Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fallen and I Can't Get Up

Though still of an age in which I have some remaining gristle, with energy enough to continue earning a living with aplomb, good grace and a placid countenance, I am also at the awkward age when the prospect of retirement looms daily larger. If my superannuation is the consequence of sudden delirium, glaze-eyed dementia, a quick enfeeblement or some similar concomitant of geezerhood, then so much the better. Time will not weigh heavily on the head that can't remember what it looks like.

On the other hand, retiring from the weekly round while still of a clear mind and with a modicum of soundness brings with it the awful responsibility of staying out of everyone else's way and improving the abrupt windfall of free time. What, short of getting rousted for falling asleep on park benches, does a person foundering in these straits do to stay out of trouble? Many elderly folk fill their days as volunteers in their churches, synagogues or mosques . . .

"So you thought we paid him to do this?"

 . . . though lacking such affiliation and preferring a serviceable skepticism, that may not be the best avenue for my own energies. Still, a person can only flyfish so much. I've never liked board games nor card games, so that leaves out poker and bridge (doubly so, since I don't own a handgun); it also leaves out backgammon, mah jongg, and daily chess matches with grizzled confreres in bird-fouled public parks.

Speaking of birds, it has also been cautiously floated that I spend my dotage adding to my "life list," the ornithological simulacrum of the male member, every "birder" judged according to its length. This list is compiled in competition intensified by the absence of anything whatsoever at stake excepting great expense; it requires expensive travel at inopportune seasons in weirdly practical clothing (insect-and-water-repellent outerwear, high-tech GPS-enabled pants that convert to shorts, mesh sun hats with NASA-approved foil sun shields in the crown), expensive and cumbersome optical equipment, an autistic attention to the minutiae of plumage, behavior, habitat, range, and seasonal happenstance. 

Birding requires one to converse with otherwise presumably reasonable adults in the quasi-poetic language of avian nomenclature while also mentioning the cost of getting to where you watched the unoffending creature, the manufacturer of the optical device through which it was watched (Swarovski always trumping Nikon, which in turn trumps Bushnell), the length of your list of watchees, and your preferred haberdasher (Patagonia  trumps Dickey work clothes).

There was a time, I suppose, when I might have ridden my bicycle in large groups over long distances for charity, but I have already discussed that elsewhere. Besides having many of the same drawbacks as birding (see above), I am nearly at an age to be the beneficiary of such rides more than a participant.

Typical charity ride participant

I've known people to stave off the boredom of retirement by taking up school bus driving, but for my money, that's asking for trouble. Things tend to get a bit frisky among the younger set - get yourself crossways with just one of them and you might as well kiss your driver's seat and what was in it goodbye.

No, I've given this some thought. I need a hobby. Preferably one that will give me moderate exercise, allow me to wear my old clothes, and won't require me to interact particularly nicely with anyone. Paintball comes to mind, but once again, just too much expensive equipment involved.

Going off in the camper also has its drawbacks. You might end up camping next to someone you'd never in a million years have anything to do with. And at $4 per gallon, the leisurely life can be very expensive. But I guess with a little foresight and enough distance, it could be managed.
"I've fallen and I can't get up."

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Great Bores of the Modern Age: Steve King (R-IA)

According to Cicero, the Hyrcanians thought that the best method of burial was to be torn to pieces by their dogs, and kept them especially for this purpose.  
                                                    Lucretius, “De Rerum Natura,” Bk. 3 (translator’s footnote)

Whenever they meet with a happy end, the dead of the Hyrcanians are devoured by their dogs . . . according to custom.
                                                    -  Plutarch, "Moralia," 499D

Back in 2006, showing fellow House members his idea for a border fence by actually erecting a model fence for them as he spoke (just in case you thought that our august House members were beyond third-grade show-and-tell), Iowa Republican Steve King suggested that "We could also electrify this wire with the kind of current that would not kill somebody, but it would simply be a discouragement for them to be fooling around with it. We do that with livestock all the time."

