Wednesday, April 30, 2008

“That’s not a star!”

1989. Summer. Warm night. Jim’s house his mother left him. Smithereens or REM on the boom box. Lots of beer, lots of cigarettes. All four of us dripping wet, not caring, just finished cooling off in the pool after the game at Yankee Stadium.

“Hey, LE,” Steve says, loopier than usual, “break out the telescope! Let’s check out some stars!”

I scan the sky, the little sliver we’re privileged between the adjacent houses and the roofing supply building directly behind us. Though it’s eleven at night, the light pollution from the streetlights and the traffic make it seem like dusk. But there are a few stars poking out. The Summer Triangle’s high in the sky. Steve’s just high. I make a quick decision: Vega’s bright enough to justify twisting the scope together.

As I go about its assembly, fresh cold Coors between my knees and a burning Marlboro forcing my eyes to tear, Bob taps me on the shoulder. “LE, aim the telescope there,” he whispers, pointing to the closest streetlamp. He giggles in delight. This is too easy. Even if Steve was stone-cold sober. Too easy.

Keeping a poker face, I point the scope directly at our new target. “Oh, Steve – ” I step back, feigning awe, shaking my head, gulping beer. “This star is awesome!”

Steve’s excited, nearly falls into the telescope, but Bob catches him. Bob also catches my eye, and he’s barely holding back laughter. Jim’s here, too, sensing what’s up without having been told. Steve balances and inches up to the eyepiece.

“That’s not a star!” Steve says, adjusting the scope, and we’re almost disappointed, almost, until he elaborates:

“That’s the moon!”

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Moonraker




… it was impossible for Bond to recognize the chill woman of the night before in the girl who now walked before him and laughed happily at his ignorance of the names of the wildflowers, the samphire, Viper’s bugloss, and fumitory around their feet.
Triumphantly, she found a bee orchis and picked it.
“You wouldn’t do that if you knew that flowers scream when they are picked,” said Bond. “Didn’t you know?” He smiled at her reaction. “There’s an Indian called Professor Bhose, who’s written a treatise on the nervous system of flowers. He measured their reaction to pain. He even recorded the scream of a rose being picked. It must be one of the most heartrending sounds in the world. I heard something like it as you picked that flower.”
“I don’t believe it,” she said, looking suspiciously at the torn root. “Anyway,” she said maliciously, “I wouldn’t have thought you were a person to get sentimental. Don’t people in your section of the Service make a business of killing? And not just flowers either. People.”
“Flower’s can’t shoot back.”
She looked at the orchis. “Now you’ve made me feel like a murderer. It’s very unkind of you. But,” she admitted reluctantly, “I shall have to find out about this Indian and if you’re right I shall never pick a flower again as long as I live. What am I going to do with this one? You make me feel it’s bleeding all over my hands.”
“Give it to me,” said Bond. “According to you, my hands are dripping with blood already. A little more wont hurt.”

- Moonraker, by Ian Fleming


Moonraker, the third in Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond books, was published in 1955. The movie version appeared twenty-two years later, leapfrogging the movie version of For Your Eyes Only in an effort to capitalize on the Star Wars craze of the late-seventies. The book and the movie have only a few things in common: the title, and the names of the hero, Bond, the villain, Hugo Drax, and the eponymous rocket. Well, it’s a missile in the book and a space shuttle in the movie.

Possibly more people have seen the movie than read the novel. While I grew up on Roger Moore’s Bond, and can appreciate the volatile mixture of sly humor and the ever-present threat of violence just beneath the surface, it comes off, in retrospect, as too cartoonish in light of the book. And that is fine, by all means. Moonraker the movie was a huge favorite as a kid. But its so far removed from the novel as to almost be unrelated.

Now, in light of this, is the book worth reading?

Of course.

Recently, the producers of the Bond franchise wanted to return to a leaner, meaner 007. The casting of Daniel Craig and the resulting Casino Royale frequently popped into my thoughts as I read the novel. Bond is a young man, in his mid-thirties, rugged, fit, and intimidating physically if he has to be. He does take a beating over the course of the story, which takes place over five days: buried in an avalanche, thrown from his car in a wreck, scalded by a steam hose, pistol-whipped, viciously beaten while tied up by both the main villain and his henchman. Yet there’s the mental fortitude that’s always in every characterization of Bond. He bravely faces torture via a blow-torch. He valiantly considers sacrificing his life to save millions. And in apparently one of Fleming’s favorite sports, he and Drax out-cheat one another at a very tense hand of Bridge.

M’s a significant part of the plot, and Miss Moneypenny only has a small cameo, though James is supplied with his own matronly secretary to flirt with. There’s no Q and no gadgets, as this Bond relies more on his wits, his physical fighting ability, his own car, a Bentley convertible, and his gun. He’s an expert at picking locks and reading fingerprints. And a big show is made, early on, of his fairly mundane life as a civil servant. Apparently, the adventures we know him best for, occur only once or twice a year. The spaces of down time in between are filled with firing practice, martial arts training, reading reports, and fine dining.

The plot’s simpler than the movie version. M suspects that his fellow clubmember, the highly-esteemed war hero Sir Hugo Drax, who is also currently in the news as the designer of the long-range Moonraker missile, is a cheat. To avoid an all-around embarrassing situation, he enlists Bond off-duty to “send a message” to Drax at a high stakes bridge game that night. 007 does, and gains an enemy for life. The next morning, Bond’s rushed into M’s office. Apparently, overnight, there’s been a double-murder at Drax’s labs, and MI-5’s man is one of the victims. As the Moonraker’s first launching that Friday is at the forefront of national news, Bond is granted the authority to look into the matter on English soil. What nefarious scheme lies up the sleeves of Sir Hugo Drax? And is he who he seems to be? Is the Moonraker what it seems to be? And will Bond survive to save the world?

Moonraker, to my surprise, was a page-turner. It was just the right length. If it was written nowadays it would be at least five hundred technical pages, but Fleming puts in just the right amount and gives you all you need to know. I enjoyed the pace, the characterizations, the details. Without spoilers, I take a few points off for some minor issues at the dénouement. Otherwise, a surprisingly good intro, for me, to the Bond books. A-minus.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Genius Part I

Funes: … which brings me back to my original question.

Montag: Which was?

Funes: What is genius?

Montag: (spills milk through nose) What is genius! What is genius!

Funes: Yes, what?

Montag: Hardly a simple question. Hardly even an original question.

Funes: Yes, hardly. (pauses) But – what is it?

Montag: Well, if the riddle of genius has not been deciphered before, I doubt that it shall be this afternoon by the likes of you and me.

Funes: Perhaps it is one of those things that can’t be precisely defined. Can’t be solved like a mathematical equation. One can only offer one’s opinion on the matter. And that works to our advantage.

Montag: How so?

Funes: Any work here of ours has merit and value, then.

Montag: I see. (chews lip, deep in thought) Have you heard of Gauss?

Funes: Gauss … Gauss. He’s a scientist, right? Seventeenth or eighteenth century?

Montag: Close enough. Mathematician.

Funes: You, dear friend, are the left brain to my right! I shall analyse genius from the artistic fields of endeavor, and you shall attack it from the hard intellectual sciences –

Montag: Hold it, hold it. Before I attack anything, I just want to give an example.

Funes: An example of what?

Montag: Genius.

Funes: Of course. Go ahead … Explain this Gauss to me.

Montag: (casts a rueful glance over his cookies) Well, listen Funes. All I wanted to say, was, well, tell you a little story. I thought it might explain an aspect of genius that perhaps you hadn’t thought of before. (spots Funes’ indignant expression) Well, I mean, it might shed some light on the question.

Funes: (magnanimously) Go ahead, my dear Montag.

Montag: Well, it seems that when Gauss was a child, say, six or seven years old, and was in school, his teacher gave the class a problem. Kind of like a make-work problem, so this poor sap could read a book or sleep off a hangover, something like that … You haven’t heard this before?

Funes: Sounds like I’m in for an apocryphal tale.

Montag: No. True story. Or so I’ve been told.

Funes: Go on. What was the problem assigned to the class?

Montag: Sum up all the integers between zero and a hundred.

Funes: Add together all the numbers between one and a hundred?

Montag: Basically. That’s another way of putting it ... Can you do it?

Funes: Of course I can. (strikes up his pipe) I just need a pad and pen and some time. (mumbles) A good deal of time.

Montag: That’s what this teacher thought. The thing is, a minute or two later, Gauss hands in his sheet of paper. The correct answer’s on it.

Funes: (interested) Ah. The little scamp discovered a short cut. An algorithm for solving the problem. How clever!

Montag: Just ‘clever’, or genius?

Funes: (laughs) That is the question here, isn’t it?

Montag: So, dear Funes, what did little Gauss do?

Funes: (smile vanishes) Uh …

Montag: (laughs) Funes, you may be a literary genius, but I do believe some remedial math should be in your near future.

Funes: (darkly) So what does this seven-year-old boy know intuitively that this seventy-year-old man doesn’t?

Montag: Pairs.

Funes: Pairs?

Montag: Yes, pairs. What he did, while his young friends were adding one plus two plus three plus four, et cetera, et cetera, was come to a simple realization. See where I’m going?

Funes: (excited) Yes! I see. (traces imaginary lines in the air) He paired them up highest to lowest. Then … then …

Montag: You’re right. Keep going.

