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31 December 2007

Next day

Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,
I take a box
And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens.
The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical
Food-gathering flocks
Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James,

Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.
Yet somehow, as I buy All from these shelves
And the boy takes it to my station wagon,
What I’ve become
Troubles me even if I shut my eyes.

When I was young and miserable and pretty
And poor, I’d wish
What all girls wish: to have a husband,
A house and children. Now that I’m old, my wish
Is womanish:
That the boy putting groceries in my car

See me. It bewilders me he doesn’t see me.
For so many years
I was good enough to eat: the world looked at me
And its mouth watered. How often they have undressed me,
The eyes of strangers!
And, holding their flesh within my flesh, their vile

Imaginings within my imagining,
I too have taken
The chance of life. Now the boy pats my dog
And we start home. Now I am good.
The last mistaken,
Ecstatic, accidental bliss, the blind

Happiness that, bursting, leaves upon the palm
Some soap and water—
It was so long ago, back in some Gay
Twenties, Nineties, I don’t know . . . Today I miss
My lovely daughter
Away at school, my sons away at school,

My husband away at work—I wish for them.
The dog, the maid,
And I go through the sure unvarying days
At home in them. As I look at my life,
I am afraid
Only that it will change, as I am changing:

I am afraid, this morning, of my face.
It looks at me
From the rear-view mirror, with the eyes I hate,
The smile I hate. Its plain, lined look
Of gray discovery
Repeats to me: "You’re old." That’s all, I’m old.

And yet I’m afraid, as I was at the funeral
I went to yesterday.
My friend’s cold made-up face, granite among its flowers,
Her undressed, operated-on, dressed body
Were my face and body.
As I think of her and I hear her telling me

How young I seem; I am exceptional;
I think of all I have.
But really no one is exceptional,
No one has anything, I’m anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.

~ Randall Jarrell (1956)

30 December 2007

Touched by God

We’ve all learned to smile for company, and dissemble our feelings in other ways. Most of these behaviors are intended to lubricate social interactions and save others from embarrassment, but some are manipulations or deceptions calculated to acquire the confidence of others. Posed behaviors become habitual, then reflexive. Some are ingrained so deeply that we cannot turn them off, even when we wish to communicate our feelings intimately and confidentially, or perhaps even when we are alone and wish we could cry or laugh or scream or shake.

Many people with cognitive or social disabilities lack the ability to dissemble. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, and are utterly lacking in artifice. This is why the company of autistic or retarded people can be so profoundly liberating. Times of unalloyed horror may be interspersed among sustained periods of pure delight, and a ubiquitous love. Their spontaneous communications remind us of parts of ourselves that have become submerged.

 — Josh Mitteldorf

29 December 2007

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking...

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.  He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.  It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”

William Faulkner
(accepting the Nobel Prize, Dec 1950)

28 December 2007

Software should be free

Linus Torvalds wasn’t the first person to promote the virtues of free software.  That honor probably belongs to Richard Stallman, who singlehandedly developed an operating system and a suite of free applications for mainframe computers while working solo from a basement office at MIT in the 1970’s.

But Linus has a combination of three attributes that made open-source software a reality:  First, enough self-confidence to be unassuming and supportive of the many people involved in a large volunteer effort.  This has enabled him to keep a widely dispersed team motivated.  Second, he is a brilliant programmer in his own right.  And third, he has a knack for creating intuitive interfaces that work the way you expect them to work.

Sixteen years ago he sent out into the world his own first draft of a Unix-like operating system for IBM PC type computers.  He issued an open invitation for other programmers to contribute to the project.

Today, Linux is the world’s most robust piece of software.  Created by thousands of engineers in a project that Torvalds continues to supervise, it runs on many kinds of computers and interfaces with many kinds of communications and data devices.   In a stunning reversal, all the capitalist giants (except Microsoft) have embraced Linux and contributed to its development.  What is more, Linux has become a model for development of generally useful computer tools that in many cases offer free alternatives to proprietary software that run better and more reliably.

Linux may be the world’s greatest intellectual collaboration.  Happy Birthday Linus Torvalds, born this day in 1969.

27 December 2007

The Flushing Remonstrance

350 years ago today, some New York colonists were willing to put their lives on the line to protect the rights of neighbors with different beliefs.

It is fitting that the Flushing Remonstrance should be associated with Dutch settlements, because they were the most tolerant in the New World. The Netherlands had enshrined freedom of conscience in 1579, when it clearly established that “no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of his religion.” And when the Dutch West India Company set up a trading post at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1625, the purpose was to make money, not to save souls. Because the founding idea was trade, the directors of the firm took pains to ensure that all were welcome.

