Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ice Dams

Following a week of virtually non-stop food and festivity, I spent a good part of the day yesterday on a ladder chipping ice off the eaves to stop the flow of water into the house. There's something meditative about following the cleavages in the ice with a hammer and screwdriver, watching the chunks fly off through your yellow-tinted goggles, seeing how close you can get to the shingles without punching a hole in them. The little tap-tap-tap rings out through the neighborhood, while the incessant drip-drip-drip continues inside.

The ice itself has the look of white obsidian, wavy, smooth, and sheer. The task is seemingly endless, but it’s a thrill when you do hit an area where a puddle has collected; the ice is suddenly wet, it starts to come off easier, your deerskin choppers soon become soaked. Time to come in for another cup of coffee...

So much for global warming? Not really. It’s well documented that the earth’s frozen areas are in retreat, but there are exceptions. The seasonal snow cover has, in the past two decades, actually expanded across the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, especially just north of the Himalayas, the Tien Shan, and the Altai in Central Asia. This pile of snow influences the atmosphere profoundly because it creates a large dome of cold air which the jet stream must bend around. A bigger pile of cold air generates a bigger bend. In response, the jet stream diverges more often, and more wildly, from its generally west to east path and begins to meander north and south, sending more warm air north from the tropics into Alaska and Greenland, and pushing cold air south from the Arctic on the east side of the Rockies across the interior of North America. Cold Siberian air, meanwhile, spills south into East Asia and southwestward toward Europe.

More snow, more ice dams. I’ve got the bamboo roof-rake out. There’s something poetic about scraping snow with bamboo, I guess. Yet the effort is half-hearted. It’s supposed to rain in a day or two…

Monday, December 20, 2010

Solstice Reflections

I came upon the following passage in a little book called The Meaning of It All, by the physicist Richard Feynman:

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe, beyond man, to contemplate what it would be like without man, as it was in a great part of its long history and as it is in a great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are fully appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to view life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is very rare, and very exciting. It usually ends in laughter and a delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing-atoms with curiosity-that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders.

This is a simple and beautiful description, I think, of an experience many of us have had at one time or another. Feynman goes on to suggest that the mystery and awe he’s describing is so deep and impressive that conventional religious explanations—for example, that our presence here on earth has been arranged by God for his own glory, or so that he can watch the struggle between good and evil—are simply inadequate.

I would agree. Perhaps we could go further, and argue that such explanations are not merely inadequate, but misleading. The experience Feynman is describing is immediate, intuitive, and profound. Conventional religious explanations commonly posit an overload whom we seldom, if ever, meet, and have difficulty limning the contours of. This shadowy figure, quite unlike the intuition being described, tends to drag us down into a muddle in which exuberance and wonder compete with a sense of personal inadequacy and conscience. The laughter and delight diminish.

All the same, it seems to me that such notions of deity serve a purpose, and contain an element of truth. They reflect a reality that Feynman’s intuition doesn’t go quite far enough to include. For when we posit the inanimate universe from an “objective” point of view, following his advice, and then reverse our attention back to ourselves, we don’t see “man.” We see ourselves. More specifically, I see me. Unique, sentient, curious, mysterious, precious … and fraught with contingency.

This is the source of the frisson Feynman is describing. It’s important to remove the abstraction “man” from the equation, and it also might be just as well to remove the references to matter and atoms. Everything is made out of atoms, I guess. So what? The question is, How is it made? What is its structure? What makes it interesting, excellent, unique? Calling a sentient being “atoms” is like calling a soufflé “flour and eggs.”

A second element needs to be added to the experience, I think. For when we turn from the remarkable universe “out there” and refocus our attention on the no less remarkable “whatever-it is” in here, we find ourselves face to face not only with personal awareness, but also with our own drives and interests. After all, I don’t merely see and feel, I also scheme and plan. I have feelings, desires, and projects, all of which cavort in an unruly pen we sometimes refer to as the “ego.”

The negative connotations that haunt the word “ego” are nearly the opposite, perhaps, of those that can bring an element of unpleasantness to the word “God.” If we tend to see God as unduly portentous and dour, we too often see the ego as unduly crass and shallow. These effects, both of which are superficial, are also complimentary and to some extend intertwined. They work together to form the very common, yet wrongheaded, notion, that to enjoy oneself is evil, to give selflessly with obsequious deference to the Almighty is right and proper.

It seems to me there is a healthier and more fruitful way to set these elements against one another. A more complete inventory of the emotions associated with the “existential awareness” Feynman describes, might include not only wonder and delight, but also a vague sense of obligation to exert ourselves on behalf of the greater world in the midst of which we find ourselves. The two feelings don’t conflict. Rather, they support and fuel one another.

