Saturday, April 5, 2014

4.5 Saturday (Nativity of St. John Chrysostom)

Culled from a recent episode of Harper's "Weekly Review": "[F]ormer American president Jimmy Carter offered advice on evading government surveillance to panelists on NBC’s Meet the Press. 'When I want to communicate with a foreign leader privately,' he said, 'I type or write a letter myself, put it in the post office, and mail it.' "

 "Bit of a dustup last night I expect."

Reading this bit of sage counsel I was touched - by its commonsensical soundness, by its elegance, by its very simplicity. The day has not dawned (yet) in this country when ordinary citizens, upon retrieving their mail, find that it has the rumply appearance of having been steamed open in a government basement, redacted with a black Sharpie or pair of sharp scissors after passing under the grim scrutiny of the warden's office or some mysterious Commissariat of Domestic and International Communiqués. The facilities at the National Security Administration and its ancillary operations at Google and AT&T are all too high-tech to open envelopes and scratch things out, or even to read nonsearchable, nondigitized character matrices in fonts which, far from being uniform, are more often impressionistic at best.

I was also touched by that image of a beloved former president, seated at his wooden writing desk, a patch of Georgia sunlight falling through the study window, fountain pen in hand, a studied frown on his brow as he considers how he will begin (prolepsis), how continue (excursus), how argue or cajole, how raise up or cast low, admonish or praise. Then, folding the letter, licking the envelope and trundling off down the sidewalk with it to the local post office to buy a stamp, exchange pleasantries and how-dos with Hazel Mae the postmistress, to the soda fountain for a quick one before ambling back to Rosalind and the wire-haired terrier, Suleiman Omar ibn Rashid.

But still, something puzzled me. I thought a moment, thought again, and puzzled yet again - why would the NSA have any interest in a note to the likes of Clement Atlee, John Major, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Linda Ronstadt, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Yitzak Rabin, Imelda Marcos, Pope John Paul II, Strom Thurmond, Everett Dirkson, Claire Booth Luce, President Sukarno, Robert McNamara, Ralph Abernathy, Shimon Peres, Harold Stassen, Konrad Adenauer, Betty Friedan, John Maynard Keynes, George Kennan, Shirley Chisholm, Thich Nhat Hanh, Averill Harriman, Anwar Sadat, Nelson Rockefeller, Adlai Stevenson, William O. Douglas, Wendell Wilkie, Menachim Begin, Martin Buber, John Foster Dulles, Dean Acheson, Alger Hiss, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Zbigniew Brzinski or Racquel Welch?


Well, it beats me. But these days it pays to be careful.

Friday, April 4, 2014

4.4 Friday (Feast of Torquemada)

 
 Your tax dollars at work

Congress has ordered the release of a report on the CIA's 'enhanced interrogation' techniques, a document which to no one's astonishment does not redound to the honor of the agency. Saxby  Chambliss (R-Absurdistan), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee (I will not stoop to pick the low fruit in that phrase) is already whingeing that the report is biased, distorted and relies for its gobsmack on 'cherry picking.'  Nonetheless, urges the Hon. Senator, it should be released anyway so that 'the American people can make up their own minds.'

This last, of course, is the soapy sanctimony of cant. When Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld were huddling with John Yoo to refine the extralegal notion of enhanced interrogation, you can bet that neither Saxby nor any of his Congressional colleagues was informed of anything that could have helped them to 'make up their own minds.' Nor was that sacrosanct fiction, 'the American people,' ever asked what they thought at the time.

Saxby is no Pericles, but must political speech always be the sort of disingenuous drivel that only the viewers of 'Duck Dynasty' can hear without gagging?

To make matters more trying, I came across a magazine lying on my cocktail table, evidently left there by a soul of a more rarified bent than mine. It was a New Age-y literary/media/art photog production of unpredictable and irregular valence; on its inside cover, the various 'contributors' each supplied a brief precis of themselves, a thumbnail to help the subscribing public understand who they think they are and where they think they're 'coming from.' It was instructive and humbling.

The first one off the mark says that 'after years of having stumbled down long corridors of philosophical mystery, he has learned that spaghetti can make you happy." (This is from the  Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten school of hastily acquired wisdom, generally bleeding over into the glib smart-assery of the unschooled. It will surprise no one to learn that the first word of this author's contribution is 'I'.)

