Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Sunday, October 30, 2005


Today, in this neck of the woods, we broke a record for earliest accumulating snowfall that has stood since 1892.

Holidays with pagan roots are vastly more in tune with the cycles of nature than the artificial creations of politics and religion. I suggest we have Halloween/All Saints Day/Day of the Dead because (in this hemisphere) we are in a fortnight in which anything can happen and usually does. If one can have snow one day, unseasonable heat the next, and a hurricane the day after that, it is easy to think the boundaries of the palpable world are uncommonly shaky about now.

I've also been reading, with amusement, the contents of a Web list I'm on. There, maternal defensiveness has been outraged by the recent argument that Halloween candy horror stories are urban legends. The evidence, of course, is all on the side of the urban legends proponents. That does not deter the "friend of a friend of a friend" defence, which is of course the hallmark of urban legend.

One of the things I enjoy most about Halloween is that it endures despite all the people and institutions that hate it. It is disturbingly primal, after all: a feast of misrule that the forces of order and decorum are bound to detest. The earthiness defies the efforts of capitalist materialism to sanitise
it and draw its fangs. American evangelicals hate it because it's "the devil's holiday." Jews hate it because it's paganism filtred through Christianity. There's a mainstream American protestant cultural suspicion of Halloween because those dirty Irish Catholics brought it here. (Very few people articulate that in such direct terms today, but it's there, and it's why doctrinaire conservatives hate Halloween.) Doctrinaire liberals apparently don't like giving kids a night off from the evils of candy (they of course never touch the stuff).

The summary is that if you enjoy giving the finger to convention, you like Halloween and will do things to rescue it from homogenisation. If you are a defender of order (no matter what flavour your establishment is) you can't and won't like it.

Friday, October 28, 2005


It must really suck to appreciate that Patrick Fitzgerald has what Shrub needs in a Supreme Court nominee:

1) Cojones.
2) A focus on doing the job he was hired to do.
3) The respect (sometimes grudging) of both political parties.

And, oh yes, we can take a wild-ass guess from the name that man is at least culturally Catholic.

How fucking hard is it to get that this is what people want in those who are charged with defending their liberties? Apparently, it's impossible to grasp if you're a Bushie or a Republican pundit.

I skipped the sense of humour and the latent sadism: how else to account for an outcome that leaves Weasel-in-Chief Rove twisting in the wind?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Wasn't That Special?

So, Harriet has taken one for the team. That at least is in character.

I don't recall whether I've already said this, but the most interesting news photo of the past ten days was of Dubya at the press op where he tried to dismiss the mounting criticism of his administration as "noise." It was a photo of a profoundly angry man barely in control of his rage. Keep in mind this very angry guy lives about two blocks from the widest selection of nose candy in the continental US, and has been reported (reliably or not) to have snorted at Camp David when Daddy was in charge. The unvarnished Shrub appears to be a man of unparalleled vindictiveness, so it will be interesting indeed to see where he directs that repressed anger. On the whole, it would be better to have him smack down the religious right politically than to go invade another country. There's a short list of national and world leaders who ought to be losing sleep over the idea of an uncontrolled US leader and controlled substances rubbing elbows in the same city. Maybe sticking him in Crawford wasn't a bad idea.

It's struck me that reactionary movements in America have a short half-life. The first Great Awakening got some mileage for nearly a decade, only to collapse exhausted by its own emotional excesses. The Confederacy was in a state of internal collapse before it was two years old, done in by its own contradictions as much as the military power of its enemy. The "Republican Revolution" appears to be irretrievably sunk in corruption and conflicting agendas at scarcely 11 years of age. One wonders if it would have lasted longer with a leader of equal intellectual timber to George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards. Instead, we get a second-rate clone of Alfred E. Newman.

What, him worry? If I were him, I sure as hell would.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

More Romanism

Comments from my spouse...I should have paid more attention to the attributions, but....

