July 31, 2012

Let me be good, but not yet.

Dear Cosmic Dust Administrator,

This is to certify, declare, state and assert that I intent to reside, exist and otherwise be in this, and of this world until the day…

(I hate the thought that I have to die). 

I will retain the right to use any or all of the privileges, talents, gifts, and vices bestowed, inherited, or enthusiastically acquired, until the day of my…

(I suppose I shouldn’t mind).

It is understood and hereby set forth that the above mentioned rights, privileges, talents, gifts and vices do not entail any reward, recompense or honorarium to you, payable after…

(I remember very vividly lying on my bed and looking down at my hands and thinking to myself, “Some day this will be the hands of an old woman.”)

That they are to be enjoyed by me, without let, hindrance, suggestion or specification until my…

(Sure enough, my hands are showing signs of old lady-ness.  I’m not all the way to what my 12 year old self worried about. But I’m closing in.)

It is further understood that any cracks, gags or drolleries which may be made, delivered, vouchsafed or otherwise said by the party of the first part in regard to or in connection with the above mentioned privileges, talents, gifts, and vices must be of the first order, class and type.
(It’s not the hands. It’s the part that comes next, the part where one day we close our eyes and don’t open them again, that’s what’s bothering me.)

Nothing herein embodied, implied or hinted at, however, shall be construed as an attempt, effort, or move, to withdraw, modify, or in any other way change the simple fact that... 

If you must - you must.

(I just can’t reconcile that with the extraordinary awareness of being alive.)

Yours, eternally, by default

July 27, 2012

Say what?

Doublespeak, to use the colorful characterization of Professor William Lutz, is as old as language itself. Consider the evidence.

"Am I my brother's keeper?"
"And Brutus is an honorable man .... "
"Arbeit macht Frei.” (premium doublespeak)

As soon as man learned to speak, he learned how to talk out of both sides of his mouth.
Is the plague of doublespeak in American public discourse worse now than in any other place or time?   Such things are impossible to quantify, but it is hard to believe otherwise. The age of the Great Communicators, as was evident at the time and grows more obvious with each passing decade, is an age of words that mean something other than what they seem to-or nothing at all. All that the latest presidential election added is spin.

Americans have special cause to detest corruption in language.
The exact language used in the Declaration of Independence is the very cornerstone of this democracy-the first of its kind in history. Ours is a special duty to guard against the creeping tyranny of those who paint the worse as the better cause; who mask selfish motives behind appeals to the general good; who, in a word, do not mean what they say.

The following examples represent of what we have learned, to our cost, to tolerate.
Washington, the President of the United States addresses the nation; "Fellow citizens, last night I ordered U.S. military forces to ---- ." Translation: "Last night, I started a war."

Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but does not; that makes the bad seem good, the repulsive attractive or at least tolerable. It is language that avoids, shifts, or denies responsibility, language at variance with its real or its purported meaning. Basic to doublespeak is incongruity, the incongruity between what is said, or left unsaid, and what is. It perverts the essential function of language, which is communication, in order to mislead, distort, deceive, and circumvent.

Doublespeak is not, as some charitable people suppose, a matter of slips of the tongue or pen. It is, rather, the deliberate use of language as a weapon or tool by those in power to achieve their ends at the expense of others. As such, it comes in four principal, often overlapping varieties.

Euphemism. In its innocuous form, this can be a function of tact, courtesy, or custom, as when we say that someone is "involved with" someone else or that a "loved one" has "passed away." But what justifies the U.S. State Department's phrase "unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life," to mean killing?

Jargon. As the specialized language of a trade or profession, this, too, has its innocuous uses. Lawyers among themselves know that "involuntary conversion" of property is loss or destruction through theft, accident, or condemnation. But consider what ensued when a National Airlines 727 airplane crashed while attempting to land at the Pensacola, Florida, airport. Three of the fifty-two passengers aboard the airplane were killed. As a result of the crash, according to Herb Caen, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, National made an after-tax insurance benefit of $1.7 million, or an extra eighteen-cents-a-share dividend for its stockholders. National explained in its annual report, said Caen, that the $1.7 million income was due to "the involuntary conversion of a 727," thereby acknowledging the crash and the profit it made from it, without mentioning the accident or the deaths. As far as the stockholders and the general public could tell, they had had a stroke of luck.