The next contributor notes that she 'recently married the woman she's essentially been married to for thirty years.' (Is being 'essentially married' different in some important respect from just being married - more authentic, more fun, less expensive? Is this merely self-congratulatory or will it contribute to our understanding of her written opus?)

Yet a third notes that his teenage son 'has recently discovered he's a spoken-word poet' whom you can watch on YouTube, depending on how much you figure your time is worth. (Which begs the question what sort of poet this prodigy may have been before his discovery that he was a 'spoken-word poet.' I presume it means that he just starts talking without writing anything down beforehand, which seems more an affliction of adolescence than an art form. This is what gives New Age-ism a bad name, this fudging of artistic categories - are there, for example, poets in farina, feces, pharmaceuticals or any other medium? News to old Miguel.)

A fourth (I'm merely taking these in order of appearance and they each in turn set a new standard of fey) is 'an adoptive parent to the monarch caterpillars that metamorphose into butterflies on his patio.' What more could one add to this coy neo-Romanticism?

"Think what you like, mate, you're not me dad!"
 
A fifth, 'along with every third person he meets, is working on a novel. His goal is to spend more time on writing than he does on fantasy baseball and the stock market.' (This seems to be one of those 'three-legged stool' financial plans that money advisers recommend so lushly. Consider the genius of it - a three-pronged scheme for financial success, every prong guaranteed to fail.)

There were more, but I was too exhausted to persist, feeling (as I was) the weight of my own prosaic drabness. Still, I felt grateful not to be a writer and so under no obligation to limn the trackless wastes of the 'I'. Any way you want to take it, the power of speech is at best a mixed blessing.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

4.3 Thursday (St. Bernard's Day)

A dog where it belongs

Periodically I stray from the palmy precincts of the chateau and go down among the neighboring peasantry to outrage it by complaining about its dogs. Nearly everyone owns at least one such animal, and they all, to a man or woman, regard it as a 'pet' rather than as a (more fashionably democratic) 'companion.' This may seem a fine point, but it has wider legal implications: a 'companion' is possessed of rights in its own person, viz., the right of uncontrolled and pointless barking; a 'pet' on the other hand is chattel, and as such has no rights, while its owner has the unconditional right to allow the animal to bark perpetually and without purpose. My complaints, then, are taken as an attempt to trammel a human right, not merely a right extended by courtesy or regard to another species.

So, as I say, I am forced by circumstance to shoulder unwillingly the mantle of civilization and totter out on a quixotian errand. My years of knight-errantry on this particular fool's errand have taught me that the sprawling cowtown in which I reside has loaded the dice against the man who would live in peace and solitude, and in favor of the flea-and-tick brigade. A man may file a noise complaint free of charge, so to speak, and the offending dog owner will receive a warning. Subsequent complaints require at least one witness resident at another address, or a video "ten minutes or longer" of the lathered and yapping animal. ("Ten minutes - seriously?" I asked, to which the official did not deign a reply.)

Now, a video of that length would require a camera which I have no wish to own, require the considerable directorial skills of a flea circus impresario, not to mention the stealth of a Navy SEAL, in the execution. But, as I have also discovered, it is by far the easier alternative; a willing witness is impossible to come by.

It should be obvious that a code of omerta is implicit among the dog owners of any neighborhood, a sort of 'golden rule' of complicity: I'll never complain about your yapper and you'll never complain of my barker. If any third party (like the old crank at the chateau) should raise a demur, we will unfailingly close ranks on the question though we may despise one another on nearly every other point of humanity. 


What is not immediately obvious is how far this understanding has reached its tentacles into the larger society. It has formed a network of unbroachable silence that extends even to those unencumbered in their own households by the canine thrall. It is, by now, an essential thread in the social fabric.

I had engaged the consent of a near neighbor (one whom I have considered a friend of many years) to witness my recent complaint of a party keeping a roisterous kennel in their backyard, just beneath the belvidere above the north lawn of the chateau. His curiosity invariably leads him, in some destructive, technology-enabled spiral, to the internet, where he discovers from the city assessor's database that the owner of the property in question is his next door neighbor, and that the tenant about whom I have complained is this man's near of kin.

