feeling, and lack of any ambition; I had brought toproping gear out of pure habit, but made no move to set anything up. I thought about the difficulty of really explaining even the few easier problems I can still remember well. A brilliant tapestry of intricate and beautiful problems, scrolled across a quarter century, lit by delectable sunlight, inexorably fades even as we try to grasp and hold it. What is indelible is the good-natured feeling of our interactions on that gray schist.

                  By weird coincidence, the day after the event Hannah ran across a set of photos in her computer taken in the fall of 2011, of a group of us goofing off at Jan's face. I did not remember them and don't even know who took them. One of them is a group portrait, shown below; and it is remarkable in that Geoff is front and center, smiling, at ease, and I think, finally allowing himself full and appropriate membership, in harmony with humanity, so to speak. Those who spoke of him at the event rightly stressed his very gregarious nature, his basic love of people and his willingness, nay, eagerness to teach and help others; I feel that it took him many years to grow out of, or at least soften, his distrust of others and his need to dominate any contest. I like to think this photo is evidence of that.

left to right: Steve Tise, Andy Bennett, Geoff Farrar, John Gregory, John Ely, Dave Rockwell, Chris Mrozowski.

I couldn't speak at the gathering; I knew that I would embarrass myself with a show of emotion. But if I could, I would have said something like this, clichéd as it is:

                   My name is Dave Rockwell. At a rough estimate I bouldered with Geoff about 500 times.  All men must die. As climbers maybe we are less squeamish about death than some, but it still stings. We've lost a senior member of our expedition, so to speak; and a loyal companion on the steep and rocky climb. We'll just have to continue on without him. But we'll keep close at hand the useful knowledge that he tried to get through our heads: which is that in fact we can solve problems that we're sure are impossible. Like:
                  “Geoff, I can't stand up on this! There's no foothold here!”
                  “Yes you can. Just hold your foot like I showed you and straighten your back. Now: just stand up!”
                    And we did.

                    L. Frank Baum specified that Ozma of Oz crossed the deadly desert, which is death to step upon, on a large magic carpet that unrolled in front of her and rolled up again behind her, as she was drawn in her chariot by the Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger, and followed by her entourage. He probably did not intend it as a beautiful metaphor for life and consciousness itself, proceeding along over the meaningless abyss of the physical world through an inexplicable process of continual creation and amazement, so to speak. On this journey, our companions and our companionship on this strange carpet are everything. The rest is silence.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Wobbling

Cellini's Perseus savagely defies death, time and the domination of magic.
                  There is a general life cycle common to organic systems, from bacteria to mammals, up through evolutionary styles, countries, empires, civilizations, and possibly even the hypothetical/metaphorical organism Gaia herself. We all know the stages of the cycle instinctively:

Impregnation: fertilization/initiation of an unfolding sequence;

Growth: strife/exuberance/expansion to the available maximum;

Spinning gloriously: successful consolidation/stabilization;

Senescence: slightly over the hill, contraction, decay;

Wobbling: a period of increasingly erratic behaviors;

Failure: catastrophic system breakdown, dissolution.

"Ciao, nun."

                     Finally, the detritus left behind furnishes the elements that will assemble into a new organism, either fairly similar to its predecessor, or possibly mutated into something noticeably different, and from that zygote all begins again.

                    We can observe this pattern in many forms in the history of human civilizations, but it is perilous to try to place our own civilization's position in the cycle, because we are inside it, and can not have the perspective and context that a millennium or even a century will bring to future observers. Nevertheless, the knowledge of this cycle is so deeply ingrained in our individual and collective consciousness, that we make decisions and experience feelings every day based on our intuitive estimate of where we are in the cycle right now. And so there is a hypothetical but fascinating group feeling or opinion that we suppose to be out there, that we call the Zeitgeist, or the tenor of the times, or some such phrase. We spend a lot of effort trying to pin down that feeling, taking polls and watching the mighty opinion stream that we now have access to, but it is a lot more difficult to really assess than, say, estimating the flow rate of the Mississippi at any one time.

