Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb.
Public domain.
Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith. But ours is a war against individuals who absolutely hate what America stands for, and hate the freedom of the Czech Republic. And therefore, we must work together to defend ourselves. And by remaining strong and united and tough, we'll prevail. —George W Bush. Press Conference by President Bush and President Havel of Czech Republic. Prague Castle, Prague, Czech Republic. November 20, 2002. Source: The White House.
In US culture it would be uncouth to attack Islam directly, and only dunderheads—that plurality to the left of the bell curve's mean—and their demagogues do so directly. But there are subtle circumventions that amount to the same thing and that have been around at least since the George W Bush administration. The disclaimer that "Islam is a beautiful religion" enables an official American to speak freely about an enemy that is predominantly Muslim, and that enemy makes itself an enemy because it is Muslim. American leaders would be more honest to say, "Islam is a beautiful religion, but we need their oil." For that reason they kow-tow and observe a slow-motion social protocol seemingly calculated to assure the Mideast that Westerners take them seriously. What they don't get is that the West will never be capable of perceiving the leaders of the Mideast as credible leaders on a world stage: in the Western mind to do so would be as absurd as falling in love with a prostitute.

Gamal Abdel Nasser with Nikita Kruschev. Notice Anwar Sadat on the left edge of the picture.
Public domain.
Then there is a more complex, historically based formula of the "Islamicist" vs. the "Muslim." Up through the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, the anti-colonialists relied upon Marxism as their doctrine of liberation from the West's subjugation and economic exploitation, but when Nasser became the president of Egypt he proved to be a lap dog of the West, curled up in their laps, and fell asleep. Nasser had numerous bitter arguments with Sayyid Qutb, a fellow anti-colonialist, whose job, as Nasser's lifelong best friend, was to remind the president of their agenda of freedom for Egypt and the Mideast.

I'm reminded of the complex relationship between Henry VIII and Thomas More because Nasser imprisoned and eventually killed Qutb. While imprisoned, Qutb rejected Marxism as just more Western cant and embraced Islamic doctrine as a populist approach to organize people against colonial powers. Qutb's book, Milestones, became the central text around which Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood coalesced. Because Qutb and his ideological descendants embrace Islam as a utilitarian populist doctrine rather than as true believers in the Quran, God, and Muhammad as his messenger, the rhetoric distinguishes them from Muslims by calling them Islamicists.

How much of that story is true, how much contrived for propaganda purposes, I know not. But I do know that the US maintains low-level fires of hatred against certain groups, and Muslims compose one of those groups. (Another hate group comprises migrant Latin American laborers, upon whom the US economy depends, and who, to save money and effective reëstablish slavery, have been declared illegal, which denies them minimum wage, due process of law, and employment benefits.) The demagogue Trump is shrewd enough of a politician to exploit these prejudices that have been built into the people, especially those people left of the curve.

The US, especially in its dealings with the Mideast and Latin America, has never lost an opportunity to make itself feel superior by demeaning other peoples and to make sure that business and banking deals both enrich the coffers of rich Americans and preserve the poverty of the client country. Latin America, for example, is full of countries with abundant natural and human resources that should be at least as wealthy as some Western European nations, but instead the economic dominance of the US has preserved poverty throughout the world. Had the US sailed an honest course of win-win in all of its dealings with foreign nations, it might not be as obscenely rich as it is today—that wealth so concentrated in the hands of so few that Americans at large enjoy virtually no benefit from its presence in their country, which in terms of indices of quality of life is fast sinking to that of a Third World Nation—the US could have enjoyed a world of allies. Instead the US exists in a world of slave nations in which history is occasionally punctuated by people who just can't take the status quo any longer, so they rise up to rebel and attack. Nobody deserves the consequences of these sorts of rebellions and attacks, yet it is naïve to think they won't happen or that organizations like Homeland Security—which does far more to humiliate innocent American citizens than to counter insurgency in the American Empire—has the will to ward off the passions of a world of people oppressed by the US.

It would be nice to end on some simple-minded platitude like, If the United States is tired of being hated, it could stop being so hateful. Yet if the US were to withdraw from the world into a Fortress America within the confines of its own borders, maybe go cold turkey on its oil addiction and replace cars with sane alternatives like mass transportation, and most of all leave the world alone, leave it to solve its own problems (as opposed to putting out the fires of Empire as its compelled to do now), it would take a century to live down the anger burning throughout the world.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Rocket Sled

Lt. Col. John Stapp rides a rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base.
Public domain image.

