All posts by Wilbur Norman

Why Not An Extension of Financial Support to Individual Citizens

(but, instead, to big companies)

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Limiting View from a Cave
Viewing life from a tunnel provides a very limited view.

There has always been Big Money in U.S. politics. It is just that, now, it is Huge Money.

You do not have to consider the needs and desires of working people if your power base is Huge Money. Especially if that worker base is composed largely of one-issue voters you can keep in the fold by spouting code words every now and then: guns, abortion, immigration, etc. Besides, the poor will just spend federal largesse on groceries, rents and mortgages, car payments, church tithes, etc. Few, if any, are giving money to political causes. And you can still tout Free Speech, even if you do not countenance it, because those one-issue voters are mostly concerned with free speech in their own lanes, those particular, narrow issues. (But do not forget, if you ever knew it, you one-issue revolutionaries: over time most revolutions tend to eat their own.)

A ton of the money given to large business for Covid-19 relief will end up in the coffers of the Republican Party as donations and funding for PACs. Why not dole out those dollars if some eventually comes back to assist your campaign? The decision is eazy-peazy, no?

A comparison one could use of the change from an individuals-based outlook to a grifting, corporatized one is the example of the National Rifle Association. The NRA was once powered by individual gun owners sending in their membership monies. Throw in the manufacturers and you had a tidy sum to use for lobbying. Now the NRA has morphed, essentially, into an extension of the manufacturers’ lobby, it’s just based in northern Virginia instead of on ‘K’ Street in DC. The NRA Board has been pliable enough that in 2018 CEO Wayne LaPierre (2015 compensation $5,110,985 and $2.15 million in 2018) was said to be involved with the NRA’s ad agency, Ackerman McQueen (they have since separated acrimoniously) in the non-profit, tax-exempt NRA (501(c)(4)) being asked to buy him and his wife a $6 million gated-community, lakefront mansion near Dallas, Texas because… if you can believe it, LaPierre – with little expressed concern over school shootings, was reportedly worried about his own security after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida! The request was not fulfilled, perhaps because then-president Oliver North and LaPierre had a tiff combined with the fact that the home-buying scheme came to light and that in 2018 the organization ended the year with a $2.7 million shortfall, a $17.8 million shortfall in 2017 and a $45.8 million one in 2016. None of this stopped LaPierre from reportedly spending $500,000 on ‘luxury clothes and travel’. This style of executive compensation when companies are running deficits or performing poorly is not a rare one these days.

Another example. People have complained about U.S. Foreign Aid but the reason it persists is because the money sent out always stipulates the work be performed by American companies with American products, the food from American farmers, the transport on America transport (even if ‘flagged’ under another nation) and so on. A whopping amount of those government dollars – or, rather, our tax dollars, ends up back in American pockets. Deep pockets. Illegal immigration is similar. Big industries like building, service (lodging and food) and manufacturing have enormous labor needs – and cheap labor, at that. Who you gonna call? Are you, dear reader, hiring low-wage, relatively ‘unskilled’ Mexicans? Where do all these folks crossing the border look for work? Are they knocking on the doors of our homes?

These examples of self-dealing are visible to anyone with an eighth grade education who will take a moment to read newspapers and think critically about their lives, the lives of their fellows and their country. Such comprehension is one, maybe, THE, essential element of a functioning democracy (along with exercising one’s franchise.) Apparently, the numbers of such citizens are getting fewer and fewer. It’s easier to get our ‘important’ news via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other Internet-only sources and to shrug off voting as ‘not making a difference”.

I think a big reason McConnell and bedfellows don’t want an extension of the $600 per week is that he and his cronies realize the only way, today, to force people to work in dicey, dangerous, unhealthy workplaces is to cut off federal support money so that many people are forced to return to work, ignoring safety issues because, oddly enough, most of us have a priority of putting food on the table.

Forcing people to work in unhealthy, dangerous jobs has always been a problem for rulers. Slavery is the obvious example. But, others have found superbly ingenious ways to make people work. Great Britain’s colonial administration in East Africa used a tax on salt. When native workers would earn enough money for their immediate needs they simply stopped showing up until they needed money again. How to force them to continue coming to work? Ah…. levy a burdensome tax on salt, a necessary ingredient for a healthy life in a climate where one sweats it out and needs to daily replenish. (Salt tax earned early Chinese civilization half its tax revenue and remember it was the righteous purpose of The Salt March that made Mohandas Gandhi famous outside his immediate circle.)

Obviously, people working is what keeps a country’s economy bumping along and accounts for whatever level of financial prosperity a nation enjoys. But, must we force people, before the proper time, to return to jobs that are very likely going to be nurseries for Covid-19?? When is the proper time?

Personal prejudice is a powerful guide to action – or inaction. We have all heard or read phrases that come from nebulous, unsubstantiated beliefs: ‘the undeserving poor’, ‘the idle rich’, etc.

When Jeffrey Epstein was arrested his story was covered extensively locally because he owned a large property here. One interesting tidbit I saw was an incident that took place at a symposium on his private island in the Caribbean. Epstein told one attendee he was voting Harvard professor Steven Pinker ‘off the island’ because Pinker openly disagreed (using fact-based science) with a comment Epstein had made. At a round-table Epstein had said he would never fund projects for the alleviation of poverty because the poor would just go out and breed, making more children. Pinker spoke up, differing with this assessment, saying this belief has been shown to be untrue: the more solid people become in their personal economies, the fewer children they have.

We all need to do our research, think creatively and not cast aside an open mind and the scientific method when acting on ‘facts’. Following a ‘party line’ is one of the surest roads toward a poverty of imagination and the narrowing of choices.

The rule of money or the rule of democracy? Like a garden, Democracy must be tended and nurtured, its soil must be tilled and overturned to keep it alive, active and strong. It is not a given that it will always prevail after only a couple hundred years of existence.

Keep the Faith

And

Act on it!

cancel the USA November 2020 elections?

a ballot box
A Ballot Box

OK, the innermost desires of the current occupant of the White House are never secret too long. He has an innate inability to contain himself in any manner whatsoever. Kind of like little boys in their ‘terrible teens’.

I recently heard someone use the word “Fascism” and it reminded me that just like the word ‘racist’, it does have a specific meaning, tho it has been prefixed to many modifiers in its historically short, modern history.

(To be a racist, by the by, is to also have the position and societal power to enact and enforce your beliefs. Otherwise you are, simply, ‘prejudiced’. I dislike pineapple on pizza is a prejudice, for example. If I wrote that I do not like folks of the Caucasian persuasion that would be a prejudice, as well: as a person of color I have no societal power over them. All I could do is on a personal level, like not hiring them, not publishing their photography, etc. As such, my actions would be prejudicial ones, not racist ones.)

So, to fascism.

The great novelist and thinker in semiotics, Umberto Eco, was born into fascist Italy. To help clarify people’s thinking on just what the word means, he published an essay in 1995 for The New York Review of Books titled “Ur-Fascism“. While I am not certain his list is the last word, he offers 14 typical features that, like a tiny speck of atmospheric ice crystal that permits the formation of hail, allows fascism to coalesce into a state we can identify.

*****

Openculture.com (via a refinment from someone named “Kottke” and then blogger Paul Bausch) published these as the following comprehensible list:

1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”

2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”

3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”

4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”

5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”

6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”

7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”

8. The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”

9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”

10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”

11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”

12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”

13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

RIP: Representative John Lewis (21 February 1940 – 17 July 2020)

“Oh Freedom” sung by Earl R. Nance and group

Thoughts on watching the body of Civil Rights and Justice Warrior, Representative John Lewis, being ferried in a horse-drawn wagon across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

*******

“And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried to my grave”

‘Oh Freedom’, an African American freedom song associated with the U.S. Civil Rights movement but actually written after the U.S. Civil War (12 April 1860 – 9 April 1865). A version was first recorded by Earl R. Nance (with Clarence Dooley, Tenor Vocal & Guitar; Madie Nance, Soprano Vocal; Helen Nance, Alto Vocal & Mandolin) August 26, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana. (video, above)

Most of us are more familiar with the Odetta (1957), Harry Belafonte (1960) or Joan Baez (1963 March on Washington) versions but the original recording takes me to an earlier place in our country’s history.

*****

“get out there and get in the way, get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and be yourself.”
– John Lewis, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 1, 2020 (a motivator to the end!)

John Lewis also spoke similar words to young people at the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools National Training in June 2014. Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Fund wrote, “As he spoke to today’s young Freedom Schools leaders John Lewis told them that when he was their age getting into “necessary trouble” shaped his life’s mission. As he explained, he grew up poor in rural Troy, Alabama, where his father, a former tenant farmer, had saved enough money to buy his own land. He worked on the farm alongside the rest of his family but was always desperate to get an education. A teacher encouraged him over and over to read all he could. Although he wasn’t allowed in his segregated county library like so many of our generation, he did his best: “I tried to read everything, the few books we had at home, the magazines. We were too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper, but my grandfather had one, and when he would finish reading his newspaper each day, I would get that newspaper and read it.” He also listened to the radio to learn more about the news outside his small community, and eventually started hearing about new events that would change his life: “In 1955, 15 years old in the 10th grade, I heard of Rosa Parks. I heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard his voice on an old radio, and it seemed like he was saying, “John Lewis, you, too, can do something . . . You can make a contribution.”

John Lewis decided then that was exactly what he would do. He started with the library: “So in 1956, 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we went down to the public library in the little town of Troy, Alabama, trying to get a library card, trying to check out some books, and we were told by the librarian that the library is for Whites only and not for coloreds.” A year later, as a high school senior he decided to apply to Troy State College (now Troy University), a White college close to his home—but his application was ignored and unanswered. John Lewis was stopped temporarily—but he was not finished.

