Life, the Universe, and Everything

the difference between here and there

9-11Moi Odd conversation today with a friend from Michigan. I'm making a second stab at getting my visa for China and she suggested just calling her if they reject me again and she will put me on the line with someone on her end who could speak to the person I was dealing with at the consulate. Which sounds great, except that there are no cell phones allowed in the consulate. "Well do they take them away?" she asks. Well, no, they don't, but I'm thinking, (a) I'm on foreign soil, and I should probably obey the rules of the country I'm in as flouting them is not going to endear me to anybody, (b) there are American security guards and they do more than just x-ray your bag, and (c) I say, "they do come over and hassle you if you're using one, because they did when I was there the other day. Security people are all kinda jumpy here," I sez. "Jumpy? Why?" sez friend. "You know, 9/11 and all that?" I reply. "9/11? Really? Cuz we're kinda over that here," sez friend.

And I'm thinking, that's because it didn't happen to you, it happened to us. People in my Michigan home town were rushing to the pumps to hoard gasoline while we were watching our city burn and counting our dead. And there are still people here who would like to blow parts of our city up.

And I'm reminded once again that the midwest is another world, and how much things have changed here since 9/11 that haven't touched other parts of the country.


out of the cocoon

DreamingMoi Been a while since I've blogged here, for various reasons. I've been teaching, grading, working on Bronx Voices, mentoring a student in poetry, reading fiction for other writers, doing some editing, baking, cooking, wasting time on Facebook, hanging out with friends who've missed me and basically having a very busy social life. I'm catching up on "Babylon 5" with Eva and Vinnie, and took myself off to see the new X-Men movie on Thursday, and have a date for the new Star Trek movie with Gretl some time this week too. I finally saw Emilie for the first time in three years (since I left AKRF, and I can hardly believe it's been that long). And I have still more catching up with friends new and old to do.

But I feel like I'm missing something essential, however much I love my friends (and I do!). I'm missing time to write, time to make things, time to post here. I haven't written anything for this blog, or Blogorrhea, or Cocktail Party Physics in far too long. I haven't written any fiction, fan- or otherwise in what feels like ages. I have, however, written a pile of poetry, i.e., one a day for the month of April, which I'm now going back and editing and parceling out to various collections. I'm itchy and anxious and wanting to get back to my own work this summer. My grades are due on the 18th, and between then and now, I have a mountain of grading to do.

Lilacs1But today, I took a me day and went off to the greenmarket at Union Square for the first time in ages, at least when the whole complement of booths is there. It was jam packed, full of flowers, people, early greens, bread, cheese, new potatoes, rhubarb, and winter apples. I bought ramps, and asparagus, and pomegranate ginger lamb sausage, and eggs and fresh pasta and spinach, and at the Garden of Eden up the street, Asiago cheese, morels, and grape tomatoes. Oh, and these:

The market was full of lilacs today, and I've been drunk on their scent since I got there at noon. I bought a big bunch of dark purple ones and carried them around with me as I walked up Broadway through the first street fair I've been to in ages (which was crammed with all kinds of food too: burritos, crepes, Italian sausage, smoothies, corn fritters, funnel cakes, gyros), through Madison Square Park, where the line for the Shake Shack was absurdly long, like a movie premiere, and over to Third Avenue to Oren's to buy another pound of Celebes Kalossi beans for my coffee-drinking friends. I got an iced cappuccino because I was flagging a bit by then and staggered into the subway at 33rd St, all the while smelling the lilacs. Now they're sitting on my work table beside me, filling the room with heavenly scent. The only thing comparable is lavender. The odd thing about them is that you can't really smell them if you bury your face in them, but the smell diffuses throughout the room. It smells like spring, like hope, like renewal.

Like vacation.

I came home and cooked scrambled eggs with ramps, asparagus, and morels. Tomorrow I'm going to make risotto with ramps, sausage and asparagus. And the morels I'm going to eat all by themselves. It's been years since I had them, and though it galls me to pay $45/lb. for them when I used to get them for free, I bought an ounce of them (which is quite a lot, since they're hollow) because I've been craving them. I'm over my rhubarb craving, and the asparagus craving is running out. Now I want peas.

