Archive for September, 2011

Hardware and Footwear Mysteries

September 29th, 2011

mystery…and then there were four.

The sock-eating washer or dryer may be the most common imp befuddling us, but not the only one. This week a stranger, rarer variety of gremlin visited us.

Our range has five dials, one for each burner. That is the way the appliance gods designed, built and delivered it. Then suddenly, the far left dial disappeared.

While not in the stranger-than-fiction class, this played to several of my small neuroses. As the primary cook in this family, I am likely too involved in things culinary. I want to know what’s in the fridge, pantry and fruit bowls. I plan the week’s meals as I shop the Haymarket and groceries (always plural). I am emotionally involved in the kitchen.

Yet, there suddenly was one fewer range dials then there had been when I was away for two days and one night to NYC.

Our two younger sons manned the crenellations in our family fort. At 18 and 21, and OK cooks in their own right, they were in charge. Moreover, a friend was visiting from the wilds of Western Connecticut to accompany her daughter on a college-scouting trip. She’d stay while hers bunked with a girlfriend. So, there was cooking and hosting to occur in that same kitchen.

Neither son had any idea where the dial had gone. Neither had reason to remove one. As they became available, each in turn furrowed his brow and checked where I had — under the kitchen table, bookshelf, cabinet overhangs, and moved every object on the counters. We expanded into the pantry, living room and dining room. Nada.

Then we come back to my neuroses. I strongly prefer matching sets and things where (I believe) they belong. I remember various of my three sons using subs for efficacy, think a quarter for a missing rook.

For me, I’d have to find the dial or track down the source for either a matching one or a set of five that fit. That’s not a cliff-climb challenge, but an annoyance.

Our visiting chum was back home and running about, so I emailed her. She responded the next morning that she had cleaned off the range top after making a meal, but had not removed any dials.

But there were four instead of five, and a bronze finger presenting blatantly against the black control panel.

Ever methodical, I turned to the very unlikely. I prepared to move the stove on the off chance that someone had mindlessly removed a dial by accident or while cleaning and flipped or knocked it unnoticed behind the panel. Yeah, yeah, why would that happen?

I pressed my big old head next to the wall before moving the stove. Mirabile dictu! The dial not only was visible, it was reachable. It was just big enough that it has caught on a panel bulge and not plunged four and a half feet to the floor (and quite likely out of sight).

So, we know and yet shall never know. We know where the dial landed but not how or who propelled it there. My foibles do not extend to blame and stop at what and where.

Now, upstairs in a bedroom drawer with my bike shorts and socks, I keep three single anklets. I expect them to present themselves at some point.

Hole in Ground Zero

September 26th, 2011

Yeah, yeah, Boston skies were raining hard at 4:46 AM when I left. So, I decided not to bring a camera and risk ruining it. I was headed to NYC for two days and a night. Traveling without my digital companion was odd, feeling naked odd. I would have the cellphone, with its sort of pic ability. A few of those follow.

My wife was down for a multi-day company meeting. Their NY HQ was directly connected to the 9/11 catastrophe site. The new one was rebuilt two blocks away. The company-designated hotel is adjacent to the WTC site, Club Quarters New York World Trade Center. I was intellectually prepared to be there. As a Bostonian of decades and a former Manhattanite, I had it covered.

Emotionally, I turned out not to be.

During our dovetailed stay, my wife and I refreshed each other on the 9/11 personal presence. I had been in an important (I knew at the time) meeting with my international software company. I was a principal, leading a discussion with our local engineers and the Israeli test and development team. I had gigantic paste-ups of MS Project sheets and was brimming with busyness.

Our conference room was packed with intense, intent geeks when Jeannie, the office manager, opened the door. She didn’t knock, which was unlike her. She was pale and wide-eyed, which was rare for her too. She said something like, “Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center. You need to stop your meeting.”

We all walked next door to a room with a TV, watched the second plane hit and the towers collapse.

So, just after 10 years later, I had a grip on it….or not.

cranesnycLast weekend, we overlooked the site. From the 18th floor, we could see directly into that pit. From the restaurant on the top floor, the 20th, we could look west to New Jersey and north to the new WTC 1 building. Everywhere, we could see and hear the 24/7 reconstruction of the site. Machinery I knew well from a previous life as a trade-journal editor lifted for the new and dug to prepare for the new-new. Cranes were a hand clasp in the sky. Hydraulic excavators (some Cat dealer is making a fortune on this contract) dug for the foundations for WTC 2 and 3.

