Tuesday, June 26, 2007

From Small Acorns...

So now I have discovered how to put pictures on the blog.

Here is the young wormbane, the warrior in the making. Can you see the steely glint in his eye? The granite set of the jaw? No doubt, this young man was destined for greatness from the beginning.

Imagine how much more fearsome would be his appearance with a beard. The serpents quake at the mere thought of it.

Monday, June 25, 2007


At first, you may think this is Yoda's redneck cousin. No. It's actually a dog. A real living dog. His name is Elwood.

A testament to the mutablity of canine genetics.

Gotta say, this guy was just put together wrong.

Cameron and Mao

I shall attempt to pre-empt Assistant Village Idiot here by commenting on the recent flap over Cameron Diaz and her communist handbag. The scandal here isn’t her so-called cultural insensitivity. It is the concept that communism was benign enough that we can turn it’s symbols into fashion accessories. Why is it cool to wear an image of Che Guevara? A hammer and sickle? A portrait of Stalin? Or a Maoist star. It should be like wearing a swastika. A tyrant is a tyrant, a murderer is a murderer whether he murders with his left hand or his right. To turn symbols of these monsters into fashion accessories is reprehensible.

Lydia the tattooed lady did it the only acceptable way

When she stands, the world gets littler
And when she sits, she sits on Hitler.

I’m not sure which thing bugs me more. People (including but not limited to celebrities) make political statements that are passionately held but which amount to so much wind filling a bag. Other people think they hold a political view, but in actuality their politics are nothing more than fashion – they really have no concept of the broader or deeper implications of their view. I think that the latter bugs me more. At least the former have sincerity on their side. Sincerity alone isn’t much but as a motive it is preferable to mere posing.

I don’t comment much on politics, but I do like to occasionally comment of fools and their foolishness, not matter what area of life and culture they come from.


So, there I was Sunday morning, standing at the kitchen sink, washing some dishes. Out at the edge of my vision I pick up some motion outside, at the edge of the tall grass. I look out and sure enough, there is a fox, rusty gray with black legs, trotting purposefully across my property. I called over the elder offspring, and we observed the sly canid crossing the dirt road and heading into the woods on the other side.

Personally, I wish he would hang around my shed more. He would have free access to the rather substantial rodent community that has taken up the habit of pooping little mousey poops all over my tools and lawn chairs. I have found that mouse traps seem to simply encourage them to make more, like they think they are living Doritos – “crunch all you want…we’ll just make more.”

A good fox is hard to find.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


For those of you who liked my June Quatrains, I must say that my inspiration for those comes from a poet whose work is regularly published in Yankee Magazine. He goes only by the initials D.A.W. For some time now, his quatrains have shown up in the early pages of Yankee and they are so delightfully clever that I adopted his form. I have found it to be great fun.
Four lines of four, each with four trochaic feet (I think) in the scan, a rhyme scheme of AABB. The last line is usually some kind of twist or kicker, a punch line if you will. I little stab of cleverness that makes you laugh, or at least smile at the verbal mischief.
I did a little search and found the poet's website. Although he does not admit to being THE D.A.W. I am quite certain that he is. He is a maker of excellent art prints, and I would encourage anyone to patronize him. Several years ago we purchased one of his works, and it is a treasured item.
I was hoping that YankeeMagazine.com would have archived all his poetry, but alas no. There is one example online.
I plan more in upcoming months, as well as excursions into other short forms. I am experimenting with blues as a poetry form. I'll let you know what I find out.

Chickin Soop

I’m about half way through the second of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. There about now about half a million different versions, the whole thing busting out into a ridiculously overblown franchise. There is Chicken Soup for the Graduate’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul, and so on ad infinitum ad nauseam.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, CSFTS books contain short stories, usually no more than a few pages long. They are by design inspirational, uplifting, and intended to help you spend time thinking about how much goodness life contains. They are meant to act as an antidote to the dominant media themes of death, destruction, perversion and greed and worry. To some extent, I believe they do that. I do find myself meditating on the stories, moved by them and I do believe that spending a few minutes a day reading such stories is helpful to the heart.