I should explain that my wife is bona fide, both sides, Irish Catholic, formed by nine years of parochial education, as opposed to my half-arsed, hemi-demi-semi mixed-heritage Catholic exposure.

The tenor of this piece she was reading makes a lot of sense, and it was that the Catholic position on sex made sense...once.

It made sense when about a fifth of all children born alive didn't live past age five, which happened until the middle of the 19th century. (NB: don't believe the bullshit about uniformly higher rates of death. That level of infant mortality is about all a low-reproductive-rate mammalian species can sustain and still exist.)

It made sense when few marriages lasted more than 15 years or so, and when most represented economic, not romantic, alliances.

Celibacy made sense when providing for a family became the chief preoccupation of all but a fortunate minority of people who married, thus interfering with one's capacity for altruism.

Unfortunately, the ideas that once made sense have outlived their value, and have outlived a conscious appreciation of the reasons that once supported them. In business schools, this is called "institutional momentum," widely taught as a very hard force to stop. I once worked for a cultural institution that had existed since 1799, and which had deployed essentially the same solution to its problems every generation since 1867. That momentum was unstoppable, but it was nothing compared to two millenia of Christian institutional momentum.

One some level, Christianity has appreciated the challenge of the present for over 150 years. The present battlefield is same-sex marriage. Much is rightly made of the parallels between today's arguments and those arrayed against emancipation. Similar arguments were made later (and in my lifetime) against interracial marriage. No one that I can see is eager to point out that Christianity was just as violently opposed to the introduction of antisepsis to perinatal care, a generation before the Civil War, and skeptical (at least) of anaesthesia at nearly the same time. (Institutional Christianity was, at least: the same can't be said of most Christian physicans.) These earlier battlegrounds remain like moraine fields marking the retreat of a glacier. The initial reaction of institutions is to oppose change, rather than reassess principle.

It is harder to assess why Christian institutions have lately become fixated on sex rather than social justice as the touchstone of faith. How else can one explain that a Catholic church that encouraged and succoured sub rosa liturgies and political resistance in places like Ireland and Poland now suppresses the same impulse in Latin America? Social justice hasn't anything to do with abortion--the johnny-come-lately of doctrinal issues--or birth control, or celibacy, so it has be content with the doctrinal table scraps.

Putting a Protestant spin on it, how does one explain a concept of sex education that obsessively extols the wonders of sex, and then says (to adolescents adrift in a sea of their own hormones) "you can't have it until you partake of this arbitrary contract."

Dammit, this isn't religion: this is psychosis. Of course, one could argue that the line between religion and psychosis has always been a bit fuzzy, but psychosis that supported resistance to political oppression had the excuse of good intention (which in Catholic doctrine is a really big deal).

Funny thing is that the Jewish magician didn't have anything to say about abortion, or birth control, or same-sex marriage, one way or the other. He did say something to the effect that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It's one of those awkward scriptural moments that seems to get filtered out.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Oh, it's irresistible

News Item: Bird Flu Found in Quarantined Dead Parrot

You know what happens next, don't you? As I've said before, Monty Python is the meaning of life.

...Mr. Praline: 'Ello, Miss?

Owner: What do you mean "miss"?

Mr. Praline: I'm sorry, I have a cold. I wish to make a complaint!

Owner: We're closin' for lunch.

Mr. Praline: Never mind that, my lad. I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.

Owner: Oh yes, the, uh, the Norwegian Blue...What's,uh...What's wrong with it?

Mr. Praline: I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. 'E's dead, that's what's wrong with it!

Owner: No, no, 'e's uh,...he's resting.

Mr. Praline: Look, matey, I know a dead parrot when I see one, and I'm looking at one right now.

Owner: No no he's not dead, he's, he's restin'! Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue, idn'it, ay? Beautiful plumage!

Mr. Praline: The plumage don't enter into it. It's stone dead.

Owner: Nononono, no, no! 'E's resting!