Funes: Then … little help?

Montag: (laughs) Let’s see what little Gauss found out. Zero and one hundred equal?

Funes: One hundred.

Montag: One and ninety-nine?

Funes: One hundred. I see! … I think …

Montag: Two and ninety-eight?

Funes: One hundred. So, is the answer … five thousand? Fifty pairs each of a hundred!

Montag: (slapping the table) Close, dear Funes, so very close.

Funes: Where did I go wrong?

Montag: You didn’t. You just didn’t go far enough.

Funes: Explain.

Montag: There are fifty pairs of numbers from and including zero to one hundred. But there’s one number without a companion. Pair-less, so to speak. The number fifty, in the exact center of our number pair spectrum. So, Gauss realized this, and added it to the five thousand, which, as you said, is the fifty pairs each adding to one hundred. So the correct answer is five thousand fifty.

Funes: I’m speechless.

Montag: You, my dear Montag, have never been speechless.

Funes: True. But what does this say of genius?

Montag: (long pause) Unlike little Gauss solving his problem, we are the true children.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Who's Hegel?


Who is Hegel? This guy, to your left.
But on a more serious note, I just borrowed Hegel: A Biography by Terry Pinkard from the library yesterday and it begins in a very interesting way. The opening paragraph in the Preface states:

Hegel is one of those thinkers just about all educated people think they know something about. His philosophy was the forerunner to Karl Marx's theory of history, but unlike Marx, who was a materialist, Hegel was an idealist in the sense that he thought that reality was ultimately spiritual, and that it developed according to the process of thesis / antithesis / synthesis. Hegel also glorified the Prussian state, claiming that it was God's work, was perfect, and was the culmination of all human history. All citizens of Prussia owed unconditional allegiance to that state, and it could do with them as it pleased. Hegel played a large role int he growth of German nationalism, authoritarianism, and militarism with his quasi-mystical celebrations of what he pretentiously called the Absolute.

Wait a minute. My mind raced as I read this. I'm about three-quarters done with my first read-through of the Hegel omnibus, having just finished a remarkably clear (at least to my ear) Lectures on Aesthetics, and I'm excited to start the final major selection, The Phenomenology of Spirit. But that first paragraph ... did I waste my time on a biography that despises its subject? While some of Pinkard's statements seemed true, I know now, having read a lot of the philosopher's works, that the thesis / antithesis / synthesis formula was never used. At least in what I've read. Nor did he claim that Prussia was the be-all and end-all of societal evolution.

Something's amiss.

Then, a single-sentence follow-up: Just about everything in the first paragraph is false except for the first sentence.

Now, that makes sense, and I actually smiled. Great point. Hegel's works have been treated harshly during the past two hundred years. There's more than a couple of reasons for this. For starters, there's a built in difference between English-speaking philosophers and their continental European counterparts that's biased against Hegel. He's inextricably linked to Marx, usually for the worst. A few decades after his death his philosophy was butchered by others, and the thesis / antithesis / synthesis formula was inserted into his works though Hegel himself never used it. And philosphers such as Bernard Russell and Karl Popper excoriated his philosophy, even to the point of associating it with Nazism and the horrors of the twentieth century.

But that's not Hegel. Who is he? We think of our times as extremely turbulent, especially regarding the massive technological changes we've seen in the past twenty years or so. But Hegel lived through even greater revolutions. As a youngster and teenager he lived through the American and French Revolutions, and survived in very dangerous times. Napoleon's armies rampaged through his homeland. Death was never far away. And once Napoleon vanished from the scene, leaving the possibility for stability, the Industrial Revolution transformed society. Trains and steam engines shortened the size of the world. Photography was born. Science grew. Urban society supplanted agrarian. So, his philosophy is an understandable attempt to make sense out of the chaos and struggle of the world around him.

That is exactly what I find most fascinating about the man. That is Hegel.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Seventeen SF Books

Confessions of a Nerd: When I was a kid in the seventies, while my friends were playing Little League and whatnot, I spent a huge chunk of time in the library. I loved the quiet, the air conditioning, the industrial carpeting, the smell of the books, the thrill of discovery. My hometown library devoted one corner to science fiction, maybe four stacks holding a two or three hundred books, and this is where I spent 99.99 percent of my time. I was fearless and read above my level, though obviously I didn't understand much of what I read. But I did read close to three-quarters of those books. Here's a short list of the best of the best, at least to a young boy with an overactive imagination.

Killerbowl, A Generation Removed, and The Resurrectionist by Gary K. Wolf
The Spinner by Doris Piserchia
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Red Planet and Time for the Stars by Robert Heinlein
The Earth Brain by Edmund Hamilton
The Hellhound Project by Ron Goulart
The Psychopath Plague by Steven Spruill
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
The Colors of Space by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Who Can Replace A Man? by Brian Aldiss
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson
Medusa's Children by Bob Shaw
Conquerors from the Darkness by Robert Silverberg
To Die in Italbar by Roger Zelazny


By the way, I've hunted all but a couple as an adult and re-read them with tremendous interest. What's truly interesting is how a book changes over time to you, over various readings at various ages. That's something I'll post about at a later date.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Why Read Philosophy?

This image is the symbol for the reality we swim in.

Is there a better way? A different, truer reality?

Have the scales shifted too far to one extreme at the expense of the other?

Are our ladders propped up against the wrong walls?

And our collective focus misplaced?

All four of these questions would make a profitable meditation ... if I can muster the discipline to lock myself alone for a couple of hours.

[Image courtesy of Adbusters]

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The American Catholic Church Scandal

I’m probably only slightly more informed than the average person about the sex abuse scandal in the American Catholic Church. Though it has never directly affected me, I have read quite a bit about it, from various angles and viewpoints. I am a staunch defender of the Church, its basic goodness stemming from its creation by Jesus Christ, and I am pained by the evil some of its members have perpetuated upon the innocent. It truly pains me. As a Catholic, I am embarrassed and ashamed. A couple we are close friends with, shaky in their faith, asked my wife and I to be the godparents of their first child. The husband’s protestant family flew in for the baptism. And wouldn’t you know it, in an announcement before mass, the head priest of the parish had to explain why Father so-and-so would no longer be performing his duties until the investigation into his “inappropriate touching incident” has been completed. Ugh.

Since the Pope’s wonderful visit last week I’ve been thinking a bit about this. And then yesterday I read from a fairly reputable source that one of our archbishops, a man who was the bishop of my diocese as I was growing up, has been publicly accused of weekend seductions of young seminarians at his beach house. Revolting. I can’t fathom the reasons behind this, the horrible evil that this man has done representing Christ. To paraphrase St. John Chrysostom, “the road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.”

Let me clear a few things, first. I am not an expert on this scandal. Do not treat my statements or statistics as stone cold facts, for I may be wrong, and if so, I apologize in advance. But here are some of my thoughts on the unthinkable.

There are two aspects to the scandal. First, this is not a scandal about pedophilia. It is about inappropriate homosexual behavior towards prepubescent boys. 85 percent of all the cases fall into this category. Yet this fact is by and large glossed over in the media, a media which is quite happy to push the normalization of homosexuality agenda. To clarify Church teaching, homosexuals themselves are not sinful, are not evil, and are not automatically “going to hell.” Homosexual behavior is sinful, evil, and when practiced can endanger an individual’s salvation. Homosexuals are called to live a life of chastity, much like every single Catholic who is not married is called to do.

Second, the scandal is about the awareness of the American Church hierarchy of the ‘situation’ and its inability to deal with it properly. Predator priests were shuffled to different parishes with maybe a slap on the wrist or some psychiatric treatment. Few of these monsters were defrocked. When civil law enforcement got involved, there was obfuscation, legal maneuverings, stalling, and possible outright lying on the part of certain bishops. Completely disgusting behavior. The exact wrong things were done for the exact wrong reasons, with disastrous results to the reputation and mission of the Catholic Church.

What should now be done?

We tend to think of ourselves as a trifle more important than we really are. Perhaps this has to do with our culture, our complete devotion to wealth and power, and our extreme hypersexualization of youth. But in the grand scheme of things, this is but weeds for the fire. The American Church is made up of something around 60 million members, and out of a global Catholic population of nearly 1.1 billion, this is not even 5 percent. So not only is American culture in many ways antithetical to the message of the Church, the AmChurch isn’t even a large segment of its membership. But we do have the focus of the world upon us, for better or worse. We are under the eyes of the world. The world is fascinated with us, just as much as we are fascinated with ourselves. Despite our relative insignificance, I do believe something truly miraculous needs to happen.

As far as the scandal goes, there’s a fine distinction between justice and vengeance. A very fine line that many are willing to cross, aware of it or not. There are many who will never be satisfied with anything the Pope or the Church does. Nothing he or they can do or say will ever, ever make up for the pain that was caused by the lavender mafia, be them the actual molesting monsters or their covering-up compatriots. But realize this: if there was enough evidence present to arrest, convict and imprison these cretins for their wrongdoings, they would have been. Indeed, a few were. However, most were careful to stay within legal boundaries. So what’s the resolution?