Border crossing, Cochita, NM

Yesterday King told a town hall meeting in his district that immigrants should be admitted to Iowa's storm-toss't shores on a (his words) “pick of the litter” model: "You want a good bird dog? You want one that’s going to be aggressive? Pick the one that’s the friskiest … not the one that’s over there sleeping in the corner.”

Bad dog

The good dog, in King's social Darwinist view, would be one who could contribute significantly, not to society at large but to King's reelection super-PAC. That would probably be any one of the drug lords who, on the Congressman's short-term-profits view, are the most productive members of Mexican society. But never mind why anyone from Iowa would be worrying about the national borders, and politics aside, King has sagely tapped into that mysterious animal-human bond we all sense when in the presence of "the Other" . . .

. . . well, I meant animals, like when you encounter a bear in the woods or a lizard in the laundry basket or a weasel in Congress, those almost mystical encounters with another world, another mode of consciousness. Frankly, it isn't like a Republican to hold this apparently New-Agey sensibility about our place in the natural world, but at this age Miguel has learned to enjoy his little ironies where he finds them.

Americans love animals - not the kind that could eat you if you wandered off the national wilderness trail, nor even the kind you can eat (although who doesn't love veal?). No, I mean like dogs and cats and ferrets - companion animals. We've introduced them into our homes and our hearts and our national culture, but in a restrained way. We still control them, at least to the extent that we don't allow them to take our faces off or chew the tires down to the rims or strip the ornamental foliage in front of the house.

But modern animal lovers can't hold a candle to the devotion the ancients showed their pets. I think the Hyrcanians loved their dogs more than do we moderns, in much the way that Steve King seems to love his Iowa bird dogs inasmuch as they differ from immigrants. I'm guessing they'll all be at his funeral (his dogs, I mean) when the time arrives, if not to eat then at least to mourn. But when it comes to love, dogs is one thing, as he'd doubtless tell you, and livestock quite another. I'm sure he means no disrespect to livestock - you don't have to love them to respect them.

(Here's the Congressman waxing sentimental about immigrants - or dogs, it's hard to tell which.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Cotopaxi Burger

Along the headwaters, downtown Cotopaxi
I took a few days last week and stole away to improve the time at some of my favorite fishing spots in the Arkansas River canyon above Parkdale, Colorado. (I've mentioned this propensity before - here, here, and here in case you missed it). 

Like all the anglers wading the river and not floating it, I am bound to drive along the highway in my pickup truck from one spot to the next, pulling off and parking as any particular stretch of river looks either promising of fish, scenic but not very promising, vacant but not very promising, or just enough out of the way for a nap. Flyfishing for trout, as the discerning reader will gather from the experimental method just outlined, is a stern and unforgiving science.

As the angler is apt to be thinking of fish with the steadfastness of mental aberration, fish is the last thing he wants to eat when the time comes. At the thought of food, a trout sandwich just then is neither very appealing nor a particularly iconic American repast, like, say, a grilled cheese sandwich or a hamburger might be. 

One stop I always make, a sort of culinary pilgrimage, is the Cotopaxi Store. Cotopaxi is a real place of sorts, a few houses and a few trailers over the two-lane bridge across the river, but essentially and most importantly it is the Cotopaxi Store on Highway 50, which runs through the canyon along the river and separates the business section of Cotopaxi from the river and the residential enclaves across the road by a space of 50 yards or less. It's the only place along a 75-mile stretch of Highway 50 where you can buy gas if you happen to need it. It's also the only place along roughly the same stretch where you can get anything to eat. It is, in a word, the cultural center of the river between Caňon City and Salida, its own little universe.

The store is one of those seedier establishments in which the old linoleum floor has worn away down to the floorboards. Near the counter by the door are the usual racks of potato chips, popcorn, energy bars and (behind the counter) cigarettes, cans of Copenhagen and lottery tickets. In the backroom, beside the usual shelves of essential canned foods and the restaurant booths along the wall, there is an old glass butcher's case as high as your chin, polished with use, where a lonely salami or two (and never much else) shoal together. 

