Wednesday, August 12, 2015


When I attended the annual gathering of the Thoreau Society last month Thoreau, working through the medium of my friend, his Iranian translator Alireza Taghdarreh, introduced me to Bill Powers. Bill had been corresponding with Ali via the Internet.
Bill is also a medium for bringing Thoreau's voice into the present. Herewith, whether you have read or whether you like or dislike Thoreau, I want to recommend Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers (Harper Perennial). It hardly needs my review and recommendation since names you know already praise it: Bob Woodward, Peggy Noonan, Laura Lippman, Laurie Winer in the New York Times, Stephan Balkam at Huffington Post, Walter Isaacson author of Einstein: His life and Universe, and many more. Bill begins by noting all the great gifts of the digital age. (One of them was his connection to Ali's work in Iran.) However, he writes that the great burden and danger of the digital age is "We're all busier. Much, much busier. It's a lot of work managing all of this connectedness." He adds, "We're losing something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word: depth. Depth of thought and feeling, depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do. Since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it's astounding that we're allowing this to happen." This makes me think of the explosion of shallow memes that so many people often post on Face Book and other sites, a hurried and simple minded way to express their feelings, to substitute those feelings for facts. Far worse the memes often turn real people with whom they disagree into shallow caricatures. Memes are a way to substitute someone else's voice and thinking for their own. Many of these intellectual Potemkin Villages are posted by people with graduate degrees from distinguished universities where they once learned how to think for themselves. When we try to understand this and answer why we let it happen, Bill Powers writes, "From there it's just a short hop to the big-league existential stumpers, Why are we here? and Who am I?" How to lead a full, deep life in the Digital Age is the subject of the book. "It's a struggle that's taking place at the center of our lives. It's a struggle for the center of our lives, for control of how we htink and feel. When you're scrambling all the time, that's what your inner life becomes: scrambled. Why are we doing this to ourselves? Do we really want a world in which everyone is staring at screens all the time, keeping one another busy? Is there a better way?" With Thoreau as his north star, Bill Powers proposes answers for the present. In pursuit of ways to put his answers into practice, Bill left journalism to join a team the MIT Media Lab team that is developing new (and deeper) social media at the Laboratory for Social Machines. In the promo material for Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, novelist Laura Lippman at says, "it changed my life." People still say that about Walden. (Photo by Alireza Taghdarreh of Bill Powers at Walden Pond) See also the web site:

Saturday, September 18, 2010


I have just read a long list of angry comments on President Obama's Friday night talk to the Congressional Black Caucus. Prominent among them--charges that he is racist.

To appear before a group that is all of one color, religion, or ethnic background and appeal for support is not racist—whether you are speaking to an all white Tea Party gathering (and most are mixed), or to the exclusively black Congressional Black Caucus as President Obama did Friday night.

While the President has much more often been a divider than a reconciler in his rhetoric and actions, his thinking is too confused and contradictory for him to be a dedicated racist, nor a socialist, Marxist, or aspiring dictator. (And he does not know enough about Islam to be a Muslim.) His speech to the Black Caucus was not racist, but once again he did more to divide than unite Americans or even Democrat and independent voters. Most important, he showed his ever-present insensitivity by insulting black Americans.

Consider these words, "I need everybody here to go back to your neighborhoods, to go back to your workplaces, to go to the churches, and go to the barbershops and go to the beauty shops. And tell them we've got more work to do."

He might as well have suggested eating watermelon, shoe shine stands, shooting galleries, pool halls, and bars. And there he was talking to a gathering of black Americans in black tie dress who are at the height of their professional lives.

These same words also tell us that it’s okay to politicize our work places and churches. What happened to the days when civil libertarians objected so strongly to preachers and churches handing out political advice? Does he remember how his embrace of the highly politicized Rev. Wright almost cost him the election? Does he remember how embarrassed he was by certain business people, teachers, and non-profit workers using their workplaces to drum up support for him? Does he understand how divisive he’s been in favoring union workers over non-union workers when handing out government subsidies?

