Friday, July 24, 2009

Supply and Demand

Yesterday, as I watched a woman boarding the bus, I had an insight about the endless supply of trespass and the universal demand for forgiveness.

The woman dropped a coin as she was getting her ticket. The coin hit the floor and unfortunately rolled right out the door. She didn't realize it, but she as searched in vain for it then dug in her pocketbook for another coin, she was inconveniencing every person already on the bus with the delay. Or was she?

It occurred to me while watching this scene that, in fact, the inconvenience, or trespass, if you will, may or may not have been felt by the other passengers. Some passengers--nodding off, looking out the window or reading--hadn't even noticed. Others who were in no hurry were not inconvenienced because it caused them no delay. The more I thought about it, the more apparent it became to me that inconvenience, trespass or insult can only be perceived by those who are already so disposed to feel that way.

In other words, the injury I am caused by someone else's action or inaction is entirely self-inflicted. By ignoring the situation or simply by turning away, I can avoid the needless self-mutilation that such thoughts bring about. Or, even better, I could realize that such trespasses against me are worthy of forgiveness so that those against whom I trespass unwittingly every hour of every day may choose to forgive me as well.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On a Mission From Lynda

Though it was long overdue and I had my uncertainites at the outset about the underlying reasons for performing the act, on a sultry sweat steeped July afternoon in Shreveport Louisiana, Stephen and I laid Lynda to rest on the grave of her first husband, Jack Smith.

My doubts had to do with the seeming contradiction between Lynda's lifelong religious affiliation and the fact that she expressly ordered me to have her cremated long before her death was imminent. As Jew, she certainly expressed a desire to be a part of the community and so accepted many aspects of the religious practice of it. But she could--and did--pick and choose among the requirements, or restrictions if you will, that suited her logic and temperament.

On the latter, she could ignore the language of the service because it didn't suit her to learn or even understand Hebrew; transliterations were sufficient. And as for logic, well, keeping kosher didn't make any sense to her, so keep kosher we did not. Filling up land with dead bodies didn't pass the logic test, so cremation it was to be.

My father also was clear about being cremated, and we scattered his ashes in England shortly after his death in 1981. It wasn't until after Bill's death that Lynda added the part about having her ashes scattered on her first husband Jack's grave.

So it was that Stephen and I set out on the morning of July 9, with Lynda's ashes--most of them, anyway--in a tupperware container in a box the back seat, right next to the cookies and soda. it seems a little ignominious when I say it that way, but honestly, Lynda never minded sitting in the back. She always had that element of 'Miss Daisy' who preferred to be chauffered about, and I was always happy to accommodate.

We could have driven stright through to Shreveport but we planned the trip to include a stop at my friend Henry's house in Nacodoches, which is in far East Texas. There in the midst of the piney woods and rich red soil he and his wife Glenda have a wonderful country home. Though Henry complains of the nuisances that all the 'critters' (squirrels, armadillos and moles, just to name the top three) give him, it's clear that he enjoys the luxury of the countryside, with the quiet, fragrant and most invitingly cool refuge that it offers.

After many days and weeks of record temperatures here in Austin, it was a delight to spend some time in the cool of the woods. We even went out back and shot his pellet rifle and 22 rifle just to say we'd done the country 'thing'. It certainly brought back a lot of memories from my childhood, when all we did from Saturday morning till Sunday night was hang out in the woods and shoot our pellet rifles till we ran out of ammo.

The next morning, however, it was time for Stephen and I to fulfill our 'Mission from Lynda'. We set out for Shreveport around eight and pulled into the sleepy little Louisiana town just before noon.

The cool from the East Texas woods had vanished the moment we crossed into Louisiana, which seems to be on a time zone that is about fifty years behind the rest of us. The roads themselves advertise the transition. Stephen shuddered and I drove very carefully.

We found the Greenwood Cemetery right away, but I wanted to get some flowers, so we circled back into town and asked where we could find a florist. The clerk at the Embassy Suites or wherever it was that we stopped merely did a Google search and printed the results for us. No map, no directions, but we found it nonetheless, using the Google map on my phone.