Gobbledygook. The purpose of this sort of language is to snow the audience with a blizzard of words. Alan Greenspan testified before a Senate committee; "It is a very tricky policy problem to find the particular calibration and timing that would be appropriate to stem the acceleration in risk premiums created by falling incomes without prematurely aborting the decline in the inflation-generated risk premiums."
Speaking to a meeting of the Economic Club of New York, Mr. Greenspan, then Federal Reserve chairman, said, "I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you've probably misunderstood what I've said."

And then there is our most beloved, most accomplished, habitual, professional, 'double speaker' that ever resided in the White House who “didn’t inhale” or  “…I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman…”

Make no mistake. Gobbledygook only sounds like sheer stupidity. Its real function is to deceive.

 Inflated language or Pomposity. This kind of doublespeak is designed to give an air of importance to people, situations, or things that would not normally be considered important; to make the simple seem complex. Sometimes, it is merely funny. Think of those elevator operators now known as members of the "vertical transportation corps." But consider that in the doublespeak of the military, the 1983 invasion of Grenada, conducted by our "Caribbean peacekeeping forces," was not an invasion. It was a "predawn vertical insertion."

Doublespeak is not new. Julius Caesar described his brutal and bloody conquest and subjugation of Gaul as "pacification." "Where they make a desert, they call it peace," said the British chieftain Galgacus, that astute critic of cant. When a traitor was put to death in Rome, the announcement of his execution read ('Vixit'-third-person-singular perfect form of vivere, "to live": "he has lived"-which is to say that he lives no more.

"Protective custody" - the very opposite of protective; "winter relief" - a compulsory tax presented as a voluntary charity; and a "straightening of the front" a retreat, while serious difficulties become "bottle-necks."
Nazi Minister of Information (the very title is doublespeak) Josef Goebbels spoke in all seriousness of "simple pomp" and the "liberalization of the freedom of the press." Nazi doublespeak reached its peak in connection with the "Final Solution" (a phrase that itself represents the ultimate in doublespeak).

"Resettlement" means deportation; "Special Action Groups" army units that conduct mass murder; against this grim backdrop, the doublespeak of Watergate was low farce.

By this time, of course, we Americans have become inured to or lulled into acceptance of our own horrors-
"Air support," "armed reconnaissance," "interdiction," "protective reactive strikes," or "limited-duration protective-reaction strikes."
"Defoliation" (accomplished with Agent Orange) was too descriptive, so it gave way to "resources-control programs."
Civilians are killed by "incontinent ordnance," while a spy shot without a trial is "eliminated with extreme prejudice."
We have "preemptive counterattacks" or an "aggressive defense." Spraying an area with machine-gun fire is "reconnaissance by fire." Sometimes American troops "engaged the enemy on all sides" (they are ambushed) and have to effect a "tactical redeployment" (retreated). American troops killed by American bombs or artillery shells are "friendly casualties," which are caused by "accidental delivery of ordnance equipment" or "friendly fire."

Well, in the prosperous decades, where nothing mattered but making piles of money by hook or by crook, the gullible public was made to swallow not a tax increase but "revenue enhancement," not to mention "user's fees" and "tax-base broadening"- in other words, more and more increases that were not increases.

Such systematic misnomers subvert or even preempt informed public debate on public policy. A meeting was convened at the White House in 1982 for the sole purpose of finding an "appealing" name for the MX missile. Thus the Peacekeeper was born.

Similarly, officials of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission obstruct discussion of the dangers and problems of nuclear power by carefully chosen, well-disseminated words. When an explosion in a nuclear-power plant becomes an "energetic dis-assembly," or an "energy release," or a "rapid release of energy," and a reactor accident is an "event," an "unusual event," an "unscheduled event," or an "incident," what is there, really, to discuss?