Any trip by or to the windows displayed one massive truck after another heaped with dirt and rock from the site before pulling out. All day, all night, America was righting what Bin Laden ruined.

dignycI found it wrenching. I thought a decade on, many hundreds of thousands of words read, sounds heard, images seen that I was fine. Yet each glance or stare from the 18th or 20th floors ate at me. I also slept poorly, even though the hotel walls and windows were well insulated from sound. I just knew.

Apparently my disquiet is not universal. My wife was in meetings when I arrived and I sat by the entrance to the 9/11 memorial on a Jersey barrier. One phalanx after another of t-shirted firefighters crowded and knelt for snaps with the site and new WTC 1 building as backdrop. Their shirts were from stations in Ohio and California and Pennsylvania. They posed and waved.

I saw clots of middle-aged women with the stereotypical mannishly short easy-to-care-for do trailing hubbies and sons, lining up with their tickets for the site tour. On the hour, people queued concert-style behind metal frame chutes to walk the mud, see the two pools, and crook their necks at WTC 1.

I saw more Amish than I had outside of Pennsylvania and Ohio. There were women and girls from 70 to 14 dressed in their full drabness with their gauzy white plain caps like yarmulkes. Dads had suspenders and all looked terrifically un-New York but very comfortable in themselves. They paused and photographed too.

After checking into my wife’s room, I had lunch two blocks south. The two active tables were filled with firefighters from distant places in their station t-shirts.

FFsIn meals on the 20th, many diners of all ages posed on the balcony with the WTC 1 as backdrop. Most smiled their here-I-am-at-the-notable-location grins. Some were reflective, but nearly all were gleeful as any tourist at any site, loading up the slide-show lineup.

Sunday morning, we happened upon the 10th tunnel-to-towers run, just south of the hotel. The pipers were piping, the cops keeping people behind barriers, and 343 uniformed NYC firefighters lined the Battery Tunnel exit, each wearing a photo placard of one of their brethren who died rescuing those trapped on 9/11.

The run has raised millions of dollars, mostly destined to build houses for quadriplegics from the current wars. It traces the route Brooklyn firefighter Stephen Siller took that day. He was off and headed to play golf with his brothers when he heard about the first plane on the scanner. He drove to his station, loaded up with his 60 pounds of gear, found the tunnel closed, and ran the three miles through it to the towers…and his death.

A decade later, there are many tears, both from the firefighters and the surviving family members and the runners.


September 23rd, 2011

As a chum posted on FB, “If I want strangers to read the story of my life, I’ll write a fricken autobiography.”

That should be the road sign marking the bifurcation of Facebook. As in yesterday’s rant about the most recent blunders of pop companies, I remain astonished at the paternalism or we-know-best-ism of those companies.

At it’s f8 event (chronicled in tedious detail in the FT), the big honking chief FACES, like founder Mark Zuckerberg, intend to crush competition with technology and cachet. The ALL NEW IMPROVED version has an annoying constantly updating news feed sub-window, but really one thrust in two

First, there’s more media, either to ingest or to regurgitate. More videos, more pictures, for you, from you, from Friends. OK, for the target audience that’s smart enough. FB users have largely come up reading little. They are the 21st Century equivalent of tabloid customers — why read, when you can get a flavor of something by looking at a picture? It may be a small-brain marketing ploy, but it is timely and profitable.

Second is that timeline. The FACES at the announcement can’t withhold their joy at their cleverness here. They are enabling a logorrheic (small and few words, but in many, many places though) display of personal trivia. Each FB account can be self-absorbed in a way few have seen outside mental institutions.

Those who think the foursquare (a.k.a. rob-me-now) application is egotistic and inane may have palpitations now. FB is automating this self-absorption, which seems for the moment largely limited to the 20 something and 30 something users. For a long time (in net speak), you could bore people with personal trivia, but you had to do it piecemeal. On FB or Twitter or Tumblr or foursquare and a few others, you could put in:

  • Where you were headed
  • Where you arrived
  • Whom you were with
  • What you ordered
  • What you ate
  • What movie you saw
  • And on and on and on

This level of detailed sharing supposedly is gregarious. It supposedly influences others. It supposedly is avant-garde. It is certainly increasingly popular. The new FB timeline jacks that up by letting you automate such inputs and lay out a garden slug like trail of all your activities.