But an exception was carved out for Quakers, who already had a reputation as obnoxious rabble-rousers.  Quaker meetings were banned by edict of Gov Peter Stuyvesant, and a prominent Quaker preacher was ordered burned at the stake.  It was in response to this that 30 citizens in Flushing, Queens got together and signed a petition to Stuyvesant, calling for retraction of the edict, under the impromptu leadership of Edward Hart.  None of the signers was a Quaker. 

No good deed goes unpunished: Stuyvesant arrested Hart and the other official who presented the document to him, and he jailed two other magistrates who had signed the petition. Stuyvesant also forced the other signatories to recant.

But the door had been opened and Quakers continued to meet in Flushing. When Stuyvesant arrested a farmer, John Bowne, in 1662 for holding illegal meetings in his home, Bowne was then banished from the colony. He immediately went to Amsterdam to plead for the Quakers. There he won his case. Though the Dutch West India Company called Quakerism an “abominable religion,” it nevertheless overruled Stuyvesant in 1663 and ordered him to “allow everyone to have his own belief.” Thus did religious toleration become the law of the colony.

— abstracted from Kenneth Jackson’s op-ed in today’s NYTimes

26 December 2007

Ode on the pleasures arising from Vicissitude

Yesterday the sullen year
Saw the snowy whirlwind fly;
Mute was the music of the air,
The herd stood drooping by:
Their raptures now that wildly flow,
No yesterday nor morrow know;
’Tis man alone that joy descries
With forward and reverted eyes.

Smiles on past Misfortune’s brow
Soft Reflection’s hand can trace;
And o’er the cheek of Sorrow throw
A melancholy grace;
While Hope prolongs our happier hour,
Or deepest shades, that dimly lower
And blacken round our weary way,
Gilds with a gleam of distant day.

Still, where rosy Pleasure leads,
See a kindred Grief pursue;
Behind the steps that Misery treads,
Approaching Comfort view:
The hues of bliss more brightly glow,
Chastised by sabler tints of woe;
And blended form, with artful strife,
The strength and harmony of life.

See the wretch, that long has tossed
On the thorny bed of pain,
At length repair his vigour lost,
And breathe and walk again:
The meanest flowret of the vale,
The simplest note that swells the gale,
The common sun, the air and skies,
To him are opening Paradise.

Humble Quiet builds her cell
Near the source whence Pleasure flows;
She eyes the clear crystalline well
And tastes it as it goes.
While far below, the madding crowd
Rushes headlong to the dangerous flood,
Where broad and turbulent it sweeps,
And perish in the boundless deeps.

Mark Ambition’s march sublime
Up to power’s meridian height;
While pale-eyed Envy sees him climb,
And sickens at the sight.
Phantoms of danger, death, and dread,
Float hourly round Ambition’s head;
While spleen, within his rival’s breast,
Sits brooding on her scorpion nest.

Happier he, the peasant, far,
From the pangs of passion free,
That breathes the keen yet wholesome air
Of rugged penury.
He, when his morning task is done,
Can slumber in the noontide sun;
And hie him home, at evening’s close,
To sweet repast and calm repose.

He, unconscious whence the bliss,
Feels, and owns in carols rude,
That all the circling joys are his
Of dear Vicissitude.
From toil he wins his spirits light,
From busy day the peaceful night;
Rich, from the very want of wealth,
In heaven’s best treasures: peace and health.

~ Thomas Gray, born this day in 1716

(The latter stanzas were appended to Gray’s unfinished poem by his
  biographer and editor, William Mason)

25 December 2007

Welcome, stranger

Community is the foundation of democracy.  Keeping the people separate and mutually distrustful is a necessary precondition for despotism.

Christmas is an excuse for us to open a dialog with the stranger next door.  Though it is only a social convention, it has a power to bring us together, in common with such real events as snowstorms, earthquakes and men walking on the moon.

The man who passes us on the street doesn’t want to be separate or private any more than we do.  We greet each other with smiles, and heartfelt if tentative openness.  We speak of something that is real to us:  It is a thought or a perception that we imagine makes us different and separates us from The Others around us.  We are surprised and delighted to find that he has been thinking the same thing.

Perhaps it is our distrust for authority, or our belief in The Occult, or a conspiracy theory about who is really pulling the strings of government.  Perhaps we doubt that there really is any international terrorist threat.  We may whisper about suppressed science that can cure cancer, or evidence that elections in America are rigged.  Eventually, it is our idealism  that we share:  a utopian vision of life in a diverse community built on love and sharing. 

Miraculously, he has been thinking just the same thing.  We discover this and They no longer have any power over Us.

24 December 2007

The opposite of loneliness is solitude

“If you page through the gospels, you will find many instances of Jesus’s need for solitude, a need that he expressed without apology.  Jesus was constantly surrounded by people who wanted him to touch them and heal them.  But when you read between the lines of the gospels, you realize that Jesus must have felt most lonely in the midst of crowds and that he assuaged his loneliness by retreating into solitude…”

Steve Smith’s blog