Archive for February, 2010

Homage To Catalonia

Parliament in the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia has voted to ban bullfighting throughout the region.

The vote was 67-59, with some members casting their anonymous votes by hunching over their desks to hide their fingers from photographers.

Spanish rightists screamed that the ban was akin to outlawing tapas, but 180,000 Catalans—three times the required minimum—had signed petitions to place the measure before parliament. That body will cast a final vote on the ban in May, after hearing from a parade of pontificators, to include prominent bull-killer Luis Francisco Esplá, who wishes to continue slaughtering the animals, and former matador Álvaro Múnera, who wants the killing to end.

Bullfighting was first banned in the Canary Islands in the mid-1990s; it was expected that Catalonia would be the next Spanish region to leave off ritually butchering bulls.

Over the past three decades, bullring after bullring has closed in major Catalan towns such as Gerona, Lloret de Mar and Tarragona, and in Barcelona only one of the original three rings remains. As far back as 1909, Barcelona hosted Spain’s first anti-bullfighting protest, and by 2004 more than 80 per cent of Catalans were opposed to the practice. “Banning the bulls in Catalonia would be like drawing up a death certificate for a long-dead corpse,” said Juan Ilian, a leading Spanish bullfighting correspondent for nearly five decades. “And even if they don’t, it’ll remain on its deathbed.”

Bull-butchers are increasingly forced to confront human beings in the ring, who, like the woman pictured above, arrive bearing signs reading “Abolition.”


It’s A Boy

Now he couldn’t help thinking, Why do people have to live like animals, eating and reproducing, possessed by the instinct for survival? What point is there in having a dozen sons if your own life is miserable and senseless? Probably people are afraid, afraid of disappearing from the world—traceless and completely forgotten, so they have children to leave reminders of themselves. How selfish parents can be. Then why does it have to be a son? Can’t a girl serve equally well as a reminder of her parents? What a crazy, stupid custom, which demands that every couple have a baby boy to carry on the family line.

He remembered the saying, “Raise a son for your old years.” He reasoned, Even though a boy is believed superior to a girl, his life many not be easy either. He will have to become a provider for his parents when he grows up. Selfish. How often parents have sons so that they can exploit them in the future. They prefer boys to girls mainly because sons will provide more, are worth more as capital.

His thoughts were interrupted by a burst of squalling from the delivery room. The door opened and Nurse Yu beckoned him to come in. He stubbed out the cigarette on his rubber sole, dropped it into a spittoon by the bench, and rose to his feet, shuffling to the door.

“Congratulations,” Haiyan said the moment he stepped in. “You have two sons.”

“You mean twins?”


The nurses showed him the crying babies, who looked almost identical, each weighing just over five pounds. They were bony, with big heads, thick joints, flat noses, red shrunken skin, and closed eyes. Their faces were puckered like old men’s. One of them opened his mouth as though wanting to eat something to assert his existence. The other one had an ear whose auricle was folded inward. They were so different from what Lin had expected that he was overwhelmed with disgust.

“Look,” Haiyan said to Lin. “They take after you.”

—Ha Jin, Waiting

Ain’t Got No Home

Back in December I posted a piece concerning climate scientists who have concluded that, due to human-caused global warming, the world’s coral reefs will be completely gone within a century. In expectation that human beings may someday become sane, there are plans afoot to freeze coral samples in liquid nitrogen and store them in a “coral ark” at the London Zoo, until such time as world temperatures stabilize and coral may be reintroduced into the waters from whence they came.

I noted then this:

Technological humanity is cutting it awful close. Capable of destroying the world’s coral reefs, but also of cryogenically preserving them, until such time as humanity is no longer mad, and coral may be reintroduced back into the world. Capable of sending into extinction the planet’s largest mammals—lions, tigers, rhinoceros, the whole lot—but also of preserving their DNA in a “Frozen Ark,” until such time as humanity is no longer mad, and they may be reintroduced back into the world.