Another way he insults and stereotypes black Americans is by assuming they all think or should think the way he does. Let’s forgive this supposedly gifted writer for the having blacks simultaneously “sitting down . . . and standing up for freedom,” and note that his critics, including Tea Party activists, include prominent black people. They also fought for freedom. They criticize their president now, not because he is black, but because they believe he is destroying the freedom they cherish.

Does the president understand this? The answer to this question and the other questions, to be kind, is probably no, he doesn’t. He’s a lawyer, but he doesn’t understand that basic advice to lawyers: if you want to win your own case, you must first understand your opponent’s case.

Despite his much praised intelligence, it seems increasingly possible, that he is incapable of understanding his critics and even mutual enemies abroad.

This president, whose supporters often call a gifted writer and a man who appreciates the nuances and complexity of words, also appears to be tone deaf--like one of those people of very narrow brilliance who can do marvelous things, but is incapable of understanding how they effect others.

That is more charitable than the only other conclusion--he doesn't care.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Not So Straight Out of The Koran

Tonight I received an e mail from a very bright friend who emigrated from Russia in the 90s. He was forwarding versions of texts from the Koran with a brief opening claim--thus:

> “Punish the unbelievers with garments of fire, hooked iron rods, boiling water; melt their skin and bellies.”
> Koran 22:19
> “Do not hanker for peace with the infidels; behead them when you catch them.” Koran 47:4
> “The unbelievers are stupid; urge the Muslims to fight them.” Koran 8:65
> “Muslims must not take the infidels as friends.” Koran 3:28
> “Terrorize and behead those who believe in scriptures other than the Qur’an.” Koran 8:12
> “Muslims must muster all weapons to terrorize the infidels.” Koran 8:60

I've translated from Russian, German, French and Spanish and well know the perils and temptations of translating. After a bit of research I wrote to my friend:

While I have no illusions about the dangers from certain Islamic countries and Islamic radicals, one has to be careful with translations. For instance 22:19 as far as I can see is in no way an order for any follower of Islam to punish someone. It's a description of Allah's punishment--what people suffer in Hell, and it's not unlike Christian versions of Hell, including the great poet Dante's description.

Worth checking these translations against a literal word for word translation: see:

Here's what may be a reasonable translation:

How Terrible is Hell!*

19. Here are two parties feuding with regard to their Lord. As for those who disbelieve, they will have clothes of fire tailored for them. Hellish liquid will be poured on top of their heads.

20. It will cause their insides to melt, as well as their skins.

21. They will be confined in iron pots.

22. Whenever they try to exit such misery, they will be forced back in: "Taste the agony of burning."

Another example: 8:60. The text is about mounting a cavalry force for battle and seems not unlike some instructions to battle in the Old Testament. Then in the next verse, 8:61, we read:

"And if they incline to peace, then incline to it [also] and rely upon Allah. Indeed, it is He who is the Hearing, the Knowing."

The second problem with quoting the Koran is the question of how many Muslims take their Koran literally. Certainly many do, a lot more than Christians or Jews take their scriptures as literal truth. After all, while the Old and New Testaments were written down by "inspired" writers, Islam says the Koran was handed down word for word by Allah. That said, it's important to make distinctions among Muslims as we do among other believers. Many Jews eat pork, many Catholics practice birth control and get divorced.

In Central Asia I had scores of Muslim friends, and besides being big drinkers, a trivial departure from Islam, none of them believed the prohibition against infidel friends, no less that they should behead me or boil me in water.

Long and short, as in all religions, it is the fundamentalists and zealots who are dangerous and who put the purity of their text above civil law and tolerance. (And not all of these are dangerous. In fact, like Russia's Old Believers and some American fundamentalists, they are much more likely to be mocked and harassed by mainstream society, including "intellectuals", than they are to be terrorists.)

That said,the facts are very obvious that Muslim fundamentalists, unlike others, hold entire countries in servitude through fear, and they have been a breeding ground for violence and terrorism.