It's Monday, ladies & gentlemen, which means poetry day at my blog. So here's another poem from Counting Stars at Forty Below. This one is called The Rocket Sled:

The Rocket Sled

I stalked you in the Cold War, wanted you
to slip out the knock-out place where we met,
to cross over to the construction site.
You’d parked at the Cyclone where I’d seen you
that day you sold tacos, hot dogs, coffee:
workers bore their toughness packed in hard fat.
You smiled at me sure tricks turned in space and
irredeemable flesh speed you to love.
You still find surprises in the night words
when we shake with speed, fingers like tendrils
flutter your skin and moisten open eye.
We are each other’s ties on rushing track.
The sun’s ignition blast of light, certain
as steel beams against your bedroom windows:
the slant pries us from feigned sleep and crushed sheets
and the sweetness of the night gone sour. Our
faces disorganized and distorted
like that of the man on the rocket sled,
that video from the pre-flight space age,
which I remember as all too recent;
to you: an embarrassing reminder
of our age difference, the expired humor:
Chaplinesque, speckled, jerky, and broken;
something bedraggled and telegraphed in.
Head in a crash helmet palsied with speed—
tendrils of jet air reach into his mouth,
flutter his pockmarked cheeks and marble eyes—
the grim soldier essays to reach the moon.
The zoetrope of recent history,
the craquelure of aging Super 8
of astronaut or fallen president:
the viewer’s mind provides continuity.
Our nights converge with drunken amnesia
like the rocket man’s fearsome perspective:
two rails striving for one infinite point,
and disappearance on the horizon.

Arya Stark (spoilers through episode 6.6)

Promotional photo of Maisie Williams as Arya Stark
on Game of Thrones. © HBO
For all of Season 5 and half of Season 6 of Game of Thrones, Arya Stark has been at the House of Black and White in Braavos where she receives instruction from Jaqen H'ghar in a martial discipline of selflessness. Her learning curve follows a standard trope of combat training that includes endless repetitions of tedious, humiliating, and pointless exercises calculated to deflate the ego that gets in the way of discipline. The goal set before Arya is to become a girl who has no name.

Arya's pointless exercises include not only mopping the Atrium, which is the first room inside the doors where the poisoned fountain offers euthanasia for those who want it, but also washing the dead. The trope occurs in most boot camp movies (like Full Metal Jacket and GI Jane, but also more advanced training stories like An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun). The martial training trope also includes The Karate Kid—"wax on, wax off." There is no shame in using a trope that's been around for a while: this is what literature does: literature is the growth on the ancient literary tree, so it is at once new yet growing out of the tradition of which it seeks to be a part, and Game of Thrones makes the dramas of Arya's training fresh and new.

Arya's presence in the House of Black and White is complicated by the Waif, her immediate supervisor at her chores, her trainer, and her tormentor. It's not immediately clear why the Waif torments Arya. It isn't just that Arya hasn't yielded up her former being to become a girl who has no name. There are hints that the Waif is jealous of Arya's high-born upbringing, which is ironic because, of all the castle interiors we have seen, Winterfell is among the humblest. Nevertheless, Arya is a girl of privilege and in her life before the House of Black and White she was addressed as "my lady" or "m'lady."

Arya from the beginning is like a kitten pushing the envelope and venturing farther and farther from the nest before she returns to rejoin her mother and the litter. She eschews Sansa's sewing and all things lady-like and stereotypical foisted upon her because she's female. She has no plans on being a lady, but she is thrilled when Jon Snow gives her the skinny lightweight sword that she ironically nicknames Needle. In one of the most intimate parent-child conversations of the show—most of those, I have to say with some chagrin belong to Cersei, especially those with Joffrey—Ned sits down to talk with Arya to make sure she understands that the sword is not a toy. But Arya understands these things much better than, say, Sansa's sewing, and she answers her father's questions to his satisfaction. He sees in her the seriousness that he needs to see to bless her entry into swordsmanship. He arranges training for her in what her instructor calls "dancing lessons" (and what always properly effeminate Sansa believes actually are dancing lessons).

Arya's dance instructor is Syrio Forel, who, significantly, is from Braavos, and he teaches with a golden mean between harshness and kindness. He is exactly what Arya needs—indeed, the sword from Jon Snow, the heart-to-heart talk and lessons arranged by her father, and the encouraging pedagogy of Syrio Forel are the gifts that she needs to survive for the travails that lie ahead. That sort of alignment of stars falling into place provides one of the thrills of watching Game of Thrones multiple times because there is much going on that I won't recognize the first time through.

"Do you pray to the gods?" Forel says.

"The Old and the New," Arya says.

"There is only one god, and His name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: 'not today,'" Forel says.

