Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Going home!

As reported by BBC-Asia-Pacific news today:

"Australia has agreed to buy back more than 50,000 sheep stranded at sea."

They have reportedly paid more than US $3 million to [finally] resolve this livestock crisis. Unless a local solution is found to the problem, the sheep will head home for Australia.

It appears the Australians were not lying when they denied the Iraqi Council had been offered the sheep: it is now confirmed officially that the negotiations were taking place with the British army "to distribute the sheep in southern Iraq".

Like they say, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach...

Monday, September 29, 2003

Ah! T'is the season of mellow fruitfulness, indeedy.

Everything has a clear edge to it and there is almost a nip in the air. Time to sort out the sweaters into those that are good enough for outerwear and those that have little holes, but are still good enough for the layered look.

I come from a land where we didn't so much have four seasons as we had "weather". I remember wearing shetland sweaters gladly in August. I also remember the annual freeze-out of my teens and young adulthood, celebrating May Day in a new summer frock while shivering through the final blizzard of the season.

I now live in a place where just about everyone complains about the weather. I continue to be righteous about it, however: weather is meant to be enjoyed, no matter what, seasonal, unseasonal, pleasant or unpleasant. It is the price to be paid for variety, the lengthening or shortening of days, the gradual merging of one season into another, the fruits and vegetables "in season". It will also be the price we will have to pay, and our children, and our children's children, for our shortsightedness in protecting our environment.

Who remembers any more what the proper season is for cherries and strawberries? They can be had, for the money, all year round.

The relevance of geography is another important element we don't pay attention to: latitude and longitude, the equatorial regions, this side of the mountain range or that, this side of the landmass or that, the monsoons, the thaws and the frostings. Going from Europe to Africa on vacation, one of the striking moments for me was the discovery of the almost total lack of twilight. The sun came up, Boom! And went down, Boom! Hardly time for more than one cuppa tea or one gin and tonic. Reading a letter from an African refugee, who had obtained political asylum in Sweden, writing to his cronies, the bulk of his comments were for the weather and the shortness of the daylight hours in winter: "What they taught us in school about geography is true," he asserted, "It is an amazing thing to witness." This was of more consequence to him than anything else relating to his asylum case.

A few years ago, I underwent aggressive chemotherapy for a whole year. Not that I believed in it: I didn't and I still don't. But being in the hands of a mainstream surgeon who told me I had to have it ("Have to?" Well yes, he had had to cut the tumor because he could not scrape my backbone, I had to have chemo because "he could not get it all", as the saying goes), I humored him and went along with it. Part of the reason, actually, is that the surgery had taken all the stuffing out of me, literally, and I didn't have the guts and energy to fight him, and part of it was my Buddhist faith, where we "change poison into medicine". So I went to the oncologist once a week, to the tune of $1,500 each shot, what a lark.

Ah! Those were indeed the days! I myself was so poor, I usually had to walk to and from my appointments. It gave me a certain satisfaction, particularly the return home, because the feeling bad usually started before I had even stepped off the table. I made an elaborate ritual of the whole thing, with my favorite routes, the detours to the best free public bathrooms, the chichi pit stops where I could sit and watch the world go by in front of a delicious expresso, the terrace to the restaurant that served the best creme brulee in town, the whole point was to give it a luxurious feeling, the notion of a special treat. I would sometimes dawdle around for more than three hours before collapsing onto my bed and closing my eyes, sometimes without so much as bothering to take off my shoes. My theory was, if I was going to take this absolute shit into my veins, it behooved me to make sure it circulated to the end of every single little last toe in my body.

I noticed that year that the four seasons were unusually well defined and differentiated, I sometimes wondered whether it was happening that way because I was destined to die.

There was a beautiful, long, cool spring, instead of an overnight explosion into sudden summer, where it took the blossoming trees more than three weeks to unfold into their full glory.

There was one quiet, snowy weekday, the trees in Central Park all black and white and lacy against an all-white sky with a timid white sun trying to burn through, and people strolling during their lunchtime with colored umbrellas, for heavens' sakes! I expected the heavens to pipe in some special music at any moment.

There was an early snow fall in autumn one night, before the trees had shed all their leaves, and in the glowing morning sunshine the trees stood with their feet in the snow, onto which a fresh sprinkling of colored autumn leaves had fallen, and their flamboyant heads stretched up into a cloudless sky, topped off by white snow caps which had not yet melted.

Once, during the winter, cutting across Central Park in my non-waterproof sneakers, I crossed a bunch of people going the other way on touring skis. I stopped one of them: "Do you know anything about birding?" I asked. I pointed to a huge bird, looming very large on a bare branch, with the body language of some great owl on the lookout for small snacks, ready to swoop at any time. Within two minutes, I had a crowd of some twenty people surrounding me, looking in the same direction, absolutely amazed by the sight. "Thank you for pointing it out to us," they said, "We were just looking at our feet." "I know, I know," was all I could say.

I have lived my adult life almost entirely in large cities. This makes me one of the great "ungardening Fenns". My father, on the other hand, was a great "gardening Fenn". He had a small house on one acre of land for some twenty-five years, just outside of Paris, where I used to visit him from time to time.

One spring day, he called me over.

"Come take a look at this," he said.
"What is it?" I was looking at some pathetic small twig, twisting in the wind in a bleak corner of the garden.
"It's a budleia", my father declared, with a pride which I personally considered unjustified.

He dragged me off to the other side of the garden.

"Look!" he pointed.
"Another budleia?" I ventured.
"Yep!" (very satisfied).

We made a few more stops: it appeared all my father's cuttings had taken successfully, and there were a lot of them. That summer, the garden was a riot of purple flowers with monarch butterflies.

I came back, probably a year later, in autumn. I found my father girding up for action, boiler suit, stepladder, bucket, saw, clippers and all.

"And where might you be off to?" I asked cheerfully.
"I'm going to simplify the budleias," he answered.

Gardening for the great "gardening Fenn" was always this: a tentative but determined and self-satisfied beginning, followed by a beautiful garden, followed by a great destructive and authoritarian retribution. Being one of the great "ungardening Fenns", I myself am of the mind that there is never too much of a good thing.

