Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mission Aborted

The Tulsa World reports that parents Melissa and Tony Wescott want to return their . . . adopted son to state custody because they say he had severe behavioral problems . . .  including reactive detachment disorder, disruptive behavior disorder, major depressive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and fetal alcohol syndrome. DHS disclosure documents call the child "well-behaved" and "polite and well mannered." He is described as "respectful toward authority" and "makes friends easily."
                                     (from "The Responsibility Project," a blog of Liberty Mutual Insurance)

"I'm listening."

Your mommy and I need to have a word with you about your behavior. Well, about your future, really. Your future here . . . with us. You know . . . we need to talk to you about the three of us. About us . . . and you.

Daddy will admit, some . . . challenges have arisen since you came to stay with Mommy and Daddy. These first few months have been hectic for you. For all of us. For us, too. Frankly, at first we just considered it typical of new families trying to get their footing, find their rhythm . . .you see what we're saying? 

We think maybe it was Kitty's blood on the new shag in the living room that got us all started on the wrong foot.  Well, it made us think maybe we shouldn't have pets for a while. Until you felt at home with Mommy and Daddy. And then of course when Weenie Dog and Spotty both went missing in the same week, that made the decision a little easier. You haven't . . . never mind, we'll talk about that some other time.

Well, I hardly know how to begin . . . you help me out here, Mommy. I know Mommy was very upset about the trash can fire in your bedroom. Weren't you, Mommy? But if not for that, we would probably have never known about the matches and the charcoal lighter in your sock drawer. Or the knife. No, don't look like that . . . the one inside the magazine under your mattress. Where did you get that mag . . . maybe we could talk about that later.

Thinking back, Mommy and Daddy probably shouldn't have let you lock yourself in your bedroom on school days, but we knew how stressful other children can be. When you're the new little boy at school. Other children can be mean, Mommy and Daddy know that. No, we're not necessarily speaking about you. 

So we thought it was okay. For you to spend so much time in there. But we really did think you were just reading Wind in the Willows in there.  We thought, after your little friend Tommy was hit with that board, that it would be better if you stayed home for a while, anyway, until things settled down. We didn't think it would be fair to send you to school right away, even if you didn't do it. I mean really didn't. Which . . . which you didn't.

I think Mommy and I began to have our doubts when you emptied out the terrarium we bought for your birthday. We could see where the frogs hit the garage door. And you should have known that little froggies can't drink alcohol. Have you seen the turt . . . well, maybe we can talk about that some other time.

Mommy and Daddy didn't mind at first that you didn't talk. But now Mommy's not sleeping very well. Noises bother her at night . . . even little noises, like sounds of someone outside the house. Maybe just little animal noises outside the house. But maybe if you told us sometimes what you were think . . . well, just even if you said good morning to Mommy and Daddy, or good night sometimes. You don't have to talk. If you don't want to. Quiet children are nice, we like how quiet you are. Polite, Mommy says.

Mommy and Daddy think every little child should have a home. But not every little boy or little girl does well in a mommy-daddy type home. Maybe you don't want to be with Mommy and Daddy.  We didn't do this to you, you little b. . .  We didn't do this. This happened before us. Sometimes you seem . . . you act . . . seem older than they said you were. Eleven? So you'll be 12 your next birthday. . . right? Twelve? Well, well, you're getting to be a big boy.

Doctor Bill says that you'll probably feel the frostbite when it gets cold, even when you're grown up like Mommy and Daddy. But Christmas wasn't a good time to run away from home. Or New Year's Day, either - I think it was colder then than it was on Christmas, wasn't it Mommy? Well, let's just say, if you decided to run away again . . .Mommy and Daddy wouldn't stop you. Would we, Mommy?

God, Preinstalled

A recent book review in the Daily Beast reminded me of the one about the dyslexic insomniac agnostic existentialist (lies awake wondering whether Dog exists). The book, Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief (Justin Barrett), argues that humans are "hardwired" to believe in some version of divinity. Barrett takes issue with recent proponents of atheism such as Richard Dawkins, who maintains that religious belief is a matter of education, acculturation and indoctrination.

Children, explains the reviewer, "arrive in the world with a strong, cognitively driven propensity for religious belief 'preinstalled'." Leaving aside for now the curious and controversial notions of hardwiring and preinstallation, the idea has some merit - it goes a ways towards explaining the near universality and dogged persistence of religious belief, something Dawkins has never satisfactorily fit into his own views. If it's just a cultural habit, why is it so persistent? 

