Wednesday, September 27, 2023


Asteroid City

Wes Anderson may have set out not to make an unwatchable film -- his latest is quite watchable -- but to make an all but unreviewable one, because his style so overwhelms its substance.  It is set in a tiny western desert town loosely based on Roswell, New Mexico, in the 1950's (not the 40's, when Roswell's alien crash is said to have happened).  The town has drawn brainiac children and their parents from far and wide for an annual science festival and competition when it has its own encounter with an intrusive non-human intelligence.

The film is shot in unnatural but soothing pastel colors.  The effect is like walking down the aisles at a Toys R Us before that chain went out of business.  It's a world seemingly made out of plastic, but it's not an animated one; the people are real. 

And what an assemblage of people!  Perhaps not since "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" in 1963 have so many prominent names been persuaded to share the screen.  In alphabetical order -- Adrien Brody, Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Willem Dafoe, Hope Davis, Matt Dillon, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton, Margot Robbie, Tilda Swinton.  Wes's powers of persuasion must be enormous; Scarlett is said to have agreed to take the role for a salary of about $16,000/month.

If the film is about anything, it seems to be not about then but about the post-pandemic now.  The father of one of the boys and the mother of one of the girls, who is a movie star within the film, played by Scarlett, fall in love in a manner of speaking, and so do their children, but in both cases it's a certain pronounced and acknowledged emptiness that binds the couples together.  

God forbid there be any affect.  When the actress offers to rehearse a scene of full-frontal nudity for her opposite number, who is just getting to know her, the idea barely registers on his face.  He mumbles something that turns out to be "yes."  The movie then mocks itself by showing Scarlett in the altogether for just an instant, and in a mirror image, a frame within a frame within a frame.

Indeed, one critic has said that "Asteroid City" is about frames precisely -- our inability to escape the multiple frames in which we live.  I think that it might better be said that it is about filters, technological, psychological and cultural, that insulate us from true feeling in our new world, where only fools dream of authenticity.  We inhabit now a place of supreme irony, but also of supreme isolation and numbness.  And this we find to be good fodder for meta, meta comedy.  We stumble about Plato's Cave and see our surroundings through a glass but darkly; we smile nevertheless in smug sophistication.

Saturday, September 23, 2023


In the Hour of the Wolf Last Night

I awoke from a dream that was relatively benign.  In the dream, I was at PwC, chatting informally with some colleagues, in the office of the managing partner.  (He himself kept his back to me whenever he spoke.)  When I looked out the window, I could peer down onto the playing field at Fenway Park.  A game was in progress, but it wasn't baseball, rather some new and stylized form of warfare.  (I know that there is no such prospect of Fenway in all of Boston; the concept must have bubbled up from a visit I made years ago to Baltimore, where there is a PwC conference room with a spectacular view into Camden Yards.)

If my dream seemed benign, my waking state thereafter was not.  Everything in my life, from my physical and mental condition, to my dubious personal habits, to my relationships, to the horror of the upcoming presidential election, to the geopolitical stage -- especially the evil spell that has come over Russia and its people, to the Crack in the Cosmic Egg, seemed immersed in a viscous fluid of noir.  

Who or what could relieve me of this?  I thought about reciting Christ's mantra from the cross -- "Into thy hands I commend my spirit."  The thought would not be authentic, but then again, don't the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy say that it doesn't matter whether you believe it or not; what matters is that you repeat it!?

In the end, I did not recite it, but sleep once again overcame me, as it always does.  I dreamt a second PwC dream, one more thematically mainstream.  I was in a rush to get to the airport for an important flight.  In my haste I realized that everyone watching me descend on the escalator down into the subway could see that my pants were on backwards.

Friday, September 22, 2023


My Little Skiff

In the course of just ten September days:  At her mooring, lashed but unfazed by the outer bands of a major hurricane.  Working furiously to disgorge herself of three inches of rain, fallen in a single day in a separate storm that was all but unremarked on shore.  And finally headed home for the winter, making the only ripples on a sea of perfect tranquility, at the peak of a nine-foot tide, the buoys and the blades of marsh grass barely keeping their heads under a stark, iconic afternoon Ipswich light.

The changing faces are a tonic, an I Ching for me and the mariner masses.

Thursday, September 21, 2023


"Awesome" In Its Original Meaning

Beauty can be so intense and powerful that instead of inspiring delight, it inspires a particular kind of fear, especially in the faint of heart.  I count myself among the faint of heart.  The heart grows fainter with each passing year.

The summit of Mt. Washington on a clear fall day.  Tahoe from a tight-turning sailplane.  The debris field of the Titanic from a diving bell.  Bikini Atoll at the moment of thermonuclear ignition.  

Standing at the base of the black obelisk depicted in "2001:  A Space Odyssey."  And what amounts to the same thing -- being, finally, "In the Presence of the Lord."  One cowers and turns his back like Igor under the lash.  Others, the bodhisattvas, proceed in serenity, leaving us behind.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023


I Am Ungrateful By Temperament

Rather most times bitter and resentful.  And yet, when I lie in bed with the windows open, listening to a gentle rain as it falls on the north and the west sides of the house, listening stereophonically as it were, I am grateful to be embedded in it.

It was Wittgenstein who said that the religious feeling is a feeling of perfect safety.

Monday, September 11, 2023


A Point Worth Pondering

"Plato's cave is not an allegory."

                -- Prof. Diane Pasulka

Saturday, September 2, 2023


Infinity, Impugned

I have a friend who is hostile to the concept of infinity.  He challenges everyone to find an instance of it in reality.

I fall back on infinity as a mathematical concept.  (In math all things that are within the rules are possible.)  Take a long piece of string.  Sever it in the center.  Throw away one half.  Sever the remaining half in the center.  Ad infinitum.  As long as your tiny scissors, your visual acuity and your underlying tremor cooperate in the exercise, it will never end.

I feel that when I do things now, things from which I derive pleasure, like visiting a lake, or organizing an interview with an admired judge, I am trying to sever the remaining piece of the string, with the further conceit that the very process of severing it will forestall getting to the end.  But we know that in reality the curtain will come down in the middle of the play, my little game erased along with everything else, simultaneously.  Which is why I am in a hunger for some sign of transcendence.  Transcendence is elusive.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023


A New Cosmology; A Deeper Abyss

Ten years ago things were very different.  I had not yet reached senior status.  COVID had not wreaked its havoc on us and changed the world, permanently.  Most importantly for purposes of this entry, the New York Times had not published its seminal article, in December of 2017, implying if not stating that we share this globe with other, non-human forms of intelligence.

Ten years ago, I held views about life after death that were fairly conventional in my cohort of hyper-educated "pimples on the posterior of American financial empire."  One of two viewpoints had to be correct.  

Under the first view, we are nothing but animated creatures of the material world.  Any talk of "soul" or "spirit" must be limited to the entirely metaphorical.  When we die, the lifeless form lying in the morgue on a cold, blood-impervious table is all that we ever were, just minus the spark of Dr. Frankenstein, which itself arose via natural means whose mechanisms would soon be revealed by science.  This is the view held even now by the most sober of physicists, people like Sean Carroll and Neil de Grasse Tyson and Laurence Krauss.  Science has proven it to be the case.

Under the second view, when we die we go on to a happier valley.  We are drawn down a long tunnel towards a glorious light.  Our loved ones who have predeceased us meet and greet us there and help us on our journey to the light.  This is of course the view of people like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who can be regarded as the founder of serious "death studies," and Raymond Moody, author of "Life After Life."

