November 2004

From Part 2 of a three-part series on the Precautionary Principle in Rachel’s Environment and Health News:

Is this action necessary? What a profound question. Try this yourself: In thinking about any activity that has the potential to harm the environment or human health (or your community), ask yourself, “Is this action necessary?” And, “Does it have to be this way?” These questions naturally lead to asking, “What are the alternatives?” Think what a different world it could be if everyone asked these questions routinely.

This reminded me strongly of Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote in The One-Straw Revolution (Rodale Press, 1978) that:

The usual way to go about developing a method is to ask “How about trying this?” or “How about trying that?” bringing in a variety of techniques one upon the other. This is modern agriculture and it only results in making the farmer busier.

My way is opposite. I was aiming at a pleasant, natural way of farming which results in making the work easier rather than harder. “How about not doing this? How about not doing that?” – that was my way of thinking. I ultimately reached the conclusion that there was no need to plow, no need to compost, no need to use insecticide. When you get right down to it, there are few agricultural practices that are really necessary.

The squalor of mind
is formlessness,
informis,

the Romans said of ugliness,
it has no form,
a man’s misery, bleached skies,

the war between desire
and dailiness. I thought
this morning of Wallace Stevens

walking equably to work . . .

“Songs to Survive the Summer,” Praise (Ecco Press, 1979)

They have gone away. You can see it in the lichen spreading straight across the front walk and the tree seedlings sprouting from the gutters. The starlings have taken up residence in the hollow near the top of the pear tree; it would’ve killed him. Every few minutes something falls from the eaves and lands soundlessly in the dried leaves the wind has piled on the lee side of the house. In a forgotten corner of what used to be a garden, the sundial has tipped so far over that noon’s finger stretches halfway to the ground even in June. Come November, the whole place has sunk so deep into shadow, you can hear a screech owl’s querulous trill at four in the afternoon. Its last inhabitants rarely even think about the place any more. The clapboard warps, turns green. Even snow’s great eraser won’t be able to hide the fact of its abandonment, fallen the way a woman falls who cheats on her doting husband a single time and then spends the rest of her life in fear that he will find out, warping, turning green with jealousy at the merest hint of another woman’s interest in him. The frames don’t have to go too far off true to make the windows stick forever as they were left: all shut but one, the high sliding window above the stove, so easy to forget. But for the wind and the rain, for the white-footed mice, it’s enough. From that one omission begins the surrender to another, more impartial kind of care.

Tom keeps posting these Lines Waiting for Their Stories, but so far no one has taken the bait but me. I found his latest irresistible.

“Hum and put your fingers in your ears,” she said.

Her eyes were closed. Whatever she was humming seemed fairly tuneless. “It turns your head into a concert hall,” she exclaimed.

I tried my best to hide my impatience. It was late; the evening shift would be coming on soon and I had a number of residents still to check in on. This time of day, with dinner and a new round of medications still over an hour away, things could get positively surreal on this floor.

Her eyelids flipped open. “Try it,” she said.

“Mary-Beth, I’m tired . . . ” I faltered.

She leaned forward, touched my arm. “You don’t have to go anywhere, dear, and you know it!

“Just tell me this,” she said. “What’s your favorite song? Everyone has one.”

I thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t know. I’ve had the Hallelujah Chorus going through my head a lot lately – ever since I heard them practicing the Messiah in chapel last week.”

She brightened. “Oh, I like that too! Or at least, I think I do. Hum a few bars, now, will you?”

I heard a dull banging from the end of the hall. No doubt Mrs. Shell had managed to undo the restraints again and was back to drumming on the glass of the fire alarm with her cane.

“Come on. It’ll only take a second! I need something else to hum.”

I hummed a few bars and immediately felt very self-conscious – like undressing in front of a nurse. I began singing it softly instead.

She clapped her hands. “Oh yes! Just one word! So beautiful!” She stuck her fingers back in her ears, shut her eyes and began crooning “Hallelujah” to herself, over and over. I padded quietly back out into the hall. Good thing I’m wearing rubber-soled slippers, I thought.

Just then a hand fell on my shoulder, and a condescending male voice sounded in my ear.

“Out of our room again, are we, Doris?” followed by a tsk-tsk-tsk. I spun around. Who the hell was this? A new resident no one had told me about?