When I lived in Paris I had the good fortune of living in a small studio apartment with a large balcony facing towards the Eiffel Tower. I started a bunch of seedlings on what looked like TV dinners, transplanted them into plastic yogurt pots (collected at the rate of one a day), hardened them out on my windowsill, and eventually had a mass of snapdragons, etc. in tubs. Things did get out of hand in the heat of summer, however, when I actually had to go home at lunchtime every day to water my potted tomato plants (you have no idea how thirsty these things can get), but the effort was worth it, to have friends to dinner and serve them a tomato salad that came from my very own balcony!

When I moved to New York, I lived at the bottom of a well for the first three years. My small, dark studio looked out onto a backyard which never saw a ray of sunshine from year-end to year-end. I felt totally concreted-in. My only ungardening effort then took the form of subscribing to Organic Gardening, a must-read if ever there was one for the city slicker. Now I face south, on a higher floor, and I have two tiny window boxes.

This spring was very wet in New York: it rained practically every day for weeks. Then at the end of April, I had an operation, after which I developed what was probably some iatrogenic infection, so the planting time went by and was gone before I came out of the mists and looked out. To my amazement, I saw green: two large weeds had self-seeded into my little boxes. Also a few small petunias, dwarf phlox and pansies. I topped up the show with a small selection from the weekly farmers' market near me, and had a beautiful procession of color all summer. (One of the weeds grew to 68 inches! The other to 38 inches. Nothing spectacular in the floral department, however: just little white thingies in a bottle brush format.)

My main ungardening these days goes on in the street. My elevator may buzz with comments from the neighbors, in the style of: "It's soooooooo cold!", I come back with a generic: "Yes, but did you notice the forsythia next door is already in full bud? Sap's up!" I always have a comeback, because everywhere, anonymous city-dwellers have planted small offerings in the poor city soil. These sometimes survive the wanton uprootings by feckless passersby, and inevitably every plant has its moment of triumph.

One building on my block stands out especially, at 310. It has a small patch of garden on each side of the door, which is graced with a filigree iron porch, painted white. It was professionally landscaped two or three years ago and boasts an imaginative selection of flowering bushes, ferns, perennials and annuals. Some weeks ago, as I was walking by, I noticed an old man (my age) replacing leggy pansies with what looked to me to be even leggier, overblown and seeding coleus. Many little pots of them, all the same, two shades of fuschia/purple/red.

I've used coleus in my window boxes, it's a successful choice if you want to be sure of color at all times. I'm always careful to keep the blooming under control because in the back of my mind there is lodged the theory that a plant knows when it has fulfilled its purpose, its mission in life, which is to flower and seed, and that when this is done, the plant just ups and dies and is ready for the compost heap. The old man didn't look easy, I didn't dare speak to him, but I did think he had made a poor choice.

How wrong I was! Those leggy little coleus have spread out into the most amazing of ground covers, and on the shady side of the street now glow as an unbelievably bright carpet of color, a riot of vegetable paisley.

This morning, I could see peeking out from the compost at 310 some beautiful little flowers that came out "head backward". They look all the world like cyclamen to me, but where are the leaves? Many, many more small knobs are poking through, promising a profusion of these little flowers in the next few days.

In front of 340, there are a few isolated small black-eyed susans, self-seeded on the winds from upstate New York. Sunny, timid, shy but strong.

Around the trees, some sort of bluish flowers have re-bloomed: they are from the spring, this is their second coming this year. What are they trying to tell us?

I see signs everywhere.

Last night on the BBC internet I found out that in 1911 a dog was killed by a meteorite that fell (or should I say, came?) from Mars. Talk about not being able to avoid one's karmic retribution...

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Mondo Cane

Sheep Story No. 1

In 1982, I went to France on business for six months. I was working in Paris during the week but I had a Eurail pass and went away every weekend, to get air and exercise, to get away from my cheating boyfriend, and to take photographs.

One day that I hadn't planned my trip properly, I found myself walking along an endless busy main road for hours. Boring, boring, boring. I took the first turn-off: I had no map, no idea where it might lead. The small road meandered in all directions, getting smaller all the time until it dwindled into a dirt path which finally spilled out into an empty grazing field. I hate going back on my steps, even though I know the scenery will always look different, so I continued across the field. I went through the gate at the other end into another absolutely huge field. It was fallow, with some sort of mixed green and grass ground cover, so I walked across it without compunction. I could see a small lamb standing in the middle all by himself. I walked towards him and he stood motionless and silent, waiting for me. When I got within a few feet and what I thought was polite speaking distance, I leant down towards him and said gently:

"Hello... Where is your mother?"
"Baah, baah, baah, baah, baah, baah!"

The little lamb had been waiting to tell someone all about it. I burst out laughing.


He was absolutely frantic. "It's not at all funny," he wanted me to know, "It's ABSOLUMENT TRAGIQUE and I'm here all alone."

I could see the truth of what he was telling me. Looking around, there were no sheep all the way to the horizon, there was nothing for miles around except for empty, pale green, fallow fields. I have no idea how that little lamb had got there, unless he was dropped from the sky.

"I'm so sorry." I knelt beside him, put my arms around him, and hugged and petted him. He quieted down and little bleaty baahs eventually died away to quiet breathing until he was just looking into my eyes with some kind of yearning. I stayed with him for a while, talking to him, babying him. Eventually, even I realized I had to move on, the moment had passed. It was hard to leave him to his loneliness and despair, and as I drew away and looked back from time to time, he was still standing there, looking after me until I disappeared.

Sheep Story No. 2

Some other year, I was in Iceland in the month of May and was staying on a farm in Borgesfjordur, north of Reykjavik. Iceland is still very cold in May--the really woolly Icelandic sheep insist on going indoors about 5 p.m. everyday: you could set your watch by them. The cows are not let out into the fields until June, when they all make fools of themselves, jumping for joy. Only the fluffy Icelandic poneys can stand the bitter cold. Anyway, dinner on the farm is early--maybe six o'clock or so. And afterwards, there is a long evening without television.

Inge, the farmer's wife, had two teenage daughters and a two-year old, and she was also raising an orphan boy about 11 years old. They came to me like an official delegation after dinner one evening, and in a well-timed, well-rehearsed chorus, said in English: "Can we go into the barn to pet the sheep?"

"Well, I don't know. I will have to ask your mother, it's up to her."

