Archive for December, 2009

Faretheewell

A gentle exit for the old year with a trio of songs from Fred Neil. Not generally acknowledged as one of the titans of music, but long a favorite of mine.

Neil was a Florida boy with a rich baritone voice, a unique touch on the 12-string, and a fondness for songs melancholy. Some of his earliest tunes were recorded by Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison; he shepherded callow youngbloods David Crosby and Bob Dylan through the Greenwich Village folk-music scene (Dylan backed Neil on harmonica); he inspired talents as disparate as Jerry Jeff Walker and the Jefferson Airplane. Neil recorded four albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the world took no notice. Afforded a modest living through steady royalties generated by Orbison’s cover of his “Candy Man,” and Nilsson’s cover of his “Everybody’s Talkin’,” Neil left Woodstock and environs in the early ’70s and retired to southern Florida, where he spent the rest of his life, until his death in 2001, aged 64.

“[His retreat] was rightfully deserved,” said Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner. “He was treated rather brutally by the music business, and he was a gentle soul.”

Like many in the music trade, Neil spent time as a narcotics person—see, for instance, “Cynicrustpetefredjohn Raga”—but he left that world behind, too. “Fred went in until the water was up to his neck,” said friend Michael Mann, the film director, “and then he got out.”

Neil spent the last thirty years of his life with The Dolphin Project, which he established with Richard O’Barry on Earth Day in 1970, and which is “dedicated to abolishing the billion-dollar dolphin slave trade.”

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Inertial Guidance

[R]ound the neck of the bottle was a paper label, with the words “DRINK ME” beautifully printed on it in large letters. It was all very well to say “Drink Me,” but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry.

“No, I’ll look first,” she said, “and see whether it’s marked ‘poison’ or not.”

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Here’s a bit of good news. After 11 years of foot-dragging, the Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it will compel pesticide manufacturers to publicly disclose the inert ingredients in their products.

An “inert ingredient” is anything that is not intended to actually kill or control a pest. Poison pushers have feverishly resisted public disclosure of these mystery substances, because in the few cases where they have actually been required to fess up to them, people learned they had unknowingly subjected themselves to such wonderments as asbestos and cadmium, and fled from the products in droves.

Formaldehyde, bisphenol A, sulfuric acid, toluene, benzene, and styrene are among the inert ingredients that are currently allowed in pesticides, but not identified on labels. Some are carcinogens; some cause reproductive or respiratory problems. Polyethoxylated tallowamine, a.k.a. POEA, which is present in the pervasive poison Roundup as an “inert ingredient,” is more deadly to human embryonic, placental, and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself.

The EPA has matter-of-factly stated that its decision to require disclosure will hopefully make it more likely that poison pushers will replace such toxic gunk and goop with ingredients that are truly inert, like coffee grounds, sunflower oil, and licorice extract.

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Many Mansions

In my Father’s house are many mansions.

—John 14:2

For another year, Christmastime has come and gone, and so has Santa, and so has Jesus.

This year in contemplating Santa and Jesus, the two began to get confused in my mind. Santa Claus, for reasons that have never really been explained, devotes each year to overseeing minute laborers who fashion gifts which he annually delivers, in a single night, to all deserving children the world over. Jesus Christ, for reasons that have been variously explained, roamed for a short time across a relatively minute piece of the earth’s surface, baffling the masses with gnomic wisdoms, until he was seized and subjected to excruciating suffering, so that all, deserving and undeserving alike, might be gifted with salvation.

When a sprout, I was taught that while Santa’s labors never end—deliver the gifts, fly home, get after the elves to start poundin’ away at next year’s lot, dump the finished stuff in the sleigh, round up the reindeer, zoom all over the world crashin’ down chimneys, home again home again, line up the elves with the new list, world without end, amen—Jesus’ was a one-shot gig. Wander around Palestine, ascend the cross, into the tomb, three days later out again, brief appearances before various friends and lovers, then up to heaven for a well-deserved eternal rest.

I no longer believe that. I believe that, as is set forth a couple posts down, “Jesus Christ suffers from now until the end. On the cross. He goes on suffering. Until the death of the last human being.” That is the mystic meaning of his tale: he suffers with all beings suffering in the exile of existence. And we are called upon to do the same—to grow to empathy, so that thy neighbor truly is thyself, and suffering everywhere, for everyone, may be eased. With this meaning there is no need for the resurrection. All of us are him, doing the same work; our work, his work, never ends.

For those who are wedded to the resurrection, the advances in science and philosophy in my lifetime, in the understanding of the multiple dimensions and multiple worlds about us, too mean that his work never ends. For the planets, it is now known, are innumerable, and so are the dimensional variations of this one. And if salvation is indeed his calling, he will forever be busy as twelve bastards, for there are those who need saving, inhabiting every one.

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Foully Played

When the dark mood is upon me, and I brood Gnostic, I perceive a world owned and controlled by a fellow I call Mr. Ha-Ha. For reasons that passeth understanding, from that which causes others pain, this being seems to derive amusement. He gets his giggles in everything from so befuddling an electorate that it selects as president Richard Nixon, rather than George McGovern, to unleashing a thunderstorm as soon as a load of good dry seasoned wood is dumped in one’s driveway. Murphy’s Law—”anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”—is a Mr. Ha-Ha confection. “No good deed goes unpunished” is another. Whenever I read of an aging rocker who resolves to change his wayward ways, embarks upon the straight and narrow, and promptly drops dead, I know that Mr. Ha-Ha has walked the land.