He told the very rapt audience that getting into necessary trouble in order to stand up for what is right is required of us all: “If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us.” And he reminded us that this is true even when there is a terrible cost, as with the murders of the three Freedom Summer volunteers in Philadelphia, Mississippi: “Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. I knew these three young men. On the night of June 21st, 1964, almost 50 years ago, these three young men were detained, taken to jail, taken out, turned over to the Klan, where they were beaten and shot and killed. They didn’t die in the Middle East or Eastern Europe or Vietnam or in Central or South America. They died right here in our own country, and they must be looked upon as the founding fathers of the new America, a new way of doing things, a new way of life.””

*****

Looking across the aisle, I also found this interesting scene on the morning TV show The View (transcript from The Decider):

“[Meghan] McCain offered her own reflection on Lewis’ legacy with a personal story about meeting him at her father’s office when she was 14. “It was important to [her father] that I heard this man’s story and knew who he was,” said the co-host. “I can remember when I was 14 not really ever seeing my dad deferential or in awe of anyone, and that was one of the first times.”

McCain added that while Lewis and her father “ended up having a political disagreement” when Sen. McCain ran for president — “I have no interest in rehashing it right now,” she said — but they were able to squash it. “When my dad passed, John Lewis put out one of the more beautiful statements of anyone,” she recalled.”

John Lewis – a great American humanist.

One Ring to Rule Them All – America Gets Its Interior Ministry

James Madison at the College of New Jersey in Princeton. Portrait by British Painter James Sharples
James Madison (1751-1836) at the College of New Jersey (Class of 1771) in Princeton. Portrait by James Sharples (British, 1752-1811)

The Executive Branch current morphing of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security into what some other countries call their Interior Ministry has been, in a way, a no-brainer. Of the 80-odd federal law enforcement agencies in the United States, Customs and Border Protection Agents may be the most ‘physical’ with apprehended suspects as they conduct operations along a largely deserted southern border without the prying eyes of the greater public. They routinely hold people who they suspect are entering the country illegally without offering up specific charges. (Separate and incarcerate children apart from their parents? OK, no problem! They have also arrested U.S. citizens who leave gallon jugs of water in the desert for immigrants because such actions are seen as aiding those attempting to enter the U.S. without papers.)

In many countries Interior Ministries are anything but people-friendly: these departments are not populated by employees guiding their populace on ranger-led interpretive nature hikes through spectacular natural scenery. They are heads-of-state directed agencies who operate as a secret police, whose employees are feared by their own people and rightly so. The tactics employed by such ministries include warrantless search and seizures, arrests without stated cause, indeterminate detention, torture and other popular acts of authoritarian governments. They are internal police forces answering to the whims of the supreme leader, not the directives of local officials. Portland was simply a warm-up exercise incorporating agents from Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Chicago is slated to be next as what we in the past called Gestapo Tactics is rolled out across the country’s big cities using whatever federal manpower is available. The Trump administration has learned another valuable lesson from Russia’s playbook by customizing its own anonymous armed officers, our version of the “Little Green Men” who invaded and occupied eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century. Tim Duggan Books; 2017) spoke with Michelle Goldberg for her New York Times July 21st column, “This is a classic way that violence happens in authoritarian regimes, whether it’s Franco’s Spain or whether it’s the Russian Empire. The people who are getting used to committing violence on the border are then brought in to commit violence against people in the interior.” “

Typical of right-winger’s flip-flops, the National Rifle Association (NRA) was rabid in 1995 with a flip warning of the seizure of American’s guns under Congress’s ‘Assault Weapons Ban’: “In Clinton’s administration, if you have a badge, you have the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.” Now, however, the NRA endorses Trump for a second term (July 16 announcement) and, with a thudding flop, lauds his actions in Portland for “stand[ing] tall for the constitutional freedoms in which our members believe.” Where o’ where are my conservative friends who used to uphold the rights of individuals at all costs against Big Government? Perhaps they are all busy praising the powers of plutocracy and the all-controlling Spy State: all citizens are equal but some are more equal than others.

In an article in today’s The Atlantic magazine David A. Graham writes, “Chad Wolf, the [acting head of] DHS amid the crackdown, is also accountable only to the president: Trump, who loves circumventing the Constitution’s requirement of Senate confirmation for some positions, has often chosen to leave acting heads in charge of agencies so that they are more pliable and dependent on him.”

As if anonymous federal police throwing people into unmarked rental cars is not enough, Trump has bought in John Yoo, seeking advice from the lawyer who wrote Bush 43’s 2002 legal justification for Guantanamo ‘enhanced interrogations’, the so-called ‘torture memos’. Yoo has publicly confirmed he’s helping the Trump administration find ways to skirt Congress and impose his (Trump’s) own policies without congressional approval, even if such policies violate laws – that is, the democratic principles of citizen protection upon which this country was founded.

Yoo’s thinking on this was detailed in an article in the magazine National Review (June 22) arguing the Supreme Court’s ruling to uphold President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) provides a back door to implement policies by the Chief Executive without regard to legality: the ruling “makes it easy for presidents to violate the law, but reversing such violations difficult — especially for their successors.” In Yoo’s recent interview with the British newspaper The Guardian he says, “And why can’t the Trump administration do something similar with immigration – create its own … program, but it could do it in areas beyond that, like healthcare, tax policy, criminal justice, inner city policy. I talked to them a fair amount about cities, because of the disorder.” And with regard to Portland’s unidentified, masked agents: “It has to be really reasonably related to protecting federal buildings … If it’s just graffiti, that’s not enough. It really depends on what the facts are.”

But… facts, of course, never get in the way of life in Trump-ville.

I am again and again struck by our country’s Founders who were so often uncannily prescient in setting up roadblocks for undesirable outcomes and on-ramps for desirable ones. They could not possibly plan for every exigency but certainly covered a lot of ground in their attempt. For all its social faults the Age of Enlightenment bred people – men and women – of brilliance and forethought to whom expertise, science and knowledge were things of beauty to combat ignorance, popular befuddlement and the rule of the rabble.

I end here with a small quote from the transcript of the James Madison Debates of the Constitutional Convention, delivered by the man himself, on Friday, June 29, 1787. As was usual, the written record contains abbreviations commonly used in such recorded work in the 18th century (the italics are mine).

“In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of war, has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people. It is perhaps questionable, whether the best concerted system of absolute power in Europe cd. maintain itself, in a situation, where no alarms of external danger cd. tame the people to the domestic yoke.” Further, “He [Madison] entreated the gentlemen representing the small States to renounce a principle [the rank of the States as political societies, for example] wch. was confessedly unjust, which cd. never be admitted, & if admitted must infuse mortality into a Constitution which we wished to last forever.

The Pursuit of Justice

Life in balance.
Life in balance.

There are myriad qualities that make us human but few, other than the wide bailiwick of ‘culture’, have tentacles that reach – or should reach, as far into our psyches as the pursuit of justice.

All the qualities are evolutionarily useful, of course, and some are shared with other species: tool use for example. Plus we have the category of emotions – but we have no lock on exclusivity there, either; witness your dog jumping for joy when you return to your home (even after being gone for only 10 minutes!) or elephants grieving their dead. Then there is the neurological brain and unfathomed mind terrain of morality, ethics, mutuality, competition and the like.

I, and millions of others on this hunk of rock speeding through the universe, think the historical Buddha was onto something when he hit upon desire as a main cause of human misery. And, again, when he taught that wisdom and compassion were two primary keys to the alleviation of much that passes for our distress in this world. Notice that I used the past-tense ‘taught’ (teach) and not ‘preach’, a signal difference between Eastern and Western approaches to the divine. Preaching is an activity wherein someone with a supposed special insight and connection to the spiritual expounds to a (mostly) passive audience. Other than the “call-and-response” in traditional black churches there is precious little two-way communication going on.

Teaching in the active sense is a whole other endeavor altogether. It is what Doris Lessing (“Introduction” to the Grove Press edition of Ecclesiastes) identifies as the “experiential Path” vs. the “passive” one. When we hear and learn of concepts like “Justice” in our schools and places of worship we internalize, if we do at all, an intellectual concept. When we grow up in an environment with parents and a community that teaches us about “Justice” we internalize it in our hearts. It is closely linked to compassion for the Other. To see a black citizen beaten or killed on an anonymous video stream causes every right-thinking person unease. To walk out of the house knowing that this treatment might be your own lot brings on another level of apprehension altogether.

In many ways ordinary, middle-class white people in our society are privileged not so much by what has happened in their lives as by what has not happened.

The last time I drove cross-country from Ohio, then to Chicago for a Leica meeting and then home to New Mexico I was stopped not once, but twice by states highway patrol. In Illinois the trooper was right behind me as we drove 70+ mph along the Interstate. I decided to move back to the right lanes after passing a car and in a few seconds saw the flashing lights go on in the patrol car. I dutifully pulled over and awaited the standard visit from the cop at my Mercedes Sprinter van window.

When he finally came up I asked what was the problem. He said that in Illinois there is a law that a driver cannot change lanes on an Interstate within 275 feet of signaling a lane change. I asked him to repeat the statement as I was trying to internalize his comment (which was not as succinct as my version of it.) Then I did a quick calculation and said that at the speeds we were driving, 275 feet go by in less than three seconds. I added that I did not have a stop-watch but was pretty certain the legal time had transpired and I had, after all, signaled my intentions. He said, yes, I had signaled but he was pretty certain I had moved into the right lane too early. When I let out an exasperated breath (I was trying to get to my meeting hotel before nightfall) he added that he was not going to give me a ticket, only a ‘Warning’, and that I should leave my van and get into his patrol car. I responded with, “Really!” He said, “Yes, you need to comply, sir.” As I opened the door and stepped out he suddenly said, “Are you armed?” I looked at him with incredulity and said, “Are you serious? No, of course not!”m

As I approached his car I reached for the back door handle but he said, “No, get in the front passenger seat.”

“Okay, cool, I can look at all the toys!”

I did not get much done by way of inspection because there was a police major in the back seat who grilled me on fly-fishing in New Mexico when he saw the Catch & Release sticker in my rear window. I got the idea he was trying to ferret out whether I knew anything about the great art of casting with a fly or had stolen an expensive vehicle.