And time. But in the meanwhile, back to grading, editing, etc. until the 18th.


poetry month!

Writer Moi It's Poetry Month, peeps, and somehow, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and signed up to write a poem a day, from prompts, over at Writer's Digest's blog Poetic Asides with Robert Lee Brewer. Tonight I'm frantically composing at the last minute because I had a long day teaching and grading papers. There will be an instant replay tomorrow night, probably, but here's the first one, anyway. It's an origin poem, as per the prompt.  I thought, what the hell? Why not go for the ultimate origin? So I've committed science poetry. Be merciful; it's a first draft.

Start Here


It always starts with light
real and metaphor:
a minuscule point
floating
in the deeps,
one moment quiescent,
the next—
the universe
cracks open.
Fractions later, the shrapnel flies
at the speed limit of sight,
us and anti-us,
bangs around like bumblebees in a bottle
(those will come much later)
smashing itself
back to nothing first, then
smaller, hotter, faster, fortunately
more us than anti.
Baryons
shimmer into being,
condensing like raindrops
(again, much later). The universe
quarks.
A chill sets in, the particles dance
for warmth, and couple
the way everything does
in long, cold nights.
Hadrons and leptons snuggle;
deuterium is born,
grows up to be hydrogen.
Soon there’s a periodic family
at the table.

In the space of
a hundred breaths:
light and matter, and
all that matters.

© Lee Kottner, 2009

This poem brought to you courtesy of Chris LaRocco's and Blair Rothstein's Big Bang Page over at U of M. Meaning that's where I got my quick and dirty summary of the aforementioned events.


Louis CK: "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy"

BlueGirlofHappiness It's so true! Amazing shit happens all the time, and not just our technology, but we're such freakin' whiners about everything. The entitlement just needs to stop. I love this because it's Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "I Am Waiting" come true. It's the rebirth of wonder, and it's good to be reminded of how utterly, mind-bogglingly magical life is in the Western world, even now when times are tough. And I hate to say it, but the first thing I thought when the financial shit hit the fan was "Yeah, maybe this will make us rethink our mindless consumerism, our privilege, our entitlement, our greed and shortsightedness. Maybe this will force us to remember what's important: our friends, our families, our health, food, clothing, shelter, love, and respect. All those cliche things." Your phone doesn't use  sparks to dial any more, people! And you can fly! Get a grip!


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Out With the Old

PeaceGirl Usually, when I'm home alone on New Year's I like to write a long blog post and contemplate the year gone and the year coming. Somehow, I'm not feeling very philosophical this year, despite the couple of fingers of Glenmorangie sitting in a glass on my desk. Probably because I've been getting my New Year's cards ready to mail and cooking a quiche for Eva's open house tomorrow. So now I'm tired. Plus I've still got a stinking cold. Going on week 4 now.

Despite that, what I am feeling is content, which is a good thing, since there were some big changes this year. For one thing, I started this blog, six months ago, to kind of officially announce that I was taking a different spiritual path than the one I'd grown up in. I haven't talked a lot about that here because it's progressing very slowly. I've been reading a lot about Buddhism, but haven't taken the plunge yet and gone to a sesshin, partially because I haven't made up my mind about what school, let alone what temple or zendo to try. I'm leaning toward Zen rather than Tibetan Buddhism. It seems less encumbered with other religious overlays and I like the austerity of it, and the discipline. I like what meditating does to me and I like the emphasis on compassion. But this is all theory at this point.

The other reason I haven't gone to a sesshin anywhere is because sitting's been kinda problematic for the past year. In a year and a half I'll be 50 and for the last several years, my body's been telling me about it: more arthritis in my hands, stiffness in the morning, more aches and pains, and just generally being nibbled to death by minnows: nothing drastic or life threatening, but some highly inconvenient things. I've had two minor surgeries this year and the everlasting, reoccurring cold since I started teaching, both of which have made it hard to get out and do things, and to get enough exercise. I haven't walked around the city as much as I wanted to because I haven't had the energy.

