Thursday, September 27, 2012

Norman Conquest

In the year 2066, a mere 54 years from now, while most of us are enjoying our next incarnation as butterfly, butter lettuce or third-base coach, it will be the 1000th anniversary of the Norman invasion. I intend to celebrate the occasion regardless of what shape I’m in. As invasions go, this one was momentous and not altogether destructive. I’m particularly pleased about that since they did it in my name.

150 years before that, the French were ruled by Charles the Simple, who may or may not have been a drop-out. He accepted a horde of Vikings to occupy and protect a section of northern France which came to be known as Normandy (Norse Men). Thus was Norman born.

It was on an October Thursday. William, not yet, the-Conqueror set sail from northern France with a gaggle of wine-soaked men to defeat the more pixilated forces of Harold at the battle of Hastings. This is where Michael Kitchen now presides as Inspector Foyle. He might have sniffed out the plot and defended the sacred shores but, as most European wars, this was simply a family squabble, not to be denied.

Normandy Bill, with some familial ties, was promised the throne by Ed the Confessor of England, who inconveniently died and Harold, his brother-in-law would have nothing of it. His throne was also being challenged from the north by the ruler of Norway. These were the days when Europe’s monarchs were at each other’s throats, unlike today when everyone loves everyone else, except for those Greeks.    

It might also have been a food-fight in which French toast got the better of English muffins and the result was eggs Benedict. The Normans had made better dishes to set before the king and so they did. Thousands came over to occupy British soil. They not only brought their latest technology in the form of weaponry; they also brought new notions of society, government and their mellifluous tongues. Mingling took place with the Romance language of the Normans marrying the more guttural Anglo-Saxon speech of the Brits. The result was a most profound effect in the evolution of language, with the eventual meshing of Latinate and Germanic we now call English and speak, for better or worse.

At first only the court, administration and elite spoke French while peasants stayed with their old Saxon words. Over time the one trickled down and the other met it and merged. The word, government, itself, traveled the channel in the period known as Middle English.

It took a few centuries for the new vocabulary to become the common tongue. The old Brit words tend to be truncated and hard-edged while the French were often polysyllabic and lyrical. Those four-legged creatures in the pasture, sheep and cow, became French on the plate, mouton and chateaubriand or filet mignon. It is estimated that 10,000 French words have been folded into the English language. In that sense we Anglo-Americans are multi-lingual and all because of some Normans who came and never left.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Known By His Legacy, Not His Name

Pharaohs sought immortality through mummy-wrap, entombing themselves with a few of their favorite wives, servants and pets. For those of us without the shekels to build a pyramid we may be best remembered by the deeds we bequeath. At least the gift endures if not the name of the giver.

Consider the image we have of Santa Claus, the Republican elephant, Uncle Sam and the Democrat’s donkey. One man created the first two and popularized the others. He is credited with being instrumental in the elections of three presidents, Grant, Hayes and Cleveland. Lincoln called him, our best recruiting sergeant.  He was hailed as the father of the American cartoon. His fifteen minutes of fame lasted forty years. During the Gilded Age he was as famous as his friend, Mark Twain. A household name 150 years ago, now only history buffs know Thomas Nast.

He is said to have added the whiskers to Uncle Sam and depicted him often enough for it to become a national icon. Nast was an ardent abolitionist and supporter of Native Americans and Chinese-American rights. He carried Harper’s Weekly for several decades. When he left in 1886 the magazine lost its political significance.  One of his passions was exposing the corruption of Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed in particular. Nast was offered a bribe by Tweed of $500,000 to leave the country. He declined.  In fact it was Tweed who fled after his arrest and was identified in Spain by Nast’s caricature drawings.

Nast’s depiction of cherubic Santa came to him partly from the folk lore of his native Germany and partly from Clement Moore’s poem, The Night Before Christmas. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Nast is that he never learned to read or write. His wife is said to have read the poem to him as he made his engravings. It was also his inspiration to locate Santa in the North Pole along with elves and a workshop, making him a universal figure for all children.

Later in life he started his own publishing house and newspaper (he was not related to Conde Nast) and still relied on friends to read the sentences out of which came his drawings. He saw words as pictures. One of them is worth a thousand of these squiggly things. History and the passage of time do strange things, lifting some names up and devouring others. Even though Thomas Nast got misplaced in the national chronicle his contribution is beyond authorship.

For the rest of us who do not live out loud and may not even exist according to Google there are enough daily acts of kindness, beyond all measure, to assure our claim for remembrance among those we have touched.  

Monday, September 17, 2012


This morning’s minion I woke to was a controversy of crows, a family squabble, perhaps, over whose early-bird worms these were, or maybe just a diva’s rendition of a mating aria from their repertoire of crow-caw. It had the decibels sufficient to pull me from REM-sleep and was probably screechy enough to scare the bejesus out of hummingbirds and chicks in unguarded nests.