I must say, however, that there is a strong tendency toward sentimentalism. Some of the stories make me feel not so much choked up as fighting down the gag reflex. And a particularly strong theme in this book is death. Episode after episode of people that said “I love you” to someone just before they died – or didn’t. Kids dying. Adults dying. Cancer. Car crashes. Heart attacks. At a certain point I just started to think that the editors seem to have a rather operatic view of the world. Pathos. Pathos. Pathos. Everything, even the smallest act carries life and death import.

At first, I rejected that. The world is not so much of a drama as that. The mundane is mundane, Most of life just toodles along, punctuated occassionally by brief moments of high drama.

As I considered this, I then realized that I was wrong and the editors actually were right Рsentimentality and all (I hate it when that happens). Everything really is a life and death struggle. Life is so short and death so certain that what we make of this brief shining moment determines the value of the life. At the end, it is the sum of these moments that will leave our mark on the world. It is clich̩ but so what. The truth is that for so much of the world, drama is all there is. Peace is the abberation. Death and destruction is at the door, banging to come in. I cannot afford to be casual, or death will conquer me before I die.

I mock the press analysis of “presidential legacy,” for they speak as if legacy were something that can be created out of nothing in the last 18 months of a president’s tenure. Yet if I am not seeking full engagement with the life that is in me and around me right now, I am making the same mistake. I cannot wait until just before I die to create my legacy. In fact, I may right now be in my last moments. This is no reason to panic, but it is a reason to get serious and get to work. It is a life or death matter.

Why am I here? What good can I do right now? What is really the MOST important thing? To get these answers wrong, or to fail to answer them at all is to die too early. We mistake activity for life. We confuse movement for vitality and noise for breath. It is not a matter of our existence, it is a matter of our direction.

The Bard referred to cowards thusly:

Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant only die but once.

I prefer to die once, and to die well. Children with cancer and orphaned babies remind me of real courage. There are many poor bastards who discover their valiant nature when someone simply cared enough to touch them. Yeah, I’ve read one too many stories of people who were about to commit suicide, but changed their minds because some modestly valiant person was unexpectedly kind to them. At the same time, I hope that I can also be one of those valiant ones. It is much better than being a coward.

It pisses me off that CSFTS helped me to see this a bit more clearly. One likes to get one’s great flashes of insight from much more important books like Moby Dick, A Critique of Pure Reason, or at least maybe King Lear. I guess you can’t pick and choose where your lessons come from.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Call me Ishmael...

I am apparently throwback.-- an atavistic remnant of ancient culture.

I prefer that children call me by the honorific Mr along with my last name. I teach my children to call their elders Mr Smith, or Mrs. Smith. My children address me as Dad, or Daddy, most certainly not by my first name. When my oldest gets a little exasperated, she will revert to calling me “Father.” Although the term thus used is tinged with a certain level of sarcasm, I will let that slide a little. A little.

I once greeted a friend of mine by enthusiastically saying, “Mr K_______!” He immediately corrected me, saying, “Don’t call me that. That’s my father’s name.” I was sorry (but more than willing) to have to break the news to him. “Rick,” I says, “have you looked in the mirror lately? You just retired. You ARE Mr. K_____. You earned it. You might as well own it.”

I remember the first time a clerk in the grocery store called me “sir.” I was in my early 20’s and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. That doesn’t make me stuck up. It just means that I was more than ready to be an adult and to act like one.

At one of my daughter’s softball practices, one of her teammates came up to her father, with whom I was speaking. As she left, she said, “Right Bill…” I allowed as how I would nip that sort of thing in the bud. His response was something along the lines of “You pick your battles.” I guess that’s a battle I would pick. To name something determines a great deal of how we think of it. One could certainly make a case that there are more important things than a name. A rose by any other, and all that. Nevertheless, to assume that everything is equal and without differentiation seems a dangerous worldview. It’s a matter of respect and of viewing the world as it is.

For what it’s worth, I have made it clear to my girls that calling me Dad is not their duty. It is their privilege. No one else – NO ONE – gets to call me that except them. It is their special name for me that is reserved only for their use, and it’s use confers special privileges on them. The use of that name does not distance them from me. It actually makes us closer.