Inge's face absolutely lit up: "Oh, would you really do that?" was all she said.

So we put our coats on and traipsed across a muddy field to the sheep's pen. When we walked in and filed up onto a narrow platform at one end of the barn, which stood raised a little above the ground, there was a soft rustling shuffle as all the sheep turned around to face us and took one step forward in our direction. As our eyes adjusted to the soft half-light, the sheep closest to the platform pressed forward and one by one were petted by each one of us in turn. Nobody orchestrated it but eventually each of the 300 or so sheep came to the front to be caressed. It was all very orderly and very quiet, an occasional low bleat, soft breathing, shuffling of hooves in the straw on the floor and silky pelts rubbing against each other. It could have gone on all night if the light had not failed.

Well, after quoting myself on sheep, I have to admit I am not a vegetarian. I am a Buddhist, I recognize every food I eat is some form of life, which feeds my life, and so I bless my food in gratitude for supporting my life with the sacrifice of its own life. When I was a child, I could hear the potatoes cry, when I peeled them, but that's another story, perhaps for another day.

Sheep Story No. 3

The great ongoing story on sheep these days is the story of the Australian "Ship of Death", as it has been dubbed by the Australian media.

Australia exports some 6 million sheep a year to the Middle East for food. They are shipped live, to be slaughtered ritually at their destination, which makes them halal, fit for consumption.

A recent report stated that some 14,000 sheep died during the month of July of this year while being shipped to Saudi Arabia.

I suppose the sheep shipping industry must have come under closer scrutiny because of this. It is possibly what accounts for the fact that we now, in the month of September, are being told the story of one single shipment of some 50,000 sheep which ran into trouble because the Saudis refused delivery, saying 6% were suffering from scabby mouth disease, which is 1% more than their health regulations allow. The Australian shippers were indignant, the sheep were fine, they said, they were in great shape, they were getting well fed, well watered, vets were on board the ship, the sheep were putting on weight, they couldn't see what all the fuss was about.

The Australians have been casting around, offering the sheep to whoever wants them, for free by now. Reportedly, some 3-4,000 of them have died on board, whether from general conditions or because of the scabby mouth disease is not made clear. It would be really embarrassing to have to slaughter so many sheep at sea, which is what might have to happen if no one takes them.

Pakistan thought it over, they wanted to consult with the Saudis who had actually seen the sheep before making their decision. Eventually, they came back and said thanks for the offer, but no thanks.

The United Arab Emirates followed suit.

For a while, it was suggested the Iraqi Council had agreed to take them. They would be slaughtered for the feastings of Ramadan, which starts some time in October. The Australians have denied this rumor, however, it is not clear whether the sheep were even offered to Iraq at all.

At present, the ship is somewhere off the United Arab Emirates--some people say they know exactly where, no one is telling. Animal rights activists are hot on the trail of this story "in the interests of the animals' welfare."

Meanwhile, those poor sheep have been at sea for almost eight weeks by now, in temperatures of 45-50 degrees Centigrade (113-122 degrees Fahrenheit). Sounds like a slow bake to me.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

So, Iraq is for sale. It makes it so much easier to spread the loot, to make sure only the best connected to those who are divvying it up will benefit the most. It does not mean the Iraqi people themselves will receive any more benefits, of course, not the general population, that is. The best possible picture would be public ownership in the hands of an honest administration, but this never happens.

When I was a little kid, I spent a number of school vacations on a farm. Each evening, I went into the stables, where large cows were milked by hand by the women of the farm, sometimes helped out by the men, but it was mainly woman's work. There was an open, permanent fire in the center on the floor, over which was set up a tripod with a large cauldron into which the fresh milk was poured, where it cooked up to make cheese for days until the cauldron was filled to the top. A good milk cow gives some 13 liters, twice a day, and I'm talking of the old days before any kind of hormones, etc. This milk, straight from the cow, if let stand in a jar, will within a very short time separate, the heavy cream coming to the top and the thinner milk falling to the bottom. This is a marvel of nature to someone who knows nothing of chemistry, you would expect the opposite to happen. It never does. This is a totally dependable process, the cream always rises.

In society, the cream that rises to leadership is rarely the better part of the population. In this case, it is more like the scum on top of turpid waters. You can see it again and again and again, where leaders instead of beneficent become autocratic tyrants, who rape and ravage the countries under their rule.

Throughout history, the process is dependable, and still we continue to do things in the same way. You notice such-and-such a country is like a jet plane flying amok in the wrong direction, threatening everybody else's safety and wellbeing? Go right ahead, shoot the pilot and replace him. Never mind that the nature of the plane is exactly what makes the pilot get the idea he can do what he wants with it in the first place, once in the pilot's seat, and once he has mastered the commands. Ryszard Kapuscinski described the process very well:

"...a feeling of impunity takes root among the elite: We are allowed anything, we can do anything. This is a delusion, but it rests on a certain rational foundation. For a while it does indeed look as if they can do whatever they want. Scandal after scandal and illegality after illegality go unpunished. The people remain silent, patient, wary. They are afraid and do not yet feel their own strength. At the same time, they keep a detailed account of the wrongs, which at one particular moment are to be added up."

So, Iraq now has a new leadership, selected by us. There is a rotating provisional leadership, but this is just smoke and mirrors: within days of coming into the pilot's seat, Chalabi has kicked off the fire sale. The official headlines say "except the oil", and everybody nods knowingly: "It doesn't have to mention the oil because it is already out of Iraqi hands, in terms of control."

On the side, the BBC reports on November 22, in an article "Iraq oil assets up for sale":

"Ali Allawi, the trade minister in the US backed administration in Iraq, has said that foreign ownership of assets in the country's oil industry has not been ruled out."

Mr. Allawi gave the BBC an interview in Dubai on that same date, in which he said in effect the oil industry had not been included in the Iraqi sale because it was undergoing "reforms".

"There is no final decision on the shape of the oil industry after reform. He said it would be a matter for the oil ministry and the Governing Council to decide. But he certainly anticipates some private sector role. It might be through equity--owning a share of some oil businesses. He said that foreign ownership of some Iraqi oil assets is a possibility. ..."

Hehehe! Wanna bet where this one ends up? Wanna make honest penny?