Crows seem to be following me lately, on the page, not in the Hitchcockian sense. They are darkening the stanzas of poems and paragraphs of novels. Ever since Poe’s raven (and likely before that) members of the crow family have been identified with morbidity and worse.
Nevermore, the raven famously proclaimed driving the rejected lover into madness. Crows have become the number one metaphor for menace. Van Gogh dotted his canvas with them in his familiar, Wheatfield With Crows.

Enough! Crows have been maligned far too long. Look at their extended family. Jackdaws, magpies, jays and rooks are cousins; some fine feathers there. Nutcrackers also belong in that aviary and look what Tchaikovsky did for them. Crows are among the smartest of creatures scoring high on the non-human SAT exams. It could be crow-propaganda but they even show a degree of self-awareness in a mirror-test; some of us have never gotten beyond this stage.
If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows; so said Henry Ward Beecher. Crows are also credited with fashioning their own tools; that’s more than I could boast.

They are classified as oscine passerine, which is another way of saying songbirds that perch. Can they help it if their song makes me long for elevator music?

There is some question whether Vincent saw them as foretelling his demise. He was a reader of Jules Michelot who regarded crows with a kind of reverence, calling attention to their curiosity, sagacity and prudence. In letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh also noted the birds as a symbol of resurrection. Among the Northwest Coast Indians ravens are attributed with bringing light to the world in their creation myth. In Native American
culture, crows have been endowed with human attributes. In traditional tribal societies crows and shamans are revered as tricksters, their spirits interwoven with masks and their power passed along. 

We humans aren’t very nice; we even assign the name,
crow’s feet, to our facial wrinkles. Crows would never do that to us. Many a plastic surgeon has taken a cruise on the money made from smoothing those pleats around our eyes, Americans particularly. In Italy they are called hen’s feet and in France they are goose’s feet. But the Danes say it best; they call them, smiling wrinkles, signifying a long life of living and laughing.

On the other hand we call hand-writing like mine,
chicken scratch, while Denmark uses the term, kragetaeer, or crow’s toes. We just can’t resist bad-mouthing those black birds. I’m feeling you, crow, evermore.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Staying In The Moment

I’m trying, I’m trying. Peggy says that’s all we have. Kobe Bryant agrees. It’s hard enough living one day at a time. I’m hearing it from Zen masters and ballplayers.

I woke up this morning thinking of my brother who died fifty years ago. There he was in the pillow. From what I could retrieve of my dream I was flying in something of my own invention I called a Kazoom. It looked like an air-borne scooter lifting off the ground about twenty feet, easing the long trek up the mountain. I was with my grandson at first and landed with my brother.

They’re all crowded in the moment along with the November election and an up-coming dental appointment. Then there’s our anniversary get-a-way plans for next week. I’m still not quite off the wheel of desire even though memories have it over plans by vast numbers. How do I go with the flow while staying in the moment?

Maybe the moment has biblical proportions; each mini-moment is a lifetime the way God stretched his seven days into billions of years to make the world. Maybe He could have done a better job if he’d given himself a few more weeks. So yesterday and tomorrow are all part of the moment. I can’t help dragging my baggage into the present, even those moments that didn't quite happened. It’s never too late to imagine. The, what ifs, almost balance the bulk of our stories that went down the drain into oblivion.

When the athlete says to stay in the moment he/she is shrugging off last night’s failure. It could also be a cautionary note to not get too much swagger in their step for today. It all comes down to pay attention right now, stay focused.

If grief or regret is calling, my inclination is to neither wallow in it nor stifle it but to give it its due and then move on. That then becomes the new moment, part old pages, part new chapters, living to the hilt in that moment and the next.

As A.A. Mlne put it:

What day is it?
It's today," squeaked Piglet.
My favorite day, said Pooh.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

To Be Or Be Had

Most polls now show a divided electorate with about 94% of voters committed to the good guy or the bad guy which leaves the election in the hands of these undecided 6 percent. Woe is we.

Who are these equivocal folks? Are they semi-comatose, incorrigibly cynical or truly wrestling with their better angels? My guess is all of the above. I’ve tried to imagine the three types I will call Chuck, Charley and Charles.

Chuck minds his own business which is mostly just getting by. He paints houses or repairs bicycles out of his garage. His mind is occupied with the blue-plate special at Smity’s Diner. The tune of last Sunday’s hymn is humming in his head. He read something about one of the candidates in the barber shop last week but can’t remember what. Any ideas about political parties get shredded in his head like severe tire damage. He says he’ll probably vote and make up his mind behind the curtain. He always says that. The last time he actually bothered was back in the 90s when he heard that Clinton liked Garth Brooks and Dole listened to Dolly Parton…or was it the other way around? He’s getting fed up with all these political ads on TV. He’s going to rent a horror movie tonight and knock off a six-pack which keeps inching up in price. Whose fault is that, he wonders.