Barrett's argument is encapsulated in this story: One day, Anna, the 5-year-old daughter of two "proudly secular, well-educated urban Danes," asked if God had created the world. Her father carefully explained, "The world wasn’t created. It has always been here. A long, long time ago there was this big bang and suddenly everything just appeared." "God must have been surprised," she said.

In modern dress, Barrett's views revive the old doctrine of innate ideas, the notion that there's a universal furniture of the mind that gives humans a common conceptual framework - ideas of mathematics and logic, for example. State it in terms of modern cognitive science and it doesn't seem so farfetched. In fact, Immanuel Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) anticipated this explanation of religious belief. 

Kant thought of human cognition as an architectural capacity - the mind constructs the messy data of the senses into ordered perceptions that make sense to us and that in fact constitute the sensible world we experience from moment to moment. And one principal "category" or pattern we impose on sense data is that of cause and effect. If things suddenly appeared and disappeared, or happened without any discernible antecedents, we wouldn't have any experience because we'd lack the rules by which to order the data. We impose basic patterns on the welter of fleeting perceptions. Whether or not there really are such connections in the fabric of the universe, we require them, so we supply them. If we hear a voice in the dark speak intelligibly, we naturally assume another person present.

And so on, but not ad infinitum. Rationality makes us look for causes, and causes of those causes, but it also makes us shy from the rabbit hole of infinite causal regress. There must, we insist at some point, have been a first cause, the uncaused cause, the prime mover. The idea of God, Kant says, is "the resting place of reason" - to escape the rabbit hole we make the cognitive leap, unfounded in experience, that there must be a god, otherwise how could all of This have come about? Because we have this fundamental way of organizing our experience in causal sequences, we come to have the idea of God as the cause of causes. Ironically, it's the impetus to engage in scientific inquiry that is also one impetus to religious belief.

If that's all that it means for a way of thinking to be "hardwired," then it has some precedent and is a plausible way to interpret the notion. But I'm not sure just how systemic the idea of a god is in our thinking about the world. Certain fundamental notions, like "physical object" or "cause and effect" or "same and different" seem necessary to our way of perceiving a world of material objects in the way we all seem to do. But religious notions aren't like that - we don't all have them, or have them all of the time, like we all have the idea of a physical object all of the time - that's what we all see when we see the world around us. It needn't be that way, but it is. Whereas God comes and goes in our convictions and whether the conviction is there or not doesn't really affect our sensible experience of the world. The universe looks the same to the elect and the infidel alike.

I happen to think that belief in a god doesn't somehow make the physical world a richer, more mystical experience - quite the contrary, it diminishes the real complexity inherent in the material universe. But whether believing in God somehow enriches our sense of awe and wonder is really a matter for psychologists and seems to have little to do with brain circuits.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Summer in Kansas: Tour de Goathead

Spring has come early to western Kansas, as it has to much of the West - temperatures in the low 80s, gentle breezes at about 20 nautical miles per hour, gusting to 35. Nothing to keep an old man off the bicycle - quite the contrary. If you can't rack up elevation gains during the daily bout of cycling, wind resistance is the next best thing - if, that is, you can master the irritability that comes of riding section lines along sandy roads on a windy day.    

I don't actually reside in Kansas, but it's the wind out here that brings me down from the Colorado highlands and gives me my daily bread in this Martian landscape farther east. I'm spending my days in a field office, set among greening fields of winter wheat alternating with corn stubble, making daily forays on a mountain bike of venerable years and aspect just to keep my tone up and my native affability in some fettle. Not a bad life for a geezer, if like me you prefer solitude and the company of curlews to that of commissioners, counselors, clerics, counts, cardinals, carpenters, cornhuskers, contortionists, confidence men, costermongers, curates, commercial travellers and constables.

Long-billed Curlew (J.J. Audubon)
Rural Kansas does have its drawbacks. For one thing, the place is carpeted from one end to the other, town and country, with the dreaded Tribulus terrestris. In the spring the new plant is benign enough in aspect, if a bit stringy.

But "tribulus" is a dead giveaway. This is a branching, flowering, low-growing plant, one of the Ten Plagues of Egypt along with frogs, locusts, boils, hyperactive children, surveillance satellites, installment funerals and robocalls. Like the Evil One, its names are legion - bullhead, burra gokharu, caltrop, cat's head, devil's eyelashes, devil's thorn, devil's weed, goathead, puncturevine, tackweed. A caltrop is one of those three-legged pronged thingies that an unsuspecting enemy is intended to step on and be disabled from further combat, thus:

The Romans, who used them in antiquity, called them "tribuli," - hence the name of the plant. I've always known it as goathead, all the while acknowledging it as the Devil's own handiwork. The flowers give way to fruit . . .