In another words, conscience is a natural result of self-awareness, and it becomes stronger yet when we begin to contemplate the beings who surround us on all sides, each of whom have different, but similarly unique, “windows” on the universe.

But conscience isn’t everything. The universe is fueled by exuberance and delight, self-aggrandizement and over-weaning pride, no less than by fellow-feeling. In any case, conscience itself is often governed to a large degree by personal affections and preferences, rather than by an indiscriminate urge to love our neighbors. For that matter, much of what we love about our family and friends has less to do with their selfless generosity than with their liveliness and complexity as people.

Such concepts are difficult to articulate, and I suppose I’ve made a hash of it here. The rituals and revelations of the world’s religions expose a variety of public responses, enshrined by tradition, exalted by art, and defiled by superstition and politics, to the same situation.

Less widely recognized, by of equal importance, I think, is the long tradition of rational inquiry into these same matters, of which Feyman’s refreshingly brief peroration is a classic example. The other day I hit upon another such effort when I took a look at Plato’s early dialogue Euthyphro. Though the dialogue ends inconclusively, as is typical of Plato’s early work, along the way Socrates asks two questions that are germane to the issues we’re discussing here. The first is designed to highlight the distinction between what can be measured and what can’t be measured. We’ll leave that critical distinction for another time. The second asks the question whether the gods love something because it’s good, or whether something is good because the gods love it.

Translated into religious terms, we might ask whether we’re being good when we do the things God tells us to, or whether the injunctions we’ve been given by religious authorities are designed to help us clarify and aid the natural bent of the human spirit toward what is right, good, and proper. Reduced to essentials, it’s a distinction between obedience and conscience.

But no sooner does the word “bent” appear than I’m reminded of Kant’s remark, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” That’s a grim statement, and also an exaggeration, but it points to one aspect of the issue that I’ve been neglecting. Some people don’t seem to have much of a conscience. And even the best among us are often wracked by guilt when reflecting on things they might have done better, or perhaps should have done but never did at all. Besides, our actions are usually guided not only by what our conscience tells us is right, but by what other people expect, and the injunctions of religious doctrine, almost by definition, falls into the latter category.

When we examine the night sky, on the shortest day of the year, this is not, in all probability, the direction our thoughts will take. Something far simpler is likely to surface—white snow, jingling bells, wonder and delight, and a vague sense of gratitude, perhaps, that we’re actually standing here in the dark with a trillion miles of empty space in front of us, pretty much alive and well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

City Mouse and Country Mouse

The census figures are starting to roll in, and before long we’ll be awash in “analysis” the purpose of which is less to enlighten us than to “warn” us about how our society is crumbling in or way or another. The article in MinnPost today by Sharon Smickle is a classic case in point.

Analyzing the data, she finds a growing divide between urban and rural communities. The subhead reads: “The same lines that divide America are visible throughout the state. In pockets of rural Minnesota, people are far poorer, older and less educated than those who live in select Twin Cities suburbs and Rochester neighborhoods.”

But looking at the accompanying map, I don’t see any divide. The poor areas (dark green) shade into the moderately well-off areas in every direction. These chartreuse areas, in turn, shade into light green areas where people are quite well off. As we approach the very urban core, things grow somewhat darker again. Anyone asked to draw a line marking the “divide” Sharon is referring to would find it impossible to do so.

If we reduce the figures to their starkest and simplest state—like sliding the contrast bar in Photoshop all the way to the right—we’ll see a radical difference between urban and rural, black and white. But that effect is as patently artificial as a manipulated photograph. All it really tells us is that urban and rural demographics are different, as are urban and rural life. Is that news? I think I first read about such things in Aesops Fables, which appeared about 2,500 years ago.

The upshot of Sharon’s article is that urban folk, on average, are slightly younger, better educated, and make more money than small-town folk. (Most allegedly “rural” people live in small towns, and only 6% earn a living related to agriculture. An even smaller percentage actually “work” the land.) This is presumably because many small-town folk go to the city to get an education and never come back. Can we blame them for this? Then again, older people sometimes move to a cabin out-state when they retire, or back to their old home town, where the pace of life is gentler and health care costs may be more manageable, thus bringing the average age up and the average income down in that region.

Is there a crisis here? Is there a radical divide?

Meanwhile, what census statistics can’t track is the shadow economy that a growing number of young people seeking a simpler lifestyle move to small towns to enjoy.

The one interesting item Sharon mentions is that “rural” folk own more vehicles than urban folk. Always looking on the dark side of things, she attributes this to the lack of public transportation options out-state. But I’m not so sure we need to feel sorry for our country cousins, who have put up the “closed” sign on the body shop window and are out roaming the hills on their ATVs and snow machines, while we’re cooped up in suburban office towers planning desperately how to avoid the rush hour traffic.

