Saturday, December 10, 2016

a turn on Crow Lane

"I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing but a growing up: than an adult is not a dead child, but a child who has survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act wisely and well in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.

"For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it's true. Children know that. Adults know it too and that's precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.

"So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy -- they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called 'The Emperor's New Clothes'). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren't real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that's more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: 'Unicorns aren't real.' It is by such statements as, 'Once upon a time there was a dragon,' or 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' -- it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at truth."

From The Language of the Night
by Ursula K. Le Guin

We too often forget that tale-telling is thousands of years old. Parents who read to their children or who make up stories are giving them the finest gift in the world.. next to letting them outdoors to play and dream their own stories.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Crow in space - reprise

"Apologies for the late arrival but the last time we dropped by this sector, perhaps a thousand years ago, things seemed to be going along swimmingly with your development and it would appear we put your planet a little further down the list for follow-up than would now appear to have been wise. Oh dear, you have dug quite a lot of holes down there, haven't you, and what's all that smoke and nasty colored stuff in the water? Didn't there used to be quite a lot of trees just over to the left and where are the tops that I'm sure were on those mountains last time?"

This, dear susan, was how the conversation began when I renewed my acquaintance with Bijou Son Dopazine Al'ka Quil (you can call me Dope) on his/her/its most recent visit to Earth. Dope, a freelance pan-galactic cryptozoologist by profession, has returned to Earth to see how you people are getting along and to invite any interested members of the planet's intelligent species to join his/her/its cosmic venture. This invitation isn't being offered to humans, by the way - at least not quite yet. Crows, whales and many more, however,  are busy packing their picnic baskets and breathing great sighs of relief.

I first met him/her/it centuries ago when I was on a grand tour of the the outer spiral arm. Dope doesn't actually come from a planet. His/her/its people gave up planetary living so long ago that none of them even remember  which part of the galaxy was once called home. Instead, they live on giant ships, by that I mean ships that could house the Death Star half a dozen times with room left over for several oceans and many forests. They find living on planets to be far too much of a constraint to their natural curiosity. 

Not to worry, I won't be going on this trip. Once our friends have been comfortably accommodated on the mother ship 'Seen Enough Yet?' (currently orbiting at L1 and safely outside missile range - haha, fireworks!), I'll be returning home. In the meantime Dope offered a suggestion for humanity that he/she/it hopes will be acted upon before their next visit in 500 years or so:

"Be nice to each other and look after this place. After all, even you should be able to see it's the only planet you've got since all the other decent ones are too far away for you to get to. Besides, they all have their own people anyway.

If you do that and don't accidentally kill yourselves we may be able to provide you with some assistance when we return. Most important is to stop digging all those holes!"

I'll be flying in tomorrow evening, my friend. Don't forget to warm up the Remy and chill the fruitcake.

I'm dedicating this post to another good friend I've never met, Iain M. Banks, whose books about the Culture describe life in a star-spanning "empire" organized along socialist/libertarian/anarchist principles, achieved through post-scarcity technology. The seven or eight humanoid species that founded the Culture along with the others which joined later live without want, and without the need to work; practically anything they can ask for, they can receive. This is largely because the organic Culturniks are under the benevolent de-facto dictatorship... ahem, guidance of the A.I. Minds that control the starships and space habitats the entire Culture lives on.

Could the future be like that for us? As Iain Banks once answered "Only if we're lucky". He is far more clever than me and the books are a treat. I'm hoping we get lucky.


The above was posted originally a couple of years ago but Crow and I like the picture, besides which, the message seems as appropriate now as it did then. Iain Banks died of pancreatic cancer a few months later. His books remain among my favorites.


"So, again no, we didn't discover aliens on Europa. This shouldn't come as a huge shock to anyone. We told you repeatedly that today's announcement wouldn't be about aliens. But every time we do one of these things with the press, inevitably you guys think it's going to be about aliens. So I'll let you in on a little secret. NASA will literally never hold a press conference announcing we have discovered aliens. Because we are never going to discover aliens. Aliens are going to discover us, and when they do it won't be pretty. You can take that to the bank. There certainly won't be enough time for a press conference about it. You probably won't even have time to blink. Just a hot white flash in the sky and then lights out. As far as the universe is concerned, relatively speaking, we're infants. Lord knows we act like it. I mean you guys see the same garbage we do, right? Would you tolerate any of this? If you were them? I know I sure as shit wouldn't. Not even for a second. We're basically infants and when the adults show up - and they will show up sooner or later - it's game over. Best case scenario, we wipe ourselves off the face of the planet before they get a crack at us. You want an announcement about aliens? Here it is: Be careful what you wish for. If you guys knew even a fraction of the shit we do, you'd never sleep again. I promise you that."

Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA

Paul Hertz is real and this quote may be his but I'm guessing some wag made it up since scientists aren't known to be funny in front of reporters - except for Richard Feynman and, occasionally, my friend Andrew.


Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups... So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.

Philip K. Dick (1978)


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

memories with Crow

We all have worries, some common to everyone and others simply things that seem vaguely wrong about the way things are in our modern world. One subject Crow and I have talked about at length while sitting by his fireplace sipping Remy these cold and wet evenings of late autumn is the problem of storing what people have learned and made. Music, for one example in my lifetime, has been available in a number of formats over the years. I'm a bit too young (not by much) to remember wax discs but I do remember 78s, the flat discs made of a brittle material that broke all too easily. After them came 45s and albums made of longer lasting plastic. You needed a phonograph to play discs. Next came tapes which required the listener to have a special player. The next big innovation was the the cd, another disc but this one could only be interpreted by a laser disc machine. Now most of us have mp3 files that we access on our electronic devices - no discs, no tapes, no cds, in fact, theres nothing really to see or hold at all. It's pretty much the same for printed matter of all kinds. Now I know this isn't true for all of us, since books are still pretty common as are dvds, but it's largely true overall.

One can't help but wonder what next and, moreover, what if something happened that made all of our electronic information as inaccessible? A major solar flare, which apparently aren't all that uncommon, could destroy much of what's stored in the cloud. Besides music, movies and personal pictures almost all scientific documents are are written and saved on computers. Makes one think, doesn't it? Then, of course, there's just the general course of progress I already described where formats and the means of accessing them disappear.

I was very happy to discover that it hasn't just been Crow and I who have noticed these things. Not long ago on one of my voyages of discovery around the internet I found a website called 'The Memory of Mankind', a group that has dedicated itself to preserving much of our culture using a modern version of the clay tablet. The idea is that information deemed significant is being printed on ceramic microfilm and is being stored in an ancient saltmine in Austria. It's pretty interesting and most definitely a worthwhile project.


Once a king asked his wise men to give him something that would make him happy when he is sad, and sad when he is happy. The wise men spent days thinking about it in silence and watching the clouds go by. On the fourth day, they wrote on a piece of paper and handed it to the king. When the king read it, he thanked them. What did it say?

    “This, too, shall pass.”


Sunday, November 13, 2016

in memoriam - Leonard Cohen

"We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky."

"We are so lightly here. It is in love that we are made. In love we disappear."

"I've often said if I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often."

"I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair, with a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere."

"There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."

"I wish I could say everything in one word. I hate all the things that can happen between the beginning of a sentence and the end."

"Prayer is translation. A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered."

"A woman watches her body uneasily, as though it were an unreliable ally in the battle for love."

"What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love."

"This is the most challenging activity that humans get into, which is love."


Saturday, October 29, 2016

coyote makes the seasons

in the beginning, there were no seasons, and the world was the same every day. one day, coyote grew tired of this, and he created summer and winter. as time passed, summer and winter grew to love each other. they wished to be with each other, but had no place to meet. they went to coyote and told him these things. and so coyote built them a lodge where they could be together. he built it in the most beautiful place he knew, far from everything else. then coyote told them what he’d done, and they were happy.

a few days later, coyote saw summer. “coyote, you must help me and winter,” said summer. “we have tried to find the lodge you have built for us, but it is so well hidden that we cannot find our way.” she told coyote “you must make us a path.” coyote said he would. he asked summer how the path should be. “it should be as winter’s way is,” summer answered. “it should be still, and warm, and golden, and full of deep thoughts and memories. such a path will remind me of winter, and i will not lose my way.” “i will do it,” said coyote, and he went and made such a path.

time passed. then one day, coyote saw winter. “coyote,” said winter, “you must help me. i have tried to follow the path you have made to the lodge, but i keep getting lost. you must change the path, and make it as summer’s way is. it must be fresh, and bright, and green, and carefree and full of laughter. a path like this will remind me of summer, and i will not get lost.” “very well, i will make the path this way,” said coyote.

when coyote was by himself, he thought “i cannot make just one path to the lodge that will please these two.” and so coyote made a new path as winter had described. these two paths were fall and spring. “now each has its own way to find the lodge and each other,” said coyote, and summer and winter were pleased.