And behind this glass and steel case is the heart of Cotopaxi, the cultural magnet - a five-by-four-foot steel grill, the old classic diner grill with the gas burners underneath, a grill that has seen more meat in its time than Abe Minsky in the heyday of burlesque (which doesn't mean that the "veggie burger" on the menu isn't just as healthy as the Whole Foods version). Between the grill and the fryolator, the ladies can cook you anything you want, as long as it's a burger (ham-, cheese- or veggie) and fries. (The fries are always that pale golden color only attained by potatoes that have been reconstituted, lovingly extruded and promptly frozen.)

You never know what or whom you might encounter in Cotopaxi. Refreshing myself a few years back at one of the store's picnic tables (strategically placed in the traffic fumes along the highway), a chap in old jeans and a pony-tail rolled into the gas island on a Harley Davidson. Memories of boyhood - I recognized it as the real thing, not the badass shiny "retro" jobs everyone rides on weekends away from managing hedge funds or cadging commercial property leases, but a real dinosaur with the reverberation to settle its mettle. The fellow had bought the whole thing pieced out in bushel baskets and grocery bags in a neighbor's garage and basement, reassembled it, found a vintage saddle to replace the only missing part, and had himself a genuine1946 Harley (pictured below). As it happens, the bike and I are the same age.

 The Motorcycle Itself

But I was speaking of the hamburger, which is by now an American icon; the hamburger served at the Cotopaxi Store is the essential hambuger. Cotopaxi, whatever it may have meant in pre-Columbian parlance, means "hamburger" so far as I'm concerned. I should make it clear that the Cotopaxi hamburger is a hamburger and not a burger, the latter being what you go to places like McDonalds to buy. Having said that, I also add that the Cotopaxi version is not a very prepossessing comestible in the main. It is not a thing to draw the eye or whet the palate until, by long association and exposure, the Pavlovian machinery works its spell.

But starting from the outside, the bun is the standard issue hamburger bun found at church dinners, volunteer fire department smokers, or any festivity held in a basement. It is the usual spongey model in the pale-beige-to-tan spectrum. The single lettuce leaf is generally wilted, a minor disadvantage offset by a generous slab of onion and tomato. The meat is clear of gristle, grilled to that carbonized perfection known in Texas as "wail done," approximating the color and texture of the work shoes worn in Rumanian factories.

It is American food at its best, and like New Mexican wine, Peruvian music or Estonian pizza, best consumed in the romance of the moment right where it's produced. Such things never travel well.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mahler's 'Resurrection'

A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything. - Gustav Mahler

The local symphony orchestra gave a creditable performance last evening of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony No. 2. I mention this because the orchestra recently retired its past conductor, a serviceable older gentleman whose idea of an edgy cultural evening was a performance of Gustav Holtz's "The Planets" followed by a brisk medley of Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes. To his credit, the new musical director has decided to attempt some more ambitious works on the petit bourgeoisie of this Front Range backwater.

In any case, the Resurrection Symphony isn't about any particular raising from the dead nor even parking lot sightings of anyone famous. Rather it's Mahler in a philosophical vein exploring questions of life and immortality. Mahler, who once remarked that "Behind me the branches of a wasted and sterile existence are cracking," evidently liked to take up such heady existential material, not necessarily coming to any triumphal conclusions.

Resurrection or reenactment?

To be fully and properly developed, such questions generally require a room full of college sophomores and a keg of beer. Moreover, as Nietzsche remarks somewhere, "German music is full of beer," which goes some way towards endorsing it as a philosophical medium. Mahler is certainly full of beer - not as in "biergarten oompah-pah," but full of beer as in "crashing through the plate glass door in your white tie." 

One look at the orchestra and you could have guessed it was going to be Mahler and the plate glass door: ranged around the edges of the full orchestra was enough brass hardware to open a Turkish import shop - cymbals the size of Packard hubcaps; a pair of large gongs, one I'd guess about a 32-incher, the other about a 40-incher; triangles, xylophone, a brace of harps.

