Monday, September 30, 2013

Little green men

Here they come, a fleet of space ships, landing on a tiny asteroid, sinking their test probes through the crust into the body of the orb (click to enlarge).

Well, no. We are looking at viruses attacking a bacterium, a provocative image from the 23 August issue of Science. They have attached themselves to the cell wall and are injecting their genome, syringe-like, into the body of the cell, where it will hijack the bacterium's reproductive machinery. I can't tell you how the image was made, because no info was given, but I can't stop looking at it. A little skirmish in the never ending cell wars, on a scale too small to be visible with the best optical microscope.

Viruses are the most numerous biological entities on Earth. We live and breathe in a sea of viruses. No one is quite sure of their origin. Are they alive? They can't reproduce on their own. They need living cells. My cells sometimes.


We have defenses, of course. A vast security system evolved to recognize and crush alien invaders, pathogens of every sort. The body's first line of defense is the outer walls: the skin, with its impregnable barrier of keratin, and the mucus membranes. Other exterior membranes are flushed with fluids: saliva, tears, and nasal secretions. The skin and the lower intestinal tract harbor populations of benign bacteria that do battle for the body the way pacified tribes on the marches fought for the Roman Empire.

Most effective of all the body's defenses are the lymphocytes, the agents of the immune response. Lymphocytes are small, round, non-dividing cells that are always on the alert. At any time there are as many as 2 trillion lymphocytes patrolling the human body.

And we have something no other plant or animal can muster: brains smart enough to extend and supplement the defenses nature gave us. I got my flu shot last week. Gave my immune system a boost. My wife was one of the last Americans to get polio. This before I knew her, and just before Jonas Salk gave his vaccine to the world in 1955. One brilliant human brain against that fleet of little green men from outer space.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Shiver my timbers -- a Saturday reprise

An essay in last week's TLS (Times Literary Supplement) reveals a new source that Robert Louis Stevenson almost certainly drew upon when writing Treasure Island -- a earlier pirate story by C. E. Pearce called Billy Bo'swain. It has long been recognized that Stevenson borrowed widely for his famous novel; he admitted as much. He did not, apparently, acknowledge Pearce. Innocent filching or plagiarism? The author of the TLS essay, John Sutherland, makes it a close call.

Anyway, the TLS essay pushed lots of memory buttons. Treasure Island was the first novel I ever read, from cover to cover, by myself, even before I went on to the Hardy Boys and Red Randall. I remember almost nothing about the latter books; I remember almost everything about Treasure Island.

"Fifteen men on a dead man's chest -- Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum." Blind Pew. Long John Silver. Missing leg. Parrot on the shoulder. X marks the spot. Spy-glass Hill. A glistening pile of minted gelt. And, of course, Jim Hawkins, a hero who makes Frank Hardy seem like a cardboard cut-out. That's Jim above, taking leave of his mother to go seeking treasure.

I remember, too, each and every one of N. C. Wyeth's illustrations -- luminous, muscular, bristling with menace. What Tenniel is to Alice and Shepard is to Pooh, Wyeth is to Treasure Island.

How explain the book's tenacity on the fading circuits of my brain? I fetched it from the shelf here in the college library and gave it a read.

It is good. It is uncommonly good. Stevenson may have been a borrower, but he was a terrific storyteller. The writers he borrowed from are mostly forgotten; Treasure Island is still with us.

Or is it? I suspect mine was the last generation of boys to read the book. Boys don't seem to read any more, and girls are in thrall to the likes of Harry Potter, which, from a literary point of view, is a cut below Treasure Island.

I greatly enjoyed re-reading the book, at age 75. Maybe I'm reverting to boyhood. But maybe too I appreciated the moral ambiguities, the conflicted loyalties, the nuanced shadings of good and evil. Treasure Island is a subversive book, a ripping yarn that leads a young reader by the hand into a world where dogmatic simplicities are of little use.

(This post originally appeared in December 2011.)

Friday, September 27, 2013

Memory bump?

A review in the September 12 issue of Science of Douwe Draaisma's The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time and Aging. Apparently, one thing Draaisma talks about is what he calls the "reminiscence-curve bump." He references studies of what elderly people remember, the number of memories for each age. Memories start from age three or four, rise to a peak around 20 years old, then fall rapidly. Recent events are remembered, as one might expect, but middle age is pretty much a memory desert.