Many want the entire upper hierarchy of the American Catholic Church removed. They see this as an appropriate action Benedict could take. But I have read that according to canon law, this may not be within the Pope’s power, which I fail to understand, but not being an expert in the subject, I cannot form an accurate opinion of this option. I do know that Bishops are supposed to submit a formal written resignation to the Pope when they reach their seventy-fifth birthday, to be accepted or denied at the Pope’s discretion. Certainly Benedict can accept all these; we just have to wait until our repugnant shepherds reach that age.

What pleased me most was Pope Benedict’s trip here last week. I believe this man is operating on a level higher than us mere mortals. His humility, his intelligence, his compassion, it all shone through that television screen, and from what I’ve read and heard concerning his unscheduled meeting with some of the victims, it shone through to them too. Perhaps this is the best way. Perhaps the example of Jesus merciful and compassionate to the woman caught in adultery is needed here much more than the Jesus who destroyed the tables of the merchants in the temple. Truly miraculous.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Midworld




Midworld by Alan Dean Foster (c) 1973

What a pleasant surprise!

Skimming through the book before buying it, a feeling of caution overcame me. Long paragraphs of exposition. Could be a danger sign. Not much in the way of dialogue. However, the book seemed short and the premise intriguing. I bit.

Did I mention it was a pleasant surprise?

Though I don’t recall it ever actually mentioned by name in the book, Midworld is a planet whose every literal square inch is covered with trees and vegetation. It’s a rain-forest world. Seven-hundred foot trees blanketing the surface create seven levels of biological activity. And what activity! It’s a wonder anything could survive long enough to procreate, let alone eat, with the diversity of predators, plant and animal, that make their living in the branches of the forest of Midworld.

A couple hundred years ago a lost colonial ship crashed on the planet, and a few remnants managed to survive and eke out an existence in level three. After a few generations they revert to primitive status, and live in symbiotic harmony with what they call the Home tree. They call the treetops “Upper Hell” because of the flying nasties that can pick you off in a flash; the call the ground “Lower Hell” because of the terrible creatures that live in the mud and slime.

Born the hunter is our main character, a little crazy by the rest of the tribe’s standards, but a brave and skillful hunter. On a return solo expedition he is amazed to witness the crash landing of an alien spacecraft, a “demon” in his worldview. He returns to the Home tree, a war party is assembled, and they set off to investigate the intruder.

Two “modern” humans are the occupants of the spacecraft, and are rescued by Born, taken back to the Home tree, and learn of the dangerous realities of living on this planet. We are told that an illegal station has been set up on Midworld in an attempt to exploit the world’s natural resources, particularly a chemical extract that causes longevity. The two survivors convince Born to lead them back to their station, and the hunter is not only accompanied by his rival, but also by each one’s “furcot”, a giant hairy beast that pairs up with a human for the duration of their lives. The expedition takes them down to Lower Hell and up to the Hell of the treetops, and into the heart of the invader’s nest.

Though the climax at the alien station doesn’t bring much surprises, it’s told well. The pages turned. When it was over, I realized that had there been another book in the series, I’d have hunted it out for a read.

I was truly surprised how much I enjoyed Midworld. Foster kept the exposition interesting, the suspense heavy, the fear of quick death on every page. The cliché of the wise aboriginal is there, yes, but the modern humans provided a decent counterweight, and not all proved to be e-evil. And, not everyone survives who you think would survive.

An entertaining read. Grade: A.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Goals goals goals

A couple of years ago, right after my daughter was born, I sat down at my laptop and spent an afternoon brainstorming as many goals as I could – practical goals, immediate goals, long-range goals, and wild, crazy goals. I divided them into broad categories, such as “physical,” “mental,” “spiritual”, “writing,” “finance,” “skills,” “acquisitions,” etc. I actually reached a couple, such as completing drafts for two novels, meeting with a financial advisor and getting a budget, and starting this blog. There’s a lot I still want to attain. They’ve been on the back-burner for a while now. But now that I appear to be healthy, physically, for the first time in a long while, I may have to start tackling these items again.

There are two big obstacles I can think of that affect our reaching goals. At least for me, they’re the biggest. Time management and motivation. I could write a lengthy post on each one, and I probably will. For now, let me only say that I’ve read elsewhere that the best way to achieve goals is to focus on just one at a time. Until attainment. I’m a hopper and I have trouble with this very concept. So, off this massive list I made, I probably only reached a half-dozen or so goals out of about a hundred and fifty, and this is over three years. However, if I could pour all my resources on one goal at a time, depending on the goal of course, it is conceivable I could reach a half-dozen a year, or maybe even more!

Here’s a quick list representative of my goals: some wild and weird, others practical. Some are daily habits, others will take a long while to complete. I’ve left off the most personal ones, but I kind of like this sampling:

  • Get weight down to 175 pounds
  • Complete a marathon
  • Be able to do 100 pushups
  • Drink green tea every day
  • Be a habitual positive thinking
  • Learn how to be a lucid dreamer
  • Memorize poetry
  • Stay organized and neat
  • Write 1,000 words or edit one hour every single day
  • Get something published
  • Visit England, Spain, Czech Republic, Japan, Nepal, Italy
  • Visit the Vatican
  • Tour the historical spots in the US with my family one summer
  • Learn twenty or so classical guitar pieces
  • Take piano lessons
  • Memorize the Bible
  • Become a speed reader
  • Become proficient at Chess – a “grandmaster”
  • Learn Latin, French, German, Italian
  • Study physics, astronomy, and higher mathematics
  • Study medicine

Monday, April 21, 2008

Happy Anniversary!

Seven years ago today was one of the best days of my life. That cool and overcast Saturday was more than fun, it was exhilirating, and I felt like a million dollars. Why wouldn’t I? – I was marrying my best friend and soul mate, someone I had to wait until I was thirty years old to meet, someone who reached out to me as I floundered through life.

C, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs – especially downs, lately – but I wouldn’t have traded away any of this time with you.

Thanks for saying yes!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Love of Philosophy

Sometimes reading philosophy is an act of pure masochism. Here are two quotes I wrote down a few years ago during my more frustrating struggles with the love of wisdom:

"And even that [what God is in his relationship to a human being] can be said only in a paradox; or more precisely, by using a concept paradoxically; or still more precisely, by means of a paradoxical combination of a nominal concept with an adjective that contradicts the familiar content of the concept."

- Martin Buber, I and Thou (pg. 180 / section 6 of Afterword)

"But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact] that the relation relates itself to its own self."

- Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death (pg 146 / Paragraph 2 of Section 1A of the First Part)

This is why I'm still slogging through a first-run of Hegel's abridged works after two months. Maybe in another month I'll finish my anthology. Now, the majority of Georg Friedrich isn't as dense as the above two examples, but there are definitely sentences and paragraphs that, after rereading a couple of times, I have absolutely no clue what's trying to be conveyed to me and I have to move on.

Why the self-torture? What lies down the rabbit hole? What happens when you take the red pill? Is Hegel the one to show me?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Heaven

I remember stepping out the back door, onto the stone slabs, and just being overwhelmed. The sky, a heatbreakingly gorgeous blue, spotted with cotton clouds here and there. The greens of the grass, the pines on the perimeter of the property, even the rusted red shingles of the neglected wood shed - these colors jump out at me, alive. And as the result of some miracle of God, the air I walk through is that perfect temperature to almost be unnoticeable; there ain't a drop of humidity in it.

The sun's strong though not overpowering; its rays give pleasant warmth but not sweat. I meander about the side of the cabin, unconcerned about walking barefoot through the brush. A car or a van maybe drive past on the single-lane rural route a hundred yards away; I don't know, I'm not paying attention. I'm in the process of trying to grasp something ... important, something that needs to be apprehended.

I find myself on the front lawn, a small twenty by forty plot (small compared to the three acres behind the house), stroll under the shade of the old hickory that sits square in front of the screened-in porch. There's real beauty here, I now know. Beauty that I had never experienced before in all these lean years. Thinking of it, now, summoning all these transcendent memories, these sensations, I almost choke up.

The truck sits cold on the tar driveway, proud and clean, shining the most perfect of summer shines. It's expression lies somewhere between contentment and a hint of smug; a fat tomcat lazing in the sun. It hauled me up here safe and without incident, two hundred twenty-nine miles. I have absolutely no doubt it will get me back home at the end of the week.

Folding my hands up over my eyes to shield them from the bright day-light, I scan the rows of trees past the street. I almost hear the brook I know unfolds just beyond them, the water bubbling over the rocks, fish darting through the stream leaving a wave and a plop in its wake. A solitary bird flies God knows how many feet above the earth: a large, lazy ellipse that takes ages to complete.

I inhale deeply this cool, clean air, taking great lungfuls of purity in to myself. The breath of God. Inspire - breath; inspiration. I feel lighter than I had in a long time; I no longer have the desire for drink or smoke. Suddenly I realize my life up to this point was pointless, wasted. I knew I have to change; no! Rather, I knew I have to be changed. And I am a stone's throw away from taking that step -

This will be my favorite memory, I decide right there and then. It will always be. Like the batter in the movie Field of Dreams - "Is this heaven?" That I can't say; probably nothing in our experience is that heaven. But this spot on earth, at this exact time in the history of the universe, well, this is as close to heaven that I have ever experienced.