 . . . which dries in the summer sun to an incorruptible, indestructible, everlasting, omnipresent hazard the size of a small pebble with the half-life of plutonium. The thorn never decays, never disintegrates, never entirely dissolves its substance into something organic and benign. It litters fields and farm tracks, piling up generation on generation; farm machinery drags it into roadways on its tires; the county road grader pulls it into roadways while grading the verges. The work of Satan is everywhere to be found, lying in wait, seeking the unwary whose bicycle tires it may devour.

Several weeks ago, on an unseasonably warm February day, I ventured out on my old bicycle across the rural landscape, found myself about seven miles from the field office at a dead end. The only reasonable course, short of simply backtracking the way I'd come, was a two-lane farm track that cut along a half-section to the next county road a mile to the north. I took the farm track and in a quarter-mile of careful riding both my tires were fuzzy with goatheads. 

I pulled one, heard a slow sussuration of escaping air, so I pulled the rest. It took me 15 minutes to clean both tires of them, by which time both tires were flat. Midway through the operation it dawned that my tire pump was still in the office. But the insides of the tire casings bristled with the broken ends of countless spines - even the tube I carried in my pocket would have been flat in a second. After a five-mile walk and within two miles of the office a school bus driver heading back to the bus garage finally gave me a lift.

Today's ride was uneventful. Even riding along a clean, packed dirt road, I picked up an occasional thorn. But I had taken care to replace my standard inner tubes with "Goo Tubes," tubes filled with some sort of green slimey polymer that immediately flows into a puncture. So far, so good. 

I was a scant mile from returning to my start point, thorn free, flat free, when I passed a final farmstead which I knew to be the residence of two charming little Mennonite sisters and a pair of  overly zealous and prosecutorial dogs. Sure enough, there were the sisters tearing across a field on a tiny red motorized four-wheeler, waving madly, long gowns aflutter. And there were the dogs, at a disadvantageous distance to be sure, but eager to close on me, which they promptly did to the futile remonstrances of their small mistresses. The larger dog was a bit lugubrious about the pursuit, not wishing to run quite so hard for his sport but spurred on by his partner in crime, a miniature schnauzer whose demeanor seemed considerably less . . . predictable. Summer is returning to Kansas.

Never asleep, never on a leash

Monday, March 26, 2012

Que Sera, Sera, or Don't Go Down the Rabbit Hole

Doris Day used to sing that song, Que Sera, Sera, which was enough to put me off prophesying since I first heard that overly sugared voice back in 1953 or thereabouts. More to the point, I have flatly eschewed prophecy, having previously remarked on the tenuous grasp human beings have on foreseeing their futures or bringing them to pass as envisioned. Harpers Magazine (Weekly Review, March 19, 2012) concurs, remarking that "Scottish psychologists, after failing to find evidence that humans could see into the future, urged their colleagues 'not to venture too far down the rabbit hole.' " The future presumably being "the rabbit hole" and attempts to peer into it the same as "venturing too far down it." Speaking of rabbits . . .

Enter Til, a rare earless rabbit born at a small zoo in eastern Germany:

 Til then

As Der Spiegel recently burbled, "The future had looked so bright for tiny Til, a baby rabbit born without ears three weeks ago in a small zoo in . . . eastern Germany. Earless rabbits are very rare, and that factor combined with his cuteness would surely have made him a media celebrity, especially in Germany, which has a history of worshipping furry baby animals."

Apparently peering into a rabbit's future is sending the poor rabbit down the rabbit hole - armer Til (poor Til) was crushed under a cameraman’s shoe shortly before a press conference scheduled in the rabbit’s honor. “We are all shocked,” said the zoo’s director, Uwe Dempewolf. “No one could have foreseen this.” Which comes as no surprise to Scottish psychologists, although that's exactly what the financial industry has said (quite disingenuously) ever since the Crash of 2008. But be that as it may.

Sic transint cuniculi mundi. Or, as Bugs Bunny put it so nicely, hare today, gone tomorrow.

Bonfire of the Inanities

Generally when we think of food on fire, we think of a standard method of cooking over a flame, which can often look like this . . .

. . . or, with a little help, like this . . . 

. . . which can turn into a serious problem, like this . . . 

 . . . and eventually burn the restaurant to the ground. Or the rims.

Happens all the time. A little too much cooking oil, and a simple household wok . . . 

. . . turns into Deepwater Horizon, the mother of all cooking oil fires:

Never put a fryolator on top of an oil well.