"and how miserable life among the abuse of power... cop slave!" Graffito in Florence 2008

                      And, is this Zeitgeist, if it were in fact observable, of any actual use? Does it correspond to reality in assessing where we are in the Cycle? Interesting studies have shown tantalizing evidence that crowdsourced wisdom, when aggregated in large blobs and averaged, is sometimes more accurate than expert analysis. Also, in the case of such informational aggregations, there can occur a feedback loop in which an opinion gains strength and through its own existence causes effects that appear to validate it, making it even stronger, sweeping many human brains before it, but not necessarily correlating to or much affecting the actual cycle of the civilization experiencing it. Hence various panics, religious manias, irrational market swings, exuberant fads, and senseless violence by the occasional feebleminded individual or cult tend to reinforce the fear that we are now Wobbling, as the Golden Age phase has lost much of the high-speed rotation that kept it gloriously spinning as we danced. But are we in fact Wobbling? I refuse to assert that we are; but here are some minor examples for your consideration.

From Reuters, 2/9/2013: Amish Leader gets 15 years for attacks

                      “An Ohio Amish sect leader was sentenced Friday to 15 years in federal prison for his role in leading hair- and beard-cutting attacks on members of other Amish communities in 2011.
“Prosecutors had recommended a life sentence for Samuel Mullet Sr., 67, who was convicted of a hate crime in September for orchestrating attacks carried out on six Amish men and two women. Prosecutors said the attacks were motivated by religious disputes between Mullet and other Amish leaders.
“Fifteen of Mullet's followers in the breakaway Amish sect, from Bergholz, who were convicted of multiple counts of conspiracy and kidnapping, received lesser prison sentences Friday, ranging from one year to seven years.”

Throwaway detail carvings among the mismatched materials on a church wall not far from the Leaning Tower.

                   A vignette on the human condition writ small: a dominant male seeks to extend his dominance through intimidation; his chosen avenue of attack, the sexual vigor of his rivals as expressed in hair, a very traditional and ancient method. Samson's strength was sapped, when his woman cut his hair; but his captors neglected to keep him shorn, and eventually his strength returned long enough to bring the temple down, the legend goes. Newly captured slaves and young army recruits are shaved to subordinate them, to separate them from their original strong self-image. Most small, insular tribes have rigid rules of appearance and style, because it is a simple and highly visible means of demarcation – members can be distinguished from non-members at a glance – and because it serves as a marker for the effectiveness of the dominant meme of the group in keeping tight social control. A cadet at any military academy who fails to shave, who neglects the current standards of clean and shiny, will soon be cast out, if punishment fails to bring him to heel. This is all so common that it might startle us at first that Mullet's offense could merit a life sentence; but then we see that his actions were deemed to be hate crimes – far worse than, let us say, the roughhousing of teenage boys, also seeking to establish dominance, holding one down and cutting his hair. The identical motive is not nearly so odious when conflict over religious dogma is absent.

The grand Renaissance fountain in the center of Florence.  The frenzies of a golden age, gloriously spinning amid the chaos of the time.

                             Let us try not to snicker over trivia: that the man's name is also the name of the least stylish of all hair styles, and that in the mug shots we see that, to a man, they would all benefit immensely from the services of a skilled barber, because their hair and beards are all as ugly as so many mud fences. But I speak from the arrogant and narrow point of view of the Roman, who loves a smooth-shaven face and a well-proportioned, elegant haircut precisely because it marks him at a glance as the infinite superior of the smelly, hirsute, inarticulate savages living beyond the pale. In America we mandate not only that all ideologies are to be equally respected, as long as they do no violence to others, but also that hatred itself be suppressed entirely, lest we sink back into the savage mire. But these mandates cannot change our innate drive for dominance, and their suppression becomes just another weapon to use upon each other.