Which brings us to the NRC's "non meeting gatherings," during which no written records would be kept. The NRC argued that since such "gatherings" are "non meetings," they did not fall under the requirements of the Sunshine Act.

Doublespeak has become so common that many people fail to notice it. Local politicians speak not of slums or ghettos but of the "inner city" or "substandard housing" where the "disadvantaged" or "economically non affluent" dwell.

Hospitals speak not of patients dying because of malpractice but of "negative patient-care outcome" due to a "therapeutic misadventure."

Meanwhile, the wizards of Madison Avenue tout "genuine counterfeit diamonds," "genuine imitation leather," a "home plaque-removal instrument" (that's a toothbrush), a "digital fever computer" (yes, a thermometer), the "hydro blast force cup" (a plunger), the "underground condominium" (or grave). Would you be willing to buy a "previously distinguished automobile" from any of these guys?

It is all too easy to laugh all this off, as some people do. Everyone knows the game, they say, so what real harm is there in doublespeak? They read right past it.

Yes and no. Where we see it for what it is, we can adjust. Too often, we cannot, and what happens then? Doublespeak accomplishes its end. It alters our perception of reality. It deprives us of the tools we need to develop, advance, and preserve our culture and our civilization. It breeds suspicion, cynicism, distrust, and, ultimately, hostility. It delivers us into the hands of powers that intend us no good.

July 24, 2012

Misfortune’s Wheel

How still the millpond, how shallow-sweet the weedy water
and its flitting flies, its green weep of foliage!

And look- this great curved cage, 
these noble stanchions,
this ruthless rouser of wet revolutions …
the venerable waterwheel
which for centuries 
has coursed its wooden way 
to grind corn
and heroins
for the hungry mouth 
and fluttering hearts of  humankind.

Look closely-isn’t there something
horrid about the thing,
something ancient and torturous,
a watery Catherine wheel?
Ra-ther!  Most so.


And most certainly a hundred
ladies of breeding have fallen foul of the thing.
Victorian novels were greatly drawn to waterwheels.
If the heroine was not mortally immersed in the still, 
cold glass of the millpond,
then she got caught in that thrashing wheel, 
got mangled and bloodied, mashed and drowned.
Or even worse, got lashed to it
by the vile-whiskered villainous miller 
for not paying her bill of dishonor.

Thereafter the weeds yearned with their flowing tongues to lick her body,
which floated, for all eyes the better to see,  neatly upon its back.

The biggest waterwheel in the world,
one reads, is at Laxey on the Isle of Man,
though no more is it touched by man’s hand. 

There are strange waterwheels
to launder gold-dusty tailings.

Syrian Hama is famous for its multiple wheels
raising water from the Orontes
to irrigate fields and gardens above; 
once there were thirty, now there are only a few.

My own favorite wheel is in the
Seine at Marly-la-Machine,
 near Bougival and the
Impressionists’ Grenouillere. 

The original wheel raised water to an aqueduct  
to feed the gardens of Versailles,
and the disappeared Chateau de Marly. 

The present immense iron contraption, high as a house, dates from 1859. 
It looks like something dropped from a giant paddle steamer,
one of those great iron paddle wheels wherein not heroines
but usually heroes got mashed in the stormier railway bookstall novels . . .

but we’ve wheeled full circle, isn’t this where we came in?


July 20, 2012

Summer School...

…or high camp learning the strokes.

Tennis is a sport I didn't so much take up as have thrust upon me in my late 30s. A friend in the south of France put a racquet in my hand, pushed me onto a court, and began slapping balls in my direction. From the start, I enjoyed the running, the premium on strategy, the precarious balance I had to strike between my will-to-power and my need to keep the ball in play. With a convert's unqualified zeal, I attempted to make up for lost time by playing every day. I didn't want to waste energy on lessons. I didn't think I needed them.

The game came to me naturally or so I told myself and anyone else who would listen. With repetition this boast began to remind me of the callow young soldier in Hemingway's story "In Another Country."   When the boy remarks that Italian is an easy language for him, a worldly-wise major replies, "Why, then, do you not take up the use of grammar?"

