Reflection On Seeing the Evening Star

High over the southwest horizon a bright white light hovers, no doubt to follow the flight path approach to the airport to our north. And this head-on aircraft approach often gives the illusion of motionlessness. But no, tonight it is locked unblinking on its track through the darkening sky, the evening star Venus being the brightest object to command our eye.

And later on the Moon will rise. It should be full in a couple more days. Last night, when it had risen above the towering palm trees, the shiny young palm fronds scattered a hundred pinpoint reflections against a black night sky. It looked like an aerial Christmas tree.

Any day, any evening, any season is a great time and a perfect reason to be alive. Nature is the greatest show on Earth, the only one that gives free bonus prizes to all of us who remember to take the time to watch the pageant unfold.

Alex Forbes
December 15, 2013

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Reflections For A Rainy Day

A nation is like family. We know all the dirty laundry. We know who’s a mean drunk. We know who cries at the sad movies. We know who’s good for a big check on birthdays, who pays the bills, when we get to go for a drive in the country on Sunday afternoon, and who always organizes the household to keep everybody going.

The analogy stops there. A nation is also like a family taking in 250,000,000 boarders – strangers! Will we work up the gumption to get to know the others who live here too, or shall we pretend we’re the only ones here?

Telling Pop we don’t like the way things are done here works equally well for families and countries. That’s why we usually just mutter bitter complaints to our siblings and friends.

Wars are always a sign of a serious failure in political leadership. The real cost of war is paid by the citizenry of the infected countries, not by the leaders. If wars were fought only by the architects, without benefit of jihad or conscript, there would be mighty few wars.

In a pure free-market political system, they say the government would not own land (unless allowed to retain its military installations). So: who do we trust to manage Yosemite? Disney, Ten Flags, Citibank, Comcast or Freecreditdotcom?

A generation ago, conservation groups challenged logging in pristine wilderness sites and ecologically sensitive areas. The loggers asked, sensibly enough, “exactly how are we supposed to harvest the nation’s timber and wood products?” The answer was always, “somewhere else.” Today, things have changed. Ask the same question, and outfits like Nature Conservancy will be able to tell you: not only where timber can and probably should be harvested, but what the cost analysis will be for each in a whole database of sites.

In our old age, let us be economically conservative of our own resources and manage them wisely, but politically liberal in defense of both nature and the very privileges and rights we cherish for ourselves. In defending others’ resources and blessings for future generations, we best preserve them for ourselves within the smaller acreages of our immediate lifetimes.

I saw a PBS special on the founding of our National Parks. Several times I was filled with a moving sense of emotion and wonder – a “I’ve been there before” feeling of almost being overwhelmed, something I hadn’t experienced so fully in decades. It was the majesty of those very mountains and forests that saved me, as a much younger man. This infused the needed sense of peace, identity, purpose and belonging which allowed me, for the very first time, to truly exult in the joy of being.

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It’s It

In Emeryville, California, there’s still a venerated old ice cream company named “It’s It.” It’s right out there off the Bayshore Freeway. Tens of thousands of gridlocked commuters see its ice cream plant every day, and its trademarked brand name.

I’m told they make superb ice cream. Many kids grew up on it. My mom bought Dreyers if she bought it at all. So I wouldn’t know.

But I do know this. It’s properly punctuated.

I always wondered whether that brand name contributed to mass cultural confusion over the proper punctuation of the possessive pronoun “it”.

On page 86 of my October Sky and Telescope we see an amateur’s stunning three-color photograph of Jupiter. You can see the three “red spots”. You can see the moon Io transiting the planet. The caption reads:

” … to record Jupiter sporting it’s three red spots.”

I’ve seen this error in just about every major periodical except the New Yorker. A Google entry reports it in the New York Times

In our horribly inconsistent English language we write “Jupiter’s moons” or “Harriet’s kitchen” (proper nouns) but we write “its moons” or “her kitchen” when using pronouns. The only legal usage of “it’s” is “It’s a nice day”, a contraction of “it is”. Hence, there will never be a “her’s” or “him’s” unless we are talking doggie talk or baby talk: “Him’s just a baaaaby!”

(And even that is a contraction, though an illegal one).

The phrase “it’s three red spots” is just doggie talk frozen in print.

It’s a sorry day when we find hundreds of articles such as mine devoted entirely to a punctuation error on one pronoun, and pages upon pages of Google links to other articles and pages on the same phenomenon.

The real problem is one of magnitude. It’s become a cultural  phenomenon. 