The front door to the florist was locked, but as I turned to leave, a woman in a suburban out front stepped out to let us in and sell us some flowers. When I told her what they were for, she gave us a wonderful bunch of freshly cut flowers, including one very bright and large sunflower, for just ten dollars.

Flowers in hand, we went back to the cemetery. Here's where my lack of planning got us stuck, if only briefly. I had assumed--and I know what 'they say' about assuming--that there would be an office of some kind at the cemetery. You know, somewhere where they have maps of the cemetery and and can look up the location of loved ones for visitors who show up not knowing where they are going.

Nope, no such office exists. There isn't even a map posted on the wall at the entrance. We drove around, aimlessly for a bit, hoping to find someone working in the cemetery that could give us a clue. Nope no such workers were present. And it makes sense, really. This cemetery is no longer active, which means that it just doesn't have the number of visitors that warrant an office, and since there are no new graves being dug here, there isn't even a groundskeeper on duty.

I made a couple of calls to local funeral parlors and found out that Greenwood Cemetery is now owned by the city of Shreveport, but that didn't get us any closer to Jack's grave. Then I remembered that Anne had been to visit the graves as an adult, so I called her to ask if she recalled exactly where to find them. Exactly, no, but in a general sense, she knew where they were. After a short search with this new information, I found the graves.

There are three graves side-by-side next to a tree in one of the oldest parts of the cemetery. Jack was first to pass, and his headstone is right next to a tree. Large today, it must have been just a sapling in 1946 when Jack was laid to rest. To the left of Jack's headstone is his step-father Lester's, and next to him is the marker for Jack's mother, Anne.

I know that Stephen had been here before and that there was considerable emotion surrounding this visit, but for my part, I felt strangely detached. It's a complex subject, Jack's death, involving as it does the issue of how I even came to be here. However I look at it, no matter how Lynda felt about him, I do not mourn Jack. I don't begrudge Lynda for loving him more than Bill, for Jack had the luxury of dying long before he could come up short of her expectations. That's simply the way it was when I came in, so to speak.

I did expect to honor her final wish, however, no matter how I felt about Jack, for this was something that seemed to transcend the issue of two fathers and addressed, perhaps setting to rest, finally, the issue of Lynda's true love. She missed Jack every day. This I know because I saw it or heard it many many times growing up. To be sure, her public display of heartache diminished with the years, but consider that when I asked her, in the months leading up to her death, what she'd done with the wedding band that Bill had given her, she said she'd sold it or given it away 'years ago'. The wedding ring that Jack gave her, however, was something she saved and passed on to her granddaughter when she was married.

We laid the flowers on Jack's grave and Steve began to scatter the ashes gently, letting the wind carry the soft bits away while raining down crystals of Lynda on the dry earth at our feet. I join him, scooping out the fluffy grey ashes that looked for all the world like moondust and passing it between our joined hands as she returned to the earth.

I cried for the first time since her death.

In this act, at this moment, I became more keenly aware of something I learned from Pierre's death. It was in fact the very motivation for making this trip to deliver Lynda to her final resting place. Even if I personally do not wish to be buried, I see now the value--and a very ancient human value it is indeed-- of putting someone to 'rest' in a specific place. The act of burial, or immolation, or scattering takes place in a place, and that place is not so much for the passed but for those who remain, those 'horsemen' who are just passing by.

I doubt seriously that I will ever return to Greenwood Cemetery in Shreveport to 'visit' Lynda, but it good to know, in a sense, where she 'is'.

Bye Mom.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Fiber News: You Read it Here First

I am not sure if I enjoy this feeling or not. Once again, in reading the news, I see that part of my vision for the future is already coming true.

A while back, I suggested in this very journal that nanotechnology would lead to computers made up of fibers. Well, here it is, one of the first examples of how this will work: a fiber camera.