If, ten years ago, I were forced to pick between the two views, I probably would have chosen the second, largely out of a philosophical predisposition, but also out of a vague sense that there is simply too much stuff going on for which materialism cannot account.

But since 2017 I find myself forced, really, onto a Third Way, as I try to make sense of the evidence to which I have been exposed via thousands of pages of reading, hundreds of hours of interviews and podcasts, all aimed in one way or another at what might be called "the penetration of the veil," not just in our own time but across all cultures from time immemorial.  Leonard Cohen said that "there is a crack in everything; that's how the Light gets in."  My best friend Sam, on his deathbed, when I asked him to explain the mysterious first verse of John -- "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" -- answered himself with a single, lower-case word -- the "vibration."

And so it is that much deeper thinkers than I, including C.J. Jung, Jacques Vallee, Richard Dolan, John Keel, Garry Nolan, Bernardo Kastrup, Darren King (the man who styles himself "ExoAcademian"), and even Aldous Huxley, all hover around the idea that we come from, and return to, a Common Ocean of Consciousness that has no beginning and no end.  The view has much in common with Tibetan Buddhism, particularly in its insinuations that there are things -- apparitions to the Buddhists but flashes of intelligence as real as you or me to me -- that act out of malevolence, and that our ultimate fate is to lose our identity altogether in the cosmic pool.

This Third Way escapes the internal contradictions that I see everywhere in more conventional views.  It is, unlike the scientific materialism of Carroll and Tyson and unlike the mainstream religious traditions, compatible with the facts:

  • God cannot have made the little tribe of Jews His "chosen people."
  • God the Father is petty and petulant; so is the Islamic God.
  • Jesus cannot have been sent down "to save us all from Satan's power when we were gone astray," notwithstanding Kierkegaard's clever attempt to turn the implausibility of Christianity into its highest virtue.
  • And yet Fatima really happened; 70,000 people were present at the great Spinning of the Sun.
  • Cattle mutilations are real; ask a veterinarian in Colorado.  Anecdotally, human mutilations may also be equally real.
  • Craft "as big as a Walmart" have hovered over our ICBM installations and disabled them.
  • Creatures from beyond the veil can choose whichever form they wish to use to impress something upon us -- awe, reverence, fear, confusion.  In 1897 they were friendly pilots of airships traveling across the central US, but they have also been elves, fairies, leprechauns, djinn, skinwalkers and dogmen, mantises and reptiles, angels and devils.
Even though they believe that they will simply be annihilated when they die, the aforementioned scientific materialists draw a real ontological comfort from the fact that they think they know, or soon will know, what is really happening.  And those in the Raymond Moody school of thought of course draw comfort from the notion that death will take them to the happy valley, there to be reunited with their loved ones.

Where I am now, as time gets very short, unfortunately offers little or no ontological comfort. I am not subscribing to a theory for the sake of stitching a stuffed animal that I can cling to in my sleep.  Rather, in the Ocean of Consciousness, I am as helpless and anonymous as an individual plankton in the deepest of our earthly seas.

In truth, it may be more healthy, psychologically, to follow the path of the folksinger Iris DeMent, who in her exquisitely down-home voice repeatedly admonishes us to "Let the Mystery Be."

Monday, July 31, 2023


Fear, Futility and Fatigue

These are my modern muses.  

They dance a circular step-dance, with their hands above their heads, around an invisible focal point deep in the Irish forest, a focal point that is known only to the Fairies of ancient myth.  Myth bleeds into reality now, and reality into myth.

Thursday, July 27, 2023


26 July 2023

This day -- yesterday -- will be remembered as the day it no longer became possible to deny the presence among us of other intelligences.

Now, after this new understanding is absorbed, it will fall to every man and woman to adjust his/her worldview to accommodate the new knowledge and to think through its implications for everything up to and including what happens to us when we die.  If this question is of no interest to you, if you choose rather to be a monkey with his hands over his eyes, I don't know what to say.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023


Epitaph for a Dilettante

Things that I have learned to do, to varying degrees of proficiency:

  • Speak and read Russian.
  • Pilot a sailboat of 6000 lbs displacement; tack a 110-ft schooner.
  • "Have the airplane," under the supervision of an instructor, in a Schweitzer 2-33 training glider, a Grob performance glider, a Yak-52 Soviet military trainer, and a North American SNJ US Navy trainer.
  • Practice the Chinese art of meditation and martial art known as tai chi.
  • Play rudimental percussion and Latin percussion, as well as the Irish bodhran drum.
  • Play a couple of simple tunes on the vibraphone.
  • Understand the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Soren Kierkegaard.
  • Penetrate the Internal Revenue Code and the entire body of Massachusetts tax law, as well as the US constitutional principles implicated by it.
  • Drive a sports car on a race track.

Things that I have not learned to do, to any degree of proficiency:
  • Swim.
  • Play golf.
  • Play baseball, football, basketball or soccer.
  • Dance.
  • Paint.
  • Sew.
  • Ride a horse.
  • Clean a fish.
  • Shoot a gun.
  • Do magic tricks.
  • Juggle.

Thursday, July 6, 2023


(Or So It Is Written in the Krazy Kozmologie of Marshall Vian Summers)

"The Wise are hidden."

Wednesday, July 5, 2023



In his early youth Ingmar Bergman was a puppeteer who played with light and with darkness.  The footlights threatened fire.

When Bergman was nearing his end, he was able to look back on a trail of broken and bitter relations, of wounds not healed, of suppurations only masked by colorful and carefully-crafted bandages.

In his work, which was entwined more than most with the fabric of his life, it remained a constant -- he was a master puppeteer who played with light and with darkness.


Meaningless Pulses in 3/4 Time, cont'd

Orlando Cepeda was checking his swing

When a tiny red music box

Owned by his daughter

Just stopped in "mid-air"

With an unscheduled brrrrinnnng!

Friday, June 30, 2023


Closing Remarks

Aldous Huxley closes his 1952 masterwork The Devils of Loudun with an epilogue that has the feeling of a sermon.  It is a fairly short sermon as sermons go, but a dense one.  His theme is transcendence.  

What does "transcendence" mean?  He does not define it for us.  If we had to define it for him, it might be something like "escaping from the prison of everyday self."

But not all transcendence is in a lofty direction.  There is something called "downward transcendence," as when one falls prey to the passions of the mob -- "herd-intoxication."  And there is "horizontal transcendence," when one becomes lost in some very human cul de sac.  The cul de sac might be scientific materialism; it might be a war (even a just one!); it might be a marriage.  

And even if we are on the path of lofty, upward transcendence, the path is full of perils.  Many perish and fall by the wayside.

No, the odds are stacked against those of us who want to escape the prison of everyday self --

... great goods and ... enormous evils are the fruits of man's capacity for total and continuous self-identification with an idea, a feeling, a cause.  How can we have the good without the evil, a high civilization without saturation bombing, or the extermination of religious and political heretics?  The answer is that we cannot have it so long as our self-transcendence remains merely horizontal.  When we identify ourselves with an idea or a cause we are in fact worshiping something homemade, something partial and parochial, something that, however noble, is yet all too human.  "Patriotism," as a great patriot concluded on the eve of her execution by her country's enemies, "is not enough."  Neither is socialism, nor communism, nor capitalism; neither is art, nor science, nor public order, nor any given religion or church.  All of these are indispensable, but none of them is enough.  Civilization demands from the individual devoted self-identification with the highest of human causes.  But if this self-identification with what is human is not accompanied by a constant and consistent effort to achieve upward self-transcendence into the universal life of the Spirit, the goods achieved will always be mingled with counterbalancing evils.  "We make," wrote Pascal, "an idol of truth itself; for truth without charity is not God, but His image and idol, which we must neither love or worship."  And it is not merely wrong to worship an idol; it is also exceedingly inexpedient.  The worship of truth apart from charity -- self-identification with science unaccompanied by self-identification with the Ground of all being -- results in the kind of situation which now confronts us.  Every idol, however exalted, turns out, in the long run, to be a Moloch, hungry for human sacrifice. 

