Friday, February 27, 2009

The Battle Of Bob's Red Mill

It's not even March and some of my perennials are beginning to sprout.  I'm sure that gardens have always sprouted in February, but they say nature's for the eyes that see it and my gaze has been elsewhere.  Most of my property is covered with wood chips from a tree surgeon who gave me his entire trailer load of chipped branches.  At the time I thought most of the chips were oak, you could see the grain (looking at the oak chips in my hand I kept thinking, "unfinished furniture outlet, after tornado.").  And I knew some of the chips were from our tulip poplar---- that was the reason I met the tree surgeon in the first place.  So, I was astonished that the gentleman just gave me all that wood (I offered him a hundred dollars).  He acted like I was doing him a favor, which honestly couldn't be true; all wood products are valuable.  The situation began to seem a little more sensible after I coaxed my tomato plants to flower and grow gigantic, only to watch their fruit just sit on the plant, glistening, and green.  My housemate, David, pulled a couple of big green tomato's off the plant one afternoon to "ripen" them, and I literally laughed at this ignorance, I couldn't believe he thought a completely green tomato would just magically ripen.  Well, lucky for me he isn't a complete jerk, for, that is exactly what the tomato did.  Turned bright yellow.  I thought it would simply rot in our kitchen, but it turned bright, bright yellow.  Hmm....  so the truth was that the wood chips contained at least a portion of  walnut chips.  Apparently, Wikipedia claims that walnut contains an oil, jujune (needs citation) that screws up any plant in the nightshade family, so you are wise to keep your jimson weed away from your walnuts.  Jeez. 
 I got this great idea this winter.  I'm going to move my garden where the sun shines in my yard the longest.  I'm going to keep the quote, unquote, mulch where it does a fantastic job killing the grass (so what used to take me fifteen minutes to mow, now takes six), and I'm going to task David with procurement of vegetables once I grow them.  Suffice it to say, he made a fool outta me.  
Another amusingly strange thing in the garden was when my corn ripened, and I ate about a third of it, and then what I thought were raccoons got into it.  Just chewed the kernals right off the cobs.  Something I didn't think about at the time was the rats that lived behind my house (and really everywhere in my neighborhood, I live in a student ghetto with tons of restaurants down the street.  One of my buddies who works really early in the morning says he sees the rats crossing the street, in a kind of shift change nocuturne, each morning.  Nice.)  I blamed the raccoons, which along with deer, the gardening books implied were corn enemy numero uno. 
Then, a few nights ago I was watching the only television available in my room, PBS, and one of the episodes of NOVA came on.  NOVA used to do shows that stuck to straight up science.  But, around ten years ago NOVA discovered that story telling was far more popular with couch potatoes then instructional video.  So now most episodes of NOVA aren't about a specific topic of science, but rather rely on hilarious hooks such as "Newton's Dark Secrets", and other such nonsense.  Not that I have a problem with the show.  For some reason I just find it kind of annoying to constantly have something sing songing me to death, "here's a story, bout a lovely ecosystem, that was composing a very lovely world."  Yuck.
In any case, last weeks story was, "Attack of The Rats!!!", or some such title.  So I held my nose and watched.  I have loved reading about rats since I read Rats, Lice and History in grade school, or perhaps middle school.  By the time I was in high school, I basically read everything I could find about rats.  Needless to say, even fairly pedestrian tomes written about rats tend to disgust and provoke people. I was so into rats (not that I ever wanted a pet rat or anything, I just love learning about, ahem, real rats) that I think my fascination played a part in me working for Orkin Pest Control when I was nineteen.  Working for Orkin, you'd arrive at someone's house and ask, "Where do you have a problem Ms.," and Ms. would tell you in the pantry.  So you naturally would ask, "Where in the pantry?" and Ms. would say, "I don't know, I haven't been in the pantry for a month."  Needless to say, people don't much like the rodents in the world.
As is usually the case, the "Attack of the Rats!!!" show turned out to be extremely interesting.  Get this, every 48 years or so Asian bamboo forests flower, pollinate, and fruit.  Every 48 years.  Well, this is more interesting than it sounds because of two fascinating concurrent phenomena.  A) Every time the Bamboo fruits the local people know that they are going to starve that year.  They know this from the stories the previous generation have told them (or for the occasional very long lived person, the hunger they have experienced).  B)  Every time the Bamboo flowers and fruits, a plague of Rats seemingly jumps out of the ground, and devours literally all of the grain/ rice growing on the peoples farms.  Hence, hunger.  
Now, Science can entertain lively debate, but must at the end of the day retire to a house of equivocation, lest it become english composition or something.  Where are Thoreau's "mansions of the universe" in the minds of the scientist?  Nowhere, that's where, until through the proper channels the "mansion hypothesis" is put forward in publication and replicated at some distance from the lucky sap that thought it up.  
So, nobody in 48 years had experienced this rat problem in Asia.  But making assumptions is regarded by scientists as precisely the sort of thing only a fool would do.  So one brave scientist (who knows all about rats) listened to the anecdotes of past generations in Asia, and listened to Asian historians who certainly were well aware of a cycle every fifty years of famine.  This brave scientist decided to find the next place where a bamboo forest would fruit. He was hoping to make a case, with evidence, for the rat/ bamboo/ famine folklore.  He went there, and hung out with some farmers.  You wouldn't believe what a handsome family he stayed with.  The rat scientist hung out in the bamboo forest, or at its edge in any case, on a farm for an entire summer.  At the beginning of the summer, the local woods (and farm's) rat population numbered perhaps twenty or thirty.  There wasn't much to eat for the rats, so they just did what all mothers no doubt would do, had lots of sex and ate their babies.  Then, the bamboo began to drop fruit, and, bam(boo!), it's bamboo fruit for dinner instead of baby rat.  This has a very strong impact on the rat population.  How big?  Fair to say the Bible told you so.
So the rat scientist shows us, on NOVA, a novel way of discovering how many babies a mother rat has had develop within her.  It's something to see him grab a rat off the ground like he's fielding a baseball or something, then stick it in a bag, then suddenly he's back at the bamboo hut, sitting on the porch, and he takes out his knife to dissect one of the pile of rats he dumps onto the bamboo porch boards.  Speaking of porch boards, seeing the locals do carpentry with bamboo, and seeing how they split eight inch wide bamboo (what? trunks, blades(!?!) bamboo is grass, like cucumbers and almonds are fruit) and weave the split and flattened bamboo into house walls, it's like seeing the world "handmade".  I'm thinking of a novel by the guy who wrote The Long Emergency, because it has the concept "culture as handmade" at it's core. If only I could remember the title.  For some reason, as a carpenter (on my good days I'm comfortable calling myself that) I found it just hypnotic seeing that bamboo house woven together. But lets get back to the scientist, holding a dead rat which NOVA refuses to show being killed, now poised with a knife just above the rat; now the knife plunges into the rat and just like that, the rat is drawn and quartered.  So the scientist has the insides (strangely lacking in blood) stretched open like an organ donor, and he points to what look like a peas attached to a split open pod, or beans, along the abdomen of the rat.  He points out that there are eight of these peas, and he shows that each has a placenta.  It is curiously fascinating, due to the fact that a person realizes that every mammal surely has this sort of arrangement within a female who is, as the British might say, preggers.  The interior of the female rat in this scientists hands seems bejeweled, and illuminated somehow.  Then again, this scientist is really something, and I suppose having handled a few dead rats myself, I should admit that I have never achieved his special way with rodents.  Not in the least.  So... then the scientist points out something kind of helpful given my personal history (in my yard) with rats.  He points to these little buds coming off the reproductive apparatus of the rat.  What are they coming off? An ovary? A uterus?  The buds must be within, or attached to a uterus, but I couldn't really recognize much, save the little pea like rats to be, inside big rat has been.  The buds, our scientist points out, are scars from the previous rats mom has given birth to.  For every baby rat, their is a scar!  Which made me wonder, do rats menstruate?  Having scars on their reproductive apparatus would lead me to believe otherwise, but truly, I can hardly wait to find the proper person to answer that question.  I think I'll ask the reference librarian at our county library just to see the look on his face.  Just the facts, dude.  So our scientist friend, with a big grin on his face, his exacto knife waving about, and a rat sitting open like baked potato in his hand explains that the little buds in this rat amount to something like twenty-six previous births this season.  Thats about thirty four baby rats in one summer.  So a rat with plenty to eat other than baby for breakfast will pop forty little versions of itself out (or more) in a season.  This explains why twenty or thirty rats in the bamboo forest might get a little out of hand when their food supply goes from subsistence to the land of milk and honey.  Geez.
And, this explained, what happened to my corn.  It wasn't raccoons that ate my corn.  I knew I had rats in my yard, I saw them every day.  They usually would sort of dart about the trash cans, licking some runny substance off the sidewalk or whatever.  You kind of get used to them when you live in a town that basically subsidizes rodents, catching them in live traps and dumping them out in the country like that A.I. movie.  My neighbors, who are wonderful middle aged sculptors, begged me not to poison the rats for fear their dog would eat a poisoned rat.  I tried to explain to them that the poison kills rodents more easily than "higher" mammals due to the fact that rodents can't vomit terribly well.  Hardly a bad idea, given what they eat, don't you think?  My neighbor brought rats up to me (believe it or not, I rarely volunteer this peculiar enthusiasm) because he said, with a look of amazement and scorn, "You know, I saw rats frolicking beneath the mulberry tree and eating mulberries the other day.  I think they are living in the Chevy Biscane."  The Chevy is an old broken down car that my landlord accidently let one of his oldest "clients", a nutcase, park in our yard.  The sculptors, next door, eat breakfast every morning, and have to see this ugly Chevy just past their gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous garden.  Why they don't simply sue my landlord is probably explained on the same page of the book of mysteries as why people in Bloomington, Indiana catch rodents and set them "free" out in the woods, to starve to death. (There was a man I knew years ago here, in Bloomington, named Sunny.  I mention Sunny because I think about him now and again due to something he told me late one night in the Kroger parking lot.  And I miss him unreservedly.  He's a great guy.  Sunny looked kind of like Nick Nolte after a bad night, except without the drugs, except, then again, maybe with a lot more drugs.  Hard to say.  So, late one night I had my hands full of bags of veggies and soda pop, or something, and on my way out to my car I see Sunny.  So, realizing the warm mellow honey of liberalism might just pool at the small of my back should I truly enjoy this man in an authentic manner, I call out, "Hey Sunny!"  Now Sunny doesn't know me from Adam, but having survived the streets for forty years, he was most definitely able to see a fresh mark like myself from a mile or farther.  "Hey," he said like a socialite upon opening her Salon door.  We chatted about the honeysuckle sweetness in the Spring evening air, and the comfort of the long days in the out of doors we both looked forward to that year.  Then Sunny began to tell me how he had been sleeping behind Kroger of late, and he was glad it was nice outside so he could enjoy the fresh air and his little friends.  "Your little friends," I said in a tone meaning , "Who the heck are they?"  Sunny said "Yeah," with that wheezy trailing Studs Terkel like tone he always had, just a beautiful voice, like you never hear anymore in movies or television, our obsession with realism being the monster it has become.  "Yeah, my little rats are so beautiful. The come right up to my fingers while I lay there at night, and I feed them whatever I've got."  This seemed, somehow, though it may well have been apocryphal, true.  In a world, even in Bloomington, where the gaze of people is filled with the flint that protects them from an involvement beyond sharing a sidewalk, I could well imagine the squeaking glee in the black, shiny orb, of a rats eye, catching the yellow orange midnight sun of a back-lot sodium lamp, as it nibbles the Frito's you share, it's whisker maybe touching your hand.  One things for sure, after a long day of people throwing Big Gulps at Sunny from there rusty Silverado's, I could well imagine a rat, with a Frito in it's mouth, may give the gift of gratitude.  Though, he didn't make  a convert of me that night.  I could only offer Sunny produce and Diet Coke, which I knew rats weren't fond of, from studies of rats in different communities.  Rats like what the people around them like.  So, in the obese Southern Indiana population, I'm thinking Broccoli ain't on the menu.  So I said goodnight to Sunny.  My good liberal endorphins peaking so much, I couldn't even feel the plastic grocery bags cutting cruelly into my hands.) So anyhow, while my neighbor was talking to me about the amazing sighting of rodents, I was conjuring in my head the veritable family of rats living in holes in the ground on my property.  It occurred to me that my neighbor, for all his qualities as a human being, was simply unaware of the natural proclivities of the Norway Rat.  Like, for example, warm dry habitat beneath the ground.  It would certainly be nice, from a public health standpoint, were Norway Rats to require a Chevy Biscane, like a Spotted Owl requires redwoods or what have you.  But, unfortunately for my neighbor, for all my flaws, he had picked a subject that morning upon which I had some rare insight, and it truly took all my strength to not go on and on, as I have in this blog entry, about rats.  Instead, I told him, "Christ, it hardly surprises me that that crappy car is breeding rats."  It would seem, that unlike the occasional crackpot you meet on the street, I have the ability to make eye contact and connect, even with folks utterly ignorant of the, how should I put it--- natural history of rats.   We spoke a bit more, him mostly going on about how bad an idea poisoning them would be.  I mean, after all, they were merely chewing on mulberries when not serving tea in the Biscane.  So I nodded.  Then guiltily went back home, feeling like I'd patronized him for not saying, "Look Mister, rats live in holes like that one." Pointing about ten feet away, to a eightball sized hole, with a little pile of rat rototill next to it.   The final straw came one morning as I arose, especially early for some reason, and could hardly wait to get over to the coffee shop.  So I threw some breakfast together on the stove and ate my plateful of food, then went back to the kitchen to clean my dish and pan and what do I hear but the furtive crinkling of polyetheline, a kind of sound made only by bags of candy in a quiet theatre or rats in my kitchen.  Sure enough, next to my coffee maker, there, up on my countertop, I was alarmed to see a medium sized rat, sauntering along, brushing past polyetheline bags of Bob's Red Mill something or other (trash now!).  Hmm.... I thought.  Clearly I have fallen a great deal since my days with Orkin.  Now, I'm the one who has been acting as if all those rats in my yard for some reason just had too much respect for my family to expand their circle of competence to include our larder.  Bloomington does this to you.  Almost without realizing it you become a kind of soft, smiling, vaguely African clothes wearing, kneejerk animal liberation bandying, head nodding person always saying, "exactly" (emphasis, not your own).  Before you know it the rodents are asking you to pass the salt.
I went straight to the hardware store and bought thirty some pounds of the stuff that comes from the company thats motto is, "yeah, we kill that."  It wasn't hard to apply the stuff.  It was bright blue and waxy.  The scientist on NOVA mentioned that rats love to chew on wax. I didn't realize this when I was throwing twelve once cubes of blue poison wax down every hole I could find in my yard and, expecially, my trash can.  I didn't put any in my garden, but it hardly mattered.  Thirty pounds.  Then I put it all over my house in those little black bait dishes, that look like pet food dishes (we have no pets).  I never saw another rat in the house, but man, they finished off all the bait traps in the basement in three days, and they finished off all the poison under the trash can (about one and one half pounds) in one evening.  They were extremely hungry.  Good.
After about a week I quit seeing them foxtrotting around my garbage cans.  And after about two weeks, the rat poison in the kitchen stopped moving toward the bottom of the bait dish.  It just settled to a quarter of an inch of blue poison.  And thats where it is today.