                             Why though is it necessary for tiny groups to struggle with each other? In the context of a much larger society that is prosperous and at peace, it is nonsensical. But our primitive habits of behavior were forged through long millenniums when peace and prosperity was invariably destroyed, either gradually or suddenly, and we were forced to struggle by whatever means came to hand. Instinct will surface even in a Roman, highly educated and indoctrinated in the idealistic hatred of hatred itself. One trigger of such instinct might be the deep feeling that there is nowhere to go, to escape the press of other human individuals and tribes. One can no longer break away from your stuffy elders and head west. Instead one must somehow create some space in the midst of the endless crowd.

Near the Leaning Tower, Romulus and Remus suckle from their wolf mother, absorbing the weird strength that sent that obscure tribe out to dominate all others.

Also in the Post on 2/9/2013: Two more Marines charged in urination case

                        “Two more Marines face criminal charges over a 2011 YouTube video showing members of a scout sniper platoon urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The Marine Corps announced charges against Sgt. Robert W. Richards and Capt. James V. Clement on Friday. Two other marines have already faced court-martial in the case. Staff Sgt. Edward W. Deptola, who pleaded guilty in December, was reduced in rank to sergeant and fined $500.”

Hunting along the crumbling balustrade as weeds grow in the cracks.

                     Here again, a far more primitive behavior, with its roots in arboreal primate evolution. Monkeys throwing shit to discourage enemies could evolve easily into the human custom of expressing total contempt for enemies by urinating and defecating on their corpses. This behavior unnerves modern man, trained to think of his own species as having some irreducible value; when circumstances become sufficiently competitive, though, we kill each other, and in order to be able to do that difficult thing, the individual needs to erect a barrier against any feeling of community with his enemy, and so the act of contempt, not only in the physically disgusting aspect but in the disregard of all normal social barriers, redefines the enemy as being of a different, non-human species – a process of redefinition pursued routinely by many other means as well. Of course the enemy becomes, not an animal, which could be respected in some way, but a sub-human, the wretched mirror-image of ourselves as degraded savages – an image that we fear as a part of ourselves, and therefore seek to cast out onto some other tribe – preferably one whose land and resources we need. Hence are the Jews called baby eaters, and all the other million idiotic permutations of hatred bloom in red riot. A small boy points a finger at another child and says, “Bang.”; he is reported by school personnel and arrested by police – another increasingly generic news story, reflecting deep-seated fear of the violence simmering below.
                        So the staff sergeant was busted down to sergeant and fined $500. After all, as war crimes go, this was pretty small beer. Had he instead cut the beards from the corpses and hung them from his belt like a Comanche, perhaps he would have merited a more serious punishment.

"I love you Mom / Burn the prisons"

                        The other day the Post printed a generic letter from a self-identified avid birder as a coda to the recent kerfuffle involving research done on just how many small animals are killed nationwide by cats, domestic and feral. The letter writer went further than the usual demand that all domestic cats never set foot outdoors; he also demanded that all feral cats be killed. This is a refreshingly honest (though painfully stupid) manifesto. It perfectly encapsulates the innate attitude of the world's hyper-dominant predator species. The moment we were able to utilize our thumbs to good advantage, to use projectile weapons and clubs, we made it our policy not just to hunt game, but to kill predators. We quite naturally wanted to maximize our own food supply and remove ourselves permanently from the list of prey species; hence we killed all predators but the few that we could suborn for our own use: the dog, the cat, the falcon, the occasional ferret or mongoose. After farming was developed we also did our best to discourage species that 'steal' our grain; cats and small dogs came in handy for that.

A member of the world's Hyperdominant Predator species, with his feline ally.

