Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

domingo, enero 30, 2011

Four Haiku For Egypt

Defy the curfew,
Demand real democracy.
I support your dream.

Non-violence will prevail.
I stand with Egypt.

Do not be afraid,
I can still hear your voices.
I link arms with you.

May you soon be free.
May your children enjoy peace.
May your courage persist.


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Snow as predicted,
another dark, starless night.
Somewhere moonlight glows.


A net to catch dreams:
spider web on burdock branch.
Unfinished haiku.



sábado, enero 29, 2011

Egypt Explodes, US Video Media Gape

For the past five days, Egyptians have been in the streets protesting, calling for President Mubarak, who has served for thirty years, to step down. It is a very big story. Print media, understandably have trouble keeping up with it because so much is happening so quickly in so many places. Putting up a written story takes time, time to write, time to edit, time to post. Even if you're lightning fast, print media (and the part of them that is on the Internet) aren't built for this kind of speed. But what about television?

The mythic, American news gathering organizations have apparently disappeared. They are no more. Go now to your television. Look at CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the major networks. What are they showing? If they're showing Egypt at all, they're showing loops of film from Egypt, most of which comes from other sources, and the loops repeat and repeat and repeat. And while they're showing that, there is a long string of analysts, going on and on and on about the meaning of the loop, about their opinions about the news (virtually all of it from other sources), about what it all means for the US and/or Obama and/or Mubarak and/or Israel and/or the Middle East generally. It's all opinion; it's not news. It's all "analysis"; it's not the facts. It's not about what is actually happening. Put simply, US television is making noise, but that doesn't belie the fact that it is clueless. And that it is telling its viewers all kinds of things, but it's not telling them what's happening. And why is that? Because these legendary news agencies don't have the people to report from Cairo, and Alexandria, and from Suez, and from other places throughout Egypt. They have people to cover Mubarak's speech (announced in advance) and Obama's speech (announced in advance), but that's about it. Put another way, they have lots of people working on "the story" but they're doing exactly the same thing as me, finding out what is happening and stating my views about it. They are doing bloggers work, but they represent themselves as News Organizations. As journalists. They are virtually worthless as a source of what is actually happening in Egypt.

On the other hand, Al Jazeera, that's right, Al Jazeera in English, has a live stream that is truly remarkable. They have reporters and cameras on the ground, and they've been on the air for days, broadcasting from Egypt. When they don't know what's going on, they say so. When they do know what's going on, they tell it. They are performing exactly the function we would hope the US video media would perform. They are broadcasting news. And, in fact, I strongly suspect that the US video media are watching the same very same stream I'm watching, that they are downloading and looping the images, and are putting their opinions on top of this.

What a sad state for US video media. Egypt is exploding, and the best the US video media can do is offer opinions.

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viernes, enero 28, 2011

Here Comes GMO Everything

Yesterday Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that he would approve unrestricted commercial cultivation of GMO alfalfa. Vilsack pulled back from a "compromise" he had previously proposed, and he's now opened the door to widespread, unchecked GMO alfalfa and potentially other crops across the United States. This is an enormous victory for Monsanto, Forage Genetics, and non-organic Agribusiness. It is a huge loss for organic farmers, consumers, and possibly the US export of alfalfa, dairy products and meat.

The decision is explained in the New York Times:

In making the decision, Mr. Vilsack pulled back from a novel proposal that would have restricted the growing of genetically engineered alfalfa to protect organic farmers from so-called biotech contamination. That proposal drew criticism at a recent Congressional hearing and in public forums where Mr. Vilsack outlined the option.

Mr. Vilsack said Thursday that his department would take other measures, like conducting research and promoting dialogue, to make sure that pure, nonengineered alfalfa seed would remain available....

Mr. Vilsack in recent months has been calling for coexistence among growers of genetically engineered crops, organic farmers and nonorganic farmers growing crops that have not been genetically altered.

Organic farmers can lose sales if genetic engineering is detected in their crops, which occurs through cross-pollination from a nearby field or through intermingling of seeds. And exports of nonorganic but nonengineered crops to certain countries can be jeopardized if genetically engineered material is detected in significant amounts....

In deciding whether to approve the genetically engineered alfalfa, the Agriculture Department was considering restricting areas where the crop could be planted. That, Mr. Vilsack argued, would help prevent litigation, like the lawsuits that have already delayed the approval of genetically altered alfalfa and sugar beets.