We dress for church out of respect for God. We wear suits to business meetings out of respect for our colleagues and acquaintances. We call our leader Mr. President to his face not because of him, but out of respect for the office that he fills. Adults should be addressed by children with special respect because they have earned it.

To address someone with a formal title is not an insult. We should learn to accept the honor being given. We should shed the prevailing cultural value that tells us that aging is something to be ashamed of. Every stage in life has its difficulties and its benefits. Let us learn to take the good for what it is, and own it.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

More June Quatrains

May is known for lovely rain
That raises flowers on the plain.
The June rains make the air all muggy.
We on the Off cuz it’s so buggy.

June brides wear white, their faces shine
As Bridesmaids all march down the line.
The groomsmen bet on just who trips
When new heels catch on wayward slips.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Reading Now

Comments on books lately finished.

Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything by Charles P. Pierce
I am not a sports fan. Watching team sports bores me. This is certainly due to a simple lack of appreciation of the finer points of the game, whether football, basketball, baseball or hockey. My grasp of the game is of a gross and general nature, with little comprehension of the strategy and tactical skill exhibited by the players and teams on the field. On the other hand, I love watching karate tournaments, mixed martial arts, some boxing, triathlons and adventure racing. I have participated in similar events, and have a more firsthand grasp of what it take to succeed, so they mean more to me.
So why would I read a book about a football QB? Simply because Tom Brady is one of the best ever. I figure that maybe I can learn a little about excellence from reading this book. Was I right? Somewhat. The writing is blovious, often hyper-extending the turn of phrase beyond its natural range of motion. It is heavy on play by play recountings of various games. It tends toward hagiography. Nevertheless, some key points of TB's character stand out.
He is a leader who makes others want to follow him by winning their trust on and off the field. He takes his lumps, both those dished out by the defensive line, and those he give himself for not performing at his expectations. He studies and trains for excellence with true diligence. He has mastered the art of reading the defense such that he feels it more than thinks about it. He knows his poop. Good reminders all.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
This is simply one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. The prose is so spare, so open, it is very much like the west Texas and Mexico landscape it portrays. It is evocative is a way that made me almost breathless at times in wonder at the beauty and power of language skillfully rendered. The dialogue in particular is sharpened to a point, and even while dealing with serious matters manages to make on chuckle. These boys are cowboy poets.
I won’t recount the plot here beyond saying that it is the story John Grady Cole, a 16 year old Texan who leaves home on horseback to journey across the border into Mexico sometime immediately after WWII. He finds danger, love, beauty, and death and makes it back again.
This is the first of three books, called the Border Trilogy. I first ran across them in an abridged recording read by Brad Pitt and I was completely entranced. I finally read the full text and fell under the spell all over again. Although I must say, that I occasionally stopped to read sections aloud, just because they sound so good when read aloud.
It almost makes me wish I was from Texas…but not quite.

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
Bryson must have spent years researching this book. It is a survey of not only the history, but the current state and future trajectory of the English language. Bryson praises the language but also is quite upfront about it’s shortcomings, much in the same way that one can praise a amazingly engineered safari vehicle, while admitting that one might not want to drive it to the Academy Awards. Occassionally he does go on just a little to much about specific examples to illustrate a particular linguistic foible, but all in all it is spot on.
Two chapters particularly stand out. First, on grammar. He makes the fascinating point that much of what passes of English grammar is actually based on Latin grammar. The problem is that English is not Latin. For instance, in Latin, it is not even possible to split an infinitive. And so, the early scholars decided that in English, the infinitive must never be split. But, Bryson asks, why ever not? A point worth pondering, but which I will likely withhold from my 9 year old daughter for now.
My second favorite chapter was the one on swearing. I didn’t learn any new words, much to my disappointment, but I now can swear with much firmer historical grasp of my chosen oaths. If one must curse, I have always felt that one should do so with a literary touch.

Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield & Mark Victor Hansen
This book consists of short inspirational stories gathered for that exact purpose: to uplift and inspire. I mostly read it to start the day, or end the day, although I did not limit it to that. Some were a bit sentimental, but many are simply powerful reminders of what people can accomplish with enough love, faith, persistence, courage, or

Books I am currently working on working on:

Histories by Herodotus
Still going. Taking it in small bits. It’s fascinating, but not something I really care to take in huge chunks.

Success Principles by Jack Canfield
This is perhaps the best overall compendium of success principles available between two covers. It is written in clear prose that manages to avoid some of the clunkiness of some of the stories in the Chicken Soup series. The short chapters are excellent reminders of the kind of habits that enable people to craft a good life.

Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
Just started this one. Examines that complex relationship between humans and certain plants from an evolutionary viewpoint. Did bees evolve to take advantage of flowers, or did plants develop flowers to make use of the bee? The same question can be asked of humans and many “domesticated” plants. It is interesting how easy it its for the author to drift into using language that attributes intelligence and intention to a supposedly blind chance driven process.

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Sequel to All the Pretty Horses.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

June Quatrains

The anty pantry runs too low,
And so the ants get food to go.
My kitchen counter forms the line
Where anty diners come to dine.


Lilac blooms make pungent piles.
The scent floats downwind many miles.
Those who wear too much perfuming
Smell like lilacs when they're blooming.

Monday, June 11, 2007


A man digs a lump of rock from the ground. He puts it into furnace. The furnace is so hot that it melts the rock so that the dirt and dreck in it are skimmed off and the pure metal remaining is poured into a mold. The iron cools, and then the ingot is taken up again and thrust into a forge. Another man beats the iron with a hammer, flattening it, folding it, reheating it, shaping it, twisting it, heating and beating over and over. In the end, it is an exquisitely wrought latch, placed on the door of a cathedral, as graceful in form as it is in function, and by it thousands enter in to worship the one true God.

Another man puts a plow blade into the soil and turns up the rich black earth. He works the ground to prepare it for the seed that the sows. He watches the seed sprout, and grow and turn mature and ripe. At the appointed hour he reaps the wheat, threshes it, winnows away the chaff. He takes baskets and basket of this wheat to the miller, who grinds it to flour. The baker buys it, mixes it with water and yeast and puts it into an oven to bake bread. In the end, it too goes into the cathedral, where it is broken and served. If feeds not just the body, but the entire soul for in taking this bread, these people somehow take into themselves the One True God.

Two people gather up the sand of the sea. He places it in a kiln so hot that the sand grains melt together to become liquid. He refines this liquid and adds other minerals to color it. He rolls it out as it cools, so that it becomes sheets of solid light, colored and varied. She cuts the glass, and fits it together with strips of lead. From this she makes pictures of saints, images of prophets and priests and kings and patriarchs. In the end, they go into the windows of the cathedral, and those who look are reminded of how the Light of Christ shines through our lives, just like those saints. They think about the saints, and somehow move just a little bit closer to them.

Still another man sits at his desk for hours. In front of him are books on books on books. Above them all is the One Book of Books. To the untrained eye, it seems that he sits without moving. But the discerning watcher knows that he is wrestling with the text, grappling with what the One True God is saying to His people. It is as if with his bare hands he is trying to tear out the message. Some days it flows like cool water. Other days it is like an obstinate stone that will not budge. But this is his work, to wrestle, to grapple, to hold onto and ultimately to give away the Word to those who have ears to hear. In the end, the Preacher stands up and preaches, and the words he speaks open up the very Word of God to those present, and somehow, the Sprit moves and transforms a life.

A woman digs a soft lump of wet earth from the ground. She brings it back to her workshop. She mixes it with water, strains out the sand and grit, and dries the remaining silt. When it is dry enough, she lifts out a lump and slaps the clay onto the wheel. Her wet hands dance into and around the mud, lifting and pressing, teasing and demanding until the pitcher is fully formed. It is dried and placed into the kiln where the earth is transformed into stone. She paints it and fires it again so that it is now covered in a thin layer of bright glass. It’s shape is graceful and elegant and simple. A priest fills it with water, and asked God to bless it. He pours the water into the vessel, also made of clay. He dips his hand in the water and pours it onto the baby’s head, (dip) in the Name of the Father, (dip) and of the Son, (dip) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. The water trickles musically over the soft thin hair and back into the font, and somehow the One True and Living God is well pleased.