In La Fontaine’s version of “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” the two rodents enjoy a fine dinner until the cat arrives to send them scurrying. The country mouse refuses a repeat invitation, remarking:

…It’s not that I’m critical of
the food. You served the best.

But at home I eat in peace,
And nobody interrupts.
Goodbye, then, and to hell
With pleasure that fear corrupts!

Monday, December 13, 2010


The wind was wicked, but the snow remained light, like specks of sand and dust rather than genuine flakes. The thing was, it just kept on coming.

We’d purchased a tree the previous evening down at the farmer’s market, and spent the morning on various household tasks. I revved up the snow-blower when a foot or so had accumulated. I knew I’d be out there again, but the machine is so small that after a certain point it simply can’t cope.

Then it was time for a rare jaunt down our street and up the hill on skis. We passed a neighbor hurrying back to her house after walking the dog, but otherwise we had the neighborhood to ourselves. Except for the shovelers. Not a bird in sight. One car had made its way through the drifts and out to a more well-traveled thoroughfare. (The first plow didn’t arrive on our street until after midnight.)

It’s pleasant, this snowed-in feeling. A reheated lunch of delicata squash soup with pasta. Music fills the air. Everything from the Tallis Scholars and English Organ Music of the Renaissance, to Il Viaggio di Lucrezia, a lovely, meditative collection of antique Italian harp music by Mara Galassi.

At some point in the night the Metrodome collapsed. This is news, especially when a team from New York is scheduled to play there. But this morning all was clear and bright, the plow has been by, leaving a dense ridge of snow in front of the driveway.

At 17 inches, this storm ranks fifth or sixth among those that have been recorded in these parts. But to judge from the numbers below, the period between January 20 and 23, 1982, received 37 inches, though there was a lull in the middle of onslaught.

I remember those days. We skiied to the SuperAmerica on 40th and Lyndale. Propped the skis outside next to the propane tanks. On the way down the alley, we met a neighbor who was stuck big-time.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “Triple A is on the way."

“Oh, we’ll push you out,” I replied in neighborly fashion. Getting behind the car to give it a shove, I proceeded to punch a hole in the man’s tail light. Oops!!
1. Oct. 31-Nov. 3, 1991 28.4 inches
2. Nov. 29-Dec. 1, 1985 21.1
3. Jan. 22-23, 1982 20.0
4. Jan. 20-21, 1982 17.4
5. December 12, 2010 17
6. Nov. 11-12, 1940 16.8
7. March 3-4, 1985 16.7

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dragon Tattoos and Angel Wings

I was probably the last person in the upper Midwest to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m glad I did, if only because I no longer will have to wonder what all the fuss was about. But the experience didn’t make me eager to see the other two.

The film takes us to some dark and revolting places. But the violence and sexual abuse amount to only ten minutes of film time (albeit a long ten minutes)and for the rest, it’s just a well-made Swedish thriller in which outcasts and journalists confront the Good Old Boys of capitalist corruption, greed, murder, exploitation, and so on. The “girl” in the title, pierced and tattooed, has been so bent out of shape by bad experiences at the hands of men that she seethes with unexpressed anger—yet most viewers will find her intriguing, and more than that, attractive. The male lead, a journalist played by Michael Nyqvist, is simultaneously committed, resigned, wary, naïve, amorous, and reserved. All in all, he seems to be a pretty nice guy.

While watching the film, I was reminded from time to time of another film Nyqvist made recently called As It Is in Heaven. In this one he plays a world-famous conductor who returns to the remote village in northern Sweden where he grew up to recover following a nervous breakdown. Soon he becomes involved with the local church choir—though he mostly just wants to be alone—and as he gets to know the villagers, a variety of sub-plots develop involving the parish priest (who’s envious of his popularity and doubtful about his religious convictions) a few lovely choir-members, and a boorish enemy from his childhood days.

Some parts of the film are corny and some parts are badly staged, but there is also quite a bit of life to the be found there. In particular, the avant garde choir rehearsals are choice. At various places I was reminded of Waiting for Guffman and Shultz Gets the Blues while watching it. It’s one of those works the shortcomings of which obvious…though its humanity is not to be missed.

About The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I’m not so sure.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Absurd and the Impossible

"[Absurdity] is in fact an accurate and a productive way of understanding the world. Why should we be interested in a clearly impossible story? Because, as Gogol says, in fact the impossible is what happens all the time.”
- William Kentridge

An old friend (now caring for her aged mother in Nevada, if I’m not mistaken) sent me this quote not long ago via Facebook. Well, I couldn’t tell you if she sent it to me personally. Maria has 606 friends, and perhaps she sometimes forgets who all is out there. But I’ll bet she wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the remark piqued my interest.