Thursday, June 15, 2023


A Conjured Memory

From the Hour of the Wolf.  From long ago.  From grammar school.  The nuns and  their rather fractured French.

A single phrase repeated, repeatedly.  Repeated because it closed out a prayer, or several different prayers including, I think, the one that Jesus Himself taught us.

Ainsi soi-t-il.

"So be it," or "amen."  

And not long thereafter, the French of other nuns, of the "Singing Nuns," invaded our car radios on the Top Forty shows of Woo Woo Ginsburg (who, it must be assumed, had fallen from the faith at that time) and others.  It got sandwiched in, somehow, between the blasphemies of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, and it was, of all things, a song about The Pure Silence of Divine Contemplation, as practiced in the cloistered halls of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominicans.

Il ne parle que du Bon Dieu.

"He speaks only of the Good ['Lord' in our parlance]."

And it had a joy and a bounce about it, not unlike that of George Harrison's "Hare Rama," or the Hawkins Singers in "Oh Happy Day," both to dominate the charts later.

Sunday, June 11, 2023


A Crumbling Carapace That We Choose to Nest Within a Friendlier One

My toys.  Both my boat and my truck are a shiny bright blue, very pleasing to the eye.  I use them to fool Mother Nature if only for a fleeting spell.

Imagine, if you will, that in the last decade of his life Stephen Hawking had both the means and the motive to purchase and pilot a vintage Mustang fighter plane, a P-51D to be precise, the kind that used to race once a year at Reno NV before the tragic accident about which you no doubt have heard.  

On clear days, the sun would have glinted on his wings and his undercarriage as he made the "by the book" steep turn from base leg to final, taking care to stay at least 10 mph over the placard "dirty" stall speed of the airplane, which was 93 mph.  

But even on days of low overcast, when little vortices of condensation would have chased his wingtips as he dropped out of the cloud cover and prepared for the same steep turn, he would have, via the airplane, projected power, grace and panache, specifically in defiance of his actual physical grotesquerie.  Casual witnesses on the flightline, not even knowing who he was, would have sometimes applauded when he shut Lucky Lainey down and the big prop came to a silent stop.

He would have had a special fibreboard screen made, such that only a couple of his minions actually would have seen how he had to be extracted from the plane through its retracted canopy. In a joke that he would have constructed against himself, they would have carried him off, curled up in a ball and secreted in a fleece-lined but otherwise classically simple burlap sack.  He would have giggled at the humiliation, at the yin and the yang of his lofty but equally accursed life.

In his case not mine, there was a feature film that depicted him as a handsome and vigorous young man, as indeed he was before he got sick.  It made a bit of a splash, but very few remember it, fewer and fewer with each passing year.  And yet, according to Christian cosmology, it is in this form that Stephen will rise from the dead, from his own eponymous "black hole," on the Last Day, the Day of Judgment, the dies irae.

Will that monumental intellect, which in its hubris and in best-seller print promised to reveal to us the Mind of God not via revelation in the biblical sense but via mere science, get lost in the multitude on that day of wrath, for want of nothing more than a horrible but more-familiar-to-us carapace?

Only time will tell.

Friday, June 9, 2023


A Generous Helping of Garlic-Mashed Potatoes

For a limited time only, and only 99 cents.

Saturday, June 3, 2023


Our Language Is Intrinsically and Intensely Metaphorical

And no one knows how we comprehend each new metaphor, even in this age of ubiquitous AI.

You were "the apple of my eye."

Jesus and his disciples were "fishers of men."  (This a powerful metaphor but one that collapses quickly; did the new converts to Christianity flop around on the deck at the feet of Our Lord in the boat that was bouncing in the Sea of Galilee?)

America "the melting pot," and Columbia "the Gem of the Ocean."

The "bivouacking" behavior of the South American army ant.  Here, the metaphor is so natural that one wants to ask "Why would the ants not bivouac?  They travel in armies after all!"

The "depths of your depravity."

Tuesday, May 16, 2023


I Closed My Eyes

The earbuds in.  

Just then I heard loud, sustained applause, without vocalization of any kind.  Neither "yays" nor "bravos," not even the movement of feet, or a cough suppressed only so long as the performance neared its climax.

Here's the thing.  The sound of the applause was completely indistinguishable from the sound of a heavy rain that comes on, at once, with a strong, fast-moving front, in the dog days and evenings of August.

Friday, May 12, 2023


Something Old; Some Things New

The "something old" is trench warfare, at scale, on the European continent.

Putin started his war in February of 2022 with less than 200,000 troops committed to the effort.  The Russians have lost about that many, killed and gravely wounded, since the "special military operation" began.  And yet they now have some 300,000 soldiers on the territory of Ukraine, many of them in defensive positions -- largely simple slit trenches without the electrified dugouts and other amenities that we have seen, for the officers at least, in WWI films like "1917" and "All Quiet on the Western Front."  It seems that the Russian officers are further back, in positions of relative safety.

But arrayed against the old-fashioned trench lines are two new things -- small quadcopter drones that are able to drop grenades or converted mortar shells into the slits with great precision, and sophisticated cameras on the drones that both reconnoiter for targets and record, in black and white, their deadly effect.

This should be as big a breakthrough in bringing the horrors of war into the American home as were the first photos of Antietam taken by Mathew Brady.  Most people, however, still want their news of what's going on in the world filtered through their preferred sources, sources that whether left or right eschew the worst of the violence.

Twitter and Telegram channels fill the gap.  One, called "The Dead District," focuses almost exclusively on short videos showing the physical destruction of Russians.  So now, for the first time, we are able to see, again and again, young men in the last minute of their lives.  We can see it even before they know that they are about to be slaughtered. 

From the perspective of the drones and against a backdrop of dark dirt, we see very little blood.  When a bomb hits, the victims often scurry quite like ants away from the blast for a few moments, running on adrenalin, then fall to the ground.  Sometimes they get up again and try to limp to a position of safety.  In such cases the Ukrainians show no mercy; they dispatch the wounded with a second or a third round if they are able.  Medics seem nowhere to be found.  Nor do the unscathed take it upon themselves somehow to carry their wounded comrades to safety.  This is probably wise, because they would just be sacrificing themselves as well.

Now, just in the last 24 hours, we have drone videos of two very graphic suicides that have taken place within the trenches.  In one, a wounded soldier tries at first to use his AK-47 as a crutch.  When that fails, he lies on his side and fires a round through his head from under his chin.  His body seems to give a little shiver, and then he is still.  If this were not enough, in the second, the wounded man takes off his helmet and holds a grenade to his head; there is nothing left of his head at the close of the clip.

Both men will be praised at home for their valor.  The Russians will say, en masse, «царство ему небенное» -- "May he be in the heavenly kingdom."  The boys fought for the Motherland, and the stupider the war, the greater their heroism.  That seems to be the logic that prevails within the great red fortress of Moscow.

