Saturday, March 22, 2003

An Extravagant Life
Today I planned two gardens. The first one will grow with needle and thread, the second with good soil and sweaty labor.

The first one is an formal Elizabethan knot garden. A square composed of four identical irregular polygons surround a hexagon. Each shape will be outlined in green to resemble a yew hedge. The inside will be filled with a blackwork pattern, a different one for each shape. Each one will be in a different color, to resemble flowers, with some details picked out in green to pass for foliage. The unifying theme is the single cross-stitch.

I came across the knot garden pattern through my e-class on embroidery design. The teacher gave it to us and asked us to fill it in any way we wanted. I have several variations now and plan several more. It's a satisfying shape, where originality and even disorder can flourish within the the outline.

The second garden is an irregular shape in our front lawn. It will frame a big old gardenia bush, currently bursting with blooms, and will reinforce the long narrow bed bordering the front porch. I am thinking coreopsis, delphiniums, heleniums, galliarda, lavateras, lupines, penstemons, and maybe some daisies and pentas, with lamb's ears for foliage.

It will be hard, because in order to raise the houses above the flood line the neighborhood was built on coral rock and landfill. To prepare a bed you must dig out about two feet of soil and rock, line the hole with a special plastic that prevents the soil from seeping down but allows water to drain, then replace the soil. Peat and marl and manure must be added liberally and spaded in. Only then are you ready to plant.

The porch border, which is six feet by one foot, took me two days to prepare. This will be at least three times that size. I'll go to bed each night with a painful back and blistered hands. I'll swear that there is no chance in heck that I would ever do something so stupid again in my life. Except, you see, that we are putting in a new wood fence with a trellised entrance leading to the back yard, and boy, that trellis will be crying out for a few climbing roses...

I want a life like a garden. It must have clear outlines, hard work, and space for originality. It must have discipline and extravagance. It must have pleasure that bursts suddenly and dies quickly, and joy that blooms quietly through the years. It must have the deep red of commitment, and the soft violet of friendship. It must have exotic scents and humble perfumes.

I want an extravagant life.

Friday, March 21, 2003

Adding to the Roll
Somehow, Body and Soul had never made my blogroll. Consider that I visit the site at least twice a day, I think she should be here, don't you?

I'm adding Kip at Long Story Short Pier not only because he writes beautiful prose, but because his mom's work rocks!

It Was a Never Mind Sort of Night
Update: To those of you who came in from SK Bubba's, I owe you an explanation: yesterday, after reading some of the things that were happening around the country, I wrote a post discussing my terror at the way this country seems to be tilting towards a rabid conservative conformism, and my despair that there was nothing I could do to change it. Trust me, I have experienced the "joys" of an entire country marching in enforced lockstep behind a powerful leader; and your worst nightmares are gossamer dreams compared to that experience. This morning I was gently reminded that despair is a mortal sin because it reduces the human experience to its worst elements and denies the simple joy of living.

I think I will still despair, from time to time. We all will. But the remedy for despair is action, not withdrawal. Today, do something creative, even if it feels silly. Take some constructive action, even if it feels foolish. We are not asked to win; we are only asked to give a good account of ourselves.
I've deleted a post here. Last night I fell prey to the deadly sin of accidie:

Our sixth combat is with what the Greeks call accedia, which we may term spiritual weariness or distress of heart. This is akin to dejection, and is especially trying to solitaires, and a dangerous and common enemy to dwellers of the desert; and especially disturbing to a monk about the sixth hour (midday), like some fever which seizes him at stated times, bringing the burning heat of its attacks on the sick man at usual and regular hours. Lastly, there are some of the elders who declare that this is the "noonday demon" spoken of in the ninetieth Psalm.

It is usually translated "sloth" in English, but that word does not do it justice. And when the noonday demon comes at night, it brings nightmares. Dante puts those who indulge it in hell:

"Joy we denied,"
they mutter in the mud, "out there
in the sweet air which takes delight in the sun,
secreted smog within.
Now, here,
under the black, thick tide
we learn
all about despair."