According to the review: "Draaisma argues that the bump in the reminiscence curve has less to do with the ability of the young adult brain to store memories efficiently and more to do with the quality of memories accrued as we set out on independent adult life."

So what about this blog? It would take too much time to actually do the tabulation, but I have a strong sense that if I compiled the memories recorded here over the past nine years Draaisma's thesis would be confirmed: a curve rising from about age five, plateauing in young adulthood (18-25), then dropping fast. Those were indeed intense years, when the past was confronted and the future forged. Science, religion, love, sex: I am today, to a large extent, the person I became then.

So it would seem that events lived most intensely linger most vididly in memory.

But what about dreams? Dreams draw on memory too. What places do I dream about? Never the places or houses I have lived in all my adult life. And never the places I lived during those crucial years of 18 to 25. Almost exclusively the town (Chattanooga) and house I lived in as a child. This would suggest that dreams draw on memories from a different bank than does conscious reminiscence, a deeper more jumbled repository.

We know very little about memory -- how memories are stored, maintained and retrieved. Sometimes it seems miraculous. But then I think of my Mac Air and all that it remembers and I realize that the seemingly impossible is possible. This will be the century of the brain. By century's end, the mystery of memory will likely be resolved. I wish I were going to be around for the resolution.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


The on-line magazine Slate recently featured a gallery of stunning photographs of bees and wasps by the U. S. Geological Survey Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. Do check it out. I am particularly fond of the sweat bee flecked with pollen.

Golden angel. Go-between. Facilitator of flower sex. Sperm bearer. Messenger of want.

Little Eros. Cupid. Sipping nectar. Sprinkled with the spice of love. All those stamens, all those pistils, waiting for your winged shuttle. Baited with sweetness.

"What is this dark hum among the roses?" asks Mary Oliver in a poem. And then again: "It's love almost too fierce to endure, the bee/ nuzzling like that into the blouse/ of the rose."

Flowers and bees. Locked in a long evolutionary embrace. A hundred million years of mutual advantage. Come, little emissary. Taste my honey. I'll dust you with the gild of sex. Fly away there. Wearing my garment of woo.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Historians of medicine are not the only ones interested in the two Thomas Eakins paintings we looked at yesterday. Freudian analysts have had a field day.

Eakins was a strange and complex man. He had a fascination, one might say obsession, with the human body. Not only did both men and women pose naked in his life classes (hardly unusual), but he encouraged male and female students and family members to pose in the nude. He was quick to discard his own clothes to be photographed with naked models. Further, he required his male and female students to dissect cadavers, a gory and stinky business unprecedented in American art academies. Something of this vaguely morbid and voyeuristic tendency is said to be at work in the bared buttocks and breast of the Clinic paintings.

Eakins' mystifying sexuality has been much discussed by biographers and critics, much of it ascribed to the younger Eakins' fraught relationships with his parents. The domineering Dr. Gross, in The Gross Clinic, has been taken to stand in for Eakins' father, the cringing woman for his mother, and the almost invisible patient for the artist himself. All of this has been discussed at length in, for example, art historian Henry Adams' Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist (2005).

Was Eakins homosexual? The question has been endlessly debated. Certainly homoerotic. I'll leave you with his iconic painting Swimming, which depicts Eakins and five of his male students on a day's outing (click to enlarge). That's Eakins in the water at bottom right. A Google search will yield the artist's less-guarded photographs taken the same day.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

In the clinic

The American artist Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) is perhaps best known for his paintings of rowers on Philadelphia's rivers, but two of his major works are interesting documents in the history of scientific medicine.

The Gross Clinic (1875) is a huge painting, 96 by 78 inches, and took a year to execute (click to enlarge). It shows Dr. Samuel Gross and his surgical team removing infected bone from the thigh of an adolescent boy (or possibly girl) before an audience of students in the amphitheater of the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. We see little of the patient but the exposed thigh and buttocks. The patient's mother (presumably) cringes nearby. A clerk make notes of the proceedings.

Ether and chloroform had been in use for surgery since the middle of the 19th century, and Dr. Gross's patient is presumably feeling no pain. Surely, few discoveries have more radically transformed medicine than the use of effective anesthetics. By 1875, Joseph Lister in England had pioneered the idea of sterile surgery, including the sterilization of surgical instruments with carbolic acid, greatly reducing deaths by post-operative infections. Gross was defiantly behind the curve in this regard, in spite of his lofty reputation.

