May There Always Be a Dialog

Excerpts from a letter to a friend:

Our best minds have pondered the question of individual responsibility and group accountability for millennia.

The Buddhist approach is partly to remove one’s self, metaphorically or physically, from the artifice of the daily stress cycle to contemplate what is really important and what can be done to achieve it. Happiness or contentedness is part of that equation …

The socio-political approach is to categorize and classify everything and all the players into neat little artificial groups, and assign goals to each. This has the advantage of presupposing the experiment-designers have some knowledge of which values can properly give rise to those goals, and the safety of insulating us from having to account for the pesky, unpredictable individual. As I once wrote in an essay I called “Black Elk Speaks” (yes, concerning Niehardt’s book):

“The thought occurs that it would be a bad thing to try to needlessly integrate the vision of Black Elk with my own, or into our present circumstances in the United States. There is a certain value and dignity in keeping these things separate from each other in understanding, for they are different experiences and have their meaning in different worlds. The Western rush to explain everything in terms of other things which are also not truly grasped leaves a vacuum, the filling of which is only approximated by art.”

Tribalism and elitism seem to go hand in hand with each other, and with the racial, ethnic, economic and other minority divides you observe. We have done a better job of breaking down elitism, in an average decade, than most other countries did over their centuries. We all just have a long way to go.

The answer will never come from one individual like you or me, nor even from some great future prophet. Humanity needs to evolve, and our particular “in” with evolution is education, as it has been for 100,000 years, and I don’t just mean science and math, either. 🙂 That will make us or break us, particularly the 🙂 part. It is not the sound of just the one right butterfly, it is the sound of them all taking off by the hundreds of thousands into the wind.

If you remember the TV commercial about cowboys driving huge herds of cats, ponder for a moment how one herds a cloud of butterflies, and you’ll have our answer.

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Collective Guilt and the Third Reich

Someone recently sent me a short essay on the rise of the Third Reich, the History of World War II, and the Nazi mind-set that started it. Below I’ve excerpted from my rejection letter.

I’ll have to pass on this. It is one of the most written-about topics in the history of the Western World.

I don’t think we can reduce Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” or Hannah Arendt’s signature work “Totalitarianism” down to half a page.

The rise of Nazism was the result of several phenomena in deadly combination: group-think as you write, and also militarism, racial and ethnic hatred, a dysfunctional German economy thanks in no small part to the vengefully and poorly engineered Treaty of Versailles, the German turn to mysticism and determinism as the source of authority of the state, and a poisonous political apparatus gone viral … a certifiable national psychosis.

Any idea of a disease of shared history, a kind of collective racial guilt, will never fly at If there is any validity to some aspect of that notion at all, it is to be found in the trend to simplified effortless no-work answers, but the guilt of acceptance lies with individuals, not a race, nation or its leaders. Only individuals can empower tyrants and monsters. You and I are not responsible for Dachau, the Civil War, or Rick Santorum.

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Glock Automatic Pistols

A non-shooter friend posted a link on the Glock handgun, which was interesting comment on the industrial design of a modern handgun, and its popularity with law enforcement and civilian enthusiasts.

For those who don’t follow such stuff, the Glock is a cleverly logical step up from the “G-man .45” (Eliot Ness, Fearless Fosdick, GI Joe) – the service sidearm of two world wars. The government M1911 .45 Auto is now over a century old.

For me, reading a posted article about the Glock was also a reminder why I, a paper target shooter (high power rifle and large-bore revolver) never liked automatic handguns.

Most city people distrust guns and people who use them, often rightfully so. Not a lot of them want to hear why someone who maybe fired a Glock once, dislikes auto handguns. But here you go.

In the military I qualified on the M1911. Unpleasant to shoot.

Now, a heavy-caliber revolver also produces a lot of recoil, which is why you often see on the screen that a shooter’s forearm is raised up, to one degree or another, after each shot. A .44 Magnum can propel a two-arm hold vertically from 45 to almost 90 degrees vertical. I’ve seen men twice my size put down a .44 after one shot. It all depends how you hold it.

But all of the revolver’s recoil is along the single vertical axis, so you can brace against it along that single axis.

Not so with automatic handguns. The heavy blow-back or piston slide mechanisms are cammed to unlock the bolt and eject the spent casing. This produces a pronounced twisting motion. This is a two-axis recoil. Most annoying, it throws you off for the next shot. Target shooters would mind. Combat shooters would suck it up and get really, really proficient with this design. Plinkers and yahoos probably wouldn’t know any better.