In the meanwhile this month's pilot is pressing Washington for more independence, more autonomy. He has also reportedly sent representatives to France and Germany to solicit their backing. The New York Times on the front page on September 23 said:

"He demanded that the Iraqi Governing Council be given at least partial control of the powerful finance and security ministries..."

Given this particular pilot's record, the fact that there is a judgment against him outstanding in Jordan for his despoiling of the Petra bank, albeit he protests this is all a pack of lies to discredit him, will it surprise anyone, whenever he gets hold of his independence, that he shall promptly take advantage of his position? After all, we are not talking of an inexperienced beginner here. Moreover, what are the bets that it will be so easy to set him aside, when his time is up and the "provisional" aspect of the interim government will have served its purpose?

Whatever the future may hold in store as far as things financial are concerned in Iraq, for the moment Brother Bremer has delegated full authority to administer the affairs of the Iraqi Ministry of Finance (since July 4, 2003) to Dave Oliver, senior advisor for the Iraqi Minister of Finance.

I notice the proposed Bremer budget for the period ending December 2003, provides under the most miscellaneous of items: "Other Budget Expenditures", an item entitled "Various Expenditures" for a total of US $925 million. This contrasts with a later entry, where Bechtel is listed for a US $400 million contract. Now pray tell, what might "Various Expenditures" cover? It seems to me that a modest item to the tune of US $925 million would deserve a more specific identification.

It reminds me of the grandmother who kept household accounts on a daily basis, and each day recorded a variable under the heading "GAWP". Her husband asked her one day what this might be. "God alone will provide", she answered deadpan. It was an entry to balance her books, she didn't know where the money had gone, it just couldn't be accounted for, it had gone missing.

There are many stories coming from the street that the pilot's hands are already not clean in Iraq: his militia, the raiding operations of his thugs, are already well known throughout the land.

Rule by terror and intimidation will ever fail because there is always a point when fearful and powerless humanity stands tall and cries out: "Stop! Enough! No more!"

I remember a series of articles a few years ago in the New Yorker about torture in Uruguay. It appeared 50% of the population had been tortured. The remaining 50% had to include the torturers. The 100% of the population contained women and children, but I don't remember whether it was ever mentioned to the extent of their participation in either statistic. There was one telling detail, a question asked: when one had been one of the torturers, what was it convinced you to stop? Nothing really, torture had become the daily grind of routine, that is what one did to earn one's living, it was just a job. What happened was that one day your Uncle Joe was brought in, or your Cousin Joey was brought in, and No, you could not continue to torture. So, you stopped.

Today, I see a headline saying 27 Israeli pilots have refused to execute bombing raids targeting Palestinian civilians. This is just the beginning: these young human beings have taken personal responsibility to face the reality of what they were doing, which they were only doing because their leaders said so. They have now declared that they have different values, the purest of which is the recognition that every life has value, even when the beneficiary of such life professes a different lifestyle.

The borders and boundaries drawn by the West with straight edged rulers at the time the Ottoman Empire was dissolved and divvied up took no stock of the varied peoples who lived on those lands, who had endured and survived conquests and occupations by various invaders, for thousands of generations, and who still perdured and thrived. The West despoiled them from the land they had lived on, with the rationalization that they had not appreciated it properly. They handed ownership to those who would appreciate it better. Never mind that no one owns the land, anywhere: it is there for our enjoyment, and only for our lifetime.

It is only in America that you cannot walk along the beach because access is denied. It is only here that someone can fence off his ownership all the way into the water, ownership based on greed and selfishness and self-agrandisement, ownership by someone who builds his palatial house along the shore, barring access to everyone else, even at low tide.

Monday, September 22, 2003

It's Flotsam and Jetsam, today.

Hardly surprising, considering I spent so much time during the past few days looking for something or other underneath my desk.

It's random realizations, today.

Hardly surprising, considering I have the attention span of a parakeet. Or is it just more of "focused when interested, but when not, not"? So...

Foresight is having a small blanket within reach for when the temperature suddenly drops during the night.

Luxury in NYC is having two tall weeds growing in your tiny window boxes.

What memories will remain of these past days that might not just as well refer to any other period of my life? What details actually deserve being remembered?

Saturday, J. called: "I miss you. I need to talk to you. Could you pleeeeease come for a while?" I was bizzy, designing a business card for another friend, ready to print, looking for the card stock under my desk. Still, I went down three flights to J's, taking my cup of tea with me. What's the point of having a friend if you never see her? She was so happy to see me, it was almost worth the delaying of my own gratification, the completion of a self-appointed task. We sat down at the table, and Zap! On went the TV: "I want to watch Miss America", said J. And so we did. You must really have been missing me, I laughed. She invited me back for the premiere of Threat Matrix last night, and so I went.

It was all OK, I suppose, but it all got me off to a late start this morning because I am not accustomed to watching so much TV. I don't even have TV in my house. TV watching gives me a visual hangover, all those meaningless ads for SUVs, and all those criminal ads for pharmaceuticals, and all those manipulative ads for dog food, kitty litter and chicken nuggets, I go forth late and bleary-eyed the next day. I zombie along to Starbucks on automatic pilot, barely looking at the street lights before crossing. Consequently, I experienced a different Starbucks from the usual very early morning slot. You could hardly make out their piped-in music for the din of all those cell phones, "How aaaaaare ya'?", "It's me--I'm having coffee...", "...And he said...", "So, what's new?" So much pressing business. All of B'way was there, beautiful, tall, leggy show girls, lots of hair, lots of teeth, bright eyes, lots of hopes and dreams and determination. It must be so hard to be young and beautiful these days.

On the way home, I catch a cell phone poster, something like: "You cant' procrastinate your way to the top". I take it personally, I suppose that is the whole point. It's only at Gristede's that I recover, as I select my can of black beans in the Goya aisle, as I remember that Descartes, Voltaire and Proust all spent most of their lives in bed. Napoleon too, but that's another story because he was seldom alone.

Well, those guys were all French. Maybe the French have a point, when they adopt their superior attitudes.

It's kind of funny, now that Thomas L. Friedman (and probably those others he influences and represents) has declared the French to be our next enemy. They do have that sarcastic streak, they do tend to look at the rest of us as "their village idiots", but sometimes you can't begrudge them the benefit of a sneaking sort of admiration.