Some kinds of cooking require a flammable cooking medium, one reason restaurant fires are so frequent. Grocery stores, on the other hand, don't seem to burn that often. There isn't that much in them, apart from the building itself, that will catch fire. A cheese fire? Not likely. Ditto for baked beans, soup, ice cream, frozen lasagna, even salsa picante for that matter. Granted, something could start in the baking section and the flour could go up, but it doesn't seem like a major liability.

But perhaps it is, at that. The Des Moines Register reports that a Waterloo teenager was arrested on first degree arson charges when a Walgreens clerk found a smouldering bag of beef jerky and blew it out. In a creative moment the adventurous lad had stolen a lighter, lit the jerky and exited the premises while being recorded on a security camera. The article makes no comment on the more egregious commercial malfeasance of  making (and selling) food that is flammable.  

When an act is so clearly deliberate, it also begs the question whether it was intelligent. Seems as though burning jerky, since it will burn, is not the dumbest thing in the world to do. It's clearly safer than eating it.

In another recent kids-playing-with-fire story, Reuters reports that "Smoking Slovak Children Burn Down Castle." Two local boys, aged 11 and 12, attempting to light a cigarette with safety matches, set fire to grass at the base of Krasna Horka, a 14th-century castle in eastern Slovakia, which in turn set the castle afire. "The castle's roof burned down completely, as well as the . . . bell tower. Three bells melted," the museum associated with the castle reported. 

So two preadolescent children have inadvertently accomplished what entire armies of Mongols, Cossacks, marauding Ottoman Turks, vengeful Hungarians, persistent Rumanians and any number of tourists over the centuries had failed to do - breach the castle. Like I've always said, it takes a village to raise a child, and just a child (returning the favor) to raze a village.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Frontiers of Sex: Skyping With a Rubber Glove

The Republican Party has its hands full this year, figuring out how best to regulate our personal freedoms in matters of private conduct. The fight to end abortion is going slowly, though the procedure is now nearly impossible to obtain, if not quite illegal, in several states. They have started a near revolution among estrogen-crazed women demanding that contraceptives be paid for by their employers' insurance plans. "Personhood" bills in several states are creating numberless new Americans with each legislative vote. But just when the Party of Small Government should be enjoying its accomplishments in regulating the nation's sexual conduct according to the highest standards of the Papal Curia, technology throws a fast curve ball.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, an electronics company named RealTouch unveiled an interactive, Internet-linked sexual device, a "synthetic orifice that lives in a plastic tube and connects to a computer. Based on data from an Internet connection, the unit warms up, lubes up, pulses and grips any item stuck into it. On the other end of a connection, a 'performer' — who could be a paid 'cam girl," or [even] a military wife — hand-operates a sensor-covered rod to run the motors in the RealTouch." The company considers this device the latest in "teledildonics," the science of remote-controlled sex. If, of course, that's the "item" one chooses to stick into it. 

Teledildonics, then, is like skyping while wearing rubber gloves. Here's the nice lady, Kristen, who performed the dildo demo (on proffered fingers) at the Las Vegas event:

"I'm really a model."

While the core market for the RealTouch unit has thus far been men who use it to enhance their Internet porn experience, the manufacturer sees the toy as having real social benefits for the spouses of deployed soldiers - the home-bound wife can keep the rod and spoil the overseas spouse, or (in the case of a woman deployed abroad) the distant husband gets the slave unit while the wife keeps the master (rod) unit. In either case, the beneficiary of the device seems to be the male, which means that in strict terms it's not a dildo, though the dildo's counterpart has never been given a proper name (presumably because so many different sorts of things have historically served the same purpose).

Here is a CAD drawing of an engineer's concept for one possible configuration of a teledildonic device:

Apart from the clear social benefits of the RealTouch unit, the thornier issues are ones governing social and political policy vis-a-vis the device. Most obviously, how can the Party of Small Government insure that the device is a) issued only to legally married couples, and b) cannot fall into the hands of same-sex couples, married or unmarried? And, of course, the concomitant question, whether a person who uses the device to polish their nails is using it in a way that is "natural."

Aside from all of that are the more ticklish questions raised by the need to clean the device after use. The obvious method would be to rinse it under a stream of clear tap water and forget about it until the next use. But as simple as this solution may sound, in the current legal climate it is effectually flushing down the drain the lives of uncounted tiny Americans who will have never had the opportunity to sing "God Bless America," or be issued a concealed carry permit.

