Brie: It's What's For Breakfast

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Breaking Up



It’s all the talk.

At cocktail parties and in the small talk before business meetings, we’re all talking about that certain Russian prediction of the breakup of the American union and the new countries that will take its place.

With Governor Perry in Texas talking secession, and Japanese having bought up Hawaii, and the Northwest’s own secessionist movement, maybe professor Igor Panarin’s prediction isn’t all that far fetched.

In case you haven’t heard, the Wall Street Journal ran an article in late December 2008 in which Professor Panarin was quoted as saying that there was about a fifty percent chance that the United States of America would break up by July of 2010.  That’s fourteen months from now.

According to him, we won’t be able to hold together as a nation until the end of the world – or the new era – predicted by the Maya. Brash and impulsive, we’ll disintegrate into six different countries, each under the influence of a different foreign power.  The economy and unimpeded immigration will be major causes of our downfall.  Being Russian, Panarin also attributes the coming civil war to our “moral degradation.”

But those two words, “moral degradation,” are awfully subjective.  Our morals, which the Soviets never thought we had in the first place, have actually gotten worse?  This is the result of the rabidly conservative administration we had until January? George Bush’s administration was closer to Putin’s than any other administration in history – yet our morals are fatally degraded?

I’m just glad that Putin’s Evil Twin is no longer in the highest office in the land. That man scared me.  He left us with a constitution in tatters and a reputation sullied worldwide.  He left us with an economic disaster of pestilential proportions. Under his watch an unnecessary war was started and a war that maybe should have been over by now may never be.  We are indeed following in the footsteps of the Soviets in Afghanistan. There’s a reason that country cannot stay conquered.

Russia’s economy tanked – a solitary tank, by the way, and not as part of a worldwide economic downturn – because communism, while perhaps a lofty ideal, is just an ideal.  In practice it can never work because of the avarice of humans and the specialization of society.  Like it or not, capitalism started with the rise of the medieval merchant class, and capitalism is here to stay. China’s gradual embrace of capitalism is much better than the free-for-all Russia and its satellites endured, but that embrace is tantamount to an admission that as much as we might all like to be equal, some will always be more equal than others.

I don’t see the US breaking up.  I see a future in which some secessionist movements might succeed. Perhaps in the Northwest, where politics and civil rights are far more liberal than in, say, Arkansas, a new country could rise. I don’t see it becoming part of Russia or Japan or China.  The cultures are just too different, and the survivalists are just too adamant. Instead of this secessionist entity clinging to the coast like in Panarin’s notion, Montana will allow it to flex its muscle eastward.

Now, Texas has been an independent country before and, as a former resident of the only state with a school in the Southwest Conference that wasn’t located in Texas, I say let ’em be again.  (My ex-husband never mentions the University of Texas at Austin without an exaggerated spit of disgust.)  We don’t need Texas. If we built a fence around its borders, it might help a great deal with the illegal immigration issue. In fact, give Texas New Mexico and Arizona, too.

The South, as they have always said, will rise again.  The Southern economy, lifestyle, and outlook just doesn’t quite mesh with that of those folks up East. Atlanta can be our capital, or New Orleans, at least until it washes away again.  Now, despite Panarin’s model, I just don’t see West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Carolinas joining some urban Atlantic nation-state. We’ll keep them in the South, as well as the Southern two-thirds of Virginia. Washington D.C. is not a Southern city, and Maryland, despite its location south of the Mason-Dixon line, just doesn’t feel Southern. The damn Yankees can have them both.  The South will also take the Florida panhandle, because we need our “Redneck Riviera.” Disney can have the rest of the state and no one will miss it.

That city that stretches from the Chesapeake to Boston Harbor will become a country unto itself.  To give it arable farmland we’ll donate western Pennsylvania and Ohio to its holdings. It’ll eventually sort of have that “Escape From New York” feel to it.  With any luck it’ll turn into “I am Legend” and we can build a fence around it, too, to keep the zombies corralled.

New England will revert to its colonial status, with the exception of Western Massachusetts, which is part of that Atlantic city-state. Its capitol will be Hanover, New Hampshire, that venerable seat of learning that is crowned by Dartmouth University.

The twin capitals of the landlocked Midwest will be Chicago and port city of St. Louis. With the fall of the Atlantic city-state to zombies, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan will become the industrial hub of the continent.

Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Minnesota will join Canada.  People there sound like Canadians already, so the cultural assimilation won’t be difficult for them.  Likewise Alaska will become Canadian, just because Canada needs more tundra.  Although, come to think of it, with global warming, that tundra will turn into bog by the next century.

That takes care of every place except Hawaii.  Since Japan already owns Hawaii, we won’t be able to do much with it.  Vulcanism will render the Hawaii question moot in another few thousand years, anyway.

So, I guess I can see the US breaking up, but not the way that Russian Panarin conceives of it. I have to take the cultural inclinations into consideration, whereas he just looked at state lines.  And other than those northern states that defect to Canada, Japanese Hawaii, and maybe a Cuban or Bahamian Florida, I just don’t see any other country taking control of the nations that result.

And now that I have frittered away a couple of otherwise billable hours on these mental gymnastics, I really should get back to work.

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May 18, 2009 Posted by | Domestic, Foreign Relations, News, Politics | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Tree Splooge


Spring is a miserable time of year.

First, there’s the weather. The damnable, changeable, hot-then-cold-again weather. The tornado, thunderstorm, wildly fluctuating barometric pressure, what the hell do I wear today, blustery, windy, knock me on my ass, fifty degree temperature spread in a day weather.

Then there’s the plants. You think it’s warm. There has been a recent series of beautiful warm spring days so you go to the local nursery and buy plants. You know, those tender annuals or baby herbs or vegetables just sprouted that make your mouth water with the promise of zucchini to come and tomatoes heavy on the vine. You put them in your car. You ferry them home. You place them where you want them and tamp the cool soil around their delicate stems, and after spending a day soaking up natural Vitamin D you go to bed, tired but fulfilled from a day playing the farmer, only to wake up shivering because you turned off the heat and the indoor temperature now matches the outdoor temperature of about 27 degrees and all the work you did yesterday is for naught. You vow next year to give it a week even after the frost-free date before you buy so much as a single packet of parsley seeds, knowing full well that spring’s siren song of false seduction will lure you to the nursery for that fateful waste of valuable money on plants doomed to die by the next sunrise.

The very worst part of spring, though, has to be the trees. Tall, bare-limbed, they stretch themselves and shake off the winter by emitting tentative tendrils of leaves, and before even the first leaf is full formed, the oaks go into full rut.

Oaks are horny bastards.

Because of the oaks, heinous fuckery most foul is visited upon me. Each fall the acorns hit my deck sounding like scatter shot, someone’s Daisy BB gun with an automatic clip, a terrorist squirrel at the helm of a acorn-grenade launching Gatling gun, firing hell bent for leather at my precious darling deck which never hurt anyone. Acorns are the demon-spawn of oaks. To create those diabolical children, the oaks engage in a springtime orgy that makes Bacchus himself blush at the pure wanton sex those oaks put out there for all the world to see.

The mighty oaks are masculinity personified. Baring their knotted chests, in Spring they take a deep breath and grimace, and from every pore pop squiggly spermatozoa, wiggling and waggling at other oaks, daring the other oaks to take a breath themselves and shoot back tentacles of spermatozoa in a war of silly string battle-inspired posturing and thrusting. It is indeed heinous fuckery most foul, as the foul squigglies waft their pollen and fill my unsuspecting gutters with their decaying carcasses.

Victims of these oaken battles of male dominance are cars, covered in a greenish yellow dust that hides the metallic grays and greens and reds. Victims also are the furniture, helplessly stationary in their designated positions, the flat planes of which act as a breeding ground not for acorns but for that same greenish yellow film that coats unprotected patio furniture and wafts into the cracks of car windows someone forgot to roll up.

Victim also are my sinuses, and Jack’s, and the sinuses of my receptionist (who I think has had a sinus condition since November). The virile oaks seek to splash their splooge on every available surface, in hopes that all the world will turn into acorns proving their masculine Darwinian fitness. In Spring, we walk through breezes of tree splooge morning, noon and night. Those damnable trees believe, like so many Arab IMers, that the world is a woman, open and panting for their splooge to fall fertile on something and make an acorn of it.

There is a scene in Christopher Moore’s classic Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings in which a pair of female oceanographers are studying sperm whales, and upon seeing a mating pair are delighted at their rare good fortune – until, that is, the female whale moves one way and the male moves the other just at the moment of his ecstasy. The two women are drowned in a sea of sperm whale splooge and instantly turn lesbian, seeking never again to encounter such a substance again.