Sunday, May 7, 2023


Rapid Rabbit Respiration

I gave up my adjunct teaching position at Pace College (now Pace University) after only three years, in 1990.  The truth is that I grew weary of and exasperated by my students, by the petty disputes that seemed to sustain them, by their refusal to grant me any authority over them by virtue of my modest position.  Perhaps, I said to myself,  I hadn't earned any such authority, but I was convinced that were Max Planck to wander in to try his hand at teaching Physics 101, he would have been dissed in much the same way.  It was cultural and it got worse from year to year.

The last class that I taught was called "The Use and Abuse of the Cliché in Modern American Literature."  I thought that it would be fun to trace the origins of now-tired expressions and also to explore how, tired as they are, they might be used to place a character, by inference, into a certain sub-culture or social class, and how they might be enlivened by being used unexpectedly in a literal sense, for example.  The man selling newspapers at the kiosk at 81st and Broadway who could not stop repeating his tale of a pedestrian that he saw killed by a box truck at that very intersection some years ago, the man left "flat as a pancake" for 20 minutes until the cops arrived and screened the corpse from view.  In a much different narrative, a Perelman story in The New Yorker that traced a bear hunt in the Black Forest, was Hector's hound literally "barking up the wrong tree?"

The straw that broke the camel's back, as it were, was a singular dispute with young Andreas DeVoto about an otherwise forgettable tale of his, no doubt closely mirroring an incident in his own life, when, to escape a knife fight, it became prudent to fly down the stairs into the Chambers St. Station and jump the turnstile, with his enemies in hot pursuit.  The doors of the Z train clipped one of his heels as they shut.  It was a near thing.  He came within "a hare's breath" of being stabbed or beaten, "to a pulp" of course.

Andreas, drawing on two trips to the Prospect Park Zoo, insisted that the respiration of a rabbit is both so rapid and so shallow that the animal, at rest, appears to get by without breathing at all.  This is well known.  And it's an illusion that has come to turn the respiration of the rabbit into a stand-in for any ephemeral iota.  Something like that.

After that insistence that I could not wear down, I decided to fold my cards and my tent; I threw in the towel when it came to teaching.

Thursday, May 4, 2023


Relegated to Daguerreotypes

There will come a time when all of the colors of your life reduce to sepia.  When the bleu cheese on your tomato, on your tongue, begins to taste of chalk dust.  When you pause routinely at the foot of the stairs, plotting your strategy to ascend them.  When most all of your words go unheard in the wider world, because they are spoken by a Creature from the Past.  

So we are to be forgiven for asking to be forgiven, for falling back on supplications to "the Lord," whether He be the Lord Jesus or the Lord Krishna, or even supplications to a Lady, as perhaps of Fatima or Lourdes.

The trouble unique to this time is that while we sense an imminent, world-historical tearing of the veil that will release us from our earthly suffering, the world beyond, insofar as we can discern it, seems filled with devils, demons, djinn, mechanical elves, fraudsters and tricksters.  Perhaps there is a path to the Divine Godhead beyond them, but will we have the strength, weakened by our earthly struggles as we are, to break through the phalanx of the djinn?  Is this intermediate realm where the concepts of purgatory and of hell find their ancient source?

Thursday, April 27, 2023


In the English Common Law

"A cold and depraved indifference," brought to light with all due process and confirmed by a jury of one's peers, sufficed to punch one's ticket to the gallows.

In "No Country for Old Men," Javier Bardem portrays such a felon -- Anton Chigurh, never convicted of his crimes -- with such intensity and authenticity that it would not surprise if the actor's own wife thereafter refused to share a bed with him.  Early in the film, Chigurh carries around a heavy canister with a hose attached to it.  We don't know what it is.  We surmise that it is a prop that helps him to get into places that would otherwise be forbidden to him, like a fake FedEx uniform that might be worn by a petty thief.  But it is in fact a pneumatic captive penetrating bolt pistol, a device designed to kill cows, pigs and calves efficiently, but also humanely, by firing a metal rod into their skulls, a rod that then immediately retracts in preparation for the next hit.

It all comes down to intent I suppose.  Dr. Kevorkian might have such a device in his arsenal in a place like Canada that widely celebrates euthanasia.  He might sign a contract with a dying person, and the contract might authorize him at any time within a prescribed period to approach the person unawares and dispatch him with the device.  The patient would never know what hit him.

A single engineer at Lockheed Martin is credited with the anti-personnel variant of the HIMARS missile, the variant that contains 1000 tiny tungsten balls.  From 50 miles it can land within 20 feet of its GPS-identified target, and its kill range is 200 meters from the impact point.  

When the remains of the troops are brought back to Novosibirsk in simple pine coffins, they are so mangled and co-mingled that they might as well be a bolognese of beef, pork and veal served on Salem Street in Boston's North End.

"A cold and depraved indifference."

Tuesday, April 18, 2023


The Harvesting of the Boomers

It proceeds apace.  Big personalities.  Long and complex lives.  Huge networks of family, friends.  God chooses which candles next to snuff without regard.

Jack Nicholson, now 85, glowers down at us from a balcony in LA, looking for all the world like "Frozen Jack" at the end of "The Shining."

"Don't Fear the Reaper"?  Why not?

Friday, April 14, 2023


Revisiting "My Dinner with Andre" (1981)

My initial reaction, about an hour into my first viewing of the film since its release in 1981, was that it has aged very badly.  Yes, it garners praise even now for its audacious premise -- that people will be engrossed in a two-hour movie in which nothing happens but a couple of friends talking about high-sounding things in a fancy New York restaurant.  But the two gentlemen in question, who have sworn on a stack of Bibles that they were not really playing themselves back then, were playing themselves, or aspects of themselves, and both come across now, at least at first, as insufferably self-absorbed and worse, apparently blind to the sufferings of others on this earth who do not enjoy the privileges of a Harvard education and a life in the theatre.

Wallace Shawn, the "homunculus" of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," laments early in the film that people at parties lose interest in him when he reveals that he teaches Latin for a living.  Andre Gregory examines his relationship with the doorman who guards his building.  Gregory greets him by his first name, whereas the doorman is compelled by cultural convention to call him "Mr. Gregory."  This, opines Andre, manifests a form of "slavery" and represents one more sign of our descent, in 1981, into fascism.  Wally, it's true, professes contentment with the modest life he leads with his girlfriend Debbie, counting the twin blessings of an electric blanket in winter and morning coffee that on most days does not have a roach swimming in it.  But he also says that he is "just trying to survive from one day to the next."

Of the two, Gregory does by far most of the talking.  As in real life, he has recently resurfaced after a long disappearance that was forced on him by a deep personal crisis, an inability to see any value in anything that he was doing, including his work as a director.  He recounts all of his New Age adventures, while Wally alternates between two expressions -- a bemused smile and a look of grave concern.  In the adventures, which include a mock burial alive, Andre almost always ends up crying uncontrollably.  So when he also recounts that after his mother died he found himself in a paroxysm of grief, it seems that everything in his life has been "flattened," the death of his mother no more important than the flowers he encountered in a Scottish forest that may have set him off on a crying jag.  

Further, one wants to ask Andre to paint for us a picture of the new and untainted world to which he aspires.  We doubt that it exists beyond a few hippie experiments; we doubt that we can all bring the Spirit of Woodstock home to our moms in suburbia.

A curious shift in my perspective on the film came over me however around the time when the elderly waiter (played by a European actor who died in 1983) clears the table for espresso.  Shawn, having grown increasingly upset with his friend, engages more aggressively on some of his views, and the conversation turns into a coherent contest between a scientific/materialist view of the world, held by Shawn, and a spiritual/transcendental view held by Gregory.  By the end of the film it seems that Gregory has shaken his friend out of his complacency, that Shawn can see that he is compelled to busy himself with quotidian tasks because, if he quiets his mind, he will be filled with existential dread.  Andre, whose highest goal is authenticity, has succeeded in having an authentic conversation in a most unlikely venue, and Shawn will not soon forget the experience.