My father, who used to write a lot of letters to the Editor, gave me a bunch of his notes before he died. While I was looking for the card stock under my desk, I came across an envelope in which I found the following:

"It has been said that language, as distinct from speech, was given to man to disguise his thoughts. That seems highly probable, when one reflects that there are about 3,000 languages spoken in the world today, but there are only about seven races, and none of them pure.

"In such conditions, it seems absurd that a community, like the French, which prides itself on being the world's elite in most things, but especially in brain power and intelligence, should fear the virility of any other of the 3,000 tongues used in lesser communities.

"As a regular user of the French language over the last thirty years, I should say they are right to claim that it is an ideal medium for diplomacy, insofar as diplomacy means seeing two sides of every question and discussing them in ambiguous terms. How often in negotiations does one reach an agreement "en principe" which is no agreement at all

"No doubt the Delphic oracle would have used French as a medium, it if had been available, because of its built in banana skins.

"When the late General used to give a Press conference or public speech, for days beforehand specialists would speculate on the French radio about what he would say. And when he had said it the same specialists would spend hours on the air commenting on what he meant by what he said, and what he might have meant by the things he did not say.

"To me, French in negotiations seems to function like judo, where the strength and enthusiasm of the victim is utilised to effect his own discomfiture.

"There is a great danger of being tempted to believe it means what you want it to mean--and that is the danger for Mr. Heath today.

"French is also an effective medium for studied insult and sleek insolence. A lesson in this function was a not so recent radio conversation between an ex-British Ambassador to Paris, and an ex-French premier.

"Lord Jebb, a doughty warrior who had effectively defended Great Britain's views in English at UNO, etcetera."

It gave me a new perspective of deja vu on the whole Iraq war and peace resolutions. My father's musings would apply with slight modifications today. It's a different cast of characters, it's differing circumstances, but it's the same flavor.

I had a dream last night about someone famous doing something unexpectedly strange and out-of-character for him. It was clearly a man, even though I don't remember who it was, or even what he did. All I remember is that in the dream itself I had the realization: "Why on earth should I be dreaming that so-and-so would do such-and such?" It was like remembering a joke without its punch line, why should I record such garbage?

Like I said, it's all Flotsam and Jetsam, today.

Friday, September 19, 2003

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Memories and Memorials

As far as I am concerned, the point of having a memory is really so that you can find your keys before you leave the house. Beyond that, it becomes as much of a liability as a benefit.

Education, in whatever realm, has for its purpose the passing on of our memories to others so that no one needs to reinvent the wheel over and over again. Since each person's perception is entirely personal, therefore, and since each person interprets his experience from only the one point of view, what happens is that this ego-centered evaluation of events leads to what can only be described as one-sided peripheralism. We have an example in the UN today, where the Israeli representative is declaring irrelevant and offensive the reference to the massacres of Sabra and Shattila under Ariel Sharon, twenty years ago, now that his government is looking for UN approval of the assassination of Yaser Arafat, apparently the only subject worthy of consideration at this crucial moment, according Israel.

When a person speaks from his personal experience, he is convinced that he knows what he is talking about, he becomes firm in his convictions. Seldom does anyone believe that he actually knows less than he thinks he does. One becomes like an item living on the surface of a large balloon that is persuaded it is the center of the world. However, because of its position, it is not only peripheral to the whole action but actually also incapable of witnessing anything taking place at any great distance from itself, and totally incapable of knowing, or evaluating, what is going on "on the other side of the moon", as it were.

Our perception also changes moment to moment, even our memories are not cast in concrete. In World War II in England, a number of people wrote daily diaries during the London Blitz. Some thirty years later, the survivors were asked to write their memories of those horrific days and they were all surprised to discover they none of them remembered the facts as they had lived them. Victor Klemperer and his wife who lived in Dresden during the war, also were able to establish that their memories were quickly distorted, sometimes even wiped out completely, and since Victor Klemperer kept a daily diary for the entire period, he was later on able to conclude: "We both know what happened, because we were there, but we also don't know what really was happening, because we were there."

Perception can revise the understanding of the past. I was six years old when my mother was killed and she made me aware of the fact that she wanted me to die with her. It was only when I revisited the scene, at age 45, that I understood the reality of what was happening as my mother was dying, that she did not want to leave me behind, that she wanted to take me along with her to protect me, and from a very negative situation, I became aware that the hand had flipped from face down to face up and in its palm I found my mother's love. It's never too late to have a happy childhood.

Whether we are telling a story or talking of the education of young people by older people, primitive cultures by more technically advanced societies, religious or philosophical societies converting the disbelieving or the indifferent, in each case the story teller or the educator is often operating under the aegis of some form of authority over the student or the listener, with the aim of obtaining some form of control, if not outright power, even when it might start out with the innocent goal of sharing knowledge or experience. We have had many civilizations based on these systems, which have all crumbled because of their unsustainability and the fact that they never faced the truth. And what is this truth? This truth is the conformity of the mind to reality.

There is a little story about the truth, a cautionary tale for those who believe in the eternal rivalry between Good and Evil, personified by God and the Devil. One day, God and the Devil are sitting together after one of their regular heavenly conferences, looking down on earth, at man enjoying his manly occupations, one of which is the perennial search for truth. Suddenly, some wise man, some sage no doubt, finds it, lying there, totally pristine, shining and awe-inspiring in its ineffable beauty, utterly unattended and unprotected, in the sand of the Arabian desert, in the Empty Quarters maybe. He picks it up, cradles it reverently in both his hands, and sets off for the nearest city. "Ah!" exclaims God, "Now you're done! Man has found the Truth, you have lost the game!" "Don't bet on it," retorts the Devil, with a devilish grin, "I'm going to help him to organize it."

What a self-motivated student of the truth accepts as a fact will depend in large part on both his physical, mental and emotional states. These in turn are in part determined by heredity, the cultural environment, the climate, the weather, the surroundings, personal habits of thinking and behaving, whether the individual concerned has slept, eaten, drunk, in adequate amount in the recent past, etc., etc.