Another man takes his shears out into the orchard. Carefully, he selects each branch for pruning. It is delicate work. These trees go back further into his family’s history than the records. In time the trees fruit, and the fruit ripens and is collected and pressed and rich green oil flows from the press, deeply scented, heavy and rich. It is placed into jars, and some into small flasks. In the end, it is poured out, and the priest dips his thumb into it and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of a young man, now confirmed in the faith. He never forgets the feeling of that wet rich oil on his forehead, and for the rest of his life feels the mark of the Spirit upon him.

And so God meets us, not in the rarefied air of space, or in the bodiless spiritual someplace. He meets us here, on earth, right now. He presents Himself to us in everyday things that He himself declares holy. We find Him in other things that He has taught us to make holy. How is it that these base things can lift us up and exalt us even to the highest heavens. These are what he has chosen to help us see and know Him. It is mystery indeed.

Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus!!
Dominus Deus Sabaoth,
Pleni sunt caeli et terra in gloria tua.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


So, the wildlife census this week includes a wild tom turkey, a fox, a HUGE spider web (an orb almost 3 feet across) and a loon.

My kids and wife observed the fox over the space of about an hour, napping in the tall grass behind our house, and wandering through the woods nearby looking for a little mousy snack. Seemed like odd behavior for a fox as they are usually so cagey and hard to spot.

The loon we saw today while swimming at the lake. Them are big birds. They apparently nest in the weeds and swampy area to the west of the beach. Beautiful beautiful birds.

I love living in a place where we are surrounded by lots of friends. I love it even more that my kids get to see them. We are not alone.


I would really like to write a long and brilliant post on epistemology. While I’m pretty sure I can easily attain the first criteria, I am just as sure that I will fall far short of the second. I simply lack the chops. Nevertheless, the question of how we know what we think we know has been weighing on my mind a great deal lately. So…bullet points (not really bullet points, because I can't get the !@#$% formatting to work properly).

We can know almost nothing (beyond the self evident) with certainty. All that we “know” is assumptions and probabilities.

The lawyers are actually onto something when they created standards of evidence relating to the burden of proof in a criminal case. Beyond a reasonable a doubt. The preponderance of evidence. Clear and convincing evidence. The fact is that most of what we consider to be Beyond a reasonable doubt is not at all. Most of what we base our lives on is about the preponderance of evidence.

Most of our “a posteriori” knowledge is indirect, and received from other source to which we grant authority. How we select our authority has much less to do with logic than with habit, conditioning and emotion.

Our acceptance of such authoritative sources of evidence is ultimately built in unfounded assumptions. Most people are unaware, or refuse to admit, that most of their view of the world is based on unfounded assumptions for which there is no real evidence. For example, I believe that Jesus died and rose again to save mankind from sin. My source of evidence is the Bible. I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. My source of evidence for this is…well…it’s that a bunch of Bishops decided that it was about 1700 years ago. There are lots of reasons why this makes sense to me, but really it all boils down to assumption. None of my evidence would be acceptable to someone who didn’t ALREADY believe these things.

Knowing is somewhat overrated. If we waited until we achieved certainty on everything, we would be utterly useless, paralyzed by our own intelligence.

All philosophy, all seeking of ultimate understanding, all assertions of absolute truth are in essence religious activities. This pisses off the materialistic naturalists, the logical positivists and the scientific empiricists, but it’s true. Their conception of what is a god is uninformed and just simply too small to be really useful in understanding how the world REALLY works. If they dared to peek behind the curtain, they would see that it’s all ultimately about religion, no matter what.

None of this means that what we know is wrong. It just means that we can't really truly say for sure. Believing is not the same as knowing. In fact, I believe that I am absolutely right about those things I believe. I also allow for the fact that I could be wrong.

It’s a wonderful world, ain’t it?