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

On Homer and Language
Today, Theresa Nielsen Hayden reminded me of one of my favorite poets: Garcia Lorca. As she discusses the translations of Cancion del Jinete she found, she says: It’s not the same effect if your language doesn’t use a single word to express both “to wait” and “to hope”, as Spanish does. In some places you have to pick one meaning and lose another; Aunque sepa los caminos doesn’t specify whether it’s the rider or the horse that knows the way. And La muerte me esta mirando, a plain clear construction in Spanish, can be taken to mean that Death is looking for me, looking at me, watching me, watching out for me, and asst’d other interpretations; so this being poetry it means all those things not otherwise ruled out by the rest of the poem.

It set me to thinking about the first poem I ever read.

When I was two, I decided to learn to read. Now, in most households, dealing with a normal child, someone would have produced the Spanish equivalent of Jack and Jill or The Cat In The Hat, taught me my letters and a few simple words, and that would have been that.

The thing is, I wasn't a normal child. I didn't want those books, I wanted Daddy's books. The big ones in the bookcase I wasn't allowed to touch. According to my mother, I turned into a world-class pest for several months. I nagged, I wheedled, I screamed. And, since I was an insomniac, I could really distrupt everybody's sleep if I set my mind to it. Finally, my great-uncle, insomniac like myself, decided to take over the job of teaching me, and do it the way I wanted it.

For my first book, he chose The Odyssey.

Now, in the translation we had, the Odyssey rhymed. Words swayed in the wake of the ship, sang with the Mermaids, pulled the bow in the great hall of the returned king. I loved the dance of the words more than the story itself. Imagine my surprise when, picking up a copy of my favorite book on my first trip to an American bookstore, I realized that it didn't rhyme!

This disappointment gave me my first glimpse into the thorny question of literary translation. As I read what many of you have already surmised was the Butler Odyssey, I was startled to notice that often the meaning had changed from what I remembered. Later, when I found the Lattimore and Fitzgerald versions, both verse, I was still nagged by unusual shifts in meaning. I asked a Greek-American friend, who, looking the Lattimore over, exclaimed that it was all wrong! (although she later relented and said it wasn't bad).

After several similar experiences, I realized that the essence of language cannot be translated. Language is built like one of the many-layered black forest cakes my best friend's mother used to make, rich and chocolatey with hidden bursts of tart fruit. A superlative translator can give the reader a glimpse of the hidden meanings and assumptions of the text, but it can never be more than an approximation. Language provides a map to the culture.

Besides leaving me with an incurable hunger for languages, it has left me mistrustful of people who are introduced as "experts" in a particular culture. My first question is always: do you speak the language? You can learn a great deal of about a people in translation, but you will never grasp their essence until you can think in their language, understanding all the built-in assumptions. Have you read the Bible in the original? I was told once by an Aramaic scholar that God is sometimes referred to as "mother" in the Old Testament; wouldn't it change your "map" to know that these mentions were deliberately erased by the Christian translators?

A warning: if you decide to learn a new language your advantage will be that you know that cultural assumptions are merely assumptions instead of natural law; your disadvantage, that you will soon start to question your own language's assumptions. It will force growth upon you, whether you like it or not.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

To the War Poets Who Have Been Stuffing My Mailbox

The howls of Cerberus, though resembling thy music, will be less offensive to me, for I have never been the friend of Cerberus, and I need not be ashamed of his howling. Farewell, but make no music; commit murder, but write no verses; poison people, but dance not; be an incendiary, but play not on a cithara. This is the wish and the last friendly counsel sent thee by the -- Arbiter Elegantiae."

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

We Are At War
Caveat consules ne quid res publica detrimenti caperet.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Mon Dieu! Chirac Water?
If you live in a large metropolitan area and your water company is privatized, odds are you are paying the bills of one of two French companies--one of which has close ties to French President Jacques Chirac.

The three largest water companies in the world are Suez, Vivendi, and RWE. Suez and Vivendi are both French companies, while RWE is German. The former CEO of Suez, Jerome Monod, is a close adviser to Chirac. Currently there is an ongoing inquiry in France to determine whether Suez has been paying illegal commissions to Chirac's party, the RPR.