That is also the novel in which I first encountered the term “heinous fuckery most foul,” uttered by a caucasian Rastafarian surfer called Kona.

My nose is stuffed so much I can’t sniffle. My cough barks deep within my chest. Today, I identify totally with those two female oceanographers. If I never experience tree splooge again, it will be too soon.

The oaks are virile indeed.

The fuckers.

April 8, 2009 Posted by | Arkansas, Environment, Health, Humor, Personal | | Leave a comment

Saumur Ecole de Cavalerie, Courses de Tetes


My office, and my my messy desk, with the offending painting.


I have this print hanging on the wall of my office. My assistant, the lovely and incomparable Jane, thinks it is morbid and shocking.  I think it metaphorically demonstrates what a good trial lawyer does.

The name of the painting is “Saumur Ecole de Cavalerie, Course de Tetes (Carrousel).” It is by Albert Adams. Although my French is as rusty as my ancient Etruscan (that means it’s somewhat better than my Sumerian, at least idiomatically), I can roughly translate this to mean that the French cavalry school at Saumur has a ring it calls “The Course of Heads.”  Apparently the cavalry students brandish sabers and attempt to collect as many heads as possible as they go through the course.

Here’s a close-up:

You can see the reflection of the mess on my desk in the glass.  Attractive, non?


Given the French predilection and national past time of separating heads from bodies (see: guillotine) it may be necessary, occasionally, for a French cavalryman to pick up the mess.  Someone has to, after all.  All those loose heads lolling and rolling about the countryside and through the city streets would be a menace and cause the bourgeoisie to trip and fall, thus giving rise to lawsuits of the variety I’d like to bring on behalf of my bruised and battered bourgeois client.  (Hands fallen future plaintiff a business card.  “Call me,”  I say.  “Merci.”)

But back to the incomparable and indispensable Jane, who says that this particular picture is, in a word, “gross.”

Since I have only one print of the painting, I am 143 short of a gross. She must mean something else by her statement.

I think it’s entirely appropriate for my law office.

I have always loved this print, which hung in my grandparents’ house, and which I rescued from my aunt who had it stored in a damp storage building about 20 years ago. Aside from the fact that I find it fascinating, though, there is the metaphor.

A better quality image than my cell phone is capable of, which I obtained off the net.
You can see a close-up of it on that web page:
http://pagesperso-orange.fr/saumur-jadis/recit/ch38/r38d3cae.htm

Comments?

March 24, 2009 Posted by | History, Lawyer, War | Leave a comment

Guantanamo Detainees


It seems, despite Dick Cheney’s assertion that all that are left in Guantánamo are the “worst of the worst,” there was at least one completely innocent guy detained there until three days ago as an “enemy combatant.” Haji Bismullah was so innocent, in fact, that that he actually fought against the Taliban and was a member of the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. Thanks to George Bush’s suspension of habeas corpus, Haji Bismullah has spent the last six years locked up in that wretched concentration camp anyway.

A military panel, not a habeas proceeding, cleared Bismullah of his status as an “enemy combatant” last week, and over the weekend he was flown back to Afghanistan.

I’m sure he’s not bitter. It was an honest mistake, right? They all look alike under those turbans.

Between January 2002 and May 2006, 759 individuals classified as “enemy combatants” were treated to an all-expense-paid vacation to balmy Cuba, courtesy of the U.S. Government.

The Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants has now done two annual reviews.  It took several years to get the Administrative Review Board in place. When the Combatant Status Review Tribunals geared up July 30, 2004, nearly every detainee was designated a “keeper.” In less than six months, 558 detainees had had their cases heard before the tribunal. Assuming a five-day, forty-hour work week for the 25 weeks between Friday, July 30, 2004, and Thursday, January 20, 2005 (and assuming that no holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s were observed and work just continued), that’s less than two hours per case.

Two hours is plenty of time to review whether someone needs to be held as an enemy combatant when the detainee is not permitted to know the evidence against him, or to have the help of a legal professional, or otherwise to defend himself.

As one Washington Times commentator put it, “Detentions of alleged enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) and extraordinary renditions smack more of Franz Kafka’s The Trial than of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.”  I would expect that the men imprisoned there without any recourse and without notice of what they did wrong might feel a surreal quality to their experience. Haji Bismullah is not the only one.

Only thirty-eight men were freed by that first round of reviews by the Office of Administrative Review, and 520 continued to be held as “enemy combatants.” It’s no surprise to me that these 520 men continued to be held at Guantánamo when one considers that they were not permitted access to all of the allegations that initially gave rise to their status as enemy combatants, and that they were not given the benefit of legal representation.  What’s equally bad, though, is that only 37 of those first 558 tribunals were attended by the media.

The media weren’t turned away from any of the reviews, insisted a spokesman for the Office of Administrative Review. All the media had to do if they wanted to attend a review hearing was 1) be on the island the day the review happened and 2) ask to go.  Of course, the Office of Administrative review didn’t tell anyone in advance when the hearings were.  Dumb luck seems to be the device by which those 37 hearings were attended.  Even when the transcripts of the hearings are released, the names are redacted from them – the public has no way of knowing who the detainees were or who any of the other players are in the decision to hold or release them.

In 2005, there were 463 recommendations that resulted in 14 releases, 119 transfers of prisoners to other facilities. The Administrative Review Board decided to continue to detain 330 of the prisoners remaining in Guantánamo.  In 2006, two prisoners were released, 55 became eligible for transfer, and 273 continued to be detained at Guantánamo.

Since a Supreme Court decision in June 2008 gave detainees the right to have their detentions reviewed by federal judges in habeas cases, the government has won only three of them. Three! Not surprisingly, Bush’s Department of Justice has appealed some of the rulings it lost.

As The Decider and his waterboarding cronies prepared leave Washington, they speeded up the release of many men held at Guantánamo over the last seven years.

Nearly ten percent of the “worst of the worst” have been released in the last three months. One of them, a poor kid from Chad, who spent the first two thirds of his life in Saudi Arabia with his parents, was accused of being a member of an Al-Qaeda cell in London when he was 11. He was sent to Guantánamo when he was 14, where he stayed until last week. He says that he was tortured during his imprisonment there.

If young Muhammad Hamid Al Qarani was not an enemy of the United States before his capture and designation as an enemy combatant, you can bet he’s one now, having grown up subject to the loving nurture of the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.  He spent nearly one third of his life being held indefinitely there.  Do you think that might give a kid some issues?

In September, the Department of Defense admitted that a dozen teenagers had been held at Guantánamo over the last six years, four of whom were still there. Five of these kids were released, but one commited suicide. If my own child were held in a foreign prison, not even as a Prisoner of War but under a nebulous designation that prevents any treaties from applying to him, I would be advocating strongly for the war crimes of the country holding him to be punished – and punished severely.

There’s still another problem, though.  About 50 of the detainees who have been cleared for release have no place to go.  Either their homelands won’t accept them or they don’t have a homeland.  Some who fall under the latter status are Palestinian.  Yemen won’t accept its natives back. And even as the numbers in Gitmo dwindle, there are still thousands of detainees held in military prisons in other countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, and  the joint US/UK base on the Indian Ocean atoll of Diego Garcia.

President Barack Obama has said consistently over the last two years that he intends to close the Guantánamo Bay as a detention center. Last week it was reported that he might issue the executive order closing the prison camp as soon as today, although other reports are that closing the prison might not be accomplished even within the first 100 days that he is in office.

I hope he does more than just close the prison camp. I hope he repatriates each and every person held there. If they are terrorists, their own countries can deal with them. The United States government has refused to do anything but warehouse them.

Sources:

Rulings of Improper Detentions as the Bush Era Closes (NY Times, January 19, 2009)
Obama Vows to Close Guantanamo (Al Jazeera English, November 18, 2008)
Obama Closing Guantanamo: Preparing Order in First Week (The Huffington Post, January 12, 2009)
24 Gitmo Prisoners Ruled Wrongfully Held in Last three Months (The Washington Independent, January 19, 2009)
Obama: Guantanamo Center Might Not Close Within First 100 Days (Baltimore Sun, January 20, 2009)
Annual Administrative Review Boards for Enemy Combatants Held at Guantanamo Attributable to Senior Defense Officials (DoD, March 6, 2007)
List of Individuals Detained by the Department of Defense at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from January 2002 through May 15, 2006 (DoD, May 15, 2006)

January 20, 2009 Posted by | Domestic, Foreign Relations, Iraq, News, Politics, War | Leave a comment

Ode to Billy Joe


“Hello?”