A second painting on the same theme, The Agnew Clinic, followed in 1889, depicting Dr. David Hayes Agnew and assistants performing a partial mastectomy at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. Everyday frock coats have been replaced with clean, white over-garments, hands are washed, instruments are sterilized, and a nurse (a woman!) is in attendance. As in the earlier painting, the artist has placed himself in the audience; that's him at furthest right. The other spectators are doctors associated with the school, individually recognizable.

In my opinion, The Gross Clinic is far superior as a work of art. The composition forcefully draws the viewer into the scene. The lighting focuses our attention on the brow of the surgeon and the patient's incision. The audience is in semi-darkness. Blood is in evidence, especially on the scalpel in the surgeon's hand. Everything is contrived for dramatic effect. The viewer might as well be there leaning over the patient with instrument in hand, or shrinking like the woman from participation. It is impossible to be emotionally uninvolved.

The Agnew Clinic, on the other hand, is not only biologically sterile; it is emotionally aseptic too, as represented by the apparently bored attitudes of the audience. Only Dr. Agnew's open right hand suggests a hint of passion. This, of course, is what we have come to expect of scientific medicine: cool dispassion and sterile scrubs.

There is much more to say about these two paintings, and about the artist himself. More tomorrow.

Monday, September 23, 2013

In the society of ducks

Ah, yes, Flannery O'Connor. Saint Flannery. The Blessed Mother of Catholic literature.

I'm not being smart-assed or disrespectful. O'Connor richly deserves her high regard, both for her literary gifts and her fidelity to the Church. And besides, she was a wonderfully complex and fascinating human being.

Now here she is in the pages of The New Yorker, nearly 50 years after her early death at age 39. We are given excerpts from the journal she kept as a young aspiring writer at the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1946. The entries are in the form of prayers, addressed unabashedly to God.

They will resonate with many Catholics who came of age in the 1940s and 50s. Certainly they resonate with me. She is caught in a struggle between self-absorption and surrender, between a love of things and a purifying asceticism, between aspirations for literary success and pursuit of the transcendent. "Please help me get down under things and find where You are," she prays. And again: "Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace."

And then, in the midst of these familiar (and sometimes painfully inscrutable) struggles, comes this startling entry:
No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist.
The two sentences jump off the page, leap out of the youthful crisis of faith. They take us into another level of reflection, more Zen koan than Thomas Aquinas. Not a prayer, but a meditation on the possibility of prayer.

An unresolved meditation. A meditation wrapped in a conundrum. A meditation that can only be answered with silence.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Keep looking

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The A to Z of knowledge -- a Saturday reprise

Our college library is organized on the Library of Congress classification system. The last book in the collection -- ZA 4234.G64 J431 2007 -- is Jean-Noel Jeanneney's Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge. Jeanneney is president of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. His little book is a cri de couer from someone who thinks Google's big project to scan entire (American) libraries of books into their searchable data base is an assault upon non-English-speaking cultures. What Google calls "universal knowledge," says Jeanneney, is really American knowledge. And further, it is knowledge out of context. A Google search will bring up individual pages of books, he says, but those pages can only have meaning within the context of the whole work. Jeanneney is not a Luddite; he knows that search engines are invaluable tools. But he would like to see Europe and other cultural regimes build their own searchable data bases independent of Google's (or anyone else's) commercial control. He writes: "We should be less interested in the utopian dream of exhaustiveness than in aspiring to the richest, the most intelligent, the best organized, the most accessible of all possible selections."

It occurred to me to see what is the first book in our library's collection. By happy coincidence, it turns out to be -- AC1.G7 v. 1 -- The Great Conversation, Robert Hutchins' thin introductory volume to the Britannica Great Books of the Western World. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, and others at the University of Chicago, undertook with the Britannica company to compile the best of western philosophy, science and literature into fifty-four volumes. To read these books, writes Hutchins in his introduction, is to participate in the "great conversation" of Western history, and to acquire a liberal education. The reception of the project was not altogether enthusiastic. It was variously criticized as arbitrary, elitist, self-serving, and unreadable. One wonders what would have been Monsieur Jeanneney's reaction.