After several days in Chicago I headed back to the Interstate toward New Mexico. That evening late, just west of St. Louis, a car kept tail-gating me closely for miles. Rather than hit the brakes, which I would have done in my youth, I simply slowed down. Who wants to get the driver behind alarmed and pissed-off enough that he/she pulls up and sends a bullet thru the driver side window?

As I slowed those flashing lights came on! He kept me waiting for a long time before coming up to the window. Tired and (again) exasperated as I was trying to reach my usual hotel, I asked what took so damn long. He said he saw I had an old arrest record at the White House but could not find that it had ever been settled. It took him a long time to find it had been adjudicated (‘don’t return to DC and cause trouble for at least 6 months.’)

Then, I got the only laugh I have ever received from a state cop during the many times I have been stopped: “Officer, first things first. I am very proud of that arrest. It is a sterling moment of civil disobedience from my youth. I made national TV and got a televised comment from my state senator, John Glenn! Second, why did you stop me in the first place?”

“I could not read your license plate or see a sticker to see if it is current.“

“My date sticker is right there for all to see.”

“Yes, I see it now, but in Missouri it is illegal to drive with a license plate that is hard for an officer to read. Now, I’m not going to give you a ticket, but….”

Another ‘Warning’ ticket in my pocket after a stop that lasted ninety minutes.

Many of you will laugh at these stories, and I can, too, now. But, the significance of them is that any ‘untoward’ action or displayed anger on my part could have ended badly for me. Driving while brown can be a risky practice in many places in the United States. What proved to be remarkable was that the very next week the NAACP issued a notice that read, “if you are black you should avoid driving through Missouri if at all possible.” This is an incredible piece of advice in 21st century America.

These examples of state police action would be simply idiosyncratic stories if not for the fact that they are repeated across this nation every day. I am lucky in that I am sure the officers’ calculus of behavior was influenced by my educated flat, mid-Western speech, my demeanor and my expensive set of wheels (both officers were impressed by my great Mercedes vehicle), i.e. ‘he can probably afford an expensive lawyer’.

To sum, dear Reader, do not assume that your peaceful and secure daily existence is the norm for everyone in this country. Do not assume that those who are executed with impunity by state actors had it coming. Do not assume that after we have conquered Covid-19 everyone will return to a life of beauty and personal empowerment. Do not assume we must all color within the lines as dictated by the mandates of the 1%. Yes, applaud those officers who “take a knee” in solidarity with the people they have sworn to serve and protect but remember that real change is not a cosmetic application of soothing words and easy actions. True justice requires vigilance and perseverance – the hard work of all people of good will.

“History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.” – Justice Thurgood Marshall

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” – John Stuart Mill, 1867

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ― Frederick Douglass

RIP: Little Richard – (Richard Wayne Penniman)(5 Dec 1932 – 9 May 2020)

Poster for a Little Richard Concert in Baltimore, circa 1956
Poster for a Little Richard Concert in Baltimore, circa 1956.
Photograph of poster from liveauctioneers.

Almost 70 years on it is difficult, unless you possessed young ears in the middle of the 1950s, to understand the enormous impact a song like Tutti Frutti had on its listeners.

Everything about Little Richard shouted ‘DIFFERENT!’ Just look at that hairdo – remember this is the staid hung-up 1950s. Our parents, our schools and the ‘establishment’ were still decrying our hair in the last years of the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. Imagine the public outrage (not too strong a word) in the 50s. Of course, the disapprobation of our elders only made sporting the coiffures more fun!

Although I have not looked at the stats I cannot imagine anyone (other than, perhaps, the Beatles – who actually opened some European concerts for Little Richard in 1962), besting his record of 17 hit singles in about four years circa 1955-1959. The man rocked and everyone into the new rock and roll knew it!

Penniman learned his chops in a manner similar to how many African American polymath performers learned theirs in the first half of the 20th century: first in church, then in vaudeville or traveling troups of performers. In his case it was Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show. He joined in 1949 rather than enter 10th grade. Here he performed a variety of skits, sometimes in drag as Princess LaVonne, and learned to play what church-folk called ‘devil music’. He once said that Louis Jordan’s Caldonia was the first secular piece he ever played (“Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?”) HISTORIC NOTE: The second(?) recording of this song was where the term “Rock and Roll” originated. It appeared in a Billboard Magazine review of Erskine Hawkins 1945 record: “right rhythmic rock and roll music”.) A year later Penniman joined Buster Brown’s Orchestra where his childhood nickname of Lil’ Richard was modified (he was quite small and had one leg shorter than the other.)

After a couple recording contracts with his records becoming popular in Georgia but not reaching a larger audience, Little Richard returned to his hometown of Macon, Georgia doing menial labor and performing on the side. In 1955 the musician Lloyd Price (with whom my father worked) recommended Specialty Records, the label he recorded for, and Little Richard sent them a demo tape. Months passed with no call. Eventually Specialty’s producer heard Richard sing Tutti Fruiti during an impromtu set at a club – but had to hire another songwriter to clean up the sexual lyrics Little Richard had put to the song. Three takes in September led to a November release and the rest, as they say, is history!In June of 2007 the British music magazine Mojo, based on a survey of music artists (Björk, Tori Amos, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Pete Wentz, Steve Earle and others), listed Tutti Frutti as Number 1 in their “The Top 100 Records That Changed The World”.

SIDE NOTE: I almost did not include this mention as a decade ago Mojo moved to take over ownership of copyright of their writers and photographers work AND, at the same time, laid liability for libel and copyright infringement onto those same writers and photographers.


RIP: Denis Theodore Goldberg (1933-2020)

Artist's Open Air House in Rivonia
An Artist Friend’s Open Air House in Rivonia, © Wilbur Norman
Artist's Open Air Library in Rivonia
The Open Air Library, ©Wilbur Norman

I just learned that Denis Goldberg, one of the last two survivors of South Africa’s infamous Rivonia Trial (1963-1964), died on April 29th of cancer with Covid-19 complications.

Denis Goldberg, a civil engineer and an anti-apartheid activist, spent 22 years in prison. He was arrested during a meeting of activists and commanders of the MK (uMkhonto we Sizwe) the armed wing of the ANC (African Nation Congress) on a farm in Rivonia. The defendants in the sabotage and treason trial were Nelson Mandela (already in prison under a “citing workers to strike” charge), Walter Sisulu, Lionel Bernstein, Denis Goldberg, Arthur Goldreich, Bob Hepple, Abdulhay Jassat, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Moosa Moolla, Elias Motsoaledi and Harold Wolpe. (Goldreich and Wolpe escaped from prison, after beatings and torture, before beginning their sentence; Hepple fled the country when charges were withdrawn; and Lionel Bernstein was acquitted, rearrested and placed under house arrest before escaping from the country.) The rest beat a de facto death sentence thru what was probably a private treaty with the judge. Goldberg received release in 1985 largely through the work of his daughter and members of her kibbutz and the U.S. and Israeli governments (for many years both close allies of apartheid South Africa.)

Many Americans think the fight for democracy in South Africa was a monolithic black vs. white struggle. This arrest list shows how wrong this view is: those arrested were English, Indian Muslim, Jewish, Xhosa, Pedi and Coloured.

The Rivonia Trial (Rivonia is a suburb of Johannesburg) contained what is considered a founding moment in the attempts to create a democracy in South Africa – 31 years before it became a reality. The ‘moment’ was , in fact, a three hour defense opening statement by Nelson Mandela, his famous “I Am Prepared To Die” speech. Here is the closing paragraph:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

As the only remaining white found guilty, Denis Goldberg was taken to Pretoria Central Prison to serve 22 years. The others served in various prisons with most doing extended time on Robben Island off the coast. Mandela served almost 28 years (18 of which were at Robben), Walter Sisulu served 26 years (most at Robben), Ahmed Kathrada served 26 years (18 at Robben) with the balance at Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison (along with Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Walter Sisulu.) Many, perhaps all, of those convicted worked on interesting college degrees while incarcerated. Some may remember that it was Ahmed Kathrada who showed President Obama and the First Family around Robben Island in 2013.

In 2017 the three remaining survivors of the Rivonia trial – Denis Goldberg, Andrew Mlangeni and Kathrada, along with the three surviving defense attorneys, Joel Joffe, George Bizos and Denis Kuny – appeared in a documentary film entitled “Life is Wonderful”, directed by Sir Nicholas Stadlen. These were the words Goldberg’s mother, Annie, is said to have uttered when she learned that he and his comrades had been spared the death sentence. (Annie must have been quite a mom: in 1960 she was arrested with him for supporting strikers after the Sharpeville massacre and they both spent four months in jail.)

Here is an interview with Sir Nicholas about the film: https://vimeo.com/284713545

Kent State May 4, 1970

Mary Ann Vecchio gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller. Photo by John Filo, copyright © 1970 Valley News-Dispatch
Mary Ann Vecchio gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller. Photo by John Filo, copyright © 1970 Valley News-Dispatch


“Mary Ann Vecchio [a 14-year old runaway, as the world later learned] gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller, lying face down on the campus of Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio. On publication, the image was retouched to remove the fence post above Vecchio’s head.” The protest was against President Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Reacting to mass demonstrations on May 1st, Nixon he had called anti-war protestors ‘bums’.

Four students were killed and 9 wounded by the 67 shots fired by the Ohio National Guard that day. Two of the four killed were bystanders and none of the four was closer to the Guard than about a football field in distance. The Guard had been dispatched to Kent State by Governor James Rhodes, at the request of the town of Kent’s mayor, after an arson attack burned down the ROTC building on May 2.

Four million students (college and high school) went out on strike after the news of the shootings became public.

In New Mexico, where I now live, eleven people were bayonetted at the University of New Mexico by the New Mexico National Guard in a confrontation with student protesters on May 8th. The demonstrations in Washington, DC were so combative that Nixon was removed to Camp David for his safety and the 82nd Airborne was lodged in the basement of the Executive Office Building next to the White House. At Jackson State University, a historically black college, in Jackson, Mississippi, two students were killed (and 12 wounded) by police during a demonstration on May 14 – an event that did not receive the same attention as the shootings at Kent State.

