Monday, October 31, 2011

October Sigh

It has been years since I’ve had any trick-or-treaters come to my door. I keep a bowl of candy on hand just in case, but, in truth, kids think it is just too much effort for too little payback in my neighborhood even in the best of conditions. There are all of 19 houses on my mile-long street (2 miles if you plan to walk up one side and the back down the other. A short hop away in downtown Mendham, kids can score 200 houses in the same distance – and without passing all those scary dark woods full of snorting deer, cackling raccoons, and the occasional (rare but real) black bear. So they go downtown.

It’s not just the kids, of course. It is too long and scary a walk on my road for their parents as well. In my day, so long as we went in a group, our parents shoved us kids out the door and let us fend for ourselves. (In 2011 this is probably considered child endangerment, but then it was the norm.) Nowadays the parents are right there along with the kids, at least until the teen years.

Tonight is hardly the best of conditions. The biggest trick this weekend was played by weather. Snow in October is uncommon in NJ, and seldom amounts to more than a dusting even when it happens. The day before yesterday, a foot of snow dropped on us. In January, a foot would be a major annoyance, but not crippling. On Saturday, the storm wreaked more havoc than Hurricane Irene did back in August. Leaves were the culprit. The trees are full of leaves, most of them still green. All that heavy wet snow clung to the leaves and brought trees down in their thousands, smashing wires and cutting power to millions (including my home). The roads are an obstacle course, and JCP&L makes no promises of restoring all power for a week.

The storm, as always, brought out the admirable and not-so-admirable in folks. In the midst of the snowfall, for example, a lady friend of mine called me from her cell phone. She was stuck just below a bend on a hill on Hilltop Road in Mendham, about a mile from my office. I went over in a Jeep to lend a hand. About a dozen cars besides hers were stuck at the bend (anything with 4WD was fine). A tree was down on the road, but one lane remained open. Several men from the neighborhood were there helping out, and doing a good job. By pushing the cars by hand we could get the 2WD cars past the bend. Four other men and I helped push my friend around the bend. She told me afterward that three of them asked for her phone number, which I suppose was flattering if untimely. (Come to think of it, only the women drivers received any pushes as far I recall.) I hadn’t thought of using the circumstances as a dating opportunity myself, which might show a lack of imagination. Perhaps “Shall I push your car?” works as well as the time-honored “May I buy you a drink?” I haven’t tried it.

In any event, most drivers were grateful for the help, but a few tempted us to push them the other way. One driver in particular was raging because she was blocked by cars in front of her in exactly the same way she was blocking cars in back of her. "You f_____ morons! Idiots!" [Apparently they were idiots for being in the exact same fix as she, but in front instead of behind.] "This is too much! I just can't deal with this!" she shouted at us, as though we all had conspired to make her in particular stuck and miserable. Even though the whining made us all hope a tree would fall on her car, we pushed her up around the bend anyway. Once around the bend, she pumped a self-satisfied victory fist without so much as "thanks” wave. Well, maybe a tree fell on her later.

So tonight, I imagine I’ll be in my dark house (the power is still out) with my black cat. While I’ll keep a bowl of sweets handy, if there is a knock at the door, the candy-seeker most likely will have a fine fur coat, claws, and bad breath.

Where Are the Children with Candy?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

How Do You Say Isqoutm?

On the 3 ½ mile trip between my office and home last night, I counted 53 pumpkins on the lawns and porches of houses. (A couple houses each had a bunch, it is true.) I’m sure I didn’t see them all – I do watch the road sometimes. I haven’t bought one this Halloween season, but I might yet.

Seeds at archeological sites tell us that pumpkins have been part of the American diet for at least 7000 years. The word comes from early English colonists in Massachusetts who couldn’t pronounce the local word isqoutm, so they mispronounced pompion (melon) instead. Pompion derives from Greek pepon (melon).