Not too long ago, and still in some groups, folk ridiculed bloggers for the ain’t-my-kid (or kitten)-cute posts. People would photograph adored beings or every meal. Those sad little blogs would have look-at-me-and-mine content exclusively. Even close family members quickly lose patience with those.

Now it looks like FB will force a true bifurcation, largely along  generational lines. Those who believe that each act and choice is as worthy of comment as any other should love this timeline concept. Berners-Lee knows, the FACES will love it; those who leave their slug trails for all to see and follow will provide a level of salable marketing data unknown today. We may soon see, should we have the stomach for it, when people pet their cats, have their bowel movements, or choose a peach instead of apple at Whole Foods.

This is only different in degree from how most of us use cellphones. We don’t seem to realize how stupid we are and how much of our lives and thoughts we waste by constantly speaking drivel. Walk a store or mall, ride a subway, or sit in a waiting room anywhere to overhear it. She is about to go into a pizza parlor. He thought last night’s The Office sucked. Often these cell phonies walk into each other or posts, sometimes they drive that way too. Broadcasting trivia is the feel-good-right-now stupidity of the era. The FB timeline capitalizes on that emotional need brilliantly and viciously.

I suspect when this settles, user graphs will show a steep drop-off by age. Many of us don’t and won’t care about minuscule choices of others any more than the status of your FarmVille cow.

Asocial Mania

September 22nd, 2011

Thinking have I been, young Jedi, of NetFlix, FaceBook, and Google+, yes.

Perhaps the new mocumentary on them will be Clumsiness of the Geeks. Each has innovated spectacularly, innovated in figuratively spitting on and literally in pissing off customers.

Logo Note: I claim fair use for the satirical bastardizations of the accompanying art.

nfEach has recently, heavy-handedly overreached and offended large segments of their loyal bases with paternalism. As arrogant as the corporations have acted, it’s likely that the machers at each look at the other two and think how happy they are they are not as stupid. Well, they are. Each has been playing the troll under the bridge and each has been amazed when it finds that it has more bluster than savvy.

Briefly and for the worst of each:

  • NetFlix jacked prices way up, simultaneously breaking the beloved stream/mailer package.
  • FaceBook had puerile reaction (credit for quick, if stupid, moves) to Google+ innovations. Its response was to play daddy, telling the kids what games they could play, the rules, what clothes they’d wear, and how they had to arrange their desks and rooms. FB is still suddenly imposing scrolling news feeds, arbitrary lists of contacts and more, totally altering the interface and experience with neither warning nor option.
  • Google+ surely has more tricks it will spring, but the worst has been declaring that it has made a moral judgment of what users’ names can be. Even those who legally have a single name can’t use that. Nothing that smacks of what the children in charge think is a nefarious pseudonym can use its service. It is the nym edict.

Predictably people are upset. Those who dislike change are unhappy at each. Those who dislike people who dislike change are scolding like magpies at anyone who dares complain. NetFlix has lost at least 600,000 customers.

fkAmusingly enough though, management at each has maintained its arrogance. NetFlix’ CEO did kinda, sorta say sorry, in the we-did-the-right-thing-too-bad-you-don’t-like-it way. FB and Google both blow the freebie whistle — You don’t pay for the damned service. Like it or lump it.

The ties to these are:

  1. All three acted and continued to act with great arrogance and disregard for their customers
  2. Pleasing customers is easy and they have worked really, really hard to annoy and anger theirs

I came from business journalism, management, and technical writing spheres. A recurring truth set in each is that there are no secrets, no magic to pleasing customers. There are basic guidelines and rules that work though.

gpFirst and most important is to find out what your customers want. You can ask them and you may or may not get useful and insightful and applicable information. You can back that up with observations, whether it’s focus groups or usability testing or any of dozens of methods.

