Letters: “Srimps”

“Srimps.” That’s all I remember now. Back in the day, there was a guy, a kid, maybe a girl, basically a young adult who didn’t know how to pronounce “shrimp.” We made fun of the person, to their face and behind their back, but it was always “srimp” and it’s a damn shame that after all the fun at someone else’s expense, I can’t remember anything other than “srimp.”

Funny now, how selective the memory can be. Maybe, after a time, most of a lifetime of real events that actually mean something and have lasting value, for the rest we just remember that one distinguishing characteristic we enjoyed the most.

In any event, our conversation on “shrimp” stuck, so today I was in Joey Franco’s old PW Market, a previously v. upscale market for our tony Castro Valley well-to-do. It was bought out by Safeway a few years back and has rapidly become JAS – just another Safeway.

Armed with that backgrounding, picture me now trying to figure out where I was going to locate their shrimp cocktail, if those little glass jars I used to buy as a college student even exist any more. I was near the meat counter, so wandered up to the display case and waited my turn for the meat person to help me.

“Hi, can you tell me if you stock shrimp cocktail?”


“You know, those little glass jars of shrimp with the tomato cocktail sauce.”

“Oh, we don’t carry those no more.”


“I see. Do you know if it’s stocked anywhere in the store?”

“We don’t carry those no more.” She waited for me to leave.

“Very well, then, what do you tell your customers who would like shrimp cocktail? Do you sell ingredients to make it?”

“You can buy shrimp.” She pointed vaguely to the glass case. I saw only meat in the case.


They had prepackaged cooked shrimp in various grades, in another case below where she’d pointed. She waited for me to leave.

“What about the sauce?”

Oh, those are over THERE.” She pointed to a display of bottled condiments. One brand said “Cocktail sauce.”

“These? These are for shrimp?”


I thanked her profusely for all her valuable time. At last, after all these years, another “srimp” mentality, a pudgy white girl with an unfocused expressionless squint who will lean on her glass case until they fire her, and then blame the world for our inability to recognize true quality when we see and hear it.

I picked out the medium grade size, looking fresh and in good condition. $8.99 for about a pound. I know from previous experience with the trots you want to avoid the small economy shrimp packages, because the meat is largely bits and pieces and you can’t tell the freshness or health of the specimens.

I took my shrimp and sauce to the checkout counter with the rest of my basket. The customer behind me said she always uses that sauce and she always adds lemon juice. She must have been an old PW Market customer. At least, a real human being. I thanked her.

As I wrote in a 1994 essay named “Lunch at Ten Fu:

“I believe that we should always try to find a positive in every experience, but it seems unavoidable that every once in a while in life we will stumble across a little vacuum bubble in life’s fabric, a nothingness nodule, as it were.”

At home, I prepared my shrimp cocktail exactly as noted earlier. Best damned shrimp cocktail I ever had. And there’s enough for tomorrow too.


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Astronomy: Tiny Pluto Victim of Drive-By Shooting?

Reading my latest Astronomy magazine (Feb 2011), I see the “Pluto debate” rages on. As everyone knows, unless vacationing on Mars at the time, in 2006 the International Astronomers’ Union (IAU) redefined Pluto as a dwarf planet.

I’ve already written several articles on this in our Astronomy department. So why on Earth would this controversy sprawl over to our Writing department? This is one of those little tempests in the scientific teapot that might better have just been turned over to the guardians of language: lexicographers, semanticists and similar, more literary colleagues.

Scientists are rightly concerned, I’ll agree, that folks don’t get to simply just take back common English words (say, like “Creation”) for redefinition, so they can accommodate some new theory or agenda. The Kansas Board of Education doesn’t get to redefine Evolution out of legal existence. But isn’t that what the IAU did?

Adam Savage of the popular TV show MythBusters is celebrated for his trademark resuscitation of the discredited ’60’s school of subjective reality, i.e., his tongue-in-cheek quip “I reject your reality, and substitute my own.” Many feel that’s what the IAU did with language.

You’ll recall the whole debate blew as high as the heavens with the discovery of new planetary bodies with exotic names like Quaoar and Xena. Some of these bodies are larger than Pluto. Do we jump from nine to thirteen planets, or tighten the rules?

Well, it turns out that much of the jargon of astronomy goes back to the Renaissance, and that terminology grew up with the history of scientific discovery, which is fair enough, but a lot of that jargon no longer makes a lot of sense.

One of the glories of the Church of England is its worship. The word ‘liturgy’ describes the patterns, forms and words through which public worship is conducted. — Worship in the Church of England

Like a church liturgy, it helps to have grown up steeped in the lore of scientific terminology. For example, a carbon-rich star is called a “carbon star” and is classified as a Type C star, but an oxygen-rich star, like a Red Giant, is called a type M star “for historical reasons.” Well, it gets worse, for carbon stars don’t exactly fit into the same historical scheme, but, moving on:

A Brown Dwarf fits into the dwindling tail-end taxonomy of the life cycle of dying stars, but we still call them “stars”. Of exploding stars, we have “nova” and “supernova”, and types Ia and II (that’s where most of the carbon and oxygen comes from). The IAU ignored the more adaptive modern scientific approach to nomenclature for the rigidity of the medievalist.

