Archive for June, 2010

My Name Is Luka

It is common for those groping for reasons to justify Operation Enduring Fiefdom to invoke the subjugation of women. Without the American presence in Afghanistan, so goes the argument, Afghan women would suffer.

Problem is, those women are suffering now. While the Taliban and their associates are indeed veritable knuckledraggers in their attitudes toward women, so too are the men who today govern Afghanistan . . . with American support.

On June 29 BBC Newsnight broadcast Lyse Doucet’s film on Badam Bagh, a prison for women in Kabul. There, hundreds of Afghan women have been jailed because of their “bad character”—for “moral crimes.”

Here, briefly, is the story of one such woman, Sabera, who is sixteen years old.

“I was about to get engaged, and the boy came to ask me himself, before sending his parents. A lady in our neighbourhood saw us, and called the police,” she explains.

She was sentenced to three years but, in an act of mercy, it was shortened to 18 months.

Even the director of the prison, Zarafshana, acknowledges that “[i]f these women were treated with justice, I don’t think fifty percent of them would be in here. They are here because of problems in the family or personal vendettas.”

Many of these women have been interned because they fled their homes to escape physical violence inflicted by their husbands or male blood relatives. In today’s Afghanistan, it is a crime, apparently, to do anything other than just stay home, and take it.


Not Helping

Sometimes people who want to help, actually hurt.

Throughout the 1970s, international donors provided funds for the sinking of ten million shallow hand-pump wells across the nation of Bangladesh. The idea was to provide people with clean drinking water, and so reduce the number of people felled each year by waterborne pathogens like cholera.

Three decades on, it develops that these wells are responsible for what the World Health Organization is calling “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.” For the wells tapped into arsenic deposits, releasing the odorless, colorless, and tasteless toxin into water used for drinking and cooking. It is now estimated that between 35 and 77 million people in Bangladesh have been chronically exposed to arsenic-contaminated water.

“The magnitude of the arsenic problem is 50 times worse than Chernobyl,” said Richard Wilson, president of the nonprofit Arsenic Foundation[.] “But it doesn’t have 50 times the attention paid to it.”

When the wells were sunk, neither the ground nor the water were tested for arsenic. New wells continue to be dug, still without testing for arsenic.


Farewell To Arms

General Stanley McChrystal, recently “resigned” by President Barack Obama as commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has told the Army that he will retire.

I am not fond of generals, in general. “A general’s reputation,” as Kenneth Patchen observed, “is built on corpses.” In a world where Mr. Ha-Ha gleefully devises so many ways to inflict death and suffering, I am not much in favor of people who elect to pursue deliberately taking life as a career.

In any event, and as I recently noted here, since the US is at peace with its neighbors, Canada and Mexico, there is no reason at all at present for an army, at least in the sort of America envisioned by the Founders, who did not believe in a standing army. No army: no need for generals.

McChrystal in particular, though, I will not miss. He was a “darksider” during the George II years, when he served as ramrod for various unsavory “direct action” and “special mission” units. His behavior during the Pat Tillman outrage—in which McChrystal signed off on a medal citation he knew dripped lies, then worked back-channels to try to convince shameless BushCo politicos not to publicly cite to the lies he’d signed—was reminiscent of director Steven Spielberg’s craven response to the decision by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to award on honorary Oscar to ratfink Elia Kazan, who in the 1950s assisted the McCarthyoid witchfinder generals by denouncing before HUAC people like Lee Strasburg, Lillian Hellman, and John Garfield. As Kazan shuffled on stage to accept his tainted Oscar, people who didn’t care stood and applauded. People who did—Good People, like Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, that crew—stayed in their seats, sat on their hands. Spielberg stayed in his seat, but applauded. Soiled himself both ways.

Last fall McChrystal, displaying the sort of contempt for civilian authority that would eventually get him removed, ridiculed in public Vice President Joe Biden’s recommendations on American policy in Afghanistan, and indicated he would refuse to support it. The recent arrogant, locker-room, cocky-commando comments of McChrystal and his aides in the Rolling Stone piece by Michael Hastings affirmed that the man hadn’t changed, wouldn’t honor his oath, the American system of government. He had to go.

To send him on his way, a little clip from White Christmas, of Bing Crosby performing what at least one snide film critic has cruelly condemned as “Irving Berlin’s worst song”—”What Can You Do With A General?” Back in those days, retired generals did not immediately strip off the uniform and then proceed to careen around the television set knocking those they had formerly served. Maybe McChrystal can resist that temptation. Maybe.