Recently I met with someone in South Carolina who owned a Glock. We didn’t fire it, but he taught me a modified way to hold an auto handgun which could also improve the two-hand-hold for a large bore revolver. Even so, I’ll stick to six-shooters.

So there you go.

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Classical Music and The Human Voice

a musical travelogue

All musical compositions mentioned in my article are linked to corresponding YouTube video clips. Clicking a musical link should open new browser tabs or windows for you. Musical quality is very good. You can alternately search for and audit most or all of these selections on Amazon, iTunes or similar sources.

Here is a mercifully brief history of my evolving discovery of the human voice in classical music. If you have an audio pipe to “hi-fi PC speakers” or a home entertainment system, now is the time to switch to it.

I’ve been a classical music buff all my life. I still could just never bring myself to understand opera! 99% of it always sounded like glorified yodeling to me. You see, I understood completely that exposure to the genre is the key to understanding it. It was just the exposure to opera that I studiously avoided.

These days, even old dogs learn new tricks. With the help of the amazingly complete YouTube libraries, here are some musical “stops” on my discovery of the human voice in classical music.

non-operatic classical vocals

I somehow did learn that the human voice is potentially the grandest musical instrument of them all. As early as high school I fell in love with two non-operatic classical vocals:

Much, much later I was introduced to the Renaissance church music of Lassus and Thomas Tallis. As you’re no doubt already aware on some level, those abbey monks contributed a lot more to the future of our culture than the fundamentals of wine-making. I’m not even religious in any accepted conventional sense, but I don’t know how one can listen to Lassus and NOT feel a profound reverence for the human spirit. I give you:

Thomas Tallis: A more muted composer who wrote in English for the courts of Henry the Eighth and Queen Elizabeth. Tallis speaks of devotion, solace, and perhaps of loss and regret, but all with incredible clarity and precision of expression.

This led to my introduction to the astounding modern twentieth century Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Listeners who know nothing else of Arvo Pärt’s music would generally recognize this piece. It is longish (9:50), but listen how hauntingly Pärt blends human voice and human instrumentation into a single unquenchable voice in these pieces from Berliner Messe.

Igor Stravinsky: Best known perhaps for his “Firebird” symphony and “Rite of Spring” ballet, many listeners find the music too dissonant and cacophonous. I happen to like Le Sacre du Printemps, “Rite of Spring.” Incredibly, he also wrote some of the most soothing music in the western world, and I give you two quite different short clips of his work Pastorale:

    • Pastorale: piano by Stravinsky himself (2004)
    • Pastorale: with Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano

Compare Stravinsky’s Pastorale with Arvo Pärt’s instrumental piece Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror).

Classical opera arias I like:

This first one (by Verdi) is something I gloried in as early as junior high school. I heard it on our local FM station – but never found out what it was. I forgot all about it until I heard it again a few years ago. “Aida” is an opera, all right, but this is an orchestral part. It is one of those pieces most people “know” but (sadly) can’t identify:

The second piece is known to tens of millions of TV viewers. British Airways used a muted orchestral version of Delibes’ “Lakmé” (Flower Duet) in a 1980’s TV commercial.  It doesn’t do justice to the original. Fast-forward to around 2009-2010, for a TV ad for Kohler, a high-end manufacturer of faucets and shower-heads [clip here]. A plumber finishes installing a “smart” shower-head and tests it by getting into the running shower, turning its awesome music system to “Lakmé,” and singing along with the operatic passage. He then dries himself off and leaves the bewildered homeowners.

You will recognize it instantly:

The thing is, Lakmé is bona fide opera, and I like it. At least, I like that part of it.

Finally, we return to today with a clip in that great body of classical music that is non-operatic but uses the human voice integrally as part of the story. Of “Powaqqatsi” by modern composer Philip Glass as part of a film score, Wikipedia writes: “Here, human voices (especially children’s and mainly from South America and Africa) appear more than in Koyaanisqatsi, in harmony with the film’s message and images.”

The film and the music may have different meanings for different listeners. For myself, the songs in the score draws me back to my backpacking days in the high Sierras. The mighty mountains surround me with their booming presence. The delicate verdant meadows and wildflowers sing to me. I am transported through time. It is my own time, but for the moment, it is eternal …

The following short clip appears to be the actual trailer for the 1988 movie. Segments of many different tracks in the score are spliced together but they are effective in conveying the power of the idea. The video is spectacular too. Turn up the sound!

One small step for man …

Other References

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Letter to a Cousin

I’ve lately been corresponding with a long-lost cousin, and we’ve been doing the catch-up thing on families, family trees and personal notes. She’s a happily married mathematician and educator in the northwest. As many readers know, I’m a sixty-something retired gay man who lost a life partner to cancer in 2005, and a Vietnam vet. So, my cousin wrote me today commenting, among other things, on the recent end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. She also remarked “I am very discouraged about politics.”