Pumpkins are used in a variety of dishes ranging from stews to waffles, but most pumpkin recipes are desserts, and pie is the most common of them. I rather like the modern variety of pumpkin pie, though I didn’t acquire the taste from my mom who was revolted by it. She grew up on a dairy farm, and she said the look, smell, and consistency of pumpkin pie was much too similar to cow patties. The original colonial recipe for pumpkin pie, as described on a University of Illinois website, was quite different from the modern one: carve open the top of the pumpkin; dig out the seeds; pour in milk, honey, and spices; stick the top back on; and bake the whole thing in hot ashes. I’ll pass on that one.

Nowadays, anyone who buys a whole pumpkin more likely has artwork than dinner in mind. Carved pumpkins often are said to be an American adaptation of squash lanterns carved by Scots and Irish on Halloween. Historian David J. Skal disagrees:

“Although every modern chronicle of the holiday repeats the claim that vegetable lanterns were a time-honored component of Halloween celebrations in the British Isles, none gives any primary documentation. In fact, none of the major nineteenth-century chronicles of British holidays and folk customs make any mention whatsoever of carved lanterns in connection with Halloween. Neither do any of the standard works of the early twentieth century.”

Halloween did arrive in North America with Scots and Irish, but carved pumpkins in particular seem to be a fully homegrown tradition. When did they first turn up? The pumpkin thrown at Ichabod Crane by the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving’s Halloween-appropriate 1820 tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is usually depicted in modern illustrations as a jack-o-lantern (see a clip below from Disney’s 1949 version), but in the short story Irving makes no mention of a carved face. (The tale, by the way, strongly implies the horseman was Brom, Ichabod’s rival for the hand of Katrina.) Pumpkin jack-o-lanterns aren’t mentioned in print until the 1860s. One suspects they originally were the work of some sly Yankee farmer with a surplus of pumpkins.

Thanks to Halloween, billions of pounds of pumpkins are grown each year, and 80% of the American crop is sold in October. It’s a harmless enough tradition, but, given the ridiculous mark-ups on them in supermarkets this time of year, the jack-o-lantern visages are really the faces of smiling retailers.



Friday, October 21, 2011

Beyond 42

A few days ago, The Dark at the End, the latest and penultimate novel in the “Repairman Jack” series by F. Paul Wilson, arrived from Amazon. There are a couple dozen Repairman Jacks, depending on how you count (the same characters turn up in novels and short stories that are not strictly part of the series). The final one, Nightworld, is due in the spring, and I’ll pre-order it as soon as it is offered. Repairman Jack is an urban mercenary of sorts, though very selective about his clients. Rather against his will, he finds himself working for an otherworldly client; over the course of the series he discovers there is a larger reality “behind the veil” of the everyday apparent one, and some of it is terrifying. Jack’s trans-dimensional universe is very reminiscent of that of H.P. Lovecraft. F. Paul Wilson sports a much more readable writing style, though, and he winks at the reader with dry humor. Even if horror/scifi isn’t normally your brand, I recommend picking up The Tomb, the first book of the series; you might find yourself addicted.

One appeal of the series to many readers, I think, is the “behind the veil” postulate, even though Mr. Wilson himself seems quite the skeptical sort in his nonfiction writings. “People will accept any how, provided they have a why,” Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked, while discussing the problem of value and meaning in a secular era. (I went through a Nietzsche phase back in the 70s. I think a lot of young men go through a Nietzsche phase despite some of his embarrassing shortcomings – Fred generally swam in such a deep pool of wisdom that he really didn’t have a right to wade through shallows as he did in some places.) He had a point, and it may explain why so many folks eagerly glom onto the most amazing conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy assassinations, Princess Di’s death, the Illuminati, the World Trade Center, flying saucers in Area 51, and what have you. The thought that there is some purpose behind it all, even if it’s a malevolent purpose, is less disturbing than the proposition that events, life, and nature are randomness and chaos, with no real purpose at all – that, for all the petty and conflicting schemes of individuals, no one is really in charge. My personal favorite conspiracy theory (see video below) is David Icke’s dead serious argument that alien reptiles are running everything behind the scenes. Repairman Jack’s universe, with its largely unseen motivators with secret purposes of cosmic proportions, is an enjoyable one into which to escape.