                        This policy of total ownership of nature results in profound changes, of course, with many unintended consequences. The bird lover cares little for our immense destruction of natural habitat and climate, or the chemical problems inherent to the immense machine culture that tends to all human needs; he just wants his pretty birds to thrive, and not suffer the 'cruel' death by predator that has always been the lot of a goodly majority of all the birds that have ever lived. Birds reproduce very efficiently; all they need is ample food and suitable habitat, and they will easily stay ahead of the predations of feral cats, or indeed all cats. Something – either predators, or pollution, or starvation – must remove a substantial number of offspring before they reproduce, or the system goes haywire, with greater cruelty – the blind mechanical boom-and-bust cycle of unbalanced ecosystems, and indeed, of civilization itself. This will eventually apply to us as well as to birds and to cats.

Sugar - a small, affectionate female who killed five rats last spring - that we know about. She played with one rat corpse so enthusiastically that it ended up inside the piano.  Were we horrified? No.  We laugh every time we think of it.

                        In theory we, who consider ourselves 'sentient' and allegedly 'sapient', could deliberately avoid this imbalance; but we just cannot bring ourselves to do it. With infinitely resourceful rationalization we try our best to save all those nestlings, and give birth control to the deer, and to bring all human zygotes to term and a long life no matter what, and excise hate from the human heart by fiat. We simply cannot bear to face the truth, and because of that we remain afraid and savage at heart. I still have not decided whether it is better this way. A rational and stable society would perhaps be unrecognizably weird after a few centuries, and perhaps all sense of an expanding future would disappear; we would no longer dream about interstellar flight, or faraway worlds.

Gatepost at the Verrazano estate.  The foundation stones of the winecellars were laid down roughly a thousand years ago

                        Nevertheless, this is my manifesto, however ridiculous: that scientific method should become the official standard for all knowledge used in public policy. Not superstition, not faith, not emotional conviction, not anecdotal rhetoric, and not political ideology. I realize that the logistical problems of my proposal are formidable and vulnerable to infinite political distortion; nevertheless, the world has inched, ever so slowly and painfully, toward this standard for roughly the past 2500 years. I might take heart in the decomposition by attrition of the Catholic Church, but offsetting that is the strong religiosity of America, the nation most dependent on science to maintain itself, and also offsetting is the decline of rationality in public education, and the apparent ascendency of ideological bias in education both public and private. Is anyone measuring these factors? I would assume so, since we measure just about everything nowadays. But how can we officially encourage rational thought and establish a hegemony of the scientific method, without triggering the revolt of the Mullets, and all those others who cling to their emotional mainstays no matter what?

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, also more than a thousand years old, has been rebuilt several times after Arno River flooding; the two central supports may be original.  In the center of the span is the bronze bust of Benvenuto Cellini, ready to challenge all who pass by.

                       As has been amply noted by many brilliant thinkers, a hegemony of scientific method can just as easily lead to dystopia as to utopia. Without a clear vision for the type of life we would like our species to lead on this earth, science is no better steered than the rudderless ships of religion and totalitarianism. Such a vision should place paramount value on this earth itself, and let the yearning and striving for an eternal Heaven go. What is a good life for a human on this earth, and how could it be made possible for most of us? And this is a more difficult question than those that can be answered by science. I'll save my speculations on that for a later essay. Meanwhile I've got to pay attention to the amusing gyrations of the Wobbling.

I can't think of any caption for this iron ring.  It stands alone.

Disorder in the house
The doors are coming off the hinges
The earth will open and swallow up the real estate

                                             - Zevon/Calderon

The poor guy in Florida who just got swallowed up by the earth in his own bedroom – and his brave, ever-lovin' brother who jumped in after him in a futile rescue attempt; the fault of our faltering civilization, or just a natural tragedy like any other? Every death is a sudden swallowing of a singular, irreplaceable world inside that arching skull. How could we not be uneasy? The wheels on the bus go round and round; and one day they start wobbling and falling off. Hang on tight, kids!

Somewhere there in the distance lies the Future.  Look hard.



About Me

My photo
He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring'd with the azure world, he stands. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.