Although I've read a goodly number of them in other editions, I was never enamored of the Great Books. The idea of spending a good chunk of my life reading my way mechanically through that ponderous collection always struck me as bizarre. Better to have a fine library to run wild in, following one's enthusiasms of the moment, discovering one's own "great books" serendipitously, taking the whole of AC1.G7 v. 1 to ZA 4234.G64 J431 2007 as a happy hunting ground. Stuffy old Hutchins and Adler can stuff it. I'll give Jeanneney this: Google and the internet are invaluable tools-- I use them all day, every day -- but without access to a library of good old-fashioned books my life would be much diminished.

(This post originally appeared in May 2007.)

Friday, September 20, 2013

The sadist next door

The current TLS (Times Literary Supplement) has an absorbing review of American Historian Joel Harrington's book on the manuscript diary of a 16th-century German executioner, Franz Schmidt of Nuremberg. Remarkably, Schmidt kept a full record of the criminals he executed, the crimes they perpetrated, and the gruesome ways they met their fate. It is a tale that would chill most 21st-century readers.

Hangings, beheadings, burnings at the stake, and breakings with the wheel. In the latter custom, a heavy cartwheel is dropped onto the person to be executed, who is tied down spreadeagled on the execution platform, starting with the feet and working the way up to the head. There are also less final punishments: floggings, finger-choppings, ear-choppings, brandings, and an ingenious catalog of tortures.

For Herr Schmidt, it was all in a day's work. He might as well have been a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. He had a family to support, and he was good at his job. His neighboring townspeople attended the executions. It was good public entertainment.

Of course, there is nothing unique to the 16th century or Germany about any of this. Hideous tortures and executions have been part of human history from the beginning. Think of the Roman gladiatorial entertainments with their cheering crowds. Or the public stonings, beheadings and amputations still common in certain parts of the world today. It seems that only in the post-Enlightenment West do we look with disapprobation on Herr Schmidt's trade, ostensibly at least. We have the grisly torture chambers of the Gestapo and NKVD to remind us that Enlightenment values are fragile.

All of which raises the question: Is taking pleasure in the infliction of pain on others nature or nurture? Are we born with a good angel on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other? How do we explain the huge popularity of slasher movies and shoot-'em-up video games? Is there something of Herr Schmidt in all of us?

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Yesterday, I quoted Ronald Dworkn's definition of religion, as reported by James Carroll:
Religion is a deep, distinct, and comprehensive worldview: It holds that inherent, objective value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring, that human life has purpose and the universe order. A belief in god is only one possible manifestation or consequence of that worldview.
"Religion is a deep, distinctive and comprehensive worldview." Yes.

"It holds that objective value permeates everything." The word "objective" here seems problematic. It smacks of tablets from on high. I would delete it. Value is something the religious person intuits. It is a human construct, perhaps shaped by natural selection, and in that sense inherent in nature, but not independent from nature, which the word "objective" needlessly suggests.

"That the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring." Yes.

"That human life has purpose." Yes, it is part of the religious instinct to believe that human life has purpose. But that purpose does not come as a set of revealed instructions. It is formulated as a result of biological and cultural evolution. It is negotiated between the individual and society. Do good and avoid evil. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

"The universe [has] order." And disorder. As a species, we walk a tightrope over a chasm of extinction, exploiting the order, explored through science, to our technological advantage.

"A belief in god is only one possible manifestation or consequence of that worldview." But with liberty and justice for all.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


"In Massachusetts, an atheist challenge to the "under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance is winding its way through the courts, to be decided in coming months by the Supreme Judicial Court."

So begins a recent op-ed by James Carroll in the Boston Globe. Carroll is a regular Globe columnist, a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, a former Roman Catholic priest, and "Catholic dissident," whom I much admire. Before I get to his take on the Pledge issue, let me add a few words of my own.

The "under God" thing is a tempest in a teapot. Religious fundamentalists are always trying to squeeze us all into their particular theistic pot, and non-believers protest being crammed down the spout. As you might expect, I have no fondness for God-talk in our public institutions, but there are bigger battles to be fought than this one. I always thought the Pledge was rather silly anyway. What does it mean to "pledge allegiance" to a flag or "the republic for which it stands"? Does it bar dissent from national policy? Does it make flag burning a crime? Let us hope not. I'm a proud and loyal American under God or without him. Reciting some rote pledge is simply irrelevant.