So I've had kind of a slow year, and a year full of changes and new and ongoing projects. In February, I started teaching again, as an adjunct at the College of New Rochelle's School of New Resources in the South Bronx. Just tutoring at first, then a class on journal writing, and most recently, two remedial writing labs, a literary analysis class, and one on logic and argument. That, by far, has been the highlight of this year. I'm glad to be in the classroom again, happier than I thought I'd be. The most shocking thing is that it's so much easier this time around. In the ten or so years it's been since I last taught, I've somehow learned enough to actually talk about literature in a coherent manner for a couple of hours without notes. I know how to take a story or a poem apart and put it back together. I'm a little amazed at myself. It was always fun before, but it was also a bit of a struggle to fill the time and to trust myself as a teacher. Not now.

And I love my students. They're smart and funny and eager to learn, which is really a joy. I've never had a class as full of people who are as hungry as my students are. Oh, sure, there are a few ringers, but a lot of them are my age or older, almost all of them have families and are working too. They're wonderful people, African American and Hispanic, many of them new immigrants. They give the lie to every racist slur I've ever heard. The things they have overcome to be where they are, to get an education and to better themselves would stymie most of the nice middle class people I know, including me. I just want to get behind them and push. There's a wealth of talent and intelligence being thrown away by not offering free college educations to the poor.

When I was teaching the journal writing class in the summer and tutoring, I was lucky enough to read some of the really extraordinary personal stories that are typical of many of the students at this school. I started thinking about putting together an anthology of some of them, and at the same time, met another teacher who had a theater background and who was putting together a show of the same kinds of pieces. And thus was born Bronx Voices, which we hope will morph, eventually, into Voices from the Five, and an anthology of poetry and prose. I've met some really extraordinary people at this school, this year.

And I've reconnected up with a number of people I thought I'd lost, or with whom I'd been in sort of desultory contact. Helen Kay, a friend from grad school, decided to move over here part time for her business, so I've been helping her set up her new apartment in Carnegie Hill. It's almost ready now, and I'm really looking forward to having her here in the city several months a year. Don Mawson, a friend from my Chatham Days, was down in the city working at Morgan Stanley before the bottom fell out of the economy. It was great to see him again, and I'm hoping to go up to Boston and see him sometime this winter too. We have these long stretches between visits, but always pick up right where we left off. A while back, I ran into Victoria Rosen in St. Mark's bookstore; we hadn't spoken in a couple of years, even though she lives right up the street from Roz & Eva, but we've started going to shows together this year. Victoria gets cheap, last minute tickets to some interesting off-Broadway productions and some of them have been a lot of fun. Even when they're not, I'm really glad to have reconnect with Victoria. Her own spiritual journey was one of the things that made me reconsider mine. We even ended up at one of Steven Eng's shows this year, which was great. He and Neal and Marcia and I all need to get together again too, but at least we're keeping in touch.

Then I got back into Facebook, and a whole new world opened up. I found a couple of people I thought I'd lost track of for good, a bunch from high school and one from my classes at Bergen CC, some from college and grad school, and made some more new ones. Eva introduced me to her friend Julie Kessler this year, too. We'd met at Eva's 60th but really started to hang out with each other this year, doing art crawls in Chelsea, which was a lot of fun since Julie's a painter. And Gretl, with whom I've been hanging out a lot, has introduced me to some really great people too. And there's D.L. and a bunch of other people from New Rochelle, including Daisha, who I think is turning into a really fine poet.

So I'm rich in friends this year. I already have so many I can barely keep up with them all, but hey, you can never have too many friends. I'm not making too much money, but neither is anyone else right now. I've got enough to keep me for a while, even if it tanks out some of my retirement fund. I won't be the only person in that boat. And I hope I'll keep teaching. The editing gigs are getting more frequent and better, but we'll see how that goes. I'm blogging for Jen now, and am going to start blogging for actual money this year too. Wow. Who'd a thunk it?

I didn't get to go to China this year with Laurie when she went to pick up her new daughter, but that was a minor disappointment. The important thing is that Laurie's got a new daughter (whom I haven't met yet) and she's awfully excited about it.