At the worker bee level, unless you have a serious or professional interest in language, spelling and syntax, how in hell would you know the right way, if even the New York Times can’t get it right?

The publishing profession is supposed to consist of professionals. They’re expected to lead the way. At my place of business, writing skills are not an asset (certainly not one we prize highly enough to pay for), even though we exchange thousands of emails a day to dozens of workers at once with brilliantly crafted conciseness such as “OK” or “thanks”.

Most of the vice presidents will use “it’s” as a possessive because that’s what the others do, and that’s what we see in the newspapers and magazines, and who’s going to say anything as long as they get the point across?

Because they’re not setting the example, we’re seeing more and more constructs such as:

“If you have any question’s, please feel free to contact me” and
“I have ran the program’s”

As a matter of fact, our “I have ran the program’s” person has a simple time-saving rule: if a word ends in ‘s’, just include the apostrophe.

And those of us who know better think, “what do the clients think when they see this kind of writing?”

It’s possible that the “It’s It” folks foresaw the possibility of confusion, but that was way back in the days when spelling and grammar errors were still funny. Today they’re out of control. Come on, magazines and publishers: take back the language, and set the example again.

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The New Yorker Cover

July 21 2008 New Yorker Cover - ObamasI saw it on PBS News before my own issue arrived. Like so many others, I didn’t get it.

But there was the firestorm of controversy. Was The New Yorkerimplying Michelle totes an AK-47 and Barack is a radical Islamist? And what’s with the flag burning in the fireplace? In short, was one of the nation’s most literary magazines disrespectingthe Obamas?

According to PBS, The New Yorker was gamely replying that this was satire. No, any fool (it was hoped) should see that the cover represents how Obama’s scaremongering enemies would like to paint him as election day draws near.

Well, my own July 21 issue of The New Yorker arrrived, and I looked at the cover again, and I still don’t get it. It’s not the first time. From where I stand, it’s just another attention-getting flub from the magazine’s cover editors and whomsoever else is responsible for keeping the magazine in the public eye from week to week.

The current White House regularly goes ballistic over incisive weekly reporting by Jon Lee Anderson and Seymour Hersch on gasoline-on-the-flames topics such as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Iraq and global warming – oops – I mean, Climate Change. Most of those leaders need no caricaturist, being fully qualified stand-in artists for The Joker in the current Batman cinema.

There’s rarely if ever any explanation or apologia for New Yorker covers, and I didn’t find any. What I did find was yet another outstanding issue – in the printed material inside.

On page 48 there’s a terrific feature article on the political scene by Ryan Lizza, MAKING IT– how Chicago shaped Obama. I learned a lot about Obama the candidate, most of it very favorable in my opinion. I learned quite a bit about Obama the politician. Let’s face it, no one who hasn’t mastered politics will ever be elected President, and here again Obama seems to have what it takes. I also learned more than I ever wanted to know about the world of politics, Chicago-style – but (also my opinion) if you were thinking that the politics of a Boston, San Francisco or New York were prettier in any way, think again.

You probably know that cartoons grace the pages of The New Yorker, as they have for decades. The first rule of New Yorker cartoons is not really any different (if you think about it) than the first rule for cartoons in any magazine, or any collection of same: only one or two are going to strike a really responsive chord; the rest of them are going to be eminently forgettable, disappearing weekly in the recycling container.

New Yorker covers are a big deal to many folks, including the magazine itself. Periodically, the magazine publishes a “book of covers” so that, if you wish, you could ferret out an image of the cover for the week you were born, or Pearl Harbor day, or the day Bush took office – so to speak. Some of those covers are themselves cartoons, with the same success-failure ratios we just discussed. Most covers are just light art, breezy ethereal art, and occasionally even good art. Few people who buy magazines at all would need the words “The New Yorker” to instantly identify this magazine from the hundreds offered on the news racks.

I’m willing to go so far as to say I don’t care for the current Obama cover. I think it’s unfortunate. But I’m unwilling to join the thousands who will damn it or praise it. Sure, some conservatives will point to it and say, “I told you so”. Some liberals will see the cover as a betrayal of the last best hope for America. I say it’s just a lousy cover. It’s not just this magazine – Time also gets lambasted periodically for questionable covers. It’s happened before, and will happen again.

1962 New Yorker CoverIf I was forced – by an evil torturer, perhaps, or by the necessities of adventuring into the frugality of retirement living – to choose a paid subscription to just one magazine, it would be The New Yorker. The older I get, the more of its pages I devour each week. Sure, I would miss my venerable Scientific American, and my Astronomy and Sky and Telescope. But I can get all of that news and much of that content from the web. You can even get some of the feature articles of the New Yorker on the web. Would it be the same? Can I adapt? I don’t know.