The presentation in this video is amateurish, charmingly so. Halfway appropriate. As, in the end, McChrystal revealed himself to be something of an amateur. Though not a charming one.

Going Home

Mohamed Mohamed Hassan Odaini, the young Yemeni man who has been a War on Terra prisoner for eight years—more than a quarter of his life—is apparently at last going home.

As recently set forth here, Federal District Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy, in ruling on Odaini’s petition on habeas corpus, found that there was “no evidence” Odaini “has any connection to Al Qaeda,” that “holding Odaini in custody at such great cost to him has done nothing to make the United States more secure,” and “emphatically” ordered him released “forthwith.”

Judge Kennedy allowed the Justice Department until June 25 to appeal his decision. The Justice Department apparently did not do so. On June 26, anonymous “administration officials” told the Washington Post that the government would not contest Judge Kennedy’s order, and that Odaini would be repatriated to Yemen.

As Kennedy’s opinion made clear, government officials first concluded in June of 2002, eight years ago this month, that Odaini was innocent. He has several times before been cleared for release, but that release has never come. Most recently, the Obama Justice Department, as part of its review of the status of all War on Terra prisoners bequeathed it by the George II administration, determined in June of last year that Odaini should be freed. However, following the sadsack “attack” of Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the so-called “Christmas underwear bomber”—who had trained in a Badness Camp in Yemen—the Obama administration allowed itself to be bested by bedwetters in Congress and the media, and suspended the return of any War on Terra prisoners to Yemen.

“The general suspension is still intact, but this is a court-ordered release,” an unnamed administration official told the newspaper on condition of anonymity.

[A]nother administration official warned that the move “should not be viewed as a reflection of a broader policy for other Yemeni detainees.”

There remain 90 Yemeni prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay gulag. Before it imposed the bedwetting ban, the Obama administration had cleared 29 Yemenis to return home, and “conditionally cleared” an additional 30. One administration official told the Post that the courts may order up to 20 other Yemenis released, due to “insufficient evidence” in their cases. The official did not explain why, if the evidence in their cases was insufficient, prosecutors in the Justice Department did not dismiss those cases, as is their duty and obligation, under the United States Constitution, more than 800 years of Anglo-American jurisprudence, and the dictates of simple human decency.

The Arc

Fear, I repeat it, is at the bottom of all intolerance.

No matter what form or shape a persecution may take, it is caused by fear and its very vehemence is indicative of the degree of anguish experienced by those who erect the gallows or throw logs upon the funeral pyre.

Once we recognize this fact, the solution of the difficulty immediately presents itself.

Man, when not under the influence of fear, is strongly inclined to be righteous and just.

Thus far he has had very few opportunities to practice these two virtues.

But I cannot for the life of me see that this matters overmuch. It is part of the necessary development of the human race. And that race is young, hopelessly, almost ridiculously young. To ask that a certain form of mammal, which began its independent career only a few thousand years ago should already have acquired those virtues which go only with age and experience, seems both unreasonable and unfair.

And furthermore, it warps our point of view.

It causes us to be irritated when we should be patient.

It makes us say harsh things where we should only feel pity.

The day will come when tolerance shall be the rule, when intolerance shall be a myth like the slaughter of innocent captives, the burning of widows, the blind worship of a printed page.

It may take ten thousand years, it may take a hundred thousand.

But it will come, and it will follow close upon the first true victory of which history shall have any record, the triumph of man over his own fear.

—Hendrik Van Loon, Tolerance

The Dance

An Australian fertility researcher has discovered that the relationship between sperm and the female body is more complicated than previously imagined.

University of Adelaide professor Sarah Robertson says that her research has determined that sperm contain “signaling molecules” that activate immunity changes in a woman so that her body will accept it.

However, some apparently robust sperm fail to activate these changes, indicating that the female body can be “choosy,” and “needs convincing,” before it will allow just any old randy sperm into the egg.

Professor Robertson, who is a fertility specialist and leading a research project that examines the actions of the sperm in the cervix after sexual intercourse, says the male body provides data that heightens the chances of conception and progression to pregnancy.

The research shows that the female body on the other hand has a quality control mechanism that needs to accept compatibility with the sperm and also does an assessment on whether the conditions are as they should be for reproduction.