“Hey, Mattie.”

“Who is this?”

“You know.”

“Billy Joe?”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t think I’d ever hear your voice again.”

“I’m taking a chance calling you.”

“Where are you?”

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

“Are you in the country or out of the country?”

“I can’t tell you that, either.”

“Okay, then, how are you?”

“I’m okay. I miss you.”

Mattie snorted softly into the phone. “Then why’d you wait a year to call me? It’s been more than a year. And you didn’t even say goodbye. I had to hear your bullshit suicide story from Mama over dinner that day. I nearly threw up right there at the table.”

“I don’t know how long I can talk. They may cut me off.”

“I swear, even I thought you were dead until Fred Fields brought me into his stupid Star Chamber and started in on me. And I wasn’t real sure until Tom admitted it. Why didn’t you call, Billy Joe? ”

“I couldn’t. If you knew you might have let something slip.”

“You were supposed to take me with you, or had you forgotten that little detail?”

“I didn’t forget. I couldn’t.”

“Why not? That was the plan, remember?”

“I remember. I’m sorry. I am, really.”

“Are you using one of their safe phones?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“After they quit dragging the river for your body Fred Fields decided I might know something. For all I know he still thinks something’s up. At Daddy’s funeral he even said I should call him if I remember anything about you.”

“Your daddy’s funeral?”

“In the spring. He got the flu and it turned into pneumonia and he wouldn’t go to the doctor. You know what a mule he was.”

Billy Joe was silent for a moment. “What did you tell Fred?” he finally asked.

“Nothing.”

“What, you just sat there silent while he was questioning you?”

“No. I told him I didn’t know anything.”

“Did he talk to Tom, too?”

“Yes. Tom had to swear out an affidavit that he’d seen you jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Fred said he’d prosecute him if he didn’t. Says he’ll still prosecute him if it turns out not to be true.”

“What does he think was going on if he says I didn’t jump off the bridge?”

“He wanted to know why the FBI might have been interested in you.”

“Oh, hell. The background check. I forgot. Why did he talk to you?”

“Remember that new preacher that came just before you left? Brother Taylor?”

“Uh-huh.”

“He told Mama that I’d been up at the bridge with you a couple days before you allegedly jumped.”

“He saw us?”

“Yeah. And he saw us throw something off it, too, he told Mama. But I don’t think Mama told Fred that.”

“Your mama told Fred? She told the damn sheriff? Why?”

“Because the sheriff let it be known that he didn’t think they were going to find your body in the river. He told me flat out he thought you never jumped off that bridge.”

“Did they look for me in the river?”

“Yes.”

“How long?”

“Four days. Fred didn’t believe you’d jumped, though. He said that more than once, even the day they started dragging it.”

“Then why’d he search the river?”

“Your aunt Susie pitched a hissy fit and threatened to call the governor if they didn’t.”

“Did they ever find … anything else?”

Mattie knew what he meant. “No.”

Billy Joe let out a sigh of relief. “Good.”

“I don’t know what the water might do to ….”

“You know what to do if they ever do find it, don’t you?”

“Well, it’s not like I’m going to forget.”

“You didn’t forget me, did you?”

“Oh, honestly, Billy Joe.”

“You seeing someone?”

“Why do you care?”

“I care.”

“You aren’t going to do anything about it. You can’t.”

“I might come get you someday.”

“Sure. I’ll hold my breath.”

“I might, Mattie. I won’t have to be undercover forever.”

“Right. Just until the freaking CIA decides they don’t need you anymore.”

“Ricky isn’t messing with you, is he?”

“No. But I don’t think he’d take kindly to you showing back up after what you and Tom did to his place. He threatened Tom with a gun and got locked up for his efforts a few days after you left.”

“He knew it was Tom and me?”

“He had a pretty good idea. He said something to Charlie about it, too, but Charlie told him to fuck off. He said he didn’t know what Rick was talking about.

“He shouldn’t have messed with you in the first place. Then Tom and I wouldn’t have had to do what we did. How is Tom, anyway?”

“Mary Lou had another baby a couple of weeks ago. He’s fine. He’s got another mouth to feed. And he’s thinking about running for mayor.”

Billy Joe laughed. “Yeah, Tom’s a born politician.”

“And you’re a born… whatever. Why couldn’t you take me with you? I thought you had cleared it with them.”

Billy Joe was silent. “They said we had to be married. Your daddy wouldn’t have stood for it.”

“My daddy’s gone, Billy Joe, and if I was gone, too, then he couldn’t say much about it, now could he?”

“Well, maybe you could come to where I am someday soon.”

“Where’s that?”

“Not here, not where I am now. You couldn’t come here. But I won’t be here forever. Then you can join me. ”

Mattie’s voice was still bitter. “Where’s that going to be? And when? Anyway, somebody’s got to take care of Mama.”

“Where’s Charlie?”

“He and Becky Thompson got married and bought a convenience store on the highway over by Tupelo. They moved up there to run it.”

“If Charlie’s got a store and your daddy’s gone, who’s farming your land?”

“I am. Dickie Johnson helps sometimes.”

“Is that who you’re seeing? Dickie Johnson?” Billy Joe was incredulous.

“I’m not seeing Dickie Johnson.”

“I hope not. God. Dickie Johnson.”

“What do you care? You left me here. You didn’t even say goodbye.”

“Mattie, I couldn’t. If you didn’t know anything you couldn’t tell anything. You already knew more than you should. You still know more than you should.”

“It’s not like I could forget it.”

“No, I guess you couldn’t.”

Silence again, then, “Mattie, I’m sorry.”

“Sure.”

“I should be the one helping you farm.”

Mattie snorted. “You wouldn’t make much of a farmer.”

“Why not? A farm, a couple of kids. We’d raise them just like we were raised, send them to school up at Choctaw Ridge…”

“Right. Why’d you call, Billy Joe?”

“Because I miss you.”

“Why now? Are you going on some undercover death mission or something? Are you afraid you’re going to die for real this time?”

“I’m sorry, Mattie.”

“Sure you are. Have you decided that the life of a spook isn’t all that great or something?”

“I have to go.”

“Don’t call me again, Billy Joe, unless you’re telling me where to pick up my plane ticket. I already buried you once.”

A tear rolled down her cheek as she cut the connection.

November 21, 2008 Posted by | Creative Writing, Fiction | Leave a comment

Strange Maps


One of my favorite blogs is “Strange Maps.” I admit: I’m a map geek. The maps are really fascinating, I promise. Each map is accompanied by a well written, well researched article that lists its sources. I’ve never failed to learn something from these posts.

For instance, there’s the one that shows how King Cotton picks Presidents, something near and dear to my heart since my family has grown cotton in Arkansas since before the Civil War and is pleased to hold sway still over national politics. (Sorry, I will not entertain questions about how many slaves my ancestors owned. I hate to be prickly, but that is usually the tactless question immediately asked when I mention our history of cotton farming.)

Also on the political front was the map that showed clearly what illegal immigrants were aiming for when it came to the Absolut Perfect Mexico. Scary, huh?

Believe it or not, though, there’s humor in maps, too.

The “Strange Maps” blog featured a very special post on The Semi-Colonial State of San Serriffe, a place that is near and dear to my writing, punctuation-loving heart.

There are maps of strange and wonderful places such as Elleore, a kingdom 12 minutes ahead of Copenhagen. I never discerned whether they have Daylight Savings Time in Elleore, or if at some point they fall 48 minutes behind Copenhagen.

Then there are the bizarre maps of the modern world, such as the “Smart Medicine” infomercial map that located Australia off the coast of Baja California and situated Africa between Maine and Ireland, eliminating Iceland and Greenland entirely, and
a map of the “Special World” that only the hospitality industry inhabits.

Wonderful antique maps crop up occasionally, like the map that inspired Christopher Columbus to believe he could sail from Spain to Cathay in three weeks, overlaid on the true map of the world.

Maps on the site show useful things, too, like where to find goblins in Europe or what to ask for when one wishes to order a non-alcoholic carbonated beverage in a different part of the country.

I have to admit, though, that yesterday’s featured map, from xckd.com (a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language) is one of my favorites, just for the sheer fun of it:

November 18, 2008 Posted by | Grammar, History, Humor, News, Politics, Travel | Leave a comment

Gridlock: The American Way


Often as not, politicians and pundits decry gridlock as something negative.  Nothing could be further from the truth, as an OpEd piece in the Wall Street Journal points out today.