It is easy for a human being to behave with dignity and honor when the world is at peace and in reasonable order. When chaos prevails, however, along with hunger, insecurity, unemployment, lack of shelter, threatening epidemics, all kinds of deprivations, including lack of medical support, it will take more than education to bolster the spirits of growing numbers of those suffering in order to enable them to chart a positive course through the shoals of the choices they will have to make from moment to moment. Even a normally calm man may lose his cool and hit back in anger when provoked by an act of gratuitous violence. No human being can ever be sure what his exact limits are, and what pressures will be necessary to break down his individual boundaries.

Also, nobody takes into sufficient consideration the fact that indifference is the root cause of violence, which may explode after silent incubation, as a smoldering fire may suddenly blossom into raging flames when inspired by a draft of air.

When I was a very little kid, my Catholic grandmother taught me to read at her knee on the Bible. All I knew about the Jews, until I reached puberty, was that Jesus Christ was a Jew. To the best of my knowledge, I had never met one.

I was educated as a boarder in a Catholic convent in England. During a mass X-ray campaign, I was found to have a shadow on one lung and thereafter had to go to the local Chest Clinic every few months for a check up. I was the only student who had to do this, and since I was Miss Goody-goody-two-shoes, the nuns let me go without a chaperone. I would just draw down from my allowance the pennies needed for bus fare there and back. I always rode the bus into town, because the appointment was made to coincide with the bus timetable. But since the Chest Clinic hardly ever took me on time (what health institution ever does?), there was no way the nuns could know when I was done. So, instead of taking the bus back, I ran the whole way, saving the pennies to rush into a second-hand book store on the way, where I could pick up a book. I claimed there was always that one book ready to drop off the shelves for me. I was never found out, because I was always on time for tea.

One day, the book I picked up was called something like "The Road Home". It was translated from Danish and was the story of a young nurse who was part of the medical team that had accompanied the troops liberating Bergen-Belsen. Bergen-Belsen was the camp where thousands of Hungarian Jewish children were deported for extermination. Some were still alive at the liberation: all were sick, either with TB or typhus. None of them wanted to live. Who could blame them? Their parents had all been killed before them. The nurse recounted the terrible powerlessness of the medical team facing these tragic skeletal children, with huge eyes of despair eating their emaciated faces, children whose spirit could not be reached by anybody.

The book had a lot of photographs, all of them featured as a collection at the center of the book. When I saw them, my heart broke: I wanted to die. "This is what we did..." I tore out the photos and burnt them: I never wanted to see them again.

I was really upset. I felt that I had stumbled across a dark secret, because nobody had ever mentioned such things to me before, and I wanted very much to understand how all this could have been allowed to happen. But I had not idea who to trust to ask my questions: everybody around me appeared to be a part of the conspiracy of silence. It did not get better when I found out about Treblinka, Maidenek, Birkenau, etc.

It looked to me as if "we" had done this to these people for only one reason: although they worshipped the same God as "ours" (same Bible, in fact "our" Bible had been written by "them"), they did not do it "our" way.

Eventually, I found out about the third religion organized out of the same Bible, the followers of Mohammed.

And these three huge groups of believers claim to be the children of the same God? Who could have thunk it?

Anyway, when I grew up, I continued to study the matter and I became convinced the creation of Israel was essential. My rationale for it was that if the Jews had had a homeland, it would not have been possible, for one thing,for the Christian Germans to throw thousands of live Jewish infants into the crematorium of Auschwitz... Alive in order to save the pennies it would have cost to gas them first. (This happened in August 1944.)

It took many more years of reading for me to learn that what happened to the European Jews of the Holocaust was not just about not having a sovereign nation. There were many other ethnic groups suffering throughout the world, on every continent, for no better reason than that they were powerless, different from their neighbors in dietary, language, vestimentary or lifestyle habits, and modern mapmakers with their straightedges had blocked out national boundaries which had now separated them into scattered minorities: the Kurds, the Turks and the Armenians being perfect examples, but you could also take a look at China, Africa, South East Asia, Europe and their innumerable minorities. Never mind taking a look at the forgotten indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia and the newly broken-up old Soviet Empire.

When one examines the facts surrounding the creation of Israel, it is told us as a simplistic story: the return of the Jewish people to their promised land. The creation of Israel is described as the liberation of Palestine from the British occupation, never mind that the Brits had taken it over from the Ottoman Empire, who had themselves taken it over from the old Roman Empire, and that it was some 2000 years since Palestine had actually been a Jewish state. Another fact that is conveniently not remembered is that Palestine was occupied by the Brits, true, but they controlled a large Palestinian population, some of whom were Jews, some Christians, some Muslims, many of them Arabs, Turks, etc., whatever might be their religion, and most of them had been living there for generations. Oh, yes, there were some Turkish absentee landlords, holdovers from the Ottoman Empire, and yes, they were willing to sell their fallow lands to Zionists to make an honest penny. But a great majority of the settled Palestinians had been farming and doing business in the same places for generations and generations.

Israel didn't make the desert bloom: it burnt out the Arab farmers and drove them out first. There were orange groves in Palestine before the European Jewish survivors of the Holocaust ever came. The Palestinian Arabs were terrorized by the new Israelis into running for their lives, leaving everything behind for the sake of saving their wives and children. The whole purpose of Sabra and Shattila was this: See what happens when you insist on staying.

The terrible harm Israel commits on all of us is this war for our hearts and minds, where we are asked to back whatever horror it commits because they have earned the right to get even for what they experienced in their own past. They demand that we approve their killings, their torture, their military and economic repressions, their WMDs, all the paraphenalia of modern terrorism, and on top of that, they ask that we support it financially and endorse it, officially. When we criticize their methods, that is just "anti-semitism". What's more, they need more and more money to keep up this lifestyle, to which we have accustomed them, because there is no more viable economy in Israel, no more tourism, no more capital investments. Can't they see there is not likely to be any improvement until there is security, and that means security and justice for all?

One day that Ariel Sharon was being asked a question about the building of more illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, he retorted: "This woman is pregnant, she needs somewhere to live. What am I to say to her? Stop having the child?"

If you are so ready to sympathize with the dreams of any pregnant woman who is not actually your own wife, expecting your very own child, what makes it OK to kill any pregnant Palestinian woman at an Israeli checkpoint (setting aside the need for such checkpoints in the first place), on their way across town to give birth at the nearest hospital? Pray tell me, I would like to understand.