Hell, before I retire, I’m going to buy one of those “Complete Set Portable Hard Drive” editions – every page of every issue, 1925-2007 – only $179.99 US.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover”, goes the adage. It all makes you wonder how many people actually read what’s inside.


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Creation, Chromosomes and Time Lines

Creationists commonly cite the Bible as evidence of a recent arrival of the human species. Their “event” is tied to Creation, or Genesis. Figures I have heard and read seem to center around 4,000 years ago, with Creationist data points ranging wildly from 600 to 10,000 years ago.

These dates today utterly lack credibility to modern evolutionists and lay science students alike, with the overwhelming geological and anthropological evidence showing that modern man emerged from Addis Ababa more than 40,000 years ago. The question that has always bothered me: how could presumably intelligent and articulate Creationists fatally wound their own beliefs with such wildly out-of-whack dates?

A possible clue comes from Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian generally considered the first in the western world to record and compile a credible representation of the beliefs, anecdotal histories and myths of the early “western world”. He wrote at a point in time of about 200BC.

In Book II, Herodotus starts introducing the reader to the rest of the known ancient world. He spends a great deal of time on Egypt, and he did visit Egypt, though he did not actually see some of the sites he chronicles. For example, he reports that the hippopotamus has the tail and mane of a horse. But we begin to get a feel for the smallness of the then-known world: Greeks in the Aegean, Egyptians and Libyans in north Africa, Assyrians and Persians in what today we would call the Middle East. There are reports of other barbarians (any peoples other than Greeks) in the hinterlands of Europe (Iberia, or Spain) and perhaps a hint that they had heard something of the abandoned monuments at StoneHenge.

In the world of Herodatus, “Asia” meant the region in which we found Persia – roughly, modern Iran, which we call the “Middle East”. Of the 6,000 year old cultures in China, nothing seems to be known.

Herodotus reports on the record-keeping of the Egyptian priests, who claim to be able to trace the kingly lineages back 13,500 years or more.

The real item is that he also reports the observation of other Greeks, that peoples tend to ascribe the Dawn of Mankind to the age of writing in their region. It was commonly believed in those times that humans are born with a working knowledge of their native tongues. So, perhaps it was believed that as soon as a tribe was “born”, its scribes would start writing about it, this giving us a way to discover the origins of man.

Ancient Egyptian writing may go back to the Old Kingdom, 3000BC give or take. The Dead Sea Scrolls may date to 100BC. But by this time the Roman Army has reached a strength of 300,000, and Teotihuacan reaches a population of 50,000 in Mexico.

In 2000BC (according to Wikipedia) we find Stonehenge completed, the first ancestors of the Latins (Etruscans), the Minoan palaces in Crete, dynasty wars in Egypt, and a bronze age beginning in China. The Sumerians define the cubit, and Reu, son of Peleg, is born according to the Hebrew calendar.

Science has long since found that the archaeological and paleontological records reveal “homo sapiens” – modern man – has been around much longer than that. Most recently, we can assign credible dates or ages to the migrations that map modern man’s emergence from Africa to all corners of the globe.

Chronomsome time line - click for larger image

We know that the Americas were populated by emigrants from Asia across the Bering Straits, probably over the Bering low-water land bridge during the last ice age over 10,000 years ago.

But I didn’t know there were actually two migrations. An earlier and major wave of humans pushed out of Africa through the Middle East, India, Australia, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, the Kamchatka Peninsula, Siberia, and Alaska, apparently getting as far as modern Oregon. This was 50,000 years ago.

This same mitochondrial “branch” spawned an offshoot 45,000 years ago which split into Central Europe (25,000 years ago), and, in two more waves, to western Asia (40,000 yera ago), Spain (30,000 years ago) and, by a different route, northern Europe (10,000 years ago). And there were other “waves” emerging from Africa and from other “nodes” on the map.

The map is from a major article in the July Scientific American, “Traces of a Distant Past”, by Gary Stix. It’s important to note that the migratory “waves” discussed, and depicted on the map, were not continuous population movements; a population would most likely split from a large parent group, emigrate to a new area, put down its roots and grow in size, before wanderlust and perhaps changing ecological fortunes prompted further migrations.

Please note that even the newest migrations were complete thousands of years before the earliest known examples of writing or calendars.