Of “planets”, some of astronomy’s learned lexicographers are still stuck on the notion that every non-luminous orbiting body has to fit into  the 17th century taxonomy; “it’s either a ‘planet’, or it’s not”.

If the IAU had just classified planets as subtypes A, B or C, they might have solved the new-discovery thing without trying to redefine the world’s languages at every chance new discovery. IAU 2006 was the semantic equivalent of a drive-by shooting.

As new objects are found orbiting our own sun,  and exoplanets are spotted dimming the light curves of distant stars, I’m predicting: a chastened future IAU will have to go back and redefine their ‘reality’ in a way that fits the facts, as well as making historical and common sense.

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“Unfortunate” Semantics

The following mini-drama played itself out in the March 2009 pages of Sky & Telescope . It concerned an exchange of verbal pot-shots on the biblical subject of the “Star of Bethlehem”, found in S&T articles and letters to the editor going all the way back to December 2007.

The critique you are reading  here appears in Writing NOTES, rather than Summitlake’s Astronomy department, because the “Star of Bethlehem” subject was hijacked by the subtext. Those letters and columns were not primarily about stale rehashes of the perennially old debate. They were about a battle for intellectual dominance and crowd control. They were about “spin doctoring” in the Lee Atwater “Dirty Tricks” sense, scaled down to the palate of the Astronomy crowd.

Contributor: Unfortunately, I and my work on the Star have been maligned in what amounts to a personal attack. Since I am the injured party here, I get to substitute a fairness appeal for any substantive additions to my hypothesis.

Columnist: Others have misrepresented my research and ignored historical evidence. A book reviewed cited my work on the Star of Bethlehem as the “final word”. Unfortunately, others have ignored the historical evidence.

Was there really a Star of Bethlehem, or was it just invented out of whole cloth, or was it a misidentification of some other apparition, now understood, such as Venus or Halley’s Comet? Could it have been a supernova, even though we have neither a confirmed date nor independent observations from the courts of Chinese astronomers? Were there really Three Wise Men, and, if so, exactly how wise were they?

The fact seems to be that we simply can’t know. Except for the highly supercharged Biblical reference, such an alleged sighting wouldn’t even be remembered today.

Personal attacks are intolerable as a substitute for substantive argument. I dug into the Sky & Telescope articles and references with interest, looking for signs of slander. Finding no direct personal attacks, I found it interesting that the writer who came across as the pious psalm-singing defender of the faith was the one arguing that the Star of Bethlehem, historically, probably did not exist at all. The writer representing himself as the reasoned man of science was the one who concluded that the “Star” was, variously, either an astrological event, or just the “mundane Morning Star” [Venus].

Semantically, it’s worth noting that current popular usage of the word “unfortunately” has a different purpose than the mere confirmation of a regrettable fact. It’s used to hijack the conversation, to pre-empt it with a corrective change of context. And we need to be aware of that signal.

Old usage: Unfortunately, at that exact moment, Holmes dropped his pipe onto the doctor’s lap, setting Watson’s pants on fire.

New usage: Unfortunately, you don’t get to ask for an allowance this week, because you didn’t clean your room in 1957.

Or even: Unfortunately, you’re fired.

In other words, “unfortunately” isn’t used today so much to express regret, as to set you up for the show-stopper. It’s no accident that successful delivery of the catch-word is easily intoned to sound like a parent rebuking an unthinking child: you thought the conversation was about the allowance, but now you can see it’s really about who calls the shots here.

And what about the Star of Bethlehem?

In my personal opinion, when a conversation devolves into a verbal pissing match, it’s prima facie evidence that at least one party doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or has become bogged and befuddled in intellectual quicksand, and intends to derail the discussion. If possible, he intends to turn the situation around, from facts to appearances, so that an audience perceives the other side as the bad guy, and therefore, the loser. The spin artist becomes the default winner.

I watched “Boogie Man” on PBS last night, the Lee Atwater “Dirty Tricks” story of the small-town Southern boy who made it to the very top rungs of Washington society by smear and innuendo. Atwater was the one who cost Dukakis the election with the “Willie Horton” tactic. While Governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis signed a prison reform bill allowing furloughs for convicted felons. While out on furlough, Horton raped a woman after pistol-whipping and knifing her fiance. Atwater spun this to make Horton “a household name”, implying Dukakis pandered to rapists, even getting third parties to sponsor interviews with rape victims. Horton was also African-American, and it was no accident that his rise to national notoriety pandered to Southern racism too. America got the message this was what you could expect if they elected Dukakis instead of George H.W. Bush.

Dukakis explained retrospectively, in an interview near the end of the “Boogie Man” special, that he believed at the time the best defense against an unfair smear was to refuse to dignify it: to ignore it. In real life, this may sound like the high road, but, in politics, it’s suicide: Atwater hung him out to dry.

It turns out that this Massachusetts furlough program was modeled after a similar and seemingly successful progressive program in California, signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. But Dukakis never explained that to the press.