How dare the Jews call us "anti-semitic" because we protest against these terrible double standards? In the same way that we were recently told how President Truman was anti-semitic because he wrote in his diary:

"They [the Jews] care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[ersons] as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political, neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the underdog. Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist, he goes haywire. I've found very, very few who remember their past condition when prosperity comes.""

Since Truman supported the creation of Israel, in the form in which it came into being, it seems to me his acts showed exactly where his sympathies lay. He may have considered the Jews selfish and self-centered ("very, very selfish"), but his decisions quite clearly indicated that he did not think the Palestinian lives were worth even considering.

It is quite clear to me, when I look at the whole dismal history of the State of Israel, that the Jews don't want peace. Given the record, I think they would be justified in wondering "When is the world finally going to understand that we want?" Forget the road maps, that's a farce. What they really want is a compound, a vast gated community, a Ghetto in the Orange Groves, inhabited only by theirs. It will be armed to the teeth, dressed in full body armor, leaving not a chink to access living flesh. It will have no heart or sympathy for any foreigner. It will be like those huge, fully-armed prehistoric monsters, whose every step shook the ground when they moved, who suddenly became extinct because they were too greedy and needed too much of the available resources of their world, and because they could not adapt to change in the environment and most of all because they could not change the way they were.

We can have all the memories we want; we can build all the memorials we want; we can rewrite history and recast the facts to suit our fancies and our goals; we can promote all the lies we can think of: no matter how often repeated, falsehoods can never become true. It will not affect the workings of the Law of Cause and Effect.

The cartoonist Steve Bell had Blair visit the Pope, who blessed him and said: "Son, bombing for peace is like shagging for chastity..."

Beneath our seventh consciousness, the mano consciousness, which corresponds to our unconscious, lies the eighth consciousness, the alaya consciousness, which stores our karma, the repository of every thought, word or deed we ever commit. This is ongoing and eternal. The True Buddha wrote:

"A person writing at night may put out the lamp, but the words he has written will still remain. It is the same with the destiny we create for ourselves in the threefold world."

Ariel Sharon is the leader of his country. He represents the people who elected him. Whatever he does in their name will return to them in kind. It really makes no difference whether everyone remembers or not, or whether anyone builds a memorial to the fact for those who don't remember. There is no escaping the Law of Cause and Effect.

It is something every one should think over carefully, when they elect their leaders.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Yesterday was too busy to even make lists, I just got carried away by the clock, only made my appointments and fit in whatever else I could in between.

Riding a sixth avenue bus uptown, as I reached 57th Street and noticed all the changes around me, banks, restaurants, stores, etc., gone out of business since I had last come through, I had a thought for an old boss I used to meet on the street around there, on his way to or from the NY Athletic Club, and I thought "It would be nice to meet Joe on the street". Then I caught myself: not a chance, not while riding the bus.

Later in the evening, as I was standing outside a restaurant on 46th Street, waiting for my friend to show up, suddenly, Joe was there with his wife. I live a charmed life. If my friend had come on time, I would have missed him.

These are strange times. Things look normal, on the surface, but there is an undefinable feeling that something is going on beneath it all which could threaten the whole world, certainly life as we still experience it and enjoy it. I am thinking in particular of Ariel Sharon's visit to India to sell that country Israel's Phalcon early warning radar system, with the US's blessing. Considering the edge India already has against its enemy neighbor, Pakistan, the question comes up whether helping India modernise their military is to deepen the imbalance already existing between India and Pakistan, or whether the purpose is, looking the other way, to improve their stance against China's ambitions. Israel had some time ago tried to sell their Phalcon early warning radar system to the Chinese, but the US had said "No". Quite clearly, the US has its own agenda in the area, which it is using Sharon to implement.

Everything that is being written about Pakistan makes it look as though they harbour, train, support, etc. terrorists of one kind and another, notwithstanding the collaboration of their secret services and the CIA. I have a hunch it is only a matter of time before some catalyzing event will make the US say: Presto! They are part of the axis of evil. By then, the US will have deployed their armies in so many places, the best bet will be to set the Indians to take care of the problem. After all, they are on the spot, they don't need to deploy across the globe, and they have already rehearsed "War Games" a few times with this particular party.

Sharon may be called a "Man of Peace" by Bush, I fear for any place where he sets foot, whether he comes in friendship, or for business, or to attend the Ganesh festival. The peace he has to offer is nothing but the peace of the grave.

Given all the terrible problems India has, with farmers committing suicide in certain regions in droves, because of their crop failures due to drought, poverty, debt, etc., (and this is only one small example of their social suffering), does it make sense to budget another $95bn over the next 15 years to boost the country's arms industry?

But then, who am I to say anything about what some other country is now doing or planning, no matter how counterproductive to the wellbeing of its people, when I belong to America, whose leaders are right at this moment doing their best to destroy the very fabric of all those social services which have been in place since the New Deal to help the American people just... live their normal lives.

Monday, September 15, 2003

Riding the New York subway yesterday, there was this poem from a series "Poetry in Motion":

"I made myself a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world's eyes
As though they wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there's more enterprise
In walking naked."

I didn't have my glasses on, so I could not read the name of the poet.

This is all about walking naked.

There is a little Japanese story about he afterlife of a human being, after they die. In order to get there, they must cross a wide river. When they reach the other shore, they are greeted by a fierce guardian gatekeeper, yes, it's a roadblock. In front of a huge tree, which spreads its branches all across the sky, stands a mean demon. He doesn't want to see your passport, or your credentials, or your wallet. He wants... Your suit jacket. Your give it to him. Without even looking at the label, he hurls it up into the air, straight back behind him into the tree branches where it catches and remains caught. Then he demands your pants, which he also hurls up into the tree. Eventually, your tie, your shirt, underwear, socks and shoes are all decorating the branches. Can you now proceed into the hinterland of the hereafter? No, not yet, wait a moment, the guardian demon now wants your Seiko watch, the golden chain around your neck, and your wedding band. Finally, when you are completely naked, you may proceed.

So we all go out of this life into the unknown future, stripped of all our treasured possessions, including our dignity.

Just as we came into our present life, naked, helpless and scared.

In between this unpromising beginning and this uncompromising end, we accumulate what we can, according to our natures, our tastes, our abilities, and our circumstances. We learn to talk, and walk, and grasp. We learn what we like and what we don't like; we learn to choose more of the first and to avoid as much as we can of the second.