About two weeks after I decided my neighbors dog could eat my shorts, and I sort of lost it on the subject of rats in my yard, I noticed a big fat dead rat in my driveway.  This one was gigantic.  Not as big as World War veterans talk about in the trenches, feasting on casualties, but big, as in bigger than the one I saw in my kitchen.  About the size of a Quaker oats cylinder.  The normal oatmeal size.  I didn't want to leave it in my driveway, but I didn't want to give it a funeral for crying out loud, so I went and got some gloves and a plastic grocery sack and protecting my gloves (and thinking of plague) I wrapped up the rat and threw it in my garbage can.  I didn't want anything eating a poisoned rat.  
A few days later I saw a rat nose sticking out of one of the burrow holes in the yard.  But it was a far corner of the yard, by the Chevy Biscane, and for some reason I savored their proximity to one another, and also didn't want to grab a dead rat by the nose, even with pliers or what have you.  
I mention all of this, not to claim victory, but because the rats had a few tricks up their sleeve.  It is the signal quality of man to make things normal, so as to convince himself that his illusions are in fact mere appendixes of higher more absolute truths.  In our easy chairs, as long as creatures are not stirring, especially not rats and mice, we can tell ourselves that this is what it's all about, American Idol, or if you'd rather, NOVA.  Life is good. 
So, when we look in the mirror do we see a human?  Or do we see a community itself, that happens to make us what we are, whatever that is.  The answer is obvious.  We see human.  Monster is other.  Bad guys are disease vectors.  To be rubbed away with Purell sanitizer, hypnotized with the sleepy aesthetic of geometric houses on geometric principles, just for the style, by design.  But the truth is we carry between seven and fourteen pounds of bacteria in our enteric gut.  You know, poopy has to get dirty somehow.  It ain't rotten food.  It's food, after you.  There's something kinda strange in that statement, don't you think?  Between shit, and food, is you.  Not exactly the sort of thing you'd expect to see on TV after the commercial with the woman doing yoga while she eats her probiotics.  
The truth about us, is always a bit stranger than we expect, because the knowledge we're fed it meant to be tasteful, first, and enlightening second.  Probably most of our day we swim in the roar of the modern media apparatus, always being shown uplifting stuff that would have you believe we were living in heaven but for those damned terrorists.  But the truth is that human beings are filled to the brim with other animals, bacteria, yeasts, and other stuff we aren't so much infected by as defined by as persons.  It's been estimated that just over half the genetic information on that community of organisms that make up a healthy adult human, are other organisms DNA.  Over half.  This should give you some idea why genetic medicine is going to be so complicated.  For a long long time, humans have tried not to pay too close attention to the frothy swarms that keep us ticking.  Which makes sense.  We're sort of gross.
I mention this because I am completely taken with the shocking realization that the wilderness in this world is as much within us as without.  Our fears constantly maintain a hyper vigilance about the seeming boundary of our skin, hands, feet and senses.  It isn't there if you can't see it.  We constantly look for revelations and feel out our world.  But the exterior of our body is only that.  The outer part of an endlessly detailed realm and arena.  And it is a convenient construction that we have decided on outsides and insides.  I mean, disease starts out there, but inevitably flowers within.  The only difference between the disease smallpox and having the disease smallpox, is your nose.  And taking a breath.   
Something truly nasty happened when I killed the rats.  You might say nature had a lesson to teach me about control.  Something had to be done about the ever growing circle of domain of the rats in my yard.  They had broken their promise and invaded my larder and kitchen.  Now I had betrayed my lovely neighbors and set out thirty pounds of Warfarin, which sounds like a martial musical, but in fact is the same as the commonly prescribed geriatric blood thinner, Coumadin.  That's the stuff that causes most of the big bruises on the hands and arms of the elderly. So the rats drank our Kool Aid, and seemed to go away.  They did die.  In fact, I saw two dead ones, as mentioned above.  But there were many rats.  I don't know how many.  But "Attack of the Rats!!!!" convinced me that I may, by the end of the summer, and the slaughter of my corn, the the Battle of Bob's Red Mill, have had as many as a hundred or so.  Maybe more.  About a third of an acre.  Then again, maybe I only had fifty rats.  In my yard.  The lesson here isn't how many rats I had, it's how many rats I remember removing.  Well, you will recall that I disposed of one rat.  And that is my recollection as well.  At the edge of my yard, there is a headstone for the other rat that looks very much like a Chevy Biscane.  Those are the two rats I remember, out of a possible total of dozens to one hundred.  Why does that matter.  Well....  some of the rats went outside.  At Orkin we were trained to explain to people that Orkin's proprietary blend of poison was new and improved to make the rats go outside your house and die.  But that was total b.s.  The truth was that our poison was no different than the stuff you could buy at the store with the slogan printed on the side, "Kill Them, They Won't Come."  Trust me.  The only proprietary poison Orkin had was a type of fungus that helped with German cockroaches.  Someone found it in the Pacific Northwest or something.  In fact, Professor Paul Stammets with Fungi Perfecti (his company name, he is a renowned expert on Mycology) has multiple patents out on fungal pest control, some of which causes mushrooms to fruit right out the head of an insect.  But I digress. Most of the poison used in professional pest control is the same stuff normal folks use.  It's just like a lot of professions.  Someone to cry to.  Someone to hold your hand. Someone to blame.  Kind of like marriage.  My point about the rats I didn't see dead is that they went somewhere.  And the preference of most people when they kill things is that the dead things just disappear, poof!, into thin air.  As fluffy and insubstantial as a cloud, almost like they never existed in the first place.  Well, X factor, leftover rats in my yard (and house) actually did sort of disappear.  They died, you see, then some flies (I saw a few  Bottle Flies, the kind with green metallic exoskeletons, buzzing around the rat I threw in the trash) landed on them and laid eggs.  Then the eggs hatched into maggots, which enjoyed the frothing corpse of the former rat immensely, and finally, for those corpses protected by, say, a crawlspace, or attic, or in one of a hundred holes within a square block of my house, the maggots turned into beautiful green and black flies.  Or the regular variety.  So guess what began to beat against the inside of our windows three weeks after I ended our "pest" problem in the Battle of Bob's Red Mill?  A lot of flies.  Pretty disgusting.  My housemates are not the most learned people in the world when it comes to rats and flies.  Kind of similar to my neighbor.  The going theory on the flies was that it had to be something to do with the Chevy Biscane.  The rest of story, please, is just between us.