All the paths can be traced through genetic markers to a single “Mitochondrial Eve” about 200,000 years ago. This “Eve” was, by the mathematics of DNA, a single human being. As Stix points out, she was certainly not the only human forebearer to populate the early world. But she was the only one whose blood line actually survived all the way to modern times. And her distinct genetic markers are in all of us.

The point of origin (by several different methods) seems to be in what today is Ethiopia, in the region where Addis Ababa was founded in modern times. This is also the site of “Lucy”, perhaps the world’s oldest fossil record of one of our prehominid ancestors. Lucy was a much earlier pre-human, Australopithecus afarensis (3.9 to 3 million years ago).

So, for the first 3.8 million years, the species that we trace to ourselves today didn’t move at all. Then, in a brief 60,000 years, something happened. We populated the entire globe.

Interestingly, many Native Americans and aboriginal Australians are not interested in helping scientists map migration routes through DNA sampling. According to the same edition of Scientific American, tribal cultural belief is that their people always inhabited the land they do now. The finding that they actually migrated via Siberia 13,000 years ago is not exciting good news; it flies in the face of faith.

Something like 99.9% of the DNA material in the human genome is the same for every human being alive today. It’s the other 0.1% that carries the genetic variations that we ascribe to race, geography, climate and appearance. Humans are almost instinctively able to visually detect subtle differences of facial cast, gait, anotomical proportion and such to recognize differences of ancestral origin. In parts of the world, villagers can often tell by appearance who belongs to a village a scant hundred miles away. In ethnic melting pots like Europe and the US, statements like “he looks like a Scotsman” may have more validity than meets the eye.  If you have ever wondered why many South Americans seem to have some Asian features, take a look at the Scientific American Chromosome map.

The map is complex, yet amazingly simple. “We are all descended from a common ancestor” may be hard to conceptualize, but now it is easy to visualize. It may be the “greatest story ever told.”



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Herodotus, Book I

This is not a “review” of the classic ancient history of Herodotus, but conveys some of my strong early impressions. [See my April 25 notes on my decision to order this translation].

Beyond what I read in the New Yorker review I had no particular expectations. I suppose I expected some kind of Arcadian prehistory punctuated by brief periods of intertribal skirmish on the part of the war-glorifying Hellenes. The very notion of an Arcadia stems from the westernized 19th century romanticism of a simple, rustic, idealized early agrarian community.

In fact, Arcadia lies within the central part of the Peloponnesian peninsula, which was divided in those days into the regions of Achaea, Arcadia and Laconia. The city-state of Argos [“Jason and the Argonauts”] might have been part of Arcadia; it grew to prominence by trade with the Phoenicians, and suffered in competition and battle with bellicose neighboring Sparta.

While Argos was “persona non grata” among other city states, because of its policy of remaining neutral in the wars between Sparta and Athens, there was nothing “Arcadian” about this early region of western civilization.

In fact, there was never a time in our history when there were not wars. “Massively overwhelming” military might and “shock and awe” have different terms and technology today, but the concepts are twenty-five hundred years old. Most of all, Herodotus guides us through the shifting sands of military warfare, victory, and defeat; the invincible tyranny of the superpower that rules today is tomorrow always guaranteed wholesale slaughter and slavery.

It is not so much that those early city-states fought wars of desperation, due to drought or famine, such as the butchery and lawlessness we are currently witnessing on the parched continent of Africa. The early warriors fought them out of a desire for the spoils of war, the accumulation of land, and raw power.

When the Persians started their mighty war engines against the rising Greek city-states, two things come to mind. First, the city-states were too busy sacking each others’ cities to come to the aid of their immediately beleaguered neighbors. Second, drawing heavily on the American assumption that size and might are the best defense against foreign incursion, we wonder why these city-states did not form permanent regional alliances, when, in view of the success of Persian kings Cyrus and Darius, it would be to their clear advantage to do so.

As we look at the forms of government of the time, there were many great tyrants, but the concepts of democracy and freedom were far from fully formed, and Herodotus so far [Book I] has not dwelt on any kind of relationship between concepts of government and the well-being of its peoples. These early city-states had their open markets, or agora, but no idea of what today we would call “participatory democracy” as far as we can tell in Herodotus. It would appear that each city-state held so many grudges against each other, for offenses both of pride and serious injury, and saw each other so heavily as threatening rivals, that we should not be surprised that this state of affairs had not improved by the time the next great war engine was mounted against ancient Greece. This would be imperial Rome, in a time long after Herodotus.