“The rapid adoption of G.E. crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-G.E. products,” Mr. Vilsack wrote in a letter issued by his department in December. “This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts’ deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.”

Put simply, Vilsck has decided to let Agribusiness plant GMO alfalfa everywhere. The article notes that 1% of alfalfa is "organic"; the article doesn't note that at the moment virutally 100% of alfalfa is non-GMO.

“We want to expand and preserve choice for farmers,” he told reporters. “We think the decision reached today is a reflection of our commitment to choice and trust.”

Choice? Trust? You gotta be kidding. The Times reports, "Mr. Vilsack said Thursday that his department would take other measures, like conducting research and promoting dialogue, to make sure that pure, nonengineered alfalfa seed would remain available." So we're gonna have research after the GMO crop is planted everywhere. Personally, I don't find that comforting. And I wonder aloud, how can you trust somebody when that's their logic.

Let the lawsuits begin.

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jueves, enero 27, 2011

Winter: The Sloth

Yes, sloths. A perfect winter archetype. About their name:

The sloth's taxonomic suborder is Folivora, while some call it Phyllophaga. Both names mean "leaf-eaters"; derived from Latin and Greek respectively. Names for the animals used by tribes in Ecuador include Ritto, Rit and Ridette, mostly forms of the word "sleep", "eat" and "dirty" from Tagaeri tribe of Huaorani. In Brazil, sloths are commonly called "Bicho-preguiça" ("lazy animal") because of slow movements related to their very low metabolism.

So that's your winter archetype: sleep, eat, don't bathe, move very, very slowly. Deliberate very, very deeply before moving a single muscle. Don't move at all if possible to do so. Be lazy. Be slow. Be still. Wait with exceeding patience, if not resignation for Spring.

Goodness, even the seeds lying in the earth aren't stirring with all that snow lying thick on the ground over them.

The part of you that faces the fire is warm; the part that is away is freezing. Turn around very, very slowly, as if you were cooking like shawarma.

Don't just do something. Focus on doing absolutely nothing, the bare minimum to sustain life until the Equinox.

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martes, enero 25, 2011

Nabokov As Lepidopterist

From The Times:

Vladimir Nabokov may be known to most people as the author of classic novels like “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” But even as he was writing those books, Nabokov had a parallel existence as a self-taught expert on butterflies.

He was the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and collected the insects across the United States. He published detailed descriptions of hundreds of species. And in a speculative moment in 1945, he came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves.

Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.

Unbelievable. You knew he was really, really smart, but this clinches it.


lunes, enero 24, 2011

Stop Solitary Confinement

This eloquent video says it all.

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domingo, enero 23, 2011

About Noise

h/t melvin

Well, that sums it up nicely.

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sábado, enero 22, 2011

Laika, Rest In Peace

Forgive, if you can, my sentimentality. This will be brief.

Last night, I watched a wonderful movie, My Life As A Dog (1985). It's a coming of age movie from Sweden. I won't spoil it for you if you don't know it. The movie made many references to Laika, a dog launched into space by the Russians in 1957, who died or was killed on her short Sputnik voyage. The movie has one view; Wiki, another.

All day today I've been wondering about what kind of people end up catching stray dogs and then killing them in the name of science. It doesn't matter to me whether Laika was euthanized during the space flight, or whether she died of exposure to heat or whether she starved or whether some other calamity befell her. What pains me is that her certain death--there was no re-entry technology at the time-- didn't stop her being launched in the first place.

What could these "scientists" have been thinking?

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viernes, enero 21, 2011

Coldest Night Of This Year (So Far)

There is a reason in history why colonial settlers in Eastern New York and Western New England packed up their families and all of their possessions, tied their livestock to a wagon and headed toward the setting sun. Yeah, it may have had something to do with soil depletion from bad farming practices. Or a sense of compelling adventure. But if you go out this evening, you'll figure out the western expansion and Manifest Destiny in about 3 minutes. Or less. Because in those demonstrative 3 minutes, your face will start to freeze, and your toes will begin to freeze, and your breath will seem inadequate, and you will find yourself hurrying to get back to whatever warmth you can find. Somewhere. Anywhere.