Charley has no use for any of them, not since our founding fathers. There are no statesmen anymore above the fray, just whores from special-interests groups. Charley chokes on anything less than rarefied air. He’s never met a bumper sticker he didn’t want to rear-end. He lets his dog pee on lawn signs. They’re all crooks, he says. A litany of hollow promises betrayed as soon as they’re elected. He denounces them with the fury of a lover scorned. He’s been hurt too often and now there is no forgiveness left in him. Maybe he sees from a distant perch where no hands get dirty. Perhaps his favorite subject was math; nothing measures up to the elegance of numbers. Maybe he is a fallen-Catholic still looking for saints.

Charles might be a Westside attorney. He’s a registered Democrat but can list half dozen reasons why he can’t trust them any longer starting with Israel and ending with immigration. Of the former, he bristles at every perceived slight. He would agree with Gilbert & Sullivan’s piece from Iolanthe. The Law is the true embodiment / of everything that’s excellent. / It has no kind of fault or flaw / and I, my Lords, embody the law. Charles vacillates which is not the way of an advocate. His colleagues on the elevator have already moved their allegiance. He squirms with both candidates. He knows that the Conservatives have been overrun by imbeciles, Neo-Cons, evangelists, and the privileged one percent for whom greed is their creed. Too many bleeding-heart liberals, he says. Can he feel his own heart clotted and closing? Who will get his vote? Will he sit out the most important election in several generations, the one that will either shame our nation or reinvigorate it?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Unconventional Notes

The Republican convention was a circus complete with clowns, legerdemain, acrobatic flip-flops, high wire lies, disappearing acts and elephant excrement requiring a nuclear-powered shovel to clean it up. All the puppeteers in Tampa couldn’t breathe life into wooden Mitt even as he talked out of both sides of his mouth.

Paul Ryan spoke on behalf of Ayn Rand whose simplistic catechism of Greed is Good, n
ow translates into painting non-believers with a brush as wide as mother Russia. And if your opponent doesn’t fit your doctrinaire portrait, just fabricate his birth, his narrative, his position to make it fit. The Republicans are not running against President Obama; they are running against an imagined creation of their fevered minds. It is as if they have photo-shopped his programs and mastered the technique of assigning their own blunders onto him.

A new ad accuses Obama of changing Medicare. They must believe the American people are morons and they may be right about that. Welcome to Wonderland written by Mad Hatters at a tea party. Was that Mitt overheard saying,
I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, Sir, because I'm not myself you see... Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Carl Rove seems to have scripted Mitt as the Mock Turtle believing in education as he knows it with Reeling and Writhing, to begin with, and then the different branches of arithmetic -- Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.

Don’t wait for certain words to be aired at political conventions; not in Tampa, not in Charlotte. Geo-politics is mostly off the table. Even if China and India will be the new super powers in the world by 2050, their names are not likely to be heard. I doubt if the European debt crisis will be mentioned. Nor will anyone mention Africa, which boasts 6 of the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world in 2012 according to the I.M.F. Nor will there be any discussion of our irrational drug war which has drained a trillion dollars from the budget over the last forty years at the same time that our prison population has swelled from 300,000 to 7.2 million under correctional supervision (probation, parole, jail or prison).


Tonight the Democrats have their turn. I expect some of the orations to also be full of tired phrases I’ve already heard on the stump. Speechifying is my least favorite way of receiving information. Too many words falling limp, too much rhetoric designed to incite the herd. Yet I’ve now heard two speeches this afternoon before writing this and they have both been substantive. My only wish is that they may get a bounce in the polls by waking up some of the undecided. At least they will get real and I won’t be carried away by a Jaberwocky.

It is now Thursday morning. Last night Bill Clinton showed how it’s done. With Arkansas folksiness and Rhodes scholar smarts he made the case. Clinton is equal parts preacher, professor and purveyor. If he knocked on my door I’d probably buy his set of Fuller brushes or encyclopedias, maybe even the Brooklyn Bridge. He has a way of seeming to speak to each person in a packed hall and making complex issues within the grasp of a simple phrase. Obama has a tough act to follow.

And now it is Thursday night and Obama met the challenge, seized the narrative and reminded America who is responsible for change in a democracy………us. His words were directed at the cynics and the constituency he may have lost from 20008. He delivered a brilliant speech, referencing Lincoln’s humility and asserting his role as commander-in-chief with all the burdens and leadership that office entails.