Where you want to arrive is the mystical, maybe mythical, state of thinking like a customer. This is where you grok your user. You know intrinsically what customers want. It’s damned hard.

Over my long technical writing career, I came to realize as a team member, a doc manager, and as head of the area technical society that the vast majority of tech writers can’t do that. They are literal, as in Emerson’s foolish consistency literal. That makes them great proofreaders and wonderful at avoiding spelling errors and inconsistencies. It makes them sucky innovators and writers.

This is why most software manuals infuriate users. The manual and particularly help (especially Microsoft products) may be complete and technically accurate, but they do not reflect human thinking or reasonable expectations. Instead as a doc manager and writer, I taught my peers and underlings to do as I did. I worked with the support staff and spoke directly to customers to learn how they used the products and what the expected problems were. When a user presses the F1 key for help in Windows, they definitely do not want to see a page about what the menu choices are. They want solutions to problems they have on that screen, GD it. What I told my direct reports is that a customer want us to make them smart, fast.

Think like a customer. Don’t use your insider knowledge to write a smug manual that restates the obvious. Likewise, make the help or manual index useful by including the concepts, not just the software-unique lingo. Think like a customer.

We can end that rant except to note that none of these three clumsy companies has been thinking like a customer. The paid company, NetFlix, figured to make more money by splitting its offerings and hiking prices for both. That was fair in a patronizing, paternalistic, capitalist sense of doing that abruptly with no warning and no option. Honk. Thanks for playing. You lose this round.

Google+ can pretend that being in an extended beta gave it some sort of immunity from customer consideration. Instead, the big shots in Mountain View come across like Puritans. They decreed that those with a single legal name are immoral and not worthy. Honk. You wear the SCHMUCK badge until further notice.

FaceBook is the less excusable. The youngsters there behave like 19th Century patriarchs. We decide what you will see, so, and say. They have gone from asocial to antisocial.

All three are allegedly technology leaders. All three are allegedly youth oriented. All three are allegedly modern companies. All three need stern lectures. They are too dumb to get it on their own.

Better Than Toilet Ice

September 21st, 2011

We can probably agree some deaths are ignominious, while funny to dispassionate observers. Think getting  run over by a garbage truck.

Likewise would be dying when a big chunk of blue ice from an aircraft toilet crashes through your roof. Far better, if you must meet a violent end, to succumb to a piece of a space rocket. Such death by space debris is unlikely, but increasingly possible.


How likely? Well for scare numbers, maybe millions of thingummies are orbiting the earth, in the down-and-dirty PPT from NASA’s Orbital Debris Program. That’s an extreme way to think of it — millions of bits of the 28,000-plus things humans have shot into orbit since Sputnik in 1957. Over 9,000 of those are up and around there, with under 550 of them functional.

Most of the others are in pieces from those  millions smaller than 1cm to over 100K from 1cm to 10cm to over 11K bigger than that. NASA tracks the largest category. Others do too, like the European Space Agency, whose Space Debris Program estimated that as of 2008, over 140K objects were in orbit above us.

So, Henny Penny, is the sky falling? Well, yes, but for any one of us, the odds are very good.

If the NASA satellite about to fall (drawing of it to right) wastes some earthlings, we can except lots of panicked calls for cleaning our celestial playroom. For its part, our space agency figures that even this six ton piece of junk will either disintegrate in the atmosphere or fall harmlessly. As NASA likes to put it, it would likely burn and crash on “uninhabited landmass.”

They don’t know when it will reenter or where it or parts of it will land. Their best guess is that it’s a 3,200-to-1 shot that it will smash into one of us. Fear not the heavenly garbage truck, they say.

It leads one to ask what’s up with what’s up?

If you want to roll your own, start with those NASA and ESA links above. You might also click:

Short takeaways include that governments don’t care a whole lot about the minuscule chance of humans being hit. They do fret that their populated or otherwise expensive satellites get destroyed or damaged by all the space junk. Another is that we are at critical mass, with all the rubble zooming around and around and around.

Supposedly, NASA and its counterparts are real sorry. They intend to do something yet undefined sometime yet undecided when they can afford it.