The brass section

Stage directions for the percussion section list, among assorted other hardware, enough wood, hide and additional metal for a real barnburner:
     timpani (two players, eight timpani, a third player using two of the drums in the final movement)
     several snare drums
     bass drum
     three deep, untuned steel rods or bells
     offstage percussion (in Movement 5): bass drum with cymbals attached, triangle, timpano

At the appointed time, I settled into my seat in the upper balcony amid a busload of tuberculars, asthmatics and assorted spasmodics, several of whom exited across my legs when the realization dawned that this wasn't the Easter pageant they anticipated. (How so many respiratory invalids can scale that many flights of stairs into the upper reaches of our performance spaces is one of the great mysteries of our cultural lives.)

The balcony crowd waiting for Mahler's "Resurrection"

Years ago, some kind friend gave me an instructive precis of Mahler's musical style: "You have to wait," he explained, "through what seems like hours of noise and bombast to get a minute or two of an exquisite melody."  True to form, the music commenced with the sharp roll of timpani, wove its way through waltz and scherzo, dirge and lament, clash of brass, distant soundings of horn and drums; in short, all the Romantic, otherworldly brio that Mahler could bring to bear on a Romantic, otherworldly question. At intervals a section of horn players would troop offstage as discreetly as they could manage, and after the distant plaintive sounds of assorted French horns, trumpet and flute, would file back and take their seats. Back and forth they filed, music offstage answering music, back again to their seats.

Somewhere near the end of the third movement things got down to business - the full complement of equipment was pressed into service, the windows rattled, the asthmatics went silent, and the orchestra offered up its "cry of despair," which the composer himself referred to as the "death shriek." Serious enough to require the full services of the third timpanist, the cymbals and both gongs. This all to set the stage for some vocal musings from a pair of sopranos, who are joined in the fifth (and final) movement by the full chorus. (If four movements were good for Beethoven's choral symphony, then Mahler would do him one better and go for five in style.)

All in all it was an enjoyable and instructive evening. Not philosophically instructive so much as musically enlightening, since Mahler gives all sorts of anticipatory visual clues about what's going to happen next. I discovered, for example, that I could attend to the timpanistas and the cymbal-and-gong section for my visual cues. If the timpanists were sitting on their stools looking off serenely into the middle distance, or even if only one of them plied the cowhide, then the music promised to be relatively calm and melodic. Ditto if the cymbal clasher was tinking away on the marimba and the gong player was in a brown study, chewing on one end of his thumper. But when the gong player rose to his feet and began to limber up his mallet wrist, when the big brass disks of the cymbal were hefted to the ready, I knew the roof was about to go off. It was top-shelf gongsmanship, worthy of J. Arthur Rank.

I can't say the gong carried off the entire argument for a final resurrection. That's more than I know. But I should probably mention that I'm not a professional critic.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Foreclosing on God

"From 2010 to present, bank foreclosures on church buildings have skyrocketed -- 270 foreclosures since 2010; a record 138 foreclosure sales in 2011 alone."
                                                                  -  "The Motley Fool," in
Where God hath a temple, the devil will have a chapel.
                                                                  -  Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy 

Having once taken an apartment in what I supposed was a quiet neighborhood in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I awoke one bright December Sunday, the morn balmy, the faithful making their way through the streets to the neighboring churches. My helpmeet left me on the roof in agnostic sunshine, carefully padlocked the grate across the front entry, and walked briskly off with the only housekey. 

The streets in San Miguel are narrow, cobbled alleys. Next to my bespoken abode was a modest building with a paved courtyard partially roofed in well-seasoned sheets of corrugated steel. That first quiet Sunday morning, all without warning, the sound of jubilant group singing accompanied by guitars, drums and keyboard obtruded itself into the air. The roof panels rattled with Christian fervor like a soundbox, the very houses and stony streets echoed back the joyful noise. To my mild consternation, I discovered too late I had settled next to an impromptu pentecostal church, no housekey within reach. The hours passed, cantatory, hortatory, oracular, the irony nearly insupportable, my reprobate nature confirmed. There were other solutions to this dilemma, though having only just arisen I forebore the solace of slumber . . . 