Whose freedoms do we really want to preserve as a nation - a gang of libertines who probably shoplift their contraceptive supplies anyway? or a potential nation of zygotes who are in effect patriots in waiting? Just look at that little face.

"I'm a zygote, and I vote."

Update (September 23, 2012): See also Kissenger

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Last Dictator (Who Is Not Gay)

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko addressed an accusation by Germany’s foreign minister that he was “Europe’s last dictator.” “Better to be a dictator than gay,” said Lukashenko.
                                                       -   Harper’s Magazine, “Findings,” March 12, 2012

I am Lukashenko. As you see, good looking fellow but not gay. Distinguished yes I would say. My faggot detractors in Washington and the rest of Europe call me last European dictator. And what is wrong with that, I am asking? Because I am not gay dictator, after all. I am as you can see simple dictator, man of ordinary tastes. Not like those European pansies.

I don't have nothing against the gay people. I just don't like very much. Not being gay myself, you understand. Especially that little German poofter, Westerwelle or whatever her name is. Sure, maybe I'm last dictator. Like he says. It's his problemski. Being dictator is being l'uomo premiero, top dog. Which means I'm a real guy. Not the only real guy in Belarus, because we don't have no gays I'm aware of here. Just the realest of the real guys. You see any gays here you let me know. Lukashenko.

Being dictator of course is of my own choosing. I make all decisions needing to make. Which means I'm not gay because the gays, they don't make no decisions. They just are whatever they happen to be, is can't help it. They say this. Whine, whine. So me, I decide I'm a dictator and look what. I'm a dictator. How can I be gay? Lukashenko is how you say straight shifter . . .  shooter.

You know, I like these dictator work. Best thing, dictators get to dress up. I always like Gadaffi's style may he rest in peace. That guy he knew how to dress up. Heels I'm not sure but dictator outfit was top shelf. Maybe the sunglasses a little gay but Lukashenko can fix.

And that Saddam what a guy. That guy knew how to decorate palace. Humble guy dictator like me, I could live well in one of Saddam's bathrooms. Is classy even for Belarus. Except little pump soaps is a little gay maybe.

Saddam, that guy knew a thing about lighting. In Belarus we have just overhead 10-watt fluorescent - no atmosphere to speak of, all the time snepp-crekkle-pop! No, give me a good chandellyair any day, like at chez Saddam. May he rest in peace.

Good thing about being dictator is motorcades. Better than taking walk. I can buy big American black sedan, then I give driver job to brother-in-law of late party opponent, and go out for driving with butch gang of motorcycle police. You thinking that's not gay, right? I think maybe you are beginning to understand Lukashenko.

No, I am last of European dictators.You don't find this guy out swanking around standing funny waving long silly hands in air like nancy piano player.

Not me Bub. I'm plan to keep on dictating, age gracefully looking great like Ricardo Montalban. Is he, right? Or is that Shah of Iran, not gay may he rest in peace?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Suicide Soccer, Texas Style

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported (and subsequently editorialized on it) that the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (Tapps), an association that regulates sports events among private, mainly Christian schools in the state, refused membership to Iman Academy SW, an Islamic school in Houston that sought membership to the organization in 2010. Basically, a group of high school kids, who also happened to be Muslim, wanted to play soccer and were refused.

They were refused on the basis of the school's answers to a questionnaire. Apparently, Tapps had learned its lesson the hard way - the association had already drawn national attention earlier in March when it refused to reschedule a state semifinal boys basketball game for an Orthodox Jewish day school, which could not play at the scheduled time because its players observe the Sabbath. Under legal pressure, Tapps rescheduled the game for Friday afternoon. The Orthodox school, Robert M. Beren Academy, defeated the Covenant School 58-46 to advance to the state title game later in the week. So much for turning the other cheek.

The young ingrates of the Beren Academy basketball team

Now, what sort of questions would a reasonable person expect to find in a questionnaire designed to canvass the suitability of a school's athletic program for membership in an athletic association? First off, the presumption is that a school applying to a consortium of private schools will be a private school. 