Now comes news, from the New York Times, of a need for yet more Noahs. As the spray toad, or Nectophrynoides asperginis, has been utterly eliminated from the wild, and dwells today only in the Toledo and Bronx zoos. Seems the creature got in the way of a dam the World Bank determined should denude its former home in the Kihansi Gorge in Tanzania.



One of my car-radio FM-presets is tuned to a station that features music produced by young people happy and hopeful in the first great rush of love.

I am completely clueless as to how radio formats are subdivided and described these days, so I don’t know how better to represent it.

Although I am an old guy, I like to keep in touch with this stuff. Because there is great value in raw, open, vulnerable expressions of eros, and there always will be.

Most recently this station has brought me Colbie Caillat’s “Fallin’ For You,” which has won my heart completely. I know very little about this person, except that her father co-produced Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Tusk, which indicates that she probably has a genetic predisposition for producing fine love songs.

I post it here for Valentine’s Day, for all once and future lovers, young, old, and growing younger, breathless, giddy, and walking on air.

Speech Impediment

“George, don’t make no full moves. Please make it quick, fast and furious. Please. Fast and furious. You get ahead with the dot dash system. Oh, oh—dog biscuits! And when he is happy he doesn’t get happy. No hobo and pobo I think he means the same thing. I am a pretty good pretzler. Don’t put anyone near this check. In the olden days they waited and waited. I don’t want harmony. I want harmony. There are only ten of us and there ten million fighting somewhere of you, so get your onions up and we will throw up the truce flag. The sidewalk was in trouble and the bears were in trouble and I broke it up. You can play jacks and girls do that with a softball and do tricks with it. I take all events into consideration. No. No. And it is no. It is confused and it says no. A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim. I am sore and I am going up and I am going to give you honey if I can. Mother is the best bet and don’t let Satan draw you too fast. They dyed my shoes. Open those shoes. I know what I am doing here with my collection of paper. Come on, open the soap duckets. The chimney sweeps. Talk to the sword. French-Canadian bean soup. I want to pay. Let them leave me alone.”

—among the last words of Dutch Schultz

Especially here on the tubes, human beings most often use language—words—to communicate with one another.

Not everybody thinks this is a good idea.

William Burroughs insisted that language is a virus from outer space, one that is up to no good. For “a virus operates autonomously, without human intervention. It attaches itself to a host and feeds off of it, growing and spreading from host to host. Language infects us; its power derives not from its straightforward ability to communicate or persuade but rather from this infectious nature, this power of bits of language to graft itself onto other bits of language, spreading and reproducing, using human beings as hosts.”

Leonard Schlain, meanwhile, argues in The Alphabet Versus The Goddess that language rewired the human brain, shifting dominance from the “feminine” right hemisphere to the “masculine” left hemisphere, thereby allowing brutal patriarchies to supplant worldwide more pacific matriarchal cultures.

Schlain’s brainshower seems to fit with Burroughs’ blood-curdling description of how the alien language virus reproduced itself in early ur-humans:

[A]lterations in inner throat structure were occasioned by virus illness . . . This illness may well have had a high rate of mortality but some female apes must have survived to give birth to the wunder kindern. The illness perhaps assumed a more malignant form in the male because of his more developed and rigid muscular structure causing death through strangulation and vertebral fracture. Since the virus in both male and female precipitates sexual frenzy through irritation of sex centers in the brain the males impregnated the females in their death spasms and the altered throat structure was genetically conveyed.