All of this is a reminder that you can't be too careful who you end up living beside. Bank foreclosures in recent years have been making a mad lottery of neighborhoods everywhere, no less when your near neighbor is a church. In fact, just around the corner, a church which had for years been Lutheran, has been sold to new congregants. Lutherans are noted for quiet piety, sobriety, general decorum, solemnity, a becoming spiritual reserve, unexceptionable manners, sober modes of worship, abhorrence of "witnessing," canvassing, "ministering" to their neighbors or going door-to-door through the neighborhood like Jehovah's Witnesses. They were, in a word, ideal neighbors. Their voices may have been raised in worship, but no one hereabouts was ever the wiser, it being nigh impossible to raise the roof by singing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" in wholesome, solemn unison.

Back in the day, when churches were their own bankers, foreclosures weren't in the cards. Back then the brethren could really get things done in style, without looking over their shoulders at some guy in a cheap suit. God had an unlimited line of credit, no mortgage and no house payments. He was about as flush as God could get.

Times have changed. I suppose that hard times arrived at just about the time when churches started resembling the Cow Palace more than they resemble any recognizable ecclesiastical edifice. But extravagant suburban architecture doesn't always fare well in the corporate age: Wells Fargo and Citibank trump everything in sight - God, governments and gentlefolk. So far as I know the neighboring church sale wasn't the result of a foreclosure. Still, I wonder what's in store on future Sundays. Will it be another congenial lot of Lutherans or Presbyterians? or will the Holiness Brethren show up in busloads for a weekly shoutfest and visitation from the Holy Spirit? 

But, I remind myself, there are worse things to come out through the church windows than noise.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Great Bores of the Modern Age: Presidential Candidates 2012

Politics seems like it ought to be fun. I'm not entirely sure why it isn't (though my guesses would be, in order, too much NFL football, too many cable channels, prescription drugs and national illiteracy). I don't blame either of the current presidential candidates for having made the profession so numbingly boring. Not just boring - self-righteous, which is even worse because it's boring and irritating all at once. You know, one hopeful states his hesitant support for legalizing another form of marriage, the other of necessity takes the opposing stance. No scope for the moral imagination, no chance of surprising the folks at home, no discussion of nuance and little concern for what might be best for most of the citizens.

Political motives always leave it uncipherable whether either party has the moral high ground on any question. Questions one might have thought settled long ago (civil rights, energy policy, freedom from unwarranted searches and surveillance, sane and equitable gun and drug laws, to name a few) still beggar any progress. It seems fair enough to hope that we might have figured a few of these things out by now.

Lord knows it's been this way since long before - pick one - okay, William Howard Taft (the "Chris Christie of the early 20th century") won the office from his opponent, the tent revivalist, foe of the gold standard and of Darwinism, and general evangelical flaneur William Jennings Bryan. Given how far modernity, affluence, education and scientific progress have brought this great nation, thank our ministering angels we needn't fight those battles any longer.

W. H. Taft, "Mr. Excitement"
Be that as it may, back in 1909, in a "veritable pageant of military splendor, social brilliance, courtly formality, official protocol, and patriotic fervor," Taft actually managed to walk across the international border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez without being gunned down, collapsing from exertion and heat prostration, or being run over by a taxicab with a blaring antique public address system affixed to its roof, in order to solicit an "expression" from the presiding Díaz government of its continued support of American investments in Mexico. Now that's exciting stuff. "Expressions" are the very warp and weft of diplomacy, and when Taft went out for a walk he got things done - none of this shooting-hoops-and-wasting-time-high-fiving stuff. Taft was all business, business was the business of the Taft presidency. And so on.

It's not just domestic politics, either. Take Russia, for example, where things are rigged a bit differently, given that the Koch Brothers and the Supreme Court are still living in Wichita. Even if you could, would you vote for the candidate below without holding your nose? He looks like the guy who just killed your dog and ate your iguana while you were in the other room watching "Storage Wars."