We need to act on those facts, but we are defeating ourselves if we stir people to action by falsifying the facts and debasing the language on which we depend for wisdom.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Said the Fly to the Bee . . .

Many decades ago I was a lonely freshman in a university hundreds of miles from home, the first person in any branch of my family ever to go to college from high school. I had a scholarship, but I still have the ledger in which I recorded my expenses of 5 cents or more. I was always on the verge of being broke and always sure I was going to flunk out.

I wrote many letters on long pieces of yellow legal pad and a few on my portable Smith Corona manual typewriter. One of my best friends was a girl who was never a girlfriend but a welcome confidante with a family life much more difficult than my own. When she did not answer letters for two months, I felt abandoned. Then in early December she wrote a 3 page letter in flawless blue ink and proudly straight lines on parchment-like cream colored paper. I still have it.

She gave me her reasons for not writing but never turned them into excuses. Her family story would make a Tennessee Williams’ family look un-dramatic and mellow. She had been its prisoner. Enough. I recall her letter because after her own eloquent and moving apology that put my own troubles in perspective, she ended with her favorite poem from Emily Dickinson.

It’s a poem I copied and sent back to her today, 50 years after I received it from her. I did so because again, she has not written for a few months and I worry her life again is filled with troubles—a very sick husband, renegade children, her own crippling arthritis.

If you ever need a persuasive way to encourage a friend to resume correspondence send this:

Bee, I'm expecting you.
Was saying yesterday.
To someone you know
Think you were due.

The frogs came last week,
are settled and at work,
birds mostly back,
the clover warm and thick.

You'll get my letter by
The seventeenth; reply,
or better, be with me.

Monday, July 20, 2009


A pair of house finches have brought me a mini-Darwinian insight this morning. (The variety of the finches in the Galapagos Islands helped shaped his thoughts on evolution.) As the sunrise extended to the feeder by my office window I watched a female finch picking out sorghum and sunflower seeds. Above her on the arch of the pole holding the feeder sat her mate in his crimson plumage. His head moved alertly from side to side, up and down. At any moment he might save them both from the thunderbolt of a falcon plunging murderously out of the sun.

For a moment I thought, “How nice that he watches out for her.” He then dropped off his perch, hovered momentarily above his drab brown mate at the feeder perch, took his fill and flew off. He left her alone, and he left me knowing I had been suckered not by him but by my all too human desire to find the best human qualities in other species.

The fact is we can much more easily and accurately find the most troublesome human qualities in other species. Wildness may have some value for civilization as in Thoreau’s oft repeated proclamation, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” However, overcoming our wildness is exactly the crowning triumph of civilization. The fact that civilization and civility are very much a tentative and unfinished effort is exactly why we seek in other species the validation of our best qualities—intelligence, conscience, and the capacity for love. We feel lonely being the only species struggling to turn these qualities into great institutions.

So for a moment my decades of struggle to be a good provider and protector found validation in a pair of house finches. Why have I tried so hard and why have I been so frustrated by my failures? For a moment it seemed that the finches proved nature wants us to be providers, to care for each other. So it seemed for a moment.

The human animal is the only animal that spends any time trying to prove other species share its best qualities. We are the only species that cares about the well being and survival of another species that does not directly feed us or clothe us. This hope for company explains why efforts to raise money for environmental causes are dominated by images of animals with large eyes, soft noses, warm fur, and a tendency to care for their young. If they move in herds or family groups so much the better, and if they have hands and touch one another, even better. And best of all—do they touch human animals gently?

We grasp at any of these signs to assure ourselves we are not alone with our intelligence and sympathies and our desire to like and be liked. We are not far from the children we used to be who loved books filled with talking, feeling, human-like animals.