I’m a chaos man, as you might have guessed. While there are plenty of real conspiracies in the world, few of them are very secret and even fewer succeed at much of anything. I don’t think alien reptiles or other unseen forces are manipulating us behind the scenes. As for human schemers and motivators, secret or otherwise, even the most powerful would-be puppet-masters are more often pulled by the strings they hold than the other way around. Just ask, for example, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve whether they whelm more often than they are overwhelmed. The problem they face isn’t the Illuminati undermining their plans either – it’s simply a universe where, just by the odds, there are far more ways for things to go awry than to go right.

Fred’s answer to “why,” by the way (later taken up by the Existentialists), is that, if you don’t believe the universe has an inherent meaning, you have to make your own purposes. If this is unsatisfying to some readers, there is another answer available from science. According to Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll, "The purpose of life is to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.” Well, there you go then.

The Reptilian Conspiracy


Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Lousy Theory of Hair

As far as I know, my bathroom mirror isn’t magic. I never actually tested the hypothesis by asking it who is the fairest of all, which is just as well either way; if it had an answer, no doubt it would break itself laughing before saying it. The glass needed no magic, though, to reveal a trip to the barber is in my immediate future. In a way, this is one small thing for which to be grateful. A modest majority of my head hair is still there, and from a distance still looks dark brown. On my last barber visit, however, I couldn’t help noticing that the falling trimmings on balance were lighter than they once were.

“Am I going blond by any chance?” I asked.

“No,” she answered simply.

The reflected shagginess this morning raised a couple questions in my mind, however, for which I can find no definitive answers in the books on my shelves or in internet searches. There are plenty of speculative answers though. It is currently fashionable among anthropologists to classify humans (and all extinct hominids/hominins) among the Great Apes. Why are we the only members of that family with a mane that, uncut, will grow to the waist or longer? Why, at the same time, did body hair all but vanish?

In truth we don’t know. The most common answer for the mane is “sexual selection” – rather like the peacock’s tail. Any peacock that can keep its life-threatening encumbrance of a tail looking good must be healthy and a good catch, so the argument goes, and so the flashy-tailed bird attracts more mates and has more offspring; good lustrous hair says much the same about a human. Maybe. When did the trait develop? Did Neanderthals have long tresses? Homo erectus? We have no idea, but it is rather fun to picture them that way.

There are competing (perhaps complementary) ideas about body hair. Two lead the pack. One, once again, is sexual selection, though it is hard to see what (originally) would have been so attractive about hairlessness, either in a positive way or in the peacock tail encumbrance way. Another possible reason is thermal regulation. In combination with our exceptionally abundant sweat glands, hairlessness lets us shed heat far more efficiently, which would have been a daytime advantage on the hot African savanna. On the other hand, it would have been a nighttime disadvantage. Besides, our baboon cousins live in the identical environment, and are both hairy and maneless.

Didn’t hairlessness just put us to the trouble of making clothes? Apparently not for quite a while: Doctors Rogers, Iltis, and Wooding make a good argument in Current Anthropology that hairlessness dates back at least 1.2 million years. Clothing, on the other hand, may be no more than 70,000 years old. How do we know anything about the timing of clothing? Our friends the lice tell us. The various species of lice are very particular about what species they infect and where. They are specialists. In the case of humans, there are three separate species of lice who enjoy our company: head, pubic, and body. They are related to each other, and using a DNA clock (the mutation rate) we can make a good estimate about when they diverged from each other. Body lice are not really body lice: they infest clothes. They snack on their hosts, but live in the clothes. They diverged from head lice only 70,000 years ago, which strongly implies there weren’t any clothes before then; lice would have adapted to the niche soon after it became available. This is also close to the time modern humans left Africa for chillier climes where the clothes would have been handy, despite the little bugs.