I was in high school in Ohio and vividly remember those times – especially when my Draft Number turned out to be 99. For many years thereafter I never ate at Wendy’s because Ohio Governor Big Jim Rhodes (“part P.T. Barnum, part Elmer Gantry, part Norman Vincent Peale” – Dayton Daily News) was one of Wendy’s investors. There are memorial events at Kent State on May 4th every year and I have managed to make it to one (the 30th, I believe.)

There are still unanswered questions about the timing and personnel involved in the Kent State massacre. A prominent one involves the university- and FBI-informant Terrence Brooks Norman (no relation!), a student who appeared to be the only non-Guardsman individual who was armed at the demonstration.

RIP: Eavan Boland (24 September 1944 – 27 April 2020)

The great Irish poet Eavan Boland (1944-2020) has gone beyond to the Irish pre-Christian Otherworld of Mag Mell (the Plain of Delight) or, perhaps, Tír-na-hÓige (land of the [ever-] youthful) where worthies engage in poetry, music, entertainment, and the feast of Goibniu that grants immortality to those taking part.

If Americans know Eavan Boland it is most likely for her poem Quarantine from her 2001 book Code, reproduced, below, courtesy of Carcanet Press, All Rights Reserved.

Boland lived in New York from 1956 to 1960 when her diplomat father had a posting. Though the poem Quarantine is about Irish history, she often wrote poetry reflecting the lives of those who live in Dublin’s contemporary suburbia.

Boland said she wrote this poem after reading an anecdote in an early 20th century memoir of the famine, Mo Scéal Féin by An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire. It has been estimated that more than a million Irish died from starvation and disease in the period 1845 to 1852 and a million others emigrated, a period we know as the Irish Potato Famine. Although almost documentary in nature, I prefer to read Quarantine as a love poem and admire the use of repetition (‘worst’, ‘last heat’, ‘last gift’), the phrase ‘freezing stars’ and a reference to the horrible British administration of the country during the famine where tenant farmers actually grew enough wheat to feed people but had to ship it off for English tables (‘Of the toxins of a whole history’.) The next to last stanza brings to my mind the phrase, ‘Never Again!’ but, of course, we humans are slow to learn and even slower to react.

Quarantine

In the worst hour of the worst season

    of the worst year of a whole people

a man set out from the workhouse with his

wife.

He was walking—they were both walking —

north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not

keep up.

     He lifted her and put her on his back.

He walked like that west and west and north.

Until at nightfall under freezing stars they

arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.

    Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole

history.

But her feet were held against his breastbone.

The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.

     There is no place here for the inexact

praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the

body.

There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.

      Also what they suffered. How they lived.

And what there is between a man and woman.

And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Adon Olam

Adon Olam (אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם; “Eternal Master/Sovereign Who Reigns Supreme”) from traditional Jewish liturgy. It is usually attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058, the Golden Age of La Convivencia) but the actual pronunciation of the words points to a much earlier origin. The music in the video below is to the tune of “Happy” written by Pharrell Williams.

This joyful rendition provides an uplift at a time when memorial services are not possible amidst the dying from Covid-19. Tho I am secular now, it still spirits me to my youth when we were made to recite a version of the last stanza before bedtime: Into his hand I commit my spirit when I sleep and I awake and with my spirit, my body, The Lord is with me, I will not fear.

Many will have encountered Adon Olam in Ashkenazi services during Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Kol Nidre. When I lived in London it was, for me, a highlight of Sephardim services sung antiphonally to an old Spanish melody.

Adon Olam may also be read in a room of the dying and in some synagogues as a means of relaying a death in the community (spoken without the musical aid of a cantor.)

Given its ready universality and application throughout the centuries, many have created their own tune to accompany Adon Olam. In 1976 Uzi Hitman wrote what has become a quite popular secular version but the most common melody is probably the one attributed to Russian cantor Eliezar Mordecai ben Yitschak Gerovitsch (1844-1914). Dudu Fisher does a nice job with this as does the singer Fortuna. The group Sabbathsong, below, performs the tune with verve and an unbeatable clarinet!

Adon Olam with transliterated melody and lyrics
Adon Olam Sheet Music

Great Music #1

"Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach" CD
“Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach” CD

A house is not a home when there’s no one there…

My rockin’ friends may laugh and poke fun accusing me of loving schmaltz with this post (“On the day you were born the angels made a dream come true.”) but I don’t care – and neither will those of you who listen to the music on this CD and the other music listed, below.

In 2003 Ronald Isley and Burt Bachrach teamed for the album Here I Am, a collection of Bachrach’s (mostly) 1960s tunes with Bachrach on piano led by Isley’s poignant, signature falsetto. Both Ronald Isley (Cincinnati, May 21, 1941) and Burt Freeman Bacharach (Kansas City, May 12, 1928) are American mid-westerners (yeh!)

Album:  Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach.

Artists: Ron Isley & Burt Bachrach (with many others in the orchestra)

Like most musicians who people believe pop out of nowhere, both Isley and Bachrach had a lot of road behind them when they entered mainstream consciousness. Bachrach studied with famed Darius Milhaud and was a music director for Marlene Dietrich from the mid-to-late 1950s to the early 1960s, touring worldwide and writing songs. When he had an office at the famed Brill Building in New York City he met the lyricist Hal David. Together they wrote many of the greatest popular songs of the 1960s and 1970s, performed to perfection by Dionne Warwick, one of the best selling female vocalist of all time, after Aretha. (And, oh… we all laughed but Warwick made US$3 million from plugging the Psychic Friends Network on late night TV for 7 years!) The Brill is still there and worth a visit if you’ve not passed by. It was home to music publishers and song-smiths including Bobby Darin, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann, Gene Pitney, Johnny Mercer, Laura Nyro, Neil Diamond, Billy Rose, Neil Sadaka and others who worked in small offices with upright pianos (according to my father.)

“Breaking up is so hard to do”

Ron Isley and brothers (variously O’Kelly, Ernie, Marvin, Rudolph) formed The Isley Brothers, an R&B group nonpareil. They made a hit of ‘Twist and Shout’ in 1962, beating the Beatles to the line (1963).

If you are a mid-period baby boomer you most certainly remember the 1971 album ‘Givin’ It Back’ featuring the songs ‘Ohio/Machine Gun’ (by Neil Young /Jimi Hendrix), ‘Fire and Rain’ (James Taylor), ‘Lay Lady Lay’ (Bob Dylan), ‘Spill the Wine’ (Miller, Scott and 5 others) and ‘Love the One You’re With’ (Stephen Stills). The recently deceased Bill Withers played guitar on that album!

Then in 1973 they released the album ‘3+3’ (‘1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’) with ‘That Lady’ (Isley Bros.), ‘Don’t Let me Be Lonely Tonight’ (James Taylor), and more.

When I was in grad school in London the parties the Africans threw were the most fun (check out Osibisa, the first ‘World Music’ group) but for atmosphere and romance one could pull the Isley Brothers in for tactical support. If you could not keep company for the dreary autumn nights with the assistance of the Isley Brothers you were beyond helping!

‘Be mine tonight, let this be just the start of so many nights like this… then seal it with a kiss.’

But I digress.

The CD ‘Here I Am’ with Bachrach will touch a chord with those of us who survived Vietnam, the war of our generation, and the drug- and alcohol-fueled gatherings that took so many of our peers. It is like listening with new (mature) ears.

Full orchestration is not always successful on pop and jazz recordings, think 1955’s ‘Clifford Brown with Strings’ with Brown, Richie Powell, George Morrow and Max Roach – reviewed as “lush settings by some and muzak by others”. However, ‘Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach” is, to me, simply gorgeous; Bachrach did not lose his touch with his 1960s work with Warwick. Isley’s interpretations drop his ‘Mr. Biggs’ persona (much in evidence in his collaborations with R. Kelly) and meld tenderness, love, poignant loss, humility and romance all in one grand slow-motion sweep that will steam the bedroom windows.

Listening to ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ we are no longer in B.J. Thomas territory riding that bicycle with Katherin Ross in 1969’s ‘Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’ (the American Film Institute’s 73rd-greatest American film on its “100 Years…100 Movies”, 10th Anniversary Edition and 7th greatest Western (2008). Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty and Steve McQueen were all offered the role of Sundance by the by!)

(Ah… another recent loss: illustrator Mort Drucker (1929 – April 9, 2020) who drew movie parodies for MAD Magazine from 1956 to 2008 and did the pics for MAD Magazine’s ‘Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid’, Issue No. 136, July 1970.)

For the more visual among you, there was a PBS Special of these performances, too, that I have not seen.

Listen to this CD and you will be booking a site for a post Covid-19 renewal of your wedding vows!

P.S. For a great read on the relationship between the Isley family and Jimi Hendrix see: “Ernie Isley remembers Jimi Hendrix”. If I recall correctly, The Seattle Times article omits to report that the Isleys bought Jimi a new white Strat because they thought his (which was in hock, sans strings, at a pawn shop) was too tatty for their stage shows.

P.P.S. Dionne Warwick’s extended family is chock-a-block full of the musically and athletically talented. Blood relatives include Dee Dee Warwick, Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston, Gary Garland, Bobbi Kristina Brown and Leontyne Price.

Great Reads #3: Elmore Leonard

In my post about The Aeneid last week I did not include a photo of the actual shelves with books from early authors (Aeneid, Gilgamesh, Dante’s Inferno, The Iliad, etc.) because I had already included two overall images and I thought those enough.

Below is the photo I took but did not use.

Shelves of Classics and Elmore Leonard
Books of the classics and Elmore Leonard

One of the reasons, aside from having already included two pics for my Aeneid post, was that the books of Elmore Leonard intrude onto these shelves. This is the inevitable result of owning more books than shelves – tho it is certainly a lesser evil than books stacked and strewn around the house higgledy-piggledy.