Truth to tell, that was what my tennis lacked-a solid grasp of grammar and certain elements of style. And so, after almost a decade of auto didactic effort, I decided it was time to seek professional help.

Writing off to instructional camps I received a batch of glossy brochures thick with pictures of grinning pros with wasp waists and world-class tans. They all promised to improve my tennis with the help of "mental imaging" or Zen Buddhism, low-cholesterol food or high-impact aerobics. But the accommodations at these resorts resembled penal colonies, the workout schedules were reminiscent of Marine Corps boot camp, and the sample menus might have been concocted by the kitchen staff at a state reform school.

Then I happened upon an understated invitation for a week of tennis with Ms. Edna’s cousin in Gstaad, Switzerland, and instantly I knew where I wanted to go.  In summer tourists strolled the village’s only through street, and lollygaged at outdoor cafes after hiking, mushroom hunting, balloon riding, or hang gliding.

I arrived during a downpour, when the mountain peaks were lost in clouds and the landscape showed shades of dark green brightened only by window boxes dripping with red geraniums. As I was debating whether to start in on the welcome basket of fruit, Baldur informed me that transport was waiting to an indoor facility that, like every other structure in Gstaad, was built in the region's rustic chalet style.

One thing linked us, we both spoke English, the lingua franca of tennis.  "Wake up!" he shouted and "One, two, three," he counted as I lumbered for a short ball. "I'll sign you up for a new event-the three-bounce tournament."

I did not take offense at his ribbing. In fact the jokes helped soothe frustrations and ease the aches and pains. Normally I counted myself lucky to play tennis five hours a week. Now I was on court five hours a day and was feeling anything but fortunate.   When we broke for lunch it was a bit like the transmigration of souls from purgatory to heaven. There was no chance to contemplate the fact that in a few hours I'd be going through hell again. There was only time for a hot shower, a cold drink, and a meal that would have seemed the ultimate sybaritic experience even if I hadn't been so grateful for surviving the morning session.

I had come in the hope to lose weight as well as to improve my tennis, but after the first meal I decided to concentrate on the game and give up other resolutions. I did, however, draw the line at drinking and dancing and staying out until dawn. For the most part I left that to others who were by no means younger.  Baldur was often in the lead, outdancing and outdrinking, then getting to the courts early the next morning and outrunning and outhitting me.

On succeeding days, we played outdoors, dervishing through the pure air, chasing ca-nary-yellow balls that fluttered against a backdrop of felt-green foothills and snowcapped peaks. After a frenzied series of drills that reduced me to rubber-legged exhaustion, I was rewarded by being allowed to play doubles. I found myself on the court with an Argentinean who spoke a flavorful English and encouraged me with high-fives and choruses of "Bee-ooty-ful! Bee-ooty-ful!"

But when he saw me serve and stay rooted to the baseline, he screamed, “This is not bee-ooty-ful! You must come to the net and hit the ball at the short man.”

The short man on the opposing team was actually a short lady. I could never bring myself to hit at her.
"Hit the ball. Hit it right through her." 

When he refused to listen to reason, I did as instructed - I galloped to the net, groped for the ball, got lucky and made contact with my strings. The shot thumped the darling woman on the thigh. I apologized profusely.
"That's bee-ooty-ful!" he shouted to me. Then he turned to her, "Don't trust he is sorry. He told me he wanted to hit you. Now you hit him."

That evening as I jotted down pointers I had picked up during the week, I felt like a fool copying out the words to a TV jingle. "Over the bridge," I wrote. ''Through the tunnel and up the hill."  It was the Emersonian formula for taking the racquet back with a slight loop, cutting loose with a firm, level swing, and following through. I was convinced it was working; my tennis was getting better. The question was whether my body would last long enough for the final lesson.

Throughout the week at the house the question "How are you?" was no mere polite salutation. It prompted earnest discourses on throbbing hamstring muscles, aching Achilles tendons, blisters, sunburns, bunions, and agonies of the elbow and the shoulder. I shook off my ailments on the masseur's table, or in the sauna. I was disconcerted, however, to discover that the sauna was coed. I asked Baldur what I should do in the troubling event I found myself showering beside a naked lady. ''Tell her to pass the soap," he suggested.