All in all, it's been a very good year, the minor cons canceled out by the very numerous pros: good work, good friends, a cozy roof over my head, good food,

So up next: finishing up the looming projects: books, poems, novels, Bronx Voices. Rejoicing in my friends, continuing the work on my spirituality, hopefully getting over some of the health hurdles that have cropped up (and learning to deal with the new hot flashes! Woohoo! Menopause!). But most of all, just continuing to have a really good life by learning to be more thankful for what and who I've got, without any expectations of them or life in general. Every moment is a new now.

    Sun After Rain in the South Bronx

The sudden sun transforms everything
even here—especially here:
scrub trees in a trash-strewn ravine
become a peridot glade behind their razor wire;
cut stone facades robe themselves in rose gold;
brick walls glow with the fire
that hardened them;
asphalt, rainwashed, glitters like snakeskin,
slithering water;
taxis quiver and run with yolky yellow;
the green of meadows veils, briefly,
the vacant lots and postage-stamp lawns
—all revealed in glory
by the simple, ready grace of light.

–New York, 2008

Happy New Year!


the best gift

PeaceGirl Glitter Text Generator
Happy Holidays to all!


Apollo08_earthrise I still haven't adopted Christmas as a holiday, and I doubt I will, but the sentiments are certainly worth propagating. Since Christmas originally sprang out of various solstice celebrations and the Roman Saturnalia, I'm more likely to mark the passing of the year, than an erroneous date of the birth of Christ. It's now become so hopelessly commercialized that I feel absolutely no attraction to it. But it means a lot to many of my friends, so I wish them all, and everyone to whom it means something important, happy holidays. Likewise to many many Jewish friends celebrating Hanukkah.


Take this drug! Lower Your risk of death!

Feeling_my_age_moi"A large new study suggests that millions more people could benefit from taking the cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins, even if they have low cholesterol, because the drugs can significantly lower their risk of heart attacks, strokes and death," says today's New York Times. Please note that the study was carried out on "nearly 18,000 people worldwide, [and] tested statin treatment in men 50 and older and in women 60 and older who did not have high cholesterol or histories of heart disease."

Now, this sounds like a big study, but keep in mind that there are approximately 400 million people in this age range world wide, so this sample is less than one-half of one percent of that target population. Statistically, this is a very small sample and the time period over which it was carried out, two years, is pretty short. But the fundamental flaw in this study is the last bit of that first sentence. Nothing lowers your risk of death. Nothing. "Scientists said the research could provide clues on how to address a long-confounding statistic: that half of heart attacks and strokes occur in people without high cholesterol." So they're puzzled? The answer is simple: we are mortal. Everything dies. If heart attacks don't kill us, something else will.

Continue reading "Take this drug! Lower Your risk of death!" »


Griping

Sick_tired_moiAs my LJ pals would say, "Blargh." F-ing cold. I have no voice, which means, obviously, that I cannot teach tonight. This really irks me, as it's one of the high points of my week right now, plus it throws off the syllabus and makes life a pain in the arse for everyone, since we have to schedule a make-up class. fortunately, my hero, Andy Baker, volunteered to sub for me so there would be no make-up class. I owe him a big one. This is one of those colds that's teetering on the edge of becoming bronchitis, which I'd rather not have it do, and which would, in the end, only take longer to get over. So. No class for me tonight. Crap. I miss my students!

The only up side to this is I have a legitimate excuse to lie in bed and read, rather than just being a lazy sod, although at some point I need to retrieve my laundry and get some more bagels, and a few other things to make edible, sinus-clearing food with.


Success

Peacegirl

"There is only one success - to be able to spend your life in your own way."
~Christopher Morley

I ran across this great quotation today in one of the writer's newsletters I subscribe to. It's appeared at time when I've been thinking a lot about what success is in relation to my own ambitions. I don't know whether I"m getting old and tired, or if I'm just in a low spot right now because of health problems, but I seem to have lost a lot of my ambition to be Someone. My friend MG has too (we're both old coots, and she's even older than I am, by a couple of years). I have to confess that when she told me about year ago that she was more focused right now on having fun than doing art, it scared me. When that happens, I've learned to step back and take a look at what I'm really afraid of, but I haven't really been able to put a name to it until now:

Being ordinary.