Saturday, June 9, 2007


I love the TV commercial for the Dyson vacuum cleaner where the guy says, “I just think things should work properly.” It makes me want to run out and buy one because I so agree with him. I truly appreciate good design and quality engineering.

We recently acquired a new salad spinner, and I have to say it is a work of genius. Absolute effing genius. It is the OXO Good Grips 32480. Our previous salad spinner was a definite step up over the days of eating wet greens, or of patting down the leaves to remove excess water. Even so, it required a certain level of coordination and muscular strength to operate. It used a crank and gear arrangement built into the lid to spin the basket holding the washed greens inside a bowl. The OXO uses pump action, where you press on the pump, it spins the basket (at what seems to be a very high RPM) and then you stop and it just keeps spinning...and spinning...and spinning. It only takes 2 or 3 pumps to get the thing going and then you just let it ride. It’s so simple and easy to operate, my 5 year old can do it. And the greens come out dry and fresh. Genius.

My wife has never been one to get overly excited about gadgets. You can’t even really call how she feels about her cell phone a love-hate relationship. It’s more of a putupwithyou-hate relationship. She is not opposed to gadgets, per se,but she does hate clutter and unless a gadget has obvious and enormous benefits she just remains unimpressed. After reading an article about the iphone a few weeks ago, I told her about how impressive it sounded. She responded with her usual ennui about such things. Then a few days ago she was watching TV when she saw one of the first TV ads Apple has put out for iphone. She watched it and said, “That’s cool. I want one of those.”

I don’t know Steve Jobs, and I have generally avoided Apple computers because of the cult-like cultiness of the whole Apple Culture that attaches to them (You don’t use an Apple computer. You ask Apple into your heart). I must say, however, that he must be doing something right if his design teams can design an electronic gadget that gets my wife to respond like that within 3 seconds of seeing the gadget for the first time.

That’s what I call engineering. We need more of that.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Whiles Any Speaks

I generally seek to live my life so that regrets play no large part. For the most part, with a few notable exceptions, I have managed this fairly well. Recently, one of those exceptions has been playing on my mind. I regret that I have not served in the armed forces.

When I was a boy, I dreamed of being a US Marine. One of my older brother is a Marine. He served for 30 years before retiring as a Sargeant Major. I always idolized him for that, although in fact, I really didn't know him all that well as he is some 15 years older than me. Of my 5 brothers, 2 others served in the Air Force, so military service was seen as honorable in my family, although not necessarily expected.

Upon graduating High School, my focus was on college. In college, my focus was on graduating, and toward the end, on getting married. During that time I went through an unfortunate pacifistic phase -- one I view now as typical of the intellectual exploration of the young. Naive but understandable. In addition, of the few times I mentioned the possiblity of military service, my fiance reacted strongly to the negative. So I did not pursue it. This was in the late 80's and there was no pressing reason, in the national perspective, for a guy like me to pursue military service.

The Gulf War gave me pause, but of course it was over almost as soon as it began. Pretty soon I had surpassed the cutoff age for enlisting. It was now a moot point.

Then came 9/11 and the aftermath. A few years ago, I heard that the Army had increased the maximum age for enlistment to 42. That year I turned 43. Nevertheless, although the point is still moot, I regret now that I did not enlist.

There are many many good reasons for me to have NOT enlisted. I won't even recite them here as I'm sure you can guess them. I am fully aware that war is not a game, and I do not think I am overcome be romantic notions of military glory. Yet there is something deep inside, or hidden way back in my brain that wishes that I had stepped up and done my duty.

I've been thinking of Shakespeare's St. Crispin Day speech from Henry V.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

I'm afraid I do now "hold my manhood cheap" when I think of those who are now
in Iraq and Afghanistan or wherever they are posted around the world, working to insure my safety and that of my children. I loath and detest the fact that we fight in Iraq, and think we should never have gone there. But now that we are in it, we must finish it and finish it properly. I regret that I cannot be a part of that, even though I
know that to do so would be a terrible disruption and would put my life at risk.

Yet when others are doing so, and I am not, I feel cheap. Can't help it. I just do.