The Problem Of Our Laws

Our laws are not generally known; they are kept secret by the small group of nobles who rule us. We are convinced that these ancient laws are scrupulously administered; nevertheless it is an extremely painful thing to be ruled by laws that one does not know. I am not thinking of possible discrepancies that may arise in the interpretation of the laws, or of the disadvantages involved when only a few and not the whole people are allowed to have a say in their interpretation. These disadvantages are perhaps of no great importance. For the laws are very ancient; their interpretation has been the work of centuries, and has itself doubtless acquired the status of law; and though there is still a possible freedom of interpretation left, it has now become very restricted. Moreover the nobles have obviously no cause to be influenced in their interpretation by personal interests inimical to us, for the laws were made to the advantage of the nobles from the very beginning, they themselves stand above the laws, and that seems to be why the laws were entrusted exclusively into their hands. Of course, there is wisdom in that—who doubts the wisdom of the ancient laws?—but also hardship for us; probably that is unavoidable.


News Hole

I once worked for a lefty newspaper editor, overall a fine fellow, but one who was convinced that the Wall Street Journal offered the best news coverage of any paper in America. No, I countered, the Journal is just more sophisticated than your average righty rag in shrouding its slant, and besides, you’re blinded because you’re a financial-pages geek, and the Journal indeed offers mucho money missives.

I thought of this fellow last week, when a reporter who’d labored for more than a decade at the online version of the Journal managed to get herself fired after but a month at Reuters.

Terri Cullen, brought over to Reuters from the Journal to fill the newly created position of “Wealth Management Editor,” blithely filed a story in which she just made shit up. Her invented nonsense, because it made the Obama administration Look Bad, was immediately picked up by Rush Limbaugh, who proceeded to bellow it across the nation as Received Wisdom. Even after Reuters retracted the story, and gave Cullen the boot, Limbaugh persisted in portraying her lies as truth, decreeing that with the retraction and firing “the media” was simply “protecting the president.”

Mission accomplished.


Trying The God Box

“I’ll tell you a story,” Lucas said. “Would you like that?”


“So one time,” Lucas said, “before the Second World War, this tourist goes into Notre-Dame in Paris. Someone’s playing Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G. An angelic rendering. So the tourist goes up into the choir loft to see who’s at the keyboard, and who do you think he sees?”

“Fats Waller?”

“Hell,” Lucas said. “You knew.”

“Damn right,” she said.

“So Fats says, ‘Just trying their God box, man.'”

Sonia had begun to cry.

“Poor Thomas Waller,” she said. “He loved Bach. He loved the organ. After his radio show was over, he played it on his radio station for hours. For free. Uncredited.” Tears rolled down her cheeks and she opened her eyes to wipe them.

Lucas patted her shoulder. It had been a strange day. He had gone to Yad Vashem. He had come through the smoke of Gaza. Now he was listening to a woman in God’s most ancient wilderness, weeping for Fats Waller.

—Robert Stone, Damascus Gate

Embryonic Journey

By God, it’s been a long road. All the people in this story died a long time ago, and only in these pages can I make them live again and recapture them exactly as they were. Their ghosts, some loved, some loathed, remain intact in my memory, along with that whole harsh, violent, fascinating time that, for me, will always be the time of my youth. Now my hair is gray, and my memories are as bittersweet as all clear-sighted memories are, and I share the same weariness with which they all seemed to be burdened. With the passing years I have learned that one pays for clear-sightedness with despair, and that the life we lead has always been a slow road to nowhere. While traveling my section of that road I have lost many things and gained a few more. Now, on this apparently interminable journey—it even occurs to me sometimes that perhaps I will never die—I can at least enjoy the resignation of memories and silence. And now, at last, I understand why all the heroes I admired then were so weary.

—Arturo Perez-Reverte, The King’s Gold

Code Unknown

The photo below and to the right depicts the hole wherein died a 16-year-old Turkish girl, Medine Memi. She was buried alive there, six feet beneath a chicken pen, by her relatives. Memi was killed as punishment. Her offense: talking to boys.

Her father and grandfather have been arrested and are jailed pending trial. Her mother was arrested and then released. The girl’s death was brought to the attention of Turkish authorities by an informant in December.

Turkish media reports that Memi’s father was disturbed that his daughter had male friends. Her grandfather reportedly beat her for this crime, before she was interred in the earth. An autospy revealed large amounts of soil in her stomach and lungs, indicating that she had been alive and conscious when buried.