Whoever he was, he was clever: dressed in an LPN’s green smock just like the one I used to wear, before they decided I didn’t need it anymore. He saw my anger and took a few steps back.

“Now Doris,” he said, “I guess you don’t remember me. My name’s Mike. I just started last week.”

“Of course I remember,” I snapped. “And you don’t need to talk to me like that! Now, get back to your room before I buzz for assistance!”

He turned and hurried off. I made my way back down the hall to my station, went in and shut the door behind me. The paperwork could wait, I said to myself.

I sat down by the window in a pool of sunlight. A couple of house sparrows fluttered up from the window ledge. I closed my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and started to hum.

It seems like a libel against ostriches to keep comparing us to them. But the fact is that our corporate media have gone far beyond the manufacturing of consent into an outright conspiracy of silence. Only a few wingnut reporters and editors of obscure newspapers – not to mention those despicable, pajama-clad bloggers – are challenging the highly questionable results of this month’s election. Oh, and the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

Based on the full set of the 4 p.m. Election Day exit poll data Dr. Stephen F. Freeman from the University of Pennsylvania calculated that “the odds of just three of the major swing states, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania all swinging as far as they did against their respective exit polls were 250 million to one.”

The Ohio Election Protection Coalition’s public hearings have documented insufficient voting machines in black Democratic precincts resulting in five-to-seven hour waits, voter intimidation, machine malfunctions and other irregularities.

Another significant development this week was the Democratic Party breaking its silence on the matter.

Ohio Chairman Dennis White distributed a press release on Monday afternoon that ran the headline: “Kerry/Edwards Campaign Joins Ohio Recount.”

We are, as Orwell might have said, a very goodthinkful people. Our voting system has always been rotten, but few want to acknowledge the possibility that a presidential election might have been rigged – that the party in power was so desperate to retain its status that it resorted to systematic voter suppression and voting machine fraud. After all, voting is a sacred duty and the very keystone of our cherished FreedomsTM. And as W.TM never tires of pointing out, we have a solemn and ChristianTM duty to continually enlarge and spread FreedomTM to every corner of the globe.

The only alternative is dictatorship – or maybe a RevolutionTM.

0. Isn’t it interesting how numbering things or ideas imposes a sense of order? It points toward the realm of the eternal, because numbers are pure abstractions. In that respect they differ from other modifiers, which function rather to qualify, to describe or locate more precisely, to present. Quantification lifts out of context, unembeds, disembodies: both the quantified and – I would argue – the quantifier.

1. Imagine if glass were as rare as gold: how our fingers would tremble to touch mirrors or raise wine to the lips, and with what great wonder we would gaze out a window at this gray-and-brown morning in late November! (Garcia Marquez imagined the same thing about ice, and ended up writing One Hundred Years of Solitude. So look out.)

2. Is the spirit medium the message? Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant, had a bad cold… Did the spirits blow their noses?

3. How about the role of the abstract in communicating ideas? No, not THE abstract. I mean the kind that appears at the head of a journal article: a digest, something boiled down, a summary, a rendering. (I could say the essence, but I’m not sure it’s appropriate to use such an abstract word for something that is, in the end, quite concrete.) Anyway: the study stretches toward that vanishing point, I’m thinking. What does that do to science? (See Zweig poem “Anything Long and Thin.”)

4. I am getting in the habit lately of composing these posts in 12-point Garamond rather than 10-point Times-Roman (the default for MS Word on my computer – I’m too lazy to fix it). Can you tell the difference? I like to think Garamond makes me focus more on each word; in general, it’s more pleasurable to read. Perhaps that would make some people more verbose, but not me.

5. O.K., smartass, let’s pretend we’re not playing make-believe. Do you have any idea what that would do to The Economy?

5 #2. Abstraction as a form of distraction . . . or not. For all I know, the preoccupation of mathematicians differs not a whit from the total absorption in the work that is the main narcotic for us artist/writer types. (I’m curious about that pre- in preoccupation. What, there’s something else coming?)