In my opinion, political parties are designed to create “gridlock.”  This is actually a good thing, and the framers of the U.S. Constitution hoped that checks and balances among the three branches of government would prevent silly laws.

Far too much legislation gets passed even when there is gridlock.  Just to gather additional votes, lawmakers append pork to bills completely unrelated to the primary subject of the bill.  The long-winded, convoluted language of most bills (yes, a lawyer is saying this!) obfuscates the intent of the drafters.

With a majority of the president’s party in both the Senate and the House, a dangerous atmosphere builds into a tempest that takes far too long to stuff back into its metaphorical teapot.

The point of having a balance of power between the executive and legislative branches is so that over-reaching legislation doesn’t get passed and signed into law.  With one party effectively running these two branches, we should expect abuses of power.  It matters not which party is in power.  Both parties – as well as any hypothetical third party in such a position – would be unable to resist the temptation to press their agendas unchecked by other points of view.

The problem with our current tax-subsidized two-party system is that a single party can indeed obtain a majority relatively easily.  Legislation can get passed, and then a supermajority isn’t as much of a hurdle when there is a veto. Politicians will tell us that this is a good thing, because “things get done.”

But is majority rule really a fair way to go about things?  Fifty one percent to pass a bill means that 49% are effectively disenfranchised. A simple majority does not constitute a mandate, no matter what certain politicians may tell us.  A simple majority means simply that there are a few more for something than against it.

And “getting things done” isn’t always the best thing, either.  Think about how fast the USAPatriot Act was passed in the hysteria following 9/11.  Think about how fast the economic bailout was passed despite the fact that its details remain poorly understood by “Joe the Plumber” as well as “Joe Six-Pack,” and – dare I suggest? – by the rank and file in Congress as well.  Bad laws get passed for good reasons.  Generally, getting rid of bad laws is much harder than passing a good one to begin with.

October 17, 2008 Posted by | Lawyer, News, Politics | | 1 Comment

Clueless


Not only is he likely to die by the end of his first term in office (see the actuarial tables if you think I’m kidding), he’s clueless.

Yes, the wars in central Asia are a problem.  But even bigger and more worrisome is our country’s fiscal well-being.  To quote James Carville’s “war room” reminder from 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Sixteen years later, it’s the economy again.  And that’s stupid.
As if it wasn’t bad enough before, the past two weeks have seen our economy positively reeling from blows repeatedly delivered to it over the past several years.

First, September 7 it was announced that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were insolvent and had to be taken over by the government.  These two publicly owned companies either own or guarantee fully half of the mortgages in America. That’s right: of the twelve trillion dollars – that’s 12 followed by a dozen zeroes, for those of you who don’t know –  in money borrowed to finance the American Dream, $6 trillion of it was, in one form or another, the ultimate responsibility of these two companies.

Fannie and Freddie are, according to Fortune’s listing of the “Global 500,” the 161st and 162nd largest companies in the world respectively. The ranking is based on their annual revenue, which for each company is a little over $43 billion. Their profits, however, are in the negatives.  Fannie Mae reports losses of $2.05 billion and Freddie Mac, even worse, reports losses of $3.094 billion. And together they were on the hook for six trillion dollars in debt, over one percent of which was delinquent. That’s a recipe for bankruptcy in anyone’s pocketbook.

Are these companies even the biggest losers on the scale of gargantuan companies posting gargantuan losses?  No.  General Motors (yes, another cornerstone of the American economy and a major employer worldwide) boasts that honor.  With revenues of more than $182 billion, GM is posting a loss of $38.732 billion.   Ford Motor Company isn’t quite as desperate.  It comes in at #10 on the list of losers at a loss of $1.8 billion.  A loss like that seems manageable in comparison to GM’s, doesn’t  it?

Another US company, Sprint/Nextel, which is the third largest among the telecom giants, is posting losses exceeding $26 trillion this year.  Staggering losses like these do more than cause a company to go bankrupt.  Companies vaporize due to losses like these.  Then there’s the domino effect of the fallout: lost jobs, unpaid debts to other companies, and a gap in the economy that no amount of politicking can fill.

Will the government rescue GM like it rescued the Chrysler Corporation in the 1970’s? Our automakers employ an awful lot of people.  It will be very hard for the United States, competing with Indian and Chinese workers who charge pennies to the dollars charged by American workers for their time, to fill a manufacturing hole of that size.

It’s a big jump from these staggering losses to the next bracket of the biggest losers on Fortune’s list.  A German bank, in the red because it helped bail out a German competitor that had tanked because it had invested heavily in American subprime mortgages, is next in line with losses of $8.4 billion, but then, when we look to the next giant losers, we’re back on American soil.

Merrill Lynch is the fourth biggest money loser worldwide right now. Merrill Lynch was in the news this weekend because Bank of America became its white knight, dashing in to rescue the failing investment giant, whose offices fill all 34 floors of the Four World Financial Center Building in Manhattan’s famous financial district.  We might note here that the same subprime lending crisis has led to the failure of this icon of investing.  We might also note that Merrill Lynch is one of the relative handful of investment companies that survived the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  News of its failure is ominous, indeed.

Four of the top five money losers in the world are American, and the one that isn’t had losses caused entirely by the American subprime crisis. And get this: one of the top five losers is an agency of the American government!  Did that sentence get your attention? It should have.  Yes, the United States Postal Service is number five on the list of losers.

Now, I could wax lyrical about the mismanagement of the postal service here, but I’ll save my rant for another time.  Maybe I’ll mention something in the comments to this blog about how much freaking money the USPS spends to advertise its monopoly. But for now I’ll pass.  There’s a lot of complex analysis that goes into that discussion, and I’m talking about the economy in general, here.  I’m talking about a certain presidential candidate’s understanding of the economy in particular.

You see, despite Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, despite the subprime and credit crises, despite the failure of Merrill Lynch and AIG, which the Federal Reserve decided to help yesterday with an $85 billion bailout loan, despite the bankruptcy filing this weekend of Lehman Brothers, another huge investment firm, John McCain believes our economy is fundamentally sound.

Now, keep in mind that we have a federal budget deficit of $9 trillion that has grown by well over $400 billion a year since the current administration has been in control. We’re fighting two wars in central Asia at an annual cost of $200 billion, which we have borrowed from China – China! – to finance. The Federal Reserve just lent AIG $85 billion, and that money has to come from somewhere.  Internationally, our currency is weak.

When the wars started, President Bush expanded the government in an unprecedented move by creating a Department of Homeland Security.  (Excuse me, but wasn’t that what the already-existing National Security Agency for?  Wasn’t Homeland Security redundant?  I feel another rant coming on.  I’ll stop here.)

The biggest financial  losers globally are either American companies or driven to their staggering losses by American economic policies and practices, and John McCain thinks that the economy is fundamentally sound.

John McCain thinks that America’s big employers and investors can sustain staggering losses and the economy is still fundamentally sound.

Something in that jungle prison over there did more than make him unable to comprehend how to send an email.  Something in that jungle prison over there robbed him of his ability to see what is obviously an unfolding financial disaster on a scale with the Great Depression.

John McCain thinks the economy is fundamentally sound. He said so on Monday, the same day Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.

The emperor is wearing no clothes, and his consort is a redneck rodeo queen.

Tens of thousands of jobs on Wall Street are at risk, as are hundreds of thousands of jobs in the automotive industry.  Monday was the worst day for the stock market since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The dollar is weak against foreign currencies. We’re fighting two wars. Oil, which we depend upon as much as we depend upon water, is three times as costly as it ought to be. Worker productivity has increased, but wages have not.

Our government isn’t financially sound.  It has debt it can’t possibly repay and it has pushed a pro-credit, pro-housing agenda among the populace until consumers no longer can pay for what they buy. Unemployment is rising, and job creation is ridiculously low, a dangerous situation when we look at the potential for both white collar and blue collar job losses.

McCain thinks the government is fundamentally sound? You’ve got to be kidding me.

September 17, 2008 Posted by | Domestic, Economy, News, Politics, Uncategorized, War | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Time/CNN Apostrophe Error!


The bastion of good journalism has failed. An editor at TIME/CNN’s International Desk ought to be reprimanded. How could he let this go by?

I was perusing the international news blogs, minding my own business, eating my Healthy Choice Steamer for lunch, when I was assaulted by an apostrophe.