Andy Coffey

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Leaving Las Vegas

I have a host of unfinished business from previous blog entries below (more typically above, but, not here I suppose).  Among them is the name of that guy who wrote the National Geographic article called "Our Vegetable Travellers" that I enjoyed reading so much through the Purdue extension office.  Read my entry with the word "Salad" in the title to reorient yourself if you have no idea what I am talking about.  In any case, I promised to give the writers name out and a link when I had the time, and since it's only 1 AM, I figure, what the hell.  His name was, I assume he's done a bit of traveling of his own by now:  Victor R. Boswell, "Our Vegetable Travelers."

I read, just today, researching some book I read a long time ago, this quote by Carol Shields, "Happiness is a pane of glass you don't know you're looking through until it breaks."  I remember taking great pleasure and joy from life, but realizing I was not happy, in my distant past.  I used to sometimes laugh when asked, in earnest, were I  happy.  I find this sentence pretty interesting.  Unfortunately it would only truly be a practical philosophy to analyze in a world where ethics in experimentation were considerably different, so we're just going to have to continue to imagine what the other person really thinks of happiness.  At least from Shields perspective.  The people I know who I think would be somewhat offended at this sentiment--that one does not generally know whether they are happy until they are certain that they are not... are depressed.  Like the cyclops: they know a little too much.

My Uncle Gregg, suggests to anyone interested, that Howard Levy is a fantastic harmonica player.  After looking into Mr. Levy on the Internet, I am quite certain that he is worth following a bit more closely.  Just touch the hem of Mr. Levy's name's garment.

The Toyota Emergency Profit Improvement Committee strikes me as probably not worth boring you with (though I do not feel the same about myself---- ha, ha) except to share a case (yet again, yet again) of vive la differece.  GM sold its version, GMAC, two years ago.  Oh well, back then GM's market capitalization was four billion more than Wrigley gum (my favorite metric of a companies size, not that I really understand the numbers, but you get it) at $15 Billion.  Today:  $1 Billion.  Hmmm...   perhaps GM should be reminded that it's the amperage not the voltage that counts in an electric shock.  The GM Volt? More like the GM Vamp.

For what it is worth I was thinking the other day about the importance of the failure of solutions to problems.  For one reason or another it occurred to me to write this note in my notebook:  The wonderful thing about the limitations of any one solution is that it suggests a attitude consilient between the blatantly practical and the blindingly spiritual.  In other words, failure (and strong limitations) tends to occur when one is about to drive off the middle path in the name of excellence in a particular, narrow realm.  If you don't relate to this, cheerio, you must be a BIG success (somewhere).  And happy driving!

Visited Madison, Indiana on Google Earth when I returned from Madison more than a week ago (I told you I have unfinished business on my desktop notes!).  Nothing much to say, that I didn't say yesterday, but...  I was looking at Clifty Falls Electric's  smokestacks on Google Earth, and some advertisements caught my eye in blue hyperlink print.  I clicked on one and came to a really cool website that gives, I wasn't sure at first, detailed information about large architectural structures all over the world.  I am amazed this is even available.  I am really enjoying what I discover regularly on Google Earth, as yesterday's post should make clear.  But, I won't deny I am looking forward to the day when every object in the field of view, regardless of resolution, in Google, or Microsoft's equivalent, is deeply searchable, modeled, and hyper-linked.  Another example of this sort of thing is Microsoft's Photosynth product.  It takes every picture in an internet cloud picture website (most of the pictures taken for the usual reason), and through manipulated vector analyzed collages, turns the object of a thousand words (a picture) into a pixle in a new kind of synthesis.  Is a Photosynth a picture?  Well.... it is more like a simulation of a place in the world, or object in the world, that has been sensed by many photo devices.  The "sensations" of a digital camera can be taken then, and through sophisticated software woven together again through the magic of our computers and re-represented (and critically, made manipulatable).  I see a time in the future when every square inch of every town, house, and object in the world ends up in the cloud of computers that are being built today.  You will have as much ability to crawl through the world as you do over the world in Google Earth.  The only difference is that all the objects you look at will be manipulatable in a million different ways.  Every car referenced to its history, make and model.  Same with any other addressable piece of cultural significance, as a car inarguably is.  What about a house?  The platt book, the public records of its inhabitants, ect. all the way back to the original history of the land (plus its ecology, watershed, climate data, architectural detail, ect).  The elements of our world are knowable when one has the proper tools to GUESS.  Guessing tends to be very "good enough" as any doctor tends to count on pretty much daily.  Sorry to go on and on from a mere entry about Madison, Indiana, but for a curious person who wishes to dive into the history of his surroundings to the greatest detail and with the broadest view possible:  the present world, technology now available, and trends toward the future are almost Nirvana.  Sorry about my fun.  Say cheese. 