Don’t expect any gigantic space vacuum cleaners or rocket-part recyclers anytime soon. We supposedly have 10 to 20 years (a blink in big-project time) to do something. To get a flavor of how far along we are, go to page 150 of the big report (165 in PDF numbering) to find:

Emphasis is placed on research and development because the government does not yet know what technologies will ultimately be necessary or are feasible on the scale required for effective orbital debris retrieval and removal, as well as guaranteed prevention of collisions if such an event is predicted. Although the National Space Policy calls for research and development in this field, it does not specify a threshold or goal, but rather intends such research and development as a beginning to the entire process.

Be ready to duck, I suppose. It won’t work, but gives you something to do.

Turning On and Off the Fans

September 19th, 2011

Arr, know ye all on Talk Like a Pirate Day, me be no football fanatic.

With that out of the way, I am not oblivious to sports. In particular, having started college at the University of South Carolina, I see and hear about it from friends up here in Yankeeland as well as former classmates. Moreover, I was sports editor of my high-school paper (I confess because it was the open slot and I would much rather have run features).

USC logoLately, the Gamecocks have been sports newsy, popping up to 10 or so in the polls. While I honestly think they have been lucky to win both times so far and should be no higher than 18 or maybe 15 in the country, I admit this has been a steady climb. With nearly everyone in power in that state having an undergrad or law degree from the red Carolina, that’s a big deal there and big donations from alumni.

Now their former (ACC) and current (SEC) conferences are big in the sports news. It seems the former snagged two Big 12 teams and adopted a poison-pill-style strategy that any team leaving would have to pay a $20 million penalty. Ho hum, then again ha!

Waaaay back, I arrived in Columbia with little interest in football. Heck, in high school, I covered it as part of the job, but I had been on the wrestling team first then finished as a swimmer. I started college on the swimming team and living in an athletic dorm on a partial scholarship. My only real affection for football was secondary. The badly underfunded swimming team had the right to sell programs outside and inside the stadium and we made a lot of needed money doing do.

Otherwise, Carolina had a hugely successful basketball program under coach Frank McGuire and labored under fantasies of similar success for football. The ACC was the best basketball in the nation and its football was so-so, giving the Gamecock some hope for success. They tried their damnedest, including renting Paul Dietzel, who was doing great at Army after success at LSU. He had one great year, but a losing record overall. That coupled with a sense of victimhood in Carolina basketball and football teams somehow “cheated” out of conference championships when they lost in tournaments. In 1971, a pouting athletic program went independent

As this was brewing, I broke my resolve to avoid sports writing. In the campus paper, also The Gamecock of course, I ridiculed the whole program in a column. In very heavy-handed terms, I wrote that they should drop the pretense and go pro. If they can’t win on an even basis, they should become professional and buy the best and biggest as they tried with coaches.

Well then, despite many strong political columns in that extremely conservative state and region, this one hit it. Wealthy alumni as well as sports-oriented students flipped. They took it literally and wrote long, dull-witted letters about why that was not legal. They called the university president, the dean of the J-school, the top editor of the paper, and they wrote to the local daily papers. They even did what I see so often in MA (as with Elizabeth Warren), pulled the parochial he’s-not-from-here routine.

Eventually though, after 20 years of hit-and-miss records, Carolina joined the SEC in 1991. That was fine for basketball, but suddenly they were in with the big boys of football. It took them a long time of being the team that got snapped with the towel in the locker room — rather got run over by bigger, faster, just better players — to get their football act together. They recruited and trained and coached up to where they are.

Now when the team is on the front of the sports section or web pages, I am likely to notice. I’m not all that interested in the far more local Patriots (or any football). I’m not quite as snippy as the Church Lady about it, but honestly, there’s a larger world of greater concerns. Then again, I have my own diversions and distractions when those bigger issues weigh heavily. Let’s not begrudge those with a sports Jones who remain suspended in their college years.

Horrors of Local Theater

September 18th, 2011

A universe of two does not lend itself to science and analysis, unless perhaps it’s two galaxies. Instead consider the pair of local plays fraught with physical anguish and disappointment.

Our neighborhood group, the Riverside Theatre Works, has staged Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Central Square has a lively, comedic version of The House of the Baskervilles. One was delayed and one postponed in process for emergencies. Is this a trend?