In retrospect, Dukakis admitted his best defense would have been to simply state the affirmative, and shut up.

In Astronomy, as in the greater and contentious world of academia and business, it seems the same ethics would apply. State the affirmative, shut up, skip the pissing matches, and get on with real business.

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To most magazines, and to those newspapers that use them, fact-checking departments are the thin blue line between a crowd and a riot. They function like radiation monitoring personnel in nuclear facilities, NASA Mission Control in a space launch, the “clean room” in electronics assembly, or software QA in mission-critical software. But fact-checking is a labor of devotion; it comes at a cost.

As explained by John McPhee in his fascinating New Yorker article “Checkpoints“, February 9-16 2009, a mis-statement of fact in a reputable magazine has serious and long-lasting repercussions. If an error actually slips past the challenges and research of the fact-checking department, it is inspected and usually caught by thousands of exceptionally eagle-eyed readers, but the damage at this point is already done. The magazine, complete with embedded error, checked or un-checked but false as a green fire engine, finds its way into thousands of libraries across the country and world, where it is accessed by further generations of readers and researchers, who, aware of the rigorous screening and checking process through which all such printed statements of fact are filtered, are prone to accept the statements at face value, and thereby propagate them further.

If we were spies in some ministry of disinformation and propaganda, we would do well to bypass the planting of false rumors upon the lips of dips, snitches and fallen patriots amongst the rabble, but instead to conspire to get our subversive misrepresentations published as gospel in the printing houses of the land. This, of course, is what modern Public Relations departments already do for a living.

I used to do software QA for a vendor of financial accounting systems. This was not “mission-critical” computer code in the sense of life-support systems, but clients understandably object when there is an error in the computational algorithm in even a very obscure piece of the functionality. We tried very hard to devise tests to catch these errors while the code was still in development, and then in recurrent testing afterwards. Like so many modern corporations, we had limited resources. While a development test plan on a larger project might exceed a hundred pages and the require execution of hundreds or thousands of specific tests, we and our clients, like New Yorker readers, banked off the fruit of previous labor. So, the entire final report on a downstream “credibility” checkout of the code of the whole software system, when ported to a new machine or through a software upgrade, might read, “no problems noted.”

Not so with magazines. McPhee published an article in the New Yorker, he wrote, called “Coal Train”, in 1995. It included the passage:

The releasing of the air brakes began at the two ends, and moved toward the middle. The train’s very long integral air tube was like the air sac of an American eel.

The checking department informed McPhee there was an apparent problem with the eel metaphor. It seems several experts stated that the air sac of this particular fish was proportionally shorter than the air sac of most other fish. It took a phone call to Harvard to straighten this out: “The train’s very long integral air tube was like the air sac of a rope fish.”

Last night I listened to a newscast in which a politician was asked if it was true that spin-off costs of a certain program were going to be $300 billion. His instant response was: no, no, no, it would certainly be much lower than that, but what we really need to appreciate is blah blah blah … And of course he never stated what the “much lower” cost actually was, and of course the interviewer dropped the ball and didn’t ask. Successful politicians use circumlocution and equivocation like champion Olympic skiers use body english. Even if he actually says “$300 billion” – which he wouldn’t , and, my goodness, was that $300 million? –  people don’t expect him to mean that to all the precision of twelve significant digits – or was that nine digits? – he is merely indicating in a political fashion that we’re talking “real money” here.

So there is political capital to be gained by letting the listener discount the source. Perhaps there is something to be said for the art of equivocation after all.

If I were writing this piece for the New Yorker, which I am most certainly not – the New Yorker never having heard of me, and, except for a fluke of fate, me never having heard of the New Yorker, but for the fact I discovered early on I prefer literature to vacuous twaddle – I would elect to equivocate as much as possible. So, if I were publishing McPhee’s original, un-fact-checked assertion that a certain “first” Budweiser plant produced “an average of thirteen thousand kegs a day”, in New Hampshire, I would simply render it: “While traveling inland New Hampshire, I overheard a stranger claim that a certain local Budweiser plant originally produced somewhere in excess of thirteen thousand kegs daily.”

In my own expert rendering above, you can plainly figure out the following:

  • – Except for a tiny corner of New Hampshire in which the wonderful city of Portsmouth accesses the Atlantic, the entire state is landlocked. It is hard to actually travel the breadth of New Hampshire without going inland, so my statement is true, but gratuitously redundant.
  • – My source is an anonymous stranger.
  • – I omitted the claim that this is Bud’s “first” plant, since I have no personal knowledge of anything of the kind.
  • – I have waffled on the actual amount of Budweiser produced so badly that there is nothing for the fact-checking department to do except verify that the plant is, or was at some time or other, actually located in the state of New Hampshire.

You see, it was only the rigorous ministrations of the New Yorker fact-checking department that saved author and publisher from the embarrassing blunder of damning Budweiser plant capacity with faint praise. It seems their first plant had turned out an average of eighteen thousand barrels a day.