Man, I am making progress on my notes!  NEXT>>>>

I saw Ben Sherwood, who wrote The Survivors Club, on Charlie Rose last week.  The guy seemed interesting and on a mission of some sort, but I couldn't determine what exactly.  Clearly, he is interested in aspects of the human will, be it conscious or subconscious, to live, and prosper.  Certainly a legitimate interest.  A whole book?  A movement even (he claims, webwise.)  So, needless to say, I was at the bookstore, wandering around a few evenings ago with my coffee, and what should I see, but, The Survivors Club.  I was meaning to leave with my coffee at that point.  I had something important to do, like the removal of my self from an environment that I have spent far to much of my time in: the bookstore.  I found myself carrying the book to sit down somewhere.  The first thing to know about my problem, is that I cannot control my problem...    What did I gather from Mr. Sherwood's glorious shout out to the famously risky hardcover book industry:  not too bad.  The book is basically about, as I mentioned before, various aspects of the Survival instinct, and the plethora of outcomes that are available to the individual who is trained, or self taught, a vigilance about surviving in body, and spirit.  The book does an interesting weave and feint about spiritual matters (which is good, since people like me have a built in intolerance too much mumbo jumbo).  The worst that can be said of The Survivors on the front of spirituality is the already pretty obvious data available scientifically, and anecdotally on the advantages of faith, prayer, and a support group of others who share in your beliefs (whatever they are).  I found this pretty unthreatening, which, unless your a Dawkins type, you probably would as well. 
I have prayed in my life, despite my fairly militant atheism (for most of my life).  Why?  Pain relief is often preferable, to me, to existential discomfort.  I have never felt my atheism to be a particularly significant part of my identity.  More along the lines of my baldness.  Something to face squarely: without the combover.  So:  I am an atheist because I find the alternative unfitting to me.  Not ugly.  Not embarrassing.   Not stupid.  Not even really dishonest.  Just unfitting.  In those moments in my life where I have faced myself in the mirror, at my most fully human, I have seen the humours of religion pouring from my pores.  It is richly human (so am I) to be religious.  Not for mere answers, which seemed to be the religious folks excuse in my callow youth.  But for the fullest expression of what is possible at the human scale of life.  Sure:  you live in a skyscraper and fly a helicopter from one random spot on the globe to another, throughout the day, returning when you feel like it to be serviced by your robot, and a clear lack of a need for a God in your life can be truly appreciated.  But you live life on the human scale, giving yourself to the risks of childbirth (or watching, without control, your wife enter into labor), or seeing clearly the potential genius in giving to your enemy the fullest measure of an offer deeper than your disagreement.  Guess what?  Your gonna need to fly places where the helicopter and robot can't take you.  God CAN help with that stuff however.  That's what God is.  Do I believe in God?  No.  The mistake is imagining, that at any level, especially at the mode and level of even my own subjective life, it matters.  Trust me.  It doesn't matter a flying fuck what I think about God in this world.  To think otherwise, even for my own consolation, is absurd.  So, sometimes, atheist that I am, I give to the great Caesar in the sky, what's Caesar's. It feels good. Makes very little rational sense.  Feels good though.  That's human.  Not helicopter.
So the two truly fascinating things I got from The Survivors were quite different.  One involved a further elaboration on a story of one of the many, many folks who commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.  I  received a very nice documentary last fall from Netflix called, The Bridge.  And unlike most of the movies I just never get around to watching, this one I kept not getting around to because I was afraid of it.  I had thought that once the Netflix tyvec wrapper was in my hot little hands I would open it up before I convinced myself not to, but no.  It took a week before I forced myself to watch, while working on the computer at the same time (the first time I had ever even pretended I could do such a thing).  Clearly, I wanted the option of not really having seen it, without a full admission to myself of my own wuss fears.  Well....  The Bridge is a woderful documentary, that while about something heartbreaking, ultimately asks a questions central to our choices to not only live, but live well.  It also manages to show how difficult it is, even for most who succeed at it eventually, to kill oneself.  Person after person is shown pacing the Golden Gate Bridge, for hours and hours and chickening out.  Family and friends are interviewed, in many cases fully aware of their loved ones desire to hurt themselves, but lulled eventually by the committed genius of the sick person who simply thinks they must die.  Well... what does this sad (though, truly, great) documentary have to do with a book called, The Survivors?  Turns out one of the people you, sort of, see jump off the bridge in The Bridge, actually survives.  In case you don't know this, The Golden Gate Bridge is gigantic.  Much bigger than most people realize.  It is the equivalent, to jump off the bridge, of jumping off a 30 story building.  That is a much larger building than your are allowed to build in my town here, Bloomington, of 80,000 souls.  And yet the Golden Gate Bridge, as you surely can picture in your head, stretches through fog, to connect two slivers of land, the paddles in Geographic Pinball Game called the San Francisco Bay.  I'll never forget the picture I saw as a kid by Ansel Adams, The Golden Gate (Before The Bridge).  So what was the picture called?  Talk about a meta-issue...  Whatever the picture used to be called, I knew, even as a child, that one could not consider The Golden Gate today, without simultaneously contending with the fact of a bridge.  For most people the bridge is more important than what it spans.
Well anyway, one kid in the movie jumps off the bridge, and survives.  This virtually never happens.  And, he didn't jump, he dived.  It's just that after he dived he flipped himself over, and hit the water at the right angle, and didn't go too deep (due to his careful choice of angle) and fought his way to the surface of the violently rough ocean, amidst the sharks, to say hello again to life.  Because, hey, he wanted to live.  It's a wonderful life, even if you're bi-polar.  By the way, before he jumped, he had gone to a college class, gotten some M&M's for a sort of last meal, and made his way to the bridge.  The voices were telling him, you gotta do it.  I am not making light of this, by the way.  When I watched The Bridge, I felt so much sadness for this guy I almost had to turn it off.  I have never wanted to hurt myself in my life.  It is alien for me to see people talk about life like this.  I would be a very dangerous therapist, without training.  
So in the book The Survivors, I was thrilled to read an interview and discussion of this kids actions, choices, motivations and lessons.  Turns out he totally turned himself around, and is working day after day, on his survival.  This sort of presence of mind about the costs of the alternative (so obvious with the abjectly suicidal, anything but obvious with you and me) is sort of the theme of the book.  Survival is about a vigilance as to what your choices and attitude add up to.  For most people, it is an early death, and certainly a lesser degree of agency in the arena of their choosing (across the spectrum reasonably available to them).  You hear all the time about how much it stresses people out to have choices.  It makes their life more complicated.  This is one of the most popular forms of conversation if you listen to people talk at a coffee shop or what have you.  Obviously, people are right, they suffer.  But this book is brave saying to people you have more than choice when you consider the power of understanding.  Our society in some ways, I think, is not ready to expect this kind of thing broadly.  In the military it can be instituted as policy.  Few other places can motivate people (or threaten, rather) as the military can.  So we have a society of people with habits of body and mind who are always aware that they are not "surviving" but can only bring guilt to the table, so poor are their tools.  Hopefully, this book can bring more discussion to the mental and physical habits we normal Joe's can bring to our normal lives.  So we might survive a transformation.  

As a side note, the book spoke about many other subjects, I recommend it.  One of the fascinating subjects it covers, in the realm of medicine, concerns the length of time it takes for a first responder to reach the victim of a heart attack.  As will surprise no one, the faster a person is reached during, or after, a heart attack (or similar failure of the heart), the more likely the person is to receive treatment tantamount to a cure.  In practice, people who experience heart failure die a significant percentage of the time.  And worse.... if they do live, it is with a damaged, far less healthy heart.  To prevent the death of the heart attack victim, or permanent disability, the paramedic must arrive on the scene of the heart attack within two minutes or so.  This frequently doesn't happen.  People frequently die.  Nowhere did people more frequently experience this problem than Sin City, Las Vegas.  Apparently, there is this thing called, "Vegas Syndrome", which understandably enough to me, given my taste for alcohol and cigarettes, basically means people misbehave with their health and stress levels, in Vegas, to the extent that it causes them to have heart attacks well beyond the typical rate.  People were coming up dead in Vegas: routinely.  Some medical professionals looked into this and realized that due to the lag time in the victims first response treatment, some other procedure had to be designed.  So, many, many portable defibrillators were purchased up and down the strip.  Employees were trained in the proper use of the devices, as well as CPR and basic first response medical advice.  And, the Casino security teams were brought into the fold to look for instances of gross behavioral cues of ill health in the patrons of the Vegas gambling establishment.   The result:  Vegas now enjoys a status as the place where you are least likely to die of a heart attack.  On average, the victim of an attack is a mere fifty seconds from treatment by someone with training.  It is a fact that this is a better record than many hospitals enjoy.  Then again, is it really fair to compare a hospital system's security and vigilance to a casino?  I don't think so.  You'd almost hope a nurse has more on her plate than any particular heart attack, wouldn't you(!!) Not a very fair comparison, but certainly food for thought.  Vegas Baby!!!

And lastly, I will leave you with this piece of advice that I keep on my desk, to give me strength throughout the long struggle of my choices and survival:

"Few people can list a lot of bad habits that they have eliminated, and some people cannot identify even one of these.  Instead, practically every one has a great many bad habits he has long maintained despite their long being known as bad.  Given this situation, it is not too much in many cases to appraise early-formed habits as destiny.  When Marley's (Christmas Carol) miserable ghost says, "I wear the chains I forged in life," he is talking about chains of habit that were too light to be felt before they became too strong to be broken."

My thanks to Mark Andreessen for that quote.  I have had it since November, and it came to me just in time.  Who care's what progress you have made if you still carry the burden of your desires.  I can only live today as if the man that used to laugh at the question, "Are you happy," was always more than the sum of his burdens.  So that rather than carry---- he carries on.