But beyond that, there are things the association might want to know about a prospective new member: how many students in your school's athletic programs? proportion of male to female athletes? segregated or coeducational teams? proportion of the school budget dedicated to sports programs? These are the sorts of questions which seem reasonable to ask and which didn't seem to get asked. Rather the questionnaire, according to the Times article, included these questions:
  • Historically, there is nothing in the Koran that fully embraces Christianity or Judaism in the way a Christian and/or a Jew understands his religion. Why, then, are you interested in joining an association whose basic beliefs your religion condemns?
  • It is our understanding that the Koran tells you not to mix with (and even eliminate) the infidels. Christians and Jews fall into that category. Why do you wish to join an organization whose membership is in disagreement with your religious beliefs?
  • How does your school address certain Christian concepts? (i.e. celebrating Christmas) 
  • What is your attitude about the spread of Islam in America? What are the goals of your school in this regard? 
None of it was at all about the game, nor about the students involved. “We didn’t see how it had anything to do with Tapps or our kids and sports,” noted an administrator of Iman Academy SW. But the questions do reveal a mind, of sorts, at work here - a fearful, timid, hand-wringing mentality conjuring up a set of questions that could not possibly be answered to a private satisfaction unencumbered by notions of fairness or any transparent standards of inclusion. There were other, more honest questions the Tapps geniuses may have well asked, ones beginning in theological confusion, working through denial, suspicion, anger and all the typical stages of true religious bigotry. For example, how about this questionnaire?

Theological confusion: Our Bible commands that you should love your enemy as yourself. We are your enemy. According to the Bible (our Bible) we are permitted to hate evil and shun evildoers. We hate you. Why can't you even like us?  
Wishing they would just go away: You do realize, of course, that many of the balls sanctioned for use in Tapps sporting events are made of pigskin? Feeling as you do about pigs in general, would you really want to play with something made from the skin of an animal you regard as unclean?
Fear and suspicion: Would you willingly allow one of your players to blow himself or herself up on the playing field if you thought by doing so your team would win the game? 
Trick question: True Christians believe that Israel is the promised land of the Jewish people and that the world can only end in Jesus's triumphal return when their land is restored to them and they all reside in it and not in Texas. You do not believe that the Jews have any claim to Israel. How do you intend to resolve this so that Texas can be free of Jewish influences and can welcome the Second Coming and the Judgment? 
Sanctimonious defensiveness: The Bible says, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19) Both the Bible and the Constitution make it very clear that this is a worthy and laudable enterprise, not to be compared with the intentions of the Islamic tradition. Knowing this, how could anyone possibly interpret Christianity as seeking "world domination"? 

     Texas Jesus

    Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    The Land of Moab

    And the Lord God raised up a mighty host of tourists, and caused them in their numbers to depart into the land of Moab and to sojourn there in the land of the Moabites. And I was among them, and I went among them and sojourned there with them in the land of Moab a full two days, and rode my bicycle in the midst of the Moabites. And the hearts of the Moabites were gladdened and the Lord God did not smite them, neither did He smite their firstborn nor their cattle, nor did He lay waste their gold and silver. And the Moabites prospered and were glad.

    The Land of Moab

    It was a charity bicycle ride that brought me to the Beehive State over the weekend. If you remember the "Nicknames of States" category from your 1972 edition of Trivial Pursuit (what state is known as the Empire State? the Keystone State? the Lethal Injection State?), you'll recall that the state symbol of Utah is the beehive, memorializing the industriousness and social cohesion of Brigham Young's followers to the Mormon state of Deseret. The Mormons being the very devils of irony, they chose the beehive, a polyandrous matriarchy, to symbolize their polygamous patriarchy. It's a terminal form of sociosexual dyslexia. Or something.

    Be that as it may, I went cycling in Moab with four friends who, had God and Brigham Young not already seen to matters, could have turned a wilderness into the land of milk and honey. But as with any wonderful time, I took it as an opportunity for a bit of self-reflection. In the midst of these heady exertions, in the midst of a gorgeous landscape, I felt an odd sense of . . . well, of oddness. Of looking at my situation at a distance and finding a thread of weirdness in its warp and weft, if you see what I mean.

    Let me be more specific. There are certain pursuits which I enjoy, until I realize that I am in a large group of people who are enjoying the very thing which I generally prefer to enjoy either in solitude or in a more select group. And large groups of people doing the same thing fervently impart the unmistakeable veneer of strangeness to whatever it is they're all doing in a group.

    One example that springs to mind is that rather peculiar activity called "birding." I enjoy being at one with nature, alone, binoculars in hand, spotting various sorts of chats and gnatcatchers, tits and titmice, goatsuckers and sapsuckers. I can freely whisper odd little descriptors in my own inner sanctum - green-tailed or yellow-breasted, yellow-bellied or sulphur-bellied, and so on - so long, that is, as no one else hears me say them. 

    But when I find myself, as I have on occasion, doing this in a pack of people laden with exotic optical equipment, cameras with lenses as long as an elephant's dong, with assorted books, pamphlets, sesame-based snack foods, plaid bermuda shorts or overstuffed Dockers, raptly whispering the same things to one another, then I must draw the line and betake myself to another quarter of the great outdoors. I am embarrassed for myself and for them.