Mr. Praline: All right then, if he's restin', I'll wake him up! (shouting at the cage) 'Ello, Mister Polly Parrot! I've got a lovely fresh cuttle fish for you if you show...

(owner hits the cage)

Owner: There, he moved!

Mr. Praline: No, he didn't, that was you hitting the cage!

Owner: I never!!

Mr. Praline: Yes, you did!

Owner: I never, never did anything...

Mr. Praline: (yelling and hitting the cage repeatedly) 'ELLO POLLY!!!!! Testing! Testing! Testing! Testing! This is your nine o'clock alarm call!

(Takes parrot out of the cage and thumps its head on the counter. Throws it up in the air and watches it plummet to the floor.)

Mr. Praline: Now that's what I call a dead parrot.

Owner: No, no.....No, 'e's stunned!

Mr. Praline: STUNNED?!?

Owner: Yeah! You stunned him, just as he was wakin' up! Norwegian Blues stun easily, major.

Mr. Praline: look, mate, I've definitely 'ad enough of this. That parrot is definitely deceased, and when I purchased it not 'alf an hour ago, you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it bein' tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk.

Owner: Well, he's...he's, ah...probably pining for the fjords.

Mr. Praline: PININ' for the FJORDS?!?!?!? What kind of talk is that?, look, why did he fall flat on his back the moment I got 'im home?

Owner: The Norwegian Blue prefers keepin' on it's back! Remarkable bird, id'nit, squire? Lovely plumage!

Mr. Praline: Look, I took the liberty of examining that parrot when I got it home, and I discovered the only reason that it had been sitting on its perch in the first place was that it had been NAILED there.


Owner: Well, o'course it was nailed there! If I hadn't nailed that bird down, it would have nuzzled up to those bars, bent 'em apart with its beak, and VOOM! Feeweeweewee!

Mr. Praline: "VOOM"?!? Mate, this bird wouldn't "voom" if you put four million volts through it! 'E's bleedin' demised!

Owner: No no! 'E's pining!

Mr. Praline: 'E's not pinin'! 'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!


Owner: Well, I'd better replace it, then. (he takes a quick peek behind the counter) Sorry squire, I've had a look 'round the back of the shop, and uh, we're right out of parrots.

Mr. Praline: I see. I see, I get the picture.

Owner: I got a slug.


Mr. Praline: Pray, does it talk?

Owner: Nnnnot really.


Owner: N-no, I guess not. (gets ashamed, looks at his feet)

Mr. Praline: Well.


Owner: (quietly) D'you.... d'you want to come back to my place?

Mr. Praline: (looks around) Yeah, all right, sure.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

If anyone's wondering

Much as I would like to See the Cardinals take the NLCS, as a reward to the fairest-minded team and fans the Red Sox could have had as World Series opponents, I think it's futile.

I don't think Gabriel and the Heavenly Host could beat the White Sox this year.


Dayyum! I think I'll get into sports betting....

Alarums and Diversions

False Alarm is on my reserved reading list, having browsed it past the point of decency from a library display. It should be on the reading list of anyone with a brain.

Among my several identities I'm a skeptic, a contrarian, and an American of immediate British ancestry. The latter makes me very much inclined to adopt the stiff upper lip approach to real calamity. The former two dispose me to ask for evidence of calamity, and to decline to panic when a well-oiled hysteria machine wants me to panic.

That's the bulk of my response to the bird flu calamity. Let me sum up the rest in the impious hope that Dubya has indeed forgotten the lesson of Gerald Ford and the swine flu.

Speaking of pious hopes... Does this not seem like a defining moment for the "people of faith?" It seems to me that such people should consider bird flu a test of their devotion. They should forswear flu shots, secure in the belief that pandemics are a scourge sent to rid the world of the ungodly hosts, and they will be protected by the sword and buckler of the Almighty.

I'll take the shot, thanks... And then we shall see.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Who's on First?

The best political comedy is always unintentional. Witness the latest Homeland Security flare into foul territory.