 V. Putin, "Mr. Excitement"

Perhaps the single redeeming feature of Russian political maneuvering is that there aren't any debates, however unpresidential they may be in fact. Although, to be fair, our own GOP debates did unearth some pretty spectacular political positions, like the consensual refusal to condone either abortion or the general and lawful availability of contraceptives (these being unrelated questions in the conservative moral universe). Nonetheless, politics in Russia is interesting, but maybe for the wrong reason - depending on how you voted, you never know what might happen to you in the aftermath. It's also interesting because it elicits heartfelt (if that's the word I want) protests:

Moscow, Dec. 9, 2011

On the other hand, they manage these things much better in Mexico. Natalia Juarez, a 34-year-old philosophy instructor at Universidad de Guadalajara and a Mexican congressional candidate, posted campaign flyers in Guadalajara showing herself and six of her lady friends topless. Juarez is running on the ticket of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, which has a nice ring to it.


In our own land of the free and the brave, the party's name alone could bring down a drone strike on some wedding party anywhere in the 51 United States - meaning of course the continental 48, Alaska, Hawaii or Kenya, our president's birth state. Ms. Juarez explains that, "It's an attempt to run a campaign that is different and cheerful, but also an invitation for people to reveal who they are and commit themselves." In a land devoid of super-PACs, the candidate wishes "to make an impact and not go unnoticed" by making full use of the scant resources she has available.

It's a campaign that has enlisted both scantness and scantiness in the public interest. I, for one, applaud more of both in global politics. It's easy enough to campaign with a scant few ideas - Eric Cantor does it every day. But it takes real balls to campaign with scant resources.

Happy Mother's Day

Guess which one eventually murdered the other three members of this family.
Being a dad, I can't wait for Father's Day:

Monday, May 7, 2012

'Angry, Waspish, Dull and Melancholy'

It was a very wet day, and I again complained of the disagreeable effects of such weather. Johnson: "Sir, this is all imagination, which physicians encourage; for man lives in air, as a fish lives in water . . . . Some very delicate frames, indeed, may be affected by wet weather; but not common constitutions."
                                                                          - Boswell's Life of Johnson

Excepting the month of April just past, which is unvaryingly bloody awful here, the current edition of springtime in the Rockies has been the very picture of Arcadian idyll. Aside from some ripping spring winds, the days have been more than tolerable, blue skies, white clouds, the countryside green, and (as that wobbly old Thomas Eakins might have depicted it) the fruit hung heavy on the grass . . . 

"Arcadia" (T. Eakins)
This particular May afternoon, however, carries all the desolation and gloom of a November day - indeterminate gray sky prone flat across soggy ground, the mountains to the west in complete obscurity, a cold, needlepoint rain falling. Just the sort of day to turn one's thoughts into self-defeating channels - recreational pharmaceuticals, dialing random (900) numbers, casual online investing, internet shopping for Christian sex props, self-destruction - all come to mind in their turn.

"Weather got you down?"

Apparently, I have one of those "very delicate frames" like Boswell's, promptly capsized by the weather. I am unable to rise above the temporary aspect of the world about me, chilled in my marrow by clammy air, brought low by an insufficient play of photons careering through my sensorium - in short, the plaything of the barometer, the hygrometer, the rain gauge and the anemometer. And given half a chance, "I again complained of the disagreeable effects of such weather." 

Boswell was frequently saying something extraordinarily sensible, finding himself promptly exploded by Johnson's pompous half-wittedness, and muttering in print that he was "much offended by the severity of his rebuttal and I vowed to murder him this very night as he sleeps." This is contrary to the usual picture of Johnson, who has spawned an industrial-scale hagiography intent on showing him to be the champion of repartee, wit, les mots justes and all the socially commendable arts that garner a reputation as a savant and bon vivant, the very opposite of a muttonhead. I remain, however, a confirmed Boswellian in these matters. I would much rather bitch about the murky half-light of a crapulous low-pressure front than light a candle to cheer the darkness, or whatever the saying is and whatever Doctor Sodding Johnson may maintain to the contrary and in the teeth of good sense.