The million years of nakedness and the lice suggest another possible advantage to hairlessness: a million years without body lice. It would have reduced the spread of disease significantly, and disease always is a bigger killer than all the predators, accidents, and wars combined. Is that the real message when people flirtatiously show skin? “Hey look! I’ve got no bugs on me!”


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Curse of Verse

Since the skies they are ashen and sober and the leaves they are crisped and sere (and it is night in the lonesome October of my most immemorial year), it is time to break out Edgar Allen Poe. If you don’t mind, though, I’ll pass on visiting the dank tarn of Auber, in the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. I’m, of course, stealing from Ululume. I don’t revisit Eddie much these days, but Halloween time simply cries out for him. So, once per year anyway, I blow the dust off my 1967 edition of his essential stories and poems, open it up, and let the raven jump out to croak his favorite word.

In doing so once again, a tangential thought occurs. I can’t help wondering what has happened to make poetry so much less significant in the culture than it once was. Oh, there is a vast quantity of it being written. (For the record, my sister, not I, was the poet of the family.) Plenty of young writers know their anapests from their dactyls and have something to say. Their trouble is finding anyone to listen. Literature departments of universities still take (some) new verse seriously, but, outside of this isolated niche, contemporary poetry has little currency. Once upon a time, poets were rock stars. Tennyson, Eliot, Kipling, Coleridge, Browning, Whitman, and their like were famous in their own lifetimes not just in Academe but in the marketplace. Common folk knew who they were. W.B. Yeats was so lionized by the Irish in the 1920s that they made him a Senator despite that little pagan quirk. (How much luck would an announced pagan have running for the Senate in the 21st century USA?) The mystical philosophy of Aleister Crowley, Yeats’ competitor for control of The Order of the Golden Dawn, would not have received a tenth of the attention it did had he not been a recognized poet.

By the end of the 20th century all this had changed. The last time contemporary poetry has had a broad cultural (actually, countercultural) impact was the oft-parodied Beat era. Who was the last U.S. Poet Laureate selected by the Library of Congress whose name a majority of Americans would recognize? I’d venture it was Robert Frost, and that was half a century ago.

The current Poet Laureate, by the way, is Philip Levine. I think I’m being generous with the guess that maybe 5% of the adult American population is in any way aware of him, despite the fact that he is an 83-year-old master of the craft whose published collections have been critically acclaimed for decades.

On the (rare) occasions when I raise this subject in company, I’m sometimes told that modern poets have become songwriters – that the current poetic rock stars are, well, rock stars. I don’t buy it. The 19th century and early 20th century had popular music, too. While the best of it is very good indeed, it’s not quite the same thing. If it were, the lyrics should stand alone as literature, but by and large they don’t. Nor should they. They are intended for a related, but nonetheless different, purpose – though I’ll admit to blurring at the boundaries (some of Bob Dylan, for instance). Song lyrics with musical accompaniment target emotions in a much more immediate and primal way than literary poetry. In an early Tonight Show episode, Steve Allen brought this home in funny fashion by reading Be-Bop-a-Lula as poetry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpxhEoV5IsE .

What has changed in the modern era? I suspect it is that we have ways of expressing ourselves today that simply weren’t available a century or two ago, the movies for instance, and that these fill some of the same role poetry once did – after all, Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and so on are recognized by the public in the same way leading poets once were. Perhaps they do the job better, too, hard though that is for anyone of bookish bent to admit. Well, the old-fashioned versifiers still exist for those who prefer them, so there is little to bemoan in this – unless you happen to be someone trying to make a living from your poetry sales.

Actually, I have a few Halloween flicks lined up for my DVD player, but, just for now, I’ll rejoin Ed among those Bottomless vales and boundless floods, And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods, With forms that no man can discover For the tears that drip all over.