It glared at me, then it jumped out and demanded to be circled in red and corrected.

So I did.

September 5, 2008 Posted by | Grammar, Writing | , , , | 1 Comment

Respectful Atheism


I am not a Christian.

I am not a Jew or a Muslim, either. I am not Buddhist, even though its philosophy is what I most agree with. I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of humans.

I am an atheist. I do not lightly identify myself as such, nor, I have found, do very many who says this about themselves. To claim that status, most atheists have studied religion passionately, but found it somehow lacking for us.

That is not to say I do not respect the beliefs of others, or their ability to have faith. One of the things I study when I study religion is the effortless ability other people have to believe in the existence of a deity. I do not understand it from an intellectual point of view, but from a spiritual point of view, I try to understand. I simply do not possess that faith and never have. I cannot create faith in myself, although I went through the motions for my husband and child, attending both Presbyterian and Episcopal services over the years. It has never been my intent to deny faith to my son or to anyone else. It is simply something foreign to me.

My mother is Presbyterian. She goes to church regularly, as does my sister, who is an Elder in their church. My brother and his wife attend the same church, but not with the regularity of Mom and Sis. They believe in God and teach their children about Jesus and his disciples.

My dad was raised Catholic, but as an adult never practiced. He joined the Presbyterian Church when my sister did, when she was about 12 years old. Both Mom and Dad were elders in the Presbyterian Church in my home town.

I married a man who at one time considered becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. We were married in the Episcopal Church and our son was baptized there. We attended irregularly, mostly at Easter. I really loved the Easter service at that church – they had a fabulous pipe organ and would have a brass accompaniment on Easter Sunday that made the music absolutely gorgeous. The white lilies heaped on the altar and around the church were gorgeous, too. I can appreciate the beauty of such a service without belief in the Resurrection.

When our child started school we decided it was time to find a Sunday School for him. We had not been going to church regularly and we agreed that he should learn about the religion of his family and his culture. My sister and her boys were attending a small Presbyterian church about 10 minutes from our house. We started going there and taking our son. He began to learn the Bible stories all children learn.

His father and I joined the young adult Sunday School class ourselves. We made some great friends. I enjoyed discussing the Bible and its philosophy. I really enjoyed picking apart the writings of Paul and Peter in the face of current common religious practice. Yes, I was devilish. My deviltry prompted discussion, though, and when we read the Screwtape Letters I was the good-natured butt of many jokes. I was never disrespectful to my Sunday School classmates about their beliefs, and I doubt any of them, other than my sister and my husband, would have guessed that I not only didn’t accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior, but didn’t even believe in their god. I was on their turf, but even so I do not tend toward insult and disrespect. My atheism is not something I discuss much. I imagine most of my friends would be very surprised to learn of it.

So why did I go to church? I went for my son.

The way I see it, religion is something that a great many people not only value, but really need in their lives. If my child is one of these people, I want him to understand the religion of his family and the society in which he lives: Christianity. I want him to have the ability to believe. It sometimes seems to be a comfort to those who do.

Even as a young child I did not believe. My belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy was for one purpose only: loot. If I said I believed, I got cool stuff. I thought all three of them were silly and far-fetched, but if it made my parents happy, I would believe. For me, God fell into the same category as the Easter Bunny. His existence was illogical and fantastical.

Upon revealing my atheism, I am often asked, “If you do not believe in a divine creator, how do you think the world came to be?” Unlike many people, I have no trouble with the concept of infinity.

One of the co-founders of my brain borrowed a little of Thomas Aquinas’s notion of a “First Mover,” which he explained in the Summa Theologica. When I was about nine years old and rebelling for all I was worth against being forced to go to church, Dad explained to me that while it was conceivable that all things happened after the first part was moved, something had to create that first part and then set things in motion. Where he possibly differed from the good Saint was in the question of whether that “Mover of the First Part” was still around, or had ever interfered beyond creating and moving the first part. My response to him was predictable: “So, Dad, if a Mover was necessary, who made the Mover?” It’s not like the question hadn’t already been asked by smarter minds than mine. I’m not a deist because it only seems logical to me that someone or something would have had to create the Creator. Even at that tender age, I understood what “for ever and ever and ever” meant.

I have also been asked what I think happens when we die if there is no heaven or hell. I don’t have any idea. It’s possible we just rot and our consciousness ceases to be. I would truly like to think we have souls, and experiences people have with the supernatural and the uniformity of near-death reports are some proof, if not empirical proof, that something – something – happens.

In light of this, I find it plausible that every living thing has a soul. I also find it possible that if there is a soul for every living thing, that these souls take a form we humans would recognize again and again. When not in use by a living thing, the souls may coalesce into a single Universal Soul, which is the ongoing, possibly infinite, existence of consciousness, or even collective consciousness. This may be the “light” that we are familiar with from reports of near-death experiences. I don’t necessarily believe that the Universal Soul or the Light – or whatever we want to call it – is a higher power, or that any “higher” power exists that “takes care” of things or “creates” things.

My concept of the Universal Soul does not interfere with individuals or with free will, nor does it necessarily predestine anything to happen. More than anything, it is a repository. But the collection of souls within it, of creatures yet to exist and formerly existing, may have emotion to some extent.

In my conceptualization, the “comfort” or “satisfaction” of each soul lies within the control of the healthy creature housing it at the moment. When we take positive steps to improve our character and our long term contentment, as well as to improve the world around us, we feed our souls with nutritious food. That makes them happy, and a happy soul adds to the happiness of the Universal Soul. Perhaps the happier those souls, the brighter the light gets. It’s my conceptualization, so if I want that to be the way it is, I can wave my wand of creation and make it so.

Going against our nature, ruining the happiness of people and other creatures around us, and making the lives of others more difficult are things that feed our souls unhealthy food. Our souls are not made happy by these acts, and the light within ourselves dims when we do this. We are diminish the quality of our souls when we are petty, mean-spirited, or selfishly harm others. (Now, that having been said, I am not above killing aphids on my plants, ants in my cat food, rodents that make their unwelcome way into my home, or cockroaches wherever I find them. My theology only goes so far!)

I don’t come to any of my conclusions in a vacuum. I have read the entire Bible. I have read most of it many more times than once. I keep a copy of it on my desk. It is a reference book as much as a dictionary or a thesaurus. I look at religious writings the way I look at books that are classified as fiction, but since I come across Biblical references and allusions in my reading, I find it convenient to keep one handy. When I meet one of those hate-spewing zealots, I am glad to know the Bible because a good offense is indeed the best defense.

I often read the doctrine and dogma of major religions. (Yes, for fun.) I have read what I could of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I have read from the works of Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, St. Thomas Aquinas, Flavius Josephus, Bede, Maimonides, Roger Bacon, Rene Descartes, David Hume, and John Locke. I have read books on Taoism and Confucianism. I have read treatises written by Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean Paul Sartre and his cousin Albert Schweitzer. I have read Mein Kampf. I have read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Henry David Thoreau, Jeremy Bentham, and Wittgenstein. I have read about the Kabbala and I have read the Koran in spurts (the English translation, of course). I have read Buddhist theology and discovered some of the ways in which it differs from Hinduism. I have read other writings on the philosophy of religion. I took every class I could on the subject when I was in college. I nearly had a minor in philosophy.

I often think I may have read too much philosophy, but I keep on reading it, even today. In additional to the ecumenical and mainstream philosophers and theologians, I read offbeat and popular living philosophers like Carlos Castaneda, Daniel Quinn, Paulo Coelho, and Don Miguel Ruiz.

Why do I make this public admission? Why would I say something like this about myself, when it is practically guaranteed to draw the spewing hatred of certain people who do have faith, and therefore believe me to be apostate, an infidel, a pagan, or even somehow evil?

I make this admission because recently a friend of mine, who shares my non-belief, was recently very publically attacked for his position. To be fair, some atheists shower their faithful acquaintances with derision, essentially saying that if they have these religious convictions then they are stupid or just want to enjoy having an imaginary friend. Believers making unbelievers feel like less is wrong. Unbelievers making believers feel like less is just as wrong. We live in a unique society here in the United States. Only a few other nations have the privilege we do of not only speaking and writing our minds, but not being persecuted – or prosecuted – for it.

Each of us, no matter how weird our beliefs are, should be respected: no matter how we come to our beliefs – whether by childhood indoctrination, custom, rational thought and choice, study, or visionary moment – we are all entitled to believe whatever we want about a higher power.