We have tickets to Cat, but were not there on opening night. A neighbor involved in the RTW told me yesterday that she was there as usual and for the first time ever, the production halted while an audience member was hauled away. She had some sort of episode that required an ambulance. The show stopped for about 40 minutes. One wonders how much sultriness made the transition.

Today, we were at Hound when we returned from intermission, I with a cup of coffee. The first hour was a surprise delight. It was vaudevillian in its physical comedy and great fun with the too-familiar Conan Doyle lines. Three actors play 16 characters, generally with the one off-stage suddenly reemerging with a wig and dress or cloak to add another part. There was a lot of running around, climbing on sets and what we’d call zaniness in earlier TV sit-coms.

Right before the break, one actor flipped the stage lights on and came out yelling that there really was something back there that bit him, and calling the other actors by their real names. Such switching clearly set us up for the second hour.

Yet, 15 minutes later we returned to blinking lights and the stage manager telling us that one of the actors hurt his ankle so badly that he could not continue. They’d take him to the emergency room. We’d get an email offering us a choice of another performance or a refund. Really.

She had to convince us. Given the parody on stage, this seemed like just another gimmick, like the ones that had worked so well for the first hour.

So there you have it. Two plays in September interrupted by physical crisis. What’s the odds? Do you suppose we’ll ever see the second half of Hound?

Block Island’s Markers

September 16th, 2011

This week, we biked and walked around Block Island for three days. As a iconography fan and cemetery tourist, I went to the Island Cemetery and the Indian Cemetery there. They could hardly be more different.

Pix clix: Click a thumbnail for a larger view. If it opens in the same window, use your browser’s back button or command to return.

License note: All pix are Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with them. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

The Narragansett lived on the island from maybe 1300 BC. The smallish Indian Cemetery in the middle of the bottom of BI is only vaguely like our European ideas. While there are a few labeled tombstones, most of those with any stone are very close together (upright, non-casket burials), raw native rock, and no markings. The humor at the moment is that more and more white folk are asking for green burials that just return the bodies to the earth. BIindian1
BIdodgewinged The main cemetery started in the mid-17th century, but had few classic N.E. iconography examples, and no visible, sturdy slate. Here’s one of the winged transitional imagery.
There was iconography artistry though. With different carvers than those in Northern N.E., much style went into such standard images as the willow, indicating life. BIwillow
BImottwillow Several used the 3D version of the willow.
Small details, such as the background placement of the urn indicating the body, show the artist’s interpretation and skill. BIwillow1
BIheavenclose Among similarities with N.E. stones, the heavenward index finger appeared on many stones.
Likewise, the hand clasp of farewell with an implicit promise of greeting later was on numerous stones. BImitchellclose
BInicholasballpen Only a few showed lots of ego. When the King of Block Island, Nicholas Ball (might be a relative) died in 1896, he set himself up with a royal marker. The top had a pen and journal because he wrote self-aggrandizing travel memoirs, an anchor and rope because he was a sea captain, and construction tools because he designed and had built BI’s huge hotel.
As proof of colonial and young nation’s high infant mortality, there are many 17th through 19th century markers. Some were for yet-to-be-named children. BIbabe4
Bibabe1 Many were elaborate, even more so than the parents’ stones. Of these, the marker was often for an only child.
One child’s stone stand up and out for its candor. Here the only offspring, Lora Rose of Ambrose and Laura, died at just under two and one-half. The scold to the Almighty reads simply, “God takes the good” — nuff said. BIbabe2

Niner One One Respite

September 14th, 2011

Through the accident of calenders and school schedules, we headed to Block Island on September 11th. The side effect was a relief from the relentless, if understandably expected, leaping, braying 10th-anniversary commentary.

Leading up to and in that morning’s papers, NYT and Globe definitely included, were all 9/11, from not-news to full-page ads, to editorials. Americanism points were in the tally for everyone. Advertisers see a chance for another few bucks by association. Editors feign insight or wisdom where they had none. No one it seemed wanted to appear less patriotic and involved than the next exploiter.

We had long before found that this year, Sunday, 9/11 would be the very end of the tourist season there. Rooms were more available, enough restaurants were still open to satisfy, and we would not be madras to polyester with other interlopers.