Some sperm, it seems, “fail to communicate,” are “unable to strike a chord.” Couples who are having difficulty achieving pregnancy may be suffering from “a communication gap between two fertility systems.” If the female is “not persuaded,” it ain’t happening.

Says Robertson:

“The male provides information that increases the chances of conception and progression to pregnancy, but the female body has a quality control system which needs convincing that his sperm is compatible.

“It’s rather like a two-way dance.”

When The Child Was A Child

One of the reasons I developed an almost instant aversion to Star Trek: The Next Generation was the presence of Wesley Crusher on the bridge. This seemed to be a clumsy, transparent attempt to attract younger viewers: in Reality—even in a sci-fi series—there would be no way some kid would be up there helping to run things, even if the ship’s captain did occasionally join loins with his mother.

At least the kid in Lost in Space, groused I, was not portrayed as some sort of super-genius; he was instead, well, a kid . . . as well as the oblivious focus of the often deeply strange attentions of a robot and a “doctor.”

Problem is, in my cynical Wesley-sneering, I was failing to allow for the fact that sometimes young people do know a thing or two. It’s good to get one’s crusted perceptions knocked around a bit, so it was well this week that I came across this piece about a group of seventh-graders who found a cave on Mars.

Sixteen students in a junior-high science class in Cottonwood, California were able through the Mars Student Imaging Program “to frame a research question and then commission a Mars-orbiting camera to take an image to answer their question.” When they scrutinized what they got back, they noticed what is apparently known in the Mars trade as a “Martian skylight”—a hole in the roof of a cave.

These students had discovered a cave. On another planet.


Good Morning Starshine

The ancients associated celestial bodies with music: Pythagoras perceived in the movements of the sun, the moon, and the planets a sort of music; Johannes Kepler defined a connection between geometry, cosmology, astrology, and harmonics in this musica universalis. Some Hindu traditions, having adopted Pythagoras, associate the Western “music of the spheres” with what they call the “audible life stream,” which is the “sound current vibrating in all creation,” and which can be “heard by the inner ears.”

I once possessed a fascinating but extremely dense book by an Indian scientist/mystic, with an endless and unpronounceable name, that posited that all creation could be understood through music, as an expression of mathematics. Although I am fine with basic arithmetic, beyond that numbers tend to Make Me Scared, and as this tome was littered with equations, after several attempts I put the thing aside, figuring I’d return to it when I was older, presumably wiser, and, uh, braver. So of course the book is now long lost, gone missing for nearly three decades, and has resisted all efforts at replacement. So I guess I’ll never “get it.” Oh well. “Poo-tee-weet?” as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five songbird would say.

Then again—to zoom off on yet another tangent, and so utterly smother the “lead” to this piece—Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in Truth says that none of those Scary Numbers are even really real, for “[t]hough many philosophers have tried, none has ever come up with decisive arguments in favor of the reality of any numbers except one and infinity.” So there’s either one, or all. Though of course both are actually the same. ; )

Anyway. When European human beings blundered eyes wide shut into the “Enlightenment,” such notions as the involvement of celestial bodies in making music were dismissed as balderdash. And that was the preferred wisdom until very recently. Now, though, we know that the universe is singing in B flat. And this week came news that astronomers at Sheffield University have discovered that our own sun is singing as well.


When We Wish

It is hard to find a coherent account, in any society which puts trust in oracles, of why they work or how they get access to the knowledge they divulge. To most people and peoples who believe them, however, they seem to be chinks in the wall of illusion, through which shafts of light penetrate from a world of truth that we cannot reach by our own efforts. They can be classified alongside other messengers of the gods—means of illumination, revelation, inspiration or instruction by which truth is declared. They belong to a huge and potent category of truth-finding techniques which thrive where truth is imagined as a repository in a world more or less inaccessible to an unaided enquirer: it can be unlocked only by being mediated and can be verified only on authority, for communications from unseen worlds may have nothing to do with truth. They may be delusions, demonically inspired; they may be neutral, like works of creative genius. When the Muses sang for Hesiod, the earliest Greek lyricist known by name, they warned him, “We know how to say many false things which seem true and to sing truly when we wish.”

—Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Truth

Apocalypse Don: The Final Briefing

(As we await the inevitable resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, the four-star fool who allowed himself and his goons to be overheard talking smack about the President, the Vice-President, and various other of their civilian controllers—and overheard by a reporter for Rolling Stone, no less—it seems an opportune time to reprint this rare, complete transcript of the final briefing to the press of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, another loose-lipped dunderhead who arrogantly blundered eyes wide shut into the War on Terra. )

*   *   *

(This has been verified as Sec. Rumsfeld’s voice. Transmission 11; December 5; Sector Zulu King Zulu.)

Good afternoon, folks. Although that term—”good”—is relative. Is the afternoon “good” for me? Yes. Why? It’s good for me because I own it. I summoned this afternoon. I am here because I choose to be. But you are forced to be here. It’s your job. If I convene a briefing, you must attend. You are not free to stay away. Since you are not free, your afternoon can hardly be “good.”

Have you ever considered any real freedom? Freedom from the opinions of others? Even from the opinions of yourself?

Of course you haven’t. That is why you see a leek around my neck. “Uh, the secretary—Rumsfeld—is that a leek, hanging round his neck?” That’s what you ask the man next to you. “Yes, yes, I believe it is,” the man next to you responds. But never do you consider the fact that the Secretary of Defense would never convene a press briefing with a leek hanging around his neck.

So, in truth, the leek is not there. It can’t be. The leek does not exist. Put it out of your mind.


You Know My Baby Will

Father’s Day, I think, is one of the more useless holidays. I’m not going to look it up, but I suspect it is an artifact of greeting-card companies, or some other entity motivated by money.

When I was a child, myself and my siblings thought there should instead be a Children’s Day. Of course, that was because we were young and selfish. But now that I’m older . . . and no doubt still selfish . . . I again hew to that view. Fathers are not important in and of themselves. What is important is who they father.

The way things are set up in this particular place, life is primarily purposed to produce new life. You do that, and you’ve done your job. The new is ever an improvement on the old. That’s the design.

Among the several wise and true things penned by the mercurial Minnesotan Robert Zimmerman are these lines from “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”:

well if i die on top of the hill
and if i don’t make it
you know my baby will

Every father thinks that his daughter is bright and beautiful and damn near close to perfect, but in my case it happens to be true. It is also true that she has borne more suffering, with more grace, than I ever have or will. It is likewise true that this suffering is my fault, because her accident occurred in my house, on my watch. Sometimes people try to tell me that this is not so, but they are wrong, and they know it.


The Communication Has Been Received

Someone reminded me this morning how Catholicism uses, and how Brother David Steindl-Rast explained, the word “obedience” as meaning to listen completely. This meaning is contained in its etymology too. For example, because we do not, are unable to listen completely, in most of our political activity we are pushing a goal which has already been accomplished, beating a dead horse that may return to life because we will not leave it alone. The change has already occurred, but we are unable to see it. We do not have the patience to allow the change its own time because we want the change to occur for our anxiety or ego. The initial accurate push is usually made very quickly and only the alert can go on just as quickly to the next action. The flow can be turned, changed very im-mediately when we realize it is in our own possession, and that all change occurs this way. But it seems to take nine years of wall-gazing or a century of fumbling to realize that fundamental changes or steps are possible and within our possession.

The same is true with people and every situation, we seldom realize the communication has been received, and we do not understand the person’s and situation’s own time. We do not like the idea of obedience, and obey has this interesting and common paradoxical turn, of meaning not just the ability to take orders, but also the ability to be responsive, to be free to love, to change the flow.

—Richard Baker-roshi, “Inside and Outside”

Cleaning House

It is good that I did not unearth Clark Brown’s essay “Cleaning House” until I had nearly finished packing. Because Brown’s meditation is on the value of clinging to everything, while I was intent on ruthlessly letting go.

I don’t know how many books I have accumulated over the years. But I’m pretty sure I recently completed boxing more tomes than Thomas Jefferson let go to inaugurate the Library of Congress.

Long ago they could no longer be reasonably contained in the house. By the time it was time to go, far too many were burrowed away in boxes and bags, crammed into closets and cupboards, teetering in towers lining the halls.

Sixteen or so years I’d lived in that house: the place was like a continent. But the way life now presents itself, island-hopping is the way of my world. Maybe unto the end. Which is fine. So: time to reduce the impedimenta. The goal to unload upon the inaugural island only those materials that I could not leave behind without suffering some sort of serious psychic rash. The exercise to act as if the culled items would be stored some 2000 miles away, while transporting the Chosen Few would be no small feat.