The narrative history of Herodotus [edited by Strassler] flows smoothly and is pleasurable to read. Usually, the wheels of this history revolve around the great heroes of the time, names that are still with us today. There is no attempt to demonize the other side, but to simply tell the stories from the point of view of the players. King Cyrus [of Persia] is revealed to be every bit as feeling and human as his Greek counterpart, such as the Ionian King Croesus.

Wealthy Croesus – a descendent of Midas, it is said – very early conquered almost all of the Mediterranean and Aegean regions before being captured by the great Persian king and General Cyrus. He was held in bondage not only as a captive, but esteemed military and civil advisor (!).

All these leaders made their decisions primarily by consulting the gods, namely the Pythia or Oracle of Delphi, and lesser oracles at other locations.

And these prophecies, handed out by the sacrifice-enriched Oracles, were ambiguous and cryptic. Croesus, for example, was told that if he attacked Cyrus, he would destroy a mighty empire. He was not told it would be his own. Modern-day oracles have spy satellites and fiber optic communications taps at their disposal, but we would not have to look too far for suitable contemporary Oracles.

It is impressive how thoroughly the prattle of the sooth-sayers was taken with the same literal seriousness that we today take the objective scientific reports of the mass spectrometers, x-ray telescopes and weather satellites. From our point of view, the ancient Greeks had no conceptual tools for distinguishing between the validity of the battlefield scouts and the supernatural Oracles – just so, as people of our Middle Ages “knew” the earth was flat, stationary, and the center of the universe.

Dreams were another source of mystical insight; one sage was quoted as saying dreams largely reflect what we happened to be thinking about during the day, but most people continued to believe dreams were divinely inspired.

To illustrate how closely dreams and reality were linked in the world in which Herodotus writes, I would like to retell the following story. I view it as mostly fable or myth, but Herodotus wisely sticks to reporting the story as it, no doubt, was told to him:

Croesus had a dream that his son and presumed heir Arys would be killed by the iron point of a spear. His son already being a wildly popular and successful general, Croesus decided to marry his son off and withdraw the youth from the battlefield, which he did, and the son’s attentions were devoted to building a life with his new bride.

It was not too long before this when Croesus had taken under his protection Adrastos, a fine young man and refugee from a neighboring noble household, who was sought after for murder by his own people, for inadvertently killing his brother in a horrible accident.

In most ways Croesus was successful as a tyrant because of his benevolence to the people he subjugated, and so they came to him one day to complain of an unusually large wild boar that was terrifying the villages.

Croesus said he would mount a force to take care of the wild boar once and for all, and he appointed the young man Adrastos, who was under his household protection, to lead the force. When Arys got wind of this, he complained bitterly to his father.

“You have pulled me from the battlefield, father”, he said, “because in your dream I would be killed by a spear in battle. But, this is not a battle.” And he went on to convince the old man that if he did not lead this force, he would lose popularity with the people, who were already wondering why he never showed his face around military ventures those days. After all, this was not a battle, but a boar hunt.

And so this is what happened. Under the command of Arys, the force quickly located and surrounded the wild boar. In the melee, as it happened, the young man Adrastos was closest, and he hurled his spear, which was tipped with a point of iron, at the boar. And he missed the boar, killing Croesus’s son Arys.

Ending this sad little Greek tragedy, Croesus is grief-stricken but forgives Adrastos, whose intention was certainly not to kill his friend the son of his protector. However, when Arys is laid to rest in a fine marble tomb, Adrastos slays himself over that tomb, and we are not to hear any more about either boy again.

Such were the times of which Herodotus wrote: the dreams, the prophecies, the heroic actions, and the occasional shameful acts of cowardice on the part of those timorous souls who just wanted to live, all seamlessly spiced together indistinguishably into a great epic tale. It is from these tales of the Homeric era that we get the idea of Greek Tragedy, a literary tradition that is still with us today.

No doubt these tales inspired glory-eyed warriors of all the intervening centuries to try to emulate the grand deeds of their ancestors, who brought brief interludes of peace and relative prosperity to a region decimated by warfare solely for the purpose of a change of regime. Throughout it all, the people endured, just as they do today.

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The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

As a youngster I was quite taken by “Swallows and Amazons”, the children’s adventure series by Arthur Ransome. It instilled in me a love of sailing, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of history, as the kids in the books were always concocting imaginary play battles with bad guys with names like Xerxes and Darius.

This is no longer just a childhood memory, it is now a memory from another century, of a yet much older time when “world wars” were fought in a known world not much larger than today’s modern Europe. Click the map below for a larger version at the Wikipedia entry for the world of Herodotus.