- by numb
in appreciation of 'Giving Birth to Thunder: Sleeping With His Daughter'
Native American 'coyote' stories collected by Barry Lopez


Retyped from its dot-matrix original found in a pocket
of an old handbag of mine. It was so nice I just had to
illustrate its essence. Hope you like it too.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

going mobile

Something we saw when we were out recently. The guy was driving flat out (maybe 8mph). Only in Halifax..

We have arrived at the time of year when we see and feel some significant weather events. It rained a lot on theThanksgiving weekend (last of that hurricane) with what seemed like tree stripper winds. Then the next day showed the trees just about as full as they had been before. Better still, the frog pond at the park that had dried into a giant mud flat by summer's end had refilled and the ducks were back. Again today and yesterday we've had lots of very heavy rain and strong winds besides. Happily it all let up for a few hours, long enough for us to have a good walk in the park. The coolest part of that was when we rounded the point to the beach area to find huge waves coming out of the fog. The sound alone was absolutely mesmerizing but all the more wonderful was seeing the heave and curl of the waves as they broke far from shore and again as they burst on the rocky beach. We sat and watched for a long time.

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies”
– Groucho Marx


Monday, September 12, 2016

the donor

A little girl was ill in hospital with a rare blood disorder and was badly in need of a blood donor but a match could not be found. As a last resort, her six year old brother was checked as a match and much to everyone's relief, he was.

Both his parents and doctor sat the little boy down and explained how they would like his blood to help his sister so she would not die. The little boy waited a few moments then asked if he could think about it. It wasn't the reaction the parents or doctor expected but they agreed.

The following day the little boy sat in front of the doctor with his father and mother and said he agreed to give his sister what she needed.

The hospital staff moved quickly for his sister was fading quite fast. So the little boy could understand what was happening, he was placed in a bed next to his sister and so the transfusion began. Quickly, the colour and life began flooding back into the little girl and every one was overjoyed.

The little boy turned to the doctor and quietly asked, "How long will it be before I die?"

Now we know why he took a little time to think about it.


I offer my apologies to those who think this one was a bit too sweet but it was a story that touched my heart.
Sometimes that's enough.


Sunday, September 4, 2016

A pessimist gets nothing but pleasant surprises..

I've spent a large part of my reading time these past few months re-reading the Nero Wolfe detective series written by Rex Stout. In case you're not familiar with them, as you very well may not be, the books (33 novels and 39 short stories were written between 1934 and 1975 when Rex Stout died at the age of 88) are mysteries that feature the weighty genius detective, Nero Wolfe. Brilliant, eccentric cynic Nero Wolfe makes his living as New York City's finest private detective. He charges outrageous fees, usually in the tens of thousands, to solve the highest-profile murders - because, quite frankly, he needs the money. After an adventurous youth in his native Montenegro, he's now fully engaged in the pursuit of self-indulgence, weighing in at "a seventh of a ton" ('to insulate my feelings,' he explains). He literally refuses to leave his home on business - or most anything else, for that matter - and has seen to it that there's little reason why he should.

Renowned Swiss chef Fritz Brenner caters to his gastronomic obsessions; botanist/put-upon plant nurseTheodore Horstmann helps care for the 10,000+ orchids in the rooftop greenhouse; and Archie Goodwin, our narrator, acts as his legman, secretary, bodyguard, occasional chauffeur and general sounding-board. A gifted investigator in his own right, Archie is the one who goes out and finds the suspects, collects the clues and romances the ladies, while Wolfe uses his keen intellect to piece it all together and collect the fee. (Although under some circumstances, usually touching pride - as when a woman was strangled in the office with Wolfe's own necktie - honour demands they solve a case regardless of client or funding.)

The enduring charm of the series lies in the meeting of their two worlds: 'a recurring miracle', as Wolfe once put it. Archie looks, fights and speaks fluent Philip Marlowe with a deft, self-aware touch all his own, and is actually much more likely to out-talk opponents than physically intimidate them ("by God, you'd clown at your own funeral!"). True to his Midwestern roots, he unwinds with a tall glass of milk and often shocks Wolfe by skipping a gourmet dinner for a deli sandwich while on a case. He refuses to be intimidated by anyone, let alone his formidable employer... which is understandable, given that his main duty is to irritate Wolfe out of his cushy routine and into taking cases in the first place.