    "En fin, madam, have you no decency?"

    On one such occasion I was out with a wildlife biologist doing environmental due diligence -  looking for prairie chicken leks at the site of a proposed wind farm. We were alone on the predawn prairie in a chill April wind, creeping about in the dark, listening intently for a telltale booming, when the biologist whispered, "I just heard a Sprague's pipit!" Bless his heart, thought I. The ministering angel blushed for the poor chap's dignity.

    And so it is when I find myself in a large group of cyclists, many of whom are at least my age, bulge and sag in roughly the same places, wear a similar disarray of stretched and worn stretchy fabric, depend on vigorously strong eyeglasses not to lose their way, and in general wear all the fool's motley of the senior citizen. This is not universally the case. But charity rides seem to attract an outsized representation of the types I have just described. In a perverse moment, I took photos of un petit dejeuner au canyon.

    In the first place, the median age of the charity-ride bicycle culture is well into the Medicare-eligible range. I include myself in this category. So our clothes don't fit, we're too cheap or too indigent to buy new ones, which also wouldn't fit, and as a consequence we're always losing something down our backside.

    (Lost an entire set of bicycle tools)

    Since many of us no longer have very much hair beneath the abstracted phrenology of the bicycle helmet, and what hair remains in situ is an attenuated feathery gray halo, we affect exotic and outrageous headgear much like the pirates of the Caribbean or the Somali Coast.

    In fact, there are evidently no bounds to the fashions we are willing to sport while in cycling mode - clothing we frankly wouldn't be buried in or bequeath. Jerseys purchased at other charity rides seem to be in favor, a way of counting coup for all the 65-milers you've suffered in the heat and cold and chalked up as a "metric century" (which is only 65 miles, no matter what you call it.)

    (Jersey from the Retired Clowns for Abstract Expressionism Century)

    This soul looked so forlorn that I simply borrowed an iPhone from my friend Bobbie and dialed 911.

    Still, there I was, telling myself that I was among them but not of them. Whatever works, I suppose - I was there, nonetheless. The collar helps me keep my head high enough to see over the bars. And you'll note I never cycle without my little helmet. In case I should hit my head and forget what I was doing.

     Miguel "Le Cycliste"

    Wednesday, March 7, 2012

    The Groom Wore Fur

    My sources at Harper's Magazine inform me that "A family of Ugandan mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) groomed an American in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest." It seems quite a gentle moment between the gorillas and the tourist:

    As you can see from his photo, the fellow did not appear to be in pressing need of such supererogatory grooming, looking much like any American tourist abroad and frankly better than most . . . 

    . . . so I can only surmise that the act was an aesthetic or stylistic comment on the part of the gorillas. When it was over, the grateful subject emerged with a new look:

    After the gorillas departed the encampment, the tourist explained, "When a 900-lb. gorilla decides his kids are going to groom you, then you pretty much have to go with his sense of what suits."

    Monday, March 5, 2012

    A Myth Is As Good As a Mile

    I'll admit I've never quite gotten the Mormon religion. It's always seemed a fanciful tale - too intermingled with patriotism (Jesus visits the New World); too mired in a capitalist ethic (God rewards the individual mercantile efforts of the faithful hedge fund manager); too fiscally Neanderthal (the gold standard? really?).

    The Book of Mormon is itself a curious exercise in bombastic prosody, the mock-heroic Old Testament English which was already threadbare by the mid-nineteenth century. The Lord of Hosts was busy "raising up in the land" this or that, slaying the hosts of Amelekites and Moabites and Hittites and Ammonites while his people busily begat Niphor who begat Zildad who begat . . . and so on. The Mormon faith made an immigrant of Jesus, back in the days before that was just another four-letter word like "contraceptive." The American cast includes the Twelve Lost Tribes of Israel wandering endlessly in the desert around Salt Lake City. And, like the Mosaic Law written on the stone tablets, the golden tablets from the angel Moroni were also irretrievably and conveniently misplaced.


    Never quite gotten it, that is, until the other day when I discovered quite by happenstance that the Mormon Garden of Eden is somewhere in the United States, somewhere more precisely near Independence, Missouri. And Adam-ondi-Ahman, on the eastern bluffs of the Grand River near Gallatin, is the historic site to which the first couple fled after the expulsion from their original digs. The story is that Joseph Smith, upon being shown the vista from the heights over the river, declared that it must have been where Adam and Eve spent a paradisiacal nonage. The presence of some flat rocks cinched it for him; they were clearly not just places for porcupines to piss, but the actual altars used by Adam in the first burnt offerings to the Ancient of Days.