So, Dear Reader, you may rightly say that even though you may now read about it on Discovery, you really read it here first!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The End of an Era

It is a sad day indeed, my fellow monks. Today in Ulm, a 'publisher' has announced plans to produce a book. Not The Book, mind you. Just a book.

How did this happen?

Many of you are already aware of the crisis that grips our noble profession from the Urals to the Fenlands. Many of you have already felt the effects of the many scriptorium closings and downsizings that are sweeping our feudal territories. Every day, the riders bring fresh news of another abbey in peril, another group of loyal scribes cast out in the cold with no market for their highly honed skills, another cut in the livelihood we have known for so many centuries now.

Where is the culprit? Some say it is Lucifer himself, come to the earth to destroy the livelihoods of the faithful copiers of The Book. They say he has come to destroy those who have for so long labored under the most difficult of working conditions in order to preserve the illusion of an unbroken line from The Book back to the ancients--whose writings we revere even as we manipulate them--to serve our Lord's needs and wishes.

Some say it is the economic depression of the past eleven hundred years that makes it difficult for the scriptoria to survive in these uncertain times. We know this to be false, however, for even as the entire economy of Europe has been crushed by the collapse of the Roman Empire, the fledgling scriptoria found a niche that they have preserved till this dark day.

The need for providing the same information, faithfully copied (except for the few tell-tale 'mistakes' included to provide dating information for later generations of scholars) over and over has not substantially diminished. One can simply never have enough hand-written copies of The Book.

And yet, change is coming. It is, perhaps, dear devotees, already here.

If the truth be known, the real culprit, the real reason that scriptoria are struggling to survive in the market today is the invention of the printing press.

Yes, that wild and wacky device that we thought would only be good for printing Book illustrations, pernicious pictures and soap advertisements appears to have caught on as an easy-to-use tool for anyone who can put three words together in a sentence and wants to see those words in print.

No longer does one have to join the Church, become celibate and live in cold, isolation and poverty in order to see their words in print. Now anyone--even females--can 'print' up hundreds or even thousands of copies of anything!

Worse, they can write even more and print that up as well. Where are the social barriers that kept the scriptural tradition alive and safe? Sure, literacy is still a privilege of the wealthy, but God knows their numbers are increasing as the Feudal system begins to collapse. And, while it is true that members of the new literate class still have to learn to read and write, where are the controls on the distribution of their works? There are none, alas.

Oh sure, these guys started out by printing The Book, but how long will it be before they are printing political messages, love poetry and--that cursed dog from hell--fiction? Some writers have already taken to writing epic poetry in the vernacular. Where will it end? We already have troubadours. Can science or novels be far off?

One Abbot--who declined to be named for this story--went so far as to say that "now, the focus is on promoting new 'writing' and creating secular 'journalists' while ignoring the value of scribes who have spent years honing their craft."

"It's not just the recession," he said, "A way of making a living is going away."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Fifteen Books

This collection was inspired by a challenge that my brother David recently put up on FaceBook. This post is for those of you who might find this interesting but are not on FB...yet!

The idea is to put down, in just fifteen minutes, fifteen books that "will always stick with you". Here are mine:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

This book changed my life. I read it at a very critical juncture in my personal and intellectual growth, when I was 23 and desperately searching for meaning. I loved the story but didn't 'get' the philosophy until the second or third reading. I was so taken by this book that I made Lynda read it and was most disappointed when she was not as impressed as I was. Still I find things to learn about 'reality' and myself every time I re-read it, which is about once a year.

The Bible

I went to an Episcopalian school for the first six grades, and not only was Chapel a mandatory 'class' on Wednesday mornings, we also had Bible study as part of the curriculum. I loved hearing the stories of the patriarchs in the old Testament and the Parables in the New. Later, studying Art History in college, I came to discover the Psalms and of course, Revelations. I have two Bibles on my dresser. One was Lynda's, given to her in 1925 and so inscribed; the other was Valery's grandmother, Dorothy's. This is an illustrated bible, and while I find the pictures in it interesting, my real fascination is with the use of words in the Bible.