Now, as the owner of the property himself keeps a pack of noisy dogs, he has been a longstanding source of irritation to my friend, who I will call Lorenzo. But Lorenzo has, for the past quarter-century, harbored dreams of refurbishing his residence to the point of putting some sheet rock over his naked wall joists and adding an outbuilding or two on the property, all of which would require him to get a building permit from the city. And getting a building permit would require him to notify all the neighbors within a stated perimeter and, should there be objections, submit to a public hearing of his petition.

In short, Lorenzo spied a possible snag in his plans, decided not to give any possible or imagined ground of offense to his dog-owning neighbor, and (even though Lorenzo himself has no dog) to join los canos nostros, and slink off in uncomplaining silence, withholding his testimony, offering neither aid nor succor. It is a tale older than time and sadder than humanity.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

3.26 Wednesday (St. Aeolus Day)

Have just driven along the scenic 'southern tier' of Kansas on my return to Colorado, through a maelstrom of March wind in a light rental car. Crosswinds at 50 mph bearing an allotment of Oklahoma topsoil in the upper air, in the lower aether the contents of countless farmsteads, including wheat chaff, cottonwood limbs, barn shingles, ductwork from a (ca.) 1901 Acme combine, a dead Angus calf, several cats, and a large rural mailbox replica of a John Deere 830.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

3.25 Tuesday (Martyrdom of SS. Euphonius & Euphonia)

I was reading aloud to my helpmeet a piece from a recent issue of the London Review of Books, a bit of social commentary titled "The Public Voice of Women," in which the authoress makes a cogent case that women have been historically silenced, in the Western tradition, in ways that are subtle or (more often) not so subtle. It all started when Homer had Penelope descend from her loom to the hall where the suitors were gathered, intent on showing them the door, whereupon her stripling son, Telemachus, sent her back to her weaving with clear instructions to leave household affairs, specifically mantalk, to him.

The premise of the piece is an old cartoon from the British satirical magazine, Punch, in which several men and a single woman are gathered about a conference table in a boardroom, the chairman saying, "That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.’"


The argument is about 'voice' in both its accepted uses. In the first place, "public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender." And secondly, "in speaking out, what are women said to be? ‘Strident’; they ‘whinge’ and they ‘whine’." Other accusations come to mind as well - hormonal, menopausal, or (in  stranger worlds like the one Rush Limbaugh inhabits) even a decayed virtue.

By contrast, consider "the ‘deep-voiced’ man with all the connotations of profundity that the simple word ‘deep’ brings. It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority. . . ."  It was this second point I fastened on, the part about the voice as sound. I remembered the mellifluous, deep voices of an older generation of newscasters, voices like those of, say, Edward R. Murrow, or Walter Cronkite or Eric Sevareid, the old stable of CBS broadcasters. The clear enunciation of Howard K. Smith, the dignified modulations of Huntley and Brinkley. When they spoke, the sounds they made lent credibility to everything they said.

Consider the current crop of announcers - take the lot on NPR, for example (many of whose names I don't know because I only hear the radio if I happen to walk through one of the rooms in the chateau) - I much prefer the sounds of the women's voices to those of the men. Lakshmi Singh, for example, could say that the Republicans had come up with a workable single payer mandated universal healthcare plan, or that the President had levied a fair tax on every U.S. corporation, and I'd believe her just because she'd said it  . . . you know, in that voice of hers.

I said as much to my wife, who promptly wondered what it was about the male voices in the broadcast trade. Well, I answered (in so many words), they all sound so effeminate. Think about what you just said, she shot back. I took her point - I couldn't in fairness say that I liked Lakshmi Singh's voice because it's manly. But she doesn't mince and take on mannerisms and wheeze - in short, she renders the feminine voice pleasant as well as authoritative.

No, take a guy like Scott Simon, I thought. Thin, the tone a bit wheezy, overly mannered. Enunciation a little precious, the general timbre of the voice not inviting extended exposure. And the males on the local NPR affiliate either lightly mince through their scripts about which-nonprofit-with-website-just-funded-the-following-program, or they talk as though they had just taken a mouthful of wet dough.

Generally, if a woman speaks like a woman and not a Valley girl, as admittedly many of them do, I can listen to her for hours. But when most of the men speak I want to take one of those wrapped sets of balsa wood restaurant chopsticks and poke them in the side of the head until they desist and leave the microphone. Which, I suppose is evidence enough that I could never own a radio. Or a gun - I wouldn't know what to do with it, nor would I if I did.