Andy Coffey

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Weather is Here, I Wish You Were Fine

Before Google Earth I had never seen Cuba terribly well.  I had never seen its farmlands, replete with stone walls, obviously agricultural buildings, irrigation ponds, and crossroads where any man might meet his Marxist Mephistopheles.  Before Google Earth I had heard of, and perhaps scanned across in maps, but had never seen even the furthest uninhabited shore of mainland China.  I had never even seen the city Chang Du on a map, for I had no idea where in China it was.  I had never seen the close, seething quarters of the new new thing in an ancient country.  Chang Du has streets that sell nothing but computer printers next to streets that sell nothing but watches next to streets that specialize in monitors and televisions.  Miles and miles of merchandise cascading and slipping, following every tendon and muscle of that great Long Tail.  In this case, of course, it's the tail of the dragon.  I'd never seen it.  Until Google earth, through the thick of its industrial purges, like the last efforts of yeast in a high gravity Begium beer brew dying in its own alcohol piss, down through the dark Hollywood atmospherics to the pillbug raceway of the streets of Chang Du.  The moment you see it, that the Google viewer stops, drops and rolls up to the clouds of Chang Du, you know it is real.  Nothing else looks that much like industry, save very old pictures of the previous Industrial Revolution.  It is an astonishment.  
I had put my finger on my fathers globe in his library as a child.  If you have children and you have a globe in your house, they will place their fingers on the globe, they will spin the globe.  Eventually they will ask of Mexico, Canada, the Ocean, and maybe China, or Antarctica.  They will spin the globe and place their finger down, and where the globe stops will seem like fate.  Eventually they will learn to press hard before they come to land so as to stop the globe while on land.  Stopping on the great expanses of blue water leaves little to ask questions about.  Pushing hard with the finger while spinning the globe makes it stop on things you have never heard of, somehow real in the world, and yet for the moment, undecided: slipping on a shape of chance.  While doing this as a child, once, my finger came to a stop.  "Can I goto the USSR?" I asked my Father.  He said he really doubted it.  This is where I learned that maps, and globes, were infested with a narrative consequence, that so bone dry their sense of humor, they only spilled it when played with, brought close to the nose, speculated from the far corner of the room, map on the carpet, you crouching, stalking even, from the arm of a torn wingback chair.  This explains the terrible consequence of puberty on globe fondling.  How many grown men ever ask you, "Can I go to Iran?"  They already know the answers.  They will not climb wingback chairs.  
All of this goes a long way toward explaining why I was so surprised six years ago when I first discovered Keyhole and what it turned into at Google:  Earth.  I had always liked Landsat images, and big books of satellite pictures.  I remember being amazed with the rest of you when Beyond 2000 (the Australian futurist series that The Discovery Channel played constantly in its infancy) showcased that electronic map of the Earth, Mercator projected without clouds.  Look how strange the Earth looks without her blanket of water vapor I marveled.  Well...
When you open Google Earth it beams down, cascades down upon the earth in a manner anyone familiar with Wolf Blitzer or Anderson Cooper has seen a million times now.  No matter how trite the vertiginous ride has become, it really is a thing of beauty, and an apt doorway through the wardrobe.  To what?  Well.  The Earth sits before you, if you haven't told the program where to start, and if you'd like you can grab the earth with your cursor, and give her a spin.  It's a lovely effect, if you don't do it too hard.  The earth spins and spins.  And you can click down where you like, and depending, ask a question deeper in a thousand ways than I ever could have asked my Dad.  But really, it is the same question.  Can I go there?  And unlike all the other times when you put such childish notions away with all the other enthusiasms of wonder, with Google Earth, you can go to China, Cuba, Iran, and North Korea till your axles just squeal.  Then tell Mommy and Daddy all about it.

Andy Coffey

PS:  The title of the Blog was heard on Prairie Home Companion tonight while I ate dinner with Robert in the kitchen.  Robert had just taken a slug of his ice water as we sat back listening to Garrison read his traditional mid-show call outs from folks in the audience to their loved ones at home.  One of the call outs said, "Hello to whomever in wherever, the weather is here, I wish you were fine."  Robert heard this and flinched in embarrassment at the fact that his brain really liked such a clever phrase, but his moral compass was spinning uncomfortably through the expression on his face.  I was laughing with deep pleasure, as certain of my souls safety as the captain of the Titanic.  Then I noticed Robert started to chuckle as well, except, his mouth was full of water, so now he had two dangers to contend with because of that stupid phrase.  Well, by and by, he calmed down and swallowed his water.  About twenty minutes later I asked him, "What was it Garrison read, 'The weather is fair...?"  Robert quickly, with no hesitation told me.  I don't even try to keep up with him.  I went into my room and put the phrase in my brain, my notebook.  
Lastly, earlier in the evening, right after I got home from work, while my food was cooking on the stove, Robert came and knocked on my door.  "Can I ask five minutes of your attention?" he asked me.  "Sure," I said, wondering what was up.  So I went into the kitchen and asked Robert what he needed, and noticed with a little surge of self pity that he was awfully close to the back door to the porch.  I didn't much want to go out in the wintry weather.  But then Robert said, "Come and look out this window, Andy.  Just look what the snow has done." We stood there together, for probably five minutes.  Then ate our dinner to a radio show the both of us have heard for over twenty years. 

Thursday, February 19, 2009

But Can You Do The Salad In Latin?

I came to the conclusion today that I am going to need to carry the notebook that I take notes in with me even more places than the library and bookstore (to say nothing of leaving it on my desk next to my computers).  While at work I remembered two things I learned from an article I read the other day (on my computer), but was way too tired to write down (even on my computer!).  So I wrote the information I will be using in todays post on a piece of two by four with a carpenters pencil.  Hmm... I thought I promised myself a few years ago I would never take notes again on a two by four.  My friends who have worked with me would be able to clear up whether that's a tad bit of revisionist history.  Luckily, very few of them read this blog.  And the ones that do are far, far to loyal.
So the thing I had to write on a two by four, making my buddy Ron think I was a nut case, was concerning an article I read on the Purdue extension website, or one of the extension websites, in any case.  The article was written by a guy in the nineteen-forties (which I didn't realize till I looked at the websites fine print) and concerned the history of our most popular vegetables.  One of my favorite subjects actually.  So I was reading, vegetable by vegetable, from Broccoli to Watermelon (they grow wild in Africa, wow!) and right away I couldn't believe my eyes.  It turns out that I have been wrong on the history of broccoli.  I had thought it was developed in the nineteenth century (which I thought an amazingly recent occurence) due to a history of vegetables I read four years ago.  But, no.  It was developed in Italy, in the 1600's, from, like all Brassica, a wild version of Kale.  Interestingly, the article pointed out a fact that I frequently forget which is that Broccoli Rabe is actually a version of the same plant that Canola oil comes from. Also a member of Brassica, or Cruciferae (the old name, that frustrated some because of its reference to the crucifix shaped flowers common to the genus), or if your a real fan of plain English, the Cabbage Family).    Canadians actually call it canola.  
The 1940's article's deadpan style of writing is enormous fun to read.  I will put a link up to it in a future post.
I spent too many hours after work today planning my garden (I found out lettuce germinates in soil as long as the soil is at least 35 degrees.  Can you believe anything can germinate at that temperature?  So needless to say I am going to be planting mesclun, and lettuce in the next few weeks.  My friends Mike and Luanne have a great technique in their insanely cool garden, and yeah, I think I'll probably slavishly copy their techniques.)  So now I am blogging a little later than I would like, 'cus I have to get up early in the morning to swim before I have breakfast with my friend, then go to work by eight AM.  And I love sleep, so go figure.  But the garden I will be following on this Blog is going to be great. 
One example of the style of the article is where it is discussing Jerusalem Artichoke:  "The Jerusalem Artichoke is neither from Jerusalem, nor an Artichoke."  I am not even sure the author meant to do anything other than speak the plain truth, but man, that made me laugh.  Of course those of us familiar with such things know that a Jerusalem Artichoke is a tuber of a species of Sunflower.  And it's delicious cooked, or pickled.    It is also native to America, which for some reason makes me vaguely patriotic, in a natural history sort of way.  Not very rational, but neither is the Sean Hannity variety of patriotism.  I saw a new book out by that ding dong who wrote (or annotated, rather) The Book of Virtues.  I don't remember his name, and I don't remember the books name, but in any case it's theme is patriotism.  Really makes me wonder, what, is this guy living back in 2002, or something?  I am patriotic.  And curious about this countries history.  Call me crazy, but flaggy, stylized, for profit patriotism is disgusting regardless of its red, white and blue makeup.  Though, I dearly love that country song that goes, "There's a star spangled banner, waving glory."  That's the genius of music.  It's rhetoric is so transcended by spirit, that it's practically beside the point.
The last thing that I wanted to share about the article called, I think, "Our Vegetable Travelers", was that the author mentioned in the article that the common description "truck farm" has nothing to do with the vehicle we call a truck.  I found this flabbergasting, as the image of a truck has always coincided with the words "truck farm" when I encounter them, or use them.  But, it turns out, that the use of the work "truck" in the case of  "truck farm" is apropos of its meaning when used as the noun roughly synonymous with "archaic barter" or "association".  As in, "I have no truck with scum like that."  This is due to the fact that a "truck farm" was long a place of bartering for your greengroceries.  I certainly never would have guessed this etymological fact were it not for that ancient National Geographical article, "Our Vegetable Travelers".  The internet.  Just amazing.
Well, I gotta go to bed.  Egg Timer Rules.

