Posted on May 8, 2016
I have always had difficulty understanding the great books written by my grandmother’s cousin Edmund “Bunny” Wilson, but I have come to appreciate the great contribution this great man of letters has made to the field of literary criticism.
In Axel’s Castle, for example, I learned all kinds of things about William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Marcel Proust which I never could have found out on my own.
In Patriotic Gore (great book, stupid name) he tells us all about Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose books I have great difficulty reading. I tried Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but just couldn’t get through it.
Cousin Bunny has read all of H.B. Stowe’s books, and tells us all about them, but he has also read all the letters of her husband, Calvin Stowe, and tells us all about them, too.
Turns out Calvin Stowe was visited by lots of spirits from the other side. In fact, once Harriet came home early from a trip and sat down in the living room and he didn’t even know she was there because there were so many other worldly spirits about.
One of the spirits that visited Calvin Stowe most often he named Harvey, after a classmate to whom the spirit bore a resemblance.
In Patriotic Gore, Cousin Edmund wonders out loud whether this spirit that haunted Calvin Stowe might have been the inspiration for the eponymous pooka (animal spirit) in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play of that name by Mary Chase, which was later made into a movie starring Jimmy Stewart.
I can’t give an answer to this question. It all depends on whether Mary Chase, a Colorado journalist, ever read the autobiography of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
It’s certainly possible.
Posted on April 19, 2016
Years ago I gave a friend a copy of one of Tony Hillerman’s books. When I visited him six months later I noticed he had a whole shelf loaded with Hillerman mysteries. They’re like peanuts: people just keep consuming them.
Most of Hillerman’s mysteries recount the adventures of Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer and later Sergeant Jim Chee. Leaphorn is an older man who loses his beloved wife Emma during the course of the books, and in the later works he’s retired and just kind of nosing around — finding trouble every time!
Jim Chee, in the first books, is training as a hataali, a healer who performs curing ceremonies involving chants and sand paintings intended to bring a person back into harmony. He tries to balance this training with his career as a police officer, but eventually gives it up to focus on law enforcement.
A lot of the early books treat Chee’s love life, which is always coming to grief. At first there’s Mary Landon from Wisconsin, a schoolteacher at the elementary school in Crown Point. They’re in love, but she wants him to leave the reservation, which he can never do, and she really can’t stay there.
Then there’s Janet Pete, a public defender who used to work at a hotshot law firm in Washington. She’s gorgeous and smart and they love each other, but she wants Chee to join the FBI so they can go be a power couple in Washington, and that’s not going to happen either.
In Hillerman’s last books he introduces Officer Bernadette Manuelito, a rookie on the Navaho Tribal Police force. Sergeant Chee is her supervisor, and she feels he’s giving her a hard time, and there are lots of complications, but eventually they find love and get married.
I’ve noticed with older mystery authors like Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, and Tony Hillerman, the focus is only partially on whodunnit. There’s also the question of when those two nice young people are going to get together.
When Tony Hillerman died in 2008, I felt sorry that I wouldn’t be able to read about Chee and Leaphorn and Manuelito any more, but lo! His daughter Anne has decided to continue the Hillerman tradition, and she has two excellent books: The Spider Woman’s Daughter and The Rock with Wings.
And don’t worry about her coddling the characters too much. At the beginning of her first book, Joe Leaphorn gets shot in the head. That’s not really a spoiler because it happens right at the beginning.
And Chee and Manuelito’s life together, though happy, is no bed of roses. We have a promising source of problems, with Bernie taking care of her elderly mom and her problem child sister, who has taken up drinking and running around.
So I’m looking forward to lots more fine stories in the great Hillerman tradition.
Posted on March 21, 2016
I had a fabulous time at the Casa de Tio Vincenzo in Huntington Beach, California. Everything was exactement comme il faut. I especially loved the rich cherry flooring:
And the extraordinary artwork:
And of course, one of the most important things for Americans these days is keeping ourselves safe from terrorists. I know it is for me. Sure, we’re three thousand times more likely to be killed by a home-grown, native-born gun nut, but still. At the Casa de Tio Vincenzo, I was completely reassured by the diligence of the security staff and felt completely safe:
Posted on March 21, 2016
On my trip to California, I had the opportunity to congratulate Atsuko Walker, who was sworn in as a US citizen along with 3,500 other applicants at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
President Obama was on hand to congratulate Atsuko
We went to lunch in Little Tokyo and saw the sights there, including the Friendship Knot, a 1981 sculpture by Shinkichi Tajiri.
Posted on February 4, 2016
I’m reading a fascinating book by Arthur Koestler called The Case of the Midwife Toad about an Austrian scientist named Paul Kammerer, who committed suicide after being accused of falsifying experimental results.
Kammerer believed in the theory advanced by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who advance a theory of evolution a generation before Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859.
Lamarck’s theory was quite different, though, in one essential respect: unlike Darwin, he believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Charles Darwin and the Darwinists of the present era believe that the only traits we pass on to our progeny are those that we ourselves inherited from our parents. They believe that the process of evolution is due to random mutations that occur over thousands of years.
“Since they are random,” Koestler explains, “most of these mutations produce harmful or lethal, but there must also occur from time to time a few lucky hits which confer some minute advantage on the carrier of the mutated chromosome, and this will be preserved by the operation of natural selection.”