When we are confronted with someone whose beliefs are radically different from our own, we sometimes feel threatened. People get very defensive and judgmental when they feel their beliefs are being challenged. People don’t like to change their beliefs. It’s hard to do that, and usually it happens after something rocks their world, not always in a good way. Consider people who lose their faith after the sudden death of a child, or who suddenly gain it after a visionary dream. In both cases, the people around them are unlikely to accept the change in the person’s belief system, and may object to it strongly. Paradigm shifting, to use an overworked phrase, hurts.

No one’s status as an atheist, or even as a deist or an agnostic, is a personal attack on anyone else’s faith. I do not want anyone to try to convert me, to force faith on me, to call me names, or to otherwise denigrate me because I am unable intellectually or spiritually to come to the same theological conclusion as someone else. I do not denigrate the beliefs of others. I don’t pretend to understand fully why they hold them, but I will never belittle anyone for having faith.

I am one of about a billion people who do not believe in one or more divine beings that created the universe and natural laws, or that otherwise affect nature or the lives of my species. Among that number are atheists, agnostics, and deists.

To some believers, that means I am immoral or somehow defective.

For instance, I have been told that the only proper values are Christian values. I find that insulting to all who are not Christian, including me. The only real philosophical disagreement among religions is in the nature of the deity: the moral code of all the major religions is practically the same. Stealing, lying, cheating, defrauding, murdering, and being disrespectful are prohibited in each and every one. They are also prohibited by the moral code of every race, nationality, tribe, and community, no matter what its spiritual beliefs.

Venomous, malicious attacks on nonbelievers are wrong in any religion, including Christianity and Islam, the two most assertive religious institutions of our time. There have been times when Christianity and Islam have interpreted their prophets to allow them to attack nonbelievers. The Spanish Inquisition is a prime example. The violent jihad of people like Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is another.

Every major religion is peaceful. Every major religion teaches its adherents how to get along with each other, with those not of their religion, and those who would be their enemies. The tenets of these religions are basic common sense. I do not believe that a structure of myth, fable, parable, or heroism is necessary to common sense. Common sense can exist without a god.

It is common sense to avoid creating conflict, and it is common sense to resolve conflict peaceably when it arises. It is common sense to punish those who break the peace by theft, assault, battery, murder, rape, fraud, and the like. It is common sense to act honorably so that trust is created with the people with whom we associate and do business. Common sense tells us that disrespect and dishonorable behavior creates mistrust among the ones dealing with that behavior. It is common sense to be truthful.

We all choose how to behave toward one another. When we behave badly, and make another person feel defensive or otherwise negative, it only reflects on ourselves.

I believe in a sort of karma. I’m not talking about the karma of traditional Hinduism or Buddhism, which is concept that the total effect of a person’s actions and conduct affects the nature of that person’s eventual reincarnation. My informal sort of karma happens on a much shorter time scale.

I believe that if we do bad things to other people, bad things will happen to us. What goes around, comes around. If we keep our karma on the positive side, if we are consistently good, respectful, honorable, and just, we will reap rewards. The rewards are not in the hereafter; the rewards are in the here and now. The rewards are accomplished not by a deity, but by those around us. Perhaps, if I am wrong and there is a hereafter, we will be rewarded there, as well, and come back as an elephant and not as, say, a banana slug. But for an example of the here and now kind of reward, consider Jimmy Stewart’s character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Had he not been so good, gracious, generous, and honorable to the people of his community, they would not have been so helpful when he had his own stroke of ill luck. That’s karma in action.

I might also take a moment to address the concerns of those atheists who, for example, get bent out of shape when their children are expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school with the words “under God” in it. Not only is this sweating the small stuff in my opinion, but these parents are drawing painfully embarrassing attention to their children, whom they have chosen to rear in a predominantly Judeo-Christian-Muslim society. As long as vast majority of the population is religious, parents cannot reasonably expect their children to be shielded from religion. Saying “under God” in the pledge is not ramming religion down anyone’s throat. If parents object to those two words, all they have to do is to instruct their own children not to say those two words along with the class, something the child can do discreetly without calling any attention to himself at all. Furthermore, the word “God” on our money is not establishment of any particular religion. The founders prohibited establishment of religion in the Constitution; they did not guarantee a nation free from any of its influences, whether malignant or benign.

I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of human beings. In some countries, as much as eighty percent of the population may be nonbelievers. I am not alone, and I have not come to my theological or philosophical conclusions lightly or for the sake of attention.

My studied opinion is that we would all benefit from taking the best of all religions and applying them to our daily lives. If we could all meditate like the Buddhists, reason like the Stoics, and celebrate like every day was Beltaine, we’d spend a lot less time at war, on both a personal and a global scale.

I am one of a billion people – one sixth of the population of our planet – who do not believe in either a single deity or a pantheon.

We are not organized. We have no agenda. We simply do not believe. No one should feel sorry for us or try to convert us. We should not be attacked or treated rudely simply because we cannot manufacture faith and refuse to pretend to do so.

June 25, 2008 Posted by | Philosophy, Religion | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Pondering the Soul of the World


It’s no secret that The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of my favorite books. I’m leading the discussion in my book club this month, and The Alchemist is the book we’re discussing. I feel fortunate, but overwhelmed at the same time.

I’ve re-read the book during the past week to get ready for the book club discussion. Reader’s Guides are readily available for The Alchemist. The tenth anniversary edition, which I have, contains one after the epilogue. Its discussion topics seem so obvious to me. There is so much more to this book than those canned study guide questions point out.

For instance, there are two different types of alchemy: scientific alchemy and spiritual alchemy. While the gold that scientific alchemy yields is tempting, Coelho’s beautiful fable teaches us that the spiritual aspect of alchemy is the important one. The tale of Santiago the shepherd boy underscores that without achieving the Master Work of spiritual alchemy, no one can attain the Magnum Opus of scientific alchemy.  The discussion of both types of alchemy is a discussion of the book itself, as well as a philosophical discussion that may never end.

Santiago’s quest for his Personal Legend is full of lessons. Santiago’s wisdom, and the wisdom of the people he meets in his travels, must have been sound bites that Coelho collected for years then wove seamlessly into this tale. All of Coelho’s books seem that way, though. But the wisdom and joy of The Alchemist makes it the only one of Coelho’s books that literally makes me cry.

Each time I’ve read this book I’ve cried, and each time I’ve cried at the same point. For me, (spoiler alert) the climax of the book comes twice. The first is not when Santiago finds the physical treasure of his dream, but when he first lays eyes on what fabulous wonders men can achieve.  Yes, this is when I cry, and I’m crying with the profound joy the book has given me.

At the moment when Santiago thinks he should find his treasure, he is attacked by several refugees from the tribal wars he has dodged all across the Sahara. One attacker announces that it is stupid to cross a desert to look for buried treasure  just because of a recurring dream. The attacker doesn’t know it, but Santiago has done exactly that, and is at the point of realizing that dream when he is beaten bloody and left nearly dead by these attackers. As outside observers we readers laugh, knowing that whether or not Santiago finds his material wealth in the desert, his journeys have resulted in a spiritual wealth beyond most people’s imagining. He has learned that if he wants to, he can become the wind.

Coelho uses phrases and terms of his own making, but they are philosophical terms necessary to understanding the spiritual alchemy he presents in his book. The Soul of the World, the hand that wrote all, the Language of the World, and one’s Personal Legend are concepts Coelho deftly teaches us with this story of a shepherd’s quest, undertaken because of a recurring dream. Without initially understanding those terms, though, we struggle along with Santiago to grasp the concepts of spiritual alchemy.

Fear hampers our quests for our Personal Legends. The fear presents itself in different ways. First, it is a fear of leaving the familiar comforts of what we know to go in pursuit of a dream. But when we take those first few tentative steps toward our dream, beginner’s luck encourages us to keep pursuing the dream. Eventually, though, our initial success creates another fear within us. We have achieved so much. No, it’s not what we set out to achieve, but it is enough. We can die happy because we got this far and we are comfortable. But, if we listen to our hearts, we know that this temptation to settle for less than our Personal Legend is really a fear: a fear that we have had so much success that we are bound to fail soon.

The fear of failure prevents many people from realizing their Personal Legends. Settling for “good enough,” these people stop listening to their hearts and listen instead to the comforts of having come this far and achieved this much. They feel blessed to have done so much; to try to do more tempts fate, does it not?

Yes, it does.