While you're running to the hearth, you can think briefly about descriptions of snow by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Or Max Frisch. Or Ole Rolvaag. Or Willa Cather. And you can think about how the Mohawk and the Iroquois and the other tribes that lived around here in large numbers knew something about cold and how to endure it, but that evidently they didn't tell that to the European invaders. No. They probably figured out that these pale, weak seeming people would eventually have to move elsewhere because they weren't cut out to stay, they weren't rugged enough to thrive here. Those Mohawks were right. Absolutely right. I'm not rugged enough to thrive here. They, however, just didn't count on how many people were going to arrive. And how many of these arrivals would be morons, or would decide for incomprehensible reasons including inertia to stay and try to do battle with the elements. They didn't figure that the Europeans when all was said and done were idiots.

Tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday night the forecast here is for -10 each night. Fahrenheit. Not Celsius. Fahrenheit. This is a temperature at which people and machines break down. And they break down quickly. You don't dare cry, because your tears will freeze on your face. This is a temperature at which sane persons-- I consider myself one of them-- contemplate leaving for Mexico or St. Lucia, basking under coco palms, snorkeling in Bahia Soliman, and, in general, concoct elaborate plans for escape to a warm places. Put another way, there is no reason why sane people should experience this kind of cold. And I regret that I will experience it in all its majesty if I leave this house this weekend.

Tonight is, as W.C. Fields so aptly put it, Not A Fit Night For Man Or Beast. Tomorrow and Sunday, ditto.

Stay warm. Be well.




Waiting for more snow,
A blanket for the roof,
Bringing soft silence.


Dreaming: snow falling,
owl waits on high, icy branch,
brown mouse scurries home.


Dreaming: snow leopard
hunts silently in deep snow.
Nothing makes a sound.



jueves, enero 20, 2011

Frozen Haiku


Moon like a weak sun,
jagged shadows on hard snow.
A night without rest.


Winter's coldest night.
On a frozen branch an owl.
Crunch of boots on snow.


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miércoles, enero 19, 2011

Man In The Holocene

Today's interminable snow reminds of Max Frisch's brilliant short novel, Man In The Holocene (Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän)(1979).

This summary gives the idea:

The aged Mr. Geiser is bored in his Tessin house during torrential rains. He is so bored that he tries to make a pagoda out of crispbread and categorizes thunders (into rolling thunders, banging thunders etc.). His sole companion is his cat.

Rumors report a landslide, cutting off the valley. Fearing a large slide that would bury the village and man’s knowledge, Geiser reads in his encyclopedia, the Bible, and history books. At first he makes notes and attaches them to the walls; later he cuts paragraphs from the books and tapes them instead, noting sadly that the front sides of the encyclopedia’s pages are visible, but the back sides unfortunately are dissected and destroyed.

Despite the weather, he wanders outdoors. While wandering, he notes his physical limits, and the limits of man’s knowledge and importance.

He notes man's insignificance and meaninglessness (man's appearance in the Holocene era is a very recent event in evolutionary terms).. The old man is exposed to the cycle of life and his mortality.

Geiser has to admit that „der Mensch bleibt ein Laie“ (his man stays a rookie). He slowly loses his memory. He wonders if memory was necessary – "the rocks do not need my memory or not". Towards the end, Geiser suffers cerebral apoplexy that attacks his memory.

I too must be losing my memory. I thought the initial problem in the book, the cause of the protagonist's isolation, was snow and not rain. Snow like today's snow. Isolation like today's isolation. The snow continues here.

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lunes, enero 17, 2011



Between wake and sleep
the vast plain, frozen, bare trees.
Many surprises.


Close eyes to travel
in this unmapped continent.
Impossible sights.



domingo, enero 16, 2011

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968)

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

More than fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King recognized the importance and validity of direct action as a tactic in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail:

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

In honor of Dr. King and in light of the recent surge in both incitations to violence and gun violence, I think it's time for us to recall the role that direct action can play in restoring America to its most Democratic, humane, and decent principles.