Granted, an attack on New York subways is a generally plausible idea. But, umm, let's think.

I can well imagine that a desert-dwelling fanatical Iraqi insurgent would think it a great idea to take on the New York subway system at rush hour on the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend. The last time I was on a New York subway on a holiday weekend it was umm, slightly less than packed? So okay, the L line was moderately busy but the A trains were stopping at stations if a) the operator spotted someone on the platform in time and b) he/she was in the mood. Let's just say the opportunities seem a little spotty if you want to blow up someone besides yourself. Isn't that why the global terror network is global, to subject the ideas of some jackal-roasting yokel to a reality check?

Poor Dubya: he
really needed a Weapon of Mass Distraction: you could get a headache trying to remember all the reasons. I feel safer every day, knowing that Chertoff can't even hit the right panic button. I would be more concerned if I wasn't convinced that our devious foes are at least as stupid as the flunkies of Homeland Security.

Once again, god is on the side with the fewest morons, and it's still a dead heat.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Expressive language, Welsh...

Recently, I found out that the Welsh word pwll (pronounced, more or less, "poosh") means both "pool," as in swimming pool (yn pwll nofio) and "pit," as in mine shaft.

Current and former competitive swimmers will not be surprised at this.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Culture Club

A quiet consequence of Vatican II has been the rise, over the past 40 years, of the secular Catholic. Like that more established analogue, the secular Jew, the secular Catholic identifies for good or ill with the social context of his or her former religion, well after the tug of faith has subsided into indifference or agnosticism. Like the secular Jew, the secular Catholic's existence is denied in one breath by the Church, and invalidated in the next; the invalidation being a back-handed acknowledgement of existence.

I know of no systematic study, but I rather suspect that secular Catholicism comes most naturally to national groups who have experienced the solidifying effects of persecution. Irish and Polish Catholics, for example, came to this country as the losers in religious conflict in their own nation. They arrived to discover an America in which the prejudices were chiefly a difference of degree, rather than intent. Struggling to avoid being locked into a permanent underclass is a more promising conflict than one in which you face the immediate threat of violent death. Catholics from Latin nations, having always been top dog, tend to skip the intermediate stage that secular Catholicism represents and go directly to atheism. I can't say which approach is healthier, only that secular Catholicism is out there.

The secular Catholic is heir to the healthy tradition of anti-clercialism, which deftly draws a line between the spiritual aspirations of the laity, and the political aspirations of the clergy in general and the hierarchy in particular. The anti-clerical finds the former as admirable as the latter is despicable.

The Catholic Church institutional today appears quite willing to ignore that the five-century old animosity by Protestants toward Catholic laity is far from dead, in order to advance agendas that are tangential to Catholic doctrine. It is actively promoting an interpretation of civil marriage that is heresy by any informed reading of Catholic tradition. It advances both to kiss up to right-wing Protestants for support of its positions on abortion and birth control. Both were formulated in the past 150 years, which is the day before yesterday in the church's chronology. The entire gay marriage issue may be nothing more than a desperate attempt to prove to the Protestants that a celibate clergy is not a gay clergy, a prolonged reaction to eons of denial of clerical child abuse.

I seem to have climbed through the secular ceiling into clearer light, but I still hear these and similar ponderings from secular Catholics I know. I am greatly concerned that many proponents of both abortion rights and gay rights no longer hear such reflections, if indeed they ever did. It is far easier to fall back on centuries of habit, more convenient to think of American Catholics as a priest-driven rabble who do exactly what their clergy says.

I am still enough of a secular Catholic to be deeply worried about that. Is the only acceptable response to the ham-handed politics of the contemporary Catholic hierarchy a return to "no Irish need apply," or "dogs and Catholics keep off the grass?"

What say we try to get rid of hate and intolerance and have nothing in its place? One step to that goal would be to direct one's anger at institutions, not at the people they oppress. Regrettably, that's a distinction that the American Left has been ignoring for decades.