Continue reading "Success" »


Brief Interlude of Silence

WhamoiI'll probably be off-line for a little bit here as I'm having some minor but embarrassing surgery today. Here's hoping the pain meds will be good. Spawn of Blogorrhea will go on as planned, as I've pre-written several posts for it, but since this is a more personal journal, you're just going to have to wait. Don't look for e-mails either. I don't think I'll be sitting much . . .


Reunion Time

MichiganmoiMy 30th high school reunion is coming up this August. As a result, a couple of people I went to school with have contacted me, including an old boyfriend (that phrase takes on a completely different meaning at this point). This is traditionally a time when people look back on their lives and often wonder where their dreams went. I haven't been doing that, but in writing back and forth to the old BF, I've been thinking about how different my life is from most of my friends, from the "norm," whoever Norm is.

I'm 48, unmarried  (not divorced or living in a state where gays can't marry, not in a relationship, just single), no kids, no pets, don't own a home or a car, living in the city not the suburbs or rural area, no real "career" and not even a job right now. By most economic measures, I'm among the working poor. My parents are both deceased and I'm pretty much alone, relative-wise. About the only way I'm average is my weight gain and my sexual orientation. Yet the only thing I'm even vaguely unhappy about is that I don't have cats at the moment.

My dreams have changed, but are still fairly intact and if not fulfilled in a grandiose manner, are pretty comfortably realized: I live in New York where I've always wanted to live. I write and publish a bit, I have a great circle of friends, I have fulfilling work (teaching). I make art. I have a comfortable home and good health. I travel a bit and have seen some of the world. I get to read a lot. I see plays and movies and dance and listen to music. There are museums everywhere for me to visit. Life is good. I'd like to be a little more financially secure, but that'll happen, one way or another. And I've been here before. Besides, I want and need so much less than I ever have before.

I'm not going to our reunion, mostly because I haven't the least desire to go back to Oscoda ever again, and because I've kept in touch with the two people from that period of my life who matter to me: Mel and Paul. Every now and then I hear about some of my former classmates from one or the other of them, but that was a different life for me, one I'm not all that interested in revisiting. I wasn't that interested in it when I lived there. And I've never been much interested in being or even acting like everyone else, or fitting in. But I've been thinking about how odd my life must look from the outside, especially to the people I grew up with in that little two-lane tourist town.

The last job I had was full of lovable, geeky misfits, and we liked to refer to ourselves as "not like the other kids." That would have been me in school, too. I think I was only acceptable by virtue of being the best friend of the smartest kid in class and the two biggest band nerds. I worked on the yearbook, went to games, did a little bit of drama, painted some murals in the school and had a good time, but I think I managed to carve out my own niche without succumbing to the crushing conformity of high school. I was sorta smart, sorta arty, sorta musical (sang in choir for a bit too), liked going to games even if I wasn't a jock, and was voted one of two class clowns (I actually campaigned for it).

But I knew I was never going to stay in that part of the world. I always knew I was going to go to college and move away, to do something different with my life. Most of the people I went to high school with went to college (or didn't), stayed or moved back, got married, had kids, divorced, remarried, in short, did all the average, usual things. The ones who left tended to be kids from the Air Force base that was still open then. When I was working on my long-abandoned Ph.D. in English at Michigan State, I ran into a woman from town who had been a very close friend at one time. We'd been like the characters in Starsky & Hutch, our favorite TV show at the time. When I'd gone to college, she'd married the GI she'd been dating our senior year and went around the world with him while having and raising two kids. Then he cheated on her and she left him, moving back to Northern Michigan where we grew up. When I saw her again, the base was still open and she was cleaning the barracks for a living and living in a small cottage on one of the little lakes. She actually liked it, she said, because she got to meet guys that way. I realized at that point that we had nothing to say to each other.

That story has become one of the defining moments in my life; it's Why I Left Oscoda.