No drug, no sexual escapade, no thrill sport, not even being lauded on a stage by hundreds of people - simply nothing compares to this deep sense of serenity that comes upon me. To be honest, I came up here by myself for a week of heavy solitary drinking. So the fact these currents rush through my veins at light speed - no, forgive me, that is a false analogy. There are no currents flowing through my body. I am utterly motionless, and it's the universe that vibrates around me. Much better analogy, that.

I don't know how long I stand outside that day. It may only be ten minutes or so. It could be a couple of lifetimes, in a manner of speaking it is certainly two, in that one life immediately receives its death sentence. And the infinite sadness a part of me feels walking back in to the house - some small, atom-sized part of me no doubt the seat of my universe-sized soul, that part weeps when I enter in through the front door.

Something important happens to me that day. I'm in the crosshairs of forces much powerful than I had ever experienced - indeed, more than most experience most of their lives.

Too new-agey in my descriptions, you say with condemnation? I must agree; my words are making myself itch. All right, how about in these terms. God hears my prayers, especially those I had not yet made, and comes down to upstate Montana in August 1989. He walks up the dirt paths on the other side of Pontiac Mountain, comes to an opening in the tree line, walks up and looks down the hill, across those three acres, on to my sister's summer house. And He brings me out, and comes down and spends a few minutes with me, though I am too blind to see Him. We sit awhile, we may even have a lengthy conversation. There's probably no ultimate commandments given to me; no, I'm not that important in the grand scheme of things. But He most likely whispers a word in my ear, and now I spend my remaining years trying to remember what it was that He, in His complete goodness, says to me, His gift to me.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Top Chef vs. Hell's Kitchen

My wife, whose culinary skills run strong through her family, has been watching a great cooking reality show, Top Chef, for over two years now. I have to admit I’m hooked, also, despite barely being able to boil water. But in my quest for the bizarre, and a desire to avenge myself for what she’s done to me, I now have her watching a second cooking reality show: Hell’s Kitchen.

Top Chef really is an excellent show – entertaining, informative, and filled with its share of drama, as each week a contending chef is voted off by a panel of four engaging judges. Two judges, Padma Lakshmi and chef Tom Colicchio, share main hosting duties. Each episode starts with a quick cooking challenge, such as coming up with a dish on the spot to go with a random selection of beer, the winner of which gets immunity from elimination. Then it’s off to the main challenge. This can be anything from highbrow dinner parties for powerful Hollywood celebrities to cooking for the masses at a Bears game, but whatever the main challenge is, it’s always stressful. The fascinating part is the dishes the chefs come up with to meet each contest. It’s a great show for aspiring chefs, those looking to up their game, and even rookies like me, who can actually learn a few things each episode.

If Top Chef is the … let’s say … Oprah of the cooking shows, Hell’s Kitchen is the Jerry Springer.

The shows are similarly formatted: a beginning quick challenge, a main challenge, and an elimination. But that’s where any resemblance ends. Hell’s Kitchen is culinary boot camp, and Chef Gordon Ramsay is the master drill sergeant. The corps of aspiring chefs are yelled and cursed at, food is thrown, grown men are sent to their rooms, rapid-fire questions are expected to be answered. The losing team for the opening quick challenge is punished with degrading tasks, such as sifting through garbage or picking peppers in hundred-degree heat. The main challenge is daunting: working in a mock-up restaurant, serving real customers, every detail done to Chef Ramsay’s exacting expectations. A running argument with my wife is whether these chefs are as good as the ones on Top Chef (though at least two were hired for shock value, i.e. to infuriate Gordon). I waver; maybe they are, but such constant heavy stress reduces one to a pitiable and quivering piece of incompetence. In any event, the show is often unbelievable, hard-to-watch in a mouth-agape, guilty-pleasure sort of way. While I could see myself on Top Chef (if I had the tons of required talent) I would never, ever, ever willingly participate in Hell’s Kitchen.

Which is the better show? Hmmmmm. Which is ‘better’: a symphony by Beethoven, or a Metallica CD? Gone With the Wind, or Apocalypse Now? Is it ‘better’ to be able to hit a bulls-eye a hundred yards away, or know with certainty that you can get off a decent shot while being shot at? It’s a combination of taste, and what skills you want to focus on. As for the shows, I enjoy ’em both.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Of Eagles ...

Just came across this reading an old book for motivation:

An American Indian tells about a brave who found an eagle’s egg and put it into the nest of a prairie chicken. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them.

All his life, the changeling eagle, thinking he was a prairie chicken, did what the prairie chickens did. He scratched in the dirt for seeds and insects to eat. He clucked and cackled. And he flew in a brief thrashing of wings and flurry of feathers no more than a few feet off the ground. After all, that’s how prairie chickens were supposed to fly.

Years passed. And the changeling eagle grew very old. One day, he saw a magnificent bird far above him in the cloudless sky. Hanging with graceful majesty on the powerful wind currents, it soared with scarcely a beat of its strong golden wings.

“What a beautiful bird!” said the changeling eagle to his neighbor. “What is it?”

“That’s an eagle – the chief of the birds,” the neighbor clucked. “But don’t give it a second thought. You could never be like him.”

So the changeling eagle never gave it another thought. And it died thinking it was a prairie chicken.


Yeah, I know it’s heavy-handed and not too sophisticated in what it’s trying to say. But – how many of us truly know and understand the underlying idea? More importantly, how many of us act on the fact that we are “eagles”? How many of us waste our lives, large portions of it, at least, neglecting our talents, squandering our interests, watching the clock hands go round and round and waiting for that payoff that may never come? I would guess the percentage around 80 or 85 percent, if not higher.

Now consider another angle. This story encapsulates a very dangerous idea. Dangerous for the “establishment”, be it the government, your employer, your family and friends. And especially the darker powers in this world. They don’t want you to realize this, no matter what they say. They absolutely do not. Why? Power over you. Forgive me for sounding a bit like a hippie or an anarchist; I am by far light-years opposed to those positions. But I am all for the freedom of the individual. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us, I think, and I include myself here, so many of us mark time in self-imposed prisons. And that thought is even sadder than the parable above.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Silence

What a terribly noisy world we live in. I sit at my desk at work and listen to two or three different radios from coworkers’ desks. The phone twelve inches from me rings every fifteen minutes. In between, I’m paged on the overhead speakers. All day people constantly come up to me with their requests. I can’t walk to the bathroom without being called aside. Shouting, laughing, arguing, conspiring. I leave for lunch, and I flip through the radio just to hear something – talk, music, news, anything but silence! I leave work and sit in traffic, and listen to the car horns blare and teenagers blasting thudding crap – I mean, rap. I get home, and I put the television on, for background noise if for nothing else. Then the phone starts ringing – telemarketers, as many as three an hour. I eat dinner with my family at the dining room table, and jazz or classical plays on the radio. Then its upstairs for two hours of TV watching, and all the advertising that comes with it. And then I wonder why I can’t sleep six or seven hours straight.

S I L E N C E …

I know its value. I desperately desire it, often allowing myself, powerlessly, to become visibly irritated if I don’t have it. Yet, why do I avoid it when it presents itself? Why do we as a society avoid it?

Are we uncomfortable with only ourselves, only our thoughts?

Have we been trained, Pavlovian-style, to become receptacles for advertising, for the twenty-four-seven news cycle? Are we unwilling addicts to noise? Is this something we’ve all chosen for ourselves, if even by default, by not-choosing silence? Or is this all just the impotent ranting of a type-B person in a type-A world?

I can’t read a paragraph of exposition in a good book without unrelated thoughts crowding my mind, the lingering aftereffects of a day of noise …

Are we uncomfortable with only ourselves, only our thoughts? Or is there something else we may be afraid to hear?

One day, one weekend, I want, more than anything else, to be alone, to be silent, to be only with myself. Well, perhaps not only myself. Maybe, just maybe, if I can spend a weekend, a day, an hour, in quietude … perhaps … I can hear that still, soft voice.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Fallacy or Paradox?

Start with a simple identity,

a = b

Multiply each side by a:

a^2 = a b

Subtract b^2 (b squared) from each side of the equality:

a^2 – b^2 = a b – b^2

Using high school algebra, factor out the term (a – b) from each side:

(a + b) (a – b) = b (a – b)

Divide each side by (a – b), effectively canceling out the term from each side, leaving:

(a + b) = b

Per our opening equality, substitute a for b:

a + a = a

Combine terms:

2 a = a

Factor out the a’s, and you’re left with:

2 = 1

Where did we go wrong???

Monday, April 14, 2008

Lest Darkness Fall

Here's a review I wrote a few years ago for L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall:



I have to admit, I was more than pleasantly surprised by this book. Having been disappointed from other various forays into the “pre-Golden Age” Science Fiction literature, and seeing that the plot was not Science Fiction per se but Alternative History, I was a little fearful that I might be wasting my time. But I was wrong.

The story concerns Martin Padway, a 30-ish grad student in Rome who is somehow transported instantly back to Rome circa 570 AD. How or why this happened is never explained, nor does Martin dwell on it after an initial shock (a shock that ends once his belly gets hungry). By page 5 in the novel he’s inexplicably in the Roman Empire, and faces several questions. How to get food and shelter with only modern currency in his pockets? How to survive, to make a living? How not to get himself killed in this brutal world?