We took cell phones for family contact…if necessary. However, Even though our guest house did not brag about WiFi, I figured that there’d be lots of free wireless around. Hence the decision about whether to go three days without internet, news or social media. I admit to a Jones on all.

We receive multiple newspapers (each of us having been newspaper and magazine writers and editors). We’re on the tubes throughout the day, and blog, tweet and blah blah blah.


Yet when it came time to pack, I looked at laptops and the iPad. I realized I had lots of room and any of them would be light. Upon arriving, I could fire one up or not.

The planned or-not won. I took nothing.

We left early, right after breakfast and the Sunday papers. We didn’t speak of 9/11 and had no reminder until the ferry left Port Judith. There and then a Coast Guard gunship paced us to and beyond the breakwater, well into the open sound.

That’s not usual and almost certainly a date-specific display of caution or precaution or something. It was certainly unnecessary and suited only for those simpleminded who are wont to chant, “Better safe than sorry.”

For three days and two nights, we did just fine. We spoke to each other, of literature, of the wildlife and other nature we saw or touched or photographed, of our kids a bit, of our current and earlier selves more, and of the comparative textures and tastes of food and drink before us. We biked every paved foot of the island. We marveled in the deep tones of the shingles — round pebbles thumping insistently to beat of the tide — as we walked upper Crescent Beach. We toured Indian and white-settler cemeteries.

Returning Tuesday PM to the newspapers, the net, and the news, we missed nothing. Commenters had nothing original nor insightful nor wise not palliative. They spoke flatulent words only competitively, because everyone else was doing it.

As emergencies and wars and crushing disappointments prove our mental and intellectual mettle, so do eulogies and memorials demonstrate our compassion and understanding. The many efforts we saw on returning failed. If the worst of times brings out the tritest of clichés in us, we had best speak aloud to ourselves what we intend to say…and then keep quiet.

T.S. & His UU Infection

September 8th, 2011

An excellent piece in The Nation (9/26) reviews in detail the two-volume set of T.S. Eliot letters. I was happily chugging right along when I found delightful insights by him on the nature of Unitarianism.

For those not of a literary bent, nor historical, nor UU, nor Bostonian, note for background such as:

  • His family settled in MA about 1670
  • A grandmother recalled well her great-uncle, President John Adams
  • A grandfather moved to St. Louis to establish the first Unitarian church west of the Mississippi
  • He attended the private Milton Academy and Harvard University (Unitarian founded institution)

He studied, worked and wrote in France and England, taking British citizenship at 39. Yet the letters make it clear his New England Unitarian heritage was very real to him, even after joining the Church of England.

There I was, amused by his and his first wife’s hypochondria. Suddenly, it was:

The Eliot Way—a stultifying compulsion to weigh the details of everything from pajamas to the PhD—was something Eliot himself knew all too well. In an uncollected essay about Henry Adams, to whom Eliot was distantly related (Adams having been the great-grandson of the second president), he referred to the Eliot Way more generally as the Boston Doubt, “a scepticism which is difficult to explain to those who are not born to it.” … “This scepticism,” Eliot went on, “is a product, or a cause, or a concomitant, of Unitarianism.” Wherever someone infected with the Eliot Way stepped, “the ground did not simply give way, it flew into particles.” Such people “want to do something great,” said Eliot, but “they are predestined failures.”

The reviewers advance to other aspects of this complicated person, but do note the influence of and reaction to his familial culture. For example, “Eliot’s first great artistic success grew from an effort to distance himself from the threat of such failure by dramatizing it.” Moreover, Prufrock’s “very linguistic texture… embodies the typically Eliotic stalemate between fortitude and inertia…” and so forth.

In this most UU of regions and with my long UU history, I did enjoy this lengthy review and do intend to grab the volumes. The Eliot Way, indeed, is part of UU churches, clerics and congregants.

As a group, we study and consider and re-analyze all. I think along the lines of a joke my high-school Jewish chums used — where there are eight Jews, there are ten opinions. UUs forever examine an issue, often turn to experts (ideally UU “saints” like Emerson or Parker or Channing or recently Thich Nhat Hanh [as so many UU preachers have co-opted the Zen master]), and do battle in the arena of ideas.

I have volumes of Eliot. I’ll hit the letters, flesh out my sense of him, and plough through some of his works with a UU coloration.