That's not to say that everyone there is like that. Mel's the prime exception to the rule, and some of her friends are, too. Most of them come from somewhere else though, and Mel is just too darn smart and curious to stagnate anywhere she lives. She's about as conventional as I am, and has never been afraid to be exactly who she is. That's one of the greatest things I learned from her, growing up: be who you are, stick to what you believe in. She's attracted like-minded people as her friends.

The Times had an article, a review really, about a book called The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop. This seems like a really familiar idea to me, having grown up in two fairly narrow-minded places: the church I belonged to and the community I lived in. Bishop says, “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.” Apparently, as a nation we're "balkanizing" into more and more like-minded communities and this is part of what's making our politics so extreme. Having grown up in a small, white, tourist town, I can agree with this. It's one of the reasons I left. But the result of leaving is that I changed and grew. I became more myself and less what others thought I should be. This is one reason I live in the city. I'm exposed to new ideas and opinions all the time, constantly stimulated, shaken up, jolted out of complacency. It's not a quiet life and it's not conventional. It's also not for everyone but it does have what I see as some advantages.

For one thing, I don't have the responsibilities other people have, but that was a choice, too, not to have kids, or buy a house or a car. Is that selfish? Depends on what you think "selfish" is. Why should I have kids when (a) I have the means to not have them and (b) I have no desire for them? I should reproduce because that's what women do? Um, no. There's this thing called Feminism which is all about choice. This is my choice. As for car and house ownership, I'm laughing up my sleeve right now at the car owners and who says owning a house is all it's cracked up to be? Paul Krugman actually wrote a great editorial about this. It's another responsibility I've never wanted, another material object that I, as a good consumer, should go out and buy, mainly because it will give me "equity" in case I need money some day. Or as something to leave to my non-existent kids.

Otherwise, I'm pretty much like everyone else in the responsible adult category: I pay my taxes and bills, I work, I give back to the community, I'm respectful and law-abiding. Isn't that what's required of citizens? Oh wait. I forgot that Protestant Work Ethic thing.

One of my friends who's worked very, very hard for herself and as a result has an extremely successful business and a very fat bank account was moaning to me the other day about how she can't wait to retire. Having worked part-time most of my life and never having had a lot of money, I can't say I identified with her. I don't really plan on "retiring," per se. The life I've got now, as I said to her, is a lot like most people's idea of retirement. Work a bit, play a bit, do things you want to do, make sure you have enough money to live on and to hell with the rest. Why should I wait for retirement? I may be too sick or old by then to enjoy my free time. This is what happened to my mother. And as a writer and artist, I can't imagine a day when I would stop writing, or stop making art, unless I become incapacitated.

And of course, that's the difference. Jobs and careers are things you retire from, even if you really love the work. At some point it becomes drudgery: exhausting, tedious. That's the difference between being something and doing something. My friend makes her living writing, but I'm not sure she defines herself as a writer, certainly not in the same way I see myself as a writer. The idea that she will eventually stop writing the stuff she does now does not appall her as it would me. This was always one of the attractions of academic life, too. You might retire from teaching and administration and chairing committees, but you never have to stop thinking or publishing. Conversely, writers may decide to stop publishing, but you never stop reading or thinking about books and ideas, any more than artists stop thinking about art, even when they physically can't make it any more.

When your greatest pleasure comes from ideas and thoughts in a materialistic society, you're bound to be an outcast, or at least thought a little weird. And choosing to be single, let alone childless? That definitely puts you in the Quirkyalone category (my score on their quiz was 107=Very Quirkyalone. as the site says, "All those nights alone—they bring insight." I'm pretty sure not everybody lists insight as one of their goals in life, but it's always been one of my big priorities. I don't ever remember not asking myself who I was, what I was supposed to do, or what life was all about, or how my brain worked. Those are the questions you get to tackle when you're live the kind of life I do. You can do it as part of an average couple, but as one of my students said the other day, "What's philosophy for?"  If you're not asking what the world around is like and what makes it tick, you don't care. If you do, it takes time to figure it out, if you ever do. But at least the effort is fun, whether anyone else sees it that way or not.