These problems intrigued me. I found myself fascinated with the proposition, “What would I do in those circumstances?” I think most of us would entertain that speculation with a little bit of fear, a little bit of resourcefulness, and more than a little bit of, “I’m glad that’s not going to ever happen.” But after Martin gets food and shelter and makes a few acquaintances, he begins to think beyond these questions. And that is exactly what is interesting and quite noble, to be totally honest, with the story. Martin realizes that the fall of the Roman Empire is only decades away … and a thousand years of the Dark Ages.

So Martin sets about on a course to change history, to prevent the fall of darkness. He obtains an income making and selling brandy (okay, I wouldn’t know how to do that, but there’s probably something I could “invent” and market – how ’bout you?). A printing press and regular newspaper follow. Martin then devises a telecommunications system – a semaphore telegraph – and introduces the concept of publicly-held corporations to Rome to fund it.

These innovations get him into scrapes with the local religious and political authorities. Eventually he is before the Emperor, a pseudo-intellectual named Thiudahad, and wins him over by promising to ghostwrite Copernicus’ heliocentric theory under the King’s name. Martin’s 20th century political acumen is far beyond that of the 6th century, despite the political violence of the times, and soon he is the Emperor’s quaester, or chief-of-staff.

The rest of the book involves Martin’s attempt to stave off attacks from the Franks, the Imperial Army of the Byzantine Empire, and his own mutinous ranks (especially Thiudahad’s own son). By the end “Mysterious Martinus” has revolutionized warfare by introducing ring mail and crossbows, begun experimenting with cannons and gunpowder, freed the slaves of Rome, introduced a constitution, and sent ships over to the lands on the other side of the Atlantic.

I found the story well-written, and by this I mean: it held my attention, the pages flew by, the characters were three-dimensional and often humorous. De Camp didn’t dwell too long on exposition, which is a huge plus. I enjoyed the dialogue, both spoken and interior. There were some suspenseful parts, such as Martin’s internment in a prison camp and his subsequent escape. A memorable funny scene was how Martin cools on a Goth princess after hearing how innocently bloodthirsty she is (really just a product of the times). And the scene of the day-after Martin “inadvertently” sleeps with his slave girl and is horrified by contemporary Roman hygiene, or lack thereof, is perhaps one of the most laughably disgusting thing I’ve ever read.

Grade: A-

Sunday, April 13, 2008

St. Francis

A faint rapping at the wooden door. Francis glanced up from his correspondence, shifting on the straw cushion in time with the gentle rocking. "Yes?"

Muffled, from outside of the carriage: "Excuse me, Father, may I have a word?"

Francis closed his eyes, massaged the brow above them, then remembered himself. "Yes, my son. Come in."

The door swung open and a young man swung in. The coachman's son, Francis noted. The boy sat opposite him, kept his gaze averted. After an uncomfortably long pause, Francis cleared his throat. "And what can I do for you, my son?"

An interior battle, he saw, waged within the boy. He'd seen the symptoms hundreds of times before. The coachman's son was thin, wiry, about sixteen or seventeen. Pale skin, unkept dark brown hair. Circles under the eyes. No doubt the father worked him hard. Probably beat him, too; that was not uncommon in these generally uncouth lands. The boy's hands were in constant motion, constantly intertwining. They were heavily calloused and scarred. A hard life, harder than most.

The young man stuttered, faltered over some confused words, then silenced himself. A moment later he lunged off his seat to leave the carriage.

Francis stopped him with a gentle hand on the arm. "Please stay. What is your name?"

"Guillaume." The boy fell back to his seat.

"Well, Will," Francis said, trying on his best smile, "may the peace of Christ be with you always! If you'd like, we can say a prayer together, then you can leave."

The boy opened his mouth, hesitant.

"That is, unless there was something you wanted to tell me." He studied the youth intently. "Something you wanted to ask, perhaps?" Will looked up sharply, fire and passion reddening the previously milky face. "Father, what ought I do?"

"What ought you do in regard to what?" Despite the lateness of the hour, Francis was interested; such questions were indeed the stuff of his passion, and made these tiresome trips as papal legate more bearable.

More wrestling of intertwined fingers. Then again, with confidence: "With my life, good sir."

Francis leaned back. "Ah. I see." He examined the boy more. Probably the lad had no more than a rudimentary education. Fifty-fifty he could read or write. No, he reflected further, thinking of the brute of a father the coachman undoubtedly was, no, he couldn't read or write. He and his pa perhaps ran the coach nine months or so out of the year, until winter storms made the passes unpassable; then odd jobs for the remaining three. Care for mangy horses; basic carpentry skills for maintenance of the carriage. Long days, a hard life.

"You work with your father," he began, more as a way to gain circuitous insight than to pronounce a sentence, when the boy interrupted fiercely:

"Father, no!" He shrunk back, apologetic. "What I am, Father, is ... what must I do to be saved?"

Intriguing, Francis mused, pleasantly suprised. Very unusual question from such a one ... then he checked himself for his judgmentalism. God was giving this boy to him at a very important fork in their lives, both his and the boy's, Francis knew. He was honored and touched by the responsibily, but also humbled by it.

"To be saved. What do you know of Our Lord, my good son?"

"Only the little my mother told me. When I was little."

"Is your mother still alive?"

"No. She passed on while I was still little."

"I see." Francis intuited Will was a lot smarter than he first appeared to be, or first let on. The more the old priest thought of it, the more he thought it a case of the latter. Francis grew ever more interested. Let's see where this road will lead, he decided. "Do you know the gospels?"

The boy broke eye contact. "Just some stories, Father."

"Do you know the big story?"

The boy squinted, eyes afar. "I know that our Lord was crucified for our sins, and that we can have life everlasting with Him if we obeyed Him."

Francis nodded, astonished. "Very, very good, Will!" He could see the boy was pleased. "Some of the wisest men of the world do not know that little sentence you just told me."

Will grinned, then paraphrased: "God hides from the wise but reveals to the children."

"Excellent!" The priest folded his correspondence and set it aside. He grabbed his satchel from a peg above the carriage window and rummaged through it. He produced a hand-sized bible, a New Testament. He realized his earlier judgments about the boy had been in error. He handed the book to Will, who took it gingerly, reverentially, into his dirty hands. "Do you know what this is?"

"No, sir."

Francis' smile faltered. "Can you read?" he asked, somewhat nonchalant.

Again the boy averted his eyes.

"Keep it anyway, as my gift to you. Perhaps you will find someone who can read it to you." Francis was silent, but soon realized the boy wanted more. Needed more. After a few moments the priest continued: "Here's what you can do to be saved, my son.

"Love Jesus Christ more than anything or anyone on this earth. Always keep His commandments, especially the Great One: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Always remember that we are not made for this world, but the world hereafter. Always defer to the will of God to the detriment of your own will. Remember that self-love is the root of all sin; avoid pride, greed, envy, avarice, lust, anger, sloth. Practice humility in all your affairs. Embrace your crosses, carry them as your Lord carried His. Carry them faithfully, keeping your eyes fixed on heaven. Pray to your heavenly Father every day, as many times as possible. Attend the Holy Mass as often as you can, partaking in the Blessed Sacrament, and confess your sins just as often.

"Do these, and you will be saved."

The boy remained in Francis' cabin a few more minutes longer, absorbing the older man's words, repeating them to himself and glancing to Francis for acknowledgment when he got them right. Quickly he memorized the priest's speech to him. And then, after a shy note of thanks, the boy swiftly opened the carriage door and flung himself out, no doubt up to its roof to sit next to his brute of a father, steering the horses through the miserable rain.

Eyeing the space above his head, Francis muttered, "Dear Lord, grant Will the grace to - " he heard the father's muffled yell and several thuds from the roof - "to embrace his crosses."

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Weight Loss Episode


One thing everyone should do, building up to about a half-hour every day, six days a week, is exercise. If you haven’t done anything in years, then of course work up slowly and incrementally to this level. At least do twenty minutes three times a week of something lightly aerobic. See your doctor. I’m seeing mine, this Thursday, to see if I can resume my workouts, after a two-year layoff.

During the two years since I developed atrial fibrillation, I haven’t really consistently worked out. A short weightlifting workout here and there, some cardio on the exercise bike on occasion, a couple of yoga sessions once in a while. But nothing consistent. Consistency is absolutely the key. Twenty years of working out has convinced me of that. It’s not what you do, per se, but how regularly you do it.

Another key factor is diet. My wife and I discovered this last May. We did about a month on Dr. Ian Smith's Fat Smash Diet. Though we were restricted in what we could eat, the pounds melted off. I lost twelve pounds during the month we stuck with it. The problem was that it was messing with my INR levels; this was directly at cross-purpose with the blood thinners I was taking.

I expect my doctor to tell me that I can slowly resume working out. Which is fine by me. I’m completely in tune with the concept of progressive exercise. I’ll probably start off alternating some twenty-minute light weight workouts with ten minutes of cardio, first thing in the morning before everyone wakes. As the weeks go on, I’ll increase weight and duration slowly but consistently. I’d like to work in some regular yoga sessions, but I don’t now how with such a tight schedule. You don’t need me to tell you how exercise not only makes you feel good physically, but mentally as well. And its been two years since I felt really good about myself.