Creating of constructive, nonviolent tension even in the face of threats of extremist violence is Dr. King's true legacy. My hope is that in honor of his birth we will find the courage again to do as he would have. The present calls for political civility are good to hear, but they are ultimately ephemeral. And they may serve to preserve inequality in our country. Recommitment to nonviolence and direct action might be an antidote worth considering.


miércoles, enero 12, 2011

Sarah P's Victim Game Jumps The Shark

Oh spare me. A Jewish congresswoman gets shot in Arizona. Various talking heads wonder aloud whether the level of talk of violence in current US politics, particularly on the right, might have contributed to the shooting. And persistent media hog Sarah P inserts herself in the discussions by saying this gem in a video:

"Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn."

Oh the irony. The Jew gets shot; the non-Jew seeks to appropriate the blood libel for her own purposes. But I'm not spending time discussing the significance of the words blood libel to Jews. And I'm not raving about how America's most visible bigot, Pat Buchanan, thinks this is so very excellent. No. The question this latest kerfuffle raises for me is Sarah P's persistent pursuit of making everything be about her, and her even more consistent and tiresome efforts to be the primary victim in any story in which her monicker is inserted.

To have a victim you have to have a perpetrator. And if you have a victim (even if the perpetrator isn't quite visible or identifiable) you almost always have rescuers, those who want to come to the aid and defense of the seeming victim. There are probably more rescuers by far than there are victims, because each victim can have thousands of rescuers, thousands of defenders. So when a politician consistently grabs the victim mantle, she is probably manipulating her audience. You can bet the ranch on this. She wants them to rescue her, to defend her, to give her money, to argue in her behalf, to denounce the perceived perpetrators. But most of all to make donations. Big donations.

Seen in this context, Sarah P's speechwriters-- nobody believes for a second that Sarah P writes this stuff for herself, do they?-- sought again to ring their familiar bell. The bell that brings in the checks. This bell has but one note: Sarah P's victimhood. No matter. They sought to transform a story about the attempted assassination of a Congresswoman into one all about poor Sarah P. And they again attempted to mobilize all of those very gullible AM radio listeners who have been content repeatedly to stand up for a rescue of Sarah P from the unjust, unwarranted attacks on her egotism and grandstanding by the supposedly liberal press and/or the supposedly liberal D party.

But, alas, there's something weird about Sarah P's most recent claim of victimhood. For me, it's that there is something really familiar. And also quite off. No, I'm not referring just to Sarah P's many previous attempts at victimhood. Not just them. No, it reminds of a seminal event in September, 1991.

Confronted with allegations that he had committed sex harassment and violated Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act while he himself was running the EEOC, another circumstance chock full of irony, Clarence Thomas made a flat out drive to become a victim and, thereby, save his endangered Supreme Court nomination. When he made his move, he of course wrapped himself in America's taboo about discussing race. The future Associate Justice told the Senate committee considering his nomination this gem:

"This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree."

That bit of hyperbole, of course, made him a victim. It equated the Senate with the Klan, but no matter. It worked. And of course, the Senators voted 52-48 to rescue him. So it worked really, really well. And it went into the Republican play book.

And now, almost 20 years later, Sarah P's writers have trotted it out this well worn, but extremely effective ploy. Except Sarah P isn't Jewish. The congresswoman in critical condition is. But no matter, it's close enough for current politics. In current politics, like horseshoes close enough is good enough. Sarah P's speech writers have taken umbrage at the idea that Sarah P's speeches and web media might inspire lunatics to resort to Second Amendment solutions. And they say that the accusation is so unfair that it amounts to blood libel. Wow. Except, not quite. In fact, not at all. Not even close.

Seeing this video, all I can say is, "Oy gevalt, you writers for Sarah P are shameless after all."

The remaining question, in fact a question that really fascinates me, is whether Sarah P's present writer is the same person who wrote those unbelievably inventive lines for Clarence T. If it is, s/he has now officially jumped the shark.

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Snow Day

There is a ton of snow today. The official NOAA prediction was for 6 to 16 inches. I think we've exceeded that. By a quite lot. And it's still coming down. And blowing. And there seem to be "white outs."

Everything is canceled. If it weren't, you couldn't get there anyway. Route 203, a state highway maintained by the New York State DoT, as I write this, is a snowmobile track running down the middle of the roadway. The few trucks crawling cautiously down the road straddle the middle line. And go very, very slowly. If you wanted to, you could cross-country ski down the middle of this road into town. But why would you do that? The general store closed two months ago. So there's nowhere to stop for coffee. Or hot chocolate. Or anything else.