Shawn and Gregory are both still alive.  (Gregory is 88.)  It would be a nice experiment to do a sequel to the film.  Inevitably, I think, it would do two things.  First, and notwithstanding what I said about the film redeeming itself, it would point us back towards the characters' blindness to their relative privilege and comfort.  By now, having experienced 9/11, Covid, a Trump presidency and a world-historical war in Europe, our friends would have to approach the world in which we live with more humility and gravitas.  Like the rest of us, they would be beaten down by events; their perspective might be more like that of the European civilians of a certain age who managed to survive World War II than that of elite American theatre artists in 1981.

More importantly, a sequel would have to underscore the extent to which our politics and our culture have crumbled in the two generations that have intervened.  It is clear from their real-life biographies that Wally and Andre will have migrated not to a position flying high above our travails, from which vantage point they can comment wisely and with empathy upon them.  Rather, they will be walled off in the progressive tribe.  In 1981, the "flyover" Americans with rare exceptions did not watch "My Dinner with Andre," but in principle most of them would have seen the two protagonists as amusing eccentrics in the mold of the same Woody Allen.  Now, half of the country would actively despise them for their views, and they would, of course, actively despise the despisers in return.

And what of those views?  How can it be that two such proudly liberal, hyper-educated, sensitive and humane gentlemen in 1981 could have had no space in their capacious minds for the reality of voter suppression, for the coming climate catastrophe, for the necessity of having a black woman at the center of every television commercial, for the sports and bathroom rights of transsexuals?  Shall we indict them retroactively for this profound failure to see?  And now that they do see, has this evolution really moved our country forward on the path to that most important of values -- authenticity?

No, the sequel would be unwatchable.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023


Last Night

I was disabled by a mild spell as I lay in my bed and attempted to get up to relieve myself.  I could not lift my head and I could not figure out where my body was in relation to the floor.  This altered state of consciousness only lasted a few moments, but while it was happening I wasn't entirely sure that I was not entering the Great Transition.  It was not pleasant.

Monday, April 10, 2023


For Every Sin

... there is a "meet" punishment.  

For gross buffoonery, it is to have one's balloon pricked with a pin.  But in extreme cases, a light dagger does the pricking and the belly of the buffoon ... well, you get the picture.

Sunday, April 9, 2023


Richelieu's End

Identifying himself with a persona which was simultaneously princely, sacerdotal, political and literary, Cardinal Richelieu comported himself as though he were a demigod.  But the wretched man had to play his part in a body which disease had rendered so repulsive that there were times when people could hardly bear to sit in the same room with him.  He suffered from tubercular osteitis of his right arm and a fissure of the fundament, and was thus forced to live in the fetid atmosphere of his own suppuration.  Musk and civet disguised but could not abolish this carrion odor of decay.  Richelieu could never escape from the humiliating knowledge that he was an object, to all around him, of physical abhorrence....

Between the rotting body of the actual man and the glory of the persona, the gulf was unbridgeable....That dreadful stench, those worms battening on the living corpse, seemed poetically just and appropriate.  During the Cardinal's last hours, when the relics had failed to work and the doctors had given him up, an old peasant woman, who had a reputation as a healer, was called to the great man's bedside.  Muttering spells, she administered her panacea -- four ounces of horse dung macerated in a pint of white wine.  It was with the taste of excrement in his mouth that the arbiter of Europe's destinies gave up the ghost.

                                                    -- Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun

Friday, April 7, 2023


A Madman's Mantra

In the final six months of his life, my father, stricken with an eccentric dementia that emphatically was not Alzheimer's according to Dr. Hughes, his attending, developed a distressing affectation.  Whoever came to see him -- it could be a long-lost co-worker from the River Rouge or it could be his first wife -- he would look the person dead in the eye, grasp a forearm and wrist with both hands and say "Mark these words!"  He would repeat the expression several times, three or four.  But then, with rare exceptions, he would abruptly look away, and his face would collapse into a mask that was without any affect.

The phrase was one that he used not uncommonly, usually in kitchen table debates.  It would be followed by the expression of an opinion or prognostication -- about sports, or winter storms, or the presidential race.

But here, in this odd context, and followed by nothing, the phrase seemed to be "meta;" that is, the only two words that could be "marked" were "these words," and that didn't make much sense.

Or else the ritual had no meaning, which struck me as worse.  It had me thinking, before there was Alexa, before there were sexbots, before ChatGPT, that we are all just wind-up dolls with no agency, and hence with neither merits nor demerits chalked up for us on the Big Blackboard of Life.  This made it harder for me when finally we put the old man in the ground.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023


A Dog's Dream

If dogs can dream, then so can I.  But if dogs dream, then my own dreams have no real meaning, at least none as Freud or Jung would have it.  They do not foretell the future, nor do they lay out metaphorical guideposts for my life.

What they do emphasize, again and again, is my own sense of futility.  There is an icy mountain in the middle of the Cornell campus.  I must reach its summit, but its summit is beyond my power to reach.  I must take a final exam to earn the credits to graduate from college, but I can't find the classroom where it will be held, nor have I remembered even to register for the course.  There is a Greyhound bus, semi-streamlined in the old-fashioned style, waiting at a corner in the Midwest to take me back to Winthrop, but I don't have a dime in my pocket, let alone the entire fare.

And so it came as a pleasant surprise at the Hour of the Wolf last night when I experienced a dream whose narrative represented, you might say, a divine intervention against futility on my behalf.

There was a fictional young woman.  Let us call her W for "the Wastrel."  I had been incurably enamored of her for a long time.  Early on, I made my feelings known in a most straightforward way, but they were resisted in an equally straightforward way.  I pressed harder; her resistance grew.  It became the irresistible force against the immovable object.  And yet we carried on as friends, but seeing each other only from time to time.

As it happened then, I was organizing a very big dinner at my home to celebrate something or other.  To my surprise, W came a couple of days in advance to help me prep for the thing.  

In the quiet morning before, we sat side by side at the corner of the very long table where my guests would soon be dining.  W had fetched a paper -- the densest and thickest edition of the Sunday New York Times that I had ever seen in fact.  We tore through it together, quite happily.  My brother was also at the table, and we tossed him the scraps as we were done with each section.

There, in an instant, I suddenly knew that her resistance to me was simply gone.  It evaporated, and my pressure was released, simultaneously; one did not follow from the other via cause and effect.  There was joy and peace, but something had to be done sacramentally to mark the moment, just as, at the end of Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire," a glass of wine in a quiet corner of an otherwise raucous Berlin venue, one frequented by the young and the avant garde at the Fall of the Wall, became a chalice held by the archetypal Man and Woman.  And so at once I reached for her hand under the table and also I met her eyes.  "I was healed, and my heart was at ease."

Tuesday, March 28, 2023


These Things Happen After All

My grandmother's family-famous porcelain chafing dish stood on its side for many years in a bracket on a mahogany cabinet in my dining room.  That is a room that we rarely use; it sees very little foot traffic except on holidays and briefly when the cleaning lady comes every other week.

But my daughter was staying with us in one of her transitions, and her closest friend stopped by to visit, dragging along her nine-year-old son, who is always called "Austin C." after the drug dealer who begat him, now long gone.  Triggered by my withdrawal from his hands of a fake but nevertheless dangerous ornamental sword that was leaning in a corner of the family room, Austin C. went off on a bit of a rampage, at maximum speed, throughout the first floor.  In the dining room his elbow clipped Nana's dish and its bracket, with predictable consequences.