The volumes of Leonard sit below those of Dick Francis, Carl Hiaasen, Robert Parker and Walter Mosley in the vertical stack of this shelf unit. It is the case with my guilty pleasure: mystery novels. Like the shelves with William Boyd, Bruce Chatwin, Robertson Davies, Peter Matthiessen, Thomas McGuane, V.S. & Shiva Naipaul, Salmon Rushdie and a few others whose work I collect, most of the books are autographed to me. Leonard had a long career and began by writing Westerns including Three-Ten to Yuma (3:10 to Yuma). I cannot recollect another writer who had as many of his novels turned into movies, sometimes twice!

For the smart-assed among you, the early writers grouping (‘early’ as in Herodotus) does not contain signed books (well, aside from a few modern editors of these works). Likewise my collections of anthropology and evolution are bereft of signatures except for a few letters.

Getting authors to autograph one’s books or a sheet of paper is an interesting custom. I used to have a nice little letter from Darwin’s son, Francis, answering a fan who wanted Darwin’s signature. Francis lamented he had already given away all those he had inherited. I sold the letter to the great scientist, writer and collector Stephen Jay Gould.

The act of collecting has been the subject of those writing both fiction and non-fiction; Sigmund Freud tackled the subject. He believed it sprang from the conflict of unresolved toilet training. (What a shit that shrink was, altho he did collect antiquities.) Balzac, John Fowles and Bruce Chatwin covered the conflict zone. Mozart continues to entertain us with his opera Don Giovanni and collecting of a different sort: sexual conquest. The psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger in his engaging work Unruly Passion was onto something and he ought to have known: he collected African art as a youth but lost everything to the Germans in WWII, coming to America with $100 and a mask he sold to Rockefeller. He was an example of people who cannot be held down and his practice came to include patients like Danny Kaye, Laurence Olivier, James Dean and Marlon Brando. Muensterberger maintained a correspondence with many of the great names of the century: Thomas Mann, Mary Wigman, Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, Constantin Brancusi, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein and others.

The list of those exploring the psyche of collecting goes on and on but I love John Steinbeck’s simple explanation: “I guess the truth is that I simply like junk.” Which brings up hoarding – but that is another foible altogether.

One of the favorite items on my shelves is this sheet of text sent to me by Elmore Leonard, ‘Rules to write by’. He originally published it in The New York Times. It is a hoot to read and he gave it to me as a Thank You for showing him a published bibliography of his works that he did not know about – or authorize.

of the favorite items on my shelves is this sheet of text sent to me by Elmore Leonard, ‘Rules to write by’. He originally published it in The New York Times. It is a hoot to read and he gave it to me as a Thank You for showing him a published bibliography of his works that he did not know about – or authorize.One of the favorite items on my shelves is this sheet of text sent to me by Elmore Leonard, ‘Rules to write by’. He originally published it in The New York Times. It is a hoot to read and he gave it to me as a Thank You for showing him a published bibliography of his works that he did not know about – or authorize.

Elmore Leonard Advice On Writing
Elmore Leonard Advice On Writing

I have had many spectacular books, letters, manuscripts and signatures through the years. I am looking for a great photograph to go with the the signature, below. It is Teddy Roosevelt’s and is special because, prior to his presidency, The White House was called The Executive Mansion. Here he has signed a ‘White House’ card!

Theodore Roosevelt signature on White House card
Theodore Roosevelt signature on White House card

Great Reads #2: The Aeneid

Arma virumque cano….

The Aeneid is the story of how a refugee from beaten and destroyed ancient Troy preserved his people, via divine authority, by founding Rome, with his descendants going on to establish an empire.

In 19BC the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro left Greece, where he had been conducting research for The Aeneid, to return to his home in Rome. He shipped out on a vessel with the Emperor Augustus, as one does. They stopped at Megara where Virgil contracted fever (or heatstroke) and he died as the ship docked in the southern Italian trading port of Brundisium. Among his last thoughts was his dissatisfaction with a 10-year long writing project, this book, The Aeneid. Rather than let an unfinished work see the light of day, he asked his executors to burn the manuscript. Augustus, who knew something of the book as Virgil had read him three chapters, stepped in and ordered the work to be published ‘as is’.

The Aeneidis an acknowledged cornerstone of Western literature and by two centuries after his death was a prerequisite in Latin education, which is to say, any western education above the rudimentary. Even in the 19th century it was often a requirement of students to memorize the whole of it! Its 9,896 lines have been printed in hundreds of editions in both its original Latin dactylic hexameter and in poetic and prose translation. Its opening line was even found in excavation as graffiti in Pompeii: Arma virumque cano, “Of arms and a man I sing.”

In 1680 Henry Purcell published the music for one of my favorite operas, Dido and Aeneas with Nahum Tate writing the libretto. (Tate is today mostly remembered, when he is remembered art all, for rewriting Shakespeare’s plays so that every scene would be “full of respect to Majesty and the dignity of courts”. Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same!) I have many versions of The Aeneid shelved in several libraries around the house. My current favorite is the translation by Robert Fitzgerald (1983). I own four copies of this translation: one (trade paperback) in the sunroom library, one (mass market paper) in the research area for my work on wine in life and literature and two in the bedroom (first edition hardcover and a trade paper to share my enthusiasm by lending to friends.) Hmmm…. maybe this is why I have more than 5,000 books!

Virgil was a talented writer and superb stylist who cleverly knew his way around alliteration, onomatopoeia and other wordplay. His poetic lines are of a grand and stately solemn nature, very foreign to our modern ears attuned as we are to formulations of unstructured free-style verse and sentences. His goal in The Aeneid was to create a work that would glorify Rome and rival Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. There are twelve books (what we might call chapters) in The Aeneid, written using the same syllabic and metrical line as used by Homer. The first six chapters play on the Odyssey and the last six the war and battles in the Iliad.

Though a great work, The Aeneid has not been free of issues. Yes, there are literary ones (it is a bear to translate as it is composed in what the Germans call kunstsprache, an artificial or invented artful language; I never truly mastered it in my school Latin.)

But, the problems I address here are political in nature. The work was ‘co-opted’ right from the beginning by Augustus. The emperor is kindly mentioned by name in scenes where Aeneas is gifted sight into the future when he enters the Underworld to visit his late father, Anchises. Augustus’ reign came after decades of instability (the Roman Civil Wars) following Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon in 49BC, taking his legions into Rome and eventually becoming Dictator. Augustus was seen by many as savior and last hope of the Roman people for peace after the civil turmoil. Likewise it has been used through the centuries as a support for the aggrandizing and subjugating nature of colonization, a classical ‘white man’s burden’ made flesh.

But, to be fair, The Aeneid has also been interpreted as an anti-war poem and it is this tack I take. The language and potent imagery is second to none – cinematic even. The battle scenes do not require a very active imagination to visualize. It is sad that Virgil is no longer on the required reading list of our schools. It still has a lot to teach us about myriad human qualities like devotion, piety, hubris, rage, fate, courage and love in all its incarnations. Stop in and borrow a copy or buy your own if you are unfamiliar with the joy of reading this fine story.

Below, a section from “The World Below”, where Aeneas, led by the Sibyl, travels to the Underworld to see his father. She is carrying, under her dress, their entry ticket: the golden bough. It had been torn off a tree by Aeneas who was foretold it was needed as a presentation to Charon to get him to ferry them across Cocytus, the Stygian river leading to Hades. At the other side of the river there is another obstacle, the huge three-headed dog, Cerberus, but he enters the picture some lines later.

(If the words ‘golden bough’ seem familiar look up J.M.W. Turner’s painting of the same name and, also, the early anthropologist Sir James George Frazier whose work greatly influenced a generation, including Freud and Jung; Aleister Crowley; T.S. Elliot and William Carlos Williams; Hemingway, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Graves and Yeats; and the man who founded anthropology ‘off the verandah’, the founder of my university’s department, Bronislaw Malinowski, who was prompted to lay out the first statement of the aims of ethnography in his ground-breaking Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). Though now superseded in scholarship, for many years The Golden Bough exerted a profound influence upon literature, anthropology and intellectual thinking.)

Selection, below, courtesy of Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, NY. The Aeneid Translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Book VI, lines 331-402. Copyright 1980, 1982, 1983.

Editions of The Aeneid
Bedroom Library

Book VI, “The World Below”, lines 331-402

The cavern was profound, wide-mouthed and huge,

Rough underfoot, defended by dark pool

And gloomy forest. Overhead, flying things

Could never safely take their way, such deathly

Exhalations rose from the black gorge

Into the dome of heaven. …

                                                “Away, away,”

The Sibyl cried, “All those unblest, away!”

Depart from the grove! But you, Aeneas,

Enter the path here, and unsheathe your sword.

There’s need of gall and resolution now.”


She flung herself wildly into the cave mouth,

Leading, and he strode boldly at her heels.

Gods who rule the ghosts; all silent shades;

And Chaos and infernal Fiery Stream,

And regions of wide night without a sound,

May it be right to tell of what I have heard,

May it be right, and fitting, by your will,

That I describe the deep world sunk in darkness

Under the earth.

                                    Now dim to one another

In desolate night they walked on through the gloom,

Through Dis’s homes all void, and empty realms,

As one goes through a wood by a faint moon’s

Treacherous light, when Jupiter veils the sky

And black night blots the colors of the world.

Before the entrance, in the jaws of Orcus,

Grief and avenging Cares have made their beds,

And pale diseases and sad Age are there,

And Dread, and Hunger that sways men to crime,

And sordid Want – in shapes to affright the eyes –

And Death and Toil and Death’s own brother, Sleep,

And the mind’s evil joys; on the door sill

Death-bringing War, and iron cubicles

Of the Eumenides, and raving Discord,

Viperish hair bound up in gory bands.