At the end of my stay the town began to bristle with real tennis players. The Swiss Open was scheduled for the following week, and the pros commandeered the courts. I was retreating toward the house, wondering whether it made more sense to wash my tennis clothes or burn them, when Baldur called out, "Let's hit a few, see what you learned."

It was an opportunity not to be missed, so I tottered onto the free court and scrambled after Baldur's shots. Beside us, the Sanchez brothers were walloping the ball, setting off the acoustical equivalent of an artillery barrage. By comparison, my shots sounded like a leaky faucet-plop-plop, plop-plop. 

Baldur was running me back and forth, flicking the ball from sideline to sideline, and reducing me to my old passive habit of retrieving. "Oh, wake up," he shouted. Finally I took the ball on the rise and rifled it down the line. 

''That's it!" he bellowed. "Don't stand there like a glass of stale beer. Step in and hit it!"

Winded and quivering with fatigue, I couldn't manage to explain that when it comes to the grammar of the game, I are still learning.

July 17, 2012

Keep calm, and buy tartan*.

Or advice on how to spend during the recession.

(strutting the tartan-Alan Cumming (a.k.a. Tartanscot), *advice-Charles)

Ever since the recession began (the 2007–2012 global recession, sometimes referred to as the late-2000s recession, Great Recession, the Lesser Depression, or the Long Recession), I have given a lot of thought to how a connoisseur should handle the situation. 

Here is what I have decided for the duration, which I figure will last, at least, another year or two and will be comparable to the nasty economic downturns of the 1970s.
In the good, fast times, I did what I hope the majority of you did- put some funds aside for the inevitable sinker.

Buy a work of art immediately.  It will make your soul feel better, and today the prices are getting righter by the month. 
Minimize the risk of the stock market – scout locally for investment possibilities in small businesses that have been unable to secure a bank loan.  Hunt particularly in waste-management enterprises, i.e. innovative gasification technologies.
Think of renovating the house or apartment.  Bids will certainly be lower.  Seek the small contractors, who are going to cut profits to keep their work forces together.
Check out the real-estate market (understatement of the century).
Plan to trade in your car earlier than usual, look for a super deal with all the extras, including power takeoff and plow attachment.
Vacation in America.  If you want to go to Europe or the Orient, look into the highly refined group tours and become an expert on bargain airfares.
Cull the rare-books shops and assemble those hundred greatest books you should have bought-not to mention read-long ago.
Buy cloth of only the highest quality.
Become viciously picky and judgmental when it comes to seeing anything, from museum shows to movies.
Make a list of your most discriminating friends, and share tips on what is absolutely the best in anything you want to purchase.  Always insist on quality.
Funnel all your charitable giving into those activities that truly do enhance the quality of life for everybody.
Do not be too cautious or simply hunker down.  Get on the move.  Look around; opportunities and bargains are everywhere.
And, of course, try to hold on to you sense of humor-consider the alternative.

Best, always.

July 12, 2012

"I come from there too…"

Until that day I arrived at a ranch in Wyoming I had only been riding horses that came groomed, tacked, waiting beside a mounting block and speaking impeccable French.  And being French, loved to eat, but that is another story. 

And no, this is not the story of how after a few weeks on the ranch I became an accomplished rider. I still wonder what the wranglers did for amusement before I came along.  No, it's about how I, the born-and-bred city slicker whose friends fell down laughing when they found out where I was going, came to accept as commonplace waking up to find three or four horses on the porch, looking amiably through my window, and daily meandering on horseback through vast meadows, indifferent to the curious stares of kneeling cattle.

Friends not withstanding, I had been here before and loved it, loved it the way I love the ocean. It was wide open and it made me feel free. It was also mysterious. If I felt that I instinctively understood the land, I also felt that I knew next to nothing about its inhabitants, not only Indians but, even more so, cowboys. Did cowboys really exist outside of the movies and Marlboro commercials?  I kept wondering what went on behind those lonely ranch posts that stood at the entrance to dusty roads going nowhere.