And then comes Clark. With his ode to allowing nothing to slip away.


Out Of The Midst Of The Fire

The Lord talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire.

—Deuteronomy 5:4

A mob of unruly demonstrators, together with a swarm of Facebook ruffians, are attempting to prevent Jesus from rising again.

As recently recounted here, “Touchdown Jesus,” a 62-foot-tall statue of the desert deity located in Monroe, Ohio, was attacked with a bolt of lightning late Monday night, and burned right down to the ground.

Monroe pastor Darlene Bishop, responsible for the mammoth erection, quickly vowed that He would rise again.

Wednesday, however, police were called to Bishop’s Solid Rock Church when a melee erupted during midweek services, naysayers attempting to question Bishop and her husband as to whether Touchdown Jesus might not qualify as the sort of “graven image” debarred by the Second Commandment.

“We don’t,” Bishop responded, “answer questions during service.”

Church security grappled with the heretics, attempting to herd them from the building. During this scuffle, at least one apostate claims to have been threatened and struck by a wild-eyed “Touchdown Jesus” devotee.

Monroe Police Chief Yail Bloor declined to comment on the internecine warfare, telling reporters he was concentrating on “finding the person who burnt Jesus.”

Bloor released a photograph of the fire that consumed Jesus, which he said clearly depicted the head of the person he believes to be the assailant [see photo above].

“The face of the perpetrator is clearly exposed there in the flames, to the upper right, in profile,” Bloor said. “So we are looking for a person with a downturned mouth, a snub nose, a prominent brow, and a pompadour. The person may also possibly be burning. If anyone has seen someone like that, we urge them to contact our department at once.”


Fristing The Philistines

Jehovah seems to have been pretty hard on the poor Philistines. In I Samuel IV, there is an account of a battle in which the Philistines overcame the Jews, slaying about 30,000 of them in what appears to have been a perfectly fair fight. The victory of the Philistines was facilitated by the fact that the Hebrew army ran away, and tried to hide in their tents. The conquerors then took the ark of God into the house of their own god, whose name was Dagon, and who was a sort of half fish, and consequently more or less helpless. The Hebrew God then smote Dogon, cutting off his hands and throwing him off his pedestal, so that his face was on the ground. This threw a terrible scare into the Philistines of Ashdod, so that they sent the ark to Gath. Thereupon, “the hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction: and He smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts,” and “the hand of God was very heavy there. And the men that died not were smitten with the emerods.” But the Lord only knows what an “emerod” was. Literally, it is a hemorrhoid—the etymological rela-tionship of these two unpleasant words being obvious; but it is hardly likely that even the Philistines could have had a fatal epidemic of hemorrhoids. The words translated as “emerods” are “ophalim” and “teharim,” which mean swellings, or rounded eminences. According to our learned informant, the translation “emerods” depends on a comparison with Psalms LXXVIII 66, where God is said to have smitten his enemies “in the hinder parts.” This identification is very early, from Talmudic sources and in Aramaic translations. “Ophalim,” according to other translators, merely means an elevated, rounded place. Hastings, in his Dictionary of the Bible, does not believe that “emerods” were hemorrhoids, and connects this description with bubonic plague. Granting, therefore, that these words refer to swellings in the private parts, the controversy merely turns upon whether it was the hinder end or the front end which was affected. Although the material available is insufficent for diagnostic accuracy, rounded swellings in these regions, associated with epidemic spread and high mortality, are suspicious of plague.

—Dr. Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice and History

“We Don’t Feel Any Remorse”

A young woman and her lover have been tortured and murdered by members of her family because they would not leave off seeing each other.

Asha Saini, 19, and Yogesh Humar Jatav, 21, late Sunday night and early Monday morning were bound, beaten, and electrocuted by members of Saini’s family, including her father and uncle.

New Delhi police first arrested these two men; the uncle, Om Prakash, allegedly confessed to the crime before the court, and later told reporters: “We killed them using an electric shock. Yogesh had come to our house. We don’t feel any remorse.”

“On being asked why they took the drastic step, Saini and Om Prakash said Asha had left them no alternative,” said a senior police officer requesting anonymity. “They said Asha’s deed frustrated them and the family didn’t regret killing them.”

The Press Trust of India now reports that Saini’s mother, cousin, and aunt have also been arrested.