In the courtyard a shadowy elm

Spreads ancient boughs, her ancient arms where dreams,

False dreams, the old tale goes, beneath each leaf

Cling and are numberless. There, too,

About the doorway forms of monsters crowd –

Centaurs, twiformed Scyllas, hundred-armed

Briareus, and the Lernaean hydra

Hissing horribly, and the Chimaera

Breathing dangerous flames, and Gorgons, Harpies,

Huge Geryon, triple-bodied ghost.

Here, swept by sudden fear, drawing his sword,

Aeneas stood guard with naked edge

Against them as they came. If his companion,

Knowing the truth, had not admonished him

How faint these lives were – empty images

Hovering bodies – he had attacked

And cut his way through phantoms, empty air.

Great Reads #1

Migritude
by Shailja Patel

In my spare time, while sequestered to keep Covid-19 at bay, I am having a great time re-reading books and articles I have previously read, looking for those jewels of language and expression that make me smile, nod in agreement, cry and ponder. Sometimes we read a piece that is a wonder of wonders that will stick to our brains until we bid the world adieu.

Here, a poem by Shailja Patel, a Kenyan poet, playwright, theatre artist, and political activist. She is most known for her book “Migritude” based on her one-woman show of the same name funded by the Ford Foundation. CNN characterizes Patel as an artist “who exemplifies globalization as a people-centered phenomenon of migration and exchange.” – Wikipedia

When I lived in Tanzania, East Africa I was often mistaken for a Wahindi (Indian). I spoke rudimentary Kiswahili so I would sometimes correct folks. Other times I just went with the flow and brushed it off. Idi Amin expelled Indians, many of whom owned small businesses, in 1972. Tanzania was a little better but prejudice came to the fore after independence leading many Indians to migrate out. (One guy most people know was from Zanzibar, Farrokh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury!)

Here, a long, but great Patel poem, “Migritude”, (a word she created from the African diaspora movement of the 1920s known as Negritude, joined with ‘migration’ and ‘attitude’.) I know exactly what she means and sometimes think of this poem (especially the section about her father speaking 5 languages) when I am working on my disappearing languages project!

Migritude by S. Patel

“The children in my dreams
speak in Gujarati
turn their trusting faces to the sun
say to me
care for us nurture us
in my dreams I shudder and I run.
I am six
in a playground of white children
Darkie, sing us an Indian song!
Eight
in a roomful of elders
all mock my broken Gujarati
English girl!
Twelve, I tunnel into books
forge an armor of English words.
Eighteen, shaved head
combat boots –
shamed by masis
in white saris
neon judgments
singe my western head.
Mother tongue.
Matrubhasha
tongue of the mother
I murder in myself.
Through the years I watch Gujarati
swell the swaggering egos of men
mirror them over and over
at twice their natural size.
Through the years
I watch Gujarati dissolve
bones and teeth of women, break them
on anvils of duty and service, burn them
to skeletal ash.
Words that don’t exist in Gujarati :
Self-expression.
Individual.
Lesbian.
English rises in my throat
rapier flashed at yuppie boys
who claim their people “civilized” mine.
Thunderbolt hurled
at cab drivers yelling
Dirty black bastard!
Force-field against teenage hoods
hissing
F****ing Paki bitch!
Their tongue – or mine?
Have I become the enemy?
Listen:
my father speaks Urdu
language of dancing peacocks
rosewater fountains
even its curses are beautiful.
He speaks Hindi
suave and melodic
earthy Punjabi
salty rich as saag paneer
coastal Kiswahili
laced with Arabic,
he speaks Gujarati
solid ancestral pride.
Five languages
five different worlds
yet English
shrinks
him
down
before white men
who think their flat cold spiky words
make the only reality.
Words that don’t exist in English:
Najjar
Garba
Arati.
If we cannot name it
does it exist?
When we lose language
does culture die? What happens
to a tongue of milk-heavy
cows, earthen pots
jingling anklets, temple bells,
when its children
grow up in Silicon Valley
to become
programmers?
Then there’s American:
Kin’uh get some service?
Dontcha have ice?
Not:
May I have please?
Ben, mane madhath karso?
Tafadhali nipe rafiki
Donnez-moi, s’il vous plait
Puedo tener…..
Hello, I said can I get some service?!
Like, where’s the line for Ay-mericans
in this goddamn airport?
Words that atomized two hundred thousand Iraqis:
Didja see how we kicked some major ass in the Gulf?
Lit up Bagdad like the fourth a’ July!
Whupped those sand-niggers into a parking lot!
The children in my dreams speak in Gujarati
bright as butter
succulent cherries
sounds I can paint on the air with my breath
dance through like a Sufi mystic
words I can weep and howl and devour
words I can kiss and taste and dream
this tongue
I take back.”

Covid-19: Exponential Growth & Epidemics

Covid-19 virus image
A Covid-19, SARS-CoV2 CoronaVirus

“EVERYTHING WE DO BEFORE A PANDEMIC WILL SEEM ALARMIST. EVERYTHING WE DO AFTER WILL SEEM INADEQUATE”

Immunologically naive populations

“Viruses have been circulating around the globe for millennia. One family of viruses that have been circulating are referred to as Coronaviruses. About a quarter of common colds are caused by Coronaviruses. Our bodies form antibodies to foreign invaders such as bacteria or viruses. If we have antibodies from a previous exposure then we can rapidly ramp up the production of those antibodies if we are infected by that same virus at a later date. This is why you only get Chicken Pox and the Measles once. The first episode generates protective antibodies so you can’t get infected a second time. For other infections, previous exposures do not make you immune to future infections but it does make subsequent exposures milder.

COVID-19 is a severe respiratory illness caused by the virus named SARS-CoV2. It is a novel virus, which means that no one in the world has antibodies to it because no one has ever been infected by it before. As such, when the COVID-19 virus invades our body we do not have pre-existing antibodies. We do not have a template to utilize from a previous exposure to rapidly create a defense against the virus.

Exponential Spread

Exponential math is very hard to grasp. Every person with the COVID-19 virus infects approximately 2 people. Some less, some more. The doubling time that is widely quoted is 6 days. Some scientists are saying it may be as short as 2–3 days (unpublished first-hand information)! Let’s say the infection rate doubles every 6 days. That means that if 50,000 people have the virus today, then in 6 days 100,000 people will have it. In another 12 days it’s 400,000 and less than two weeks later it’s over a million people. We have 330 million people in the US. The experts expect that 40–70% of people will be infected. Exponential growth does not take that long to get to those scary high numbers. Every 6 days we delay the number of infections double. ” – Howard Luks, MD

Here’s a YouTube Video that does a great job of explaining Exponential Growth. It comes from the Animated Math folks at 3blue1brown


WWII Code Name: Beach Red

Terry Holding His Son Jacob
Red Beach, WWII U.S. Marines Landing Area
Guadalcanal Island, Solomon Islands

With his wife and nine children he lives ‘rough’ on Red Beach, the site of the first landfall of the U.S. Marines in the Solomon Islands. The family has only recently returned to this shore-front they say they own. He and his wife are Gilbert Islanders, Micronesians, in this country of Melanesians. Despite their uncertain future, the family and little community maintain the site. The original historic marker has been stolen and moved 500 meters west to draw tourists and our dollars there. (The two Solomon Island brothers who they say drove them away to keep the land for themselves have recently been jailed which has allowed the return of Terry and his family.)

The Gilbert Islands are a group of 32 atolls and reef islands and one raised coral island dispersed over 1.3 million square miles, halfway between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea. It is the nation now known as Kiribati (their pronunciation of the word ‘Gilbert’ — though accented, Terry’s English is a good as mine). The name was coined in 1820 by a German admiral, in the employ of Russian Tsar Aleksandr I, after the British captain who ‘discovered’ the islands in 1788. This mix of European interests in the Pacific is a common circumstance involving changing identities and loyalties for the last couple centuries.

The main north-south line of islands in Kiribati is still called The Gilberts and stretches 780 km/485 miles. It is amazing to me that with a small population and such close proximity (in sea-faring Pacific islander terms) the northern islands were ruled by a chief and the southern islands were run by collectives of elder men. The origin myth of the Gilbertese has the ancestors coming from the West and being whitish-skinned and red-haired. It is intriguing to speculate that the Asian branch of the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, might have been sea-faring!

 

Marker Sign at Red Beach

 

Most Westerners know almost nothing about Kiribati so here are three points of general interest that stand out to me:

– three of the islands were Great Britain’s last attempt at colonization (1938-1963)

– the islands were attacked by the Japanese in December 1941 on the same day as Pearl Harbor. In August of 1942 U.S. Marines landed an attack and 19 were captured as prisoners and summarily executed by the Japanese. In 1999 their bodies were finally returned home by an honor guard.

– three of the islands are U.S. territories, including Palmyra Atoll, the only incorporated U.S. Territory.

(There are a total of 14 Insular Areas around the world that fall under U.S. jurisdiction. Can you name them!)

 

Japanese Type 88 75mm Anti-Aircraft Gun
(with its base just beyond)

Red Beach WWII Rusting Howitzer

Dairy of the Gods

Staying on the topic of dairy (from my last post), this is the September 26 entry in my forthcoming book, Swallowing Time, Drinking History. An Almanac of the World’s Most Important Beverage.

“I’d rather see you drink a glass of wine than a glass of milk. So many people drink Coca-Cola and all these soft drinks with sugar. Some of these drinks have 8 or 9 teaspoons of sugar in them. What’s the good of living if you can’t have the things that give a little enjoyment?”

– Jack LaLanne (26 September 1914 – 23 January 2011). The first American fitness and exercise expert

India is not known for its vineyards, although there is a primary grape-growing region, Nashik, a couple hundred kilometers northeast of Mumbai (Bombay). While there are about 50,586 hectares (125,000 acres) under cultivation, only one percent produce wine. There are references in the Vedic Scriptures that indicate wine-making in India is at least 5000 yeas old. I must confess, I have not tried any of the wines as Indian cuisine, in my mind and palate, does not seem to lend itself to a pairing.

What I do love after, or before, a meal – or, to be honest, anytime of the day or night, is lassi.