The ranch seemed a good place to find out, according to my friend and host, and I accepted the invitation.  It was a working ranch, with about 300 head of cattle, 200 horses, and about 7,000 acres for them to roam. In the summer it also accommodated friends in small comfortable log cabins. Three big meals a day were served up at the big house, but otherwise you could ride or do whatever you liked.

Naturally, this laissez-faire system had its limits, and as I sauntered down to the corral my first afternoon it was clear that there was already a discussion among the wranglers as to which horse to put me on, or ‘how to saddle up this gal.’ And indeed the saddle came first. They put one on a wooden block and sat me down on it for size. It was a good fit, or, at least, I straddled it.

Next, the wranglers put the saddle on a horse.  I explained that I had never cavorted with horses that came without a mounting block.  No one listened.  Finally, I just hoisted myself up and landed successfully, put my feet in the stirrups, and felt like the monarch of all I surveyed which at the moment was the backside of other horses waiting to be mounted.  Never mind; this was a real ranch, all right - stony, dusty, strewn with dung - and the wranglers certainly looked and acted real in their neckerchiefs and old felt hats.

I wriggled my feet proudly in their new, pointy-toed brown cowboy boots, which by some miracle didn't pinch.  I had bought the boots that morning at the General Store in the nearby - by western standards - town of Dubois, from an elderly lady who hadn't really wanted to go poking around for them, because her back hurt, and who said when I told her I couldn't get my feet in, “They're loose. We don't fit them on dudes the way cowboys like them.”  She called me a dude as she might have called me a female.  Dude no longer, I sat tall in the saddle. The palomino, obedient to my will, didn't budge.

"What is the name of the horse?"  I asked, expecting something along the lines of Pale Fury or Cyclone. The horse's name was Funny Face, and the reason he hadn't budged was that he didn't like to move at all. We finally got him started with a tiny little kick from me and a huge slap from one of the wranglers, and we w-a-l-k-e-d off, up a stony road, past my little log cabin, an abandoned chuck wagon, across a huge meadow dotted with beautiful yellow flowers populated by cows, and past a big wooden arena where the weekly rodeo took place.

Down below, the narrow Wind River rushed by. It was hot but dry, the light so incredibly even that we could see for miles and miles, across the range to the Wind River Mountains, backward toward the reddish buff cliffs of the Badlands, which loomed up behind the corral.

I felt better when I learned that the other horses' names were no more poetic than Ginger, Bones, and Schnozz - Black Beauty was for city slickers – so the wranglers told me.  But I felt a lot worse during dinner at the house, when I looked through the window and saw Funny Face being ridden bareback by two children, both under the age of six.

The stars that night consoled me. One step outside my door I was greeted by a great black dome bursting with constellations descending to the very edge of the horizon so bright they hurt the eyes.

Those stars shone down on what is surely one of the most beautiful landscapes in this country, central Wyoming. It is a land of infinite vistas; a big, low sky; tall timber; endlessly echoing jagged mountains striated in red, pink, and purple; startling patches of green; and lakes so cold and clear and bright blue that it is hard to believe anyone had ever laid eyes on them.

Towns were few and far between.  Riverton was the big apple and the place you flew into from Denver. Heading northwest up and down mountains, in practically the only car on the highway, you passed such places as Morton and Crowheart, which was a post office and general store combined. Farther on was the ranch and beyond that the small  western town of  Dubois - accent on the first syllable - which had one long main street, wooden sidewalks, some stores, a school, a cold-storage and taxidermy company, and three saloons.  

All in all a lovely place made even more so by that blue western sky and the magnificent mountains. The geography was so dramatic that it was some time before I got around to thinking about the people I had met.  When I listed them they seemed like the cast of a play; and, in fact, the people at the ranch, myself included, moved about en masse, from trails to cabin, to rodeo, to saloon, the same characters in different scenes, with an occasional walk-on part thrown in. I even had a hero, a big, soft spoken cowboy with a battered tan hat and eyes that squinted as if he were about to smile, the kind of man one would instinctively turn to in a national emergency.