Wolfe, on the other hand, represents the 'drawing-room' mystery taken to its logically ultimate level, right up to the climactic gathering of suspects to name the culprit. Within his plush, book-lined Manhattan brownstone he has evolved a lifestyle that has refined hedonism to the most exquisite routine - breakfast in bed, visits to the orchids from nine to eleven and four to six without fail, no talking business at meals, etc. etc. - and tolerates no interruptions, not even from the police. He is all intellect, quite openly misogynistic, seemingly immune to any human passion whatsoever... save perhaps in his trust in Archie, which is absolute.

The supporting cast includes freelance investigators Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather, often called in to work surveillance and other routine angles on a case; Archie's casual girlfriend, smarter-than-she-looks society girl Lily Rowan; and Lon Cohen, city editor of the Gazette, who trades inside info for scoops on the flashy murders that Wolfe solves. Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins provide the police presence, many steps up the competence ladder from Holmesian bobbies, and much more realistically resentful of a civilian wielding such power, but never quick enough to do anything about it.

Interestingly too, although somewhat strange as the years pass, is that while the central characters never age, and unlike the Sherlock Holmes stories that always happen in 1895, the Nero Wolfe books are always contemporary to their time. Of course when reading the later books it is kind of amusing to imagine Nero Wolfe as a ninety year old grump ordering the now seventy year old Archie to go out and charm the ladies.

We were first introduced to the books in 1978 when the three of us spent a week in NY with some old friends of Jer's. They'd got caught up in the series themselves and gave us a couple they'd already completed to read on the train on our way home. By the time we got back to Providence we were addicted enough to want to read the rest but soon discovered most of them were no longer in print - a fact that lead us to scouring second hand bookstores all over our southern New England neighbourhood even as far as Boston. Eventually we did collect all of them - and read them as we found them (as in not in order) - and left them behind with tons of other stuff when we moved to Portland. Last spring we decided to see if it would be possible to purchase them all again and read them from beginning to end - 'Fer de Lance' to 'A Family Affair'. The very good news was that Bantam reprinted them in the early and mid-90s and most of the ones we obtained are from that run. Of course, things are never quite so simple as all that, are they? - and the mid-90s are now twenty years ago. But from one place and another we tracked down all of them with the last arriving just last week (only once did we pay $10 and most were far less). It's been a delight indulging in so many one after the other - and a comfort knowing there are others waiting when I read something else.. like the news, for instance. Even though they are works of purist fantasy it's relaxing to spend some time in a place where the ending of one human life is worthy of a complex investigation.

“Every man alive is half idiot & half hero. Only heroes could survive in this maelstrom & only idiots would want to.”
  - Rex Stout

Yes, I did read a few other books in between, but more about them another time.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

good idea - bad execution

While it's always fun taking walks around our local oceanside park in summer there's one odd thing we've noticed about occasional visitors - namely, wedding parties. There are some very scenic spots in the park, grassy meadows near the water and a lovely old gazebo on a hill overlooking the harbor and out to sea. The problem is that private cars aren't allowed in the park and the best places for these romantic events are very far from the parking lots, bathrooms and fresh water.

I'm sure you can see the problem. It's all very well for the excited and healthy average bride and groom and their friends to get to these spots but not so easy for their more mature family members. It's sad to see a procession of elderly and often overweight wedding guests dressed in formal clothing walking a mile or two in inappropriate footwear along a gravelled path. A few days ago one lady 'of a certain age' was hobbling along barefoot and carrying her high heels.

It would be a fine thing if everyone could travel to the special scenic spot in a horse drawn carriage, or barring that, a rickshaw. Weddings are supposed to be reasonably relaxing occasions and not Bataan death marches for the friends and relatives of the happy couple. Don't people get married in churches or gardens anymore?

If anybody wanted my advice, I'd suggest holding the ceremony in a reasonable venue then sending the guests off to the reception where they could enjoy snacks and drinks while the wedding party went off to get the scenic view photographs. Heck, they could even get some exciting sky diving shots to remind them of their special day.

I'm guessing I'm not the only one to have wished things had been planned better. Meanwhile I'll have to keep looking away from the long suffering guests - never mind the bride with her tattered hems.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

back at the games with Crow

On his way home from visiting his condor clan buddies in the Andes Crow stopped off to see how preparations were coming along for the Summer Olympic Games in Rio. Wishing all those people well, let’s just leave them to their events while I tell you a couple of the stories he’s shared with me about the Games that began in Ancient Greece more than 2700 years ago and were performed every four years for a millenium. The contemporary ones began in 1896.