Carroll essentially agrees, but he uses the Pledge issue to talk about the recently departed Ronald Dworkin's just-published book Religion Without God. Dworkin, a prominent professor of law at New York University, argues that religion is deeper than God:
Religion is a deep, distinct, and comprehensive worldview: It holds that inherent, objective value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring, that human life has purpose and the universe order. A belief in god is only one possible manifestation or consequence of that worldview.
I will deconstruct this definition tomorrow, Carroll seems to take it at face value, and agrees with Dworkin that the God of the fundamentalist (and the Pledge) reduces religion to a kind of petty idolatry. He quotes Paul Tillich to the effect that the literalism of most God-talk "deprives God of his ultimacy."

This, of course, is what I was getting at in When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy. The God of the Pledge, that stick man, that chief honcho who lives up there in Heaven and whom we live "under" (not in), is not someone to whom I would surrender my allegiance, but neither is he someone who I would make a big fuss about.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Palm reading

I find myself looking at the palm of my hand. The pattern of lines in which palm readers claim to read my fate. A criss-cross of indentations that is apparently unique to me.

Then I look at my other palm. The same pattern, in mirror image.

And I'm gobsmacked.

It all started out as a single fertilized cell. 2. 4. 8. 16. 32. Eventually, tens of trillions of cells. How do the cells multiplying in my left hand know what the cells in my right hand are doing? How is such perfect symmetry maintained across what is in effect molecular light-years?

Genes, of course. Those little satchels of info carried along by every cell, copied with amazing robustness at each division. Chet's handprint. But to say that says very little. Back in June the journal Science had a special section on morphogenesis in the developing organism. The most common word was "mystery."
Development is, literally, the journey of a life time, and it is a trip still as mysterious as it is remarkable.
A readiness to say "I don't know" is a defining characteristic of science. Not something, I imagine, that would occur to a palm reader.

Monday, September 16, 2013


I mentioned before that Tom and I like to tease each other with views from Google Earth: Where is this? Here's a view I sent him a few days ago. It didn't take him long to respond, not with the place name, but with a Latin phrase:

"Noli turbare circulos meos!"

Yep. Syracuse.

Tom knows his history of science.

When the Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus conquered the Greek colony of Syracuse in Sicily in 212 B.C., he ordered that the brilliant mathematician/astronomer/engineer Archimedes be spared. Soldiers entered Archimedes' house where they found the great man contemplating a geometrical diagram he had drawn in the sand. "Noli turbare circulos meos!", Archimedes supposedly said, "Do not disturb my circles."

Defying orders, they chopped him down.

The truth of the story is not literal, but metaphorical: There are more important things in life than boy games with swords and guns (and poison gas and drones) . Contemplation, for instance, of the beauty and mystery of existence. On Archimedes' tomb was sculpted a representation of a sphere inscribed within a cylinder. The volume and surface area of the sphere is two-thirds that of the cylinder, something Archimedes was proud to have proved. The result is gratifyingly lovely. The proof is elating. The human mind is capable of so much more than making war.

Having said that, I must add that Archimedes was himself not above turning his immense talent to military technology.

You might ask, by the way, how Tom could identify the place with so little shown. That's the fun of the game. Architecture. Style of fortification. Orientation (north at the top). Apparent age. And so on.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Virtual prayers

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The burden of thinking -– a Saturday reprise

Let me speak for gray.

Not black or white. Good or evil. Truth or falsity. Yes or no.

Let me speak for maybe. Sort of. More or less. I think so.

I am reluctant to speak for gray for fear of being considered wishy-washy. Indecisive. Unprincipled. But lately it seems as if we are surrounded on every side by zealots, and it's not a pretty sight.

We are surrounded by people who are so certain of their Truth that they are willing to strap bombs to their chests and walk into crowded pizza parlors. Or fly airplanes into towers. Or bomb abortion clinics. Or subvert American principles of civil liberties to fight those who have no principles of civil liberty.

There's an ugly stridency in the air, too many people who are certain God is on their side. Too much certainty with a capital C.

So why does the world look gray to me? After all, I was raised in a tradition of Absolute Truth. I was taught that infidels will burn in hell, at least those guilty of "culpable ignorance." "Armies of youth flying standards of Truth," we sang.

But I was studying science, too, and the history and philosophy of science. I discovered truth with a lower-case t. Evolving truth. I encountered people who held their most cherished beliefs to the refining fire of experience, and who changed their minds when their tentative truths failed the test.