Like all true western hero's he was also kind. He was kind when he explained that the glorious yellow flowers in the meadow are called tarweed and exude a sticky sap that mucks everything up. He was kind when he remarked that certain things are harder to learn when you get older, he didn't mention riding, yet he managed to suggest that it was Funny Face he was talking about, not me. He was kind when I got out of his pickup truck to get my first look at a prairie dog and fell into its hole.

His father had come to Wyoming looking for an uncle who had vanished into the West and liked it so much he stayed.  The wranglers, too, were what I would have expected but never hoped to find. They were real cowboys, who drive cattle up to the high pasture in the spring and round them up in the fall; who roped, branded, and broke horses. Rough and ready, they were also very courteous to ladies. When I asked after a sick horse I was told that the horse still couldn't "go to the bathroom”, sweet.  One of the wranglers a blue-eyed, handsome man with rugged features and a broken nose, was actually related to Butch Cassidy.

The ranch was in Butch Cassidy country in fact.  Butch was spotted when he stayed in a cabin on a ranch at a time when he was supposed to have been gunned down in Bolivia. And Hank Boedeker, a hunting guide and lawman, who had a butte named after him, was one of the men who escorted Butch to jail in Fort Laramie. By way of a bit more local color, my host took me to meet a Shoshone friend, who took out of his trunks things I had never seen outside of a museum, such as a beaded ceremonial buffalo robe and his grandfather's feather headdress.

I had hoped for a big Saturday night, and I wasn't disappointed. There was a party at the Lodge, down the road apiece, for one of the girls in the kitchen who was going off to college. It was a good reason to celebrate, though I had a feeling that any excuse for a party might do. There we were all together laughing and drinking and telling tall tales on one another. The local penchant for hyperbole is called "stretching the truth a little."

I did what I had always wanted to do, order drinks for everyone in the house, though I managed to keep myself from asking what the boys in the back room wanted. When I asked the ranch cook whether ordering the drinks had been okay, she said, "You can't do anything wrong in Wyoming."  I believed her. I certainly had been made to feel that way.  And then we all went on to spend the rest of Saturday night in Dubois dancing like a bunch of fools to country music at the Outlaw Saloon.

Weeks later I finally made the trip to the Tetons that had been the reason for my wanting to come back in the first place. The Tetons were beautiful, just as beautiful as I had remembered them, the mountains elegant and majestic and the valley floor beneath them green and velvety.  Still, I felt like a tourist. I took a short float trip down the Snake River. A couple on the raft was saying that they came from Los Angeles but I hardly listened. I was looking for moose or elk on shore and trying to work up some excitement when we drifted into a bit of churning current. Then the man remarked that he was staying at a ranch in the Wind River area, near Dubois, and I looked up and said, "I come from there too."

It was a difficult drive back to the ranch in the dusk, on a winding mountain road hemmed in by black, primeval trees, nothing and no one in sight. I was in Indian Territory, maybe hostile territory, and then, down below, was the welcome sight of little Dubois at the end of the trail its geographical location made perfect sense. I passed through town and shortly after pulled in at the ranch.  My friend was there with some of the other locals, and as soon as he saw me he started to tell some whoppers about my horsemanship.  

But I was thinking about what I had said to the man on the float trip: "I come from there too." Funny, I wasn't talking about Los Angeles, not at that moment anyway. I was talking about the Ranch in the Wind River Valley.

Thank you friend.

July 08, 2012

A prayer for everyman

I was “in the air” watching Bill Moyer’s Journal.  I followed-up on Philip Appleman, one of the guests, and stumbled upon this delightful poem:

O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimmie a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will, & wit,
purity, probity, pluck, & grit.

I saw the qualities of a voice that arose in the 50s and 60s, namely, the beat voice.  Moreover, probity is a cool word.