The snow is great for skiing. You could go skiing, if you could get to the slopes. But, of course, you can't because that requires the use of the roads. So today is a Snow Day. A stay at home day. A fire in the fireplace day. A why won't the dog and cat go out day. A maybe I'll just go back to bed with a book day.

Later, when the snow has stopped and the State has plowed the roads, we will all try to figure out how to move that mountain at the side of the road that blocks entry to and from the driveway. We will wish we had a front loader. We will wish we had a snow blower. We will break the handles on our analog snow shovels. We will talk about how we deserve to be sitting at the turquoise sea.

If you want to understand the growth of the 18th Century United States from the Eastern Seaboard to the interior of this continent, you just look out the window. It doesn't snow like this in England or Holland. This kind of snow, this kind of Nor'easter, is unbelievable. The movement West may have had something to do with the depletion of farmland caused by growing the same crops over and over again, but it was also the weather. Definitely. I cannot imagine this without central heating. I cannot imagine this in an uninsulated log cabin. It's enough to make you pack up all of your family and possessions and head for the setting sun at the first available chance, driving due southwest.

Stay warm, be safe, enjoy.

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domingo, enero 09, 2011

After The Shooting The Shadow

I woke up this morning with a profound sadness.

The worst part of yesterday's shootings seems to me to be the death of the 9-year old girl. She was apparently at the Congresswoman's political event at the Safeway because she had been elected to an elementary school student council. She might have been inspired to meet an actual Congresswoman.

All of the deaths and the many serious injuries lie like a heavy brick on my heart.

The many analyses of why these shootings happened began too soon for me. They started immediately after the echo of the last bullet was drowned out by the agony of the victims and the Medevac helicopters. They continue today with renewed force. And increased monotony. They will ebb and flow for the next few days. It's not necessary to enumerate these here. There are many different ideas but the central idea seems to that there is something very wrong, and that's what caused this to happen.

We have come to expect from these discussions the fixing of blame and righteous recrimination and finger pointing. And also the scrubbing of web pages and the editing of previous statements and the making of pronouncements. The reactions are all terribly predictable. I don't expect anyone who did not actually pull the trigger to take any responsibility for these deaths and injuries. And I expect that the actual shooter to have a defense as well. This prepares a fertile ground for continued blame and justification. And arguments. And shouting. And more of the same. And more violence.

This brings me directly to the Shadow. My Shadow. Jung's definition and explanation might be relevant, but what I am drawn to this morning is far less academic. I'm drawn to how Loughner lives inside me. My internal Loughner. Or put another way, the aspects of my personhood that I dislike, that I am afraid of, that I have shunned and hidden, that I do not reveal, that I keep secret. I am drawn to the aspects of myself that I consider horrid and ugly and deformed and despicable. This morning I find that these weigh heavy on my chest. I think this is what today requires my attention.

For example, I ask, where in me does the deranged, incoherent, violent Loughner live? Where in me is a person who writes such bizarre Youtubes? Where in me is the person who carries and uses a concealed weapon so devastatingly? So coldly? Where is my seething but covert anger at apparent authority? Where is my belief in illusory, mysterious, demented magical thinking nonsense? And where does my persistent blaming of others for all of my pain reside?

These are hard questions. It is very hard to look at this ugliness. But my view is that this is what needs attention. Today. It needs to be looked at. And it needs to be acknowledged. And even harder, it needs to be honored for why it is there and what it has done for me.

I would like us to ask ourselves these tough questions and to begin to attend to them. Otherwise, I fear, embarking on an impersonal, academic analysis of yesterday's tragedy might amount to our again disowning our ugliness, our pushing it into the darkness, and our unintentionally creating the conditions that will surely make it happen again.

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jueves, enero 06, 2011

Winter Haiku

The winter ocean,
impenetrable gray steel.
Turbid Brillo clouds.




My sleeping dog friend
must be dreaming of chasing
rabbits. She's barking.



miércoles, enero 05, 2011


Snow falling again.
Birds shelter under pine boughs.
Pulling up cover.




Radiators hiss.
Book open. Are my eyes closed?
Not really asleep.



martes, enero 04, 2011

Just Edit Out The Offensiveness

Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain's classic novel, was initially published in 1884. And it has survived as an important book for more than a century without being edited. For offensiveness. Or more specifically to eliminate offensive, racist words.