Andy Coffey

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

It's Twilight Time

I took my friend to work this morning.  Round about six. I managed to awake with ease (always easier for me very early in the morning, than around seven thirty to nine---- go figure) and ready myself to drive him downtown.  The weather was clear, cool and without wind.  I stepped into the Bagel store where he works to get a couple bagels and some utterly forgettable coffee, then returned to the truck and drove back toward home.  About halfway home, I had that high, lovely, early morning feeling that comes all by itself.  I suppose that is what morning people get up for, and night owls can only dream about.  If my values didn't somewhat prevent it, I would have continued driving for a couple of hours (I used to do that all the time, especially in the lost years of my early twenties, and out West, when I lived in Arizona-- God what lovely mornings those were), but as it were, midwestern middle aged honkey that I am, I went to the supermarket (Kroger) instead.  
The vegetables at the Kroger were extremely beautiful.  I wished I had a camera, just to show you.  Four colors of cauliflower, huge bunches of broccoli rabe(!!??!!), gigantic globe artichokes (which I looked into ordering from California three weeks ago, on a lark, and was instructed on the website of some random Google result that the Artichoke season doesn't really begin till the dead end of February, better even the ides of March).  Its always sunny beneath the florescent sunshine of the Kroger produce department.  You should have seen my current favorite vegetable, yellow beets.  Two bucks a bunch (the leaves are like the most tender spinach you have ever eaten, not to sound like a food writer, but, great when cooked briefly in a chicken broth), and huge, round, and ready to bleed gold.  Ahh, what has natures bounty to do with the best laid plans of mice and men?  The economy continues to tank, but in the industrialized world, at the supermarket, you'd hardly know it.  Six A.M., seventy degrees (inside), a bright and shining beginning of a salad day in midwinter.
So, restraining myself, I only have one shelf of my own at home in my refrigerator, I saved room in my arms for some kind of protein (this is somewhat hard for me, thanks to my Mom, who fed me vegetables like a foie gras goose as a kid).  Just as I was getting ready to check out at the grocery store, I was forced to set my items down at the self check out station (typical guy, without a cart), and this nice employee said good morning to me.  We chatted for just a few seconds, and I walked over to get some soda from just a few aisles away.  The store at that hour was deserted, and yet, sometimes is busy at six A.M.  It reminded me of shopping each morning for items when I worked at the Courtyard by Marriott, as I was picking some strange assortment of soda flavor (I chuckle every time at the option of purchasing diet grape soda, and yet, what is the difference between that, and Sunkist, or even Coke.  I would love to explicate my opinion on such choices in a different entry.)  And as I put my soda beneath my arm and returned to the checkout stations I wondered, again, why it was I genuinely enjoy the company of this checkout guy, why I find this swirling artificial wonderland of the supermarket something more than just another sign of my distance from Mt. Authenticity.  So, I am thinking such thoughts, and I return to the checkout, and the guy I was just talking with has checked out all my groceries for me even though it is a self checkout station.  "All you have to do is swipe your card and swipe your sodas, sir," he says.  Gee whizz.  
You might wonder why I should relate this pretty pedestrian story.  You'd almost have to wonder why you're reading about running errands, for crying out loud.  And yet, I was wondering myself, what the difference is, really, between say, sitting at my breakfast table and staring at the wall, listening to NPR, and being there, in the checkout aisle, talking to, interacting with, and being presented with gifts from and entry level grocery store clerk.  It embarrasses me to remember how thrilled I used to be with myself for having such interactions with individuals in public, given that, as is so abundantly clear in this example, the other guy was doing all the heavy lifting, literally and figuratively.  Perhaps even more to the point, kindness is pretty typical in the world, even amidst the worlds best NASCAR Dads.  
So, on balance, I felt a strange mixture of gratitude and pride this morning, as my day became cradled in the rosy fingers of the sun.  Clearly I am lucky enough to see in the inky beginnings of the dawn a promise that to others might just as well be an empirical deduction: dark and without color.  Clearly, I find the neon blue vested, supermarket entry level workers of the world potentially inspiring.  I suppose it is a new thing for me, this last few years, to really ask these questions, though.  I remember, long ago, laughing at the beauty of the morning, when the darkness of my life threatened, but failed, the sunrise.  Today, I am not laughing, just grateful that the farewell of the ink black night and the salutation of the morning come at all.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln's Lands

Being surrounded, in Indiana, by states that have claims to make on Abraham Lincoln, I have become accustomed to not really thinking much about Honest Abe.  With the recent election of our President, however, and the apparent need on Public Television for a Doris Kearns Goodwin Hour each week (so often do we see her), I've become somewhat more aware of my ignorance about the Great Emancipator.  Then, this week, I saw that at least three hours of programming would be aired by American Experience, and a special made by Henry Louis Gates Jr. called Looking for Lincoln.  With all this Lincoln this season, and this week, it seemed like it behooved me to at least look up info on the little experience I've had in Indiana with everyone's favorite President.  Concerning the map above, I couldn't find a size that was small enough for the blog, but big enough to see in great detail.  So you might, but probably cannot, see that part of the path of Lincoln's funeral train back to Springfield, Illinois goes through Boone County and my childhood town of Zionsville.  In fact, I remembered once I started thinking about Lincoln, in Zionville, at first and Oak streets, is a park named Lincoln park, for the train that stopped in Zionsville.   My friend Casey was married there a few years back.  I used to eat breakfast there with my brother before our tennis lessons, and I used to take breaks there when running to, I'm not really sure what, chew gum?  Maybe.  It wouldn't surprise me.

The website I got that map off, it turns out, has a lovely chart showing where the train went on its way from DC to Springfield.  Very thoughtfully laid out, all the way down to little 'ole Zionsville.  Kind of amazing.

There has been alot of other stuff that I have learned and seen recently as well.  For some reason we humans are real suckers for the memorialization of the dead.  So whenever I come across a long list of reminisces about a figure whom I know a little about I usually can't help but read for far too long. Such was the case on David Foster Wallace yesterday when I came across a blog called Hermenautic Circle Blog.  Apparently it is made up of a somewhat exclusive group of contributers 100 members strong.  Writers, musicians, carneys (carnival workers), ect.  Apparently the circus isn't looking for new members.  I enjoyed reading their memorial to David Foster Wallace anyway.  My favorite reminisces were the ones that started, "I've never actually read David Foster Wallace but, he changed...."  To be followed by the heartbreaking, "I have felt guilty about not reading Infinite Jest (Wallace wonderful novel from the '90s), but I love his short ficiton and non-fiction."  My point isn't of course that you had to read Infinite Jest, just that the confession seems motivated by some kind of macabre shame due to his death.  Needless to say, I enjoyed Infinite Jest.  Read it in Arizona in 2001, Tucson I believe.  Took a couple days in a Barnes and Noble that looked out over the desert mountains.  I frequently remember a scene where a character is described by Wallace as suspended between his impulses, in his living room.  Suspended between a desire to go into the kitchen, and a desire to sit and absorb info-tainment.  Or something to that effect.  The image in my head was, and I think it was Wallace's intention to allude to this, a crucifixion.  Between a microwave beep and Bob Barker, is sort of my molested recollection.  About once a week I see, feel, hear, get a sort of Deja Vu ish feeling about that scene. And that was before Mr. Wallace hung himself.  I really hate the idea that depression can be so powerful a force in peoples' lives.  I get depressed sometimes, but never that kind of depression.  Everything read about it makes depression seem worse than I could imagine.  And yes, like everyone, I have lost a lot of friends to either suicide, or some slower form of death due to depression.  It is awful.

On a completely more pointless and joyful (read: lifelike) note.  I was trolling random blogs last night and I came across this insane graphic artist's rendition of a series of kids books called "I Can Read Movies".  The artist calls himself SpaceSick, check it out.  Guy seems like a genius to me.  I don't know why I like flippant whimsy so much in this world.  Though, the paragraph above would seem to suggest certain influences.  In any case, a great deal of pleasure is going to be had by me through the work of SpaceSick in the future I imagine.  I haven't got a problem with that.

Dead White Guys, Dead Promise, and SpaceSick makes a EggTimer Ring.

Andy Coffey

Friday, February 6, 2009

Flowers For Neanderthals

Robert Boyer was having a interesting day today.  I came home while he was eating some Chex mix and watching golf.  After waiting to see that he had finished his mouthful of food (a slow process as he comes from the HR Kellogg generation of chewing your food for health!) I quickly slung a question at him about something or other I can't remember, and by and by, between mouthfuls, he asked me, "What's your mothers maiden name?"  
"What did you say," I said to him, "what's my mothers maiden name?" 
"Yeah, that's what the bank always asks, 'What's your mothers maiden name?'" said Robert.
"Oh," I said, "Yeah that bank always asks me that, and score! my Mom's maiden name is, I think, an Ellis Island erratic that exists nowhere in the world but Northern Indiana, and Montana."
"And what is it then?" said Robert.
"Wilondek," I said, "supposedly Americanized Polish.  What was your Mom's maiden name?"
"Lanquist," said Robert.
"Wow," I practically yelled, "was she buxom."
"My Mother?"  asked Robert.
"Ah, I guess thats none of my business." I said.
My thinking was improving, his total lack of response seemed to indicate.

Pearl Lanquist.  Man, what a great Mom.  Her name was Swedish (seemed obvious to me, hence the question about her chest... truth in jest, and all that, you know---) but she was, in fact, only half.  Her Father was Swedish, which you have already surmised, but her Mother Emma, her Mom, was full blooded, roaring, Pennsylvania Dutch.  What a woman.  One of those about whom you'd say "She was a hard woman, but she had to be, for she had a hard life."  Hmm...  Emma's husband, who's name Robert could not remember, (maybe John, maybe Luke, Mark seems a possibility, but not Igor) was a factory worker who found drinking to be exceedingly easy on the nerves, and his wife not so much.  
"Did Emma's husband drink his paychecks away, "I asked Robert.
"It's very likely, " said Robert, "that Emma was one of the few women to be found waiting on Friday outside the factory to collect the money my Grandfather made.
"So you think she got it before the bar," I asked.
"Well, " said Robert, "my Grandfather didn't speak much English, even at the end of his life, but he always said he wished she wouldn't take his money AND his drinking money on Fridays."
"Now, that's what I call a drinking problem everyone should have," I said.

Cheerio Emma.  Cheerio.