On the sentimentality front, the dish was not brought from Ireland by Nana when she came, as family legend had had it.  We found out that it was a gift to her from a neighbor who ran a small antique shop in Queens.  But its provenance was Irish, in specific from the high-volume fires of the Belleek Factory in the North.

My first reaction to the crash was anger, at both the boy and his careless mother.

My second reaction was resignation; it was not something that could be undone.

My third reaction was gratitude directed at the boy, for accelerating entropy.  Things are meant to be broken.  Everything will be broken in due course.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023


Lucid Dream

I was going over my WIPs -- client "work in progress" -- as I do every month to assist my secretary in prepping my bills.  I came across the following time entry -- "We were chased by a crowd down the street and into a sewer; seven hours."

Tuesday, March 14, 2023


"Seek, and Ye Shall Find"

At the Hour of the Wolf it occurred to me that this bromide from the King James Version (Matthew 7:7) can be employed as a curse, against the researchers at the Wuhan Lab, for example, or more generally in place of "curiosity killed the cat."

Thursday, February 23, 2023


Should We Evacuate the Earth?

A non-trivial question.

Yesterday I watched most of a four-hour Joe Rogan podcast in which Joe allowed his friend Eric Weinstein to meander all over the landscape of modern physics, interminably, before answering the two questions that Joe put to him at the beginning, the questions being what caused Eric to abandon his lifelong skepticism about UFOs?, and what are his views on the subject now?

His answer to the first question is complex and rather obscure.  Eric in his youth detached from the Ph.D program in physics at Harvard.  He believed that he had found a potential way forward to break a long impasse in physics -- the inability to craft a theory that works both at the level of particles and at the cosmological level.  The reasons for his failure to gain traction with his ideas he ascribes to academic politics and to general human folly.  Disgusted, he dropped out, used his formidable mathematical skills to develop algorithms that would help to make Peter Thiel a very rich man, and later morphed into a public intellectual and a supposed member of the cabal that founded "the intellectual dark web."

Why, then, an evolution away from skepticism?  First, his long-abandoned ideas appear now to have been picked up by physicists who are considered mainstream and whose reputations are so lofty that they can no longer be ignored.  And if they bear fruit (Weinstein by no means guarantees that they will), they could form the theoretical basis for great engineering breakthroughs, including the conquering of gravity and, even more shocking, the manipulation of time.  With these possibilities on the far horizon, we can no longer say with certainty that extraterrestrial travel is impossible because of an absolute speed limit known as the velocity of light.  (Weinstein points out that if that limit cannot be exceeded, it will take more than 100,000 years just to get to habitable places in the near neighborhood.)  And if we can get to them, to the other guys, then they certainly can get to us.

Second, people within the US government have approached Eric on the QT, and his friend and oft-interlocutor Sam Harris as well, with a cloak and dagger suggestion that his services as a physicist and public intellectual may be required to calm the public and prepare it for some earth-shattering revelations.  Both Eric and Sam have been teased with this suggestion multiple times, but the spooks never seem to follow up, and they begin now to be exasperated with the whole outreach.

In light of all this background, which takes him two hours to explain, to the second question Weinstein now says the following (to be clear, a paraphrase) -- "It is not all nonsense.  It seems to me that it can be one of only two things -- either extra-human intelligence indeed is among us, or our own government has made fantastic scientific breakthroughs and is perpetrating the disinformation campaign to end all disinformation campaigns in the interest of keeping the breakthroughs out of the wrong hands."

So far so good.  But where does Eric Weinstein want to go with this new and troubling perspective?  Remarkably, he says that he is not really that interested in UFOs per se.  Rather, he believes that there is an imperative to leave planet Earth and colonize other places, because if we don't, we will soon destroy ourselves with atomic weapons.  (Here he brings in the view that we should not be supporting Ukraine as we have been because of the likelihood, in his mind, that this will lead us into Armageddon.)

I find this viewpoint, coming from such a formidable intellect, a complete head-scratcher.  If we follow his path and populate other planets, what is to stop us from destroying ourselves on those other planets, if that is our predisposition?  And why, if there are perhaps countless other forms of intelligence in the universe, is it so important to preserve our own?  Isn't the impulse to preserve it just one more dreary index of our tribalism, and isn't it tribalism that makes us so dangerous in the first place?  Finally, where is Weinstein's curiosity about what extra-human intelligence would mean in the big picture?  Isn't that possibility far more profound than the idea of a base camp on some Goldilocks rock out there?

In any case kudos to Joe Rogan, who after all is just a martial artist whose formal education peaked at Newton South High School, for being able to elicit this story on a platform that regularly draws around two million viewers.  Surely two million will not watch this saga unfold over four hours, but perhaps a million will zero in on the gist of it.  What does that say about the evolution of our media environment?  Mostly it says that there is a great hunger for ideas and perspectives that go beyond the nonsense that is being fed to us by content providers both left and right, the "horseshoe metaphor" having never been so apt.

Monday, February 20, 2023


Muito Mais Que Nada

If Richard Feynman were still among us, he would be 104 years old.  In the unlikely event that he were still well ambulatory (the legs go first), he would be tuning his bongos for tomorrow's Fat Tuesday Carnival march in Rio.  He did not rise above his Carnival street band at Mardi Gras; he permitted himself to get lost, embedded in it.

He also was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics, helped to invent the atomic bomb, figured out the mystery of the cause of the Challenger disaster in real time, on TV, and cracked a number of supposedly impenetrable safes.

Excused from wartime service because he was thought to be mentally unbalanced, he was in another sense the most balanced of men, nurtured not by happenstance on American "soil," the streets of Queens, New York City.

Sunday, February 19, 2023


Trail Markers

I watched a documentary film on my Kindle, about petroglyphs in the Oregon wilderness.  Called "Middle," it's a terrible film with a single saving moment.  In that moment, one of our two protagonists stops on a trail near a high peak in the Cascades, at perhaps 7,000 feet.  The prospect below, of valleys and lakes, is spectacular.  Our man gathers up seven or eight carefully-chosen stones, and piles them one on top of the other at eye level, on a little ledge.  He has difficulty only with the last, little stone on top, but he has patience and perseveres. 

It seems impossible that they would stay in place; it's like a literal house of cards in a wind tunnel.  Except that there is no wind to speak of.  In fact, the two men on the trail laugh, remarking that the tower of stones will topple with the first earth tremor or strong breeze.  But, for the time being, it will be a signature, and one that will cause others to pause if they should happen to seek out this remote place.

And so it is with words piled one atop the other.  We think that "the cloud" is like the amber that will preserve a dead bug in perpetuity.  But the cloud is a metaphor, and the words reside in a very concrete place, in a particular server in a particular server farm, perhaps in the high Colorado desert.

Earthquake, scirocco, electromagnetic pulse attack from the North Koreans.  A mouse gone mad enough to chew through a cable.  There are redundancies, of course, that can turn these hundred-year events into three-hundred year events, but the arc of history bends towards disorder, more predictably for sure than it does towards justice.

Friday, February 17, 2023


The Armory at One's Feet

In Palestine and Paris, the paving stones pled their innocence.  They were, after all, constructive, until they were picked apart by zealots.