Many scientists have wondered how this random process could produce the many astonishing adaptations that the world’s creatures have developed over the eons. Koestler quotes one such scientist who compared this theory to “throwing bricks together in heaps in the hopes that they will arrange themselves in an inhabitable house.”
Lamarck and Kammerer believed that characteristics acquired in response to intense and persistent challenges of the environment over several generations become eventually inherited. For Lamarck it was the long neck of the giraffe. For Kammerer it was the small callosities with thorny spines on the forelimbs of the male midwife toad, which give it a better grip on the female when mating.
While geneticists have long argued that the inheritable DNA of a creature cannot be changed by that individual’s experience, some modern researchers in “epigenetics” have found ways in which acquired traits could be inherited through a process involving “daughter cells,” whatever they are.
These epigeneticists style themselves ‘neolamarckists.’
I know next to nothing about biology, but I think the Lamarckian theory is a more sensible way to account for the complex adaptations that species make to survive in a changing world. Think of the nests birds build, or the wasps that lay their eggs in the abdomen of some unfortunate host beetle.
And if our experience is indeed passed along in some way, that would provide an explanation for the ‘collective memory’ of mankind that Jung talks about. It would explain the sense of deja vu that we feel with no apparent explanation and the sense of familiarity we feel when faced with primeval symbols and archetypes.
Why, if Lamarck and Kammerer are right, then a guy like me could have a dream and see things that happened long ago in the dim recesses of history.
Posted on January 5, 2016
The paperback I carry in my pocket when I’m called to substitute teach is The Letters of Pliny the Younger. I figure if I leave it lying around it might give me a scholarly air.
Pliny and his uncle (Pliny the Elder) were both Roman senators in the first century. Pliny the Elder was commander of the fleet in the Bay of Naples when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, and he was killed trying to rescue the people of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae.
Pliny’s letters include his correspondence with the emperor Trajan when Pliny was governor of Bithynia, in which they famously discuss what to do about these pesky Christians.
Some of the Christians had been accused anonymously, and Trajan states categorically that anonymous accusations “have no place in our judicial system.” Interestingly, Pliny reports that two of the leaders of the Christians were women.
Pliny decided to ask the accused three times if they were Christians, and if they persisted in saying they were, to have them executed for “stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy.”
In a letter to Licinius Sura, Pliny presents a scientific puzzler like they used to have on “Car Talk.”
“I have brought you a small present from my native place,” Pliny writes, “a problem fully worthy of your great learning.
“There is a spring which has its source in a mountain and then runs down over the rocks to a small artificial grotto, where it is caught and held for a time; then it flows into Lake Como.
“This is its remarkable feature: three times a day it fills and empties with a regular increase and decrease of water, and this can be seen quite clearly and is a great pleasure to watch. You settle yourself close by for a meal and also a drink from the ice-cold water of the spring; meanwhile it ebbs and flows at regular intervals.
“Put a ring or anything else on the margin where it is dry, and the waters gently creep over it until it is covered, then reveal it again as they gradually recede. If you watch long enough, you can see the process repeated a second and third time.
“Is there some hidden current of air which opens and closes the vent and outlet of the spring? We see this happen with bottles and similar vessels with narrow restricted necks, which, though tilted downwards, pour out their contents in jerks with a repeated gulping sound as if checked by the opposing inrush of air.
“Or is there something to drive back the outflow of the spring in the same way as rivers flowing into the sea are turned back if they meet an opposing force of wind and tide?
“Or is there a fixed supply of water in a hidden channel, so that the stream diminishes and flows slowly while water accumulates after it has emptied, but flows faster and increases when the supply is sufficient?
“It is for you to investigate the cause of this phenomenon, as you have the ability. I have done more than enough if I have managed to describe it clearly.”
The spring is still to be seen in the 16th-century Villa Pliniana. Leonardo da Vinci recorded it in his notebooks.
Modern hydrologists believe the variations in the flow of the spring are due to “the principle of the siphon.”
Here’s a link that will tell you more than you ever wanted to know.
Posted on December 28, 2015
Here at Harmony House, we had a lovely Christmas.
We had a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Our angel was kind of secular, but very beautiful all the same
The stomp rockets were the big hit of the day.
You’re supposed to stomp on the red thing, but there are all kinds of ways to fire them. That’s Orestes at left, fleeing the Furies.
Then we went down to the river to see if there was a house with Huck Finn’s dead dad in it. There wasn’t. But it was so warm we almost went for a swim!
The three wiseguys were glad to get some fresh air. They spend all year in a plastic bag to preserve their lustre..
Posted on December 4, 2015
My daughter Sarah was in town to speak to students at her alma mater, the Academy at Charlemont, about her careeer in modeling and comedy and her work at the non-profit UROK.
Then we went back to New York where she introduced me to soup dumplings (yum!) at the Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen at 49th and 8th.
She introduced me to the staff at UROK.
And we went to see the memorial to William Tecumseh Sherman by Augustus St. Gaudens.
They say the Angel of Victory seems to be leading Sherman’s horse into Bergdorf’s, where they’ve decked out the windows for the holiday season.