It's a verbal lesson against the backdrop of the physical lesson of the water dance, and once we've seen all the show to date—I mean through to today's Episode 6.6—this attitude toward death should remind us of similar ideas bantered about by Jaqen H'ghar. Since we don't actually see Forel fall when the moment comes, he's left for Arya and for us, the audience, to assume that he is dead, but there seems to be a trope (or a rule) there: if you don't see the body, then he's not really dead. (Remember when we see Pasha Antipov's glasses fall in the snow in Doctor Zhivago? And there is a shock of discovery when we see that the infamously ruthless Strelnikov, is who we know as gentle but angry Pasha, who was dead...) And that's to say nothing of Jon Snow's sharp inhalation at the beginning of episode 6.2. But whether Syrio Forel turns out to be Jaqen H'ghar or not, he foreshadows him. Maybe all Braavosi have this ambiguous love-hate relationship with death.

There's one other bit of foreshadowing in about the same episode, and that is Arya, chasing a cat, finds herself deep in the bowels of the castle where the old dragon skulls, big as Volkswagen Beetles, are kept. She has to hide herself as two men deep in plotting to kill her father walk by. Then, lost, she comes out into the open through some castle cloaca. She is filthy and disheveled, and the guards at the gate do not recognize her as the daughter of the King's Hand. They assume that she is some urchin trying to con her way into the city to beg. They don't even recognize her as a girl but call her a boy. In short, she has at this moment completely lost her identity—she is not even a girl that has no name.

So Arya almost does become a girl with no name at the House of Black and White. Her commitment strengthened by defeating, though blind, the Waif at staves, she receives the gift of sight again. While the Waif seethes in the background, Jaqen H'ghar questions Arya and seems pleased. He says she can leave or she can accept a mission and stay. Arya accepts the mission to poison an actress who is performing with a troupe in town.

Yet it turns out that the troupe is performing a history play involving Robert Baratheon, the Starks, and the Lannisters—a kind of medieval live performance of Game of Thrones. (I'm too big a Bergman fan not to mention how Bergmanesque it seems to have a Medieval troupe performing a play within a play—a Game of Thrones within a Game of Thrones—though perhaps Shakespearean would stand equally well—Hamlet could apply here in many ways.) Though we don't know why Arya changes her mind at the last possible moment—I suspect that the troupe's drama brings her to realize she has a mission as great in life with a name as without—she knocks the poisoned flask out of the hands of the actor at the last possible moment.

Arya has tossed her old clothes of identity into the sea, but she has wisely witheld from discarding Needle. At the end of Episode Six, we see Arya tucking herself in with Needle in a dark hiding place. Meanwhile the Waif reminds Jaqen H'ghar that he promised she could be the one to kill Arya if she failed. A reckoning is coming soon.

I would like to think of Arya as one of those characters at the heart of the engine that drives the plot. But Game of Thrones is infamous for killing off its characters, and the characters at the engine seem to be those who get killed the most. I hope she makes it though. I was devastated last week when we lost Hodor. I don't think I could take losing Arya.

A Bit More about Diana Rigg

As I mentioned last week, Diana Rigg was a sexy sleuth among the plethora of television spy dramas spawned in the wake of James Bond. Although her primary gig was with Patrick Mcnee in The Avengers, she was lured off to do some small independent films that were shown at stag parties, although they didn't have any sexual content to speak of. Here are a few of those films. Think of it as what Lady Olenna Tyrell did for work in the old days before she retired from Her Majesty's Service.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Delayed Blog This Sunday (29 May 2016)

A girl has no name.
Usually I publish this blog at 9 a.m. CDT-US, but there will be a delay this Sunday (the 29th). I like to write about Game of Thrones on Sundays, so publishing perhaps even as late as Sunday night might be more appropriate. Regardless of when I publish today, Monday's post will be back on the 9 a.m. schedule.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Flight of the Mynah

A Mynah Bird, much like the one I saw in a bush outside my window that morning.
Photo by _paVan_ at Flickr. Used by Creative Commons license 2.0.
This is another hastily written, last-minute blog written in the the wee hours that the gods made for writers. I fooled myself for a while into thinking that if I just fooled around tonight with the media—YouTube, the History Channel, Netflix, the Playstation—that an idea would strike me with the force of a sledge hammer, but of course inspiration doesn't happen that way. I have to let go and open myself to the opportunities that present themselves (similarly to how one receives a passage from the I Ching). You would think that I have to go through that process only once or twice to remember that I have to go directly to the paper (or the keyboard & screen) and do the vein opening and bloodletting, but the process of denial also seems to be part of the process.