Philip Levine

Friday, October 7, 2011

October Stein

October is chock full of holidays. Among the many are Columbus Day, Leif Erikson Day, and Coming Out Day (that’s the 11th if you’re interested). There is World Vegetarian Day, World Teachers Day, Skeptic Day, and Chocolate Covered Insect Day. The 28th is both Mother-in-law Day and National Chocolate Day (Celebrated how? Buy a box of chocolates and don’t give it to your mother-in-law?) It all culminates in Halloween, which, in the US, polls as the second-favorite holiday of the year. Additionally, there are month-long observances including Hispanic Heritage Month, Polish-American Heritage Month, and National Book Fair Month. Incongruously, it is both National Pork Month and Vegetarian Awareness Month. Not least, it is National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Month.

I suspect collegians are aware of alcohol every month, despite the 21-year-old drinking age. The insistence by older adults that under-21s should abstain is not taken at all seriously by the younger group. It is silly to expect that it would be. On the contrary the demand is counterproductive. Abstinence is a fine choice for some individuals in this as in other matters (I’m a near teetotaler myself), but we run into trouble when we try to impose it by force. When we turn something ordinary into an offence (say, drinking a single beer), we provoke “in for a penny in for a pound” excess instead.

When I was 18, the drinking age in the US varied by state or district. In NJ it was 21, in NY it was 18, and in some places (e.g. the District of Columbia) beer and wine were 18 while hard liquor was 21. By the end of the freewheeling 70s, the age had dropped to 18 almost everywhere. In NJ, a major motive for the drop was to discourage teens from getting drunk in NY and driving back. All this reversed in the 80s, and 21 is now the rule nationally. Raising the drinking age to 21 was intended to reduce alcohol-related road fatalities among young people, and proponents of the change point out that teen road fatalities indeed have dropped significantly since the 80s. The flaw in their argument is that teen road fatalities have dropped by the same amount in Australia, Canada, and the UK where the drinking age is still 18. Stricter traffic enforcement, harsher penalties, and safer cars rather than the legal drinking age appear to deserve the credit.

The prohibition of alcohol to 18-20 year-olds is counterproductive in ways that go well beyond auto safety. Precisely because alcohol is not readily available at any time, the young are very inclined to binge drink (defined as 5 or more drinks at one sitting) when they do get their hands on it. This is the pattern of drinking that is the most likely to lead to accidents, health problems and alcoholism. Bingeing actually was less prevalent than today in my college years when I legally could buy bottles from the liquor store literally next door to the dorm. That observation may be dismissed as anecdotal, but here is one that is not. There is an inverse relationship between consumption of alcohol and alcoholism at national levels; in other words, countries where people drink more per capita (e.g. Italy and France) have fewer alcoholics than countries where people drink less (e.g. Sweden, Russia, Ireland, and the United States).  [See www.peele.net/lib/temperan.html] The reason is that binge-drinking is common in low-consumption countries and rare elsewhere. Two, four, or six glasses of wine will cause no problems if you spread them out over an entire day every day (the Franco-Italian manner). If, on the other hand, once per week you knock back six drinks at once (the Russo-American manner), you are loaded. A 200 pound man will be triple the legal limit to drive.

People are better off when they develop sane and safe drinking habits, but in the US we don’t give young people the opportunity to do it. I understand the reason. There always will be a connection between alcohol and tragedy. There is no getting around that, and it is natural for the rest of us to want to “do something,” even if it is the wrong thing. But Prohibition really is the wrong thing, as much for 18-20s today as it was for everyone else in the years 1920-33. Rather than unintentionally training young people to drink in the worst possible way as we do today, thereby making tragedies all the more common, we’d do better to encourage a healthier and less intense relationship – at a younger age – with the world’s favorite intoxicant.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Unbleeped

Dr. Timothy Jay is a formal expert on cursing – yes, there really is such a thing. (See his webpage at http://www.mcla.edu/Undergraduate/majors/psychology/timothyjay/ .) He says that children are swearing earlier and more often than in previous decades: "By the time kids go to school now, they're saying all the words that we try to protect them from on television." He attributes this to the rise of casual cursing by adults – especially by parents.