When a group of Englishmen established the first modern scientific society in the 17th century, they took as their motto, "Take no one's word." They believed the only reliable guide to truth was the evidence of the senses. And even the senses can be deceiving. Which is why they embraced the experimental method. Reproducibility. Observations that can be repeated by anyone, and that always give the same result.

Many people think of science as a body of knowledge -- the germ theory of disease, evolution by natural selection, Newton's laws of motion, that sort of thing. Well, yes, it is. But these things are tentatively held, with varying degrees of certainty. More fundamentally, science is a way of thinking. A way that rejects absolutes.

Of course, one can't blow hither and yon on a sea of uncertainty. To be useful, any system of knowledge must be confident of itself. To do scientific work at all, one must start with firm convictions. But every good scientist must be radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change.

Black and white is easy. It relieves us of the burden of thinking, of learning, of experiencing the other. Gray is more difficult -- but it's the planet's best hope for a civilized future.

(This post originally appeared in 2007. Thanks for the house-sitting offers.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Yokyok. Yuk!

I returned to a house taken over by Yokyoks.

The wheels of the car have seized up. The water heater is making funny noises. Batteries leaked in wireless mice. Can't open Word without it opening every Word doc on my computer. WiFi is wonky. The toilet won't stop running. The phones -- all of them -- have a buzz that won't go away.

They're here. They're everywhere. They have been having a field day in my absence, the house to themselves, gamboling from attic to cellar. The Yokyoks.

I believe I wrote about them once before. I learned about them from my Dad when I was a kid. A Rube Goldberg invention. An army of tiny green men with long, straight noses and red-and-yellow gloves, who carry an assortment of tools and go about fouling the works -- clogging holes in saltshakers, making pens and faucets leak, blowing fuses, letting the air out of tires. Rube Goldberg we know from his goofy inventions. He loved machinery, but he also knew that technology grows unwieldy because of our insatiable desire for the very latest inventions at whatever the cost in money or frustration. He warned against the "gadget strewn path of civilization," and this much is certainly true: The more complicated our machines become, the more opportunities the Yokyoks have to drive us crazy

I've tried to track down Yokyoks on the internet, unsuccessfully. Did I make up the memory? No. Tom found a reference to them in a biography of Goldberg at the Northeastern University library. Dad, as I recall, had a grudging admiration for the Yokyoks, and loved chasing them about the house, rooting them out wherever he found them. Not me. They are the bane of my existence. Next time I leave home I will seal the door cracks, plug the keyholes, block the flues. I'm not optimistic it will keep them out. After all, they are resourceful enough to intrude themselves into the bowels of my computer’s hard drive, fouling the binary bits.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Time on my hands

I believe I mentioned once before the relief map of the world I made during my fourth year of graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame. (Here's a photo of the map, as restored in recent years by son Dan.) We were living -– the five of us –- in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. My wife must have been extraordinarily indulgent to surrender the space required for this project. The map was huge.

The map followed us to New England where it hung on the dining room wall while our kids (soon four) were growing up. If they are good at geography today, I credit the map games we'd played each night at dinner.

In fact, so successful was the relief map as a learning tool, that I resolved to make a "chrono-wall" on the same scale, a historical timeline of world civilizations. I bought another sheet of 4x8-foot particle board, painted it, and ruled it off vertically with a logarithmic time scale and horizontally by world region. My plan was not to use text, but images only, and to that end I began snipping pictures. I would make a wall-sized mosaic of history which the kids would absorb by osmosis.

The problem was finding a wall. The dining room already had the map. The only other wall big enough was in the living room, and by this time my wife's compliance had been severely tested; she had other plans for d├ęcor. And so the chrono-wall was never realized. The particle board went to the basement, and I don't know what happened to my growing mass of pics.

It was a good idea. It would have been a thing of beauty. The kids would have had the great sweep of world civilizations engraved visually on their brains. Maybe I should take it up again. Give up the blog and devote my final years to an even bigger and more glorious chrono-wall. Dive into my dotage with scissors and paste.

But where is the wall to receive it? Where are the young minds to be impressed? Where is the wife who will go to bed each night with a man sticky with Elmer's glue?