Such “honor killings” are believed to take 200 lives each year in Turkey. That accounts for half of all murders annually in that country.


Travelers Of The Air

There was always one comfort at day’s end. When I shut the door to my home I seemed to shut out the world, for the house was set near the northern line of the lot and faced south looking into an acre and a half of lawn, garden and woods. I nourished a bevy of quail there. Raccoon and muskrats came to visit, and cardinals stayed all winter long. Across a rear fence was a city reservoir lined with grassy banks where turkey vultures foregathered on clear days to dry out their wings, one morning over a hundred appearing. On my side of the fence was a Himalayan rose bush germinated from seed which I brought back in 1951, and nearby was a cutting from a famous magnolia owned and admired by Andrew Jackson, who grew the tree in Nashville.

I like to sit in the woods at night and listen to the nocturnal sounds. There is the lovely call of the loon that takes me back in memory to the lakes of Minnesota and Canada. By March the spring peepers, swarming crickets and bullfrogs are in chorus. And on nights when gales blow and the people in nearby Washington DC are asleep, the sky is filled with great travelers—mallard ducks, pintails, mergansers and some Canadian geese pass noisily overhead. Most impressive of all are the white whistling swans that often settle for a rest on the river below me and then take off in a tremendous armada.

Those travelers of the air seldom meet the travelers on the ground. Each passes in the dark as if wholly oblivious of the other. Each is on an important mission of life and reproduction. I have always felt more at home with those that travel overhead. They are “lesser” species than men—not craven, corrupt or deceitful, and bent on using the biosphere to sustain and perpetuate their lives, not to destroy it nor to exclude all others.

—William O. Douglas, The Court Years

Christmas Cheer

i am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
see how they run like pigs from a gun
see how they fly

i’m crying

—John Lennon

Rasmussen Reports is not a reputable polling firm. But the results it obtained when it queried the American people on whether they approved of subjecting Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab to waterboarding and other forms of torture—58% said yes, while 12% were “not sure”—sound about right.

To begin to understand why, we can start with the news release on the poll from Rasmussen itself. There, Mutallab is not once mentioned by name. Instead, he is referenced variously as the “plane terrorist,” “the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day,” “the Nigerian Muslim,” “the bomber,” and “the Detroit bomber.”

Neither was Mutallab identified by name by the Rasmussen pollsters when they queried respondents. Instead, Mutallab was referenced solely as “the suspected bomber.”

These people, then, were not really considering whether or not to torture an individual human being. They were focused instead on an act. In the Rasmussen survey Mutallab was rendered an unperson—stripped even of his name—and reduced but to a thing that he did. And history shows that when once you succeed in dehumanizing a person, you make it possible to do to him anything at all.


Linnaeus And Mr. Ha-Ha

The first step of science is to know one thing from another. This knowledge consists in their specific distinctions; but in order that it may be fixed and permanent distinct names must be given to different things and those names must be recorded and remembered.

—Carolus Linnaeus

By naming and by knowing the names of things he proposed to see into the secret cabinet of God. Travelers from Madeira, Virginia, from all over the world, risked dangers in vast forests, on high cliffs, in the deepest chasms to send him packets of seeds. He catalogued American falcons, parrots, pheasants, guinea fowl, American capercaillie, Indian hens, swans, duck, geese, gulls, snipe, American crossbills, sparrows and turtledoves. He classified creation according to sexual organs; he gave each creature two names, a general and a specific name.

He wrote that riches vanish and stately mansions fall into decay, that even the most prolific families die out sooner or later and that the mightiest of states are overthrown, but that all of nature must be obliterated before the genera of plants and “he be forgotten who held the torch aloft in botany.” But as he grew older, he suffered a stroke, and after this he began to lose more and more of his memory.

Gradually he no longer knew Systema Naturae, and after all this, in his last years, he forgot even his own name.

—Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature

When I Worked

February 2010