To seem more adult, we try out arguments like, “Chimps and humans share 95% of their DNA.” How unscientific. When the human genome has some 3 billion DNA base pairs the 5% difference could mean 150 million possible differences. Similarly among the 20 thousand plus protein coding genomes, 5% means 1,000 differences. Consider that a single variation in a gene can mean the difference between an average human and a seriously deformed or retarded human or a human devoid of all empathy and sympathy.

The human animal is a very social animal. That means that when something nags at its conscience, it seeks company. And we are willing to spend money to get that company. As Robert Frost advised:

Better to go down dignified

With boughten friendship at your side

Than none at all. Provide, provide!

So, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars we have sent space ships out beyond our solar system looking for signs of intelligent life. For scientists the search may mean many things, but for the average person the message the space ships carry is simple, “Hey, is anybody home out there?” I used to say something like this when I would return home from first grade and open the door to a silent house. I’d immediately yell, “Anybody home?”

In all probability we are entirely alone with our humanity both on our little blue planet and in any part of the cosmos we might reach. We don’t like it one bit. We have only each other. W.H. Auden contemplated this situation in one of humanity’s darkest and most brutal hours.

His poem on the eve of World War II begins

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Even at this hour, however, this man who knew so much of human history and failure knew the solution. The poem ends this way:

Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

(from “September 1, 1939,” by W.H. Auden)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Instead of Dull Dinners

Every year I go to an annual dinner for alumni of Oxford and Cambridge who live in Oregon or nearby Washington. I live as a near hermit on the side of a mountain much of the year, so I go forth to the dinner because it offers as great a variety of people as I can find in any one gathering. They are recent grads, ancient grads, English, American, Asians, Australians, Africans and Latins.

The informal conversation is always interesting. Sometimes it is also near life-saving as it was last year when an ophthalmologist told me that the Lasik eye surgery that liberated me 10 years ago from a life of glasses and contacts and near blindness underwater, might lead to sudden blindness at high altitudes as internal pressure pushes out a thinned cornea.

While such pre-dinner talk enlightens or entertains, the after dinner talk by one guest is . . . well, let us say, not as entertaining as the life I lived at Oxford. I have urged the organizers to uphold tradition. How lively is that tradition?

I could go on and recount murders and mayhem, but consider only this description of a ceremony to honor the Duke of Portland in 1793:

“. . . luckily the ladies were admitted first ; for a rush of 3,000 men was made. Gowns were torn, caps broken, and pugilistic rounds fought. The " Broad " was strewn with shoes, buckles, gowns, caps and prostrate men. Pick-pockets from town came dressed in M.A. costume.”

This blog, however, is about words, and I will illustrate with some rhymes that showed Oxford’s passion for life occasioned praises of food such as I’ve never heard for the string beans and chicken or steak served at our annual dinner.

In the mid 1700s students and faculty of Oxford enjoyed the wares of two caterers. Mrs Dorothy Spreadbury’s spiced sausage was so famous that students named a collection of verse for her product. In that book, The Oxford Sausage, we find the other cook, Ben Tyrrell, maker of mutton pies. Here is Ben’s advertisement and lines about him and his wares, as well as an opinion about which cook was best.


ALL ye that love what's nice and rarish,
At Oxford, in St. Mary's Parish,
Ben Tyrrell, Cook of high Renown,
To please the Palates of the Gown,
At Three-pence each, makes Mutton-pies,
Which thus he begs to advertise :
He welcomes all his Friends at Seven,
Each Saturday and Wednesday Even *.

* Mr. Tyrrell, Cook, in the High-ftreet, Oxford, having formed a laudable Design of obliging the University with Mutton Pies, twice a Week, this Advertisement appeared, on that Occasion, in the Oxford Journal, Nov. 25, 1758.

B No

No Relicks Hale, with Art unjust,
Lurk in Disguise beneath his Crust;
His Pies, to give you all fair Play,
Smork [smoke]only when 'tis Market-Day :
And all must own, hows his Meat,
While Jolly's Porter crowns the Treat.