Lines And Scars And Letters

Mr Bloom stooped and turned over a piece of paper on the strand. He brought it near his eyes and peered. Letter? No. Can’t read. Better go. Better. I’m tired to move. Page of an old copybook. All those holes and pebbles. Who could count them? Never know what you find. Bottle with story of a treasure in it thrown from a wreck. Parcels post. Children always want to throw things in the sea. Trust? Bread cast on the waters. What’s this? Bit of stick.

O! Exhausted that female has me. Not so young now. Will she come here tomorrow? Wait for her somewhere for ever. Must come back. Murderers do. Will I?

Mr Bloom with his stick gently vexed the thick sand at his foot. Write a message for her. Might remain. What?


Some flatfoot tramp on it in the morning. Useless. Washed away. Tide comes here a pool near her foot. Bend, see my face there, dark mirror, breathe on it, stirs. All these rocks with lines and scars and letters. O, those transparent! Besides they don’t know. What is the meaning of that other world. I called you naughty boy because I do not like.

AM. A.

No room. Let it go.

Mr Bloom effaced the letters with his slow boot. Hopeless thing sand. Nothing grows in it. All fades. No fear of big vessels coming up here. Except Guinness’s barges. Round the Kish in eighty days. Done half by design.

He flung his wooden pen away. The stick fell in silted sand, stuck. Now if you were trying to do that for a week on end you couldn’t. Chance.

A bat flew. Here. There. Here. Far in the grey a bell chimed. Mr Bloom with open mouth, his left boot sanded sideways, leaned, breathed. Just for a few.


—James Joyce, Ulysses

War In Heaven

Things are not going well, up there in Big Sky country.

Late Monday night, Somebody hurled a bolt of lightning at a 62-foot-tall statue of Jesus in Monroe, Ohio, setting the thing ablaze, and quickly burning it to the ground.

The outsized deity was known as “Touchdown Jesus,” because his raised arms resembled a referee’s signaling a touchdown. By early Tuesday morning He had been reduced to nothing but a blackened steel structure and some pieces of foam, the latter scooped up by scavengers dredging a nearby pond.

“This meant a lot to a lot of people,” sayeth Monroe pastor Darlene Bishop.

The fire briefly spread to a nearby amphitheater, but petered out in the attic.

Asked about possible suspects, Monroe Police Chief Yail Bloor said that his department was attempting to get in touch with Jehovah. “We know Jehovah killed the same kid, about 2000 years ago, sending him down to get crucified,” Bloor said. “After that happened, and He rose from the dead, people seemed to favor the kid, more than the father. So there may be some bad blood there.”

Bloor said the department had contacted Jehovah’s attorney, Lucifer, who promised to make his client available later this week.

Bloor noted that while it is family feuds that most often result in crimes of this type, his department is also reviewing the files of other registered arson offenders. “Thor and Zeus have a demonstrated fondness for thunder and lightning,” he said. “And they fell from favor pretty hard, once Jesus came along. We’ll be talking to them, too.”

Bishop vowed that the burnt Jesus would rise again. “It will be back, but this time we are going to try for something fireproof,” she said.

Of course, Jehovah, Zeus, Thor—these people can send earthquakes, too.

Sunday Brunch

HWR: I read in a French magazine that some of the French may have adopted or may be about to adopt our US custom of Sunday brunch.

PhR: Let them eat cake.

HWR: Wouldn’t you like to eat brunch here on Sunday instead of our normal four-course Sunday lunch?

PhR: Over my dead body. It’s a dumb concept, too big for breakfast and too small for a civilized lunch so by three in the afternoon, you’re starving and you eat a pizza.

HWR: I still don’t understand why you refuse for us to bring out paper plates and cups when we have more than ten guests.

PhR: Because you threaten to put wine or Champagne in them! And while we’re at it, why not paper food? Quelle drole d’idee!

HWR: I guess that’s why you don’t like picnics?

PhR: The history of mankind is the overcoming of cold, uncertainty, fear, and wild beasts. Those are all the ingredients of a picnic.

HWR: Why do you have to have bread with everything, even when the meal includes other starches? Isn’t one enough?

PhR: Bread is the staff of life. And your choice of the word “starches” is funny. It’s like that American guest of ours who said she’d like “protein” for breakfast. We’re not running a chemical factory.