Diet is tricky, though. My doctors have always told me to keep my diet regular; that is, don’t make drastic changes. It’ll affect the blood. The problem is, since I’m on the wagon due to my heart, I tend to eat poorly to deal with stress. But there are a few things I can do that won’t skew my INR. I can eliminate sodas and sugar drinks, for one. I can also cut back on my cookie and candy intake. I can replace pasta, which I am a fiend for, with brown rice. But I need to make these changes gradually, one at a time, otherwise, they won’t stick.

I’ve read that, for a man, you should weigh 106 pounds for the first five feet of height, then 6 pounds for every inch over that. You then have a 10 percent leeway higher or lower to provide an ideal weight range. (For women, its 100 points and 5 pounds for every inch over five feet.) So for me, my ideal weight at 5’9” is 160 pounds plus ten percent which puts me at about 176. Right now I’m tipping the scales at 198. 22 pounds overweight. I don’t like thinking about how that’s taxing my poor heart.

So, I need to resume working out, not just to feel better, but to be better to my heart. I’ll have a lot of questions for my cardiologist on Thursday. And if he gives me the okay to exercise, maybe I’ll post some weekly stats on this blog to keep myself honest.

Friday, April 11, 2008

My First Back Cover

I noticed on the back of most paperbacks, and all science fiction paperbacks, there’s usually a couple of paragraphs designed to sell the book. I’ve also noticed that sometimes these hundred or hundred-and-fifty-or-so words may not be always truthful to the source material. They’re probably written by marketing people at the publisher’s headquarters and probably embarrass the heck out of the author. Well, I tried my own hand summing up in a back-cover way one of the two manuscripts I’ve completed. I think I captured the requisite spirit, but the campiness and downright carnival barker aspect of it is a little embarrassing. So ... here’s what you might read on the back of my first book, paperback edition:




They came from outside our universe before time existed – the Iath, destroyers of worlds, the invincible, the terrible, the hungry. And they are converging on a densely populated point in the Milky Way called the Telekthiesis.

Only three stand in the way of this advancing force: Will, half-human half-machine, a killer for cruel masters, merciless though riddled with self-doubts. JiSard, his prey, a failed revolutionary running for her life with only her wits and an alien companion. And the Whale, a mystical messiah, hideous to behold, will draw them together in a desperate plan …

An adventure of galactic scope, spanning millennia and dozens of worlds! The Whale of Cortary is sure to keep the reader riveted until the final showdown with the Iath.

(Dum dum DUMMMMMMMMMMM!!!)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

To the T-Shirt Gods

Hmmmmmmm. Desperately in need of some t-shirts. But not just any t-shirts.

For nearly twenty years I wanted a t-shirt with this guy:



Recently, watching TV with my three-and-a-half year old daughter, this li’l critter caught my eye. He’d make a fine subject for a t-shirt, no?


As a reader, off-and-on, of National Review since 2000, and a mild fan of John Derbyshire (more for his math than for his politics), this is a tee that belongs in the LE Spring Collection ’08:


And to top off my ensemble, I’d need this line, in small dark letters, on a snappy white short-sleeve:

For some, shyness may be their El Guapo.

[Note: this is one of the funniest lines in a movie ever, though the movie itself may not be considered the funniest ever. It’s on my top-10 comedy list, though.]

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Small List of Potent Stories

Like a junkie always on the look to score, I am constantly seeking out books that pack a strong emotional punch. Suprisingly, in thinking back over the couple-hundred books I’ve read, I had a hard time coming up with a short list of five. Of the books and short-stories I finally complied, most, not-so-suprisingly, deal with death. One deals with … let’s say, ‘self-discovery’ to not give away the punchline. Three are short-stories, two are novels. I’ll arrange them in order of how massively they affected me.

1. “The Death of Ivan Ilych” by Leo Tolstoy

Man confronting his painful impending death realizing he has never truly lived. Read in my late-twenties, made me rethink my life. I literally had to have a beer to calm down after reading it, then immediately regretted drinking it.

2. “The Wall” by Jean-Paul Sartre

Man awaiting execution in a cell with two others; tries to figure out how to die with dignity that he sees lacking in his companions. I read this on vacation in the late-80s, and it kept me up at night and made me really, really ponder how I’d act in similar circumstances.

3. “The Gospel According to Mark” by Jorge Luis Borges

Man attempting to convert some illiterate farmers while recovering from a broken leg; his inadvertant fate is horribly ironic. I read this for a college class in literature. It made me want to vomit; you’ll understand.

4. In this House of Brede by Rumer Godden

Woman joins a convent and is slowly spiritually transformed. There are flashbacks of the accidental and lingering death of her five-year-old son, so poignant and heart-wrenching I, a grown man, fought back the urge to cry.

5. Burr by Gore Vidal

Man spends time with the eclectic Aaron Burr, and learns something about himself on the last page that made goosebumps run up and down my body. An excellent, all-around read, not only just for those interested in history.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Daily Habits

I read somewhere that upwards of 90% of what we do is purely habitual. Done automatically, without thought. Ergo, one major key to productivity, to efficiency, to self-improvement, to whatever-you’re-striving-to-do-here, is to replace bad habits with good ones. Re-program yourself, without fail and without thought, to do those little daily tasks, day after day after day, that you know you should do, those little tasks that are the little bricks in the great cathedral that will become your life.

Makes sense on paper. However, as I’ve found out, it is extremely difficult to carry out in real life.

Couple of years ago I made a list of everything I should do, every day, and came up with a simple schedule. At least, I thought it was simple. It turns out that my day would be so rigidly planned, from rising to retiring, that I’d have no wiggle room, no room for spontaneity, no room for simple relaxation.

My body rebelled; I don’t think I made it a single day on that schedule.

What did I have to do?

Well, I scheduled daily exercise. Time to read. Time to spend with my daughter, with my wife. Five minutes to blueprint my workday with a prioritized to-do list. Time to write. When I should have breaks (and what I should eat during breaks, too, such as fruit and other healthy snacks). It doesn’t seem bad, but if you saw my daily schedule, you’d shake your head, and maybe arch your eyebrows.

At heart I’m an absolutist, an all-or-nothing kind of guy. That’s one reason why I can’t implement the schedule. Too much to do all at once. Another is the simple fact that bad habits are nearly impossible to break, especially when you’re trying to implement a whole host of better ones. Yet ... If I spent, say, thirty days establishing one replacement habit, then thirty days on another, then thirty days on another, etc, and started this way back when I first read of the schedule concept, I’d be a different, hopefully better man, right now.

So, no better time than the present to implement a change. One change, that is. I’ve been blogging for about three weeks now, so I figure its almost habitual. By mid-April it’ll be thirty days of blogging. Then, I’ll move on to change two; one change at a time, remember. I have a good idea what it is, and I’ll share it with you (I already mentioned it above).

The moral: Hoppers need to remember – stay small and stick to it!

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Silmarillion

What is it about Tolkien that draws me back, again and again?

Just finished reading The Silmarillion, for the second time. I can’t remember when I read it first; probably I read the first two books during the summer of 1980, and I read the majority of the book sometime in the late-eighties. It’s a sizable work divided into five books. The first two deal with the creation of Middle-Earth and its pantheon of gods (who all the serve the One, Iluvatar, with the exception of Melkor). The middle and by far the longest is the actual Silmarillion, the song of the silmarils, which tells the epic of the Elves in Middle-Earth and their war with Melkor over the stolen jewels called silmarils. This is followed by two codas: one, the Akallabeth, the story of the destruction of the island Numenor (comparable to our Atlantean myths), and a synopsis of the history of Middle-Earth up to the War of the Rings, which is the subject of The Lord of the Rings.

Goose bumps broke out all over my body.

It may just be something that can’t be explained or put into words. Perhaps you just have to be the type of person that ‘gets’ this stuff. I don’t know. But I do know that there is something in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works that elevates them above the thousands of other sword and sorcery books. And it’s not just that it was the first (because it may not have been), though he did set the mark so very high. But – what draws me back to Middle-Earth?

Tolkien’s primarily interest was linguistics. His books are filled with language, creating a self-contained realistic world. Names, cities, fortresses, rivers and mountains. All are derived from his languages. Quenya, High Elven. Other forms of elvish, such as Noldorin, Sindarin. The language of the dwarves. The speech of men. Even the language of evil, spoken by the orcs, the legions of Melkor.

He was also concerned with creating a mythology. A ‘mythopoeia,’ something akin to such early epics as Beowulf and the Teutonic myths that the English peoples did not have. This is where you would place The Silmarillion. It is a viable mythology more fleshed out and wonderful than anything comparable, ‘real’ that I have ever read. He tackles creation, the existence of evil, heroism, self-sacrifice, corruption and treachery, and redemption.

What is the main reason I fell in love with Middle-Earth?

I think it has something to do with this: a romanticised view of man. I don’t mean ‘romanticised’ as in ‘fictional,’ but more like something that belongs to a heroic past. Something we don’t see much of anymore, if at all. Something that’s been scoured away by post-modernism, or whatever you label the trendy, snarky, meaninglessness that permeates our society today. Tolkien’s world was sharply dichromatic: black and white. No shades of grey. In fact, once you began looking for grey, you were no longer white, in the sense of being pure, clean, good. You had a choice you had to make. Who will you serve? The black or the white? Both sides want you, desperately. But choosing the white is often a path of great tribulation, great hardship, pain, and struggle, with no guarantees except that you were on the side of Purity, Cleanliness and Goodness. Our world today cringes at such a choice. And we are less for it. And that is probably the main reason I am drawn towards Tolkien, and the hard choice his world and his characters face.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Random Spiritual Musings

The Catholic philosopher Leon Bloy (French? Belgium?) once said, "There is only one tragedy in life: not to become a saint." Upon reflection, especially if you are a Catholic, you have to agree to the truth of this. After all, did not Jesus, who is God, say "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?" He is saying to us that, in the final analysis, the state of your soul is what matters the most. How often that thought (willingly) eludes us. When you die and go through that tunnel and see the Light at the end, you will not be asked, "How much money did you make during the seventy years I granted you?" Nor will you even be asked, "How much (material) did you provide for your family?" The only thing that will matter is the purity of your soul.