In the future, if I ever do submit an article to the New Yorker, recognizing that the inclusion of un-checked statements of fact can pose challenges of great consequence to the resources and ingenuity of a fact-checking department, I shall submit as few of them as possible. While I harbor the suspicion that my posture will increase the likelihood of my article being scrutinized with somewhat less than the attention it richly deserves, I do believe that the resources of a great fact-checking department should be reserved for those authors who have something to say.

I enjoy writing as well as almost anyone, but I would hate to be a bother, and then too, don’t we all instinctively distrust those social gadflies whose first instinct in a crowd is to redirect everyone’s attention to themselves?

Forthwith, I resolve to include in my articles a disclaimer, absolving both reader and fact-checking departments of any responsibility for my sins, whether by omission and commission, and I think it should read something like this:

It could be said that I did not check my facts before writing this article, but then, I have not become aware of any mis-statements of fact during the commission of this article, so I could not, on the whole, say that.

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Love In The Time of Cholera – review

Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Edith Grossman, Vintage Books, 1988.

Florentino Ariza was the poor, shy, bespectacled dreamer. As a youth he courted the girl of his dreams with serenades and secret anonymous letters. He lost when a mysterious high society doctor entered the life of the girl he loved. He would not get a chance to try again for fifty-one years, nine months and four days.

Fermina Daza was the tempestuous, self-determined girl with the beauty of a royal princess and the eyes of a panther. She had short shrift for men who loved from afar yet could not say what they mean. Fermina Daza’s father was a man of new money – ill-gotten, some said – who gave his daughter everything to propel her into the highest social strata, the ruling class. “I am not a rich man”, he would say. “I am a poor man with money. There is a difference.”

Dr. Juvenal Urbino was the dashingly handsome, educated, sophisticated prodigy of one of the country’s great old family names. He studied medicine in Paris. He grew to learn the whole world better, perhaps, than the whole truth of his own country, yet he followed a lifelong campaign of civic and infrastructure improvement. At the very beginning, Dr. Juvenal Urbino let it be known that he would wed Fermina Daza. Thus it was all arranged, and all Fermina Daza had to do was give her consent. She did.

Cartagena, Columbia at nightIn the following decades the newlyweds traveled the world, raised a fine family, survived an unforgivable breach of trust in the marriage, and settled down into the comfortable rust of old age. He told her: “Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.” All might have still have ended happily, except for that wretched parrot.

For me there could have been no higher recommendation of this book that than of the lender, who lent it without reservations, as a critically prized treasure.

It is about life in a South American country, apparently Columbia, around the turn of the previous century. It is a tale of love among the rich and the poor, but mostly among the rich, in a social stratum which has disappeared as surely as the manatee, gone as surely as the life and forestation that used to teem on the banks of the Magdalena River. The slow-witted manatee was shot for sport, to near-extinction. The alligators were killed for sport and perhaps for their skins; the trees themselves were stripped from the denuded rain forest soil for the fuel to power the river-boats that plied upstream, searching for the next cordwood depot to fire their boilers on their journey.

Set against the backdrop of this period, “Love in the Time of Cholera” is not about specie conservation and forest management, though it is somewhat prescient (the original Spanish publication was in 1985) about ecological balance and the un-greening of the planet. While the dread cholera ravaged all the continents toward the middle and end of the nineteenth century, Marquez’ book is not really even about cholera.

Until you nearly reach the very end, it is hard to see whether the book is really about love, either.

And it is no more about “the time of cholera”, than this book review is really a review. Cholera is touched on – Dr. Juvenal Urbino is said to have campaigned tirelessly for a civic cleanup of the terrible sanitary conditions which promoted epidemic waves of the cholera bacterium. The enormous contrast between the ruling social classes and the squalid living conditions of the poor is noted as a fact of life, which, in that time, it was. The advent of hot air balloons, airplanes, railways, oil-fired steamboats, the telegraph and then even radio – all these are acknowledged, but in passing.

I detest the worn phrase “the human condition”, and nearly everything to which it alludes, but I would end up saying that this book is really about that condition, and that Marquez did a remarkable job of describing his perspective on it.

The book is about the souls of the principal players, told expertly by a master observer. There are surely many reviews of this stunning 1988 best-seller translation (also a 2007 movie); Wikipedia as usual does a creditable job with the synopsis and plot analysis.

What I want to touch on, instead, is what I know best: why I ended up liking the book, why I admired the author’s style, and why at the end I had to give Marquez his due for his incredibly introspective insights into human nature.

On a good day, I could give you scores of reasons why I disagree with the author’s metaphysical viewpoint on humanity, but on a very bad day I could only tell you that I was not so sure I could go as far as he in both understanding and damning human aspiration in the same breath. 

I was not even sure, then, that I would like the book.

The people in it do not generally do things; they politely wait for things to happen to them, and then they blame others. Behind the mask of post-Victorian manners and politeness, we see that almost everyone lies, cheats and possibly steals: sometimes, worldly goods; mostly, souls. The dearer the victim, the more they turn the screw. And, of those who do not lie, cheat and steal, well, even there, there are lapses of human resolve.