Map from Herodotus ca 450BC, Wikipedia

 I went on to take four years of Latin, and absorbed (and forgot) an amazing amount of history and lore of ancient Rome. But the exposure to the history of ancient Greece never came, and, until this week’s issue of the New Yorker, I never knew who this King Darius person was, or why military men study his defeat to this day, or how greatly the Persian wars shaped the future of the Western World.

The April 28 New Yorker review is Arms and The Man, by Daniel Mendelsohn. It is a masterpiece of expository writing in its own right, and reviews in detail The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, (Pantheon) edited by Robert B. Strassler. In case you are never going to get around to ordering and reading this work (Amazon, $29), I highly recommend you follow the New Yorker link while it is still active, and read what you can of this world of Herodotus, circa 450BC. I read the review twice and ordered the book.

Mendelsohn promises Herodotus will tell us as much as we could ever want to know about King Darius, and his son Xerxes, and possibly more. I expect to learn why the Persians’ two military campaigns to subjugate the city states of Greece both failed catastrophically, despite overwhelming military superiority (“shock and awe”). I expect insights into why it is said that the totalitarian power of mindsets like Xerxes cause peaceful democracies to lose sleep to this day.

And I look forward to reading the full story of how a Greek leader said, when told the Persian armies blacken the skies with arrows, “This is good, then. We will be able to fight in the shade.”

My take, based on the New Yorker review: this isn’t just a first-rate history classic, written by Herodotus, whom it is said gave the first modern meaning to the concept of “History”. It’s an epic adventure, on a relative and heroic scale that would remain equally immortal in prehistory or in Star Wars.

Hardcover. 1024 pages. Lavish illustrations, maps, annotations and cross-references.



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“Occupational” Names

What’s in a name? Recently I was staring at the names in a mailing list, and the name “Butcher” reminded me that it’s spelled exactly like the professional tradespeople behind the meat counter for a reason. Names tell us something about our heritage.

How many “occupational” names can you think of? I tried to list as many such names as I could think of, below. My list is mostly English surnames. I didn’t try to branch out into other languages: “Schmidt” is German for Smith. “Muller” or “Mueller” is the German variant of Miller. My own surname “Forbes” is from the ancient Gaelic “forba” meaning field – possibly indicating agricultural origin.

If you get stuck, I found a useful genealogy link at which offers etymologies on hundreds of names.



























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That’s What I’m Talking About

Sunset and Storm Clouds Over Sawtooth Ridge, Yosemite, 1972Some unrecorded number of years ago, struggling to come up with ideas on how to present to our readers, I wrote in About This Webite” that “I am finally content and happy in the backwaters of unread America, examining root causes …”

I compared the virtual summitlake to a very real place in the high country they call Summit Lake, a place where the occasional stranger treks through our lives and leaves something of value behind.

I wrote:

It’s quiet up here at this lake. I like it. This place seems to have a thousand moods and seasons, and even as that cloud passes overhead, the mood of my meadow changes by the minute. Now, as the evening breeze picks up in earnest and the orange sun begins to sink below the western range, is a good time to remember that, as my perceptions change from this meadow, it’s still the same lake.

In another essay, “Black Elk Speaks” , I wrote:

Black Elk said that he did not ever tell any one person all of his vision, until the very end, but only little pieces of it to any one person, because if you did, it would lose its power and would not work for you. Missing from this are the ideas of growth and change, but even these come to us unevenly, and we can mark these periods like rings on a tree.

As I said, people do not come by here often, but sometimes, when they do, they pick up a thread I may have dropped years ago. Like those who have the training and patience to read the rings on a tree, we learn a little more about this place we are visiting, and you know, we’re all guests here … including me.

So here we have this idea of a lake, not just a concept of the body of water itself but the idea of a lake, which is why we capitalize it and call it the Lake. Summit Lake? Tahoe? Winnipesaukee? It may make a huge difference to me, but no difference to you. A fisherman, a small child with water wings, a backpacker, a family that has been coming back here summer after summer for generations: they all bring different paraphrenalia, expectations, and traditions, but it is the same lake.

Take the family that summers here, and knows the best picnic spots, the lightly traveled fishing trails that encircle the lake (unnoticed by that casual day user, toward whom we privately affect airs of smugly proud superiority).  They know where the white triangular cotton sails of the dingy best billow with the breezes that flow across the water, and where the moss-filtered hillside trickle is that fills the water cooler bottles with clear, cold, pure spring water. This is also the lake of their grandparents. It holds out few secrets. To this family, every rock and boulder relates to some event in the family history, but the rich collection of memories, as wonderful and instructive as they are, is not the lake. Grandpa, smoking his pipe on the porch at dusk,  understood this:

“Sit here, and just close your eyes for a minute. You have seen the lake. Now, just listen to it.”