I can't be certain, but I have always believed due to the striking similarity between the words: "bed", "bedrock", and "Bedford", that Bedford Indiana was named for the Bedrock it shares with Bloomington, and the Pentagon.  The limestone.  And I can't be certain, but I have always believed due to the striking similarity between the concept of:  an "ectomorph", and a "typical Bedfordian" that people from Bedford were unnaturally selected through the history of that town for big strong bodies, the better to lift and move, manipulate and monetize, limestone.  God bless them, of course.  Nobody ever mistook me for a guy who can really fill up a pair of jeans (I'm thinking of a friend cooing over a gentleman to me.  I was wondering should I nod, "yes, he does fill the jeans, he really fills the jeans.  Like for example, how I do not.) These Bedfordians, however, their cups overfloweth.  God bless 'em.  

Last night, I was walking back from the school after a session of crooning at the windows and radiator, with feeling.  And perhaps a kind of gentle and other-worldly compassion sprang in my heart from my having been so near to the spirits that come so close to a singer at those shorn places in the universe where we sing.  So, when I entered the Village Pantry, while this compassion could not protect the third shift Bedfordian working that night from my basic prejudice, a reckoning awaited us both when I performed a classic Andy dum dum in the presence of said employee.  He was giving me my change, for a package of pink, sugarless, bubble gum and his palm brushed my fingers and I felt something discordant with my prejudice upon his skin and so, naturally enough, began with the personal questions.
"Say, buddy, do you work two jobs?" I asked.
Giving me the, what----me? are you crazy? I'm working at a VP for Chrissake, look, the Bedfordian, aligned his eyes in a somewhat more symmetrical fashion, and focused the customer fresh on his brain.  Once the image and words were more "talky" than "silent film" the Bedfordian seemed almost charmed by the question, and I found his smile somewhat reassuring.  Gradually he seemed to barely consent that, "This is sorta my job."
"Well, " I ventured, "I was just, kinda' wonderin' if you weren't framin' houses in your spare time.  You see, when you gave me my change, I noticed your palm was pretty calloused."
The Bedordian looked really pissed.  He looked at me briefly, then down at his hand, then looked back up at me drawing his fingers into.... his palm, and smiling.
"I worked five years in the stone yards, Oolitic," said the Bedfordian.
"Look on the bright side dude, even Neaderthals buried their dead with flowers!" I said (I would never.)
"Oolitic, yeah, that's close to here. Down West on 17th, way out," I said.
"Yeah," he smiled again. Seeming perfectly normal.
Right about then I began to realize I was feeling pretty crummy about my prejudices.

I stopped then and stood and talked to the guy, wondering, as he showed me pictures of why he wasn't in school (his kids), why I am so willing to classify poor white folks from the hinterlands, without fear of some serious Karmic disturbances.  I guess I just never really have believed my own talk about the guaranteed wickedness of classifying an entire community (thousands really) all over the face of the country and earth, as fools beneath my contempt, born funny lookin': dumb.  Don't get me wrong, in polite company, like Quakers, or Unitarian sewing groups, you probably couldn't go on about about the stupid rednecks for too long (unless a member of that group had recently been on the local news doing something that gets on an evening broadcast).  But, really, in most circumstances a kid from a redneck family is going to grow up defiant, or ashamed.  And that's do to the choices at our spiritual buffet on offer:  we call you dumb as you came from, and you agree, or you are our object of pity, our enemy.  Or something like that.  While talking with the admittedly not strikingly self assured, composed, articulate, and aggressively ambitious guy at the VP, I couldn't help but shudder at how convulsed with the opposite of compassion I have felt toward the man until his palm scratched the nerves in my hand while giving me change.  How that led to conversation, a kind of mutual sympathy, laying down of arms, and finally real insight into each other is a mystery to me.  The impact of that not happening more between me and others, between all of us who imagine ourselves separated by abstractions, instead of united by our needs and the courage of our humanity, is surely staggering.  Big enough to bring on down, a Bedfordian to... come to think of it, my level.

Andy Coffey

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I Can Hear 'Em Buzzin'

Bill Gates...  I read a random headline on a blog today that indicated Bill Gates decided to make an impression at this years TED conference... by opening a can full of mosquitoes.  The generalized consensus on the blog was a call for outrage, but I'm not feeling it.  In some ways, it seems to me, there is nothing more appropriate than a bunch of kings of culture seething in mortal fear at a can full of mosquitoes.  What do these Bay Area mavens do in the summer, stay near to the cool breeze of the shore?  It must frustrate them when TED invites people calling for systemic change in the way we organize society----- oh wait, that would never happen.  So, the Mosquitoes.  How ironic that a capitalist such as Gates should find himself so desperate to speak to the hearts of the TED congregation.  Their hearts are there.  I actually believe that.  From an evolutionary standpoint, so do the Mosquitoes.

I really enjoy TED, which should be obvious to anyone who reads Brand of Make Believe.  I mention TED constantly, and since I don't avail myself to the charms of television, have plenty of time to watch TED's brilliant and seemingly endless supply of twenty to thirty minute improvisations by technology, entertainment, and design professionals.  Many of the "talks" are ridiculous in tone and exposition, but have nuggets of fascination that keep me from doing more with my attention and eyes then rolling them, and waiting.  Some of the "talks" are genuinely brilliant, humane, and heartfelt.  I try to stay away from the ones that promise advances in longevity, as they remind me a little too much of the fact that we live in a culture that takes license with, rather than takes seriously, our spiritual responsibilities as mortals.  Then again, what culture doesn't.  Oh well, that isn't my problem.

The days grow longer.  Holy Mackeral!  I just found this in thirty seconds by Googling "Chart of the length of the dya".  Yes, Google kindly asked me if I meant "day", not "dya".  Offended at a lack of deference from a mere machine, I clicked its wild guesswork, and damn, if it didn't give me what I actually wanted.  Landsakes!:

For Thursday, Feb Fifth:

Begin Civil Twilight        7:21 AM
Sunrise                               7:49 AM
Sun Transit                       1:00 PM
Sunset                                6:12  PM
End Civil  Twilight           6:40  PM

How do you like that:  "civil twilight".  What a great thing that it actually takes into consideration the dusk and dawn.  This time of year, twenty-eight minutes may not seem like much light before the rise of the sun, or after its setting, but it makes a difference to me.  Some people claim, from what I've heard that February is too dark.  Well, compared to what?  Lets look at December fifth on the same fabulous website: 

SUN December Fifth:

Begin Civil Twilight 7:21 AM
Sunrise 7:51  AM
Sun Transit 12:37  PM
Sunset 5:23  PM
End Civil Twilight 5:53  PM

Notice, and this is consistent from something I read a long time ago, that the actual time of Sunrise has changed little in the intervening two months, but the time of sunset is almost an hour later.  Something to do with the 23 degree angle of the earths axis.  Upon checking Wikipedia, I have found that the day's length relies upon latitude as well.

The point is, we have nearly an hour more daylight in February, than December.  Do you really need data to notice the beautiful rosy glow of the sun an hour later.  Maybe you do.

Enough of that, except one thing:

The present day length in the Northern Hemisphere is about 9 to 10 hours.  The day length in July will be close to fourteen.  It's no wonder I feel so good in my garden round about 9:00 PM in July.  Just incredible to have fourteen hours to get stuff done.  Eight hours of work, six of free time.  In winter, two hours of free time.  At least while you are young it feels like a piece of cake to use that extra time in the summer.

Lastly, yesterday I saw a 60 Minutes show from sometime in the last couple of months (since the market crashed anyhow) about the cost of oil.  While I had realized that the manipulation of the commodity markets by investment bankers had played some role in the price of commodities such as metals and oil, I had felt for a very long time that the price of oil was predominantly a matter of supply and demand, and its rise mostly due to a much larger presence by players in Asia, and the former third world.  The 60 Minutes show contraindicated my assumptions with very very clear evidence.  Investment company assets including oil storage silos on the east coast and extensive pipeline ownership in the west were shown and discussed.  And holdings by the investment companies (banks) were shown to influence the price of oil over the last few years independent of supply and demand.  Even given the increase in the energy demands of China, India, and other emerging economies.  Perhaps most damning of all was the discussion on the show of Enron, and some legislation passed by Enron (well, actually passed by your representatives, paid for in full by Enron:  I guess you shouldn't call something paid for "theft").  This little revelation of how Enron got passed legislation to free up control and monetization of commodities like oil and natural gas is just one of the things that makes me laugh when I hear people's high hopes for Obama.  It is going to take a new attitude on the part of we westerners and toward our representatives and their system of incentives before we have any hope of a President (or God for that matter) making any inroads on our fabulously complex lives.  I keep hearing metaphors that are variations on Warren Buffets comments round about late September 2008 where he compared the US (or the West) to a patient in the ER.  Well, those heart problems turn out to be conveniently treatable compared to the better metaphor I see:  a burn victim with eighty percent of her skin charred.  It's gonna take more than mortally dangerous procedures to fix Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam and the rest of the posse that got sick on these fixins of jimson weed from the powers that were.  How many dollars were taken from the economy (or redistributed) due to the inflation of energy prices from legislation passed by lawmakers and written by criminals?  