George Carlin, 1937-2008 RIP

Georgecarlinrh04_2 George Carlin, one of my heroes, has died at the age of 71—way too young for such a free spirit and incisive observer of the absurdities of life and language. Fitting that he was recently honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor; I can't think of anyone's style that reminds me so much of Twain: irreverent, sarcastic, disrespectful, and fearless. One routine he'll go down in history for was the Seven Words You Can't Say on TV:

"The original seven words were, shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the ones that will curve your spine, grow hair on your hands and (laughter) maybe, even bring us, God help us, peace without honor (laughter) um, and a bourbon."

New York radio station WBAI let him say them on the air in the early 70's and in 1978, the obscenity case went to the Supreme Court, where the censuring and censoring was upheld, perpetuating stupidity like the fines for the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction." Carlin was particularly good at pointing out societal hypocrisy, which is probably one of the reasons I loved him so: "The word shit, uh, is an interesting kind of word in that the middle class has never really accepted it and approved it. They use it like, crazy but it's not really okay. It's still a rude, dirty, old kind of gushy word. (laughter) They don't like that, but they say it, like, they say it like, a lady now in a middle-class home, you'll hear most of the time she says it as an expletive, you know, it's out of her mouth before she knows. She says, Oh shit oh shit, (laughter) oh shit. If she drops something, Oh, the shit hurt the broccoli. Shit."

I also loved his language consciousness. He did an entire routine on what he called "soft language" that's worthy of George Orwell's 1984 (see sidebar). You can see it here. He's so un-PC that it's wonderful, fearlessly pointing out that those nice comfortable words like "pre-owned" have simpler meanings, like "used": "It's getting so bad now that any day I expect to hear a rape victim referred to as an 'unwilling sperm recipient.'" Language like this doesn't just distort truth, it's us bullshitting ourselves. Carlin had the same horror of  of euphemism that I do. In this routine, in fact, he rails against the use of the terms "pass away" and "expire" ("like a magazine subscription") for "died."

And now that he has, the language police have won a little victory.

[Cross posted at Spawn of Blogorrhea]


Signs of Intelligent Life

DreamingartI seem to be a little late to this party too, as usual, but I just saw the video of the elephant painting what looks to me like a self-portrait with a flower on Cute Overload. I got chills. It really freaked me out. In the background all the tourists are clapping and awww-ing like, "that's so cute." And all the while, this enormous trunk is delicately holding this tiny brush, hovering over the paper as though musing on the precise spot to start, stabbing down, drawing these perfect lines in one go to make a perfect cartoon of an elephant holding a bright flower in its trunk: a quick line for the ear, a dot for the eye, no tusks because she's too young to have any, four legs in perspective, a curvy line to suggest the ear. It's perfect. Perfect. The first thing I thought of was the cave drawings at Lascaux. The bison and horses there have the same clean lines. It wasn't people doing them. It was elephants. Wouldn't that be a good joke?

There are a number of painting elephants, apparently, and have been before this. Two Russian-born conceptual artists have been teaching Thai elephants, who are out of logging jobs due to deforestation, how to paint. You can buy their abstract doodles on Novica. Yeah, so elephants paint like cats paint. Watch this vid and see if you think it's the same thing.

Now take a look at those Lascaux paintings again. See any similarities?

Here's why this video terrified me: If Lascaux was one of the first glimmers of intelligence from genus homo, what does this painting say about genus elephas? Elephants are one of the few species besides humans who recognize themselves in mirrors. This suggests some kind of self-awareness. And art like this is deceptively simple.   Just getting the two legs in the proper perspective, behind the others, is a feat kids don't manage to master right off when they draw. It was the wavy line to suggest the ear that really chilled me though, because that seems to me to show a sense of abstraction, a higher cognitive function. Who's to say this isn't a self-portrait?

Watching this drawing being made was like watching ET trying to communicate, and Christy Brown drawing his first letter in "My Left Foot," and the recent video "In My Language," which gives the lie to the idea that all autistic people are mentally deficient. In all three cases, we find intelligence where we least expect it, revealed in an unexpected way. Which only makes me wonder how many other species, what other species, we've underestimated and failed to communicate with or even consider, in our tool-building arrogance.