The sounds have a life of their own: the crickets, the birds settling down for the night, the waves lapping against the sand. Somehow, the youngster understands: we are not just part of the lake. It is a part of us. At this moment, either statement is just a different way of saying the same thing.

This short essay is just to remind us: have fun, but revere the lake. We are part of the local history of the lake, but it is also a part of us, more than most of us take the time to realize.

The Lake is everything that you see, hear and experience, but you have to know how to look. Eastern mysticism? Think again. Western philosophers have struggled with the question “but what, really, is the Lake?” Wrong question. I can describe to you how one would build a mighty dam, or how the beaver builds the humble but effective wier of twigs and branches … but who can describe how to see a lake?

In my personal view there is no secret process that would gradually be revealed to you, at some price you might be unwilling to pay. Everything is already there, on the surface, waiting to be seen. Or, perhaps in your past you have seen parts of it in the rings of the trees, welcoming another who sees that becoming a part of the big picture just means letting go of the alders and cottonwoods and the fall leaves floating in the still of the pond: they ARE part of the picture, but the lake is everything.

But I would not be surprised to see things I never noticed before. To be honest, I can always tell you not to read too much into all of this, and to look for what you see without the artifice of vanity and personalized interpretive embellishment. Robert Pirsig wrote that if you wanted to learn how to fix a motorcycle, learn how to think like the motorcycle. I was the wise guy who at first thought he was just being funny.

Secretly, I have always known that whenever we should get a chance to share with a genuine Master our own vision of the Lake, the very nature of his construction will require him to throw T.S. Eliot back at us:

To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

— The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

As long as we are throwing Masters around, there is value in going back to the ones who also saw it clearly on the more fundamental level, and said so better that I: let me share with you a couple of passages that still electrify me. And then you, all the visitors to this lake, this place here, tell me: is there really something here that does not meet the eye? Has it not been here all along?

From Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig, 1974:

[Phaedrus] felt that the solution started with a new philosophy or he saw it as even broader than that — a new spiritual rationality — in which the ugliness and the loneliness and the spiritual blankness of dualistic technological reason would become illogical. Reason was no longer to be “value free.” Reason was to be subordinate, logically, to Quality, and he was sure he would find the cause of its not being so back among the ancient Greeks, whose mythos had endowed our culture with the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency to do what is “reasonable” even when it isn’t any good.

From Learning To Fly, P.H. Liotta, 1989:

The wilderness was born in my refusal to listen to the silence. Now I believe that every human, if only once in a life, should turn back to whatever she or he can take up of the remembered earth … To forget whatever small and precious things one has learned, to believe they are foolish things really, only the beginnings of understanding or the remnants of some acquired education, to discard one’s particular way of sight as surely as Picasso did in his first flight in an aircraft, when he looked down to the earth and muttered absently to himself, Cubism. Everyone should see the earth from such fractured angles, to be so uncertain of the certainty of one’s existence. Everyone should image existence without the presence of the self, to remove every thought of one’s own life from the equation; and only by doing that can one begin to believe the sureness and the truth of one’s own life.

Matterhorn Canyon, Virginia Canyon, Shepherd Crest, Yosemite 1972. This panorama takes in a few hundred square miles.
In the English Lit classes I believe they still teach us to take paragraphs like that apart.  Pay attention, class. Why did the author say it that way? Indeed, what do you suppose he meant, “fractured angles?” Why would he say we should forget the small and precious things, only to re-inject them anew into the sureness and truth of life?

While the students are set to learning how to diagram sentences, some of them are learning how to understand themselves. Is it possible the instructor understands that? I’m pretty sure the real point’s not what we think an author meant, but what we get out of it. Aren’t you?

“What we get out of it”: the classroom instructor is right here, vindicated in his knowledge that the student who digs gets the higher marks, and probably, the better lifetime. On the surface, Pirsig and Liotta seem to be saying epistemological opposites:

Pirsig rued the tendency to strip value from reason, the dualism that allows us to say “this is what the thing is, and that is what it means to us, and we need not be concerned with how you reconcile the two”.

Liotta is saying, immerse yourself in the experience of the this, and leave all your accumulative that out of it.  Once we grasp that existence thrives in absence of the personalized trappings of the humans who trample the forest floor, we are finally free to reinvest or reinvent our values to enrich our personal existences.