In the former case, the deconstruction was halted, but only for a few seconds.  Someone, a tall man, cried out from the crowd "Let he who is without sin ..!," but another, louder voice interrupted, proclaiming a wry "Nice try!"  The poor girl squirmed and cringed; as Lee Harvey Oswald in the photo much later, she cringed in vain.

The grievances of the soixante-huitiemes were more diffuse, but their indignation was not.  First the barricades, built of cafe chairs and tables, trash receptacles, overturned hand carts.  Then the rain of stones on the helmets and shields of the gendarmerie, interspersed with Cointreau cocktails and at least one spear, improvised from a sharpened broom handle, dipped in tar and set alight.

Fifty-five years later, some still remain among us.  In two of the shabbiest of the inner arrondissements, their voices, both higher and hoarser than before, seem to my tin ear to say, with passion, "Defense de fumer!" It rings from the tenement walls and even, on the rebound, against the paving stones.

Saturday, February 11, 2023


As If I Were a Shaman, Though I Am Not

With spring approaching, I call out from this tiny semi-public space to the spirit of the red cardinal and to the spirit of the monarch butterfly.  The former represents my dear, late sister, and the latter my dear, late niece.  A preacher myself, I ask you to show us a sign of your transcendence, a clear signal that you have shuffled off the shackles of the Earthbound.

Monday, February 6, 2023


My Smart Phone Tells Me That There Is a Word for It

It is a phenomenon of nature, a phenomenon in nature, occurring precisely:

When a small animal licks tears from the eyeballs of a larger one, for sustenance and not out of pity.

It seems a clear violation of the personal space of the frog, the crocodile, the hippo.

It makes me lachrymose just to think about it.

Friday, January 27, 2023


Music at One's Fingertips

The topic commends itself right in this moment, when the whole world seems to be watching "The Banshees of Inisherin."  The film admonishes us that for a man to sever his fingers from his instrument, permanently, is a form of suicide, and that after that line is crossed "it ain't worth it no more" even if we continue to live.

The etymology of the word "instrument" is plain as day.  An instrument is a tool, and therefore an extension of the physical body in pursuit of a particular purpose.  The affection for and attachment of Thelonious to his piano are the same as those of the fisherwoman in the stream for and to her far-flung fly, the fly that accomplishes for her the miracle of "action at a distance."

In the case of the old Irish lap drum called the bodhran, the attachment may be enhanced still further by the materials from which it is made.  The body of the drum, the ring if you will, is of highly polished rosewood, as is the T-shaped support that lies hidden from the audience within the drum.  And the little drumstick or "tipper" that is held in the dominant hand of the drummer is likewise made of wood.  Between wood and wood, the head of the drum is of lambskin, cured, soaked and stretched.  Thus nearly the entire contraption is as organic as you or I; it is up to us to bring it to life.

To top it off, Paraic McNeela, in Dublin, who makes the drums, advises the purchase of a very special lotion called "Drum Diddly."  Its principal ingredient is lanolin.  Drops of the cream are squirted onto the drum head, and then the dominant hand caresses the head in small circles until every pore is softened by the diddly.  Lanolin, of course, is a natural sheep secretion meant first of all to protect a living lambskin from drying out as well as from other environmental assaults.  Thus we add insult to injury by reuniting the poor lamb in death with the esters that softened it when it was alive.

It is good that the sheep huddled on the hillside within faint earshot of a human commotion are too dumb to recognize the ancient composition that is unfolding in the pub below, too dumb to recognize as well the composition of the bodhran itself as they hear it punctuate the relentless rhythm of the reel, if only by way of artful syncopation.

Monday, January 23, 2023


 From Poem to Cliche

I thought it a beautiful expression when first I heard it. It was the night of the day when my father died.  I was lying in bed, weeping.  

"Tsarstvo yemu nyebyennoye" -- "May he be in the heavenly kingdom."

Now rote and ritual on Telegram, every time another young Russian mobik comes home, or rather parts of him come home, in a black zippered bag.

Sunday, January 22, 2023


Gauguin's Three Questions

"D'ou venons-nous?  Que sommes-nous?  Ou allons-nous?"

They are indeed the three primal questions.  But also, how perfectly they complete the work, simply by naming it.  What would it be if it stood mute, without the questions?


Two Empty Chairs

I'm not a fan of Freud.  I don't like his particular reductionism.  But I'll give him this much -- in nearly every kitchen, including my own, there are two empty chairs at the table, one for the mother of the groom and one for the father of the bride.  If the groom could fill the emotional gap left for the bride by her father, and if the bride could fill the emotional gap left for the groom by his mother, then the chairs could be withdrawn and discarded; this particular circle would be unbroken.  But this almost never happens.  The chairs remain, empty, as Freud's wedding and also anniversary gift to the not so perfectly happy couple.

Friday, January 20, 2023


The 21st Century (so far and through a glass darkly)

The first quarter of it, remarkably, is racing to a close.  When it began, I was in "middle middle age;" I would have then given myself only even odds to make it this far.  Perhaps I will make it a lot farther before my time is done; perhaps not.

The eggheads can debate what Francis Fukuyama really meant by "the end of history" in 1992.  But earth shocks aplenty have arisen since then, and one gets the feeling that we ain't done yet.

Sept. 11 and the chaos in the Middle East that it precipitated.  The decline of the American political class into a confederacy of dunces and buffoons, left and right, and with it the disappearance of the ideological center.  A global pandemic that has been mismanaged nearly everywhere, in good and in bad faith.  A brutal war on European soil.  Anxieties about changes in global climate that the feel-good policies adopted so far in the Western world will do precisely nothing to ameliorate.  A rise in the power of AI -- AI that does not, I believe, threaten to evolve into machine consciousness, but does threaten to evolve into a tool for the further erosion of individual agency, both in authoritarian states and in states like our own with a long history of liberal democracy.

On this bumpy road, we reach for the straps that hang from the top of the bus.  

I hope that the next major shock is not a nuclear one.  I feel in my bones that the next major shock will be, as the saying goes, an epistemological one, brought on by irrefutable proof that our whole world is but a petri dish that other, far more evolved forms of consciousness can do with as they please, without being bound by fealty to the benevolent, paternal Supreme Being that we have, up to now, fashioned largely in our own image and likeness.

The historian/philosopher/ufologist Richard Dolan sometimes sees things that others don't see, simply because he pays more careful attention and draws the rather obvious inferences that the rest of us feel obliged to file away in the drawer marked "Do Not Open!" (In fairness, he sometimes sees things that are not there at all!)

He sees us mostly now as in a transition as momentous as the First Great Transition -- from a hunter/gatherer culture to an agricultural one -- and the Second Great Transition -- from an agricultural existence to an urban, industrial one.  And yes, the other side of this Third Great Transition looks dystopian to him.  

If Dolan holds out any hope for humankind, it's a fragile hope that circumstances will force an unprecedented kind of maturation on us, across all political boundaries on the planet.  My thought, not his -- such a maturation will be largely from the ground up, but perhaps it can only be triggered by the appearance on the scene of a figure, male or female, with a level of charisma, gravitas and inspirational power that we have not seen since the Buddha or the Christ.  Indeed, on appearance, s/he no doubt will be tagged, slandered as, "the Antichrist"!

Tuesday, January 17, 2023


A Most Unlikely Double Feature

It was brought to me last week by the All-Knowing Algorithm that resides on my tablet.

"Trapper Jake" tells us, simply and cleanly, about the life of a man who died in his 100th year, in 2013.  He lived for most of his life in Fremont County, Wyoming, which lies near the center of the state and is itself about the size of Vermont.  I didn't check this, but I think it is considered part of the Wyoming "high plains."  There are no spectacular mountains, but the open plains have an austere beauty of their own.  It is a long way from Fremont County to what we would call "civilization," with both Denver and Salt Lake hundreds of miles off.