In Flanders Field, by Leon Wolff

This book was the crucible in which my commitment to pacifism was formed. Though in the face of life's cruelty I have perhaps softened that commitment, recalling that 300,000 men died in a single day during World War I is still enough to rouse in me ferocious anger at those men who would so willingly and callously sacrifice the best and the brightest of their time for so very little. After reading this, I was convinced that all war dead were so taken in vain. It was also the time of the Vietnam war, and there was some question of whether or not I would be drafted, but my convictions were not formed of fear, but anger.


Wow, was there ever a better horror story? Has Alien or Psycho or Jaws ever really scared anyone more or, for that matter has any story scared more kids down through time? Lynda read this to me at some point, and I have not forgotten my initial mental picture of Grendel: teeth and claws, bright red eyes; a vicious fear that is re-awakened whenever I re-read this. I have a comic book version but it is the one that a professor read to a class in the original Old English that most sticks with me.

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupery

And, was there ever a better love story? Actually, I am still trying to understand the meaning of this wonderfully simple tale. I read it, think I understand and know that I still do not. I am not daunted by this, merely encouraged to read it again with the eyes of a child. I am still trying.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I feel as if I actually lived in 19th century Russia for a time in my early twenties. I read this for a class, then re-read it over the summer just because I felt it was too short. I've never encountered a denser, richer, more engaging piece of fiction, and God knows I love Dickens, who doesn't even appear on this list...yet.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, by Marshall McLuhan

I am still reading this. McDonald Smith gave me a copy when we were seniors in high school but I didn't 'read' it till I was in college the first time, in my early twenties. I thought I got it back then, and it was an important revelation, but as I re-read it now, I realize that I am just opening my eyes to the transformation that the electric field is currently (get it?) causing in our society.

Selected Poems, by W.B. Yeats

Yeats is my favorite poet of all time. Sailing to Byzantium is my favorite poem. I keep this book by my bedside.

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Here's one I haven't re-read in a long time. I read it in Paris, while hanging out in the Cafe Select and Le Dome in Montparnasse. No, I never made it on a fishing trip to Spain, but in 1976, I experienced what may have been the very last vestige of the Paris that Hemingway lived, and his writing inspired me as it did a generation before. I'm afraid I didn't emulate him that well as, alas, my prose still suffers from 'too many words'.

In Bluebeard's Castle, by George Steiner

Dense engaging prose that led me to re-evaluate my cultural heritage (ie Jewish) and set a standard for the quality and clarity of thought that my own prose should emulate. That hasn't happened, yet, but one of the essays in the book, along with The Gutenberg Galaxy and Snow's Two Cultures form the axes of a theory of literary criticism that I am developing.

Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White

I was devastated when Charlotte died. Really. I have never mourned for a fictional character in quite the same way again.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson

I'll admit, reading this book made me want to do drugs. Lots of drugs. More drugs. Different drugs. Seriously I cannot remember laughing longer and harder while reading a book. Just thinking about the over-pressurized tires on the 'White Whale' makes me chuckle. And does anyone know where I can get some adrenachrome (sp)?

Jaws, by Peter Benchley

Talk about a page turner! I was waiting for the bus to go to work while reading the scene where the scientist gets eaten by, well, the shark, and missed it--twice. I may have read the whole book that day. The movie, good as it was, was, of course, lame by comparison.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

One of my most recent reads and among the most inspirational books I have ever read. Bryson's ability to make even the most difficult scientific theories and subjects readable and relevant instantly inspired me to read more about science. I came away from this book believing in the power of original thought and possessed of the notion that I too am capable of it.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes

This book has an impossibly long title for a subject that is really pretty simple. Jaynes is not the most rigorous of scholars, but his argument is so compelling that I can overlook the similarities with many crackpot socio-linguistic theories. It seems a shame that the work is overshadowed by less adventurous empirical theories, and it may well be recovered as we learn more about the brain from magnetic imaging.