In the way of letting go I fired up a tab on the browser pointed to Amazon Prime music, and rather than foraging about the music lists like a picky eater rakes through his peas, a Steely Dan Prime Station quickly presented itself at the top of the page, so I opened it. That led to Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street," which I've always related to in a rather nostalgic way, followed by Donovan's "Atlantis," another old favorite. What these have to do with Steely Dan is a mystery to me—I love Donovan's touches of Scottish burr in the line "Across a short strait of sea miles"—but I suspect doctoral candidates in psychology at some great university have found some electronic algorithm by which they can quantify certain qualities in the music—among which the tempo is only the simplest beginning—to hypothesize that if I like Song A I will also likely enjoy Songs B and C. Then they bring on the guinea pigs, the undergraduates from around campus who are always ready to earn some beer money by embedding electrodes in their flesh and answering silly questions for incipient psychologists. Getting paid for listening to songs and rating them on the American Bandstand scale of 1 to 10 in the Psychology Department must be a #1 hit job. How about Marshall Tucker Band's "Fire on the Mountain"—those songs of family, loss, tragedy, foolhardiness and last-minute gambles built on slender hope, all sung with an unaffected southern drawl, always pull at my heart threads. I cry at almost anything sad these days. I don't know why. Dire Straits, "So Far Away," another sad one. Then Steely Dan's Aja, brings Asia to mind—a sleight of the homonym: the song seems to be more about fad and follies in California, a constant theme in Steely Dan lyrics, than about anything Asian, the line about "Chinese music always sets me free" notwithstanding.

The image of a Mynah bird randomly pops up from a pile of favorites that I keep in my mind like a photo album. Fresh out of bed in my teacher's apartment at a boarding school in Coimbatore, looking out the window onto the fabulously landscaped grounds, I find myself looking eye to eye with the Mynah. For a few seconds that bird and I commune. The Mynah bird indulges in looking me in the eye, a vision across species, across evolution, and across history before it takes that instinctive leap into flight and safety.

A woman strikes a piñata in the traditional fashion at a celebration.
Photo by Kitty Carmichael, who makes it available under the
Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Then, as it leaps and flies away, a mental piñata shatters and showers idea candy all across my thought space. I realize I'm accustomed to seeing Mynahs only in captivity, as pets, but now I've just seen one in the wild. So how did the Mynah get from this garden in Tamil Nadu to a cage in a hardware store in Texas where I first saw it? Then scanning across the garden I see all sorts of plants like the Morning Glory, which also grows wild here, and one that looks a lot like the Oleander Bush (but which Wikipedia tells me is different though related and equally toxic).

Harry Nillson. Coconut.

Although the British had gardens long before they came to India, their ideas on gardening and certainly the botanical range of their domestic gardens were profoundly influenced by Indian gardening and the native flora of India and other colonies. Enjoying its golden age during the long reign of Queen Victoria, the Empire cast a wide net across the globe, and the British harvested all the best that the world had to offer.

The backbone of empire is trade, and the backbone of trade lies in habit-forming and addictive substances. For the British this included tea, sugar, liquor, coffee, tobacco, and opium. (For the Americans now the commodities of empire include heroin made from Afghan opium and cocaine from the coca plants of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, for which it has utterly devastated the security of nations from the Rio Grande to the Andes.)

Robert Fortune
A Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune brought dozens of plants out of Asia to Europe. The Chinese demanded payment for tea in silver, and as the British began to run out of silver to buy tea, they pushed opium onto the Chinese, for which they likewise demanded payment in silver. The Chinese vainly tried to throw the foreign devils' drugs out of the country during two opium wars fought against the British and American navies and during the Boxer Rebellion. But ultimately, tea having established itself firmly as a British staple, the Chinese tea monopoly had to be broken. According to James Clavell's historically accurate novels about the British experience in Hong Kong and in the treaty port zones of China where foreigners were permitted, the British managed to find an unethical Chinese trader who sold them tea seeds. Robert Fortune took multiple trips disguised as a Chinese into the tea production regions, observed how the leaves were processed so that they eventually became the product used to brew tea. Fortune eventually brought 20,000 plants and "a group of trained Chinese tea workers who would facilitate the production of tea leaves" (Wikipedia) to Darjeeling, India. Fortune's initial efforts failed, but eventually Darjeeling became the center of a British-controlled tea production region that was free of Chinese demands.