If Rumps and Kidneys can allure ye,
Ben takes upon him to assure ye,
No Cook shall better hit the Taste,
In giving Life and Soul to Paste.
If cheap and good have Weight with Men,
Come all ye Youths, and sup with Ben.
If Liquor in a Mutton-pie
Has any Charms, come taste and try!
O bear me Witness, Sons!
Pierce but the Crust—the Gravy runs:
The Taster licks his Lips, and cries,
" O Rare Ben Tyrrell's Mutton Pies !"

But hold—no more—I've said enough— Or else my Pies may prove a Puff.

BEN TYRRELL's, Wednesday Kight,
December 6th, 1758.

HOW I congratulate fair Isa,
That such the Taste for Mutton Pies is!
Hail glorious Ben ! whose Genius high
First plann'd a genuine Mutton Pie!
Born to combine with matchless Taste,
The Charms of Pepper and of Paste !
Was but the Motion of my Pen
Quick as thy Rolling-Pin, O Ben !
O, could my Thoughts thy Pastry ape,
And slide, like yielding Dough, to Shape ;
My Genius, like thy Oven glow,
My Numbers, like thy Gravy flow ;
Or, in the Twinkling of an Eye,

I cook an Ode as you a. Pie;

O then (nor think, to mock thy Trade,

My Promises of Pie-Crust made)

I'd raise thy culinary Fame
Above immortal Spreadbury's Name:
Though from all Cooks, a Matron wise,
In Sausages fhe bore the Prize :
Her seasoning Hand mould yield to thine,
Thy Mutton should her Pork outshine.

On Ben TyrrEll's Pics.

LET Christmas boast her customary Treat,
A Mixture strange, of Suet, Currants, Meat,
Where various Tastes combine, the greasy, and the sweet.

Let glad Shrove-Tuesday bring the Pancake thin,
Or Fritter rich, with Apples stor'd within :
On Easter-Sunday be the Pudding seen,
To which the Tansy lends her sober Green :
And when great London hails her annual Lord,
Let quiv'ring Custard crown the AlJermannic Board.

But Ben prepares a more delicious Mess,
Substantial Fare, a Breakfast for Queen Bese :
What dainty Epicure, or greedy Glutton,
Would not prefer his Pie, that's made of Mutton ?

Saturday, May 16, 2009


With our ever expanding social networking and instant communication I wonder if we have outgrown a central fact of generations past or dangerously forgotten it. In the instant societies we create by computer and the way the cell phone keeps every friend and acquaintance and even emergency help no farther than a few seconds away from our needs. Twenty years ago I went to the Siberian arctic to write about an expedition of radio amateurs who were the first to be allowed to broadcast from that officially closed part of the world. It was part of the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the joint broadcasts from five American and twelve Soviet radio operators were a kind of announcement to the world that people were coming together again. Today coming together is much much easier (at least if one does not live in North Korea or Cuba or Iran—and one can even meet strangers in these last two by internet or short wave radio if the proper restrictions are observed).

Back to the question-- have we outgrown a central fact of all human history or dangerously forgotten it? I don’t know the answer, but I know a few poems that pose the question. Here’s one.


He knew how Roman legions looked, for he
Had seen the Maine coast fogs march in from sea
For many years now, in August days.
They came in mighty columns up the bays,
Tawny and gray and silver in the sun;
They trampled out the seaports one by one,
The islands and the woods, with their high hosts
And pushed the world back inland from the coasts.

This little house was lost, these hills and dells,
Cows in a pasture faded into bells,
The world around a man closed in and in
Till nowhere was ten paces from his chin.
A man drawn up and halted with a start
To be so close to his own beating heart
And left so to himself and wholly blind
To everything but what was in his mind.

This was the peril and the comfort, too,
A man who lived in such a region knew;
On any Summer’s day, within an hour,
He might be blind and naked to a power
So vast, it might have come from stars unmade,
Undreamt of, even, making him afraid,
So mightier than the night that he could guess
How life was but a name for loneliness.

(Robert P. Tristram Coffin)