That’s part of the pursuit of the Personal Legend, though. We aren’t rewarded with the realization of that legend unless we show that we have truly learned the lessons along the way to achieving it. Proving that we’ve learned the lessons means we have to be challenged, and the challenges aren’t supposed to be easy. If we want something enough, if our goal is our dream, and our dream is our Personal Legend, the path gets harder, not easier, the closer we get. Nevertheless, if we step carefully and read the omens sent to us, we will achieve success. We will recognize and live our Personal Legends.

I’m making four presentations to make on this book this month. In each, I want to examine a portion of the story, and a portion of the philosophy of spiritual alchemy. I don’t know if I can limit myself to just four!

I’ve come up with a list of omens Santiago notices in his adventures. Some of them have layers of meaning. I want to talk about them.

Throughout the book, Coelho sprinkled concepts from the three religions springing from the loins of Abraham. I want to talk about each, yet I know that those in my audience who know me not to be a follower of this religious tradition will want time to challenge me on my interpretation, and will want to offer their own. There must be time for that.

There are mystical elements that defy being categorized with something else, so must be treated separately.

Each major character, plus a couple of minor ones, have wisdom to share. I want to examine their profound observations – ALL of them!

Then there are the literary aspects of the book. Coelho’s writing style, the format of the story, foreshadowing and other literary devices, character development . . . I’m babbling already and I haven’t even begun my presentation.

And then there is alchemy, both scientific and spiritual, to tackle. To be fair to each, they should be dealt with separately, then addressed together so as to underscore the similarities. There are specific alchemists mentioned in the book whose biographies might be interesting to my audience, yet I fear boring the masses with my enthusiasm.

But wait: Santiago’s strengths were his courage to do what he wanted, and his enthusiasm in the process. Is this an omen?

June 2, 2008 Posted by | Book Reviews, Philosophy, Religion | 2 Comments

Breast Cancer Awareness


Breast cancer has taken the lives of women we knew and loved, and has made the lived of other women we know and love very difficult. Has anyone’s life been unaffected by it?  Don’t we all know someone who has had breast cancer?

The Susan G. Komen Foundation is the beneficiary of a Three-Day Walk for a cure for breast cancer. The walk is a National Philanthropic Trust project, aimed at nationwide and even worldwide participation.

With money for cancer research, more women diagnosed with breast cancer can be like my friend Ellen, who miraculously survived with a spontaneous remission despite being given a death sentence by her doctor, and my aunt Jackie, who survived with successful treatment.  I can name others who have recovered and others who, sadly, have not.  My cousin Margaret, my neighbor Sassy, my old friend Faye…. all have been the unlucky victims of this insidious disease.

As many of you reading this blog know, I’ve had cancer twice. I’ve not had breast cancer, but my nightmares tell me to I expect to. None of us are safe.

Please donate to this worthy cause.

My friend Kathi, who happens to be my former husband’s girlfriend, is participating in the three day walk in October. If you don’t participate yourself, please donate to her effort to raise money for a cure.

Is it weird that I ask you to support Kathi?  She’s dating my ex-husband, after all.  If you don’t already know, Skip and I have a wonderful relationship – much better than when we were married – and it all revolves around a certain boy who is closing in on adulthood.  Our son Jack is sixteen, personable, creative, and reasonably well-adjusted despite  his parents’ divorce.  Skip and I have worked hard to make sure we work together for Jack’s sake.  He is the single most important thing in our lives.  Skip and I encourage each other constantly, talk almost daily, and support each other’s goals, hopes and dreams.  We call each other for support and to vent. We still like each other.  Thank the gods we divorced before we could develop hatred for one another!

I support Kathi not only because she is my friend and Jack’s possible future stepmom, but because she is actually doing something for a cause I believe in strongly.  If you don’t participate in the walk yourself, support someone who is.  Support Kathi!

The link will get you to the page where you can donate money to the cause.  Five dollars, ten, any amount you can contribute will help.  Please help!

Here is the message Kathi is sending out to her friends:

I just wanted to send an update on the Breast Cancer 3Day Walk that I am doing in October.

We are asked to raise $2200 per participant and I have already raised $400 toward my goal! How exciting! Some of those donations are from people forwarding my email to their friends and I want you to know how much I truly appreciate your support. I joined a team called the “Buttercups” and our team has already raised $5,672! We are all training and getting ready for the 60 mile journey.

If you have already donated I can’t thank you enough! If you are still interested in donating here is the link to my site. You can donate online or print a donation form and mail it in. Nothing is too small and it is all tax deductible.

http://08.the3day.org/goto/kathianne

Thank you again!

Kathi

May 21, 2008 Posted by | Children, Death, Health, News, Personal, Science | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Midget Comes to Chigger Hollow


Midget truck drivers didn’t show up in Chigger Hollow every day. In fact, there weren’t any midgets at all in Chigger Hollow, so when one did show up it was momentous.

The semi pulled into the parking lot of the Chat ‘n’ Chew convenience store about 4:30 in the afternoon. Norma Rae started a fresh pot of coffee. Usually truck drivers could be counted on to buy a couple of cups, even if it was late in the afternoon. Hearing the water begin to drip through the grounds of the Biff Brand coffee, she perched herself back on the duct-taped vinyl stool behind the counter and went back to her True Confessions magazine.

Out of the corner of her eye Norma Rae noticed a woman coming into the store. The woman was followed by a child. Norma Rae didn’t take much notice because the State Trooper from up at Possum Grape had told her in casual conversation that women and children don’t tend to be convenience store robbers. Men were the ones to watch out for, and if a man came in alone, followed by another man, and neither one parked where she could get a description of the car or the license in case of their quick getaway after a robbery, she should take special notice and ease the handle of the shotgun close to the edge of the shelf underneath the counter.

Popping the top on another Coke Zero Norma Rae turned the page in her True Confessions. “I Was a Teenage Pasta Wrestler” looked to be an interesting article. The picture of a pretty girl with a pouty mouth, who looked for all the world like Rhonda Sue Ellis, the valedictorian of Chigger Hollow’s Class of 1995, just with blonde hair, was inset on top of a black and white photo of two women completely covered in ragu and grappling with each other to the cheers of abnormally handsome young men who hung on the perimeter of the wrestling ring.

The woman came to the counter with a large cup of coffee and a package of chewing tobacco. Without looking up, Norma Rae scanned the two items. “Four eighty-seven,” she said, holding her hand out and sneaking another look at the black and white photo. Was the woman on the left wearing a top? Was that a mushroom in the spaghetti sauce or were her nipples hard from the excitement of the contest? She took the five dollar bill from the customer and handed her a dime and three pennies. Norma Rae was well into the first paragraph of the article when someone cleared his throat.

She looked up. She didn’t remember seeing anyone come in after the woman, and she had been alone in the store. She peered over the display of breath mints and beef jerky but didn’t see anyone. She went back to True Confessions.

This time a cough made her look up. No one was standing at the pay counter, which stood as high as her ample chest when she wasn’t sitting on her stool. Norma Rae remembered everything Danny Kitchens, the State Trooper from Possum Grape, had told her and she eased the butt of the shotgun toward the edge of the shelf below the counter.

“Hello?” she asked uncertainly.

“How much for two drumsticks and half a dozen biscuits?” a man’s voice asked. Norma Rae jumped.

“Drumsticks are eighty-five cents each and biscuits are five for two dollars,” she said. It must be a short guy, because he was apparently hidden behind the tall display of Slim Jims. She moved off her stool and peered around the display. She didn’t see anyone.

“I want six biscuits, not five,” the voice said.

“Six biscuits are, um…” Norma Rae cursed herself for forgetting where the calculator was kept. She was terrible at math.

“Are they the same price whether I buy five or if I buy, say, three?” The voice seemed to be getting impatient, but Norma Rae still couldn’t figure out where its owner was standing.

“Well, no,” she replied, her tone conveying her obvious opinion of such a dumb question. “Five biscuits are two dollars. Three biscuits are less than that.”

“So are three biscuits a dollar twenty?”

“How should I know?” she snapped. She stood on the foot rest rung of her stool and leaned out over the counter, hitting her head on the cigarette display above the cash register. “Damn!”

A cup of coffee appeared at the check out counter. Norma Rae leaned out again. This time she ducked. The voice belonged to the kid. No, to the midget. The kid was a midget.

“I’ll have to ring it up to get you a total,” she said, staring at the man. Despite his stature he was the most perfect specimen of virility Norma Rae had ever seen. Muscular arms reached up to slide a package of Mentos onto the counter next to the coffee. The arms were attached to a wide chest bulging with well-chiseled pectorals, which were clad in a tight navy blue t-shirt.