Like that Mynah that wound up in a cage in Texas, tea found its way from China and Darjeeling to my grandparents dining table. The Texas summer is not conducive to hot drinks, and in the winter they drink coffee: among old school Texas culture hot tea carries a homophobic connotation, which is why Texas A&M people call University of Texas people "tea sips"—not that UT is a gay cultural center, but because it has an egg-headed intellectual reputation as opposed to the earthy engineers, farmers, and corpsmen of the university in College Station. I remember the ritual of sweetening tea at the beginning of every meal when we visited my father's parents.

Won't Get Fooled Again.

This photo used under the terms
of the GNU Free Documentation
License, Version 1.2 or any later version
At my grandparents' table we would each add to our tea about two teaspoons of that white highly addictive substance—another commodity of the Empire—and then squeeze the juice out of a wedge of lemon before dropping it into the tea where it danced with the ice cubes. Most sugar in Texas before 1960 (and much even still) was produced in Sugarland, which first depended upon slave labor, but as former black slaves were liberated and eventually fled the still nightmarish agricultural fields of Texas and the South, prison labor was phased in to replace the slaves. Neither labor force enjoyed the relative paradise of Gone with the Wind—both the slave forces and the prison laborers were highly regimented and overseen by strict white men armed with shot guns. (Interestingly enough, the Wikipedia entry on Sugarland completely glosses over the shameful barbaric practices that brought sugar in from the fields to the presses.)

So imagine this, the Mynah Bird tells me through that piñata of ideas: my brother and I, our parents, my dad's parents, maybe an aunt and uncle or two with their kids are drinking infusions of a plant that the British, no matter how ingeniously, stole from the Chinese, which is then sweetened by sugar cane, another product wrested out of Asia and cultivated by colonial and slave labor on British plantation in the Caribbean until it reached Sugarland, and this stuff has virtually no real food value, but is harmful, behavior-altering, addictive, and extremely difficult to avoid:"Sugar is found in 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets" (SugarScience). I still find the history of how that tea got to the table intriguing despite the morally dubious acquisitiveness of my race.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? Chicago.

My mother's parents did not buy ice because they were too poor, though, by the 1920s and 1930s of my mother's childhood, icehouses were commonplace. Before electricity, people kept food chilled in ice boxes, and the ice in those boxes was either delivered by or purchased from an icehouse. Icehouses began appearing in the 1880s, so they had been around since my father's parents were born. Icehouses slowly evolved into convenience stores like 7-11.

Another Texas food custom that might seem peculiar to outsiders is garnishing beans with a sweet relish called chow chow (not to be confused with the breed of dog). William Grimes's Eating Your Words defines chow chow as "a Chinese preserve of ginger, orange peel, and other ingredients, in syrup," which is great because it's easy to imagine a plausible story: the British tried the original chow chow as a relish in Asia, liked it, and adapted it to suit their own situations. Ginger and orange peel were not readily available on the Texas frontier, so we can imagine chow chow devolving into the simple diced sweet pickle relish that we have today. What surprises and disappoints me is that we didn't take on chutney as well. You can of course buy it in any supermarket today, but it's for people who are bravely cooking Indian food at home. Indian Chutney did not integrate itself into Texas cuisine the way Chinese chow chow did—it's easy to imagine that it could have: "Want some chutney on your brisket there, partner?"

Legend of a Mind. Moody Blues.

Good night. Game of Thrones tomorrow.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Chicken Man is a rocket scientist.

Destin of YouTube's Smarter Every Day Channel
with the chicken that made his first viral video.
I want to tell you about a cool YouTuber named Destin Sandlin who calls his channel Smarter Every Day. Destin has a boyish fascination with fire, shooting, and blowing things up, but as a real-life rocket scientist­ he is able to show us, often in slow motion, how these fires and explosions happen and work. Destin packs a lot of science into a few minutes of video, but he is never boring. The first Smarter Every Day video that grabbed my attention and made me an instant follower was this one about a spectacular Rube Goldberg machine full of pyrotechnics that operated out of Destin's barn/workshop. This video makes a good introduction not only because it has some of Destin's signature fire & know-how, but also because it contains a flashback to his first viral video about chickens and for which he was nicknamed "the Chicken Man":