All three companies have American subsidiaries. Vivendi owns US Filter. Suez owns United Water, the company that until recently ran Atlanta's water utility, among others. RWE owns American Water Works (notice the tiny RWE logo at the bottom of the page), based in Voorhees, N.J., which serves 15 million people in 27 states, and Thames Water LLC which operates E'Town Corp. of Westfield. They are all lobbying aggressively to expand their share of the American market.

Water privatization is a hot new trend in the United States. According to this article, campaign spending by the private water utility companies, their employees, and PACs, more than tripled in the last two elections, to $1.5 millions dollars. Lobbying efforts cost another $2.5 million dollars. Congress recently passed a tax law favorable to privatization and is considering a bill that would require cities using federal monies to improve their water utilities to consider privatization as an option.

From the point of view of communities faced with decaying infrastructure and collapsing budgets, privatization sounds like a good idea. Government and private studies have estimated that it will take between $150 billion and $1 trillion dollars over the next three decades to modernize the country's water pipes. And when the community takes the time to carefully draft a contract that ties performance standards to pay and incentives--such as the one put in place by Indianapolis--it can indeed prove a bonanza. But the success is predicated on honest dealing on both sides, and there are many stories out there about how things can go wrong.

From the point of view of the companies, America is a wide open market. The drinking water business alone, currently $60 billion a year, is expected to grow up to $200 billion by 2019 due to infrastructure needs. Americans are among the largest per capita water users in the world, and pay among the lowest rates (last year, and average of $16.46 a month for typical usage), and that means there is plenty of room to increase rates.

It's all good business--but doesn't it strike you as funny that we are turning over to foreign companies our most crucial public service? The French, whose water utilities have been run by private companies since the Napoleonic era, will not allow foreign companies to bid on water contracts, deeming them too important to national security and well-being. So why are we turning ours over to them?

Monday, March 17, 2003

Keep The Children Away From This One
Let me put it as bluntly as I can: the next moron who tells me that I must stop opposing this war now and support our troops is going to get his nuts fed to him sauteed in butter and parsley. Is that clear?

I have always supported the troops. Currently I have a foster brother out there somewhere, a kid I've known since he was five in basic training, and two more waiting for word to report to the Marines. Unless you've got the same kind of hostages to fortune, shut the fuck up and get out of my face. But if you do, then I really hate you, because you assume that because I am not a Bush-worshipper I must somehow be less caring or patriotic than you are. And believe me, all the hate you can summon is as the morning breeze compared to what I can manage when I put my mind to it.

I love this country, not as you do, blindly, mouthing idiot platitudes that pass for patriotism, but with my mind and my heart and the full understanding that this experiment in democracy is probably the last best hope for the human race. I hate what is happening to it. I hate the irrational hatreds, the mindless bigotry, the fanaticism, the bullying that has become part of the discourse. I hate to see freedoms that are the wonder of the world diminished in fear and anger and political opportunism. I hate to see this Republic devolve into a mere Empire. I hate to see us adopt as our motto Might Makes Right. Most of all, I hate the stifling of dissent that so often mascarades as concern for our troops.

For those of you who think that by enforcing silence you strengthen this nation, let me leave you with the words of John Stuart Mill: A State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.

Iraq After Saddam, Take two
I posted this back on February 10th. It's not the only report around. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has one here.

Unfortunately, if this is true, we can safely say we're already pissing in the soup.

World Water Forum Underway
The World Water Forum has started in Japan. As expected, pro- and anti- privatization forces are squaring off.

I am still conflicted about this.

I believe that there must be a mechanism or mechanisms to regulate the use of water, or we will find ourselves in serious trouble a couple of decades down the road. Further, I believe that in many countries governments are too corrupt or too weak to manage the situation properly. The problem is that I don't find this pro-privatization argument convincing. I cannot help but think that water is essentially different from other commodities; you cannot treat the stuff of life on earth as if it were gold, or oil. Distributing water according to ability to pay does nothing to direct use to beneficial purposes. A rich man can afford to fill a swimming pool, a jacuzzi, and an ornamental pond; meanwhile children across the river are dying of cholera because their parents can't afford clean water.

Sorry. Can't wrap my mind around that one.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Hell and Blast!
I just spent two hours writing a thoughtful response to Matthew Yglesias and Digby and Blogger swallowed it. Some other time, folks.