Writers are often given to comparing layers of human personality to the layers of a vegetable, though it might be impertinent to suggest that they should know best. Not all of us come across so favorably in the comparison. Of course the domesticated onion is the favored vegetable for this analogy, perhaps because it has caused so many tears. Poets become lost in the rapturous mysteries of the unfolding petals of the rose, the daisy, the forget-me-not.

Personally, I am surprised we always forget the siren call of the unflowered artichoke, with its prized, edible barbed leaves and spiny, prickly interior. Of course the sweet delicate heart of the artichoke is the ultimate objective, the purpose of the whole exercise, and all of those outer leaves are best understood as the necessary exercise of the expected prenuptial ritual of conquest. The very act of eating the unfolding layers of the artichoke is a fine balance between high cuisine and choking to death on baby thistle.

To lavish so much attention on a domesticated weed seems frivolous in a book review, at first glance, but in keeping with the style of the book it would be indelicate to address the layers of human personality directly. Let us use the device of the lowly but emotionally neutral cabbage, whose full flavor is only appreciated in the company of other condiments.

So then, the cabbage is enfolded in layers of symbolic and literal meaning: the tough, fleshy outermost leaves protect the inner plant against the ravages of pest and garden. Call these the social petals. These are the only parts of the cabbage we see in the garden, and the only ones we strip off and dispose. The inner leaves might be our layers of deception, jealously, greed, pretense and fear. These are the layers of the cabbage that provide the heart core with security, safety, warmth and privacy.

Most of all, privacy! No one eats a cabbage by unfolding it petal by petal. Love changes all the rules. With a keen sharp blade, for better or worse, one slices the hapless plant as a geologist slices through the strata of time with his core samples: here, stripped naked, from oldest to newest, is the map of the entire life of the cabbage.

And so, as Love in the Time of Cholera unfolds the layers of human truth and meaning, it would seem we all live our lives enshrouded in the leaves of secrecy, in fear of being caught in discovery, and exposed in all our honesty or dishonesty. In this view, the mark of the successful person is only the superior ability to project to others a finer, more facile person than the fearful, ever-cautious deer mouse residing within each one of us.

Of course, I myself deny all this, or I would say that I deny it, and surely you too have no doubt that this may perfectly well apply to other unfortunates we have known. If we remain true to our conventions, whatever these may be, and, in the test of time, whatever they shall ultimately prove to be, then it should be entirely possible to live most of a long lifetime without ever being compelled to look inside the cabbage. So I, myself, once thought.

This review, like the book, is not about the “me” but exactly about any of us you might wish it weren’t. This loss of fear happened to come to me late in life as a sudden dramatic certitude. It was not always so. I hid in the long shadows of fear for decades, but even that held no equal to the terror of self-discovery. That is why our finest friends are often those who have the perpetual grace of not asking too many questions.

It seems impossible to determine who first observed that time is the great leveler, for civilizations have always known this, but older age strips off the leaves of the cabbage. The process is as inexorable as the glacier peeling the meat off the backbone of the mountains, depositing millions of tons of rock as the finest silts of time, into the rivers that bend and flow all the way down into the great ocean.

“Death has no sense of the ridiculous, above all at our age.”

It is up to you to find out how the marriage of Fermina Daza and Dr. Juvenal Urbino settles down into the sediments of the winding decades. It is up to you to follow the fate of the unfortunate and miserable Florentino Ariza, lurking like Gollum in a land of adventurous Hobbits. It is up to you to judge whether, by keeping his 622 clandestine affairs highly secret, he had remained “faithful in spirit” to his lost love. It is up to you to find out what happens when one waits out a pointless shadow existence for fifty-one years, nine months and four days, only to see whether there can be love in the time of cholera.

In the twenty-first century we learn that it is better to seize the moment, capture the day, and proactively build our futures, while politely seeming to wait for the others, or even cheerfully hurrying them along. We do admire decisiveness. We do not wait for things to happen to us, and we exchange knowing nods regarding those who do. But even as we renovate the whole house, it is in the basement that the archaeologists will find the most interesting material if we do not find it first.

It just does not seem plausible that the story of Love in the Time of Cholera applies equally to all of us. It is in the basements, if you will, hiding the dusty parts of ourselves left behind with no hope of catching up, that we find the truth of Socrates’ admonition that the unexamined life is not worth living. There is no terror like that which has not yet been confronted.

“How noble this city must be, for we have spent four hundred years trying to finish it off and we still have not succeeded.” — Dr. Juvenal Urbino

“I have never been able to understand how that thing works.” — Fermina Daza, on the male conjugal member

He: “I think I am going to die.” She: “That would be best; then we could both have some peace.” — on marital discord

“It is better to arrive in time than to be invited.” — Florentino Ariza

And, finally:

“They can all go to hell”, she said. “If we widows have any advantage, it is that there is no one left to give us orders.”

And so it comes in our time, each of us, to celebrate the safe passage of the ancient rocks and whirlpools, to summon the serenity, grace and courage to make our peace with the world in our own way, and to sail once more on the river with a love of the passing world in our heart, forever and ever.

You can read the plot outline on the back cover of the book. I gave nothing away. By reading the book you can see what Gabriel Garcia Marquez saw. I heartily recommend it.