I think it would be fascinating to be a brain scientist. In one of his early videos Destin visits his sister, who is in the Peace Corps in Africa. He notices at one point that the letters T.I.A. are painted on her shutters, and he asks her what they mean. It isn't Transient Ischemic Attack but "This Is Africa," a kind of latter-day realization that his sister is not in Kansas anymore. Some of the local people are hanging out at the house, and they're helping slaughter a goat. With one clean blow of the machete, a goat's head gets perfectly bisected, and the camera shows the two open halves in a shot that fascinates me: here are the two chambers of a brain, and in this, or in something very much like it, is where I live. Yet it's such a passive thing, lying there open in the sun to view. There are no moving parts except for the tongue at the bottom, yet this is the tissue that regulates the systems of the body and where resides the consciousness, of which even the goat had some. It seems anti-climactic that something so mission critical to the goat's existence should lie there so inert as if it were nothing. Yes, I've heard we use only a small percentage of our brains, but exposed in this way you can't tell that it's used at all.
Destin, as of this writing, has 3,882,002 subscribers: that's 786,810 more subscribers than Casey Neistat, who is generally considered the King of YouTube. One of the down sides of being a successful YouTuber lies in the heat that a busy kitchen can make. For example, in the comments section of a video about a potato gun, most of the comments focus on Destin's son saying "yes sir." Some viewers say things like "Some of us are still taught to respect our fellow human beings by default," and others say things like "it drives me crazy that his kids say 'yes sir.'" As some noticed, and as Destin explains on a Tumblr blog, his son uses "yes sir" when it's important to acknowledge understanding in moments when safety or protocol is an issue. But to focus on the father-son protocol is to miss the exciting point of the video, which lies in expolosively propelling potatoes into the hearts of watermelons and large squash. Take a look:
In another video Destin addresses the question of how a cat lands on its feet. There's a paradox because once something starts turning, Newton's laws of motion say that it should continue turning. Yet a cat that is falling with its back facing the ground, will turn only 180° and stop so that it will land precisely on its feet. Destin brings out the slow-motion camera again to show us exactly how the cat pulls this off. I have to say that though the cat wasn't harmed, that it is designed to handle easy falls like this one, and though it landed on a cushion, I still felt a little bad for the cat. This video drew some pretty funny comments.
Destin was one of three YouTubers who were invited to the White House to interview President Obama. The interviews went to the White House server where you can see them, but Destin put an interesting behind-the-scenes video on Smarter Every Day that shows how the interview came to happen, and it includes some excerpts of his interview with the president.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Elizabeth Morrow's Inscription

Dwight Morrow's widow, Elizabeth Morrow, inscribed a copy of
her late husband's biography for a friend.
In a video that I included with Tuesday's blog ("Morrow, Spratling, & Lindbergh in Mexico: the silver touch") I talked about two powerful men who wielded great influence on the world around them. One of them, Dwight Morrow, was on the board of J.P. Morgan Chase Bank and served as the American ambassador to Mexico during the late 1920s, a critical time in Mexico's history. The other was William Spratling, who was an architect, artist, and artisan, but who also wielded such an irresistible charm that could transform whole towns.

In December 1927, at Morrow's behest, Charles Lindbergh made a good will tour of Latin America in the Spirit of St. Louis that began with a long solo flight into Mexico City. During Lindbergh's stay at the ambassador's residence, he met Morrow's daughter, Anne, who was home from Smith College for the Christmas holidays. She and Lindbergh were married within two years of this meeting.

Then, some other evening on a date I have not yet pinned down, Morrow had his architect over for dinner. Knowing that Spratling was a prime mover among men, Morrow suggested that Spratling take control of some of the silver out of the mines around Taxco. Until that time, all the silver mined in Taxco went into the pockets of foreign mining companies with minimal gain for the Mexicans. Spratling, Morrow continued, would use his artisan skills and his teaching abilities to create a force of silversmiths in Taxco. This could, Morrow felt, could pull the mountain town just outside Mexico City out of the mire of the depression and make it productive.

Spratling began simply by setting up his own shop, Las Delicias (The Delights), where he trained three silversmiths to make jewelry according to his designs, but he did not stop there. He trained other people to work in the precious metal as well and even helped them create competing shops. His goal wasn't to build one shop but many.

In those days, it was common to fly into Mexico City, then travel overland to Acapulco. Spratling used his Hollywood connections to get people to stop at Taxco, which was along the way to Acapulco, and that put the mountain town on the map.

The Mexican adventures of both Spratling and Morrow fascinate me, and I think they will make a fantastic story.

Morrow's active life makes clear that his death in 1931—only four years after Lindbergh's tour of Latin America—was premature. He died at his home in Englewood, New Jersey, of a stroke on 5 October at the age of 58.

To develop my story about these men, I have to acquire a couple of books. Dwight Morrow's biography arrived today, and inside the front cover it has the inscription you can see above. My theory (having done only incipient research and still surveying the literature, I allow myself to speculate) is that Elizabeth C. Morrow, a poet and the wife of Morrow—she was born Elizabeth Reeve Cutter—commissioned the biography from its author, Harold Nicolson, who is no mere ghost writer but an English diplomat, author, diarist and politician, all of which make him particularly qualified to write a biography of Morrow. Nicolson was married to Vita Sackville-West, who was a close friend of Virginia Woolf. Nicolson and Sackville-West were very much a part of that intellectual social circle that revolved around Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell and that included luminaries like Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes.