Liotta’s remarkable book is filled from cover to cover with the richness of personal evaluative content, so my vote is that he is not saying evaluative asceticism is a required destination, but a terrifically useful stepping stone. To learn how to evaluate reality, you must learn first to identify it, and that is a tremendously riskier task when you have to tote a week’s supply of intellectual baggage. Just listen to the lake.

I think Pirsig and Liotta took profoundly different routes to saying very similar things. Pirzig drilled down through thousands of years of academic strata to find out what was left when you separated out the sediment of prejudice and predisposed opinion and political alliance. Liotta took the more direct method of looking out the metaphoric aircraft window and seeing nature’s designs without us in the picture.

By either route, how do we get to Pirsig’s “Quality?” That would be a much longer essay … but once you have the methodology for thinking about it, you see that “Quality” can’t just be an after-market add-on. It has to be engineered in from the very first draftsman’s sketches. Like the Lake, the finished product of Man has to be true to its nature. Before you can design a motorcycle that’s a pleasure for us to ride, you have to design a system that takes good care of the needs of the motorcycle.

Concerning quotes such as I cite from Pirsig and Liotta, how can we know when we’re just grabbing snippets from the masters and reapplying them to our own contexts and purposes?

The words are theirs. The concepts we carried away from them are ours now (or should be, if we have thought about them) — not in the sense that one is ever free to misappropriate originality, but in the greater sense that, to the best of our ability, we have lived them.

But that’s still too convoluted. As in life, simplicity comes at the end, not the beginning.

At the end of this stem-winder, you drop by the lake, and you take in the view. You see one thing. I have been here for a while, and I may have seen something else. To take home with us forever the actual beauty of the lake, we don’t need a communally synthesized composite view of what everybody has seen.

It’s still the same lake. It’s just not about binding arbitration and spin doctoring. You walk away with what you put into the process. And you own it.

That’s what I’m talking about.

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Mystery Spot

I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner’s delightful collection of articles and stories about “the changing American West”, The Sound of Mountain Water (Penguin; first published in 1969 by Doubleday). I feel quite certain I’ll eventually attempt a more serious article on this fine collection.

In Chapter 3, however, I find myself reading about the road signs on old Route 66. You remember them. “Gas”. “Ice Cold Drinks”. “Mag’s Good Eats”. Rattlesnakes. Katchina dolls. Stegner did not mention the Burma-Shave signs, but you remember them too. And finally, “Mystery Spot.”

Ah, yes, the venerable old quack Santa Cruz tourist trap that even the Loma Prieta quake couldn’t kill. Who did they ever enlist to post signs on the fabled road to New Mexico?

Mystery Spot screen splash

A bunch of us visited Mystery Spot in college. Larry, Bob and Bob’s girlfriend Chris all made me promise?to go there with an open mind and not make a scene.? I’m sure I failed my solemn commitment.

Basically, the proprietors swear this is one of a few spots on Earth where gravity is seriously perturbed. But what they have there is a cattywompus house, with floors built on a slope and nonparallel walls at all angles.?Room ceilings slope from one side to the other, giving the feeling that one is taller on one side of the room than the other. The feeling of disorientation is powerful, or “discombobulating” as one writer put it.

I’m not going to give away all the fun by spilling the beans again. You can research it at WikiPedia, or even at Mystery Spot’s own site. At the Mystery Spot site you can even see documentary photos, such as the photo of two gentlemen standing facing each other one a sloping floor. One of them appears to be taller than the other because they have not yet changed positions to the other photo, where the other appears taller. Amazing!

While in one room at Mystery Spot I noticed that, sure enough, gravity seemed to be all out of whack where I was standing. You could tell, because I knew I was standing upright, but the walls were pointing up and off in a different direction than I was.

The problem was, the Santa Cruz Mountains are prime redwood country. Somebody forgot to tell the redwoods. Why, right outside our window, the redwoods were standing to the same perpendicular I was! And, across the valley on the far slope, the redwoods there were also all obeying the same perverse law of gravity I was!

I got a number of glaring tourists frowning on me when I irreverently suggested the house had been build without benefit of local plumb-bobs, levels or carpenter squares.

Outside near the parking area – we were all standing straight up once again – they had a glassed-in bulletin board area with precious written testimonials. One was from some Austrian Professor from some obscure institution of higher learning nobody had ever heard of or was ever likely to hear of again. It said, basically, “I have examined the phenomena at Mystery Spot and they appear to be the phenomena I have examined.”

I called out to my friends, “Hey look! Proof right here, an authentic document!”

More glares and stares. We left before the believers rode us out of town on a rail.

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