HWR: That’s the truth. Speaking of bread, tell me again about that afternoon treat your Auvergnat grandfather would make for you—the piece of bread rubbed with garlic and pork fat. Wasn’t he worried about cholesterol?

PhR: Are you kidding? He was worried about whether he was giving me something with taste; he ate raw onion for breakfast and pork fat every day of his life and he died young at age ninety-four.

—Harriet Welty Rochefort, French Fried

The Far Side Of The Hill

One for my father, on his birthday. He could whistle, too. And sing. Gone to the far side of the hill now, he has. Rest easy, dad.

Mirage In The Desert

In language so harsh and denunciatory as to be nearly unprecedented, Judge Henry H. Kennedy of the DC Circuit has ordered the release “forthwith” of War on Terra prisoner Mohamed Mohamed Hassan Odaini, excoriating the Obama Justice Department for pursuing a case against a man that “respondents themselves have repeatedly concluded [] is not part of Al Qaeda,” even while “distort[ing]” and “misrepresent[ing]” evidence, advancing arguments that are “simply unreasonable,” driven by a “refus[al] to deviate from a predetermined conclusion,” and asking of the Court a resolution that would “render meaningless the principle of law that places the burden of proof on respondents.”

Respondents have kept a young man from Yemen in detention in Cuba from age eighteen to age twenty-six. They have prevented him from seeing his family and denied him the opportunity to complete his studies and embark on a career. The evidence before the Court shows that holding Odaini in custody at such great cost to him has done nothing to make the United States more secure. There is no evidence that Odaini has any connection to Al Qaeda. Consequently, his detention is not authorized by the AUMF. The Court therefore emphatically concludes that Odaini’s motion must be granted.


The Bungled And The Botched

So Comedy Central is developing a new animated seriesabout Jesus trying to live a normal life in New York.” He is there “a regular guy,” hoping to “escape his father’s enormous shadow”; dad is presented “as an apathetic man who would rather play video games than listen to his son talk about his new life.”

Although there is yet to be a completed script, an outfit called Citizens Against Religious Bigotry (CARB) has formed to keep the thing off the air. The CARBs “call on Comedy Central and its parent company Viacom to stop this blatant anti-Christian attack.”

The CARB people should back off. Terry Gilliam already went there, with The Fisher King. Everything worked out fine.

Capsaicin Jones

shipping powders back and forth
black goes south
and white comes north

—John Barlow

The dependence on the pepper isn’t peculiar to people of Mexican or Indian heritage. There’s nothing in the genes of these people that makes them predisposed to the pepper habit. “Whenever I think of Henri Cartier-Bresson, I see him sitting at the dinner table with a tube of North African red-pepper paste in one hand and a pocketknife in the other . . . ” began a profile of the famous French photographer in an October 1989 issue of the New Yorker magazine. Some Westerners have developed a highly discriminating palate for peppers. Sid, a Michigan businessman, for one. I had heard about him from a total stranger who surprised me in Detroit in 1986 with the tiny silver box he had pulled out of his pocket. The filigreed box seemed to have been designed with something else in mind, perhaps cocaine. But it was full of small dry red peppers, grown in Sid’s backyard.

When I telephoned Sid that summer he said he had planted peppers in a forty-by-sixty backyard plot. He had also planted peppers in two flowerpots that sat just outside his back door. “Sometimes I want to be able to reach one in a hurry,” he said.

Once at a gathering of tweedy gentlemen at a New York club, where the members’ spiciest encounter usually is with the Tabasco in their Bloody Marys, I watched with amusement the fuzzy and warm feelings hot peppers brought out in them. It all started when someone complained that the Tabasco he had just shaken into his drink wasn’t hot enough. “You should try some of the hot sauces in Jamaica,” he said. Another man, who had been to Peru to advise the government there on restructuring its banking system, chimed in: “I once brought these round peppers from Lima. But I haven’t been able to grow the darn things.” The man lived in Tuxedo Park, New York, which has hardly the climatic conditions for the Peruvian pepper. Said another: “There’s this pepper in Bhutan. It’s marvelous in vodka—just drop one in the bottle.” Downing their drinks that Sunday afternoon, the men talked of how they had been smitten by peppers they initially had approached reluctantly during travels in Africa or South America or India. Back in the United States they were still pining with faraway looks for those faraway peppers. A week or so later, I learned, two of the men had exchanged peppers via mail.

—Amal Naj, Peppers

When I Worked

June 2010