This comes as no surprise. I'm old enough to remember when cusses were heard on construction sites, in army barracks, and in locker rooms, but hardly anywhere else. This wasn’t because we consciously restrained ourselves. We didn’t have to. Cussing just wasn’t part of our habitual speech in general company. It didn’t occur to us to do it, any more than it occurs to people today to give the finger in casual conversations. Everyday speech started to coarsen in the late 60s, and the trend has continued ever since. Nowadays the vocabularies of high school girls at the mall and of Marines on drill are essentially the same. OK, not quite: the Marines are politer. As a friend recently complained to me, apparently with no irony intended, “People have gotten so fucking crude, man.”

We now are at the point where cursing is so normal and expected that euphemisms actually have greater impact. A common term applicable to Oedipus, for example, is used, as often as not, neutrally or even affectionately, while the mild “jerk” is almost always an insult.

My own speaking habits remain rooted in the transitional 60s (my “groovies” are long gone, but the occasional “far out” still escapes my lips), but I don’t take offense at the presently prevalent profanity. In art-forms of a certain type, the profanity is an improvement. There is something both silly and distracting in 1950s war movies when, for example, some enraged GI at the front utters no harsher adjective participle than “ever-loving.” Post-60s films such as Scarface or The Big Lebowski sound ludicrous when shown on a free TV channel that replaces all the cusses with innocuous words. The original language of the scripts is appropriate to the characters. If Rapunzel ever gets similar dialogue in a Disney flick, I’ll object, but only because that would be as silly as the speech of the ever-lovin’ 1950s soldier.

My only real reservation about the modern reliance on cuss-words is that the words lack subtlety: they crowd out a richer lexicon with nuanced meanings. They thereby encourage simplistic thought, and we have quite enough of that already. You may recall in Orwell’s 1984, the super-state Oceania is in the process of simplifying English into Newspeak, “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year.” The purpose: shrinking the dictionary shrinks the ability of individuals to think and to express themselves in complex (possibly treasonous) ways. Without any push from the state, we are doing it to ourselves.

Rolling on Three River

The Jerzey Derby Brigade’s A-team, The Corporal Punishers were back on the track in Morristown NJ last night, facing Three River Roller Derby from Elkton MD. Both are experienced teams and well-matched, which made for an exciting bout.

Morristown started out strong. #27 Criss Catastrophe broke free and lapped the pack in the first jam and #157 Maggy Kyllanfall followed in her tracks in the second. For the next few jams the Punishers seemed set to dominate the bout, but Three River soon got its footing and came back strongly with #187 Li’l Red Riot Hood bringing in a grand slam (5-point lap). From there to the end of the bout the score teetered back and forth, sometimes favoring Elkton and sometimes Morristown.

Both teams showed well-coordinated defensive play by the blockers, with Criss Catastrophe frequently playing strongly for Morristown as pivot. Jammers on both teams showed their stuff with grand slams (sometimes multiple) a frequent occurrence. Outstanding for Morristown were Maggy Kyillanfall and Syd Deuce, with Syd at one point lapping the pack three times. For Elkton, #1001 Daizee Haze and #K80 The Green Harlot stood out, with Harlot bringing in grand slams at key moments.

At the end of the second half, with only enough time on the clock for one jam, the score stood at 111 to 101, Three River in lead. This was close enough for Morristown to overcome, and, as the whistle blew, Morristown’s jammer broke through in an effort to close the gap, but the jam was halted as refs called a false start. The jam restarted but this time the clock ran out before additional points were scored. Final score: 111-101, favor Three River.

Morristown's second team, The Major Pains, will be up against the New Jersey Hellrazors on November 5. I plan to be there.