Lassi is a traditional Indian ‘drink’ that comes in two varieties, salted lassi and sweet lassi. Both are made of some, or all, of these ingredients: yoghurt, milk, water, and spices for the salted, or sugar for the sweet. Additionally, there may be rose water, cumin, a sprinkle of ground almonds or pistachios and mango or other fruit flavorings depending on the sort ordered. As it is served cold it is a splendid treat on a hot day. In some places it is served thick enough to eat with a spoon, in others it is more liquid and simply drunk as a beverage. I think the best is mango lassi, using fresh mangoes. I will go out on a limb and make a declarative sentence, challenging any and all comers, that the best place to get lassi is at the original Lassiwala’s (Since 1944) near the Panch Batti Mod on MI Road in India’s ‘Pink City,’ Jaipur. They filter their water so there is no danger of getting a traveller’s day of familiarity with the hotel toilet after sipping, or gulping, their specialty. In fact, it is the only thing they sell.

The Original Lassiwala
The Original Lassiwala, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

As one might expect, imitators have sprung up to try and sift off Lassiwala’s customers. Many of these are on the same street just a few doors away but none favorably compare. Accept no imitations! Look for the best and when you see their number, Shop 312, next to the alley and across from Niros Restaurant, duck in. (In fact, resident Indians must feel the same way; there will be lines of people awaiting their serving at Lassiwala and not a single customer at the other establishments. I haven’t had the stomach to try any of them.)

Lassiwala opens at 7:30 a.m. and serves until they run out – which can be as early as 1:00 p.m. so get there early. The shop is small, just a hole-in-the-wall, so you stand and eat on the sidewalk, fending off the occasional forlorn woman begging for a coin. The lassi is served in two sizes, small , 40 rupees and large, 60 rupees, in porous clay ‘glasses’ that you discard in the trash bin in the alley. (60 rupees is about 95 US cents at the current exchange.)

Oh… when you visit, trust me, get a large.

Lassiwala Token
Token used at Lassiwala. When you order and pay the cashier places one, corresponding to your order, on a metal tray in front of him. This signifies that you have paid. The token pictured is for a Small – one that has never been used for my purchases!

I’d Walk a Mile for a Camel. Really.

Who knew that the world of camelids, an even-toed ungulate (Artiodactyla), was so fascinating? The answer, of course, is probably a third of the world’s population what with India, the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa leading the way. In 1856 thirty-four were landed in Texas at the direction of U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to become the United States Camel Corps (a draft animal!) They were to be used to settle, and subdue, the West, an experiment put paid by lobbying military mule suppliers and that bugaboo, the American Civil War. (Jeff Davis, in case you forgot, changed his allegiance.) Even with a small population these camels and their descendants (plus some privately introduced commercial stock) managed to hang on until the 20th century. Living in my state of New Mexico a young, then unknown, Douglas MacArthur heard about a wild camel wandering near Fort Selden in 1885.

Draft Camel
Draft Camel

Imported as work animals into central Australia in the 19th century the now-feral dromedaries in the Land Down-Under reached a population of one million. Between 2009 and 2013 an extermination program reduced that number to 300,000. These stocks are the only wild dromedaries on the planet.

The framing of the question in my opening sentence (camelids) means we also have to include the southern hemisphere of the New World. Llamas, vicuñas, guanacos and alpacas are kith and kin to the standard camel most of us know – or think we know. Scientists have also created a cama, a camel-lama hybrid, using camel semen injected into a llama! They have no hump and are bigger than a llama and smaller than a camel. There was no practical purpose to this experiment, as such, more than to test if the Old World and New World denizens are, in fact, the same species.

Not more than two weeks before we left for India in February I was amused to hear that 12 contestants at the beauty contest at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Rimah, Saudi Arabia had been ignominiously tossed from the competition. Owners were discovered to be cheats; their crime heinous beyond all understanding: they had been injecting their charges’ lips and eyelids with botox – yes, that’s right, the same chemical women use to enhance their looks for us menfolk, enhancing lips to bee-stung proportions and plumping up spaces to render goddess-like anatomies. Confused? Oh… did I forget to mention I am writing here of camel contestants, not the fairer sex of our own species. (I wonder if I can slightly enlarge my old camel hair overcoat with a judicious application of botox?)

If you have ever been up close and personal (OK, maybe not that personal) with a camel you will see they have lovely eyes topped with hooded, come-hither lids rimmed with long lashes. I well remember this one female in Kenya… but I digress.

In my unfolding camelid geography above I did not mean to slight the largest of the species, Camelus Ferus, the wild Bactrian, but these magnificent beasts are not found in India, the focus of this essay to which I am slowly humping. Alas, wild Bactrians are scarce on the ground in their native habitat, too. The last time I was in Mongolia’s Gobi desert I was told there were only 400 wild ones remaining.

Additionally, there is the two-humped domesticated Bactrian (C. bactrianus with a population of two million). It is it’s own species making a total of three living species under the genus Camelus. Aside from slight, invisible genetic differences with this domesticated variety, wild Bactrians are able to drink very saline winter slushies from semi-frozen Gobi salt-pans. From this they seem to suffer no ill effect and it is something their more numerous domesticated cousins cannot do. Bactrians are also one of the few animals able to eat snow to provide their water needs when liquid fresh water or salt slushies are not available. They accomplish this feat using advanced physics – the principal of latent heat, the hidden energy supplied or extracted to change the state of a substance without changing its temperature. This means heat is taken from the camel to melt the snow into water they can then utilize. It is an energy-intensive process so they eat only a little snow at a time.

With your elementary camel knowledge now in order we may proceed to the story at hand: our visit to India’s National Research Centre on Camel, Bikaner. It is a slightly awkward name, true, but it is what is on the campus signs and letterhead so I defer to the Centre’s self-identification (tho the amply represented OCD in me desperately wanted to attack the signs and paint “the” between “on” and “Camel”. My failure to muster up the courage to do so is something that will haunt the rest of my days, no matter I had no ready coloring agent left behind my ears from the Holi Festival. A writer and traveler’s life is not an easy one, fraught as it is by encounters with lapses in grammar that can tear one’s heart out. Every time I read the signs I was sure I detected a disturbance in The Force.)

Camel for Tourist Rides
Camel for Tourist Rides

Be that as it may, at NRCC, the soothing acronym for the Centre, one will learn tons about our friend, C dromedarius, the Ship of the Desert. I would bet dollars-to-donuts that most of you did not know there are four kinds of camels in Rajasthan. They roughly correspond to our more familiar Percheron or Clydesdale horse, a Ferrari, the Holstein cow and, for the sake of a one-on-one comparison, the bovine we call a Jersey. The corresponding camels are the Bikaneri, Jaisalmeri, Kachchhi and Mewari. (And, by the by, there are, indeed, two ‘hs’ in the third type; I am disappointed you would think I could make such an error. Perhaps we cannot be pen pals after all.)

As we walked the camel world, absorbing minutiae such as a dry and thirsty camel may slurp down its 200 litres (53 gallons) in three minutes, an enormous male was indicated, standing in his outdoor stall. His legs were hobbled. Our guide said he was a particularly ornery and nasty bad boy. A big bastard he proved to be when I walked closer to take his portrait and he pivoted away facing west leaving me with only an eastern view. Several times I jockeyed for a better angle without getting too close but he deftly rotated away, giving me the stink eye as he continued to ruin a perfectly good shot. I believe I profaned god in a moment of pique.

Stud Camel at Rest Tied to a Wall
Stud Camel at Rest Tied to a Wall

Not being privy to the dromedary tongue, I could be wrong but I think he uttered something about Camelid Union, Local 666, suggesting he refuse to pose for the western infidel seeking to monetize his good studly looks for financial gain that will not be shared.

As one of the Centre’s remits is the selective breeding of a number of the 314 camels currently in its care, we were fortunate to be visiting during the rut. Camels, if you must know, are the only ungulates that mate in a sitting position and the female does not ovulate until semen is present in the vagina, a sort of cart-before-the-horse-scenario. Modesty prevents me from writing more. That, plus the fact that breeding is a man-controlled affair and, darn it all, we did not actually get to view any couplings, tho you would certainly be amazed at the size and length of the extremity  our young and hip friends labelled a male camel’s junk.

We did get to hear many examples of the male mating call, to which the females were all ears, each pointing toward the sounds of particular males. I managed to get a recording of this remarkable sound and will try to figure out how to edit and post it in the future. It is an incredibly deep rumble that carries a great distance. The closer I stood to a braying male the more physically palpable the rumble. I was reminded of the low decibel notes of whales with their oceanic song moving through the vastness of their seas. It is said that the notes of a male singing off the coast of Maine can be picked up on the other side of the Atlantic! What I find extraordinary, and did not know until looking up camelids a moment ago to find out if I was correct in naming all seven members of the species, is that aquatic cetacea such as whales evolved from artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates, leading modern taxonomists to sometimes combine these as Cetartiodactyla. My brain leap about the power of the male camel’s voicing does, therefore, have a relationship to that of the whales. “Fascinating, Jim… highly logical.”

A male camel, let’s call him Joe for the sake of anthropomorphizing, does this auditory magic through his dulla, an inflatable sac in his throat. He projects this sac from his mouth during rut, moving air to create the sound. I did wonder why one male’s tongue looked so strange, swollen and pink lolling out the side of his mouth. It was , in fact, his dulla! The actual camel tongue is a barbarous affair able to eat leaves off acacia trees protected by two-inch thorns. They happily munch threw it all.

(Then again, as I ruminate, I realize camels are always chewing because they have cuds they regurgitate from their four-chambered stomachs. Chewing a cud puts Camel Joe on my ritually clean list, as a possible meal, but this is negated by the fact that his feet, thank Yahweh, are not possessed of the all-important split, or cloven, hoof. Leviticus, for us, the Chosen, is nothing if not thorough: pigs, cloven but no cud; rabbits, cud but not cloven. And so it goes. When I went to college I left these laws and crossed over to the dark side. Muslims, notably, do eat camel meat and justify it by pointing to the New Testament saying Jesus and Paul made all foods edible, something the Chinese and Japanese have perfected.)