Sunday, September 08, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The red thread -- a Saturday reprise

I am seventy-two years old and have never witnessed a human death. I have been there as loved ones -- father and mother, most prominently -- awaited the approaching darkness, but I was not present when the last flicker of light was extinguished. For this, I suppose, I should feel grateful, retaining a kind of innocence, a blessed lacuna in the realm of possible experience. I think of how for so many in the world death is a commonplace and sometimes grisly presence.

In the journal my father kept as he lay dying of cancer, he recounts a dream in which he is a ball of twine rolling down a spiral staircase, unwinding as he goes. As he descends, he passes his children going up. They do not notice.

It is a sad dream, not altogether true. We were there, as our lives permitted, to attend his unreeling. Would I have wanted to be at his side when the string came to an end and there was nothing more? I do not know.

It is a decisive moment, between life and non-life, amazingly abrupt when one thinks about the long, rich course of a life -- the difference between string and no string. I thought of my father's dream as I watched again today one of Arthur Ganson's whimsical machines in the college art gallery, called "The Accumulation of Time." Ganson set the machine going some weeks ago as the show opened. A whirring motor is geared down so that a blood-red thread is slowly, ever so slowly, almost imperceptibly, unwound to accumulate on the white pedestal. Will the spool of thread last till the end of show? Will someone be there when the last bit of thread falls into the pile?

Virginia Woolf has an essay called "The Death of the Moth." She watches a tiny moth flutter against a window pane, from one corner to another. "Watching him," she wrote, "it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body." She imagined the moth's life as a thread of vital light. And, of course, as she watched the thread ran out. The spool of the insect's metabolism stopped turning. "As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange."

(This post originally appeared in December 2008, and I'm five years older. More on Ganson in post of November 16, 2008.)

Friday, September 06, 2013


The plants on the windowsill are telling me it's almost time to move on. The tomatoes are drooping and brown, the peas collapsed into a tangled mess. What lettuces remain in the garden belong now to the bugs. The kale is tattered. The chard has given up the ghost.

Time to pack the bags, board the plane, span the Atlantic. Our brief Irish summer was over in a flash, like a penny firecracker. New England's summer will linger. Then we'll get that glorious reprise, called "Indian summer" for a reason I've never known and too lazy to find out.

I look at the plants on the windowsill here in my study and I remember something Van Gogh said: He called the world a study that didn't come off. At least I think he said it. Annie Dillard told us so in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Anyway, my frazzled plants do indeed look like an unfinished sketch. There'll be no more brush strokes to fill them in.

Annie Dillard, as I recall, disagreed with Van Gogh. The book is here on my shelf and, yes, the passage is easy to find, in the chapter called "Intricacy":
This is the pervading intricacy of the world's detail: the creation is not a study, a roughed-in sketch; it is supremely, meticulously created, created abundantly, extravagantly, and in fine.
She's right, of course. My faltering plants are part of the intricacy, their decay meticulous. They'll go into the compost and be recycled abundantly. The same can be said for me. And you. Death is the artist. Down there below, the crows take flight over Ballybeg. The crows spread their darkling shadows over the stubbled fields.

(A reprise here tomorrow, Anne on Sunday. In transit early next week. Back on Thursday.)

Thursday, September 05, 2013


Re: Paul's library link:

Thirty-four years we've summered in this cottage, and each summer accumulated books. Bookshelves are piled high, all in a jumble, no rhyme or reason, no organizing principle. The rhymes of Yeats or Heaney are cheek-by-jowl with the reason of Dawkins or Dennett. Now where is that novel by Michael Cunningham? The Living room? The studio? The loft? The pile on the floor at the top of the stairs? Give me twenty minutes and I'll find it.

And so it's about the time each summer when I start hankering for my nook in the college library. Any book I want, essentially, and I know exactly where to find it. Rhyme and reason: Ps and Qs.

The day will come to my college, I am sure, as it already has to many other academic institutions, when our library will decide it doesn't make much sense to keep all those tens of thousands of paper books when hardly anyone one uses them. I sit in my comfy chair in the third floor stacks and see almost no one all day long. The computer terminals downstairs are crowded with students doing research (when they aren't Facebooking and Instagramming). We could get rid of all the rows of books and add a hundred more computer terminals -- or so they say.

And I'm still ruing the demise of the card catalog.