Since I am only now getting the books, it's that inscription inside the cover fires my imagination. If she commissions a hagiographic biography of her husband shortly after his death, etiquette dictates sending the book to a list of certain people—one's Christmas card list, perhaps? She is a graduate of Smith—where she later served as interim president—and its list of alumnae reads like a Who's Who of culturally important women. The education at Smith places it among the best liberal arts colleges, and when women could attend only women's colleges, it provided an education comparable to what the men got at their schools. Yet such women's colleges have also traditionally prepared women to be the wives of rich and powerful men, and I suspect that hagiography is the thing to do when a woman found herself unexpectedly and prematurely widowed. I don't mean that Elizabeth went to Emily Post or whomever they consulted in that day, but as a woman well educated in the mores of the rich and powerful, she was able to think out for herself the proper course of action.

So I imagine Elizabeth in her study inscribing books. Since her husband's death in 1931, she has endured yet another nightmare, the kidnapping in March 1932 of her 20-month-old grandson, Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. This is the worst possible nightmare of any parent or grandparent.

After Nicolson has done his job, after Elizabeth reads and approves the manuscript, after the editor at Harcourt, Brace and Company makes sure that ever jot and tittle is in place, the manuscript finally goes to the printer. From there, the first few boxes of books are sent to Mrs Dwight Morrow, Englewood, New Jersey. And in one of those boxes is this book, the one sitting here next to my keyboard.

Elizabeth Morrow sends this particular copy to William T. Dewart, the owner and publisher of the New York SunDewart isn't mentioned in the index of the book, so a role in the story isn't why he receives a copy. Publishing a book about a warm friend to many people without sending copies would imply that they are expected to go out and buy the book. Sending them their copies circumvents this vulgarity. I imagine her working through her address book, inscribing books with thoughtfulness, one by one, and passing them on to her social secretary who sees to the details of shipping each book to the appropriate address.
  William T. Dewart
a warm friend of Dwight Morrow
with sincere regards from
           Elizabeth C. Morrow
October 1935.
She is 62 years old, and the deaths of husband and grandchild must feel like a weight of her age. Despite her life of privilege, life and death have taken their tolls.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

I Ching 2: the four-state cycle of two lines

The two-state cycle of a single line: yáng and yin.
Last week I wrote about the cycle of alternating yáng and yin, and I invited my readers to look for examples of the cycle in the things they see around them. Were you able to practice this simple meditation? If not, I recommend you try it because today I'm going to tell you about a four-element cycle made from two lines, and an insight into the two-state cycle will give you a foothold for understanding the four-state. This cycle also abounds in the world, but it is easier to find with the mind's eye than with the physical eyeballs.

This four-state is notated by using two lines, one stacked on top of the other. This cycle represents the essence of a state that is in continuous transition. In my charts, I draw the progression of cycles in a clockwise fashion. In any cycle involving a stack of two or more I Ching lines, the new line is added at the bottom, and the old line comes off at the top.

The two-line, four-state cycle tends to represent the constant ongoing change of growth and learning processes through time. The four-state cycle is imbued with the idea that conditions are constantly changing and they are purely yáng or yin so fleetingly that they are never really pure—I'm reminded of limits in early calculus classes in which a series converges with a number but never really gets there: you can, for example, only approximate Pi. Purity, in most senses of the word, is rare. Never does a chemist have a vial of a substance that isn't adulterated at least a bit with a trace of anything and everything—you'll see 99.9% pure or even 99.99999% pure, but only a liar touts 100% pure. Food, especially food made in a factory, inevitably contains traces of unmentionable things (and I don't mean the discomfiting things like pig snouts that are listed on the ingredients label); and as we shall see in a moment, the transition from winter to summer requires a whole spring unto itself. Spring contains the fading vestiges of winter and the slowly emboldening summer. A human's behavior often contains the seeds of his own demise. A smoker provides an obvious example, but so too the runner's habit of ten miles every morning contains the seeds of a potentially long life. My life spins from spring and summer through fall and winter in many ways, and every aspect of me is living and dying at once.  As Bob Dylan puts it in "It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)", "That he not busy being born is busy dying." Dylan had something closer to free thinking as opposed to conformity in mind, but I mean everything in its myriad aspects all at once.