    From this Arcadian spot the Grand River meanders southeastward to join the Missouri River just south of Brunswick, the Missouri eventually merging with the Mississippi River at St. Louis. So no matter how you look at it, Missouri is the cradle of humanity. If you've ever had a flat tire anywhere in Missouri, or tried to find a theater that shows Bergman films, this may not come as any great comfort. But the geography is important because the great American river system was the conduit by which the descendants of Adam went forth and subdued the earth. And that may explain a good deal about the Iranians and the North Koreans.

    This may fly in the face of received anthropological wisdom: what, you may ask, are all those stacks of hominid bones littering the East African Rift Valley? what about Lucy, and homo erectus and australopithecus and all the rest? This story, an American Eden, also contravenes the usual picture of the hominid invasion of North America from the west over the Bering land passage.

    "Naw, we walked over - came in through Seattle."

    Further supporting a theory of trans-Pacific migration, early Clovis cultures have been discovered far into Mexico and Central America, and eastward as far as South Carolina, which should come as no surprise since South Carolina is still, in the main, a functioning Clovis culture.

    Even omitting the Koran from this mix, the Lord of Hosts, it would seem, has written almost as many books as P.G. Wodehouse. Fortunately for the tale, neither the Book of Mormon nor the Old Testament are geo-referenced, so it could all, with equal plausibility, have started in Missouri or in Mesopotamia, all flowed outwards down the Missouri and Mississippi, or down the Tigris and Euphrates. Who could decide the question? When it comes to subduing the earth, one river is as good as the next. And a myth is as good as a mile.

    Friday, March 2, 2012

    The Rapture Is Not Today (Update)

    It's no longer worthy of comment when Jesus turns up on a tortilla, Lent having settled upon the land and things apparently being slow even down in New Mexico. Here's the latest apparition of El Salvador en las Tortillas:

    "David Sandoval of Espanola, [NM] said he was shocked to discover the face of Jesus on his food, but he has always been a believer in Christianity." Even more so now - after all, seeing what you want to is believing what you want to. Apparently Jesus was the only person in the world ever to have a beard and an air of general unkemptness. The scriptures tell us that he was not comely to look upon, and there's nothing quite so unprepossessing in aspect as your average tortilla, but I'm guessing that's about as far as you can take that.

    So it's understandable that I might be suspicious about the ease and frequency with which this occurs anymore, having already commented on the phenomenon before now. It raises certain questions in the skeptical mind. 

    For starters, why does the the face of Grover Norquist never appear on a tortilla? Or more to the point, the Prophet Mohammed never appears on a pita. It doesn't suffice to cite theological considerations - the Islamic proscription against depictions of the Prophet - since a pita doesn't know a fatwa from finnan haddie. Contrariwise, it's only natural that Jesus' portrait would pop up in the dough now and then, the Christian tradition filled as it is with Christ's portraiture, whether a 17th-century Flemish Christ all pastey white and sulky . . .

    . . . or a well-coiffed, blue-eyed emblem of sound American enterprise:

    Granted, the Islamic tradition was never rent like Christendom by warring factions of Transubstantiationists versus Consubstantiationists, trying the question whether mere bread can become flesh in essentia or only stand in for it by an act of divine allowance. Whatever side one might embrace on that thorny issue, it can't escape notice that the guy on the tortilla doesn't really resemble most common depictions of the Savior. In fact, Tortilla Jesus more closely channels the dementia of Dennis Miller . . .

    . . . or the sangfroid of the World's Most Interesting Man . . .

    . . . than he resembles Christos Pancrator or Salvator Mundi. Maybe it's just some crazy Jewish guy who keeps turning up on Mexican baked goods, sent to tempt the faithful and ensnare the credulous in the Allen Ginsburg Cafe of Disembodied Foodstuffs. . . 

    After all, you don't have to love Jesus to love Mexican food. But for all we know, it's not even a man.

     Nice girls have beards sometimes.

    Come to that, it could be my own alter ego whose benign countenance flits across a flat expanse of comestible every now and again in some specially blest oven when the planets are aligned and the stars are favorable. In other words, the Face on the Tortilla really is the World's Most Interesting Man.That being the case, the Rapture is not today.

    Update: (May 31, 2012) - A family in Splendora, TX claims they have a holy vision inside their home, an image of Jesus created by mold in a bathroom. Read all about it.