6. One of the benefits of having a slow Internet connection is that I get a lot of poetry read while I’m waiting for pages to load. This is a good way especially to re-discover old favorites. My current companion here is Paul Zweig (Selected and Last Poems ed. by C. K. Williams, Wesleyan, 1989). Their strong epigrammatic and gnomic tendencies make Zweig’s poems well suited to distracted or interrupted reading:

The dancing fit of history,
The fathers, my magnificent liars…
(“A Theory of Needs”)

I want to jostle strangers in the street,
Not knowing which of them stole death.
(Ibid.)

The precarious daylight hollowed by their knife-like wings.
(“The Wasps”)

And then, more tender than eyesight:
Eternity mooning in a glass,
Or a flagpole stubbing itself against the sky.
(“Anything Long and Thin”)

Why can’t anything stay still?
That was Pascal’s question, God
As idea of stillness, in a small room…
(“Poem”)

As on the day the animals received their names
And swam and ran in terror, stung by a new sort of clarity.
(Ibid.)

7. (Gratuitous insertion of a reference to something outside my window: a sparrow in the lilac, for example.)

8. –I think you’re rather losing sight of the whole point of the numerical post, old chap.
–Yes, I know.

999. Clarity! Stillness!

Last weekend I saw a Toyota 4-Runner in a parking lot near Penn State with a very enigmatic bumper sticker. In a symmetrical arrangement above a large triangle with rounded-off corners were five smaller, upside-down triangles, all of them white against a blue background. It reminded me of a stylized depiction of a mountain emitting clouds, such as one might encounter in a Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting. The other possibility was that it might have been intended to represent a lion’s paw. Given that Penn State’s totemic animal is the Nittany Lion, this would seem to be the more reasonable interpretation. However, mountain lion tracks don’t ordinarily have five toes. Is the Nittany Lion a product of inbreeding?

*

A book idea, for whoever needs one: The Useful Idiot’s Guide to Conspiracy Theories.

*

Yesterday, my cousin H. was talking about her diet and exercise regimen, which involves a gym membership. The membership includes regular consultations with a personal trainer, whom she likes in part because she’s female and won’t let her off the hook as easily as a male trainer might. I hadn’t realized the importance of continuing to challenge oneself. Simply sticking with one set of exercises won’t do, it seems, because as soon as the body becomes habituated to one regime, it relaxes, or something. So you need a trained professional to keep substituting new exercises for the ones that have grown too familiar. Familiarity breeds contentment, as it were.

Does this mean I should be changing mountains every few weeks? Richard Nelson once said, “There may be more to learn from climbing the same mountain a hundred times than climbing a hundred different mountains.” But this presumes that one is able to look each time with new eyes and not let the apparent sameness dull one’s vision.

*

Possible new motto for this weblog: Just because I said it doesn’t mean I agree with it.

*

The down side of the holidays is that they make it really hard to hide my crack problem.

No, not that kind of crack. I mean the kind that happens when you let your waist grow bigger around than your hips – even if only by a little! – so that when you bend over to pick something up there’s a sudden, cold draft where you never felt one before.

Do I disgust you? Hell, I disgust myself! I never thought this could happen to me. I’ve become one of those guys now. I’m a cracker.

*

Every Tom, Dick and Harry is named Dave. But my Indian name is Hangs Out With Chickadees.

*

Back when I was skinny I used to long for a little avoirdupois, but being a skeleton wasn’t always so bad. I remember once, about 15 years ago, when some of my punk friends and I went to a nearby state park – a dammed lake in the mountains – to play bocce. There were a couple of beach volleyball games going on, but we set up in the grass, near a picnic table so we’d have somewhere to set our cups. We were, I think, five guys and one female, N., who did wear a pro-forma bikini. The rest of us all took off our shirts, and found ourselves competing to see who was the palest and skinniest. N. – herself reasonably curvaceous, albeit untanned – insisted that M., her boyfriend, took the prize, and who were we to argue?

We had a great time strutting around in the shade while the buff fraternity boys and their tanned “little sisters” bounced and leapt vigorously in the hot sun a few yards away, each moiety carefully avoiding any overt sign of awareness that the other was present. Lawn bowling was still a pretty obscure sport back then, and in retrospect I imagine they didn’t quite know what to make of it. I’m sure they guessed what we were drinking from our 64-ounce soft drink cups, and wished that they, too, could smoke cigarettes while they exercised. And the women, at least, were probably able to tell why we acted as if we owned the place. We had way more balls. And they were hard.