My old friend Robert Burton (who much to my lament died nearly 400 years ago, which goes some way toward explaining why we're so close), in the Anatomy of Melancholy, calls this melancholic frame of mind "the rust of the soul," apt if you need only glance out the window to see the entire world rust away as you watch.

"A troublesome tempestuous air," remarks the good Oxford divine, "is as bad as impure, rough and foul weather, impetuous winds, cloudy dark days . . . Polydore calls it a filthy sky . . . . [If] there be a calm, or a fair sunshine day, there is a kind of alacrity in men's minds; it cheers up men and beasts: but if it be a turbulent, rough, cloudy, stormy weather, men are sad, lumpish, and much dejected, angry, waspish, dull, and melancholy."

So there you have it, as clearly as I might have put it myself - if you're keeping score, it's Boswell, 1; Johnson, 0. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Send In the Asteroids

Earth-crossing asteroids - objects with highly elliptical orbits that cross the plane of Earth’s more circular solar orbit - are whizzing by us in the dark reaches of space. According to a recent post in, "At least three hundred of these potential killers are known, and in the next few decades some of them will pass uncomfortably close."

"A recent survey of how people are most likely to die rated asteroid impacts pretty low - something like 1 in 100,000 . . . . about the same probability as death by lightning or a tsunami . . . . Chances are excellent that you don’t have to worry, nor most likely will any of the next hundred generations. But we can be absolutely sure that another big impact of the dinosaur-killing variety is coming someday, somewhere. In the next fifty million years, Earth will suffer at least one big hit, maybe more. It’s all a matter of time and probability."

Cold comfort, says Miguel. You don't have to tell me twice. Probabilities be damned, if something bad is going to happen you can bet that someone will be around to worry me about it beforehand, over the 50 million years or so before it hits. This is something even the Transportation Safety Authority can't protect us against.

"Get your hands off my cupcakes!"

As the Final Day approaches, perhaps as early as 2029 when a 900-foot diameter rock is predicted to cross Earth's path well inside the Moon’s orbit, what remains of American capitalism will market asteroid survival in climate controlled asteroid shelters, home-brewers' survival kits, post-crash courses, late-night cable reality programs ("Asteroid Wars"), seminars and workshops, two-year associate degrees, certification classes and pre-loaded assault rifles at End Time prices. 

American Protestantism will feature endless Youtube clips of Pat Robertson explaining how this all comes of our forebears' pact with the Devil sometime before the American Revolution; boxed CD sets of Joel Osteen sermons ("This Wasn't Supposed to Happen to Us, Lord," "Why Is This Happening to Me, Lord?", "Leveraging the Asteroid to Realize Your God-given Prosperity Potential," "Thank You for New Marketing Opportunities, Lord"). Not to mention a spate of Final Days bumper stickers.

Astronomy Sucks!

I Uranus

Asteroidal impacts may not occur often, but when they do they take out really big things - every last dinosaur, entire NFL football seasons, white ethnic majorities, Republican prayer breakfasts, African countries and Chinese dams. On the other hand, there's no denying they have their upside: no more marriage equality initiatives to vote down, no more worries about the Violence Against Women Act (since, in the aftermath, violence will be pretty much equal opportunity), no more Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action initiatives, no more EPA. Hell, no more E, come to think of it.

Admittedly there are "asteroid skeptics" among us, and they do raise some pretty tough questions for asteroid alarmists like Miguel - most notably, this humdinger: if, instead of God, it really was an asteroid that destroyed all the dinosaurs, then how did all the other "passengers" on the ark - mammals, white people, unicorns - manage to survive? A stumper, I'd be the first to admit.

 "Head for the big wooden thingy!"

But seriously, what can we expect should the planet suffer asteroidal impact? "If a ten-mile object hits the oceans—a 70 percent chance, given the distribution of land and sea—then all but Earth’s highest mountain peaks will be swept clean by immense globe-destroying waves. Nothing will survive up to a few thousand feet above sea level. Every coastal city will utterly disappear." For all of that, every other city will probably disappear as well - maybe Lhasa will be unscathed but who wants to live there? 