“Nickie” is my late brother who came out as gay in the military in 1964. He was a blazing meteor who extinguished his own life soon thereafter as he slammed face-first into the world of that era.

I’m not much for sharing private correspondence. It still occurred to me I had written some encouraging words for my cousin which might serve as a heartening reminder to all of us: while the pace of change often seems maddeningly slow, it’s happening all around us faster than we can usually appreciate. Following is an excerpt from my letter:

It’s not whether we’re as good with words as we might wish, it’s whether we take the chance to express them. As far as I’m concerned your thoughts were well stated and heartfelt – and isn’t that more substantive than the clever TelePrompTer turns of phrase we hear on TV? Thanks for everything you said … it’s one thing to read supporting viewpoints in the media from strangers you don’t even know, but another to hear it from friends and relatives who may not necessarily be personally invested in the issues, but choose to be anyway!

Oddly, my reaction to the end of Don’t ask Don’t Tell seemed almost anticlimactic, but I’m sure that’s only because I waited so long for it, and was never sure I’d actually see it. What the President and Joint Chiefs did was courageous. It was a remarkable “right thing” in an age of expediency.

Nickie had a flair for reducing complex social issues to a single insight, and I often wonder how he would have handled issues of today. Remembering that when WE were young Rock ‘n Roll music was just being born, Nickie’s comment on Elvis and the whole youth music phenomenon was: “Rock ‘n Roll: bubble gum cartoons for the ears.” Nickie liked classical music, particularly the harpsichord music of Bach, Couperin, Vivaldi and others. Although he showed no discernable interest in math, he never seemed to struggle with it as I did, and his music indicates he had the mind of a mathematician or scientist at any rate!

Your comment “I am very discouraged about politics” was touching to me although it seems much of our country is united if only in that one sentiment, which I share. But I must admit that I stop and look back at all that has happened in the world since I was a little kid, back in the days I’d sit on our yard swing wondering how the world would turn out. We have to admit there must be room for cautious optimism if not outright enthusiasm:

Men on the moon, the collapse of the Soviet Regime and rebirth of modern Russia, the end of the Cold War and nuclear holocaust threat we all grew up under, the Civil Rights Act and movements, women’s lib and equality in the workplace, the communications and information explosion, secrets of the cosmos …

… Arab Spring, for showing that social media nullifies government propaganda once and for all, for showing that people worldwide want the same things, and for dramatizing the great gulf between governments and the governed …

And now gays in the military, which Nickie should have been alive to see. We are very fortunate to have witnessed these things in our time. I have this odd feeling Nickie would have been very proud of us, even though nations, like older brothers, sometimes seem to take so very long …



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“Silent Cal” Coolidge

Although Coolidge was known to be a skilled and effective public speaker, in private he was a man of few words and was therefore commonly referred to as “Silent Cal.” A possibly apocryphal story has it that Dorothy Parker, seated next to him at a dinner, said to him, “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.” His famous reply: “You lose.” It was also Parker who, upon learning that Coolidge had died, reportedly remarked, “How can they tell?” — Wikipedia

A friend of mine, noted for his monosyllabic email replies, finally prompted me to look up Calvin Coolidge in Wikipedia. The famous anecdote above is also substantially repeated on the White House “Our Presidents” web page.

Coolidge was an outspoken advocate of Civil Rights (to the extent Coolidge, who could be an effective orator in public, could ever be said to be “outspoken.”) As Vice-President, Coolidge stepped in to complete the presidential term of Warren Harding, who had died in office, and Coolidge was elected President in his own right in 1924. He declined to run for a full second term of office in 1928, one year before the market crash of 1929. Of Coolidge’s successor Herbert Hoover, Wikipedia reports:

“Coolidge had been reluctant to choose Hoover as his successor; on one occasion he remarked that ‘for six years that man has given me unsolicited advice—all of it bad’.”

Coolidge was also responsible for the quote “After all, the chief business of the American people is business.” His hands-off attitude toward the “Roaring Twenties” US economy was very popular with the business community. Decades later, the Reagan Administration picked up Coolidge as kind of a poster child for laissez-faire economics. Coming, as Coolidge’s administration had done, on the eve of America’s Great Depression, many critics believed Coolidge policies contributed to the decade-long collapse of the United States economic model before World War II. The controversy rages to this day as the United States tries to figure out who and what was really responsible for the Crash of 2008 – our worst economic meltdown since the 1930’s.