Not to beat a dead horse, but it's probably too late to let myself off the hook.  My basic instinct on hearing that 60 Minutes thing was to ask myself what I was thinking when I used (last couple of years) to tell people I thought the rise in the price of energy was a good thing.  I still think, ala Thomas Friedman's argument, that a price floor for energy has to be established in order for the private sector to have a place by which to plan a new energy infrastructure.  It was a new infrastructure that I thought I was seeing an impetus for in the price of energy, and a changing system of values that I thought I was hearing in the frustration of my community, country, family and friends. So I supported that pain, high prices, in hopes for a gain of a new world of conservation, and really, individual awareness of what impacts we are having on the world in terms of our behavioral footprint.  I still pine for these things.  I still pine for a floor for energy prices.  I still believe that the private sector will find a way through these hurdles, and this criminality on the part of Enron's policy progeny.  But it did bother me, watching the numbers on my computer (via the 60 Minutes great reporting) detach themselves from the macro-economic standby of supply and demand.  Why?  Not because I only wished Americans and Westerners in general needed cheaper energy, but also because I had believed we were subsidizing in part, through higher energy prices, the infrastructure that was lifting the remaining undeveloped world into the twenty first century.  It turns out our end of the lever was far shorter than I hoped.  Far shorter than my memory will be in the future as well.

It will not be Obama who gives America its place of leadership, and a new agency by which to exercise our powers.  It will be the exercise of our brains, and our own caution learned by long struggle with our species.  We can hold those fools feet to the fire.  We can discuss the mechanisms of hope, separate from the notional symbolism of politicians.  We can make hope more than an election, and not let the bastards get us down.

Andy Coffey

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Jesus Was A Carpenter---- and yet....

Sometimes you never learn.  Over and over in my life I have lived for a period thinking that I was somehow pretty happy or well off (and certainly always privileged) but somehow missing out on something one friend or another was experiencing, and then a conversation occurs that makes me realize how simple and straightforward my existence really is:  how lucky I am to be in that difficult to explain state of grace that almost embarrasses me to talk about.  Writing in this blog being no exception to this embarrassment. I'd rather talk about the weather... and yet.
The other day I was working with a friend who I hadn't seen in a long time but had for years admired.  She spoke to me about the usual things, and as the hours passed, lunch came and went, then the last hours of the day lay before us, just a little time till we'd be done.
Such moments are peculiar with friends.  Sometimes you tire of one another, or one of you does.  Usually, I suppose, it is the better listener who feels used, and finally decides they've had enough.  "I love this person, but only in small doses."  So while I would usually categorize myself as more of a talker than listener, for some reason, that afternoon, I found myself listening intently to a friend who had a lot on her mind.  
Like I said, for years I have admired this person, and for years enjoyed what time we have had together.  Only now and again do we work together, she's a designer, and I am a carpenter for crying out loud.  
"I'm good at squares and triangles already," I tease her.  
"I hate squares and triangles," she tells me.  
"Don't say that," I reply, wounded by such Euclidean heresy. "Streets are named after Euclid in many, many towns:  who ever named a street after a designer?"
"Jesus was a Carpenter, he ate organic foods,"  she replied.  "He believes in love and peace, and Andy, I hope they kill you too."  
So we go around and around at times.  It isn't philosophy exactly.
Near the end of the day we found ourselves lolligagging, intent on convincing passerby that we were those sort of slothful ass crack workers, enjoying our unearned pay even while pretending to go into the homestretch, approaching the five o' clock blues.  She began to take a fairly earnest tone, and I found myself staring into my old friends eyes, while they teared up a little and she recounted the disappointment of a relationship that had ended last May.  In recounting her experiences, I noticed that I had never realized she had been experiencing the slightest trouble in that relationship other than the usual sort:  things just weren't so great, she merely wanted better.  Whereas the truth had been that for years she had felt enormous desire for the relationship to improve, and even cloaked a secret, almost hopeless desire that her boyfriend would ask her hand in marriage.  Then after a long while it ended.
The amazing thing about my conversation with my friend was not that she had romantic troubles, or had experienced misery.  Those are things most of us can expect from time to time.  The amazing thing for me was how I looked at her due to these issues she had experienced.  Whereas before she was this upwardly mobile, free spirited, woman of the world without a care in the manner of old world expectations of domestic contentment.  Now she appeared just another fragile person, lost in the oldest lyrics of unrequited love.  I had experienced her always on a pedestal, soaring somehow with the high flyers of the world.  And all this while she had merely (even if in flight) wanted a nest, a place to abide, someone to share the deeper patterns of life than sight of the sun dappled earth on the wing.  It was startling, really, the difference between what I imagined, and what she experienced.  And it was startling the difference between her and myself.  I had for so long imagined her as living in emotional realms somewhat more exciting than me.  I had imagined her as having a security I couldn't really expect at this stage in my life.  I had imagined, in short, her a happy person that she was not. And somehow I had imagined myself as less secure and (frankly) happy than I am.
Well... we finished the job, and knew we'd have a little more work together in the near future, then went to dinner to continue the conversation.  I could tell this wasn't a subject she particularly wanted to bring up routinely (and really, that's a mercy).  I might of learned something about listening that day.  All the regular stuff about actively listening, and repeating what you hear back, sure.  All the regular stuff about talking in the same ratio as your two ears to your one mouth, sure.  But what about the gifts of recognition that the narrative of another brings to you.  You read about the power of narratives in our lives to deceive us, to cause us to imagine our world as a predictable and recognizable place, whereas in matter of fact it is anything but.  You read (or hear, or believe) that the world is inexplicable, unknowable, has no end and no beginning.  You maybe start to believe that all stories we tell each other are a little foolish.  We a bunch of ants, crawling in alarm at the overturned logs of the bigger more real world.  Mice and men and all that Jazz.  And then, you get washed up in the story of your suffering friend.  Someone you admire for all the right reasons.  Someone you have always felt gave promise to a world that the purist cynic and pessimist could not afford to believe in.  Someone who now told you of the darkness that they had been in even while you believed them happy.
I can see how her story might confuse me.  Turns out I can't count on people being as happy as they act.  Can you see, however, how she moves me?  How the failure of her narrative to account for her behavior only speaks to the host of things that makes us human beings so much more than life forms, or animals, or risk averse actors in a web of self vs. social interest.  Sometimes the personhood of another reaches out and rearranges the letters that spell your bonds of friendship out.  And you realize that those old words look foreign now, but your selves are lit anew.

Andy Coffey

Monday, February 2, 2009

Egg Timer Blog

Since I seem to get carried away every time I write a post, I am naming todays post after the activity I am engaged in just now, cooking hard boiled eggs.  I guess I figure that I should be able to write at least one blog entry a day in the time it takes to cook eggs, start to finish.  Thirty or forty minutes max (from entry to kitchen, to dishes done). Not plopping eggs than scooping them out.  No way.  That's not nearly enough time.

Today was just a beautiful day.  The wintertime gets old, as everyone knows.  But I'll never forget when I was a baker, how after I was done baking, it would be like eight in the morning, and my workday was nearly finished.  The last thing I did every shift was take out the trash.  And it was a rare day that there wasn't a little sun in the midmorning I walked out into.  Your body would feel limber from the effort of baking (considerable), and your breath would come out in clouds like steam, and you were feeling the cold, but enjoying it.  Then after my shift I would walk or drive the seven or eight blocks home, and man the morning looked so beautiful, in its crystalline, shimmering loveliness.  Times like those it was hard to imagine what it would be like to walk those same streets and feel any sort of melancholy.  Lucky me, I suppose.

After supposedly the sixth largest snowfall since folks began measuring such things (occasionally I think I can see why they waited so long;  I mean, who cares how the weather ranks; though I know that's practically a crazy thing to even suggest) we immediately received a string of days in the fiftyish degrees category.  The animal tracks disappeared from the surface of the snow, and water dripped from everything.  It has been so nice.

Then this evening I went down the street to eat some Chinese, and while sitting and eating looked out the window at two storm clouds that looked like they were dancing, so twisted and beautiful were their movements.  They were backlist by the sun, so their edges were in flame, and one cloud was closer than the other, so the sun bounced off the back side of the close one and lit one of the bottom facets of the other giving it such a beautiful glow.  I stared and stared.  Water surely cannot realize how lovely it is.  It cracks me up to imagine a schoolteacher telling his class, "Statistically, there is guaranteed to be at least a little of the Water from Julius Caesar in that cloud."  The real question,I suppose, is whether that is significant or not. My guess is not.  Leave it to Caesar. 

Well, sad to say, but my eggs are nearly done.  I only have time for one or two more things.

My Grandfathers funeral was the other day.  It was a real shock when he passed away so quickly once he went into hospice.  It seems like he was truly ready to die once he realized there was almost nothing that could be done for him.  The funeral was a huge surprise due to the fact that the current Priest at my Grandparents long time Church is not only from India, but also fantastically well spoken, mellifluous, and balanced in his handling of my Grandfathers memory.  He actually called my Grandfather a saint.  You would figure such a statement would not go over very well with Catholics, but nobody stirred.  My Grandfather was something else.  The big joke the whole time we were at the viewing of his body (in the funeral home next to the house my Mother grew up in) everybody recalled holding Grandpa's hand and walking down the street in our respective childhoods (we all had done it).  The wall in front of the funeral home was just the sort of wall that can't be resisted by kids.  We all loved climbing on it.  Most of us apparently had asked Grandpa at one time or another, "Grandpa, what is that building."  And in the classic colloquialism of Grandpa, he'd reply, "Oh, you don't wanna go in there."  That's right Gramps.  We didn't want to.

Egg Timer Ringing