As a keeper placed an in-hand bridle or halter, on handsome stud Joe to lead him to water, every resident in the female pen about 200 feet away, even the yearlings lying in sternal recumbency, came to rapt attention, heads and eyes moving in locked unison. Befitting his star turn, Camel Joe seemed to add a little extra oomph to his strutting pace (not  trotting – look it up!); his smokin’ chance on the runway of life. With all the testosterone in the air I did not notice if the keeper actually made Joe drink, thus barring me from coining an unforgettable phrase that some long-ago sage beat me to when it comes to horses.

Female camels looking at a braying male in rut
Female camels looking at a braying male in rut. He was just behind me. The standing female on the left is playing it cool on the chance Camel Joe will find her a standout.

 

If you visit NRCC most of the place is off-limits as it really is a research station. But there are a few obligatory rooms of tourist merchandise facing a walkway, all watched over by a few desultory vendors. There is also a little museum and, outside the main gate, next to the admissions window, a place to buy kulfi on a stick, a frozen dairy dessert more dense and creamier than our ice cream. Here, of course, it is made from camel milk. It is divine and the serving size is on the parsimonious side. At $.77 each why not buy two! I tend to avoid dairy products in less hygienic environments (read: the countryside of India) but the NRCC runs a clean food operation. Plus camel milk can be left out without refrigeration for 8 to 9 hours without spoiling.

Female camels running to water
Female camels running to water. I had been standing with my back to the gate about 10 seconds before I took this photo. I turned around just in time to move out of the way as 30 female camels burst through the gate heading to water. NOTE: Never stand between a camel and its water!

 

Arthur:

(The King of Legend, not General Douglas Mac)

 

It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.

The kulfi must be perfect, all the whole-long year.

A law was made a distant moon ago here:

July and August the monsoons they must bring.

And there’s a legal limit to the snow here

In the Camel-lot.

The winter is forbidden till December

And exits March the second on the dot.

By order, summer lingers through September

In our Camel-lot.

Camel-lot! Camel-lot!

I know it sounds a bit bizarre,

But in Camel-lot, Camel-lot

That’s how conditions are.

I know it gives a person pause,

But in Camel-lot, Camel-lot

Those are the legal laws.

The snow may never slush upon the hillside.

By nine p.m. the moonlight must appear.

In short, there’s simply not

A more congenial spot

For happily-ever-aftering than here

In our Camel-lot.

 

Rats! Not Exactly on the Bucket List

Although India ought to be on the list of world cultures that one visits in a lifetime of travel, it is probably not for all travelers. Well, let me modify that with a caveat. If one includes the category of luxury travel where one essentially floats through an environment in an air-conditioned, antiseptic bubble with your personal Jeeves at the beck and call… if that is your cup of Darjeeling them yes, Incredible India may be for you, too.

One of the Must-Do’s not on my India Bucket List, however, was the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, Rajasthan. It draws Indian pilgrims from far and wide with a smattering of tourists thrown in (I saw one, presumably non-Indian, European while I visited.) But there are about 25,000 kabbas resident here (give or take; I saw a dead one on my exploration.)

A Wikipedia entry, taken from the Lonely Planet travel guide, explains the place best:

“Legend has it that Laxman, Karni Mata’s stepson (or the son of one of her storytellers), drowned in a pond… while he was attempting to drink from it. Karni Mata implored Yama, the god of death, to revive him. First refusing, Yama eventually relented, permitting Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children to be reincarnated as rats.”

Yes, you read that correctly; a kabba is a rat. Specifically, it is a member of the species Rattus rattus, the lovable black rat, every child’s idea of the perfect pet and not to be confused with its more malleable cousin, Rattus norvegicus, the brown, better known as the Norway, or Sewer, rat. Everyone on the planet knows this latter beastie because it is the staple of research laboratories, pet stores and is, alas, the most successful and common mammal on the planet – with the notable exception of humans. Only Antarctica has been spared (for now).

Rats Feeding on Milk & Water - Karni Mata Temple
Rats Feeding on Milk & Water – Karni Mata Temple, Rajasthan, India

While I was looking up at the acre of wire mesh that covers the mostly open-air compound and thinking of Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague, a kabba, scurrying to a destination unknown to me, ran over my right foot. This is considered especially lucky, bestowing only good things upon one so blessed. To my credit I did not scream.

I think the overhead wire mesh is to keep out the large numbers of Columbidae livia, rock doves, whose planetary feral populations have exploded. (I will go out on a limb right now and hazard that they are number three on the list of earth’s most cosmopolitan mammals.) You and I, and everyone else we know, simply call this bird a pigeon. It is a certainty that these rats-on-wings would dive in and settle down to eat the ample food stores spread around for the kabbas, for India, as elsewhere, is profoundly inundated with pigeons. The wire screen roof also keeps out India’s many birds of prey. It would be bad form to let any of the temple’s 25,000 holy inhabitants end up as meals-that-squeals.

Naturally, there is a distinct odor to the complex, one that might charitably be called barnyardy. I suppose it is a combination of the mammal residents, the food spread around by visitors and the excrement left after the food is eaten. As if to get even for their exclusion, there is also an unfair amount of pigeon poop because the wire screening cannot, of course, keep it from dropping in to pay its respects to the unfairly favored King Rat.

As with all India’s sacred spaces, shoes are verboten! 99% of pilgrims leave theirs helter-skelter in the street-cum-public-square in front of the temple, tho there is an official concession for footwear storage just a few meters beyond. The attendants looked lonely so I used it. (No, that’s a lie: they were not lonely; so many people had looked Keenly at my sandals I was worried about some less-than-honest pilgrim waddling off in them so checked my sandals properly.) The shoe storage sits at one end of the row of kitschy concessions lining two sides of the square. All sell sweets, snacks and every tacky knick-knack known to rat-dom (don’t groan, I could have written ‘ratty’ instead of ‘tacky’.) The atmosphere would not be out of place as the Midway of a 1960s circus with touts trying to snare passers-by one and all. I, in thoughtful foresight, wore a pair of those little hospital socks with grippy pads on the soles as an ensemble with my sandals. Lord (Krishna) knows if I would have had the fortitude to cross the street and enter the temple with feet unclad by sox once I checked my Keens into official care.

On a highbrow note, there is excellent architecture to indulge in and a set of solid silver doors, even if the bulk of the temple is painted Pepto-Bismol pink. My one complaint is that the large marble lions outside really ought to have been over-sized King Rats. Attendees may cast this as a matter of little consequence; the lions are rarely visible because of the hordes of Indians who lounge over them executing self-portraits. The European visitor and myself were the only ones I saw actually taking pictures of the temple; everyone else simply used the temple and its parts as their selfie back-drop, as is the case at every other site in India. At least Karni Mata is on flat, solid ground. The railings at the battlements of forts and palaces have oftentimes been installed after someone forgets they are hundreds of meters in the air and leans back for a better facial photo extension. I am not making this up.

For you early birds Karna Mata opens at 4:00 am. It is dark then so for the squeamish maybe that would be the best time to go. As there is so much food about, and rats are easily distracted, there is ample tucker for one and all, including you, dear visitor. It is said that eating food nibbled on by the rats is a high honor. If you will, please let me know how that works out. Also let me know if you see one of the rare white rats. You guessed it: that is also an auspicious honor. In this particular quest I failed. I thought to dash out and cross the square to find a flute (probably available as one is always shown with Krishna in a playing posture) and I’m sure a pied suit could have been procured, as well. Then I came to my senses and ended this line of reverie. Who wants to end up as a fatality statistic after luring all the rats out of Karni Mata just to sight a white one?

Some of you reading this may take my tone amiss, as a bit of unenlightened, agnostic snark. Please do not interpret my remarks this way: for those who travel, if you do not go to India you will have missed a precious and wonderful chapter of the human novel!

Well, that about sums up this installment except to write that while there are many monkey temples in India, Karna Mata is unique, as far as I know. And I am satisfied to report: Been there! Done that!

 

A Sonnet

(with apologies to Miss Freeman, my 8th grade English teacher, from whom I learned the proper setup of an octave and a sestet for the Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnet forms. First know the artistic rules and then feel free to break them.)

Welcome to Mother India
Wellspring of Religions galore
You’ve probably Tech-Talked to us
Way down in Bangalore

East meets West – We’ve all the Best
Paintings with Class; our Jewelry – a Blast
Music and Dance; Textiles that Prance
Stone sculptures of Schist; Ah… feelings of bliss.

But, as in any form of living thing, mi’ lad
Good lives not unalloyed with the bad.
Meditate on this,
Hurriedly or at Ease:

Enter India if you Please
At some small personal Risk.

R.I.P. Richard “Dick” Claxton Gregory

Richard “Dick” Claxton Gregory
(12 October 1932, St. Louis, Missouri – 19 August 2017, Washington, D.C.)

Dick Gregory Lecturing at Wright State University, April 1973
Photo: Wilbur Norman

Dick Gregory, U.S. Army veteran, urbane comedian-turned-social activist and writer, actor, businessman and provocateur par excellence, died yesterday at the age of 84. I first met him in April 1973 when he spoke at Wright State University. I would then run into him at various events around the East Coast. I think the last time I saw him must have been in 1987 when he was arrested protesting apartheid in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC.

He could keep up a biting and satirical running commentary better than anyone I have ever met, no doubt from practice as a stand-up comedian in his early career. That career was given a big boost by his appearance on The Jack Paar Tonight Show in 1961.

After turning down invitations to perform on the show he was called by Paar to find out why. (Billy Eckstine had told Gregory no black performer was ever asked to sit on the couch after their act.) Gregory told Paar that the reason he was not willing to perform on The Tonight Show was “because a Negro has never been able to finish the act and walk to the couch.” The show’s producers changed this policy, making Gregory the first African American to take the couch and talk with Paar after a stage appearance!