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“Black Friday”

As far as I can tell, this new buzzword “Black Friday” really exploded into popular media and advertising usage in 2010. But it crept up on me without warning. Where did it come from, and what do people mean by it?

Savvy shoppers would know it refers to the day after Thanksgiving. As you might suspect, it also refers to a really, really bad day. According to Wikipedia, the phrase originated with one Fisk-Gould Scandal, a financial crisis which occurred in 1869.

Also according to Wikipedia, there are well over a dozen distinct references to “Black Friday” with their own origins and meaning.

But the most popular meaning, the one currently saturating the newspapers, emails, radio and television, originates in Philadelphia as a “bad hair day” for both shoppers and police. Wikipedia’s citation:

JANUARY 1966 — “Black Friday” is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. “Black Friday” officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing.

If you have any interest in the origin of popular phrases, the article cited above is exceptionally interesting and well documented. I would recommend checking it out.

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Valley of the Kings: Secrets in Stone

The much-disrespected SphinxSome of the statuary in the ruins of ancient Egypt have been mutilated or possibly defaced – the great Sphinx, and lesser monuments to the rulers of the old kingdoms. Archaeologists have in some cases deduced that a persistent, widespread pattern of defacement can be connected to efforts to obliterate memory of some deposed or hated public figure.

But these monuments are now 4,500 years old. Archaeologists recognize that much of this kind of damage could be due to looters, vandalism or the ravages of time. The fact of major damage to a statue or monument, taken by itself, is no proof of an old royal scandal, cover-up, or cabal. In fact, such damage could even be the result of mere malicious mischief – of the kind perpetrated by juveniles with too much time on their hands.

Archeologists are trying to determine which kids might have committed some of the more obvious vandalism, and when they do, they’re going to tell their moms.

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History Snippets: Cradle-land of Battles

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

You have seen it all before, in Egypt’s disintegrating Middle Kingdom. The shifting dunes of time covered man’s works just as surely as the surf and incoming tide leave no trace of the child’s sand fortress on the shores …

Persepolis - from Elvis's weblog

“How the mighty have fallen! The weapons of war have perished!” — David’s Lament for Saul and Jonathan

Cradle-land of Battles

This is about the world of Athens and Sparta in the time of the Battle of Marathon. Sparta did not participate in this battle, but later redeemed itself in the even more famous Battle of Thermopylae. We’ll not rehash those famous battles. We’ll instead seek a cameo snapshot of the people and their embattled civilizations of that time. For their contributions to what would become western civilization, we owe a great debt. In their failures, there may be great lessons yet to be fully realized.

The year was -490, or “490 BC” in the way we reckon years today. It was a time of contentious – should we say global? – preparations for the defense of a divided and vulnerable western world against the generals of the mighty Persian king, Darius.

“Global” meant known land masses within roughly a thousand miles of the Mediterranean, and perhaps included what little might have been known of a few lands even beyond that.

Darius has already conquered and subdued the Greek presence along all of the western shores of Asia, along and inland of the Aegean Sea. We don’t need to brush up on history to recognize many of the place names: Hellespont, Troy, Lesbos, Chios, Ionia, Sardis, Magnesia, Maeander River, Dorian Cities, Rhodes. Once a conquered city found itself paying tribute to the Persian superpower, life wasn’t bad. Stability and security were practically guaranteed. Trade, agriculture and commerce flourished in the Persian war-free zone. It was hard for the homeland Greek cities of the peninsula to win back the affection of those conquered Aegean city-states. Grecian by heritage, those conquered people felt no loyalty to an Athens which had betrayed and warred with them so many times in the past. Continue reading

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History Snippets: China

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

You have seen it all before, in Egypt’s disintegrating Middle Kingdom. The shifting dunes of time covered man’s works just as surely as the surf and incoming tide leave no trace of the child’s sand fortress on the shores …

In the world time frame around 500BC, early Greeks were not quite aware of it yet, but their civilization was about to confront a vast military struggle for the survival of a culture we today regard as “the western world”. They were only partially successful, because they always regarded conflict as having only a purely military solution.

Another part of the world was also beginning a massive territorial reshaping of its own, a struggle that would come in several waves, like Europe’s, of over two thousand years’ duration. In each world, that struggle would tear lives of the common people apart, and put them back together in ways pleasing to the ebb and flow of the ruling powers.

That land was China.

If equal attention were given to the written history of Asia and the Western World, China’s volume alone would dwarf all of the volumes for western Europe. China is the world’s longest continuous civilization. Continue reading

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