Jake made his living, until the very end it seems, by trapping mid-sized creatures in the old-fashioned way, but for a few concessions to modern times such as his beat-up pick-up truck.  He sits hunched over the wheel as he traverses long dirt roads from trap to trap, interspersing with the secrets of his trade a lot of personal stories, like the one about the time he found a varmint on two legs in the act of stealing one of his prizes.  Jake, then a very young man, took out his .22 and plugged the guy through the ass, "by accident."  The man pressed charges against Jake, but the local judge handed him his hat and let Jake go.

We learn that Jake was revered in his community, as a throwback to the old days, as a raconteur, and for the practical reason that he could be engaged to keep the coyote population down when the animals were decimating the county's sheep.  Also, though, he was known for his devotion to his wife and to his children, especially a son who survived an initial polio onslaught only to die of the disease in his 40's.

Beyond portraying Jake himself, the movie is about "the ethical treatment of animals."  When he comes upon them in traps, most of the time they are still alive.  Jake's practice is to stun them by knocking them on the head, then to crack their windpipes with a couple of blows to the throat.  It's a quick way to go if not a painless one, and it is good for us to remember that the lives of wild animals are in the main nasty, brutish and short with or without our intervention.

When he takes an animal, Jake resets the trap right away in roughly the same place where it lay.  For coyotes, the trap is opened and buried in shallow, loose dirt.  An animal bone or skull, smeared with a foul-smelling concoction, lies not over the trap but in front of it.  The trick is to set branches and leaves in such a way as to create a natural path over which the coyote will walk as he follows his nose to the bait.

We also see Jake at work in the little shop where he skins the creatures.  This is fine work that requires a steady hand, strong wrists, and some very sharp knives.  The pelts so produced are what really keep Jake going.  (One year he made about $18,000 off the trade in furs, a handsome enough income for a simple man in those parts.)  We don't see much about what becomes of the coyotes, fox, muskrat and beaver after their skins are peeled off, but one good-sized rabbit does seem to make it into a thin lunch-time stew.

By the accounts of his neighbors, including a friend who is a Native American chief, Jake was a spiritual man, a God-fearing one, not in spite of his trade but perhaps because of it.  To this we shall return.

As the film closes, Jake simply dies in media res you might say.  Surely that is how he would have wanted it.

"Purgatory" is an odd undertaking.  Released just last year, it is a Polish production with the explicit goal of getting us all on board with a very conservative conception of the afterlife, one inspired by the philosophy of the mystic "Padre Pio" and also of a couple of Eastern European women.  These women channeled the afterlife; at least one pounded out her impressions on a rickety Polish or Czech typewriter.  We see re-enactments of the lives of all three, but they are sparse in the extreme.  We also see file footage of Pio at work.  (He heard many thousands of confessions.)  

Mostly in "Purgatory" we are lectured by contemporary men of the cloth who are Polish, French and Italian.  (One was a friend of the padre and a dormitory mate in Pio's monastery.)

The clerics are soft-spoken and benevolent in their tone, but this lies in sharp contrast to the horror that they describe as the natural fate of man (and woman) after death, a vision that they believe we reject only at our further peril.  Indeed, the film can be said in this sense to be a true "horror film."

According to their doctrine, even if our sins are forgiven, when we die we must atone for them by spending thousands or millions of years in purgatory, where we will suffer torments "the least of which are worse than any torments we may experience in life."  And this is a condition that we will choose for ourselves rather than having it imposed on us.  Like Mick Jagger, we will "look inside [ourselves] and see [our hearts are] black."  With this knowledge, it simply will not be possible for us to be in the same room with God, as it were, until we are cleansed by the purifying fire for a very long time.

What's more, we will be entirely helpless to alter our fates in any way.  If we scream for mercy, for early release into Heaven, God will not hear us.  And this, critically, is where you and I, still earthbound, come into play.  The prayers of the Faithful Departed are not heard, but the prayers for the Faithful Departed may be heard, if they are offered in the right spirit, and particularly if the Blessed Virgin Mary chooses to intercede for us with her Son, the Christ.

The last major piece of the puzzle as described in the film is the fact that earthbound suffering should be welcomed, because it turbocharges our entreaties on behalf of the dead.  If we come down with a very bad case of the shingles, we should welcome it, for our suffering will redound not to our benefit but to that of our departed loved ones for whom we pray.  (In grammar school, I was taught a variation of this cosmology, with slight cultural adjustments.  I remember one nun telling us that a certain St. Theresa would stick hat pins in and through her hat, into her skull in fact, in remission of the sins of one or another inhabitant of that place.)  Padre Pio himself, it should be noted, suffered the classic stigmata, the signs of crucifixion on hands and feet, demonstrably mind in triumph over matter.

For a modern person, even one favorably disposed to life after life, the whole cosmology makes no sense.  Its fatal flaw is the clockwork orange argument.  The supposedly merciful God designed and built the whole system.  When the clock was done He wound it up and flicked it "on."  Everything that happened after that, free will or not, was something that He chose.  Given His own free will, He could have chosen otherwise, and all of this suffering would have been averted.

And, we are told, "Jesus has never been known to turn a deaf ear to the intercessions of His mother."  Well, in that case, she herself must be rather arbitrary in her intercessions, for there are millions that still suffer notwithstanding all of the prayers sent up to her for relay to the Christ.

Kierkegaard, perhaps, or Dostoevsky's Jesus in "The Grand Inquisitor," could embrace this utterly bleak narrative, but only because they asserted that if it weren't impossible to believe then it would not be worthy of belief.

Compare and contrast.  In Jake's afterlife, while there is Fear of the Lord, the lion lies down with the lamb, and Jake turns his "dog whispering" skills onto the very coyotes that he has dispatched, and to his friend the Indian chief this is simply the natural order of things.

Thursday, January 12, 2023


East of Bakhmut

There is a field of corpses so dense that it has become a carpet for the Wagnerites who each day send new waves of attacks against the Ukrainian lines.  Making allowances for changes in military gear and dress, it is reminiscent of Antietam or of the ground under the "high water mark of the Confederacy" on Day Three of Gettysburg, of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the morning light, after the final, night time suicidal samurai charges.

It is about 300 miles from Bakhmut to what is now called Volgograd.  There, just outside the city, each spring there is a new harvest of German bones poking out of the soil.

Just what end is this 21st century carnage supposed to serve?  I guess for an answer we have to ask the little man behind the Big Wall.

As shorthand for the center of power, we have "the White House," the South Koreans have "the Blue House," the Brits have "10 Downing Street."  For the Russians, it is simply "the Fortress."  Never breached, it holds out the rules of reason as well as it has held out the invaders, over centuries.

Saturday, January 7, 2023


If You Must Drink Tequila

Do it as I do, in dreams.  It is served to me by one Fred Siegel, who is a highly successful retailer of crap, mostly low-end household items like pencils, pens, notepads for little kids.  

Fred likes to throw big parties on the cheap, in public parks in summertime.  They are like picnics, with lots of rummaging over rough terrain to get to the picnic tables.  There the shots of tequila are set out, a single green grape in each, never a worm nor an olive.  

Little cups made of thin paper, the kind that they used to use to administer oral vaccines back in the day.

You are allowed to drink as many as you want.  I often spill mine, as no one else does.  This gives rise to a certain general resentment aimed at me for wasting.

After all, these people are by no means my friends.