Today NPR reports "New Edition Of 'Huckleberry Finn' Will Eliminate Offensive Words":

Saying they want to publish a version that won't be banned from some schools because of its language, two scholars are editing Mark Twain's classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to eliminate uses of the "N" word and replace it with "slave," Publishers Weekly writes.

The edition, from NewSouth Books, will also shorten an offensive reference to Native Americans.

As PW says, "for decades, [Huckleberry Finn] has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation's most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word."

One of the scholars, Alan Gribben of Auburn University, tells PW that "this is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind. ... Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century." (The edited Huck Finn will be included in a volume with Tom Sawyer.)

So, the "N" word will be rendered "slave," and the offensive reference to Native Americans will be, well, slightly excised, and that will solve the problem, it is contended. These changes, which modify a century old work that is of fundamental importance to understanding American literature, are supposed to prevent know-nothing school boards from further banning the book. We're not going to fight banning. No. We're going to cave in and change the words. Put another way, the ignoramuses have won.

Yes, Huckleberry Finn contains offensive language. It was intended to be offensive. And it should stay in the book. The objectionable language might show people who are capable of reading something about race in America and that inappropriate language about race has been a volatile part of America's history. Avoiding that difficult discussion by editing this book's words is the worst sort of cop-out. The words don't go away just because they are changed. And they won't go away if they are hidden.

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Mouse running on snow,
in panic tiny feet slip.
Hawk is not hungry.


Ravens on bare branch
quarrel with the setting sun.
Tomorrow's too late.


Season of darkness,
Heavens brimming with diamonds.
And a shooting star.


lunes, enero 03, 2011

Let Prisoners Keep Their Cellphones

The prevailing assumption is that prison walls are supposed to prevent prisoners from interacting with the free world, including their families. And that there's something about that that's protective of society. So communication by prisoners with the outside world is generally forbidden. This is the case for each of the 2 million prisoners in the US. Computers are banned. Phone calls are close to impossible: talking on the phone system provided by the prison can bankrupt those who receive prisoners' collect calls (collect calls are frequently required and cost $1 per minute or more). Visits are tightly regulated as to duration and frequency and behavior. Furloughs are extremely rare if available at all. And all cellphones are banned. This prevailing idea is easily encapsulated: if you're locked up, you're supposed to be isolated as completely and thoroughly as possible from whatever might be on the other side of the walls. No matter what.

Does this make any sense? Or put another way, is there a real reason why prisoners shouldn't be given full access to cellphones and smart phones while they are incarcerated?

The New York Times notes that cellphones are now common in prison even though they are banned. How common?

At the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which houses about 3,000 inmates, 643,388 calls and texts going in and out were intercepted from July 31 to Dec. 1, 2010.

That's a lot of calls. And a ton of texts. That means that prisoners who were completely isolated weren't any longer. Before the isolation occurred for many reasons. Prisoners and their families couldn't afford the extortionate charges for collect phone calls. Prisoners and their families couldn't afford the cost of transportation to Parchman Farm and a motel room to stay in over night. That meant that many prisoners could serve their entire sentences without a single visit. But now, miraculously those who have cellphones, mostly purchased from guards, had instant access to their families. This is good and humane and compassionate. But that does't matter. The proliferation of cellphones leads those quoted in the Times as if by reflex to raise the black flag of prison anarchy and warn about how extremely dangerous smart phones are in the hands of prisoners, complete with cameo appearance by none other than Charlie Manson:

With Internet access, a prisoner can call up phone directories, maps and photographs for criminal purposes, corrections officials and prison security experts say. Gang violence and drug trafficking, they say, are increasingly being orchestrated online, allowing inmates to keep up criminal behavior even as they serve time.

“The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” said Terry L. Bittner, director of security products with the ITT Corporation, one of a handful of companies that create cellphone-detection systems for prisons. “The smartphone is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of other things with it.” ...

In Oklahoma, a convicted killer was caught in November posting photographs on his Facebook page of drugs, knives and alcohol that had been smuggled into his cell. In 2009, gang members in a Maryland prison were caught using their smartphones to approve targets for robberies and even to order seafood and cigars.

Even closely watched prisoners are sneaking phones in. Last month, California prison guards said they had found a flip phone under Charles Manson’s mattress.