One thing Crow insisted I understand is that Ancient Greece was considerably larger and more influential than the country as you know it today. Here’s a map so you can see just how much territory it covered. You’ll notice there are lots of cities, or city states as they were known then, nearly a thousand of them besides the ones whose names are familiar like Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Syracuse, Aegina, Rhodes, Argos, Eretria, and Elis. Whereas the biggest was Sparta, Athens, Rhodes and Syracuse possessed large naval fleets which also allowed them to control wide areas of territory across the Aegean. People being not too different from what they are now the city states of Greece were often at war, a situation that made travel between them dangerous.

The Games were held in honour of Zeus, king of the gods, and were staged every four years at Olympia, a valley near a city called Elis. People from all over the Greek world came to watch and take part. As a religious festival the Games were more important than war so a ’sacred truce’ was enacted three months before the Games so the athletes and tens of thousands of fans could travel safely. Olympia was a pretty cool place with training facilities, pools and all the necessities to make the athletes ready:

 It is all hilly and shaded, and has many springs...The city is well provided with public buildings, gymnasia, stoas, temples, theatres, pictures, statues, and an agora which is excellently situated for all trading purposes.
 ~ 3rd century BCE description

But so much for history - you probably know all about it anyway. What was more fun for me was hearing Crow’s stories, a couple of which I’ll share with you. There are hundreds of events staged at the modern Summer Olympics but back then, and for the first fifty years or so, there was only one - a race from one end of the stadium to the other. Then everybody would pack up their tents and go home. Eventually, once the organizers came to understand it might be more amusing for everyone if the Games lasted a bit longer, more events were added to make four days of competitions. They included wrestling, boxing, long jump, throwing the javelin and discus, and chariot racing (no horse races because saddles hadn’t been invented yet).

Competing in the nude became the rule after a young wrestler whipped off his loin cloth before a match so he had more flexibility. This was before spandex was invented. A version of wrestling, the pankration, was probably the nastiest event because there were almost no rules. While biting and eye gouging was officially banned the decree wasn’t always enforced. I’m not even going to mention the fighter who won a match by breaking his opponents fingers at the beginning of the match. oops.. However, cheating was punished. Anyone caught cheating, trying to bribe an athlete for instance, was likely to be flogged and had to pay for a bronze statue of Zeus, as a punishment. There were many statues of Zeus at Olympia.

Women were not permitted to participate in or watch the events although young girls were allowed in the crowd, the sole exception to this rule was the priestess of Demeter who had a special viewing platform.

One of Crow’s favorite stories is about the woman who broke the rule against women at the Games (although I’m sure there were many cooking dinners back at the tents). Anyway, a lady named Mrs. Kallipateira was the racing trainer for her son Peisirodos, Pez and, naturally enough, wanted to see him perform. When he won his race Mrs. Kallipateira’s experienced a fashion emergency of such severity (prompted by all her jumping up and down) that made it apparent to all that she was indeed an adult female. In order to avoid such an occurrence in the future rules were established that all trainers also had to be naked.

Yes, we enjoyed more than one snifter of Remy as Crow reminisced about the past and offered his suggestions for the future. In 2004, the Summer Games were held in Athens, close enough to make us think fondly about returning them to Greece, if they are to continue at all. So far that hasn’t happened, the Games moved on at the direction of all of those who profit from the bribes and chicanery that goes along with membership in the I.O.C.

We found it very interesting to learn that a number of cities have cancelled their bids to host the next Winter Games:
Oslo because there was so little public support for it.
Stockholm withdrew for similar reasons.
Krakow after a referendum found almost 70% of residents opposed the bid..
Along with Munich, Davos, Barcelona and Quebec City.
Leaving them with two potential hosts: Almaty, in the dictatorship of Kazakhstan, and the other was Beijing. Beijing won.

The same thing seems to be happening with the Summer Games:
In 2015 Boston withdrew its bid for the 2024 Summer Games because of low public support.
Hamburg pulled out after the local government lost another referendum.
Toronto’s mooted bid was scrapped.
The four candidate cities left are Rome, Budapest, Los Angeles and Paris - and Italy and Hungary are dubious.

We shall see, or should I say we’ll wait upon Events? Best wishes to all the Athletes in competition now and in the future. The Summer Games began with one competition and few contenders, now there are about three hundred events and nearly thirteen thousand challengers. They could use a permanent home.


* The picture at the top was made when Crow attended the hero’s welcome of an Olympic winner on his return home.