The short poem continues:

Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind,
gimmie great abs & a steel-trap mind,
and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice–
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:

Even in a prayer, which is the form this poem takes, we get laughs.  The poet is praying for great abs.  Now there’s an honest prayer.  Ye Gods, grant me entrance into the Promised Land, but in the meantime, how about we cut out this thinning of my hair. Levity and irreverence are essential qualities.  Moreover, not only does the poet speak directly to the gods, he offers the following advice in the poem’s closing lines:

make the bad people good–
and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.

That’s the stuff.  I dig it: the simple diction, the sincere supplication, and the call–in a prayer–to reason and it made the flight almost bearable.

 Philip Appleman, from Selected Poems (University of Arkansas).

July 05, 2012


…adjective, causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing.

I have observed a growing use of the word amazing.  Drives me nuts.  I suppose I’m not alone. 
How was the ballet?  Amazing!
The dancers?  Amazing.  The choreography?  Amazing.   The costumes?  Amazing.  
The orchestra? Amazing. 
The public? You guessed!
The awesome, tremendous, titanic, stupendous, spectacular and totally unbelievable overuse of amazing is making the word mundane and oh-so ordinary and that irks, annoys, irritates and distresses me.
Wicked, cool, dope, fresh, bad, hittin’ and stickin’ like Popeye’s Chicken … when I was growing up, there were 1,000 different ways to refer to something as “very good”.
That was then, this is now.
And no, hipsterism does not count as creativity (nostalgia is not a new concept).
Today the world is one long bandwagon of sameness, and for proof of this, I invite you to stop by any coffee shop and look at the people pecking away at their MacBooks. Same clothes, same music, same messed up hair, same computer … and most of all … same words. In particular, one word.
Jesus H. Christopher Christ with a side of rice, I swear I heard this word over 100 times yesterday alone.
How was lunch?  It was amazing.  The new band you just discovered?  Amazing.
iPhone on Verizon?  Amazing.  Your last vacation?  Amazing.
Briefly describe your mother?  An amazing woman.  Your kids?  They’re amazing too.
Everything out of everyone’s mouth these days just sounds so insincere. Fake. Phony.
We’ve become a culture so beaten over the head with marketing and advertising that we are now starting to speak like the commercials themselves.
I cannot pinpoint when the amazing fad started, but I do know that the whole thing has gotten to a point of absurdity. The word no longer has any meaning. None at all.
Nope, unless you are the most superficial and insincere person on the planet, it just doesn’t fit.
As a matter of fact, 99.999% of the uses of the word amazing do not fit … unless you are a fetus. Given their point of comparison (the womb), newborn babies are amazed by everything in their first few months of life.
And with that last sentence, I feel that I may be on to something.
If you think about it, my theory makes sense. Perhaps the word is not overused. Perhaps the people who use it really are sincerely overwhelmed by everything not commonly found in a strip mall.
Instead of constantly complaining about them, I should probably make a greater effort to help my brothers and sisters assimilate into the real world.
And so I will.
For all of you folks out there who are easily amused and find absolutely anything and everything to be amazing, please allow me to give you some synonyms:
amazing, adjective
the interactive exhibit at the planetarium was truly amazing: astonishing, astounding, surprising, stunning, staggering, shocking, startling, stupefying, breathtaking; awesome, awe-inspiring, sensational, remarkable, spectacular, stupendous, phenomenal, extraordinary, incredible, unbelievable; informal mind-blowing, jaw-dropping; literary wondrous.
If you use these words in place of amazing, not only will you still get your point across, but you will separate yourself from every other suburban drone who has whittled their vocabulary down to a single word.
Or, you can just be honest.
You can say that lunch was “alright, I don’t suppose you can mess up a hamburger”.
You can say that the iPhone is “acceptable for my tasks”.
You can say that your last vacation was “generally enjoyable. I was just relieved to get away from work for awhile”.
If you cannot, however, resist the urge to speak like goddamn Liberace; If you have to live your life like an infomercial; If you just have to be the most insincere person in the conversation, then please … use a word from the list of synonyms above.
Amazing has lived out its useful life, and it’s time for it to die an astonishing death.
With all due respect, I want some ordinary dialog back. Thank you, and have an enjoyable weekend.  I’m off to the land were everything is, . . .