In everyone’s life there seem to be three distinct areas that can lead to improvement. First is one’s inner direction, ‘inner compass’ might be a better expression for it. What guides a man? Where is that man heading, what is his course? Is he God-centered, or self-centered, or even mammon-centered, sex-centered, drug-centered, or any of a thousand other ‘centers’ that are not God.

Second, what are the quality of that man’s relationships – to himself, to his loved ones, to his neighbor, to his enemy, and especially to God? I’ve read that Christianity is a religion not of rules and regulations but of relationships. The older I get, the more I see it as obvious. Chalk this up to experience, I suppose.

Last, what are a man’s daily habits? We are a complex smattering of habits, habits both of virtue and vice. Does one outweigh the other? By how much of a margin? Are we continually struggling to eliminate habitual vice and replace it with habitual virtue? If no, why not? Always a good idea to keep in the back of one’s mind: Sow a thought, reap an act. Sow and act, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. How is the character, the sum of a man’s habit? And I suppose the word "soul" in Jesus’ maxim can be substituted for character. That, I believe, is what God will be very interested in at your appointed time.

One thought that weighs heavily on me is ‘to those who have been given much, much will be demanded.’ This means that I have no excuses for turning my back on sainthood, indeed, no excuses for even falling slightly short of that glorious mark. I have truly been given much, from quite unexpected sources.

Little acts of virtue help. They are little bricks placed, one by one by one, into the foundation of one’s sainthood.

You will always be tempted; sin and sinful thoughts will always rage within you. That is to be expected. What cannot be tolerated is the entertaining of such thoughts. I once read that if you find yourself holding and meditating on a particular negative thought longer than one minute, you can be said to be "dwelling" on the thought. One minute is a very long time. If you allow this to happen twenty or more times a day … how does twenty minutes of such sin stain a soul?

Am I God-centered? No. Or maybe, "yes," but with reservation. I am truly afraid to take the complete step. Is this sin of pride or disbelief in the power and goodness of the Lord? Why would He ever wish for me anything to my detriment? Yet often I am unwilling to take the full leap of faith.

How to keep the inner compass focused on the True Center all the time? Ah, that is the question, isn’t it? Spiritual reading, maybe. Read and know the Gospels. I read a lot of junk compared to what I should be spending valuable time on. Other works, such as the Imitation and the Introduction, should also be memorized, written on the heart, put into daily action. Mass attendance. Learn all you can. Pray, pray, pray. The sacrament of Confession.

My relationships suffer. A saint would not relate to people in the way I do. I must learn to trust in the Lord, to ask Him to bless my relationships. After all, did He not tell Peter and the disciples not to worry about what to say, for the Holy Spirit will supply the words for them. Do you believe this? Do I?

It is what we do all day long that makes us who we are. Was it Emerson who said, "A man is what he thinks about all day long"? Whether thought, act, or habit, all must be regulated at the foot of the Cross.

In the exercises of St. Ignatius you find the following mental exercise. Put yourself in a deep state of reverence for God and for Our Lord Jesus Christ. Put yourself in the Presence of Our Lord. Feel Him with you, above you, at your side, all around you. Now imagine yourself on the hill of Golgotha, kneeling at the foot of the Cross. See Him nailed up on it, suffering for your sake. See all the detail. Now ask yourself the following questions: "What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ right now? What ought I do for Christ?"

What ought I do for Christ ??

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Hegel Update


Just got back to reading Mr. Hegel after taking the week of my surgery off. I'm a little past half-way in my anthology of his works, and let me tell you: what they say about Georg Wilhelm is true. The writing is super-dense, super-vague, super-long and just plain indecipherable. Lots of Capitalized Nouns. It is written in English, which I claim to understand, but I read a paragraph and have no idea of what I just read. Sometimes, if I sense I just went over something important, I'll go back, re-read the last paragraph or two, slowly, trying to focus my jumping mind. I usually get the gist of Hegel's immediate point, but I can't hold it long enough to grasp the bigger picture he's fleshing out.

I've finished three of his (abridged) works and am half-way through a fourth. Here's how much I felt I understood of each:

The Philosophy of History....................75%
The History of Philosophy................... 40%
The Science of Logic.............................10%
The Philosophy of Right and Law.........30%

There's a rising feeling of panic, but I keep it down by realizing that this is just an experiment to combat hopping tendencies. Stay calm, stay focused on the goal. I have only one thing to do: keep going until I finish the anthology. Then I have a week or two on some short, hopefully too-the-point and enlightening secondary materials to explain Hegel's ideas, then I go back and re-read the works. The second time, slowly, as focused as I can be. Centered on the text. After that, I will evaluate my knowledge of Hegel and his system. There is no final exam, no mid-terms, no grades, and most importantly, no rush. But to keep my feet to the fire I'll throw a couple of short essays up on this blog. Hopefully, they'll be accurate and thoughtful, as well as entertaining.

For the curious, I have three more works to plough through:

Lectures on Aesthetics
The Phenomenology of the Spirit
(I can't wait to read this one)
Three [short] Political Essays
- The Internal Affairs of Wurttemburg
- The Constitution of Germany
- Concering the English Reform Bill

Riveting, I know, but I am interested in philosophy, and Hegel undeniably has influenced so, so very much of what went on in the twentieth century, especially in the political and economic fields (Marx was a devotee). Something tells me a futuristic society steeped in this man's thought may provide a fertile field for fiction. (alliteration!)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Saturday Matinee

Ah, the monster movie. One of the best parts of my childhood.

I absolutely loved them. You could watch two or three on a Saturday morning over a couple of bowls of Honey Combs. And while I did a fair share of cartoon watching, I think I prefered to see the Movie. Television in the seventies was quite different. During the week, Channel 7 always had a 4:30 movie, ending at 6 pm with the news. They liked themes: one week World War II movies, the next, westerns, and after that, cop movies. But I always loved when they played the monster movies, which they did, as I remember, fairly regularly.

Monster movies can be grouped into several broad genres, as the programming team at Channel 7 was aware. First to mind is the Godzilla movie. There must have been a dozen Godzilla movies alone when I was growing up, not to mention six or seven Gameras that were shown often. Occassionally Rodan was thrown in, too. Godzilla was originally made in 1954 in black and white as a not-too-deeply-veiled analogy of the atom bomb drop nine years earlier. There was something about it that turned me off as a young child. It could have been its grimness, its heavy-handedness. I do recall the sad theme music. But I think the worst part of that movie was that Godzilla is definitively killed at the end. What a downer.

Everyone knows the best Godzilla movie is Godzilla Versus King Kong. I can still see, in my mind's eye, myself as an eight-year-old, completely absorbed as the slimy giant octopus slithers up to the unsuspecting tribal village. Remember King Kong getting drunk on the wine, and then the helicopters flying him in to Japan to fight Godzilla? And as an aside, what was up with King Kong's face? A seriously bad case of teenage acne. But the best parts of the movie were the bouts between the two giant beasts (and the ringside commentary of the newsmen). I remember Godzilla almost winning and Kong somehow got charged with electricity and somehow drowned the aquatic reptile.

A close second for best Godzilla movie is the one with the three-headed monster. It goes by several names: Ghidra, Monster X, and I think the movie also has more than one title. Best scene: Rodan picking up Godzilla and flying the dinosaur, legs stretched out in front of him, straight into Ghidra. And what is up with those aliens? Weird. Another great Godzilla movie was the one with the mechanical King Kong. Now that was a cool rubber monster suit. For some reason the scene where the psycho crazy evil mad scientist shoots the Japanese woomanin the arm sticks out in my memory.

And for some reason Gamera was huge in the late-seventies. I don't remember much of these movies, only that they were magnets for me and my friends. You have to wonder how much of a flying giant turtle with jets coming out of its shell was inspired by some illicit drug use over in Tokyo. I have a vague recollection of the climax of one movie being the plucky determined turtle hoisting his nasty foe on his back and plodding up the side of a volcano, to dump the hapless foe in for a hot bath.

Another broad category is the black-and-white classic. Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein versus the others in various permutations. I would even throw in the 1933 King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young with this group, even though they were giant beasties. I don't think I enjoyed this category as much, but these movies definitely scared me more. Probably the moody gray atmosphere, the English-accented mad scientists, the tragedy that somehow registered in my young heart. I can recall scenes from all to varying degrees. I would like to obtain DVDs of them all and watch them again as an adult, analyzing them for the undoubted layers of complex themes they encompass. One movie, with Lon Chaney Jr as a sad electrified man, brought me to tears.