"I thought I just saw Fukushima go by."

Let's face it, if an asteroid does hit Earth there won't be much anyone can do to stop it. "When one of these projectiles is finally observed, it will likely be much too close for us to do much about it. If we’re the bull’s-eye, we may only have a few days’ warning to settle our affairs."

So let's say I have three days warning - probably a realistic estimate - what would I do? Well, for starters I'd probably get myself to Portland's 10th annual "Filmed by Bike," where I could get several items ticked off my bucket list all at once. First, I'd get to visit Portland, a city already renowned for a sort of precious idiocy, just before it's washed off the face of the earth; second, I'd finally get to attend a film festival featuring movies filmed entirely by people riding bicycles; third, I'd get to ride my bike - a ride to the opening night street party no less, led by cycling celebrity Gary Fisher; and finally, dream of dreams, I'd get to meet someone named Ayleen Crotty. After that you can send in the asteroids.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Soles Afire

Dismiss all that does not befit your age, with equanimity yield to your years: thus it must be.                                                                   -  Lucretius, “De Rerum Natura” (Bk. 3)

Whoever puts his decrepitude into print plays the fool . . . .
                                                  -  Michel de Montaigne, "Of Physiognomy," (Bk. III, essay 12) 

The older I get the more closely I resemble my grandfather. There's nothing for it when the combined forces of genetics and geezerhood play hell with an old man's countenance, his consciousness and his consent. Nothing trumps consanguinity. I can see that much in the mirror - the square head grown blunter, the complexion once sandy-haired, nowadays grizzled, the frame grown stockier, the blue of the eyes rheumier, the eyebrows wiry and bristling beneath deepening furrows. 

I swore I'd never crop them into blunt stubble; now I trim them without a thought, so much bothersome physiognomic brush to manage. I swore I'd never be one of those codgers who cut his own hair, now I have little enough remaining that paying someone else would be throwing good money after bad. My grandfather had his hair cut by someone until the end of his days (a friend, by the look of it) and looked no better than does his grandson the autotonsurist. A certain age brings with it the privilege of bargaining thus with vanity.


I cannot entirely approve of the continuing resolve and geriatric brio of the 97-year old Australian chappie who has just earned his fourth academic degree, a master's in clinical science. His third degree (a law degree) he earned at the age of 91, supposing it to be his last until he found time heavy on his hands once more. His academic advisor tells the press that he is "a tremendous inspiration to those who aspire to age well." That's as may be, I suppose, though for my part I would rather age on my own, like a cheese in semi-darkness, without the additional burden of inspiring other cheeses or being set an example by a suffering old wheezer who won't sit down.

'Managed care' for cheese

It is perhaps too much the other extreme to awake in one's favorite chair with one's foot afire, as did a fellow in Texas recently, in front of the telly with his 5-year-old granddaughter who pointed out to him that he was aflame. "Searing pain in my right foot, and when I woke up, I could see the room kind of exploded," he said. It seems he had the order of things a bit addled, understandable since a stray lightning bolt had entered his shoulder and exited by his foot. "I'm glad I still have my legs, but I'm sure going to miss that chair." Nothing like advancing age to bring philosophy in its train.

I suppose what brought about these musings is the fact that as of now I am on the growing roster of Social Security recipients, it being my year to become fully eligible, a true "senior" American in good standing, one of the first wave of baby boomers who will all too quickly pass this way - or not, depending on just how old you may be yourself. Eligibility for Social Security checks (it still being an age in which that phrase has meaning), like being an American or a Presbyterian or a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, is just a happy accident of birth - there's not a thing one could ever do to change it short of commiting treason, denying predestination or drinking too much at too many Elks mixed smokers.

I haven't yet decided what it all means. I don't foresee any more academic degrees in my future, though that may be preferable to an immobility that attracts lightning. Whatever I do, I will do it as a cheese would, aging slowly, gradually, filling each room I occupy in turn with the vaguely sulfurous air of profane soliloquy. Meanwhile, back to work.

Not me (not yet)