OK, OK, I use Wikipedia too. But my soul is inked on cellulose, sewn in signatures, glued along the spine. Look for me on the third floor, between the Ps and Qs.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

On being Catholic

Chet, twelve years old, dons vestments for service at Mass, the black cassock, the white surplice. Sister P. is there, in black habit, her kindly face framed with starched white wimple. She adjusts his surplice. She looks deep into his eyes. She says, "The eyes are the windows of the soul."

He is embarrassed. He scurries away along the ambulatory to where the priest is waiting. Sister P. goes to join the other nuns in the nave of the church, with the school kids. Chet, by virtue of his gender, will approach the altar with the priest. Introibo ad altare Dei. Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. I will go into the altar of God. To God, who giveth joy to my youth.

He kneels at the step, with the Latin prayer card which he no longer needs, and the bells that he will ring just so at the Elevation. He is waiting for the Communion, when he will place the paten under his pretty classmate Carmen's chin, barely touching its golden rim to her throat. She tips her head back, closes her eyes, opens her mouth to receive the white wafer, the body of Christ. And he knows, in some unarticulated way, that he is a sinner, and that he will always be.

The eyes are the windows of the soul. Did Sister P. see it? Did she see the sinner? He looks back along the altar rail. Carmen rises, blesses herself, and returns to her pew, hands prayerfully folded. He doesn't know what has just transpired, but he knows he has experienced something mysterious, disturbing, even –- dare I say it -- sacramental, something that will be with him for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013


Seamus Heaney was laid to rest yesterday. His passing was a big thing here; almost the whole front page of the Irish Times. With Maeve Binchy, also recently departed, he was the most loved of Irish writers, and for much the same reason; both were by all accounts lovable persons.

I can't say that I am a great fan of Heaney's poetry, although it is clear that he caught in his words something peaty and profound of the Irish soul. His verse is rooted in the soil, watered with Irish tears, warmed by the rural hearth.

What I most admire of Heaney's is his scholarly prose, on poets and poetry, as exemplified by the collection of essays Finders Keepers. These essays are, he says in the Preface, "testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for."

Discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for: I love that phrase. It captures, I think, something of the difference between poetry and science.

Science is the discovery of the looked for. Oh, it is true enough that many discoveries in science have been serendipitous, stumbled upon, unanticipated. But by and large the motivation for doing science is the anticipation of discovery. Scientists have an agenda. They write proposals with objectives. They are looking for a cure for cancer, controlled fusion, the Higgs boson. And they are not, generally, custodians of what they find. Their discoveries by their very nature are woven into a web of knowledge that stands by itself. No one needs to curate penicillin, or electrons, or E=mc2.

Poets walk through the world awake and wary, but without a plan. They are taken by surprise. They stumble onto significance. They have no idea what they are looking for, but they are uniquely equipped to find it. And when they find it, they must look after it, fan it alive in the glowing embers of language. A poem by Seamus Heaney will give testimony to what he found in the world only as long as we value the poem enough to keep it in our hearts and minds.

Monday, September 02, 2013


Miracles are explainable; it is the explanations that are miraculous. Tim Robinson
I'm reading Tim Robinson's Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness, the final book of his trilogy on Connemara, that wild and ragged corner of western Ireland. You will have met Robinson here before. His books and maps are things of wonder for anyone who, with Robinson, is fascinated by the webs that time, "the old spider," has spun across a landscape.

Robinson is a Yorkshireman who studied maths at Cambridge, then worked in Europe as a visual artist. He came to the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland in 1972 (the same year I first came to the Dingle Peninsula) and insinuated himself into the language and land as thoroughly as time itself. I discovered him through his wonderful map of the Aran Islands, a thing of visual beauty and inexhaustible cultural and geographic interest, based on walking and talking step-by-step from shore to shore. The map was followed by the two-volume Stones of Aran, which to my mind is one of the epics of 20th-century nature writing.

Award-winning maps of the Burren and Connemara followed, and more books. In 1984, Robinson moved to Roundstone in Connemara, and there he still resides, having walked or biked, it seems, over every square foot of that wild territory, and read every document or book pertaining to its history, human and geologic. I hope he's slowing down; keeping up with his work by book and map is almost a full-time job for the rest of us.

I have never met Robinson, but I have the honor of rubbing shoulders with him in the Norton Book of Nature Writing, which is organized by author's birth date; he is only months older than me. My bike now hangs up in the shed; Tim, no doubt, is still free-wheeling down Connemara hillsides.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Strings and Arrows

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.