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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 Summitlake.com 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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Mexican Hat: Wallace Stegner and Google Earth

MexicanHat.jpg Mexican Hat, Utah ... Please click image for full 1280x960 Google Earth map image file.

For the first time in history, Google Earth and the internet brings instant research access to the average reader. Many reliable research resources were previously only available, at considerable expense of time and effort, to those who could access the great libraries of the universities and civic compendiums of knowledge.

In my occasionally unavoidable reading of histories and narratives that mainly concern geographical locations and terrain, I’ll admit I used to find them difficult to follow, tedious or even boring. “When the Smothers Party crossed the great Mongolian Cleft in 1893” may mean a lot to a historian – in this case, I made that up – but it means nothing to me.

An author like Wallace Stegner who is also outstanding in the field of writing novels and essays can make this a lot easier. Stegner can be so good with his descriptions of physical geography and the land and water. Since he isn’t stingy with place names, it is easier to visualize his trip down the San Juan River even though there isn’t an illustration in the whole book.

But I need to see a map. Stegner’s biography of Major Wesley Powell supplied those maps, but most of his other historical essays don’t. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could see where Stegner traveled?

Fortunately, with Google Earth, we can. I would guess Stegner’s essay San Juan and Glen Canyon, from the book The Sound of Mountain Water, was written in the 1960’s. Stegner died in 1993, so he lived to read about satellite mapping. He?no doubt pored over some individual plates when he could get them. The ability to have detailed topo and satellite maps of almost the entire globe effortless served up on our home computers is about a decade newer, and (I think) would have delighted him.

This essay appears to have been written after the start of construction of Glen Canyon Dam (1956), but before the canyons started flooding. Stegner’s rafting trip began on June 5, but we don’t have a year.

I would like to take the liberty of citing an extended passage from this chapter, and invite you to click the Google Earth map “thumbnail”, and follow along with the full-screen image. Stegner’s party is departing Mexican Hat:

Four of us miss the launching because we are going overland to the Goosenecks to get pictures as the boats swing into the deep hairpins of the meander. We will join the others about noon at the foot of Honaker Trail…

We are at the Goosenecks a good while before the boats, which have to travel sixteen miles in the canyons to reach here. Below us the gray-brown river has sunk itself 1300 feet into the rock in a perfect double hairpin — what the geologists call an “entrenched meander.” The San Juan used to be a sluggish river running on a level plain, and meandering like any old-age stream. The a great plateau was slowly lifted across its path, so slowly that the river clould cling to its old course and simply dig in. So it still has the crooked course of a slow river, though it is actually the fastest major stream in the United States, with a gradient of about eight feet to the mile. Just for comparison, the Mississippi’s gradient is eight _inches_ to the mile …

Clicking the image at the top of this essay to get to the full-size Google satellite image (160K), near “The Goosenecks” area of the San Juan, we can easily see a “double hairpin” – I see a possible triple. Seeing how the river has cut its way into 1300 feet of slowly uplifting rock, preserving the original meander of a “flat” river, who now can ever forget this concept of the “entrenched meander”?

You can download your own copy of Google Earth for free. We recommend Broadband.

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On Apostrophes, Molehills and Wallace Stegner

It is said that sometimes people make mountains out of molehills, and we all know what that means. There is a regrettable trait in?us humans that inexplicably lets us seize upon a simple (and perhaps wrong) notion and expand and soap-box upon its importance beyond all reason.

Sometimes it means a bad case of grandstanding. Sometimes it is symptomatic of nagging or bullying. Sometimes it exemplifies the old trap of “monkey’s fist in the coconut”: having grasped that sweet meat inside the coconut, the monkey is unable to withdraw his fist, but refuses to let go, because to let go would be to give up the coconut meat.

And sometimes people “go off” on trivial issues simply because they’ve had it; they’re fed to the teeth.

I don’t know about you Easterners and your moles, but out west we call them “gophers”. It isn’t the odd gopher mound here and there that aggravates western homeowners, but acres and acres of them, compacted into a single family tract, so that once-green lawns look like a county landfill project. When our neighbor sees a single gopher hole, it’s a certainty he’s going to see more, so he’s forgiven for making the metaphorical mountain out of it, so long as he gets it out of his system and doesn’t rabbit on about it forever.

My mole-hill is the alarming misuse of the apostrophe in what used to be, in grammar school, fairly easy-to-diagram sentences. And I’d bet they don’t teach diagramming of sentences nowadays either, but I’d be digressing.

As much as you, I also deplore hand-wringing about the wretched and humbling apostrophe, particularly when we have global warming, several Mideast wars and a rheumatic economy. It just seems to me it’s getting worse.

In daily corporate email from people who should know better (and normally do), I see constructs like “Oop’s, re-sending to include Joe Blow”, and “Lets clean up the email’s in those mailboxes”.