Norma Rae could not help but let out a breath of amazement. “Oh, wow,” she said eloquently, her eyes wide with awe.

“What, you’ve never seen a dwarf before?” the man asked. His eyes had narrowed and his lips curled into the manliest sneer Norma Rae had seen since Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” video on MTV.

“No! Oh! I mean, I’m just surprised is all,” she managed to babble.

“Are you going to let me buy chicken and biscuits?” the Perfect Specimen demanded.

“Oh! Yeah! Um, do you want spicy or traditional southern?”

“Southern. And I want six biscuits.”

“Do you want any mashed potatoes or turnip greens with it? Bessie Maydar makes the greens and they are to die for. She mixes in just a little mustard greens and some hot sauce while they’re cooking and they come out good enough to make you feel born again without ever going to church.” Norma Rae knew she was babbling but she couldn’t stop. Now why did she tell this Perfect Specimen of Virility Bessie’s secret ingredients? Bessie had sworn her to secrecy on the back porch while they were each into their fifth margarita one night. And “born again?” Where the hell did that come from? Norma Rae was Seventh Day Adventist, and except for the occasional cuss word she was true to her faith.

“How much?” Evidently this Perfect Specimen of Virility was on a budget.

“Ninety nine cents.”

“Not a dollar?”

Norma Rae shook her head. The power of speech was rapidly exiting her brain the longer she gazed on his biceps.

“My name’s Norma Rae,” she said. Then she realized that not only had the Perfect Specimen of Virility not asked, but that he seemed surprised that she would even share the information.

“I’m Willy,” he said.

“So do you want the greens?”

“Okay, fine. Two drumsticks, six biscuits, and a side order of greens,” said Willy the Perfect Specimen of Virility.

“That’s five forty five,” said Norma Rae after punching the order into the cash register.

Willy gave her a ten dollar bill. She gave him change.

“Are you going to get my food?” Willy finally asked, and Norma Rae realized that she was still leaning across the counter staring at him.

“Oh, god!” she exclaimed, hopping down from the stool. Now she was really embarrassed. She had taken the Lord’s name in vain in front of the Perfect Specimen of Virility and she was acting like a dummy. Shit! She hurried to put the chicken and greens in a Styrofoam container, and put six biscuits in a small paper bag. She climbed back up on her stool and leaned out to hand the container and the bag across the counter and down to those wonderful waiting arms, which she could imagine wrapped around her in a bear hug so tight it would make her groan.

“Can I get anything else for you?” She asked hopefully.

“Nope.” Willy reached for the coffee and Mentos, arranged his load, and headed for the door.

“Wait!” cried Norma Rae.

The Perfect Specimen turned around.

“Come back soon,” she murmured weakly.

Willy the Perfect Specimen nodded solemnly and went out the door. Norma Rae didn’t even realize she had failed to charge him for the coffee and Mentos.

to be continued….

April 17, 2008 Posted by | Arkansas, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humor, Writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gun Control


In the last couple of years I’ve changed my stance on gun control.

I don’t like guns.  They scare the hell out of me, and I see nothing “sporting” about attacking unarmed animals with them in the woods. I don’t own one and I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of having one in my house, despite the fact that my ex-husband had a hunting rifle and a boyfriend had a pistol.

I’ve represented kids with criminal charges involving guns.  I’ve seen bullet holes in children’s bedroom walls from drive-by shootings. I’ve represented women who were threatened with guns by their husbands, boyfriends, and even their sons. I’ve been to funerals of people killed by guns.  I’ve held and hugged a weeping grandmother when a stray bullet in a gang shooting left her favorite grandson, a good boy with an “A” average and college-bound, dead on a dark street in a small town in southeast Arkansas.

I don’t like the attitude of the NRA. It comes across as arrogant, shrill, and combative – not the kind of attitude a responsible gun owner/handler should display, especially around guns.

This is going to sound stupid, probably, but one of the things that tipped the scales for me against gun control was a movie.  It wasn’t just any movie.  It was a movie based on a comic book. Bear with me.  I’ve watched V for Vendetta, a film by the incomparable Wachowski Brothers, multiple times, and I find no fault with its future history philosophy.

Perhaps the helium in my brain is showing, but the point that disarming a populace oppresses the citizens makes sense to me.

One of the very best quotes from the movie is, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”  Why?  Because the power to change government, to oversee government, and to demand that government be accountable lies with the people.

There is a poignant scene in this movie in which thousands of unarmed citizens in Guy Fawkes masks confront the well-armed military. As they pour into the open areas on this auspicious night, the astonished military doesn’t open fire. Perhaps it is the sheer numbers of people; perhaps it is the eerie, surreal fact that they are costumed like that seditionist of the past, but for whatever reason, the armed forces of the government holds its fire and allows itself to be overrun. Perhaps it is because the members of the armed forces are citizens, too, and the whole point of the movie is that citizens must require and compel change in the government.

And then there’s this quote, the source of which I’m desperately seeking:

“An armed society is a polite society.
An unarmed society is a police state.
A disarmed society is a tyranny.”

April 14, 2008 Posted by | Children, Death, History, News, Philosophy, Politics | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dolphin Saves the Whales


Despite Geraldine’s Ferraro’s possible claims to the contrary, there is no racism among cetaceans.

There’s a bottlenose dolphin called Moko who frequently splashes and plays with swimmers at Mahia Beach on the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island, in a region known as Hawke’s Bay.

Hawke’s Bay is sort of the Napa Valley of New Zealand. The region is famous for its wines and fine accommodations. The peninsula is a scenic reserve, complete with hiking trails and camping.

Moko the dolphin is a real-life “Flipper.” She plays with swimmers, pushes kayaks through the water, and comes close to boats so the people in them can pet her. Although dolphins don’t normally seem to be afraid of humans, interactions between humans and dolphins in the wild is fairly rare. Conservation Department workers speculate that Moko is isolated from her pod and gets her social contact through her interactions with the bathers and boaters off Mahia Beach.

Moko the dolphin does more than just play with the bipeds in Hawke’s Bay, though. She’s a true hero, and Monday she proved it.

On Monday, a 12-foot mother pygmy sperm whale and her 4-foot calf became stranded in a shallow area frequented by swimmers at Mahia Beach. Conservation Department workers did their best, but could not get the whales pointed in the right direction. They got a sling under the mother and the baby, pulled them off the sand bar, and pointed them to deeper water. The whales were frightened, though, and kept getting beached. They were apparently afraid of the shallow waters near the beach and could not find their way amid the many sand bars back to open water.

The animals kept getting beached on the shallow sand bars that surround the swimming area. The Conservation Department workers freed them four times, but each time the whales to become grounded again, unable to swim to deep water and safety.

Malcolm Smith, who had been in the chilly water trying to free the whales for well over an hour, described the rescue by Moko as “amazing.” “I was starting to get cold and wet and they were becoming tired. I was at the stage where I was thinking it was about time to give up – I’d done as much as I could.”

Giving up mean euthanasia. If stranded whales cannot be freed and sent back into open water, the Conservation Department spares them the long, agonizing death that results from the whales being impossibly stuck on a beach or on a sand bar.

Suddenly, though, apparently in answer to the whales’ distress calls, Moko the friendly dolphin showed up. Juanita Symes, a Conservation Department worker and rescuer, told The Associated Press that “Moko just came flying through the water and pushed in between us and the whales.”

The dolphin and the whales communicated. The rescue workers saw Moko’s actions and heard her whistles, and heard the audible response of the pygmy sperm whales. Moko then led them about 200 yards along the beach, through a narrow channel, and out to the open sea.

London’s Daily Mail quoted Smith as saying, “Moko is a real heroine because there is absolutely no doubt she learned of the whales’ plight through some kind of telepathy and then got them out of trouble.” Moko led the whales about 200 yards parallel to the beach, then turned into a narrow channel the whales had not been able to find on their own. The whales followed Moko to open sea and have not been seen since in the Mahia Beach area.

The mother and calf were extremely lucky. Most of the whale strandings at Mahia Beach end up with the whales having to be euthanized. Perhaps when other whales become disoriented and stranded in the shallow waters, Moko will again come to the rescue.

Sources:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/03/080313-dolphin-video-ap.html
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/worldnews.html?in_article_id=531748&in_page_id=1811
http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/03/13/2188375.htm
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/03/12/wdolphin112.xml
http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5iOgpiCHSYJUoSEg7wI72MoQmuBNg

March 13, 2008 Posted by | Environment, News, Science | , , , , , , | Leave a comment