I use the seasons to speak of all sorts of phases: All life is like that, and to understand it, survive in it, and be successful in it, I must anticipate its summers and winters. What it is now is not what I should expect tomorrow. As a friend long ago taught me: life is messy: you have to wallow in it. Lawmakers often fall prey to the assumption that the world is full of unchanging constants—especially constants that they themselves create—and this is called the assume-a-block-of-wood fallacy. With every new law, politicians expect behavior of the people will change, but they have no understanding that a river will find its way to the sea no matter what obstacles you put in its way. For example, laws ostensibly calculated to prohibit drugs only serve to change how drugs circulate to their end users, and this outcome is so predictable that the prohibition laws indicate that the politicians are not truly interested in prohibition except as a way to drive profits higher. A legislature genuinely interested in the health of its people would not treat a leading health issue as a criminal problem, which only serves to further alienate the drug user from that leadership, but as a health problem that they reach out to treat in clinics with therapy.

My favorite use of the seasons to allude to the vicissitudes of life lies in the opening credits montage of David Lean's film of Doctor Zhivago. The background upon which the titles are superimposed slowly rotates from winter—the film begins in winter—through spring and summer, then fall before it returns to winter again. The sequence ends after two cycles in the fall before what would be the third winter. One could perhaps write a masters thesis on how the story itself could be construed as two seasonal cycles.

But I have gone ahead of my story. Let's first look at how the I Ching renders the general case, by which I mean the four states of the cycle expressed in the abstract terms yáng and yin:

The four-state yáng and yin cycle. At each stage the new line is
inserted at the bottom and an old line comes off the top.
The yáng and yin are each divided into young and old (or stable and transforming) energies. To rely yet again on our analogy to the seasons, I can think of the warm seasons as the yáng seasons, and the cooler seasons as the yin seasons. Spring has the young yáng energy because it is busily becoming the warm seasons, but summer has the old yáng energy: it is fully into its warmth, but its old confidence decays into overconfidence, and it begins, in its old age, to lose its grip on the weather. The same happens with the cooler seasons: the fall is the immature yin energy, and the yin is the old yin energy that slowly loses its grasp to the onslaught of the young yáng of spring.

After saying so much about the seasons as a four-state cycle, here is a diagram of the course of the seasons:

The four seasons rendered
as a four-state yáng and yin cycle.
In Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge Don Juan, Castaneda's shaman and teacher, explains the four-state cycle of experiential learning. Don Juan labels each of the four stages "enemies," and in a sense they are, but that is largely tied to the animistic metaphors in which Don Juan couches his terms. I will try to make things a little simpler by referring to these enemies as just stages.

Learning or, more generally, doing, Don Juan says, progresses through four stages:

  1. fear — the natural aversion we feel to the unknown
  2. clarity of purpose — the phase beyond the epiphany of understanding the system but before its mastery
  3. power — the stage where understanding and mastery come together to create virtuosity
  4. old age — the overconfidence and carelessness that come from practicing power without focus

This cycle of learning applies to everything that you can learn, from practical things like cooking a chicken, riding a bicycle, or playing piano, to a professional career in law and medicine. It applies to any endeavor, whether it's making love or going through the workday's morning routine to get out the door on the way to work.

If I set out to learn to play piano, I might start with the Suzuki Piano School, Volume 1. The beginning pianist does not make beautiful music, so discipline drives the interminable exercises and scale practice. Eventually I can derive some pride and pleasure in having gained an ability to do what Suzuki asks me to do, and there is my clarity of purpose. Finally I master what's in the book, and there is power. At some point, the exercises of Volume 1 no longer have anything to offer, and I reach the stage of old age. It's at that point that I should move on to Suzuki Piano School, Volume 2, at which point I begin the entire process again with the new material.

Even for the most indigent person, life is filled with endeavors from the time I rise up until I lie down. Even if I am doing "nothing," I am doing something, and that couch-potato being is something for which I passed through the four stages. A day is filled with hundreds or thousands of activities, no matter how insignificant most of them may seem, and for each endeavor I am at some stage in the four stages.

These four stages correspond to the four stages of the two-line cycle. Here is the diagram:

Don Juan's four stages of learning rendered
as a four-state yáng and yin cycle.

Naturally fear corresponds to the transforming yin energy, and power corresponds to the old or transforming yáng energy. It's important to note here that the old age stage leads inevitably to the fear stage of something new. In this series of blogs, this is the first example of the existential algebra of the I Ching at work. As you can see, there is no magic or divination at work here but only a carefully considered bit of common sense and keen observation. It is from such sense and observation that the wisdom of the I Ching is composed.

As an exercise for next week, identify some of the endeavors in your life and the stages in which they are. We will look at some endeavors with sources that will surprise you.