Recently I reviewed a flawless, well-worded Product Announcement that my company was preparing to send out to clients. It said:

  • The accounts identified on the reports can be turned off by the Client so they will not produce statements if Client’s so choose.
  • I wrote back praising the release but pointing out the only error I could find:

  • In the sentence below, the possessive apostrophe should be removed from “Client’s” so that the PA text just reads “Clients”.
  • No matter how “understandable” grammar errors are in-house, releasing same to the client always tends to be received in the most unfavorable light possible: it makes us look like idiots.

    We also see punctuation errors involving the apostrophe in every newspaper (print or web). We see them in nationally circulated magazines. We see them in TV ads. I’ve seen them on BBC – it isn’t just us.

    It goes without saying that in personal emails, internet blogs, private and corporate websites, public forums and bulletin boards, we see so many typos and bad constructs it’s fair to say they’re lousy with errors, fairly crawling with them. I no longer battle those. I shrug and get on with real life.

    I almost never see apostrophe errors in the New Yorker magazine, and almost never in books. The expected level of training in grammatical issues is so high, and the number of people reviewing the material so great, that the odds of an error slipping through are close to zero.

    So it brought me a great shock to find such an error in a prized book, The Sound of Mountain Water, a collection of essays by Wallace Stegner, one of my favorite authors. Stegner taught writing at Harvard and Stanford, among other places; he won the Pulitzer for his novel Angle of Repose, and several other awards in a distinguished career.

    Stegner’s error (as I recall) was of the form:

  • We’re joining the Simpson’s for dinner
  • Where he might have written:

  • “We’re going over to the Simpsons’ for dinner”
  • or simply,

  • We’re joining the Simpsons for dinner.”
  • At first I just studied the error, parsed it, re-parsed it, and studied it again. By everything I know that is holy and true, it was an error. And then I shrugged and got on with real life. But it nagged at me. Was this a typo? How did it get past all those editors? My fist had become stuck in the coconut.

    A diligent researcher would be able to go right back to that quote, and effortlessly trot it out for you on page such and such, and we could discuss it, and the researcher would look smart for having made the finding of a needle in the haystack look so easy.

    A plodding, inattentive researcher would fail to mark the page, then spend hours and hours going back over the book, until finally he would locate and mark the offending passage. And he would conceal this effort from you, making our researcher look smart for having made the finding of a needle in the haystack look so easy.

    And then there are the cowards and failed researchers, who merely pretend at their trade, who will simply assert that they did find such an error and never divulge how many hours they wasted in vain search for the offending passage. They will lamely trot out an analogy, not a real error, but a fabricated one that is “like” the real one, they say — or at least, as closely as their memory serves, which obviously is not well enough.

    And I am not going to tell you which one I am, but I do promise that if I ever find that error again, I will trot it out, even if it is 3:00 AM and the normal world is fast asleep, and I will shout out, “See, I TOLD you so!”

    The Problem With English

    The biggest single problem with the English apostrophe seems to be our confusion over the differences between contractions, plurals and possessives, all of which usually end in the letter ‘s’. And the second biggest problem seems to be the inconsistent application of the rules between proper and improper nouns, such as “Charlie’s limits” vs. “its limits”.

    An American of average education should be able to sit down and verbally reconstruct the Rights of Man, from first principles if need be. If called upon to do so, he might be asked to explain, in ordinary English, the proper motion of the planets and other heavenly bodies. He or she should also be reasonably current on the technology of the day, so that if a small child asked us how GPS works, or, heaven help us, cell phones, we are expected to come up with some sort of reasonable answer in language anyone can understand.

    But, God help us all, there is no requirement that anyone should be expected to explain the rules of ordinary English punctuation. Rankin cycles in heat engines – perhaps. Amateur string theory and particle physics, unified – certainly. Punctuation, never.

    Punctuation is the reason so many people still cling to a belief in seances and astrology. “For those who know, no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, none is possible.”

    Strunk’s Elements of Style

    For punctuation, I know right where to find the answers when I need them, and you probably do too: The venerated old 1918 Strunk’s Elements of Style. And I need those answers, and the book’s not on the shelf where I think it should be: this is but one of the many confusing benefits of having one’s library split between residences in two states.

    There are some rules that I find troublesome. For example, the possessives of words that already end in “s”: Fortunately, Strunk is also on the web. We often can make an end run around the rules:

    Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus’, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake. But such forms as Achilles’ heel, Moses’ laws, Isis’ temple are commonly replaced by

  • the heel of Achilles
  • the laws of Moses
  • the temple of Isis
  • But as we know, some end-runs don’t sound right. I was born with a surname ending in ‘s’: Forbes. “Forbes’ house” looks stilted. “The house of Forbes” implies a second meaning, perhaps a place of high fashion, and it sounds way too pretentious. Mostly, I settled on “Forbes’s house” even though I never saw a rule that justifies it.

    But here you go:

    Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

  • Charles’s friend
  • Burns’s poems
  • the witch’s malice
  • And finally,

    The pronominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and oneself have no apostrophe.

    Even writing this stuff down is confusing. From generation to generation of native-born Americans, we are still learning English as a second language.

    Lost on the Trail

    So, did I ever find the Stegner error? First, I fell back on re-reading the chapters where memory told me, faultily, I was most likely to find the error. Then, I fell back on reading the chapters backwards until I might find what I was looking for. Lastly, I threw out any pretense of methodology and started re-reading the book from the first page of Stegner’s Introduction.