Because no newborn child can survive without support, we learn to attract attention to get our needs met. We learn to negotiate, when those in charge don't want to give us what we need, and eventually we learn to manipulate when they don't give us what we merely desire.

All our actions and reactions are based on these two goals: getting more of the desirable, and avoiding as much of the unpleasant as possible.

Nature is there to teach us that there are phases to everything, both the good and the bad, the dark and the light, the hot and the cold, and so on, which constitute a whole, two but not two. The four seasons; the growth of a tree from seed, to sapling, to blooming, to seeding or fruiting, to composting; the flow of the tides; our very personal private processes of the transformation of our foods; all these are there to teach us the lesson that there is a time for everything and that everything changes, nothing remains the same. Even the birth of a child, from a feeling shared by his two parents, to a single cell that retraces all of evolution, the fetus resembling first the simplest of life forms, then the fish, the bird, eventually the mammal, finally the fully human being (and yes, a chimpanzee is 98% the same genetically as a human being), all this marvelous transformation takes place in the short span of a mere nine months, to desmonstrate to us that there is purpose behind every change and that it is safe to trust it.

When we like something, whatever it may be, when it is successful in making us feel good, or even just a little better, we do it again. This is how we develop recipes. This is how we develop habits. As groups of people, this is how we develop families and tribes, and cultures. When the numbers grow, those who know develop rules and regulations to help those who don't know, that is how we establish laws and religions in order to try and keep things safe for all. Of course, there are huge variants involved, based on idiosyncrasies. A tired mother might want her child to stop screaming, for a small instance; a) so the sound will not attract the sabertoothed tiger to the dainty snack the baby represents; b) because the decibel level is driving her to distraction; or c) because she has no more milk right now, just put up and wait until it comes up, I'll be sure to let you know.

Raised in specific cultures, we receive our beliefs untested along with our daily diets, our hygienic training, our education, our place in society not always being decided either by our deep desires, or our natural propensities or abilities, or even necessarily to benefit the greater good of our particular human group as a whole, let alone the good of the planet we all share.

My parents' stated intention in having a family was to produce "worthwhile, useful human beings". My mother's childraising techniques could be summarized as turning small wild beasts into civilized people. Her methods did not allow for natural evolution or even gradual development. We clearly were not equals, there was no room for discussion. She believed far more in the stick than the carrot. Apart from some vivid memories, I have it all documented in the form of the letters she wrote to my father. For instance, she reports having had a dreadful fight with me, lasting for hours, one evening when I refused to kneel beside my bed to say my night prayers. I was not even two years old.

What I learnt very early on in life was that you could never take anything for granted, and that included beliefs handed to you by grownup people, who otherwise were in charge and could send you to bed without supper for their very own reasons any time they chose.

I grew up in a war zone as a small child. The world around me was dreadfully dangerous, the people in it most scary. We were bombed a lot, there was shooting, there were mine fields, and curfews, and tanks and patrols. During one bombing, the house we lived in took a direct hit. I was sitting on my mother's lap when one of her legs was blown off and she died. At the same time that my mother was bleeding to death and giving me her final pep talk about being a good girl from now on, because she would no longer be there to teach me how to behave, we heard my grandmother, my mother's mother, die as she attempted to finish her night prayers. I was six years old. At the time, I thought the God my grandmother was praying to must be the very Devil. I never believed in God after that, it made me an outsider to my entire environment.

Anyway, during the last two years of my mother's life, while she was educating me, training the small wild animal into a useful human being, every year just before Christmas, for weeks she would warn me that if I didn't behave Father Christmas would only bring me a whip, instead of toys. I was not really rebellious or disobedient. I lived in my imagination, in a world I had created for myself because the real world I lived in was so bleak and frightening. I didn't disobey my mother, I just never heard her, I never listened very much to her constant scoldings. So, I was always ended up in trouble. Those last two Christmases of my mother's life, there was a whip and a single orange in my shoes on Christmas morning, and each time there were toys in my little brothers' shoes. I could never figure out how Father Christmas knew about me, living as he did in the North Pole.

"I warned you," my mother would say.
"How does Father Christmas know I'm bad?" I wanted to know, "Who tells him?"
"Nobody tells him, he knows everything", my mother would answer.
"He knows EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE?" I would persist.
"Yes, everything, everywhere" my mother would repeat.
"A little like God?" I would ask.
"Yes, just like God" she would answer, and I would be quiet, until my curiosity would rise again, and we would have the conversation all over again. In a world where my experience showed me people told on other people, I could not conceive of a being who was everywhere at once and who knew everything without being told.

About two years after my mother's death, I was walking with an old friend of hers just before Christmas, when she suddenly asked me:

"Do you believe in Father Christmas?"

I was in shock for a moment, and then I exclaimed:

"OH! Noooooo! I'm so sorry, I thought he was real!"
"He is, he is," she exclaimed in a hurry, "Of course you can believe in him."
"Oh no," quite firmly. "I certainly can't believe in him now that I know he is not real."
"Why not? You believed in him before, why can't you just continue believing in him now?"
"Because now I know he is not real."
"How do you know he is not real? All I said... All I asked you is whether you believed in him, that isn't saying he is not real."
"Yes, but don't you see, that proves he's not real. After all, nobody asks me, ever, whether I believe in Aunt Martha, or not."

And that was that. Inside of me, it sort of confirmed my feelings and doubts about believing in God, too, and how if there were such a God he had to be the very Devil. It also revealed to me the reality of my relationship with my mother, as I suddenly understood the whip came from her, not courtesy of some fictional Father Christmas.

And I walked forth naked from a whole bunch of stories of my early background. Naked, but not free. Like Adam and Even sent out of Paradise, I was naked, ashamed, and lonely.

This was the first of my discarded coats. More would be woven and embroidered in due time, the accumulation of more illusions, lies and deceptions, because of the human need to make either sense or myth of the mysterious, the inexplicable, the frightening, and the need to understand both the meaning and the purpose of life.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

I'm not only a late bloomer, I'm also a slow learner. It takes me a while to assemble furniture, get dressed in the morning, shop for food and all that kind of thing. I am aware I may need to do this several times before it actually works for the first time, so this is a short one. For tonight, I am the Conservation Queen (effort conservation, that is).

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