I can think of two more genres of my monster movie madness youth. There was the action-adventure. Most of these were solid entertainment, but one, Journey to the Center of the Earth, stands out as an incredible experience, one of the greatest movies of my childhood. I could watch the movie over and over and over again and still love every minute of it. The sets! The matte paintings! The lizards scaled to the size of dinosaurs! The duck that that evil guy ate! Professor Lindebrook's accent! There were other movies in this category, but I can't seem to recall most of the titles. There was something like the "Lost World" were a group of explorers were hunting for something and came up against more lizards scaled to the size of dinosaurs as well as a very creepy scene of giant tarantulas in thick giant silken cobwebs. Inevitably there'd be a lava eruption that would destroy the world. I think Fantastic Voyage would fit nicely in this category, and it alone ranks as an all-time classic, though not strictly a "monster-movie." I think I can call it a monster movie only because of a scene near the end, where the evil scientist, trapped in the disabled sub, is slowly digested by the blobous white blood cell. Other movies I throw in this category are the Sinbad movies and, of course, Jason and the Argonauts.

But my all-time favorites fall into the category of the 50's science fiction movie. That decade brought some of the greatest classics to the screen than any other. Some had the eerie black-and-white effect going for them, others had the "modern" color look to make the monsters more menacing (and more bloody). Topping this list is the scariest movie I have ever seen: The Blob. That movie freaked me out! I mean, it scared the living s*** out of me in the strongest sense of that cliche. The first time I watched it, listening to the opening credit's loopy song, I knew I was in for something mean. I nervously continued watching ... and couldn't anymore after that poor old man had that blob latch onto his hand and slide up his arm. The way that old guy screamed/muttered/agonized! It took me into my adulthood until I could watch the whole thing. [And then there's the 1988 remake: a meaner, nastier blob. I agree wholeheartedly. I watched the remake on regular TV; still haven't the guts to watch it unedited.]

But there were lots and lots of other classics. Aliens entered our lives in this decade. My favorite is probably Earth vs. the Flying Saucers for the stop-motion effects of the spaceships and the whole feeling of total warfare about it. The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing, all the giant-monster-by-radioactivity movies, It Came from Outer Space, Invaders from Mars, The Incredible Shrinking Man, This Island Earth, even The Magnetic Monster: all classics, hands down.

Ah, the memories of youth ...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Ulysses

Poetry is something I've tip-toed around with cautious curiosity, like blindly seeking a dangling light bulb string off a dark basement ceiling coated in cobwebs, to illuminate the room. Some of it to me is utterly incomprehensible. Anything earlier than Wordsworth (1770-1850) is inaccessible to me. This includes Chaucer, Spenser, Ben Jonson, John Donne, and most unfortunately, Shakespeare. Sorry, I just can't wade through the thick verbiage; I can't get the rhythm off the page and into my head (or heart).

One exception, I suppose, is John Milton (1608-1674). I've started Paradise Lost half a dozen times, and one life goal is to eventually wade thoroughly through it. William Blake (1757-1827) is another; however, I've found his poetry deceptive. Despite its apparent simplicity, apparently, according to commentators, there's a deep mystical system of theology to his work. Alas, it is completely unseen by me, and I looked. Well, before hopping on to others things.

What do I enjoy? Wordsworth: "She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways"; Byron: "The Destruction of Sennacharib"; Shelley: "Ozymandias"; Tennyson: "Ulysses", "The Eagle", "Flower in the Crannied Wall"; Whitman: "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer", "On the Beach at Night"; Hopkins: "Pied Beauty"; Frost: "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening"; Sandburg: "Grass", "Cool Toombs"; Eliot: "The Hollow Men". Yeah, most of it's from a massive anthology I have, but I do own Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Christus by Longfellow, Blake and Milton's stuff, and a volume of Robert Browning's work that I'm interested in.

Again, let me reinforce that I really don't know what I'm talking about here. I've only written two or three poems in my life and they are truly and absolutely horrible. But there's something in the poems above that move me. Something attractive. Ray Bradbury advises young authors to read poetry every day. I can see the value of that advice in numerous ways.

Who can not rise inspired after reading these final lines in Tennyson's Ulysses?

.................................. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order to smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are -
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The 'Bloop'

OK, this raised the hairs on the back of my neck when I first read it.

It seems that during the summer of 1997, an eerie, ultra-low frequency sound was detected by SOSUS, the array of underwater microphones constructed by the US Navy in the '60s to monitor Soviet submarine activity. Not once, but several times. By sensors over 3,000 miles apart. It was recorded, and given the name "The Bloop." There's a wave file of the sound on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's web page, and you do hear a "bloop" noise. The creepy thing about it is that this file is sped up 16 times; listening to it at its naturally frequency is otherworldly.

These undersea sounds have been well studied. Scientists and naval technicians can even identify the species of whale based solely upon the sound print it leaves. Fairly quickly non-organic sources - such as machinery, ocean currents, or earthquakes - have been ruled out as the cause of the Bloop. So, what is it?

A couple of theories have been put forth. But consider this: if it is the sound print of a living creature, it would have to be larger than a blue whale. Some scientists speculate of a new species of giant squid or octopus. However, such creatures lack the gas-filled sac needed to create such sounds. They would need to periodically surface for oxygen, and thus would increase the probability of a sighting. What if such a monster had tubes like an elephant's trunk to replenish its air supply? How about an entirely new species of animal that need not surface at all? Perhaps its a school of smaller creatures that rarely encounter man?

Where do you think the sound originated? The Bermuda Triangle? Any of the pattern of "devil's triangles" of lost shipping that grid the planet's surface? No. It's been pinpointed to a location approximately 1,000 miles due west of the southern tip of Chile, in the southern Pacific Ocean. Is there anything remarkable about this? Sure is. If you're familiar with H.P. Lovecraft's most famous short story, "The Call of Cthulhu," this is extremely close to the coordinates where the undersea god-monster lies sleeping ...

Lovecraft is the undisputed master of moody atmospheric horror, and many others have made the observation of the Bloop phenomenon seems tailor-made for his pen. I went through a phase where I read most of his short stories, and his strengths compensate his weaknesses (he doesn't know how to write how people really talk). I have a horror anthology that I may pick through during my down time this week and read one or two of his more obscure stuff. Oh, and since I first read of the Bloop on wikipedia last summer, an idea for a short fiction piece has been gestating in my mind. Once my original idea raises the hairs on the back of my neck, I'll start writing it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Post-Surgery Update

My second go-around with ablation therapy, to cure my atrial fibrillation, so far is a (guardedly optimistic) success. I won’t know for certain that I’m fully cured until 90 days out from the procedure. But compared to how I felt back in November when I first had the ablation done, this is a massively major improvement. Mental attitude plays a huge chunk of success in these things, and mine is excellent!

I’m taking the week off from work, taking it easy. I still get out of breath going up a flight of stairs, and it still hurts to take a deep breath. I slept on the couch last night to allow my long-suffering wife the night in bed, and kept waking up every two hours feeling like I was drowning, feeling like I had a load of bricks on my chest. I’d get up, walk around for a few minutes, feel fine, and go back to sleep. It’s all the tissue inside my heart healing.

I can eat and drink whatever I want, but obviously I’m going to avoid alcohol, and caffeine as much as possible. I was at the hospital on Monday for bloodwork, and my INR level (the amount of thinness of my blood) was 1.4, too low. So, I have to continue my lovenox injections (twice daily, still) and increase my coumadin intake. Once it gets to the safe zone between 2.0 and 2.5 I can stop giving myself injections. One thing they recommend is to keep your diet fairly consistent so as not to skew the INR level, so I’m not going vegan just yet.

As far as complications go, the first time around I had terrible complications with one of my incisions. When I tried to stand a few hours after coming out of surgery with a nurse’s assistance, I coughed, the wound opened, and blood splattered on the floor. She threw me down, called for assistance, patched me up and cleaned me up. The problem is with the amount of thinners in my bloodstream its difficult for the incision to scab up. It took two or three days for it to stop bleeding. It was not pretty.

This second time I was so surprised when I was up and walking at 10:30 pm on Friday night (I was under general aenesthesia from somewhere around 9 am to 5 pm). The next morning when my surgeon visited me and checked the incisions, he removed the bandages, saying they were closed up. Wow! I was walking around, sitting up, moving unrestricted. How we take for granted something simple as free movement! Back in November my legs were in immobilizers for a little over twelve hours and it was utter misery.

But I didn’t get off completely free this time. A minor complication, but an annoying one. I was discharged at 10 am on Saturday, and got home by 11. By 12, I was coughing persistently, coughing up mucus. Yellowish, brownish, and reddish – uh oh, blood. And I was coughing so hard I was fearful of rupturing an incision. And I couldn’t get any sleep, which by this point I was craving. My wife called my cardiologist, who called in a prescription for cough syrup with codeine, but it didn’t work and it was a wretched sleepless Saturday night. My surgeon called on Sunday morning, my wife explained my symptoms, and he called in a prescription for antibiotics. By Sunday afternoon my cough had stopped. It seems that, most likely, I caught an infection from the tube they place down my esophagus during the procedure.

My heart appears to be beating fine; I’ve had no explicit instances of erratic heartbeat, just heavy pounding when I exert myself. But I’m guardedly optimistic; I want an EKG to say that my heart is as good as new. Then I’ll know that all this was not in vain.