    We said this is like looking for the needle in the haystack. Actually, here there are several haystacks, and there are many needles hidden within each haystack. They are all colored bright orange. The needle we are looking for looks like any other needle, except that it is colored bright red-orange.

    In every backpacker’s career there comes a time when necessity finally forces one to re-trace one’s steps, or try to. Perhaps you realize have left a primus stove at a lake where you stopped for lunch. You could go on, cooking meals over collected firewood (when the rules permit). But you elect to hike back to the lake, where, fifteen minutes later, there it is, bright, shiny and embarrassingly hard to miss: some idiot has left his camp stove just off the trailside.

    Sometimes you are actually lost, as I wrote about in another story some time back, so that your task is not merely re-tracing your steps along the trail, but to re-find the trail at all. Moving in the generalized right direction, or perhaps even moving in every-increasing semicircles, if you are lucky, you find the trail. If you are unlucky, you will spend the night shivering in shorts and T-shirt, and perhaps read about yourself in the newspapers if you are lucky enough to get through this and get home.

    Having found the trail, which way, up or down? Does this overhanging branch look familiar? Of course it does; you curse yourself – they all look exactly like that. In the end, you hope for a bit of luck when the deja vu kicks in and you know that camp is just off to the left of this bend in the trail.

    That is the situation I am in with this apostrophe mess.The Stegner book does not yet look anything like a “well-worn favorite”, but already it is festooned with extra bookmarks and little Post-It page markers to tell me where I have already been.

    There could be worse fates than re-reading a book I enjoy very much, and this is not a case where I absolutely have to be back at camp by sundown. Starting back at page 1, I realize by page 77 I have already re-read this chapter. I haven’t just been here before; I’ve been here before twice. I’m going in circles.

    While I am floundering around on the side of the mountain, I would like to share with you a passage from Stegner that particularly resonated with me. It speaks to what I call the “River Theme”, a powerful symbol that for me replaces the steeples and bells and trappings of organized man-made worship. It is from “Overture: The Sound of Mountain Water”, Chapter 1. He is writing of a visit to the highest headwaters of the Snake, which “was starting through its thousand miles of canyons to the Columbia and the Pacific”:

    “By such a river it is impossible to believe that one will ever be tired or old. Every sense applauds it. Taste it, feel its chill on the teeth: it is purity absolute. Watch its racing current, its steady renewal of force: it is transient and eternal. And listen again to its sounds: get far enough away so that the noise of falling tons of water does not stun the ears, and hear how much is going on underneath – a whole symphony of smaller sounds, hiss and splash and gurgle, the small talk of side channels, the whisper of blown and scattered spray gathering itself and beginning to flow again, secret and irresistible, among the wet rocks.”

    And, your honor, and if I may indulge your kind attention, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, now that we have all shared the raw power of a writer of Stegner’s caliber, why are we wasting time in this courtroom haggling over an apostrophe? Even if the deceased defendant Stegner ever actually made that alleged error, as this undocumented charlatan charges, what of it? What should we think, when the person stepping forward to make this charge of grammatical lapse is unable to produce any shred of evidence that Professor Stegner, a Pulitzer prize winner, really made this so-called error at all? In this world of hopelessly inconsistent English grammar rules, unknowable even in the highest places – the White House, for example – if he erred, where is the crime here, ladies and gentlemen, and who has the right to step forward and blame Stegner?

    Far be it from me to point the finger. My point was that apostrophe errors reach into even the highest literary plateaus of the land, not that Stegner (it seemed to me at the time) made the error. My case has crumbled. I wish I could shrink out of the courtroom unseen. In a country that celebrates whistle-blowers, I blew the whistle, and when people came, I said, in so many words, “I’m not really sure why I blew the damned thing after all.” As I disclosed earlier, I’ve been here before.

    I’m really lost on the trail this time. I’m going to abandon this essay, high in the unread backwaters of American web pages, and just concentrate on finding my way back to civilization — hoping against hope that I am not going to read about myself in the newspapers if I make it back at all.

    And what if I do eventually stumble upon the alleged Lost Apostrophe? We are not talking “Lost Dutchman Mine” here.? Would?I make the big announcement? I changed my mind. That will probably never happen. People are not going to go pouring over the mountain, gold pans, picks and sluice boxes stacked high on mule-back, looking to stake a personal claim in the greatest strike since the Comstock Lode.

    Sometimes it just pays to keep one’s mouth shut. If I’d done that in the first place, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, you wouldn’t be looking at me and at this page in that tone of voice, and we could all get back to the really important things in life, like why Google offers over 17,900,000 English pages for the search topic “Paris Hilton.”

    I’ll tell you what, though. Should you ever actually find that errant apostrophe yourself, please do let me know. I’ll make the announcement that it has been found, but neither of us will ever reveal its true location. The world will be goaded into reading more Wallace Stegner, and less about Paris Hilton, and something good might come of this essay after all.

    Alex Forbes, ?copyright June 21, 2007

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