I’ve been thinking about the absurd on and off for quite some time now. Ever since my college years, in fact, when The Trial, Troubled Sleep, Nausea, Notes from Underground, and other works in the same vein were my daily reading habit. I got a charge out of reading such dismal stuff, though I was a mostly a happy-go-lucky sort myself. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps it was the combination of metaphysical speculation and novelistic detail as related by an assortment of hapless misanthropes living on the frenzied edge of nothingness—the typical adolescent syndrome of those who are still afraid of girls. It struck me at the time as funny, important, and largely true-to-life.

But there came a time—I think it was in 1972, I was wandering in the dark amid the grain elevators north of University Avenue and west of the KSTP tower, with the smell of malt in my nostrils—when it suddenly occurred to me that the universe could not be absurd. Why not? Because the word “absurd” can only have meaning in contrast to something that makes sense. If nothing makes sense, then neither “absurdity” nor “sense” hold their meaning.

The word “absurd” does have meaning. But its point of reference is invariably narrow. Let me give you an example. Suppose I were to say: “Georgeanne went to absurd lengths to make sure that the flowers on the table were fresh.” What this means is, “Georgeanne cares a lot more about fresh flowers than you or I do.” Or how about this one: “To argue, in this day and age, that the earth is merely 4,000 years old is absurd.” What this means is, anyone who can disregard the mountains of geological and astrophysical evidence available regarding the extraordinary age of the universe has really lost his or her senses—or is clinging to some quaint and out moded belief for emotional reasons.

In each case, an attitude appears absurd in contrast to another, more well-developed one. We describe an attitude as absurd when we’ve grown tired of trying to explain how mistaken it is on empirical grounds.

Yet between these two examples, the first is far less absurd than the second. Just because we aren’t that interested in flowers doesn’t mean that it’s absurd to pay close special attention to them. In fact, in this instance it may be our focus that’s narrow, not Georgeanne’s. She sees the more brilliant, colorful world that erupts before us when we take care to introduce really fresh flowers to the scene. While we’re burdened with false equivalencies (plastic flowers) and cost-benefit analysis, she opens our vision to an entirely new world—and really, how much is that worth?

The quote I received from Maria may be taken to refer to the fact that we don’t really know what’s possible and what’s not, and it can be a mistake to set false limits to the things we might see or do, the things that might happen.

The positive side of this “truth” has been dramatized time and again in films like Hoosiers and The October Sky, anot the mention horror films and holocaust films beyond number underscoring what dangers lurk beneath even the most benign situations. And weren’t we all, during our childhood years, traumatized in one way or another by that capitalist tract The Little Engine That Could and The Cat in the Hat?

The line separating what can and cannot happen gets especially murky in the outer reaches of time and space—beyond telescopes and on the other side of the Styx. Hence, religious thought is often sparked by tales and adages riddled with absurdity. The Zen koan may be taken as a case in point. And didn’t Tertillian once remark,

"The Son of God was born: there is no shame, because it is shameful.
And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsound.
And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible."

This last line, which originally read “et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile” entered the lexicon of Western maxims in a bowdlerized form, Credo quia absurdum, “I believe, because it is absurd”—a remark that will throw a wet blanket on any discussion of religion, though it might help to explain the behavior of suicide bombers.

Poets and novelists have no qualms about combining images and events in ways that don’t really make sense, and such concoctions can sometimes be illuminating or refreshing: A Hundred Years of Solitude, and Calvino’s Invisible Cities come immediately to mind. It seems to me that impossibilities along these lines never take us as deep as do the absurdities in a book like Don Quixote, which springs from the mind of the protagonist rather than that of the author. But we’ll leave that argument for another time.

Nowadays poetry is all but required to indulge in a little nonsense. Did it all start with Rimbaud?

Yet none of this strikes to the heart of Kentridge’s (or Gogol’s) remark, I think, which issues from a point of exasperation, if not despair. There are times when the world seems to be so far out of whack with our values and expectations that all we can do is throw up our hands with the cry, “How absurd!”

Flaubert remains the high priest of this attitude, though it seems to me his views are usually misinterpreted. We find it easy to sympathize with the disgust he feels in the face of bourgeois culture, but have developed a tin ear with regard to the deep affection underlying it. I picked up my copy of Bouvard and Pechuchet just now and was reconfirmed in that judgment. It’s a very funny book, I really ought to read it again.

In the end, “the impossible” doesn’t happen all the time. On the contrary, by definition, it never happens. And it may be worth pointing out that when words such as “crazy” and “absurd” and “impossible” enter a discuss, it means that thought is at an end. In the political sphere that’s not a good terminal to arrive at. It certainly isn’t a "productive" way of looking at the world, no matter what William Kentridge (or Gogol) says.

Yet don’t we sometimes use those words ourselves?

Sarah Palin as president? Crazy. Absurd. Impossible.