But most prisoners aren't Charles Manson. Far from it. Most long for contact with their children, their families, their partners. And most don't have any criminal plans in keeping that contact alive. Just as they don't have criminal plans when they have their infrequent visitors. Take this for example:

The recent rise in smartphones raises larger issues for prisoners and their advocates, who say the phones are not necessarily used for criminal purposes. In some prisons, a traditional phone call is prohibitive, costing $1 per minute in many states. And cellphones can help some offenders stay better connected with their families.

Mike, the Georgia inmate who was part of the recent strike, said he used his to stay in touch with his son.

“When he gets off the school bus, I’m on the phone and I talk to him,” he said in an interview on his contraband cellphone. “When he goes to bed, I’m on the phone and I talk to him.”

How is that contact harmful?

Easy, cheap contact with one's family is unequivocally good. Being able to talk to one's kids is very important. Especially when the family is poor, lives hours away, and cannot afford the trek to make a scheduled visit. One would think that prisons should welcome the phones the same way decades ago they welcomed television as a pacifying, de-stressing benefit to prisoners and staff alike.

In fact, the phones may have been responsible in large part for the success of the recent Georgia Prison strike. The Times reports:

The Georgia prison strike, for instance, was about things prisoners often complain about: They are not paid for their labor. Visitation rules are too strict. Meals are bad.

But the technology they used to voice their concerns was new.

Inmates punched in text messages and assembled e-mail lists to coordinate simultaneous protests, including work stoppages, with inmates at other prisons. Under pseudonyms, they shared hour-by-hour updates with followers on Facebook and Twitter. They communicated with their advocates, conducted news media interviews and monitored coverage of the strike.

It wasn't necessary to have a full scale riot to get the prisoners' points across the walls to those on the outside. Nobody had to be taken hostage. Nobody had to be threatened. Would cellphones have prevented Attica? I don't know. But not one person was killed or injured in Georgia.

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What melted is ice.
Harsh night wind rattles windows.
A sleeping dog sighs.


Such a long, dark night,
no stars, no moon, too frigid.
I dream willow trees.


A weak morning sun,
pink and almost purple clouds.
Soon alarm will beep.



domingo, enero 02, 2011

El Pulmon De La Manzana

An unexpected treat from The New York Times. Maria Kodama describes the view from Borges's window in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires:

A certain house in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Recoleta has a window that is doubly privileged. It overlooks a courtyard garden of the kind known here as a pulmón de manzana — literally, the lung of a block — which affords it a view of the sky and an expanse of plants, trees and vines that meander along the walls of neighboring houses, marking the passage of the seasons with their colors. In addition, the window shelters the library of my late husband, Jorge Luis Borges. It is a real Library of Babel, full of old books, their endpapers scribbled with notes in his tiny hand.

As afternoon progresses and I look up from my work to gaze out this window, I may be invaded by springtime, or if it’s summer, by the perfume of jasmine or the scent of orange blossom, mingled with the aroma of leather and book paper, which brought Borges such pleasure.

The window has one more surprise. From it, I can see the garden of the house where Borges once lived, and where he wrote one of his best-known short stories, “The Circular Ruins.’’ Here, I can move back and forth between two worlds. Sometimes, following Borges, I wonder which one is real: the world I see from the window, bathed in afternoon splendor or sunset’s soft glow, with the house that once belonged to Borges in the distance, or the world of the Library of Babel, with its shelves full of books once touched by his hands?

It is Winter in New York, but it's Summer in Buenos Aires. And you can buy sweet, aromatic jasmine at the many florist stands on the streets. It's an eminently livable city. I'd like to be sitting in a cafe now, a cafecito steaming nearby, and my notebook open.

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Oddly apt for 2011. How did I get here is a really good question. It's not a question frequently asked by ostriches. Or emus. But enough of the ornithological digression.

Welcome to The Dream Antilles for 2011. This is the 900th post on this blog.

We could try to improve things here this year. We might fix the broken links on the right margin, or the parts over there that won't light up any more. We might even make it easier for non-Spanish speakers to leave comments. But who are we kidding? It's not likely. What's more probable is that our many idiosyncrasies will continue. And become more pronounced. I guess if you're reading this you probably expect that. That's what will have to pass for charm in 2011.

May you have a wonderful 2011, one in which all of your dreams come true.

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