He is most dastardly in “deliberate cruelty”—which, as Blanche DuBois has correctly observed, “is not forgivable.” To wit, James Joyce, afflicted all his life by terrible vision problems that eventually rendered him blind, attempted to protect his daughter from the same fate by naming her Lucia—”light.” Mr. Ha-Ha allowed Lucia to keep her sight, all right, but toyed with her name like a mischievous genie, flooding her with so much light that she went mad. Or my own daughter, a sunny child devoted to old pagan ways, whom he pushed down the stairs, breaking her back, on the Summer Solstice.

Nothing is beyond the realm of probability if it will furnish Mr. Ha-Ha with a laugh. And so there he was in the stands, in Philadelphia on August 17, 1957, when Richie Ashburn, veteran Phillies centerfielder, fouled a line drive into the box seats along the third base line, striking in the face Alice Roth, wife of the sports editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin, bloodily breaking her nose. The game was stopped briefly as Roth was attended to. She was placed on a stretcher, and play resumed. On the next pitch, Ashburn fouled off another ball—which screamed into the stands, ploughing into Roth as she lay abed the stretcher.

Mr. Ha-Ha later decreed that Ashburn be drafted by the expansion New York Mets, for whom he played in 1962. The Mets that year were the worst team in the history of baseball, losing 120 games. Ashburn played well, hitting .306, but he’d had enough: he retired at the end of the season. In his final game, the Mets’ 120th loss, Ashburn was one of three Mets victims in a rare triple play, achieved by his former teammates on the Cubs.

Attendance

“In Vence,” said Herzog, “my parents left me under a crucifix. And I asked them, my parents, ‘What happened to him?’ I meant the man on the cross, the Christ figure. I was then ten years of age and had no idea what a crucifix was. We lived in Paris. After the liberation I was not yet fourteen. The prefect told me who I was. That I was a Jew. That my parents, my family, had been delivered to the Germans and murdered by them. And I felt—what can I say—a recognition.”

“But you couldn’t leave the Church?”

“Oh,” Herzog said with a little shrug, “I didn’t care much about the Church. The Church was men, people. Some good, some not.” He looked at the floor.

“Then why?”

“Because I was waiting,” said Herzog. “Waiting where I had been left. At the foot of the cross. Out of spite or devotion, I don’t know.” He laughed and put a hand on Lucas’s shoulder. “Pascal says we understand nothing until we understand the principle from which it proceeds. Don’t you agree? So I understand very little.”

“We’re supposed to believe that Christ has gone on to reign in glory,” Lucas said.

“No,” said Herzog. “Jesus Christ suffers from now until the end. On the cross. He goes on suffering. Until the death of the last human being.”

“And that,” Lucas said, “brings you here?”

“Yes,” said Herzog. “To attend. To keep on waiting.”

From the steps of the church, the evening smelled of car exhaust and jasmine.

“I realize that in this kind of world,” Lucas said, “I have no business being so unhappy. I realize also that on a religious level I’ll always be a child. It’s absurd and I regret it.”

For the first time Herzog smiled.

“Don’t regret it, sir. Perhaps you know Malraux’s Anti-memoires? His priest tells us that people are much more unhappy than one might think.” He offered Lucas his hand. “And that there is no such thing as a grownup.”

—Robert Stone, Damascus Gate

The Scalia Paradox

As Mark Tushnet has astutely observed: “Antonin Scalia isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.”

In a way, it is too bad that George II ultimately elected not to elevate Scalia to the chief justice’s chair. For that means no Senate Democrat will ever be allowed to grill Scalia on the paradox inherent in his ceaseless benchbound bloviating about his “originalist” approach to the Constitution.

For, as David Kairys has pointed out: “[t]he guiding principle for interpreting the Constitution, according to Scalia, is ‘text and tradition’—the text of the Constitution and the historical traditions of American society. This principle flunks its own test: it is not itself in the text of the Constitution and does not accurately describe our constitutional history or tradition, which has been extraordinarily activist (though usually not on civil-rights issues).”

Put even more simply: Scalia says the Constitution must be interpreted solely by interpreting its text as it was understood at the time of the Founding, and by traditions in place at the time of the Founding. But the Constitution itself says no such thing.

Thus, the Constitution itself provides no more support for Scalia’s judicial approach than it would for a justice who elects to decide cases by flipping a coin, or by consulting a monkey.

Read the thing, and see.

Need To Know

Something had to come from something and the thing in question was forever—an infinite cloud of restless dust as far as T. could grasp. When he first started brooding on the matter of creation, T. realized immediately that the human brain was so constructed as to be absolutely unable to make the slightest sense of the whole. As we start and stop so, for us, the cosmos must start and stop. But he could also see that his own reasoning was crippled by the built-in limitations of a two-lobe human brain, with its peculiar hang-up on beginnings and endings when it was change that was the nature of nature. But just as he felt he was on the verge of grasping the whole, everything seen and sensed fell away. Back to Go. “We ask all the wrong questions.” T. pressed the button that summoned up the string of light which represented their small planet’s brief life as a sphere. “And that’s why we keep getting all the wrong answers.”

“There was a man, born the son of a Virgin . . . ” Father Lamy was dogged.

T. Was equally dogged; and annoyed. “I was confirmed by Bishop Freeman himself in the cathedral and I knew then that everything to do with that story is not only useless but designed—only your heaven knows who or what did it and why—to keep us from finding our anything that we actually need to know.”

“Perhaps we don’t need to know the things that you think that you—for now—want to know.”

—Gore Vidal, The Smithsonian Institution


When I Worked

December 2009
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